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Advent: Triumph of Heroes (Book One)

Advent: Triumph of Heroes (Book One)

By Samuel Knight

Distributed at Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Samuel Knight

Shakespir Distribution License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1 – Game Night

Chapter 2 – The Second Coming

Chapter 3 – Exploration

Chapter 4 – Ash Clouds

Chapter 5 – Visions Foretold

Chapter 6 – Travel

Chapter 7 – Digging Through Time

Chapter 8 – Summer Sands

Chapter 9 – Sunshine

Interlude 1 – Cynard

Chapter 10 – Treasure Clouds

Chapter 11 – Meetings Foretold

Chapter 12 – Trade

Chapter 13 – Peering Through Time

Chapter 14 – Summer Breeze

Chapter 15 – Overcast

Interlude 2 – Charlie

Chapter 16 – Historic Clouds

Chapter 17 – Separation Foretold

Chapter 18 – Transformation

Chapter 19 – Walking Through Time

Chapter 20 – Summer Storms

Chapter 21 – Rain

Interlude 3 – Tyram

A Message to the Reader

About the Author

Connections

[] Introduction

Chaldir, god of Ruin and Flame, wipes black blood and dirt from his brow.

Twisted bodies fill the ashy battlefield around him. Dead Yendrian soldiers lay flat on their backs, melted armor slicing through their skin. Yendrian mounts kick pitifully, begging for relief from their pain. Dark smoke coils through the air under an angry red sun and the smell of decay and molten metal digs through Chaldir’s nose. Using his great claymore as a support, the god sits himself down on a pile of stripped armor and sighs. He surveys the smoky battlefield with old, tired eyes.

Kalax, god of Life and Forests, plops down next to Chaldir. In one burly hand is a double-blade ax, and in the other is a fresh orange. “What a fight!” He takes a bite from his fruit, chomping happily as juice drips into his beard.

“A fight indeed,” Chaldir replies, “but not one I’m happy with winning.”

“Hey, they threw hands first.” Kalax wipes juice from his bushy black beard. “Not our fault they wanted to pick a fight with a couple of gods.”

Chaldir inclines his head slightly, conceding the point. “How’s everyone doing so far?”

“You know how Paral gets after a battle,” Kalax says. “Hibem won’t stop gloating over the dead, though. I don’t get how Paral lives with that maniac. Magnus is saying prayers, Deion is meditating, Cebral is off in his own little world… You know our troop, Chaldir. They’re acting like nothing’s happened.” The god generates a second orange and bites into it.

“This was supposed to be a peaceful planet, you know.” The god of Ruin and Flame lays his claymore across his legs. “Had I known our arrival would cause a world panic, I would have gone somewhere else. And had I known that we would be hunted as trophies, I definitely would have gone somewhere else.”

“Hey,” Kalax says, placing a meaty hand on Chaldir’s shoulder, “can’t change the past. Think of it as a casualty of adventuring. People are gonna get hurt somewhere along the line.”

Chaldir shrugs off the hand. “I sought to have an adventure, not to hurt others. This world did not need to suffer.”

“Well, like I said, you can’t change the past.” Kalax stands, hoisting his double-blade ax over his shoulder. “You either hold your head high and hit a few branches or you keep your head down and miss the majesty of the forest. There’s no in-between.” A nearby wet crunch forces a flinch from Kalax, who turns to see Magnus, god of Silence and Souls, step forward.

“Some of them are not dead yet,” Magnus explains, a Yendrian soldier in his grasp. “If we want to end this worldwide hunt, there should be no survivors.”

Kalax frowns. “I thought you were meditating.”

“Violence for a cause is one thing,” Chaldir says, rising, “but I won’t stand for excess bloodshed. Put him down.”

“Why? So you can try to convince yourself that what we did here wasn’t all that bad?” Magnus grips the soldier’s head with one hand and its neck with the other. The Yendrian’s four eyes flick about nervously, its yellow skin flecked with thick black blood. “You’re a god like the rest of us, Chaldir. Their mortal lives are meaningless, and in the end their souls belong to me. Why does it matter when they die?”

“It matters because they have the chance to live.” Chaldir takes his claymore in his right hand and points the tip at Magnus. “I’ll say this one last time: put him down.”

“As you wish.” Magnus takes his hand away from the Yendrian’s neck.

WHAM!

Magnus slams the soldier into the ground, breaking its neck and crushing its skull. Chaldir lunges at Magnus and tackles him to the ground. Purple spirals and red lines of magic clash violently, ripping up the ground. Fire races across the landscape, bodies twitching from contact with purple magic.

“Enough!” a voice suddenly thunders. “That’s enough!”

Hibem, god of Lightning and War, shoves past Kalax. He seizes Magnus by the back of his black robes and drags him off of Chaldir. As Chaldir stands, Hibem kicks him in the ribs, sending the god sprawling back into the dirt.

“Look at yourselves!” Hibem shouts. “You should be ashamed! You are gods, the highest of all creatures, yet you sit here and fight like two mortals over a piece of gold!” He spits angrily. “Pathetic! Have you no dignity?”

“Dignity is for mortals,” says Magnus, laying in the dirt.

“Is your greed for souls so great that you’d stoop to senseless violence?” Hibem then looks at Chaldir. “And you, Chaldir… You are our leader. You know that I’ll follow you to the end of the universe. But squabbling like a child with your oldest friend is not how a leader should act. It’s disgraceful.”

Magnus picks himself up, dusting off his black robes. “You’re one to talk about greed, Hibem. I saw the hunger in your eyes as you battled these creatures. You’ve got some nerve, lecturing me about greed and senseless violence.”

“My greed is justified,” Hibem says. “These creatures were after our heads. They’re beaten now; they don’t deserve execution. They’ve learned their lesson.”

Magnus snorts. “First time I’ve heard greed get justified.”

“Regardless,” Chaldir says, standing, “we shouldn’t dwell here any longer. This world will soon discover what we’re capable of and I want to avoid more conflict. We should move on to the next world and leave this one behind.”

“Here here!” Kalax beams. Hibem, Magnus, and Chaldir all turn to the god of Life and Forests with stern looks on their lips. Kalax grins brightly. “Let’s put the past where it should be—in the past. Once we round up the gang and leave this dreary place, I’ll bet the next thing we’ll see is a new planet with tons of adventures to be had.” He puts his fist out in front of him. “Come on, who’s with me? Let’s do the old group cheer!”

Magnus shakes his head and departs. Hibem turns around and leaves without another word. Shrugging, Kalax turns to Chaldir expectantly.

“Don’t be so happy,” the older god sighs, lifting his claymore from the dirt. “Nothing about this place should give you any reason to smile.”

“I’m here with my nine best friends in the universe,” Kalax says. “Why shouldn’t I be happy?”

“You just don’t get it.” Kalax watches Chaldir walk into the smoke and ruin of the battlefield. Before long, the god of Ruin and Flame is out of sight, leaving Kalax alone with the bodies of the dead.

“I get it just fine.” Kalax rescinds his hand. “You’re the one who doesn’t get it.” Then, picking up his double-blade ax, the god prepares to run off and collect the remainder of his friends.

He pauses, however, as a body nearby stirs. Kalax kneels and pulls it out from underneath the pile. It’s a Yendrian soldier who managed to survive Hibem’s Thunderous Apocalypse Bomber. The Yendrian squirms anxiously as it looks into Kalax’s luminescent green eyes.

Kalax places a hand on the Yendrian’s chest. “Don’t worry, friend. This won’t hurt for long.” The god lifts his axe and cleaves the soldier’s head from its shoulders. Gently, Kalax plants his fingers in the pool of dark blood, digging them into the dirt. Sprouts from upstart plants curl into being, energized and glowing from the god’s presence.

With a sigh of regret, Kalax runs off to join the others.

Chapter One

[]Game Night

Camellia Agnelli looks up as Drew King, her best friend, pulls into the driveway. She glances at the nearby clock—he’s late as usual. Taking her umbrella and slinging her backpack over her shoulders, Camellia steps into the rain. The passenger door opens and she slides into the seat. A young man with faded red hair and hazel eyes sits behind the wheel.

“Hey,” Drew says with a grin. “How’ve you been?”

“Good, actually,” says Camellia. “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get out of the house. And hey, sorry about earlier today. You know how mom gets when I want to have anyone over if she’s not home.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Drew says. “I’m struggling with the parent thing too. Are you playing as a paladin tonight?”

“I’m always a paladin. Holy knights are the best.”

“I think you only play them because you can’t play a bard correctly,” Drew says. “I’ll have you know it takes skill to seduce murderous dragons with a banjo and a panflute.”

“I’m sure it does.” Camellia looks around. “So are we going to get moving any time tonight?”

“I could go for a nice stroll around the park,” Drew says, looking out into the pouring rain. “You want to go for a walk, cut the shop entirely? Bennie can tell us about the game another time.”

“No way. We’ve been waiting to play this game for months and you know I hate the rain.”

“Can’t say I didn’t try.” Drew grins. “Alright then, let’s go! We’ve got a world to save!”

He drops the car into reverse and pulls out of the driveway. Revving the engine, Drew takes off down the road at a blistering pace of almost 15 miles an hour.

After humoring him for a few long seconds, Camellia’s patience finally wears thin. “Think you can speed it up a little? We’ve got places to be.”

Drew laughs. “Earlier today you didn’t even want to go, and now you can’t wait to get out of the neighborhood.” He shakes his head. “I can’t wrap my head around you.”

“Well I’m here now, so let’s not waste any more time. Stanley and Bennie are waiting on us.”

“You’re the most impatient, unpredictable person I’ve ever met. You should be wearing a mood ring with how often you flip-flop.”

Camellia shrugs. “My mood depends on the weather.”

“Oh,” Drew says, “you’re playing the whole ‘I’m mysterious because the weather affects my feelings’ card.”

“It really does. When it rains I get all pent-up. I’m happier when it’s bright and sunny.”

“Well if you ever get too pent-up, give me a phone call.” Drew winks. “I’ll come and iron out some of that stress for you.”

Camellia rolls her eyes, then all but jumps through the window. “That’s the shop right there! You’re going to miss it!”

Drew slowly moves into the proper lane. He lazily makes the turn as the oncoming traffic whizzes by. Several angry drivers blow their horns, screaming profanities as they pass.

“You almost missed it again!”

“I guess I was too busy dreaming about your beautiful face.”

Camellia crosses her arms and looks away. “Go soak your head.”

Drew maneuvers the car into a parking spot and shuts the engine down. Camellia grabs her backpack and heads towards the shop. A rose-colored mat and windows showcasing vintage merchandise welcome customers inside. As the pair walks into the main lobby, Drew screeches to a halt.

“Luke’s here,” he whispers.

“Luke Derringer?” Camellia looks around the shop. “Where?”

“Seriously?” Drew hisses. “He’s kind of hard to miss because one, he’s the only other person in the store and two, because he’s laughing to himself as he’s staring at the wall.”

Across the store, Luke Derringer blinks and tries to focus on the blank drywall in front of him. He looks to be deep in thought.

“I don’t think it’s good that he’s here,” Drew says. “Especially tonight.”

Camellia shoots him a glance. “What, a man can’t reserve the right to get away from it all? In light of what happened to him today, I say he has every right to be here.”

Luke chuckles to himself. “Check out this pattern on the wall,” he says to no one in particular. “It’s so… mystical.”

“Look, just keep quiet,” says Drew. “We can probably sneak around him without setting him off. I hope he’s not here for the event tonight.”

“Bless his heart if he is. He should be home resting.”

As Drew and Camellia attempt to sneak past Luke, he turns and spots them. Both of them freeze, caught in the act. He waves to them and approaches.

“I thought I heard some thumping going on around here,” Luke says, stopping in front of Drew and Camellia.

“You could hear us?”

“We were tiptoeing,” Drew says. “How could you hear us walking?”

“Walking? You guys were clomping like a pair of elephants. Hard to ignore it, really.” Luke grins widely. “Are you two here for the event tonight?”

Drew shoots Camellia a pained glance. “We both are, yeah.” He scratches the back of his neck. “I take it you aren’t here to enjoy comic books and card games all night?”

“Nah dude, nah. I’m here to uh… Uh…” Suddenly comatose, Luke stares off into space. Drew and Camellia exchange worried looks. They don’t realize that Luke has spotted an artist’s rendition of a wormhole hanging on the wall behind them. In his altered state, he believes it to be authentic.

“Guys,” he says. “When did that wormhole get there?”

Drew turns around and spots the picture on the wall. He sighs in relief.

“It’s just one of those Hubble pictures, Luke. It’s not real.”

“You sure? I want to be sure.” Luke pats down his pockets. “Who’s got a camera? We need to capture this moment. It could be big news for NASA. We could make money off this.”

“You take care of it. We’ll see you in the back.” Drew hurriedly ushers Camellia towards the back of the store. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll forget why he came here.”

“You’re just awful,” Camellia says. “And stop breathing down my neck. It’s really annoying.”

“Hey!” a new voice chirps. “It’s about time you guys got here!”

The voice comes from a girl with short, dark red hair and dark brown eyes. She smiles widely, hands on her hips.

“You are both late.”

The second, more articulate voice comes from a tall boy with bright blue eyes and black hair. He is standing and cleaning his spectacles, not looking at anything in particular.

“Stanley!” Drew exclaims. “Bennie! Glad you two could make it!”

“Glad to be here,” Bennie Balachie says, “considering this was my idea in the first place.”

Stanley Lockwood places his spectacles on his nose. “I have had tonight marked on my calendar for weeks. I would not miss this for the world.”

“I didn’t really know what to bring, so…” Camellia takes off her backpack and places it on the table. “I covered all bases.”

She produces a few notepads and some pencils. Drew reaches into the bag and pulls out a plastic box of dice. The dice are blue and are marbled with lighter shades of blue.

Drew pats his friend on the back. “You’re the best, you know that?”

Camellia shrugs. “I try.”

“Do I hear a party happening back here?”

A middle-aged man with a short beard enters from the front room. He’s holding a big cardboard box with a label plastered on the broad side in a foreign language.

“Hey there, Mr. John,” says Bennie.

“What’s up, everyone?”

“Just waiting on you,” Drew replies. “You’re the guy with the rules and equipment.” He throws a look around the corner. “Is Luke playing tonight?”

“Luke’s just sitting in,” Mr. John says. “You know he’s got nowhere to go right now, especially considering…” He gestures vaguely, no explanation necessary. “I heard about what happened at school today. It’s really unfortunate. But don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Thanks,” says Bennie. “It’s good to know we can count on you. Is Scott coming tonight?”

“He said he got called in to work again. Working for Steele Electric can’t be good for his health.” Mr. John sets the box on the table and brushes off his hands. “The packing instructions said four players minimum, so we’ve got enough people here to make the game run. I’ll probably close early so we can start the show.”

“And Luke?” Drew insists.

“What about Luke?”

“Yeah bro, what about me?”

Everyone turns as Luke casually walks into the back room, not seeming to notice anyone or anything. He pulls out a chair at the far head of the table and reclines in it, staring at nothing in particular.

“Just going to sit in and watch tonight?” Bennie asks.

“Yeah man, the more you watch the more you learn.” Luke spreads his arms. “Like, I knew this guy who only watched. All his life he watched and observed. But he got smart, man. Got into the information business, blackmailed all the people running for offices he didn’t want them to get. The dude’s super influential nowadays.”

“Oh?” Mr. John says, curious. “What’s his name?”

“I can’t remember. I think he brainwashed it out of me.”

“Sounds like a routine day in the government to me,” Drew mutters. Camellia stifles a laugh.

“We should get started soon.” Mr. John gestures to Luke. “Sure you don’t want to play, Luke?”

“Nah I’m fine,” Luke replies. “I’ll watch and learn and come back next week playing like a champ.”

Mr. John nods and produces a box cutter from his pocket. “Remember guys, what goes on in the room doesn’t leave the room. Outside, you never know if your rival players are listening or not. You always want to have that unknown advantage!”

“Oh so serious, Mr. John!” Bennie teases.

“You know how I get into these games.”

Mr. John cuts open the box. He produces a large black board and places it on the table; Bennie unfolds it. The board is very large, reaching from one side of the table to the other. The title of the game is plastered across the top in bold, elegant white letters, though it’s in a strange language that Bennie has never seen before. Lush trees, sunlit prairies, a dark cemetery, misty mountains, wild seas, and collapsed cities and rubble decorate six different areas of the board. A bird’s-eye view of a very large city occupies the center part of the board. Smaller hexagons cover the board in its entirety.

Mr. John produces a plastic bag from the box and sets it on the table. Stanley opens the bag and pulls out three small boxes of cards. One box is white, one box is black, and one box is grey.

“Alright, now everyone sit tight and be patient. There’s a second box somewhere, but I don’t really remember where I put it.” Mr. John smiles awkwardly. “That box is pretty important too, considering it has the game rules in it.” He leaves the room, muttering something about boxes under his breath. Luke continues to stare into empty space, meditating on the meaning of the universe.

“Everyone ready?” Drew asks, eagerness in his eyes. “Excited?”

“Kind of nervous,” Bennie admits.

Camellia looks at the board. “What’s the point of the game?”

“It is new,” Stanley says, his voice crisp and scholarly. “Surely your question is rhetorical, as no one in this room could possibly know the answer to that.”

“I think he just called your question stupid,” Luke chuckles. Camellia resists the urge to throw something at him, like a handful of dice or a metal folding chair.

“Based upon the layout of the board and the hexagon spaces,” Stanley continues, leaning over the board, “one can probably assume that this is a turn-based combat strategy game with roleplaying roots.”

“I see why this game would never work without a minimum of four people,” Camellia says, tracing the board with a finger. “You’ve got a lot of space to move.”

Bennie opens the white box and pulls out a card. It has black lettering on one side of the otherwise white card. “Twelve,” she reads. “If you are on Cebral’s Ocean, a duel with an opposing Hero ends in a win for you.”

Drew opens the black box and pulls out a card. It has white lettering on one side of the otherwise black card. “Six,” Drew reads. “Use this only in a duel. Your opponent is ejected from the duel. Place them anywhere in Kalax’s Woods. They lose one health.”

Camellia opens the grey box and draws a card from it. It has gold lettering on one side of the otherwise grey card. She laughs, amused. “Three. Gain one health. Eradicate all attacking opponents within one spot of you. Heroes cannot be eradicated. Place four Supporter tokens on different spots within one spot of you. You skip your next turn.”

“Brooooken,” Luke calls from his chair.

“It’s odd though,” Camellia notes, looking at the card in her hand. “‘Heroes can’t be eradicated’ is in parentheses.”

“It’s probably a game-wide ruling,” Bennie says. “That would mean that there’re other cards with the text Eradicate.”

Mr. John returns to the room, a second box in hand. “Alright, I’m back. Sorry for the wait.”

Mr. John cuts open the second box and pulls out a purple cloth bag, a blue cloth bag, and a red cloth bag. Camellia takes the red bag, Drew takes the purple bag, and Bennie takes the blue bag. Mr. John puts a fourth stack of cards with question marks on them in a corner of the board.

Camellia opens the red bag, which contains twelve twenty-sided dice and many smaller dice. The smaller dice are red and are marbled with lighter shades of red. “These must be for turns and life counters,” she says, holding up the dice. “I guess we won’t be using my blue dice tonight.”

Drew opens the purple bag, which contains what looks to be playing pieces too numerous to detail. They are all painted silver. “I’ve got what we’ll be using as our character pieces,” Drew says.

“I wanted to use my favorite pawn,” Stanley sighs, disappointed.

Bennie opens the blue bag. It contains small plastic creatures of various sizes and descriptions. They’re cute, but Bennie has no clue what they could be used for.

“Oh finally, the rulebook.” Mr. John pulls out a massive tome and sets it on the table with a mighty thump. “I was expecting it to be lighter. You all have the playing pieces, I have the rules. Are we missing anything else?”

“Anyone got a pen or something?” Luke asks. “I need to take some notes.” He pauses and then reaches into his pocket, producing a pen. He looks at it in shock for a moment. “The aliens gave me a pen, guys.”

“Right.” Mr. John claps his hands together. “Everyone grab a seat and we can get started.”

Mr. John sits at the other head of the table across from Luke. Camellia sits to Mr. John’s left and Drew sits next to her. Across from Drew sits Bennie, and to Bennie’s left sits Stanley. The board is between the five active players. Mr. John opens the massive rulebook.

“Alright, let’s get this thing rolling. To start, it says here that everyone is a Hero.” He then frowns, confused. “That’s odd. I can’t make these words out.” He rubs the page with his thumb. “This is really weird. The book’s in a different language. I can’t read it.”

“What? We got ripped off?” Drew folds his arms. “This is unbelievable.”

“Now hold on. It could be just one section of the rule book.” Mr. John flips through the rest of the book with an optimistic grin, but it soon fades when he uncovers more unreadable characters. “This is just strange! What happened here?”

“Let me see that first page again,” Bennie says as she walks over to Mr. John’s side. “I’m the language nerd of the group, remember?”

She takes a closer look at the rule book, inspecting the characters closely. She traces the words, trying to find similarities between the alien alphabet and the ones she knows. Eventually the rest of the group, except for Luke Derringer, crowds around Mr. John to get a good look at the foreign script.

Without warning, the four players and Mr. John disappear from sight, blinked from reality. The book slams shut, drops onto the table, then lands on the floor with a hollow thump. Luke, neither astonished nor entirely relaxed, squints in suspicion at the other side of the table. The sudden lack of a human presence is innately unnerving.

“Hey, are you guys still hanging around?”

Silence.

“I’ve got a pretty bad feeling about this,” Luke says. “Someone like, slap me or something. This is a great trick and all but it’s getting a little scary now.” Only silence meets him again. After more long moments left in the quiet, Luke cracks a wide, crooked grin.

“Man, the game took those guys!” He grows deadly serious. “I’ve got to get in there. They’re going to need my help! No one knows these games like I do!” He fishes for what he thinks is his cell phone. “I can’t go in half-cocked, though. I’m going to need help.”

He pulls out his wallet and starts to dial someone’s number on what he thinks is the number pad. It’s strange, however, as Luke doesn’t remember owning a flip phone. He waits as the phone dials, but it eventually goes to voicemail.

“Hey Scott, this is Luke. I guess you’re busy right now because you didn’t pick up. Give me a call back soon. Some of my friends just got sucked into a board game and I need your help to get them out. Hit me up, you’ve got my number. Ciao.”

Luke hangs up his wallet. He then looks out at nothing in particular and daydreams.

Oh man, where am I? Drew wonders. God, my head burns… What smells like fish? Am I outside? Drew tries to open his eyes; he winces in pain. What’s in my eyes, shards of glass? Sand? Rubbing his eyes reveals a gritty, rough substance. With a start, Drew realizes that it is, indeed, sand. He groans and forces will in his arms. Okay, up and at ‘em, Drew King. Come on, off the ground.

Drew attempts to push himself off the ground but only manages to flip on his back. He finds an endless starry sky hanging over him. It’s a surprisingly clear night, especially considering Mr. John’s shop is located in a fairly large city with a lot of street lamps.

It’s never this clear outside. Where am I? The wind gusts and kicks more sand into his face. And where the hell is all this sand coming from!

Drew tries to remember what happened as his efforts to sit up and look around fail. A mix of groans comes from around him as his friends come to their senses.

“Oh, my head…” groans Camellia from somewhere close by.

“I say…” Stanley slurs. “What a trip.”

“Where am I?” Bennie asks.

“Is everyone alright?” The last voice belongs to Mr. John.

“What happened?” asks Camellia.

“I don’t know.” Bennie holds her head in her hand as she attempts to look around. “Where are we?”

“Well,” Drew says, “if you want my input—and I know few people who do—take a look at the sky. You guys ever recall seeing such a clear night? I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Mr. John!” Bennie gasps. “You’re floating!”

Everyone looks at Mr. John, who is levitating a few inches off the ground. A pale red aura radiates from his body and his eyes are filled with the night sky, hundreds of stars twinkling like faraway lights. All four friends scramble to their feet.

Camellia whistles low and long, impressed. “You’re quite the sight. What happened?”

Mr. John smiles. “We’ve been chosen, Camellia.”

“By whom?” Bennie asks. “For what?”

“Looks like you four get the chance to be Heroes.”

The four friends exchange confused looks.

“Heroes?” Drew echoes.

A Hero… Camellia thinks. He couldn’t mean like a Hero from the game we were just playing, could he?

“I can hear your thoughts, you know,” Mr. John notes. “I can assure you, this isn’t a dream. This is very real.”

“Ha!” Drew steps forwards, skeptical and brash. “If this isn’t a dream, then tell me how I can do this!” Drew steps back and attempts to perform a backflip, throwing his head over his shoulders. He lands halfway on his neck with a pop and rolls to the side, groaning.

“We’re not in a dream,” Bennie says flatly, looking at Drew. “Mr. John’s telling the truth.”

“You four are very lucky,” Mr. John says. “This experience isn’t something offered to just anyone.”

“Oh my God.” Drew rises from the ground. “This really is real, isn’t it?”

“It sure is. Just as you were chosen to be Heroes, I was chosen to be an oracle.” Mr. John frowns. “Well, at least the oracle for you four. There are six others for the gods who rule each realm you’re standing in.”

The four friends look down in unison; the ground at their feet splits into six sections. Drew stands in sand. Camellia stands in ankle-high grass. Stanley stands on hard grey stone. Bennie stands on what looks to be trampled ash. There are two other types of natural ground: one is a black cobblestone road, and the other is a beaten dirt path flanked by long grass and bushes.

“Welcome to the world of Renea,” Mr. John says. “You are standing in the Nexus, the meeting point of Cebral’s Ocean, Apalon’s Plains, Deion’s Peaks, Chaldir’s Ruins, Magnus’s Cemetery, and Kalax’s Woods.” He looks at each of the four gathered near him, locking eyes with each one. “Do you understand why you’re here?”

“Not at all,” Camellia says. “I’d like to buy a vowel.”

Mr. John laughs. “I don’t blame you for being lost. This is a huge undertaking, not just because of the circumstances we’re in, but because you’re all so far away from your goals! There is so much to learn and discover in this world. Feeling lost is a natural part of the process.”

“Oh! I understand now!” Bennie turns to her friends and sweeps her arm around her. “We’re in the game we were just about to play, and we quite literally became the players. Just like the rules said, we each pick a realm to quest in and we have an adventure and level up.” Excitement bubbles in her stomach. “And as we level up, we’ll gain access to stronger abilities and powers.”

“Seriously?” Drew turns to Mr. John. “Will we really get to explore the whole world?”

“If by ‘world’ you mean ‘realm,’ then yes and no. This whole world is yours to explore after all, but you can only choose one realm to train in. It’s the rules.”

“Train?” Drew says. “Like learn magic?”

“Learn magic,” Mr. John confirms. “The magic in this realm comes from blessings received by a patron god. Your patron gods are waiting for you to find them and to prove yourself worthy of their majesty and their blessings. Trust me, you are all worthy.” Mr. John smiles mysteriously. “You just don’t know it yet.”

Camellia frowns. “You’re talking in riddles.”

“He is an oracle,” Stanley says. “As of today, it falls under his job description.”

“Right!” says Mr. John. “Time to get moving. I recommend you start by—”

“Whoa there,” Camellia says, stepping forward. “I still have no clue where I am. Can you at least tell us where we are before you send us into unknown territory?”

“You’re currently underneath Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. It’s the central hub which most travelers cross through in order to get to another area of Renea. It’s a very beautiful city; I highly recommend a field trip.”

Bennie looks around. “We’re underneath a city?”

Mr. John gestures to the Nexus. “The ground you stand on is at sea level, but the city is above us. You have to take the staircase to get into Monarch.”

All four friends look up into a starry sky. The sea of stars extends a short distance over all six areas they stand on, marking the edges of Monarch.

“If all realms are connected,” Stanley says, “why not just walk from realm to realm instead of passing through Monarch?”

“The boundaries are guarded by lethal barriers made from ancient magic,” Mr. John says. “I don’t know why, but they’ve been in place since time immemorial.” He holds up a finger, as if remembering something important. “That reminds me. While we’re here, you might as well look at the landscapes and see what you’re interested in. Standing in the Nexus gives you a special view of the whole world. Instead of seeing what’s typically on Monarch’s maps, you can see all of the different kinds of land with your own eyes. Just focus on the area beyond the edge of Monarch.”

Though still confused, each of the four friends turn around and look toward the landscapes of the Six Realms. They find their vision significantly enhanced, as if seeing through binoculars.

Kalax’s Woods starts with a beaten path that travels through a small field of wildflowers and bushes. Thin trees stand just beyond the edge of the bushes and make a picturesque arbor. In the distance, the imposing shadow of a massive forest rises towards the skyline. Twilight sunshine streams downwards from the sky, stopping at the edge of Chaldir’s Ruins.

Chaldir’s Ruins, to the left of Kalax’s Woods, has a red, cloudy sky. The ground is mostly trampled ash, but concrete pavement can be seen in some areas—evidence of a once thriving civilization. In the distance, large shadows of ruined buildings lean against one another and hidden flames flicker in-between collapsed buildings. The red skyline ceases at Cebral’s Ocean, to the left of the Ruins.

Cebral’s Ocean has a clear and pleasant sky. Sand dunes stretch in every direction and rise up almost immediately past the Gate. Large rock formations and pools of water grace the sand. A few wide and easy-going rivers snake through the dunes. Water splashes in the distance, evidence of an unseen ocean.

The hard grey stone of Deion’s Peaks borders the sand of Cebral’s Ocean. The rock starts out as small crags that gradually slope into larger and taller formations. It gently climbs upward towards toothed peaks and imposing mountains that disappear into a sea of mist. Far in the distance, one huge mountain with a pulsing red peak breaks through the fog.

Magnus’s Cemetery begins as a cobblestone path. The majority of the path is black, with purple and white stones placed intermittently. There is a sense of both reverence and decay in the realm. Dried grass and dead trees line the path; calls are heard from a flock of birds out of sight. There is a wall of total darkness rising from the far horizon, but it’s difficult to see clearly. The skyline is dark grey.

Apalon’s Plains are bright and sunny. The ankle-high grass has dandelions and is bright green. Hills roll as far as the eye can see and clouds bounce across the sky. The grass is trampled to a point where a makeshift path has been made. A stray wind makes artificial waves in the grass.

Bennie breathes slowly, in awe of the mystery of Chaldir’s Ruins. Camellia feels a stirring in her chest as she gazes at Apalon’s Plains, completely speechless. Drew’s heart wrenches at the briny, salty smell of Cebral’s Ocean. Stanley stares at the mist and the red glow of the far-off mountain in Deion’s Peaks, scholarly awe in his eyes.

“I take it you all like what you see?” Mr. John asks expectantly.

“Are you guys even looking at this place?” Bennie says, her eyes on the Ruins. “Can you imagine all of the cool things I’m going to find out there?”

“I think I fancy a different approach,” Stanley says, his eyes on the Peaks. “Just look at it. Have you ever seen such cold, brutal beauty? Can you imagine what waits for me in those mountain summits?”

“This place is beautiful,” Camellia says, her eyes on the Plains. “Imagine what it’s like out there. Imagine the wide open sky and the rich green grass. Imagine the fresh air, the clean water, the untouched scenery!”

“Forget that,” Drew says, smiling at the dancing waves of sand. “The salt out there is playing my song. There’s so much wonder and mystery out there past the horizon. I just have to experience it for myself!” Drew glances at Stanley, then his eyes grow wide. “Hey! Your forehead has a symbol on it!”

“Look at your forehead, Drew!” Bennie says. “There’s a symbol on yours, too!”

“You have one too, Bennie,” says Camellia. “Is there one on mine?”

“Indeed there is!” Stanley replies.

“Those are the symbols of the gods,” Mr. John says. “Stanley, your symbol is that of Deion, god of Mountains and Time. Bennie, you bear the symbol of Chaldir, god of Ruin and Flame. Drew, your symbol belongs to Cebral, god of Architecture and Oceans. Camellia, you have the symbol of Apalon, god of Sunshine and the Wind. This means that the god in the realm you have chosen has accepted you as an apprentice and is now your patron god. Those symbols also permanently mark you as Heroes!”

“Really?” Camellia says. “So soon?”

“Better now than never,” says Stanley. “I am already itching to get started.”

“Excellent!” says Mr. John. “I recommend moving along. The path you’ll travel is a long one and your patron gods are waiting for you. If I were a Hero like you, I wouldn’t keep them waiting.”

A sense of hesitation blankets the group. No one wants to take that first step into the unknown. Mr. John waits patiently, empathizing with their nervousness. Bennie suddenly cracks a wide smile, glancing at her friends.

“Let’s make this a little more interesting,” she says. “How about a competition after we’ve all leveled up to the max, just to see who the strongest Hero in the world is?”

“You’re a fool if you think I’m turning that down,” Drew says proudly. Stanley, after a short glance at Camellia, nods his head in agreement.

Bennie puts her fist out in front of her. “When we meet again,” she declares, “I’m going to be stronger than all of you! I promise!”

Stanley steps forward. He puts his fist against hers. “When we meet again,” he declares, “I will defeat you all with my superior knowledge! I promise!”

Camellia steps forward. She puts her fist against Stanley’s and Bennie’s. “When we meet again,” she declares, “I’ll be the strongest Hero of us all. I promise.”

Drew steps forward and pushes his fist into the center, fulfilling the connection between them. “When we meet again,” he declares, “you’ll see me stronger than ever before! I promise!”

They all look at each other, fire and determination in their eyes. Years of memories pass between them.

“Remember everyone, a promise is a promise,” Bennie says. “I know you all would hate to lose to me, so you’d better come prepared!”

“If I am beaten by you, I would consider it an honor,” Stanley counters. “It means I still have more to learn. I welcome your challenge!”

Drew laughs aloud, finally ready to embark on his journey. “I can’t wait to beat you all in our final battle.” He steps back and opens his arms wide. “Come on, one last hug before the road?”

They all embrace. For just one moment, the group of new Heroes is just a group of friends. They don’t know long it will be before they see each other again, but their hearts burn with their passions and desires for adventure. They break the embrace and say their final goodbyes to one another.

The four friends separate as Heroes and depart down their paths.

[] Chapter Two

The Second Coming

Underneath Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Moments after the departure of the Heroes from the Nexus, the night sky underneath Monarch begins to shift and distort. Mr. John’s eyes narrow as the starry sky above him comes into sharper focus. The world around him rumbles. Originally floating parallel to the ground, Mr. John turns himself upright and places his feet where the six grounds meet. Monarch, the Greatest City in the World, trembles.

Something is traveling through spacetime.

Brilliant cosmic light erupts from the swath of the night sky under Monarch and covers the Nexus of Heroes. Mr. John’s attempts to shield his eyes fail, the light too bright to avoid. A scream like a fighter jet pierces the air as two figures fly through the luminescent portal.

WHUMP, WHUMP.

The light dims and then retreats back into the starfield, leaving Mr. John dazed and momentarily blinded. As the oracle regains his sight, two new forms lie at his feet, both male. They come to their senses considerably quicker than the other group of Heroes, getting up in a few short seconds. One is of average height with black hair, light brown eyes, and a considerable amount of jaw-line stubble on his face. He looks confused. The other is tall and thin with black hair, bright green eyes, and a crooked smile.

“Luke?” Mr. John asks in disbelief. “Luke Derringer?”

“Hey, Mr. John! What’s good, man?”

“I don’t understand. What’re you doing here?”

“I watched you guys get sucked into a board game, dude.” Luke gestures to the other male, who continues to look confused. “I called some help and came to save you guys.”

“Well, uhm, thank you,” Mr. John says, slightly flustered. “I think you’re a little late on the saving thing, though.”

“What!” Luke exclaims. “Oh man Mr. John, who died? Did they all die? Where’d you bury them?” Luke looks around in earnest. “If I’m here I might as well pay my last respects.”

“No one died, Luke. In fact, they may have just begun to live.” He knits his hands together. “It’s good that you’re here, though. Now you can participate in the game as well.”

“Game?” asks the other male.

“Ah, he speaks!” says Mr. John. “How’ve you been, Scott?”

“Pretty busy with work,” Scott replies. “But you knew that. I miss playing with you guys.”

“I brought him in here to help me out,” Luke says. “I didn’t want to come in half-cocked, you know?”

“So where exactly are we?” Scott asks, looking around. “What’s up with the sky? It was raining just a few minutes ago.” He looks at Mr. John and, as if seeing him for the first time, takes a few steps back. “Why are you floating?”

Mr. John sighs. “I suppose I’ll have to give you two newcomers the whole spiel.”

“I’ll save you the breath,” says Luke. He turns to his friend. “Alright Scott, check this out. We’re in the game I just forced you to play about three seconds ago. Each piece of the ground we stand on is a different realm and we need to find a patron god so we can progress through the game and become the strongest Hero in the world. Mr. John is floating because he’s an oracle and is our go-to guy if we need to get any information while we travel.” Luke looks at Mr. John. “Is that about right?”

“Yes,” Mr. John says, amazed. “How did you know that?”

Luke shrugs. “Maybe I’m just that radical.”

Scott snorts. “No one says radical anymore, Luke.”

“Oh yeah?” Luke challenges. “Well I just did. Think about that.”

“So,” Mr. John interrupts, “as Luke said, you have six options available to you. There’s Kalax’s Woods, Apalon’s Plains, Magnus’s Cemetery, Deion’s Peaks, Cebral’s Ocean, or Chaldir’s Ruins. You can also explore Monarch if you’re not ready to choose.”

“Where’s Monarch?” Luke asks.

“We’re standing underneath it.”

“Get out of town!”

“No really, we are! You can’t see the city from here because it’s floating on divine magic.” His waves his hand in dismissal. “Anyways, if you do choose Monarch, eventually you’ll have to make a choice as to the area you want to adventure and grow in. You are, after all, Heroes of this world.”

“Well,” says Scott, “who went where?”

“Bennie took to the Ruins, Drew left for the Ocean, Stanley headed off for the Peaks, and Camellia went into the Plains.”

Luke looks at his feet. “I wanted the Peaks…”

“You can still go for it!” Mr. John says. “Any realm can have up to three different Heroes questing for the same god, but no more than three. Every single path is still open for both of you two, even if you went together.”

“Well, I’ve never been a big fan of forests since I saw The Wolfman,” Scott says. “And I hate copying people’s ideas.” Scott looks over Mr. John’s shoulder at Magnus’s Cemetery, immediately captivated by the eerie yet reverent silence. He points. “I think I’ll take a walk down that way.”

“And you, Luke?” Mr. John asks, turning to the other male. “Which path will you choose?”

“I’m going to check out the city,” he says. “I’ll bet they’ve got some crazy parties going on up there.”

“I highly doubt that, but it’s your decision.”

A burgeoning supernova in the starfield at the roots of Monarch catches Luke’s eye. He looks up to watch it.

Scott pounds his fist into his hand. “I should get a bag or something before I get moving. Maybe some food, too; I might get hungry on the road.” He rubs his stomach. “I’m kind of hungry now. It’s almost dinner time for me. Does Monarch have any good food?”

“Any good food?” Mr. John laughs aloud. “Monarch has the best food from all six realms and serves it at a bargain price to boot! It’s also a very beautiful city. I highly recommend a field trip.”

“You up for some grub, Luke?” Scott asks. Luke, returning to the present after watching the supernova for so long, looks at Scott blankly. The man repeats his question.

“Oh! I’m always up for some food, man.” He then squints at Scott. “Dude, Scott. You’ve got something on your forehead.”

“Really?” Scott says, rubbing his forehead. “Blasted breakouts.”

“Far from it, Scott,” says Mr. John. “That’s the symbol of Magnus, god of Silence and Souls. It means Magnus has accepted you as his apprentice and is now your patron god. It also marks you as a Hero.”

Scott rubs his forehead. “I didn’t think this was going to be so… real. I mean, how could it be? It’s almost too fantastic to believe.” He looks at Mr. John. “How come Luke doesn’t have one?”

“I haven’t decided on where I’m going yet so I shouldn’t have one,” Luke says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Mr. John nods approvingly. “He speaks the truth yet again. Have you played this game before, Luke?”

“No, but I can see obvious stuff coming from a mile away.”

“I’m hungry,” Scott says. “Are we going or what?”

“Yeah man, let’s get going.” Luke stuffs his hands in his pockets and saunters away without another word. Scott watches him go for a moment and turns to Mr. John after Luke is out of earshot.

“I’m going to be honest. I’m still a little lost.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mr. John replies. “It’s not every day you find yourself transported to a new world with such a monumental opportunity.”

“I suppose that much is true.”

“Please try to get him to pick a god he wants to associate with,” Mr. John says. “Luke is destined to be a Hero, but until he chooses where he wants to go, he can’t come back down here. He can be in here for now, but if he tries to come back in without a patron god, he will not be let through the Gates.”

“I’ll do my best.” Scott steps away, then pauses. “Where am I going, exactly?”

“See that thing over there?” Mr. John points to a pillar standing in the Peaks section of the Nexus. “That’s a staircase that will lead you up into Monarch. From there you can explore until you’re ready to come back here and set off on your quests.” Mr. John smiles and gestures to the tall male vaguely wandering in circles. “Now go and catch up with Luke. He’s going the wrong way.”

Scott runs off to catch up with Luke. Mr. John turns his eyes back to the starry roots of Monarch. Something nags at the back of his mind about Luke not having chosen a patron god. It feels like something that comes with being an oracle, a sense of annoyance at not promoting all new players to Hero status. Mr. John dismisses it as a trivial and watches the starfield shift and glow.

Scott guides Luke to the pillar and lets him ascend the staircase first. It winds upward and has only a single flimsy handrail. Luke walks without holding it but Scott grips it for all he’s worth.

“So like, if you live in this world and you want to be an apprentice to a god, do you get to ask?” Luke looks at Scott. “Do they choose people or something? Is it an honor or is it a plague?”

“What do you mean?” Scott asks, his eyes on the distant ground below.

“Are they like, ‘my son Bob has been chosen by Magnus; it’s the end of the world’ or are they like ‘my son Bob is now the greatest man alive!’”

Scott steps lightly. “I just got here, how would I know?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Luke continues, thinking out loud. “Heroes should pass through Monarch every now and again, so maybe only a few choice people are Heroes?”

“Maybe they don’t ever go to see their god,” Scott says. “After all, if they literally named Heroes like wildfire, gods would have more Heroes than they could ever handle.”

“You think, like, they use it for political gain?” Luke once again turns to look at Scott. “So politicians are like, ‘Hey I was chosen by Cebral, I’m destined to be a king here.’ You think they do that kind of stuff?”

“It sounds reasonable,” Scott says, trying to keep his focus away from the quickly disappearing ground. “If this was Earth, as soon as someone gets power they’d go stark raving mad. Take a look at any politician and you’ll see it in action.”

“Well,” Luke says, “that isn’t exactly true of all politicians, but whatever, the top of the stairs is coming right up.”

“Oh thank God.”

Luke passes through a hole in the starfield underbelly of Monarch and enters into a plain white room. Torches hanging on the wall glow with soft white light. White bricks make up the four walls and pavers make up the floor.

“What’s the hold up?” Scott demands, pushing Luke farther into the room. Directly across from the stairs is a door with six symbols scrawled into it. Something catches Luke’s eye; he kneels down and squints at the bottom of the door. A design or rune appears to be rubbed off or painted over, but it’s impossible to make out.

Luke stands up. “Well Scott, here we go.”

“Take the lead,” says Scott. “I’m behind you all the way.”

“I can’t open the door, dude. I’m not a Hero.”

“How do you know you can’t open it?”

“I’ve just got a feeling,” Luke says. He points at Scott. “You gotta open the door. Only a Hero can pass between here and there, you know?” He pauses, then smiles widely. “Wow, that sounded pretty mystical. I’m going to write that down and use it later.”

“That’s hardly a reason for me to open the door.”

“Well, on top of that, if I open it and people are waiting, it’ll be massively anticlimactic because, as you’re well aware, I’m not a Hero.” Scott groans in annoyance. Luke has a good point, despite his roundabout way of making it known.

“Fine,” Scott says, folding his arms across his chest.

“What?” Luke asks. “What’d I do?”

“You know how I deal with crowds,” Scott snaps. “Just move aside and let me open the door, since you’re so insistent on it.”

“Well, we’ve all got to get over our problems someday,” Luke jabs playfully. “No time like the present, right?”

Scott pushes past Luke and turns the handle of the door, pushing against it. It creaks open and they enter into a quiet, church-like hall. Long benches make rows across the floor. Columns with ornate leaf capitals stand in the corners providing support and decoration. The ceiling arches cavernously and ends at the far wall, which has triangular windows letting in outside light. The entire hall has the feeling of pushing forwards, as if the doorway Luke and Scott stand in is the centerpiece for the whole room.

A few people had been walking around the room and talking with one another, but they do so no more. All eyes are on Scott and Luke, some eyes glinting with fear while others glint with hope. No one takes the initiative to speak. After a while, Luke elbows Scott and gestures for him to say something. Scott clears his throat nervously.

“Uh,” he begins softly, “hello there, people of Monarch.”

“Hey!” Luke calls, waving to the room with a bright grin on his face. “What’s up?”

Scott elbows him. “At least try to have some class!”

“You guys got any food?” Luke steps out of the doorway and walks into the room as if he owns the place. “Scott and I are pretty hungry. Being a Hero works up an appetite, you know?” He pats his stomach to emphasize his point.

“Seriously, Luke?” Scott hisses, refusing to move from the doorway. “Get back here before you get us in trouble!”

“Food, you said?” A mostly bald, priestly-looking fellow wearing white robes shuffles forward. He had been standing closest to the door when it opened. A golden scarab pin is on his shoulder.

“Yeah, food!” Luke exclaims. “I’m kind of hungry for a hoagie. Or a plain old sub. Heck, I could seriously go for a sub right now. Do you guys have subs here?”

“A hoagie? A sub?” The priestly man looks confused. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Don’t try to understand him,” Scott says, stepping away from the door. It closes behind him automatically. “You’ll just end up with a headache and a vague sense that you’ve missed something important. My name is Scott Cornot. This is Luke Derringer.”

“Luke and Scott?” The priest frowns. “Odd names for Reneans.”

“Well,” Luke begins, “we’re not exactly—” Scott throws a hand around Luke’s mouth before he can say anything further.

“We’re not typical Reneans!” Scott says quickly. “We’re, uh, foreigners!”

“Foreigners? In that case, welcome to the Capital Cathedral of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World.” The priestly man wrings his hands. “May I ask why you’re here?” Luke tears Scott’s hand off his mouth and doubles over, gasping for air.

“I’m here to make sure this one doesn’t get lost,” Scott says, pointing to Luke. “We also came here to get something to eat before we start off on our quests.”

“Quests?” the priest asks, taken aback. “You mean you’re actually going to embark on your quests?”

“Sure. It’s what Heroes do, right?”

“Certainly,” the priest says, though he still looks astonished.

“I don’t mean to be rude but I’m kind of starving here,” Luke says, straightening himself up. “You guys got food or am I calling in a pizza?”

“Food, yes, absolutely.” The priest gestures to the room. “Come, mingle and make some friends. I’ll send for a meal to be set.”

The priest walks off to the back of the hall, leaving Scott and Luke standing on a stage in front of the nervous crowd. Luke steps into the crowd without fear. He begins passing around hellos and handshakes with everyone he manages to lock eyes with. Though they shy away at first, his casual and relaxed smile inevitably brings them closer. He shakes hands and talks freely, his unusual language going over the heads of all he talks to. Of course, he continues to ask about food.

Scott doesn’t approach, trying to distance himself from the crowd. He can’t help but feel a cold sting of envy at Luke’s cordiality. Out of the corner of his eye, Scott spots the priest approaching.

“Your friend there is quite lively.” The priest nods his head to Luke. “You mentioned you were foreigners. Where are you from?”

“We’re from Earth,” Scott says before he can stop himself.

“Odd name,” the priest says. “A small town, I assume? What realm?”

“It’s a bit of a long story,” Scott says quickly, trying not to appear too rude. The priest gets the hint and drops the subject entirely.

“We Monarchians welcome all Heroes from all walks of life,” the priest says, nodding to the people gathering around Luke. “It is tradition. However, those who come here with the mark of the gods usually only come to take political power. I hope I didn’t offend you with my question earlier; the one about your quest, I mean.”

“It’s alright.” Scott can’t tear his eyes away from Luke. Some people are content with just placing their hand on his shoulder for a moment. Others want the full handshake and face-to-face experience. Luke, through it all, does nothing but smile and talk. Envy gnaws at his insides.

“Your friend… Luke Derringer, was it? I noticed the lack of a godly symbol on his head. He lacks the mark of a Hero, yet he came from under the city. Who exactly is he?”

“A Hero in training, you could say. He hasn’t decided where he wants to go.” Scott frowns, reconsidering his words. “Rather, he doesn’t know what god he wants to apprentice for yet.”

“If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion,” the priest says. “Kalax, god of Life and Forests, has not named an apprentice in a while. Luke may learn much from him.”

“I guess it depends on what Kalax has to offer,” Scott replies. “In practicality, Luke needs someone who is a bit of a jokester and likes to just hang out. I don’t know much about this world’s mythology, so maybe you could give me a few suggestions.”

“Apalon is more free-spirited than other gods, mostly because of his association with the wind. You might urge Luke in that direction.”

“I’m hearing a lot about the gods but not too much about goddesses. Don’t we have any goddesses?” Scott smiles sheepishly. “I’m not too good with mythology.”

“We did have goddesses once,” the priest says sadly. “That was a long time ago. They were killed by a mythical monster.” He shakes his head. “In a twisted way, it was for the good of the world. If they had not been killed, there would have never been any Heroes. The hierarchy of deities would simply get larger and larger as gods and goddesses reproduced without end, being immortal and all.”

“Then what purpose do Heroes serve to the gods?” Scott asks. “Not that being an apprentice is a bad thing, but why do the gods need apprentices?”

“Ah, that’s the age-old question,” the priest says with a twinkle in his eye. “Untrained, they are merely people with marks on their foreheads. But I believe that the gods train the apprentices to do much more than become political aficionados.”

“Such as?”

“I suppose raising a new group of leaders immediately comes to mind,” the priest says thoughtfully. “Militant rulers, maybe? People who are supposed to help advance the world’s progress with their ingenuity and intellect?” The priest shrugs. “I’m not a god; the best I can do is guess.”

A boy calls for the priest. He excuses himself and hurries off. Scott, now alone, works up some gusto and wanders among those who are gathered around Luke. All assembled, even those who are now comfortable with Luke, are shy around Scott. He keeps an air of polite formality, though he feels welcomed when he starts conversations. As with Luke, some are content to just touch his shoulder.

“So,” Luke says, “do you guys have potions or whatever?”

“Potions?” one man asks, confused.

“Yeah dude. They’re like these elixir things that you drink to heal yourself or something.”

“What’s an… Elixir?” a woman asks. She sounds out elixir carefully, the word foreign to her tongue.

“You drink it and it’s supposed to make you feel better immediately,” Luke explains. “Sometimes it changes people into frogs or something. I saw it in a movie.”

“Stop spreading lies about elixirs and potions,” says Scott. “It’s bad enough you’re uninformed.”

“See this guy?” Luke says, elbowing one man while pointing his thumb at Scott. “Harshing on my mojo, dudes. Get a good look. He doesn’t even believe in magic and potions and elixirs.”

“Hold on just a minute!”

“Attention!” the priest calls from the corner of the room. “A table has been set for you and our guests! Will you please move to the dining hall? A wonderful meal has been prepared.”

A heavenly aroma wafts through the air that smells unlike anything Luke or Scott have ever smelled before. Luke’s stomach groans, but Scott’s groans louder. They both run past the priest and down a hallway towards the dining hall. The rest of the people shuffle close behind, trying to appear as if they are only conveniently going in the same direction.

The dining hall is smaller than the church-like hall Scott and Luke entered into earlier. It is, nevertheless, very beautiful. Many wide, circular tables are set in rows. A small door is set into one wall; a taller door on the opposite wall opens up into the streets. Two swinging doors lead into what looks like a kitchen. Food of all colors and shapes has been set out on a long table. Nearby, a fountain made out of white stone spews out a bright blue liquid. Tall windows near the top of the opposite wall let in bright sunlight.

“Where’s the long table set with two hundred chairs?” Scott asks aloud. “You always see that in movies.”

“What’s a movie?” the priest asks in response. “And what’s the practical purpose of setting a long table with two hundred places? You don’t have the chance to talk to any more than two or four people at most.”

Luke throws his arm over the priest, pointing at him. “This priest guy has got his head on right, Scott.”

“I’m actually not a priest. I’m a servant to the oracle of Apalon. A priest is a much lower class than a servant to an oracle.”

“Oh,” Luke says, taking his arm back. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine, Mr. Luke. You two are our guests of honor.” He spreads his hands, gesturing to the room. “Help yourselves.”

Luke and Scott all but sprint to the food table. The priest watches in astonishment as the Heroes pile their plates up with all kinds of food. They seem not to care what they choose to eat, motivated by smell alone. Luke and Scott both fill their goblets from the fountain and locate seats at the center table, sitting next to one another.

With the priest at the front, everyone else assembled in the hall goes through the line. After everyone has been served, a merry feast commences. Luke remains calm and relaxed during the whole event, never raising his voice or yelling about how good the food is to no one in particular. Scott, on the other hand, continually shouts about the excellent quality of the food. Halfway through the meal, Luke realizes that the glowing blue liquid tastes a lot like alcohol. After Luke mentions it to Scott, they opt to drink water instead.

Towards the end of the meal, people break off into groups to chat. The priest sits at the center table with Luke and Scott.

“Hey,” Luke says, leaning towards the priest, “just how big is Monarch?”

“Monarch is the largest city in the world,” the priest says, pride in his voice. “It’s the length of one full citystride.”

“Citystride, eh?” says Luke, as if understanding exactly how big that is. “I was gonna take a walk around the city after the meal is finished. Any place in particular I ought to take a good look at?”

“The Fountains of Cebral are beautiful this time of year. The shrine to Lolai, the deceased goddess of progress and ice, is usually crystallizing by now.” Luke spits out his water; the priest continues on. “It tends to be a popular attraction for tourists.”

“Did you—” Luke coughs. “Did you just say deceased? When referring to a god?”

“Yes. Lolai was one of the favored gods, may she rest in pea—”

“Whoa, whoa okay. Check this out.” Luke places his hands on the table to narrate. “Gods are like. Gods. You following? They don’t perish. They’re gods, dude. They live forever. They’re like, immortal.”

“Well,” Scott says, “even deities have to face Armageddon someday.”

“No, that’s messed up,” says Luke. “There’s something seriously wrong if the bodies of gods are piling up like a rerun of American Psycho on ABC.” Luke turns to the priest in a huff. “Is Lily the only one who died?”

“It’s Lolai,” Scott corrects.

The priest shakes his head. “She wasn’t the only one. I’ve told Scott this already, but she was killed by a monster long before I came into this world. In fact, this was long before any of us were born.”

“That’s undescriptive as all get-out,” Luke grumbles, frustrated. “What kind of monster? Did it get beat? Tell me more! I’m naturally curious, you know?”

“It was some sort of mythical creature and yes, it did get beaten. We don’t know much more than that; at least, Monarch’s general population doesn’t.” The priest rubs his chin in thought. “It may be worth a trip to the Monarch Archives if you’re interested in learning more, but…” He waves his hand dismissively. “Oh, but ordinary citizens aren’t allowed inside.”

“Ordinary citizen? I’m a Hero, man!”

The priest nods shortly, conceding the point.

“How many gods and goddesses existed before the monster?” Scott asks.

“A whole hierarchy and then some,” the priest answers. “Many, many of them. One for just about everything, from books to water to staircases and the elderly. But like I said, most of them were killed by the monster before any of us existed.”

“Then there were six?” Scott asks.

The priest opens his mouth but then visibly falters. “Yes,” he says. “Only six remain.”

“Yo,” Luke says, pointing. “What was that? I could have painted a picture in the time it took you to respond.” He leans in close. “What are you hiding, man?”

The priest looks around nervously. “My apologies,” he says, getting to his feet. “I must go. Enjoy your meal.”

The priest leaves the table. Luke and Scott watch him cross the room, fishing into his pocket. He approaches the door set into the wall closest to the table and produces a set of keys. He opens the door, enters the room, and locks himself inside.

“What got into him?”

“Probably hiding something,” Luke says, standing up. “Anyways, I’m going for a walk. Maybe I can find that Monarch Archives place he mentioned. What about you? Wanna come?”

“I think I’ll follow the priest,” Scott replies. “I want to ask him why he stopped talking when you asked him about the gods. Maybe I can get the exact address of the Monarch Archives. You should tag along so we can find out exactly where this place is.”

“Nah dude,” Luke says. “I’ll just ask for directions. People in this city seem pretty friendly. Besides, Monarch is only one citystride. I’m sure finding a building labeled ‘Archives’ won’t be hard.”

“Luke, neither of us knows how long a citystride is. It could be as long as fifty-seven leagues or more.”

“Ah well,” Luke shrugs. “I need to get in shape anyways. Being a Hero is going to require some serious training.”

“Speaking of Heroes, have you decided where you want to go?”

“Well, I kind of like the stars,” says Luke. “I was thinking I could go to the top of a mountain and study space or something. Say, do you think they have a god for stars?”

“None of the six remaining were affiliated with stars if memory serves correctly.”

“Eh, poor guy probably got himself killed by that monster thing a couple million years ago.” Luke stretches his arms. “Anyways, I’m out for a stroll. If I find the Archives I’ll give you a phone call.”

Scott snorts. “I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to do that, Luke.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t know,” Scott says flatly. “Maybe it’s just a hunch, or maybe it’s the fact that we’re on a completely different planet.”

“It’s alright, I’ve got 4G,” Luke says confidently. “Signal everywhere, as they say. On the off-chance that I can’t get a hold of you, I’ll mail you a postcard.”

“Oh you’re just a bucket of laughs.” Scott takes a drink. “Just come back here if you find something. I won’t head out to Magnus’s Cemetery until you decide on an area you want to explore.”

“Sure thing. See ya around, Scotty.”

Luke stands and leaves the table. He wanders in a general direction of nowhere, roaming around the hall until he comes to the big door at the front wall. He exits into the street outside. The door closes with a loud bang.

Luke has all the directional sense of a broken bone, Scott thinks. Finding him in Monarch will be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

[] Chapter Three

Exploration

On the streets of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Luke stands underneath a bright, sunny sky stretching over the Plains District in Monarch. The dreary grey of Magnus’s realm and the twilight sun of Kalax’s realm touch the edges of the Plains sky. All six skies connect above the Capital Cathedral. The mix of intensity of light makes it hard to pinpoint the time of day, particularly with six different suns of varying brightness in the sky.

I should remember to pick up a postcard before I leave, Luke thinks. But first, to the Archives. Luke rubs his chin in thought, unsure of where to begin his search.

Down the road, a man makes his way through the meandering crowd. Judging by his searching eyes and hunched body, he clearly doesn’t want to be disturbed and has no interest in talking to anyone.

I’ll ask that guy, Luke thinks. He looks friendly enough.

“Hey there!” Luke calls, walking towards him. The man flashes a brief glance at Luke and then immediately screeches to a halt. He looks as if he’s seen a ghost.

“You again!” the man shouts.

“Again?” Luke says, flustered. “I just got here.”

Catching his mistake, the man rubs his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You look just like one of my political rivals.”

“It’s alright, man.” Luke smiles warmly. “Listen, do you wanna help me out?”

“Uh…” The man looks nervous. “I’m kind of in a hurry. Let’s just pretend we never saw each other and go our separate ways.”

“Nah dude, don’t sweat it. I’m not looking for trouble or anything. I’m just looking for the Monarch Archives.”

“The… The Archives!” the man sputters. He throws a quick look over his shoulder. “You must be confused. Those are closed off to all but highest-ranking citizens.”

“I’m a Hero, if that makes any difference.”

“Oh, y-you are?” The man looks even more nervous now. “In that case, the Archives aren’t hard to miss. They’re in the Peaks District. If you follow this big road, it’ll take you right to it. In fact, this road will take you all around Monarch in one big circle.”

Luke points to a cold white sky next to the grey sky of the Cemetery. A mountain range rises on the horizon. “The Peaks District, I’m guessing?”

“Yes,” the man says. “Take this road into the Peaks District and don’t stray from it. This city is huge and you could easily get lost. If you’re heading toward the Peaks Passageway, the Archives are on the left side of the street at the end of an alley.”

“Passageway?”

“Oh, right,” the man mutters. “You’re new here. It’s a public service that will put you just outside of the Peaks Gate.”

“Cool,” Luke says. “Thanks man.”

“Since you’re heading that way, take this with you.” The man reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a small leather book. He hands it to Luke, who looks it over. It’s a hardcover edition of a journal. It’s probably worth a good chunk of change if pawned off to the right people.

“Is it some sort of magical journal I was destined to receive?” Luke asks, wonder in his voice. “Is it destined to help me on my journey?”

“Don’t be silly!” the man says. “I borrowed this from a friend. It belongs to one of the god’s shrines.” The man clips his knapsack closed. “I’m supposed to be heading the other way, so I figure if you’re heading towards the Archives you might as well take it, seeing as I’ve answered your question. Take good care of it; it’s very important to Paral’s shrine.”

“What’s it about?” Luke asks, opening to a random page. To his surprise, it’s written entirely in an alien language.

“It’s a journal written by one of Paral’s previous oracles. It contains essays on medicine and magic.” The man looks Luke squarely in the eyes. “I trust that you won’t share it with others,” he says. “It is a book only high-ranking citizens are allowed to read, so take good care of it.”

“Duly noted,” Luke says, closing the cover. “Paral’s shrine?”

“Head down towards the Archives like I told you and it’ll be a building on your right.” The man walks back the way he came. “You’ll see many people around it praying for healing.”

“Do their prayers ever get answered?” Luke calls as the man walks away.

“Are you kidding?” the man yells back. “Paral has been dead for ages!”

Luke sighs as the man disappears into the crowd. “Why do so many gods gotta die in this world? Mortal bodies are supposed to pile up, not celestial bodies. This place is backwards two ways from Sunday.”

Luke looks at the journal in his hand. Alien script is scrawled on the brown cover in vibrant silver. Luke thumbs through the whole journal and fails to see even one recognizable character.

Well I guess I’m not going to be reading this old thing. He absently puts his hands in his pockets, forgetting the book for the moment. It slides out of his hands and rolls into the street. Just as Luke is about to take a step to pick it up, a small girl runs by. She scoops it up and scurries off, slipping between two buildings on the other side of the road.

Luke, stunned for a brief second, feels panic settle in his stomach. After crossing the street, Luke peers in-between the two buildings that the little girl slipped into, but it’s too dark to see anything. He steps back; no use in chasing after someone who’s already long gone.

“Good thing that guy wasn’t still here. He’d probably have my head on a stick for losing that book.” He shrugs. “Not like it was important for the world to keep turning.” Luke looks down the road to the left, then to the right. Glad to see that no one is watching him, he departs down the road toward the Archives.

It’s a beautiful day in the city of Monarch. The hard, white brick path makes for a smooth walk; everything feels natural and at home. Many of the people walking on the major road go out of their way to avoid Luke. His strangely-patterned shirt and lack of proper attire such as training gear or a militant uniform is odd and disconcerting. Some of the men in uniforms sneer at him or give him dirty looks. A few men watch with envy, dragged into the Monarchian Guard by the King’s service decree.

Luke walks and whistles a tune, daydreaming about wormholes and space. The clothing pattern changes once he passes out of the central part of Monarch and into the Peaks District. People wear hardier clothes. Some of them are wearing less of it, too. Men, initially wearing uniforms, now dress in sheets of light, interlocking metal or loose, barbaric tarps. Some women choose conservative clothes and others choose to wear hardly anything at all.

Eventually, Luke stops walking. He looks around, figuring he should have reached the alley by now. The Peaks District blurs into itself, seeming less like a district and more like one cohesive piece of rock.

He said to turn left into an alley, right? Right. I mean left. He said to turn left, that’s right. Or is it left? Luke taps on his skull in annoyance. Come on brain, work with me here. Luke starts walking as he tries to recover the conversation. He’s so lost in thought that he fails to see a crowd of people, which he promptly bumps into.

“Watch it pal,” someone snarls.

“Sorry dude,” Luke says, looking around. “Just trying to find the Archives.”

“Look elsewhere! I’m trying to listen.”

Curious, Luke peers over the man’s shoulder. A woman stands above a small crowd of people. She’s beautiful, covered in a seamless armor made of interlocking plates. She carries a helmet under her arm, a sword sheathed at her side. She seems to be preaching or announcing important news, but the people crowding around her are too busy talking among themselves for a single word to reach Luke’s ears.

Luke starts to elbow his way through the crowd.

“Hey, wait in line!” a man shouts. “We all want to hear what she’s saying!”

“Coming through, pardon me,” Luke says, muscling his way through the thick crowd. “Excuse me, Hero coming through.”

“Come on!” a woman says as Luke elbows her in the arm. “Really?”

“Hey miss,” Luke says, emerging from the crowd of people. “Miss? Hello, got a moment?” Luke stands inside the ring of people, a few feet away from the woman in armor. She looks around for the source of the voice and her eyes land on Luke. A silence falls over the crowd.

The woman’s brow furrows. She steps down from her podium—little more than a wooden shipping crate—and sets her helmet on the ground. She gestures for Luke to come closer, which he does. She circles around Luke, taking in the shape of his body and the look in his eyes. At one point she gets so close to his face that he stops breathing. After a moment, she steps back.

“You strike me as strong,” the woman says. “I like a man who moves his way to the front with purpose and desire. What is your question?”

“Question?” Luke says absently. “Oh yeah! Yeah uh, how do I get to the Archives? I’m trying to dig up some information on some dead people but, well…” Luke gestures around him. “I’ve got no clue where I am.”

“Ah, the Monarch Archives,” the woman says wistfully. “Quite the beautiful building indeed. It’s a shame what’s about to happen.”

“Why, is something about to happen?” Luke asks.

“When Espetra moves,” a voice declares, “the world moves with her!” Murmurs of agreement follow. Espetra, the woman in the armor, nods her head.

“Look,” Luke says, “I’d love to stick around and hear about all of the great stuff about to go down and how it’s going to change history or whatever, but I’m kind of in a hurry. Could you just cut to the chase and point me in the right direction?”

“Oh, forgive me,” Espetra laughs. “You know how us Crag Party soldiers are.”

“I do?” Luke says. “I mean, yeah, I do. Totally.”

“You’re headed the wrong way. Go back about a sixteenth of a citystride and take a right. It’s a wide alley. The Archives are at the far end; you can’t miss them.” She picks up her helmet from the ground. “Be wary of the guards, though. They tend to dislike average citizens.”

“That’s okay; I’m a Hero.”

“Are you really?” Espetra says. “Then I wish you the best of luck.” She steps back up on the wooden crate and starts talking again. Luke pushes his way back through the crowd and walks off back the way he came.

People continue to stare at him, gawking at his strange clothing. Luke shoots them a friendly smile and a wave. Only a few wave back; most of them look the other way as if he doesn’t exist. At each cross-street, Luke looks down to the other side to see if the Archives are there or not. After his fifth or sixth try, he spots a very tall building at the end of a wide road.

The Monarch Archives building rises defiantly against the grey sky. It flies a steely-grey banner high above the central dome along with five other banners of green, red, white, seagreen, and black. Luke grins and steps forward, but before he walks even two steps, he slows to a stop, his eyes on a small building on the right side of the street. Except for a scruffy man in a blue cloak sleeping on the doorstep, it seems to be nothing more than a large block of stone with a hole in it. The hole looks to be a makeshift door.

That must be that Parallel girl’s shrine. Luke looks around; people are staring at him. Man, now I’ve gotta tell them I lost the book. Better to own up to it now than later; it’s what a man does. And I’m a man, right? Right.

Luke approaches the building, steps over the sleeping man, and enters into the main chamber. The lighting within is dim and the air is cool. Though mostly obscured by the darkness, Luke can pick out plain furniture and some paintings on the wall fill the space. A voice murmurs somewhere deeper inside the building.

“Hello!” Luke calls. “Anyone in here?”

The voice goes silent.

“Hey, anyone in here? I’m not here to cause trouble, I’m here to uh…” Luke frowns, deciding not to shout about the book to whomever is in the shrine. “Well anyways,” he says, “it’s important and I need to talk to someone.” The Hero cups his hands around his mouth. “Hey! Anyone home?”

A pool of light comes around a corner at the far side of the chamber. The light turns and travels down a hallway opposite to Luke. When the light stops moving at the other end of the chamber, Luke picks out the details of a young woman’s face. She looks to be roughly around Luke’s own age. The light of the candle reflects in her starfield eyes and her long brown hair stops just below her shoulders. A disk-like object attached to a chain hangs low on her chest.

“May I help you, sir?” she asks.

“So first let me say it was not my fault,” says Luke, holding up his hands defensively. “This guy from the street gave me some kind of leather book to take to some shrine. But, who gives a sacred book to some random guy on the street? I could have taken it home and served it to my wife and kids for all he knew!” Luke crosses his arms. “Well, I mean, if I had a wife and kids… But if I did, they sure as heck wouldn’t be eating fried book and paper stew for dinner. I’d make sure my family is well provided for.”

The oracle tilts her head. “I’m not following. You lost a book?”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Luke suddenly shouts. “I had the book in my hand and then it jumped out of my hands and got stolen!”

“Who did the book belong to?”

“The guy said it was important for medicine.”

“Chaldir’s beard! You lost one of Paral’s sacred journals?”

“I already said it got stolen,” Luke grumbles. “Sheesh, get off my back.”

“Losing one of her books is certainly a tragedy for Paral’s worshippers. I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place, though. The shrine to Paral, goddess of medicine and cities, is in the Cemetery District.” She smiles. “Whomever you talked to must’ve had a terrible sense of direction.”

“He probably had a good sense of direction but I just botched the walking path.” Luke puts his hands on his hips, looking around the room. “Well, if this isn’t Paral’s shrine, then where am I?”

She bites her lip, then clears her throat. “You’re in the shrine to Tetrask, god of Armageddon and the Cosmos.”

Luke’s eyes brighten. “Did you say Cosmos?”

“Being the god of the Apocalypse is a hard job, so before you—”

“Yeah!” Luke shouts, pumping his fist. “I’ve been looking for a deity that’s got it all straightened out! Stars! Now that’s what I’m talking about!”

The oracle laughs shortly. “You’re not from around here, are you? Tetrask isn’t a popular god.”

“Who cares about popularity? He’s the guy who governs the stars!” Luke eagerly looks around. “Can I meet him? Where is he?”

“You want to meet Tetrask? Are you crazy?”

“What’s so crazy about wanting to meet a god?”

The young woman gives him a flat look. “I guess I hadn’t thought about why one mortal out of hundreds of millions should be able to walk into a god’s home and have a chat.” She snaps her fingers. “Maybe he’ll have tea and cakes waiting for you! Maybe he’s not in some unreachable, inhospitable wasteland hiding from the rest of the world! Maybe he’s just around the bend, willing to give an audience to any old mortal who comes his way!”

“Oh, wait. I think I see your point.”

“Look,” she says, “I appreciate your enthusiasm. But Tetrask hasn’t been seen by human eyes for millions of years because he dwells on the moon. I’m the single exception, but only because I’m his oracle.”

“How can I talk to him?” Luke asks. “I’ve got a whole list, so I highly recommend a one-on-one conversation.”

The oracle sighs. “Well,” she says, “it doesn’t exactly work like that, but come with me.”

The oracle leads Luke away from the front room and down the hallway, following the same path from which she had come. The only light in the dark corridor comes from the single candlestick in the oracle’s hand. Various paintings of different gods and goddesses hang on the wall in the dim light. One god with a red beard and a fierce expression rises out of the ocean, a trident in his hand. Another painting depicts a goddess pouring a large vase of liquid onto a city. A third painting depicts a smiling man dancing in a field of grass.

They enter into another room. The oracle closes the door behind her and blows out the candle. After a few moments of darkness, the room fills with light. Dots of white, blue, and orange light up in random places. Shades of reds, greens, and browns brush themselves across walls in vague shapes. Luke gasps as he realizes the room is designed to imitate a stellar map. At the far side of the room, a large black cauldron sits on a small pedestal. Behind it hangs a painting obscured by darkness. The oracle approaches the cauldron and stands before it, stretching her body as if warming up for a run.

“This place is like heaven,” Luke says dreamily, staring at the walls. He traces part of the celestial map with his finger. “Are you doing this?”

“This is Tetrask’s work,” the oracle replies. “The arrangement of the stars changes each time I bring in a patron. It’s kind of odd, though. Whenever I’m here alone, the starfield is from somewhere I’ve never seen before.”

“Far out.” Luke turns around. The oracle is holding her hands over the cauldron. “So now what are you doing?”

She sighs in annoyance. “I’m communicating with Tetrask. I apologize if he doesn’t answer.”

“I understand if he doesn’t answer, I mean Lord knows I’ve had my share of missed phone calls. Like one time, I was really hungry for pizza, so I tried ordering from 911 because it was an emergency. But the guy scolded me off the phone, so I redialed and asked to speak to a manager. This time around, though, some angry police guy—”

“Please be quiet. This takes a little bit of concentration.”

“Oh, sure thing.”

The oracle raises her arms and sways as if listening to a wonderful piece of music. The cauldron in front of her pools with blue and white fire, tongues of flame scraping the ceiling. The oracle mouths words in Archaic Renean, a long dead language. Luke pulls out his wallet and reads the Terms of Service on his driver’s license to pass the time.

After a few moments, the oracle turns around and looks at Luke. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Tetrask wants to talk with you personally.”

“Yo, cool! Alright, tell him my name; it’s Luke Derringer, by the way. Tell him I’m this totally awesome dude that’s got a hunkering for adventure and intrigue. Tell him I’m on a hunt for knowledge and I totally love space.”

“Luke, you can—”

“Tell him I’m huge, that I’m like some kind of fierce body builder. Ham it up a bit, will you? I don’t want to show up and disappoint him with my meager figure. I mean, are you looking at me?” Luke stretches out his arms. “I’m not exactly Muscle Man Central. Babes aren’t exactly getting off the train to put money into the tourism industry of Lukeville, know what I mean?” Luke strokes his chin in thought. “Not even dudes are getting off the train into Lukeville. Come to think of it, is there even a train that goes through my station?”

“Don’t talk to me,” the oracle says. “Talk to the cauldron.”

“No need to be rude, man. I was just saying.”

“Seriously, talk to the cauldron. Tetrask is listening. I will speak on his behalf.”

Luke clears his throat and peers into the flame. Though it burns and flickers like fire, it has no heat. Sticking a hand right into the flames probably wouldn’t result in any kind of burn.

“Are you going to talk or should I tell him you’re not interested?”

“Just give me a sec to gather my thoughts,” Luke replies. He clears his throat for the second time. “Hey uh, Tetrask. You there?”

“He says he’s there.”

“Well, hello! What’s up? I’m Luke—Luke Derringer. Pleased to meet you.” He leans on the cauldron. “Hey listen, I’m trying to get into the Monarch Archives. I heard about all those deities who died and I want to dig out some information on it.”

The oracle winces. “Tetrask says he remembers that time very well.”

“I actually came in here expecting to apologize for losing a book, but it turns out I went into the wrong shrine.” Luke looks around the room. “I guess it’s pretty cool that I found this place. Maybe it’s fate, you know?”

“I’d hardly call this fate,” the oracle mumbles.

“Anyways,” Luke continues, “I’m a big fan of astonomy. I’m like number seven in my physics class. It’s this science that deals with like, space and mechanics, I guess? The mathematics behind the stars and space? I don’t know. I kind of want to learn more about it. I really dig physics.”

“He says to keep going.”

“I wasn’t supposed to really tell anyone the big secret but since you’re a god and probably know already, I’ll go ahead and give you the big one.” Luke breathes in. “Alright. I’m not actually from Renea. I came here from planet Earth through a board game.”

“What?” the oracle gasps. “That’s the most outrageous—”

“The game took my friends in here before I entered. My buddy Scott and I came in afterwards. There’s also this guy named Mr. John, and he’s pretty cool. I think he’s our oracle. He never said so but I’m pretty sure he is.” Luke pauses, then looks at the oracle. “He say anything in response?”

The oracle gestures for him to keep talking.

“My friends have all gotten their patron gods and are probably out in the wilderness leveling up like crazy right now. Scott’s doing the same thing. He’s probably getting some mad experience under his belt. Everyone’s pulling ahead of me, man.” Luke sighs, placing his hands on the lip of the cauldron. “Look man, I’m just gonna be real with you. I got into the game late and now all of my friends are going to get super strong without me.”

“He wants to know why you haven’t chosen any of the other realms.”

“I’m not a fan of any of the other realms I’ve been offered. Really. Not that I hate the ocean or anything; the beach is pretty fantastic, but I really don’t see myself as a sailor. Or as a mountain man. Or a zombie from the cemetery. Or a farmer, or a forest nymph, or whatever probably inhabits Charcoal’s Ruins.” Luke laughs. “I don’t know man. I really want to have an adventure and get strong. I know that my friends don’t really see me as a strong person, and I guess I’m not. I really just want to have fun and enjoy myself. I need your help to get with the program. I don’t have a patron god yet, but I’m destined to be a Hero.” He goes quiet. “I know I’m destined to be one.”

“Luke?” the oracle asks.

“And I really want to figure out what happened to your people,” Luke continues, renewed. “I mean, losing friends is really hard, especially when you’re one of only a few left. From the sound of it, you don’t even get to see your other friends. You’re all alone, man, and I’m all alone too. I don’t have any friends I can go and see when I want, just like you.”

“Luke.”

“Hold on, hold on. I’m almost done. So like, Tetrask, I know I’ve got way too many problems to list. I know I’m probably too nosy for my own good and you don’t want anyone to know what happened to your friends. But I’m a Hero, man. It’s my destiny to learn and grow. In my world, the heroes always stick up for their friends and help those in need. I think we need each other. Can you give me a chance? Just one chance would be enough for me.”

The oracle takes Luke’s face in her hand, studying him. Luke says nothing. After a few moments of scrutiny, she nods and lets his face go.

“What was that for?” Luke asks.

“You’ve been accepted, Luke,” the oracle says. “Tetrask’s symbol is now etched on your forehead.

“Does it look cool?”

The oracle blinks. “You’ve been touched by Tetrask’s hand and you’re worried about looking cool?”

“Of course I am! You think I’m going to walk around and look like a chump with the phrase ‘big dumb loser’ stamped on my forehead?”

The oracle kneads the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “Listen, that mark is a massive responsibility for a couple of reasons. One, Tetrask isn’t liked very well because of his association with the end of time. Two, Tetrask has never before claimed anyone as his apprentice, so you’ll be marked. Three, you already bring enough attention to yourself with those clothes. The return of the symbol of Tetrask will be a big thing for this city.”

“Is it common for all gods to have beards?” Luke asks out of the blue. “I mean, you said Chaldir has a beard. Does that mean Tetrask has a beard too? Gosh, am I in the land of lumberjacks?”

“Do you think before you speak or do you just vomit up whatever is on your mind?”

Before Luke can respond, the oracle’s eyes glaze over. She turns, staring into the fire with a blank expression on her face. A voice speaks in her ear, the words too quiet for Luke to make out. He once again digs into his wallet to find something to read. The fire in the goblet dwindles and then goes out altogether, making it hard for Luke to read anything. The oracle’s eyes return to their starfield disposition.

“Tetrask is coming to Renea.”

“Really? When?”

“He’s leaving now,” the oracle replies. “He’s heading for the Archives. When you’re ready, you two will meet each other.”

“What do you mean?”

“You will find him neither before nor after the perfect moment.”

“Okay, if you say so.” Luke digs into his pocket. “I’m going to take a picture of this room. I want to remember it.”

“Take a picture? There’re no paintings in here to take.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Luke says, fishing out his phone. “Just don’t move.” He snaps a quick picture of the room. The flash of light from his phone camera startles the oracle.

“What was that?” she asks, hand over her chest.

“Dude,” Luke says, pocketing his phone, “it was just a picture.” The oracle quirks her head to the side, confused. “Okay, imagine a really, really good painting. It takes like months to make, right? Well, where I’m from, we have this device that makes really good paintings of whatever we point it at. It only takes a second.”

At the thought of Earth, Luke slips into an unconscious stroll down memory lane. He can smell the night rain and he can still taste the doughnut he had before he left for John’s shop. Luke stares at the oracle absently, lost in his thoughts about home. The oracle coughs and looks in another direction, bashful of his brilliant green eyes.

“You should leave. I think you have everything you need.”

“Oh.” Luke returns to the present. “Right. I guess I’ll catch you later.” He smiles widely. “Thanks for the whole setting me up with a patron god thing. No one’s done that for me before.”

“I’m sure,” she replies as Luke heads for the door.

“Oh wait!” Luke says, screeching to a halt and turning around. “I never got your name. It’s only polite to exchange names when you meet someone.”

“My name is Nysse,” the oracle says.

“And I’m Luke. Luke Derringer. It was nice to meet you.”

Luke leaves the building and stands on the doorstep, inspecting the street. The cloaked man who was sleeping is gone and a few people are running around. In fact, a lot of people are running around. It seems to be orderly disorder as men in military uniforms clash with other men in rebellious-looking clothing. The whole street is a mess of people, dust, and shouting. It looks like a warzone.

Luke spots the woman he talked to earlier. She seems to be busy, but he gives her a wave nevertheless. She doesn’t see Luke, too preoccupied with blocking a swing from a Monarchian soldier.

“Luke!” shouts a voice. “Thank God you’re here!”

Scott appears from out of nowhere, breathing heavily. His forehead is slicked in sweat and he’s holding onto something for dear life. Upon inspection, it’s nothing more than a simple shoulder satchel. It’s of good quality, however. One could probably sell it for a decent price at a local bag store and make back a fraction of the money lost on Paral’s journal.

“Bro, Scott!” Luke says happily. “Good to see you! You look exhausted, man. What happened?”

“No time to explain,” Scott says hurriedly. “Follow me. We have to get out of here and fast.” Scott pauses, eyes locked on his friend’s forehead. “Luke? What’s that?”

“Oh that’s just the symbol of my patron god, Tetrask,” Luke says proudly. “He’s a cool guy. I’m off to meet him at the Archives right now, actually.” The newly-proclaimed Hero rubs his chin in thought. “I think I was supposed to wait there until the ‘perfect time’ comes for me to meet him. I have a lot to discover about these dead gods, may they rest in peace.”

“It can wait, trust me. Right now the Archives is the last place in the world you want to be. A bunch of mayhem just went down and it’s a mess.”

“Oh,” Luke says. “Well, uh, alright. I guess old Teddy will understand if I’m a little bit late.” He grins. “Maybe this is part of that ‘perfect time’ thing Nysse was talking about.”

“Who’s Nysse?” Scott asks. “Actually, you know what, never mind. Forget I asked.”

“Well, I’m following you, boss. Lead the way.”

“Hurry, there’s no time to walk. They could catch up at any second.”

“Who’s they?” Luke asks.

Scott doesn’t answer. He sprints past Luke, satchel in hand. Luke sighs and waves goodbye to the Archives. He takes one last look at the shrine to Tetrask, smiles to himself, and then takes off after Scott.

