Take Up the Cross – CH4: Sand, Phoenix, and Shooting Stars

Adris rounds a dark corner, a walkway stretching out before him.

 

All around him is space.

 

Great, floating shelves full of books stretch vertically in both directions, without symmetry or planning given to their placement. Pillars change elevation freely in the air, in many cases shaped like organic life dredged from the sea floor. Lanterns without fire burn with bright light, flitting in and out of existence while weaving between bookshelves.

 

Enclaves of brick, stone, and shell fill the void. Separated, but for narrow walkways, they reside between runs of tubes, pipes, and decorative glass works that wind haphazardly through the area.

 

Sound is both muffled and amplified, conversations from afar heard close, while his own footsteps fail to echo.

 

The proportions of the various structures are strange, like the blue room behind him. The space twists in such a way that platforms can seemingly invert in the distances; yet, people walk on them, when they should be falling to their deaths.

 

 

 

Where no structures reside, fog is the god of this sundered land.

 

 

 

Adris retreats back into the comforting darkness behind him.

 

“Hmmm? Hmmmmm?” Adris stupidly hums to himself, his normally adaptive mind overloaded by the sight.

 

(So, I am in hell, though one distinct from the compacted depths where scaled monsters supposedly dwell. If it’s not the hell I’ve been taught is real, then where is this?)

 

Moving tepidly out onto the walkway, he peers over it, seeing that the same scenery continues much further down until it, too, is devoured by fog. As he cannot fly, Adris has few, sane options to choose from.

Ahead, he sees a sign at a crossway. What it says provides no difficulty in reading, but also offers no help.

 

<= Subsection 54-B: Aurelian Crossbreeding Society/Aurelian Purity Cadre: Contested Sector (Hazard Level: A)

=> Cross-Section 22-Lucent: Council of Dark Elders (Tentative Name) (Hazard Level: ???), Main Artery Access: Lambda/Delta-Echelons

 

Adris’ brain isn’t working, the only plausible explanation for how nonsensical the words are.

 

(“Hazard level” sounds important, and “contested” means fighting. Of the two directions, right seems less immediately dangerous.)

 

Adris looks behind, seeing a sign above the corner he exited.

 

Tertiary Testing Adjunct 993: Condemned/Misplaced,

WHERE AM I? ERROR ZED-00-GSA-SOMNI-REDWING/LABORATORIES: CODE 12

PLEASE REPORT ME TO MOTHER

 

A sign below this one, made of cheaper materials, reads:

 

Main Laboratory of the Theoretical Heretical Alchemies Department

Dept Head: Symphonia Dupres

NOT CONDEMNED!”

 

Squinting at this, Adris notices that the room, itself a floating building, appears to be encased in constricting vines attached to the walkway under him.

The walkway has buckled at the tension placed on it, as the floating building attempts to free itself even now.

 

(What the hell is wrong with this hell?)

 

Adris quickly departs the ongoing crime scene, choosing to take the right path. It winds through shelves, floating jagged walls, and now unholy statues, idly hovering, stretching out into fog…

 

 


 

 

A boy tumbles along the ground, barely tucking on impact to roll, rather than smashing his face against the floor. Barreling along it out of control, he finally comes to a stop upon hitting a wall.

 

Panting heavily, he looks up into what is now the sky.

 

A walkway hangs inverted overhead. Gravity changed the moment he jumped from it, throwing him at the island he now rests on.

 

(This is madness.)

 

It’s the only word Adris possesses to describe his situation.

Almost naked, hungry and thirsty, and nearly dying at the slightest change in environmental gravity, the foggy abyss he traverses has begun to scratch at his already damaged mind.

 

(I’m not… going to lose.)

 

Getting up slowly and checking to make sure that nothing has broken, Adris moves towards an opening in the wall of this island’s building.

 

A sign next to the entrance says “Bypass.”

 

Within, a pathway exists between two seemingly disconnected areas, the sounds of activity coming from the walls he walks between.

Hearing whispering ahead, conversation closer than what came from the fog outside, Adris moves forward covertly.

 

“Time is limited. A homunculus (FALSE FLESH SERVANT), even one made by my brilliance, won’t survive close circumspection.”

An annoyingly high, female voice speaks.

 

Adris creeps behind bookcases pulled out from the wall in this low-ceiling, dead end of a room.  When he comes to the edge of the last of the bookcases…

 

“Four [Quicks] (RESTFUL VIGORS) and speak the recall command, or your safety is forfeit. They’ll never discover who did it, only find you with the cat.”

 

The room Adris peers into is dimly lit by a fire burning on open floor, no visible fuel feeding it.

The brick-and-stone connecting passage leads to a door full of darkness ahead, while two ramps go up and down to the left and right. The ramp down leads deep into the unknown, while the ramp upwards ends brokenly into open space, almost as if it’s been consumed by the fog.

 

Blue-coated figures, all wearing black masks that conceal their identities, stand in an equidistant circle around the fire.

 

The woman that spoke is of average height, with long, blue hair curling out of her cowl, her body overly curvaceous. She rests her hand on a large cage holding a depressed, monstrous black jungle cat, one with four ears, two tails, sharp teeth, and a languid expression on its face.

 

(Human!?)

 

“It’s your word that it’s the real thing, yes?” Sneers a portly man with a thick, red beard braided into two weaves ending in silver knobs, open suspicion to his tone. “So brilliant you are that you might con me with a copy?”

Unlike the others, Adris’ feels a sense of physical danger to him, as though his smaller size belies prodigious strength.

He carries a large satchel over his shoulder, and Adris is able to see a glimpse of filled, glass jars within.

 

The blue-haired woman scoffs at his accusation.

“No mere genius can replicate the brand used by my leader, examine it if you desire. And the meat?”

 

“Doubt me?” Says the the last figure, a red-skinned woman with a deep, lusty voice.

A sharp horn poking through her mask and odd, sandy hair rolling out from behind it, these features instantly destroy Adris’ hopes. Her breasts are bigger than the blue-haired woman’s, barely contained by her blue coat, though her ass is not as prodigious.

 

“I’ll make you eat your doubts as you lick my… No, nevermind, you might enjoy that. The meat is exactly to height, weight, and build. Your list is complete on all metrics, even her hairstyle.”

 

She stands beside a naked woman kneeling on the ground: a platinum-blond girl with ringlet hair, perky breasts, fair skin, a young, noble face with blue eyes, and red, kissable lips.

The odd contrast to this is her toned ass and muscles, and almost perfectly, artificially cut scars into her body, giving her a look of danger that is supported by neither her expression nor demeanor.

The woman with overly perfect, conflicting features is bound by chains bearing mystical characters engraved into them, with her trying to cover her breasts and hidden crevice, but failing to do so.

 

She looks ashamed; but, also… expectant.

 

The red woman pulls the girl forward, making her crawl forward, naked, to be seen more clearly.

 

“What is this? What are you doing!? You’re not going to… put me with that, horrible beast, are you…? There’s no way it can… fit! Hah…!”

The human girl’s face flushes as she asks, her hand going up from her breasts to pull at her ringlets idly. Her words belie her obvious interest in the cat.

 

Adris stares on with dead eyes, reminded of the black-haired trollop’s assault on him.

 

“Eh… It would be more enjoyable if she wasn’t so…”

Even the blue-haired woman sounds disappointed, put off by the neediness.

 

 

 

In this hidden space, the shadows move on their own as everyone is momentarily silent.

 

 

 

(Is this a secret exchange… or a minstrel show…?)

 

“As if I care about your commitment to non-consent! You’re getting an excellent deal, for so useless an experiment!”

Frustrated, the red-skinned woman screams this, before looking towards the man, asking, “You have the lubricants and tonics?”

 

“The newest.” The man chuckles sardonically. “Unlike the woman who can’t study something unless it’s forced, I am capable of some measure of professionalism, so long as you can match it.”

 

The horned woman clicks her tongue, and then inquires in a curious tone, “… what subject are you testing the cat on?”

When the man doesn’t answer, instead looking idly to the side, she asks in a depressed voice, “There is a real test subject, right…?”

 

“Why do you care!? My research has actual applications! We all intimately understand how you spawn whelps! No mystery there. Only the quantity of pups you could spit out before you croak would impress me.”

