Chapter Cover

AUX 1 : Tessa Vivuk - Character Sheet (End of Ch. 30)

AUX 2 : Tolan Morndelen - Character Sheet (End of Ch. 30)

AUX 3 : H̵̱̎͌͜e̶̘̥͙͑̀̈́̈́i̷̺̤̊̋͘ ̸͍͍̠̲͂͛̃̀Z̷̳̑͋̏͘h̴̠͖͚͆̑̔͐a̶̪͎͎͐́͠ó̵̢̒͌ ̸̫̤̮͊̉͂̊-̴͖̿͝ ̵̢͚̌̒̈́͜C̶̢͇̞̣̾́h̸̖̖̦̪̑̔̉̋ã̶͇̲̯̣̽r̶͕̄̍͜ä̴͚͕͓́̾̃̎c̵̣͎͕̈́̔͐͘ͅẗ̸̤́e̶̦̝͓͇̿r̷̦̝̯̐ ̵̠̝͎̬́S̴͕̘̱̃̀̾h̴̛̗̬͜͝e̵̝̞̓̈́̽͛ę̵̞̪̆̈t̵̮͕̦̓

AUX 4 : T̶̬͍̳̳̫͐ơ̵̧̨̜͒͛̒r̸̢͖̥̤̝̟̂̈́͊́̓͝g̷͉̺̹̫͉̥͆̊̓̅r̴̛̺̪̳͖̔̎̿̕͜á̴̖̫ķ̵̨̮͎͎̼͛̈́̀̌̔̈́ ̵̼̱̙͑̑̈́͝͝-̸͓̝͌͝ ̶̨̢͕̦̞̩̿C̶̡̰̗̫̰͙̉͝h̶̛͍͉̞̘͍̣͊̃ä̴̪̍̊͒̂r̵̡̛̻̹̫͈̳̀̐̆̚͝à̶̖̺c̶̤̜͙̗̤̬̊͋̈ṭ̷̣̎̃̎̇͛͝è̴͚̮͜ͅͅr̶͖̦̣̺̝̪͗ ̴͇̳̗̳̾̔S̴̙̞̻͇͘ḥ̵̝͉̘͌́͛̿͋e̷̢̦̰̼̍e̴̩̓͌̑̔t̵̻̗͈͍̩̉̈́

Chapter 0 : The Hero and the Dragon

Chapter 1 : Dreams From Propaganda

Chapter 2 : Running Blind

Chapter 3 : Unmet Requisites

Chapter 4 : Not a Coincidence

Chapter 5 : Kneel to Fate

Chapter 6 : Saved and Sabotaged

Chapter 7 : Apprentice of Bastards

Chapter 8 : New Lessons to be Learned

Chapter 9 : Drilling in the Basics

Chapter 10 : Fanatic Extermination Preparation

Chapter 11 : A Few Moments Before Chaos

Chapter 12 : Never Wanted This

Chapter 13 : A Little Bit of Green

Chapter 14 : The Resistance

Chapter 15 : In Through the Front Door

Chapter 16 : Conversation Between Villains

Chapter 17 : Seeing What's to Come

Chapter 18 : Spark Amongst Flames

Chapter 19 : Everything Starts with a Big Bang

Chapter 20 : The Gun Goes Off

Chapter 21 : Miniboss Meeting

Chapter 22 : The Starting Light

Chapter 23 : A Convenient Opportunity

Chapter 24 : Unapologetically Breaking a Promise

Chapter 25 : No Rest for the Wicked

Chapter 26 : But It Was Me...

Chapter 27 : Second Verse Same as the First

Chapter 28 : Ritual

Chapter 29 : That Lesson Paid Off

Chapter 30 : 30. The End of the First Story

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Chapter No17:Seeing What's to Come

