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Apex ch1
waterwindow

In a world not unlike this one, a long time ago, a long ways away - yet ever so close - a great destiny was unfolding. A blind journey shared by a small multitude of travelers from all walks of the earth. Drawn by the promise of a treasure so vast, a mystery so tantalizing, it would end their woes forever. In this world, magic is real. Monsters are real. Great gaping holes in the sky, from which hellish beasts with infectious fangs fall, are real. What was once a simple world of rich culture and great promise was slowly turning into an apocalyptic nightmare. The holes in the sky that had once been an odd and rare occurrence were becoming slowly darkening patches of the horizon. Demonic creatures overcame small cities in single nights – leaving nothing but corpses and the unlucky few who survived. Reduced to ravaging zombies who wander aimlessly, they wait to attack any living thing that dares cross their path.

With such a backdrop of devastation, why would anyone dare to leave the safety of their homes in search of something so mundane as a promised treasure? Or a mystery? Well it takes a certain walk of people. Luckily for them, destiny had a mind to drop the information concerning this fool's quest into precisely the right hands.

><><><

There was a man in a city -- a grand city of art and literature in the heart of what our world might call Italy. He was a man of science and magic -- a tall, soft-spoken outcast who spent his days toiling in the workshop of a castle, serving a lord. This man was beautiful, with skin that shone like ivory, and he was always wrapped in a green hooded cloak that dipped along the floor as he walked his careful, quiet paths. His eyes were almond shaped, and rimmed with dark lashes that peeked past the edge of his profile as he studied his books and his chemistry and spells.

This man was an alchemist, Alberich Dies, unknown except to those with a keen eye. Or to the curious people who wondered why there was a door near the castle dungeons that was always locked, or noticed the hunched figure who scuttled up the stairs to whisper coyly in the lord’s ear. And the answers they received? A mystic. A wizard. A powerful sorcerer. None knew the man personally save for the other local wand-waver in the city, a man who pranced to and from his workshop on the outskirts of town to the castle as he pleased. It took one to know one, court workers supposed, and it seemed fitting that the Weather Wizard would be the only one to know the strange, beautiful alchemist who was rarely ever seen.

Or rather, ‘buggered constantly’, if anyone were to ask the soft-spoken doctor, but nobody ever did. Not even Marcello, the Wizard himself, because he wasn’t the sort to be curious about the inner workings of another’s mind at all. Not even a bit. He was simply extroverted, he needed company, and there was only one other person in this grand city of Centrala that any man with powers to spare could relate to and that was none other than poor Alberich who loathed the uninvited company, even on good days.

I’ll bet your face will break from scowling so hard one morning when I arrive through your door and it’ll be cast into that form for the rest of your life.” Marcello waved with an equally enthusiastic smile to match the frown that met him from the bed in the corner of Al’s chambers.

Your solicitations are occurring at such obnoxious hours that any damage done to my face would be your liability.” The alchemist rolled out of bed and rubbed his eyes.

Me? You’re the one who can’t keep track of the time of day down in this hole of yours - it’s nearly tea time.” The wizard stroked his beard that’d only just begun to fill in completely (much to his ever growing pride) and began scouring around the chambers for a tea pot just to make his point.

Cupboard,” the shorter man replied with a flippant flick of the wrist in its general direction. “The leaves may have taken root in the sack, if the bugs haven’t had their way with them yet.” Al got dressed, slipped into his tunic and cloak and dragged himself back to bed with a flop. He pulled the hood over his face, and hoped that his flamboyant counterpart would simply vanish if he ignored the man long enough.

There’s been some oddcomings as of late, my dear -- immigration from the far north and east, and pirates cropping up from parts unknown. Meanwhile, the duke’s own nephew has taken up a thug’s life in the streets as authorities turn a blind eye, and the great gaping holes that have opened in the sky seem to have doubled in size. Monsters and disease are pervasive throughout the land, even in heavily populated areas -- and all you can do is hide in your little bunker and solve the mysteries of life for the lord, which he uses to build a deadlier army.” A cup of steaming tea floated down into Alberich’s view and he reluctantly accepted it, finally deciding to sit up and face the intruder.

It is but a life to be had - these happenings are like rocks being dropped in a bowl of oats, spraying them left and right, displacing and replacing their previous normality with something they may see as unnatural. While in reality, they are nothing but particles subjected to change at the universe’s mercy - monsters and holes in the sky and immigration and all. They have no control, no choice or rebuttal, only the reaction to events as they happen.” Al sipped his tea and grimaced, “The only thing you CAN do is accept your life as it is and get on with it.”

Marc rolled his eyes, “You have a very bleak outlook on life, my dear Alchemist. It’s from willingly blinding yourself to the outside world. These walls confine your mind and cause it to grow into itself like a rotten fruit. Imagine how much good you’d do yourself if you set it free and became to be a spectator to the world’s horrors as they unfold around you?” He laughed and cleared a spot off Al’s desk to plant his rear. “It’s because your heart is too soft, you fear the pain of reality.”