 

The air is tense, as the tall woman and short man stare at each other, with the blue-haired woman leaning over a bit to inspect the ringlet girl, saying, “She looks an awful lot like a Chosen…”

 

“Take it or leave it!” The horned woman makes a clear ultimatum.

Adris senses some duplicity in her suddenly nervous voice.

The portly man nods, noting, “Time is a factor…”

 

The blue-haired woman looks at the caged cat, the cat looking away as it tries to be unseen, before speaking.

“The expedition out into the Castillo will begin today. Everyone going will be assembling… Ah, those idiots from Tempesta called out Neo-Askelon, too. If you’re going that way, try not to explode.”

 

(… Those names are familiar. No, more than familiar… Useful.)

 

Adris focuses now, picking out who is going where.

 

The horned woman startles a bit at the statement, and says, “… I’ll be leaving with the expedition. There will be no further exchanges until I return.”

 

(You.)

 

Adris chooses his target.

 

“Are you two done? Can we begin the [Oath]?” The portly man whines.

Nodding silently, they hold up chains, a multitude of them tied together in a mass, in their right hands before them.

 

The three speak at the same time.

 

“““A known deal, for unknown agency, yet for emerging wisdom. Great Mother, witness our transaction, and let no one speak of it.”””

 

The chains glow deep blue, as the shadows whisper and move, with air rushing down the lower ramp. Adris feels colder, heat sucked out from his body and surroundings.

 

His own aura wavers with the external feeling. Something in the air feels heavy, like when powerful aura expands to fill it.

 

“““Deal.”””

 

The glowing ceases with the same word spoken in three voices. The three figures relax their tension, looking lazy now as they lose their formality and take up natural postures.

 

The portly man deposits the satchel in front of the red woman, the blue woman releases a complex lock on the wheels of the cat’s cage using a brass key, and the red-haired woman speaks the word “Exchange” as she points at the blue-haired woman, an act which causes ringlet girl’s mystical chains to glow green for a moment.

 

“A pleasure, as always. Come, cutie. Kekekeke…~” The blue-haired woman distastefully laughs as she takes the ringlet girl’s chains, rubbing her hand between the enslaved woman’s butt from behind, causing the girl to shriek a bit as she’s led ahead of her new master.

“No women! NO!” They walk down the ramp, the ringlet girl uselessly resisting and whining as she cringes.

 

The red-haired girl picks up the satchel, looking lost in thought, rubbing her stomach before nodding to herself.

“No matter how large… A worthy challenge…”

She exits through the door behind them, silent as a ghost as she vanishes into the deep gloom.

 

“Hello, pretty cat… I have wanted to meet you for a. Long. Time.” The portly man laughs creepily as he inspects his prize.

Adris tenses, full of terror at the depraved voice, hiding himself back behind the bookcase.

 

When he calms down a second later, he peers around the bookcase…

 

… and makes eye contact with the cat. Which opens its fanged mouth.

 

“Help me.”

The monstrous black cat begs, its voice high. Its eyes are hard and full of despair.

 

Adris ignores the beast. The cat huffs and then lays down, resigned to its fate.

 

“Hmm, strong voice. Oh, glorious Mother, if only I could be as graceful as a cat… At least there’s other parts that I can acquire… Fufu…”

The portly man trundles off while laughing, pulling the cat’s large cage easily. They disappear down the lower ramp.

 

Time passes as the light they set before them using some power extinguishes.

 

Adris says a silent remembrance for the cat before creeping ahead into the maddening presence of foul fog roiling into the room, entering the darkness of the far door.

Seeking to tail the red scholar that left to join some expedition, his practiced, silent steps let him move quickly.

 

(What was that oath? There was a great deal of power in what occurred…)

 

Adris has never witnessed such a ritual, its bizarre form of great interest. His long subdued curiosity awakens.

 

(For them to agree to it and place their anonymity on it, does it bind them, somehow? Is it a true contract? How does it function? How… useful would that be?)

 

External chains that hold participants to their word.

 

A word that can’t be broken without suffering.

 

 

 

… Free of betrayal?

 

 

 

(Curiosity kills.)

 

Reminding himself of a maxim, Adris still cannot stop himself from dwelling on it.

 

(But more than that… you are going somewhere I need to be. And there’s an… opportunity if those organizations are having a “showdown.”)

 

Because Adris is carrying something that one of them will want.

 

 


 

 

Swinging around a big wall, he comes out around the corner to see an enclosed room with connecting doors within, several large pipes weaving in from the space outside to plunge within.

Unknown machinery and contrivances are built around portals into these pipes, which lie open to entry.

The end points of these pipes vanish into the fog in the distance.

 

The woman walks up to one of them, inserting a flat key into a panel. Adris makes note of the key’s shape, while a great vacuum noise begins in response to her turn.

A moment later, she is pulled upward into the tube by the air, shooting up at a speed Adris gawks at.

 

(This is a way of traveling?)

 

Adris looks carefully at the pipes as he creeps in.

They don’t bear any words indicating where they go, and the panels themselves are mystical contrivances that defy easy explanation.

 

(If I wait here, someone will come.)

 

Adris grips his cross, resolved to wait for as long as it takes, shivering as he hides out of sight of the entrance to the room.

 

Hunger and thirst grow, but the worst feeling is not these.

A growing lust assaults him, one that pervades every part of him. Like what he felt with the hair woman, he can feel his body heating up as he waits.

 

(Was some drug used on me…? But the… cross flushed the poison. If it’s not a poison, it is…)

 

His wait doesn’t take too long, as something is deposited out of one of the pipes to his right, a deafening rush of air exploding out from the pipe.

 

In front of Adris, a figure about his size is now standing, having landed on its feet with an open book in front of its face.

 

“Rouvelt won’t work, absorbs too slowly… Humans and demi-humans lack the capacity for enlightened orgasm, to bind and retain potency long enough for use is a bit…”

An airy, dry male voice comes out from behind the book, one titled “Cheaper Reagants and Cheapskates Like You, Ninety-Fifth Edition.

 

The figure slams the book shut with one hand, letting it fall to his side as he brings his arm up to rub his forehead, massaging to reduce the stress of his closed and dark eyes.

The hand above holds a chain, from which curious, familiar keys hang wobbling.

 

 

 

Adris charges the figure.

The young-looking male with small, nubby horns and slightly bluish skin reopens his eyes, blinking in confusion when he sees Adris closing from his corner.

 

Still naked and wearing a bloody cloak, the distance vanishes in a moment.

The silver cross is already descending towards the hateful enemy before Adris.

 

“… What? [Protection of Necessity]!”

A phrase is all the scholar is able to manage, with some green, shimmering shell of light appearing around him, before the hammer of death pierces through it with no resistance.

 

The cross wallops him on the forehead, a cracking sound accompanying it, one which echoes throughout the area. The enemy violently seizes, then falls to his knees and crumples forward.

 

Pieces of the mystical shield he called forth tumble along the floor before vanishing as Adris’ victim lies completely still, a lasting slumber delivered to him.

 

His sanity temporarily bolstered by the satiated bloodlust, Adris drags the scholar and the book, pulling the body along the walkway to a dark corner he had previously found while stalking the red woman.

 

Adris’ eyes dart around to make sure he hasn’t been noticed…

 

 


 

 

(A bit baggy.)

 

Adris tests his limbs, trying to find where the clothing should be tightened.

 

The scholar’s black, supple leather jerkin and black pants fit loosely under the blue robe.

The plain, gray tunic underneath the jerkin is a bit short.

A roguish, red-loop belt holds up his pants, and his hard shoes are plated with protective iron.

 

The outfit seals his body well, despite being baggy, and the chill of the great space outside is lessened dramatically.

The potion satchel underneath his coat adds an air of legitimacy to his look.

 

Though he can’t see his reflection, wearing clothing again, even if not his style, makes Adris feel surprisingly human.

 

Adris sighs in relief, as he reforms his mental image and focuses his mind.

 

A human is whatever he’s wearing, son. You can be whatever others expect you to be, hee, as long as the fashion is right.

Adris recalls an ironic lesson from a man who barely fit his own clothes.

A very old ritual plays out in Adris’ mind, one he’s relied on for survival for his whole life.

