Foxfire scampered out of the graveyard with nary a look backwards. She ran on all fours to a hill overlooking the area, gazing down into the village some distance away. The mourners have by now arrived and have been heading back to their own homes. It seems once the burial was complete, the funeral was done. Likely the day itself was used to memorialize the deceased, which is why they left to bury him relatively late in the day when evening was approaching.

To avoid the risk of becoming Lost again, Foxfire only stayed in her silver vixen form fo long enough to survey the town and look for trouble. She then twisted and contorted her shape, shifting from her bestial form to her humanoid one with grace. She used the motion and momentum of her form shift to glide gently down into a lotus position upon the hilltop. Her coin chain sword hung limply about her waist like a belt. She gave a soft touch to the hilt, contemplating it and other matters.

“Make your own spell,” said the ghost. She mused quietly to herself. It’s easy to say that, but hard to do. For all the good it did, the advice may as well have been, “Conquer the world,” or “Live forever”. It’s like saying the key to living long is to not die. Simple to say, but how to do?

Foxfire gave a soft sigh and glanced again about. At this time of night, there was nothing interesting going on, nor people moving about. Without such a distraction to keep her mind off of things, she once again tried to contemplate things. Foxfire fell on her back on the hill and gazed upwards. The night sky was dark but pretty, the various stars shining quietly.

Foxfire remembered some of her constellations from before her time as the Lost. She also recalled the theory that the stars were powerful life engines of giant and powerful heroes of old. That, together, a number of them was the actual body of the being, thus making the constellation. And she heard a theory that some of those bodies that travel so high up in the heavens are still alive and still fighting against one another. To be amongst those beings!

There was the Emperor and the God of Destruction. The Will of Evolution and the Chaos Bringer. Steel Dragon and White Knight. The Sword and Shield. The Energy Matrix and Great Creator. The Dark Emperor looked to be fighting her personal favorite, Wise Sage.

There were others of course, but Foxfire was focused on those, for they were the ones that were immediately above her head and easy to view from where she lay. She imagined the various constellations fighting a slow but terrible battle across the great void of space, shifting her eyes side to side as if watching them battle one against the other. Then she narrowed her eyes, using her greatly enhanced perception to try to see into space clearer, to see if she could see the actual beings. But even with her sight, she could not see anything like a physical body.

Foxfire gave a soft sigh and chastised herself some. Enough procrastinating. If she really venerated the Wise Sage and thought herself anywhere close to his capabilities, she’d have to live up to those standards! Besides, she has a calling, a purpose, and others are relying on her! With a short benediction of, “Please light my path, Wise Sage,” she sat up again, back into the lotus position.

She grabbed the hilt of her coin chain sword and unwound it from her waist, flicking her wrist to make the coins clink quickly into the sword shaped position. She gave it a few swings, studying it in motion, but once again thought of how useless it would be as a sword. It’s still not likely to cut a branch off a tree, as the edges of the coins have not been sharpened or modified in any way.

She held it in front of her, straight, chin level, her eyes focused on the tip. This she did with her left hand, while her right hand she raised upwards and twisted her fingers slightly. Her first two she held raised, the hand in a mystical position, this next to the sword’s hilt, her two upward pointing fingers just inches from her mouth. She took three deep breaths then held herself fully and completely still for a time.

Only her mind moved. At first it raced about, thinking about the ghost, and the constellations, and wondering if the ghost she just met may, perhaps, become a constellation, if only a minor one. She thought of Wise Sage descending from the heavens to point her in the right direction. She thought of funerals and living an utterly bestial life. Then she understood that the Wise Sage walked their own path and she would have to walk her own. While she’d enjoy the aid, she knew in her heart that true understanding of yourself meant being your own guide. So she focused on the tip of the sword more, trying to lose herself in it to slide into a deep state of meditation.

It took some time before she felt herself begin to fade a bit. She felt herself starting to lose her mindful consciousness and resisted the urge to pull back. She had to meditate deeply and look in on herself. It was with effortless effort that her ancient teacher told her to do that she finally let slip of herself and her surroundings and slid deep into pure meditation.

She felt herself without a body, weightless and emepheral, incorporeal but at the same time impermeable. She felt her true, inner self unshackle from the body and weight of the world. Foxfire flew with speed towards the graveyard she just left, but stopped quite some distance away. On a spiritual plane, there was a sense of wrong despair here, a forboding essence that scared her. She flew away quickly.

Instead she went to the village nearby, thinking that may be a better place to be. But people were asleep, and the chaos world of the dreamscape had its pall fallen about the place, and she felt a wrongness after coming close to it. Something about the ever shifting nature of dreams prevented her from willingly entering the village proper.

She flickered back and forth, noticing the differences between the two locations. In one, the dead ruled in their stillness. In the other, the sleeping living ruled in their fervent commotion. The contrast was somewhat unsettling, so she floated above her own meditating body. Foxfire stayed there a bit, looking at herself. She knew that if she went in meditating on a particular question, she’d have focus now, that her meditative, spiritual self would have something to do. But she did not, for ‘how to make a spell’ was too general of a thought that she may be lost meditating upon just that. If she knew what spell she wanted to make, she may have a chance meditating on ‘how to make my spell’, but she had not thought out yet what she wanted her spell to do.

So, she floated. And while floating, she looked at the constellations on the spiritual realm. Here, they were different. Not just twinkling stars, she could see here the auras and bodies of the heroes and villians that the constellations are. She flew upwards a good bit, before she felt the invisible cord that tied her spirit to her body gently tug on herself, keeping her only halfway to heaven. Perhaps, once she was done with her body, one day she may travel the rest of the way. But that day was not this day.

Instead, at the utmost height she could achieve, she looked to the constellation of Wise Sage, and asked, “Are you there?” She paused for some time, as if waiting for an answer, then conceded, “No, of course not.” She pointed upwards at the constellation, “And if you were, you’d be too busy for those of us still living upon this world of rust and unconcerned with worldly affairs, I wager! Just because you think yourself so high and wonderful, being some of the stars in the heavens!” She waited a bit more, watching to see if her chastisement worked at all, but only saw the twinkling of the stars making the constellation she was vocalizing to. Then a shrug was given, “I don’t know what to talk to you about anyway. If I ask you how to make magic, you’d likely misinterpret me and teach me the very basics. I know how to cast spells, that’s not the question. If I ask how to make a specific spell, you’d likely give me the grand theory of magic, inundating me with information overload, giving me everything I need for ten lifetimes but hiding what I need now in too much data.” A sigh and a tap of her chin, “And I wouldn’t ask you how I am to make my spell, for my spell is mine. It is for me alone to make, and perhaps to use.” A grin is given coyly to the stars, “I’m sure you’d be jealous of it, however! It would be such a grand spell that even the stars would twinkle in the joy of it!” foxfire looked around a bit, shrugged, and headed back towards her body.

Halfway down, she heard from the heavens, “I’m sure it will, and look forward to it.”

Foxfire did not turn around to speak to Wise Sage. She just smirked and used a minor spell to make dancing balls of fire in the shape of the Wise Sage’s constellation, then rearranged them to make a shape of a five tailed silver vixen.

There was a laugh before the voice again said, “The pathway to the stars is open to all. But not to the ones who listen to their own words.”

Foxfire darted her head back to the stars a moment while hovering near her meditating body. Her spirit felt a tug to her body, like a magnet attracting a ferrous metal, but she resisted a bit. She quirked a brow, hmming softly to herself, “My own words…huh?”

Foxfire thought of all she said to the Wise Sage when she thought they weren’t hearing her. Unconcerned about worldly affairs? No, that was not it. Helping others is her goal, that requires some interest in the workings of the world. It is, after all, where life happens, Lost or not. She then thought about the making of magic.

Flashes of images crossed over her mind and her spirit jerked some from the information overload. She was seeing a past life,  her own past life, from before she became Lost. Days, years, and decades worth of teaching came flooding back to her in mere seconds. She saw one teacher blend into another as their lessons came back to her in a flood. The dam was not only broken, she made it vanish completely as if it were not there, and she was attempting to drink all the water flooding from an evaporated damn at once. It was intense, and she saw her physical body shaking as her physical mind was assaulted by the data in the same way her spiritual mind was. But she knew that, somewhere, those few drops of water she needed now was in that great lake of knowledge she just dove into.

Foxfire’s spirit form dropped to her knees and she recoiled a bit from the sensation. She instinctively wanted to turn into her silver vixen form and hide in her bestial mind, but fought the urge while fighting losing herself within all this information. With sheer determination and patience, she finally calmed down and held the information securely and safely within her mind.

She knew what she needed. Somewhere. It was there within her mind, she just had to find exactly where it was. She was just glad that she did not become a different kind of Lost, whose spiritual mind was inundated to the point of catatonia, her body resting forever in that meditative pose.

And as she merged her spiritual form and physical again, her eyes snapped wide and she blurted aloud, “A different kind of Lost!”

Upon awakening, Foxfire found that she had a weapon. It seemed not a very effective one, but apparently important enough for her to take with her when she was Lost. It was a bundle of coins strung together with strong chain in the shape of an ancient sword. She swung it around effortlessly, the sword almost weightless. But when she swung it against her own arm, it did not do much besides ding off of her metal flesh. Obviously its designed for some purpose other than being used as an actual sword.

Foxfire sat down to examine it a bit more. It was in the shape of an officer’s long sword from the ancient days. The chain was flexible and strong but she did not recognize the metal. The coins, circular in shape with square holes punched into the center of each, were not from any dynasty she recognized. They had very faded symbols across the face of them, but she did not recognize those, either.

The only real clue she had about it was one of the coins in the center of the hilt. It was silver instead of copper, and looked decidedly out of place. It looked like it replaced an older coin, for the chain there seemed repaired. She could see that this silver coin came from early in the second dynasty, which means if this was the newest coin in the sword, the sword was extremely old. The second dynasty was sixteen dynasties ago!

Foxfire swung it a few more times, then gave a shrug. It couldn’t even cut a branch. It obviously had some other use to it. What it was, she could not guess.

She held it out then concentrated on it a bit. The only effect it had on her was that it seemed to give her some clarity when focusing on it. Maybe she could use it as a focus during meditation, but she did not feel like meditating then. She felt like action.

Of course, she was not at all eager to turn again into her fox form, having been in that form as a Lost for so long, even though traveling in that form would have been faster. So she just walked on two legs in her humanoid form.

The sky was clear and the breeze was soft, making for a rather pleasant day to amble. She noticed that she was heading in the general direction of the Imperial City, so turned to the right and walked off in that direction. She didn’t know what city lay there, but she did know that a few lay along the coast, so she could travel along that if she found nothing else before.

The better part of the day was spent journeying through a small wood, then along a trodden path that was a country road. This lead to another set of woods, and Foxfire felt a strange pull to one tree there.

Coming upon it, she studied it carefully. It looked just like any other tree in these woods, firm and metallic with a dull silver grey color. Its branches spread out proudly, but lay bare. She saw nothing unique about it, but still felt compelled to stand near it.

