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PART I Prologue: Sparking the Flame at the beginning It all began with nothing, nothing but a cloud of energy in the middle of the empty universe, neither warm nor cold, neither bright nor dark. It began as everything must begin—in its greatest simplicity, in emptiness. Then by some chance, a one-in-a-billion chance, the energy, in its eternal changing and shifting, suddenly found order. And in that moment of order, it split into four. Light, Darkness, Time, Life. The four great spirits were formed, in balance of each other. Slowly, they developed, as time passed, a way of communication, knowledge, feelings, thoughts, desires and hopes. Life, the Dragon, desired company. So it brought forth the world, and all that lives on it, one by one, place by place, element by element. Light, the Goddess, guided creation as it grew. But life’s counterbalance was time, and Time took life as it came. Darkness, the Spirit of the Dark, desired total power. It hated life and light, and wished to be rid of them. One day in the history of the universe, when the world had just begun, and only land and seas existed, Darkness suddenly turned on the two, wrenching the world from their grasp, and casting it into darkness, taking its immediate rule over everything. The Goddess, banished from the world, began to plot the Spirit’s downfall. She began to make a weapon to defeat the Spirit of the Dark, in her home at the corner of the universe. With her own power, and the Dragon’s sacrifice of bones and teeth, She formed it—the Spear of Heaven. It drained every last trace of the original power she had owned, and was so powerful that even 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 gave the four parts of the feared Spear of Heaven to them 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. a leap forward in time, millennia later The Spirit of the Dark had not died. It had tried to rule over and over again, three times, failing thrice. Even so, Its source of power was ever growing as the human
population grew—as they did, so did their hate, fear and grief. Now, all It needed was a servant to wreak dread upon the humans, make them hate and grieve more than they ever had before. That opportunity came soon. A woman was kneeling down beside the entrance to the Underworld, the entrance to Its world. Hurt, shame, anger… The Spirit of the Dark relished the terrible whirlpool of feelings within her heart. Yes, stay there, stay… The Spirit then rose out of its hole and made Its bargain. The woman looked shocked and afraid at first, but she had an open spirit. She accepted, without any fear or apprehension, misguided by her own grief and anger. It was done. She would be Its servant from now, and she would gain It the power It needed. a month passes King Caleix stood at the doorway of the nursery, where his three children played. They were beautiful children, he thought with love. They shared their parents’ looks —their mother’s especially. She was a beautiful woman. All three were Star-chosen children, something he took pride in. Born in the midst of a starfall, these special children were blessed with immense, hidden power. The eldest, only four years old, already showed signs of his great abilities; just the day before, he had almost killed one of the nurses by hitting her. There was a timid “excuse me, your Majesty” from behind him. Caleix turned to see a male servant standing behind him, youthful, but already looking as tired as an old man. “A visitor, your Majesty,” he said. With one more glance at his three sons, and a smile, he turned and followed the servant down the corridor to the throne room. Chapter 1: Year of the Rooster zethis: a beginning “Dad, I was thinking, if I could…you know, like the other kids…” Zethis slapped his forehead again as he collapsed back onto his mattress. How will I ever tell Dad? It had been a wish that had hung about his head all his life. He wanted to start an adventure, like all of his neighbourhood friends. Everyday, he had seen high-levelled people passing his window, donning their beautiful clothes and carrying their wellmade weapons with strength, and an air of pride. Everyday, he had dreamt of becoming like them—one day, someday. Just give me the chance, Dad! But he knew that he would never muster up the courage to ask. He had tried before. Every time, the only thing that had come out of his mouth had been meaningless blabbering. If only…I didn’t get nervous so easily! “I—I just want to go on my own journey!” His sudden, frustrated shout was met with a reply—the sound of a throat being cleared. Zethis turned around slowly, to see his father standing at the doorway. “Dad!" he gasped, panicking. "I’m...I—”
“I heard what you said,” the middle-aged man replied, no trace of sternness in his voice. Zethis looked down at his feet, sitting up, too ashamed to turn back to his father. Now what is he going to do? Scold me? Throw me out of the house? To his surprise, he did neither of these. He simply replied, "Then it's time I told you something I always planned to tell you, before you go." While Zethis continued to gape in disbelieving surprise at his mild, yet ominous, reply, his 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. What will he say? What will he tell me? What secret could he be keeping? "I've been—lying to you for nine years already," he sighed, now not daring to turn to his son. "I know I should have said so sooner, but I was afraid that if you knew this, you might trust me less, or even want to leave earlier." Now, Zethis was beginning to grow alarmed. What kind of secret could his father be hiding that could do so much damage? He looked on silently, nervously, not knowing how to respond to what he had just been told. "For nine years, I've—I've lied to you...about being your father," he finally managed to get out of his throat. Upon hearing that revelation, Zethis finally could not stand his nerves anymore and fell back onto his bed, dizzy with confusion. Not my...father? "D—Dad? I—is that a—" "No, not 'dad' anymore. I'm just a plain old man to you," he replied with a sad smile. “I—but—” Zethis shook his head. Tears were suddenly stinging in his eyes. "You're everything like a father to me!" he shouted. "Even though not by blood, you can't just expect me to stop loving you..." Zethis' foster father shook his head. "No, I don't expect that," he replied. "But you must accept that. I'm not your blood father. In fact, I don't know who your father is. I simply—" He closed his eyes, reliving a moment from the past, eyes wrinkling in a smile. "I found you in the middle of the Henesys forest one day. And I took you in, for fear that the king's policemen might find you and have you killed." Zethis took some time to accept all this, dizzy and overwhelmed with shock. All his life, his entire ten years, he had known no one, no one but this "father" of his. He had told Zethis that his mother had already died, and that he had brought Zethis up alone. Now, he understood all this, all those lies upon lies. "I'm sorry I never told you," the man said. "If you want to start an adventure on your own, by all means, go ahead. I hold no more authority over you. You're on your own now. I simply…had to tell you before you left home." Zethis stood up and stepped back in shock. Everything had been so sudden. His “father” wasn’t his real father? Already on his own, at ten? How could he survive alone, without protection? He didn’t know how to take any of this. "Zethis...don't worry," he said to the boy’s expression, winding an arm around his shoulders, smiling. His warm arm and voice brought comfort and more tears at the same time. "You'll have to find your real father, the father who named you. I'm sure he's still alive, somewhere out there. But I'll always be proud of you, alright?" Zethis sniffed, trying to control the tears that were now flowing freely from his closed
eyelids. Named me? How did Dad find out my real name then? "Yeah, okay, I'll...go," the boy answered, stepping back. "And just one last thing I 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. "The night I found you. A great, gentle voice spoke to me, and it spoke a name. And I knew that it was the name that truly belonged to you." The boy nodded, doubt filling him up. This was all so unbelievable. And to think…would he really be ready to leave the next day. “I love you, Father,” he said, not caring that the title was no longer valid, not caring that it never was. The old man smiled and held his foster son close for the last time. Zethis' planned journey began early the next morning. The boy had finally managed seven hours of sleep, and now, he woke up, heart thudding with the anticipation and anxiety of finally leaving his home and seeing the world outside, and at the same time, pain of thinking of having to leave home. The farewell was short—he had said goodbye to his foster father, waving tearfully. He didn’t want it to be too painful. After that, he turned, and began on his route on the familiar sand road, haversack on his back. He had walked it hundreds of times, but now, it meant something different to him. He was leaving now. His first step marked a new phase in his life. As he walked, to take his mind off his uncertainty, Zethis began to ponder his Dad's advice. The king had increased the security around Henesys, his destination, and if they caught anyone without authorisation, they would send him to prison immediately. He would have to tread softly around that region, make sure that he didn't get caught before he entered the safety of the little town. His train of thought soon jumped to his dream the previous night—a recurring dream from early childhood. Now as he thought about it, he saw new meaning in it. In it, he was always playing in a nursery room with two other boys around his age, him being a mere toddler every time. He remembered looking up at the doorway in every dream, and each time, the same person had stood at the door—a middle-height man in heavy cloaks, his face blurred in the haze of waking. Could they be his true family? Was it possible that this dream was actually a misty memory from his earliest days of life? He wanted to remember. He wanted to know who had been his true family, who he really owed for his existence. And yet again, why would he want to find the person who had abandoned him? His true father obviously didn't want him. Why else would he have left Zethis to die in the Henesys Forest? Unsure of what he would do when he finally met his father, even of whether he would find the man in the first place, Zethis focused all his thoughts on getting to his destination, Henesys, unnoticed. At last, he arrived at the edge of the town in which Dad worked. It was worse than he had imagined it to be—a tall steel fence surrounding the town sitting in the midst of the hills, only their roofs visible. Already he could see the black gate ahead of him, at the end of the winding road, now grey stone-paved, wide enough for vehicles to traverse by. On either side of the gateway, he watched, stopping in his tracks, as they began to search a horse-drawn cart.
Well, they can't possibly arrest me for anything, I haven't got any weapons. Pushing Dad's warning of the guards always trying to find reasons to arrest people aside, he went on, feeling the lump in his throat grow larger with every uncertain footstep. His heartbeat was deafening in his ears. While he allowed his feet to carry him onwards, Zethis began to consider his job choices. Somehow, he had already made that decision. He had always wanted to become a warrior. They were always the only ones to have blood on their weapons. They were strong, not relying on distance attacks, but going straight in and finishing the battle off with their strength. They were true representations of fortitude. So, Zethis knew, he would have to go all the way to the north of the island, where the rocky mountains of Perion stood, guarding the tribe's settling area with their relentless peaks and treacherous, rock-strewn pathways. There, he would finally make his first job advancement as a true warrior. But that was a long way away—he was still at level one. At last, he found himself before the two rows of guards, armour-clad, and he felt his legs almost buckle with his nerves, ready for their questions. "What is your business, boy?" the first in line asked, turning his head in a way that made him shiver. "Why are you here alone?" Zethis tried to smile, failing terribly. "I—I'm just...passing," he stammered, trying not to look up at the narrow slits in the guard's visor. The guard didn't respond, but Zethis still didn't dare to move, to breathe. He was afraid, mortally afraid of what his response would be. "Normally, we wouldn't let you pass," he replied, voice still stern and cold. "Being members of the king's police force, and under orders to capture all unauthorised people who try to enter or exit, we should, by right, capture you." Zethis stepped back, 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 anyway. "But," the guard suddenly added, raising his visor to reveal the youthful face hidden behind it. "I don't see why we should capture a helpless boy like you. Sometimes, I don't understand the king's orders." He turned back to the other guards, who slowly nodded in agreement. "So go in, and don't tell anyone how you got in." Zethis was stunned, unable to move an inch forward. And all his life, he had thought that they were cruel and heartless! 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? The sound of wooden cartwheels clattering over the cobblestones of the well-made road made him snap back to reality. "Go on, boy," the guard said, his smile kind. "What's your name, by the way?" Zethis blinked. "Zethis," he replied bravely, before bowing at the guard's smile, and racing forward through the now open pedestrian gate. As Zethis entered, he saw for the first time what the unforgiving walls had always hidden. Talk and bustle almost instantly surrounded him, and he found himself on the edge of a huge marketplace. Mouth opening as he stood staring, he took in the sight, which was nothing like what he had pictured—instead of a cold grey city with angular buildings, he saw sandy golden roads outlined by bright sprigs of flowers, grass and leaves lush. Beyond that,
the marketplace's many roofs were bright red and burnt 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 in terms of survival! Zethis came to rest in front of a tree house and began to think about earning money. 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. "Boy?" he looked up to see a bow-wielding woman standing before him. "What're you doing here without your parents? Are you here to become a bowman?" The voice had a strange, inhuman yet beautiful, accent. Suddenly, his head jerked up, and he noticed that the woman had long, pale blonde hair falling over two elf-like ears. On her forehead was a circlet that he knew belonged to only one person. "Y-you must be Athena...Pierce..." his weak voice trailed away in his shock. She smiled and nodded. "Are you simply lost? Or do you want to become a bowman?" she replied. "You can come in, either way." Not daring to say a thing, too afraid and awed to, he followed her up into her tree house on her beckoning. She shoved a large beanbag chair from inside her cupboard, which Zethis sat on uncomfortably, while the Bow Mistress walked over to her table and settled herself down. "I'm...I'm...not here to be a bowman," he quickly replied. She nodded, resting her head on her tabletop. "Life can get really boring around here," she commented in that position. "That's why I was 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. I knew, somehow, that you weren't here for that reason." Zethis smiled nervously, murmuring an apology. She shook her head and got up, smiling pleasantly. "Don't be so shy," she said encouragingly. "I'm not a monster or anything like that..." "Um..." Zethis tested out how his voice sounded in front of the Bowman Job Master. He couldn't yet believe it, that he was here, sitting in front of Athena Pierce, in one of her beanbag chairs. He couldn't believe that Athena Pierce even had beanbag chairs. "It's...overwhelming," he managed. "To be...here..." Did I sound too rude? "Everyone feels so," Athena sighed in reply. "I'm not really that great a person, or that important; I'm actually on the run—" Suddenly, she leapt out of her chair, searching her right dress pocket for something in a hurry. "Oh shoot, oh shoot, I forgot!" she shouted, Zethis a little taken aback. As she produced a bottle, she stumbled down the tree house's staircase, the wood creaking loudly. Moments later, she returned, panting. "Gotta place that invisibility spell," she quickly explained, sitting down again. "It wears out every hour. All the Job Masters do, in case the king sends another round of policemen to find us. It'll make us invisible to everyone in the king's service."
Then she looked about 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. Athena nodded, surveying him from top down, making him feel uneasy. "If you'll allow me to say, you—uh...don't look too strong," she said. "But anyway, I heard that Kerning's really the best place to live for people on the run. It used to house a huge number of thieves, but now, I guess the confusing-ness of the place makes it good for everyone to hide." "Really?" Zethis replied, interested. "That must be why the Dark Lord lives there, then—I've heard that he hides in such a well-hidden place that he doesn't need to worry about the guards finding him." I heard...from Dad. Athena simply gazed on into the wall opposite. "Glad to know that," she said, not looking at him. Shaking her head suddenly, she looked up at Zethis again, trying to smile. "By the way, what do you want to become?" she inquired. "As in...your job. You seem like a traveller. Are you even planning on getting a job?" "I'm—yeah," he replied. "I'm thinking of becoming a warrior." Athena nodded thoughtfully. "Train up around here first," she suggested to him. "Then later, when you're around level eight, you should go northeast through Kerning. It's easier that way than through Ellinia." Then she smiled again, genuinely this time. "If you, by any chance, meet Ralinn, my best friend's daughter, do say hello to her for me. I heard that she lives there now, with her brother, who, I'm proud to say, is now a bowman—" There was a knock on the door below. Athena nodded and stood. "Must be another bowman-to-be," she said on the way. "Great to have spoken to you, er..." "Zethis," he answered, standing as well. Oh my goodness, she knows my name now! "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 would 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 extremely heavy in his hands. It was nothing like the long, beautiful weapons he had often seen by-passers carrying. But it was still a weapon; the first he had ever held before. And he felt wonderful being able to hold it in his palms. “Oh yes, be careful when travelling,” she said. “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 exited through the door. He saw a boy around his age come in on the way, but they didn't exchange even a glance, only went on their own ways. Now, how will I stay alive here? Zethis wondered to himself as he walked about the village. I've gotta make money. But how... Suddenly, he remembered hearing from his father that some monsters held money that they found on the ground. Looking down at the sword that he held, with some effort, in his right hand, he realised that that would be the very best way to earn money, and at the same time, gain experience.
But I'm still level one, he thought with a great deal of uncertainty. 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 had made it all the way to the western boundary of Henesys, where he saw the sprawling field with a hill in the middle, the grounds crowded with dozens of people of higher levels. Suddenly feeling embarrassed, he looked down at the small weapon in his weak arms. At that moment, a snail with a gleaming blue shell crept by. He immediately saw his chance. 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. Raising it higher, 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 angrily. As it came towards him, he tried to send the blade pointfirst 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, disappointing Zethis a great deal. 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 know that I've never gone even as far as this before; how will I ever make it all the way to Perion? Somehow, he felt like simply giving up, 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, taking up his job as a food vendor. But then again, he thought about what had happened so far. He had gotten past the guards of Henesys, even met Athena Pierce in person. She had even told him how to get to Perion! And now, he had a weapon, he had killed his first monster. What a waste it would be if he gave up now. At this moment, he turned back to the grass of the hunting ground. He was alone on this level with the snails; all the rest were higher up the hill, killing huge Orange Mushrooms and even harder monsters. When will I ever get up there, he wondered. When will I be strong enough to lift a weapon that can kill those creatures? A green snail tried to slip past him unnoticed. Sparing it not a second, he sprang up and raised his sword again, no longer fatigued. Two smashes with the sharp edge managed to destroy it, and Zethis' heart leapt as three one-meso 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 light haversack, he looked about for
more monsters to kill, suddenly sure that he could hunt for a few more hours. As the sun broke through the very last layers of clouds and touched the horizon, Zethis finally decided that he should find lodging soon. With one last thud, he had 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 first day alone hadn't been so 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—a white shirt, now dirty with mud, and a pair of blue shorts, accompanied by a pair of brown sandals. He had to be thankful already that no one had come to bully him. "Hey there," he 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." Zethis shook his head, too alarmed to feel angry at remembering that incident. The knight came strolling up to him, his huge mace carried in his left hand. "You know, 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?" he 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 hit!" Thinking about this, Zethis could not help but feel a little shocked. "The snail...well...just died when I hit it," he stammered shakily. "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 from his compliment. No way! I can't be that strong, it's impossible! Everyone can see that I'm a total weakling! There was uneasy silence for a while. "Um...sir? Do you know...where I might stay for the night?" His voice was still weak. 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 won him over. Nodding and hoping that it wasn't some kind of prank, he began to follow the kind youth in the twilight. The two went through at least a hundred different streets, full of people as they returned to their homes. They passed the long, crowded queue of men and women on the way, some riding in horse-drawn carts, some on foot, heavy sacks over their backs. They filled the entire street as they passed, all too tired even to look up and see who had just brushed past. "They're all waiting for their turn to leave Henesys and go home," the knight explained while Zethis looked on. "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 return to his home, and 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 looked down at Zethis, who nodded in thanks. "Have a nice day, um...may I know your name, if you don't mind?" "I'm Zethis," he replied without hesitation. It was only right that he tell him his name, after the help he had given. The knight turned to look at the sky. "Should be getting back," he commented, looking back at him. "Nice meeting you, Zethis, though it's only been less than an hour. My name is Hyrien, level seventy-four White Knight." Saying one last farewell to him, Zethis finally decided to enter the inn. He walked over the uneven, stony pathway, towards the door that he could hardly see. By the time he turned back, slightly nervous, Hyrien had already departed. Well, I've gotta learn to do this. An hour later, Zethis had rented himself a room. He was now at the dining room, a loaded plate of buffet food in his hands. He soon found himself a place to sit and eat. Immediately after eating the best meal he had ever had in his life, Zethis felt his tiredness 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 to chop firewood. No, not my father. Just "Dad". Back in bed, as he lay down to sleep on the bed, he took in the warmth gratefully, 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. Zethis had already decided. He wanted to become a White Knight, just like Hyrien. He wanted to become as strong as him, and as sincere as well. He wanted to take that path. That was his last thought, before he fell asleep. So much for a first day out of home... 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 slowly. A brush of wind swept past him, washing his short black hair into a mess. It was already almost shoulder-length; he had not cut his hair at all since he had left his home, which had been a treehouse in Ellinia, a fairy his foster-mother.
Again, that brought back the question of his true parents. His foster-mother had claimed to have found him in the Henesys 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 she had had. The only thing she had found with 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. He was already a level 18 warrior, after a year or so of training. He had left in late summer the year before, and now, that time of year had returned once more, marking approximately his first anniversary of travelling in Victoria Island. Ketara recalled, now as he stared down at the sunlight-cast mountainside, the very day he had left his home in Ellinia. It had been a cool day in the shade of the treetops, the sunset painting the uppermost leaves orange. That had been the day when he had finally left the trees, left his foster mother, and begun on his way to Perion. It had been a day of regret, and of a certain suspense of uncertainty, but now, a year down the road, he realised that he was glad of the decision. He had thought that he would be lonely. But always, he seemed to manage to befriend anyone 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, newly-made. His outgoing personality had ensured that he was never lonely, though most of his friendships had never lasted longer than an hour. In his journey through the mountains of Perion, down to the city of Kerning and back, he had seen a lot that he had never known existed. It awed him, how much he had learnt in that one year alone—more than what he had learnt in his first ten years of life put together. He had learnt to fight, learnt to avoid authority, and most memorably, learnt of the great amounts of power that he had never known he held within himself. 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. His skill and strength puzzled him. Why was it that he was so strong, when he had never trained once on a single weapon before that? Now, he held a Fork on a Stick, wearing heavy armour and a helmet. 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 found himself doing both. And it wasn't too hard to believe now. The mountainside was welcoming, beckoning for him to race down without any cares. Ketara was wondering where he should go next; he had spent most of his time in Perion. How about to the Dungeon? He wondered to himself, squinting far ahead at the treetops that showed over the mountains. They looked ominous in the distance, but at the same time, seemed to challenge him to enter its dark embrace. He had heard stories about it, stories that some of the most bizarre creatures in Victoria Island lurked below the thick carpet of its canopy.
The Dungeon, holding so much terror that even the king feared it, so much unknown within it 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. So that choice was made. He would go into the Dungeon to continue his training. But not today. No, I'll go once all matters have been settled. Looking on at the distant scenery, Ketara began on his way down the mountain. Since he had arrived here in Perion, become a warrior—right from the start, he had felt at home among the tribe. Dances with Balrog had been kind to him, despite his weakness at the start. The Warrior Job Master had agreed on giving the skill book to him immediately. Even outside—the people were all warm to him, the potion maker and shopkeepers courteous to him, the men helping him to find a place to stay, for the few times he had resided there. Now, he wanted to become a part of the tribe, a part of the community that had cared for him so well. He simply wanted to find a place to call "home", and he knew that he had found it. He knew that this was the place that he wanted to be his home. An hour or so later, Ketara had made it to the front gate to the Warriors' Sanctuary, within which Dances with Balrog sat during majority of the day, waiting for new warriors. It was protected by a spell that would veil it from the guards who occasionally came to search for him. His hard raps on the door were almost immediately answered by the tall Perion chief, and the instant his face poked out the door, he 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. "Why're you here?" Dances with Balrog questioned with a smile. He was a young man in his twenties, the young warrior guessed. The feathered headdress on his head, reaching down to his feet, was a mark of his leadership and strength. 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. Darkness again. 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. What was that? What... Was it his past? This was the first time he was being given such a revelation. It had been so scary, for those few moments...What was it? He had to find out, he knew he had to... "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..." Satisfied, 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 around Perion for the rest of your life—you're not allowed to go far, as there might be times when we might require you, be it for battle or otherwise. Are you sure you want to sacrifice your freedom for the rest of your life?" "Y—" 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. But to exchange that for ever being allowed to see the rest of the world? 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 why. 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. Soon, having stocked up on food and potions, Ketara began down the path back to his temporary home. For the next few hours of the afternoon, Ketara fought stumps in the hunting ground
east of Perion. There was a doorway leading to a tunnel into the mountain, 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. “Hey, you there,” he heard a call from behind. 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?” 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, but he ignored it and went on anyway. “After you,” the bowman sneered, raising his bow higher. Grabbing the door handle and yanking the door open, Ketara stepped through and ran down the tunnel as fast as he could. I can do it, he thought fierily. I’ve gotta try, and show that we aren’t weak! Pride blinded him as he exited the tunnel, and he was ready to fight as hard as he had to. The tunnel opened instantly into a bright mountainside, amidst a flaming noon sky. He could already hear barbaric grunting and roaring from below the ledge on which he stood, the rising sounds filling him with dread. “Go on,” he said, pushing Ketara towards the edge. “Let’s see whether you were just pretending to be brave.” Swallowing, the warrior leapt off the ledge. In an instant, the roaring of the boars had engulfed him, and for a moment, he was frozen in shock and stunned terror. Instinct drove him to swing out with his Fork on a Stick. As it met the unforgiving bulk of the Wild Boar nearest to him, Ketara felt his arm being jarred with the impact of his weak attack. Had it even done anything? Apparently not, as the Wild Boar jumped upon his body, making him fall to the ground in sudden, terrifying pain. He felt the jab of dirty, black cloven hooves as they dug into his chest and abdomen, the smell of sweat and fur as breath was squeezed out of his lungs, and he gasped, feeling tears of pain rise up into his eyes. Holding tightly onto the weapon that still remained in his hand, Ketara struggled, with his remaining might, to pierce the side of the boar with the weapon. His strength was slowly vanishing, his resolve thinning as he tried fruitlessly to lift the weapon. His arm was pinned down by one of the animal's feet. With one final burst of strength, Ketara focused all his energy into his right arm, felt energy gather in his muscles. Then 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 a frenzy. They surrounded him, charged forward in one single wave, mad for the blood that they could smell.
Suddenly unafraid, despite the pain in his entire body, he struck out at the closest boar with a full-powered Power Strike. Again, his extraordinary hidden power acted up, giving him strength that swept all pain and terror away. 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. Gasping, covered with the reek of blood, the sun seemed to pierce right through Ketara's eyes, and a brilliant shower of green exploded around him. Level nineteen, at last. "Not bad," he heard a voice from above. "You're really 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 feasting Wild Boars. With a single shining, blue arrow, its side was pierced, a wound deeper than any he had ever inflicted before bursting in its skin. "—this." With one last comment, the bowman had strutted away, leaving Ketara alone among the dead boars. Ketara, one who hardly ever resented anything, felt 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 growing. It's worth the pain, the shame, the terror. I'll become great, you just wait. I'll prove that being a warrior isn't wrong, and 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. At last, 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 go into the Dungeon, at last. As he descended down the last mountain, tasting a adventure in the air, Ketara searched the area for a safe passage past the Fire Boars. They swarmed the place, and he knew that, even with his strange powers, he would never be able to defeat one of those flaming creatures, let alone a whole mob. 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 red and gold. A few of the leaves blew away with the freezing wind. Despite the joyful façade, he knew that the canopy hid some of the darkest secrets of Victoria Island. Entering the Dungeon was something that Ketara had only ever seen third jobbers do. What is it in there? Why’s everyone so afraid of it? Trying not to question what the island had feared for as long as history, Ketara slipped down the last few feet of the rock face of this mountain. And those were the last moments where he could see 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 dark around him. shirion: escape Why, why? The level 36 Fighter had asked himself that question every day of his life. Right from
the start, he had lived the worst life imaginable, huge sacks tied to his back as he lumbered his way onto the ship and back to the harbour. He hated it, he hated the way he had to stand there and take orders, while those guards, those who had power over him and his fellow slaves, whipped them for disobedience. 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? Winter was coming soon, he could tell from the colour of all the leaves of Ellinia. And with winter came more hardship, more pain. Shirion turned to his mates, all carrying huge boxes up the ramp, onto the ship that was docked at the jetty. On board the ship, he saw his good friend, a girl who had spent all her life tying the sails and ropes, and working with the slaves when she had nothing to do. She, too, hated this life. She, too, longed everyday for escape. Her name was Akera. Twelve this year, she was his closest friend till then. She never spoke much, and the only times that she spoke was when she was angry. She had a sharp tongue, and behind her icy blue eyes, there was this ever-burning hatred, masked by her thin, pale face and white-silver hair. The two of them were the only ones with jobs among the slaves. Akera was a Fire Poison Wizard. She had been since he had met her. She was a child prodigy in magic. Shirion had managed to escape from this ordeal at the Ellinia Station five years ago. In that time, 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 finally caught up with him, and at eleven, he had been returned to his old life, to the cruelty and hardships of his old life. His short stint of freedom had ended, but it only made him thirst for more, made him want to go out there again and fulfil his potential in life. He seemed like the serious kind, 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, greater human being—no, this was not what he wanted his life to be. He was going to escape, and this time, he wouldn’t be caught. Today. Nightfall came quickly. Shirion lay awake by the jetty, kept awake by the perpetual hunger in his belly. Sitting up, he looked around at the others, asleep from total exhaustion. Today, yes, I can feel it… Standing quickly, he glanced about for any sign of the patrolling guard. Nothing moving within his vision, Shirion stepped over the sleeping bodies, towards the shipyard, where all the weapons were kept. The Fighter was halfway through the delicate process of lifting an axe off the rack, trying not to make a sound, when he heard footsteps from behind. A sudden burst of adrenaline rushed through him, making his heart pump madly, and his feet and hands shake. Who, who is it?! Cradling his axe in his arms, Shirion whipped around and stepped forward. Suddenly, 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 rang out, 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. “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. “What are you doing here? You know that you’ll be sentenced to death if you’re caught!” Her voice was a harsh whisper. “I’m…I’m going to escape,” he finally conceded. “I can’t stand it here anymore. It’s been going pretty well.” “Not with all that noise!” Akera snapped back. “You’re completely useless as escaping. And here I thought that you were the law-abiding kind. Well, if we’re going to escape, we’d better hurry!” Shirion blinked. “We?” he questioned. Akera nodded. “What, don’t want me to have a chance at leaving this place too?” Too glad for company, Shirion allowed Akera to lead him out of the shipyard. As their faces met with the seaside wind, his breaths quickened, as he felt a new adventure bearing upon his life, ready to start any moment. “Come on, I know the way past all the guards,” the Fire Poison wizard beside him whispered. As they stepped into the leaves to the right of the station, Shirion couldn’t help but be amazed. It was as if she had been planning this all her life… There was no time to waste. The two crept slowly along the narrow parapet along the exterior of the Ellinia Station, Shirion too stiff with fear and excitement to utter a word. He was afraid that he would fall off the parapet, more than anything else. Finally, they were about to reach the end of the station. It had been at least an hour already. At this point, Akera gestured at him not to make a sound. Shirion looked round the edge of the building and saw four guards standing around the entrance, half asleep, though their eyes were still open. He stiffened up even more, afraid that they might be able to hear his heart beating. Akera didn’t seem half as scared as him. She confidently pointed forward to a thick branch that seemed to pass under the Ellinia Station and led on into the darkness before them. Shirion backed away a little. Shaking her head, she put her left foot onto it, then her right. She was now balancing on the branch without any support. The branch shook ever so slightly, and she didn’t move. Moments late, she had made her way a few feet along the branch. Her silver hair shone under the bright moonlight. “Well?” she mouthed out to him. Shirion looked at her, already halfway into the darkness. Gulping, he stepped onto the branch, as she had. It began to shake, but what had seemed like tiny bobs from the parapets, now almost shook him off. He wanted to yell out in fear, but he knew that that would obviously give them both away. Slowly, they inched their way along the branch in the middle of the darkness, the great woody limb strong and trustworthy. Soon, all fear was gone—Shirion began to
truly relish the feeling that he was actually free. That notion struck him as a mindblowing revelation, like a sudden wind. He felt refreshed. At last... Akera didn't turn back once. She, too, felt joy; Shirion could tell, through her movements, that she was feeling happier than she ever had before in all the years he had known her. Twenty minutes later, the two of them were finally at crossroads on the branches. Already half a mile away from the Station, Shirion and Akera had made it all the way unnoticed. There, standing on the branches, still not daring to move, he smiled at the Fire Poison wizard who was now looking about at the leaves as they fell around the two of them, in the midst of the dark. 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, and defy the law. Towards what destination, he didn't know, as long as he remained a free person. "Bye," 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. Bye...for who knows how long? I'll miss you. Turning, he looked on at the distance, hidden by a million leaves. And he now resolved to do everything in his power to stay free. zethis: one more step Finally. As the Beginner looked up at the cliffs, right in front of him, he knew that he had made it. Perion, the warriors' land, home of the Perion tribe, and 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 then. He had gone through Kerning City. An amazing place, it was, with all its bright lights, and all the people walking the streets without any fear of the law, for there wasn't any. He had stayed there for two weeks, and 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 fell from the sky. The young boy still wore his old clothes—old white shirt and shorts, along with his tattered sandals. But now, there was a red cap on 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 fruit knife, which he had bought from the Kerning weapon shop. Zethis ascended the mountain pathways, knowing that just a few mountains beyond him, his next advancement in life awaited. The thought gave him amazing strength, a strength he had never known before, and only made him go on ever faster.
By sunset, he had already traversed the first two of many mountains. He found himself a small hollow in the rock face to rest in then. 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. Zethis had no idea as to where he could find any food. The boy tried to ignore the hunger and cold as he sat there in the uncomfortable hollow, but as the dark hours passed, hunger gnawed at him more and more, and finally he could take it no longer. Standing, he let the blood return to his numbing legs, then he began to walk about a little. I am so stupid, he cursed himself. Where am I supposed to find any food out here, in the night? Somehow, that question answered himself. Zethis had no idea how it happened, but he suddenly heard a loud grunt. Glancing about heart suddenly pounding madly, he began to pant hard. What is it? From behind the next bend, a streak of blazing fire rushed forward. It was a creature, half his height, its shape invisible in the darkness. He only knew that it was on fire. 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 like he was. Giving a shout of terror, he began to run 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 could he? 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 on either side of its mouth. Willing himself to stand his ground, Zethis waited for its attack. It happened in a flash—the creature suddenly leapt towards him in a bone-crushing body slam. Hands working faster than his mind could, he stuck out the blade at it as it flew at him with terrifying rage. The creature impaled itself on his fruit knife, but the impact of the blow wrenched the knife from his hand. It lay there, on the ground, wheezing heavily, its flame dying slowly. With one final effort, Zethis threw himself down onto its body. His legs landed in the snow, but his body fell upon the guttering fire, smothering it. And he lay there, panting harder than the creature had, feeling the heat die down under his stomach. At that moment, green flashed before his eyes—he was finally eligible for the first job advancement. Zethis finally got up, five minutes later. He tugged the fruit knife out of the animal's stomach, turning away as blood leaked out. Then, he sat at the food of the mountain, cutting chunks of meat off its back, where the meat had been barbecued by its own flames, and ate it. He was still breathing hard with terror, his arms and legs too weak to move, but at the most, he was grateful for his life. That thing could have killed him. What made me do that...He wondered to himself. It was plain stupidity, I guess. And
desperation. 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. He now stood before an entire village of tents, spread out over the entire mountaintop. This was it. 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, just to say the least. "My goodness, where have you been? You're a complete mess..." he gasped out. Zethis looked down at his outfit. He was a complete mess, clothes ripped from all the climbing and falling yesterday; his sandals hanging from two straps each. "I'm—I'm sorry, I should have...presented myself better..." "Ah, no problems, lad," the chief answered with a grin. "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. "Then look up." The boy did so, and there and then, Dances with Balrog took hold of his face. "You have the makings of a warrior," he said, voice suddenly solemn. "With the strength I give to you, I believe that you will become a great person. Do not ever 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, and a call for help, distant and ethereal. Suddenly, it all 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. Some people simply 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." While he revelled in his memories, Zethis suddenly realised that he was a warrior now. A true warrior. "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 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..."
Zethis soon exited the stuffy Warrior's Sanctuary. Outside, the snows seemed whiter, the skies brighter. Everything felt new, everything seemed like a gift to him, all of a sudden. 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: in the dark 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 could hardly see where he was going. He had been afraid from the first moment he had entered. Right from the beginning, he had not been able to see here. His first day in the Dungeon had been a total terror. Everywhere he went, he could only hear, hear the footsteps of the multitudes of creatures in the dark, which he could not see. 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 some kind of animal to pass him by. 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 many streams of the Dungeon. Now, two months later, the warrior had resumed training. The longer he stayed in the Dungeon, the more accustomed he grew to finding his way about 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 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; midwinter was arriving. But he didn't have anything to wear for the weather. A short way away, Ketara saw, distinctly, the gaping mouth of the cave. He could hear all sorts of nightmarish sounds escaping from within it, making him shiver, with more than just the cold. He had never seen this cave before, nor been inside it. But still, it struck mortifying fear into his heart. He heard a rustle. Glancing upwards, he felt the sudden shower of leaves, and he gave a yell of shock as they fell upon his face. It's probably just 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 yelled 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? "Hey, if you want to chat or something, I wouldn't mind," he called out again. "Just come here..." Suddenly, Ketara heard laughter. Turning again, he couldn't see anyone, but heard footsteps as they came closer to him. "You're definitely not used to living in the Dungeon," a mocking female voice said. She was joined by a male's voice. "Yeah, look at how he's so afraid, so blind," he laughed. "You didn't realise that my sister took your moneybag, did you?" Ketara gasped out, not knowing how to respond to all this. Finally, after two months or so, he had found humans. But they had chosen to introduce themselves by stealing his money. "Man, thank goodness there are people around here," he replied. "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 beautiful in the shadows. She was about his height, a little taller, and he assumed that she was about his age. Twelve, perhaps. "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 on. He held up a weapon, 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..." Her expression turned to a smile. "We'll be nice to you this time. Why don't we show you the way out?" Her brother, silent for a while already, stepped forward as well. They were probably twins, he worked out. "I see what you mean by 'good-looking'," he commented. Ketara looked away from them, blushing despite himself, and the situation he was in. "Alright, we'll show you the way out. Which side, north or south?" Feeling less and less afraid, he began to think. North, to Perion, or south, to Henesys? "We haven't got all day," the girl said, bored. Finally, he made up his mind. "No, you can take me somewhere far in the Dungeon if you want, but I'm not going to leave!" Both seemed slightly taken aback. Then, the girl nodded. "Yes, alright, if you want," she agreed, to her brother's slight disapproval. "We'll take you to Sleepywood." "Sleepywood? Is that the shrine?" Ketara asked, relieved that they had thought that up. "Where else?" the girl asked with a laugh. They both began to lead him through the pathways, walking as if they knew all the roads and pathways by heart. Dim orange torchlight soon showed through the spaces between the tree branches. Squinting ahead, he saw the clear outline of hut roofs. "Oh, thank you so much!" Ketara exclaimed to the two Dungeon residents. "You can
leave me now. I 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, won't you, Rino?" Ketara wondered what kind of a boy's name that was. People thought that his name was too feminine already. The name "Rino" was much worse, he thought. Ignoring the fact that she had just disclosed her brother's name, the girl left, almost immediately followed by him. That was weird...But pretty interesting. 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? So many questions, all to which he would never find the answer. ralinn: a dream 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 looked 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. 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 had passed so quickly. 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?
That night, Shirion stayed up at the peak of the mountain, away from the rest of the citizens, who congregated down below. And for a few minutes, the sky was bright with sparks, bangs and whizzes, as rainbows of fire flew through the night sky, shining like a starfall as they fell towards the land. It was beautiful, and a sign of hope, a sign of rebellion. zethis: new year Zethis stood with the great crowd as he watched the fireworks go off over Kerning. It's New Year! I'm almost eleven now! For the very first time since he had left his old home, half a year ago, he felt truly joyful, truly hopeful. His journey was just starting, and he couldn't wait for more, 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 go off, and instantly, he knew that winter was going to end soon. Against the black sky, they shone like bright 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 it all to the next year, to the next sunrise? All over the world, the Year of the Dog had begun. Chapter 2: Year of the Dog ralinn: nine songs The fourteen-year-old huntress stood at the entrance of the Orbis Station. Before her was a high drop from where she stood to the stone-constructed ground far below. Rimming the great stone platform that held up the city was a bright, blue sky. Billows of clouds stood like huge pillars around the city. This was Orbis, the city of the sky. Ignoring the scenery around her, Ralinn raced down the stairs to the city. She glanced about at road junctions for signposts, not speaking or looking at passers-by. She was here to form a guild. The voice from her dreams had told her to do so, and she dared not disobey it, though it was only a voice. It felt strange, creating a guild by the will of someone she didn't know, who might not even exist. Even the future members had already been chosen. "When you find them, you will know," the voice had told her clearly. "I will lead you to them, and do not stop until they are found. Your search may last long, but don't give up." Ralinn broke out of her thoughts and looked up. She had made it to the Guild Headquarters. The building, tapering at the top and gently curved, was enfolded within glowing wings the colour of dew-covered grass, the brightness pulsing warmly as they rose and fell over the HQ. "Excuse me...is anyone there?" she called nervously as she knocked on the door. Her calls were soon answered by a tall, tanned man, his hair white, a scar drawn deeply over his left eye. Ralinn looked fearfully up at him. "Yes, Hercule of the Guild Headquarters here," he replied, still not smiling. "Are you here to form a guild?" Ralinn nodded, still too afraid to move much.
Hercule soon invited the girl into the main hall of the Guild Headquarters. As soon as she entered, the grandeur of the place's interior engulfed her, making her breathless with surprise. It was amazing, how the beautiful lighting brought illumination to every corner of the huge room. Two staircases, curved around a heavily polished, empty, sunlit floor, matched each other, entirely symmetrical. "Stop staring, and come up here," the middle-aged man was already at the top of the two staircases, a huge tome in his hands. Its pages, she could tell, were wellfingered, the pages yellowing already. As Ralinn ascended the left staircase, which was nearer, the man opened the book up near the middle. He handed her a quill pen once she arrived before him. "One million five hundred thousand mesos," he said. "And six members...where are they? You know the rules, don't you?" Ralinn had been fearing this. One of the rules for forming a guild was that she would have to come with five others. But if that voice really wants me to form a guild now, it would have eliminated these problems! Now, she realised that she had relied on the assumption that this strange voice in her head had planned everything out for her. But it turned out that it had done nothing at all to help her! Was this "message" even real, she now wondered. Had it just been a wild waking dream? "Um, I...I..." She could not say anything to save herself. "I heard a voice in my dreams telling me to...uh...form a guild?" Hercule sighed and sat down. "We don't allow people to bend the rules just because of a 'voice' in their heads," he replied. "Apologies, I was hoping to make a new guild today..." Ralinn was about to turn and leave. But a moment later, the column of light shining down the centre of the hall suddenly swelled, and the soft, pure tone of what sounded like continuously ringing bells. The room seemed to be blown apart with light as it flowed endlessly from the window on the ceiling. Nearby, Ralinn could hear Hercule's terrified breathing, though she could not see him. She was more amazed than afraid, amazed at the power of the light that was growing before her. Almost as quickly, the light dimmed, returning to its original brightness. Hercule was leaning on his table, arms shaking. "Girl...Ralinn," he suddenly said, standing straight. "Today, I am forced to make an exception. You have been chosen by powers greater than humankind, and even the law cannot dispute such a thing. Please write your name here." He held out the book to the relieved Hunter, opening it to a page where the long list of people's names ended. The quill was still in her hand, and slowly, she wrote her name at the end of the list. Beside that was a column for her guild name. Ralinn looked up at the ceiling and thought, the sight of the blue sky above suddenly filling her with inexplicable calm. She thought of the only clues that the voice given her of the people she was to find. "In the end, three stars will banish the darkness..." Three stars. She thought about all the constellations, and one surfaced in her mind —the Belt of Orion. The three stars that always stood in line in the middle of the night sky.
Orion's Belt. That would be her guild's name. "OrionsBelt", she wrote on the list, because punctuation and spaces were not allowed in a guild name. That was its registered name, but its true name would be Orion's Belt. Hercule nodded a few times as he took the book back into his palms. "Thank you," he replied. As she reached into her bag for the heavy fee, he stopped her. "There is no need for you to pay, miss. It seems that you have been chosen for a special cause, so...it's only my job to allow you to form your guild without payment." Ralinn sighed, both with relief and disappointment. She had worked so hard to earn that much money... Hercule, not waiting another moment, held out a bundle of jewelled chains to her. "When you invite someone to your guild, give him or her one of these to wear," he instructed. "You can expel members by taking them off. You can buy more from me later, if need be." Ralinn took the chains into her hand, their thin metal rings cold in her palm. Singling one out from the rest, she allowed the rest to fall into one of her pockets, before putting the one she held on. With a short bow and a word of thanks, the girl had left. She was now the leader of Orion's Belt. It was amazing, though she felt no different from before. Just the thought that she could now invite people to join her journeys, and expel them whenever she pleased—somehow, it simply made her feel powerful, in control of her life. All her life, she had never had any control of what befell her. She had been taken from her parents to become a child labourer, though her brother had stayed free. She had suffered for three years, carrying sacks of goods into the castle grounds, until she had run away one day, on impulse, and the guards had not been able to catch up with her. Something that had happened by chance, but had freed her. She had been free for five years already, having fled Victoria Island by stowing away on the Ellinia-Orbis ship. She had returned to Victoria Island to become a bowman, being given more training by Athena Pierce, as her mother was the Job Master’s good friend. Now, she felt as if she was finally making progress with her life. But alone, far from the family that might not even exist anymore, she did not know where, or how, to start. As night fell, Ralinn lay awake on the bed in her rented hotel room. Her mind was full of the day's events, and all at once, she was wondering if she could handle the challenge that this greater being had presented her with. How long would it take? How would she find them? Hoping that she would get some answers soon, she closed her eyes, and waited for the tides of sleep to claim her. Again, she dreamt. Finally, after almost two months, she had another message. There were nine lights and the nine songs again. Slowly, she found herself walking, on nothing, towards the one closest to her. She heard its voice as she approached, growing stronger. Somehow, she felt as if she had heard this voice before, so long ago, so long ago...
The voice didn't stop as she approached, so she listened to its words very closely. "Where are you? Why wait much longer? Years, uncounted years have flown Every winter wind grows stronger As I wait, alone...alone." Taking in a deep breath, Ralinn stepped closer and strained to listen. Again the light sang the words, its mellow voice seeming to tug at something in her mind. Waiting? Someone is waiting for me? The voice began to sing a new verse, and she came so close that she was almost touching it, or so it seemed, feeling its warmth as she listened. "When, once more, are you returning? Solitarily, I roam Everyday I watch time's turning And await your coming home.” Looking away from the brightness, for it was suddenly too much for her to withstand, she began to think. Was this voice telling her to go home? Was that where she would find the first member of Orion’s Belt? She wanted to ask, but somehow, she knew that this creature of light, if creature it was, would not know the answer. And she could not, for as soon as Ralinn turned back, she had been whisked away into another meaningless dream. akera: memories of guilt She still remembered the last moments she had seen Shirion, before he had disappeared into the darkness. Yes, she had wanted to follow him in his journey. She had wanted company on this journey, someone to share all her troubles with—but no, she couldn’t ask to join him. It would only put the Fighter’s life in danger, she knew. No good would come out of doing so. For she was Akera, the witch, the murderer, the one who should never be forgiven. The Fire Poison Wizard now stood at the edge of the town of Henesys, the castle looming upon the bare hilltop. It didn’t have the image of an evil man’s home, like the castles of antagonists in storybooks. It was spring, and the sun cast brilliant, beautiful light on its grey walls. It looked like a grand, mysterious place. Akera knew, though, that the one who owned it was nowhere near grand. He had forced his people into hate and oppression. He had given them endless suffering; he had killed those whom he had deemed disobedient, but really were sinless. She wished that it could all end, that the people could see some light. She wished to the extent that her whole life, right from when she had been able to think, had been filled with hate and darkness. She didn’t like to talk to others, and when they did, all she could do was shout in reply, or argue. Akera’s life had nurtured her to be a hater. Everyday, as she had watched the ordinary folk working themselves to their deaths at Lith Harbour, her anger had been
fed. Then there came the day when she could not take it anymore. It wasn’t for any reason. The skies had been cloudy, and outside, she could hear the roars of the workers as they dragged huge bags off the ships, as usual. Then her mother and father had come into the house. “Akera, we’re moving into hiding,” he said, the words carrying great weight. “It’s not safe to stay here anymore. The king’s new rule is that families of less than five are not allowed to own houses.” What kind of crazy rule is that? It was all so stupid. What did the king expect to achieve with such a rule? She could feel all that masked anger spilling through her spirit, clawing at her heart. It filled her up with fiery heat. “Come on, Akera, don’t be afraid, we’ll be fine once we find a place to stay, hidden,” her mother said softly. Suddenly, Akera hated that voice. It was so patronising. It grated on her ears. “No! We’ll never be fine!” she screamed. “You keep saying that just to keep me happy! You know that it will never end. What after we find a new home? We’ll have to keep running, running for the king, until he catches us, or we die! I can’t stand it anymore!” At that instant, it was as if a monster, held within her heart for the past two years, was suddenly torn from her hold, and had broken loose with the power of all the pain that she had hidden. Flames had exploded from her body, bursting outwards in a burst of fantastical light and heat. Moments later, she was standing among the burnt ruins of the house that had been her home for seven years. And lying, dead, before her, were her parents. In fact, she could hardly tell that they were her parents; they were only burnt flesh on partially showing bone. Akera had been too frightened to move. She had used magic, even without learning it. And she had killed her parents by accident. There she stood in the middle of blackness, her legs quivering, as she suddenly took it all in, and realized that she had more power than she had ever known. But the only thing that she could think was no, no…what have I done now?! She had held all the anger back, and at last, at that moment, she had not been able to hold back any longer. She was a murderer, the blood of her own parents on her hands. Now, the girl was a true Wizard. She had learnt the ways of magic, how to control it, how to use for good purposes. But the memory plagued her, bringing as much pain as it had then. She had been seven then, and intelligent beyond her years. Even her powers at magic were advanced, something children would not be able to do until nine. She was afraid of herself. Akera was afraid, for everyone she spent time with, for everyone who spoke to her. She knew what her anger could do, and she didn’t want to risk doing the same again. So she had become quiet and antisocial, forever trying to remain in a world of her own, and trying to keep others out of it. When anyone tried to talk to her, she deterred him or her by passing an offensive comment. It had worked so far, and she
had never made any friends since. But somehow, there was someone whom she could not quite understand, and found she could never force away. Him, the Fighter, the one whom she had met after capture, working in the Ellinia Station. Shirion was someone she simply did not get. No matter how many times she had tried to anger and keep him away, he had managed to resist all her insults, and was still friendly to her. Somehow, she knew how that brown-haired boy had felt—he wanted a friend. And so she had granted that innocent wish of his, and become a companion. It was strange talking to someone older than her, and yet understanding a little less of the world—when she had been nine, and he, ten. She seemed to know more, but he, in time, had come to be just as mature as her. Akera didn’t want to risk his life as well. She didn’t want to kill another person close to her by accident. They would almost certainly get into arguments if they were to travel together. And that might trigger her anger, make her do things she did not want to do. She didn’t want Shirion to die because of her. Shirion didn’t understand her reservation. He probably never would, for she would never get to tell him. Even if she did, she didn’t want to. For now, she had a life of her own. This freedom might do her good, and maybe change her life for the better. A world awaited her, and she would keep it waiting no longer. raydan: a homecoming Alone, the boy stood among the fallen buildings that surrounded Kerning City. They had been bombarded by the king’s servants, in a futile attempt to destroy the city. Kerning, the land of freedom, the land of the lawless, rebellion—it had been his home since his birth. He was twelve now, a level 23 bowman, eight years since his sister had left. Sister… Raydan still dreamt of her. His sister had always been great in his eyes, a beautiful girl, though all that was left of her was a presence in his life, a feeling that there was this great person somewhere out in the world, someone whom he could rightfully call his big sister. The last time he had seen her had been when he was four. Eight years was a very long time—it was more than half of his life, two thirds. Even so, Raydan still hoped that she would turn up one day, smiling to see what a strong bowman he had become. He had begun to wonder, long ago, whether this would ever happen. Is she even alive? He wondered. He was already beginning to lose hope that he would ever get to see her. But would she recognise him? Would he recognise her? He still lived in the same house with his parents, and they, too, wanted to see her again. But from what he could see, they had stopped hoping long ago. I must keep hoping! I’m sure the chances would be higher if I were to keep faith that it will happen! Raydan pulled himself out of his little reverie and glanced about himself, bow lifted in his left hand. A huge blue mushroom leapt out of the ruins and, spying him, came bouncing in his direction.