A little while ago, inside the Capital Cathedral of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Scott watches Luke exit out the front door of the cathedral, then leaves his table. He approaches the door where the priest disappeared into earlier. After a quick look around to make sure no one else is looking, he jiggles the knob. Unsurprisingly, the handle is locked; a key is needed to open it. Scott runs his hand across the wood. He raps his knuckle on it. The door feels immensely dense, made of a kind of wood that Scott has never seen before. Stumped, he steps back.

A sensation passes through him—a sensation he can only identify as an urge to take a second look. Scott places his hand on the door handle, curious. He pictures it unlocking, envisions the tumblers moving like a key was put inside. Slowly, he turns the knob and pushes against the door. It gives way, opening inwards into a room.

Scott enters inside and closes the door behind him. The room is tidy and comfortable. A few candles rest on the corner of a desk, a tall dresser standing nearby. Against the center stone column, a spiral staircase curls upwards. Slits of light from the outside illuminate the stairwell.

Scott looks up the spiral staircase. Looks like a one-way road. Guess it’s onwards and upwards.

Scott ascends the stairs one at a time, pausing occasionally to look through the narrow slits. The light and the skyline changes as he makes his way up the spiral staircase. He comes to a complete stop at one window in particular, taking a moment to appreciate the beautiful sunlight and rich green cobblestones.

This twilight is gorgeous. I might get jealous if Luke chooses Kalax. Scott groans. If he ever chooses a god, that is… I have to make sure I’m on his case as soon as I see him again.

Scott continues upwards until he reaches the top of the stairs, which end at another closed door. He lightly turns the handle. It’s locked, but he can sense someone inside. Scott presses his ear to the wood, trying to hear what’s happening inside. The door shifts and swings inwards, spilling Scott on the floor.

A man gasps—it’s the priest from earlier, startled by Scott’s sudden entrance. “I thought for sure I locked that door. And the door before it, too! What are you doing in here? This room is private.”

“You have some explaining to do,” Scott says, getting to his feet. “Why did you leave after Luke asked about the gods?”

“You came here for that?” The priest snorts. “It’s not important. Now I insist you leave at once.”

“It’s obviously important if you had to leave.” Scott gestures to the empty room. “It’s just us right now. Luke is out looking for the Archives, so unless you want to run downstairs into a room full of people, I suggest you start talking. I’ll leave you alone after this, promise.”

The priest hesitates for a moment. Then, sighing, he gestures for Scott to close the door. “There are actually seven gods, not six,” he says. “We tend not to talk about the seventh because he’s associated with the end of the world.”

“That’s it?” Scott says. “That’s the big secret?”

“Look, the end of the world is a massive event. Have you ever glanced up at the night sky and felt small? Have you ever stood at the top of a mountain and looked down, realizing how little you are compared to everything else? Have you put your arm up to a massive cable of twine and noticed just how much bigger it is than you? Haven’t you ever walked across a bridge and paused just to look down into the water below?”

Scott rubs his chin, putting himself in the priest’s shoes.

“The end of the world changes all of that. It’s all gone in moments. The bridge buckles. The cable snaps. Mountains crumble. Oceans roll. Stars fall. It’s the end of the world, Mr. Cornot. It’s not a pleasant thing to think about by any regards.”

“So that’s it?” Scott says. “You left because talking about the end of the world scares you?”

“It’s not the act itself I’m scared of,” the priest says. “Everybody has to die sometime, Scott. It’s the when that everyone is scared of, and no one wants to provoke it before their time on Renea is over. The god of Armageddon and the Cosmos is fickle. It’s foretold that he will start the end of all things whenever he pleases.”

“Does he have a name? A symbol, perhaps?”

“It’s bad luck to mention his name, even worse when you draw his symbol.” Scott folds his arms, stoic. The priest sighs. “But, for all intents and purposes, I suppose you should see both.” The priest goes to a desk and pulls out the drawer. He produces a sheet of paper and a quill pen and draws a symbol. He then scrawls something quickly underneath the picture and pushes past the Hero. Scott traces the lines of the script, curious. A few of the symbols look oddly familiar, but the language is still too alien to comprehend.

“It says Tetrask.” Scott looks up. The priest dances in a small pattern, muttering incoherent words. He doesn’t look at Scott until he’s finished. Once done, he straightens his robes. “He’s the god of Armageddon and the Cosmos—a taboo god which we don’t mention at social gatherings.”

“What’s so bad about the end of the world?” Scott asks. “Well, besides the obvious. It’s going to come anyways, so why go through all the trouble of censoring his name? Is there anything the poor guy did other than just exist?”

“He’s responsible for the death of many of the gods,” says the priest. “Remember the mythical monster I mentioned? Stories say Tetrask himself set the monster on the loose. Realizing his mistake, he joined forces with the other gods and helped them defeat the monster. However, that didn’t help his case. In no uncertain terms the others told him to own up to his mistake. Tetrask supposedly left for the moon and hasn’t been seen since.” The priest sits down at his desk. “I know no more than that.”

“You’re not very helpful.”

“What, you want me to tell you everything the gods know?” The priest spreads his hands, exasperated. “I’ve wanted to know what happened for a long time, Mr. Scott. A lot of Monarchians would love to know what really happened.”

A strong urge sweeps through Scott’s body—a sensation that he can only describe as the desire to move and continue his search elsewhere. “I think I’ll move on. The Archives are where I need to be right now.” He heads for the door. “I’m sorry for barging in on you. I just had to know.”

“I don’t blame you,” the priest says. “The hunger for knowledge is strong in everyone.” He suddenly looks up. “Before you go, if you want to do me a small favor, I can get you into the Archives unnoticed.”

“You can?” Scott turns around. “Really?”

“There’s a passageway underneath this building that leads to a back room in the Vault of the Archives. It was used for moving dangerous or expensive items that came from underneath Monarch.”

“Why would things come from underneath Monarch?”

“You really think you were the first thing to come out of that portal?” the priest says. “Objects have come from there since Monarch was first built.”

“What’s this favor? Where’s this underground passage?”

“Before I tell you, I need you to take this for me.” The priest pulls open a drawer and produces a small disk. An unfamiliar symbol is etched into one side. The priest places it in a satchel and hands it to Scott. “That’s the emblem of Kalax,” he says. “I borrowed it from the Archives. I think the emblems are critical in understanding the relationship between mortals and the gods. I was working on figuring it out, but I haven’t been able to unlock anything despite my efforts.”

The urge to leave comes again, stronger this time. Scott ignores it. “And the passageway?”

“Go back downstairs and push the dresser aside. There’ll be a door. It’s locked, but I have a feeling you can open it. After all, you opened two locked doors alone. Once inside the Archives, find the emblem cases; they’re impossible to miss.” The priest becomes serious. “And whatever you do, don’t let anyone touch that emblem. As a servant to an oracle, I will not be punished for touching it. As a Hero, you will also go unpunished. People who aren’t Heroes or oracles will face a god’s wrath if they touch one of the emblems. They’re sacred objects.”

Scott nods in confirmation. He leaves the room and heads back down the spiral staircase. Once on the bottom floor, Scott approaches the dresser and pushes it away from the wall. True to the priest’s word, a door is there. Scott puts his hand on the doorknob and waits. After several minutes in silence, the door remains locked. Scott frowns and takes his hand away.

He closes his eyes, trying to remember what he did the last few times. Instead of remembering anything, Scott pictures the tumblers moving and shifting to fit a key that doesn’t exist. He imagines the shape of the key, the color of the metal, the sound it makes as it enters the keyhole. Every single moment passes through his mind one at a time until the door feels ready. Scott opens his eyes, grasps the handle, and slowly turns the knob.

Click.

The door swings open, exposing a ramp that leads to a passageway. It’s dimly lit by torches that glow with faint white light. Closing the door, Scott makes his way down the ramp. The hallway curves to the left, connecting with a long tunnel. He pauses, then runs at a full sprint, determined to make it to the Archives as fast as humanly possible.

He runs until the tunnel curves sharply to the left. Scott slows to a stop, his heart thundering in his chest. He walks around the corner to find another door in front of him. Scott touches the handle and mentally unlocks the door, the motion now fluid and familiar. He enters into a dark, quiet room. A stone staircase is in the far corner. Rows of glass cases decorate the room with a pathway in the center for walking. Five small pinpricks of different colored light shine from five different cases around the room.

Scott explores the room for the proper emblem case. He spots a case that has been broken into, the glass pane on one side shattered completely. Approaching it, Scott reaches into his satchel and pulls out the emblem of Kalax. A stand inside the case shows a corresponding symbol.

“So now I’m doing return work for a thief,” he says. “This is just perfect.”

“You can say that again. Show me your hands.”

Scott whirls around. A guard stands ten feet away with a pike pointed at Scott’s throat. The Hero carefully raises his hands, keeping the emblem in his palm. He inches around in a circle, trying to remember which way leads to the door.

“What are you doing down here, soldier?” Scott says, trying to take a tone of authority. “You should be guarding the front entrance from trespassing citizens.”

“I’m supposed to be down here guarding the Vault from thieves who sneak in from the outside. How’d you manage to get past me, anyways?”

Scott bites his lip, remaining silent.

“I thought so. That makes you one of two things: a thief or a ghost.” The guard shoves his weapon closer to Scott, making the Hero inch back. “Since you’re obviously scared of my pike, I guess that narrows down the selections, doesn’t it?”

“I’m hardly a thief. I was replacing a stolen item, if you must know.” Scott gestures to the case. “Go ahead, take a look inside. The emblem is still there.”

“Don’t lie to me,” the guard snaps. “It’s hard to miss the famous emblem of Kalax when it’s glowing like the sun.” Scott opens his palm and looks at the emblem. It looks totally lifeless to him—as dull as a simple rock—but he says nothing. “You’ve got a choice to make,” the guard continues. “Are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”

A thought blooms in the Hero’s head. “We’re doing it my way. Catch!” Scott launches the emblem at the guard. The guard immediately drops his pike and opens his hands to catch it. The emblem lands securely in the guard’s hands and he smiles, pleased. When he looks up, he finds Scott grinning widely.

“By the looks of it, citizen, you’re neither Hero nor oracle.” The guard’s smile fades into a look of horror. “I don’t think Kalax would be pleased you’re touching his precious emblem.”

“Tetrask’s tooth!” the guard swears. “I’ve been tricked!”

The guard’s neck snaps backwards and the emblem drops to the floor. His arms twist and spasm. Foam spills from the corners of his mouth as his spine rotates unnaturally. A shrill scream erupts before his whole body radiates brilliant white light. Scott shields his eyes. When the light fades, an adolescent tree stands where the guard once stood. The symbol of Kalax is etched into the bark.

Scott picks up the emblem and places it on the stand in the glass case. He nods to himself, content with his work.

“What’s going on down there, Delat?”

At the sound of the yell, Scott sprints away and hides behind a case in a dark part of the Vault. A mustached man with a flameless torch stomps down the set of stairs at the far end of the room. He carries a sword. Two other men carrying pikes follow him.

“Delat!” the man yells. “Where are you?”

“Looks deserted, sir,” a second man says. “Perhaps he went to relieve himself.”

“I know I heard a scream down here. We should do a run-through of the floor.” The man points with his fireless torch. “You two take that half. I’ll take this half. Holler if you find something out of the ordinary.”

The guards split up and explore the room. Scott remains silent and still, searching for a way to get out without being seen.

“Hey, I found a green bow!” a third voice exclaims. “Look at this thing! It’s beautiful! Do you think it’s rare?”

“Stop fooling around and look for real clues!” the first man snaps. “Of course you’re going to find rare things in here. It’s the Vault!”

“Sir, I’ve found Delat!” The second guard stands by the tree as his superior and the other guard run to his position. “He’s been turned into a tree; an emblem case has been broken into. Strange, though. I never figured Delat to be sticky-fingered.”

The mustached man snorts. “Delat wasn’t a thief, Josan. Someone’s still in here and wants us to think Delat tried to steal the emblem.”

The third man cracks a grin. “I wish I was as smart as you are, sir.”

“The sarcasm isn’t needed, Rewan. We’ll move the tree later.” He sighs. “Poor guy. He probably caught the wrong end of the emblem while he was trying to stop the thief. Get to searching, boys. We’re going to catch the culprit responsible for this tragedy.”

The guards split up once more. Scott makes short dashes between cases, being careful to avoid the light coming off of the torches. He guides himself through the room by the faint pinpricks of light coming from the other give cases. A few paces from the staircase, he pauses to catch his breath. One more good sprint and he’s free.

Wait, Scott!

Scott flattens himself against the case and stops his breathing.

Take the emblems with you.

Scott covers his ears in disbelief. “First it was the doors unlocking themselves. Now I’m hearing voices!”

This is the voice of Magnus, your patron god.

“Oh.” Scott smiles sheepishly. “Had I known it was you—”

We can exchange pleasantries later. You need to take each emblem with you.

“The emblems? Are you crazy? That guard said they shine like the sun. I’d be found in a heartbeat! I’m surprised they haven’t found me already if it’s really so bright in here!”

The emblems only shine if held in the hands of a Hero or an oracle. Use your bag to cover and take them.

“How come I can see the light of the emblems?” Scott asks. “Why can’t they see them? Why are the lights so dim for me and so bright for them? What’s up with Kalax’s emblem? It’s showing no light at all! What if they see me?”

Stop with the questions and do as I say. This is an extremely important task that you absolutely cannot fail. Use your abilities and you should be fine. Hurry. Time is of the essence.

“Find anything yet, sir?” the third man, Rewan, calls.

“I smell a thief in our midst, boys!” the first man shouts, a few dozen feet from Scott’s hiding place. “Keep looking around. I think I’m hot on the trail over here!”

Scott risks poking his head up to survey the room. The nearest emblem glows a clay-like shade of red and is three cases down the row. Scott looks up as the edge of the torchlight approaches his feet.

No choice! I’ve got to act now!

The torchlight falls on his face, the commanding officer standing above him. Paralyzed, Scott can only look up in horror. The mustached man squints at Scott, frowns, and then moves farther along down the line. The torchlight gives way to darkness; Scott breathes a sigh of relief.

He stands and places his hands on the case he was leaning against, staring at the clay-colored emblem close by. His hands slip right through as if he were little more than a hologram. Scott holds his hands out in front of them. He can only see a faint outline of his fingers.

Curious, Scott places his hands on the glass again and they pass right through again. He concentrates on solidifying his hands and presses them against the glass. This time, they don’t pass through. He consciously breaks concentration and they slip through again.

Invisible and intangible, by the looks of it. He thumps his fist into his open palm. Alright, no more messing around. I’ve got to get these emblems out of here.

Scott moves towards the reddish emblem in a straight line, wincing instinctively each time he phases through a glass case. Once he arrives at the clay-colored emblem, Scott unshoulders his satchel and concentrates on making it pass through the glass. Using the satchel as a makeshift glove, Scott seizes the first emblem. He then moves through the Vault and collects the remaining emblems.

Each emblem glows with a faint light. Kalax’s emblem refuses to glow no matter how he touches it with the satchel. Curious, Scott touches it with his bare hands. It still doesn’t glow, but the guards notice instantly.

“Look! The emblem!”

“Someone’s got their grubby hands on it!” the commanding officer shouts.

“But why is it glowing?” one of the guards asks. “Surely a Hero wouldn’t be stealing!”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if every Hero was a thief! And who cares, anyways? On the hop! After that emblem!”

Scott throws the emblem into the satchel and closes it shut. The guards stumble over each other in the sudden darkness, cursing and shouting. Scott dashes for the staircase. His instincts scream at him to run around the glass cases but he keeps his pace steady and true, passing through them like a ghost through a wall.

Scott sprints up the staircase and passes through another door, finding himself at the far end of a tall, empty hallway. Bootsteps fall on stone behind him. Thinking quickly, Scott becomes visible and combs his hair over. Straightening his back and trying to make himself look important, the Hero walks towards the Vault door as the guards clamor up the staircase.

The guards fly through the door and screech to a halt when they see Scott. The commanding officer, the man with a mustache, steps forward.

“Halt! Who goes there?”

“My name is Scott Cornot. I’m an apprentice to Magnus.”

“A Hero! Welcome.” The man inclines his head. “Forgive the harshness, sir. I’m just doing my job.”

“You’re fine as you are.” Scott smiles. “Forgive me, actually. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Not a problem,” the mustached man says. “What can I do for you, Mr. Scott?”

“I’m looking to get an inside look at a few things down in the Vault.” He forces a disappointed sigh. “But judging by your tenseness, I doubt I will get the chance.”

The guards exchange worried looks.

“Yes, well…” One of the guards rubs the back of his neck. “We’ve had an altercation with a suspect.”

“Oh dear. What kind of altercation?”

“The kind involving theft of valuable Archive property, sir.”

“Now that you mention it, I did see a man flee past me down the hallway earlier.” Scott furrows his brow, pretending to recall a memory. “He looked very suspicious.”

“That’s our suspect!” the mustached man says. “Pardon me, but we must be on our way. He’s stolen something very valuable!”

“At your leisure,” Scott says, stepping aside. “I’ll come back another time.”

The guards rush past Scott in a hurry. Once alone, Scott heaves a sigh of relief. He then turns around and walks towards the other side of the hallway.

After passing a few side rooms and hallways that curve out of sight, Scott enters the center room. Sections of walls have been cut away to expose four floors of book shelves and study areas. Despite the supposedly exclusive membership, many people mill about on the main floor. In the middle of the room is a large greeting center with busy receptionists.

A group of guards shove past Scott. He steps aside to make room for them. “Come on lads, you know the rules!” one man shouts. “Keep in line!”

“I can’t believe the Crag Party picked today to riot in front of the Archives,” a soldier grumbles. “What kind of luck must we have?”

“The luck of Tetrask, probably,” says a second.

“Have they made any advances?”

“Would we be moving out if they hadn’t? Use some sense, Miam.”

“Quit talking in line, soldier!” yells the first. “On the hop; let’s get outside! All forces are needed to stop this rioting!”

Scott follows behind the guards, attempting to remain as unseen as possible. The front soldiers push the door open and move out into the street. The sound of metal-on-metal and angry shouts comes rushing through the doors. A large crowd pushes up against the guards’ shields; many of the rioters are yelling or chanting something in a foreign tongue.

Fights are starting to break out. A woman wearing a helmet and carrying a sword points towards the Archives, yelling over the din. A group of people charge the guards and almost break through the ranks. Seizing his moment, Scott hurries around the corner and wills himself to vanish from sight. He inches slowly around the chaos, the satchel clutched close to his chest. Out of the corner of his eye, Scott spies someone familiar standing in front of a nearby building.

“Luke!” Scott blurts, forgetting he’s invisible. “Thank God you’re here!” He uncloaks his body moments before Luke turns to see him.

“Bro, Scott!” Luke says happily after recognizing his friend. “Good to see you! You look exhausted, man. What happened?”

Hurry Scott, says a voice. The emblems are not safe here.

“No time to explain,” Scott answers. “Follow me. We have to get out of here and fast.” Scott notices something on Luke’s forehead: the symbol of Tetrask. The priest’s story of Tetrask being responsible for the death of the gods plays itself in his head. For just a moment, Scott deludes himself into believing that Luke did not declare the god of the Apocalypse as his patron god. “Luke? What’s that?”

“Oh that’s just the symbol of my patron god, Tetrask,” Luke says proudly. Scott’s heart sinks. “He’s a cool guy. I’m off to meet him at the Archives right now, actually.” Scott looks at the fighting going on and clutches the satchel a little tighter. “I think I was supposed to wait there until the ‘perfect time’ comes for me to meet him. I have a lot to discover about these dead gods, may they rest in peace.”

“It can wait, trust me,” says Scott, eyes on the fighting. “Right now the Archives is the last place in the world you want to be. A bunch of mayhem just went down and it’s a mess.”

“Oh,” Luke says. “Well, uh, alright. I guess old Teddy will understand if I’m a little bit late.” He chuckles. “Maybe this is part of that ‘perfect time’ thing Nysse was talking about.”

“Who’s Nysse?” A strong urge to run from the battle nearly shoves Scott forward. “Actually, you know what, never mind. Forget I asked.”

“Well, I’m following you, boss. Lead the way.”

“Hurry, there’s no time to walk. They could catch up at any second.”

“Who’s they?” Luke asks.

Scott doesn’t answer. He sprints past Luke, satchel in hand, his mind is locked on the thought of the guards becoming wise to his treachery. There’s only one place to go at a time like this—a place where no one except Heroes can enter.

Underneath Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Mr. John’s eyes open. The night sky under Monarch is more beautiful and calm than any back on Earth. Lights twinkle in the distance and the faint colors of nebulas dance in small patches throughout the sky. He turns himself upright as Scott and Luke approach the Nexus, fresh from their adventure in the city.

“Back so soon?” Mr. John asks as they come within earshot. “You were only gone for a few seconds.”

Scott throws a look at Luke, confused. “But that’s impossible. We must have been gone for at least two hours.”

“Mere seconds,” says Mr. John. “You went in and came back out moments later.”

Luke grins. “Magic, man. You gotta love shenanigans.”

“It’s good to have you back, Luke. You’ve decided on a patron god, then?”

“Yeah man. I picked a guy named Tetrask. He’s one cool dude.” Luke shrugs dismissively. “I mean, I haven’t met him yet, but I will.”

“Luke,” Mr. John says, “if you didn’t know already, you should know that Tetrask is the god of Armageddon and the Cosmos. And he’s not liked very well on Renea.”

“Yeah, I know already. His oracle was really nice and helpful, though. Tetrask himself probably isn’t that bad. I mean for pity’s sake, he’s the god of the Cosmos. It’s a pretty benevolent universe we live in.” Luke looks at Scott and grins widely. “You know how I love space, Scott. This was one opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Scott folds his arms across his chest. “I hear he’s also responsible for the death of a lot of gods. I hear Tetrask is the one that set the monster loose in the first place. He was probably trying to start the Apocalypse early.”

“Regardless of what he has done in the past,” says Mr. John, “he nevertheless is a god and must be treated with the utmost respect. Are you sure this is the path you want to travel down, Luke? Tetrask hasn’t been seen in millions of years and may be difficult to find.”

“I’m a tough guy; I can handle the challenge.” Luke smiles again. “I was told by the oracle to go to the Archives to meet Tetrask, but a fight was going on and I couldn’t get in. That’s when I saw Scott, so we left to get back down here. Maybe by the time I get back up there it’ll have settled down.”

“A group called the Crag Party was fighting. I heard it from a soldier in the Archives.” Scott turns to his oracle. “You know anything about that?”

“All I know is that they’re an extremist group based in Deion’s Peaks. They champion something about providing knowledge for all people regardless of how dangerous it is to the public.”

“Since we’re on the topic of danger, and not to put you on the spot or anything, what do I do with these?” Scott opens his satchel and pulls out the emblems of the gods, placing them on the ground. Each emblem pulsates with life and glows a different color: gold, seagreen, grey, purple, and clay-like red.

“Whoa,” says Luke. “That’s pretty radical.”

Mr. John leans over the emblems. “Where did you get these?”

“Magnus told me to steal them from the Vault in the basement of the Archives.”

“This is thievery of the highest level.” The oracle looks up. “I hope he has a good reason.”

Luke points at Kalax’s emblem—the only one that doesn’t glow with light. “Why isn’t that one glowing?”

“I don’t know,” says Scott. “The guard who caught me could see the emblem glowing in my hands, but when I looked at it, it was nothing more than a lifeless disk.”

“Perhaps Magnus will enlighten you.” Mr. John looks Scott square in the eyes. “Keep those well-hidden. They’re incredibly important to anyone who can get a hold of them. Tell no one that you have them no matter how much you trust them.”

“Will do.” Scott packs the emblems back into his satchel. Luke catches his friend’s eye and flashes him a bright, if not forced, smile.

“Well, I guess this is really it, eh Scotty?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve got to split ways now.” Luke shrugs vaguely, avoiding Scott’s eyes. “You know, I’m going my own way and you’re going yours. We’re not going to the same place like we did back in Monarch.”

“Oh, right.” Scott looks at his feet, suddenly aware of his immediate future. A tense silence falls over them. Mr. John says nothing.

“Hey Luke, listen. I know I wasn’t the best person when you called me earlier. I mean…” Scott rubs the back of his neck. “I guess cussing you out and telling you to get lost wasn’t such a great idea in hindsight.”

Luke smiles. “It’s okay dude. We all make mistakes.”

“Look, I just wanted to say I’m glad you called me. You know, after you realized that you tried to use your wallet as a phone.”

“Yeah,” he agrees. “That was pretty stupid of me.”

“Anyways, thanks for winning me over.” Scott shifts his satchel. “I know we’re both new to this, but our adventures are just beginning and we’ve got a long road to travel.”

“Yeah,” Luke says, “we really do. If you ever get lonely, you know I’m just a thought away.” Luke smiles and puts his hand on Scott’s shoulder reassuringly. “You do your best, Scotty. I’ll do my best, too. When we’re both done, we can get together and show off our powers.”

“How about a wager?” Mr. John suggests. “Why not make it a competition to see who can get the strongest? Bennie proposed that challenge when she came here with Stanley, Drew, and Camellia.”

“Good idea.” Luke turns to Scott. “Whatcha say? Want to duke it out with the whole group at the end?”

Scott thinks for a moment. Then, he nods. “I’ll take the wager.”

“Awesome! I’m in too!” Luke gives Scott a push into Magnus’s Cemetery. “You should get moving,” he says. “Magnus is probably waiting to hear from you.”

“Everyone seems to be rushing me to meet him, especially Magnus himself.” Scott laughs. “It’s funny. All he does is drone on about how time is of the essence.”

“When you’re carrying legendary artifacts of immense worth,” says Mr. John, “time is always of the essence.” The oracle turns. “What about you, Luke? Where will you go?”

“I’m going to go back to the Archives. Nysse told me Tetrask would wait for me there, and that’s where I promised Tetrask I would meet him. I intend to keep that promise.”

“Well, listen,” Scott says. “There’s a secret passage behind the dresser in the priest’s secret room. It’ll take you to the Archives undiscovered. Just follow the tunnel all the way to the end.” Scott rubs the back of his neck. “I think I may have locked it from the inside, though.”

“I’ll just bust it down.” Luke flexes his muscles. “I’m a Hero now, remember?”

“Hey, Luke.”

“Yeah?”

“When we meet again, I’m totally going to run circles around you.”

“Oh man, it is so on!”

Scott and Luke bump fists and embrace briefly. Waving goodbye, Scott adjusts his satchel and heads off towards Magnus’s Cemetery. He follows the black cobblestone path towards the edge of Monarch. There, the night sky ends and the dull grey sky begins. This is it, Scott thinks, butterflies dancing in his stomach. Onward to meet my destiny. After a brief pause at the edge, Scott takes his first step out of the underbelly of Monarch and through the gate, disappearing from Mr. John’s and Luke’s sight.

Luke turns to his oracle. “I’m out too, Mr. John. Got any advice for me before I leave?”

“Just be wary of Tetrask. He’s a god of immense infamy who will be responsible for the end of the world.” Mr. John smiles weakly. “And if you want to do me a favor, just let me know before he starts the Apocalypse.”

Luke laughs. “Yeah, I gotcha. You’ll get coverage on that.” He flashes his oracle a thumbs-up. “Alright Mr. John, I’ll see you around.”

Mr. John’s stomach bubbles with anxiety as Luke leaves for the staircase. The Hero ascends the steps one by one, a wide grin on his face. Mr. John watches until Luke enters into the building above. Left alone to himself, Mr. John turns his eyes back to the underbelly of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World, and returns to his sleep-like meditation.

[] Chapter Four

Ash Clouds

At the border of Chaldir’s Ruins and Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Beyond the border of Monarch burns the red sky of Chaldir’s Ruins. The edge of the red clouds blends seamlessly with the night sky underneath Monarch—a perfect transition from one world to the next. Bennie Balachie stands at the edge of the city, feet away from entering the ash-covered realm.

This is really it. My quest to become a Hero starts here. She takes in a breath, steeling herself for the first steps on her long journey. Then, she walks into the Ruins. The temperature changes from a pleasant mild to a chilly cool. She rubs her arms, wishing she had brought a jacket.

Warmth blooms in her chest. Bennie stops walking and a bright light covers her body for several seconds. When she can see again, her clothes have changed. Leather boots cover her feet, extending up to about mid-calf. Her knees are covered by a group of interlocking metal joints and plates strapped onto her boots. A skirt hangs around her waist, splitting down the leg. A metal belt winds around her midsection. The rest of her torso is covered by light, interlocking metal plates softened by chain mail.

Bennie turns around to ask Mr. John about her new clothes, but the Nexus is gone. Monarch is nothing more than a looming shadow just on the edge of the horizon. Nothing to do now but head forward and hope for the best.

Bennie weaves through jagged stones and decrepit, barren buildings. Dying fires flicker in the ruddy light. The old buildings are mostly made of bricks stacked on top of each other, but some have miscellaneous pieces of concrete and mismatched stones thrown in. Ash blown from miles away pads the ground Bennie walks on, kicking up a thin cloud of dust.

Put into a feisty mood by the eerie silence of her newfound realm, her mind goes to treasure hunting. Bennie restlessly looks around the ruined and barren landscape. Let’s see, she thinks. If I was rare and of immeasurable value, where would I hide?

“Come on, hurry up!”

Startled, Bennie quickly ducks behind the remains of a stone wall. She peers out to see an annoyed man and patient woman emerge from one of the buildings.

“Will you hush?” the man snaps. “They could be watching!”

“Not this close to Monarch,” the woman says confidently. “The Skeletons never venture this far out—Riel’s orders. He can’t afford a skirmish with other realms, and especially not with Monarch.”

“Riel’s a two-faced liar,” the man spits. “I’ll bet he’s probably already ordered Skeletons out here to prepare for siege.”

“Don’t be such a pessimist.”

The man turns toward Monarch and snorts. “Just look at it. Monarch, the so-called Greatest City in the World. It’s a dump. It’s worse there than it is out here, and out here is pretty bad. At least we’re making a real living, other than those lazy Heroes who live off the people’s taxes. What do they know about life out here in the dirt?” The man lifts a bag over his shoulder. “Let’s get out of here. It was only a lousy piece of gold anyways.”

“Gold?” Bennie says, instinctively standing up. The duo stares at her in shock. Bennie clamps her hands over her mouth.

“Caught!” the man says. “Let’s get lost!” The pair scurries off, dashing through hollow buildings and flickering fires.

“No, come back! Hey!” Bennie cups her hands over her mouth. “I need to find Chaldir!”

The fleeing pair freezes. They exchange a look between them; Bennie seizes her chance. She jumps over the stone wall and runs to meet them. They stand close to one another, regarding her with suspicion in their eyes.

“Hey, listen…” Bennie puts her hands on her hips. “Well, first off, sorry for scaring you. You both look uncomfortable so I’ll be honest and quick. I need to find Chaldir. Where do I start?”

“You want to find that old windbag?” the man scoffs. “He’s either dead or on vacation. You’re more likely to find whatever is left of his castle than the man himself.”

“Kexal!” Opat scolds. “He’s a god, not a man!”

“I just need a general direction. I’m his apprentice. See?” Bennie pulls aside her dark red hair and shows them the symbol of Chaldir. Kexal gasps and Opat puts her hand over her mouth. She steps forward, inspecting the symbol in disbelief.

“Deion’s chin…” she breathes. “It’s a real symbol, Kexal.”

“P-Probably just a paint-on,” Kexal says dismissively. “Who’s ever heard of a Hero actually going after their god?”

“That would be me, the first,” Bennie says proudly.

“Oh Kexal, she was right,” Opat says, her eyes becoming misty. “She was right about the return of the Heroes.” She steps closer to Bennie. “Tell me, are there more like you? Friends going on their quests, maybe? Adventuring to find the other gods?”

“Yup,” Bennie smiles. “Three others are out there.” The woman bows towards Bennie. Kexal snorts and crosses his arms.

“One and three don’t make six,” he says. “We’re still screwed anyways. Without all six realms filled, we might as well continue as if nothing’s changed. Between you and me, you picked the worst realm to adventure in. This place is awful.”

“Oh really?” Bennie folds her arms. “You think I made a bad decision? Why’s that?”

“Who in Tetrask’s tooth wants to be associated with someone named ‘god of Ruin?’ It’s like you’re asking to get beat up at the local bar. He’s a terrible god.”

Bennie’s eyes flash with red light.

“This place is run worse than the Cemetery ever was, and you’re telling me we’ve only got four Heroes out there instead of six? Don’t kid yourself. This realm isn’t going to change one bit. Your footprints in the ash are meaningless. You should just go home and give up.”

Without warning, Bennie explodes into a fiery inferno.

Opat and Kelax leap back in surprise. Bennie’s hair burns bright orange, mimicking the flames that swarm around her body. The duo backpedals, the heat far too intense to take at close range.

“How can you even say such things?” Bennie shouts. “You’ve done nothing but gripe and complain since I got here and it’s really pissing me off! I came to this place to find a god, discover legendary treasures, and have an adventure worth sharing with the world! If you can’t handle that, you can just get out of my way!”

The flames remain hot and bright despite Bennie’s attempt to regain her composure.

“Now look,” she says through gritted teeth. “I’m trying to find Chaldir, but I have no idea where to go. This realm—no, this world—is completely new to me. It would help to have some advice from the locals.” The fire around Bennie cools down to a dim orange glow. She takes slow, easy breaths to calm down.

“I’m sorry for his cynicism,” Opat says, stepping forward. “Even in the best of situations he’s very pessimistic. I can’t help you, but if you wish to find what you’re looking for, come with me. There’s a town not far from here. The local tavern is the best place to start looking for answers.”

“A tavern, huh? What else can you tell me?”

“All I personally know is that his home is called Palace Center. Stories say that it’s an old castle built thousands of years ago when a mighty kingdom ruled this realm.” Bennie looks Opat in the eye, then nods. The pair starts walking together, Opat leading the way. Kexal grudgingly follows, keeping his distance.

“It was beautiful what you did back there.”

“What’d I do?”

“You were blazing like a star,” Opat says, a tone of respect in her voice. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I was on fire?” Bennie looks down and spots a few flames licking at the edges of her armor. “Strange, I never noticed it.” She pats them down. “How far away is the town?”

“About a quarter of a citystride.”

“What’s a citystride?”

“Oh come on,” Kexal grumbles from behind them. Both women pointedly ignore him.

“It’s about the length of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World.”

Bennie frowns. “Why the long name? Why not just call it Monarch?”

“Because Monarch deserves respect,” Kexal says mockingly.

Opat shoots him a look. “He speaks with spite, but nevertheless he speaks the truth. Monarch truly is the greatest city in the world. It’s done so much for the people of Renea since the naming of Heroes began.”

“Is the city beautiful?”

“Why ask me? Didn’t you come from Monarch yourself?”

“No. I came from Earth.” Bennie catches herself as soon as the words slip out of her mouth.

“Earth? I’ve never heard of it. Which realm is it in?”

“It’s, uh…” Bennie rubs the back of her neck. “It’s out in the wilderness. We’re pretty cut off from everyone else.”

Kexal shoulders past Bennie and flies up the road, yelling something over his shoulder about scouting ahead.

“There he goes again, protecting the front.” Opat smiles. “He’s such a good foraging partner.” Bennie nods and the conversation dies off.

Opat leads Bennie around a cluster of rubble to a clearing. A new town is being rebuilt in defiance of the ruin. Some of the once decimated houses are being reconstructed. On the far side stands a two-story building. The center of the town is open and untouched, the perfect place for a market. Various people walk around and talk amongst themselves.

Bennie and Opat cross the square and stand in front of the two-story building. Foreign symbols are written on a plank of wood hanging above the door.

“Well, this is it. The tavern.”

“Are people allowed to rent out rooms for the night?”

“They are, but it’s a bit pricey for me. I know we just met, but if you need a place to stay…” Opat gestures vaguely. “It would be my pleasure to house a Hero. I’d be honored by your presence.”

“And I’d feel honored to be housed by you,” Bennie says. “Which house is yours?”

Opat points at the very edge of the town. “It’s there.”

“By the rubble?”

“No, over there. By the debris.”

“Oh, right there? The shack?”

“No, the shoddy lean-to.”

“Oh, the one without a roof.”

“No, the one without a front door.”

“The one with or without the broken fence line?”

“The one where the front yard looks like it was hit by a rockslide.”

“Oh okay, by the pale bald guy.”

“What pale bald—” Opat locks up completely when she spots who Bennie is talking about. Other people have noticed it, and they too have frozen. “Deion’s chin… Get inside right now.”

Before Bennie can ask for an explanation, Opat shoves Bennie into the tavern with the rest of the sparsely populated town. Someone slams the door and drops the bolt on it. Bennie barely has time to look at the room before the ash-coated windows go dark, curtains drawn across their panes. Candles are snuffed and everyone goes silent. Bennie is jostled from person to person until she eventually finds herself pressed against a wall. All is very quiet and very still.

A muffled scraping sound comes from outside and a sinister red light peers through the darkened windows. The air in the room crackles with tension. Bennie tries to calm the palpitating of her heart.

After several long minutes, the light pulls away from the front door and everyone lets out a collective sigh of relief. A young woman looks out the front window and gives an all-clear sign. The curtains draw back and people relight candles. Opat approaches Bennie from the side.

“What a scare. I think I could use a drink to calm my nerves. You want one?” Without waiting for an answer, Opat walks away and sits down at one of the tables. As Bennie approaches, Opat turns to the bar—set next to the ornate, furnished staircase—at the far side of the room. “Hey, barkeep! Bring out two glasses of Orange!”

The barkeeper swings by moments later and puts two glasses of frothy orange liquid on the table. Raising her glass, Opat says a toast and takes a long draft. She clenches her teeth for a moment, then sets it down. “Damn, I keep forgetting how good Orange is around here. Those Monarchian bars don’t have anything on good Orange from a Mountaineer tavern.”

“Charging double today, Opat!” the barkeeper calls.

“What!” Opat whirls in her seat. “What for?”

“Riel choked a supply line this morning; I’m short on the drinks!”

“Just throw it on my tab!”

“Opat, huh?” Bennie turns to the other woman. “Is that short for something?”

“It’s short for my full name, Opatalionai. I was named after the former goddess of wine and happiness, Opatrian.”

Bennie leans in. “Former goddess? Is she not around anymore?”

“She’s dead,” Opat says, taking another drink from her glass. “A lot of gods and goddesses aren’t around anymore. Legends disagree on how it happened, though. I hear they just left.”

“Really? That’s like parents abandoning their children.”

“What can you do? The past is the past, as they say.” She drinks from her glass again. “Gotta focus in on the now.”

Bennie takes her glass curiously. “What exactly is this?”

“I’m glad you asked,” says Opat. “It’s a type of alcohol native to the Ruins. It’s sweet and tangy and it burns on the way down—makes you feel warm and lightheaded. It’s perfect for parties. If Riel keeps trying to tax this he’s going to get one nasty uprising from a lot of alcoholics, Kexal included.”

Bennie looks around. “Where’d Kexal go, anyways?”

“Don’t worry about Kexal too much; he’s a hardy guy who can fend for himself.”

“So does he have a problem with this Riel guy?”

“I can’t name anyone who doesn’t have a problem with Riel. He’s the leader of the Skeletons. They’re a group of people—if you can call them people—that you really don’t want to mess with. Trust me on this one. The less you know about the Skeletons the better.”

“Is Riel the realm’s governor or something?”

Choking, Opat sets her drink down and erupts into laughter. Bennie’s cheeks flush in embarrassment and she stares down at the table. Opat hiccups, wiping her eyes.

“Oh man,” Opat says, still chuckling. “I needed that laugh. Where was I… Oh, Riel. He’s just a guy who thinks he owns the whole world. Nothing exciting there.” She leans in over the table, already close to drunk. “Hey! Aren’t you going to drink anything?”

“Not really feeling it.” Bennie stands. “I’m going to look around the tavern and see if I can get some more information. I’ll be right back.”

Bennie leaves the table quickly, glad to be away from both Opat and the alcohol. At the bar, two men are talking while a third listens intently. Their voices are hushed and controlled. Deciding they look suspicious enough to spy on, she discreetly slides into a seat and tries to eavesdrop.

“Riel’s done it again, I hear,” says the first man. “Stirred up more trouble in good neighborhoods, killed 60 people without missing a beat.”

“I hear he’s doing it to fuel his army,” the second says. “Nothing good comes from him. He ought to be put out of his misery.”

“Yeah, then he’d be dead for the second time.” The first man pauses, his drink at his lips. “Or was it the third time? I hear he’s died like four or five times and just keeps coming back.”

“Who cares how many times it’s been?” says the second man. “All I know is that I’m ready to head out of the Ruins for greener pastures—literally. I hear the Woods are relatively quiet nowadays.” He smiles, swirling his drink in his glass. “Always wanted to try my luck as a lumberjack. I’ve gotten real tired of this ash-covered wasteland.”

“Better there than here, I suppose,” says the first man. “This place has really gone downhill in the past few years.”

“Yeah, and it was pretty downhill before. We’re in the Ruins, for pity’s sake. How much lower can you get?”

“There’s always the cemetery.”

“You know,” the second man says, pointing at the first, “I hear the Cemetery is pretty quiet these days. More so than the Woods, even. All the Shades must be dead or their leader is planning something big.”

“They’re always planning, but I was talking about the actual cemetery. Where you bury your dead.”

The second man laughs loudly. “Burying your dead? In this place? Sounds like a dream come true. We’re lucky if we even have a body to bury nowadays. Remember what the Skeletons did to Vilza’s family?”

The first man scrunches up his face. “Oh man, don’t remind me.”

“Yeah. Try burying that underground. You’d spend six weeks just trying to pick up the pieces.”

Bennie approaches as the conversation lulls. “Excuse me,” she says softly. The three men all turn and look at her. She swallows nervously. “Hi there. I’m Bennie.”

“Weird name,” the first man says. He looks over her shoulder, then frowns. “Were you eavesdropping on us or something?”

“Looks like she was,” says the second man.

“I don’t like people listening in on private conversations,” the first grunts. “Get lost.”

“I just want to know about Riel and I’ll be on my way,” Bennie says quickly. “I’ve been trying to get details so I can be prepared for whatever’s out there. I don’t know if this’ll help things along or not, but…” She pulls aside her bangs. A slight itching sensation scratches her forehead as Chaldir’s symbol scribes itself into view.

“Look at that mark,” the second man says. “That’s no tattoo; that’s the real deal.”

The first man whistles low and long. “Well I’ll be dogged,” he says. “A real Hero in Chaldir’s Ruins.”

Bennie lets her bangs drop back into place. “I’m trying to find Chaldir. Opat told me his home is called Palace Center, so I think that’s where I need to go. It’s part of this whole adventure thing.” She pauses. “And on top of that, it sounds like Riel is a problem I should try to fix.”

“A problem?” The second man roars with laughter. “You don’t know the half of it!”

“Riel’s a plague,” the first says. “Our realm is already falling apart and he comes along just to help us rot even more. It’s terrible, really. It’s a big cosmic joke being played on us all, and he’s the punchline. A nasty fellow with a bone to pick with everyone.”

“Good one, Harshan!”

The two men roar with laughter for no apparent reason. Bennie’s cheeks flush red again, but this time she doesn’t run away.

After drying the tears from his eyes, the first man turns to Bennie. “Listen to me, kid. If you’re a Hero, you want to stay far away from Riel. He’s been planning something big for years and it’s about to happen soon. People are disappearing. New families move into town and are gone by sunup. Lovers by the moonlight are found as little more than stripped skins. Robbed graves, arson, stolen metals, you name it.”

Bennie stands up straighter at the mention of people disappearing. Those could have been her parents, or her sister or one of her friends. “I’ve got to stop him, then. Someone has to stand up and say no.”

Harshan laughs again. “You want justice? In these parts? Don’t be a fool!”

The second man peers at her over his glass of Orange. “You want justice? Go home. Be a politician. Fight crime in Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. These lands are desolate and broken and there’s nothing worth fighting for out here. Not anymore. Maybe once there was, but now…” He shakes his head and drinks from his glass, staring at the wall.

The third man, who had remained totally quiet, turns to his two companions. “You big idiots never answered her first question. She had the gumption to walk up and talk to us. At least have the decency to do something nice for her.” He turns to Bennie. “If you want to find your patron god, it’s obvious that you’ve got to head farther out. No one knows exactly where Palace Center is, but old stories say it’s in the deepest part of the Ruins—probably on the border of the Vast Emptiness.”

“I’ll tell you this much,” Harshan says, pointing at Bennie. “Riel has agents all over the Ruins and he’s very, very powerful. If you ever have the misfortune of meeting him, get out fast. Few people who meet Riel ever live to tell the tale, so don’t be a hero.”

“But I am a Hero,” Bennie says.

Harshan motions to Bennie’s forehead. “Then you better keep that mark of yours hidden. Heroes have a bad rap around these parts. I personally think the Heroes are the greatest things to happen to this wretched planet, but I know a lot of people don’t share my views.”

“Are there other towns out in the Ruins?”

“Some, but not many,” the third man says. “Try not to expect the best food when you stop somewhere. The grub around these parts is pretty terrible since Riel burns all the crops.”

Harshan turns away from Bennie. “Now beat it, kid. A bar’s no place for a Hero.”

Bennie returns to her table to find Opat has left. She sighs and sits down to wait for her companion’s return. After a few moments alone to herself, a young woman slides into the chair across from her. She has short black hair styled in a pixie cut, brown eyes, and a bright smile.

“Hey,” she says excitedly, “are you a Hero?”

Bennie looks around to make sure no one is listening, remembering Harshan’s warning. “Word gets around fast, huh?”

“You are a Hero! That’s so cool!” The young woman pushes her chair in closer. “So can you hear him? Chaldir, I mean? Legend says Heroes and oracles can speak directly to the gods.” She sighs dreamily. “It must be so amazing.”

“I’ve never tried before, so I can’t tell you.”

“You ought to try sometime,” the young woman says. “Mortals don’t get the kind of chances you get so I’d take advantage of all the opportunities you find.”

“Mortals?” says Bennie. “What do you mean? Are Heroes immortal?”

“Oracles are said to have extended lifespans, but…” The young woman shrugs. “Heroes have been assassinated before, so they’re not indestructible.”

“Who would assassinate a Hero? They’re the good guys, right?”

The young woman leans on a fist. “Actually, a lot of Heroes are pretty bad. They use their status to force their way into powerful positions. The current king of Monarch’s a Hero too.” She smiles. “The city is being run pretty well, though, so I think he must be one of the good ones.”

Bennie looks around the tavern. “Out of curiosity, is there any reason you came to talk to me? I don’t mean to be rude but I’m waiting for a friend.”

“Oh, you’re waiting for Opat? She wandered off to the bathroom a few moments ago. I just wanted to talk to a Hero because it’s been a long time since anyone’s seen one. Oh, and I absolutely had to ask if you’ve ever talked to your patron god. I’ve always been curious about that. Who is it, by the way?”

“Considering I’m in the Ruins, I’m sure you can take a wild guess.” She looks around. “I figured this would be a great realm to get my first explorer’s badge.”

“Heroes get badges too?” Her eyes shine with excitement. “That’s so cool!”

“It’s just a figure of speech.”

“Oh.” The young woman visibly deflates, then immediately brightens. “So is this your first time doing stuff like this?”

“Yeah,” Bennie says, taken aback by her the woman’s bipolar demeanor. “I’ve been a dreamer most of my life—in fact, where I’m from, there are a lot of people like that. But now I finally get the chance to be the hero of my own story.”

“That’s amazing,” the young woman says, still smiling. “Well anyways, I think you should talk to Chaldir sometime and see if he talks to you. I’ll see you around, alright? And hey, if you need me, my name is Jenna. It was so nice to meet you!”

The chipper young woman gets up and skips away, disappearing into one of the hallways of the tavern’s lowest floor. Bennie sighs and looks at the drinks on the table, her own largely untouched. Opat’s drink looks about the same as well. Bennie looks out the window. The red sky is still cloudy and it’s gradually getting darker. Night must be coming soon.

Suddenly, Bennie’s brow furrows in curiosity. She looks at the mostly untouched drink on Opat’s side of the table. Surely alcohol on Renea doesn’t go through people that quickly. I’d better check on her.

Bennie stands and moves towards the restroom. She finds herself in front of two different doors with marks scribbled on them in a foreign language. Bennie leans against the wall and waits a few moments. A man shuffles by and enters into one of the doors. Bennie enters the other one.

A foul smell rushes into her nostrils and she immediately covers her nose. The bathroom’s definitely primitive, that’s for certain. She squints, attempting to see through the pitch darkness before remembering her powers. Bennie concentrates on her fist, trying to will heat into it. She imagines it exploding with fire like something out of a movie. Her fist starts to glow a faint red; then, it sparks. A small flame envelops her hand, lighting up the restroom.

It’s little more than a wooden floor and boxed seats set against the walls. The seats all have holes in them and are all vacant except for one at the end. Someone is bent over it, too thin to be Opat. Whoever they are, they look like the alcohol is hitting them hard.

“Well, she’s not in here after all,” Bennie mutters. “I must have missed her.” Bennie turns for the door when a familiar sound cuts through the air. She pauses for just a moment, hand on the doorknob. Her other hand is still on fire, faintly lighting one part of the room.

Where have I heard that before? I know I’ve heard that sound somewhere. She turns to take a second look when an object bears down on her. Without thinking, Bennie moves her head just slightly to the right. The object buries itself in the wood of the door, the handle quivering from the impact. It’s curved and reflects the light from Bennie’s fist.

Is that a… Oh my God, it’s a sword.

Bennie turns to look back into the room and finds herself face to face with something unbelievable. It clicks all at once. The pale bald man. The group called the Skeletons. The face of the thing towering over Bennie.

Bennie is staring down a moving skeletal system—a literal living skeleton.

“Oh my God!” Bennie ducks underneath its arm and retreats, backing away with heavy steps.

“Will you shut up?” The voice—harsh and scratchy—comes from the skeleton. It tugs at the sword embedded in the wood. “I’m trying to do this quietly but you’re making a lot of noise.”

“Y-You’re a skeleton,” Bennie stutters, still backing away. “You’re a real, moving, living skeleton. And you talk! Oh my God, you can talk!”

“We’ve established this.” The skeleton rips the sword free and turns to Bennie. “Now stop making so much noise so I can kill you.”

“Kill me?” she all but shrieks. “Why?”

“Riel’s orders were clear,” the skeleton says. “Kill everyone you see. Tell me you’re not going to struggle like that one back there. She made for a nasty fight.”

Bennie knows instinctively who the skeleton is talking about. Courage washes through her and she stands up a little straighter, though her legs still quiver uncertainly. “I won’t let you kill me, you…” Bennie hunts for words to sound threatening. “You creepy skeleton thing!”

The skeleton laughs. Bennie mentally slaps herself.

“If I had one ruere for every time I’ve heard that sentence escape someone’s mouth I’d be filthy rich.” It points the blade at Bennie. “Now come here and don’t move because I have to make the cut clean. This sword is pretty old so it might get stuck a few times.” The skeleton takes a step and swings at Bennie. She steps back farther into the room, avoiding the flashing blade. The skeleton continues to move forward. “Stop moving and let me kill you.”

Remembering her hand, Bennie points her flame-cloaked fist at the skeleton. “Back off, I’m armed!” She regrets the sentence as soon as it leaves her mouth. Despite the lack of any discernible features on the skeleton’s face, its silent stare manages to make Bennie feel completely stupid.

“And what will you do with that?” the skeleton says.

Bennie bites her tongue, searching for a rebuttal.

“I don’t have time for this.” The skeleton approaches, sword raised. “Stand still.”

Her instincts kick into high gear. Bennie points her open palm at the skeleton and wills the fire to burst from her hand. With a roar like a train, a wide tongue of fire rages outwards and consumes the skeleton in orange and red flames.

T-tingly! Bennie thinks, shocked. It feels tingly!

“Ah, you’re a Hero,” the skeleton says. It stands in the middle of the floor, Bennie’s jet of flame dying off to embers. Fire licks at its charred bones but the skeleton doesn’t make any move to put them out. “If I don’t kill you now, Riel will kill me fifty-seven times over. As I said before, stand still. I promise this will only hurt a lot.” The skeleton dashes at Bennie and swings its sword down toward her head.

She throws up her arms in protection. Another roar fills the room and a dome of fire bursts around Bennie, protecting her body. The metal sword slams into a shield of fire and glances off. Bennie body slams her attacker for all she’s worth, trusting her instincts. The skeleton stumbles over itself and trips, falling on to its back.

The dome drops as a cloak of fire surges around Bennie’s body, lighting up the whole room. She no longer feels afraid and righteous fury burns in her eyes. Bennie straightens her back. The skeleton appraises her as it gets to its feet.

“You’re quite the sight,” it says. “I guess you really are a Hero. No matter, I will kill you all the same.”

The skeleton rushes at Bennie and slashes diagonally at her face. Bennie reaches out and catches the sword with her bare hand, fire coiling around her palm to protect it. Though she almost buckles under the force of the blow, Bennie sets her stance and holds her ground. She steps forward, eyes on the skeleton as she forces it backwards. Anger boils in her stomach.

Bennie cranks her free arm back and punches the skeleton in the face with all her might. The skeleton’s head bursts into charcoal and ash, exploding into millions of pieces. The remainder of the body crumples to the ground, lifeless, and the sword drops to the ground with a metallic clang. The cloak of fire around Bennie dims to a warm glow. Then, everything is quiet.

In the sudden silence, Bennie feels a rush of excitement. She pumps her fist and dances around, relishing the feeling of victory. She pauses when she spots a faint blue glimmer coming from underneath the ribcage.

Bennie crouches over the body. Through the split in the ribs, a small ball of blue fire can be seen levitating between the spinal cord and the sternum. It flickers for a few moments longer before going out entirely.

All at once, reality kicks in. Bennie sits down hard on the wood floor.

“Oh wow,” she says softly. “That was a real skeleton. And it had a real sword.” She looks at the unmoving skeletal system. “I killed it. I really did kill it.” Bile rises in her throat; Bennie resists the urge to vomit. She presses a hand to her forehead, trying to focus.

Come on, Bennie, get a grip. It probably killed Opat. It was evil and it deserved its fate. She runs a hand through her hair and sighs. Kexal is going to have the fit of a lifetime if he hears about this. I hope I can keep this under wraps.

“Hey! You’re glowing like a regular fire!”

Bennie looks up to see the young woman who approached her at the table a few minutes ago. She sighs in annoyance. Just what I need: the perfectly timed appearance of a genuine fangirl.

“Oh my, it smells terrible in here.” The young woman scrunches her face up. “Burnt bones and blood, yuck. What’s that you’re sitting by? Kalax’s boot, what happened in here?”

“It’s just a Skeleton,” Bennie says. “It’s dead, don’t worry. I think it got to Opat first, though.” Bennie looks at the floor. “Kexal’s going to kill me.”

After a pause, the young woman says, “Perhaps you should head back to Monarch.”

Bennie looks up. “What? Why?”

“You’re not safe,” the young woman says. She looks genuinely concerned. “With the Skeletons on the prowl and Riel more active than ever, danger’s around every corner! You should just head home.”

“I think I can handle myself pretty well.” Bennie smiles widely. “I’ve never felt so ready to take on the world, honestly.”

“Riel will find you,” the young woman insists. “He’s very powerful. I don’t think anyone can stand up to him.”

Bennie scowls and stands; a loose cloak of fire wraps itself around her body. She shoves her way out of the bathroom and past the young woman.

“Madame Hero? Where are you going?”

Bennie strides down the hallway and into the main room of the tavern. More people have shown up at the tavern and someone is plucking a stringed musical instrument. The glow from Bennie’s fire causes all eyes to snap to her. The music stops playing. She doesn’t stop and heads right for the door.

“Madame Hero!” the young woman calls, rushing after her. “It’s night outside! It’s not safe! Wait!”

Bennie throws the door open and marches to the center of the town. A few people peer out from inside the tavern. Jenna, the young woman from earlier, watches from just outside the front door. All is quiet except for the sounds of crackling fires in the shadows. Bennie breathes slowly, psyching herself up.

She throws her arms out and her body swathes itself in flames. Orange light blasts across the makeshift town and waves of heat ripple across the landscape. Jenna slams the door shut. Some of the braver tavern-goers look out the window, shielding their eyes against the intense light.

“Riel!” Bennie shouts. “Are you listening to me?”

“Kalax’s boot, what’s she yelling for?” one patron asks from the bar.

“I’m Bennie Balachie, apprentice to Chaldir, god of Ruin and Flame! I am a Hero, and I am not afraid of you!”

“Is she crazy? Riel’s got ears everywhere!”

“Hush!” Jenna snaps. “She obviously knows that and is calling him out!”

“A Hero with guts, maybe?” one says.

“More like a Hero with a death wish,” says another. “I say let her bury herself while she’s still young. Barkeep! I’ll take another round!”

Bennie brightens her pyrokinetic armor and the tavern-goers pull the curtains shut, unable to take the blinding light. She extends her arms upwards, staring up at the clear night sky. It looks exactly like the sky underneath Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. A jet of flame erupts from Bennie’s hands and roars into the sky, surging higher and higher until it merely vanishes into the nothingness of outer space.

Inside the tavern, Jenna smiles and sits down at a table. The Heroes have indeed returned to Renea.

Somewhere deep in the Ruins, far from the protective shield of Monarch, Bennie’s beacon of light is seen by a wandering eye of a Skeleton scout. It registers the beacon as an unknown phenomena and transmits the image back to its host, a black mirror hanging in the bowels of the Dark Hollow. A skeletal hand cloaked in blue fire reaches out from the darkness, its fingers tracing the outline of Bennie’s bright jet of flame.

Nekros Mathis, skeleton necromancer and right-hand man to Riel, the Skeleton King of Chaldir’s Ruins, observes the pillar of fire in silence for several minutes. He leans back, rhythmically tapping his skeletal fingers on the rim of his cauldron. Several scenarios run through his mind, none of which bode well for him or for Riel. Nekros sends out a mental call for a scribe; moments later, a smaller skeleton in loose black robes enters into the dark chamber.

“Yes, Master Nekros? You summoned me?”

“I have a message for Riel,” Nekros says in his tenor voice.

“Of course, sir. One moment.”

The scribe bows and leaves the room. Nekros smooths out his enchanted black robes—the only clothes that won’t instantly incinerate upon contact with his body, perpetually cloaked in blue fire. He returns to his black mirror. The image of the beacon shimmers indistinctly, as if the Skeleton scout is losing visual contact. Nekros knits his hands in front of him, leaning on his cauldron. As he gazes deep into the jet black mirror, an uneasy feeling settles where his stomach used to be.

The skeleton squire’s feet clack on the floor as it reenters the dark chamber. In its hand is a notepad and a quill pen. “What message may I relay to the King?”

The necromancer straightens his back. “From Nekros Mathis, to His Majesty Riel. Minutes after darkness fell, a Skeleton soldier scouted a pillar of light five citystrides off the Ruins Passageway of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. Its origins may be from a Hero. Your reply to this development is greatly desired.” Nekros looks to the squire. “Run that to the King and be swift about it.”

“Yes, Master Nekros.” The skeleton scribe puts a final flair on his note and departs with a bow.

The necromancer turns to the black mirror, watching as the pillar of fire grows dimmer. When the mirror goes completely dark, Nekros severs the connection with the scout. A fire in Chaldir’s Ruins is nothing to worry about. But a pillar of fire bright enough to be seen whole citystrides away is troublesome to say the least. Nekros leans close to the mirror. I hope Chaldir isn’t on the move. Our forces aren’t yet ready for—

Thunderous footfalls resonate down the hallway accompanied by the sound of metal clinking against bone. “Nekros Mathis, you best have an explanation by the time I get into that room! If you don’t I swear I’ll mount your head on my wall!”

Riel the Skeleton King barges into Nekros’s chamber, his dual pair of massive horns nearly smashing through the top of the door frame. The Skeleton King towers over Nekros in both presence and height. A deep red overcoat with a gold trimming hangs loosely over his shoulders. Two horns grow out from each side of his skull, making it four in total. The forward set curves outwards and then gradually inwards until the tips almost touch. The rear set waxes outwards and tapers in only at the top.

“I’m here so start explaining,” says Riel. “We’ve put too much time and effort into this to hit problems now.”

“I think a Hero with the mark of Chaldir on his forehead is active in the Ruins. It’s nothing to be concerned about, so long as we find him and beat him early. But there’s a complication.” Nekros pauses to lessen the blow. “It’s also possible that Chaldir could be on the move. I don’t think I need to tell you how disastrous that could be.”

Riel crosses his arms and devotes himself to a few moments of thought. After a while, he speaks. “How strong is the Hero?”

“He’s young and early in his quest. A fully-realized Hero would have made that beacon seen from every nook and cranny on Renea. If he poses any threat, it’s a small one.”

“Yet it’s a threat nonetheless.” Riel folds his arms behind his back. “Still, Chaldir is a god, and I would rather face a thousand Heroes than face him.”

“You’re not the only one,” says Nekros. “What would you like me to do?”

“Research what you saw. I want to know everything about it and what caused it. The more we know now the better off we’ll be in the end.”

“And the Hero?”

“If you can get eyes on him, then do it. Report back when you’ve found something new.” Silence falls over Nekros’s chamber, the room lit only by the faint blue glow of the necromancer’s bodily fire. Riel waits for the necromancer to say something, but nothing comes. “Have you nothing to say?”

“No,” Nekros says. “I have nothing.”

“Then show me your work.”

Turning, Nekros scoops his hands into the fire of his cauldron. He pulls out a handful of liquid flame and forms it into a small ball. It crackles with the presence of dark magic. Nekros walks to his work table and pushes aside the half-stripped carcass of a dead man. On the operation table is a fresh skeleton.

Nekros jams the fireball into the skeleton’s chest and bright blue flames explode outwards. A loud, painful shriek slices through the air as life is breathed into the body. Nekros’s body blocks most of the bright blue light, casting long, sinister shadows on the wall. Riel rubs his chin in thought, watching the display with great interest.

After what feels like an eternity, the screaming ends. The skeleton gets off the table and leaves the room without another word. For a long time Nekros is silent, his head bowed.

“Are they always like that?” Riel asks.

“They must be,” Nekros replies. “No active intelligence, no skills beyond striking terror into mortal hearts, and no functionality other than killing machines. If one dies, it dies forever and becomes nothing more than a lifeless skeleton. I’ve made them so no one can change the fundamental nature of my creations. They cannot change sides.”

Riel snorts. “We do not choose sides, Nekros. There are no sides in the upcoming war. Anyone standing before me will be crushed. We will pave the way for a new frontier.”

“A new frontier won’t exist if Chaldir is on the move.” Nekros turns to face his King. “I’ve mentioned this before and I will again: if Chaldir strikes, you will fail.”

“And now we have an opportunity,” Riel says. “It’s true that Palace Center has proved impossible to find. But with a Hero in the Ruins, we now have a map. All we need to do is follow in his footsteps.”

“You think the Hero will change anything? We’ve tried for years to unearth his hiding place to no avail. Finding the god of Ruin and Flame is easier said than done.”

“Yet I will do it. The war starts here, with us, in this very room.” Riel steps around the table. “It will evolve from the Ruins and spread throughout Renea. The world will be in chaos and all will be ash. After all, revolution is an easy thing to do. Give it a little push and nothing will stop it.”

“When will you tell me your endgame, Riel? As your right-hand man I deserve to know.”

“You’ll know my endgame when I tell you it.” The Skeleton King draws his fingers across the table and approaches his necromancer. “Until then, you do what I tell you.”

“Do the generals know?”

“No one knows but me.” Riel stops moving mere inches from Nekros, forcing the necromancer to look up into the King’s face. “Are you worried my plans won’t work? You’ve forgotten that I was the most revered strategist of my time.”

“My only concern is success or failure.” Nekros takes a step back to distance himself. “Anything else is trivial.”

“Hence my concern with our roadbump. As long as the Hero doesn’t become too powerful, he’ll prove useful in tracking down Chaldir.” Riel folds his arms behind his back. “You asked about my endgame, didn’t you Nekros? It will always involve Chaldir. He’s the final piece to my puzzle—the key I’ll use to unlock unlimited power.”

“Is such a thing even possible?”

Riel exits without answering, his four massive horns scraping the top of the door frame. Nekros watches his King leave, then returns to his black mirror. An image of himself with a mighty crown of fire slowly comes into view. Nekros touches the mirror longingly, but the reflection does not reciprocate. The Nekros in the mirror continues to stare at the other Nekros without moving, body ablaze with blue fire.

Painfully, the necromancer turns away. There is too much work to be done, he thinks, for me to be entertaining my childish whims.

[] Chapter Five

Visions Foretold

On the edge of Magnus’s Cemetery and Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Flat grey clouds cover the sky of Magnus’s Cemetery. A long black cobblestone path peppered with white and purple stones stretches out of sight, gnarled trees lining the path. A crow caws out of sight, the sound echoing across the quiet landscape. Far on the horizon, a wall of darkness rises like a looming cloud of death.

Scott clutches his satchel a little tighter and takes a few long steps into the Cemetery. When he looks over his shoulder, Monarch is long gone—nothing but a shadow on the distant horizon. A cold wind ghosts across Scott’s arms and he instinctively rubs his arms, wishing for a jacket.

Then, a spark of white light blooms from his chest. It covers his body for only a second, bathing him from head to toe. When it dims, Scott’s clothes have changed. He now wears a purple shirt and black pants, a large black overcoat hanging over his shoulders. Curious, Scott spins around in a small circle; the overcoat flies outward like a cape.

Struck with an idea, Scott removes the emblems from the satchel and places them inside his jacket pockets. He discards the satchel somewhere in the grass. With a nod, the Hero adjusts the coat and resumes his walk. In the quiet and the solitude of the Cemetery, it doesn’t take long for him to start daydreaming.

Scott is so immersed in his daydream that he fails to notice a young boy approaching him from the grass. The young boy wears no shoes, a plain tan robe, and has a gentle, sloping face. He clears his throat politely. Scott glances at the boy and stops walking, watching him curiously.

“Hey,” the boy says. “I don’t typically get right to business, but I’m short on time so I might as well get to it. Do you have any money you can spare for my family? Our income is pretty low and we can use all the help we can get. Dad is going to leave for Monarch tomorrow and buy from the market, if it helps.”

Scott’s eyes narrow. The situation is too perfect, too reminiscent of things he’s seen in his time playing board games. The boy doesn’t look harmful, but Scott remembers playing quests where bandits used innocence tactics to sneak up on unsuspecting prey.

“I don’t know,” Scott says. “I don’t think my credit card buys food in Monarch.”

“Credit card?”

Scott smirks. “You guys don’t use credit cards?”

“Never heard of them. Will you help us? The sun’s going down and I must be home before then.”

“We should just chill until the sun sets, then. After all, it’s not like you’re trying to spring a trap on me or anything.”

“I’ve made a mistake in asking you, I see.” The boy turns to leave.

Sure showed him. Scott pops his coat collar and heads farther down the road.

“Wait!” the boy suddenly shouts, rushing towards him. “Hey, wait!”

“Not another round of lunacy.” Scott turns towards the running boy. “Listen, kid, I told you already—”

“This isn’t about money. Just come with me, hurry!”

Scott doesn’t have time to react. The boy grabs Scott by the coat and pulls him off the path, hiding under the branches of a tree. They crouch behind it, remaining quiet for several seconds.

“What now?” Scott asks, peering out from behind the tree. “Where’s the bandits?”

“What?”

“Bandits! They must be waiting for you to attack me or something.” Scott grins widely. “God, this is so exciting!”

“Hush. This is a dangerous situation.”

“Lucky for you—danger is my middle name. Bring on the bandits! I’ve never given up in a fight before and I don’t intend to start now.”

“Quiet! They’re almost here!”

“Where?” Scott asks, looking down the path in excitement. “Where? I don’t see any bandits.”

“What are you on about with those bandits? There aren’t any bandits! Now hush!”

“What do you mean there aren’t any bandits? What are you on about?”

The scream of a tortured soul sends a cold chill rippling down Scott’s spine. From the sky, three dark shadows race towards the path, icy screeches piercing the air. The boy tugs himself closer to the tree, quivering. An unsettling feeling settles into Scott’s stomach and he stays perfectly still as three shadowy creatures drop to the ground.

The brown shadow takes the form of a tall skeleton with glowing green eye holes, its nose and mouth glowing the same color. The dark blue shadow forms into a thin, misshapen abomination with similar green eyes, three fingers on each hand. The black shadow half forms into a skeletal structure, then dissipates into a collection of curly black tendrils, then changes back, shifting from partial skull to shapeless horror and everywhere in-between.

“What are those?” Scott whispers.

“Just stay quiet. Shades can hear very well.”

Scott touches the boy on the shoulder, turning them invisible. The Shades shift around on the path, searching for something. The brown Shade digs its hands into the ground, pulling up black cobblestones and sifting through them. Its eyes flare brightly and it bares its teeth, hissing angrily.

“It was here,” says the black shapeless Shade, drawing out S sounds. “I heard its voice.”

“I heard it too,” says the blue Shade, talking as if struggling for breath. “It was here. It was talking to something.”

“We’ve lost the Hero’s trail,” the brown Shade says, its voice gravelly and angry. “This will not be easy to explain to Master.”

“Perhaps we can track it,” the shapeless Shade offers. “Kill the Hero, bring it to Master.”

“No. I think it’s too far done. Us three together cannot beat a Hero.”

“Then we must tell the Master,” says the blue Shade. “He will not be pleased.”

“So long as we’re not caught on the wrong side of Magnus,” says the shapeless Shade. “I fear him more than the Master.”

“Careful he doesn’t hear you say that,” says the brown Shade. “Master will be happy to change your mind.”

“Salvation is coming,” the blue Shade recites.

“Salvation is here,” the brown Shade continues.

“Salvation will endure,” the black Shade finishes.

The trio darts upwards, sending an ear-splitting echo flying across the landscape. Scott waits for the dark shadows to vanish over the horizon before taking his hand off the boy. The pair returns to visibility and the boy lets out a long sigh of relief.

“What are you so tense for?” Scott asks. “We were safe the whole time. I turned us invisible with my powers. I’m a Hero, you know.”

“Don’t joke about that,” the boy retorts. “The power of a Hero is a divine right.”

Scott turns himself invisible and vanishes from sight. He walks around the tree a few times, rustling the grass as loudly as he can, then reappears in front of him.

At the boy’s excited grin, Scott holds up a hand. “Now I’m still new to this. There are whole levels of power I haven’t reached yet. But when I get there, I’m going to be stronger than anyone else.” Scott gives him a grin. “Anyways, you’re obviously not a bandit so I think I can trust you. I’ll help your family if you let me stay with you tonight.”

“You know, I haven’t seen any Shades all day until I met you.” The young boy takes a few steps back. “You strike me as bad luck.”

“Between you and me, it’s hard to get help when you live in the middle of nowhere.” Scott folds his arms. “If I were you I’d take what I can get.”

“You could be a thief for all I know.”

“A thief!” Scott gasps. “You think I’m a thief?”

“You can turn invisible, making it possible to steal things right from under people’s noses.”

“But I’m not a thief!”

“Are you sure? You don’t look trustworthy.”

Scott turns around and heads for the pathway.

“Hey! Where are you going?”

“I’m going to continue on with my quest and find Magnus!” Scott shouts over his shoulder. “Good luck with your family, you jerk!”

“Hey, wait!”

Scott takes off down the path at a full run, ignoring the boy’s pleas to come back. With the wind in his hair and the overcoat flying off his back like a superhero cape, Scott forgets for the moment that he’s wanted by the Shades. There’s nothing between him and the distant wall of blackness except a long cobblestone path and the cool midafternoon air.

Wham! A heavy impact sends Scott skittering off the path and he falls into the grass with a thud. A weight presses down on top of him. Scott throws punches wildly, yelling profane curses at the top of his lungs.

“Hey!” a voice exclaims. “Hey, easy! Easy!”

Scott stops thrashing and looks up at his would-be assailant. It’s a middle-aged man who hardly looks threatening at all. His eyes glow with the presence of a thousand twinkling stars.

“Easy, Scott,” the oracle says. “My name is Zyphias and I’m the oracle for Magnus. You’re safe with me.” Zyphias helps Scott to his feet. “I’m sorry you came to the Cemetery at such a bad time. The Shades have been growing restless these past few days.”

“They weren’t that scary. I took care of them pretty easy.” Scott claps his hands together. “So if you’re the oracle of this realm, I’ve got some questions for you. Am I going in the right direction to find Magnus?”

The oracle points to the wall of darkness on the horizon. “That’s the gate to the Royal Crypt, the home of Magnus. All souls are laid to rest there.”

“Good!” Scott says. “I’ve got a good idea of what I need before I get moving. I need food and a good weapon. Let’s be honest, anyone who’s out here without a weapon might as well draft their own will. Is there a minimart somewhere that I can pick up those things?”

“Hey!” a young voice calls. “Hey Hero! Wait up!”

“Oh God, him again.”

“Who?” the oracle asks. He points to the boy. “You mean Jinas? I know my son can be overbearing at times, but I promise he means well.”

“Your son?”

Jinas puffs up to the pair standing in the grass. He leans over his knees for a few moments, trying to catch his breath. “Hey pops,” he wheezes. “Hey Hero.”

“Hey yourself,” says Scott. “Bug off. The adults are talking.”

“Now Scott, let’s not be hasty. Jinas was just trying to collect money for the shrine.”

Jinas stands up. “So Scott’s your name, is it? This guy almost got me killed, dad. Three Shades dropped from the sky and he wouldn’t stop yakking on about it. If I hadn’t shut him up, he might have started singing Delra’s Hymn of Monarch at the top of his lungs.”

Scott steps forwards. “Now see here!”

“That’s enough, Jinas,” says Zyphias. “Be polite to Scott. He’s the first Hero to venture after Magnus in many years.”

“And you best remember it,” Scott declares to Jinas, “because one day I’m going to be the most famous Hero in the whole world!”

“Yeah?” Jinas challenges. “Well someday I’m going to be a famous scholar!”

“Yeah, but people actually care about what I’m going to be.”

Jinas grinds his fist into his palm threateningly. Scott rudely sticks his tongue out.

“Well,” Zyphias says happily, “now that we have that out of the way, I’ll take you to the shrine. The sun is setting soon and the Shades are always watching for new people to attack, especially at night.”

“Wait,” Scott says. “Does this mean I have to go with him?”

“Man,” Jinas groans. “Does this mean he’s coming with us?”

“Walk with me,” the oracle says. “Delra doesn’t like to be left alone for long.”

Zyphias walks to the other side of the grass, travelling parallel to the dark placemarker of the Royal Crypt. Jinas follows his father and Scott follows Jinas, though he finds it difficult to tear his eyes away from the imposing darkness. They walk in silence for many minutes, a soft wind whistling through the empty Cemetery.

Scott lopes forward to catch up with the aspiring scholar. “Hey, you said something about Delra, right? Is she important?”

“She wrote the great literary epic Mystique Entre. Geez Scott, don’t you know anything about Monarchian literature?”

“Scott just got here,” Zyphias calls over his shoulder. “He’s traveled a long way and spent very little time in Monarch. I doubt research is his highest priority when he’s carrying such precious cargo.”

Scott feels the emblems in his overcoat and decides to change the subject.

“So why do you two stick around here? It’s creepy and kind of reeks of the whole ‘god of death’ stereotype. Why not move somewhere less taxing? There are better places to live, right? The Woods, maybe? The Ocean?”

“There are a million reasons why I could never leave this place.” Zyphias nods to the Royal Crypt. “I’m bound here by an oath to Magnus. Like Heroes are chosen by the gods, I was chosen to be the oracle for Magnus when Jyvat died.”

“He must have been some kind of creaky old guy, right?”

“Very old. Though Jyvat outlived many generations, including his own, even he had to face a universal law—we are all destined to die. No matter which realm you choose to live in, there will always be creatures to battle or fights to have.”

“Unless you run away,” Scott notes.

“Conflict is inescapable no matter where you go. Bandits in the Peaks. Shades in the Cemetery. The Skeletons in the Ruins. Elitist nomads in the Plains. Looming behemoths in the Woods. Pirates and sea monsters in the Ocean. No matter where you go, you’ll always have a battle waiting for you.”

“But here of all places to raise a family? In the darkness and gloom? Not to pick on your parenting, but this isn’t my ideal place for a picnic and barbecue.”

“Like I said, I had little choice. And I have no choice in leaving.”

The trio goes over a small rise and spots a house at the top of a low hill. Three different paths lead to it: one from the left, one from the right, and one from the front. As they come within a few paces of the front door, the form of a woman appears in the doorway.

“Oh! You boys are finally back!”

“Hey mom!” Jinas calls, waving.

“Ah, Jinas!” she says. “I was wondering where you’d gotten off to. Good to know you’re safe.”

As they approach the front, Scott stops short of the doorway into the house. “You must be Delra,” he says.

Delra smiles as Zyphias puts his arm around her body, or what would constitute her body if she had one. There’s a faint blue glow around her corporeal form, all of the details on her spirit body easily seen. Jinas stands on the other side of his mom, grinning widely.

It’s the picture-perfect view of a happy family, but it feels wrong, as if somehow broken. Nausea squirms in Scott’s stomach and he feels like he’s going through the husk of a building after a fire. The scene before him looks too much like the sole family picture that survived the scorching devastation. He resists the urge to look away.

“Do you see now why I can’t leave?” Zyphias asks.

“I do.” Scott looks at Delra. “How long have you been…?”

Delra smiles, understanding. “I was alive when Lolai, goddess of progress and ice, lived on Renea. In fact, I met her personally many times. She died when I was in my early twenties.”

“She did what?” Scott swings his hands wildly, signaling a pause and rewind. “Wait a minute, back up a second. Lolai was a goddess, right? A supernatural deity that’s ridiculously powerful and intelligent. Are we on the same page here?” Delra nods. “You’re telling me you were around when a goddess died. A real live goddess. Dead.”

“Yes,” she replies.

Scott throws his hands into the air. “That’s impossible! Goddesses don’t die! They’re… They’re immortal! That’s just not right! I mean, how does a god just up and die? It defies all rules of godhood!”

“It’s hard to understand, I know,” Delra says sadly. “Lolai died of grief. She was unable to cope with the loss of so many of her friends.”

“The loss of her… Oh.” Scott puts his hands on his hips. “This is about the monster again.”

“The slaughter of the gods is the single most important event in the history of Renea,” says Delra. “They died long before I was born, but the effects were still being felt when I was an adult. Lolai came down to see me and talk to me personally. She was distressed and sad, though I didn’t understand why at the time; our last conversation was our longest. After she left that day, I never saw her again.”

“Legend says that the remaining gods broke the news to the mortals themselves,” says Jinas.

“To help you understand,” Zyphias interrupts, “Lolai’s death is so ancient that it precedes the building of the city of Monarch. Most people believe Monarch was built by Eldun Kor’Yar to honor Lolai—a sort of testament to the might of progress, if you will.”

Scott gestures to the oracle. “So how did you two meet?”

“I was called from Monarch to be an oracle to Magnus. My first wife left me and Jinas after I became the official oracle. Once I moved here and built the shrine for Magnus, Delra appeared.”

“Magnus sent me to be his wife and caretaker,” Delra explains. “I thought it would be a great honor and so far it has been a wonderful experience.”

“I was too young to remember any of it,” Jinas says. “I was just a boy. But when dad dies, I’m going to ask Magnus to let his soul stay here. That way I can be with them and they can be with me. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my life than working the shrine.”

Scott feels his stomach tighten again. He becomes the fireman going through the charred husk of an empty building. He finds the singed photo of a family now dead. Scott looks away.

“Please come inside, Scott.” Zyphias steps aside and sweeps his hand toward his home. “Night’s about to come and it’s dangerous out there.”

Scott enters the shrine with Delra and Jinas. Zyphias reaches to close the door behind them, but he pauses to watch the grey sky fade to a black canvas riddled with stars. At the farthest edge of the horizon, a light pulses in slow rhythm. It’s a sickly pink, a stark and ugly contrast to the grey and black landscape of Magnus’s Cemetery.

“They were right,” he says softly. “Salvation is coming.” Zyphias hurriedly closes the door.

Deep within the Hideaway of the Master of Shades, a lone brown Shade stands alone in front of a great bronze statue. Moments ago it had confessed to his incompetence and inability to capture the Hero.

“I realize this is unfortunate to hear, Master,” the brown Shade continues. “I take full responsibility for this. I feel as if I should have gone after him, but I did not.” The brown shade straightens itself up. “Do not hold back your wrath, Master. I am not deserving of your presence or your forgiveness.”

The bronze statue of the Master of Shades stands tall and resolute. The only light in the room comes from the green Glow of the brown Shade; it casts misshapen and distorted shadows against the walls. The soft whisper of other Shades hiding in remote corners is the only sound in the whole Hideaway.

After a long silence, the brown Shade bows at the waist. “Please Master, I am but your servant. You have shown me the way to truth and I have failed you. Please tell me what to do. I am your arms, your legs, your eyes and your ears. I will do anything you ask.”

All at once, the silence becomes deafening. The whispering stops and the brown Shade tilts its head up slightly. The statue of the Master looms ominously against the Shade’s faint green Glow.

The Hideaway trembles and the statue shifts in color from dark bronze to jet black. The rumbling grows to a deafening roar, the statue morphing into pure darkness. An earsplitting scream rends the night air and darkness explodes outwards in every direction. The brown Shade cowers in fear.

The blackness swarms back into itself, taking the shape of a creature wearing a cloak of shadows and a hood of night. A faint pink light glows at the center of its chest, pulsing slowly. A sharp, frightening face leers down at the trembling brown Shade, its mouth a cave of sharp, interlocking teeth. The Master breathes out slowly through his nose, the nostrils glowing with regal pink light. He opens his eyes, filling the room with his pink Glow, the most royal color of all Shades.

The brown Shade throws itself to the floor. “Salvation is coming, Salvation is here, Salvation will endure. Salvation is coming, Salvation is here, Salvation will endure.”

The massive phantasm floats down from the statue pedestal and on to the floor. Other Shades peek into the large hall, curious. The brown Shade looks up. The Master stands mere feet away, a pool of darkness where his legs should be.

“Tell me who he is, Kalonius,” the creature says with a brassy, male voice.

“I don’t know, Master. But I will find him. I’m sorry for this.”

“I don’t want your apologies,” the creature says. “I want to know who he is.”

“A Hero,” Kalonius says, grasping at straws. “A Hero. That’s all I know. He’s new but he’s crafty, much like his patron god.”

The creature sighs, a sound like a storm wind. “He’s off to find Magnus, then?”

“Yes. There is no other explanation.”

“This complicates things for me. You know this, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know.”

“Then why did you fail me!” Kalonius shrinks back under its Master’s fury. “You have failed me, do you understand? This was a matter of great importance. You were to find the Hero and kill him before he disappeared!” The Master leans in close, his face almost as large as Kalonius’s whole body. “This is your last chance—do not fail your duties again. If you cannot find him, don’t ever come back.”

“I understand, Master,” Kalonius says softly.

“Now go!”

Kalonius flies out of the Hideaway at top speed, screeching with fear. All other Shades flee to their darkened corners and hidden crevices, afraid of the Master and his anger. They swarm like bees, spilling over each other in a mad rush to get to relative safety. After several long minutes, the racket in the Hideaway has simmered down.

