Out of Time: Chapter one: Alive, not alone…

Out_Of_Time

The ranger Ares Streiste moved like a wisp through dense jungle terrain. Obstacles like low branches, tangling vines, mud and raised roots posed no threat to a ranger, and he had made the trip through this leg of the jungle many times. Without  breaking his stride or catching his breath, he rounded corners and bounded over low vegetation deftly and endlessly. He still had quite a distance to go.

The Maguuma Jungle, especially the Magus Falls region, was a wonder to behold. The plants of the jungle floor grew rampant, huge and mutated by the dense magic that pulsed beneath the ground. Giant glowing bulbs and vines grew wildly here, drawing nutrients directly from effervescent springs, the “Fonts” of Maguuma. A disciple of the Goddess Melandru or any ranger, really, would find it difficult not to lose themselves in the ambient magic of the jungle. It was a powerful place; not peaceful or serene, but savage, wild, and all consuming. Truly, the jungle seemed to be an entity in its own right; everything here was entirely alive, maybe even aware.

In days past, the company of a druid would have been a necessity for travel through the jungle, as the will of the very much alive jungle was impossible to decipher without a direct line to nature’s base magic. All of the known druids, however, had disappeared into the jungle long ago. They had given up their physical forms in favor of becoming the spirit guardians of the jungle, and their human personalities in favor of a much more black and white set of morals: if any part of the jungle was harmed unduly, ignorance especially would not save you from them.

Since the druids were infinitely much harder to come by and equally less social now, having become nature spirits, the closest thing any adventuring party could get to “a direct line to nature’s magic” was, unfortunately, a ranger. Melandru, goddess of nature and earth, was the god worshipped by the majority of rangers, and rangers, as they were, tended to take on a wild appearance, took animal pets as their adventuring companions, and bathed less than average. Most rangers strove to be closer to nature, as was reflected by their choice of (or choice against) clothing, bathing, skin in contact with live vegetation, etc. A ranger’s bond with nature and animals in most cases resulted in untidiness , an antisocial attitude (preferring nature to society), and personal filth galore; enough to attract as many “raised in a barn” jokes as one could stand.

Ares Streiste was not that ranger.

Raised in Ascalon as a hunter’s apprentice, he had his fill and more of camping in the mud, cleaning animal carcasses, and the all-permeating smell of game hung to bleed out; the latter was often left on a rack directly behind his tiny, filthy lodgings. He gained all that he wanted from the profession in short order, neglecting the nature magic and more druidic practices of hunters and rangers in favor of martial knowledge. In his mind it was always best to kill faster than your enemy, and if possible, do it overwhelmingly. Ares became a local hero in his community by eradicating no small portion of local threats and predators, and at the ripe old age of 15, enlisted directly into the service of his country.

The pedigree and prestige of the Ascalonian military drew the young ranger like a moth to flame, and he quickly abandoned his filthy hovel and hunting duties in favor of the grittier, more dangerous, yet less filthy routines of an army scout, all in order to forge a better life for himself. Despite the looming threat of the charr to the north, and what tragedies would come to Ascalon as a whole, Ares lived his scout’s life comfortably when not out on assignment north of the wall, a warm bed and clean wooden floors his greatest comfort. He had taken a pet, but allowed it to roam free rather than bind it to him for travel and protection, let alone companionship. He found that he and his rather large Melandru’s Stalker, dubbed Meatball, did not get along well in close quarters.

As a ranger, Ares was not unfamiliar with the need to sift through the dirt to find what he wanted, or the blood and ichor he found himself encrusted with after a mission. He didn’t complain or fuss over cleanliness, though a bath and freshly cleaned armor were his first priorities once off-duty. He was also proud of his progress, in that he had thus far avoided altogether the ranger stigma of having freshly cut twigs or animal bones as a central theme to his armor, and although his hair grew long, as was traditional, it wasn’t a tangled mess of reeds or entwined with plant matter. All in all, he was as groomed as an army scout could be. So, with pride at having come so far held close to his chest, he set off on the mission that would save, and change his entire life: the hunt for Vatlaaw Doomtooth, the first of many charr to breach Ascalon’s Great Northern Wall.

The “Searing” of Ascalon, the fulfillment of the Flameseeker Prophecies, the plague in Cantha, and the thwarting of a mad god’s return in Elona; he had witnessed and taken up the role of the hero (or one of many) in each of these world-scale conflicts. Not bad for a twenty-four year old ranger barely into his prime.  Ares bore his cross well, and had suffered equally for his success, though it was hard to tell by looking him once over. Death, betrayal, the loss of his benefactors and his reaching the pinnacle of Tyrian adventurers had yet to jade him, and smiling was not only possible but a necessity for maintaining his sanity.

Now the hero’s path had led him here. Kryta wanted help.

Of course they do, I’ve saved everyone else already. He grumbled to himself internally. Everybody gets one. 

“Heh…hahaha…” Ares laughed at the pride in his last thought. He knew well enough that he, by himself, would not last 30 seconds in the fights he took part in. The entire time he had been thinking and reminiscing about days past, he had also been running full tilt across the jungle floor, inadvertently leaving his comrades in his wake. Had he been ambushed, he would have missed them. He saw and heard very little around him, focusing only on the path directly ahead. No monsters or living foliage had dared to attack him yet, and he was glad for it.

Ares stopped running and shook his head to clear it. Adventuring peril takes its toll on every mind that experiences it. Too often he found himself entertaining too many thoughts all at once; memories mostly, and fear of what could happen. As he looked around at the clearing he found himself in, he remembered all the ambushes he’d dealt with in this jungle, let alone in this very spot, and how many times he himself had been consumed, pierced, stabbed, bitten, and smashed the first two times he had ventured through this area.

Cough…” 

He shuddered involuntarily.  My many deaths are not the best memories to dwell on. Thank Dwayna for monks… 

Death didn’t hold as much weight as one would think, as any adventuring party with half a brain spread across 8 members knows very well that a monk with ‘Resurrect’ is a necessity. With the fall of Dhuum, the previous god of death, and the subsequent rise of Grenth, the rules against resurrection were lifted, and any adventurer with a monk companion could be nearly immortal, unless their monk died.

Ares breathed deeply and took in his surroundings. Nothing showed itself; the trees held no spiders, the vines on the jungle floor didn’t part to reveal hungry hordes of moss scarabs, and there wasn’t a breeze rider to be seen.

“Nothing…” Ares sighed. The jungle devoid of life, especially hostile life, was a strange omen. Someone or something held them at bay or  had scared everything off, though the natural energy of the earth had not been disturbed or changed; Ares could feel that much through the soles of his leather boots. The jungle still pulsed with life and hearty magic permeated the air.

Ares cleared his throat as if to speak, but stopped himself the moment he realized not a single member of his party was present. He chose instead, after thoroughly checking its branches for giant spiders, to pretend to rest against a nearby tree.

Jora was the first to arrive, due mainly to having  very long legs. The norn threw the oversized reaver she had been lugging into the massive trunk of the nearest tree, which shuddered unnaturally. Ares grimaced and instinctively checked over his shoulder for the infuriated druid he expected to appear; when none did, he turned back to observe the norn. Dropping her heavy steel buckler unceremoniously in the mud, she shot him a fierce look, her face flushed roughly the hue of a ripe tomato.

“You drag me out of the mountains; the cold, crisp air, frozen lakes, AND my latest hunt…” She paused for a lung full of fresh air. “And drag me to this most torrid, verdant corner of the jungle underworld…” Huff. “Tell me, oh wise and unrelenting hunter, why in Bear’s furry brown…argh!” She was cut off by the chittering of a very large moss scarab, whose head she had planted her right foot squarely atop. It struggled in vain under the bulk of one much heavier than itself, and was about to vent its frustration in the form of a necromantic curse, when…

Ka-kerrrrrrZAP…A thick bolt of electricity charred its mossy carapace brownish black before halfheartedly jumping to the adjacent norn, and it chittered no more. Jora herself jerked into an unsightly pose before regaining her composure…and subsequently losing it entirely. Completely dry and lightly singed, she turned her now vehement gaze to the source of the spell, her hands involuntarily inching in the direction of his small neck. Vekk the asura paid her no mind.

“Oh, so terribly sorry about that. It must be awful waking up to such a large beast suddenly stepping on your head, but we can’t have you damaging the goods before they’re delivered, now, can we?” He addressed the fried bug as one would apologize for stepping on a passerby’s toes, ignoring the lightly electrified and now seething Jora.