 

 

 

Completing it, his identity becomes a [Scholar Bound in Madness].

 

 

 

The fear and insecurity fades away with the adoption of his new persona.

(We’re all mad, anyway.)

Adris can’t claim to be totally sane, especially with his struggle against the emotional turbulence from recent tragedies.

 

Feeling his face, Adris recalls that all of these creatures have inhuman characteristics and skin colors.

Looking in the outer pocket of his pack, he sees the silver mask that he found in the Emperor’s sarcophagus.

 

(Covering my face may make me appear more inhuman?)

 

He examines it, the silver light glinting off of it disturbing his thoughts when he does so.

Paying closer attention to it, he feels that something might be wrong with his intentions, but he can’t determine what.

 

Putting it over his face, he adjusts it.

The mask comfortably covers the upper part of his face quite well.

It’s an excellent disguise.

 

(… what?)

 

Adris pales, noticing that he’s wearing the mask, even though he was only considering it as an option.

When he tries to take it off…

 

The boy yanks at it, trying to remove it off with all of his might, but…

 

(… it won’t.)

 

Not just the cross…

 

(Fuck! They’re both cursed!)

 

 


 

 

Adris has no time to consider the ramifications of his most recent misfortune as he walks back to the pipe chamber.

He can feel his lust developing into an existential concern.

 

{A man holds… before him…}

 

With his rising lust, images are beginning to appear before his eyes. Flashes only, now, but growing with intensity.

 

Peering up and down into a pipe, there’s no floor, yet travel has been demonstrated as possible.

 

The scholar’s keyring features irregularly shaped keys with no clue to their functioning, but one stands out.

Clover-shaped at the end, and with an image of a grand doorway with flanking statues engraved into its handle, this was the key the red woman used.

 

From his pack, Adris looks inside to recover some items he’d yet to find a chance to wear.

 

The only remaining “trinkets” still in Adris’ possession are a tool which creates a temporary fog by using aura, and his mystical writing tool which deposits ink from a supposedly inexhaustible well.

Of them, the fog around him is thicker than what the tool can usually make, and he has no use for the quill at present.

 

(Better this, than nothing.)

 

He is unsure if the fog trinket can even be used, and is unwilling to test it, lest it potentially never work again.

 

The metal panel possesses various holes and knobs, but only one slot fits his chosen key. Putting it in, he turns the key, pulling it back when it’s forced out of the hole.

 

The pipe fills with deafening, rushing air.

 

Some unknown force, other than the air, grabs Adris before he can scream, yanking him into the pipe.

Traveling at enormous speeds, the foggy hellscape rushing by, he promptly passes out from the pressure on his body as he’s thrown around…

 

 


 

 

Adris refocuses to find an unfamiliar bustle, his spinning equilibrium correcting itself enough for consciousness.

 

Passing out during the trip leaves him unaware of how far he has traveled, though he is oddly still standing upon arrival. The area is much larger than the previous tube room, instead being an enormous brick-and-stone hallway wrenched loose from a larger enclosure, floating within the abyss.

 

Passerbys traverse a winding walkway, a maze of junk laid over damaged, once-fine carpeting. The piles of scrap and junk obscure sight, and where they do not, the shell-like constructs found in this room, which itself is partially submerged with brackish water, complete the claustrophobic effect.

A thin layer of viscous slime coats most surfaces, and the breeze that wafts through is cold.

 

The largest shell formations form a large dais at the center of the hallway, directly across from the row of misaligned tubes he stands near.

Nearby, a throng of people congregate. A meeting is at hand.

 

(Blue coats, everywhere…)

 

Rousing at the potential danger, he focuses on the those who walk by him, scholars arriving from other tubes or passing by the trash heaped next to him.

The menagerie of this area catches him by surprise. Posts with monstrous creatures tied to them, and cages trapping human-looking creatures within, fill this meeting place.

 

(Or is it a trading post?)

 

The refuse in piles seems hazardous to Adris, but utterly normal for everyone else, a source of interest rather than scorn. These pernicious junk heaps form unsorted rows of paraphernalia and miscellanies, featuring impromptu stalls next to them, “owners” closely watching others pick through them.

Hiding in the shadows of these grand piles and sitting at ramshackle tables are people for whom the word “conspiracy” was invented, their conversations hushed and their eyes mistrustful.

 

A state of undisguised paranoia taints the atmosphere, as everyone who isn’t chained up is…

 

(Of course, wearing a blue coat.)

 

Adris grips his newly acquired coat more closely to his body.

 

Walking up to a wall nearby, Adris inspects layers of parchment with various messages, a confusing mix of new, with old and faded.

They denote offers for trade or information exchange, even challenges being made openly. Demands for duels in professional contests are listed, mixed with scrawled guarantees of vengeance.

Advertisements, bounties for unheard of beasts, and, most importantly, warnings for “the outside.”

 

(That is my destination!)

 

Moving further into the crowd, Adris arrives at a nearby stall, examining some of the creatures.

 

All of them are docile: drugged or bound creatures waiting to be used for nefarious experiments, or alert and rested ones being displayed as finished products.

Many have human-like forms mixed with beast.

The finished products possess the same mental malignancy as the scholars standing around them, the madmen proudly discussing the specifications of the creatures. Such finished products look… hungry, but not for meat.

 

(Do they await outside, too? As guards, or predators?)

 

These monsters resemble nothing seen on Xin. Fashioned as if from drunken nightmares, they take Adris further from normalcy.

If he were to be attacked by these naked, female monsters, for instance, what would happen?

 

Adris looks up, then, as he hears something flap heavily in the air.

 

Where the ceiling is still completely intact, a gargantuan banner proudly hangs. The sigil on it is a gray, conical tower, collapsing and being drawn into a great, blue-swirling void.

 

(Completely unknown heraldry. Not even what I’ve read of the southern barbarians seems to relate to this sigil.)

 

Adris minds his expression and gaze, now, aware that he is in a place he has never heard of, among creatures never before seen on Xin’s islands.

His addled mind has missed such an obvious necessity as this, the fatigue too much for him to operate efficiently.

 

(Any sort of incorrect gaze can give me away.)

 

He furtively sizes up the people around him; but, strangely, everyone who makes eye contact with him quickly looks away, unwilling to meet his gaze. They go on about their business, ignoring him completely or giving him wide berth.

Adris is uncertain at the response, but doesn’t reject it since it benefits him greatly.

 

(All of the conversations I can hear sound the same.)

 

The cross’ dubious gift of speech and reading had left Adris confused as to how it worked.

No more, for among this distinctive and unique group, all of the conversations sound different, but within his mind are understood as the Xin trader’s dialect.

 

(I cannot even concentrate on the language itself, as the understanding preempts the ability of my mind to analyze the sounds.)

 

Peering through this crowd, his eyes widen with naked glee.

 

 

 

At the end of the long hall, he sees…

 

(My destination.)

 

… a grand doorway, the behemothian metal doors engraved with something like a scholar’s mystical character notations.

 

(“Power which forfends, separating dimension, in accordance with the will of the Ones Beyond, against the will of the Golden Soul…” It’s an incredibly complex and long sentence?)

 

 

 

The doorway has designs like the Emperor’s Conquest style engraved in it, but instead of simple characters which tell simple stories, this door is a woven tale that would take him days to unravel. The words cling to his mind as he follows them, visible even at this great distance.

Adris understands their meaning, though Adris instinctively feels an important component is missing. While he can read them, he doesn’t understand their intent or purpose.

 

(If they have a deeper meaning, then perhaps it requires a requisite understanding of the way they should be understood?)

 

If the glyphs don’t make sense, then what is adjacent makes even less, being only hideous in nature.

 

Large, stone statues flank the door. Resembling carved octopuses, except that their construction is more like starfish stacked on top of each other, the rubber-like mass is quite disgusting.

Their blossom-like, thick tentacles serve as legs, while the upper body possesses gangly, long appendages surrounding a great, central eye.

They stand roughly seventeen-feet tall, and are six-feet thick across their top. Frozen tentacles menace those who walk beneath them.

 

Blue-cloaked individuals with the postures of guards, and wearing pauldrons and ear-length caps instead of cowls, stand facing a line stretching before them.

The line comprises cloaked individuals readying to leave, a palpable sense of irritation to the assembly.