Foxfire walked about it in one direction thrice, then in the other direction thrice again. As she did, she roamed her optics up and down the tree, finding nothing of note about it. Finally, she decided to just sit under it, her back against it.

Looking around, she glanced across the other trees nearby. They all looked pretty typical as well, nothing with them seemed out of the ordinary. Many had dull grey rodents scampering across the branches and stirring their leaves.

Foxfire looked up at the tree she sat against, and noticed that it had no leaves. Its branches were bare, and the rodents avoided it. And when she studied a nearby rodent, she noticed that it pointedly ignored this particular tree.

Foxfire stood up again and examined the tree some more. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary, still, except the lack of leaves and rodents in it. There should at least be leaves on its branches, it was the height of the growing season. But the tree itself did not look sick, its branches looked healthy and not withered.

The mystery would have to keep, she wanted to continue onwards. Still, moving away from this tree seemed to cause her a bit of stress, her steps slow and heavy. She routinely looked back towards the tree and twice almost went back towards it. But she kept on going and left the forest.

Down the small hill she saw that she was on was another small country road at the bottom of the hill’s slope. She then saw a funeral procession traveling alongside this roadway, so she waited against a tree at the forest’s end and watched with respect.

Seeing that it was nearing early evening, and the procession still had not passed, Foxfire decided she would not be able to make it to a city before night fell, and still she wanted to respect the procession and just watch it go on.

Why she did so was to study how it went. Things were different now than the last funeral procession she recalled, before she became a Lost. This procession had wailers keening for the dead, with the deceased inside a palanquin. It looked like more than just the deceased’s family lined up behind the dead, and she trained her eyes to where the procession came from. There was a village off in the distance that had the appearance of being abandoned. Obviously the entire village, or almost every one of the villagers, left for the procession.

In the last procession she saw, the deceased was wheeled away by their next of kin. There was no wailing people, and no villagers joined the processions that she knew, just the family. The deceased was taken to its final resting spot by family, friends and close acquaintances, people who may know the personal name and not courtesy name of the deceased.

If they were important to a village or city, such as an elder, or governor or mayor, then some of the citizens may line the pathway outside of the settlement to see the corpse off, but they did not join in the procession.

This piqued Foxfire’s curiosity. She ate her dinner from fruits she gathered from the forest she stayed in, and waited. The procession returned shortly after nightfall, torches lit to light their way. Once they returned to their village, she moved.

Foxfire turned once again into her silver vixen form, the chain coin sword wrapping itself around her waist as she shifted her shape. She wagged her five tails about behind her, giving a glance to the woods again, looking to the mysterious tree she still felt compelled to return to.

But, for now, she had to satiate her curiosity. She bounded off in the dark, seeing perfectly with her enhanced vulpine senses, heading right where the procession went earlier. Her nose flared at times to take the scent of the procession, following the trail, arriving quickly at the graveyard.

Finding the recently buried grave was easy, and she remained in fox form as she paced around it. Foxfire studied the headstone a time, and sniffed the air. She used senses atypical to a typical Dangaizan to learn that this person used to be good. A hero. No wonder the entire village paid their respects.

She hesitated to do so, but sat atop of the grave and drew mystical symbols with her paws onto the ground. Then she chanted in an ancient tongue before calling the dead hero’s name seven times. Then she sat and waited, but not for long.

The fog formed and coalesced into the spiritual form of the hero she just called upon, a tall, well armored mechanoid with deep, glowing eyes. His head looked more like a helmet than anything, and his body was itself armor. The spirit asked, “Who summons me?”

“No one you know, hero. And until recently, no one I knew, even.”

“I do not understand.”

Foxfire then explained what it was like being a Lost. That she had turned into her silver vixen form to evade the barbaric invaders long ago and had forgotten who she was, becoming the fox she only wanted to look like. She then told the spirit her dream.

The hero listened then gave a nod, “So that may be what happened to my eldest son.”

“You have not seen him?”

“Not in ages, no. Not since the northern barbarians flew like death upon wings into our lands. I had thought he dead. Perhaps he may still live.”

“If so, I may be able to find him for you, great sir. I desire to help the Lost to recover themselves. If I find your son, I can pass on a message.”

“It is well your intention, fox,” said the ghost, “But I have nothing to say to him beyond to live a life without regrets. Pass that message not to just my son, but all you help to reclaim themselves, and I will be well content.”

“It must be an important ideal for you,” Foxfire said with some admiration, her multiple tails flicking behind her some, “And one I like myself. I readily agree to this.”

“Young fox,” started the hero.

“Foxfire,” interjected the vixen.

“Foxfire, then, and a pleasure to meet you. I must ask, how would you recover the Lost?”

Foxfire gave a tilt of her head and her tails drooped a good bit, “I have not thought of such as yet.”

“How did you summon my ghost, then?”

“I’ve studied the Esoteric Art of Ancient Magics long before I became Lost. I guess I just remember certain spells, like an instinct.”

The ghost started to drift a bit, a strong wind blowing some of the fog that comprised its spiritual body away, “Do you know of a spell to talk to the Lost?”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Then make one.”

Foxfire tilted her head, her ears flopping some. She gave it some thought, then asked, “Do you know where to start making a spell?”

“Sadly, no, I never learned the art. I’ve had one friend who was a master of it, but he died many years ago, and buried in his home far away.” The ghost continued to fade as the fog that was his form continued to evaporate in the wind.

“Nevertheless, if others can make a spell, then so can I!”

“That is the proper spirit, young fox.” The ghost gave a soft, short chuckle at his own pun, before continuing, “I hear there were swords in days gone by that enhanced one’s mystical-” but whatever else the ghost wanted to say was blown away by the wind and fog, his spirit could no longer stay manifested.

Foxfire gave a soft sigh and bowed her head to the gravestone, giving an old prayer of peace to the deceased. She prowled about the graveyard a bit, seeing if she found anyone of interest or any she had known before, but no gravestone marked a name she recognized on any level.

The vixen hopped about the graveyard hill, then slid a bit on loose scree. She sprawled across the ground, her nose bumping into what was once a gravestone but had been weathered in the many long centuries since it was placed. It had cracked, crumbled and fallen apart, markings on it long weathered away. The only way that she recognized it was a grave marker was due to the unnatural shape of it, it was obviously worked.

Foxfire gave a soft sigh, bowed her head, and issued a prayer of peace to it as well, before starting off, saying, “I guess you’re a kind of Lost yourself.”

LOST NO MORE

NAME: Foxfire
SPECIES: Dangaizan
ARMY/CLAN: None
BODY STYLE: Fighter
PREF WEAPON: Coin Sword
ESOTERIC ARTS MASTERED: Perception
ESOTERIC ARTS EXPERT: Shape Shifting, Ancient Magics
ESOTERIC ARTS BASIC: Energy Blasts, Mentalism

The Southlands. Eighty four percent of the land is part of The Empire. While different dynasties have existed since ancient, mythical times, it is always simply known as The Empire. Neither good nor evil, it has a long history of good emperors and bad, good courtiers and evil, kind governors and ruthless, righteousness and blasphemy all in one. Far from perfect, it is by far the cultural epicenter of the Southlands, and all Dangaizans are proud to be part of it, should they be blessed as being one of its citizens, or covetous and envious of it if they are one of the barbaric tribes on its periphery.

There’s three great barbarian tribes, one on the plains to the north, another in the mountains to the west, and the last within the jungles to the south. A long and powerful wall trails from the northeast corner of The Empire along its northern border until it vanishes within the foothills of the mountains to the west. It would be adequate protection against the northern barbarians if those who guard it did not at times open the gates to let raiders within the borders. The traitors often do so for they feel, rightly or wrongly, slighted in one way or another, that The Empire betrayed them or the ideals they fight for.

It is only recently that a dynasty led by the northern barbarians, one whose last several emperors were ruthless and cruel to all, had recently fallen. Originaly let in by the general in charge of guarding the wall centuries back, they were overthrown by a bunch of bandits loyal to the concept of the ancient glorious dynasties of The Empire.

Know, o reader, this about Dangaizan life; that they enter it physically nearly mature but without much of a mind. Almost universally identical to one another in body shape, they spend an amount of time with their mental capabilities trapped within their bodies. And know that this stage of Dangaizan life forms the bulks of the armies, the mass of soldiery comef rom this almost larval stage of the lifespan.

Know, o reader, that should they physically survive long enough to develop such a mind that they obtain a personality, they will instantly awaken to their actual life, full of emotions and experience and intellect, capable of understanding and feeling. And that when this happens, their body physically changes to that which is their birthright long denied. And when they awaken, they know what their name is, for it is marked upon their very soul.

And know, alas, not all Dangaizans achieve this state of clarity. That only one in ten of them truly awaken to understanding, that the rest simply exist and obey the commands of their betters.

All Dangaizans who do awaken, however, have a penchant for one of two Esoteric Arts. They are awakened, or what is called the Second Birth, with knowledge of either the Art of Shape Shifting or that of Mode Change. Only one in ten of those who achieved Second Birth do not instinctively know either one of theo Esoteric Arts at least at an Expert level, all the rest are able to change their forms as part of their awakening. Those who know the Art of Shape Shifting may take the form of an animal their are spiritually linked to. Those who understand the Art of Mode Change can turn into a vehicle or object which tends to reflect their personality and dedication to their duty.

This knowledge, reader, is important, for there is some other thing thou must know, and that would be that, should a Dangaizan be in the form granted by one of the two Esoteric Arts for too long a time, they run the risk of losing the higher functions of their mind. They run the risk of losing their experience, their knowledge, their personal history, their own sense of self. They go from being a fully intelligent being to something that s in all physical and mental respects, what they are morphed into. Should a Shape Shifter  be in the form of an ironbull too long, they run the risk of becoming, for all intents and purposes, an ironbull. Should a Mode Changer stay within the form of a chariot or a lantern for too long, they regress their mental capabilities to that which a chariot or lantern naturally has. They lose their name. They lose their life.

They become Lost.

When the northern barbarians ran through the gates of the wall, thanks to the actions of the Great Betrayer, citizens of The Empire fled all over in panic and fear. Many who could not run far enough away, for one reason or another, used their gifts to become the form of a beast, vehicle or object to hide in plain sight. They existed as that which they hid as, and as the brutal dynasty kept perpetuating their reign, more and more became Lost.

The cruelty of fate was twofold, for not only did many lose their physical life in the initial invasion, many others lost their mental life over the course of the dynasty by succumbing to and becoming Lost. It was a tragedy that, once Imperial Dangaizans could write their history once again, would remark upon again and again as the darkest days The Empire ever faced.

Foxfire was one who hid by using her gift but becoming Lost due to it. Aptly named, she became a five tailed silver fox. She tried to keep her mind by reciting poetry from the Book of Ancient Poets and the Annalects of Classic Verse, she kept on making arguments on the theories found in the Volumes of the Thousand Philosophies, she fought to keep her mind active and acute. But even she fell and her mental acumen dwindled to a bare spark then blew itself out.