Putting her hand to her head, Tessa slowly came back to reality. Everything was blurry and her ears rang with a sharp, high-pitched sound droned on for a couple of seconds before fading away. Getting back on her feet, Tessa’s vision refocused and she could now see she was in the alleyway between some destroyed buildings. What happened? I… remember the giant monster… and a bright light… Agh! My head! Her head throbbed, pain emitting from a point on the side of it. Putting her hand to where it hurt, she felt something wet and warm. Moving it in front of her, Tessa had a bit of blood on her hand. Looking around to see what might've caused it, she saw a pile of junk, wooden boxes, and a couple loose bricks where she wast just lying down. That makes a bit of sense… I guess? Tessa looked around for her staff now. Thankfully, it wasn’t far from her this time. Picking it up, she noticed it was a bit chipped and covered in dirt. The symbol of Aeon in the center had a piece missing, but she found it. Somberly, she thought, You got pretty damaged too, it seems. Pocketing the broken piece, she was about to cast a healing spell. Then she remembered the vials at her side. They’re probably broken, but at least that dwarf prepared me for situations like this. To her surprise, the remaining two were still there and full. Pulling them out, she saw one had a crack running down from the top, but that was it. What kind of glass did he use?! No. That’s not important right now, and praising him is the last thing I want to do. Popping the top on one of them and drinking it, Tessa noticed it had a ridiculously sweet taste to it. It was almost as if someone took a handful of cherries, dumped several tons of sugar on top, and added enough water to make it into a syrup. She shivered after getting it down. Ugh… I wonder what’s worse. That bitter medicine that gave me cat ears, or this potion that makes me think I’m swallowing a sugary slug? Immediately, the wound on her head closed, and the pain subsided. It’s annoying how good Torgrak is at his craft… Now patched up, Tessa made her way towards the end of the alleyway. Peering out to see if things were still as bad as before. Unfortunately, they were. The roar of the avatar wasn’t close by, but definitely still in Crimsonvale. Tessa watched as it tore through the city. Collapsing buildings with a swipe of its hand and letting out its breath attack all over the place, reigniting already-burnt-down buildings as it wandered about. At least it’s not over here. Moving out into the street, Tessa saw a destroyed well. Walking over to it, she took a moment to both get a quick drink of water and clean her face. And the moment she stared into the well, she saw cuts up and down her hands and face. Dirt in her hair, with some ends frayed out. Tessa couldn’t help but give a pained laugh. It had all gone so horribly and in such a fantastically surreal way. A short time ago, she was attending classes, doing homework, taking tests, and hanging out with her friends. But now? Her dreams have been crushed, she’s nearly died multiple times, and now she’s stranded in the middle of a dead town as a giant monster rampages in the background. Why… Why did this all have to happen? Then she remembered her ‘mentors’. The two that promised to make her into a Hero, yet dragged her into fighting a cult. She’d hoped they would’ve been some kind of shortcut or bypass that would allow her to get around every obstacle that stood in her path. That, maybe, she could gain some kind of unique power or something that would differentiate her from everyone else. Something that would make her special. But all she’s gotten so far is a dwarven lecture on preparation, some meditation practice, and enough cuts and bruises to last a lifetime. Tessa splashed water on her face, silently cursing her mentors. But then something hit her. Why did Hei jump in front of me when the monster attacked? And why did Torgrak carry Tolan all the way out of the cavern? They could have left us both to die. It would’ve been easy for them to leave unscathed. They could probably have just left us there and ran for the hills, but…! But they didn’t. Why? It didn’t make a lick of sense to her. They could’ve let Fate close the book on her life, and yet they never let it. Taking in a deep breath, she let it go. At least for now. Standing back up, Tessa wandered through the destroyed town. Peeking around corners and inside buildings for any signs of life, though her only companions proved to be the distant roars and some creaking wood. Eventually, she came across the street where Hei defended her from the avatar’s breath attack. The cobblestone road was mostly gone. A tapered section of gouged earth was all that remained now. And as Tessa’s eyes followed the attacks’ path, she noticed a house at the far end with something odd inside it. No… Narrowing her eyes, it looked like a conveniently person-shaped outline embedded in the house's inner wall. Don’t tell me Hei’s still alive?! Its attack literally erased the street! Then Tessa remembered that she’s still alive. Next, she realized