What do you know of my heart?” Alberich grumbled

I know the heart of a man with fair face and intelligence and wealth. Who hides away like a mollusk. Whose only knowledge of society as it evolves around him is secondhand from yours truly, shoving it down your throat while you kick and scream the whole way.” Marc’s eyes twinkled (quite literally, for they sparked in the dim light) and this irritated Alberich all the more.

Come with me to my workshop - it’s an hour’s walk from here.” the wizard continued, “Just once, stretch your legs - feast your starving eyes on scenery that isn’t closed in by four walls. I have something fascinating to share with you.”

I have work to do,” Al grouched. He stood up and made his way towards his large book shelf -- only to have his path blocked by a gust of wind so strong that it caught his cloak and twisted him around on his heel to face the wizard, wand in hand, smile on his face.

You’re blowing my work everywhere.”

Oh please, this place is so disorderly, you can barely even tell - come now, I won’t let you be until you grant me this at least. Just one brisk walk and if you don’t like it, I won’t mention it again!”

Well... if that was the case. A small look of consideration passed over those fair features and the prospect of a future that wasn’t plagued with Marc’s insistent outdoorsy nagging was enticing.

I promise I won’t like it -- whatever it is you simply must share,” Al grumbled. He changed his cloak to a shorter one that didn’t drag along the ground, and dug out a satchel from under his bed.


Marcello beamed, “You may be surprised my friend.” And indeed, Marcello had something to show the alchemist – something to share.

><><><

Seoirse Harkness and Haeta Poi weren't really friends. Haeta was reserved, quiet, and unassuming. Strong and obedient. They weren't enemies either; they were on as equal terms as two pirates on a crew could be – when one was the captain, that is. Which really wasn't all that equal, but Seoirse was too standoffish for his status to affect the rest of the crew's deep psychological reverence. Yes, he shouted orders and made his way around the decks scolding any lollygaggers – executing any who dared defy him like a good pirate captain. But he was too remote. Looking out and standing away, and never meeting the eyes of his crew. He was empty inside, and that hollowness both frightened the crew and simultaneously dulled their senses to his presence. He was a billowing beast on a far away summit behind the eyes.


Or, you could say that Haeta and Seoirse were friends.

Haeta had strange ideas about friendship. Laughing together, drinking together, speaking to one another or meeting each others’ eyes weren't really requirements for friendship – after all, shipmates were supposed to stick together. Maybe unspoken friendship is like a hollow loyalty, but not in the negative sense – 'hollow' as in there's space to fill, with plenty of room. Potential real estate for some strong foundations of a friendship. Yes.


This was satisfying for Haeta to think about. So they were friends, or they would be soon. On the other hand, the captain hardly knew his relatively inexperienced crew's names, let alone possessed any hopes or aspirations to befriend them. These men were simply an end to his means. Pirates didn't make friends; they made enemies, corpses, and money. Lots and lots of money...

Far away from Italy -- more southerly than Egypt, more easterly than Greece, over limitless oceans and past the edge of the world to the most remote place on Earth -- there was a continent of the damned. A prisoner’s paradise, unexplored but by those who were condemned and shipped there from the known world to rot and fend for themselves. It was unheard of by most who’d otherwise care to know (and many did not), and even less known to those who didn’t care either way. A large flat expanse of red earth that bloomed in every direction. This was where the not-so-merry crew and their captain had originated.

This detail isn't important, other than to emphasize the immense lengths Seoirse Harkness has gone to fulfill a quest thrust upon him by the happenstance discovery of a mysterious wealth at sea – and the equally mysterious object which compelled him northward. The eventual hiring of his crew and these ulterior motives of which he shared with more than he knew were plotting his course in the very fate of their world.

On the ocean, sailing up along a clamoring coastline, this pirate ship searches for a treasure. The Crew, they follow blindly - to the knowledge that they were searching for instead a city of pigs, fat and ripe for the sticking. <This is a strange sentence. Are the crew not aware that they are searching for the city, or are they not aware of the true objective and just think that they’re gunning for the city?>

Unknown to all, however: they were heading for certain disaster.

They were hardly the last of the travelers to the humble city of Central, as if spurned by some unstoppable force – something like fate, only thicker, and far less bright and full of potential. It was a dark, sickly lull that tightened around poor traveling souls like a noose. Yet they pressed on, the artifacts of their quest clutched in their freezing palms.

><><><

In a very cold, lonely place, two travelers trudge along stoutheartedly in a frozen hell of steep inclines and cliffs. A woman and her elder brother gnash their teeth back at the chill, regardless of impossible conditions- only time will tell if these two are tougher than the ice that threatens to seal their doom. It is said that this mountain is the tallest in the world. But what is the world to two banished hearts, other than the ground at their feet and a disappearing horizon?