The arrow was strung by his skilful hands before it could come any closer, and with a twang of the bowstring and a blaze of blue, the monster had been hit once, forcefully. It was still not dead yet. Heart leaping with some thrill, he strung yet another arrow, charging it up with his mana. “Arrow Blow!” Thud. The creature was still as lively as ever, despite the two arrows in its body. It was coming closer to him, and now, he was really beginning to panic. Racing up onto a high rock, he fired two arrows at once. They whizzed through the air in orange flames, but as they hit the mushroom and scorched it, they did little damage. It was advancing, and Raydan now regretted picking a fight with a monster many levels above his own. Again, he fired an arrow. Knockback, knockback… The monster didn’t stop as the next arrow hit it, and Raydan was now backing away as fast as he could. Too close, and he would run… “Arrow Blow!” As Raydan glanced about to see where that sudden shout had come from, a flash of blue, so much larger than his own ones, struck the blue mushroom in its side, piercing it deep. It fell over with a sharp cry, and the stunned bowman turned to see who it was. On the ledge stood a teenaged girl, a huntress, tall and quite beautiful, her hair the same dark gold as his. She was in hunter’s garb, and held a bow larger than his, its arched shape extremely graceful. He wanted to own a bow like that, but it would cost him a lot. She looked amazing. “Careful when you’re out here,” she said, walking over. “What level are you?” “Twenty-three,” he replied. “And your age?” “Twelve.” The girl smiled at him, then some strange emotion showed up in her eyes, an expression that seemed to be of deep thought. “Thanks for saving me,” he replied with a grateful smile. “I nearly died there…” The girl didn’t seem to think anything of it. “Why’re you alone out here?” she asked, truly wondering, it seemed. Raydan, flattered that she had asked him such a question, replied, “My friends don’t dare to come out here. It’s dangerous, going beyond the border of the veil. We can get captured here, but these are the only places we can hunt.” “So you live in Kerning?” she asked. He nodded. “I lived there once…before I got taken away. My family was…terrified, but to keep themselves safe, they had to give me up to them. Well, thankfully, I’ve finally escaped.” Taken…away? Like…Ralinn… “How’s it like?” he asked in reply, trying to bring some kind of image of his lost sister’s face back to his mind. “Because my sister…she was taken away too. She—” he sighed and looked down. “Hard,” she replied, confirming what he thought. “Really terrible. But I’m still alive, I lived through it all for three years, so your sister should be alive too. Now I’ve got to
get home. My parents and brother haven’t seen me for a long time, and I badly want to see them…” Raydan offered to walk the huntress home. She accepted graciously, much to his delight. It felt great, being noticed by someone as high-levelled as her. She had to be at least level 40, from her clothes. They walked a short way into the city, before the girl suddenly asked him for his name. “Raydan,” he replied with a smile. “How about—” Raydan never managed to finish his question, because he suddenly found himself in her arms, the air being squeezed out of him as she embraced him tightly. “I can’t believe this! You’re still around, you’re still…” she shouted, still not letting him go. “Raydan…don’t you remember me?” Raydan was completely lost for words. What? “What do you mean? Do I actually know you?” he replied, totally confused. “I’m Ralinn,” she barely gasped. “I’m your sister, don’t you remember? It was so long ago that I left—” Now it was Ralinn’s turn to be caught by surprise, as Raydan suddenly tightened his grip around her neck. “Ralinn!” he shouted, barely able to believe that this really was happening, and that it wasn’t just a dream. Part of him worried that he would suddenly wake up and find himself on his bed, but the warmth he felt encircling him, the tightness of this girl’s embrace was too real to be part of a dream. “You’ve changed a lot…you’re so tall now!” Her smile was bright and sincere. It felt great. Amazing. This girl, so strong, so cool, was his sister. Ralinn, whom he had lost eight years ago, when he had only been a young boy, and whom he had hoped would be alive every day of his life. Ralinn, his sister, had returned. Now, they carried on towards their home, much anticipation suddenly sparked between them. Ralinn had not seen home for eight years, and that had been when she had only been six. Both their parents were out at work at the moment, so they would be in for a surprise when they arrived home. “And this is the house which you haven’t seen for eight years,” Raydan said, turning the key in the lock. Ralinn peered inside, saying nothing. But as they went in, and she laid down her sling bag on the side table, he saw that tears were swelling in her eyes. She turned to him. “Raydan…it looks the same as before, before I was taken away!” she gasped. “But a lot must have happened, since I last saw you!” Raydan smiled with pride at Ralinn, who was only half a head taller than him now. “Do you remember that day when the two guards came for me? You were still four then…” Raydan shook his head, trying again, fruitlessly, to recall anything of how it had been. He only remembered two unfamiliar people entering the house and taking her away. “I’m a bowman now,” he said with a smile, as he recalled his trip to Henesys under the cover of night, a journey in which he had almost gotten caught more than once, but had completed in the end. He remembered Athena Pierce asking him about his sister, and he had told her that she had been captured.
Athena had only confused Raydan by saying that she had become a bowman just two years before him. “Hey…Linn?” Raydan tried to call out the nickname that he had used for Ralinn before. It felt like brushing away a carpet of dust, as if he were uncovering the remains of an old habit which he had once had, covered by dust from eight years of disuse. “Linn, where have you been all this while? I want to hear everything, everything about what you did in those eight years!” Ralinn glanced up from the sofa upon which she was resting, head leaned against one armrest, feet atop the other. “It wasn’t too bad,” she replied. “Worked at the castle for three years, those were hard times. Then I escaped and immediately went to Athena, ‘cos my level was high enough by then.” Raydan leaned on the chair’s back, listening with interest. He truly wondered, more than anything else, how she could still be alive, after working so long as a slave. All in all, her ability to stay alive intrigued him. “How did you live through all that torture?” he asked. “I just…well, I everyday, I thought about the world that I would go out to in the end, if I lasted through it all, and was freed someday. Then the chance for freedom passed by me, and I took it. I ran, and found my way to Henesys, where I met Athena, and became a bowman.” She seemed to drift away into memory again, as if that particular time in her long journey had been special to her. “I just came back from Orbis,” she finally went on. “I kept hearing voices in my head, and they were telling me to form a guild. It is to be a rebellion gro—” Something must have sparked in her mind, for now, Ralinn sat up straight and got off the sofa, suddenly excited. “Raydan,” she questioned, more serious now. “Do you want to try and put an end to all this suffering? Everyday, more people are becoming prisoners because of the king…Do you want it to end?” Raydan took not a moment’s hesitation and nodded, though her manner made him slightly puzzled. “I missed you,” he replied, emotion filling his voice. “I don’t want it to happen anymore.” Ralinn reached into her pocket, and to the bowman’s surprise, a bright gem on a sparkling chain came out in her hand. “Then join Orion’s Belt,” she replied. “It’s my guild. I need you to join.” Raydan reached out and grasped the chain. Then only did he notice that Ralinn also wore one, the bright, clear gem shining stark against her rough hunter’s outfit. Breath held, he hung it around his neck. He was now a member of a guild. Ralinn’s guild, Orion’s Belt. ralinn: the second member Ralinn looked into Raydan’s eyes, exactly the same grey as hers. Suddenly, she recalled the song, and she understood. Raydan had been waiting for her. That was his song. Without knowing why, she had known him to be the second member. She had known that he would accept the invitation. She had known that that voice from her dreams belonged to him.
So now stood before her the task of finding the next, the third member of Orion’s Bolt. At least this is a start, she thought to herself, smiling at Raydan, who grinned unknowingly back. I’ve found the second member. Then, feeling hungry, she stepped over to the dining table, the exact same hardwood one, and took some of the chips from Raydan’s packet, very much to his annoyance. zethis: into the city Zethis was finally level 17. All around him, the uneven rock faces that had once looked treacherous to him now gave him a sense of peace and familiarity. Around him lay the remains of the hoard of stumps that he had just slain, remains of a leaf or two, as well as broken twigs, strewn across the hard ground. It was unbelievable—just a year ago, the boy had been a weak little kid hiding within the safety of his foster father’s home, waiting for him to arrive home everyday with his dinner. Now, he lived alone, travelling the footpaths of the mountains in the northern region of Perion, killing and lighting fires for his own food. Such a change it had been, from that weakling last summer, to the real warrior that he was now. Bending down, he picked up a handful of twigs, stuffing them into a pocket of his bag, before brushing his hands on his clothes, now a true set of armour. His fruit knife had long been abandoned; he now had a mace in his right hand, a tall metal shield in his left. It impressed him, how far he had come from his days as a boy who had never seen the world before. His own strength amazed him; never before had he thought that he would be able to carry or wear such things. Now, the metal rested perfectly in his hands, clad him well and made him feel strong. Turning to face the mountainside, Zethis saw the blue distances before him, spread like an exquisite carpet of varying natural shades, held out under the open sky. In its midst, he suddenly noticed the piercing towers of the great western city, resting near the horizon, so huge that he could see it, even from here. Kerning, he thought to himself, recalling. The lamp lit roads and bright signboards were still imprinted hard into his memory. Thinking, he continued to gaze at the glorious city, where everyone could be free. It’s time for a change of scenery, he decided. He had lived around Perion for half a year, since midwinter, when he had gone to get his first job. He realized what a long time it had been since he had first felt the new strength of a warrior being implanted in his soul by great hands. The unchanging, unending mountain scenery and the high-pitched mountain bird calls were beginning to tire him. Now, he wanted to return to Kerning, and see it again. There, he hoped, there would be more to see. ralinn: soft voice Ralinn looked up in her dream, and looked around. There were now eight lights around her, she noted as she counted. Walking towards the one that floated just a short way from her. Stepping close, she listened. Its voice was so soft, she could hardly hear its words. Finally, she came as close as before, standing halfway into the brightness. Then only
did she hear what it was singing. “Find me, guide me, lead my blindness Grant the wishes in my heart. Hold your smile, show me your kindness Stay by me, right from the start.” Ralinn began to think about these words. Was this person so “blind”, as it said? Or was this figurative blindness? From the voice, she could tell that this person was a male, still very young. But she heard, despite its softness, great strength and hope in his voice. I’ll find you, she thought. I’m sure I’ll find you, sooner or later. The dream then left Ralinn, but this time, she was content with what she had learnt. ketara: after a year Finally! The warrior’s heart filled with ecstasy as saw the world flash blue all around him. He had kept close count of his level-ups, and at last, he knew, he was qualified to become a Spearman. For two years, he had worked towards his goal. He had finally achieved it, and the very moment had to be the happiest in his life, since the day he had become a warrior. Also, he realized, a year had passed since Dances with Balrog had told him to travel and make a choice about whether he wanted to become a member of the tribe of Perion. Ketara knew, now, that he did not want to. He didn’t know why he had suddenly changed his mind. But somehow, his one year of living in the Dungeon had instilled a sudden love for freedom in him. He was around twelve now, and he would be getting his second job shortly. That certainly was fast, as he had heard. Others didn’t get their second jobs till the beginning of their thirteenth years. In the time he had stayed in the Dungeon, Ketara had not met anyone new, other than the monks. He still remembered the encounter with the twins near the cave mouth, and was still grateful for their help. Their images sometimes haunted him in his constantly darkening dreams, not appearing evil, but kind instead. The lack of company was still unbearable for him. Almost an entire year was too long a time without another person with him. He lived on social interaction; his personality was made that way. With no one to talk to, Ketara had begun to talk to his Fork on a Stick. That didn’t help very much. It was time he returned to Perion. Just in time for his second job advancement, too. He could not wait to finally get to see light again, after so long without it. And he could not bear the taste of raw meat for another day. He needed to get a haircut now; his hair already fell beyond his shoulders. The journey wasn’t very easy. He could barely tell which direction was north, if not for the direction that all the termite nests were facing. Stumbling through yet another bush of undergrowth, Ketara began to feel that there was no way out, that the sunlight he had once lived under was only an illusion. He continued to walk, though, refusing to give up on finding a way out.
Then, the boy heard a low, thumping sound. The ground seemed to shake with each deafening crash of what might be feet on the ground, filling him with dread all of a sudden. He whipped around, afraid of what he might see. Then it came into full view of his dark-accustomed eyes. A towering, round creature, its body seeming to gleam with slime within the almost nonexistent light. Ketara backed away, mortified now. What is this thing? He thought to himself, panic racing through his blood. Can I fight it? “Power Strike!” he felt energy fill his spear-holding arm, and with the momentum of his body weight, he thrust the spear at the monster, trying to pierce its skin. The point left a scratch, and he now saw how thick its translucent skin really was. Well, I did it some damage! He thought, morale boosted. Again, he charged forward with a Power Strike, his mana quickly draining itself as he gave it a long gash in its huge stomach. The great thing leapt. And because of his close proximity to it, the shock waves threw him down on his back, among the thick shrubs of the undergrowth. He wondered, cursing silently, for a moment, how plants could grow in such darkness. Again, as he stood, the creature jumped, knocking him down again with force that gave him a huge bruise on his back. No, I’ll never beat it, because I’m too close! I wish I had magic, or arrows, then— No. He still remembered the promise he had made himself, that day when the bowman had humiliated him on the other side of the tribe’s mountain. He would prove that being a warrior did not make him weak. Rising again, he jumped off the ground as it landed again, before drawing on his mana for another Power Strike. “Power Strike!” he yelled, thrusting the Fork forward, plunging it into its skin. The point met with great resistance, before tearing a wound in its stomach, from which liquid began to leak. Yes! That’s it! There was a sudden shout of joy, and some metal objects spun through the air over his head, slicing into the huge slime bag’s skin. More holes opened, and Ketara turned around. Moments later, two familiar people leapt out of the branches, ignoring him. Somehow, he could not be angry with the two for stealing the prey that was rightfully his. He was amazed by their speed, as the two began to attack on both sides, the boy with bursts of flame from his palms, and the girl with throwing stars. Throwing stars? Fire magic? Where did they learn that? Ketara watched, fascinated, as the creature was beaten down with both their attacks. With a sudden hit from a fireball, its skin burst, and its contents splattered on everything in the clearing, including him. “I killed it this time!” the boy shouted triumphantly. “I won! That makes seventeen for me, and fourteen for you!” He laughed at the girl, who growled in annoyance, but said nothing. “Hey, it’s you again,” she called, turning to him instead. “I thought that you said that you wouldn’t come back here? Kinda stupid of you, trying to take that thing on by yourself.” “I’m just passing through,” he replied. “I’m going back to Perion.”
“You’re so weird,” the girl commented aloud. “You aren’t scared of us. You’re the first person not to start screaming or trying to run from us.” She paused. “And that’s a… nice thought, to me at least.” “Haha, no problem,” Ketara said. “Could you…do me a favour and show me the way out?” The boy came up to him. “You’re back,” he said. “Didn’t you promise—” “He’s just passing through,” his sister replied. “Nothing wrong with that, right? He’s leaving already. But he’s lost, and he wants to know the way out. Do I—?” “Yeah, yeah, go ahead,” he replied, walking away without another glance. The girl began to walk, and wordless, Ketara followed. The silence lasted for a few seconds. Suddenly, Ketara piped up, “How’s life been?” She looked at him oddly. “Annoying,” she replied with a trace of boredom, before turning back to the road. “Why?” The girl hesitated before replying. “Rino’s getting really annoying,” she said. “He’s trying to stay ahead of me in levels, and I think he’s trying too hard. That’s how it is with all guys.” She rolled her eyes. “Why’d you care anyway?” Ketara blinked a few times, ignoring the annoyance in her voice. “Rino? Is that your brother’s name?” he asked. “It sounds like a girl’s name.” “Uh…his real name is Turino,” she replied. Then, seeming to realize that he did not know her name, she added, “I’m Telida.” “Hi, Telida,” he said gladly. With the revelation of her name, she seemed a lot less distant than before, though she still had the same impatient expression on her face. “My name is Ketara.” He used to be embarrassed of his name, knowing how much it sounded like a girl’s, but he had gotten over it. “It sounds like a girl’s name,” she commented. “Yeah,” he agreed, stopping. “I was named by a fairy.” Actually, she named me so because she heard my name in a dream… Telida said “wow” softly, before they resumed their trek through the forest. Throughout the rest of the journey, they did not speak. Ketara’s mind was full, a flurry of colourful thoughts flying about in his brain. Had she named herself? If she had been living in the forest for all this while, who had taught her to use throwing stars? Who had given her her name? She had appeared scary to him earlier on; now, he realized, she wasn’t as evil as his impression of her had been earlier. Turino didn’t seem as nice as her, though. So much learnt in a day… Finally, the warrior noticed that the air around them was turning brighter than before. As they proceeded, he began to see the sunlight dancing on motes of dust that circled the tree trunks, bright like gold. Before long, true, blinding sunlight suddenly burst through the gaps in the treetops, the leaves peeling away into a golden afternoon. “Well, here we are. Goodbye.” Telida gave him a gentle push forward, and by the time he had turned around to return her greeting, she had vanished, leaving only a
few leaves stirring in her wake. Well. The Spearman-to-be looked about blindly, the sunlight too bright for his eyes to handle, after almost a year in the darkness of the Dungeon. Finally, after so long. As the minutes passed, he began to see more—the straggling weeds that lined the feet of the Perion mountains, then the rock faces and overhangs, and finally, the sky, the vast, scrolling sky that he had not seen, and had missed, for almost a year. He took in the smell of dry, sunlit air with thankfulness, feeling the almost nonexistent breeze with welcome, before starting on his trip up the mountain. He made it to the tribe settlement a few minutes after sunset. Now, after a year within the Dungeon with only dim torches for lighting, Ketara could see things he had not been able to before—Stumps as they retreated into their hidden dens around the mountain, dark, shadowy trees waving in the dim moonlight, and most usefully, the well-trodden pathways that he had to take to reach the village of tents on the tallest mountain. Stretching his legs as he sat down on a conveniently-placed rock step on the mountain, the warrior gathered up his energy and raced the remaining distance, until he arrived, after ascension up the familiar mountainside, panting in front of the tent that first greeted his vision. My tent, my tent… he thought to himself, running fast despite his exhaustion, legs given energy from his relief upon arrival. The tent soon came into view—the tall animal skin structure standing below a high overhang. Finally! Tomorrow, I’m going to become a Spearman! Ketara could hardly sleep that night. Thoughts of his second job advancement, and of the test that awaited, spun around in his mind, stirring him awake with excitement whenever he came close to sleep. Finally, he did managed to, though, the exhaustion of the climbing getting to his muscles. The warrior woke up to a bright sky for the first time in a long time. He had almost forgotten how it was like to be awakened by the light of the sun, leaving it entirely to habit for those months in the darkness. Outside, the air was cool. No, even compared to the air in the Dungeon, it was cool. The leaves of the Dungeon, he suddenly recalled, were beginning to turn gold already, and another year was entering its second half. In two and a half years of training, he had brought himself up to the standard of a Spearman, and it was only a matter of time until he really became one. Finally, after a year, Ketara stood before the same door, awaiting the same person, at the same time of year. It swung open almost immediately after he knocked, to reveal the face of Dances with Balrog, smiling upon sight. “Ketara! You really kept to your word, I see,” he said, allowing him in. “It’s been quite an adventure,” Ketara replied with a grin. “And I decided that I don’t actually want to stay in Perion so much anymore.” He said this confidently, sure of his choice now. “It’d have been great, I’m sure, but there’s a lot out there for me to see as well. Maybe I’ll come back here to live once a year.” Then he changed the subject. “But that’s not the reason why I came,” he suddenly added. “I’m here to become a Spearman!” Dances with Balrog nodded with interest. “You’re aware that you have to undergo a test first, right?” he asked, coming closer. Ketara nodded. “Then come with me.”
Ketara felt his heart leap with ecstasy. At last, the time was here for him to prove his worth of a new title! Of course, he felt doubtful of whether he would make it through, but he quickly covered those thoughts up with prospects of what he would be doing. What kind of test would it be? One of strength, he was sure. But what could the test possibly be? The questions were all answered as soon as Dances with Balrog came to a stop, about a mile from Perion, on a ledge overlooking a valley full of creatures. They were too far for him to discern their size. Ketara didn’t know if it was his imagination, but he heard strange, savage sounds far below. The sounds were too loud to belong to those monsters, surely? “The job is easy,” Dances with Balrog said. “You go down there, kill the monsters, and obtain thirty dark marbles. It’s as simple as that. I’m sure you’d be able to do it.” Ketara didn’t feel so sure. Easy? Those things sound horribly huge! “But…I might die there!” he blurted out, then regretted voicing his fears. He was certain that he would meet his demise there. “Don’t you worry,” Dances with Balrog replied. “I’ll be watching. If you’re in trouble, I’ll come to save you.” His voice was slightly comforting, but Ketara still felt the fear filling his stomach. “On the count of three. One…two…” Ketara swallowed, wanting badly to prove himself worthy a new title, and at the same time mortified that he might meet his demise in the valley below. I’m not a coward! He reprimanded himself for his sudden doubt. His second job advancement awaited, just beyond this challenge. The Perion chief’s powerful shout of “three” echoed strongly through the mountainsides, making the monsters below pause momentarily with what might have been shock. As the shadows circled below, waiting for him, he leapt down to the first ledge between him and the creatures. The wind buffeted the mountain, flying straight up against his face. At once, new, fresh exhilaration surged through his body, the trace of fear still lingering, but less. Halfway down his route through the mountainside, a familiar smell hit his nose. Wild boars! Their scent mingled with the tang of smoking flesh, and he knew that this would be something he had never seen before. Heat soon engulfed the young warrior, and the smell of the beasts got stronger around him. The sun seemed to burn on his skin, his hands growing sweaty in the oven-like heat of the valley. This was definitely not normal. But what did he expect? This was a test, a test that decided if he was worthy of a second job or not. The grunts were soon deafening. Among the monsters, he noticed as he came closer on the ledge he stood on, there were what looked like the monkeys he had seen on the way to Kerning, a while ago. This species was Lupin, he was sure. They were notorious for being able to use their bananas as weapons. Ketara was close enough now. The rank smell of the creatures made him gag, almost suffocating him with lack of air to breathe. Sweat was running down his forehead and neck; he had not felt so hot before. He stood perched on the ledge, waiting, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. “Slash Blast!” With one powerful shout, the boy landed, both feet down, on the hard ground below, swinging out his Fork on a Stick with power drawn from mana. As it
met the monsters beyond a dark cloud of sand, they gave terrified groans and squeals, the white-hot metal burning into their sides and faces. The dust cleared; around him stood boars, their backs blazing and eyes red, and Lupins, teeth bared in pain. Some bore gashes, deep, nonetheless; some looked ready to charge at him. He only saw all this for a few seconds, before the monsters began to charge towards him, boar tusks held out in menace. Ketara’s cry of pain was loud as tusks were buried into the flesh of his leg, jabbing themselves through the chainmail that was supposed to protect him. The flames on their backs burnt his arms, and all was pain for that second. He was pelted with banana skins, the points hitting his head and face hard. Eww, he thought to himself, wiping the gooey remnants of banana skin off his face. That was not much to him now, after hundreds of falls off trees and rocks in the Dungeon, after slipping in hidden mud puddles and tripping over roots. He could fight on. There was still a vast well of energy in him. He performed another Slash Blast. The monsters around him were hit hard again, giving their bizarre cries. But his energy and mana dropped once more, and he felt more exhausted than he had been a few moments ago. Not one, though, seemed battered at all. Maybe I should change my strategy, he thought, thoughts flying in a whirl as the monsters regrouped around him. Hitting all at once wasn’t working. He had to go one by one. Thirty Dark Marbles…he thought with sudden dread and exhaustion. He hadn’t obtained a single one! The best thing to do, Ketara suddenly realised, was to find a place where the monsters could not get him, but he could easily hit them. Searching the place, he raced over to the rock face before any of the monsters could charge into him. Scrambling up onto the lowest ledge, which he could barely reach, he managed to pull himself onto it, scraping his knees and almost tearing his nails. He caught his breath for a few seconds and looked down at the swarm of monsters below him. A banana peel suddenly came flying at the warrior, and he dodged aside, only just in time. There had to be a way. Others of the same level and strength as him had passed this test before. But maybe it’s because they’re worthy of it, and I’m not, he noted with tiredness. But no, he refused to give up. Not when he had trained himself so hard. Looking over the ledge, Ketara focused on one of the boars, caught up in the frenzy of the herd, and not seeming to notice the warrior watching its back from above. “Power Strike!” he shouted, pouring his energy out in the form of a powerful attack. Unfortunately, his hidden power was not drawn out, but this attack did enough damage. Below him, the fire boar had turned to him, eyes burning into his, full of terrified pain. Again, he struck. The boar tried to leap to where he stood, but missed the edge of the ledge, hooves scrabbling on the rock, for loss of blood. Ketara saw his chance to finish it, and finding a weak spot to the left of its spine, he ran it through with his Fork on a Stick, digging it sideways once it was in. A chunk of its flesh almost detached from its body, and it fell, dead. No Dark Marble.
Trying not to let despair consume him, Ketara searched for a different enemy. The hoots and screeches of the Lupins drew his attention, and he wondered if more of them held the treasure he sought. Hitting the annoying monster with the point of his spear, he found the point meeting its leg, tearing into its flesh. It gave a call of anger and pain, before turning to him, ready to jump. This time, he wasn’t so lucky. It leapt to his level with ease, and for the first time, he noticed how long its claws were. I can do this, I can do this! Raising his spear bravely, he acted as his reflexes told him. The stomach, the stomach is its weakness! The Lupin flew forward and swept its claws over his face. At the same moment, ready, Ketara shifted the spear forward with some force, allowing the monster’s momentum to do the rest of the damage. It screamed, a sound of terror that made his spine tingle. “Power Strike!” Again, he used the high-powered attack, to great effect this time. His weapon tore its entire arm off, the flames that accompanied his attack turning its fur black. “Try this!” He launched forward with one more attack, and the monkey fell back, mouth falling open. Its hand fell open, and Ketara found a round black gem in its hand, its surface gleaming. Too exhausted to feel joyful, he grabbed the object and stuffed it down his pocket. Hours passed like minutes. Ketara repeatedly targeted one monster at a time, returning higher to rest for ten minutes at a time, before returning to the low ledge to kill more monsters. The Dark Marbles in his pocket began to weigh more and more, and so did the pain of the injuries he was receiving. He had only one quarter of the potions he had bought the day before, and only seventeen Dark Marbles. I know it’s possible, he thought, more confidently now. He had collected more than half the number he needed, the objects still cold in his pocket, even though they had been in there for hours, unwarmed by his body. He had been unable, as of yet, to unlock his hidden power. Intermittently he wondered why he was unable to do so, when it had been so easy other times. He seemed to be able to manage it when under a lot of pressure. Maybe this wasn’t bad enough a situation for his powers to show themselves. Just as the sun was setting, Ketara found his twenty-sixth marble. The fire boar’s flames died down, its mouth falling open. From between its tusks, he took the Dark Marble, disliking the feeling of the fur and skin encircling his hand, before leaping back up the ledges to a safe spot above. I have to finish this fast! Now! His desperate thoughts spun around like a whirlwind. The sun was descending fast beyond the mountain peaks, the skylight growing darker, the firelight below his vision growing brighter. Soon, he would be caught in the grasp of the night, and he would never find his Dark Marbles that way. Taking a last glance at the setting sun, Ketara threw away all thought and common sense, for thinking would keep him from his goal, and he leapt off the ledge, into what now looked like a flaming pit of Spirit’s Passageway, the legendary punishing ground. He knew that he had to do it now, or never pass the test. Already, their smell and warmth were engulfing him in an unending tide, and at once, instinct told him to make his move. Now! “Slash Blast!” Ketara knew that this would do nothing, and that the monsters would
bury him under their weight, smother him to death. But who cared! He would make it out. He would. He would come out victorious. As his spear went in a full circle around him, he felt pain jab him as his arms tore through all the monsters that surrounded him immediately, and he pushed it to the back of his mind; there was no room for thought about pain now. Flames licked at his heart, blazing in him like a growing furnace, and all at once, his arms, his body was filled with inhuman energy. Yes! I needed this! Once again, an enormous well of energy reopened within him, giving him power that grew stronger as the sky darkened. He took a gasp mid-move, thrusting his head to the sky. Stars! They shone on him, and the very sight of them, rushing through the pathways of space-time, raised his spirits and his strength. His body moved of its own accord, stabbing, swinging, slashing, anticipating attacks even before they came, and fending them off instantaneously. All at once, he was standing among heaped carcasses, the boars’ flames dead, the Lupins sprawled across the ground. Four glossy marbles shone prominent against the mass of fur and carrion. Giving an exclamation of triumph, Ketara climbed up the ledge, the last four marbles now in his pocket, which was weighing him down a great deal. Wondering briefly if Dances with Balrog was still there, he climbed up the darkening ledges, rough at his touch, with amazing agility. “Well-fought!” Dances with Balrog still stood watching, no trace of tiredness or boredom. “You took at least an hour less than an ordinary person.” Really? Ketara was genuinely surprised. “Have you been standing here all this while?” he asked, quite shocked that he had had the patience to stay and watch the entire process of his terrible battle. All of a sudden, the after-effects of his sudden rush of power seemed to wear off, and he felt tired, sleepy, completely fatigued. “H-hey, I need…a rest,” he said, shoulders hunched. Dances with Balrog nodded. “Your Dark Marbles first,” he replied, holding out his battle-worn hand. Ketara looked up and reached into his pocket, trying to gather up all the marbles in his hand. In the end, he decided to get ten marbles out at a time, and he did so, counting off the thirty marbles, terrified that he had fallen short of one or two. Thankfully, triumphantly, he produced the thirtieth marble from his pocket, letting this last handful of ten fall into the Job Master’s hand. Ketara smiled, that smile in itself unable to contain all the joy and success, relief and exhaustion that now welled inside him. “Good job, Ketara,” Dances with Balrog repeated. “I’m sure you want to get your job advancement now, instead of having to go all the way back to the Warrior’s Sanctuary, right?” Ketara nodded eagerly. The Perion chief smiled and nodded. Then, holding Ketara’s face in his palms, he said, “Then, by the powers of the Dragon, I hereby name you…a Spearman.” Ketara gasped as heat, burning, swept through his face, down through his heart and his entire body. He heard a colossal roar behind him, and a bright flash illuminated everything around him for an instant. Then it faded, and he was staring into Dances with Balrog’s eyes, slightly dizzy, panting with something that felt like fear. At once, realization struck him that he was a Spearman. A true Spearman! It felt amazing just to know.
“Well, so, Ketara, tell me what you’re going to do after this,” he said. Ketara looked up at the starry sky. “I…I don’t actually know,” he admitted, to the chief, and to himself. Dances with Balrog quickly jumped to his unexpected offer. “Then do you want to come and become my secretary?” he exclaimed. “I’ve been needing one for years; all my stuff is in a mess.” Knowing that he had nothing better to do now, the Spearman nodded with a smile. “No problem, as long as I get to meet new people!” he replied excitedly. “Are you sure a twelve-year-old would do?” “Yeah, of course! Come on, your job starts tomorrow! You need some rest.” The two walked back towards Perion in the mountain autumn wind. Time for a new chapter to start, I guess, Ketara thought. zethis: party quest At last! Zethis had spent the entire autumn training in Kerning. He, at last, had reached the fruit of his long labour—he was now level 21, eligible for the kerning Party Quest. All around him as he ran, the streets, lamps and parapets decorated with blankets of snow. “PQ! Need two more members!” the calls of the party leaders at the Party Quest entrance were excited in the cold air, and Zethis raced up towards the small crowd he saw at the opening of the pipes. The warrior glanced about at the people who crowded the entrance, all not seeming to notice him. Which was just as well. He didn’t like to be noticed, especially by people he didn’t know. Even though he was a year older, he hadn’t gotten over his fear of strangers. A snowfall had started again, and the boy looked up to see the snowflakes descending from the clouds towards him, in a blinding whirl of fantasy. “Need a party?” Just as Zethis was enjoying the view above, a boy, probably around his age, leapt in front of him with a bright smile and an exclamation. “Aargh!” he could hardly contain his scream of terror. Heart pounding, he quickly regained composure, taking a closer look at his “attacker”. “Whoa, easy,” the boy said, trying to get the warrior to calm down. “Do you want a party?” Noting his words for the first time, Zethis nodded. “Pleased to meet you, I’m Raydan,” he said, holding his bow behind his back. “Level 29 bowman. Ah, can’t wait for second job!” Zethis nodded and bowed, now embarrassed about his initial response to Raydan’s invitation. “Uh…uh…Zethis,” he answered, stammering. “I’m level—level twentyone!” The bowman held out a hand to his forehead, giving him a sudden jolt of heat above his eyes. “Welcome to my party,” Raydan replied. “By the way, you have nice hair. I wish my hair were as light as yours.” “Ah—” That remark had caught him by surprise, and Zethis couldn’t say any more
than that. He glanced up at the strands of straw-gold hair that poked into his vision, then back at the boy’s dark gold. “Er…thanks…” No one had ever said anything about his hair before. He swept it back self-consciously. “So,” Raydan went on. “Party Quest next?” He called out behind himself, and three others soon came, among them another bowman, as well as a Cleric and a female mage. “This is the rest of our party, for this PQ.” Zethis smiled nervously at them, mumbling a soft “hi”. About an hour after Raydan had gone to stand in queue for the Party Quest, he suddenly came running towards them, grinning. “We’re next!” He called. Zethis had not spoken to any of the other three members, and neither had they spoken to each other: it seemed that none of them knew any of the others. Raydan’s shout had given him a shock. Almost instantly, Zethis saw the whirl of a staff gem in the hand of a robed woman, somewhere off in the distance. At once, the bricks, the tar of Kerning around him began to whiten, whiten, fade around him as he watched. The shrill cry of a marsh bird sent him flying out of his daze. Marsh bird? He was definitely in a different place now. It smelt different, and was hotter. A lot hotter. There was not a hint of snow here. Slowly, Zethis looked around to take in the new scenery and smell around him. Water, everywhere, gleaming under the sun, under the light that flowed in from between the leaves. Mud, its smell surrounding him, the brown sludge thick below his feet. Ligators! He saw the huge reptilian beasts lying by the rocks and swamp banks, rough olive skin shiny and wet with mud and slime. “Stay down here!” Raydan’s voice suddenly reminded him, thankfully, that he was not alone in this new area. The bowman was racing towards the sleepy crocodiles that lay, feet on the marsh bed. “Go get your quest from Cloto!” “C-Cloto?” Zethis called in puzzlement, before seeing the mystically-dressed, staffwielding woman around whom two of the others were standing. He ran over as well, feeling the mud splash on his unguarded upper shins. The woman, Cloto, waited expectantly as he gasped out about his “quest” to her. She nodded. “You must gain the number of tickets equivalent to the level you have to be to become a thief, warrior or bowman,” she explained simply. The number took no thought to figure out. How to get them, though, stumped him. He looked about and saw where all the other party members stood, battling Ligators. Zethis swallowed, heart suddenly thumping madly. Ligators? He knew that they were too powerful for him to handle. He would never get the tickets… “Zethis! How many do you need?” Zethis had not caught Raydan’s words the first time, so he ran closer to the edge of solid ground, where it gently sloped into the swamp, to listen. “Ten,” he replied, again remembering his companions. Would Raydan really be able to get so many for him? It seemed so. The bow-user stood on a facing bank of the swamp, arrows flying from the weapon in his hands like birds leaping off a tree branch. One by one, he shot the monsters down, each one allowing a yellow card to float out of its mouth as it sank
into the depths of the marsh in a trail of bubbles. Raydan snatched each one up swiftly as he waded a short way into the water. Zethis waited a while, watching in fascination as the rest of the party fired at the monsters, the creatures occasionally evading their attacks, the spells and arrows plunging down into the swamp as well. He became conscious, all of a sudden, of the sword that hung useless at his side. The instant he saw Raydan and the rest racing to where he was, he knew that they were all done. Sometimes, I wish I could distance-attack, he thought with a twinge of regret that he was unable to do so. The only thing he could do was use the Three Snails skill, which was not very useful. “Come on now,” Raydan said, pushing a bundle of yellow tickets into his free left hand. They were wet, but amazingly clean and dirt-free. Zethis bowed. “Thanks,” he said sincerely. At the gate, Cloto fed the tickets one by one through the electric gate, until there were enough, and it slid vertically open. They stepped over into the next stage, Cloto following them. Considering that they were walking over mud, she was still as elegant as ever, as she treaded across the muddy ground. “Two people are needed for this stage,” she said as they came to a stop next to another electric gate. “I need two of you to try hanging on these vines in different combinations. Once the right combination is found, the door will open.” Raydan glanced at the four other party members, who looked back, Zethis included. “You,” he said, picking the mage. “And you.” Zethis suddenly felt faint as the bowman grabbed his arm and dragged him over. The two of them began to climb up the four vine ropes that hung from the treetops, trying each rope in cycles as the gate repeatedly refused to open for them. Zethis found it not as hard as he had thought to climb, but the rough surfaces of the vines were beginning to make his hands blister. “Yes!” Finally, the gate decided to open as Zethis finally found himself climbing a new rope. Gladly, he leapt off the vine rope, brushing his hands on his pants before following the rest through the glowing green doorway. The other side of the gate was totally unlike the area they had just exited. As Zethis stepped through, he felt cold wash through him, and suddenly found himself in the middle of a dark forest, the swamp bird sounds replaced by the endless rustle of leaves and the cries of forest creatures. He was almost blind here, if not for the row of torches that burnt in the trunks of the gnarled, pillar-like trees. The third stage was another “combinations” stage, except that there were six barrels with kittens in them, and that three people had to do it this time. Zethis took a rest while the other three progressed with the tiring search for the right combination of barrels. About ten minutes did it, and soon, the next gate spun into life, a whirl of green lights that shone stark in the darkness of the shade of branches. “Here goes, our last stage,” Raydan called out to the rest, before his figure vanished through the gate. Once all were through, there were sparks all around, and huge lizard beasts
appeared, wide single eyes gleaming yellow like topazes that glared brightly at them. “Arrow Blow!” Raydan’s arrow caught the first, making it wince in pain as the projectile spun into its eye with a burst of bright blue. “Magic Claw!” the Cleric boy’s powerful spell ripped through its eye, bringing death upon it. Zethis ran into the battle, as did the rest, and began to fight, fight the monsters that lay, challenging, ahead. Death followed death as the arrows, magic and blades tore through the monsters one by one, the party members extracting one ticket from each fallen monster, tossing their bodies aside to clear their path. “King Slime,” Raydan said, leading them through the trees, towards their final step to victory. Just beyond, the thumps of the King Slime’s colossal footsteps collided with their ears. “Come on, it won’t be too hard. Zethis, stay clear for the time being.” Zethis complied without a complaint. He knew he would not survive anyway. Still, he yearned, as he watched the rest inch closer, aim, and attack the boss with their long-range attacks, to have powers like theirs. It was something he had wished more than once this day already. Bang. Whizz. Rumble. The battle ended quickly as it had begun, the bag of slime tumbling over the roots, its life liquid drained from a leeching hole in its front. The rest of the party cheered, before Raydan called out to Zethis, and they departed together. The instant they arrived before Cloto and she swept her staff over them, Zethis saw a shower of blue all around him, as he suddenly gained another level upon the completion of their quest. “Thanks,” he said sincerely as they materialized outside, before the canal at the entrance to the swamp, the sounds of gushing water drowning out most of the chatter of the other waiting parties. Raydan nodded. Something glinted on the bowman’s neck. Unsure but curious all the same, he glanced down at the pendant that hung on his chest—a bright-jewelled ornament which seemed to shine with more power than was apparent. Raydan noticed Zethis’ interest in the pendant and held it up. “My sister has a guild,” he replied. “I just joined it a few months ago.” He was silent for a while. Then his eyes sparked all of a sudden. “Oh! Would you like to end the suffering in Victoria Island?” Zethis looked on, puzzled, then nodded. “I-is it something to do with your guild?” he asked. Raydan nodded with a grin. “Then come with me! We’ll find my sis, and she’ll guild you.” Come with me! The words echoed back from a distant memory. Of course! Those were the words he had heard, that moment, when Dances with Balrog had sent him spiralling into a world of stars, for a few, breathtaking seconds. Those words of fate, that had been uttered so calmly in his vision, now recurred. Was this fate for him? Not knowing, he followed Raydan, his new friend, through the streets of Kerning. ralinn: blessing of shadow The huntress, unknowing that someone now sought her, strolled the dimming street,
snow-laid. The snow had stopped falling for a while already, and it was beginning to thaw a little. By next snowfall, the ground would be slippery, and extremely dangerous. When is Raydan going to be done…she pondered continuously. Her brother had gone for the Kerning Party Quest, and had not yet returned to this spot, where they had promised to meet. Where was he? She glanced up at the sky as it faded, and the clouds masked the dawning starscape once again. Then, looking ahead at the building before her, she gave a scream. A dark figure, completely black-clothed, was perched on the parapet of the second level, eyes peering from over a black mask at her. The man leapt down. He was taller than she; hair black as the night sky, eyes narrowed. Instantly, she recognized him for who he was. “D-Dark Lord…” Ralinn’s gasp faded in her throat. The man pulled off his mask and smiled sadly. He was incredibly handsome. Ralinn tried not to meet his gaze. He looked to be in his twenties, but there was experience in his eyes that far surpassed that age. “Athena Pierce’s student?” he asked, coming closer and eyeing her bow, which she gripped tighter.. “Her close friend too,” Ralinn replied, as if saying so would raise her status in the eyes of the thief Job Master. It did. The Dark Lord walked a circle around her, eyes still filled with sadness she could not understand. “I miss her,” he sighed. “She is fine, isn’t she?” Slightly surprised at the emotion in his voice, she nodded. She had recognized it instantly as love. Is it possible…? “Glad to know,” was his reserved reply. “Whom are you waiting for? You have been here for a long time.” “Have you been watching me so long?” she asked, taken aback. “I’m…waiting for my brother. He’s at the Kerning Party Quest.” He nodded. “I don’t know why, but…I can sense a grand, epic future for you,” he said. “You might come close to death more than once. So I grant you my blessing.” Before Ralinn had registered what he had said, he had taken her face in his hands, as Athena had done in her job advancements. A jolt of black shot through her eyes, and she shivered, feeling the darkness infuse her entire body. “Don’t take this blessing figuratively, as most are,” he advised. “When you require my power, think of me, think of this day, and I will be there to help you.” Ralinn gasped softly, and opened her mouth to thank the Dark Lord, but the instant the words were in her throat, he had vanished into the deep evening, leaving not even a trail of footprints in the snow. “Ralinn! Ralinn, there you are!” the familiar voice brought a smile to her lips as she whipped around, to see her brother racing towards them, leading another boy around his age towards her. The boys came to stop before her, panting hard as if they had sprinted all the way. The first thing Ralinn noticed about her brother’s companion was his golden hair, light even in the sunset.
He looked up at her face, looking strangely afraid of her. “Uh…you’re…Raydan’s sister?” he inquired nervously. “Ralinn?” Ralinn nodded. He paused, thinking. “It’s you! Athena Pierce wishes to say hello to you!” his exclamation was amazingly loud, as compared to how softly and fearfully he had spoken earlier. His voice reverted to its original volume instantly. “Hi, I’m—I’m Zethis…” “Nice to meet you, Zethis,” Ralinn replied, feeling a little self-conscious because of his nervousness. “He wants to join your guild,” Raydan cut in. Suddenly, she recalled the voice, the second, soft voice. “Find me, guide me, lead my blindness Grant the wishes in my heart. Hold your smile, show me your kindness Stay by me, right from the start.” Had that been his voice? “Do you wish to put an end to the suffering in Victoria Island?” she questioned. He nodded, eyes bright with light she rarely saw in anyone’s. So, in the midst of the snowy nightfall, she put the pendant round his neck, and it was done. The third member had been found. end of the year Zethis, Raydan and Ralinn stood in the snow, still for a few moments, watching the dance of the stars. Ketara peered out of the window from behind Dances with Balrog’s messy desk, taking a momentary break from his tiring chore. Shirion watched the clouds uncover the sickle-moon from the branch of an Ellinian tree, praying on the starlight for freedom. Turino and Telida lay sleepless in a hollow, the snow and the sky shaded from them by the ancient, tangled branches. Akera lay sleeping in a hidden shed within the abandoned fields of Henesys, eyes closed from the faint lights above, ever watching, ever singing their lullabies. It is only a matter if time before everything starts to happen. Enter the Year of the Pig. Chapter 3: Year of the Pig lanoré: companion Alone, the seventeen-year-old Ice Lightning Mage ascended the hill. The letter had given her this address, so it must be this place. All around her, there was the amazing, refreshing aroma of flowers and dew, the sweetness filling her with joy. Yes, the world was darkening, but why not enjoy the beauty that still existed while it lasted? At last, standing at the top of the windy hill, she found herself facing the mansion of a rich man—not something she had expected. So…my applicant is from a rich family?
She knocked on the door, not nervous, for she knew that she had no reason to fear them—she was far above their level of skill, anyway… “Please come in,” a man wearing a uniform welcomed her into the posh place. She removed her shoes and stepped upon the expensive marble flooring of the mansion. Lanoré took a quick glance around to assess her surroundings—immaculate, wellarranged furniture—shelves of books and ornaments, tables— all around the entrance hall, the walls made of beautiful beige rock. Around the hall, there were tall hardwood doors, which undoubtedly led on to other rooms on that level. Moments later, she glanced back at the man, to find that he was already on the way to the spiral staircase at the end of the room. Quickly, she followed, leaving the entrance hall behind. The owners of the house were there to greet her, at the top of the marble stairs. Three stood there—a man of about thirty-five years of age, his hair short and brown, arms structured like a bowman’s, a woman with long blonde hair held by a pink lace ribbon, and a girl of about ten, her hair the same brown as her father’s, a look of curiosity mingled with uncertainty in her eyes. “Good morning, Sir and Madams,” she greeted them, bowing. “I am Lanoré, pleased to meet you.” “The Silver Fang of El Nath,” she heard the woman gasp. “Yes, yes, our daughter would like to become your assistant!” She looked excited all of a sudden. Was it really such a great thing to be her assistant? The girl stepped forward nervously. “I’m Clynine,” she said softly. Lanoré examined her face—straight brown hair framed her somewhat pretty face, her brown eyes searching the Ice Lightning Mage with equal interest as she did the girl’s. “What is your job?” Lanoré inquired. “Magician, level sixteen,” she replied hopefully. Lanoré could see the deep want in her eyes to become her assistant. At least twenty had applied for the job; she had turned down the last ten or so. She was powerful, she did not deny it, but she had not expected so many to want to be her assistant. Why she needed one, she had never had a clear reason. It was simply the fact that she would need someone to help her if she was to be able to face greater enemies in the future, and somehow purge El Nath of the king of Victoria Island’s guards. So many had proven unworthy already. Would she be another of them? Lanoré didn’t enjoy having to turn so many down, all whom she had found not strong enough to be deserving. She would find out soon. “Clynine, perform any spell,” she said. Her parents looked at her strangely, but she did not look away. After some hesitation, Clynine began to glance about for her staff. No staff anywhere. She raised her hands anyway, and pulled back her sleeves. Without a staff? Lanoré mused. This will be interesting. The girl performed what might have been an energy bolt. But in every respect it was not one—it was too bright, not the usual blue, but white as daylight, and brighter than the sun. “Was that an Energy Bolt?” the mage asked, impressed, to say the least. She nodded, eyes cast down. “I…I did it wrong again.” Her eyes were downcast, her hands clasped behind her
back. Lanoré came closer and shook her head. “Clynine, that is the most amazing Energy Bolt I’ve ever seen in my life.” The young mage looked up into the Ice Lightning mage’s eyes, wondering, amazed and incredulous. “B-but it was white, “she replied. “I never do it right. How could you think that it was good?” “It’s not about the colour,” Lanoré replied smiling, placing an arm on her shoulder. “Others are only able to form bolts of untamed energy. But you have learnt to direct the powers of light and cancel the others. You are gifted in light magic.” She looked up at the ceiling, thinking. She was special—an extremely small number of mages could direct a specific type of magic at such a low level of training. “I like that.” Her parents looked on hopefully, and Clynine herself looked at her interlocked fingers, pale with the cold. The moment of tension finally broke. Lanoré took her hand and bowed. “You have such a gifted daughter,” she commended the mage’s parents. “She is worthy. From today onwards, she will be my assistant.” Her parents were suddenly crying tears of joy, hugging their daughter and telling her to be a good girl. “I told you it was nothing to worry about,” her father gasped, Clynine in his arms. “You do us proud, alright?” Clynine looked up tearfully. “Will I get to see you again?” she asked, holding him tightly. Both her parents smiled, her father ruffling her hair. “Of course, darling,” he replied. “We’ll be here, waiting for you and Lanoré to come back, after you two defeat the king’s guards.” By evening, she had her bag packed. Lanoré waited at the bottom of the stairs, and when she came, tears still stained her cheeks. Her staff was in her right hand now, the wood carved skilfully. “We’ll be here,” her parents promised once again, at the middle of the spiral staircase. She waved, and together, the two went to the door, stepped out; Clynine turned back and waved once more. Then the spring evening surrounded them, the petals that fluttered through the sunset, the blades of grass that swayed at the wind’s brush, and the sweet smells of an ending day, a dawning year. “Come, we’re going back to El Nath.” And they began. shirion: blood, sweat and tears Level seventy. Finally. Panting as he pulled himself to the heights of Perion, blood-drenched and newly revived by his level-up, Shirion knew that it meant he was ready for his third job. He had laboured day and night for a year, since escape, training, sometimes, till his body could move no longer. Now, the fruits of his labour had been borne. Thirty levels in two years was no easy feat. He now saw the scars and marks that battling monsters above his level had left on him. He had survived battle after battle —at the last moment, he had always felt a sudden surge of energy within his body, and each time, it had saved him from near-certain death.
