A large black smoke screen covered the entire area, making it almost impossible to see. The unfortunate few who had been caught in the smoke could only stumble around trying to find their way out of the dense clouds. There were many who didn’t move from their spot for fear of stumbling on someone or getting impaled by their own swords. Zero and Agnis were still trapped under the heavy metal net.
Zero coughed from taking in a bit too much smoke. It felt as if something was stuck and was making his throat dry. His eyes clouded over, making it difficult to see. He held his hands over his mouth and nose. Flashes of light sparked around, loud fire crackle like sound echoed, and the sound of metallic swords clashed upon each other.
“Gah!” yelled one of the guards trapped inside the smoke. He stumbled around blindly. Zero saw silhouettes of human figures dropping to the floor. Struggling in the metal net, he began to chew at it; he hoped that his Crunch skill would activate while he was still in his human form.
“Agnis, are you alright?” Zero grunted between chewing.
“Yeah,” Agnis mumbled while coughing. “The smoke is irritating my eyes. Did you get out yet?” Agnis sneezed as a portion of the smoke cloud entered her nose, making it difficult to breathe.
“Not yet. It’s not breaking!” Zero cried out as he vigorously tried to pull apart the net with his hands while continuously gnawing on it. No matter how hard he tried, it would not break apart. Instead, his efforts only rewarded him with a painful throbbing jaw. He wished he had a bolt cutter on hand.
Out of nowhere a katana that was glowing with a brown aura suddenly appeared from the smoke slicking apart the smoke. In one quick slice the blade arced down and cut through the metal net. This allowed Agnis and Zero to crawl out with ease.
“Who?” Zero looked confused as Zeraph helped him pull the net off. He peered up at the imposing silhouette.
“Zeraph.” Agnis beamed gleefully. Zeraph’s knightly silhouette extended his hand toward Agnis. She gracefully took his hand and was hoisted to her feet. Excited, she hugged him with pure happiness.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Agnis smiled as she pranced around in joy. Her knight in shining armor was here. She was just about to jump onto him and give him another big hug when Zeraph raised his hand and stopped her.
“No time,” Zeraph said simply as he motioned in the direction of their escape. Already, they could hear multiple loud metallic footsteps heading towards them.
“You’re here?” Zero looked at Zeraph with surprise. “Wait! Why are you here?” Zero corrected his question as they ran. It was strange to see someone like Zeraph in such an area. He usually was in places of nobility or in some kind of parties.
“I heard the cry of a beautiful lady and I couldn’t resist,” Zeraph smartly replied as he winked at Agnis. Zero gagged at Zeraph’s cheesy response.
“Really?” Zero eyed him funny. He couldn’t believe the crap that was spewing out of Zeraph’s mouth. To him, Agnis’s wails reminded him of nails scratching down on a chalkboard. He was unable understand where that supposedly “beautiful cry” came from. At times like this he considered Zeraph a hopelessly delusional individual.
Zeraph smiled widely and laughed heartily. “Yep. Plus I was just passing by. I had some errands to do here.” His hands on his belly chuckling away.
“Errands? In a slave festival?” Agnis’s eyes widened.
“Don’t worry,” uttered Zeraph as he waved his hands at her as if to say it was nothing. He noticed she still had her shocked expression. “Don’t worry,” he repeated. “I’m against slavery. I didn’t come here to buy a slave for anyone.” He gave a dazzling smile to Agnis. Zero eyed him suspiciously, but his musing was interrupted by a sudden downward cut of a sword.
Side stepping out of harm’s way, Zero moved behind the guard and retaliated with a low side kick on the back of the knee. The guard buckled. In that same moment, Zeraph’s katana sliced through the guard like a hot knife through butter. Their movements fluidly synchronized.
“Nice. Thanks for getting us out of there.” Zero gave him thumbs up as he grinned. Zeraph raised his eyebrows and smirked.
“Do you have a plan? I’m completely out at the moment,” Zero asked Zeraph as they ran side by side towards the front gate. Its metal gate was rapidly descending and quickly closed, barricading their escape.
“Zeraph,” said Zero with worry, “our only option of escape just closed itself.”
Zeraph smirked as he regarded Zero like one looks at an idiot.
“Watch,” retorted Zeraph confidently.
From his black trench coat, Zeraph pulled out a dagger and threw it above the metal gate. The dagger hit its mark on a hidden rope that Zeraph had placed beforehand. A large, square camouflaged blanket fell from the ceiling. Thousands of metal piercing caltrops dropped down onto the ground, scattering everywhere.
The guards that followed after them ran into the trap, where loud screams of agony could be heard. Many of the guards jumped around in pain, holding their feet as if they were on fire. Some were pulling out the caltrops that were embedded in their boots.
“Not done yet,” added Zeraph wickedly. His eyes glinted with mischief. Zeraph motioned them back. “Stand back and cover your ears.”
Zero and Agnis moved back as Zeraph moved towards the gate. Flinging back his long trench coat, he turned his body to his side. He placed his hands on his sword and took a step forward. He flicked his left thumb to his sword hilt as it propelled the sword loose into his drawing hand. He leaned forward as electric sparks of energy gathered behind him. Using multiple simultaneous movements of his body to multiply his speed, he quickly drew it in a seeming arch of light.
He slashed through the gate in three slices. In a blink of an eye the gate fell into multiple pieces on the floor.
Zero caught glimpses of the attack, but Agnis only saw him place his sword back into its sheath. A moment after the sword entered the sheath; a sonic boom reverberated throughout the surroundings. It blasted throughout the mansion, shattering windows into thousands of pieces. People who had not covered their ears were temporarily deafened. Even Zero, who had managed to cover his ears, heard a single constant obnoxious buzzing tone as an after effect. Agnis’s jaw dropped in complete surprise.
Zeraph chuckled when he saw Agnis’ reaction. So far he was enjoying every moment.
“How?” She stuttered.
“Because I’m a genius,” Zeraph replied. His aura around him seems to dazzle with light when he stated that. “Sadly, I can only use this skill once. It depletes all my mana reserves,” Zeraph commented. “If it wasn’t for this restriction, I would have wiped them all out.”
Zero gazed at him in amazement. “Is that one of the Iaido draws?” He had never seen Zeraph fight before, especially using Iaido techniques.
“Iaido?” asked Agnis confused at what he was talking about.
“It’s a Japanese martial art of drawing the katana. It involves developing an accurate cutting technique, removing the blood from the blade, and returning the sword inside the scabbard. Usually doing one of those draws was very difficult and dangerous to perform if not done properly,” said Zero. Especially seeing how Zeraph held his sword, Zero knew he was a master swordsman. Zeraph laughed heartily.
“Ah, I see,” she replied.
“No time to waste!” Zeraph shouted as he ran out of the broken gate. Agnis and Zero looked at each other dumbfounded and followed right after.
“You idiots! Catch them or your lives will be forfeited!” Dion raged as he manically pointed towards Zero’s group. He had veins popping out of his forehead and was tempted to throttle the nearest guard he could get his hands on.
The guards tried to move around the caltrops, but by the time they had gotten around the trap, Zero and his companions were already out of the mansion gate. They dashed into the cover of the night and went deep into the woods toward their destination.
“This way!” Zero yelled as he dashed toward the location where he was supposed to meet Tino and his group. They ran through dense undergrowth and weaved around trees. While running through the forest, he jumped over many fallen logs, even the forest were eerily silent. Zero suddenly halted and raised his hand up, motioning the others to stop.
“What’s wrong?” Agnis asked.
She stopped mere inches away from slamming into Zero, and he pointed down towards the cliff. If they hadn’t stopped they would have taken a leap of death. Agnis gulped as she peered over the edge. Her eyes widened in fright.
“We need to go upstream where Tino’s group will be. Zeraph, do you have some rope?” Zero asked.
