Light Novel – Zectas – Volume 03 – Chapter 10

Author: John Nest
Editor: Timaeus

Note:  For easy character reference please refer to: Characters

Wishful Words



Dust scattered as enraged Condortlian Warriors scrambled across the ground near the third wall. They were yelling at the top of their lungs. The Warriors abandoned their circular formation as all of them dove in with their bastard swords and plunged them into the Gargantuan Goblin’s body.

“Brothers, control yourselves!” pleaded Adder.

Smoke’s second-in-command had a hard time controlling his men. He shared the pain and anger they felt when the monster mangled two of their brethren to death, but he knew that giving in to emotions during battle only makes things worse.

Worried about his fellow Condortlians’ status, he looked up to Ichaival and asked him to use the emergency flares. Ichaival quickly took out two flares and fired them into the air, leaving a trail of purple and red behind.

Given their lack of training, Ichaival also ordered the Banalites to hold their fire. Fourteen Warriors all struck at once and tried to pin the monster down, but the goblin would not fall. Despite the Condortlians’ frenzied attack, the Gargantuan Goblin still had a life bar of (281,250/450,000 HP)

One by one, the goblin swatted its attackers away like flies. Due to their recklessness, the Warriors were getting their life bars reduced to below 30%. The monster started to grab and throw them hard against the third wall.

THUD

A Warrior’s body smashed into the wall and the impact drained all of his remaining life bar.

“Stay in formation!” shouted Adder.

THUD

Another Condortlian was thrown head first towards the wall. Even with his skull helm on, the Warrior still died. His body slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood on it.

Adder desperately needed the other Condortlians to come to their senses. He ran towards the goblin, pulling back and pushing his men aside to get through to it.

With all his might, Adder slashed his double-bladed sword across the monster’s chest, but not before receiving its right cross punch. They were both knocked back by this exchange.

Before another Warrior could blindly charge at the monster again, he turned to his men and spread his arms.

 “Stop! Four of our brothers have already died! Can’t you see that this is what the enemy wants?”

The infuriated Warriors stopped and looked around them. Realizing that almost all of them were injured, the rage in their eyes began to fade away. “Form a solid circle!” shouted Adder. Ashamed by their actions, they obediently listened to their commander’s order.

Adder watched as arrows and spears struck the Gargantuan Goblin’s body, delaying its advance. A few seconds later, the Condortlians reformed their circular formation.

The monster tried to use the same trick as before and charged towards the wall, but this time the circle did not move. Instead, it opened up and revealed their commander, charging at the monster himself. The goblin planted its foot in the ground and tried to grab a hold of Adder, but before it could, he used the goblin’s knee as leverage and leapt over the monster’s shoulder whilst slashing its face with his double-bladed sword.

SLICE

With one smooth swing, Adder’s BlitzSturm cleanly severed off the goblin’s nose.

Ichaival fired his last fire arrow at the goblin and had to switch to using poison arrows. He was surprised to see that they inflicted more damage to the monster and immediately called his fellow ranged attackers to share his discovery with them. With more confidence than before, he aimed for the goblin’s head.

The Gargantuan Goblin looked like a target dummy as six of Ichaival’s arrows protruded out of where its nose used to be. The Warriors followed their commander’s lead. They went after the monster’s limbs.

Only up to four Condortlians would attack at the same time and they waited for the Banalites’ arrows to strike before doing so. The goblin managed to catch one of the Warriors, but Adder’s double-bladed sword quickly came crashing down on the monster’s hand. The goblin unwillingly released its grip on the Condortlian as the tendons in its right hand were severed. The monster briefly held its hand in pain before blindly attacking the nearby Warriors.

It kicked and punched anyone who came within range. Adder hurriedly gave the order to back away and allowed their ranged companions to do their jobs. Soon enough, the monster slumped to the ground as its life bar displayed (19,195/450,000 HP). Four Warriors leapt from different directions and plunged their swords into the monster’s body.

Finally, Adder came down from above and drove his BlitzSturm through the Gargantuan Goblin’s skull, ending the battle.

Breathing heavily, he quickly checked his remaining Warriors and faced a tragic reality. Most of them had life bars below 15%, himself included. What made matters even worse was that there were more than just four casualties.

While taking massive damage from the Gargantuan Goblin, five of the Warriors received Bleeding status. They did not retreat to the emergency shelter for medical treatment and died fighting.

This was the end result of Adder’s decision as a leader. Looking back on it, he had hoped they would face the Gargantuan Goblins as one whole army, but the monsters split themselves up. He was afraid not only of their two-pronged attack, but also of the possibility that one of the monsters could easily scale the third wall, leaving the Balanites inside the emergency shelter to be mercilessly slaughtered.

His only way of preventing such a thing from happening was to split up his forces and engage each of the Gargantuan Goblins separately. He knew that their advantage in numbers would be lost, but did not expect that it would cause this much damage.

Leaning on his double-bladed sword, Adder looked over to the Maneators and the Tikbalangs. Both groups were still dealing with their foes.

* * * * * *   
On top of the third wall, an OrkElf was hurriedly carrying parts of his repeating ballista on his back. This was his second trip from the second wall, where the weapon was previously assembled. Different from the ordinary ballista he used on the field, this upgraded weapon’s repeating mechanism didn’t allow for it to be carried as a whole due to the increased weight.

It took Jinggu some time to move the parts to the platform near the Maneators. He and the Maneators had bonded while solidifying Verbrannt’s defenses, which was why they were often placed in the same division.

The OrkElf helplessly watched as all three Maneators were thrown onto one another near the platform he was on. He couldn’t believe how the Gargantuan Goblin had overpowered Stark, but it was Rasant’s life bar that caught his attention. It was down to 45% and their battle against the monster had only just begun.

Swiftly, Jinggu set up his repeating ballista. He noticed that the goblin was moving towards the Maneators. He loaded ten of his poison bolts and rapidly fired them at it.

TUROK

One of the bolts pierced the goblin’s forehead, knocking back the monster. It looked around, confused as to where the attack came from. The OrkElf fired off another barrage, but more than half of the bolts missed since he was aiming for the monster’s head again.

He switched his aim towards the Gargantuan Goblin’s body. Each of the bolts that managed to connect dealt up to 21,000 points of damage as they pierced the goblin’s tough black skin.

The three Maneators scrambled to their feet while Jinggu was providing suppressive fire. Ready for another round, they ran towards the goblin.

Weise stopped running once he reached the monster’s side. At the same time, Rasant got behind its back and readied his barbed whips, while Stark made a dash for his glaive.

This time, Rasant had learned his lesson. The orange Maneator rapidly lashed the goblin, making shallow cuts in its flesh.

The Gargantuan Goblin turned around and faced him. Its huge hands made clutching motions as it tried to grab hold of Rasant’s whips.

A poison bolt to the monster’s nape made it turn towards the wall again. Weise used this opportunity and stabbed the monster’s side. He quickly pulled his flamdius out, but the irritated monster’s fist was already coming his way.

Fortunately, before the goblin could deliver a serious blow to Weise, a charging Stark drove his glaive straight into the monster’s belly. The Gargantuan Goblin’s attack failed to connect as the monster was pushed three meters backwards and fell over.

Stark smirked at the goblin, but his smug look disappeared as it slowly stood up. He expected to see a big hole in its belly, but discovered that his attack only made a puncture wound.

As Weise approached from the monster’s left side, he saw more poison bolts fly over Stark’s head. He decided to keep pressuring the goblin and force it to only defend.

Immediately after the bolts made contact, Weise went for the  wound Stark inflicted. He stuck his flamdius in it and started pulling his sword in all directions.

Weise quickly widened the puncture wound to a gaping hole over twenty centimeters in diameter. The monster’s life bar dropped to 40%. It grabbed hold of the gray Maneator’s sword hand and started crushing it.

“Aaaaaaahhhh!” cried out Weise as the bones in his wrist were being broken. The pain forced him to let go of his flamdius. In agony, he was lifted up by his right hand

Rasant kept rapidly cracking his whips on the goblin’s back, but his measly damage of 300 points did not distract the monster.

Stark came rushing in and slashed the goblin’s elbow joint from below. His glaive cut into the bone, but the monster still held a firm grip on Weise’s hand.

The red Maneator used the technique Smoke taught him and followed up with an attack using the opposite end of his glaive.

CRACK

The elbow joint broke from the force of the attack. The Gargantuan Goblin roared in pain and swung its fist towards Stark. Dodging it, Stark then leapt and slashed the same spot, this time from above, delivering the severing blow.

Weise dropped to the ground along with the goblin’s sliced-off limb. Tossing away the Gora shield he was holding in his left hand, he pulled out the flamdius stuck in the monster’s stomach. He backed off and tried to get accustomed to wielding the sword with his non-dominant hand.

With Weise out of reach, the goblin focused on Stark instead and punched him in the stomach with its remaining fist. The Maneator was caught off guard and bent over, clutching his abdomen. The monster then swung its fist downwards for an overhead chop, knocking him to the ground. It proceeded to inflict more pain as it kicked the fallen Maneator.

From behind the Gargantuan Goblin, Rasant tried to grab the monster’s attention by wrapping one of the barbed whips around its remaining hand. The goblin tried to pull Rasant again, but this time wasn’t able to.

Rasant saw the monster turn around to check why it could no longer overpower him. He smiled as he had planted his hooves firmly into the ground and anchored the entire weight of his body, creating larger resistance. He kept pulling the whip in the opposite direction in hopes of luring the monster towards him, away from Stark.

With only one hand left, the Gargantuan Goblin pulled several times on the barbed whip with all its might. Even crippled, it still demonstrated astounding strength and Rasant’s hooves were digging into the ground more and more, before he was finally pulled out of his defensive stance and towards the monster. It grabbed him by one of his horns and sent him flying into the earth wall. Rasant’s life bar dropped to mere 15%.

Three poison bolts then pierced the goblin’s back, forcing it to turn towards Jinggu once again. It used its one arm to deflect some of the incoming bolts while stumbling around to avoid as many as it could.

Yet, this only left the monster open to Stark’s attack. He plunged his glaive into the wound Weise widened. As it went in, Stark started twisting the glaive around in a continuous forward motion.

Stark’s glaive finally went through the Gargantuan Goblin’s body. Before the goblin could slam its fist down into Stark’s head, two of Jinggu’s bolts lodged themselves into the side of its neck, interrupting it and giving Stark the opportunity he needed.

With his glaive inside the goblin, Stark used all of his strength and pushed it upwards, slicing the Gargantuan Goblin’s torso into two equal halves.


* * * * * *   
Eighteen Tikbalangs stood in shock near the trench. After seeing two of their brothers fall to their death, their sane judgement started fading.

Noticing a grin on the Gargantuan Goblin’s face, they went mad. Six Tikbalangs charged at the same time and the goblin easily knocked two of them into the trench with a swing of his arm.

It grabbed two more with its hands as the Tikbalangs flocked towards the Gargantuan Goblin in a blind rage.

Six falcons suddenly swooped down and scratched the monster’s head with their razor-sharp talons. The goblin dropped the Tikbalangs it caught and tried to swat the falcons.