Ares watched from a much safer distance as Jora opened her mouth, no doubt to tell Vekk off for taking her prey and scold him for his less-than-friendly fire, but closed it immediately, choking back the slew of reprimands she had planned. Norn, as a whole, enjoy boasting and jovially challenging or berating lesser heroes, but in the case of recognizing the caliber of an individual, they become infinitely more respectful…or at least gain the capacity to hold their tongues.   Vekk had proven his prowess in battle and his knack for heroic deeds, so Jora saw no need to go any further than…

Zap me again, you little trogg, and I’ll see how far I can throw you… she growled internally, but actually managed “Watch where you’re throwing those lightning bolts…and don’t even give me the one about norn being so tall we’re natural lightning clods…”

Vekk cringed visibly. “Rods. Lightning rods…lighning is drawn to highly elevated…”

“Vekk, you know you’re only going to upset her more if you try to explain it, so give it up.” Ogden Stonehealer, a dwarf and the party’s monk, was next to arrive.  “Also, was ‘Chain Lightning’ really the best choice when the only other local target was our friend?” he chided, pulling a disapproving  face at Vekk and nodding in Jora’s general direction.

That’s the best ‘disappointed dad’ look I’ve seen out of you, Ogden. Ares thought and grinned behind his mask. He crouched down and pretended to be studying the ground, watching the three out of the corner of his eye

Ogden Stonehealer, emissary of the dwarves of Deldrimor and likely the last dwarf not composed of living stone, played the intermediary per usual. The dwarf himself disliked arguing amongst comrades, however often he himself disagreed with Vekk, and often gave reason a voice before a petty disagreement became a heated brawl. It was this dwarf who had tried so hard to bring them together in the first place, and who still stuck around to ensure they all came back in one piece.

Dwarven loyalty is above reproach, after all. He mused… Not that I doubted he’d give me a hand when I needed it. 

Ares flashed Ogden a covert thumbs-up from the other side of Jora,  and from where he was crouched, could nearly see the cogs turning in Vekk’s brain as he searched for a valid excuse.

“When engaging such a tiny target next to such a very large boo-…bookah, some splash damage was bound to occur…”

They all knew him well enough to know the vitriol was only as far as the distance from the front of his teeth to the tip of his tongue. It wasn’t until after experiencing a great deal of Vekk’s struggle firsthand that his asuran “charm” wore off. In truth, Vekk’s sharp tongue hadn’t been blunted, rather, in the many battles they had fought side by side, for the sake of the world or their individual agendas, Vekk had come to see these “bookahs” (large lumbering creatures used as nightmare fuel for children’s bedtime stories… AKA humans and taller) as “allies” or “friends”. Note that this is rare in asura, who, tending to squirrel themselves away to relative solitude, often view even other asura as stepping stones, or simply disposable; humans and other larger, hairier people, were widely regarded as lower than pawns or too stupid to be used.

Ares went back to idle pondering as he glanced over his trio of friends. His mind drifted with the cooler breeze here in the jungle’s undergrowth, and was about to fully relax and yawn when he heard an unpleasant sound; the sound of a large predator rushing through the branches and vines, taking care not to make excess noise.

Well if it moves that fast and just as quietly, it’s our not-so-friendly flea-bitten charr. Ares grimaced , as the hair on the back of his neck instinctively stood alert. The sound of a “large predator” closing fast was something that held a greater fear in Ascalonian hearts than simple roving monsters, and as a human, he himself had a hard time viewing a charr as anything but a dangerous beast to be killed.

As a former member of the Ascalonian military, a friend and mentor of Gwen (a mesmer in the service of the Ascalonian Ebon Vanguard…also known by Charr as Gwen the Goremonger for her relentless hunting of the flame legion and any charr that happened to look at her the wrong way), and current member-in-good-standing of the Ebon Vanguard, Ares’ conditioned response was to put three arrows in the beast’s throat before it could call its pack.

Pyre Fierceshot, however, was one of terribly few exceptions to this rule. They had fought together for the freedom of the Charr nation, and saved all charr from the sycophantic tyranny of the Flame Legion. As conditioned as Ares was to kill every charr he met before they turned on him, he had once spared Pyre, then a prisoner of the Flame Legion, from Gwen’s wrath after razing the Flame Legion fort he was held captive in.

At least I’ll have to keep an eye on him.

 Ares kept one thing close to his heart; his memories of Ascalon’s green fields, hills, little towns, beautiful architecture, and how they were all reduced to ash and slag by the Searing. Charr armies had razed towns, taken slaves, and slain many survivors, seemingly for the pleasure of it all. Wanton destruction and murder like that was a hard thing to forgive even one nearly unrelated charr for. Granted, Ares didn’t fancy himself a racist, but the charr as a whole had branded their identity as “monsters” deep into the hearts of all they had influenced…which happened to be the greater part of the continent.

As if sensing the animosity in the air, Pyre smirked, (Or snarled…) choosing instead to remain silent and bask in the warmth of the apparent unrest. He did not sit, and instead crouched in Ares’ blind spot, to the rear and left of the ranger.

Every time. He always does this. It’s just like how cats seem to KNOW when you’re allergic to them and get in  your face anyway…

Ares sighed and refused to let on that his nerves had been struck, making as little movement possible. He still had some remnants of pride at being a former soldier of Ascalon, and constantly reminded himself to tolerate the nice, friendly, fluffy, charr ally…lest he set off the next great war by killing the revolutionary hero of all charr…

Smug furry bastard, lucky he’s as useful as he is intolerable…

Ares quickly turned his head back to the forefront and kept the peace as well. The two had never tussled, and it wasn’t really a stand-off situation; just one that required the both of them to keep their political views separate from adventuring business. Saving the world was infinitely more important in their eyes than even international conflicts.

Next to arrive was the human necromancer, Livia. A local of Kryta and  member of the Shining Blade, Livia had been all too eager to help with this particular mission…even if it wasn’t plainly written on her face, the fire burning behind those eyes was undeniable. Hunting down the root of the White Mantle was at the top of her list, and of utmost importance to the fledgling monarchy of Kryta. Livia existed for her queen and country, and this was of highest priority to her.  If left to their own devices and entirely unchecked, the White Mantle would return in force with new and slavering sycophants, enslaving and conscripting all they conquered.  As a combatant, Livia was at the top of the necromancer hierarchy, and had an egotistical streak to match. Her habit of utterly demoralizing and berating enemies tended to make angry enemies as well…which could also be bad.

The “root of the White Mantle”, as it was, happened to be an ascendant race of magic users called the Mursaat. The Mursaat were nasty, and their greatest power was known as Spectral Agony; anyone without infused armor fell before pure negative energy. Mistaken for gods by the utterly desperate Saul D’Allesio, to whom they mercifully offered their power to push back the charr in order to gain control of Kryta and a steady stream of sacrifices for the bloodstones. Bloodstones, as far as Ares could understand them, were a type of magical power transfer device, (unpleasantly powered by absorbing the life essence of the “Chosen” sacrifices) which were used to charge the “soul batteries” that held the Door of Komalie shut. Beyond this door was the Foundry of Failed Creations, home to demonic Titans, servants of the mad god Abbadon, who strove for the complete destruction and corruption of Tyria. The Titans had long ago bent the will of the Flame Legion, who mistook them for gods and obeyed them unreservedly, which ultimately led to the destruction of Ascalon and Orr; one by the Searing, the other by the Orrian Vizier’s own hand. While one could argue that the Mursaat were fulfilling the role of protectors of Tyria by keeping the bulk of the Titans themselves at bay, once the practice of sacrificing the Chosen came to light, a certain group of Ascalonian heroes put the false gods to rest…mostly.

This was their goal: the complete eradication of the last known Mursaat by any means and to dismantle any trace of their machinations left in the world. The whole hunt felt to Ares like they were finally achieving their last long term goal, thereby achieving some degree of lasting peace in the world.

Ares scratched his head, a bemused and lazy expression creeping across his face.

What a load…load of responsibility, load of work, load on my shoulders, load of trouble, load of cr-…I feel like the maid. I just cleaned up this mess! 

It was at this moment that Vekk seemingly materialized at his side, to Ares’ surprise.

“Ahem.”