Zeraph had already handed him the rope by the time Zero had finished speaking. He was surprised at Zeraph’s quick response.
“How?” Zero stopped and stared. Huh. He must have read my thoughts, thought Zero as he picked up the rope from his hand.
“Because I am a genius,” replied Zeraph with a flick of his hair.
“Yeah, yeah,” Zero countered not listening to his wild delusions. He tied the rope around a solid-looking tree and tossed one end down the cliff. After evening out both ends, he handed it to Agnis. Agnis looked at the rope and then looked back at Zero with confusion.
“Ladies first.” Zero motioned her down towards the cliff, “Then Zeraph. I’m going stay up here and keep an outlook.”
“Um. Zero. I have never climbed down a cliff before.” She bashfully gazed down in embarrassment. He didn’t fully comprehend why she would be embarrassed over not knowing how to do it.
“My lady. I can help you.” Zeraph sparkled. Zero stopped him half way before Zeraph said anything else weird.
“Keep hands on both ends of the rope,” said Zero. He put his hands over Agnis’s to show her the process. “Do not let go of either one. If you do, you’re going to fall to your death.”
We’ll also be out of rope, he thought to himself. “Make small jumps and make use of your knee and ankle joints to absorb most of the impact.” He showed her the process by bending his knees and gave her a small demonstration.
Agnis shakily held onto the ropes. Her steps faltering as she took small baby steps. A small squeak was heard when she peered over the cliff She took a deep breath and began to descend down the cliff. Zero started to teach Zeraph what to do. He assumed there was a high chance that he did not know as well. Before he got to say anything Zeraph was already looping the rope around a tree. Zeraph knew what he was doing.
Zero climbed up the tree to scope out the area. In the distance, sounds of hellhounds could be heard. Sniffing through bushes, barking and yelping loudly, the hellhounds viciously fought with each other for dominance.
“They shouldn’t have gotten too far from here!” shouted the captain of the guards. “Spread out! Lord Dion has ordered us to find them and capture them alive! We do not want to disappoint him!”
Dozens of heavily armored guards streamed out of the mansion with heavy swords on their belts. Many of the guards had hellhounds snarling on chain leashes. Teeth baring, foam appearing on its side of the mouth like rabid dogs, and pulling to the point where it was a bit difficult for the handler to hold. The hellhounds nipped and tore each other’s ears as they tried to get a sniff of a piece of Agnis’s blue dress. A couple of times the guards had to kick them into submission as they viciously fought one another. One by one they were let loose and the chase was on.
Sniffing through bushes with their nose down on the ground, they sprinted towards their prey. The hellhounds cried out, telling their owners that they picked up her scent. Blaring sounds of the horn were heard echoing through the forest. In the distance, dozens of loud footsteps sprinted in their direction.
“You guys, pick up the pace. We got hellhounds coming in from nine o’clock,” yelled Zero from high in the tree. He squinted trying to see where they were coming from.
“Give us a bit more time. It seems Agnis is stuck!” Zeraph shouted back, “I think she’s afraid of heights. My lady, don’t worry, I’ll save you.”
“No, I’m not.” Agnis voice squeaked as she trembled with fear. She glimpsed down to check if her feet were still in the crevice of the cliff. “Are those sharp rocks?”
Her eyes begun to lose focus, and she tightly closed her eyes. Her breathing increased as she tried to control her trembling hands. “Please don’t let me die, God. Please,” she mumbled a silent prayer not to fall.
“This is the worst time to be afraid of heights. They are going to be upon us soon!” Zero yelled back down. He slipped down onto the ground and scrambled towards them.
“At least she’s halfway down.” Zeraph looked at him with a bit of concern. He turned down towards Agnis, shouting her encouragement. “Keep going, Agnis! You’re almost there! Just look at my beautiful face and you’ll be alright.”
Even at a time like this Zero could not believe Zeraph could spout such nonsense.
“I’ll go down and help her. Buy us some time,” said Zeraph with a hurried tone. He pulled out some kind of hook to scale down the side. Zero stared at Zeraph’s bag in surprise, secretly wondering how much stuff was inside. Usually one could see what was in the bag, but the one Zeraph had specifically was like a black bottomless pit.
“Do you have any more of those smoke bombs and powdered cayenne pepper?” Zero looked upon Zeraph as his eyes brightened with hope.
“Yeah?” Zeraph raised his eyebrows at Zero. “You know it’s only going to work temporarily.”
Zero nodded his head and replied, “I know, but it will buy you guys enough time.”
Zeraph handed him a bottle of crushed cayenne pepper and a couple of smoke bombs. Even now, Zero could smell the hot spice that made his nose slightly runny.
“I’ll be seeing you soon.” Zeraph smirked at him as he begun to hoist himself down the cliff. “I recommend you stand upwind so it doesn’t get in your eyes. Other than that, have fun with it.”
Zero grinned back. Without a second to lose he ran off toward the oncoming hellhounds. He stopped several meters away from the cliff and scrambled up on a large drooping pine tree. He broadened his search and soon spotted them halfway across the forest, rushing towards them in full speed.
“They’re pretty close. I’ll think they’ll be here in a couple minutes.” Zero tested out the winds by licking his fingers; he felt it lightly blowing towards the hellhounds. He could hear their snarling growls already.
The bush rustled. Two large black hellhounds jumped out from the bushes, growling. They snarled through their teeth as they paced around the tree. The larger of the two hellhounds snapped at the other as it snarled to let it go first. Zero observed them like a hawk, ready to swoop down on his prey at any moment. He pulled out one of the three small wooden sticks that he had eaten shish kabob with from under the sleeves. While watching Agnis during her dance of death, he had sharpened it against the broken flint knife.
The hellhounds barked ferociously when they spotted Zero. Their eyes changed to the color of crimson red while their razor sharp claws extended. They dug their claws deep into the ground. Before Zero’s very eyes the bodies of the hellhounds grew exponentially.
What’s wrong with these dogs? Are they on steroids? Zero thought in panic. He did not expect them to mutate. “What have these dogs been eating?” said Zero, appalled. Whatever they’d done to these hellhounds wasn’t natural. He needed to get rid of them now before it could do any harm to anyone else.
The larger of the two hellhounds backed up and dug its hind legs deep into the ground. With a bellowing roar it charged forward. It rammed its head into the tree, which shook violently with a sound of splintering wood. Knowing that the tree would not last much longer, he jumped out of the tree and flung himself at the hellhound.
“HAGHH!” Zero screamed at the top of his lungs while both his hands were over his head holding onto a shish kabob stick. With a downward force, the wooden stick landed perfectly in the dog’s eye, snapping cleanly in half.
The hellhound yelped in pain and ran blindly into the bushes. Zero tumbled tightly into a ball to cushion his fall. The second hellhound blitzed towards Zero and clamped down on his arm, yanking him out of his tumble. Zero felt a sharp pain running through his whole arm. He pushed the pain out of his mind as he had no time to waste.
He was viciously thrashed around like a stuffed toy. A loud pop was heard from Zero’s shoulder. As the hellhound rested for a moment to get a better hold on Zero, he had just enough time to pull out the glass vial of powdered cayenne pepper in his pocket. He crushed the glass vial over its nose. Whimpering in pain, the hellhound sneezed continuously, trying to get the smell out of its nose. It let him go as it viciously scratched its nose with its paws, trying to clear its sinuses. With a loud yelping noise, it howled out loudly in distress.
With a dislocated shoulder, Zero was limited in what he could do. The pain constantly overpowered his mind and the yelping of the monstrous dog did not help. Pushing the pain to the back of his thoughts, he rushed in and pierced the hound through its neck. The hellhound was hardly hurt with this attack, but it gave him enough time to throw sand into the hound’s eyes, temporarily blinding it.
With the hound blinded Zero gave it a crescent kick downwards upon its head, knocking it unconscious. He could hear the splintering sound of the hellhound’s skull breaking.
