Author: John Nest
“Really? Floating islands in the total darkness?” Sherry asked Nash over the phone. “But how can you see the Insels if it’s dark?”
She wanted him to visit her at home, but with the incredible time difference of Mictlan and the real world, he could only spare less than thirty minutes, or suffer the wrath of his companions waiting for him(supposedly).
“Well, the islands sort of glow,” he answered, trying hard to describe the beauty of Mictlan. “Trust me, you’ll love it when you see it yourself.”
“Says the man who’s still searching for a way out of Mictlan,” she said, laughing. “Anyway, what did Detective Faltoso say again?”
Nash sighed, which carried over their call. “He wants us to visit the station sometime next week. Says there’s some break in the case, but they still need to iron it out. Highly doubt it, though.”
“Hey! What did we say about talking like that?” she asked, as if she was about to give a firm lecture.
“Negative thoughts never helped anyone,” he grumbled. “What about you? You really have an audience with King Adrizol?”
“Right? Can you believe it?” she said proudly, welcoming the change in topic. “The King of Chayotl wanted to personally speak to me.”
“What? He never asked for Smoke?” asked Nash.
“Oh, shut up!” she yelled, snickering.
“Any idea what it’s about?” he asked.
“Dunno. Mamelon got the notice when she passed through Centeo City,” she explained. “Who would’ve thought that I’d get invited inside the castle. I mean I started there as an Acolyte, but I never…”
“It’s not that big a deal,” joked Nash. “Especially when he starts combing his long nose hair with his hands. Yuck!”
“King Adrizol is a far superior king. Especially when compared to the king you met. Bet you haven’t seen a picture of him, have you?” she stated condescendingly. “They say he was coded to look like a movie star.”
“Who said that? Blind players? Or those with no taste?” he replied, matching her tone.
“You sure you want to say that?” she asked. “Remember, I find you handsome too!”
“Let’s just say that you have your off days,” replied Nash, chuckling.
“Whatever!” she retorted. “It’s still better than your cryptic video in the Oracle of Aphend.”
“Right? Couldn’t think of anything else to post,” he explained. “All I had were videos of Orks and places in Sawtorn. Good thing I found that Oracle.”
“So, how many hits have you got so far?” she asked.
“Over five million,” answered Nash, pleased. “I’m really thankful for those faithful subscribers.”
“Exactly! If not for them you’d be dead,” went on Sherry. “That’s why you should post an amazing video in Mictlan.”
“Of course, I’ve already planned the whole thing,” said Nash. “I’m going to start with the view from the sacred logs. You know, the one where it felt like Halloween and Christmas were mashed into one. And then I’m—”
“Anyway, I’m logging back in,” she forcibly interjected. “Can’t wait to see Nenek again.”
“Right. Me too. Was heading for the game pod,” he mumbled. “Sorry bout not visiting again.”
“I understand. Just don’t get ahead of me too much when you get back,” she said with all seriousness.
“I won’t,” replied Nash.
With that, Sherry stretched out her long slender arms one last time, before entering into her game pod.
* * * * * *
When Sierra opened her eyes, she was greeted with a warm campfire and an old Priestess sitting next to it. Her long robes were battle-worn, but her smile was genuine and welcoming.
“If I didn’t see it for myself I wouldn’t have believed it,” greeted Nenek. “You’ve truly done me proud.”
“Wait! Did you just insult me and praise me at the same time?” said Sierra, laughing. “What are you doing here anyway?”
Nenek chortled. “Can you blame me? Took you so long to kill those Witches.”
Sierra shook her head but was still smiling. “Couldn’t wait till we get to Centeo, huh? Where’s Mamelon?”
“She left for your world. Something about having to pose next to a Porsche?” explained Nenek. “By the way, what’s a Porsche?”
“My uncle says it’s just an overpriced Volkswagen,” answered Sierra. “But she said she’ll be back soon?”
Nenek shook her head. “Says she’s heading back to Nordland when she returns. Something about unfinished business? Gandiva’s already waiting for her in Centza City up north.”
“That girl never takes no, huh?” said Sierra. “Ardu? Vrai?” she called out.
“Yes, my lady?” answered Vrai, flapping her thick Druid coat as she bowed down before Sierra.
“You and Ardu and the rest of our men will stay here,” began Sierra.
At once, Vrai was about to dispute her orders but was silenced with a stare.
“We don’t want to let King Adrizol think that we’re warmongers,” explained Sierra. “Relax, Nenek and I will be fine.”
Vrai nodded. “If you insist. Ardu and I will have our men ready if you call.”
“I bet,” said Sierra, pleased. “Well, we’re going now. So, I’ll leave you to it.”
“Take care, my Lady,” said Vrai and bowed down once more.
Sierra and Nenek set off on foot, giving them plenty of time to catch up.
“… Listen, I got a hundred new Acolytes, do you want them?” asked Nenek.
“Of course! All your graduates turn out to be awesome,” answered Sierra, grinning. “But, how come you’ve never taken another Sonstwelter?”
“Ha!” exclaimed Nenek. “The last one turned out to be such a pain in the ass!”
After an hour’s worth of walking and catching up, the two of them finally reached the outskirts of Centeo City. An excited Sierra looked up to see her starting city again. Yet, her smile vanished when she saw the overpopulated capital of the Chayotl Kingdom. Several houses had been built outside the city walls while the walls themselves had large cracks as if portions of the wall were about to fall off.
“What happened here?” asked Sierra.
“Adrizol says it’s ‘Progress’,” answered Nenek, doing air quotes. “After lowering the prices of houses, Sonstwelters began building them to the limit.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” said Sierra.
“You’d think, but I don’t know… Feels like he’s been neglecting his Zectian subjects lately,” went on Nenek. “But not those Knights of his. He loves them alright!” she vehemently added. ” Supposed he trained a bunch of them in secret. They just popped out of nowhere and the city was filled with them overnight. Now, the capital looks like it’s covered in algae.”
Sierra looked skeptical but kept an open mind. As the two of them reached near the city gates, she saw thousands of green Knights patrolling the homes of the Sonstwelters.
“Best not to make eye contact,” whispered Nenek.
“Greetings, citizen!” said one of the Emerald Knights. “Can I offer my assistance in any way?” he asked with a smile.
“Thanks, but no,” answered Nenek. She pulled Sierra’s arm and led the way towards the palace. “They like to make an appearance about how helpful they are. But they just give me the creeps.”
Looking around, Sierra noticed that most of the green Knights were offering their services to Sonstwelters. Some of them were leading the Sonstwelter’s mounts while others were made into sparring partners, both magical and physical. There were even some who were cooking for them.
“They don’t seem that bad,” said Sierra. But then she became aware of the Zectian residents. There were porters looking for work, but no Sonstwelter would hire them because there were green Knights at their beck and call.
There were still market stalls owned by Zectians, but not even flies bothered to visit them. All of the business went only to the shops owned by Sonstwelters.
Finally, Sierra and Nenek reached the inner wall. There, they were politely greeted with another Emerald Knight.
“Lady Sierra, Madam Nenek, please come in. King Adrizol has been expecting your arrival.”
“Yeah, yeah, Sheesh!” answered Nenek.
Inside the courtyard, the garden was well kept and filled with other Sonstwelter visitors.
“Maybe it’s not so special to see this King after all,” mumbled Sierra.
They were led into the throne room. Where an empty throne was waiting for them.
“Please wait here for a while,” said the Emerald Knight.
Seconds later, a handsome middle-aged man stepped out from behind the throne. His green royal robes glittered in the sunlight.
“Ah! You must be Lady Sierra,” said King Adrizol, smiling. “And what an honor to see a living legend in our midst. Welcome, Lady Nenek.”
Both Sierra and Nenek bowed down before the congenial king.
“Greetings, your Majesty,” said Sierra. “You summoned me?”
“Wow, straight to the point. I like that,” said King Adrizol. “Well, it’s about your village. I heard that it has grown so much that it could probably be recognized as a city now.”
“What!” yelped Sierra, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“It’s simple really,” began King Adrizol. “If you would allow some of my inspectors to visit the city, they could gauge if it’s acceptable to pass the standards as a city of the Chayotl Kingdom.”
Sierra’s eyebrows met. “Hmm… Would there be any Sonstwelters involved?”
“No, of course not,” answered the King. “Only the kingdom’s assessors and a few of my Emerald Knights.”
“And what exactly would happen if we become a city?” asked Sierra.
“For one, you’ll be the first Sonstwelter to have made a city from scratch in all the kingdoms of Zectas,” explained King Adrizol. “Also, you’ll have rights to do commerce with other cities. But most importantly, I’d like to put an end to this squabble you have with Coatl City.”
“Say what now?” blurted out Sierra.
“I appreciate the help that you and your partner have done in defending Centzo City,” he went on. “I would have loved to put a stop to it myself, but my funds were lacking and so were my men. However, now that I have enough power. I do not wish to see such a thing happen again to any of the cities in Chayotl.”
A dumbfounded Sierra stood there with her mouth slightly ajar.
“So, if you become a city I’d like to offer you my protection and settle the matter with Duke Burmistrz in the royal court,” stated King Adrizol. “What do you say? Shall you accept my offer and become a city of Chayotl?”
“First of all, let me just say that I’m flattered,” said Sierra. “But I’d like to run this decision with my friends before answering.”
King Adrizol smiled. “Very well, I see no problem with that.”
“Your Majesty, I have one more question,” went on Sierra. “What would happen to Duke Burmistrz if the royal court finds him guilty?”
“Well, he’ll be removed from his post and imprisoned,” flatly answered King Adrizol.
Nenek tapped on Sierra’s shoulder. “Are you done now?”.
“Huh? What do you mean?” asked Sierra, confused.
“Your Majesty, I’d like to voice out some personal concern,” blurted out Nenek, completely ignoring Sierra.
King Adrizol nodded. “Please do, I’m here to help.”
Nenek took in a deep breath. The saggy skin on her neck heaved deeply. “Why is it that you’ve neglected your Zectian subjects? Your men only buy goods from Sonstwelter owned shops. Also—”
“Now, now, wait a minute! I resent that!” interjected King Adrizol. “Neglected? Didn’t I lower your taxes? Didn’t I provide food rations for everyone? Frankly, I have my men buy from the Sonstwelters because they are selling superior products.”
“Then give us better lands to farm, and better boats to fish in,” countered Nenek.
“I’ve already sold them to the Sonstwelters,” answered King Adrizol. “They pay more. You know that, right?”
“But what about us?” asked Nenek, teary eyed. “Are we simply to resign ourselves and accept your magnanimous alms?”
“No, of course not,” he answered, furtive. “What about this? I shall have a council drawn up, and they will be tasked to evaluate how to better the lives of my Zectian subjects. After all, I want what’s best for everyone.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” said Nenek, enthralled. “I would hope to hear from your men soon.”
