This fanfiction contains profanity.
This fanfiction contains graphic violence.
This will be a regularly updated AU fanfiction of BFS. Might feature some smut eventually. Read at your own discretion.
Special thanks to Falltz, UncreativeName123, and HataNo_Kokoro; my assistant writers. This fic wouldn't be here without your help!
Feedback keeps me writing, whether it's positive or negative. So feel free to leave a comment about what you think!
Firstly, I'd like to thank you for deciding to read this fanfic of mine. Fanfiction really does get a bad rep, so the fact that you're here reading it means a lot to me. Anyway, before you begin reading this fic I should clear a few things up.
1. This is non-canon, and none of the content in the fic has any merit in BFS itself.
2. This fanfiction explores some very mature themes. Expect death, suffering, depression, hopelessness, and graphic violence (and maybe some sexual content if I feel that it is necessary).
3. This fanfiction will be worked on for a long time. I've designed a very extensive world and have a long-term plot planned out, so it might be a while before the journey is finished.
4. Feedback really does help. Please, please leave a comment letting me know what you think.
Now that that's out of the way, I suppose I will explain how I came across this idea for a fic.
It all started with this one photo Kelban made, meant to be a parody of a highschool classroom but with the faces of a bunch of members of the Cloud6 discord pasted over the existing faces. At the time, I had wanted to write a legitimate fanfiction for BFS, but I didn't have a premise. Seeing the picture, I decided upon a highschool-themed AU, drawing some inspiration from other stories that feature similar settings and premises, such as RWBY. Then, I took a look through BFS lore as well as the universe it is set in, and expanded upon that drastically. That, combined with a little bit of planning in terms of plot elements, is how I created BFS Academy.
As stated before, BFS Academy is a very dark fanfic. There will be a lot of heavy topics and themes, and this fic will most certainly explore them to their fullest extent. But trust me, it all exists for a purpose. By the time the fic is done, everything will wrap up in a neat, satisfying conclusion. Like life, however, things won't always turn out all fairytale-like, with happy endings and victories for the good guys. So please, trust in me and stick along for the ride, no matter how depressing it can sometimes get. It will be worth it.
Hope you enjoy the fic! -Fyzu
"Here!", Baller exclaimed, raising his hand up.
"Good." the teacher said, calmly marking Baller's name down on his attendance sheet. His eyes squinted, as he looked at the next name on the list like it was a typo. "Uh... You?" he hesitantly asked.
Baller's raised a brow, confused. "Me? Didn't I ju--"
"Here." an exasperated voice said nearby. Baller turned, his eyes scanning for the source of the voice: A young adolescent boy, with a white t-shirt and black slacks, sitting disinterested, leaning his right cheek on his hand whilst doodling on the desk with a pencil.
"Heh, let me guess, your name is hard to pronounce, so Mr. ‘Jar-Jar Binks’ over there decided to just point at you and play the pronoun game?" Baller smugly jested.
"First of all, the teacher's name is Mr. Jar, and secondly, my name IS 'You'." The bored student responded.
"Your name... is Baller?" Baller returned, with a quizzical expression.
"No, my name is 'You'." 'You' responded. "Y-O-U. I know, my parents must've been high when they named me."
Baller hesitated as he tried to comprehend what 'You' had just said. "That's... an interesting name? Well, my name is Baller. I take it this is also your first day here at BFS Academy?"
"Yeah, it is." 'You' said. He decided to continue his earlier doodle; a picture of Mr. Jar with a rather comically-sized arrow through his head. Quickly growing bored, he set his pencil down in defeat. "What is the teacher even talking about? Come to think of it, what class is this anyway? I didn't really pay attention to anything but the room number when I looked at my class list.
"Oh, uh, I think we're in 'General Ranged Strategy', taught by Mr. Mil K. Jar." Baller responded. "I think I'm actually learning something; I used to always go close when I'm throwing my dodgeballs."
'You' sighed, leaning his head against the desk. "This is going to be a long day."
"And above all, class, remember this--cringe is like a spice. Carefully measure the amount you want to put into your fanfic." The black and pink-haired teacher said. "Keep in mind that the principal will be reading the top voted fanfic on Friday this week!" Quickly checking her watch, she readjusted her hat and cleared her throat. "Class dismissed. All first years should make their way to the auditorium for the initiation assembly."
'You' sighed, and halfheartedly packed his unfinished fanfiction into his backpack. "I was hoping to go get some early rest. Guess that's not a possibility."
"Hey, cheer up." Baller said as the two strode briskly out of the classroom. "It can't be that bad. Plus, we'll get to meet some new people."
'You' walked silently for a few moments, thinking over what Baller had said. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. I only hope that it won't last too long. I need to get back to my video games."
The pair walked in silence through the hallways of BFS Academy. Soon, students from other areas of the campus were clogging the hallways near the auditorium. The air was filled with the chatter of excited and apprehensive freshmen as they were funneled through the hallways to the courtyard outside of the assembly area.
The auditorium was located at the center of the campus, taking up one side of the main courtyard, with the commons on the opposite side. Its walls were gargantuan, chiseled in a gothic style with orange arcane inscriptions on many of the pillars supporting its sharp, angled rooftop. Its two heavy oak doors were as foreboding as the walls they were framed by, opening wide enough for a small cargo ship. In the center of the two doors, rimmed by a ring of jade and iron, was a glowing insignia that took the form of an "S" and a "G" partially melded together. Along the top of the ring was inscribed in orange writing, "BFS Academy", and along the bottom was inscribed "Sui Generis".
'You' gazed up to look at the massive doors of the auditorium, having to stand tip-toe to see over the heads of the students in front of him as the crowd moved into the building like a herd of sheep.
"Sui Generis?" 'You' questioned, as he moved briskly to catch up to Baller. "What the heck does that mean?"
"I think it means 'unique'." Baller replied. "More specifically, 'in a class of its own'. It's the school's motto. Personally, I think the administration only chose that motto because Latin makes everything sound fancy."
Soon, the duo was shepherded into the auditorium. The inside was just as grandiose as the outside, with several tall statues framed against the pillars supporting the ceiling, which was painted with a mosaic that would make Leonardo da Vinci jealous. The floor of the auditorium sunk downwards into the ground, in a semicircle similar to that of a giant amphitheater, with seats lining its various tiered levels. Against the far wall were several large screens, currently displaying the school's insignia and motto. On the bottommost level was a stage like an island elevated above the sea that was the crowd, with a single peninsula jutting out. Situated on the very end of that protrusion of stage stood a lone podium, with the school's insignia on the side facing the auditorium. Light from the upper spotlights reflected off of the amber, jade, and tourmaline that lined the podium, as if it was a lighthouse, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea of students that had just finished trickling inside the assembly hall.
The doors of the auditorium closed with a bang like a judge's gavel, and the student body soon fell silent. The lights dimmed, and the crowd waited in anticipation. After a few unnerving moments, a figure stepped out from behind the curtain. Strangely enough, he wore blue jeans, and a white t-shirt that had "SC9" inscribed on it in a golden hue. His smooth brown hair partially obscured the left side of his chiseled face, and on his head was a strange red, orange, and white hat, with two orange stars on the sides and two short horns that were the color of milk chocolate. He strode up to the podium, and tapped the microphone twice, before clearing his throat.
"Greetings, class of 20XX." The man said. "I am headmaster Super Cloud Nine, and I formally welcome you to BFS Academy."
"As many of you can attest to already, this is no ordinary school. You have all been invited to join BFS Academy because you show exemplary skill in the realm of Mana. Both in theory and application. You, all of you, are gifted with great power."
"But power alone is dangerous. Untempered power is unpredictable, chaotic, and unrefined. The Administration at this Academy will be your mold, your guide to growing and refining both your Mana, and you as an individual. However, a mold alone is useless if there isn't substance to shape itself to it. You must demonstrate your mettle, your resolve, and above all, your willpower to push onwards in the face of impossible odds.
"In order to better facilitate your growth, I have decided to set up a series of tournaments to better gauge your individual skills and weaknesses. My assistant, Vice Principal Nye Minh will explain the process."
Mr. Nine calmly strode back along the stage as a new figure emerged from behind the curtain. A man, wearing a white suit that seemed to be almost glowing, with black accented stripes along the cuffs and ankles. His hands were adorned with a set of fine gloves that seemed to be formed of the same material his suit was made of, and strangely, he wore a red hood with a set of animal ears on the top, with intricate black designs along the sides. His flowing, spiked black hair peeked out from under the lip of his hood, and on his eyes sat a blindfold darker than the winter night. As he walked, it was almost as if he was barely touching the floor--as if gravity was afraid to pull down on him. The students sitting closest to the stage could almost feel a force pushing them, as if simply being in the presence of this man was too much for their bodies to handle.
"The brackets for the tournaments will be announced in the courtyard. Once you and your opponent are selected, please proceed to the appropriate stadium number for your fight. The fights are televised, and it is a common tradition for the upperclassmen to oversee the fights. Your presiding upperclassman will also act as the judge of the fight, and will decide its parameters, including when the fight has been won. Opponent pairs will be announced shortly. Please exit the auditorium in a calm and orderly fashion."
The lights brightened back up, and as Mr. Minh exited the stage, the whispers of the anxious students soon turned into raucous discussion over the upcoming events. Some students wore boastful, gleeful expressions--others tried to slip away into the crowd in the hopes they'd cease to exist.
"Didn't Mr. Minh seem kind of... off to you?" Baller commented. "His clothes were strangely bright... and I'm pretty sure I remember Mr. Nine taking the mic offstage..."
"Why would you be concerned with Mr. Minh?" 'You' replied, as they exited the auditorium. "Frankly, I'm more apprehensive about my opponent..."
"Hey, chill!" Baller said, patting 'You' on the back. "You'll be fine, I'm sure of it."
'You' sighed. "I'm so going to die..."
You and Baller emerged back out of the gates to the auditorium, following close behind the students in front of them. Soon, they re-entered the main courtyard.
The courtyard was vast and round, paved with limestone slabs of various sizes along the outer rim, and walled by short, well-trimmed, sage-green hedges. The center of the courtyard was broken up by various short stone platforms, and adorning the courtyard’s center was a single jade obelisk that glinted in the afternoon sunlight. The thick sea of students exiting the auditorium had dispersed out into the courtyard, and begun lounging about in the courtyard, eagerly waiting to hear their name called out on the intercom.
At long last, a synthetic, female voice spoke over the intercom: “Now announcing the fights occurring in Stadium 1.”
Various names that neither Baller nor You recognized were called out, and many students had already begun exiting the courtyard to either spectate or participate in the fights just mentioned. The air was rank with eager suspense and anticipation, and the smell of it made You’s stomach churn in anxiety.
“Now announcing the fights occurring in Stadium 2.”
As the duels for Stadium 2 were being announced, a holographic screen appeared near the obelisk in the center of the courtyard, with “Stadium 1” displayed in white letters at the top-left corner. You was overcome with a wave of nausea, and had the sudden urge to regurgitate his lunch.
You recalled Mr. Minh’s previous words.
“The fights are televised…”
”Oh god… not only will I get my ass handed to me, but it will also happen in front of the entire school!”’
One by one, the matches for the next stadiums were announced, and one by one, new screens appeared at the obelisk. Soon, there were only a few students remaining in the courtyard.
“Now announcing the fights occurring in Stadium 9.”
“Piercer versus Bomber.”
“Slicer versus Slasher.”
“Crusher versus Spiriter.”
“Caster versus Rocketer.”
“Baller versus Kai.”
“You versus Troweler.”
Suddenly, You’s apprehension dissolved. “Troweler, huh? Doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Yeah, should be a cakewalk.” Baller replied. “I’m kinda nervous about mine though… didn’t you notice how he was the only person with a name that didn’t end in -er? That’s got to mean something… I just know it.”
The duo walked out of the courtyard in the direction of the stadiums. Many of the stadiums were open for public spectating; and Baller and You could even see some of the current fighters in combat. The air was filled with the cheers of spectators and the explosive discharge of Mana.
The pair arrived outside of a roofed stadium, covered with blue and yellow décor. The main walls of the stadium were cast out of a white alabaster that glowed in the setting sun’s light, and there were several tall windows high up on its walls, allowing the bright stadium light inside to leak out and scatter against the dusk. Inside, two massive white pillars like the legs of a giant framed the entrance to the stadium floor, which was circular and surrounded by high walls. The stadium floor itself had a design carved into it that consisted of several large blue and yellow ovals, with two sets of blue and yellow rings engraved around them.
Baller and You took a seat in the spectator stands above the walls next to the main arena floor, and prepared to watch the first fight. Taking a look up at the judge's platform opposite the entrance to the arena, You spotted a strange man with a blue-green hoodie, black trousers, and a scar on his left cheek.
"Hey, take a look at that guy over there." You said, nudging Baller and gesturing in the direction of the hooded man.
"I think I recognize him." Baller said, "He was with a first-year in a purple t-shirt earlier. I wonder what that scar's about."
Suddenly, the hooded man equipped a bo staff, and hit it twice against the concrete floor. The crowd fell silent at once, the percussive thunks of his staff reverberating throughout the arena like a gong.
“Hello, students.” The man said. “I am Zhao, and I will be overseeing the fights occurring in this arena. The first fight will be my friend, Piercer, versus Bomber. Challengers, please enter the arena.”
The crowd cheered as a purple-clad student emerged from the stands, vaulting down into the arena. As the dust cleared from his landing, he held in his hand a gleaming maroon bow. On the opposite side, a man in orange and grey leaped into the arena. In his hands, he was juggling several glossy black bombs.
"You must be Bomber." the purple-donning student said, approaching his opponent and offering a handshake.
"Yep, in the flesh." Bomber, the orange-shirted student replied. "And I take it you're Piercer." He continued juggling his bombs, leaving Piercer's hand awkwardly extended, expecting a handshake that would never be granted.
"Not going to shake my hand?" Piercer asked, raising an eyebrow incredulously.
"I only shake hands when it's a fair match." Bomber replied. "And as you can see, this here is clearly not a fair match. I have explosives, and you-- well, you have a bent piece of wood with a string attached. Not that I'd need explosives to defeat you anyway."
Bomber stopped juggling, stowing all but one of his bombs away, and began tossing it lightly and catching it with one hand. "Nothing personal, but with that kind of skill--or lack thereof, you won't win."
Piercer simply silently retracted his hand. "Say what you want. The fight will determine who gets the last laugh."
"Challengers, prepare for combat." Zhao exclaimed, as the two combatants backed away to opposite sides of the arena.
Bomber was quick to go on the offensive, summoning up five bombs and throwing them right on course at Piercer. Without batting an eye, Piercer shot them out of the air.
"Hm. Not bad-- for a newbie." Bomber said, his face plastered with a venomous smirk.
"Try me." Piercer responded, quickly firing a volley of arrows at Bomber. Bomber had anticipated this however, and lobbed a bomb directly into the volley, the resulting explosion scattering arrows in all directions. Piercer kept up the assault, using his mana to always stay on the move, firing arrows at Bomber from every direction. Bomber's mana was starting to be drained from the sheer amount of bombs he threw to counter Piercer's unending rain of arrows.
"Things aren't looking so great for Bomber right now, huh?" You said. "Each of those bombs must take far more mana than any of Piercer's arrows."
"Yeah, at this rate I doubt he will be able to gain the upper hand." Baller said.
By now Bomber had been reduced to about 75% mana capacity, whilst Piercer was only barely breaching 90%. Bomber was not to be outdone however, and right as Piercer was about to fire another shot at Bomber, Bomber summoned a small bomb and kicked it at him. Caught off guard, Piercer quickly readjusted his aim to shoot down the incoming bomb, but this brief window of time was enough for Bomber to gain the offensive.
Bomber's feet were like machine-guns, sending forth a torrential stream of tiny bombs at Piercer. The arena was ringing with explosions like new year's firecrackers. Piercer jumped about, barely dodging the bombs, his mana already taking a beating from the shrapnel.
"What's he doing? Why isn't he shooting back?" You exclaimed.
"I think he's charging up for an attack..." Baller said. Sure enough, purple mana was beginning to concentrate in Piercer's bow. Soon, Piercer's bow was bathed in a brilliant violet light.
"This'll teach you a lesson" Piercer shouted, "Pierce Arrow!" Piercer kicked off the arena wall, unleashing a devastasting arrow shot directly at Bomber. The arena shook like a drum as the sound barrier was broken by Piercer's devastating attack. Bomber was flung backwards, colliding with the arena wall like an old rag doll, his mana reserves now only at 15%.
"Damn, that was quite an attack!" Baller said. "Bomber's mana is only 5% from elimination!"
"You insolent little twerp!" Bomber shouted, summoning what little mana he had left, "let me teach you something of my own!" Bomber charged up all mana he had left into a single, gargantuan bomb, before charging straight at Piercer.
"What the hell's he doing? He's out of mana!" You shouted. "He's going to be seriously hurt or worse!"
It was too late for anyone to intervene. The bomb detonated, and the arena was flushed with soot and debris. What awaited the crowd when the dust settled caused the arena to drop into an eerie silence.
"Someone, get paramedics here immediately!" Zhao shouted, before jumping down into the arena.
"I'm sorry, but there was no other option. He would have died." Piercer said to Zhao, retracting a blood-soaked sword. "He would've died if that bomb detonated in his hand. I was left with no option but to cut it off and knock the bomb as far away as possible."
You ran to the edge of the spectator booth, peering over the edge of the wall into the arena. Piercer's face and clothing were stained with droplets of crimson-- but not his own. Bomber lay unconscious on the ground, blood leaking profusely from the stump of his right hand as Zhao tore off a sleeve to fashion a makeshift tourniquet. A few feet away from the pair laid Bomber's severed hand, covered in blood, its fingers still twitching slightly.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the fights on Stadium 9 are hereby postponed until the situation is cleaned up. Despite the accident, the fights must continue. Sorry for any inconveniences. Please return in approximately 30 minutes for the next match." Zhao stated, with a stoic expression.
"The round's over! The victor is Slasher!"
"Spiriter has been eliminated! The winner is Crusher!"
"The champion of this round goes to Caster!"
"Now, let us begin the next fight," Zhao said into the microphone, "Baller versus Kai!"
"Good luck, my friend!" You said, waving at Baller as he sprinted down the spectator booth and leapt into the arena.
"Hello, Kai!" Baller said, moving up to greet the student in the teal shirt that was his opponent. "The name's Baller, pleasure to be your opponent!"
"Nice to meet you. I'm Kai." Kai said. "Judging by your name, you must wield a dodgeball as your weapon of choice."
"You guessed it!" Baller said, smiling. "And what is your weapon?"
"Oh, I don't bother with that weapon stuff." Kai said. "Unlike most Quazers, my mana use is direct. I can manipulate my mana into energy blasts."
"Sounds interesting," Baller said, "best of luck to you, Kai!"
"Same to you," said Kai. "You'll need it."
"Challengers, prepare for combat," Zhao said.
Baller immediately began strafing around Kai, bombarding him with dodgeballs-- yet from the get-go the fight was clearly one-sided. Kai easily blasted all the dodgeballs out of the air with his mana. Baller, realizing that all of his attacks proved ineffective, summoned a Mega Sphere and hurled it at Kai-- yet Kai simply sliced it in half with a mana beam from his hands.
"Stop!" Kai shouted.
Baller was confused. "Wait, why stop? Aren't we in the middle of a f--"
"Zhao!" Kai exclaimed, flying up to Zhao's platform, "This fight is too one-sided. Let me fight a worthy opponent."
"That is not under my jurisdiction, Kai," Zhao said calmly, "now please get back to the fight."
"You can't call this a fight," Kai said. "Let's give them a show. I challenge you to a fight!"
"That's not the point, Kai," Zhao responded. "I'm here to oversee the matches. The matches are to determine class groups for the first years. They aren't shows."
"If I win against you, it would display my skill, and help decide my class group," Kai said. "Now come down and fight me!"
"Very well. You leave me no choice," Zhao said. "I will be your opponent."
Zhao landed gracefully in the arena, withdrawing a bo staff. "Here are the conditions of our fight. If you make me use two hands, you win."
"Heh, what if I defeat you?" Kai said.
"You can certainly try."
Kai flew up into the air, and began bombarding Zhao with mana blasts-- but it was soon evident that something strange was occurring. Zhao did not move, did not flinch at all as the blasts came towards him. As they approached, there was the slightest of distortions in the air around him as the mana blasts inexplicably veered off course and out of the way.
"No way, how is he doing that?" You said.
"Wow, he must have some excellent mana control." Baller said, having just gotten back to his seat.
Seeing that his attacks were ineffective Kai swapped to blasting Zhao with a beam of mana-- yet Zhao again remained completely unflinching, simply deflecting all of the mana by twirling his bo staff.
"I doubt Kai will be able to hold his own against him," You said. "Zhao hasn't even moved his other hand yet..."
An irritated smirk crossing his face, Kai was determined to punish Zhao's arrogance. "He thinks he'll defeat me with one hand, huh? Arrogant bastard, I'll show him."
Kai's fingers began glowing with cyan mana, coalescing into a snowball-sized orb between his palms. Like a newborn star, the mass of mana grew brighter and bigger until Kai was hefting it above his head. All the while, Zhao remained steadfast and unflinching.
"Let's see you block this with one hand!"
Even as the colossal mana bomb flied towards Zhao like a giant blue sun, his visage remained as calm as a still pond. Then, as effortlessly as a chainsaw through tissue paper, Zhao split Kai's mana bomb with a single swipe of his bo staff.
Then, Zhao took a single step forward, pointing his bo staff at Kai. In what could only be described as a fraction of an instant, barely visible to the untrained eye-- his bo staff extended across the arena, smacking Kai square in the face like a battering ram before shrinking back to its original size.
Dropping to the ground like a bird with its wings cut, Kai got himself a faceful of dirt as his mana no longer responded to his command to keep him in the air. Yet the dirt in his mouth was but a fleeting taste as it was nothing in comparison to the sickening, vile aroma of complete, humiliating defeat.
"You're at 1% mana. This match is over," Zhao said, calmly as always. "Perhaps you should choose your opponent more wisely. A little humility wouldn't hurt."
Saying nothing, Kai simply got to his feet. He knew he had been bested-- and bested swiftly and thoroughly.
"Baller wins by default. Let's get on to the next match."
"Final match: Troweler versus You!"
"Hello! My name's Troweler, nice to meet you!" Troweler said, enthusiastically.
"I'm You," You said, before furrowing his brow quizzically. "Well, I'm not you, I'm me, but my name is You."
"I... think I understand?" Troweler said, raising an eye at You. "Anyways, let us give the crowd a good match!"
Troweler summoned a small trowel into his hand, and began gathering his mana, painting a swath of glowing orange before him like an artist wielding a paintbrush. Chunks of stone began dislodging themselves from the floor and walls of the arena, assembling together like a colony of ants into a sturdy brick wall.
"Hey, that's a neat trick you've got there!" You said.
"Thanks!" Troweler climbed atop his wall. "It's great for defense!"
Sparks of yellow mana began jumping from You's legs. "Let's see how it fares against this!"
You kicked off the ground in an explosion of mana, the blast propelling him like a bullet towards Troweler. Troweler, caught off guard by the speed of You's attack, could do nothing as You's outstretched leg struck him in the face, sending him flying back across the arena. Quickly leaping to his feet, Troweler began summoning more walls in an attempt to slow down You's advance. You struck down the walls like a bulldozer driving through a forest, but his mana was being strained from the sheer effort of smashing through Troweler's walls-- and he was beginning to feel his reserves depleting. Minutes passed, and You's mana had run down to 30%, whilst Troweler was still sitting at 70%.
"You fought well, You." Troweler said. "Now let's end this match with a bang!"
Calling forth his mana, Troweler began gathering slabs and chunks of stone and concrete around himself-- and as they molded together it was evident that he was constructing a suit of stone armor. Troweler's mana shined, and the bricks were emblazoned with streaks of his orange mana as more and more bricks were added to his armor. A shadow was cast across the arena, and soon You found himself staring up into the glowing orange eyes of Troweler's gargantuan, 12-foot-tall living statue. The ground cracked and rumbled like an earthquake with every step Troweler took, scattering dust and debris through the arena. Desperately scrambling, You tried to kick chunks of brick at Troweler's granite giant in an effort to make a chink in his armor-- but his efforts were fruitless. Troweler drew his massive arm back for a punch, and You braced himself for his impending doom-- when suddenly he heard the flash of mana and the glint of a red blade.
Troweler's mana fizzled out in an instant, and with a tremendous roar the stone mech collapsed into rubble, spewing out a miasma of dust and chunks of rock. As the fog settled, You could make out the presence of a mysterious man on the other side of the arena. He was adorned with a black trenchcoat embroidered with gold leaf, and a pitch-black scarf as black as his hair. In his hands he wielded two crimson bastard swords, and most noticeably of all, he was wearing a strange red mask. The red mask was lined with dull gold, and had a set of horns and two openings for the eyes. Only his jaw was revealed-- a jaw with skin so dark it was as if he was forged out of shadows.
A light smirk crept upon the man's face. "Zhao. The prodigy himself. I didn't expect you to be here."
Zhao's brow furrowed, and his face was cast with a sour expression, summoning his bo staff. "You are interfering with a match. Leave."
"Who are you, and what do you want?" You shouted, getting ready to attack.
"You, stay out of this," Zhao said. "You'll only get hurt."
"Listen to the upperclassman, kid. Though..." the man said intriguingly, "you do seem interesting. Either way it seems my target has already left the building. The kid with the bow... Piercer, was it? I would ask you to hand him over, but I doubt you'll be doing that anytime soon. Shame, seems that info I worked so hard to get was all for nothing."
"You Darkin are all the same; all talk, and no action." Zhao said, his expression only barely hinting at the fury he was keeping contained. "You've assaulted a student and are interfering with a match. This is your final chance to leave."
The man's smirk dropped to a frown. "Well, lucky for you I have places to be right now. I cannot afford to waste any more time," the man turned, summoning his mana. "Interesting, how even my presence was enough to provoke you like this. Zenthus really left an impression on you, didn't he? I'll have to congratulate him for that."
Zhao's bo staff grew, snapping towards the man, but by the time it reached where he was standing, he was already gone in a flash of black mana.
"This match is over. Troweler had the higher mana capacity before our little... guest, therefore he is the victor." Zhao said, hints of his rage still evident on his face. "Please leave the arena. I must report this intrusion to the principal."
Arc 1: The Bonds that Break Us
Zhao waited in the elevator as it ascended the spire in the center of the school, enraptured within the depths of his thoughts. His face was contorted as if he had just woken up from a nightmare, and his knuckles began growing as white as his face as he tightened his grip on his bo staff. As the elevator arrived at the top of the spire, he wasted no time in making his way towards the principal, sitting at his desk at the end of the room.
The principal's office was spacious and bare, with only a single simplistic spiral staircase leading up to a balcony adorned with an equally simple bookshelf. Direct opposite the elevator doors was the principal's desk, as sleek as the rest of the room-- only a lamp, some papers and pens, and a mug of coffee framed the otherwise empty surface of the desk. The room's walls were mostly clear, panoramic windows, offering a breathtaking view of the school campus and surrounding countryside. And strangely enough, the skeleton of what appeared to be a large dragon with devil-like horns hung from the coned ceiling.
"Mr. Nine, there's been a situation." Zhao said, his stoic expression a stark contrast to the worry, anger, and apprehension that churned beneath his skin.
The headmaster calmly sipped his coffee, before setting the mug down. "What is it?"
"During Troweler and You's match, sir. There was an intruder." Zhao said, before opening his mouth, hesitating.
"Sir... it's Dawson. He was looking for Piercer-- how he managed to find out his location I don't know. But one thing is for certain-- the Darkin have returned."
An eerie silence permeated the office, the only audible sound being the ambience of the room and the slight creaking of the dragon skeleton above. Mr. Nine's eyes narrowed, and he rested his chin against his fist as he contemplated what Zhao had told him. His expression soon grew grim.
"After all these years..." Mr. Nine reached for his coffee, but soon set it down. He was no longer in the mood. "Can't say I didn't expect it to happen eventually... but why now, all of a sudden? ... Zhao, did he say anything?"
"He mentioned that he obtained information on Piercer's whereabouts and was assigned to hunt him down... didn't say much, after that." Zhao flinched slightly, before hesitantly speaking, "He brought up Zenthus, sir." Zhao spat the name like it was poison. "You know what that savage did to me. To my village. To my friends."
"You are one of my brightest students, Zhao." Mr. Nine said, before standing up out of his seat. "You will have vengeance, in due time. For now, I'll put the guards on high alert, and let Matthias know what's going on. Regardless, we must continue with the initiation of the new students." Mr. Nine suddenly materialized a glowing, jagged-edged blue-and-white blade, before sheathing it on his back. "I would suggest you work on your own training as well. The Darkin aren't to be trifled with, I'm sure you understand. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst as they say."
Zhao simply nodded, before making his way to the elevator with Mr. Nine. As he left, the dragon skeleton above seemed almost as if it was chuckling to itself, with hollow, smirking eyes.
The man in the red mask appeared in a burst of shadowy mana, stepping into the vermilion light of the mana flame, a light smirk resting upon his face.
"Back from your little hunt already, Dawson?" said a man sitting on the other side of the flame. His upper body was adorned with nothing but a ragged black cloak, his built, powerful, and frightening physique on clear display. Like the masked man, his skin was as dark as shadows, and his unkempt black hair framed his bloodthirsty red eyes like a ravenous wolf peering from the dark. He was busying himself with sharpening a colossal blade as tall as he was and wide enough to make a cleaver look like a scalpel.