 

This is the largest doorway Adris has ever seen. Beyond it, possibly freedom.

But, a freedom that is dangerous to approach, because the guards are checking papers and talking to scholars lining up.

 

(I will never pass inspection.)

 

Adris needs… a distraction.

 

Walking through the area, he looks for potential help.

Behind steel bars, there are… humans.

 

(Can they be allies?)

 

The human prisoners in the metal enclosures are… all either strangely handsome men or beautiful women of various unknown ethnicities, or an odd mix of human and some beast.

Humans indistinguishable from him are penned in together, with some showing strange, pointed ears and lithe figures; but, there are also winged and clawed women; people with animal ears and tails; scaled warriors with inhuman appendages; even a horse woman with large, exposed breasts that she can only support with her human arms.

The strangest part is that they look content, even bored; though, the less beautiful examples are horrified as they huddle together, shaking in fear as a naked, praying woman with enormous pillow breasts and a pert butt kneels beside them.

 

Next to this cage, he sees through a gathered crowd that two humans are bound: a woman strapped into a pillory and a man lashed to a wooden bench.

 

(Is this… what they have to look forward to? … No, what I would have to look forward to…?)

 

A girl, only slightly taller than Adris, has a sign hanging down around her neck that says “Free Sample.”

She is being pounded from behind as her small breasts wobble, a wolf-like man with thick, black hair, and claws for hands and feet lolling his tongue as he powerfully ravishes her.

Her blue eyes shine with satisfaction as she moans, her cute face flushed with arousal. The thick layer of white semen coating her is unlikely to belong to only the wolfman, as there is a line behind him of blue-coated rapists, all idly discussing different topics while stroking their cocks to ready them.

 

The bound man’s face cannot be seen, but Adris hears his moans as a brown-skinned woman with a long, spade-capped tail slams herself onto his cock.

Her sturdy, cloven-footed goat legs support her endeavor, and her open coat lets her partially-exposed, large breasts jiggle as she insults him. He begs for more abuse in response, his cries for attention prompting the woman to massage his balls with affection.

When he shakes, the woman licks her lips with satisfaction. Lifting up off of his girthy dick, her spread snatch drips copious white liquid, while her hand lovingly strokes the man’s still climaxing dick.

She negotiates with his owner as his cock shoots one last, thick rope when she squeezes hard.

 

(Is this punishment, experiment, or recreation…?)

 

Adris is no longer certain about protocol.

He feels dizzy. People being openly raped in front of him is rare, but bearable.

This scene, however, defies his expectations in a way which makes him doubt his sanity, as if this is all an illusion.

 

A rough-looking, youthful man with a swath of long, unevenly-cut red hair matches Adris’ gaze with his own when Adris focuses on the cages.

 

His taciturn face looks cool as he holds his arms before his muscular chest, though his eyes go wide when they lock onto each other.

An aura of dignity clings to him, his unkempt stubble and powerful build making him look like the manly Xin’Reh squad leaders Adris had met on the battlefield long ago as a young teenager.

 

(Is he their leader? Perhaps if it’s him, he could-)

 

His hopeful thoughts are instantly dashed when the man lifts his arm in a thumbs up, offering a cheery grin while completely naked.

The man’s dick hangs out for the whole world to see as he stands proudly behind the metal bars.

 

(… Perhaps not.)

 

It’s hard for Adris to understand this realm of the dead, but at the very least, these prisoners do not look useful.

 

“Oh, Tishia, for what reason do you inflict your persecutions on me?” A swarthy man speaks with a honeyed tongue, light and carefree, but with obvious disregard. “Rather than your petty accusations, shall I remind you of your own failures?”

 

Atop the central, fifteen-foot, sea-shell dais of irregular shape and inhuman construction, Adris sees people wearing dusky-gold armbands on their coats.

Standing in front of them and talking loudly is a tall man, his blue cowl down and his coat loosely draped upon his back with arms freed.

Underneath the coat, he wears a transparent, black-linen bodysuit that opens down the middle, for which he would be naked save for an impressive panel of woven gold in the shape of a long cartouche, covered in strange glyphs and hanging from his neck.

His beautiful, androgynous, painted face, combined with his amiable smile, would normally hide his dangerous nature quite well.

 

But, Adris has seen this kind of man many times.

Looking beyond the paint and foppish appearance, Adris has already marked him as a charismatic leader, and utterly amoral.

The man sweeps his hand through his hair, addressing the crowd instead of this “Tishia.”

 

“Whereas our Neo-Askelon has been at the forefront of the defense against the invading Chosen, providing new defenders born from the offspring of the enemy, our…”

He lazily waves towards the seething woman below him.

“’Competitors’ have focused on unnecessary research. What use is ‘giant avian mating’ for defense within an enclosed building?”

He strikes his golden stick out to address the gathered people.

 

“When you think of the future of the Castillo and our war against the outside world, the choice is obvious: only I can lead us to a future where we are free of interruptions from the Chosen!”

 

Pointing at the woman, he sneers slightly.

 

“Only Tishia can destroy our bright future with her incompetence.”

 

(“Tishia” is a name that I know, and it belongs to…)

 

“You say you fight for the defense of the Castillo, but you’ve squandered our resources in a faraway desert!”

A woman speaks with a deep, rich voice, commanding like the fop’s, but also on edge.

“Mother has already rejected further use of the undead! Only the…” She points towards the people in the cages.

“Fools locked up over there bother with them; and, even then, the undead cannot invade Petripolis! The [Alchemaster] specified that we needed a lasting solution! The strongest defense is the elimination of the fools outside!”

 

Flanked by much more formal attendants wearing white-and-red armbands, the woman with three ruddy, spiky horns has her hair lightly brushed by a woman behind her. She has deep emerald eyes, a sharp, tomboyish face, and human-looking, tanned skin, with a voluptuous body filling out even the closed blue coat she wears.

The armband on her coat is of a bird on fire. Adris remembers the container he found in Symphonia’s room.

 

(If I guess the organizations correctly, then hers is the one I need to use.)

He feels in his pack for the silver container.

 

Pointing at the woman, the man on stage sneers slightly.

 

“Blaming us for doing our jobs, and whining about how we’ve accomplished our success! Only the phoenix you possess serves as a proper contribution from your organization. Tell us!” He demands, in a teasing voice, “How goes your research with said phoenix?”

 

(Not well, if it’s gone.)

 

Adris can already see where this confrontation will go.

The man on the stage is attempting to persuade the audience to reject the woman below him. The admission of loss must eventually be made, for details have already leaked.

 

This confrontation is a trap, one designed to destroy her influence.

 

A trap that will work, as the woman’s voice vanishes from the debate. She looks angry, but unable to admit to her loss.

 

Adris looks for someone within the woman’s entourage who he can speak to, someone who looks like they are apart from the rest.

The boy needs someone like himself. Even if the woman is trapped, if provided with the right ammunition, she’ll strike back if he can pass it along.

The excited crowd might want the powerful to bleed, but it’s not evident if they mind which party sacrifices it.

 

(She has to attack, I need an escape.)

 

Looking down at those assembled at the door, Adris bets on something.

 

(If I can cause a commotion here, they might hurry along the opening of the door. I need them to strike.)

 

Whispers return to his mind, and an image appears before his eyes.

 

{Adris stands on the dais, instead of the man. The woman on the ground is being fucked by Adris on the stage while standing, her skin wet with the sweat of her diligent service. The swarthy man is kneeling, as people below prepare to cut his head off-}

 

(You can’t be trusted, you fucking chunk of silver!)

Adris reels a bit, the images accompanied by vertigo.

 

Recovering, Adris finds the man he’s looking for. He thinks on Tishia’s and this golden man’s words.

 

(The only “undead” I know of are aura revenants and the creatures of the far ice. And I have never heard of an “Alchemaster.”)

The concept of “alchemy” only lies within the mystical brewing of potions for aura users or the chemistry of the physical trades. If someone were a master of it, then it would imply an ascended being.

(Yet… absolutely nothing comes to mind, and I am far from an unlearned bumpkin! Such a puzzling, yet powerful, faction…)

 

“I, Heleton, say that leaving the Castillo is a mistake! We must defend!” The man with a honeyed voice suddenly becomes animated, sensing the opportunity to strike.