“Bwha-!” Ares snapped abruptly out of his daydream.

“Hmm. Glad to see you’re alert as ever.”

Ares shrugged. “I guess you could say I’m a bit jaded after my fourth trip to save the world. This place doesn’t scare me anymore.”

“So you’re blind to your surroundings because you’re comfortable. You’re better than that, Bookah.”

Vekk tagged on the “Bookah” line to make a point. He knew it would get a rise out of Ares, or at least his attention. In his mind it simply wouldn’t do to fall into complacency. There was always something or someone bigger and badder than you, and they were usually waiting for you  just around the corner. Ares sighed, giving Vekk an exasperated look.

“I’m a bookah again, huh?”

“The stupid look on your face has intensified of late.”

“Sorry,” Ares used his free right hand to rub his temples and frowned. “I’ve been a bit distracted lately. Thinking too much.”

“I am asura. It’s in our nature to ‘think too much’. To me…you seem to be looking backwards. Something you left behind?”

“Grrk.” Ares grunted involuntarily. He knew rather than “something”, Vekk meant “someone”.

The someone in question was a friend of his, whom he had known since childhood. He could remember it; the summer of his fifteenth year, 1070 AE, a caravan had arrived from Orr, intending to stay in Ascalon briefly and move on to the next nearest human kingdom of Kryta. Ares remembered watching the diplomatic envoy arrive, and being jostled by the crowd. One figure stood out from them all; a girl, his age or younger, with a fair complexion and blueish white hair. Where most of the others wore red and blue with golden accents and armor, she alone wore nearly all white, with what looked to Ares like a silver and glass crown across her forehead. When their names were announced, Ares only heard her name, and couldn’t make out her title; something like “Pri–ess of the t—ple of D—-na, Shyrah Gagari.”, which made no sense in his mind. All he could think was “What could such a pretty girl be but a princess?…” He later learned that the outfit, including the gem studded diamond platinum crown, was worth more than he could ever say he acquired adventuring to date. Due to the charr invasion of Kryta in 1070, the Orrian diplomats learned of the toppling of the royal line of Kryta, and refused to move any further than the southern border of Ascalon.

This was a convenience to Ares, and for the inquisitive ranger in training, reaching the caravan was not difficult. He remembered being chided several times by his master and Aidan, once at the same, for coming back late from his visits. All in all though, his visits were limited to 5 before the Searing. In that time he had learned her true title, “Priestess of Dwayna”, that she would rather spend all day playing in streams and rolling in the grass, and that she, as a priestess, was sworn to live her life separate from commoners and the unclean. It took a day for the last bit to sink in, and a week longer for him to work up the guts to see her the fifth time, his possibilities reduced from “endless” to “being friends”. The sixth was set to be the day after his first mission as a scout of Ascalon, and after defeating the first charr he had ever laid eyes on, Ares had sauntered off for evening tea with his Orrian friends. They were conveniently scheduled to leave the next day, so he didn’t want to miss his last chance to see the girl he couldn’t have.

They were scheduled to leave the very next day. The caravan was packed and all that remained of their camp was the table reserved for meal time and evening tea. Everything was progressing smoothly, and the Orrians were relieved to hear the confident tones of King Adelbern as they bid their last goodbyes. Daydreaming as he walked along the path  south into Wizard’s folly from Ashford, Ares barely noticed the sky changing colors. As he drew closer to the caravan, he remembered the diplomatic entourage was just leaving Ascalon city and the care of the King.

They left after him. The two of them would be alone. He swallowed hard.

Ares head was spinning as he walked along. Was she here? Were they alone? Would he get his chance to talk her into staying? He knew nothing of her life beyond her title, but in the few short visits and afternoons he had spent with her, his 15 year old brain had become enamored with the beautiful girl and her surprisingly down-to-earth charm. Her doting entourage even encouraged him to give it his best shot. It was more than their duty; they had grown to love Shyrah, and had begun to value her happiness above all. He was nearly marrying age, after all, and his policy on dreaming was to dream big or not at all. This would be his last chance.

Ignoring the rapidly brightening sky, Ares sauntered forward in a dream state, less than 100 yards from the caravan. A white silhouette, illuminated by what he assumed was moonlight and glowing brightly in his eyes, stepped out of a carriage and moved towards him, slowly at first, then waving her hands and sprinting. Did she have…wings? Ares smiled briefly at the beautiful sight, unconcerned with the abnormality of the wings existence.

So beautiful. I’ve never seen any-

The dopey grin on his face disappeared, replaced with fear, then desperation.

If she had taken off running a moment earlier, everything would have been fine. The carriage she had stepped out of, which exploded into a flaming crater the moment she put weight in her steps, would not have sent her flying into the bushes. If he had moved faster in the first place, he would have gotten there sooner and likely ended up a collapsed heap in the bushes as well.

A much older Ares remembered his past fear, and how nothing he had faced afterwards seemed as terrifying. These weren’t his favorite memories, but they were the most defining. Presently, he placed his hand over his face and massaged his temples with his thumb and ring finger. Every memory after that very moment was perfect and horribly vivid in his mind. Tripping over himself after a blind sprint through the falling debris and flames. Pulling her from the wreckage. Noticing the apparent white wings sprouting from her back. Carrying her through the smoldering ruins of Ashford as the survivors clamored and cried in wide wonder and fear, and finally setting her before Brother Mhenlo and crying for hours; first because he thought she was dead, second when the healing magic healed her perfectly, third when she woke up and looked at him, and the rest of the night for his friends and the scorched earth that used to be Ascalon.

The very next day she was up, about, and tending to the wounded. Rather than returning to Orr, she felt her duties as a priestess of Dwayna lay with the injured and distraught of Ascalon. Between his patrols, which stretched from The Breach to the gates of Ascalon City, Ares stopped to visit and help as often as possible. Every day he was either fetching bandages, helping her deliver meals to the immobile, or telling orphaned children stories of his valor in the field (a few of these were true).

As a former farmhand and ranger’s apprentice, Ares had been illiterate, as there was no need to read in order to feed animals or hunt game. In the months after the Searing and into 1071, Ares studied the languages of Tyria under Shyrah’s tutelage. He picked up Ascalonian reading and writing quickly enough, followed by Orrian. Shyrah was a prodigious tutor, and through unorthodox methods and application of logic was able to teach utterly foreign concepts much faster than even the professors of Nolani Academy. The matrons of the Ascalonian orphans had even begun to complain of their wards speaking a “code language” (Orrian) amongst themselves, to avoid getting in trouble.

Her daily lessons ended in 1071. Ares didn’t know the circumstances at the time, and was only told that she was “unavailable” and needed some time alone. He didn’t learn until much later in life that on that day, Orr had been destroyed in the Cataclysm. One week later, the former priestess of Dwayna had enlisted in the service of Prince Rurik, in the same unit as Ares. Under Warmaster Tydus’ direction, the two learned the ins and outs of combat and battle strategy, and for the next year fought for the safety of the citizens behind the ruined wall.

From that moment on, the girl, a year younger than Ares, showed her hidden talent for all things magical and divine. She started with an advanced knowledge of air magic and a secondary talent for healing spells, and together with Ares had built up an impressive spellbook full to the brim with every spell she could afford to train.She was now an accomplished elementalist first, monk second, and had basic knowledge of a bit of everything else.

Her pure white wings, which she claimed were utterly useless, were hidden from sight to everyone but apparently Ares, a phenomena she had never fully explained. Each time he asked, the conversation was conveniently parried by distraction or her outright ignoring him.

The two of them went on to become the saviors of Tyria from the Mursaat, Titans, and Undead Lich , Cantha from the returned spirit of an ancient assassin, Elona from a former god gone mad, and the world itself from the destroyers.

In his mind, his friend had earned her peace after slaying the Vizier-turned-lich of Orr, yet she had stuck by him through 3 more major incidents, internationally even. He originally assumed she had simply taken a liking to the adventuring hero life, and had a noble spirit; Helping those in need was more second nature to her than it was to him. Since the searing, he felt they had a professional relationship, and that their respective bloodlines were more than classes apart. As such, he wouldn’t be husband material in the first place, so he gave up on romantic thoughts the moment they set off on their first mission. She had her own opinions, and Ares had recently learned that he was wrong. She was not with him in the jungle; this much was intentional.

“How…how entrenched are we, in this matter?”