They are both of Hunnic descent. They were born to battle the everlasting winter of the Himalayas -- one a warrior, a mercenary, weathered and full of too much experience. He whips the horse mercilessly, though he knows it will not last much longer in the blizzard -- all that’s left to do is get it as far as it can go and carve it once it drops. They are low on supplies.

The sister isn’t made of the same stuff, but the journey has toughened her up. The tears stopped weeks ago, while her soft delicate hands are now thick and calloused from the cold air and slapping the stubborn steed. Her beautiful face and hair are thoroughly shielded with thick wraps, cloth from her brother’s back, which protect her from the cold.

How did they find themselves on this summit? What would cause a lonely caravan of two to travel so far west?

Do you think he made it, Da Ge?” The sister's hair shimmered as she shook – fear creeping into her. She spoke of her husband, who had left on the same fool's quest months ago and they had yet to hear from him.

Despite his dislike of his brother-in-law, her brother fought to keep the same worry from his face. “He most certainly did.”

><><><

Alright. We're here. Show me what it is that you were so desperate to show me so I can go home.” Alberich growled, crossing his arms. His feet were tired from walking all the way across town. He wasn't made for tramping about like this – it was exhausting. He was much happier to stay indoors “And pray that it was not something you could have easily carried with you to my home instead of bringing me all the way out here.”

His wizard companion scoffed and opened his front door, stepping aside for the Alchemist to enter before him, “Don't be foolish my dear, I wouldn't carry such a valuable artifact on my person in public! When you see, you will understand.”

It better be a diamond the size of my fist in that case, otherwise, I highly doubt it.” he huffed and pressed onward into the Wizard's home. He'd been here once before for official wizard's business (on a HORSE, like a proper sane-minded person) – the place looked basically the same as the last, very tidy save for the copious amounts of books stacked to the ceiling everywhere one looked. Alberich and Marcello shared a passion in that regard. “Where is it.”

Here.” Marc came from his room excitedly with a small box in his hand – its contents soon revealed. The alchemist <peered? looked? glanced?> within. Nestled safely inside was what appeared to be a shimmering golden-plated card, which Al would have mistook for a valuable mirror if not for the strange zig-zagging red pattern bisecting it vertically. With the help of his powers, Al could ascertain the components nestled in its core, but did not know the elements which composed it. It was a rainbow of metals and unknown pieces compressed in layers that ran together in beautiful geometric patterns, though how something so intricate could fit within a paper-thin space was baffling. “It's.... it's beautiful...”

Marc grinned, “Yes it is, I would like a recitation of what it is your glorious eyes can see. I very much want to know exactly how it works.”

Works...?”

Its beauty is that's not all that it is.” He lifted it from the box and held it between them, “Prepare yourself.”

Marcello rubbed his thumb along the stretch of red pattern along its surface and the card began to glow.

><><><

Haeta's eyes grew into saucers – he had to physically inhibit a cry of shock by biting his thumb. Their ship had reached its destination, and the dutiful first mate had come down to the captain's quarters to relay the information. For the first time in their lengthy journey, Haeta arrived to a door left partially ajar. Despite understanding the captain's preference for absolute privacy, he just couldn't resist a peek.

What met his eye was nearly too much for the simple-minded man to comprehend. He had grown up in a rural environment, and jumping from tribesman to pirate first mate was a valiant step of rebellion and independence. He had very little magic to his name and relied more on the natural tools of combat, sprinkled with his own special affiliation for everything to do with fire. But perhaps his self-proclaimed thirst for adventure was paltry when compared to that of others, because in all his travels, Haeta had never laid his eyes on something like this.

The obvious conclusion was that the scene had something to do with dark witchcraft. What else could it possibly be? The captain stood with his back to the door, holding something small and flat and made of gold in his hands. And from this object came a sort of sparkly blue spidery projection made of pure light.

Haeta regained his composure and leaned in closer, pressing his nose flat against the wall. It was... most unmistakably a map. But so much more comprehensive – it had depth and perspective, like a miniature model of the seascape. Not only that, but it MOVED like some kind of dream, painting a perfect bird's eye-view of the surrounding area. It showed the coastline, and the city they approached! And even more, there was a marked path on it. Haeta could at the very least read a map, for god's sake, and there was a clear red dotted line marking their exact course. If only he could get a closer look. Where was their captain leading them? The pyro stumbled back, holding his breath, and tried to come to terms with this new information. A magic map which was leading them blindly along with it. A map to what, though?

He took a steady step in reverse, carefully stepping up the stairs – but curse those creaky floor boards. His position was given away almost instantly and the door was flung open, with a furious captain at its threshold.

What did you see?”

><><><

Where does it point to....?” Alberich whispered in bone-jarring awe. Never in his life had he witnessed something like this. He could feel a great self-sustaining energy radiating from the golden card – and that MAP it displayed – and it was all too overwhelming.