The birds flew higher and made the goblin raise its arms over its head. Vijaya aimed her poison arrows at the goblin’s exposed ribs and made the monster lower his hand as it scratched the injured areas.

The falcons immediately dove in and ran their sharp talons across the goblin’s face once more. Four falcons successfully finished their attacks, but when the last two falcons came in for their turn, the monster ignored the poison arrows and caught the two birds of prey easily.

Vijaya’s falcons Dakhana and Utara were the ones caught by the monster. Despite their steel-feathered bodies, the two birds could not withstand the pressure of the Gargantuan Goblin’s grasp.

Vijaya desperately attacked the goblin’s hands with her arrows, but to no avail.

“Tikbalangs, please help me!” she pleaded.

Her trembling voice brought the Tikbalangs back to their senses and they became aware of the situation. With hooves aimed at the monster’s arms, four Tikbalangs pounded their iron horseshoes into them.

As the Tikbalangs were now attacking with a clearer purpose, their focused attack forced the goblin to release its death grip over the two birds. Shards of broken steel feathers protruded from the monster’s palms.

Dakhana and Utara fell to the ground. Their lifeless bodies rolled over once and never moved again.

“Noooooo!” Vijaya cried out. Tears welled up in her eyes as she kept firing her arrows.

Despite the tears, Vijaya did not fail to notice that the goblin could no longer form a fist and was moving sluggishly. It wasn’t clearly visible due to its rough black skin, but a hint of something green could be seen around the cuts on the monster’s palms.

Vijaya instantly realized that it was poison from the pellets she had her falcons ingest so they could use their Poison Beak ability. Direct contact with the poison pellets required moderately high Poison Resistance, otherwise it could lead to paralysis and death.

“The goblin is weakened; it can’t attack you with its fists anymore. Attack!” yelled Vijaya quickly.

The Tikbalangs immediately piled on the monster. Their actions were still coordinated as they attacked the goblin from three directions.

Three Tikbalangs bravely faced the Gargantuan Goblin head on. They continuously delivered punches to the monster’s abdomen.

Five Tikbalangs positioned themselves behind the goblin and aimed their attacks at its spinal column, while eight Tikbalangs stood on its sides and frequently leapt in, pounding their iron horseshoes into the goblin’s skull.

The poisoned goblin tried to defend itself by kicking or swinging its arms around, but its slow movements were easy to read. The Tikbalangs avoided all of its attacks and quickly overwhelmed it.

They assaulted the monster for full two minutes. Coupled with Vijaya’s attacks, they managed to reduce its life bar to 10%.

Their collective attack continued until the Gargantuan Goblin spun its arms in a circle around it. Without warning, it ran straight for the three Tikbalangs in front of it.

With its hands still paralyzed and hanging down, it raised its arms in a slanted line and rammed through the Tikbalangs. The clothesline attack forced all three Tikbalangs down to the ground. The goblin stopped running, turned around and leapt in for a body slam.

THRUUD

The three Tikbalangs were left with only 2% on their life bars. The Gargantuan Goblin stood up and lifted its right leg over them, intending to stomp them to death.

Vijaya was about to release her arrow towards it when something flew over her. She looked up to see that Ledur had returned and was flying at top speed towards the monster. The winged Tikbalang wrapped his arm around the goblin’s neck and used his momentum to force it to the ground.

The goblin was knocked back and hurtled seven meters away. Before it could recover, Ledur dove down and had both his feet planted straight into the goblin’s face.

SQUIRSHH

Having pinned the monster to the ground, he created six earth spikes, piercing through critical places of its body from underneath it.

Ledur’s attack drained the Gargantuan Goblin’s life bar to zero. He then quickly checked his brethren’s condition. Most of them had life bars around 20%.

He felt guilty, thinking that he could have averted such a situation if only he had not passed out. His face contorted in pain. He came out of the shelter as soon as he regained consciousness, so his satiety and mana bars were still low. As he looked around, he rushed over to the three Tikbalangs in critical condition.

“Are you alright? None of you are Bleeding?” asked a worried Ledur.

He proceeded to apply first aid to them. From the corner of his eye, he saw Vijaya slumped down over the bodies of her two dead falcons. The other falcons were sitting on their perch and making sad, shrill cries.

Ledur quickly scanned the other groups and found that Adder and his men were all in the red. The Maneators were also in bad shape, with Rasant at 15% of his health bar.

He was still tending to his fellow cursed Centaurs when he noticed that there were only sixteen of them left.

“Where are Ruckgang, Sturz, Werfen and Zwirnen?” Ledur asked one of his brothers.

The Tikbalang hung his head low and slowly raised his hoof as he pointed to the trench. Ledur’s eyes grew wide as he understood the meaning of the gesture. He wanted to ask more questions, but then he heard a sound coming from the same direction the Tikbalang had been pointing in.

SWUG SWUG SWUG SWUG

Everyone’s attention shifted to the trench. Slowly, the heads of two Gargantuan Goblins emerged out of it. The monsters stood close together as they climbed out of the trench. Both of them were holding a wooden spike in each hand.



* * * * * *   
Adder and Ichaival ran towards the front gate of the third wall, eighty meters away from the Gargantuan Goblins. Adder ordered the Condortlian Warriors to retreat to the emergency shelter, while the Banalite volunteers remained on top of the wall.

They were joined by Stark and Jinggu shortly afterwards, as the severely-injured Rasant and Weise also withdrew to recover their wounds.

Ledur and Vijaya arrived seconds later. Ledur had also issued the retreat order to his fellow Tikbalangs.

Adder could feel the tension in the air. Their entire group at full strength had trouble dealing with three of these monsters. Now they had to face two more of them.

They steeled themselves and readied their weapons. Without a plan, Adder couldn’t fathom how they could defeat the goblins with just the six of them. Only Ichaival, Jinggu and Vijaya had full life bars, and they were their ranged attackers.

THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP

The members of Smoke’s private army watched with anticipation as the goblins were slowly making their way towards them, gripping the wooden spikes they used to climb out of the trench tightly.

THUD

A blurry figure fell from the sky and landed in front of the goblins. As the dust settled, it revealed Smoke’s ragged cloak fluttering in the wind.

He had stunned the monsters for a whole second. With Chain and Sickle of Dasende in hand, he swiftly performed his deadliest attack.

His perlite weapon turned blurry as sixteen afterimages of chains, sickles and iron balls appeared around him. The ends of his weapon slashed and bludgeoned the two Gargantuan Goblins.

The monsters tried to break away, but the speed of the chains forced them to remain in place. The goblins took a beating which lasted for ten seconds.

As soon as his attack was finished, Smoke switched weapons and took out his white metallic staff. He wanted to create a Manatl but couldn’t make it in time, as the Gargantuan Goblin on his right tried to swat him away.

Smoke barely dodged the attack by jumping backwards. He was now in between the goblins and his men. He turned around, jumped up and glided until he reached where Adder and others were.

“Glad you could finally make it. What happened to Crucibelle? Is she coming here?” asked Ledur.

“She’s been dealt with.” quickly replied Smoke. “Where’s everyone else? Don’t tell me they all…” Smoke couldn’t finish his sentence as he didn’t want to imagine such a dreadful scenario.

“No, no. The survivors are all inside the emergency shelter.” answered Adder.

Smoke and his men returned their attention to the two monsters moving towards them. They observed their life bars and saw that both were at 85%.

“I think we should fall back to the third wall.” suggested Ichaival.

“No. We will kill the goblins here.” said Smoke calmly. “Adder, Ledur and Stark, hold your ground. Vijaya, Ichaival and Jinggu, aim for their eyes.” ordered Smoke as he took out his Digger’s wand.

The Gargantuan Goblins charged at Smoke and his men. The monsters were sixty meters away when arrows and bolts struck their heads.

Smoke noticed the lack of falcons going in to attack the goblins. Vijaya no longer ordered them to go near the monsters, as she feared that they might grab one of the falcons again. Ichaival did the same, fearing for Ichai’s safety.

Multiple shots to their faces forced the goblins to cover them with their arms. Smoke sneakily created a ten-meter-deep trench in front of the goblins.

Both monsters fell into the newly-dug hole. However, it took less than ten seconds for one of the goblins’ massive hands to grab a hold of the surface.

“They must have gotten used to this kind of traps.” thought Ichaival out loud.

Smoke saw Ichaival look at him with a worried face. He could tell that the black-haired Hunter wanted him to issue an order to retreat to the third wall.

Suddenly, more than two hundred water arrows fell into Smoke’s freshly-dug trap. Thirty-five mounted Elemental Knights bolted through the opening in the second wall, followed by two hundred twenty Bowed Fishermen riding on the backs of aardwolves.

Smoke had known that he would only have to keep the monsters occupied until Mamelon and her regiment arrived. He manipulated the farther wall of his trench and turned it into an inclined plane. The Gargantuan Goblins were now clearly visible to the charging Elemental Knights and Bowed Fishermen.

Aqua Knights, Flame Knights, Electro Knights and Terra Knights unleashed their elemental spike attacks. The goblins were forced against the wall of Smoke’s trap.

Mamelon and her mounted regiment continued with their ranged attacks. They fired a total of four volleys, but the goblins still had 40% left on their life bars.

As soon as their attacks let up, the Gargantuan Goblins darted towards Mamelon and her men. However, Adder and Ledur had also been waiting for that moment and jumped down from the top of the trench. Adder stabbed his double-bladed sword into a goblin’s nape while Ledur drove both his hooves straight into the other goblin’s head.

The duo’s surprise attack, coupled with the goblins’ forward momentum, made the monsters fall to the ground. Their faces smashed against the inclined plane.

Mamelon and the rest of the Elemental Knights rode in and stabbed the downed monsters with their lances while Adder and Ledur kept them pinned down. Thinking of their fallen comrades, both leaders relentlessly attacked the monsters.

Smoke and the rest of his private army members watched from above, except for Vijaya. She fired her poison arrows whenever she saw an opening, alternating between the two goblins.

As Smoke observed his private army slaughter the monsters, he could feel the pain of Adder, Ledur and Vijaya. The three obviously suffered the most during the previous battle. In a matter of minutes, the last two Gargantuan Goblins were eliminated.

* * * * * *   
Multiple bunk beds were arranged neatly inside the great hall of the emergency shelter. Injured Warriors and Tikbalangs were being taken care of by the Shamans of Mamelon’s regiment. Smoke and Igniz were doing their best to cheer up their comrades.

Smoke visited all of them one by one. He either fed them medicinal soup or changed their bandages. Despite their wounded state, the injured still gave him a welcoming smile and asked about his own condition. Their concern for Smoke’s safety had always been touching, even though he kept telling them that he would be fine because of his Sonstwelter abilities.

After he made sure that his private army members were stable and properly taken care of, he strolled outside alone. Igniz stayed behind and kept cheering up the injured. Once outside, Smoke enthusiastically took out the items he got from vanquished Crucibelle.

