Yes, this is fanfic, and yes, this is based on WOTC's latest world for Magic the Gathering. I became so fascinated with Alara when it came out that I made interpretations and extenuations, using the likely circumstances as a base. After the release of Conflux, I have discovered that there are inconsistencies between my history of Alara and the story to be told, and what Wizards actually created. I try to follow canon as much as possible, but do not point out things that aren't canonical. Bear with me.
Magic the Gathering, Alara, its five shards, and all related characters and indicia are copyright 1993-2009 Wizards of the Coast. I do not claim these items.
Far away from Dominaria was a fertile and peaceful world that went by the name of Alara. Rich in mana and natural resources, many considered the land to be a utopia. Vast plains, forests, and oceans covered the plane; there was no sign of anything resembling wasteland. That world died out centuries ago, as a massive magical explosion shattered the plane into five distinct sub-planes, cut off from each other. In the process of being cut off from each other, they were also cut off from two types of mana, and thus, cut off from any magic requiring the missing types of mana. Alara had become five separate worlds: Bant, Naya, Jund, Grixis, and Esper.
Bant, being cut off from black and red magic, was a political and natural utopia. Though there was warfare, it was mainly civil, and battles were often settled by throwing their best men at each other in one-on-one arena combat. Angels flew overhead, glorified in the light reflected off of the many sigils the knights carried, as well as their flashy armor that only protected them from frontal and side attacks. After all, who would employ such a dirty tactic like striking from behind?
With its lush plains, deep jungles, and rolling hills, Naya was a land of paradise at first glance. But first impressions can be deceiving: colossal beasts known as Gargantuans roam the land, crushing trees and buildings in their wake. Most beings would fear them. Instead, the elves revered them as gods, even worshipping them. The leonin, the cat warriors of Naya, pretty much ignored them. The humans revered the beasts to a lesser extent, but they have also harnessed the power of some of the lesser Gargantuans. As such, there is dissent between elvish tribes and human settlements due to humans using these beasts for their own benefit.
Jund was a land of survival, cut off from white and blue magic. If Naya was the gentle side of nature, Jund was the savage side. There was no such thing as the long-term here; humans rarely lived longer than thirty-five years. Alliances were short-lived, and were kept between parties only when necessary for survival. After that, the parties were likely never to see each other again. Jund was tectonically unstable; the land was flooded with volcanic activity, and thus, its populations were very nomadic. Additionally, dragon attacks forced settlements to move to a safer location. Jund was a land where survival of the fittest was the law of the land, and humans weren't the fittest; in fact, they were two steps below the top of the food chain. The viashino, the lizard-people, were above humans, and dragons were above them.
As hard as it is to believe, Grixis was far worse off than Jund for life. Being cut off from both green and white magic, the magic of vim and vigor, the place was a dark wasteland covered in thunderclouds. A playground for necromancers and undead, life force, called either vitals or vis, was a precious resource, dwindling every day. About 98% of the population either utilized necromancy or other forms of black magic as a substitute for life, or was undead to begin with. They hunted the other 2% down. The remaining forms of life not only had to avoid this undead army, but also had to cope with the unhealthy environment. Because of the constant cycle of death, the smell of rotting flesh filled the air almost everywhere on the plane. The atmosphere was anything but healthy to breathe. Even after adapting to the environmental conditions, the reality of mortifying creatures hunting one day in and day out would drive any sane person to suicide.
Without red or green magic, the magic of nature, Esper was a technologically advanced world. Nature had been 99% tamed, and many of its remaining forces were controllable. As such, almost of nature's unruly elements were confined to places away from cities. The sky was always starlit and grey, with white grid lines dividing even the clouds. Without nature to interfere, Esper was a world of aesthetic perfection. Back when Alara was one plane instead of five, Palandius, the largest city on Esper, was said to be the most beautiful sight in the world. Every being native to Esper was infused with a magical alloy called Etherium. The degree of infusion was connected to how good of a mage one was. If one was deeply rooted in the arcane, such as a sphinx, large portions of the being's body were infused with the silver-colored metal. If just a beginning mage, the infusion covered just one limb, or even a part of a limb.
Even cut off from two of the five types of magic, each of the five worlds had reached a point of stability. For over a thousand years, the split worlds existed separate from one another, no idea what the others were up to. Shortly after the Sundering of Alara, the five worlds slowly began to drift back toward each other. It took over a thousand years, but the five worlds became one again; this was the event known as the Mending of Alara. Contrary to most what Esperites expected, the reestablishment of Alara's mana bonds was a quiet affair--so quiet that only those deeply rooted in magic or those who lived close to the borders between worlds would know.
Unfortunately, one of those people was Sedris. Shortly after the Sundering, he sold his kingdom and people to archdemons in exchange for becoming a lich. He quickly rose to even greater power, leading Grixis in a spiral of death and destruction. He terrorized the remaining living beings under his dominion, then sucked the vis right out of them when he had his fun. With the supply of vis dwindling, though, he became content to let the forces of chaos lead the people instead. At least he'd get a laugh out of that from time to time.
After the Mending, Sedris had legions of new victims to prey upon. The only others that even knew about it were the sphinxes of Esper, and their people had not seen combat since before the Sundering. The remainder of the world was completely unprepared for the raid. Even if they knew he was coming, Bant had not experienced true war since pre-Sundering times. Nayan elves and humans were preoccupied with Gargantuan affairs, and the denizens of Jund only cared about their immediate survival. If nothing was done, all of Alara would become like Grixis: a desolate, lifeless landscape.
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever. This is their story.
"Chance of war more likely," Josh, a twenty-year-old knight of Valeron read the headline on the front page of the newspaper after eating a late lunch. "What else is new," he thought. "At least I'm off duty for the day." Ever since he became a Knight of the Reliquary at the young age of fifteen, almost every morning he woke up to updates on the situation between his home country of Valeron and the seafaring country of Jhess. Though Jhess was the smallest of the five Bant nations, covering just a few islands and a small landmass on the west side of the Pristine Strait, they were not to be taken lightly. Though Valeron had a more experienced cavalry, the Jhessian navy was the most powerful in all of Bant; it would take a heroic effort as well as a mistake from a Jhessian admiral to win a naval battle against them.
Normally, Knights of the Reliquary were only drafted from the Inner Three nations of Bant, those nations being Eos, Akrasa, and Topa. Because of the leotau mounts commonly used in those open areas, they could travel Bant quickly in search of the ancient, corrupt civilization that the angels had to fight against before the Sundering took place more than a thousand years ago. Each artifact they discovered was another step closer to understanding what Bant was like before the Sundering. This order of knights was not called into battle as often as the Order of the Skyward Eye, but as Josh discovered when he filtered through the remainder of the mail he had accumulated from being out on a mission the past few days, they were required to serve their time in battle when necessary.
"It's from the military branch of the government of Eos. Probably just another war bulletin." he sighed as he opened the white envelope stamped with a small, golden emblem of a leotau's head in the upper right corner. The same seal was present in the upper-right corner of the letter itself. The letter read as follows, addressed with today's date:
Sir Josh, Knight of the Reliquary:
This is an official summons from the Southwest Castle of Eos.
War has officially broken out between Valeron and Jhess, and you have been chosen by lottery to do battle with the Jhessian forces that have already taken the three largest Valeronian port towns by storm. We are sending a large force to these areas, but due to the gravity of the situation, we cannot be too prepared. At noon tomorrow, there will be a war meeting in the Southwest Castle of Eos. Your presence there will be required.
Do not forget to bring this letter with you, as it will be required to enter the castle.
We look forward to seeing you there.
--Department of International Affairs, Eos
"They just have to interrupt my first day off, don't they?" Josh sighed. "It sure would be nice to have a few uninterrupted vacation days, so I don't have to worry about the war day in and day out. Oh, well. I should get going." Getting back into his armor just hours after taking it off felt like going back out into the hot savannahs less than an hour after being in the cool, Mediterranean climate Valeron experienced. It was reasonably heavy by the standards of any other world, but by Bant's standards, it was light, and thus, less impressive. Most knights of Valeron rode horseback, but because Josh's travels took him into the Inner Three nations, he had gotten special permission to care for and ride a leotau mount within all of Bant.
Josh coming and going from town attracted spectators, as most Valeronians never get the chance to even see the large, lionlike beasts. His leotau was of the Mherva subspecies, and was smaller and physically weaker than other subspecies. In exchange, they were the swiftest mounts in Bant, faster than even the hardiest horses in all of Jhess and Valeron. They could achieve sprinting speeds of sixty miles per hour, and could run at speeds of around forty miles per hour for long distances without tiring. Most leotau ridden into battle were of the Grohm subspecies, which were the grandest of them all. They were the largest and strongest of the leotau, most being over ten feet tall compared to the other subspecies, which were seven to eight feet tall. The final subspecies was the Orasil, preferred by Bant mages due to their relatively small size and mysterious ability to aid in spellcasting. Upon reaching the north end of town, where his feline mount was stationed, he climbed onto its back and sped north to the castle.
The sun was low in the sky by the time the young knight reached the castle. This was one of only three of Bant's castles to be standalone, not surrounded by a metropolitan area. He stationed his leotau outside the castle, where rangers would guide it to a fenced-off portion of meadow on the backside of the premises. He waved to his leotau before showing the guards his letter of summons, which was his key to entering the castle. Even for someone who enters Bant's castles regularly, the beauty of the decor was hard to ignore. Statues of Eos' most successful knights, rangers, and other important figures lined the hallway to the throne room. Translucent curtains bearing Eos' golden emblem creating beautiful shadows on the floor or opposite wall, depending on what time of day it was.
A pair of guards in the foyer escorted Josh up two flights of stairs, to the guest rooms on the third floor. The hallways weren't quite as splendid as the one leading to the throne room, but the theme would still captivate any interior designer. "Your room is 316-B," one of the white-armored men said to Josh, tossing him a key. "Have a good evening, Sir Josh."
Even the guest rooms fit the castle's gold-and-white theme. It featured everything a first-class inn would offer: a comfortable bed, a table and a couple of chairs, and various other furniture. There was even a deck of playing cards and a chess set. "I see they still treat guests first class," he thought. "And at least I'm covered for food tonight."
As the sky began to turn red, Josh heard a knock from the door on the side of his room. He slowly walked toward the door and opened it. On the other side was a short young man dressed in casual, green clothing. "So you're my roommate, huh?" he greeted the nineteen-year-old.
"More like a war buddy," he replied in a sour tone. "We should get to know each other. I'm Eron, a ranger and beastmaster of Eos. I don't know why I received a summons...I've only been training animals for less than a year."
"I am Josh, a Knight of the Reliquary--"
"Then why the hell would they want you if your purpose is to explore Bant's history? Don't they have enough troops from the other Knighthoods?"
"Apparently not, because I'm not the only one here from the Fifth Knighthood of Valeron. They brought at least two other guys from there. Is Valeron that desperate to maintain control of the ports on the southwest coastline? They're fully aware that the Jhessian navy is beyond what we can deal with. They're just throwing lives away to a hopeless cause."
"The king would have my head if he heard this, but I agree with you. A life saved is better than an honorable death."
"It's more complicated than that. Though the Valeronian cavalry is far superior to theirs, we cannot overcome their navy. We could stop the war if we just surrendered the ports to Jhess. That would give the country a monopoly over sea trade, but it would put us at a stalemate with their army, and thus, the treaty table looks much more appealing to both sides. It would be a big financial hit to Valeron, but it's better than throwing away dozens of lives day after day. If higher taxes is the price to pay for saving lives, I wouldn't mind."
"Many higher-ups in both our government and the Valeronian government agree with us, but our kings still feel that conceding all her ports to Jhess is unacceptable. At least not without a fight."
"Would you like to continue this discussion over a game of chess?" Josh offered.
"It'll at least pass the time until dinner's ready," Eron replied.
"I'll change out of my armor and be right with you." Josh closed the door between his room and Eron's, then took off his armor, piece by piece. When he opened the door again, he was wearing a blue and white long-sleeved outfit.
"You wear long sleeves this time of year?" Eron asked. "It's still almost eighty degrees out!"
"It's even worse wearing armor in that kind of weather," Josh replied. "If I don't wear long sleeves, I'll burn my skin off. Metal is a good conductor of heat, remember?" The two sat down at the wooden table in Eron's room and opened the box containing the chess set. "So it's one of those special edition ones. Valeronian cavalry versus Jhessian navy, green and blue pieces. Go figure. Take your pick--I don't care which side I'm on."
"The heaviest armor I normally wear is chain mail, but I'm aware that metal conducts heat well," the young ranger said as he began setting up the game, Josh in command of the blue pieces. "It's one of the first things they teach you about armor."
Abuot halfway through the game, one of the king's servants notified Josh and Eron that dinner was ready. After taking all the potatoes, meat, and bread they wanted, the two of them took their disposable plates full of food back to their rooms and continued their chess game. By the time they finished eating, it was already nightfall. "Check," Eron announced.
"It's mate in two moves," Josh conceded. "You win. You're a competent player!"
"Thanks," Eron replied. "That was a fine game. Well, we need to be sure to be up early tomorrow, so we make it to the meeting on time. The Knight-Captain of the Second Knighthood of Valeron will have our heads if we're late."
"You sure use that expression a lot," Josh yawned.
"Force of habit. Anyway, night." Eron closed the door behind Josh. The two tucked themselves underneath the sheets in their beds, and drifted off to sleep. As Eron had said multiple times, tomorrow was going to be a big day.
The next morning, the sunrise shined through the curtains as a gold and white shadow on each bed on the east side of the castle. What a way to wake its guests up for early meetings. "How clever," Josh yawned, as he had never been assigned a room on the east side. "They put the windows at exactly the angle needed to shine the morning sun right in your eyes. What a way to wake your soldiers up. Well, time to get ready for the meeting." Knowing the castle servants would make the bed and do what little cleaning up there needed to be done, he got into his rounded suit of armor, then walked to the door leading to Eron's room. When he turned the doorknob, he encountered resistance. "The hell's going on here?" He turned harder on the knob, overcoming the resistance force, only to encounter another resistance once he actually started pulling. After a few seconds, the door flew toward his face, and he found himself on the ground, Eron on top of him.
"Good morning, Josh!" Eron greeted him.
"What a way to greet your friend at 8:30 in the morning," Josh jeered back. Both of them laughed on the ground.
"I guess that door swings both ways!"
"I figured that when it came back and hit me in the head! That hurt! Now, would you please get off of me? We're going to be late if we dawdle any longer!"
Eron rolled sideways to get off of Josh, then the two of them stood up. Finally. "When we leave, what do we do with our keys?"
"When the people responsible for maintaining the guest rooms come, they'll take them. Just leave them in a place they can easily find them. I question the system myself, but I trust it."
"Alright. I'll see you in a little bit. Meet me in the hallway outside our rooms, and we'll walk to the meeting place together. I've been there before; I know the way."
Five minutes later, Eron came out of his room, wearing tightly woven chain mail over his clothes. On his back was a mid-range bow and quiver full of arrows. He carried a very short sword for close combat, but was obviously equipped for long-range fighting. "Alright, let's go." The ranger led the way downstairs, all the way to the second lower level. The only thing beneath this place was the dungeon.
"I wonder why they would ask us to meet way down here?" Josh asked his new friend.
"It's an old legend. Supposedly, Bant wasn't all there was to the world. There used to be a deep jungle to the south of Valeron, and a giant mountain range to the east. And to the east of that was a landscape much like the one here, but perhaps even more fertile than the land here."
"I've heard that legend from Valeronian royalty before. But it's a hard legend to believe. I've been all over Bant before. There is a highland in eastern Akrasa, but there's no mountain...just a plateau. Likewise with Valeron; the southern coast is nothing but beaches. There are forests, but only dense in patches. And about this other land, the only thing to the west of us is the island nation of Jhess. If you were to sail west of that island, you'd just hit Akrasa."
"This legend's been around for over a thousand years, most of its details public. A story that sticks around for that long has to have some merit to it."
"The Knights of the Reliquary have been trying to make sense out of the myths and legends of Bant. We've found evidence to suggest the world was like this, but it doesn't make sense geographically. We've found skeletons of gigantic beasts not native to Bant in the southern portions of Valeron's forests. We're talking huge--bigger than even the biggest leotau you've ever seen. Also the cliffs on the east end of Akrasa are huge. In the context of the legend, this all makes sense. But geographically and historically, this makes no sense whatsoever. It's a mystery we've been trying to solve for eight hundred years. Anyway, what does this have to do with the original question I asked?"
"Well, the legend suggests that there were spellcasters that not only cast defensive and healing magic, but destructive magic as well. Destructive magic capable of blowing buildings to bits and killing dozens of people in an instant. Thankfully, that magic died out a thousand years ago. That is the reason why everyone on Bant knows defensive or healing magic to a degree. The reasoning behind the meeting place being so far underground is back then, this offensive magic could even tear into the ground. This room is far enough underground that it would take a massive amount of mana to pierce this place. Even if such an amount of mana were generated, it would take enough time to gather it all that we could warn our troops and respond to the source of the mana buildup."
"So this was an old war room?" Josh asked Eron, the two of them arriving at a large room lit by a couple dozen torches.
"Still is. The fact that it's so far underground is a reminder of our past." Several knights, clerics, and squires had already assembled at the large, round, white table with the golden leotau symbol in the center. Even an angel was in attendance, her dozens of sigils circling around her forehead. The small golden circular objects reflected the torches' light, illuminating the area around her. She wore a white robe that made her further stick out in the dimly-lit room. Within the next few minutes, the seats at the table began to fill up. The last to arrive were the commanding officers: Cory, knight-captain of the Sixth Knighthood of Eos; Rose, knight-captain of the Eighth Knighthood of Eos; and Samuel, knight-captain of the Third Knighthood of Valeron. They were tall officers, and they beared at least a dozen sigils each on their suits of armor.
When the commanding officers arrived at 9:00 in the morning, every other person in attendance, except the angel, stood up and bowed out of respect. "You may sit down," she said after the attendees held their position for three seconds.
"As I am sure most of you know," Samuel started the meeting, "journalists Bant-wide have been reporting that war between Jhess and Valeron is getting 'more likely.' Well, as of yesterday morning, the Jhessian navy has gained complete control over Valeron's ports. If something isn't done about this, the Jhessian government will have a monopoly on sea trade. I've spoken with the Minster of Finance and Foreign Affairs from all four of Bant's continental nations, and they unanimously agreed that this would put a gigantic strain on their countries' financial status."
"With the ports under their control," Rose continued from her colleague's statement, "war is looking more and more like the only option. With all the ports under their control, they won't succumb to anything but force. They don't have anything to win from diplomacy. We've already given up on taking the Jhessian ports; their navy is far superior to ours. If we can at least take back all the ports in Valeron, we may be able to reach an armistice."
Everyone stood up as Cory unveiled a large map of the southwest quadrant of Bant, placing it in the center of the table. He pointed to and drew lines around various spots on the map as he explained their strategy. "According to the Ninth Knighthood of Valeron, which we asked to do some scouting for late yesterday afternoon, the Jhessians have a sizable army. However, they have spread their troops thin in some locations, as marked on the map. The spread is particularly weak here, here, and here," he pointed. "So we're going to play a little trick on them. We're going to approach them head-on, then use our swift cavalry to our advantage and split off in three groups to attack the areas I pointed out."
"Since half of you are knight-captains," Samuel said, "you should bring with you any troops you have in reserve, particularly cavalry. They will be the key to success in this operation. All we need to do is overwhelm them by straining their forces' weak points. As for how we're splitting the groups up, we're just going to deal cards. If you are dealt a green card, you will be in the group attacking the south point. If you are dealt a blue card, you will be in the group attacking the north point. If you are dealt a white card, you will be in the group attacking the central point. There may be changes to the final setup, so don't get comfortable." The knight-captain began dealing out the cards, one for each person at the meeting. There were exactly enough cards so that the number of people in each group was the same.
"Make sure you all look at our maps again, so you know exactly what the plan is," Rose continued as the attendees peeked at their cards. "I cannot stress how important it is to recover these ports. If we lose, we will never have a presence in the seas again. We leave the castle at eleven this morning. Do not be late." Samuel collected all of the cards from everyone and put them back in their box.
"So, what group are you in?" Eron asked Josh after most of the people had left the room.
"White, attacking central," he answered.
"Same. Looks like we will be buddies after all," Eron smiled. "I look forward to this."
"How good are you at mounted archery, Eron?"
"I'm a good shot, but I've never fired arrows from a leotau's back before. Never had the chance because they're always reserved for armored knights like you. I have fired arrows horseback before, and I'm still a good shot, thanks to the Sigil of the Straight Arrow I earned when I was eight years old."
"It's just like that, except because leotau are much faster, you'll have to lead your shots more. Also, holding on can be a bit harder, so your should prioritize keeping yourself balanced over taking a good shot. Anyway, let's get out of here and around back so you can familiarize yourself with my leotau. You'll thank yourself for when we actually go into battle."
At half past eleven, the three commanding officers from the meeting brought their army to a stop just before the top of a large hill. Beyond that hill was the western coastline of Valeron, and the enemy would be able to see them when they started going downhill. Rose turned her golden-maned leotau around to address her troops. "Our destination is beyond the top of that hill, then half a mile down it. Once we get halfway to our destination, we split off into the three groups as planned. Stay with your group and do not stray unless otherwise instructed. I will give you a visual signal when the time is right. Now, let's go!"
First the infantry, then the cavalry lined up on the top of the hill, advancing row by row in a very organized pattern. From how the troops were arranged, a parade was being run from the top of the hill. After a while, Eron heard the hiss of arrows being fired through the air; the Dawnray Archers had been deployed across the sea to defend the Jhessian claim. He reached back for an arrow and held it in his right hand.
Once they reached the halfway point, Rose fired a burst of magical light into the air. "For Valeron!!" Samuel yelled. At that moment, the infantry fell back, and the many leotau roared seemingly in harmony, causing Eron to flinch.
"What a battle cry!" the startled archer said to Josh after the echo stopped. The three generals led their troops toward the chinks in the Jhessians' armor, as planned earlier that morning.
"Hold on tight, Eron!" Josh warned his friend. "This is gonna be quick!" The fleet-footed mherva leotau leaped into the air and landed close to Samuel's of the same kind. "Mind if we join you?" the knight asked his superior as the lionlike beasts rushed down the hill at over fifty miles per hour.
"Of course not!" the knight-captain shouted over the thundering hooves of both leotau and horse, blocking out almost every other sound. What a fearsome noise it was. Once the Jhessian cavalry charged to attempt to deter the swift leotau, Eron and the other archers began firing arrows of their own. Most of the enemy's arrows missed or bounced off the charging cat-beasts' armor. A few of them were hit, but not enough to stop the assault. Knights riding grohm leotau ran right over the Jhessian infantry, some of their soldiers crushed under giant hooves. Others took arrows to poorly guarded spots on their bodies, and still others found swords and lances through themselves. Both sides suffered casualties, but the Jhessians lost men faster than the Valeronians.
When the sound of trumpets faintly filled the air, the sound of horses and cat-beasts gallopping ceased. The sound of clashing steel ceased. Not even the hiss of an arrow could be heard. All that could be heard was the slow footsteps of a single leotau, straight west from Josh's position. Coming up the main street of Valeron's biggest port town was the largest mherva Josh had ever seen. It was the size of the typical grohm, but clearly had a golden mane. Only one knight had a leotau this unique: Rafiq, Knight-Captain of the Reliquary.
To the dismay of the Valeronian generals, Rafiq was fighting for Jhess. A veteran knight wielding a greatsword bearing multiple sigils on both sides of its guard, he was the highest-ranked Sigiled-caste in all of Bant. There was no doubt in the minds of anyone that when he died, he would be reincarnated as an angel. He had so many sigils that he had to have them embedded in his armor, footgear, shield, and even his mount's riding gear. He had more sigils than even the average angel; so many, in fact, that he became known as Rafiq of the Many. His last name had been forgotten shortly after that name caught on.
When the bearded knight of about age thirty dismounted, the trumpets ceased. "Welcome, Knight-Captains of Valeron," he said in a low voice.
"You're fighting for Jhess, Rafiq?!" Rose exclaimed in surprise.
"I fight as my sigils require me to. Some days, I am an ally to Jhess; some days, I am an enemy. It's been this way for six years; you should know this by now."
"On a matter this pressing, you've chosen to help the minority in Jhess over the rest of Bant?!"
"Like I said, I fight as my sigils require me to," Rafiq repeated. "I have no choice but to side as I have. Shall we settle this in true Bant tradition? Your best three men against mine."
"As per tradition," Rose sighed. "Choose your fighters wisely."
Rafiq and Rose led their armies to an amphitheater built close to the west coast of Valeron. Rather than having a mortar arena floor, the structure was built right into the ground; the terrain was grass on end and beach on another. There were even a couple of trees to hide behind on the east end. The entire Jhessian and Valeronian forces began filling the seats in the arena, with the exception of six units. Those units were Rafiq of the Many and two Dawnray Archers by the names of Josephine and Shane, fighting for the Jhessian side. The other three units were Rose, Josh, and Eron, fighting for the Valeronians.
Rafiq and his allies took the west end of the arena, the leader on his feline mount. Josh and Eron rode together, just as before, and Rose decided to forgo her leotau in exchange for being more elusive. Once everyone was assembled, an angel descended from the lone cloud directly above the arena. This angel looked almost exactly like the one that attended the war meeting at the castle. "Your judge," she gestured to herself, "and your timekeepers," she pointed to a pair of wizards in a boxed off section high on the south side of the arena seats, "will act in a fair and unbiased manner. We pray for the safety of all six involved in today's battle for the rights to the ports of Valeron, and we pray that the most skilled side wins."
A magical display of blue, white, and green lights filled the previously blank wall on the north side of the arena. The lights formed patterns akin to an electronic scoreboard that would be seen in a more technologically advanced world. Primitive, but it got the job done. "The round will last seven minutes," the angel continued, "and the team that has accumulated the most points will be declared the winner of the battle. When I jump back into the air, the battle begins." The combatants shot each other their game faces.
Josh had to pull back on his leotau to keep it from sounding a roar of aggression during the countdown.
Rafiq and Rose drew their swords, though one was clearly more intimidating than the other.
The three archers nocked arrows on their bows, ready to fire at a moment's notice.
"Begin!" The angel took back to the air and started circling the arena, magically relaying information about the battle to the two wizards. The scoreboard updated the timer and totals every fifteen seconds The Jhessian archers grazed a pair of arrows by a weak point in Eron's light armor to land the first blow within seconds of the start of the match. It was like an animal scratch; painful at impact, but largely ignorable after a few seconds since it didn't bleed. With 6:45 left in the match, the board already read Valeron 25, Jhess 140.
The two leotau, commanded by Rafiq and Josh, circled each other, waiting for the other to make the first strike. Eron fired two shots, both harmlessly bouncing off his foe's sturdy helmet. When Josh's mount leaped forward, Rafiq's pushed it off to the side and almost into the north wall after a short period of resistance. This fight pushed it back just enough for Rose to deliver a slash to the beast's right side. Rafiq shrugged the blow off, and with a graceful dismount, dropped his heavy sword right onto his opponent's chestplate. Rafiq faced the Jhessian crowd and raised his blade in triumph while waiting for his enemy to get back up. The Jhessian army cheered when the angel awarded their team a large sum of points for the feat. Rafiq was the highest ranked Sigiled in all of Bant, and the Valeronian troops were discovering the reason why.
Though Rose's team was trailing by nearly two hundred points, there was still a little over five minutes in the round. Arrows continued to fly, most of them either bouncing harmlessly off the arena walls or off chest pieces. Eron was a quick shot, able to keep both of the other archers on their toes. No matter how rapidly he could fire, though, two opposing foes still had more brain power than he did. Josh heard the sound of Eron's groan above the clinging of blades. It was just as he feared; one of Shane's arrows nicked Eron in his left leg, bringing him to his knees. "Josh! Cover for me!" Eron continued groaning.
Despite wearing armor, Josh could still feel the power behind every arrow he blocked as Eron groaned pulling the shot out of his leg. "O Healing Power," his wounded friend began reciting, "soothe this wounded creature! Life Burst!" Eron's leg glowed with a white, refreshing light, and the wound began closing at a visible rate. Peeking at the scoreboard, the two of them knew they had to take action. It was all or nothing now. Once Eron was able to stand and fight again, Josh joined Rose in the fight against Rafiq.
The most powerful knight in all of Bant was easily capable of taking on both of them at once, but it at least made the fight fair. The fighters traded blows back and forth until the Valeronian allies landed a combination attack, Rafiq dropping to one knee for a second. When he stood back up, a faint green light flashed; this was the warning that there was only a short amount of time left in the round. The Jhessians were letting their lead slip away, but all they needed to do was hold on to a 1,060 to 925 lead and they were home free.