She became Lost.

Foxfire spent years hunting in the woods near the former Imperial City. Whenever a party of hunters threatened her, she would evade them with skill and cunning. She instinctively remembered the Esoteric Art of Ancient Magics she had known during her intellectual days and would employ illusions the thwart larger hunting parties. She fought, she mated, she hunted. She lived, but it was a life of no value, for she had no understanding of whom she was.

Then, one night, she had a dream.

Foxfire jumped from one cloud to another and in this way made it to the top of the highest mountain in the Empire. Feeling satisfied at this, she sat and looked out across the lands of the Empire, seeing flashing lights of various hues flicker across the land. Within her dreaming mind, she could see a map of the entire Empire with the lights planted upon them. Foxfire gave her five tails a flick and in her dream, spoke, “I think I understand.”

Then from behind her a monkey laughed, “Little Lost, do you really? Where do you think we are?”

“We are, stupid monkey, at the highest mountain peak in the Southlands!”

“Oh? I may be stupid, but I can see a taller mountain behind us!”

Foxfire then noticed to the west that there was, indeed, a much taller mountain than the tallest mountain in all the Southlands, and that it had been cloaked in foggy mist and diaphonous clouds. She ran off to that mountain, bounding from one cloud to another to achieve those heights. And felt proud that she did so. And there she said, “I understand, I think.”

A snake laughed beneath her, “What is it you understand?”

“That we are now upon the tallest mountain peak in all the Southlands, of course!”

The snake slithered upon the ground beneath her paws and asked, “Is that where we were? I thought we were within the deepest valley of that continent.”

And Foxfire looked all around, only to see fog pulling its silky netting away to reveal powerful walls of mountains of such a stature as to dwarf both the prior mountains Foxfire thought she attained. And Foxfire ran circles in a panic, shouting, “I do not understand!”

The snake chortled, “Yes, now you’re on the right path.”

Foxfire, being with a fox’s instincts, hated the snake, and so batted it hard away, and it flew across the horizon to splatter upon the mountain top she saw in the distance. And though she could not  see the snake any longer, she heard it say clearly, “And now, I am dead.”

Foxfire whimpered and disliked this, nothing made sense to her. Unable to understand what a dream was, for the Lost do not typically have them, Foxfire was confused at her very core. She knew that if you jump into a tree you’re higher than the ground you left. She knew that something you bat or bite does not talk after it dies. She understand what Nature governs. But she didn’t understand what was happening to her.

Foxfire reacted by digging a deep burrow, then trying to hide in it. When she hid within the metallic ground, she found a flock of birds flying through the solid ground. A pure white crane greeted her cordially with a, “May you not be hungry this day.”

“And to you as well, good crane,” Foxfire reactively said.

The crane perched on top of Foxfire by resting under her belly, which she was confused by. The crane picked at her fur a bit, scraping out burrs and small spots of rust from it before continuing on, “You do not get it, do you?”

“I thought I understood. Then I understood, I thought. And then I did not understand at all.”

“And now, what do you think?” the crane inquired.

“I think that I think,” was Foxfire’s reply.

The crane gave a nod, “A good answer, as good as any. You are still on the right path.”

“The right path to what, though, Mr. Crane?” asked Foxfire with a tilt of her head and a curious quirk of one ear.

“TThat is what we all wish to know, is it not? The path to what, yes?”

Foxfire shook her head, and shrugged, and sat confused for a bit. The crane kept perching on top of her under her belly, which kept confusing the fox, and kept nipping his beak at her fur. Finally, she snapped and bit deep into the crane’s neck, only to have it vanish in a puff of smoke and become a cloud. She could hear it then say, “I have lived.”

The other birds that flew through the solid ground also turned into clouds, in the form of a stairway of clouds, that went downwards. With nowhere else to go, Foxfire descended those clouds and found that she walked up into an ocean. Confused again, she decided not to even bother trying to understand. Here a school of fish swam by her, then came by again, and began to swim around her. They all said in unison, “May you not be hungry this day, Madame Teacher!”

Foxfire plopped her front paws over her ears and curled her five tails about her body, trying to hide. The school of fish kept swimming before her and would not let her go, so finally she asked, “What did you call me?”

And the fish replied in unison, “Madame Teacher, of course.”

“Of course, dear children, of course.” She sighed and gave a shrug of sorts in her vulpine form, “And why do you call me Madame Teacher, dear children?”

“Because you are not bothering to try to understand.”

“I see.”

“Do you?” asked the school in unison, “Not bothering to understand, is that a path to understand?”

“I know not, dear children, unless I walk the path, yes?”

“Truth there is in those words, Madame Teacher.”

Foxfire chuffed, “And just what am I supposed to teach you, dear children?’

“That you understand, you think.”

“But I don’t, do I?

“Teach us then,” said the fish in unison, “What you think you understand.”

“I think that I think, but I do not think I do understand.”

“Do you not, Madame Teacher?”

Foxfire started to get upset again, “Understanding is not something I am currently doing, and I do not know if I can understand! Now stop bothering me, please!”

“Are we bothering you, Madame Teacher? Do you think we are bothering you, or do you understand that we are bothering you?”

“Blasted fish,” Foxfire growled, “I wish you begone!”

With that, a giant shark came by and swallowed the entire school of fish up in one gulp, then greeted Foxfire with, “Done.”

Foxfire growled even more, her five tails standing on end, her hackles raised, “How dare you do that to my dear children, you brute!”

“I dare because I can, stupid fox!”

“Who dares call me stupid?”

The shark grinned a toothy grin, “I dare because I can. Yet you do not understand that.”

Foxfire’s eyes flashed darkly and she sneered, “I think I can dare as well.”

“Can you or not? Dare you risk trying?”

Foxfire jumped high and pounced upon the shark, shouting, “I dare and do!” and with that, she bit into its gills and killed him.

The shark floated away, dead, its voice coming to Foxfire, “I’ve killed.”

“We’ve been killed,” said the dead school of fish.

Foxfire swam to the middle of the ocean and gripped on the floor of it with her four paws. Then she hiked her hips upwards and began to spin her five tails around rapidly, forming a whirlpool within the liquid positronium. All sorts of marine life fell into the whirlpool and died, or fell into the whirlpool and got flung into the sky, only to die there, or fell into the whirlpool only to be devoured by predators who thanked Foxfire for the effort.

Then a dragon swam by and ordered, “Be still.”

Foxfire demanded who dare say that to her, “Just who do you think you are to command me? I who can churn the oceans!”

“Little fox, do you call that churning the oceans? With but a flick of my smallest whiskers I can make land into sea and sea into land! Can you do that small feat with all the power in your body?’

Foxfire stared at the dragon for a bit, then jerked her head up, a grin upon her vulpine lips, “I understand!”

“What is it you understand, little fox?”

Foxfire walked past the dragon underwater, laughing, “Watch my life from now on, if you wish to understand what I understand. Mayhaps when we meet again, I can call you Little Dragon!” And with that, Foxfire was gone and the dream ended.

The dragon, however, did not vanish with the dream, nor did the dreamscape with the mountains and seas and clouds. The dragon just watched Foxfire vanish with a smirk, “Yes, now you understand the path to walk, and know that you may dare, and think that you may think. I wonder if you know when to do which and how, though.”

Foxfire returned to the waking world in her humanoid form, a coin sword in her grip. She recalled not having such a thing before she became Lost, but she did understand who she was once more. She thought again. And she knew that she’d dare to do the impossible.

She’d find the Lost, and recover them. She’d right this tragedy for a brighter future of The Empire.

She’s guide tomorrow.

“My former teacher has guest rights within our tribe for a year and a day. Treat him as one of our own for that duration.”

Archaic gave a short, stiff, slight bow to the Warlord of Rage at that. It was more like a slightly exagerrated nod of his head, he was so stiff to do much else. Archaic and Cavalier were taken right to the Warlord of Rage’s court upon entering the Obliterator city, and their audience was brief but useful. Cavalier did his best to be polite, even if he nearly gave insult a few times.

“Furthermore,” the Warlord nodded to Cavalier then, “This young one who makes no excuses for his behavior, this youth who says with his eyes that he will terminate my existence…” The Warlord and Cavalier each glared darkly at one another across the short court before the Warlord continued on, “He…his fate….” He gave a short pause and looked at the young warrior some more, before nodding, “His fate is to be a guest of our tribe forevermore, until such a time as he decides to leave us.”

Archaic gave a cough of surprise. Cavalier looked incredulous and stupefied. Then both asked basically simultaneously, “What?”

The Warlord gave a short chuckle, “It’s true he desires my death, and with good cause. Fine. He can challenge me anytime, and here, he’ll never need to worry about finding me. As my guest, his safety is my concern, neither I nor my subjects will bring harm to him until the time comes when he himself desires our duel or to leave us. That’s part of our code of honor. As a guest, he’s under no obligation to go to war for us, nor even raise weaponry in defense of our kind. It is, however, our duty to protect him from invaders. With the exception of private areas, unless he’s invited into them, he has access to the lands of the tribe, he is no prisoner. He can keep what he brings into this tribe, which is all he is carrying now, and leave with them whenever it is his desire to leave. Or, should we duel and he loses it, be buried with them. His property and his liberty are both vouchsafed and remain his the entire duration he spends with us as a guest.”

Archaic nodded his head, asking, “But why?”

“My First Teacher, that was merely to allow the young one to understand what, exactly, it means to be a guest of the Obliterators. He has a justified grudge with me. Fine. We can settle that honorably when the time comes. But I wish to show him I’m no butcher. Furthermore…”

“What else is there? You ARE a butcher!” cried out young Cavalier.

“Furthermore, our tribe,” continued the Warlord, unabated, “has a respect for sole survivors of a battlefield. You, young one, are the only Vanguard to have survived the battle. Well. The only one that did not betray your kind to join with my own. As such, we believe you bear extreme luck and are fated for greatness. We welcome destined ones like you. Your luck brings us luck.”

“Why would I want you to be lucky, you murderers?”

“Now now, young one. Your status as a guest means we will not raise arms against you. That does not say we will strike you down in defense. And unlike the ‘civilized’ peoples of the Lands, we do find one spouting antagonistic speech to be a reason to lop of one’s head, as a matter of fact. You do not need to treat me with respect, nor kindness, but it is wise if you do not treat me to your insults.”

“He’s got a point, lad. They’re extending you a great kindness. A great honor, in fact. Don’t bring a fight you can’t win.”

Cavalier growled a bit, glancing at Archaic, “Yeah, fine. I get it.” Then he looked to the Warlord on his throne, “I apolo-”

“Don’t. No need. You did not know before. Now you do. One should never feel they need to apologize for simple ignorance born of never hearing the information before. However, willful ignorance, being taught, having information, and still diregarding it, is rather a sin. Now, as to me being a murderer….” The Warlord rose up and moved to the eastern portion of the court. He ascended a few short stairs onto a platform and looked out a window there, “I never intended to kill my old friend. I never intended to fight him. The information I was given had him posted elsewhere. Ironically, one of the ones who betrayed him, also betrayed me. Regardless…” He waves the two guests up to the platform with him, and waited until they arrived and looked out the window, “In the distance, there. You see that hill? There’s a valley just beyond that hill, where we bury our dead champions and best heroes. It’s sacred, all the clans of Oblierators view it as such. None of us will ever fight there, will ever defile it. Not long ago now, a Vanguard raiding party stole artifacts from some of our buried dead, then set fire to the tombs.”