In exhaustion, he wheezed for a breath. He had fought multiple guards and now hellhounds. This hard work was taking quite a toll on his young body. Just like in real life, there were restrictions in the game of Growth. Too much of a burden on the body could deplete strength and result in death. Zero wiped sweat and dirt off his brow. With his job done, he ran back towards Agnis and Zeraph.
“Are you guys safe?” Zero yelled down the cliff. He could see Agnis sitting on the ground, hunched over and trying to catch her breath. Zeraph was rubbing her back, trying to calm her down.
“Yeah, you can come down now,” exclaimed Zeraph as he looked up towards Zero and motioned him to come down.
“I’m going to need your help. I can’t climb down with this dislocated shoulder. I need you to pull me down.” Zero began to wrap his good hand tightly around both the ropes that Agnis and Zeraph used.
The bush rustled, and another large hellhound jumped out towards him. It headbutted Zero perfectly in his chest and knocked the wind out of him. Both the hellhound and Zero tumbled off the cliff. The hellhound landed on its neck in a bone-crushing thud and died instantly. Zeraph rushed forward as he dived towards the rope. Agnis was luckily close to the rope and was able to grab it. Just in the nick of time, both Agnis and Zeraph caught the rope as Zero was harshly pulled to a stop.
He slammed into the wall with his dislocated shoulder. With a loud pop, his shoulder went back into place. He’d forgotten how long it had been since he’d felt this much pain. The last time he’d had such an injury was during Ninjitsu boot camp. One of his teammates kicked him hard on his shoulder while they were sparring. His rotator cuff popped out of place from its socket, leaving him with excruciating pain. Putting it back in place was even worse, but the pain did eventually go away.
Struggling to keep Zero steady, Agnis and Zeraph pulled Zero safely to the ground. Zero’s feet touched the ground and he let go of the ropes. He flopped onto the ground exhausted. At that moment it felt like the ground was an amazing bed which he had not lain upon for a long time. He was out of mana, his health was near the red zone, and he was pretty low on stamina. I hope this was all the excitement for today, he thought.
“Are you alright?” Agnis’s face was heavy with concern as she looked down upon him. Her white hair tumbled down towards him.
“I think so… I got bitten, thrown around like some kind of a rag doll, and my shoulder just popped back into place. Just give me a second to process everything.” He sighed loudly and closed his eyes.
“You do know that all the pain you are feeling is just in your head. It doesn’t affect your real body. All the deep dive gear does is give you an illusion of pain. So all you need to do is tune down your thoughts and you can actually block it out,” Zeraph explained as if it was nothing.
Zero understood how to block out pain. The concept was not difficult, but doing the process was completely different.
“I expected as much, but tuning the pain out can be quite challenging.” Zero sighed heavily as he opened his eyes to stare up at the sky. He could feel a light breeze brush against his face. The clean tangy smell of new rain wafted through his nose.
Rapidly, dark grey clouds rolled into the area. Loud thunderous booms echoed throughout the valley. Flashing lights of lightning strikes danced in the dark starry sky. It was like a Beethoven’s symphony of thunder and lightning as light rain began to pour down upon the ground.
“I was wondering when the rain was going to start,” Agnis commented as she held up her hands over her head. Clapping her hands together like she was doing a prayer, a drizzle of rain streamed down upon her hands.
“What dumb luck,” Zero muttered. This gave them a great opportunity, because dogs could not track them in this weather. Zero pulled out the last two remaining herbal medicines that he’d made. Chewing on one, the medicine took immediate effect and numbed his pain. He sighed in relief. The pain vanished from his body as he added the medicine paste to his wounded arms.
A flask of water dangled in front of his face. “Thanks.” Zero took it from Zeraph and drank it heartily. Fresh cold water satisfied his thirst and wiped away a bit of his fatigue.
“Kah.” He wiped his mouth of water. “I forgot how thirsty I was,” he said happily while capping it. It felt like a long time since he’d drunk water. He handed it back to Zeraph. He felt his stamina slowly coming back.
A large variety of plants lined up against the walls of the cliff. There were a couple of plants that opened up towards the cloudy sky as they caught the rainwater. The air felt hot and stuffy, making it a bit difficult to breathe. Large leaf-like plants covered over them. Agnis walked to an elephant leaf and took it. It was about half her size, almost completely covering her. Both Zeraph and Zero looked at her with confusion.
“What are you doing?” Zero peered at her curiously.
“It’s an umbrella.” Agnis twirled around. Not a single drop of rain touched her body. “You should get one, it has an effect where it filters out the air.” She giggled with bliss.
“Not a bad idea,” Zero said. Breathing was a bit difficult during the hot summer rains. Agnis gave both Zero and Zeraph an umbrella.
“This will help me from getting my handsome face wet.” Zeraph jokingly replied.
“In your dreams,” Agnis retorted.
Zero trotted into the creek first. “We’ll go down a couple of miles just to make sure they lost our trail.” They both nodded in agreement.
They waded into the water. Cool currents brushed against his ankles. The rain picked up, making it very difficult to see. The furthest he could see was the end of his elephant leaf. It reminded him of the time he’d visited Florida during a summer rainstorm. His family had gotten completely stuck in traffic. They couldn’t move from their spot because the dense rain made it almost impossible to drive through until it passed by.
“How much longer?” Agnis asked from underneath her leaf umbrella. She felt uncomfortable being in the middle of the creek. “Zero, we are going to need to get to higher ground very soon.” She slightly shook with worry. The currents steadily rose to her knees, making it more difficult to walk towards their destination. With every step she took, splashes of water wet the bottom of her blue dress.
“It’s getting a bit too high for comfort, Zero,” she said with worry. She did not want to drown anytime soon.
“We’re almost there. Just a bit more and we should come across an opening for us to ascend.” Zero wiped the water off his hands. He could already see the enormous tree he was aiming for, though it looked blurry through the thick rain.
“No time, we need to get out,” Zeraph said in a hurry as he looked behind him. Large, wet, muddy rocks were sliding from the cliffs and splashing into the water. A large plop created a small wave which raced towards them.
“Waves incoming!” Zeraph shouted as he trudged sluggishly through the water. “We need to get out of here fast! The creeks connected to this river are bringing in too much water!”
Zero nodded. He understood their predicament if they didn’t get out very soon. It was either drown, float, or get to land. Waves upon waves battered against them as Zero trudged through the water towards the land. By the time they got out, the water had reached up to their hips.
“Keep up with me,” said Zero as he begun to run. For Zeraph and Agnis his pace was more equivalent to a power walk. Every ten steps Zero took, they took five.
“Don’t worry. That’s not going to be a problem,” said Zeraph. Agnis chuckled. She power walked next to Zero.
“Um…Zero. I’m sorry, but I think I caused the rain. I didn’t know there were such heavy rain clouds in the vicinity. Usually it just drizzles.” Agnis nervously rubbed her hands against the elephant leaf’s stem.
“What? You caused this?” Zero slowed down his pace, stunned.
“I have this skill called rain dance, and it calls up nearby clouds for it to rain. I can’t control when it starts or stops. I just attract them in one place. It’s not a skill I can do very often. It can upset the balance of the land’s ecosystem. Also if there are no clouds in the vicinity it doesn’t work.” Agnis twirled her fingers around her snow white hair, feeling embarrassed.
“That’s a pretty neat skill…great for farming,” remarked Zeraph, surprised. “It would be helpful during the dry season. Have you thought of using it to make a profit?”
Agnis stared at Zeraph, appalled, as if he said something offensive.
“What? Did I say something wrong?” Zeraph looked confused. He didn’t understand how he could have offended her. “It’s a logical way to bring profit. This is what people would usually do just to survive when they have no money. Don’t you know how many countries would pay for such a service?”