When all is silent, the Master sighs. Just one more failure to put on the board. First the onset of the sickness in the Cemetery, and now the Hero has arrived to stretch his attention thin. As he turns to reform into the bronze statue, a gentle white light comes alive in the corner of the room. It’s barely more than a ball hovering above the floor.

“Of all nights for you to visit me,” the Master says. “What do you want?”

“Showing up when you least expect it keeps you on your toes,” the white ball replies, its voice profound and male. “That meeting with your ‘arms and legs’ certainly went well.”

“Don’t torment me tonight.”

“Torment?” The white ball pulses rhythmically, as if laughing. “I’d consider this an honor. Wouldn’t you?”

“Go away. I’m not in the mood to entertain your twisted sense of humor.”

“You were quite harsh on that Shade. Is giving someone a second chance that difficult for you?”

“It was necessary for Kalonius to find the Hero. He failed, so now I have to take matters into my own hands.”

The white lights hums, thinking. It floats closer to the Master of Shades, bobbing slightly as it moves. “What’s between you and the Hero anyways?”

“You know what the deal is.”

“Scott is extremely important to Renea. The absence of his presence would cripple this entire realm.” The light pauses. “You do know this, right?”

“Of course. But now that he’s here, the sickness will triple in its virulence. People are already dying too fast for graves to hold. On top of that, more Shades appear each day, each more violent than the last.” The Master folds his hands behind his back. “I can only save so many of them from their wandering, old friend.”

“Why do you do it?” the light asks.

“Because they’re lost and need guidance. Something is fundamentally wrong with your realm, Magnus, and all signs are pointing to Scott’s arrival. He’s a catalyst for the sickness somehow or another, so I have to kill him. Either he dies or the Cemetery dies—there’s no alternative.”

“You’re not going to kill my Hero.” The light shines a little brighter. “Not while I have a hand in it.”

“Then I will have to kill you as well.” The Master of Shades smiles grimly. “It’s not like it’ll be a problem. You’re well on your way.”

“As are you, and don’t you forget it. Stay warm, old friend. I’ll be in touch.”

“Goodbye, Magnus.”

“Always a pleasure, Salvation.”

The white light fades out and plunges the room into darkness once more. Salvation’s fiery pink Glow dwindles, his breathing slowing to a gentle rhythm. He levitates upwards and exits through a hole in the upper side of the wall. A ledge awaits him outside, jutting out a dozen feet over a sheer drop to the rocky ground below. The bottom of his body pools on the floor.

Above his head are thousands of branches that make an umbrella-shaped canopy for his Hideaway. The branches tangle together and intertwine into a massive downward-sloping dome. The thick, massive trunk of the Hideaway tree bends gently to the right. The landscape below is nothing but rocks and cracked ground, interrupted only by confusing changes in elevation and dead, twisted trees. Shades anxiously fly through the trees, weaving in and out of the silver fog like shadows of the dead.

Salvation levitates off the ledge and glides upward, weaving through the dry, knotted branches of his Hideaway. He breaches the top and pauses, his night cloak pooling on the canopy. A chill wind gusts through the thicket, the Hideaway groaning underneath him. Salvation doesn’t feel the wind on his face nor the cool air on his skin, as Shades cannot feel anything. Even breathing is nothing more than second nature, an old habit left behind from days long since forgotten.

Salvation turns to his left, facing the moon. It stands vigilant guard above Monarch, the Greatest City in the World, bright enough to be seen from any spot on Renea. I remember looking at this moon a long time ago, Salvation thinks. Those were different days, easier days. How long ago was it? Where was I, and what was I? Why do I only remember this moon and nothing else?

The hole where his heart once laid flutters and, for just a moment, he tastes something. It’s just powerful enough to weigh down his tongue, but it’s far too weak to be anything but a transient hope. He opens his mouth to say something, but no sound comes, the words paralyzed in his ghostly throat. The moment passes as soon as it came.

He moves back down through the branches of the Hideaway and returns to the main hall of his Hideaway. A few Shades whisper quietly among each other, flitting about in nervous anticipation. They become quiet when Salvation arrives. He descends down to where his statue once stood.

“I need a willing Shade to run an errand,” Salvation says.

“I volunteer, Master.” A stocky Shade with a red Glow, the lowest color of all Shades, moves forward.

“Go to the shrine of Magnus, god of Silence and Souls. Kill the shrine keeper and his son. Bring me their bodies and you will be rewarded for your service.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

The Shade leaves the chamber hall in a hurry. Good. That should lure Scott out of hiding. Salvation extends his arms, as if waiting to be struck by lightning. With a flash of pale light, he turns into a bronze-colored statue. A gentle rumble shakes the Hideaway. Then, all is still once more.

A blood-curdling scream drives Scott from his slumber. Feet thump on the floor outside his door and he groans. Before he can roll over, another scream splits the air. Scott throws his covers off his body and pushes his way into the main hallway, eyes bleary.

Another scream. Scott sticks his fingers in his ears, grumbling as he enters the main room. Zyphias wrestles a large Shade with glowing red eyes to the floor, Jinas and Delra watching in horror.

A Shade? Scott thinks. At this hour? They don’t have any business being out tonight. Don’t they have curfew or something?

“Kill the shrine-man!” the Shade giggles. “Kill! Kill! Salvation will be pleased!”

“Stay back!” says Zyphias, struggling against the Shade’s unnatural strength. “I can handle this!”

Scott waves his hand, trying to get everyone’s attention. “Hey guys, tone it down, people are trying to—”

“Come on Zyphias, strike back! Hehehe!”

“Get off of me, you filthy Shade!”

“Get ‘em, dad! Come on! Get off of him, you ugly Shade!”

“Hey guys, can you please—”

“Kill!”

“Get off of me!”

“Guys—”

“Dad!”

“Stay back!”

“Kill!”

“Enough!” Scott shouts. “Enough! Everyone shut up right now!” The struggle stops instantly. All eyes turn to Scott—even the Shade’s. “I’ve had the longest day of my life and I’m trying to get some sleep! Now is no time to be fighting! So everyone stop this and go home!” He points an accusing finger at the Shade. “So I suggest getting lost before string you up by your entrails and leave you to dry!”

“Scott?” Jinas ventures hesitantly.

“Shut up!” Scott screams, a vein throbbing on his throat. “I’m not having any of this tonight! I’ve got a headache bad enough to kill a normal man! If anyone has a problem with it, you talk to this guy”—Scott jabs his thumb at his chest—“right here! I’m a Hero and I demand some peace and quiet around here!”

The Shade glowers at Scott, hand around Zyphias’s neck. Something seems to be dawning in its dim-witted mind. “Kill the Hero, return as a bigger hero to Salvation.” It nods, growing more excited. “Yes. Kill the Hero.” The Shade lets go of Zyphias and rushes towards Scott.

Scott’s eyes burst into blue light and he unthinkingly extends an open palm towards the Shade. The ground cracks and two slabs of glowing blue earth break upwards, flying into one another and sandwiching the Shade. A startled cough bursts from the rocks as its body is crushed by magic-infused stone.

Scott flicks his hand and the earthen coffin rockets through the front wall of the shrine, tumbling out into the darkness beyond. Zyphias and Jinas both stare at Scott in amazement. His eyes blaze brilliant blue, his body floating partway off the ground. Slowly, Scott’s hand drops to his side. He takes a few heavy breaths, then drops to the ground, unconscious.

“Jinas, help me get Scott to his room.” Zyphias lifts the Hero’s limp body off the ground. They carry him to his room and set him back in bed. As soon as Scott’s door closes, Delra is at Zyphias’s side. They exchange looks with each other in the hallway.

“What was that?” Jinas asks. “How did he do that?”

“Magic, I’d assume.” Zyphias massages his throat. “Magic given to him by Magnus.”

Delra sighs, fists on her hips. “He messed up my good floor. I’ll have to fix it soon.”

“I’m a bit upset about the front wall,” says Zyphias, “but this is kind of exciting. We might be the first people to witness a Hero battle since the time of Redguard and Blueface!” He looks down the hallway towards the front room. “After tonight, I’m sure any Shade within five citystrides will stay a good distance away from the shrine.”

“What was the Shade doing out here, anyways?” Jinas asks. “Do you think it’s Salvation?”

“It could be, yes, but why Salvation would want me dead is something I don’t understand.” Zyphias rubs his chin in thought. “Perhaps meditating and talking to Magnus would be wise. He always answers my questions in the wisest way possible.”

“Well, if no Shades are coming back, guess I’m off to bed.” Jinas waves shortly and heads back towards his room. “Goodnight.”

When Jinas is gone, Zyphias turns to his wife. “I’m going to the shrine room to light a few candles, meditate, and commune with Magnus. Would you whip up something for tribute? You know how he likes fresh fruit.”

“Certainly, dear.”

Delra and Zyphias depart for the shrine room. They ignore the gaping hole left in the front room from Scott’s little run-in with the Shade. Such damage deserves a few hours to be appreciated.

The next morning, Scott wakes without any memory of the previous night. It’s Saturday, isn’t it? Scott rolls over. I should text Fiona and see what she’s up to right now. Scott reaches for his nightstand, trying to find his phone to check the time. Missing the nightstand that doesn’t exist, and after several swipes at empty air, Scott forces his eyes open and finds himself in an unfamiliar room. Grey sunlight streams through a window over his bed and everything smells like packed dirt.

Where’s my room? Where am I? Who—oh, that’s right. Scott touches his fingers to his forehead, tracing the symbol of Magnus. Okay, okay. I know where I am. Alright. He sighs and rubs his tired eyes. You’d think waking up in the middle of an unknown room would freak a man out more.

He presses a hand to his forehead, stars bursting in front of his eyes. A pounding headache soon sets in, throbbing with each beat of his heart. Scott forces himself out of bed and stands up, stretching. He sits back down almost immediately, blood rushing into his head and clouding his vision. Scott lies back down to collect himself. When the headrush disappears, he sits up, thirsty for a drink.

As if on command, a jug in the corner of the room slides across the room of its own accord. It comes to a stop against his leg. Surprised but not put off, Scott lifts up the jug with ease and removes the cork from the top. It’s full to the brim with bright orange liquid.

“Embalming fluid,” Scott says aloud, one eye squinting down the neck. “No, Drain-O. Orange juice, maybe?”

Deciding to take his chances, he takes a long draft of the drink. Halfway through his first gulp, he chokes and coughs, dropping the jug to the floor. It shatters, spilling the fluorescent orange concoction all over the floor. Scott takes a few moments to catch his breath, realizing now the folly of trying to breathe and drink fluids at the same time.

As a warm burning sensation makes its way down, Scott rubs his throat. “Alcohol?” he says out loud. “What kind of alcohol is colored orange?”

“A kind of alcohol native to the Ruins.” Scott looks up to see Zyphias standing in the doorway. “You doing okay?”

“A bit of a headache, but otherwise I’m fine.” Scott looks at the orange stain on the floor. “Was that really alcohol?”

“It was,” Zyphias sighs. “And it was very old, too.”

“What, like ten years old?”

“Try a hundred and ten.”

“Wow. That old? I didn’t mean… That is, I just needed a drink and…” Scott rubs the back of his head and sighs. “God man, I’m sorry.”

“How did you manage to drop it, anyways?”

“I picked it up and choked.”

“You picked it up? With what?”

“With my bare hands, what else?”

Zyphias claps his hands together. “Aha! I knew it!”

“Knew what?” Scott asks.

“Come into the main room when you’re ready. My family and I have something to show you.”

Zyphias leaves the room. Scott combs his black hair and throws on his overcoat, checking each pocket for the emblems of the gods. Each emblem glows subtly, though Kalax’s emblem doesn’t glow at all.

Scott leaves his room and joins Delra, Jinas, and Zyphias in the main room. A large hole is in the front wall and two large chunks of the floor are missing.

Scott whistles low and long. “You throw a party last night?”

“No, this was you.” Zyphias folds his arms behind his back. “Scott, last night we had a Shade break into the house; it wanted to kill me. The racket must have woken you up because when you came out you were in a bad mood. You were shouting so loudly it was shaking the walls. When the Shade turned on you…” Zyphias gestures to the floor.

Scott’s head begins to throb. He places a hand on the wall to support himself. “That explains my headache.”

“Most likely an overextension of your powers,” Zyphias says. “If you had started small, say by moving books or tables, you wouldn’t be in pain. Instead you killed a Shade and threw it out my front door.” Zyphias grins. “And it was quite impressive if I do say so myself.”

Scott winces and slinks to the ground. “If this is what a hangover feels like, I’m never touching alcohol for the rest of my life.” Scott’s world spins and he clutches his head, dizzy. “I need something to eat, Zyphias. I don’t feel so good.”

“Then breakfast is in order.” Zyphias looks at Jinas. “On the hop. Go set the table for breakfast.”

After Jinas leaves, Delra glides across the room and hovers near Scott. Zyphias fetches a chair and helps Scott into it. Stars burst in front of his eyes and he groans.

“I can’t see right,” he says wearily. “Everything’s blurry.”

“It could be your brain adjusting to your new powers,” says Delra. “Telekinesis is a hard power to control. Even a Hero might have trouble with it.”

“Take it easy,” Zyphias says soothingly. “I’ll grab you some water.” Zyphias rushes off, leaving Scott and Delra alone. Scott rubs his forehead, trying to massage the haziness away.

“You could try reading my mind,” Delra says. “Maybe having something to focus on will take the headache away.”

“I don’t think I can read minds.”

“I think you can. Why not give it a shot?”

Scott looks at the spectral woman skeptically. “Do you even have a mind to read?”

“I have memories, yes. You can read some if you want; I don’t mind.”

Scott closes his eyes and extends his hand, concentrating on Delra’s spectral body. He abruptly pulls his hand back. “Are you sure about this?”

Delra laughs. “Don’t be so scared. You won’t hurt me.” She takes his hand, her touch cool and soft, and lightly spreads his fingers. “Go ahead, I’ll be here when you’re done.” Scott closes his eyes again and concentrates on the spirit in front of him.

At first, nothing happens. He enters into a vague murkiness filled with echoing voices that whisper just out of earshot. Scott peels through layers of blank nothingness, searching for memories. Laughter bounces through the emptiness, carrying with it the sensation of joy. The thin line of a memory appears in front of him and he forces his consciousness through it.

In the memory, a woman who looks a lot like Delra works in an open field. Her sweat-stained shirt clings to her back when she stands up to wipe her brow, a wide-brimmed hat keeping the sun out of her eyes. A man works at a metal contraption, face twisted in concentration. The woman then stares off into the distance, her attention focused on something Scott cannot see.

The woman turns and calls to the man, trying to draw his attention. An edge of concern is in her voice. He continues to work on the contraption, unhearing. She calls again, louder this time, and he still doesn’t turn. The woman screams at the man to look at him, to acknowledge her, yet he does not move.

A dark shadow falls over the field, as if a large cloud suddenly rose up and blocked the sun. The plow in the woman’s hand falls to the ground and she backs away, terror in her eyes.

Back in reality, the shrine shakes violently, as if hit with a gale-force wind. Delra’s eyes roll into the back of her head, her back arching inhumanly. Scott’s arm quivers with effort. The ground fractures, small cracks snaking out from the chair and criss-crossing the room. A loud, low-pitched hum thunders in the air and Scott’s body glows bright blue.

“What in Tetrask’s name is going on in here?” Zyphias shouts, running into the room. He gasps. “Delra! What are you doing, Scott?”

Scott points his free hand at Zyphias and blasts him away, throwing the oracle against the far wall. Jinas runs around the corner and freezes at the sight before him.

Delra screams in agony, her spirit crackling and fizzing like a glitching computer. Blood leaks from Scott’s nose. The shrine walls crack and splinter as the ground fissures wide open. Random objects float in the air, shredding into smaller and smaller pieces until they can’t be seen anymore.

Inside Delra’s mind, the looming shadow falls on the man. He looks up, curious. The woman slowly backs away. A deafening roar splits the countryside. Then, the world goes dark.

A faint light hovers in the darkness of Delra’s mind. Curious, Scott moves closer to it. The light begins to grow brighter, as if anticipating Scott’s arrival.

The Hero can feel himself losing consciousness as he presses on, but he continues regardless. The light takes the shape of a ball. Darkness forms around it, taking the shape of a grinning, demonic face. Pink light streams from its fanged mouth like fire from a fully stoked forge. A deep, throaty laugh echoes through Scott’s mind as he slips into unconsciousness.

[] Chapter Six

Travel

On the edge of Deion’s Peaks and Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Stanley pushes his spectacles farther up his nose and inspects the open vastness of the Peaks. A steely grey sky blends into the mist curling around the mountaintops. In the distance, a bright red glow pulses as if gushing with magma. The mountain path before him is quiet, without even the slightest bit of wind. One too many childhood stories about bandits who lay in wait for weary travelers rattle around in his brain.

I have no hiking gear, he thinks. I am unprepared for such an excursion. Stanley throws a look over his shoulder, but the Nexus—and for that matter, Monarch—is nowhere to be found. That immediately excludes shopping for proper hiking gear. He walks toward the peaks in hopes of finding a town. A gust of wind blows down from the mountains and the crisp, chilly air burns in his lungs.

In any kind of scenario when one is left in the wilds, one should immediately hunt for food, water, and shelter. Stanley looks at the rocky wilderness around him, mild contempt in his eyes. But considering I am in a barren, rocky wasteland, I doubt I will find any of these.

Stanley climbs over a rock outcropping. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies a jumble of foreign letters scrawled hastily into a nearby boulder. They look similar to the ones he’d seen in the rulebook. Next to them is a set of symbols. Images of a steaming plate, a drink, and a house are positioned next to an arrow pointing forward. Food, water, and shelter.

Oh irony, Stanley thinks. You are a cruel mistress. He casts a longing look at the image of the house. Perhaps the hotel will be warm and I will find quiet comfort there. But it will likely be a seedy tavern filled with a rambunctious crowd of merry-making mountaineers. He sighs. What an annoyance.

He walks for a little while longer before coming to the top of a stone rise. The area below opens up into a wide, flat clearing like a town square. Houses and buildings are carved directly into solid rock walls. Joyous musical sounds and laughter comes from one building. At the edge of the town is an opening in the rock that heads right for the Peaks.

Stanley descends down the smooth path and enters into the town square, which is significantly larger at ground level than it appeared. He stops in front of the building closest to him. It has no windows and a heavy wood door is set into place, slightly ajar. Gentle yellow light comes from inside.

Stanley steps back to appreciate the architectural design. It blends Navajo huts and pueblo buildings with just a dash of Greek design at the doorframe edges. The building is quite beautiful in a strange, avante-garde way.

A young man with short brown hair and brown eyes walks up next to Stanley. He, too, appears to be appreciating the architecture, and they say nothing to each other for a long moment.

“Truly a stunning piece, isn’t it?” the man says.

“Yes. I quite enjoy the pueblo design.”

“It speaks more Navajo to me, actually.” He points to the edges of the building. “And there’s just a dash of Greek influence if you look hard enough.”

“I concur. You are quite perceptive of architecture.” Stanley’s eyes narrow and he turns to the man. “Especially for someone from this world.”

“What do you mean?”

“I would assume the people of this world would not know what Navajo and pueblo mean, much less know the defining points of Greek architecture. They are things exclusive to Earth’s culture.”

The man looks bemused. “Yes, well, Reneans are quite dense like that, aren’t they?”

“Who are you?”

“Oh, my apologies, Stanley. Where are my manners? I’m Gabriel.” Gabriel extends his hand, which Stanley takes in a stiff, business-like manner.

“You know my name,” Stanley says. “Have we met before?”

“We met once, a long time ago,” says Gabriel. “But what happened back then isn’t important right now. From my understanding, you have a quest to undertake—quite the grand one, at that.”

“How do you know about my quest?”

Gabriel shrugs. “Word gets around.”

“I would prefer a more specific answer.”

“Sorry, specifics will have to wait.” Stanley’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “On the bright side,” Gabriel continues, “you couldn’t have picked a better place to start than this building right here.” He points to the front door. “I’m a personal friend of the shopkeeper here. She should be able to tell you just about anything you need to know. Tread lightly; she can have a bit of a temper.”

“I have never been too versed in ‘treading lightly,’ but I suppose I can give it my best.”

“Once you’re done, come by the tavern. We can grab some food before you shove off into the Peaks.”

Stanley folds his arms across his chest. “Pardon me for sounding rude, but why should I come and find you? I am perfectly capable of collecting supplies on my own.”

“I gave you no reason why you should,” says Gabriel. “I merely offered you a chance to visit and nothing more.”

“I recognize that, but why?”

“Let’s just say I’m invested in your well-being.”

“Why?”

“So many questions!” Gabriel laughs. “Sometimes it’s not about having all the answers. Sometimes staying in the dark is the brightest thing to do.” He turns. “Anyways, I’m off to the tavern. Come and find me when you’re ready to get moving.”

Gabriel leaves without another word. Stanley watches him go with the feeling that he does seem familiar, if only in a distant way. Putting the issue aside for later, Stanley walks to the front door and pushes it aside.

The shop is clean and simple. Pots and bowls are neatly stacked in corners with no space wasted. A few landscape paintings are stacked against the side of a bookcase, yet nothing hangs on the walls. Wood carvings and rock carvings decorate the various shelves, ranging in size from large and ornate to small trinkets.

Stanley picks up a palm-sized carving of a spear made of stark white rock. The wide, metal head of the spear has an inset blue stone set that glows with a soft light. Setting down the spear, Stanley picks up an elaborately carved of a wooden tower. A small hole like a window is at the top.

“A lighthouse?”

“A mountain keep, actually.”

Stanley turns; the shopkeeper standing nearby. She’s short but she looks very strong. Hard lines from years of healthy work are etched into her face. Stanley looks back at the trinket in his hand. The rosewood finish dimly reflects the yellow glow of the shop.

“Are you interested in it?”

“You said a mountain keep? As in a tower that people live in?”

“Not many people live in those things anymore. Once there were many, but now it’s mostly bandits.”

“I think I will pass. I cannot afford to be shopping for trinkets right now. I have a quest to undertake.” Stanley sets the tower back on the shelf and straightens his back to take a business-like attitude. “I do not mean to impose, but I am a little new around here and I have some questions. May I trouble you for some answers? A man named Gabriel said you may be able to help me.”

“Him again, eh?” The shopkeeper folds her arms. “Tetrask’s tooth, that trouble maker just doesn’t know when to quit.”

“Trouble maker?”

“He came in like a storm one day with his bright ideas and brilliant plans. He gathered up all the businessmen and claimed he was going to make the Peaks ‘the stuff of legends.’” She snorts. “And nothing ever came out of it. What a laugh.”

“I suppose ambition must be supplemented with action.” He folds his hands together. “Anyways, I am looking to find Deion, the god of this realm. Where should I start?”

“Ha!” the shopkeeper barks, the sound short and bitter. “The real question is if you really want to spend the rest of your life trying to find him.”

“If I have to,” the Hero says, “I will. I am on an important mission to find Deion and become stronger than my friends.” Stanley points to his forehead. Deion’s symbol, previously hidden by magic, carves itself into view. “I am a Hero. It is my destiny.”

The shopkeeper scrutinizes the mark thoroughly. Then, she leans back and huffs. “Well, looks like at the very least Gabriel was right about the Heroes returning. I’ll tell you a secret: these mountains are cursed. The only things you’ll find in the Peaks are bandits and stone libraries.”

Stanley’s eyes light up in excitement. “Stone libraries? Now I have no choice but to go!”

“What, so you can get mugged?” the shopkeeper challenges. “So you can die trying to dig up boring facts no one cares about?”

“It goes beyond that,” Stanley insists. “It is so I may explore treacherous mountain passes, read ancient texts by the light of a candle, and walk with a staff in my hand and a bag over my shoulder.” Stanley sighs, imagining the fresh mountain breeze. “I can almost see the sun rising over the cold, grey mountains. For me, there is not a more thrilling adventure.”

“You’re quite the dreamer, aren’t you?”

“Life without dreams is not life at all.” Stanley looks the shopkeeper directly in the eyes, making her shift uneasily. “Are there really libraries carved into the rock? Are there really dangerous bandits willing to strike at a moment’s notice? Sunrises so beautiful it makes angels weep?”

“You talk like a dusty old book. Get with the times, kid.” Her voice becomes soft. “Those kinds of things don’t happen to people like us anymore.”

“Maybe they should,” Stanley says. “Have you not ever had a dream like that? Something you wanted to come true no matter the price?” The shopkeeper rubs the back of her neck and doesn’t answer. “I can tell that you, too, were a dreamer. What was it, then, that you dreamt about?”

The shopkeeper looks away.

“You can tell me. I am alone in my quest.”

“You’re too persistent,” the shopkeeper says. Shaking her head, she pushes past Stanley. “But damn, if I don’t fancy your outlook on the world. Come here. There’s something I want to show you.”

The shopkeeper makes her way through the tidy maze of the store, Stanley close behind. In the back corner of the shop is a dark blue curtain; she pulls it aside and gestures for Stanley to enter. He walks into a small, dark room and the shopkeeper lights a few candles.

The room is filled with paintings, all of them of a two-parent-one-child family, and most of them propped up on shelves and tables. A sleek helmet and a suit of armor in mint condition sit in the corner of the room. Two sword sheaths lay on the table, one empty. The shopkeeper stands in front of the armor and says nothing for a long time.

Stanley picks up a small painting and holds it up to the dim light. It’s the image of a perfect family—a proud father with a strong mother and a happy child sitting on the steps of a stone house.

“This was my family once.”

Stanley turns. The shopkeeper is holding the empty sword sheath in her hands.

“A long time ago,” she says, “I made a deal. He, a merchant with good financing, and I, a soldier with good connections, could help one another. I had big plans but little money, and he needed more connections for his business.” A forlorn smile spreads across her face. “Just a one-night fling to stake our claims with each other, you know? Just one night. And, as it usually turns out in most sob stories, I walked away with a child in hand.”

Stanley sets the painting down. “It was consensual, then?”

“We both wanted it,” the shopkeeper replies. Then, scowling, she shakes her head. “No; we both needed it. Beyond the connections and the money and the politics, I had an aching desire to be loved. I knew he shared that need. A simple handshake wouldn’t have worked.” She places the sheath back on the table. “We were both Mountaineers—people of the Peaks. The stone toughens you up after a while. Sooner or later, you start making choices just like the stone you lived on all your life. You become resolute and firm.”

Stanley nods slowly.

“He wanted to be part of the family,” she continues. “To help nurture the child. It was half his, anyways. He truly was a Mountaineer to the bone. Years went by. Our child grew, my connections with his underworld increased, and his business continued to flourish. I was never happier. But then one day I came home to find my husband unconscious on the floor. When he awoke, I knew that I had lost him.”

“What happened to him?”

“That’s unimportant.”

Stanley frowns but doesn’t press further.

“He took our son and left for a new life. By then I had retired from the military. Now alone, I turned to the underworld I had come to know. I made deals with a man I had grown to hate, all the while cursing myself for making promises I might not be able to keep.” Her eyes drop to the ground. “I suppose that would brand me a liar.”

“From time to time we all make promises we cannot keep,” says Stanley. “Doing such a thing is not uncommon.”

“For those few honest people left in the world, yes it is.”

“Whatever promises you made are in the past. It seems to me that this all happened because of your husband’s accident.” Stanley approaches the shopkeeper. “But his accident was not your fault.”

“I just wish I knew why.” She starts to pace, trying to distract herself from the intermittent breaks in her voice. “I just want to know why it had to happen to him. For years I pleaded with the gods to give me a reason, to give me a sign. All I’ve received is their silence. I wanted my son to grow up and be a great scholar. He was destined to be one. And now he’s somewhere without literature, without friends, and without a good mother.” She stops pacing and lays a hand on the metal armor. “What kind of world do we live in where we dump our life story out to a stranger? How can I ever afford to call myself strong if I rely on the strength of others?”

“I heard a saying once,” Stanley says. “Rely on the strength within, but count on the strength of others.”

The shopkeeper turns. “I don’t know what realm you come from,” she says, “but you strike me as strong.”

Stanley blinks. “I do not know if I would agree.”

“I’ll admit, I was skeptical when you told me about your quest, but I now believe you’ll find Deion. Is it enough for me to say I’m sorry?”

“You have nothing to apologize for, but yes, it is enough.”

The shopkeeper smiles gently. “Good. I want you to take this with you.” She picks up the sheathed sword and offers it to Stanley. “It’s the least I can do for you.”

“Take your sword?” he says. “It is not mine to own.”

“It’ll help you as you progress on your journey. As a Mountaineer, I have a duty to help the righteous of Renea.” She steps towards the Hero. “Please take it. It would mean the world to me.”

“Oh, I could never…”

“I insist!” the shopkeeper says. “My days of fighting alongside the Crag Party are over. I have no further use of this sword. At the very least use it for your own protection.”

“I hardly know how to use a sword, and I doubt I will see battle.” The shopkeeper flashes him a look. Stanley sighs and takes the sword begrudgingly. “But I suppose it is better to be safe than sorry. After all, with bandits running around, the Peaks can be a troubling place.” He ties the sash around his waist. “Thank you.”

“I know you came here to have your questions answered, but I want to be alone for a while.” The shopkeeper lays her hand on the armor. “These memories are hard to relive.”

“I understand.”

“Just do me one favor,” the shopkeeper says, turning to him. “Please stay far away from Gabriel.”

“I do not understand your aversion to him,” Stanley says. “He was very helpful and said we apparently met once.”

“Let me guess: a long time ago? He told me that when he met me, but I’ve never seen him before.” She folds her arms. “He’s a con man by trade. You should stay away from him.”

“I will take your advice into consideration.” Stanley heads to the curtain but pauses to look back. “Thank you for your help, madam.”

“The name’s Espetra,” the shopkeeper says. She offers a smile. “Take care, stranger.”

Stanley exits through the curtain, heading for the front door. On the way, he pauses at the shelf and picks up the carving of the spear. The blue stone glows with a faint light, as if hiding an inner power. Curious, Stanley rubs his thumb across it. The stone flashes imperceptibly, light crackling around the head of the spear.

That really is a curious thing. I should remember to purchase one of these when I come back. Stanley replaces the spear figurine on the shelf. How long will it take, I wonder? How long until I finish my training with Deion?

Stanley walks out of the store, holding the door open for a man on his way inside. He thinks as he walks, fingers on his chin.

What else is there to this game? Surely quests exist beyond the final confrontation. Why must we be the final boss to our friends? He shrugs, as if conceding a point to an arguing party. I suppose that pitting one person against the other makes sense in the world of a board game… Still, I would have rather been sucked into a video game where I quest with my friends to battle against a final boss. I suppose I cannot complain for now, seeing as I am already in a game whether I like it or not. Stanley stops walking, the situation suddenly quite surreal. He moves forward, lost in thought. I should not be complaining, but I still wish there was a final boss to beat.

“Of course there’s a final boss to beat,” says a voice from nowhere. Stanley glances up to find Gabriel standing in front of him. An all-knowing grin is on his face.

“What did you say?”

“There will always be a final boss,” Gabriel says, folding his arms across his chest. “It’s the first law of the universe.”

“How did you know what I was thinking?”

“That’s unimportant.”

“That seems to be the recurring word of the day.”

“Walk with me,” Gabriel says, turning. “It’s a beautiful night; standing around all day isn’t going to help us appreciate it.” Gabriel takes the lead and walks in no specific direction. Stanley follows close behind and keeps his eyes on Gabriel’s every move, watching for some sign of a sinister purpose.

“I thought you were in the tavern,” Stanley says.

“I was, but I wanted to go out for a walk.” Gabriel looks over his shoulder. “Say, Stanley, I have a question for you. You came here intending to play a game and have an adventure, right?”

Stanley nods.

“Do you really believe that was the only reason you were brought here?”

“I came here to enjoy an adventure that concludes with a competition against my friends,” Stanley says firmly. “That is what I believe.”

“Don’t be so dense. Surely you believe there was another reason.”

“I suppose it is plausible that I was brought here for a hidden purpose, but I have not given it much thought. The only thing I can safely assume is that you may be a con man.” Stanley keeps his hand on his new sword. “I have no money, that much I can assure you.”

Gabriel snorts. “Oh don’t be daft. What use is your money here?”

Stanley relaxes his grip, but his mind is hard at work. “So, you do know of Earth.”

“Almost as extensively as you do,” Gabriel says. “Besides, didn’t we just talk about Earth architecture before you met Espetra? And beyond that, what kind of person would I be if I wasn’t aware of alternate universes and the intricacies of the space-time continuum?”

“A person with significantly more time on their hands?”

“That’s true,” Gabriel says. “But let’s be honest, Stanley. This whole sham isn’t going to last forever.”

“Sham?”

“We can play the game as long as we want. We should be safe too, provided we follow the script to the letter.” Gabriel turns around and comes to a stop. He extends his hands outwards, as if preparing to give a grand speech. “It’s as simple as ‘get up, live out your day, go to sleep.’ We’re destined to continue like this until someone rebels and breaks the cycle.”

“What cycle?” Stanley asks, confused.

“Heroes travel to find their patron gods. Kings rule and dynasties fall. Heirs ascend and power is passed around like cheap cigars at a cheap cigar party for a cheap cigar shop that’s going out of business. The people live on totally unaware of the lies they’re being fed about free will.” Gabriel sweeps his hand around the whole town square. “This place is one big puppet show controlled by a pair of invisible hands: a marionette dancing on the stage of the universe, deluded into thinking she’s got free will while her arms are attached to unbreakable strings. It’s almost laughable. It’s all one big cosmic joke.”

“I am not following your train of thought.”

“Alright, then think of it as a wonderful magic trick.” Gabriel’s voice becomes theatrical. “There he stands, center stage, all eyes on the magician about to perform. Poof! He carries out his clever little trick and fools them all into believing they’ve seen something special. They think they’ve seen real magic.” He pauses. “But we know better, don’t we?”

Stanley blinks and says nothing.

“Are you listening to me or not?”

“I am listening but I do not like what I hear. You speak with a grave distaste for my adventure and this game of which I am a part.”

“That’s because I have a great distaste for this little game you’ve been forced to play.” Gabriel’s mood turns somber. “Once upon a time I believed in the things you believe in. I believed in good people, in books with keys to infinite knowledge, and in power beyond my wildest dreams.”

“Something changed your mind?” says Stanley, curious. “What was it?”

“It’s unimportant.”

Stanley sighs, annoyed. “I figured as much.”

“You’re getting better at this.” Gabriel turns and walks again. Stanley catches up, matching Gabriel’s stride. “We’re pretty lucky you came here when you did. It might be fleeting, though. We’re on route to hit the biggest catastrophe of our time.”

“Gloom and doom never sit well with me,” Stanley says. “I believe that the world is what you make it. If a great catastrophe is coming, then I hold the power to avert it.”

Gabriel looks at Stanley. “So you understand what I mean, then?”

“Vaguely, I think.”

“And you understand the importance of your task?”

“Again, vaguely. It is hard to be certain when you speak in riddles.”

“Riddles make things interesting.”

Gabriel stops walking and Stanley stops with him. They stand in front of the local tavern. Charming, lively music spills through the open door. Gabriel jabs his thumb at the front doors. “Fancy a meal and something to drink?”

“I think I must be on my way,” says Stanley. “I have wasted too much time here and night is rapidly approaching.”

“Well, you’re sure as hell not going into the Peaks dressed like that,” Gabriel says disapprovingly. “If you don’t get shredded by bandits, you’ll die from the weather.”

“Good to know you have such staunch faith in me, Gabriel.”

“You’re at least going to need some food. Even Heroes need to eat.”

Stanley’s stomach growls; he places a hand over it. “I suppose I could use some energy for the journey ahead.”

“Smart man!” Gabriel holds the door open, hand swept inwards towards the tavern. “Please, after you.”

Stanley enters into the tavern, attempting to appear uninterested and aloof. A few curious tavern-goers cast glances towards Gabriel and Stanley, but most of them ignore the two patrons. Gabriel leads Stanley to a table in the back. They sit down and Stanley takes off his sword, placing it against the wall. Gabriel fires off a shrill whistle.

The smell of meat and fresh bread fills up the Hero’s nose. Stanley looks up into the face of a massive man with an anchor tattoo on his arm and a five o’clock shadow on his chin. He wears a dirtied apron and a baker’s shirt. For the moment, Stanley is too astonished to speak.

“What’ll it be, fellas?” the man asks, his voice low and rocky.

“Two pints of Blue and a plate of the usual for me, Hogax,” Gabriel says.

Stanley looks up at the massive, stocky man. “I will take one pint of a light alcohol and whatever he is having.”

“Two pints of Blue, a pint of Yellow, and two plates of the usual. Coming right up.”

“Thanks Hogax,” Gabriel says. As Hogax leaves the table, Gabriel knits his hands together and leans forwards. “So, did Espetra answer your questions?”

“Not all of them, no. I got more of her life story than I got about the realm.”

“Hey, sometimes we don’t get instruction in the form of instructions.” Gabriel nods to the sword sitting in the seat. “Nice sword, by the way. Who gave it to you?”

“Espetra, but I do not think I need it.”

“Think so? Well in that case, she’s more prudent than you. You’re definitely going to need a weapon to defend yourself. This realm will eat you alive if you’re not careful.” He leans back. “Did she tell you anything specific about the bandits?”

“She might have mentioned something, but I forgot.” Stanley decides to take a dig at Gabriel to test the man’s tenacity. “She seemed to be more interested in the Crag Party and how much of a terrible person you are.”

Gabriel smiles. “Do you think I’m a terrible person, Stanley?”

“From my experience so far, I would say no.” He leans his chin on his hands. “But you are a very curious man. I cannot get a read on you.”

“You talk like a doctor,” Gabriel laughs. “What did she tell you about the Crag Party?”

“Just that she was no longer a part of it.”

“Really?” Gabriel sounds genuinely astonished. “It’s about time she got out of that group. I never liked the Crag Party or its leadership. They’re far too violent.”

“She mentioned a man she had grown to hate,” Stanley says. “A man who works in the underworld. What can you tell me about him?”

“What a place to start,” says Gabriel. “His name is Gerrich and he’s the leader of a vast group of bandits. I think he may have some ties to the Crag Party or to the Monarchian throne, but that’s about all I know.”

“Should you know more?”

“What, you think I’m related to the guy?”

Stanley leans back and folds his arms, keeping his face cool and blank. “Yes.”

“Well, you’re wrong about that. We’re separated by—” Gabriel pauses, chewing over his thoughts. “We’re separated by a considerable distance.”

“Do you love to ignore my questions?”

“I just gave you an answer.”

“Should you know more about Gerrich or not?”

“Hey fellas,” Hogax says, lumbering over to the table. Two large plates of steaming food are on a platter in his right hand and a platter of three mugs is in his left hand. “Here’s your grub.” Hogax lays out the food. A delicious smell wafts up into Stanley’s face and his stomach groans.

“Looks great,” Gabriel says. “Give my compliments to Nesh.” Hogax nods and leaves for the kitchen.

Stanley leans over his food, curious. He all but ignores his drink mug.

“Before you ask, it’s just typical Renean tavern food.” Gabriel takes his fork and points to the various sections of Stanley’s plate. “You got your steak right there, a thick glob of Renean mashed potatoes, and a freshly baked slice of bread. Add in your tall glass of Yellow and you’re all set!”

“This is steak?” Stanley presses his finger on the meat. “Reneans have steak?”

“Of course Renea has steak! What do you think this is, some kind of alien world?” Stanley flashes Gabriel a dry look. Chuckling, Gabriel takes a long draft from his first pint of Blue—a sparkly, sky blue colored alcohol with a light layer of foam on top. Gabriel lets out a sigh of content as he puts his mug down. “Damn, I keep forgetting how good Blue is around here. Those Monarchian bars don’t have anything on good Blue from a Mountaineer tavern.”

“Are there many taverns in the Peaks?” Stanley asks.

“Oh yeah, you’d be surprised how many.” Gabriel cuts off a section of his steak. “I know the whole Peaks thing strikes people as this huge desolate mountain range where no one can live, but there’s actually a lot of life around here. The closer you get to Monarch, the closer you get to the bigger Mountaineer cities. Didn’t you see any of them on your trip here through the Passage?”

“No. I went through a gate and came out a close to town.”

“Ah, the Peaks Gate in the underbelly of Monarch, gotcha.” Gabriel chews his steak slowly. “Those bad boys throw you to the fringes of civilization. I think it’s because the gods didn’t want Heroes messing around with boring side quests.”

Stanley sighs and leans on his fist. “I hear the word Heroes and quests and gates and all of that pretty often, and I know I am supposed to feel like a knight or an adventurer or something, but I feel the same as usual.” Stanley shrugs. “I do not feel like an adventurer; I feel like a charlatan.”

“You’re not trying hard enough. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.” Gabriel looks Stanley over. “You really do need a change of clothes and good backpack, though. I think that’ll help set the mood.”

“I heard from Espetra about stone libraries,” Stanley mentions in passing. His eyes become alive and he looks at Gabriel. “Are there really stone libraries in the Peaks?”

“Yes, they’re definitely out there. The libraries are hard to get to though, and some of them are well hidden. You can go down whole mountain paths without seeing a single one.”

A smile touches the edges of Stanley’s lips. “A good setting for a treasure hunt, then?”

Gabriel nods, glad that Stanley is becoming more spirited. “Some of them are so well hidden you can look right at them without knowing. Others are put into ridiculous places and some are guarded jealously.”

“Wonderful,” Stanley says, taking a fork in his hand. He cuts a piece off his steak and chews it thoroughly. He hums in satisfaction, then sets his fork down. “Okay, now about Deion. Which library does Deion hide in?”

“You’re implying that Deion ‘hides’ anywhere,” says Gabriel. “He’s probably the most active god besides Cebral.”

“Should I see him often, then?”

“Only sometimes. Gods may be active, but they’re, well…” He gestures vaguely. “Reclusively active.”

“I am not following.”

“You can catch a glimpse of Cebral in a bad seastorm if you can see through the rain. Sometimes you can see Apalon chasing the Essence of the wind at sunup. Sometimes Deion is seen moving through the Peaks. Chaldir, Magnus, and Tetrask are more withdrawn.” Gabriel puts down his fork and knife. It’s his turn to lean on his fist and sigh. “I don’t even know about Kalax anymore. He’s been too quiet recently.”

“Tetrask?” Stanley asks, quirking his head.

“God of Armageddon and the Cosmos. Don’t say his name around Reneans; he’s a symbol of bad luck. Legend says he packed up shop and left for the moon a couple million years ago.” Gabriel picks up his fork again. “We normal people don’t really know much more than that.”

“But you do?” says Stanley. Gabriel shrugs and doesn’t answer. “What can you tell me about Deion’s residence?”

“Deion’s ‘residence’ is a place called the Pinnacle Monastery.”

The image of the glowing red mountaintop flashes in Stanley’s mind. “Is the monastery on that large glowing mountain?”

“No one really knows.” Gabriel takes a drink from his mug of Blue. “The mountain you’re talking about is called Misty Zenith. No one’s traveled to it and returned. I’ve been waiting for a Hero to show up so I’ve yet to make the trip myself.”

“You were waiting for a Hero?”

“Yes.”

“You were waiting for me?”

“By that extension, again, yes.”

“Why?”

“That’s unimportant,” Gabriel says. Stanley grits his teeth, debating whether or not to start throwing things if he hears the word “unimportant” again.

“Pinnacle Monastery, then,” he says. “It is somewhere in the Peaks, but no one really knows where, and Misty Zenith is a place no one has traveled to and returned from. By that logic, Misty Zenith is the most likely place to find Deion, correct?”

Gabriel grins. “An argument could be made for that, yes. You’re quite smart, Stanley.”

“What is Deion like? Have you ever met him?”

“No, but I’ve met Kalax, god of Life and Forests.” A light flashes in Gabriel’s eyes and he sets his mug down, suddenly bewildered. “Wow. That was a very long time ago.”

Stanley sighs. “How did I know you were going to say that?”

“Maybe you’re psychic.” Gabriel leans in. “Listen, Stanley. I know you don’t trust me and I know you want to know more about me; I get that. But my past isn’t important. What’s important is you and your future.” He looks Stanley over. “What’s also important is how we need to deck you out in some bodacious duds.”

Stanley rolls his eyes. “You sound like Luke Derringer.”

“Luke’s been through a rough time. Cut him some slack.”

“How do you know that?” Stanley demands. As if catching himself, Gabriel looks away. He sips at his Blue quietly. “How do you know so much about Earth and me and everything concerning me?”

“It’s a long story that I’d rather not tell right now.”

“I have time.”

The door to the tavern slams open. A sweaty man stands in the doorway.

“Quick!” he shouts. “There’s no time!”

Gabriel snorts. “Oh irony, you are a cruel mistress.”

“Did you plan this?”

“Is there a doctor in here?” the man yells. “A shopkeeper’s been attacked! She’s badly injured!”

Stanley stands up, his hand on the sword Espetra gave him. Deion’s mark etches itself on his forehead and begins to glow with white light. All eyes go to him immediately; many in the tavern begin to murmur.

“Which shopkeeper?”

“Espetra,” the man gasps. “She’s barely breathing.”

FWWVHIP.

Stanley instantaneously moves from the tavern to Espetra’s shop. He blinks, unsure of how he managed to move all the way across the town.

Nevertheless, Stanley draws his sword, heart thundering in his ears. The door to the shop has been kicked open from the inside; someone was in a hurry to leave. Stanley moves into the shop carefully, stepping over the splinters on the ground. Though he wants to feel like a knight, or maybe an assassin, the sword feels heavy and clumsy in his hands. The shop is quiet to the point of deafening. He weaves through the aisles with his sword in front of him, shaking with adrenaline.

A groan comes from nearby. Stanley turns and runs to the end of the aisle. Espetra lies against the back wall of the shop, a knife in her lower back. Stanley sheathes his sword and kneels beside her.

“He got me good,” she says, wincing in pain. “I didn’t even see the knife until it was too late.”

“Are you injured anywhere else?”

“My pride’s taken a hit but other than that I’m pretty alright.” She gasps and clutches at her chest. “Okay,” she concedes, “maybe he got me a few more times than I thought.” Blood drips down the back of her grey robes, pooling on the floor.

“A few times?” Stanley says. “Try several dozen times. You need a doctor.”

“Not going to do much good. Take a look at my blood. It’s thicker than normal. Black, almost. That knife was poisoned.” She coughs. “It’s deep in my bloodstream by now.”

Stanley runs a hand through his hair, heart beginning to pound. A scenario like this should have been completely impossible. “I must get you to a doctor. Surely someone—”

“Oh shut up and go to the back room. Get the small red box from underneath the table in the corner and bring it to me.”

“A medical kit! Certainly.”

Stanley stands and dashes to the back, throwing aside the curtain to reveal a totally empty room. All of the paintings and drawings previously on the shelves and tables are gone. The suit of armor and the helmet are gone, too. An empty sword sheath lays discarded on the floor.

He checks underneath the table in the corner and spies a red box small enough to fit in the palm of his hands. Grabbing it, he returns to Espetra. Her face is pale, her veins bulging out of her skin.

“What took you so long?” she wheezes.

“I was only gone for a few moments.” He hands the red box to Espetra. “Where did your artwork go?”

Espetra laughs weakly. “Must have been stolen. He just has to kick a woman when she’s down. At least he didn’t take this.” She caresses the red box. Then, hands shaking, Espetra hands the box to Stanley. He starts to open it, but before he can crack the lid, Espetra swats his hand.

“No!” she shouts. “Don’t open it!”

Stanley immediately clamps the lid back down. “Why not?”

“You’re not ready to see what’s inside. It won’t mean a thing to you and it certainly won’t help you on your quest.” Espetra looks Stanley square in the eyes—she means business. A hard cough racks her body. She chokes on empty air, sweat creasing her forehead. Stanley, unsure of what to do, sits and watches helplessly.

“What am I supposed to do with it until then?”

“Just hold on to it for me. I don’t have use for it anymore.” Espetra sighs, her eyes on the box resting in Stanley’s hands. “I did at one point, but now…”

“What is inside?”

“If I wanted you to know now I’d ask you to open it, wouldn’t I?” Espetra rolls her eyes. “Sheesh, for such a bright child you can be really stupid.”

Stanley sits down next to the shopkeeper and leans against the wall. The quiet night is broken only by the sounds of Espetra gasping and breathing raggedly, and by blood dripping occasionally on the floor.

After a few minutes, Stanley speaks. “This is not a medical kit, is it, Espetra?”

“No,” she says, coughing. “No it isn’t.”

“You are not going to get up again, are you.”

“No, I’m not.”

Stanley looks at the box in his hands. It’s beaten and bruised around the edges. The paint is chipping and the clasp holding the hinges together is more rust than silver. Somehow, Stanley finds it nearly beautiful.

“When should I open this?”

“You’ll know when you need to open it, I’m sure.” Espetra glances at him, a weak grin on her face. “There’s a perfect time and a perfect place for everything, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Why are you doing this? You barely even know me.”

“I’m bound by duty to help the righteous of Renea. And who could be more righteous than the Hero of the Peaks?” Espetra reaches for Stanley. He grasps her hand firmly. “Everyone dies at some point. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, but it is something I would rather not dwell on.”

“I won’t pretend to know where you came from,” the shopkeeper says. “I won’t pretend to know your life’s story. But where I come from, death is something to be embraced. We’re all destined to do it. Even you, though I hope that day is far off.”

“As do I.”

Espetra smiles. “Good luck, Stanley.”

She takes in a few short, gasping breaths, and then her body goes limp. Her head rolls to one side, her body sliding to the ground. Stanley lets her hand slip out of his own. Then, he stands up and faces the corpse. He crosses himself slowly with his right hand, the red box in his left.

“Oh sweet mercy.”

Gabriel is standing a few feet away. His eyes are sad. Stanley hides his red box behind his leg.

“Someone stabbed her with a knife,” Stanley says. “The blade was poisoned.”

“I know.”

“Did you send the assassin?”

“Are you kidding? No one can profit from death, Stanley. Especially not me.” Gabriel smiles. “I’m as nonviolent as they come.”

Stanley grinds his teeth but says nothing.

“I know I don’t seem trustworthy,” Gabriel says, putting his hands up in a gesture of admission. “I’m keeping a ton of secrets from you right now so I probably deserve it. But I need you to trust me when I say I wasn’t responsible for Espetra’s death. I’d hate to be responsible for anyone’s death.” Gabriel’s eyes become distant. “It’s a hard life I’m living, despite what it seems.”

“What hard life?” Stanley snaps. “You think making fun of people in a tavern town at the edge of a mountain range is hard?” He points an accusing finger at Gabriel. “You have a lot of nerve, talking about leading a hard life.”

“I need your trust in order for this to work out,” Gabriel says. “I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time and I absolutely cannot afford to mess this up again.”

“What are you talking about? You have not been specific with me once since I met you!”

“It’s too complicated to explain. But if I get this wrong again, a lot of things will go south very quickly. I need you to trust me. I need you in order to succeed.”

“Am I just a pawn, then?” Stanley challenges. “A piece to be manipulated?”

“Stop twisting my words!” Gabriel shouts. “Damn, Stanley! Use some sense!”

“I am using sense. I do not think I can trust you.”

Gabriel throws his hands in the air. “You know what? Fine. You don’t have to trust me at all. You don’t even have to like me. I’m still going to act like you do trust me. I’ll change your mind sooner or later.” He places his hands on his hips. “And speaking of time, I think it’s time you get moving. There’s nothing left to see in this town.”

Gabriel pulls something off of his back and tosses it in front of Stanley. It’s a hiking backpack in excellent condition. “There,” he says. “I got you the backpack you needed. You’ve got a sword to fight with and the power of teleportation to boot. Deion will take care of your clothes.”

Stanley picks it up, placing the red box inside of one of the pockets. “That must be how I traveled here so quickly. Funny. I do not remember traveling at all.”

“That’s because you teleported.” Gabriel jabs his thumb toward the front door. “Now get moving, and you best believe you’ll see me again soon. When you do, I hope you’ll realize what I’m trying to do for you. Renea’s future—and by extension, yours too—depends on what we accomplish together.”

Stanley picks up his sword sheath and ties the sash around his waist. He stands in front of Gabriel with a calm expression and waits. Gabriel steps aside and Stanley moves past without another word. He exits the shop and vanishes into the darkness of the night.

“Hit him again.”

Whack!

“Again.”

Whack!

“You’re not hitting hard enough. Do it like this.”

CRACK!

Hogax’s head snaps to the side, his face stinging from the blow. One eye is swollen shut, the other half-blinded from a wide gash spilling blood down the side of his face. It’s hard to tell how long he’s been in the room, not to mention the number of strikes he’s endured.

“Now then, are you ready to talk?”

“I told you,” Hogax says. “I told you I don’t know where he went.”

“Hit him again.”

Whack!

“Are you an idiot? What did I tell you? Get out of my way!”

CRACK!

Hogax’s chair topples backward and he tumbles to the ground with a heavy thud. The gravel rubs grit into his wounds and the ground pins his shoulders in a painful position, but the cold stone feels good on his hot face. Bile rises in the back of his throat. He groans, his stomach doing flips.

Someone turns his chair upright and yanks his head up. His captor stands just outside of a pool of dim yellow light. Water drips from somewhere nearby.

“I’ll ask you again. Where is he?”

Hogax spits blood on the ground. “And I’ll tell you again. He came to the tavern, ordered his usual, then left. I don’t know what else you want me to say.”

“I want you to tell me where he went!” his captor screams. “I want you to give me every detail of all the times you saw him, from start to finish! I want to know everything!”

“You’re insane. A true Mountaineer would never—”

C-R-A-C-K!

Hogax careens backward and slams into the ground. His captor leaps over the chair and ruthlessly pounds at the chef’s face. Almost immediately he’s pulled off by three men in bandit clothes, one of whom is yelling at the top of his lungs. Hogax tries to blink away the blood but everything hurts too much to move. As pain circulates through his stomach and tethers itself to his brain, bile again rises in the back of his throat. He vomits on the cold rock.

“Get him up!” his captor screams. “I said get him up!”

Hogax’s world spins as he’s pulled back into a seated position. His head hangs uselessly and blood from his mouth drips on the ground.

“You need to calm down,” a voice demands. “If you don’t calm down right now, I’m releasing him.”

“Do that and you’re dead,” his captor snaps. “He’s the last one who’s seen Gabriel and I need everything I can get from him.”

“And you expect to get that by beating him to death? Use your head, Gerrich! If Hogax really is the last person who saw Gabriel, he’s invaluable. Maybe he doesn’t communicate with fists like you do.”

The room goes silent. The only sound comes from Hogax’s blood dripping on the floor.

“What do you suggest, Walch?”

“Talk to him. Make him understand why you need to find him.”

Gerrich makes a sound of frustration.

“It’s either this or I pull the plug and get him out of here.”

“And who made you the leader? I’m in charge here, not you. You do what I say, and I say we do things my way. If you don’t like the way I run things, I’ll happily accept your challenge.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I would never—”

“Then let me do my job!”

Silence in the room again. Hogax tilts his head up. A middle-aged man in a blue cloak stares down another man still in his prime, whose lithe and powerful body trembles with restraint.

“Fine,” Walch says. “But if he dies, you lose your only source of information about Gabriel. Remember that.” Walch walks outside of the pool of light, leaving Gerrich and two other bandits alone with Hogax.

“Well, now that he’s gone…” His captor steps into the light; youthful strength is carved into his face. “How about we start from the beginning? My name is Gerrich, and if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to beat you to death and throw your carcass off the side of a mountain.”

“Do your worst,” Hogax spits. “I’d never give up a friend.”

“I figured you would say that.” Gerrich cracks his knuckles. “You might want to brace yourself. This is going to be very painful.”

[] Chapter Seven

Digging Through Time

Inside the Capital Cathedral of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Luke opens the door to the main hall of the Capital Cathedral. Judging by the fading light, it looks to be late afternoon. Luke walks around the edge of the room and his footsteps echo off the cavernous walls. Vaguely, he thinks about how fantastic it would be to play a concert in the Capital Cathedral’s main hall. The acoustics are phenomenal.

Luke enters the room where the party had been held. A look around leaves much to be desired. Everyone has left their plates in various places—on the tables, on the floor, near the fountain, and just about everywhere else. Luke frowns in disappointment, upset that he missed the rest of the party. On top of that, he never got the address of the afterparty.

“And just look at the mess they left!” Luke says to the empty hall. “What do they think this is—kindergarten class? If I had left my dining room like this, dad would never let me see sunshine again.” Luke walks to the closest table and gathers the utensils and plates.

“You there!” a voice calls. Luke glances up. A young blonde man in a clean white apron stands nearby. Next to him is a dish cart. “What are you doing?”

Luke gestures to his table. “Just picking up some plates. Would you look at this mess? People in this town have no self-respect, I swear.”

“Ah, I see.” The young man brightens. “Well, thanks for making my job easier. It’s not exactly easy being the only one in Monarch who likes to clean up.” He approaches a table and clears it, stacking plates and glasses on his cart.

Luke collects his table’s plates and cups. “Sorry if I took your job. I just want to help out.”

“Oh no, it’s fine. I could use some help doing the work anyways. Truth be told, I’m not even a real janitor. I’m just the guy who cleans up.”

“Isn’t a cleanup guy technically the janitor?”

“The janitor makes money. The cleanup guy doesn’t.” He faces Luke. “Hey, are you going to help or not?”

“I am helping. You just work faster than me. I mean jeez, look at you go.” The cleanup guy clears a table in seconds. “I was so proud of my little stack of four plates over here.”

“I’ve been at this for far longer than you, Luke.”

“I can tell, dude,” Luke says, turning back to his first table. Then, he pauses. Luke turns to look at the cleanup guy, who is busy cleaning another table. “You know my name?”

“I sure do,” the man replies. “You’re a popular character around these parts.”

“I don’t remember seeing you at the party. How do you know my name?”

“That’s not really important. We’ve got quite the large mess to clean up, as you can see.” The young man rolls up his sleeves. “Come on, let’s get to it.”

For the next hour, Luke and his companion clean up the dining hall without much conversation. As the young man leaves for the kitchen with the last of the plates in his cart, Luke takes a moment to appreciate the fine dining room.

“Looks good,” Luke says aloud. “That duskiness really adds to the atmosphere. I mean, a few candles could be lit here and there, maybe some incense to give the room a good smell, but other than that—” Luke does a double-take at the window. It’s almost completely dark outside. “Hey! Cleanup guy!”

“Yeah?” the young man yells from the kitchen, dumping plates into something filled with water. “What’s up?”

“Is it night time already?”

“You bet it is! We’ve been working here for quite a while.”

“Think the Archives are closed by this hour?”

“The Monarchian Archives? They’re locked at sundown! Why are you trying to get into that horrible place anyways? All I ever hear about are the Crag Party riots. It’s guarded all the time, too. You’d be better off trying to get into the King’s Palace!”

Luke slaps his forehead, remembering his promise to Tetrask. “Hey, sorry to just split, but I gotta go now!”

“No problem,” the cleanup guy calls. “I got the rest of it covered. Take care, and hey! Thanks for the help!”

Luke dashes for the door that the priest entered into at the party. He grabs the door handle and yanks on it, only to find that it’s stuck fast. Locked! Luke curses his luck and yanks on the door a few times, but it doesn’t budge. He tries pushing against it, but it still refuses to budge. Luke slams his hand on the door in frustration, then steps a few paces back to gather his thoughts.

Okay, so it won’t open out, and it won’t open in. Maybe there’s another way through that I’m not thinking of. Luke rubs his chin in thought. Maybe that janitor guy has keys? No, he said he was just the cleanup guy. If he was the janitor he’d have keys. Luke approaches the door and raps his knuckle on it a few times. The wood is very solid and very thick. It would take a great amount of force to break down.

Alright Luke, so you’re not as strong as you want to be. Use your brain over your brawn. It’s what got you to number seven in physics class. Focus. What didn’t work? Luke leans back on empty air, his brain buzzing. I couldn’t push the door down. I couldn’t pull the door off of its hinges. No one has keys and this is the only way to get into the Archives after sundown.

Luke snaps his fingers together in a moment of realization. If I’m the apprentice to Tetrask, I should get some cool powers, right? Maybe it’s as simple as turning into stardust and sliding under the door. He pauses and considers his options. Shrugging, he decides that it can’t hurt to try.

Luke stands in front of the door and imagines his body becoming light and airy. He imagines turning into stardust and sliding right underneath the door. Without warning, Luke’s entire body turns into a perfect reflection of the night sky, complete with glinting stars and shifting nebulas. He compresses down to barely half an inch tall and glides underneath the door. Once inside, the stardust stretches upwards and reforms into the general shape of his body.

Okay, seriously, this is so far out. He wills his body back into existence and the night sky vanishes, his body returning to a solid state. Luke flexes his fingers and wiggles his toes just to be certain.

The dresser Scott mentioned stands near the bed. Luke shoves the dresser aside and, true to Scott’s word, a door waits behind it. Luke opens it to find a long ramp stretching downwards, curving at the end. He meanders down the ramp and into the tunnel. On the wall, torches glow without flame, neither electric nor hot to the touch.

Luke grabs a torch off of the wall. “This is so cool,” he says, looking inside the torch bowl. His eyes narrow, however, when he sees a bright orb sitting at the bottom of the bowl. “Is that a gemstone? Nah, it’s way too big to be a…” Luke tilts the torch sideways. A massive gemstone drops into his hand, glowing with a gorgeous white luminescence.

“Oh wow,” he breathes, eyes on the rock in his hand. “That’s a real gemstone. This alone could probably get me all the way through college.” Luke grimaces; he hadn’t even thought about going back home, much less what would happen after the game ends. A part of him doesn’t want to go home at all. He sets the torch back on the wall and continues on.

After the tunnel curves sharply to the left, Luke soon finds himself in front of another door. The door is unlocked. He pushes it open and enters into an almost totally dark room. He frowns, putting his fists on his hips.

“Where’s some multicolored ambience when you need it?” he says. “Seriously, this is like walking into a dark room without any lights on.”

Luke feels his way across the room in a generally diagonal direction, bumping into cases as he goes. In the darkness, he brushes against something rough and jumps in surprise, suddenly on guard. When nothing further happens, Luke reaches out for whatever he just touched. His fingers curl around a rough and abrasive object.

“Tree bark?” Luke says. “Odd place to put a tree in my opinion, but hey, I’m no interior decorator.” He taps at the wood and feels around the circumference of the trunk, curious. “Seems kind of young, too—wonder what kind it is.” Luke takes a heavy sniff of the bark. “Spruce? No, cedar. Pine, maybe? Sandalwood. Evergreen?” After it becomes obvious that he has no clue what he’s talking about, Luke leaves the tree in peace and continues on through the darkness.

He spots a staircase on the far side of the Vault. Luke climbs to the top and slides under the opposing door using the technique he discovered earlier. He reforms and glances over his shoulder. A poster hangs on the wood, but the symbols on it are in a language he doesn’t understand.

It probably says wet paint or something. I’ll have to watch where I step.

He makes his way down the hallway and enters the main hall, a room so large that it’s impossible to decide where to start. With the room as dark as night, it’s difficult to see how many floors are in the Archives. The reception desk is understandably empty—everyone has gone home.

Clearly the best place to start is the place that’s the hardest to get to, right? The top floor should have some juicy secrets hidden within the pages of books. Or rolls of scrolls. Luke frowns. Towers of texts? Mountains of manuscripts? I know there’s a good phrase for that.

Luke finds a staircase nearby and ascends the stairs to the highest floor. The fourth floor, lacking windows, is even darker than the rest of the Archives. In fact, it’s so dark that Luke can’t see the nose on his face. Luke lets his eyes adjust as he shuffles through the top floor of the Archives, hands in front of him. He curses himself for not bringing a torch.

Wait. A torch…

Luke fishes into his pocket and pulls out the white gemstone from the tunnel. It lights up the fourth floor, casting warm, white light across the shelves. Luke figures he must have accidentally pocketed it in the tunnel. Guided by his new light, he selects an aisle at random and enters it.

He peruses the shelves for a while before stopping at one filled with a set of dark blue books. They have alien gold letters on the spine. Luke pulls out one of the dark blue books—what essentially constitutes as a tome—and sits down on the ground. He shines the gemstone on the Renean symbols, trying to see if he can make any sense of them. To his astonishment, the script turns into readable English characters under the light of the gemstone. Luke pulls the light away and the Renean symbols return.

The tome’s title reads “Heroes Through Time: A Journal by Sal the Bright.” Luke flips to the table of contents only to find a list of oddly put-together numbers.

1115.19-266? 1113.20-974? What is this junk? Luke turns the page and shines his gemstone on the paper. A picture depicts a tall, angry-looking man with a long beard. Renean symbols are scrawled into the page next to the artwork.

Redguard the Old. Lived from 1000.02-111 til 1059.10-275, killed by Blueface the Stoic. Truly a remarkable man, Redguard sought out his patron god in Chaldir’s Ruins. He returned to Monarch a disappointed and angry man, full of red hot rage that coursed through his veins like the red magic he wielded. According to legend, he faced Blueface the Stoic in a monstrous battle somewhere in Cebral’s Ocean. Blueface apparently defeated Redguard, but no one knows what happened to Blueface after the end of the battle. Many believed he died from his wounds.’

“Boring,” Luke yawns. “Let’s get to something good.” He turns the page.

Dakhan the Sage. Lived from 0912.35-555 til 1004.35-789, died of old age studying under Deion, god of Mountains and Time. A prime example of the merits of scholarship, Dakhan left for the Peaks at a young age to seek his fortune with the bandits. He fell in love with the knowledge found in the libraries and was picked up by Deion as a Hero. He repeatedly made trips to Monarch to lecture on his findings and was well respected by all. One day, Deion sent a messenger to the city to announce Dakhan’s death, dealing a heavy blow to the Monarchian academic community.’

“Where’s the good stuff?” Luke closes the book and goes back to the shelf, tracing his finger along the books spines. “Come on, I can’t be the only interesting Hero around here.”

He pulls out another book titled “Escapades Under the Moonlight.” The artwork features two people almost kissing one another under a shower of rain. Deciding it can’t be that bad of a read, Luke opens to a random page. Almost immediately he’s assailed by graphic descriptions of—

“Reading raunchy literature, eh?” a voice says from right next to Luke. The Hero drops the book out of sheer surprise, a chill screaming up his spine. He whirls on the source of the voice. “In the sacred Archives, no less! Have you no shame?”

Luke recognizes the man instantly. “Hey, you’re—!”

“Have we met before?” The man chuckles. “Funny, I don’t remember you.”

“We’ve totally met before!” Luke exclaims, pointing an accusing finger at the cleanup guy from the Capital Cathedral. “How’d you get in here?”

“The real question is how did you get in here? The Archives are closed to all people at night.” He nods at Luke. “Closed even to Heroes like yourself.”

“You should be at the Capital Cathedral. You’re the cleanup guy, not the security guard guy!”

“If you want it that way, technically I’m the ‘do everything’ guy.”

Something clicks in the back of Luke’s mind. He takes a respectful step back. “Tetrask?”

He laughs. “No, not even close. My name’s Charlie.”

“Charlie, eh?” Luke smiles widely. “Well Charlie, how do you do? My name is Luke Derringer and I’m here reading books about boring Heroes.”

“Sounds like a boring job.”

“Tell me about it. Sometimes I feel like this whole adventure I’m experiencing is just a big pack of vacuum-sealed baloney.” Luke’s eyebrows knit together and he rubs his chin in thought. “You ever get that feeling? You know, the feeling that you’re vacuum-sealed baloney?”

“Er, no.” Charlie blinks. “I think you’re alone in that boat.”

“Hey wait a minute, you never answered my question. Just what are you doing here?”

“It’s my job to keep an eye on the city.”

“I thought your job was to clean dishes and run security detail.”

“I also act as a tour guide on my off days,” Charlie says brightly. “And I can also play a mean harmonica! Want to hear?”

“No, thanks.” Luke stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Listen, not that our conversation isn’t great, and I’m sure we could continue this for another fifteen hours or so, but I need to know where Tetrask is. Like, right now.”

“Always so impatient!” Charlie points over Luke’s shoulder. “He’s six shelves down, six rows back, at the sixth table sitting in the sixth chair. Been there for six hours, which is roughly before you arrived from underneath the city. I guess he knew about this before you contacted him at his shrine.”

“How’d you know about the shrine?” Luke says.

“I get around.” Charlie snaps his fingers. “Now get moving! Tetrask is waiting for you.”

“Oh, right! I’ll see you around.”

Luke walks out of the aisle, counting them off one by one until he reaches the sixth aisle. He enters and goes down six rows. The end of the sixth row opens up into a small clearing full of wooden tables covered in scattered books. A few torches are lit to provide a scholarly atmosphere, but they don’t glow with fire.

A man is hunched over a table reading a book. He looks busy studying some ancient material and is all alone in the clearing.

Slicking back his hair and putting on his best sideways grin, Luke saunters up to his patron god and says, “Yo! Tetrask, my main man! What’s happening, dog?”

“Eh? Who?” Luke jumps back in surprise. The man has a thick beard and yellow spectacles—hardly the face of a god.

“Sorry dude,” Luke says sheepishly. “I was just…”

“It’s me, you dolt!” The man takes off his fake beard and spectacles, revealing Charlie. “Sorry, I just couldn’t resist!”

“Man, can you just like—” Luke folds his arms across his chest. “Will you stop beating around the bush and just show me where he is?”

Charlie nods over the Hero’s shoulder. “He’s standing right behind you.”

“Yeah right,” Luke snorts. “Like I’m falling for that old trick.”

“No, really! He’s standing right behind you!”

“Not falling for it!”

“Hello, Luke.”

Luke spins around to see a huge man with a dark black beard and curly black hair standing behind him. The man’s eyes are rich brown from end to end and glow with an otherworldly light. A glowing brown circle pulses in the center of his chest. A sense of godly awe washes over Luke. Charlie stands to the side with a smug look on his face.

“Man, Tetrask.” Luke clutches his chest. “You gave me a heart attack.”

“Thankfully, your heart still beats,” the god says in his powerful, resonant voice. Luke struggles to keep standing in Tetrask’s divine presence, intense magical energy flowing through his body. Charlie stifles a laugh.

“You think it’s funny, eh?” Luke says, turning on Charlie. “Check this out, Tetrask. This little joker has been following me around all day. I’ve been jump-scared more times than I can count.”

“I’ll take responsibility for his jump-scares, but I’ve hardly been following him all day.”

“The only reason I’m having trouble standing is because you’ve pranked the strength out of my legs!”

“Why are you here, Charlie?” Tetrask asks.

“What do you mean? Do you mean why do I exist here in this spot, or why am I here with you two bozos?”

“You know what I meant. Go on, I can take it from here.”

Charlie turns around and heads back through the aisles, leaving Luke and Tetrask alone in the Archive study. Tetrask brushes by Luke, selecting the seventh table past the seventh aisle past the seventh row of shelves. He picks a seat at random and Luke sits down across from his patron god. After a moment of silent staring at one another, Tetrask folds his hands in front of him.

“So Luke, how does it feel to be a Hero?”

“Oh, uh…” Luke smiles. “Pretty cool. I mean, I haven’t really gotten to do much, so…” Luke shrugs. “The most I can do is turn into stardust, so that’s pretty cool.”

“Everyone started somewhere. You’ll get used to it.”

Luke clears his throat. Tetrask’s low, divine voice freezes words in his throat. He finds it terribly difficult to look away from the god’s radiant brown eyes.

“I think I can fly with it too,” Luke says. “I don’t know for certain, though—I haven’t tried. Can I fly? Do you know?”

“If you couldn’t tell, your powers tend to be based on who you’re apprenticing with.” Tetrask smiles knowingly. “Flight isn’t exactly my cup of tea. But your friend in the Plains… What was her name?”

“Oh, you mean Camellia? What about her?”

“Camellia; that was it. She’s most likely to get the gift of flight because she apprentices under Apalon, the god of Sunshine and the Wind.”

“That makes sense,” Luke says. “You know, speaking of gods, it really sucks that those gods died. That monster sounds like it had a bad attitude and needed to be put down for good.”

“I agree,” says Tetrask. He straightens his back, taking a business-like stance. “So! Would you like to learn about the tragic death of my dear friends and close comrades?”

Luke folds his arms defensively, ignoring the overpowering divine aura flooding off the god. “Well, when you put it that way? Not really, Mr. Buzzkill.”

“Relax, it was a loaded question. You’re going to have to earn the right to know what happened to my people.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I have to train you before you can know. I want to be sure I can trust you with the secret of what happened to my people.”

“Sheesh, does nothing come easy to Heroes nowadays?”

“Everything comes easy for Heroes on Renea, hence why I’m making you work for it.” Tetrask leans in. “Besides, aren’t you interested in all of the amazing powers you’ll develop?”

“Amazing powers?” Luke perks up. “Like what?”

“Well,” Tetrask says, “there’s the power you get where you light up like a hundred billion candles. You could blind a lot of people if you’re not careful.”

“No way.” Luke’s eyes glint with awe.

“And then there’s the one where you get an incredibly powerful, legendary weapon that enhances your battle prowess many times over.”

“No way!” Luke is standing now.

“Oh, but I’m sure you’re not interested in that kind of stuff.” Tetrask waves him off. “Let’s just talk about dead gods and boring history.”

“To hell with history!” Too hyped to contain himself, Luke knocks over a chair. “I want to get strong and fight monsters and go on an adventure!”

“That’s the spirit!” Tetrask stands, extending his hand. “Take my hand, Luke. I’ll make you stronger than you ever thought was possible.”

Luke lunges across the table and grabs Tetrask’s hand. The instant he makes contact, Tetrask and Luke vanish from the Archives. All of the gemstone lights go out instantly, plunging the room into darkness.

After a moment of silence, a light comes from a nearby aisle. Charlie enters into the small study clearing with a candle in hand and sighs. He sits down in a chair, opens a book to no particular page, and begins to read. As he traces the Renean symbols on the page, Charlie whistles a familiar tune. Though the tune is ultimately short lived in the grand scheme of life, it nevertheless brings him a small measure of peace in his otherwise hectic world.

Nysse, oracle to Tetrask, god of Armaggedon and the Cosmos, kneels at the cauldron in the back of her shrine. It glows with a bright green fire before cooling into a faded red. The connection is live and active.

“Oh Tetrask,” she prays, “mighty Tetrask, I seek your knowledge. The foolish boy whom you claimed as your protégé; is he alive? Is he with you? Has he fallen to the clutches of Magnus and his Royal Crypt? Tetrask, mighty—”

“Hey there kid!”

“Kalax’s boot!” Nysse squeaks, astonished.

“Whoa, easy there! It’s just me!”

“Me who?” she asks aloud. “What’s going on?”

“Hello, Nysse,” says a second voice.

“Tetrask!” she gasps. “H-hello, my lord!”

“I’m here too! Don’t you remember me?”

Nysse rubs her forehead. “Master Tetrask, please tell me you didn’t actually make this boy your protégé.”

“Yes Nysse,” the god replies, “I did. I see no problems with it.”

“Dude, Tetrask is a monster at chess. Why didn’t you tell me before? He wrecked me like two hundred times! In a row!”

“It’s a very simplistic game, really. Almost childish.” Tetrask scoffs. “Anyone could pick up a chess board and become a grand master.”

“Unbelievable,” Nysse mutters. “Simply unbelievable.”

“Hey,” Luke says, “miss oracle girl! Come up to the moon and hang out with me!” Luke’s voice falls to a whisper. “No offense to old Teddy, but he can be a bit stuffy to hang around with.”

“I can’t leave the shrine!” Nysse says. “I’m expecting customers.”

“We need to talk anyways, Nysse. I recommend you come up here at once.”

“To the moon?” Nysse sputters. “To your Temple so I may walk in your presence? I’m not worthy of such an honor on a day as plain as this!”

“Oh hey,” Luke interjects, “think I can talk to Scott on this? I totally forgot about him and I haven’t talked to him in forever! Hey, Tetrask, can I use this bowl of fire to call Scott really quick?”

“No, you can’t—”

“I’m dialing Scott, you can’t stop me!”

“Unhand that bowl of fire this instant.”

“I saw it first!”

“No you didn’t. It was mine long before you were born.”

“But I want to call him!”

“Let go of it, Luke.”

“You know what? Get the chess board. If I win, you have to let me call Scott.”

“Fine. Stay here and do not dial him.”

Nysse’s head goes silent for several long moments. After a while, she hazards a clearing of her throat. “Did that seriously work?”

“Yeah it did. The best part is that I hid the chess board.” Luke chuckles. “Boy, he’s going to be steamed when he figures it out.”

“Well done,” she says approvingly. “You’re certainly craftier than I thought. Do you want some help finding this friend of yours before Tetrask returns?”

“No,” Luke says, “I think I’ve got it covered. I found you, didn’t I? Just give me a few seconds to peek through the Cemetery.” Luke seeks out Scott. As he digs through Renean minds, the flames spark more than usual. The fire fades from dark red to an icy, cold blue. Nysse bites her tongue, a mild headache coming on.

“Huh,” Luke says. “He must be sleeping or something.”

“I don’t think so. You can still contact someone when they’re asleep, but this is different.”

“How so?”

“Telepathy flame transfers emotions and feelings. It can be felt by the receiver and seen in the fires of both users. It looks like your friend Scott may be unconscious right now. And by the feel of it, he might have seriously overexerted his brain.” Another wave of pain passes through her head. “Cut the connection. I think this may be injuring him further.”

The connection drops immediately and the fire returns to a dark red.

“Well this sucks,” Luke sighs. “My best friend is hurt right now and I can’t do anything about it.”

“It’ll be okay, I’m sure.” Nysse dusts off her robes and tucks a strand of her hair into place. “Dip your hand into the fire. I’m coming through.”

“Do what now?” Luke half-shouts. “Are you crazy? I’ll burn myself!”

“It’s not real fire. It’s telepathy fire, remember? It has no heat.”

“Oh yeah. I knew that, I was just testing you.”

“Now put your hand in the bowl. It needs a physical connection for transport.”

Nysse reaches into her cauldron and feels for another hand. When she finds it, she grips on tightly. A bright light covers her vision and she’s propelled through space-time, landing in a darkened, cavernous room. A tall boy with a slightly astonished grin stands in front of her.

“Oh,” she says, “now I remember you.”

“I have one of those faces,” Luke says.

Nysse adjusts her robes and reaches out her hand formally. “Hello. I’m Nysse, oracle to Tetrask, god of Armageddon and the Cosmos.”

“Huh? Oh!” Luke dusts off his hand on his jeans and meets hers in the center. “Hey there, I’m Luke Derringer. Oh uh, apprentice to Tetrask, god of Armageddon and the Cosmos. So to put it all together, I’m Luke Derringer, apprentice to Tetrask, god of Armageddon and the Cosmos.” He gestures around the large hall. “And this is Tetrask’s Temple.”

“Pleased to meet you, Luke.”

The cavernous hall around them extends far out of sight, arching above their heads into pitch darkness. Twisted pillars jut up from the ground to support the ceiling and faint light from white gemstone torches provide illumination. A few doorways with curved arches occasionally break the walls, and hallways extend to the left and right of the hall. The floor is made of flat grey stones that glimmer with extremely small crystals.

Tetrask’s mighty voice echoes through the hall, the ground shaking. “Alright Luke, where’d you put the chess board! I know you hid it somewhere in here!”

“It’s not important anymore, Teddy old buddy!” Luke yells down the hall.

“My name is Tetrask! I’m a god, by thunder! I should be addressed as such!”

“He’s kind of grouchy, isn’t he?” Nysse whispers.

Luke laughs. “You get used to it.”

“New rule!” Tetrask calls. “It’s Tetrask or nothing! No more ‘Teddy old buddy’ or ‘Tedsworth old pal.’ That’s officially out the window!”

“Tedsworth?” Nysse says skeptically. “Really, Luke?”

He shrugs. “I ran out of nicknames pretty quick.”

“And another thing! Who even thought chess would be a good way to pass the time? I can think of a thousand other ways to pass the time other than playing chess! In fact, I’m going to write a book about it. I think I’ll go write a book. Luke! Get Nysse up here! She’s going to help me write a book.”

Nysse sighs. “Duty calls.”

“We can do something later, I guess. No biggie.”

“Think you can teach me how to play chess?”

“Forget chess,” Luke says. “I’ll teach you a highly sophisticated and incredibly intricate game I learned to play on Earth. It’s a game that has torn apart families, ruined businesses, and shattered friendships. I’ve seen houses bought and sold, hotels mortgaged for fractions of their cost, chances taken and dividends paid! It’s the most deadly, most amazing, most terrifying game in the whole universe!”

“Oh really? What’s it called?”

“Monopoly.”

“Monopoly, eh?” Nysse rubs her arms mockingly. “Sounds pretty scary.”

“You bet it is,” Luke says. “Anyways, you best get going. Old Ted-man has a short temper.”

Luke watches Nysse depart to find Tetrask. Her footsteps echo down the hallway as Tetrask repeatedly calls for him to fetch the oracle. Chuckling to himself, Luke heads for the nearest window. Though he has barely spent an hour in Tetrask’s Temple, he has already found his favorite spot. He pulls a chair away from a side-table and sits down in it, eyes locked on the outside view.

The best thing about having Tetrask as a patron god has to be the view. I wouldn’t trade this for a mountain of treasure. The image of a massive gold mountain glinting in the sunlight sends chills down Luke’s spine. Well, maybe a mountain big enough. Luke stares out the window of Tetrask’s Temple and sighs deeply, eyes locked on planet Renea floating far away in outer space.

Chapter Eight

[]Summer Sands

On the edge of Cebral’s Ocean and Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Drew drinks in the brine-soaked breeze gusting across the landscape. Spirals of sand dance across the dunes and various shapes of rocks rise from the sand at random. The sound of a distance ocean surf travels on the wind.

No clouds, plenty of sunshine, sand and water… Could this place get any more beautiful?

He kicks off his shoes and socks, standing barefoot in the sand. He shifts his feet and the granules rub between his toes. A wide grin plasters itself across his face.

Drew strolls through the beachfront sand and observes the various rock outcroppings. Some of them tilt away from the sun, providing pockets of shade. Others have holes in them big enough to walk through, as if the rocks were creating an opening to a cove, and in some places rivers of saltwater cut through the sand. The rocks come in all shades, from tan to brown and even grey.

Drew makes his way up and over a particularly large hill of sand. Once at the top, he pulls back his hair, speechless.

Huge island cliffs spear up from a deep, vast body of rich blue water. Waterfalls pour down the sides of tall grey islands covered in bushes, emptying into the sea. A flat tan island is covered in birds of all kinds, their calls creating a beautiful chorus. A black, jagged island sprays a hissing stream of water into the air every few seconds.

The coastline winds around the sea, shimmering under the bright yellow sun. Drew hurries down his sand dune and runs into the water, stopping only when it reaches the middle of his shin. The cold surf splashes playfully at his legs, kicking saltwater up to the back of his calves.

Drew walks in the water near at the edge of the sand, following the shoreline as it curves toward a collection of buildings. Three to four houses made of dark wood sit on the beach, slightly raised by stilts. Three grey islands float just off shore, their waterfalls cascading into mist just before reaching the ocean. A large, battered ship with grey sails is docked nearby.

Drew mounts the stairs up to the pier—a short trip of only a flight and a half. He pushes open the door to the main building and a small bell goes off above his head. The air in the shop is cool and salty.

“Be with you in a moment!” a voice hollers from somewhere in the shop.