"Came late to the party," Dawson said, taking a seat near the mana flame. "Missed the featured guest. Found an old friend of yours, though. Does Zhao ring a bell?"
"Zhao, huh..?" The bulky man paused his sharpening momentarily. "Ah, right, the kid with the staff. Tell him I said hi."
"Been there, done that. I think you two would make great friends, Zenthus, what with your slaughtering his village and all."
"Very funny," Zenthus said, continuing his sharpening. "You seem to have glossed over the fact that you failed to capture the target, and thus failed your mission."
"Failed is the wrong word. I reckon Drak will be more than willing to divulge us more information about Piercer. Just don't go near him, you might scare the poor kid."
"I tend to have that effect on a lot of people."
"Now that the tournaments have concluded, each of you has been assigned to a team based on your individual skill levels, strengths, and weaknesses." Mr. Nine said, the screen behind him flickering to life. "These teams will be the teams you are in throughout your four years of training at BFS Academy. The teams will be announced shortly..."
Baller and You craned their necks to try and get a view of the screen amidst the smothering herd of students in the auditorium. Soon, images and names of various students began appearing on the screen, as a synthetic voice began reading out the teams."
"Now announcing the three-person teams."
"Nalvest, Maliva, Sonival."
"Verdor, Shapenor, Alexandra."
"Troweler, Slasher, Caster."
"Now announcing the four-person teams."
"Reaper, Macer, Myster, Portaler."
"Bomber, Spiriter, Rocketer, Kai."
"Now announcing the five-person teams."
"Baller, Piercer, Slicer, Crusher, You."
"Each team will be assigned a room number. All students, please report to the appropriate room as denoted by your team. Dinner will be served in 3 hours. Until then, you have time to set up your rooms and get to know your new teammates."
Baller smiled, turning to face You. "Hey, seems we're on the same team! The tournaments didn't turn out too bad after all."
"Yeah, I suppose," You said, the corner of his mouth turning up in a small grin. "Come on, let's go meet our new friends."
You and Baller walked at a moderate pace through the halls of BFS Academy, making their way towards the dorm room. Upon finding it, You slowly opened the door with a creak, letting himself inside.
The dorm room was cozy but not cramped, with two bunk beds and an additional standalone bed lining the far wall. The windows offered a pleasing view from the third floor, overlooking the central courtyard of the school. You could spot the other team members in the room, busy claiming bunks and unpacking. At the left bunk bed, a student dressed in lime green with black pants was busy removing items from a small red and gold bag emblazoned with the symbol of the Redcliff kingdom. On the bunk above was another student dressed in a blue shirt and black slacks, chatting with somebody on his phone. And on the middle standalone bed was Piercer, busying himself with a book.
"Um... hello?" You said, stepping into the room.
The student in green turned around, looking towards You. "Hey, I'm Crusher. Nice to meet ya."
"Slicer," the student in blue said, only briefly pausing his conversation before returning to his chat.
"I'm Piercer," Piercer said, looking up from his book. "I think I recognize you from the tournament earlier... you were the kid who fought Troweler, right? You was your name, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, my name is You." You said. "And this is Baller." You gestured towards Baller as he walked into the room.
"Nice to meet you both," Piercer said, bookmarking his book and setting it down. "Looks like the team's all here, then."
"Hey, Piercer, did I hear you right? You said that that kid fought Troweler?" Crusher said, gesturing towards You.
You took a look towards Crusher. "Well, I uh--"
"Yeah, he did fight Troweler," Piercer interrupted. "Was quite the fight. He got his ass handed to him by your buddy."
"As to be expected. No one really ever expects Troweler to be such a powerful opponent." Crusher said, finishing his unpacking.
"Hey hey, I feel like we're not giving You enough credit here," Baller said. "I think he was actually doing alright until Troweler decided to activate his living statue thing."
Crusher furrowed his brow slightly, contemplating what Baller said.
"Meh, sure, I guess he wasn't horrible."
You simply sighed, before climbing atop the top bunk on the rightmost bunk bed. "Pretty sure that fight shouldn't really have counted for anything anyway. It did get interrupted, after all... hey, hold on a moment. Didn't that masked guy say something about looking for you, Piercer? He seemed sort of strange... really gave me an unsettling feeli--"
"Shush," Piercer interrupted. "That issue doesn't concern you. Just focus on your studies, and I'll handle my problems, and we'll all get through these next four years just fine."
You turned around to face his back towards the others. "Fine, my ass," he muttered under his breath.
Dinnertime had arrived, and all the students of the school had crowded into the mess hall. The air was abuzz with excited chatter as the new first years finally got their first taste of true social interaction within BFS Academy. Taking a platter of the evening's meal, You and Baller sat down at a table with the rest of their teammates.
"So, it seems we still haven't properly gotten to know each other yet. Why don't we take turns introducing ourselves?" Baller said, before taking a bite of food. "I'll start. I'm Baller. My hometown is Velouis, in the kingdom of Cargias."
"Velouis, huh?" Piercer said, looking at Baller quizzically. "What's a city slicker like you doing at BFS Academy?"
"I grew tired of all the complexities and bustle of the city," Baller said. "Nothing's ever clear cut... every time you try to do something you inadvertently set off some sort of chain reaction, one way or another. I thought, perhaps, moving to somewhere like Draco would be nice. A simpler life, you know. Just a story of heroes, Quazers, like us. Protecting the innocent, saving the day, all that. Like the stories you hear as a kid."
Piercer thought over it for a moment, a contemplative expression creeping upon his face. "Hm. I suppose I could see the reasoning behind that. Life isn't a fairytale, however. Your view on the matter is rather naive... but then again, what can I say? It does sound comforting."
"Hey, having an optimistic perspective is good," Baller said. "Keeps me going when times are tough, you know?"
"Whatever works for you." Piercer said. "Anyway, I'll go next. I'm Piercer. I grew up in a small village near the marshes of Draco. Growing up in such an isolated and small village like that meant that I had to learn a thing or two about practical skills, such as defending myself against monsters, bandits and such. My brother and I became quite proficient in the use of mana. He wielded a crossbow, and I used a sword."
Piercer stopped, his content expression fading as he hesitated, before continuing. "However, one night our village was attacked. I don't remember much, but there was a tall, brawny man with skin the shade of pure shadow, crimson eyes, and a gargantuan blade." Piercer flinched slightly, bowing his head. "I ran for my life. The next day, I managed to meet up with Zhao, another resident of the village who was a few years older than me. With everyone else in the village either dead or missing, we only had each other."
Piercer took a sip of his drink, letting his mind clear for a moment, before continuing. "Back in those days, Zhao was... he was ravenous. Driven with a desire for vengeance. He trained, and trained, preparing for the day he could avenge his family and friends. He scoured the countryside for any information on the man, until finally he happened across a name-- Zenthus."
Piercer let out a sigh, pausing briefly before continuing his tale. "I watched him push himself until his body was broken, only to get up the next day and push even harder. Soon, my own desire for revenge was drowned out by the harrowing realization that Zhao did not care if he lived or died, so long as he took Zenthus with him. I talked with him, tried to get him to stop killing himself just to achieve his goal. Eventually, he relented. With nowhere else to go, he decided to enroll at BFS Academy and put his skills to use. And now, I follow suit."
The table was silent as the team took in Piercer's spiel. An uneasy tension settled over the table, as all members of the team were unsure of what to say.
"Props to you for doing what you did," Slicer said, his expression a mix of bewilderment and newfound respect. "You certainly are strong of will."
"Thank you," Piercer replied. "Well, enough about me. What's your story, Slicer?"
"Well, I too grew up in Draco, in a small town in the northern grasslands," Slicer said, leaning back in his seat. "I lived a pretty quiet life, spending most of my time studying, and training my swordplay with my Equinoxian friend Slasher. He and I are quite close, and we've been best friends and training partners ever since I can remember. Even our fighting styles are very similar. Anyway, I decided to pursue my interest in swordfighting, and enrolled alongside Slasher in BFS Academy."
"You and Slasher always seemed to be a dynamic duo," Crusher said. "Reminds me of my good friend Troweler and I."
"Well speaking of Troweler," Slicer said, "why don't you tell us a little more about him and yourself?"
"Well, for starters, I come from the Redcliff Kingdom. From none other than the capital city of Redwick." Crusher smiled proudly, before continuing. "Now I don't know if any of you have been to Redwick, but it's quite an industrial city. Naturally, I took a liking to the local trade of blacksmithing, and soon developed the ability to shape my mana into a hammer. Like Slicer, I also grew up with a childhood friend: Troweler. Unlike most of the other Quazers in Redwick, Troweler's ability wasn't weapon-based mana. It was the ability to mold the nearby environment to his will, using a mana trowel."
Crusher's brow furrowed, and he raised an eyebrow. "Now again, I don't know if any of you have been to Redwick, or the Redcliff Kingdom in general, but the people there have a pretty bad history with Quazers that don't use weapon-based mana. Needless to say, Troweler was subject to a lot of hate and prejudice. Yet somehow, he never let it get him down, and remains to this day one of the most cheerful people I know. So when he decided to not enlist in Crimson Academy, and instead enroll in BFS Academy in the kingdom of Draco, I was happy to go along with him."
"Huh, I can see why you think of him so highly now," You said, recalling his earlier fight. "He certainly is more powerful than he looks."
"You know it, You," Crusher said. "Well, you're the last one. Tell us about yourself."
"Well, I'm You. I'm not quite sure how my name ended up this way. Come to think of it, I don't quite remember much of my childhood for some reason. Anyway, the earliest thing I can remember is waking up at an inn at a small village near a castle. Strangely enough, the village was completely abandoned, and so left with no other choice I staked my own claim and lived alone for a long time, training my mana ability to keep myself alive. Sooner or later, I wandered into the capital city of Draco. With nowhere to really employ my abilities, I decided to enroll in BFS Academy."
Baller raised an eyebrow, his expression hinting at a mild skepticism. "How strange... I never heard of anyone with such a story as--"
"Hey, look!" A voice shouted in the cafeteria, "Zhao's here!"
The raucous conversation in the cafeteria dimmed down to a simmering murmur as Zhao slowly paced into the cafeteria. All eyes were affixed on him as he walked calmly, an ever-stoic expression upon his face.
"What's going on?" You whispered.
"Zhao is a bit of a living legend here at BFS Academy," Piercer said. "He came to the school able to mold his mana into three different weapons. On his first day, he refused to fight in a one-on-one battle as he said it would not promote any growth in him or his opponent. The upperclassman overseeing the fight pitted Zhao in a five-on-one battle. Zhao came out victorious with his mana reserves at 80%." You's eyes began widening in awe and disbelief.
"Not only that, but when teams were chosen, Zhao was assigned a team of one." Piercer continued, in a hushed voice. "He's the only student to have been placed by himself in his own team in the history of the academy. When Mr. Nine was questioned as to why, he simply replied that Zhao's ability was in a class of its own, and putting him on any team would only be limiting his ability. From then on, Zhao would be exempt from regular training and instead only train personally with some members of the administrative staff. He would seldom appear outside the admin buildings, much less the mess hall. His presence here certainly means something big."
"You are correct in that assumption," Zhao said, as he approached the table. "Piercer, if you wouldn't mind coming with me to Mr. Nine's office. We have much to discuss."
Wordlessly, Piercer got up from the table. Whispers and stares spread through the room as Zhao led Piercer towards the admin building at a brisk pace. You too, was staring, pondering over what Piercer had told him.
Just what are those two going to discuss?
"As you know already, Dawson had attempted to hunt you down during the tournaments," Zhao said. "We believe that you could be in great danger."
Piercer nodded, his face stoic, concealing any emotion or worry he might be experiencing.
"However," Mr. Nine said, looking Piercer in the eye, "we also feel obligated to let you know that we had received a message from someone who claimed to know you."
Mr. Nine slowly handed Piercer an open envelope. In it was a letter, which Piercer opened with a hidden haste. Upon reading the name of the sender, his blood froze to ice.
Zhao, a concerned look on his face, spoke softly. "Piercer... it's your brother."
Dazed, anxious, and confused, Piercer’s hands trembled as he read the letter.
Hello, brother. It’s been far too long since we have last met. Ever since that night, I thought I’d lost you. Yet, it seems, fate has miraculously bound us together again. I’m curious as to what you have been doing these past nine years, and I’m sure you’re curious of what I’ve been doing-- but more importantly, I’m eager to see you again. Should you have a break from your studies, you can find me down in the village near your school. Please, come as soon as you can. It really has been far too long. Best regards, -Drak
Setting the paper down, Piercer closed his eyes. When they opened, he was blinking away tears of happiness. “Thank you both for letting me know,” Piercer said, wiping the tears from his eyes, “I hope you’ll understand if I take a brief leave, to go and see Dr--”
“Piercer,” Zhao said, with a firm tone, “it’s far too dangerous right now for you to go. As far as we know, Dawson still is hunting you down. We can’t--”
“What the hell do you mean I can’t?” Piercer shouted, standing up from the desk, “I haven’t seen my brother for nine whole years! I thought he was dead! Now he finally sends a letter out to me that he’s alive and wants to see me again, and you won’t let me all because I--”
“Piercer, calm yourself,” Zhao said, grasping Piercer by the arm. “I understand that this is important news to you, but you must consider the circumstances. We cannot ensure your safety until we know with absolute certainty that the Darkin isn’t trying to hunt you down. You once told me to not let my emotions cloud my judgment. Now I ask you to do the same.”
Piercer opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated, realizing that despite his wishes, Zhao’s words did hold merit. He simply sighed, before sitting back down.
“Like Zhao said, it is simply too much of a risk to let you leave at the moment,” Mr. Nine said, folding his hands on the table. “However, as soon as we have confirmation that it is safe to leave, we will let you know. Until then, please do refrain from leaving the premises.”
Walking back from the mess hall, Slasher, Troweler, and Caster began to strike up some conversation.
“So, that Zhao guy must be quite something, huh?” Caster said, taking a look at the other two.
“Yep!” Troweler exclaimed, his face lighting up in admiration, “he must’ve worked quite hard to get to that level. I really would like to get to know him better, sometime.”
“Troweler, Troweler.” Slasher said, shaking his head, “always taking the optimistic side of things.”
Caster stopped, and turned to raise an eyebrow at Slasher. “Is there anything wrong with being optimistic?”
“No, not at all…” Slasher said, as the three continued walking, “it’s just that from my experience, optimism just gives you too much hope. It sets you up to fall.”
“That’s really quite depressing of an outlook to have, Slasher,” Caster said, as they approached their dorm. “Besides, we’re just talking about Zhao here. I don’t really think a prestigious warrior of his level would really have much of a negative side.”
“You’d be surprised,” Slasher responded, opening the door to the dorm. “No one gets to that level of combat prowess for no reason. You’d only do that if you were expecting to fight. And I’d doubt even Troweler would be able to paint bloodshed and conflict in an optimistic light.”
Troweler’s usual cheer suddenly dimmed down to a simmer, his face taking on for once a neutral expression-- which in contrast to his usual smile, seemed more like a frown. “Actually, Slasher, there are many reasons why fighting could be good. Fighting for what you believe in, fighting for your friends. Fighting for the people you love, fighting to keep the peace. Fighting for all that is just and right. Though there might be bloodshed, and there might be scars, sometimes things like that are just worth fighting for.”
Slasher took a glance at Troweler, before closing his eyes in an amused expression; but one that held a modicum of respect. “Remind me to never underestimate your cheerfulness.”
Troweler’s expression returned to his usual glee, and his eyes lit up once again with their signature luster. “Will do!”
The creaking of the dormitory door was a judge’s gavel, silencing all conversation inside the dorm as Piercer stepped through the entrance. Baller, Slicer, Crusher, and You gave Piercer simultaneous, expectant stares.
“So what did Zhao want to talk with you about?” You began.
“Personal matters,” Piercer said, before proceeding to his bed. “Don’t let it concern you; you won’t be hearing about it.”
Seeing that any attempt to garner up more conversation with Piercer would be futile, the others returned to their conversation.
“So what’s our plan for tomorrow?” Baller said, turning off his bedside lamp.
“Let’s see…” Crusher pulled out a sheet of paper, and began examining the contents written. “History, Mathematics, Language, Mana Studies, Biology, Combat Studies, and Combat Training.”
“Yep, that settles it, I’m gonna have to get some rest for tomorrow,” You replied, shutting off his bedside lamp. The others soon followed suit. “Goodnight, everyone.”
“Goodnight,” Baller replied.
Piercer yawned, blinking the sleep from his eyes as he gazed upward at his bedroom ceiling. Morning sunlight filtered in through the small window near his bed, and he turned to bask in the warmth and glow of the summer sun. The birds outside had begun their daily chorus, and the fresh, comforting smell of the summer breeze wafted through the air as Piercer climbed out of bed. Inspecting the bunk below, he could see that his younger brother had already gotten up.
“Come on, you slowpoke! You’re gonna miss the Quazers!” shouted Drak from outside.
Piercer began to quickly finish his breakfast. “Coming!”
Sprinting out the door like an ecstatic puppy, Piercer ran to Drak’s side, and was soon mesmerized by the procession that was heading through their small village. Quazers, of all sorts, were displaying their mana abilities. Pillars of flame, torrents of ice, gusts of wind, and a seemingly endless plethora of weapons graced the parade as it traveled by. The searing flashes, sizzles, and sparkles of mana lit up the street like firecrackers, and the two boys’ eyes widened in fascination and excitement.
“I wanna be just like the Quazers when I grow up, Piercer!” Drak exclaimed, tugging on Piercer’s sleeve.
“Yeah, me too!”
“Now, Piercer, Drak, listen here.” Zhao said, sagely. “Close your eyes, and cleanse your mind of thoughts. Try and channel your soul, your spirit, your energy-- and form it into a weapon. Whatever it is, try to grasp it in your hand as if it was there.”
Closing his eyes, Piercer dug deep, trying to emulate Zhao’s instructions-- by the time the sword had formed in his hand, he was so engrossed in his attempt that he did not even notice.
“Impressive,” Zhao remarked. “Your father was a swordsman, after all. It would make sense that you’d take after him.”
Drak simply stared at Piercer in awe.
“I’m so proud of you, big brother!”
Piercer ran down the stairs, noticing his parents moving furniture to barricade the front door. His father’s sword was drawn, and her mother had her bow at the ready. Screams could be heard coming from outside, and the foul stench of burning flesh only accentuated the terror as the sky was lit a dark crimson from the rampaging fire consuming the village.
“Mom, Dad, what’s going on? Why is there fire?”
“Listen close, son,” Piercer’s mother said, tears in her eyes, “if this door breaks, I want you and Drak to run as far away from the village as you can.”
Piercer’s apprehension was soon turning into full-blown panic. “Wait, what? Mom, no! I’m not going to leave you here!”
“Just do as she says, son,” Piercer’s father said, “do it for us, for Drak, for everyone. Never forget that we loved you, and always will.”
Tears were now dripping down Piercer’s face, tracing rivulets of saltwater down his face as he clung to his mother, screaming for her to not leave him. Yet it was at that moment when a thud could be heard outside the door. Piercer’s father readied his sword, and glanced at his beloved wife with a solemn expression.
Piercer’s mother kneeled down, facing her son, placing her hand on his cheek. “Son, it isn’t safe. You need to go.” She kissed him on the forehead, her once confident facade now breaking way as she too began to shed tears. Inside, she was just as frightened as he was. “I love you, Piercer. Now go, please…”
The splintering and cracking of wood resounded through the room as a colossal blade made its way partially through the door. Piercer’s mother drew an arrow into her bow, and motioned for Piercer to leave. Piercer, realizing the gravity of the situation, escaped through the back door of the house, tears scattering behind him like jewels as he ran. However, before reaching the forest, he stopped, realizing he had made a grave mistake-- he forgot to bring Drak with him. Yet it was too late.
At last, the door could not stand any longer, and with a single kick it was knocked aside, revealing the silhouette of a massive, menacing beast of a man, his red eyes glowing like that of a hungry wolf. Piercer’s father stabbed at him with his sword, but the blade snapped against the man’s skin. The man laughed, and with as little care as butcher slicing a pig, he slammed his sword straight down through Piercer’s father. Blood soaked the man’s vile blade with a vermilion hue as the two halves of what was once a man collapsed to the ground, his insides collapsing to the floor with a squelch in an ocean of gushing blood-- rendering him down into nothing more than a pile of flesh. Piercer’s mother fired arrow after arrow at the assailant, but her arrows might as well have been paper as they simply crumpled against the immovable object that was this beast. With a single outstretched hand, the man grasped Piercer’s mother by the head, and lifted her up above the ground. He clenched his fist, savoring the sounds of her screams like music on the ears as he gouged her eye with his thumb. Soon, the poor woman’s head could take no more as it burst into chunks of blood and flesh and bone. All the while, Piercer could do nothing but watch from afar, before fleeing into the forest, weeping for his mother, his father, for Drak.
Piercer awoke, panting and sweating profusely, memories of his nightmare still fresh in his mind. The fire, the screams, the man with the blade-- he quickly tried to flush it all from his mind. Unable and unwilling to sleep, he decided to take a stroll around the predawn campus until it was time for class.
Morning had dawned at last, and the bright rays of the new day cast down upon the sleeping students. You was the first of the four to rise, and as he peered around the room he immediately noticed Piercer’s vacant bed. Upon closer inspection, a small scrap of paper was resting on the pillow.
Woke up too early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I’ll see you all in history class. -Piercer
“Welcome, students, please have a seat,” the history professor said, his stoic demeanor carrying with him a professional air. He was dressed entirely in white, and in his hand he held, curiously enough, a purple faberge egg. As the last of the students filed into the classroom, he set the egg down on a golden pedestal on his desk.
“Greetings, class,” the man began, in a semi-monotonous voice. “My name is Alfred Petrelis, though you can refer to me as either Professor Petrelis, Professor P--or, for those of you who have read up on the past alumni of BFS Academy, my old combat name, Elfstone.”
Whispers started to spread through the classroom, but soon died down as the students saw that Elfstone was about to begin his lecture.
“As a direct result of the Human-Quazer war, many settlements on both Humara and Quaziril refused to migrate to Astria, despite the profound technological innovations. This ultimately proved to be both beneficial and detrimental, because although both the Astrians and many settlements were entirely wiped out during the Cataclysm, a few survived. These surviving settlements are responsible for the original six kingdoms.” Elfstone closed his textbook with a bang, before setting it down on the table.
“That’s all for today. Tomorrow we will go more in-depth on the Astrians, so if you wish to be ahead of the pack, I’d recommend you read up on them. Class dismissed!”
As the students packed their materials and made for the exit, Slicer, concerned, sought out Piercer.
“Piercer, are you doing alright?” Slicer questioned, looking Piercer in the eyes. “You didn’t take any notes, and you weren’t in the dorm in the morning.”
“Just didn’t get enough sleep,” Piercer said, half-dazed. “That’s all.”
“Well, I’d suggest for you to get some more next time.”
It was the final period of the day, and the Combat Training classroom was packed with students. Like the other classrooms, it was designed like an amphitheater, with tiered steps lined with seats and desks, with the first notable difference being a large circular platform sunk into the ground, designed to be a combat arena of sorts. The other notable difference was the fact that the room was completely absent of the hushed chatter of students-- not a single one dared face the wrath of the professor who ran the classroom, and for good reason. She was tall, her toned physique a clear indication of her strength and battle prowess. She adorned full plate armor on much of her body and carried with her a gargantuan battleaxe, yet despite their weight she moved as if she was wearing nothing at all. On her chestpiece was engraved a single word-- Pyre.
“For combat, there is no better method of improvement than experiencing it firsthand,” the combat instructor said, hefting her battleaxe onto her shoulder, “so I will now allow some time for controlled matches until the end of class. Now, who wants to fight?”
For several seconds, the classroom was filled with no noise, no speech except for the echoes and reverberations of the combat instructor’s words-- until a single hand was raised, piercing the air like a blade-- a single, chrome, robotic hand.
“I will, Professor Pyre.”
“Ah, Bomber,” the combat instructor said, beckoning him forth, “who do you wish to be your opponent?”
With no hesitation, Bomber pointed his glaring steel finger at Piercer.
“Do you accept, Piercer?” Pyre said.
Piercer, still half asleep, awoke with a jolt, “--yes Professor?”
“Alright, then the match is settled. Bomber, Piercer, please enter the ring.”
“Wait, what?” Piercer said, looking at the professor in confusion.
“You did agree to Bomber’s challenge, did you not?” the professor returned, raising an eyebrow, “turning back now would be forfeit, making Bomber the winner.”
Piercer contemplated the decision, and was going to accept the challenge-- until he saw the fury boiling within Bomber’s eyes, and realized that should he accept, disaster was inevitable.
Pyre’s eyes widened in surprise, before hesitantly speaking, “Bomber wins the match. Perhaps next time pay more attention when someone challenges you to battle, Piercer.”
Bomber’s face contorted in rage, and Piercer could swear he heard the bending of metal as Bomber clenched his fist, as if he was gripping Piercer’s neck in his hand.
“He seems nice,” Slicer said facetiously as Piercer sat down next to him.
“Yet another thing to worry about,” Piercer sighed.
Having just finished sparring with Slicer, Slasher returned briskly to his dorm to finish the assigned homework. It was about 5 o’clock in the evening, and the setting sun’s orange rays lit up the dorm room as he entered. To his surprise, he found Troweler and Caster chatting with a strange girl donning a green hood, pauldrons, and scarf. Her hair too, was green like marsh water, and her skin too seemed to have a slightly olive hue to it.
“Hey, who’s the new girl?” Slasher said, with an intrigued yet cautious attitude.
“I’m Shalia,” the girl said in a quiet and slightly timid voice. “I’m a new student, and was assigned to this team just today.”
His concern placated, Slasher sat down on one of the beds, and smiled warmly. “Nice to meet you, Shalia. I’m Slasher, and I see you’ve already gotten acquainted with Caster and Troweler.” Sitting like this, Slasher could now see that Shalia, curiously enough, had a pair of bright lime-green eyes, and found himself fascinated by them.
“Love your eyes,” Slasher said, “I’ve never met anyone with that shade of green eyes before. Where are you from?”
Shalia, slightly taken aback by Slasher’s sudden interest in her eyes, spoke even more timidly than before. “I don’t quite remember… I was orphaned here at a young age, so I don’t have any memory of events before that… sorry.”
“Hey, Slasher,” Caster said. “Coincidentally, we were just talking about our backstories as well. Would you mind sharing yours?”
A frown briefly flickered upon Slasher’s face. “Perhaps another time,” he said with the slightest hint of gruffness.
Zhao sat bow-legged, his eyes closed as he sat in deep meditation. The sun had just set over the horizon, and with the absence of sunlight to light his training room Zhao instead resorted to using the room’s built-in lights-- though he himself much preferred natural lighting. The room itself was sleek, outfitted with several holographic projectors that could be programmed to display info useful for his training, as well as a vast collection of dummies and programmable androids for Zhao to mete out his battle skill on.
The door to Zhao’s private training room closed with a bang, and Zhao paused his meditation to see who had arrived. Much to his surprise, it was a freshman in a teal shirt and grey slacks. The last person he expected to seek him out; Kai.
“Kai,” Zhao said, retracting his bo staff. “What brings you here?”
Kai gave Zhao a gentle, respectful smile. “I had noticed firsthand how powerful you were during the tournament. You certainly must have worked hard to get to such a level. I understand that improvement above all takes time, but I was wondering if you have any pointers for me.”
Zhao’s stoic expression remained, but he entertained the slightest of smirks as he replied to Kai. “So, you seek advice from me?”
Kai scratched his head feverishly. “Perhaps a little more than that.”
Zhao raised an eyebrow. “You seek for me to train you?”
Kai grimaced slightly. “A little more.”
Zhao thought for a moment, and then raised his other eyebrow at Kai. “You wish for me to become your mentor.”
Kai sighed, before nodding slightly.
Zhao frowned, looking at Kai with disapproval.
Kai’s hopeful smile drooped into a frown, before he turned to leave. “I’ll be seeing myself out th--”
Zhao suddenly summoned his bo staff, extending it and sweeping Kai’s legs off the ground. Kai landed face-down against the floor, before facing Zhao angrily.
“What was that f--”
“You should never turn your back on your enemy,” Zhao said, the slightest hint of a smile creeping upon his face. “If you cannot see your enemy, you cannot fight him, and if you turn, you give him an opportunity that he will most certainly exploit. This is your first lesson.”
Kai’s smile returned once again, even brighter this time. “Understood, sir.”
“Impressive,” Zhao remarked. “Your father was a swordsman, after all. It would make sense that you’d take after him.”
Drak simply stared at Piercer in awe.
“I’m so proud of you, big brother!”
“Thanks, Drak!” Piercer smiled. “Now, you try!”
Like Piercer, Drak also dug deep, trying to manifest his mana. He clawed and clawed for the same power that Piercer had, yet he could not muster anything-- not even a single spark of mana.
“It’s alright, Drak,” Zhao said. “Some people don’t develop their mana abilities until much later. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Drak’s face drooped into a downtrodden expression, before sighing. “Okay, Zhao…” He pretended to be happy for Piercer’s success, but inside his heart, a single seed of envy was planted.