* * * * * *
Back in Mictlan, Smoke and Jeter had been running to and from the vine-bridge. Both of them still unable to hit any of the chaneques.
“We’ve been at this for a while now. Maybe, we should do something different?” suggested Jeter, putting down his spear and resting.
“I know,” answered Smoke, preparing a meal for himself in the middle of the bridge. “Let me get some soup while you recover your Soul Points.”
Jeter sat cross-legged on the bridge and concentrated on regaining his SP. Whereas, Smoke pondered on another method. He tried using his Earth Manipulation, poisoned arrows, even his Moon Blade’s Lunar Force failed.
He did, however, make a significant discovery. The chaneques were not completely immune to magic. After which he made a mental note. ‘Not everything that Baba and Mitleid told him was set in stone.’ As the only thing that worked was inflicting the chaneques with Berserk. Unfortunately, he ran out of mana before the little red imps could kill themselves.
Then, Baba, Sharur, and Laernea arrived. They had gone off to a different Insel to complete Sharur and Laernea’s Light Bringer training.
“Any progress?” asked Baba, sitting down next to Smoke.
Smoke groaned. “None!”
“Well, have you tried hitting them from here?” suggested Laernea. “Sharur was the first one who came up with the idea. What with him being a Range Sieger and all. I think they don’t really know they’re being attacked unless an intruder is on the Insel.”
“I see. Now, why didn’t I think of that?” said Smoke, shaking his head.
At once, he stood up and equipped his bow. Knocking the arrow into the string, he searched for a chaneque. But all he could see was the tall grass the horned imps were hiding in.
“Don’t think, just pull with all your might,” said Sharur.
“Alright, let’s give it a shot,” said Smoke. He inhaled deeply and released the arrow.
+ Attack hit chaneque. Damage 8,750.
A red horned chaneque stood up, looking around the Insel, bewildered. Its life bar displayed (246,250/250,000 SP).
‘This could work,’ he thought and went back to eating.
“That’s it?” asked Sharur, impatient. “Aren’t you going to finish it off?”
“I will, right after I’m done eating,” replied Smoke. “Need my MP maxed out.”
Sharur walked to the other end of the bridge, pissed off.
Baba stood up, following the burly OrkElf. “Why did you tell him about attacking from the bridge?”
“I didn’t. Laernea was the one who did that,” answered Sharur.
“But you still encouraged him,” went on Baba. “You know, I could just help them out and we’d be done already.”
“No, I want to see what he does,” said Sharur. “I want to remember why I followed him.”
“Oh, alright. We’ve got an eternity to kill anyway,” said Baba.
When Smoke was done, he stowed away his utensils and equipped his bow and readied his quiver. Standing on the edge of the vine-bridge, he pointed the Berserker’s Ring of Flames at the grassy Insel. The floating island was covered with a red casting circle and flames came out from the inscribed runes. He counted twenty of the red imp monsters stand up. All of them had gone Berserk.
“Play! Play! Play!” said one of the chaneques as it attacked its comrade.
“Weee! Fun! So fun!” yelled another as it did the same.
Smoke was grinning as he heard the chaneques’ voices. They kept chanting the same lines as they continued attacking each other. With his increased mana, he was able to hold the Berserker’s Flames for six minutes.
As soon as he spent all of his MP, Smoke released a torrent of poison arrows, striking the confused chaneques. With the red imps’ life bars halved, he easily picked them off one by one. He killed five of them before the others could hide in the tall grass again. But even then, he continued blindly striking the grass with his arrows. Eventually, he vanquished all twenty of them. Afterward, he ran over to the island to collect his arrows, and loot if there were any. Sadly, the red imps dropped none.
“Wow! Beggars really are amazing,” said Baba, walking up next to Smoke.
“Sharur told you I’m a Beggar?” asked Smoke.
“No!” replied Baba. “Let’s just say I’ve known a few of them, back when I was alive. Besides, I don’t know of any other Job that could use sword, bow, and magic.”
Smoke studied Baba’s expression, but found no malevolent intent. “I see. Anything else about me being a Beggar?”
Baba smiled and slapped him on the back. “Well, because you’re so awesome and amazing, we’re taking Jeter with us to train.”
“What? You’re gonna train him?” said Smoke, dumbfounded.
“Don’t worry. I’ll show you how I’ll train him,” said Baba. “Jeter, go pick up your spear.”
Then, both Baba and Jeter walked into another lush floating island. As soon as they did so, the horned chaneques stepped out from the grass.
JANG JANG JANG JANG
Fervently, the DarkElf Bard played a fast beat song on his lute. At once, Jeter felt energized, but strangely enough, the chaneques also began dancing around in circles.
“Go ahead, attack them,” Baba said to Jeter while playing.
Jeter shrugged his shoulders and mechanically stabbed the nearest red horned monster. His eyes almost popped out when he felt his spear pierced the dancing chaneque.
“Well, finish it off,” instructed Baba.
Despite Jeter’s attacks, the injured chaneque continued dancing as it gnawed and gnashed its sharp teeth. After over a hundred spear stabs, Jeter finally killed his first Mictlander. But before he could attack the next chaneque, Baba stopped him.
“Alright, that’ll do,” said Baba, dragging Jeter away. “Save some for when we really train.”
With that, both Baba and Jeter rejoined Smoke, Laernea, and Sharur on the bridge.
Hurriedly, Smoke ran up to Baba and grabbed him by the arm. “Let me do that too! It’ll be a lot quicker than what I did earlier.”
Baba strongly shook his head and removed Smoke’s hand. “No, no, you proved that you could do this on your own. Besides, they say something worthwhile happens when you do it by yourself.”
“Just stick with it, you’ll be fine,” said Sharur. “Bet you’ll be done before Jeter.”
“Exactly,” added Laernea. “After all, you are Smoke.”
“Let’s meet at the barren Insel near Monstro Afiado,” said Baba, patting him lightly on the shoulder. “Take care of yourself. It’ll be months before we’ll see each other again.”
With that, they left Smoke alone to fend for himself.
“Fine! I miss grinding anyway!” shouted Smoke to them.
While waiting for his mana to recover, Smoke blindly attacked the chaneques left on the second Insel where Jeter got his first Mictlander kill. Even though his MP had fully recovered, he only managed to kill five of the chaneques hidden in the green. He pondered whether to use the Berserker’s Ring again, but detested the idea of waiting for his mana bar to recover.
‘If only that grass wasn’t there,’ he thought, annoyed. Soon after, a mischievous smile crept up on him.
While still standing on the bridge, he launched thirty-two fireballs into the air. Using his Fire Manipulation, he turned them into fiery flame swords, which he sent hurtling towards the green floating island. Yet, his intention was not to attack the hidden chaneques. Rather, his flaming blades scorched the tall grass that kept them from him.
“Hey! Who took my hiding place!” cried out one chaneque.
“No fair! No fair! I like being hidden!” shouted another.
The rest of the surviving chaneques screamed similar words of protest. But Smoke did not stop until all the tall grass of the Insel was burned to ash.
In a daze and confused, the chaneques bumped into each other, complaining where their grass had gone.
Smoke then had his flame swords set to auto attack the chaneques. Once, his fiery blades received their new set of commands, he returned to firing his poison arrows.
This time, Smoke cleared the floating island of chaneques in a third of the time.
“That’s better,” said Smoke. Using his Hyper Jump, he got onto the floating island and collected his arrows.
Hours piled on, and Smoke continued searching for grassy Insels. He always left them scorched and barren. He was not bothered by this, as it only took a day for an Insel to completely recover.
Along the way, he would find vine-bridges connected only to floating islands with great ponds. He dared not attack the coyotls, as they were water based Mictlanders. So, he settled to train on his Manatl barrier and simply passed through them.
Yet, after clearing his tenth floating island, Smoke still felt that he was not fully utilizing the time difference in Mictlan with that of Zectas’.
‘There’s got to be something else I could do?’ he wondered. He thought about planting crops and harvesting them but realized that the return in zecs would not be worth the effort. ‘Something that would otherwise require a long time to finish,’ he thought, adding context to his own mini-project. Then, inspiration struck him. Hurriedly, he opened his acquired knowledge window on ‘How to build a Dragon Hatchery’.
He looked around and searched for a barren Insel. Fortunately, the next floating island was just the place he wanted. Using his Earth Manipulation, he created a kiln according to specifications. He wondered if there would be anyone else that would venture round these parts in Mictlan, but risked it anyway. Sacrificing three of his ember stones, he put them inside the kiln and gently added the three wyvern eggs in his possession. “Time well spent,” he said out loud, grinning. He then ventured to the next vine-bridge in search of another grassy floating island.
For the next couple of weeks(time-based in Mictlan), his world revolved around the barren Insel with his specially made kiln. Despite doing the monotonous and arduous task of conquering chaneque filled Insels, Smoke was still unable to hit the chaneques when he faced them on a frontal melee battle. Although, his Archery and Manatl Barrier did increase, and so did the progress bar on his wyverns from hatching.
However, the weeks had turned into months. The fast moving time of this realm had finally gotten to him. He was almost at his limit. Not even the prospect of getting a wyvern made him smile anymore. ‘Maybe after ten-thousand kills?’ he wondered, hoping it would be similar to when he gained the abilities from the horned rabbit, armored armadillo, and dire fox.
Yet, even after killing ten-thousand chaneques, there was still nothing. Not a single notification window popped up.
Disheartened, Smoke logged out and intended to stay out for awhile.
* * * * * *
A frustrated Nash stepped out of his game pod. He reached for his phone and saw a text message from Sherry. She updated him about Adrizol’s Inspection. Personally, he thought that they could do without Verbrannt becoming a city. However, Mamelon, Thyrsus, and Sharanga were all for it. So, Sherry, who was on the fence, leaned towards agreeing on the visit.
“It’s really up to you,” said Nash out loud as he typed the words on his phone.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
“You ready to go?” asked Seth from behind his door.
“Almost, just give me a few seconds,” said Nash, wiping the blood from his nose. He still had nosebleeds from time to time, but it had lessened over the week of his playing in Mictlan.
“What about Donny?” went on Seth.
“Said he had to do some school work at a friend’s house,” answered Nash, while getting ready.
Seth sighed. “Did you ask for his friend’s number?”
“No,” said Nash, getting out of his room. “Donny’s got his own phone.”
“Bet he just wants to ditch going to the Detectives,” pointed out Seth. “You know Mima always said that you’re too trusting. That’s why you get duped a lot in Zectas.”
Hearing this, Nash’s eyes widened with realization. “Yeah? Well, I’ve been strict about letting people in Verbrannt. And I’ve… also made sure the guild members go through rigorous screening.”
Seth shook his head. “But what about the times when someone asks for your help?”