“No hurry!” Drew replies. He looks around the building from his vantage at the entrance. Groups of tables take up one side of the room, a counter set against the wall. A large door leads towards the back of the building, most likely to a kitchen. The other half of the building is filled with racks and shelves of merchandise.

Drew heads for the back of the store, taking a few moments to look at the merchandise displayed on shelves. He finds a small pirate ship replica made out of a slick black rock. It’s incredibly detailed yet small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. Drew vows to pick it up at a later date. He sets it back on the shelf and picks up a palm-sized trident. It has three multicolored, opal-like stones set into the base of each of the heads.

“Now this is a weapon worthy of a sea god,” says Drew. “Cebral could totally make waves with this.”

“Inspecting some fine merchandise, sailor?” Drew turns to face the source of the voice. It comes from a short man in his later years. A faded black and grey beard crusted with sea salt clings to his face.

“Fine merchandise indeed, but I’m no sailor.” Drew sets the trident back on the shelf and bows at the waist. “Drew King, at your service.”

The shopkeeper bows in return and says, “And I’m at yours. Well, Mr. King, what can I do for you?”

“I’m on a quest to find a living legend!” Drew’s voice becomes theatrical and dramatic. “I’m looking for a monster among monsters, a sea-devil in disguise, responsible for the death and salvation of hundreds of sailors each year!”

“And that creature is…?”

“None other than Cebral,” Drew says triumphantly, “the god of Architecture and Oceans!”

“Oh,” the shopkeeper says, “you’re a Hero. Why didn’t you say so?”

Drew’s physically deflates. “Well, I was going to say that, but it would have sounded so much cooler if…” Drew waves his hand dismissively. “Ah, forget it. But yes, I’m a Hero.” The symbol of Cebral, previously hidden, scribes itself onto Drew’s forehead. “I wasn’t kidding about looking for Cebral. But…” He rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. “I just moved into town, quite literally. Is there any chance I could get some tips on where to start?”

The bell rings from the front of the shop.

“Absolutely,” says the shopkeeper, “but give me one second. Looks like we’ve got customers.” The man turns and approaches a group of rough looking men in various uniforms and garbs. “Hello, gentlemen! What can I do for you?”

The group—roughly twenty to thirty in total—shuffles to the tables and sits down. Some rest their heads on the hard wood. Others lean against their hands. One man stares straight ahead, eyes locked a thousand yards away. One particularly large man motions for something to drink.

“A couple rounds of Green, then?” the shopkeeper says cheerily. “Excellent choice. One moment.” The shopkeeper hurries off to the back room, disappearing behind the counter and into the kitchen. Drew aimlessly fiddles with the merchandise in an attempt to overhear what the men are talking about.

“I still can’t believe I survived the Scourge,” one sailor says. “It seems too impossible.”

“Cebral is probably getting a good kick out of our misery right now,” another gripes.

“And Dirog!” a third says. “How are we going to break this to his wife?”

“Wall of water,” says the one absently staring off into space.

“Alright, you downtrodden seadogs,” one of the larger men says. “Don’t be so upset about this whole fiasco. You’re making me a little steamed.”

“All of that precious treasure, Captain!” another complains. “All of our efforts, wasted! How can you not be upset about this?”

“Treasure is treasure, mates. There’s plenty more where ours came from.” The Captain stands up and the crew looks to him wearily. “Don’t you realize this is our chance to start off on another adventure? I’m proud of you boys. You all did a fine job at getting that treasure. We may have lost old Dirog and all our treasure to the Scourge, but we’re still here. We’re still alive.”

The crew reluctantly nods in agreement.

“We’ve still got the Undying Adventure,” the Captain continues, “and we’ve still got breath in our lungs. I’m not the best adventurer in the world, and I’m certainly not the youngest, but I’m hungry for another round. With this crew behind me, I think we can rake in even more loot than last time!”

At the mention of another round, pep begins to fill the room. The crew’s eyes lift up and some begin to smile, the thought of more treasure and more adventure on everyone’s mind.

The man sitting closest to the Captain raises his fist in agreement. “I’m with the Captain on this!”

“That’s what I like to hear!” The Captain pumps his fist into the air. “Come on, mates! What say you?”

The whole group erupts into shouts and cheers. Drew can’t resist the urge to grin widely.

There’s so much spirit in these guys, he thinks. I need to talk to them. They’ve probably got the wildest stories to tell! He’s so caught up smiling and dreaming about adventures on the high seas that he doesn’t notice a very large sailor staring at him until it’s too late. Drew looks away and whistles tunelessly, knowing he’s been spotted but trying not to act like he’s been spotted anyways.

“Hey! You there!”

Cursing his luck, Drew turns around and pretends to be astonished. “Who, me?”

“Yes, you!” the sailor says. “You’re the only one in the shop, Coastman!”

Drew tries not to look at the large, stocky man sitting closest to the Captain. He was the one who called his name.

“Don’t mind me,” Drew tries. “I’m just buying some souvenirs.”

“Get on over here, I wanna talk to you.”

Sighing, Drew walks over to the man who called him out. The crew glances at him curiously, but no one looks for too long. The shopkeeper hurries out of the back room and drops off mugs of foamy green drinks, which quickly draws their attention away from the stranger in the room. One sailor with a nasty blue scar on the left side of his face glares at Drew, who hurriedly looks away.

The burly man at the Captain’s table pulls out a chair and motions for Drew to sit. The Captain watches him with a sharp eye, the other covered by a black patch. Drew fidgets nervously, trying to recall his brief boxing training in case someone starts throwing fists.

“You’re not from around here,” the burly man grunts.

“You’re a sharp one,” Drew says. “Good talk. Can I go now?”

“It’s your clothes,” the Captain says. “You reek of foreigner. You some kind of land dweller?”

“Well…” Drew rubs the back of his neck, “I can’t say I’ve ever tried out my sea gills.”

The burly man and the Captain roar with laughter. Drew feels the eyes of the rest of the crew drilling into him. He attempts to make himself smaller.

“Get a load of this guy, Cap!” The burly man claps Drew hard on the back, knocking the Hero forwards in his chair. “What a card! You got a name, Coastman?”

“It’s Drew,” he says softly. “My name is Drew King.”

“Drew King, eh? Well pleasure to meet you, Drew.” He leans in close, his breath steeped in alcohol. Drew clenches up, refusing to move back. “Say, Drew. Do you have a brother named Dree?”

“What? No, I’m an only child.”

“It’s a shame. I’d love to meet ‘Dree King.’” He looks to his Captain, who is already biting his tongue to prevent from laughing. “Oh wait, I am ‘drinking!’”

At this, the whole crew explodes into hoots and roars. Drew’s face burns bright red and he looks at his hands. This only makes the crew laugh harder and louder. One pirate laughs so hard he falls right out of his chair, much to the crew’s enjoyment. The laughter is terrifyingly contagious, and soon Drew finds himself laughing along with the crew.

“Oh man,” the Captain chuckles, wiping a tear from his eye. “That was a good one.”

“Thanks, Cap. Made it up on the spot.” The burly man turns to Drew. “Anyways, I guess some introductions are in order. My name’s Hartor. I’m the quartermaster for this ragtag group of sailors.”

“I’m the Captain. You can call me Captain and nothing less.”

“Yes sir,” Drew says automatically. “I mean, Captain. Yes Captain.”

“So,” Hartor says, leaning over his knee, “what brings a foreigner like you to Cebral’s storm-ridden lands?”

“I’m on a quest to find Cebral, my patron god. I’m a Hero.”

Hartor casts a glance at the Captain. “You’re in dangerous territory for a Hero. Pirates lurk these areas and hunt for people with exotic powers and strengths. Heroes are running high prices in the right markets.”

“The black markets,” the Captain corrects.

“Not very smart to be bumbling around here, showing off your Hero symbol like it’s some kind of fancy prize. It’s wise you keep that secret under lock and key.” Hartor raises his mug. “After all, it would have been awful if any of us turned out to be working for Karos the Scourge.”

“Who?”

“Thanks Hartor,” the Captain says drily. “I was just getting back into a good mood.”

“Who’s Karos? I’m a little new in the area.”

“Clearly,” the quartermaster snorts. He stands. “Follow me. We need to go to a different table.” The quartermaster and Drew leave the Captain and slide into chairs at an open table. The shopkeeper stops by and tops off Hartor’s cup and leaves a tall glass of a green drink for Drew. Drew eyes it suspiciously.

“What, you don’t like Green? It’s the best alcohol money can buy!”

“I’m not old enough to drink.”

“Can you see over the table, Coastman?”

“Of course I can.”

“Then you’re old enough to drink.” Hartor takes a long draft of his alcohol. As he sets down the glass, he wipes the foam from his lips. “Damn, I keep forgetting how good Green is around here. Those Monarchian pubs don’t got nothing on good Green from a pier tavern.” Hartor motions for Drew to take a drink as well. With a sigh, Drew takes a small drink and chokes almost instantly. Hartor starts laughing.

“Go easy on it, kid! It’s a pretty strong drink!”

Drew coughs loudly. “How do you stomach this? This is foul.” Drew sets his glass down and pushes it away. “I could never be a pirate.”

“I’d certainly hope so! Pirates are a nasty bunch.”

Drew looks up. “Aren’t you a pirate?”

“No way.” Hartor’s brow furrows. “Well, technically I am, but I wouldn’t call myself that. Karos perverted what it means to be a pirate. Once it was about having adventures and skirting with the law, and even though some people got hurt, it wasn’t like we did it on purpose. Deep down we were having fun, and though the Navy wouldn’t admit it, they were too.”

“So you were once a pirate?” Drew leans in. “What was your old life like?”

Hartor’s voice becomes distant. “I belonged to one of the most fearsome crews to ever sail the Ocean, but that was long before Karos.” Hartor takes a drink from his Green, sighing as he puts it back on the table. His eyes are tired. “It’s been forever since I’ve been able to call myself a pirate; I don’t even remember what it feels like. The freedom, the love of the sea… It’s all just a memory now.”

“Things changed, I take it?”

“They changed once Karos became a household name,” Hartor says. “The Navy stopped playing around. They deployed battleships to obliterate any and all pirate vessels in sight. Huge cruisers scour the waterways even now, seeking to eliminate Karos and his legions. That puts us freedom-loving pirates in serious danger.” Hartor downs the last of his drink.

Drew pushes his mug toward Hartor. “The grey ship I saw by the islands… That was the Navy’s doing, wasn’t it? They thought you belonged to Karos?”

“No, that was from Karos himself. But to the Navy, every pirate belongs to Karos.” Hartor takes a gulp from the new mug. “It started near Blueface’s Sunken Cove. A galleon touring the island was attacked by a single ship, all its cargo stolen, all its passengers massacred. A name was written in blood on the pearly white sails: ‘Karos.’”

“And it only got worse?”

“Aye, beyond imagining. He swept through towns and picked them clean of all their treasure, leaving their bodies for the birds. No one knows why he does it; he’s like an unstoppable plague. That’s why they call him the Scourge.” Hartor laughs joylessly. “I’d go as far as to call him a Human Typhoon.”

“Why hasn’t anyone caught him yet?” Drew spreads his hands as if expressing an obvious answer. “You’d think someone with a name and face as famous as his would be easy to spot.”

“The Navy pursues him relentlessly, but…” Hartor shrugs vaguely. “Well, there’s only so much you can do when you’re up against Karos. His ship, the Navion, is famous for floating by whole legions of Navy cruisers without being seen.” He sighs and lifts his mug. “He’s a disgrace to the namesake ‘pirate.’”

“Where do I find him?”

Hartor chokes and sets down his drink. “Find Karos? For what!”

“So I can kick his teeth down his throat!” Drew’s eyes shine with excitement. “I was told that I had been called here for a reason. This has to be it, right?”

“You’ll have an easier time finding Cebral! If Karos doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be found. He’s spent his whole life hiding from the Navy, for pity’s sake.”

“But he has a name, so he can be found. Any man who can be found can be beaten.”

“I like you, kid. It’s good to know there are still some dreamers left in the world.” Hartor sighs and looks out the window. “With things the way they are, I suppose some of us have to be.”

Drew follows the quartermaster’s fatigued gaze out the window. He sees nothing but a bright blue sky, a few islands, and a crystal clear ocean.

Karos the Scourge enjoys the dark. It provides safety and familiarity in a world filled with bright lights and loud noises. His pursuers cannot see in the dark. The Navy Admirals cannot see in the dark. Not even mighty Cebral can see in pitch darkness. Karos knows this and savors it, lording the advantage over those who would try to peer at his plans.

A knock at the door stirs the Scourge from his daydream. The newest deck swabbie hurries from his chair to open the door. He is serving as a liaison to Karos, who currently doesn’t want to be disturbed while trying to sort out his scattered thoughts.

A scout whom Karos had sent out earlier walks into the room and bows. Moonlight streams in through a small window on the upper end of a wall, casting a white shadow on Karos’s body. His feet rest on the desk in front of him. With his arms crossed across his chest and his hat drawn over his eyes, the Captain almost looks asleep.

“Captain Karos,” the scout says. “We have an update on the situation.”

“Good,” says the new swabbie. “You may now provide the details.”

“I wasn’t talking to you, swabbie,” the scout snarls. “I was talking to the Captain.”

“Can’t you see he’s deep in thought right now?” The swabbie straightens his back, puffing himself up. “I’ve been chosen to speak for him until he comes out of his stupor.”

“Oh yeah? I think I’ll take it up with the Captain himself.” The scout turns to Karos. “Sir?”

Karos the Scourge looks up from underneath his massive hat and the scout stiffens. The Scourge’s intense, heavy gaze never fails to freeze even the most intimidating pirates.

“No disrespect meant by my question, sir,” the scout prefaces. “Is the swabbie speaking for you?”

Karos nods once and then tilts his hat back down over his eyes. Images of stormy seas and an old island shrouded in mist clouds his vision, his daydreams returning in full. The scout straightens himself and reaches into his jacket pocket, bringing out a bundle of papers.

“Reports have confirmed the entrance of a Hero into Cebral’s Ocean,” says the scout. “As for exactly who it is, I couldn’t get a clear description. We’ve gotten mixed reports from our sources.” The scout places the papers on Karos’s desk. He hesitates. “Sir, about the thing I mentioned earlier… We thought now would be a good time to present it to you.”

Karos grunts in response.

“He wants to know what it is,” the swabbie translates.

“Can it, I already know he wants to know what it is.”

Karos makes a circular motion with his finger, a signal to start explaining.

“If you will follow me, I can show you. We’ve been working on it all night.”

Karos sighs and picks his feet off the desk. As he stands, the swabbie and the scout resist the urge to take a few steps back, for Karos is not a small man by any regards. His arms are long and powerful and a mass of black hair collects in a ponytail at the back of his head. A large red pirate captain’s coat, a black belt, and a white shirt cover his torso. Black trousers and black boots cover his feet and legs.

Karos reaches for his cutlass—a mostly ceremonial weapon that never sees battle—and ties it securely around his waist. He gestures for the scout to take the lead. The new swabbie follows his captain and the scout out of Karos’s chambers.

As they walk down the hallway, the Navion creaks and groans, shifting with the motion of the sea. Karos drifts with the tilt of the ship as if anticipating the movements before they happen. The scout and the swabbie have their sealegs about them, though neither of them move with the same natural fluidity of their Captain. The hallway is eerily quiet. A few gemstone lamps of assorted colors light the way.

“Hey, where are you leading us?” The swabbie goes for his sword. “How do we know this isn’t leading into mutiny?”

The scout draws his sword and points it at the swabbie. “You dare imply—!”

The swabbie draws his sword in response and crosses blades with the scout. They glare at one another, faces barely perceptible in the dim light, metal grinding against metal. They are so locked in combat that they fail to notice Karos slip soundlessly past them and head towards the end of the hallway. The door to the galley is slightly ajar; Karos steps inside.

Candlelight suddenly fills the room with a warm glow. The crew from the whole ship is sitting in their seats expectantly. When they see Karos, they cheer and holler excitedly.

Karos is quickly joined by the scout and the new swabbie.

“Sorry about that, Cap,” the scout mumbles. “I got distracted.”

“What’s all of this for?” Karos asks in his crisp tenor voice.

“Come on, don’t tell me you forgot about your own birthday!”

One pirate pulls out the chair at the head of the table. It’s much larger and more decorated than the other, smaller chairs. It’s a chair fit for a king, or a Pirate Captain. Karos, upon seeing his beloved chair, immediately brightens. He strides toward it and, upon taking hold of the chair, spins around, drawing his cutlass and holding it high above the table. The metal seems to glow blue in the low candlelight.

“You crafty old seadogs,” Karos laughs. “I can’t believe you remembered something like this.”

“Heck Captain, it’s all we’ve been thinking about!” one pirate says. “You’ve done so much for the crew. It’s only fair we give a little back.”

The scout looks to the Captain. “I realize this goes against tradition, organizing things without your input and whatnot, but surely you understand why we couldn’t ask you to plan your own birthday.”

“I understand. Thanks, mates.” Karos sheathes his cutlass and sinks into his chair, visibly at ease. Three pirates in aprons make their way around the table, setting out plates and wooden cups filled with thick, dark liquid.

“We’re breaking out the Burgundy early,” says one of the cooks. “It’s our Captain’s birthday, after all. Why wouldn’t we bring out the best alcohol in town?”

“Say, Cap,” a pirate with a pointed beard says, “what do you think is the best part about being a pirate?”

“I think it’s the rare and expensive gems we pillage from towns,” a bald pirate chimes in.

“I say it’s the chanties we sing on the high seas,” pointed-beard pirate says.

“Yeah but the gems are so much more…” The bald pirate gestures vaguely. “Well, more.”

“But the chanties are so stirring!”

“Nothing stirs me more than a handful of gems.”

“Maybe you ought to try playing some chanties, you uncultured Coastman.”

“Maybe you ought to try plundering some villages, you lazy cur!”

“I’ve half a mind to take offense to that!”

“You’ve half a mind anyways!”

The two pirates grab each other by the shirts and wrestle, knocking into another table. Karos lets them roughhouse it out while the crew watches excitedly. Ship brawls are usually pretty rare and by themselves can be grounds for dismissal, but Karos is in good humor. The two pirates never openly strike one another but instead opt to throw each other around, almost bowling over two of the serving pirates. The third has the sensibility to duck out of the way.

After a while, Karos raises his hand for the fighting to stop. They immediately stop tussling and disengage from each other’s arms. The pirate with a pointed beard rubs the back of his neck.

“Sorry, Cap. Wasn’t nothing but a little tumble session. Keeps my wits about me, you know?”

“Yeah,” the bald pirate grumbles, “if you had any wits to start with.”

“Hey!”

“Fradlr, Cochin, back to the table.” Karos gestures to the crew. “We’re waiting on you before we can eat.”

“Sorry Captain,” they say in unison. The two pirates return to the table, but they lightly push and elbow one another from time to time.

“To answer your question, Fradlr, about what’s the best thing about being a pirate, I think I’ve got a suitable answer.” Karos takes his drink and stands up. “The best thing about being a pirate isn’t the plundering, though I love sifting gemstones through my fingers. The best part about being a pirate isn’t the sea chanties either, though I do love a good rendition of Captain’s Lost His Drink.” He pauses for a moment. “To me, the best part about being a pirate is being a pirate.”

The crewmen, mostly quiet, exchange confused glances. A few mutter quietly.

“The best part about being a pirate is singing a sea chantey after a good day of plundering,” Karos explains. “The best part is kicking back in your hammock after working on the deck all day. The best part is feeling that salty spray against your face and in your beard. The best part about being Captain, though?” Karos raises his cup. “That has to go to working with the best crew in Cebral’s wretched Ocean.” The crewmen nod and mutter words of agreement. Some of them grab their cups to join the Captain in his toast. “So on this special night, I would like to propose a toast. Would anyone like to go first?”

A short pirate stands up. “A toast to the Captain!”

An old pirate stands up. “A toast to the sea!”

The scout pirate raises his cup. “A toast to our newest member. May Dirog find his place in this mighty crew!”

Dirog raises his cup. “A toast to new beginnings!”

Everyone then looks to their Captain, Karos the Scourge, who grins widely. “A toast to the Navy slime,” he says, “for being the thankful receivers of our blades. And finally, a toast to us! To the crew of the Navion, the greatest ship to ever sail the sea! Once a pirate, always a pirate!”

The crew cheers, hollers, and dives into the evening with great fervor.

“On the hop, swabbie! Let’s go!”

“Comin’, Captain!”

Drew scurries halfway down the shrouds and leaps on to the deck. He runs down the bow, across the midship, and up the railing, sliding to a stop at the steering wheel where the Captain stands with his arms folded. The Hero wipes the sweat off his brow with a red rag. His thin, slightly muscled frame is caked in sea salt and sweat. His new sailor pants are a little big, held up by a sash around the waist.

“I’ve been calling you for half an hour! What were you doing?”

“Securing the rigging, Captain!” Drew says, rendering a salute.

“You were securing the rigging!” the Captain shouts, incredulous.

“Yes, Captain!”

The Captain gives Drew a stern look. Then, his lips curl into an approving smile. “Well blow me down, Drew. You handled the rigging all by yourself?”

“Yes Captain.” He drops his salute. “It was my duty for today.”

“And no one helped you out?”

“No sir. The crew’s in the water.”

“The water? Well in that case, you’re relieved for today. After all, it wouldn’t be fair if the rest of the crew enjoys their day while you slave away.” He jabs a thumb at the side of the ship. “Get out there and enjoy yourself.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Drew gestures. “Care to join me?”

“No, thank you. I’ve got to count my loot.” He grimaces. “By that, I mean I need to mourn over the loot I don’t have anymore.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Oh! And keep that power you showed me a secret from prying eyes!” The Captain looks around suspiciously. “If you can see the shore, those on the shore can surely see you, and we don’t need to fight more than we’re ready to take on.”

The Captain turns around and stalks back into his cabin. Alone on the deck, Drew takes a moment to breathe deeply. The scent of sea salt and ocean foam permeates the air.

I really should have gone to the beach more when I was on Earth, he thinks. I had no clue that I would love this place so much. Approaching the railing, Drew leans over the side and peers at the land. Between the multiple islands and the waves cresting against the side of the boat, the distant sand and trees seems light years away.

“Hey, swabbie!”

Drew looks over the railing. Hartor and a few other sailors are swimming in the water. “You finish that rigging yet?”

“I did, no thanks to you lazy bums!”

“Hey Hartor,” one laughs, “I think I hear him complaining.”

“I’m smelling double duty on dishes tonight, swabbie!” a second sailor shouts. “If you wanna stick with us, you gotta earn your keep just like we did!”

“I’ve been busting his can for a while now,” Drew protests. “I deserve a break.”

“That so?” Hartor says, turning to the ship’s deck. “Well are you going to stay up there all day or you going to get in the water?”

Taking a few steps back for good measure, Drew runs and launches himself over the railing and into the water. He lands with a wide splash, his body melting into the water almost against his will. He swims around excitedly, caught up in the delight of his superpowers.

The sailors look around, searching for him in the waves. Hartor in particular seems to be the most interested in finding out where Drew is hiding.

After a few moments, Drew’s head emerges from the surface of the sea, the very water turning into the hairs on his head and the teeth in his smile. The sailors gaze at him in astonishment, and for the moment Drew forgets that the rest of his body is still transparent ocean water.

“Relax,” he says. “It’s just a superpower I got for being a Hero.”

“What does it let you do?”

“Things like this!”

Drew’s melts back into the ocean and sweeps in a whirlpool current around the sailor’s legs, spinning them around. Hartor laughs aloud as the other sailors struggle to remain afloat. When the water settles back down, a bubbling mass rises out of the ocean, vaguely taking the shape of a man’s upper torso and head.

“Wow swabbie,” Hartor says, awe in his voice. “That’s you? Really?”

“Absolutely!” Drew’s voice comes from everywhere. “Captain told me not to show anyone, so technically this is supposed to be secret, but since it’s just you guys I don’t mind so much.”

“I had no idea our little swabbie was a Hero!” a sailor exclaims. “This is too cool! Hartor! This is cool, right?”

“He was supposed to keep it a secret.” Hartor’s voice is stern. “The Captain’s going to have to hear about this. Divulging secrets about your Hero status is very dangerous; I told you this back at the pier.”

Drew sighs in annoyance, the mass of water shaping his upper body rippling with the sigh. “You’re no fun,” he murmurs. The bubbling mass dips into the sea and the water becomes calm. The quartermaster swims toward the ship.

“You’re not really going to tell on him, are you, Quartermaster?” one sailor asks.

“Yeah,” another sailor agrees. “He’s a good kid. We ought to give him a break.”

“Sorry boys. You know how important Heroes are to Renea. The less people who know he’s a Hero, the better off we’ll all be.” Hartor takes a few steps up the ladder, then throws a look at the sailors in the water. “You guys can either stay here and wimp out, or you can come with me and tell the Captain before it gets out of hand.”

The tone of Hartor’s voice leaves little to be discussed. Sighing, the two other sailors make their way to the ladder leading up to the deck of the ship.

[] Chapter Nine

Sunshine

On the edge of Apalon’s Plains and Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

A gentle, easy wind gusts across Apalon’s Plains. Shafts of crested wheatgrass bend with the breeze, the sun shining bright and high overhead. A well-walked pathway stretches into the sunny grassland. Hills litter the realm, clouds in all shades of white and grey dotting the sky.

Camellia takes a few hesitant steps into the Plains. No civilization can be seen for miles—not even a house on the hill or smoke from a chimney. She looks over her shoulder; Monarch is little more than a small bump on the horizon. A stray wind blows across Camellia’s face, taking her bangs off of her forehead.

Looks like I’m out here on my own. She turns toward the Plains. Hopefully Apalon knows I’m on my way. I’d hate to show up to his house uninvited.

“Uninvited?” a voice laughs. “Don’t be silly! All are welcome in my house!”

Camellia whirls around, searching for the source of the voice.

“Who are you looking for?” the voice says brightly, echoing in her head. “It’s me, Apalon! Don’t you recognize my godly voice? There can only be one, and that one is me!”

“You’re Apalon?”

“Don’t you believe me?”

“No, I do!” Camellia says. “I just didn’t expect someone so… Friendly. Shouldn’t you be appearing to me in some kind of wild thunderstorm with lots of fanfare and showboating?”

“I’m not much for showboating, but I do love good conversations.” A warm, sunny feeling blooms in Camellia’s chest—Apalon is smiling. “I could show up in a windstorm and a bright flash of sunlight, if that’s what you want me to do.”

“Thanks, but I’d like to keep my retinas intact.” Camellia starts down the path. “So how is it that you can talk to me?”

Apalon laughs joyously. “I’m a god, Camellia. I can talk to whomever I please.”

“That so? No offense, but you don’t really strike me as a god.”

“Oh? Am I too personal?”

Camellia starts to scale a hill. “I don’t really know. Myths always make gods out to be these awesome, powerful creatures. I thought that talking to a god would be… Different from this. A lot of piety, bowing, and double-ended riddles that I’m supposed to decode in order to learn your secrets.”

“That sounds awful!” Apalon cries. “Double-ended riddles? Who would be so cruel?”

“It’s a pretty common stereotype where I’m from.”

“And what backwards realm did you come from?”

Camellia smiles. “Somewhere very far away that you’ve never heard of, I’m sure.”

“Well I’d like to put your mind at ease. We gods are a strange bunch. Some are strictly business, others mix business and pleasure. And then there’s me—pleasure all the time.” He makes a sound that resonates like a musical chord. “Life’s too short to bother with being stuffy.”

“Sure, it’s short if you’re a human. You gods get to live forever.”

“Ah,” Apalon sighs. “If only it were that black and white. As simple as living forever, without death, disease, or pain.”

“So you’re not actually immortal?”

“Well, okay, maybe I’m being a little too abstract for you. By all means I’m immortal.” Apalon snickers. “I am, after all, a fully-realized god. But when you watch your friends get slaughtered by a mythical monster, you learn a few things about yourself.”

Camellia gasps. “Gods can be killed, too?”

“Oh yes, but it’s not easy, and there are tons of rules. In fact, there are so many obscure rules put in place to govern immortality and godhood that even I still don’t know the parameters.” Apalon laughs. “And I’ve been a god for, what, eons now? Still, even with the rules, it definitely has its perks.”

Camellia reaches the top of a hill. A group of people mill about in the valley below. They wear loose, baggy clothes made of red and white fabrics. A few oxen with astonishingly large horns graze on crested wheatgrass near the camp. Two sentries patrol opposite ends of the village, each on sloping hills. In their hands are pikes: long spears at least twice a normal person’s height.

“Nomads, huh?” Camellia inspects the valley below. “I should probably find a way around them.”

“What for?” Apalon asks. “They could be friendly people.”

“Or they could be a murderous band of cannibals,” says Camellia. “Besides, they’ve got sentries and weapons out for a reason. Approaching could put me on the wrong side of a spear.”

“Jeez, just where on Renea do you hail from? Plainsmen are generally decent people! And as a Hero, you’re a certain kind of celebrity in this realm. You should give it a whirl!”

She takes step back, her lips pursed in thought. “I don’t know, Apalon. I get really nervous around new people. I think I should play it safe and try to keep out of sight.”

“Well, you don’t have a choice now. They’ve spotted you.”

True to Apalon’s word, one of the sentries has spotted Camellia. She runs towards the center of the group, alerting everyone in sight. Camellia feels her stomach drop as the nomads cluster together.

“What are you waiting for?” Apalon says. “They’re expecting you! Get down there and say hello!”

“Are you nuts? I’ll be killed!”

“You’re assuming they have a bloodthirst that I can promise doesn’t exist. Just fly down there; you’ll be welcomed as a Hero.”

“You make it sound like I can just jump off this hill and start flying.”

“It’s that simple. Take a few steps back for a running start and then leap off the top.”

Camellia looks out over the valley, apprehensive about hurling herself off the top of a hill. Then, without warning, she starts to float off the ground. “Hey!” Camellia slings her arms out for balance. “What’s going on?”

“You’re flying, obviously.” Apalon laughs heartily. “And you aren’t a natural, that’s for sure! Tilt your body forwards! Come on, fly like you mean it!”

“But I’ve never—”

“You can do it! Just believe in yourself.”

Camellia sighs, her feet dangling uselessly several inches above the ground. She slowly tilts her center of gravity forward and her body advances. As she floats off the hill, the ground becomes farther away with each passing second. Staying airborne is the only thing on her mind.

Camellia wobbles slightly. “Is flying supposed to be this hard?”

“I won’t mix words. If Reneans were made to fly, they would have been born with wings.”

“Funny, I was going to say the same thing.”

“If it helps your confidence, look at how those nomads! You’re a regular celebrity!”

Curious, Camellia looks down at the nomad camp from her position in the sky. They all watch Camellia in a silent cluster, not in fear but in awe. A strange sensation comes over her; motivation bubbles in her stomach and she creases her lips in determination.

It only takes a few seconds for her to reach the camp. She pulls to a stop, hovering several dozen feet above the gathered nomads. They continue to point and stare and whisper, but none flee. The oxen graze quietly at the edge of the camp, ignoring the commotion.

“Alright, how do I get down?”

“You don’t need my help for this,” Apalon says. “Just descend.”

Camellia focuses and she slowly descends into the nomad camp. The crowd splits apart as her feet touch the ground. A wind gusts downwards from the sky and kicks up a cloud of dust. Camellia looks around nervously, wondering if she should run or stay completely still.

The sentry from the hill steps forward. Her tall, buxom frame and long brown hair reminds Camellia of an upperclassman from college. Camellia offers a disarming smile, hoping not to get skewered by the weapon in the sentry’s hands.

The sentry bows. “Hello, young woman.”

“Oh uh, h-hello.” Camellia looks around, then returns the bow. “Good to be here.”

“Do you hail from Monarch?”

“No, I’m from—” Camellia pauses. The nomads look like very simple people. Identifying another world with a whole different race of people might be too much for them to take in all at once. “Uh,” she tries again, “I’m from… Around the block.”

“So you’re a nomad too?”

“Sort of. My dad’s work makes my family move often, so I don’t really have a place to call home.”

The nomads mutter amongst themselves. Camellia eyes the long spear in the sentry’s hand, images of a brutal death blowing through her mind.

“You have the gift of flight,” the sentry observes. “Are you a Hero?”

“Yes I am.” The sentry visibly brightens and the nomads begin to murmur again. “But I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell anyone,” Camellia adds hastily.

“Why wouldn’t you? Being a Hero is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Tell me, are you in a hurry?”

“Not really.” Camellia reconsiders her words. “Well, I’m not quite sure. I know I have to get to Apalon sometime. I’m on a quest.”

“You’re going all the way to Sunset Hill?” the sentry asks, astonished. “That’s a very long journey.”

“Someone has to go, right?”

The sentry taps the bottom of her pike against the ground. “Well if you’re not in a rush to find Apalon, why don’t you stay with us for tonight?”

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Impose? Perish the thought.” She looks Camellia over. “Besides, you look like you could use some more environment-appropriate clothes and a good meal.”

“Are you sure?” Camellia asks. “I’d hate to take up your time.”

“In the Plains, it’s considered an honor to house a Hero!”

Camellia sighs. “Since you’re being so hospitable, I guess I can’t really refuse.”

The nomads and the sentry grin happy. “Come with me,” the sentry says, gesturing with her pike. “We’ll have more suitable clothes made for you.”

Camellia follows the sentry through the low grass and towards a hill. In the side of the hill is a small circular door crafted from wood, a brass knob in the center. The sentry opens the door and Camellia enters inside. The room is dark, but sunbeams streaming through a window provides a little bit of light. Three tables are positioned in different places around the room. Multiple baskets of red and white yarn sit in one corner near a sewing station.

“I must return to my duties,” the sentry says. “This is where I’ll leave you for now.”

Camellia looks over her shoulder. “Why do you have houses inside hills if you’re nomads?”

“We frequent this place every few months. Why not set up a place where we know we’ll be able to return to without fail? Our master seamstress will be with you shortly, so just sit tight.” The sentry smiles. “Oh, and by the way, it was good to finally meet you. I’m very glad you’re here with us.”

She closes the door. Camellia sighs. Everything is happening so fast that she barely has the time to sit down and read a book. Sitting in the corner of the room is a small shelf full of books. Curious, Camellia takes one and opens it to a random page. The book is filled with letters of an indeterminate ancestry and seemingly random nature. It’s entirely unreadable.

“You know,” she says, “I don’t know why I expected this to be printed in English.”

“In what?” Apalon asks.

“In English. It’s what I’m speaking now, isn’t it?”

“You’re speaking a very strange dialect of Renean. The way you pronounce some words is actually rather beautiful.” He hums a musical chord. “Very melodical.”

“Is that so?” Camellia turns the page. “Well, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ll admit it, Apalon: this is happening way too fast.” Camellia turns another page, taking her time to appreciate the foreign script. “I was expecting to take my time through side quests and making allies. Instead I’ve been put right into the middle of things.”

“Wasting time distracts you from your ultimate mission: traversing the Plains to find Sunset Hill. You can’t find me if you spend all day doing unimportant things. You need to wander, to explore! It’s in your nature to be a nomad. Can’t you feel it?”

“But to wander without friends? To quest without any experience?” Camellia sighs and closes her book. “I’m not a nomad. I’m just a kid under a hill trying to read a book written in an alien language.”

The door opens behind her and a cool wind blows into the room. A short woman stands just inside the doorway, a basket under her arm.

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” the woman says.

“No, it’s fine. I’m sorry, I was…” Camellia rubs the back of her head. “Just talking with my patron god. That must sound silly.”

“It doesn’t sound silly at all.” The woman closes the door. “And if you would be so kind, tell Apalon I said hello. It’s not every day you get the chance to talk with a god.”

“I certainly will.”

The seamstress makes her way to the sewing station. “You’re very lucky to be a Hero. I always dreamed of being one when I was your age.”

“You did?”

“All of us did. As children growing up in the Plains, we chased the wind and danced under the stars. Freedom was our watchword and Renea had no limits.” The seamstress sighs dreamily, picking up a basket of red and white yarn. “Oh, to be a Hero to the greatest god in all of Renea… That was everybody’s dream.”

The seamstress sets the basket on the table and motions for Camellia to come near. She takes out a spool of yellow string and takes Camellia’s various body measurements.

“What was it like?” Camellia asks, attempting to make small talk. “Back in the day, when you were a kid. Running around and chasing the wind all day.”

“We mostly talked about what it would be like to have a personal bond with Apalon,” the seamstress replies. “How great it would be to be able to talk to him for hours on end! We imagined the knowledge he’d share with us, the joy we would have in his presence. We imagined being able to run without tiring. We imagined flying through the air and going hand-to-hand against monsters and warlords with Apalon’s hand guiding our fists.” She sighs. “I used to think that was ages ago. But when I look back now, it seems like it was only yesterday.”

“Did you say monsters?”

“Oh yes, the Plains has many monsters.”

Camellia swallows hard.

“But we were never afraid of them,” she continues. “We always thought we would fight them with the Wind Fist, like Apalon. You see, if you’re really lucky, you can spot an enormous man on the horizon dancing with the wind. Some people go their whole lives without seeing him once.” She smiles, her eyes distant. “As a child, we were told that Apalon was practicing an extinct martial art known as Wind Fist. Everyone wanted to learn it, and as kids, we all tried to duplicate it.”

“What did it look like?”

“It was like he was imbued with the very Essence of the wind. Poetry in motion.” The seamstress stops measuring and puts down her strings of yarn, little snippets cut off to mark different parts of Camellia’s body. She nods in approval of her work. “Quite a few measurements we have here. You’ve got a strong body, so take good care of it. You’ll need it out here in the Plains.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“It’ll take me a little while to make these clothes for you. Why don’t you go around and talk to some people in the camp? I’m sure they’d love to meet you, what with you being a Hero and all.”

Camellia shifts anxiously. “I don’t know. I’ve never been one for hogging fame.”

“Hogging? These people love you beyond your knowledge! You have the chance to fulfill a desire we all had when we were young—to adventure and find Sunset Hill. You are the embodiment of our childhood dreams.”

Camellia goes lightheaded from the responsibility suddenly thrown on her shoulders. The seamstress takes notice immediately.

“Don’t worry so much,” she says. “You will do amazing, wonderful things, and you will always have our people’s support. We believe in you.”

“Talk about pressure,” says Camellia, dizzy. “Now I’d really hate to let you down.”

“Isn’t that a natural thing, though? The fear of disappointing others shows that you share a special bond with them. You’ve got it covered. Just believe in yourself.” The seamstress waves Camellia away. “Now go make friends. I’ll make clothes for you.”

Camellia leaves the seamstress to conduct her business, exiting through the front door and stepping out into the sunshine. A wild wind whips across the Plains and cuts across Camellia’s face, flushing her cheeks a faint pink. She basks in the feeling, ready to run with the wind and go wherever it takes her. The moment is short, but she savors it while it lasts.

Once the feeling is gone, Camellia opens her eyes. The nomad camp is centered on a large fire pit. Set into three other hills are three other doors; makeshift tents stand where the hills do not. Most of the tents are shaped like cones, one or two like triangular prisms. In contrast to the large crowd that gathered to watch her fly, the camp looks quite empty. She has no clue where to begin.

As if cued, a smiling man with a shaven head and a large, stocky body. He waves from afar, calling out a greeting.

Oh, it’s starting already! Camellia takes a few deep breaths. I can do this. Just put on a smile and return his greeting.

“Miss Hero,” the man says, bowing at the waist. “My name is Jorpag. Are you looking for something? May I help you?”

“Hello! I mean, yes! I mean…” Camellia mentally kicks herself. “I’m just looking around, that’s all. I was told to go talk to people, but there doesn’t appear to be anyone around. I suppose I’m just looking for a way to kill time until the seamstress finishes my clothes.” She tugs at her shirt collar. “As you can tell, I’m not exactly dressed to be a hero.”

“Your clothes may add to the mood, but they don’t define who you are.” Jorpag gestures at the camp. “May I take you on a tour? Since you’re staying here for a night, you might as well become familiar with it. Besides, everyone is very excited to meet you.”

“Everyone?” Camellia glances over his shoulder, but the camp still looks empty. “I don’t see anyone at all.”

“They’re resting for the party tonight. Madame Redna is throwing one in your honor.”

“Oh,” she says softly. Butterflies fill her stomach. “I’ve never been good at parties. But if you want to show me around before then, I could use a good guide.”

“And you’d do well to find yourself one!” he says. “The Plains tend to blend into one another and you could easily get lost, unless you can see the moon.” Jorpag starts walking and Camellia follows him. “You see, the moon always stays directly over Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. The world may change, but the moon is a landmark that will last forever.”

“So it’s like a compass?” Camellia asks.

“You know of my invention?” he says, genuinely surprised. “I was under the impression that it wasn’t popular in Monarch.”

“Well—” Camellia hunts for an explanation. “I don’t see why it’s not popular. It’s an indispensable adventuring tool.”

Jorpag nods excitedly. “And that was my precise reason for making it. It was supposed to be used by the Heroes to help them on their way to their patron god. I made six different compasses, each keyed to a god’s Centerstone. A seventh one is keyed to Monarch’s Centerstone, allowing you to find your way to the Greatest City in the World from anywhere on Renea, day or night.”

“What’s a Centerstone?”

“I’m not sure,” he says, suddenly thoughtful. “It’s just a name I came up with to explain the anomaly. When I created the compass, it naturally pointed to a certain point based on the realm I made it in. For example, I made three different compasses in the Plains and they all pointed to Apalon’s Centerstone. When I visited Kalax’s Woods and made a fourth compass, it pointed to Kalax’s Centerstone.”

“And what about the compass for Monarch?”

“It pointed to the Capital Cathedral at the center of Monarch. I wasn’t allowed inside to see what it was pointing to, but someday I’m going to find out.” Jorpag smiles again. “I have quite a few compasses at home in my tent. Unfortunately, they’ve been acting a little bit wonky recently. I can’t get a compass for Kalax’s Woods to work anymore. It’s really getting under my skin!”

The pair stops in front of a cone-shaped tent. The nomad puts his hands on his hips and breathes in the fresh air.

“Now!” He claps his hands together. “You wanted the compass pointing you towards Apalon’s Centerstone, right?”

“If you have one pointing towards Monarch, I’ll take that one. I’ll find my own way to Apalon, but I want something that can help me get home if I need it.”

“Anything for you, Miss Hero.” Jorpag pulls aside the curtain to his tent and grins. “Wait here, I’ll get you a Monarch compass.” He disappears inside.

“Well,” she says, folding her arms, “I suppose that’s one mystery solved and fifty more added.”

“What mystery did you solve?” Apalon asks, his voice musical and warm.

“I’m now aware that I can’t really get lost here, but somehow I feel even more lost than before.”

“And that’s completely normal!” Camellia turns around as the nomad exits from his tent, a small backpack in his hands. “After all,” he says, “if you’re not lost, how can you find yourself?”

“What’s the backpack for?”

“This is for you!” He offers the backpack to Camellia, who looks at it curiously. “It has served me well in its time, but I have no use for it now. It’ll serve you better than me.” The Hero takes it and slings it over her shoulders. The nomad snaps his fingers. “Oh, the compass. Right. One moment.” He rushes off back inside his tent without another word.

“Are all people on Renea this scatterbrained?” Camellia asks Apalon.

“Just the Plainsmen,” the god replies. “Everyone else is stingy and mean.”

“Kind of like you, huh?”

“Oh yes, exactly like me.”

“I’m back!” Jorpag bursts from his tent and trips over himself. “Goodness, I’m sorry for making you wait. And sorry for tripping, too! I’m just a mess today!” His eyes are wild and he looks disturbed, as if he’s just seen a ghost.

“You’re full of energy too,” Camellia notes, deciding to play the oblivious card.

“That I am.” He straightens himself out and tries not to look Camellia directly in the eyes. “I’m sorry, Miss Hero, but my last compass has been… Misplaced.”

“You lost it?”

“Sure, we can put it that way,” the man says, opting to avoid eye contact again. “I’m sorry, truly I am. If I had any other compass leading to Monarch it would be yours, but I don’t.”

Camellia sighs. “Well, you said the moon is always going to be over Monarch. I’ll just use that as my compass.”

Jorpag offers a weak smile. “If it helps, I’d be more than happy to continue showing you around the camp.”

“Ha!” a voice barks. “I think not! This tour needs a lady’s touch! I’ll take it from here!”

A short old woman approaches the pair. She is dressed in red and white clothes and is smirking openly.

“Madame Redna! What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to show the Hero around proper-like! Hmph!” Redna squints at the backpack in Camellia’s hands. “Now what in Tetrask’s tooth is this thing? Some kind of handbag?”

“It’s just a backpack, ma’am,” Camellia says softly.

“Oh don’t be so formal, dear,” the old woman coos, laying a hand on Camellia’s arm. “Just call me Redna.”

“It was mine,” Jorpag says stiffly. “It’s a gift for her on her journey.”

“This old bag?” She takes the backpack and shakes it around. “This is almost as old as me! You gave her one of your beaten-up hand-me-downs instead of a brand new one with all the fancy things on it? You ought to be put in the stockades! Hmph!” She places the backpack in Camellia’s hands and fixes a hawk’s eye on Jorpag. “Why didn’t you give her something proper like one of your fancy compasses?”

“He ran out of the ones pointing to Monarch,” says Camellia.

“And you didn’t ask for one leading you to Apalon? Are you crazy?” She waves her hand dismissively. “Don’t answer that, I already know you’re crazy. Alright, follow me! I’ll be your guide from now on. Let’s go.” Redna huffs in determined satisfaction, turns and walks off.

Camellia turns and offers a smile to the nomad. “Thank you for your time today, and for your backpack. I’d stick around, but…” She gestures at the old woman.

“Don’t worry, we’re all aware of Redna’s personality.” Jorpag smiles. “I’m glad you’re here, Miss Hero.”

“You going to stand around all day or are you going to walk with and talk with an old woman?” Redna reappears and grabs Camellia by the arm, dragging her away. Jorpag waves goodbye as Camellia stumbles over her own two feet.

The sentry sighs, her eyes on the sun setting beyond the horizon of Apalon’s Plains. The world is bathed in liquid gold and the clouds flush shades of yellow and orange. A gentle breeze coasts across the plains, kissing the sentry’s cheeks. The evening simply could not be more perfect.

Footsteps fall behind her and she sighs, resigning herself to the inevitable end of her shift. She stands as her relief of duty comes around behind her. It’s a surly young man barely out of his teens who looks like he wants to be anywhere but on sentry duty.

“Password, please?” she asks.

“Fair stones in an open brook will not top a fair store of open books,” the boy recites, bored.

She stands aside for the new sentry to take her place. “Watch should be pretty quiet tonight. Just keep an eye out for caravans. With Stark Pureblood and his marauders running around, you never know who’s going to show up.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

“How’s the party going?”

The teen leans on his pike. “Pretty boring. You know how that old crone Madame Redna gets when she starts drinking Silver. Most of the guys there were crowding around the Hero trying to get her autograph and her name.”

“Did you get anything from her?” she asks, mischief glinting her eye.

“I’m more interested in running through the grass than in running after girls.” He shrugs. “If it helps your romantic fantasies, as I was leaving for duty, someone pulled her out for a dance and the band struck up Old Fancy. You know me, I’m not a big dance guy. I prefer the big open field, the grazing oxen, and the nomadic lifestyle of moving place to place. Tonight sucks.”

“Tonight doesn’t feel nomadic to you?”

“Settling down doesn’t feel nomadic to me.” He shrugs again. “I’m a hit-the-path-and-don’t-look-back kind of guy. Having a wife? Having kids? Don’t get me started on that snore.”

“You’d be surprised at what having a family teaches you.” She sighs. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my family. I’ve been so busy recently I’ve had not a moment to think about them.”

“Oh please, you’re on sentry duty.” The relief sentry sits down. “You’ve got all the time in the world to think.” He looks up at her curiously. “I thought you said you didn’t have a family.”

“Well…” She gestures. “It’s kind of hard to explain.”

“Well don’t weigh down my ears with it. I’m a light-hearted nomad who can’t be tied down by anything.” He jabs a thumb over his shoulder, a playful grin on his face. “Now beat it before I tell Madame Redna you’re working overtime again.”

The sentry lightly shoves the teenager and leaves her post for the evening. She makes her way down the slope and toward her tent, her path directly passing the fire pit. The center of the camp is alive with music and life; many of the nomads are dancing and jumping and having a fantastic time. Camellia is nowhere to be seen.

Once inside her tent, the sentry changes from her battle gear to more comfortable nomadic clothes. She smooths out the fabric and tightens a few strings to give herself a bit more form. She opens up a black trunk at the foot of her sleeping mat and pulls out a small goblet, looking over her shoulder to ensure that no one is near her tent. Once the coast is clear, the sentry puts the goblet on the ground and sits in front of it. After a few moments, it fills itself up with calm blue flames.

“Jenna, are you there?” No response comes at first. The flames flicker silently. “Jenna,” she repeats, “this is Ariana. Are you there?”

“Oh!” The flames burst in bright yellow astonishment. Ariana hurls a look over her shoulder, praying that no one saw the flash of light. “Yes, I’m here! Hi! Hello!”

“I’m glad you’re there,” Ariana says. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m doing fine, actually,” Jenna says. “Everything’s pretty normal on this end. Nothing’s really changed since you last contacted me. Nope, not a thing.”

Ariana quirks an eyebrow. “Nothing’s changed? Really? It’s been two years since we talked.”

“Well… Alright, you got me. I wanted to save this for when we see each other again, but I suppose I can spill the beans now.”

“When you what?” Ariana’s heart begins to pound. Could it be? “Jenna, if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then I’ve got some good news for you.”

“Really?” Jenna says. “Tell me!”

“I was out on sentry duty earlier today—watching the Plains, enjoying the daylight, savoring the wind. And then I saw something at the top of the hill. I stood to get a better look, and then…” Ariana pauses, her heart beating too hard to form words. “And then it started flying! I knew exactly what it was. A real Hero actually seeking their patron god! And she landed right in my camp!”

The flames burst into fluorescent orange, roaring with excitement.

“I’m almost certain that our waiting is over,” Ariana says excitedly. “After all these years, our waiting is finally over. She looked so uncertain and nervous about the whole thing. But by my soul I saw the determination in her eyes to find Apalon. I could have fainted right then and there.”

“How many years?” Jenna asks. “How many years has it been?”

“One hundred millennium, nearly to the day.”

“That long?” says Jenna. “Where does the time go? Okay, my turn! So I was at the bar when I saw someone walk in with a girl who looked rather odd. I immediately had my suspicions. I kept to myself until I managed to have a short conversation with her. Her name’s Bennie and she’s a Hero, too!”

A relieved smile spreads across Ariana’s face. “So Camellia isn’t an isolated incident like I thought she might be?”

“Not by a long shot! I tried to keep an eye on her, but she slipped away and got tangled up with a Skeleton—which she beat, by the way. After that, I egged her on to see if she could use any of her powers.” Jenna laughs. “And how she used them! Bennie lit up the sky with a huge beacon of light just to show Riel that she wasn’t afraid. I knew then that the Heroes have returned at long last.” She sighs dreamily and the flames in the goblet quiver. “You do realize what this means, right?”

“I think I’m well aware, Jenna.”

“Ariana, not that you haven’t been a fantastic conversant all of these years, but I really miss my spiritmate. I’m ready to see him again.”

“Same here, Jenna.” Ariana sighs. “Same here.”

After a brief pause, Jenna says, “Hey, Ariana. You should go and be with your Hero. Bennie’s staying the night at the bar, so I’m going to see if I can get in on her quest to help her. See if you can travel with your Hero. She’s going to need a guide to help her get through the Plains.”

“If she doesn’t let me, I’ll probably just follow her anyways.” Ariana strokes the side of her goblet, memories of many long years flowing through her mind. “I’ve been waiting for this for such a long time. It’s almost impossible to believe it might finally be happening.”

“Me too,” the other girl says. “Alright, go get lost. I’ve got some wooing to do before the night is over.”

“Okay, Jenna. Thanks for listening.”

The flames burn out and the tent dips into darkness.

Ariana tucks the goblet away and leaves her tent. She walks to the center of the camp, ignoring the blaze of the bonfire, and finds herself a glass of Silver. Most of the alcohol reserves have been drained by the rambunctious Madame Redna, who is too busy hitting on men a quarter her age to realize that she ran out of Silver four glasses ago. Ariana looks around the fire pit, hoping to see her Hero sitting somewhere or talking to someone.

Instead, she finds Camellia up and dancing with the nomads. The nomads swing wildly and move with rabid disregard for the melody, dancing only to the beat. But in contrast, Camellia’s feet move with the melody of the music, flowing effortlessly from one line to the next.

Ariana sits on the ground and reclines, a dreamy smile on her face.

“Finally,” she says softly.

[] Interlude One

Cynard

In Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Morning dawns in the Six Realms in Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. Each realm holds a sun, and each sun rises in unison with the other. The suns will travel up the sky until noon before descending back toward the horizon as the day stretches toward its end.

In the Ruins District in Monarch, a man named Charlie moves with relative ease through the backstreets, passing sleeping vagrants and smoky doorways. Despite his extensive training, his wits are about him. After all, one can never be too careful in the Ruins District, where laws tend to hold almost no weight.

Policemen wander the streets but they turn a blind eye to most crimes, provided the offending party pays them a handsome fee. Public intoxication, fighting, and prostitution run rampant in the shadows and sometimes right in the street. A man selling news about dying plants in the Woods District is seen selling stolen goods minutes later. Charlie does his best to avoid the most dangerous parts of the District, where a momentary lapse in awareness can mean a knife in the back.

Charlie comes to the door of Chaldir’s shrine and knocks politely.

“Coming, I’m coming.” The voice is measured and professional; he must have been waiting for someone important. Footsteps fall on the floor behind the door.

“It’s just me,” Charlie calls. “It’s Charlie.”

“Charlie?” the voice gasps. “You crazy mongrel, I haven’t seen you in ages!” The door opens to reveal a stout, jolly man with brilliant starfield eyes. His rosy complexion and round, smiling face offsets the squalid environment around the building.

Charlie smiles and bows shortly. “Cynard. Long time no see.”

“And the same from me to you, Charlie!” Cynard looks his friend over. “You’ve grown, son. I remember back in the day when you could barely grow a beard! Hah!” He grins, satisfied. “The years have been kind to you, my friend.”

“I was only gone for three weeks. May I come in?”

“Is that a question? Absolutely!”

Cynard steps aside and Charlie enters the shrine. It is well kept, tidy, and simple. The front room has only two couches, a small table, a goblet of red fire, and a door leading to a bedroom for the oracle. Charlie sighs, remembering the times when coming here used to be exciting beyond belief. Now it only feels like a place to crash when he has nowhere else to go.

“How’s that scar of yours doing?” Cynard asks, moving past his friend on his way to the bedroom.

Charlie rubs his shoulder absently. “It acts up every now and again.”

“Good, because I’ve got some medicine I want to try on it.”

“Cynard, we’ve tried everything. Nothing is going to heal it.”

“That’s what you think! Now get back here and let me take a look at it. I didn’t go to medical school for nothing.”

Charlie sighs and crosses the shrine into the back room, which is lit by candles. He removes his shirt, sits on the bed, and tries not to look at his right shoulder. Cynard brings a candle near Charlie’s scar, reading glasses low on his face. He traces aimless lines and patterns with his finger. After a few long minutes, Cynard removes his glasses.

“What did you say did this to you, again?”

“I never said what did this to me,” Charlie replies. “I didn’t even say it was a what.”

“Okay, who did this to you?”

“I never said it was a who, either.”

“Come on, Charlie. I’m trying to fix you up. You should at least try to provide me with some background on how in the world you got this nasty scar.”

“It’s a very long, very complicated story.”

“Is it as complicated as when I found you drunk and raving behind the Rumbling Buffalo?”

Charlie sighs. “Look, Cynard. I know you’re trying to help, but this isn’t that big of a deal. I promise. I’m happy to lend my arm if it humors you, but don’t take this so seriously.”

“If you have a scar, then it was once a wound.” He looks at the complex pattern on Charlie’s shoulder—a twisting, spiraling design that edges off in strange places while simultaneously appearing perfectly symmetrical. “And whatever caused this wound is beyond anything I can imagine.”

Charlie looks away.

“Look,” the oracle says, voice gentler. “You’ve been around the block. I’ve been around the block. It’s a small block we go around. I’m just trying to help you out. It’s just who I am, beyond the doctor in me.” Cynard opens up a small bottle. “Can you at least let me try and treat this thing?”

Charlie is silent for a moment. Then, he nods.

“I don’t need to know your life’s story. I’m content with helping out a patient, however bull-headed they might be.” Cynard playfully pushes him. “Now hold still, I’m applying the elixir now.”

Charlie’s brow furrows as Cynard rubs something cold and gritty on to his shoulder. “Elixir?” he asks.

“One of my own design. I synthesized it from volcanic ash from the Ruins and a meteorite I found.”

Charlie looks at the oracle. “Did you say meteorite?”

“Yeah.” The oracle continues rubbing his elixir on Charlie’s shoulder. “I was outside Monarch doing some exploring for rare plants when I saw something smoldering next to the Ruins Gate. I picked it up and brought it back to my shrine.”

“Cynard, you need to get this elixir off of me right now.” Charlie reaches for his shoulder.

A bright blue light illuminates the shrine and hurls Cynard into a nearby wall.

The light blasts Charlie off the bed, sending him careening to the ground. Charlie clutches at his shoulder, grinding his teeth in pain. His scar glows brilliant blue and wisps of mystical light flake into the air.

On the other side of the room, Cynard stumbles to his feet, his hair spiked and face scorched from exposure to Charlie’s mark. “Wow,” he coughs. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Charlie struggles to his feet, the mark hot and bright under his fingers. “I have to go,” he manages as he staggers to the bed for his shirt.

“Looks like you need some more serious medical attention. It’s a shame Paral isn’t around anymore.” Cynard rubs the ash from his face. “Sorry about all of this. I didn’t know it would—”

Charlie shoves past the oracle without another word. He leaves the shrine in a hurry, disappearing into the murky red streets of the Ruins District of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World.

Chapter Ten

[]Treasure Clouds

At a local tavern in Chaldir’s Ruins

Bennie’s eyes open, red light trickling through her window. She grumbles and rolls over, trying to ignore the pain in her back—a reminder of a particularly rough night on the uncomfortable bed. Bennie drags herself upright and immediately sneezes, a coat of ash flying off her face. She slips out from under the covers and kicks the window closed at the foot of her bed. She looks down at her ash-covered body with disdain.

A thought blooms in the back of her mind. Curious, Bennie opens up her palm and wills fire to appear. A small flame immediately spawns. Bennie lights her whole hand on fire, watching as it eats the ash away. She sends the fire across her entire body, the ash flaking away to nothingness. She dusts herself off, pleased. It feels as refreshing as taking a shower. As she dresses for the day, Bennie can’t help but feel like she’s about to go act in a movie. Each seam and stitch fits her perfectly, and the chain mail fits like a charm.

The Hero takes a good look at her temporary room, reassuring herself that she missed nothing before leaving. She travels down the hall and takes the stairs down to the first floor. No one is in the front room except for the barkeeper and a rather familiar looking man, who stands once he sees her.

“Kexal?”

“Bennie,” Kexal says, a little more than surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“Me? What are you doing here? Where’d you go last night? Opat and I were left alone after you ran down the road. Why didn’t you come back?”

“I meant to catch up but I got…” He looks away. “Sidetracked.”

“Sidetracked by what?”

“By what I thought was treasure. Turns out it was fool’s gold—not even worth my time in the end.” Kexal puts his fists on his hips. “I should have stayed with you and Opat.”

“You know what happened to her, then?”

“Everybody knows by now.” Kexal settles into his chair and leans on a fist.

“I’m sorry,” Bennie says. “If I had known this place was dangerous, I wouldn’t have let her out of my sight.”

“People die,” Kexal says. “It’s bound to happen to everyone who sets foot in the Ruins. I’m just upset I missed going with her.”

“Were you two close?”

“Forage partners are close beyond compare.” Kexal looks up. “With Opat gone, I’m only one half of a whole person. I need to figure out how to fix that.” He pauses, as if making a tough decision. “I might as well be blunt. I want to help you find Chaldir.”

A pause in the conversation, then Bennie’s eyes narrow. “Why’s that?”

“One,” Kexal says, “you’re too dense to make it through the Ruins on your own. This place is great for explorers, but if you’re a foreigner, you might as well surrender your soul to Riel. You need a guide and someone to watch your back.”

“And you’ll be that person?” Bennie says. “This quest is supposed to be about me finding my way on my own. It’s my chance to grow as a person.”

“Have you ever seen a tree growing by itself?” Kexal says. “You notice how it branches out and has more space than it would if it stayed near other trees? It gets more water and more sunlight.”

“Which is my reasoning for questing alone.”

“But what happens when that tree dies? It may live to be old and grey, but when it dies, it’s gone. No other trees benefit from its nutrients, and no one remembers it. The soil may take it in, but in the end we all belong to the soil anyways.” Kexal stands. “Wouldn’t it be more advantageous for the tree to flourish in the forest where it wouldn’t be alone?”

Bennie chews over her thoughts but remains silent.

“Let me help you,” he says. “I don’t have any reason to stay here now that Opat’s gone. If I go with you, maybe Chaldir will grant me some closure. I have a hunch that he will help me.” Kexal knits his hands in front of him. “What do you say? Can I come?”

As Bennie goes to answer, a door on the upper level slams open and feet pound on the floor.

“Oh right!” she exclaims. “I forgot about her!”

“Hey! You’re up early!”

Jenna, the young woman from the previous night, stands at the top of the stairs, a backpack hanging over her shoulders. Black gloves cover her hands. A blue brooch holds her hair in place as she flies down the stairs, a bright smile on her face.

“And who’re you?” Kexal demands.

“Kexal, this is Jenna. She’s my partner.”

She’s your forage partner?”

“Far from it!” Jenna says. “Bennie and I got to know each other just last night. In the end she agreed to let me help her on her journey. We’re going after the big man himself, Riel the Skeleton King! Oh, and we’ll probably try to find Chaldir once or twice. You know how it is.”

“I don’t really,” Kexal says. “I’ve never been on a quest before.”

“Come with us, then! The more the merrier.”

“We were actually just talking about this.” Bennie turns to Kexal. “And I think it’s a great idea.”

“Great!” Jenna claps her hands together. “I say we get moving right away.”

“After breakfast,” says Kexal. “I’ve been hiding from Skeletons all night and I’m famished.”

“You were hiding?” Jenna puts her hands on her hips. “What were you doing outside in the first place?”

“I just said I was hiding! What, you think I was dancing a jig and playing the pan flute?”

Bennie pulls up a chair at the bar as Jenna and Kexal continue to bicker. She gives the barkeeper her order and asks for a glass of Orange. No sense in not getting a good meal in before heading off on the quest of a lifetime.

“And what’s with those gloves?” Kexal presses. “Going to pick up something dangerous?”

“It’s so I don’t get fingerprints all over the gold I’m going to find!”

“Not if I find the gold first!”

“Boy, this food sure smells good,” Bennie calls over her shoulder. “Sure wish I had a few ‘trees’ to share all these ‘nutrients’ with.”

“Oh quiet,” Kexal snaps. “I’m having an important argument here!”

“I’ll come eat with you, Bennie!” Jenna calls.

“Not if I get there first!”

Jenna and Kexal dash for the bar, both aiming for the same seat. They get there at the same time and crash into one another, colliding with the bar and collapsing on the ground in a pile of tangled limbs.

“You two are pathetic,” Bennie smiles. She takes a look into her mug; it’s full to the brim. Muttering a brief “bottom’s up,” she downs the whole mug in one smooth go. She clenches her face against the burn of the alcohol.

“Would you look at that,” Kexal says as he untangles himself from Jenna. “You’re drinking like a fish. You always take a shot like that?”

“I don’t drink,” Bennie insists. “I’m just having it to calm my nerves.”

“Why would you be nervous?”

“Maybe because I’m about to run head-first into unknown territory?” Bennie raps her knuckle twice on the wooden bar. The barkeeper swings by and refills her drink, which she quickly downs. “Maybe because I’m about to venture off on a quest that could radically change everything I know about myself?” Bennie goes to drink from her mug and finds it empty. Sighing, she raps on the bar again; the barkeeper refills her mug. “I might not even come back. I could up and die out there and Stanley would never know what happened.”

Jenna quirks her head. “Who’s Stanley?”

“I don’t know what my deal is,” Bennie continues. “I was just fine three seconds ago but now I’m freaking out.”

“Aren’t you just a bundle of anxiety.” Kexal pulls up a chair next to Bennie. “Maybe rightfully so, but it’s not all that bad. You have Jenna here to help you.”

“And you,” Bennie says. “You’re coming too.”

“Yes, well…” Kexal grins. “I’m just in it for free gold.”

Jenna shoots him a frown. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Palace Center may be very far away but I’ll make sure I get you there, no matter what.”

Kexal turns. “Has anyone actually made it to Palace Center?”

“One person made it there a long time ago. Two, if you believe the tale of Redguard the Old.”

“You don’t? He’s one of the most powerful Heroes to ever walk Renea.”

“I beg to differ,” Jenna counters. “Redguard was hardly what I would consider powerful.”

“We must be reading different stories. Which version are you reading? Sal the Bright’s or Cenkhan’s?”

“That’s beside the point,” Jenna says, waving her hand dismissively. “We’ve got to get some food and get moving. Chaldir waits for no man—or woman.”

The barkeeper places three plates of food in front of the travelers and tops off Bennie’s mug. Gurgles of hunger come from their stomachs and they have their breakfast in relative silence. Following breakfast, the trio makes their way out of the local tavern and into the town square. Ash from last night’s ashfall coats the ground and ruined buildings lean against one another. Though it’s daytime, the Ruins is considerably dark. A hazy red sky hangs overhead.

“Palace Center is likely on the border of the Vast Emptiness,” Kexal says. “We need to head deeper into the Ruins and try to keep away from the Skeletons. The less we’re seen the better off we are.”

“I don’t know about you but I’m ready to be seen.” Bennie hops in anticipation. “I need a few good fights if I want to get strong.”

“You had a fight last night,” Kexal says. “The best thing we can do is lay low and keep out of sight. If Riel knows our movements, we’ll be in deep trouble.”

“I’ve never been much for hiding.”

“Well get used to it,” Kexal says, starting off past the local tavern. “Come on, we’re burning daylight. Palace Center isn’t going to find itself.”

“In a metaphysical sense it could,” Jenna whispers to Bennie, who snickers in response. They quicken their pace to catch up to Kexal.

“Do we get to hunt for gold and rare artifacts?” Bennie says as they leave the town. “I want to find something that’s been lost to the sands of time.”

“We’ll stop at interesting places we find,” Kexal says. “Until then I suggest we just keep moving and stay in the shadows.”

“And who put you in charge?” Jenna says. “I believe she should have a say-so in this, especially considering this is her quest.”

“We can’t afford to dig through every little place we come across,” Kexal replies, stepping around a boulder. “If we do that we’ll lose time like crazy.”

“What’s the rush?” Bennie says. “I think we ought to take our time and enjoy ourselves.”

“Unlike you two, I’m a little more than pressed for time. My personal life is coming apart at the seams right now; I need to find this god and get some help.”

“Well if I see something I like,” Bennie says, “I’m stopping to take a look at it whether you stop or not. I’ll make it to Palace Center on my own time.”

“Suit yourself,” Kexal says. He shoves through the falling ash and twisted, blackened buildings.

“Just a bundle of joy, isn’t he?” Jenna says when Kexal is long out of earshot.

“Oh yes,” Bennie says drily. “I particularly love his smile.”

“At least he’s respectable and honest. I’m sure he’ll be a good asset to your team.” Jenna pauses. “Since this is kind of related, why aren’t you in a hurry to meet your patron god? If I was a Hero, I’d be hunting after mine like crazy.”

“I figure that Chaldir is probably expecting me,” Bennie says. “He knows where I am right now and he probably knows that I’m on my way to see him. Why rush? I’ll get there exactly when I need to get there; I just know it.”

“Guys!” Kexal’s voice comes from somewhere farther along the path. “You need to see this!”

Bennie and Jenna exchange a look, then jog ahead to meet Kexal. Just as he comes into view, Kexal spins around and shushes them. They huddle together as Kexal points toward a light moving through the charred ruins.

“What is it?” Bennie whispers.

“I don’t want to say anything too soon,” Kexal replies, “but I think that might be a Skeleton.”

“Tetrask’s tooth,” Jenna swears. “You called us out here for that?”

“It’s important, so yes, I did.” He looks around. “We need to get out of here.”

“Why?” Bennie asks. “What’s wrong with confronting him and beating the daylights out of him?”

Kexal turns to her. “Because all Skeletons are connected to each other. What one knows the other immediately knows as well. Therefore, if one Skeleton sees your face and your mark, all of us become targets. Riel himself might immediately know where we are.”

“I say let them come,” Bennie says. “I’ll kick them to the moon if I have to. The more battlefield experience I have the stronger I’ll be when I finally face Chaldir.”

“You’ve got guts, I’ll give you that,” Jenna mutters.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kexal says. “We could all prance around and fight and get ridiculously strong, but that won’t stop Riel. He’ll raise two Skeletons for his army each one we kill.”

“What’s he need an army for?” Jenna wonders. “He already owns the whole realm.”

“Yeah,” Kexal agrees, “especially since Chaldir’s been so inactive in recent years.”

As conversation dwindles, the trio turns their eyes back to the ruins. Flames flicker against the shadows of fallen buildings, burning even when there is nothing left to feed on. Several moments pass in complete silence.

Then, a blue light shines from behind them.

A Skeleton coated in blue flames and dressed in jet black robes stands before them. Bennie jumps in front of Kexal and Jenna protectively, her hair melting into roaring flames. Her two companions stumble away from the heat as she tenses, ready for battle.

“Don’t be afraid,” the Skeleton says. “I’m completely normal.”

“You mean beyond the flaming skeletal body?” Bennie challenges angrily.

“Let’s not get off on the wrong foot. I don’t want to fight you and you don’t want to fight me. Allow me to introduce myself.”

“I don’t want to hear anything you have to say,” Bennie snaps.

Bennie charges the much taller Skeleton, cranking her hand back to throw a punch. The Skeleton bends out of the way inhumanly fast. Bennie screeches to a halt and whirls around. Her opponent holds its hands at shoulder level, signaling his unwillingness to fight.

Bennie rushes the Skeleton again. As she rears her hand back, the Skeleton bends away like a freshwater reed. Anticipating this, Bennie turns on a dime and lets a jet of flame roar from her hand. It swallows the Skeleton completely; she pumps her fist in excitement.

It fades, however, when the Skeleton emerges unharmed from the blast.

“If you please,” the Skeleton says. “I’m hardly here to fight. I want to talk.”

“What do you want?” Bennie says, careful to ensure it doesn’t get too close.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” it says. “I am Nekros Mathis, Skeleton necromancer and servant to Riel, the Skeleton King. I’m here to make a deal.”

“A deal?” Bennie perks up. “What kind of deal?”

Nekros folds his hands behind his back. “Let me start by saying that Riel is your Adversary, while I am merely an opponent. Your chief efforts should be focused on stopping the Skeleton King. But I, like you and Riel, also seek an audience with Chaldir, god of Ruin and Flame.”

“Why is that?”

“My desires are my own.”

Bennie is silent for a moment. “You mentioned something about a deal.”

“Keep away from Riel,” Nekros says. “If you do that much, I can assure you will reach Palace Center unharmed.”

“I can’t do that,” Bennie says. “I need to beat Riel no matter what, even if I have to kill him.”

“You want to kill the Skeleton King?”

“If I have to I will! I can’t let him run around this realm like he owns the place! Someone has to stand up and say no. I’ve lived in conflict all my life. The world I know is fraught with global conflict and disagreement. Someone always had to be arguing with someone else. And you know what? It’s absolute hell: nothing but negativity and hatred and violence.” Bennie gestures to the Ruins. “I can’t stand to see a place as wonderful as this fall like my world did.”

Nekros laughs—a short, almost metallic sound. “You sound so sure of yourself,” he muses. “This place is hardly the paradise you make it out to be. Why are you so attached to world you barely know?”

“I…” Bennie falters. “I’m not quite sure. But one thing I know for certain is I have to stop Riel and find Chaldir. Right now, that’s all I need to know.”

Nekros is quiet for a moment. “In that case,” he says, “I recommend you train as hard as possible if you want to stand a chance against him. Riel is the Skeleton King, after all. He has control over the entirety of the Ruins and has a massive army at his command.”

“And what about you?” Bennie says. “You’re my self-proclaimed opponent. What should I do about you?”

“Pray we never cross paths in pitched combat,” Nekros says, “because I will not hesitate to kill you if I’m given the chance.”

“Yeah?” Her fire grows brighter. “What’s stopping you from doing it right now?”

Nekros half-gestures behind her. Kexal and Jenna hide behind a charred wall well out of earshot.

“My friends?” she asks. “My friends are stopping you?”

“One in particular,” the Skeleton necromancer replies. “But besides that, your death should come at the hands of the Skeleton King. So instead of doing anything rash, I’ll let you off the hook.” Nekros clears his throat. “I should move along. Riel doesn’t know I’m away from the office.”

“Ha!” Bennie laughs. “You’re all about finding this legendary god yet you get bullied by some old bag of bones?”

Nekros looks around, as if aware of something Bennie is not. “I need to leave,” he says. “Take my words to heart, Hero. Fighting Riel unprepared would be supremely unwise.” With that, Nekros wraps himself in a shroud of black-colored magic and vanishes into thin air. Bennie sighs. Nothing like a good talk with a creepy skeleton to get your mind off of the daunting adventure still ahead.

“Well?” Kexal demands as he and Jenna stroll up to Bennie. “What did he say?”

“He said a lot of things,” Bennie replies. “It was mostly senseless mumbo-jumbo and the whole ‘I’m too mysterious and wise for you’ shtick.”

“Really?” Jenna says. “So it was a whole lot of nothing?”

“Nothing very important,” Bennie says. “The gist of the conversation is ‘Riel is the bad guy’ and ‘you’re the good guy’ and ‘I’m the shady guy with his own secret agenda.’” She dusts her hands off. “I don’t think his advice will go much further than in one ear and out the other. I need to stay focused on my training. I can’t afford to embarrass myself in front of Stanley and the gang.”

“Smart idea,” Kexal says. “Let’s not linger more than we have to. The longer we stay put the higher chance we have of being found. On the hop! Chaldir waits for no man!”

“Or woman!” Jenna calls as Kexal vanishes through the ashen haze. She turns to Bennie. “You’ve got to tell me about this Stanley guy. He sounds like someone you’re really heated over.”

“Oh!” Bennie gasps. “He’s just a friend.”

“Mmm,” Jenna says, eyes glowing mischievously. “I’m sure he is.”

Riel the Skeleton King tightens the string of his gold cape over his shoulders. He turns left and right, inspecting himself in the cracked mirror. His sword is tied tightly around his hip bones, the pommel glimmering in the faint light. His four massive horns curl upwards from his skull and cast misshapen shadows on the walls. A smaller Skeleton stands close by, a clipboard and quill pen in hand.

“Too gaudy?” Riel asks.

“I think it looks fine, sire,” the Skeleton replies. “Certainly the best clothing for facing a Hero.”

“Hmm…” Riel takes off his cape and throws it somewhere in the corner. Drawing his sword, he slashes the mirror in two and kicks the bottom half away with his foot. “I hate that mirror. It’s been cracked as long as I can remember.”

“Not a fan of the cape, sire?”

“I think it’s too gaudy after all,” Riel says. “I want to have a commanding presence when I face the Hero. I need something with dark red thread, something with a little more anger.”

“Power and violence?” the Skeleton squire says, taking notes.

“Yes, perfect. Get the seamsmaster on this immediately. I want it ready by yesterday.”

The young Skeleton bows and hurries out of the throne room. After a moment of silence, a faint blue halo comes from behind the Skeleton King. Riel turns to see Nekros Mathis leaning against the throne.

“And where have you been?” the Skeleton King demands.

“Experimenting with the Renean skeletal system,” Nekros lies. “I’m trying to infuse the Skeleton soldiers with magic so they will have an extra boost of strength in battle. I think you should see the progress for yourself.”

The necromancer leads his King from the throne room and down the hall. They descend down the stone staircase into the murky depths of the Dark Hollow. Water trickles from unseen pipes and splashes on unseen rocks somewhere in the darkness. Red and orange gemstone torches provide minimal, eerie lightning. The faraway clatter of metal on metal echoes through the cavernous hall, the signature sound of Skeletons training.

Nekros stops in front of a door with a twisted symbol etched on to it. He extends his hand and blue flames float from his palm. They coat the symbol and it sinks into the door, which swings open slowly to reveal a dark room. As Nekros enters the room, it fills with the light coming off his flaming body. He raises his hands and candles light up in every corner. Riel follows Nekros to the back table, standing quietly as the necromancer fusses with a freshly de-fleshed skeleton.

“Here is where the magic happens, if you’ll forgive the play on words.” Nekros shoves a pile of books off the table and dumps a Skeleton in its place. He waves a hand at Riel. “Stand back. This is usually unpleasant to watch.”

He opens his hand and a faint blue ball forms in his palm. Placing the skeletal system on the table, Nekros presses the ball against the sternum. A howling scream splits the air as the skeletal system bucks and kicks. Jets of blue fire and sparkling magic explode in every direction, the candles snuffing out under the magical wind. Riel stands firm and does not turn away.

The scream dies off. Nekros takes a few steps back as the Skeleton sits up. It stares ahead without moving. “Are you ready to fulfill your purpose?”

“Yes,” it says dully, staring at the wall.

“Off the table,” Nekros commands. “Stand in the center of the room and hold your arms in the ready position.”

“Yes,” the Skeleton says, walking to the center of the room. It holds its hands above its head and waits without moving.

“This is where the fun begins,” Nekros says, walking up to the Skeleton King. The necromancer waves his hand and a large black cube appears above the test subject’s head, floating parallel to the ground.

Nekros lowers his hand.

The cube hums to life and slams into the Skeleton’s outstretched arms. It buckles and folds halfway under the pressure, the ground at its feet cracking under the weight. Riel watches in silent appreciation while Nekros analyzes the situation.

The Skeleton pushes back against the cube. Its bones crack, the sharp sound cutting through the room. Riel watches as the femur and spinal cord splinters like a pane of slowly breaking glass. The black cube rises a few inches in the face of the Skeleton’s determination.

Nekros curls his fingers into a fist.

The cube drops to the ground with a deafening slam, flattening the Skeleton underneath it.

Riel steps forward and kneels, curious about the strange black cube. He pushes on one side and it tilts back, revealing a crushed pile of bone power, the sad remains of a flattened Skeleton. Riel lifts the cube, finding it surprisingly light, and carries it over to Nekros’s table.

CRASH! It drops through the wood and smashes into the ground.

“Chaldir’s beard!” Nekros exclaims. “What was that for?”

“I’m just as surprised as you.” Riel looks at the crater surrounding the cube. “Are all of my soldiers so weak that they cannot lift this featherweight?”

“They’re all exceedingly strong,” Nekros replies. “The cube currently weighs two and a half tons, one and a quarter times the approximate breaking point of a normal Renean femur. But you are the Skeleton King. Two and a half tons is child’s play for you.”

Riel leans against the table. “I’ve never tested my limits before, but if I can lift two and half tons with ease, what else am I capable of doing?”

“Who is to say? Your bone structure is thicker, longer, and denser than any Skeleton I’ve seen before. I suppose I could run some tests…” Nekros hums thoughtfully, then turns to a leaflet notebook. His quill dashes quickly across the page. The angular Renean characters slant with the cursive flair of someone deep in thought.

“Should I leave you to your work?”

“Yes,” says Nekros. “I need some peace and quiet.”

“I have a date with the seamsmaster anyways,” Riel says. “I need a proper outfit for my confrontation with the Hero.”

Nekros pauses, his quill hovering above the page. “Have you determined who they are yet?”

“I don’t think it’s important. I only need to know that we will eventually fight and that I must come out as the victor. Once the Hero is dead, I’ll be one step closer to Chaldir.” Riel heads for the door. “Work hard, Nekros. Report the results to me when you have them.”

The Skeleton King disappears through the door. Once he is certain Riel is out of earshot, Nekros closes his journal and turns to his cauldron. The black mirror beckons for him to approach, a powerful presence touching the core of his spirit. Nekros approaches cautiously, then looks into the mirror. He sees his reflection; four massive horns spear out of his head. His reflection watches him mockingly, a crown of fire between its horns.

“Why do you torture me?” Nekros says aloud. “What does this vision mean?”

The reflection does not answer. Instead, the image changes.

The mirror shows a landscape of murky hills and shadowed valleys. Fires burn in wide swaths across the land, and the silhouettes of hollowed-out buildings stick up like tombstones in a dark, forgotten cemetery. The sky is dusky red and covered in ash clouds. In the distance, a small group of shadows comes into view, gradually taking the shape of spires and towers, domes and bridges, swamps and stone.

The mirror focuses on a fully-built castle. No fire burns in its lanterns, but at the center of the palace court glows an intensely bright red light. The image travels across a stone bridge hanging over a river, through a broken portcullis, past a courtyard and through a set of massive doors to the source of the light. A wide room opens up, tattered red and gold tapestries hanging on the wall. The floor is covered in ash and, at the far end of the room, light swells to fill the empty space.

The image zooms in on the red light; it’s so blinding that Nekros can barely stand to look directly at it. A man in regal clothes sits on a throne. His beard is grey and his face is lined with the wisdom of countless years. In his hand is a large red sword and on his head is a twisted, rusted crown.

The mirror holds the image of the old man for a long time; then, it fades to total darkness. The image of a four-horned Nekros returns. He holds up five fingers, then seven fingers, and then the mirror goes black. The cauldron’s fire burns out, leaving the necromancer in darkness.

“Bennie! Come take a look at this!”

Benne glances up, her fingers curled around what she thinks is a rare artifact. Jenna’s voice comes from somewhere beyond her sight. Standing, Bennie scans the landscape and finds Jenna a short distance away. Kexal is standing near her, looking surprisingly excited. In fact, it almost looks like he’s smiling. Bennie runs across the ash-covered expanse.

“What is it?” Bennie asks as she trots up next to Jenna. “What did you find?”

“Look at this!” Jenna says, moving aside.

The edge of an ancient shield is buried in the ground. It gleams with a golden sheen in the faint light of the Ruins. Bennie kneels down and dusts some of the ash off its face. Renean script is etched into the edge of the shield, making a smooth curve that encircles it completely. The characters somehow look familiar.

“Well?” Kexal says after a few moments of silence.

“It’s a shield,” Bennie replies.

“Not just any shield!” Jenna exclaims. “This was a shield wielded by one of Chaldir’s men! Think of it: a soldier who served directly under the god of Ruin and Flame once held this shield! This is the greatest find of the decade!”

“These runes look familiar.” Bennie looks up. “Can you read them?”

Jenna’s smile fades. “No, I can’t. It’s Archaic Renean, the ancestor of our modern language, and it’s been extinct for thousands of years. I think now only the Renean gods can read them.”

“I know these characters,” Bennie insists, tracing the script with her finger. “I know them. I know that I know them. I just can’t remember what they mean.” She sighs. “It’s like trying to remember words you once said, words that were really important, but it just keeps slipping away like grains of sand.”