"Hold back! Utilize evasive maneuvers!" Rafiq shouted to his comrades. Listening to his wise words, the archers' eyes shifted around, keeping close tabs on all three foes. The way Rose's troops were rallying back, a single blow could make the difference between victory and defeat. Rafiq continued to parry blow after blow, trying to hold out long enough against two fighters. The ferocity of the blows increased as the seconds wound down. When the last second ticked away, all six fighters found themselves on their knees, catching their breath from the intense battle. Once the timekeepers made the final update to the scoreboard, the angel descended back to the ground and announced the winner: the Jhessian forces, by a score of 1,635 to 1,520. Rafiq's army cheered, crowding around him and jumping up and down. The Valeronian clerics and Eron pitched in to clean up the mess from the battle before heading back to the Southwest Castle, their heads hanging down in defeat and disgust.
"So how did it go?" the king of the castle asked the three commanding officers of the battle that afternoon. They had brought Josh and Eron, the two combatants they selected, as well. "Were you able to drive them back?"
"Sadly, no," Rose answered. "The margin of victory was small, but we still lost. The Jhessian navy now has complete control of the seas of Bant. On the bright side, we were able to stop them from advancing farther east, so the mainland is in no imminent danger."
"How did they manage to get the upper hand? This doesn't make any sense."
"Samuel was the brain behind this operation. It would be better if I had him explain."
The knight-captain of the Third Knighthood stepped forward. "Everything was going perfectly at first. We had the upper hand, having the superior cavalry and the higher ground. Then the Jhessian commander threw us a curve no one could possibly have expected: said commander was Rafiq of the Many. He brought a small amount of troops with him, but they completely changed the course of the battle."
"And you let the pressure get to your head during the final showdown, didn't you?" the king asked the Valeronian, his tone not a happy one.
"I believe I made an error in selecting Josh as one of our three fighters. While Rose was fighting Rafiq one-on-one, he was back there covering for Eron while he was pulling an arrow out of his leg. He should have been helping Rose."
"But what would you have done in that situation?" Josh interjected. "He could have bled to death if I didn't cover for him!"
"There was plenty of time to tend to his wounds after the battle. He would have survived either way. He may have been put out of commission for a while if you had waited, but he'd have come back to fight another day."
"I figured the only way we were able to defeat Rafiq was at full strength. I had to make sure he was alright before assisting Rose, and that's exactly what I did. Once I made sure he was able to stand, I left him to cover for both of us. It's what any friend would have done."
"Perhaps there's been a communication mistake, then. I believe I said before the battle that if someone falls, it's their own responsibility to get back up. Did I not say that?"
"That was before we knew that Rafiq was involved! We had to fight him at full strength or we'd lose for sure!"
"If you're going to argue with me about this, leave the Knighthood! You can disagree with me all you want once I hear your statement of resignation."
The two continued yelling back and forth until the king interrupted their childish behavior. "Stop it, both of you! Now explain what happened out there."
"Go ahead, Commander," Josh offered.
"I'll be direct for a change," Samuel began explaining. "We lost, and the Jhessians now have full control of the seas. And from what I could tell, Josh here contributed the least out of the three of us. And not just by a little, but by a large margin."
"And you would knowingly watch one of your own comrades bleed to death before your own eyes in exchange for--"
"He has a point," the king interrupted. "Life is precious whether it's one or many. However, I believe all four of you were at fault. Some more than others, but all of you could have done something more to prevent this outcome. Rose, who did you select to fight against Rafiq and the Jhessian generals?"
"Josh, myself, and Eron, a ranger, who is not present right now," she answered.
"You knew how critical the mission was, so why did you choose less than your best troops?"
"To keep them off guard. The Jhessians had never seen those two people fight before, so they would have no idea how to react. But in retrospect, I should have gone for a more reliable plan, though it was more predictable. I made a wrong choice."
"I see." The monarch's eyes shifted toward Josh. "What could you have done better?"
"I've already said everything I'm going to say on the matter," the knight replied. "I'm not going to repeat myself again."
"I see. I've heard plenty from the four of you, and something's going to have to be done. Samuel, you will be relieved of your position as Knight-Captain of the Third Knighthood of Valeron, effective tomorrow."
"You're kidding, right?" the disgruntled commanding officer replied. "You can't possibly fire me! Who would replace me?"
"There are plenty of other knights capable of leadership of the Third Knighthood. They'll find someone."
Samuel's blood boiled at the king's answer. "It's not fair that I am punished for Josh's mistake! This may be the last decision I make as a knight-captain, but it's one I won't regret. Effective immediately, Josh, I'm removing you from the Third Knighthood of Valeron."
The only Knight of the Reliquary in that organization, Josh was in complete shock. Was this an act of revenge? Or was Samuel acting in a matter of uncontrollable frustration? Probably a bit of both, he thought. Just as Samuel was about to storm out the door, Eron barged through it out of nowhere. "That's not fair to Josh! He thought of his friends before himself!" he started shouting. "He hasn't done a thing wrong!"
"It's beyond my power," the king groaned. "He is still technically the head of the Knighthood until tomorrow's sunrise, and he still has all the power that position entitles. I wish I could do something, but I can't."
"If you're expelling him from the Knighthood, you're going to have to sacrifice me, too!" Eron boldly shouted.
"You're willing to sacrifice your position as a ranger for someone you've only known for a single battle?" Cory asked, just as shocked as everyone else in the room.
"As long as I've been a part of the service, I have never seen anyone step in front of me, to guard me while I was down. They just left me to try to recuperate on my own, amid all the enemy fire. Josh, on the other hand, risked his life to save my own. I've never known anyone willing to do that. I can't repay him by just abandoning him. Josh, you and I are going to see this through together to the end...no matter what anyone tries." The ranger paused for a second, taking a deep breath. "Cory, Rose...I'm resigning, effective immediately. I'm leaving the Sixth and Ninth Knighthoods to you."
"It pains me to hear that," Rose replied, shedding a tear, "but I wish you luck...whatever path you choose to follow. I hope we see each other again."
The next morning, Josh and Eron left the castle, fresh from a good night's sleep courtesy of the king. "What a beautiful sunrise," Josh said, trying to get his mind off of yesterday's events.
"You look worried," Eron replied. "Why the long face? The king bailed you out, didn't he? Tell me what happened this morning."
"You tell this to no one. This stays between you and me. Got it? If this slips out, my life could be in jeopardy.
"Your secret's safe with me, Josh."
"Alright." The two jumped aboard Josh's leotau and headed southward at a good clip. It wasn't terribly fast like yesterday...this time, a quick yet relaxing pace. Once they were sufficiently far away from the castle and any towns near it, he began telling his story. "This morning, the king summoned me to his chambers. He secretly reinstated me in the Knights of the Reliquary. If anyone finds out, he'll be executed for treason, and the prince is not a capable leader in the slightest. And Asha knows what they'll do to me. It could be anywhere from an excommunication to the Topan Desert to being executed alongside him. And even if they can't get either of us on those charges...they'll find something."
"I understand. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. I owe you one for saving me back there. So, what else did he say?"
"He's given me a mission...rather, a choice of missions. Other Knights have been reporting strange inconsistencies at the eastern end of Akrasa and the southern end of Valeron. Geographical inconsistencies. And I've been asked to investigate one of those areas. Since Valeron is my home country, I've chosen to investigate there. There's no time table for reporting back, so I'm under the assumption that he expects the mission to take some time. A fool's errand, if you ask me."
About a mile before the way station leading into Valeron, Josh saw a large amount of smoke above the tree line. "The hell's going on?!" he shouted. His mount understood the urgency of the situation, and sped forward without any physical or verbal indication to do so. Despite having such a speedy mount, it didn't feel very fast when there was clearly a fire.
Josh and Eron dismounted at the way station, where he usually left the feline beast before entering the wooded area. They could see residents evacuating, some on feet and some on horseback. Being a ranger, Eron knew where the stables in town were. He led Josh to the nearest one, and was able to rent a horse for faster travel.
"The clerics in there told me what was wrong," Eron started explaining as the brown beast of burden galloped toward the source of the smoke. "I was just as shocked as you were. Apparently, someone incapacitated the guards on the south side of the Sun-Dappled Court, and set the place on fire! Not with a torch or anything--fire burst from his hands, like he was casting a spell!"
"What?! That's near my house!" Josh shouted.
"That's what they said. I tried to get more out of them, but they didn't know anything else. They definitely weren't hiding anything, either."
"I've never heard of anything like that happening in my life! We've got to get there and help them!"
By the time the two of them had arrived, it was too late. The fire had been contained, but it had already taken the Court with it. Twenty of its stewards died in the blaze, with many more knights and civilians suffering from first- and second-degree burns. "Oh my god..." both said under their breath. Everything within a half-mile of the Court had suffered structural damage from the blaze, buildings closer to the Court nothing but a pile of ash and rubble. As he had feared, Josh's own house was included in that rubble. He wanted to scream, but knew it wouldn't do any good. Once the Court was outside of the containment area, the two hurried to its remains. The sacred orchards, groves, and beautifully-placed foliage had all been charred black.
Eron pointed to a pair of the Court's stewards still on site. One looked like he was about to give up the ghost, and the other was trying to save him. The ranger led Josh to them, then kneeled down, clasped his hands together, and began mumbling. A healing light shined beneath the wounded man's armor, and the burns centered around the light began to fade away. "Thank you!" the steward in good condition said to Eron.
"I just happened to be there. Now, can you tell me what exactly happened?"
"The southern guards were incapacitated by a magical fireball. It was clearly magic-fueled. The guy who cast it had no shirt on; the only clothes he had on were a pair of shorts and bands around his arms. He had long, pointy ears, as well."
"I've been all over Bant," Josh said to Eron, "and I've never seen anyone who matches that description. In all my years wandering Bant, I haven't ever seen anyone like that."
"Literally held a fireball in his hand and threw it at them," the frightened guard continued. "Then he set the garden on fire in several places. We couldn't stop him."
"Did he say where he was from, or why he was doing it?" Josh asked.
"He said he was from Etlan, and I've never heard of a city called that. I asked him where it was, and he said it was a good distance to the south of here. He said the attacks would continue if the deforestation didn't stop. But we've only cut down trees that we've needed for materials. We're Knights of Valeron; one of our jobs is to protect the forest, including the Court. But now that's gone."
"Thank you for telling us everything. You've been a great help. May the blessing of Asha be with you. Also when you get the chance, we rode horseback to get here. Could you return the poor thing to the north station in town?"
Armed with new information about their attacker, Josh and Eron headed south of town and into the forest before discussing their next course of action. "This isn't making any sense," Eron sighed. "Bant hasn't seen this kind of magic in over a thousand years. Why today? And why here?"
"Could Alara have merged together...?" Josh said under his breath. "No, that's not possible. There'd have to be some reaction. We'd know. There would have been more drastic geological and geographical changes."
"What's up, Josh? Speak up, I can't hear you."
"As unbelievable as this is, the only way what happened today, as well as the unusual reports from the edges of Valeron and Akrasa, is if the five worlds of Alara reunited. As I said back at the castle, it's only a legend. But if the legend is true, then everything makes sense."
"That's ridiculous! I can cast magic, and I am familiar with the details in doing so. Even if the five worlds were right next to each other, the reunification of them would take an amount of mana I can't comprehend, and even more to make them collide quietly. I'd have felt something, and you would have, too."
"Well, according to the map of Bant, to the south of this forest is a coastline, and...wait. Eron, that guy you talked to said the assailant claimed to be a good distance south of here?"
"That is correct. From the way he spoke, the village he mentioned had to be a good twenty or more miles south of here."
"Twenty miles south of here is in the middle of the ocean, and a village cannot exist on top of the ocean. If we can believe the information we collected, then the only explanation is that the five worlds of Alara became one again. Why fate chose to reunite them now is beyond me, but it's what we've been dealt."
"I don't believe this. What do you suggest we do?"
"As I said before, the coastline is a few miles south of Valeron. We'll be able to get there relatively quickly. It's definitely not more than ten miles south of here. If we head that far south, we can confirm whether or not the worlds have merged. But I think that the burning of the Sun-Dappled Court is indisputable evidence that the five worlds became one. The only way we're going to find out is to go there."
"Alright. Lead the way."
As the two delved deeper into the forest, the concentration of burned trees grew thinner and thinner. Exactly where the forest on Josh's map ended, the trees began changing texture from a deciduous forest to what would be expected in a rainforest. The humidity slowly rose as well. Through the trees, they saw beastly shadows at least the size of leotau in the distance...but they were clearly not leotau. These were beasts they had never seen before. "Eron," Josh said quietly, "I don't think we're in Bant anymore."
Well that was...different. First off get rid of the Prologue...in my opinion it is useless. We don't need the history of Alara, let us discover each land as they come into the story. If you tell us about Naya in the beginning it won't be a shock when all of the sudden they end up in the middle of a dense Jungle surrounded by huge creatures. Your giving some of the story's climax away in the Prologue.
Also you need to edit your work a little more. Most of this is written as if it was happening in our world right now to two teenagers.
The two jumped aboard Josh's leotau and headed southward at a good clip. It wasn't terribly fast like yesterday...this time, a quick yet relaxing pace.
You don't jump aboard a horse, you wouldn't jump aboard a Leotau.
"You wear long sleeves this time of year?" Eron asked. "It's still almost eighty degrees out!"
They wouldn't talk like this in an area like Bant that represents a more midievil time. They would mention the warmth from the sun but not really eighty degrees.
Get rid of the Soundtrack. If youw ant to put ONE at the beginning of every chapter that is fine and could be interesting if all of the songd weren't form the same soundtrack. In the middle of the chapter though it is annoying.
It could be an interesting story but you need to concentrate on it being more about your characters then the idea of this place merging(which is what I feel like you are goign to do in the upcoming chapters). I know you are anti-canon criticism but I don't like the fact that they know Bant is actually Alara. They should only know about bant if youw anted this to be canon. Plus, again, it is more interesting that your characters have never seen an ocean or a jungle but now all of a sudden they have to deal with these new land-types.
"I can't tell what that thing is from here," Eron added, "and frankly, I don't want to get any closer to it to find out." After walking in the opposite direction for a few minutes, they could see light out of the trees to the west. Upon closer approach, Josh could make out distinct buildings. "So there is civilization here," the ranger said.
"It's worth a try. If they're barbaric, we can always retreat." Once the two of them had entered the large clearing, they saw the extent of the jungle's overgrowth. The trees were taller than any he had seen in Bant, besides the ones that grew in the Sun-Dappled Court. The trees that distinctly poked out of the canopy had to be close to a hundred and fifty feet tall. The canopy was so dense that hardly any light shined through. "Fascinating..."
"What?" Eron immediately asked Josh.
"In the forests of Valeron, I've seen ruins that much resemble the structure of these buildings. If we've only been able to cross past Bant for a week or so, then the Knights of the Reliquary are going to be extremely busy for quite some time. The amount of data we can collect from this would take weeks just to sift through." He pulled out a notebook and began jotting down everything he could think to about the structures, even making rough sketches of them.
"Does it matter if you write this down? How are you going to even get back in the castle? We're not wanted there anymore."
"Even if I can't give it to him directly, I'll find a way to get my research there. Somehow. Anyway, shall we head to this town?" Eron nodded. Before they had advanced even a hundred feet, three humans wearing very little clothing and wielding spiked clubs made of bone ran toward them. Two of them wore plating made of an unknown material on one leg, and the other wore a mask with tusks from a dead animal protruding from it. All three of them wore small shields on their off-hands.
"These two aren't elves, that's for certain," one of them said aloud. This alone confused Josh and Eron, as they had never seen elves in their lives.
"They wear strange garbs," another replied. "Are they foreigners?"
"They're not nacatl; they have no fur. And their rounded ears say they're not elven." The three hunters turned toward the knight and ranger. "You look strange. Are you human?"
"Of course we're human," Josh answered them. Without a visual reply, the three hunters circled the Bantians for almost thirty seconds.
"Nope, these two are clean."
(Silence Music Track)
"What was that all about?" Eron asked.
"We haven't had foreigners in Nakai for over a thousand years."
"I've never heard of this place," Josh replied to the warrior.
"It will be easier if one of the village shamans explains. Follow me." The city of Nakai looked a lot like a castle-centered town in Valeron, except there was far more growth everywhere. Fallen vines, leaves, and even the occasional bloodthorn bush dotted the cityscape. There were no clear-cut roads, either, and very few humans rode mounts. Even the hardiest Valeronians would call Nakai a village in the middle of the wilderness.
After several twists and turns, the warrior directed them to the house of one of the shamans. "Here you are." he said. The overgrowth covering the city was present even inside homes.
"Good day, foreigners," a blonde-haired female greeted them. She was equipped similarly to the hunter, but carried no weapon. Scars from bloodthorn vines covered her left leg. There were presumably similar scars on her other leg, but her armor covered them. "I am Aisha, shaman of Nakai. Introduce yourselves."
Josh stepped forward. "I am Josh, a Knight of the Reliquary, and I come from Bant--Valeron to be precise. My friend is Eron, a Ranger of Eos, also from Bant." He paused for a few seconds, trying to figure out what to ask first. "...Where exactly are we?"
"...I suppose that's a good question to ask, given that you are foreigners. You're in the village of Nakai, in Naya. We're one of only six permanent human settlements in all of Naya. As you've seen, the place is so overgrown that you see seeds sprout, then wither and die because they can't get enough sunlight to survive. We constantly receive criticism from elves about clearing places out just so we can have a permanent place to love. They look like us, except they're shorter and more pointy-eared."
Josh gasped after he put the pieces together. "Eron, this means that a Nayan elf was behind the attacks on the Sun-Dappeled Court this morning!"
"Your village was also attacked?" Aisha frowned. "I'm sorry that you two have also become victims of their madness. You deserve to hear the full story. A long time ago, the races of Naya claimed their territories. The elves claimed the canopy. Since every highway on Naya goes through there, they also possess the easiest way to get around. The nacatl, the cat-people, claimed the mountains. That left us with the trecherous jungle floors, constantly humid and in danger of being crushed by the Gargantuans."
"Gargantuans?" Eron asked.
"They're huge beasts that roam Naya, and they range from big to colossal in size. And they're strong enough to uproot trees. The elves worship them like gods and treat them like they're forces of nature. We, on the other hand, seek to use them to better society. And the ones we can't use, we hunt for game and sport. That is the purpose of the Drumhunters, like the ones who brought you here."
"On our way here, we saw a shadow of a creature that was about ten feet tall. Since we didn't know what it was, we decided it was better to avoid the thing."
"That was probably a thoctar. They're pretty wild, but they're the smallest of the Gargantuans. They're tusked beasts with hard bone masks protecting their faces. They're nearly impenetrable from the front, but have weak spots on their sides and backs. The bigger varieties can poke through shorter canopies. We're talking in the neighborhood of thirty feet or taller." Josh's mouth was wide open in awe, as was Eron's. Their definition of huge was a typical grohm leotau. "Generally, Gargantuans aren't at all aggressive, and give you plenty of advance warning when they're coming. About thirty years ago, our village was crushed by a Gargantuan, and we had to rebuild. For this reason, a lot of humans around here are nomadic."
"Sounds like life is a living hell for you guys," Josh sighed.
"Not really," Aisha smiled. "There's always the matca matches, and just game hunting in general. On the west side of town is our matca arena. If you want to know more about it, I can take you to the arena. There's supposed to be a few matches today."
"Actually, we're more interested in why the elves are torching human settlements. Could you explain?"
"Some clearings are created by dewcups--small lakes created by convex patterns in the jungle canopy. They dot Naya, and they're our main water sources. But the clearing Nakai sits on was artificially created a hundred years ago. The elves call it deforestation, and punish human settlements by sending firestokers to do 'demonstrations.' What they really do is set chosen settlements on fire as a warning to others that if the deforestation does not cease, their village could be next."
"So, the Sun-Dappeled Court was mistaken for a Nayan settlement," Josh concluded. "You've told us what's happening, but not why."
"I'm getting to that. The attacks had nearly ceased, but they've increased for no reason within the last week. We have only cut down the trees we've needed for lumber supplies. Furthermore, we plant new trees to replace the ones we cut down. Nature does a better job of that than we do, but it's mainly to appease the elves...to show them that we're cleaning up after ourselves. The reasoning behind their recent attacks is there's been rot and decay in the southern half of Naya, which is mainly elvish territory. They blame it on us cutting down trees, but it has nothing to do with that. Some force we haven't seen the likes of in hundreds of years is impacting the climate in an adverse way, and it's syphoning the nutrients the forest needs to stay alive. We've seen a few effects of it around here, but they have it much worse. We've sent scouts to investigate, and the elves do have it pretty bad."
"Where do the nacatl side on the issue?" Eron asked.
"They're not terribly affected by it, and we haven't heard any of them talk about the issue. So I'd say they're neutral about it."
"Is there anything we can do to help you with this? I don't want to see any more people suffer from these unsolicited attacks!"
"We've sent a few scouts along various leads, but we haven't found anything yet. However, we did get a strong lead yesterday. To the south of here is a large dewcup. Right next to it is a shrine that humans and elves built long ago, dedicated to the gods as thanks for the water source. A druid has made the shrine his home, and he foresaw this problem a week before it started. He'll know more than I do about the issue. Normally you could just take the lianas to get to the shrine without danger, but since they're under control of the elves, they won't appreciate humans up there. You'll have to take the long way."
"Thank you. We'll report back next time we're in the area."
About four that afternoon, the knight and ranger left town. "Look for rays of light to the south," Josh told Eron. "Those are where the dewcups lie."
"Right." Along the way, they had to fend off attacks from various small animals, and even a small predatory cat. With their armor protecting them, they weren't a big deal. Once the dewcup came into sight, though, Eron sighted a pair of large, red eyes to the east. By the time he could warn his friend, though, the silhouette they belonged to started getting larger, until it wasn't a silhouette anymore. The beast fit Aisha's description of a thoctar perfectly.
"Fight or run," Eron said, "we better decide fast!" The ranger readied an arrow as both of them slowly backed away from their foe. The shot he fired just missed the beast's right eye, but it was enough to stun it. This gave them ample opportunity to get a head start in fleeing. Once it had regained its senses, the Gargantuan began closing the gap quickly. After a few hundred feet, Josh peeked back to see it was right behind them. Though the armor he wore protected him well from frontal attacks, he was entirely vulnerable to back attacks. The thoctar threw both of them high into the air, landing with a loud thud.
(Silence Music Track)
"Stop!" the voice of a young girl echoed through the jungle. Eron painfully tilted his head up to see the source of the voice: an elvish girl dressed entirely in green. Miraculously, the ferocious beast held off goring them a second time.
"You're...an elf," Josh groaned. "Why...save us?"
She clasped her hands together, as if she was praying. "Fill this creature with vim and vigor! Nourish!" she recited with her eyes closed. A dim green light surrounded Josh, and his wounds stopped bleeding. She repeated the spell with Eron. By the time she was done casting, the injuries began closing at a visible rate.
Revitalized, the knight and ranger stretched on the ground before standing up again. Though the girl did heal their injuries, it didn't nullify the pain completely. "Why did you save us?" Eron asked. "Don't you hate humans for what they've done to the forest?"
"We're near the Shrine of the Silvertear Dewcup. It's getting late, and it would be best to rest inside there to avoid the Whitecover. I'll explain everything there."
The reasoning behind the prologue is I've posted this at a number of places that aren't MTG forums, so they deserve to know the background.
Come to think of it, you're right. I perhaps read too much into Bant being blue, that they'd have some technological prowess. Maybe that's more of Esper's thing.
As far as the soundtrack goes, it's more to make it feel like a movie or a video game for those who prefer to enhance the experience that way. I ran an experiment with this on the last piece of writing I wrote back in 2007, and it seemed to be a hit with my readers.
Like I said, Bant is only aware of the legend because they're blue, and they'd pay attention to that sort of thing. They're just putting two and two together is all. And I do plan to focus on the characters, but as far as the Mending goes, I am taking this in a different direction from what Wizards has done with the Conflux.
The interior of the stone shrine was dimly lit by a few magic-fueled torches. At its center was a statue of a Gargantuan--and from the size of the human figure used to indicate scale, it was a colossal one. "These kinds of shrines, dedicated to the Gargantuans and Progenitus himself, are all over Naya," the elvish girl began explaining.
"Before we go any farther into the matter," Eron interrupted, "I want to at least know your name."
"My name is Shalin, and I am a godtoucher of Etlan."
"That idiot who burned the Sun-Dappled Court this morning claimed to be from Etlan!" Josh exclaimed.
"Who are you two anyway?" Shalin asked. "You're definitely not from here."
"How rude of me to ask for your name and not tell my own," Eron sighed. "I'm Eron, a ranger of Eos, from Bant. This is Josh. He is a Knight of the Reliquary, from Valeron. He is also from Bant."
"Eron and Josh, it is nice to meet you both." As the sun set beneath the canopy, a thick fog materialized outside the shrine. Josh stood just outside the shrine and outstretched his hand, gasping when he could not see the end of it. "This is the Whitecover, and this is the reason why traveling at night is so dangerous. You're lucky to be able to see five feet in front of you."
"I've never seen fog this thick in my life," Eron replied. "Is this typical?"
"Happens every night, and with the lianas under elvish control, it makes traveling very difficult and treacherous for humans."
"You said you were from Etlan. Do you know why your people are attacking human villages?" Josh asked.
"It's a bit of a long story."
"We can't go anywhere until sunrise, Shalin. We have time."
"Where do I even start," she sighed. "Humans and elves haven't gotten along ever since the humans began the use of Gargantuans for what they call an 'agricultural revolution.' They've been cutting down trees to clear out large areas, so they can build large cities. The only worthwhile benefit is the matca stadiums. Rather than build around the forest like they used to do, they've cut down acres and acres of trees. Since we can't take axes to their cities, we can bury them in fireballs instead. The firestokers were originally supposed to dance with the Gargantuans, and they put on quite the show. But instead of creating beauty, they now create destruction."
"Lumber is an integral material in construction of buildings. We can't just stop cutting down trees. We just need to be careful with where we harvest our lumber from."
"The elves do not understand humans' need for permanent structures, and thus, think that they are harming the forest. The attacks didn't really escalate until a week or so ago, however. Most of the elves live in the southern half of Naya, and down there, plants are wilting and dying for no apparent reason. I know why it's happening, but the others are too ignorant to put two and two together. It's concentrated on the southeast end of the forest, and it's depressing. Entire trees have turned black with rot. The elves blame it on deforestation, but there's an underlying cause."
"What is the cause of the rot?"
"It is a fell creature--exactly what it looks like and what its capabilities are remain unknown. Etlan and other villages have sent scouts out. The few that have returned did so with festering skin, and nothing on all of Naya has that kind of power."
"Even further evidence that Alara's five worlds have become one again. As I believe I said before, one of your village's firestokers set an important landmark in Valeron ablaze. Bant hadn't seen that kind of magic in over a thousand years. You see, it used to be that Bant, as well as Naya, were part of one world called Alara. Over a thousand years ago, for some unknown reason, the world split into five. And just recently, that world came back together. It's the only way we were able to come here."
"That is very interesting. I've heard very similar words from the Godspeaker of this very shrine." The godtoucher paused to ponder this.
"If this is anything like what happened to the Sun-Dappled Court," Eron inferred, "then this creature is from another world. Given your people wouldn't have seen disease like this, it's little wonder no one's slain it yet."
"My thoughts exactly," Shalin continued. "I believe we can slay this beast if the three of us combine our powers. There's only one problem. The source of the rot is beneath the Sacellum. It's a shrine like this one, only much more grand. Unfortunately, it's deep in elvish territory, and I'm no longer welcome there. I remember exactly where it is, but it's so far behind enemy lines that just getting there is going to be a struggle. Even if we defeat the monster, getting back out could be difficult as well."
"But if the rot of the forest stops, won't the elves accept you again?"
"It's going to take time for anyone not deeply connected to the Anima to notice any change. Since I've always taken the lianas to get everywhere in southern Naya, I will be in unknown territory as well. I know exactly which direction the Sacellum is in, but I've never gone this way to get there. We'll need to look out for more than just wildlife, though. I'm sure that elves will come out of the canopy to take us down. If they don't come down, they'll at least start shooting at us. If worse comes to worst, we can ride to the Sacellum."
"On what?" Josh asked. "I had to leave my leotau in Bant--"
"I'm a Godtoucher. It's my job to aid Gargantuans and other beasts in need. They often return the favor by joining my cause."
"That's very similar to what Bantian rangers like myself do," Eron chimed in. "We tame animals and use them for all sorts of purposes. Of course, it was never anything horribly dangerous."