“Mother’s path towards a perfect life form depends on the security of the mansion, not contact with the outside world!”

 

The man takes on a religious tone, inviting others around him to also worship.

“When the reawakened Alchemaster began actively recruiting for a defense against invasion only months ago, Mother came to an agreement with the [Gate Guardian] due to our assistance. Even now, the Wondrous Works, under our leadership, is reviving the Castillo’s oldest parts. The war that is coming will be met in the Castillo! Not outside!”

 

The audience looks bored, but otherwise agrees with the man when he says that danger is ahead.

Adris approaches his target stealthily from behind.

When the man turns to glare at Adris from the corner of his eye, face still mostly hidden, Adris knows that his choice is correct.

 

(I am Adris fehl Dain, [Greedy Informant])

Adris adopts a new persona, his thought processes instantly switching over to a common disguise.

 

Now openly approaching this man with pale blue hair over his purple eyes, ivory skin, and pointed ears, Adris puts his head close to the man’s body and whispers.

 

“… I am a traveler coming from the Aurelian depths. I have information related to the theft.”

 

(Simplicity is best.)

 

Heleton’s eyes turn serious, as he stares hatefully at the woman before him.

“You, Tishia, have been making serious accusations in the dark, despite offering little for our benefit.”

He taps his foot, then says, “How could we be guilty of stealing something that you still have?”

 

While the two people argue, Adris considers the evidence he is prepared to present.

 

Unsure how the woman named Symphonia found the stolen object, Adris cannot comprehend viewing things from far away.

Even though an aura technique exists for this, it only allows for remote viewing in an open, clear space.

He can only hope that Symphonia’s assertion is backed by the capabilities of those living in this hell.

 

The ivory man, his mouth hidden by a purple, wrapped cloth up to his nose, quickly looks Adris over.

The look is unusually paranoid and fearful. Adris is concerned at first, but the man then silently inclines his head, the previous emotions vanishing.

 

“These are papers and proof of conspiracy by the Neo-Askelon sect.”

The man’s eyes visibly tense at the word used. Adris berates himself for using a word that doesn’t fit.

Too tired to think properly, Adris cannot properly exceed the truth, while still keeping it real.

 

“I make no accusations, only state truths!” Tishia refuses to go further, changing the subject.

“If we don’t claim the town of Petripolis, these Chosen will never give up! Only taking the town itself will stop them!”

 

(These “Chosen” are a danger to all of you? Then good. They’re going to be my first stop.)

 

Adris is invigorated now.

An escape is all that matters.

 

{The whole room is gathered in a circle, bowing to a man holding a cross. The doors open as he walks toward them, as the guards sing his praises.}

 

The images return.

Adris shakes his head slightly, nausea coming with them.

 

The ivory man reaches out his hand.

 

Adris jumps at this, proffering the note pages listing Symphonia’s procurement of materials, while keeping the ones that contain her formulas and mentions of Adris as a test subject.

He next hands over the silvered canister with the fiery chicken on it. The man opens up the canister carefully, looking inside, then quickly shutting it.

He reads the notes at a blistering speed, taking only seconds to finish a page.

 

The ivory man audibly clicks his voice, seemingly displeased by the contents.

 

(I share this disappointment.)

 

“Obtained how?” The man questions him brusquely, as Adris expected.

 

(The truth will suffice.)

 

“Symphonia Dupres was forcibly experimenting on subjects in hiding. … I recovered things from her that she’d stolen from me. I took her notes when I read what they said, and the proof.”

 

“Stolen from you?”

 

“Personal affects.” Adris produces the quill and shows him the fog trinket.

The man’s purple eyes narrow.

 

“Why bring this proof?”

 

Adris puts on at conspiratorial face and smiles.

Exuding arrogance, he speaks the universal language of traitors and sellouts.

 

 

 

“For profit. If you run things and retrieve the phoenix, I know who I can go to for feathers.”

 

 

 

The man’s eyes relax.

Meanwhile, the confrontation between the two groups prepares to reach its highest point of tension.

 

“It doesn’t matter what you or Tempesta Universalis wants! This Wondrous Works ill needs an organization that seeks to extend beyond these grounds!” Heleton throws his arms wide. “I already have a solution for the world outside of this place!”

 

(There’s danger to the outside, too.)

 

The ivory-skinned man opens his eyes after thinking.

 

“Kejourou (HAIR DEMON). Where?”

 

Adris blinks, not sure what the word means, but seeming to understand the intent. His answer should be…

 

“Symphonia was left incapacitated in her lab. On the outer walkways of the Aurelian area. She stole a wandering research room from Mother. She’s been unconscious for…”

Adris can’t answer, for time in this place lost meaning when he was forced to wander the non-euclidean hallways.

 

Nodding, the man finishes his interrogation. “Suffices. Timing irrelevant. Can find her. Useless to run. Remain. Reward.”

 

The man is already planning to determine Adris’ identity.

Only the immediacy of the need to pass along information is preventing discovery.

 

This is an immense gamble.

If the man can find him outside of the gate ahead…

 

(Though this is hardly my first long shot…)

 

All this Tishia needs is the slightest casus belli. Fresh phoenix feathers, where none should be available, are sufficient proof.

The man probably thinks that Adris is a double agent, but Adris knows his designs.

 

(The fact that his boss wants a fight means that my loyalties are irrelevant. The evidence is… “sufficient.”)

 

Swiftly walking over, the man nods to the woman in a feather cloak behind Tishia before joining them. There is murmuring.

 

A look of victory comes to Tishia’s face as she listens.

The cloaked man ceases speaking. Adris makes out his furtive movements under his coat…

 

(Weapons are coming out.)

 

Adris tenses, glancing over at the big doorway.

The guards are still preparing to open it, activating some large levers etched with mystic characters.

The process seems inordinately complex, taking several people numerous, precise steps. No hurry is upon them, yet.

 

(Hurry and begin.)

 

The foreign feeling is creeping back into Adris’ mind.

 

“I have neither talent nor tongue for honeyed words of pure dissembling like you, Heleton, so let us cut to the chase.” She smiles viciously. “You abducted our phoenix for the purpose of acquiring feathers, and sell them now on the Narrow Line.”

 

Heleton’s eyes narrow, a suspicious look to them.

 

“How is irrelevant. Why, is. At the hidden shrine of Tigis, you unearthed the ancient queen Aeferis, your ancestor.” Tishia growls.

“She is the mummy lord you smuggled into the Castillo, in dereliction of Mother’s guidance, and it’s for her you intend to use my phoenix’s feathers to change her from her dormant state into a quasi-resurrected one! You plan to give her control of the middle tier of the Castillo, turning it into a permanent extension of your organization! The proof is easy.”

 

A broad smile shows a row of sharp teeth in the woman’s mouth. “We have a buyer of phoenix feathers, and can trace the sale back to you, with it occurring after the theft.”

 

As the rest of the room goes quiet, people suddenly intently listen to the proceedings.

 

(There’s no outrage.)

 

Adris feels cold, as he notes that nobody is shocked, only interested in how this turns out.

He can’t follow their thinking. Several key parts of the culture of these creatures approach the absurd.

Though powerful figures are given to boasting, the artful and dramatic confrontation between these two groups is theatrical to the extreme.

 

“… Yes, congratulations. You have seen through my plans, Tishia. OH, WOE UPON ME. I am… undone.” The man named Heleton makes a dramatic pose as if he is about to faint, then whips up into a towering posture.

 

“Except you’re wrong about one part.” He smiles, his eyes arrogant.

 

“I don’t intend to do it.”

 

Clicking her tongue, Tishia pulls out a white-red rod shaped like a solid lightning bolt.

 

“He’s already revived her!”

 

Holding his hands up in the air with his rod in one hand, Heleton has his eyes closed while smiling.

 

“Yes, the seed of Neo-Askelon will join with the seedbed of the ancient kingdom. My… GOD-LIKE wisdom will unite with her impossibly beautiful body and power. Petripolis and the rest of the world of [Zennia] will know our might, when Aeferis blocks out the sun and claims the entire land for the reawakened Alchemaster!

 

The Chosen will have no choice but to accept our dominion, or suffer without the sun for eternity! In less than a month, Petripolis will be a dark necropolis!”