I don't know.” Marc rubbed his finger over the surface again and the floating image disappeared, much to Alberich's relief. It had begun to frighten him. “The charted path leads up the coastline, but the image ends there and there's no way to tell where it leads....” the wizard smirked, enjoying the power he had suddenly gained over the good doctor's attention. “Unless the holder of the map travels the course – because the image rebuilds itself every mile you travel, from what I've assessed.”

Alberich was shaken from his trance and suddenly furious. “YOU WENT UP THE COAST?? Are you mad?! Please tell me you did not walk into the shadow of the hole in the sky – you could have been devoured by a BEAST – or WORSE! Made into a monster yourself!!”

Marc laughed, “Awww, so concerned! I'm touched,” and put his hand on his chest. “Yes, I went up the coast – no, I did not pass into the shadow, or allow myself to get anywhere near it. I simply did what was necessary to understand this device more. The coordinates most definitely lead into the badlands. I estimate they may go as far as the mountains.”

Al needed to sit down. “That thing is – is -” Well, frankly he didn't know. And he didn't like that he didn't know. “It's malicious!! It's evil! Don't let the sight of it pass over your eyes – put it back in the box!! NOW!!” He lunged at the wizard and pried the card free, shoving it into its container and tossing it onto Marcello's bed at the other end of the room.


Marc was shocked, hands grasping air where the box had once been. “Well, hello now! I wasn't expecting such a strong reactio-”

Do not take this sort of evil so lightly!! That... that THING is dark magic of some sort and I... I will not allow it to addle your mind!” Al hissed sharply, jutting a dangerous finger in the wizard's direction.

Marc raised his hand in self-defense, “I think you're being a little ridiculous, and when did you become my mother?”

It NEARLY got you killed!”

You're just frightened of it because you don't understand it.” the wizard frowned and stepped around his counterpart, retrieving the box before it received any further abuse, “It's obviously leads to something of great importance – else it would not be so magnificent!”

Because I don't- OF COURSE I DON'T!! And neither do you for that matter! How did you come across that accursed thing?!”

It came in a parcel! And I've studied it at length since it arrived! I didn't invite you here just so you could pull the rug out from under me!”

Alberich gripped his head and punctuated his disbelief with a short, high-pitched laugh, “Surely you jest. I knew you were irresponsible, but this time you allow your curiosity to go too far! To brazenly absorb yourself in some mystery map and let it lead you to parts more hellish than all could fathom is -!”

Marc crossed his arms. “Now see here, I never said I would follow the map to the end – that's a fool's errand! I couldn't simply drop everything I have here and go on some grand journey, leading to means that are anyone's guess!”

But you were THINKING it! I see it even now. It's driving you mad with wanderlust – cast it out immediately!”

I will not!” Marc held the box behind himself protectively and smirked, “I think you're jealous.”

JEALOUS??” This was laughable, absolutely laughable, “I barely like to leave my BED! I would rather die of gout than go to wherever that map is leading!”

Marc scoffed – he’d grown weary of this conversation “Calm your hysteria before you hurt yourself, Alberich. I wouldn't dream of leaving this city, you have so little faith in-”

Suddenly the ground shook and a stack of books toppled to the floor. The quibbling magicians froze stock still, staring at each other in fear.

....me?”

><><><

On a seemingly unrelated note – at that exact moment, perhaps a little bit before -- at the center of the city a sort of petty gang-war was in full swing. As mentioned by Marcello earlier that day, the duke's nephew Samuel Scudd had taken up a life of public harassment and crime. The young man, tired of living in the dull good graces of his uncle, had emancipated himself and now gleefully walked the streets as a menace. He was a crafty little snot, though, impressionable and talented in finer light-based magics. He'd gained quite a following for himself. His gang was as troublesome as it pretended to be prestigious – prancing around with their chests puffed out importantly, and terrorizing whomever they deemed fit. All as the duke turned a blind eye.

But the rebellious royal was not above petty rivalries – and recently within the past month, a strange immigrant from far north had come down and begun to plunder the wealthy as he pleased – as if he had the RIGHT to. This was Sam's town. And to make matters WORSE, this man by the name of 'Ewan' – or something of that sort – had the GALL to use the very same light-based magics to execute his crimes as Samuel himself (albeit a crude imitation, of course.) But Sam would not stand for it. This puny 'criminal' was a thorn in the side of his whole operation. The foreigner would either join them, or face his blade.

After a blatant open challenge to the stranger and an eager acceptance, Samuel found himself face-to-face with this rival in the town square. Surrounded by his followers and eager on-looking villagers, Sam beheld the man for the first time -- and he was even stranger than the stories had told. Dressed like a savage, wearing hardly more than a kilt, painted with blue tattoos from head to toe – while brandishing a hilariously crude and oversized sword, a twig-like spear, and polished shield. Sam could hardly believe this bestial man could conjure magic at all, let alone the fine art of light bending.