“Regardless,” Kexal interrupts, “it doesn’t matter if we can read the letters or not. It’s worth a healthy chunk of change, so we need to find a place to hide it until we’re on our way back from Palace Center. Then we can sell it in Monarch and retire richer than the King.”

“We can split it between the three of us,” Jenna says. “And even then we’ll all have enough to be set for life.”

“Keep my share,” Bennie says, standing. “I’m in this for the adventure, not the money.”

They dig the shield out of the ash and brush the excess from the surface. Jenna holds it up to the light to get a better look. The symbol of Chaldir is scrawled into the hard metal, though it’s significantly more exquisite and elegant than any she’s seen before.

“It’s definitely a beauty,” Jenna says. She passes it off to Bennie, who holds it up and gazes at the golden surface. The shield sparkles in the firelight.

“You know,” she says, “all my life I dreamed of setting off on an adventure and discovering something beyond imagination. I thought I would find pieces of broken pottery, maybe a few bones here and there, but never anything like this.” Suddenly overwhelmed, Bennie hugs the shield to her chest and sinks to her knees. “I need a moment,” she says softly. “Can I get a moment alone?”

“It’s a shield for Tetrask’s sake,” Kexal huffs. Jenna grabs the grumpy man by the arm and drags him away.

In the sudden quiet, Bennie hugs the shield close to her chest. Memories of going to amusement park fossil digs and finding pre-placed items swarm her thoughts. She remembers picking up her first “fossil” from a pit of sand—the shell of a trilobite. That had been before her family left for the city, leaving the country behind. Bennie tries to ignore the hiccup sensation welling up in her throat.

“Good memories,” she murmurs. “Those were good times.”

“What, and these days aren’t?”

Bennie jumps, startled. A young man sits across from her, a jester-like smile on his face and a mess of frazzled hair on his head. Bennie, initially tense, sets herself at ease and relaxes. If he meant any kind of harm, he would have already sprung his trap.

“I don’t mean to intrude,” the man says. “I just happened to hear you talking to yourself while your friends argue in the corner. They’re so terribly boring; you’re much more interesting.” He cracks a wide grin. “Don’t stop on my account. I’m just here to observe.”

“Observe what?” Bennie asks. “Who are you?”

“This is hardly about me,” the man asks. “I’m not important.”

“Well, do you at least have a name?”

“Of course I have a name,” the man says casually, leaning back. “I’m what anyone wants to call me. Slimeball, scumbag, cheapskate, loser… Some pretty nasty names, now that I think about it.” He rubs his chin in thought. “Of course, I’ve been called worse names than those. But your name! Oh man, your name is really great. Bennie Balachie. It just rolls off the tongue.”

“How do you know my name?”

“I know everybody’s name,” the man replies. “I know that Kexal is standing over there with a girl named Jenna.” The man pauses. “Oh, now that’s just incredible.”

“What is?” Bennie asks.

“Those symbols are Archaic Renean.” His eyes turn to the shield in Bennie’s arms. “I haven’t seen those symbols for a very long time. May I see it a little closer?”

Bennie frowns. “You try to take it from me and I’ll roast you.”

“If I wanted that shield I’d have stolen it by now.” The man draws close to Bennie. He looks at the Archaic Renean script in the flickering light, humming to himself. After a moment he laughs uproariously. “Oh Chaldir, you certainly know how to turn a phrase!”

“You can read this?” Bennie asks. “Jenna said this language has been dead for a very long time.”

“It certainly has,” the man says. “Then again, I’ve been around for a very long time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen these old runes, but I can still read them as if I learned them yesterday.”

“What does it say?”

“They’re instructions for how to receive Chaldir’s blessing before battle,” the man says. “Units in his army would kneel and pray to bring ruin upon their enemies, and to fight with the passion of a freshly kindled fire. Back in the day, Chaldir’s army was unbeatable!” His smile fades. “Of course, then came the monster.”

“Monster?” Bennie asks. “What monster?”

“A terrible being with horns like a ram and a roar like a hurricane,” the man says. “It came from nowhere, yet it seemed to be everywhere at once. Chaldir’s army was destroyed in a surprise attack. A counterattack was launched, but it only ended in disaster. Virtually all of Chaldir’s creatures were destroyed, and most of the gods were killed in the Godslaughter. The ten strongest gods in the whole Renean pantheon—The Big Ten, as they were called—stood up to the challenge.”

“And they beat it?”

The man knits his hands. “Even with the strongest gods banded together, even with the greatest levels of experience and cunning on their side, with legendary weapons and virtual omnipotence in their respective fields of magic, they just barely succeeded.”

Bennie looks away, disturbed. The image of a massive horned monster eradicating fifty million innocent creatures burns bright in her mind.

“No one knows what happened after that,” the man continues. “Some say the gods killed the beast forever. Others say they split up its body and buried it underneath Monarch, the Greatest City in the World. Still others say that they stripped it of its power and that it roams the world to this day, hunting for ways to return to its former glory.”

“What do you believe?” Bennie asks.

“I believe…” the man says slowly, “…that it’s a tale used to scare children into sleeping at night.” He barks a light-hearted laugh and leans back, amused. “You should see the look on your face! Honestly, do you really believe that anything can kill a god? They’ve achieved godhood for a reason, after all!”

“But!” Bennie sputters for words. “Well, you certainly made it sound convincing!”

“My job description requires me to be convincing,” he says “After all, I would be in a very bad position if I couldn’t convince others to believe what I say. I’m a lucrative businessman, you see. I’m in the business of being in the right place at the right time exactly when I’m needed. Not a second earlier, not a second later, and never when it’s convenient for others.”

Bennie pauses, catching the mistake. “Do you mean when it’s ‘inconvenient’ for others?”

The man smiles widely. “No, I meant what I said. The less you expect something, or in this case someone, the more surprised you are to see them.”

Bennie looks the man squarely in the eyes. They are a bright shade of magenta, and they seem to glimmer with the untold punchline of a hilarious joke. Though Bennie’s eyes blaze with conviction, the man doesn’t flinch away. He stares right at Bennie, completely unfazed and at ease.

“I need you to tell me who you are,” Bennie says.

“I can’t tell you,” the man replies, not looking away. “Everything I’m working on right now relies upon my anonymity. The less you know about me, the better chance you have of succeeding. You have a shot at winning big-time with this quest, I’ll tell you that much, but no one is guaranteed to win. They’re only guaranteed opportunities to make their own success.” The man stands and Bennie stands too, still holding the shield to her chest.

“It’s a long road to Palace Center,” Bennie says. “I don’t know how long it’ll be until I get there, but I think I’m finally ready to face the journey head-on.”

“You’ll find your way. You’re a smart kid.” He turns to leave. “Oh, and if you want some last-minute advice, don’t trust your companions. Jenna has her own agenda out here. She may look friendly, but can you really trust someone you hardly know? And don’t forget Kexal; he’s only interested in money and power. He could be pretty unreliable in a pinch.” He grins. “Just food for the thought.”

“Thanks, I guess,” she mutters. With barely more than a wave, the man turns around the corner and disappears from Bennie’s sight.

What is it with men and their obsession with being so mysterious all the time? Bennie thinks. I swear, it’s like they enjoy beating around the bush as much as girls do. She gathers her thoughts and heads for where she law saw Jenna and Kexal.

Bennie finds her companions sitting across from one another in relative silence. At her appearance, they both stand up.

“Well?” Jenna says. “Do you feel any better?”

“I’m fine,” Bennie says. “Just a little more confused than I was when I woke up this morning. Some weird guy showed up and talked to me about a mythical monster. I think he tried to give me life advice too?” She shrugs. “I don’t know. He was really weird.”

“Some guy came by us too,” Kexal says. “He had a big scruffy beard and demanded we buy his plants. He said to get them now because they’re going out of stock.” He scoffs. “They’re plants for pity’s sake. How do plants go out of stock? That’s just… outrageous! Ridiculous!”

“You bought some, didn’t you?”

“Alright, now before you get any ideas—”

“How much?” Bennie asks. “How much did you spend?”

“All of it!” Jenna blurts. “Every last ruere!”

“You’re kidding me!” Bennie shouts. “Why didn’t you stop him, Jenna?”

Jenna falls quiet. Kexal looks away. Bennie flashes looks at both of them, expecting a response.

“I… I couldn’t,” Jenna whispers.

“Why not?” Bennie demands. She whirls on Kexal. “That was everything we had!”

“I didn’t buy any of it!” Kexal claims. “She saw something in the cart, just about had a heart attack, and shook me down like a thug in a dark alley!”

Bennie turns. “Is that so? And what did you buy with all of our money?”

With a sigh, Jenna opens her backpack and pulls out a single flower with wide white petals, a black stem, and long purple stigma. Bennie reaches out to touch it but Jenna immediately jerks it away.

“What is it?” Bennie asks, taking her hand back.

“No,” Jenna whispers. “You can’t touch it.”

“Why not?”

“You just can’t, okay?” Jenna sounds exasperated. Tears pool in the corners of her eyes. She wipes them away, irritated. “We need to go. Chaldir is waiting for us somewhere out there and me crying over some stupid flower that should have died out ages ago isn’t going to get us anywhere.” Jenna gently puts the flower back into her backpack and slings it over her shoulder. She pushes past Kexal and stalks off into the shadows of the ruins.

“Sheesh,” Bennie says. “What’s eating her?”

“I don’t know,” says Kexal. “Bennie, you should have seen her face when she saw that flower. It was like someone had slapped her silly. She demanded to know where he found it and how much he wanted for it. Of course he said it was the last one on all of Renea and charged her some outrageous price. That was one sly salesman, let me tell you.” Kexal shoulders his backpack. “Come on, we should catch up with her.”

“One last thing.” Bennie places the shield flat on the ground and covers it in ash. “There. I don’t think anyone will come through here expecting to find something as rare as this.”

“You better hope they don’t,” Kexal says. “Now let’s move it! I can barely see her anymore.”

Bennie and Kexal hurry off to catch up with Jenna. As they disappear from sight, a man with glinting magenta eyes watches them go. When they’re gone, he stands and stretches his limbs.

“Oh what fun,” he says, a grin on his face. “The cycle begins again.”

Chapter Eleven

[]Meetings Foretold

Somewhere in Magnus’s Cemetery

Scott’s eyes drift open. A cold, steely grey sky hangs above him and the air is cold. His head throbs with a fading headache. He groans and shifts himself, trying to remember something, anything, about what happened. All he draws from his cranial deck of cards is a hand full of blanks.

Why is it that I always wake up with a headache?

Scott forces himself upwards, but a gentle hand pushes down on his chest. “Take it easy there, Mr. Bigshot.”

“Jinas?” Scott wonders. “Is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

Needles bite into Scott’s brain. He groans as Jinas applies a cool, wet towel to his forehead.

“Headache? I’ve got something for that.” Jinas rummages through a nearby bag. “While you were out, I worked on finding some roots to use for headache relief. I figured you might have one when you came to.”

“What happened to me?”

“You don’t remember?”

Scott shakes his head.

“Well,” he says softly, “let’s just say you did a lot of damage.”

“How much damage?”

“You killed my parents.”

“Oh.” Scott pauses. “That’s pretty awful.”

“Yeah,” says Jinas. “Imagine how I feel.” The boy presses the washcloth to Scott’s forehead. “I knew you were bad luck as soon as I saw you.”

“What exactly happened?” Scott asks. “Everything’s too fuzzy to remember.”

“Well…” Jinas trails off for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “You were doing something to Delra and it was causing the shrine to come apart at the seams. Dad ran in to stop you, but you threw him against the wall and hurt him pretty bad. I wasn’t versed enough in medicine to halt the bleeding, and, well…” He shakes his head. “I’ve studied hundreds of pages of battlefield medicine since then. I won’t be unprepared next time.

Scott bites his tongue. “And your mom? What about her?”

“Her spirit vanished after you fainted. I haven’t seen her since.”

“And I did all of that?” Scott says. “The telekinesis and the spirit thing and…” Bile rises in Scott’s throat at the thought of blood on his hands. He tries not to vomit.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I do and I don’t. It’s too fantastic to believe, but at the same time you’re being so honest that there’s no way I can’t believe it.” Scott sighs. “Either way, I’m really sorry, Jinas.”

“I know. Since you’ve been out, I’ve read books about previous Heroes who were also blessed with your powers. It’s quite possibly the hardest set of powers to actively control, especially since your repercussions aren’t indirect like other Heroes. You mess up and your brain takes every single hit.”

“What happened to the Heroes like me?”

“No one got very far,” Jinas says. “But to be blunt, not every Hero with your set of powers died a sane man.” He pulls his knees to his chest and goes quiet for a few moments. “I know this’ll sound silly, but since I’m basically alone unless I stick with you, is it okay if I tag along?”

Scott quirks his head. “What do you mean?”

“Unless I want to go back to Monarch and try to find my biological mom, you’re all I’ve got. And it’s not like you’re a bad guy—you just have bad luck.” Jinas dumps the water into the dirt. “Besides, you’re a Hero. You have a quest to finish. So…” He gestures. “Can I come with you to find Magnus?”

“Yeah, Jinas.” Scott smiles. “That’s totally fine with me.”

Scott’s body crackles with energy and his head stops throbbing. As if rejuvenated by divine magic, Scott tosses the blanket off his body and stands. Jinas scurries to his feet, keeping his hands at the ready in case Scott passes out.

“Take it easy,” Jinas says. “You seriously overtaxed your brain and you shouldn’t be moving too much. I’m a little surprised that you’re talking in complete sentences.”

Scott looks around, finding himself in an open field somewhere in the Cemetery. Gnarled trees claw at the sky and a wall of imposing darkness looms on the horizon. Spotting it, Scott grins and points.

“There,” he says. “That’s where I need to go.”

“As your unofficial doctor, I advise that you don’t push yourself.”

“Oh humbug, I feel as fit as a fiddle!”

“That whole sentence made no sense at all!”

“It means I feel fantastic. Here, let me read your mind.”

“No way!” Jinas exclaims, shoving Scott’s open palm away. “I insist that you sit down and let me help you get well again.”

“I honestly feel great, I swear.”

“You were out for two days, Scott. Two whole days.”

“So?” Scott laughs. “I can probably run a mile and not collapse.” He spreads his arms out, a carefree smile on his face. “You feel that wind? You smell that air? I’ve never felt so alive in my life.” He turns toward the north. “I’m ready to face what’s in store for me.”

Jinas points at the ground. “Sit.”

“Come on!” Scott says, starting off toward the towering wall of darkness. “Don’t you feel the spirit of adventure?”

“Where are you going?” Jinas yelps.

“I’m going to find Magnus!”

“You’re out of your mind!”

“My mind?” Scott says, whirling around. “My mind! Just wait until you see what I can do with my mind!”

A brilliant blue glow washes over Scott’s eyes. A hurricane-force wind roars from out of nowhere, nearly knocking Jinas to the ground. The clouds overhead swirl into a thunderous whirlpool and darken, blue lightning flashing in jagged, forked bolts. The twisted trees groan and branches break off from trunks under the force of Scott’s power. Jinas stays as close to Scott as he can.

Rocks and dirt rip from the ground, spinning into miniature tornados. Smaller trees uproot and the grass lies totally flat under the force of the wind. Scott rises into the air and Jinas rises with him. Drinking in the screaming winds and the feeling of zero gravity, Scott extends his arms out to the sides, basking in the flow of power through his veins. Jinas clings to Scott’s body, his eyes locked on the ground as it disappears.

Scott reaches for the clouds and they funnel downwards towards his palm. Once they touch, he holds them there for a few long moments before letting them snap back to their place in the sky. Then, Scott descends. The wind dies down and debris tumbles to the ground. Jinas looks into Scott’s eyes with awe as they crackle and spark with blue energy.

Scott alights on the ground. Jinas steps away and Scott’s eyes return to their natural light brown color.

“You’re mad, Scott. Completely and utterly crazy.” He gives Scott a once-over. The man is standing tall, doesn’t seem to be shaking with effort, and is brimming with confidence.

“Well?” Scott says. “What do you say?”

“Fine,” Jinas sighs. “Fine, I’ll let you go and explore and seek your patron god, even though you were going to do it no matter what I said.” He then points a finger in Scott’s face. “But the instant you look even the slightest bit faint, I’m sitting you down and we’re going to make sure your energy gets back to one hundred percent.”

“I’m good with that.” Scott turns around. “Let’s get moving. Magnus waits for no man.”

He marches toward the imposing wall of darkness on the horizon, Jinas close behind.

“Perhaps this was a mistake.”

The merchant frowns as the woman across from him sets down one of his vials.

“I came here looking to purchase a rare elixir and you’re trying to sell me watered-down Yellow.” She pushes the elixir aside. “Do you have what I’m looking for or not?”

“Ha!” the merchant laughs. “Your eye is finer than most, I see. Allow me to dig through my secret stash. A woman with experience like yourself obviously cannot be swayed by cheap knock-offs.” He reaches under his cart and produces a brown box. The merchant pulls out a black goblet and sets it in front of her. Red designs curl around the base, spiraling upward towards the lip.

“Is that…?” She takes the goblet in her hands and studies the pristine surface. “This is a goblet from Palace Center in Chaldir’s Ruins.” She looks up. “How did you find this?”

“It was sold to me by a gentleman in Monarch.”

“Who?” the woman asks. “What did he look like? What currency did he use?”

“I don’t remember everything,” the merchant says, rubbing his chin, “but he was an older man, probably in his sixties or seventies. Bushy white beard. He said got it from a Ruinswalker who found it buried in the ash.” The merchant chuckles. “He sold it to me for fifty-seven rueres.”

“Fifty-seven rueres?” she exclaims. “And you agreed to that?”

“A legendary artifact from Palace Center itself? A castle that no one has seen for untold generations? I’d say fifty-seven rueres is a bargain!”

She pauses for a moment. “How much?”

“Well,” he begins slowly, “with the exchange rate for ruere to gatan dropping recently, plus the price I paid for it, and all of the extra work I’ve done to keep it safe—”

“Out with it!”

“I think a good price would be 250 gatans.”

The woman slams her hands on the table. “That’s highway robbery and you know it!”

“I’m trying to make a living here!” the merchant counters. “You want the goblet or not? I’m charging 250 gatans and that’s my final price, take it or leave it.”

The woman gazes longingly at the goblet. The dark red lines pulse with an inner power and the black metal hums with life. She can still feel the burning of the fires of Chaldir’s Ruins, still hear the ash crackle under her feet.

“I’ll take it,” she finally sighs, “but I’m not happy about it.” She dumps the money—all of it in hard coins—on the table. “Here, 250 gatans exact. I don’t care about ownership papers or signatures. I just want the cup.”

The merchant greedily takes the money. The woman stashes her newly purchased goblet in her backpack and steps away from the merchant’s shop.

The gothic town around her is silent and still. A white marble fountain sits in the exact center of the town square, and in its center is a naked statue of Magnus, god of Silence and Souls. The windows in the town are shuttered, the populace weary of increasingly violent Shades in the area. Save for the tavern, the town almost looks completely abandoned.

As the woman prepares to head back to her hotel for the evening, thunder rumbles overheard and a bright blue light flashes from the clouds. She looks up in curiosity. A thunderstorm at this hour is odd; they usually come much later in the day.

A blue comet sails down from the sky, racing toward the town center. The merchant spots the comet and runs away as fast as possible; the woman crouches low behind his cart. The comet crashes through the marble statue of Magnus and lands with a splash, sending a wave of water across the town square. A hissing, bubbling sound rises from the fountain as steam fills the air.

A glowing hand emerges from the water and seizes the ledge. It drags a boy with black hair out of the water, his eyes sparking with blue magic. A smaller boy emerges next and hoists himself on the edge of the marble fountain.

“Man!” Scott laughs. “What a trip!”

“That was a terrible idea,” Jinas grumbles.

“I thought it was a wonderful experience!”

“Reneans weren’t made to fly. You weren’t made to fly.”

“Maybe not, but I think I did a fantastic job nonetheless.”

“Oh really?” Jinas says. “I distinctly remember you dropping me mid-flight so you could concentrate on killing that Shade. It’s not still following us, is it?”

“Well we’re not dead, are we?” Scott pats Jinas on the back. “I say that’s a win for us.”

Jinas looks around. “Where did we land?”

“Who cares? We’re closer to the Royal Crypt than ever.” Scott sighs in satisfaction. “I can almost smell Magnus waiting for me!”

Jinas picks up a part of the statue’s shattered head and grimaces. “I think you’re smelling his remains.” He shows Scott the broken bust. “Looks like you threw us through Magnus’s marbled arms into a fountain dedicated to his glory. I may not be a fully-realized doctor, but it looks like he didn’t make it through the operation.”

“What a shame,” Scott says, drooping. “I even dressed up for the occasion.”

“Maybe it was for the best,” Jinas consoles, placing a hand on Scott’s arm. “Some things aren’t meant to last forever.”

“I just wish he knew how much I loved him,” Scott fake-weeps, blowing into a nonexistent handkerchief.

Hidden behind the cart, the woman watches the boys with awe in her eyes. Heroes didn’t venture after their patron gods anymore—it just didn’t happen. Yet here one stands in the flesh, so close that she can reach out and wipe water from his face. She feels a sensation in her heart that she hasn’t felt in many years, and with it comes the realization that this may be her last chance to set things right.

Scott and Jinas glance at the woman watching them from a few feet away. She has long black hair and hazel colored eyes. Seeing she’s been noticed, the woman approaches the two boys still standing in the cold water. She stops a few feet in front of them and glances over their clothes. Jinas moves slightly behind Scott.

“Well,” she says, “you’re certainly not what I expected, but I suppose I’ll take what I can get.”

“You what?” Scott says. “Have we met before?”

“Likely not, but let’s not get caught up in details. I’ve been waiting for you for quite a long time.” She rubs her hands together. “I’ll admit that I hardly expected to meet you this way. I was expecting a scarred older man with a dark past. I didn’t expect a teenager and his little brother.”

“You look about as old as me, sister,” Scott counters. “And by the way, he’s not my little brother.”

“Well, in name I kind of am,” Jinas says.

“Hush, Jinas. The adults are talking, remember?”

“Ah, so Jinas is your name.” The woman smiles. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Scott steps in front of his unofficial doctor. “Just what is this all about?”

“My name is Katrina,” she says. “As I said before, I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time. It’s my destiny to help you get to the Royal Crypt.” She takes a business-like attitude. “And now that you’re here, it’s important that we waste no more time. Magnus is waiting for you.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I think we can handle it.” Scott pats Jinas on the arm. “I’ve got the best doctor in the world and I’ve got a landmark I’ll never be able to miss.”

“Think so?” Katrina nods to the shattered statue of Magnus. “You keep going around like that and Shades will be crawling all over you.”

“Thanks, but I can handle the Shades. I took down four all by myself when I was flying here.”

Jinas tugs on Scott’s overcoat. “Uh, Scott?”

“Oh wow, a grand total of four.” Katrina bows shortly. “Excuse me while I bask in the presence of your prowess.”

“Hey, Scott?”

“You’ve got a wise mouth, lady. And what’s all this talk about destiny and fate? I don’t even know you!”

“Scott!”

Scott turns to reprimand Jinas when he sees five dark shadows streaking across the sky, the howl of a banshee hanging on the winds. Katrina sighs in time with Scott’s sigh.

“Great,” they say in unison. Scott casts a sideways glance at Katrina, who casts a sideways glance at him.

“Now I have to battle,” Scott says. “I hope you’re happy, Katie.”

“Don’t call me Katie,” she says. “My name is Katrina. And you don’t have to battle. I’ll fight these Shades for you.”

“I hardly need your protection. You should sit this one out and let me show you how it’s done.”

Before she can protest, Scott steps away from Jinas and walks into the square. He levitates off the ground and spreads his arms, as if ascending to heaven. He seems to be enjoying it, as if performing in a grand play.

Katrina folds her arms. “What does he think he’s doing?”

“Looks like he’s showboating,” Jinas replies. “He’s probably doing this to impress you.”

“Pardon?”

“You know, win your favor. Boys do this all the time to get attention from girls.”

“Win my favor?”

“You heard right.” Jinas shrugs. “Well, I’m sure you’ve been around enough boys to know how this will turn out.”

“Yes, I know.” She crosses her arms as Scott engages the Shades in combat, blue and green light clashing. “He shouldn’t be doing this if he wants to impress me. I’m not interested in romance.”

“No? I think he’s taken anyways.” Jinas also folds his arms. “When he was unconscious for two days, all he did was groan someone’s name. Fiona, I think it was.”

“Why was he out for two days?”

“It’s kind of a long story.”

“I’ve got time.”

Scott’s glowing blue body rockets past Katrina and Jinas, slamming into the ground with a hard thump. Four Shades circle around the town square, each of them shrieking as they make a pass by the broken statue of Magnus. Scott struggles to stand, his face cut and bleeding.

“Sheesh,” Scott wheezes. “I’m running out of time. And energy.” He winces, holding his side. “Especially energy.”

Katrina puts a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Why don’t you take a seat and let me show you how it’s done.”

“Tch,” Scott scoffs. “Like you’re going to do any better.”

“I’ve been at this for way longer than you have,” Katrina replies, taking off her coat. “Trust me.”

Katrina walks around the town square, setting her eyes on each Shade individually. Then, with a movement as quick as a flick of her wrist, a bolt of red lightning flashes across the pavilion and obliterates one of the Shades. She turns and uses short, snappy movements of her hands to send red bolts of lightning flying off her fingertips. Each bolt finds a target, and each target explodes into charcoal and ash, their Glow briefly illuminating the town before they die. All of the Shades are gone in a matter of moments, leaving the town square empty except for Jinas, Katrina, and Scott.

Scott slowly gets to his feet, too in shock to say anything.

“So,” she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, “still want to show me how it’s done?”

“I…” Scott shakes his head. “I didn’t think you could… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”

“Apology accepted.” Katrina puts her coat back on. “You boys hungry?”

“I’m always hungry!” Jinas says. “When do we eat?”

“Yeah,” Scott says. “Yeah, I could use some grub.” He rubs his face. “And some medicine. Oh God, and some painkiller.”

“Well, Taleni’s Tavern has good food. Follow me.” As Katrina walks away, Scott and Jinas hurry to catch up. “I say we stop there for some lunch, grab some supplies, and head out for the Royal Crypt.”

“I just have to ask how you did that,” Scott says. “How did you use do something like that? Where did you get your powers? Are you a Hero too?”

“You see any mark on my forehead?” says Katrina. Scott squints, but her forehead is markless. She laughs. “I guess that answers your question.”

“But the lightning! If you’re not a Hero, how?”

Katrina puts a finger to her lips as if to silence him. “That’s a woman’s secret. Now come on, we’re burning daylight.”

Katrina continues on toward Taleni’s Tavern. Scott keeps a sharp eye out, looking for something to give him a clue to her powers. Jinas follows at a distance, on edge about the extent of Katrina’s unknown powers. Above them, the sky is quiet and grey, and thunder rumbles in the distance.

A familiar ball of white light hovers in the main hall of Salvation’s Hideaway. Salvation digs his claws into the wall, dragging his hand as flakes of bark and wood chips break off and land on the floor.

“Magnus,” he hisses, “you’ve picked a poor time to visit. Go away.”

The light pulses rhythmically, as if laughing.

“What’s the problem?” it asks, the profound voice echoing through the hall.

“Your Hero is killing my Shades,” Salvation snaps. “All of my people are being killed like sheep. What did they do to deserve such treatment?”

“Well,” Magnus muses, “maybe you ought to stop sending your Shades to fight him.”

Salvation rears up to his full height, tendrils of magic exploding from the ground. “I will not be lectured by the likes of you, Magnus! I should go kill your Hero myself!”

“Go ahead.”

Salvation pauses. He slowly returns to his normal size. “What?” he whispers. “What did you say?”

“Go ahead,” says Magnus. “Have at it. Get out there and find him.”

“You’re encouraging me to find your Hero?” Salvation sputters. “To find him and kill him, however I desire?”

“Yes.”

“Hah!” Salvation barks. “Now you’ve got me intrigued. Earlier you would have done anything to stop me. Why the sudden change in heart?”

“Talking in this way is very tiring. I’m coming to your Hideaway.”

Salvation glides backwards. The orb morphs into a thin, lanky man. The light condenses and turns a deep shade of purple, which gradually fades into the shape of Magnus, god of Silence and Souls.

His short bangs are spiked up over his forehead. His eyes are hollow and in his hand is a tall, crooked staff. His otherwise pale complexion is broken by angular purple tattoos scrawled across his face. He wears a simple black robe and a pair of beaten up sandals. At the sight of the god, Salvation suppresses a grimace.

“You look even worse than I remember,” he says.

“As do you,” says Magnus. “Finally succumbing to the dark side, Sal?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

“Anything within this realm is my concern. That includes you.” Magnus taps the end of his staff on the ground, signaling his readiness to get down to business. “Where were we?”

“You were encouraging me to find and kill your Hero.” Salvation crosses his arms. “Amusing, but if this is your attempt to trick me so you have an excuse to kill me, I won’t bite the hook.”

“It’s not a trick,” Magnus says. “I’ll let you go and look for Scott. I won’t stop you and I won’t fight you. You have free reign to hunt for him or use whatever you deem necessary to stop Scott from reaching my Royal Crypt.”

Salvation says nothing.

“But,” Magnus continues, “in exchange for your unrestrained freedom, if Scott successfully finds his way to my Crypt despite your efforts, you must leave the Cemetery.” He leans in. “Permanently.”

“Permanently…” Salvation rubs his chin in thought. “That’s a steep gamble. I could never leave the Cemetery. This place is my only home. These Shades need a mentor and a Master.”

“You’ll agree to it,” Magnus says. “I know you will.”

“What makes you so sure?”

In response, Magnus sets down his staff and reaches into his robes. “Because if you don’t, I’ll use this to change your mind.”

The god pulls out an artifact of a certain length, size, and shape. Upon seeing the artifact, Salvation shrieks a banshee howl, recoiling in horror. Magnus handles the artifact with care, as if fearing it might explode at any moment. He inches closer to Salvation, who backs up against the wall.

“Keep that foul object away from me,” Salvation hisses. “It reeks of death and violence.”

“Does it really?” Magnus moves closer. “Tell me more.”

Salvation thrashes wildly. “Enough!” he screams. “Get it away from me! Their cries for mercy go on for all eternity! Their pleas for revenge will never be fulfilled! Can’t you hear their voices, Magnus? Can’t you hear their screams?”

“Always,” says Magnus. “I can always hear them; it’s a part of my curse. I’m part of a big cosmic joke, and this monstrous artifact is the punchline. You know this better than anyone.” He tucks the artifact back into his clothes. Salvation relaxes, but his eyes are wild and furious.

“Why is it not safe in your Treasury?” he demands. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Maybe I am,” Magnus says. “Maybe I’ve finally cracked. But that’s beside the point, because I need you to listen very closely.” Magnus takes in a breath. “Someone is coming to my Crypt. Someone really, really powerful. I don’t know their name and I don’t know their face, but they are going to try and take something very important to me.”

Magnus pats the place where he stored the artifact. Salvation’s brow furrows.

“And that is what they seek?” Magnus merely nods. “But what can a man do against a god?”

“I never said it was a man,” Magnus replies. “And right there is the problem. I don’t know who it is, what species they are, or even what realm they hail from. All I know is someone is coming and they are immensely powerful.”

“How did you learn this?”

“I drank from the Cup of Divination.”

Salvation hisses. “I thought we agreed that the Cup is bad news.”

“I drank from it nonetheless,” Magnus says. “I’ll deal with the burden of my knowledge. Once I drank from it, I received a vision. Someone was standing over me and I was lying in a pool of blood; I was looking through their eyes down at my own body. In the vision, I was saying something to my killer. Then there was a bright flash of light, and the vision ended.” He breathes slowly. “I died in that vision.”

Salvation scoffs. “Gods don’t die, Magnus.”

“That’s something we all would like to believe.” Magnus steps away. “The Cup has never been wrong before. But I think it was a warning. I can still avoid that future if I play my cards right.”

“Assuming that future comes true at all,” Salvation says. “What purpose does this have on your deal with me? Furthermore, what purpose do I serve in this challenge of yours?”

“There are only two people in this realm who have the capacity to kill me,” says Magnus, “and it’s you and Scott. While both are extremely unlikely, I don’t intend to place my bet against the Cup of Divination. I need to eliminate at least one of you so my resources are not split in half. That way, once one of you is gone, I know who to keep my eye on.”

Salvation chuckles. “You don’t trust your own Hero?”

“I’ve lived for a long time. I’ve learned to never trust anyone.”

The Master of Shades is quiet for a moment. Then, he nods. “I’ll do it.”

Magnus smiles in grateful acceptance.

“Do you think your vision will come true?” Salvation asks. “I recognize that the Cup has never been wrong before, but do you really think it’ll come to pass?”

“It’s better to be safe than sorry.” Magnus picks up his staff. “I sincerely hope Scott is ready for this. Fighting off you and your Shades is going to be the hardest thing he’s ever done.”

“It might be slim,” Salvation says, “but it’s possible the vision was a plant.”

Magnus quirks his head.

“I sense a more sinister presence at work here,” Salvation continues. “Something out there watching us, drifting like a ghost ship through the mist. The right pieces need to fall into the right places to make the right things happen at the right time, and the more we try to stop it, the more we get tangled in the web. It’s as if something is pulling the strings to some kind of twisted puppet show, and we can only dance to their tune.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. If there was someone pulling the strings, I’d have killed them a long time ago.” Magnus taps the end of his staff on the ground and white magic begins to swirl at his feet. “You know how I hate the concept of destiny.”

“And yet here you stand, believing in the predestination of your own death.”

Magnus smiles grimly. “You’ve got me there, old friend.”

“Goodbye Magnus. I wish you the best in your endeavors.”

“The same to you, Sal. Farewell.”

Magnus vanishes in a burst of white magic. Alone again, Salvation floats down the hallway with his hands behind his back. Though he is pleased about the now-clear path toward eliminating Scott Cornot, his mind is troubled with the details of Magnus’s vision. There can be no doubt that something dark is creeping across the land; Salvation just wishes he knew what it is.

Katrina and Jinas leave Taleni’s Tavern with Scott hanging over their shoulders. His face is bruised from a nasty fight and his lips are stained purple. He looks oddly happy, as if he just had the best night of his life, yet it’s just barely the afternoon.

“This is unbelievable,” Jinas says. “Who let him have a full glass of Purple!”

“I’ve never felt so alive!” Scott yells, slumping on Katrina’s shoulder. “Yahoo! Where are we going next?”

“Taking you two to the tavern was a mistake,” Katrina sighs.

“Hah!” Jinas laughs. “It could be worse. One time I got into my dad’s stash of White.” He grimaces at the memory. “The hangover lasted for a week.”

“Where are we going, guys?” Scott slurs. “The party… The party’s just begun!” Scott looks over his shoulder. “Jinas! What’s up, my main man? Where are we going?”

“We’re going someplace where there isn’t any alcohol,” says Jinas. “You’ve had far too much to drink.”

Scott roars with laughter, his weight nearly dragging Jinas and Katrina to the ground. “That’s a good one! No alcohol? No party!”

“What a way to start an adventure,” Katrina groans. “Destiny is a cruel mistress. Who gets drunk at lunchtime anyways?”

“Scott, obviously. I just want to know how he got hold of that alcohol.”

“Who knows?” Scott says. “I say we grab another drink and talk about it!”

“Quiet, you,” Jinas snaps.

“I am sensing a lot of hostility here,” Scott hiccups. “You need to calm down, man. I swear all this strife isn’t good for your skin.”

“I should have brought sleep aids,” says Jinas. “I really should have brought sleep aids.”

“And another thing!” Scott yells, tossing a finger up to the air. Jinas staggers under the weight. “Who serves alcohol at lunchtime? That’s bad for people who bring their kids inside for a good meal, you know? No one needs to be smelling alcohol at noon o’clock.”

“A hotel!” Katrina cries, her eyes on a building just down the road. “Finally! Come on, Jinas. We’re almost there.” The pair drags the intoxicated Hero toward the hotel. Katrina kicks down the door and enters the lobby.

“And why would you start drinking anyways?” Scott continues. “It’s a deplorable habit, you know. You get all feelsy and full of whiskey and you start yammering on and on about stuff nobody cares about. You know, one time I had an uncle—”

Katrina drops Scott to the floor and approaches the front desk. Jinas, again staggering under the weight, does his best to drag Scott forward. A concerned young woman looks over Katrina’s shoulder at the Hero on the floor.

“Two rooms,” Katrina says. “One for the wasted guy and his younger brother and one for me.”

“I’m not his brother,” Jinas yells. “I’m his doctor!”

“Right… One for the doctor and his patient and one for me, please.”

“Yes ma’am,” the desk clerk nods. She grabs two keys off of the back rack and sets them on the desk. “The price per night per room is fifty gatans.”

“That little?” Katrina reaches into her jacket and produces a pocketbook. “Really?”

“I can raise the price if you want.”

“Oh, no, that won’t be necessary. I was just taken aback by it, that’s all. I bought something for 250 gatans a little while ago, so I guess my expectations were a little high.” Katrina pulls a handful of hard coins out of her pocketbook and places them on the counter. The clerk collects the money and places it into a metal lockbox.

Katrina stashes the keys in her pocket and turns around. Scott is lying on the ground, Jinas squirming in his arms. Scott’s drunkenly happy face is flat against Jinas’s chest.

“Alright,” Katrina says, smiling, “enough fooling around, Jinas. Let’s get to the rooms so we can get Scott to sleep.”

“Get him off of me!” Jinas demands.

“No, I think he likes you.” She grins at him. “It’s almost cute, actually.”

“This isn’t funny! I have a strict doctor-patient relationship to uphold!”

“Come on, Jinas, it’s cool to be huggy with people.” Scott tightens his grip on Jinas. “Hold on to me a little tighter. I need to be loved too, you know.”

“Scott if you don’t get off of me right now I’m going to recite a ton of ancient poems at the top of my lungs.”

“Jinas, you’re my best friend, you know that? You’re like, the coolest cat.”

“Hark!” Jinas yells, as if on a stage in front of a large audience. “The wings of a million souls doth beat! What hath brought this fury upon our heads? Who is to blame for this army of wayward seraphs?”

“Well, I’m going to my room.” Katrina tosses one of the keys at Jinas’s feet. “See you at dinner, if you can survive that long.”

“We’re bunking together?” Scott half-shouts, his eyes brightening. “Yeah, now we’re talking! This night is going to get crazy! I hope you brought the alcohol!”

“Is it a righteous fury?” Jinas continues to shout. “It is an unjust fury? No, it is the fury of a god done an injustice! This is the end, I say! The end!”

Later…

Jinas softly closes the door to his room. Katrina is waiting for him in the hallway.

“Well, Jinas?” Katrina prompts. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s out like a light,” the boy replies. “I probably need to shop for something to take care of his upcoming hangover. I’m pretty sure he’s never been drunk like that before.”

“We could go shopping after dinner,” Katrina suggests. “There’s a dining room on the other side of the lobby. We can go in there and hit the market afterward. Follow me.”

Jinas and Katrina walk down the hall, cross the hotel lobby, and approach a large red curtain. Remembering his manners, Jinas pulls it aside and allows Katrina to enter first.

The pair enters into the richly atmospheric dining room. Though the patrons are few, everyone inside is beyond well-dressed for the evening. Exquisite black tapestries with gold trim hang next to tall, ornate windows. Two or three waiters walk around in sleek black suits with golden seam lines, checking in on their patrons. Jinas looks down at his plain robes and feels heat rise in his cheeks.

“Sheesh,” Katrina says. “For such an unassuming hotel, you’d expect their dining hall to be a little less…” She gestures at the room. “Well, this.”

“No kidding,” Jinas says. “I’m way too underdressed for this. We should go somewhere else.”

“Why? We’re here and we’re paying patrons. They’ve got every right to serve us regardless of our clothes. Come on, let’s grab a table.”

Katrina drags Jinas past a sign that says “Please wait to be seated” and sits down at a table for two. A few of the other patrons look at the two casually dressed people, but they seem to be marginally more interested in their food. Katrina flags down a waiter and Jinas tries not to look conspicuous. Unfortunately, he feels a thousand eyes drilling into the back of his skull.

A man in a sleek black suit walks up to the pair, hands clasped behind his back.

“May I assist you?” he asks primly.

“Yes,” Katrina says, hands folded in front of her. “I’ll start with a glass of Red to drink. For the appetizer I’ll take a basket of breadsticks, freshly made if you please. For the main course I’d like to try the filet mignon. And let’s not be cheap on the mignon—I’ll take two, not one, freshly cooked at medium. For the sides I fancy the Renean greens of the day and some fruit.”

“All excellent choices,” the waiter nods after she finishes, mentally cataloguing the order. He looks at Jinas. “And for you, my good sir? What strikes your tune this fine evening?” Jinas gulps under the stare of the waiter and Katrina, hands shaking.

“J-Just a glass of water and whatever she’s having, thanks,” he stutters quickly.

“Another excellent choice,” the waiter nods. “I will be back with your water, your Red, and a basket of fresh breadsticks. Excuse me.” The waiter leaves in a brusque yet refined manner. Katrina shoots Jinas an amused look.

“No taste of your own tonight?” she jibes.

“This is my first time in a fancy restaurant,” he admits. “I’ve never been in a place this high-brow in my whole life.” He pauses, reconsidering. “Well, the shrine was pretty high-brow to some people, but to me it was always like coming home.”

Katrina perks up a little bit. “You said shrine.” She leans in. “Your dad was an oracle, then? For Magnus?”

“Yeah. Do you know a man named Zyphias?”

Katrina sits back and smiles, as if remembering a fond memory. “Yes,” she replies. “Yes, I know that name very well.”

“That was my dad,” Jinas says proudly. “I think he was the greatest man in the world.”

“He ‘was’?”

“He’s… Not around anymore.”

“Oh, I see.” Katrina falls quiet for a moment. “How did it happen?”

“Scott killed him.”

The waiter arrives and places the glass of red alcohol in front of Katrina. He places a glass of water in front of Jinas. In-between them he places a basket of warm breadsticks. Jinas takes one and a napkin as the waiter steps back from the table.

“Your filets will be a little while longer,” he says. “I’m sorry to have interrupted.” The waiter bows and leaves. Katrina waits for him to be out of earshot before she gives Jinas a look.

“You said Scott killed him,” Katrina says. “That’s a bold statement to make about a Hero.”

“Before you get all hyped up,” Jinas says, “let me explain. None of it was really Scott’s fault. His mind was overtaxed the night before because a Shade broke into the shrine. Scott ended up killing it, but the next morning he complained of a headache and had to sit down. While I was making breakfast in another room, the house started to shake. Dad left to check out what was happening, and that’s when…”

Jinas swallows, vividly reliving the morning of the accident.

“There was a ton of noise,” he says. “The walls were crumbling, Scott was glowing like a small star, my mom was screaming and… And I found my dad against the wall, blood dripping down his neck.”

“I see,” Katrina says softly.

“A fatal blow to the head. I held him in my arms as he died.” He takes a drink from his glass of cold water. “Just before he died, dad told me to watch out for Scott. He told me that Scott is destined to be something great and that I had a role in it.” Jinas laughs and grabs another breadstick. “Me, having a role the quest of a Hero. Can you believe that? And just a week ago I was studying to be a scholar. Now I’m training to be a doctor instead—a doctor for a Hero, no less.”

“Was it hard?” Katrina asks. “Caring for Scott, I mean. He did murder your parents.”

“For a good three hours I hated him for taking my dad from me. I wouldn’t even go near his body.” Jinas pauses, as if coming to terms with a great guilt. “But the more I looked at him, the more I realized that he was the only thing I had left in this world. On top of that, I was his only chance at survival. Like it or not, we both needed each other when the universe was trying to tear us apart.”

Katrina pauses for a moment. “Do you still hate him?”

“No,” he says. “Taking care of someone like Scott does things to you. It puts life in perspective, shows you the consequences of your actions. I could have crushed his head with a rock, or stabbed him with a knife, or drowned him in a river. But where would that put me? Where would I go after it was over? Who would I have left in this great big world?”

“You are wise,” Katrina says. “Wise beyond your years. I can’t name many people who could have done that.” Jinas smiles at the compliment.

“I’d try not to talk about it too much, though,” he continues. “It’s still a little hard on me and I’m sure Scott is particularly sensitive about the subject. But it’s okay; it wasn’t something he was able to control.” Jinas drinks his water to wash down the last of the breadsticks. “I’m his doctor, after all. What use is a doctor if he can’t forgive things the patient can’t help?”

“That’s true.”

“But enough about me.” Jinas leans in. “I want to know about you.”

Katrina, who was going to take a drink of her Red, chokes and coughs. Jinas waits for her to regain her composure.

“Me?” she half-squeaks. “You want to know about me?”

“Yeah, if that’s okay.”

“I’m a little old for you, don’t you think?”

“I’m just curious!” Jinas exclaims. “And not even in that way! How old are you anyways?”

“Old enough.”

“Fine,” he says. “New question. Just who are you?”

Katrina smiles. “That’s a hard question to answer.”

“Well I think I deserve some answers. I can tell you’ve been here a while, so you already know that the Cemetery isn’t exactly the safest place in the world. When someone whom I’ve never met shows up and knows about my family, it tends to throw up some red flags.” Jinas looks Katrina over. “I don’t know much about my dad’s past. From the way you talk about him, you obviously do.”

“So you really have three questions, then. Who am I, where did I come from, and how did I know your dad.” Jinas nods to confirm; Katrina sighs. “I’m sorry, I can’t answer everything. I can tell you a little about who I am and a little about where I came from.”

He shrugs. “Better than nothing.”

“Well, my name is Katrina. I was born and raised in Chaldir’s Ruins. Most of my early life was spent scavenging for precious items of high value.” She pauses. “That’s all you need to know about me.”

“That’s it?” Jinas says. “That’s all you can tell me? Who were your parents? How did you end up moving from the Ruins to the Cemetery? Why are you still here and not at home?”

Katrina sighs, leaning on her hand. “Some things are better left unsaid.”

“Okay, fine.” Jinas claps his hands together. “Moving right along. How did you know where to find Scott and I? You were standing almost exactly where we landed. I wouldn’t call that coincidence.”

“Then don’t call it coincidence,” Katrina says. “Call it destiny.”

“Destiny?”

“Yes.” Katrina takes a drink of her Red. “I’ve lived far too long to not believe in a higher power. It’s definitely out there, and it’s guiding all of us to our final destinations. My arrival at Magnus’s statue was planned far in advance by powers beyond my control.”

Jinas scoffs good-naturedly. “No offense, but you look a little young to be throwing out the whole ‘I’ve lived far too long’ card, don’t you think? You’re not eighty years old yet.”

Katrina shrugs. “I suppose so,” she replies. “But what I said is what I firmly believe. It was destiny, not coincidence, and I certainly couldn’t have planned it.”

“How did you know my father?” Jinas asks.

“We met once,” Katrina replies. “Only once, only for a brief moment, and it was a very long time ago. I never knew him in any great detail, but he was not a stranger to me.”

Jinas pauses. “I take it you won’t elaborate further? Further questions will remain unanswered?”

“Yes. They will probably remain unanswered for as long as we know one another.”

Jinas leans back as the waiter approaches the table, a tray in his hand.

“That’s significantly upsetting, but I guess I can’t force you to tell me anything.”

“Your filet mignon,” the waiter states. He places two plates of two pieces of steaming filet mignon with their sides in front of Katrina and Jinas. He then tops off the drinks and leaves the patrons in peace. Jinas digs into his food in earnest. Katrina takes a long drink from her Red and sets the glass down in satisfaction.

“Damn, I keep forgetting how good Red is around here,” she says. “Those high-class Monarchian restaurants don’t have anything on good Red from a Cemetery dining hall.” She swirls the liquid in the glass, suddenly thoughtful. “You’d think that I’d hate alcohol at my age. In truth I never really had a taste for any color that wasn’t Red. I’ve tried just about every other color but Orange and found myself always going back to Red.” Katrina leans in. “There’s something just fascinating about the color red, don’t you think? It’s the color of rage and the color of passion. It burns and it heals at the same time. Red is two opposite forces that can coexist on the same plane.” Jinas continues to eat in silence and Katrina huffs, annoyed.

“Sorry,” the doctor says through a mouthful of food. “I’m just really astonished by how good this steak is.”

“Well, thank Apalon for farmers.” Katrina suddenly frowns. “Or was it Kalax you thank for farmers? I think they’re somehow both responsible.”

“Either way,” Jinas says, “without farmers, the world would be in a very dark place.”

“It’s already pretty dark when all that lights your way are candles and gemstones.”

“Well, do you know any other way to provide light?”

Katrina goes to answer, but she bites her tongue and shakes her head. “No, probably not,” she admits. “Unless you could find a way to make your whole body glow.”

“Ha!” Jinas laughs. “Wouldn’t that be a sight.”

Katrina picks at her food, mind filled with old memories and broken promises.

Later…

Jinas’s eyes peel open as a sliver of orange light cuts into his room. It’s coming from the hallway. He sits up in bed as a shadowy form slowly creeps into the room; his heart leaps into his throat.

“Hey! Who’s there?”

THUMP!

The shadowy form trips over something in the dark and crashes to the floor. Jinas reaches for the oil lamp on his nightstand. A blue glow lights the room instead, emanating from the body.

“Sorry,” Scott mumbles from the floor. “I tried not to wake you up.”

“You almost gave me a heart attack. What are you doing out of bed?”

“I had to use the restroom.”

Jinas runs a hand through his hair. “Next time wake me up. You’re still on watch, you know, and I won’t have you passing out and hitting your head on the floor.” He throws his legs out of bed. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ve got one nasty headache so I’m taking it slow.” Scott holds his head. “How in the world did I get so drunk from one glass?”

“You drank a glass of Purple, the second most potent alcoholic drink on Renea. I’m surprised you’re not vomiting.”

Scott groans and holds his head, pain shooting up his brain stem. “Please tell me you’ve got a secret herb for headaches.”

“I do,” Jinas says. “Katrina and I went shopping last night. The mixture typically has to soak in water overnight.” He stands and opens a drawer on his nightstand. “I thought you might wake up before morning came so I bought something else for you to try.”

“What is it?” Scott asks.

“They’re leaves from a rare bush in Kalax’s Woods. The bush appears only once every few years and only for a few weeks before dying. As such, they’re a highly desired commodity.” Jinas pulls out a small brown cloth bag and hands Scott three small green leaves. “Here. Put one of these on your tongue and salivate. Spit it out after two minutes and move to the next one.”

Scott puts a leaf on his tongue and jumps in surprise as a coolness fills his mouth. The Hero knows this taste; he would recognize it anywhere.

“Mint!” he exclaims. “This is mint!”

Jinas shoots him a confused look. “I think you meant to call it coldsnap.”

“This is called ‘mint’ on Earth,” Scott explains. “We use it in everything from food to gum to teas and pretty much everywhere in-between. It’s an extremely common plant back on Earth.” Scott smiles widely. “It’s been too long since I’ve had something minty. I almost forgot how good this tasted.”

“What’s Earth?”

“It’s my home planet.”

“Your what?”

“I thought we talked about this. I wasn’t born on Renea.”

“We definitely didn’t talk about this,” Jinas says. “You came from a different world?”

“Hey, if it makes you feel any better, I never believed that there was anything out in the old universe but us.”

Jinas sits down across from Scott. “I figured there had to be something else beyond the reach of the night sky. Maybe some more gods or something, but an entire race of people? Never in my wildest dreams.” He nods to Scott. “Are they anything like you?”

“Some are and some aren’t. Some are noble and bold and honest, not unlike myself.” Jinas rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “Some are dark and tyrannical and violent, and they’re generally unpleasant people to be around. The world I come from is like a big box of chocolates. You just never know what you’re going to get.”

Jinas rubs his tired eyes. “Not that what you’re saying isn’t wonderful and cheery, but I’m really just too tired to think about it. I’m sure we can talk cultural differences in the morning when I’m not struggling to stay awake. And you need to get some sleep; you had a long day today. Let’s just agree to talk tomorrow and go to sleep.”

With a sigh, Scott stands and walks over to his bed, his blue aura dimming with each step. He places the two unused mint leaves on his nightstand and spits the other one somewhere in the darkness. Jinas climbs into his bed and rolls away, staring at the other wall.

Climbing into bed, Scott’s aura dims into a barely present turquoise glow. He lies on his back and stares at the ceiling. As he slips into sleep, Scott’s blue aura fades away and the room goes dark.

Jinas rolls over and closes his eyes, trying to fall asleep. Yet images of mystical blue magic and of the strange planet Earth, a place where coldsnap grows in whole fields, prevent him from falling asleep for many hours.

Katrina stands with her fists on her hips as Jinas and Scott shuffle out of their room. A traveler’s cloak is over her shoulders and a backpack is in her hand. Jinas wearily closes the door behind him.

“Not a very good night’s sleep, I take it?”

“The worst,” Jinas mumbles, fatigue in his voice. “You sleep alright, Katrina?”

“Slept fine,” she replies. “Fitful dreams. Must have been the Red I drank last night. I’m ready to face the day nonetheless.”

Katrina leads the group into the lobby. She leaves their keys on the front desk for the clerk. She then turns to look at Scott and Jinas follows suit.

“What?” Scott says. “Is there something on my face?”

“You’re the leader of this motley crew,” Katrina says. “Tell us where to go.”

“We hardly qualify as motley,” Jinas says.

“A strange woman, a doctor, and a Hero isn’t motley to you?” Scott asks.

Before Jinas can retort, Katrina says, “This is your quest. You have the number one say in where we go.” She slings her backpack over her shoulders and threads her thumbs through the straps. “So Scott, where do we go now?”

Scott looks at Katrina’s expecting stare and then at Jinas’s half-awake gaze. A feeling of immense responsibility heaves itself onto his shoulders. He rubs his chin in thought. “Well,” he says after a moment, “the Royal Crypt is my destination. That’s where we should go.”

Katrina nods and heads for the doors. “You heard the man; let’s get moving. I don’t know about you two, but I’d hate to keep a god waiting.”

As soon as Katrina is out of earshot, Jinas turns to Scott. “Listen,” he says. “I need you to promise me you won’t try to alienate Katrina.”

“Say what?” Scott sputters.

“Just don’t give her any reason to leave. I need her to stay with us.”

“I hardly had any intentions to—” Scott’s eyes narrow suspiciously and he folds his arms across his chest. “Now Jinas, I think you’re a little young to be hitting on Katrina. She’s too old for you.”

Jinas kneads the bridge of his nose in frustration. “It’s not that. Katrina said she knew my dad but failed to elaborate. I need to figure out how she knew him. I couldn’t pry the information out of her last night.”

“Why is this important?”

“Scott, this is my dad we’re talking about. He’s kind of dead, remember?” Scott’s eyes flash with hurt. Jinas takes a softer tone. “Look, it’s all behind us. But he’s my dad. You should have seen the look on her face when I mentioned his name. It was like she was seeing a long-lost treasure finally returned. That has to mean something, right?”

Before Scott can answer, the doors to the hotel lobby slam open. Katrina stands in the doorway, concern on her face. “Scott, Jinas. You two need to get out here right now.”

Scott rushes for the door and Jinas follows as quickly as he can manage. Katrina sprints ahead and they run for the edge of the town.

“Katrina!” Scott calls. “What’s this about?”

“Just follow me!”

Katrina screeches to a halt at the far edge of town. Scott trots up next to her, his eyes locked on the horizon. After several long seconds, Jinas clops up beside Scott, wheezing his lungs out.

“If I knew…” Jinas gasps, “that I was going to run all the way out here…”

“Jinas,” Scott breathes. “Jinas, look at the horizon.”

Jinas looks up to see what everyone is staring at and he, too, freezes in place. The motley crew consisting of a doctor, a Hero, and a new companion look in blatant disbelief at the horizon.

The wall of darkness marking the location of the Royal Crypt has completely disappeared.

[] Chapter Twelve

Trade

Somewhere in Deion’s Peaks

“Stanley!” Gabriel yells. “Hey, can you slow it down a little?”

Farther down the mountain path, Stanley pointedly ignores his annoying associate, hiking ahead without slowing down. It is a pleasant day in the Peaks. Warm sunshine bathes the grey stone of the mountain range. A gentle, cool wind makes its way through the various rocky paths and jagged spires. Stanley breathes in the cool mountain air, savoring the moment while it lasts.

“Come on Stanley, I know you can hear me!”

His moment rudely interrupted, Stanley turns around. Gabriel is struggling up the mountain path, sweat glistening on his brow.

“Will you hurry up?” Stanley calls. “Deion waits for no man.”

“This is an adventure,” Gabriel pants, “not a footrace.”

Shrugging, Stanley continues up the mountain path, despite Gabriel’s repeated objections. He soon comes to a small cavern cut into the mountain, the rock wall beveled inward. Curious, Stanley draws his sword and inspecting the rock with light taps of the tip of the blade. The formation doesn’t seem to be natural, hewn by the collective effort of many hands. Nothing appears to be out of the ordinary, but something isn’t quite right, either.

He sheathes his sword and steps back to look at the cavern from a different angle. On his way back, he bumps into Gabriel, who is still quite winded. He has an orange in his hand and is digging into it with voracious hunger.

“I’ll say this much,” Gabriel says, “nothing beats a good adventure. I mean…” He takes a bite out of his fruit. “I mean, adventure is great, but oranges are much better than long walks up punishing mountain paths.” He spits a seed on the ground.

“This is odd,” Stanley muses, staring ahead of him. “The rock shows no markings or misplaced stones, yet I am almost certain there is something here.”

“You found a library already? And here I was hoping we could get to know one another first. Oh well.” Gabriel claps his hands together. “You ready for your riddle?”

“My what?”

“Your riddle. How else are you going to get into the library?”

“How is a riddle going to help me get into the library?”

“It won’t,” Gabriel says. “You will get you into the library. The riddle is just the road you need to take to get there.”

“If you know the answer, why not just let me in for free?”

“Get into the spirit of things!” Gabriel exclaims. “This is supposed to be an adventure, not a walk in the park! What fun is it if you aren’t challenged? I’ll give you a short riddle, you figure out how to answer it, and when you do, the library opens its doors. If you can’t, we move on.”

Stanley sighs. “Unfortunately, you have a point. Fine. Give me the riddle.”

“Two rocks asunder, yet one above the other.”

He waits for a moment, expecting more, but Gabriel is silent.

“Think on it,” Gabriel says, looking around for a rock to sit on. “It’ll come to you.”

Once Gabriel has found a perch, Stanley turns back to the cavern. The grey and white stones glimmer in the light, taunting him for an answer. He looks closely at every nook and cranny. He pokes and shifts loose rocks, trying to find clues to the solution for the riddle. After several minutes of no luck and no progress, he sits down and broods in contempt.

“Any luck?” Gabriel calls.

“None at all, no thanks to you!” Stanley snaps. “Nothing on this mountain even closely resembles a solution to your riddle! Two rocks asunder? One above the other?” Stanley scoffs and tosses his hands in the air. “How can two rocks be on top of one another and still be apart?”

“Why don’t you grab a seat on a boulder and think about it? It’s much more comfortable than the hard floor.”

Still frustrated, Stanley looks for a particularly large boulder and climbs it just to prove he can. He seats himself comfortably in a small crevice and looks out at the mountain range, stewing. Spires of foreboding grey stone twist upwards into the clouds. A fog bank covers the valley below and the teeth of the peaks sliced open the cirrocumulus clouds. The landscape is enough to get Stanley thinking again.

Riddles are not made to be unsolvable, Stanley reasons. Two rocks asunder, so they are not together. One above the other; maybe one is floating.

He scowls. A floating rock is too fantastic to believe. Sighing, Stanley leans his head back against the cold rock of the mountain. It feels cool against his head. He looks up at the curvature of the outcropping; above him, a single rock juts out from an otherwise smooth surface.

Struck with inspiration, Stanley scrambles to his feet and leaps at the floating rock.

At his touch, the rock drops down and Stanley’s feet touch rock almost as soon as he leaves it. A metallic click echoes across the cavern and the sounds of a pulley system comes from somewhere inside the mountain wall. Stanley leaps off his boulder and runs to the center of the outcropping, searching for a door. As if on command, pieces of the stone caves in and the lines of an elaborate door carves itself into the rock. Gabriel joins him at his side, another orange in his hand.

The tumblers stop moving, followed by another click. Both doors sink into the rock and gently open inwards.

“I take it there will be more riddles,” Stanley says. “They will become progressively more challenging as we reach libraries that are considerably more difficult to get in to, correct?”

“Not everything has to be a riddle.” Gabriel bites into his orange. “Can you imagine how annoyed every Peaks Hero would be if there were only riddles? There’ll be things like puzzles and hazards blocking your way. There are also a few that will test your powers, but you’re just not ready to handle them yet. Baby steps, my friend.” He walks towards the doors. “Come on, this library isn’t going to explore itself.”

Gabriel and Stanley enter the library. A sliver of grey light comes from outside, but everything inside is dark. Gabriel steps forwards and claps three times; green gemstone lamps to life on the walls. The library is hardly more than a little room. The walls are barely forty paces apart and it doesn’t stretch very deep into the mountain. Stanley frowns.

“This is it?” he says. “This cupboard closet is my first library?”

Gabriel laughs. “Did you really expect to find Pinnacle Monastery on your first swing?” He whistles long and loud into the library.

A small, grey-skinned man with a bald head and lengthy beard comes around the corner of a bookshelf. He gasps when he sees Gabriel.

“You!” he exclaims. “I thought you were dead!”

Gabriel sighs. “I take it Halria’s not working right now.”

“She sure isn’t!” the grey man says grumpily. “Halrid at your service. And might I say how unfortunate that is, considering I have to deal with you.”

“You are presumed dead?” Stanley prompts.

Gabriel ignores his companion. “Halrid, you still have that book I gave you, right? I want it back.”

“What! But you said—”

“I know what I said and I don’t care.” Gabriel gives him a stern look. “I want that book back and I want it back now.” The grey man sticks up his nose and walks away, disappearing through a small hole in the wall.

“Explain yourself,” Stanley says.

“Hardly much to explain.” Gabriel walks deeper into the library.

“He thought you were dead. That is a good place to start.” Stanley marches up to Gabriel. “I think if we will be traveling together, I deserve some answers.”

“Take a seat and chill, Stanley.” Gabriel pulls a book off a shelf. “We don’t know each other on that level and, to be honest, I think it’s best for us both if I stay quiet about the whole thing.”

“Why is that?”

“This quest is about you and your growth, not about me. The world wants to hear about you, about your story, about your hardships and about your adventures. My only job is to help you.”

“Hey,” Halrid says. “I found your book.”

The grey-skinned fellow presents an old green book. Gabriel takes it and blows dust off the front. Renean letters are sketched in a faint gold on the cover.

“Been a long time since I’ve seen this old thing,” he says. Gabriel stashes it in his backpack and thanks Halrid, who stalks off. Stanley watches him with a stern frown. “Something on your mind?”

“More than a few things, that I can assure you.”

“Like it or not I’m still going to travel with you.” Gabriel shoulders his backpack. “No amount of ‘I can’t trust you’ is going to change my mind, so get used to me hanging around you.”

Stanley sighs. “Fine. Keep your book and your mysterious past to yourself.” He looks around the library. “What am I supposed to do here?”

“Explore!” Gabriel says. “Each library you’ll encounter is stocked with books, and each book has a story to tell or information to give. Some books are a little more difficult than others, and others are certainly more useful than some, but no one book is ever going to give you information you can’t use.”

“So you want me to just pick a book and read? Somehow I imagined more…” He gestures. “More atmosphere. Candlelight and fancy tables. Ancient scrolls and hidden secrets—the kind of things you think about when you hear the phrase ‘hidden stone library.’”

Gabriel shrugs. “Hey, it is what you make it. Now go look around.”

Stanley walks away. He weaves through the bookshelves, searching for something interesting to read. Though he takes out a few books and flips through a few pages, nothing seems to hold his attention.

Then, he spies a small black book wedged in the far corner of a bookshelf. He takes it out and holds it near one of the gemstone torches for light. The front cover reads, “The Subtle Art of Black Magic.” To his surprise, it has been written in neat English. Stanley opens it up to the first page.

It should be noted, the book begins, that black magic is severely misunderstood. Many Reneans think of our art as shameful and disgraceful. My colleagues and I, however, want to make something very clear: black magic is not dark magic. Dark magic poisons the mind, rots the body, and ravages the soul. Black magic, however, is based on the following four words: fearlessness, courage, and determination.

Black mages are fearless because they have faith in their powers. That fearlessness begets courage, which is not the absence of fear; it’s operating in spite of it. Oh, how black mages love to spite their enemies! Black mages will not stop until their job is done, and thus they are determined beyond measure.

Black magic is not for everyone, but don’t think you’re evil just because you’re gifted in black magic. All colors of magic have an equivalent number of good and evil spells. You’re just a little different, like us. Black magic is notably harder to pick up if you’ve already tried other colors. If you haven’t tried any other colors yet, black magic will be even harder to pick up. Don’t give up. You will reap the benefits and find that mastering other colors of magic comes with nearly pathetic ease.

Best of luck to you, pupil!

Cenkhan the Learned

“Find anything interesting?” Gabriel asks, peering over Stanley’s shoulder.

“Just this little book.” Stanley shows Gabriel the cover. “I do not think I need to read any further; I am not interested in learning black magic.”

“No shame in trying,” Gabriel says. “I once knew someone who picked up black magic. After a while he picked up purple magic like it was nothing, and purple magic is pretty tricky to get a hold of.” He nods to the book. “Looks like that was something you needed to find.”

“I do not think this is meant for me,” Stanley says, shelving the book. He turns to his companion. “What color magic do I use when I teleport?”

“Teleportation is strictly grey magic. It’s more than likely that you will continue to grow in that field.” Gabriel holds up his hands. “Now grey magic covers a lot of weird stuff, so it’s beyond me to tell you what to expect. If black magic is the misunderstood stepchild of the magic family, grey magic is the youngest child who likes reading about the history of tax law.”

“Intriguing,” says Stanley. “Am I the only one you know who practices grey magic?”

“I knew a grey mage once, but she…”

Stanley leans in as he trails off. “She… She what?”

“It’s unimportant,” Gabriel says as he spots Halrid approaches the pair.

“Nasty thing, magic,” he snarls, wrinkling his bulbous nose. “Taints your blood and makes you smell like you’re rotting from the inside out.”

“Don’t mind him,” Gabriel says to Stanley. “He’s been cooped up in this place so long he’s forgotten what real people smell like.”

“I have not!”

Stanley clears his throat loudly. “I have seen everything I need to see. I am ready to continue on.”

“Give old Deion a hello from me,” Halrid says, returning to his hole in the wall. “You Reneans are all the same; loud and obnoxious. All smell the same, too.” He pauses at the edge of the hole and looks over to Gabriel. “Oh, and it really was good to see you again, you lousy dirtbag.”

Halrid disappears into his hole. Stanley looks at Gabriel, who ignores his look and heads for the front door. Stanley follows, ignoring the call of the other books that he didn’t read. He resolves to spend more time reading books in the next library.

As he exits the library, a cold mountain wind whips across Stanley’s face. The sky has grown considerably dark. Gabriel stands at the edge of the mountain, peering into the valley below. Stanley hurries up next to his companion and looks out over the mountain range. The previously light and airy cirrocumulus clouds have darkened and grown in size.

“Storm’s brewing,” Gabriel says. “We should move out of its way.”

“Can duck back into the library for shelter?”

“Not a chance. Those doors don’t open for those seeking refuge—they open for those seeking knowledge. We’re going to have to find a cave or brave the storm outside.”

“Whoever heard of a library in the mountains that refuses to provide shelter for people?”

“It would hardly be considered a quest if you got it easy all the time.” Gabriel gestures to the mountain path. “Lead the way, fearless leader. We need to cover some serious ground before the storm sets in.”

Stanley moves with haste up the path. As he climbs, he looks out to the thunderheads again, noting their size and potency. Shelter is not a luxury, he thinks. It is a necessity. If we do not get out of this storm, we are going to be blown right off this mountain.

“Well?” says Gerrich. “What’s the report from Mount Yavix?”

The two bandits before him open their backpacks and dump the contents on the floor. From one backpack spills books and journals of all colors and shapes. Some of the books are noticeably older than the others, and loose-leaf pages scatter about the floor. From the other backpack comes rare and expensive metals and jewels—gold, red gemstones, blue gemstones, green gemstones, and even a few purple gemstones.

Gerrich’s eyes drift toward the pile of treasure. He steps down from his pedestal and inspects the contents in detail. He picks through the pile with a careful, considerate hand.

“Good quality here,” Gerrich says. “You did a fine job.”

“Thank you, sir,” the female bandit says.

“And as for this,” Gerrich says, turning to the pile of books, “I want an explanation.”

“These books are all sacred and important to the library we stole from,” the male bandit explains. “The Keeper wasn’t fast enough to catch us, even when he transformed.”

“You’ve done well,” Gerrich says. He kicks the pile of books. “Take this pile to the furnace, tear out every page, and burn it all.”

“With pleasure.”

“And the treasure?” the female bandit asks.

“Pack it up and bring it down to Walch,” he says. “You both have done excellent jobs. Treat yourself to something from the kitchen after you’ve finished your tasks. Dismissed.”

The bandits put their fists over their hearts and pack up their stolen goods. After they’ve gone, Gerrich returns to his pedestal and sits on top of it. He can see a calm lake through his one window. The current flows to Gerrich’s left, ending at a waterfall that cascades down and out of sight. On the other side of the lake is a plateau of red rocks and stone which gently slopes into a mountain. Farther to the right is more water and, in the distance, more mountain peaks. All in all, the scene is perfect for meditation.

“Gerrich.”

“What is it,” the head bandit snaps. “I’m trying to meditate.”

“We need to talk.”

“Go away. I’m busy.”

“It’s very important.”

“You’re breaking my concentration.”

“Look at me when I talk to you, Gerrich!”

The head bandit slowly turns around to see an older man with spectacles staring at him fiercely. Gerrich pointedly ignores him, turning his gaze back to the window.

“What are you doing here?” says Gerrich. “I sent one of my bandits with a trove to add to our little collection. She’s expecting to see you down in the treasury.”

“Treasure can wait,” says Walch. “A Hero has been spotted in the Peaks.”

Gerrich’s eyes snap open, all meditative calmness dispersed. He leaps off of his pedestal.

“Though our last source of eyes was at the local pub run by Hogax the Mountaineer,” the older man continues, “one of our scouts spotted the Hero near a known library. Following him was a man with whom you should be intimately familiar.”

“Who?” Gerrich says. His hands are shaking. “Tell me his name, Walch.”

“It was him,” says Walch. “It was Gabriel.”

Gerrich screams an expletive at the top of his lungs and knocks over his pedestal in a rage. Two guard bandits immediately rush into the room at the sound of the clatter. Walch stands by calmly, watching Gerrich with something close to amusement.

“You there!” Gerrich yells, pointing at one of the guards. “Get a team together and find Gabriel and the Hero! I want them dead in three days or I’ll have your heads on my wall!”

“Sir?” the guard asks, frightened. “Who are we looking for?”

“I didn’t stutter!” Gerrich roars. “Now get moving before heads start rolling!”

The two guards depart in a terrified hurry. Gerrich pulls a knife from a fold in his clothes and slings it wildly. It buries itself handle-deep in the stone wall.

Walch chuckles. “I haven’t seen you this mad in years.”

“Shut up!” Gerrich shouts, pulling another knife from his clothes. He throws a second, then a third knife at the wall. Each sinks into the stone as if it were made of hot butter.

“Come now,” says Walch. “Gabriel was not the cause of your misfortune.”

“He was there!” Gerrich yells, throwing a fourth knife at the wall. “I watched him smile as they turned me away! He knew they had no right to refuse my desire to learn, and he let them do it anyways.” He turns on Walch. “He knew. She knew. They all knew. Now they have to pay the price.”

“This is hardly becoming of a leader,” Walch says.

“She promised me,” Gerrich says, yanking the knives free from the wall. He presses his hands against the cold stone. “She told me to never quit, to face the storm when the rains began to fall. I wasted years of my life, Walch! I wasted it on nothing but a pipe dream! No one deserves the gift of the libraries if they’re going to hoard the knowledge for themselves. There are people out there who want to know its secrets.” He looks up, fire blazing in his eyes. “And if they don’t want anyone have it, I’ll make sure they can’t have it either. I’ll burn and pillage and destroy every library in this realm if it takes me twenty lifetimes to do it.”

Walch is silent for a moment. “To think that such distaste for books,” he says, “would come from a man so obsessed with the information they contain.”

“Consider it a horrific irony,” Gerrich says. “An irony that comes back to haunt itself, an ancient tune echoing off the hollow walls of a grand stage. And me? I’m dancing on invisible strings to the music of that irony. I’m a puppet being controlled by a masterful puppeteer, dancing like a fool to his whims.”

Gerrich sighs, hanging his head. Walch waits a minute before speaking.

“What do you want to do now?”

“I want them dead in three days,” Gerrich says. “If they’re not dead in three days, then we scout them, we track their movements, and we go from there.”

“Continue on our normal schedule of raids?”

“We never stop raiding,” Gerrich says. “Not until every last book is gone forever.”

“It will be done.”

Walch bows and walks away from the bandit leader. He pauses at the doors and throws a look over his shoulder. Gerrich is pacing around the room, the pedestal busted into four pieces and scattered across the floor. Walch decides it would be best to not pry into the bandit’s thoughts. The treasurer takes his leave through the main door and shuts Gerrich inside his hall.

“Quite the display there!” a man exclaims. He materializes from behind the door, slipping into the light and out from a cloak of shadows.

“You again,” Gerrich says. “What are you doing here?”

The man walks across the room. He wears a blue cloak with matching hood, his brown hair haphazardly strewn about his head. “What do you mean?” he says with a grin. “I have to have an excuse to visit an old friend?”

“We’re not old friends. I don’t even know your name. How’d you get in here this time?”

“Oh, I have my own ways in and out of just about anywhere.” He stops in front of the broken pedestal and sighs, disappointed. “Now that’s just a crying shame. I really liked this pedestal. It was carved by a truly talented woman back in the Golden Age.”

“Like you would know.” Gerrich stands in front of him. “Now what are you doing here?”

“I was just in the neighborhood and I thought I’d drop off a piece of good information for you.” The man digs into his cloak and hands Gerrich a folded piece of paper. “Take a look. I think you’ll find it to your liking.”

Gerrich opens the piece of paper and jumps in astonishment. It’s an impossibly realistic drawing of two men walking on a mountain path. One man is unfamiliar to Gerrich, but the other is familiar enough to nearly cause a fit of rage.

“I thought you’d take it well,” the man says proudly.

“Gabriel,” Gerrich hisses. He points to the other man. “And this is the Hero?”

“Stanley Lockwood,” the man says.

“I imagined him bigger. More intimidating. How did you draw their faces in such detail?”

“Call it one of my little secrets,” the man replies with a smirk. “Now you have the names and the faces of your targets. You can thank me later.”

Gerrich looks the man squarely in his magenta eyes. “More than once you’ve led me astray with tales of ‘new Heroes’ and of libraries that don’t exist. Why should I trust that you’re telling me the truth?”

“My information comes from a very reliable source,” the man says. “I’d take my word for it. Besides, if you didn’t trust me, wouldn’t you have thrown the picture away by now?”

Gerrich looks at the picture in his hands. It is too detailed to be a fake, but it looks too detailed to be real, either. When he looks up, the man is gone without a trace. Gerrich is alone in his chamber.

“Happy hunting!” says a voice that comes from everywhere.

“Yikes. That doesn’t look good.”

The grey clouds grumble with thunder, drifting ever closer to the mountainside. A sheet of darkness falls from the bottom of the clouds, approaching fast.

“I agree,” Stanley says. “We should find shelter.”

A large bolt of lightning flashes in the center of the storm, its return bolt striking the side of a mountain. Rocks explode from the impact, tumbling down into the valley below. Gabriel flashes Stanley a worried look.

Stanley bolts down the mountain path without a word of warning. Gabriel sprints after him, dashing as fast as his legs will allow. A second flash of lightning and a crash of thunder splits the air, shaking the ground beneath their feet.

“We need to find a cave!” Gabriel yells, the wind picking up speed.

“We are better off finding something to grab on to!” Stanley yells back. He screeches to a halt near a small crevice sheltered by rocks. This will have to do.

Stanley grabs Gabriel by the arm and shoves his companion into the crevice, wedging him between two small boulders. Stanley then presses himself against the side of the mountain and waits.

The storm hits with the force of an out-of-control train.

Stanley clutches to his rock as rain and wind whips across his face with animalistic fury. In moments he is soaked to the bone as the storm rages across the mountainside. Wind becomes one with rain as thunder booms and lightning flashes. In-between moments of sheer panic, Stanley is brave enough to open his eyes and look at the storm. Everything is dark until lightning lights up the valley, and even then the world is too wild to comprehend. Stanley realizes he has lost his glasses.

A sound like a train whistle pierces the air. In-between lightning strikes, Stanley can see tall forms dash between the mountains. A thunderous roar booms across the valley, ringing loudly in Stanley’s ears, and the ground shifts dangerously under his feet.

When lightning strikes again, Stanley spots something at the edge of the mountainside.

“Get out here, Stanley!” someone shouts over the din.

“Gabriel?” Stanley peels himself off of the mountainside and checks the crevice. His companion is nowhere to be found.

“I said get out here!” the man shouts again. Stanley struggles to stand against the gust of the storm. He makes his way across the path to the edge of the mountain where the man stands. The man grabs Stanley by the shoulders and squares him against the rain. Another bolt of lightning reveals Gabriel’s face.

“What do you value most in life?” Gabriel yells.

“What kind of question is that?” Stanley demands. “Get back against the mountain! We have to ride out this storm!”

“I value the little things!” Gabriel yells. “I value things like green grass and good food and sunshine! What do you value?”

“What does it matter?” Stanley shouts. “Stop being a fool!”

Gabriel takes his hands away and steps toward the edge of the mountain. Below him is nothing but a sheer drop into oblivion.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m teaching you a lesson!” says Gabriel. “In this world we all have choices to make, and now I’m about to make a big choice—to trust you! Whether you help me or not, I’m not about to die! Not here, not now.” He extends his arms as lightning once again lights up the valley. “I’ll ask you again! What is it you value most in life, Stanley?”

“I do not know!” Stanley shouts. “I cannot tell you what I value! I do not have the time!”

“Then make the time!” Gabriel laughs. With that, he jumps backwards and plummets off the edge of the mountain.

“No!”

Everything freezes.

Rain stops pouring. Thunder stops rumbling. Wind stops blowing. Everything is frozen—everything except for Stanley himself.

He looks around in confusion. The droplets of rain are frozen in midair. Curious, Stanley pushes his finger against one and the droplet shifts against his hand. He tosses the droplet upwards and watches as it flies up into the sky.

Stanley picks up a stone, holds it above the gorge, and lets it go. It remains frozen in the air. He pushes it and watches as the stone travels smoothly over the gorge, rapidly disappearing from sight. He peers over the edge of the mountain. Gabriel is frozen in time ten feet down, eyes closed reverently. Gathering his courage, Stanley looks over the valley and takes two steps into the air.

He floats in mid-air, the valley below opening up to meet him like the mouth of a monster. Stanley descends to Gabriel’s body as if taking steps down a staircase. Hoping for the same effect as the raindrop and the stone, Stanley touches Gabriel on the arm. The man shifts, seeming to come awake.

“How about that,” Gabriel says with a relieved grin. “You actually did it.”

“You are out of your mind,” Stanley snaps. “What would have happened if I did not manage to freeze time?”

Gabriel looks over his shoulder into the darkness below. “It would have been one crazy fall, that’s for sure. I suppose I can thank you for that much.”

“Shall we return to stable ground and find a cave to rest ourselves in?”

“Absolutely.”

Stanley takes his companion by the arm and walks back up to the mountainside as if ascending a staircase. Gabriel seems to be totally unaffected by the fact that he just threw himself off a cliff.

“Have you done something like this before?” Stanley asks.

“Once or twice,” Gabriel chuckles. “I had quite an exciting life before I met you.” He tightens the restraints on his backpack. “You lost your glasses. We should get you some replacements.”

“Somehow I doubt the office of an optometrist is right around the corner.”

“Hey, this is Deion’s Peaks. You never know what you’ll find.” Gabriel starts up the path in search of a cave for shelter. Stanley jogs to catch up with his companion.

“Regardless,” he says, “I do not think I will be seeing those again.”

“They’ll turn up somewhere,” Gabriel says. “Things in the Peaks have a way of coming back to you if you lose them.”

“Have you been through here much?”

“Oh yes, I’ve ventured through the Peaks multiple times. In fact, I’ve been all over Renea. But those days are behind me. Right now my job is to get you to Deion and to Pinnacle Monastery.”

“You never specified why you are choosing to help me,” Stanley says. “On top of that, your tendency to give vague answers is a little more than bothersome.”

“Oh look, a cave!”

“Are you even listening to me?”

Gabriel ducks inside a cave barely taller than the top of his head. Stanley waits outside until Gabriel calls that the coast is clear. When he enters, he can see a few details of the cave through the faint light of the storm. A few rocks are strewn about in the corners.

“Hey, you can cut it off at any time,” Gabriel says, setting his backpack down on the floor.

“Cut off what?”

“You’ve still got time frozen. Turn it back on, let the storm blow over.” Gabriel ruffles his hair, shaking the storm water out of it. “It’s just like turning off an oil lamp.”

Stanley turns to the cave opening and tries to imagine an oil lamp dimming in his mind. The storm immediately kicks up in a fury. Stanley turns back around and is met by a very blurry pile of wood sitting in the middle of the floor. Gabriel is moving a few rocks in position around the wood.

“Wood?” Stanley says. “You packed wood?”

“How else are we supposed to make a fire?” Gabriel asks. “Parade around and dance the hula?”

“You packed some wood,” Stanley says. “You actually packed wood to make a fire. Your foresight is quite impressive.” He places his backpack on the floor and watches Gabriel.

“What are you looking at me for?” Gabriel says, standing over a rock. “Get to work. The fire isn’t going to light itself.”

“You are not going to light the fire?”

“I can’t.”

“Why? Did you not bring flint?”

“It’s not that, I just…” Gabriel looks away. “I just can’t make fire.”

“Why not?”

“That’s none of your business!” Gabriel yells with surprising anger. Then, catching himself, he turns away. “I just can’t do it. Use your sword and a rock or something. Make some sparks. You’ll figure it out.”

“We are lucky this cave slopes downwards,” Stanley says, watching Gabriel carefully. “If it did not, we would drown in smoke.” Stanley holds his sheathed sword in his hands. “I am surprised I did not lose this in the storm; I forgot that I even had it. Perhaps it means something.”

“It means you need to hurry up and get the fire going,” Gabriel says, facing away from Stanley. “I’m freezing in these wet clothes.”

It takes Stanley a few minutes to find the right angle to make a spark. It takes a few more minutes for Stanley to make the wood catch fire, and a few more minutes on top of that to keep the fire going. Once the fire is going, Stanley sheathes his sword and places it next to his rock. Gabriel quickly sheds his shirt and pants and lays them by the fire to dry. He lounges in a loose pair of undershorts, staring at the flames.

An odd blue tattoo on Gabriel’s stomach catches Stanley’s eye. The tattoo spirals and corners in odd places, as if drawn haphazardly and without regards for symmetry. It covers the entirety of his abdomen, from the left side to the right. The lines almost seem to sparkle, as if the tattoo is freshly drawn.