He laughs openly at his apparent victory.

 

(”World of Zennia,” what does that mean? Is that the name of this foreign plane of Xin?)

 

Adris is assaulted by information relating to concepts he’s not familiar with.

The only thing he can tell is that powerful, unknown organizations ready to assault using fell powers outside of his experiences.

Though not a patriot, Adris’ first thoughts go to warning others, a defense of the floating continents perhaps his best chance for personal survival. Snuffing the torch-like sun will kill the entire world, though Adris is at a loss as to how they plan to do it.

 

Laughing in a reserved fashion, Heleton points his golden rod at Tishia as his followers all do the same thing.

 

“The phoenix will rise again, as always! Give me back my man, you incestuous mummy fucker! You can’t block out the sun, that is the sign of the phoenix!” Tishia screams out in disgust.

The ivory-skinned man stands beside her, a curved blade whipped out.

All of her men march to the front of her, forming rows of men at arms.

 

As the two groups face each other, ready for combat… applause and cheers ring out from outside of the gathering.

 

Adris looks beyond the group, seeing the people skulking among piles hooting and hollering.

Many have what look like paper gambling tickets.

No, Adris sees a man accepting what looks like vials and boxes for such a ballot, jotting down information.

 

(Is this a joke or a drama? Are they fucking betting on this!?)

 

“You pretentious, fop pretender! ‘… Wandering red which rises from sulfurous mines, oh great ravager of nights and even day, fearless eater of skies who is born with the death of the sun…’”

Tishia chants, as her skin catches ablaze, fire running up her horns to appear like waving feathers hanging off the tips behind her head.

 

As she chants, six reddish-white disks appear above her, glyphs spinning and forming lattices as the air from the room condenses into these disks.

Fire radiates at a temperature Adris has never felt, as though they are six floating suns about to flare out and incinerate him.

 

(What in the hell is this!? This isn’t an aura technique!)

 

Adris watches in horror as the woman calls forth fire from an unknown source, feeling the air as it rushes by him.

A strange sensation flows through him, his internal aura shaking as it is buffeted by the rushing current. What he is watching defies his understanding of expressing aura.

 

The two figures are surrounded by an invisible feeling of power, almost like Adris’ sensation of the aura of others, but still totally alien.

 

“When Askelon rises again, and I construct a grand temple within the Castillo to house my new bride and I, I will… keep you there as a concubine to bear my children, little phoenix sleeve. For I have always found your beauty sufficient enough…”

The man licks his androgynous lips.

 

“To improve upon…”

 

He then begins chanting in kind.

Golden sands of timeless Askelon, flensing grains that whip and roar, answer the true inheritor, to hide your secrets and bury these mortals in eternal ignominy…

 

Before Heleton, the ground itself rips up, turning into golden sand in flight. It becomes an enormous, undulating, amorphous, twenty-foot-high, forty-foot-wide wave of gold that sprouts razor edges along its gleaming mass.

 

It begins to roil forward, seeking to consume all before it.

 

{Adris holds his cross before him. The people direct their powers against others wearing blue coats. These madmen are his most loyal slaves.}

 

An image offers him an idea, the center of his head splitting with pain.

 

(That… might not…)

 

But while he considers the offer, he suddenly realizes the danger surrounding him.

 

 

 

Every blue-coated observer in the crowd begins to animate, turning towards each other or the two groups.

Like the groups, they pull out weapons, rods, or wave their hands in strange manners.

 

(… Oh. It’s an ambush.)

 

Surprised, but not paralyzed, Adris ducks, before he is deafened by an explosion of flashing energy next to him.

 

Everyone in the crowd is attacking.

Fire, wind, burning tar, glowing images forming from thin air to lash out, swords that float independently of their owner, the manner of murder is different for each…

 

The ambushers are in turn ambushed.

People wearing bright-red armbands that materialize from nowhere on their bodies strike out at those now wearing dusky-gold ones.

 

Adris is no longer sure who is ambushing whom.

 

All he knows is that space and people are exploding next to him, or flying, or being driven into the ground.

He weaves and dances through the swirling storm of fake aura, brushing past instant death as he jumps over a prone, melting body writhing on the ground.

 

Landing in front of a masked woman with four, yellow eyes, he only has time to note her dusky gold armband before she raises a red gem to point it at his face.

 

(Fuck you.)

 

Adris moves in, quick as a monkey.

Cross swinging, he smashes her pointed arm, deflecting the gem, which explodes with a red, flaring beam of death from it shooting past his head.

The moment the cross strikes, a blue shell encasing her body appears and explodes outward, vanishing.

 

Smaller than her, he rapidly shuffles closer before slamming his shin between her unguarded legs.

Her immediate reaction is to scream out and drop her head in pain.

Adris’ free hand reaches up to grab her, pulling her head towards the left-handed cross he drives into her face.

 

A shattering of her face results in her falling to the ground, completely unconscious.

Finishing her off, Adris looks for other opponents.

 

But those nearby simply jerk their heads back in horror, before meekly shuffling off to visit death on their neighbors, or to be exploded in turn.

 

(What else can go wrong?)

 

 

[Soul-Eating Phoenix!]

 

[Infinite Golden Sea.]

 

 

Everything is covered in blinding light.

 

Adris looks back to see that the figures from before have completed their aura techniques.

 

Tishia releases her white suns, rays of pure fire shooting out. They meet the massive wall of golden sand, striking it.

 

It, and everything around it, glows white hot with a terrible hissing and crackling.

There’s an enormous blast of concussive heat that picks Adris up and flings him into the air, the boy barely able to shield his face with his arms before it hits.

 

Adris lands on the ground with a thud as he rolls, his coat burning in spots.

Others like him, perhaps unable to use their aura to shield themselves, flop around like broken dolls.

The two “great minds” continue to insult each other like children as they commit attempted murder, their displays of power destroying the entire area, though their insults now get drowned out by the raining impacts of collapsing stone from overhead…

 

Their factional warfare becomes the talk of the area, wary scholars nearby making last minute bets and licking their lips in anticipation of how it ends.

 

Adris knows this because he has crawled out of the melee to rest beside them, completely ignored now as he tries to recover.

 

The guards are finally moving away from the door, intent on going towards the devastation that has already consumed half of this great hallway.

Though he cannot see their faces, their body language is neutral and their speed is unhurried.

This cataclysm is apparently not an uncommon occurrence, even though the blasts of fire from Tishia have set the junk piles ablaze, and Heleton’s golden sandstorm is tearing through people who can’t shield themselves.

 

The air in the hallway itself is growing thick with heat and sand, reaching unbreathable levels of discomfort.

There’s no words to describe the otherworldliness of this exchange.

 

(All eyes are now off me, though.)

 

Adris runs towards the large doors, which are now being swiftly opened to allow researchers to depart this place. The cataclysm at hand has produced the desired result.

 

Shuffling through the noisy crowd, Adris is almost free. Even though he arrives late, there are no guards left to care.

 

Crossing past the tentacled statues that put him on edge, they bring to mind his recent exposure to the phantom fog. While more secure in appearance than the rest of this abyssal dimension, this area grows thicker with the smell of the deep unknown as he nears the doors.

 

Whispers come all around, almost as if something is calling his name.

 

There’s a strange feeling as he crosses between the statues, and he looks down to see a great seal gradually appear, light beginning to travel its squiggling glyphs and lines.

He can read part of the glyphs, only barely: “You who dwell in vanity, came to my domain from beyond the stars…

 

 

 

… I long to embrace you, and bear your young.

 

 

 

The whole room starts to shake.

 

Adris is shocked, as he hears the sound of rock cracking around him.

 

The large, stone figures begin to shudder and move, the stone falling off to reveal… hideous flesh underneath.

Adris falls to the ground as the shaking intensifies, unable to find the strength in his weakened, battered state.

 

What should be lifeless constructs now have malign, quivering animus.

 

“Why are the guardians coming to life?!”

Everyone around him is equally disturbed.

 

The upper, gangly appendages of the monstrosities form together to become massive arms, as the thundering nightmares wobble… turning to look straight down at Adris.

 

Adris flips himself up, willing energy to his body as he tries to escape.

The closest thing whips a massive arm toward him.

 

Adris moves behind a blue coated scholar, diving out of the way, as the arm instead grabs the scapegoat.