Who cared how he had come to his seventieth level? He had made it. Now, he would head to the Warrior’s Sanctuary and take his third job test. It wasn’t far. A day of travelling got the Crusader-to-be to his destination. By the end of the day, he had ascended and descended four peaks of the range, even the summer afternoon air not enough to warm away the cold that came from the high altitudes. “Shirion! It’s been such a long time! How are you?” The Warrior Job Master was smiling as he opened the door. “You’re here to become a Crusader, I’d suppose. You are fast. I always knew that you would rise faster than other warriors do!” Shirion did not return the smile. “Yes,” he replied in one word. “When can I start?” Dances with Balrog nodded slowly. “You are very intent on advancing, I see,” he commented, smiling at the boy. “Well, come in and take a rest first; you look worn out.” Grateful that the chief had offered, Shirion entered the Sanctuary and glanced about —everything was in its place, just as it had all been four years ago, when he had last visited. But, he also came to notice, everything was tidy—his scrolls were neatly shelved, his books piled in a corner on a shelf he had never noticed before. Dances with Balrog noted his wondering gaze. He grinned. “My secretary has done quite a neat job, hasn’t he?” “Secretary?” His voice was more surprised as he had hoped it would come out. “Ketara, nice boy he is. He wanted to join the tribe, but changed his mind after he went to the Dungeon,” the Job Master replied. “He’s restocking his potions right now. Should be back any time now…” Shirion took in what he had just been told. “Sounds like a girl’s name,” he said. “Ketara. Keta-ra.” No matter how he tried to pronounce it, it sounded like a girl’s name. About ten minutes after their conversation began, there was another knock on the door. Dances with Balrog went instantly to answer it, and he returned to the centre of the room with another boy. He looked to be about thirteen, his hair dark brown, almost as dark as black, the colour of ebony, falling up to his shoulders. His fringe covered his eyebrows, his charming face in a wide smile to see Shirion. “Hey there! Who’re you?” His exclamation would have sounded rude if said by anyone else, but not by his voice. “Hello, I’m Shirion,” he introduced himself to the smiling boy, a warrior, from the looks of it. “I’m here to become a Crusader. You must be Ketara, Dances with Balrog’s secretary?” He nodded brightly. “A Fighter? Oh, you’re the ones who use swords and axes, aren’t you?” He glanced down at Shirion’s sword and watched it as if it might move of its own accord. “I’m a Spearman. Good luck on your third job advancement, by the way!” Ketara initially came across as very childish, especially for a thirteen year old. But somehow, Shirion could see, in his mannerisms, that Ketara knew and had seen more than what an ordinary second-job warrior had. Shirion had always been a good judge of character, he admitted to himself. He had watched people for his entire life, and he knew from his actions that Ketara was actually a mature boy, though his love for meeting new people probably overrode that at the moment.
And then, there was some strange, silent suffering behind that gaze of his… The secretary turned back to Dances with Balrog, and they began a small conversation about the prices of goods at the potion shop. He never stopped smiling as they spoke, and he treated the chief as his equal, not a superior, Shirion noted. “So now, I have a job advancement to attend to,” Dances with Balrog announced, standing. “Come with—” Suddenly, Ketara gave a loud gasp and staggered back from the pit of fire at the centre of the Sanctuary. He held his head in his hands and shook his head hard, blinking. “What…what was—” His words were hardly audible. “Ketara?” Shirion called tentatively. The Spearman forced a smile and sighed. “It was nothing, really. Just one of my regular—faint attacks.” Shirion wondered why he would be saying something then, if he were about to faint. But he decided not to pursue that trivial matter. Dances with Balrog who, had stood aside all the while, came forward. “You sure, Ketara?” The boy nodded. “Alright then, Shirion,” he turned his eyes to the Fighter. “Come with me.” Shirion nodded and stood from his seat, allowing the Warrior Job Master to lead him. The peaks and points of the Perion skyline became familiar immediately. He kept his eyes on Dances with Balrog’s back, and vaguely wondered how the chief survived with such thin clothes. But that thought was championed by the growing nervousness that expanded steadily in his heart. How long had it been since he had taken the second job test? That one had been hard, to say the least. Would this one be similar? “Here,” the chief said, coming to stop along one of the pathways. He turned to the left, to the mountainside, and Shirion saw the cave mouth that gaped in the rock face. Just then, Dances with Balrog gave a small curse, and the youth felt the man’s powerful, weapon-worn arm drag him aside. “King’s policemen,” he whispered as Shirion found himself behind a corner of the cliff. He saw the men riding through the mountain pathways below, towards the tents beyond. He knew the need for silence—job advancements were an illegal procedure, under a law the king had passed at least ten years ago, or so he had heard. They took a while to leave this side of the mountain, both holding their breaths as they watched. All Shirion could hear was his heartbeat and breathing, both in messily superimposed rhythms. Someday, you will be gone, he thought darkly as they marched away. You will leave Victoria Island as it should be. Free. He felt a tug on his arm. “Follow now.” He trailed Dances with Balrog to the cave, his movements suddenly wary. They came to a stop at the mouth. Shirion glanced in, but didn’t say anything. His heartbeat ruled everything else as his hands grew progressively sweatier as he prospected about his third job advancement. The Job Master’s instructions were simple enough. “Go in, kill what you find, and take the Black Charm that you obtain.” But in that cave, he knew, awaited a terrible challenge, one that he possibly might not survive.
“What if I die in there?” he asked, voicing his worries. The chief shook his head with amusement. "No, you can't die, of course. The creature has been made such that it will not kill you." While Shirion's mouth fell open, the Job Master walked a little way into the cave. He turned back. "You want your third job, don't you?" That reminder was all he needed. The Crusader-to-be shut his eyes for a few seconds and breathed in, trying, failing, to calm himself. Then he ran and left the brightness of the sun behind, with only his armour and sword to protect him now. The darkness went on for a few minutes, and Shirion groped blindly down the walls, trusting that one sense to take him to the heart where his battle waited, for that was all he had in this blindness. The walls were silent and the distances concealing. Slowly, brightness gradually lit his vision. It came so slowly that he did not realize until it was lightly cast against the walls around him, at his fingers, and he became aware that he could dimly see the shadow of his hand. Then he came into a wider pathway, where growths of crystal dotted the walls. The torches came into view soon, casting their light on the shiny minerals that made up the entire walls. Shirion glanced up. He had heard a growl. He gasped. Before him, in person, stood Dances with Balrog. Now, he had a shining green weapon in his hand, one he had never seen before, he was sure. “D-Dances with Balrog? How did you get here—” He didn’t say a word, only leapt forward in the changing torchlight, axe shining for a moment in his eyes before he swung out to parry it with his own sword. The weapons clanged loudly on each other, and the chief, or at least what appeared to be him, stepped back, face showing no signs of any emotions. Shirion, too, stood back for a moment, shocked. “Chief Dances with Balrog,” he repeated worriedly. He didn’t understand what was going on. What was the Job Master doing in the cave, when he had just seen him outside a few minutes ago? He had not heard anyone pass him while he had been on the way. His momentary lapse of attention cost him an injury. Dances with Balrog had lost every dredge of emotion, and had given him a sharp blow in his right leg. Shirion whirled around and faced the creature. He was sure it wasn’t the Job Master. The battle was swift, leaving no time for careful consideration before the next blow had to be made. No chances could be passed over, every wasted moment a threat to his existence. But he couldn’t allow that thought to distract him. Regardless of the appearance of his foe, he knew that he had to fight like it were a real enemy, like the creature wasn’t human, for it was what held the quarry of his search. The chief-look-alike knew how to battle as well as the real one did. They fought constantly, Shirion knowing that a single mistake would end his attempt to reach his long awaited, hard-fought-for third job. All that work he had put in that year, rising from level 45 to level 70…he couldn’t let it go to waste… If it was a replica of a human, the Fighter thought grimly, it had the same weaknesses as one. It would die if he struck its neck, or heart, probably... This new revelation stuck in his mind. His strokes were more directed now, with the assurance that this thing had a weakness, that it could die as well. What it was to him, he was to it. He had the strength it had, from all his battles with the drakes of
the mountains. It was now a matter of who struck the killing blow first. Shirion’s sword tore the replica’s skin many times, but it drew no blood, none of the red liquid that only ran in real humans’ flesh. Its weapon tore his clothes many times, crushed against his armour, ripped his skin a few times. It was nothing; the pain was nothing compared to the dig of dragon fangs, or the tear of their claws. The battle was too simple. He didn’t feel tired. The fight went on almost half an hour, neither giving the other any chance to gain the upper hand. No, it won’t defeat me, not this mindless creature, Shirion’s mental voice snarling through his brain as his reflexes pulled him away from another potentially fatal strike. Exhaustion was just beginning, but it was not enough to weaken the determined Fighter. Shirion took a plunge as the fake Dances with Balrog closed in for another attack. The axe blade swung past his head and sank into his shoulder the moment his own sword ran the clone through the chest and tore back out again. Moments later, he doubled back, the pain just beginning to creep outwards from the wound in his shoulder. Shirion heard a burst of air. He glanced forward and saw the cloud of white that surrounded the disintegrating clone, before it vanished into a crude white paper cutout of a featureless human, and there was a clatter on the ground ahead. The fighter stepped forward, disregarding the growing pain that was coming from the wound. The Black Charm lay where the clone had been seconds ago. Shirion lifted it with his left hand and held it tightly, not smiling, but rejoicing in his own mind. He felt a trickle of warmth down his back and he turned to inspect the joint of his shoulder. Blood bloomed along his sleeve, a dark patch under the torchlight. It looked more painful than it really was. His armour had failed to guard it well enough. But he had succeeded. It had been easier than he had expected. “Chief Dances with Balrog, I’ve got it,” he called as the point of light that marked the exit grew wider in the distance. “As I expected,” came his bright reply. ralinn: third song Ralinn suddenly found herself awake in the darkness of the cave that had been her home for days already, since she had arrived in this section of Perion. The third song was still fresh in her mind. She had awoken as it had ended, and she pondered its words again. “Under joy I hide the darkness, I’m afraid of what is true. Carefree spirit marred by terror— Take me to a life anew.” These words were the most alarming yet. Was this person hiding something so painful? Then they had better hurry and find the person soon… They’ll come, she thought. We’ll find this person, sooner or later. Ralinn knew that fate would cross their paths. And it had sounded amazingly close, as if the next guild member was within a day’s walk from where she sat at that
moment. zethis: return to the bloody grounds The time had finally come, when he could finally return rightfully to Perion with something to claim—he was eligible for the second job advancement, at last. It was all so strange to Zethis. He had begun his journey expecting nothing, seeming to be nothing himself—but he had gone so far in the course of three years. He had yet to visit Ellinia and Sleepywood, but that was all. He now wielded a hammer, when all he had ever held before ten years old was a gardening hoe. So he was twelve now, and so much stronger, so much more than he had been before. I hope Father is still alright. Even if he isn’t my real father. The warrior had not forgotten his decision. A knight he would become, when the time came. Just like the youth who had assisted him on the first day of his journey. And when he returned to his home, he would help Father at home, and care for him better than the middle-aged man had cared for Zethis himself. Zethis had lived with Ralinn and Raydan since the last winter, when he had first met the younger of the two at the Kerning Party Quest. They were both so kind, the same with their parents—had taken him in so graciously, fed him, kept him warm and safe, even helped him enjoy himself. The siblings had decided to travel again, Raydan having reached level thirty at the end of the previous year. He had left for Henesys already, while Zethis and Ralinn had gone their own way north of Kerning, towards Perion, in anticipation of his reaching level thirty. Now he had made it—it had been at least three days already. Now, they were climbing the last slope of the mountainside in the late afternoon, the village of tents and rock already in view from below. Ralinn pulled herself up onto a ledge slightly higher than her shoulders. She was surprisingly agile, and Zethis, though only a few inches shorter than her, could hardly get onto the same ledge, for all the armour he wore. “On the count of three,” the huntress called down, taking firm hold of his hands as he reached upwards. At her command, he attempted to get a foothold on the short rock wall, while Ralinn pulled him upwards. This was at least the tenth time she had had to help him up, and he found it embarrassing, in the least. Zethis managed an exhausted smile as his feet finally reached the top of the ledge. With Ralinn around, he felt a lot less nervous of travelling, especially in these treacherous areas. She was already close to level sixty, and a lot more powerful than any monster in the domain. From then on, the path ran smoothly over the mountainside, straight to the tribal settlement. Zethis looked up at the Warrior’s Sanctuary, perched high on the majestic mountaintop, and sighed when he saw what a hard climb it was there. “Don’t let exhaustion keep you from getting there,” Ralinn encouraged him. “You’ll get to rest a while before you take the test, I’m sure. And I’ll be going too!” The warrior nodded, and they made their way towards the long pathway that wound around the mountain. It took barely half an hour. The two arrived, panting from all the climbing, at the door of the Sanctuary.
“Well, go ahead,” Ralinn said from beside him. Zethis knocked, his hand, his entire body shaking with a sudden attack of nerves. His fist made a resounding knock on the door and his heartbeat quickened double. Oh no, no, I’m not ready for this! The replying swing of the door was not the confident one he had seen the last time he had come. “Um…yes?” The voice definitely did not belong to Dances with Balrog—it sounded more like a youth whose voice had broken recently. Zethis glanced in, puzzled. A teenager about a year older than him poked his head out the door, a smile instantly lighting up his face. “Here for first job? Second job? Come in! Dances with Balrog isn’t back yet; he’s with some other guy at his third job advancement, and I’m getting kinda bored. Come on in and take a seat! You both look exhausted!” Zethis and Ralinn glanced at each other with surprise. The boy opened the door wider and invited them in again. They followed him into the Sanctuary and sat down on the stone benches at the side. Zethis assessed his appearance quickly—straight black hair that reached his shoulders, eyes about the same colour as Zethis’ own— dark brown—and a face that could make girls swoon. “I haven’t introduced myself properly yet,” he went on quickly. “I’m Dances with Balrog’s new secretary, Ketara.” “That sounds like a girl’s name.” Ralinn couldn’t help herself, it seemed. To Zethis’ shock, Ketara smiled. “I get that a lot,” he replied and looked up at the ceiling, as if counting. “You’re the eleventh person this week to say that!” He was beaming. “So…who are you, and why are you here?” “I’m Ralinn, and I’m actually here to escort Zethis to his second job advancement,” she introduced herself. Zethis looked down and blushed from embarrassment. “Y—yeah…I’m here to—” he began, then lost all confidence in himself. “Second job? Fighter, Spearman or page?” the secretary asked. “I’m a Spearman!” Thankfully, Ralinn answered for him. “He wants to become a page,” she told the boy. “And he’s—not very good at talking to strangers.” From what Zethis had gathered, this Ketara was the direct opposite. “Good luck on it, then,” he replied, sitting down on the bench as well. “Meanwhile, can you stay here a while? I’m going to bore myself to death counting his scrolls!” Ralinn shrugged and nodded. Zethis just nodded. “So…how did you end up being Dances with Balrog’s secretary?” Ketara began narrating his tale about his second job advancement, and Zethis quickly took in all the details. Fire Boars, Lupins, Dark Marbles…the test sounded tough. Perhaps he wouldn’t even make it through… “Then the last fireboar fell at my spear point, and the marble came out of its mouth. I was done! So I went up to the mountaintop, where Dances with Balrog made me into a Spearman. And…he asked me if I wanted to be his secretary,” he finished anticlimactically. “I don’t have anything to do, so I agreed. And it isn’t very easy…” Ralinn seemed interested in something else. “Why did you want to join the tribe?”
she questioned wonderingly. Ketara sighed, and for the first time, his smile disappeared. “I wanted…a…home,” he answered cryptically. “I don’t actually know who my real parents are. But—” He didn’t seem to want to go on. But he fought that down and continued to explain. “The only memory I have of my past is of this weird witch…and I’m really starting to think that that I—I’m not a human…that I’m that woman’s creation…” He looked terrified now. Suddenly, Zethis found his voice. “You can’t be! You’re very nice…” “I don’t know…” Ketara said, turning away. “It’s possible. Maybe I’m a product of some witch’s experiment…” Ralinn glanced out the door, which still hung ajar. “It’s getting late,” she said with a sigh. Indeed, the light from outside was turning a shade of gold, and perhaps this Shirion would return only late at night—which meant that they would have to stay for one night at the Warrior’s Sanctuary… Night came upon the stone monument of a building soon enough. Maybe the third job test was almost impossible, and Shirion was stuck. Zethis hoped this wasn’t the case, for many reasons. “It seems you’ll have to stay here till tomorrow morning,” Ketara said, sounding wary, as he returned from the shop with their dinners. He glanced quickly through the doorway and slammed the door shut. “The guards are searching again…they come every week, hoping that they will somehow find the Sanctuary…thank goodness for Dances with Balrog’s invisibility charm—they won’t find us, as long as it’s up, and the door’s closed.” “That king is a jerk,” Ralinn commented angrily. “What does he think he’s doing by making us all feel afraid and disallowing job advancements? Afraid that someday, the people will rebel?” Zethis turned to her. That was what they were planning to do, one day. “Exactly,” Ketara replied, sitting down with the food and passing it to them. “Though it is a smart move to keep all the most powerful people in hiding. They won’t be able to gain enough support to build up a rebel force, and the people will all be less willing to fight…” The huntress nodded. “If no one does anything…I don’t know how much longer we have to suffer.” We’ll do something, Zethis thought, anger suddenly rising in his throat. A sudden knock on the huge door fully awakened the three, who were about to fall asleep. “Shirion has succeeded!” the chief’s jubilatory voice made them all turn as he stepped in, a tall youth of about fifteen years of age following him in, holding his own shoulder tightly. He had long hair, brown in the firelight of the central pit, tied loosely by a strip of torn cloth. Zethis suddenly noticed the dark patch of deep red where his hand touched the fabric, and he gasped, looking away. “Does he need potions?” Ketara quickly suggested helpfully, running over to the injured youth, bottles of white liquid in hand. Dances with Balrog turned to the warrior behind him, who nodded wearily. Zethis and Ralinn watched them, not knowing what to do in this situation. A minute
later, Shirion walked slowly over to the same bench on which they sat, taking a seat on Ralinn’s right. “Congratulations,” she murmured to him. Now, Zethis noticed the numerous deep scratches drawn prominently across his skin. The battle must have been very hard on him. Shirion turned and managed a weak smile at the two. “It wasn’t…too bad,” he said in a small sigh. “Well, you made it, then,” Ralinn replied. “Now, you’re a—” “Crusader,” he answered simply, taking off the shoulder pieces of his armour. “I’m Shirion, level seventy Crusader…pleased to meet you.” “Wait for me!” Ketara called out, running over to the small gathering. “You all know me already…but anyway,” he turned to Shirion. “Zethis, and Ralinn. Zethis is here for his second job advancement.” “Y—yeah, I am…” he took one look into the Crusader’s dark brown eyes and lowered his gaze quickly—it was so piercing and intrusive, as if he were trying to see into his mind, and read something of the whirl of thoughts spinning in his head. “Ralinn, level fifty-eight hunter,” Zethis’ companion introduced herself to everyone. “Are you fifteen?” Shirion suddenly questioned. She was startled for a moment, then nodded, slightly puzzled. He cocked his head to a side. “Well, so am I.” The huntress looked down. “You’re twelve levels higher than me,” she commented. “I think I’m not training hard enough.” “No, no, I’ve been training like crazy, that’s all. I wanted my third job fast; I’ve been waiting to get it for years…since I was first recaptured after escaping the stupid guards at the Ellinia Station.” Ralinn’s eyes suddenly widened, and she smiled. “Recaptured? …Wow, I was captured by guards too. But only for three years, before I escaped.” The conversation inevitably led on to all their pasts, and that night, everyone learnt something of each of the others’ history and experiences under the tyranny of King Caleix, came to understand each other better. How Shirion had been born into the slave team of the Ellinia Station, how he had escaped and been on the run for three years, before he had been found and brought back into captivity. How Ralinn had been taken from home at five, escaped at eight, and trained in secret from then on. How Ketara had been found in the forest, just as Zethis himself had, and had been brought up by a fairy of Ellinia, who kept him in safe hiding from the king’s lawenforcers, before beginning his secret journey, through Perion, the Dungeon and back. And Zethis told his own part—of how he had learnt the truth of his parentage, of how he had gone to Henesys, been allowed through by the young guard leader that day, been advised by Athena Pierce to turn his sights to Kerning City. By the end, they knew so much about each other, when they had been mere strangers, brought together by a chance meeting that day. Whether it had truly been chance or not, Zethis was now unsure—for somehow, he had the feeling that this
had been meant to happen all along. All slept on the floor of the Warrior’s Sanctuary that day, the ground kept warm by the constant flow of magma below the rock. It had been a long day; Zethis fell asleep with no problems. Somehow, the warrior woke up early the next morning. Perhaps it was the nervousness that the thoughts of his second job test had instilled subconsciously in him. Perhaps it was just the stirring, confusing turn of events of the previous day. Two new people in a day! And he had not handled either of the meetings well either. Whatever it was, he was wide awake at least an hour before dawn. Standing and giving himself a long stretch, Zethis took a glimpse around the room— Shirion had already left; the newly-made Crusader had woken up even earlier than Zethis had. Then he shuffled over to the door and took a glance at the sky of the last hour of the night. Far ahead, he suddenly noticed the silhouette of the chief’s muscular figure, far out at the edge of the mountaintop, surveying the dim, misty horizon. He timidly turned around, but Dances with Balrog’s voice stopped him. “Are you ready for the second job test?” Zethis was alarmed for a few moments. Without turning again, he nodded, the nervous chills returning in a sudden tide. Would he make it? Would he die in the process? Did he have the capability to pass the test? The Job Master came before him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Everyone is afraid before they face a test,” he reassured the warrior. Zethis nodded slowly, still not sure if he wanted to do this. I’ll have to do it one day, if I want to become a White Knight any time soon, he reminded himself. Alright, then. “Can I take a bath and have breakfast first?” he asked softly, watching the mist as it whirled around in Perion’s firelight. Dances with Balrog stifled his laughter, and nodded. “You’ll need it—you’ll be ten times dirtier and hungrier by the time you come out.” ralinn: surprising realization The huntress sat bolt upright from her pallet, which had provided her with quite a comfortable sleep—good enough for her dream to recur. The song was singing deafeningly in her ears, even though she had been awake for at least a minute already. “Under joy I hide the darkness, I’m afraid of what is true. Carefree spirit marred by terror— Take me to a life anew.” Again, she was shuddering with strange terror, as if the ground were shaking below her feet. If this was what that person felt, then he—she could tell his gender from his voice—must be suffering. What is true? Hiding darkness…under joy? She was truly wondering now, and at the same time fearing for his well-being. Was it
important that he be found soon? And what was this “truth” that he feared? This song was so cryptic, compared to the rest. “Good morning, Ralinn!” Her head turned instantly to the voice, and she realised that she was alone on the huge stone floor with Ketara, who looked very bright, despite having woken up just moments ago. The other three pallets were empty; Dances with Balrog, Shirion and Zethis were all gone. The Spearman stood and began to fold up the covers, thinking aloud to himself about how everyone had woken up so early. Ralinn followed suit, and while she struggled with the rough brown cloth, Ketara did the other three. “Do you do this for Chief Dances with Balrog all the time?” she asked. “He’s pretty busy, and since I don’t have much to do for him—most of his stuff is tidied up, ‘cos he never uses it…yeah, I help him keep the place tidy.” Ralinn tried not to giggle. “That’s a maid’s job, isn’t it?” she inquired. “Well…I don’t have a home, so I’ve got to stay here, and since I’m here, I might as well make myself useful,” was his sensible reply. The huntress looked up at the blank stone ceiling and nodded. “No home…what happened to your fairy foster-mother?” “I decided to go and get my first job. When I went back to check on her, she was gone. All the fairies were…it’s that king’s fault.” He sighed, but there was not a trace of anger, no fury in his voice or gaze. Maybe he was the kind who could never be angry. But if he had a chance to help end it all, would he take it…? Fear. Hiding. He was the one. Suddenly, Ralinn’s eyes widened, and she came over to him, trying to calculate the chances that this was who the voice belonged to, that Ketara would be the fourth member of Orion’s Belt… Afraid of what is true. What is true…his real parents? Who he really is? Hiding…under a carefree façade… “Ketara…do you want a chance to put it to an end?” Ralinn began as she always did with the other two members. “Do you want this pointless oppression to stop?” Ketara looked up at her, blinking. “Wha—yeah, I would,” he replied, confused. “Why the serious look?” She took a pendant from her pocket, took his right hand, and pressed it into his palm, making his eyes widen even more. “I own a guild,” she explained. “Someday, we’re going to change everything…somehow. End the king’s rule. It wasn’t my idea; a voice told me…in a dream.” “In a dream?” Ketara looked on wonderingly, then looked down at the pendant in his palm, which would mark his membership in the guild, should he choose to put it on. He shrugged, then slipped it around his neck. Ralinn smiled. “Welcome to Orion’s Belt,” she said warmly. The Spearman nodded and grinned, and Ralinn thought vaguely that his smiles were the most charming she had ever seen before. “So…a rebellion group?” he mused, pacing about. “I wonder when we’ll be even half ready to face those hundreds of guards out there…”
Suddenly, Ralinn wondered too. Would ten really be enough to face hundreds? If the “voice” had managed to coerce Hercule into forming the guild for free, then what did it know of what was in store for them? She nodded in response. “I wonder too…but I’m sure it will be alright in the end. There’ll be a way, and that’s the way we’ll take. And as for when we’ll be ready… we’ve got six more members to find.” zethis: exhaustion He had never expected anything like this. A test of strength, maybe, but definitely not—this. He was exhausted, half-wasted with tiredness, and he now stood in hiding within a natural alcove of the rock wall, four Dark Marbles in his pocket. The sun was growing higher, and noon would break forth with all its force soon. The smell of animal sweat filled his nose, even here, away from the monsters. I’m never going to make it, he thought as he panted deeply, lungs fighting for so much as a whiff of fresh, clean air. “You can do it!” he exclaimed to himself. The creatures beyond his hiding place turned upon his shout and charged, all at once. He tried not to shout out in terror as the hammer swung forward in a reflex defending action. Careful! He warned himself as he fought each monster down, one by one, glad that the narrow gap in the rock only allowed one monster in at a time, and restricted movement for both him and his foe. As he battered the Lupin that stood before him, leaping to avoid the banana skins that flew at him, Zethis wondered for a few instants where the monkeys got all those bananas from, and how they could eat them so cursedly fast. But that was the least of his worries. There were banana peels all over the hole now, and he would start slipping on them soon. The warrior exclaimed in triumph as two Lupins fell before him after taking a long battering from him. Both dropped Dark Marbles from their gaping mouths, and he bent to pick them up. Seven now. It had already been more than an hour. How long more would it take to gain thirty? It would take four hours more. Every moment of the way, Zethis thought he would never survive, never pass the test. He refused to let himself fall. He would not, not after he had come this far, lived two years from home, travelled distances he had never been able to imagine before. The late afternoon was passing. The warrior leaned on the rock, having come out of hiding hours ago. He was sweating profusely under the burning rays of the sun, tired beyond anything he could describe. He felt as if his feet were leaden, but he could still move by force of determination to get through this ordeal. The monsters were lessening. When they had crowded and swarmed before his eyes earlier, only a few sparsely distributed creatures ran around below his ledge now. He only had three more Dark Marbles to find. Zethis allowed himself to relax for a few moments. He smiled. He had done so well! Never had he thought he would get this far. He was proud of himself for not giving in to exhaustion and asking to forfeit the challenge. Dances with Balrog. The warrior looked up the cliff face down which he had come, wondering if the chief had been waiting all along. I can’t keep him waiting any
longer! Then he leapt down to stand among the last monsters, sudden new energy flooding his senses, energy born of the assurance that he had succeeded. The battle began, and ended minutes later. “Dances with Balrog!” he called, scaling the rocks, ignoring the scrapes he got from the jagged edges of the beige rock. He had done it, at last. All thirty Dark Marbles, safely in his pocket. The Job Master had been waiting for him all along. Dances with Balrog looked down from where he stood to see Zethis, who climbed all the faster. “I had the feeling you’d take this short to finish,” he commented, much to the warrior’s surprise. “Short?” he repeated. “It took hours!” “An hour less than others usually do. Except for…there are four of you who took so short. Thaemis, the first…she rose to fame, but she’s—vanished. Then Shirion, and Ketara…and you too.” Hearing the two familiar names, he looked up at Dances with Balrog’s face, surprised, and wondering. Ketara hadn’t seemed like the kind with extraordinary strength or skill. But neither did he, and what Dances with Balrog had said was probably the truth… It was too much to think of himself as anyone great. It seemed too far-fetched— impossible! He had never been anything more than a son, a foster son, and a boy with unreachable dreams. Why should that change because of something he had heard? He couldn’t allow his hopes about himself to rise. He doubted he would ever be great. But for now, he felt only joy and pride that he had passed the test. My first test! It truly felt wonderful to know that he had succeeded. “So the time comes to choose your path,” Dances with Balrog said in a tone he had never heard him speak in before, except during his first job advancement. “Which do you wish to choose? The path of a Fighter, the path of a Spearman, or the path of a Page?” “I want to be a Page,” Zethis said with conviction, suddenly sure, for the first time in his life, of something he was choosing. The chief smiled and nodded, and without warning, took the warrior’s face in his hands, touching the brands he had marked in his skin two years ago. “Then, by the Goddess’ power, I name you…a Page.” Zethis couldn’t describe the power that ran through him at that moment, just like the power when he had first become a warrior, that cold winter so many years ago. It was spring now, and he shivered just as much as he had that day, the day he had first gained a clue that he was fated to join Orion’s Belt. Now, he saw something else. He saw a great blackness, so huge and overbearing he knew it existed, not just ordinary darkness. Then out of it, a bright light appeared, turning into a spirit, a girl, who came to his side and made him feel safe all of a sudden, safe from the indescribable danger that he felt looming over them. In a moment, all light returned, and Zethis felt as if he had been thrown backwards. He gasped and looked around, first registering the usual mountainsides, then Dances with Balrog standing before him.
He rubbed his head. “Strange vision…” he said, trying to recall it. “If that’s going to happen in the future, then…I’m really scared.” “With strength like yours, your fate is bound to be tied with danger,” Dances with Balrog told the bewildered boy. “It comes, for some reason. I had to face quite a lot of danger myself, when I was younger.” Zethis did wonder, for a moment, how old Dances with Balrog really was, and he thought again about the Job Master’s past. He had had a life, like any ordinary person. What had he done then? What kinds of adventures had the respectable chief had as a youth? “Come on, we have to get back,” he suddenly called over to the new page. The Job Master was already departing, and Zethis quickly gave chase. They entered the Warrior’s Sanctuary to come face to face with Ketara. “I was starting to wonder when you’d get back,” he exclaimed, excitement running through his features for some reason. “Anyway, Ralinn asked if I could travel with her, and the rest of Orion’s Belt.” Zethis glanced down at the pendant that now hung around the Spearman’s neck. So he was the fourth member? He truly had not expected anything like this. But as for Dances with Balrog and his secretary…they would have to work it out. “Well…” the chief thought for a moment. “It’s time I let you fulfil your potential, really. I know that a lot awaits you, and I have no right to hold you back.” Then he gestured to the desk at the far corner of the Warrior’s Sanctuary, where the scrolls were tidily shelved in the rack. “Besides, you’ve done quite a good job with my belongings.” Ketara grinned brightly. “Does that mean you say yes?” he asked eagerly. Ralinn was secretly smiling at his enthusiasm at the thought of leaving. “Yes, of course,” Dances with Balrog answered. "When do you intend to go?" The Spearman turned to Ralinn. "Anytime you like," she replied. "Though we intend to leave sometime soon; today, perhaps." "Alright, today then!" Zethis wondered if Ketara had been deprived of adventure so badly that he really wanted to leave so much now. He definitely didn't seem suited to being a secretary, with that outgoing personality of his. So they had come with only the hope to obtain Zethis’ second job, and they left with one more member. Things were beginning to get more interesting, now that there were four of them. Ketara was done with his packing early the next morning—it had been too late the day before to continue travelling. “We agreed to meet Raydan in Kerning in three months’ time,” Ralinn told Ketara after explaining that her brother was in Henesys for his second job advancement. “I can’t wait to meet him,” the Spearman replied sincerely. He’d love to meet you too, Zethis thought to himself. The road was clear that day, free of policemen and patrollers, and they did not have to make their movements quick, as they usually did. The journey down the western side of Perion would take them through familiar territory; Zethis had spent more
than a year of his life in that region. But, as they found out, Ketara had only travelled between Perion and Ellinia, as well as Perion and the Dungeon. “I never thought about the world beyond those areas,” he admitted as they trekked down the hidden mountain pathways. “I’ve only ever lived in Ellinia, Perion and the Dungeon…” “Dungeon?” Ralinn questioned. “I’ve only heard stories about it. To think you actually survived there…” “For a year,” Ketara answered with a hint of pride. “I ate raw meat everyday.” He stuck out his tongue and made choking noises. “And there wasn’t even clean water. River water tastes all…plant-y…” Zethis was laughing. Suddenly, he realised that he hadn’t laughed for at least four days already. I think things are really going to get more interesting now, he thought to himself. “Well, three more months, and we’ll be at my home,” Ralinn said, looking ahead again. “Raydan will be there in three months too; we promised to meet then. I wonder how he’s doing now…” raydan: a chance meeting Alone in the strangely empty hunting ground, Raydan glanced about. This area, this area, especially, had always been crowded with people trying to train in parties. Today, it was empty. As the newly-made Crossbowman came down the pathway, he was shocked to find himself facing an empty field of grass. Only snails and mushrooms brooded in the corners of the field, near haystacks and sheds that spanned all the way to the horizon. Where’s everyone? I thought— He didn’t have to wait long to get his answer. A moment later, hands came down on his arms, and there were shouts of commands all around him. “Unauthorised trespasser,” was one shout Raydan heard, as they held his arms firmly against his struggling. He was still stunned. “Get the manacles.” He didn’t even have a chance to fight back, while two metal objects were chained around his wrists, and his arms allowed to drop. He gasped with their weight. “We have made it clear,” one of the men, dressed in policeman garb, announced as he paced around to face Raydan. “None are to enter the Henesys Hunting Ground, with effect from…yesterday. It is a potential breeding ground for chaos. Now march.” As the team of four policemen forced him down the path, he gritted his teeth in frustration, and cursed the absurdity of the monarch. Why couldn’t Caleix give it a rest? It was no crime to be able to train. Perhaps he feared rebellion, but simply by doing such things to the people of his kingdom, he was breeding anger and hate in them. This is why Linn made the guild, he thought defiantly, feeling the pendant that still hung from his neck. Somehow, it’ll change, no matter how long it takes. But right now, he was in a dire situation. Too suddenly, Raydan realised how hard it would be to get out of this fix. Why had he not put up a fight? He felt a little stupid
now. But there was no point in following that train of thought, because it would get him nowhere. “Where are you taking me?” One of the four snarled a reply. “Henesys Square. Where you hang.” Hang? Raydan swallowed nervously. He steeled himself and tried to pull away from the guards with a sudden twist of his arms. They had not been ready for a sudden attempt to escape, and one’s grip on his arm slipped, but the rest managed to keep him in their grasp. “Great strategy, boy,” one said smugly. They resumed their steady walk towards the centre of the town, and Raydan felt the adrenalin rise suddenly in his blood. He was truly trapped now, and for no rhyme or reason. This was so stupid. They had already made it halfway down the main road to the wide plaza that was known as Henesys Square. Raydan, throughout the trip, had come to terms with the notion that he was probably going to die now, and after initial denial, he had come to realise that, suddenly, he was destined down the path of death. He accepted that now, and somehow didn’t feel afraid. Let me be another soul to avenge, when Linn defeats the king! Linn… The moment he had that thought, his unconscious prayers seemed to be answered. It all happened so suddenly. They had been passing by a boulevard with trees on either side, and they had leapt out of hiding—a dozen men, women and youths of all jobs, weapons brandished. Raydan’s thoughtful frown had instantly turned to a stunned smile as they had come upon the four policemen and turned the boulevard into a battlefield. First, two had come to his side, and his chains were suddenly being ground down with blades, belonging to two whose faces he could not see, standing behind him. Then the attack. The flames of throwing stars, bolts of singing thunder and shining arrows as they soared and scattered through the air like deadly wasps, upon the policemen, threw the street into total chaos. There was a maelstrom of shouts and yells of command, cries of injury, all coming from the four king’s servants. “You must be glad we saved you,” a gruff male voice said from behind Raydan as the chains suddenly fell away. The Crossbowman turned his head back instantly to find himself facing a tall, heavily built Crusader with a sword blade held lazily in his left hand. “Well. This—” he gestured to the battle that was rising around them, “—is Nightfall for you. Our guild. I’m the leader.” Raydan followed the man’s gesture with his gaze. “Nightfall…hm,” he said. “Are you against the king as well?” “Yes, and proud to be,” the man told Raydan. “The name’s Pelinor.” “Raydan,” the youth replied, less afraid of him now. “So,” Pelinor the crusader said as the battle sounds were dying down around them. “How did you get into that fix?” Raydan explained how he had been informed of the no-trespassing-in-HenesysHunting-Ground rule only after he had been captured. “That stupid king,” he ended, slightly angered again. “I don’t see what he’s doing with Victoria Island. He’s not gaining anything by doing all this.”
Pelinor laughed. “Exactly, my boy,” he said in a hearty voice. “That’s why we gathered up. An underground society of rebels, now numbering about fifty. Would you like to join us as well? Provided you’re travelling on your own, that is.” Raydan shook his head with a smile. “I’m already in another guild,” he replied, showing the guild leader his pendant from Orion’s Belt. “My sister’s the leader.” “In another guild, hm? Alright, but you are welcome to join if ever you change your mind.” Two men, a male youth and a woman came forward to their guild leader, each with an unconscious guard captive. “Sir, what do we do with them now?” a man questioned respectfully, gaze held low. “Don’t kill them,” he answered. “Leave them here. The beating up was quite enough for them.” Pelinor was smiling to himself, more with relief, Raydan thought, than sadism. He then turned back to the hunter. “D’you have a place to stay while you’re still here?” Raydan shook his head. “I actually intended to leave today, but…well, I’d like to meet more of your guild. So…alright.” Minutes later, after all thirteen members of Nightfall present at the attack had been gathered up, they were introduced to him. “This here is Raydan,” Pelinor explained to the group. None of them seemed too hostile, but they weren’t weak in stature either. Many looked to be at about their third jobs. “Thanks for saving me,” he exclaimed, truly grateful. They seemed more friendly to him all of a sudden, the few closest to him smiling and telling him that they didn’t mind doing it. “We all hate the king and his policemen,” a woman in the front row said to him, the rest nodding in fervent agreement. Pelinor clapped for order as the chatter from the thirteen rose. “Careful, if we’re too loud, the guard station might send more policemen against us, and maybe even some of those guards…” Their journey then began in relative silence, the entire group, led by Pelinor, taking the main road through the town for a few minutes. All around Raydan seemed to know the way, following confidently after the guild leader and himself, at the front of the group. About ten minutes of travelling through moderately populated streets, they suddenly took a turning towards the heavily forested surroundings of Henesys’ northeast side, Raydan glancing about behind them all the way, just to see if anyone had noticed them going off the road. To his bewilderment, he realised that all were acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Pelinor laughed. “They know of our existence,” he replied to Raydan’s expression of surprise. “They all support us. After all, who in Henesys would actually want to support the king?” Raydan nodded in grim agreement. He turned back to see where they were now, as shadows came to cover their path. The trek through the forest didn’t take very long. After stepping over tree roots and through fallen leaves, they came to a point where the tree trunks were bent and gnarled beyond recognition, their branches and bark wrapped around a something distinctly cubical in shape. Through the tangle of thick branches, Raydan could pick
out a few tiny areas where the rock showed through in the dim light that shone through the overlapping leaves above them. There were patterned engravings on its surface, shadows of leaves shifting over them like dark hands. “Great hideout, isn’t it,” Pelinor commented, folding his arms. “According to some legend, it was built by the Sharenians. It’s made a really good hiding place for us.” Raydan took another glance at the shape of the building, edges marred by the crumbled rock and creeping plants, while the rest walked around its uneven circumference, towards what must be the entrance. The stone ruin within the branches certainly looked old, like something that had sprung out of a mythical story. Wondering what it hid within its stony boundaries, he followed the rest. The entrance was a low hole in the side of the wall, the roots that had once covered it now sliced off, leaving only stumps of wood that ended at the hole’s rim. The Crossbowman waited for everyone to go in first, before he bent down and entered himself. Within, he was suddenly greeted by a wide, empty room lit brightly, not by torchlight as he had expected, but by a warm circle of light on the ceiling—similar to sunlight in colour and strength. In front of him, there were four round hardwood tables, and many seated around each, talking, eating or playing card games. Further down, there were tables, ovens and stoves leaned against the cracked, slanted walls of the room, as well as a fridge in one corner. Raydan looked up at the ceiling again, in amazement. It was so much to fit into this stone monument, which had seemed so small outside. The ceiling above was cracked beyond repair, and Raydan wondered if it would cave in some day, without warning. But recalling the roots and branches that grew around it, which now poked their untidy ends through the cracks, he realized that those must be what held up the ruin’s structure now. “Hello, everyone,” Pelinor suddenly silenced the crowd of Nightfall members with his announcement. “We just broke up another band of policemen.” This was met by smiles and a few cheers. “And guess what, we saved someone from execution this time! He’ll be staying here for a night, before he heads off to Kerning City. A rebel as well, he is.” Raydan suddenly felt a little self-conscious as everyone turned to look at him. Some shouted greetings to him. While Raydan walked into the crowd at the tables to try and ask for some food, he suddenly found himself standing in front of a youth of almost twenty, wearing a short brown jacket and blue knee-length pants. His figure was definitely not that of a magician or a thief; Raydan figured that he was a warrior of some kind. “Hello, boy,” he greeted the Crossbowman with a smile. “What’s your name? It seems Pelinor forgot to tell us that.” “Raydan, level thirty Crossbowman,” he replied promptly. “And how about you?” “I’m Hyrien, level one hundred and twelve White Knight,” the youth replied with a small nod. “I wish they’d open the service of the Ellinia Station to the citizens again… I’ll never get my fourth job at this rate.” Raydan’s mouth hung open. L-level one hundred and…twelve? “You’re quite…strong,” he commented. Hyrien shook his head humbly. “Not really,” he said. “Oh yeah, by the way, I was
saved by Nightfall as well. They were going to execute me for my high level. Then this lot got a hold of the patrol and completely destroyed it before they could get me to the square.” He breathed out hard. “You should see that place. There’s blood all over the rocks. And it used to be a place for huge festivals in my childhood…” “You mean…there was a time when the king wasn’t like this?” Hyrien laughed softly. “Of course,” he replied. “That was when I was around eight. I’m sure you were alive at that time too.” Raydan cocked his head. “I don’t remember,” he answered to that. “Well, anyway, he wasn’t always a tyrant,” the knight went on. “We don’t know what caused the sudden change in him. It’s really—strange. But now he’s changed his ways, his old ways are all but forgotten. Everyone thinks of him as evil now.” “If only he’d change back to what he was before,” Raydan said with a little sigh. “If he used to be kind, why can’t he be again?” Hyrien nodded thoughtfully at his words. “So, you’re staying here for a night? I’m sure there’re some extra rooms downstairs.” Downstairs? “There’s more?” Raydan gasped, glancing about for a staircase. “It’s not so easy to find downstairs,” Hyrien answered, seeing his reaction. “And it’s really spacious.” It took an hour for Raydan to get himself a room. The moment he had entered the room, he had been overcome by awe. It was huge, even larger than the room upstairs. It was a huge round room lit by the sunlight-lamps, with at least twenty doors on the white wall around its circumference. The walls were definitely newer than the ones that the building was made of, whiter than the former, and perfect in all parts. Later on, some of the guild members had shown him the way to a secret hunting place they shared, near the path to the Dungeon, where no one, not even the guards, dared to go. There were monsters of many levels to train on, a wide enough range to provide good training for most. Hyrien, who turned out to be the highest levelled person in Nightfall, had come along as well, but the monsters there did not prove to be of much use to his training. He sat aside in the shade of the trees by the narrow, forested valley, while he watched the rest train. Raydan finished off another blue mushroom with two arrows strung at the same time and a flare of orange. He still remembered, too clearly, the day when he had been close to death in the outskirts of Kerning City, and how he had been saved at the last moment by a girl whom he later found out to be Ralinn. Now, it simply amazed him to know that he had not recognised his sister when he had first seen her. It wasn't surprising—she had grown a lot taller since she had been eight, but she had been so close—he had been so sure that he would have recognised her when he had finally met her again. Panting slightly, Raydan walked aside to take a break. "Any water?" he asked, turning to Hyrien, who held up a bag of water made of an animal's stomach. These waterskins had always made him feel queasy, but he was too thirsty to think anything of it now. "I wondered," the Crossbowman said, sitting down on the grass. "How did you come to be so high-levelled?"