“He’s right,” agreed Zero as he nodded. “It wouldn’t be bad to use it to bring profit when you’re broke, especially when you are in need of a meal. It’s like the ultimate scam for profit.”
Agnis glared at Zero as if she could bore a hole in his clothes. Zero stepped back worriedly.
“It’s a sacred dance that I learned from the monks of Infinity,” said Agnis, annoyed. “I am completely against the idea of perverting the sacred dance for such selfish motives. Ruining such sacred dance is sacrilege,” she said in pure outrage.
“Okay then, so when did you use it?” Zero asked.
“It was while I was fighting. I have a legit reason. Just hear me out,” Agnis quickly explained. Zero couldn’t believe there was a reason behind using it in a fight. Rain dancing in a fight was a bit of an odd combination. Wasn’t what she was doing for personal gain already? He thought as he was confused with her logic.
“The rain dance is good to use in a multiple attack scenario, especially when surrounded on all sides,” Agnis answered confidently. She folded her arms as if that logic made perfect sense. Both Zeraph and Zero looked at each other, stupefied.
At that moment they both thought the same: I don’t get it. They nodded in unison in agreement as if they understood what the other was thinking.
“If you say so,” replied Zero. After that both of them didn’t continued on with the subject.
Near the end of their journey, Zero saw the cliff opening they were looking for. It wasn’t a large or noticeable opening. It was a simple path that led straight up towards the cliff, almost completely hidden by the shadows of protective pine trees.
He saw that there were rocks for them to jump from one to another. The rest of the way up, that they needed to climb up by grabbing on to the protruding roots of the tree. There were also large roots that embedded themselves into the rock, making them easy to grasp. It was a perfect merge of stone and tree roots, a masterpiece of nature.
Both Agnis and Zeraph stopped and stared. They were surprised that such a place existed.
“This way. We are at the roots of the tree. See over there.” Zero pointed towards the opening, where a giant root stood arching over the rocks, giving it shade.
A bit further, the giant oak tree was literally sitting on top of the edge of the cliff leaning out. The sheer size of the oak tree was equivalent to an ancient redwood tree in California. Surrounding it were evergreens that dwarfed in comparison. They were the size of an ant compared to the oak tree. It was a sight to behold.
Agnis’s mouth was hanging open in surprise.
“Yeah, wait until you get near it.” Zero chuckled with understanding. He enjoyed the scenic nature of Growth. Already he looked forward to the vast adventures that the world was going to give him and the new places he would find. The rain was starting to let up.
Small brown seeds twirled and floated down around them. Zero smiled. A leaf landed on his head, and he brushed it aside. Agnis giggled, grabbed a couple of them out of the air, and put them in her bag. Zeraph on the other hand found them a nuisance and sliced any that came too close to him.
“We won’t need these umbrellas from here on out. The trees will give us decent cover. Be careful not to slip,” Zero said.
Grabbing onto a giant root that was protruding out of the rock, Zero pulled himself up. He began to scale up the cliff. One after another, they scaled up. It was a long laborious journey up towards their destination. Fitting his hand in between rocks, pulled himself up on the wet terrain, and a couple of times his hands slipped from the wet rain water.
A couple times, Agnis slipped on the wet mud, ruining her torn dress. She didn’t scream or curse. She seemed not to care.
“I can’t wait until I get a hot shower at the inn,” she grumbled under her breath.
“If only she hadn’t used that skill,” mumbled Zeraph annoyed. He did not want to be here. “I got ragged and chased by dogs, tracked through mud and water and it is possible more to come. Why the hell did the creator of Growth create such a wretched skill?” His voice increased in volume as he slammed his hands into the muddy cliff. “I am going to so kill the creator of that skill and delete it. It’s all because of that wretched skill that I’m in this predicament.”
“What did you say?” demanded Agnis as she only heard a couple of words.
“Nothing. I was just thinking how beautiful you are.” Zeraph lowered his voice and tried to brush her aside. He didn’t expect her to hear him.
“Yeah right, what were you saying?” She goaded him for more information.
“Just some things here and there,” said Zeraph quickly. He turned away from her in a hurry as he climbed ahead. Agnis tried to follow after him, but her foot slipped. She caught herself. Zeraph didn’t notice, and continued forward.
With heaving breaths, Zero arrived to the top first. With one last struggle, he pulled himself up. His arms felt like jello. A hand appeared in front of him. He looked up and noticed it was Tino. Zero yanked himself up as he breathed a sigh of relief. It was finally over.
“Who are you?” said Tino in surprise. He hadn’t expected to see a young boy climbing up on the side of the cliff.
“It’s me, the little fox dog that rescued you in the Mansion. I told you to meet me here at this tree.”
Tino’s eyes softened, and he smiled. “Oh, pup! Welcome back. We were worried that you wouldn’t make it. We heard hellhounds and thought they got you.” Tino laughed joyfully as he pounded Zero’s back. Each smack intensified his already existing pain.
“Nah. I got out just fine.” Zero tried to wipe away the mud on his clothes and face, but all it did was make it worse. Tino glanced behind him and saw Zeraph helping Agnis up. Her foot slipped on a slippery rock, but he caught her from falling backwards.
“Thanks.” Her eyes widened in fright. Her hands desperately reached out to grab onto Zeraph’s hand. She quickly pulled herself into his arms, but then she blushed and moved away. “Who’s that?” Tino pointed towards Zeraph and Agnis.
“That’s Agnis and Zeraph. My friends.”
Zeraph turned around, surprised. Agnis smiled happily at Zero’s words. From behind Tino, Clay walked towards them. He stopped in front of Zero and tugged on his shirt. His eyes glanced curiously up towards Zero.
“Where’s Pat?” Clay strained his neck behind Zero to see if Pat was there, but there was no one. “Is he still down there?” Clay tilted his head to the side as he waited longer. Zero could not say anything and instead delicately pulled out a locket. His heart tugged from sadness as he gently handed it to Tino. He knew that it was best to give it to the people who were close to Pat.
“I think this will be best left to you.” Zero patted Tino’s hands. Tino’s eyes darkened as he understood. He grasped the small locket with both his hands as if it was something very precious. He stood staring up into the sky. Rain water slid down his face and covered his streams of tears. A soft whimper escaped from his lips as he bowed his head. Sorrow overwhelmed him as his shoulders slouched with weight.
“Thank you,” Tino whispered. “He was a brave and honorable man.” He wiped away the streaming water with his hands. “Clay. Come here,” he called out.
Clay solemnly walked up to Tino. He was heartbroken in not seeing Pat anywhere. Tino squatted down and looked into Clay’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Clay, but Pat went on a special journey ahead of us. He will not be coming back anymore,” said Tino as he gently ruffled Clay’s hair.
“On a journey?” Clay seemed unconvinced. “Will we be seeing him anytime soon?” Clay’s eyes brightened at the thought of meeting him again.
“No Clay. He has things he must do. He will not coming back anymore,” said Tino with sadness. His hands rested upon Tino’s shoulders as he tried his best to explain it to him without breaking Clay’s spirit. Crestfallen, Clay fumbled with his words.
“One day. You will meet him. Don’t be sad, okay?” Tino lifted Clay’s chin. He gave him a warm hug and held him tightly. With light tussle of his hair, Tino let go with a sad smile.
Zero turned away at the scene. His heart clenched at the thought of his failure.
If I didn’t dally… Zero’s thoughts trailed off to the moment where he’d stayed too long in the library.
“Wow. These NPCs have quite a range of emotions,” Zeraph interjected, breaking the silence. Agnis elbowed him hard in the stomach and glared.
“What?” Zeraph said.
“Shhh,” said Agnis, peeved. She motioned towards him to be quiet.
Tino got up and turned towards Zero.