“Um… well… When is it ever bad to help?” reasoned out Nash, leading the way outside their home. “Besides, my gut isn’t wrong all of the time!”
It took them less than an hour to reach the police station. When they arrived, they immediately walked over to the desks of two lean men in their thirties; Detective Alonzo Faltoso and Detective Ray Malear.
“Nash, Seth, how’re you two doing?” greeted Detective Faltoso, shaking their hands.
Both of the Smoak brothers remained stoic and simply nodded.
“Ray, we got it set up in the media room, right?” Detective Faltoso asked his partner.
“Yeah, yeah,” replied Detective Malear, standing up and leading them to the said room. “Now, listen, it’s not much but we’ve recovered some of the deleted videos off a camera on an ATM.”
With only one whiff inside, Nash and Seth could tell that the room also served as their break room. The rancid smell of nicotine lingered.
Detective Malear had them sit on plastic chairs and got one of the tiny black remotes set on the table.
“It’s just two minutes,” said Detective Faltoso. “But we’d still like you to look at it anyway.”
Turning on the screen, they saw a group of four men going into a subway entrance.
“We were hoping that you could identify any of them,” went on Detective Faltoso.
“What about face recognition? Didn’t you run it through your database?” asked Seth, incredulous.
“Of course we did,” answered Detective Malear, somewhat impatient. “That’s why we’d like you to see these,” he added, putting down folders of sixteen people on the table. Each folder had complete names, address, employment, and other basic information of a person. “Those are the ones that matched up with the program.”
Seth’s cheeks turned red, but he quickly lowered his head and began reading through the folders.
On the other hand, Nash kept watching the two-minute video.
After Seth’s sixth folder, he called out to his brother. “You want to maybe look at this too?”
“Yeah, sure. But I want to know about the white van that suddenly disappears,” Nash said to the Detectives.
“What are you talking about?” asked Detective Faltoso.
“What van?” added Detective Malear.
“The one in the video,” replied Nash, pointing at the screen and replayed the video again.
Seth, Detective Faltoso, and Detective Malear watched it again.
“There!” blurted out Nash, pausing the video.
Yet, the monitor only displayed the same four men heading for the subway.
“What van, Kid?” asked Detective Malear, annoyed.
“Yeah, I don’t see any van,” said Seth.
“Wait, wait, I missed it when I paused,” explained Nash. He kept on rewinding and pausing to the moment where there was supposed to be a white van, but he could never get it in frame.
“Are you sure you saw it?” whispered Seth. After watching his brother try for more than fifty times.
“Detective Faltoso, can I please borrow one of your computers?” asked Seth politely.
“What you need to update your bitter or something?” asked Detective Malear. “Don’t you Kids do that with your phone?”
“No, I’d like to watch the video frame by frame,” answered Seth.
“Sure, sure. This way,” said Detective Faltoso. “Ray, we got that video in a thumb drive, right?”
“Yeah,” sourly replied Detective Malear.
As soon as Seth got in front of the computer, he began installing softwares for image enhancements and video editing. First, he captured the best frame for the for men and enhanced their faces.
“Maybe this will get fewer hits,” Seth said out loud and saved the image. Next, he scrolled frame by frame to the moment where Nash kept insisting on seeing a white van.
“There,” blurted out Nash.
Carefully, Seth proceeded frame by frame but still found nothing.
“You missed it again,” said Nash. “Can you do it slower than that?”
Seth stared at his brother, doubtful. “I can, but…”
“But what?” asked Nash.
“It would mean that you saw it at over a hundred frames per second,” explained Seth. But he did as he was instructed and slowed the frames even farther.
Seth’s mouth fell open at the sight of a white van caught in a single frame. The Detectives both looked at each other with astounded expressions.
“No way you could’ve seen that!” exclaimed Seth.
“Detectives,” called out Nash. “Think you can find out why that ambulance disappears?”
* * * * * *
Refreshed, Smoke opened his eyes to the pitch blackness of the void. ‘Might as well check on those eggs,’ he thought and headed for the barren Insel. He diligently cleared out all of the chaneque plagued floating islands along the way. As he traveled, random thoughts popped into his head. ‘Bet they’re already at Monstro Afiado. Wonder if Jeter’s already done training?’
When he got to the kiln, a flashing green progress bar displayed on top of it. His Dragon Hatchery had done its job.
Excited, he quickly opened it up and retrieved one of the wyvern eggs.
– INCUBATION FAILURE
After reading the notification window, his smiled turned sour just as the egg hardened into stone.
He clicked his tongue and carefully retrieve the second one.
|+ INCUBATION SUCCESSFUL
Be sure to imprint on your hatched creature!
CRACK CRACK CRACK
Egg shells fell on the brown soil as a forked tongue hissed out of it. A white slimy creature slithered out of the egg and turned its yellow eyes at Smoke. Upon closer inspection, he saw two tiny horns on top of its head. It looked nothing like its gray monstrous parents.
|+ IMPRINT SUCCESSFUL
+ Acquired rare pet: baby wyvern
> Name your pet.
Before he could come up with a name, the little snake-like wyvern slithered its way up to his neck and coiled itself around it.
Smoke choked. He quickly pulled on the baby wyvern’s body and it uncoiled a bit. “Easy there, Pal,” he said, patting it on the head, feeling its bumpy horns. “So, what should I name you?” he asked. The wyvern’s scales felt slimy but in a soothing way. “How about Sly?” The minute wyvern hissed its tongue at Smoke. “Okay, okay. What about Ice?” The wyvern shook its head and let out a gray mist.
– [ENCUMBERED] Ponderous Mist has increased your weight by two times.
“Whoa! Guess you’re your parent’s kid after all,” said Smoke, seeing nothing but the thick fog. Although it was far from the ten times encumbrance, he still felt his body had grown heavy. But it also had a strange sweet scent, smelling awfully like bananas. “Yeah, you really got the pipes for this.” He paused and tried walking out of the Ponderous Mist, but could do nothing as the wyvern kept spewing it out. Then, he remembered a similar experience. “Hey! What about Vape? Think you’d like that?”
Abruptly, the wyvern stopped producing the Ponderous Mist and settled down around his neck to sleep.
“Hm… Vape it is, then,” he said, stroking the baby wyvern on the head.
After naming his wyvern, the ecstatic Smoke picked up the second egg. But as soon as he picked it up, Vape writhed out of Smoke’s neck and flicked the egg off his hands. The egg broke upon contact with the ground.
Then, Smoke remembered the footnote on hatching draconic creatures—survival of the fittest. A guaranteed way of assuring this was getting rid of the competition from the start. The same way sharks eat their siblings inside their mother’s womb.
Smoke had half a mind to reprimand Vape, but it stared at Smoke with innocent eyes. He realized that this was hardwired into its system.
“Let me just put up something for them,” he said, saddened by the outcome of Vape’s siblings.
Using his Earth Manipulation, Smoke put up two statues of adult wyverns and placed the hardened egg and cracked egg under them.
“Alright, Vape, let’s get going,” he said, heading for the next grassy floating island. But as they began to move, Vape let out another round of Ponderous Mist and slowed down his movements.
“What are you doing? I can barely see anything,” he said, frantically waving his hands but the smog still remained. “Vape, quit it.” But the wyvern did not stop producing the mist. His hands, patted around his neck, trying to stop Vape. Then, the wyvern ceased breathing out the gray fog as soon as Smoke stroked its head. “You can’t be serious?” The moment he stopped stroking Vape, the Ponderous Mist came out again. “Fine!” he said, putting his hand back on Vape’s snake-like head.
It proved to be extremely difficult at first, but Smoke eventually got the hang of Vape and its Ponderous Mist around him.
Whenever Smoke reached a vine-bridge with a grassy Insel up ahead, he stopped stroking Vape and attacked the floating island from within the Ponderous Mist. Fortunately, his flame swords and poison arrows were not that affected. But it did take him longer than before.
Despite the difficulties of being with Vape, he had grown accustomed to having the baby wyvern around his neck. Now, that Igniz had been incarnated, he missed having someone around to listen to him blab on.
The baby wyvern did stop puffing out smoke whenever it slept, which was about twelve hours a day. Whenever Smoke logged out, he put up a small kiln and placed Vape in it. Vape did not seem to mind and understood that it needed to stay there until his return.
Days turned into weeks. In his hunt for more chaneques, Smoke reached beyond the area of Monstro Afiado and entered into Monstro Blindado. All the while with Vape always coiled around his neck.
After doing this for so long, Smoke could now attack the chaneques even with his eyes closed, which was practically the case since Vape always covered him in Ponderous Mist anyway.
Suddenly, while he was still firing his poison arrows and slashing with his flame swords, a notification window popped up.
|+ Learned Ability: Ponderous Mist Walker
Level: Beginner Level 1
You gained this ability after being exposed to the Ponderous Mist for 2,160 hours.
Inside the mist you have:
> Clear Vision
> Normal Movement
“Whoa!” cried out Smoke, ecstatic.
Yet, weirdly enough, the moment he gained the ability, Vape also stopped producing the Ponderous Mist.
“Hey? What are you doing now?” he said to the baby wyvern around his neck. “I want to see how this works!”
Fueled by his curiosity, Smoke stepped onto a chaneque Insel rather than fighting them from the safety of a vine-bridge. Equipped with his twin hook swords, he came rushing for the nearest red horned imp.
As he had hoped, Vape released a thick fog of Ponderous Mist and engulfed the chaneque near him in it. He began attacking it, ignoring the child like chant that spooked him.
Blinded and encumbered, the chaneque could barely attack Smoke but it did get in a few hits. Yet, not enough to make him retreat to the bridge.
He smiled when he finally managed to hit the chaneque once. Ignoring the fact that it took him over thirty swings. “Ponderous Mist for the win!” he shouted.
Before Smoke could continue attacking the chaneque, he felt a tingling sensation… the sensation of being teleported.
* * * * * *
Opening his eyes, Smoke found himself on top of a large lily pad. It was in the middle of the largest lake he had ever seen in Mictlan.
KOKAK KOKAK RIBBIT RIBBIT QUAKEN QUAKEN CROAC CROAC
Instinctively, he covered his ears at the deafening sound of the coyotls. Hundreds of coyotls peeked above the water, their coyote-heads dripping wet, their ballooned throats expanding.
Vape instantly let out another round of Ponderous Mist, concealing Smoke in it.
Then, a notification window popped up.
|– Entered Monstro Blindado
– The floating island of Yahui—the beast of Mixtec. Here, it is revered as the lord of the water. It answers only to the rulers of Mictlan: Mictlantec and his wife Micteca.
Closing the window, he searched for a way off the Insel. Looking around, he found a monolithic stone in front of him. While he was devising a plan to reach the stone, it suddenly turned and faced him.
At once, the ear-splitting croaking ceased and the coyotls disappeared into the lake. The stone revealed itself to be the shell of a monstrous turtle.