that her survival was because of Hei protecting her. And as much as she hated that fact, she forced herself to accept it. Furious, she grabbed her head before running towards the house. But then she heard someone else. “Where are you, you filthy half-blooded lotus eater?!” It was Korlos. Tessa ducked behind some buildings, hoping he didn’t see her. He’s still alive?! Wasn’t he buried along with the body of the Archbishop?! “Come out so I can shove my sword down your throat!” Quietly and slowly, Tessa looked around the corner. And, unfortunately, it was Korlos. Blood fell from cuts on his face, armor shredded to pieces, and hair completely disheveled. But it was without a doubt him. Or, at least Tessa could tell because of the still-frozen chunks of ice embedded in his body. Thankfully, he stormed off elsewhere. Limp-walking as he searched for Hei. Once Tessa couldn’t see him anymore, she resumed running for where Hei appeared to be. And knowing that Korlos was searching for him, she went in a side door. Now inside, she saw the sorry state of the house. A collapsed staircase lead to a freshly renovated second story where you could now stargaze to your heart’s content. The kitchen was now buried under bricks, roof tiles, and some wooden planks. And in the dining room was a table set for a meal never to be eaten. It wasn’t long before she found Hei, though. The home’s fireplace had replaced with a scorched crater, with Hei at its center. His hair was singed and covered in soot. A few streaks of blood fell down his face from his hairline. And the gilded black armor he wore had cracks and scratches all over the front. Tessa couldn’t tell what Hei’s current condition was, but it didn’t look good. And she doubted what miracles she could cast would do enough. Then, like an icy chill on the back of her neck, she remembered all the horrible things about him. I should turn away before he notices and leave him to rot! I should! I…! I should, but… In the end, she deemed it too horrible to do. For as much as she hated Hei, he was the reason she was still alive right now. Taking the last potion she had on hand, she removed the top and splashed it over Hei. Secretly hoping he’d be unconscious as she helped him. To Tessa’s dismay, he woke up. Hei chuckled painfully, “Well. You sure took your sweet time getting here.” Tessa asked, “Why did you save me?” “Hm? Oh, that. Why? Not satisfied with me doing a good deed?” Tessa grit her teeth. It took everything Tessa had to keep herself from slapping Hei right now. “After everything I’ve seen and experienced, you and Torgrak don’t do ‘good deeds’.” “Careful now, child. You don’t want your tongue to get too sharp, or you might end up saying something you don’t mean. But fair enough, I’ll tell you why.” Hei looked Tessa in the eyes. “It’s my job as your mentor. Torgrak and I are to protect you so long as you’re under our apprentice.” Liar! You must have some other reason! “And what of Torgrak? Is he also ‘protecting’ me?” “In his own way, yes. Or do you think he would give something so potent to just anyone?” Why do you have to be so infuriatingly confusing?! You gave me straight answers when you were training me, but you can’t now?! Tessa’s hands scrambled through her hair. Questions filling her head as she tried to make sense of Hei and Torgrak, but couldn’t come up with something to ask that would give her a straight answer. Fine! If Hei and Torgrak are so dedicated to protecting me, I’ll get my answers eventually. Giving up for now, she huffed. Hopefully… Hei chuckled. Tessa looked down at Hei as her contempt for him grew. “Something funny about my suffering?” “No, no, nothing like that.” “Then what is it?” “Just finding it funny that, for as much as you want to, you can’t bring yourself to leave me here to die.” How does he always see through me?! Tessa turned away from him, hoping any surface thoughts wouldn’t show on her face. “Got any evidence to back up your claim?” “Just some observations. First, you’re too nice for your own good, and not knowing why Torgrak and I are protecting you is eating away at you. You want answers, and me saving you earlier makes it all the more confusing. Also, when you awoke in the infirmary, the first thing you asked about was your new friends’ wellbeing. Which tells me you can’t help but care about those you make connections with.” “How did you learn about that?” “Clarice can get a bit loose lipped with some good wine, but let’s keep me from kissing and telling. Alright?” Tessa shivered in disgust as his words slithered into her ears. You are insufferable! “And what of your other ‘observations’?” Hei scoffed, “Second is that you’re a follower of Aeon, and that avatar of Nencog is looking for you. It can smell that you follow one of the Good Six, but it’s having trouble finding you because of all the dead souls in the area. But give it enough time and I’ll be on your trail.” Is that true? I bet he’s bluffing… but I don’t know anything that can contradict him. “And my third observation is that Korlos is alive and looking for me. And if he finds you, he’ll kill