Archaic gasped. That was a sacrilige almost beyond comprehension, and a tactic that no sane commander would assign a group. This group was either on their own, or had a commander willing to instigate a complete war between Obliterators and Vanguard until one side or the other was fully wiped out. And for merely some weapons from an unknown time ago?

“The other Obliterators, if they heard the news before us, would have amassed their hordes and struck ever onwards. There’d be no end to the carnage. By invading for revenge, and razing the Vanguard’s Hall of Heroes, we’ve avenged the insult and made things equal once more. In destroying the fort that stood in our way, in killing all those Vanguard, in a rather ironic way, we may have saved the lives of all the other Vanguard.”

“But, why? Are you not the Warlord of Rage?” Cavalier was dubious and somewhat dumbfounded.

“Hah, yes. At that I am. But I’ve no taste for mere butchery and slaughter. I grew up in a dying era of heroes, and in my mind I still hold on to a code of honor. It may not be as yours is, young one, but it is one never the less. Fighting those that are my match is the epitome of honor. Fighting those that are in no way a match for me is dishonorable and distasteful.”

“But-”

“Enough, young one!”

“Stop calling me young one!”

“Then earn your name amongst our tribe!” The Warlord looked Cavalier over, noticing his wounds, “There are three Vanguard that betrayed your fort. Within the next several years, spread out so as not to draw suspicion to their conspiracy, they will arrive here. You are to kill them all to take your revenge. Die to any, and we bury you on Vanguard grounds with a Vanguard rite. Upon slaying your enemy, you are to rip out their heart and devour their inner positronium as it still pumps. Then, you tear their head off and crush it between your hands. Such are the ancient ways of my peoples.”

“Gross.”

“Lad!”

“It’s OK, most of the Obliterators find it gross nowadays. But,” he pointed to Cavalier’s prizes gained from the slaying of the cybersaur raptor, “I take it you are okay with certain ancient rites, therefore, you shall gain vengeance using our ancient rites. Now, you slay one of the traitors, you earn your name amongst us.” The Warlord looked Cavalier over again and pointed to his fire scarred chest, “The Flame of Fate should do it. You will have earned that name for the first kill.”

“I kind of like that name. And upon killing the other two?”

“You slay the second one, and I will teach you all the Esoteric Arts and fighting styles I am aware of, young one. I shall be your First Teacher. Perhaps, then, with that knowledge, you can slay me.”

“Hah!” The youth shook his head some, glancing to the Warlord, “Got a death wish? Fine. But I’ve no taste of dishonoring myself by slaying my First Teacher. That is one gift I may need to consider declining.”

The Warlord gave a simple shrug, “Think on it, the time has not yet arrived to fight any of those traitors. Accept or decline the gift only when it is offered to you.”

“Wise words, former student,” Archaic stated.

“Yes, well. I myself may have had a good teacher. The third gift, should you kill all three…” The Warlord moved back to his dias and sat upon the throne ensconced there, “The third gift…I have no heir. You slay your three enemies, and I shall adopt you as my son and heir.”

“What?” Both the guests were of course, astonished. As was every Obliterator in the court who heard this pronouncement.

“You would, young one, become my heir. Upon my death or my removal as this particular clan’s ruler, you would ascend in my place. This tribe would be yours.”

“I have no idea what to say! I came here seeking to end your existence, for revenge!”

“Say nothing now, young one. Say what you mean when the time comes to say it, nothing else until then. But I have my reasons. Besides being chosen by fate, you’d prevent this tribe splitting in two. Without an heir, my two subcommanders would fight over the position. My tribe would be torn asunder and split into two warring factions. The survivors, however many there were, would be in a far weaker state than they’ve been in for awhile. In such a position, any of our enemies would likely come in and decimate my people. My death would very likely mean the death of all my tribe, should I not have an heir. You’d be saving lives.”

Cavalier did not know what to say. He had been told for years that the Obliterators were just a mindless, uncivilized horde reaping despair across the Lands. And here, within hours of saying he intended to behead the Warlord, was the Warlord offering him honors, thinking about saving future lives, talking about ancient traditions of peace, having a valid reason for recent slaughter. Cavalier’s head tilted downwards and his eyes clouded in thought.

“Young one,” the Warlord stated again, “Like I said before, reply when the time to reply arrives and not before. You have time to think, to live life, to see if my people are worth saving or not. I have no intention of dying for a long time, there is no rush to reply to this yet. However…” The Warlord looked past the two guests to his chief shaman, “Our young guest is still injured. See to his injuries, and assign your students to prepare for a guest feast on the morrow.”

The elder shaman took Cavalier off and prepared for the treatment. While he was treating the young guest, he explained that the Warlord heard of days of long ago when the various armies would exchange guests with each other, forming alliances and ensuring peace. Or, at the very least, giving hostages on the bet that peace would follow. That the last golden age was brought in partially by this web of alliances, and that the Warlord would like to see that day return.

Cavalier’s repairs incorporated the damage into him. The ‘wings’ affixed to his back were not removed, but buffed and polished smooth, then inked in a pure gold. The flames burnt into his chest were also inked in gold and yellow, the ink having a soothing effect upon the warrior and healing him of the ambient pain. The melted slag lump on his lower chest was gently removed and his chest was sanded and buffed back into sleek, angular lines.

Archaic spent his year and a day with his former student and his clan peacably, watching the animosity Cavalier displayed originally slowly ebb and abate. A half a year later, Cavalier earned his tribal name of Flame of Fate amongst the Obliterators. Two years later, he slew his second nemesis and earned a First Teacher. Three years after that, the last traitor of the Vanguards, had fallen to his spine-tooth blade and he earned his spot as the Warlord’s heir. He found that the traitors, people he never knew could exist prior to that one fateful day, had ever been his true enemies. At least an enemy from a different army would fight upon a field of battle, there was honor in that. But a betrayal was starkly dishonorable and fully disagreeable to his sense of honor, duty and integrity. Cavalier voluntarily weeded the tribe of their own traitors, finding Obliterators that sold allegiance to another army to betray at a future date and for a future battle. There were always more, ever more, for the weak and disenfranchised will always seek methods to gain somehow, no matter the cost. Cavalier envisioned that all across the Northlands one Vescaxian or another was plotting to betray their army at a crucial time, and the thought disgusted him.

In all, ten years passed. Cavalier never saw Archaic return to the tribe, but he did gain friends, followers, and even a loved one, amongst his one time enemies. When the woman he loved died, he spent the year in mourning for her, she who he planned to be his lifemate, and upon the day after the mourning passed, he walked out of the gates and once more into the wide world.

“What?”

“I said, ‘Good job, lad’.”

“For what?”

“You killed a cybersaur raptor all by yourself, without using any Esoteric Art. And you further performed ancient rites that few people still recall, offering the spirit of the dead a resting place. That’s commendable, both feats. So, good job, lad.”

Cavalier looked over the old one sitting on top of the ore boulders cautiously, appraisingly. He did not know how long the old one’s been here or for that matter, in the general region, and had not heard his footfalls or his mounting of the boulders. Someone as old as the person he’s conversing with appears should have given off some sounds of effort or heavy footfalls to warn Cavalier of the new presence long before now. But this one, he just suddenly seemed to have appeared from nowhere. And Cavalier was a bit unsettled about that. After a few moments pause, Cavalier asked, “Just who are you, old one?”

“Hah!” came a laughter and a cough mingled together, “That’s a good question alright. It’s been awhile since I conversed with someone else, so I haven’t needed a name in a long time. Let’s see, I go by nowadays as….Archaic. Yeah, that’s the name. Almost forgot that!”

“You have other names?”

“Who doesn’t, lad? Creation name. Adventuring name. Down in the Southlands they have a Courtesy Name. Some of us go by their title. Others, by their aspiration. Still others have names placed upon them by others. We can go through names like we can go through weaponry. But I’ve been going by Archaic for a few millenia now, come to think of it, and I’m not like to be changing it anytime soon.”

Cavalier glanced over the old one a bit more. He still had his suspicions, though the old one made no hostile move at all. In fact, he made no move at all, except with his mouth. The only motions the old one made were the ones needed to vocalize and no more. Cavalier asked a curious question, “Do I know you from another name, from history?”

Now there was motion. The old one threw his head back and cough-laughed again, a hand raising to cover his mouth. His other hand unslung a long and ancient musket from his back to lay across the boulder behind him, and he shifted his legs to be more comfortable. After the laughing and coughing fit both ended, the old one shrugged, “I don’t know. Certainly not in your lifetime, lad. You’re too young to have seen me in my prime, by far. If you know certain histories, maybe. But even then I wasn’t nothing very special, my ancient name isn’t likely to be gracing any history books, sad to say. Archaic works, lad. At my age, it’s easier to remember just one name at a time. So don’t be giving me any strange nicknames, might muddle me up some.”

Cavalier studied Archaic a bit longer, his eyes scanning over the old one and his gear. He first blurted out, “Wait, that’s an ancient magic wand!”

Archaic gave a snort of derision and shook his head, “Magic wand my aft. It’s just a musket. Back in the old days, they were the epitome of weapons technology. Then the Esoteric Art of Energy Blasts developed and firearms technology was largely forgotten. You still see a few firearms users and engineers around, but largely, what’s being carried by a few old ones like me are it. We used it in…”

“Peacekeeper!”

“Eh? Oh, yeah.” Archaic looked down at his left shoulder, which had a very faded and deformed sigil baring the mark of the ancient and now long defunct Peacekeeper faction. Before this current Great War, the Peacekeepers were a multi-army and inter-tribal force for good. The elite warriors went into their ranks, and they patrolled the Northlands, resolving conflicts and insuring the peace for all. This worked for a long time, until strife ripped even that elite and noble group apart. Betrayed by within, many were assassinated in one night, few ever saw a survivor since. “I guess I lost my cloak somewhere. Look, you didn’t see that. I’m just an old man with an ancient weapon who thinks you got potential, lad.”

“But what you did in those days were amazing, Archaic! You Peacekeepers prevented the end of the world. You helped resolve the Great Cataclysm! The ancient and miraculous crystalline cities of-”

“We may have done some of that, lad,” Archaic cut him off, “But a lot of that’s myth. Look, truth be told, we did some good things, we did some bad things. Sometimes the peace we kept was held at the end of our weaponry. Forced peace is never true peace. Don’t forget that. I’m not saying I’m not happy having served, or that we were villains or nothing. But I am saying that, without anyone alive to counter them, legends spring up about near anything. We haven’t done most of what we’ve been given credit to doing. Sorry, lad.”