Hyrien shook his head slightly. "I don't know," he replied. "It's strange...I simply worked myself to death trying to get stronger...but I think it's more of a way for me to vent my frustration at those guards, the police, the king..." "Do you really hate those people so much?" Raydan asked, somewhat surprised that the seemingly good-natured White Knight would feel so strongly against the guards, to the point that he had managed to reach such a high level from "venting". Again, he shook his head, not a Raydan, but at one of his own thoughts. "They did bad things to my family," he explained. "They made my parents into slaves, and my parents told me to run away. So...I'm alive. But they...aren't—I think. I haven't seen them for more than a decade. Since I was six." Raydan nodded in understanding. He did know, though he hadn't been left all alone. "My sister...well...same thing," the Crossbowman answered. "She went away when I was four, and didn't come back until last year." Hyrien turned to him. "How old are you now?" "Thirteen," he replied with a smile. "Eight years..." Raydan returned to the hunting ground soon after those few minutes of recollection. It was such a pity that he would be leaving this interesting, fun lot in a day's time. But well, he thought to himself, the world's a small place. I think our paths will cross one day—Orion's Belt and Nightfall. Since we're both headed for a common goal. The bed that he was provided with was decently soft, though he could tell from how creaky it was that it wasn't very expensive. Though it was fast approaching summer, the interior of the room as cool enough for comfort, and Raydan did wonder how it was done. Finally, the next day dawned, the day he would begin his return journey to Kerning City. He had three months—he had arranged that with Ralinn. The journey back would take all of three months, and he badly wanted to see his sister again. I should be back by late summer, he reasoned as he re-packed his worn haversack, then picked his bow up off the tabletop. He then made his way out of the room, to find a lot of his newly made friends from Nightfall standing around his door. "Have a nice journey!" Yunira, a Spearman, greeted him cheerily. "Remember not to go through the Henesys Hunting Ground again!" Raydan nodded to that. At the door, he found it extremely hard to make it many steps without turning to wave to the guild members again. He had thanked them for their hospitality, but he kept feeling that he hadn't thanked them enough. Pelinor didn't seem to mind, though, and as he waved them goodbye one more time, the guild leader gave him that familiar grin again. Raydan didn't have to try too hard to avoid the policemen who patrolled the road. He kept within the forest, staying under its cover until he reached the high wall that circled the entire city, changing his course then. The secret entrance, dug deep into the ground, came into view once more. Raydan slipped into the dirt hole, bending down to get into the horizontal tunnel that led on from the bottom. Once inside, he had to squat and walk for a few more yards, before the roof rose again, and he could proceed easily from then on. The short journey through the hidden tunnel took about five minutes or so. Later,
dirt-covered and tired, he emerged from the other end to find himself on the other side of Henesys’ unrelenting walls. From here on, the journey would not be hard. Raydan took to the sand road instantly, walking at quite a leisurely pace, passing by the few houses on Henesys’ outskirts, which had not yet been displaced by the king’s orders. Nothing could down Raydan’s optimistic outlook that day, though. He focused on his destination and tried not to wonder whether Orion’s Bolt, whether anyone would ever, possibly, put an end to the turmoil they were undergoing now at the hands of King Caleix. akera: exploration of the past Akera looked up at the late summer sun that pierced through the leaves, up above her head. The heat was already dying down, and she had almost arrived at her destination. Here, midway to the top of the greatest tree in Ellinia, she wondered to herself. Not many had managed this before. Reach the level of their third job at fourteen? She had heard stories about another person who had done so—Thaemis, a famed Hero who had suddenly gone missing about ten years ago. Then, the country had not been in such chaos and oppression, and she had grown famous for achieving what she had. But now, in the midst of the worst situation possible, she would gain no fame for doing what so few had done before—in fact, her life depended on not being found out. Akera was back in the region of her horrors, where she had worked for so many years before finally breaking the psychological barrier of fear, and escaping with Shirion. She still remembered, of course—how could she not? He had seemed to need her help. But in actuality, it was his courage in bringing up the suggestion of escape, in not fearing the possibility, that had helped her to come to terms with her desire to leave. She had followed it. She had made it. Now, she would not let that effort go to waste. In order to stay free, she had to keep her journey as inconspicuous as possible, and no one must know of the power she had gained in those two years, or how she was at least a year faster than everyone else in terms of development of power. Akera arrived at Grendel’s library with no trouble. The way there had stuck fast in her memory, since her very first job advancement, the images strengthened by her second visit there, all in secret. Now, she would be visiting in secret for the third time, and the place was too familiar to her now—the strong, dark bark, the shade of the leaves of that magical tree, even the pattern that the branches made, now slightly different from what it had been the last time. “Grendel!” she shouted, unable to keep the irritation from her voice. Somehow, everything irritated her, not just waiting for a door to open. The hardwood door swung open by magic, at last. Akera raced in, glancing up automatically to see the magician Job Master. Grendel floated in the air, eyes apparently closed, but the Fire Poison Wizard knew all too well that he was watching her every move. “You have returned, Akera,” he said in the voice of an old man, one with immense
power. “Here for you third job, perhaps?” Akera nodded, wishing he would stop talking to her from so high up. It annoyed her to feel inferior, and his altitude did just that. Grendel nodded. “Well, then, you have achieved something extraordinary, it seems,” he answered with some pride, some expectance. “Of course you would have. You have always been this gifted. I was only waiting for this day to come. I have seen— so many in my life, and so many more I have to see, because I have been made immortal…but you are, surely, the greatest of all that have come to me before. Equal to Lanoré, I would say.” “Lanoré? Isn’t she…the Silver Fang of El Nath,” the nickname of the famed Ice Lightning Mage came to mind instantly. Lanoré had been a name her parents had spoken of often, a teenager from El Nath who had reached her third job at fourteen as well, and had fought all the while to keep her people free. Now, Akera could actually call herself Lanoré’s equal. “Are you ready yet?” Akera looked up once more and saw that Grendel was floating slowly towards her. She was sure that she was ready. She nodded. “Come on then.” Grendel led her out the door, and she followed, rare, sudden, refreshing excitement instantly infusing her spirit the moment she entered the brightness of the morning outside. It was time to take another step. She had waited six years—she couldn’t wait any longer. orion’s belt: introductions As Raydan came down the last turning into his home’s street, he felt his heartbeat quicken. It was a familiar feeling—he was always excited when he was returning home after a long journey. He knew that he would be seeing Ralinn and Zethis again, after more than half a year—his sister, and the person whom he dared to call his best friend now. But there was something he hadn’t expected, a surprise to come. “Linn! You home yet?” the Crossbowman yelled as he banged the door excitedly, smiling with excitement. His heart leapt when he heard the annoyed reply of “Coming!” from inside the house. The door swung open, and he found Ralinn standing at the door, one hand on the handle, the other holding the doorframe. A grin instantly came to the huntress’ face, and she ruffled his hair. “Three days late,” she sighed, shaking her head, still smiling. Raydan ignored the fact and took off his shoes—more of boots, actually. Then, he came into the house, glancing about for Zethis, whom he found at the table, talking to someone he didn’t know— “Oh, meet the fourth member of Orion’s Belt,” Ralinn quickly said, coming over to the dining table. “You’re Ralinn’s brother?” the youth replied, smile brightening. “I’m Ketara, level forty-four Spearman. You must be Raydan?” Raydan’s first reaction was to stifle laughter. “That sounds like a girl’s name,” he said. It did sound rude, he suddenly realised, but Ketara didn’t seem to mind.
“I get that a lot,” he answered. The Spearman wasn’t half bad looking, Raydan realised—especially when he was smiling. “I’ve gotten used to it.” “Nice to meet you, and welcome to Orion’s Belt,” Raydan replied quickly, hoping that he hadn’t made too bad a first impression on Ketara. “I’m Raydan, yup. Level thirtysix Crossbowman. So, Linn, how’d you find him?” “We went to Perion for Zethis’ second job, and this guy was Dances with Balrog’s secretary, then I matched his story and the song I dreamt of… It was quite a surprise, actually.” Zethis nodded as he glanced up from his storybook for the first time since Raydan had returned. “Hello, Raydan,” he said in his usual voice, slightly timid, as always. Raydan nodded to acknowledge his greeting and went to sit next to him at the table. “Being in this guild is really…cool,” Ketara commented as he ate another chip from the packet in his hand. “Us all being chosen by dreams, and all that…” “But there’s a goal we have to achieve,” Ralinn replied, frowning. “It’s not going to be easy. I mean—overthrow the king? I have no idea how I’ll do that, or even why the voice thinks I can do it, but there must be some reason that it thinks I can, or I wouldn’t be the one chosen for this. Whatever it is…you’re going to be here for a long time.” “Which I really don’t mind.” Raydan did like Ketara’s spirit and personality, he decided. “Linn, when are we going to move on?” Raydan questioned. She shrugged. “The members will present themselves to us. It doesn’t matter which way we go; our choice, in the end, will lead us to them.” She glanced about thoughtfully. “One member a year…at this rate, we’re going to take till we’re all twenty to finish doing this! But I’m sure it’s worth the wait.” “Hey,” Ketara suddenly piped up. “I know somewhere we can go, if you don’t mind trying something new.” Everyone turned to him in interest. He ate another potato chip. “Oh yeah, by the way,” Ralinn answered, before the Spearman went on any further. “We’re almost out of chips.” telida: change Once more, Turino had beaten Telida to the prize, the giant slime things that leapt about in the forest. And he always did, nowadays—why was he suddenly so bent on being better than her? Telida heard a few leaves flutter through the cold winter air and land on the ground around her. She turned upwards, and moments later, a throwing star had sprung from her palm, killing the snake above, which now fell with a rustle across her feet. Two years ago, she recalled, he had been so protective of her. It had annoyed her, and she had said so, making her point clear by attacking him. No, it had not seemed to offend him, but after that, he had suddenly turned into an enemy. Treated her like an enemy. Telida twisted the snake’s body in anger, and felt its skin tear beneath her grip. Turino was simply unbearable now. Why was it that he was always faster than her, better at killing, simply better at everything?
Oh, she knew. She was a girl. Why were girls always worse? Why? Again, she recalled. She recalled the days when both her parents had been alive. Her father had been cruel to her mother, spared no mercy, made her his servant to her last day, just because he was stronger—and Turino would become like that as well, some day. Telida hated it. Why should all males be stronger? She hated all of them. Turning away from the place where her brother was training, Telida walked away, through the familiar forest, every trunk and root drawn perfectly in her memory. She would have to work harder from now on. She didn’t know when or why Turino had changed so much, but she would too. Gone was her old, generally caring self. She would become ruthless. clynine: warmth in cold The sun scarcely pierced through the gaps in the icy clouds as Clynine made her way up the road into her new home. They had been in Mu Lung, her home, three quarters of a year ago. Now, they were in Lanoré’s home, El Nath. If she had thought that winter in Ludibrium was cold, then this was freezing, literally too. All around her, the icicles that hung from the roofs of the cabins of El Nath were longer than her arm. “And…here we are,” the Ice Lightning Archmage said, stopping before an ordinarylooking cabin at the edge of the dense forest near the town. Its dark brown wood stood out of the whiteness in a painting of starkness and contrast, white snow collecting heavily on the windowsills and on the slanted roof. It looked like any other house on the street. Lanoré extracted the key from her pocket and turned it in the lock, Clynine inching up to look over her mistress’ shoulder, excited to see how this legendary mage’s house would look like inside. As the door opened, the twelve-year-old was surprised to see that, like the outside, it was perfectly ordinary. As she walked onto the parquet floor inside, she had expected to feel an overwhelming presence of power, but there was none. Clynine ran over to the sofa in the sitting room and fell back on the plush beige cushions. This place was simply marvellous, no matter how ordinary. “So you’re enjoying yourself already,” her mistress suddenly said. Clynine instantly leapt off the sofa, blushing, ashamed at her rude actions. Lanoré smiled and shook her head. “No, it’s perfectly fine. This is your home now, as long as you’re in my service.” Still, she didn’t feel like going back to lounge in the sofa while the Archmage unpacked both their bags. I’m her assistant, for goodness’ sake! I’m supposed to be unpacking for her! She ran instantly to the dining table upon that thought. Lanoré looked surprised, but her presence seemed welcome. She began to take all the unused clothes from her bag, realizing that she had over-packed, seriously over-packed. But how would she have known, being from a rich family? It was refreshing to be out of the mansion and travelling with someone she had just met half a year ago. Something new, something that she knew would get her somewhere. She thought of her parents’ farewell, and felt a twinge of concern for their safety. But then, she assured herself that they would be fine, believing that fate would let them have the best way. Her life looked bright, as of this moment. Clynine took a glance out the window and watched the spiralling, spinning paths of the snowflakes. The world seemed to welcome her in every way, to every next moment, and she smiled to the grey clouds, ominous as they looked, before carrying
on with her job. faith Ralinn stood in the snow of the starlit night and sighed, scarf fluttering in the wind, about her neck. She wondered about everything. There were six more to find—six more, and a prophecy to fulfil. Fulfil? Maybe it was just a conjecture by the gods. Maybe it was just an experiment, an attempt to get rid of the darkness of their homeland. But it was so full of human emotion, human fragility, this experiment—she thought of her companions: shy Zethis, outgoing Ketara, her good-natured brother Raydan… and whoever else she was dragging into this dangerous task. If it was an experiment that might not work, it was a cruel one. Faith. The only thing she could do was take faith. Faith, Telida knew, would keep her alive through the internal turmoil that she was going through. She had to have faith that, someday, someone would come to take her out of this darkness forever. The new Fire Poison Mage gazed down from the top branches and smiled, an expression she was so unused to. She would have to believe in her life, be certain that she had the capability to reach her true potential. He would have to have faith in his strength, in his will to stay free. Shirion knew that his future was not his choice to make. But faith would guide him. Guide everyone. Faith. Belief. A new cycle of the twelve years was about to begin. The Year of the Rat was dawning. Chapter 4: Year of the Rat ralinn: in turn Ralinn had never thought about the moment when she would be eligible for her third job. She had simply spent every year training whenever she could, accompanying Raydan and Zethis to a multitude of places. But at that moment when she struck down a drake, and the blazing blue light had grown to surround her, she suddenly realised what she had been forgetting so long, a goal of hers that had never actually been a goal. She could become a ranger, at last. After so many years, after her narrow escape from the castle. Ralinn thought, again, about the day she had managed to escape the iron grasp of the king’s guards, the grasp that had held her tightly for years on end. It had been a stroke of genius, of desperation, on her part. After three years of working at the castle, a slave, she had suddenly decided that she had had enough. Then, all the routes of escape, all the paths that might lead her out of the castle, which she had been ignoring for the last three years, became apparent to her. It would be so easy… The garbage carts were never inspected as they came into and left the castle. After all, the king must have thought, who would try to escape under tons of rubbish? She would. Not like all those other servants, submitted to service even before they had been born, spiritless, ambitionless—she wasn’t like them. She wanted freedom.
So Ralinn had done just that. The garbage trucks trundled into and out of the castle grounds, horse-drawn, towards the stinking garbage dumps on the grounds to collect rubbish and back out through the heavily guarded gates, without so much as a glance from the guards. She had thrown herself into one of the garbage dumps, from the branch of a tree some way up the road through the keep. The smell had not been very pleasing, to say the least, but it was a small price to pay for the freedom she had been waiting for for so long. From there, it was simply digging her way out of the piles of rubbish—fruit peels, animal bones, used papers and other useless bits and pieces that had been dumped into the bins of the castle. She was free. She had come out dirty, worn out, covered in the stench of the king’s garbage, but she had finally earned her safety, her escape from the castle, a breath of the real world that had been taken away from her for three years. It was time to start her life anew, she had told herself. It was her chance to finally have control of her life. And now, Ralinn realized, she had come farther than she had ever actually wanted or needed. Ready for her third job already? She had never noticed herself growing any stronger or more experienced. “Sis, what’re you staring at?” Raydan called out, snapping her out of her moment of reminiscence. “I’m already level seventy,” she replied. “I just counted my level-ups...” “Good then! Let’s go back to Henesys, then we might meet Nightfall, and I can introduce them to you,” her brother exclaimed enthusiastically. He had told her and the rest about the guild he had met that day after his job advancement, and explained how they had saved him from a senseless death sentence. It did feel strange, and a little unnerving to know that there was another guild with the same aim as hers—they were competition to their goal, she realised. But Nightfall was so much larger than their measly group of four, even more than the final ten that was planned for Orion’s Belt. She chose to ignore those notions. At least she knew that they were not alone in their quest. There would be others to help them, and they would do the job, should Orion’s Belt fail. Zethis, who had been training with the wild boars in another part of the same mountain, soon came round to meet the three, who stood resting in the shadow of the mountainside, drinking from their waterskins and eating a few of the snacks they had brought along. Ralinn looked about at the four members of Orion’s Belt. Her brother, Raydan, the first to join, was now a Crossbowman, at level thirty-five. He was more talkative than the average person, and prone to getting angry with authority. Zethis, the second to join, stood beside him, gulping water from his own waterskin in extreme thirst. Though younger than Raydan, he was about the same level, and the Page was quickly overtaking Ralinn’s brother in levels. Ralinn had long noticed that he was stronger than others his age, despite his outward appearance of weakness. That shy boy who never talked much to anyone except Raydan had been quite a welcome addition to the guild, being less talkative and complaining than either of the
other two, and a lot more thoughtful in his manner and speech. Ketara, in the best descriptors, was the opposite of Zethis. He jumped at every chance to befriend others, and along with his good looks and natural charm, he had managed to get them out of a whole lot of situations, especially when buying food or other commodities. He was a useful member to the guild, often managing to take the boredom out of what would have been dreary journeys. He, like Zethis, was stronger than normal, and it was obvious—he was the same age as Raydan, but almost fifteen levels higher. No, he did not practice dark arts, she knew, and neither did Zethis. They were naturally gifted. Somehow, that thought made her feel both secure and honoured. Now, they were already beginning their journey southeast towards Kerning City, their home, where they would probably rest before continuing down to Henesys. Ralinn felt her heartbeat quicken as she prospected her visit to Athena Pierce again. The Job Master was close enough to be called a friend, and they had not met for many years already. “So we’re really going to the Dungeon?” Ketara persisted on his request. Ralinn nodded absently as they trudged through the stones of Perion, towards their destination, which was at least two months’ walk away. "I think it'll be fine," the guild leader replied. "Since you survived there, I don't think it should be that hard to stay alive." "It was fun, really! I had no trouble staying alive, except that everything there tasted disgusting. But there were two people there who helped me find my way around..." His eyebrows creased as he tried to recall their names. "Telida and Turino! I hope we meet them. They were...quite nice." Ralinn nodded, wondering how anyone could be living in the Dungeon. “That’d be nice,” Raydan answered. “What kind of people are they?” “I don’t know how to describe them…cool? They’ve both got good looks, as far as I could see in the darkness. They’ve lived in the Dungeon for a long time; knew the way around perfectly. There were huge slimes around the forest as well.” Zethis looked up. “King Slimes?” he exclaimed. “They’re in the wild as well?” Ketara turned back and asked what King Slimes were. In moments, they were discussing the Kerning Party Quest. Ralinn only listened, never having attempted any party quests before, only hearing of them from her brother and from others that she had met during her travels. Maybe she would start to see more, with the guild around, and her job of finding the remaining members of Orion’s Belt giving her necessity to travel further. Maybe, she might even get to see what a party quest was like for herself. So much she hadn’t seen yet, she realised. It would really teach her a lot if she were to travel more, and going to the Dungeon would be a good start. clynine: crossing the sky Clynine had only gone to Victoria Island once—when she had gone for her first job. She had only gone to Ellinia, crossed the branches to Grendel’s place and come back then, no further—but now, she would be going further. Now that Lanoré was her guardian and not her parents, they would be travelling a little around the Ellinian Forest. She could not wait to see more of Victoria Island, a place that had always lain on the other side of the sky-ocean.
The ride began five minutes after Lanoré and Clynine had seated themselves in the dimly-lit room below the deck of the tiny vessel. Earlier, they had had to make their way down to the secret shifting jetty on the coast of El Nath—a jetty made of ice that was melted in one place and refrozen in another every week, its location only known by those who ordered tickets from the organisation’s members, who had the most ordinary occupations around. This time, the ice jetty had been at the coast about two miles into the icy wastes of the southern side of El Nath, having found out the location from the assistant to the armour seller. They had travelled long, only the excitement of journeying to Victoria Island keeping Clynine warm in the close-to-blizzard fierceness of the winds. Finally they had made it there. The ship rocked in the waters, but it would make it to the other coast safely, like it had managed to for nine years. Though it bobbed in the water, it, like Clynine had heard from many, would soar into the air when it departed. She could not help but feel great anticipation for the moment when that would happen. Around the bay, Clynine could see the shadows of creatures stirring up small eddies under the shimmering, icy water. Whales, she knew. The native creatures had always swum down there, below the surface, sometimes tossing water playfully into the air, watching through the shaky surface of the ocean as the sky moved over them. Sometimes, she saw them spray seawater into the air as she stood on the coast, and occasionally, they would even leap through the air in a human’s presence, the large, usually lazy creatures showing a rare display of energy. She had heard that the great majestic creatures had a deep sense of emotion, and often saved people who fell into the ocean. They would leave the whales soon, Clynine knew. So they had entered, and now waited for the movement of the ship’s body to begin. The seats were made of badly-cut wood—but what could they expect of a ship that had been made in secrecy, and operating in secrecy for years? She leaned back, trying to quell the deep anxiousness she now felt at the thought of riding on this secret service. Lanoré had already warned her of the dangerous possibilities of the ride. The king knew that this service existed, but his policemen had never managed to find it. As a result, a security system had been put in place across the sky— sometimes, the policemen would be standing guard and waiting for ships to arrive. However, when night fell, they would go back to rest, for it was believed that it was impossible to navigate in the dark. That was when they would fly. But there had been one other time when the ship had been caught in mid-journey at night. That had led to the death of the previous captain, and the vice-captain had only found out about the disaster through a communication crystal when one of the survivors transmitted the message after making it, just barely, to Victoria Island. But what were the chances that they would be found out? It had only happened once. Why this time? It was always good to anticipate the worst, Lanoré had told her before the trip. But she didn’t really fear much. Besides, it was considerably safer than travelling over water, where an infamous band of pirates was rumoured to make prey of all.
But that is the reason why the king believes that everyone will cross through the sky. If a safe route could be established over water… The ship shook slightly in its regular rocking course. Moments later, it gave a lurch, another, and then it gave a third and didn’t fall back down. It was flying. Clynine felt as if her stomach had flipped with excitement. She glanced out the window and saw the clouds slipping past within the uneven window frame. Fear continued to linger in her heart, nonetheless, and she could only will herself not to think of any of the frightening possibilities and watch the sky as it levelled out beyond the window and floated past. Their journey upon the sky sped on into its late hours. Lanoré and Clynine were provided with a meagre dinner, but it was enough for them. The magician knew too well that they would not be able to obtain much food if they wanted to remain undetected. Night fell. The stars spread across the sky like a dark sheet, and all around, the air was cast into darkness. Clynine was lying on her bench, attempting to fall asleep. A few other travellers were there with them; some were resting on the deck to enjoy the starlight. There were about five others with them. She had been ready to fall asleep with the calm of the journey, sure that by the time she had awoken, they would have arrived at their destination. Then there was an explosion, and moments later, a colossal crack of wood all around them, shaking her eardrums. Clynine sat up, all attempts at resting now rendered useless. She glanced about, heart suddenly wild with fear, all her earlier, forgotten fears of the voyage now returning with force. What had just happened? It had been loud. The ship began to tilt to the left. It swung down wildly, suddenly, and Clynine grabbed onto the wood, screaming. The rest were awake now, struggling to hold on to the walls and benches, a few yelling in terror. Lanoré soon raced down into the cabin. “We’ve been spotted!” “H—How,” she gasped out, running to her mistress and holding onto the arm she reached out to her. “They shot us with cannon,” Lanoré replied, slightly more relieved now. “The ship is losing its altitude. We need to get out, or die underwater, trapped in the ship—” Before she had even finished her sentence, there was another boom, and a crack. At once, a section of the ship began to break off—the bow. It swung open, and a huge, roaring rush of ocean wind suddenly poured in as they fell. Ellinia was a mile away, the trees alight with points of flame and light, visible even from this distance. They were still falling, now in a ferocious spiral down towards the darkness below. Lanoré turned to Clynine and held her harder, her other hand reaching for a shelf. “I don’t know what to do either,” she whispered. Clynine felt her heart beating madly like a huge drum, every beat deafening her, as the icy wind swept past her face, smelling of the ocean. Adrenalin shot through the blood like a stream of needles, and she shook with terror, screaming again. “Jump,” another man from behind them yelled. “Jump, get out and swim before the ship crushes us all!” But we’re a mile from Ellinia, Clynine’s mind raced. How will we make it…
Just trust yourself! Stay alive, and you can work the rest out yourself. And you’re not alone! Lanoré was staring down at the black expanse that grew wider as they hurtled downwards. She turned back to Clynine again and nodded. Then, through the rushing wind too strong to face, too powerful to contain within imagination, they leapt. Those moments seemed so unreal. The sky was soaring past them, and the boat, slowed by the resistance it met in the air, by its wide, flapping sails, fell slower than them. Clynine was still clinging to Lanoré’s arm, and the Ice Lightning Archmage kept her assistant as close as she could, trying to tell her through her strong grip that they would not die. But would they? Clynine didn’t want to think. It was at the moment when their bodies smashed the water and coldness truly gripped her flesh like a huge iron vice that she realised that they had a chance. She could feel the terrible, dark shadow growing around her, and she didn’t stay frozen, waiting for something to save her, as she had all her life, as she had whenever she had gotten herself into a problem—forever depending on someone else to get her out. She knew what she had to do, and she swam, forcing her way through the water, against the resistance that met her, against everything her old life had taught her to do. No one could help her now. It didn’t matter that she was practically helpless against the dark ocean currents. It didn’t matter that the cold was creeping deep into her bones, rendering all her fingers numb. It didn’t matter that saltwater was rushing over her face, entering her mouth, nose and ears. She would have to fight for her life if she wanted to keep it. A sudden, overwhelming splash propelled her upwards, forwards, closer to the starry, whirling sky above her, upon the dark, wet body below. Somewhere close, she could hear Lanoré’s shout, half of terror and half of exhilaration. The ship had plunged into the sea at last, flames smothered instantly. And they were safe, for now. It was all like a nightmare, too unreal, too strange, that moments ago, she had been sitting in a cabin trying to sleep, and now, she was in the midst of a raging ocean, her existence itself cast into uncertainty. The sea stilled. All around, nothing seemed to move, except for the great rhythmic movement of the currents around them, rising, falling, the piercing coldness almost overwhelming, but at the same time…calming. There were yells from the distance of the treetops, but that was the only sound that marred the scene. Chunks of wood floated around them, the remains of the ship that had once carried people across the gap between two lands, two worlds, now gone. She hoped that everyone had survived the ride. “Clynine,” a familiar, slightly hoarse voice called from a little way behind her. She knew at once that it was Lanoré. “Can you see Ellinia?” Now, the magician turned in the undulating ocean to see the towering trees on the coast a mile away, seeming so tall, now that she could see their entire heights. The lights were lessening, and she sighed, half with relief, half with hopelessness. Her strokes in the water were growing so weak with the cold… “How will we get back?” Clynine asked. Lanoré shut her eyes and sighed.
“I—I don’t know. I really don’t know.” Clynine was well versed in the rules of what to do and what not to when in cold places. They could not risk falling asleep, and especially not in the middle of deep waters. But if they didn’t rest, they would never have the energy to move any closer to shore than they were now. As far as she could see, they were stuck here, simply waiting to freeze to death. Close by, others were floating in the water, fellows in their predicament. She counted seven in total, some clinging to wooden boards, some floating about, submission in their eyes. Only at that moment did it really hit her that she might die. There was close to no hope for them now; there seemed no way out, and it would take a miracle for them to somehow make it to shore, for all of them to make it to shore… It appeared that the police had decided to leave them for dead. And they probably were already. Was there any chance at all that they would get out of this? They were as good as dead… As Clynine had been thinking that thought, she felt something brush her feet, and she leapt halfway out of the water. It was as if the ground had suddenly risen up to her feet, for when she landed, she felt something bearing her upwards, still rising, until it had lifted her out of the water on its slippery, shiny surface. She glanced about, down, heart suddenly in her mouth as she realised what it was. A whale. The native creatures had always roamed in these waters spanning between El Nath and Ellinia, saviours of thousands who had fallen into the same situation as they had… This was the miracle they needed. Perhaps they weren’t bound to die after all. Lanoré gave a gasp of surprise from behind her, as she, too, discovered what they were now riding on. The rest of the castaways were sitting along its huge length, the dark body glimmering in the dim moonlight, stark against the huge ocean. The winds were harsher, and yet they didn’t make Clynine feel as cold as she had felt before. Her fear had fled completely, replaced by sudden, growing calm, hope. Somehow, she couldn’t feel the cold that bit into her flesh, wasn’t bothered by the water that she had breathed in. The whale gave a low hum and it began to move. The remaining people still floating in the water swam towards it, their hair streaming out behind them, Clynine’s own plastered against her neck and face. Lanoré came closer to her and hunched her figure as she seemed to try and calm herself down. Clynine smiled, now noticing how sleepy she suddenly felt. The itch in her nose grew and she suddenly sneezed a few times, her eyes watering heavily after that. “Uh…I’m going to catch a cold from this,” she sighed, shivering. She had a bad habit of catching colds at the smallest hint of cold weather. “But at least we’ll get back safely,” her mistress answered comfortingly. “You know… it’s nice being with you. I noticed how you have some kind of…calming ability…it’s just nice. Nice to be near you.” Clynine turned to look at her, wondering. Half an hour later, the whale below them slowed, then bumped gently against the sloped shore. Lanoré and Clynine moved over to the side of the whale and slipped off, the water suddenly seeming warm to the magician. Lanoré turned back and whispered a thank-you to the whale, unsure of whether the
creature understood. Clynine stood knee-deep in the water, alternating repeatedly between sneezing and blowing her nose on her wet handkerchief. The rest of its passengers followed them off, and a few moments after they left, it swam away, its great body slowly vanishing below the brightness of the sparkling reflections over the gently frothing, washing water. Clynine sniffed hard and smiled, looking about at the trees that towered above. The air was freezing around her, now that they were out of the water again. “Well, so now, we must find a place to stay for the night,” Lanoré said, walking further into the depths of the great Victoria Island forest. “Lucky for us, I have some connections here.” Lanoré went on, and Clynine followed, trusting that her mistress knew where she was going, for she certainly appeared to. Lanoré’s “connection” turned out to be a low-profile innkeeper who owned an inn in the roots of one of the trees, the entire building hidden between two wide tree trunks, windows glowing orange from the outside. As soon as they entered, the strong smell of beer and liquor met Clynine’s slightly blocked nose. At the counter, there was a short, stout man wearing rugged, dirty clothes, his beard unshaved and growing at least an inch long. As soon as they came close enough, he squinted, and his thick lips curved into what had to be a smile. “Ah, Lanoré, good evening,” he greeted her, bowing. “Good to see that you’re travelling again. Would you like lodging? How long? Twenty-five percent discount for you!” Lanoré nodded patiently to the man’s exclamations. “I’d like a room for two,” she said, then turned to Clynine. “You alright with sleeping with me?” The Cleric-to-be nodded as they went down the dim corridor towards their room. She suddenly noticed how much her muscles were aching with everything they had done that day, and she sighed. At least her nose wasn’t running anymore, after an hour or so out of the water. But she did need a shower badly. The showers were, sadly, unheated, and Clynine didn’t enjoy her bath that much, despite her great need for it. But of course, like the ship, the inn operated in secrecy, and could not afford heating. Later that night, Clynine found herself sitting on her side of the bed in the middle of the darkness, staring out of the small, roughly square window which was the only opening in the wall. Only a scene of waving branches that swept over the stars every few moments greeted her vision. She thought on everything that had happened that day. How the ship had been destroyed, how they had to live in secrecy, how she had to take her second job test secretly—it was all because of the senseless rules of the king. Lanoré had told her some time ago that her ultimate goal in training so hard was to someday defeat the king, whether with help or without it. She had then, upon becoming her assistant, joined her in that cause. It was a thought that scared her, but now, it only felt right. All this lack of freedom was wrong. It had to go, someday. She wondered if anyone else thought the same way. Many, no doubt, wished to do just the same, all too afraid to show their faces for fear of being captured, like they were. It was the reason for the disallowing of job advancements, and for the
captures of all the most powerful people in Ossyria—precautions against rebellion. But why give the people a reason to rebel in the first place? Something seemed wrong about the way the king was behaving. But that, like so much else, was something she would probably never work out. Something had made him the way he was now. He had not always been this way, as Lanoré had told her. Maybe, just maybe, he would realise his wrongs and return to his old self. Clynine lay back down and tried to fall asleep again. She had a job advancement test to look forward to, and she had to get rest if she wanted to succeed. Sleep came without her notice, and dawn the next day was upon her before she had realised. There were none of the morning sounds she was used to hearing in El Nath —no coos of the morning doves, no skua calls, just the silence that had filled the area since they had first come, and the constant, soothing rustle of the leaves through the small window, through which narrow beams of sunlight were pouring. Clynine went through the corridors towards the common dining room where everyone would have their meals. As she got closer, the smells of cooking food got strong—she smiled, feeling hungry all of a sudden. She had not eaten since the evening before, she realised. As Clynine entered the dining room, she found herself facing a brightly-lit table at which about fifteen people were sitting, all with shiny white plates before them. A few were looking uneasily into their blurred reflections, seeming uncomfortable with eating with people they did not know; others were scraping the plates with the bent and worn cutlery, or conversing in hushed voices with each other. Clynine allowed her mistress to find herself a seat before she sat down on the next chair. The seats were wooden, and not very comfortable, but she didn’t really mind. The knife, fork and spoon she saw laid down on either side of her plate, too, were dented and tarnished, probably old. The mage knew that they were probably unable to afford new silverware, being a secret organisation, and had no choice but to reuse their cutlery year after year. After scrutinising the utensils laid down on the table, she looked about on either side of Lanoré and herself, observing the faces of the rest of the guests at the inn. On Clynine’s left sat a female youth of about fifteen, staring intently into her white plate. She didn’t move or show any expression in her face; it was locked in an image of deep thought. Her hair appeared to have been bleached to silver-white, straight fringe covering her upper eyelids, standing out against her blue gown. “Um…hello,” Clynine attempted to begin a conversation with her. She turned, icy blue eyes narrowed. “Leave me alone,” the girl growled in reply, then turned back to her plate. The magician leapt back in her chair. What had she done that had warranted that reaction? It was scary, and intriguing at the same time. She decided not to risk that response again, and patiently waited for her food to arrive. Three waiters soon came out with two dishes each, and at once, the smells of food reached Clynine’s nose. She breathed in the warm aroma gratefully, her stomach growling all of a sudden. I haven’t eaten for more than a day, she realised. She was starved. As soon as the food was served, Clynine began to take the salad, eggs and ribbon pig meat from the dishes, before wolfing them down as if she would die if she did not
eat. For a few seconds, she turned to the girl to her left, and saw that she was now calmly adding a few pieces of salad to her plate with a bent fork. “Would you like more?” one of the waiters suddenly came round to Lanoré, who was eating an egg. She smiled and shook her head, quite surprised. “A glass of water? Fruit juice?” the man went on. Again, Lanoré shook her head. Another waiter came and laid down a napkin for the Ice Lightning Archmage, and poured her a glass of water, which he set down on the table with a bang. Then another came with a set of almost perfect cutlery. “You should use these,” she insisted with a smile, laying them down at their right positions on either side of her plate. “I wonder why they’re being so nice,” she whispered to Clynine. She nodded in agreement. The rest seemed to have realised this as well, and they were starting to whisper to each other. The mage glanced about helplessly. “Hey!” the teenager next to Clynine stood up suddenly and yelled at the departing waiters. “Why does she get such good service?” She looked flaming mad, and Clynine cowered away from her. “We’re all his customers, so why should any one of us get any more?” One of them turned around. “Orders from our boss,” she replied. “She’s of a higher status than you, I’m very sure.” “What? Someone gets better service because of higher status?” the girl kicked her chair aside and walked up to Lanoré, who turned back, slightly surprised. “So what are you doing here, if you’ve got such high status? Don’t you want something better than this lousy place?” Clynine’s heart was thumping in horror at what the girl might do to her mistress. “I actually need to stay in hiding, like all of you,” Lanoré replied, still hiding the truth of her identity. “I didn’t ask for this; they decided to impose it upon me.” The bad-tempered teenager folded her arms and stepped back. “Well, then I’ll tell them not to be so nice to you,” she offered, seething. Clynine was beginning to feel afraid about sitting next to this girl. “Uh…L-Lanoré, could we just…go somewhere else to eat?” she pleaded, turning to face the Archmage. “Well, we could, but it’s a lot less risky—” “—You’re Lanoré?” Now, the girl had her mouth wide open in shock. She was backing away slowly, embarrassed. “Oh, I’m—sorry…” Lanoré simply smiled and shook her head. “It’s no matter,” she replied. “You’re, well —very interesting. May I know your name?” “Akera,” she replied quickly. “It’s really an—honour to meet you.” Lanoré’s eyes sparked with interest. “You’re the one who killed her parents with magic,” she replied. “At seven.” Akera’s eyes widened. “Does everyone know about that?” she exclaimed in reply, returning to her seat. Meanwhile, the rest present were conversing excitedly. Lanoré smiled again. “More than you know,” she answered coolly. “Word got around fast. It is not very
often that you hear about a seven-year-old who can not only use magic, but also direct one type of magic—in your case, it was fire.” She then gestured to the mage by her side. “Clynine here can direct light, and it’s too bad I didn’t find her earlier…” Akera turned to silently observe her. Clynine quickly turned back to her food and stuffed a lot into her mouth to prevent herself from having to answer any questions. She could already feel her face heating up with the undue attention. She decided to change the subject of the conversation, to Clynine’s gratitude. “I see why you have to do everything in hiding,” she commented, her voice still respectfully soft and controlled. It seemed funny to her how Akera’s attitude towards them could change so much within a few minutes. “The king, to say the least, is mad,” Lanoré agreed wholeheartedly. “It’s not right, really; he fears rebellion only because he knows that we want to rebel. And we want to rebel because…he set those rules. It’s really absurd. I’m quite sure it’s safe to say here, I am going to overthrow him someday. We need a better ruler, or no ruler at all.” Akera nodded. “The Job Masters were given the role of leading the people, weren’t they?” she replied. “Maybe they’ll do a better job.” “Not while the king is in power,” Lanoré sighed. “An one of us might be helpless facing the king and all his policemen and guards, but maybe…if we could somehow coordinate an attack…but that’s almost impossible. None of the people of Victoria Island will have the chance to hold a meeting of ten or more without rousing the suspicion of the policemen. He’s quite clever…” Clynine sat there, thinking again about everything that had been happening to Victoria Island. There was virtually no way to overthrow the king. Lanoré couldn’t stay in hiding forever; they were bound to fall into a trap someday. The same would probably happen to all the remaining people who had as much power as her mistress did. And there were no alternatives; there was no way to gather a group of people to stage an attack. There was no point trying to think about it over and over again, Clynine decided. Maybe, if there were loopholes, no one would ever find them. They might as well leave life as it was and be grateful that it was not something worse. And yet again, she didn’t want to run forever. She was sure that Lanoré thought so as well, as did Akera. There had to be a way, a tiny possibility, that someone would find the answer and save Victoria Island from having to live like this for the rest of eternity. The rest of breakfast was spent chatting about topics of common interest. Through the course of the conversation, Clynine found out a lot about their new acquaintance —Akera had, indeed, killed her parents as well as destroyed their home at seven, with fire magic. Then, she had become homeless, and the king’s policemen placed her on the highly-wanted list. A year later, she was captured and taken to work at the Ellinia Station, working the sails of the ship, and carrying goods onto the ship whenever it was not sailing. She told the two a lot about someone named Shirion, whom she had befriended, and who had been her only friend throughout her years there. They had escaped together, and she had been free for three and a half years already. Now she was fifteen, a Fire Poison Mage. She had taken her test and passed the year before, a feat that hardly anyone had managed before.
“It’s my honour to be speaking to you,” Lanoré replied. “I didn’t know that you were her. It does amaze me that we met here, in this inn.” Clynine felt uncomfortable about the two speaking to each other with her in between, but she did not dare to join the conversation. Finally Lanoré spared her the discomfort. “Let’s go to Grendel soon; it’s best to do the test in the morning.” “I could take you there,” Akera suggested. Clynine smiled gratefully, the nervousness rising in her heart again, all of a sudden. Would it take long? What exactly would she have to do? She hoped that she would survive. They soon finished their breakfast, all three heading out of the inn immediately to make their way to Grendel’s home at the highest point in the treetops. Clynine gripped her emerald-tipped staff nervously, hoping that that alone would be enough to keep her alive and help her pass the test. She had heard Lanoré say that she had used the same kind of staff in her test, but Clynine did not believe that now. Again she thought about the day she had taken her first test—the test that would decide whether she got the job of Lanoré’s assistant. She had not used a staff then, but had used her usual method of directing magic through her hands—it was not as easy to focus without a directive object in her hands, but she had been sure it would be more impressive. How far she had come since then, she thought. Level sixteen then, and level thirty now. This test would be worlds different. Her staff meant more to her now than ever. The Fire Poison Mage led them along the winding pathways of the trees; there was no need to fear capture as long as they stayed in the more treacherous pathways. The trunks and leaves guarded them from the view of the people within the populated inner city. As they went higher, Clynine felt her fears of falling off the branches growing. They had no choice but to take the most dangerous of paths up to the top, and that only increased the possibility that she might slip off or miss a gap any moment and fall to her death. Swallowing, she willed herself not to turn her eyes to the branches at her feet, watching Akera and Lanoré as they scaled higher into the branches. Why does Grendel live so high? At last, they came to it, the Cleric-to-be panting, half with nerves and half with exhaustion. At the top, she allowed the wind to sweep away her tiredness and fear, before they carried on, their path levelling out once more. Grendel’s Magic Library, his home, stood high among the tallest canopies. It was perfectly ordinary—like all other buildings in Ellinia, its sky-tiled roof sloped gently in a bell-shaped cone, vines creeping over the walls and the frosted windows. She did know, however, that all who worked for the king would not be able to see the building, for it was guarded with a veiling spell that made it invisible to them. Grendel would have been captured years ago if not for it. Seeing this building, Clynine realised, also meant that her test was drawing close. She wrapped her fingers around her emerald staff more tightly than ever, the white metal warmed by her fingers. Her heart was racing once more, and she felt even more nervous than climbing the trees on fragile vines and pathways had made her feel. “It’s not going to kill you, and you have the full capabilities to pass it,” Lanoré’s reassuring voice came through the storm of thoughts in her mind, her mistress sensing her lack of confidence. “I have faith in your abilities.”
Clynine turned to her and bowed her head, smiling uncertainly. “Thank you, Mistress Lanoré,” she replied. “But you probably think that because it was easy for you…” “And who ever said that I was any more skilful than you when I did my test?” Lanoré answered. She was probably way better, but she’s just trying to give me some confidence, Clynine thought to herself. Which is what I need. Akera had gone up the swinging vine to Grendel’s front door, and was now knocking it hard. The two quickly walked over to join her at the door. Moments after they arrived, the door swung open as it had the first time she had come. All three entered quickly, Clynine shutting the door with a slam, knowing that the building became visible whenever the door was open. One the door had closed off all light and silence had been restored, the library’s sombre, stately atmosphere engulfed her again. She glanced about at the book shelves that she had seen almost two years ago, still laden with books and lit by squares of yellow sunlight that ran through the windows, falling upon the worn book covers. Akera had just finished explaining the purpose of their visit, frustration quickly showing in her voice as she repeated her sentences for a second time. “I’m sorry about that, I was in the middle of my meditation,” he apologised, blinking and inclining his head towards them. “You can’t possibly be ready for your fourth job yet; you took your previous test just last winter. Unless you have sprung another, unimaginable surprise on me…” “Not me!” Akera yelled, shocking Clynine to know that she dared to raise her voice at the Job Master for such a small matter. Finally, he seemed to notice the magician, the Cleric-to-be. “Clynine? Have you come for your second job?” Clynine turned to look up at the Job Master with fearful eyes. “I—have,” she replied, voice alarmingly soft. “I’m here to take my second job test.” She said it a little louder this time. How would he start? Would they be going anywhere outside? Soon, her questions were answered. Slowly, the wise old man, whose seemingly frail body hid the greatest well of magic imaginable, descended through the golden morning sunlight and came to her face level, his feet suddenly touching the ground for the first time she had seen, robes falling over his simple brown shoes almost instantly. Akera blinked a few times when she saw that he was standing on the ground. He ignored their stares. “Of course,” he said to Clynine, smiling, eyes still shaded by his tall Archmage’s hat. “Ah, Clynine, the one whose soul is so pure…” “Pure?” Her mouth was hanging open with surprise. What made him think that she was so pure? She was definitely not perfect. He floated into the air again, only three feet off the ground now. With a sweep of his blue-gemmed staff, the door swung smoothly open and he proceeded to float through the doorway, hat brushing the top of the door without falling off. Why was it that the Magician Job Master could do such comical things and make them look so stately? Said Job Master’s head turned back to face the Cleric-to-be. “Let’s not waste any time now; I honestly and sincerely cannot wait to see your performance today.”
Blinking a few times with surprise, she followed after, hearing the soft wishes of good luck from her mistress and from Akera, her new friend—or something close to friend, but not quite. “And good day to you, Lanoré,” he suddenly said, turning. Lanoré bowed in reply. Grendel had already gone as far as the next layer of branches, below his home. Remembering that the invisibility spell stopped working whenever the door was open, she quickly took one more glance at the two inside, swallowed fearfully, then shut the door and clambered down the vine rope, following Grendel towards the place where she would be tested. ralinn: song of terror She had heard the fourth and fifth songs. They had the same words, both spirits, the same temperaments as well. Darkness. Anger. Hate. Ralinn was afraid. “Here, alone for more than a decade, Blood of hundreds on our hands Trying, wishing to escape this Cage of hate to see the lands.” It was a song that sent chills through her entire body. The voices themselves simply weren’t normal. Well, she thought to herself. If the dream voice wants us to stop the king, the guild members can’t be normal. One line hung in her mind, though. Blood of hundreds on our hands. When she found them, she hoped that it would not be in a moment of life and death. orion’s belt: somewhere in the dark Ralinn had passed her third job test easily. It seemed that her skills at the bow had grown without her notice, for she always said that she was no better than she had been after her escape from the castle. But however much better she was now than last time, she had managed the third job test fairly well, and an hour after she had gone to meet Athena Pierce, she had returned, bleeding, bruised and smiling, a new bow in her hands. “Hey, Linn, when did you get that thing?” Raydan interrogated her as soon as she had entered their shared room in the small inn. It was just large enough to accommodate all four members of Orion’s Belt, the air growing warm in the summer’s heat. Ralinn smiled at her envious brother’s expression. “At the shop,” she answered. “Where else?” Ketara stared on at the bow. Once again, he recalled the last time he had ever taken notice of a bow—the day he had been taunted and led into a dangerous part of Perion by a bowman, and had only barely survived there. He still fumed whenever he pictured the boy’s face, contorted into a sneer, as he fired a swift Arrow Blow at the wild boar he had had so much trouble killing. But that was a bygone, he told himself. He wouldn’t let that happen again, and let anger lead him to do stupid things like that. And he couldn’t think that way of all three of the other job classes—it had only been one person. Oh, but I’ll get back at
him, he thought to himself, appalled by the look he remembered seeing on his face. Suddenly, the spearman recalled what Ralinn’s return meant—they could go to the Dungeon, at last! “So could we get going now?” he asked the guild leader eagerly, jumping up and down on the bed. “Don’t jump on the bed, you’ll spoil the springs,” Ralinn advised. “And yeah, I promised, so let’s go to the Dungeon now?” “Uh—are you sure?” Zethis, once again, did not seem too keen on the idea of going into the dark heart of Victoria Island. Thinking of his experience there, he grinned. It had been tiring, disgusting, trying on his endurance, and fun—and he wanted to do it again. “It’ll be fun!” he exclaimed in reply, choosing to omit the other three adjectives. “I went there once. And it wasn’t as bad or scary as everyone makes it out to be.” “We’ll take your word for it,” Raydan replied. The Crossbowman was off the bed as well, picking up his bag and crossbow from the bedside. “Hey people, we’d better hurry if we want to get there soon.” They only took a minute to check out, thanks to the efficient receptionist. As they stepped out, Zethis turned back to admire the inn. “This was the first place I ever stayed after I left on my journey,” he sighed, sinking into reminiscence. “This White Knight took me here, and he was the one who inspired me to want to take this job path, in fact—Hyrien was his name, if I’m not wrong…” “Hyrien?” Raydan’s interest had been sparked. “He’s in Nightfall, that guild! The highest-levelled person around. You’ve met him before?” Zethis nodded with surprise and excitement. “The first person to tell me his name,” he replied. “I sometimes wonder where he has gone, and what he’s doing now. The world is pretty small, it seems…” “Maybe we’ll meet him again!” the Crossbowman said, looking straight along the road they were taking. “I’d love to introduce everyone to you. But I’m not sure if we’ll meet them again…” They had lunch along one of the more deserted roads of Henesys, where the shopkeeper kindly allowed them to hide during the policemen’s afternoon patrol. As soon as the way was clear, they left quickly for the exit to the Dungeon. As they neared the city’s border, they saw the castle of King Caleix, a tall, ancient building on the hill to the east of the city, all its turrets clawing the cloud-streaked sky like talons of a beast. Turning away from it, they finally found the open gates that lead into the dense, unforgiving forest. Ketara turned to observe the gates. They had stood open for so long, vines and weeds tangling around the wrought iron already, and yet the road was hardly trampled over, the weeds and wild grass growing thickly on the path. So there was something that the king feared—the Dungeon, so much that he had not sent even his subjects to patrol. That was interesting and somehow comforting to know. That also meant that they would not have to worry about being caught in the Dungeon. As they stepped through the gates and crossed the grass path to the place where civilization met wilderness, the treetops loomed closer, before sheltering them completely from the afternoon sunlight. They walked on, foliage thickening over their heads, thousands of leaves crackling below their feet, untouched by human feet for
years already. At last, it was dark as night, and everywhere they looked, the area before their vision was darker than pitch. It was just like it had been the last time, Ketara noted, even though they were entering by the south this time. Ralinn’s footsteps froze in front of them, they could tell by the sudden silence in the crackling leaves. “So…how do we go on from…here?” her voice asked. Ketara tried to recall what had happened when he had last come here. He had gotten completely lost, and somehow stumbled upon a river, before realizing that he would have to eat raw meat, and doing just that. “We…just go with the flow, if you know what I mean,” he replied. “And I think I know my way around a little; that might help.” It turned out that he could not recognise a thing out in the dark here. Everyone could hardly see, even though they had been walking about for at least twenty minutes already. The spearman swallowed nervously, realizing that he was to blame, should they get lost out in this endless maze of tree trunks. It was my suggestion… They trekked through the pillar-like trunks of the Dungeon trees, among the dead leaves and the smell of dampness, for two hours on end, no one ever complaining once that their journey was taking so long. They think I know the way, Ketara suddenly realised, gulping. What am I going to do now?! “You know, people,” he said, turning in the general direction of their footsteps. “I ought to tell you that…I have no idea where we’re going.” “I figured just as much,” Raydan’s answer came. Even his voice sounded tired and fed-up. The first hints of real panic had started to reach into his heart, and he was now more desperate than ever to find someplace safe, at least familiar… How deep were they? A two hours’ walk into the Dungeon would mean that they were pretty deep into the southern side. But which direction had they gone? He needed a landmark, or some sense of direction… Suddenly, the ground came to a steep drop, the trees leaning slightly out into the depth. Ketara’s heart leapt. He knew this place. This drop. It meant that they were nearing the weird ant cave, and a fresh supply of water! “Okay, now I think I know where we’re going,” he piped up, a smile returning to his lips. Behind him, he heard sighs of relief as the rest of Orion’s Belt breathed out their nerves and tension. “There’s water close by, and a place to stay, though it isn’t the most comfortable. Come on!” With that, he raced down the slope, grabbing tree trunks to slow his slide downhill. He couldn’t contain his excitement and elation at the prospect of their salvation in this forest—a place that he recognised and knew the way around. He had spent at least a month hunting here before. The sounds of the roaring river were coming through the dense forestation, and they proceeded as fast as they could, waterskins almost empty, and thirsty for a drink. They would probably have to stay around this area for a while, making a temporary home here, and hunting around it… I really should have told them how hard it was, Ketara decided, a little too late. Finally, they came to the edge of the source of the sound of flowing water, hardly
glimmering in the faintest light from the torches of a town nearby. Sleepywood! He had almost forgotten how near it was to the ant tunnel, the huge cave which gaped in the sloped earth close behind them. “That’s where we can stay,” he said to Ralinn, pointing to the cave. “I stayed there for a while. Good hunting inside and out.” The rest, whose shapes he could faintly see, nodded as they turned to look at it. “So why don’t we check that place out,” Ralinn suggested. “After drinking enough? You’re right, the water tastes like plants.” Zethis and Raydan spent the longest at the river. Then they came to join Ketara and Ralinn at the mouth of the tunnel. “Sure about this?” the Page’s voice was shaking with true terror. There were strange sounds, the sounds of Zombie Mushrooms, coming from within it. Ketara nodded confidently. “I’m sure!” he exclaimed, stepping in. By the sound of their footsteps, the rest were following. As they walked, the sounds of their footsteps rang loudly in the darkness, echoing off earthen walls back to their ears. They went on further and deeper, searching for a place where they could make proper beds to sleep on, and Ketara secretly hoped that they would, since he had slept on the floor when he had lived here. The rustles of the Zombie Mushrooms as they passed were loud, but the creatures only brushed against them harmlessly, knowing that they were too strong to face. The sense of deepening, pressing darkness grew as they went deeper, but they refused to let that deter them. “Well, not good for sleeping on. Let’s go in further.” Ketara decided to listen to Ralinn. The earth walls ended, and stone ones began. Blue crystals grew over the fallen stone arches and monuments that lay strewn over the ground all around them, giving off bright, azure light. This was a familiar sight, but he had never tried going further than the next doorway, which they were headed for now. Somehow, even he felt uneasy about going too far in. Suddenly, there was the rush of footsteps from the shadows behind the next arch, and a loud, angry shout. There were other humans here— “What are you doing here?” All of a sudden, a barrage of flaming balls whooshed from the doorway, hurtling with deadly speed at them. All four stepped aside or ducked in time, and the balls of fire smashed open on the wall behind, bursting loudly. There was another shout, this time from the doorway. “They’re mine, Rino,” a harsh girl’s voice screamed, before the sound of metal slicing the air came dangerously close, and all of them ducked down. The metal objects clattered to the ground behind them. “Ha, you call that an attack?” “You didn’t do much better! Don’t always make yourself out to be so good.” Recognition hit Ketara suddenly. “Telida? Turino? You live here?” Raydan ran to his side. “You know them?” he questioned. “Yeah, they helped me last time I came here. Yeah, I had help.”