you.” “Why would he go after me?” “I killed his Archbishop, and he knows you’re associated with me. Especially after I got you out of that area underneath the cathedral. To him, you’re someone I have a positive relationship with. Which means he’ll either use you to get to me, or kill you outright just to get even.” “So I’m stuck with no way out of this town that doesn’t result in me getting killed?!” Hei turned coy. “Not exactly.” “Don’t feel like telling me?” “You make it sound like I’m hiding the solution from you. You already know the answer to your problem, but you don’t want to resort to it.” “Would you stop being so cryptic?!” Hei rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright. But first, how did Korlos look? Assuming you saw him, that is.” Tessa sighed, “His armor looked beaten up and the damage he took from Torgrak was still there. He was limping about, but in good enough shape to kill me without a second thought.” “How interesting…” “What is?” “Nothing. I was just talking to myself there. Anyway, that’s all I needed to know to make sure you win.” “You want me to kill him?!” Hei laughed, “No, no, no! You don’t have the strength to kill him, let alone the resolve! We’re going to do something else.” “That is…?” Hei smirked, “I’ll tell you, but first you have to trust me.” Tessa’s anger immediately flared up at hearing Hei say ‘trust’. “I should ‘trust you’?! After everything that’s happened, trusting you is the thing farthest from my mind!” “That’s fair. But let me remind you. You can either trust me and we both live, or not and we both die. Your choice.” Tessa growled, “Fine!” Hei smiled, “Congratulations! You’ve made the correct choice!” “So, what do you need me to do? And remember, I won’t kill him.” “I haven’t forgotten. First, grab my shield. It’s over in the corner.” Hei roughly gestured with his left hand at the general area where it was. Cautiously, Tessa approached where he pointed to and found it. Holding it in her hands, she noticed it was barely more than scrap metal at this point. The handle was missing and entire chunks of the shield were gone. Tessa asked, “Is this even useful?” Hei laughed, “Obviously not! But if that trigger-happy dwarf taught you about his favorite pastime, you probably know of some way to use it.” Looking back at the piece of black scrap metal, she thought for a moment before something came to mind. Though now there was another issue. If only I had some of that ink he used… Hei called out to her. “Catch this!” Tessa turned and noticed a small pot of something being tossed at her. Catching it, it was a satchel filled with stuff. Opening it, she noticed it was an assortment of plants, metals, and other things. Along with three vials of red ink and a quill. This is… Hei clarified, “Torgrak forgot to put that on you when he was making his preparations back at the inn.” “I guess even you two make mistakes.” With what she needed now at her disposal, she went over to the dining room table. Seeing it as the only usable and flat surface, she apologized to whatever family used to live here. Sorry… Using one arm, she pushed everything to the floor and began planning out what she could do. Let’s see… Hei’s shield is too banged up to use, but I think I can use its metal to reinforce something. Popping her head out the side door she came in, Tessa quickly looked around for something that had a shield-like shape. It took a bit of digging through piles of trash and rubble, but she came across a tavern ripped away from where it belonged. The sign was similar in shape to a heater shield, and would probably do a good enough job after Tessa used a bit of alchemy. Now to find a means of holding it… Scrounging around a bit more, she found some thin, braided rope used in packaging. It’s not perfect, but it’ll work. Having found what she needed, Tessa ran back to the house and began. First, she put the sign down and used the rope to strap it to her arm for a moment. Once that was done, she pulled her arm out and took out the quill, ink, and a piece of paper. Hopefully this works the way I think it does… Mimicking what she saw Torgrak do, she drew a circle on Hei’s shield, a triangle on her makeshift one, and a square on the paper. Pulling her hands away, she waited for things to work. C’mon, c’mon! Please work…! As expected, the ink moved and changed, but sunk into the objects Tessa had painted the symbols on. I… guess that means it worked. Then she piled the objects on top of the paper with a square. Thankfully, this time it acted much more similar to what she saw. The metal of Hei’s shield melted and dragged itself over the one she made from wood and rope. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough material to coat the entire thing. But it did cover the entire front side. Tessa’s new shield wouldn’t last very long, but it could at least take one hit for her. Well, better than I expected for my first try. And I’ll admit it, it was kind of cool. Tessa cursed Torgrak for showing her something so interesting in her mind, but quickly remembered what she was doing and put her new shield on. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing, and she swore she’d just gotten a splinter, but it worked. Going back over to Hei, she showed him her creation. “Alright. I made use of your old shield, what next?” “Heh. Torgrak would be proud of you, child.” Tessa suppressed it, but she was genuinely happy and flattered to be praised. Her face blushed lightly, but made a fist and covered her mouth with it. Hoping Hei wouldn’t notice. “Can we focus on the matter at hand?” “Very well. Do you remember what I taught you about vision?” “Yes, but how is that going to… Never mind, I’ll be right back.” Hei teased, “Use a cloth so you don’t cut yourself.” Going back to the table, she looked for the things she threw on the ground and found a cloth napkin. Shaking it up and down for a moment, Tessa then went over to one of the home’s windows. Looking below it, she saw a mix of dirt, broken glass, and tiny bits of rock. Using the napkin, she gathered the smallest bits of the mix into her napkin and lightly packaged it into something she could throw that would burst open on impact. It was crude, but would definitely work. Why is it the most practical skills I’ve learned so far are from two deranged lunatics with too much power and time on their hands? Going back to Hei, she wondered what was next. “Okay. I’ve got that prepared for. What now?” “Now you need to figure out your plan of attack. That, and I think Korlos spotted me. I can see him down the way and limping in our direction.” “WHAT?!” “Keep your voice down, child. You don’t want him knowing you’re here.” “Ah. Yes. Sorry about that.” Hei narrowed his eyes before relaxing. “Alright, doesn’t seem he heard you. So you’ve got some time.” Tessa began panicking, but kept her voice down this time. “But… where should I hide?! I’ve never done anything like this before!” “That’s for you to figure out. But I’ll give you some advice. Since he’ll be focused on me, you can predict where he’ll be looking. With that in mind, hide outside of his field of vision.” “And what about timing my attack?!” “That’s for you to figure out. I can’t tell you everything.” Tessa looked around her, trying to figure out some place to hide. Hei chuckled, “May want to hurry. He can definitely see me now.” She looked around, trying to find the perfect hiding place. Then noticed a wooden cabinet in the dining room. It wasn’t very tall, but she could hide behind it while maintaining vision on the front entrance. Quickly, she crouched down behind it and waited for Korlos to appear. Moments of silence passed, and Tessa wondered if Korlos was even there. Then she heard his footsteps. One of his legs was still walking normally, but the other was being dragged along. And soon enough, he was just outside the front entrance. “Finally found you,” stated Korlos. His words dripping with hatred. Hei joked, “You certainly took your time, didn’t you? So, what now? Shall I sing some tunes to quell your anger? Or maybe you’re a gambling man. I’m always up for a round of cards. Though I can’t hold a hand right now, so guess I all I could do is fold.” Tessa nervously sweat as the two talked. Waiting for Korlos to take a couple of steps closer. Korlos humored Hei for a moment. “If not for you killing his Holiness, I might actually be in the mood for a joke or two.” “Juvi did always have that effect on people. How sad that he’s gone now. I’m going to miss him.” Tessa’s heartbeat began pounding in her head. She feared Korlos would hear it. How she hoped Korlos would just take a step closer and make the floorboards creak. “Yes, it is quite sad. But thankfully, he gave me the chance to get vengeance in his place. I’ll make sure to take my time carving you up.” “I prefer filleting, myself. But to each their own.” Then it happened. Korlos walked into the house, the floorboards creaking loudly under his weight. Carefully looking around the cabinet, Tessa watched and waited for the best moment to strike. Korlos put the tip of his sword at Hei’s chin. “Any last prayers? I can at least listen to them before you die.” “Let me think… Maybe I’ll miss my one-night stands, or that I won’t be able to drink another glass of my favorite strawberry champagne.” Hei paused, his smile going wide. “Or maybe it’ll be your shocked face when you die.” Korlos grit his teeth and gripped his sword with both hands. And just as he was about to thrust it through Hei’s heart, Tessa called out. “Hey! Over here!” Korlos turned his attention to her. “What?!” Tessa threw the bag of dirt, dust, and glass at Korlos’s face. Hitting it square on and covering his eyes in the mixture. It was immediately effective as Korlos dropped his sword and put his hands up to his face. Trying to clear his eyes as he cried in pain. “DAMMIT!!! I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!!!” Not letting the chance get away, Tessa attacked. “Sanct bel Sacred Light!” A spear of light appeared before Tessa and she shot it straight at Korlos’s left shoulder. It hit, shredding whatever armor and cloth was there before piercing it and leaving a fairly large hole for the small