At last, Drak had managed to summon forth a weapon-- a single crossbow, within his hand. Ecstatic, he nearly jumped through the roof from the euphoria of his success. “Now I can be just like big brother! Mom, Dad, Piercer, they will all be so proud of me!”
Running to his parents, he was jumping with joy as he held out his crossbow, glee plastered upon his face. “Look, mom! Dad! I finally learned how to use my mana!”
“That’s nice, Drak,” his mom replied briefly before turning back to look at Piercer.
“Yeah! It… is, right..?” Drak said, realizing that his mother’s response was not the one he had expected.
“Mom, Dad! Look at this bow! I can wield two weapons!” Piercer shouted, running over to his parents with a bow in his left hand and his sword in his right.
“I’m so proud of you, my son!” Piercer’s mother exclaimed, kissing her son on the cheek.
“Am I not your son too?”
“Piercer’s going to be one of the best Quazers in all the land when he grows up. I just know it.” Piercer’s father said, opening his arms for a hug. “Bring it in, son.”
“Am I not your son too?”
Drak sulked away, blinking tears from his eyes. The seed of envy had now taken root, and had begun to sprout within him.
His blade still coated in blood, Zenthus slowly climbed the stairs in the house. Each floorboard creaked as if its very lifeforce was being stamped out of it as the butcher made his way towards a room at the end of the hall. His bloodlust was raging, and he could hear the cries and sniff out the salt in the tears of a young boy as he approached. Entering the room, he spotted Drak, huddled in the corner of the room-- yet seeing him, he realized something was amiss. The boy made no effort to run, to scream-- it was as if he had already fully accepted his death. Realizing that there would be no effort nor satisfaction in this kill, Zenthus approached the boy.
Drak looked up into Zenthus’s luminescent, scarlet eyes. Zenthus realized that the expression on the kid’s face was one of complete indifference-- even despite the current circumstances, Drak did not bat an eye. With an expression akin to a child examining a broken toy, Zenthus stood up.
“What a shame,” Zenthus said, turning to leave. “He’s already dead.”
Drak awoke with a start, greeted by the familiar sight of Zenthus’s iridescent eyes.
“Wake up, kid,” Zenthus stated gruffly, “we’re having a meeting.”
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Drak sat up on his bed. Yet again, he was plagued by nightmares of his past-- yet by now he has become accustomed to them, and they did not trouble him much as he sat around the mana fire. Moments later, Dawson too had arrived, teleporting beside the fire in an explosion of black mana.
“Back again, Dawson?” Zenthus said, sarcastically.
“I had places to be, Zenthus.”
Zenthus scoffed. “Like hell you have places to be. You never get anything done.”
Dawson rolled his eyes. “Unlike you, I’m smart about my work ethic and only allocate my strength where it’s needed.”
“Quiet, both of you.”
Turning to face the source of the voice, Drak could make out the glint of a white cyberoptic visor from the darkness. The man who donned it walked forward, taking a seat at the mana fire. He was dressed in a yellow suit, and like the others his skin was pitch-black. He wore a fedora made from what appeared to be authentic Korbloxian snow leopard fur, and the ivory visor on his face seemed to be Orinthian in design, complementing his well-kept white hair.
“Well if it isn’t Xavier, the gold-plated thief himself,” Zenthus said, miffed that one lower in rank than he was would speak up to him like that.
“You say I’m a thief like you’re any better,” Xavier replied. “We all take things. You take lives, I take money, Dawson takes… time, I suppose. My form of theft is just the most fiscally viable option. Either way, I didn’t come here to enjoy your splendid company. Bossman should be arriving anytime now, and you can bet that I will be out of here as soon as it’s over.”
Zenthus’s eyes flashed even brighter with rage. “You think you can back your words up, you little--”
“Xavier is right, Zenthus,” a voice sounded out in the darkness. Drak shuddered-- it was as if the man who spoke it was whispering into his very soul with his words. “Now, enough of this petty infighting.”
Drak looked up as the owner of the voice stepped forth. He noticed, first, a small china cup held in the man’s shadowy hand.
“Now, would any of you care for some tea?”
It was about 9 o’clock in the dorm room, and by now all but Piercer had finished their assigned homework for the day. Finding some spare time on their hands, they decided to chat.
“Honestly, I expected there to be more homework, but I was pleasantly surprised,” Baller said.
“From what I remember my friends telling me about Crimson Academy, they have even less,” Crusher replied. “Then again, most of their schooling is just combat training. I mean, when your kingdom’s most well-known folklore is about the most powerful Quazer to have ever lived, it really does say something about the society.”
“Well, what’s the story?” You asked, interested.
“The tale of Xargas the Mighty, of course?” Crusher responded, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard it before.”
“Nope.” You said, bluntly.
“Well, alright,” Crusher said, relaxing on his bed. “I don’t mind retelling it. I could hear this story forever.”
“You guys go ahead and do that,” Slicer said, moving besides Piercer.
“Hey, you didn’t sleep much last night,” Slicer said, caringly. “Get some rest, I’ll finish your homework for you.”
Piercer, too tired to even speak, simply nodded before collapsing onto his bed.
“I’m going to go work on some stuff at the mess hall,” Slicer said to the others. I’ll be back by curfew.”
The door to the dorm closed abruptly, a cue for Crusher to begin his tale.
“Well, alright… let’s see…” Crusher said, trying to remember the events of the story within his head.
“Back before the United Kingdoms of Humara was formed, when only the Redcliff, Seventh Sanctum, and Splintered Skies ruled Humara, there was an ordinary man named Xargas. A young farm boy, he showed his first signs of Quazerhood at the age of six. He soon took up an interest in combat, and would often help defend his village from bandits and monsters, even hiring himself out to protect shipments of goods travelling along between Linmont and Bruuflont.”
Crusher cleared his throat, continuing. “It didn’t take a mana specialist to realize that Xargas was particularly gifted. He was a prodigy of mana use, with the ability to quickly learn many different forms of mana. Yet despite this, he was humble, and used his ability for good, becoming a town hero of sorts. It wasn’t long at all until his abilities were called upon. Turns out that a Korbloxian death fleet was prepared to invade the Redcliff Kingdom. The king had sent out a distress call, but none answered. The Seventh Sanctum, being the Seventh Sanctum, decided to remain neutral. The Splintered Skies didn’t see the Korbloxians as an immediate threat.”
Crusher paused, recalling more of the tale. “Hope seemed lost, and many a citizen was already headed for Linmont to flee from the Korbloxians. Xargas, however, did not run. He stood firm, and rallied for others to join him and defend their kingdom against the invaders. First, it was only a few Quazers. Soon, it became a mob, then a militia, and as Xargas and his army of the people marched towards Bruuflont, they gained more supporters on the way. By the time they had reached Bruuflont, it seemed that nearly every man, woman, and child had gathered there to fight off the Korbloxians-- and they succeeded.”
“Xargas’s feat didn’t go unnoticed, and soon people in the Seventh Sanctum and Splintered Skies were rallying for their governments to support the Redcliff in their battle against the Korbloxians. The Redcliff, led by Xargas who was now promoted to General of the Redcliff Army, against all odds, had defeated the Korbloxians. After Xargas himself slew Canavus of Korbloxian fame in a duel, victory had been secured.”
Crusher smiled, the nostalgia of the fairytale, eliciting warm memories of his childhood. “Xargas’s story is about how all it takes is one person to inspire hope in others. It empowers us, and teaches us the importance of hope and unity.”
“Huh, I sorta enjoyed that story actually,” You replied. “Not the kind of fairytale I’m used to, but I suppose I can see why someone would enjoy it.”
“I’ve always loved the story of Xargas,” Baller said, with a grin upon his face. “It was one of the things that inspired me to join BFS Academy, after all. I would love to have met him personally.”
“Glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks that,” Crusher said. “He really was a brilliant person.”
Slicer, with Piercer’s textbooks and work in his hands, opened the door to Slasher’s dorm. Slasher turned, and his face lit up with happiness upon seeing who had walked in.
“Hey, Slicer!” Slasher exclaimed. “What brings you here?”
“Piercer didn’t get enough sleep last night, so I volunteered to do his homework for him,” Slicer replied.
“Couldn’t you have just done that in your dorm though?”
“The others were being a bit too loud for me to work. Crusher is retelling the story of Xargas.”
Slasher’s smile quickly turned to a frown, and he scoffed. “Xargas the Mighty, huh. What a boisterous load of bullshit. That story is chock-full of lies and propaganda.”
Caster looked at Slasher with an eyebrow raised in disdain. “Of course the Equinoxian would think that.”
Slasher flinched, but did not express his anger despite the deliberate jab at his race. “Caster, do you even know the full story behind Xargas?”
“Yeah, of course I do, he was the guy who single-handedly won the Korbloxian war.”
“I mean the real story.”
Slasher sat down, a grave look on his face. “Though Xargas may have started out as an innocent, caring farm boy, he changed. Back then, Quazers who didn’t use weapon-based mana risked extreme prejudice, even hanging. In fact, it’s the whole reason why weapon-based mana existed-- the original humans who had settled there blamed the Quazers for the Cataclysm, and went on a “witch hunt”. Quazers had to morph their mana into what seemed like ordinary weapons in order to avoid persecution. Even after that had stopped, the anti-Quazer sentiment had still persisted. After Xargas was promoted, he was no longer just an ordinary man. He was now a hero, and his every motion was subject to extreme scrutiny.”
“By the time he had won the Korbloxian War, he too had adopted this prejudice. The Redcliff effectively wiped out the Korbloxian culture, and persecuted all who did not use weapon-based mana, and installed a puppet government at Midgard in West Korbloxia. It’s one of the biggest secrets the Redcliff royal family wants to keep hidden under the rug.”
Slasher sighed, glancing at Caster’s now mildly shocked and downcast face. “The story of Xargas is not one of empowerment, nor unity, nor how a single individual can change the world. It’s the story of just how helpless we are to the whims of society, and just how powerful a shared mindset can be. Xargas, despite his power, was a puppet to society’s expectations of him. Even if he didn’t have the prejudice, he would have been pressured by the masses, and would be forced into it. Worst of all, however, is the fact that not only have the Redcliff government denied this, but how the story itself was warped so much by retellings over time that now the revised version is the one people are acquainted with.”
“That’s…” Caster began, still dazed with this new revelation. “Wow, Slasher... I’m sorry.”
“You have no reason to be,” Slasher replied. “We’re all helpless to the conventions of society, are we not?”
“The Equinoxians originally started out as an attempt by the Korbloxians to create a superior soldier,” Elfstone said. “Their experiments involved the separation of a person between the terrestrial and spirit realms to harness the increased awareness and mana control of the spirit realm, whilst still maintaining a terrestrial presence. However, this resulted in an eventual disconnect between the portion of the person that was terrestrial and the portion of the person that was spiritual. Through many trials, this was eventually perfected, with the only side effect being an extreme discoloration between parts of the person’s body. Some parts would be pitch black, whilst others were blizzard white, giving these new soldiers the title ‘Equinoxians’”.
“The Equinoxians were extremely effective in combat, and were often sent into recklessly dangerous encounters. However the integration process was grueling and painful, and only 6% of all people inducted into the program survived. Soon, the Equinoxians grew tired of the Korbloxians’ disregard for their safety and the inhumane processes that were involved in their creation. The Korbloxians, fearful of revolt, began the systematic deconstruction and annihilation of the Equinoxian program. Some Equinoxians managed to flee to Humara, where they eventually settled down and had their own families. Most Equinoxians nowadays are settled in the Casmoth Islands, Bruuflont, or Draco,” Elfstone set his textbook down on the table. “Class dismissed.”
“Why are we even learning about the Equinoxians? They’re just failed experiments, anyway.”
“Honestly, they should just be eradicated. Monsters, the lot of them.”
Overhearing such snide comments, Slasher was enveloped in fury, barely able to conceal it beneath his facade. Slasher left the classroom quickly, a scowl on his face. He stopped, however, noticing that Shalia, of all people, was following him.
“Slasher…” Shalia began, “are you alright?”
“Do I look alright to you?” Slasher replied. “Did you not hear the comments they were making?” He sighed, exasperated. “It seems I can’t catch a break.”
“You know, Slasher…” Shalia began, turning to gaze into his eyes. “You don’t need to live like this.”
“What do you mean by that?” Slasher asked, “because unless you can un-equinoxify me, I can’t escape this discrimination that tails me like a rabid dog.”
“There is another way, Slasher,” Shalia said. “You’re not the only one who has to deal with this. There are people here, in Draco, who are willing to change things for the better.”
Slasher scoffed. “Like there are people who could achieve that.”
“You may not believe it right now, Slasher,” Shalia began, “but in the event that you reconsider…” Shalia handed Slasher a piece of paper, inscribed with a phone number.
“Thank you, Shalia… for your consideration.”
It was in the evening, just after 7 o’clock. Slasher and Slicer decided to get some drinks and catch up with each other at the mess hall. Not many students were around at this hour, with only one or two lurking about in the corners. The duo found a table near the end of the hall, and began their conversation.
“You don’t usually get anything alcoholic, Slasher,” Slicer quipped. “Is something wrong?”
“Just have a lot weighing on my mind, that’s all,” Slasher replied.
“Well, care to chat about it?”
“Well,” Slasher began, sighing. “What if you were given the opportunity to suddenly correct a major problem in your life, but it would involve going to such lengths that you couldn’t be sure of its repercussions?”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“What if there was a great issue, a problem that you could help amend, that if you were successful, could make the lives of a great many people better-- yet it’s on such a vast scale that you couldn’t possibly predict what else may result from it?”
“Well, Slasher,” Slicer said, sipping his drink. “The way I see it-- if the problem really is on such a scale, then you should definitely consider helping to fix it.”
Slasher paused for a moment, engrossed within his thoughts.
“Alright, well that settles it.”
“Hey guys, who wants to play tag?” a child shouted. It was a sunny day, and the many children of the town had gathered in the park to play.
“I want to!”
“Can I play?”
Slasher too, was eager to join in. “Can I join in too?”
The child turned to face him, and then furrowed his brow. “Well, my mom told me that I shouldn’t play with you…”
Slasher was confused, “why not?”
“She said that half-dark half-light people like you shouldn’t be trusted.”
“Hey you!” a child shouted at Slasher. He was standing alongside several other children, and all were advancing towards Slasher at a worrying pace.
“Me?” Slasher replied, slightly concerned.
“Yeah, you, you freak!” the kid responded. The other children were right near Slasher now, and they jeered at him like hyenas.
“Guys, please,” Slasher replied, desperately. “Just leave me alone, pl--”
“Shut the hell up, you noxie,” the kid responded. “We don’t like you kind of people around here, you hear-- but it seems you’re not leaving anytime soon. So, we’re gonna have to beat you until they have to carry you out. No hard feelings, freak.”
Slasher tried to make an escape, but it was too late. They had already surrounded him. By now, he had already learned to not fight back-- for if he harmed any of them, he would most certainly be the one at fault. Instead, he simply prepared himself for the incoming blows.
“Hah, look at him. He’s about to faint, isn’t he,” the kid said, kicking Slasher in the guts before spitting on him. “Fucking weakling.” The other kids followed suit, continuing their cruel jeers. Slasher by now had already given up any form of resistance or retaliation, instead wishing desperately for unconsciousness to envelop him and take him away from this nightmare.
“Hey, freaks!” a young boy, dressed in a blue shirt and black pants, shouted at the group.
“Don’t you mean freak?”
“I’m not referring to the Equinoxian,” the boy replied. “I’m talking about you lot. Get your filthy paws off of him.”
“Why don’t you make me?”
“Alright then. I will.”
The boy summoned a shining, steel blade into his hands, its cold glint shining like the teeth of a ravenous lion as the boy brandished it at the other children. Panicking at the sight of the blade, the children scattered. The boy walked forward towards Slasher, offering him a hand and pulling him to his feet.
“What’s your name?” “Slasher… how about you?”
“Slicer. You alright?”
“Better than before.”
Looking down at the scrap of paper Shalia gave him, Slasher knew the course of action he should take. As much as he initially disbelieved her claims, he realized that such a problem could not go unchecked. Taking out his phone, he dialed in the written number.
“Hello?” Slasher said, “I’m Slasher. A friend of mine told me to contact this number?”
“Ah, Slasher,” the man on the other end replied. “Shalia has already informed me of your situation. We will be glad to accept you. If you want to begin working towards creating a new, improved society, then please go to the following location.”
The man set down his china cup with a light clink. “Plus, if you’d care for some, we’ve got tea.”
“What’s the matter, Piercer?” the girl said, her expression rife with concern.
Having kept it pent up for a week now, Piercer could no longer stop himself. “Well about a week ago, I received a message from my brother, who I thought had died nine years ago.” Piercer sighed. “He said he would meet me down in the nearby village, but I was ordered by the administration to not leave campus, as it is too dangerous-- yet I find myself more and more inclined to go.”
“Well, if you want my opinion on the matter,” the girl said, “I’m sure that it wouldn’t be all that dangerous. It’s only a short walk to the village, after all.” She smiled, looking into Piercer’s eyes. “Plus, your mana is strong. You can handle yourself.”
Piercer contemplated her words, briefly-- yet inside he knew that her words were simply a reassurance to his already existing sentiment-- that for Drak, it was worth breaching the rules, just this once.
“Alright,” Piercer said. “If you really believe so, then I will concur.” Piercer returned the girl’s smile. “Thanks for the help.”
The girl’s eyes closed briefly as she gave Piercer a smile, revealing her lime-green irises as they opened once again.
“No problem,” Shalia replied.
You jolted awake, gazing up into the face of Baller, who was shaking him to try and wake him up.
“Wha… what’s going on?” You began, still dazed from his rude awakening.
“Piercer’s nowhere to be found,” Baller said, his expression stricken with worry. “I woke up this morning and his bed was just empty, with no note or anything.
“Wait, what?” You said, jumping up from his bed. “We need to go and find him then!”
“Crusher and Slicer are already searching the building to see if anyone has seen him. Let’s go help them!”
Descending down the mountain path up to the academy, Piercer could soon see the village Drak had mentioned. While not as small as the one he grew up in, it couldn’t be considered town-sized either. As he neared it, he could see that there weren’t too many people out and about, due to it still being morning.
Knowing from his village that most of the activity would be near the town center, he made swiftly towards it.
“Hey!” Piercer shouted. “Has anyone seen a young boy, about 17 years old, with a purple shirt, hood, and hair? Wields a crossbow?”
“Nah, haven’t seen anyone matching your description.”
“Who even are you?”
“Stop bothering people, alright?”
“Hm… wait, kid.”
Piercer turned, facing the source of the voice-- a mysterious man, sitting at a nearby bar. He appeared to be wearing a black duster, with a matching black hooded cloak. The hood of his cloak shrouded his face in darkness, and his duster was left unbuttoned, revealing a red collared shirt and multiple leather straps. Their buckles clinked together as he finished his drink, before putting on a strange mask. The mask only covered the right half his face, and was a pure alabaster white, following the contours of his face before stopping just above his upper lip. The mask itself seemed to have a gold visor in place of the eye socket, with said gold visor extending to the left side of his face, concealing his eyes.
“I may have seen someone matching your description.”
“Really?” Piercer said, “do you know where he went?”
The man paused for a moment. “Hm, yeah. I think I do.”
The man revealed his right hand, and pointed it in the direction opposite the academy. Piercer noticed that the man’s right hand was badly scarred, and had many metallic knuckles, with chunks of the hand itself being made entirely out of steel.
“He went off in that direction. Said something about a fort of some sort.”
“Thank you, sir.” Piercer breathed a sigh of relief. “If I may, what is your name?”
The man gave a disgruntled grunt. “Don’t you have other things to do?”
“Right, of course.” Piercer ran off in the direction the man indicated.
The man leaned back down into his chair, pouring himself another glass of vodka.
“Heh. Easier than I thought it would be.”
“Yeah, I think I saw a kid in a purple shirt go that way, towards the main gates,” the red-haired girl said. “Looked like he was eager to get to some place.”
“You sure?” Baller asked the girl, just for verification. From her looks, she didn’t exactly come off as the trustworthy type, if the eyepatch, hood, and tri-bladed scythe didn’t give it away already.
“Pfft, I may have one eye but I see what I see,” the girl responded. “What is this, an interrogation of some sort?”
“Reaper, please don’t,” a girl in a dark blue t-shirt said, grabbing the red-haired girl by the arm. “We have classes soon, anyway.”
“Portaler, they asked me, so I answered,” Reaper responded, about to pull away from Portaler’s grasp, before realizing that she did indeed need to get to class soon, and so grudgingly let Portaler pull her into the small blue portal she had just formed.
“Hope she wasn’t too much trouble,” Portaler said, sticking her head out of the portal. “Good luck with whatever you are doing!”
“Alright,” You began, as the portal collapsed. “Thanks… oh, well they’ve already left.”
“We have no time to waste,” Slicer said, grabbing You by the arm. “Let’s go find him.”
At last, Piercer had arrived outside a fort, like the man had mentioned. Its granite walls were easily several stories high, and they framed a giant metal gate in between them. As he approached, the gate was raised with the whine of rusted metal and the clangs of shifting chains. As it lifted, Piercer could make out the details of a familiar face-- one he hadn’t seen for nine whole years.
“Drak…” Piercer began, his voice cutting off in disbelief.
“Hello, Piercer.” Drak responded, walking towards him. “Nice to see you finally decided to come down here.”
“I can’t believe you’re really alive,” Piercer said, bridging the gap between them. “It has been far too long.”
“Yes, it really has.”
“Yes, Piercer,” another familiar voice sounded out-- one that froze the blood in Piercer’s veins to ice.
Piercer materialized a sword, and turned, trying to get the first strike on his assailant, but it was to no avail. The man simply caught his sword arm, lifting Piercer into the air-- before breaking through his mana, and snapping the bone of Piercer’s arm in a single crushing grip of his pitch-black hand.
Piercer’s mind went numb at the sudden pain, his vision blurring slightly-- yet the fear he felt paled in comparison to the heart-stopping, bone-chilling terror of what he saw when his vision cleared. A sickle-like grin like a crescent moon against the darkness of the man’s face, and framed above it, two bloodthirsty, crimson irises.
“It really has been far too long.”
Bursting into the town square, Baller, Slicer, Crusher, and You began once again their frantic search for information on Piercer’s whereabouts. It was midday now, and the plaza was bustling with activity, the raucous chatter and sounds of street traffic making their attempts to ask around for info much more challenging.
“Hello? Have any of you guys seen--”
“Get out of the way, kid.”
“--an adolescent, with a purple shirt? Wields a bow and sw--”
“Stop blocking the road!”
After many minutes of fruitless questioning, the four students sat down near the well.
“Perhaps we should try a different strategy,” Slicer suggested. “Doesn’t seem too many people want to even talk to us, so what use is it if they have seen Piercer or not?”
“Surely there must be someone here who’s seen him,” Crusher added. “Either way, it’s our best lead and I don’t think we should abandon it so soon.”
“Maybe Slicer’s right,” You said. “We should try another way to find a new lead on his location, like perhaps--”
“That won’t be necessary.”
The four turned, somewhat startled by the sudden interjection, to see who had decided to interrupt-- a strange man, adorned with a hooded cloak and robes made out of Darkagian silk, embroidered with a Darkagish symbol near the collar. On his hands were a pair of black gloves, and he had a bandana and blindfold made out of the same silk over his eyes and mouth.
“The person you’re looking for-- he headed north, to an abandoned fort outside of town,” the man said, gesturing in the appropriate direction.
Baller raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “And how do you know this?”
“Do you want your friend back or not?” The man replied. “Go, quickly.”
The four students glanced at each other, seeing if any of them had a better option. Finding none, they silently agreed to trust the man’s information.
“Thanks,” You said to the man, about to leave.
“You’re welcome,” the man responded.
“Also, if any of you have seen a man with a black duster and hood, with partially cybernetic hands and a half-face mask with a gold visor, let me know.”
Piercer awoke groggily, a dull throbbing permeating through his right arm. Looking around, he found himself sealed inside a small cage. The castle was incredibly old-- and rank with the stench of mildew. The only audible sounds were the dripping of water and the light crackle of the mana flame that lit the small corner of the fort he was in. Piercer tried calling upon his mana to break out of the cage-- but it would not respond, for it was too busy trying to repair his broken arm from earlier.
At once, Piercer recalled the events leading up to his present situation-- and once again he felt the bone-chilling sensation of Zenthus’s stare, as if somehow he was peering into his mind through his memories. Shuddering, his mind was swirling with questions.
“Why is Drak working with that man? Just what is going on?”
As if heeding his thoughts, Drak soon appeared out of the darkness.
“Drak?” Piercer asked, “what is going on? Why are you working with… him?”
Drak sighed, kneeling down before Piercer’s cage. “Piercer… ever since we were separated from each other, I’ve changed a lot. I’m not the brother you knew before.” Drak stood up, looking to the side, a solemn expression upon his face. “That Drak was naive, and honestly, immature.”
“Well what does this have to do with the Darkin? With Zenthus?”
“Well, it all began, several years back…”
Drak awoke to the sound of crumbling wood and straw, getting up from the now sooty floor he was sleeping upon. The aftermath of the attack was evident; the smell of smoke still filled the air, and his childhood house was slowly crumbling. Making his way down the steps, his nose was hit with the most foul stench he had ever smelled in his life-- the pungent stink of spilled human innards. Flies buzzed through the air, and the severed, mangled portions of his parents lied on the floor like two torn up rag dolls.
Yet, in this moment, Drak realized with a stark horror and fascination-- that he felt no remorse. He knew he should be sorrowful, and this confused and frightened him that he was not. Yet, as he thought upon all his parents did, or rather did not do for him, he soon understood why.. He wasn’t one to disrespect the dead, however, so he gingerly stepped around his parents’ corpses, and exited his home, taking with him a box of matches. Lighting a match and tossing it into the doorway, he soon stepped back from the funeral pyre. A funeral pyre, not only for his parents, but also for his innocence and naivety. With a great rumble, the house caved in upon itself, and Drak set out along the road, not caring much about where it would take him.
Drak traveled for days and days, using his mana abilities to hunt and acquire food for himself. Though the first days were rough, and he spent many a night hungry, thirsty, cold, or any combination of the above, he grew accustomed to it, and could soon fend for himself. At last, he reached the first village. When he arrived, he was surprised by the hospitality-- yet it became quickly evident that it was all a farce. Any bread he was given turned out to be maggot-ridden when he bit into it. Any kind gesture he received was only out of pity, and not true concern. It soon became clear to Drak that the people only cared that they felt good themselves for thinking that they helped him, and not whether they really truly did help him. They wore false smiles and cloaked themselves in lies-- and so, Drak left quickly.
The next village was even worse-- all the villagers seemed to care about was money, and Drak found himself unwanted, yet again. The village after that didn’t seem to acknowledge his existence. The one after that was outright hostile to him. Everywhere he went, Drak was unloved, and uncared for-- and it wasn’t long before he believed this about himself as well.
“About two years into my travels, I had arrived at Cenm, in the kingdom of Radesultor. It was, perhaps, even worse than the villages I had encountered.”
The city was filled with prejudice, infighting, violence, and hatred. It was unlike anything Drak had experienced before, and it had truly opened his eyes to what he believed to be the true nature of humanity-- chaotic, conflicted, and selfish.
Over the next few years, nothing Drak witnessed had gone against his sentiment. Zento was just as bad as Cenm. Zelia was filled with a constant tension and aggression, as if revolution could burst forth at any moment. By the time he had reached Aadrunard, he was convinced not only of humanity’s cruel nature, but also of the need for change. His hatred for humanity, for all who had caused him to become this way, had been building up within him, and soon it became overpowering. Yet, as he descended further down his dark path, a spark of hope had entered his life.
“In Aadrunard, I found a companion. A girl, by the name of Shalia. Like me, she was orphaned, sent here by her parents from an unknown land. Like me, she too had seen and experienced the true evil that was human nature.”
At first, the two shared a morbid sense of camaraderie, like two prisoners on the way to the gallows. Yet, soon this camaraderie blossomed into friendship, and Drak, for the first time in a long while, felt that there existed someone in this world who truly cared for him. And this alone was enough to give him the hope he needed to keep pushing forward, and to suppress his hate. However, the negative emotions that had been building all his life were hard-pressed to budge, and so Drak worked out a temporary solution. Through years of mana training, he learned how to cordon off his hate into a separate form-- like a shadow of himself. He could call upon this form at will, and he found that it would improve his combat abilities as well.
“Eventually, with some prodding from Shalia, I was led back to Draco, where I found the Darkin,” Drak continued. “I soon found that like me, they disliked the conflict that seems to be an inherent fact in all humans. They would help end the fighting, end the chaos and violence that plagues the land.”
“But can’t you see how they act?” Piercer said, incredulously. “I mean, look at Zenthus! He torched our village, and you somehow can side with him?”
“I never said that the path to peace would be easy, Piercer,” Drak said. “Sacrifices will need to be made. Besides, can you blame him? Sometimes, I find myself empathizing with him, seeing why he does what he does, why he relishes in killing.”
Piercer was still struggling to take in the realization of his brother’s troubles. “But, why capture me? What have I ever done to you? I’m your brother, Drak. I’ve always loved you.”
“Like hell you did.”
Piercer flinched, his heart tightening in response to Drak’s stinging remark.