“Prepare to be humiliated before the entire town – er – Ewan McCulloch!” Sam declared as he brandished his sword, smirking haughtily as his entourage cheered him on.

Ewan howled with laughter and knocked the butt of his spear against the cobblestones. “Och please. Wi' a heed as large as yoors, it'll be easy tae chop it frae yer pretty shoolders.”

We'll see about that....” Sam said tensely, and they began to circle each other. This man Ewan was far larger and better muscled than Sam could ever hope to be, but he didn't look especially bright. Sam would have to rely on his reflexes and cunning to knock him off balance before delivering the disabling blow. Sam didn't necessarily want to kill this stranger – hell, with a little cleaning up and maybe some more clothing, he would make an excellent bodyguard. Ewan just needed to be shown who was boss.

Their battle would have been entertaining – surely. But before either had the opportunity to make the first move, the aforementioned rumbling under their feet caused even the most adamant of knuckle-headed squabbles to cease. All eyes glanced from the ground to the sky in horror.

A huge black tear drew the blue apart like a curtain. A hole. A horrible black hole. All citizens watched in dread as the spaces between the buildings colored in black as the shadow of their encroaching doom blanketed the entire city like molasses. It took mere seconds for crowds to disperse into a screaming frenzy.

><><><

I- I- I didn't see anything-” Haeta stuttered, backing up the stairs. Seoirse lunged at his first mate and grabbed his throat. A deadly curved boomerang – the weapon of the captain's homeland - pressed to his side, “WHAT DID YOU SEE??”

Haeta sucked in his lips and shook his head, “Nothing! Nothing I swear!”

A clamoring sound of shocked voices traveled down from the upper deck, probably saving the pyro’s life. Seoirse eyed Haeta suspiciously and carefully stepped around him, going to investigate the matter. “We'll talk later.”

When the captain stepped up top, a hushed silence fell over the crew. His eyes passed over their faces and then followed their gaze towards the shore.

TURN THE SHIP!!!” Seoirse roared, cutting through the horror as they watched the city they desperately needed succumbing to darkness. They scattered in a panic and everyone hopped to it – working the mooring as if their lives depended on it.

Haeta popped his head out of the hatch to see what the fuss was about, and just barely kept from being knocked over.

No – it was too late. The shadow hit the sea like the hand of God – sweeping towards the vessel faster than any ship could sail. By the time the crew was in position to redirect their course, it was upon them. As easily as capsizing a paper boat, the wave of black threw the massive ship over. Seoirse's feet slid across the deck, wood groaning all around him like a dying heifer. His hand flew to his pocket and held onto the map as tightly as he could while the deck disappeared beneath his boots -- he screwed his eyes shut and prepared for the plunge.

><><><

A rabbit escaped the blast of a firecracker, and a small gathering of travelers collectively sighed. “I don't believe fireworks are meant to be used that way,” Hartley Raffs said as he took a seat on a rock and pulled out his flute, toying with the knobs.

Fireworks can be used any way I feel like!” Giovanni quipped, watching his prey hop away. His stomach rumbled uncomfortably, “And I don't see you helping.” The blond looked at the musician busying himself with his silly little instrument and stomped over, “HEY look at my lips when I'm talking to you, you deaf arse!”

Hartley was immune to the noisy harlequin, and simply hummed to himself a horribly out of tune melody as he worked.

We're going to starve at this rate,” Roy complained, rubbing his eyes. A far-off howl in the forest made his skin crawl. “We should have stayed on the beach...”

Oh shut up, you cry-baby. We have to follow the map or we'll get even more lost than we already are!” the Trickster pulled the card from his pocket and waved it around as an indication.

MY map, you mean...” the artist grumbled, taking a seat on a log beside Hartley.


“Don't you two start arguing again about whose map it is,” the musician scolded. “We're all following it now, so it doesn't matter worth a damn.”

I'm only following you guys because you STOLE it from me!” Roy jabbed a finger at Giovanni.

And for the last time, we DID NOT! Hartley and I can tell you this until we're blue in the face, but we've had this map for ages before we ever passed through Centrala! I have no idea where YOURS could have gone! If you even had one, you delusional bastard.” The blond yanked a couple more cherry bombs from his bag and looked around the brush for another unsuspecting rabbit.

As if there could be more than one of such a thing!” The artist snapped back. Though Hartley was right, there wasn't much point in arguing anymore since he'd dropped everything he was doing and stalked the duo until they eventually gave into his pursuit and offered to let him join them on their quest. Now that they were ages away from Centrala, there was really no point in arguing. He was just SURE one of these two misfits pick-pocketed it off him though, and they were just playing dumb out of embarrassment at getting caught red-handed.