“Thank you.” Tino smiled warmly as he grabbed onto Zero’s hand. “Pat truly saved our souls in that hell hole. He gave us faith that we would one day be saved; without him reminding us to keep living we would have all become completely broken, especially Clay.” Tino hands tightened at the thought of the past. “Pat has personally watched over and kept Clay calm throughout the horrors of the night. He would tell stories for Clay to listen to, when the fat man did horrendous things to the people being experimented on. He would tell Clay to watch him and listen to his voice through the gut-wrenching screams.”
Tino’s voice increased in volume from rage. “There were a couple of times, the fat man would tell Pat to tell the story louder, while he was dissecting his patients. He would then tell the patients to listen to the story, while he kept them alive. It would sometimes go on for days.”
Just as quickly as he got angry, Tino’s eyes and voice softened with care as he continued to explain. “Pat was actually the one that kept everyone sane. He gave us all hope. Many prisoners that passed through were filled with laughter from his funny jokes. He was a good man and you brought back a piece of him that we can put to rest. I can’t thank you enough.”
Zero’s words were stuck in his throat as he nodded. His hands tightened around Tino’s hands for a brief moment before Tino let go. Tino went over to talk with everyone while Clay followed closely behind. It was difficult to hear their conversation. They softly whispered amongst themselves; Eli broke into heavy tears and Brook stood speechless.
Zero turned his attention towards Zeraph and Agnis.
“Agnis, what was that for?” Zeraph demanded as he rubbed his stomach. “That actually hurt.”
“You said the wrong thing at the wrong time.” Agnis pouted. She folded her arms with annoyance.
“What? It’s true. They are data,” said Zeraph, appalled. He saw nothing wrong with it.
“Well this data can hinder us from progressing. Try not to piss them off. They act and react like real people,” said Agnis. “It’s best to treat them close to a real person. That’s how advanced this game is.”
“Really?” Zeraph was astonished. “That’s new. I suspected that the game company had done a lot of research, testing, and data collection, but to this extent is quite surprising.”
From behind, Tino interrupted their conversation.
“Lead the way,” Tino said with a grin as his eyes glowed with purpose. He was excited to go meet his brother once again.
Zero nodded, and they all began their journey back towards Tino’s Pet Shop. He knew it was going to take half a day to get back. He observed everyone’s condition. Tino, Clay, Eli, and Brook looked a bit tired, but quite spirited. Agnis was a bit winded, but it didn’t bother her as much. Zeraph was Zeraph. There were neither flaws nor any sign of exhaustion.
On the other hand, Zero himself felt a bit winded and tired. He couldn’t wait to rest from this strenuous adventure. His sister did say that his laziness would get the better of him one day.
The cold rain was making him miserable. Already his skin had goosebumps.
“Mind over matter. Mind over matter,” he wheezed as his teeth chattered. He rubbed his shuddering body and tightly held his arms close to his body to keep warmth.
A pack of hellhounds howled in the distance piercing the night.
Brook eyes darted nervously as he looked around for any dogs. Eli held closely onto Brook. They grew anxious at the thought of hellhounds getting close to them.
“Are we going to be alright? Isn’t that the dogs?” Brook asked with a concern voice.
“Yeah. I’m surprised that they’re this close. We should hurry up and get out of here.” Agnis hurried them. Their steps quickened.
“We need to pick up our pace if we want to get there by noon,” said Zero as he looked behind him with worry. He could not afford another tumble with the hellhounds. The only person able to fight in their full strength was Zeraph, with the exception that his mana was depleted. Zero’s small band of escapees continued forward.
The rain finally stopped, and the sun peeked out of the clouds. Zero’s group walked out of the forest. In the distance they saw the City of Diadem. Its large white walls glistened like pearls underneath the rays of sunlight. A warm breeze blew and welcomed them home. Zero sighed with relief.
Dense farmlands and houses were littered around the city, as smoke rose from the houses. In the middle of the city a majestic castle overlooked its residents upon a large rocky cliff. Sentries were posted up high against the wall where they watched and patrolled the city borders. Flocks of white cranes flew over the city, croaking and signaling to their comrades. They surrounded the east side of the wall where the lake was. Zero noticed a small cottage sitting on top of a hill overlooking the lake.
“Home.” Brook fell to the ground and began kissing it. He looked like a homesick sailor who had just come ashore. Eli giggled at Brook’s odd behavior. Clay laughed as he followed Brook’s example. His laugh was contagious, and soon Agnis, Eli, and Tino laughed and smiled with him. Zeraph gazed upon them and stepped back nervously.
“I can smell the sweet scent of chicken rice soup,” said Zero. His stomach grumbled and agreed with his comment.
“I want some sweet hot pumpkin pie.” Agnis began to drool thinking about the food she was going to have upon arrival.
“Mmmmm,” replied Eli. She closed her eyes and imagined the hot steaming pie. She could taste and smell it already.
“I want some caramel apple candy!” exclaimed Clay excitedly. “Pat said it tastes great, and I want to try it.”
“Cold beer, canned silkworms dipped in hot spices that have been pickled for a long time,” chuckled Tino heartily as he rubbed his belly.
Agnis, Zeraph, and Zero stared at each other and blanched in disgust. Everyone at that moment lost their appetite. Zero wondered how he could have such an outrageous food choice. He did not want to know. Such things were best left alone or he would regret it later.
From behind them came the sound of loud squeaking wheels. A merchant riding on a rusty, old wagon with no covering rolled up to them, pulled by an old horse.
“Coming through!” shouted the merchant, who wore royal purple clothes and a beret. On it was a single large peacock feather that fluttered. His dark-colored skin and his pointed ears were prominent. Brook got up and moved out of the way as the merchant wagon screeched to a complete stop in front of them. It was badly in need to be oiled.
“Hello. My name is Alan. Do you guys want to buy anything?” asked the merchant. He gazed upon them as bags of full coins.
Zero walked forward and introduced himself.
“I’m Zero. I was wondering if you have any cheap clothes for sale for my friends here.” Zero motioned towards his group. Upon viewing, they looked like a ragged bunch of hobos who lived in the forest like wild men.
“Yes, I do. Let me show you my wares.” Alan began pulling out different varieties of colorful clothes from cute simple dresses to exotic wares. Zero beckoned Tino to come forward.
“Each one of you gets something to wear. I’m pretty sure the guards won’t allow us to go in. The majority of us look like beggars right now,” said Zero worriedly. There was a high possibility that the guards would turn his group away. To be unjustly stopped by guards at the front gates was not something he wanted. He was hoping that his quest reward would compensate for the amount he had spent.
“This is an investment,” he mumbled under his breath. He moaned in sadness as the thought of chicken rice soup with honey bread was slipping through his fingers.
Clay and Eli excitedly picked through. Agnis carefully skimmed through the products as she took her time to match the outfit.
Tino, Eli, Brook, and Clay were outfitted in their new clothes. Tino had a simple body-hugging green T-shirt with brown working pants. Zero thought he still looked like a buff grizzly bear. Eli got a yellow dress with a pink flower design that covered her whole body including her stumpy legs. Her hair was tied nicely into a ponytail by Agnis. Brook wore something a bit more colorful with extravagant designs. He didn’t look too bad with a tiger pattern shirt, black pants, and high top boots. Clay got himself dark blue shorts, a blue T-shirt over a long-sleeved yellow shirt, and strap-on sandals.
Zero helped himself to the same style of clothes that he usually wore: black shorts with a wooly, black, long-sleeved shirt. On top of it, he wore a buttoned down, light-gold shirt with the gold collar wrapping neatly around his neck. On his right side, he wrapped a gold scarf around his hips, and on his left, he attached two silver chains.
Agnis wore a unique dress that looked more like a long coat. It had triangular cut out ends. She had high top shoes that reached up to her knees and black shorts. Her long white hair dangled loose down her back. Zeraph, on the other hand, pulled out from his backpack the same clothes he’d worn when Zero had first met him, with the exception that he added a short-sleeved, long coat. Half of its side came up to his knee and the other half reached to his left ankle. It was an odd design.