projectile. “Where are you?! Show yourself!” Korlos still couldn’t see. His eyes tearing up, but it hurt ridiculously whenever he tried to blink away what was in his eyes. Tessa pressed her advantage and attacked again. “Sanct bel Sacred Light!” Another spear of light shot itself into Korlos’s body, this time hitting one of the chunks of ice in his body. To Tessa’s surprise, it was enough to force the one in his lower abdomen the rest of the way through and out the back. It wasn’t a fatal wound, but definitely debilitating. However, Tessa’s window for a surprise attack was up. And now, having regained enough vision, Korlos picked up his sword and charged at Tessa. “Don’t get in my way!” Korlos raised his sword and swung at Tessa. She tried to dodge, but tripped on one of the dishes she pushed to the ground and Korlos cut down her chest. Tessa cried in pain, but the adrenaline of the fight kept her standing for the moment. Holding up her staff, she attacked again. “Sanct ard Radiant Light!” A bright and burning light emanated from Tessa, lightly singing the floor and walls, but Korlos dodges back enough to avoid it. Seeing an opening, Korlos went in for a finishing blow. This time, however, Tessa blocked it with her shield. Upon impact, the shield worked, but broke at the same time. The thin bindings and flimsy construction shattering upon impact and falling to the ground. Yet it was enough for Tessa to attack again. “Sanct bel Sacred Light!” She fired another spear at Korlos, piercing his right arm and disabling it for the moment. But he still wasn’t done. With his left hand, Korlos pulled a dagger out from the back of his belt and ran at her. Raising his hand and stabbing downward. Tessa tried to block, but it wasn’t enough and the blade sunk into her chest. With a gasp, she fell to the ground. Critically wounded with a hole in her chainmail. Korlos stood over her body, panting and bleeding. Tessa looked up at him, vision blurring from the corners of her eyes. “At least that’s one less to hunt down.” Korlos turned around and put his sword in his left hand, dragging himself over to Hei. Dammit! Why?! Why can’t I win for once? I’ve tried my hardest, so let me be the hero of my own story! Tessa channeled every last bit of power she had and began casting a spell before her body gave out. And while she wasn’t used to the spell she was casting, it was something she remembered one of her professors casting. Please! Make this one count! Alsanct bel Holy Flame! However, the spell she cast in her head differed from the one she cast out loud. Tessa chanted, “Begrym bel Force Blast!” Korlos began to turn around, surprised Tessa was still kicking, when a bolt of force energy smashed into his back. “What the?!” It was enough, and he collapsed. His armor loudly crumpling with him. But Tessa barely had the time to celebrate as her conscious faded. “I… I won. This time, I… won…” And as Tessa fainted, Hei pulled himself from the wall and smirked. He stood up and groaned while his joints popped. Hei joked, “If I kept in that position any longer, I might have become some farmer’s scarecrow.” With his body now stretched and functioning as it did before, Hei drew forth his sword and stood over Korlos’s body. Kicking it, Korlos flinched but was out like a light. “I’m not one for kill stealing, but I can’t have you coming back in the future.” With a quick stab to the back, Hei finished Korlos off. The final cultist’s body fading to dust as he put his sword back in its pocket dimension and walked over to student’s unconscious body. “You finally did it, Tessa. You won. Now to get you back to Torgrak before you bleed out.” * * * * * Tessa’s consciousness slowly sunk into a sea of darkness. Is this… what dying’s like? She reached her hand towards the flowing surface. Her body was numb and unable to move much. The feeling of pins and needs dancing across every inch of her body as she fell ever deeper. No! I’m not done yet! Tessa tried to will her body into moving, but she could do nothing more than struggle. And as she did, she could feel something restraining her. It felt icy, yet thread-like. It was like she’d been caught in a net and was being dragged down. I can’t die! I’ve worked too hard to stop now! Giving up on moving her entire body, she put all her strength into her right arm and fought against the threads. It wasn’t easy, but she slipped it out and reached for the surface. Trying to get just a fingertip out of the darkness. I will be a Hero! More threads came up and bound her arm, dragging her further from the light. But then a familiar voice rang out in the abyss. Looking around, she couldn’t see anyone else around. Then she looked up and saw something descending into the depths. It chuckled, “Ve ain’t zhrough vith ya yet…” The threads tightened and pulled hard on Tessa’s body, nearly strangling her, as if trying to keep her away from the light. But orange wisps of light appeared in droves and set the threads ablaze bit by bit. Burning the threads away and loosening their gasp on Tessa, and she ascended from the depths. And the moment her head touched