Cavalier shook his head, “Disregarding all that, ignoring the tall tales, fine, I can accept that.” Cavalier had stooped and withdrew one of his short blades and began to carve up the cybersaur raptor’s hide, knowing what to use some of it for, now, “I still think what you did was amazing. You took all the various armies and bound them together. Soldiers of all the armies worked together for along time. For someone like me, whose life started long into this Great War, such a thing is almost inconceivable. That’s almost mythical in itself.”

“Eh, I suppose so. Thanks, lad. But the Convoys….”

“The Convoys don’t do the same thing, Archaic! Almost none of them ever work together with their rivals. You won’t see a Vanguard and an Obliterator working together in a Convoy because our armies are at war with each other. Besides, they’re just mercenaries. Most are glorified caravan guards. There’s nothing honorable in that. What you did…”

“What Peacekeepers did was done in a different age. A different world. It was an easier group to form back then. Given the wartorn state of the Northlands now, a Convoy corps isn’t so dishonorable a vocation.” Archaic looked at Cavalier, asking with a curious glint in his eyes, “What’re you doing now, lad?’

“You lost your cloak,” Cavalier stated matter of fact as he kept on working at the raptor’s hide. He paused in talking for a bit as he soon enough finished the job at hand, offering a makeshift cloak of cyebrsaur raptor hide to Archaic, “It’s not perfect and may be a bit stiff, but it is yours, now.”

Archaic’s face look startled. He paused for a time, in shock, before giving a loud burst of laughter, without a cough this time. With trembling hands he reached out to take hold of the gift, a bright smile on his face, “Lad…you know what you’re doing?”

Cavalier nodded, “I’m giving a gift to a friend. You have need of a cloak, and now you have it.” The statement was so matter of fact and direct, it startled Archaic.

“Lad…oh, Lad. Honestly, I can’t thank you enough.”

“My name is Cavalier, Archaic. And please, no thanks needed. Though I am curious why you are so sentimental about such a gift.”

Archaic gave a wry smirk and shook his head, “Back in my day, lad…Cavalier, sorry….back when I was your age, my people had a rite of passage. We’d go out hunting down something with just melee weaponry. No Esoteric Arts….though back then, there wasn’t as many as there are now, and different ones to boot, and no firearms. Knives, swords, spears, that sort of thing. We’d hunt down a beast and perform rites for its soul’s passage much the same way you did. And we’d bring a gift back…”

“Yeah? So what I’m doing…”

“Let me finish, lad. We’d bring a gift back to the one we want as….as our lifemate. I know that’s not your intent, but it made me recollect the one lady I wanted as my own lifemate. The only one I ever met in my life that I ever wanted to give a hunter’s gift to.” Archaic flung the cloak about him, covering his Peacekeeper sigil and his musket’s harness, then gave a grin, “Such a gift will remind me of my younger and better days. Thank you.”

“Archaic…I…you’re welcome…?”

The old one stiffly got up off the boulder, grabbed his musket, and came over to Cavalier. He rested a hand on the young one’s shoulders and gave a short smile, “Honestly, thank you. I hope to be able to repay you for this gi-”

“Tell me stories of your Peacekeeper days. Where are you headed, anyway? We can talk as we travel.”

Archaic gave a short nod, “I’m visiting two who were once my students. Separately, however, they’d never come together in peace anymore. You may know one, young Vanguard. He’s the fortress commander of a fort….”

“He’s deceased.”

Archaic gave a pause and a sigh, shaking his head, “A shame. For some reason, I’m thinking you were under his command.”

Cavalier nodded, solemnly, “I was there when the Warlord of Rage and his Obliterators stormed through. As far as I know, I’m the only survivor of the Vanguards. How, I’m not sure. But now…”

“You’re headed to the Warlord’s camp in order to gain revenge. But what you’re really doing is suicide by external force. You’re throwing your life away, lad.”

“I know that, old timer! Don’t think me for a fool! I saw my hero die in one slash right before my eyes, I know the Warlord could terminate me with barely a thought! I know that even his soldiers, his lowliest, could overcome me without much effort. I know, but I swore I’d have vengeance!”

“And the attempt must still be made huh? Admirable, in its own way, but foolish.” Archaic held up a pair of fingers when Cavalier glared at him and was about to yell in response, “Foolish, I say, for now, for how you mean to do it. You struggled with one cybersaur raptor. Your nemesis can defeat fifty with ease. I know your emotions are raging now, but control them. Turn them into a simmer. Don’t forget what happened at that fort, but don’t throw your life away for it. Live on, and some day, in some way, you’ll gain your revenge.”

“How? By killing him when he’s as old as you? When he has one foot on his own funeral pyre?”

“It’s not a bad thought, but no,” Archaic mused. Cavalier had not noticed it, but Archaic was taking the duo right where Cavalier wanted to go anyway, the home camp of the Obliterators lead by the Warlord of Rage. Archaic gave a sidelong glance, “There are other pathways to vengeance. Killing a body is just killing a body. But you can destroy also their relationships. No one is an island, after all, and loneliness causes a despair all its own. You can destroy their dreams; everyone has something they seek to accomplish in life, and being unable to achieve their goal can shatter their spirit. You can destroy their name, by ruining their reputation. This particular enemy of yours has his power magnified by his army, yet what if he no longer had such? What would the Warlord of Rage be if, for example…you showed pity on him?”

“Pity? Why would I show pi-” Cavalier looked around some and noticed their path, “The second one you intend to visit, is the same one I intend to behead, isn’t it?”

Archaic gave a soft nod, “They both were my students, yes. Both your hero and your vengeance fueld nemesis. At one time, they were friends and fought together. They were the young heroes of their generation, before. But the world ever changes, and oft we ever change within it. Only the stubborn like I will remain as they were, a relic of the long gone past.”

Cavalier looked sullen for a time, frowning. His new friend taught his now worst enemy. He also taught his personal hero. But the one slew the other. A conflict of emotions crossed over Cavalier’s face, the youth looking confused, “Archaic, you….”

“Tell me how you survived.”

“Huh? The battle? I, I don’t know, really.”

“You do, tell me. Talk me through that entire day.”

Cavalier took some time to collect his thoughts, both on Archaic and the relationship with both his former students, and the day of the battle. After a few false starts, he told the story of the fight from the way he saw things. He offered a few guesses as to what happened from outside his vantage point, based on what he saw occur at the fort. He ended the story by recalling waking up, wounded, in the burnt shell of the commander’s office, almost the entire way across from the fort’s entrance where he was.

Archaic nodded slightly, “Two things, then, lad. The first is, and you may not understand it, but you obviously escaped using the Esoteric Art of Celerity.”

“I haven’t been trained in enough lessons to have done that! I’m only able to see experts using it, I’m not able to move with the speed of an expert!”

“You’re no expert, lad. Teleporting is the work of a master of that art. Whether or not you know how to do it intellectually, you’ve mastered the art instinctively. You willed yourself to escape, and you did, by teleporting across the fort. It’s true you’ll likely need lessons on the art to be able to use it actively, but you got potential, lad.”

“I suppose so, old timer. Are you able to teach me the art?”

Archaic laughed. The pair walked at a slower pace, Archaic’s gait was slow with age, his knees corroded by the degradation of ancient suns. He shook his head, “Maybe once, long ago. I’m too old to be able to teach you in the art anymore. Oh, I can give you the philosophy behind it, the mental exercises, the lessons in how to track the motion. But you know all that already, if you could see the Warlord’s swing. You’re probably doing the mental exercises now, aren’t you?”

“Ever since I reawakened in the fort, actually, even during the fight against the raptor. But…”

“You’re hit a plateau and can not advance on those alone, isn’t that right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Archaic snorted, “No sir, we’re friends, lad. If you want to beat the Warlord of Rage, you need at least all the Esoteric Arts he knows, of at least the skill levels he knows them at. You need a teacher.”

“Yeah. I’ll have to travel the world, I suppose, learning from various masters.”

“Yes, that’s one path. Or…” Archaic nodded to the camp that was their destination, the fortress city of the Obliterators, “Or you can learn from one teacher. The Warlord of Rage knows all of the Esoteric Arts at the exact skill level as your target, the Warlord of Rage, after all. Get him to teach you all he knows, and you stand on equal ground in that respect.”

“How? Why? That’s dishonorable! And what of the oath one takes between master and student? I’d forever be an oathbreaker if I killed my own teacher!”

“Honor’s not everything, lad. Cavalier, sorry. If you want your revenge, you need to know what you’re willing to give up. If it’s not your life, what else could it be? Your honor? One of your limbs? Your ability to fight again? What? You never come away from a vengeance duel unscathed.”

Cavalier mused over this for a bit and finally nodded, “I suppose that is true. It will be something I need to consider.”

“Good, now, young friend, two things,” Archaic pointed to the city gates, “Keep silent, allow me to do all the talking. Challenge no one you see, no matter what. Just watch, listen, and learn. Observe. Can you do that?”

“I can attempt to do that, at least.”

Archaic gave a shrug, “Attempt as hard as you can. Step out of line and both of our lives are forfeit. My life is in your hands just as much as it is any Obliterator, now. Do you understand?”

“Not really, but I suppose I will, sooner or later. I’ll do my best to follow those orders.”

Archaic nodded and yelled to the gate guards for entrance. They shouted back and forth for a time, challenging Archaic’s right for admittance, asking why he seeks entry, who Cavalier is, and several other questions. After it was done, the pair waited as the large, strong gates slowly swiveled open.

“You said there were two things, but only mentioned one. What’s the other?”

“Ah, yes, my lad. Thank you. Your story about the battle. There’s several anomalies. Relive it inside your mind, repeat the fight again and again until you see for yourself.” Archaic started to walk into the Obliterator city.

“What am I to see, Archaic?”

“Why, who betrayed the Vanguard, of course. All the traitors.”

Cavalier spent the next three days stalking the dull metal plains that once sat before the fort he was stationed at. Dull in the respect that it was a darker grey or dark gunmetal color across the plains as well as being largely flat and devoid of scenery. Despoiled, he thought. This is what happens when warriors roam across the land and caretake of it not at all.

He knew that he had to find something to gain energy with soon, he could already feel some of his internal parts atrophying. Back in civilization, there wouldd be positronium processing devices, able to take the liquid that is nearly everywhere in the Lands of Living Metal and process out the impurities and indigestibles for a Vescaxian to use for energy. In a good city, there’d even be taverns with multiple different such devices each flavoring their end product for different effects, including giving a Vescaxian the same feeling as drinking alcohol. There would even be places where chefs would process the positronium into solids so a Vescaxian could eat.

Eat would be what Cavalier would need to do here, but without the aid of even a survival kit to process the positronium. He’d have to be far more primitive, far more savage, dip back deep into his species’ evolutionary past and try to hunt down another living being and eat that. Like some sort of uncultured and uncivilized beast, he’d have to devour the carcass of a formerly living being and use atavistic portions of his body, long forgotten by most Vescaxians, to gain his fuel.