"That's another reason my people don't like me; as I told you, elves revere the Gargantuans as if they were gods. Because I have been able to subdue one, they call me a blasphemer and a radical. It's been a bit of a rough life for the last week, but I think it'll be easier on me if we travel together. We have nothing to lose. What do you guys say?" Both nodded their heads in agreement. "Good. We leave for the Sacellum at daybreak."
With the morning sunrise, the Whitecover faded away, and travel was once again possible on the Nayan jungle floor. The three refreshed, they left the Silvertear Dewcup, heading south. For the first few miles, it wasn't too bad; typical rainforest creatures popped out of the dense foliage from time to time. A few of them attacked, but the ones that did were easily dispatched by sword and bow. The stomps of Gargantuans echoed every so often. When they could see shadows, Shalin adjusted her course slightly to avoid being in a losing battle.
Unfortunately, that took them right across the path of a scarlet wasp, which charged Eron almost immediately. The deep red insect was so big that its needle-like stinger punctured completely through the screaming ranger's hand. "Passion's flame, ignite! Firebolt!" Shalin cried as the wasp pulled itself out of its victim's bleeding hand. A fireball formed in her right hand, and she threw it at the flying menace. Direct hit! Its wings singed and its body on fire, the foe collapsed. The flames ate away at its body, eventually revealing a charred insect corpse.
The blow dropped Eron to his knees. Josh ran toward his injured comrade and began casting a spell to heal his wounds. The wound began closing, but instead of his partner standing up, he collapsed face-first. "Eron! Talk to me!"
"I thought humans were immune to scarlet wasp poison," Shalin said, perplexed. "He's showing signs of fever and has collapsed." She knelt down next to Eron as well, and tried casting a healing spell of her own. When she was finished, the ranger turned over onto his back. Josh breathed a sigh of relief when he opened his eyes and groaned.
"You alright?" Josh asked, wiping blood off both sides of his friend's left hand.
"Not really. It still hurts like hell," Eron winced.
"Scarlet wasps are some of the most venomous creatures on Naya, capable of killing small and medium-sized animals with a single poisonous sting. Most humans around here have developed an immunity to the poison. He'll make it, but he'll feel heavy-headed for a while. If we didn't get to him so quickly, he probably wouldn't have made it. Eron, just take it easy for a while. If you're feeling too weak to continue, we'll stop to rest. Just let us know."
"Don't worry about me," the injured ranger replied. "If you're that worried...just...cover for me."
"Alright, I trust you."
Late that afternoon, Shalin pointed out an elvish liana that reached very close to the jungle floor. "What's so significant about this?" Josh asked.
"This is a checkpoint," Shalin answered. Once we go past here, we'll be behind enemy lines. You sure you don't want to rest here, Eron?"
"I'm sure. I'll make it."
"I hope, for your sake, you're not covering up. If you collapse, it's going to put all of us in hot water."
"I understand that. But I'm fine."
Watchful for snipers, the three of them tread carefully forward. The farther they advanced, the more profound the distinct smell of rotting woodlands became. Even one of the lianas nearby had collapsed. Seconds after passing the fallen highway, Shalin picked up on the sound of hissing arrows as well as muffled voices from the treetops. "Run!" she shouted to her comrades. She readied fireballs in both hands, ready to toss them into the trees once she saw where the arrows were coming from.
"Get them!" one of the elves shouted. "We must bring the girl in alive!" Farther up the road were firestokers. How they were able to amass a force so quickly, Shalin had no idea. Before long, it was raining flames out of the trees. Eron rolled out of the way of one fireball while Josh hopped backward to dodge another. The humidity in the air accelerated the creation of fog.
"Shalin, their attacks are causing fog to form," Josh said. "Form two more fireballs, but don't throw them!" The closer they got to the Sacellum, the lower the fog descended. A couple of arrows bounced off Josh's helmet, but the remainder of the shots became more and more haphazard the lower the sun got in the sky.
"Quick thinking, Josh," Eron sighed, panting.
"There it is," Shalin pointed to the southwest, through the thickening fog. "I know this area well, so follow directly behind me. We'll have to travel through the Whitecover for a short period of time before we get inside." Eron and Josh walked behind Shalin, following her step for step. Though they were getting closer to the shrine, making it out became harder and harder with the fog setting in even more. About 400 feet away, the shadow of the temple disappeared into the Whitecover completely. The Bantians were frightened, unable to see anything. Worse yet, it started raining hard, putting Shalin's light source out.
It took them another couple minutes of wandering through the fog before Shalin found the Sacellum. Visibility had been reduced to less than twenty feet. Everyone, including Shalin herself, breathed a sigh of relief when they arrived. Once their eyes adjusted to the lack of fog, Shalin gasped. "Syeena! Not you, too!"
Josh pressed his first two fingers against the elvish girl's wrist. "She's dead. And her arms are both black."
"This is what's been happening here," Shalin sobbed. "It's been happening to trees, plants, and even people. "But why her... Why did it have to take her?!"
"Was she your--"
"Leave her alone," Josh interrupted Eron. "She needs time. We'll ask about this elf when she's gotten over it. How is your hand feeling?" he abruptly changed the subject.
"It still hurts, but I've gotten used to it a little. At least it stopped bleeding a while ago."
"How about we get some rest here? If this monster is deep underneath this place, we're going to have to travel in completely unknown territory for quite a while to even get to it. Plus, it would be a wise idea to fight at full strength. You said you were dizzy after you got stung. Let's rest up. It's not like we can travel anywhere with the Whitecover set in."
"I miss the beds at the castle in Eos," the Bantian ranger chuckled.
"Feeling any better?" Eron asked as the Whitecover finally rose back above the treetops.
"Yes, I am," she answered. "And I feel like I owe you an explanation about last night."
"I'm listening." Josh nodded to indicate he was doing the same.
"Syeena was a godtoucher a lot like me. She understood what was happening beneath Naya's surface just as well as, if not better, than, I do. She just didn't have the courage to tell the elvish hierarchs the truth. They would deem her a radical, and she would be in the same position I am now with the elves: a fugitive. Because she knew so much, as well as how close she was to the Gargantuans, they assigned her to guard the Sacellum while the Anima was away."
"The Anima?" Josh asked.
"Chosen from among the most faithful to Progenitus, the Soul of the World, Mayael is the most powerful elf in all of Naya. She is the only elf capable of direct communication with Progenitus. I don't want to get into detail about Progenitus, as it would be way over your heads. She can command every kind of Gargantuan in Naya."
"You can't? You stopped that thoctar from running us over!"
"I have a few powers, but it's nothing next to her. Anyway, Syeena was assigned to guard the Sacellum while the Anima was in the Valley of the Ancients. Only a few elves know this, but the Sacellum is part of a temple built almost a thousand years ago. It was dedicated to Gargantuan worship, but was buried in a landslide. Buried being the key word. With a little work, they turned this place into a secret path for the Anima to get down to the Valley of the Ancients in case the main road was blocked due to natural disaster."
"Wow," Eron half-gasped. "What a contingency plan."
"You said the Sacellum was buried, not destroyed, right?" Josh inquired.
"Right," Shalin answered.
"So there must be a secret passage."
"In fact, there is." Shalin climbed up to the stage where a Gargantuan statue rested. She pulled the statue's right arm out about halfway, and a large panel on the floor moved, revealing stairs leading downward. Once she let go of the arm, the secret entrance began closing slowly. Waving her friends on, the three of them descended the winding staircase. The room was dimly lit, again, by magically-fueled torches.
After the staircase circled around for 270 degrees, the party gasped, seeing more dead bodies in similar condition to Syeena's. This time, dried blood was spattered all over the outer wall close to where the blackened bodies were. "This doesn't look recent," Eron noted. "Keep your eyes peeled--I doubt this fiend causing all the rot is the only thing down here." After turning another corner, the three saw the true nature of the Sacellum: the place was a buried tower overgrown with vines and all sorts of exotic plants. The hazardous bloodthorn bushes grew here, as well. If they didn't keep their eyes open for the violet, spiked plants, things would become very problematic.
Josh slashed his way through the vines blocking the north wall, revealing a staircase leading down. On the second basement level, the first thing to catch his eye was structural damage preventing their passage to the west exit. "Shalin, have you ever been down here before?" the knight asked.
"No. I just know that it goes down to--"
"Shalin, look out!" Eron shot an arrow that grazed the godtoucher's head--right into the web of a four-foot-tall spider using it like a swinging rope to ambush her. She turned around to see the monstrosity, and threw a pair of fireballs at its face. Shrugging the pain off, it skittered up the debris and fired a web to the ceiling.
"I can't reach it from here!" Josh exclaimed. Shalin knelt down, and her hands began glowing; one red and one green. Her eyes were closed, and she appeared to be mumbling in a language neither of them could understand.
"Fill the skies with rage! Branching Bolt!" Shalin cried, standing up quickly after finishing the incantation. A green bolt of electricity fried the web, and a red bolt fried the creature itself, causing it to tumble out of the sky and land on its hard shell. Josh took the opportunity to climb onto it and plunge his sword into its soft underside several times. Once he made sure the thing was dead, he wiped his blade clean of its internal juices.
Shalin pointed out an exit to the south. Once they had walked over to the passage, Josh peeked around the corner. "Clear!" he shouted. Turning the corner, the three headed west through the empty room. "Shalin, do you have any idea what the purpose of this place was?"
"I saw fragments of a statue in the rubble. Looked like a Gargantuan. I'm guessing that this was a place of worship before the place got buried. I can't see any other use for this place." They turned another corner, leading back to the chamber they were just in...only on the other side of the rubble. On their left was another staircase leading down.
The chamber they were in was huge. Inside it were six life-size statues of various Gargantuans, four of which were still fully intact. Below them was a series of winding catwalks, cutting into passages that led to various side rooms. It was dizzying to look at all the paths crossing above and below each other. "Who would be deranged enough to design a place of worship this confusing to get around?" Eron asked. "This is worse than the Seaside Palace in Bant!"
"I can't tell you," Shalin replied. "But I see how we could get down to the bottom of this chamber...if only the structure didn't collapse over there." The top level of the three-story main hub branched out four ways, connected by a ring in the center. Another path stretched underneath the ring. However, structural collapses in two sections made it impossible to reach the southwest path directly. Instead, they opted for the northwest path.
Josh quietly walked up to the doorway and peeked around. From where he stood, he couldn't see anything, nor was there another passageway in plain sight. "Clear!" he shouted again. No less than ten feet into the chamber, a lion leaped from behind a shadowy corner, tackling Josh and trying to find the chinks in his armor. Eron put several arrows into its side, stunning it long enough for it to release its hold on Josh. He drew his sword, and Eron readied another shot when the feline arose. Despite its left side bleeding, it wanted to fight. Shalin merely stood in front of the doorway, chanting. Her hands glowed white.
Enraged, the beast flung itself at the archer, sending Eron flying into the east wall of the dimly lit chamber. Just as it was about to claw into him, Shalin's voice filled the air. "Calm your anger and fight for the good of Alara! Evangelize!" A flash brightened the room, and the wild cat stood there, confused.
"What the hell...was that?" Eron gasped, groaning. Josh tended to his friend's wounds as quickly as he could, shaken up himself from the attack.
Shalin began carefully pulling the three arrows out of the lion's side. "Just a second." Once she pulled the last shot out, she healed its wounds with the same green, nourishing light that healed her two friends before. "It's a spell every godtoucher learns when she comes of age. If a wild creature is weak, we can subdue it, and it will listen to that person. It takes a bit of time to cast, so it's difficult to tame very aggressive creatures." With another spell, she projected the image of Naya's jungle floor on the northeast wall, and the partially recovered beast walked through it.
"Wow," Eron said in awe; he was still in pain, but it was more of an annoyance than a true handicap. "I've never heard of any ranger in all of Bant being able to do something like that. That's an incredible talent I wish I had."
"And to summon them again, all I have to do is project an image of their natural habitat on any solid vertical surface, and they'll come out to help me. That's what I did with the thoctar, and I have a couple other creatures as well. I just don't use them unless I have to."
"I discovered that the ones I had tamed were of no use outside Bant, since I can't project images with my mana like you can."
"It's not hard to learn; I'll teach you how to do it."
"Thanks so much, Shalin! I look forward to it. I feel--"
"Will you two quit chit-chatting?!" Josh interrupted them. "While you two were doing nothing, I checked this room, and there's no secret passageway in here. Let's check the other path.
"You're such a party pooper, Josh," Eron joked.
"There will be time for fun and games...after we finish our job here." The southeast exit was blocked by a thick array of vines, but they posed no problem for Josh's blade. This chamber was similar to the last one, but the floor curved downward slowly, taking them to the middle level of the hub. The catwalks were even more confusing here, with several of them going over and under each other. On the south side of the chamber, the statues were more clearly recognizable. In the backs of their minds, they prayed they would never run into these behemoths--even one would be a handful to take down.
Halfway across the room, the path forked to an entrance on the west side and on the north side. After taking the west path, the adventurers quickly discovered both paths led to the same room. Another structural collapse made it impossible to head eastward, which, from the way the catwalks branched, was the correct path. They had no choice but to descend the stairs to the bottom level. Once they had reached the statues' bases, they discovered that navigating the place would be no easy task. All the collapsed statue parts had collected in the most inconvenient of places, concentrated in the center of the room. Furthermore, the ground was infested with green, gelatinous life forms Shalin had never seen the likes of before. Their slimy, translucent bodies held parts of various animals and plants being digested. "Yuck!" Shalin cried. "What is that thing?!"
Josh tried slashing at one of the amorphous fiends, but his blade harmlessly slid on top of it. "Swords don't work!" he said as he backed out of the way to avoid a counterattack.
Eron fired an arrow right through the center of the slime, but it didn't even flinch. "Weapons won't work on it at all," he groaned. "Magic is the only thing that's going to work on them. Shalin, we're going to have to rely on you."
"Mana isn't infinite, Eron," Shalin replied. "Since you know a few spells yourself, I'm sure you're aware. There's a limit to how many spells you can cast without resting somewhere."
"She has a point," Josh agreed. "Hold a fireball or two, and only kill the ones in our way. We run from the rest of them. As every knight in Bant knows, courage doesn't always mean fighting every battle you see. You have to know when to fight and when to flee. And I say this is a time appropriate for fleeing." Shalin did as Josh asked, then the three weaved around the six huge statues and debris, avoiding the poisonous goo as best they could. They hugged the outside wall, running counterclockwise to avoid the biggest concentrations of rubble. Two of the oozes stood in front of the east staircase leading back up, and Shalin fired her shots at both of them. All three dove toward the center of the chamber to avoid being splattered by poisonous goop from the resulting explosion.
Once the dust had cleared, Josh led the way up the stairs. They found themselves on the other side of the rubble that blocked their path before. The only way out of that room led them back to the main hub, taking them over another winding catwalk. They crossed below the path they took upon first entering the middle level, and wound up in a chamber that mirrored the one on the above pathway--the ramping floor leading up included.
"All that way just to get on the other side of the collapse?" Eron complained, seeing where he was on the top level of the statue room. "Seriously, whoever designed this place needs to take an arrow to the forehead."
"At least we can move forward now," Shalin sighed, now on the west side of the top level. There weren't stairs, but the path stretched the entire diameter of the huge room, leading down two levels. It curved back about eight feet above the slime room, leading to yet another stairwell on the north end.
"This isn't the bottom level?" Eron asked Shalin. "It doesn't make sense to haul the materials needed to build something like this all the way upstairs."
"I've said it multiple times," she answered again, "this was built hundreds of years ago. Who knows what their logic was?" After going all the way down the staircase, she begun smiling. "It's getting brighter...is there light down there?"
"It's definitely not your eyes," Josh added as they walked through a long hallway. "It's definitely getting brighter."
"Where's this monster that was supposed to be in here?" Shalin asked as they stepped out of the hallway and into a large, empty chamber. It was about half the size of the statue chamber, but still very large. "If there's light, this should be the bottom level." Just as Josh stepped into the rounded chamber, a large, stone door fell behind them. A second one fell on the south side seconds later, the only light in the chamber being from the same kind of torches as before. The sound of a giant beast breathing filled the room. When they turned to the west side, they saw it. It was clearly a Gargantuan, but of a variety unknown to Shalin.
"I think you spoke too soon," the knight said, then drew his weapon.
The gigantic beast stood just over ten feet tall, its head nearly brushing the ceiling of the empty, circular room. Its large claws made Shalin think of the Rakeclaw, a Gargantuan prominent across the western half of Naya. The major difference between the beast she knew and this one was its normally red skin was festering and turning black. Unlike anything else that had been infected, though, this creature wasn't dying to the disease anytime soon. "So, what's the game plan?" Josh asked, the creature ever-so-slowly approaching the three of them.
"Go right in and start hacking away," Eron answered. "I'll cover you." Once Josh charged at the beast, Eron dropped to his knees and folded his hands. "Safeguard us from the malicious and spiteful! Hindering Light!" A beam of yellow light illuminated the area in front of Josh, then expanded to surround his body, covering him in a magical, translucent shield. The knight fearlessly charged toward the stomping Gargantuan, slashing at its legs and as far up its lower body as he could reach. His sword pierced its skin, but only barely. This thing was tough.
The disgusting-looking creature swiped its claws in retaliation, knocking Josh back, but the shield Eron created caused the attacker to be hit with some of its own power. "I'll help, too!" Shalin cried, dropping to her knees and folding her hands as well. "Unleash your inner fury! Berserk!" Underneath Josh's armor, his muscles bulged, and he lost control of his emotions. His thoughts were to kill the foe in front of him, and nothing more. He sliced everything around him like a maniac, not even knowing if he was hitting or missing. He couldn't even feel the small tremors made by the foe's footsteps.
Josh skillfully dodged the beast's stomps and claw swipes, his fury increasing his reaction time. It made a swift turnaround and swiped its tail, sending the armored man flying into the west wall. Amazingly, he shrugged the blow off, standing up within seconds. Eron fired arrow after arrow from the east end of the circular room, but they seemed to just bounce off. The berserk swordsman jump-slashed at one of the Gargantuan's bleeding legs, then rolled out of the way before it collapsed. However, it was far from dead. Its claws glowed red for a few seconds, then columns of flame briefly erupted around Josh, Shalin, and Eron. The Knight of the Reliquary found himself on his knees, his stamina drained.
"Josh, get out of there!" Shalin cried.
"The thing's almost dead!" Eron replied as the tired warrior stumbled out of the way of his foe's gigantic feet. "Can't you cast Berserk again?"
"Not enough mana!" she replied. "I told you it isn't infinite!"
Eron sighed. "You just stay out of its way, and we'll take care of it from here!" Though the festering creature was far less mobile than before, it was still dangerous. The ranger aimed for the Gargantuan's bleeding wounds, but barely missed with four shots. Josh was still breathing heavily, trying to muster the energy to charge again. The corrupted Rakeclaw belched a dense, black cloud, engulfing the southern third of the chamber in toxic smoke. The three covered their mouths to avoid inhaling any more of it than necessary. Moments after they migrated to the north end, Shalin collapsed, choking from the poison.
"Shalin!" Josh cried. "O Healing Power, soothe this wounded soul! Life Burst!" The burns that the monster had left on her skin started to disappear, but she was still coughing. "Eron, watch yourself, and keep firing!" The arrows continued to fly toward their foe, and it let out a deep roar of pain as he finally landed one inside one of the wounds from his friend's sword. The ranger rolled out of the way of a tail swipe, then landed a second successful blow. Large amounts of the center of the room were covered in dark red blood. A few minutes later, the creature breathed its last.
Eron raised his bow in triumph while Josh continued to assist Shalin. At least the godtoucher was coughing less frequently. "We beat it, guys!" The two stone doors that fell when Shalin entered reopened themselves, and a translucent spirit of an elf appeared in front of the dead titan. Once she noticed that she wasn't choking on the fumes that vented out of the chamber anymore, she bowed to the spirit, which looked like a female elf covered in rich, green leaf clothing from top to bottom.
"Thank you for saving the forest of Naya from the calamity caused by the Mending," she began.
"The Anima?" Shalin gasped. "Where are you?" The others felt refreshed as well.
"Now is not the time. It isn't just Naya; the entire world is suffering from calamities caused by the Mending. The vile creatures causing the decay of the forest emerged from a land to the east of the last Nacatl fortress, Qasal. In order to stop this event from repeating itself, you must head past there. There used to be nothing past the mountains, but the Mending has caused them to merge with a land where survival of the fittest is the law of the land. Go back up through the Sacellum and head east. I wish you luck."
"Where are you?" Shalin asked again as the spirit faded away. "She's gone..."
"At least we're not completely clueless," Eron pointed out.
"Well, going back up was certainly much easier," Josh laughed as they stepped back into the Nayan wilds.
"Remember, we're still fugitives out here," Shalin reminded him. "We need to head east as quickly as possible, without being seen." With one eye to the sky, she led the group toward the Cloud Mountain Range. Staying directly under the elvish highways when possible ensured they stayed out of sight. Once they crossed onto the mountain path, the sound of hissing arrows filled the air again. "Run!"
Shalin's group picked up the pace up the path, but there was no place to hide. Josh ran alongside the godtoucher, shielding her from the hail of arrows. At least the path wasn't terribly winding like paths to the north. Once they had passed over a crag, Eron breathed a sigh of relief. That relief was short-lived when they saw more of their pursuers following them from the Qasali liana. "Cover for me!" Shalin exclaimed. Eron and Josh surrounded her as she faced the wall of a cliff to the east. Their cover didn't do much against the elvish druids and shamans in the back, Shalin's guardians grunting as various offensive spells grazed their skin.
"Surrender the girl!" the elvish commander demanded. "If you cooperate, we will spare your lives. Resist, and we will take her by force."
"How can you say that when the forest was dying, and she eradicated the source of the rot?" Josh argued.
"She is a blasphemer; rather than worship Progenitus' creations, the Gargantuans, she manipulates them for her own benefit. Just like you humans who have no respect for them. You put them in harnesses, deforesting large areas for unnecessarily large food harvests. Rather than respect them for the manifests of Progenitus that they are, you defile them by using them as work beasts. Now, my patience is running thin. The girl, now!"
"She saved all of you from an impending catastrophe, and this is how you repay her? No!"
"Then we're taking her. Get them! The girl must be taken in alive!" Just as the armed warriors began their charge, Shalin projected the image of a small clearing in the jungle, and the same thoctar that assaulted Josh and Eron a few days past began a full-on charge of its own, trampling and knocking their pursuers around like bowling pins.
The beast ran back toward Shalin, its tusks and claws soaked in blood. Shalin pulled herself on top of its thick tail, then scurried up to its back. "Climb on, guys! Quickly!" Arrows bounced off the Gargantuan's tusks and forehead as the summoner fended off her pursuers the best she could with an array of fireballs. Once the beast took off again, there was no hope for them. Try as they might, these behemoths were respected for a reason.
"Yikes!" Eron shouted, putting his bow away. "And I thought Josh's leotau was hard to hold onto!"
"It's bigger, for one," Josh replied while being bounced higher than he was used to, "and there's no saddle on it. That's why it's so hard for us. We're not used to it. Look at Shalin--I imagine she's done this far more than we have, and she's doing fine." It wasn't fast, but all three of them felt the power behind every stride eastward the thoctar took.
Once the Qasali Stronghold disappeared behind the mountain's peak, the three dismounted the thoctar, and Shalin projected a portal for the beast to return through. "It should clean itself up," she said. "Those paws were covered in red. Anyway, we've lost them by now, so let's continue on."
"Sounds good," Eron replied, in the process of regaining his balance. "I just hope we never have to do that again, because that made me dizzy!" Josh and Shalin chuckled.
About half a mile later, the sky turned gray. These weren't rain clouds, though. A quick inspection from Eron showed there to be more mountains in the distance, and they were spitting out smoke. These volcanoes were active and so numerous that their smoke covered the entire sky in a layer of ash. A couple of miles from the mountain's base was a geographic feature that looked like someone clawed a hole all the way through Alara's crust, which was very thin in the region.
Acres of this place glowed red from oozing lava. Multiple volcanoes were oozing as the Knight of the Reliquary surveyed the area. There were rips and cracks in the earth's surface as far as the eye could see, and the only forested areas were primal jungles far wilder than Shalin had ever seen in her life. Tremors even rumbled all the way to their vantage point, further indicating that it was tectonically unstable. "Oh my god..." Josh finally gasped, terrified at how harsh the landscape was.
"You took the words right out of my mouth," Shalin said. "Well, she did say that the source of corruption did come from the east. We have to at least have a look, but I don't want to stay here longer than necessary."
"Neither do I."
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
The three travelers began to wonder what lived in this new land. It was hotter than the Topan savannahs, and the terrain was very unstable due to frequent seismic activity. "I see a couple of tents at the foot of the mountain," Josh said to his friends, "but they're pretty far off in the distance. Watch yourself; we have no clue what kind of things live around here."
About a half-mile down the jagged path, Eron gasped at a human corpse that had several large chunks of flesh ripped off it. "How horrible!" A split second later, something rammed into him from behind. By the time the others saw the ranger's assailant, he was already on the ground, the strength of its fist piercing right through his light armor. Josh drew his weapon and charged the scaly, lizardlike attacker, but it backfisted him with seemingly superhuman force. His heavy armor lessened the blow, but it still sent him flying.
"Restrain these infidels with Nature's shackles! Choking Vines!" Shalin cried. As the name of the spell would suggest, thick vines rose up from the ground and began constricting the viashino. Within seconds, the warrior snapped them in half. "Unbelievable!"
"Smite evildoers with the punishment they deserve! Chastise!" Eron chanted, finally able to get at least on his knees. The holy beam of light that shot out of the ranger's right hand eroded the lizard warrior's skin away as long as it was in contact with the blast. The creature passed out, and it seemed likely he would bleed to death from numerous second-degree and third-degree burns on his left side.
All three of them were panting from the sudden attack. "The hell was that thing?" Josh asked.
"I think this explains why we passed by a half-eaten human corpse," Shalin replied. "In nature, there is a concept called 'survival of the fittest,' and it can be applied to almost anything competitive. Hunting, matca...you name it. The creatures most fit for a task will win out against others trying to perform that same task, and the others will have to find something else they excel at. What we just witnessed is this principle in action, but on a life-and-death scale. And humans aren't at the top of the food chain."
"Then why would anyone live here?" Eron asked her.
"They're probably unaware of the Mending. For over a thousand years, no one had been able to enter or leave Naya. It's probably the same here. Though this place is ruled by Nature, it's the side I'd rather stay away from. This is not her caring side, but her ruthless side. Like Josh said, stay alert."
The temperature didn't drop any as they reached the foot of the mountain. At least there was civilization. Well, it was the closest thing they would get to civilization in this untamed land. When they came within twenty feet of the westernmost tent, they were greeted by clubs, obsidian swords, and other crude weapons. Eron pulled his bow out in self-defense. The muscular humans approached them and noticed that they had survived a recent battle. Both groups put their weapons away. "I don't know how you got in here," one of the armed men said, his outfit made of the skin and bones of dead animals. Josh, Eron, and Shalin had never seen people this physically fit in their lives. Not even the greatest knights in all of Bant were this muscular.
"You are strong if you can survive here," another said. "Follow me." The three warriors led the foreigners into the largest of the nomadic humans' tents. It was a crude setup, for certain; there wasn't even a tarp covering the ground. The bone stakes holding the tents down were driven right into the hard surface, and it definitely wasn't any cooler inside.
"Has there been any unusual activity in the area within the last couple of weeks?" Josh asked.
The spearman that approached him outside answered, "The tar pits to the east of the Mountain of the Mortal Dragon have been expanding, and are becoming a threat to not just our life, but goblins, humans, and viashino all over southern Jund. Our weapons do not work against the elementals there. Normally our shamans would be able to kill them without problems, but they have been becoming aggressive in the last couple of weeks--the time frame you mentioned. How did you know of this?"
"It isn't just happening to you. Bant and Naya, the lands we come from, have also been victimized by unusual problems. It's a bit of a long story."
"I am curious. Explain; I have nowhere to go."
"You are at least familiar with ancient Alaran history, right?"
"Alara? Jund is the only land I've ever known." Josh sighed, then recounted the legend of the Sundering and Mending of Alara to the hunters. "I see. But what does that have to do with you?"
"Because the five worlds have come back together, the worlds have to adapt to things they hadn't seen in over a thousand years. Shalin, would you mind telling them our story?"
"What a story," the spearman said, his two companions nodding in agreement. "If this is true, then this means something past the Mountain of the Mortal Dragon its causing the elementals to become aggressive. But we cannot send anyone there. We just got word yesterday that the last four shamans we sent there all died."