As Zeraph put away his clothes, the merchant’s eyes widened. “Is that side pouch the supposed magical Zenith side pouch? The one that’s supposed to carry an endless number of items?” Alan looked at Zeraph’s side pouch with a dreamy eye.
“Yes,” said Zeraph slowly with unease. His hands moved on top of it.
“Are you by any chance willing to sell it?” said Alan as he inched towards the backpack with greed in his eyes.
“No. I’m sorry but I like this.” Zeraph’s eyes shot him a quick dark glance that stopped Alan in his tracks before he even tried to bargain for it.
“Ah. Okay,” said Alan with fear in his voice. He gulped while he pulled on his collar as if something was caught in his throat. “Well, if you ever have change your mind… Please do tell.”
Zeraph ignored him and continued on doing what he was doing. Alan turned towards Zero and began ringing up the total.
“That will be ten gold coins.” Alan reached out with his hands open palm up towards Zero. Zero shakily gave him the gold coins.
My precious food money, he silently cried. He was hoping it wouldn’t be so expensive.
“Can’t you give me a deal?” Zero asked with a bit of plea in his voice at Alan.
“Sorry, but no.” Alan shook his head. His arms crossed not budging from his answer. “I’m a poor traveling merchant I need some way to survive and make money.”
Agnis walked over to Zeraph to look at the pouch. “Zeraph, how did you get that pouch?” Agnis wondered.
It was about the size of a small purse that one could attach to the hip. It was compact and could be carried around without much weight. Players usually got backpacks at a merchant store. Both Agnis’s and Zero’s backpacks could hold only a hundred items. Having a small pack that could hold more was extremely useful.
“Well, it’s not that difficult. Talk with a gramp name Cylmar. He’s the owner of a bar called Boar Bar in the slums near the red light district. You can only make one, though.” Zeraph put away his wet clothes in his pack.
“I want one.” Agnis looked upon it with envy. “Let’s go get one, Zero.”
“Sure. Later,” he replied. He too understood the importance of the bag.
“If you don’t mind,” Alan chimed in, “I would like to go with you when you get your Zenith pouch.”
Alan knew that sticking around people who were fighters was the best chance of survival for a merchant. As a beginner merchant, he didn’t have strong offensive abilities to fend off high-level monsters. He started out with paying for protection out of pocket when traveling between cities, and for a beginner merchant that was a bit difficult. He had to travel short distances from village to village, and eventually he had made it here by the grace of god for not running into any monsters that he couldn’t handle.
Alan worriedly looked at Zero and Agnis.
“A child and a girl…I don’t think I chose the right candidates…” he mumbled under his breath.
“Excuse me?” Agnis curiously peered up at him.
“I look forward to working with you.” Alan gave her a big smile as he shook her hand and looked upon Zero.
“Sure. I’ll contact you when we are going.” Zero didn’t mind the extra company. The more people joined the faster they could get the job done. Alan, Zero, and Agnis exchanged contacts.
“I do have a small favor to ask,” Zero said cautiously. He was hoping he wouldn’t have to pay extra.
“That is?” Alan gave Zero the merchant smile as he rubbed his hands.
“Well, you see, we would like a ride to the city. We had a long walk and need a bit of rest,” Zero asked hopefully. He did not want to take that extra-long walk towards the castle. His feet were already killing him.
Alan’s face dropped, and was replaced by a stoic expression. It was far from what he expected.
“Sure…get on.” Alan looked at his horse worriedly.
One by one, everyone climbed into the wagon. Brook helped Eli and Clay sit comfortably first before he got himself comfortable. Tino flopped down and made himself cozy as he stretched out in the wagon. Zero climbed up and sat next to Alan.
Large veins showed on the old horse as it strenuously pulled the cart forward. The wagon squeaked loudly as it began to move. Once it got moving, the old horse didn’t have much trouble after that.
“So, what were you guys doing out here in the woods looking so beat up?” asked Alan. It was unusual to see a ragtag bunch coming out of the forest looking like lost souls that finally found the meaning of life.
“A quest.” Zero paused for a moment, while his group listened in uncomfortably, and then continued, “It was a group quest.”
“Ah, I see.” Alan raised his eyes and mulled it over and was just about to ask for more, but Zero cut him off. He was busily scanning off into the distance near a lake not too far from them.
“If you don’t mind, I would appreciate it if you went near that cottage on top of the hill.” Zero pointed up towards the cottage, which sat halfway between them and the city gates. “I need to complete the quest, and I think it might be it.”
“Sure.” Alan whistled at the horse as he pulled his rope to the side, directing the old horse towards the hill.
Zero sat back and enjoyed the nice windy breeze through the ride. The old carriage creaked as it rolled. Even a couple of times, the bumpy road made the carriage shake. It was a short ride till they arrived at the cottage. The carriage came to a stop.
“Wait here. It’s going to be quick,” said Zero in a hurry. He slid off the wagon and walked up the hill. The cottage had a shingled roof and a brick chimney. Grape vines hung over the whitewashed walls. One side of the enclosed porch was filled with split wood, ready for the fire. A rocking chair lightly rocked back and forth with the wind. Picketed wooden fence neatly surrounded it. A lovely arching gate opened up a pathway towards the front door. Grape vines draped on it as it wound up and down the whole arching gate. A small vegetable garden was growing enclosed inside of the gates.
Large sunflowers greeted him with a warm welcome as he past. Zero lightly knocked on the door. Sounds of light footsteps were heard coming towards the door. Peeking out of the door, a plump woman greeted him. Her apron hung loosely as if she was cooking lunch. He could smell a waft of sweet-smelling potato pie drifting towards him. His stomach grumbled loudly, throwing a tantrum asking for food. The lady smiled warmly.
“Excuse me, I came here to deliver an item,” said Zero as he rummaged through his pocket. He brought out a small tulip pin that glistened under the warm sunlight. As he looked closer he noticed a small ruby in the middle of the tulip pin intricately laced with vine-like patterns.
The plump lady cast her gaze down upon the tulip, and her eyes widened. Reaching down with trembling hands, she picked it up. She gently cupped it, and streams of tears fell down her rosy cheeks. Closing her eyes, she brought it up towards her forehead. Zero felt awkward watching a stranger cry, so he tilted his head down and waited.
The young lady turned around and went into the room, leaving Zero alone in front of her door. In a couple of minutes, she came back out with a ruby ring. She pushed the ring into his hands.
“Please take this with you and never come back. I’m sorry; I cannot bear to look upon the stranger who brought me news of my daughter’s death,” she said. She solemnly closed the door in front of Zero.
Zero was stunned at the lady’s reaction. It was so cold. He was expecting more of a thank-you, but instead was given a cold shoulder. He turned around and left without a single word.
Quest Deliver the tulip to her mother has been completed.You feel an unusual burden around your shoulders slightly lifting as if someone has left your side.
He gazed upon the ruby ring and noticed intricate, leaf-like vine designs encompassing the whole ring.
|Enchanted Elven Ruby Ring
The ring was made from an ancient magic by the old elven race. Created by singing it to life, it has been continuously reinforced with light and sound magic. A warm light can be felt emitting from the ruby ring, restoring the holder’s health very slowly over time.
+1% increase to restoration of health over time
+10% increase in power to light and sound magic
+ An unusual power emits from the ruby ring.
“Now that’s done with. Not bad for today’s haul,” said Zero with glee. He skipped down towards the carriage. The lady’s rude behavior was forgotten in matter of seconds. Once again he climbed up and sat next to Alan.
“You seem cheery.” Agnis peered over. Zero smiled ear to ear. “You’re giving me the creeps…” Agnis scooted back towards Zeraph, a bit worried with his odd behavior. Zeraph looked at him funny. He didn’t feel the urge to tell them of his good fortune.