“Curious tattoo,” Stanley remarks as he removes his clothes. “I have never known someone to get tattoos on their stomach.”

“It’s a new fashion trend,” Gabriel says absently.

“Is it really?”

Gabriel grunts in reply. Stanley sighs and doesn’t press further. He lays his clothes by the fire and sits against a rock, drying himself in the heat. The flickering flames and warmth fill Stanley with drowsiness even though it’s barely past midday in the Peaks. He looks over at Gabriel again, finding the man half-asleep against his rock, eyes closed and body slumped. Stanley decides to let him get some rest.

His eyes fall on his sword. Images of a great battle against a sinister foe flashes through Stanley’s head. He imagines pulling out his sword in triumph, ready to combat the enemy. Practicality kicks in, though, and he’s quickly bested and killed for not knowing how to use his own weapon. Stanley stands and takes his sword in his right hand, stepping away from the fire. He discards the scabbard somewhere close by.

Stanley inspects the blade. The striking of the rock has left no scratches on the metal surface. It’s clear enough for Stanley to see the details of the fire flickering in the background.

Trying to recall everything he’s seen from all the samurai movies he’s watched, Stanley drops into a stance and balances his sword. He moves slowly through motions that lead nowhere, trying to imitate the samurai sword movements that flow like water. Laughing heartily and believing he’s the best swordsman in the world, Stanley swings wildly and nearly throws his blade across the room. He frowns, resets into a neutral position, and tries again.

After many more minutes of pointless dancing with the blade, Stanley sticks the tip into the ground and stares into the rain. He sighs. “I am going to get nowhere at this rate.”

“You’ve got that right,” says a voice from behind him.

Stanley turns around to see a strange man sitting on a rock, his hands facing the fire. Wearing a soaked blue cloak and trousers, the man looks like a peddler from the mountains. Gabriel is still fast asleep against his rock.

“How did you get in here?” Stanley asks. Then, remembering his manners, he adds, “Is this your cave? If it is, we do not mean to intrude.”

“Nah, not my cave.” The man rubs his hands together. “I got in here through my usual method of getting places: I just kind of show up, usually uninvited, whenever I please.”

Stanley approaches the fire and sits down next to the stranger. Suddenly self-conscious, Stanley remembers that he’s not exactly dressed to entertain company. “Forgive the attire. My companion and I just got in from the storm.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the man says. “We’ll all get caught in the rain sometimes, some of us more often than others.” He holds out his hand. “May I see the sword?”

Stanley, though he barely knows the man and his intentions, hands the blade over to him handle-first. The man glances it over before his eyes widen in astonishment.

“First-rate craftsmanship?” he says, running a finger along the metal. “A flawless surface? Gorgeous pommel and a well-worn handle? Where did you get this?”

“A late friend gave it to me,” Stanley says.

“Oh, Espetra must have given this to you. You must have been pretty special if she gave this to you; she’s had this old thing since before we met.” He hands the sword back to Stanley. “It’s a very nice blade, but honestly, I don’t think a sword is your kind of weapon.” He shakes his head. “Nah, your tune ain’t going to play with that band. You should have something that fits the persona of a learned man.”

“Is that so?” Stanley says. “Explain.”

“Happily,” he replies. “I want you to take a look at this as an alternative.”

The man produces a tall wooden staff from out of nowhere and presents it. Stanley gently lays down his sword and inspects the staff. It’s made of dark wood and it has a small grey stone at the top held in place by twisting branches.

“Curious specimen,” Stanley says, putting his mind to work. He bends the staff a little bit. “Rowan wood, by the feel of it.”

“Good eyes!” says the stranger. “Rowan wood it is indeed. A walking stick is better for moving through the mountains anyways. A sword belongs in the city.”

“You make a fair point.”

“The trade is open, then.” The man pauses. “I want that blade in return.”

“It is not for trade,” Stanley says firmly. “It was given to me by Espetra and I cannot give it away on a whim.”

“It’s hardly a whim. You’d be trading me the sword for the staff, nothing more.” He smiles deviously. “The sword wasn’t even hers, you know.”

“No?” Stanley says, immediately skeptical. “Who did it belong to?”

The man nods to the sleeping form of Gabriel. Stanley rolls his eyes.

“It wasn’t a joke!” the man insists. “Alright, so perhaps I was a bit misleading. The sword is the property of Gabriel, but only indirectly. It belonged to one of his closest friends.”

“Let me guess—a long time ago?”

“Bingo. It was once property of an immensely powerful red mage.”

“How did they become separated?”

The man tosses his hands in the air. “What, you think I know everything? Look, all I know is I really need that sword. If Gabriel catches you with it, there will be major consequences.”

“Such as?”

The man grimaces. “I’d rather not disclose the grisly specifics.”

“Let us assume that I believe what you say.” Stanley lifts the sword. “Gabriel would have known this sword from the moment he set eyes on it. How do you explain his inability to recognize it?”

“How would you disguise a sword easily recognizable?” the man says. “If it were me, I would change something that no good sword should ever be without.”

Stanley’s eyes gravitate to the sheath lying on the floor.

“I see.” He pauses to collect his thoughts. “Do you know if Espetra stole this sword?”

“It doesn’t matter how she got it. That sword is far too valuable for you to be swinging it around, especially with Gabriel nearby. He would kill you if he knew you had it.” The man sits at Stanley’s side. “Let me take it off your hands. I can assure you it will be protected beyond your wildest dreams. You’ll be out of harm’s way, you’ll have a new staff, and Gabriel is none the wiser.”

“If it is as valuable as you say it is, then I cannot give the sword to you outright. The trade would be far too unequal.” Stanley turns to the man. “Offer me something else of equal worth and the sword is yours.”

“Damn it,” the man mutters. “I’d need Pinnacle Monastery’s treasure hoard to equal Ghaldin’s worth.”

“Ghaldin? Is that the name of the sword?”

“Shh! That name is outrageously loud to Gabriel’s ears. Don’t ever say that word in front of him.”

“Because he will kill me?”

The man nods slowly, gravely.

“If I give you the sword,” Stanley says, “assuming that it is as legendary as you say it is, and that Gabriel is beyond desperate to find it, where will you take it?”

“Where do you take something so that it can only be found by the worthy?” The man grins. “Pinnacle Monastery. If you can make it there, you’d have earned the sword and the staff, and Gabriel will have no right to claim ownership of either.”

Stanley thinks for a minute, then nods. “Very well. The staff for the sword.”

The man grins happily. He scoops up Stanley’s sword, places it in its sheath, and ties it around his waist. “You won’t regret this. I promise you did the right thing today.”

“Yes,” Stanley says. “One can only hope.”

“Hope is all you need!” the man says. “Cheerio!” With that, the man dashes to the front of the cave and vanishes into the rain.

Stanley’s eyes fall on the staff in his lap, in particular on the grey stone. It’s perfectly smooth, lacking marks of any kind. An otherworldly light seems to glow from inside. Fascinated, Stanley presses his finger on the stone. The light swells to the size of a small marble and fills the room with beam of gentle grey light; it points to the wall behind Stanley.

He moves the staff in all kinds of positions, raising it and lowering it and moving it from side to side. The line remains locked against the rock wall. Stanley touches the stone again and the light shuts off.

“Curious,” Stanley mutters. “I have so much to learn.”

Gabriel shifts a little as he wakes up from his rest. Bleary eyed, he stretches and yawns, attempting to make himself look like he hadn’t been sleeping at all.

“Someone is up early,” Stanley says. “Hello, Sleepy Head.”

“Oh hush,” Gabriel says. “I had a long night last night. It wasn’t easy tracking you down in the pitch darkness of the Peaks.” He notices the staff in Stanley’s hand and raises an eyebrow in suspicion. “Where’d you get that?”

“I picked it up from a peddler,” Stanley says. “He came to the cave to rest and we struck up a conversation. I ended up trading away that old sword for something more… my style.” He hefts the staff in his hand. “I rather like it, to be honest.”

“It suits you.” Gabriel looks outside. “When do you think this rain is going to stop?”

“Soon, I hope. I have a quest to complete.”

“That’s the spirit. One step at a time, right?”

“One step at a time,” Stanley agrees, the grey stone of his staff glowing faintly.

[] Chapter Thirteen

Peering Through Time

Inside Tetrask’s Temple on the Moon

“So I’ve still got half a pie to bake, my shoe’s soaked in bleach, the guy on the phone is still asking me for a credit card, and my mom is about to open the door!”

“Wow,” Nysse breathes, captivated. “What happened next?”

“Well,” Luke says, “I managed to get back to the phone long enough to tell the telemarketer that I would have to call him back, but by the time I had the phone hung up, my mom was already in the kitchen. At that point, well, let’s just say that I wish I had nine lives.” He laughs. “She was not pleased.”

“Did you get the boot?”

“I sure did! Once dad came home I got the other one, too. Left and right boots, matching boot prints on the seat of my pants.” Luke smiles fondly. “I suppose I deserved it, though. I should have paid more attention to the time. Maybe then their anniversary party would have been more memorable.”

“If that isn’t memorable, I don’t know what is.”

“I guess in a way it was. I think they eventually forgave me for wrecking the house. But hey!” Luke tosses his hands in the air. “Who knew making pumpkin pie could be so difficult, right?”

Luke, says Tetrask’s voice. Where are you?

“Hanging out in the foyer,” Luke replies. “I’m telling Nysse about my parent’s anniversary.”

Come to the courtyard in five minutes. It’s time to get some more training done.

Nysse scowls, folding her arms. “You’re always doing training.”

“Hey, Heroes don’t get strong by sitting around all day.” Luke stands. “To be a Hero, you’ve got to put in the hard work that your title demands.” He flexes his arms. “I’ve been beefing up a little bit, not gonna lie. Check it out. I think I’m the next Mr. Universe.”

“Oh yeah,” Nysse says flatly. “You and your two inch biceps are well on your way to super stardom.”

Luke grins. “Hey, Mr. Universe started somewhere too.” He makes his way across the room, away from the foyer. “I’ll catch you later, Nysse.”

“Hey, did you ever try that again? The second shot at the anniversary surprise, I mean.” Nysse gestures vaguely. “You know, to make up for the one you botched?”

“I never did, no,” he says. “But that’s alright. Once is enough.” Luke smiles again, waves goodbye, and leaves the foyer.

Luke will be training for a good three hours at the least—too much time to spend sitting in one spot. Nysse stands and departs down a different corridor, as there is a lot of the Temple she’s yet to see. She walks with the intent of making a complete circle around the Temple. Her footsteps echo off the cavernous walls.

Nysse.

The voice is unfamiliar. She pauses and looks behind her, but the hallway is empty. Shrugging, Nysse continues forwards, figuring that it was probably just a voice from her own head. The cavernous halls have a tendency to play tricks on the mind.

Nysse. The voice is louder this time.

She turns, but once again, the hallway behind her is empty. A tingle crawls up her spine and she shivers. Nysse continues on her way; she thinks of Renea to tune out her unease. She passes by a window that offers a view of her planet from the moon. All six realms and a very small portion of Monarch can be seen. Sundown should be in a few minutes.

Nysse.

She looks over her shoulder and freezes. Part of the wall has caved in, exposing a darkened corridor. Nysse takes a step forward, but a force slams into her chest and knocks her ground. She scrambles backwards and presses herself against the far wall.

After several moments of silence, Nysse slowly gets to her feet. Nothing overtly sinister emulates from the darkness, but looking at it is intensely unnerving. She closes her eyes, intent on making the strange hallway disappear.

“Nysse?”

She yelps in surprise. Tetrask’s celestial body looms before her, his head lost in the darkness high in the rafters. The god shrinks down to human size and stands before her, his brown eyes bright and powerful. Nysse’s palpitating heart calms in the presence of her patron god.

“You scared the life out of me,” Nysse says, touching her chest. “What’s the matter with you, calling me when I’m walking alone?”

“But I didn’t call you at all,” Tetrask says.

“Then what did I hear?”

“Probably just your own imagination,” he says. “Even I hear things in the Temple when I’m not paying attention to anything but my own two feet. What did it sound like?”

“Barely a whisper.” She points over his shoulder. “It happened there, by the hallway.”

“What hallway? You’re pointing at a solid wall.”

“There was a hallway there just a few seconds ago!”

“I’m sure there was.” Tetrask turns to go. “I’m returning to Luke; just thought I’d check up on you.”

“Can I go watch Luke train?” Nysse asks suddenly. “I’ve never gotten the chance to see him working with you.”

“No, it’s too dangerous; he’s working with light right now. If you don’t wear something protective you could go blind.”

Nysse visibly droops.

“But the next time you come back to the Temple,” he says, “I’ll have something for you to wear to protect your eyes. Then you may watch.”

She brightens. “I like the sound of that. I should be going home soon anyways. I have to keep an eye on your shrine.”

“You aren’t staying for the evening meal with Luke?”

“We’re on the moon. There’s no evening or morning here.”

“Good point,” the god chuckles. “Very well, I’ll tell Luke you’re heading home. He’s going to be sorely upset. I hear he planned something wonderful for tonight.”

“He what?” Nysse says, suddenly curious. “He planned something? What did he plan?”

“Oh, there I go again!” The god tosses his hands in the air. “I can’t keep anything a secret.”

“What is it? Tell me!”

“No no, I can’t do that!” Tetrask pulls away from Nysse. “You’ve already decided to head home soon, so I might as well tell Luke that you’re going to miss your own birthday dinner.”

“It’s my birthday?” Nysse says, shocked. She figured that time flies when one’s having fun, but to forget her own birthday? “Well, I mean, I couldn’t possibly miss—”

“Great!” Tetrask says brightly. “We’ll see you tonight, then. Wear something nice. I hear a fellow with divine taste will be helping Luke pick out his clothes.” With that, he disappears, leaving Nysse alone. She crosses her arms and stalks down the hallway, still in disbelief.

“I can’t believe I forgot my own birthday,” Nysse mutters. “They even took the time to plan all this without me knowing! Well I’ll show them. I’ll show up to that dinner and I’ll look so good it’ll knock them for fifty-seven loops.” She snickers, the sound echoing through the spacious corridor. “How in Magnus’s bones did I manage to forget my own birthday, anyways?”

Nysse puts a hand on her chin as she walks, thinking to herself. So Luke’s planning some special dinner, huh? I wasn’t aware that he even knew my birthday. Outwitted again, I guess. She chuckles. Well, two can play at that game. Time to put on my best outfit. After all, it’s my birthday. I should be prepared to impress.

“Hey Tetrask,” Luke asks, sweat dripping off his forehead, “is something special happening tonight?”

“Why would you ask that?” Tetrask replies, standing underneath the courtyard enclosure. The courtyard has no roof, peering upwards at an endless sea of stars.

Luke shrugs. “You asked me for my suit size, so I was just wondering.”

“We’ll talk about it later. It’s training time, not talking time.” Tetrask straightens his back. “Alright Luke, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Luke salutes. His body then turns into a reflection of the night sky, stars glinting on his chest and face. He slowly floats around the courtyard, weaving in and out through various stone obstacles—a narrow tube, a fence, and even a slalom course. When he reaches the end, Luke’s body immediately reforms into flesh and blood.

“Well done,” says Tetrask. “Continue.”

Luke walks to the center of the courtyard. He stretches out his arms and a low hum buzzes in the air. Gravity increases fifty-fold and the obstacles crash to the ground—the tube disintegrates, the fence crumples like a tin can, and the poles bury themselves in the ground.

The hum tapers off. Luke lowers his arms.

“Excellent,” Tetrask says. “Are you ready to try the next one?”

“I…” Luke nods. “I think so, yes.” He takes a moment to breathe and ground himself.

Luke slowly inhales and makes flowing, controlled motions with his arms. Tetrask watches as his protégé shifts his weight from leg to leg. Luke’s feet move slowly on the Moon’s surface, drawing a small circle in the dirt.

All at once, a blazing light pierces the courtyard.

Luke whips his arms around quickly, containing the intense release of energy. The controlled, fluid movements condense the bright, unruly light into a small ball of energy. Then, when the light can no longer be compressed, Luke thrusts his hands upward. A pillar of light explodes into the sky and jets into the darkness of space, blasting dust and debris out in every direction.

Luke sinks to the ground and falls on his back. A wide smile is on his face, chest heaving in the aftermath of his efforts.

“How about that,” he wheezes, grinning. “I actually did it.”

“Not quite perfect,” Tetrask says, seating himself next to Luke, “but you had good form. If you keep training, soon you’ll be able to do it without warming up.”

“Honestly,” Luke begins, “I’m pretty done with all this training stuff. I want to get out there and fight monsters and have an adventure.” He looks at his patron god. “When’s that going to happen?”

“When you’re ready to face the challenge. You didn’t think all this training was for naught, did you? Renea’s just the stepping stone to the big leagues.”

“The big leagues?” Luke pauses. “You mean like… the universe? The whole universe?”

Tetrask nods.

“But when do I get the chance? When can I go out there?”

“When your training is finished. There are creatures out there with power beyond compare, and they will make short work of you if you’re unprepared.” Tetrask places a hand on Luke’s shoulder. “The more you train, the more prepared you’ll be when it’s time to leave this place.”

“Did you ever leave this place?”

“Once I came here? No, but before I settled down for good, my team and I traveled the stars.”

Luke sits up. “What’s it like out there?”

Tetrask smiles, fond memories drifting through his mind. “It’s amazing,” he says. “There’s always something new to find, someone new to meet, new places to explore. What I discovered during those days I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

Luke turns to the stars. The endless possibilities of the future twinkles overhead.

“Anyways,” Tetrask says, waving his hand dismissively, “we can talk later. You need to get cleaned up. Tonight is important and I don’t want you all smelling up my courtyard.”

“Why?” Luke asks, his legs wobbling as Tetrask pulls him to his feet. “What’s tonight?”

“Nothing special.” Tetrask helps his protégé into the Temple. “Since it’s Nysse’s birthday, I thought it prudent to set up a date for you and her. I have some excellent meal selections already picked out for tonight. I hope you don’t mind.”

“A date!” Luke exclaims. “I can’t go on a date with Nysse! She’s my friend, not my girlfriend!”

“Then don’t consider it a date,” says Tetrask. “Consider it a birthday party surprise dinner under the stars.”

“You better not be sowing seeds of romance. Something like this is only a formality, you hear?”

“Of course. Now go get the bath started. You can’t be looking like that for your date tonight.”

“I do not have a date tonight!”

“I can’t believe Luke set me up for a date tonight,” Nysse says as she walks down the hallway with Tetrask. “This is so exciting!”

“I’d hardly call it a date,” the god muses. “You’re going to a birthday dinner that Luke set up for you. A formality at best, in my opinion.”

Nysse fidgets with her hair. “How do I look?”

“With your eyes, I should hope.”

Nysse elbows Tetrask in the ribs.

“Thou art as fine as the loveliest of wines,” the god lauds, extending his hands as if acting in a play. “Thine beauty doth paint the heavens with shades of red and bl—”

Nysse elbows Tetrask in the ribs again, harder. He laughs at her petulant frown.

“Be honest, do you think this is over-doing it?” Nysse gestures to her clothes. “I really do like this dress. But do you think I should have just gone for one of my plainer robes and pulled my hair up? What if he shows up in a wrinkled shirt and work pants? I’d be way overdressed. Damn it, I look like an idiot!” She pulls the god to a halt. “We have to go back. I need to change.”

“What are you so nervous about?” Tetrask asks. “Luke is just a regular guy. You’ll go to your dinner and party, share some stirring conversation, and then part ways for the evening.” He snorts. “It’s like you think this is a romantic dinner by the sunset.”

“I just haven’t done this in a long time,” Nysse says. “My experiences with men have been notably… Limited.” She shifts uneasily. “Look, am I overdoing it or not?”

Tetrask glances at Nysse’s dress. It’s a vibrant shade of red with lace at the neck and ankles. A black shawl lays around her shoulders and a loose black sash is wrapped around her waist. Her long, brown hair falls gently to the tips of her shoulder blades.

“You’re not overdoing it at all,” Tetrask finally says. “It looks proper enough for a birthday dinner. You’re only missing one thing.”

Tetrask reaches into his robes and pulls out a sparkling blue-white brooch. Nysse gasps; it’s almost too beautiful to look at. Moreover, white gemstones are the rarest and most expensive gemstones on all Renea. Tetrask must have been hard-pressed to find one so pure.

“You’ve been working very hard,” he says. “You deserve something nice as a reward.”

“I…” She shakes her head. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t need to say anything.” Tetrask pins the brooch in her hair. “It makes you look extremely beautiful—even more than usual.”

“Thank you,” she says softly.

“Don’t thank me yet. The night is still young.” Tetrask offers his arm, which Nysse takes. He leads her through the Temple and into the courtyard.

Red and blue gemstone torches glow around the overhang of the courtyard. The light is dim, a single table set up in the center of the perfectly clean training grounds. Two candles and two glasses are set in the middle of the table along with two chairs.

“Where’s your chair?” Nysse asks. “Aren’t you eating with us?”

“No. Tonight, I am only a waiter. I felt it was better to let you and Luke talk alone. You so rarely get the chance to have a conversation with someone who isn’t a god.” Tetrask nods toward the courtyard overhang. “And he’s just in time.”

Luke steps out from behind a pillar. He wears a dark blue robe with black trimming, a gold sash around his waist. His hair is still a little wet and a wide smile is on his face. Nysse lets go of Tetrask’s arm as Luke slowly approaches the table. He clears his throat after seeing his friend in better detail.

“You look nice tonight.”

“So do you,” says Nysse.

Luke pulls out Nysse’s chair for her and then sits in his own chair. From behind his back, he places a small glass vase in the center of the table; it contains a white flower shaped like a bell, the petals tipped with gold. Tetrask leans in and lightly taps it on the head. It emits a ringing sound like a sleigh bell.

“Wise choice,” Tetrask says. “You picked an excellent one from the garden.”

“I spent a lot of time looking for something good,” Luke says. “There was only one bush that bloomed with this flower and this was the last one on it. But I had no clue it could do that!”

“Shall we start the evening?” Tetrask says, clapping his hands together. “With what may I start you off to drink?”

“I’ll take a glass of Red,” Nysse says. “Lean it slightly towards the Purple end, please. I want something with a darker flavor this evening.”

“And you, sir?”

“Sir?” Luke squeaks. He clears his throat, purposefully deepening his voice. “Well, I think I’ll just follow suit with the lady’s choice for the evening.”

“Very well,” Tetrask says. “I’ll give you two a few minutes alone while.” The god exits, leaving Nysse and Luke alone at a candlelit table under a field of stars.

“So…” Nysse looks around. “Nice night for a birthday dinner, huh?”

“It is a nice night,” Luke agrees. “Uh, happy birthday I guess.”

“Thank you.”

An awkward silence pervades the conversation. Luke clears his throat.

“How did training go today?” Nysse tries.

“It was pretty amazing,” says Luke, suddenly energized. “Do you know how tired you can get from trying to shoot jets of superheated gas into space for hours at a time?”

“No, but I imagine it’s quite the ordeal.”

“Imagine running a marathon, grabbing a granola bar to eat, biking twenty miles, and then running another marathon. It felt like that.” Luke sighs, leaning on his hand. “Now that I have time to really think, I realize that my powers aren’t something to shake a stick at. I could do some serious damage if I’m not careful.”

“It’s good to know you’re a Hero and not some politician in Monarch,” Nysse says. “I’d rather have a friend who has extremely dangerous powers than a friend who only lazes around and makes pointless laws, even though the latter is far safer.”

“I would never get voted for,” Luke says. “If I was a politician, I’d be the worst one alive.”

Nysse leans in. “Why would that be? I think you’d be popular enough.”

“I’m too honest for such a dirty business. I’d always tell it like it is. You want my plan for taxes? You got it. What do I think about the minimum wage? I’ll tell you right now. Who do I think is a lying, cheating do-nothing? I have an alphabetical and chronological list.”

“I don’t think you’d be the only one,” Nysse says. “There are a lot of people who want to muscle their way into politics. It’s a delicate art, though. You can’t just go around yelling your opinion at everybody. They won’t listen. Sometimes you have to imply one thing while meaning another.”

Tetrask then appears next to their table, a serving tray in his right hand.

“Two glasses of Red leaning to Purple,” he says. “A drink I like to call Amaranthine.” He places two tall goblets on the tablet, one in front of Nysse and one in front of Luke. “For the lady, a plate of exotic Renean red bell peppers and spices, with chicken and a rare coldsnap leaf.” The god sets the steaming plate down in front of Nysse. “For the man, a plate of real leviathan meat, sautéed in Green and completed with choice vegetables.” The god sets the steaming plate down in front of Luke.

Luke peers at the plate before him. “Red alcohol with fish, eh? Sure that’s a good choice?”

“Absolutely,” Tetrask replies. “Leviathan meat is considerably denser than other fish meats. Eat slowly and chew well, or you’ll regret it later.”

Luke pokes at his food. “What the heck is a leviathan anyways?”

“It’s a massive monster,” Nysse says. “Imagine a huge lobster with claws big enough to crush a galleon. Voracious appetite, nasty attitude, lives in the crushing depths on the bottom of the sea.”

“It looks good.” Luke picks up his fork, lightly jabbing into it. “Is it good? Have you had it?”

“I’ll let you decide for yourself,” Tetrask says. “After all, this is your meal.” With that, he once again exits from the courtyard. Luke saws a small piece of the leviathan off and chews it, savoring the flavor. After he swallows, he nods.

“It’s good,” Luke says. “But man, it’s really heavy.”

“Kind of like talking about politics, huh?” Nysse says, cutting off a piece of chicken. “I hope we have enough to drink so we can choke everything down.”

“Here’s to hoping!” Luke cheers. “Oh, by the way, I’m not supposed to be drinking yet. I’ll try not to over-indulge, even though this is a special occasion.” He smiles. “A very special occasion.”

“I understand,” Nysse says, smiling at Luke.

Charlie sighs, leaning over a table. “So what’s your problem, again?”

“I’m at a crossroads,” says Tetrask. “Do I push Luke and Nysse closer together, or do I actively try to separate them? Either one is liable to cause a spontaneous romance.” The god sighs, reclining on the couch. “Maintaining a strictly platonic relationship between them is important. Romance could cause the future to get a little more than messy.”

“I’m sure,” Charlie grunts as he reviews his map for the third time that night. One can never be too careful with maps. A single misread corridor can put you in the hands of a night watchman.

“Are you even listening to me?” Tetrask asks, throwing a glance at Charlie. “This is serious. The future of my apprentice hangs in the balance.”

“I’m sure it does,” Charlie mutters, tracing the map with his finger. He shakes his head. “It’s going to be really close, but I think I can do it.”

“Do what?”

“I’m doing some late-night shopping in a few hours. Unfortunately, the item I want is in a particularly hard spot to reach—as in, protected by Monarchian guards and soldiers. I have to time my arrival and exit perfectly in order to make it out unseen.”

“Burglary?” Tetrask chuckles good-naturedly. “How very characteristic of you, Charlie. Stealing from the King, lying to someone’s face… You have a positively stunning personality. I’m certain you could teach Riel a thing or two about political collusion.”

“Spare me the sarcasm,” Charlie spits. “If I don’t take this opportunity now, I’m never going to get the chance again.” He looks at Tetrask. “The King of Monarch is putting a special object on display tomorrow. From sunup to sundown you’ll be able to see one of the most priceless items ever ‘discovered’ by Monarchian hands.” He pauses. “But it doesn’t belong to him, and it certainly doesn’t belong to the people he’s showing it off to.”

“But it belongs to you?” Tetrask sounds amused.

“Not directly,” he says. “It belongs to a friend, and it’s immensely powerful. I’m sure you’ve heard of it—a little artifact called Kalisk.”

Tetrask’s eyes glimmer. “Now that brings back memories. I haven’t seen one of those artifacts in a very long time.”

“If I don’t get my hands on it before tomorrow, Kalisk will be in the King’s Vault for the next few decades.” Charlie rolls up his map. “Still a few more hours until sundown. Here’s to hoping tonight is not my last night alive.”

“Are you afraid you might get caught?”

“You know me; I can’t get caught by just anyone.” A smile appears on Charlie’s face. “It’s funny. You’d think taking back what’s rightfully mine would be a snap, but it’s actually giving me a nasty case of butterflies. Is that normal?”

“I’ve never believed in stealing,” says Tetrask, “I think it’s totally normal, considering you’re breaking the law.” He quirks his head. “How did the King get his hands on Kalisk anyways?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” Charlies says. “In short, its rightful owner lost it due to some temporal shenanigans, a few poorly timed jokes, and a stroke of bad luck.” He stuffs the map into his backpack. “I need to get moving. Tonight won’t prepare for itself.”

The door to the back room swings open. Cynard stands on the threshold.

“Land alive!” he yelps. “Dare I say that I am in the presence of a god? I am! You are Tetrask!”

“Shoot,” Charlie mutters. “I swear I locked that door.”

Cynard bows over his portly midsection, doubling over and sweeping his hand along the ground. “I bask in your presence! Truly, you are one of the most amazing beings in this universe! I daresay that the light of your eyes shines like—”

“Like stars in the night sky,” Tetrask finishes. “Yes, I know. I’ve heard it all before.”

Charlie quickly shoves past Cynard without even tossing a goodbye over his shoulder.

“What’s eating him?” the oracle asks.

“He has a lot on his mind.” Tetrask leans on his fist. “As do I, unfortunately.”

Cynard hesitates for a moment. “Would you like to talk about it?”

“I would like nothing more, but I think I will pass. I can sort it out myself.” Tetrask stands. “You’re Chaldir’s oracle, correct?”

Cynard nods.

“You’re a good man,” says the cosmic god. “Keep your eye on Charlie for me. He’s a little more than troubled.”

“Yes sir,” the oracle replies. “You have my word.”

Tetrask smiles, then vanishes in a bright flash of light.

As Luke and Nysse walk through Tetrask’s Temple, Nysse talks about why condalieons are her favorite type of flower while Luke listens intently. He has no clue what a condalieon is or why she would favor that flower over something clearly superior, like a carnation. Eventually the conversation dwindles into silence, the pair satisfied with the contentment of each other’s company.

“What a great night,” Nysse says after a few moments. “I had no idea I could talk for so long. Two hours, wasn’t it?”

“Definitely close to it,” says Luke, “especially if you include the walk through the garden. I had no clue you knew so much about flowers. I didn’t even know there was so much to know about flowers.”

“Flowers are amazing. There’s so many out there, and each flower has something that sets it apart from the rest, but I’ve never seen the one you picked for me tonight. I didn’t even know flowers could make ringing sounds.” Nysse sighs dreamily. “That was the best birthday present I’ve ever received.”

“A birthday present!” Luke snaps his fingers in disdain. “Dang, I knew I forgot something!”

“The dinner and conversation was plenty enough,” Nysse assures him. “I’ve had many birthdays and they all bring something unique to the table, though that flower was definitely a first.”

“I’ll be sure to ask Tetrask about getting you some more. It came from his garden, after all.”

“But I’ve been in his garden before, seen every nook and cranny. I’ve never seen that flower in my life, I swear on it.”

“Probably just overlooked it,” Luke says. “I would have missed it for sure if I wasn’t looking for something unique. I can’t spot a white rock in a pile of soot.”

Nysse stops in front of the door to her room. It’s in the middle of a beautiful hallway made of flat black stones. Red and purple gemstone lamps light the way in either direction. The duo stands face to face, silent. Trying to ease the tension, Nysse rubs the back of her head.

“Well, this is my room.”

“Yeah,” Luke nods. “I guess it is.”

Silence builds a wall between them.

“Well, thank you for a nice evening,” Nysse says. “I guess I’ll just see you again soon?”

“Yeah,” Luke agrees. “So, uh… Yeah. Good night.” He awkwardly extends his hand for a handshake. Shaking her head, Nysse drags Luke in by the hand and hugs him close. Luke slowly wraps his arms around the oracle. They hold still for a few moments, embracing tenderly. Nysse pulls away first, opens her door, and steps inside her room.

“Uh,” Luke says, searching for good last words, “your eyes looked nice tonight.”

“Thank you,” Nysse says. “And you look good in those robes.”

“Thanks. Uh, good night, Nysse.”

“Good night, Luke.”

She closes the door and disappears from sight, but it becomes difficult to remove her hand from the knob. Her only wish is to push the door open and see Luke standing there with his crooked grin and bright green eyes. The chance of seeing him one last time is almost a risk she’s willing to take. But she rescinds her hand, too worried about being disappointed to take such a gamble. Nysse shakes her head, and with silent dignity, prepares to get some rest.

On the other side, Luke reaches out to knock on the door, intent on fixing his last words of the night. He stops just shy of the wood, his hand frozen in place. He wonders if, given all the words in the English language, he could put together a winning combination to impress Nysse. Sighing, he takes his hand away from the door. He turns away, walking down the corridor towards his room.

Luke.

The Hero turns and glances over his shoulder, expecting to see Nysse standing in the hallway. Instead all he finds is emptiness and silence, an unknown voice calling his name in diminishing echoes through the darkness of the moon.

Charlie keeps himself low on the roof of the building. In front of him is a spire-topped structure in the middle of a town square. Its brilliant white paint reflects light in every direction, forcing Charlie to squint in order to see. Guards swarm the building by the dozens, ushering civilians and unauthorized personnel away from the site. High-strung officers shout orders and subordinates run to fulfill them.

As the six suns drop in the sky, a horse-drawn carriage surrounded by soldiers in battle armor approaches the building. The guards look tense, their eyes searching the streets for any suspicious activity. As the carriage comes to a halt, the two back doors to the building swing open. The soldiers and guards take positions around the carriage, heads on a swivel. The streets are deathly silent.

Then, a soldier emerges from the carriage carrying a rectangular object wrapped securely in a dark green cloth. He looks far too unimportant to be holding such a delicate instrument.

Anger immediately burns in Charlie’s stomach. He rolls off the side of the roof, landing softly in the alley. No more waiting, Charlie decides. Kalisk absolutely cannot stay in their hands any longer. He walks to the edge of the alley, readying for an encounter.

A hand clamps over Charlie’s mouth and drags him back into the alley.

Before Charlie can react with a strike, his aggressor lets go. Charlie spins around and cranks his fist back, but he stops when he sees a familiar grinning face. He lowers his hand in the face of familiar yet unnerving magenta eyes.

“Hey,” says the stranger. “Long time no see, old bean.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m stopping a stupid mistake. Did you honestly expect me to let you barge in there like the leader of a ragtime band?”

Charlie sighs. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t strangle you to death.”

“Because it won’t kill me and you know it. Besides, you need my help. You know how I have a lot of ears in a lot of places. Let me give you some advice.”

“The last time you ‘gave me advice,’ I ended up…” Charlie pauses, disgusted with himself. “I ended up making a big mistake. I’m never taking your advice again.”

“Then humor me,” the man says. Charlie groans and kneads the bridge of his nose, but he makes no move to stop him. “Kalisk is guarded by shifts of four soldiers facing all four cardinal directions,” he continues. “Getting in from the sides is impossible, but getting in from the top may prove fruitful.”

Frowning, Charlie glances around the corner. The carriage has already departed and the guards are forming perimeters. No one keeps watch on the top of the structure—the streets seem to be the real focus. A group of soldiers trot by in a running formation, ignoring the alleyway completely. An officer calls out a few orders, directing other guards to specific stations and areas. With security tightening up this early, it looks like getting in via ground will be extremely tough.

“Why are you helping me?” Charlie asks, turning to the man. “Every time I catch wind of your presence, you either help me or oppose me, and there’s never a reason for either. Sometimes you even help my enemies! What’s your ploy?”

“My ploy?” the man asks, confused.

“Your gambit,” Charlie says. “Why pony up so much if my friends and I are so beneath you and yours?”

“I guess it’s because we’re all part of a grand scheme,” the man says. “We’re all little puppets dancing on strings, and we’re all being toyed with by a marionette mastermind. One tug moves one string, which in turn tugs the strings of another, in turn tugging a third and fourth, moving all the way down to you and your friends. It’s really quite astonishing, and you should be humbled to be a part of it.”

“I’m not humbled at all. I’m actually pretty pissed off.”

“Well, you would be humbled if you didn’t think this was all a big cosmic joke.” The stranger knits his hands together. “So what’s my ploy, you ask? My gambit? I need you in order to succeed.”

Charlie snorts. “You can’t succeed on your own?”

“No. Unfortunately, I can’t do it on my own. No one can do it alone.” The man smiles widely and laughs. “Well, we both know Gnosis can do it on his own. That man doesn’t need anyone’s help.”

“If he can do it alone, why are you working for him?”

“Working for Gnosis?” The man scoffs in disgust. “Don’t make me laugh. We work together.”

“Even more reason for me to hate him,” Charlie growls. “In fact, I think I hate him almost as much as I hate you.”

“My, so testy! You don’t have to endure talking to him, remember? I’m the unlucky guy that has to do that, and it always ends up being an argument over diplomacy. And the man certainly knows his stuff about diplomacy, I’ll give him that.”

“Diplomacy or not, Gnosis is terrible and you should feel bad for working for him.”

“Like I said, I don’t work for him. We work together.” The stranger waves his hand dismissively. “Gnosis is more patient than I am; he won’t do anything on his own unless he has a reason. Rushing all of this serious business is going to make the whole thing fold like a house of cards. Besides, who wants to actually rush the good things in life? Heavens knows we’ve both lived long enough to know that some things are best taken for granted while they exist in the here and now.”

“I’m done talking to you.” Charlie turns away.

“I’m done here anyways. Oh, but Charlie, do take my advice into consideration. Working from the top down is usually better than working from left to right, or from right to left.”

The stranger then turns and walks toward the other end of the alley. Just before he hits the fading sunlight, he vanishes as if blinked out of reality.

Charlie looks out from the alley at the guards. They’re all still doing perimeter checks and reporting in to their superiors every fifteen seconds. The stranger was right; getting in through the street is going to lead to one messy fight.

Charlie climbs up to his original vantage point on top of the building. Lying flat on his stomach out of the guards’ field of vision, he waits patiently for nightfall.

Tetrask knocks gently on Luke’s door and cracks it open. Luke is lying on his bed staring up at the ceiling. The god pushes the door aside and steps into the room.

“Good to see you’re still awake,” he says. “Did you have a good time?”

“I did,” Luke says. A fond smile spreads across his face. “Oh man, I had a night like you wouldn’t even believe. It wasn’t even anything crazy—just a pleasant evening filled with good conversation. It’s pretty interesting to see how other people see the world.”

“Yes, it is.” Tetrask turns to leave. “You can stay up if you want, but we’ve got a schedule to keep. I need you to be rested so you can get the most from your training.”

“I think I made a mistake,” Luke says, almost too soft for Tetrask to hear.

“Hmm?” Tetrask looks over his shoulder. “A mistake?”

“One of the last things I did tonight was say goodbye to Nysse. After the door closed, I wanted to open it and let her know how cool she is.” Luke sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “But I just walked away, man. That wasn’t the right decision.”

“You think so?” Tetrask says, suddenly interested. “Really?”

“Yeah. I should have told her something other than what I said.” Luke sits up. “She’s really awesome, old pal. She’s smart, wise, and had a lot to say about everything we talked about. I could stay up with her for hours talking about the wonders of the universe and never get tired of it.”

Tetrask bites his tongue. “So are you and her…?” He gestures vaguely.

“No, at least not right now. I don’t know if it would be right. She and I are good friends, but…” Luke shakes his head. “I don’t think I can do it.”

“Why not? What are you afraid of?”

“Too many things,” Luke says, sitting up in his bed. “I’m afraid of living a life without her, even if she’s just a friend. Nysse is the most amazing person I’ve ever met in my entire life. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, and she’s kind. She’s the total package for anyone lucky enough to have her.” Luke lies down on his bed and stares up at the ceiling. “I’m afraid of losing her and I don’t even have her yet.”

Tetrask kneads the bridge of his nose. Nothing good will come from trying to push them together, and things will get even worse if he tries to pull them apart. He can only let nature take its course and hope for the best.

“Get some sleep,” he finally says. “We have work to do tomorrow.”

“Hey,” Luke says, “were you calling me earlier?” Tetrask gives him a questioning look. “I heard someone call my name as I was leaving Nysse’s room.”

“I didn’t say anything,” says Tetrask. “You were probably just hearing your mind talk to itself so you wouldn’t feel so lonely in these grand old halls.”

“I’m not going crazy, am I?”

“I highly doubt it. Good night, Luke.”

“Good night, Tetrask.”

The god closes the door to Luke’s room. He lets out a long, slow sigh, then he walks down the hall in silence. He turns the corner, continues down another corridor, and takes a few sharp turns and twists before finally coming to a halt in front of a solid, blank wall.

Tetrask, a voice whispers, as if expecting him. A doorway to infinite darkness appears on the wall, power radiating from deep inside.

The god steps into the corridor and disappears from sight.

Chapter Fourteen

[]Summer Breeze

On the high seas of Cebral’s Ocean

Drew looks over his shoulder just as the sun begins to rise. Another all-nighter come and gone. Though he checks his wrist for the ninth time in the past few hours, Drew is once again disappointed to find himself without a watch. He resolves to check his coffers to see if he can afford a proper timepiece.

It’s a beautiful morning on the Ocean. Seagulls perch on the ship’s main mast, calling out in intermittent, screeching intervals. Waves gently crest against the side of the ship. To the left, an island made of black rock juts crookedly from the water, the center glowing red as magma spills forth and hisses on contact with the ocean. The sky is clear and blue, and the sea smells of salt and adventure.

Boots falling on the steps pulls Drew out of his dreamy stupor. Hartor lumbers onto the navigation deck. Upon spotting Drew at the helm, he folds his hands behind his back and waits.

Drew snaps to attention and renders a salute. “Drew King at the helm, sir!”

“At ease, sailor. Why are you piloting the ship? Where’s the helmsman?”

“I am for now,” Drew says. “Captain told me to wait here while he roused Orvin.”

“And how long ago was that?”

“A couple hours ago.” Drew strokes his chin in thought. “Come to think of it, I thought I heard some merry-making going on downstairs a little after the Captain left. Orvin must have grabbed a drink and forgot about his job.”

“And the Captain left you in charge of navigation if the helmsman didn’t show?”

“Yes sir.” Drew smiles brightly. “It wasn’t too bad. The sea was pretty quiet tonight and I handled the wheel like a pro.”

“Do you even know where we’re supposed to be going?”

“Captain said we’re going to Tantupo Island,” Drew replies. “I had to get some help figuring out where Tantupo is on the map, but once I got the directions, the rest was easy.” Drew lets go of the wheel for a moment to pull a scroll of old parchment from a cylindrical tube. Hartor gently resets the wheel, which had started to curve right, and joins Drew over a circular wooden table at the back of the deck. Drew unfurls the map and stretches it out across the table.

Drew points to a small, crescent-shaped island in the middle of the sea. “Right there, see?” Hartor leans over the map. “I talked to Nerlon when he came to check the rigging last night. He helped me figure it out before I drifted too far off course. I was off by two whole degrees.” Drew leans back. “At least I was already heading in the general direction of the island, right?”

“Two degrees is the difference between landing in Her Majesty’s Royal Port and Blueface’s Sunken Cove. Be glad Nerlon came up here when he did.” He looks up. “You said you got here at midnight, correct?”

“Yes sir.”

“Nerlon didn’t go out to check the rigging until close to four,” Hartor says. “Roger was out here around two. Why didn’t you ask him instead?” He cracks a grin, his eyes shining in mischief. “Trying to catch some sleep on the job? The graveyard shift a little too much to handle for you?”

“Not at all! It’s just that, well…” Drew checks the deck to make sure no prying ears are nearby. He leans in close. “Roger freaks me out. It’s that tattoo he’s got on his face—gives him this crusty, dangerous look. And he’s always glaring at me like I’ve just spit in his drink. I don’t get him at all.”

“Roger’s always been an odd one, especially with new crew members. Give him time.” Hartor takes the helm in his hands. “Now go get some food and some rest. The graveyard shift is a pretty brutal job, especially for a young man like you. Next time leave it for us old people.”

“It wasn’t too bad,” Drew says lightly. “It was kind of nice being out here alone. It gave me a lot of time to think. In fact, I hardly feel tired at all.”

Hartor turns and gives Drew a stern look from underneath his eyebrows. Drew, catching the man’s drift, rolls up the map in a hurry.

“But man if I’m not hungry, and a little tired too. I sure could use some food and some rest!” Drew shields his eyes and looks at the sunrise. “Boy, is it this early already? Look at the time! I best get something to eat now and get some rest before Captain assigns me the graveyard shift again!” Drew scurries down the steps and hurries inside the ship.

After taking a moment to catch his breath, Drew steps down the hallway towards the galley. In the sudden absence of seagoing sounds like the waves and the birds and the win, Drew finds himself acutely aware of every little movement he makes. He keeps his footsteps as quiet as possible to avoid waking any possibly sleeping crewmen.

Drew catches a pleasant aroma in the hallway and his stomach growls. He hurries down the hallway, finding himself in the galley after a few twists and turns. To his surprise, hardly anyone is in the dining hall. The cooks haven’t even finished setting up for the morning rush. Drew attempts to sneak along and find a place to sit.

“Hey, you there!”

Drew freezes in place and looks over his shoulder.

“About time I got someone in this galley,” a man says, standing in the doorway to the galley kitchen. His apron is stained with years of grease.

“Morning, cook,” Drew says politely.

“You know how annoying it is to cook for a thirty-man crew only to have zero people show up?” he says. “It’s outrageous, I tell you. It’s almost six-thirty and no one has the decency to show up for my good food!” He looks Drew over. “You’re that swabbie, right? What was your name?”

“It’s Drew, sir.”

“Don’t be so formal with me. I’m only a cook, after all.” He brushes off his hands. “Anyways, Drew was it? Want some grub? I’ve got everything ready—just waiting to serve it out to someone.”

“I just got off of the graveyard shift, so… Yes, I’d love some breakfast.”

“Great.” The cook gestures to the room. “Find yourself a place to sit, anywhere except the Captain’s chair. I’ll get you a plate and a mug of Green.”

Drew gags. “Green? No offense, cook, but if you have something like water or tea I’ll take that over alcohol, especially this early in the morning.”

The cook shrugs, then says, “Eh, suit yourself.” He departs into the back room.

Drew sits down in a chair and looks around the silent room. The wonderful quiet creates the perfect daydreaming atmosphere. His mind fills with images of tabletop board games and late-night drives in the rain. Nostalgia bubbles in his throat and he sighs, wishing his friends were around to sail with him.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

The question is more declaration of intent than an inquiry. To Drew’s surprise, Roger the sailor sits down across from him. In his hand is a red apple, out of which he takes a bite. The angular blue tattoo on the left side of Roger’s face gives him a sinister and intimidating appearance, especially when coupled with his dark and brooding eyes. Drew tries to work up the nerve to make small talk.

“Oh, Roger,” Drew says as if just noticing him for the first time. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” Roger says gruffly. Drew clears his throat.

“How did you sleep?” he asks.

“Fine,” Roger states. “I was up at two to check the rigging, but you already knew that.” He takes a bite out of his apple. “This whole Hero business must inflate your ego like a hot air balloon. If I was a Hero I’d be showing myself off to anyone who’d toss half a glance my way—not unlike you, clearly.”

“You guys have hot air balloons on Renea?” Drew asks, trying to ignore the jab.

“What kind of a stupid question is that?” Roger snaps, chucking the apple over his shoulder.

“Well,” Drew says slowly, “if you have to know, yes, I’m proud to be a Hero.” Annoyance coils in his throat. “And if you had half a mind, you’d take back your words.”

“Oh really?” Roger leans in. “Why is that?”

“You’ve got no clue what it’s like to be a Hero,” Drew retorts. “You know nothing about how it feels to finally have something unique about you. How many people do you know who have powers like mine? I can’t name many. What makes you think you have any idea about how I feel?”

Roger goes to respond, but he bites his tongue and says nothing for a moment. “You’re right,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be a Hero.”

“That’s what I thought,” says Drew. “Why did you come here, anyways? Was it just to taunt me?”

“Truth be told, I actually came here to talk to you.”

Drew folds his arms. “Well, I’m not exactly up for a conversation with you right now.”

“You’re right, we can talk later. After all, you just got off the graveyard shift.” Roger stands and reaches into his pocket. “You must be awfully sleepy.”

“I’m not that tired.”

Roger leans in with an open hand. He blows hard, casting a puff of powder into Drew’s face. Drew immediately sneezes and scrambles to his feet. His head swims and darkness clouds his vision. He totters to the left, then to the right, and finally drops to the ground with a dull thud, remembering nothing more.

Karos the Scourge opens his eyes to find darkness all around him. His hammock creaks gently with the pitch and roll of the ship. The ocean waves play softly against the wood of the Navion. No sound other than the occasional creak of wood permeates Karos’s office. Something, however, woke him up.

“Oh,” Karos groans, rubbing his eyes. “I remember now. Nightmares.”

They had been something rather unpleasant—a mutiny, or perhaps his untimely death. All he can remember are vague flashes of images unable to be put into words.

Karos swings out of his hammock and dresses silently. He emerges from his office and exits on to the Navion’s deck. On the navigation deck, Fradlr the pirate mans the helm. He snaps to attention when he spots Karos ascending the staircase.

“Evening, Captain,” he says as Karos steps on to the deck. “Come to enjoy the briny air?”

“Just nightmares,” says Karos. “I get one bad image in my head and suddenly I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all around me.”

He watches Fradlr with a curious eye, saying nothing for a moment.

“Have I ever told you about my mother, Fradlr?” Karos asks, breaking the silence.

“No sir, I think not.”

Karos turns back to the sea. “My mother was the most beautiful woman in the whole universe. She was the one who gave me my deep-seated desire for the sea—the only one who knew what it was like to be born of the ocean, not adopted by it.” Karos pauses, clenching his hands around the railing. “But unfortunately, she was killed a long time ago.”

“Mmm?” Fradlr is focused more on the ocean than his Captain.

“She believed in freeing the Ocean from Cebral’s grasp. She didn’t want to live in a world where so many people are held down by the word of an unfair god. Cebral didn’t like the movement she was starting, so he sent a storm to kill her on the day of my birth.” Karos leans on the railing, his eyes on the sea. “But I managed to live, and my mother’s revolutionary blood pulses in my veins like hot magma. Cebral will rue the day he sent that storm.”

“I wouldn’t say such things,” Fradlr advises. “Your words may offend him. We could get the wrong end of a bad storm.”

“Let him come,” Karos snarls. “I’m not afraid.” He looks over his shoulder. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

Fradlr says nothing for a moment; then, he nods. Karos laughs joylessly.

“Maybe you’re right,” he says. “Maybe I am crazy. I just can’t help myself on nights like these; it reminds me of her. A calm ocean, a clear sky…” Karos takes a deep breath of the cold night air and his muscles visibly relax.

“Look out there, Fradlr,” Karos says softly. “What do you see?”

Fradlr squints. “A lot of open water.”

“I see life. I see depth and beauty and mystery. I see everything that the ocean offers and I know that, one day, it will belong to everyone.” Karos straightens his back, casting a determined gaze over the water. “One day, I am going to free the entirety of the Mèra Merla. I won’t do it for me, or for my mother, but for everyone who has ever lived and who will ever live in this realm.”

“That’s quite an undertaking,” Fradlr muses, once again focused on the open sea.

“No one else can do it,” says Karos. “I’m the only one who’s capable of killing Cebral.”

At the sudden silence, Karos glances at the stunned helmsman.

“What?” Fradlr whispers.

“As long as he’s still around, these seas will never be free of his reign. Even today the people of this realm can’t sail without fear of his unchecked wrath.” Karos stares at the dark waters. “We can’t live in a world like this. There is no freedom while good people cower under the boot of a bipolar deity. It might take a long time for justice to arrive, but Cebral won’t get away with tyranny forever.”

“The crew is with you,” Fradlr insists. “We’d follow you anywhere.”

“Even to Seastorm Grotto?”

Fradlr hesitates for just a moment, then nods. “Even to Seastorm Grotto.” He stands up straighter, feeling bold. “Even if everyone else leaves you, I will remain loyal. If you commanded it, I would happily row your boat to the end of the world.”

Karos chuckles. “That’s good to know. If nothing else, it’s good for blackmail.”

The two pirates share a hearty laugh.

“Sir,” Fradlr says after a moment of silence, “if you don’t mind my asking, how did you become a pirate?”

Karos turns his gaze back to the sea. “After the storm killed my mother, I was left to fend for myself. One day, pirates came and razed my hometown to the ground. Though they danced with the blades of soldiers and pillaged the town of its loot, they managed to uphold standards—morals, even. They only killed those who obstructed them.”

“True pirates,” Fradlr mutters. “They are few are far between nowadays.”

“I knew then that I could no longer ignore the call of the ocean. I left my home on Tantupo Island and followed the pirates wherever they sailed. The rest, as you know, is history.”

Karos goes quiet, reminiscing in his past. Fradlr lets him have a moment before breaking the silence.

“Since you’re here,” he says, “do you mind taking a look at something for me? It concerns the map you bought last time we were ashore.”

“That old thing? What’s it doing now?”

Karos lights an oil lamp and steps toward the back table. An elaborate map is stretched out on the wood, detailing the entirety of Cebral’s Ocean. The Ocean Passageway, leading out from Monarch, is at the far left of the map; the beginning of the Vast Emptiness is at the far right.

Fradlr points. “We’re here, about six citystrides out from shore. I know you said to keep the course we’ve been on, but I’ve found some problems.” He moves the lamp. “No matter where we go, one of three things will happen. If we bank to the left, we’ll hit Tantupo Island. If we bank to the right, we’ll be in range to skirmish with the Navy. If we keep straight, we’re bound to sink.”

Karos looks at the area between Tantupo Island and the closest shoreline. Something new has been drawn on the map. He holds the lamp over it for a better look.

“This… Thing, appeared on the map a few hours ago,” Fradlr explains. “I don’t know how it got there, but I remember when you said this map has a tendency to change our course without warning. I didn’t understand then, but I think I understand now.”

Karos laughs. “I was just repeating the words of the man who sold it to me for five okean. I had no clue this map would show us real-life obstacles.” He leans back from the table. “A real titanshell… This close to shore, no less! What in Chaldir’s beard could have driven it away from the Chasm Deep?”

“I don’t know, and personally, I would rather not find out.” Fradlr leans on the table. “With the titanshell in the way, I can either steer the ship left or I can steer her right. I know you and Tantupo Island don’t have a good history, but the alternative is a real nasty scuffle with the Navy.”

Karos is silent for a while. “Then we go for Tantupo Island. Chart a course.”

“Pardon me, Captain,” a new voice says. Karos and Fradlr turn to see Cochin standing at the cusp of the stairs.

“Why are you up so early?” Fradlr says. “The sun won’t rise for another few hours.”

“I’m here to relieve you for the next shift at the helm.”

“Excellent timing,” Karos says. He gestures for Cochin to approach and points to Tantupo Island. “Change the ship’s angle 30 degrees to the port. I want us in sight of that island by sunrise. Fradlr, you and I need to have a little talk. Follow me.”

As Cochin takes the helm, Karos leads Fradlr down the stairs. The Captain holds the door open for his sailor, guides him through the belly of the ship, and brings him into his own office. Karos takes the initiative to light a few oil lamps and open up the shades, letting the moonlight in from the outside.

“Find a seat, Fradlr. Make yourself comfortable.”

“Yes sir.”

Fradlr sits in a chair in front of the Captain’s desk. Karos sits behind his desk and opens a drawer. From it, he produces a bottle of Burgundy and two small glasses. After filling both, he offers one to Fradlr, who takes it and downs it in one shot.

“I think it’s time to set up a few fail-safes in the event something drastic happens.” Karos downs his drink in one shot. “But before I publically name you First Officer, I need to know if you’re ready for the challenge. I’ve talked about myself plenty enough for one night. Now, I want to know about you.”

In the darkened sailor’s quarters of the Undying Adventure, Drew wakes with a gasp.

An oil lamp immediately comes on; Roger sits in a chair beside Drew’s hammock. In his hand is a fresh red apple. Drew tries to flinch away or shout for help, but all he can manage is a feeble cough. His body feels heavy, as if made of lead.

“What did you do to me?” Drew whispers.

“You didn’t want to listen to me, so I blew a sedative in your face.”

Drew coughs. “Get away from me.”

“I’ll admit I came at you wrong,” Roger says, “but I couldn’t stand to see you flaunt your arrogance any longer. What I have to say is important and you need to listen.”

“I don’t want to hear anything from you,” Drew retorts, his throat is so dry he can barely talk.

Roger leans back and takes a bite out of his apple. “If you knew what I’ve been through,” he says, “you’d want to do nothing but listen to me talk. Complain all you want, but you need to hear what I have to say. It’s about Karos the Scourge.”

Drew shoots Roger a look.

“Interested now? I thought you would be. After all, everyone’s interested in Karos the Scourge.” He leans in. “No matter what kind of chance you get, I need you to promise on whatever god you believe in that you won’t kill Karos.”

“Kill him?” Drew coughs, astonished. The thought of killing Karos had never even crossed his mind. He had entertained putting him behind bars, maybe kick him around a bit, but taking his life seemed far too extreme.

“Promise me,” Roger presses, his blue tattoo glinting against his fiery eyes. “You have to swear that you won’t.”

Drew goes to answer, but his throat is too dry to make any noise.

“Make your promise!” Roger yells. He seizes Drew by the collar and pulls his limp body off the hammock. “Promise me or I’ll break your neck!”

“I promise!” Drew barely squeaks. “I won’t kill him! Put me down!”

Roger drops the Hero into the hammock, eyes distracted and cold. “The sedative will wear off in six hours,” he says, standing and shoving his chair away. “Get some rest. I’ll come by in a few hours to make sure you’re not dead.” He exits the sailor’s quarters without another word.

Left alone, Drew takes a moment to glance around and try to make light of his situation. Roger had the decency to leave an oil lamp burning; he also put Drew in a comfortable hammock and set a pillow behind his head. A blanket covers his lower body against the chill of the dark. Though he knows nothing but anger is warranted, Drew is thankful that Roger provided some small comforts. It’s the little things that count when you’ve been knocked out against your will.

“Boy, isn’t he just a regular ragtime band?”

Drew jumps at the sound of the voice. A light-hearted chuckle comes from somewhere else in the room.

“I’ll drink to that,” the second voice says, though it sounds eerily like the first.

“Well, in that case I’ll drink to it too!” a third voice says, sounding just like the second.

“Me too!” a fourth voice says, copying the third.

“And me as well!” a fifth voice says, just like the previous four.

“Hello?” Drew manages to croak. “Who’s there?”

“Ah, still alive!” says the first. “Hold on, I’m coming for you. Well, I’m technically already there.”

“Figuratively speaking of course,” a sixth voice says from somewhere else in the room.

“Only an idiom, you see,” a seventh voice says, coming from right above Drew’s head.

“And here I am!” the first voice declares.

A man jumps into the ring of light and poses, as if waiting for applause. He wears a blue cloak with a hood and his hair is strewn about haphazardly. His brilliant magenta eyes sparkle in the lamplight. All in all, he has the presence of a genuine court jester.

Drew stares at him blankly.

“Well?” the man says expectantly. “Go ahead, applaud!”

Drew says nothing and does even less.

“Well fine,” the man says with a grumpy humph. “Guess I’ll do without the applause.”

“Who are you?”

“Ask that all you want,” the man says, sitting down in the chair Roger had left. “I won’t tell you, though. Go on, ask! I probably won’t tell you anything!”

“Probably, he says,” an eighth voice whispers.

“Hush, you!” the man yells. He looks curiously at Drew. “You haven’t laughed once since I got in here. What’s the matter, you never heard a joke before?”

“Don’t have the energy,” Drew croaks. His throat is parched.

“Ah, so what you need is a good old fashioned pick-me-up!” The man reaches into his cloak, draws out a cup of water from nowhere, and presses it to Drew’s lips. Drew guzzles the whole cup, but even that isn’t enough to quench his thirst.

“Still thirsty, eh? Well, desperate times call for desperate measures.” The man reaches into his cloak and produces a syringe. The needle on the end glints in the lamplight, liquid bubbling inside the glass. Drew stiffens and starts to squirm away from it.

“What?” the man questions, holding the needle in the air. Liquid drips from the nozzle.

“Needles!” Drew shouts before devolving into a coughing fit.

“Oh, you’re scared of needles? Gosh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!” He smirks, then flicks the needle a few times. “Well, no time to get over your fears like the present. Hold still!”

The man pushes the needle into Drew’s arm and injects the liquid. The torture is not long; the man soon retracts the needle and throws it over his shoulder haphazardly.

“There!” the man says happily. “Feel better?”

Drew goes to shout several choice words, but he stops—something feels different. He flexes his hand and his fingers move. His throat is becoming moist again. He breathes in and finds that his chest moves willingly, his heart thundering as blood races to the end of his body and back.

“I feel…” Drew swings his legs out of his hammock. He faces the stranger. “I feel great. I feel really, really great. What did you do to me?”

“I countered Roger’s sedative, of course!” He says it as if it were the most perfectly obvious thing in the world. “How are you going to get to Cebral if you’re stuck here chilling out like a sardine, eh Drew?” The man shakes his head disapprovingly. “No sir. Sitting around doesn’t strike up a tune with old man Cebral. Absolutely not.”

Drew cracks a grin. “No, I suppose it wouldn’t. Who are you? I’ve never seen you on the ship before.”

“I don’t sail on this ship,” the man replies. “I sail wherever I want, though sometimes it’s not on a boat, and sometimes I’m not really sailing at all.” He grins widely. “My ragtime band does its jig wherever I feel I’m needed, you dig?”

Drew laughs. “Sure. Whatever you say.”

“Well, you’re all taken care of, so I best be on my way.” The man stands up.

“You’re leaving?” Drew says, standing. “You’d be better off hiding. Captain and Hartor both don’t take kindly to stowaways.”

“Oh, I’m no stowaway. I’m a freelance travelmaster.” The man winks at Drew, then jumps out of the pool of light. Drew grabs the lantern and steps forward, but the man is gone. He scans the room thoroughly, checking inside boxes and crates and barrels of all kind, but the man is nowhere to be seen.

As he ponders the applications of stage magic, along with the possibility that he’s simply going insane, a shrill whistle sounds from the deck. Drew blows out the lamp and hurries to the deck. Most of the sailors are already hurrying to man their stations. He pushes his way through the crowd and heads for the navigation deck—his assigned spot in the event of an emergency.

“Swabbie!” the Captain shouts in a thunderous fury. “Where in the Isles of Boir have you been?”

“It’s a long story,” Drew says. “And it’s one I’m going to have to tell you in private. It concerns a few choice people on this ship.”

“Oh really?” the Captain says, steaming. “Roger says he caught you sneaking off ship to go swim around in the ocean with your powers on full blast.”

“He what!” That lying son of a—

“Don’t raise your voice against me!” the Captain bellows. “Confound it, Drew! You’re too important for you to be showing off like this! Have some common sense!”

“But Captain—”

“No buts! Half rations!”

“Captain!”

The Captain thumps down the stairs, yelling orders at his crew. Drew grits his teeth and kicks the side of the ship in frustration. Pain darts up his foot and he kicks the ship again, harder this time.

“Oi, Hero,” the helmsman says, “careful with the wood. It’s a new finish.”

“What’s going on?” Drew demands, eager to turn the conversation away from his anger with the Captain. “Why is everyone running around like chickens with their heads cut off?”

“Our look-out spotted Tantupo Island a few hours ago.”

“A few hours?” Drew asks, incredulous. “What time is it?”

“It’s roughly two o’clock.”

“Two o’clock!”

“We spotted the ship of a certain dangerous pirate on Tantupo. Captain’s readying the ship for immediate docking and a speedy departure. I don’t think we want to stay longer than we have to.”

“Which pirate?” Drew asks, though he already knows the answer.

“Karos,” the helmsman says, “Scourge of the Mèra Merla with a bounty of over sixty billion okean on his head.”

Karos the Scourge lifts up the large red coat and inspects it. It’s a bit of a patchy job, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. The overall look is very nice, and it is definitely something that could be worn to a dinner party.

“Shopkeeper!” he calls. “What’s the price on this?”

“Sells for eighty in Monarch,” the shopkeeper says. “I’ll do seventy-five okean.”

“It’s a deal.” He pays for the new coat and takes off his old one, handing it to one of his pirate crewmen. Karos slips the new coat over his shoulders and inspects himself in the mirror, posing and imagining a gleaming belt, a crisp shirt, and a sleek black hat. The crew extends many a flattering comment to their Captain, most of which Karos takes in stride.

A bell rings from the front of the shop. Four men in crisp cobalt blue uniforms stand in the doorway; one of them has a piece of paper crushed in his hand. The other three watch from behind him with careful expressions. The pirate crew tenses; Navy sailors rarely come to Tantupo Island. Someone must have been keeping a sharp eye on the Navion’s movements.

“Karos the Scourge?” the front man calls.

“Who’s asking?” Karos says casually.

The front man steps forwards, bolder. “That would be Admiral Ianix of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. By decree of the Queen of Cebral’s Ocean, you are hereby under arrest.” The man reaches into his pocket for something.

Karos snaps his fingers. “Smoke ‘em out!”

Cochin rips his jacket off, exposing an array of bombs connected by a string. Before the soldiers can act, he yanks the string and a cloud of smoke bursts from the vest, quickly filling the whole room. Karos’s crew shouts and hollers, adding noise and confusion. The Navy sailors attempt to draw their swords, but in their haste, they become stuck in their scabbards.

Karos’s crew barrels through the smoke and charges out the front door. A secondary roar meets the pirate crew, accompanied by the sound of swords being drawn. Steel meets steel and cries of pain break through the smoky haze.

“What’s going on?” Fradlr shouts.

“Navy’s sprung a trap!” Karos yells back. “Half the damn fleet’s on this island! Cochin, take point! Make that smokescreen last as long as you can! Everyone else, draw your blades! If you see something that’s not on fire, light it up! Make your way back to the Navion!” Karos draws his broadsword from its scabbard. “Go, go!”

The crew takes up another yell and dashes into fray. Karos splits off from the main group and hurtles through side alleys, trying to ignore the sounds of struggle piercing the air. A quick wind blows through the streets, carrying with it the stench of fire and a thick cloud of smoke. It soon becomes so thick that he can’t see more than a few yards in front of him. His lungs strain for breathable air.

Spotting an empty alleyway, the Captain dashes into it and flattens himself against the wall. He breathes slowly, trying to catch his breath. A cough echoes from across the way. Karos tenses, but he relaxes when he senses no hostility.

“Some smokescreen, huh?” a voice says.

Karos laughs joylessly. “It’s a bad day to have allergies.”

“You’re telling me,” the voice says, coughing. “I should have brought a gas mask.”

“They make those?” Karos sucks in a gulp of air. “That’s ingenious. I should get one.”

“I don’t know if they make them here, but they must make them somewhere.” The voice pauses. “Do you know this island?”

“I was born here,” says Karos.

“I need to get to the port,” the voice says. “I’ve been separated from my crew and I need to get back to them. I’m a Hero.”

Karos looks up. The smokescreen is still relatively thick, but he can make out a vague shape of someone leaning against the opposite wall.

“Did you say ‘Hero?’” Karos asks.

“Yeah,” the voice replies. “It’s kind of a big deal.”

“Is it really? Well blow me down. I had no clue I would be meeting the famed Hero of the Ocean in my own home.” Karos drags his sword off the ground and stands. “What’d you say your name was?”

“Drew King,” the Hero says. “And yours?”

“They call me Karos.” At the sound of his name, a bright light cuts through the thinning smokescreen, emanating from the person on the other side of the alley.

“Karos?” Drew says. “The Scourge? The legendary pirate?” The light pulses, as if recognizing the name, and Drew yelps in pain.

“Aha!” Karos exclaims, excited. “I was destined to be your Adversary after all!”

“What do you mean?” Drew’s mark flashes again. “What’s going on here?”

Karos grins widely, his sword weightless in his hands. “You’re a Hero, right? A Hero must have an Adversary. Good must have a bad. Black must have a white. Red must have a blue.”

“Quit speaking in riddles!”

“You and I are destined to clash,” Karos says, crossing the alley. “We’re kindred souls on our way through a magnificent adventure, destined to face off at the end for the ultimate prize.” Karos emerges from the smoke and locks eyes with Drew, who is considerably less intimidating than he thought he would appear. The mark of Cebral glows brightly on Drew’s forehead.

“Oh my God.” Drew flattens himself against the wall. “You really are Karos.”

Karos drops into a stance and gestures to Drew. “Come on,” he goads. “Our first battle will be right here, right now. If you’re strong enough, I’ll let you walk away alive. If not?” He smirks. “Maybe you were never destined to be a Hero in the first place.”

Drew sprints down the alley as fast as his legs can carry him.

Drew runs.

He runs and he runs and he runs without ever daring to look back. His blood pumps battery acid through his veins and his heart thunders in his chest. Drew flees through streets and back alleys and side roads, searching for something—anything—that will lead him back to the ship. He runs for so long that he forgets where he started. Streets blur into one another, all the buildings look the same, the smog obscuring everything from sight. And, of course, there is fire everywhere.

Drew pauses at the corner of an empty street. He sinks to his knees and sucks in air, desperate to get out of the smoke. Reacting to his subconscious demands, Drew’s body changes form, his skin becoming solid rock, the pain in his muscles vanishing as his heart slows to a gentle and calm pace. Drew stands, finding himself able to breathe easier.

Karos puffs to a stop on the other side of the road. He leans on his sword, sweat dripping from his nose. “If I had known I’d be chasing you halfway across the island, I’d have called it quits and left for my ship.”

“I don’t want to fight you,” Drew says. “Can’t we call this off and fight another day?”

“Oh no you don’t,” Karos says. “This is about destiny. Someone’s got to stand in your way. Someone’s got to say no to this Hero foolishness. Someone has to spit in old man Cebral’s face and show him that we’re through with the tyranny of the Renean gods.” He straightens his back. “And if that someone has to be me, then I’ll happily oblige.”

“But I’m not strong enough!” Drew protests. “Give me more time and I’ll get so strong you’d never be able to beat me!”

“That so?” Karos says, amused. “Well in that case, now I have to kill you. No sense in leaving a loose end hanging around.” The Pirate Captain tosses his hat behind him and slicks back his long black hair. “I hope you realize this is not business. It’s completely personal.” Karos starts across the alley.

Drew clenches his hands; there’s no way to get out of the fight now. He bounces on his toes, feeling his stone fingers grind into his rocky palm. Karos leisurely swings his broadsword from left to right, searching for an opening. Drew circles to the left of Karos, watching the blade while keeping a bead on his opponent’s eyes.

Karos darts forwards and slashes.

Drew instinctively throws his arms up, taking the full blow on his rocky forearms. He spirals to the ground, landing flat on his back. Through no pain registers, a nasty cut is carved into Drew’s arms. He scrambles to his feet.

Karos runs in with a hard swing.

Drew bobs just out of the way and lunges in with a short jab, drawing on his light boxing background.

Karos ducks and swings short and low at Drew’s stomach. Instinctively, Drew turns and takes the blow to his hip instead. A metallic clang resounds through the intersection and Drew is knocked completely off his feet. He slams into the ground a little farther away.

So fast! Drew thinks, head ringing. And he’s strong, too!

Drew rolls up to his feet just as Karos advances. Swinging for all he’s worth, Drew launches a booming uppercut into Karos’s jaw.

The Pirate Captain reels back from the strike, clutching his jaw in shock. With Karos on the ropes, Drew ducks in and hits him twice. Karos counters with two quick slashes, cutting an X into Drew’s rocky chest. The Captain throws a forward kick, knocking Drew to the ground again.

“You certainly put up a fight,” Karos remarks. His face is cut, swollen, and bruised. “It’s a shame I have to kill you.”

Someone steps in front of Drew, a purple cloak around their shoulders. Karos immediately goes from confident to completely startled.

“You!” he exclaims. “I know you!”

“You’d better,” the stranger says. The voice sounds familiar to Drew, but he can’t put a name or face to the voice.

Karos shakes himself, trying to focus. “What are you doing here?”

“Stopping this fight, obviously.” The stranger steps forward. “Now back off before I make things particularly unpleasant.”

“We’re not finished here.” Karos points his sword forward. “Out of my way or I’ll cut you down.”

“You and I both know that’s a bad idea,” the stranger says. “I’m giving you one last warning. Leave now or I’ll make you regret it.”

After a moment, Karos says, “You were there, weren’t you? You saw what happened that day.”

“Yes,” the stranger says, “I saw what Cebral did.” He steps forward threateningly. “You’ve done enough damage and Drew isn’t ready to fight you. Don’t make me get violent.”

Karos hesitates. Drew can see something he’d never imagine seeing in Karos’s eyes—anxiety. Fear, almost, but also a certain amount of stubborn refusal, an unwillingness to cave in.

Finally, Karos sheathes his sword, turns his back on Drew, and disappears into the smoke at a full run. Drew heaves a sigh of relief and his body returns to flesh and blood. His body, though not sliced to ribbons, are covered in bruises from Karos’s attacks.

“That was close,” says Drew. “Too close.”

“Yes,” the stranger replies, “it was.” He turns toward Drew. A spiraling, angular blue tattoo is on the left side of his face.

“Roger!”

“Drew.”

“You! I mean, that is—” Drew sputters, trying to find his words. “How did you know I was here?”

Roger says nothing. He grabs Drew by the arm and drags him to his feet. Drew winces in pain, the bruises already turning shades of purple and yellow. “Not as invulnerable as I thought,” Roger muses, inspecting Drew’s arm curiously. “It’s really just a tough shell.”

“Hey, that hurts.”

“Don’t be such a baby.” Roger lets go of his arm nevertheless. “Collect yourself. We need to get you back to the ship before we get left behind.”

Drew looks over his shoulder. Tongues of flames claw their way across buildings, black smoke belching into the air. “We won’t get left behind,” he says. “Come on.”

Drew takes off with Roger, following him through streets and back alleys. They pass by people running away from the flames. A few Navy sailors run around looking just as confused and frightened as everyone else. Thick smoke hangs in the air, the breeze hot from the fire.

Drew is so busy dodging people and trying to catch his breath every fifteen seconds that he barely notices the transition from packed dirt to rugged sand. He runs past Roger and straight into the ocean, only slowing when he realizes he’s calf-deep in the waves.

“There’s the ship,” Roger says, walking up to Drew. “I hope you have a plan.”

The ship has already set out to sea, little more than a small bump on the horizon.

Drew turns to his companion. “How long can you hold your breath?”

“I’d say a good three minutes. Why?”

“I think I can make a current that can take us out to the ship. I’ll have to turn into water; then I can make a riptide which will carry you out to sea. If you’re comfortable with that, you’ll want to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and hold on tightly.”

“It couldn’t hurt to try.” Roger walks towards the cresting waves.

“Once you see me disappear,” Drew calls, “take in as much air as you can handle.”

Roger wades deeper into the ocean, the waves cresting at his chest. Once he’s deep enough that the water reaches his neck, Roger kicks off and starts swimming until he can no longer feel the bottom. The sailor turns around and gives Drew a thumbs-up. Drew’s body turns translucent and he disappears into the waves.

Roger takes one large breath and lets it out. He takes a second, larger breath and lets that one out. On his third inhale, Roger sucks in as much as he can and holds it for a moment. He shuts his eyes tightly and ducks his head underwater.

Then, as if caught in a freakishly strong riptide, Roger is swept out to sea.

“But we can’t just leave them, Captain!” Hartor protests.

“For all we know they’re probably dead already!” Captain retorts. “Drew got split from the crew once the fires started and Roger vanished soon after. We waited as long as we could, you know that! If they’re not dead or captured by Karos, they’re in the hands of Her Majesty’s Navy.”

“Neither of which is good for either of them! Can you imagine what the Navy would be capable of with a Hero and Roger? It’ll be a catastrophe!”

“We can’t go back!” the Captain shouts. “I didn’t want to leave them but we had no choice! Our lines with the Hero are cut. He’s not our responsibility anymore.”

“Man overboard!” the look-out yells. “We’ve got a live one!”

Hartor flies to the nearest railing. Bobbing just off the starboard side is a man coughing up seawater. A shifting, bubbling mass circles around him.

“Get a boat down there!” Hartor commands. “Get that man into this overgrown tub this instant!”

Sailors rush about to carry out his orders. A rowboat goes over the side with three men in it. After they drag the man into the boat, a bubbling mass of water leaps into the boat as well. As it settles into Drew’s face and body, the three sailors shout with joy.

Roger, still coughing up seawater, is helped aboard the ship. Drew makes his way up the ladder by himself. The crew cheers when they see Roger, but they cheer even louder when they see Drew. Many of the sailors reach out and touch them, yelling praises to Cebral.

“That was insane,” Roger coughs.

“I got us here alive, didn’t I?”

Roger chuckles. “That you did.” He nods towards Drew’s body. “Looks like those bruises heal pretty fast.”

The bruises that were on Drew’s arms, side, and chest are all gone. Not even faded marks remain to denote there ever was an injury.

“Hydropathy,” Roger says. “Don’t take it lightly.”

Drew grins. “You and I,” he says, “have a lot of talking to do.”

Chapter Fifteen

[]Overcast

Somewhere in Apalon’s Plains

Ariana looks over her shoulder at the disappearing nomad camp. Each step she takes into the Plains is another step away from her familiar nomadic life. She sighs, wondering how much longer she will have to wait until—

“Hey,” Camellia interrupts. “You alright?”

Ariana looks up. “Yeah, I’m just going to miss the old camp.”

Camellia smiles. “You’re a nomad, aren’t you? Moving on from one place to another is something you’re used to.”

“Maybe when it’s from one spot to another.” Ariana sighs again. “Leaving the camp is something else entirely. I’m not sure I’m ready for it.”

“No turning back now, unless you want to hike back alone. I wouldn’t blame you—the Plains can be pretty daunting.”

“Daunting?” Ariana laughs. “You’ve never been through the Plains. How would you know what it’s like?”

“Just trying to help.” She looks around. “Where to, oh fearless leader?”

“To Sunset Hill, of course.” Ariana wrings her hands around her spear. “To think I’m actually going to Sunset Hill… I had thought about it once before, but to actually make the trip? Never in my wildest dreams.”

They are both silent for a moment.

“I’m glad you’re with me,” Camellia finally says. “It’s comforting to know I have a bodyguard.”

Ariana snorts. “Bodyguard or not, I don’t know what good I’ll be if we run into Stark Pureblood. He’s been increasingly active these past few weeks.”

“Who’s he?”

“A fanatical nomad leader,” Ariana explains. “He likes to think he’s doing the world a favor by creating the ‘purest line of nomads.’ Charismatic and tough as nails. If you’re looking for a fight, he’s the guy to find.”

Camellia’s mind quickly fills with thoughts of a massive, burly man riddled with scars. She looks down at her hands and redresses her opinion on finding dangerous things to do. After all, her talents don’t lie in fisticuffs and the masterful wielding of weapons.

“How about animals?” Camellia asks, brightening. “Are there any animals out here?”

“Just the usual. Some wild oxen, birds of prey, a few wild cats, herbivores, and in the ponds and streams you can find all kinds of fish and maybe a few snakes.” Ariana smiles. “And if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll see the hornbeast.”

“The what?”

“It’s one of six legendary animals on Renea,” she explains. “The hornbeast is the one native to the Plains. There are plenty of writings and drawings about it, but none of them match up. It’s been described as an ox with the largest horns imaginable. Some scholars claim it’s a bird made completely out of gold. And to others it’s a long, thin snake that you can only see by the light of the moon.”

“What do you believe?”

“I think it’s a wandering stag with antlers that glow like starlight. I guess that sounds silly.”

Camellia nods and the conversation dwindles into silence. Ariana watches the clouds float by and drinks in the gentle, easy-going breeze. Camellia daydreams. They’re both so lost in thought that neither of them notice the gradual change in elevation. It isn’t until Ariana loses her footing completely and slips down a hole that she realizes Camellia is no longer in her sight.

Ariana lands flatly on her back and drops her spear. Light streams down from the hole above her; it’s way too far above her head to climb out of. Rubbing her neck, Ariana stands up and observes her surroundings. Walls made of packed dirt surround her on three sides. Directly in front is a dark tunnel that twists out of sight; a light source comes from somewhere further along.

Ariana gropes for her spear in the relative darkness, arming herself in the event of an attack. As she moves down the short tunnel, Ariana keeps her wits about her. The walls are exquisitely curved and lack any roots. The packed soil floor is clean and freshly swept—no loose dirt or stray rocks anywhere. Ariana hopes that she hasn’t stumbled into a monstrous snake’s hole, as that would be one nasty surprise.

She reaches a clearing that splits off in three different directions. From the ceiling hangs a flaming lantern with four openings. Ariana retrieves the lantern with the butt of her spear. Judging by the fine details and expert designs, it was obviously made by a master metalworker. She pulls down three of the shades to leave only one opening for light to escape, directing a beam down the center path.

Ariana moves forward, pointing the lantern ahead of her and using her spear as a walking stick. With the light in her hands, danger becomes the last thing on her mind. The air underground smells earthy, though it’s somehow surprisingly fresh.

After rounding a corner, Ariana comes to a bright yellow door with a knob on the right side and an ornate gold knocker in the center. Though the location is strange, she figures nothing can hurt from asking directions. Ariana knocks on the door a few times; shuffling comes from inside. The door opens and Ariana lifts the lantern up, shining the light inside.

A large blue bird appears. It chirps once or twice and quirks it head, staring at Ariana.

“A burrowing bird,” Ariana says flatly. “That’s no help at all.”

“Looking for Reneans?” the bird says. “You’ll hardly find any around here.”

Ariana gasps, dropping the lantern to the ground.

“Careful with that!” the bird scolds. “Do you know how hard it is to light a lantern when you don’t have opposable thumbs?”

“I’m sorry!” Ariana picks up the lantern. “I just didn’t expect a, uh…”

“A talking bird?” It smirks, amused. “No one ever does. What’s your name?”

“I’m Ariana.”

“And I’m Dalan. What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for a way to the surface. I fell down a hole and it’s a too high for me to climb out of.”

“Hmm.” Dalan scratches at his lower stomach with one of his feet. “Come inside. I’ll see what I can dig up to help you.”

Dalan hops back into his hole and Ariana follows, closing the door behind her. All four shades open up automatically, shedding light on the room. A bundle of twigs, grass, and other string-like objects are twisted into a nest in another corner. A hole in a different wall leads somewhere further into the room, which Dalan hops through and disappears. After a few moments of silence, a gray old woman dressed in nomadic clothes shuffles out from the room. Dalan soon follows.

“So, you’re the lost one?” the old woman says, walking right up to Ariana with quivering, wrinkled hands. She peers through a single piece of broken glass like a monocle, inspecting the sentrywoman’s face. “Well, you certainly look lost. Scared, too. Relax, Dalan doesn’t eat Reneans.”

“They’re too hard to eat when you don’t have teeth,” Dalan chirps.

“Can you help me out of here?” Ariana asks. “I really just need a ladder or something to help me climb out of the hole I fell through.”

The woman squints. “You look familiar. Have you been down here before?”

“Not that I recall.”

The woman squints at Ariana again, then shrugs. “You’re probably right—you look as lost as any abovegrounder. Dalan, get the junk box.”