Excitedly, he first inspected the ability tome entitled ‘Translation – Gobberish’. Since he fulfilled the tome’s requirements, he immediately consumed it.

+ Learned Ability: Translation – Gobberish
    Passive
    Level: Beginner Level 1
    Experience: (10/1,000)

    Gives one the ability to communicate with the goblin race. Eloquence in the language depends on the ability’s level.

    Effects:
            *Can converse with a goblin on a child’s level of speech
            *Can read documents written in Gobberish
    WARNING: A low level of this ability might prompt a misunderstanding that could even lead to war.


Smoke’s lips curled into a smile. Zectas ended up fulfilling another one of his desires; he had always wanted to learn a different language back in the real world. With the same level of enthusiasm, he took out the rare hand accessory, Berserker’s Ring of Flames.

He quickly scrutinized his newly-acquired ring.

Berserker’s Ring of Flames

  A rare hematite ring created by one of the Witches of Wysteria, Crucibelle. It has the color of blood. It was crafted to instill fear and anger into her minions.

  +50 Intelligence
  +30% Fire Affinity

  Equipment Ability:
    *Ring of Flames (Active)
       + Creates a circular firewall
       + Targets caught in the firewall are inflicted with Berserk status
       + Range and duration depend on the caster’s total Mana
       + Consumes 240,000 MP per use and additional 1,000 MP per second after activation
       + Once you’ve used this ability, you cannot use it again for another two hours

         Notes:
         – The Berserk status can only be inflicted on non-Sonstwelters.
         – Cooldown decreases significantly if more than 600,000 MP is used.


Smoke’s happy demeanor instantly vanished. His maximum Mana was still at 224,813 MP. Nevertheless, he equipped the ring on his right middle finger, right next to the Horse Ring of Domination. As fortune would have it, the increase to his Intelligence boosted his mana to 249,935 MP. This enabled him to cast Ring of Flames once and hold the spell for nine seconds if he had full mana.

‘Just how much Mana did Crucibelle have?’ he thought to himself while looking at the huge numbers written in the description. He remembered how she was able to keep the firewall up for several minutes and even cast it twice in succession.

Lastly, Smoke took out his final piece of loot from the red Witch—the goblin parchment. He satisfactorily found that he could now read it.


Goblin Recruitment

  Dear Gobble Goblins,

  My sisters and I have witnessed a most disturbing omen.
  The bones of a dragon told us
  that the rise of the dreaded Reptilian race is soon upon us.

  We urge you to move to Wysteria and build your homes here.
  The Reptilians have cleverly disguised themselves as other races.
  We must cleanse the land of them.

  Join our cause and ensure your survival!

  – Crucibelle of the Magietrois


His eyes widened. ‘The Witches of Wysteria were the Magietrois?’ thought Smoke as he couldn’t believe what he had just read.

He had hoped that if he were to find the Magietrois, he could make them into strong allies, but didn’t think he would end up killing two of them. He read the note over and over again.

He thought about what was written in the book “The Saviors Tested by Fate: Part One”. He also remembered Alteria, the matron of Virile lizards, who had enslaved the Condortlians before Smoke freed them. As a Fecund lizard, she had the special ability of transforming herself into the person she ate.

‘Maybe the Witches have become so jaded over the ages that they no longer trust anyone but themselves?’ Smoke surmised.

He wanted to quickly show the goblin parchment to the inner circle of his private army when Sot, the village chief of Banal, came out of the emergency shelter and briskly walked towards him.

“Smoke! A word.” stated Sot crossly.

Before Smoke could greet the stout bald man, he was pulled forcefully to one of the destroyed houses.

“So, you think congratulations are in order?” asked Sot sarcastically.

“Well, I wouldn’t say that. Many of my men died defending your village, and a life lost is never a win.” said Smoke.

Smoke saw Sot’s face become calmer. It took some time before Banal’s chief spoke again.

“I’m truly thankful for their valiant sacrifice. I pray that Xolotl may safely guide their souls to Mictlan.” said Sot sincerely.

After a few seconds of silence, Sot resumed talking in a serious manner. “Regrettably, this does not change the fact that you have failed this village.”

Smoke raised his eyebrows. “Huh? What do you mean ‘failed this village’?”

Immediately afterwards, a notification popped up.


Failed Quest: Defense of Banal

  The residents of Banal village found your defensive efforts to be lacking. Many of their houses were destroyed during the goblins’ invasion.

  Penalties:
  * Intimacy with most of the Banalites has decreased by 50
  * – 500 Fame


Smoke tried his best to quell the anger welling up inside him. “How could you say this? Aren’t all of the Banalites still alive? Your emergency shelter is still intact!” he said with a raised voice.

“What you say is true, but our homes were destroyed. Those stone houses were over three hundred years old. Even if we restore them, they won’t be the same.” explained Sot. “You and your men can stay here until morning. After that, I will insist that you leave.” he said as he walked back to the emergency shelter.

Smoke wanted to argue with Sot. He couldn’t believe how ungrateful the residents of Banal were. However, he stopped himself from doing something he would most definitely regret later on.

Inside the ruined Banalite house in front of him, Smoke decided to calm down by doing some Manatl exercises. He sat on the ground, crossed his legs, held his white metallic staff horizontally in his palms and tried to clear his mind.

Ten minutes into his meditation, he heard footsteps outside the house and opened his eyes. Ichaival and a female Banalite came in through the broken door. She looked to be about the same age as Ichaival. Her short black hair and tanned skin gave her a sporty appearance.

“Oh, there you are.” said Ichaival.

“What’s the matter? Did something happen?” asked Smoke with concern as he stood up.

“I just heard the news that we only have until morning before we’re kicked out of Banal.” said Ichaival, “And she insisted to speak with you.”

“Hello, High General Smoke. I am called Sympa. Master Ichaival has told me stories of your many adventures throughout Wysteria.” said the young woman as she stepped forward.

Smoke extended his hand and Sympa shyly shook it. “Nice to meet you, Sympa.” said Smoke politely, “What can I do for you?”

Despite his bad mood, he spoke to Sympa cordially. Ever since he became aware of his bursts of anger, he made a conscious effort to channel it only towards the individuals who properly deserved it.

“Well, it’s true that some of the less understanding villagers believe that you failed to defend us properly. But the twenty-seven volunteers who fought with you all know the truth.” said Sympa.

“Thank you, Sympa. That means a lot.” replied Smoke with a smile.

“That is why all twenty-seven of us would like to be part of your private army. Will you accept us?” said Sympa as she bent her knee and bowed her head.

‘At least one good thing came out of this quest.’ thought Smoke.

“I would be honored to have you by my side.” answered Smoke as he helped Sympa to her feet.

Smiling, Smoke watched as Ichaival and Sympa were on their way back to the emergency shelter. Thinking about what he was doing before Sot approached him, he called Ledur. He wanted to ask him where the imprisoned goblins were.

Ledur immediately flew to where Smoke was and the two of them began to walk along the ruined houses. As Smoke observed the destruction goblins caused, he realized that Sot had a point. It made sense why he failed the quest.

While the two of them walked in silence, Smoke wondered if he should tell Ledur about the goblin parchment right away. However, he decided not to do so just yet. He thought that his winged friend might take it the wrong way if he were to tell him that the princesses he wanted to ally with were, in fact, the Witches who cursed him and his brothers.

Before he knew it, they were standing in front of the house where the goblins were being kept. With his Earth Manipulation ability, Smoke opened a small window so he could look into the earth prison. He peeked through the window and found around twenty Gobble Goblins inside.

“Name mine is Smoke. Is good to know you.” said Smoke in Gobberish. He could tell that the way he said it was definitely wrong but couldn’t say it any better.

Surprised to hear him speak in a different language, Ledur stared at him. Smoke noticed that and quickly whispered that he’ll explain everything later.

“Ayii. ayiiii. You’re butchering our beautiful language. Ayii ayii ayi.” replied one of the goblins inside.

“Sorry me is. Me is learning your pretty words.” apologized Smoke. He needed to raise his Intimacy with these goblins, and risked it by using this fledgling ability. “Wrong understanding you have. We are Lizardites not.”

After the goblins inside the prison heard this, they raised their voices in panic. They ran around and huddled in the center of the room. “Ayii ayii yiii yia ayi. He’s a Lizardite. Ayii yii ayiii. He’s here to eat us! Ayyii ayii yiii.”

Smoke couldn’t make out most of what the goblins were yelling, but he could tell that he was only making things worse. He wanted to ask them about Crucibelle, but after seeing their reaction, he knew that he needed to raise his Translation ability first.

Suddenly, Espion arrived and tapped Smoke on his shoulder. He was startled by the young Spy’s arrival as he was still deep in thought on what to do with the goblins. “Oh. Sorry about that.” apologized Espion, “I just wanted to inform you that the Lioumereans have arrived.”

“Alright, tell everyone to prepare for departure. We’ll leave as soon as everyone is fully healed and ready to go. I don’t want to wait until morning.” said Smoke.

Espion immediately left. Smoke turned to Ledur and told him that they needed to create a secure transport for these goblins. He was going to take them to Verbrannt.

                     
* * * * * *   
A full moon brightened the night sky, providing good visibility on the ground. Smoke and his private army were standing in front of Banal’s main gate. They could have left the village sooner, but Laernea and Gandiva begged Smoke to let them have a proper supper.

Sot and family members of the Banalite volunteers had also gathered near the gate, as they wanted to see them off. Despite failing the quest and having his Intimacy with the Banalites reduced, Smoke still thought it best to be friendly with them. He wished them good fortune, as they were determined on rebuilding their village. He also planned on having Espion check up on their development after a few days.

With their farewells done, Smoke ordered his army to start riding for Verbrannt. The Tikbalangs and some of the Condortlian Warriors sat comfortably in the Lioumereans’ carriages, while those fit to ride on aardwolves hitched a ride with the Bowed Fishermen.

As Smoke sat alone in the back of Gandiva’s carriage, he took out his white metallic staff and started to do some Manatl exercises. Since he couldn’t convince Saru to join him, Smoke had to refine his Manatl ability on his own, by just practising as often as possible.

A purple Manatl four times the size of his fist appeared on top of his left palm. However, while he did this, his mind kept wandering off. Thoughts of Sierra were constantly popping into his head. He took a deep breath and tried to clear his mind when he heard someone call his name.

Smoke turned around and saw a familiar Aqua Knight ride next to Gandiva’s carriage. Mamelon let out a forced cough, “Ahem.”

“Hey, Mamelon. Sorry, I didn’t see you there.” said Smoke.

“No worries.” she replied, “I know that you’re very busy, but I was hoping you could spare a few seconds for me?”

“Sure. Anything for the hero who saved us from Crucibelle and her goblins.” said Smoke with a smile, “What’s on your mind?”

Mamelon made a modest gesture with her hands. “Nah, we were just lucky we arrived in time. Sierra was the one who told us to go to your coordinates.”

Smoke’s eyes widened as it was the first time he heard about this.

“Anyway, I just wanted to ask you about Ilad. I heard that he was with you when you went to the Margome mountain range, but I don’t see him anywhere.” stated Mamelon.