Both twins emerged from the doorways, Telida racing up to the group in surprise. “Ketara?” she exclaimed, not seeming to believe that he was here. “Is that really you?” There was a disbelieving frown on her face. “You again? What’re you doing here, in our home?” Turino was behind him. Now, in the light of the crystals, he could see clearly how they looked. Both had black hair and matching eyes of obsidian, their hair unkempt and fringes uncut, falling over their faces. But they undoubtedly had this look of grace and coolness in their sharp features, which were carved in ivory skin. Turino’s hair reached up to his shoulders in thick, messy locks; Telida’s almost reached her waist. What do you expect of people who have been living without sunlight for almost all their lives, he thought to himself. I didn’t think they looked this…nice, though. “We need somewhere to stay?” he replied uncertainly, sure that they were the kind to chase people out of their homes. “No, alright? We won’t accommodate all of you!” Telida screamed, walking straight up to stand before Ketara. A snarl entered her voice. “In fact, we should be killing you! I don’t know what’s with you, but I don’t want to kill you for nothing. Get out quick! I don’t think my brother is this forgiving.” Everyone turned to Turino, who folded his arms and gave them a passive glare. That was enough to make Ralinn dip them a quick bow and turn around. Ketara followed after. “Nice home, by the way,” he called, turning back, voice definitely too cheerful for the situation. Zethis stammered a greeting and an apology and turned as well. Ralinn went on in the direction they had come, across the stones of the inner cave towards the exit. They finally reached the dankness of the tunnel, picking their way through in single file. To Ralinn, their encounter with—she struggled to recall how Ketara had addressed them—Turino and Telida had been a very close shave. “I can’t believe you could actually be so friendly with them,” she commented to the spearman, who turned suddenly and smiled. “They were actually not that bad, the first time I met them,” he replied. “They helped me find my way around, a little, though they did steal something of mine.” They were killers, creatures of the darkness, and he actually befriended them on his own. Ketara really did have a way with people—the social butterfly, as always. “Have they really not been out of the Dungeon for all their lives?” Raydan’s voice was bewildered. “They certainly seem so,” Ralinn replied. “How do they survive? I did hear stories that people who enter the Dungeon never leave. Is it because of…them?” “Maybe, and other things,” Ketara said, looking up at the ant tunnel’s ceiling as if in thought. “As far as I know, they kill everyone they can for their food, clothes, weapons and skill books. But I don’t see how they could know how to read in the first place…I’d suppose one of the reasons why people never come out of here is because the twins kill them.” “For survival,” Ralinn said softly. Somehow, she felt pity instead of anger towards them. How had they gotten here? The animal sounds grew to encompass them as they stepped from the dank murk of the cave to meet the dim surroundings outside, just traces of wind stirring—that was
no matter, the air was cold already. There were chirps of insects and calls of birds they did not recognize, and the ever murmuring whisper of the river close by, superimposed against the wild, strangely calming sounds of the animals. Ralinn suddenly realized how hungry she felt. Thankful for the fact that she had brought some food along from the Henesys potion shop, they sat down for a while at the roots of a huge tree, Ralinn taking out a few of the eggs and hunks of meat in paper bags, and passed them out to the four members of Orion’s Belt. Evening had probably fallen a while ago, but there was no telling whether it had. There was no more natural light from the sun now. Only the dim light that somehow slipped through the dense vegetation from the torches of Sleepywood showed them where they set down their next footsteps. They made their way to the little town, hoping for some lodging, despite the fact that the only people who lived there were the monks of the shrine, as well as the few shopkeepers who supplied Sleepywood’s few residents with food. There would probably be somewhere to stay in the village. “Excuse me, sir, do you know where we might find some lodging?” There happened to be an old man standing outside his house, watering his plants, so Ralinn decided to inquire about the place. He looked up with squinted eyes, white beard flung back over his shoulder. Age had turned him partly bald, and the torchlight glared yellow on the top of his head. “Lodging?” was his lisping reply—he had lost all his teeth. “The monks are kind; not many have made it here before, but I’m sure they’ll take you in.” Ralinn bowed and thanked him. He gave a nod of acknowledgement and went back to his gardening. The Ranger had intended to ask him where the monks lived, but she decided against disturbing him. It was not hard to find anyway—the old rock building stood on a higher part of the small village, surrounded by a wide garden and many strange statues of rectangular human faces, sharp, squared features carved into rock, dark brown in the firelight. Their gazes struck reverence and odd fear into Ralinn, making her hair stand. They crossed the gravely path to the tall, tarnishing gold-decorated door of the temple. Ketara saved her the trouble and stress, and knocked on the great rectangle of wood, making a hollow woody sound that made her feel as if it might fall any moment. The golden decorations, attached loosely, rang with his knocks. It didn’t take long for a monk to answer. The door creaked slowly open, and a bald man, white dots seemingly burnt into his forehead, appeared before them. He wore brown monk’s garb, the robe almost too big for him. “Excuse me, sir, could we stay in the temple for the next few nights?” Ralinn asked. How long? She wondered to herself, before remembering that she was the guild leader, and that she would decide how long they stayed. “For a week, maybe?” The monk looked up at her face and observed her watchfully. “Ah, some lost travellers, perhaps?” he inquired. “It has been a while since we have had any visitors, but do come in! But take off your shoes first.” The monk took them through dim halls, the walls decorated with ornate weavings of trees, men and women, and dragons. “A temple of the Clock Spirit?” Ralinn whispered to herself as they came to the statue at the main altar, in the centre of the building. It was a huge deity of hardly discernable form, something like a human being
overflowing with robes and dresses, the folds of cloth so intricately remade in stone here, exploding over the altar like an upside-down flower. There was a circle of twelve candles burning below the statue, and a pool of water in the middle, the slick reflections of black and orange it echoed making it look almost like oil. “Guest rooms here,” the middle-aged monk told the group of four, gesturing down a corridor leading left from the altar. Wordlessly, they went down the corridor, the air of mystery surrounding Ralinn again. Even the guest corridor seemed so holy and sacred. After finally getting more comfortable with the room which the four were about to share, the guild leader got some food out of her bag to share with the others. “No need, I brought some too,” Zethis said, digging a bag of salad from the bottom of his bag. “Salad?” Ketara exclaimed, screwing up his face. He produced a familiar bright orange packet from his bag. “I nicked this from your larder. Chips, anyone?” Ralinn was in front of him instantly, as was Raydan, and the three began to snatch the packet from each other, stuffing chips into their mouths. Zethis just sat at one side, eating his salad. The Ranger was sure that anyone watching this scene would be laughing to death. Full and content after having a sandwich and a few chips, Ralinn settled to sleep in her sleeping bag on the floor. The bed only had space for one person, and they had drawn lots for it. Raydan had won the right, and the other three had been condemned to resting for the night on the cold tiled floor. I hope there’s a bath around here, was Ralinn’s last thought. The dreams returned that night, the two voices louder than she had ever heard. Angry. “Here, alone for more than a decade, Blood of hundreds on our hands Trying, wishing to escape this Cage of hate to see the lands.” Cage of hate…of hate… Moments later, her eyes opened, and Ralinn found herself sweating from the force of sheer anger and desperation in the spirits that had sung that night. At once, she knew who they were. “Quick, wake up, it’s morning!” Ralinn yelled, glancing at her watch, which registered nine o’clock. The other three groaned and turned as she went to them in turn. “Zethis,” she sighed, returning to the closest person to her sleeping area. “Get up, quick, we have to go back to the tunnel.” He turned. “Why?” he replied, barely audible. “It’s…scary.” His eyes were still clouded with sleep. “Just get up!” It was easy waking Zethis and Ketara up. But Raydan, who was used to it, knocked her arm away whenever she tried to shake him, burying his head in the pillow when she shouted. Shouldn’t have given him the bed, Ralinn thought regretfully. “Get up!
The rest of us are ready already, and you’re not even out of the bed!” Ten minutes later, he finally relented and struggled from under the covers, feeling for the table to steady himself as he got up. It didn’t take them long to get ready. The only shower around was the waterfall near the temple, and no one wanted to stay in it very long, and the coldness helped their footsteps speed up as they headed for the dining room for their breakfast. Their breakfast took no more than fifteen minutes. While they ate, Ketara noted that Ralinn seemed in an awful hurry to leave. She was dropping crumbs of bread everywhere, when she was normally a neat eater. “Quick, guys!” she exclaimed, standing instantly. “We must find them…” Them? They ran down the gravel pathway again, following the course of the river to the point where they had been the day before, where they had taken a turn into the deep undergrowth and entered the tunnel… Again, they were racing down the tunnel, Ralinn leading the group as she glanced frantically about. She was searching for Telida and Turino, Ketara was sure now. But why? She had been afraid of them earlier. Why had she suddenly decided to reconcile herself with them, if that was what she intended? They searched for an hour, footsteps ringing over the rock ground as they checked behind rocks and crumbled pillars for the two. Ketara found traces of their habitation —a few sets of old clothing carelessly thrown here and there, many animal skeletons, and a few other odds and ends that they had probably stolen. But no sign of them. “Turino and Telida,” she said to herself. “We must find them…” “They seem to be gone,” Raydan said as they came to meet her near the exit. “Why so badly?” “It’s them. They’re the next two members of Orion’s Belt.” Orion’s Belt went deeper into the cave, which went gradually downward with a series of rooms connected by stairs. The revelation that the twins were to be the next two members of their guild left Ketara greatly surprised. Who would have guessed? The two had never seemed like the kind to want to take on the king—did they even know what was going on outside the Dungeon? They had lunch on the marble floor, eating the stale meat and salad that they managed to dig up from their haversacks and pouches, before continuing their search after that. Maybe Turino and Telida would return if they waited. Meanwhile, they went on deeper. This place wasn’t familiar, he suddenly realised, stopping in the midst of semidarkness, noting how the ceiling above and the ground below was cracked and deeply cratered, seeming as if it had been trampled over by huge footsteps. He heard a moan. Zethis and Raydan, who had been conversing with each other, fell instantly silent. All their expressions said the same thing. What was that? Then a huge mass of flesh leapt through the stalagmites, the enormous thump it made knocking them down to the ground. It stood towering over them, its sheer size inconceivable, its full form of horror topped with a brown mushroom cap. They stood, instinct telling them to run. But they would never escape it; somehow, all of them knew. None of them tried to turn.
“We’ll fight it,” Ralinn said determinedly. Her bow was already drawn, two arrows strung in its curve. Ketara swung the Holy Spear from his back, the three crosspoints gleaming. Close to him, Zethis had a large metal hammer ready, and Raydan, his crossbow. They didn’t know what, exactly, they were up against. But this was a fight to the finish, and there was no other way. Then tension was building in the air around them, the sound of all their breaths audible in the silence of the cave. Ketara’s grip on his spear got tighter in anticipation. They would wait for it to attack first. It came without warning. With an enormous leap, the great bulk of the mushroom flew through the fallen brown rubble around them and landed with a ground-shaking boom. They raced aside as it landed, turning instantly to begin their assault of attacks. “Power Arrow! Power Arrow!” The repeated shouts were coming from Ralinn as she gathered energy in blue spirals around her nocked Fury Arrows before launching them repeatedly, one after another. Her brother fought similarly with shining Soul Arrows from his crossbow, the projectiles striking like stings in the monster, magic blowing little potholes in its white sides. “Hyper Body,” Ketara whispered, ochre light rising upwards around him and the rest as it always did, mana dropping slightly. “Iron Will.” The same happened, with blue light instead. He glance up and down the great mushroom. It looked like an expanded version of the Zombie Mushrooms nearer to the surface, complete with the yellow tag that held an indecipherable bloody scrawling. He would have to come up close in order to do it damage, but with his long weapon, it wouldn’t mean going too near. As for Zethis… “Power strike!” he yelled, feeling the power gather in his arms with his words. Moments later, he shot forward and the blazing spear found its way deep into the monster. He felt more energy welling in him and got ready to use it again. “Final attack!” The spear slashed down at its side, leaving a gash. There was another yell of Power Strike as Zethis attempted to get it in the front, swinging his steel Titan down on its face. The creature gave a shrieking cry and retaliated with a full blast of yellow light. The Page stumbled back a few steps, injured, Ketara managing to leap to a side an instant before it struck. From the right, he could hear commands for Strafe, Power Strike and Final attack, arrows burning in three different colours as they slashed through the darkness and found their marks in the mushroom. Yellow burned upwards from the ground, Ralinn and Raydan falling back with it. Ketara rose to the chance and hit it with another Power Strike. A shot of yellow flame burst upwards at his feet, and he flew back three feet, into a wall. His head gave a painful crunch as it collided with the hard stone, and he stood, dizzy, desperately rubbing the bruised spot. He just felt the edge of a wound before he realised that there was blood running down his arm. Wincing, the Spearman quickly regained his composure in time to see Zethis fall forward with the creature’s magic attack. Raydan strung another arrow and released it, Ralinn taking a sip from her Mana Elixir before swinging her bow back into position. The monster, despite its numerous small wounds and scratches, hardly looked battered. This was not going to be easy at all.
The two bow-users rested for a few moments. That cost them both some harsh burns. They quickly drank potions while the two warriors continued to attack nearer to the mushroom, taking a lot more damage than the two in the backlines. “Ketara, I’m out of mana potion,” Zethis called over, running quickly out of range. The Spearman pulled his quarter-full bottle from his bag, his arms shaking so much from exhaustion that he almost dropped it. He was losing a lot of blood through his wound. Zethis took it and drank a little gratefully, before returning to his position. More arrows raged through the air but turned into mere burning pinpricks as they struck the mushroom in its side. It stumbled slightly, but quickly rose again. They were weakening it, but not enough. Then they froze as a furious call rose over the sounds of their weapons and arrows, and a blaze of red light burst through the battle and shot deep into the mushroom they were fighting. In unison, they turned. “Didn’t we tell you to get out already?” Telida was snarling at them, long black hair fluttering out in the sapphire light of the cave, more throwing stars already burning in her hand. “Can you kill this thing?” Ketara called, relief suddenly rushing through him to see her. “No, it’s too strong—but we can ask it to go away,” she replied. Turino appeared after her. “But since you’ve started the battle already,” he said decisively, stepping forward, wielding a staff that Ketara had never seen before, its head shaped like a pair of wings. Close by, Ralinn gasped. “That’s a level sixty-five staff,” she said, apparently to herself. “He killed a level sixty-five mage.” Turino swept his staff in an arc. The staff burst into a flame, bow-shaped, and from it he launched three arrows, one after another. The flaming projectiles shot through the still air faster than real arrows, crackling with powerful flames. They burnt deep into the mushroom. “Oh, so you’re going to kill this as well?” Telida spat at her brother, stepping aside. “Go ahead. I know I’m no match for you.” “Come on, you know I can’t kill it alone, alright?” “Oh, just stop it,” Raydan said exasperatedly, never taking his eyes off the monster as his hands deftly loaded crossbow bolts one after another on his Rower and fired them straight into their foe. It was slowing, Ketara noted with added relief and hope. “Power Strike!” His spear swung out with more energy than it had in the last few attacks. He managed to drive it deep, costing a little energy, but inflicting it with a lot of pain. It cried out again. Telida and Turino had joined the battle with full momentum, despite the fact that they had not been prepared for this, and that Orion’s Belt was not welcome in their cave. When the stream of throwing stars stopped, arrows came to take on the attack role. The mushroom was given less chances to recover and gather energy for attack, and with that, the two warriors could battle a lot more effectively. Ketara attacked again, suddenly wanting the battle to end more than ever, so that they could get the twins into the guild. “Power Strike!” he shouted, thrusting his Holy Spear into the monster, feeling more energy gather up into his arm muscles. “Final
attack!” It turned to him. Shutting out all the rest of the attacks for a few seconds, it sent flashes of light out at the Spearman, and he was thrown to the ground once more. The dull ache at the back of his skull burst into sudden, excruciating pain. He stood up, just barely, vision whirling all of a sudden. Then it vanished all at once, before he could realise. Ketara suddenly felt new energy rush into his body like healing light, and he found all his strength returning. “Power Strike! Power Strike!” He performed three Final Attacks in a row after that. His strange hidden power had returned once more. It seemed to do so whenever he was in a dire situation, it seemed. Would he ever learn to control it? “Power Strike!” Ketara looked forward as he readied another blow. Zethis was bludgeoning the creature with his hammer with little effort. His eyes were…glowing. Ketara had been told that his eyes glowed when he unlocked his powers. Could Zethis do the same? Again, ignoring the dizziness that was spinning around in his head, he ran, raised the Holy Spear and drove it into the monster with all his weight. It froze at spear point all of a sudden, its battered body convulsing once, before it suddenly began to crumble away, its tag fluttering downward like a huge petal to land on the marble ground. “Wow, you performed the killing blow,” Ralinn said, stepping forward. It was strange, the silence; one moment, there was a towering beast before them, and the next, it had completely vanished. Then as suddenly as it had come, the power vanished from his body. He collapsed to the ground, suddenly noticing that his dark hair was literally dripping blood, the wound throbbing with repeated flashes of claw-like pain. “Ouch, that’s gotta hurt,” Telida commented after a moment of silence. Ketara watched through blurred vision as she walked to stand over him. Feebly, he held out his arm, hoping that she would help him stand, no matter how unlikely this was. She did. Her grip was exceptionally strong, almost bone-crushing. “We’ve got some stuff to put on it…but I’m not sure how much that will help.” Immediately, she ran off somewhere. “Hey, Linn, ask them now,” Raydan’s voice just barely came through to his hearing. “Uh—you two, would you, by any chance…want to—end the oppression that the king is imposing on us all? Um…get rid of the king?” Ralinn asked, voice shaking with nerves. “I don’t know—you are the prophesised fifth and sixth members…” “Not a bad idea, really, getting rid of the king,” Turino commented. There was a spark of what might have been anger, but Ketara didn’t think that he would half care about what King Caleix did or had done. Telida nodded in agreement. “Yes, alright. But don’t think we’ll let you tell us what to do all the time.” “Alright, so…you will join?” Ralinn confirmed, still seeming too surprised at their agreement. “Are you stupid, or deaf? We said ‘yes’.” The guild leader flinched at Telida’s response. She cautiously held out two pendants, and they came forward, snatching them from her hand. They observed the metal pieces, somewhat hungrily, Ketara thought. But they put the items on anyway. No one dared to speak for a while.
“Welcome to Orion’s Belt!” the Spearman finally exclaimed, grinning, after a few moments of silence. Telida burst out laughing, and Turino sniggered. “You should see the expression on your face,” the female twin said, still smiling widely. Ketara thought on this and blushed. It seemed strange to him how everyone found him so funny. “That done, let’s get out,” Ralinn said. “And…I hope we can find our way around better, with them.” “Definitely,” Ketara said optimistically. As soon as Telida had tied the bandage around his head, they began on their way out of the cave, Orion’s Belt now two members bigger. Ketara drifted over to Zethis’ side as they went, his question still bugging him. “Hey, Zethis,” he called. The Page started, leaping away in shock. “Y-yes?” Ketara laughed to himself. “Your eyes were…um…glowing, just now,” he explained. “I was wondering; do you have that weird power that seems to come out at night only?” Zethis looked up, blinking as he thought. “You’re right! It does only appear at night!” he exclaimed, before turning back to face the Spearman, shocked. “Y-you too! Chief Dances with Balrog said…” “I guess I can do it too,” Ketara agreed. “I don’t know…but it seems we’re related in some way. And Dances with Balrog seems to have realised that…” Zethis seemed to want to change the subject, now that their conversation had begun. “How do you actually dare to talk to Telida and Turino?” he exclaimed, glancing down at the two. Ketara suddenly noticed that their clothes were badly tattered, as if they had been wearing them for years. “Um…they’re nice,” he replied simply. “They just don’t like meeting new people, I guess.” “They said that they kill everyone, and that they would have killed us, if not for you!” Zethis repeated what Telida had said. “How did you make them so friendly to you?” Ketara thought back to their first meeting. True, they should have killed him, like any other person who had gone by before. But…what had they said then? He tried to remember. "He's the most interesting, and good-looking, person who's ever come round here before..." “I see what you mean by good-looking.” Ketara felt himself blush again at the words he had heard years ago. “I should go ask,” the Spearman said, more to himself than to Zethis. The Page nodded. “Um…hey, Rino,” he attempted to start a conversation with the obsidian-haired youth. For some reason, Turino still made Ketara nervous. “Who gave you the permission to call me that?!” he yelled in response, dark hair flying to cover the right side of his face. His eyes were empty, like pools of coal, his expression so furious it would have scared a young child to tears. It only startled Ketara a little. “Turino, then,” he quickly corrected himself. “Why didn’t you kill me?”
Somehow, it sounded like he was asking to be killed. Turino gave a sniff of disdain. “Ask my dumb sister,” he said. “Well, all I can say is that you’re of more use to the world alive than dead. I mean, who wants your stuff anyway?” “Ignore him,” Telida cut in, walking to Ketara’s other side. “Rino really loves to kill people. And yeah, you’re more useful alive than dead. You were…nice, I guess. Nicer than everyone else who’s met us. And you didn’t go crazy when you found out that I stole your mesos.” She smiled to herself and gave him a knock on his head. “You stupid or what? Giving in to us like that.” “I don’t mind,” Ketara replied, not sure of what to do. He really wouldn’t have minded if someone poorer than him had taken his money. “You are really strange,” Turino said, not turning around. “Be nice to the rest, ‘kay?” the Spearman said, noting how everyone was drifting away from them as they walked. “They’re nice too.” shirion: after so long Shirion crept between the snow-laden trunks of the trees at the south of Ellinia, hidden by the predawn shadows. He had reached his seventy-seventh level in the deeper parts of the undergrowth, the sweat still wetting his hair, which was now bound in a low-worn pony-tail. He untied it, his long mahogany-brown locks falling far past his shoulders, before redoing it more neatly. Suddenly he straightened. He had heard something—the crackle of snow underfoot, behind him. It had been made by something larger than the squirrels he so often saw, springing from branch to branch—was he being followed by the guards? He had been on the run for four years and grown to a level that would warrant his instant execution; had they finally caught up with him? Telling himself to calm down, he braced himself for what he would find when he turned. The winter wind descended through the rustling treetops, as dawn crept through the spaces between the leaves, dappling the white ground below. The Crusader turned. His eyes widened for an instant, his mind still not comprehending what he was seeing. “Akera!” The silver-haired Fire Poison Mage gasped, loud enough for him to hear. She stood just at the edge of the small clearing, a half-silhouette between the wooden pillars. Her mouth curved into a smile Shirion had not seen for three and a half years. “So, you finally noticed me!” she replied, running forward to give him a bear hug. He was too shocked, initially, to respond. “How has it been?” “Third job. Haven’t been caught, as you can see. I just came, about a month ago, from Perion—” “Some coincidence this is!” Akera replied. “I’ve been hanging around here since we parted, actually. Found a place to stay, got to my third job as well, last year…” “And you’re a year younger than me!” Somehow, it seemed like a dream. Was it possible that they had actually met again? Shirion had never expected to see Akera again, not in his entire life. He did wonder about her sometimes, but he had never considered this possibility.
So now he had a companion to travel. “Want to go to Ossyria someday?” he suggested. She nodded, stepping back. “Ossyria, it is.” clynine: the journey back Clynine had been a Cleric for about two months already. The winds were dropping in temperature as the year entered winter, the trees now bare. Lanoré looked forward at the wide ocean that spread from the coast, cold breezes of salt rushing past them. “Time to go back?” she asked. Clynine nodded. They had seen more of Victoria Island than she had ever seen in the full twelve years of her life. Her mistress was smiling, probably at the prospect of home. “So…let’s go, then.” They had already found the location of the secret jetty on the Ellinia side. The ship service had been rebuilt, the previous captain having survived the crash, though the ship had been wrecked completely, and a new one had had to be constructed in secrecy. “Back to Ossyria.” Turning, Lanoré began walking along the tree-rimmed coast, along the path of the morning. Clynine followed, thinking of where they were headed—home, heart pounding with anticipation. She couldn’t wait. orion’s belt: plans In the midst of the deep snow just north of the great forest, Ketara suddenly saw blue light rise up all around him. He thought for a while, counting. Level seventy! He was eligible for his third job! “Judging from that expression, I’d believe it’s time for your third job test?” Ralinn walked over. The others were still busy at the drakes, chasing them down through the soft snow. Ketara nodded. “Hope it’s not too hard,” he said to himself. “And once I get it, we can go to Ossyria!” “How about us?” Raydan shouted, slightly annoyed. “Alright, after you two as well!” Ketara laughed, and the Hunter gave a sigh, probably at the thought of how hard it would be to catch up with his friend. Ossyria…how much better was it there? A thought, almost heavenly, an escape from the torture of living in dying Victoria, shrivelling at the hands of an irresponsible king. It was only a ship ride away. An exhilarating ship ride, towards a land that was still free… How much better was Ossyria, across the great celestial-blue expanse of sky? Chapter 5: Year of the Ox clynine: chains The ride had been so much smoother than the first. As the boat careened over the water and came to a stop, Clynine stretched out her arms in joy, feeling fresh despite aching from having to sleep on the floor. The Cleric looked down into the translucent path of white ice that led to the land. It sparkled under the sunlight of her new homeland. The air was pleasantly cold, and she was more grateful than could be expressed in words, to finally feel the coolness of El Nath after that boat ride, to see the white hills that had become so familiar to
her. The rest of the passengers were either rubbing their eyes sleepily, or checking their maps. “Clynine, stop daydreaming,” Lanoré called out, yards away. “We’ve got to start now if you want to make it back to El Nath in time.” Quickly scolding herself, she followed obediently. They would be riding there, most likely, but yetis were hard to tame, and the nearest yeti farm was at least half an hour’s walk from the coast. Clynine pulled her jacket out of her bag as they walked. Glad that it was a sling bag and not a hand-carried one, she pulled her arms through the fur sleeves and zipped it up. Home, she thought. Finally. The shape of the yeti farm soon emerged from the rises of snow. But almost as soon as they saw it, they froze. For there was something else there—the rising danger, the small figures of men and women surrounding the building, clothed in black. And the shouts—why were they shouting to one another? Danger. Tension. Something coming—a looming shadow. “We need the mounts,” Lanoré whispered, turning and brushing her long blonde hair behind her ear. Then they ran on towards their destination, Clynine praying, sensing the cold dread growing in her. Now she could see them clearly. Their bodies were entirely cloaked in curtains of black cloth, hoods hanging low, as they raised their gazes. Clynine felt Lanoré’s body press against hers, and saw a flash of movement from the corner of her eye as she lifted her staff in a reflex action. Slowly, they were coming to surround them. “It is she,” they spoke it in unison. The circle was complete, and no one moved. The staves rose. Red-and-black lightning crackled in their points, filling the air. And it was about to begin. “Down!” Everything blurred, as Lanoré fell to the snow, pulling Clynine down with her. The Cleric gasped, finding her face buried in ice, the sound of blazing lightning and the touch of burning heat clawing on her skin, so close that she thought she might die from it… The circle had closed in on them. Their pitch-black robes were fluttering in the sudden gale, almost close enough for every fold to be seen. She could hear it all. Her heartbeat echoing through her every vein as she lay there upon the frozen ground. She knew what would follow if they were captured. She knew—and she never wanted to experience it. “M—Mistress…” “No. They won’t kill us. They’ll take us to hang—” She turned and gasped. The snow beside the pair was blown apart, throwing ice everywhere. All ease was gone from Lanoré’s face now. Beads of sweat were forming on her forehead, her eyes narrowed. Clynine turned back to the blank snow between her arms, shivering, suddenly dead and hopeless inside. The air was filled the smell of lightning. It was coming, coming so close…
The second filled with unbearable heat, and Clynine felt her face flush. Infernally hot, molten, like a furnace’s flames through her robes. Yet—no pain, no darkness, only the glow of brilliant blue light from the corner of her eye— Lanoré’s hand suddenly encircled Clynine’s own, and her heart stopped as she felt herself being lifted effortlessly off the ground. Knees shaking, her legs almost buckled under her own weight. But Lanoré’s hand kept her upright. The mages were frozen to the ground, some unconscious, some struggling to release themselves from the ice that Lanoré had frozen them in. Sudden relief filled her. Then Clynine looked up, and her breath caught in her throat. More coming in from the east. Her insides clenched even harder, until she felt an urge to vomit. “Orders from the supervisor!” his shout was raw and angry. “Do not kill them! He wants them alive!” They were looming closer, black cloaks filled with the wind. Lanoré gave Clynine’s hand an urgent pull. “Quick, let’s run—” But to her horror, she couldn’t move. Clynine! Move! Her body refused to obey, though desperation spun around her. Lanoré was waiting! She had to run— —And yet she couldn’t— RUN! Run, Clynine! By the then, it was too late. A powerful crackle—stunning energy, like fire coursing through her, burnt deeper than her skin, running through her blood like molten iron. Her entire body crumpled with the pain. Fell. She screamed. Her head crunched straight into the snow, yet there was no pain. It was numb. Her vision filled with sparks like fireworks, and they did not fade, blinded her to the world. She could hear the thump of her heart, omnipresent, frighteningly irregular. Another scream. It wasn’t hers; it was her mistress’. Psychedelic circles of light were covering the sky as two rings of coldness clamped down around her wrists, and the sound of jangling chains filled her almost unhearing ears. She wanted to fight out against the powerful hands, but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t feel anything anymore. Her thrashing died down. Then, everything vanished, sudden as lightning. telida: two ways Telida watched at the blackness of the cave, trying to make out any of the movement within. She leaned against the rough stone again, wiping more sweat away. How long is he going to take? She wondered impatiently, having waited there for hours for Ketara to finish his third job test. Dances with Balrog was watching the cave intently, smiling with so much calm that it made her feel nervous. Again, thoughts of her joining the guild returned. Why, she should have put up more resistance! Why would she give up her independence just like that? It now seemed
so idiotic of her, as she thought. But yet again, it was what she really desired. She couldn’t stand living in the Dungeon anymore. She didn’t want to stay in shadows for the rest of her life. She sought another lease of life, a chance to live again. She didn’t want to be a killer anymore. She wanted to be something more. And so, with her and her brother, the small guild had finally left the Dungeon the previous winter. Telida had almost forgotten everything about Victoria Island—the only thing she could remember was the king. “We cannot live in plain sight of the king any longer. Turino, Telida—though I hate to say this, we must go into hiding, somewhere where even he cannot reach us.” It had been those words that had cast her into a life full of shadows and cruelty. Dances with Balrog gave a grunt and stood up straight. “Normally, a level seventy would be stuck in there for another half an hour…but he should be out right about now,” the chief’s voice fought its way through her thoughts. True to his words, the Spearman’s shout suddenly rang through the cave. “Done!” Moments later, out stepped a dirty and wounded Ketara, a small black object in his left hand. He instantly turned to Telida and smiled, panting slightly from exhaustion. His hair, the colour of ebony, whirled about his shoulders, framing his usual cheerful, charming grin, one that was completely unbefitting of a person who had just finished a killer test. Inside her, Telida felt something unclench with relief; both at the fact that Ketara had survived, and at the fact that she had some company again. No one else wanted to talk to her, the wild girl of the Dungeon. And Turino? She simply despised that brother of hers. How strange, that though she had always hated males all her life, she had found it exceedingly easy to befriend Ketara. It alarmed her. He might suddenly decide to turn on her, after acting all nice. Just like her father had. And her brother. Dances with Balrog took the object from Ketara’s hand. “Well, so…you’ve made it as well,” he said. “Another to reach his third job. That’s a commendable feat. Not many make it this far without…—Great job, Ketara.” Telida stepped back. She knew about job advancements already—she had studied from official Thief job skill books. But to see one of these job advancements was something she had never experienced before. Dances with Balrog, the man who wore strange clothes and a headdress of red feathers, took hold of her friend’s face. The two emanated a strange glow. Then Ketara staggered back slightly, blinking. “In the name of the great Dragon, creator of life, I name you a Dragon Knight.” Immediately after that, the rest, who had been standing around him, came forward to ask him about the test. “Was tiring,” he commented. “I think I worked my hand off!” “Well, it’s still there,” Telida said, thinking now about job advancements. Why did the king forbid it? Obviously, learning all these skills would accord power of some kind to
the learner. If she could get a job…then she could… “I want to take job advancement tests,” Turino suddenly said, beating her to her own words. Telida forced down the stir of annoyance. “So do I,” she added. Then her eyes widened, and she turned to her brother, something completely random tugging urgently at her mind. “Father’s stone! We…we forgot it!” Turino’s visible eye blinked, the other hidden by locks of raven hair. “You mean you forgot it?!” he exclaimed, panicking for the first time she had seen. His voice had become a groan of anger and tiredness. “Great! Now, because of you, we’ve got to go back all the way…” “Alright, alright—we’ll go back,” Ralinn quickly replied. Still annoyed and tired at the prospect, Telida decided to keep her mouth shut. She sometimes said stupid things when she was angry. “Great, so I’ve planned it,” Ralinn broke in, gathering everyone together. “You listen as well, Turino.” Telida rolled her eyes at her brother, who still stood a short distance away from everyone else. Reluctantly, he shifted over. “You go to Ellinia with someone to take your job test,” the guild leader instructed. “The rest of us will go to Kerning for Telida’s job. We’ll go through Sleepywood to get your stone, and join you in Ellinia. So—a hundred and eighty days from now, we will meet in Ellinia, western entrance.” The plan sounded clear and practical enough for Telida. “Who’s going with me?” Turino looked about at the rest, eyes narrowed. “Wouldn’t mind,” Raydan put in, stepping forward. Zethis raised his hand warily, as if he were in a classroom. “Could I…go as well?” he requested. His sister nodded. “So it’s set,” she continued. “Shall we depart, after washing up?” Everyone more or less agreed, nodding. “Have a nice time, then,” Ralinn said. “Stay away from the police patrols, alright?” They returned to their inn somewhere lower down the mountain, where all of them got cleaned up. Finally, clean and refreshed, they gathered at the doorway with their bags, potions fully stocked up. “Come on, Telida and Ketara,” Ralinn said, turning to face the afternoon sun. She gave her brother a single wave. Then, without another instant, the other group departed in the opposite direction. Telida turned and found that both Ralinn and Ketara were already walking away over the Perion streets. “Wait for me!” she yelled, panicking a little that they might really leave her behind. Ketara stopped and turned around, smiling brightly. “Hurry, then!” he replied, already two tents away. Telida looked wonderingly about at the tents, still unable to get enough of this amazing city. The long journey daunted her—six months!—but she knew that it would all be worth it in the end. Oh, I’ll catch up with you! She thought to herself, seeing that they had gone even further already. She ran after quickly, smiling at the touch of the mountain cool, feeling as if she were the wind itself.
I’ll catch up! Without fail! akera: the new order “Um—Akera—you should get your hair dyed again,” Shirion said as they sat in the dark arms of a tree’s roots, in the middle of Ellinia’s bottom levels, the air of late afternoon encompassing them. Akera’s hands flew to her hair in alarm. “The stuff’s wearing off,” she muttered, running her fingers through her hair. She had dyed her hair to disguise herself, having been on the run for a while, before she had been captured and taken to work at the Ellinia Station. The person who had sold it had said that it would last eight years. She had thought she would no longer need it by then. On the way back to the inn, they came to the town notice board. Shirion froze, reading something. There, pinned in the middle, was a neat, new notice that bore neatly printed black words. He turned back. “Akera. You should read this.” Alarmed, she ran to the board covered in sheets of paper, skimming over the notice. “NOTICE: An order of necromancer guards has been instated in every city, to ensure speed in dealing out of sentences.” Akera shivered. Necromancers. Followers of the dark arts. If those were allowed to enforce the law in all the cities, then… “Any person found to commit any of the following offences will be killed immediately: having a job, seeking to get a job, having weapons in possession, having any gold or precious stones in possession, being within barricaded territory, owning a house while in possession of any children…” The list went on and on. Akera simply turned away from it, searching Shirion’s face for some sign of reassurance. “We’ll just have to be a lot more quiet when we move,” he said, not turning from the notice. “It’s no longer slavery for us. We’ll die instantly, if they find us.” The journey carried on as deep into the forest as they could possibly go. “We’re still going to get my hair dyed?” Akera asked incredulously. “I’m used to seeing you with white hair,” he replied. “I wouldn’t be able to take it if you had…light brown hair all of a sudden.” “It’s not white, it’s silver!” she insisted, somewhat annoyed. “But yeah, I wouldn’t be used to it either.” So they carried on through the trunks until they arrived at the edge of Ellinia, standing at a deserted section of the city that no one ever visited—the cemeteries. Akera could almost feel the melancholy air about the place, and it made her sigh. Shirion found them a secluded path up to the hair saloon—the branches were still strong, though a little widely-spaced. Around them was an entire citadel of houses, all of the same design—blue-roofed round houses, walls woven around by vines. It was all the same as it had been, almost eight years ago, when she had come here for her first job. But it was so silent and empty. Only guards walked the tree branch-streets, the leaves trodden down by their heavy footsteps. The doors were chained, the leaves
growing in wild curtains over the windows. Within them, no lights burned in the early evening, as they would have before. There was no sound. They were all gone. The saloon was seated among a few thick clumps of leaves, glass door and displays hidden by leaves. Streaks of slanted sunlight dappled the wooden door. A normal person passing it by would probably pass it off as an old abandoned house. Pushing the hanging leaves aside, they opened the door, bells jangling on the doorknob. They stepped onto the red-and white-tiled floor and strolled over to the counter. The woman there was middle-aged, wavy red-dyed hair held in a short ponytail. She smiled briefly and held out her lists of services, as she had every time they had come. “I would like my hair dyed white,” Akera said briskly. The hairdresser soon had Akera in a chair, a cold piece of white cloth draped about her neck and shoulders. As she carried out the procedure of dying her hair white, she found herself meditating, trying to clear her mind of worry. The idea suddenly ran through her head. What if they could somehow kill the king? She quickly scolded herself mentally for even considering it possible. Someone else must have thought of doing that already, over these ten long years. Not one of them had succeeded, obviously. What chances did she have? Her mind drifted back to her conversation with Lanoré, almost half a year ago, in the dining room of a hidden inn. She, too, had wanted to do it. Akera cursed, making the hairdresser jump. She could have asked to join Lanoré. They, together, might stand a chance—if not alone. They might just be able to save Victoria Island— Again, she scolded herself, this time for thinking too highly of herself. If anyone could do it alone, it was Lanoré. And besides, she already had her own assistant. But just considering it, saving Victoria Island, and having part of it credited to herself…wasn’t it something she desired, more than anything else? “Miss? It’s done,” the hairdresser’s high voice awakened her from her musings. Sitting up straight, she sighed, a long sigh that seemed to release all that she had thought over for the past twenty minutes. Akera caught a glance of herself in the mirror and smiled slightly at the result—good as new. Before that, light brown had been visible at the roots of her hairs. Light brown hair? She had had dyed hair for so long that she could no longer remember how it was like to have such a mundane colour for hair. “So, happy about it?” Shirion questioned her. Getting up, she nodded while he paid for the service, despite her insistence to do it herself. Akera went to the door and swung it open, bells jangling on the doorknob. She stopped. Black robes. Everywhere. Lining every visible branch-pathway in sight outside the saloon. No. Oh, no. The Ice Lightning Mage heard Shirion gasp behind her.
“How did they know?” she whispered. Each necromancer had eyes trained on the two of them. Akera turned back. The hairdresser was holding a cell phone, guilt written on her face. She quickly ran to the back of the saloon and slammed the door shut. “Well?” Shirion’s voice was empty. She could feel her own heart thumping in her constricted throat as her eyes darted about, searching for a way out. Then she saw it. “The only way is down.” Their black-sleeved arms suddenly rose, staves of fierce violet Lithium going into the air around them. “Are you crazy?” Shirion sounded completely disbelieving. The crackle of lightning, lightning of a different kind. The staves, gems as sharp as blades, shining with an ominous red light. “Yeah. I mean it.” Stupid, desperate bravery suddenly seemed to take control of her. Akera could feel blood rush into her face as she leapt away from the beams of red lightning, onto the parapet of the hair saloon, to the right of the door. The flaming beams burst on the front steps of the saloon, Shirion still standing at the doorway. He gave a shout and stumbled away from the blackened steps. “Get here!” Akera screamed. “Get here NOW!” A second burst of red lightning surged forth. The Crusader leapt to the parapet on the other side of the door, moments before the attack hit, burning the stairs away. His face was pale. “Down, Shirion! We must go down!” The necromancers’ staves were up in an instant. Panting, dizzy, Akera prayed that Shirion had understood her command. It was now or never. They would certainly die in the next five seconds. It was coming. They had to jump. We’ll be safe. Please. We will survive to see another day. Her heartbeat seemed to be timing the seconds till they fired. She could smell the lightning in the air, burning ever closer, ready to claim them both. Now, or never. It was coming. And she let everything go. An explosion of burning red shook the treetops, engulfing the branches in flame and smoke. Akera and Shirion leapt off the parapet and hurtled down towards the Ellinian forest floor. Through emerald canopies filled with sunlight and birdsong, falling, falling, as they sent their silent screaming pleas to the Goddess. lanoré: days in the darkness Lanoré sat under the shadows cast by the flickering torches, shivering in her plain white cotton dress, dirt-streaked, as the cold El Nath winds filled the cavernous prison of the Dead Mines. How long had they been here? She looked up at Clynine, as the girl bit from a stiff piece of bread, from the tray that had been brought by a guard. She was haggard,
her own dress dirtier than Lanoré’s own, for the Cleric had struggled so much more than she had. Lanoré had learnt not to struggle. A single stunning spell from the necromancers was all it would take to immobilize them and knock them out for a few hours. Even as she sat there and watched the wavering torchlight, she could see those last moments, feel the intensity of it all against her skin—shouts and spell chants, violet staff gems pointed at them, shining bright red. Her assistant’s arm held tightly in her left hand, the girl trembling with fear. Lanoré could blame Clynine for everything that had happened. It had been because of her that they hadn’t escaped. But it wasn’t right. She glanced repeatedly at the forlorn Cleric, who was trying to finish her dry bread with a few sips of water. If she had been more reliable, stronger, faster, they wouldn’t be in this situation. It was her fault too. If she, Lanoré, had lived up to her assistant’s expectations, the two of them wouldn’t have to be spending the rest of their lives in prison. I’ve survived for so many years—and suddenly, I had to let my guard down. While Clynine was with me. Her mistake had cost them everything. Her stomach ached from hunger that clawed at her. The air was cold, and she was shivering again. Just thinking about it—living here for the rest of her life—it made icy submission descend upon her. It had been three weeks since they had come. They had started off struggling violently against being locked up, but another stunning spell had seen to it that they didn’t maintain that attitude. From then, they had never made another sound, had never disagreed again. Everyday, they had been forced to work in the mines, hacking away at the walls to uncover the ores hidden deep within them. The mines were cold, and they had no more than plain, threadbare dresses to work with. When they fell from exhaustion, there were no healers to heal their scraped knees and arms. She had grazed her leg on a sharp stone and bled, and the wound hurt till now. But the merciless guards had made her work harder. And she worked with empty diligence, fearful for the jolts of electricity that the guards were capable of giving. It was constantly terrifying, nerve-wracking. Some guards gave surprise jolts when they felt like it, just for the fun of seeing prisoners in pain. Lanoré recalled the shock of her first jolt, the way it had made her body spasm excruciatingly, beyond her control. From then, she had worked ten times harder, out of sheer terror. How funny that now, I am submitting so easily to those I once despised and opposed. But it wasn’t her choice to make anymore. Here, they had total dominion over their prisoners. She could either work, or suffer intolerably. Slowly, regretful and submitted, the Ice Lightning Archmage looked up at Clynine. She was glaring straight at her, dark anger casting shadows over her eyes. There were tears there. Feeling something cut sharply into her heart when she saw her expression, she looked down and tried not to shed any tears. You’re right to feel so, Clynine. I should have done a better job, and kept you out of this life. I was the one they wanted. You need not have been implicated. And yet, you were so faithful. I’m so sorry.
This time, the tears really did come. And she didn’t make an effort to stem their flow, or wipe them away. She couldn’t bear the guilt it brought, to know what she had done to a bright young life. Wasted it. Brought it to an unfitting end. It was like cutting a flower bud from its stem, before it had even bloomed. The ring of spear ends on the dark ground marked the arrival of guards. “Mining shift,” he growled in a guttural voice. A few guards walked over—one came to stand before her gate, unlocking it. Lanoré couldn’t escape; her arms were chained to the ground. Sneering at her, the bearded guard spat at her feet where she sat. She maintained her calm and gazed up at him. He broke away from her stare and unlocked her arms, before clamping heavy manacles on her wrists, freezing cold. Defiantly, she glared at him, though she knew better than to shout at him. Disregarding her expression, the guard led her out, pushing her to the back of the long line of prisoners. Clynine glanced back at her, eyes apologetic now. Lanoré closed her eyes to ward off the terrible guilt that suddenly flooded in. They were marched towards the mining shafts. Head bowed, Lanoré followed. All the while, her thoughts never quietened. I will gain us another chance, she thought, believing her own words, no matter how unlikely they sounded to her. I’ll start my life over, and I won’t make the same mistake. clynine: a door opens The mine was filled with hammering and thunks of metal against rock, as the prisoners, feet chained to large metal balls, worked to free the precious ores from the walls of the mines. Clynine looked up at her part of the wall, the grey stone pockmarked with the impacts that previous prisoners had made. Who knew, the ones who had made them could be dead by now. About ten people died in the prison everyday. But for every ten that died, twenty were brought in and locked up, and the population of the Dead Mines never shrank. She turned to gaze towards the deeper parts of the Dead Mines, where the warm blaze of fire was just visible on the uneven ceiling of the shaft, which led down into another depth, towards a hundred more corridors just like this one. The rules had been clear. No prisoners were to go further than the mine assigned, for beneath the main shaft that connected the mines resided Zakum, the greatest monster of Ossyria—a furious stone creature that had been entrapped beneath the ground for centuries. Approaching it would be certain death, for its uncontained rage would burn to ashes anyone who came in moments. The prison didn’t want to lose people unnecessarily to Zakum, so strict rules had been placed that no one was to go close to that forbidden place. But she had heard rumours, among the prisoners, about another reason for the rule. And it was possible too. There was an exit from the prison directly behind Zakum’s Altar. A straight exit into El Nath, and freedom, above. Not that anyone would risk certain death just to escape, anyway. Turning away from the shaft, Clynine abandoned her wishful thoughts and lifted the pickaxe with both arms. It wasn’t like her staff; it was thrice as heavy, its end tipped
by a sharp and deadly hammerhead. Biting her lip, Clynine gave it a swing over her shoulder, and flung one of its points into the wall. The stone cracked a little, and a shower of grey dirt fell out. For moments, she felt pleased. She raised it again to give it another swing. Another bit of rock cracked away. Beside her, a prisoner suddenly sank to the ground, his pickaxe clanging alarmingly loudly on the rocks. His ribs showed prominently through his dirty clothes, his eyes rolled upwards, his pale skin darkened with streaks of dirt. She guessed that he had been in this prison for a few weeks already—in that amount of time, one would starve to the extent he had. He was trying to form words with his pale, cracked lips, eyes rolling about rapidly, like a madman’s. “W—We…will—the end…” Clynine shuddered. That was what was going to happen to her, in a few weeks time. Her life—the bright life that had been delivered to her without charge—would end, just like that. The Cleric heard footsteps just as she got ready to swing a third time. The back of her neck tingled with nervousness, her heart suddenly racing in her chest, triggered by the closeness of the guard’s furious presence. She almost let the pickaxe slip from her grip as the man approached, his heavy footsteps driving anxiety deeper into her heart. “You!” She almost fainted as he bellowed the monosyllabic word, his pronunciation explosive, directly behind her. She glanced back. Relief, then guilt flooded through her when she saw that he was glaring at the man who had collapsed beside her. The guard’s eyes were wide and bloodshot, his bronze armour gleaming under the dim torches, the only light in the mine. The prisoner’s eyes, too, were wide, but they were terrified and desperate. With repeated cracks of his wooden rod, the guard flogged him. “Stand!” Spit rained from between his lips and his yellowed teeth. “We…” The word was hardly even audible. He wouldn’t stand. Words continued to issue incoherently from his mouth as he struggled to gather up enough energy to complete his sentence, foam and saliva slowly rising between his lips. The guard kicked him with a snarl. The prisoner hadn’t even the strength to cringe. He just stared on, and beyond the blankness, there was blazing defiance in his eyes. Clynine cringed for him. His face convulsed for a few moments. And at last, the words came out, clear and with conviction. “We will destroy you and your filth in the end, King Caleix. We will prevail. The world was always meant to be free.” The words echoed in Clynine’s memory long after he had finished. The prisoner collapsed, his head striking the rock with a thud before the guard, and his eyes closed. His chest no longer rose and fell. “Idiot,” the burly guard muttered, kicking the dead body around a few more times, before commanding another prisoner to carry him away.