The arm lifts up, with the figure yelling and flailing in fear, before the monstrosity chucks the man forty-feet away to crash screaming into an armoire in a burning junk pile.

Adris and the others assembled are speechless at this display of strength.

 

“The guardians are attacking!” A voice cries out.

 

Adris’ blank mind seizes on it.

“Heleton and Tishia’s fighting has set off the guardians!”

Yelling loudly, he tries to deflect blame.

 

As the starfish horror moves its arm forward again, it lunges a second time at Adris.

He dodges past another scholar, the poor woman spitting out her breath, blue particles with it, as she’s picked up by the enormous, sweeping arm.

Adris uses the oncoming wall to jump over the tentacle at the last moment by rebounding off of the flat surface.

 

The woman and several other people are crushed against the wall like flies, falling unconscious to the ground when the tentacles pull off.

 

A panic goes out.

 

Scholars begin yelling, prompting the guards to look back from walking towards the ongoing inferno, though they are too far down the hallway to intervene.

 

One of the people near Adris intones a technique of some sort, as water swirls around the rightmost giant, restraining its movement when the water curls back on the giant to ensnare it.

He then throws a potion at it, impacting the giant and releasing a gout of acid, which begins to eat deeply into its flesh.

 

When the man starts cheering at his attack, both horrors regard this as a problem, and the free one squirms forward and promptly grinds him into the ground. His body sprays blue particles as he becomes one with the carpet.

 

With the dust rising…

 

… all hell breaks loose.

 

Every scholar in the open room begins fleeing, fighting, or calling for backup.

A woman carrying a large box in the same area as Adris pulls the cloth off of it, aiming the wooden box with holes in the end at the beast which is moving straight for him.

Adris huddles next to her as the giant is about to attack, intent on using her as a shield.

 

“[SHOOTING STARS!]”

 

The blond, deathly pale-skinned woman with green-speckled-gold, slit irises for eyes and visibly sharp teeth, screams loudly.

The box’s end glows bright white and flaring stars start streaking from the shaking box.

Dozens of them fly to impact on the horror, cracking its slimy exterior skin and kicking up glittering dust everywhere as they burst.

 

It’s pushed back dozens of feet from the force of the onslaught, temporarily losing its balance.

Adris looks to his savior, her breasts underneath her loose coat shaking in her tight-fitting, white ruffled shirt as the recoil flows through her body.

Her tressed, medium-length waving hair doesn’t hide her eyes, and hers notice Adris’ lingering where they shouldn’t. He feels his lust catching up to him, so he focuses on the still-glowing wooden box, instead.

 

(That was stronger than any aura tool I’ve ever held…)

 

She just saved his life; and, for some reason, called out with her attack.

 

The woman reveals a look of mistrust.

She moves away, putting her box down on the ground, fiddling with it quickly as the giant recovers, all while watching Adris out of the corner of her eye.

He sees fear and…

 

(Interest?)

 

Interest in what Adris holds in his hand.

 

Adris takes in the tactical situation, but can’t keep up with the number of exclamations or intonations, as water, fire, wind, and earth all move in this place.

Space itself warps down the hallway to grab one of the giants, the creature wobbling as it’s crushed by the spacial force.

Great metal shackles clamp onto the starfish that attacked Adris, dragging it in place, before the air around the monster spontaneously combusts with white fire, as numerous scholars also catch ablaze, running around helplessly as the creature burns.

Adris avoids it by only a few feet of distance from the blast radius’s edge.

 

In the fierce combat, Adris looks up to see more betrayal occurring.

Taking advantage of the confusion, blue coats are “accidentally” hitting others.

A woman next to Adris is struck by a purple, vibrating ray launched at her by a small figure with a hidden face, her body flying a great distance to impact on a wall hard enough to crack the stone. Far from being an ambush…

 

(They’re betraying each other with certain death at hand!?)

 

A slam is heard behind him.

He whips his head around to see the blond woman defending against a humanoid pile of trash that tries to crush her. She uses the long wooden box as a bludgeoning weapon, resisting the attacking pile with inhuman strength of her own.

The trash is bound by quivering, black flesh forming a mass between the solid parts.

A hostile woman with silver hair, pale-blue skin, a button nose, gaunt cheeks, and pointed ears stands behind the monstrosity.

 

“AHHH, I didn’t see you there, Lycia Vehrose. You’re always so unnoticeable… You’ll be even more unnoticeable as a fine paste. ♥”

The woman named Lycia dodges the hulking figure, pulling out some canister to try to slam it into a port that opens in her wooden box, as the monster lumbers after her.

 

Adris can’t think well, trapped by an unknown feeling.

The woman called Lycia had prevented him from being killed by the monster, and now she’s being betrayed by a random assailant.

 

There’s pain in Adris’ right side. He remembers an attack on himself, very recent.

 

Very painful.

 

He pulls out a stolen knife from the book-reading scholar, secretly readying to throw it at this hateful betrayer, a need to bring harm on his thoughts…

 

But finds he can’t.

 

Nor can he hold the knife.

It simply drops from his hands the moment he turns hostility toward the woman while holding it.

 

(What…?)

 

He tries to pick up a twisted, serpentine sword that’s fallen nearby, but can’t grab it to use it.

 

(I can’t use weapons?)

 

Looking to the cross, he finds this is the only thing he can hold.

This mystical artifact keeps doing infuriating things.

 

(You took away my ability… to fight…!?)

 

Without the ability to defend himself, save with his own body, he can do nothing in this hell.

He’ll be just as powerless as in his fight with Serras. Guile and surprise can only take him so far.

 

The woman named Lycia trips on another scholar, falling over. She is about to be smashed by the charging monstrosity, as it rears back its fists.

 

Enraged, fighting back long held onto tears, he rears back, too… and chucks the cross at the woman.

It turns end over end as it travels in an arc.

 

“Then stay in hell!”

Adris pointlessly yells at his possession as it soars away.

 

The cross, amazingly, flies straight and true.

The woman turns to look at the words Adris spoke, then notices the flying cross.

 

“[Protection of Necessity!]”

She calls out a familiar phrase, finally seeing the threat.

 

A roar of cracking glass and thunder is the response, as the cross cleanly penetrates the green, scintillating barrier that appears.

Bouncing off her head after striking her between the eyes, a burst of blue erupts from her face.

The woman collapses ungainly on the floor, all life taken from her movements.

 

A great crash comes from Adris’ side, and he turns to see the trash monster hitting the stone floor, furniture and parts spilling everywhere as it loses its form. The woman named Lycia clears debris off herself, gets up, and returns to servicing her aura tool after confirming her attacker isn’t moving.

 

Adris hears the sound of something flying, and then an object enters his hand.

Blinking in shock, he looks down to see that the cross he threw… has returned to his hand, demanding to be held.

 

(… That’s a lot to take in.)

 

Adris hurries over to the blond woman.

The pretty, yet frightening, lady has one knee down, working her contraption.

She looks at him with a suspicious expression when he approaches, but then it changes to an overly tempting one.

 

“Help from strangers is incredibly… rare; or, did you… see something you wanted to save for yourself?”

The woman, still in the aftermath of her panic, immediately tries to charm him with her body.

 

Her hand goes to her breasts as though she is trying to catch her breath, flashing a needy look with her fascinating eyes.

Adris sees that those eyes still hold concealed paranoia, even as something like an inner light flares in them.

 

 

 

The look brings to mind a woman with long, black hair, gazing at him as she makes accusations.

 

 

 

“No, I got what I needed.”

(One traitor, brutally punished.)

The slit-irises of her eyes widen as she tries to follow his comment.

“Though if you get the chance to tell me how that wonderful contraption works, one day, I’d love to hear it.”

 

Adris turns and runs off, the door his only real goal.

The woman looks confused, as though she expected something else to happen.

 

Adris moves through the crowd around him, but then stops suddenly when he notices a man has returned to throwing vials of acid at a giant.

 

(He was smashed into the ground!)

 

Looking at the spot where he should still lie, Adris sees no corpse.

Instead, the man looks beaten, but still energetic, as he runs around lobbing concoctions of suffering at his foes.

 

Adris looks to where the others were slammed into the wall, but sees no bodies.