“Ah, I already sent him to Verbrannt before I got the Banal quest.” said Smoke with a straight face.

“I see…” Mamelon casted her gaze downwards after she heard Smoke’s answer. “I guess I’ll see him in Verbrannt.” she said in almost a whisper, “Well, could you just tell him that I need to talk to him?”

“Of course, I’ll pass on the message.” replied Smoke, “That reminds me, Ilad did tell me that he apologizes for not meeting with you. I know that you still need to divide the loot from the mounted race.”

She answered in a surprised, cheerful voice, “Really? I mean, that’s right. So…please tell him to come see me as soon as he can.”

Smoke watched Mamelon’s blue armor shimmer as the moonlight reflected off of her. She happily trotted towards her regiment, pleased with what he told her.

‘Note to self: Schedule a meeting with Mamelon as Ilad.’ thought Smoke.

He tried to clear his mind again but just couldn’t concentrate. So, he decided to work on his Gobberish instead. He took out the goblin parchment and kept re-reading it.

His conundrum on what to do with the information that Crucibelle and her sisters were the Magietrois needed resolution. He knew of only one man who could give him the enlightenment he badly wanted.

Smoke called his closest friend in Zectas, Darius.

“Hi, Darius. It’s been a long time.” said Smoke cheerfully.

“Yes, it has. You should find some time to come visit us, even though Nanahuatl hasn’t really changed much.” said Darius.

Smoke could already picture Darius’ wrinkled face smiling at him as they talked.

“So, how have you been?” asked Smoke.

“Can’t complain. I’m slowly regaining my strength and vigor. The Nanahuatlanos keep me so busy that I barely have any time to notice my powers growing stronger.” explained Darius.

“That’s great to hear! I’ll make sure to visit you soon. But for now, I was hoping you could advise me on something.” said Smoke.

“As long as it’s not about money, you know you can always count on me.” said Darius with a light laugh.

Smoke chuckled. “Of course it isn’t money-related. You see, I came across a parchment in which a Witch, Crucibelle, stated that she’s part of a group called the Magietrois.” explained Smoke, “I was wondering if you know something about that group?”

“Hmm. Well, from what I know about the Magietrois, they were supposedly a trio of powerful Magi. ‘The Three Magics’ is what their name means. They were HighElf princesses, each with a different elemental speciality. If I remember correctly, their Jobs were Arch Cardinals of the Gods; the gods in question being Chantico, Cuhtli and Xolotl.” stated Darius.

‘Xolotl sounds so familiar. Where have I heard that name before?’ wondered Smoke before he asked another question, “Do you know exactly what their elemental specialities were?”

“Chantico is the goddess of fire, Cuhtli is the goddess of earth and Xolotl is the god of lightning.” Darius answered instantly, as if he knew what Smoke’s next question was.

“I fought against Crucibelle and one of her two sisters.” quickly exclaimed Smoke. “Crucibelle could create fire, while Terrabelle controlled the earth. Darius, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Well, I think it’s too late in the evening for another horned rabbit pie, but I guess just one more won’t hurt.” answered Darius.

“Hahaha.” An enlivened Smoked laughed and said, “No, I’m not talking about food. If Crucibelle’s other sister, Horrabelle, can manipulate lightning, wouldn’t that confirm that they are the Magietrois?”

Smoke feverishly waited to hear Darius’ response. The pieces of the story were slowly falling into place.

“Hm, she wouldn’t necessarily have to control lightning. As is the case with many gods, Xolotl isn’t just the god of lightning. He is also the god of sickness and passing.” said Darius.

“What do you mean by ‘passing’?” he asked.

“It means guiding someone into Mictlan, the afterlife.” said Darius. The Beggar Legati paused before speaking again, “It is said that the oldest of the three princesses, as the Arch Cardinal of Xolotl, dabbled in the Dark Arts.”

Smoke listened intently as he had thought that the Witches only had the basic elemental affinities.

“It was her who used her connection with Xolotl to contact Chalchizin, the god of death. From that point in the story, it is said that they gained immense power and immortality, but also fell under Chalchizin’s curse.”

“They were cursed?” asked an interested Smoke, “I didn’t know that. I’ve read a book that contained a part of the story about the Magietrois, but its ending was rather vague.” He paused for a moment and then asked, “What was the curse?”

“Sadly, I do not know. The version I heard simply said that the princesses were cursed and haven’t been seen since, but that they are destined to appear again when the world is in danger and lead their armies to victory.” replied Darius.

Smoke’s eyes focused as another piece of the puzzle fit into place. “That’s the other thing—the Witches I encountered had small armies alongside them as well. That also points towards them being the Magietrois. But…”

As Smoke remembered the Centaurs being turned into Tikbalangs, and Gobble Goblins devouring each other inside a ring of fire, he fell silent.

“Darius, I’ve seen the methods they use to expand their armies and I definitely don’t agree with them.” he said in a low voice.

“I can see why you’ve made that connection. Building an army through any means necessary does sound like something the Magietrois would do.” said Darius.

“But you could say that they are the more lawful evil, right? Yes, they crossed the line, but in the end, if they are the Magietrois, aren’t they just doing all that in order to be able to save people when the time comes?” asked Smoke rhetorically.

Smoke’s eyes widened as he realized something else. ‘If the Witches of Wysteria were amassing an army, does that mean that the Reptilian race is really going to try to take over the world again?’

“Darius, I forgot to mention something. Vijaya told me that, in the version of the story she heard, the Magietrois are supposed to return to protect the world from Reptilians. In the parchment I told you about, Crucibelle also stated that she was building her army in preparation for war against the Reptilian race.” said Smoke in a calm voice.

“Now, now. Let’s not jump to any conclusions. I do know that there are some stragglers of the Reptilian nobility around the world, but I doubt they would have the means for world domination.” replied Darius with a hesitant voice, “Besides, the Zectians have learned their lesson, and with so many Sonstwelters around, I’m sure that Zectas will be safe from their tyranny.”

“Still, I think it’s a waste to be enemies with the Magietrois. Although, there’s only one of them left now.” said Smoke. The disappointment in his voice was as clear as the bright full moon. “If I could reason with Horrabelle, I feel that she could be a strong addition to our army, but I know that a lot of people will be against it. Not to mention that she herself probably won’t be willing to even listen to us.”

“Tell you what, let me get on the Beggar’s Tablet with Caid. I’ll give him a portion of my access level to the Verum de Mendicantibus. We should be able to find some useful information on the Magietrois. The more you know about them, the easier it will be to plan a course of action.”

“That would be great. You know, I’m not sure if I should even do anything. Maybe I should leave it alone. I don’t want to hurt Ledur’s feelings and Sierra needs Horrabelle’s blood to lift the curse affecting her.”

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. If you think this could greatly benefit everyone, then do something about it.  You don’t want to have regrets later on. Just remember to way everything with unbiased eyes.” Darius said in a firm and sincere voice.

“Alright, I’ll think about what I can do. In the meantime, you can contact Caid and see what the Beggar’s Society knows about the Magietrois.” said Smoke with conviction.

“Okay, I’ll call Caid as soon as I’m done with this pie. Take care of yourself, Smoke.”

“You too, Darius. Thanks for lending me an ear and I’ll see you soon.”

CLICK

After his satisfying conversation with Darius, Smoke tried to do another round of Manatl training, but his mind would still not allow it. He kept having doubts whether it was a good idea to contact Horrabelle and try to convince her to become allies.

Due to the fact that he couldn’t focus on his Manatl training, Smoke decided to log out of Zectas. They still had more than sixteen hours before they would reach Verbrannt. Plenty of time for him to get some well-deserved rest.


* * * * * *   
A chilly breeze at three in the morning greeted Nash as soon as he got out of his game pod. He instantly noticed the open window he forgot to close. He stretched his arms as soon as he got out of the bed-like capsule and quickly grabbed an energy drink placed within arm’s reach on his side table He then started shaking his arms and legs, as they felt numb. He would often get a mild case of muscle atrophy after being logged into Zectas for too long, which was why he took his Eskrima stretching exercises to the extreme.

With his right foot over his head and placed comfortably up against the wall behind him, Nash grabbed his left foot with his left hand while trying to reach his right shin with his right hand. He would repeat the same stretching exercise using opposite hands and feet. He hoped that someday he could reach his other foot, but this was the current limit of his flexibility.

Next, Nash rotated his wrists and ankles. He twisted them into awkward angles that it almost felt like they would tear apart. He then sat down on the floor and spread his legs in an almost one-hundred-eighty-degree angle. He then reached out his hands as far as he could. His stretching exercises lasted for about thirty minutes.

After he was done, Nash headed downstairs to make a light meal before taking his power nap. Before he could reach the stairs, he noticed that light escaped under the door of Seth’s room.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK

“Hey, you still up?” Nash spoke in a soft voice.

Seth opened the door with a book entitled “Introduction to Big Data” in hand. “Yeah, I was just reviewing for my Computer Science elective.” he said while rubbing his eyes.

“Computer Science? I didn’t know you took an elective.” said a surprised Nash.

“I picked it up fairly recently.” he replied. “Hey, did you know that back in 2012, over two exabytes of data were created every day? That was the time when the world’s largest companies began spending hefty sums of money on analysing the massive amount of information gathered by various social networking sites and apps.” said Seth all knowingly and continued even further,  “They aimed to use this information to predict which product concepts would receive good feedback from their customers and were worth investing into.”

“You seem pretty interested in this stuff.” Nash said as he was imagining a bright future for his brother.

“Well, I was inspired by Dad. He was one of the leading computer scientists on Big Data. He started his research back in 2009 and even today, thirty years later, his work is still the foundation of all the new technologies being developed.” replied Seth while looking at the cover of his book.

Nash only remembered their father as a nerdy goofball who kept playing role-playing board games with him. “Really? I do recall Mom saying that Dad was some big shot programmer, but I never knew he was that famous.” he said.

“He was. Though, for some reason, after just eight years, Dad abruptly stopped his research and resigned from his position of director in Gartner Corporation. That was about two years before you were born, Nash. At least, that’s what the articles about him I managed to find on the internet say.” said Seth.

“He never really talked about work. I just remember him being home all the time, often looking busy. I figured he was working from home or something.” Nash responded while reminiscing, “He was spending a lot of time with us and that was what mattered to me, so I never questioned it. ”

Seth listened carefully, as he liked hearing from Nash what their parents were like.

“Celebrity scientist or not, he was the best play buddy a kid could have.” he said, with a nostalgic smile on his face. “What made you do this research on Dad, anyway?”

“I had to write a school paper on a dead person I’d want to meet.” answered Seth somberly. “I never thought I’d discover how awesome Dad was. I barely remember him at all. However, I do remember wanting to join in on one of your board games with him, but you kept saying no.” he said and crossed his arms in front of him .

Nash laughed nervously. “Oh, you remember that part, huh? Well, you really were too young to play that type of board games.” explained Nash nervously. He couldn’t find the courage to tell Seth that he was pretty much annoyed by him when they were younger.