“What do you mean?” Ares raised an eyebrow, looking  sideways at Vekk. The little devil was smirking at him, looking up and to the right at Ares through half closed eyelids and grinning unnervingly with a smile the width of his head. Ares did his best to look away in a collected fashion, but a cold sweat soon formed on his forehead.

“I mean, how urgent is this? Does it need to be done today? Do we have time to stop by Ascalon Settlement to pay someone a…visit?”

Ares’ cold forehead sweat intensified. “Whatever could you mean?” he replied flatly.

“Oh just a revelation of yours,” Vekk lowered his voice to a whisper. “that LITERALLY EVERYONE HERE knows about.”

“I…now you listen here.” Ares hissed back a whisper. “I told her I’d tell her when I came back and none of this matter is your business.” He blurted out, tripping over his own words in a slightly louder whisper.

“You’re telling me that you suddenly notice the chance at the most anticipated romantic possibility for you, not to mention the most fortuitous…I don’t understand much about human standards of beauty, granted…but shouldn’t you be leaping for joy?”

Ares sighed deeply and slouched forward.  Little monster.

Ha! Bingo! Vekk congratulated himself inwardly. He had found the true source of their captain’s distraction, indirectly at that. He turned his gaze back to the front and resumed chiding.

“Well, couldn’t you have said something?”

“Like WHAT?” Ares replied, in a now quite audible whisper.

Vekk looked at him, dumbfounded. “Well I thought the obvious answer from a man like you to a woman like…her…” Vekk eyed him up and down, as if quantifying good looks by human standards was beyond even him. “Frankly, I’d think the classic bookah ‘Yeah, okay.” would have been more appropriate, accompanied by that stupid look you make when you can’t take in any more information.”

Ares was making that look again. His eyebrows went slack and he stared forward blankly.

“That’s the one.”

Thank you, oh Sir Vekk the wise, for your cunning analysis of my problems.”

“Now now, after all we’ve been through she’s my friend as well. I think it’s a bigger problem for her, you know, getting left behind while you go off on one last adventure, without even-”

“One last adventure?” Ares cut Vekk off mid sentence. “You know as well as I do that as long as monsters and monstrous people exist near other people, there will be another adventure to-”

“-a proper reply, or even something resembling words to consider…” Vekk cut him off in return without even changing his tone, intentionally ignoring Ares’ babbling.

“You can’t honestly expect me to-” Ares was again cut off mid sentence, this time by a very heavy and firm hand on his shoulder. He went rigid.

“We are discussing the topic at hand, I hope?” Jora inquired, without the slightest hint of a threat in her voice. Normally impossibly tall, she was hunched forward and crouching, bringing her apparent height down to less than a foot greater than that of Ares, three and a half feet taller than Vekk. Jora’s face had toned down from “ripe tomato” to “pink flamingo”, at least showing she could force herself to tolerate the jungle heat, and was looking at Ares quizzically.

“Ah- OH, yes. Topic at hand. Haha.” Ares stammered, attempting to re-focus his rattled brain. “Right, you’ve never been here. Ok, through this clearing there are three- Erk!”

He stopped. The firm grip should have been his clue; that was not in fact what she wanted to hear. The gauntlet-hand on his shoulder squeezed brutally tight for a second, and Jora straightened up to her full height, crossing her arms and staring straight down (and through) Ares. He wilted.

“Of course I am referring to the answer I am expecting to hear you give our mutual friend and ally upon your return.” Jora’s face betrayed her exact train of thought; she would see this wrong made right, and had probably already sworn an oath to see it through. Her eyes were narrowed and cold, her brow furrowed, and her lips pursed tight. “Even in the most drawn out hunts, there comes a time when the prey recognizes it has been bested.”

More cold sweat. “And… I’m the prey.” Ares’ shoulders slumped.

“Indeed!” Vekk chimed in. “However, we are here for,”he eyed Ares smugly. “bigger prey, I think.”

“Burn me! It’s about time.” Pyre spat, then literally spat. The beast-man had taken a seat, reclining against a tree and watching Ares squirm with mild delight. “As much as it amuses me to see you take a tongue lashing, and it does, I came here to help your pitiful hide kill a powerful magical and, according to all sources, nefarious monster who would enslave all races, posing as a god no less. I’m sure you know I’m downright tired of those.

Right. The actual topic at hand. Why we’re here. Focus. Ares paused in thought. Guess that means I owe him one, now.

“Right, the Mursaat.” Ares settled back into business mode.  “You all have to be wondering about why we took a side trip to visit a Seer.”

“I already know.” Vekk sighed.

“I as well.” Ogden also acknowledged.

Ares turned to the three remaining; Jora, Livia, and Pyre were still giving  him varying degrees of their attention.

Ares cleared his throat. “The Seer, in turn for the spectral essence of the Eidolon we killed, infused our armor.” He paused, and continued on. “Meaning, when the Mursaat uses his end-all skill on you, it will kill you slowly, rather than instantaneously. Mind you, it’ll still hurt, so kill him quickly.”

Pyre scoffed at the last bit of useless information. “We kill everything quick. No matter how fun a battle can be, decisive action yields the best results.”

“Granted.” Ares nodded. The charr’s confidence was always contagious, and every little bit helped. “Quickly is the word. With Mursaat, the key is always to hit them harder. They have unnaturally heavy defenses against most attacks, but can be killed if we work together on a single target first.”

Ares looked around at his companions. They held themselves well, and not one of them looked nervous; this was just another monster to kill, and it wasn’t their first. Adventuring in the northern Shiverpeaks did wonders for confidence. Jora held her previous posture and was still giving him the same “you know what you did” look. Livia had a murderous look in her eyes; she was clearly looking forward to seeing the Mursaat die, and if possible, by her own hand. Pyre just looked hungry…

 Haha, what beautiful weather. Ares mused to himself, choosing a state of blissful  ignorance to the unsettling looks on his friends’ faces. He knew all adventurers had a ‘murderous fiend’ side to them, but these three frightened him at the moment…for assorted reasons.

“Moving on…” Ares cleared his throat, regaining his composure. “I say focus on one target at a time, because when fighting Mursaat, there are always more than just the one target. They summon golems…more mystical than anything asura made. Nothing mechanical, just floaty rocks with weapons.”

He turned and nodded at Vekk for that last clarification and the asura rolled his eyes. “You knew that. Of course. Anyway…” Ares shrugged and turned back to the two attentive listeners, and Pyre. Maybe I just think all charr look hungry.

“These ‘jade constructs’ are magical golems, and tough as the stone they’re cut from. How they’re powered is entirely unknown to me, but we know how they’ve powered a seal on a dimensional gate…” His eyes rested on Livia’s and he paused. She had some sharing to do.

Livia broke eye contact immediately. “Officially, I’m not telling you this.”

“Go on.” Ares waved his hand at her dismissively. “I’ve heard already.” He looked down at Vekk. “He probably knows too.”

She looked plaintively at him. “If the rumor spreads that the Unseen Ones have returned for fresh and indiscriminate sacrifice…”

“And if we are successful, and return with a mursaat’s shiny head on a platter, the rumor will have as much impact on the peace as forceful butterfly farts, sooo…” Ares waved her on again. “You know, you shouldn’t invite ‘Great Vanguard Koro’ to so many strategy meetings. She was practically itching to tell me about it.”

“The cat was never in the bag…” Livia heaved an exasperated sigh and shrugged. “Two nights ago, a small caravan of merchants went missing. They were on their way to a Shining Blade outpost for shelter from the night and the minotaur when they vanished. Every living thing from that caravan vanished, as if whisked away by Dhuum himself. That was two nights ago, and twenty people. If the Mursaat power their golems the same way they powered the Door of Komalie, with twenty people and assorted animals missing, what are the chances there will be a small platoon waiting for us?”

Ares was nonplussed. “When is there not a small army just around the corner? I do live in the same world as you, you know.”

“Save it. Misgivings about the moral characters of merchants aside, those were innocent people. If the Mursaat were to have just quietly faded into hiding, or blended into society as a whole after being defeated, we would have no reason to hunt them down other than petty revenge.”

She paused for effect and looked around with her cold eyes. Ares shivered involuntarily. Put simply, Livia irritated him. Here was a person who could take on the dirtiest and most dangerous assignments without batting an eye, simply because it needed done and she could do it. She killed coldly and dismissively, like it was she, and not the White Mantle, who was on a mission from the gods. Put more simply, she was too damn serious all the time.