Despite its behemoth size, Yahui was quick. It blew out of its mouth and dispersed Vape’s Ponderous Mist. Its golden eyes stared at Smoke. “Tell me, is that how you train to be a Light Bringer?”
Cowering in fear, Vape tightened itself around Smoke’s neck. He stroke the snake-like wyvern and tried to calm it down. “I’m not sure,” he replied, amazed at the sheer size of the turtle that spoke.
“But you are here for Lord Xolotl’s amulet, right?” said Yahui.
“I am,” said Smoke, confused why he answered so.
“Bwahahahaha!” chuckled Yahui. Violent waves churned the great lake as its enormous belly shook. “As you are now, there is no way for you to defeat me.” It paused as it pondered. “Cipactli, maybe? If you had more people with you. But not the Naguals,” it mumbled.
Unknowningly, Smoke nodded. Vape hissed out its forked tongue. He quickly covered the baby wyvern’s head, fearing it would piss off Yahui.
“To be honest… I am not completely against Lord Xolotl’s actions…” said Yahui. “But the order of King Mictlantec is absolute.”
“Of course,” replied Smoke, still thinking of a way out of this mess.
“But that’s the very reason why I brought you here,” blurted out Yahui. “I was watching you fight those chaneques—” It stopped talking as it suddenly burst into laughter, making waves of water fall out of the floating island. “Oh, my! You nearly drained my Insel dry with your actions.”
“Excuse me?” asked Smoke, confused.
“Nothing, nothing. Simply found your pathetic attempts hilarious!” chortled Yahui, clearly trying to stop itself from laughing. “Anyway, I brought you here because I was hoping you could do something for me.”
“Ah!” answered Smoke, his eyes widened with realization.
“If you’ll indulge me. I’d like to bounce some ideas,” began the giant turtle. “This is a common question to the ones still living. They question of the gods’ existence. If there is a god, why is there so much evil in the world?”
“But the religions of Zectas—” Smoke cut himself off as Yahui continued speaking.
“It’s a common question, but it is misplaced,” said Yahui, pausing to stare outward, beyond its great lake and into the abyss of the void. “In everything, we must have balance. Dark and light. Evil and good. Silence and sound. Without one, the other cannot exist.”
Remaining silent, Smoke nodded as he pondered on Yahui’s words.
“Now, I am at a crossroads. On one hand, I am for Lord Xolotl’s actions, but on the other, I have to uphold King Mictlantec’s command.”
“Well, you can give me the amulet and no one has to know,” suggested Smoke. To which Vape nodded its tiny horned cranium.
“A soul chooses, a slave obeys,” replied Yahui, shaking its head. “It must be through fair combat.” went on the gigantic turtle. “I suggest that we exchange blows. I will receive your most powerful attack, and afterward, you shall accept mine. If you do this and survive, I shall take it as my defeat and give you Lord Xolotl’s amulet.”
“Eh? You serious?” said Smoke, grinning with excitement.
“Ho-oh! Think you can survive my attack?” said Yahui. “Is that a ‘Yes’ then?”
“I’d be honored to exchange blows with you Lord Yahui,” said Smoke.
“No! Call me Yahui,” replied the gigantic turtle. “The title of Lord should only be given to those who have done something worthwhile… Be it for evil or good.”
“Alright, Yahui it is then,” respectfully said Smoke. “I do have one small request before we begin.”
“Very well, let’s hear it,” replied Yahui.
“If you would be so kind as to hit me first,” said Smoke.
“Really?” asked Yahui in disbelief. “You desire to be vanquished before even getting a chance to strike me?”
“Yes,” answered Smoke with determined eyes. “Except about the being vanquished part.”
The giant turtle studied him. It stared Smoke in the eyes and said. “Very well, I shall grant your request. Get ready for I am about to eradicate you.”
Smoke quickly got out his sacred clay staff. “To be clear, you’re only going to strike me from the front, right?”
“Of course! Yahui never strikes from behind,” answered the ruler of Monstro Blindado.
Smoke gathered all of his mana and put up a Manatl wall in front of him. Then, several more Manatl walls appeared and covered it with a total of eight layers. “Stay close, Vape,” he said, lightly patting the baby wyvern with his sacred clay staff.
Yahui took in a deep breath. With its webbed hands in front of it, an enormous waterball was forming in between them.
All of a sudden, Smoke felt a cold misty air. He slightly turned his head and found that geysers rose out from behind him.
“What!” yelled out Smoke in panic. He gave himself a mental lecture about trusting the turtle to attack only his front.
Then, the jets of water eluded him as they were being sucked into the gargantuan waterball. Like a stream of mighty river, the jet of water continuously flowed towards Smoke’s Manatl wall.
His sacred clay staff glowed as the stream of water pounded on his purple barrier.
CRACK CRACK SHATTER
Three of his Manatl walls were obliterated by Yahui’s water jet attack.
CRACK CRACK SHATTER
This time four more of his barriers were destroyed.
Left with his last wall, Smoke concentrated all of his energy into blocking Yahui’s magic.
CRACK CRACK CRACK
Yet, despite his efforts, he could clearly see the barrier about to give way. Then, without warning, the unceasing stream of water ended.
With a blinding light, his sacred clay staff glowed its brightest.
“Spectacular!” cried out Yahui, grinning with its wrinkly turtle beak. “It’s your turn now. Show me your power.”
Before striking, Smoke bowed down before Yahui. He used his Hyper Jump ability and launched his energized sacred clay staff straight into the giant turtle’s stomach.
Thousands of liters spilled off the floating island as Smoke’s attack shook the Insel.
After striking Yahui, Smoke saw its life bar which displayed (5,000,000/8,000,000 SP).
With his staff drained of energy, Smoke was falling into the coyotl infested lake.
Smoke fell hard into Yahui’s webbed hands as the great turtle caught him before getting wet.
“Most spectacular indeed,” said Yahui, smiling down at Smoke. “Here, take this,” it said, handing him a black shield with chains attached to it. If it was not for the notification window, he would not have guessed that it was Xolotl’s amulet.
+ Acquired divine amulet: Xolotl’s Vision.
“Thank you, Lord Yahui,” said Smoke, holding the massive amulet tightly. “Now, you’ve truly done something worthwhile.”
“Bah! Your flattery will not work on me,” said Yahui. “Now, I shall return you to where I found you.”
“That would be much appreciated,” said Smoke, bowing his head. The baby wyvern around his neck looked at him and also bowed down.
“But before I do, I’d like to ask you something,” went on Yahui. “How many chaneques have you killed?”
“Oh! I’ve killed thousands!” answered Smoke, instantly recalling the months he had been hunting them in Mictlan. “Literally Massacred them, but nothing’s happened!”
“Massacre? Try a hundred thousand. Now, that’s a massacre,” said Yahui and teleported him back to the Insel he was on.
After the tingling sensation of being teleported faded, Smoke stood there with Xolotl’s shield-sized amulet, a blank expression on his face, pondering on Yahui’s words.
Unexpectedly, Vape hissed its forked tongue at Smoke, as if asking him to build him a kiln to sleep in. His pet had grown accustomed to the times he left for the real world. Indeed, it was time for him to log out. He quickly created a small kiln and placed his precious little wyvern inside it.
Before logging out, he opened a window entitled “Monster Kills”, quickly scrolling for the monster he was looking for.
Killed Orks: 8,021
Killed Chaneques: 89,201
* * * * * *
Stretching with his entire body, Nash’s bones creaked as he stepped outside his game pod. A satisfied smile plastered on his face, recalling his encounter with Yahui.
Riding on this high, Nash sat in front of his computer and hurriedly opened the Zectas Forums. He clicked on his latest post–an edited video of his time in Mictlan. He only showed the parts of entering through the aurora borealis and landing to find the sycophants. To prove that this was Mictlan, he showed off König Mitleid, Sharur, Laernea, and Jeter in their humble town called Rauchburg.
Then, there were the monsters. Other than the sycophants, Nash also included the chaneques and coyotls. But he skipped showing Xolotl, thinking that he could use that for another time if he would run out of other ideas for his next video.
Cracking his knuckles for good luck, it was time for him to check on the number of views, another triumphant grin. He reached over two-hundred million, which meant a check worth $15,000.00.
Although he never replied to them, he found it amusing and relaxing to scroll through the comments.
Incheon: Is this really the fabled afterlife of Zectas? Does this mean I can bring back my fallen Autumn?
Heathrow: @Incheon, I’m sure you saw Mitleid died. Or are you just new?
Gaulle: @Smoke, PLEASE TELL US HOW TO GET HERE! DON’T BE SELFISH! TELL US THE WAY TO MICTLAN!
SmokeDisciple231: Yeah! That’s the way to ask a man a favor! Shout at him! Sure!
Busan: @Incheon, you’re not talking about the beautiful Bard of the Winter Sonata inn, are you? Autumn said she’d wait for me. What happened to her?
DetectiveRonan: No doubt about it, this is Mictlan! I’m almost a Thaumaturge myself, just need three more items to complete the Hidden Job. Tell me, how did you get here? I thought you needed a blood crystal to bring someone back to life. If you have one to spare I’d like to buy it. Name your price!
Catatonic: Well, someone’s chatty. In my case, I thought you needed seven magical balls to bring someone back to life? And a dragon, maybe?
Tritank: Bah! No matter what people may say, we’re not 100% sure if this is really Mictlan. But the war against the Orks is definitely real! I urge you to watch my post on the latest battle for Sawtorn!
Nash had enough after reading Tritank’s comment. He opened his box of all meat pizza and devoured three slices.
Afterward, he collapsed on his bed as he succumbed to slumber, grinning.
* * * * * *
Over six hours had passed (Mictlan Time) after Smoke took an energizing power nap in the real world. Yet, when he opened Vape’s kiln, he still found the baby wyvern sleeping snugly in a tight knot. Gently, he picked his pet up and wrapped him around his neck. Together, the two of them headed for the next grassy Insel.
Enlivened with a new goal, Smoke continued to plow through the floating islands infested with the chaneques.
A proud smile was plastered on his face as he evaluated his stay in Mictlan. The growth of Smoke’s Manatl had proven itself, as it held against Yahui’s attack, even if it did almost break. And all because he needed to hunt the chaneques, he gained three levels, which he invested all into Intelligence.
However, the most significant development came from the baby wyvern around his neck. Truly, it was Vape’s growth that was most impressive. Not in size, but in the strength of its Ponderous Mist. It was still the same snake-like creature, but the power of its cumbersome fog increased. Its victims now had the added weight of four times.
“It’s good that you’re not growing too big,” said Smoke to Vape. “Wouldn’t want to ride you anyway. You around my neck is way cooler than me riding on your back, right?”
Vape hissed its forked tongue, unconvinced of what he was saying.