Nash loved the attention his parents were giving him when he was still the only child, and was somewhat of a mean older brother to Seth and Donny while their parents were still alive.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to studying, then.” said Nash hurriedly as he half-sprinted towards the stairs.

After a few minutes, Nash finished his tuna sandwich and went back upstairs to his room. He made a jumping dive for his king-sized bed and reached for a red alarm clock. He set it for three hours, just in time before he and his companions would reach Verbrannt.
                        

* * * * * *   
A caravan of mounted Elemental Knights, Bowed Fishermen and Pathfinders reached the village borders of Verbrannt. With a white metallic staff in his right hand, Smoke stood alone in the back of Gandiva’s carriage. His whole body was encased in a purple Manatl.

Smoke canceled his Manatl as he wanted to shift his attention to checking out the development of their revived village. He signaled for Igniz to fly to a higher altitude and then used his Symbiote Vision ability to observe the changes from an aerial perspective.

He expected to see a defensive wall right about now, but was instead greeted by a forest patch that wasn’t there when he left. A wall of brown baobab trees over thirty meters tall blocked their passage as soon as they reached Verbrannt’s boundaries. From his acquired knowledge, he knew that the bark of these trees is fire resistant and that their fruit is edible. He alternated between his and Igniz’s vision as they went further in.

He also noticed the discreetly-placed wood planks and camera runes up on the trees. He knew about the camera runes that Light Wizards placed, but he wondered what the planks were for. They didn’t look strong enough to hold a person. Laernea and Gandiva led the caravan into the hidden entrance among the boabab trees.

Once inside, Smoke observed the new Flora Sentinels planted in a labyrinthian fashion. Honey locust thorns, osage oranges and bougainvillea grew alternately, creating a six-meter-tall hedge for the maze.

SCREECH SCREECH SCREECH SCREECH

Numerous thorns grazed the sides of the broad carriages. Not only were these thorns poisonous, they were hard and sturdy as well. He tested one of his fire arrows against the hedge.

PLUK

His arrow stuck itself into the hedge, but its flames quickly faded as these plants had high fire resistance. Smoke smiled at the impressive natural defenses Sierra put up in front of Verbrannt.

‘She must have used the extensive knowledge of the Farmers from the saved villages to create this hedge.’ he thought.

They zig-zagged their way through five hundred meters of poisonous plants before they reached the exit.

After the maze, Smoke noticed that there was at least a kilometer of open plain with nothing on it. Gandiva explained that there were concealed trenches in this area and that you needed to use the small white stones scattered throughout the plain as your guide on order to travel across safely.

As soon as they passed through the plain, Smoke saw vast rice paddies, corn fields and various other crops planted in Verbrannt’s nutrient-rich soil.

‘Looking at this, I think Verbrannt can now feed more than twenty thousand people.’

They rode on for almost twenty minutes before Smoke saw buildings made of stone and wood. He then immediately noticed the numerous werewolves roaming the streets. Surprisingly, they interacted amiably with the other residents.

The refugees from the saved villages all willingly became citizens of Verbrannt. Smoke noticed the diversified stalls in the market district. He watched Bakers and Cooks haggle with Farmers while Thatchers, Carpenters and Blacksmiths were making deals with Merchants for parts to use. Tailors and Tanners had the most pleasant conversations of them all, as they were happily trading goods with each other.

In this district, Smoke especially enjoyed the canal that Jinggu, Sharur, Rasant, Stark and Weise had dug out. Medium-sized gondolas could be seen sailing along it, transporting passengers and goods. Smoke liked how the children in Verbrannt would chase after them, laughing while running along the banks.

Slowly, most of the members of his personal army began to break away from the caravan. The Bowed Fishermen and Condortlian Warriors stayed behind in the market to find presents for their families.

Only Smoke, his core private army members, Mamelon and the Elemental Knights continued on towards the building in the center of the village, Rauch Castle.

The moment he saw the new castle name, Smoke instantly asked Gandiva about it. “When did the castle’s name change?”

“Sierra officially changed it about a month ago.” she replied quickly, “You were still in the Simiavulg village back then.” she said, “How was it there, by the way?” asked Gandiva in an intrigued voice.

“That place is really closed off. Luckily, it was spared from the Witches. They had turned Veneficatl valley into their playground, using the villages of Pferde, Opferntl and Banal as testing grounds for their armies. ” he said out loud while remembering his time in the valley.

After five minutes, they passed through the residential area. Smoke saw the happy faces of kids of different races playing with each other. There were Human, Lioumerean, Elf and Centaur children laughing in the streets of Verbrannt. He felt a sense of accomplishment as he watched them live a worry-free life.

Finally, they arrived at the main gates of Rauch Castle. The castle walls looked even more intimidating than before, as they now reached a height of twenty-one meters.

Once inside, Smoke observed that the grounds themselves went through almost no changes. Temporary tents were placed in one section. Adder sat beside Smoke as he explained the situation. “Those tents were formerly used to house the incoming refugees, but now they’re being used by the Avendre Mercenaries.” said Adder as he pointed to a vast training field of archery and swordsmanship. Apparently, the Mercenaries were using melee weapons while the Bowed Fishermen honed their skills with the ranged equipment.

“If you look to your far right, you can see the stables. It’s where we keep our dirus wolves.” explained Adder.

Smoke remembered that most of his core army members had gotten dirus wolves as mounts of their own. He peeked inside the expansive stables and saw ten dirus wolves and three war elephants.

“When did you guys get war elephants?” Smoke asked Adder.

“Sierra brought them when she returned with her werewolf pack. They’re already trained, but their owners still need a little more practice to use them effectively.” Adder answered with a small laugh.

‘Who could possibly ride those behemoths.’ wondered Smoke.

His attention returned to the castle itself, as it remained mostly unchanged. The same could have been said for Sierra, who was standing in front of the main steps, still in her cursed werebear form. Thyrsus, Sharanga, Sharur and two unusually large werewolves were standing behind her.

Igniz flew straight to Sierra and rapidly orbited around her. Smoke chuckled at the scene; his dark ember sprite had really taken a liking to her.

Slowly, Smoke got off Gandiva’s carriage. Usually, when meeting someone close to him, he would quickly approach the person in question and hug them without hesitation. However, his body refused to act normally around Sierra. Igniz floated above them curiously.

Shortly afterwards, Adder, Espion, Jinggu, Laernea, Gandiva, Stark, Rasant and Weise, along with Ledur and his Tikbalangs, all got off as well. They stayed behind Smoke and waited for Sierra and him to hug.

Smoke delicately stretched out both his hands and Sierra did the same with her paws. To their friends watching them, they looked like foreign dignitaries who were meeting for the first time. The two of them shared a brief moment of wordless exchange as they held each other’s hands.

Unbeknownst to everyone else, this simple gesture sent electrical impulses that triggered a myriad of emotions in both of them. Smoke had been afraid that Sierra would act coldly towards him, but she did none of that.

“I’m glad you’re finally here.” said Sierra. Her face clearly lit up.

“Thanks. It’s good to be back. I love what you’ve done with the village.” said Smoke as he smiled gently.

“I can’t take credit for that. The progress you see here is mostly attributed to Thyrsus, Sharur and Sharanga’s dedication to the village.”

The three of them stepped forward and shook his hand. Smoke thought about hugging them but decided not to. He didn’t want Sierra to get the impression that he cares more about them than her.

Vijaya ran up to Thyrsus and hugged him tightly. Ichaival tried to mimic her and ran towards Sharanga, but she just threw one of her five-trap systems onto him, immobilizing him.

Smoke tried not to mind Ichaival’s crazy antics and looked at Mamelon and her regiment. She and her Elemental Knights and Shamans were standing in formation behind him. He called for her to join them, and Mamelon stepped forward and shook Sierra’s hand. “I’m happy to be back here as well.” she said.

Sierra smiled sincerely and pointed to Smoke before saying, “Thank you for saving him and everyone else.”

“No problem. You’re the one who told us to rush to their location.” replied Mamelon. “By the way, Smoke said that I missed Ilad only by a couple of days back in Banal, but I don’t see him here?” she stated in an inquiring tone.

For a brief moment, Sierra’s eyes gave Smoke a knowing stare before she answered, “Oh, he told me he wanted to check up on the work being done at Mount Engrais.”

“Oh. Well, I guess I’ll just wait here, then.” said Mamelon, showing a forced smile. She took a moment before asking both Smoke and Sierra, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll have the rest of my men tour around the village. Virer and Courant said something about doing personal side quests with two Betulite girls.”

Smoke and Sierra raised their eyebrows at the same time. Mamelon noticed this and tried to explain, “Yeah…they’re trying to court them. Apparently, they read somewhere that you could marry a Zectian.”

“Really? That’s some deadly information right there.” said Sierra ardently, “Okay, just go see Ehrlich first. I told him to prepare your zecs in advance.”

Mamelon smiled, gave them a small nod and turned to her regiment. She led them towards the treasury room. Smoke observed how the regiment broke out of their formation and walked towards in a more laid-back manner. Elemental Knights of the same element formed smaller groups and started discussing where they were going to go next.

“Sierra, they’re getting paid?” asked Smoke with a hint of alarm in his voice.

“Of course. You can’t expect them to join our guild and get nothing out of it, right?” she explained.

Smoke formed a face of slight disapproval. “Who is Ehrlich? And where are you getting the zecs used to pay them?”

Sierra shook her head and gave a small laugh. “From themselves, of course! I pay them from the taxes we collect. All of them spend their money in the market district, so our money is just circulating within the walls of Verbrannt.”

She continued, “Ehrlich Buchhalter is our Comptroller. Under my orders, Laernea went to Centza city and hired him. And before you say anything else: yes, I’ve had Baldaquin test him and yes, he has his own contract.”

“What about their loot? Where do they sell it?” asked Smoke.

“They sell their items in the other villages. The original amount of zecs you’ve left us is no longer enough for everyone in the community, considering we now have a total population of nine thousand seven hundred thirty-five.” she explained, “In a way, Mamelon and her regiment are a godsend; they bring in more zecs and enrich our economy.”

“As expected of an economist. You’re really fit to run your own country.” said Smoke with a grin.

“I’m still pursuing that degree, I haven’t graduated yet.” she chided.

“You did great. By the way, could I talk to you alone?” he asked.

Sierra gave a small nod. Smoke then turned to his core private army members, who were still lingering around them. “Guys, Sierra and I have some private matters to discuss.”

At a leisurely pace, his core members started to head in different directions. Smoke watched Laernea, Gandiva and the Maneators head towards the stables. Adder, Ledur and the Tikbalangs headed for the infirmary. Thyrsus, Vijaya, Sharanga and Ichaival headed towards the market district, and Jinggu had to forcibly drag Sharur away, as he refused to leave their leaders’ side.

Smoke remained quiet and patiently waited for all of them to leave. Once they were gone, Sierra led him upstairs towards the King’s chamber.



* * * * * *   
On the massive marble balcony outside the King’s chamber of Rauch castle, emphatic voices filled the air as Smoke and Sierra were having a heated discussion about the Magietrois. The two of them were completely alone, as Smoke asked Igniz to join the other core members for the time being.