“However,” Livia continued. “This mursaat in particular seems to retain his delusions of godhood and continues to take advantage of other mortals. These monsters still see us as nothing more than livestock or natural resources. For that, he is no greater than a common monster that has become too large a threat, and must be put down.”

Livia turned and indicated a path leading south. “My scouts tell me our target is due south, near the coast. That information lines up with what we already know of the Mursaat being based in the Ring of Fire. We should be getting under way.”

Ares stretched his shoulders and legs, and turned to his allies. “Alright, everyone form up on me, we go the rest of the way together. Be ready for nasty surprises.”

 

———————————–

The journey “south” was just as much a journey “north”, “east”, and “west” for how much the path winded snakelike through the verdant paradise. The party kept up a brisk pace, but merely jogged along alertly; no one sprinted off alone for fear of inevitable ambush. However, for as far as they’d come, and as near the coast as they were, enemies were sparse and fights hard to come by. Ares could count on one hand the number of moss scarabs he’d seen, and on two fingers the number of spiders; trolls and wind riders were entirely absent.

The lack of resistance hadn’t unnerved Ares until they reached the southern border of Magus Falls. The lack of animal life in the jungle must have meant something. Was their target collecting souls?

For what? What reason could they have for recharging the soul batteries? The Door of Komalie was useless now; with Abaddon dead the titans no longer spawn in the Foundry of Failed Creations. Could he be…

Ares gasped. Before now, he simply couldn’t see the forest through the trees. Twenty odd souls turned golems were not the sum of his fears. “Livia, hold.”

Livia stopped before reaching the top of the hill and crouched down. “What, do you see something?”

“No, nothing yet.” He shook his head, searching for the words. “Remember the caravan that went missing? Do you really think they’re the only ones taken by the Mursaat?”

Livia shot him an incredulous look. “The Mursaat have sacrificed enough Krytans over the years to make this-”

“No!” Ares nearly shouted, but held back his cry of frustration in favor of a hissing whisper. “The population of almost the entire jungle is missing. No beasts, no spirits, no people. What about that doesn’t bother you? Do you see what he could be doing?”

He leaned in closer. “We could be facing an entire army of jade constructs.”

Livia’s eyes widened and she fell silent. Her pupils darted back in forth as she pieced together the signs thus far. “I didn’t consider that. Could we counter the entire population of the jungle at once? We don’t  have the firepower for that, even if you splinter barrage them in bulk…”

Ares studied a rock by his feet intently, running through the numbers the best he could in his head.

“Even if you and Fierceshot both use the splinter barrage ability, and granted that we can even put them in a choke point, you’re bound to run out of momentum sooner than later.” Vekk inserted himself flawlessly into the conversation.

“Do you propose a solution?” Livia looked bemused askance of the asura.

“I do not.” Vekk replied pragmatically. “I suggest we come back with more…” he glanced at Ares and the latter growled internally. “people…and much more firepower.”

“While I am Norn and ordinarily seek glorious battle, I do not chase after my own slaughter. Without help this will be a fool’s errand.” Jora’s disgruntled expression showed her disdain for shying from battle.

“How many are we talking?” Pyre looked ravenous. “My warband would be happy to come. I’m sure if we brought them next time they’d enjoy the vacation.”

The party fell silent. Ogden did not join in the discussion, but by the look on his face Ares could tell he was deep in thought. The sudden realization that an army could be waiting for them was a very real possibility, but none of them wanted to walk away. It was an odd feeling; dispair mixed with anger and impatience. This was the end game for them, or rather, how to return to their respective homes. With no solution in sight, the last thing they expected to hear was:

“Left us behind, didn’t they?”

“We heard. You need firepower right? Haha, how nice it is to be needed.”

Two bright and uncharacteristically cheery voices rang out from directly behind them on the path. Two women, a blonde in light blue Ascalonian noble’s attire, and one with shocking white hair and wings, of all things; elementalists Cynn and Shyrah Gagari  were the last people they expected, but just who were needed.

Ares froze. Two fears chased each other like rabid wolves through his mind…in rapid dizzying circles. The first fear, The awkward encounter with his “best friend”, and the second, Cynn’s temper. Cynn’s outbursts were normally reserved for a certain monk and enemy of women, but as Ares’ recent romantic choices had affected a dear friend so similarly to her own situation, he had reason to fear the burn.

He swallowed hard.

Oh Lyssa this is what I wanted to avoid. She’s here. She’s here and she brought a bad influence. Oh glargh… 

Ares mind was temporarily unable to process swear words in anything other than ‘ettinspeak’.

What do I say? 

He could have sworn he heard Vekk gasp out “HA, KARMA!” and cackle mutedly. He glanced at Jora only to look away immediately, as she was staring right at him with the most unabashedly smug smile he’d seen on a norn, a look mirrored quite accurately by Pyre. Ogden crossed his arms and faced away, his laughter only evidenced by his wide shoulders bouncing lightly.

They’re abandoning me to my fate… Ares stared bemusedly ahead with a perfectly blank expression on his face. He wasn’t going anywhere; he was rooted in fear by panic, and was just about to deal with it by switching his brain off, when suddenly she was in front of him. Her face was close, too close, and he was looking right at her. Ordinarily, he would have been happy to see her here and safe (anyone travelling with Cynn could be considered safe from everything save for the genuine article herself). His best and longest running friend was looking him right in the eyes. She stared intently right back at his, and his already frayed nerves got another minor shock.

Shyrah was smiling. She didn’t look angry or upset (Cynn did), just standing there, smiling expectantly.

“Alright ‘Captain’, where do you need us?”

Ares sighed with relief. This was the break they needed, and without the pressure of “how to answer”, he explained calmly, now staring intently at the ground.

“We seem to be heading into the biggest ambush of our lives, and they need to die before we do. We’re expecting one mursaat with a small army on his side. Our only real chance in that case would be to lure them into a choke point and burn them together.”

“Jade constructs in abundance?” Her eyes narrowed

“It’s what I think anyway. If you hadn’t observed on the way in, the jungle isn’t exactly teeming with life. This one seems to have a knack for collecting souls or life force, so he’s probably some sort of necromancer.”

“Hmm.” Shyrah took a turn studying the ground, then turned to address Cynn. “I’m thinking if we can group them up, meteor shower, Rodgort’s Invocation, fireball, and fire storm should do the trick. Be sure to bring Echo as well, so we can double up meteor showers.”

The dangerous look on Cynn’s face faded as soon as Shyrah began talking shop. “Sounds good but anything to slow them down and keep them in the burn pit would be wise as well. Bring deep freeze, even if it’s not your specialty.”

Shyrah nodded and turned right back to being dangerously close to Ares, causing the latter to freeze again. He was unable to move as she deftly reached up and pulled his mask down around his neck, moved closer, and, equal parts disappointment and relief to Ares, did not kiss him. She whispered in his ear.

“It’s not nice to keep a lady waiting.” She paused and glanced around at the remainder of the group. “They didn’t give you a hard time, I hope?”

“N-no, not at all.” Ares rolled his eyes at her and smiled weakly.

“I’m still waiting on an answer; it’s kind of important.” She continued cautiously, taking a step back and looking at him with overtly innocent eyes.

“Yes.” He couldn’t believe his own words.

“If you don’t want to- wait! You said it? Wait, do you mean ‘Yes, I understand.’ or yes ‘yes’?”  She smiled, turned bright pink, and her pure white wings ruffled noticeably. Ares forgot momentarily that only he could see the wings in the first place, and suppressed a chuckle.

“Yep, you got me.” he maintained a whisper.

“Do you know what this means?” She raised her eyebrows and looked up at him as serious as she was able behind her smile, her brows barely managing to furrow.

Ares eyes widened slightly and rather than reply, he raised an eyebrow. What more could it mean? You got me, I’m not going anywhere or after anyone else. What else, woman, what!? 

She smirked wryly at him. “It means you’re stuck with me; as simple as that. As long as you live, expect me to be right there by your side, and you will stay by mine.

Ares nodded weakly and smiled, his fears now reduced to one wolf running laps in his head. He had already been doing that. 

He smiled back, genuinely this time. “M’lady, when has it ever been any different?”