“Well, onto the city.” Zero jumped up and stood up on top of his seat pointing towards the city. The joy of getting a good item made him jittery with excitement. The wagon bounced up and down and Zero flailed around, trying to catch his balance. Alan’s hands quickly snatched him from falling over.
“I would sit down if I were you. These roads are pretty rough.” Alan pointed towards the road. Large ditches, muddy holes, protruding rocks, and uneven terrain heavily littered the road. He pushed him back into the seat.
“Thanks,” replied Zero as he tried to pull it off as if nothing had happened. Clay giggled behind him.
“How long have you been traveling the roads?” asked Zero. Zero wondered how Alan could travel by himself through the dangerous terrain. There weren’t just monsters to worry about, but thieves, bad weather, and the wagon possible breaking down. He was even more surprised that this old rickety carriage still stood strong.
“I started on the day of the Yami Hikari gaming convention.” Alan carefully drove his carriage over a muddy hole. It squished and splashed against the wooden wheels as the wagon moved up and down.
“Wait, you were there?” Zero looked towards him, surprised.
“Yeah. Why?” Alan examined Zero with wariness. He handed everyone a straw hat to cover their eyes from the bright sunlight.
“I’ll be expecting these back. I’m just lending them to you,” Alan said. He fidgeted while giving them the hat.
“Thanks. You’re a nice guy.” Agnis smiled one of her beautiful smiles that made people tingly on the inside. Alan blushed rosy red.
“I was there as well. It was quite a stir,” said Zero, reminiscing over the past. Agnis hands him a small lollipop. Agnis was handing out candy to everyone. She had asked for candy from Zeraph. For some reason Zeraph had some. At this moment, Zero and Alan looked like hillbillies as they both sucked on the candy canes with their straw hats on.
“Yeah, it was. I waited for that day to start playing for almost a year.” Alan paused as if he was remembering something. “I was looking for possible group parties to start on that day,” he said with a pained voice.
“I saw you on that day. How did it go?” Zero asked curiously.
“It didn’t go so well. I had a difficult time leveling up in the beginning. There were a couple of people that I met that helped me out, but everything was earned through my own blood, tears, and sweat.” He cringed at the thought of those hard days and times.
Zero nodded with understanding. He thought of how Agnis had made him go through hell and back again during his first fifty levels: being chased by hundreds of small horned rabbits, tangled up with large snakes, and even almost eaten alive by brown bears. He shuddered at the thought of his past.
The cart continuously squeaked towards the stone gate.
“Hold. Permit please,” the sentry guard called out as he walked up towards the cart. He stuck out his hand, ready to receive the paperwork. The cart halted.
Zero noticed the city guard’s medieval armor. He’d always liked the design. It reminded him of an bird in flight. There were a couple of times he wondered how he would look in it.
The sentry guard skimmed through Alan’s permits paper and gave it back. He looked at them suspiciously.
“Who are these people?” he asked waving his hands towards them.
“They are mercenaries that I hired,” Alan quickly replied. He did not wanted any trouble from the guards. It was known that the City of Diadem had the roughest, toughest, meanest guards in the Fire Continent.
“They don’t look like mercenaries to me. They look unarmed.” The guard didn’t quite believe Alan’s words and moved his hands toward his sword.
“What’s a mercenary?” asked Clay he stuck out his head toward Alan.
“Shh.” Brook pulled Clay back.
“What’s a mercenary?” he asked again struggling out of Brook’s hold.
Zeraph gave him a stern look. Clay shrank back.
“Well, that’s what you get when you don’t have enough money to pay for the best,” admitted Alan with a casual wave of his hand. “A poor peddler like me needs to start somewhere. My goods are my life,” said Alan with anguish. He dramatically started to create a scene. People stopped to peer over to see what was going on. A couple of the other merchants that were waiting behind him yelled out an agreement with his statement. They all understood his pain.
“Sir, let them through. We all are businessman. We got to make a living somehow,” a male merchant behind them shouted out toward the guard.
“Yeah. You don’t know how hard it is to protect your goods when you barely have any money,” another yelled.
“Do you think he will buy it?” Agnis quietly whispered towards Zeraph. She leaned towards him covering her mouth slightly so Zeraph was the only one who could hear.
“I don’t know. It’s worth a shot,” he whispered back.
“I hope to god that he does. If not we’re going to jail. Getting out of it is a hefty price to pay,” she said worriedly.
Tino and Brook sat nervously, while the kids huddled together trying to hide their presence from the guard. Tino straighten his back trying to make himself big as possible trying to make himself seem like a mercenary for hire. Brook on the other hand kept fidgeting with his hands.
Zero leaned over towards the guard.
“Sir, I know we don’t look like it, but we are mercenaries. We have a personal contract with Mr. Alan here to protect him till we arrive. He not a rich man, but he is a man of worth. We are holding up the line the longer we stay here. Look.” Zero pointed towards the back. Already they were ten merchants’ carts with a dozen more people behind them peering with curiosity wondering what the holdup was. “I don’t think you want to work overtime. It’s going to be too much of a trouble”
“I barely make a living, sir. I am the only one that feeds my family. It’s been awhile since I had come back to drop off some food. Don’t you know how precious time is when you don’t see them for a very long time?” Alan had begun to cry. The guard nervously pranced around from the amount of attention.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to offend you.” The guard stepped back. He did not want to be in the center of attention and let them through.
In daylight, the large earthy city bustled with players and NPCs were filled with shouts and laughter. Merchants camped out with stalls on the side of the streets and sold livestock, food, items, goods and many more. Groups of wagons, tents, and fires were randomly spread across the streets.
Crowds churned around a line of brightly colored wagons clogging the main street. Horses whinnied nervously from the loud noises. Baked sweet potato pie added a rich aroma to the many smells that wafted around them. Players haggled amongst merchants for a cheaper price. Bards loudly sang their favorite tunes. Some sung about the great heroes of the Fire Continent. Zero felt like the recommended capacity for holding players has already reached its max. It was just too crowded.
“You know that new expansion to the Electric continent will open up so many new adventures and land. It is the hottest topic right now. I’m waiting to move there when the settlement is underway,” explained Alan excitedly. “It’s too crowded in the five major cities. Competition is fierce, and without having good items to sell, it’s difficult to sell anything at all. Either way, I got to ride the wave or I might miss this great opportunity.”
Alan parked his cart in front of the town square’s water fountain. “Well, guys, this is the stop. It’s been nice doing business with you.” Alan tipped his beret to them while they were getting off. “If you need me, I’ll be selling goods for a couple of weeks in the town square. Just call me through the friends list when you’re ready to go on that quest.” Alan punctuated the last sentence, stressing the importance of calling him when they were ready to do the quest.
“Will do.” Zero waved his farewell towards him.
“Thanks,” said Agnis happily. She smiled cheerfully as she bounced off the cart and followed after. Zeraph nodded towards Alan without giving any other words.
They weren’t too far off from Tino’s Egg Shop, just a couple blocks away. Agnis kept getting distracted by jewelry stands, and Zero had to pull her away. They passed many players buying clothes and trinkets or examining swords. Children ran up and down the road, shrieking with excitement. Knives were displayed here, spices there, and pots and pans were laid out in shiny rows.
Off in the distance the wooden building stood proudly next to the barber shop. Clouds of black smoke rose out from the chimney. A large wooden sign hung over the wooden door, and there was a potted plant wilting from lack of water.
The moment Tino caught a glimpse of Tino’s Egg Shop, he bolted towards the store. Clay, Brook, and Eli followed right after. Zero, Zeraph, and Agnis strolled behind them, arriving a few moments later.
The front doorbell gave off a trilling noise as they entered. Zero saw the two brothers collapsed in a heartwarming embrace. Tino looked like a giant standing next to his younger brother. Players peered over curiously at the ruckus they were making. Their bawling sobs literally shook the whole pet shop.