“I don’t care what they were once called or if they are supposedly cursed saviors! The only thing that’s clear to me right now is that they are the Witches of Wysteria.” she said fiercely. “They’ve tormented numerous villages just to build their armies.” she continued as she tried to describe the horrific events the werewolves had to go through.

“I know how this sounds, but try looking at it objectively. Don’t you think that they might be just extremely Machiavellian?” debated Smoke, “If the Reptilian race is really becoming a threat again, then shouldn’t we have an army equally devastating as theirs to protect us?”

“But not at this cost! What good would it do to stand against the supposed return of the Reptilians if everyone ends up in a cursed form beforehand?” Sierra said in an angry tone, “And what about Ledur? Did you think he’d be fine with this?”

“I haven’t told him yet. In fact, you and Darius are the only ones I’ve spoke to about this. I wanted to hear your opinion first.” said Smoke as he instinctively held both her werebear paws to calm her down, “I never said we would allow Horrabelle to continue her evil ways. I’m just saying that we could use someone like her on our side.”

Sierra was silent. He went on to explain his idea further, “What I’m thinking is, we convince her to stop what she’s doing and try to undo the damage she’s done. If all she really wants is an army, then we’ve already got one for her.”

“But do you really think you could persuade Horrabelle? Not to mention that you killed both her sisters.” she said in serene tone.

“Well, there is that. Honestly, I don’t know if talking to her will work at all, but I have to try, right?” Smoke asked Sierra as they stared into each other’s eyes, “Besides, Mima always said that the best way to defeat an enemy is to turn him into a friend.”

“Heh, I don’t think Mima had the Witches of Wysteria in mind when she told you that.” Sierra giggled as her werebear paws clasped his hands.

She moved closer to him and placed her paws on his shoulders, when she noticed a black scar on his chest, barely sticking out from beneath his armor.

“What’s that?” asked Sierra.

“This? Crucibelle gave me a scar with her dying breath.” said Smoke as he opened up his armor to give Sierra a better look, “I’m sure that it’s meant to be harmful, but I haven’t noticed any negative effects.”

“See, this is exactly what I’m talking about.” said Sierra as she carefully traced the scar with her claws, “This looks really deep. Have you had someone treat it?”

“Aida and Crisa tried healing it, but they said it’s beyond their ability.” explained Smoke. “We should really look into recruiting some Arch Bishops.” he chuckled at the idea of trusting another Sonstwelter.

“Aida and Crisa, huh?” said Sierra with a raised eyebrow.

“They’re Shamans from Mamelon’s regiment. I think you’ve already met them once or twice?” he said passively.

“I think I’d like to meet them again.” she said with malice in her voice.



* * * * * *   
The reunited couple planned to spend the entire day in each other’s company. Smoke could feel Sierra’s sincerity in understanding his intention behind staying away for so long, and this only made him fall for her even more.

Sharur asked if he could join them, but Sierra told the OrkElf to inspect mount Engrais. Sharur grumbled as he left the two of them alone.

Sierra first took Smoke to meet Ehrlich Buchhalter. On the way to the treasury, they came across a Gnome and a Dwarf standing next to two open crates outside the stables.

The lean Gnome with red hair looked familiar to Smoke. It took him a few seconds before he realized that it was Billig Verkäufer, the salesman from Bestride Stables in Coatl.

The stout Dwarf had long, unruly white hair and a beard to match. They started to raise their voices as their conversation took a sour turn.

“I told you this a thousand times, Billig! You cannot have the pups for a lower price, even if you give me zecs off the books.” said the Dwarf, “Aardwolf pups are five hundred thousand zecs each and dirus wolf pups are a million. According to my calculations, that’ll be twenty million zecs.”

“Eh-Ehrlich, what are you talking about? I just said I’d buy them at that price.” said Billig nervously as his and Sierra’s eyes met, “Oh, Lady Sierra. How lovely to see you.”

Sierra greeted him with a reproachful look. “Good day, Billig.”

“Well, I better be off. Mustn’t keep the customers waiting.” said Billig hurriedly as he loaded both crates into his cart.

After the troublesome Merchant rode off, Sierra waved to the Dwarf in front of her and introduced him to Smoke.

“Smoke, this is Ehrlich Buchhalter. Ehrlich, meet Smoke.” said Sierra.

The two of them shook hands. “Ah, it’s nice to finally put a face to a name, Master Smoke.” said Ehrlich.

“A pleasure to meet you as well. I like the way you handled Billig; I can tell that you’re a force to be reckoned with.” Smoke said with a smile as they continued to shake hands.

“It’s the least I could do. You two are doing a very commendable thing here.” said Ehrlich.

“Were those pups inside the crates?” asked Smoke.

“Yes, they were. Five dirus wolf and thirty aardwolf pups.” answered the Dwarf.

“Wouldn’t we have earned more if we grew them into full-grown mounts before selling them?” Smoke thought out loud.

“Oh, this is under Thyrsus’ advisement.” answered Sierra, “Taking care of pups is really hard. They would most likely die without a Caretaker. The Lioumereans are already aware of this and are looking for one, but apparently, someone with that Job isn’t that common in Wysteria.”

“According to my calculations, even though we lose 60% of the potential income this way, that is still within acceptable limits. There’s nothing to worry about.” Ehrich reassured him. “Oh shoot, I forgot to prepare the zecs for Avendre Mercenaries. Well, I’ll get out of your way, as I’m sure you two are very busy.” Ehrlich gave a small bow and left for the treasury.

“Nice guy. Baldaquin tested him, right?” Smoke asked Sierra.

Sierra sighed. “I already told you about this. Yes, he has been tested, you worrywart. Do you even listen to me when I talk?” she said and gave him a playful punch.

She then took Smoke to the marketplace. They stopped outside of a bakery and watched one of the Bakers make bread. Smoke made a mental note to ask him to make pizza dough.

They passed through various other specialty shops such as the Shoeyou and the Dinehere. The Cobblers and Cooks were very happy to finally meet Smoke as well. He wanted to try out their creations, but Sierra pulled him away before he could.

On the way to the docks, Smoke and Sierra met Thyrsus and Vijaya, who were shopping for fish. “Thyrsus, I’d like to thank you again for the wonderful job you’re doing here.” said Smoke as he put his hand on Thyrsus’ shoulder.

“Well, let’s just say that I’ve lately been even more inspired to make Verbrannt a better place.” said Thyrsus and smiled at Vijaya.

The brunette WoodElf blushed and resumed searching for dinner ingredients. Smoke wanted to ask them about the full story on how they became a couple, but Sierra said that they should leave the two lovebirds alone.

A couple of stalls later, they found Ichaival and Sharanga. Ichaival had his hands full with more leather bags than he could carry. Smoke had failed to notice it before, but Sharanga’s hair was kept in a small bun, similar to how Sierra did it when she was cooking in the real world.

“Sharanga, since when do you wear your hair like that?” asked Smoke.

“Oh, this. Sierra taught me. She said that it irritated her how I was constantly pushing my bangs to the side because they kept hitting my eyes.” she answered, showing a hint of embarrassment.

“And you look even more beautiful now.” said Sierra, “Doesn’t she, Ichaival?”

“Of course! More beautiful than the setting sun, more inspiring than a dirus wolf giving birth.” said Ichaival with conviction.

“Argh. Carry these as well.” said Sharanga as she threw three more bags into Ichaival’s arms. “My sister had this bright idea that we have a Hunters’ reunion whenever the four of us are together in one place. So I have to suffer being with this fool a bit longer.”

“I think a reunion is a great idea.” said Smoke cheerfully, “Okay, you guys have a good one.”

Smoke and Sierra bid farewell to them and continued walking to the place Sierra wanted to go to most—the docks. There, Sierra showed Smoke a medium-sized rowboat, big enough to carry her in her cursed werebear form.

“I remember you telling Adder that you learned how to row. So I had some of the Carpenters build this.” she said.

“This looks well-made.” said Smoke as he inspected it, “Well, let’s try it out, then.”

He held her paw and gently helped her get on board. He got into a comfortable rowing position and started to row away from the docks.

The setting sun gave the Murray river an orange glow. They sat in silence as they enjoyed the scenic view from the water. As the moon and the stars were slowly becoming visible, Smoke sensed some underwater monsters with his Cunning of the Dire Fox, as did Sierra with her Animal Instinct.

Moments later, a  giant alligator snapping turtle lunged out of the river and tried to take a bite out of them. Its one-meter wide mouth was only inches from Sierra when she plunged her claws into the turtle’s neck and slashed it wide open.

The river monster desperately retreated with half of its life bar remaining. Sierra was about to go after it, but Smoke stopped her. “Let’s leave it be and enjoy a quiet evening.” he said. The other nearby monsters learned from the alligator snapping turtle and searched for a different prey.

Fireflies seen on the riverbanks gave their boat ride a serene and intimate atmosphere. Smoke kept silently rowing with a smile on his face. For the first time in a while, he felt at peace.

As they enjoyed this special moment in time, Smoke suddenly felt a searing pain on his chest and let go of the oars.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sierra after seeing him clutch his chest.

The X-shaped scar Smoke received in the battle against Crucibelle was emitting a dark glow. “Aaahh!” Smoke arched his back in pain as a black lightning bolt escaped out of his flesh and turned into an orb of electricity.

It swiftly hovered directly above Smoke and Sierra. Recovering from the shock, he immediately equipped his power chainsaw bow and attacked the orb with arrows, but all of them merely went through it.

He quickly switched to his weighted chain and sickle and was about to leap towards it, but Sierra held onto him firmly. Smoke’s action made their rowboat rock violently.

“Wait! We don’t know what that thing is. Let’s move away from it and call for help, just in case.” pleaded Sierra.

Yet before they could do any of that, the orb transformed itself into a crow with black electric sparks coming out of its body.

“Nyak nyak nyak nyak! Oi, DarkElf, I can see you…” a sinister female voice was coming out of the crow, “It took longer than expected, but I’ve finally found you. Oh? And what do we have here? My rogue werebear. Well, who would have thought that I would find two people I’ve been dying to meet in the same place.”

Both Smoke and Sierra froze as they wordlessly looked up to face the crow.

Smoke broke the silence and said, “Based on the electricity, I’m guessing you’re Horrabelle?” He racked his brains trying to figure out a way to appease the last Witch of Wysteria.

“How dare you utter my name, you filthy scum! You, who killed my sisters!” screamed Horrabelle as her voice was projected out of the crow.

Smoke raised his hands in front of him as he tried to calm her down, “Yes, I killed them, but they left me no choice. I—”

“Silence!” A bolt of lightning came out of the crow and barely missed him, utterly destroying the lower half of one of the oars. “Don’t bother telling me your lies. I only have one question for you.” Horrabelle paused momentarily, “How do you like your army: burnt to a crisp or raw, with blood and guts coming out of their bodies?”

“No. None of that. Please, can’t we talk this out?” begged Smoke, “I’ve seen the parchment Crucibelle sent and I know your secret.”