Clynine turned and swung the pickaxe. She wanted to believe it, what the prisoner had uttered in his last moments. She wanted to believe that the king would be overthrown one day! But it had been fifteen years since the new laws had begun to be passed, and the new order had begun. Fifteen years! In that amount of time, surely, someone would have done something about it? No one had. The king had planned it all out too well. Behind her, another prisoner began to cough violently, just as a powerful draught whipped down the mine, from the main shaft. She struck the wall again, this stroke a little weaker. They were walking a definite path to death. They would all die, one by one. Soon, she would go down that path as well. And so would Lanoré, and all those she now saw. By the end of their tiring three hours of work, Clynine’s entire body was aching from the strenuous work they had done. Now every movement she made felt like fire in her body. The nineteenth night of their imprisonment fell upon the Dead Mines. Three weeks? Clynine felt as if she had been here for three months. Her evening meal was delivered through the thin gap beneath the gate, and she ravenously wolfed down everything on her tray, arms still restrained by the chains on her wrists. Just a week ago, she had taken great pains to eat in a neat, civilized manner. Now it hardly mattered to her. At least she remembered to wash her hands with a few drops of her water before eating. The hunger in her stomach was burning, and she hadn’t even had a chance to think of being “civilized”. With the night came the cold. Clynine, her usual cold-susceptible self, caught a bad chill soon after her dinner, and along with the gnawing hunger and severe aches, she felt weak and expired. Leaning back against the hard wall, she dozed off almost instantly, despite how uncomfortable it was. “…It. I can’t stand it. We’re losing prisoners by the dozen everyday.” Clynine awakened from the haze of sleep. It was the dead of night. There were whispers of conversation nearby—whispers that she could make out clearly. “It’s time you got a healer for this prison,” one man muttered. “Yes? And how do you expect me to find one who will work willingly without pay? In a prison?” Clynine stood wearily in her cell and leaned against the cold bars of the gate, which were burningly cold on her cheek. “Maybe a prisoner would like to do it. They’d do anything to be allowed around, I tell you.” “And which prisoner would be able heal?” Heart suddenly thumping, the Cleric banged her chained fists on the gate. It rattled with a metallic clanging, and at the sound, both men fell silent. “Some restless prisoner,” the less authoritative-sounding of the two muttered, and their echoing footsteps and jangling of keys began to come closer. The circle of yellow light cast by the candle drew her eye, and she crossed her fingers. “Which of you is it?” called the guard, his stern face showing clearly under the candlelight. The other man looked tired and bothered, wearing the uniform of
someone higher-ranking. Clynine felt the exhilarated nervousness course through her body. Now was their chance to escape, at last—a daring step towards possible freedom. “I can be your healer,” she whispered urgently as they came nearer. Both stared down at her, and she knew how she appeared to them—a scrawny, dirty fourteenyear-old girl who could hardly stand without support from the gate. Swallowing hard, she repeated her request to the two stern men. “I will be your healer. For no charge. I know how to heal—please give me a chance!” The two men glanced at each other in the midst of the darkness. She crossed her fingers behind her back. Please. Please agree… “We’ll see about it,” the more superior of the two immediately said, without smiling, but there was hope in his eyes all the same. “Demias, unlock her. We need a healer badly, if we want the mining to be up to speed.” Reluctantly, he took the keys from his belt and searched for the right one. Clynine felt her heart fill up, but she took care to hide it. Meanwhile, the superior questioned her. “Do you have experience?” he inquired. She nodded fervently, explaining that she had a healing job before being imprisoned. Then the key clicked in the lock. The instant it swung open, and she found herself free from the cell, Clynine suddenly felt the burning urge to run past them to her freedom. But she restrained herself, sure that she didn’t have the strength to outrun them. It was what Lanoré would tell her to do. Wait. Strike in the ripest time. She would bide her time. The right time would come. And then, she would make her move. And that would be the moment they took back all that they had lost. Smiling to herself, she followed the two men towards the offices, enjoying the slight freedom she had finally been granted—enjoying, even more, the prospect of what was suddenly possible, now that she was out of the cell. telida: comfort From the moment they had departed from Perion for her job advancement, Telida had expected the journey to be a silent, dreary trip. She had expected long hours of walking, without conversation, without interaction. But as Telida had slowly come to realise, it would be nothing like that at all. The journeying itself was tiring. They started early in the morning, after quick breakfast in the darkness. From then, they would journey in the shadow of the valley, away from the eyes of the guards, and from the burning summer sun of Perion. Lunch was usually earned by some hunting, and they would eat in caves. The nights were enchanting. As they journeyed through the starlight, or sometimes through emptiness on cloudy days, she could hear every sound—the rivers, the calls of the nighttime animals in Perion, and the swoops of birds and bats through the silent sky. All the while, as they walked, she took the time to get to know the other two more. Ketara had readily made conversation with her, which she was glad for. Slowly, she had learnt about him. How insecure he really was! It was so incredibly adorable of him. The spearman had always been hiding this darker side of himself—the side that always worried about the meaning of his life. His outgoing, cheerful attitude towards others had developed
as an attempt to ward off such thoughts, he had explained. But what was she doing, placing so much trust in a male? In her life, they had all been cruel and intolerably proud. How was she to know if Ketara wasn’t like that either? Telida’s impressions of him kept wavering between the two extremes. But why shouldn’t she trust him, when he had trusted her with his deepest secrets? “There! See it? On the horizon,” Ralinn’s call was full of excitement. Telida looked up and saw the smudge of black in the distance, just visible through the mountain mist, nestled between a mountain and a vast forest. She smiled slightly. It was Ralinn’s hometown. Over the long journey, she had learnt of the guild leader’s past too, and had come to know when she was thinking about something close to her heart. Her home was one of these things. Even now, Telida could see the smile in her eyes. “Let’s go,” the Ranger said, starting their journey down the slope, through the sweet morning air. Ketara went after that, and the thief-to-be followed behind him. They were finally approaching the paramount of their journey—her job advancement. At the thought, Telida felt her heart flutter, both with unfamiliar nerves and with ecstasy. But that, at that point, wasn’t the thing that made her feel the gladdest. It was this: at last, after years on end, she was making friends. She wasn’t a murderess anymore, not a rogue, a vagabond—just a girl on a journey with her friends. She felt like a bird that had been freed from its cage, full of shadows. She could almost have been flying. They raced as fast as they could into the valley, away from the main road. As day faded into night, they finally reached the entrance of Kerning City—a barricaded tar road that led on into a towering metropolis. Spires and blocks of silver-grey were silhouetted against a glorious sunset sky, a heavenly light that lit the clouds, almost as if they were ablaze. Ralinn quickly found her way back home. As she reached the door and knocked, she heard a replying shout and sighed in relief. As they waited, Telida observed the abode. The house, situated in a small neighbourhood between two skyscrapers, shone in the light of sunset, lavender and violet and rose. “I really miss this place,” Ralinn commented, looking at the sky. “Raydan probably really does to. He just didn’t want to show it in front of us.” She shook her head. “Just like him to do that.” “All guys are like that, aren’t they?” she replied, quickly glancing in Ketara’s direction. “I mean—even Rino. He never wants to admit to any of his weaknesses. I know that he wants to have a proper home too, and he misses our parents—” Our parents…it’s all the king’s fault… “They aren’t too different then, are they? You always tell me that you want a brother like mine, but isn’t your brother just the same?” “Except that mine never jokes,” Telida commented. “And never admits to his mistakes.” “You really don’t know Raydan, do you?” the guild leader laughed, a joyful, genuine laugh that Telida would never learn. She just smiled. “He gets under my skin all the time. I bet you don’t have to wake your brother up in the morning!” It felt so good. Just being able to make conversation with another without
intimidating him or her. Just being herself. Even now, as she stood there and watched the twilight purple sky fade away, she could feel the winds turning, carrying her life towards a better age. And she thanked the Clock Spirit, master of fate, for leading her to Orion’s Belt. ketara: insecurity What was this strange insecurity he felt? As he watched the two girls conversing at the doorstep, almost as close as sisters now, Ketara felt this strange out-of-placeness, this nagging, terrible demon that told him in a whispering, mocking voice, “You don’t belong with them. You don’t belong among normal people.” But what was it? It wasn’t jealousy. He didn’t mind Telida and Ralinn befriending each other—in fact, he was glad for it. At last, Telida was starting to warm up to another besides him. It had been a barrier she had taken so long to break, and finally, she had. And in return for the devoted friendship she had offered to him, Ketara had told her one of his deepest secrets. That other side of his life, the everlasting question that would follow him everywhere. What am I? Why was it that the only thing he could remember from his past was a woman, with hair the colour of mage’s lightning and eyes filled with blood? Why were there no proper memories, no places that he could draw back from his past, no feelings of warmth and security? He didn’t have a real past. There was only that single explanation for it—he wasn’t really a human. He had been artificially created; everything in him had been implanted into him. His skin, his hair, his heartbeat—they were all false. He wasn’t a human. He was a failed experiment. Failed experiment. The words brought him hurt. Unwanted. Unneeded. It was the reason he had been thrown out into the forest as a toddler, and left to die. He was just an experiment, shaped like a human, now trying to live among real humans, as one of their kind. All throughout the journey, this knowledge had suddenly begun to grown heavier, this weight on his heart that slowly chasing the joy out of him. I don’t belong here. Ralinn was laughing. Telida folded her arms in embarrassment, turning. As Ketara watched those expressions under the sunset, he felt himself pull back further, further from the world and from everyone else. The real humans. Who cared if Telida was a murderess from the Dungeon? She was real. The emotions she felt were real. Not built-in emotions like his own. How can they live with something like me? It all felt so strange, thinking about himself like that. Why, if he was artificial, did he feel joy and sadness, like everyone else? Which part of him had failed, and warranted his abandonment? He looked down at himself, at the dirty clothes and armour that he wore. He felt the familiar weight of the spear on his shoulder. All these things—he had been made to sense them. Was there anything wrong with how he was functioning? Then to what purpose had he been made? “Come in already,” Telida said with annoyance, this strange dark anger in her eyes,
though she had been smiling to him just minutes ago. She kept changing around him, between friendliness and hostility. I know there’s something about me that you don’t like, Telida. What is it? Is it that? Should I have told you? He entered anyway, closing the door after Telida, trying to push everything away. Standing at the doorway, he observed the scene before him. Around the table, five plates had been set—one for everyone present. Ralinn’s parents looked at him and smiled instantly. He forced himself to return the smile. Her mother turned to him and paused. “You’re—very handsome,” she commented, walking up to him and observing his face with her brown eyes. “Cute guy—I’ve never seen anyone with a face like yours before!” Ketara looked down with an embarrassed smile. He had yet to get used to the comment, though he heard it far too often. He leaned his travel-worn leather boots against the wall, and laid down his Holy Spear on the weapon rack, among the bows. The smell of fried octopus—one of his favourite foods—drew him towards the dining room, and he quickly ran over, his stomach growling. The instant he sat down, he dug an octopus out of the plate and ate it whole. At the opposite side of the table, Ralinn slapped her forehead while her mother tried not to laugh. Telida smiled slightly. “Oh—great food!” he exclaimed with a full mouth. Seeing that they were still staring at him, he swallowed. “Hm? What is it?” The guild leader groaned. “Manners,” she sighed. Finally her mother burst into laughter, seeming almost too youthful to be a mother. “Don’t make him eat like a girl,” Ralinn’s father replied. Telida was visibly upset by this comment. Ketara watched, smiling despite imself. Thank you, he suddenly thought, glancing around at the people round the table. Thank you for making me feel welcome. No one responded. As if they could actually hear what he was thinking. But all the same, he felt the warmth grow, somehow bringing him a little more comfort. He felt like he belonged now. Well…whatever I am, I hope it doesn’t change how things are. I want to help everyone around me, to make them smile. I don’t want my doubt to get them down. Quickly, he put down his fork and started over, even remembering to greet Ralinn’s mother first. The rest smiled and laughed at him, as the gentle yellow light from the candles seemed to grow brighter and warmer. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I am. All I know is that this is what I want. I want everyone to be happy. turino: reasons Finally! Turino looked past the crest of the mountain, and what he saw made him smile. The lush leaves of a forest greeted his vision, blurred by the mountain mist, the treetops of their destination. And he felt total, cooling relief wash over him at the blessed sight.
Finally! He was sick of putting up with his two travel companions—Zethis, who talked in his sleep, and Raydan, who always insisted on arguing with him about everything. He was sick, sick of hearing their childish conversation every minute of every waking moment, right from the break of dawn, to the moment they fell asleep. And even then, they wouldn't shut up. "Cool! It's Ellinia!" Raydan raced to the edge of the mountaintop and pointed at the emerald canopies of the forest, leaping about in excitement—behaviour unbefitting of a sixteen-year-old. Zethis followed after, and as he saw the treetops, he, too, smiled. Turino was glad as well. But he wouldn't show it. One of his personal rules was never to show that he was happy, whenever he was. It was a sign of weakness. Remind me why I joined this guild again, he thought to himself, mind going back to the day, the moment he had been invited. The king. The moment that man had been mentioned, Turino had felt an inexplicable surge of anger. Messages had suddenly begun to stream into his mind, just like that, though he didn’t know what their source was. He is the reason we now kill to live. He is the reason we will never go out into the sun again. He is the reason we were driven into the shadows, the reason our parents died. He must be eliminated. And so that righteous lust for vindication had made him agree, there and then. It had all seemed right, at that moment in time. It was something he had longed to do so many years. But now, as he watched Zethis and Raydan while they chattered on childishly about reaching Ellinia, he felt as if Orion's Belt was reducing his intelligence by the minute. Raydan turned to him and frowned. "Please don't dampen the mood of this moment, Mister I-always-have-to-dampen-the-mood," he said with a hint of warning. Turino didn't care. Raydan, Raydan was always like that—always had been since the start of the journey. Disagreeable. How could Ralinn put up with him? He'd die with a sibling like that. I'm lucky. Telida is... Telida is so much more bearable. Unexpectedly, he found all his thoughts turning to Telida. Was she doing fine? Was she happy? Happier than he was, at least? Suddenly he stopped himself. Why? Turino thought angrily, shaking his head. He didn’t need to be concerned with her. Why should I care about her, when she doesn't want my care? But the thought had inevitable opened a door in his memory, and once his mind began down that path, it wouldn't stop. And he was suddenly recalling, wishing he wouldn't, but unable to help it, all the same. It is a waste of emotion to love someone. Your love and care will never be returned. She didn't return it. She threw it aside, just like that. "Hey, we'll go first to get water, okay?" Raydan's voice cut sharply through his
thoughts like a knife. Somehow, Turino was thankful for it. He nodded blankly and handed him the bottle, suddenly unable to find a reason to be angry. Something else was stirring again, at the back of his mind, gradually dragging him in. It is a waste to care about those around you. What does it gain you? Pain. Suffering. Nothing of good consequence at all. Why waste all your strength, to love another? Turino watched as Raydan and Zethis ran away down the mountain slopes like two little kids, towards the river to refill their bottles. Slowing down, he sat down on a conveniently-placed rock, looking up through the mist at the sky, clear after a short shower of rain. He didn't mind remembering now. He always pushed the memories aside when they came to him out of the blue; they had been no more than pesky flies to him then. But now, he felt like it was time to face them, deal with them. It was time to find out how he really felt, under all that anger and pain and confusion. And so he did. He let them come, and they began to flow into his mental vision— memories full of bitterness, clear as the day they had happened, seven years ago. She was facing a huge green monster in the clearing. Her arms were bruised, leaves and twigs in her hair, dirt smeared on her face. Her hair was dishevelled, her clothes torn at parts. Her shaking hand grasped a pair of throwing stars, and he could clearly see that she was panting hard. The monster was almost unscathed, aside for a few scars beneath its bright, lucid yellow eyes. It wasn't tired at all. Without having to watch, he knew who would lose. And he wouldn't like the outcome. He had told her not to face any of these monsters alone! Now she wouldn't be able to get out of it. A throwing star blazed with blood-red light; the creature received another gash in its huge green face. But it retaliated with a head-on tackle, and with a massive boom, she was thrown to the ground, buried under the weight of the monster. "Lida!" Without another second, he ran forward, his wooden staff rising in his right hand. "Magic Claw!" Streaks of blue light tore down across the monster's face, and left three burns behind, across its mouth. His sister had slipped out from under the creature, and now she was facing him. "Rino! What are you doing here! Get out of the way!" "But you can't handle this thing alone!" She growled and stepped back, folding her arms. Then she smirked. "Well, then, since you're so good, why don't you battle it yourself?" "Lida! You know I can't do it alone," he groaned. The creature leapt up and landed with a crash on the ground. He was thrown back. His sister was too far to feel the effects. He whirled around, and attack after attack flew from his staff at the green creature. It reciprocated each blow tenfold, each time throwing him against trees, knocking him to the ground, bruising and scraping him all over. Still he called out the spells, fought the pain and attacked the monster with everything in every fibre of his body. He could feel his energy draining rapidly, and yet he wouldn't stop. The thought of his sister kept him going against his limits, the aching need to make sure that nothing befell her.
His throat was burning, sweat running down his neck and back, dampening his clothes. He felt as if he couldn't make another move, and he threw his sister a pleading glance, a glance that was full of his burning desperation. His knees threatened to let him fall, suddenly untrustworthy at the most crucial moment. "Lida! I need your help—" "Help yourself, Turino." It was flying at him again, its full mass threatening to knock the consciousness out of him. He knew that if he didn't do something, his life would suddenly been torn from his grip, slip through weak fingers. Lida, he thought, heart slowly filling with painful need. She had to be safe. He knew that he would never let her fall. "MAGIC CLAW!" He threw all his remaining strength into the spell, into the cry. The blue light was sharp; it ripped the monster's face, and translucent slime began to ooze from the gashes, slowly shrinking the monster. He staggered back, the fire of battle suddenly fading from his heart and mind, leaving him void. "Lida. I told you not to fight it alone." "What? I could have managed! You didn't have to butt in, like you did." Her dark eyes were full of hurt, burning with mad anger, sparkling with tears. Dark, obsidian eyes that they both shared. He drew back, afraid. "But I didn't want you to—" "To get hurt? You make me out to be such a baby! Can you stop it?" Suddenly, she winced, hand flying to a large bleeding wound on her forehead. Blood ran down the side of her face like rivulets of red sweat. He ran forward, reaching for the wound. "How, Lida—I shouldn't have… I should have kept you safe…" "I told you to stop it! I don't need you to keep me safe, okay? Just go away!" she screamed, pushing his hand off and turning away. He stood there, gazing at the blood on his left hand. Her blood. Their shared blood. How could he have allowed her to get injured like that? It hurt him, to see her in pain. But— "I said GO AWAY!" And all of a sudden, he felt her grip twist his hand, something metallic tearing deep into his right arm. He gave a strained cry and stepped back, grabbing his arm and biting his lip. Her blood mingled with his. His arm throbbed with the pain as he restrained his cry again, his head spinning with the rawness of everything that was happening. She shot him a glare and turned away. His hand was wet with redness. She strode away without another word, back vanishing among the trees. A sudden wave of blackness made him fall backwards upon the roots, among the dead, fallen leaves from the trees above. The pain never ceased, and tears were suddenly rising to his eyes, against his will, to his horror. She had always been prone to doing stupid things when she was angry, he had
always known. Lately, she had been shouting at him a lot, even hitting him. But...never this. Never before had she cut him with a dagger. When had she changed? Why had she changed? Telida! Why, Telida?! For so long, he had given her all his care, poured all his love and devotion upon her, thinking that she had wanted it. Watched over every step. Kept her safe all her life! But did she care that he had done so much for her? Had there been any point in it all? Now he knew. Her eyes burned into his vision—dark, passionate eyes full of shadows and pain. Tear-stained eyes... Then something broke in his heart, shattered into irretrievable pieces. "TELIDA!" His shout of anguish echoed through the forest. Somewhere, snakes slithered in spirals up the trees, and animals sped into hiding. The leaves rustled. Everything was then silent and cold around him. He threw himself down and let himself cry all his pain out, cry until he couldn't feel any more inside of him. He cried like a child, shouted for all that hurt him. It was too painful, knowing how someone he loved had harmed him like that. He cried, for love and for pain. Sobbing hard, he sat up, shaking, angry. He closed his eyes, cast out whatever he had ever had for his sister. It was time for it all to end. If she wants to be challenged, that is what I will give her! He would compete with her for everything now. He would be her opponent, her enemy. How much had he done for her? What had he received in reply? She had taught him that it was pointless to love. He would never love her again. From now onwards, they would be no more than rivals. It suddenly ended there. Turino was gazing up at the sky again, and the clouds were blurred. Blinking, he suddenly felt tears fall from eyes, onto his hands—tears of unresolved pain. More trickled down from his eyes, wetting his cheeks, uncontrollably flowing down in streams as he shook with sobs. Stop it! Quickly wiping the tears away, Turino cursed his weakness. There was no point caring! It was all a waste, a waste! She wouldn't cry for him. She wouldn't care. The mist was just beginning to clear. How long had he been sitting there indulging in his sad memories? Standing, Turino felt the wind blow his hair into his eyes. Even that seemed to mock him. The tears nearly came again. Get a grip on yourself! Breathing in deeply, the Fire Poison Mage-to-be glanced down the mountainside, at the blue ribbon of water at the base of the mountain. It was time he finally got his
job, bring himself beyond Telida's standard. He would do his best to stay ahead of her, to prove a worthy opponent for her. Since it is what you want. So he began to walk towards the river. Zethis and Raydan were waiting there impatiently for him, no doubt. The scent of the smaller forest of Victoria Island was strong and reassuring, the wind carrying tides of regret away from him, into the distance. But it was something that wouldn’t die, though he had sworn to destroy it, seven years ago. It was something that refused to be crushed, too defiant, too hopeful. It wouldn’t vanish, no matter how he tried to forget. Telida meant so much to him, more than he could imagine. That was the strange thing about love. ketara: departure Since Telida had exited from the back of the bar, she had never stopped smiling. But, as Ketara had come to learn, she was actually laughing her heart out—for she never laughed, and a smile was her greatest expression of joy. He sometimes wondered how it had happened, and why it was that she no longer laughed. Wait, he thought. He had heard her laugh before. That had been when they had first met, and she had stolen his money. Was that the only thing that amused her? But now he decided not to think about that. She had just finished a test. And so he smiled back and walked up to her, through the sunlight-paved streets of summer, to greet her while she exited from the bar. “Lida! Lida, how was it?” Smiling just a little, she glanced back. “Oh, I had a nice chat with the Dark Lord over a mug of beer,” she replied, relaxed. Ketara’s jaw dropped. Telida clapped a hand on his shoulder, smiling wider. “I was joking!” Brushing her clothes out, she and produced a throwing star. Her hand flicked forward before he could look, and the black object spun by in a blur and shot straight into a crack on the facing wall, ten feet away. “Hard,” she summarised. “But it was worth it. I’m an Assassin now.” She said it with much relish. “Great then! We’ll be coming back for your third job?” “Actually, I am eligible for it,” she replied. “But I decided to get some time to try out my new skills first.” “Already eligible? Wait—how old are you?” It surprised Ketara that he hadn’t asked her about that yet. How old was she? He had always assumed she was around his age, but he really had no idea. “About sixteen and a half,” she replied. “Almost seventeen. I’ve lost count, actually.” “That’s about my age too. But I’m only turning seventeen around the start of next year.” Ralinn called them together, beside a tall tree with pink blossoms, under its cool shade. Their purpose for travel to Kerning City having been fulfilled; it was time for them to move on through the Dungeon to obtain Telida’s stone, which Ketara had learnt was of great value to the twins. The summer was bright, and he couldn’t help
but feel cheerful that day. “Doesn’t matter that my father was a cruel, heartless jerk,” she said. “They died, and this is all that’s left of them.” The way the Assassin had phrased it, so blunt and raw, made Ketara feel only more for Telida’s hidden past. He so much wanted to ask how it had all happened, and why she hated her father so much. But he knew how insensitive it would sound, especially when it came to his response to what she told him. Ralinn had gotten wind that the fastest route to the greater forest of Victoria Island was through the sewerage system, into a swamp that led directly into the Dungeon. They were disbelieving at first of course. A sewerage system? Ketara had instantly wondered, imagining himself trekking through knee-deep sludge in a dark tunnel. But he soon came to realise that the guild leader wasn't joking. Not that she joked very often anyway. And so, after a short lunch in a restaurant, their last comfortable meal for another three months or so, they finally departed—paid Ralinn’s parents a last visit, exchanged wishes of good luck. Then they left the heavenly comfort of city life, and entered the wilderness once again. It was time for their last journey to continue. shirion: nothing more What had happened since the attack? It still seemed so recent, yet it had already been four months. He still remembered leaping. Leaping from the burning beams of red, Akera’s crazy idea—which had worked. A cushion of leaves had ended their fall, so suddenly. They had suddenly lain there, upon a net of tangled branches, panting, his heart thumping in his chest like a powerful drum. They had made it down that last length, landed upon the dead leaves with a thump, alive—and he had been in perfect condition, except for numerous scratches on their arms. They had escaped from certain death. Even the notion still made Shirion’s heart race with exhilaration. Already, the leaves were turning red and gold like confetti, fluttering down upon the ground before them, thickening the vivid carpet laid out before the two as they walked. The air was cool with the arrival of autumn. The taste of death coming so close was still strong and distinct on his tongue—he could have sworn that he could still smell the fresh lightning of the necromancers’ magic, hear the vast explosion of flame booming overhead. A second more, and they would have been burnt to ashes. He shivered with the sheer excitement that had burned through his blood. They now hid deep within the forest, running further from the city everyday, through dark wooded areas that few had ever explored before. For this was the only safe place now. Day after day in exhilarating flight, in heart-pounding terror—a season later, they were still living and breathing. Akera was cooking their lunch in the depths of the forest, upon a pile of dry twigs. Her face was contorted in a snarl, curses streaming from her lips while she struggled to get the wood to catch fire without burning out too quickly.
Fire suddenly exploded on the branches in a cloud of smoke. In seconds, it cleared, leaving nothing but a pile of ashes. Akera cursed again. “The key is control,” Shirion lectured yet again. “If you make it too big, you’ll burn out our wood before it can be of any proper use.” “Well, if you think it’s so easy, why don’t you try?” Upon hearing those words, the Crusader decided not to pursue the matter, and turned back to his skill book. It was just like her, being so impatient and intimidating. Will I ever love her? For some strange reason, the question fought its way into his thoughts. He glanced at the girl who had been his companion for all the worst years of his life, and had somehow always had more strength than he had. He knew it was possible. But it didn’t seem right—somehow, she didn’t seem like the kind he would love. Too masculine, in a way—she was the kind whom he would rather know as a friend. But wouldn’t it be right? I have known her so long, and I know that she is…a nice person. It felt strange. But he knew that he wouldn’t. She was a friend, and only a friend. She was only someone to accompany him on his journeys and lend him moral support. He had never thought of her any other way. Besides, she wasn’t the kind to fall in love either—it would be hilarious, to him, if that were to happen. And so he made up his mind. Akera was his friend, and nothing more. “Hm. We really should get going to Ossyria,” she said. “I mean, we’ll never survive if we stay here. I bet all the guards and policemen already recognise us.” “Yeah. I hate the feeling of being infamous. Not that you don’t know how it’s like. But—how are we going to get there without being caught?” Akera seemed quite confident, despite his question. She smiled briefly and folded her arms. “Remember the place we were working before we escaped? Don’t you ever take any notice of their habits? They don’t guard the cargo. And they don’t check it before loading it.” Shirion raised one eyebrow sceptically. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of doing that…” She nodded. “We’ll hide inside them. They’ll never find us that way.” He sighed and shook his head. “You and your crazy ideas,” he muttered. ketara: the dragon messengers They were at the junction of two forests, the greater and the lesser—and they were surrounded by dragons. Dragons, waiting under the falling traces of sunlight between tightly-interwoven branches and the deep shadows they cast. All around, small black figures gazing down with luminous eyes and tattered wings. “Woah…scary,” Ketara said to himself, staring upwards with wide eyes. There were rustles above; the creatures were shifting to get a better look at the travellers. “They’ve always been here,” Telida replied, glancing about. The path was rarely used; the undergrowth was wild and tangled, and it was obvious that no one had ever come here before. The leaves crackled beneath their feet,
rustling under the footsteps of the dragons as they shifted. “Greetings…” Ketara felt his blood turn cold, and he stopped walking abruptly, glancing about. Above, behind—and yet he saw nothing. “Hey…did you hear that?” “Hear what? A dragon cry?” Telida replied, regarding him with a little curiosity. “That’s all I heard.” “Quiet!” Ralinn exclaimed briefly with a whisper, waving for them to carry on. Passing it off as his extremely frightened imagination, the warrior walked on uneasily. “Greetings, human!” This time, Ketara was certain that he had heard someones, or somethings, calling out to him. It was a hoarse, inhuman-sounding voice, and at once sent chills coursing through him. It had distinctly come from above, but when he looked up, he could only see silently watching dragons. “Didn’t you hear that?” Ralinn and Telida shook their heads simultaneously, not turning. Fearfully, Ketara looked about and breathed in deeply. Perhaps, if he responded, he would find out what it was. “Uh… Who are you?” His voice was dry and probably too soft for that something to hear. But suddenly, he heard a powerful, huge rustling above them, in the leaves, as the nearest of the dragons spread its wings and turned to him with a golden stare. “Us. Human, you carry the power of our Ancient One." Ketara's jaw dropped, and the most intelligent answer that he could give was, "Huh?" The other two turned around, staring at him as if he were crazy. Telida looked a little worried. “Who're you talking to? Stop scaring us, Ketara!" He glanced about, confused as well. “I—don’t know either,” he replied. “I think it’s the dragons…” Ralinn looked up in surprise. “The dragons?” “Yes, it is we,” came the resounding reply of one, the one closest. Its yellow gaze pierced into Ketara’s, almost burning, almost too unbearable to return. But he looked back at it, more questioning than frightened. Was it true? Could he truly hear what they said? Suddenly there was a blur of wings, and the powerful rustle of leaves. The dragon leapt from the branches, landing heavily between them. It was only as tall as he was, but its black-scaled wings were enough to tell him that it was a lot stronger. “Believe me.” The other two were staring at him as the dragon brought its face close to his. “We are willing to help you, carrier of the Ancient One’s power.” “Then could you…uh…take us to Ellinia?” He ventured, suddenly realising that it could well cut their journey by a few days. “It is our pleasure to do so,” it replied with what might have been a smile—the
corner of its mouth curved upwards slightly, and it gave a single call to the rest —“Come, my brothers and sisters!” They really agree? It sounded so much a dragon’s cry, the usual screeching roar— and yet he could make out words! It felt so strange. But he had not much time to think, for in the next moment, three dragons were suddenly descending form the treetops, their wings mere shadows that glided down between the leaves and branches, currents of wind coursing violently between them. Ralinn and was staring on in shock from behind him, glancing about and whispering to a somewhat calm Telida in alarm. “Ketara—how in the world did you do that?!” One dragon called out to him, lowering itself to the ground, low enough for him to mount— Blinking to make sure that he wasn’t just imagining it, Ketara cautiously stepped through the fallen leaves that crunched beneath his shoes, standing before the dragon that was watching him with still golden eyes. “Get onto me,” it replied in confirmation. Dumbfounded but excited, he carefully walked up till he was close enough to see its scales—hooked his arms carefully onto its back. Then to the disbelieving stares of the two girls, he climbed on. It was strangely comfortable. He hadn’t thought that it would be like this—he had expected its back to be rock-hard and lumpy—but no, its back actually seemed to have been made for a rider. “Come on, Lida!” he called, turning to the two again. “You can really talk to those things?” She still sounded disbelieving, still refusing to take a step forward. Ketara felt certain enough that it was safe. He could feel the assuring warmth of the dragon through its scales; a figurative, imaginary warmth that told him most reassuringly of its sincerity. “Don’t worry! Get on!” The newly-made Assassin glanced up at the second dragon and didn’t look away. “If you say it’s fine, I assume it is,” she replied, voice determined. Walking forward, obscuring every trace of fear, she hoisted herself onto the back of the second, much more gracefully than the Dragon Knight himself had managed. “Well, Ralinn,” Telida said. After watching the third, unmounted dragon, the guild leader swallowed and nodded. She walked over carefully, seeming frightened of the large creature. She had made it up as well. “Alright,” Ketara said to the one he sat on. “We’re ready!” “As you wish, child of the Ancient one,” it responded obediently, quite flatteringly so. “Try not to fall.” He felt a ripple in the muscles of its back. And without warning, it gave its wings a powerful beat that thundered in his ears, lurched suddenly, dizzyingly—leapt—and never landed. Then the wind was rushing powerfully, and the leaves were slowly growing bigger, as the rhythmic wing beats continued, full of strength, and he hung on madly. And they broke through the canopy—the leaves were everywhere, drowning him, rustling all
around like thundering rain. The sky opened over them, a sky they hadn’t seen for three months. He was flying. Flying on the back of a dragon—when minutes ago, he had been trekking across the uneven grounds of the forest, struggling from hunger and the weight of his spear. “Why do you wish to serve us?” he suddenly asked. “Isn’t it demeaning to you?” He had always known of the species’ pride, so it puzzled him that they were willing to take them to Ellinia. It gave a low growl, something that could have been a sigh. “We are the dragon messengers,” it said. “We were sent here centuries ago by our Ancient One, to live on this lesser land and send messages from one human to another. But—they hated us, and they hunted us, drove us into the darkness. Left us to die. Now we wish to redeem ourselves, and so we will help you.” “You’ll find some use again,” Ketara replied. “But don’t show yourself now—it’s dangerous, for us too.” Did they know about the king? No doubt he would destroy the dragons immediately, if they showed up in the open. It hurt him so much to think of this. It filled him with strange anger. But as he looked out at the open sky, Ketara felt every last trace of anger flee. Today was a good day—and they were about to meet the rest, at last. And so, he smiled. raydan: anticipation Raydan allowed himself a moment of recollection. The long trip to Ellinia had finally come to an end five months ago, Turino heading straight to Grendel’s library on arrival. And so the other two had been left to train without him. Slowly, they had come to realise that both were coming very close to their third job levels. “You thinking of going as well?” Raydan had looked at his companion, who had been resting against the tree trunk, panting a little. There had been a contemplative look in Zethis’ eyes; he had understood Raydan’s words as soon as he had said them. Their plans hadn’t taken long to shape up after that. And so, as soon as Turino had appeared, exhausted, at the door of their inn that evening, they had told him of their plans. He had looked pretty happy, which was saying something. Soon after, they had departed from Ellinia—Zethis to Perion, and Raydan to Henesys. Raydan took care to stay hidden this time—they had come so close to being captured on their previous journey, and he didn’t want to risk it ever again. The weeks had passed so fast—and as the winter winds had begun to descend onto Henesys, he had finally begun his return trip to Ellinia, test completed, now a Sniper with a new crossbow and a new air of pride about him. Zethis had made it back three days after he had, a White Knight who suddenly looked twice as powerful. Now the air was cold and sweet. Raydan stood on the lowest branches of Ellinia, concealed from view, watching the road beneath the western gate intently for any sign of his friends’ return. He smiled; he hadn’t had a day of calm like this for a long while. Turino and Zethis had promised to meet him later, at this spot.
He felt a gentle touch of cold on his arm. Then, the snow began to descend from the treetops, slowly, then in drifts, scarce through the dead branches. He found himself smiling even wider, the sky seeming to dim slightly, pleasantly as he gazed up into the heavens, the snow falling upon the branches around him. Again, Raydan looked to the gate. When would everyone return? His sister? He missed her. This was the hundred and eightieth day. Soon, they would finally be soaring across the boundless oceans, into a land he had never seen before. Soon. But when? He wanted it to start now. He wanted to see the world, at last. He couldn’t wait—and yet he had to. So he did. orion’s belt: the ship to destiny “Here I wait, my wish still lingering Longing for a sky so blue From the shadows I have fled, and Now I seek my life anew.” “Burning in the bonds of whiteness Speaking shadows, blazing light Deep dark sighs in which I linger— How my memories bind me tight!” The songs had returned, ever so suddenly—why were they speaking now? Was it possible that they were here, in Ellinia—two powerful people who had yet to be captured? They walked on through the snowy roads, on the last leg of their trip to a city she had only visited once in her life. Today was the hundred and eightieth day, she recalled. Right on time. The winds of winter had just begun to fill the air around them, and the snow was starting to fall—the feeling it brought was beautiful. They had just left the dragons, not before they had given Ketara a pearl of some kind, for calling them again. Behind her, Ralinn’s companions were discussing Ellinia now. Ellinia, the city of trees, of magic, of an invisible sky—it had been Ketara’s only true home, and he knew it the best among them. A patrol suddenly appeared at the edge of their vision. Ralinn swiftly dragged them into the forest, away from the road, and all three took refuge behind three wide tree trunks while the guard patrol came into view. Another? Ralinn thought. She had expected the western gate to be less well-known, but it seemed that they would have trouble entering. Finally the guards passed. Ralinn took one glance down the snowy road, now covered in fresh footprints. The patrols came every twenty minutes, and they weren’t far from the city. Glancing at Ketara and Telida, she gestured for them to follow, and stepped out into the open once more. The arch of branches became clear as they walked. Ralinn called out to them and pointed it out, and soon they were running towards it, eager with excitement.
Then two black shapes caught Ralinn’s eye beneath the gate, and she froze. Her mouth fell open in a gasp. Necromancer guards. Carefully, every nerve tingling, the guild leader stepped backwards, away from the road, into the dead forest. “New route,” she whispered hushedly, pulling the other two in quickly before they made a sound. “In, in now! Necromancer guards!” They slipped in between the lifeless trees once more, Ralinn’s heart pounding in her head. A few more steps, another sound, and they would have been caught. The trip through the trunks was slow and arduous. They kept their footsteps small, afraid that any sound would bring the guards running with their staves of Lithium. Necromancers! Ralinn thought again, frightened, as their journey proceeded through dense vegetation. How will we survive now? How will we ever run from— “Linn!” Before she could identify that familiar voice, someone leapt from the branches to land before them, just a blur from above. Just as the realisation slipped into her mind—Raydan—Ralinn found herself wrapped in her brother’s tight embrace. “What—Raydan? What—when—” She glanced upwards at where he had come from, only to see two figures, a yard above her head—Zethis, staring downwards with wide eyes, and Turino, his dark clothes stark among the snow-covered branches. They came down as well. “Hey, you guys!” Ketara exclaimed happily, losing all notion of being cautious. “Hm, that’s White Knight armour!” Ralinn’s eyes widened, and she silenced him. “Shut up! The guards are still there,” she whispered angrily as Raydan pulled away. The three exchanged glances among each other. “So,” Telida said acidly, not meeting anyone’s gaze. “Did you find life reasonable without me?” Turino stared back. “With those two? Nowhere near reasonable. But a thousand times better than with you around.” Telida suddenly whirled around to leer at him. “Break it up, please,” Ralinn half begged, slightly afraid to invoke any further anger. Thankfully, they did so without another word, but she could still feel the air crackling with tension as they began on their way to the city, deep in the safety of the forest. Telida and Ketara were the only ones conversing after that. Ralinn listened with interest. The Assassin had opened up to Ketara the most, she found—a lot more than to the guild leader herself. Did the Dragon Knight hold the key to everyone’s heart, even the coldest? She was smiling more and more now—so much, during their journey. She had said that it was because her brother wasn’t there. But was she simply changing, as a person? Despite her outward appearance, she had a beautiful heart. The change made Ralinn glad. Raydan seemed to be observing them as well. “You two look a lot like a couple of lovers when you walk together like that,” he suddenly pointed out. Both stopped walking and turned to him. “Hm, right,” Telida replied, with hardly any disturbance in her expression. “We’re just
friends. Anything wrong with that?” “Yup, she’s right,” Ketara added in cheerful agreement. “She made me promise that we’d only be friends. Because she’s sworn an oath to the Clock Spirit never to fall in love. So we’re nothing more, hm?” “I was just saying—” Raydan began, but stopped. “—Yeah…fine.” Ralinn laughed to herself at how embarrassed he must be feeling. A risky journey was impending—their journey to Ossyria, a year delayed. And yet no one seemed tense about it. They were all caught up in their own thoughts and discussions. Glad for this, she continued to walk, smiling. akera: the ship to destiny “Well, here we are,” Shirion said as they came to a stop next to the loading area of the ship. The guards were far, getting the workers to ready the sails. It had been her job once, Akera recalled with a sigh. The sky was a calm grey, the grey of beautiful winter. This would be the day they would finally flee this horrible world, and fly to the other side of the sea. This was the day that would change their lives. The Crusader, her companion all these years, threw the cover off an empty crate. “After you,” he said. She took one glance at the wooden box, sighed, and began to climb in. Moments later, Shirion closed the lid over her head, and she was enclosed in darkness. Allowing herself to lean against the wooden interior, she soaked in the sudden flood of safety that filled her heart. Though she was in a box, she had never felt so free. “Good luck,” Shirion said through the lid of the box, voice muffled. She murmured cheerfully in reply, closing her eyes to the darkness around her. Everything was turning. Everything was changing direction. This was the day that would change their lives, and she was certain of it. clynine: escape This was the day that would change their lives. Month after month, she had served the prison, healing the injured, bringing those forgotten smiles back to their faces, and it had heartened her so much. At every chance, she had studied the prison, found all the weak points, all the routes they might take. It had quickly become clear to her that the front entrance was too heavily guarded. They needed another route out. And as far as she knew, there was only one left. Zakum. Through the burning dungeons at the deepest part of the mine, and out through the secret exit behind his altar. It had taken months, but the means of deceit, all their weaknesses and mistakes, they had written themselves into her mind without her notice. They were slow in their shift changes. They let down their guards in the presence of less than three. And with these tiny flaws, they could do everything. Finally, she felt ready. This day, she had sent a signal to Lanoré to injure herself, ten minutes before dinner. It was the only way for them to meet inconspicuously, and begin their escape together.
This would be the day, Clynine swore. This would be the day they won their freedom once more. I promise I will do you proud, Mistress! The footsteps were coming up the corridor to her tiny room, which she had been given at the start of her job. She sat up, nervous. The echoes were coming closer, and she could somehow tell that those were Lanoré’s footsteps—they had become so familiar over the years. The blonde woman appeared at the door, her sharp blue eyes not dulled despite the pain she showed on her face. A guard followed them in, and Clynine swallowed as his gaze passed over the two of them. “Clynine,” Lanoré murmured with a smile as she sat down before her. “How have you been?” Clynine instantly stood, her heartbeat growing faster with every second the Ice Lightning Archmage stood before her. The window of time wouldn’t be open long. They had to act fast. “Your injury first,” the Cleric said quickly, and added in a whisper, with a glance at the guard, “I’ve found a route out.” Lanoré’s eyes sparked briefly, then she nodded and held out her arm. Clynine slipped two staves from the cupboard— Lanoré’s Blue Marine, as well as her own Petal Staff, holding them close together. Glancing at the guard once more, she saw that his eyes were on her mistress. Relieved, she quickly slipped the second staff under the table and poked Lanoré’s leg with it. The Archmage responded fast, grasping it firmly with a hint of a smile. Clynine bent and pretended to look at the wound on her arm. “This cut could kill you,” Clynine said with a faked sigh, raising her staff. The wound was obviously less serious than she had made it sound, but she had to keep up the act, just a little longer. “Alright, let’s start—” She gave a small nod. “—One, two—” And they turned to the guard, staves burning with magic. As the guard’s eyes were widening behind his helmet, Clynine gave a glorious cry of “Magic Claw”, and the blue light tore into his chest, blowing his helmet off and breaking his chest armour apart. “Not bad,” Clynine’s mistress commented, before turning. “Blizzard!” The whirl of ice that rushed from Lanoré’s glowing staff tip was amazing. The icy cold filled the room, icicles forming on the top of the doorway, at the edges of the desk, pieces of ice scattered across the floor, papers fluttering everywhere, frigid winds blasting down on the guard in a showering of icy shards. The Archmage stepped back and ended the spell, satisfied. The guard now lay on the ground, unconscious among the remains of his armour, his body white and red in ice and frozen blood. He was out. And seconds later, they were running. The two began their flight, down the dank corridor, Clynine’s heart racing with excited ecstasy—for her mistress’ presence, for the freedom she had wanted so long. The wind was strong and free. This was the day! She gave a sharp cry as they turned the corner to their last path. Three guards had come into view, blocking their passageway into the main mine shaft.
Lanoré’s eyes were full of trust. “Coming through!” Her shout was full of enjoyment, a tone of voice Clynine hadn’t heard for months already. As the three guards whirled around, alarmed, she called out a powerful “Chain Lightning”, and all three were thrown violently against the grey wall with a boom and an explosion of blinding blue, their armour charred, eyes blank. Clynine yelped out in exhilaration, and with a burst of confident strength, they made the final dash for the entrance to the main shaft together. Down, down, down it went after that. They boarded the lift, lowered themselves speedily, deeper, sank past the dark flickering mines in the walls of the vertical shaft, past the tired workers at their labour, down towards the flaming bottom of the pit. And the air slowly grew warm, hot, filled with sparks and bursts of heat, as they finally entered the final level, and saw the corridor into the next room. Lanoré swung the gate open and gave Clynine a brief pat of comfort on her back. “Here, Clynine,” she said. “This is our last stop.” Then they ran, across the uneven black floor, hardened lava, towards the heat, towards the blazing room laid before them. They were past the arch of the entrance, and the last cavern opened. The Cleric had never felt so frightened—not when they had been captured, not when they had fallen into the sea—her legs were shaking so much she was sure she would collapse. The cavern was tall and bright, bright with fire, like the inside of a cathedral with a million candles. The flames were blinding, shooting up from the cracks all around the room. Lanoré glanced back, and they began to run, dodged around the bursting flames, sweat making Clynine’s staff nearly slip from her grasp. She had to stay right behind her mistress, stay right behind her. Trust her. It was the only way. A blast of flame met her face-on. She leapt back in horror as the fire roared, sputtered, vanished—and she was trembling uncontrollably after that, sweating madly. “Clynine!” Lanoré suddenly shouted from ahead of her, her face full of certain assurance, full of certain glory, shining in the flames. Suddenly, she was sure of everything. And she followed after, followed like there was no tomorrow. And the world became too hot to bear. The cave had come to an end, the main shaft now far from view as Clynine glanced back. They were past the flames—deep, too deep—and the roaring was slowly growing louder. A roar like an avalanche, making the ground tremble and quake, filling the Cleric with fear. Again her mistress called to her, her Blue Marine gleaming brightly in her had. It was time. Time for them to take the final gamble. And then they stood before Zakum’s Altar. It was beautifully monstrous. The stones were shaking, its mouth gaping like a living statue’s, flames raging in a circle around its ten groaning arms, its roars burning Clynine’s ears. The Archmage looked up, stepped forward. Walked forward a little more. Suddenly, everything else seemed so far away. She now stood in the face of death. Clynine followed her mistress, step for step. She had to trust Lanoré. Trust her. It
was the last thing she had. They were so close that the tiniest cracks on Zakum’s fists and on the altar beneath it had become clear. Lanoré was searching, breathing deeply, turned away from the great statue-monster. Their time was running out. Soon it would lose all tolerance—the great god that even the king feared, the ultimate power of all El Nath—and they would be destroyed, a death too sudden to reckon with. The exit—where? And she saw it—a dark crack in the wall to the monster’s right, so narrow—but just enough for a person to slip through. It was there, waiting, elusive as flames leapt to obscure it ever few seconds. That was their road to salvation. Zakum had grown angry. “Clynine,” Lanoré said once more, glancing at her assistant with power in her eyes. “We will come out of this alive. I promise, Clynine. I nearly ended your life once, and I won’t do it again.” Zakum turned its head to them, the groan of stone, the most guttural, frightening roar she had ever heard, filling her ears to block everything else out, making her blood whirl. Its eyes were furious, and Clynine felt her body fail from terror. “Let’s go; this is the last challenge!” Lanoré looked ready to run. The statue’s mouth grew wider, the flames crackling with unrivalled rage. Coming closer. Ready to destroy them. This time, I will not fail my mistress. This time, I will run. The day of their capture came echoing painfully back, the day when her moment of hesitation had lost them everything. This time, I will run. Her mistress gave a cry. And it all became a blur. She felt the Archmage’s grip take her hand once more, and suddenly, she was flying through flame, through the raging roar of fire, so close, so close— Flying through an inferno, burning on her face, the hot stones beneath her shoes, everything burning. She screamed. The world cracked open in an explosion of vivid flame, and her skin seemed to tear with the heat. But she was drawn on, pulled on by a strange force, and she heard a gentle, angry cry, cold blueness exploding a second time around them, cold anger—the colour of her mistress’ eyes. “Clynine…Clynine, I promise we’ll make it!” the world was filled with a strong voice, a vague voice that gave Clynine all the certainty she needed even though she knew she was dying. But the flame was coming. It was unbearable, ready to destroy her— And ice suddenly burst around her, freezing, heartbreaking. And then, she felt the world turn black, a second time. to destiny
Even in the dank darkness of the cargo room, Ralinn could hear their roars, violent songs, coming through the deep wood. She leaned her head on the wall, hearing their cries grow closer. Shouts of warning. And the bottom of the cabin suddenly tore open, the ocean gaping through the splintered wood, wind rushing through from the sky, and their faces, so monstrous, gazing up at them, seeking out their prey. What a time for a mishap like this to happen—Ralinn had given a call of command, and everyone had come out from among the crates, weapons at ready. And to her shock, there were not six people—but eight. It lasted only minutes, for there were only two Balrogs. The arrows were true, even in the roaring wind; Raydan did just as well, his bolts fired with certain accuracy. The two warriors—suddenly joined by a third, completely destroyed them, and rendered the two monsters immobile for the rest to hit. And the burning stars, the continuous onslaught of blazing fire arrows, had finally forced them to their knees. With roars, they fell back through the hole, dead and forgotten, and Ralinn hung her bow upon her shoulder, turning to the two newcomers. From where had they appeared? The white-haired girl glared at Ralinn with icy eyes. “What?” Her voice was furious and low. Ralinn decided not to say anything to her, already afraid. She turned her gaze to the male youth beside her— “Shirion?” Ever since the incomplete guild had met him in the Warrior’s Sanctuary, Ralinn had somehow been unable to forget him. His hair was still long, the colour of mahogany, his expression the same as before. “It’s you—Ralinn,” he replied with a smile. The white-haired girl’s eyes widened, but her frown never left. “You know them?!” Shirion nodded in reply. “Oh, it is you!” Ketara exclaimed, an excited smile coming to his face. “It’s a small world, isn’t it?” Soon, all eight stowaways were seated on the ground in impromptu conversation. The moody girl was sitting aside with a frown. “This was our ride,” she growled, folding her arms. “And you had to intrude! Stupid people. Stupid ship! I hate this!” “Could you shut up?” Turino suddenly answered from another corner, glaring at her. “It’s not your ship. Stop whining like you’ll die of it!” “Why don’t you start by shutting yourself up? Mind your own business!” “How do I do that when there’s some idiot girl poking around in my business?” He stepped out, taking his staff from his belt, flaming with magic. The expression on his face could kill. But, as expected, the girl didn’t back down. She gave him an I’m-not-afraid-ofidiots-like-you look, and raised her staff as well, setting it aflame with a silent command.