But he saw nothing on the plains. There was no vegetation, no prey species. He couldn’t even find a predator. He knew that he should follow the liquid positronium as it flowed across its river channels until he found a lake or pond that was used naturally as a watering hole, but even a creek eluded him. The plains seemed to be conspiring to achieve his termination, he thought. The Obliterators and their natural habitat seemed to be working together to destroy him.

Cavalier looked upwards to the sky, watching the five moons dance their dance across the canvas as he ambled onwards. He kept moving ever forward, but with no particular destination in mind, he did not look forward, he kept looking moonwards. Wherever he’d wind up, he figured, is where he’s supposed to be, let fate guide his steps. Let destiny be his destination.

While traveling, Cavalier imagined the moons, and imagined life upon them. Vescaxians had no proper names for the moons, they even argued about those simple facts. So they were simply given letters, in order of their perceived size and brightness. G seemed to be both the biggest and brightest, so it came first in the list of moons. Following in order were the moons D, L, V and Z. Cavalier tried to recall why those letters were used in place of names for the moons, but had never learned a fact on this. Vescaxians simply forgot why they used these but continued to use them nontheless.

As he only knew a life of warfare, so he envisioned the moons were also in a state of warfare. At some points in his imaginings, he saw each moon a world unto itself, closed off from the others, each then fighting their own type of war within their own lunar planet. The denizens of moon G would be laying waste to other denizens of moon G without regard to moon D because they could not interact with one another.

The other half the time he spent imagining things, he imagined giant ships floating between one moon and the other, fighting huge battles between the moons as one force would try to land their troops on another’s home moon for whatever reason they fought. He further imagined one moon fighting for one reason and another for another, so he imagined five different reasons for the same war. He thought that a bit absurd, one war should have one reason, so his life’s experiences went, but he imagined it nontheless. He knew though that some ships were able to sail the sky, so envisioning the sailing of the sky between moons to be easier done, and thought of large navies fighting in that space.

Cavalier’s thoughts came to an abrupt end when he heard a roar off in the distance. He snapped back to his reality to try to see who or what issued said roar, and as he did so he dropped into a wary crouch, flattening his own profile against the horizon, making it that much harder to detect him. The issuer of said roar was apparently traveling towards his direction, if the dust clouds kicked up by it were any proper indication. Cavalier took his eyes off the creature for a brief time to survey his surroundings, trying to find any place to hide, but only a shallow dried creek gave him any cover, and that would be a very poor ambush position. But he took it regardless, having no better options.

As he dove down into it and readied himself he noticed that it was a cybersaur stalking his way. A raptor type, quick and agile, a fine hunter with long, sharp and very deadly claws. One swipe in a vital spot and Cavalier would meet his end on these nameless plains. Knowing this, Cavalier took his giant cleaver from its carrying position and readied it in both hands, hoping to kill the beast in one blow.

He barely prepared himself when the raptor was already on top of him. He heard the roar a second time, far closer this time, mere meters away from him. Cavalier instinctively knew that he was prone and in a terrible position, so rolled away from the beast even as it leapt into the air to pounce on him. The raptor hit where he was located at the same time Cavalier took a frantic swipe with his cleaver, nicking the beast across its chest.

Wounded, the cybersaur raptor took two steps back and narrowed its eyes at Cavalier. Knowing its intended prey was not dead, but a warrior fighting for its life, forced the raptor to employ tactics gained from a long time of hunting tricky and deadly prey. The raptor reared its head back and flicked its tail side to side. It bared its long rows of sharp and dead fangs and issued a low warning growl. All this was designed to keep the focus off of its own feet, however. The cybersaur raptor cocked back its two middle claws on its feet, locking the toes in place. These long claws were easily a match in every way to the short blades that Cavalier took from the remains of the fort that hung at his hips. They had the bonus quality of being unable to be disarmed, unless the raptor’s foot was removed. And with the speed a cybersaur raptor could achieve, this was an unlikely proposition.

Cavalier noticed but gave no sign he did, the raptor’s claws locking into place. He briefly pondered tossing his axe to pull his swords, but his first teacher ingrained into him the lesson that a warrior is not to toss any weaponry unless it gives a decisive advantage to do so. One never knows if the weapon they no longer have access to is the one that will win the battle. So Cavalier gripped tighter on the haft of his giant cleaver and crouched again, providing less area to strike and giving him a lower center of gravity to shift in response to the raptor’s attacks easier.

The raptor was swift indeed, much more so than Cavalier anticipated. The young Vescaxian shifted to the side in time to save his own life, but he could not score a hit against the charing raptor, who just ran right past Cavalier’s former position as if attempting to overbear him. He knew the raptor’s intent was to get him to the ground then eviscerate him with those giant claws, tearing his corpse into shreds. It was not a fate he wished for himself, so Cavalier did his best to focus more, dodging as the raptor’s whip like tail tried to slap him in the head to stun him after the cybersaur charged past him.

Cavalier knew that his cleaver was heavy, but its use would overextend him, and that his enemy could move into and against him and tear him apart in very close quarters combat. He had to use it as a method to deter the attack and counterattack when the opportunity presents itself. He knew that its weight and size would give a grievous wound to the beast, should it connect. But he also knew that could enrage his rival into attacking in an unconcerted, primal, furious way that would be hard to defend against or anticipate. The berserker’s death, the raptor would try to bring down his killer as he was dying.

The raptor circled about Cavalier, who kept shifting small steps to keep himself head on with his enemy, with his giant cleaver between the combatants. For long moments the two continued moving slowly in this fashion, trying to find a slip in the other’s defenses or a shifting of the wrong foot that would slow down their reactions. Neither gave nor gained ground on the other.

The raptor cybersaur, born with the patience of a beast, eventually gave in to instincts and struck again. It charged a few steps towards Cavalier, but unlike its first attack in which it tried to run him down, it stopped short and snapped its teeth filled jaws at Cavalier, its neck quite longer than it looked in its normal position. It Cavalier wasn’t quick enough to put the haft of his axe into the attacking maw so he could hold his adversary at bay, the raptor would be chomping on parts of Cavalier’s metallic form. Only keeping the haft in the enemy’s mouth and using both his hands on the axe to use the weapon as an impromptu bridle kept Cavalier unharmed in this particular bout. He’d have to wrestle with the powerful raptor’s strong neck, head and jaws and try to gain advantage that way.

So long as the two were locked in this position, neither could do a thing to the other. Cavalier kept the raptor away so neither foot claw sabers nor smaller hand claw daggers could rend his body. But while the raptor had his main weapon in his maw, and Cavalier’s strong arms wrestled with the beast via the giant axe, he could not give up his axe and draw his shorter blades. But the time he got them ready and attacking his enemy, the raptor’s claws would be in him, resulting in a Pyrrhic victory to both combatants. Not a valid option for him, though if it came down to it and he was dying anyway, he’d do what he could to take his own killer down as well. So he filed that tactic away as a method of last resort.

The raptor eventually got annoyed with the axe’s haft horizontal in its maw and being unable to bite down on it hard enough to break it or break through Cavalier’s defenses, so it opened wide and jumped back some. It snapped quickly again at Cavalier, only to get the butt of the heavy weapon slammed down into his snout. That one move may have turned the battle.

A bit stunned, the raptor fled backwards several steps. Its foot claws still locked in place, it leaned forward to a more horizontal position, its tail up and whipping back and forth. It gave a snort of derision towards Cavalier before shaking its head to try to recover from the dazing effect of having his main sensory input stunned and his brain rattled.

Now! something shouted within Cavalier. He took his giant cleaver and flung it in a mighty throw, letting it scythe its way just over the ground towards his enemy. As it was launched towards the raptor, he launched himself towards the cybersaur as well. He grabbed and readied his short blades, one to a hand, and rushed in just behind the cleaving weapon.

The giant weapon met the legs of the raptor just beneath the knees, the circling weapon meeting the raptor’s legs just as the raptor tried to move backwards against the frantic attack. The haft tangled itself up into the cybersaur’s legs, causing it to topple over and forward, its head moving ever closer to the ground. Cavalier helped the raptor’s head meet the ground by pouncing upon the raptor, driving his swords down through the cybersaur’s skull and pinning it down into the ground.

Cavalier jumped back quickly as the cybersaur thrashed madly upon the ground. Its head pinned, its jaws closed, it could do little to effect Cavalier at all, who could just watch it struggle onwards to its demise. The long tail whipped furiously around, cutting itself multiple times on the blade of the axe near it. The giant foot claws pinned themselves into the ground and it tried to pull backwards, nearly tearing its own head off, before realizing it had shuffled off the mortal coil and its now deceased body fell limp in a cloud of metallic dust.

Cavalier made sure it was dead by watching it for a time, before he offered an ancient rite to a formidible enemy he just hunted. Most Vescaxians no longer hunted in these days, so most forgotten the rites, but to Cavalier it was important. He honored his dead enemy, he offered it some relief by placating its spirit to join the hunting spirits. And he promised to use the body to its fullest and insure that the life given to Cavalier was not one wasted. It was not just a kill for fuel, nor a fight to keep himself from being devoured, but it was a dance between predator and predator for honor, glory and the right to continued existence. And to Cavalier, the vanquished will forevermore be born by the victor. Dipping two fingers into the bleeding wounds of the cybersaur, he wiped hunter’s marks upon himself with the raptor’s internal fluids to end the rite. Then he collected his weapons and grabbed the Cybersaur by the tail, dragging it across the plains behind him, as he tried to find a shelter.

It took the better part of the rest of the solar cycle for Cavalier to find anything remotely usable for shelter, and it was a mere set of ore boulders piled in a way that there was a small enclosed space between and underneath the assortment. Better than nothing, and tired from lack of fuel and the intense fight, Cavalier used it to prepare his conquest.

The raptor’s claws he used to make a necklace with, the two main claws dominating the center position of the hunter’s necklace with the smaller claws going upwards towards the hunter conqueror’s neck in size from largest to smallest. The fifty two fangs he found within the cybersaur’s mighty jaws he collected, and took a the raptor’s hard and powerful spine. With the spine as the base, he implanted the teeth into the metal and made himself a deadly tooth blade as a sort of primitive and savage sword. He knew that this weapon was both intimidating to civilized Vescaxians and superstitious ones both, but further and more importantly, that it would be a highly effective killing tool. Then he began to butcher the corpse to ration out its edible bits for today’s meal and that of future days, to save the blood in canteens and canisters, to bag the parts that could be sold in a city for future monetary needs. The parts that could not be used he took out to the plains and buried them with reverence, offering another short rite to the deceased.

When the short funeral for a fallen hunter was complete, on top of the giant ore boulders, came a gruff old voice he never heard before offering the compliment of, “Well done, lad.”