She leaned in closer, he could feel the warmth of her face this time, and for half a moment, her eyes appeared to glow. Time froze, aside from the beating of his own heart, and he swore he heard a tiny voice whisper “Now and forever, as long as we both still live”. Ares snapped back to reality, and just as he resigned himself to sealing the deal with a smooch, she stepped deftly past him and stood before the rest of the group, leaving him to stumble into the passing breeze.

Ah. She got me.

She nodded towards Livia, who was wearing a bemused expression.

“I hear we have a Mursaat to kill?” She spoke the statement like a question, and Livia in turn filled her in entirely.

As soon as her back was to him, Ares hastily replaced his mask over his face. Vekk had already taken notice.

“I’ve never seen a bookah change colors that fast. You went from white as a sheet and through half the spectrum…and hey, now you’re giving the norn a run for her money.”

Ares glanced at Jora’s perpetually pink face and could only guess what shade of red his had turned. He sighed, internally and externally; It was time to put this mess behind him.

“Ok, form up!” He barked, unnaturally loud. “We’re now a party of 8, keep an eye on each other and watch your own backs as needed. We don’t know what we’ll find.” He nodded at Livia. “Let’s hit the beach.”

 

———————————–

The path to the southern shore of the Maguuma Jungle was just as calm as before, and eerily quiet. As the trees, mud and vines gave way to rocky terrain, Ares suddenly became quite aware of an unsettling energy in the air. The only path to the beach was long, and only wide enough for three people to stand shoulder to shoulder; a perfect choke point. The downside to this was they hadn’t the slightest clue what was at the bottom of the path. It could just as easily become a killing field for them if they didn’t understand the threat on the other end.

“Hold here.” He spoke quietly but audibly to the group as a whole. “Livia, do you feel it?”

The necromancer wore a blank stare on her face. At the question, she seemed to snap out of her trance. “I feel…many souls. It’s not unlike the way the underworld feels, but more dense. There are soul powered constructs nearby.” The necromancer gripped her focus and held it up to reveal it was vibrating erratically, lightly pulling her arm in odd directions.

Ares glanced in Pyre’s direction and with great effort, suppressed a laugh. The normally sleek-furred charr looked like a perturbed housecat, or a massive animate chimney brush; every last hair on him was nearly perpendicular to his skin.

“You ok, there?” Ares paused, then added. “Fluffy?”

The charr growled tensely. “If you humans had half the hair and senses we have, you’d look like this too.”

Ares looked sideways at Livia. “Pyre’s feeling it too.” He removed his bow from his shoulder and it crackled to life. The jewel of his weapon collection, his Storm Bow glowed pure white with blue flecks on the body of the weapon, and from top to bottom swirled a visible electric current. He held it in the ready position, and slowly advanced to the edge of the cliff.

“Hold here, I’m going to get a head count.” he said, edging forward without a sound.

Upon reaching the edge of the cliff, Ares nearly sighed with relief. Not that it was any source of comfort, but from his vantage point he could see his targets clearly. The beach itself had been transformed; crystalline formations and the unpleasantly familiar obsidian architecture of the mursaat sprawled before him. The visible length of the beach had been transformed into a dock.

What use would they have for a dock? For honesty’s sake I didn’t think they needed supplies like food…unless they eat-…

Souls; the thought of these monsters devouring souls for sustenance stuck hard in his mind, and he felt his anger viciously gnaw at his stomach.

“Focus.” He told himself, and started scanning the dock up and down for signs of movement. From on high he ran the risk of being spotted, but being spotted was always a part of the plan. He’d have to pull them into the kill zone eventually, but not before he knew what he’d find.

The beach was roughly a quarter of a mile long, with the overlying cliff Ares was perched on running parallel for about three quarters of its entire length. He could not see the exact point the beach met up with the bottom of the cliff. It seemed the entire rock formation was teetering on the edge over the beach itself, but if it fell, would not reach the dock. No fewer than six spined pillars lined the beach side of the dock. Dormant jade constructs remained in statue form until activated by their respective masters, and stuck out like a sore thumb. Ares carefully observed the rest of the dock and gasped audibly. Normal statues were nearly nine feet tall and hard to miss, but what caught his attention now were countless little dots strewn from one end of the beach to the next. Miniature statues, only three feet tall, peppered the landscape.

Ares whistled inaudibly into the coastal wind. If we had walked into that we would have been swarmed by the lot of them, no doubt. Wonder if he was trying to ‘minion bomb’ us.

As he considered the probability of the mini jade constructs being explosive, Ares took a mental note of their numbers. His rough estimate was nearly 300 of the mini statues dotted the beach and dock, evenly spaced from one end to the other, but clustered more densely along the cliff face. Shouldering his bow once more, he decided to relay the information to his associates before moving forward, and shuffled quietly back down the bare incline to his waiting party.

“Huge numbers.” Ares relinquished with a long sigh. “There are roughly three hundred miniature jade statues strewn the length of the entire beach. If we hadn’t waited, we would have been swarmed.” he finished pragmatically.

“Does the previous plan still stand?” Cynn inquired, looking hopefully at him from between Ogden and Livia.

To his surprise, the dwarf spoke for him. “It seems the previous plan is now our only option. We’ll have to lure them in and burn them when they’re grouped together, or risk getting attacked all at once or blown to pieces by explosive constructs.” Ogden paused, looking directly at Ares. “The only problem,” he gestured with his thumb in the direction of the beach, “is that their Master was nowhere to be seen, correct?”

As if waiting for its queue, a terrifying echo of a voice sounded in each of their minds. No actual sound was heard, but the weight and volume of the voice reverberated through their skulls.

“Correct.”

At these words, an oppressive presence permeated the air; the air itself pulsed and seemed to writhe with darkness and pure power. Ares himself felt a wave of nausea he had to choke back, and Jora seemed to stagger under the weight of her armor. Not one of them moved or was able, and all held onto their weapons for fear of dropping them from shaking hands. As evidenced by Jora, it had become a chore to remain standing.

Ares crumpled to his knees, and was only barely able to lift his head. What he saw surprised him. No minions had appeared. No swarm of jade armors, tiny jade bombs or even a jade bow was to be seen. The leader, their target, had come alone. Ares retained feeling throughout his entire body, unfortunately. Was this “Spectral Agony”? This was more intense than normal, as if the infusion of his armor was useless against this much power. Could this be the true strength of the mursaat in question? How could one of these monsters so easily eclipse every one of his forebears by such a great margin? The tingling, stabbing, pulsing and burning sensation he felt assaulted him from head to toe, and it was all he could do to look up at the ascendant monster in front of him. It was one he recognized.

“La…zarus. The. Dire….” He gasped for air. The creature turned its masked face to stare directly at him and Ares felt his pain intensify tenfold. The voice in his head echoed once more, seeming less intense and more ethereal. Ares’ consciousness was fading.

“Mortal. Betrayer.” Lazarus paused, inching closer and leaning in, until Ares could feel the intense magic from behind the mask.

“Know futility, and writhe.” The pain of spectral agony forced Ares from his knees to a convulsing puddle of ranger on the ground. He shook and cursed,  grasping for his bow through the pain. It seemed so close, but he couldn’t bring himself to touch it. Just as suddenly as it began, and all at once, the pain subsided.

Ares coughed, growled and reached for his bow. In an instant he spun, an arrow already nocked and drawn in his bow.

The Mursaat did not move save to shake one golden finger left to right. Ares paused at the strange gesture, and was horrified to see his companions remained on the ground. Shyrah shook uncontrollably, a silent scream plastered on her face, and the others were no better. Ares did not move, nor let his arrow fly.  He got the point; this had devolved into a hostage situation. The Storm Bow crackled in his hands, longing to fire, but Ares held fast.

“You show wisdom.” Lazarus gestured at the ground and his companions, then to the bow in Ares’ hands. “Disrespect me further, and watch them all die.”

Ares choked. Bastard…dolyak licking imperious piece of polished manure BASTARD. Slowly he relaxed the bow and returned the arrow to his quiver. Bargaining for their lives was now the only option he could accept. He glanced at Livia, and though her face was twisted, her eyes screamed at him, “Don’t you DARE… kill it NOW!”

Sorry…not this time. Ares shouldered his bow and turned to face the Mursaat. Lazarus turned away from him and floated nearer the edge of the cliff, his black ‘wings’ trailing and waving behind him. Ares followed until the Mursaat halted his advance on the cliff, and turned to face the ranger indirectly, staring across the ocean in the direction of the ring of fire.