"Send us, then," Eron stepped forward.
"You just met us, and you have nothing to gain from this dangerous mission. Why?"
"You're people in desperate need," the ranger continued. "Even if there's nothing we can do straight away, we can at least learn about our enemy."
"You may have been able to survive a viashino thrash, but you run into that sort of thing at least once every couple weeks around here. This is far more dangerous. Plus, we aren't in immediate danger. We send people into the tar pits almost every week, and few even return to say who died. Also, you didn't answer my question. Why do you help us?"
"I did answer your question. There are people dying here, and we're here to stop or at least slow it down. It's human nature to help those in need."
"You really come from a strange land, don't you? Because here, it's eat or be eaten. The countless half-eaten corpses you've seen along the way are all victims of viashino or dragons. Either way, you seem set on going, so I won't stop you. I just don't see why you would help someone you barely know." He sighed. "Anyway, it would be best to head off in the morning; it's already dark outside."
"This is dark?" Josh asked.
"The constant eruptions and flowing lava make it possible to hunt after dark, but it's just easier during daylight. Have a good sleep."
"Josh?" Shalin said late that night. "Josh?" She pushed the sleeping Knight of the Reliquary.
"What?" he yawned. "What did you wake me up for? I was just getting back to sleep, too."
"I can't sleep--it's hard to breathe the air in this place. Plus, something that guy said's been bothering me."
"Can you be a little quieter?" Josh whispered. "Eron's fast asleep and we don't want to wake him up.
"Sure. Anyway, it's not the cannibalism that bothers me here. It's what he said to Eron. Everyone seems to be out for their own self, and wouldn't even shed a tear if they saw one of their friends die in front of their faces."
"It's the way of life around here. It's all about living for the present; not seeing tomorrow is a realistic future for Jund's people. Also, most of the bodies we ran into were children anywhere from ten to thirteen years old. I bet that if it came down to it, people here would kill other humans just for a desperate meal. No wonder everyone's in such good shape."
"I really think there is no such thing as respect or society around here. Or even religion. What is the point of life here? Is it to die to something greater, like the Life Hunt suggests? Dozens of people throw their lives away during each and every Life Hunt."
"I've sometimes thought about what the world would be without bureaucracy or religion. Ironically, Jund is pretty close to what I've imagined. Without rules governing life or a purpose to life, I felt the world would become complete chaos. There has to be some order somewhere, or people end up dying like this."
Seconds later, the sound of a loud crash filled the air, followed by the crackling of flames. Shalin poked her head outside, only to find two human bodies almost completely incinerated and a goblin being eaten alive by a massive, red dragon. Five of the seven tents were on fire. She nudged Eron urgently. "Wake up! We have to get out of here, now!"
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
Eron jumped out of bed, and he and Josh got dressed and packed up quickly. After exiting the tent in haste, they were terrified at the sight of the crimson destroyer spreading white-hot flames over the settlement. They evacuated with the remainder of the humans, trying to stay out of its sight. Just as they had passed the dragon, it turned to raze the tent that they had gotten out of. A minute later, and they'd have been dead.
Josh pointed out a hiding place to the west of the site. There was an alcove the three of them could duck into. Once he made sure all three were out of sight, he poked his head above the upper surface, where he got a good look at the raging, destructive, reptilian behemoth. Its scales were red as lava, and its claws were sharper than those of the strongest bird of prey. It spouted more flames into the air as a show of its power to anyone who watched the tents burn down and smelled the rancid odor of burning human flesh.
Shalin was, to put it bluntly, mortified. Though she had seen firestokers produce large blazes, it had always been used to honor Gargantuans. Not once was it used for destruction like that. She only became more scared when she saw a goblin get back up after a stream of fire grazed its back, charring its skin black. It scurried up a nearby hill to the highest ground within a quarter mile. The dragon looped around and belched another stream of fire. The godtoucher closed her eyes and covered her face when the goblin jumped. The dragon altered its flight angle slightly, causing the goblin to jump directly into its mouth. "How cruel," Eron sighed as the red creature's serrated teeth cut the goblin into pieces small enough to safely swallow.
(Silence Music Track)
After ten more minutes of circling the area, the terror of the skies finally flew away in search of a better meal. "It's gone," Josh comforted them.
"Is it really?" Shalin shivered in fear. "Is it really gone?"
"Yes," the knight patted his friend on the back softly. She opened her eyes, now seeing the horror the dragon left in its wake. Human, viashino, and goblin bodies were barely identifiable from the amount of skin that had disintegrated from the intensity of the flames. The seven tents that were in the area just the afternoon before were no more than small piles of smoldering ash.
"This is horrible!" she sobbed. "I...I don't know what to say..."
"It seems to be the way of life around here...eat or be eaten. It's a fundamental of nature taken to the ultimate extreme."
"Hey!" Eron shouted. "I heard someone groaning up there. Someone may have survived! Let's at least have a look!" Josh ran to the destruction site alongside Eron, and Shalin trudged there, lost in sorrow over seeing a couple dozen people die cruel deaths.
"The groaning is coming from over there!" Josh pointed toward a heavily bleeding young man. His skin was badly burned, but mostly intact. Eron knelt down and said a prayer to Asha before chanting a healing spell. "Shalin, we need your help!" he reiterated before kneeling as well to assist Eron. "His eyes are closed...he could be unconscious!" Small bursts of healing light appeared around the most severely burned areas, but he was bleeding in so many places that it appeared to do little good.
Putting her sorrow aside, Shalin walked toward the teenage boy. Through the holes in his clothing, she could see he was at least as muscular as the guards that greeted her yesterday. She knelt down with her two friends. "Fill this creature with vim and vigor! Nourish!" the Nayan cried.
With their three efforts combined, the burned skin began to turn back to normal, and the strong young man's eyes began to open. "What feels so good..." he moaned, still in pain from the damage below his skin's surface.
"He's alive..." Shalin breathed a sigh of relief. "He's alive!" She fell right onto Eron and hugged him. "He's alive!!"
"What is this feeling?" the blood-soaked male asked, his vision blurred and his head spinning. "I've never felt anything like this before...but my pain is going away."
"We heard you moaning, and it sounded like you were in pain," Eron replied. "So we healed you." The confused Jundian didn't respond. "We saved your life."
His vision slowly became clearer. "I've never seen clothes like those before...are you human?"
"Of course we're human!" Josh answered. "What else did you think we were?" The recovering teen grunted and raised his fist.
"Don't mind him," Eron comforted him. "Yes, we are human."
"You're the scrawniest-looking humans I've ever seen! I'd make a meal out of you if I was feeling better, and you should know that if you've lived this long. But...why did you save me?"
"Because you were a person in need of medical attention. It's only human nature to sympathize and care for people in need."
"No one has even paid attention to me after a hard battle; I have always had to find something to cover my wounds with. You are the first people I have ever met that have cared for someone yourself. I've seen humans play dead as a way to lure a meal in. It's not uncommon." He took a deep breath, then got on his hands and knees. About fifteen seconds later, he slowly stood up.
"Can you walk now?" Shalin asked.
"Yes, I can." He scoured the area for a weapon, finding a viashino kikkach, a club with the teeth of gharials and dinosaurs at the business end. It was functional, but very short--the end of its handle had burned away in the blaze. "What are your names?"
"I'm Shalin, a godtoucher from Naya. These people are Josh and Eron, and they are from Bant."
"My name is Ace, and I'm a warrior of the Rip Clan. I have never heard of Naya or Bant. Are they somewhere in Jund?"
"No. Naya is to the west of the mountain range west of here, and Bant is to the north of Naya."
"That's impossible, because there are tar pits are to the west of those mountains! I've gone there several times myself!"
"You may find this hard to believe," she continued, "but Alara changed a little over two weeks ago. It's how we got here. When Josh and Eron told me, I couldn't believe it, either. Long story short, this place you call Jund is one of five worlds that were originally one. Over a thousand years ago, Alara split into five worlds. Bant and Naya are two of the others. Until I went over the Mountains of the Cloud Pride yesterday, I didn't believe in the Mending either. But the moment I crossed over from Naya to Jund, it was clear that the worlds became one again. Tell me, Ace, have you noticed any unusual activity in the past two weeks?"
"Let's start with the dragon attack. I don't remember much about the attack itself--"
"Which is to be expected," Josh interrupted. "You blacked out and looked like you were going to die. Look, blood is still dripping from your clothes."
"As I was saying," Ace ignored the knight, "dragon attacks aren't rare here. However, there was no reason for it to attack that settlement...at least not without any warning at all. Furthermore, navigating the tar pits to the east of the Bloodhall has been just about impossible of late. There are creatures there we haven't seen before, and they're threatening our way of life. Without sangrite crystals, we cannot survive especially dangerous situations."
"This is exactly what's been happening in Naya," Shalin said, "and I assume it's been happening in Bant as well. Things we haven't seen the likes of before have been appearing, and wildlife always seems to be on edge. These two almost got ran over by one of my own beasts."
"The sudden escalation of the war, and the sudden aggression of the Jhessian navy..." Josh added, pondering various hypotheses. "And all of this happened in the time frame of the last ten to fourteen days. This doesn't sound right. Ace's tribe's problems, the Gargantuans going wild, and the aggression of the Jhessians..." he repeated. "It can't be coincidence. I'm finding it hard to believe also, but if I'm putting the pieces together, this is happening in the two worlds we haven't been to, as well. If we keep looking, we'll find the root of Alara's problem, and solve it."
Ace stepped in front of the three of them. "If what you say is true, then our way of life is in danger." He sighed, then paused. "I'm going with you."
"What?" Eron said, surprised. "You want to come with us?"
"Like Josh said, the only way we're going to get to the bottom of this is if we stop whatever is causing this at the source. Besides, I've never had anyone look after me before. Like the dragons of Jund have shown me before, teamwork is the way to go."
"Welcome to the group, Ace!" Shalin cheered.
"Besides, four is better than three, right?" Eron, Josh, and Shalin chuckled in agreement.
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
"It may be huge, but at least the Rip isn't a river of lava," Shalin said, sweating profusely from the intense heat of Jund's volcanic hotbed as she kept pace with the group walking eastward. "At least we were able to go around it."
"When traveling long distances, any hunter needs to know the location of every fault on Jund," the barbaric warrior answered her. "Shalin, how do you fight? You don't have a kikkach or any other thing to defend yourself with. What if you get attacked by viashino again?"
"Ace, I'm just waiting for the right moment. It's a kind of magic that's way above your head."
"I know about magic! I can even cast a few spells!"
"Not magic like this. You'll understand why when I show you."
"I tell you what...I'll demonstrate it for you the next time we run into something appropriate. It's a magic that uses nature's own beasts against itself."
"Like Rakka Mar, the great shaman? She can summon fire elementals at will."
"...Kind of. But I'm not restricted to fire elementals. You'll see."
"I hate to break up this enlightening conversation," Eron interrupted, "but where is our next destination?"
"It's actually in sight," Ace replied. "We're heading through the Worldheart Mountains and past the Bloodhall. On the other side of the mountains are the tar pits. It's going to get a little more dangerous from there, which is why I'm a little worried about Shalin. She says she can fight, though I don't believe her."
"If you don't believe her," Josh said, "then believe me. She's saved our lives at least once."
"Anyway, I'll tell you all you need to know about the Worldheart Mountains, since you've never been there. They're home to the largest deposits of sangrite in all of Jund."
"What is sangrite?" Shalin asked.
"Sangrite is Jund's raw mana in the form of a crystal. When cracked, the person who cracked it experiences an immense rush of power for a short time. I've cracked several small crystals open myself, so I know what it's like. Shamans use them for particularly powerful spells as well. The deposits are well-guarded though; elementals and the occasional dragon comb the area, making it difficult to get back out with the sangrite intact."
"So it's much like casting Berserk on someone?"
"Yes. Before that dragon attack, I was learning how to cast that. Maybe you can finish teaching me. But cracking sangrite produces a much larger effect than that spell. The deposits lie near the top of the tallest mountain in the range, which is an active volcano. Thankfully, that's not where we're heading. In the mountain we're heading is the Bloodhall, located near a human settlement inside the mountain. It's safe from the viashino and most of the other nasties that roam Jund, but hunting is also difficult for them. The Bloodhall is an important gathering site for us, because it's where the Life Hunt begins."
"I heard that term yesterday," Josh replied. "What exactly is the Life Hunt?"
"It's a ritual performed every eight years. The Vision Speaker, Rakka Mar, summons the most proficient hunters from all over Jund to the Bloodhall, where they ascend Mount Worldheart to kill a dragon. No one usually comes back alive. I was selected to go on the next one, which would have been in just a couple of weeks. But given how much more aggressive everything has become recently, I feel that something had to change. We were fighting the wrong enemy, so I was looking for someone who thought differently. That's when I found you guys."
"So that's your motive for joining us."
"With our way of life in danger, something had to change. I didn't know what, so I figured the best way would be to try things until I found something that worked. Well, here we are." The mouth of the Bloodhall Cave beckoned. The cave was torch-lit, so Ace didn't have to worry about carrying a light source.
"Hey, these function just like the ones in the Sacellum!" Shalin noticed.
"Because this cave is traversed so often, someone thought to put a more permanent light source in here." A quarter mile in, a large, red ooze stretching its four pseudopods to the corners of the tunnel blocked the way. "God damn it...has it been corrupted by the tar fiends?" He raised his hands into the air, and his entire body glowed with a red aura. "Engulf this fiend in a ring of fire! Blaze!" the warrior shouted. A line of flames began coming from the palm of his right hand, then he waved it to trap the strange creature in a circle of fire. It had little effect. "Can you--wha?"
Ace noticed Shalin on the ground, her hands folded. She let out a cry, then a jungle panorama appeared on the north cave wall. A lion stepped out of it, then the portal closed. The feline snarled, then flashed its sharp teeth at the red slime. She patted the cat's head gently, then it charged the creature with amazing speed. It sliced two of the pseudopods open with its claws, and the foe could not hold itself up on the remaining two. It fell to the ground, where Shalin's companion stomped and clawed it into oblivion. "Was that...?" Josh gasped.
"What the hell did you just do?!" Ace drew his weapon as the lion approached him, letting out a low growl. It circled him once at very close range, but refused to attack. "...Why isn't it trying to eat me? I've seen things like this attack before; they don't get this close to people!"
"This is the magic I was telling you about before. Watch." Shalin whistled, and the lion walked back toward her. After looking to see how high the ceiling was, she lifted one leg over her summoned cat. It didn't even make a sound while she mounted. "See? He won't harm us."
"I...I d-d-don't know what to say," Ace stuttered. "This breaks every rule of life around here. How do you...how do you...?"
"I'll tell you the short version. The tribe I come from can cast a unique spell. It takes a long time to cast, but it calms an aggravated monster down and sends it back to its natural habitat. Then I can project an image of that habitat on any vertical surface, and the creature I saved comes through the image and is totally under my control. There is a problem with it...or perhaps a limitation. If the monster is strong enough, it can resist the spell. So to capture stronger monsters in this way, I unfortunately have to soften them up by fighting them first. With enough luck, I can control just about anything I want." It boggled Ace's mind even further. "Don't think about it now, just accept it. The more time you spend with me, the better you'll understand. Anyhow, lead the way."
Ace led the group to a four-way intersection. "North of here leads up Mount Worldheart, but that's not our destination. The world's largest deposit of sangrite, as well as some other goodies worth grabbing are up there, but we shouldn't waste time. To the south is a hidden human settlement, and below that is the Bloodhall. Only shamans and people who have survived Life Hunts know about the place. It's a safehold from the many viashino thrashes prowling around on the surface. If you're tired, we can stop there to rest before going to the tar pits, which are to the east of here."
"Being interrupted by the dragon attack last night," Eron started, "I vote we head down to rest. You said a lot of shamans live down there?"
"That's right, Eron."
"Maybe Shalin can learn something from them. Either way, I vote we stop there to rest for at least a couple of hours. I could barely see it through the volcanic clouds, but the sun was only a couple of hours into the sky. We can rest without worrying about it being dark where the tar pits are. If we travel there during the dark, I doubt we'll be able to see anything."
"Also, I think we should get Shalin a weapon, just in case."
"I told you before," Shalin raised her voice, "I don't need a weapon! I'm sitting on the back of the closest thing I'll ever get to one!"
"Alright, I trust you. But we're at least going to stop to rest." Shalin dismounted, then projected a return portal for her mount to return to.
After a few hours of rest, the four left the underground human settlement, which was nearly empry for the time being. Everyone was probably out hunting. The structures looked a little more permanent than tents but not by much. The people living there were still ready to evacuate in case of an energency. Ace guided the team back upstairs to the four-way intersection. "Do you plan on going to the top of Mount Worldheart in the future, Ace?" Josh asked.
"As I said before, there are very dangerous things up there, and there is a powerful dragon that makes its nest at the top. You don't climb the mountain without a very good reason. We should head east for the time being, to our destination." Through a straight corridor about half the length of the one they first came through was a maze of stalagmites and stalactites. It was a simple task, as they could see around the natural pillars obstructing their way. Right when they passed the narrow corridor to the next chamber, they saw a set of stalagmites blocking the east exit to the mountain cave. A black liquid was dripping from the center of the medium-side cave hollow.
The moment they looked up to check what it was, another set of stalagmites rose out of the ground between the maze and their current position, sealing them in. "Dammit, we're trapped!" Josh shouted. "What is that thing?"
"It's a tar elemental!" Ace replied. "This is something I didn't want to run into!"
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
The animated blob of toxic tar dropped to the cavern floor, splashing all four of the wanderers with poisonous, hard-to-remove black waste. Ace's obsidian-studded sword bounced right off the fiend when he slashed at it. "What the hell's going on?!" he shouted. "This isn't an ordinary tar elemental!"
Josh sliced at the black elemental, but merely displaced its liquid frame. "My sword doesn't work, either! Shalin, try your magic!"
Ace and Shalin knelt to the ground, holding hands. "Fill the skies with rage! Branching Bolt!" they cried in unison. Red and green bolts of electricity flew from both pairs of hands toward the fiend. Sparks erupted all over its body due to the high percentage of liquids it was comprised of. The resulting electrolysis decomposed some of that liquid, causing the creature to steadily shrink in size.
"This tactic appears to be effective," Eron cheered. "Keep it up!"
"Look out, Josh!" Ace shouted, standing back up as the tar fiend formed a toxic wave ready to crash to the floor. The Jundian charged at his friend to push him out of the way, but not fast enough--they both became engulfed by the poisonous ooze. Shalin launched another lightning-based attack at it after the foe reformed, its victims covered in black.
Ace stood back up almost immediately, but Josh had to reach for the strength just to get back up to his knees. "O Healing Power, soothe this wounded soul! Life Burst!" the knight cried as he folded his hands. Ten seconds later, nothing. Twenty seconds later, still nothing. He recited the incantation a second time. Ten seconds later, nothing. Twenty seconds later, still nothing. His hands weren't even glowing white. "Why doesn't my spell work?!"
"That's why I was trying to push you out of the way! Coming into contact with Jund's toxic tar makes it difficult to cast magic!" The muscled warrior slashed at the foe with his weapon again, and cut off a piece of the foe's toxic coat--the repeated lightning attacks electrolyzed enough water away to harden it to the point where it became malleable! "It worked! Josh, start hacking away!"
"Right, Ace!" Being covered in thick goop encumbered Josh's movements, but he was still able to land consecutive blows on the strange creature. It seemed to shrug each one off, but at least it was doing something now.
Shalin sidestepped out of the way of a fist of tar, the failed attack leaving a dent in the cavern floor. Eron rushed to the other side of the room to cover for her while she charged more electricity. After she landed her fourth lightning bolt, Eron assumed a stance of prayer. "Smite evildoers with the punishment they deserve! Chastise!" A column of light rose from Eron's feet at a 45-degree angle, in the direction of the black elemental. The light pierced through its tar coating, causing it to sound a roar of agony and shrink in size significantly.
The east chamber of the cave shook with the fiend's roar, and magical spires of black energy pierced through the floor, one by one. One of them lifted Shalin into the air, puncturing the right side of her chest. Strangely, she didn't bleed from it at all, nor did she groan much getting back up. All that seemed to bother her was the hard landing.
Eron aimed another beam of light toward the foe, having to stand closer to avoid having the beam sail over its target. The remainder of the creature's body exploded, sending the ranger flying into the north cave wall and toxic goop in all directions. "Eron!!" Shalin shouted, her voice getting weaker from poison seeping into her body.
(Silence Music Track)
With the defeat of the tar fiend, the remnants of its body slowly dissipated, the black slime covering the cave walls and four victors slowly disappearing. But it was too late--the poison from Jund's tar pits had already begun to take effect. Shalin and Eron put their healing magic together to relieve the party's wounds, but it did not relieve their dizziness from the poison.
The stalagmites sealing them inside the room receded. Despite being weary from battle, Ace led the group to the east end of the cave. "The tar pits of Jund should be this way," he guided them, breathing heavily afterward. All of them were. From the cave exit, it looked like the tar pits Ace had known his entire life. Once he had led everyone outside of the cave, he couldn't believe his eyes.
"The tar pits are supposed to be here," Ace snapped, his face showing a frightful scowl. The sky was still covered in dark clouds, but they definitely weren't coming from volcanoes. There weren't any breaks in the cloud cover, either; the sky was filled with black, grey, and dark violet. Both varieties of lightning flashed periodically, making Shalin and the Bantians flinch, as they had never seen natural lightning before. "I see tar pits, but the sky has never been this dark. What the hell happened?"
"I wish I knew," Josh replied, surveying the desolate place. The terrain was black--not even a single blade of grass grew. The entire landscape looked devoid of life. The tar pits bubbled and the panorama of storm clouds moved on, but the rest of the place looked like it was in suspended animation. "The whole place is a wasteland. The air isn't clean at all, either." He paused. "I see what looks like a ruined castle in the distance, so someone had to have lived here at some point. How anyone could survive in conditions like these, I have no clue. For starters, where would they get their food and water from?"
"Behind you, Josh!" Ace cried. The body of a festering human rose up behind the Knight of the Reliquary rose from out of the earth, and it began walking toward him, arms outstretched as if in a trance. The Jundian slashed with his blade, cleaving its arms off. It collapsed seconds later.
"What was that thing?" Josh asked.
"It's the same thing that happened to Syeena!" Shalin sobbed. "Here, too?!"
"But more importantly, why is it still alive?"
"It shouldn't be--nobody, human or elf, had--" Her sentence was cut short by her own scream, when the arms Ace just cut off begun strangling her. The same thing had risen out of the ground for a second attack.
"But I just killed it!" Ace carefully aimed a fireball at the assailant's back, causing it to release its grip on Shalin. This time, he cut it into around fifteen pieces. "There. Now it's definitely dead. But I've never ran into anything I've had to kill twice. Shalin, did you notice anything unusual about it? Magic isn't my specialty."
"Matter of fact, I did. I haven't a clue what exactly was keeping it alive...but it definitely was some form of magic. Come to think of it, I wouldn't even call that thing alive. But it isn't dead either. Not alive, but not dead..."
"I don't understand it either; I just accept that it's true. It happened before my eyes, so it's got to be true."
"Something powerful is preventing things from dying here, but I can't put...a...finger..." Her sudden onset of coughing prevented her from finishing her sentence.
"Are you okay?"
"The tar elemental's poison, and this air..." Eron mumbled.
"What? Speak up, Eron!" Ace commanded.
"She's probably still got that poison in her, and the poor air quality here is amplifying its effect. Plus, maybe some of the shamans and warriors in that village we slept in last night could give us some advice on how to travel there. For now, I strongly recommend we turn back."
"I agree. Let's at least get her to a safe place. Then, hopefully, you and Josh will be able to heal her."
"I hope so, too; she's not in very good shape, and we can't afford to lose her."
"Ungh..." Shalin groaned before opening her eyes. "How...did I get here?"
"Her eyes are open and her speech is normal," Josh smiled. "That's a good sign."
"Josh, what happened?"
"After Ace lit that zombie on fire, you passed out. I don't know how long you were unconscious for, but we took you back to the human village below Mount Worldheart; it was the closest place we could take you. How are you feeling?"
"A little weak, but I think I can keep going with you. Just let me know when you're ready, and we'll head back to the tar pits," Shalin answered with a smile.
"We've decided we're going to wait another day before going on. The tar elemental's poison will wear off by tomorrow morning. Dravin, a shaman here, told us. We're going to ask him if anyone he knows has been to the tar pits within the last two weeks."
"But one of us has to stay here and watch Shalin," Eron pointed out. "If no one's around to take care of her, and she gets worse..."
"If you're that worried about her, you can stay behind. Ace and I will meet with the shamans. We're all going to get rest after the meeting regardless."
"Alright. She's in my capable hands, Josh."
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
The Bloodhall, beneath the village, was the place of meeting. It certainly wasn't a comfortable place to do so, but it was sacred to humans. Magma bubbled around thirty-five feet below the stage in the center of the chamber, which was presumably part of an altar. Three of Jund's great shamans stood on the altar, with half a dozen other people, Ace and Josh among them, ready to listen.
"Ace has brought foreigners to aid us in reclaiming Jund from the zombies to the east of the mountain," the female spellcaster in the center of the room started. "Would you please introduce him?"
"Actually, Rakka, there are four of us. This is Josh. Eron and Shalin are still at the inn; Shalin was poisoned to near death by tar elemental's poison and the toxic air that's come over the tar pits."
"And she survived this?" Rakka Mar replied. "Incredible..."
"Yes, it's a miracle she's alive. These people have magic we've never seen the likes of before...magic capable of healing wounds and magic capable of blinding enemies with intense light. Again, it's a kind of light we've never seen before. They were able to defeat a particularly vicious tar elemental by themselves."
"Then they will be valuable in investigating the problems causing the tar pits to expand westward. We've been losing our water sources to whatever has been causing this problem, and our very way of life is in danger."
"We would appreciate any information you can give us about the land to the east of the mountain," Josh chimed in. "Even if you aren't sending us there with a group, the four of us would go there on our own anyway. Our homelands have been affected too, and we have reason to believe all these calamities are linked."
"Alright, I'll tell you everything I know," the Vision Speaker replied. The land east of here is called Grixis, and as far as we know, all of its inhabitants are undead. Yes, undead."
"What does it mean to be undead?" Josh asked.
"Remember what happened to Syeena?" Ace reminded him. "That's probably what Rakka is talking about. Her skin was almost entirely black when we found her."
"It's the same condition, and we've called it zombification. It starts with the skin becoming soft like a sponge, then it turns black and starts foaming up. It ends with the death of the individual, but the ones infected with it on Grixis seem to have a resistance to the condition. The condition also has some benefits, like being able to recover from normally fatal wounds."
"We've had an encounter with one of those already," Josh replied. "After I cut its arm off, it came right back up and almost killed Shalin. That's part of the reason why she got so badly poisoned."
"The inhabitants of Grixis use zombification to extend their lives, but I wouldn't call that condition 'life.' Many of our scouts never came back, but the few that did brought back some valuable information. There are remnants of cities: one to the north and two to the east, and we have evidence to believe that people are trying to live there. I feel that I speak for everyone on Jund when I say that you are the only ones we can rely on to investigate the matter further. We can't keep throwing people away."
"Can you tell us anything else?"
"I only know two more things on the matter. First, zombification has affected creatures besides humans. You really have to be prepared for anything. Second, we believe the ruined city on the mountain to the north is where the source of the trouble is. I'm not 100% on that, but I'm fairly certain that's where you should go first."
"Alright, thanks for the advice."
"I wish you a successful mission," Rakka replied as she signaled for everyone to leave. Once everyone left the room, she started rubbing her hands against each other slowly. "I'll send them right into your hands," she smirked. "Sedris, you're a genius."
The next morning, Shalin was the first one out of bed, though all four awoke within a few minutes of each other. "So, what did you learn?" Eron asked Josh as all four of them gathered their equipment.
"Quite a bit. I'll explain it as we head back to Grixis. That's the name of where we were." The group finished packing up and headed back to the first level of Mount Worldheart, going east. "Everything there, including that thing that attacked you, suffers from a condition called zombification. It's what Syeena had."
"Then how did they attack us?" Shalin asked. "Syeena died from it!"
"The zombies, as I'm going to call them, either have a resistance to the condition, or cast spells on themselves to grant such a resistance. Either way, you have to chop them into a million pieces or they'll just come back. Burning enough of their skin away also makes it impossible for them to come back."
"Do we have a particular destination in mind?" Shalin asked as they entered the chamber with the maze of stalagmites.
"There are three major ruined cities Rakka mentioned; Unx to the north, Sedraxis to the east, and Kederekt to the southeast. We're going to the north one, and it's on high ground. Hopefully we can get a better look at the area from there. Also, watch your back; zombies can come out of the ground with no warning."