Perfect, Ralinn thought. Just what we need. A fight. “This is not how you treat a passer-by,” she said sensibly to Turino, who ignored her. “I don’t need you to tell him off!” the girl spat back. “He’s just begging to be burnt to death!” “Not as much as you, crazy woman!” Turino retorted loudly, calling a Fire Arrow to his staff. She did the same. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about the huge hole in the hull of the ship by then. They were watching the two intently, silent and somewhat frightened. “Akera! Stop it!” Shirion exclaimed with alarm. She turned back, eyes still narrowed. “And let this piece of crap be smug about it?” “If you want to prove yourself better than her, let it go,” Ralinn suggested desperately. Turino glanced at Akera and rolled his eyes, folding his arms. “Yeah—you’re not worth my time,” he muttered, stepping away with another sharp glare at her. He kept his staff and leaned against the wall. Akera’s response showed that the feeling was mutual. She returned to the other end of the cabin and sat down with a frown, not bothering to look at anyone else. Again, her silver hair caught Ralinn’s eye, fluttering in the wind. It was like shimmering white silk. Akera was somewhat beautiful; her eyes were narrowed and ice-blue. And they burned with a fury that had been there all her life, it seemed. She looked so troubled, like something had been chasing her since forever… The realisation came just moments later. They were the ones the voices belonged to. The two new songs from her dreams—it was they, she was so certain. But Ralinn was somehow too afraid to try and ask them… “Shirion?” the guild leader began cautiously, changing the Crusader’s thoughtful expression to curiosity. His eyes told her to go on. “You know…” She felt so much more nervous than she had most of the times she had done this— was it because of the way he looked up into her eyes like that, with a gaze that she was sure could read her thoughts? Was it just that aura of power that he emanated all the time—or simply the fact that he was handsome, in a strong, reassuring way? “…Um…could you consider…joining our guild? Both you and Akera?” Shirion’s eyes widened. She smiled, a little shyly, and nodded. “I…I wouldn’t mind, actually,” he responded agreeably with a smile of his own. “But what are you doing after this?” She thought for a while. “We actually want to keep training until we’re ready. Then we’re going to try and—overthrow the king.” That made his eyes widen even more. Looking very surprised now, he turned to Akera. “Akera, how does that sound?” he asked. “They want us in their guild. I’m joining. You coming?” She glanced at the guild leader suspiciously. “Join your guild? Are they all your members?” she asked, looking about at the rest with angry eyes. Especially Turino, whom she fixed a terrifying glare on, and who returned it equally. Finally, she looked back at Shirion and seemed to contemplate. “Yeah, fine,” she replied. “Since I’ve always wanted to do that. But seeing how your
guild is doing, I don’t think you’re going to have any success.” To Ralinn, the comment was painful. But she decided to brush it off, for she knew that Akera couldn’t help it. Just like some other members of Orion’s Belt. And so she stood up, heart pounding suddenly, and drew two pendants from her pocket. It had grown so empty—only two of the nine chains remained now. How fast time flew! It had been five years, and their guild was almost complete. Two more people—and their true journey would begin. Ralinn had never felt so excited, or nervous, before. Shirion took it with a smile. Akera stood and held out a hand for it as well, but she wasn’t smiling much. And as she put the chain on, she didn’t smile either—but then something in her expression changed, seemed to find peace—a peace she had sought for a long time. And so it was complete. “Welcome to Orion’s Belt,” she said. “These are our members. That’s Raydan, my brother,” she turned to the Sniper, who was talking to Zethis. He waved. “Zethis, beside him,” the new White Knight managed a small smile, then looked down again. Ralinn then gestured to the two, Ketara and Telida, who were sitting on a crate. “Ketara, the Dragon Knight—” “Sounds like a girl’s name,” Akera said insensitively. He laughed in reply. “—and Telida, the Assassin there.” She looked up at the mention of her name, glancing at the new guild members. “And—you’ve more or less met him already— Turino.” The Wizard didn’t bother looking up from the stone in his hands. He muttered the word “idiot” in reply. For the rest of the half-hour-long trip, Shirion made conversation with the rest of the guild. Akera, however, continued to hang back in a dark corner. Not really a sociable one, are you? Ralinn thought, smiling despite how upset she still looked. Things were getting a lot more interesting now, definitely. How things would unfold after this, Ralinn had yet to know. But somehow, despite the darkness that was slowly descending upon the world around them, and the destiny that loomed closer every moment, the guild leader felt certain and contented. The ship touched the harbour, and they fled, setting foot for the first time in Orbis, Ossyria. The winter wind was cool and fresh, filled with the smell of promise, the ledges decked in shining snow that told them that the Year of the Ox was coming to an end. And far away—far, far below the floating stone city or Orbis, lay two rebels upon the snows of El Nath, at the edge of a mine full of shadows and flame, in a world of light and expectance. A Cleric seeking out the future meant for her; an Ice Lightning Archmage who knew all the possibilities laid down. Ready to take it all on. It was the brink of a new year, a future of a thousand pathways. Which was their path? Where would it end? Victory, defeat, the answer was as elusive as a snowflake against the clouds. Would they live to pass their memories on, memories of this beautiful, heart-wrenching battle? In the end, it would all be clear—the questions would be answered, and in time, they would know. But for now, they would have to wait—wait for the Year of the Tiger to begin. Chapter 6: Year of the Tiger
clynine: drifting memories She stood at the top of a marble spiral staircase, the steps pale and cold in the early spring air. Ah, spring—it was still so clear in her memory, the smell of fresh petals borne lightly on the breeze that wafted in through the sliding windows. A hallowed figure, one that she could only recall now as a bright light, appeared at the stairs. How had she looked? She couldn’t remember that face. Then a voice began speaking at the back of her head, just softly. “I am Lanoré, pleased to meet you.” “The Silver Fang of El Nath—yes, yes, our daughter would like to become your assistant!” That was the voice of her mother. My mother. Suddenly, her throat hurt. Mother, Father…where are you? Please be safe! Goddess keep you… The fear died down. The memory went on. It was time for her to speak. “I’m—Clynine.” She glanced up at the Silver Fang and blushed. It was exactly as she remembered it—clear reminiscence of a time long passed on the long river. She could feel it, the importance of this moment in a window of memory, ringing in the air. She could feel it, the tension in the cold. “What is your job?” “Magician, level sixteen.” In the present, her heart fluttered once more. “Clynine, perform any spell.” And at once, she knew that she had failed. A spell! She couldn’t. No, she couldn’t! She would certainly fail, and her dream would end, fall down in shards and splinters — Her hands were cold, so cold. She raised her palms, called on a power in her heart, her imaginary grip slipping so much, trembling so much… The magic shone white, shot forward. It was white. White, as always. Wrong. Everything was growing so blurred—pale shining light, hazy and bright, was obscuring it all…tears? What was real now? “Was that an Energy Bolt?” “I…I did it wrong again.” Sorrow that cut deeper than glass. Pain and anger and waste. “Clynine, that is the most amazing Energy Bolt I’ve ever seen in my life.” Then it was fading, the marble stairs, the scent of petals, the forgotten face of the powerful being that was the Silver Fang of El Nath, all whirling away in whiteness and ice and flame— El Nath? El Nath… The dreams were slowly vanishing, blurred shreds that fluttered away as another cold gale washed past. Clynine blinked and glanced about at the world around her. White, white, a dark cave set in rock…it all came back to her in a whirl. The prison,
bars of metal, fallen guards covered in blood and frost, darkness, flames—Zakum— Lanoré! Lanoré, the Silver Fang of El Nath. She was leaning on the rock face, watching the sky with calm eyes, deep blue like sapphire, like the ocean. Three years ago, the Cleric had stood, anxious, at a flight marble stairs. Now, here she was, upon the snow of a land a thousand miles away. That day, at the top of the stairs at home, had she foreseen this moment? Had she ever once believed that she would become so inseparable from someone so great? Never once… Lanoré was coming towards her, her smiling face soot-stained. Quickly, Clynine sat up and brushed the snow from her sleeves and her white magician robes, stained darkly by soot and ash. “Well done, Clynine,” the Archmage suddenly said as she arrived at Clynine’s side. “You made it—and it’s thanks to you, you know?” At the Cleric’s bewilderment, Lanoré smiled. “At that last moment, when we were breaking through the flames, you cast the hugest Heal spell I’ve ever seen,” she exclaimed. “And that saved us from burning to death! Well done, once again.” Lanoré turned to the sun. “We’ve been here for about two days,” she murmured, folding her arms. “Oh, and remind me to find you a trainer for your light and healing magic soon, alright? There’s some serious talent there.” She gave her a look of steady pride. Clynine nearly laughed at how serious Lanoré looked when she said it. Then, for the first time, she considered the possibility. “So, before that, do you want to try out the Orbis Party Quest for practice?” She glanced up at her mistress. Lanoré had raised her eyes to the tower in the distance, and the small floating islands above—just a dark silhouette, so far it could have been imaginary. “You really think it’s safe?” “It’s hidden really well,” the Archmage said. “As long as you make it in safely, no one will be able to catch you.” “What about…you, mistress?” Clynine had believed that they would be doing it together all this while. But to go on her own, to go into danger without a companion — I’m not a defenceless child anymore. I’ve been one too long. So she nodded. Was it really spring? The snow was still so bitter. There were none of the sweet aromas here that she had come to associate with spring, scents from the home she had left behind. Before them, the snows were pale and distant. The entrance to the mine was on the cliff alongside their hidden path. The days of false safety were gone. Something had happened during the previous year—and from now, they would have to fight to keep everything they had. ralinn: just hold on “The snow isn’t going to melt yet. Stop being so stubborn.”
“It’s almost been two months since the year started! The snow has to stop soon, alright?” “Oh, please—does it feel like winter will end at all?” “Well, maybe spring would be more willing to come, if you got lost!” As the furious bickering went on, Ralinn groaned. It wasn’t often that she lost her temper. “Will you two shut up? You’re driving me nuts, alright?” Her breaths were deep, her anger alarmingly overwhelming—somehow, she could not stop it, much as she thought she had control. “Exactly,” Shirion replied from beside her. “It’s getting on my nerves.” “Yeah, whatever!” Akera seethed. “Look, I know spring is coming, alright? I can’t stand to see snow anymore!” “Well, put up with it,” Turino answered, leering at her. “I’m not whining—” “JUST STOP IT, YOU TWO!” Ralinn suddenly yelled, making everyone look up from their breakfasts. Not another word was exchanged. After an initial silence, everyone turned back to their food, very quietly, though anger still crackled in the air. The guild leader sighed and returned to her plate, wondering how she would ever learn to handle Orion’s Belt. Looking down at her lap, Ralinn narrowed her eyes. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t mind them,” Shirion’s warm voice came from beside her. The eighteen-yearold’s formality had always been strangely fascinating to the guild leader. Turning, she took time to observe his face again—fine features that could almost have belonged to royalty, brown eyes that always seemed to pierce and probe deep into her thoughts, an accent that vaguely hinted at the fairies’ way of speech. “How did you put up with Akera so long?” she said softly. “She had no choice but to keep quiet, back at the Station,” he replied. Was that amusement coming into his voice? She so rarely saw him happy. “We were all kept away from each other—the cargo and the sail repairs. And they were very strict.” Shirion picked a piece of bacon up from his plate with his fork and ate it. She smiled. “Hm, and I thought I was a neat eater,” the Ranger said in response, cutting an egg. “What, now you’re watching me eat!” At Shirion’s response, Ralinn suddenly found herself feeling embarrassed. “I guess it’s just a habit. Even in captivity, I couldn’t stand eating messily. So strange of me.” Shirion, the professional, distant Crusader of the guild. He had always been the person Ralinn knew the least about—but now, he was slowly growing more likeable in her eyes. “Well—at least they’re not at it anymore,” she commented, not looking up from her food. Shirion smiled. “They’ll be back at it again, sooner or later. People like that—they’ll just keep going and going…”
The guild leader looked up momentarily at the people around her. They were all either gazing off into their own wonderlands, or in conversation with each other. For moments, she felt both pity and gratefulness towards them, all of them. Taken forcefully out of their old lives, for the sake of a goal they didn’t even know was attainable. Just hang on, alright, Orion’s Belt? You can go your own ways, after this is over. For now, just keep it together... But Orion’s Belt was incomplete, painfully so. Who were the last two, and when would they come? The lights beyond hazes of her dreams had begun to brighten again. They were close, coming close—their songs were growing stronger. Songs of an icy world, a great light—songs she had yet to understand. They were coming; it was almost done. Suddenly certain of the course she was taking, Ralinn reached into her pocket and held at the last two pendants, smiling with a calm certainty. zethis: light of a dream Now that they had finished their morning meal, the rest Orion’s Belt began discussing their next activity. “No!” Akera was instantly disagreeable. “Are you crazy? It’s as good as turning ourselves in to the guards!” “I’ve done my research,” Ralinn replied with confidence. “Once we make it in, no one under the king’s power can get to us. And we really need something constructive to do, while waiting for the last two members—but of course, only those who want to will go.” Akera instantly pulled out, and Ralinn announced her intent not to participate. Out of politeness, perhaps, Shirion asked to be excused as well. An hour, and they were on their way to the Orbis Party Quest site. They were taking a heavy risk—because of the tight security in the main city, they would have to take the dangerous round path. Zethis shook his head with a sigh. He had thought the law strict before, when he had been a ten-year-old leaving his foster father’s home. Now he was fifteen, much taller than he thought he’d ever get, and carrying a heavy mace he never thought he would. What would his ten-year-old self have said of the situation now? Inevitably, he began to remember. The memories sank deeper, reaching so softly through his soul. Dad…Dad—are you still going to Henesys every day to run your shop? Are you doing better, without me to burden you? Those thoughts made tears come to the youth’s eyes. While they climbed out into the light, he watched Raydan’s back, struggling not to start sobbing. Quickly, before they exited the dark staircase, he wiped his tears away. It’s no time to be homesick. I might never— They took the same road today—a narrow parapet bordered the sides of Orbis, the only safe path for them. But this time, Ralinn, Shirion and Akera were not around. The five had decided to go without the other three, for the sake of
inconspicuousness. All around him, the wind was strong. When Zethis glanced over the edge at the snowfields far below, he felt a wave of vertigo sweep through him, the world suddenly tilting. Suddenly he felt a fierce grip on his arm, and his eyes flew open—he was tilting frighteningly over the edge of the pathway— “Careful!” Raydan gasped as Zethis steadied himself. “We don’t want to lose anyone to an accident like that.” Nodding obediently, he continued to follow after the Sniper, keeping his unwavering gaze on Raydan—never turning, never turning, as if it would stop him from losing his balance. The cold wind wasn’t helping at all. But it was the only way, and so he held onto his life with everything, wishing it would end soon, soon— For only a few seconds more, all was well. And there was no warning— Darkness swept through him, threatening to make him fall apart. Black cloaks, like the wings of ghosts. Black cloaks, encircling the stones, chasing them. Alone they stood, in full view of the ones who . Suddenly, everything was a blank around him—the whirling snow winds, the soaring stones, the flutter of cloth. Don’t, don’t let go—! It was the only thing running through his brain now, as his own heartbeat closed in… The flames were fingering his skin— “RUN!” Turino’s yell was enough to startle him into motion. Raydan had already taken off, and Zethis followed, too terrified to notice the distance between the sky and the snow, how narrow the icy path was. The mechanical footsteps, growing swift, closing in. The wind, chilling on the back of his neck. His own footsteps, chasing the redemption he sought, chasing…chasing… The tower wall appeared from beyond the bend of rock. Helplessly, the White Knight gasped. The narrow stairs rose steeply to the top, the entrance to the Party Quest just beyond a gate of glass. Furious red flashed, and Zethis staggered back. Too late he saw that he had been divided from the rest, but there was no tie—Lithium staves were burning, a dark light from the Spirit Itself— The hellish shriek pierced the sky in that second, and the edges of Zethis’ vision exploded with dark fire. His dodge pulled him just a little further from the gate, from the rest— Raydan whirled around beyond, yelling his name as the magicians of darkness circled him, cloaks whirling, to block the voice out. “DAN!” The White Knight’s involuntary cry for help was drowned out by the crackling of lightning, blazing all around him. The heat was growing on his skin, swelling unendingly— No—I have to do everything I can! For Ralinn’s cause, for whatever it is we have been chosen to do! The mace was already in his shaking hands, shining with weak golden magic. The lightning was powerful red, gleaming on metal, gleaming in their dark eyes—
“POWER STRIKE!” Then the fire coursed through his existence—and it left the bounds of his weapon altogether, swung in a powerful arc, sending the golden blaze outwards like a wheel of light. And it shone like nothing he had ever seen, tore through the indomitable circle, made the necromancers cry out as they were thrown into confused chaos. The circle had broken. Zethis saw his chance. He yelled out desperately, taking off across the stony ground, glancing back once or twice, but the necromancers were not following yet—not yet. Just enough time— “In!” Raydan yelled, Zethis soaring over the remaining few feet as they rushed through the gate and came to the edge of the stone city, the tower wall suddenly ending at a vast ocean of clouds. “Get the Cleric! In!” They were coming. The Knight could see the guards approaching, their staves already filled with deadly lightning. “Ketara!” he exclaimed nervously. “Get the Cleric into the party!” The Dragon Knight whirled around and pressed his fingers to the startled girl’s forehead. “You fine with doing it with us?” he asked quickly. The ranks of black and red were approaching, the crackle of magic already too near— She nodded. Together, they raced to the edge and looked down, Zethis following breathlessly. A huge mirror shone against the snow, the stone and sky floating deep within it. “In, quick!” Raydan exclaimed once more. Zethis felt a firm push on his back— Then the wind was rising upwards all around him. And the ground, the ground was gone—there was nothing beneath his feet. The clouds turned into streaks as the violent gale tore upwards, destroying the world, ripping the stone pathways to shreds as the city vanished above them, and the mirror beneath grew wider, wider— And there was a hum. The sun shone from the world in the mirror, blinding, in Zethis’ eyes. The glass grew closer and closer, the clouds shining, both the real and the images—burning white torches that drew everyone in… The wind was still tearing away. Up above, the necromancers’ faces were shadowed and dark, their fear too much to allow them pursuit of their prey. For somehow, they knew that they would never survive an entrance into the world of the Party Quest, almost as if that mirror beneath them would certainly destroy their souls on contact… And suddenly the mirror flipped, showing its bottom face to the sky. The hum, in brightest tones, grew deafening, the bottom of the mirror just as bright, as faithful to the real world— It was like the world was turning into a pool of water. The White Knight saw them entering, one by one, below him—his friends and guild mates, vanishing as they slipped through the mirror and mingled with the clouds. Zethis cried out in fervent alarm. It would be him soon, him— The sky was suddenly all around him—above, beneath. The pool was enclosing him, the glass rippling like the surface of a lake. He was warm and cold at the same time, frightened, brave—nothing at all under him, only endless dry water-sky. And the glass rose to his eyes, the coldness soaking into his clothes beneath his armour. He cried out one last time. The world spun, whirling Zethis through the clouds on the other side, as the entire
universe reversed its orientation and left him on the ground, head spinning violently. It all looked the same, exactly the same. Even through dizziness, the White Knight could see the stones of Orbis, exactly like the city from which they had just leapt. But it was so silent. No guards, no people around them at all. Raydan stood with a little effort. His crossbow was already in his hands as he glanced about at the city in bewilderment. “It’s not called a mirror world for nothing,” he commented with apparent understanding. “It’s just Orbis Tower—in reverse.” Everyone was getting up from the ground. And the impromptu sixth member of the party—she was brushing her long brown hair and her dress out vigorously, looking around at everything. Ketara, the party leader for today, called everyone together. The twins seemed rather reluctant to do so, but they came anyway. “Right! So we—start,” he exclaimed, sounding rather convincing despite his tentative tone. “Anyway, let’s welcome our temporary new party member!” Everyone turned to the brown-haired Cleric, strangely silent. She managed a small smile, before suddenly realising that they were waiting for her to introduce herself. “Um…hi, my name is C—” she stopped abruptly. “—Oh, my mistress said that I’m not allowed to tell anyone my name, or anything about myself. Uh—sorry…” “Ah, that’s fine then—well, we hope you enjoy your Party Quest with us!” he responded with the same enthusiasm. Nearby, Turino gave a “yeah right” sniff, and his sister rolled her eyes—probably at the girl’s pink robes. It had been long established that Telida hated anything considered “girly”, especially the colour pink. The Cleric had noticed their cold responses to her induction into the party. As they began their walk through the empty space towards the tower entrance, she selfconsciously drifted away from them—towards him. Zethis prepared to turn away and act inconspicuously as she came nearer—but it took him little time to realise that something was different. She wasn’t making him feel nervous. One glance at her smile, and Zethis didn’t fear her anymore. Why? It was like she had an aura that made him feel alright, that to some extent even made him forget everything else— They had arrived at the stairs, and Ketara had already gone down. Turning to the Cleric, he tried to smile—and for the first time in his life, he introduced himself. “Hi…I’m Zethis,” he said as she turned, the shadow of the stairway falling over their faces. But he could see the brightening smile that came at his words, and she gratefully took on the conversation. “Thanks…I was getting a little afraid of being in this party—” “Oh, I’m so sorry! That really wasn’t a proper welcome at all…” No one seemed to take notice of their conversation as they entered the brightly-lit room of the first stage. “No, no! It’s perfectly fine!” the girl’s good-natured reply put his heart at ease. “Let’s see what this Party Quest is like, alright?” They drifted quickly to the front of the group as Ketara came to a stop. “’Scuse me?” he called. Before him, on a pedestal, stood a cloud—and it had a face. Its bowler hat leapt off its head as it rose with startlement, glancing up with innocent surprise at the Party
Leader’s sudden call. “Hey there—sir!” Ketara exclaimed brightly. “Could we do the Party Quest?” “Good morning, visitors,” the cloud replied formally in a surprisingly solid voice. “I am Eak, the Goddess’ Chamberlain. I will begin your Party Quest shortly—please wait a moment.” While the party watched, the strange little cloud circled the stone pedestal, setting it aglow for a few seconds. “Alright. Come with me, please,” it finally said, floating towards the closed doorway. “Your Party Quest begins in five, four, three, two, one—now.” The symbols on the stone door traced themselves with light, and the door slid open. akera: redemption by blood She lay on her room bed, staring up into the blankness. The ceiling was a deep burgundy. The colour of blood. Blood— She closed her eyes. The flickering ghosts—they were coming again— She tried to blink them away—but they didn’t fade. Didn’t fade—only grew, steadily… Why now, of all times? Please…no… She couldn’t help it anymore. Helplessly—helplessly… No—please— Panting, she yelled in furious protest, begging her mind not to remember, for the Goddess’ sake— No! NO— But it was swelling all around her. It was filling her eyes, her heart, the red of flame, blotting the light out… Flames. Nothing but flames. Whirling, devouring the wood and cloth and metal, melting the glass. Thundering wood beams, ash and embers showering—flames engulfing her world. Smoke, acrid blackness, charred wood, smouldering ash. She clawed at her face, clenched her fists so tight they hurt, tears rising to her eyes, turning over to bury her face in cloth— A pair of skeletons. The flames parting to reveal the darkened, shattered shapes in the rubble. The grinning, blackened skulls—blackened skulls that breathed not, but let flame danced in their eyes sockets… Tears were suddenly pouring down her face, pouring down in torrents though she struggled to end them. Tears of terror, guilt, anger… No, please! Stop! STOP— But she could only remember, like a horror film playing before her eyes. The truth was unfolding from the dregs of the past, blooming like spots of blood. Please… Showering blackness. The sky torn open. A sunset the colour of blood, the colour of
the furnace, and the Spirit’s Passageway. The black of smoke rising like a death signal, against the calls of the gulls. It forced itself upon her, deep into her consciousness, like a blade. It drew blood, where blood could be drawn best. It tore her heart into a thousand shreds. Absolution… it was the one word, the only word her ripping heart called out. Freedom was supposed to be a right of everyone. She longed to finally feel the joy she had always wished for, the smiles she longed to smile, the laughter she longed to laugh… But the world kept screaming her painful story in her ears, reminding her of her wrongdoing. It came, again and again… …heart weakening, every time…every thousand times… You are just a sinner! You killed your own parents, you monster! How could you continue to live like this? She sobbed into the blankets, wishing that the pain would end. She wanted it all to go away—but the longer she lived, the more she wanted to die. Goddess, I’m sorry… I’m so—sorry… And one truth thundered in her blood and mind. No matter how she cried, how she pleaded, she knew this one, unchanging thing. Her sins would only be erased by her own blood. I’m… …sorry… Hugging her legs on the crumpled blankets, Akera lay among the folds, tears streaming from her eyes. “I’m sorry!” she gasped once more. “I’m sorry for what I did! I…never meant to, Goddess—I loved them—please—” She knew it would never end. Never end. She would be trapped forever, behind bars of tears and fire, the fire from a time eleven years past. Weeping, shivering, Akera pulled herself deep into the blankets, and at last she cried herself to sleep. ralinn: waking dream Suddenly the world was black. As she stood, Ralinn felt something turning off in her brain—but then when she blinked, everything was bright again. All she could see was Shirion’s concerned expression, and the faint hall lights beyond him. “Um—I’m fine,” she quickly said. “Are you very sure?” the Crusader asked in reply, patting her arm. “You look like you’re about to faint—” “Yes, yes—I’m okay—” Then, it came again. Darkness swept her off her feet, flooding her brain as she felt a scream swell in her throat. But thick exhaustion quickly descended on her in her blindness, and her cry faded… Everything was strangely peaceful, all of a sudden. Ralinn found her consciousness
slowly drifting away, into a world of light… Then, the singing began. A light surfaced, its song clear and sweet, soft and bright. “Once a daughter of the springtime, I now walk across the snow Helpless, I am so uncertain— So much left to live and know.” So much… Her voice was sweet and lonely, somewhat unsure. But it was beautiful in a way. It was haunting and innocent— “Ralinn! Ralinn?” The light drew away as quickly as it had appeared, and just as suddenly as everything vanished, Ralinn found everything coming back. Found the feeling returning to her limbs; found herself facing the ceiling in Shirion’s arms, his eyes narrowed in worry. “Ralinn!” he exclaimed again. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong?” Ralinn had to first get over her embarrassed shock of finding herself in that position. Quickly, she stood with a little help, trying to hide her furious blush. “No—just a song…she’s near…” “Near?” Pulling back, Shirion glanced around at the crowded lounge. “You mean, the next member?” “I don’t know! It just came; I don’t know why…” Sighing, she began to walk back towards the rooms, Shirion quickly following. “There’s no way we’ll know who it is. Let’s just hope that we don’t miss her,” she murmured. “Please let it work out—” zethis: first time It wasn’t possible, was it? This girl, this Cleric who hardly spoke but never shied away, was the first person who had ever reached this far into his life. Was it normal? Was he imagining? Somehow he could feel her working within him, uncovering the veils of fear and selfconsciousness—barriers that had always shielded him from the rest of the world. It was such a strange feeling, being so comfortable in another person’s company. Maybe that was normal, feeling safe around someone else. But was it also normal that he kept wanting to stay by her side? Was it normal that he had begun to love her company so much? Zethis didn’t understand this. She was a stranger, and yet he felt as if he had known her all his life. Here, as he stood facing the empty tower courtyard in the spring wind, he could feel it running through his heart—this inexplicable drawing towards her. He felt right when she was there. Why? I’ve only known her for minutes! Shaking his head hard, Zethis turned to watch as Ketara buried the seed in the soil at the middle of the room. The party leader stepped away, lifting his prided Maple
Berit Spear from its carrier on his back. There was a light in the soil. Zethis held his breath—but only a Nependeath sprung up, thrusting its head into the air. Ketara gave the plant a few little pokes, dodging the seeds it spat furiously. Then there was a glimmer of light, an explosion. A roar shook the ground, something suddenly swelling—a dark shape in the midst of the light— As it fell silent, the air began to hum. Then, with an explosion, Papa Pixie itself appeared. The sky of the false world was shining blue and white. “Attack!” The Dragon Knight’s command instantly set off blazing skills, which burst to life all around him—arrows, shining with the strength of the sun, throwing stars and red flames, head-on attacks that exploded with golden power—all raging towards the great pixie as it whirled around, sending off barrages of sun-coloured spells in every direction. In that instant, the garden became a battlefield. “Well, let’s go!” the Cleric exclaimed enthusiastically, pulling Zethis quickly forward into the battle. Her staff flared with light, the arrows of moonlight soaring and singing swiftly through the wind. Strengthened by the sound of her voice, he raised the mace, gave a cry of determination, running forward with his weapon shining. The rather silly-looking Knuckle Mace did its job. Burning sparks of gold and white blasted the creature wherever he struck. Ketara’s attacks joined his, and like Zethis, the flames were white-hot golden, filled to the brim with brilliant strength. Stars spun from a corner, each of Telida’s Lucky Sevens cutting straight into the boss’ flesh with booms of redness. Flashes of violet were accompanied by raging Fire Arrows from the other end of the garden, streaks of blazing orange that flew from Turino’s burning bow, streaming across the monster’s skin with furious energy. It would be a long battle before the creature was subdued. Papa Pixie seemed unfazed by every attack they made, the agile arms shielding off each attack as it came. But nevertheless, it made room for more to be slotted in, and they took advantage of every moment. Quickly, they took the formation of a circle. Just like the necromancers, Zethis thought, smiling at the irony. Turino stood on the far left end, Raydan launching bolts from the stone parapet opposite Zethis, Telida on the parapet to the right with her deadly throwing stars. And in the middle of the garden stood Zethis, Ketara and the Cleric girl, the two warriors trying to get as close a range on the monster as they could. There was only the creature before Zethis now, as he gathered strike after strike in his mace, thrusting everything forward every two moments. The strength of the Goddess drifted all around them in this tower, the shining skies sending Her blessing down like showers of sunlight. And he pulled his focus away from everything else, filled his mind with only the monster, throwing all his passion into striking forward— forward— If only he had seen the Death Pixie from his left, wand out. But it was already too late when he suddenly felt blazing heat blast him in the side, and throw him down upon among the flowers, at the Cleric’s feet, his entire side stinging with blazing pain.
He cried out, the world flashing. Instantly, her eyes shifted away from the battlefield, the light in her staff dying as she gasped out in terror. “Zethis!” she yelled, kneeling. In his blinking vision, he barely saw her hand reach for his side, her staff glow green, the fresh light rising all around him… It felt so wonderful. His eyes never left her face as she reached out to help him stand, as she smiled back at him with relief—until they turned to the battle in unison, his entire spirit refreshed by her spell. She’s…amazing. The thought suddenly made him blush, moments before Papa Pixie’s next spell began on its course straight for the two of them. “Power Strike!” he yelled, dissipating the attack with a swing of his Knuckle Mace. He narrowed his eyes on the old monster’s belly, grip growing tight— Why did he feel so wonderful? It was like every joy in the world had been bestowed upon him, in that tiny second, in that instant of blessed ecstasy. It felt so easy now. The battle was in the sky, in the surreal, distant garden of another world. It wasn’t much. As long as she was there, it was nothing at all. The White Knight couldn’t help his smile. He charged forth, thrusting the mace, in all its burning glory, straight into Papa Pixie’s pale belly. Its eyes rolled, a high, terrified cry leaving its mouth. Zethis stepped back, panting. And the monster’s white body suddenly crumbled into pale dust, shattering on the flowers and fading away. He gave a call of victory, everyone turning, ceasing their attacks, instantly running to gather where he stood, to congratulate each other. Only the twins still looked on at the empty flowerbed, strange calm and nonchalance written on their faces. “Hey, good job,” Raydan said loudly, slapping him on the back. Zethis jumped. “Well done, hm? You were great today!” Somehow, Zethis didn’t feel like celebrating. Somehow, there was only one thing he could think of, as he watched Eak float slowly towards them, smiling in congratulations. He turned to the Cleric. She was conversing nervously with the others, and he suddenly dared not to call her. Nervously he stood, clasping his hands together as he watched her speak to the party leader. “Thanks for joining us!” Ketara exclaimed happily, patting her on the shoulder. She smiled, glancing suddenly at Zethis, who waited in the corner. “It’s been my honour,” she replied—did he only imagine that regret in her voice? Was her smile vaguely rueful? Everyone turned in the direction she was looking. He felt his face flush. But his eyes were only for that girl in their midst, the girl whose name he didn’t know, and yet already felt a strange, strong attachment to. The first person who had ever made him feel so sure of himself… “Well done,” Eak said while Zethis felt his feet leave the ground, so suddenly. He glanced about, found nothing around him except the sky. The empty, lonely sky. Inside him, he felt his heart well up with beautiful forlornness. They were standing within the gate of the real world, all of a sudden. There was only
faintly the sound of conversation from the deserted streets beyond, the voices of the necromancers who didn’t yet know that they had already exited the hidden tower. “There is not much time now,” the cloud sounded urgent. “I can grant you a spell of invisibility for exactly five minutes—no more and no less. Make haste, congratulations, and good luck.” Ketara glanced around at the rest. “Back to the inn in five minutes, alright? Have a safe journey, miss!” The girl nodded back, her sweet smile suddenly hurting in his heart more than it ever had, more than anything ever had…. “Um—goodbye,” he murmured, trying to maintain eye contact, but failing miserably. “I’ll—miss you…” To his shock, she suddenly leant forward and gave him a terribly tight hug. “I’ll miss you so much too!” she replied from behind his ear. “You should learn to talk more!” Zethis nodded quickly, hoping she would let go before he died of either embarrassment or suffocation. She did, finally. But suddenly he wanted her to do it again. “Well, alright then,” Ketara said to the cloud beside him. “We’re ready for your spell.” In the winds that brushed across the stones, Chamberlain Eak circled them with a trail of light. Suddenly, everyone around him began to fade away—and when he looked at his own arms, they too were slowly turning invisible. He glanced once more at where the Cleric had once stood, but now there was only emptiness—all around him, everywhere. Eak had vanished. His time was already running. Remembering Ketara’s instructions—“Back to the inn in five minutes!”—the White Knight turned to the open gate, running through. Again, with a pang of regret, he thought of the Cleric girl. Thank you so much… he thought, pausing when he realized that he didn’t know what to call her. And if only I knew your name—then I’d know whom to thank. It made him so sad, to know that their paths had parted, just like that. But in his mind, the image of her smile was still imprinted, the image of a petite figure in beautiful pink robes, brown hair waving in the wind. And as he ran, he carved the image deep into his heart. In it, she held tightly onto her Petal Staff, her smile filled with a joy that would last forever. ralinn: vanishing As she arrived at her room, she suddenly screamed. Everything was fading, fading at the edges like a painting drenched in water. The world was emptying before her eyes. The door was draining away, like liquid out of a dish—the lights were turning into hollows everywhere, the ceiling stretching on into blackness… Again, Ralinn shrieked out in terror. Her hands and feet were unfeeling, all of a sudden; she shivered though there was no wind, no cold where she was. There were faces, melting into the sky. They were stretched and screaming with her, rising like cruel ghosts from every tile.
The ends of the corridor were sliding away. The ceiling was the night sky, black and white, colourless…and the white was suddenly disappearing as well… Everything was turning in to a formless grey slush. Ralinn fell to her knees, crying out in despair, the thick liquid pooling all around her. What was happening to her? Where was everything going? Everything…everything… It was vanishing. The gold and wood, and stone and lights—they were melting, like a thick grey glacier, mashed into the darkness in unstoppable sublimation… “RALINN! RALINN!” The greyness flashed away. Suddenly everything was back. The ground was suddenly solid and cold. She was panting, lungs burning as if she had just run for miles. And there were tears, blurring the walls and the torches that lit the linear, unshaken corridor. Shirion was trying to pull her to a standing position. He looked terrified—his eyes were filled with worry as his powerful grip brought her to stand before him. Ralinn was swept by sudden dizziness, moments after she returned to her feet. The floor was whirling like a merry-go-round, just as fast, flashing with fancy lights. Then she turned involuntarily, and began to throw up. On and on she just went, sick to the stomach, vertigo returning the urge again and again. “Ralinn,” the Crusader gasped, holding her shoulders from behind, his warm grip bringing her just a little stability. “Are you feeling alright? Really? Do you need some rest?” “—Urghh…” she replied, withstanding the next wave of nausea. “S-sorry. Thanks… just need—rest, yes…” Wordlessly, Shirion helped Ralinn into her room. She managed to smile, and in moments, she was lying on her blanket, breathing deeply to stop herself from feeling sick. “Hope you’re…okay?” he asked, touching her forehead. She nodded. “I’ll—go now then…” “P-please stay,” she replied voicelessly. The images were flashing through her mind, images she never wanted to see again. “I’m…scared. I saw weird things just now. Please stay here.” “Alright…” She closed her eyes, breathing deeply again. What was the meaning of that weird daydream? It gave her a horrible feeling, like something bad had just happened, or was about to happen. It couldn’t simply have come like that, without reason… Ralinn felt warmth on her hand. She opened her eyes a crack, and vaguely saw Shirion, his eyes trained on her face with deep concern, his fingers brushing hers carelessly. Instantly she felt her heartbeat double. She tried to pretend that she was asleep— but she could feel the blush growing in her face, her breaths growing uneven. Stop it. Stop it! This doesn’t mean anything! She had never cared for silly gestures like this. He was smiling. He was smiling, so dreamily… Shirion? I…hey…
Suddenly, it made her feel calm. Through the soft touch of his hand, she knew that he wouldn't be leaving any time soon. And for the security he gave her, she finally dared to close her eyes, allow the sleep she needed to come at last. "Ralinn. Ralinn…I'm sorry…" The voice quested into her mind. Ralinn glanced up, certain that she would see someone there. Yet there was nothing there, but a great light, a shining presence that revealed nothing to her. In it, she could almost imagine clouds floating, a blue sky and a lake beneath—but again, it was no more than a dream. And slowly, her voice came, almost tearful. "Ralinn, she has left. I can bend fate no longer, to cross your paths. Your journey… your journey has come to an end…" Ralinn found her mouth opening with shock. End? As in—end here? "Ralinn…" it went on. “I do hope it can go on someday. But it ends here. I'm sorry...I'm sorry for wasting five years of your life…" "But—but it's important, isn't it?” she cried out. “Won't you find a way to bring us there? Won't you find a way to end our troubles?" Tears were already streaming down her cheeks, tears that vanished even before her hands could rise to wipe them away. "It can't just end here! Please—you gave us so much hope…" "I'm sorry," it repeated, fading slowly, slowly into the blue horizons. "I have let the world down. But I will find another way. I promise…" The light was gone. She was falling through the sky, into an emptiness she could never understand or know again. It was going, the world seeping away through a corner, to leave her so void and forlorn… Ralinn's eyes opened. The light was yellow, and the dreams were shifting away like mist under the sun. Only the ceiling now filled her vision, deep red wallpaper that suddenly threw her back into the reality of the waking world. At once Shirion stood. "Hey, it’s been an hour. You feel fine now?" he asked. Then his eyes widened. "Why are you crying? Did you dream of something again?" Blinking, the Ranger realised that her vision was blurred. She wiped her eyes, surprised to find real tears there, and sighed. "I'm fine. But…I have really bad news." The Crusader glanced back at her instantly. "We have to end our quest. We lost her. We can't go on. From now, Orion's Belt is disbanded." Shirion took only moments to take in the shock. He blinked once, twice, lowered his gaze. "Oh…" Ralinn tilted her head with a smile. "Did you really like our company that much?" she asked, rather glad. He looked up into her eyes again, blinking, then turned his gaze back to the floor. "Well…yeah, I guess…" he replied, as Ralinn stood. “Don’t worry about it. I’m disbanding our guild, so you have the freedom to go wherever you want. I know how much this journey is tiring everyone.” As he watched the sadness grow in his eyes, she wanted so much to say, I’ll miss you too—but she was just too shy. What would he think then? She just felt like maintaining this distance from him, for now. It wouldn’t do, to miss him so terribly, if they were splitting ways.
Packing her clothes back into her bag, Ralinn felt the taste of regret fill her mouth. How much she had hoped that this really was the answer. How much she had hoped that she could make a difference to the world… The Ranger almost felt like laughing, as she packed the shampoo back into the side pocket of her bag. Ten people? The ten of them? Maybe it had been doomed to fail right from the start. What would be lost by this ending? Someone else would rise to take the duty. “I will find another way. I promise…” Those words reassured Ralinn, just a little. She smiled, as she cleared the bedside table of her remaining belongings, tied her bag of mesos to her belt, and turned to face Shirion again. “Why don’t you go pack up,” she called over to him. He nodded blankly. “Come on, don’t be so sad! At least you and Akera can finally get back to that journey you originally planned!” “Um…yeah. Alright. I’ll see you in a few minutes, at the lobby, okay?” She nodded, smiling. He waved once, vanished through the door—but the air was still filled with misery, long after he was gone. ketara: incomprehensible She seemed to want nothing to do with him anymore. It was too obvious, the way she shifted away every time he tried to talk to her, every time he met her eyes. Ketara couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong. One moment, she could be listening to his every word, following him wherever he went. And at the next, she would be glaring at him, ignoring every word he uttered. Is it me? he asked the air. Is it something that I once said to you? I’m sorry— As they waited in the lobby of the inn for the other three to appear, the Dragon Knight glanced once at Telida—was it just him, or was she coming in his direction now? Blinking, Ketara looked again—no, she really was coming towards him, a frown on her face. “L-Lida?” All she did was fix him with a terrifying glare, coal-black eyes glimmering, nothing like the girl he had known just a year ago. “Just who I wanted to talk to—” “Save your breath, stupid!” she yelled back. Everyone turned. “Don’t try to fool me anymore with that attitude! I know you hide motives—and too well, too! I’m not going to fall for them anymore!” Every word felt like a dagger. In they sank, one by one, each one making his heart hurt. Telida? Telida—why do you think so? But it was only presumptuous of him to believe her in the wrong. Perhaps he ought not to be so false, so untrustworthy… Oh, he regretted it so much… “Get lost, okay?” Her words went on mercilessly. “I wish I hadn’t trusted you with so much. I wish I hadn’t…” That fury in her eyes was so hard to understand, and yet it made Ketara feel terrible. “Just get—out of my life! Get out—” Suddenly he realized that everyone was looking away, and he turned as well—to see
Ralinn coming with her packed bags over her shoulder. Shirion and Akera followed, their expressions betraying nothing more than a vague sadness. Sadness…? “What—we’re going already?” Turino’s voice was full of complaint. Ralinn only smiled, and Ketara couldn’t help but pick up the silent, sweet submission in her eyes. Ral— “Hey, guys,” she called, coming to a stop among them. “I have something to tell you. I’m glad for the time we’ve spent doing this. But—I was just sent a message. We can no longer carry on with our journey, because fate has chosen to divide our path inseparably from our last members’.” Around Ketara, in the cool air of the lobby, no one spoke. He could feel the shock slowly sink in. No more journeying, no more exhaustion— No more purpose. What then? Work towards his fourth job? How, when everywhere there were necromancers waiting to extinguish him? Helplessly, he glanced around at the friends he had made. It was such a wonderful feeling, having friends to follow wherever he went. It had been amazing, knowing that he had some purpose in the world… “So,” the guild leader said, her eyes sparkling all of a sudden in the strange, echoing silence among them. “I would like to thank you for making this journey so meaningful while it lasted. You have been the greatest travel companions—” She held back a sob, but Ketara could tell that it was an understatement of what she really felt. Beside her, Shirion touched her shoulder as she gasped and smiled her tears away. Turino seemed heedless of her tears. “My third job!” he exclaimed. “It’s about time! I wish I hadn’t forgone it last time. This is such a hindrance, being so weak!” Ketara glanced around at the rest. “I really want to stay in one place, really,” he said. “Does anyone else want to stay here too? I need company…” “I guess I can,” Shirion replied, to the Dragon Knight’s elation. “It’s probably the best thing we can do right now. I heard that there are some good hunting places in the clouds—this looks to be quite interesting.” “Where are you going, Ralinn?” Telida asked, blatantly disregarding Ketara. “Back…home, I guess—oh, which brings me to the subject of travel,” she replied. “Look at this.” She opened her bag and produced a folded brochure. “I got this off the information counter.” Secret boat service, it read. Ketara found it rather surprising that there actually was one in Ossyria! Well, it would certainly make things easier for everyone. “Great, hm?” Ralinn continued. “We’ll all be leaving for it soon. Whoever wants to can follow.” “I’ll go to Kerning as well,” Telida suddenly cut in. “But not with you. I’ll be alone. I want my third job.” The Assassin never smiled, that look of savage determination almost terrifying. Her personality had suddenly reverted. And, as Ketara had realized, it was his doing. Somehow, someway…
Turino seemed to want to say something. “I—er…need someone to show me around. I don’t really…” “Akera,” Ralinn instantly replied. She looked up, eyes widening with horror. “While you are still in my guild, and I am your leader, you will follow my instructions—so show Turino how to get around.” The Mage glanced desperately about, particularly at Shirion. She breathed deep, narrowing her eyes angrily. “FINE!” They froze. Everyone fell silent. The air was filled with tension—abnormal tension. Everyone seemed a little edgy today, after this sudden shock—a bad thing, Ketara was beginning to realize. “Get a life, Akera!” Turino growled in reply. “No one’s going to sit around listening to your every complaint! I’m not insisting you help me. But if you had a heart, you would help! Or are you just too spoilt to do that?” Akera could only glare on at him, the fury in her expression growing slowly. But still Turino went on. His eyes were burning, this inexplicably crazy drive behind his every word becoming greater and greater. “Stupid girl! Just shows how bratty you can get. Killing your parents, just because you were angry! Who would ever do something like that, besides you?” Her eyes flashed, an anger filling them. Anger, so terrible that everyone there suddenly froze—their thoughts, their words, their every motion. She stood, said nothing, her eyes only growing brighter, brighter with raging tears. Tears that swelled and slid down her cheeks, the air itself shimmering and shaking like a mirage around her. Something tore to pieces. Something, that made the world burn away. “IT WAS A MISTAKE! A—mistake—you IDIOT!” Akera screamed. The woman at the counter turned in alarm. But still she screamed, unheeding, her tears streaming unending down her cheeks, hands suddenly filled with vicious, passionate flame—swelling, swelling so fast… The shadows grew. The crackle turned into thunder. The stones slowly melted away. Ketara could only timidly watch, eyes turning blind, as flames gathered themselves in a deadly arrow-beam and tore across the lobby, straight into his heart— No one had ever thought it possible to hear him give a cry of such suffering. But Turino’s next exclamation was wrought with excruciation, dwindling rapidly into a drawn-out gasp, as he sank to the ground in flames. Ketara could hear his breaths, turning into formless pleas for life, for reprieve—and it made his heart thunder… “Akera!” Ralinn gasped, turning with newfound terror, as Zethis scrambled quickly to catch the Wizard. “Zethis—Zethis, is he alright?” Somewhere beside him, Ketara heard Telida give a sniff of disdain. At that point, the Dragon Knight couldn’t think; he was still contending with the events that had just slipped by before his helpless eyes. Zethis glanced up at Ralinn, eyes filled so overwhelmingly he looked like he was about to cry. “He—I don’t think he’s breathing—”
Minutes later, they had rushed Turino down to the medical clinic thing. Akera hadn’t come; the shock that had slipped deep into her eyes had been enough for everyone to know that she was grappling with what she had just done. Within the white-walled, sweet-scented room at the lowest level of the inn, everything seemed calm. The pale Fire Poison Wizard looked almost dead under the bedsheets, his dark hair falling over his closed eyes, drenched in sweat. Never before had anyone seen him look so vulnerable—and it was terrifying. He had always been so feared among them—but now, here he lay, defenceless and injured, tears on the edges of his eyelids… “He’s alright, isn’t he?” Ketara quickly asked the nurse. “He’ll recover? We—really do need him…” She blushed under his intense gaze for a moment, then nodded. “Yes—yes, he was lucky,” she responded. “Quick response is crucial, in cases like this…” Distractedly, she carried on with her duties after he smiled and thanked her. “Oh…man,” Raydan whispered once she had departed. “He…looks dead. And I’d normally be glad for that… But somehow, I’m sorta—worried…” Zethis had been daydreaming again—at that point, he blinked and turned back to Raydan. “Did you…say something?” Raydan smiled widely. “Thinking about that girl again, aren’t you,” he said, amused. Zethis flushed deeply, glancing quickly back at Turino, desperately hoping that the conversation would not go on. The knight’s expression made Ketara smile himself— quickly, he looked back to the mage resting on the bed. “Hm…when do you think he’ll be okay?” “The nurse said that he’ll be conscious soon,” Ralinn replied. “But recovery—he’ll take some time. Few days, maybe.” “Well, too bad for Akera then,” Raydan said, shaking his head. “You aren’t just going to let her go, right?” “Oh, right—I guess she’ll have to—” Suddenly she heard a complaining groan from the bed, and they turned. “I’m fine, alright?” Turino shouted, glaring at the guild leader from under the blankets. He winced suddenly as he rose, clutching his front with a deep breath through his teeth. “No, really—just go without me, okay? If Akera isn’t happy about it, let her have her way.” Wow, this isn’t like Turino at all, Ketara realized. He never acceded to the requests of others. Perhaps he was in a lot more pain than was apparent—and it was muddling up the way he was thinking. “Get well soon, alright?” the Dragon Knight responded, smiling and patting his shoulder. The returning frown was to be expected—but at least he wasn’t shouting. Which was good enough. He turned to realize that Ralinn was already departing, and so he quickly followed after. Raydan was chattering away with his sister on their plans, so Ketara went over to Zethis and struck up a brief conversation. As they passed through the door, Ketara saw someone approaching. Akera.