“Secret?” answered Horrabelle in an alarmed voice, “No! You’re just trying to trick me.”

“I know that you and your sisters are the Magietrois.” stated Smoke calmly.

It took a few seconds before Horrabelle’s voice came out of the crow again. “So, you can read Gobberish, huh? I guess the cat’s out of the bag. And what do you plan to do with this information, DarkElf?” she asked.

“I’m hoping to appeal to your better judgement. Please, let’s talk this out.” Smoke said, “Surely, you don’t want the army you and your sisters gathered to suffer more losses. Aren’t you preparing for the war against the Reptilian race?”

Again, the crow fell silent. This time, it took longer before it spoke. “How can you expect me to trust you, when you’ve already wronged me beyond repair?”

“Please state your conditions. I will meet you anytime, anywhere. I’ll even go alone.” said Smoke hurriedly.

“Is that so?” Horrabelle paused once more.

“You should have the blood of Terrabelle and Crucibelle in your possession. I want you to bring it to me.  Come to the plains of Tromperie, by yourself. You have twenty-four hours to comply.” said Horrabelle. The crow then turned to Sierra. “I’m sorry, my dear werebear, but I’ll have to see you another time.”

Smoke paused. He had stayed in the region of Veneficatl valley for almost two months, but he never heard of that place. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the trip within the given time limit.

Suddenly, a notification popped up.

MAP LOCATION: Tromperie Plains

  Coordinates: Latitude: +33°13′ S, Longitude: -111°35′ E
  Note: Four hundred kilometers away from current location.


He was surprised when his map was updated and showed a different route into the valley. If they had gone through here, it would have only taken their caravan half a day’s worth of travel.

“Alright, but it will take me some time to get there.” said Smoke in his begging voice, “How about three days from now instead?”

“No! That’s far too long.” It took Horrabelle a few seconds before she said, “Two days. If I don’t see you in Tromperie then, expect my army to come and find you. Then we shall lay waste to everyone and everything.” stated Horrabelle as a matter of fact.

“Thank you so much for understanding. Don’t worry, I’ll be there in two days.” replied Smoke and bowed to the crow.

“Remember: If I see even a hint of the werebear or your private army, the deal is off.” Horrabelle’s voice trailed off and the crow suddenly exploded into oblivion.

“You’re not really planning on going there alone, are you?” Sierra asked warningly, “You know that she could be leading you into a trap?”

“Yeah, I’m aware of that, but this seems like our only way of convincing her. Besides, what’s the worst thing she could possibly do, kill me?” explained Smoke.



* * * * * *   
A sudden gust of wind picked up a cloud of dust off the ground of Tromperie and rushed towards Smoke’s face. He reflexively shielded his eyes with his hands.

‘I really should find some decent eye-protective equipment.’ he wished inwardly.

He stood alone in the middle of the lifeless plains. A few minutes later, a vast army came into view.

A pale Witch clothed in a black robe was leading her monstrous army. Her slender figure sat comfortably on a dark elemental mare. Smoke instantly recognized her mount as a Nightmare. He had longed to hunt one for a while, for those elusive elemental mares had a chance to drop intermediate-level elemental stones.

With the aid of his Cunning of the Dire Fox, Smoke sensed that Horrabelle had a little over a thousand creatures behind her. He then used his Telefax Vision to get a clearer picture.

Like her sisters, she possessed distinct, unnerving beauty. Her black curls danced in the wind, exposing her tantalising green eyes.

Smoke looked beyond her and saw hundreds of werewolves whose body sizes matched those of Sierra’s werewolf pack. Yet, Sierra only had forty-eight of them, while Horrabelle had almost a thousand. These werewolves were intimidating monsters in their own right, but Smoke’s eyes fixated on the larger monsters walking in front of them. He counted six werebears of assorted colors, following closely behind the Witch.

‘Looks like she mastered making Therianthropes by herself.’ thought Smoke as he remembered Sierra’s story of how she was cursed.

He shifted his gaze to the right and smiled at the sight of other monsters in her accursed army. On Horrabelle’s left side, she had about eighty Tikbalangs. These red-eyed monsters with gnashing teeth and mane made out of sharp black spines may have looked terrifying to anyone else, but to him they looked like good friends he was about to meet.

However, his smile instantly disappeared as soon as he took a gander at the opposite side. On Horrabelle’s right, she had five Gargantuan Goblins.

Horrabelle’s army wasn’t that large in number, but Smoke could tell that all of its members were high-quality monsters. He surmised that Horrabelle’s younger sisters must have sent her their earlier finished products of dastardly innovations.

‘All of those monsters will fight with me if I can convince her to join me.’ Smoke could feel himself drooling at the thought of acquiring Horrabelle and her monster army.

Smoke called out to her as soon as she was a hundred meters away from him. “Hold it!” he shouted. “I’ve come alone. The least you could do is approach me by yourself.”

His voice carried clearly over the distance. He carefully followed Horrabelle’s movements as she looked like she was talking to her army. A few seconds later, she trotted on her Nightmare towards him.

“So, you really came alone.” said Horrabelle as she glanced over Smoke’s surroundings. She got off her mount and walked up to him.

“You told me to come by myself, so I did.” said Smoke as he offered her his hand, “I’m serious about making amends and teaming up against the Reptilians.”

Horrabelle crossed her arms in front of her and did not shake his hand. Instead, he felt her cold green eyes sizing him up as she stared at him intently.

“I didn’t realize the name Magietrois still held this much sway.” she stated. “Well, let’s see it, then.” she said as she displayed her left palm, as if asking for something.

“See what?” said Smoke pleasantly.

“My sisters’ blood, of course!” said Horrabelle irritably.

“Oh, that.” Smoke reached into his backpack window and took out the two vials containing Witches’ blood.

“Give it here.” she said as she took a step forward, reaching out for them with her hand.

“Sorry, but not just yet.” Smoke pulled his hand back and returned the vials to his backpack window for safe keeping.

He smiled as he constantly tried to build rapport with Horrabelle and hopefully increase his Intimacy with her.

“Let’s talk about a peace treaty first, maybe even come up with an alliance. Our goals are the same, after all.” said Smoke cordially.

“Bollocks, you’re really fixated on getting all friendly with me, aren’t you?” Horrabelle leered as she frowned and crossed her arms again.

She paused as she appeared to be thinking things through. “My sisters would never let me hear the end of it in the afterlife if I were to side with their killer. But then again, they might understand that it’d be for a greater cause.” said Horrabelle as she kept tilting her head from left to right.

“I must ask to use a Circle of Truth on you before I decide. I believe it’s obvious why I have a problem trusting you.” she said and looked at him bitterly.

“Fair enough. Cast away.” said Smoke as he prepared himself to be asked a series of uncomfortable questions.

Horrabelle immediately began creating a black casting circle around them. As Smoke observed black lines connecting and numerous magical runes lighting up, he thought that her Circle of Truth looked really different from Baldaquin’s.

“I’m a Witch, my dear. My Circle of Truth is different from a Light Wizard’s.” said Horrabelle suddenly, as if she read his mind.

“I don’t mind. As long as it lets you know how sincere I am, it’s all good.” he said amiably.

She gave a small nod and said, “Let’s begin, shall we?”

His stomach tied in knots as he heard her say that. “Ask away.”

“Did you murder my sisters, Terrabelle and Crucibelle?” asked the Witch.

Smoke gulped before he answered, “Yes, I did, but like I was saying before, they left me with—”

Horrabelle raised her hand and interrupted him, “Silence! The questions asked inside a Circle of Truth need only be answered with ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

“Yes.” he answered.

A white glow appeared around the two of them as numerous runes inscribed in the casting circle lit up.

“Did you take pleasure in killing them?” she asked.

“No.” replied Smoke instantly.

Horrabelle’s eyes grew wide as the circle produced the same white glow. “Hm. If you didn’t take pleasure in killing them, then why kill them at all?” she asked.

“Um, I can’t answer that with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” said Smoke innocently.

Horrabelle sighed and said, “Of course.” She looked displeased. Seconds later, she swiftly moved towards Smoke and grabbed him by his wrists. Smoke pulled back a little as he felt uncomfortable with her sudden closeness.

“Do you truly desire peace between us and have no other agenda?” she asked and stared into his eyes.

Smoke looked back at her with an unwavering gaze. He hoped that his next answer would be enough to finally convince her of his intentions. “Yes.” he said confidently.

The Circle of Truth emitted an intense dark glow.

“What? Why is the glow different? I’m honestly telling the truth.” he exclaimed.

“Oh, I know you are.” she said as her face showed a devious smile.

Smoke looked troubled as her grip on his wrists tightened and her sharp nails started to dig into his skin.

“Nyak nyak nyak nyak. I told Crucibelle that even the dim-witted goblins would have a hard time believing we were the Magietrois. But for the first time, she proved me wrong.” she said.

“Not only did she fool the Gobble Goblins, she managed to fool you as well! Nyak nyak nyak!” Horrabelle laughed maniacally and a small mouth suddenly appeared on each of her palms. Their sharp, jagged teeth sunk into Smoke’s flesh. She then yelled, “Ability Devourer!

A black progress bar appeared with ‘Transmutation’ written on it. Smoke tried to move, but he found himself completely paralyzed. Igniz, hidden in his compartment, tried to come out but also found himself incapacitated.

“Interesting. It usually only takes me a second to eat an ability.” said Horrabelle while looking at the progress bar.

Smoke could only move his eyes and helplessly watched the progress bar completely filling up after five seconds.

As soon as it did, a notification window popped up.


– LOST ABILITY: Transmutation


He was shocked at the words written in the window, but even more so when another progress bar appeared. This time, ’Earth Manipulation’ was written on it.

Fifty percent into the progress bar, the ground both of them stood on erupted. Ledur came out from below and separated the two of them. He swiftly carried Smoke to safety as he flew up into the air.

Horrabelle scrambled to her Nightmare and mounted it immediately. “Nyak nyak nyak nyak! So you did have a plan, after all!” she yelled as her army was coming to her aid.

It took Smoke and Igniz only a few seconds to be able to move again. Igniz came out blazing and instantly fired multiple fireballs at Horrabelle. The Witch countered each of the dark ember sprite’s attacks with black lightning bolts.

“Now!” Smoke shouted at the top of his lungs.

Thirty well-concealed planks, scattered across the plain, were pushed to the sides and Smoke’s private army rushed out of the tunnel entrances they were covering. A red werebear ran faster than anyone else. She leapt towards Horrabelle’s side, with claws aimed at her throat.

“Die, Witch!” yelled Sierra as she was about to rip Horrabelle’s head off. Unfortunately, her leaping attack missed as the Nightmare sensed her bloodlust and dashed forward.

Horrabelle rode towards her army. As she did, she looked back and saw Smoke and Sierra’s own army of more than one thousand five hundred men and women.

Mamelon and the Elemental Knights ran past Sierra as they chased after the dark elemental mare. Two hundred twenty mounted Bowed Fishermen unleashed their torrential water arrows as they stopped where Sierra was.