"How about we ride there?" Shalin suggested. "I have creatures available to me besides the thoctar and lion from before."
"It'll make us a bigger target, but I think it's worth risking. That thing's no leotau, so it can probably only carry one of us. We don't want to overburden them. The thoctar can probably cover me and either you or Ace. We need one more."
Once they reached the east exit to the Grixis mainland, Shalin knelt down and began praying. Three Nayan panoramas appeared on the side of the crag: two of a jungle, and one of a fairly large plain. Out of the jungle ones came the Gargantuan that saved their lives while running away from elves. Out of the other jungle one came the lion that Shalin had charmed in the Sacellum. Out of the last one shot a yellow creature so fast, the summoner was the only one able to recognize what it was before it turned around and stood next to her. "That thing's faster than a grohm leotau!" Eron gasped.
"What in blazes is that?" Josh asked, more fascinated than shocked by the black-spotted yellow feline.
"It's a Nayan cheetah, the fastest four-legged predator in all of Alara." The cat's slender, streamlined frame was indicative of its speed. It was around four feet tall. "They're found on the west side of the Valley of the Ancients, but getting over there with the way things are now is nearly impossible."
"It looks a little small," Eron noted aloud. Shalin raised her left leg over the black-spotted feline's back, the fragile-looking cat not flinching or showing any other sign of weakness as she mounted it. Her legs hung just a few inches off the ground. "It's definitely small. Are you sure it can handle this?"
"More importantly, your legs are hanging really low to the ground. If it runs on an incline, you could end up being blown right off from touching the ground."
"I've done this before, and I've actually been blown off once...but for a different reason. This thing is so fast that you have to practically lay down on it just to avoid falling off. That means that when we're moving, my legs aren't so close to the ground. Trust me, I know what I'm doing." Ace and Josh climbed up the Gargantuan's back, and Eron hopped onto the lion, drawing his bow. Shalin leaned low on her feline mount's back, and they were off with great speed.
The dark wasteland flew by. The thoctar blasted forward at nearly full speed, making Josh and Ace hold on for their lives, trampling zombified humans and other undead in the process. Eron's lion tore others to bits, and a few arrows from his bow took out any skeletal bird flying close enough to be a threat. Two zombie warriors rose from the ground in front of Shalin, ready to slice at her as her mount rapidly approached. She leaned her body to the right, and the cheetah weaved around the warriors with enough agility to send any inexperienced rider flying. "How does she hold on to something like that?" Josh was dumbfounded.
"I've said it twice now," Shalin replied. "I've done this before!" Though the undead outnumbered them, they were no match for the raw strength of the beasts of Naya. It reminded her of escaping from the elves that chased her from her home just a few days ago.
"I see a mountain a couple miles to the north of here," Ace pointed out, "and there's a cave entrance at its base. That looks like our destination. It shouldn't take terribly--Wait!" he shouted as the Nayan cheetah sped northward in a wild sprint, its legs moving almost impossibly fast. Eron and Ace had to accelerate their mounts just to keep the godtoucher in sight.
Shalin dismounted the yellow cat and let it rest back in the woods of Naya, patting it lightly on the head as thanks for getting her there safely. She did the same with the other two beasts as they arrived quite a bit of time afterward. "On the other end of this trail should be the ruins of Unx," Josh said. "Though we've lost the zombies for now, we still need to be careful."
"Of course," the ranger replied.
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
"Well, that was uneventful," Eron smiled as he led the party out of the mountain cave. Once he reached the top of the hill, he gasped when he saw the ruined city.
Music Track: The Rat's Chamber //Jeremy Soule
Album: Secret of Evermore
Apologies for no link, but no one has uploaded Secret of Evermore's game rip to Youtube. Therefore I cannot provide a link.
"This place, and that castle..." Josh pondered aloud. "Their designs are identical to those of similar structures back in Bant. But that's...impossible..." his voice trailed off.
"What?" Eron asked.
Pitfalls and debris obstructed the main street to the castle, making it impossible to get there. They were greeted by a pair of zombified humans, quickly vaporized by Ace's erupting columns of fire. Turning a corner, the party was greeted with a second attack--an array of lightning bolts. Ace on his knees, the rest of the party charged at the thin-framed mage, weapons drawn. "Stop!" he shouted. "I mistook you for a zombie!" He was even more taken aback to see Josh and Eron, their sigils gleaming in what little light there was. "There are still Vithians here?" The Bantians gasped at the name.
"You know something we don't about this place," Shalin said. "You don't have any reason to hide things from us."
"Spill it," Ace added.
"Can we take this some place a little safer?" the Vithian mage asked. "There's an abandoned barracks to the northeast of here, and it's still in one piece, for the most part."
"That's not a bad idea, but someone should still keep watch for zombies."
"I was about to suggest that--they'll literally drain the life out of you if you let them."
All of the paint on the walls had washed away, their color now a very dark gray. The interior of the building was full of mist, and the air was just as stagnant as outside. Several of the interior walls had collapsed, but the structure itself wasn't in immediate danger of collapsing At least the threat of a zombie attack was low. "Josh, you owe us an explanation," Shalin repeated, her arms crossed as she sat on one of only two stable benches left.
"Alright. I'll tell you what I know," Josh replied. "I'm still surprised how bad this place turned out to be, though. Directly across the sea from Valeron used to be a land just as rich and cultivated as Bant. It was called Vithia. It had a very similar setup to Bant: very chivalrous combat, peace-loving humans, similar wildlife, and similar lifestyles. This is all ancient history; in fact, Vithia ceased to exist shortly after the Sundering."
"Ceased to exist?" the spellcaster asked. "This is Vithia! You're here right now!"
"This is not the Vithia your ancestors knew. The only difference between Bant and Vithia was that the kings had to suppress necromancers. Bant originally had a few, but they numbered far more in Vithia. When the Sundering tore Alara apart, Bant was cut off from red and black mana, making necromancy impossible. The legend of Vithia, according to the Knights of the Reliquary, never really told in great detail what happened to Vithia post-Sundering. However, I can make an educated guess, given what I've seen traveling Bant."
"Alright," everyone else in the room said. "We're listening."
"Through our travels, we've encountered lands that were devoid of blue and black mana, lands devoid of white and blue, and lands devoid of black and red. These lands are Naya, Jund, and Bant, respectively. This leaves two lands. One of them lacked red or green mana, and I doubt it's where we are now. Otherwise, life energy would not be in short supply. Because green and white are the colors of life, I would assume that this land lacked them."
"This also explains why so few shamans came back from across the mountain," Ace added. "The zombies were literally sucking their life dry."
"Precisely, and that's why I've been stressing that we need to be so careful around here."
"But what happened to the angels?" Eron asked. "Wouldn't they have stopped the necromancers from taking over?"
"Angels can't cast any of their spells without white mana, so they probably became rather helpless and died out. Like in Bant, they must have relied so heavily on protective spells. Being unable to cast them, the necromancers just ran right over everything. I imagine that humans are now a minority here."
"They are, and they've been steadily decreasing in number up until about two weeks ago," the Vithian added.
"That doesn't surprise me. With the worlds back together, the zombies have found new sources of life energy to feed on. It won't take long before they infest the entire world. Do you have any information on the cause of all of this nonsense?"
"All I have is a history. When the world was torn apart, Vithia, now called Grixis, was cut off from green and white mana, as you've explained. The greatest of the Vithian kings, and the ruler at the time of the Sundering, was Sedris. Though he was for the most part a just ruler, he started making underhanded deals with necromancers about a year before the Sundering. After that, he saw that his kingdom as he knew it would die out due to the lack of green and white mana. A demon granted him eternal life in exchange for his kingdom, but that eternal life was really lich-dom. He has become an undead, ruthless king, and most of the zombies in the Sedraxis area are under his control. Ever since the worlds came back together, he has been sending zombies westward in search in new forms of life energy, or vis."
"Rakka Mar back in Jund mentioned Sedraxis," Ace said. "She also said there was a large civilization there. Where exactly is it from here?"
"If you're looking for the Necropolis of Sedraxis and Sedris' Keep, you came from the opposite direction. Sedraxis is far to the south of here."
"She said she was sure that the problem was coming from here! That bitch!" the warrior from Jund cursed. "She led us completely on the wrong path! Is she somehow working for Sedris?!"
"There's no way to know that now," Eron replied, "but at least we're on the right track again."
"This fully explains why the world's been experiencing these strange problems," Josh deduced. "It's not natural; Sedris probably has moles in position all over Alara, and they're causing these things to happen. The sudden outbreak of an unknown disease in Naya was due to a zombified Gargantuan. The expanding tar pits in Jund was due to a zombie-pressured tar field. And even the burning of the Sun-Dappled Court...that was indirectly caused by the zombified Gargantuan. There are evil forces working behind the scenes all over the world, and the only way we're going to return the world to the way it was is to confront Sedris, learn where all these moles are, and rout them."
"You're going to confront Sedris?" the mage asked.
"If it's to save Alara, then we have no choice."
"It is true that once Sedris disappears from existence, his zombie forces will disappear with him, and Vithia will be able to restore itself to the kingdom it once was. However, Sedris and his troops have been absorbing the vis of the living for over a thousand years, each meal augmenting both his evil power and his thirst for greater power. You may be powerful to be able to wander Grixis alive, but Sedris is like a demigod around here. His power is so frightening that, when we are in his presence, he could end our lives at any moment he chooses. And when the number of the dead grow, so does his army."
"He is terrorizing his people, and that is not how people should be treated. Plus, if we don't do anything, the entire world will die."
"So you're truly bent on this, are you? I'll say one thing...you four certainly have guts. You're a ray of hope in this dark world. I wish you luck!"
"Thank you," Shalin replied. Josh began leading the team out of the abandoned building.
"Wait!" the Vithian shouted. "The Necropolis at Unx is one of the highest points in Grixis. If you head north to the ruined arena, there's a hilltop you can see almost all of the area in. You can see almost all the way to Kederekt, and you'll definitely be able to see Sedraxis."
"Thanks again," the godtoucher replied, walking behind everyone else for her own safety.
The trip to the arena was relatively uneventful. There were more zombie ambushes here and there, but they were all defeated easily thanks to Shalin's and Ace's fireball-throwing skills. After about a twenty-minute walk, they had arrived at the battleground, which was built right into the ground. "It isn't even a proper arena," Josh criticized. And was he ever right. There was a large hole in the center of the fighting area, lava bubbling below. "What a nice place for an arena, right in the mouth of a volcano."
"I think I see where we're supposed to look from," Eron said, pointing through an alleyway to the east of the arena. Just as the Vithian said, not far east from the ruined battleground was a cliff overlooking the mountain. The sky was filled with dark clouds and bolts of lightning as far as the eye could see, and there was not a speck of green anywhere for the miles and miles they could see. Far to the southeast was a tall castle surrounded by the ruins of the most prosperous town in all of Vithia.
"Looks like the capital city," Josh added. "Let's move!"
"You can't even tell it's morning," Eron said, looking up to the lightning-filled sky as Josh led his friends out of the mountain cave and back to Grixis' surface level.
"I didn't sleep well last night," Josh yawned. "But who could in this place?"
"At least back home, you were guaranteed not to be eaten while asleep," Ace added. "Here, you can't even sleep without thinking about making it to the next day."
"Remember what that guy and I said? This place wasn't like this all the time. And we can change it. All we have to do is remove Sedris from power." He turned to Shalin. "Did you recover your mana overnight?"
"Not completely," Shalin answered, "but enough."
"Then I suggest we ride to Sedraxis. It's faster and safer than walking, especially around here. Is that a problem with you?"
"I'm sure you understand the amount of mana it takes to summon creatures such as these. I'd rather save it for the inevitable fight, because I know Sedris won't come peacefully."
"Odds are we're going to need them anyway, plus it's much safer getting there. Remember, there's no guarantee we will be able to save all of our mana for the battle with him. And I believe I speak for all of us when I say that."
"I see now. Alright, we'll go with your plan." The Nayan knelt to the ground, calling her three beasts out of Naya, through the aether, and finally, to the party's location.
"And please try to keep pace with us this time, Shalin!" Eron chided her as he climbed onto the lion's back. Ace and Josh commandeered the thoctar, leaving Shalin with her swift cheetah. Shalin had to restrain her own excitement to avoid speeding ahead of them like last time. Eron had to blast a few of the undead birds, the kathari, out of the sky, but the tusks of the thoctar annihilated most of the foes that rose out of the ground. With a beast like that on their side, Sedris' undead foot soldiers stood little chance.
Music Track: The Rat's Chamber //Jeremy Soule
Album: Secret of Evermore
Apologies for no link, but no one has uploaded Secret of Evermore's game rip to Youtube. Therefore I cannot provide a link.
After a ride across much of Grixis, they had reached their destination: the necropolis of Sedraxis. It overlooked the eastern sands of the lifeless region, grime from the sludge-filled continental shelf covering the beaches in the distance. The smell of rotting flesh pervaded the air once more, but that smell was much more profound. After all, it was the largest city in Grixis.
At least the main streets were somewhat maintained, and most of its denizens seemed to mind their own business. Still, the party did its best to stay out of sight. Specters and their drake mounts patrolled overhead, while zombies, lethemancers, and the occasional lich roamed the streets below. Avoiding confrontation was made more difficult due to the presence of the Nayan beasts, but such encounters would have been nightmarish without them.
As the party passed close to the town square, Ace heard the sound of a whip cracking. By the time he saw the lethemancer and his drake steed, it let loose a debilitating spell. Ace drew his weapon and started flailing it about mindlessly, grazing over a weak point in Josh's armor. "What the...?" the knight winced.
"Purify this crippled body and mind!" Shalin cried. "Refresh!" Ace's pupils dilated for a split second, then he came to his senses.
"Where am I...?" the barbaric warrior said, dizzy.
The drake flew directly above Ace, ready to divebomb into him. But Eron was one step ahead; the lion he rode backed up slowly as the rider folded his hands as if he was praying. "Smite evildoers with the punishment they deserve! Chastise!" When he finished casting the spell, the specter and drake disintegrated, eaten by the Bant ranger's holy light.
It took time, but Ace slowly came back to his senses fully. At last able to focus, he and Josh walked alongside the Nayan Gargantuan instead. Their right hands on their sword hilts, they were prepared for any ambush the undead would throw at them. The Bant knight couldn't stop thinking about how cruel Sedris was to let his kingdom degenerate to such a necrotic level.
Once they were able to see the castle, Josh couldn't believe his eyes: there was a row of eight zombies armed with thoroughly corroded swords. In front of them were two mounted zombie warriors wielding lances in condition similar to the swords. "What?!" he gasped aloud. "But that's impossible..."
"What is it, Josh?" Shalin asked.
"It doesn't make sense for there to be leotau here, even though they may be no more than animated corpses. They're supposed to be native to only the Inner Three nations of Bant. How would they get them across the sea, with the two coastline nations always at war?"
"I don't get it, either," Eron replied, "but they're here. And they're in our way. So what's our plan? We obviously can't take them all."
"I could make a mess for them," Ace suggested, "and we could run past in the confusion."
"What kind of a mess are you thinking?"
"Light them on fire, what else?"
"It's as good a plan as we've got," Josh agreed with Ace. "A little daring...but not bad." Shalin and Eron dismounted, they too now alongside her feline friends. "So what's the signal?"
"As soon as I fire my spell off, we go for it." The Jund native cupped his hands and began murmuring. Eron loaded his bow with an arrow, ready to fire at any foe that moved. "Roast in a bed of flames! Sizzle!" Ace shouted. Flames erupted through the bridge the sizable undead force stood on. The two undead knights charged toward Ace, and the rest of the party became surrounded by reinforcements. The moment the flames died down, the zombies raised their weapons into the air.
Just as they were about to plunge them into the four wanderers, the castle gate opened, and a tall figure stepped onto the bridge. All the zombies surrounding them left and bowed down out of respect. "All hail Sedris!" they cried in unison. He held a powerful axe almost his own height, the business end studded with dragon's fangs.
"So, we have guests," the armored, undead warrior greeted Josh's group. "A knight of Valeron...it's been well over a thousand years since I've seen one of those." His armor was designed similarly to Josh's, but was so corroded that it appeared red instead of green and white. Instead of having sigils engraved into his equipment, it was studded with the skulls and other bones of his victims. His stare instilled fear into the hearts of the weak-minded.
"How could you treat your people this way?" Josh asked. "They did so much for you, and this is how you returned the favor?"
"I only killed those who opposed me. They didn't like how I was running Grixis, and they became my undead slaves. The vis of Grixis runs dry, and we need new sources of it to maintain our power. The last few sources here elude us, and we would have died out in a few more years otherwise. But the five worlds of Alara have become one again. There are whole new lands abundant with vis, all for our harvesting. Our people prosper!"
"You call this prosperity?" Eron argued. "People here struggle just to make it to the next day."
"The very people that we've been trying to squeeze dry for years, you mean. The insurgents. Once we squeeze the living humans out, Grixis will be in a state of equilibrium. It will be in a state of eternal life!"
"This isn't life!" Shalin cried. "This is not life! You make the dead do your bidding when all they want to do is rest in peace...you have no respect for life!"
"Without a constant influx of vis to support it, this land will disappear. And when this land disappears, the Maelstrom will rage once more due to the resulting mana imbalance. All of Alara will be consumed. You see, our existence is necessary to Alara's survival."
"But if you feed on the rest of the world's life energy, Alara's going to die out anyway!" Ace shouted. "Life energy cycles from producer to predator to scavenger, and back to the beginning again! It's the natural cycle of life, and the world will become inhospitable if that cycle is broken!"
"You think exactly like those who call themselves Vithians; they share your philosophy and behave much like you do. But you are strong to come here. I'll give you one chance. If you join me, I promise high positions for all of you, and I promise I will make the zombification process as painless as possible. You can continue to the afterlife as pain-free as possible."
"I believe I speak for every living thing in Bant--no, all of Alara, when I refuse to accept your conditions," Josh stepped forward, pointing his weapon at Sedris. The rest of the party followed. "Alara will relive her former glory days, and you're not part of them!"
"You have thrown my chance away," Sedris growled. "The logic of the living fails to make sense. Perhaps you just need a little convincing!" Josh hopped back to avoid being axed. "Become enveloped in a living hell! Dark Banishing!" A shadowy ball of black mana flew toward the Bant knight. He hit the bridge as fast as he could, the blast passing over him--right into the face of Shalin's thoctar. She shrieked in fear, recalling her beast into the aether before it suffocated completely.
"Shalin!" Eron cried.
"Such terrible power!" the godtoucher sobbed, recalling her other two felines to save them from a similar fate.
"Consider that a warning shot," Sedris shouted. "That was just a small fraction of my power. Surrender, or you'll see a much more powerful spell aimed at your heads!"
"Perhaps it's time to consider a retreat," Josh suggested.
"Not a bad idea!" Ace shouted back, running back the way he came into the city. The others followed him almost immediately. Eron ran slightly slower, his hands folded in an effort to cast a spell that would slow their pursuers down.
"Get them!" Sedris shouted, the near-skinless leotau giving chase. "Bring them back here alive!"
"What are you doing, Eron!" Josh asked in an urgent tone. "They're going to catch us if we don't hurry!"
"Smite evildoers with the punishment they deserve! Chastise!" the ranger cried. Piercing beams of light engulfed the leotau chasing them, sending the riders flying. The light disintegrated undead flesh on contact, the felines becoming no more than piles of bones. By the time the light dissipated, all they could hear were echoes of Sedris' screaming. They could still see zombies chasing them, but they were so far back that it would take time to catch up.
"Let's see if we can lose them in the alleys," Ace suggested.
"No," Josh rebuked. "If we're spotted in here again, we're good as dead." The ruined city seemed to go on forever, the party slowing down due to fatigue. The west gate was nowhere in sight, and Sedris' undead army came closer every passing second. "Is there anything any of you can do to slow them down?" the Bantian panted.
"I can try to create a wall of fire behind us, but I'm not sure how effective it will be; I was pretty tapped from the one that I thought was going to get us into the castle."
"It's our last shot to lose them! Do it!"
"Alright." Ace breathed heavily before clasping his hands together. "Rise, fires of the earth! Pyroclasm!" Four columns of fire rose behind the fleeing explorers, which ended up putting more distance between them and the zombies. The party was slowing down as well, now reduced to a fast walk from being even more tired.
"There's the exit!" Shalin breathed a sigh of relief. The four of them reached deep to summon one more burst of energy now that the goal was in sight. It took a heroic effort for them just to continue running. After what seemed like an eternity, they finally reached the other side of the city walls.
(Silence Music Track)
Eron peeked back into town, but couldn't see any undead. "I think we lost them."
"But what do we do now?" Shalin asked. "The world's slowly dying!"
"I think I have an idea," Josh said. "But we need to retrace our steps all the way back to Bant. Since we're going to need to stop for rest several times anyway, I suggest we check in with all the people we've met, to give status reports and to see if they have any words of advice. Plus, it'll be a good opportunity for you and Ace to see the world."
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
After reporting their findings back to Rakka Mar, Ace led the group back across Jund's treacherous terrain, and was key in avoiding multiple ambushes from viashino thrashes. He even scolded Shalin once for a failed attempt to Evangelize a poison-spitting lizard.
Once they had made it over the mountain, Ace couldn't believe how overgrown Naya was; it was just as Shalin described. Trees grew taller than vegetation the Jundian had ever seen in his life, and some of the bigger Gargantuans made dragons seem small by comparison. About halfway between the godspeaker's palace and the northern matca stadium, Shalin was finally able to demonstrate her unique power: with the help of Josh and Eron, she was able to charm a second Gargantuan and recall it into the aether, as Ace had seen many times during their travels through Grixis. She called it back out and healed its wounds as best as a single Nourish spell would let her.
Ace was taken aback. The dinosaur-like beast refused to harm her despite attemping to gore her with its sharp, large horn just minutes before. It stood a little shorter than the thoctar, but it was much longer. Even its tail was longer than Ace was tall. After walking around it numerous times, she recalled it into the aether a second time.
When they returned to the village of Nakai, they discovered they were just in time to watch a matca tournament. The brutal wrestling matches fascinated Ace. How he wished he could have participated, seeing how close he would have to get his opponent to death before the judges called match points. Eron closed his eyes when two contenders wore spiky armor, blood dripping all over the arena floor as they rolled on and off each other.
After the intense matches, the party met with Aisha and the other skilled drumhunters from the village, and discussed their findings all the way into the night. Many fascinating insights were shared, and the Nayans became better equipped to deal with another infestation should it arise, but they, too, knew nothing about the final, untrodden land of Alara.
Two entire weeks had passed since Sedris' undead army drove the party out of Grixis. With only one land left to gather information from, Shalin and Josh led the party north, the knight remembering the road he took from Bant well.
"Well, that was a dud," the Nayan sighed. "Every day we come up with blanks, Sedris' army marches further westward. I wouldn't be surprised if they've already infested Jund. That place is in enough turmoil as it is."
"You've seen how strong we are," Ace reassured her. "They can handle it."
"I'm more worried about what the fate of the world we haven't touched is," Josh changed the subject. "But I have an idea how we can find out. It's a long shot, but it's the best way I can think of."
"And what would that be?" Eron asked.
"The royalty of Eos and Akrasa co-manage the Knights of the Reliquary, and they're a huge order. If we can get back into the castle, we should be able to learn more of this last land."
"How the hell are you going to do that? We're renegades. We got axed from our jobs, remember? We're not welcome in that castle anymore!"
"I am completely aware of that."
"Don't tell me you plan to sneak into the castle?!"
"If it comes to that, than we will. If we don't do anything, Alara is definitely going to die."
"Sometimes, Josh, I wonder if your head is screwed on straight."
"It's our best shot, but hopefully it won't have to come to something this drastic."
"It's a daring plan...but it's not bad."
"I think we've left Naya," Shalin said as the texture of the trees began changing.
"I think we have, too," Josh agreed. "Valeron is just past these woods."
"It's still hard getting used to seeing that hole in the sky in a city like this," Josh sighed, pointing to the void that used to be the Sun-Dappled Court. What a relief it was to be able to see the sun and a blue sky again.
"I had no idea there was a place like this in the world," Ace said. "I'd get bored to death here. Nothing to hunt."
"At least you wouldn't have to worry about running out of food," Shalin replied. "There's so much farmland here I don't know where they'd store all the food."
Cities from all over Valeron pitched in to help rebuild the Sun-Dappled Court, but it would take weeks just to rebuild the natural structure. To regrow the trees even to a shadow of what they were would take a generation or more. Shalin felt sorry on the inside because her people were responsible for the fire.
After a few minutes of reminiscing, Josh and the group wandered northward, an inn catching his eye. He walked inside, and sure enough, there was plenty of vacancy. Eron and the Knight of the Reliquary purchased lodging for four for one night, the ranger holding onto the key. Immediately after, Josh led the party to the north border station of town, where he had left his leotau in a nearby stable. The stewards had kept their promise all this time--the majestic cat was still in top shape, ready to continue assisting Josh scour Bant for clues into Alara's past. "Poor thing, having to wear all that heavy armor!" Shalin scolded Josh out of empathy for the leotau.
"Not here," the knight replied. "I'll explain everything to you guys. Let's get about half a mile out of town first."
The walk seemed to go by slowly for Josh. He had gotten along so well with Shalin, but yelling at him was understandable. She had seen Gargantuans being used for agricultural purposed before, towing heavy plows. This was much the same concept, but for a different application. The twelve minutes of walking seemed like an eternity to him. "Alright, start talking," Shalin crossed her arms as they stopped at the appropriate distance away from town.
"The leotau are semi-intelligent, so they wear metal armor out of their own free will. Just as you use Gargantuans to do your bidding in battle, we use the leotau. I know you're upset about this, but you have to understand...it's the same thing you do."
Shalin held back yelling a second time when she gave her friend's words thought. "I...see. But if Bant is so peaceful, like you've said, why would you need war beasts?"
"Bant is almost always at peace, yes, but war breaks out every once in a while. It's usually settled with arena combat, and death in battle is rare. Most fighting is for honor and status."
"Speaking of fighting," Eron interrupted, "I saw a poster advertising the annual Hero Competition. It's taking place at the Seaside Arena in northwest Akrasa."
"Oh, right. It is that time of year, isn't it? I enjoy watching those events so much, though usually the one with the most sigils wins."
"However, something caught my eye when I was reading the details. There's always a unique prize for the winner of the competition every year. In addition to the usual Sigil of Champion's Valor, the winner also gets to spend a week with the Blessed; in other words, treated as a member of the royal family of his home nation. In your case, Josh, if you were to win, you'd spend a week inside the temple gardens of Castle Valeron."
"That's quite a prize package."
Eron scowled at Josh. "You just missed my point of bringing this whole issue up."
"What?" Josh answered innocently.
"Ugh! You're so dense! This is a great chance to get back into Castle Eos!"
"Are you telling me to enter the competition? Many of the knights who enter these competitions have at least a dozen sigils! I only have four!"
"Not just you, Josh. We're all going to enter. All four of us."
"They won't allow Shalin and Ace into the competition. They're foreigners, and Bant is in enough turmoil from foreigners as it is."
"The Hero Competition is a holy event, and the angels have traditionally allowed anyone to compete. Even if they are Unbeholden. Besides, this is the first Hero Competition since the Mending. They don't have a precedent to deal with foreigners. They'll let us enter. Plus, if we win, we'll be on good terms with the king again."
"Alright. It's the best shot we have. I'll play along and enter." Everyone else nodded in agreement.
"One more thing, Josh," Shalin said.
"Yes, Shalin?" he replied.
"If we're entering the Hero Competition, we're going to need to get every edge we can. Since you can control your leotau, I'd like to share the concepts behind summon magic with you."
"I've never used it before...you think you can teach me on such short notice?"
"If you can forge a bond with a wild creature, you're fully capable of learning summon magic. Eron, Ace, you two pay attention to this as well; you never know when it might come in handy."
"Alright, I will," Ace replied. Eron shook his head in disgust, but listened nonetheless.
"Alright, I'll get started," the Nayan teacher began her lesson. "When you draw mana to cast spells, normally you have to make a panorama of the land you draw mana from, correct?"
"Yes," Josh answered. "That's the very basis behind magic."
"Well, summon magic is similar. However, instead of projecting your field of magic directly beneath you, project your field of magic where you want the creature you're summoning to appear. If it's a flying one, you can conjure the rift in the aether just about anywhere. If it's a land creature, you're going to have to find some sort of wall, cliff, or steep incline to support your creature while it moves through the magical gate. Here, I'll try to demonstrate slowly enough that you can see what's going on."