Although Smoke was hunting for chaneques, he made sure to pick the Insels that would lead them to Monstro Afiado, home of the Cipactli.
Now, that he had gotten used to having Vape around him, his speed in clearing a chaneques’ floating island had significantly doubled.
Through determination and perseverance, Smoke finally saw the notification window he had longed for.
|+ Learned Ability: Mictlander’s Eye
Level: Beginner Level 1
After killing 100,000 creatures born from Mictlan, you have learned the secret to slow down time and observe even the fastest of movements.
Dexterity + 10
Increased Hit Rate + 25%
MP Consumption: 100 MP/Second
Duration: 2 Minutes
Cooldown: 5 Minutes
Duration and Cooldown improve as the ability level increases.
“See! What’d I tell you! Told you we’d do it,” he yelled at Vape, jubilant.
After receiving the Mictlander’s Eye, Smoke started looking for the floating islands with ponds and lakes in them.
When he finally found one, Smoke equipped his twin hook swords. Then, he had Vape cover themselves in Ponderous Mist.
Curious at the sight of the heavy fog, the coyotls popped out their heads to investigate.
As soon as one of the coyote-headed frogs entered his mist, Smoke unleashed a flurry of lightning slashes at the unknowing monster.
Thanks to his Mictlander’s Eye, Smoke could now hit a naturally born creature of Mictlan. Even if it was only one out of four times.
After hunting the chaneques for so long, the sight of the red-horned imps dulled his senses. This inspired him to go after the next Mictlander. This time, he dedicated his time in clearing the floating islands overrun with coyotls.
Eventually, he reached the area under the influence of Monstro Afiado. He knew this because he saw his friends waiting for him on a barren floating island. They were all seated, gathered around a white glowing orb with runes on it while Baba was playing his lute.
As he got closer, Smoke recognized it as the soul orb that Mitleid was carrying, as well as Baba’s singing.
“My brother and I often compete.
Not once did one of us retreat.
One day, a new challenge was given.
To see who was more driven.
He told me:
‘You’ll see. You’ll lose not me.’
Then, I replied to my twin:
‘Fine! I give up, you win.’
He got angry, mad and then blew up.
For I won the contest of giving up.”
“Hey! Smoke’s here,” yelled Jeter, enthusiastic to end Baba’s singing. He stood up and hugged Smoke, his savior.
“Finally!” exclaimed Sharur, not bothering to get up. “You know we got to Reialma and back? And listened to who knows how many of Baba’s songs.”
“Wait… So, the two of you are finally Light Bringers?” confirmed Smoke.
“Uh-huh!” declared Laernea, delighted. “Sharur and I finally did it! Um… I meant we did it by ourselves. No, no, I mean—”
“You sure did!” said Jeter, giving Sharur and Laernea a thumbs up. “Was stuck here with Baba and hunted nothing but chaneques and coyotls.”
“So, how’s it fighting with a coyotl?” Smoke asked Jeter, intrigued at his development.
“Um… managed to clear an Insel full of them before we got here,” answered Jeter.
Smoke stared at Jeter, expecting him to laugh and say it was all a joke, but the former Avendre Commander never did. “With Baba playing his lute, right?” he went on.
“Pfft! No! Bastard just stood there and watched,” replied Jeter. “Didn’t even play a tune that would boost my strength.”
“Ahem! Ahem!” exaggeratedly coughed Baba. “If you’re done catching up, we might as well face this Cipactli character. After all, we still have Yahui and the Naguals after this one.”
“Just the Naguals,” said Smoke, taking out Xolotl’s shield-sized amulet from his inventory.
“You’re kidding, right?” asked Sharur, inspecting Xolotl’s amulet. “He’s not,” he added after seeing it. “It’s the real thing.”
“You really must have grown powerful if you managed to defeat Yahui,” said Baba.
“I wouldn’t say that. Was more of a lucky draw,” modestly said Smoke. “But I do have someone to show you.” He patted the baby wyvern around his neck, who remained silent the whole time.
“Aw! How cute!” cried out Laernea, her lioness tail swinging.
Smoke gave them a mischievous grin. “Vape, do it.”
Laernea, Sharur, Baba, and Jeter focused their eyes on the tiny horned wyvern. But before they could examine it, Vape engulfed them in its Ponderous Mist.
Blinded and encumbered, Sharur, Laernea, and Jeter scrambled around the murky fog.
“Hey! What’s going on?” screamed Jeter. “My body feels so heavy!”
“Sharur? Sharur? Where are you?” called out Laernea.
“I’m here. I got you,” answered Sharur, embracing her tightly. “Smoke, make that thing stop. Baba doesn’t like being in a fog.”
“Wrraaaaaaaah!” cried out Baba.
Before Smoke could tell Vape to end its Ponderous Mist, Baba released a powerful tornado with his hands. At once, the fog dispersed but the turbulent winds pushed Smoke, Laernea, Sharur, and Jeter off the floating island.
“Baba, we’re falling!” called out Laernea.
“Help! Help!” shouted Jeter. “Save me, Baba!”
Using his Wings of Cologus, Smoke glided towards the barren Insel. He wracked his brain on how to save all three of them.
Meanwhile, Baba blankly stared at his falling friends, motionless.
“Snap out of it, Baba!” screamed Sharur.
Baba forcibly shook his head, returning to his senses.
Suddenly, Baba vanished. Instantly after, three Dark Elf Bards simultaneously materialized next to Jeter, Laernea, and Sharur. They grabbed their falling companions and teleported them back to the center of the barren Insel.
“Thank you, thank you,” said Jeter, patting Baba’s back.
However, Baba ignored him and rushed for Smoke. “Don’t you ever do that again! I swear… I’ll—” He cut himself short and stormed off. He went to the next Insel with a pond on it. There, he began playing a calming music on his lute. Dozens of coyotl heads popped out of the water, but none of them attacked. They were only there to listen to his music.
Dumbfounded, Smoke was about to go after Baba when Jeter stopped him.
“Yeah, better do what he says,” said Jeter. “He has a thing about being covered in mist, fog, or any other hazy stuff,” he explained further. “You know… Once, he almost destroyed Rauchburg when he was caught in Lady Meneur’s icy fog.”
“Mitleid said Baba’s extremely powerful,” added Laernea, her tail wrapped around Sharur’s waist as they hugged, still recovering. “But he doesn’t want to use his true abilities.”
“It’s like he placed a limiter on himself or something?” went on Sharur.
“I see,” said Smoke. Walking fast, he went over to where Baba was.
“Whatever it is you have to say, save it,” said Baba before Smoke could even speak.
“Listen, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know,” said Smoke anyway. “Was just playing around. I wouldn’t have—”
“Yeah! I know,” replied Baba, somber. “You don’t seem like the type of person who would intentionally do that.”
Ashamed of his actions, Smoke stared down at the ground and did not say anything else.
“Guess this means you know my secret, huh?” blurted out Baba, smiling at him.
Returning Baba’s smile, Smoke replied. “I don’t know of any other Job that could use sword, bow, magic, and lute, Brother,” he added, putting a fist against his palm, giving Baba a Beggar’s salute.
* * * * * *
Smoke had thousands of questions about Baba being a Beggar, but Baba would have none of them. He told him it was a life he lived hundreds of years ago.
Baba especially told Smoke not to rely on him. Instead, they should use this opportunity to improve themselves.
Besides, they had something more important to do. They stood in front of Cipactli’s floating island which was surrounded by trees.
At first, Smoke thought that it looked like a sycophant’s forest, but the unnatural stillness of this place confirmed that something far more dangerous than sycophants dwelled here.
Still within the safety of the barren Insel before it, Smoke and his friends stared at the vine-bridge connecting to Cipactli.
Without notice, the silence was broken.
“Enter or perish where you stand!” boomed a voice from within the forested Insel.
“Well? Shall we go?” asked Sharur, heading for the bridge.
“Wait!” called out Jeter. “Maybe, it’ll be better to fight it out here than in there.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” said Smoke.
“Damn it!” yelled Baba. “We got it mad!”
A green meteor launched out of the Insel and landed right behind them.
Jerking downward, the entire Insel violently shook. The floating island slowly stabilized as it stayed in its lowered location.
Stretching out its arms and tail, the verdant meteor revealed itself to be the caiman-headed gorilla—Cipactli. Its knuckles pressed down on the ground, forelimbs extended, tail slithering behind it. It loomed over them, towering at a height of five meters. Its elongated snout filled with jagged teeth opened. “Visitors should be more respectful,” it said, throwing away a skull that closely resembled to the monster who threw it.
Smoke’s eyes fell on the grounded skull. He recognized it as the same one that hung on Xolotl’s gate. “Of course, Lord Cipactli,” he said, lowering his head before the giant, signaling his companions to follow.
“What are you doing?” asked Baba, following his lead.
“I’m hoping we could convince it to give us Xolotl’s crown,” whispered Smoke.
“Don’t even try using your Beggary,” warned Baba. “Pretty sure it won’t work here.”
With everyone’s head bowed down, Cipactli nodded. It predominantly showed its teeth. “That’s better.”
“Apologies for not introducing ourselves sooner,” went on Smoke.
“Normally, I would’ve devoured all of you,” said Cipactli. “But even this is better than boredom.”
“So, why are Light Bringers here?” asked Cipactli.
“Light Bringers, my Lord?” shrugged Smoke.
“Do not even attempt to deny it,” went on Cipactli, pointing at the soul orb around Sharur’s waist.
“Oh, that!” said Smoke, smiling. “Yes… they just came from Reialma.”
“Where they refilled it with soul energy,” said Cipactli. “I am aware of how it works.”
“Of course,” mumbled Smoke, unsure of what to say next. “Um… Lord Cipactli, we’re here to gather the consensus of the Guardians. What’s your opinion on Lord Xolotl?”
At once, Cipactli’s elongated snout spat out acid saliva, melting a portion of the barren Insel. “I’m grateful for that treacherous fool. If not for Xolotl I would not have become ruler of Monstro Afiado. But who in their right mind would defy the orders of King Mictlantec and Queen Micteca?”
“Right? That’s just insane,” said Smoke, slowly retreating.
“Wait, you said Lord Xolotl,” boomed Cipactli. “You’re here for Xolotl’s Crown, aren’t you?”
“Who said that? No one mentioned any crown,” said Smoke, looking at his friends knowingly, telling them to get ready.
“No! You’re followers of Xolotl!” screamed the caiman-headed giant and lifted both of its massive gorilla hands, only to send it pounding down at Smoke and his companions.
Prepared for the attack, Smoke put up a multi-layered Manatl wall in front of them. His sacred clay staff glowed after being pummeled by Cipactli’s knuckles.
Sharur and Laernea sped towards the opposite sides of Cipactli, attacking it with their bow and arrows as they ran farther apart.