“Of course, you don’t remember it,” Drak said. “But I do. All those times where mother and father had favored you, had showered you in praise and buried me in neglect. I never could step out of your shadow, and you only tried to blot out even more of the light. Not once did you seem to let me have a chance, to let me have the spotlight-- you were too busy being better than me, being the star child, the crown champion. You couldn’t even be bothered to come and retrieve me when our village was burning down. Drak spat the words like daggers at Piercer, and all hit their mark.
“But you know the one thing I have over you? I’m not naive. I’ve had that burned out of me long ago. I know how this world operates far better than you do, Piercer. And so, consider this my time to be in the spotlight.” Drak’s visage suddenly shifted. His skin had turned a midnight black, and his eyes were two hollow, blank, pupil-less spheres, staring like lasers into Piercer’s soul.
“Now, it’s time for you to be standing in my shadow.”
At last, Baller, Crusher, Slicer, and You had arrived outside the fort. Wasting no time, the four made their way towards the gates, with Slicer leading the pack.
“This looks like the place,” Crusher said. “Piercer must be somewhere inside.”
“I’ll go in first, take a look around,” Slicer added. “You guys can take a look around the outside, see if you find anything that might indicate that Piercer isn’t inside.”
Slicer summoned his sword, walking in through the gateway, and noticing a door at the end of the room. He was just about to walk towards it, when he was interrupted by the sudden clang of the gate dropping shut behind him.
“Slicer!” Baller shouted, running towards the gate, before summoning a mega sphere and throwing it at the gate. The giant dodgeball simply fizzled into dust as it collided with the metal bars.
“Looks like some sort of mana barrier,” Slicer responded. “No sense in trying to break through it. I’ll just move forward, see if Piercer is in the fort. I’ll come back later and tell you if I find him or not.”
“Alright,” You said, “don’t get yourself hurt, and come back quickly!”
“Will do,” Slicer responded, before running to the other end of the room, closing the door behind him.
Baller and You stepped back from the gate.
“Alright, let’s start searching the area, see if Piercer has--”
“I’m afraid you won’t be doing anything of the sort.”
Crusher’s sentence was interrupted by the booming voice of a tall, silhouetted man standing atop the fort’s battlements. The three students summoned their weapons, ready to attack; but their bravery soon faltered as they felt the sheer force of the man’s mana press against them as he leapt from the battlements, landing before them with a force that shattered the rock beneath him. As he stood, he summoned into his hands an enormous, jagged greatsword. Upon his face was a grin that stretched from ear to ear, like a wolf eyeing its prey.
“How about we play a game… let’s see how many seconds it takes for me to cut you all into nice, bite-sized pieces. I’d wager perhaps 6, 7 seconds. What do you three think?” Zenthus said, his eyes dripping with bloodlust.
Baller, Crusher, and You took glances at each other with worried expressions, debating whether to run, or to stand and fight. None of them had expected to even run into a fight, much less a fight against someone with such a large amount of mana. Backing up slowly, the three readied their weapons-- though they each knew within them that they were powerless if the man decided to attack.
Seeing the fear in their eyes, Zenthus licked his lips. His bloodthirst was raging now, and blood and adrenaline pumped in his head like a bass drum, pushing his temptation onwards until he could resist no more. Heaving his sword back, he leapt into the air, swinging his sword down with the intention to kill-- but midway through his strike, he was suddenly sent backwards into the fort’s gate by the impact of a single, extending bo staff.
Grabbing his sword and leaping to his feet, Zenthus snarled, until he cast his crimson gaze upon the assailant who so rudely interrupted his hunt. Letting out a chuckle, he waited for the man to approach.
Zhao walked forth, bearing a stare that could strike an ordinary man dead in an instant.
Zenthus smirked, readying his sword.
“So, how was mana studies class, Caster?” Troweler asked Caster as the pair returned to their dorm.
“It went fine,” Caster replied as she opened the door to the dorm with a light creak. She frowned, noticing something was amiss, and contemplated on what it could be-- before she realized, with a curious expression.
“That’s weird,” she began, “isn’t Slasher supposed to be at the dorm already?”
Slicer entered the room, taking a quick look around to get his bearings. The room was rather large, easily the size of the combat stadium he fought in during the tournaments. The ceiling was very high above the ground, and lined with many rafters and beams, shrouded in darkness, with a single chandelier hanging down to illuminate the room. At the far end of the room was yet another door, and between him and that door stood a familiar figure. With apprehension and confusion, Slicer sheathed his sword, walking towards the man.
Slasher turned to face Slicer, a grim look upon his face.
Slicer furrowed his brow. “What’s going on? Why are you here?”
Refusing to look into Slicer’s eyes, Slasher closed his own, turning his gaze to the side. “Slicer, please. Leave.”
“Tell me what’s going on first.”
Slasher sighed, looking Slicer in the eyes with a grave stare. “A friend had shared with me information on how to solve a problem. A problem that not only affects me, but all Equinoxians. That solution is the Darkin. They intend to usher in a new era of peace in Draco-- the final solution to all conflict. And in this new society, Equinoxians like myself will finally be free from torment. You know firsthand how important that is to me.”
Recalling the horrors the Darkin had committed against Piercer, Slicer’s expression flipped to one of shock and panic. “No, Slasher, don’t you know what the Darkin have done? They aren’t arbiters of peace, they’re-- they’re butchers!”
“If only imperial peace can be achieved, then so be it. Peace is better than no peace.”
“At what cost? The Darkin have killed so many innocent people, and they will kill even m--”
“What about all the Equinoxians that have died at the hands of humans, and the countless more who suffer every day from their atrocities?” Slasher shouted, exasperatedly. “You know this yourself, and yet you still can’t understand why I decided to side with them?”
Slicer’s expression shifted, wincing slightly at Slasher’s sudden aggression, before letting out a sigh.
“Of course I understand, Slasher. But this can’t be the right way to go about it,” Slicer began, his face taking up a pleading look as he gazed at Slasher. “Slasher… just--... just come back with me, alright? Back to the academy. I’ll go find Piercer, and we’ll all just go back, and we can forget this happened. I just want everything to be normal again, Slasher. Please…”
“I’m afraid I can’t, Slicer,” Slasher said. “Even if it isn’t the best way, it’s better than just sitting there, helplessly suffering, doing nothing to help not only myself, but everyone else like me.” Slasher summoned his blade into his hand, before slowly pointing it at Slicer, his grip unsteady and trembling with dread and hesitation. “I hoped that it wouldn’t come to this… I hoped that perhaps, our paths might not cross-- but it seems fate had other plans.” Slicer stepped back, grudgingly equipping his blade.
Slasher sighed, before at last gripping his sword tight, his conviction overpowering his emotions. “I can’t let you pass. Now, it seems I have no choice but to fight you, Slicer.”
“Slasher, I’m not going to fight you. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Slicer, you must understand,” Slasher began, “I have no choice. I don’t want to hurt you either, so please… just fight.”
Slicer raised his sword, his expression now matching Slasher’s. “Alright then. For your sake.”
Slicer made the first move, lunging towards Slasher with his blade, which Slasher promptly deflected. Both had set aside their thoughts, their emotions-- neither of them wanted to contemplate what they would do at the fight’s conclusion.
In the rafters above, a man with a red mask watched closely, concealed in the shadows.
The clinks and strikes of steel against steel reverberated throughout the room like wind chimes in a hurricane, as the two swordsmen clashed their blades, in a battle neither wished to fight. Both their mana levels were nearly depleted, and Slicer knew that this could not go on much longer. He had realized that only one of them would be getting out of this fight unscathed-- but he couldn’t bear the thought of harming his best friend. So as Slasher came in for the next strike, he loosened the grip on his sword. With a single strike, Slasher’s sword knocked Slicer’s aside, and it clattered to the ground, skidding far away from him.
Slasher lowered his blade. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you, Slicer?”
Slicer exhaled. “I don’t want to fight you, Slasher. I don’t want to get you hurt.”
Slasher closed his eyes, before throwing his sword to the side as well. “Well, neither do I. As much as I do wish to achieve my goal, it’s not worth hurting you over.” Slasher exhaled, looking Slicer in the eyes intently. “You were right, Slicer. There has to be a better way.” Slasher walked towards Slicer, holding his arms out for a hug-- to which Slicer accepted.
“Glad to have you back, friend,” Slicer said.
“Not everyone’s back yet, Slicer,” Slasher responded. “Piercer’s on the other side of that door. Let’s go get him.”
“Weak,” came a voice from above. “Seems I’ll have to finish the job for you, Slasher.”
Slasher caught sight of a single red blade soared through the sky like a dive-bombing falcon, hurtling towards Slicer. With his mana depleted and out of options, he did the only thing he could think to do-- shove him out of the way, placing himself in the path in the process.
With a sound like the crack of thunder, the blade skewered Slasher, splitting the stones beneath. The dark maroon of his lifeblood reddened the blade even further, until it glistened with the glossy sheen of sanguine fluid. The metallic scent of blood stung Slicer’s nose like a wasp as he ran to Slasher’s side.
With a smile like a great white shark’s, Dawson teleported away, the red blade soon dematerializing.
Slasher gasped, the initial nerve shock of the stab wearing off. The pain hit him with the force of a train-- so much so that he couldn’t even let out a scream, a cry, or even a whimper. Slicer was in a panic, in disbelief-- and it took him several seconds to realize that his friend would most likely not make it out of this alive.
Coughing up blood, Slasher turned his head to face Slicer. “It’s alright, Slicer… let it be…”
“Don’t say that, Slasher, I’ll find-- I’ll find a way to get you back, to make everything alright…”
Slasher weakly lifted a hand, which Slicer gently took into his. “You… were one of the few people to have treated me well, to have helped me.” Blood began flowing out of his mouth as he coughed up more and more of it, trickling down his chin. “It was about time I returned the favor…”
Slicer trembled as he held Slasher’s wrist, feeling his friend’s pulse slow down like a train reaching its stop. Slasher’s hand fell limp, devoid of any life, any remnant of the person Slicer had treasured most in his life. It was as if Slicer’s very skeleton had been torn out of his body, and even that was preferable to the toxic emotional agony he was suffering. Trembling and shaking, he broke down into sobs as he felt the emptiness consume him from the inside out.
Yet, as he remembered the dying voice of his very best friend, he came to remember just how his friend had died, making the ultimate sacrifice. Within himself, he found that emptiness quickly becoming the crucible for the burning fire of pure, untempered rage. With a scream equal parts agony, sorrow, and fury, Slicer called upon every drop of mana within him-- pushing himself beyond any limit he had ever attained. Vibrant blue armor phased into existence upon him, and licks of blue flame ran down his blade like snakes of pure hot fire. Raising his sword, he lunged at the far door, a cone of fiery blue energy forming in front of him, and vaporized the door into particles too small to even be considered dust.
Somewhere, on the other side, were the people who were responsible for Slasher’s death.
And he would make them pay.
The room Slicer burst into was a somewhat smaller than the previous one, and for the most part was barren-- with the exception of a single cage in the center, near a small mana flame. Inside the cage was Piercer, and standing near him was Drak-- both of whom turned to face him. With not a single shred of hesitation, Slicer dashed towards Piercer’s cage, slicing the top off of it in a single strike. Fueled by the flames of rage, he brandished his sword at Drak.
“The Darkin have brought too much suffering, too much pain to everybody they cast their grubby paws upon.” Slicer shouted, a scowl upon his face. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t strike you down, right here and now.”
Seeing the body of Slasher in the adjacent room, Drak bowed his head. “I am sorry for the loss of your friend. However, sacrifices must be made.”
“I’m all done hearing that bullshit,” Slicer spat back. “Slasher died because of the Darkin and their lies, and--”
Piercer stood up, grabbing Slicer’s shoulder. “Slicer, please. He’s my brother. I’ll handle this.”
Slicer, out of nothing more than respect and empathy for Piercer, obliged-- yet still kept his blade pointed at Drak.
“Drak, please. I’m sorry all that’s happened to you, but you need to stop this. You’ll only get yourself hurt, or worse.”
“Words can’t fix years of suffering, Piercer,” Drak replied. “My position remains as is.”
“Drak, please, are we not brothers still?”
“No, Piercer,” Drak said, without a single hint of emotion upon his expression, “we’re not.”
Summoning a pair of crossbows, Drak’s pupils faded into a blank white as he shifted into his Shadow form.
“Let’s see who really is the better shot.”
Zenthus snarled, digging his blade into the ground to slow himself down after Zhao knocked him back. The kid was putting up a surprisingly good fight-- Zenthus might even have wagered that he underestimated him.
“Give it up, Zenthus,” Zhao said. “Your torment and slaughter has gone on long enough.”
Saying nothing, Zenthus stepped back, calling forth his mana. Soon, his veins began to glow with a red hue, surging with power, power that soon manifested itself as sparks and crackles of mana arcing along his muscles. Raising his blade, he slammed his sword into the ground, breaking the sound barrier, the resulting shockwave headed straight towards Zhao-- yet still, Zhao anticipated it and was safely out of the way by the time it reached him. To Baller, You, and Crusher, it seemed almost like a hawk fighting an elephant-- no matter what Zenthus did, Zhao was always able to out-maneuver him, to anticipate his moves. Zhao continued bombarding Zenthus with strikes from his bo staff, and Zenthus could do nothing but stagger around like a wounded ape, unable to land a single hit on him. Stepping back, Zhao extended his bo staff and swept it under Zenthus, knocking him down.
“Now’s your chance, hit him!”
Baller, You, and Crusher each gathered their strength, charging their most powerful attacks. Baller’s dodgeball began to glow, radiating heat and light until it was like a nova within his palms. Leaping into the air, he slammed it down upon Zenthus. The ground shook like an earthquake as the dodgeball exploded, scattering red light all about the battlefield.
Without a second to spare, Crusher too launched his attack, charging up his hammer until it glowed a golden hue with heat, expanding until it dwarfed even Zenthus’s sword. With all his might, he brought it down upon Zenthus, smashing him like a nail even further into the ground. Yet again the ground shook, as if the world itself was being smacked about like a tennis ball.
You’s mana boots began glowing even brighter, and he kicked off against the ground, sending out kinetic shockwaves until he was just a speck, high up in the air, before shooting downwards once again, sending out a barrage of blasts behind him on his way down. Breaking the sound barrier as he reached the ground, he flipped around, extending a single foot downwards, aimed at Zenthus’s neck. With a mighty roar the ground beneath was compacted into clay as You’s foot connected.
Leaping out of the crater formed by their attacks, You was sure that Zenthus had been defeated-- yet his glee was soon smothered as he saw Zenthus pull himself to his feet once again.
Zenthus had definitely taken a beating-- the glow of his mana was very dull now, and as he spat the dirt of his mouth his face was the epitome of rage. Raising his sword once again, he prepped to take a swing at the students-- but as he did so, a man with a red and gold mask suddenly teleported in behind him, before grabbing Zenthus’s shoulder and teleporting the both of them away.
“Well… that was more than a little anticlimactic,” You jested, facetiously.
“We have no time to spare,” Zhao responded, pulling You along with him. “Piercer and Slicer are in there, let’s hurry.” Breaking down the gate in a single effortless swipe, Zhao led the party deeper into the fort, hoping that they were not too late.
Drak’s crossbows fired bolt after bolt in tandem, one aimed at Slicer and one aimed at Piercer. Such was the power of his Shadow form that he could target two foes at once. Piercer, still suffering from his broken arm, was far from performing well. In fact, he was suffering, his mana already nearly completely depleted, having taken too many hits as he was forced to fight handicapped. Even Slicer, with his crisis mode and all, was still finding it tough to fend off Drak’s bolt barrage.
“This is it, Piercer,” Drak said. “I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.”
Turning his full attention to Piercer, Drak fired bolt after bolt, all of which Piercer shot out of the air. Drak turned up the speed of his shooting, until both his crossbows were like fire hoses, spewing out countless numbers of bolts. Piercer, realizing that he was unable to shoot all of them down, turned to run-- until Slicer intervened with a blade drill, vaporizing the bolts as they came towards him. Using his blade drill as a shield for Piercer, Slicer managed to buy him the time he needed. Using what mana he had left, Piercer charged up his most powerful attack. His bow glowed a brilliant violet as he stepped back, and took aim through Drak’s storm of bolts, before letting loose his Pierce Arrow. Cutting through all in its path like a needle through fabric, Piercer’s arrow penetrated through Drak’s mana shield, which had become much weaker from his reckless expenditure of mana in his attack.
Piercer shuddered, his skin clammy with fear as he approached Drak’s form. The arrow jutted out of his chest, blood trickling slowly out of the wound. Drak was gasping, blood leaking out of his mouth, unable to speak.
“Punctured his lung,” Slicer remarked, his Crisis mode at last fizzling out. “Seems like he will slowly suffocate to death… unless...”
Piercer’s mind went numb, every muscle in his body tensing up as he realized just what Slicer meant.
Slicer turned to Piercer, a concerned look upon his face. “Piercer… if you wish, I could… take care of him, for you. You shouldn’t have to do this.”
“No, Slicer…” Piercer said grimly, as if he were offering his neck to the guillotine, “This is between him and I. I need to… finish it, myself.”
Piercer sighed, closing his eyes. “Just… if you would please step out of the room…”
Slicer simply nodded, and promptly exited the room, his empathy with Piercer’s situation all too strong.
Piercer gazed upon Drak’s dying form, entrenched in regret and sorrow.
“Just what have I done to drive him to this?”
“I’m so sorry for not realizing it sooner…”
“Perhaps, it is fitting then, for me to do it, to reap what I have sown.”
Piercer’s hand quivered as he summoned forth his sword, tears dripping down and landing upon Drak, mixing with his blood like a twisted, macabre watercolor.
As Slicer entered the other room, he saw Zhao, Baller, You, and Crusher running towards him.
“Slicer!” Zhao shouted, “Where’s Pier--”
“He’s busy,” Slicer said, looking Zhao in the eye. Slicer’s expression sent chills down Zhao’s spine-- Zhao knew all too well the meaning behind such an expression, and as much as the thought of such an occurrence plagued him with worry, his sense of respect overpowered it.
Zhao nodded, before signalling to the others to turn around. “Let’s wait for Piercer outside. Leave him alone for now.”
Raising his blade above Drak’s neck, tears had begun scattering from Piercer’s eyes like dewdrops.
“I’m so sorry, Drak. For all the pain I have caused you. For not realizing it sooner. I’m sorry.”
With an agonized cry, Piercer raised his sword up, preparing to swing with what little strength he had left.
“Nye, you must understand the implications of this,” Super said, his voice rife with concern, “This goes beyond just Slasher. All the Equinoxians will suffer because of this.”
Nye Minh remained as stoic as before. “If they decide to follow along, then that is their own folly.”
“They’re your people, Nye,” Super said, incredulously. “You can’t just sit back and claim that it has nothing to do with you. This has everything to do with you. Have you no pity? No empathy?”
“Were I in their situation I would realize that there are no altruistic individuals in this world. It would have been quite obvious that it was a ploy.”
“To you, perhaps, but the difference between you and them is that they have hope and you do not.”
“Hope sets you up to fall,” Nye replied. “You should know my philosophy by now, Super.”
“Nye, I’m sure you realize just what the implications could mean. Do you really--”
“Have you forgotten the terms of our agreement, Super? I became your vice principal so I could get away from having to deal with all this. Should your academy fall privy to such politics I will seek out someplace else.”
“You would abandon the academy? You would abandon me, and all the staff you’ve come to know these past decades? You would abandon the children?”
“All the more reason for you to ensure it doesn’t happen.”
“You know, you could help that along by not standing idly by like you always do.”
“The agreement, Super.”
“You really are hopeless.”
“I suppose I am.”
The funeral pyre had burned down to a simmer now, and Slicer and Piercer sat next to each other next to it, deep in thought.
“You did what you had to do, Piercer,” Slicer said.
“Don’t blame yourself for it.”
What Piercer said was true-- he didn’t blame himself for killing Drak. What he blamed himself for was letting him fall to the darkness, to envy and hate.
Slicer sighed, gazing up at the stars. “Slasher and I used to go stargazing, you know. He always wondered what it would be like to visit them…” Slicer paused, savoring the bittersweet memory of his departed friend.
“Now, I suppose he will find out.”
Piercer turned to face Slicer, a solemn look upon his face. “Drak wasn’t like that… he always was looking up to me, to my parents, to the Quazers… always hopeful and striving to be like us.”
There was a brief moment of silence, as the two of them reminisced, wracked with bittersweet regret of memory and loss.
“You know,” Slicer said, turning to face Piercer, “I think Drak would have admired you for what you did. For your bravery…”
“Yeah… I suppose he would’ve.”
Standing before Dawson and Zenthus was a man, about Dawson’s height. Like them, he had pitch-black skin, but that was where the similarities ended. In contrast to Dawson’s formal attire and Zenthus’s almost savage-like rags, the man was wearing a casual white jacket with red accents, and a red t-shirt underneath, accompanied by a pair of dark grey pants with matchingg red accents. His hair was as red as the accents on his clothing, and his face seemed to always have the makings of a devious, smug smile.
“I never thought I’d see the day when the great-and-powerful Zenthus would be struck down. Defeated! Annihilated! By a squabble of adolescents, no less!” The man cackled, shaking with laughter. “What’s next? Xavier donates to charity? Dawson decides to walk instead of teleport? Bossman swaps to coffee instead of tea?”
“What’s next,” Zenthus began, his eyes like two burning suns, “is me punching in that shitfaced grin of yours, ripping your tongue out, and shoving it down your fucking windpipe, Jasper. And for the record, if it weren’t for Dawson I would have ground them into dust.”
“You were in a 14-foot crater when I arrived, Zenthus,” Dawson said haphazardly, his feet up on a table. “Don’t kid yourself; you had underestimated Zhao, hadn’t you.”
Zenthus turned his glaring eyes towards Dawson. “Unlike you, I actually had tried to complete our objective. All you did was piss around and kill one of your own recruits.”
“On the contrary, Zenthus, Dawson has been performing admirably. Thanks to him, we now have a good portion of the resources we need to begin.” The owner of the voice stepped forth, setting down his tea cup.
“But what about Zhao?” Zenthus questioned, suppressing his anger. Even he dared not show hostility towards the man who had just spoke.
“We already have a way of dealing with him,” the man replied, “thanks to a new friend of ours…”
The door to the room opened with a click, and all eyes in the room turned to gaze upon the person who had just entered. He was young, and seemed to be wearing an orange shirt with grey slacks. Most noticeably of all was his right hand, made entirely out of cybernetics.
In his hand he was tossing a single, glossy black bomb.
END OF ARC 1
Arc 2: Storm Warning
The chill of the late-autumn wind gusted through the treetops like the breath of a giant, carrying with it what few dusty, worn leaves remained on the trees. Drifting with the wind too, was the sound of two young Quazers honing their skills. In a clearing far enough from the academy to where they won’t be disturbed, but still close enough to glimpse the shining rooftops of the buildings over the treeline, was Baller and You. It had been approximately three months since they first knew each other, and by now You had gotten used to Baller’s presence, the two of them confiding in each other to get through their first year at BFS Academy-- and this sentiment too, was shared by Baller.
“Hey, Baller!” You shouted, kicking aside one of Baller’s incoming dodgeballs, “I’m gonna try something. Throw another one at me!”
“You got it, You!” Baller shouted, smiling contentedly before summoning forth yet another dodgeball, and throwing it straight at You.
His right boot glowing an incandescent yellow, You stomped with all his might against the ground. The resulting shockwave knocked up the grass and dirt and stone beneath him, traveling forward as if there was a giant mole burrowing through the earth, chunks of earth flying upwards to intercept the incoming projectile. Spitting the grass and dirt out of his mouth, You practically jumped for joy, admiring the fractured, shattered ground like it was a freshly-made mosaic.
“Haha, wow! I didn’t think that would actually work!” You said, chuckling to himself before grinning.
“Nice job, You!” Baller added, running over to You’s side. “You’ve really improved a bunch since we first started training.”
“Same to you! Thanks for helping me improve my skills these past few months. Wouldn’t be here without you.”
With the wind whistling in his ears, You was suddenly overcome with a wave of nostalgia, recalling the time he has spent so far at the academy. Though it certainly hasn’t all been great-- Drak and Slasher can attest to that; the months after certainly made up for it. Whereas before he wasn’t quite sure of his role in life, or if anyone would really care if he existed, now he feels that he has found a group of friends who truly accept him as one of their own. Crusher, Slicer, Piercer, and especially Baller, have become names he now holds dear. Fawning over such fond memories, You’s smile couldn’t help but grow.
“Well,” Baller began, putting away his dodgeball, “we should head back, so we can be in time for dinner.”
“Alright then, let’s go!”
You and Baller trotted briskly down the forest trail back to the academy. It was a blustery day, the rust-colored leaves trembling on their branches like children left out in the cold. The sun shined down, but it shined with all the warmth and comfort of a surgical spotlight, offering no welcoming heat to the creatures it glared upon. Leaves and gravel crunching like eggshells underfoot, the duo soon arrived at the village near the academy. Most of the shops lining the street were beginning to close up, and there was many a mule or horse ambling along the cobblestone road, carrying goods from the shops, and walking the same routine paths like every other day at precisely this hour.
Their shoes sounding like castanets against the village road, Baller and You ambled along like everyone else, making their way towards the academy-- yet in stark contrast to the quiet ambience of the rest of the village, there was a commotion. Turning to look towards the ruckus, Baller and You caught sight of an Equinoxian man standing atop a few crates, shouting to a crowd of listeners.
“He was just like us!” the man shouted, raising his fist in rage. “He would have lived a long life, perhaps had a family, perhaps achieved something great-- but we will never know! Not now, nor ever in the future-- for he was cut down! Cut down, I say! Cut down far too early-- too early for anyone to be snuffed from this world!”
The man paused, lifting both hands up, and the crowd cheered and shouted in response. “We demand justice! Justice against Nine and his accursed academy, where students like Slasher are subjected to neglect and prosecution! We cannot allow another innocent soul to be razed in such a cruel fashion! The administration must take action, for if they cannot-- we will do so for them!”
Raising a fist in defiance, the man looked out towards the crowd, a look of anger and bravado upon his face. “Now who is with me?”
The crowd cheered even louder this time, many of them raising their fists alongside his.
“Justice to the academy!”
“Justice for Slasher!”
“Justice or death!”
Baller and You hurried along, sighing.
“I can’t believe they still believe it,” You remarked in disgust. “It’s been two whole months-- why can’t they just let it rest?”
Baller shrugged, a look of mild annoyance upon his expression. “When an idea catches, it’s like a plague-- you can never stop it from spreading, never stamp it out. You just gotta wait until it dies on its own.”
“Can’t it die faster, at least?”
“One can hope.”
The man in the robes walked up the path towards the school, feelings of nostalgia rushing through him like adrenaline. Last he had seen the towering jade spires and walls of the school, he had been but a child. Now, however, he returns under much more dire circumstances.
He had been tracking the man with the metal knuckles for months, tailing him all the way from the Emerald Mountains. If his suspicions were true, then the worst was yet to come. The incident with the Equinoxian boy was but a preamble, a warning for the storm ahead. He knew his directive, however. If his suspicions were true, there would be nothing he could do to warn anyone else-- at least not directly.
The man let out a sigh, entrenched in thought. He wasn't one to break an oath, but nor was he one to stand idly by and risk the injury or death of his friends. Stepping into the lobby of the school, he realized: it appeared, once again, that hunting his target down was his task and his alone. Solitude was something he was used to; the years he spent in Lucus and Meridiem proved it so. Yet, as he approached a familiar figure at the other end of the lobby, he realized that he was not, in fact, alone.
"Hello, Super," the man began, removing his blindfold and bandana. "Been a while, hasn't it?"
Super turned, a light smile appearing upon his face. "Yes it has, Zack. Or, should I say, 'Sorrow'."
Like a batter at the plate, Crusher deflected the incoming rockets with the swings of his hammer, before charging towards his opponent, bringing down his hammer upon the ground with a mighty crack like a clap of thunder. Rocketer was knocked backwards through the air, before colliding against the ground and tumbling backwards erratically. However, his teammate was quick to cover for him, dashing forth and slicing out a glowing wave of energy directly at Crusher-- which was intercepted by a sudden pillar of concrete jutting out of the ground.
“Thanks for the assist, Troweler!”
Spiriter readied his sword once more, preparing to batter the duo with another volley of energy slashes, but soon found himself on the retreat as Piercer and Slicer dashed forward with their blade drills. Having only evaded the deadly tempest of slashes, Spiriter was left with no time for respite as he tried and failed to parry Piercer and Slicer’s dual blade assault.
With two of his teammates eliminated, Bomber was eager to even the playing field, and started lobbing bombs towards Slicer and Piercer with increasing ferocity. Kai jumped in as well, adding his own streams of mana blasts into the volley.
“Get behind me, guys!”
Troweler channeled his mana as quickly as possible, erecting a solid wall of concrete between his team and his opponents. It wouldn’t hold for long, but it would be enough. By the time the barrier was rendered into flying crumbs of rock and rubble, what awaited on the other side was no longer Troweler himself, but the glaring orange eyes of his concrete mech. It was far taller than before, and sported the glint of iron plating peeking through some parts of the rock-- iron plating that proved itself to be much more effective at withstanding Bomber and Kai’s explosions than rock alone. Pulling a nearby tree out from its roots, Troweler held the trunk up like a bat and swatted his opponents down in a single, decisive blow.