Conveniently, the group wasn't too far off from an abandoned watchtower. Shalin knelt down and folded her hands. As she concentrated on the spell, a panorama of the Nayan jungle floor materialized on one face of the tower. The godtoucher's thoctar companion walked out of the aetheric gate slowly, the gate closing a few seconds after the Gargantuan's tail had completely entered Valeron's territory. She projected another gate on the same face, with the same panorama. It returned back to the Nayan jungle through the rift.
Ace was in awe seeing how the magic worked in slow motion. "Wow, Shalin..."
"It's actually pretty simple once you understand how to manipulate mana this way. Just project your mana away from yourself and you should be able to pull it off easily. Josh, think of the natural habitat of your leotau, and try to send it back there." He conjured the field of magic below him, then slowly moved it to the face of the tower. "That's a start. Now, connect it to the leotau's habitat." A panorama of the Topan savannah appeared where Josh projected magic, and the leotau walked into it. Once the feline was completely through, he closed the rift. "That's it, Josh. Now, just do the reverse to bring it back, at a time it's convenient for you."
"It's that simple?" Josh said, giddy on the inside that he learned summoning arts so easily.
"Furthermore, if you can tame other creatures, you can recall them into the aether the same way, and call them forth when you are in need. This should give you an edge in the competition."
"Thanks, Shalin!" At that, the four of them headed back into town, the sun low in the western sky. Eron led them back to their room at the inn, and they went to sleep early that night.
Eager to leave the next morning, Shalin had already readied her cheetah, lion, and thoctar for travel; Josh demonstrated his prowess with his newfound summon magic to call his leotau out. For the first time, the four would be able to travel independently of each other, and Ace rode the Gargantuan solo. Though the thoctar was among the most fleet-of-foot of Gargantuans, it was still the slowest of the mounts they utilized to make travel to Akrasa faster. After all, they needed to cover most of Bant from north to south to get to their destination.
After three different pit stops at outposts and a few hours of travel, the group made it to the Seaside Arena. Next to the Seaside Palace of Akrasa, the arena and castle were built over a steep cliff, and thus, were very difficult to attack by land or sea. The strip of ocean overlooking the structures was a sight to behold, particularly during sunset. This palace and the scenery around it was the epitome of Bant's natural and artificial beauty.
Once they came within walking distance of the arena, Shalin and Ace learned just how popular this event was, and even the Bantians were taken aback at the turnout. It was packed full of spectators and contenders, despite there still being two days of open registration left. "I've never seen so many people gathered in one place," Ace said.
"People want a break from the war, so they watch Bant's finest in one-on-one combat," Eron replied. "Not to the death, of course. Never to the death. In over ninety percent of the fights around here, the most you'll see people wind up with is a single bad cut from a sword or a lot of bruises. And there are healers on standby in case something goes wrong. Safety first, as they say."
"Treatment of human life is far different here than back home. Viashino and dragons won't even think twice about killing a human, and we'll even kill each other if it means survival. These people would rather sacrifice themselves than kill another human. They're lucky to have grown up in a place like this. I wasn't."
"Well, shall we register for the Trials?" Josh asked as they began walking the stone-paved road to the registration booth.
"Trials?" Shalin asked. "I thought you said it was one-on-one combat!"
"Not always. Depending on the turnout, and there certainly will be Trials with the crowd they're getting this time, they have to thin the field down through the Trials. Each entrant is pitted against an enemy of relatively equal capability, usually a wild leotau or other wild creature with about the same amount of strength. Angels serve as judges, and after everyone finishes the Trials, the participants with the highest scores advance to the Finals. That's where the one-on-one combat takes place. With a normal turnout, they usually axe everyone outside the top 32. With today's turnout, though, they may have to cut to top 64. Who knows."
Upon reaching the booth, Eron grabbed four registration forms and distributed them among his fellow combatants. "If you need any help filling these out, Josh will help you. He's actually been in this kind of competition before."
"Twice, as a matter of fact."
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
The turnout for the Trials was unprecedented, at a record 146 combatants hoped to find a place in the Finals. Shalin's indirect style of combat confused the wild beasts used to test the fighters' mettle during the Trials, and Ace's was nothing more than merciless brutality, leaving the beasts inches from death before letting them recover. During and after the Jundian's Trials, the crowd booed loudly, and there was much murmuring among the other combatants waiting for their Trials to begin.
Four days later, the pairings for the first round of the Finals were assembled and posted. Josh and Eron noticed something unusual--Rafiq of the Many was not present in the bracket at all. They thought about the possibility of him just having an off day and missing the cut, but it was more likely that he had another commitment, given the dozens upon dozens of sigils engraved into his armor. Besides his friends' names and his own, he recognized only one other name: Rose, one of the knight's commanding officers from the defense of Port Valeron. Thankfully, she wasn't paired with him or any of his friends in this round.
All four of them had made it into the Finals. In order to get the critical message to a ruling family, just one of them had to survive five rounds of intense yet chivalrous, ritualized combat. The four angels flying overhead started calling out names of paired combatants at the end of each battle, signaling they were next to participate. The field contained a wide variety of races and skill sets. There were four aven, four rhoxes, twenty-three humans, and one elf in the field. Their combat styles were even more diverse: there were those practiced in mounted combat, those who were skilled with bow and arrow, those rooted in the arcane, those skilled with the sword or lance, and even those who brute-forced their enemies with iron fists.
Shalin had an easy first round--her opponent was a seventeen-year-old knight from Akrasa still being trained in Halcou's more advanced arts. Additionally, never being trained to fight against Naya's beasts put him at further disadvantage. Seeing how he would react when she summoned a lion, she jumped onto its back and simply ran circles around the knight-in-training. The bulky, armor-clad leotau was nowhere near agile enough to land a hit or get its rider in position to. He dismounted, thinking he'd be able to attack more effectively if he and his mount attacked separately. Shalin had to pull hard to the left, aborting her charge to avoid getting cleaved in half, but the knight could not avoid a second mounted overrun. She received a large sum of points for the feat, and her opponent couldn't close the gap. Leotau were more adept to charging in the field, but even in an arena designed for jousting, they weren't as maneuverable as their clawed relatives.
Ace's opponent was a skilled swordsman, also from Akrasa, but this was his first Hero Competition. When he saw his opponent, he said a prayer to Asha for his safety, but it didn't seem to help. As soon as the angel leaped skyward to signal the start of the battle, Ace charged with seemingly superhuman speed, his crudely-made, obsidian-studded sword drawn. The Jund warrior leaped into the air, trying to force through his foe's armor. He raised his shield to block the attack, but there was so much force behind it that he was thrown off balance. By the time he had recovered, Ace rolled behind him, then performed a leaping, upward slice to his unprotected back. Before he could even recover, the barbaric fighter lifted him from behind, then slammed him into the wall repeatedly. Ace's hands and his opponent's back were covered with blood. The crowd booed when Ace dropped his opponent onto the arena floor, the rookie conscious but fighting for his life. When time was called, a pair of balmgivers escorted the limping Bantian out of the coliseum. Ace raised his arms in triumph, but all he received from the crowd was booing.
Eron's first opponent was a familiar face from the Sun-Dappled Court--one of the guards he had saved during the panic of the Firestokers' attack there. The two greeted each other before taking their positions. At the start of the battle, Eron dropped to his knees as though he were praying, and a blue wolf ran through the aetheric tunnel he created, temporarily linking the forests of Valeron to the arena. The ranger kept his distance, letting his wolf get the job done from melee range. After a few arrows bounced off the steward's armor, Eron knelt in prayer again. His foe ran up to him to try to land a blow during the incantation, but the wolf delayed his charge just enough for the spell to go off. A column of intense light singed the armored guardian of Valeron. From there, he played defensively, trading blows until the clock ran out with him having the higher point total.
Three of the four having advanced to the second round, the party regrouped in the stands in between matches, trying to pick up on their opponents' fighting styles.
"Congrats, Ace!" Shalin hugged the battle-scarred warrior.
"You too," Ace replied, less enthusiastic. "Frankly, the guy was pathetic. I have no idea how he made it past the Trials. They throw some strong stuff at you."
"The angels said this is the first time foreigners participated in the tournament, right? They probably don't know how to fight people from Jund." She turned to Josh, who was sitting on her other side. "How'd your match go?"
"Haven't fought it yet," he answered. "I'm going to be up against an aven squire of Akrasa. Thanks to you, Shalin, I have magic capable of dealing with them. Normally, fighting aven is a problem because I can't normally reach them with leotau and sword. It wouldn't be a problem for Eron because he can shoot at them."
"We'll certainly be cheering for you," she smiled as the next match between two rhox monks began. The thick-skinned rhino people swung their morning stars at each other, trading blows repeatedly. They fought in such a similar style that Eron wondered if they had grown up in the same monastery. They traded blows so often that the point totals quickly ramped into the four digits, yet they were never more than thirty points apart. With the match winding down, Eron said that last thought aloud.
"You're probably right," Josh replied. "They're wearing similar clothes, as well. If that's not a tell that they're going to the same school, I don't know what is." The match had to go to overtime before the angels were able to crown a winner. The Knight of the Reliquary turned to Ace. "I saw your match. Overdoing it a bit, weren't you?"
"I did what was necessary to win," he sternly answered. "I could easily have killed that man, but this was for sport, so I left him alive."
"Not by much!"
"I just wanted to make sure he wouldn't have any energy left to fight back." This made Josh have second thoughts about whether letting Ace into the competition was a good idea. After four more matches, the angel finally called Josh and his aven enemy into the battle zone. "Cheer for me!"
"We will!" they replied in unison.
Once the knight and aven had reached the arena floor, they shook hands before an angel descended between them. They took their starting positions on opposite ends of the stadium. Once she finished the countdown from three, she leaped skyward to judge the battle, and the clock began counting down from seven minutes.
Rather than immediately firing a spell, Josh fought this aven as he would normally: wait for it to dive in for an attack, get out of the way, then retaliate. The winged soldier took to the sky, then dove toward Josh, just as expected. A split second before Josh was ready to counterattack, he threw his spear at the knight, knocking the armored competitor to the ground. "So you want to play hard ball, huh..." he groaned as he got back up, the aven picking his weapon up again.
The knight folded his his hands together as the aven began flying again. As the bird soldier began his dive, Josh stood up, his arms outstretched upward. "I call on the winds to shear like blades! Howling Gale!" The crowd was stunned as magically-generated winds circled the aven, causing him to dizzily crash to the ground. He followed up with a slash across the bird's left wing and legs just as the foe was getting up.
Most aven would take an early lead, then take evasive action to run the clock out. Not used to being behind by so much, this one had to be more aggressive than he was comfortable with. Josh kept a close eye on his foe's flight path, leading it into another magically-created whirlwind. Even with over two minutes left in the match, the aven was too far behind to think about coming back, and threw in the towel. The crowd roared for Josh's victory, and many Jhessian gamblers were disgruntled at the upset he pulled.
The match results kept coming in, a first-time rookie upsetting an Akrasan aven that had made the quarterfinal round of the Finals four years running. People who bet on the rookie were paid 22 for 1. Both rhox mystics in the fourth bracket won their first round matches. That would make one of the second-round matches in that bracket between them--watching the spells go back and forth would certainly be a crowdpleaser.
Once all the match results were in, Josh checked the list. He saw that Rose made it through to the second round. He also noticed pairings for the second round had already been processed, and were posted all over the coliseum exterior and in the lobby. Rose had been paired against the last remaining rhox monk in the field, which would be a challenging opponent for her. His own second round opponent was another aven. He was with Rose in the third bracket. If they both got through the next round, they'd be quarterfinal opponents.
As he peered toward the other side of the bracket, he saw another crowdpleasing match and a test of Shalin's skill. She would be up against another spellcaster--a young wizard from Eos. With no other matches of note to him in the first bracket, he peered down toward the second bracket, then stopped when he saw the match at the very bottom of it. "Guys, I think you need to see this," he moaned, waving for his comrades to come toward the notices.
"Oh no!" Eron exclaimed when he saw the pairings. Ace started crying, then let loose a loud scream. Both of them were in disbelief at the pairings for the second bracket. When Shalin saw the boards, she shed a tear with the Jundian. Entrant number four, Ace, and entrant number two, Eron, were paired for the second round.
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
Sixteen combatants remained in the Finals. In three days, a champion would be crowned. Ace and Eron was about the worst mismatch the party feared, and there it was. Eron agreed to concede to his friend in exchange for his word that the fight wouldn't be as brutal as the one in the previous round. Being one of the first matches to be fought, Eron winced at every slash that bounced off his light armor and every punch he took. The ranger couldn't believe his friend was holding back--he was stronger than a seasoned champion at the strength he was fighting with. He made an effort to fight back, but couldn't land a single spell. The Jundian was quick to interrupt with attacks of his own every time. When they had fooled around enough, Eron collapsed after a particularly hard hit, faking complete exhaustion. After the winner had been declared, he knelt to cast a healing spell on them both. They both walked out of the arena normally rather than one of them limping.
Josh's second match with an aven, this one also Akrasan, was hard-fought. Having paid attention to the knight's fighting style, he was evasive enough to avoid his blade. When the bird soldier turned around, Josh began casting Howling Gale, the only offensive spell he knew. Just as he was about to fire the burst of slashing wind, his aerial opponent dropped onto him from directly above. The force of the spear on his helmet caused him to collapse dizzily. The points piled up the longer he was incapacitated, and became disgruntled with the scoreboard once he came to his senses. Rather than try to fight back with what little time was left, he shook the aven's hand and admitted defeat. Now only two party members remained, and there were still three rounds after this one.
Josh, Eron, and Ace cheered for Shalin as best as they could during her second round. Her foe was a white-robed mage, so it would be a duel of magic. At least in this match, she had a mobility advantage. Right when the angel jumped up to indicate the start of the battle, both mages dropped to their knees, surrounded by magical auras. Seconds after she opened a rift in the aether, a comet of light appeared in the sky and was on a collision course with Shalin. Unfortunately for her, the Nayan cheetah she had summoned came out just in time to become enveloped in the burning light the mage had produced. He took the time to surround himself in Hindering Light while Shalin and her cat were reeling from the blow.
The Nayan mounted her summoned beast, and the crowd roared as she began running circles around the wizard. She held on with one hand and tossed fireballs with the other, many of them merely bouncing off. The magical shield severely mitigated the effectiveness of Shalin's attack, but the spotted feline was so fast that aiming spells was next to impossible. The next fireball shattered her foe's barrier.
When he folded his hands to reestablish his shield, Shalin held on with both hands, then nudged her cheetah into a full-on sprint. The crowd roared in ecstasy when it looked like beast and rider rammed into the wizard at the full ninety miles an hour the exotic creature was capable of. What really happened was the cat slid barely around Shalin's opponent, tripping him and making him fall to the ground, face first. Though he had seen it before, Josh still didn't understand how she held on to something moving that fast. The elaborate move almost single-handedly carried her point total high enough to win her match.
Ace's third round opponent was similar to his first, and he employed the same tactic as last time. Though execution was more difficult, he ensured the retired steward of Valeron an extended stay with the balmgivers at the nearest hospital. Even the angels were afraid of the brutality Ace was making use of, but there was no precedent, and they couldn't change the rules in the middle of the competition. They could ask Ace to be less violent, but nothing allowed them to enforce it.
It was just then that the rest of the group noticed the way the pairings were for the remaining three rounds. Shalin was in the northwest bracket, and Ace was in the southwest bracket. That meant that if they both won their next two rounds, they were guaranteed to be able to get their message to the king. Not to mention the match would be epic to watch: two foreigners with totally opposite fighting styles would square off. It would be like the dream final of Rafiq versus Nadia six years ago, before she became an angel. That was the match that made Rafiq of the Many a well-known figure all across Bant.
Faced with a Dawnray Archer from Jhess, Shalin was able to employ a similar tactic from last round: summon a fast mount and run circles around the enemy. She even chose the same creature from her battle the previous day, her intense concentration powering through the pain of an arrow to the right side of her chest. She winced as she did her best to pull the projectile out and heal herself before entering mounted combat. An archer on foot stood little chance against such a nimble opponent.
The cheetah weaved around unpredictably; even Shalin was unprepared for some of the sudden slides and turns. The match ended the same way as her previous one: a full-on charge to trip her foe, the attempt nearly thwarted when the cat took an arrow that landed just above one of its legs. She rolled off her mount, still hitting the opposite wall of the battleground hard, but not as hard as the archer fell. After recovering her senses from dizziness, she carefully pulled the arrow out of the animal's side, then shined green, nourishing light on both of them. With both Shalin and Ace winning their quarterfinal matches, things looked good for the party.
Ace's semifinal opponent was a rhox wizard, its tough skin making it more difficult for the Jundian to cut open a hole in its back. He ran up to his foe and sliced at him, but the crudely-made sword hit him between two of its large, obsidian shards, bouncing off fairly harmlessly. The foreigner winced when the rhox opponent gored him with his horn--an unusual tactic for a mystic to employ. He was still standing, but bleeding fast. Knowing it was only a matter of time before he collapsed, he employed a daring tactic. He began casting a spell, but a dangerous one. He literally lit his arms on fire, then projected a massive stream of glowing, burning energy at the enemy.
While his body was still ablaze, he rushed toward the rhox with every ounce of strength he could muster, then slashed in the general direction of the spellcaster without regard to aim. Once the flames were out, both of them were unconscious. Points piled up for both combatants, higher than had been seen in a long time. When time was up, they were both still out cold. Balmgivers were called to treat burns and other wounds, prioritizing Ace because he had to do battle with the winner of the north bracket.
Shalin had to do battle with the aven that had eliminated Josh from the tournament. Because she was more well-versed in wind-based spells than her friend, the battle would go more smoothly, she hoped. The match was over quickly when Shalin unleashed a giant twister on the aerial combatant, the noise from the spinning winds blocking out the bird's agonizing scream. Josh, Ace, and Eron leaped out of their seats in excitement. Shalin just clinched their meeting with the kings of Bant, and they would be able to get their message to them.
By sunset that day, Ace had recovered enough to participate in the final round of the Finals. It would be him versus Shalin; two vastly different fighting styles foreign to everyone in Bant. They would do battle for the championship in a torch-lit arena under a starry sky.
"So, what's the plan regarding our match?" Shalin asked Ace, Josh and Eron with them at a guest room inside the Seaside Palace. Out the west window, the sunset on the water below was a sight to behold. "We could save ourselves some trouble if I just concede to you, but that would displease the crowds. What's your suggestion?"
"We have Eron and balmgivers on standby, right?" Ace asked back. "Well, since they have our backs regardless, I say we go all out and make this a battle to remember."
"You sure about that?" Eron said, a concerned look on his face. "We've already won."
"I'll give you this, Ace," Shalin continued, "it will certainly be an interesting battle. We have vastly different fighting styles, and we know how each other fights. We've been together for over a month and a half now, working together to defend Alara. You never know...we could learn something from fighting each other in good sport."
"You're right, Shalin," Ace admitted.
"And one more thing."
"Don't pull any punches tonight."
"You sure? You saw what I did to people I fought against. You could die out there!"
"Well, keep me alive. But otherwise, don't hold back. I want both of us to be at our best. One of us is going to win regardless, so there's no need to hold back."
"Alright, you asked for it!" the muscular Jundian smirked.
Everyone in the stands was on the edge of their seats that night. The Nayan godtoucher Shalin would clash with the Jundian barbaric warrior Ace. The two foreigners had climbed all the way to the championship round, and they would do battle for the champion's sigil, a large cash prize, and a week with the Blessed of Bant. It all came down to the results of this extended, ten-minute round.
The two combatants shook hands with each other. "Remember, Ace, don't hold back," Shalin reminded him.
"I'll come at you with every bit of strength I have."
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
The moment the angel took back to the air, Ace began charging his friend and foe, sword drawn. Shalin had to trust in her ability to get a spell off before she found the obsidian-studded blade through her chest, and she did. Her trusty cheetah from the rest of the tournament pushed her out of the way just in time.
Knowing her style of combat, Ace raised his hands skyward, and a gale of embers began swirling around him. An aetheric portal depicting Jund's volcanic landscape appeared behind him, and a fire elemental in the shape of a predatory cat leaped out. It leaped over Shalin, the falling embers burning her. By the time she opened both of her eyes again, Ace was also mounted. "When did you learn how to do that?" she asked, a slight moan from the assault.
"It's something I picked up from watching shamans back home, and watching you," Ace answered in a similar tone. Because the entire firecat's body was ablaze, the Jundian's backside and upper legs slowly began to cook. His nerves had dulled so much from extreme pain during raids and trips into volcanic mountains that the pain from being on the firecat's burning body was more of a nuisance than anything. To anyone else in the group, it would be a feeling similar to spilling scalding water all over one's legs.
"You're going to burn yourself alive like this," Shalin said out of concern as the two cats circled the inner half of the arena.
"It doesn't hurt. Besides, even if it did, this is the only way I'll win against you." The firecat breathed a blazing stream into the sky, and embers rained from above. Both of them seemed to dance around the falling flames, but Ace's evasive action was better--near the end of the fiery rain, Shalin's hair caught on fire. She rolled off her speeding mount, burning more of her skin before she finally put it out.
The Nayan coughed several times while looking for her summoned animal. Finally finding it sprawled on the ground near the west side of the arena, she ran over to it, incanting the healing magic to get it back on its feet. "Gotcha," Ace smirked. "Rise, fires of the earth! Pyroclasm!" Shalin dove out of the way of one column of fire, but two more rose, one on each side of her. "There's nowhere to run now, Shalin!"
"You are a wonderful fighter, Ace," she sighed, pinned next to the west wall. She watched the blazing feline as best she could through the flames. The rider drew his sword as soon as he reached the east wall, then began a charge. A cone of flames formed around the charging elemental. "But I'm not through!" She dropped to her knees. "Blow, fiery winds, and spill your anger forth! Savage Twister!" Just as the firecat jumped through one of the columns trapping her, a large twister red with fire spun in the center of the arena, drawing Ace and his elemental in. It threw them high into the air, the intense winds ripping them from each other. Once the twister dissipated, both of them fell to the ground from a good distance up, black burns dotting the Jundian's body. He slowly stood up, but couldn't muster the strength to remain standing, and found himself back on the ground after a few seconds.
Shalin kept one eye on Ace and one eye on the scoreboard, Ace's massive lead dwindling. All she could hope for was that the strongest spell she could remember was enough to leave him unable to fight for the rest of the match, and that the resulting points from his opponent being down would add up to be enough. The clock ticked down to the final few seconds, and she wasn't sure she was going to make it.
As the buzzer sounded, she breathed a sigh of relief, the crowd roaring as she found herself the winner by the score of 3172 to 3134. She was the victor of one of the highest-scoring matches in the history of the Hero Competition. As soon as the cheering quieted, she healed both beasts, herself, and Ace. Shalin helped him get up when he came to, and they slowly walked back into the lobby while the angels prepared the awards ceremony.
Instead of a cash prize, Shalin asked for the "Week with the Blessed" be extended to her friends as well. The political leaders present agreed that it was a good substitute for the 10,000 gold piece cash prize. All four of them smiled upon hearing their success.
"It's been a couple months since I've been in this castle," Josh said at about ten that night, the four of them back in the guest rooms at the Southwest Castle in Eos. Both of them had hung their equipment up, and were wearing casual clothes.
"It does bring back some memories," Eron added. "I still remember our first assignment vividly. Speaking of which, what's your status with the royal family here?"
"Everyone knows I'm here, and they seem to have accepted me as a warrior again, especially Rose. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to ask if she's going to be in the castle."
"Settle down. We're here, and we're going to be treated like royalty for a week. For a week, we're almost angels, per say. You have all week to find her. There's no rush. I know Sedris is sending zombies, but the way Ace's people are trained, it's going to take them time to get here. Couldn't you use a week off anyway? We've been in harsh lands for the last two months."
"You're right. Where are Ace and Shalin?"
"They're next door, but they're probably sleeping. A match like that would wear anyone out. Even Rafiq of the Many."
"I only asked because we were escorted separately. When we entered the castle, she could barely keep her eyes open...like she was up for three days straight or something."
"Like I said, a match like that will do that sort of thing to you."
Josh paused to look around the room. "Say, speaking of matches..."
"Yes?" Eron said as Josh stood up. The knight gestured to the game rack.
"You up for a chess rematch? I'm gonna win this time!"
"Sure, but I'm not going to let you win just because I won last time. Besides, it'll give us a chance to figure out what we're going to say to the king tomorrow. We need to make a game plan so that we can make any preparations we need during the remainder of our time here."
"We do need one." Both of them began setting up the pieces. "A good game plan is how we got into the castle in the first place. We had to flee Grixis because we ran in without a plan. Any ideas?" Josh asked as he made the first move.
"Let's wait until after we talk to the king. We should get as much information as possible before we make our decision."
"You may rise," the king and queen of Eos said simultaneously. The four stood up, the sun just past the peak of the third-floor stained glass window depicting Asha, Bant's highest golden-robed archangel.
"I watched the last round of the Finals yesterday," the king continued, "and I am, to say the least, intrigued by your fighting styles. Your names are Ace and Shalin, correct?"
"That is correct," the godtoucher replied.
"You're supposed to say 'Your Majesty' or 'Your Grace'!" Eron loudly whispered into her ear."
"Do not worry about formalities, Eron," the king said. "She wouldn't know better, as she is not from Bant. I am more concerned about how they got here. Ever since the battle between Asha and Malfegor over a thousand years ago, no one has been able to enter or leave Bant."
"We've done our homework," Josh replied. "Alara has been Mended back into one world, and Sedris, the Traitor King of Grixis, aspires to cripple the world. If he succeeds, the entire would would become just as Grixis is--a dying landscape where every living thing has to struggle just to make it to the next day."
"We've been to these lands," Eron continued. Remember when you sent us to investigate the woods to the south of Valeron--"
"I know. A foreigner burned Valeron's Sun-Dappled Court to the ground with magic we'd never seen the likes of before. That kind of magic is only depicted in legend."
Shalin knelt to the ground. Seconds later, she stood up, holding a fireball in her right hand. "Like this?" She promptly put the fire out.
"Exactly like that. Are you and the man responsible for the fire at the City of the Court from the same place?"
"Kind of. We're both from Naya, but we lived on opposite sides of the forest. The man who started the fire was human. I'm not human; I'm elven."
"What? She looks just as human as I am!"
"It'd be better if I explained this," Josh interrupted. "It'll be easier if you hear these words out of a mouth you can trust. Elves are like humans, but they're better versed in magic than we are. Consequently, they are less proficient with weapons. The way you can tell elves apart from humans is they usually have long, pointed ears. Elven warriors use magic almost as strong as the stuff Bant's best wizards can use."
"If elves and humans got along like they used to," Shalin added, "we'd be able to teach you a thing or two about magic.
"Anyway, as I was saying, when you sent me to the woods of Valeron..." he paused, reaching for a map of Bant a year old. "Ah, here it is." He spread the map out on the nearest table. "You sent us to the forest located right here. About twenty miles to the south of that location, the forest ends, and there should be coastline. Well, no less than ten miles in, the forest changed to trees we'd never seen before. They were far leafier than the ones native to Valeron. We went all the way to where the coastline should have been, but there were only trees as far as the eye could see. That's when I realized that Alara had been Mended back into one world."
"I see," the king replied. "Now, what about Ace?"
"Well, we wandered through Naya for a while and met Shalin. Then we headed over a tall mountain, and wound up in Jund. There, we met Ace. Jund is every bit as savage as the legend depicts; up until about a couple months ago, it probably hadn't changed much since the Sundering."
"So you've been to these lands? Did you encounter any more deviations from what the legends would suggest?"
"Quite a few, and they're not good ones. The Nayan god-beasts, the Gargantuans, were corrupted by a source of mana unknown to anyone on Bant or Naya. That's why we headed east into Jund, and we learned the tar pits there were expanding past the eastern major mountain range. Once we were on the other side of the mountains, we found ourselves in Grixis. Then, Eron mentioned a land called Vithia. I'd never heard of it."
"Vithia, you said?"
"That is correct."
"Guards, servants," he said in a louder voice, "I'd like some time alone with these people." Immediately, they left the room, going into the antechamber.
"Okay then, guys, I am going to tell you a story about the history of Bant, Vithia, and the rest of Alara. Before I start, though, you must swear to keep this a secret from everyone. These words do not leave this throne room. Understood?" The four of them nodded, then verbally agreed to the contract. "Alright. The legend goes like this..."