“Brother!” Tyrell sobbed in his brother’s arms. Streams of tears rolled non-stop and his snot covered his brother’s shirt. Hiccupping a couple of times, he wiped his tears away. Snot was left behind. They separated as they looked upon each other happily.
“Where were you for so long? How did you even become a slave?” Tyrell grabbed Tino’s shirt and looked upon his elder brother, appalled at the whole circumstance.
“That’s a long story…” Tino lowered his voice as he tried not to grab more attention. He gazed away from Tyrell’s intensive glare. Already a big crowd had formed around them and it was making him a bit nervous.
“I have all the time in the world. Here, sit down.” Tyrell pulled out couple wooden chairs behind the counter. “Coco, manage the store, will you?” Tyrell directed his new helper. She was a petite water-elf player that had signed up for an apprenticeship with Tyrell. Her rosy cheeks glowed red as she smiled and saluted.
“Yes sir,” she said with giddiness as her yellow pigtailed hair bounced up and down. Her girly, flowery pink dress fluffed up every time she bounced around. Coco raced towards the cash register and began calculating the price for the eggs that a customer was trying to buy.
“When did you get an apprentice?” asked Zero curiously. He hadn’t seen her before.
“This morning. She came in asking for a job.” Tyrell directed his attention back to his brother. “So what happened?” He pulled his chair closer to Tino. Tino scooted back as if he felt a bit crowded. Everyone got comfortable to listen to his story. Tyrell couldn’t escape his brother’s attention.
“It happened when I was exploring the edge of No Man’s Land for possible new pet species to sell. I got ambushed by a group of black market slave traders.” Tyrell quickly tried to finish off the conversation. His cheek twitched, and he shifted uncomfortably on the seat.
“So did you find anything?” Zero asked a bit curious. He noticed there were always new pets for sale every week. Who delivered the eggs, he didn’t know.
“Yeah, I did.” Tino pulled out from under his clothes a small golden egg the size of a quail’s egg. Zero was amazed at how Tino had still kept it without it breaking.
“It took quite a bit of effort to keep that safe. I had it magically altered so the fat man couldn’t find it,” sighed Tino. “Getting my hands on one of these babies was difficult. I fought dozens of monsters to get this. You wouldn’t believe how many there were.” His voice was getting louder.
“So what’s so special about this egg?” asked Tyrell, inching closer to have a look at the egg.
“That’s the thing. I saw some kind of fiery red bird sitting on the nest. I think it you know one of those legendary birds.” He whispered towards his brother. “A phoenix.” His voice was so low when he stated that last word that everyone had to literally come in close to hear what he had to say.
“You jest.” Tyrell eyes widen in disbelief.
“No. I swear it’s true.” Tino pounded one of his hand against his chest while the other cradled the egg.
Tyrell took the egg from Tino’s hand and carefully inspected it under the light. A bird-like being moved in its shell, its small heartbeat fluttering rapidly like a hummingbird’s wings.
“Well, if you say so; it’s definitely an avian pet,” said Tyrell. He handed it back to Tino.
Tino carefully handled it white it was being transferred back to him.
“Zero, you truly are an extraordinary being. I’m extremely impressed that you even managed to bring my brother here. Thank you both; you have my eternal gratitude.” Tyrell got up and bowed to Agnis and Zero. Zero flashed Tyrell a warm smile. Tyrell headed towards the back of the room and brought forth a container the size of a musical box. On the surface of the lid was a detailed design of a Celtic knot.
“I don’t have anything truly extraordinary to give you, but this is the most valuable thing that we have.” Tyrell handed him the box. Slowly opening it, Zero’s grin fell. Inside it were heavily packed seeds of different sizes. It radiated with a sparkly, golden light that illuminated his face. Zero stared dumbfounded at his reward. This was not what he was expecting. Money was what he wanted, not seeds.
Seeds? Who in their right mind gives seeds for a reward? He silently cursed up a storm. Though I wonder what kind of seed this is. He curiously peered into the box. His library of personal database of plants has grown to 450 different varieties. Having one more wouldn’t hurt. Slowly closing the lid, he gave Tyrell the biggest smile he could muster without it looking odd, hoping it wouldn’t break apart. “Thank you,” he said with a strained voice.
In the background, Zeraph tried to hold back his laugh. Zero gave him a glare to silence him.
“That seed is really special. One seed can grow an acre of freshly produced food in less than a week.” Tyrell beamed cheerfully at Zero as though he might have given him something really special. Zero put the box away into his bracelet.
Quest for Woe of the Pet Trader has been completed.
Six loud continuous rings were heard as both Agnis and Zero gained levels. They were both surprised—completing this quest had earned them each six levels.
Tino handed Agnis the small egg that he had found in No Man’s Land.
“I must thank you, too. I know this isn’t much, but I think this will do well with the right owner.”
“Please keep it safe.” Tino patted her hand a couple times, trying to reassure himself that the egg would go with a good owner. On the other hand, Zero thought that egg was doomed.
Run for your life, egg! I feel so bad for you, thought Zero with unease for the new friend that they would have. Agnis almost dropped it from shock. She was so happy that no words came out of her mouth.
“Hello again, Sir Zeraph. I’m surprised you are here with these two today. What an unexpected meeting,” said Tyrell. Zeraph nodded and continued to watch silently.
“To celebrate this joyous occasion, I would like to throw a party at my house. Come by and have dinner. All of you. Before you go, I have another request for you, Zero. Do you mind hearing it?” Tyrell eyes begged him to take the new quest.
“Fine.” Zero grinded his teeth at the thought of the possible low payment that he might receive.
Tyrell handed him a torn page with an ancient hieroglyphic message written on it. “Take this to the librarian Garret at the Royal Library that’s close to the northeast of the castle next to the resurrection site. If you show him the page, he will know what to do with it.” Tyrell handed him the torn page.
Quest has been accepted.
Meet with the librarian GarrettReturn the ancient torn page to the librarian Garrett. The torn page has some unknown hieroglyphic and has some strange magic surrounding it. Be careful not to get it wet. The Royal Library is located near the northeast side of the castle.
Difficulty Level: E
Reward: Possibly a book or some ancient magic.
Failure: Tino will not give you any more quests and your association between Tino and you will fall tremendously.
“Just over a simple page my association drops?” Zero stood stunned. He could not believe their good standings would plummet over something so small.
“This time I didn’t get the quest,” replied Agnis. “I’m guessing that was the only one that needed another person.” She peered over his shoulder, trying to read the torn page.
“Well, we will see you guys at dinnertime.” Tino and Tyrell shook each of their hands. Tino lightly punched Zero in the shoulder as he gave him a thumbs-up. Zero rubbed his shoulder as he felt the sting.
“What about the rest?” Zero glanced at Clay, Eli, and Brook.
“Don’t worry about them. They’ll be taken care of here,” Tyrell replied cheerfully. It seemed that he had something in mind for them.
Zero, Agnis, and Zeraph left the pet store feeling a bit dazed at what had transpired. The whole day felt like it flashed in front of their eyes.
“I don’t know about you, but I feel completely exhausted. Let’s rest until night falls,” said Zero with a wide yawn.
“Yeah, agreed,” replied Agnis. She stretched to the point her belly button was showing.
“I’m actually with you on that one,” replied Zeraph as he yawned.
Their long journey finally was at its closure, and a rest seemed blissful. Agnis and Zeraph headed out the door first as they talked to one another as they left without specifying anything. They went a bit ahead, while Zero followed behind, deep in thought.
As they turned right into an alleyway towards an inn, Zero felt an intense blood lust aimed directly towards him. His skin crawled with goose bumps that made him shiver.
In that split second, as he turned his head towards the source, all he saw was a glint of a silver knife soaked in his blood, and his vision went completely white.