NAME: Warlord of Rage
SPECIES: Vescaxian
ARMY/CLAN: Obliterators
BODY STYLE: Striker
PREF WEAPON: Giant Axe
ESOTERIC ARTS MASTERED: Invincible Robot
ESOTERIC ARTS EXPERT: Flying Fists, Mode Change, Celerity
ESOTERIC ARTS BASIC:

The duel was over almost quicker than the eye could follow. With one quick swipe of his newly acquired heavy blade, the Warlord had decapitated the Commander, sending the fortress commander’s head flying, crashing and clattering across the ground not so distant from Cavalier’s prone body. There was a very good chance that the Commander never even saw his death scything through the air, for it was of such swift action that the Esoteric Art of Celerity had to have been employed to have done it.

Cavalier had seen the swing, however. He had been trained in the basics of that Art, so he knew what to look for and how to watch the Art in action. He had seen the swing, but could do nothing about it. Not only because that would reveal his life goes unextinguished, but because the swing was too quick, and without practicing the basics enough to be considered an expert in the Art, he’d be unable to match the speed the Warlord exhibited. There was simply nothing Cavalier could do besides watch his hero die.

Cavalier flicked in and out of consciousness after this. He knew not what was truly going on around him, he could only hear often mumbled voices whenever he regained his senses. But he felt. He felt the bodies of others being flung on top of his position. He felt the corpses of both Vanguard defenders and Obliterator attackers being tossed into one huge pile, which happened to be over top of him. And he remembered what the Obliterators do after battle and why this is happening.

The Obliterators would toss all the dead of the battle together, then add flammable fuel upon the pile, and watch as the dead were reduced to ash. Several amongst the tribe would step forward and sing for the deceased, issuing a ballad to guide the spirits of the dead to their heroic rewards. Several others would recount the stories of the battle, both their glories and the heroic acts of the deceased, to honor the bravely fought. This was done to show that, while they were enemies in life, in death they were entwined together as one, honored together, remembered together.

Cavalier still was not dead, however; though this was a conclusion rapidly approaching the longer the rites continued on. He heard the sounds of two others somewhere above him crying out for help, both silenced with the Warlord quickly slicing their heads apart. Cavalier knew rescue was not an option here, with this Warlord. He had heard of times when other Obliterator leaders would sometimes rescue the not quite dead from the assembled funeral pyre to raise as an honored guest in the tribe, but the Warlord of Rage obviously was not of this ilk.

Cavalier started to panic. There was nothing he could actually do, however, his limbs were pinned to the hard metal ground with the heavy weight of his former companions and enemies above him. Only the door to the fortress that had landed upon him much earlier this night provided him any shelter. Cavalier had the vague hope that this miniscule shelter would block the flames and he’d survive, only to come to grips with the fact that even if that did happen, the melted remains of the corpses atop of him would have blocked any escape out before he was able to regain lost energy. He’d die from lack of energy long before the melted remains broke down and became as dust upon the plains.

Without much else to do physically, Cavalier kept trying to work things out mentally, whenever he was awake enough to do so. He had desperate dreams and dark nightmares. He imagined various revenge scenarios and lived through them all in his wildest imaginations. He dreamt of roaming the land, reaving and making a name for himself by his blade and cunning. He enthroned himself upon a mighty kingdom in another dream. His nightmares included a look at oblivion, a fate where he burnt forevermore, where the Warlord found him again and placed his still functional head on a pike to speak to as an amusement.

But most of all, his mind wandered about one of his phobias. The riderbrains, he imagined that there had to be at least one or two that occupied the bodies of the now dead. He imagined them squirming and wriggling themselves out of the head of their newly deceased host, looking for a new body to occupy. He imagined their slimy, tentacled body pushing itself through a hole in the head of their dead host, a hole half the size of their actual body, like a bag of pliant liquid. Riderbrains were completely alien, with softer, bulbous bodies that could squeeze itself into dimensions half their normal size for periods of time. They had a bundle of tentacles that could bend at any point, like they were jointed the entire way down. Their body was bulbous and spherical, without and flat planes, sharp lines, or notable contours like a Vescaxian. And their body was dull, a brown color without any sheen to it, devoid of any metallic look to the form.

Riderbrains were disgusting. Alien. Completely foreign to the forms a Vescavians matures around. This otherness, combined with their ability to bore into the heads of a Vescaxian and take over their body, effectively destroying the host forever, made them Cavalier’s most hated beings within the Land of Living Metal. The Obliterators at least were fellow Vescaxians, and had shown honor to the dead. But killing someone just to use their corpse as a sort of vehicle was abbhorent to all the tribes of the Northlands.

Cavalier’s dreams ceased when the blazing fire hit the fort door atop of him and started to smelt that. Unable to resist, he screamed in pain as the molten metal splashed to his back. Throughout the scream, he blacked out again, struggling against the darkness, for he knew that should he lose this fight, his life was also forfeit and the darkness would be eternal and everlasting.

It was an undetermined time later when Cavalier jerked awake, screaming again and fighting against the blackness once more. This time he was able to move his limbs, and he scrambled wildly, tearing himself across the destroyed relic of the fort he was stationed at. His screams came again in pain as a searing flash of agony ran across his chest, and when he banged his back against one half demolished wall, he felt pain again, shrieking once more.  Cavalier looked about wildly, startled.

He was still alive, though this was a pleasant surprise, he was unsure of how this happened. The funeral pile and pyre lay across the fort, now just a smoldering wreck, the ashes of several dead blowing into the air. No Obliterator remained, no Vanguard returned, he was alone. He looked at his body to see what had caused him pain, only to find that the door that started to smelt upon his back had fused with him, forming a sort of lumpy and molten pair of small upswept wings. His chest had a large gaping hole in it where it seems a large portion of it was torn off, perhaps because it had already melted into the ground when he was somehow moved. The flames of the pyre had scored deep marks of fire into his chest, a smoldering scar that would remain throughout his life. The bottom edge of his chest, once a fine sharply angled contour, had begun to melt and became a lump of misshappen metal.

He was alive, he knew. His wounds were serious and would stay with him for life, he also knew, but they were not greivous and did not threaten his life. He rubbed his head about to look for any entry holes a riderbrain may have used to sneak in, sighing in relief upon finding none. He knew that life was his, even if he did not know how. And he knew that revenge could be something he could gain.

Cavalier stood up and stalked the fort. The mystery of how he survived would keep for some time, perhaps forever, he wasn’t so concerned about how he lived as much as the fact that he did. The fixing of his scars would also need to wait. Cavalier grabbed two short slashing swords and a larger cleaver from the few weapons left about the fort that was left in a condition functional for battle, and began to stalk across the plains.

His life continued, and he knew he wanted revenge for those who no longer had that. He was off to gain recompense in the corpses of Obliterators.

Due to a headache nasty enough to be unable to concentrate and housework done today, haven’t been able to do anything.

 

The entry was only going to be the duel between the Warlord of Rage and the commander of the Vanguard’s fort. I never even thought of a name for him.

 

No matter, there will be plenty of duels to read later. It was only going to be used as a reason for Cavalier to want revenge on this Warlord, which I can cover in tomorrow’s entry.

LIKE A WOLF BORN IN CHAOS

NAME: Voltwing
SPECIES: Vescaxian
ARMY/CLAN: Obliterators
BODY STYLE: Ranger
PREF WEAPON: Long Rifles
ESOTERIC ARTS MASTERED:
ESOTERIC ARTS EXPERT: Mode Change, Energy Weaponry (special, part of wings)
ESOTERIC ARTS BASIC:

While the battle at the fort was still ongoing, Voltwing and Wheelfire were sent with their elite strike units to put a halt to Vanguard reinforcements. Due to the mountainous region in the east, Voltwing took his team of Obliterators all able to Mode Change into flying mode there. Wheelfire, with his cadre able to change into ground vehicles, took the hilly plains to the west. Both had the same mission, to destroy messengers running for reinforcements to the neighboring forts, and to prevent the reinforcements of the same forts from arriving in time to rescue the main fort under attack.

Voltwing and his team arrived at a perfect ambush point quickly and soon set up their killing point. They found two messengers along the way and easily dispatched them both, throwing them down the side of the mountain, easily disposing of the bodies. It was not long before a reinforcing advanced party fell into Voltwing’s trap.

Not wanting to let loose the boulders prepared for a larger party, Voltwing changed himself again into his flying mode. He used his Esoteric Art of Energy Weaponry to electrify his wings and then flew right into the group of scouts, tearing right through four of them, destroying them instantly. He then put himself into a hover and fired his long rifles into the remaining four, tearing through them and downing them as well. Then he quickly kicked those bodies down the mountainside to dispose of them and flew back up to his troops. Then, they waited.

Meanwhile, Wheelfire’s group found four messengers trying to reach the reinforcing fort, but once they found they were being pursued, they attempted to flee to safety. Wheelfire had no more mercy for the Vanguard messengers than Voltwing did. Later, the two would compare how many enemies they killed and keep a tally, the two were competitive in their body counts. Not wanting to be outdone by his rival, nor let one of his underlings claim the same amount, he risked his own safety and sped up, making a sharp turn to slam his tail end into one luckless messenger, which embedded upon the spike Wheelfire has attached to himself just for this. Then he corrected his turn and slammed straight into the last messenger, running him down. He changed back to his natural form and began to slam his fist into the dying Vanguard repeatedly. The Vanguard member was killed long before Wheelfire let up, and he only did that once the Vanguard’s head was splintered apart and flattened between Wheelfire’s fist and the hard metal ground beneath.

Wheelfire was satisfied, barely, but his desire to destroy was somewhat satiated in the multiple kills he achieved so far. And he was further satisfied knowing that more kills were impending, once the neighboring forts saw the signs of battle at the fort the Obliterator main force was assailling. He had been thinking of thoughts of slaughter when a shot of energy blazed right by his head, not even a meter away, obviously intending to kill him. The Vanguard allied forces had arrived far sooner than anticipated. It was obvious at least one messenger made it to the next fort.

His own troops were still on the open plains. There was no shelter for them, and his group was outnumbered almost ten to one. He wisely pulled back, firing his missile launcher at the front row of newcomers, scattering the attackers and downing a few. He fled back towards his own group of troops, who had begun firing at the oncoming attackers. The two groups paused in their advance and attained hilltops to use as makeshift fortifications. The Vanguard reinforcements took two hills and concentrated fire on Wheelfire’s one hill.

Wheelfire’s unit kept low to the ground to minimize their profile and stabilize their shots. The Vanguards soon did the same after a few further ahead of their allies took some wounds. Energy bolts burnt through the air back and forth, scoring the hills with killing intent but not doing any serious damage to the attacker’s forces.

Back to the east, in the mountains, Voltwing’s group had finally met with their enemies. They let almost half of the reinforcements pass them by before they dropped the boulders down the mountainside, flattening several Vanguard and splitting the reinforcements in two. While Voltwing’s unit was also outnumbered almost ten to one just like Wheelfire’s, the boulders did even the numbers some. They took out several combatants, but also let Voltwing work his tactics.

While his troops had the high ground, they kept firing down at the Vanguard. The Vanguard started to scatter from confusion, many getting wounded from the confusion as well as from the Obliterator fire. Knowing that most of the Vanguard would take to the tree line, Voltwing had stationed a few of his stealth operatives in those trees ahead of time.