Long ago, Alara was one world instead of five. Bant, Naya, Jund, Grixis, and Esper were regions of the world instead of worlds themselves. However, before the Sundering of Alara, Bant was much larger than it was before. Across the sea, Jhess was merely a peninsula of a whole new continent. That continent was home to a land that was geographically and culturally similar to Bant. It was called Vithia. The angels chose to stay in Bant, instead choosing monarchs by a combination of a democracy and their own divine power. Just like in Bant, the armies were led by paladins bearing many sigils. Vithia, however, had a more serious problem than Bant.
Instead of being torn apart by civil war, they faced rebel necromancers bent on overthrowing the government. They united under a demonic dragon by the name of Malfegor. When the Vithian armies became overwhelmed, the angels sent Asha to do battle with Malfegor.
Both sides wielded frightening power. Light and justice collided with darkness and evil. The energy from evaded attacks tore holes in the surface of Vithia. The destruction was widespread and devastating, but neither was able to cripple the other. Worn down after long and arduous battle, they both unleashed desperation attacks simultaneously. The resulting blast possessed such immense power that the very planar fabric of Alara split in five. Asha fled back to the Cathedral of Bliss high above Bant, while Malfegor remained in Vithia.
When the plane of Alara refracted into five, each shard lost access to two schools of magic. Bant and Vithia lost opposite colors. Bantians could no longer cast red and black magic; Vithians lost green and white magic. Because white magic was the main source of the paladins' power, Vithia was overrun by the necromancers within seven years. The entire plane transformed into a landscape of death and decay, and it came to be known as Grixis, which is a Vithian word meaning "traitor." Without access to red and black mana, any rebels in Bant were quickly subdued, and the land entered an unprecedented age of prosperity. Combat became a ritual rather than true warfare.
With blue and black mana gone to control nature, Naya's vegetation and wildlife grew to massive proportions. Many of the artifacts the Knights of the Reliquary recovered were lost when the largest beasts stomped them out of existence. As a result, we know little about Naya.
A similar situation arose in Jund. Without blue or white mana, there was no law besides the laws of nature. Because of that, we never were able to get reports back while the shards were still somewhat linked to each other. We assume they could not survive in that environment at all.
Hundreds of years later, Bantian wizards deeply rooted in the arcane noticed foreign mana signatures far in the distance. As time passed, the signatures began to get stronger. They concluded that there was a possibility that the signatures were, indeed, the other four planes of Alara. Because the signatures only included three colors of mana, the wizards were able to confirm their hypothesis with almost complete certainty. If this was true, there was a chance that the fractured plane of Alara could reunite. The projected event was dubbed the Mending. The signatures kept getting stronger, but even after watching for hundreds of years, the shards still didn't reassemble themselves. The theory was dismissed into the fabric of history, and has stayed there ever since.
"And that's the end of the story," the king finished recounting. "Any questions?"
"Well, we've been to four of these five worlds," Eron said. "Can you give us any clues as to where the last world is?"
"I can only hazard a guess...If Alara has Mended back into one world again, then Jhess is no longer an island. In fact, our spies back there have reported that there is now a desert to the northwest of Jhess, while our maps indicate that it's an island nation. That's worth investigating. However, you must not linger in Jhessian cities for too long. Most Bantian scum come from there. They would rather pay for their honor rather than earn it, and with stolen gold and gems at that. We can banish them to the Desert of Repentance, but there are far too many of them there."
"I'm well aware of how criminal Jhessians have become, especially with the rise of the war."
"Because your armor bears Valeron's crest," he turned to Josh, "you need to be especially careful. Jhess and Valeron are still at war. They could easily claim you are a spy for Valeron, and imprison you under martial law. Therefore, I would keep a low profile while in the port towns, and avoid any other towns while you're there. Just head northwest from town and you should find a desert. From there, just head west. Something has to be on the other side."
"Alright. So, when do we leave?"
"In six days. Just enjoy your week off, then we'll make arrangements for you to cross the sea.
"So what are we going to do this afternoon?" Shalin asked as they left the king's presence.
"You know, I've been thinking about Ace's words back at the Jund camp several weeks ago," Eron replied. "And I've been thinking about what you said back in Naya, Shalin. I know you've said you don't need one, but you've been in many dangerous situations since then. You really should reconsider using a crossbow. You said it yourself, 'Mana isn't infinite.'"
"Alright, alright. I give," she frowned. "The real reason is because I was exiled by my people while I was still in crossbow training with the Sacellum Archers. I never finished. I can shoot and load a crossbow, but my accuracy wouldn't make it in real combat."
"Well, I can fix that. I know how to use a bow. Since you'll be shooting a crossbow, it'll be much easier. We now have over 8,000 gold pieces, counting Ace's prize money. I'm sure we can buy you a top-quality crossbow and plenty of bolts. Plus, there's a training facility on the north side of this castle. What say you we go into town this afternoon and buy you one? Then, depending on how late in the day it gets, we can hit the crossbow training area. You can even practice mounted archery there."
"I'm not sure if five days is going to be enough to finish my training, but it's better than nothing. Let's do it."
That morning, the champion's team went their separate ways. After seeing Ace in action with his firecat, Josh and Ace did some hunting across the plains of Bant, seeing how well the Jundian could control a leotau. It turned out he was better at on-foot combat, and only had to make use of the firecat to avoid getting cornered due to a huge speed disadvantage. That was when Josh presented the idea of giving a five-day crash course in mounted combat. Ace knew his friend wasn't the best teacher, but the knowledge may come in handy some day, with all the places they were going. Besides wild leotau, the creatures in Bant didn't put up much of a fight. Still, it was better than nothing.
Eron and Shalin started training of a different kind. After purchasing a crossbow and an ample supply of bolts, the two of them walked back through the ground-level halls of the castle, taking the north exit to the archery training field. There were green and white circular targets to shoot at, and even a track to practice mounted archery from. "Well, we're here," the ranger said. Shalin knelt down and began opening a portal through which to call a beast out of. "Not yet, Shalin."
"Why?" she asked, standing up and closing the rift.
"Let's see you hit a stationary target before you try to hit one while moving." She loaded a bolt into her weapon, took aim at the target in the center of the facility, and fired. It landed on a green circle two zones from the center. "Thirty points...not bad for that distance. Especially one handed." She began loading her crossbow again. "Let me show you something. This thing cost 3,100 gold for a reason." Eron clicked a hatch open on the weapon, revealing a hollow spot inside. He carefully placed several of Shalin's bolts inside, closed it back up, then fired a shot. By the time the shot hit the target he was aiming at, there was already another bolt loaded.
"Wow," Shalin said. "Not even Nayan crossbows can do that!"
"It's Valeronian technology," Eron replied, "and recent at that. No less than fifty years ago were they developed, and it makes forts and castles on high ground even harder to infiltrate. It makes them a little heavier, but you can fire much faster. Also, since you'll be riding while shooting most of the time, you'll have to slow down to reload less often." He paused to look at the weapon before handing it back to Shalin. "Ten-round magazine."
"What's that mean?"
"You can fire ten shots before having to reload. We could have gotten a fifteen-round one, but they're much more expensive. Now, see if you can put all nine of the other shots on the target you were just shooting at. Of course, aim to be accurate, but if you can hit the target with all of them, I think we'll be ready to move on. Also, only hold it with one hand. Since you'll be riding, you'll need one hand to hold on and the other to shoot with."
"Okay." She took aim at the same target she shot at before, which now had two bolts lodged in it. She fired in three quick bursts--one, two, three, pause. Four, five, siz, pause. Seven, eight, nine, pause. "Well, how did I do?"
"Well, they all hit. But only one hit the bull's-eye. That's the sweet spot you're aiming for when you try to hit an actual enemy. I think we should just work on your aim for now, and save firing on the run for tomorrow."
"That sure went by fast," Josh said as he led the group down the hall to the Southwest Castle's throne room. "It was nice to have some time off, but we need to figure out how to avert this crisis."
"I'm impressed with how quickly you learned the art of mounted archery, Shalin," Eron complimented. "Especially since you weren't gifted with a Sigil of the Straight Arrow."
"Have you forgotten that I trained with the Sacellum Archers before my exile?" Shalin reminded him.
"Even so, I'm impressed."
"Eron didn't let you have much of a vacation, did he?" Josh joked.
"I'll take that over fleeing elves and Gargantuans constantly," the Nayan played along. "Besides, I'm more concerned about what Sedris was saying. All roads seem to lead to Esper at this point."
"That's why we're speaking with the king. He will issue us a writ of transit, so that we can cross the sea."
Once the four of them entered the king's chamber, they became silent, dropping to their knees just before reaching the stairs before the throne. "Rise, brave ones," the king said in a low voice. Another beautiful sunrise illuminated the room.
"I am sure you know why we're here," Josh replied as he and the others stood up. "We need a writ of transit to cross the sea to the nation of Jhess."
"I'm afraid that things have changed in the past week. The war between Jhess and Valeron has escalated, and crossing the sea has become very difficult due to the Jhessian navy's unprecedented aggression. I don't think I can just give you a writ of transit and send you on your way. The risk of your ship being sunk is too great."
"That's terrible," Eron said, Shalin shedding a tear of concern for Alara.
"Isn't there another way?" Ace asked.
"I only see one option. I'll have my guards show you the way to my private vessel, the Sea Angel. It's at the private dock located at the Seaside Palace, directly connected to the west side of the basement. Normally I only use it when I'm crossing the sea on official business to Jhess, but I see no other choice. It'll take some time to get there, so please make any preparations you need."
"We've already taken care of that," Eron said. "We restocked on food rations, arrows, bolts, and various other supplies. We're good to go."
"Then meet me outside the east end of this castle, where the stables are. We're going to the Seaside Palace via leotau-driven carriage."
"I'd be more comfortable on one of my own beasts," Shalin said to the monarch.
"Who knew there was a private dock back here?" Eron said, getting a good look at the beautiful vessel. A set of large oars lined each side of the ship, but they likely wouldn't be used in this voyage. The wind was blowing in almost the perfect direction for them to sail west.
"It shouldn't take us very long to get to Jhess," Josh added. "The way the wind's blowing and the time of day it is, we should get there by late tomorrow afternoon." As soon as the four boarded, the crew retracted the ramp and prepared to set tail. "You're not coming with us, Your Highness?"
"I trust you and my crew wholeheartedly," he answered. "They'll bring my ship back in one piece. Have a safe voyage, and watch yourself in Jhess!" Both groups waved to each other as the sails were raised, and the wind took them westward.
"Let's find where we're sleeping first," Shalin suggested. "Likely the king's chamber, since the crew's sleeping quarters will likely be full. Looks like we're going to have awkward sleeping conditions. Reminds me of our stay in Jund."
"Looks like we have one last day off," Ace added. "Maybe you and I can have a look around the ship, since we've never been on one before."
"We've got nothing better to do. Let's go."
After watching the gorgeous sunset over the sea, the four left the deck and headed for the interior of the ship. The royal quarters were well-lit, but didn't contain any more amenities than a normal cabin on a passenger liner--just more space. Ace and Josh pulled the table away from the wall, and the four of them sat down for a game of cards to pass the time until they got tired.
Several hours later, the moon was high in the sky. The only noise around the ship was the sails flapping in the wind from time to time, and the noise of the water's waves. Suddenly, Shalin poked her head up from out of the bed; Eron and Ace were fast asleep on the floor, laying on the extra covers in the closet. "What is it, Josh?" she whispered as he closed the door as silently as possible.
"Had to get up to use the restroom," he whispered back. "What are you still doing up? It's one in the morning."
"I haven't been able to sleep well."
"What is it? Is it the ocean air?"
"No, it's not that. This happened a while ago, but do you remember that elf girl we saw at the bottom of the Sacellum, Josh?"
"It's been a long time, but I vaguely remember. Even for an elf, she looked really weird."
"I think I know her from somewhere. I can't remember a lot of details about her, or even where we met, but it was definitely a familiar face."
Before Shalin could respond, a loud crashing sound filled the air around the ship, accompanied by a very strong force that knocked her out of bed and sent all four of them flying to one side of the cabin. All four of them woke up and started gathering their equipment. "What the hell was that?!" Ace shouted.
"I don't know, but we have to do something!" Eron replied, grabbing his bow and reloading his quiver. The four, led by Ace, ran out of their cabin and up the stairs, getting knocked over again on the way.
When they finally reached the deck, they saw two crew on the ground, one bleeding profusely and surrounded by medics. The other was dead from intense blunt trauma. Suddenly, the ship started rocking to one side, making it difficult to maintain balance. At least the crew had gotten the sail down before the creature had done too much damage. Four blue tentacles pulled on the ship, then let go of it, sending the frightened crew members sliding in the other direction. Its body was sky blue in color, and its frame was serpentine. From a great distance, it looked like a giant squid, but it had the head of a drake.
Bant hadn't seen a creature like this since pre-Sundering times. The party could see just how large this sea beast was, its large tail fin popping out of the water from time to time. They gasped in horror as it picked up an unsuspecting crew member and hurled him hundreds of feet away from the ship. As soon as Shalin landed a fireball at the sea monster's forehead, it turned around to confront them.
A fearsome denizen of ancient Alaran seas, the kraken was vicious, and could easily sink unprepared ships. What it couldn't sink, it could decimate with a variety of elemental attacks no one would think a water-bound creature would ever use. It let loose an intense stream of fire between its two long fangs, singing all four travelers confronting it. Ace and Josh dropped to one knee, and Eron grunted. Shalin, though, seemed to shrug the attack right off, returning fire.
"Shower of sparks, punish this fell beast! Lightning Helix!" A column of sparks appeared to rotate around an invisible cylinder, directly striking the kraken. The electricity turned around and struck it a second time, a stream of refreshing light moving parallel to the electricity on the way back. The electricity dissipated as it returned to Shalin, bathing her in only the healing side of the spell.
Eron did the best he could to keep his balance, shooting arrows while the ship rocked in the rough waters. Josh took a defensive position, his blade unable to reach the sea monster. Ace started casting a spell to turn the kraken into seafood, but was interrupted when it rammed the ship again, then jumped out on the other side. It came down with a hard splash, flooding the deck with rushing water. If it weren't for the solid guard walls in place of the typical rails, the group would have been washed overboard.
Ace panting heavily, Josh came to his friend's side with a Life Burst spell as soon as he recovered his balance. The moment Eron recovered his, he was smacked down again by a whipping tentacle. "That was weird," Shalin said loud enough for the others to hear through the stormy winds. "When it jumped, I saw something unusual about its tail."
"What?" Josh yelled back, still weak from being thrown around by a large volume of water.
"I couldn't make out exactly what it was, but keep an eye on it when it jumps again!" The thirty-foot-long serpent grabbed Shalin and threw her high above the ship. Ace unintentionally broke her fall trying to get out of the way, and they both found themselves on the ship deck. Only Ace opened his eyes.
The Jund warrior channeled his rage into a fiery blaze, his hands burning even before he started casting the spell. "Blood-boiling flames, turn this living thing to ash! Incinerate!" Two cones of yellow-and-white flames formed directly above the kraken, intersecting at a sixty-degree angle right in the center of its body.
While the sea monster flailed about in pain, Eron ran up to Shalin, eyes closed on the wet deck of the ship. "Bring back this soul from purgatory!" he cried. "Resurrection!" A break in the clouds opened up, and the focused moonlight shined directly onto the fallen Nayan. She slowly got back on her feet, Josh ready to heal her remaining wounds.
As the knight was finishing, the sea serpent leaped back over the ship, and the other three got a good look at its tail. From the base of its rear fin, the last three feet of its tail had been replaced by a silvery, highly reflective metal interwoven with its sky blue flesh. It was a tight weave, but it could be seen through. The four journeyers braced themselves for the wave to come, but were still thrown against the guard wall on the other side of the deck.
"The tail," Shalin said to herself. "Return this artifice to dust! Naturalize!" Thorned vines surrounded the metallic tail of the kraken, whipping back and forth. The aquatic fiend sounded an agonizing cry, like a large piece of flesh had been forcibly ripped away from it. "Josh! Cast Naturalize on its tail! That's how we're going to beat this thing!"
Josh, however, was in no position to be assisting Shalin. His right side was badly bruised, and he was in the best shape of the godtoucher's traveling friends. Eron was bleeding heavily in multiple locations, and Ace was unconscious. He crawled over toward the ailing ranger of Eos, the throbbing pain in his side hindering him every inch of the trip. He groaned while reciting the incantation of the healing spell he was taught as a child. It didn't stop the bleeding entirely, but it slowed it enough for Eron to start moving again. The moment he could stand, he ran over to Ace and began resuscitating him with a second Resurrection spell.
By now, the kraken had gone back on the offensive. It grabbed Shalin, then threw her into a powerful whirlwind it had generated in the center of the deck. The fall from being thrown into the sky hurt her more than the wind burns, which Ace didn't understand. "Josh, now!" she pleaded, struggling to stand back up. Immediately, the Knight of the Reliquary repeated Shalin's incantation, and the kraken began screeching in pain.
"Ace, Eron, cover for us!" Shalin shouted. Every time the sea beast recovered from the thorned vines tearing its flesh and metallic tail section away, the other frontline mage interrupted its counterattack with a second Naturalize. After six back-and-forth vollies of this, their foe was wailing in pain.
As Josh's last spell went off, Shalin kneeled down to cast a spell with a different mana signature. "Calm your anger and fight for the good of Alara! Evangelize!" The spell didn't calm the beast at all. She cast it again, to no effect. Dismayed, she finished the kraken with one final Naturalize.
(Silence Music Track)
All four of them were breathing heavily, and Eron and Ace were still bleeding despite being magically healed. When the kraken's cry finally ceased, whatever medics and crew that were left escorted the party back to the royal quarters, treating the rest of their wounds.
The rest of the voyage was peaceful, and they arrived on what was known as the Island Nation of Jhess. Their late arrival meant that night had already fallen. At least they wouldn't have to take the back way to get our of town, seems how the streets weren't crowded at this hour. Eron said a prayer to Asha before they began their walk out of town.
That prayer seemed to help, as that walk was uneventful. The only sounds in the air that evening were nocturnal animals, the distant churning of the sea, and their own footsteps. Seeing how they had slept in late thanks to the midnight encounter, they were wide awake despite the sun having set. Shalin dropped to her knees in a stance of prayer, summoning two of Naya's behemoths to make travel easier. Ace and Josh climbed aboard the ten-foot-tall thoctar, while Shalin and Eron mounted the newly-trained, rhinolike Gargantuan known as the Cliffrunner Behemoth. Any other Nayan elf would cringe if they saw the sacred beasts being used for transportation.
Music Track: Royal Capital Kadessa //Dennis Martin
Album: Legend of Dragoon OST
Apologies for no link, but no one has uploaded this track to Youtube. Therefore I cannot provide a link.
The Jhessian version of the Desert of Repentance was less harsh than the Bantians remembered it being, but then they factored in that it was nightfall. The beasts' feet sunk into the sand, but it only slowed them down a little. Shalin had to occasionally ease up on her horned, raptor-like mount just so it wouldn't run ahead. The only sign of life they saw the entire time was a silhouette of a banished criminal.
A number of miles in, the thoctar slid down a hill, nearly falling sideways. When the four looked down to see what it slipped on, they couldn't believe their eyes. The desert they were in had a thick, glass surface. The night sky was divided by visible, mysterious grid lines, and even the clouds were split by those lines. Ace started shivering aboard his mount as the temperature continued to drop to that of a winter night in Akrasa--just a few degrees above freezing.
Though they weren't adequately prepared for cold temperatures, the four pressed on, the two beasts slowing down from glass dust collecting around their legs as well as general fatigue. What a strange place this was. The only life they saw in this desert was a few gargoyles passing overhead, and they looked far from normal ones native to other planes. All four riders had confused looks on their faces, and they each knew they were stuck comprehending the same idea.
Shalin had to switch out a fresh set of creatures before they could even see any hints of civilization, but what she did see was a big hint. All of them gasped upon seeing the silhouettes of beautifully-crafted skyscrapers a couple of miles into the distance. The Knights of the Reliquary had seen ruins of tall structures before, but nothing this tall. What kind of civilization would have the power to build something like that?
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
None of the wanderers could believe their eyes, particularly Shalin. Buildings taller than Naya's tallest trees graced the cityscape of Esper. There were magically crafted holes in the dense cloud cover, specially aligned with the angle of the sun or moon to ensure that the city was always lit. This was Esper, and it was a world where intelligent beings had commandeered Nature almost entirely. Almost every city was built above a body of water.
Everything here seemed to defy nature: the magically defined grid lines in the sky, the clouds being split by them, cities built above water and the rarity of wildlife. But what struck Shalin most was the humans' appearance: they had parts of their body replaced with the same type of metal she had seen on the kraken's tail, and it was even stylized similarly. Every single human had an infusion somewhere.
"I guess when you can bend nature to your will, this is what happens," Eron broke the long silence among the group.
"The Knights of the Reliquary have collected a few parts that have a similar texture and shape to these structures," Josh recalled aloud. "This is probably that lost, highly advanced civilization our evidence suggests once existed alongside Bant. But it goes beyond our wildest, most vivid images we created to depict it..."
Every structure, even the mundane bridges, was visually without flaw. Not a single detail was forgotten; it was all crafted to please the eye. Every constructional flaw that existed was patched by an enchantment that maintained the structure's integrity. The entire society seemed to be rooted in magic, as the strange metal everyone was infused with gave off a distinct mana signature.
After wandering the city for a while, Shalin found herself paralyzed by some magical force. "I can't move!" she cried. The other three found themselves immobile as well. Six humans surrounded them, all of them with metallic arms and what appeared to be footwear of the same material. Ace cast a fire spell to incapacitate their kidnappers, but one of them disrupted his concentration with a mental attack. The mana slipped away from Ace's fingertips, his spell creating no more than a few small flares.
The four of them were marched off to a three-story building labeled "Courthouse of Vectis." The foreigners were handed off to local police, and led to the basement prison.
"I demand a trial!" Josh said firmly, but not in a loud enough voice to be offensive.
"You'll be getting one in a few days," one of the officers replied. "Now, place your weapons on the table. If you are found innocent, we will return them to you after the trial."
"What are we being tried for?" Eron asked.
"You are being tried for evasion of the Ethersworn. By Esper-wide law, every human must be infused with etherium when he or she comes of age. And you look much older than thirteen years."
"Now I'm even more confused." He set his bow and quiver on the table. Josh did the same with his sword, Shalin the same with her crossbow and extra bolts, and Ace with his sword as well. The guards led them down the stairs. Even the appearance of the jail was aesthically pleasing. He led Josh and Shalin into one cell, then Eron and Ace into the one directly across from it.
"We'll come and get you in three days. Then the Senators of Vectis will decide your innocence or guilt." Once the guards pushed the buttons at the far end of the floor, pulsating, blue bars appeared to lock the party in.
"They took our weapons for an obvious reason," Eron said. "Ace, can you get us out of here?"
The Jundian grabbed onto the bars, but let go of them instantly, letting loose a scream of pain. "Damn it, they're electrified!" he shouted, his hands still tingling from the shock.
"What about you, Shalin?"
Shalin began casting a spell to destroy the bars with enchanted vines, but the mana fell off her fingertips. It was drawn into a blue orb in the center of the prison. "Something's interfering with my spell. The lines I drew mana from had been severed as I was casting."
She cast the spell of Naturalize a second time, and the mana slipped away again. "Same thing. The mana couldn't get to where it needed to go," she repeated.
"I guess they thought of everything," Ace sighed.
Three days later, the prisoners were taken out of their cells and escorted to the top floor of the courthouse, where they would be tried before the Senate of Vectis. Important figureheads in regional politics filled the audience, and 136 of Vectis' 138 senators served as jury. "All rise for Judge Cinna, presiding over the case at hand," the chief officer in the room announced. Everyone stood up, remaining on their feet until she told everyone to be seated.
The judge looked humanoid, but definitely wasn't human. Boasting pale blue skin and a slender frame, she was a highly renowned vedalken wizard. "Court is now in session," she said. "This is case number 158 on the docket for this year, the Law Enforcement Agency of Vectis versus a group of four humans by the names of Josh, Eron, Shalin, and Ace. Prosecution, make your case now."
One of the six policemen that captured the party stepped forward. "These four are guilty of defying the Noble Work and evading the Ethersworn." The mention of the Noble Work further confused the defendants. "They have clearly come of age, appearing to be in their twenties. Esper-wide law requires every intelligent being to be etherium-infused, even if it is with the most minute of the alloy, by age thirteen. You have evaded the Ethersworn for a very long time--a capital offense. Our evidence is their very flesh--not an ounce of etherium is interweaved into their systems. We rest our case."
"Defense, present your case," Judge Cinna commanded. As this was the party's first visit to Esper, they had no lawyer. Instead, the Vectis senate provided two directly out of their own numbers. One was Quennus, a human metallurgeon of the Ethersworn. In his best interest, he chose to present minimal evidence. The other was Aravan, a human arcanist. He stood up and began speaking.
"When the police interrogated the defendants, they claimed to not know who the Ethersworn were, or even what etherium was. Esperites are taught about these matters from childhood. No one could bluff their way out of something like that, no matter how good that one is. The thing is, our polygraphs indicated that they weren't lying. Therefore, there is only one other possibility: these four are not from Esper. I have no clue how they got into Esper, as there haven't been foreigners here since Crucius the Mad left Esper before the Sundering of Alara."
"Objection!" one of the prosecutors shouted. "Crucius has no relevance whatsoever to this case!"
"The focus of his argument wasn't on Crucius," the vedalken judge replied, "it was background into his theory that these four are foreigners. Overruled for now. But Aravan, please keep your argument pertinent to the case."
"Anyway, I will continue. As I was saying, the only way they couldn't be lying is if they aren't from Esper. Look at Shalin's ears, for instance. Not in Esper's history have we seen anything like this. If we pull out our pre-Sundering records of civilization outside Esper, we can conclude that Josh and Eron are from Bant. It follows that Shalin is Nayan, and Ace is from Jund. Alara was Sundered over a thousand years ago. The fact that they are 99 percent matches to life forms in our records of ancient Alaran civilization suggests they couldn't possibly have known of the Noble Work."
"Objection! Hearsay!" the same prosecutor shouted again, standing this time. "This man cites a faerie tale, which does not qualify as solid evidence!"
"That may be so, but in the context of his argument, it is worth giving some thought." Cinna replied. "But the objection is sustained nonetheless. Aravan, keep your presentation of evidence to incontrovertible sources."
"Hear me out, senators of Vectis! In the last three months, have you not noticed unusual activity on our borders? When we were able to see Vithia from our towers again, it had become a wasteland that made the Tidehollow look like a first-class hotel. Our seas have become polluted more than the wastes of the Tidehollow would suggest. And on our east border is the so-called endless Glass Dunes. These four were arrested on the east side of town, meaning they had to have crossed the desert to get into Esper. These kinds of events have been happening under our noses for the last three months. Jury, think about that when making your decision. I rest my case." With that, the arcanist took a seat.
"Does either side wish to present questions?" the judge asked. There were no replies. "Jury, cast your votes now." A monitor lit up behind them, green and red numerals on it. The numbers grew as the votes were tallied. Once the count of red voted reached sixty-nine, the defendants sighed in disgust. Aravan cursed under his breath. "By a tally of 55 'not guilty' to 81 'guilty', the Senate of Vectis declares these four guilty as charged. However, because the evidence suggested they were indeed foreigners, a lighter sentence will be issued. Instead of being exiled to the depths of the Tidehollow, how about you make yourselves useful?"
"In what way?" Ace asked.
"If Aravan's presentation is correct, you and Shalin should have better survival skills than our greatest rogues. Perhaps you can do what we can't. As of three months ago, the Etherium Mines to the west of Palandius have been very dangerous to mine from, and etherium reserves all over Esper have been dwindling to dangerously low levels. There has been an infestation of creatures we haven't seen the likes of since the Sundering, and we ask that you clean them out. Your reward is your freedom, and if you sign a contract to receive your etherium infusion within sixty days of your safe return, we will let you travel Esper freely. This court is adjourned."
"You're going to send them into that death trap?!" Aravan shouted. "That's like sending them into the Inkwell to do research--few people have come out of the mines unscathed since the infestation three months ago!"
"The alternative is letting them die in the Tidehollow. Plus, even if they wanted to, they have no choice."
"Like all vedalken in positions of power, all you care about is completing the Noble Work. If you just opened your eyes, you'd see that Esper is in grave danger, and our way of life is threatened!" He paused for a second. "I'm going to observe them in the mines!"
"I'm afraid you cannot do that; there are still cases you must observe here."
"Not if I say so! Effective immediately, I resign from my position in the Senate of Vectis!" Everyone in the room, including the party, was blown away by the Esper wizard's rash decision.
"So you feel that strongly about it? Well, come see me in my office, and I'll print a letter of resignation for you to sign."