He supposed it worked out well in the end anyway. He had made plans to follow the map himself, but accompanying these two well-traveled (if not unorthodox) warriors has undoubtedly made the journey that much safer. A deaf musician and an un-funny harlequin were better than no companions at all. But as much as they boasted about their travels, this sorry display of huntsmanship was causing him to doubt their aptitude.

Ugh, this would be so much easier if we could just eat a monster...” Roy groaned, watching Giovanni crawl through the bushes like an imbecile.

It had been nearly a week of traveling through the shadow of the hole in the sky. He recalled how terrified he had been to pass into it at first, and how fast his heart had beaten when they’d seen their first pack of monsters. It had taken an insane amount of luck and stealth in order to survive, but once they’d developed a formula, the rare luxury of relaxation and even boredom arose. These two claimed to have passed under a shadow before, and while he wasn't entirely sure he believed everything they asserted, it was a relief to at least pretend he was traveling with people who knew what they were doing.

Thanks to Bivolo's lack of planning ahead, the three of them ran out of rations much more quickly than the original pair had planned. Now they were forced to hunt. Which raised the question: could an artist, a musician and a clown catch a rabbit? It sounded like one of Giovanni's un-funny jokes. From Roy's experience, he was sure the punchline would involve cannibalism. Roy wasn't terribly good at jokes, but it would be worth it to wrack his brain for something groan-worthy for the others as revenge for the near-constant assault on his ears.

Hartley broke the gloom then with a quiet note from his flute, followed soon after by a rabbit hopping out into the open. Giovanni pounced on it, “AH HAH! See? Piece of cake.”

Roy glanced at the musician and cocked a brow. Hartley simply applauded, “Yes, masterful work as always.”

Giovanni bowed grandiosely and pulled out a knife, “Now we can finally eat!”

At last...”

><><><

Qing Ting stroked a long yellow braid between his fingers. It was a trinket left to him from his young bride, whom he awaited with bated breath. If her brother had held fast to his promise, they should be passing over that hill any day now. It'd been nearly half a year since he'd seen her, but her face was just as clear in his thoughts. His beautiful mixed-blooded bride. The warrior could imagine her now, how she walked... almost as if she was gliding along the ground. And her voice, as deep and luxurious as a strong swig of sweet wine.

He smiled to himself and carefully put the lock of hair away in his bag. The family back home would have disapproved of their marriage. But Qing Ting was certain that if Xiao Jin's mixed blood made her different from any other, it was because she was part goddess. Too precious for the sight of pig-headed simpletons to behold. He frowned – though that would mean her brother was also part god, which made him shudder internally. That was giving him far too much credit. But. No, he swore to himself that if the man delivered Xiao Jin safely, he would put aside all ill-comings between them.

To take his mind off his worry, he pulled forth the magical golden card which had led him here, rubbing his finger over the red lightning bolt until the map appeared before him. He looked at its image and closed his eyes. He'd used his only carrier pigeon months ago to send the pair back home a carefully drawn copy of the path through the mountains, as given to him by the map. Now, at the base of this pass their information would run out, and they would need more to continue. He knew there wasn't much time. His eyes traveled up to the sky: still blue, but not for long.


Qing Ting shut it off and walked up the path a few meters. He put the card on the ground at the center of the trail, along with a note – stabbed in place with one of his signature tops. A tool from which he’d adopted his name.

He only had one chance at escaping the coming danger. Two men would ensure his safety, and if his premonitions were right (which they always were), they would be in town square just about now – preparing for a battle they would never complete. It was time to go.

The warrior stood up and brushed off his green and yellow striped tunic. He checked his bag once more, finding ample weapons and food provisions for three, and of course the braid of his beloved. He prayed it would bring him the luck he needed, and prayed that his wife and her brother would find the message he’d left them – which they should, as it had been placed directly in their path.

His only remorse was this lost opportunity for him to see Xiao Jin one last time.


The ground rumbled under his feet. No more time. Qing Ting stepped from his perch overlooking the city and ran towards its heart. A black tear was ripping open the sky.

><><><

Ewan gripped his spear. Thus far in his travels he had never seen this phenomenon up close – he'd been very careful to avoid the tears in the sky out of pure self-preservation. He’d spent months and months traveling off his route just to keep them at a comfortable distance. Now his worst fears fell on him like a hurricane. The first wave of darkness knocked him off his feet and sent him sailing clear across the courtyard.

AUGH!!” Sam Scudd landed not far from him – the black wind lashed at their clothes and threatened to send them flying again. Sam's body was so thin that he could barely keep his footing. While he struggled, scrambling to grab at anything to keep him grounded, Ewan almost felt a pang of sympathy. Almost. He wouldn't save a man in a normal situation on a good day. But while he himself clutched desperately at the gutters of a building, it appeared that his opponent was as good as dead. Good riddance either way. Not that he was in a much better situation.