the surface, her eyes snapped open, and she sat up in bed gasping for air. Her hand outstretched and reaching for the distant wall. Huh?! What?! Where… Where am I now?! Then she remembered what happened. Right. I’m in Crimsonvale because Hei and Torgrak dragged me here. There was the cult, meeting Tolan, and fighting Korlos. What else…? The avatar roared out again, still raging in the distance. The giant monster! She frantically looked about the room, about to get out of bed and run. Then she spotted Torgrak sitting by a lit fireplace, attending to his gun. “Glad ta see yer finally avake,” he chuckled, “Nearly lost ya zhat time.” “Wasn’t I… stabbed?” “Aye, ya vere. But I patched ya up once Hei brought ya ta me.” “But… wasn’t I about to die?” Torgrak shouldered his rifle and laughed. “Hence me sayin’ ‘nearly’. Ya ain’t in a state for more fighting, and may have some issues breathin’ for a little vhile, but zhat’s about it. Rest for now.” Torgrak reached into his bag of endless mysteries and pulled out a small white bag. Getting up, he handed it to her. Opening it, Tesa looked inside to see a handful of small red and blue pellets. “One of your medicines I take it?” Torgrak laughed heartily, “Aye! Zhat zhey are! Take one vhenever you feel pain in yer chest, but only vonce per day.” “Will I grow more animal parts?” “No, no. Not zhis time.” He handed her his waterskin. Putting two and two together, Tessa took one pill and downed it. Thankfully, Torgrak was telling the truth, and there weren’t any sudden animal ears or such. Though this medicine wasn’t taking immediate effect as compared to previous ones. But she had no reason to doubt him after how effective everything he’d made so far was. “Where’s Hei?” “Changin’ armor sets. Vhat ya saw him vearin’ vas barely more zhan cobbled togezher metal plates vith how zhrashed it vas. He’s probably doin’ his hair an’ makeup too, heh heh.” (Changing armor sets. What you saw him wearing was barely more than cobbled together metal plates with how thrashed it was. He’s probably doing his hair and makeup too, heh heh.) “That makes sense…” Then Tessa paused and remembered how badly injured Hei was. “Wait! Shouldn’t he be getting first aid right now?! I saw him embedded in a wall, he should be barely able to move!” Torgrak laughed, “Fell for his little show, did ya? If zhat silver tongued snak ain’t da best actor in da vorld, I’ll start ridin’ bears into battle again!” “What do you mean?” “After everyzhin’ ya’ve seen, do ya really zhink eizher of us couldn’t take a hit?” “I’d say you’re closer to a pair of cockroaches with how vehemently you refuse to die.” “Not a bad comparison.” Tessa doubted she’d get a solid answer and moved on to a different topic. “Hei told me you two are only protecting me because it’s your job.” Her voice slowly rose, “But what kind of mentors let their apprentice nearly die on multiple occasions?! With the strength you two posses, you could’ve let me train with little to no risk and everything would’ve turned out the same!” “Aye, ve could’ve. But if ve did, what vould ya have a ccomplished if ve protected ya da whole time?” Tessa was confused. “I don’t follow.” Then Hei opened the door and entered the room, immediately noticing Tessa. “Well, good to see you’re awake.” But she met his smile with a glare. “When I fought Korlos, were you pretending to be helpless? Was it all an act?” Hei’s eyes wandered to their upper right corners. “Partially…” “Could you please give me a straight answer?!” “Fine, fine. The avatar did damage me and sent me flying into that crater after defending you. Couldn’t just let my student be turned to dust, now could I?” “And what of Korlos?! Did you intentionally let me risk my life while you sat there and watched?!” Hei and Torgrak glanced at each other. “Well?! Answer me! Or am I just a toy to you two?!” Hei answered, “You are a toy to us.” His answer only infuriated her more. “Then why do you protect me?! Why do you teach me?! Is this whole situation just a means of tormenting me with things I don’t want to do?! If that’s the case, maybe I should’ve just let the cultists kill me!” Hei responded, “Well…” Tessa interrupted, “Or was this all within some scope of expectation you two had and none of the things I did mattered?!” Hei admitted, “Yes, some things went as we expected. But you surprised us with some of your choices.” “What about my suffering surprised you?!” Tessa was on the verge of breaking down. She was furious with Hei and Torgrak. From her perspective, they were uncaring torturers hellbent on making her life horrible. Determined to make everything around her into a living hell that she has no choice but to walk through. “Are you going to answer me?! Or ask me a question to dodge the whole point?!” she demanded. Hei answered, “You surprised us with how you stopped being naïve.” “What?! What does that even mean?!” “You used us as a distraction and joined the Resistance’s forces. When Tolan was fighting, you jumped in to help him and defend him when he was about to be attacked. And you stood your own ground against Korlos and won. It was