The Vanguard were met with trees that were already almost sawn through, and when pressure was put upon them, they collapsed and fell, crushing the troops trying to hide behind them. Then, before the Vanguard troops had gotten their bearings and regained their composure, the stealth troops made their second tactical maneuver, further throwing off the Vanguard.

The stealth operatives fired off energy bolts towards the Vanguards in the trees, from the trees. This was accompanied by shouts of, “We’ve been betrayed!” and “Traitors!”, making many of the Vanguard start to open fire amongst their own ranks. Seveal lives were cut down in this way before one of the officers gathered the remaining troops and organized them once more.

When this happened, the officer was slain by an assassin still hiding amongst the trees, then Voltwing’s main force kept firing from their vantage point higher up the mountainside. The Vanguard kept trying to fire back for a bit, until a second force, the stealth unit, floated up behind the Vanguard’s ranks in flying mode form and fired down upon them. Caught in a pincer, the Vanguard fled and were routed, retreating quickly to their fort of origin. Only a few Vanguard members were actually killed and not that many were wounded, but their morale was broken and they never gained a tactical advantage to press and rally with, causing the battle to be lost. While Voltwing felt joy at routing the enemy so easily, without any wound to his own troops, it was a stale joy. He knew there were many traitors amongst the Vanguard, and their actions caused the supporting forts to send recon teams instead of full reinforcements into battle, the numbers and weaponry employed by a full reinforcement unit would have made such a victory a tale for the ages.

The plains were still in stalemate. Both sides kept on firing at one another without real effect. Several times small groups of Vanguard tried to circle around to a hill behind the Obliterator’s position, but each time the Obliterators noticed this and repulsed the advance, killing but a few of the Vanguard. Sensing that this would continue for too long and his own troops would eventually get worn down and run out of firepower, he decided to run a riskier operation.

Wheelfire pulled back and signalled his group to do so as well. They huddled together behind the hill for a few moments while Wheelfire summoned one of the Esoteric Arts that he mastered, the school of Final Fusion. He began to merge with his eight troops, forcing their bodies into his own, forcing one body to meld with another, forcing entire bodies to become legs and arms, armor and weaponry. By the time the Vanguard began to get curious and send a few scouts out to check if the Obliterators retreated, Wheelfire’s fused form was completed.

A towering giant, blazing in fiery rage, loomed up over behind the hill. The gigantic Wheelfire lurched forward, kicking the metal mountain the unit was just on, sending shrapnel into the Vanguard scouts and the plains around. Then the giant charged forward, its speed belying its mass, Wheelfire’s left fist shot a backhand across the one hilltop, scattering and slaughtering several Vanguard troops. The other hill was soon devoid of its troops, the Vanguard moving at speed across the plains, back towards their home fort. Wheelfire threw giant wheels of flame towards the fleeing troops, capturing and preventing the retreat of all those that got caught up in the rings. The less fortunate were merely incinerated and soon became a smoldering wreck with its life extinguished.

Wheelfire kept pressing his advantage. He charged forward, stomping down and kicking at the retreating enemy troops, cresting a hill with a vantage point at the fort that the enemies he just scattered sallied forth from. The giant fired several more of the large rings of fire at the fort, blowing up a munitions storage, busting a hole into the wall and collapsing the side. With the wall collapsed and no defenders able to fire back from safety on this flank, with the defensive weaponry destroyed that could harm him, Wheelfire kept to his hill and kept firing his flame blasts into the fort. He interspersed these incendiary attacks with large missile volleys fired from his giant missile launcher while his flames recharged.

The defenders of the fort soon broke, throwing open the gate and fleeing towards yet another fort to seek shelter. Wheelfire stepped into his newly conquered fort and surveyed it for traps or stragglers before he let go of his soldiers, his giant form slowly turning back into distinct individuals that then uncoupled and split from the larger whole, and the elite commando unit was once again all themselves.

And while this was happening, in the first fort, Obliterators were piling dead bodies on top of Cavalier, while the Warlord of Rage and the fort’s heroic commander had their duel.

NAME: Wheelfire
SPECIES: Vescaxian
ARMY/CLAN: Obliterators
BODY STYLE: Controller
PREF WEAPON: Missile Launcher
ESOTERIC ARTS MASTERED: Final Fusion
ESOTERIC ARTS EXPERT: Mode Change, Pyrokinesis (special form of Psychokinesis)
ESOTERIC ARTS BASIC:

LIKE A WOLF BORN IN CHAOS

NAME: Cavalier
SPECIES: Vescax
ARMY/CLAN: Vanguard
BODY STYLE: Fighter
PREF WEAPON: Any he can find
ESOTERIC ARTS MASTERED: None
ESOTERIC ARTS EXPERT: None
ESOTERIC ARTS BASIC: Most, he’ll gain E-Arts slowly over time (see notes at end)

Thunder rolled across the metallic plains, while the sky was clear. The heavy walls of the border fortress shook and rumbled from the shock. The guards standing atop the ramparts frenetically ran to and fro to prepare for the defense of their fort.Their fellow defenders ran about on the ground as the klaxons blared. The thunder was nothing less than the heavy stomps of a giant and powerful invading army and their war chant.

Like all Vescaxians, the Vanguard defenders of the fort were born warriors. Opposing them were no less than warrior born, the Obliterators. And in terms of sheer numbers, the Obliterators had a distinct advantage, the Vanguards only hope was for their fort to stand the invasion while their reinforcements from neighboring forts sallied forth and took the invaders in a pincer move. To assist in achieving this, the Vanguard defenders brought out their heavy weaponry and fortified the gate with heavy steel panels and braces held fast into the strong ground. They also readied weaponry that would deter the invaders from scaling the walls, such as pots of boiling positronium, mines they scattered across the field just now which activated upon contact, and large metal stakes affixed to the tops of the ramparts pointed at a downward angle.

The first shots commencing the battle launched from distance by the Obliterators. Fired not from optimal range, most shots merely scored the heavy walls of the fort or smashed short of it, rarely detonating some of the newly placed landmines. Another barrage scoured and bent some of the newly emplaced spikes upon the ramparts, rendering them far less useful. The defenders started to fire their own shots back against the invaders, their aim to scatter and break apart the ranks of the Obliterators.

As berserkers, the Obliterators had no need for ranks and files. Every one of them was a warrior’s fury given form. The injured or dying were just stepped over as they rushed forwards to storm at the fort. Their ranged attacks started to pound on the reinforced gate, trying to rend the powerful metal from the constant barrage. Several of the faster Obliterators met their end on the landmines they carelessly ran into during their attempt to start scaling the walls. Obliterator tactics were raw and violent and in it for personal glory, so Obliterator tacticians were nearly non-existent. Those that did try to install tactics into the mindset of their people were often given small but elite strike forces.

The Obliterators had two of these elite strike forces here this day. Neither had directly participated directly in the battle against the fort, each was positioned on the far flanks, and had their units on search and destroy tasks to prevent messengers running to other forts for reinforcements. They then set ambush points along the main pathways reinforcements would travel. The fort under attack, the fort Cavalier was sent to this season to continue his learning under the tutelage of one of the Vanguard’s great heroes, would stand or fall on its own.

The defenders had positioned all those who knew the Esoteric Art of Energy Blasts upon the ramparts, while the Obliterators lined their own practitioners of the same along the ground, aimed to the defenders. Both fired from their hands powerful bolts of energy drawn from their own reserves, fierce red, violent blue, cool gold and glaring purple blasts ripped through the atmosphere in a deadly aerial dance. Neither side gained any distinct advantage from this, but the blasts tearing across the field kept the pace stalled. While reckless and glory seeking, even the dumbest Obliterator will not foolishly risk their life in a field of deadly fire.

The battle raged thus for long hours into the night.As it continued in this manner, the Obliterator’s heavy ranged weaponry kept pounding on the door. The Vanguard kept firing their own such weapons into the mass of invaders, but to much less effect. The Oblierators were mobile and kept spreading out to avoid the damage, whereas the gate itself could only stay immobile while it was battered and bombarded and started to buckle and crack.

The deluge came when the gate finally gave way. Cavalier, trying to reinforce the gate, was battered aside. A tall and powerful Vanguard ally of his grabbed the young warrior and threw him towards the safety of the rear lines. It had little impact on Cavalier’s life as a powerful explosion fractured the gate and sent it flying as well, Cavalier landing with a large hunk of it smashing atop of him. The Obliterators then stormed the fort.

They were repulsed as best as possible by the defenders, the large warrior who saved Cavalier’s life wading deep towards the enemy and meeting them head on. He fought bravely, his powerful body swinging a giant and powerful blade into several invaders, before sheer numbers brought him down and he was torn apart. The smaller defenders broke as well, fleeing deeper into the fort to try to form ranks and gain the use of last ditch defense weaponry.

The Obliterators swarmed in with a frenzy, hacking apart all the defenders they ran across. The ranged fighters atop the ramparts turned to fire down into the fort to stymie the invasive warriors, to some effect. It bought enough time for the secondary defense weapons to be powered up to no effect. Obliterators practicing the Esoteric Art of Altered Beast flew over in the form of giant birds of prey to grab at defenders on the ramparts and rend their talons into them. Oblierators who knew the Esoteric Art of Form Change that had a form capable of flying strafed the secondary weaponry and the defenders going for them, rendering the weapons useless. It was going to be ended with a giant melee in the middle of the fort.

In strode the powerful Obliterator known as the Warlord of Rage. He grabbed the blade of the brave but deceased Vanguard warrior who tried his best to hold the gate’s entryway and strode purposefully towards the fort’s center. Along the way, he stomped on the slab of metal that was once part of the gate that held Cavalier hidden under it, crushing both of Cavalier’s legs. As he was blacking out, Cavalier glared darkly at the Warlord of Rage before viewing the fort’s commander, a hero whose stories he heard for many years, a being he looked up to, stride forward to meet this adversary.

Cavalier could do nothing to influence this battle, not even watch its outcome. He could only vow to take his own vengeance, either in this life or his next, by vowing to make himself the most powerful warrior he could ever be. Someday, the Warlord of Rage will meet his end, either at the hands of his hero or Cavalier’s himself.

But Cavalier knew not if someday would come, or if the Obliterators would live up to their moniker.

NOTES: Most Vescaxians will be born into an army, which is both a military force as well as a cultural and civilian entity. When there is a war that goes on unceasingly, the two are almost indistinct. While learning the fighting styles of their army, as well as their culture and history, they’re also taught a few Esoteric Arts. Most will Master one, maybe two such arts and gain Expertise in potentially up to a half dozen, with practical knowledge in about the same.Anyone who has a basic understanding of an art can learn its expert level if they watch it in practice multiple times. An Expert can become a Master by viewing a Master of that Art practicing it multiple times.
Cavalier, however, was unable to complete his training and starts his adventures with a basic understanding of several Esoteric Arts and the Vanguard fighting style, only to learn more during his lifetime.