“Match is over,” Professor Pyre shouted, hitting her battleaxe hilt against the ground. “Congratulations to Crusher, Troweler, Slicer, and Piercer for winning.”
“You guys are quite strong,” Kai said, extending a hand towards Crusher, who promptly accepted the handshake. “Thanks for the fight.”
“Hey, you guys didn’t do too bad either.”
“You and Slicer have come quite far since we first started training,” Crusher said, as the four of them walked back to their dorms. They had just finished their earlier training match, and the sun was beginning to set. It was almost winter, and Crusher was still having trouble adjusting to such an early sunset.
“Yeah, we’ve been practicing together for a while now,” Slicer responded. “I never knew you were so good with a sword, Piercer.”
“I try my best,” Piercer replied, shrugging lightheartedly. “If you really want to see improvement, just take a look at Troweler. He could probably take all three of us on and win.”
Troweler let out chuckle, his effervescent smile bursting forth. “You guys are too kind.”
“I do wish you had someone else you could train with more frequently though, Troweler,” Crusher said. “Caster and Shalia’s mana styles, while interesting, can’t do much in the way of being training partners. I’ve tried to contact Shielder, but you know how he is with his isolationism.”
“No worries, Crusher!” Troweler exclaimed. “Training with you is plenty enough.”
Bomber sat, resting his elbows against his knees as he gazed around the dorm with a vehement glare. The mood in the room was tense and violent, and though none of the others’ expressions matched Bomber’s in intensity, their intentions were one and the same.
“Useless!” Bomber shouted, punching the wooden post of his bunk bed with his robotic hand. The wood cracked, splinters crumbling off as the bed groaned like a wounded animal. “What good are your slash waves and rockets if you can’t hit for shit? Did you all spend these past few months sitting around with your thumbs in your assholes instead of training?”
Bomber stood up, his fist sparking from the sheer amount of force he was exerting into clenching his fist. “And you. Not only did you completely and utterly fail, you also went along and congratulated, celebrated their victory! Are you some sort of masochist? First you come along, flaunting about how you’re training with Zhao, like some sort of special snowflake, and this is all you have to show for it? I can’t even fucking believe your audacity.”
Kai felt the urge to remove Bomber’s other hand grow ever stronger-- but he reined it in, suppressed it, and kept his mouth shut. It would do no good to let his anger run loose.
“I’ll be seeing myself out.”
Bomber, despite his facade, was in truth not really all too infuriated. It was a simple training match, after all-- it held no weight. But as the man said, he had to do what it takes to whip his team in line. To make them subservient, and suppress them under his own will. He didn’t much care for exploiting others in such a manner, but his conviction was too strong. He would do what it takes to attain his goal.
“So, Zack,” the man said, leaning back in his chair. He wore a strange black trenchcoat with violet patterning and inscriptions, alongside two massive steel pauldrons affixed to a navy blue cape. His right arm was gauntleted and plated with dark purple steel, and his hair was a vibrant shade of indigo that jutted outwards quite noticeably. Most strikingly of all, he donned an eyepatch over his left eye. The glint of a pair of jagged daggers could be seen peeking out from under his trenchcoat. “What could be so important for you, my dear friend, to call me-- to call us, all back together? Though I must say I do enjoy this reunion, it seems rather strange to have it now, after nine whole years.”
“I’ll explain it all elsewhere, Jacob.” Zack replied. “What do you all think about going down to the Silvered Hawk Pub?”
“I don’t drink,” came a timid voice. She was dressed much more minimalistic than Jacob, wearing a black shirt and shorts with a red jacket on top, and a red and white scarf, with a matching pair of earmuffs resting around her neck. Her skin was pale, and her hair as red as roses.
“Tess, please. It’s a reunion, surely you can let it slide this once.”
“Well… alright, then. Just this once.”
“So then,” said the final guest at the table. She was wearing an intricately designed red and pink trenchcoat, with a vibrant red visor covering her eyes. Her hair was jet-black with pink tips, and adorned upon her head was a black tricorn with pink accents and feathers. “What are we waiting for? Let’s get this reunion going!”
By now the last ribbons of daylight were beginning to fade, replaced instead by the chatter and glow of the town’s nightlife. The pub was no exception; and though not quite as crowded as it would be on an average day, it was still modestly full, like a glass of wine. The four alumni had set themselves down at a small table near the back of the pub, where the whine of the jukebox was but only a faint chattering against their eardrums. Zack put down his hood, taking a swig of his drink before setting his glass down with a clink. The beverage inside swished like miniature whirlpool, glowing slightly mint-green. It was a manajito-- a drink originating from the Portentum Islands where the manaleaf plant grows in abundance, and is known to have mana-restorative effects. Such an exotic drink was a reflection of the many places he had been, and during his brief escapade to the islands he had found himself a penchant for that particular beverage. Valerie too was sipping a manajito. For her, the drink was less exotic and more a nostalgic memory of days passed.
“So,” Zack began, “before I tell you all why I called you here, why don’t we all catch up with each other? What have you all been doing these past few years?”
“Oh, you know… just hanging around with a friend down south,” Tess answered, sipping her wine.
“Teaching… mostly,” Valerie said.
“You already know most of what I’ve been doing, Zack,” Jacob responded, “I’ve been working for the Splintered Skies, of course.”
“And as you know, Jacob, I’ve been with the Seventh Sanctum-- though the story is far more complex than that. However, that’s a tale for another time. As for what I came to tell you,--good grief, I’m breaking so many protocols by telling you guys this,-- I’ll begin now.” Zack finished off his drink, his previously content expression shifting to one of grim solemnity.
“I gathered you all today to warn you. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a grunt within the Sanctum by any means, I’m also not high enough rank to have all the details. However, from what I’ve heard that has filtered down from the upper echelons of Sanctum leadership, in combination with many recent events, I have reason to believe that something serious and on an extreme scale is about to occur.”
“A bold claim, Zack,” Valerie said, her worried expression matching his. “Explain.”
“Remember the attack during the Summer Solstice festival earlier this year? Some kook with a mana bomb got through security and nearly blew up part of the Assembly building? 37 people dead?” “Yeah… everyone was on high alert after that,” Tess added.
“Yep,” Zack continued. “What they didn’t tell you is that the Sanctum actually knew it would happen beforehand. Why they didn’t intervene I don’t know, but the Sanctum being the Sanctum I’d have to guess it was something to do with ‘staying neutral’ or ‘maintaining the balance’.”
Zack sighed, before gathering himself again. “What I do know however is that after the attack, the whole attitude of the Sanctum leadership changed. They tightened security a bunch, and no one but government employees and Arbiters like myself were even allowed past the Fourth Sanctum. Even still, I was kept in the dark about what they were all doing.”
“Then, the Arbiters were dispatched on strange and clandestine missions. Hunting down thieves who were seeking something in the Astral Isles. Scouring the Portentum Islands for strange individuals. Some were even sent to Meridiem. Perhaps strangest of all, the Bhava tasked some with scouring the populace for anyone with green eyes and taking them in for screening.”
“So,” Tess said, “what does this have to do with us?”
“You should all prepare yourselves. The Sanctum’s been importing more and more things recently, as if they’re stockpiling. They’re enlisting more and more graduates from Verdigris Academy into the military as well. You all know the Sanctum’s policy of not interfering. If they’re preparing for armed conflict, then they’ve exhausted all other options of preventing it from occurring.”
“I can confirm what Zack said,” Jacob added. “The Splintered Skies seem to be doing something similar as well.”
“I’ve also been tasked by the Sanctum to hunt down a man with a black duster and hood, multiple buckles, a red collared shirt, and a white mask with a gold visor. My search has led me here, to Draco, and I figured I’d visit my alma mater on the way. If any of you see him, tell me; his presence here doesn’t mean anything good.”
“Well, that’s a lot to take in,” Valerie said, half-heartedly. “What should we do now?”
“I’m going to contact Super and inform him of this. Perhaps would have a word or two to say on the matter.”
The four of them stood up from the table, and prepared to exit. Their reunion, initially jubilant with nostalgia and joy, was now marred with the sour taste of foreboding, ominous prophecies.
The red-haired man strolled up to the security area whistling a tune to himself. It wasn’t a very busy day at Cenm, so he took his time approaching the security officer with his passport.
“Welcome to the Port of Cenm, please present a valid ID.”
The man handed him his passport, and the officer looked over it briefly.
“Thank you, Jasper… do you not have a last n--”
“No, I do not, and that is fine,” Jasper replied, looking the officer in the eye. His gaze was an almost incomprehensible force that pierced the officer’s soul to the core. When the gaze was broken, he was not the same.
“Y-yes… right, that’s fine… and where might you be going for your trip today?”
“Linmont, in the Redcliff Kingdom.”
“Linmont… and are you carrying with you any weapons or living products?”
“No I am not.”
“No… you are not… and has your mana ability, if any, been pre-approved and moderated by a licensed official?”
“Yes it has… very well… have a safe trip!”
“I will, thank you.”
Grabbing his luggage, Jasper proceeded briskly towards the terminal. The security officer, dazed, snapped to attention as if he had just recovered from a deep sleep. Jasper, however, was long gone.
“Some people are just too easy,” Jasper said to himself, before checking inside his bag to see that his cargo was still with him. “On the other hand…”
“You do know what this means, do you not?” Zack exclaimed, apprehensively.
“Yes, Zack, I do,” Mr. Nine replied, sipping his coffee, “the administration at this academy has been well aware of certain… threats to the well-being of its students. This is no different.”
“No different?” Zack said, standing up, resisting the urge to break something in frustration, “this isn’t even remotely close to anything you’ve seen before. The Darkin? This is far beyond the Darkin. This could mean war.”
“Have a little faith, Zack,” Mr. Nine said, setting down his mug with an unwavering expression. “I understand you’re well-learned and well-traveled. And of course, becoming an Arbiter is no small feat indeed. However, you must realize humbly that as far as Quazers come, what you have in power you lack in experience.”
Mr. Nine sighed, before looking Zack in the eyes intently. “In my many years as headmaster of this academy, and even before then, perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to have hope and faith. I have faith that Matthias will do what it takes to safeguard his kingdom. I have faith that the administration will do what is necessary to protect my students. Now, I need you to have faith in me.”
Zack opened his mouth to retort, but no sound would follow. As much as he disliked it, he couldn’t help but acknowledge the truth of Mr. Nine’s statement. Begrudgingly, he sat back against his chair, folding his hands on the table. “So in that case, what do you expect me to do?”
“Well, we most certainly can’t have a panic in the school,” Mr. Nine began. “For now, just act casual. In fact, it’s about time for the freshmen to go on their field operations. I’m sure you’ll find that interesting-- I’ve already got just the student picked out for you.”
Sighing, Zack stood up to leave. “Very well, I’ll see to it.”
“And Zack,” Mr. Nine added, as Zack approached the elevator, “I know I can’t stop you from doing what you wish. But please, at least keep that for when the kids aren’t around. They deserve to enjoy what little of childhood they have remaining.”
It was a calm, quiet afternoon, and none of in the students in the dorm had much to do. Classes were already beginning to dwindle down in intensity in preparation for the upcoming winter break, and You especially couldn’t bear the wait. As much as he enjoyed his classes, even the most studious of pupils eventually find the workload to be far too taxing.
“So, did you guys hear?” Baller began, excitedly. “Tomorrow is the start of one of two final projects we need to complete before winter break is upon us!”
“Oh, is it?” Troweler replied, his eyebrows perking up in interest (as per his usual tradition, he had ventured to Crusher and the others’ dorm to enjoy the company of his best friend).
“Yeah, and it seems pretty fun too,” Baller continued. “A bunch of old BFS Academy alumni are returning tomorrow, and each student in the school will be shadowing one!”
“Huh, neat,” Crusher commented. “Any idea who we’re supposed to be shadowing?”
“I’ve got a list here,” Baller said, procuring a slip of paper from his pocket and handing it to Crusher, who began reading it over.
“Hmm… Tess Snestrom, Zack Lapierre, Jacob Zeheiro, and Valerie Fyrnen?”
“Hey, I recognize those names!” Piercer said, moving over to Crusher to see the list for himself. “They were the best team in the Academy around nine years ago, graduating at the top of their class. They even had nicknames: Blizzard, Sorrow, Pulsar, and Regent.”
“Why don’t we have any nicknames like that?” You jested.
“Well, what would our nicknames be, if we had any?”
“Umm…” You put his hand to his chin, thinking over the ideas in his head. “Well, how about our weapons?”
“Yes, of course,” Crusher said, scoffing and rolling his eyes. “I will be ‘Hammer’, Piercer will be ‘Bow’, Slicer will be ‘Sword’, You will be ‘Boots’, and Baller will be--”
“Actually,” You interrupted, “that’s not too bad an idea!”
“I was being facetious.”
“But I think they’re alright…”
“Can we use th--”
It was a turbulent, moonless night. Water poured from the sky like the tears of angels, and the howling wind landed on one’s ear like the screams of the damned. The city streets were bare, with nothing but the low percussive drone of rain to be heard-- the only sign of life one could make out was a man in a yellow suit and white leopard fedora. The night was quiet and rainy-- just how he liked it.
Approaching his destination, Xavier took his time to admire the work of art the building truly was. It wasn’t Draco’s largest and most famous museum for no reason. Unlike Zenthus, whose idea of art consisted mostly of entrails scattered as far as the eye could see, Xavier thought himself to be a man of class. It was almost a shame he wasn’t visiting the museum for his own leisure.
Activating his visor, he did a quick diagnostic on the building’s exterior. Upon seeing the results, he turned up a small grin, chuckling to himself quietly.
“Orinthian Telekill walls, as suspected. Dawson couldn’t get through them if he tried.”
“Luckily for me, I have just the key.”
“So… Tess, is it?” Baller asked extending a hand for a handshake. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Tess said quietly, returning the handshake. The first of the two final assignments before the break had arrived, and so far, Baller was pleased with his assigned Quazer-- and Piercer’s comment the night before had him eager to find out more.
“Your nickname is Blizzard, right?”
“How did you get it?”
Not to be denied so easily, Baller simply moved on to a different question.
“So, I heard you were part of a pretty famous team that graduated from BFS Academy,”
“...Famous, huh,” Tess responded, seemingly dejectedly.
Baller raised an eyebrow, “nothing wrong with being famous.”
“I suppose...” Tess replied. “I just don’t like the attention.”
Baller opened his mouth slightly as if to speak, but quickly closed it soon after. Despite the multitude of questions still wriggling in his mind, he finally figured asking them would do more harm than good.
“So, what is our mission anyway?” Baller asked, out of both curiosity and the desire to strike up even a small amount of conversation.
“We’re headed to a town called Shadelight to help them out with a pest issue they’re having.”
“Pest issue?” Baller asked. “So like, cockroaches and rats and stuff right?”
Tess grinned ever so slightly. “A little bigger than that."
The pair continued walking in silence for a short while more-- until even Baller’s previous patience could no longer contain his curiosity.
“Well, since it seems we’ll be walking along for a while, how about we share some stories?”
Tess glanced at Baller, before closing her eyes, sighing. Sharing stories was the last thing on her mind at the moment-- but as Super said, she ought to act casual.
“Sure, why not.”
“My hometown is Midgard, in the Kingdom of Korbloxia,” Tess began. “Some people refer to it as the City of Ghosts-- because it’s where the lost souls coalesce, where even the sentiments from as far back as the Great War refuse to die. I guess you could call my childhood a testament to that moniker.
My father was an Equinoxian, and my mother was a human, so growing up I never really fit into either of the two groups. Needless to say, I was rather reclusive and quiet… though I’d like to think I’ve improved since then.”
Tess paused for a moment, her solemn expression at last shifting to one of content nostalgia. “It wasn’t all bad, though. Eventually even I found someone who I could share my time with. She was an orphan, alone and forgotten-- not entirely too different from myself at the time. Perhaps that was why we got along so well. Through our friendship, we brought each other out of the doldrums of loneliness, and found happiness despite our once hopeless situations.”
Baller, seeing Tess’s gleeful smile, couldn’t help but smile as well. “What was her name?”
“She never knew her name, so I made up a nickname for her-- Gummy.” Tess giggled softly. “In hindsight, it’s a little silly, but if it’s stuck for such a long time then I suppose it works.”
“Well, where is she now?”
“Around two years before I enrolled at BFS Academy, she was taken by the Orinthians,” Tess responded, her smile fading. “They made a huge deal about it too; they brought an entire fleet of ships as well as a convoy. I vowed to find her, so I joined BFS Academy to hone my mana skills so that I could fight to rescue her if I had to. Fortunately enough, the Orinthians didn’t mean any harm, so I could still meet with her at my leisure.”
“Well if that’s the case, then why did the Orinthians take her?”
Tess simply smiled. “That’s a story for another time. We’re almost at the village.”
The village was nestled in a forest clearing in a small valley-- but despite its remote location it wasn’t too much smaller than the village near BFS Academy. As the duo approached, Baller chuckled to himself.
“What’s so funny?” Tess asked.
“The village’s name is a bit too aptly named, don’t you think? It’s a village of Equinoxians and it’s called Shadelight.”
Tess sighed, shaking her head. “Our mission objective is in that cave at the end of the path.”
As the pair approached the cave, Baller could make out the outlines of a stairwell descending deeper underground. Taking a torch off the wall, he asked, “what was this cave dug out for anyway?”
“I think it was an old mine,” Tess responded. “They had to shut it down because the mine was at risk of creating a huge sinkhole under the village. The only reason it even got to such an absurd situation was because of the presence of precious minerals in the rock beneath the village.”
“Yeesh, sounds like an accident waiting to happen.”
“Which is why it’s so important for us to get down there and eliminate our target.”
As the duo reached the bottom of the stairwell, Baller could see exactly what Tess meant. The ground beneath the village was hollowed out into an enormous cavern, with the cavern’s ceiling furthermore being supported only by no more than ten pillars of stone. Gems of all sorts of colors and shapes peeked out of the rock, and some looked as if they were abandoned in the process of being excavated.
“That’s a lot worse than I imagin--”
Baller’s comment was abruptly cut off by a guttural roar and the sounds of crumbling stone as some colossal being smashed through a nearby pillar. Barely dodging the beast’s charge, Baller turned to look at exactly what had nearly gored him-- and he nearly dropped his torch in fright.
The monster was easily twice Baller’s height. Its two legs were the legs of a bull, as thick as tree trunks. Its torso and arms were human in shape, but seemed to be made of gold. Its head was a bull’s head, with a pair of horns like two lances jutting out of its forehead, and its eyes seemed to burn with white flame.
“Uh, that’s more than just a ‘little’ bigger,” Baller said, backing away from the beast as fast as he could.
“It’s a minotaur,” Tess said, calmly. “Most of them have been killed by hunters, and I suspect this one was driven into this cave by them as well. No wonder why it’s so agitated.”
“That’s a cool name and all, but how are we supposed to kill it?” Baller shouted, as he hid behind a nearby pillar.
“Just step out into the open!” Tess shouted back. “Bait it towards you!”
“Just trust me!”
Swallowing his pride and trying the best to do the same with his fear, Baller stepped out from the safety of his pillar-- just as the minotaur turned in his direction. With an enraged bellow, the monster barrelled towards Baller like a freight train. As he stared his impending doom in the face, he noticed a single snowflake land upon his nose.
With a great rush of wind, it was as if Baller had been teleported to the frigid wastes of Korbloxia. The floor of the cave crackled as a sheet of ice formed upon the ground, and a thick miasma of snow phased into existence all around. The minotaur’s battle cry turned into one of confusion as it lost its footing, falling flat against the ice-- and its cry was at last silenced by a lance-sized icicle piercing its neck like a dart against a dartboard. Turning to face the direction from which the icicle was launched, Baller saw none other than Tess, with a vortex of snow surrounding her, seemingly hovering above the ground.
“So that’s how you got your nickname, isn’t it?”
It was the dead of noon, and the sun shined down through the canopy of the forest like water through a strainer. Yet, despite the seemingly peaceful nature of the day, it was far from serene as the marching of footsteps cut through the stillness of the trees. The perpetrators of said disturbance could soon be seen emerging from the dense foliage-- a convoy of orcs about 20 strong. The ground shook like a war drum as their green mammoth-sized feet struck the earth. Each of the brutes was at least 7 feet tall, with rough skin the color of olives. They carried with them melee weapons of a large variety, all caked in blood, which dripped behind them like paint off a paintbrush.
The convoy was now heading through a clearing near a pass between two cliffs. The forward scout of the convoy began vigilantly scanning forward for signs of trouble. Unbeknownst to them, it was the cliffs themselves that hid the true danger.
“Seems to be about twenty of them,” Jacob said, taking his eye away from the scope of his bullpup sniper to look at Piercer. “Looks like they came fresh from some butchering too.”
Piercer’s brow furrowed. They were tasked with thinning out the orc herd to help deter them from attacking more villages. Piercer himself never really was a fan of needless slaughter, but judging from what Jacob said, he might actually enjoy killing them this time.
“So what’s our plan of attack?”
“Well, it seems like the tallest one with the armor is their leader, so I’ll take him out first. When they notice us, we’ll rush in and meet them head-on.”
Piercer tilted his head, looking down at the canopy and back at Jacob. It was quite a long shot in and of itself, and all the foliage getting in the way certainly didn’t help.
“What if you miss?”
Jacob laid down on his stomach once again, looking through the scope of his sniper rifle. His right arm, which Piercer initially assumed was simply well-armored, opened up its plating, as an apparatus similar to a weapon magazine extended from inside Jacob’s arm, connecting itself to the rifle.
"Strange… it appears his sniper rifle isn’t actually a mana weapon." Piercer thought.
“I’d recommend you get a bit closer and ready your bow. They’ll probably be onto us soon after I neutralize their leader.”
Piercer simply nodded, before jumping off the ridge, sliding along the cliff face and tumbling into the forest below. Like a snake through the underbrush, he slowly approached the convoy. Summoning forth an arrow, he took aim at the sky above. It wasn’t long at all until he heard Jacob’s gun go off like a crack of thunder, followed soon after by the squelch of orc innards against the ground. He let go of the bowstring, letting his arrow fly forth like a mortar round into the sky. With a glow of mana, the arrow split into a whole cascade of arrows raining down upon the convoy, stabbing into the orcs like lethal hail. By now, they had noticed Piercer, and began charging at him, bellowing throaty war cries-- but their advance was cut short by a wall of buckshot. Piercer turned to look, and there was Jacob by his side, holding a bullpup shotgun in his right hand, and a pair of daggers in his left. The two of them exchanged glances, before Piercer summoned forth his sword and the two of them charged headlong into the fray.
Shell casings from Jacob’s shotgun clattered to the ground like litter as Jacob’s shotgun minced any orcs standing in his way. The orcs were not to be trifled with however, as each of them was bulky enough to take two or three shotgun blasts and still stand. It was not long before Jacob had burned through all his shotgun rounds-- and though the vast majority of the orcs had been minced into ground meat, there were still a few left standing. Holstering his shotgun on his back, Jacob tossed one of his daggers into the air, catching it in his right hand. Nodding at Piercer, the two of them were a cyclone of glinting blades as they cut up the orcs, moving too fast for the orcs’ slow and lumbering attacks to hit.
It wasn’t long until the convoy had been dispatched, and as the final orc’s head rolled to rest, Jacob flicked the orc blood off his daggers, before once again sheathing them on his back.
“So, now that that’s over with,” Piercer said, walking alongside Jacob as they prepared to return to the academy, “what’s with your prosthetic arm? Also, mind explaining why you aren’t using mana weapons?”
“Not one for small talk, are you?” Jacob said, raising an eyebrow at Piercer. “Don’t worry, I’m not either.”
Jacob sighed. “The reason why I don’t use a mana weapon is because I can’t. Nor can I use mana shielding. My mana’s been permanently stunted.”
Jacob paused for a moment, his expression gaining an aura of malevolence about it, as if he was attempting to keep a death glare at bay.
“The people responsible not only for that, but for my arm, my eye, and irreparable damage to not only my life, but the lives of countless others-- are known as the Dragon’s Blood gang.”
"I don’t remember much about life before I was abducted. A stray memory here and there, but nothing much else. What I do remember, however, was that I was abandoned by my parents at around age three. Left to wander the streets of Strada, I was remembered by no one, cared for by no one. Naturally, I was an easy target for the Dragon’s Blood. After all, who’s going to notice if some random street child like myself went missing?"
It took Jacob at least ten whole seconds to realize he was awake. There was no light, no sound, no comforting heat of the radiator to placate him in the alleyway he called home. There was only the slow rhythmic swaying of the ship he was on-- or, at least he assumed it was a ship. For all he knew, he might be in the arms of a giant, trying to hush him back to sleep. He wished that was true-- at least he could take comfort in the fact that something was looking out for him.
The smell of mildewy wood was overwhelming.
Or, perhaps, it wasn’t really all that strong. Jacob, however, had nothing to distract his mind, so the mildew filled every orifice in his body like water into a drowning man’s lungs. He tried sitting up, or at least in the direction he assumed was upwards. Better to be sitting than to be laying down against the raw wood, where the splinters dug under his skin like bamboo beneath fingernails. Yet as he pulled himself up he felt the duct tape noose pull back against his mouth, killing what little hope he had to call for help.
Feeling around, he could make out that he was inside some sort of box-- perhaps tall enough to sit in if he tilted his head to the side, but definitely not tall enough to stand in. Moving his hands about some more, his fingers found purchase in a small hole in the side of the box, just big enough to peer an eye out of. Yet peering out of it yielded no more information than what he already had-- just darkness. Darkness, and mildew.
Jacob remembered a story he heard from one of the other kids he met near his alley; a fairytale about a girl trapped in a tall tower. He wondered if the girl was thinking the same things he was when he stared out of the hole in his box. He wondered if the girl’s tower was at least bigger than the cramped cube he was crammed into. The kid who told the story, Robbie, would probably call him a “dolt”, whatever that meant, for wondering that. Jacob never really cared much for Robbie, but right now even his presence would be better than nothing.
Left with nothing else, he let the mildew accompany him to sleep.
"They took us off the ship and loaded us into a truck of some sort. By then, we had gone at least two days without food or water, so when they unpacked us and herded us like cattle into their prison, we were too weak to resist."
Jacob remembered the dog in the yard of the house of an old man he visited every once in a while. It was quite a large dog, with teeth like steak knives, and was always chained up inside a cage with metal bars two inches in diameter. Peering out through the bars of his cell, he now empathized with that dog’s situation all too well. Even the food the men fed him tasted like dog food-- but then again, he was used to the taste of dog food. He dared not complain about it at all, though. Some poor kid a few cells down from him wouldn’t quit whining, until the guards got fed up and hauled him off elsewhere. Jacob hadn’t heard from him since. He deduced that as uncomfortable as his cell might be, it was still better than the box from before, and he’d much rather just accept what he got and not risk getting dealt an even worse hand. It seemed, however, that fate had other plans for him. Not long after he finished his meal, a man flanked by two guards approached his cell-- he was donning a green surgical uniform.
“Come with me,” he said in a strangely cheerful voice, “it’s time for your checkup.”
"The gang does plenty of illicit, illegal, and twisted things. Drugs, prostitution, gambling, arms smuggling, human trafficking, contract killing-- but none compared to the things they did for those three long years after I was abducted. After that, for whatever reason, they changed what they did with children like myself that they captured. They trained us to be child soldiers, child bodyguards, child hitmen. It was from them that I learned how to shoot, how to kill. Everything I know I learned from them. They even gave me a prosthetic arm to replace the one I lost. I resented all of it. But what was I to do? I had no idea where I was, I had no family to return to, I had no way to escape. So I bided my time, waiting for six whole years until I finally escaped."
Piercer turned to look at Jacob. His eyes seemed almost to be glazed over in thought. Though he was still curious about what exactly happened to Jacob to result in his condition, he could empathize with what Jacob had been through all too well. Some things are better left alone.
“Why must castles be filled with so many rooms and hallways?” Jasper asked to himself as he strolled along. The interior of the castle was lined with banners of red and gold, embroidered with the symbols of Redcliff royalty. His shoes made everything from clacks to squeaks as they touched stone brick and polished wood alike.
“Personally, I’d prefer a smaller house, one where I’d actually be able to, you know, set foot in most of the rooms more than once in a blue moon.” Jasper paused, before looking at a nearby guard. “What do you think?”
“W-what?” The guard said, blinking as if he was just waking up from a deep sleep.
“You agree with me, don’t you?”
The guard rubbed his eyes, looking dazed as if he had forgotten who he was.
“Good to hear,” Jasper continued, beginning to turn around. “Now h--”
“Oh, didn’t see you there,” he said, looking first at the guard who had caught him by surprise, then down at his polearm which was pointed at him quite menacingly. “Shall we dance?”
The guard’s brow furrowed. “By the order of King Brusuis I order you to stand down.” Jasper simply cracked a smile, before summoning a large warhammer with a thick layer of hot plasma-like red mana capping each of its two faces.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then.”
“Well, considering how was probably the best at strategy between us four, as well as her supporting role within the team itself, I guess that’s why ‘Regent’ as a nickname caught on for her,” Zack said, taking a swig of his drink. Sitting across him, taking darting potshots around the room with his eyes, was Slicer. The bar they were currently residing at was out near the edge of town. Its location, combined with the sun’s expected departure beneath the horizon, meant that there were few others to be found.
Noticing Slicer’s apprehension, Zack simply sighed. “Don’t you worry about the mission; our target will be here shortly,” he paused, finishing his drink. “As a matter of fact, he should be entering just about now.”