Clocks all over Palandius read eleven in the morning, but the sky was still dark as Aravan led the party past the western city limits. In the distance a little over a mile away, they could see one of the many entrances to the mines. A complex bridge network made travel over the Dwindling Sea possible without the aid of etherium-laced gargoyles and other flying creatures. "Aravan, level twenty-four arcanist, at your service," the Esperite introduced himself. "The only etherium enhancements I have are my two arms, but that's all the Ethersworn deemed I needed."
"Level...twenty-four?" Shalin replied, confused.
"Oh, right. You're not from Esper. I'll explain. Level is just a measurement of how skilled you are at your job. I'm an arcanist, a specialized wizard. There are dozens of specializations, but arcanist is one of the most common."
"I've been meaning to ask you this since we left," Josh replied after a long silence. "Back in Bant, I've seen relics that look like many of the structures here. Now that I've seen what this place looks like, it makes sense. But why do your people put so much effort into making Esper look beautiful? Don't you have better things to do?"
"Not really. Our stormcallers have conquered the weather, and mechanists can control many of the striges and other wildlife that roams the cities just through the etherium we've implanted into them. Our tidemages can manipulate water easily, and even time waits for clockworkers. We can manipulate almost every element of nature as we see fit."
"Then why do they need us to go to the mines?"
"That's one of the few we don't have control over. Also, I believe I owe you an explanation of our society. The Noble Work is carried out by a government-supported faction called the Ethersworn, and its goal is to infuse every living thing on Esper with etherium. Etherium is an aether-infused alloy with a number of interesting properties, the most pertinent of which is enhanced spellcasting."
"So you enhance your natural abilities with artificial means," Shalin deduced. "Back in Naya, you'd be exiled, if not killed, if you did that."
"Technically, it's no different than you using weapons," Aravan subtly counter-argued. "I'm an arcanist, and magic is my weapon." He paused on that thought. "Speaking of magic, it would be nice to know what your capabilities are. Where are your character sheets?" he asked. The four of them looked confused again. "You know, that sheet of paper the DM in the Sky gave you before you started adventuring?" Still no response. "Never mind...I can get the information I need another way. I just didn't want to spend the mana to do it." The wizard paused to clasp his hands together. Shalin couldn't believe the concentration of this guy as he cast. "You cannot keep a secret from me! Telepathy!"
"...What?!" Eron jumped as he detected his thoughts and capabilities were being magically read.
"So you're a level 24 ranger...and you have an interesting assortment of skills." He repeated the spell three more times. "And Josh, you're a level 24 knight with a Vithian mount. Strange, I thought you said you were from Bant?"
"They both use leotau."
"Right. Shalin, a level 25 druid...and a well-built one at that. Now, let's have a look at you, Ace. You're...a level 25 barbarian sorcerer? Why did you take levels in sorcerer?"
"You're c-c-creepy, Aravan," Ace stuttered.
"I'm just trying to get a feel for how powerful you guys are, so we can develop a strategy for cleaning out the mines. So you have two healers, one wizard, one beatstick, and one that does a little of everything. Isn't your damage output a little low?"
"Not really," Josh answered. "We've gotten this far. Why fix something that isn't broken?"
"I'm just concerned that your secondary damage dealer has a strength modifier of only plus five." The group continued toward the mine entrance, still confused by Aravan's strange ways of wording things. They stopped in front of it to admire the vedalken city of Palandius from a distance. "Well, we're here. The last time I was down there was before all the problems started coming up. I have no idea what kind of monsters are down there, but I can give you one heads up."
"And what is that?" Shalin asked.
"There are blue orbs embedded in the ceiling, usually well hidden. You must have encountered one while you were imprisoned, as one is required by law to be in every jail. These emit fields in the room they are placed in, and they prevent the casting of spells. They are called mindlock orbs for that reason. Originally they were placed in certain rooms to prevent determined rogues and wizards from infiltrating important buildings, such as sphinxes' towers."
"I've only heard of sphinxes by name," Josh said. "What exactly are they?"
"They're wise, flying creatures with feline frames. Their bodies usually composed of between sixty and ninty percent etherium, and they are the rulers of Esper, but only in name. The true power lies in the senates, which are the heads of the magocracy. Generally, their words greatly influence those in power. They possess the strongest magic on Esper, but never use it because they deem it either unnecessary or unwise. They're as close to gods or monarchs as you get here."
"Anyway, continue explaining about the mines."
"All of the orbs were placed in very strategic points. Your weapons should be able to break them, because, since they were designed to repel magical attacks, they cannot stand up to much physical force. Realizing this, they were all placed in hard-to-reach areas. Shatter them if you can, but we may have to rely on Josh and Ace to defeat the monsters in some areas."
"I'm skilled with a bow and arrows," Eron chimed in. "I can help, too."
"What's your dexterity modifier?"
"Let me find my character sheet." The archer rummaged through his supplies. "Ah, here it is. Plus five," he replied, folding it back up and putting it away.
"Not very high, but it might help in a pinch. Anyway, let's go."
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
"I know the first few areas of this place," Aravan continued as he led the party down the staircase to the mines beneath Esper's surface. "This place has some technology unlike anything you've ever seen. It has computer-operated defense weapons, meaning they attack by themselves. Often, they're positioned in placed that are hard to find, such as in dark corners. If something shoots at you, try to figure out where it's coming from, and retaliate."
"Understood," Eron replied. The others nodded.
"There are some access codes I'll need to put into terminals so that certain passages become...well, passable. Anyway, there's something I need to show you. Ace, Josh, protect me while I lead." At the bottom of the staircase, the path turned into a metal mesh. Below the mesh was a storage cache for mined etherium ore ready to be processed. Aravan opened the electronic door at the end of the path, and it opened up into a large chamber with mining equipment scattered throughout. "This is the central quarry," he explained. "This is where most of the processing work on etherium ore is done. But that's not important right now."
He led the party to another electronic door left of the entrance. In this chamber was a magically shielded dome and a computer terminal. "This is a Save Station. We can rest here and nothing will attack us. The DM will also let us record our progress here."
"That's a relief," Josh sighed. "But what's the point of recording our progress? If we die, we're dead. We don't exactly have extra lives."
"Right. But if we do die, the people that replace us will start from the last Save Station we used. And the DM will find replacements, I guarantee you that. Anyway, I know the way through the first few areas, but that's about it. Follow me out of here." The Esper wizard led the group back to the quarry. "The quickest way down would be taking the west entrance from here." He led them across stripped earth full of sharply crested hills and troughs. On the other side of the quarry, he saw the door atop a tall structure, but cursed when the elevator was stuck at the top. "Well it isn't the most efficient route--" His sentence was interrupted by an electrifying blast that struck him from his left. Shalin ducked to avoid two more headed her way, then scurried back behind the pile of mining equipment. "Damn t-t-t-turrets!" Aravan stuttered, lines of sparks pulsating around his body.
"You okay?" Eron asked, healing him promptly.
"You could have blown a Life Burst instead of a Recuperate. I wasn't that badly injured. Anyway, since the world's been experiencing these problems, the sphinxes have installed automated defense turrets. Anyone who isn't in the mines on official business will be attacked. They're especially lethal to outsiders because you take a d6 of dexterity damage as well as damage from the electricity. Since my main source of offense is magic based, it shouldn't affect me much. Speaking of magic, can you guys cast anything that deals lightning damage?"
"I do," Shalin and Ace replied.
"You can use that to short circuit them."
"Fill the skies with rage! Branching Bolt!" both of them cried. They turned the corner and released their streams of electricity toward one turret. Both of them fired shots to counterattack, but the targets watched the beams of electricity fly past from around the corner. When the second bolt hit, that turret started firing randomly, flailing about on its pivot point before exploding to bits. They repeated the process for the second turret.
"Good job, you two," Aravan congratulated them. "Now, for that door," he pointed to an electronic door behind where the turrets were. Beyond it was a winding hallway, another cache for etherium ore below the metal grating. As they rounded a corner, an owl with etherium-laced wings dove from an alcove in the ceiling, bouncing off Josh's helmet and knocking him off balance. Ace quickly dispatched it with a pair of thrown fireballs. "Watch it with the magic," the Esperite advised them. "Every DM I've ever known likes to throw a nasty encounter right before the end of the dungeon. I know you probably have a lot of mana available, but please don't be so reckless with it. I know they're useful against striges like that one, but still..."
"Settle down, Aravan," Ace replied. "I can cast at least six more of those before I'm tapped."
"You're a level 25 and you can only cast ten level 1 spells? What were you thinking when you made your build?"
"They're supposed to be there in case I need to attack at range. I only took a couple of levels in sorcerer."
"I guess," Aravan replied with a confused look. The passage seemed to wind aimlessly until they found another door. He opened it, revealing an obviously man-made chamber filled with ore processing equipment and computer terminals.
Immediately upon entry, weapons fire filled the room. Two small, grey gargoyles began firing red spheres of energy from their masks, and another defense turret complicated things for the party. Ace jumped out in front of everyone, shrugging off shots as they came. He cleaved one of the gargoyles in half, causing the other to retreat. Shalin helped him short the turret out after Eron barely dodged a pair of shots headed his way.
The other gargoyle continued to unleash fire as though it were from an automatic weapon, flooding the room with red. Two shots nailed Aravan in his etherium-laced left arm, causing him to slouch over on that side as he cried out in pain. Shalin took cover underneath a large desk, then bathed the gargoyle in a beam of holy light. The creature dropped to the floor, not a hint of life inside it.
Aravan led the way up the staircase that spiraled around the large chamber. They climbed the perimeter of the room twice before reaching the top, containing a branch after the first revolution for anyone who was assigned to do work at the second level up. He opened the next electronic door. On the other side was an area that looked recently mined, for there were tools scattered about the tunnel. It looped around in the shape of the letter "U" before ending at another door.
Several feet below them was a quartet of armed etherium sculptors, which the party could see through the mesh. "Move silently," Aravan whispered. "We're not supposed to be here, remember?" The others nodded as all of them tiptoed onto the catwalk connecting the metallic overhangs above the room. With the first step Josh took onto the catwalk, his sword sheath clinked against his armor. The armed artificers turned their heads to the source of the noise, only to see the armored Bantian falling from above their heads and onto the plated floor. Shots pummeled him from seemingly all directions as he tried to get up, most of them partially reflected by his armor.
"Whose bright idea was it to try to move silently in armor?!" Eron shouted as he, Shalin, and Aravan took cover above the fine, metal mesh on the other side of the catwalk. Ace jumped down to brutally beat the four armed sentries to death, one at a time. Taking all these hits was starting to get to him--both he and Josh were breathing heavily after clearing the room out.
"Clear!" Josh yelled the best he could, panting even more heavily after that. The three taking shelter climbed down to the lower level of the chamber.
"At least we're getting a steady stream of experience," Aravan joked as Shalin knelt down, surrounded by telltale circles of green and white mana.
"Dewcups of Naya, rain your refreshing water on us! Vitalizing Cascade!" the godtoucher cried. Nothing happened. She repeated the incantation, and still nothing. "What's going on? I know how to cast this spell!"
"Did you write it on your character sheet?"
"Oh," she sighed. "That's probably why."
"I've been in campaigns where even if you have all the prerequisites for a spell, if it isn't written on your character sheet, the DM will not allow you to cast it."
"Okay..." With a confused look, she added the new spell to her list. "Let's try this again. Dewcups of Naya, rain your refreshing water on us! Vitalizing Cascade!" This time, a gentle waterfall fell over the party for a few seconds. Once it stopped, both Josh and Ace could stand with no trouble, and the others felt refreshed as well.
"Thanks, Shalin," Josh said.
"Now, let this be a lesson to all of you," Aravan began lecturing the party. "If you learn a new skill, write it on your character sheet as soon as you can." The four of them sighed as he led the way through the south exit, the only one on the lower level. The next room was another winding passage like the first one they came to, only there was miscellaneous mining equipment stored underneath them instead. Ace peered around every corner, looking for monsters waiting in ambush. What a relief that he didn't find any.
In the next room was a pair of monitors on the wall, a computer terminal, and a large computer tower apparently being used as a server for this level of the mine. "What's this?" Eron asked.
"Jackpot," Aravan smiled. "This is the mainframe for the first level of the Etherium Mines, and it serves as a Map Station for the entire place. Just let me log in and I'll download the map." Ace tapped his fingers against the wall out of impatience as Aravan accessed the server. "There," he said as a map of all three levels of the mines appeared on the right monitor. "We're right here," he pointed, "and down here is our destination. According to this report, the central security bot near the central dynamo of the mine is malfunctioning, and that appears to be causing many of the problems. No one within the mine has been able to approach it, and the government never cared enough to bother fixing the problem. So we're doing them a favor by giving them access to fresh etherium ore, and making the mine safer for workers.
"Where did we come in at?" Josh asked.
"Up here," he pointed to the very top of the map. "After we take the elevator down to level two, we're going to encounter a lot of areas that aren't completely mined. Also, we're far enough underground that the Tidehollow intersects the mine. We really need to be careful down there, as there are things that eat humans alive."
The elevator to the second level was down a long, straight hallway. Once all four of them were on the platform, Aravan activated the controls for it, and they descended.
"There it is," he pointed out a window at the bottom of the shaft. The water was thoroughly polluted with Esper's wastes. It was a wonder anything could live in such an environment. "I hope we don't run into anything like that."
On the other side of the east door was another long hallway. Eron noticed a box painted with a red skull-and-crossbones symbol. He shot it with an arrow, and it promptly exploded, creating a chain of blasts. Three filigree birds fell from their perches near the ceiling, as well as random debris. "Good eye, Eron!" Josh complimented his friend. "Saved us a lot of trouble!"
"We're not out of the woods yet," Aravan cautioned. "We still have a long way before we hit another Save Station." Eron and Josh looked at the smoldering bird corpses as they followed the rest of the party to the next door. They couldn't believe the size of those fallen creatures--definitely larger than any they'd seen back in Bant.
On the other side of the door, they found another large chamber filled with terminals. Still not breaking the pattern, they were immediately greeted with weapons fire from a pair of turrets. Additionally, they had to deal with a pair of striges as well as a flying fiend that looked like it came straight out of a stained-glass window. Ace jumped straight into a strix's rending talons in an effort to dodge blasts of electricity, and Josh cried in pain while providing cover for Shalin and Eron to cast spells.
The Bantian collapsed after Shalin destroyed one of the turrets with numerous lightning bolts, and blasts of light from Eron ate the deadly birds' skin. Ace plunged his blade into the mouth of the flying fiend coming at him, then collapsed. He rushed over to help Shalin disable the other turret, but could not prevent one last blast of electricity hitting the Nayan. Ace caught her in his arms as she, too, collapsed from exhaustion with one last agonizing scream.
"Damn it," Aravan muttered. "Can anyone still alive rez people?"
"I'm on it already," he replied, appearing to pray next to Shalin. After a period of groaning, she slowly stood up, her body still covered with red marks from the fire she sustained. The ranger repeated the process with Josh.
"How tapped is everyone for mana?" Aravan asked the group.
"Full," Josh replied. Everyone else said they were running low.
"Then we should let Josh take care of healing for now. We need to save the rest of your mana for emergencies."
"What about you, Aravan? You should possess some white magic--can't you heal?"
"Nope, white magic around here is used mainly to buff, not heal. There are clerics here, but I took zero levels in cleric. I'm trying to conserve my spells for when we really need them." He sighed. "Really...there's no damn Save Station around here..."
The group pressed on, through the south exit. This chamber was another winding one, and there was very little artificial flooring--a sign that this section could still be mined for etherium ore. Nothing else interesting in the room, they pressed on through two similar hallways before reaching another open room. Thankfully, they weren't greeted with weapons fire this time. They took another spiraling flight of stairs to the top, the next room an overpass.
A glimpse of a blue glow caught Ace's eyes. All of them peered out the energy-proofed glass windows, and Aravan was the only one with a concerned look on his face. "What's up, Aravan?" Ace asked.
"I'm detecting intense radiation on the outside of this sealed passage. The Tidehollow does go through that room, but there hasn't been word about radioactivity..."
"What?" Eron and Josh asked. "What are you talking about?"
"In laboratory testing, when exposed to certain wavelengths of light outside the visible spectrum, etherium-based compounds, as well as the flesh of most organisms, starts mutating in an unhealthy way. It breaks etherium down with continued exposure, and can cause serious medical problems to nearly all life forms. The radiation I'm detecting is in such a wavelength, and is hazardous. Luckily, we don't have to go through that room in order to get to the dynamo."
The next few hallways were more of the same--gargoyles, striges, and even the occasional etherium-infused zombie tried to impede their progress. After Aravan unlocked the electronic door at the end of the third room, they could see the dynamo, but no security bot. The dynamo was in the center of the room, about fifteen feet below where they stood. Aravan started climbing down the ladder leading to the level the dynamo was on, then Shalin followed. After that was Eron, then Josh. When Ace grabbed the top rung of the ladder, something started shooting at Eron, causing him to lose his balance upon being hit. Shalin unintentionally broke the archer's fall, both of them sprawled on the ground.
Another shot directed at Ace caused him to lose his balance as well, making him fall right on top of Josh. "The damn thing's invisible!" Aravan snapped, the shots the same variety as the ones the human sentries fired a few rooms back. Their only indication to its position was the hum of a small motor and the direction its shots came from.
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.
"Besides that, it can't be too much different, right?" Shalin asked, then joined Ace in casting Branching Bolt. To their surprise, the lightning bolts went straight off their hands instead of seeking out their targets.
"Its cloaking device makes it impossible for magic to seek out its target," Aravan groaned. "You'll have to aim your spells manually." Another pair of shots nailed the Esperite wizard. "Guys, cover for me!" Shalin joined Aravan in the back row, while the rest of the party stood in front of them, taking as many shots as possible. The floating robot's rate of fire wasn't fast compared to the energy guns that the gargoyles and sentries used, but it was still faster than any repeating crossbow out there. "Become buried in an arctic prison! Icefall!" Aravan cried, raising his hands into the air. A large mass of ice fell on top of the invisible machine, falling just enough off center for it to avoid being crushed. More importantly, one of the smaller icicles became lodged between two of its plates.
"I'd never have thought of that, Aravan," Eron said.
"Now its cloaking device has been rendered moot. Guys, when you cast," he ducked out of the way of another array of weapon fire, "focus on that piece of ice, and use area-of-effect spells. It should catch the actual target. And don't use fire spells or we'll lose our way of tracking it." A pair of lasers pierced the defenses of both rows of intruders.
Josh flinched when his sword bounced off his enemy's protective plating. "What?!" he shouted, his armor doing little to protect him from the next volley of shots.
"Your weapons won't work. The only thing you could do with a sword is sever cables, and they're all placed underneath the armor. Magic is the only way."
"Return this artifice to dust!" Shalin cried in her spellcasting. "Naturalize!" Careful to aim just below the icicle, sundering vines surrounded the foe, restraining its movement with the added force as well as breaking down its plates. The party found its shots to be much less accurate with its movement encumbered. Josh added to her spell with a Naturalize of his own, the vines wrapped around more of its frame. Shalin's spell eventually severed an electrical cable, causing it to go berserk for a few seconds before exploding, sending shrapnel flying everywhere. Stray scrap metal made sizable cuts on Ace's arms, but nothing had to be pulled out of anyone.
"Phew," Aravan sighed. "I thought we were gonna die there. Couldn't have done it without you, Shalin!"
"We have time for compliments later," she replied. "Josh is in bad shape!" Eron kneeled down next to him and began chanting words of healing. Aravan looked around the room and found three doors on the lower level: one in every compass direction besides the one they came from.
"You'll be okay, Josh," Eron comforted him.
"I know," he moaned back. "That still doesn't change that fact that it hurts.
"Hey everyone, good news," Aravan smiled. "The north exit appears to be a shortcut back, and the south door leads to a Save Station. We can rest there."
"What a relief," Eron replied.
"What about the other door?" Shalin asked.
"It leads to that room where I was detecting that radiation. There's no sense in going down there; we'll just report that back. There isn't much that can survive down there anyway. I guess that part of the mine is lost. Anyway, let's rest up before we make the trek back."
Aravan led the way back to the Police HQ building in Vectis, and with the help of the four foreigners, they compiled a long-overdue report on the Etherium Mines. The following is an excerpt from that report:
The structure of the mines had not changed much, but its ecology changed drastically. Creatures ordinarily seen in the Tidehollow swarmed in places where there was still unmined ore, and they were extremely aggressive. They were mainly striges, but we ran into the wayward sculler and occasional aether-lich from time to time. What was really surprising were humanoid monsters with extremely decrepit flesh. They were easy to fight, but that was when I made a fascinating yet disturbing discovery. When one grabbed me from behind, I noticed a decaying aura around it that caused my filigree parts to begin a slow defragmentation, accelerated when the parts were in direct contact with the strange flesh.
My colleagues from foreign lands called them "zombies", and there was no documentation of such a creature living within all of Esper. Most of the mindlock orbs had been deactivated, which allowed their black magic to manifest. They seem to be vulnerable to white magic, which our wizards cannot cast offensively. Near the bottom of level two, we found a cloaked security bot that had gone haywire. Reluctantly, we dispatched it. That's when we discovered a large source of radioactivity in the quarantine chamber on the way to level three. This radiation breaks down crafted etherium compounds at a frightening rate, and has adverse effects on flesh as well. Therefore, we halted our research there, and made it back to file this document. Once we discover how to avert the radiation or render it harmless with enchantments, we will go deeper into the mines.
After a long discussion with the chief of police, he suggested that the party meet with Sharuum, Esper's sphinx hegemon. He wrote up a writ of audience with the wise figure, which was necessary to get into the tower where she rested. The location of the tower was just outside the city limits of Vectis, on an island between the human metropolis and the vedalken city of Palandius.
"You may enter," a relatively low female voice echoed from beyond the electronic door around a minute after Aravan slipped the writ of audience underneath. The door's four panels slowly receded into the wall, revealing the most beautiful chamber in all of Esper. A retractable, nigh indestructible, reinforced glass dome overlooked the Vectis cityscape on the east, and the Palandius cityscape on the west. It looked particularly beautiful during Esper's sunrise. What was most striking of all was the appearence of the sphinx. Lavendar-toned skin was visible on her face, tail and partially on her chest; the rest of her body was covered in special etherium that looked black and beared many runes. Her face was surrounded by red and purple gemstones, one embedded directly into her forehead.
Aravan bowed to the wise one, and the rest of the party followed suit. "O Great and Wise Hegemon," the arcanist greeted her, "surely you understand what has been going on outside Esper?"
"I am displeased with the actions of the Senate of Vectis, the Senate of Palandius, and to a lesser extent, the smaller senates all over Esper," she replied. Even laying down on her four legs, she was fourteen feet tall--a few feet away from being the height of one of Naya's greater Gargantuans. Her wings resembled those of a pegasus, only larger and placed farther up than most winged creatures. "The Noble Work of Crucius is important, but the ruling bodies of Esper are blind to her other problems."
"That is exactly what I have been trying to tell the Senate of Vectis for years!" he exclaimed. "When I met these four, I thought it would be an opportunity to get my message through to them. Despite these four being the first foreigners within Esper's bounds since the Sundering, they didn't believe me. That is why I resigned from the senate, so that I would be free from the shackles of duty!"
"A bit rash, but I understand why."
"I wanted to do my own research, both on the foreigners and the abnormalities throughout Esper. The start of my research took me to the Etherium Mines. I filed a report to the police department a couple of days ago, and I'm sure you know the details of it by now."
"Yes, the intelligent beings of the Tidehollow have conspired to overthrow the magocracy, we sphinxes included. That is the purpose of the mindlock orbs. Vedalken copied their designs from us, and humans copied their designs from them."
"We ran into one working mindlock orb as far down as we got, which really concerns me."
"You said that in your report, but I appreciate you reiterating it. Because of how heavily Esper society relies on magic, no creature natural to the plane--now world," she corrected herself, "should be able to turn those off without a great deal of effort and assistance. There are at least two dozen chambers with mindlock orbs in them down there, and you only encountered one active one. The only way this is possible is if outsiders not overly reliant on magic have come in from outside Esper. And they would have to be rather tough creatures to brave the cesspools and otherwise dangerous, unhealthy areas."
"That fits the criteria of the undead army from Grixis," Eron pointed out.
"Which is something I have been thinking about ever since the Mending. The vast majority of the population is aware that the shards of Alara have come back together, but the people in power feel that the Noble Work is priority number one. It is important, but very few Esperites have any actual combat experience. If those undead armies reach our borders, we're going to have a war on our hands. It's the first war we've had since the Sundering, and one our people are not prepared for. Sedris' undead army is well equipped to deal with the kind of magic our people use."
"And he's well equipped in dealing with us, too," Josh chimed in. "We fought him a little over a month ago, and we had to flee Grixis just to stay alive."
"Well, weren't you just a bunch of level 20s back then?" Aravan asked. "You're stronger than you were then."
"But still not strong enough to face him," Sharuum continued. "Sedris' power is frightening. If you were able to get away from him, he was holding back. He is the enemy's general, and even our best sorcerers won't be able to hold him back forever. This is why I have vouched to abandon the Noble Work and prepare for an invasion. The evidence lies before the people in power, but they do not listen to reason."
"Well, resigning is the strongest signal I can send to help. I'm out of options for influencing the senate."
"As am I. With how bent the magocracy is on the Noble Work above everything else, it is only a matter of time before Sedris storms Esper, and everything the Ethersworn have worked so hard to accomplish will be destroyed. And it is all because 'everything else' included their own safety. The rest of the world is already suffering from adverse effects due to Sedris' influence..."
At that, everyone stopped talking. It took Josh almost forty seconds to break the silence. "What...?"
"Look into that telescope." Josh gasped in horror at what he saw out the looking device pointed eastward. On the other side of the Glass Dunes were thunderclouds that looked very similar to the ones he had seen during his adventures in the sickly world.
"Has Jhess been transformed, just like Vithia?! That means Valeron is next!"
"The transformation has only begun. Lightning is something rarely seen outside Grixis anymore, but it is only the first step. It will take Sedris a long time to drain a significant amount of life energy from Bant. Having looked to the west, I believe Naya and Jund are undergoing similar transformations."
"How could someone have no respect for life like that?" Shalin sighed. Ace refused to comment, but couldn't stop thinking about the fate of his homeland.
"It is because Sedris has not known true life since he sold his people out. He seeks the life energy of the world to recreate a Vithia with enough power to expand into an empire that encompasses all of Alara, and he is not afraid to kill anyone who stands in his way." Sharuum made a lengthy pause to assess the world's situation. "Also, I am concerned about the other guardians of Alara."
"Guardians?" Shalin asked. "What?"
"Six people were charged with the duty of maintaining the balance of Alara's mana should the Mending take place. In case they died for any reason, the duty was handed down through bloodline. I am one of those six people."
"Do you know who the other five are?"
"Only by name, but yes. Asha and Malfegor are two of them, and they are still alive. Sedris is another. The other two you probably haven't ever heard of. The name of the fifth one is Mayael."
"Mayael?!" Shalin exclaimed. "I know that name! She is the Anima of Naya, the one that negotiates with the hydra-god Progenitus! Everything makes so much sense now! Syeena's death, the unanswered infestation of the Sacellum, everything! When we return to Naya, we've got to find her and ask her what's been going on!"
"The other one is named Kresh."
"Kresh?!" Ace shouted. "He is the oldest, strongest man in Jund, wearing twenty-two braids! No wonder he was trusted with such a task!"
"If you want to know more about the situation the world is in, I suggest you go after these individuals. Sedris and Malfegor obviously won't hand you any information without a fight. I strongly suggest you speak to Asha first; after all, she is the only Sundering witness we can trust. She has returned to the Cathedral of Bliss high above Bant. So much time has passed since the Mending, and Sedris' army advances westward with every passing hour. I wonder what kind of condition Bant is in at this time..."
"Crossing the desert wasn't easy," Eron said to Sharuum. "How are we going to get back?"
"Passing through the Glass Dunes would be unwise, as the Eternal Storm will be overhead for the next week at least. As such, I'm going to make arrangements for a team of gargoyles. They'll let you ride as close to the border of Bant as possible."
"Why can't they take us into Bant?"
"In order to get into Bant from the west, you need to pass through Naya. Across the Tainted Bay is northeast Naya. If they saw us, their mages would disintegrate our etherium-laced gargoyles and knock you out of the sky. When it becomes too dangerous, you'll have to land and take it on foot the rest of the way."
"Understood," all of them replied.
"Good. Spend the night here; you'll leave for Bant tomorrow morning."
Private Mod Note
Rollback Post to RevisionRollBack
A mere ten days after the Mending, a young knight of Valeron and a young ranger of Eos made a discovery that would change Alara forever.