“You are an eyesore.” The mursaat spared as few words on the ranger as possible. Lesser beings did not deserve the courtesy of an explanation, after all, but a silent anger burned inside Lazarus’ gold plated shell; this lesser being had slaughtered his kin, desecrated his sanctuary, and now dared to turn his tiny fangs on one of the great masters? He would dare to take arms against Lazarus the Dire, a god amongst even the mursaat? This one…this most irritating one… would feel the consequences of his wrath.

Ares’ mind raced through a maze of possibilities. When would his chance be? Had the monster released his friends at this distance? Had he killed them anyway? Ares dared not turn around to look; he didn’t want that question answered yet. He had to stall. Even a second more, a moment longer for them to stand up and collect themselves was all he hoped for.

“Sorry I’m not to your tastes, my lord.” Ares surprised even himself at this statement.

“Flattery.” Lazarus turned his head to face Ares directly. “That will not save you. You have earned your fate.”

“What fate have I earned, oh merciful god?” Ares did his best to remain still and not let a trace of sarcasm shine through.

“You will disappear first from this world. As a reward for your sacrifice, your friends shall remain, as my servants.” Lazarus pointed a finger directly at Ares’ chest, causing him to flinch. Ares glanced back at his party to see them staggering to their feet, weapons in hand, if not ready.

“You will not kill them?” Ares attempted not to let his delight show through his eyes, and let his mask cover the tiny smirk spreading across his face.

“Your sacrifice will be enough to dull my anger. They shall live to serve me; by their will or my own.” The mursaat crossed his arms and continued to stare into the distance.

Ares turned abruptly on his heel and began to walk back at a brisk pace, calling out to the mursaat over his shoulder, who had turned to watch him in apparent shock. “Sorry Lazzy but I’m gonna have to pass on that offer in favor of-” Ares took off running just as Shyrah finished her cast.

His angel stood with her back to the rest of the party, forty yards away. Her eyes glowed bright white and her face shone with the most beautiful malice Ares could picture on a woman. Around her hands curled dense flames and as she leveled her staff at the mursaat, yelled out.

DEATH FROM ABOVE!

Meteors rained from the sky, burning through the air and shaking the ground with their impacts as they fell around Lazarus the Dire. Ares paused in his run to look back, hoping to watch his enemy stagger and fall under the bombardment, and to his dismay, watched the few that hit him directly crumble to fragments and fiery shrapnel. The mursaat barely twitched with each impact, and lazily raised one hand in Ares’ direction.

“You will disappear.”  Lazarus’ voice-echo reverberated through Ares’ skull and he struggled to keep his balance. Looking up, he focused on his next step and found he couldn’t lift his feet. A viscous purple liquid now swirled around his legs, spouting up from the ground voluminously. It moved swiftly to engulf him, hardening in an instant and immobilizing him entirely. He reached forward as the strange matter engulfed his waist, his chest, and started along his arm. He could see her clearly for an instant, running towards him in a panic and dropping her staff. His other comrades had started their assault, and were firing everything they had at the monster behind Ares. Another instant and his vision was momentarily obscured, only to suddenly return in the form of multiple purple tinted crystal facets. Many purple tinted and tiny Shyrahs were now beating their fists desperately against the hard shell that had formed around him.

Ares couldn’t gasp, but tried anyway in futility. He was inside a Mursaat statue. Panic flooded his mind. Would he be transformed? Would it shatter into bloody fragments and attack them as a malformed Jade Bow? Would he get out? The multitude of Shyrah faces were now pressed against their respective windows. Her eyes no longer glowed white, and tears flowed down her face. She mouthed “no…NO!” and her face contorted with rage. The last time he saw her she had picked up her staff and was headed off to face the impossible enemy again…

Just before his consciousness faded, Ares felt the sensation of being flung through the air at incredible speed, a jarring stop, then nothing.

Nothing at all.

 

———————————–

Ares drifted in darkness. Was he asleep? No…not quite. This was different. He felt everything for what seemed like brief moments, and nothing the next. Sometimes he imagined a bright light in the distance, or voices calling his name. At times the light was all encompassing, perfectly clear and white, and was all he could see. Other times it dazzled his eyes through the many facets of his prison. He closed his eyes to shut them out and focused on what he could feel, but the fact remained that he was frozen; he could not budge even his nose, but the greatest wonder of all was that he seemed to no longer need to breathe. Consciousness was relative, and Ares was no longer sure what part of “being conscious” applied to a human statue. If he couldn’t move, needed not breathe, but could “see” and still “feel”, what was he becoming? His awareness ebbed once, to his memory, and suddenly he was awake.

Ares woke with a jerk. He was laying nearly stark naked in a bed of what looked like thistles and shrubs, but felt like down fluff and velvet; soft to the touch but stable and supple. Calming himself, he rubbed his hands across the two pillows that stretched from his shoulders to his knees.

“Comfy…” he muttered, leaning his head back into his newfound  very soft  bed. Where was he? Surely his crystal prison didn’t suddenly grow creature comforts like pillows…he looked around…or green grass. Was that flowing water he heard? Strange… He was utterly aware that only moments ago he had been running from the single worst monster he had ever faced, and had just seen his best friends march off to their deaths against the same hopelessly strong foe. The woman he had sought after for more than seven years had cried for him before his very eyes, and given him and herself up for dead. Had they survived?

Ho hum.

Ho hum? Ares eyes opened fully and struggled to focus. Everything in this verdant dreamscape that was not green and growing was replaced by nearly-blinding white…light? Blank space? Where was he?

Why am I calm? I was fighting a minute ago. Was I knocked out? Am I…dead? No, I feel my feet…ghosts don’t feel their feet…or have feet…do they?

He yawned and looked around once more, reaching above his head with his arms. To his surprise, they met resistance. Still soft…more pillows?

Why is this bed so comfortable? Ares struggled to put weight on his elbows and attempted to sit up, but a gentle force on his forehead pushed him gently back down into comfort. Ares focused his now crossed eyes on…a…finger? Light brown…who?!

He looked up slowly. First the forehead, a mess of untrimmed and wild hair, not unlike bramble and ivy grew from the scalp in wavy locks. Next, the eyebrows, thin, and gentle at the center and wilder at the edge, fading from a dark brown to moss green at the ends.

The eyes were what got him. Green swirls for irises and golden pupils, in perfect almond-shaped eyes. This was a face he knew. This was not a bed. This was a lap. 

Ohhhhh Goddess…

The strengh Ares lacked in order to get up suddenly surged through his body in the form of a wave of panic. He found himself fully aware and awake, breathing rapidly and clutching a tree opposite of his chosen deity. Before him, laughing softly at his surprise and smiling gently, sat Melandru, goddess of nature and earth.

Ares gulped. Not a bed.

The divine being before him defied his imagination. How could a person clearly comprised of mostly plant matter be this beautiful? Her perfectly portioned face and it’s symmetry, along with the piercing gaze of strangely warm eyes. When she focused on him his heart slowed from it’s breakneck pace, and his mind no longer raced.

That explains the calm…

“Did you sleep well?” She spoke with a warm voice. Not seductive, or imposing. Warm.

He nodded, but bowed his head. “My lady, I didn’t deserve such a favor.”

Her eyes flashed, and the green and gold were replaced with shocking bright blue and white.

“Speak normally. Flattery and formality will get you nowhere.”

Oh there it was. Nature is fickle.

Ares cleared his throat. “Ah, sorry. But honestly, how many guys have gotten the privilege of waking up on a goddess’ lap?”

Her eyes widened and she stared at him for a moment. Ares imagined the feeling of being stripped naked and thrown in a small cage with a large tiger; it wasn’t all that different.

Ares cursed himself thoroughly for a moment before her eyes flashed once more, and a lively, genuine laughter echoed through the dreamscape and his own head. Forced relaxation once again calmed his nerves, and Ares made a mental note; goddess of nature: no formalities allowed, be yourself or suffer the wrath.

“I suppose you must be wondering why you’re here?”

Ares scratched his head. “Honestly, I’d rather know…where’s ‘here’?”

Melandru smiled gently. “‘Here’ happens to be inside your mind. How long do you think you were awake before you found yourself ‘here’?”

He pondered that for a moment. “I’m not sure…seemed like a long time, much longer than any other time I’ve stayed awake. Eighteen hours maybe?”