All of Smoke’s core members rode in chariots being pulled by dire wolves as they led their battalions after Horrabelle. All except for the Lioumereans and Maneators, who rode on war carriages and war elephants respectively.

Armored Bakers, Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Cobblers, Cooks, Farmers, Merchants, Tailors, Tanners and Thatchers were running behind their battalion commanders. They were equipped with iron rolling pins, heavy hammers, chisels, cooking and skinning knives, pitchforks and scissors.

Their weaponized tools not only dealt more damage than the basic weapons usable by all Jobs, but also gave them familiarity with their weapons, allowing them to move freely in battle and use their weapons efficiently. This was the time to display the results of their two months of training.

Horrabelle rode past her Tikbalangs and Gargantuan Goblins as they ran to protect her. Her Therianthrope forces closely followed.

Up in the sky, Smoke steeled himself as he watched the battle about to unfold. He carefully aimed his Berserker’s Ring of Flames and a dark red casting circle appeared several meters in front of the charging goblins.

The progress bar for the ability filled up three seconds later and a circular firewall erupted from the edges of the casting circle, trapping all five Gargantuan Goblins inside it, along with a brown werebear and ten werewolves.

Inflicted with Berserk status, they instantly started attacking one another. The Gargantuan Goblins started ripping each other’s arms out, while the brown Werebear was sinking his jaws into werewolves’ necks. Regrettably, Smoke’s current Mana could only sustain the spell for nine seconds. After the flames died out, Smoke’s private army members immediately took advantage of the groggy monsters. Adder, Jinggu, Stark, Weise, Rassant, Espion, Thyrsus and Vijaya led their respective battalions to massacre the enemy.

Depleted of Mana, Smoke tapped Ledur on the shoulder, signaling for him to let him go. Falling through the air, he threw his Digger’s wand over to Ledur and opened his cloak. “Detain your wayward brothers!” shouted Smoke as he equipped his power chainsaw bow and started gliding in Horrabelle’s direction.

The winged Tikbalang instantly created a deep trench in front of Horrabelle’s Tikbalangs. Caught by surprise in the middle of a charge, they couldn’t stop themselves in time and pushed one another into the trench.

Smoke and Igniz kept attacking Horrabelle from the skies, while Sierra hitched a ride with Laernea as they chased after the Witch.

With the two Lioumerean war carriages in the lead, Mamelon and her regiment of thirty-five Elemental Knights shortly followed. Sharur, Sharanga and Ichaival were doing their best to open up a path for them as they engaged the Therianthropes.

Horrabelle, on the back of her Nightmare, yelled, “Anyone who can hear my voice, turn back now!” She ordered her minions to retreat as she was unwilling to lose any more troops. She had come to Tromperie plains only to exact revenge on Smoke, not wage a full-scale battle.

The Therianthropes followed her command. More than nine hundred of these monsters were moving in a circle around Horrabelle in order for her to escape safely.

Sierra, seated on Laernea’s war carriage, was the one closest to the Witch, but she only had Gandiva, Mamelon and the Elemental Knights to back her up.

From above them, Smoke shouted, “Stop! It’s alright, forget about it. It’s too dangerous to follow her.”

Smoke landed in front of them and made them stop. He turned around and watched Horrabelle run off with her Therianthropes. He consoled himself with the thought that they managed to save eighty of Ledur’s brethren at the price of his Transmutation ability.

The rest of his private army made quick work of the Gargantuan Goblins, with no casualties and only a couple of serious injuries. Sierra ordered Laernea to ride fast towards the brown werebear. She wanted to save the surviving eight werewolves, as she planned for them to join her pack.

Smoke headed to the trench in which Ledur trapped the Tikbalangs. He tried to forcibly push the thought of his idiocy out of his mind as he kept himself busy using the Horse Ring of Domination on the Tikbalangs whenever his Mana allowed it.



* * * * * *   
Smoke was gliding blindly towards Nanahuatl. Igniz was trying his best to console him by doing various aerial tricks, such as somersaults and loop-the-loops, but his expression remained unchanged.

He thought about logging out of Zectas but couldn’t think of a place in the real world that could ease his pain. Somewhere deep inside, he felt that he could only find peace if he stayed inside Zectas.

Sierra tried to talk to him, but he glided away as soon as he finished converting all of the Tikbalangs. He left her in charge of the army in Tromperie. She kept calling him, but he denied all incoming calls.

A single thought drove him to Nanahuatl. He thought that if he could go to Kumbaba’s Infinite chamber, located in the cellar of his house, and witness the grandeur of the universe once more, he could somehow get past this.

After many hours of gliding, his feelings of misery, regret and shame still lingered within him.  He couldn’t face Sierra, considering how he vehemently convinced her that the Witches were the Magietrois. He spent more than two hours convincing Ledur the same thing and, in the end, only got him to join the operation after pointing out that they would have better chances of removing the curse from him and his brothers by working together with Horrabelle instead of simply killing her outright, uncertain if that would do the trick.

Only his core private army members knew the truth about the botched operation. Sierra, Adder and Ledur witnessed everything from within the underground tunnels they had dug before Horrabelle arrived. A camera rune placed near Igniz’s orb compartment, allowed the three of them to see everything that was happening, but they couldn’t hear how Horrabelle tricked him; they just saw her suddenly attack him.

Smoke finally arrived in front of his house in Nanahuatl. He landed hard, making a miniature crater in the ground. He rushed blindly towards the cellar, knocking over a couple of chairs and a vase along the way. When he reached the fifth wall of the cellar, he took out the family tokens from his backpack window and placed them into their respective slots on the wall, but nothing happened. With no one there to see him, he slumped down to the ground and lay there, motionless.

Several minutes later, Darius arrived with a loaf of bread. He sat down next to Smoke and said, “You know, it helps to wolf down an entire loaf without thinking about anything else. Just focus on eating it all in one sitting.” he said as he offered it to Smoke.

Slowly, Smoke sat up and reached out for the bread. He did what Darius said and focused on finishing the loaf as fast as he could. It took him twenty seconds to eat the entire thing. He smiled as he remembered the time when Darius was still really thin and begged him for his last loaf.

“Thanks, Darius. That helped.” said Smoke with a faint smile.

“Sierra called and told me everything.” said Darius as he placed his arm over Smoke’s shoulder. “You can’t blame yourself. All the information you had pointed to the Witches being the Magietrois.”

“I know, but it’s just so frustrating because I keep telling myself to be careful and do better, but I still end up doing stupid things like this.” said Smoke in an irate voice.

Darius squeezed Smoke’s shoulder and said, “It is best to be patient with everything; most importantly, with yourself. Don’t lose courage by thinking about your imperfections, but rather set about remedying them. This mistake may have caused you pain, but with it, you’ve grown wiser.”

Smoke took a deep breath and tilted his head backwards, pressing it against the wall. He closed his eyes and thought about what Darius said. He agreed that wallowing in self-pity wouldn’t accomplish anything.

Darius then took out his Beggar’s tablet and showed it to Smoke. “This came in just two hours ago. Our Beggar brothers have found some evidence on the Magietrois. Turns out, they are, in fact, real! We’re still looking for more information on where they may be now, but one thing’s for sure: they’re no longer here in Wysteria.”

“Getting the crucial information right after the big blunder—just my luck!” said Smoke sarcastically.

They sat in silence next to one another for about a minute. “Hey…thanks for stating the obvious, Darius. Sometimes, the things that are clear to others…they aren’t as clear to someone who is hurting.” said Smoke and slowly stood up. “Sorry for cutting our reunion short, but I have to go.”

Smoke asked for a rowboat and some supplies. He thought he would take a scenic route back to Verbrannt and train along the way. He had neglected practising his abilities lately and thought that perhaps he could have done something to stop Horrabelle if only he had mastered one of them.

Darius was the only there to bid him farewell as he rowed up the river towards Verbrannt.
                 

* * * * * *   
Inside an emerald royal war room sat a grim-looking General. Green miasma emanated from his dragonscale armor. His plans to capture one of the cities in Chayotl Kingdom(Western Kingdom) have yet to come to fruition.

He sat alone at the head of a rectangular table. The empty chairs in front of him only had magical mirrors placed on them. While he was deep in thought, the image of Ultimo Maire, better known as Duke Burmistrz, appeared in one of the mirrors and sat at the table as a hologram.

“Greetings, High General Lizardo, and may the bloodline of Vinceretus rule forever!” Burmistrz kissed his own fist and bowed to the armored General.

Shortly afterwards, a middle-aged orangutan Simiavulg appeared as a hologram above one of the other mirrors. He carried a red metallic staff with him.

“Salutations, High General Lizardo, and may the bloodline of Vinceretus rule forever!”. Like Burmistrz, the red-staff wielder kissed his own fist and bowed down to Lizardo. “I, Ecume Semblant, have come to serve you.”

SCRATCH SCRATCH

Semblant kept scratching his neck and back. Lizardo looked irritated at his vulgar display.

“Forgive me, High General. Ever since I transformed into Indignus, the fleas have been unrelenting in their endeavors to suck me dry.” said Semblant apologetically.

“What is your update on Saruras?” asked the intimidating Lizardite.

“The Simiavulgs were slightly enthralled to go to battle when Smoke mentioned that one of the Witches of Wysteria was going to attack us. Luckily, I’ve persuaded them to stay within the boundaries of the village. The Simiavulgs are still in check and will not involve themselves in any of your attacks on Wysteria, my liege.” replied Semblant humbly.

“Good. What about you, Ultimo? Is Centzo still not conquered?” Lizardo asked with contempt.

“I’ve surrounded the city, my liege, but the Sonstwelter residents of the city have united under one man—some Arch Bishop named Incitant. I tried sending the Brandal legions into the city, but we suffered a devastating blow of forty thousand casualties.” Ultimo described the problems he was facing against Centzo, “Due to this, I now only have eighty thousand Brandals at my disposal.”

The green miasma coming out of Lizardo’s armor transformed into a gaseous hand and reached towards Ultimo’s hologram. Its fingers slowly wrapped around his neck.

“My liege, please, I still have a plan of dispatching the Knights that are in Coatl. Together with Macher and the Sonstwelters, we should…be able to…crush Centzo.” Ultimo had a hard time talking as his projection’s throat was being crushed by Lizardo’s gaseous hand.

“Don’t be a fool! What do you think would happen if you left Coatl undefended?” yelled Lizardo, “Smoke’s army could just walk in and take over the city! Keep your Knights in Coatl and your Brandals outside of Centzo for now.”

High General Lizardo’s green miasma released its hold on Ultimo’s throat.

“It won’t be long before Centzo falls. I intend to send my Varanus Indicus horde to your aid as soon as our newest member has finished making improvements to it.” said Lizardo. He nodded to a slim figure standing in the shadows.

“Ultimo, Semblant, I would like you to meet the newest addition to our cause: the Black Lady of Malady and the last surviving Witch of Wysteria, Horrabelle.” he said as he motioned for her to sit beside him.

The black-robed beauty sat down next to High General Lizardo. “May the bloodline of Vinceretus rule forever!” she said emphatically and kissed his right hand.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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