Jeter leaped out from Smoke’s Manatl and thrust his spear into Cipactli’s left knee cap.
Meanwhile, Baba leaped backward and began playing a tune that simultaneously increased their power and decreased Cipactli’s.
Smoke would have wanted to fight with his twin hook swords, but he wanted to witness Jeter’s progress. So, he settled with playing support and blocked Cipactli’s attack with his Manatl barriers.
Despite Sharur and Laernea’s inferior weapons, their damage against Cipactli was significant. Their rapid and consistent strikes chipped away the giant gorilla’s life bar. “Bothersome insects!” cried out Cipactli, annoyed at their ranged attacks.
Steadily, they reduced Cipactli’s life bar which now displayed (2,850,356/4,000,000 SP).
Accepting his role as tank, Jeter made sure to aggravate the caiman-headed gorilla more than Sharur and Laernea, forcing the behemoth to focus on attacking only him. He stabbed Cipactli’s big toe. Then, ran behind the caiman-headed monster, rapidly stabbing its legs along the way.
Smoke’s Manatl wall rang loudly as it blocked the colossal hands aimed for Jeter.
Jeter switched targeting Cipactli’s legs and even landed a critical strike behind one of its kneecaps, forcing the giant down on one knee.
With things going so well for them, Jeter let it get to his head. He jumped onto Cipactli’s back, aiming for its nape.
However, Cipactli long arms effortlessly reached the charging Jeter. Sadly, Smoke could not defend in time. Massive gorilla hands swatted Jeter away, draining his life bar to less than half.
With Jeter sprawled on the ground, Cipactli was about to finish him off with its palms. “Chupa-mos! You’re mine!”
Desperate, Sharur and Laernea tried aiming for its head but they only got its cheeks, not enough to stop the giant gorilla from pounding Jeter into a sycophant inundated forest.
SCHILD SCHILD SCHILD
Smoke managed to put up a four-multilayered wall in between Jeter and Cipactli’s palms. Yet, cracks quickly appeared on the barrier. His sacred clay staff glowed brightly, indicating it was beyond capacity.
“Baba!” cried out Smoke.
JANG JANG JANG
From his seated position, Baba leaped over Cipactli’s head. Forcibly striking the strings of his lute, he severed the strings. Using one of his hidden abilities, the strings astronomically multiplied and entangled around Cipactli’s arms.
“Smoke, do it now!” yelled Baba from above.
With his glowing staff in hand, Smoke ran up Cipactli’s back. “Vape, Ponderous Mist!” The snake-like wyvern did as commanded and coated the giant gorilla in the cumbersome fog.
“Merda! Dirty followers of Xolotl, show yourselves!” cried out Cipactli as it tried to free itself from Baba’s strings. But coupled with the Ponderous Mist, it could barely move.
When Smoke reached its head, he activated his Mictlander’s Eye and lifted the sacred clay staff over his shoulders, striking its yellow caiman eye with all his might.
A blinding flash of light escaped out of Vape’s Ponderous Mist.
Cipactli’s life bar displayed that it had only 8% left.
From within the Ponderous Mist, Smoke stood on Cipactli’s caiman snout. After releasing the gathered energy, he switched weapons. Equipping the twin hook swords, he was about to strike the remaining eye when the giant spoke.
“You’re fools for believing Xolotl,” snarled Cipactli, twitching the section of its snout where Smoke stood.
“What’s wrong with Lord Xolotl?” asked Smoke. “Even Lord Yahui approves… to some extent.”
“You’ve met Yahui?” asked Cipactli, blindly searching for Smoke in the mist. “Then Yahui’s a fool as well!” it added with disgust.
“It doesn’t have to end like this. Just give me Lord Xolotl’s Crown,” begged Smoke.
“Finish me!” snapped Cipactli. “Before I’ll rip you to shrea—”
“Wraaaaah!” screamed a frustrated Smoke as he delivered the vanquishing blow.
Cipactli’s life bar was completely drained of SP.
|+ You’ve dealt a vanquishing blow to Cipactli
+ You’ve sent Cipactli to Incerto
+ You’ve gained 4,000,000 EXP
+ You’ve gained a level
Smoke grimaced. He wanted to know more about Xolotl, but Cipactli only made him more confused.
Cipactli’s body disappeared, transported to somewhere in Incerto, leaving behind a gold crown with feathers, which was even larger than Xolotl’s amulet.
+ Acquired divine crown: Xolotl’s Horns
After storing the crown away, Smoke rushed to where Jeter was. Sharur, Laernea, and Baba were already there helping him sit up.
“Well that could’ve gone easier,” said Jeter.
“Don’t wish it was easier, wish you were better,” reprimanded Baba.
“You weren’t bad at all,” said Smoke, patting Jeter’s back.
“Need to use the soul orb?” Laernea asked Jeter, concerned.
“No, no. I’ll recover soon,” said Jeter.
“Told you he wouldn’t use it,” added Sharur, smiling and snatched the soul orb back from Laernea.
Perplexed, Smoke tapped on Baba’s shoulder. “Mind if we talk a bit?” he whispered.
“Sure. We’ll be here for a while anyway,” answered Baba, pointing at the recovering Jeter.
After getting out of earshot, Smoke apologized to Baba. “Sorry, you had to use your other abilities. I know you want us to do this by ourselves, but I don’t think we can.”
“I know,” answered Baba. “I underestimated these guardians myself, to be honest. Don’t worry. I’ll help as best as I can, but you still have to try, okay?”
“Of course,” replied Smoke with all sincerity.
Baba stared Smoke in the eye and said. “But I’ve got a feeling there was something else?”
“What do you think of Xolotl?” asked Smoke. “Are we doing the right thing here?”
“Lord Xolotl, huh?” said Baba, looking away from Smoke and staring into the abyss. “Let’s complete the items first then we’ll see, alright?”
“Might as well. Wonder what the Naguals look like?” thought Smoke out loud.
* * * * * *
After weeks of skipping through the Insels, Smoke and his friends reached Monstro Gêmeos.
“So… Baba, what do you say?” asked Smoke, pleading with his eyes.
“Excellent!” sarcastically yelled Baba. “Let’s see if I can make the Naguals talk.”
“Perfect!” exclaimed Smoke. “Anyway, it’s not like you’ll be using any of your powers. More like you’re showcasing your Bard abilities.”
Together, the five of them stood in front of the vine-bridge that connected them to a floating island with a mansion on it.
“This looks promising,” blurted out Jeter.
“How so?” asked Laernea.
“He’s hoping that the Naguals will be civilized,” answered Sharur. “Considering that they live in a mansion.”
With their weapons hidden behind them, Smoke and his companions knocked on the embellished copper door.
A tall thin jaguar, standing on two legs, greeted them. “Yes?”
“It’s even taller than Sharur,” whispered Laernea, looking up.
“A lot smaller than Cipactli though,” mumbled Jeter back.
Baba stood in front of the group and lowered his head before the jaguar. “A pleasure to see you, Lord Nagual. We were just passing through and wished to pay tribute to the great Nagual.”
“That’s fine, just leave,” said the thin jaguar. “I’m really not in the mood to—”
Unexpectedly, another voice boomed from inside. “Magro, who is it?”
“Just some souls wanting to pay homage to the Naguals,” answered the jaguar, ushering them away.
In a blink, another jaguar appeared at the mansion’s doorway. This one was slightly taller but much bulkier… fatter to be more precise. “Magro, where are your manners? Let them in.”
“If you say so,” said Magro, stepping aside.
The flabby jaguar smiled at them. “The name’s Lord Gordo. The better-looking brother of the Naguals,” he said, leading them into an extravagant den.
“More like the fatter Nagual if you ask me,” whispered Jeter.
“Did someone just call me fat?” asked Gordo. He stopped and stared them down.
“Of course not!” quickly answered Baba. “You’re not fat, my Lord, you’re just… easier to see.”
The chunkier jaguar raised his eyebrows. “So, what brings you to our neck of Mictlan?” Gordo sat on a large armchair and placed its feet up on the table. He then turned to the thinner Nagual. “Magro, go get me a leg of a vaca.”
“You can get it yourself,” responded Magro.
In a flash, Gordo stood up and slapped Magro right across the cheek. “Want me to smack you again?”
Fearfully, Magro shook his head. “No, no, I’ll get the vaca leg.” The thin jaguar walked over to a table directly behind them, well within hearing distance.
“Sorry about that,” said Gordo, sitting back into the comfortable chair. “Dumb twin still doesn’t get the concept.”
“My, you must be really close to King Mictlantec if you’re eating one of his special cows,” said Baba.
“You can say that,” said Gordo. “Some even say he thinks of me as his right-hand man,” he added, giving Laernea a wink. But then he paused. Gordo turned to Smoke and his companions, scrutinizing each one of them. “Why are you lot here again?”
“To be frank,” began Baba. “We’re here to deliver a message.”
“Message? From who?” asked Gordo.
“You know Lord Yahui, right?” began Baba. “Well, Lord Yahui told us that Lord Xolotl had already been punished enough and should be freed.”
Gordo scratched his head. “That’s the message?”
“Not quite. Lord Yahui wants to know if you agree with this, Lord Gordo?” explained Baba, completing his made up story.
“No! That old turtle doesn’t know anything,” replied Gordo.
“Sounds about right,” simultaneously answered Magro with his twin.
The two jaguars angrily faced each other, snarling.
“Ah! As always, Lord Yahui was right,” interrupted Baba, bringing the Naguals’ attention to him.
“About what?” growled Gordo.
“Lord Yahui said that Lord Magro is reasonable,” replied Baba, pausing to face the fat jaguar. “And that you, Lord Gordo, are vindictive.”
“What! That turtle says I’m vengeful? We’ll let’s just see about that!” menacingly declared Gordo.
“Don’t be like that,” said Magro, while still preparing the vaca leg. “You know Lord Yahui is—”
“An old fat imbecile?” interjected Gordo. “Of course I do.” He turned to Baba. “I like to finish Magro’s sentences because… my version is always better.”
Unsure of what to say, Baba and his companions simply nodded.
“Let me tell you, Magro’s been repeating the same mistakes in life for so long now, I think he should start calling them traditions,” went on Gordo.
Magro’s chopping of the vaca’s leg became louder and violent.
“Don’t get me wrong. Magro’s got more offensive power than me,” began Gordo. “Even Yahui wouldn’t stand a chance against a single strike from him.” The fat jaguar paused and snorted. “But he’s also very weak. Why, chaneques could easily kill him. Heck! I think even pathetic souls like yourselves could do the job.”
CHOP CHOP CHOP
Sounds of Magro’s cleaver echoed throughout the extravagant den, continuing to viciously chop the vaca’s leg.