Melandru’s smile faded slightly, and she looked at him more intensely. “You had been awake for eighty one hours, in fact, and had been hallucinating the last nine.”

Ares sat down flat against the tree he had leaned against, slumping forward to put his head in his hands. Three days and nine hours had passed. Had he really been awake that long? That meant the battle was long since over, and his companions had not rescued him. Could they still be trying? How far was he thrown? Was he at the bottom of the sea?

“Actually, yes. The last one was correct. Bottom of the sea.” She answered his last thought, and smiled impishly.

Are you reading my mind?

The goddess raised her hand, touching her forefinger to her lips. The small, impish smile grew wider and more smug. “Mhmmm….Also yes.” She giggled.

Ares felt his cheeks warming. Cute. He looked away as smoothly as he was capable, before his eyes widened as he realized his mistake. He glanced back at the goddess in the center of the room, and suddenly there was only a tree.

In shock, he slumped backwards into his tree, only to find out it was no longer his tree. Ares found himself back at square one; looking up at the sky, soft warm pillows…ah.

It’s a lap again.

“Correct.” The goddess, now looking down on him from the same angle as before, placed her finger on his forehead again…more firmly now.

“I’m not going to smite you for calling your goddess ‘Cute’…after all, it’s hard to control one’s own thoughts.” She smirked at him. He did not offer to move.

“You see, the time I can give you is running out.” She smiled wistfully and looked at the tree in the center of the clearing. The leaves had changed from a lush green to gold and red. Some had even fallen off. The green grass, which Ares now realized was centered on Melandru herself, was beginning to turn brown and wither, starting at its furthest reaches and creeping slowly closer.

“Are you…dying?” Ares looked at her with narrowed eyes, and received a merciless flick on the forehead.

“Do trees die in the fall? Do I look like I’m dying?” She snapped at him, her eyes a livid blue once more. “No, I will not die, none of us can truly die, can we? Yet, I am waning. I will not have power in this world, soon. We must leave.”

“We? You and I? You and the Gods? Why?” Ares eyes widened and he struggled to sit up, but the fingertip on his forehead was utterly immovable.

“I cannot tell you. Our time here is almost up.” Her eyes had faded from blue, to green, and finally simple brown eyes with black pupils; human eyes. “You should seek out your priestess friend. It has been far, far too long.” Her last words echoed, as the world around him warped and faded away into nothing.

The light faded, as did Ares.

Darkness had returned…but…what was this? Ares shifted his body, and found it to be incredibly sore, but movable. The crystal…wasn’t solid anymore? Ares lifted his right hand with great difficulty, and to his surprise, felt the sensation of sand and tiny rocks trickling down his forearm and… wind!

Ares bolted upright, or attempted to. The weight of the sand on his ches caused his feet to escape first, and placed him in an awkward position. He shook, twisted, pulled and scooted himself free, pulling several long dormant muscles in the process.

“BwUUUGH-HACK COUGH gasp COUGH COUGH COUGH…” Ares coughed incessantly, spitting up copious volumes of sand. Though his first breath in what felt like days was a difficult achievement, breathing it out eased his pain and ache. His eyes still closed, he thanked his goddess for the sweet mercy of the last natural healing she had granted.  He reached up to touch his face and realized a large chunk of crystal was still plastered across his eyes like a mask. Ares panicked briefly, but it dislodged easily enough with a light touch, and he opened his eyes.

Curse it all that’s blurry. Ares rubbed his eyes gently, then his temples, and opened them a second time.

No less than seven blurry figures were surrounding him, and he flinched instinctively.

“Well, good morning, sunshine.” A familiar and inherently sarcastic voice spoke to him from directly in front. The blurry little figure opposite him was now swaying and bouncing slightly, and growing larger.

Asura? Vekk? Ares squinted, struggling to focus. The figure stopped, its blurry little arm seemed to pull a glowing object from nowhere and held it out in his direction, fiddling with it and tapping it with both hands. The blurry, blue, glowing little square flashed dimly, and disappeared as quickly as it came into view. Ares was just barely able to focus on the sand beneath him and looked up to see a round metal cylinder with grooves on the inside staring back at him.

“What in the world is this thing? Who are you…and where the hell am I?” Ares rattled off the first questions to pop into his head, staring cross-eyed at the black hole in front of his eyes.

“Never seen a gun?” The asura asked, lightly amused.

“The hell’s a gun?” Ares looked perplexedly at what he assumed was the asura’s face, but could only perceive two giant black circles where eyes should have been, and what appeared to be dark red hair.

“Hmm…Memory loss? You don’t look all that worse for wear… What were you doing in that pile of jade sand?”

He could now see the creature pointing the pipe at his head was an asura…wearing black armor with red accents. He wore a pair of spiked gauntlets on his hands, the outer plate of which seemed to be made of a red glowing crystal. The armor on this asura was unlike anything Ares had ever dreamed of, and chunks of it floated independently, much like the floating pillars of Rata Sum. Looking around revealed that all six of his companions shared the same color scheme, but much less intricate armor. Their weapons sparked and glowed red as well.

“Memory loss? No, I know who I am. I hail from Ascalon.” Ares took a moment to look down, and noticed an odd characteristic of his armor. The leather was faded, cracked and dry, and the metal bracers were tarnished and discolored entirely. Ares studied his hand in shock for a moment, before standing up unsteadily. His prized Deldrimor long coat was tattered, torn and split vaguely into two “tails”.

“Ascalon?” His counterpart queried, tilting his head slightly. “That doesn’t look like standard Ebon Vanguard gear. Fess up, where are you really from? Is that Deldrimor armor? Looks like you’ve been raiding tombs.” The asura waggled a finger disapprovingly. “Naughty naughty…”

Ares frowned. “Listen here, I told you I come from Ascalon, you suspicious ragamuffin. I’m one of the party of Prince Rurik, before he fell at the Frost Gate.” Ares peered at the ground, and began to root around in the sand.  “The last thing I remember, I was hunting down the last known Mursaat, on orders from the Shining Blade. Vekk was with me, if you can find him, he’ll vouch for me.” Ares continued to root around in the translucent…green? Green sand? Hmm… “This sand used to be purple…weird right? Anyway, like I said, find Vekk. He was there.”

“Heh… Vekk. I’ll get right on that.” The asura chuckled. Ares ignored him.

“Have any of you seen a bow, lying around? Bright whitish blue, looks like it’s electrified?” Ares hand touched familiar hard crystal. “Ah, nevermind.”

The Storm Bow crackled to life as it was lifted from the sand; it’s familiar light and the energy current were a comfort to him. Had he lost it, he could never replace it. “Sorry, this is somewhat important to me, kind of had to find it, you know?”

Six of the seven Asura present stared slackjawed at the weapon in his hand. “Mr. Self Important”, as Ares dubbed him, stroked his chin thoughtfully before removing the same glowing crystal square from his pocket and pointing it at Ares. It now beeped and flashed furiously.

“My my, you give off some strange readings, my friend. Is that mists energy? Essence of the underworld? So very interesting, I’m afraid you’re going to be coming with us, if you have the time, of course.”  He flashed a disquieting grin at Ares, and swiped a hand across his neck.

Ares reached for an arrow, before realizing the strap had crumbled and his quiver lay behind him. Shouldering his bow and raising his hands, he grinned sheepishly.

“Umm…no, afraid I don-” ZAPAres recognized the familiar taste of sand once more, then nothing.

 

4 thoughts on “Out of Time: Chapter one: Alive, not alone…

  1. Wow!
    It’s very good written. Did you write it by yourself?
    The story fascinated me to the very end!

    I’m looking forward to read Chapter 2 😀

    PS: I would love to see a PDF (ebook) Version of this story, so I can read it with my e-reader.

    1. That is higher praise than I was ever expecting, so…thank you! If all goes according to plan, I would love to make a PDF version.

      What I’d REALLY like to do is start including a comic-style illustration every few pages, though I don’t really know how PDF friendly that would be. Check back here once in a while, and I may have added a link in the comments to a PDF download.

      Of course…I’d need someone artsy, or at least more talented than myself. I’d scare people off I tried to do it.

    2. Adding some illustrations would be nice 🙂
      I will come back to look out for the PDF link. It is very difficult to sketch an illustration on a computer (Photoshop or any similar application). Maybe if you draw it by hand and try to scan it? Anyway, I’m looking forward to chapter 2!

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