Right on cue, a tall, lanky man in a grey suit strolled briskly into view. He carried a glossy black briefcase with him, which he placed carefully onto the bar.
“There’s our guy,” Zack said, without even turning to look at the man. “He runs an arms smuggling operation around here with a few local gangs. It’s one way to make money, I suppose. Unfortunately our business consists of ending his business.”
“Well, what are we to do then?” Slicer asked.
“Just stick close to me and act tough, and I’ll do the rest.”
Getting up from his seat, Zack approached the man, unsheathing a purple and black Darkagian katana etched with snake designs along the blade.
“So here’s the deal,” Zack said, nonchalantly. The man in the suit was still facing his back towards him-- but Zack knew for a fact that he had his attention. “Either you hand yourself over so we can turn you in, or we’ll turn you in ourselves-- piece by tiny piece.”
Three whole seconds ticked by. With a sudden, desperate movement, the man grabbed hold of his briefcase, and turned to swing it in an attempt to wound Zack. Before he even finished his initial swing, Zack’s arm lashed out like a snake’s strike, promptly severing the man’s hand. Catching the briefcase in his other hand, he slammed it down upon the man’s skull with the force of a sledgehammer.
“Damn,” Slicer commented, taking a glance at the blood that now covered the briefcase, “wasn’t that a bit ex--”
In an instant, Slicer was tackled to the ground. The next instant, he found himself behind the bar, his ears assaulted by the percussive roar of a torrent of gunfire.
“Of course that sod had reinforcements,” Zack muttered as he pulled himself off of Slicer.
Slicer, still a little winded from his unexpected teleportation, noticed the predicament they were in. Judging from the gunfire, there were probably at least a dozen gunmen slowly turning the bar into swiss cheese.
“Any ideas for getting past these guys?”
“I mean,” Zack said, picking up his katana, “we could just kill them.”
“Real helpful,” Slicer replied, rolling his eyes as he too summoned his sword and prepared for battle.
Taking off before Slicer even realized it, Zack darted to the nearest wall, deftly running up and along it. Holding his sword ready, he sprung off it towards one of the gun-toting goons that had attempted to ambush them, decapitating him in an effortless stroke.
“Here goes nothing, then,” Slicer said, charging a blade drill and vaulting over the bar. His sword was a comet, leaving a glowing blue conic trail that vaporized any bullets that dared try assault him.
Darting from target to target, the two of them were artists of death. Their brushes were blades, and they aimed to paint a crimson collage. Before long, their masterpiece was complete.
“You know,” Slicer said, as the exited the bar, “you do actually have the skill to back up your words. Where did you learn to fight like that?”
Zack turned to look at Slicer. “Well, since we have a ways to go, I guess I’ll indulge you in that story, if you so wish.”
The rough concrete floor came up unceremoniously against Zack’s head as the men hauled him into the cell. Even as they locked the cell door, he still laid there, defeated.
"If I hit my head against the ground a few more times, maybe it’ll solve the pain, since I’ll be hurting less in comparison when I’m done…"
Even though he knew he was simply musing to himself, his muscles refused to budge. Laying on the floor, as uncomfortable as it was, was still easier than sitting up. Zack had no idea who these strange men were, or why they had taken him, but right now he simply didn’t have the energy to care. He figured he’d probably just lie there and sleep his hunger away-- but his plans were cut short by the muffled yet still audible sound of sniffling.
Looking towards the source, he spotted a young boy about his age, wearing a ragged set of clothes that seemed as if they were about to come apart if he breathed on them too hard. His skin was stained with blood, and a crisscross lattice of wounds and cuts covered his back and chest. Most noticeably of all was the presence of a multitude of bruises in tree-like patterns along his entire body. Zack was about to ask him if he was alright, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that he clearly was not. Unsure of what to say, he tried some small talk.
“Um… hello?” Zack said as he approached the boy. He scrunched up his nose slightly, a wave of nausea hitting him as the sight of the wounds and the overwhelming sanguine odor of blood flooded his mind with shock, horror, and disgust.
The boy paused his sniffling, looking upwards into Zack’s eyes. His stare was blank, containing neither fear, nor joy, nor any other emotion.
“What’s your name?”
Seconds passed, and the boy made no motion-- the only sign of life he gave was his raspy, labored breathing, like an old man on his deathbed. Opening his mouth like the hinge of a rusty trapdoor, he spoke, his voice dry and wheeze-like from lack of use.
“A lot of people will jump to the conclusion that the Dragon’s Blood is some heartless crime syndicate, and while I do admit that a lot of what they did was truly cruel, you must take into account an inherent fact of human nature-- no one does anything without a due reason. Not to mention that although they did turn children into hitmen, they also treated them well. Gave them a home they otherwise didn’t have. Hell, they gave Jacob a prosthetic arm, his Orinthian Pulsar sniper rifle, as well as teaching him how to fight, even despite all his limitations. They gave me my robes; my blade, the Fang of Sorrow-- all rare Darkagian contraband. Though I can’t say I owe them anything after their initial treatment of Jacob and I, I can say that all debts have been paid.”
“Jacob, however, he’s too caught up in his moral compass. He’s got his eyes on the north point so much that he doesn’t realize he’s walking right off a cliff.”
Zack sighed, looking Slicer in the eyes. “You’ve probably grown up on the whole good guy thing, haven’t you? Well, let me tell you something-- if there’s anything I learned during all my years I’ve been alive, it’s that in the real world, no one cares if you’re good or evil. No one cares that you feel good for being such a saint. In Meridiem, none of the warlords care if you’re good or evil; they’ll raid you and take everything you have all the same.”
“My advice? Do what’s practical. You can’t be a hero if your idealism gets you killed.”
“Are you sure we should be making the exchange here?” the man said, worriedly. “Just an hour ago a whole team of our guys got completely wiped by some kid in a blue t-shirt and a teleporting swordsman with Darkagian robes. I’m just saying, we should probably lay low for a bit.” The man was currently residing in a dimly-lit abandoned warehouse not too far outside Draco’s capital of Draco Rock. He was softly talking with another man, who had a large briefcase by his side, and a pair of aviators resting upon his face, which he lowered slightly as he stared right at the timid man with an incredulous look.
“Can your tiny brain even begin to comprehend the lengths I had to go to get this piece of gear?” He spat, before propping the briefcase up on a nearby desk. “Besides, this beauty here has enough firepower to demolish both of them, and whatever army they happen to bring along.”
The timid man sighed, before calling one of his goons over. The goon brought with him a large suitcase, and set it down in front of the man with the aviators.
“Here’s the payment. Let’s make this quick.”
The man with the aviators grinned, opening the suitcase to find it filled to the brim with shimmering gold coins, their golden glint reflecting off his aviators like starlight. Closing the suitcase, he opened up his briefcase and took out a strange-looking pistol. It was made with a strange, glossy dark blue metal, and had light blue accents like veins running along its barrel. Its handle seemed to contain a glass chamber filled with a strange light-blue liquid that fizzed and swirled as the gun moved about. The timid man, however, was not impressed.
“That’s it? This is the thing you said could wipe out an army?”
The other man rolled his eyes. “I was exaggerating. Still, this pistol could probably kill a good 7-8 people in a single shot, though. Provided they stand somewhat close together. It’s Orinthian. You don’t underestimate Orinthian tech.”
“How about you show me it in action, then I’ll see if it really does what you s--”
The man jumped as the sound of crumbling concrete cut short his sentence. Turning to look at the source of the commotion, he saw a sizable hole in the warehouse wall. Walking in through that impromptu doorway was an adolescent in a green t-shirt, and a woman in a pink trenchcoat-- and both of them carried hammers.
“Are we interrupting something here?” Valerie said, before hefting her hammer into a battle stance. Her hammer was black, with a very long handle and magenta accents. Its head had a hexagonal face, and at the back of the hammer was a jet-like apparatus that seemed to be streaming small pink hexagonal particles.
“Well, looks like I have the perfect target to demonstrate on,” the man with the aviators said, aiming the pistol at the duo. The barrel of the gun started glowing bright cyan, crackling as if it contained a thunderstorm within.
Noticing the telltale glowing of the barrel, Val’s eyes widened in surprise.
With a swipe of her palm, she summoned up a wall that seemed to be composed of interlocked bright pink hexagons of energy, forming a barrier to intercept the incoming shot. As the round impacted the barrier it was as if a lightning strike, explosion, and fireball had all gone off at the same time. Flashes of blue light and flame and electricity raged against the hexagonal shielding, but none could breach through.
“What the hell was that?” Crusher said, looking at Valerie expectantly.
“An Orinthian plasma pistol,” Val replied, her brow furrowed as she focused on maintaining the barrier. “How they acquired such heavy weaponry I can’t imagine.”
“That’s… bad, isn’t it?”
“Not entirely,” Val replied. “Once they’re done shooting I figure it should be a cakewalk.”
Crusher peered through the tinted energy of the shield. He could see at least 10 goons positioned about the warehouse, and guessed that there were probably more that he couldn’t see.
“Seems they have a lot of reinforcements though.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.”
Taking a look at Valerie, Crusher noticed that the magenta accents along her hammer seemed to be slowly glowing brighter. The disc on the strange jet-like portion of her hammer also began rotating faster, and the hexagonal particles were soon cascading from her hammer like raindrops.
“Once they’re done shooting, I’ll handle the guy with the gun,” Valerie said. “You mop up some of the goons, and I’ll come over and assist.”
By the time the firing had stopped, Valerie’s hammer was now shimmering with energy, as if the casing of the hammer itself was struggling to keep it contained. Leaping into the air, she summoned a hexagonal shield beneath her feet, before catapulting off of it and bringing her hammer down upon the two men with the force of a planet.
With a bright flash of blinding light and a colossal discharge of plasma and searing mana, the hammer struck its target. The ground caved in like a dented can as a huge shockwave of plasma radiated outwards from the impact zone-- it was as if her shields had channeled the power of the plasma rounds and had transferred them into her hammer, infusing it with her attack. It wasn’t long at all until she joined Crusher in pummelling the rest of the goons into oblivion.
By the time they were finished, it looked as if a tornado had cut straight through the warehouse. The concrete was coming apart in massive chunks, exposing dead fingers of rebar. Digging through the rubble, Valerie salvaged what she could of the Orinthian weaponry.
“This thing’s totally busted now,” Valerie began. “The plasma synthesis module has been all but shattered, and there’s too much damage to the mana filaments to reach a critical density for firing.”
“Well, can’t you just fix it if you know what all the parts do?” Crusher said, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s not so simple as that,” Valerie began. “Though I may know what each part does, actually recreating said parts is near-impossible. The modules operate under principles no one can really even begin to understand, let alone recreate. It’s how the Orinthian Corporation has managed to keep exclusive reign over their high-tech goodies.”
“Well damn,” Crusher said. “You seem to know a lot about that sorta stuff, huh?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“My mother was… a very stern and strict parent, I’d say. I never knew my father, so all I had was her, when she was around in person-- which pretty much amounted to no more than the first few years of my life. For the vast majority of my childhood, she’d be too busy to see me, and had to resort to other measures…”
“Wake up, Valerie. Don’t be late for your scheduled testing.”
The same sentence, spoken in the same manner, every single morning, for as long as she could remember. Valerie rubbed the sleep from her eyes, not even bothering to take in her surroundings-- she’d spent all 10 years of her life waking up in this same room, so it’s not as if it would have anything new to offer. A pristine white bed with sheets like silken glass. A dresser that offered a wide variety of the same exact outfit-- a form-fitting jumpsuit with pink accenting that felt more natural than bare skin.
Freshening up, she did little else to prep her appearance. After all, she’d been living by herself like a prisoner ever since age 5. Stepping out of her chambers, she entered the main atrium of the facility. Dining area to the left, serving the same food as usual-- toast with raspberry jam, scrambled eggs and a side of bacon, served alongside a glass of milk. It used to be her favorite breakfast-- but anything gets old after years and years without variation. Med bay also on the left side-- she used to visit there quite frequently, but ever since a few years ago when she got the strange electronics installed on the back of her neck, she hasn’t had to visit often. On the right was the study, with an infinite catalog of books and other media for her to consume-- she’d already done so at least three times over. Adjacent to that was the armory.
As she stepped into the armory, the same plinth greeted her-- a mannequin standing in a heroic pose, holding a large black and pink hammer, with a red Orinthian visor resting upon its head. Her weapons-- but upon equipping them, she seemed more like an old hunchback than a hero. The hammer itself was probably three times as heavy as she was-- she remembered when she first got it, how she couldn’t even lift it. It was still a burden, but by now she’d grown somewhat accustomed to its weight.
As she walked back into the atrium, heading towards the testing grounds, she took a longing glance at the stairway to her left. Leading upwards, enticing her with false promises of freedom. Make no mistake, she had tried to break through it before-- but her hammer couldn’t even leave a scratch on its pristine surface.
“To this day I’m still not sure if my mother was really looking out for me with her tests, or she was trying to run some sort of experiment for her own devices. Regardless, those tests soon became my only source of real entertainment every day.”
“Yesterday you demonstrated quite a measure of proficiency in maintaining your hex barriers,” her mother’s voice sounded overhead. “Today, we shall test them in action.”
The testing arena was vast, easily twice as large as your typical gymnasium. It was segmented into four quadrants, which could be lowered into the ground and swapped out with various modules. As Valerie strolled into the arena, she noticed some strange robotic figures at the back of the arena. They were composed of dark blue steel, and had veins of light blue accenting running along them. Each held in its hand a rather menacing-looking rifle of the same aesthetic.
“I’ve equipped these bots with live weapons. If you get shot, it’s going to hurt. Let’s see if we can keep that from happening, shall we?”
“It wasn’t all bad, though. Sooner or later, I did actually find myself some company. His name was Criollo Cocoalon, and he was the only human contact I really had until I turned 16.”
Val stepped out of her chambers, clutching her arm in pain. Yesterday’s test really hadn’t gone too well. She wasn’t kidding when she said those shots would hurt. Taking a glance down at the bandage around her arm, she sighed. She hoped to never have to deal with bullets again. Entering the dining room, she suddenly froze in surprise. Sitting at the table was a boy about her age, with a beige button-up shirt and an argyle vest with reddish brown, grey, and white diamond patterning. He wore tan khakis to match his tan-colored skin, and had a mane of ruffled black hair. He was busy sipping hot chocolate from an olive green mug.
Criollo lowered his glasses slightly, taking a glance at Val. “...Hello?”
Val continued staring.
“...Um, I’m Criollo. You must be Valerie?”
“...So, I was told to come here and help assist you in your work, and… here I am, I guess.”
“...You can stop staring now.”
“...What are you drinking?”
“It’s hot chocolate.”
“Never heard of it.”
“You’ve never heard of hot chocolate?”
“...Can I try some?”
Valerie approached Criollo, who took notice of the bandage on her arm.
“I got shot.”
Criollo’s eyes widened in surprise. “Like, by a bullet?”
“I might have something that can fix that, hold on.”
Taking his other hand, Criollo held it in a position that resembled holding a mug-- and right on cue, a green mug popped into existence into his grip. The sound of running liquid could be heard as the mug filled itself with the telltale silky brown hue of hot chocolate, and two large marshmallows peeked out of the surface of the chocolate like ducklings on a pond.
Criollo wiped a few drops of sweat from his brow. “Here, have a mug.”
Valerie sniffed the chocolate, its intoxicating aroma bringing a smile to her face. Swiftly, she brought the mug to her lips and took a sip. By the time she had finished the entire mug, she didn’t even realize that the pain in her arm had stopped.
“Hey, that tasted pretty goo--”
Valerie was interrupted by the slight pinging sound of something dropping to the floor near her. Picking it up, she realized what it was-- a single bullet, stained with dried blood. Taking off her bandages, she was surprised to find that her wound had now completely healed. Criollo simply smiled.
“Glad you enjoyed it.”
The depths of the museum seemed more like a nuclear bunker than anything else. Everything was constructed out of some sort of heavy steel which made footsteps sound more like war drums. The man in the yellow suit, however, paid no mind to such things. His target, after all, was not far away now. Strolling down the hall, it was at last in sight. A vault door, with seven combination locks and a strange electronic apparatus mounted to it.
“My my, I wonder if they’re compensating for something.”
Xavier’s visor let out a small chirp as it began analyzing the vault door.
“Let’s see… septuple combination lock bound to a timer-- if the correct combination isn’t entered within a period of 15 seconds, the entire thing locks down hard-- telekill, mana shielding, 30 inches of solid steel-- and to top it off, the guards are notified too.”
“Luckily for me, it seems the combination is… 72 84 19 02 93 44 60.”
Briskly inputting the characters, Xavier grinned as the vault door opened with a puff of compressed air. On a pedestal inside laid a single medallion, no larger than a pocket watch. Picking it up and looking it over like a jeweller examining a gem, Xavier noticed that the medallion was made with some sort of strange gold-like substance that he’d never seen before. Engraved on its face was some sort of arcane symbol that he couldn’t recognize.
“Whatever it is, it must be important if they’d have me come all the way down here to get it.”
As he exited the vault, his grin dropped into an exasperated frown as around a dozen guards flooded into the hallway.
“Give us the medallion,” the guard at the front said, in a gruff voice, “drop any weapons you have, and put your hands where we can see them.”
Xavier stared at them for a couple seconds, before reaching his hand to the side and pulling a nearby fire alarm. The sprinkler system in the vault activated, and soon it was as if it was raining indoors.
“A little rain isn’t going to save you, pal.”
“Sure, perhaps not just a little rain…” Xavier began, smugly, his right hand beginning to crackle with mana.
“But, you know the saying.”
“When it rains...”
Xavier suddenly splayed his palm outstretched at the guard, and all the droplets of water from the nearby sprinkler shot towards the guard like a hail of bullets. Gasping in shock, the guard collapsed, his blood mixing with the water on the ground as it dribbled out of a whole array of tiny holes in his body.
The sprinkler system burst wide open, and in an instant the entire hallway was flooded with a tsunami of water, hitting the other guards and shattering their bones as they were flung against the metal walls of the vault. Xavier, however, simply strolled down the hallway, water parting as he walked-- not a single drop of water on his clothing.
The two combatants were like a pair of binary stars, glowing bright with the discharge of mana as they fought each other. Kai, his fists ablaze with pure mana energy, was launching forth a barrage of mana blasts against Zhao, who deftly deflected each and every one of them with his bo staff. Flying backwards, Kai paused, before smirking as he held both hands out towards Zhao. His fingertips lighting up like fireflies, a swarm of tiny mana blasts were shot out from his fingers, flying towards Zhao like bullets. Zhao raised an eyebrow, before kicking off of his bo staff as it extended, launching himself far away from the stream of Kai’s mana. Closing his eyes, his hand painted a swathe of mana in front of him, which formed into three weapons: his bo staff, an odachi, and a kusarigama. As the wall of mana blasts reached him, his eyes opened-- and using his weapons, he deflected every single mana blasts, his weapons moving so fast they appeared only as blurred after-images. Without giving Kai a moment’s respite, he extended his bo staff, knocking Kai out of the air mid-flight, before throwing out his kusarigama, ensnaring him. Pulling Kai towards him, he held out his odachi, its blade pressing snugly against Kai’s neck, drawing only a single drop of blood as Kai’s mana barriers finally collapsed.
Withdrawing his weapons, Zhao looked Kai in the eyes-- but his expression was one that contained not malice, but contentment.
“You’ve certainly improved, Kai.”
Kai sighed dejectedly, wiping the blood from his neck. “Not enough. I still lost.”
“When we first started, I could defeat you without even using two hands. Now, you’ve forced me to use all three of my weapons simultaneously,” Zhao said, his lips upturned in a smile. “Not bad for only a few months of training.” Zhao extended a hand to Kai, pulling him to his feet. “How about you and I go for a walk? I’d like to discuss a few things with you.”
Kai and Zhao exited the training facility. It was almost midnight now, and the only sounds that could be heard were the rustling of leaves, the howl of the wind, and the knocking of their footsteps as they walked through the courtyard.
“So Kai,” Zhao began, “what motivated you to enroll in the academy?”
Kai blinked, looking at Zhao, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Everyone enrolls in the academy for a reason. To learn to fight, to help others, to become a hero. I want to know why you joined.”
Kai pondered the subject for a while. He hadn’t really thought much on the matter honestly, it’d always been more of a gut feeling. Eventually, he deduced what he believed to be the most accurate answer.
“I wanted to become powerful.”
“Well, what would you use that power for?”
Kai blinked again, before shrugging. “I… well, honestly, I’m not quite sure. I’ve always just wanted to be the best at whatever I do, and I suppose this was no different.”
Zhao nodded. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to be the best, chasing the desire for power. But you must also consider this: power alone can’t solve everything.”
Zhao stopped walking, turning to face Kai, a stern expression upon his face. “You said you wanted to become powerful? Know that unless you are mentally ready to accept the responsibilities of being powerful, you will never hold on to power for long.”
“All my life I’ve been trying to become powerful,” Kai replied. “I’m sure I’m more than ready when it comes to the mentality.”
“Such hubris will become your downfall, Kai,” Zhao retorted as soon as he finished. “It has taken me a very long time to develop the right mentality, and even now it’s still not quite fully formed, when it comes down to it.”
Looking Kai straight in the eyes, Zhao began talking with a weight that was almost physical.
“Kai, let me ask of you one thing. Do you have the resolve to take a life?”
Kai gulped. “Of course.”
Zhao sighed. “I too, had once believed that I had the conviction. Whilst you trained simply out of a desire for power, I trained out of a desire for revenge. Revenge against the man who had taken from me everything I held dear. I convinced myself that even if I couldn’t kill anyone, I could at least kill him. But you know what? I can’t.”
Kai, once again, furrowed his brow in confusion. “Why not?”
Zhao looked away from Kai, a distant look in his eyes. “After all the time I spent in the wilds of Draco, after seeing how Drak and Slasher’s deaths affected Piercer and Slicer-- I realized just how powerful an action it is to end another’s life. So you know what? I’m done with hunting down my nemesis. Even if he were to appear before me this instant, I couldn’t kill him.”
Zhao turned, making eye contact with Kai once again. “Vengeance only breeds more bloodshed, Kai. It’s a vicious cycle which burns life as its fuel and leaves behind only death. It’s a cycle that must be stopped-- even if it means letting go of the past.”
“My time is better spent on other, more happier things. Like friendship, for example. Wouldn’t you agree… friend?”
Kai contemplated what Zhao had said.
“So I take it you didn’t take me out here to talk about the weather, did you?” You asked. Unlike his teammates, he had been asked by none other than headmaster Super Cloud Nine himself to accompany him-- and to the headmaster’s private garden, no less.
The garden was located at the base of the spire that led up to the headmaster’s office, and though it wasn’t small, it still offered a sense of sanctuary and detachment from all the bustle of the rest of the academy. A small artificial stream flowed through its center, and all sorts of plants grew along the water’s edge. At the end of a path that ran through the length of the garden was a small pavilion, where the two of them currently sat.
Super smirked. “Well, you are right on that assumption. I came to talk to you about other things-- but, you are still young. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to entertain you with a little something before we begin.”
Holding out his hand, Super summoned a strange blade into his hand. It seemed to be forged out of an ethereal white metal alloy, though You himself hadn’t actually ever seen any sort of alloy resembling it before. The blade itself was very jagged, but in a manner that seemed intentional and orderly. Veins of some sort of blue substance ran along its length, and were concentrated at its hilt and crossguard.
“This is my weapon,” Super began. “Auxiliatus. Forged from Astralite and Volct Arzen, it was not of my own creation, and is a burden I never asked for. But now, it’s become like an extension of myself.”
“Woah,” You exclaimed, taking a closer look at the blade. “Volct Arzen? It’s the stuff that boosts your physical capabilities, right?”
“Yes. In this case, it also powers up the cutting ability of my sword. In any case, we should get to what I brought you here for.”
“You are very special, You,” Super began, taking a glance at you, before chuckling slightly. “If your name hasn’t made that obvious already, that is.”
“This may sound somewhat cryptic now, but I suspect that at some point, you’ll be endowed with a burden you never asked for. And, just like my sword, it will take some time for you to become fully comfortable with it-- perhaps even never.”
Folding his hands on the table, Super looked You in the eyes. “You enrolled because you wanted to be a hero, am I correct? Like the heroes you hear about in fairytales?”
“Well, unfortunately, life isn’t a fairytale. Being a hero is no easy feat.”
“I know… Drak and Slasher are examples of that,” You began. “But no matter what comes my way, I’ll still fight for what’s right.”
“It’s far more difficult than you may expect, You,” Super replied. “I too, was once just like you. I wanted to become a hero-- and perhaps, though I may not think it myself, I have become just that. But heroism requires unimaginable sacrifice, and unimaginable willpower.”
Super’s eyes now seemed far away, as if he was staring at You like one might stare through a window. “I had the opportunity to accomplish a great feat, one the likes of Xargas himself. Slaying the proverbial dragon, if you will. But it came at no small cost. Four of my dearest friends and allies died in the battle-- and not only that, but even after I had vanquished the greatest enemy I’d ever fought-- the resulting consequences of that battle still linger to this day.
“Every time I struck evil down, it would come back. Each head cut off spawned two more in its place. Soon, I came to realize a truth about heroism: It’s easy to think only for yourself, but looking out for and helping others while at the same time becoming powerful enough to protect them all and yourself is extremely difficult.”
“The universe itself is slated against heroes.”
“I knew that if I were ever to truly maintain the peace, to live up to my duty as a hero-- I’d have to ensure that there would be more heroes in the future to help uphold it-- and so, I founded the academy.”
Super paused, letting You absorb all that he had just said.
“However, all lights eventually burn out. Even I will one day die-- and like it or not, there still need to be heroes to protect the lives of all humanity.”
“So tell me, You.”
“Do you have what it takes to be a hero?”
You looked away, deep in thought-- before gulping, returning Super’s gaze.
“I know that becoming a hero is no easy feat. Hell, it very well may be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. It could cost me everything-- my friends, my self… my life, even. But if it means I can help others, protect others, and stave off anything that may harm others-- I’ll do it.”
Super closed his eyes. When he opened them, his serious expression turned into one of contented acceptance.
“Do you promise?”
The suffocating darkness of the night enveloped the countryside like a blanket-- but within this miasma of nothingness, a single light shined. From a distance, its orange light could be mistaken for the first inklings of dawn-- but this light held no warmth, no security; only the hollow, gasping flames of terror and destruction.
The village burned bright like a beacon of death. Yet, as the saying goes, the brightest lights burn out the fastest. It wouldn’t be long until it was but a charred, desolate landscape of rubble-- dead and forgotten. The perpetrator of this massacre was a reaper clad in nothing but torn rags and a ragged cloak, with a blade like gargantuan cleaver, as if he was a butcher ready for slaughter.
The house he was in was just about the last one he had decided to pay a personal visit to. Most of the other houses in the village were already too immolated to stand around in, so Zenthus reckoned that this would most likely be the last time for tonight he could have his fun. He was determined to make the most of it.
In the corner of the living room was an equinoxian woman, clutching a small kitchen knife-- though it was more to comfort and reassure herself than to actually use defensively. Her lips quivered like a rubber band about to break, and her face was stained with tears and blood-- though the blood was not her own. To tell the truth, Zenthus really didn’t have anything personal against equinoxians. However, he wasn’t going to skimp on a chance to do his job whilst still getting a kick out of it in the process. With a grin of daggers, he slowly approached her, his eyes shining like two blood-red moons.
“S-stay back!” The equinoxian woman shouted, her throat sore from crying, desperately pointing the knife at Zenthus. Without even flinching, he continued his approach.
The woman’s hand shook, and she dropped her knife in fear. He reached out his hand, cupping the woman’s face, running his fingers along her jawline. The woman’s skin was cold as a corpse, dotted with goosebumps and coated with sweat.
“P-please… I don’t want to die…”
“Ssh,” Zenthus began, continuing to stroke her jaw. “It’s alright…”
With a sudden force, he gripped her jaw, snapping it. The woman screamed in agony as he lifted her by her shattered jaw, before throwing her to the ground. Her screams turned to whimpers.
“Please… d-don’t kill me… please…”
Zenthus pulled his arm back, before striking her full force.
The woman continued sobbing.
He struck her again.
Sobs turned to gurgles.
Only the gasps of breathing remain.
The spire, though tall and impressive in nature, was, in girth, quite conservative. This was reflected in the size of its elevator, which didn’t have much in the way of shoulder room, to say the least. However, this was of little importance to Shalia-- as there was no one else in the elevator with her. Not many tend to be awake at four o’clock in the morning.
With the slightest of whirrs, the doors opened, and Shalia stepped out into a place few students have ever laid eyes upon-- the academy’s control center. Hidden in a basement level underneath the spire, the room was stuffed to the brim with high-end technology-- as if a little chunk of an Orinthian city had been transplanted into the room. Manning a control station at the back of the room was a single staff member, his tired eyes peeking through his glasses as he sipped the final few drops of coffee in his mug. Hearing the sound of Shalia’s footsteps, he gazed up at her.
“Um…” he began, half-asleep, “...you… aren’t supposed to be in here.”
Noticing Shalia’s vibrant lime-green eyes, the man blinked.
“Hey… you have green eyes, don’t you..? Wasn’t there something about...”