“The only reason Magro’s alive is because of me,” explained Gordo, hitting his chest loudly. “Once, we went up against Ahuizotl. That bastard was fast! Well, what’d you expect, with a hand on its tail? Anyway, I took all of its attacks. I protected him. Held down that beast and waited until Magro smashed it in the head with his power.”
“How very noble of you,” said Baba, sardonic.
“Honestly, I’ve wanted to leave my useless twin behind,” went on Gordo. “But as you know, the reward for a job well done is more of the same disgusting work.” The fat Nagual turned around and yelled at his twin brother. “Hey! I’m starving here!”
Finally, Magro finished preparing the vaca leg and carried it on top of a silver platter.
Sighing loudly, shook his head in disapproval. “See what I have to deal with? Complete incompeten—”
Gordo’s eyes became white as the fat jaguar fell on the floor, lifeless. His body rolled over, revealing the vaca leg protruding out of his head.
Surprised, all of them stared at the disturbed Magro still holding the silver platter in one hand. Walking slowly, the thin jaguar gently placed the platter next to his dead brother. “Why’d you make me do it?”
“It’s alright,” blurted out Jeter. “It wasn’t your fault. Your brother deserved it.”
With crazed eyes, Magro angrily stared at Jeter. “How dare you! Didn’t you hear him? His the reason I’m still alive!” After saying this, he began shrinking in fear. “That’s right, anyone one of you could kill me now.” He ran back to the table, but even a child could have outrun him. He reached for a long pole and rolled it towards them. “There, take it! That’s Lord Xolotl’s staff. It’s the real reason you’re all here. Take it and go!”
“Look, we’re not here to hurt you,” began Smoke, walking slowly toward Magro. “We just want to know more about Lord Xolotl.”
Magro’s paw glowed with red luster. He punched the wall next to him and pulverized it. “I’ll kill anyone who comes near me. You can probably take me out, but I’ll be sure to take one of you bastards with me!”
“Let’s go,” said Baba, pulling on Smoke’s arm. “He needs to be with his brother before his body disappears.”
“Right,” answered Smoke, walking out of the Nagual’s mansion.
Before they could leave, Magro called out to them. “I believe Lord Xolotl deserves its freedom. But should you really listen to someone who just killed his own twin!”
* * * * * *
Traveling back to Xolotl’s Castle, Smoke and his friends were involved in a heated discussion.
“You know, I was hesitant about Xolotl from the start,” said Jeter, dragging his spear along the vine-bridge. “Just didn’t say anything because you guys looked so keen on his promise of a gateway back.”
“The guardians got to you, huh?” asked Sharur.
Nodding with furrowed eyebrows, Jeter answered. “You bet they did! Do you seriously think a gate to the living realm will open?”
“He has a point,” agreed Laernea. “Cipactli said that Xolotl deserves the punishment and Gordo agrees.”
“Yes, but Magro didn’t,” reasoned out Sharur.
“That’s still two against one,” pointed out Laernea, walking past the burly OrkElf.
“Two against two if you count what Yahui told Smoke,” interjected Baba.
“What about you, Smoke?” asked Jeter, turning to the only living member of their party who was lagging behind.
“Not sure,” sighed Smoke. “Was just gung-ho about getting you guys back with me that I never considered Xolotl to be lying.”
Baba forcibly cleared his throat. “I’ll leave that up to you. But personally, I trust Lord Xolotl just as I trust you’ll make the right decision.”
“Same here,” added Sharur. “Not with trusting Xolotl,” he hastily added. “But with trusting you.”
More talk of Xolotl’s credibility continued until they finally saw the dark castle on the floating island next to them. The dried up trees and blackened earth were as unwelcoming as the last time they were here.
Looking up, Smoke finally recognized the skull that hung on the gate. It was that of a creature similar to Cipactli.
Walking with purpose, they briskly entered the castle adorned with countless windows. They stepped past the threshold of the great hall and stopped in front of the mirror that comprised of the entire wall.
Only Smoke walked closer to Xolotl.
“Ah! You’ve returned,” answered the dog face skeleton trapped in the mirror. “You smell like tomorrow in the morning. If I had my nose that is,” it added wryly. “Well, hurry it up. Push my items into the mirror. You’ve collected all three of them, right?”
“Yes,” said Smoke, taking out all three of its gigantic items. “But first I’d like to ask a few questions,” he added and placed all of the items on the ground in front of the mirror.
“Questions? We don’t have time for that!” yelled Xolotl.
“You’ll answer our questions or we’ll leave!” declared Jeter, walking up next to Smoke.
It exhaled deeply as it quickly recomposed itself. “Apologies, it’s just that I’m really anxious to leave this prison.”
“That’s understandable,” said Smoke. “I’d like to know how sycophants were first created? Can you tell me about that?”
“Well a god takes out the eyeball,” answered Xolotl, doing a scooping motion with his long skeleton fingers. “You know, like the saying? The eyes are the windows to the soul. They then inject the sycophant miasma through the emptied eye sockets.”
Smoke nodded, ever studying Xolotl’s expressions. “But can you tell me again why you’re imprisoned?”
“Because of the Light Bringers,” answered Xolotl, exasperated. “I defended them against Mictlantec and Micteca.”
“Doesn’t really sound authentic to me,” went on Smoke.
“Alright! I’ll tell you,” said Xolotl. “After some lunatic created the sycophants, the number of Light Bringers drastically fell. But there was this lone DarkElf that still persisted.”
It paused and laughed as it recollected the events from long ago. “His method was different from the other Light Bringers. Taking only a small amount of soul energy meant that he had to make the trip several times over. Yet, his meager harvesting did not upset the balance of Reialma. In fact, the soul energy would replenish at once.”
Xolotl gritted its teeth. “My curiosity got the best of me. Watched him for years. Until, finally, he was found out by Tipactl—former ruler of Monstro Afiado. Tipactl and his men caught the DarkElf unawares… Until today, I am unsure what came over me. But I saved him and killed Tipactl in the process. I hung Tipactl’s skull over my gate. Hoping it would ward off its kind from attacking.”
When Xolotl finished speaking, Smoke turned to Baba as if asking him a question only the two of them could understand.
“I’m not convinced,” blurted out Jeter.
“Really?” asked Sharur, his voice raising.
After hearing Xolotl’s story, Smoke quickly came to a decision. “Well, I am,” he stated, pushing all of Xolotl’s items into the mirror.
At once, the mirror rippled like water. Xolotl’s eyes broke free from the amulet and resocketed themselves to the dog face giant. Its flesh tore out from the crown and reattached itself throughout Xolotl’s body. Then, his staff flew straight to his right hand and he was overflowing with sinew. He stepped out of the mirror adorned with his feathered crown and staff, his flesh and divine power fully restored.
“You’ve really done it now,” said Jeter.
Xolotl lowered his head before Smoke and his friends. “You have my eternal gratitude. If there is—”
Everyone turned to face the source of the sudden sound. Xolotl’s doors were busted open. A beautiful woman in revealing clothes and a muscular man with a skull mask stepped inside. Their long black hair covered in their feather adorned crowns. Despite their intimidating auras, the intruders were only as tall as Sharur.
“What have you done!” screamed the woman. “Xolotl served as a monument for all your sins!”
“Mini-Micteca?” yelped Xolotl. Hurriedly, he put up a magical barrier, protecting Smoke, his companions, and the full-wall mirror behind them.
Angrily pointing her fingers, the feathers on her crown ruffled. “Did you know you freed the one who created the sycophants?”
“Under your orders!” countered Xolotl from inside his magical barrier.
All the while, the skull crowned man stood silent, his hands hidden behind him.
“Don’t worry, they’re merely clones of Mictlantec and Micteca,” Xolotl said to Smoke. “They must have activated when you set me free. I’ll keep them busy while you escape.”
“Cease, Wife,” said Mictlantec’s clone. His voice made Xolotl’s entire palace tremble. “A god does not parley with lower beings.”
“Sheesh! These clones even got their superiority complex,” said Jeter.
Without warning, Mictlantec’s clone unleashed a powerful ray of light, aimed at Xolotl, Smoke and his comrades.
Fortunately, the magical barrier of the fully recovered Xolotl held firm as it protected them from the clone’s attack.
“Wait for the portal to complete. It’ll take you to your home,” said Xolotl, tapping the mirror with his black staff. Its surface changed like rippling water. The mirror began to display a picturesque forest with blue skies and green trees. Mount Engrais, the snow-capped volcano near the village they rebuilt, stretched out in the mirror.
“Verbrannt!” called out Laernea when she saw the place reflected in the wavy surface.
“Stop!” ordered Mictlantec’s clone, causing them to shudder. “Before you beg me to turn you into sycophants!”
– [FEARFUL] Mictlantec’s Intimidation Aura delays your reaction time by 10%
Smoke stared into the notification window, but it faded away after Xolotl spoke.
“What happened to not talking with lower beings?” jeered Xolotl, still putting up a tremendous effort to block the ray of light.
After five more seconds, the full-wall mirror had completely turned into a portal to Zectas. Xolotl then turned to Smoke and the others. “Go!” he cried out to them.
But before Smoke and his friends could do so, Micteca’s clone punched a hole through Xolotl’s barrier. Her slender arm got through and grabbed hold of the mirror. Another ripple in the mirror occurred, steadily closing the portal.
Being the closest there, Jeter stabbed the clone’s arm with his spear. A futile effort in terms of damage. But it did hurt the goddess’ clone in a different way, her ego.
“You dare strike me!” cried out Micteca’s clone. She stopped touching the mirror and grabbed hold of Jeter by the neck.
Jeter tried to break free, but there was no way for him to escape the clone’s grip.
Then, the clone’s second arm broke through Xolotl’s barrier. She quickly went for Jeter’s left eye. Using her sharp nails, she easily plucked it out with a single swipe. She then injected the sycophant miasma into the freshly made orifice.
“Vape!” shouted Smoke. Instantly, the snake-like wyvern around his neck unleashed a cloud of Ponderous Mist which enveloped the clone’s hand. Activating his Mictlander’s Eye, he desperately tried to pry off her hands with his twin hook swords. But even his combined abilities could do nothing against Micteca’s clone.
Escalating their troubles, Mictlantec’s clone completely annihilated Xolotl’s barrier.
With his barrier broken, Xolotl decided to face Micteca’s clone. The giant dog face god kicked the human-sized clone and freed Jeter.
Seeing this, Smoke grabbed the opportunity and forcibly pulled Jeter away from the goddess’ clone.
Meanwhile, only an eighth of the shrinking portal remained, wide enough for a person to squeeze through.
Suddenly, Mictlantec’s clone grabbed Sharur and Laernea.
Thousands of lute strings came out from Baba’s hands and prevented the skull crowned clone from taking out Sharur and Laernea’s eyes.
In this dire situation, Baba called out to Smoke. “Go! Take Jeter with you before he becomes a sycophant!”