The prestigious criminal dug his nails into the cobblestones. Sam's heart beat in his ears, while the black wind blasted him clean off the ground again and he flew against a building. “RRGHAA!!” he bellowed as he grabbed the nearest threshold he could, while the screams of other bodies flying through the air were drowned out by the howling darkness. His hand found a broken window and he dug into the sill for his life. He looked around with huge eyes – catching sight of McCulloch, who struggled as much as he while clutching to a structure across the alley. A wooden bench nearly collided with the barbarian and splattered against the side of the building like raindrop, its pieces carried away in a blink.

A deep sense of dread filled their hearts – a shared sense of futility. Death was most certainly upon them.

Suddenly, a loud sound filled the air and cut the wind against all probability, with a screeching wiring thrum. From the alley came a small tornado of blasting green and yellow, which tore through the wind like a knife.

Oh gods, it was a monster. Ewan grabbed his staff and struggled to position himself as it flew towards them. Sam screamed and nearly released his grip – the thing did not match the descriptions of shadow beasts from the stories he'd heard.

[Quick, there's no time, you must use your magic,] a calm voice echoed in their minds.

WHAT!!?? Who the hell are you?!?” Sam screamed as the wind suddenly picked up and the ground disappeared from beneath his feet. In a flash, the spinning blur dispersed and a man leaped from it, landing feet first on the wall and crouched like a spider. Sam was grabbed by the scruff of his shirt and held fast. [My name is Qing Ting. Now... use your magic!! Both of you!]

Oh for god's sake, “JES LISTEN TAE THE TORNADO-MAN'S DISEMBODIED VOICE!!” Ewan cried, thrusting his hand towards the sky. Sam hesitated, but did as he was told – and together their bodies began to glow brightly. A small, self-important part of Sam's mind was relieved to see that Ewan's magic was far less refined than his. But mostly he was shocked to see their light beat back the darkness and wind. The three of them fell to the ground in a heap. Sam had never seen his powers act in such a way; it bubbled out neatly in a protective barrier, when usually light-bending came in uncontrollable bursts and streaks.

How's it doin that??” Ewan gaped, rushing closer to the others now that he was able to move freely.

Qing Ting tapped his head. [It appears that we complement each other; my abilities enable your crude magic to work as a shield from the blast. But there isn't time to explain that now in depth. Ewan, act quickly with your map, it is the key to our destiny.]

Sam was more interested in what on earth was causing this person to speak in their very minds, “What map??”

Ewan was shocked but yanked the golden card from his pocket, “How did you-”

[Never mind that! Turn it on and let's go! Once the wind dies down, monsters will begin to arrive.]

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Waves of ink splashed stickily on the destroyed shores of Centrala. Distant screams and the ominous inhuman growls of beasts echoed not far away. Haeta burst from the grey foam with a guttural gasp, carrying the limp form of his captain. “Don't worry...” he coughed, throwing the ginger man onto the shore and dragging himself to his feet.

Seoirse rolled over with a groan and dug his fingers into the sand – land. He was alive. He blinked the salt water out of his eyes and spat on the ground, pushing himself shakily upright. He took a moment to gaze at the apocalyptic nightmare surrounding him. The city buildings were toppled over and burning, while the silhouettes of people scrambling blindly in the smog could barely be made out amidst the destruction. He heard the sound of an exhausted body behind him and turned to meet Haeta's eyes. The other man was caked in black sludge from his bald head to his bare feet.

You...” Seoirse frowned and struggled to his feet.

I saved you... when the ship capsized, you were trapped under the mast. I barely got you out. You... you weren't prepared to die along with the ship... were you?” Haeta smirked.

Seoirse coughed again and put his hands on his knees, “Of course not... I... I'm not a real captain.”

You are.” The pyro wiped his hands down his face. “But let's not worry about that now... it appears the wind has died down. We have to get out of this fog.”

The wind...?” Seoirse had never seen anything like this before. What sort of horrible fate had his map led him to? Wait, his map!! He hurriedly slapped at his pockets until he felt the familiar rectangular shape with his palm. “Oh thank god...”

It was a fierce black bellowing hurricane. I could barely swim for it.” Haeta cast his eyes out to sea, scanning the water for any other surviving crew.

Seoirse rubbed his eyes and looked over, “....Thank you.”

Haeta grinned and returned his gaze, “You're -- LOOK OUT!” A hideous snarl from behind the captain caught him off guard, and Haeta leaped forward and knocked Seoirse off his feet as an enormous black beast hurled itself at the pair. Some sort of... well, dare Haeta say it, an ape. With teeth like knives, and pounding its chest with a roar.

They winced, scrambling backwards against the sand in unison. “Bloody hell...!!”

And that wasn't the only one – the pair, as exhausted as they were from nearly drowning, didn't have time to rest. Three more of these creatures came lumbering from the darkness, gnashing their teeth. “R-RUN!!”