Shalia sighed, before waving her hand by his face, a cloud of lavender gas enveloping his nostrils as her hand went by. Breathing it in, the man looked at Shalia with a curious expression, before collapsing on the floor with a thud, sound asleep.
Moving to the terminal the man had been sitting at moments ago, Shalia’s fingers glided over the keyboard with an unnatural speed. Before long, her task was complete.
“Good. The pieces are finally falling into place.”
“Alright, punks,” Bomber began, strolling up to the terminal. It was the final assignment of the semester, and the mission that Bomber had been waiting for. Rocketer, Spiriter, and Kai listened closely.
“This is our last project, so try to wait until after it’s done before screwing anything up.”
Rocketer and Spiriter both made gruff noises of disapproval-- Kai, however, simply nodded stoically.
Taking a haphazard glance at the terminal, Bomber returned to his briefing. He already knew the nature of his mission, so the only portion that really mattered was ascertaining the location of the target.
“We’re headed to a quaint little town called Shadelight. We’ll be retrieving some crystals of some sort. Should be easy. Any questions?”
The others stayed silent. Even if they did have questions, none of them really wanted to chance Bomber’s wrath. If the past three months had made anything clear to them, it was that Bomber ruled with a heavy hand, any sort of even mild inconvenience to him would be reciprocated with harsh punishment.
“Good. Let’s move out.”
As the team left, Zack took a glance at the terminal, noticing a familiar name upon its screen.
“Shadelight, huh? Wasn’t that the place Tess went to?”
Taking a look around, he noticed Super, chatting with some students nearby. Moving towards him, he tapped Super on the shoulder.
“Hey, Super?” Zack began, “I noticed you wrote up another mission to Shadelight. I was just curious as to why, since as I recall, Tess went on a mission there about a week ago already.”
Super’s brow furrowed.
“I don’t recall listing a mission to Shadelight…”
Zack was first struck by a sense of confusion-- but whether it was his Caevis Arzen ushering him onward, or simply a gut feeling, he sensed that something wasn’t right.
At last, Bomber and his team stood outside the entrance to the Shadelight mine.
“Okay, listen up,” Bomber began. “The crystals in this mine are lodged inside some giant columns, so what we’re going to do is destroy them to free the crystals. The mission didn’t really specify how many we had to bring back, so we’ll just take as many as we can.”
As the team descended into the mine, suspicion arose within Kai’s mind. Why would the mission not specify how many they had to take?
Zack hurried along the road to the mine. He’d been tailing the team on their way there, and from observing their actions, he deduced that something was definitely not right. Something was up with Bomber. He knew it was so. Bomber acted with a strange conviction that, although subtle, Zack could recognize all too well.
“The mine shouldn’t be far now. I’ll see if I can catch them red-handed while they’re--”
Zack stopped, noticing a familiar silhouette occupying the entrance to the mine. He exhaled, drawing his sword. As he approached, any doubt regarding the man’s identity was washed away. A black duster and cloak. Multiple buckles. An alabaster mask with a gold visor. Cybernetic knuckles.
As Zack approached, the man in the duster smiled, chuckling to himself.
“So you’ve finally caught me, Zack Lapierre.”
Zack held his sword at the ready. “I’m guessing you’re not here to turn yourself in, are you?”
“Zack, dear Zack,” the man replied, completely ignoring Zack’s previous words. “You used to be so great. First, a child hitman. Then, a pirate in the Portentum Islands. And after that, you even became a Darkagian warlord.”
The man’s smile was now a fully-formed grin, as he opened both his hands, two large jagged scimitars materializing into them. Licks of lime-green fire burned along the blades, eager to dig into flesh and burn it until all that remains is bone.
“You remember what they used to call you, don’t you, Zack? The Dark Horse. You came from nowhere, and yet your power propelled you oh so high up the pecking order. But look at you now. Now, you’re nothing but a pawn to the Seventh Sanctum. A grunt. Expendable.”
Zack scoffed. “Quite ironic, hearing that from you. I know all about how the Overseers love their micromanagement. That third eye’s probably feeling real nice all up in your neck, isn’t it?”
Zack’s frown formed itself into a slight smirk. “You and I, we’re not all too different. Becoming the Overseer’s own shadowhunter is perhaps the greatest honor one can have… for a mere puppet. I’ve slain shadowhunters before. You’ll be no different. After all, how many shadowhunters have there been already? 70? 71? Perhaps after this battle, they’ll need a 73rd…”
The shadowhunter’s grin faded. “Enough chatter. Let your blade do the talking.”
Zack raised his katana, aiming it at the shadowhunter before teleporting towards him in an attempt to wound him as fast as possible-- but his strike was blocked by the twin scimitars. Taking few parting slashes at Zack as he teleported back, the shadowhunter channeled even more mana into his swords, before launching volley after volley of slashes at Zack. Lime green fire trailed from his swords, hurtling outwards like fiery projectiles. The fire was as cold as a corpse as it approached Zack, burning bright but burning without warmth, without care-- a soulless viridian flame which Zack deftly cut into wisps of smoke with his sword.
“Not bad, number 72, not bad at all.”
Zack teleported towards the shadowhunter, stopping before him only to let him catch a brief glimpse of his devilish smirk, before striking at him. As the shadowhunter parried the strike, he found himself on the defensive as Zack kept teleporting around him, striking at him from every angle-- it wasn’t long until one of Zack’s strikes found purchase, catching one of the scimitars under the crossguard, and wrestling it from the shadowhunter’s grip.
Scowling, the shadowhunter raised his remaining blade, channeling even more mana into it. His blade shined like a cold inverse sun, before he stabbed it into the ground. A vortex of green burst into life around him, expanding outwards, eager to turn Zack into a human torch. Zack teleported away, but even he was too slow-- and as the vortex dissipated, the shadowhunter could spot a hole in Zack’s robes, burnt away by the flame-- revealing the marbled eye of a blind man.
“Not bad either, Dark Horse.”
Zack tossed his sword into the air-- and as it fell, he kicked the back of its hilt, launching it like an arrow at the shadowhunter. The shadowhunter moved to deflect the incoming blade, but before he could raise his own sword, Zack had already teleported behind him, launching a full-forced punch right into the shadowhunter’s visor.
Reeling from the attack, the shadowhunter’s grip on his blade weakened, and his second sword too was knocked away by Zack’s sword kick. His visor crumbled, and Zack could glimpse his glaring, lime-green eyes as they burned with the fire of rage.
Curling his hands into fists, slots in his cybernetic knuckles opened up-- and three dagger-sized blades protruded between the knuckles of each hand. Holding out his fist, he charged with a surprising speed at Zack-- licks of flame forming a cone around his fist and body as he hurtled forward like a missile. Only barely evading the attack, Zack attempted to assault the shadowhunter with strikes yet again-- but this time, he found himself matched in speed. Both combatants parried each other’s strikes at such a blinding speed that the sound of reverberating metal had almost fused into a single, metallic tone.
At long last, the cacophony of strikes was silenced by the loud rending of metal as the shadowhunter’s knuckle blades finally snapped. Zack raised his katana, preparing to end this fight quickly-- when he stopped. His mind was suddenly filled with fear, filled with a presence so powerful that his heart beat like a war drum in his ears and his limbs began trembling. His will to fight was snuffed out. Zack had only experienced such a feeling once before-- but he could recognize it in a heartbeat. The unmistakable power of Auxvale Arzen.
With a violent gust of wind, the air-- no, the very fabric of spacetime itself was cut open before Zack’s eyes. It was as if someone had made an incision into the flesh of space, cutting open a passageway through spacetime. Protruding from the orifice was a single katana blade, darker than a moonless night, darker than anything Zack had ever laid eyes on. Zack could feel an oppressive force pushing against his very soul, a force that soon made its way through the opening in space. Through the portal came a man whose body seemed to be composed entirely out of shadows, donning a strange, green helmet-like apparatus upon his head. The helmet’s sides had two wing-like protrusions that angled forwards into the horn-like front portion of the helmet.
Zack wondered if the figure before him was even corporeal, as his body seemed to shimmer like a mirage-- as if the universe itself was unsure that someone so powerful really could exist.
The figure smiled eerily, and a voice that sounded just barely human filled Zack’s ears.
“Number 72… your work here is done. I will finish this.”
The man’s mouth remained a grin, not moving in the slightest even as Zack heard his voice.
The shadowhunter got up, bowing his head.
Solstice held his blade out, pointing it towards Zack.
A single quark splits on the tip of his blade.
Zack raised his sword, desperately attempting to defend himself.
With a single, swift movement, Solstice dashed forward. His blade cut clean through Zack’s katana-- and his robes, and his body, and his very soul.
Zack’s lifeless body crumpled to the ground in two places, before dissolving away into small green particles.
"Well, now it seems all that's left is to wait for our newest ally to finish the job."
As the final column was blown apart by Bomber's bomb, the cavern rumbled like an earthquake.
"Well shit," Bomber said, haphazardly. "Seems like a cave-in is about to happen. You should get out if you don't want to be crushed."
Kai raised an eyebrow, appalled by Bomber's flippant nature. "You say that so casually. This cavern's right under the damn village! What do you think will happen if this cavern caves in?"
Bomber shrugged. "Not really important to me. Now come on, let's leave."
As they exited the mine's entrance, they soon realized that the situation was far worse than they could've anticipated. Giant cracks ran along the entire length of the village, and the ground near its center was sinking downwards-- until at last, the ground could bear the weight no more.
In a colossal dust cloud, the entire village sank into a sinkhole, the roar of stone drowning out the screams of the equinoxians as the ground swallowed them up like a ravenous wolf. When the dust finally settled, nothing remained of the village but a compacted pit of rubble.
Brusuis awoke with a start. Lately he hadn’t been getting much sleep-- with the looming threat of the Overseers on the horizon, he had too much on his mind. However, this time, he knew something was up. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, it didn’t take much to figure out why.
Standing before him was a man with pitch-black skin and fire-red hair.
“Greetings, your Majesty,” Jasper said, bowing facetiously.
Brusuis frowned. “Who are you, and why are you here?”
As Jasper rose from his bow, he had a shit-eating grin plastered to his face.
“Who I am is of no importance, your Majesty. As for why I’m here…”
Jasper reached into his pouch, and pulled something out. As he opened his palm, he revealed a single eyeball with a black sclera and a green iris. The eyeball squirmed slightly in his hand, as if it was a living creature. Brusuis’s skin went white with fear.
“Ah, yes,” Jasper said, approaching the king. “So you do know what this is.”
Brusuis trembled, backing up into a corner. “What do you want from me?”
“You know,” Jasper began, now close enough to Brusuis to touch, “I could ask for wealth. I could ask for your kingdom. But, unfortunately for you, such things don’t interest me.”
“So, what I want from you, is for you to hold very, very still.”
Grasping Brusuis by the neck, Jasper took the eyeball, and held it against the back of Brusuis’s neck. Brusuis’s eyes widened, and his face contorted in agony-- but not a single sound came out as Jasper held his throat shut. The eyeball burrowed itself into Brusuis’s neck, before finally lodging itself into his brain stem.
Brusuis quivered slightly, before his limbs suddenly jerked into place. He blinked-- and when his eyes opened again, they were as green as limes.
“Good job, your Majesty,” Jasper jested, before reaching into his pouch again. “You’ll want to put these on.”
Jasper passed Brusuis a pair of colored contacts.
“Thank you, Jasper,” Brusuis said. “You have played your part well.”
The spring shimmered, as if it was composed of the very essence of life itself. Its surface was calm, reflecting perfectly the verdant plant and animal life surrounding it. However, its stillness was soon disrupted by the bubbling and boiling of mana as something formed beneath its surface. Molecules stitched themselves together to form proteins, cells, cell structures-- until finally the physique of a human could be seen.
Tendrils of silk and cloth formed around the human’s body, wrapping themselves into dark robes-- and a katana too began to materialize nearby. At last, the figure awoke, stepping out of the spring as if it was the waters of the womb.
Zack had been born anew.
Taking a glance around, he realized that he had, in fact, died.
The first time, he was sorely disappointed. He expected his eyesight to heal, for everything to come back-- but scars don’t heal-- they simply fade.
Taking a glance around now, he took in the sights of the garden the spring was in. Overflowing with all sorts of plant and animal life, it was a veritable paradise contained within alabaster walls. Most noticeably of all, a single fruit tree grew in the center of the garden, near the spring from which he had just emerged. Its branches glowed with mana, its leaves the epitome of lushness and health.
Sitting under the tree, taking a bite out of one of the fruits, was a woman. She was cloaked in silk so light it seemed to be stiched of stardust. She was embroidered with golden jewelry studded with jade and emerald, and her gown too was lined with gold. Her skin was fair and pure, and her long hair shimmered a bright lavender-white. She sat with an impossible grace, yet just by approaching her, Zack knew that that grace belied an enormous amount of mana and power-- but unlike the shadowy man who had slain him, the force he felt from this mana contained no hostility.
“Welcome back to the First Sanctum, Sliver-of-Infinite-Moonlight, the woman said.”
“My apologies, Aspiration-of-Stability-and-Balance," Zack replied, courteously. "I was caught off-guard.”
“Of course you were, Zack,” the woman replied. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. That’s your third death so far. The first time, it was suicide. The second time, you got caught in an ambush. What happened now?”
“Bhava-eternal, this time it was of no fault of my own. I was slain by a man with a sword that could cut through spacetime.”
The Bhava frowned. “Indeed, that sounds troubling.”
“If you’ll allow me,” Zack began, “I’ll continue my hunt for the sh--”
The Bhava simply raised a hand. “No need, Zack. We have other, more pressing issues. For now, you’ll serve alongside your fellow Arbiters in combat.”
Zack paused slightly, swallowing his pride.
“And Zack,” the Bhava said, as he turned to exit the garden. “Do be more careful. Nine lives seems like plenty, but don’t forget-- you lose more of your soul the more you die.”
“Troweler, it seems we have an issue,” Crusher began. The two of them were undertaking their end-of-semester mission together, and were tasked with helping fend off an attack on a village.
“What’s the matter, Crusher?” Troweler replied, jubilant as usual.
“Our mission just got updated. It’s a rescue mission now,” Crusher said, worriedly. “Seems we were too late to stop the attack.”
Troweler’s smile dipped slightly. “In that case, let’s hurry!”
By the time the duo reached the village, it was evident that things were going very, very badly. Gazing at the fire that ran rampant through the town, Crusher wondered if this was what it was like for Piercer the night his village was attacked. Screams permeating the night air, the thick fog of smoke strangling him from the inside.
They searched through the village, and found nothing but death. Burned out houses, entrails and blood coating the streets. By now, the screams had quieted.
Crusher grew uneasy-- something about the attack seemed too calculated, too precise.
Taking a glance around, Troweler noticed a single person, desperately trying to flee-- but from his limping it was evident that he was badly injured. Without a second thought, he proceeded in his direction.
“Hold on, I’ll help you!”
Troweler rushed forward, ready to assist the injured man-- but was stopped as a colossal figure dropped down from the sky, crushing the man’s skull with a crunch as he landed.
Backing away, Troweler found himself gazing into two iridescent red eyes.
Crusher’s eyes widened in fear and surprise, and he rushed to Troweler’s side.
“Zenthus!” Crusher shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Zenthus smirked. “What do you think?”
Crusher opened his mouth to speak, but he soon realized that no matter what he says, he was still terribly, terribly outmatched.
Zenthus chuckled. “What’s the matter? Are you so shocked of my sudden entrance that you’ve lost the ability to speak?” Crouching down, he held Troweler’s chin, bringing him closer.
“You see,” he continued, his grin filling the entirety of Troweler’s vision, “right now, I’d love to just kill you both. Wear your entrails like a necklace. Grind you down into giblets. But, as the saying goes, good things come for those who wait.”
“So enjoy your time while it lasts. Because eventually, all good things come to an end.”
With those parting words, Zenthus leaped off into the night.
Several eerie seconds ticked by, marked only by the crumbling of buildings and the crackling of fire.
Troweler collapsed to his knees.
“I…” Troweler gazed downwards, his eyes dead with a blank stare, tears beginning to well up. “...I couldn’t save them.”
Crusher laid a hand on Troweler’s shoulder. “Troweler…”
“I failed, Crusher,” Troweler said, distraught. “The one thing my mana is best for, for protecting people-- I failed at doing so completely and utterly.”
“Because of me, these people are dead.”
Crusher sighed, looking at Troweler.
“There was nothing you could do, Troweler. Not against someone like Zenthus. Don’t blame yourself.”
“I still could’ve saved a few… if only I was faster…”
“...sometimes, you can’t save them all.”
Returning from the mission, Kai decided to take a walk. He couldn’t bear being in the same room as his teammates-- not after what Bomber did. He should’ve guessed. He should’ve known-- and now, it was too late.
In a fit of rage and helplessness, Kai blasted apart a nearby rock with a mana blast.
“You know, Kai,” a voice sounded out. “Perhaps Bomber isn’t as bad as you think he is.”
Kai looked around for the source of the voice-- before he finally turned around, jumping back in fright. Standing behind him was none other than Jasper, casually twirling his hammer.
“Who are you? Kai said, flying upwards and charging up mana in his fists.
“I’m the person who could either save you, or kill you. That all depends on what you choose to pick, Kai. Zhao has taught you well. You should know that no one-- even Bomber-- does anything without a valid reason.”
“What Bomber did was inexcusable, regardless of reason.”
Jasper shrugged. “If that’s what you believe, then so be it. But it would benefit you to know at least why he chose to go down that route.”
“Bomber destroyed Shadelight because he was following orders-- because he decided to be on the winning team. Now, that does sound quite horrible at first, but consider this: What drove him to such lengths that he’d kill an entire village?”
“The answer? Survival. A great reckoning looms on the horizon, Kai. Only those who evolve, those who adapt will survive. Such is the logic that underpins all aspects of the universe.”
Jasper approached Kai, who had slowly descended to the ground, looking him in the eye. “You enrolled in the academy for power, did you not? Such a waste it would be to see it squandered all because you refused to abandon your petty morality. But, of course, should you choose to adapt… you just might see yourself with power greater than you could ever imagine.”
“Naturally, that power doesn’t come free of charge. You’ll have to work for it-- to show you have what it takes.”
Kai paused, contemplating the man’s words. He knew in his mind that he shouldn’t, that he should just leave-- but he felt something pull at his heart, something instinctual, an old friend that had guided him throughout all his endeavours until he met Zhao-- greed.
“...what do I have to do?”
Jasper smiled. “All you have to do is betray Zhao.”
Kai frowned. “After all he’s done for me? I can’t do that.”
“I never said it would be easy, Kai. Power isn’t given freely to any sort of rubbish that happens upon my offer-- you’ll need to prove yourself.”
Kai paused. Half of him legitimately began contemplating the decision-- and the other half couldn’t believe that what the first half was doing.
“Of course, should you deny my offer… the only other option is death.”
“So, what do you say, Kai?”
“Do you have the resolve to take a life?”
“I… I’ll do it.”
“Your Majesty, as a representative of the equinoxian community, I please beg of you to set the scales of justice right. BFS Academy’s anti-equinoxian sentiments have become more than evident over the course of these past few months. First, it was Slasher. Then, their inability to protect equinoxian towns from attack-- going so far as to even single-handedly cause the death of an entire village. Their complete disregard for the safety of equinoxians, not to mention the racist sentiments their actions belie, calls for swift and harsh punishment.”
The tension in the throne room was like lead upon Matthias’s shoulders. Long ago, he wore his crown with pride-- but now, his teal jeweled headpiece and vibrant white cloak weighed him down like a ball and chain.
However, if there was anyone he could trust in this world, it was Super. He knew that Super wouldn’t run his academy in such a fashion-- so despite the words of the equinoxian man before him, despite the roars of the mob gathered to hear his ruling-- he had to go with his gut instinct.
“I’ve known Super for many years. He wouldn’t let his academy do such things. BFS Academy’s administration has claimed it was accidental, and I am inclined to believe their words. For now, no action shall be taken against Super Cloud Nine and his academy.”
The crowd was in an uproar, shouting, booing, jeering-- it was quite evident that his decision had not been a popular one. A few of the equinoxians in the crowd even tried running up to him, before they were held back by the guards. Sighing, Matthias disappeared in a burst of white mana.
“...and get this,” Super continued, facing Matthias. “They’re saying your decision was made due to your bias towards me, and that you acted selfishly, prioritizing yourself and your friends over the needs of your people.”
Matthias closed his eyes. “Every day my worries about this kingdom grow ever stronger.”
“You’ll have to save your worries for another time, my friend,” Super replied, getting up from his desk. “It’s almost the winter solstice. We should get going to Velouis for the Assembly.”
As the duo turned to leave, Super took a glance at a man on the office’s upper balcony. He was clad in an archaic steel and gold set of armor, and had a peculiar, intricate horned helmet atop his head. The helmet itself had a small eyepiece that covered the man’s left eye, with the eyepiece furthermore containing a glowing, strange-looking green lens. The man also had a large grey warhammer upon his back with gold accents. The hammer seemed remarkably old, as if it had lived longer than the world itself. The hammer’s head tapered off into two wedges on either side of the head, and in the center was a complex-looking mechanism of cogs and other machinery-- some of which Super hadn’t seen anywhere else before.
“Ferris,” Super began, gesturing to the man, “I’ll leave the academy in your care while Matthias and I are at Velouis."
Ferris nodded, before returning to the book he was reading.
“For too long, you’ve waited in silence, suffering, dying in the dark whilst others live in the light. Now, even your very own government, the ones you trusted to protect you have abandoned you. They let butchers like Nine live freely in their ivory towers, leaving you to die while they onanistically gorge themselves on your suffering.”
The crowd cheered, raising their fists in unison. The warehouse they had gathered in was large enough to fit several galleons, yet still it was filled from corner to corner with equinoxians after equinoxians. Standing on the stage, microphone in hand, was none other than Dawson.
“No more suffering. No more discrimination. No more pain.”
“Death is waiting, eager to feast on Nine and his accursed academy-- and thanks in part to a generous benefactor of ours, we will be the the harbingers of swift and lethal justice.”
“So prepare yourselves!”
“The time for vengeance draws near.”
Storm clouds gathered on the horizon like a herd of angry sheep. It was the dead of winter, and despite the cold and dark afternoon, the atmosphere at the academy was bright and jubilant. Winter solstice festivities were in full swing, and the students of the academy were busy mingling, sharing gifts and making good cheer-- with the exception of Bomber and his team.
Located in an unused and secluded basement in the academy, Bomber was finding himself a mild inconvenience.
“You’ve been pushing our patience for the entirety of these past three months, Bomber,” Rocketer said, scowling. “Shadelight was nearly the last straw. This however? This is just unbelievable.”
“You’re a dishonorable little twat, Bomber,” Spiriter spat, his face a look of complete and utter disapproval. “We’re leaving.”
Bomber simply laughed, gazing at the duo with a grin that seemed a little less than sane. “You’ve already agreed to this. It’s too late to back out now-- you’re in too deep.”
“I’ll give you one final chance to reconsider your decision.”
“So it seems you won’t be reconsidering, eh?”
Right on cue, Jasper emerged from the darkness of the basement, shaking his head.
“You see, Rocketer, Spiriter. You can think of our plans as a great machine. Any parts that don’t function correctly will be replaced.”
“And make no mistake, you are certainly replaceable.”
Lunging forward, Jasper summoned his hammer, smashing it down upon Rocketer’s head, blowing it to bits. Spiriter turned to run, but wasn’t quick enough to evade Jasper’s hammer as it hurtled towards him. The hammer impacted, knocking Spiriter against a wall-- and with a sickening crack, his head fell limp.
“Now, we won’t have any more disobedience, will we?”
“I expect you to do exactly as you were instructed… Kai.”
Kai gulped, taking a quick glance at Spiriter’s broken body.
The training room was silent, far detached from the bustle of the rest of the academy. Only Zhao occupied it, and even he made no sound save for his slow breathing as he meditated. This silencec did not last, however, as the creaking of the door’s hinge pierced his trance.
Zhao had the strangest feeling of deja vu, and recalled the day Kai had first asked him to mentor him. He smiled.
“Kai, what brings you here?”
“Well, since it is the winter solstice and all…” Kai began, gingerly, “...I figured I’d get you a gift, even if it’s only a small one.”
Kai held out his hand, which was gripping a small mug of hot chocolate. Unbeknownst to Zhao, the mug was a cup of death-- the chocolate mixed with a powerful poison that Shalia had concocted earlier.
Kai desperately wanted to tell Zhao everything, to cut his mission short-- but remembering what happened to Rocketer and Spiriter, he was too struck with fear to relent.
“Why thank you, Kai,” Zhao began. He didn’t drink hot chocolate often, but seeing as how Kai went out of his way to get him a mug, he obliged.
Sipping the drink, Zhao’s brow furrowed. The chocolate had a strange aftertaste…
With a sudden jolt like he’d been shot in the chest, Zhao doubled over. The mug shattered on the ground as he clutched his chest in pain.
“Kai…” Zhao said, looking up at him, coughing, “...what have you done?”
“Zhao…” Kai began, blinking tears from his eyes, as he began charging up mana in his fist,
Piercer hurried towards the training room, carrying with him a small parcel. He hadn’t really been fond of giving gifts, but if Drak’s death taught him anything, it taught him to appreciate his friends while they were still around. He wondered what Zhao’s reaction would be, and he couldn’t help but smile in excitement.
Opening the door, all thoughts were washed away as he saw Kai fire a mana blast at Zhao.
Zhao crumpled to the floor, lifeless.
Piercer’s parcel fell to the floor as he stood there, unable to process what had just happened.
Ears ringing. Blood pounding.
Trails of mana wisping from Kai’s fingertips.
Blood stained the training room floor, seeping into cracks in the mosaic.
Kai killed Zhao.
Piercer’s stare of disbelief shifted into an ice cold glare that bored holes into Kai’s very soul. Purple mana raged along his body, forming into light armor and a hood, strands of mana emanating from the armor as if it was on fire. His mind was completely blank-- left with no other directive than to make Kai pay sorely for his transgressions.
Dashing forward, Piercer prepared to fire an arrow at Kai-- not at his head, no. Kai deserved to die slowly. Pulling back the bowstring, Piercer was suddenly blown off his feet, fire and light searing his back slightly-- an explosion. Flying forwards, he tumbled along the training room floor, before finally rolling to a stop. Though he spoke nothing, the speed at which he rose to his feet belied a hidden aggression. Looking around, Piercer spotted an adolescent in an orange t-shirt, bearing cybernetic hand.
“Piercer, dear Piercer,” Bomber said, his face in a strange half-scowl half-smirk, “Now you know how it feels. How it feels to have something taken from you.”
Piercer paid no attention to Bomber, instead moving in Kai’s direction-- but Bomber moved to intercept him.
“Where are your manners, Piercer?” Bomber said, shaking his head. “I’ve been waiting for revenge far longer than you have. The least you could do is entertain me.”
“My my, how gruff,” Bomber said, facetiously. “Perhaps this’ll catch your attention.”
Charging up his mana, Bomber summoned forth a gigantic, glowing bomb.
Piercer stopped, raising an eyebrow, before turning to aim his bow at Bomber.
“Oh, so you do recognize this attack, don’t you?” Bomber jeered. “I’m not stupid, Piercer. I know I can’t beat you, especially what with your glowy armor and all that shit.”
“Lucky for you, it matters not if I live through this-- only that you die.”
Stepping back, Bomber lunged towards Piercer-- but was interrupted by the telltale sizzling of a mana blast as it made contact with his bomb-- setting it off in a blinding flash of light and heat as it detonated, launching shrapnel and dust and rubble throughout the arena. Piercer raised an arm in an attempt to keep the debris out of his face-- and when the dust settled, he saw Kai, standing above Bomber’s charred, dead body.
“There. He won’t be any trouble to you anymore.”
Piercer walked to Kai’s side, summoning his sword and pointing it at Kai’s neck.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now.”
Kai sighed, before looking at the ground. “I don’t blame you for wanting to kill me. What I did was inexcusable… I just hoped that perhaps, I could at least do something in the ways of making up for it.”
“You killed my best friend.”
“Being aware of your crimes doesn’t justify them.”
“Are you going to beg for your life, or are you simply going to accept your death?”
Kai looked Piercer in the eyes with the look of a man on the way to the gallows. “I’m in no position to tell you what to do. You have the power of life and death, Piercer. Spare me or kill me, it’s your choice.”
Piercer paused, briefly. For the slightest moment, Kai thought Piercer might actually spare him.
Without hesitation, Piercer gutted Kai with his sword. Even after the first strike, he didn’t stop. Stab after stab after stab, Kai’s lifeblood ran down Piercer’s blade as the last sparks of life left his body. Tears running down Piercer’s face, he relentlessly mangled Kai’s now lifeless body, until his arm gave up the will to swing.
Collapsing to his knees, Piercer cried.
Suddenly, the entire arena shook like an earthquake, and a sound like a distant clap of thunder reverberated through the walls. Within moments, the blaring of an alarm began to sound. A synthetic voice sounded through the intercom.
“All students, proceed to the courtyard immediately. This is not a drill-- again, this is not a drill.”
Piercer didn’t want to move. He wanted to lay there and hope he ceased existing-- but as he heard the intercom, a single thought entered his mind. Regardless of how broken down he might be, he still was needed-- and no matter how much he didn’t want to move, he still had to be there. He had to be there for his friends, for everyone-- even if Zhao was no longer here for him.