“No! I’m not leaving without you guys,” answered Smoke.
Micteca’s clone was about to attack Smoke and Jeter but Xolotl grabbed them both and threw them into the almost closed off portal.
“Don’t worry, It isn’t easy to kill those who are prepared for death!” called out Baba as Smoke and Jeter entered the gateway back to Zectas.
At once, Smoke was rushed with excruciating pain. He felt like his brain was being cracked open, with a mixer placed inside it. Multiple visions simultaneously overwhelmed his senses as several eyes grew out of his entire body.
* * * * * *
When he came to, Smoke found himself in front of the forest near Mount Engrais. An unconscious Jeter, with his left eyeball missing, laid down next to him. The baby wyvern tightly hugged his neck. He lightly scratched its horned head. “It’s alright, Vape. We’re home now,” he said to the snake-like wyvern.
Getting up, he immediately looked around. “Sharur? Laernea? Baba?” called out Smoke, but there was no reply.
“Laernea? Sharur?” he yelled again, still the same silent answer.
“What happened?” asked Jeter, getting up, still dazed. He covered his empty left eye socket with his hand.
“We’re back in Zectas, but I can’t find Sharur, Laernea, or Baba,” answered Smoke, checking Jeter’s life bar. It displayed (280,000/500,000 SP). ‘Was it always this big?’ he wondered. “Stay down,” he added. He then got out some healing salve, but stowed them away. He realized it was useless, seeing as Jeter’s life bar still displayed SP. “Can I do something about that?” he asked, pointing to his left eye.
“No, I think I’ll recover in time,” replied Jeter, still covering his left face. “Just see if they made it out.”
“Alright, I’ll be right back,” reassuringly said Smoke.
Using his Hyper Jump ability, Smoke leaped up and glided in the air. He used his Telefax Vision to search for them. His Cunning of the Dire Fox could pick up the stone deer, iron owls, and rabid wolverines in the forest but none of his friends.
Vape happily coiled around Smoke’s neck, seeing the living world of Zectas for the first time gave the baby wyvern pure delight.
Smoke grinned. Then, his eyes caught a glimpse of large movement coming from the plains of Lehre, the grounds outside of Verbrannt’s outer wall. Zooming in, he found thousands of Emerald Knights carrying King Adrizol’s banners.
‘Must be time for the inspection,’ he surmised. He quickly pushed the thought away as he had more urgent matters. He still could not find them.
A few more minutes in the air and there was still no sign of Sharur, Laernea, or Baba. A sinking feeling crept up inside of Smoke. They were left behind in Mictlan.
“Arrgh!” suddenly cried out Jeter in pain from below.
Smoke quickly dove down to see his injured friend.
“What’s wrong? What’s happening?” asked Smoke, kneeling next to him.
Reluctantly, Smoke backed away as Jeter forcibly pushed him to the side. Jeter’s hands stretched out, hardening and sharpening as they elongated. The same thing was happening with his legs. His mouth grew wider and his teeth became sharper.
“Noooo!” angrily shouted Jeter.
Jeter’s hair fell off, his skin turning gray. His bald head grew paler and larger. Jeter was turning into a sycophant!
“Jeter, it’s alright,” said Smoke, rushing back to his side.
“No! Stay away!” he screamed again. “Or I might infect you.” He faced Smoke, his right eye tearful, and then ran into the forest.
Equipping his sacred clay staff, Smoke got up an earth-wall and blocked Jeter’s escape.
However, Jeter easily broke through, using his newly acquired blade-like limbs.
With the earth-wall shattered, Smoke secured Jeter inside a spherical Manatl instead.
SCHILD SCHILD SCHILD
A desperate Jeter tried to slash his way out of Smoke’s barrier. He kicked and punched, but the purple manatl held firm.
“Jeter, calm down,” said Smoke from outside the barrier.
“You don’t get it!” yelled Jeter, sobbing. “Sycophants are insane. There’s no telling what I’d do to you.”
“But I don’t think you’ll hurt me,” said Smoke.
Jeter shook his gray bald head. “No! We can’t take that risk!”
“Jeter, look at me! Look at me!” reprimanded Smoke.
A reluctant Jeter turned around, facing Smoke sideways.
“You’re not a sycophant. Well, at least not a full one,” said Smoke.
“Are you blind?” asked Jeter, waving his blade-like limbs around. “Your wall didn’t stand a chance against my…arms?”
“You know, I think sycophants don’t listen because they don’t have ears,” countered Smoke. “And devour anything near them because they don’t have eyes.”
“So? What does that have to do with anything?” asked Jeter, looking him straight in the eye.
“Well, you’ve still got both your ears and at least one good eye, right?” reasoned Smoke.
“I guess…” answered Jeter, sitting at the center of Smoke’s Manatl barrier.
“Mind if I cancel the barrier?” asked Smoke.
“Are you sure I won’t suddenly attack you?” replied Jeter, skeptical of Smoke’s theory.
Smoke nodded. “We have to find out eventually.”
“Have Vape cover us in that mist thing first,” said Jeter. “At least I can’t see you and it’ll be harder for me to move.”
“Vape, can you indulge him please,” said Smoke to the wyvern around his neck.
The snake-like wyvern puffed out the Ponderous Mist and engulfed them both.
“Do it,” answered Jeter.
Smoke canceled the barrier and slowly walked towards the squatting Jeter. He sat down in front of him, unharmed. “See? What’d I tell you?”
“Um, can’t see in this mist, remember?” said Jeter, lightly laughing.
After they sat there for a few more minutes, Smoke asked Vape to disperse the cumbersome fog.
“Convinced you’re safe now?” asked Smoke.
But before Jeter could answer, his Cunning of the Dire Fox suddenly sensed something.
Powerful hostiles were scattered in the forest. Although, their numbers were less than a hundred.
With his eyebrows raised, Smoke turned towards Verbrannt’s direction. His eyes grew fearful as pillars of black smoke filled the sky.
Alarmed, he quickly opened the ‘Whisper’ window and called Sierra. “Pick up! Pick up!”
It took a few seconds before Sierra could answer.
“Smoke, it’s a trap!” cried out Sierra. “Burmistrz was working for Adrizol all along! I’ve already sent all the villagers to escape. Thyrsus and the others are heading for the escape tunnels in Mount Engrais.”
“What about you?” asked Smoke, worried.
“Courant, Virer, and the other Sonstwelters are staying behind,” replied Sierra.
His eyebrows furrowed. “And Mamelon?”
“She’s still in Nordland,” she replied quickly.
Smoke could hear the loud banging of spells, the clashing of swords and steel in the background.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be there soon,” said Smoke.
“No! Wherever you are, stay there!” commanded Sierra. “We’re done for. But the villagers and the other Zectians need your help. Not sure if the Avendre are enough to stop Adrizol’s Emerald Knights.”
“But I can—”
“Just do what I told you!” screamed Sierra. “I’ll see you in Nanahuatl soon,” she added in a calmer tone.
“What’s going on?” asked Jeter, getting up.
“Verbrannt’s been attacked,” replied Smoke. “They’re heading for the mountain tunnels.”
“But there are intruders in the forest,” said Jeter.
Smoke nodded, staring into the thick verdant trees.
“We better clear their path then,” replied Jeter.
Smoke followed behind Jeter, fearful that Jeter would change during combat.
After running into the forest, Smoke and Jeter stopped. It did not take long for them to encounter Adrizol’s Emerald Knights. Most of them carried green tower shields and long swords.
The Knights stared at them, defensive.
“That’s Smoke!” cried out one of the Emerald Knights. They charged straight for him. But Jeter blocked their path.
Using his lengthy blade-like limbs, Jeter stabbed right through the Emerald Knight’s shield, piercing his stomach. He then lifted the Knight over his head and threw it at the other green Knights. Four Knights fell on the ground, forced down by the thrown attacker.
With his bladed feet, Jeter then leaped over them and began puncturing their emerald armors. Merciless, he stomped on them. Blood gushed out as he pulled up his legs.
An Emerald Knight slashed Jeter’s back. But he countered with his hands and penetrated the steel defense of his attacker. The other Knights who tried to help all met the same fate.
“My new limbs aren’t so bad,” yelled Jeter to Smoke. “It’s like having four spears!”
“Good to know!” shouted Smoke back.
Convinced that Jeter was in control, Smoke leaped over Jeter and his attackers. He rushed forward, facing his own group of Emerald Knights.
“Vape!” called out Smoke, equipping his twin hook swords.
At once, the Knights were engulfed in Ponderous Mist.
Thanks to his Ponderous Mist Walker, Smoke was immune to the cumbersome fog. Stealthily, he walked around the blinded Knights.
“Spread out,” commanded one of the Knights. “Attack anything that goes near you!”
Deprived of sight, the Knights did as commanded. They hacked through the fog, hitting nothing but branches and shrubs of the forest.
Watching this, Smoke found their movements to be sluggish. He wondered if it was because of the Ponderous Mist, but thought that it was something else.
Focusing on clearing the path, he ran in between the separated Knights. Despite piercing their eyes and slashing their necks with his razor-sharp crescent guards, the Knights’ life bar still proved to be hefty. It took him a while to finish a single one.
Yet, despite this, Smoke persevered in the thick hazy fog. He would attack them once and run towards his next target.
It took a while. However, one by one, Smoke finished off the encumbered Knights in the zero visibility fog.
After his Cunning of the Dire Fox sensed that there were no more enemies left, he had Vape disperse the Ponderous Mist.
“You okay?” Smoke asked Jeter, slightly out of breath.
Levitating, Jeter was looking up, his SP slowly recovering. “I’m fine. Just recharging.”
Then, Smoke could sense a multitude of his allies rushing towards them.
A falcon flying in the sky shrieked out.
“Smoke! Thank Cuezaltzin, you’re here!” called out Thyrsus. He was followed by thousands of villagers. “Vijaya’s right behind me. Jinggu, Ichaival and Sharanga should be in the south-east. Weise, Stark, Rasant, and Adelige are in the west.”
Thyrsus panted. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help Sierra,” he regrettably added. “She told me to—”
“It’s alright,” said Smoke, giving him a hug. “Good job making it here. Now, head for the tunnels. I’ll make sure everyone’s behind you.”
“There’s something else,” went on Thyrsus. “Igniz and Daga stayed behind. They were supposed to come with me, but Igniz wouldn’t listen.”
Stricken with alarm, Smoke desperately tried to calm down. “It’s gonna be fine. I’m sure they’re fine,” he said, trying hard to convince himself.
Thyrsus nodded and headed for the foot of Mount Engrais.
Although he feared what he might see, Smoke still opened his Friends List Window.
|—- Contacts —- Status
+ Sierra [REVIVE IN 95:58:40]
+ Virer [REVIVE IN 95:55:58]
+ Courant [REVIVE IN 95:55:53]