Haeta and Seoirse dug into the sand and fled as quickly as their waterlogged bodies could carry them. It wasn't fast enough – one beast fell on Seoirse like a ten ton boulder, pushing him into the ground under its weight and trying to smash him to jelly. Haeta hopped on one foot, turned on his heel, and sprinted to Seoirse's aid. He quickly grabbed a jug of liquid from his belt, uncapped it and sucked down a mouthful. With the aid of his self-titled 'tinderbox magic', he ignited the potion as he spat it out, and a great ball of flame torched the beast in a glorious explosion of fur. Haeta skidded beneath the burning behemoth and dragged his struggling captain out from under it. “RUN, RUN!!”

Seoirse didn't really need to be told twice. He skipped right to it, sprinting along the sand for his life. Haeta poured a line of the potion across the beach and knocked it with his foot. A wall of flame rushed across the plane, hopefully preventing any remaining creatures from pursuing them. And it worked: the animals didn't want to get anywhere near the fire or their burning counterpart.

The duo ran at full tilt for an unknown length of time, and didn't stop until they suddenly burst from the cloud of smog into the light of day. They had begun at the outskirts of the city, but now they were far away from it. And now that they could see properly, it was obvious they weren't the only ones running. Townsfolk were stumbling out of the fog on either side of them. “This is horrible,” Haeta finally gasped, barely catching his breath.

You saved my life again.” Seoirse threw his back against a tree and gasped for breath, “What... What were those things??”

Haeta managed a smirk, “I don't know... But they were ugly. By the way you were running, I'm glad to say you weren't terribly injured.” But by the sight of discord and screaming people, it was safe to assume they weren't safe yet, “What are we going to do now...”

Seoirse shook his head. “We... we... well....” he laughed in disbelief. This was the only time Haeta had ever seen the captain's true emotions. It was surely hard to remain stoic in this situation, but it was a satisfying sight regardless. “What...what do you want to do, brave first mate Haeta?”

The pyro beamed, “If we need to get away from this place – which we do... I would like to see where that map of yours leads...”

Yes...” Seoirse agreed. Haeta had more than earned a place in his little treasure hunt. If the man's wish was to walk in step with him, Seoirse was sure the wealth waiting at the end of the map would be enough for them to split it fifty-fifty without ill will. Unpocketing his card and holding it forth, he declared, “Let's...”

><><><

My love,

Do not fear, I am in safe hands. But as you can probably see, this place is no longer. I was forced to make new friends and continue forth on the path marked on this map. Though I know it may be different from that of my own map, which I pass to your capable hands now, the destinations will be undoubtedly the same. The dark hole in the sky you see now is a dangerous phenomenon that flattens villages. The ruins of the city before you was once known as Centrala. I had many premonitions in my time here waiting for your arrival – one of which showed me the malicious natures of these holes. When one first appears, a great hurricane will destroy most of the surrounding land. Then from the gaping maw, horrible beasts will appear: ravenous carnivorous apes who infect all they sink their teeth into with some sort of rabies. I urge the two of you to avoid passing under any of these phenomena if at all possible. And avoid anybody who appears to be walking in a drunken manner and mumbling nonsense with a dead look in their eye.

I haven't much time to write this – if I had more presence of mind, I would have started sooner.

You know I'm forgetful about the really important things.

I love you Xiao Jin. Be sure you and your brother heed my warnings. I am truly sorry you have made such a dangerous journey only to find you have so much further to go. We are no longer fighting the persecution of our people, but the evils keeping us from our destiny. Please be safe. I will see you at the map's end.

Your ever faithful husband, Qing Ting.

'Qing Ting'? What sort of name is that? Absolutely childish.” Leng frowned after his sister finished the letter, holding the golden card in his hand. “How does he plan to continue on the path if he doesn't have this?”

My husband works in mysterious ways.” Xiao Jin pressed her face against the beautiful top her love had left behind. “If he goes by Qing Ting now, then respect his wishes, Da Ge. My husband Qing Ting...” She looked at the city down in the valley, which was now engulfed in blackness. “I have faith that he has held true to his word. We must press on, following the device.”

Leng groaned and took a seat on a boulder. “You are too sure of him, my sister. Our provisions are long gone. Our clothes barely cling to our backs. I am out of arrows, and my blade is dull...my spirit goes on only to ensure your happiness. But we're starving, and countless miles away from home. And your precious 'Qing Ting' has led us to a wasteland. To continue on now.... it's madness.”

She was resolute. “You make it sound as if it were impossible to mend our clothes or hunt for our food. So fletch your new arrows and sharpen your blade. We will spend the night here doing that. Rest and rejuvenate if we can, but regardless, we must carry on. Monsters and zombies and black holes in the sky be damned. We can't turn back now.”

Her brother buried his face in his hands. “You are crazy...” He lifted his head and stared at his reflection in the golden card, “.... but...very well.”