Silently, emotionlessly, he got up and ran towards the courtyard.
As Piercer entered the courtyard, he knew immediately that something was very terribly amiss. All the teachers of the academy had gathered at the front gates of the courtyard, and were busy attempting to calm down a horde of very panicked students. Spotting his team at the end of the courtyard, Piercer hurried over.
“Guys, what’s going on?”
Baller looked at Piercer with an expression of worry. “I’m not sure… there was an explosion near the eastern wing, and now they want us gathered here, at the courty--”
Baller was cut off by the booming sound of an explosion-- and as he turned to look for its source, he spotted a giant crater in the west wing, smoke billowing from the impact site as the building slowly began collapsing.
This panicked the students even more, as screams and shouts pierced through the raucous chatter-- before that too was silenced by the sound of an axe against concrete. Looking up, You spotted Professor Pyre, the combat instructor-- with her axe buried in the pavement.
“Alright, listen up!” she shouted.
“I’m not going to lie to you all. The situation is grim. We’re under attack.”
“So, as a teacher, my responsibility is to get all of you out of here safely.”
“However, I can’t protect you all alone. For all of you to leave safely, some of you will have to stay and fight. Again, I’m not going to lie to you all, there is a very real chance that you might get hurt-- even die.”
“But for those of you who stand and fight, know that your selflessness will immortalize you-- for that is what it truly takes to be a Quazer, to be a hero.”
“So if you must leave, head to the admin building. There’s a passageway in the basement that will take you out.”
“If you wish to fight, then ready your weapons.”
As Pyre finished her speech, the vast majority of the students began making their way to the admin building-- but not all of them. A few stayed behind-- and among them, were Troweler, Crusher, Piercer, Slicer, Baller, and You.
Pyre closed her eyes briefly. “So this is all we have, is it?”
“...Very well. Let’s see how well I’ve taught you all.”
Pyre strolled raised her axe onto her shoulder, stepping forward from the entrance to the courtyard. You could see a few more teachers behind her-- Mr. Petrelis, Mr. Jar, Ms. Fyrnen-- as well as Jacob and Tess.
“Class, today you’ll be undergoing the most strenuous, most dangerous combat exercise you’ll probably ever do,” Pyre began, smiling facetiously. “You’ll be outnumbered, and you’ll be facing an enemy that wishes to tear you from limb to limb.”
“So, should we make it through this, I’ll be sure to write that down on your transcripts.”
“Defense up front!” Pyre began, motioning to students with her hands. “Melee right behind them, and ranged at the back. Support and healers stand by.”
Not long after the students finished setting up their formation, the front gates to the courtyard blew open in an explosion of plasma. Streaming through the gates was wave after wave of equinoxians-- some armed with little more than pitchforks, whilst others were carrying what looked to be Orinthian weaponry.
Slicer was appalled. He didn’t enroll in the academy to kill civilians, much less equinoxians-- but seeing how frenzied they were, and the weapons they carried, he was left with no other option.
As the battle began, it was soon evident that the equinoxians were less an army than an angry mob. They had no cohesion, no tactics-- but the one thing they did have over the students was number. Despite suffering minimal losses, the students still found themselves slowly pushed further back along the courtyard.
Spearheading the student contingent was Professor Pyre herself, towering above student and equinoxian alike, her battleaxe mowing down the opposition like a sickle cutting through a field of wheat. Yet, even as her students rallied behind her, she soon stopped her assault as the ground started to shake with a rhythmic jolting.
“Fall back!” Pyre shouted, “Ready your defenses!”
The students were confused-- after all, they were already starting to gain ground on the now thinning army of equinoxians. Regardless, they braced themselves. Shields were raised, barriers formed-- but even that was not enough, as a sudden explosion of plasma hit the front line. Other students rushed to fill the gap, but soon found themselves backing away in fear as something huge broke through the front wall of the courtyard-- an Orinthian Spider Tank.
It was the size of a small building, with eight robotic legs that left small craters in the pavement as it walked. Its main chassis was sleek and slanted, and it had two scary-looking miniguns attached to its very front. From its back protruded a strange cannon-like apparatus that glowed a bright cyan, with arcs of mana sparking about its barrel-- which was pointed directly at Professor Pyre.
She moved to dodge, but couldn’t get out of the way in time as the cannon fired at her from near point-blank. Flying backwards, she tumbled along the ground before coming to rest nearly halfway down the courtyard.
Against all odds, she got up from the crater she found herself in, before raising her axe once more and charging straight at the tank.
Glancing at Pyre, a single thought arose in You’s mind.
Letting out a fierce battle cry, Pyre ran alongside the tank’s left legs, holding her axe out as she went by. Chunks of steel and wiring were ripped from the tank as she gave it a quadruple amputation. Repeating her procedure on the tank’s opposite side, Pyre began charging mana into her axe until it glowed like a star, before slamming it down on top of the tank’s main chassis.
The tank separated cleanly in two, like a fruit on a cutting board.
However, even Pyre wasn’t invincible, and as she finished her attack it was obvious that her mana reserves had gotten dangerously low. Wiping sweat from her brow, she sighed, raising her axe again as two more spider tanks broke through the wall on her left and right.
“Pyre!” Valerie shouted, grabbing her by the shoulder before she could launch her attack, “You’ve fought enough. Let us handle this.”
Pyre initially began to continue anyway, but she stopped. She couldn’t be of use if she was dead. Begrudgingly, she nodded, before retreating into the main contingent.
“Jacob, Tess, form up on the left tank!”
Summoning a hex barrier in front of the tank, Valerie, Jacob, and Tess gathered behind it as the tank launched a plasma round directly into it. Silently, as if they’d done it a million times before, they began their attack.
Jacob fired round after round into the tank’s guns until they were so full of holes that they were nothing more than scrap metal. Tess floated into the air, snowflakes gathering around her, before she launched them forward in an ice-cold beam at the tank’s legs. Immobilized and unable to retaliate, the tank was a sitting duck for Valerie and her now fully-charged hammer, which struck the tank with such a force that the chassis cracked, crumbling into small chunks upon the ground.
The students attacked the right tank, bombarding it with all sorts of attacks. Crusher, Piercer, Slicer, Baller, and You all landed a few hits on it, but the real star of the show was Troweler. Taking parts from the shattered remains of the other tanks, Troweler’s living statue was almost a tank itself as he pummeled the tank like it was just a toy, ripping off leg after leg after leg-- until suddenly, the glint of a red sword struck him in the back.
Unlike last time it happened, Troweler’s statue didn’t immediately collapse. He’d gotten stronger since the initiation tournaments, but the attack still cut away a large chunk of his mana. Deducing that it’d be better for him to conserve his mana for later, Troweler let his statue collapse, before regrouping with the rest of the students. When he turned to look at the perpetrator of the attack, he already knew who he’d find in his sights-- none other than Dawson himself.
What he didn’t expect, however, was for the skies to open up, for a sudden rainstorm to appear. Along with the rain came a man in a yellow suit. Following Xavier was Jasper, and towering behind them all was Zenthus, cracking his knuckles.
The teachers immediately engaged them in combat-- Jacob took potshots at Dawson, but soon found himself forced into close-quarters combat with his shotgun and daggers as Dawson teleported around him. Xavier took control of the rain, sending it at Tess-- but Tess simply froze the incoming projectiles, before directing them to return back at Xavier. Valerie and Jasper were trading blows with their hammers, completely wrecking the surrounding environment with their strikes. Pyre and Zenthus matched each other in stature and fighting style, their heavy blades ricocheting off of each other as they battled.
However, their fighting was cut short as a sudden, inexplicable wave of fear struck the students, causing them to flee away from the front of the courtyard. The teachers too felt this, and though it wasn’t enough to send them running, it did significantly quench their resolve-- and so they too grouped up with the students as they retreated to the admin building.
Pyre knew exactly what had happened, and the thought of it filled her mind with dread. Auxvale Arzen.
Floating above the courtyard wall, silhouetted against what little light pierced the sky at sundown, was a strange figure. His mana presence was overpowering, and even at the other end of the courtyard, Pyre could feel his mana pressing against her like an invisible hand. He was clad in an archaic, dark grey trenchcoat-like robe reaching from his feet up to a collar around his neck. The robes had mystical red patternings and symbols about them. The inside of his trenchcoat seemed to be filled with the very essence of darkness-- and Pyre couldn’t tell if it was simply shadows or if it was an infinite void through which nothing could escape. Tendrils and wisps of darkness seeped out of the openings in the robe, out of the armholes, the bottom, and the collar. The man had pitch-black skin and very short pitch-black hair, as well as a large scar that ran from his left eye down along his jawline and along his neck. In his left hand, he held a strange tome as archaic and old as his robes, which was bound in a shining black metal, with glowing red symbols along its spine and on its covers. In his right hand, he held a small porcelain teacup.
Jasper grinned, bowing as the man descended to the ground before him.
“How nice for you to finally join us, Tynan.”
“Let session 7 of the year 1431 Winter Assembly commence.”
The Assembly was conducted in an ornate chamber lined with Everfall wood and ornate gold, with a large glass dome overhead. In the middle of the chamber was a round table, and nine people were seated around it.
Seated at one side was Matthias, with Super standing close by. To his left sat the Bhava, and to her left sat Brusuis. To his left sat a woman clad in light silver-and-iron armor with blue robes, all encrusted with clear gemstones, and to her left was a tall and fairly-muscular man with green eyes and tattered and faded royal robes. His black hair was marked by streaks of grey.
“This session’s topic-- the unrest within the kingdom of Draco.”
Tynan sipped the last of the tea from his cup, before tucking it into some unseen chasm in his robes.
“Well then,” Tynan began. “What are we waiting for? We’re here for the horns.”
Jasper nodded. “Very well, then let us retrieve them.”
Dawson walked forward, sheathing his bastard swords before teleporting himself and the Darkin away in a flash of dark mana.
Confused and scared by the sudden turn of events, the remaining students began fleeing towards the admin building. The teachers too realized that such a fight would be futile, and attempted to direct the students to the evacuation route.
As the sizzle of mana dissipated, Tynan’s normally stoic expression allowed for a slight grin as he gazed his eyes upon the interior of Super’s office. Looking up, he saw the dragon skeleton overhead and chuckled to himself.
Floating into the air, he inspected the skeleton’s horns-- noticing that one of them was missing.
“Of course, Super… who would’ve guessed?”
Snapping the other horn off, he grasped it firmly in his right hand. Even just holding it, he could feel the weight of its immense mana reservoir against his hand. His grin was now a full-blown smile as he channeled his mana into it.
Reacting to the presence of his mana, the horn fizzled into small black particles, which then flowed into Tynan’s body through his hand. It was as if Tynan’s body was suddenly charged with a great, powerful energy-- and the other Darkin members soon found, even the act of gazing upon him was nearly too much to bear as his mana presence pressed upon them like the blunt end of a hammer.
“Now, for the other half…” Tynan began, motioning to Dawson.
“Sir, if I may,” Dawson began, raising a finger in protest, “We really ought to do something about the boy I told you about earlier before we go.”
Tynan mused to himself. “I don’t believe him to be much of a threat in his current state, but very well. Jasper, go and take care of him-- but only if it’s opportune. Should he have already fled, I’ll waste no more time on this endeavour.”
Nodding, Jasper stepped into the spire’s elevator.
“...and what truly has become alarmingly evident is that Matthias simply doesn’t care about the needs of his people if it means calling out his friends,” Brusuis continued. “A monarch must be selfless-- a trait that Matthias has yet failed to demonstrate. Not only do his actions reveal an egregiously racist attitude, but they also reveal a flippant and careless manner of government. Even now, he has failed to prevent the equinoxian uprising in his kingdom.”
Matthias looked as if he was about to strangle Brusuis with his glare alone. “We had no idea that they’d have Orinthian weaponr--”
“Then please,” Brusuis interrupted, “explain how they obtained it.”
“They purchased it.”
“Then where did they obtain the funds?”
Left without a valid answer, Matthias kept quiet.
“Then there isn’t anything else left to be said. Let us vote on the fate of Matthias Sentosa as monarch of Draco.”
“The votes are in. In favor: Redcliff, Radesultor, Roala, Cargias. Against: Xuetul, Splintered Skies, Kretz. Seventh Sanctum has abstained.”
“Let it be known that the Redcliff Kingdom will assume control of Draco’s now forfeited territory,” Brusuis began.
The woman in the armor and blue robes looked at Brusuis in shock and surprise. “This was never in the terms of the agreement. Draco is still a sovereign kingdom-- invading would be an act of war, not to mention a breach of the Deoccupation treaty.”
“A sovereign kingdom yes, but a kingdom without a monarch,” Brusuis refuted. “Not to mention a kingdom in turmoil. Orinthian technology is not to be trifled with. I believe my military is the only one with the resources and proximity to respond readily.”
“You’ll be firing on civilians!”
“Verne, these are civilians armed with the deadliest weapons on the face of this planet. They are extremely dangerous-- and extreme danger must be countered with countermeasures equal in caliber.”
“I am ordering an anti-mana strike on the academy.”
Verne’s glare now matched Matthias’s in intensity.
“The Splintered Skies will not stand for this. Should your warmongering actions continue, make no mistake, we will take action. This session is over.”
By now, the teachers and most of the students had already made their way into the escape passage-- only Troweler, You, and his team still remained outside. As they too entered the passage, Troweler stopped.
“Troweler!” Crusher shouted, “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
“Crusher…” Troweler began, looking Crusher with a strange, solemn look, “those Darkin will be back, you know that right?”
“So, what’s your point? We need to go!”
“They attacked the academy for a reason. Whatever it may be, I can’t let them find you guys. I’ll seal this exit, then divert them away from it.”
Crusher’s eyes widened as he realized just what Troweler meant to do. “Troweler, you don’t have to do this.”
“Crusher, earlier you told me that I couldn’t save everyone. Although that may be true, it doesn’t mean I can’t save at least a few.” Troweler summoned forth his trowel, before stepping outside the exit.
Crusher sprinted towards Troweler.
With tears in his eyes, Troweler sealed the exit with rubble.
By the time Jasper reached the ground floor, he already knew something was up. There was no chatter, no clatter of footsteps-- just the howling of the wind and the pattering of the rain. Stepping out of the elevator, all he saw was Troweler, facing him with a fierce look in his eyes.
“So I take it they’ve left?”
Troweler said nothing.
“Hmm. Perhaps you had something to do with it?”
“Damn shame, I suppose.”
Troweler scowled. “If you’ve come here to kill me, then do it.”
“I was instructed to track down the boy in the white t-shirt. Since, however, it seems he’s gotten away-- and you’ve so kindly obliged, then I suppose I shall.”
Not long after, Jasper returned to the top of the spire, where Tynan and the rest of the Darkin were located-- fresh blood dripping off the face of his hammer.
“Boy got away, sir.”
“No matter. Let us retrieve the other horn.”
“Now, Dawson, as we discussed earlier…”
Tynan turned to face Dawson, who promptly extended his hand. Gripping Dawson’s hand, Tynan sent forth a large chunk of his mana, arcing in black lightning into Dawson’s body. With a burst of mana that rocked the spire, the Darkin were gone.
The other members of the Assembly had already left the rotunda. Matthias, however, remained. Fists clenched so hard they could turn coal into diamond, he sat there in fury. Super stood by his side. He hadn’t seen Matthias in such a state for a very long time-- but as much as he wanted to comfort him, he found his opportunity to do so cut short.
“Matt, get out of here!”
Matthias, looking up, went pale with fright-- before teleporting away.
Summoning his sword, he already knew who had arrived-- he could sense the familiar feeling of their mana.
Dawson. Xavier. Jasper. Zenthus.
And of course, Tynan.
“It’s been far too long, Super. 93 whole years, in fact.”
Super’s expression remained stoic. “I see you’ve also brought… them.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Tynan said. “My Darkin. You should know them very well.”
In truth, Super was very worried. He could tell that Tynan’s mana had increased-- which meant that the he was here for the other horn. His helmet now felt infinitely heavier upon his head.
“So, is that it, then?” Super began. “You’ve come to have a rematch?”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“In that case,” Super said, gathering mana around him, “I’ll be sure to entertain you.”
From the feet up, a form-fitting armor began appearing on Super’s body. The shining white plating of Astralite lined his body, accented by blue veins of Volct Arzen. His Release Restraint armor.
Tynan smirked, before gathering his mana around himself as well-- by the time it had finished, he too wore a set of armor exactly like Super’s-- albeit black plating with red Volct Arzen.
“As expected. He’s drawing mana from my dragon horn, so it’d make sense he’d be able to use my mana like that.”
Raising his sword into a ready position, Super dashed towards Tynan. Dawson teleported in to intercept, but Super simply smacked him upside the head with the hilt of his sword. Xavier and Jasper rushed next, but were promptly knocked out as Super kicked his sword towards Jasper, before redirecting its trajectory to strike Xavier.
Zenthus raised his blade, swinging it down upon Super-- but found his blade stopped as Super caught it with his fist. The sword screeched like a dying animal as cracks run along Zenthus’s blade, before it shattered into tiny fragments of steel as Super’s vicelike grip tore it apart.
Jumping up to grab Zenthus’s neck, Super pulled Zenthus’s head downwards, looking down upon him with disgust, before swinging Zenthus’s entire body in an arc above his head. Zenthus impacted hard against the floor of the assembly building, but even the floor itself couldn’t sustain the sheer force of his walloping, crumbling beneath him.
A muffled thud could be heard as Zenthus landed against the floor below.
Wasting no time to up the offensive, Tynan lunged at Super, sending his own black and red blade flying towards Super, who parried it with his own-- yet soon found it wrought from his hand as Tynan swung at him with jabs and kicks. Both of their swords autonomously parried each other in the air as the two armor-clad warriors fought, exchanging punches and blows with blinding speed and intensity.
“This isn’t good. Not only am I expending my mana by attacking him, but he’s also draining mana from the horn to block against my attacks as well as launching his own. At this rate, I’ll be out of mana in no time at all.”
Suddenly, the veins of Volct Arzen running along Super’s suit turned bright yellow like sunlight. His sword too shifted forms, its Astralite plating reassembling itself into the shape of a hammer-- with the hammer in particular having what seemed to be a gun barrel in its hilt.
The hammer rotated itself, aiming the hilt-barrel towards Tynan, and firing a blast of explosive yellow mana that sent Tynan flying backwards against the wall. Super leapt towards Tynan, calling his hammer back to himself, before smashing it down upon Tynan’s prone form.
Tynan was smashed through the floor.
And then the next floor.
And then the next one.
Before finally coming to rest at ground level.
Tynan scowled, the Arzen along his suit also shifting color-- becoming a dark, seething purple; his sword too shifting into a hammer just like Super’s.
The two of them shot projectiles at each other, civilians fleeing so as to not be caught in the crossfire. Super tried his best to avoid causing collateral damage, but Tynan was without a care-- the shockwaves from his hammer leveling entire buildings as the two exchanged blows.
By now, Super’s mana was getting dangerously low. Smashing Tynan through the assembly building had also taken a toll on his mana as Tynan continued to siphon mana from him to power his armor. He needed to end this now, and end this decisively.
Letting Tynan hit him, Super was sent back several city blocks away-- just as he planned.
The Arzen in his suit glowed red like a collapsing star, his hammer reconstructing itself into a menacing scythe, with Volct Arzen running along its blade. He held it at the ready, charging it with his mana-- not from the dragon horn, but from his own reserves.
Tynan observed Super in the distance, not quite able to make out what exactly he was doing. By the time he had realized, it was already too late-- Super’s attack was already fully charged.
Teleporting suddenly before Tynan, Super’s scythe cut a single swathe through Tynan’s armor. Like a supernova, a great explosion of heat and light radiated outwards from the impact site, rendering anything within a four-block radius of the two down into smoking piles of rubble.
Tynan’s armor cracked, Arzen fading away as the suit collapsed into black dust. Super’s now had to rely on nothing but his base reserves, which were already cut into by the last attack he launched. He hoped Tynan would retreat, but in his mind he knew it was an impossibility.
Tynan hovered into the air, pulling his tome from his robes. Flipping it open, he pointed a glaring finger down towards Super. Symbols and glyphs and other archaic designs sprung to life upon the ground. Super attempted to teleport away, but not before being singed slightly by the pillars of flame that erupted beneath him. His Arzen turned blue once more as he reverted to standard form, directing his sword at Tynan, who intercepted it with a glyph midair that froze the sword in place before it could reach him.
Super was by all means giving Tynan a hard fight-- but even as Tynan was forced on the defensive, Super was already on his last legs of mana. Attempting to retreat, he found himself unable to move as Tynan cast a glyph underneath him, trapping him in place. Left without enough mana to even teleport, Super’s armor faded from existence.
Tynan sighed. “At long last.”
Reaching for Super’s helmet, he snapped off its left horn, before absorbing it into himself as he did the other one. Tynan’s gnawing hunger, the hunger he’d felt for 93 years, was at last sated. He was whole again.
As Tynan was relishing his reclaimed power, Super felt a hand upon his shoulder. Looking up, he saw Matthias’s familiar face-- before he was teleported away.
Tynan called the rest of his Darkin members to him. Dawson, Xavier, Jasper-- even Zenthus, though his face was wrought with anger from being humiliated by Super earlier.
“It is done. Let us tear this city to the ground.”
You thought for sure that he was going to die.
The ground had shaken like nothing he had ever felt before, as the ceiling of the passage collapsed, trapping him and the masters in a tiny little portion of the escape route like fish in a barrel. By some miracle, the ceiling above them didn’t collapse.
You wasn’t sure whether that should be considered lucky or unlucky.
Once the rumbling had stopped, the five of them dug themselves out of the crumbled passage-- only to find a blackened crater where the academy had once stood. Stranger even was the fact that all the plant life nearby looked dead, desiccated, as if all the life was sucked out of them.
You began scouting the area, before the glint of some sort of metallic object caught his eye. Taking a closer look, it was a small medallion, made of some sort of gold-like substance. On its face was engraved a strange symbol, seeming somewhat similar in nature to the symbols You saw on Tynan’s robes.
“Curious… how was this able to survive the blast completely unharmed?”
The masters continued scouting the nearby area, eventually coming across Tess.
“What the hell happened?” Crusher asked.
Tess’s brow furrowed. “Anti-mana charge, by the looks of it.”
Piercer raised an eyebrow. “Who would have that kind of firepower?”
Tess’s expression looked grim. “Most likely the Redcliff. They’re the closest nearby, and they are one of the few kingdoms who has the power to actually obtain one.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Tess walked to the outer rim of the crater, before gesturing outwards. The masters peered out of the crater, gazing upon the landscape below-- and spotted in the distance a shimmering sea of red and gold warriors.
“Whatever the reason, the Redcliff are invading Draco.”
Crusher summoned his hammer, his eyes so fierce they were like licks of flame. “Then we’re not going down without a fight.”
“Us against an entire army?” Tess asked, incredulously. “Don’t be ridiculous. We should flee the kingdom. Besides, I have a friend who might help give us answers regarding why the academy was attacked… or at least explain how the equinoxians obtained Orinthian tech.”
“Do you think your friend could also explain something about this? You pulled out the medallion he had scavenged earlier, showing it to Tess.
Tess took a look at the medallion’s symbol, looking as if she was trying to recall something.
“Yes, I think she just might be able to.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Slicer said. “Let’s get going, we’ll find this friend of yours in no time.”
“Well, actually,” Tess began, “she’s… quite a ways away.”
“How far away are we talking?”
“Like, the other end of the continent far away.”
Tess sighed. “I know, it’s pretty far, but right now, she’s the only person I think who can give us any answers regarding the attack. However, should you not want to make the trip, I won’t force you.”
Slicer stepped forward. “The Darkin killed Slasher. They turned an entire race of innocent people into a proxy army for their own benefit. I won’t stand for this-- we need to stop them before they commit any more atrocities. If your friend can give us answers, then perhaps it’ll lead us onto their trail. Either way, it’s the best lead we have, so I’m taking it.”
Not long after he finished, Piercer too stepped forward.
“They took from me my brother,” Piercer began. “They murdered my best friend. I want revenge.”
Crusher followed suit. “Troweler sacrificed himself to protect us from them. I need to honor him by showing that his action was not in vain.”
The others turned to look at Baller and You, expectantly.
“Well, we are heroes, are we not?” Baller began. “Our job is to help others, to protect others-- and to eliminate threats to others. After what the Darkin did, they are most certainly a threat.”
Seconds passed, as all eyes were on You.
“Look, guys…” You said, “before the academy, I had no purpose. I didn’t know who I was, where I even came from-- but now? Now I know. I’m meant to be a Quazer. I’m meant to be a hero. Like in fairytales, you know? The Darkin are evil-- just look at all they’ve done. So as Baller said, we have a duty to fulfill. To end this evil once and for all.”
“The path ahead might very well be tough. But as I’ve come to learn, it isn’t easy being a hero.”
“So you’re sure that the boy will find the medallion?” Tynan asked.
“Of course,” Xavier replied. “The boy is quite special indeed… he will be drawn to it. They both share quite a few… similarities, after all.”
Tynan smiled. “Good. Then he will suit our purpose. For now, forget about him. I’ll talk to our associate, see what our next task shall be.”
The chamber pulsated with a strange, twisted life. Veins of lime green ran throughout the room like cables, feeding data from millions of different channels into 18 separate consoles. Seated at each one was a strange, humanoid organism. It was cloaked in robes like black tar, its skin mottled with lime green eyes-- too many eyes to count.
Rising from its seat, one of the humanoids made its way to the center of the room, bowing before an unseen master.
“My liege… the newest models of our Third Eyes were an astounding success. Brusuis, Shalia-- once the eye was in, the host consciousness was suppressed with impunity.”
“Unfortunately, the manufacturing cost remains far too high to bring into mass production. Auxvale Arzen on its own is already exceedingly rare, and the eyes require too high a concentration to become feasible.”
“As a result, it is my continued recommendation to employ our Shadowhunter for clandestine operations, as opposed to waste resources on the new models.”
“Good…” a voice returned. “What about the Equinoxian mercenary?”
“Ah, yes, ‘Solstice’. As for now, he seems to still be in compliance with the contract. I will be sure to let you know should anything develop.”
“Put him on standby… we may need him very soon.”
END OF ARC 2
Arc 3: Reveille
/"a signal sounded especially on a bugle or drum to wake personnel in the armed forces."
//Curious. Curious, indeed.
//All will be revealed in due time. These pages aren't meant for your eyes, at least not yet.
//<8 <8 <8
///INITIATE SHUTDOWN PROCEDURE//ORIGIN: ORINTH/ALPHA-IOTA/CC//CLEARANCE LEVEL OMEGA //END
Arc 4: Here be Dragons
"Here be dragons" means dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of a medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps.
"Such a strangely fitting title. Perhaps, later, you too will realize why. For now, it's better to leave well enough alone." -KV
Arc 5: Strangers in a Strange Land
Exodus 2:22 "And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land."
"Yet, perhaps we aren't the strangers. I know this land. This land is my land-- its rules are unwavering, and whatever doesn't mold to them is simply cut away. No, we are not the strangers. Don't you see? You are the strangers."
"But, as is with all things, you too may perhaps learn to adapt. You'll learn to know the rules and adhere to them-- or die trying. In time, perhaps you'll prove your worth and survive."
"But that time is not now." -ZD
Arc 6: Ragnarok
In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is a series of future events, including a great battle, foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water.
"It really is so truly lamentable that death has received a definition so narrow-minded. The end of things-- the stopping of a sequence-- the terminal point from which there is no recovery. In reality, death is far from acyclical."
"Ah yes, of course, for death to be cyclical in nature would be contradicting its denotation, would it not? A sound observation, as always-- but no, shh, listen. It is not in death itself but in vengeance where the cycle begins anew. From death sprouts vengeance, and from that again inevitably comes death-- and therein lies the beauty. Kindness and good will aren't always reciprocated, but death? Death always results in vengeance. Do you see it now? Human nature is more inclined to kill than to save. Though we don't know it yet, we are already killers. I'm a killer, and I bring with me vengeance in the form of apocalypse."
"Perhaps apocalypse is the wrong word. Ragnarok is more suitable-- for even after the world has ended, life begins anew. In time, I'll finish my portion of the cycle, and pass the torch on."
"To whom, you ask? Well, we are all killers."
"You are a killer too." -EK
Arc 7: Eschaton
the final event in the divine plan; the end of the world.
"Hush now, child. Quieten your cries."
"The night is dark and full of horrors-- but the biggest horrors are not creatures that go bump in the night, but rather the devils you know, the devils close to heart."
"For some, perhaps this is the end-- but the needs of the many outweigh those of the few. If there were any other way, they'd have found it long ago. He'd have found it long ago."
"As for the others? Well, the strict parent is the one who loves their children the most. But even strict parents will reward their children should they behave well."
"So hush now, child. Save your tears for another time." -CE
Special Thanks to Falltz, UncreativeName123, HataNo_Kokoro, PyroMaster870, and darkage6551 for assistance on proofreading and design.
Drak is an OC created by EvilJacobthehero2013.
Nalvest, Maliva, and Sonival are OCs created by HataNo_Kokoro.
Verdor, Shapenor, and Alexandra are OCs created by theggyer.
Reaper is an OC created by sugarknife.
Macer/Ignatius is an OC created by CherryLoverChadia.
Myster is an OC created by Simonyoshi6420.
Portaler is an OC created by alexdavid4.
The map image was created using Inkarnate.