The blue bird hops off back into the other room. The old woman walks over to a wall and sits down. She beckons for Ariana to sit beside her, which she does.

“Are you sure you’ve never been through the Underground before?”

“I think if I had been, I would have remembered. This place isn’t something you can easily forget.”

“I’m certain I’ve seen you before,” the woman insists. “I just can’t remember when or where.”

“You might have seen me patrolling my camp perimeters,” Ariana replies. “We nomadic folk have a tendency to move through places from time to time.”

“Bah, nomads.” The woman waves her hand dismissively. “All they do is wander and wander, floating from place to place and never seeking settlement. They ought to slow down and find home in the dirt. The dirt’s a good place to settle.” She picks up a handful of earth and sifts it through her fingers, peering at it through her piece of broken glass. “Anyways,” she says, “I’m going to give you something that’ll help you out of here. I don’t know if it’ll get you out the way you came in, but you’ll definitely see sunlight again.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Here you go, Granny,” Dalan chirps, dropping off a metal box at her feet. “May I go rest now?”

“Yes, thank you,” the old woman nods. Dalan hops off towards the nest in the corner and settles down. In moments he’s breathing smoothly. The old woman digs through the junk box but can’t seem to find what she’s looking for.

Ariana clears her throat. “So how’d you end up down here?”

“I fell down a hole into the Underground when I was just a young girl. I wandered lost in the darkness for days until I found something odd: a single lantern with three shades open hanging from the ceiling. I took it and, with nothing else to do, I did what nomads do best: I wandered.” The old woman pulls out a few pieces of shorn metal and tosses them to the side.

Ariana nods at the growing pile. “You’re a metalworker, then?”

“By necessity.” The woman frowns, tossing something aside. “I learned to make things that were useful, all with and by the light of my lantern. One day I stumbled upon a hole to the surface—the first time I had seen light in almost a year. A baby bird was struggling in the dirt, so I picked it up and nursed it back to health.” She nods to Dalan, asleep in the corner. Ariana decides not to ask how he got so big.

“How’d you make things? How did you survive a full year without food or water?”

“I found pieces of metal left behind in the tunnels, and I never found myself thirsty or in need of food. I haven’t had a meal in almost one hundred years.” The old woman pulls out a small, disk-like object from her junk box.

“A hundred years is a long time to live without food and water,” Ariana says. “How can you still be alive?”

“The Underground is magical,” the woman says. “I don’t need to have proof that I’m still alive despite not drinking or eating for a hundred years—I exist, therefore I am. By that logic, you don’t have to tell me that we’ve never met. I know in my heart that we’ve met before.” She hands the disk to Ariana.

“What’s this?” Ariana asks, holding it up.

“That is a compass,” the old woman says. “It points to something different for each person, and never to the same object twice. When I found this compass, it guided me to this corner of the Underground, where I’ve since made my home. Maybe it will guide you to some place wonderful.” She takes Ariana’s hands and closes them with her own, smiling. “Things happen here for a reason. No one needs to know how or why: they just do. Maybe you were destined to fall into this hole and meet me.”

“Don’t you need this?” Ariana says, holding the compass. “I don’t want to take something dear to you.”

“It doesn’t work for me anymore. I think it’s better for you to hold on to it; I’m sure you’ll find use for it someday.”

“Well, thank you.” Ariana places the compass in her pocket. “Now how do I get out of here?”

“Go back out the way you came and place the lantern on the hook you borrowed it from. The way will reveal itself to you.”

Ariana stands and collects her spear. “Thank you for helping me,” she says.

“Now I remember where I know you from. You remind me of my mother.” The old woman smiles, her eyes misty and faraway. “Good luck, child.”

Ariana nods shortly, then exits through the front door and back into the tunnel.

“This sucks,” Camellia grumbles as she stalks through the dark tunnels. “First I fall down a hole, then I lose my way back to the hole, and now I can’t see anything at all. Where’s Ariana when you need her? She’d know what to do.”

“You can figure this out,” says Apalon. “Why don’t you ask for directions?”

“That’s a brilliant idea. I’ll just stop on by the next person I meet and say, ‘Hey! I’m looking for the fastest way to get the heck out of here!’ I’m sure there’s somebody down in these obviously abandoned, empty tunnels.”

“I’m just trying to help.”

Camellia stops walking and sighs. “Look, I’m cold and I’m alone and I’m scared out of my wits. I’ve lost my guide and I can’t see a thing. No offense, but I’m not in the mood for cryptic metaphors and hidden messages. Now would be a good time for a guiding light.”

As if on command, a gentle yellow glow appears further down the tunnel, accompanied by feet falling on packed dirt. Camellia shields her eyes, accustomed to near complete darkness. The light stops moving a few paces from Camellia.

“Hello?” she calls. “Anyone there?”

“Just little old me,” a man’s voice says. “You’re lost, aren’t you?”

“Quite lost, actually. May I ask who’s talking?”

The light draws closer and dims, as if someone is pulling translucent shades over the light source. A man stands in front of Camellia. He’s of average height and weight, with dusty hair and vibrant cyan eyes behind a pair of simple reading glasses.

“Hello,” the man says, smiling. “You want to get out of the Underground, isn’t that right?”

“Is that where I am?” Camellia says. “The Underground?”

“Precisely. It’s a vast network of tunnels and corridors that snakes through the Plains. People of all kinds live in the Underground, though they’re very difficult to find. Sometimes you can go whole weeks without finding a person to talk to.” He sets his lantern staff against the wall and digs through his jacket. “It’s a good thing I found you.”

“I could say the same.”

“Well, I actually found you, not the other way around, so while you could say the same…” He frowns and then huffs in irritation. “I knew I left it back at my house. I don’t even know why I’m bothering to look. Would you follow me back home? I can get you out of here, but before you leave I’d like to talk to you.”

“Uh…” Camellia calls out to Apalon for reassurance, but the god is strangely silent. “Sure, I don’t see why not.”

“Splendid!” He takes up his lantern staff. “My name is Doc; it’s a pleasure to meet you. If you’ll come with me, please—my house is only a short distance back that way.”

Camellia follows Doc back down the earthy corridor. The tunnel curves occasionally, but for the most part they walk a straight line in silence. Camellia fidgets nervously, acutely aware of the fact that she’s isolated in an underground tunnel with a strange man she just met. A thousand nightmarish scenarios gallop through her mind.

“Don’t be nervous,” Doc says over his shoulder. “I’m not a bad man.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Camellia replies.

“You didn’t need to.”

Doc stops in the middle of the tunnel and fades through a wall, much to Camellia’s astonishment. She stands in front of where Doc vanished into, a small beacon of light glowing from the dirt. Doc’s head pops out from the wall, startling her again.

“It’s only an illusion,” Doc says. “Come on in. I’ll get you something to drink.”

Camellia enters through the false wall into a circular room. It’s lighted by a lantern staff posted in the center. A small chest sits near a mattress. Doc digs through a large wooden dresser resting against the far side of the room.

“Pick a seat anywhere,” he calls. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Camellia moves near the mattress and sits down, watching Doc carefully. He pulls himself away from the closet and approaches Camellia, a plate in hand. He sits down across from her and sets the plate down. On it is a teapot and two white teacups with matching saucers. Doc pours two cups of tea, passes one to Camellia, and leans back against his staff centerpiece, his own cup in hand.

“So tell me about your quest,” Doc says, pushing his glasses into place.

“You know I’m a Hero?”

“I know a lot more than that. I know you’re lost, a little more than frightened, and you’re wondering where Ariana disappeared to. I feel your pain. You just want to be in the sunshine again.” Doc drinks his tea. “You feel confined in this dark world. You long for the fresh air and freedom you enjoy so thoroughly.”

“Wow,” Camellia breathes. “How do you know all that?”

“Magic.” Doc smiles knowingly. “I’m not here to amaze you with insight or help you reach closure on dark patches of your past—you have friends for that. I’m here to provide you with a little drink, some conversation, and then I’ll show you how to get back to the Plains.”

“Nothing’s wrong with a little conversation.” Camellia drinks the rest of her tea. “If I can ask, why do you live down here? How do you get food and water? And how did you make this tea? It tastes so fresh!”

“I made it before coming to find you,” Doc says. “I put on a fresh pot because I knew I would be entertaining a guest today.” He takes a sip of his tea. “I don’t actually live down here, though. This is one of my many vacation spots.”

Camellia smiles over her cup. “You must be a traveler, then.”

“I suppose I am. In some ways I’m a nomad, not unlike you and your father. I travel from place to place, never really settling down or sticking it out for a long time. I never stay put because I know that I’m bound to move on. Such is the nature of my work.”

“And you know my family?” Camellia sets her teacup down. “Doc I’m sorry, but now I have to demand an explanation. How do you know so much about me? Are you some kind of psychic?”

“You could say that.” Doc grins. “I could prattle off about why I know so much, but I’ll shorten it and just say yes, I’m a psychic.”

Doc picks up the teapot and refills both cups. He reclines leisurely, a knowing smile on his face.

“Is there a way out of this place?” Camellia asks.

“An excellent question, the answer to which I believe you’ve earned. The only way to get out of these tunnels is by using the light within yourself.”

Camellia groans. “That’s exactly something Apalon would say. Can’t you be more specific?”

Doc leans in and opens the palm of his hand. A glowing ball of cyan energy materializes, brightening the room. Camellia shields her eyes and allows her pupils to adjust.

“Do you know why the Underground exists?” Doc asks. “It’s to help people who can’t get themselves out of dark places. I know exactly where you came from, exactly what your struggle is, and exactly how to solve it. The problem, however, is that it’s not my job to help you—you have to help yourself.” He smiles warmly. “This place is filled with magic, you know. The people who wander these tunnels are here for one reason: they have yet to find their inner light. Sometimes people find themselves in dark places with no one to help them, and they feel like no one will ever come along. So they wander aimlessly, drifting without purpose through endless dark tunnels. Sometimes they find scraps to help them—little pieces of life and light. Sometimes they find solace in loneliness. But they can’t stay here forever. The Underground is not a home for these people. The Underground is a place that forces you to move on with your life. It’s not a place to live—it’s a place to find closure, a place to mature and grow.”

Camellia blinks, hypnotized by the glowing cyan light.

“You have an immensely powerful light within you, Camellia. You don’t belong in this subterranean world. Your destiny lies above the lost dreams of this Underground. Take my staff. It will guide you out of this place and back to where you belong.”

The cyan light goes out, leaving the room in darkness. Camellia continues to stare at where the cyan ball once was, a red afterimage floating in mid-air. It takes several long minutes for Camellia to finally recollect herself and look around. The room is empty except for a lantern staff emitting a faint yellow light from the center of the room. The mattress is gone. The chest is gone. The dresser is gone. And, most importantly, Doc is gone.

Camellia sighs—nothing like a strange man giving ambiguous life advice. She pulls the lantern staff out of the dirt and three of the shades instantly slam shut. The only open shade points back to the tunnel. Camellia follows the light to the entrance and exits into the tunnel. She looks both ways, but nothing really signals which way she should go. Camellia glances at the staff.

“So which way?” she prompts.

One shade immediately closes while another one opens. It points Camellia to the left, away from where she met Doc. Nodding to herself, she starts off down the tunnel to find a way back to the surface.

Stark Pureblood stands on the edge of his warcamp, a large battle axe slung over his shoulder. His barrel chest rises and falls with each massive breath, his leather vest creaking as it expands to accompany his size. The Plains sun sets behind him on the horizon, throwing Stark’s shadow in the direction of Monarch. The nomad keeps his eyes locked on the empty Plains, searching for signs of movement.

“You summoned me, Great Stark.”

Katan Justblade stands a few paces behind the nomad leader, a curved blade at his side. Stark does not turn or otherwise acknowledge his second’s presence. Katan says nothing, used to long moments of silence from the Pureblood nomad leader.

“A Hero,” Stark finally says. “There’s a Hero in the Plains. I’m not absolutely certain, but I can’t ignore my instincts.” He looks over his shoulder. “Come and stand with me.”

“Does that trouble you?” Katan asks as he steps up next to Stark. “The Hero, I mean.”

“No, it does not.” Stark lays a massive hand on Justblade’s shoulder. “You and I must remain strong for others. A Hero questing to find his patron god is a threat to everything I have strived to create for you—for all of my people.” Stark turns around and Katan turns with him.

They overlook the Pureblood nomad camp from their perch on top of the hill. Dozens upon dozens of tents are built near scattered campfires. Children play and parents prepare evening meals. Groups of people cluster together to talk with one another, sharing their stories of the day. One of the groups laughs uproariously, the sound carrying across the flat vastness.

“Look at this place,” Stark says, sweeping his hand across the camp. “These people need a leader who won’t tolerate imperfect blood. They need a leader who will not show weakness. Mark my words, Katan: the Hero is coming, and he will destroy everything I have worked so hard to build.” He pauses, then gently pushes Katan towards the camp. “Go now. Do not tell the battlemasters what I have told you.”

“Yes, Pureblood.” Katan runs down the hill.

Stark picks up his axe and walks away from his camp, submerging himself in the dusky darkness. On his way deeper into the Plains, he passes by two scout outposts. He dismisses their gaping stares with a nod of his head, explaining that he’s merely out for a walk and nothing more. Within minutes the light of the camp is far away and Stark is alone in the Plains.

The twilight provides a perfect atmosphere for stealthy movement as Stark moves softly through the knee-high wheatgrass. The evening wind blows calm and peaceful, whistling softly across the land. Stark comes to a stop, crouches down in the grass, and waits. A four legged animal leaps past him, but he does not strike. He waits for a better prey—a much rarer prey, the only one of its kind on all of Renea. One ox comes close to the warcamp leader and grazes, but Stark still does not strike. He shifts his axe slightly and resets his legs, waiting. The hornbeast will come; he knows it.

Then, a sound cuts through the air—a tune is being whistled. Though barely loud enough to be heard, it’s somehow impossible to miss. Stark scans his immediate surroundings for anything out of the ordinary. Off to his right, a campfire glows where one wasn’t glowing before. A man sits on a log whistling a tune, enjoying the fading evening. Stark wades through the grass for a closer look.

The man wears a blue cloak with a hood, his hair spilling in every direction as if he didn’t bother with a comb. Stark pauses just on the edge of the firelight, remaining observant and still.

“So are you going to hide all night or are you going to join me?” the man calls, directing his question at the hidden nomad. Stark stays quiet and doesn’t move, calling the man’s bluff. Things like this are common in the Plains, as paranoia can creep up on even the hardiest explorers.

The man picks up a rock and launches it with incredible accuracy, striking Stark directly between the eyes. Agitated that he’s been discovered, Stark stands.

“How did you know I was here?”

“Just a feeling,” the man says. “Are you thirsty? Come, sit. Have something to drink. A friend gave me about fifty-seven packets of tea so I’m hardly going to run out anytime soon.”

Stark steps into the firelight, hoping his presence will frighten the man away. After all, tonight is a night for hunting, not drinking tea with strangers. The man doesn’t seem to notice Stark, however. He merely prods the coals with a wooden stick, watching his tea kettle carefully.

“Do you know who I am?”

“You’re Stark Pureblood,” the man says simply, as if talking about the weather. “You’re troubled by the entrance of a Hero into the Plains and you want to talk to someone anonymously. After all, if Katan knew you were scared, he’d think you were weak.” The stranger smiles at Stark. “But being afraid isn’t a weakness, Stark. Everybody gets scared sometimes.”

“I’m not afraid of him,” Stark declares. “I’m not afraid of anyone, especially not the Hero.”

“Yet you make it sound like he’s destined to destroy you.” The man takes the kettle away from the fire and pours two cups of tea. “Sit, please. Have some tea.”

Stark takes a cup and sits. “Who are you? Why do you not fear my name?”

“I’m just a nomad, much like you. I walk wherever I want, though sometimes it’s not on the ground, and sometimes I’m not really walking at all.” The man sips his tea. “I can tell you what you want to know about this Hero, though. It might abate your fears.”

“I am not afraid of him!” Stark shouts.

“Of course you aren’t,” the man concedes gently. “You are, after all, a great leader and a great warrior. You can handle anything that comes your way—even a Hero.”

“Are you saying I should not fear this Hero?”

“You’re strong, Stark. Really, really strong. You could probably break my neck like a twig.” The stranger rubs his chin in thought. “Come to think of it, I think you did at one point in time. But this Hero has incredible potential. You have your work cut out for you.”

Stark is silent for a moment. He looks over his shoulder to ensure no one is watching or listening. “How strong?” Stark asks, voice soft. “How strong is he?”

“I’ll be straight with you,” the man says. “She isn’t much to look at right now. But when she taps into her potential, she’s really going to be something to behold.”

“So it’s pointless, then?” Stark says, ignoring the pronoun change. “I should give up hope now and take my death like a coward?” He scowls, annoyed. “Useless advice if you ask me. I’ll have to crush this Hero before he gets too powerful.”

“Maybe you and the Hero are meant to be partners, not Adversaries. Have you ever thought about what might happen if you tried to befriend the Hero instead of trying to fight her?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Stark says. “The Hero is not a pureblood; he can never be a friend or an ally. The only thing we are destined to be is enemies.”

“Well, there goes that attempt at reconciliation.” The man dumps his tea in the dirt. “I’m getting out of here,” he says. “Talking sense into you is like trying to talk to a brick wall. I’d have a better chance at convincing the King to burn Monarch to the ground.”

“Do not speak to me so insolently!” Stark roars, standing up. “I will not stand for your disrespect!”

“I’m sure you won’t. But if you’re expecting me to give an apology, I wouldn’t hold your breath.” He grins wickedly. “There’s a storm coming, and when it hits, I hope to see the look on your face as the Hero grinds your neck beneath her boot.”

Stark launches himself at the man, who simply disappears into thin air. The warmonger’s hands grab empty air and he slams into something hard face-first. The fire goes out with a puff!, leaving the nomad in darkness. Grinding his teeth against the pain, Stark stands and searches for his tormentor, but the only perceivable thing is a taunting laugh that seems to come from everywhere. It echoes in his skull, rattling around in his brain until it’s all he can think about.

Furious, the warmonger stomps back to his camp, forgetting to collect the battle axe he left in the knee-high grass. He brews a plan for defeating the Hero to get his mind off the strange man in the plains. By the time he’s back to camp, Stark’s temper has calmed and his mind is buzzing with possibilities.

He calls Katan into his personal tent and lays out an incredibly detailed plan. They scheme and discuss and argue well into the night, and it isn’t until the sun starts to peek over the horizon the next morning that an accord is finally struck. They emerge from Stark’s tent as the morning breaks.

“Consider your days numbered,” Stark says to himself. “By the time I’m finished with you, no one will ever again threaten the Pureblood nomads. Your time is coming, Hero, and it’s coming soon.”

“So you were stuck in the Underground too?” Camellia asks, walking with Ariana in the late afternoon sun. “Did you meet anyone?”

“That I did,” Ariana says. “But you sound eager, so you tell me who you met first.”

“I met a guy with glasses who called himself Doc. He knew a lot about me and gave me some good advice.” Camellia looks into the sky, thoughtful. “Well, I think it was advice. I don’t know if I understood everything he said.” She looks at her companion. “Who did you meet?”

Ariana sighs. “You’d laugh if I told you.”

“Try me, I’m sure it’s believable.”

“I met a blue bird as tall as a man and a woman who’s over one hundred years old.” Ariana looks at Camellia for reassurance, only to find that her companion is cracking a smile. “Don’t laugh!” Ariana says. “I’m being serious!”

“I’m not laughing!” Camellia insists through a tight smile. “It just reminded me of a story I read in a book, that’s all. Go on.”

“We talked for a little bit and she gave me something weird.” Ariana reaches into her pocket and pulls out the disk-like object. It’s a curious device made out of scraps of metal and a single pane of glass. Inside, an arrow spins around in a slow, lazy circle, as if unsure what to point at.

“That’s the weirdest compass I’ve ever seen,” Camellia says, looking at the device in Ariana’s hands. “The ones I’m used to are magnetized to always point north. I’ve never seen a compass just spin in every direction like that. It must be broken.”

“She said it points to something different for every person. Maybe it doesn’t know what to point at for me.” Ariana offers the compass. “Here, you try it.”

Camellia takes the compass in her hands and the arrow immediately stabilizes, pointing to the northwest. Curious, Camellia turns around completely and faces the opposite direction. The compass swings to face the same direction it had been pointing at before.

“Works for me.” Camellia hands the compass back to Ariana and the arrow starts to spin in a lazy circle again. “I wonder why it won’t work for you.”

Ariana pockets the compass. “I’m not going to worry about it now. We lost several hours of walking time thanks to the Underground.” She looks at the setting sun. “It’s getting late. We should get some food and set up camp before it gets dark.”

“Food!” Camellia palms her forehead. “I didn’t grab anything from the camp before we left!”

Ariana laughs. “I guess I’ll have to teach you how to hunt.”

“Do what?” Camellia says. “I can’t hunt!”

“Of course you can!” Ariana says brightly. “Come on, I’ll show you.” She jogs off and her companion hurries to catch up.

“I don’t think I can stomach killing an animal,” Camellia says as she runs. “They’re plush and huggable and I don’t think I have it in me to be so mean.”

“Oh don’t be so silly,” Ariana says. “There are plenty of violent animals out here that’ll kill you as soon as look at you.”

“And the difference between me and them is I want avoid killing something to eat it. Isn’t there a salad bar around here? The thought of excess gore is making me nauseous.”

“Fresh out of salad bars, I’m afraid.” Ariana pulls to a stop. “But here we have a perfect hunting spot!”

The area before them is nothing spectacular. Green grass and a few rolling hills stretch into the distance. Ariana kneels and Camellia follows suit. They scope out the grass in silence. After several minutes of total stillness, Camellia huffs impatiently.

“I thought we were supposed to be hunting.”

“Shh! You’re going to scare it away!”

“Scare what away?”

The ground trembles and an ear-splitting roar thunders across the plains. A four-armed monster with shimmering gold fur rises from the grass, its pupilless white eyes filled with rage. It bares its fangs, showing off several rows of sharp teeth and four large incisors. Camellia throws a look at her companion, but Ariana is already running away and putting more distance between them by the moment.

“You know,” Apalon says softly, “this would be a good time to run.”

Camellia scrambles to her feet and runs after Ariana, too afraid to look back. A second roar splits the air and a sound like an oncoming freight train soon follows. Camellia hazards a look behind her; the monster is on the move, rapidly closing the gap between them.

She runs faster, her legs pumping wildly as her brain floods with adrenaline. The beast’s breath is hot on the back of her neck and its serrated claws rip through the dirt. Panic grips her throat, blinding her eyes.

Then, in a single moment, everything disappears in a rush of air. Camellia slows to a jog, then to a walk, and finally stops altogether. She finds herself alone at the top of a hill. Fresh green grass extends in every direction and a bright, warm sun shines overhead. The monster is gone. Ariana is nowhere in sight.

Camellia looks around. “Where am I? What happened?”

“You’re a citystride away from your friend,” Apalon says. “You’ve run away from the monster at super-speed, but you’ve left Ariana alone.”

“How do I get back to her? If she needs my help—”

“Relax,” Apalon says. “She doesn’t need your help to beat the beast. However, I know for sure that you need her to make it through the Plains. If you can slow down your mind, getting back should be a breeze.”

Camellia nods and turns around. With a two-step running start and a rush of energy, Camellia finds herself almost teleporting across the plains. The green grass blurs into itself and wind screams by her ears. Suddenly she stands mere feet from Ariana, who is busy circling around an extremely angry monster with an extremely nasty temper. Ariana’s clothes are torn heavily, evidence of a battle.

“And where in Chaldir’s beard did you run off to?”

“It was an accident,” Camellia insists. “But I’m here now! What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing,” Ariana says with utmost seriousness. “Just stand there for a sec.”

Ariana continues to circle around the golden monster, spear pointed forwards. The monster keeps its eyes on Ariana and Ariana alone, ignoring Camellia.

“Listen closely,” she finally says. “I’m going to trust you on this, so don’t let me down. The huntbeast’s only weak spot is the split in its ribs. Aim your fist there and punch as fast as you possibly can. That should be enough to kill it.”

“Kill it? But Ariana—”

“Do as I say before we both end up dead!”

Camellia hesitates for just a moment, but when the monster growls and coils its legs, she realizes she has no choice. She cranks back and throws hypersonic punch. Her momentum launches her into the air and she slams face-first into the monster.

WHAM! The beast crashes to the ground and lies still. Camellia trembles, too scared to even move. After a few moments of paralyzing terror, she drags herself out of the beast’s golden hair. A pair of lifeless eyes and a slack jaw stares at Camellia, shocking a yelp from her lips.

“What a punch!” Ariana cheers, running up to her companion. “You did amazing! Take a look at your handiwork!”

Camellia shifts herself around. A hole as large as a car windshield has been blown in the monster’s chest, reaching all the way down to the ground. The grass is soaked with fresh blood.

“No way,” she says. “I did that?”

“We’ve got to work on your foot position,” Ariana says. “Flying face-first into the enemy won’t be any good in a real battle.” She wipes the sweat from her brow and nods in approval. “Well, we’ve got something to eat for dinner tonight. I say we carve this bad boy up and get a fire started.”

Camellia doesn’t immediately answer. Her eyes are drawn to a curious sight on Ariana’s upper thigh: a spiraling blue tattoo. It corners off in random places, as if it were drawn without regard for symmetry. Their eyes meet for a moment.

“Come on,” Ariana says, pulling fabric over her leg. “Let’s get ready for nightfall.”

They set up camp in silence as twilight overtakes the Plains. Ariana teaches Camellia how to create fire using the head of a spear and a certain type of rock found in the dirt. Ariana strips a majority of the carcass of the monster, again using only the head of her spear. As she does, she explains the best parts to use for food and the best parts to smoke and dry out for preservation. Darkness sets on the modest camp while Ariana cooks a meal over the fire. Camellia has been silent for several hours.

“Ariana?” Camellia finally says. Her companion grunts in response, turning a large chunk of meat over a makeshift spit. “Did you really need my help? I mean… Could you have beaten that monster by yourself?”

“Don’t be silly. Did you see the size of that thing? I’ve never seen a huntbeast that big, and I’ve been around the block more than once.” She gives Camellia a smile. “If you didn’t come back for me, I would have been a goner.”

“Apalon told me that you didn’t need my help to beat it. I have this feeling that he was right, but I can’t explain why. Are you being honest with me?”

“Of course I am. I know for certain that I wouldn’t have been able to beat it without you.” Ariana picks up her spear and jabs it into the meat; steam hisses into the air and the skin crackles and pops. “It’s almost ready. You hungry?”

“Yeah,” Camellia says. “I guess I could eat.”

“Eat what you can. Sunset Hill is still far away and we’ll need all the energy we can get.”

“How do you even know where you’re going?”

“I’ve had a working theory for a while. Gods don’t like to be found by just anyone, right? Naturally they’ll go to the most secluded area possible. The far edge of the Plains is pretty far away, so that’s where Sunset Hill should be. If we keep walking in that direction, we’re bound to find it.” Ariana pulls the meat spit off the fire and holds it out for Camellia, who takes it.

“This whole thing is for me?” Camellia asks, baffled.

“Sure is. It’s the tastiest part of the huntbeast, so I thought you’d appreciate it more than me.”

“What are you having, then?”

“I’m having part of the leg. It’s not as tasty, but it’s always been my personal favorite.” She pulls out a second stick and spears it through a thick leg piece, placing it over the fire.

“This is really good,” Camellia says, chewing the meat carefully. “It’s like a turkey leg, but it’s also not.” She takes another bite out of it, nodding. “It’s fantastic. It didn’t taste like I thought it would.”

“Well, I’m glad to know you’re pleasantly surprised.”

Camellia sets her piece down, ready to ask a question that has been nagging at her for the past few hours. “Hey, if I can ask, what was that thing on your leg?” Ariana’s smile fades. “I don’t want to go digging through your history if it’s something personal. I’m just curious. It’s a very beautiful tattoo.”

“It’s not a tattoo,” Ariana says. “It’s a scar.”

“No way!” Camellia exclaims. “That’s cool! I mean, it’s sad that you got a scar.” She smiles. “But it looks pretty. How did it happen?”

“It was an accident. I was with some friends and…” She sighs, dropping her head into her hands. Camellia gasps as Ariana’s shoulders start to shake; she’s crying.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to make you upset!”

Ariana wipes her eyes. She stares hard into the fire, attempting to gather her words. Instead, tears roll down her cheeks. Ariana wipes them away angrily.

“I’m sorry, Ariana, I didn’t…” Camellia sighs and stands. “I’m going to take a walk. I think I’ve upset you enough for one night.”

“No, wait!” She stands quickly. “It’s okay, really! Just… Don’t leave, please.”

Camellia sits back down, staring at her hands in silence. Ariana sits as well, sniffling occasionally. “I’m sorry,” she says after a moment. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s not you—it’s the memories. You were only curious.” Ariana pats the spot next to her. “Come sit next to me. I need some companionship.”

Camellia sits next to her compatriot. Ariana lays her head on Camellia’s shoulder and hugs her arm to her chest, staring at the crackling fire. Besides minor comfort adjustments, neither of them talk or move for a long time. Camellia lays her head on top of Ariana’s, staring into the fire. A sense of soothing sleepiness creeps over the Hero as she watches the flames flicker and jump.

“You’re going to need some new clothes,” she says. Ariana chuckles and grips Camellia’s arm a little bit tighter, content to hold on for just a little bit longer.

Interlude Two

[]Charlie

In Monarch, the Greatest City in the World

Charlie breathes in and out through his nose, careful not to make too much noise. Concealed in the rafters above the viewing room, he waits for the change of guards.

Kalisk is hidden in a glass container covered by a black curtain, surrounded on all four sides by guards armed with spears. The four stationed guards look around, nervous. They had been told multiple times that people would attempt to steal the rare artifact before it goes on display, but so far the night has been quiet—almost too quiet.

“Change of posts soon,” one guard says aloud, attempting to break the silence.

“Yeah,” another says.

“Anyone even know what this thing is?”

“I suppose if we show up tomorrow we’ll figure it out,” a third answers. “The King himself is going to pull off the curtain and reveal it. I hear he’s also giving a speech about why it’s important.”

“So it’s all a political stunt?” the fourth asks.

“I guess so,” the third replies. “If I was him, I’d use this as a reason to drum up support for that program he’s working on. What was it called, again?”

“Who knows,” the second shrugs. “It’s all a bunch of boring politicking crap to me. I could never be anything more than a guard.”

“Don’t forget, you’re also not a Hero,” the first says. “Apparently being a Hero is the only way to get into politics nowadays. You’re either chosen by the gods or you’re not worth anyone’s time.”

“I’ve got an uncle who was a Hero,” the fourth puts in. “He said the mark was little more than a flashy tattoo. All he did was use it as a means to tell tall tales to my kids about his ‘adventures on the stormy seas.’ I can’t complain; the stories made my kids happy.”

“How are your kids doing nowadays? They alright?”

“Well, you know how Josan is. All he wants to do is guard the Archives. The boy’s a scholar in soldier’s armor if I’ve ever seen one.”

The conversation dwindles for a moment; Charlie remains motionless.

“This sucks,” the first complains. “I say we ditch duty and hit the Rumbling Buffalo.”

“I don’t know,” says the third. “A little early to clock out, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but I’m really feeling a pint of Burgundy right about now. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to shave these last few minutes off and head down to the Buffalo.”

“He’s got a point,” the fourth agrees. “Come on, lads. The only way in and out is through the door we’re leaving through and we haven’t heard a peep all night. Let’s split before the commander gets wise.”

After checking the security of the case one last time, the four guards shuffle out through the door. As soon as it shuts, Charlie drops from the rafters and lands without a sound. He circles the case, running his fingers through the black fabric.

“Years of searching and you’re finally right here in front of me,” Charlie breathes. Savoring the moment for only a second longer, Charlie grabs a handful of the curtain and rips it off the glass case, exposing the legendary artifact.

The green bow is long and curved with intricate etchings. A string is tied tightly on both sides; only a very strong archer would be able to pull it. The different shades of green and black would make the tool indispensable in camouflaged forest combat. Charlie grips the glass case and removes it, exposing Kalisk to the open air. Sensing his presence, the artifact glow with a warm green light. Charlie clamps a hand over his mouth.

“You still remember me,” he says, on the verge of tears. “After all these years, you still remember me.” He reaches out and touches the bow; it glows even brighter, excited by Charlie’s presence. He takes the bow and strings it across his chest. Kalisk stops glowing as Charlie leaps from the ground back into the rafters.

Charlie moves to a skylight in the back corner of the room. With a deft step and a silent prayer to avoid being spotted, he retreats to the roof. The man checks for any guards before leaping clear across the street to the nearest building. With Kalisk safe in hand, Charlie sprints across the rooftop at top speed, drinking in the night air.

It won’t be long until they get wise to the thievery, Charlie thinks. They’ll be too late, though. I’m not giving up this thing for all the money in the universe. He makes his way toward the Ruins District of Monarch, intent on showing Cynard the rare item. Charlie laughs and whoops as he leaps effortlessly from building to building.

“We’re almost there, guys! Just wait a little while longer!”

“I can’t believe this,” Cynard breathes. “It’s just too impossible.”

“Isn’t it wonderful?”

Charlie paces around the room, unable to sit or stand in one place for more than a few moments. Cynard holds Kalisk in his hands, the bow glowing faintly.

“And you got this… where?”

“I stole it back from a group of thieves,” says Charlie. “They had it for far too long if you ask me.”

“This is dangerous, Charlie. The whole city is going to be combed to find this thing.” He offers the bow. “I can’t keep it here. They’ll look in the shrines if they have to.”

“Just keep them at bay with some mumbo-jumbo about the wrath of the gods. I’m sure they’ll back off if you go a little manic. Foam at the mouth, really ham it up.”

“I’m serious about this!” Cynard places Kalisk on the table. “The King is going to want this back as soon as he can. It doesn’t look good for a member of royalty to have something stolen right from under their nose, especially if it’s the King. You have to keep this thing hidden and on the move. I can’t keep it here.”

“Maybe we can put in a false wall,” Charlie muses. “Knock out some plaster, replace a few—”

“Listen to me!” Cynard thunders. Stunned, Charlie goes quiet. “This artifact is the only one of its kind in the whole world. On top of that, it once belonged to a legendary Hero. You think I can keep something like this hidden? It screams to be recognized for what it is and who it belonged to. I mean, just look at how it glows!”

The legendary bow pulses rhythmically, wisps of green magic curling into the air.

“Kalisk hungers to be back with its owner,” Cynard continues. “You have to take it away from here and hide it. I’ve done a lot of things for you Charlie, but this puts my life in direct danger.” He shakes his head. “This weapon is simply too much to handle, even for an oracle.”

“You know I can’t go out and just give it back to its owner,” Charlie counters. “I have no idea where he is right now. Trying to contact him is next to impossible.”

“It’s your burden, Charlie. You have it now; you take care of it.” Cynard walks to the back room and pulls aside the curtain. “Now come here. I want to take a look at that mark of yours again.”

Sighing, Charlie heads for the back room and takes off his shirt.

“I’ve been running some tests on what happened the last time and, apparently, the meteorite mixture I used reacted with the mark itself. I made another concoction with a few tweaks. I’m looking for a very specific reaction this time around.” Cynard pulls a black vial off the shelf and uncorks it. “I really think I’m on to something this time.”

Charlie sits still as Cynard applies the black, gravelly mixture to his right shoulder. After a few seconds, the mixture fades into the lines of the tattoo, turning it completely black. The tattoo then turns bright blue and light fills the room.

An intense surge of energy fills them both, enough to rip apart any normal man. Chaldir’s presence protectively fills the oracle’s body, countering the powerful blue magic. Charlie pointedly ignores the energy, used to its slumbering company for as long as he can remember. No explosions toss them away. The mark simply glows, sending out massive amounts of benign blue energy.

“Extraordinary,” whispers Cynard. “Simply extraordinary.” He starts jotting something down in a notebook. “Sit still for a moment. I need to do a few things.”

The oracle inspects the mark at a closer angle, tracing the lines with the sharp end of a quill pen. He follows each curve and line, drawing the mark in his notebook. He mutters to himself as he does, scribbling hasty notes in the margins in slanted Renean. After what feels like many minutes, the mark stops glowing. The room plunges into darkness, the candles burned out by the blue light.

“Well?” Charlie prompts.

“It sure is something, I’ll give it that much.” Cynard walks about the room, relighting the candles. “I drew it in detail so I could study it further, but I noticed many things already. One, this isn’t a tattoo.”

Charlie feigns surprise. “It’s not? You’re kidding!”

“Two, it has celestial origins. Whatever gave you this mark came from outer space, which is why it reacted to the first meteorite. And three, it connects you to other people.”

Charlie’s eyes narrow at the third point. “And how do you know that?”

“I put some of my wife’s ashes in this last mixture,” Cynard admits. “I know it’s kind of gruesome, but you know how she meant the world to me. I thought that it was something worth testing, considering how you clam up when I ask about your past.” He closes his notebook and sits on the bed. “Anyways, it looks like the mark recognized the love I have for my wife and responded accordingly. I can only conclude this means your mark is not the only one of its kind.”

Charlie says nothing.

“Look, you don’t have to explain anything you don’t want to tell me. But I’m going to guess that whatever gave you this mark likely gave matching marks to people you love very, very much.”

Charlie puts on his shirt.

“You don’t have to keep coming back here if you don’t want to,” Cynard continues. “I’ve got all of the information I need.”

“Thanks,” Charlie says. “I’m going to keep visiting anyways. I kind of like it here.” He pauses. “Actually, if you want to do me a favor…”

“Sure, what do you need?”

“Can you try and see how many other people have this mark?” Charlie asks. “I mean, can you see how many of them are, well, alive?”

“I won’t make any promises, but I’ll do my best.” Cynard smiles. “Take care, Charlie. And don’t forget to grab Kalisk on your way out. That thing belongs in the hands of someone like you, not someone like me.”

Charlie exits to the front room. He picks up Kalisk and it stops glowing, sensing its handler’s readiness to leave. The man departs through the front door, slips into a side alley, and vanishes into the night.

Chapter Sixteen

[]Historic Clouds

Somewhere in Chaldir’s Ruins

Bennie Balachie’s eyes open to a dusty, ashen world.

As a result, her first reaction is a terribly unceremonious sneeze.

The group made their camp under the shelter of a lean-to building. A bad wind crept in overnight and showered the camp in ash and debris. Tall piles of ash accumulate in the corners of the other buildings. Outside, the red sky is lighter than usual and the ash has yet to begin falling.

Bennie sits up and torches her head with a hot burst of fire. She dons her outfit, including her skirt, outer armor, metal belt, and boots. She then burns the ash off her hands, arms, and upper body. The heat of the flames is enough to rouse Kexal.

“Go do that somewhere else,” he grumbles. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”

“Can’t you taste the adventure?” Bennie says, turning to the face the red sun. “There’s tons of treasure out there just waiting to be discovered!” She sucks in a deep breath, surprised at how clean the air tastes. “I’m just getting started, Kexal. I’ve got a feeling that my journey begins today.”

“You said that yesterday,” the man gripes in response. “If you’re so full of pep, go work on something constructive. Make some breakfast or whatever.”

Bennie purses her lips into a pout, but she doesn’t retort; it would only make him complain more. Instead, she starts off to find some firewood, wandering around the general area of her campsite while being careful not to stray too far. The ruined houses and burned-out buildings blend into one another, creating a dystopian camouflage. It sets the perfect mood for an early-morning treasure hunt.

Bennie has a spring in her step, as ready to fight as she is to explore. She shoots a few ceremonious fireballs into the air, watching with glee as they burst and flash. Skipping, Bennie prances around the wasteland in a hunt for firewood. Most of the wood she finds is charred or crisped—not optimum fuel for fires. In fact, every piece of wood Bennie picks up is either burnt or too crispy to burn. She sighs.

“What did you expect?” Bennie asks herself. “You are in the Ruins after all.”

“Talking to yourself again?”

Jenna walks around the edge of a half-collapsed wall.

“Morning Jenna,” Bennie greets. “Did I wake you up?”

“I slipped off for a morning walk before anyone got up,” Jenna says. “I was on my way back to camp when I saw a fireball in the sky. I ran to help only to find you dancing around like it’s the best day ever.” She smirks, folding her arms. “Have pleasant dreams?”

Bennie avoids Jenna’s eyes, smiling to herself. “I just feel good, that’s all. What, I have to have an excuse to shoot a few fireballs?”

“Not at all! I was just curious. What are you doing out here?”

“Kexal kicked me out of the camp. He wants me to find firewood for the morning meal.”

Jenna leans against the wall. “Too lazy to get up and find it himself?”

“Yeah, but I don’t mind so much. It gives me a chance to get out and have some time to myself.” She smiles mischievously. “Of course, I might get lost and end up coming back to the camp a little later than I promised. I hope Kexal won’t be too mad at me.”

“I’m sure he’ll be glad you’re late,” Jenna picks up, grinning. “You know how he loves it when people don’t follow his orders to the letter.”

The two women share a stifled giggle with each other. Jenna looks towards the camp.

“One of these days I think we can crack him,” she says. “We’ll get him to lighten up and stop taking things so seriously.”

Bennie nods. “It’s an adventure, not a competition. Maybe once he understands that, he’ll be a little more pleasant.”

After a moment of silence, Jenna claps her hands together. “Well, anyways, I’m going back to camp. If you find any water, bring it with you. Our reserves are running low.”

“Sure thing,” Bennie agrees. “Did you want me to find some medicine too?”

“Medicine? For what?”

“You know, for your hands.”

Jenna instinctively hides her hands behind her back. On her palms are two blue spiral designs, each one curving and spinning before angling off in odd places, as if drawn haphazardly or without regards for symmetry. It’s the first time Bennie has seen Jenna without her gloves on—the first time she’s seen the strange blue marks.

“Oh,” Jenna says softly, almost as if she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t. “No, don’t worry about those. They’re old news.”

“I’ve never seen them before!” Bennie says. “Are you sure you don’t want me to look for something? My mom and I gardened together, so I know a lot about medicinal plants. Maybe I can whip up a brew that’ll heal the scars.”

Jenna laughs. “Scars can’t be healed. Don’t worry about it. They aren’t the worst thing to happen to me.”

“They don’t hurt or anything?” Bennie presses. “You sure you don’t want me to help?”

Jenna offers a soft smile. “No, thank you. I appreciate the offer—really, I do, but these scars are a part of me now. I don’t think I can bear to part with them.”

Bennie folds her arms. “Okay, but my offer still stands if you change your mind.”

Jenna waves her off. “Go out and grab some firewood or something. I’ll rouse Kexal. The earlier we can get moving the better off we’ll be. Chaldir waits for no woman, after all.”

“Or man,” Bennie adds with a smile. She then turns around and leaves the building, heading back to the main road.

Out on the road, Bennie whistles a happy tune to herself. Every once in a while she kicks a stone down the path, listening as it echoes off the sides of the buildings. The Ruins sun hangs low in the sky, radiating red light across the silent wasteland. Despite her cheery mood, Bennie keeps her wits about her, wary of Skeletons on the prowl or other dangerous creatures.

Then, from a hollowed-out stone shack on the side of the road, a glint of light catches her eye. She stops to take a closer look, stepping to the left and then to the right, trying to recapture the glint. Once she finds the perfect spot, Bennie freezes in place—it’s the color of gold. Excitement rising in her throat, Bennie hurries into the stone shack. Inside is a pile of ash and some burnt wood.

Bennie opens her palm, bathing the shack in an intense storm of fire. The flames eat away at the wood and ash, burning and flickering with almost human greed. Bennie watches the scene with delight, proud to have more control over her powers with each day. She extinguishes the flames.

Bennie digs through the ash, looking for the elusive golden glint she saw from the road. While searching, she uncovers broken glass, parchment with unreadable letters, and more charred wood. Nothing made out of gold or closely resembling gold immediately jumps out at her, much to her disappointment. She sits back in the ash, wondering if what she saw earlier was gold or if it was the Ruins playing tricks on her mind.

Her eyes fall on the parchment. She picks it up, inspecting it curiously. A golden scarab pin is holding the pages together—it must have been the glint she saw earlier. The packet is much thicker than Bennie initially thought, and many of the pages are now scattered in the ash after she discarded it without thinking. Sighing, Bennie collects the pages and rearranges them in order as best as she can. The symbols look familiar, if only in a vague way.

“Curious,” Bennie mutters, “how something can look so familiar and yet completely foreign at the exact same time.”

Bennie unclips the scarab pin and pockets it, savoring the feeling of collecting her first real measure of wealth. She thumbs through the pages. Both the front and back sides of each page has been written on. The handwriting starts out neat and tidy, gradually slanting to the right with each page. By the last page, the handwriting is so slanted and cursive that it’s almost impossible to read. It’s as if the person who wrote the manuscript wrote it all in one sitting without stopping, or perhaps they wrote each page with less and less time on their hands.

I know these symbols, Bennie tells herself. I know I know these symbols. I just have to remember where I’ve seen them.

She traces the symbols carefully, wracking her brain to remember them. Bennie delves through all the languages she’s seen and studied, drawing parallels and attempting to find connections. She fishes, she hunts, and she searches, but after many minutes of quiet yet thorough thinking, Bennie is no closer to remembering the symbols than she was when she first started.

“Stupid brain,” she says, knocking on her skull with her knuckles. “Good for nothing but making fire and daydreams.”

Wait… Fire…?

Struck with an idea, Bennie looks at the parchment with renewed curiosity. She focuses on a small set of symbols, burning them into her mind before mentally bathing them in orange fire. The orange fire bites into the alien script, knocking off excess radicals and nonsensical edges before filling in the spots that have been cleared, producing a single phrase that Bennie can read.

She opens her eyes, the parchment in her hands. The symbols shift and distort as if being eaten and cleansed by an orange fire. Soon Bennie can read the whole first page, and the one after that, and the one after that. She pumps her fist, heart thundering in her chest. After sorting the pages into the proper order, Bennie begins to read.

Day 22

Today, I fought off a cloudmonger for the first time!

Every time before this they’ve always trampled me and knocked me out, but this time I finally managed to beat it. I got a little bit lucky with my surroundings, but still, I beat it. A cloudmonger! I used to think those things were invincible. Now they don’t seem so scary.

The rockhefters are still far out of my league. If I meet one again, it could spell instant doom. And I can’t forget about the Skeletons. These Ruins are still full of danger, so I have to be careful. As long as I budget my time and energy, I should reach Chaldir within a few weeks.

Day 24

A cloudmonger killed Yaldril today. It snuck up on us and drowned him in its ashen grasp. I was too late to save him. I should have been more careful. Because of me, Yaldril is dead. The morale of the group is low. I have to figure out a way to keep their spirits up.

Day 30

We discovered a stash of ancient gold hidden in the crawlspace of an abandoned home. I just had a hunch that something was there, so we dug it out and got a nice reward. Talenet gave me a portion of his share, saying that he was more interested in what Chaldir could give him than what gold could buy.

I wonder, though. Can Chaldir really grant wishes? Does Talenet think that someone like him might have a chance at immortality? It’s such a shot in the dark… I still don’t know what I’m going to wish for. Maybe a nice house and a stable income. And a hot guy with some stubble, a chiseled chin, a deep voice…

Day 33

We reached Feland this morning. As we thought, the town was already deserted. I think the rockhefters have run them off. It might also have been the Skeletons, but they’re too unorganized and dysfunctional for something like this… There’s nothing left here except a disembodied arm.

Maybe I can ask Chaldir to grant peace to this ruined world. He knows we need it. There’s not much we can do to help if the realm is empty by the time we have the power to change things.

Day 36

Killed my first rockhefter today, but not before it killed Galdop, Lzesth, and Porgum. Our group numbers only seven now. I pray that the morale of my group lifts soon, or we will be in danger.

I wonder why I’m doing this. I look at myself and ask if this is what I really want. Is my wish going to come true? Can Chaldir really do the unthinkable? I can’t let my friends down; I’ve come too far. I must continue on no matter the cost. I just hope that I have the tenacity to endure what may come next.

Day 39

Swarmed by Skeletons while we were sleeping. Only four left now, including me. I dare not think about what happened to the other three.

Day 45 or 46

My companions have left me. I woke up this morning alone with nothing more than my stuff and a burned-out fire. I’ve no food, no water, and little shelter. This is where the going really gets tough. Nothing I can do now but forge ahead.

Day 50, or 51, or 52

Running low on stamina. Rockhefters are watching me from the shadows. I can hear the sounds of Skeletons creeping in the shadows. Almost too afraid to go to sleep. Chaldir protect me.

Day Unknown

Probably last entry. Fire and ash is everywhere now. The darkness is thick enough to cut with a knife. Ash fills my nose and I can barely breathe. This might be the end of the road.

Day Unknown

I have made it to Palace Center.

Day 1

I have decided to restart the days of my journal following my meeting with Chaldir, god of Ruin and Flame. I can’t detail everything that happened, but what I can say is that he is real and he is incredible. I was told something very important by him and that I had to gather my friends together to fulfill our last challenge. He called it the Riddle—the crowning conundrum and final obstacle to overcome. I am on my way back to Monarch to tell my friends what I’ve been told. If it’s the truth, and I have no reason to doubt that, then everything I know is about to change.

I hope my friends will understand my message, and I pray that they will accept the daunting task ahead of us.

Day 3

I reached Monarch yesterday. My friends were waiting for me; I was the last to arrive. After reconnecting, we each shared what we learned. As it turns out, they also learned the same thing from their patron gods as I learned from Chaldir. The web of complexity is much bigger than I ever thought.

We face the Riddle tomorrow. I will not screw this up for them. I will show them how much I’ve changed and matured in my days since we first left. They, too, have all changed. I’ve never felt such power as when we were together again. I felt like a queen—no, I felt like a god.

Everyone is going to sleep now. I will detail our success in tomorrow’s journal entry. It’s kind of surreal, isn’t it? After all the fights, the losses, and the victories we’ve had, our future is right in front of us. I didn’t think it would come so early. Despite my thoughts, I have no doubt that we will succeed. Nothing could possibly stand against us.

Bennie turns the page over, but there are no further journal entries. Curious, she rifles through the ash for more pages, but there are none to be found.

She sets the manuscript aside and leans against the stone wall. The Ruins sun has progressed further in the sky, brightening the dark realm. A stray wind blows from the southwest—the seat of the Ruins sun. It looks like an ashfall will begin soon. Bennie sighs, her mind on gold, dangerous monsters, and ancient texts without endings.

Then, a strangely familiar sound cuts through her thoughts. Bennie glances up; just in case, she clenches her fists and revs up her internal fire. The sound comes again, closer this time. Bennie focuses, trying to recall where she remembers hearing it. A shape makes its way around the edge of the stone building, the sound coming for the third time. Bennie quickly gets to her feet, all preparation for self-defense gone as panic grips her throat.

At the front of the building is the single largest snake she has ever seen.

The long, purple serpent has a head easily the same size as Bennie’s upper body. Its scales shimmer in the red sunlight, casting flecks of heliotrope against the blackened stone walls. Rigid, dark purple horns jut from its body and a large horn sprouts from the top of the snake’s skull as if it were a crown. Bright, glowing orange eyes watch Bennie with something between malice and curiosity.

Bennie remains rooted to the spot, terrified. She’s used to small things like garden snakes; never before has she seen anything of this size. The serpent slithers closer, inching its way into the stone hut. Bennie’s heart pounds in her chest, breathing so fast that she’s on the border of hyperventilation. The snake’s glowing orange eyes never break away, pulsing with an inner light.

It stops just short of Bennie’s face, its head close enough that she can reach out and touch its nose. Bennie tries to tear her gaze away from the snake’s orange eyes, but she can barely stand, much less look away. The snake breathes slow and deep, each exhale rattling Bennie to the bone as each inhale draws breath from her lungs.

Then, the horns begin to glow, fading to a raven black. They become spotted, some with white and others with blue, green, or even bright red. The spots form into structureless, formless shapes that lazily drift across the surface. It almost looks like an artist’s canvas left to drip-dry on a hot summer’s day.

Despite her inherent terror, Bennie manages to focus long enough to recognize the shapes of nebulas and galaxies. The horns are reflecting pieces of the night sky; one horn depicts an entire field filled with stars of every color imaginable. Bennie’s fear gradually turns to awe. After a few moments, she slowly steps forward. Her hand involuntarily leaves her side and she reaches out to touch one of the cosmic horns. She brushes it only for a second, blue sparks jumping between her and the serpent.

The horns abruptly stop glowing, pulling Bennie out of her reverie. The serpent’s glowing orange eyes never stop watching her. She says and does nothing, choosing not to retreat in case the snake decides to chase her.

The snake emits a long, slow hiss, and then it turns and slithers away.

Once it’s gone, Bennie slinks to the ground, shaken and drained. She puts her head in her hands, trying to recover as adrenaline floods her body. She immediately chastises herself for not attacking it and running back to Kexal and Jenna. Nevertheless, she gives herself a pat on the back for not passing out in the face of her one true phobia.

Regaining her composure, Bennie collects herself and heads back to her friends. Back at camp, Kexal and Jenna have already started a fire. Kexal’s lips curl into a frown as soon as he sees Bennie.

“And just where in Chaldir’s mighty beard did you wander off to?” Kexal demands. “We’ve been worried sick about you! And where’s the firewood? I had to go out and collect all of this myself!”

“Oh the horror,” Jenna coos, patting Kexal on the arm. “Maybe next time I’ll get you some grapes and a golden throne to sit on, Your Royal Highness.”

Kexal yanks his arm away. “Oh buzz off, I’m serious here. Where did you go?”

“She was hardly gone for half an hour,” Jenna says. “Let her have some time alone.”

“No,” Bennie says quietly. “Kexal has a point. I should have told someone where I went.” She sits down near the fire, shivering despite the warmth. “I got sidetracked trying to find some firewood. I spent so much time looking through the buildings that I forgot what I was looking for in the first place.”

Kexal and Jenna exchange a glance. Jenna kneels down next to her friend. “You alright, Bennie? You look a little shaken.”

“Just fine,” Bennie says, attempting to force a smile that barely clears the edges of her lips.

“Like hell you are,” Kexal says. He sits down next to her. “What happened out there?”

Bennie shrugs vaguely, trying to put the experience out of her mind. An involuntary image of the snake’s horrific fangs flashes through her mind. Bennie shudders, tucking her head into her arms.

Jenna rubs her friend’s shoulders. “Talk to us. We’re here for you.”

“Snake,” Bennie whispers, her head still tucked in her arms. “A very, very big snake found me after I read some old papers. Big and purple, with bright orange eyes and spikes coming out of its body.”

Kexal’s brow furrows. “Did it glow anywhere? Did the ‘spikes’ do anything strange?”

Bennie nods. “They changed from purple to a reflection of the night sky.”

“Tetrask’s tooth,” Jenna breathes. “You met the serchilon—the legendary animal of the Ruins.”

“To think it would be here of all places,” Kexal says, leaning back. “The one-of-a-kind serpent, right in our backyard.”

“You’re safe now, Bennie.” Jenna pats her friend’s shoulder reassuringly; Bennie tilts her head up to meet Jenna’s smile. “I know the serchilon looks scary, but it’s never harmed anyone.”

“We should be vigilant,” Bennie says softly. “Just in case it decides to change that streak.”

“Sure, if that makes you comfortable.”

“It’s strange,” Kexal says. “The serchilon shouldn’t be in this area of the Ruins; its home is usually closer to the Vast Emptiness. What could have driven it out here?”

“Maybe we’re a lot closer to Palace Center than we think,” says Bennie. She stands, though her legs quiver. “We should get moving. We can’t afford to lose any travel time.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Kexal stands and pats Bennie on the back. “Besides, someone has to keep you moving forward. If not, you would get sidetracked every fifteen seconds.”

Jenna appears to be lost in thought, her gaze on the ground both intense and comatose. Bennie clears her throat politely. “You with us, Jenna?”

“You mentioned something about old papers,” she says. “What were they about?”

“It was an old journal entry,” Bennie replies. “It detailed the journey of someone who came through the Ruins a long time ago. They even reached Palace Center.”

“I need you to take me to where you saw that journal.”

“Why?”

“This is going to sound crazy,” Jenna replies, “but that journal sounds like it might be a missing piece of history I’ve been looking for. The chance is slim, but if what you just told me is true, I can’t afford to brush it aside.” She folds her arms. “So can you take me to it or not?”

Though Bennie opens her mouth to reply, her tongue ties itself in a knot. Doubt suddenly claws at Bennie’s stomach. That conversation she had with the strange man a few days ago weighs heavy in the back of her mind. Burning determination—perhaps even greed—flares in Jenna’s eyes. Bennie wonders if she can trust Jenna with something meant for a Hero’s eyes only.

“Well?” Jenna suddenly demands.

Bennie sighs. “I don’t think I can take you there, Jenna.”

“Why not?”

“It’s gone,” Bennie lies. “When the serchilon got close to me, my body kind of… reacted. There was a protective dome of fire, and since the papers were in my hand…”

Jenna says nothing.

“It happened too fast for me to control,” Bennie insists. “With the snake practically in my face, I really didn’t have a chance to recover in time.”

“I see.” Jenna grabs her backpack and shoves it over her shoulders. “Rough luck. I’m sure you were positively mortified when you torched a priceless treasure to ash.” She tosses a look between Kexal and Bennie. “Let’s get a move on. Chaldir waits for no man.”

“Or woman,” Kexal adds.

“Oh shut up,” she snaps. Jenna shoves her way out of the camp and storms off down the road. Bennie shoots a look at Kexal; she grins, trying to remain optimistic. It quickly fades, however, when Kexal turns away to collect his belongings.

Bennie kicks dirt into the fire, her mind on the wild look in Jenna’s eyes. Kexal’s own thoughts are troubled as well. He knows for certain that Bennie lied to Jenna’s face. However, it’s not the act itself that bothers him. What Kexal cannot fathom is why Bennie would need to lie outright to one of her friends.

Then, ash begins to fall from the sky.

“A what?”

“A girl,” Nekros Mathis repeats. “A girl with brown eyes and short, dark red hair. That’s what the Hero looks like.”

“Incredible!” Riel exclaims as settles into his chair. “And to think that all this time I was preparing for a bearded man riddled with scars, one who lived in battle from birth!” The Skeleton King leans forwards. “What do you know of her? Is she strong?”

“I’d say she’s about average,” Nekros says. “Not too deadly, but not weak enough to be disregarded completely. If we give it a while longer, she might grow up to be a fierce competitor. You never know, Riel. She might become strong enough to defeat you.”

“Indeed,” Riel hums, drumming his fingertips on his throne. “In that case, I have a task for you. I want you to create a special force that can resist magical attacks. Build them, test them, and train them. I want to have a backup plan.”

“Concerned about your battle already? You shouldn’t worry yourself about such a currently weak opponent. It might reflect poorly in the ranks.”

The King waves his hand dismissively. “Let them talk. I know who I am.”

Nekros bows at the waist. “I will get right on it, then.” The flame-cloaked necromancer exits, leaving Riel alone in his throne room.

The throne hall is more for show than for anything else, with tall ceilings and long walls decorated with expensive woven tapestries. Though the hall looks spacious, no more than ten Skeletons ever occupy it at a time. Red and white gemstone lamps covertly glow on the walls. The hall looks completely abandoned in the dim lighting, especially with a skeletal figure sitting motionless on the throne.

Then, a whistle cuts through the air, as if the source of the whistle was decidedly impressed with the splendor of the room. Riel looks up; a man made of flesh and blood waltzes out of the shadows, a blue cloak over his shoulders, his eyes on the tapestries and the exquisite architecture. Riel stands, expecting to see the man jump at the sight of a moving skeleton, but he barely even notices.

“It’s funny,” the stranger says. “All this gold, yet I thought you’d be an orange guy.”

“How did you get in here?” Riel asks.

“I have my ways in and out of this place,” the man calls casually over his shoulder, not in the least disturbed by a walking, talking skeleton with a sword. He fondly strokes a red tapestry, as if finding a long-lost heirloom. “I remember when this one was first sewn. It was back in the Middle Age, in a small town in the Ocean that would grow to be the Royal Port. To think that it would travel all the way out here…” The man tosses a look over his shoulder. “Kind of surreal, isn’t it?”

“Are you not afraid of me?” Riel asks, genuinely interested. This is the first time a mortal man has not fled from him on sight.

“Why should I be? I know I’m not welcome here. In fact, I’m usually not welcome anywhere. But you’re a man as much as I am, Riel. We can talk on even terms, so long as you want to listen.” The stranger smiles. “After all, I came here to tell you something important and I’m not leaving until I say it.”

“Before you say anything, I want to know how you got in here.” Riel gestures to his throne room. “Nothing has ever breached these walls, neither magic nor brute force. Is there a crack somewhere I missed? An old sewer pipe I forgot to wall off with concrete?”

“Hardly,” the man replies. “The Dark Hollow is as secure as the King’s Vault in Monarch. I managed to get in by force of will, not by magic or brute force or any other means. As Aldir once said, ‘I’m a curious specimen, you see. No four walls can hold me, and chains will not bind my limbs.’”

“And you’re also a studied poet,” Riel says approvingly. “It’s been ages since I’ve heard Aldir’s North Wind Ascension. Do you know it all by memory?”

“Oh, so you do want to talk after all.” The stranger leans against the wall. “Well good, because I have a lot of things to say.”

“Your cryptic behavior intrigues me,” says Riel. “I’m in a good mood. Walk with me.” He then strides out of the throne room and into the hallway. The stranger follows at a respectful distance.

They travel down the hallway to no particular location, merely walking for the sake of it. Shadows lurk at the edge of pools of orange and red gemstone light. A few Skeletons walk the halls with training partners or scribes. When they see Riel, they immediately move to the side and bow until he has passed.

“The last time I heard that poem,” Riel says over his shoulder, “must have been when I was still alive. That was a long time ago, now that I think about it—far too long to remember. I really enjoyed poetry back then.”

“And you don’t anymore?”

“I don’t have the time for it. Not when I have an army to lead.” He glances at the stranger. “I suppose I simply moved on. My interest waned as I spent less time reading. Even though I wanted to, I made excuses not to. Before I knew it, poetry was the last thing on my mind.”

“You didn’t have an army when you were alive?” the man asks. “Who were you back then?”

“If only I could remember.” Riel turns a corner and descends a stone staircase. “When I became the Skeleton King, my previous life became less important. I’ve forgotten much of it now. Who I was, if I had any family, how I died… It’s beside the point. I’ve spent more time as the Skeleton King than as a man.”

“Surely you still wonder,” the man urges. He takes a torch off the wall for light, the red gemstone inside burning like a fire. “Holes in memories are bound to lead to curiosity.”

“I remember small things every so often, like the way the wind tastes, but when I think of my old life—the little I can still recall—I’m entertaining nostalgia at best. These shadowed halls and subservient Skeletons are more important to me now.”

Riel slows to a stop. Overhead, a cavernous darkness looms, lit only by the red light of the gemstone torch in the stranger’s hand.

“You must entertain your nostalgia often, then. You must have many memories to revisit.”

“It wears off after a while. Nostalgia becomes a hollow echo that rattles around where those feelings used to be. Many times I’ve found myself looking at the preoccupations of man, and every time I do, I always feel a profound emptiness; I sometimes wonder if I once did things like that. At the very least, it reminds me that I was once alive.”

“Depressing,” says the man. “But that makes you freer than the rest of us. I’ve known Reneans who hold on to their lost dreams long after they’ve turned to dust. It drives them mad, Riel. Simply mad.”

“They don’t miss their dreams. What they really miss are the memories they made trying to achieve them.” Riel walks across the darkened room and stops in front of a heavy wooden door with Archaic Renean letters on it. “A long time ago, my necromancer Nekros Mathis stole an ancient artifact from a wild boy he met in the Plains. It’s been sitting in this room ever since, unresponsive to both arcane and artificial magic. It’s something of a myth among certain circles.” Riel places a hand on the door. “The only one of its kind in the whole world.”

The Archaic Renean letters glow a faded gold. The red gemstone torch dims as the runes glow brighter, absorbing all available magic. A mechanical click echoes through the hall and Riel pushes the door open. A light comes on in the room, highlighting a half-pike that hangs on the far wall parallel to the floor. The shaft is carved with intricate runes and symbols, many too ancient to read or understand. Its head shines with an otherworldly golden glow, reacting to the presence of magic.

The stranger walks into the room, thoroughly convinced his eyes are deceiving him.

“Quite the sight, isn’t it?” Riel steps forward. “We’ve tried everything to make it work for us, but anyone who wields the weapon is flooded with massive amounts of gold magic. No Skeleton soldier has survived contact for more than a few seconds.”

“Perhaps it’s angry,” the man replies, standing in front of the half-pike. “Angry that you took it from its rightful owner. Neither you nor Nekros could wield it?”

“It goes beyond what either of us are capable of, yet it wasn’t always like that. Nekros had to move it from the Plains, after all. Once the weapon got to the Dark Hollow, it went haywire.” Riel shakes his head. “Hasn’t worked since.”

The man moves closer to the weapon, his hand hovering over the symbols etched into the shaft. He bites his tongue as he reads them, skimming along from the head of the half-pike to the end.

“This is a language older than Archaic Renean,” he says. “These symbols are Daltinkarian.”

“The language of the gods!” Riel exclaims. “Surely this spear isn’t from the Ancient Age?”

“It could be even older than that. It might even date back to the first Heroes themselves.” The man runs his hand across the shaft of the half-pike; sparks of gold magic dance through his fingers. “It’s no wonder your magic spells haven’t affected this weapon. It’s been blessed by Apalon, god of Sunshine and the Wind. His divine magic prevents any from using it unless the weapon itself deems the wielder worthy.” He rescinds his hand, a smile on his face. “Its name is Acetil, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

The half-pike glows brighter, filling the room with divine golden light.

“How do you know its name?”

“I’m much like you, Riel,” says the stranger. “I’ve seen my fair share of events in the world, most of which I look upon with a detached sense of nostalgia. When I look at Acetil, I feel the twinge of an old memory.” He looks at Riel. “I won’t tell you how I know it, but I will tell you how to use it.”

Riel stands up a little bit straighter, suddenly interested.

“But before I say anything more, I’ll first tell you what I came here to tell you in the first place. You must promise me that you won’t trust Nekros Mathis.”

Riel says nothing, his body as still as a statue.

“Nekros Mathis is more dangerous than you give him credit for,” the stranger continues. “I’ve watched him plan in his dark dungeon. He looks into that black mirror with greed, an image of himself with four horns staring back. If he gets the chance, I have no doubt that Nekros will do something drastic.”

“Greed, you say?” Riel folds his arms behind his back. “Far be it from me to break the trust of my right hand necromancer over the word of a man. Nekros has served me well with his unflinching loyalty.”

“I promise you he’s planning something. I don’t know what it is yet, but I know it’s something. You need to be ready for anything.”

Riel waves his hand dismissively. “Yes yes, gloom and doom and all of that. Now how do I wield the spear?”

“If you can prove to Acetil that you’re worthy, it will respond to your touch.” The man smiles smugly. “In just about every case, something akin to a pure heart is needed, as cliché as it sounds.”

“My heart is far from pure. Is there any other way I can use it?”

The man considers the question for a moment. “Righteous anger might do the trick, though I’ve never seen it happen. I’ll admit that I’m not the person who can answer these questions in any true depth; my colleague would have more concrete answers.”

“Where is your colleague? Can you bring him here?”

“He’s on a trip in the Plains—ironic, actually, the Plains is the birthplace of Acetil itself. My colleague doesn’t travel as much or as well as I do. Getting him here would take weeks, if not months.” The stranger folds his arms across his chest. “And I’m no messenger boy. If you want to make the trip to ask him, he might give you a better answer.”

“I’ll just do my own research.” Riel turns to the half-pike hanging on the wall. “To think that the crown jewel of my trophies was a weapon blessed by Apalon himself… I’m one lucky King.”

“It’s time,” the man says suddenly. He pulls a blue hood over his head, shrouding part of his face in a shadow. “I must leave. Someone important is waking up and I want my primary to be there.”

“Your primary what?”

The man grins, then holds a single finger up to his lips. His magenta eyes shimmer against the golden light.

“You mentioned that you watched Nekros,” Riel says. “You said that you watched him plot in his dungeon, but how? His workshop is protected by dark magic and every entrance is sealed.”

“I have my ways,” the man smiles. He steps backward, moving towards the darkened edges of the room. “Fare you well, Riel. Remember my warning about Nekros, and when you finally meet the Hero, tell her I said hello.”

The stranger melts into the shadows and disappears from sight. Riel glances at the half-pike hanging on the wall. He reaches out and brushes a finger across the surface of the shaft. Gold sparks jump up his hand, sending a warm shiver up his spine. He rips his hand away, startled.

The half-pike pulses once, as if laughing. Riel turns and leaves the room, locking it securely. He travels back to his throne in silence. For the rest of the night, Riel sits alone in the dark, battling an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“So what did it say?” Kexal asks, walking alongside Bennie. Jenna is much further down the ash-covered road, her pace brusque and determined. Bennie has a light shield of fire around her body. Kexal has his hood over his head to keep the ash from his eyes.

“What’s that?” Bennie says absently, her mind on the possibility of treasure in the nearby houses.

“The parchment you burned. What did it say?”

“Oh, that?” Bennie laughs. “It was just a vague recollection of someone’s trip to Palace Center.”

“They made it, though?” Kexal sounds hopeful. “Our adventure isn’t going to lead to certain death, right?”

“I’ll put it this way. She started with sixteen crew members, but by the end, she was the only one left alive. Everyone else was killed except for three people who abandoned her at the end.” Bennie offers a smile. “Still, she made it, right?”

“A one-in-sixteen chance isn’t that great,” says Kexal. “It could be worse, but it still isn’t fantastic.”

Bennie chews over her thoughts, recalling what she can from the journal. “You know a thing or two about Renean history, right? Have you ever heard of something called a cloudmonger? Or a rockhefter?”

Kexal snorts humorlessly. “Long ago, back before the Ruins was actually nothing but ruins, a huge kingdom ruled this place. Cloudmongers and rockhefters ran rampant; they killed innocent people, spread violence, and harassed even the strongest warriors. The kingdom couldn’t do anything to stop them, and since they were one of Chaldir’s creations, he wouldn’t kill them either.”

“Why would Chaldir make such terrible monsters?”

“He made them to be forces of good, but somewhere along the line they were polluted with evil. Rockhefters, who were supposed to help Reneans move heavy objects, turned to wanton destruction. Cloudmongers, who were supposed to help clean up the ever-falling ash, turned to making dust storms that choked the air out of entire towns.”

“I hope we don’t see any,” Bennie says softly, glancing at the houses on the side of the road. “I don’t think I’m ready to fight one.”

“They’re long since extinct,” Kexal says reassuringly. “After the fall of the great kingdom, the cloudmongers and the rockhefters became rarer as Skeletons became more common. Some say the Skeletons themselves killed most of the old monsters. You could consider them the modern cloudmongers and rockhefters, if that helps.”

“Surely the Skeletons aren’t one of Chaldir’s creations. No good can come out of them.”

“Chaldir didn’t make the Skeletons. No one really knows where they came from, and I don’t think anyone knows how to stop them.”

“Chaldir is the god of this realm,” Bennie says. “Why doesn’t he do anything?”

“As I said when we first met, Chaldir is a terrible god. He’s associated with downfall, decay, ruin…” Kexal spreads his hands. “Why would he want to fix anything here? He’s doing his job just fine—the realm is a total wreck. And because he does it so perfectly, in my opinion, he’s absolutely awful.” He casts a look at Bennie. “If you really want to petition him for change, make it to Palace Center. There’s no other way to reach him unless you want to go all the way back to Monarch and talk to his oracle.”

Bennie looks ahead; Jenna has stopped and is looking at something on the ground. “I think I’ll keep moving forward. Going back isn’t in my blood, and by the looks of it, Jenna’s found something anyways.” She shifts her backpack. “Come on. We don’t want to lose sight of her again.”

Jenna looks up as Bennie and Kexal approach her. The wild gleam in her eyes has gone, replaced with the excitement of a treasure hunter. Something sharp and angular sticks out from the dirt, partially dug up.

“Bennie, do you remember your first night at the tavern?” Jenna sweeps ash off the top of the object, though more falls from the sky to take its place. “Do you remember the torches that were on the walls?”

“Sure, why?”

“They were powered by gemstones infused with magic. Though the torches are commonplace, the gemstones themselves are notoriously hard to find.” Jenna digs around the object in the ground. “After I tripped over this little sliver I decided to take a closer look. Judging by the faint glow, it might be a raw gemstone. Finding one is exceedingly rare, and I think it could sell for a high price.”

“We could use it to buy gold,” Kexal says, leaning over Bennie’s shoulder. “A lot of gold.”

“Not just a lot of gold—enough gold to fill three houses to the top. All we have to do is get it free.” Jenna looks up at her companions. “Are you two just going to sit there and watch or should I find you some shovels first?”

Kexal kneels down dig, but Bennie remains standing, her mind adrift. The red sun burns in the middle of the sky, a hazy halo around its bright surface. Though she wants her mind to be on gold and rare gemstones, all Bennie can think about is the legendary serpent and the strange journal entry.

Other thoughts invade her mind, in particular thoughts about the strange man she met who wore a blue cloak. Surely his purpose hadn’t been just to show up and talk to her. Bennie also wonders about the elusive Riel, who she still hasn’t seen or met. She entertains the thought of Riel as nothing more than a story to make sense out of the chaos of the Skeletons.

“Hey, Bennie! You with us or not?”

Kexal waves his hand in front of her face, bringing Bennie back to the present. Jenna is busy dragging the raw gemstone out of the ground, her gloved hands twisting as she pulls it free. It glows with a faint blue light.

“What a score,” Jenna says, sitting down in the ash. “The blue ones aren’t as rare as some, but they’re a lot rarer than others. All we have to do is trim the excess and wash it a few hundred times.”

“Is it heavy?” Bennie asks, bending over to test the weight of the gemstone. When she lifts, it doesn’t budge one inch. Even when she puts her legs behind the work, the gemstone remains rooted to the ground. Bennie steps back, wiping her hands on her skirt. “Well, there’s no way I’m carrying this. It’s way too heavy and it makes my hands sting.”

“Heavy?” Kexal sputters. “I can carry this with a finger!” He bends over and lifts the raw gemstone without any effort. The internal blue light pulses in time with Kexal’s heartbeat. “See? Nothing to it.”

He tosses the gemstone at Bennie, who catches it and is immediately knocked to the ground.

“Hey!” Jenna immediately rushes over to Bennie. “What’s your problem, Kexal!”

“What are you blaming me for? She should have caught it!”

Jenna heaves the gemstone off Bennie, who is shaking like a straw house in a hurricane. Jenna snaps her fingers in front of Bennie’s face. “Can you hear me? Say something.”

“Burns,” Bennie wheezes. “Burns like fire.” She rolls to her back, a bright blue mark plastered across her chest. Her glazed eyes roll into the back of her head and she twitches involuntarily. Foam bubbles at the corner of her mouth.

“Oh Chaldir’s beard what have I done?” Kexal runs his hands through his hair. “I’ve really done it this time! I’ve killed her!”

“Oh will you please—!” Jenna takes a long breath. “Now’s not the time to panic. We have to work fast.” She points to a small house on the side of the road. “Go and pick up as many pieces of wood as you can and bring them here. We need to elevate her head before I do any magic.”

“Magic? You can do magic?”

Bennie bucks, a scream tearing from her lips. The blue mark glows brighter.

“Go, Kexal! Now!”

Kexal runs off without a word. Jenna takes off her gloves, exposing her scarred hands. She strips Bennie of her armor to where the blue burn has sunk into her skin. Placing her hands directly on Bennie’s flesh, Jenna concentrates on absorbing the poisonous magic. Her body fills with a strange tingling sensation and her eyes change color to intense seagreen. Grinding her teeth, Jenna inhales and takes in the poison.

Pain floods her body, streaming up her arms into her brain and heart. Jenna grips Bennie tighter. The blue burn starts to fade from Bennie’s skin. It transfers itself to Jenna’s hands, clouding her palms and knuckles with angry, pigmented blue light. Needles dig into her brain and sharp rocks flow through her veins, but Jenna does not let go. She holds on for dear life, dragging every last bit of the poison from Bennie as she can.

When she can handle no more, Jenna collapses backwards, her breathing ragged. Kexal reappears with stacks of burnt wood under his arms. He places the pieces under Bennie’s head as she weakly spasms, groans escaping her lips.

“Now what?” he asks, turning to Jenna.

“Duck,” she manages through her teeth. “And I mean now.”

Kexal drops without question, covering his head. Jenna’s body lurches forwards as dazzling blue light bursts from her mouth. Tendrils of angry magic rush into the air as she ejects the poison from her body. She drops to the ground, exhausted. Kexal slowly tilts his head up.

“Is it over?”

“No,” Jenna pants. “I may have pulled the poison from her, but the damage’s been done. I’m going to need time before I can perform any healing on her.” She laughs humorlessly. “And on top of that, I’ll probably need some healing myself.”

Kexal pulls himself into a sitting position. “What should I do?”

Jenna snorts. “Be a man and nurse us back to health, I guess.” Her eyes roll into the back of her head and she goes unconscious. Kexal crawls over to Jenna and shakes her a little, but she doesn’t pull out of her stupor. He flashes a look at Bennie, who still groans and twitches involuntarily.

“Right. Take care of the women.” Kexal looks around. “Okay, this shouldn’t be too hard. Just need to find some help, that’s all. Yeah, help would be great. Some food, too, and some water…”

He goes silent, however, as his predicament dawns on him. Bennie is far beyond out of commission. Jenna has passed out, her body trying to recuperate from fending off poisonous magic. To top it all off, he’s stuck with the both of them in a realm built upon isolation. In one overwhelming moment, Kexal realizes that he’s completely alone.

Chapter Seventeen

[]Separation Foretold

Somewhere in the darkness of Magnus’s Cemetery

Scott pulls his knees closer to his chest, staring at the flickering firelight. The night sky has long since appeared above his head, the stars twinkling like tiny gems. Katrina sleeps wrapped in a blanket, her head resting on her backpack. Jinas sleeps on the other side of the fire, wrapped up in his robes and snoring softly. The world is asleep, but Scott feels no urge to even close his eyes.

He looks away from the firelight and directs his gaze at the horizon. The darkness once marking the entrance to the Royal Crypt is now gone and Scott is far from the path he started on. He sighs, wondering if it’s even still possible for him to find Magnus’s home without the wall, a path, or any kind of directions.

Movement comes out of the corner of his eye. He spots Katrina walking away from the camp with her backpack over her shoulders. Curious, Scott stands and follows at a safe distance, ready to turn invisible at a moment’s notice. He doesn’t know what will happen if she catches him following, but he knows he’d rather be unseen and out of trouble. Katrina wanders a good distance from the fire; Scott has trouble finding it behind him.

Abruptly, Katrina pauses and looks behind her. Scott immediately turns invisible and stays perfectly still; any stray sound will immediately alert her to his presence. Nodding, satisfied that she’s alone and a good distance from camp, Katrina sits down and opens her backpack. She produces a black goblet covered with angular red lines. The red lines pulse with an inner power, glowing faintly in the moonlight. Taking out a hair band, Katrina ties up her long black hair in a ponytail.

Scott kneels down and creeps closer to Katrina, careful not to make too much sound. She puts her hands around the goblet and it fills with a deep red fire. She mouths words, as if reciting a spell, and the fire flashes bright purple before resetting to the dark red it was before.

“Roger, are you out there?”

There is a momentary pause before the flame briefly surges. “Yes, I’m here,” a voice says. It comes from the goblet.

“Oh thank heavens,” she says. “I thought I was alone.”

“You’re never alone, Katrina,” the voice reassures her. “It’s great to hear your voice again.”

“And it’s good to hear yours as well.” Katrina pulls the goblet closer to her face. “So how have you been, old friend? What’s new?”

“A Hero named Drew King has entered the Ocean. He’s very stubborn and a bit stupid, but he’s doing great so far. He even fought against Karos and didn’t get his tail beaten in.” Roger sighs. “Seeing him have an adventure of his own brings me back to the good old days.”

“Do you remember your first battles against those demons of yours?” Katrina says, smiling fondly. “I remember when the Raiding Riders were still around. They were so difficult to beat! I remember meeting Ilbaz for the first time, too. He utterly humiliated me!”

“Not as bad as when I faced Telmar for the first time,” Roger says. “I had no idea those levels of magic even existed! I thought I was the strongest Hero of all time, only to get my teeth kicked in by my Adversary.”

Katrina genuinely laughs—something Scott didn’t think was possible. “Do you remember that wayward traveler? That guy with the magenta eyes who was always appearing just when you wanted him, or exactly when you didn’t?”

“I remember him like the back of my hand. I haven’t seen him for a long time, though. I wonder if he’s hiding.”

“He’s never hiding; you know he’s always out there. Maybe he’s just been busy scheming with that rat, Gnosis. I should ask Scott if he’s seen anyone suspicious.”

“That guy certainly got us into a ton of messes,” Roger says.

“And he certainly got us out of a ton of messes, too.”

“Still, I would hate to meet him again. You remember what he did to Charlie? Remember what he did to Jenna and Gabriel? I mean, after… Well, after what happened.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Scott presses himself lower to the ground, interested in the sudden hardness in Katrina’s voice.

“I’m glad he helped us when he did, but he’s still positively evil.” The goblet’s dark red fire flickers, as if Roger is suddenly anxious about something. “I should talk with Drew and see if he’s met him yet. As Emissaries, we have an obligation to protect the new Heroes.”

“I don’t think Scott needs my help,” Katrina says. Scott’s ears perk up, curious. “He’s leagues ahead of where I was at this point in my own adventure. I could barely get a thunderbolt to go where I wanted it! Scott can already move things with his mind, fly, disappear… He once spent a whole day pranking Jinas, his doctor. Sometimes he’d throw a rock with his mind, other times he would just start floating away on the wind and scream for help, and one time he turned invisible for a good ten minutes!” Katrina shakes her head, smiling. “Jinas was so mad when he returned.” She goes silent for a while.

“What’s on your mind?” Roger asks.

“Do you think they’re the ones we’ve been waiting for all these years? I mean…” Katrina holds her goblet closer and looks around nervously. Scott leans in closer, straining his ears to listen. “Do you think I’ll be able to see Gabriel again?”

“I don’t know,” Roger admits. “It’s been a long road to get here, even though we thought we’ve been here before. Maybe our waiting is finally over. You know that I’m desperate to see Jenna again. I don’t know how much longer I can take being away from her.” He goes silent for a moment. “How do you think she’s doing in your old realm?”

“About as well as Scott is faring in yours,” Katrina replies. “Jenna’s a tough old girl, so I have confidence, even though I haven’t talked to her in a while. As you know, communication has been… Difficult for me.”

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened. You can’t control the actions of others.” The flame calms and turns dark purple in color. “Listen, Katrina, I have to go now. Drew wants to talk. Have you spotted Salvation yet?”

“Not yet, but up until about four hours ago his Shades were crawling all over the place. He must be planning something big.”

“Keep your wits about you.”

“I will. It was good to talk to you again, Roger.”

“Likewise. Good luck, Katrina.”