It’s the same with the woman hit by the purple beam: she’s back up, chasing after the midget that struck her while waving a two-handed, notched long blade that she’s produced from nowhere.

 

(Is nothing fatal to these creatures!?)

 

Adris can’t afford to waste any more time.

 

With the giants slightly damaged and distracted by the maddened figures dancing beneath them, Adris lunges towards the open doors, running for the inky darkness beyond them.

 

He weaves past fighting scholars and flings himself headlong into the exit.

 

 

 

But… is caught on something invisible.

 

While people run by him out the door and vanish into the darkness, Adris is caught in mid-air unable to push forward, no matter how hard he struggles.

The barrier catches only him, a gel-like feeling of moving resistance on his clothes and skin.

 

(There’s an invisible aura barrier.)

 

Adris has run into these before while liberating priceless secrets in powerful temples. He had been able to deal with them, then.

 

When he had aura.

 

But Adris’ aura is not recovering.

He tries to break through with the silver cross, but only gets his arm past it, which is then rejected.

The invisible field is not destroyed like the protective shells were.

 

(I can’t be stuck here!)

 

The betrayal by Serras.

Being turned into a boy.

Being assaulted by that trash-brained hair devil.

This labyrinth and its depredations.

 

He can hear ponderous movement behind him, the area brightening with white light.

Adris is completely out of tricks, for the second time in the same week, as he refuses to turn his head to look.

 

(I don’t want to die. Again.)

 

Something grabs him.

And hoists him up.

 

 

 

Blond hair, slit irises, and a friendly, tempting smile filled with amusement are what he sees above his head when he finally looks.

Carrying a large, cloth-covered box and a full-grown boy at the same time…

 

 

 

“If you wanted to leave, you could’ve just asked big sis.”

 

 

 

… a blue-coated woman strides through the dark gate, as a huge appendage barely misses them, the mad riot fading out of Adris’ ears.

 

 


(V2, revised for grammar and readability by an amateur writer)

Characters:

Characters:

Name: Adris fehl Dain; “Mister Meat”
Titles: Scholar Bound in Madness, Greedy Informant
Race: Xin’El, Emperor’s Child (Human)
Sex: Male
Age: ?? – Young

Occupation: Crossbearer; Charlatan/Swindler; Xin’Reh (former); Soldier of Fortune (former); Bounty Hunter (former)
Discipline: Crossbearer – Cursed Aura User; Spear Veteran (former); Aura Warrior, School/Specialization: Self-Taught (former)

Powers:

[Tool Savant] – “Adris is a tool-collecting-and-utilizing fanatic. Most men would consider him disgusting for loving tools more than his own partner. Has so many tools that it can be said to be his true power. What does he do when he has no tools left? He seeks to acquire more, obviously!”

[Unknown Cross Smash] – {A MAN STRIKES ANOTHER WITH SHINING SILVER. THE MAN WHO IS STRUCK SMILES, HIS MIND AWAKENED.}

[Unknown Protection from Poisons/Compelling] – {A MAN WALKS, HIS STEPS UNWEARIED AND RESOLUTE. NONE CAN STOP HIM.}

[Unknown Communication Assistance] – {THE MAN HAS NO DIFFICULTY SPEAKING TO THOSE WHO ARE ALL DISSIMILAR. HE UNDERSTANDS THEIR SUPPLICATIONS.}

[Unknown Mental Domination] – {A MAN DEMANDS. THOSE WHO HE DEMANDS OF, OBEY.}

 

Disposition: Resilient / Adaptable / Sinner
Alignment: Chaotic

Eyes: Black
Hair: Black, with strands of White
Skin: Tanned

 

Statistics:

R-Value – “Why have I not showed up yet, Adris? You’re taking too long.”

 

Beauty:

C-Value – “If all men looked like him, it might not be odd for women to think that the gods had painted the world in only the drab color brown? While not ugly, would he not exemplify the idea that ‘normal’ is perhaps indistinguishable from ‘undesirable’?”

“Does missing half of your body increase the rarity of what remains, thereby increasing its inherent beauty?”

“Being a child again, can you see the difference that being an adult adds? No longer possessing the work put into improving features, will Adris understand that being plain as a child lacks the poise and stature of adulthood? Even as an older boy, isn’t it hard to be… ‘dashing’?”

“Clothing, is it? Yes, clothing is a fine answer to all problems, is it not? Even an ape may appear more dashing if he is wearing a suit, isn’t that right, Adris?”

 

Description:

“A rather plain-looking man wearing traveling robes, what he carries hidden is far more dangerous than his appearance lets on. A disarming smile, leads to you being suckered. A clever tongue, leads to your sorrow. Possessing quick wit and intellect, hubris and arrogance are certain to follow. Well known across the floating islands of Xin, but not by name, only by reputation. Owed many favors, but not with great joy, and certainly not love. The only person he seems to care about other than himself is his lifelong partner.”

“It can be said that Adris has done a lot of things in his life. Good, bad, evil, and unkind, all of what he has done has been done with the assumption that he will never have to worry about heaven or hell. Now that he’s lost the only thing he’s ever cared about, what is left? Perhaps he will get his chance to discover what it means to be free?”

“Turned into a kid again, how is Adris handling this? Thrust into a dimension beyond his ability to cope with, especially after being abandoned by Serras and murdered, only his attachment to his own sense of self… or finding it again, is driving him. Now that he is young, he can only survive by his wits, seeing as his aura has been taken from him. Will he succumb to his thirst for female flesh? Will this cross claim his mind and make him its meat puppet?”

“Even if there’s a distinct lack of total sanity in him, at the moment, he still seems able to function quite well. If you don’t have to dwell on your problems, you can devote yourself quite effectively to a single goal, ignoring all extraneous information. Though, isn’t the idea of [Oath] a little too…? And what’s with him pretending to be completely different people?”

 

Commentary:

“Even if the odds are stacked against a main character, and even if he is a complete asshole, I must respect someone that refuses to quit.”

 


 

Name: Lycia Vehrose
Race: ???
Sex: Female
Age: ??

Occupation: Wondrous Works Scholar
Discipline: ???

Powers:

[Shooting Stars] – “A strange, wooden box with holes in the end produces a stream of missile-like light, which explodes with enormous force on the chosen target. I, of course, want it desperately. Hooray for aura tools.”

 

Disposition: Sultry / Intelligent / Vicious
Alignment: Neutral

Eyes: Gold, Speckled Green
Hair: Blond
Skin: Deathly White

 

Statistics:

R-Value – “Please unlock me, Adris~.”

 

Beauty:

C-Value – “Perhaps you have a fascination for that which seems human, but whose qualities deviate far from it when inspected? Even if she’s your ideal figure, Adris, won’t it be a problem if she decides to eat you up?”

 

Description:

“A woman whose first instinct is to not trust you, and to trust only in herself. A fairly good perspective and outlook on life, in a blue abyss filled with lunatics. The obvious question is: how sane can she be if she willingly lives there?”

 

Commentary:

“Women who are strong are justice. Viva, tits. Please be mine, delicious ass.”

 

Glossary:

 

Mother – “A being which all in the abyss seem to revere, and whose presence can be described as ‘everything here’.”

 

Quick – “Denotes the passing of time, with an unknown quantity. Said to be related to the rate at which one recovers one’s strength.”

 

Castillo – “A place beyond the abyss, where others speak of reverently.”

 

Oath – “A contract that is absolutely binding according to its terms. Practiced by the evil creatures which live in a blue hell.”

 

Transfer Pipes – “Connecting tubes which allow anyone to effortlessly travel through the abyss, only keys held by madmen can activate them.”

 

Silver Mask of the Emperor – “Okay, yes, it’s cursed, too. But at least nobody can easily discern his identity.”

 

Fog and Quill Trinkets – “As yet unused trinkets that survived the destruction of the rest, because they were in his pack at the time of his death.”

 

Petripolis – “A town beyond the crazy place Adris is found in. If civilization exists, then is it hell?”

 

Alchemaster – “An odd word, what do you get when you mix alchemy with complete mastery?”

 

Gate Guardian – “All mansions have gates, right? How strong is your gate guard? On the Chuugoku Scale, 1-10, this one is…”

 

 

 

Chapter 3         Table of Contents          Chapter 5