Her eyes were still red from crying, and she wasn’t accompanied. Ketara glanced once at her, and the brokenness behind that angry gaze was suddenly so apparent, so painful. Her words, full of passion and guilt, began to whirl in his mind again. Akera? They walked on past her, but not a word was exchanged, as her icy gaze crossed them one by one. Ralinn ignored her altogether—it was as if she didn’t trust the Fire Poison Mage anymore. Taking his eyes away, Ketara quickly caught up with the rest of the group, still wondering how much pain she really held in her heart. turino: fire As he watched the group depart, Turino found his thoughts going back to the moment it had all happened—the flames, and the fury, and the pain. He should be hating Akera to bits by now! She had almost killed him, out of sheer irrationality. He should be wanting to get back at her for what she had done— But no. Somehow, it wasn’t so. Somehow, it had finally made him understand. There is something special about fire made by a human heart. Fire is drawn up from rage, from fury, from pure anger. And in every flame of Mage’s fire, there will be a part of the human soul left there. The moment when that flame had struck Turino and burnt him, he had suddenly felt it all—that part of Akera’s soul that was inseparable from the fire she made. That part, that held so much rage and frustration and terror that it had almost killed him. Was that what she put into every spell? Was it this anger that had changed her so, left her broken the way she was? Never once had he ever realized that she felt bad about killing her parents. He had always thought her soulless, and that she had done the deed without any qualms. Now he saw that he was wrong. He didn’t hate her. In fact, he felt like he had finally found someone worthy of his respect. Respect? He wondered to himself. Hah, since when did I respect people? And her, of all people? But the thought of Akera only managed to bring him surprising honour. For he wondered how a single person could carry so much with her, all the time—how she could still live, and not destroy herself with the pain— Turino looked up at the sound of a throat being cleared. Suddenly coming face to face with her again seemed to bring everything full-circle—his anger, his honour, his uncertainty about her, and all of a sudden… “I’m—sorry, okay?” Akera suddenly yelled out from where she stood at the end of the bed, folding her arms. He glanced up, instead, at her dyed hair, and again wondered at how beautiful it was… “I shouldn’t have…” she murmured. “I really… Ah, there’s no point!” The Mage kicked the bedpost and turned away, long white hair fluttering. Turino found himself amused. “It’s so hard for you to apologise, isn’t it,” he replied. “Not unexpected. Brat.” That made her whirl around again, her icy glare so fierce it
actually frightened him a bit. “SHUT UP! I came to apologise, and I’ve done that! So don’t complain, alright?” He smiled slightly, rising despite the pain in his chest. “I understand now,” he responded, in a rare moment of emotion. Then quickly his eyes narrowed, familiar hate stirring in his heart at the sound of her voice. “—But I still hate you, okay? You just threw a tantrum to make everyone sympathise, didn’t you?” She blinked and looked down. Without hearing, he knew that her answer was “no”. But she didn’t say so. All she did was scowl at him and turn away, her blue Mage robes swishing. Turino shrugged and lay back down. But he continued to watch as she departed angrily—the troubled, suffering, amazing spirit that was hidden behind blue eyes. And how beautiful she was, he suddenly saw. How strange… telida: descent of acceptance The morning was golden bright, but Telida didn’t see. In the shadow of the stones, her solitary climb towards the snows went on. She had a ship to catch that night— and it would be a long climb down. Again she turned to the snows, standing at the edge of the stone parapet, breathing deep the sweet air from the snows. Sentinels swarmed the entire interior of Orbis Tower, and there was no possible safe path within it. Telida had worked out that she could get to the bottom either by jumping, or by climbing down the outside, and she figured that climbing would give her a much higher survival rate. The cool snow winds made her smile as she paused momentarily. There was no one left to distract her from her thoughts, and they were slowly settling in the stillness. Finally, for the first time, she could tell what exactly she thought of everything and everyone around her. Ketara is so fake, she thought to herself, sniffing. I’m glad I’ll never see him again. And Turino is the biggest idiot in the world. I hope I never meet him again. It wasn’t hard to make sense of everything now. Watching the thin blanket of clouds fade away into the morning, she resumed her descent. She had a deadline to keep; she had to reach the secret jetty by twilight. raydan: last road Shimmering waves of cold were sweeping down the tiles of ancient stone all around him. Around them, the guardians were still being charged at the waiting points, inactive in the depths of night. It was in this time that Ralinn had chosen for them to make their move. Now, the group of four was on their way down. The mist parted slowly, even in their hasty wake, and all around only the dim shapes of spherical sentinels were visible under Turino’s hazy firelight. It appeared that the two magicians weren’t much as enthusiastic as Ralinn and himself. He chose to ignore their gloomy expressions, and set his mind on the destination instead. Their footsteps were hurried, both Ralinn’s and his; the jetty was only a shadow on
the brink of the icy snows. In the early summer, the snows would be thawing anywhere else in the world. But El Nath was in perennial winter, like the inside of a snow globe, and the snow never faded in this realm. Behind them, in the muted shadows, the footsteps of the two mages were subdued and gradual. None of the four spoke, as the ice jetty and its waiting stand rose into view far ahead, in the bleak morning. “Do you even care that you’re getting your third job?” Raydan muttered, half expecting Turino not to hear. “None of your business.” His annoyance was enough to silence the Sniper, and he continued to follow Ralinn. It was four o’clock already, and the ship was already waiting. Even Raydan couldn’t keep the ecstatic anticipation from his movements, as they raced across the crunching snow of El Nath and came to a stop at the booth beside the silhouette of the ship in the waters. The icy sea was like a glass mirror, but only the moonlight shone in it. The man at the counter gave them a smile, pleasant despite his crooked teeth. Gosh, anything would have looked pleasant, after their encounter with the king’s Necromancers. But he didn’t really want to think about those. For now, all he cared for was that they were on their way home. Home! He recalled too clearly the warm fireplaces, the smoke-spewing chimneys, the destroyed buildings, the haphazardly-drawn roads that led people astray. He loved that place! He could almost see them all, surrounding him, the already-familiar scent of smoke greeting his nose like a welcome call. Raydan blinked, almost certain that he was home again—but all there was before him was the lonely biting frost of the deep morning, and the swish of the moonlit tides before him. “Come on!” Ralinn exclaimed, running back, a stack of tickets ready in her hands. Her eyes were bright, even in the fading moonlight. He glanced back once at the two mages, their faces cast deep in shadows. They followed after them silently, seeming neither anticipating nor anxious. It was really creepy, in a way. As the Sniper boarded the boat, the deck began to rock. Ralinn had already seated herself somewhere inside, and under the dim light of the early hours, she was only a shadow. They were alone, just the four travellers—Orion’s Belt no more. He had gotten so used to travelling with so many others that this felt almost unbearable— Almost unbearable? At least it was quiet—there hadn’t been a moment like this for a long time. As Akera and Turino sat down at opposite ends of the boat’s cabin, Raydan smiled to himself. They were silent, at last. Maybe that last argument had been a good thing. The boat gave a short lurch, and the gentle splash of water in the night marked the start of their journey back home. Home…ah, home. How long it has been, Kerning City.
lanoré: crisis The instant the gates of El Nath came into view, it began. They were all around the entrance, almost as if they had been waiting, waiting all this while to sound the alarm. They had lived waiting for this moment. And at last, the moment had come. “Target sighted! Move into formation!” Even before the last word had left, they were already everywhere. Appearing from the old carts that lined the roads, from the skeletons of dead trees from a distant time, from the ice-covered rocks that stood silent guardians at the edges of the city —everywhere, staves flaming scarlet like deadly torches, crackling like the deepest hell. The circle was forming. The circle—just like before—emerging from empty icy wilderness, necromancers that had hidden themselves too well for detection, finally springing the indomitable hunter’s snare. Trapped. Lanoré breathed hard, frightened—all too clearly, the times were echoing from the ends of her memory—a similar day, a similar place, a similar happening… The thunder was shaking. The circle was hardening, hardening around them— And she knew, at once, that she couldn’t let it be completed. “Clynine!” The Archmage didn’t even have to say what to do. After the last time, they both knew that there was only one thing to do. This time, they didn’t make the mistake. This time, the snow was open, their feet free. This time, they ran. “Get them!” The moment they swerved around and slipped through a weak point in the formation, the commander began yelling, frenzied, and cloaks of black were suddenly chasing furiously in the wind. Swiftly, Lanoré cut their path, towards the yetis tethered at the gates. The yetis that would take them away— “Clynine, don’t worry!” she called, the snow whizzing by, the yells rising like a storm around them. Flames of red exploded behind them; she never turned, but sent quick Ice Strikes backwards every few seconds. Clynine smiled back and nodded, their twin footsteps never slowing, no matter how cold the world was growing, how enraged the flying spells became. They shot across the last feet of snow, the sky behind them—two fugitives, on the line between light and darkness. The yeti fur was warm and soft. The saddles were trustworthy. The outer fences of El Nath were worn and woody—Lanoré bade them a last, silent farewell. And then they were swift as the wind, great creatures born and bred for the wild snows—galloping through the rises and hills of the great El Nath that they owned. Behind them, the necromancers no longer gave chase. Lanoré glanced once back, allowing herself one childish moment—stuck out her tongue—before looking back to the invisible road before them with overwhelming triumph in her eyes.
“Warm El Nath indeed. Well, since my home seems suddenly so inhospitable, let’s head for yours, hm?” Clynine rode to Lanoré’s right, utter fright deepening in her gaze. But she turned at her words, and her mouth fell open, eyes filling up with nostalgia and joy and anxiety. Mum…Dad… it was all too clear what she was thinking. Lanoré smiled. She would have reached over to pat her shoulder, had she not been holding the reins. zethis: charisma “Unagi? Hm…unagi, unagi, unagi—aha!” Zethis almost leapt into the air as Ketara whirled around and went straight for the assortment of eel meat on the facing shelf. There was the sound of packages knocking against each other, as the Dragon Knight gathered up three dozens of packages, the stack towering higher than his head. “C-careful with that,” Zethis stammered, his neck tingling with terror that he might drop them. But Ketara only grinned back and shifted quickly to the counter, hardly daunted by the load he carried. Nervously, the White Knight followed after. The person at the counter today was a young lady, busily distracting herself with a feather duster and her shelves. The instant they arrived at the counter, she turned around and blinked at the number of unagi packages Ketara had set down on the counter top. “Um—we’d like to buy them all?” She was already scowling at the number of packs she would have to check out, glaring down at them as if they were rotten. “Paranoid idiots,” he heard her mutter. “Can’t they just come back for more some other time?” Frightened, Zethis backed away, while she took the first and her barcode scanner gave a beep. Somehow, Ketara seemed unperturbed by her disagreeable expression—or perhaps, he didn’t notice it. “These shops sure are more advanced than the ones back at Victoria Island,” he commented, leaning against the counter and observing her strange tool. She looked up with annoyance at his comment, but as her eyes crossed his gaze, she froze. Her frown softened, turned into a shy smile—and she looked down at the unagi again, playing absently with the package she was holding. “Uh—yeah, we’re quite advance—compared to the ones across the sea,” she murmured back. She glanced up at her customer again, and she flushed gently. “Ours run on magic, you know?” “Oh, that’s cool!” Zethis blinked. What? How in the world did Ketara manage to do that? In no time, they were in rapt conversation, the girl now rapidly passing the unagi packages under her scanner without much thought. “Mmhmm, they’re pretty stingy with resources, really,” she responded, almost laughing. “We shopkeepers get some privileges—but they still leave us to our own means most of the time.” She shook her head, taking another unagi from the now half-sized stack.
Carefully, the White Knight crept up to the counter. She turned briefly. “Oh, who’s that? Your little brother?” she asked, facing Ketara again, who shook his head, glancing at Zethis. “Just me then; you look similar in a few ways… And that’s thirteen,” she commented to herself, her scanner beeping again. The Dragon Knight took one step to Zethis’ side. “Alright, now let’s try our luck,” he whispered with a smile. As soon as the girl looked up, Ketara returned to the counter front. “Hey, just wondering—would you mind giving us a discount? Say—half price?” Zethis’ jaw dropped at the dubious offer. No way, he thought, staring at Ketara as if he were crazy. She’ll never— “Oh—okay, why not?” the shopkeeper suddenly replied. Zethis’ jaw dropped a second time. “Or…you could keep quiet, and I’ll let you have it all for free…” Ketara suddenly grabbed her hands and clasped them tightly in his own, practically jumping up and down with his gratefulness, the shopkeeper’s face steadily reddening. “Thanks so much! Thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks!” he exclaimed back, and she smiled timidly. If only he could do the same! As Zethis thought over his companion’s amazing charisma, he realised how much he lacked. Words failed him so often, and he couldn’t even smile at a stranger! Here, beside him, stood someone with so much nerve and confidence, he seemed almost godly. As Ketara carried the pile of food out of the shop, Zethis followed quickly after, a strange, envious honour filling his heart. Again, he watched the Dragon Knight balance the stack of goods in his arms, his hair—deep brown in the bright sun— tossed about playfully by the wind. “Hm, that was a nice shopkeeper,” he commented as Zethis caught up. “Free! Can you imagine? Shirion’s gonna be happy—and he’s never happy!” “Uh—well, now I know how you always get your prices lowered,” he murmured absently back. Then he added softly, “I wish I were you.” Ketara glanced back at Zethis, his enchanting, deep brown eyes widening in question. “Really?” He laughed. “I’m—not that great, y’know. But you’re considerate, and nice, and awfully adorable—” But you’re so much more than that! Not me. I’m just…me. Yeah, boring—unconfident me. If I were you, that Cleric girl would have noticed me… Wait—why was he thinking that? Blushing of his own accord, Zethis trailed after Ketara all their way around the precarious edge of Orbis and the gently clouded skies, struggling to keep up. How can someone like that exist? He wondered. How do you do it—Ketara? telida: forlornness and fury Ketara! The name suddenly, suddenly shot through her mind, the instant she found herself cornered. Ah, it served her right for getting into the situation in the first place; she should never have trusted the streets of Kerning in the first place. But now she was here, trapped with a strange man, whose sickening grin and questing hands wouldn’t leave her alone.
He chuckled, glancing her up and down, drawing uncomfortably close. “You’re a pretty girl,” he murmured, as Telida backed away. Straight into a wall. The bricks were rough under her shivering fingers, the dark streetlight from the narrow exit distant now, so tantalizingly far… “You don’t know how beautiful you are, do you?” His voice was a ragged gasp now, his smile growing wider. Telida could feel chills creeping across the back of her neck, coldness filling her blood… “Get lost—” She gasped as his fingers crept to her arm. From her arm, to her waist. Ketara! The name was a dying gasp, a parting cry. She thought once of him, and everything began to flood in, everything that made her want to carry on living. His warm, friendly smile, his enthusiastic joy, his realness—all the things that she had so furiously tossed away… She had to get out of this— Her aggressor’s rank breath was warm on her neck, his glittering moonlit eyes filled with hunger, as he slowly forced her down against the wall… The instant his fingers reached for her shirt, Telida felt something blaze to life within her, infusing her every last cell. Suddenly, a new strength exploded through her spirit—and she sprang to her feet, swinging her arm out with all the momentum of her body, throwing him down with a crunch against the tarry street. “I told you to get lost!” she screamed savagely. No, she wouldn't just let him get away with it like that. That wasn't enough. Not enough. Not enough. Again. She was ready to fight, ready to kill. Claw sank into flesh, neck ripping sinew by sinew—every tear, every scream a price he was obliged to pay. Still there was no mercy in her soulless eyes. Blood! Her heartbeat screamed. She dug the weapon deeper, deeper, until lifeblood pooled all around his neck and ran from his open flesh like fresh waterfalls. Blood! Again, again—her claw struck the tar of the road, straight through the crushed deformity that was his neck. He sputtered, eyes rolling, fading to dullness. Telida kicked him against the wall, stabbed him thrice in the chest, taking pleasure in the sound of ripping fabric and muscle. At last, appeased, she stood and stumbled away, her hard breaths suddenly dwindling with exhaustion. The streetlight brightened hazily as she approached the main street again, her shaking legs carrying her back to the most crowded street she could find. Never again. Never again did she want it to happen. And never again would she wear what she wore now. How empty she felt... Suddenly, painfully, the realisation struck her that she couldn't stand this—the feeling of having no one close by, no one to trust. But she had always been a loner! She had always been hated company—she absolutely didn't require the presence of another human being. But this journey had taught Telida something. She did. "Ketara..." Silently, Telida murmured his name, calling to memory the way he would
make a joke in a situation like this, the way he would place a gentle arm around her shoulders and keep her walking with his optimism— “We’ll make it. Don’t you worry! We’ll get to the Fusion Bar, and then we can go have dinner!” She glanced to her right, saw no one—and her heart sank with coldness. Telida knew she wouldn't survive another day without her best friend at her side. The Assassin's heavy footsteps finally slowed to a stop. Fusion Bar, the blurred, colourful words overhead brought her a flood of relief. But she was too tired, too weary from loneliness, to enter. So she sat gently down by the doorstep and sighed, eyes closing to the lights above. turino: black, white “Hey, stop staring at me like that!” They came to a stop in the middle of the clearing, the leaves crunching just moments ago—silent now. The crickets’ song reigned for a few moments. Turino blinked, gasped, and turned away. “No, I’m not,” he replied, folding his arms. “It’s just—your hair’s white.” He reached into his pocket, fingering the cold chain, the secret treasure that he had never shown anyone before. She has…white hair… “What an astute observation!” Akera exclaimed back, scowling deeply. “So? Did it take you that long?” “No…” As he watched her ice blue eyes glimmer in the light from the treetops, Turino played around with the thought—of telling her his secret. No secret embarrassed him more than this one—but her hair…it was—simply beautiful… Why shouldn’t he tell her, anyway? Perhaps knowing something so personal to him might soften her a little. “—Can I…have some of your hair?” Now it was Akera’s turn to blink. Realizing how utterly stupid his request sounded, the mage covered his face with his palm, breathing in deeply. Here goes. “I sorta—like making brushes. And your hair is—white. I wanted to—” “What?” Akera stepped back, clutching her hair with obvious disgust in her eyes. “Make brushes with hair?!” “Well—not normally human hair—but…” Finally he rolled his eyes. “Ah, forget it! Your pretty hair is just too precious for you to part with, isn’t it?” The other mage sniffed. “Gross,” she responded, turning away. Turino glanced away, suddenly caught between utter shame—and soft, growing heartbreak. The brushes. As he fingered them, the small chain of brushes in his pocket, he could see himself again— Black eyes watching his hands intently, smiling—full of attention and adoration. Curious praise, deep fascination in that soft, familiar voice. These things…when had they vanished?
“Hurry up,” Akera’s soulless low voice made him break out of his short, sorrowful trance. But some of it had already caught hold—for when he responded, he could almost hear the tears in his own voice. “Don’t hurry me.” She came to a stop and watched him with frosty blue eyes—but they were no longer cruel or troubled. They were full of concern. “Turino,” she said gravely. “You obviously need to say something. Don’t deny it—sit down.” Staring down at the Fire Poison third-jobber in complete disbelief, he did as told— more from shock than intimidation. Akera…? She’s actually being nice? She did the same, her pale hair whirling over her shoulders like immaculate silk. Her eyes were intent and bright as they searched his, so very different from what she normally was. How much did she understand? The pain within the fire. The anguish, the suffering, the guilt. “Well?” Akera looked expectant now, tilting her head to a side. “Do you trust me with your story?” Turino looked deep into her eyes—it was like looking into a lake, into the night sky that rested within. The depth, the powerful moving fathoms in those eyes, made him turn away again. “Yeah…I do. Um…let’s just say…I really do care what she thinks of me.” “Who? Your sister?” “That’s it.” Her eyes widened sincerely, and it only made the waves of sadness within him, so suddenly, even stronger. “She… she was important to me, really—” Carefully, Turino reached into his pocket again, producing the object, his secret—the chain of handmade brushes that had been with him since seven. “I used to—make these brushes for her,” he whispered, hoping desperately that she couldn’t see how deep his pain ran. “And she loved them; she loved doing everything with me, back then. But then…somehow, she suddenly—changed. She started hating me, pushing me away, hurting me—” No! His mind yelled the command, for suddenly he was on the brink of letting his tears fall. Don’t cry, not in front of her—don’t— “…She doesn’t care about me anymore—it doesn’t matter what I do! Love her, hate her…it’s always—wrong…wrong…” Rising furiously, suddenly, clenching his fists tight, he glared down at the mage, panting— “It’s none of your business, alright? Just forget about it all! I don’t want to remember these things! You don’t know—” Akera stood as well, so abruptly it made him fall silent, his breaths deep. She said nothing for moments as she reached out to touch his arm, her eyes already full of amazing comprehension. Closing her eyes, she sighed softly. “I think I do.”
Why was this shared moment of pain so strange, and so heartbreaking? Turino felt a single tear escape the corner of his eye, as he let the warmth of her fingers fill his empty soul. “Hah, at least in your case, you couldn’t have done anything about it.” She turned away with a smile, her voice falling—falling. “But what if—you could have?” She folded her arms, leaning on the tree, still smiling—but her eyes were reddening. “Yeah, you don’t know half the pain of the world, Turino,” the Mage went on relentlessly. “You don’t know how it feels, to let a mistake take everything away, and have your entire world ruined as a result—how it feels, when a loved one leaves you for good!” Akera glanced up into the summer light above, eyes narrowed and shimmering with tears. “Don’t whine about your pathetic little situation to me, Turino. At least you can still do something about it! Real pain is when you have no chances left, no chances to erase what wrong you’ve done—no chances to find redemption—to find the forgiveness you need…to find…” A soft sob followed those words. In no time, Akera had collapsed among the tree roots, crying everything out of her, tears staining the lap of her brown traveller robes. Oh, great—what am I supposed to do now? The Wizard wondered to himself, tentatively walking towards her. Should I even care? Should I… She’s in pain. It was like an arrow cutting him deep through the heart, remembering everything she had given into that single spell. “Akera, please get a grip on yourself,” Turino replied, standing next to her small, curled figure. Her violent sobs didn’t cease. “Don’t go wallowing in self pity now, especially in my presence.” She sniffed hard again and looked up—her teary glare was sharp and fierce. But instead of yelling back at him, her gaze softened, and she glanced down with a sigh. “I’m—sorry.” Her voice made his heart ache. Standing, Akera quickly wiped the tears from her face. There were a few moments of silence between them, and finally, she looked up. “You know…” she murmured as they resumed their slow walk towards the secret inn. “You’re actually a lot like me. You hide so much from the world, and you pretend not to care, so people think you’re self-assured and strong.” Turino’s eyes widened slightly, at how painfully true her words were… “No, I am not like that!” “—But you actually care, don’t you,” she went on regardless. “I know, because it’s the same with me. I pretend—but in my heart…I do care. I want everything to change. I hate my life the way it is. You do too, don’t you?” This silence was even longer. The Wizard was still contending with disbelief, with surprise—with strange, moving affection. She understood—it had taken this much to make Turino realize. She knew how it felt, hiding from the world the way he did. “Yeah.” Akera seemed to find comfort in his single word. She turned to him and smiled gently, and for moments her, she was more beautiful than he ever remembered seeing her.
As their journey resumed down the increasingly familiar pathway, their conversation somehow grew more lively. “Don’t you dare start acting nice to me after today,” the female mage commented, not turning. “I’d totally die of embarrassment—” Act nice…to her… Turino glanced down at his hands, wishing he could. But no—no, he couldn’t hate her anymore, not after seeing so deep into her heart and finally understanding. He couldn’t find it within his capacity to hate someone with such humanity, such astute profoundness—even a self-indulgent brat like her. Not that she actually cared for it—she’d probably jump at the chance to be rid of him. But why did his heart hurt then, when he thought of leaving her? Akera had paused in the midst of a strange little copse of trees. “Turino,” she said as he stopped behind her. “Just take some of my hair. At least…it keeps your hope alive.” The Fire Poison Wizard blinked for a few seconds at her sudden offer. Then he took his blade from his shirt pocket and unlocked it, thanking her quietly without a smile. He reached out, nervously, to take a lock of her hair in his hand— The instant his fingers closed around her pale hair, Turino glanced into Akera’s celestial-blue eyes, and felt a strange current of understanding, trust, adoration run deep through his heart. He realised moments later that he had stopped breathing. Akera raised her graceful eyebrows expectantly, folding her arms. “We don’t have all day,” she urged bluntly. Blinking rapidly, looking at his hands again, Turino nodded and sliced a short length of hair from the end. “I’ll—make the brush while we walk,” he said afterwards, holding the silken white strands like the most precious ore in the world. Akera nodded briefly, before they continued their long trek, Turino searching his meso bag for his tools. This routine suddenly brought back swathes of recollection, of a time when he used to do the same, for someone so dear… But I’ve lost her now— “At least you can still do something about it!” He smiled, just a little. The process was so simple that Turino could do it perfectly, even while walking. He never had to take a glance at his hands, as he found the metal fastener, pliers and forceps, and began to work the art that he loved so deeply, secretly. But as he glanced down at his incomplete brush of silver hair, the Wizard took his blade again. It needed something else. Cutting some of his own hair off, Turino slipped both tufts into the fastener, side by side—black next to white—and finally, he wound the last wire around his new brush. This one, somehow, was his most beautiful yet. clynine: the torches The gardens—ah, the gardens! The night sky was filled with the scent of peaches, for it was summer and the little pink fruits were ripe, lading the trees that stood
sentinels on either side of the road. The leaves rustled under the evening wind, all through the town of Mu Lung. And in the darkness the companions walked, bags in hand—silent, exhausted, relieved. There was a small mile on the Cleric’s lips as the familiar road unfolded before them, the sweet peach aroma encircling her like the warmest blanket in the world. Home…home! Mum! Dad! Home—! The hill was a mere shadow against the empty moonlight-soaked sky. The familiar peak of the mansion rose high from the hilltop, the wind carrying hollow echoes from the sky overhead. The lights were out in Clynine’s home— They’re asleep already…she thought with amusement. Just like them! I thought they promised that they’d be waiting for me! Clynine allowed herself a small laugh, and she glanced to her right, where Lanoré walked steadily. “Thanks, mistress Lanoré,” she whispered, her voice barely higher than the night winds around them. Lanoré turned and smiled, patting her head. Clynine sighed. “When we’re back…I’m going to tell Mum and Dad everything. I can’t believe I’m home—back home…Mum and Dad are going to be so proud, of how far I’ve come…” Were these tears coming to her eyes? The moon was blurred behind her tears, tears that had suddenly appeared, when she thought of the warmth of home, of her parents smiling and hugging her, of the familiar walls and cushions and windows… “Let’s be quiet and surprise them,” the Cleric’s mistress suggested as they arrived at the foot of the hill, the end of a lightless road. It was only then that Clynine began to feel nervous. “La—noré—” The Archmage turned, and she clasped her hands together. “I’m afraid —I don’t know why…” Lanoré wound an arm around her shoulders, warm grip filling Clynine with just enough strength to keep walking. Together, they ascended the road to home, the warmth of her mistress close by fighting down the stirs of anxiety within her. Through the gate they passed, down the road through their hilltop garden. They were soon at the doorstep, the towering shape of the mansion making comfort sweep through her heart. “Come on,” Lanoré said. “They probably wouldn’t mind waking up to meet you.” Clynine nodded and produced the key from her pocket, unlocking the door with a shaking hand. Inside, the entrance hall was empty, the click of the door echoing among the pillars and against the doors. All the servants, too, were apparently asleep; they must have had a tiring day— The Cleric’s heartbeat doubled suddenly, as she remembered. The torches were always lit. Whether it was humid or cold, whether the moon was new or full—the torches of the path were always lit. Mum was very particular about it — No, no—no way… She backed away from the entrance hall, out into the moonlight. Turned back to gaze down the path—the dark path up which they had come.
Tonight, the torches hadn’t been lit. “Mistress…Lanoré—…” Her voice shook and died before she could finish her sentence. The wind was cold, sweeping through the entrance hall, echoing on walls that she couldn’t see. Silent, so silent. Clynine screamed. She screamed, and dropped her bag, racing up the spiral staircase—up, up, up to the place where Lanoré had first met her, past it—to the bedrooms, where they should be sleeping silently now… She didn’t leave herself time to breathe. In the darkness, her faintness filled the world with sparks of colour—but still she threw the double doors open, panting, heart pounding like thunder… Empty. Empty, everywhere—scattered furniture, broken mirrors, shadows. Everywhere. Everywhere. Voiceless. Again Clynine screamed, warm tears slipping suddenly from her eyelids, racing down her cheeks. Footsteps behind her— She whirled around. Upon seeing the blurred face of her mistress, she felt everything, her heart, shatter at the seams. “Gone—” she gasped to the pale smudge in her vision that was Lanoré. “They’re gone—I let them…” Her words faded away as the tears caught up again. She collapsed—but Lanoré raced forward, catching her in her arms, just in time. They had finally been captured, for owning too much. They had been taken away— imprisoned, executed—would she…ever know? “Mum…Dad…you promised you’d be here…when I came back.” She gasped, burying her face in the cloth of Lanoré’s dress. “You…p-promised…” “We’ll be here, waiting for you and Lanoré to come back. We’ll be here.” They broke their promise. The most important promise of all. “Come on,” her mistress’ gentle, broken voice swept those memories away. “Let’s go into the garden—maybe your mind will clear up.” Silent and agreeable, they went down the cold, familiar stairs. And each step was a step away from her world, even though she still stood within her home. The garden was filled with breezes and the gentle aroma of peaches. The two sat on the silent fountain’s edge, and wrapped in the scents of her homeland, Clynine sobbed, sobbed—until she was crying all over again. Why had her parents been taken, merely for being blessed with fortune? What had the king against people like them? The unfairness of their world was growing like a dark shadow in her heart—deeper, more terrifying than she had ever imagined. And with the shadow grew the wish. She wanted everything to come to an end. For the king to be destroyed, for the world to find its redemption. “Don’t worry, Clynine,” Lanoré whispered. “I promise—I promise we’ll find them again. Some way or another. I swear.” Turning, the Cleric embraced her mistress, tears streaming down her cheeks and into her cloak.
ralinn: girl in the garden “Pass the pepper please,” Ralinn called across the dinner table, trying to ignore the sound of Raydan eating his noodles. Her father happily obliged, passing the bottle over. She thanked him, and for a few moments, gazed up at where the chandelier cast flowers of light over the white ceiling. They had arrived home, early that summer—and now the summer was at its end. And Raydan was still the noisy eater he always was. Life was amazing without the pressure of her job—but at the same time, it was empty. Ralinn often wondered how the old members of Orion’s Belt were doing now. Had Telida gotten her third job yet? Were Akera and Turino getting along fine, or were they still trying to kill each other? Where had they all gone? And Shirion… Every time she thought about the Crusader’s whereabouts, her head spun with her overwhelming loneliness. Somehow, being with her family wasn’t enough. Something was still missing. She still wanted him around. What? Come on—I have Mum and Dad! And Raydan! I don’t need him… “Linn? Hello!” she blinked, to find that Raydan was waving a hand before her eyes. “You’ve been drifting off a lot since we left the others, you know. Do you, like, miss someone?” “Uh—no! No, definitely not!” To her fright, she felt herself blush. Raydan smirked, folding his arms. “Shirion,” he said, with such deep certainty that it made her face flush some more. “Must you always try and play matchmaker in the guild?” she asked with annoyance and embarrassment at the same time. “What? I didn’t say anything about why you’re thinking about him, Linn!” His smirk widened. “Did I?” Ralinn thought she might die of embarrassment— But then, by coincidence or not, the world darkened at that instant. Everything slipped away—her parents, Raydan, the lights above. And again, she was standing in a dream—after three months of nothing. She tensed, heart pounding, anticipating the voice that would come— Instead, the entire field swept away. She stood in the middle of a dark garden, the sky full of moonlight and the faint smell of peaches on the wind… The sobs finally came to her ear, and she turned. A girl. A girl, crying on the edge of a still fountain, in the middle of a garden of trees and flowerbeds, tears glittering in the moonlight. A young woman beside her, blonde hair beautifully lit and waving in the chilling breeze, arm wrapped around the girl’s shoulders— “Once a daughter of the springtime, I now walk across the snow Helpless, I am so uncertain— So much left to live and know.” The song suddenly echoed through the sky of this other place, filling Ralinn’s ears. It was she. The girl they had missed—the ninth member of Orion’s Belt. Here—and the suddenly, everything was coming back to life. Hope, joy, belief—
Yes—we can go, again. We’re back. Yes! In harmony, there suddenly came a second voice—this one even more powerful and assured. Listening with deep attention, it made the ecstasy rise higher in her heart. Two voices, singing together. “Honoured guardian, blessed spirit, Loved by ice and frost and sky Edge to edge, the paths run distant Hallowed gift of lightning’s cry.” Such beautiful melodies, dancing around the borders of her dream. Ralinn smiled, then began to walk around in the scene, slowly taking in this little garden, the place where she would find them. The flower garden. The peaches. A mansion on a hill. Mu Lung— Something like the joy of another heart breaking seemed to ring through the world. And at once, the picture began to fade into the recesses of her mind. But the beauty lingered long after the vision was gone, the taste of elation still sweet on her tongue. Fading…fading… “Hey! Linn! Linn!” Raydan’s familiar voice suddenly replaced the song, along with the bright warm yellow of the chandeliers and the scent of her dinner. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to make you faint by saying that! Please, Linn—” “Yes, yes, I’m fine, Dan,” she replied, glancing to her parents and back to Raydan, heart thumping, for an adventure about to come. “But I’ve got news. We’ve—got a job again.” Her brother’s eyes widened. “Again? Like…hey, it’s only been three months!” he exclaimed. “And isn’t three months enough?” Ralinn’s mother replied suddenly. “I know this isn’t one of your children’s games anymore. It’s important. You should go, the two of you.” Their father nodded in agreement, though regret was evident in both their eyes. Ralinn stood up, frozen—then ran around the table to hug them both. “Thank you so much—I promise we’ll be back again,” she gasped out, holding her mother as if she were hanging on for life. She glanced back at Raydan, who was back to slurping noodles. “We must go, alright? The world is waiting for us, literally! We have to do it—for everyone!” He looked up, scowling—but then his gaze softened, and he smiled with agreement. The night was windy and cold, as if pre-empting the pace of her journey. Ralinn lay on the bed sheets, sleep drifting down on her—and almost at once, she was dreaming again. Before her were nine lights, just as there had been the first time— nine lights, nine different temperaments, each singing its own song. “Meet in Mu Lung—a mansion on a hill,” the ex-guild leader shouted, running into their midst. The songs stopped; the souls turned to face her. “We must all meet in Mu Lung,” she repeated, smiling brighter. “Our last two members are there! Orion’
Belt is back—we’ve got the job again! Meet me, okay? Remember, a mansion on a hill!” Then the songs were filled with new joy, as Ralinn retreated into the darkness, and they called out their agreement—wordless, but filled with affirmation. Almost crying with joy and excitement, she saw the bright dream vanish, plain dreams rising to replace them— But it had begun. She knew it had begun, and that filled her heart for the rest of the night. We must all meet in Mu Lung. Our last two members are there! Orion’ Belt is back— we’ve got the job again! In the gentle light of the early summer morning, Telida rose from her bed in the hideout of a band of thieves. The Dark Lord himself had taken her here—and they had, upon hearing his request, gladly let her in. She glanced about—everyone was up already, going about their usual morning business. The words from her dream just before were still clear and fresh in her memory—and recalling made her smile. Orion’s Belt is back—we’ve got the job again! Meet me, okay? Back. The faces of her old friends flashed by, and she smiled, leaping from the bed and stretching. “Telida,” a senior thief named Roy called, holding a frying pan over the makeshift stove. “Eggs again? Or do you want some of my…new specialty?” “No, no breakfast today,” she replied, turning away and walking straight to the shower. “B—but I really wanted you to try my new veggie dish—” “I have to go,” Telida said. “My old friends want me back.” She accompanied those words with a small smile. Erin, a female Chief Bandit, came up to her and tilted her head. “How’d they contact you?” she asked. “You don’t have a phone, right?” “Let’s just say I heard her voice in a dream.” While they all stared at her incredulously, she snatched up her clothes and entered the shower, slamming the door shut. Back again! Telida never thought she’d be so glad to see that lot. Especially Ketara and Ralinn—she missed her friends, so much more than she had ever believed she would. Wait for me! She thought. Fly like the wind, to Mu Lung! I will see you there. In the branches, Akera gazed up at the morning sky. The words she had heard last night—they were too unreal. Could it be, that they were finally being called together again? Shirion… She had thought they’d never meet again, her and the Crusader who had been close since childhood. They had done so much together, it had become almost second nature for her to call his name every time she wanted to talk. But of course, the only person with her now was Turino—and he was always either being extremely quiet, or extremely moody—never in the mood to talk.
Shirion, I’m coming! She thought, gazing up through the leaves of the late summer. I miss you more than you’d think. I miss exploring Ellinia with you. I miss talking to you… These were the kind of words that she would never, ever speak out loud. Akera kept them deep within her heart as Turino finally arrived at their small camp with the tickets, and she took them, smiling secretly to herself. Well, it was true that there was some measure of respect between them, and maybe a little real friendship—but she’d rather have Shirion’s company any time. And so, as they began packing their bags, Akera thought of the future, watching the sunrays shift through the waving canopy. The three warriors sat at breakfast in Ketara’s room—since he was the only one who didn’t mind them making a mess on the floor. Though he was the only one making a mess anyway. “Hm…did you dream of Ralinn’s voice last night?” the Dragon Knight suddenly piped up, glancing around at the other two. Both nodded. “So…we’re, um, meeting again?” Shirion smiled. “I look forward to it,” he replied, gazing on at the blank wall beyond. “Three months it has been…and yet I already feel empty.” Zethis said nothing. But in his eyes was hope—deep hope, for the path that they had left, and now walked again. full circle Across the course of autumn, journeys were forged, to Mu Lung, the last meeting point. In an empty house far away, two friends lived in silence, wishing for the best. Ralinn had been asking around in the outskirts, about this mansion on a hill. Everyone seemed to know it, and pointed the same way; this pair of people was probably rather famous. Raydan hadn’t been very helpful so far, picking fruits off random bushes on the roadside and enjoying them guiltlessly. And so, they made it here, and it was almost midnight already. The instructions had been so clear that she couldn’t possibly have misinterpreted them—the mansion was visible from miles all around. Catching her breath on the night wind as they came to a stop, the reinstated guild leader gazed up at the silhouette of the magnificently beautiful structure atop the hill, the path there lit by burning torches. “That is one cool house,” her brother commented from beside her. Smiling, she observed the grand piece of architecture with some intrigue. A sudden cry made them both whirl around in shock. Ralinn blinked a few times, a smile spreading across her face— Laughing, she raced up to the three youths who approached—Ketara, running with such spring in his step, Zethis trailing after him, Shirion walking steadfastly behind the two, a silent smile coming to his eyes—faces all shining in the light of flame. The Crossbowman greeted his best friend enthusiastically, the two instantly going into excited conversation. Ketara exclaimed an excited greeting—but Ralinn could do nothing more than nod to him, for she wanted so badly to hear Shirion’s voice again —
“How’s life been?” she asked, looking up at the Crusader’s face, his smile growing wider as their eyes met. “Ah…with Ketara, Zethis and the necromancers around, one can never be bored,” he replied, absently reaching to hold her wrist. “But…nothing’s really the same, without the guild—without you.” Ralinn tried not to read too much into his words. She turned around to see Raydan grinning at her, and quickly she fought down her embarrassment. Just then, another call came. “Shirion!” It was Akera; she recognised that voice too easily. When Ralinn turned, she saw the two Fire Poison Mages headed in their direction. Akera called out again, and Shirion waved at her—for some reason, it made Ralinn’s heart sink to see him smile. No—there’s nothing wrong with it at all. He’s just glad to see his best friend. Not that I really care what he thinks, anyway— The conversation had grown lively, with the latest addition of the pair. Now there was only Telida left, and Ralinn watched the road, folding her arms in anxious silence — “Miss me?” The Ranger leapt into the air at the sudden exclamation of a familiar voice behind her—and she spun around— “Telida! How in the world—” “Dark Sight, always useful.” She smiled. Then the thief’s attention suddenly slipped away, and she glanced about, as if searching for someone… In moments, she had run off. And moments later yet, she heard a high cry of “Ketara”, before the two leapt into the tightest, happiest embrace she had ever seen. “How’ve you been, you idiot?” the Hermit asked, to which Ketara laughed and pulled his arms tighter around his best friend. “Alright—but not as alright as when you were there—” his gasped reply was stopped short by her returning hug. “Aughhh—air—please—Lida—” “You two look like you’re going to kiss each other!” Raydan exclaimed, to which they both turned, and Telida yelled in furious, sincere protest, and Ketara breathed in gratefully. But the Hermit was too glad to take it to heart anyway; in no time, she was in conversation with Ketara once again. Ralinn smiled to herself, shaking her head. What a wonderful moment, if only they hadn’t a job to do. She turned her gaze, once more, to the mansion, and sighed with deep relief and joy. Somewhere in the deep of night, the shouts of command were ringing, thunderous in the flickering, malicious firelight. The orders had been clear. In fact, they had been so clear that some actually questioned it. “Destroy Kerning City.” It was clear orders that Arqalios loved the most. The attack had already been organised—and what a glorious one it would be. At last, the rebel of the west, this arrogant city named Kerning, would feel the true wrath of the king. He glanced about his comrades, organising the helpers together in the darkness. Bandits, of every skill level, had been too easily won over with bribes—so confused were they about their own principles. Now, they would eradicate their own
hometown, for the forty million mesos promised to each one. In the deep night air, he could already hear the rustle of notes blowing on the wind, of coins being emptied onto the edges of the border wall. The grey walls were silent and oblivious; within, the city heard nothing, for they were too busy sleeping on too many a drink. The guard captain would remember this moment forever, he knew. It was New Year’s Eve, minutes to New Year. A day that would be remembered as otherwise, from today onwards. In years to come, this would be the day when the king’s ranks would celebrate the fall of the rebel stronghold, the day the rebels would sing dirges for the blood of a thousand martyrs. And it would begin, in five minutes. All around the city of Kerning, the traitorous bandits were ready. Ralinn called out to the lively lot. “Let’s save up the fun for later, and meet them now,” she suggested. Soon, they were all scaling the short hill, inevitably noisy from the undying excitement. The guild leader knocked hard on the door, the rest gathering around the doorstep. A soft creak. Everyone instantly fell silent, gazes trained hard on the hardwood door as it swung slowly open. And there stood two people—a female youth of about fourteen, her hair brown and eyes shining with apprehension; a tall blonde woman with deep curiosity written through her gaze. The two in the garden. She remembered now. “Um…good evening,” the younger girl stammered. “We weren’t expecting—” Gazes met. Brown, black, sapphire, ice, ochre. Gasps of surprise and recognition— “…Zethis?” “Oh—Akera!” “It’s the Cleric girl!” “Lanoré?” “Clynine—you know them?” “Your name is…Clynine?” “Is that really Lanoré?” Ralinn stared, agape, at the pair beyond the doorstep. The silence was strange, punctuated with the intermittent brushes of wind and the rustle of leaves in the autumn canopy. They stared back, Clynine’s eyes filling up with shock. No one uttered a word—but thoughts were spinning all around. Finally, Lanoré spoke. “Well, at least I know one person here,” she murmured, stepping out onto the first front step. Everyone glanced at Akera questioningly. “Well, yes, I met them two years ago,” she replied to the guild. “Anything wrong with that?” Raydan answered, “You mean you met the Cleric before, and didn’t tell us? What—
we did the Orbis PQ with her!” The chatter buzzed to life instantly, everyone’s voices mingling in a crescendo of bewilderment and awe— “Alright—alright!” Ralinn quickly called everyone to order. “They’re our last two members, and so we must induct them into the guild,” the words tumbled out of her mouth, Ralinn excited to catch her breath. “And then, we’ll be complete! So,” she turned to Clynine and Lanoré, turning solemn, “Do you wish to join our cause, to put an end to all our suffering under the hands of King Caleix?” The guild leader’s smile widened as Clynine, too, appeared from the doorway. “Yes— I’ve wanted to, all my life…” Her whisper was lost in another smile as she turned. “Mistress Lanoré—can we?” Lanoré smiled back. Ralinn’s heart leapt. “You know I’d agree to that cause, any time,” she replied with conviction and certainty. “So invite us then, miss.” The Ranger took no more instruction. From her pocket, she produced two chains, chains that she had offered up so many times before—to Raydan, Zethis, Ketara, Telida, Turino, Shirion, Akera. All those years she had travelled the world, all those tribulations that she had weathered—all those years, they had finally come to this. Clynine took her chain first. Her eyes brightened even more; her dress and her hair waved in the wind like veils of lace. Lanoré took her chain second. She placed her hand on her assistant’s shoulder, smile never leaving. The chains of gold were like shimmering sunlight, in the light of the blissful fire. Deep in the shining tunnels of the Clocktower, Arelyn blinked her sleepless eyes, her gaze on the clock that told all time. Somewhere far away, she could hear the moment shaking, an echo whispering through the walls of her home. Another happening was on its brink—yet another, yet another. But she looked up at the clock anyway, and she waited. In the deep temple behind the mirror that held the sky, Deina opened her eyes. Veriun was restless; she kept whinnying and flapping her wings, pawing the ground as if something were coming. Yet Deina sensed no disturbance in her vicinity. Perhaps Veriun was dreaming again. Then why did she feel it too? Ancient Horned Tail could not rest. There was a song in their minds—a song they had never heard, since the great Dragon Himself had sung them to life, and left them guarding fate in the caves. And here it was again, a song swelling in the night sky, sweeping their shared heart into a violent, beautiful storm of joy. For something was coming, about to turn the way of destiny down a road no one had seen. Joy was high, and hope was nigh. In the caves, Horned Tail followed the song, and sang themselves to sleep. The walls of the ancient Sharenians were ringing. Hyrien awakened, for his dreams had bidden him do so. He could feel a whispering behind his ear, in every wall of Nightfall’s hideout—but
there was nothing there, nothing around him in his room. And there was anticipation in his heart. Anticipation for what? He didn’t understand— it was an anticipation that made him shiver, his heart pound, his fingers grow cold. What was about to happen? Hyrien couldn’t stop wondering, as he lay awake on the mattress and tried to sleep. What was coming? Even in the shadows, they sang. The world was growing hopeful. It shivered, drew away, and cried. Five. Four. Three. The thunder was rumbling in the edges, and the border of Kerning City became a border of light. The mesos that they had used—every coin would be repaid twentyfold. Two. One. Horizons tore apart, walls swallowed by thunder, the lights streaking into the sky like a billion fireworks, bending the dimension with an infinity of screams and the splendour of a thousand rising suns. And the indomitable roar of a monster spun the rocks away, shaking the universe. The Year of the Tiger was gone. The year of anger, of fire, of toil and pain and fading smiles—it departed like a whispering wind, behind them. The stars filled the ocean, they danced and sang and spoke of centuries to come. From the sky, the hunter Orion gazed down from heaven, at the mansion on the hill, smiling to himself. She slipped the chain round her neck, breathing the night air. Beside her, her mistress did the same. And, as the Year of the Rabbit was born into its first moments, the guild was complete. END OF PART I *Squeals* FINISHED WITH THE FIRST HALF!! Ahh—the real story is about to start :D Hope you enjoyed this. I definitely, definitely enjoyed typing it!
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