The fire goes out in a puff of smoke and Katrina packs her goblet away. Sighing, she shoulders her backpack and turns her eyes the moon. It hangs bright and high in the cosmic expanse, a luminescent guiding orb in a place plagued by darkness. A cool wind blows across Scott’s face and it pulls back Katrina’s long black hair. Scott takes a moment to appreciate her complex beauty, noting the curved features of her face and the sharp intelligence of her hazel eyes.

After a while, Katrina closes her eyes and breathes in slowly, savoring the taste of the night air. She shakes her head, as if telling herself something isn’t meant to be; even in the relative darkness Scott can see the onset of tears. He decides that enough spying has been done tonight and soundlessly makes his way back to camp.

Once back at the campsite, Scott turns himself visible and resets himself to the edge of the fire. Moments later, Katrina walks into the pool of light. She freezes when she sees Scott is awake.

“You’re still up?” she asks nonchalantly, setting her backpack down.

“Just woke up,” Scott lies. “Rough nightmare.”

Katrina sits down. “Yeah,” she says. “I think I know the feeling.”

“Just out for a walk?”

“I needed a few moments alone with my thoughts. Well, more alone than one can get sitting around a fire with two sleeping people.”

Scott smiles. “Yeah, I hear you. Sometimes you just have to get away from it all.” He looks her in the eyes. “Anything you want to talk about?”

Katrina averts her eyes. “Not really,” she says. “I guess I just felt a little empty inside and wanted to see if I could fill the space.”

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Scott says. Katrina looks at him curiously. “A man named Aristotle said that. He influenced a vast majority of my world. In a way, I think he was right. True emptiness is something that’s difficult for people to grasp. The presence of absolutely nothing? Isn’t that terrifying?”

“I’ve never heard of Aristotle,” Katrina says. “What do you mean he influenced a majority of your world? Your personal world, you mean?”

“No, I meant what I said. I thought we discussed that I’m not a native Renean. I was born on a planet called Earth.”

Katrina stands up. Panic is on her face.

“Katrina?” Scott asks, concerned. “Are you alright?”

Katrina backs away slowly. In a flash she seizes her backpack and flees the campsite. Scott scrambles to his feet.

“Hey,” he shouts, “where are you going? Katrina!”

When she doesn’t return, Scott grimaces and drops to the ground. The crunch of feet in the grass comes to his ears and Scott looks up. To his astonishment, Jinas walks into the camp; Scott hadn’t noticed him get up and leave. Jinas looks around.

“Where’d Katrina go?” he asks.

Scott stares at the fire, the light dancing in his eyes. “I don’t know, but I get the feeling that it’s my fault she left.”

Jinas quirks an eyebrow. He opens his mouth to say something, but then he shakes his head and decides against it. He sits down and puts an arm around Scott’s shoulder. Scott makes no move to flinch away.

“She’ll be back,” Jinas says. “It might not be tomorrow morning or next week, but she’ll be back. I’ve got a feeling that there’s something about me she can’t resist.”

Scott cracks a smile and Jinas does too, the attempt at humor received well. A gentle wind cuts through the small camp and the fire bends to the breeze. The moon glows steady and clean overhead, a glimmering reminder of a city long out of sight. Distorted and imposing shadows twist outwards from the fire, shifting and changing shape with each passing moment. In the dim light, broken trees become the bones of an ancient monster. A small hill becomes the back of an eye rising from the ground. The grass bows to the will of the wind, adding eeriness to the quiet night.

“So what kind of music do you listen to?” Jinas asks out of the blue. Scott gives him a quizzical look. “You came from a different planet, right? What kind of music do you have over there?”

“We’ve got all kinds of music,” Scott replies, smiling. He launches, with great enthusiasm, into a discussion of Earth’s various kinds of music and Jinas listens with rapt interest. The talk extends deep into the night, skirting the edges of dawn as the sky begins to tint grey. The embers of the fire spiral upwards into the sky, dwindling like miniature stars in a universe too large to fathom.

Kalonius the Shade slinks into Salvation’s Hideaway. He weaves silently through the trees, entering into the main hall without a sound. The bronze statue of Salvation, Master of Shades, stands tall and proud in the center of the dark chamber. Kalonius steels himself, ready to face his master’s wrath.

“Salvation is coming, Salvation is here, Salvation will endure,” Kalonius says reverently, coming to a halt in front of the statue. “I have returned, Master, but I could not find the Hero or his companion. As hard as I searched, I regret to inform you that your attempt on his life was destined to fail.”

He looks up, expecting something to happen, but the statue remains immobile.

“He evaded my sight,” Kalonius continues. “I tried my hardest to find him, but…” He shakes his head. “I just wanted to come home, Master. I was tired of searching for something I couldn’t find. Forgive me, Master. I cannot complete my duties as a Shade.”

Kalonius presses his face to the ground, expecting the wrath of Salvation to rain down on his head, but for a long time the bronze statue is silent.

“Hear my cry for forgiveness,” the Shade says. “Answer me, Master.”

An echoing silence greets him. Kalonius looks up.

“Master? Are you there?”

“He can’t hear you,” a voice says, regal and profound. Kalonius turns to see a small orb of pure white light floating only a few yards away. “He’s in a different world now.”

“Who are you?” the Shade demands. “What have you done with Master?”

The voice laughs, amused. “Salvation is in deep meditation. I think he’s gathering energy.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know. I do know this much—Salvation doesn’t want the Hero dead, at least not yet. Your mission should have ended long ago. He has since made a deal with Magnus, god of Silence and Souls. No more Shades will be sent out to kill the Hero. You should stay here until he awakens.”

Kalonius looks around the room. He and the orb are the only ones currently present, besides the looming bronze statue behind him.

“And if I should choose to search for the Hero instead?” Kalonius tries. “What if I choose to seek my own path, even if it splits from my Master’s?”

“Then I wish you luck,” the voice replies. “Killing a Hero is no easy task.”

“I never said anything about—”

“You didn’t need to. I’ve known your desires since you were a young boy throwing stones in the riverbed.”

Something stirs in Kalonius’s mind. It feels hazy and unclear, like a distant object obscured by fog. The Shade gently places his hand on his head, trying to force the feeling to take form. The overall image remains just out of reach, but small fragments slip into place. A bright sun. Something cold and wet on his face. The feeling of a stone in his hand. A sound, too—something joyous and bright.

When Kalonius returns to reality, the white orb of light is gone and he is alone in the main hall of the Hideaway. The statue of Salvation stands tall and proud, looming in silent judgment. Kalonius turns to the statue, the strange memories ringing in his head.

“Salvation is coming,” he says. “Salvation is here. Salvation will endure.” He looks into the bronze face of his Master. “I will never stop until I’ve completed my task. The Hero won’t be around for much longer.” With that, Kalonius takes flight and leaves the Hideaway, sending a shriek through the air as he departs.

Somewhere in the Cemetery, Malakai the peddler enjoys a free evening after a fruitful day of sales. He sold a good chunk of his wares in a town he was only passing through, he met a Shade and lived to tell the tale, and he finished one of his favorite books of all time, Tales from a Wandering Man. After setting up camp and starting a fire to prepare his meal, Malakai merely reclines and watches the heavens.

The twinkling of millions of stars accents the glow of a gorgeous sapphire nebula. Assorted stellar light provides a stunning highlight to the large galaxies dotting the night sky. Malakai smiles to himself. Sometimes the heavens are just too beautiful for words.

He sits up and checks on his stew pot. The sweet smell of meat greets his nose and his stomach growls. A taste test reveals it needs salt. Malakai stands and walks over to his small cart propelled by foot pedals. He pulls out a duffle bag and digs through it until he finds his salt rocks. When he turns around, he’s surprised to find a young woman sitting where he once sat. She glances at him but quickly looks away. Malakai knows that if she cared about being caught, she would have run away by now.

“If I had known I was entertaining a guest,” Malakai says, “I would have made more stew.” He pulls two wooden bowls and two soup spoons from his duffle bag and sits next to his silent companion. Malakai adds salt to his stew and fills one bowl to the brim, which he gently hands to the silent woman. She takes it and quietly eats. Malakai takes a small portion for himself, checking to make sure enough remains for his visitor to have more if she wants.

Deciding to make small-talk, even if it’s going to be one-sided, Malakai gestures to a group of stars clustered in the sky. “You know anything about that big group of stars right there?”

The young woman looks up, shakes her head, and then returns to her stew.

“I figured you wouldn’t. This mystic I met a couple days ago said my destiny was tied to that group of stars. But I don’t even know the name of the stars! Pretty crazy, huh?”

She nods and says nothing more.

“It’s funny,” Malakai continues. “I’ve been peddling all my life and looking up at these stars just about every night and I can’t name a single one. And what about those big shapeless things up there? They move differently from the stars. I don’t think anyone really knows what they are.” He laughs. “One guy I knew thought they were magical monsters waiting for Tetrask to call them to battle. Isn’t that crazy?”

The young woman nods and refills her bowl. Malakai smiles, grateful to have someone with whom to share his stew. It’s not every day a peddler gets company in his camp, and even rarer are the days when a peddler can share his secret stew recipe with others. He too refills his bowl, but not before checking to make sure enough stew is left for his guest to have another serving.

“The world out there is crazy,” Malakai says. “I’ve seen some wild things in the Cemetery. I’ve seen old men fight and young men cry. You know, it’s crazy to think about the world we live in and not want to understand some of it. I for one want to know why men have to serve in the army if they live in Monarch. We live in peace! Who wants to start a war in peacetime?”

The young woman shrugs, continuing to eat her stew. Malakai sighs.

“Maybe those someone out there knows something we don’t. Take the Shades, for example. I don’t get why they have to act like they do. We’re all pretty decent folk! I’m here to simply sell my wares and see the world. You don’t need to attack me. I have nothing valuable to steal!” Malakai sets down his bowl. “Sometimes I feel like the world is pretty messed up and that I’m the only one out there with common sense. Other times I feel like Renea is the most beautiful, perfect place in the universe.”

“Which do you feel tonight?” the young woman asks softly. Malakai smiles.

“A little bit of both. My day was pretty crazy, but since I’ve got company now, I feel like all is right again.” He laughs. “I guess that must sound pretty silly.”

The young woman smiles and shakes her head, disagreeing with him.

“See, I’m a peddler by trade,” Malakai continues. “I sell things that other people can use. Sometimes I sell old things and sometimes I sell new things. On occasion I’ll have a few carvings of my own to sell. It brings me joy to know that even if I never see that person again, a little piece of me is with them. They’ll look at that old lamp, or that carving of Monarch, and they’ll think about me. I don’t need to be the number one merchant in the world. I’m just fine helping people make memories.”

The young woman sets her bowl down and looks into the fire. Malakai looks back up at the sky and wonders about the strange formations that look almost like space clouds.

“What’s your name?” she finally asks.

“Malakai,” the peddler responds. “What’s yours?”

“They call me Katrina.”

“Oh? And what do you call yourself?” Malakai’s humor draws a slow smile from Katrina, who shrugs and looks away. “Well Katrina, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” the young woman replies.

“What brings you out here to the middle of the Cemetery? The world’s a little too crazy for people to just be walking around, especially at night.”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“Well as I said, I’m a peddler—like a merchant, but not exactly the same. I travel around any given realm at any given time, showing off my wares for others to buy. What brings you out here?”

“Foolishness, mostly.” Katrina knits her hands together. “I just learned that everything I thought I knew about, well, everything, is all wrong. In a way, my whole universe just turned upside-down.” She sighs. “I couldn’t take the revelation, so like usual, I ran away.”

“Rough break with a boy, eh? Well, I suppose you’re around that age. The best idea is to let him go and move on.”

“It’s not about a boy—not directly, anyways. It’s about something I thought I understood. I guess I didn’t really grasp the magnitude of the problem.” Katrina looks at Malakai. “Have you ever seen something so unbelievable that you knew no one would ever believe you if you told them?”

Malakai laughs, a memory from long ago already in his mind. “A couple years ago, I was adventuring in the Cemetery. It was dark and I had just finished a rather terrible day of sales. I was looking for a place to set up camp when something caught my eye off the side of the road. I stopped my cart and went to investigate. When I managed to get a good look, I couldn’t have been more surprised.”

“What was it?”

“It was the photivian,” he says, “the one-of-a-kind legendary bird of the Cemetery. I’ve never seen anything more majestic. It was massive: probably three or four times my size, with a long, barbed tail and body covered in feathers. There were seven points of light covering its body, like a constellation. It looked like it belonged in the heavens among the heroes of legend, but instead I found it perched on the ground just behind a thick mass of briar trees.”

“What happened next?”

“It looked up; I think it heard me approach, but it couldn’t see me. Its body dissolved into pure starlight and then it exploded out in every direction. I haven’t seen the photivian since, but I won’t ever forget it.” He pulls down on his shirt collar; a circular white mark is on his upper left pectoral. “That burst of starlight gave me this scar. It burned for a little while, but it doesn’t hurt like it used to.”

Katrina pulls up the left side of her shirt. A blue mark spirals across her hip but it corners off in odd places, as if drawn with an uncertain hand. It sparkles against the light of the fire, as if freshly drawn or infused with magic.

“This was given to me a long time ago,” Katrina says. “It’s part of the reason I ran away. Something bad happened a long time ago—something I’m not allowed to talk about. It took my friends away from me and trapped me in the Cemetery. For a long time I was afraid everyone I loved was dead and that I was going to be alone forever.” She pulls her shirt back down. “It’s probably the single most important thing to ever happen to me, but I hate it. I hate it very much.”

“I’d give you the whole ‘I’m sure you’re a better person because of it’ speech, but something tells me it won’t inspire you. It may sound a little crazy, but I believe everything will turn out for the best. As a merchant, I have to be optimistic.” Malakai leans in and whispers, “Being a pessimist hurts revenue.”

Katrina and Malakai share a soft giggle.

“So if you didn’t run away from some boy, why did you run away from your friends?” Katrina’s smile fades and she looks away. “I’m sure they believe in you more than you do, and you’d be surprised at how far people will follow you. Don’t you think you ought to give them a chance?”

“I wish I could tell you that I could, but I don’t think I can.” She looks him in the eyes. “Going back would cause them to ask questions. I can’t just go around explaining everything I know to them. It would rip apart the confidence they have in their quest.”

“You’re an adventurer, then?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, wait here. I have something I want to give you.”

Malakai leaves the campfire for his cart again. He pulls aside duffle bags and miscellaneous sacks until he finds a small black box made out of a smooth wood. Retrieving it, Malakai returns to the fire and sits next to Katrina.

“What is that?” Katrina asks. Smiling, Malakai opens it.

Music dances into the air and Katrina gasps, recognizing the lullaby immediately. In the box, six orbs in a circle move around each other, mimicking the six suns and Renea. The inside is painted dark blue and flecked with white paint to give it the appearance of the night sky. Katrina listens to the tune as the gears click and whirr under the wood panel. When the tune loops into itself and begins to play again, Malakai closes the box and offers it to his guest. Katrina takes it.

“Where did you get this?” she asks softly.

“It was given to me by a woman in Monarch,” Malakai says. “I was angry a few years back, so I went to the temple of Tetrask to seek revenge on the world. The oracle refused to send my fury to Tetrask and talked me out of my anger.” He smiles. “We spent a few days bonding together, though I knew it would end sooner or later. When I told her I had to leave, she gave me that box to remember her by. She said it once belonged to the greatest Hero in the universe. Crazy, right?”

“Absolutely crazy.”

“I used to believe that it would lead me away on a grand adventure. Many nights I wound up that box and listened to that tune, staring up at the sky with wonder in my eyes. But as the months dragged into years, I slowly began to realize that life itself is the adventure. And hey, the life I’m leading now is adventure enough for me!” Katrina looks at Malakai, her eyes glowing in the dim firelight. “Maybe the music box will do for you what it did for me,” the peddler continues softly. “Or, if you’re lucky, maybe it will take you away to someplace wonderful.”

Katrina tucks the music box into a backpack that Malakai hadn’t seen before. She looks at him and nods her head shortly. “Thank you, Malakai.”

“My pleasure.” He sits back. “So, would you like to stay the night? It’s safer around the fire than it is out there in the Cemetery. You never know if the Shades are watching you.”

“Normally I’d say I have to get back to my friends, but now I don’t think I want to. I’m just not ready yet.” Katrina smiles. “Do you mind if I…?”

“I offered, didn’t I?” Malakai heads over to his cart and immediately begins digging through his bags again. “Let’s see… You’re going to need a bed roll, a blanket, something to rest your head on…” He pulls out a large blanket, a pillow, and a bed roll big enough for only one person. He lays out the bed roll, places the pillow at the head, and gently folds the blanket at the foot. “I’m used to traveling alone,” he says, “so that’s all I’ve got. You can have it for tonight.”

“That’s hardly fair to you. It’s yours; I insist you take it.”

“And you’re the guest, so I insist you borrow it. I’ll prop myself up against a few duffle bags and keep warm with a coat. It’s not the end of the world to sleep in the cold. One time I had to sleep between the roots of a tree after my cart got stolen. I mean, I found it the next morning, but all of my money was gone. Kind of a crazy world we live in, right?” Malakai stretches his arms out and links his fingers behind his head. “At the same time, though, it’s a pretty neat place.”

“Yeah,” Katrina agrees. “It really is.”

The fire crackles gently in the darkness of Magnus’s Cemetery, newborn sparks spiraling upwards into a sky filled with light millions of years old.

Earlier…

Jinas wakes to the sounds of a crackling fire. He sits up and rubs his tired eyes, noticing that both Katrina and Scott are missing. A brief pang of panic stabs his chest, but it goes away as quick as it came. Scott’s a capable Hero, he thinks. He can handle himself. Jinas tosses a chunk of dried wood on the dying fire. It roars back to life, eating away at the wood with ravenous hunger. He watches the flames flicker and lets his mind sift through the events of the day.

“Psst!”

Jinas looks up, curious. A quick glance around the camp reveals nothing spectacular. Shrugging, he turns his attention back to the fire.

“Psst!”

“It’s a little late to be pulling pranks, Scott,” Jinas says. “Can’t we do this later?” This time, the voice hisses almost directly in his ear. Jinas stands and feet skitter through the ankle-high grass. “Alright, this joke has gone far enough! Get back here!”

Jinas tromps away from the fire, following the sound of the rustling grass. A vague shape in the form of a man is just barely out of sight, zigzagging through the grass with extreme prowess. Jinas tracks the figure for so far and for so long that he can no longer see his own campfire. Then, quite abruptly, the rustling stops and the world goes quiet. Jinas is alone in the Cemetery.

A small light blooms behind him. The music of a plucked string instrument comes to his ears. Jinas knows better than to approach foreign sights, but something about the music piques his curiosity. He makes his way towards the light but keeps low, trying to avoid making too much sound. As he draws near, a happy-go-lucky whistle cuts through the night, accompanying the plucked string instrument. The light focuses into a small fire; Jinas stops just outside of the light.

A small tent has been set up and a small fire burns under a black kettle. A man sits on a log plucking the strings of an instrument Jinas has never seen before. After a moment, he strums multiple strings at once and makes a beautiful chord, which he then strums a few more times.

Swallowing, Jinas steps forwards. The man looks up and appraises Jinas for a moment. “Figured you’d come around here sometime,” the man says. It sounds exactly like the man looks—frazzled and a little roughed up, with messy brown hair and brilliant magenta eyes. “Take a seat by the fire. Coffee’s gonna be ready soon enough.”

“I’m looking for a boy,” Jinas says. “I think I lost him somewhere out here.”

“Well, you’re not gonna find anyone round here but me.” The man strums another chord. “Me and Lucy the lute. Say, you want some coffee or not? Come and sit down.” Reluctantly, and with a good deal of hesitation, Jinas sits down near the log. The man plucks a few strings, shaking his head.

“Something wrong?” Jinas asks.

“Lucy’s got a bit of temperament. Sometimes she’s always in tune, but other times she likes to give me a bit of trouble.” The man tilts his head slightly and strums another chord, though this one is notably out of tune. He shakes his head again. “Come on, Lucy. It’s Catilarin’s Ode—you love that one.”

“I know that song,” Jinas says. “My dad used to sing it to me before I went to sleep.”

“Your dad’s got good taste,” the man says with a smile. “Speaking of good taste, it looks like the coffee’s finally ready. Want a cup?”

“If you have water, I’ll take that instead.”

“Coffee’s kind of like bean water. You might as well give it a whirl; it’s good to try new things.”

Jinas sighs. “Alright. One cup.”

The man places Lucy on the ground and retrieves his black kettle from the fire. Producing two cups from his jacket, the man pours the steaming coffee and offers one to Jinas. They raise their glasses in a mock toast and then drink. Jinas almost spits his out, the coffee far too strong to take all at once. The musician, on the other hand, downs his in one gulp. He then picks up his lute and tweaks a few knobs. He plays absently, the instrument now perfectly in tune.

“So what brings you way out here in the middle of the night?” the man asks. “Lost and don’t know your way home?”

“I was traveling with two friends but they’ve both gone missing. I heard someone rustling around and I thought it was my friend Scott, so I followed him out here. Now I’ve lost sight of my camp and I’m sitting on a log talking to a strange man I’ve never met.” Jinas knocks back his coffee as if it were a shot of alcohol. “On top of that, my parents are dead and we’ve lost our way to the Royal Crypt. My whole life is a mess.”

“It’s tough out there.” The man strums a few chords. “It’s why I left my old life to roam around. Sure, I’ve got less food and less companionship, but I don’t have any cares at all. It’s pretty astonishing what you learn to live without once you spend a few days in the wild.” He refills his coffee cup and Jinas offers his for a refill; the man complies. “So, the Royal Crypt is your destination. You on a quest?”

“Scott is; I’m just his doctor.” Jinas sips at his coffee. “It’s my duty to ensure Scott survives long enough to meet Magnus. He doesn’t exactly have full control of his powers yet, and the repercussions of one mistake is enormous. Still, I suppose someone has to be there to help him.”

“Heavy talk from a kid your age,” the man remarks, sounding impressed. “You must be a scholar.”

“I used to be,” Jinas says, wringing the cup in his hands. “I wanted to be the greatest scholar of the Modern Age, just like how Dakhan’s widely accepted to be the greatest scholar of the Old Age. All through the future ages they’d be cheering my name and recognizing my feats. Maybe someone in the future will look back and think, ‘Wow. I want to be just like Jinas someday.’” He laughs joylessly. “I guess, in retrospect, it was foolish of me to think that. I was only ever good with medicine.”

“We all got our talents. Just like you can only work with medicine, I can only play music.” The man strums a bright chord and plays an aimless tune. “Who’s this other person you’re traveling with, then? There’s you and Scott, but who’s the third?”

“A girl named Katrina. She’s pretty reclusive and won’t open up to either of us.” Jinas drinks the last of his coffee. “I think she’s hiding something.”

“I used to know a girl named Katrina; I called her Katie, though. She was a bright kid. Long black hair and the prettiest hazel eyes one ever did see. And boy, could she sing. One time I got her to sing as I played a tune on Lucy.” The man strikes a few bright chords again. “That was a good night.”

“Our Katrina has black hair and hazel eyes, too.”

“I know that. She’s the same Katrina.” The man sets down his lute quite suddenly. “And you’re Jinas, son of Gennos who was oracle to Magnus, god of Silence and Souls.”

Jinas stands up, backing away. “Whoa, let’s slow down a little.”

“I assure you I’m perfectly harmless,” the man says, his magenta eyes glowing. “I’m just a traveler on an endless journey to an impossible destination.”

“How do you know my name? And more importantly, how do you know my dad’s real name? He never told it to anyone outside of the family.”

“Your dad and I became inexplicably tied together after a little mishap in the Peaks. On that, let’s just say that the blood of the bond should be considered thicker than the water of the womb.” He picks up his lute. “I know your name through your old man, so there’s no reason for you to be afraid. You look as stiff as a corpse, though. Don’t you trust me at all?”

“No,” Jinas says flatly. “This feels too planned. It’s too perfect. My friends leave during the night and I wake up only to leave the camp and lose myself in the darkness. Then it just so happens there’s a camp set up nearby and a man is there, up at this hour of the night playing an instrument. It’s too scripted! It’s too cliché!”

The man shrugs and says, “Alright then, I guess you can leave. I didn’t really want to tell you about your brother anyways.”

Jinas scoffs loudly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m an only child.” The man shoots Jinas a look, shrugs again, and goes back to playing his lute. Doubt claws at the edges of Jinas’s stomach. “I don’t have a brother.”

“Sure you don’t,” the man replies. “Just like I don’t have a lute in my hands and coffee in my stomach. Yup, you sure are an only child.”

“Stop toying with my mind. I get enough of that from Scott.”

“You ever heard of a creature that calls himself Salvation?” the man asks abruptly. “He’s supposed to be some kind of massive Shade capable of putting entire cities in the dirt.”

“Everyone knows Salvation,” Jinas says. “He’s the reason the Shades exist. Magnus once proclaimed that Salvation had committed the ultimate evil by stealing souls of the dead and poisoning them to do his bidding. Since then everyone has hated the Shades. Everyone has hated Salvation.”

“Everyone hates him,” the man repeats. “No one wants him. No one wants Salvation. Kind of funny, isn’t it? The meaning behind his name. Have you ever wondered why he calls himself Salvation?”

Jinas shrugs. “Some kind of oxymoronic sense of humor, I suppose.”

“I have a theory that he seeks something more than senseless violence. Something a little bolder than death—something with a truly concrete meaning.” He smirks, tuning his lute. “Names. They’re pretty funny, don’t you think? They mean things that are really the last thing they intend to mean. Do you even know what Zyphias means in Archaic Renean?”

“Cleanser of souls,” Jinas replies without missing a beat.

“And what does Gennos mean?”

“Bandit,” Jinas answers. He pauses for a moment, suddenly confused with his own answer. “Bandit?”

The man smiles widely, his magenta eyes glowing brighter. “Some food for thought, I suppose. Names have been and will always be important to people. Even my name—the name of a lowly wayward traveler—is important to those who know it.”

“And just what is your name?” Jinas asks.

“It doesn’t matter what my name is,” the man says. “I only go where I’m needed and show up exactly when it’s inconvenient. But if you really want to know, you should ask Katrina. If she doesn’t kill you for talking to me, she may be kind enough to give you it.”

The stranger tosses the lute at Jinas, who catches it mid-air. When he looks back at the log, the man is gone. The fire still crackles, freshly lit, and a black kettle sits on the ground in front of the log. Jinas places the lute down on the ground and, his mind lost in thought, he wanders away from the camp.

Jinas wanders for many long minutes under the cold moonlight. His brain buzzes with thoughts of the short yet cryptic words spoken to him. A majority of his logical brain wants to disregard the man’s senseless ramblings as just that: senseless ramblings. A smaller portion of his logical brain says that the man didn’t intend for anything to be directly divulged, as if he’s waiting for the perfect time to spring a trap. Jinas’s emotional brain is too cluttered with thoughts of his recently departed dad to be clear or coherent. Frowning, Jinas wonders if he should ask Katrina about a man with magenta eyes.

He finds himself back at his camp before he can even remember how to get back. Scott has returned and is staring at the fire, sadness in his eyes. Jinas looks around, trying to appear as if he had just returned from a bathroom break.

“Where’d Katrina go?” he asks.

“I don’t know, but I get the feeling that it’s my fault she left.”

So she’s gone, huh. Jinas quirks an eyebrow, attempting to appear lost. He considers telling Scott about the man he met, but then decides against it. He sits down next to Scott, placing an arm around his shoulder comfortingly.

“She’ll be back,” Jinas says. “It might not be tomorrow morning or next week, but she’ll be back. I’ve got a feeling that there’s something about me she can’t resist.”

Scott cracks a smile and Jinas does too. A chill wind cuts through the camp and the fire bends to the breeze. The moon glows overhead and Jinas can only think about the lute he left discarded in the darkness untold yards away. Half of his mind tells him to go back and pick up the instrument—to learn it and figure out how to play it in order to keep morale in the group high. The other half of his mind says to just forget it and push on ahead towards the Royal Crypt. He tries to remember an old saying about how to locate the Royal Crypt, but his brain is too focused on music to concentrate. He wants to talk.

“What kind of music do you listen to?” Jinas asks abruptly. Scott gives him a quizzical look; Jinas is desperate to get music off his mind. “You came from a different planet, right? What kind of music do you have over there?”

“We’ve got all kinds of music,” Scott replies, smiling. With great enthusiasm, Scott discusses as much of Earth’s various genres of music as he can. Jinas pays close attention, particularly when Scott talks about stringed instruments. It feels odd, Jinas thinks, to have such a sudden obsession with an instrument I only discovered tonight. He resolves to learn the instrument as soon as he can find one that looks and sounds exactly like it.

The dawn peeks over the horizon just as Scott runs out of music to talk about. The pair sits in silence as the Cemetery sun rises and bathes the realm in its warmth. Dark shadows that once made deformed shapes on the ground flee from the light. The fire continues to burn but neither patient nor doctor makes any move to refuel it.

“Dawn blooms again,” says Scott. “Who knew time passed so quickly these days?”

Jinas and Scott make a quick breakfast and then pack up camp, including Katrina’s bed roll and blankets. The duo sets off in the general direction of where they last remember seeing the Royal Crypt. They travel for a few minutes in silence, content to just enjoy the morning.

Without warning, Scott stops and turns to Jinas. “What are we doing?”

“We’re hiking towards the Royal Crypt. I’d think that’d be pretty obvious by now, Scott.”

“No, we’re hiking to the middle of nowhere. You know as well as I do that we both have no clue where we’re going.” Scott looks around. “Do you even know where the original path is? The one where I first met you? I’ve long since lost it.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be guided by some kind of internal Hero beacon or something?” Jinas waves his hand, thinking out loud. “Something that connects you to Magnus?”

“If only,” Scott chuckles. “No, I think we’re flat out of luck for now.”

“Maybe we can ask for directions?”

Scott smiles, but then he becomes serious. “Ask for directions? I daresay we can.” He brightens. “I don’t know if it’ll work, and it’s a bit of a long shot, but I think I’ve got an idea.”

“How crazy is it?”

“Completely crazy.”

“Will it get us killed?”

“It might get me in a lot of trouble.”

“How much time will it take?”

“Probably less than five minutes.”

Jinas drops his backpack. “Do it.”

“Doing it.” Scott also drops his backpack. “I’m going to need some time, so just stay quiet and let me concentrate.”

“What exactly are you going to do?”

Scott sits down and crosses his legs. “I’m going to talk to some dead people.”

Jinas cracks a grin. “Awesome.”

He sits down near Scott and goes quiet to allow him to concentrate. A blue aura curls up from the ground and envelops Scott, pulsing gently. He levitates a few inches into the air. A dark shadow rises from the ground, taking the shape of a human being. The sky darkens rapidly, as if a sudden thunderstorm appeared. Scott’s blue aura glows brighter, surging with energy. His forehead is creased with effort.

The shadow cools to a faint grey and the details of an old man become clear. Jinas stands but does not approach, choosing instead to marvel at the apparition. Scott opens his eyes and breathes a heavy sigh of relief.

“What an effort,” the Hero says. “I didn’t think that was going to work.”

“Who are you?” the old man asks. He looks around. “Where am I?”

“My name is Scott Cornot. You’re in Magnus’s Cemetery. I’ve called you back from the dead because I’m lost and I need help.”

The old man scowls. “You want help? Go see a doctor! I’m an old man who’s supposed to be in the Royal Crypt enjoying his quiet afterlife. I demand that you send me back.”

“I just need directions to the Royal Crypt. The wall of darkness that once marked it isn’t there anymore.”

The old man laughs. “So Magnus made it easy for his enemies to find the Crypt? That was pretty stupid of him.”

“The wall wasn’t there in your time?” Scott says.

“In my time, finding the Royal Crypt wasn’t just difficult. It was nearly impossible.”

“Do you know where it is or not? Answer my question and I’ll send you back to your afterlife.”

“My grandfather told me that the Royal Crypt ‘lies within the walls of eternal darkness.’ I guess Magnus must have made that little adage come true sometime after I passed.” The old man chuckles. “To think that you would step to necromancy just to figure out where to go! Just who are you? Man or monster?”

Scott closes his eyes and dismisses the spirit. Before Jinas can comment, Scott says, “I’m going to try another one. Keep quiet for a little while longer.”

A second dark shadow rises from the ground and pools into a middle-aged woman. Her eyes are steely and cold, accented by the faded grey of her spiritual body.

“Can you help me get to the Royal Crypt?” Scott asks.

“In my day,” the woman says, “this land was torn by a war whose name is long forgotten to time, started by a charismatic warrior with an army of a million men. They stormed through the Cemetery and killed ceaselessly. But we resisted. I called upon Magnus for aid, and when the moment was right, he struck. One million men gone in an instant, one million wayward souls trapped in the Crypt, one million souls doomed to slave for the god of Silence and Souls for the rest of eternity.” The woman looks at Jinas. “One of my sons looked just like you. He was nineteen when he was killed.”

“Which way do I go?” Scott asks. “Where is the Crypt?”

“The Royal Crypt is where the blood of one million men soaks the ground. Tread carefully; charismatic warlords are prone to reappearances.” Before Scott can ask further questions, the woman dissipates into thin air.

Jinas frowns. “Now that was just confusing.”

“One more try,” Scott says. “If I can’t get anything else, we forge ahead and hope we find someplace to ask directions.” Scott closes his eyes and concentrates. A third shadow rises from the ground and morphs into a small child, perhaps barely older than five or six. Jinas’s heart jumps into his throat.

“Hello,” the young boy says.

“Do you know the way to the Royal Crypt?” Scott asks.

“I do, but I can’t tell you. Magnus made rules preventing it.”

“For me specifically?”

“For you and everyone else who lives on Renea.”

“Why?”

“Magnus is waiting for something,” the boy says. “He walks paces Royal Crypt without end and goes places that even the dead cannot see. Dark places where bad things sleep and bad memories go. He won’t tell us what they are or where they come from, but I know bad things when I see them.”

“What kinds of bad things?” Scott inquires.

“Shards of ice that are clearer than the finest glass. Poisonous gases trapped in transparent cases. Old books written in dead languages.” The boy looks around nervously. “A strange white spear that he’s afraid to even lay eyes upon.”

“Where is the Royal Crypt?”

“Follow the trail of darkness,” the boy says. “Follow the path that leads to death and you will find what you seek. But be careful. Salvation is coming, and he is very strong.”

“Thank you,” Scott says. He dismisses the boy and stretches out his legs, standing. The blue aura hovering around his body fades and he wobbles a little bit. Jinas jumps to his patient’s side, steadying him.

“You get anything out of that?” Jinas asks.

“Nothing too concrete,” he replies, “but that kid’s warning stuck with me.” He stands up a little straighter, holding on to Jinas for balance. “What do you think he meant by those bad things? Shards of ice are hardly bad in my book.”

“Most of it could be symbolic. The dead have a way of mixing the figurative with the literal.”

“And that comment about Salvation?”

“Salvation is the Master of the Shades,” Jinas explains. “He’s objectively the strongest being in this realm barring Magnus himself. If even the dead know about him, you know he’s got some serious power. I think the fact that we haven’t seen a Shade for days means he’s planning something big.” Jinas looks at the sky. “He might even be watching us right now.”

“Let him watch,” Scott says. “I’m perfectly ready to throw down whenever he wants.”

“Let’s not encourage him. Remember, Salvation is known even to the dead. You, however, are just another sack of meat waiting to die.” Jinas gives Scott a gentle push. “Come on, let’s grab our bags and be on our way. Magnus waits for no man.”

“You’re even starting to sound like me.” Scott sways slightly in the breeze. “I guess that’s pretty cool. You know what, Jinas? I like you a lot.”

Jinas looks up at Scott. “What’s that?”

“But not as much as I like Katrina.” Scott sighs. “She’s a catch, that’s for sure.”

The color drains from Scott’s face. Panic rises in Jinas’s throat and he pats Scott on the side of the face. “Scott, can you hear me?”

“You see that bright pink glow over there, Jinas?” Scott points to the horizon, a dizzy smile on his face. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Scott!”

The Hero’s eyes flush with brilliant pink light. He turns on Jinas, a snarl on his lips. The doctor takes a few steps back, ready to run at a moment’s notice. Scott reaches out to grap Jinas, but as he does, the pink light changes to bright blue. He drops down into a defensive ball; Jinas covers his ears.

Scott heaves himself backwards and a supersonic scream erupts from his mouth, flattening the grass in every direction and splitting the sky wide open. Jinas drops to the ground but keeps his eyes firmly on Scott. The world rumbles and shakes, bright blue magic discharging from the Hero’s body and clawing into the dirt and the ground. The clouds spin into one another in a fury and a gale-force wind blows in every direction.

It takes a few more moments for the scream to die, and when it finally does, Scott crumples to the ground and doesn’t move again. Jinas immediately digs through his backpack for his medical supplies. He cuts open Scott’s shirt and begins to administer first aid.

“You’re not dying on me,” Jinas says angrily. “Not this time. We’ve come too far and we only just started. Come on, Scott. You can pull through this!” He pounds a fist on Scott’s chest. “Come on, damn you! Pull through!”

Chapter Eighteen

[]Transformation

Somewhere in Deion’s Peaks

The Peaks sun hangs high and bright overhead, beating down relentlessly on the rocks as waves of heat distort the air. A flock of birds calls ceaselessly in the distance. Despite the intense temperatures, it’s still a pleasant day in the Peaks. Rain doesn’t cloud the horizon and the mountain path is clear of obstacles. Stanley’s new clothes—a gift sent from Deion overnight—fit wonderfully and provide a lot of aeration. The silver shirt and baggy, silver pants with tough walking shoes makes Stanley feel like a real adventurer. Nevertheless, sweat drips from his nose and he leans on his walking staff for support. His spectacles are still missing, lost in the thunderstorm.

Surprisingly, Gabriel is bright and cheery, excited to be out in the sunshine. Though sweat stains his clothes, Gabriel doesn’t seem to mind at all. He is light and carefree, all but feeding off of the sunlight. He dances a few paces farther down the path, animated and exuberant.

“You coming or not?” Gabriel yells over his shoulder. “You’re burning daylight!”

“Slow and steady wins the race,” Stanley answers, stepping over a crevice. “I also have to be sure I do not put my foot in a hole and break my ankle. Considering I cannot see very well, I think taking it slow is a wise thing to do.”

“You’re so boring!” Gabriel complains. “Let’s do something fun for once!”

“The only thing that comes to mind is exploring a library. I have not seen one for a long time.” Stanley pauses and wipes his brow. “Perhaps we can rest for a while, Gabriel. I am tired.”

“No way I’m resting! I feel so up!” He leaps into the air and kicks off the mountain wall. “You feel this sunshine? Smell that air? See those mountain peaks?”

“I cannot see the peaks; I do not have glasses.”

“I wish you could see them. They’re beautiful!” Gabriel prances down the path, whistling a bright and happy tune.

Stanley taps his staff on the ground. A faint beam of light appears from the inset grey stone and points down the path; they’re going in the right direction. Good, he thinks. At least Gabriel is not running around senselessly.

Stanley continues on his way, his staff tapping on the ground in time with his steps. As he rounds the bend, he finds Gabriel sitting on the ground, legs dangling over the edge of the mountain. In his palm is a rock, which he chucks into the open air. He cracks a grin as it sails into oblivion.

“Having fun?” Stanley asks as he moves past his companion.

“As much as I can have when I’m sitting behind a library,” Gabriel answers.

Stanley pulls to a halt. He appraises the mountain wall, curious. Not many things immediately jump out, but if there’s anything there at all, it’s likely a hidden door. He taps his staff against the rocks. “This one might prove difficult,” he mutters. “There is significantly less space for me to work with.” He turns towards Gabriel. “Riddle or puzzle?”

“I said I’m sitting behind a library, not in front.” Gabriel takes a stone in his hand and looks over his shoulder. “Honestly Stanley, you should try paying attention.” He rears back and throws the stone. It bounces a few times in mid-air before coming to a rest in empty space.

Stanley approaches the edge of the mountain and leans out. All of the stones Gabriel has thrown are floating in mid-air, though they’re little more than blurry blobs without spectacles. He crouches and looks over the valley. A faint layer of dust can be seen in the air, marking the general shape of a level piece of ground.

“Out there?” Stanley says. “There is a library out there?”

“Sure there is. All you have to do is walk out. Pretty clever ruse, isn’t it?”

Stanley gets to his feet and goes to take a step, but he hesitates at the last moment and turns to Gabriel. “What is the catch?”

“There has to be a riddle, of course. But this time, the riddle comes with a puzzle. If you can solve both, you can enter the library.”

“Fair enough. What is the riddle?”

“What can be opened but never is?”

Stanley rubs his chin in thought. “And the puzzle?”

“Get out there and you’ll see it for yourself.”

“And what are you going to do while I solve the puzzle?”

“I’m going to sit here and watch. Once you’ve opened the door I’ll come and find you.” Gabriel smiles. “Let me tell you, this was one of my favorite libraries back when I was your age.”

“Pardon? My ‘age?’”

“Just get out there. Libraries wait for no man.”

Stanley leans over the edge of the cliff. The rock face falls away and drops into a sea of blue mist. One wrong step will lead to certain death. Stanley’s stomach drops into his knees and he swallows hard, worried more about the sickening feeling of falling than the end result. Grasping his staff firmly in his hand, Stanley looks ahead, straightens his back, and steps off into the empty air.

He hovers as if standing on an invisible platform. Looking down, Stanley can see his feet and the sea of mist just below. He throws a look over his shoulder. Gabriel is grinning, an orange in his hand. Just how many oranges did you pack?

Stanley ventures into the openness, feeling his way in front of him with the end of his staff. He walks all the way out to the floating rocks, looking around for any sign of a door. Nothing immediately jumps out at him, but he knows something’s out there. He taps his staff on the ground a few times, mulling over the riddle given to him by Gabriel.

“What can be opened but never is?” Stanley muses softly.

As if responding, the world shifts underneath him. Reality distorts itself and the sea of mist fades into flat, black rock. Stanley finds himself standing on a wide, black square connected to the side of the mountain. Curious, he creeps to the edge, crouches down, and peers over the side. The black rock extends down a short distance but edges off, creating the overall shape of a cube.

Stanley grabs a stone from the ground and drops it over the cube’s edge. It plummets into the mist below without stopping. He steps back, thinking.

No distinctive markings or patterns. No shape of a door or entrance has made itself revealed. Perhaps…

Testing a theory, Stanley takes a second stone and chucks it farther out over the valley. It, like the stone before it, simply drops and disappears into the mist.

He sits down and lays his staff across his legs, peering out at the Peaks with cold, calm eyes. A warm wind blows down the mountain and heats up his back, the glare from the sunlight nearly blinding. Stanley closes his eyes and focuses his thoughts, searching his long-term memory for help.

Stanley walks through his mind as if he’s just broken into a house. Everything seems out of place and foreign. Tables that presented groups of pictures of important memories are faded and greyed. Cobwebs drape from a chandelier that hung in his grandmother’s entryway for twenty-five years. His grandfather’s rocking chair is lined with dust and is missing an arm, but it otherwise looks usable.

He enters into a hallway with many doors on both sides. Each room he peers into looks worse than the one before it. Rooms are filled with ruined mattresses, broken dressers and windows with missing panes. At the end of the long hallway is a door, which Stanley opens.

In contrast to the rest of the house, this room is in perfect condition. Bookcases line the walls and cardboard boxes are stacked neatly in the corner. Stanley strides up to a bookcase on the right wall and pulls out a yellow book—his riddle book. He cracks open to a random page and reads a few lines.

The answer comes to him all at once. Stanley pulls himself out of his mind and opens his eyes. The sunlight cuts into his retinas like a knife and he winces. Standing, he places the end of his staff on the ground and taps it once. A grey light appears, pointing downwards at Stanley’s feet.

“I thought so,” he mutters. Stanley runs to the edge of the black rock and launches himself into the air. There is a moment of sickening emptiness in his stomach as he stares out at the far away peaks.

Then, he drops into the valley.

Stanley freezes time; he stops falling.

He turns his head around and looks at the black cube. As he suspected, the rock face is not completely sheer. A small concave shell is cut into the rock. He turns and, as if walking down stairs, moves towards the concave cutout. Once his feet are on the stone and he has a stable position, Stanley unfreezes time.

The face of the rock within the concave shell is smoother and shinier than the rock on the library’s surface. It either has been worn by the sands of time or has been rubbed smooth by many patient hands. Stanley instinctively knows that this must be the way in. He taps the head of his staff on the rock a few times, but nothing happens.

He hunts for a doorknob and finds it in the form of a circular rock set against the smoothed surface. Stanley grips the knob, turns it, and pushes in. A hiss of air drives a portion of the wall inwards, exposing a completely black room. He enters the darkened library with a racing heartbeat.

Torches on the wall come alive, filling the room with atmospheric green light. A small lobby spreads itself out, rows of shelves extending deep into the library. On the right side of the lobby is a long desk piled high with papers and folders. On the left side of the lobby is a circle of chairs and a square side table. The floor is covered with an intricate, symmetrical spiked design that stops just at the edge of the book shelves. Looking at it for too long causes one to feel like they’re falling into an endless abyss.

“Hello?” Stanley calls. “Is anyone here?”

Footsteps fall on the floor nearby. Stanley turns to see a small grey woman emerge from behind the desk. She has a large nose, long fingers, and big feet.

“How did you get in?”

“Through the front door,” he says, gesturing with the head of his staff. “I answered the riddle needed to enter. What can be opened but never is? An illusionary door, of course.”

“Wise answer.” The woman claps her hands together. “What brings you here on this fine day?”

“A thirst for knowledge. I am Stanley Lockwood, apprentice to Deion, god of Mountains and Time.”

“Oh, a Hero in my own library.” The woman bows at the waist. “I am honored by your presence.”

“Please do not bow; I am nothing special. I am looking for information that will help me on my quest to find my patron god. What do you suggest?”

“History tends to repeat itself,” the woman says. “I recommend the third aisle from the right. I would join you, but I still have some papers to file.” She gestures to the stack on her desk. “As you can see, I’m a little behind schedule. Just holler if you need something.”

Stanley nods, takes up his staff, and departs down the shelves. The green gemstone lamps cast odd shadows on the floor, making the walk feel like the world is made out of cartoons. Stanley treads lightly, careful not to trip over the natural optical illusions. The shelves are crammed full of books; his head spins at the thought of so much knowledge contained in such a little library.

As he passes the end of the first shelf and moves on to the next, something tumbles to the ground behind him. He turns; a green leather-bound book has fallen to the floor, lying right on its face, pages bent and folded. Refusing to allow such treatment to continue, Stanley picks it up. He brushes off the front cover and holds it up to the light. The title of the book reads, “The Destiny of the Doomed.” To his surprise, it’s written in neat English. Stanley shrugs, shelves the book, then continues on his way.

Something clicks in the back of his mind and he pauses. A voice echoes in his head. Some books are a little more difficult than others, and others are certainly more useful than some, but no one book is ever going to give you information you can’t use. Stanley turns and taps his staff lightly on the floor. The grey light reappears and points directly at the book he just shelved.

He walks back to the book and takes it in his hands, rereading the cover. “Destiny of the Doomed,” he says aloud. “It sounds like a cheap video game from the 80s.” He opens to the contents. “Maybe these things happen for a reason. Perhaps I was meant to come across this book.”

The table of contents has been hastily blotted out with black ink. There are only six chapters, and the book has no introduction and no epilogue. Stanley flips through the book until he comes to the first page. The title of the chapter has also been crossed out in black ink. Someone was definitely thorough in censoring things they didn’t want others to see. He begins to read.

We lived in the light. We frolicked under the Six Suns of Renea. Our world in Monarch was beautiful, vibrant, and full of joy.

Then, Lolai died.

Our world got a little bit darker. The moon, however, only got brighter. Instead of running under the sun, we found comfort in the moon. It was like she was still up there, watching over us. Lolai was everyone’s favorite god, and her death was an enormous turning point in Renean history. The gods soon sent word to their oracles that they would claim people for an apprenticeship that they called the Heroes.

This, of course, was entirely unprecedented. The chance to work with the gods themselves was something that anyone would do. Imagine my surprise when my friends and I were chosen to become the first Heroes. We gathered ourselves together, made a bet on who would come back the strongest, and left to have our adventures.

I took to the Woods. Along my way I fought against wood elementals, merciless elves, and the intoxicating magic of the forest itself. All my efforts paid off when I finally met Kalax at the Overgrown Temple. He shared with me the real reason for the naming of Heroes, which I have chosen to omit for the safety of all Reneans. Maybe someday the world will be able to know the truth, but for now I absolutely cannot share.

I realized then that we were about to be a part of something way bigger than ourselves. Kalax told me that there was one more thing I had to do—one more Riddle to solve now that I was a full-fledged Hero. I took his challenge and left for my home in Monarch. To my surprise, all of my friends were there to greet me. They too had been told about the nature of Heroes and the final challenge that lay before us. We went straight to the center of Monarch, the Greatest City in the World.

Our last challenge was almost too difficult to overcome. It was a test that to this day I still think about. Though grand in design, sweeping in size, and daunting in stature, our rag-tag team managed to pull through and prevail. We stood at the very cusp of immortality and had the whole universe in our hands. Our time of triumph was neigh.

We should have known better. We should have seen it all coming from miles away. But by the time we gathered what had happened, it was far too late.

Defeated and shamed, we were forced to scatter to the wind. We lost everything. No—I lost everything. I lost my friends, most of my power, and a vast majority of my sanity. Where did my weapon go? What happened to my spiritmate? I fear these questions will never be answered.

I leave this paper in the hands of my trusted associate for archiving. He has proclaimed that he will document our exploits in this book. I hope that someone will find this and understand its message before it’s too late. If you are a Hero and you’re reading this, find your god as fast as you can and do whatever they tell you to do. Do it without question and follow it to the letter. They are older than you, wiser than you, and have way more power than you can begin to imagine.

Stanley turns the page to find it completely blacked out. So has the next page, and every page after that. In fact, the whole book has been censored with thick, black ink. Frustrated, he slams the book shut and puts it back on the shelf.

“Destined to read it my foot,” he snarls, stalking further into the library.

Back in the lobby, the front door opens and a second person enters the library. The Keeper reappears from behind her desk, only to gasp at the sight before her. Standing in the lobby is a man she long thought was dead, if not barely alive.

“So this is where you were hiding!” Gabriel says happily. “I’m glad you’re here. You’re much easier to talk to than your stubborn husband.”

“I thought you were dead!” the Keeper exclaims. “What are you still doing alive?”

“Well good to see you too, Halria!”

“I mean it, Gabriel. You’ve been missing for upwards of sixty years. I was beginning to think you had finally croaked.”

“I was lying in wait,” Gabriel says, producing an orange from his pocket. “I needed to find the right moment to come back through the Peaks. How’ve you been?”

“I should be asking you that,” Halria says. “Heavens knows you’ve seen your fair share of life. What brings you to the library?”

“I’m working with a new crowd now.” Gabriel peels the skin off his orange. “Did you happen to see a tall guy with a staff come through here? He’s my protégé of sorts.”

“I thought you swore off helping Heroes after what happened in the Peaks District a couple decades ago.”

Gabriel grimaces. “That was pretty unfortunate, but I’m positive it won’t happen again. This one’s different.” He bites into the orange and grins. “This one is gonna make it.”

“Well if you’re looking for him, I sent him down aisle three.”

Gabriel chokes; Halria raises an eyebrow.

“You sent him where?” Gabriel asks, incredulous.

“Aisle three.” Halria jabs a thumb over her shoulder. “You know, the aisle where—oh.” Her face turns pale. “Oh dear.”

Gabriel sprints past Halria and flies down the aisle as fast as his feet can carry him. He finds Stanley on the floor near the back of the library, a book in his lap and several at his side. He looks up at Gabriel’s arrival, his expression neither startled nor expectant.

“Hello Gabriel.”

“Hey Stanley.” Gabriel leans over his knees in an attempt to catch his breath.

“Running from something?” Stanley asks, turning his eyes back to his book.

“Just trying to catch up with you.” Gabriel sits on the ground. “Find anything good?”

“A few short stories and some fictional novels, but nothing more than that.” Stanley turns his book over, shakes his head, then discards it. “Most of these books are rather dry and boring. I expected something more… Intense.”

“Libraries are a place to learn,” Gabriel says. “If you want intensity, I’m afraid you won’t find it here.”

“Undoubtedly,” Stanley agrees flatly. “I did find one mildly intense book. It was about the first Heroes, but it was rather strange. A vast majority of the book had been marked out in black ink.”

“That so?”

“Yes.” Stanley looks at his companion with patient, calculating eyes. “You would not happen to know anything about this book, would you?”

“Can’t say I do,” Gabriel admits with a shrug. “I came running down here just in case you ended up getting lost.”

“How could I get lost?” Stanley asks. “The aisle is a straight shot from end to end of the library.”

Gabriel chuckles. “That’s not entirely true. Remember how I said you were going to have a puzzle to solve?”

The ground underneath them rumbles. The green gemstone light glows brighter as a large slab of stone pushes itself out of the ground and rises to the ceiling, making a wall that completely blocks one end of the aisle. More walls rise in different places around the library, the rumbling shaking the floor and sending books tumbling out of their shelves. The green light grows brighter, peaking in luminescence when the last of the walls finally stops moving.

“So tell me, Stanley,” Gabriel says, looking at his companion with amusement in his eyes. “How do you feel about mazes?”

Gerrich grinds his teeth together, annoyed. Just minutes ago he had been watching Gabriel and Stanley from across the valley, but then something odd happened. A black cube appeared from the side of the mountain and Stanley quickly vanished inside. Gabriel, of course, soon followed. Then the rock vanished, taking his two targets with it.

“It’s time,” Gerrich says. “Get down there.”

One of his three accompanying bandits looks at Gerrich, confused. “Sir?”

“We’ve got them trapped. There’s no way out now, Gabriel!”

“How are we going to get down there?” another bandit asks. “They’re on the other side of the valley.”

Gerrich shoves past his inexperienced bandit underlings. You want to get something done, you always have to do it yourself.

Standing at the edge of the mountain, Gerrich reaches into his clothes and pulls out a mechanical device of his own design—a claw shot. After taking a careful angle measurement, he shoots it at the mountain on the other side of the valley. Strong cable streams through the air until the device buries itself in the rock. Gerrich then hooks one end between two pieces of rock on his mountain. A quick pluck of the string reveals that it’s taut and ready to go.

Gerrich looks at his three subordinate bandits and says, “Now quit looking at me with that stupid glaze over your eyes.” He points at the cable. “You’ve got a job to do.”

As if remembering who stands in front of them, all three bandits straighten up. One tightens his rock-climbing gloves. Another tightens her trousers. The third double-checks his strings and fixes his shoes. As they pass in front of Gerrich in slow succession, each places a fist over their heart. Gerrich returns the gesture reverently.

The first bandit leaps over the edge of the chasm. He drops several feet before catching the cable with his gloved hand. As he begins to half-slide half-shuffle his way across the valley, the second bandit leaps over the edge and catches the cable. The third bandit leaps off the mountain and also grabs the cable, shuffling in the same way as his companions. There is fear in their movements. Good, Gerrich grins. Fear is just weakness leaving the body.

Once the first bandit has his feet on the other mountain, Gerrich hops on top of the cable and flies across the valley like a tightrope walker. The line doesn’t so much as bounce as he passes the third bandit and then the second bandit, his steps nimble and quick. Gerrich commits to a smooth front-flip and lands firmly on the mountain path, mere feet away from the first bandit to make it across. After a few moments, the second and third bandits join their leader.

“Now that we’re all gathered,” Gerrich says, “I assume someone will want to volunteer.”

The underlings exchange looks again, confused.

“Well?” He gestures to the empty abyss. “Who’s going first?”

“Uh,” stutters the female bandit, “what do you mean by that, sir?”

Gerrich kneads the bridge of his nose. “It’s like I’m talking in an alien language with you people. Look, either someone grind up the guts to take a leap of faith or I’m going to start throwing people off the cliff. How do you think the Hero found the library? It sure wasn’t by standing around.”

One of the male bandits, a lean man with a tan face, steps forwards. “I will be the first. It will be my honor to—”

Gerrich snags the bandit by the back of his shirt; then, with one arm, he launches the underling out over the valley. Much to his companions’ horror, and to Gerrich’s surprise, the bandit tumbles past where the rock cube should have appeared. He drops into the misty valley below with a long, loud scream.

“Dammit,” Gerrich growls. He folds his legs underneath him and drops into a sitting position, crossing his arms and closing his eyes.

“What are you doing, sir?” the other male asks.

“I’m picking blueberries. Do you want some?”

“What do you think happened to Gomil?” the female asks, ignoring Gerrich’s sarcasm.

“He died,” Gerrich says, “and there’s no sense in mourning. If the library won’t open up for us, the only thing we can do is wait.”

“Wait for what?” the male asks again.

“What the hell do you think we’re waiting for, the mail? We’re waiting for the Hero and his filthy companion to drag their rears out of the library so I can dice them up and stew them both.”

“A roast would be a better idea,” the female observes.

“If we’re roasting,” the male bandit says, “I’ll take mine with a dry rub.”

Gerrich kneads the bridge of his nose; it’s going to be a long wait.

“What do you mean we can’t double back?” Gabriel protests. “It’ll put us back where we started, I’m certain!” He points to the piece of paper as Stanley once again sits on the ground and closes his eyes. “Look here. We should be somewhere between aisles four and seven. There are only ten aisles in this library. Finding our way out should be a piece of cake.”

“The library is changing,” Stanley says. “Your prewritten paths will not guide us out of this maze. The walls are moving to make new mazes each time you write on that paper.”

“It didn’t do this last time,” Gabriel counters. “Last time I was here, the only thing that changed was the books and the lights. You’d go to pick up a red book and surprise! It’s a blue book. Green lamps turn to purple at random. Black shelves become white. Annoying juvenile stuff like that.”

“Speaking of annoying.” Stanley opens one eye and fixes it on Gabriel. “If you do not mind, I need some quiet. I am trying to concentrate.”

“Doing another dive into your mind? I don’t know what good it’ll do you in an ever-changing environment.”

“It would work better in a quiet environment.”

“I’m sure it would,” Gabriel chuckles. “Unfortunately we’re stuck here, so we’ll have to work together to figure out what we need to do.”

Stanley sighs, holding his head in his hands. “Just one minute,” he says. “Is that too much to ask for? One minute of blessed silence?”

“Why think in silence when you can brainstorm, as I always say. Any fresh ideas?”

Before Stanley can answer, the floor shifts drastically, throwing Gabriel off balance. His carefully constructed paper map flies out of his hand, flattening itself across Stanley’s face. As Gabriel falls flat on his back, a rock slab juts up from the ground and cuts them off from one another. Other rock slabs shift in the dark library, changing the angle and intensity of the green gemstone light.

When all is quiet, Stanley gets to his feet and presses his ear against the cold rock slab. He knocks on it a few times in many different places, listening for an echo. The wall is completely solid; no amount of physical force he could generate would break through it.

Sighing, Stanley leaves and walks through the aisles, stopping only when he comes to another rock wall. He glances over his shoulder and finds himself alone in a quiet hallway, blocked off on both sides by bookshelves and lit by eerie green light. Wishing he had kept Gabriel’s map, even though he decides it’s not worth going back for, Stanley sits down to think. He places his staff on the ground and focuses his mind, reaching into his memories.

In his mind, Stanley walks down a dimly lit hallway and enters the first door on his left. Inside, three tall bookcases cover the walls. At the top of each case is a faded, almost tarnished gold plaque denoting the specifics of the shelves. Stanley approaches the shelf with the plaque “Physics and Quantum Mechanics” on top and pulls out a purple-bound book. He turns to a specific page, reading through his stored knowledge for a very specific piece of information.

It takes several long minutes for him to find what he’s looking for, but after some thorough searching and a quick cross-check with a green-bound book, he finds himself satisfied. In the real world, Stanley’s eyes open and readjust to the dim lighting. He takes his staff, stands, and faces the rock wall. The end of his staff comes alive, a beam of grey light pointing straight through the wall. Stanley sighs; of course the staff is going to try and lead him right through a solid object.

“If only I could control the flow of time…” Stanley says softly. “Then I would be able to generate the exact amount of force needed to break through the wall.”

“Try it anyways,” a deep, soft voice whispers. Stanley turns around but finds himself alone. “It’s only a manipulation of what you already know.”

“Not quite,” Stanley counters. “I do not have the experience to do such a thing.”

“Powerful,” the voice laughs, “yet afraid to try even the simple things. You can solve the puzzle, but first you need to try.”

“How?” Stanley asks. “Where do I start?”

The voice says nothing more. Scowling, Stanley takes up his staff and leaves to hunt for Gabriel.

Somewhere else in the library, Gabriel sits on the ground reading an old book titled Bards: The Storytellers of Our World. The humorous drawings and the skeptically written but entirely true recollection of stories about bards makes Gabriel smile. To him, it’s a bright spot in a world filled with darkness. The faint green light adds a sensation of mystery to the stories, in particular the story about a bard named Kallip.

Gabriel chuckles as he reads about the escapades of Kallip the Bard, which ranges from accidentally selling himself as a magician in the Woods to wrecking a navy ship on an abandoned island in the Ocean. Themes of untimely appearances and poorly given advice appear consistently through the tales, though everything Kallip does is intended to be for good.

Gabriel is so entrenched in reading that he fails to notice the world shifting around him. The green lights flicker faster, as if time is being sped up. The bookshelves warp and distort, as if space is being tampered with. Yet he continues to read, content to keep his nose deep in the book with Kallip and the other bards whose names have long been lost to time.

A heavy thud startles Gabriel out of his book. When he looks up, a familiar man is lying on the ground. He has messy brown hair and wears a blue cloak with matching hood. He pulls himself into a sitting position and looks at his surroundings.

“To think I’d find you here of all places,” the stranger says. “I didn’t think you’d be going through the Peaks after what happened.” He turns his eyes on Gabriel, who immediately shuts his in response. “This isn’t a dream, Gabe. You can’t shut your eyes and make me go away.”

“I’m well aware,” Gabriel says. “I would just like to pretend you don’t exist.”

“Well I do exist, so you might as well come back to reality!” The stranger slides across the floor and plants himself next to Gabriel, who still refuses to open his eyes. “Whatcha reading, pal? This looks like pretty exciting stuff.”

“Just some light reading,” Gabriel answers tensely. “Please go away.”

The man takes the book from Gabriel’s hands and flips through it. “You were reading about Kallip the Bard, were you? He was a really good storyteller, told some pretty scary tales. He also told people things he wasn’t supposed to know.”

The man drops the book in Gabriel’s lap.

“That’s why I threw him off the top of Capital Cathedral,” he says. “You don’t go around telling people about me and my colleague. We have our anonymity carefully protected for a reason, remember?”

“I do,” Gabriel says evenly.

“Look at me when I talk to you.” He grabs Gabriel’s arm. “When I talk to you, I expect you to listen to me and look me in the eyes.”

“No.”

“Don’t tell me no,” the stranger snaps. He seizes Gabriel’s jaw and forces the man’s face in front of his own. “Whenever I find you, I expect a warm welcome. I always arrive for a reason, Gabriel. Are you telling me you don’t respect me enough to give me the decency of eye contact?”

“Get your hand off of me,” Gabriel whispers. The man squeezes the sides of Gabriel’s jaw.

“I tell you what to do, not the other way around. What are you going to do, attack me? You know you can’t touch me.” He takes a deep breath and finds the better half of his humor. “I have a present for you. Remember Ghaldin, your favorite little sword?”

Gabriel’s eyes snap open; they glow with a faint green light. The man smirks and releases Gabriel’s jaw, content with capturing his attention.

“I thought you’d remember,” the man says. “I thought I’d tell you that I found it—rather, I came across it by chance. And by that, I mean your Hero traded it to me for a rowanwood staff.”

Gabriel scoffs. “That’s not possible. If he ever had Ghaldin in his possession, I would have noticed it by the sheath alone.”

“Unless the sheath was changed by the most recent owner.” The man grins widely. “You’re pretty stupid. You would have noticed the pommel of the sword if you were really paying attention.”

“Stanley never had that sword and that’s final.” Gabriel stands. “Even if he once had it, he would have never known that it was Ghaldin. The sword’s name has been lost to time for thousands of years.”

The stranger gets to his feet. He spreads his palms and a sheathed sword drops into his hands from nowhere, wisps of magenta magic curling into the air. Taking the pommel in his hand, the man draws the sword. It glows neon red, as if energized by someone’s presence. The craftsmanship is first-rate and neither blemish nor scratch can be seen—it’s a beautiful, perfect weapon without equal.

The man sheathes it and Gabriel starts, as if coming out of a trance. “Ahh,” he grins, “so you have seen this before. I figured as much.”

“He had it,” Gabriel says in disbelief. “He had it the whole time and I didn’t even know.”

“If you want it back, you’re going to have to earn it.”

Gabriel snorts. “Don’t be silly. Give it back.”

“I wasn’t kidding.” The stranger ties the sheath around his waist. “I’m the current owner of your precious sword, and right now, I don’t think you’re worthy of owning it.”

“Worthy!” Gabriel shouts. “I’ve been apart from my family for a hundred millennium! I’ve suffered ceaselessly while you and Gnosis slink around like snakes in the grass! How much longer will you force me to wait?

“Oh don’t be dramatic. I’ve been waiting for the return of someone very important for much longer than you’ve been waiting for your precious family. You can wait a little longer.”

“I won’t wait any longer.” Gabriel steps forward. “Give it back right now or I swear I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” the man laughs. “You’ll attack me for the sword? You’ll go up against me knowing full well that I’ll erase you from the face of the planet without a second thought?”

“Your omnipotence is not enough to drive me from what is rightfully mine.” Gabriel lowers into a stance, his eyes glowing forest green. “If I have to die trying, then I’m going to do it here and now.”

Before either of them can act, one of the nearby shelves explodes out and into the aisle. Gabriel whips around to see Stanley emerge from the gaping hole, coughing and waving his hand to dispel the dust cloud. In his hand is his rowanwood walking staff; a grey light emanates from the top and points at the man with magenta eyes.

“Oh,” Stanley says, “there you are. It is good to see you again, Gabriel.” He quirks an eyebrow at the stranger at the other end of the hallway. “What are you doing here?”

“Enjoying the library,” the man says casually. “I just happened to bump into your friend here. He was telling me all about you.”

“Is that so? Well, I hope he has not said too much. I am a private person.”

“He was more interested in the sword you traded me. In fact, he was so interested in it that he’s about to fight me for it.”

Stanley appraises Gabriel. He is in a fighting stance, firmly rooted yet limber. Green light comes from his eyes and a menacing aura radiates from his body.

“Is that so?” he asks. “I did not think Gabriel was a violent man. As I recall, he is ‘as nonviolent as they come.’”

“Don’t you dare force-feed my words back to me!” Gabriel screams. “You had her sword all along and you didn’t tell me?”

“Based on your current behavior, I do not think telling you would have been wise.” Stanley keeps his attention divided between an increasingly angry Gabriel and a surprisingly relaxed stranger. “Giving it to you was likely a better option, but you may have killed me for possessing it in the first place.”

“So you willingly gave him her sword! Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Gabriel points at the stranger. “He is the sole reason that I’ve been trapped on this planet for as long as I have! You have no right to give him anything but a punch in the mouth!”

“Trusting you is difficult,” Stanley says patiently. “You are reclusive, cryptic, and you purposely withhold information from me. In my eyes you are still a stranger. Why should I trust you any more than I trust him?” Stanley nods to the stranger. “He came to me and warned me of your anger. He warned me about keeping the sword in my possession. I had no choice.”

“You did have a choice!” Gabriel thunders. “You could have given it to me, its rightful owner!”

“And risk being killed in the process?” Stanley shakes his head. “I would never take such a risk. What is done has been done. The sword belongs to neither of us now. It is his to wield and his to use.”

Gabriel lunges at Stanley with a scream on his lips, but his hands meet empty air—Gabriel lands flat on the ground. He turns to see Stanley standing next to the man with the magenta eyes, a cold and stoic expression on his face.

“Meet me topside,” the stranger says. “I’ll take you to Pinnacle Monastery.”

“Fine by me.”

The man vanishes as if he were blinked out of existence. Something dawns in the back of Gabriel’s mind. He gets to his feet and steps forward. Stanley’s face remains impassive.

“Stanley,” Gabriel says pleadingly, “please don’t do this. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I am my own man,” Stanley says, a hard edge in his voice. “I will make my own decisions.”

He strikes the foot of his staff on the ground. A loud metallic sound bursts through the aisle and Stanley teleports out of the maze, reappearing on the roof of the library. Though he cannot see clearly, he can make out the shape of someone standing on the mountain path. Stanley approaches.

“Ah, the man of the hour,” the stranger says with a smile. Stanley freezes when he sees three deformed shapes twisted on the ground. “Oh, don’t mind those. They were just in the way. Bandits deserve the most brutal punishment, don’t you think?”

Stanley bends down and looks at one of the unmoving bodies. Hard lines shape the bandit’s youthful face; his body is lean and powerful. Undoubtedly, this bandit would have been a worthy adversary to face in combat. The Hero stands and readjusts his eyes to the bright sunlight.

“The name’s Max,” the man says, digging into his blue cloak. “Well, it’s actually Maxillarion, but you can call me Max. I’m a traveler, much like you.” He produces something from his cloak and offers it to Stanley. The Hero takes it in his hands; it’s a pair of eyeglasses.

“Are these mine?” Stanley asks as he puts them on. Everything becomes sharper and his vision corrects itself; the prescription is perfect.

“I found them in the valley while I was traveling,” Max says. “I fixed them up a little bit so you could see better. Do you like them?”

“Yes.” Stanley nods at Max. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Max tosses the hood over his head. “No sense in hanging around here. Let’s get a move on. Deion waits for no man.”

Gerrich wakes to a clear night sky, his body steeped in agony and his neck muscles tensed and throbbing. He groans and tries to shift position, but stars burst behind his eyes, his body screaming for him to stay still.

Then, a gentle sensation like the morning sunrise washes over his body. The pain slowly ebbs away, starting in his head and moving down to his feet. As the pain goes away, Gerrich becomes aware of orange light and warmth. Someone has a fire going nearby. He slowly turns his head, looking for another Renean. Maybe one of his bandits survived the attack by the man with magenta eyes.

Gabriel sits on a rock with his eyes locked on the fire, his fingers laced in front of his mouth. Even from a distance, it’s obvious that he’s been crying. Gerrich’s stomach lurches at the mere sight of him.

“I know I’m the last person you wanted to see,” Gabriel says without looking away from the fire. “I know that you hate me and everything I stand for, but right now I’m all you’ve got.”

“I should kill you,” Gerrich whispers hoarsely.

“Probably not a good idea. I’m using some healing magic to restore your bones. Your left femur is broken, your right arm is shattered in thirteen places, and you have a concussion. I’ve been working on the concussion in pieces because I don’t have enough power to fully heal it in one shot.” He laughs joylessly. “A Moon Realm like the Peaks isn’t the ideal place for someone like me. I’m used to the Sun Realms.”

“Could have fooled me.” The bandit turns his head back to the sky. “Why are you helping me?”

“Because you’re all I’ve got left. Stanley abandoned me for a snake charmer.” Gabriel sighs. “We were so close to making a breakthrough, too. There’s no doubt about it, Gerrich. Stanley is the one I’ve been waiting for.”

“Oh shut up,” Gerrich growls. “Your hopeful enthusiasm makes me sick.” He tries to prop himself up on one arm, but it immediately gives out and pain shoots up his shoulder. A faint, warm sunniness flows into his body, weaker than the last time.

“Stop moving so much,” Gabriel says, green light flowing from his palm. “The more you move, the more I have to fix; I’m trying to conserve as much energy as I can until morning. Once the sun rises I can heal you in one go.”

Gerrich is silent for a while as the magic moves through his bones, locking marrow back into place and repairing broken blood vessels. “So you’re one of them after all,” Gerrich says after a moment. He turns his head towards Gabriel, meeting the other man’s eyes. “You’re one of the Emissaries.”

“It’s the truth.” The green light fades; Gabriel looks at his hands. “You know what’s terrible about having access to magic? It’s never useful when you need it, and it’s perfectly useful when you don’t want it.” He turns his palm skyward and a branch extends from it. A small fruit blossoms at the end and fills itself out into a single orange. Gabriel picks it off the branch. “You want an orange or something?”

“I think my jaw is broken, so I’m going to say no.”

Gabriel bites into the fruit as the branch recedes. “You’d think I’d get bored of making oranges, but I actually can’t get enough of them. I guess it connects me to my friends. Keeps them close.”

“Stop spilling emotional soup on my face,” Gerrich snaps. “I hardly care about you or your friends, particularly in lieu of what one of them did to me.”

“That wasn’t her fault and you know it. It’s the fault of the world. Knowledge shouldn’t be hoarded for those who are ‘worthy.’ Knowledge should be for everyone.” Gabriel casts a glance at his bedridden enemy. “I’m truly sorry for how those Keepers wronged you, Gerrich. I knew they were high-brow, but to turn away someone who aspires to be a scholar just for being born into bandits! It’s a disgrace—a damn disgrace.”

“I don’t want your pity. I want my revenge.” The bandit pauses, suddenly considering his position. “I assume you’re going to leave me here to die, now that you know I still want to kill you.”

Gabriel leans on his hand. “In truth, perhaps killing me would be for the best. I’ve been on this planet for an outrageously long time and I still haven’t done anything right.” He looks at Gerrich. “But if you’re going to kill me, I have a favor to ask of you first.”

“Amuse me,” Gerrich says, mildly interested.

“I want you to come with me to Pinnacle Monastery.”

Gerrich’s immediate response is to sit up, though his spine shrieks and forces him to remain lying down. Gabriel smirks, entertained.

“Pinnacle Monastery?” Gerrich asks. “The Greatest Library in the World? The place of unfathomable knowledge and priceless artifacts of rare and ingenious design?”

“That’s the one.”

“And you know where it is?”

“I’ve been around for a hundred millennium,” Gabriel says. “If I couldn’t find one lousy library by now, I don’t think I’d ever call myself a man again.”

“What are we going to do once we get there?”

“We’re going to burn it to the ground.”

Greed and delight glows in Gerrich’s beady black eyes. He grins wickedly. “Tell me more.”

“Stanley is on his way to Pinnacle Monastery as we speak,” Gabriel replies. “I’m certain that our mutual enemy will be able to guide Stanley right to it, but we can get there faster than they can—I know shortcuts. Besides, Stanley is a bit of weird. He likes to take things slow and move the game at his pace. The other man will be too afraid of alienating Stanley to force him to move quicker.” He holds up a finger. “If we’re fast enough, we can beat them to the Monastery and purge it of everything it holds.”

“I never figured you for a madman,” says Gerrich. “Had I known this was up your sleeve, I would have come to you a long time ago.”

“We all do crazy things to protect what we care about.” Gabriel sprouts another branch from his palm, pulls it out, and tosses it into the fire. He winces, pained at having to fuel his natural enemy with his own magic. “On top of that, he has a sword that belongs to someone I care for deeply. I can’t let him hand it over to Deion.”

“Why not?”

“If he gets it, he will never give it back.” Gabriel leans back. “A one-of-a-kind artifact isn’t something Deion would easily let go. It’s odd, though. If he had the sword for such a long time, why not give it to Deion earlier? Why keep it for so long?”

“Probably to drive a wedge between you two,” Gerrich says. “It’s great for psychological warfare, and looks it worked out.” He groans, pain setting back into his bones. “So what’s in it for you, then? Why go through all the trouble of burning down the library? Stanley will never trust you again.”

“That man he travels with once caused me enormous amounts of pain. Destroying Pinnacle Monastery might be the only way to hurt him.” Gabriel rests a fist on his knee. “If I can just see a sliver of pain in his cheeky little eyes, that’ll be enough for me. He’s always had the upper hand, always had the perfect timing. Not this time. This time, he’s the one that’s going to pay.”

Gerrich is silent for a moment before he speaks. “You’ve convinced me. I’ll do it.”

“That easily?” Gabriel says, turning to his enemy. “Really?”

“On one condition.” Gerrich’s eyes grow dark. “When all is said and done, I want my payment in full. In full, Gabriel. Do you understand what I mean?”

Gabriel sighs and looks at the fire. “Yes, I understand. I suppose it’s for the best, though.”

Gerrich is silent for a moment. “Ariana was my goddess,” he says softly. “You know that, right?”

“With all my heart, I do.”

“Being betrayed by her was the worst thing to ever happen to me.” He looks back to the sky. “Settling the score is the only way I can finally be free.”

“What will you do when it’s all over?” Gabriel asks. “When Pinnacle Monastery is gone, assuming Deion doesn’t kill us first, what will you do after that?”

“I’ll leave the Peaks,” Gerrich says. “I’ll go to Monarch and start burning libraries. Nothing’s going to stop me until every last book on this planet is nothing more than a pile of ash.”

Chapter Nineteen

[]Walking Through Time

Somewhere in Tetrask’s Temple on the surface of the moon

“What did you call this again?” Nysse asks, curious.

“It’s called a cell phone, remember?” Luke says. “I used it at the shrine back when we first met. It used to turn on and communicate with other phones around the world, but it died a long time ago.”

“So it’s like a telepathy fire.”

“Yeah, in a way. But it could do so much more. You had access to a near limitless amount of information. There were hundreds of games out there to find and play. You could meet people you’ve never heard of before and learn about them through all kinds of messaging systems. This thing pretty much defined the world!”

“What powered it?” Nysse turns it upside down, peering at the back. “Was it magic?”

“Nah, electricity. You ever seen lightning?”

“Of course. Thunderstorms are common on Renea.”

“So lightning is basically electricity. It’s immensely powerful and it’s probably the closest thing you can get to having stars on the planet, excluding all things nuclear. People from my planet learned how to harness the power of electricity and we used it to power our world. Cell phones. Steam engines. Flying machines. We build ships so long and so tall that you couldn’t even see the other side!” Luke sighs and leans back against the wall. “Electricity is pretty amazing.”

Nysse holds the cell phone above her head, her eyes filled with wonder. “So this little device is probably worth a fortune, right? Your people must have fought over this thing jealously.”

“Well to some people it’s a pretty hefty commodity, but to others it’s barely worth the time to steal it. There’s so many of these things out there and they’re so commonplace that just about everybody has one.” Luke grins. “If you ask me, this telepathy fire thing is more radical than a cell phone. Scott and I would be up for hours gabbing on and on about… About…” He frowns.

“Something wrong?” Nysse asks, placing the phone in her lap.

“Yeah, no, I mean…” Luke rubs his chin in thought. “What was it I liked so much? Scott and I were in it together, but I can’t remember what it was. Glee club, maybe? The chess team?” He suddenly barks a laugh, startling the oracle. “Ha! The chess team?! Man, I’m a real comedian today!”

“Are you alright, Luke?”

“Just sharing a good laugh, that’s all.” Luke smiles again. “Anyways, I guess you can keep the phone if you’re interested in it. The way this game is going so far, I don’t think I’ll ever find a way to turn it back on again. It’s been kind of good, getting away from technology. It lets me think easier.”

Nysse is quiet for a moment. “Luke?” she asks.

“Yeah? What’s up?”

“What will you do at the end of, well…” At the soft tone of her voice, Luke becomes serious. He leans in. “What will you do when your ‘game’ here is finished? What will you do when you become a fully-fledged Hero?”

“Well, I’ve been trying to perfect my techniques for a while now, but my progress has been pretty slow. It could be a long time before Tetrask says I’m ready to leave.” He leans over his knees. “I guess I’m not really sure where I’ll go after my training is over and done with.”

“But you will eventually go,” Nysse says.

“I don’t think I’ve got much of a choice,” says Luke. “I guess exploring the universe sounds like a job I didn’t sign up for, but I don’t really mind too much. I get to have a fantastic time, get really strong, and do things I never could have dreamed about.” He smiles. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

“I think it is too. I’m just worried that you’ll go off on this grand exploration and you’ll forget about me.” She laughs, looking away. “I guess that sounds pretty selfish.”

“Hardly! I could never forget a friend like you!”

Luke regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth. Nysse forces a smile.

“That’s good to hear,” she says. “I couldn’t forget a friend like you, either.”

Tense silence envelopes the pair. Nysse looks away, trying to recollect her thoughts. Luke pats his shirt pocket, searching for something he was supposed to give to Nysse for her birthday.

“I think I’m going to head back to the shrine,” says Nysse. “I’ve been meaning to paint over the vandalized sections of the outer walls.”

“Maybe you should leave it up,” Luke says, continuing to look through his pockets. “You know what they say about modern art and all that.”

“This is Tetrask’s shrine we’re talking about.”

“Oh. Right.” Luke mentally slaps himself for even thinking that opening his mouth was a good idea. “Well, send me a postcard or drop me a line whenever you want to come back.”

“It might be a while. I’m a busy woman.” Nysse banks on the hope that Luke asks her to stay a little longer. She doesn’t want to leave the Temple yet.

“I can understand that.” She’s probably mad at me, he thinks. Maybe if I give her some space she won’t be upset.

Nysse, confused and a little more than hurt, stands and quickly leaves without even giving him the decency of a goodbye. As soon as Nysse is out of sight, Luke shakes his head and stands. Rather than sit around and feel sorry for himself, he figures he could get some training done. As he stands, something in his lap falls to the floor. It’s a small black box wrapped with a dark red ribbon—the present he intended to give to Nysse for her birthday. He peeks at its contents and allows himself a small smile. He then stuffs it in his pocket and heads for the courtyard.

When he arrives at the courtyard, Tetrask is doing forms with a spear. Luke keeps out of sight and watches his patron god practice, picking apart the subtle movements of Tetrask’s legs and center of gravity. In his human-sized form, Tetrask maintains his dark black beard and curly black hair. His eyes glow a rich shade of brown and a circle of light glows from the center of his barrel chest. Though he looks like an oracle, the way he carries himself denotes him as a god. Tetrask pauses in his forms for just a moment and smirks. Realizing he’s been spotted, Luke steps out of the shadows.

“Come to get some training done?” Tetrask asks. “It’s been a while since you took the initiative.”

“Just need a place to relax,” answers Luke. “I hear when you mess up it’s bad to get upset about it. My parents must have told me that about fifty-seven times when I was a kid.” He chuckles. “It’s funny, the things you remember and don’t remember about your parents. You never remember the bad parts, even if they were pretty bad. You pretty much only remember the good.”

“Something on your mind?”

“I said something stupid to Nysse and I think I just dug my own grave, figuratively speaking. I thought I had her all figured out, but every time I think I’ve got her within my reaches I either mess it up or she surprises me all over again.”

“So you came here to blow off some steam?”

“I came here to get into Zen mode,” Luke says. “I’m pretty upset with myself right now, so I know the only way to get out of it is to focus on something else.” He smiles. “Think you can help me out?”

Tetrask nods to a rack of weapons. “Pick one. I’ll teach you something new.”

Naturally, Luke picks the spear and joins Tetrask in the center of the courtyard. They spar together for a while, with Luke alternating between high-intensity training and technical perfection. Around the third hour, Luke finally calls it quits, sweat pouring down his face. He slumps to the ground and Tetrask pours him a glass of water from a nearby pitcher.

“I just don’t get it,” Luke wheezes. “How do you have so much energy?”

“I’m the living incarnation of the cosmos. Having energy is my specialty.” Tetrask sits down across from Luke and places his training spear on the ground. “Normally you last a lot longer than this. Have you been getting enough sleep?”