those actions that surprised us.” “But I never wanted to get involved in any of those things! And you two damn well know that!” Tears lightly fell down Tessa’s face. “And if I’d remembered what you did to me when we first met at the cave, I’d never have become your student.” Hei turned stern. “You’re right. But they were necessary to crack you out of the shell you’ve been hiding in. You never would’ve done any of it on your own, which is why we forced you to make your own choices. Otherwise you never would've started walking on your own.” Tessa was confused. “What are you talking about?” “Could we have let you grown in complete safety? Yes. We would’ve always been there to come to your aid at any moment and protect you.” “So why didn’t you?!” “Because if we did, you would’ve become dependent on us. Always waiting for us to save you when things got too difficult.” “But I’m not strong! I don’t have power like you, Torgrak, or Tolan! And I nearly died fighting against Korlos!” “Yes, but you won. You used what we taught you, fought, and came out the winner. We are your mentors, not your babysitters. As your student, you will learn and struggle. When you fall, we’ll pick you up and set you back on your feet. But it must be you who takes what you want. It must be you that earns your victories no matter how hard things get.” Tessa looked at them, baffled. What kind of insane are they?! How are they so paradoxically logical?! She wiped her tears away and let her anger settle as her experiences started to make sense. Tessa refused to concede and say they were right, but she had fought and she had won. She felt pain and death, and what it meant to survive. Before, she wasn’t much more than a wallflower who let chances pass her by. Always sticking to her own ways and never branching out or taking risks. Always going along with what everyone else wanted and passively accepting it. But now? For the first time, she raised her voice and said what she wanted. And while going along with things was nice, being herself was invigorating. “So. You pushed me to do all those hard things just to have me grow as a person?” Hei put a hand over his face. “Yes. And it was incredibly entertaining.” Tessa was about to punch him from the bed. “Why you…!” But she let it go. At least for now. Hei and Torgrak are horrible, that’s a fact without equal. Perhaps even the worst existences in this world. She sighed. But they do hold up their end of the bargain, even if it means jumping in front of a giant beam-breath-attack-thing. And do seem genuinely capable of helping me become the Hero I want. Tessa looked at Hei and Torgrak. “You said you’ll help me accomplish my dream of becoming a Hero, didn’t you?” Hei answered, “If that’s what you want to become, we shall turn you into one.” Tessa was silent for a moment. “I’m surprised you two aren’t laughing at me for having such a childish dream.” Hei smirked, “We won’t laugh at you for having a dream.” Torgrak chimed in, “But ve vill laugh at ya for tryin’ ta chase it in a really stupid way, zhough!” The two broke out in a fit of laughter, howling their heads off as Tessa blushed and puffed up. She tried to get them to stop. “Oh, shut up! I thought you two weren’t going to laugh!” Hei and Torgrak eventually came back down, wiping tears from their eyes. Hei said, “Regardless, consider this congratulations on finally taking the first step towards your dream. After all, a seedling can’t sprout if it never breaks through its shell.” An awkward silence fell over the room as Hei’s words settled in. Tessa cracked a smile, though. “That was too corny, even for you, Hei.” Torgrak started chuckling when Hei elbowed him, a light blush across his face. “Oh, my sides! I can’t believe ya actually said zhat! Ahahahah!” “Shut it, you!” “I zhink my gut is gonna split!” Hei reached out his hand for Tessa to shake to seal the deal. Tessa almost met his hand with hers, stating something before they went back to being teacher and student. “This doesn’t mean I like you as my mentors.” Hei smiled, “We know.” With that, she shook his hand and considered things settled. For now. Tessa asked, “Where’s Tolan by the way?” Torgrak let his laughter die and answered. “He’s keepin’ watch outside.” “And the monster?” “Sill rampagin’.” “And, considering your ever present confidence, you two have a plan for dealing with it?” “Aye!” Torgrak reached into something other than his bag for the first time in a while. It was a stone with a really big bullet embossed on it. “Is it ready to be fired?” Tessa watched curiously before being taken aback by the voice that came out of the stone. “Yez, Bozz! Big gun aimed and ready!” She couldn’t help but watch in concern and confusion. And taking into account that his weapon of choice wasn’t “big” in the same way the voice implied, she had a feeling something she couldn’t fathom was going to happen soon. She asked, “Should I be concerned, Hei?” Hei shrugged, “Do you really think concern can prepare you for whatever he’s going to do?” “Fair enough.” “Follow me outside! It’s goin’ ta be a beautiful show of fire!” Tessa asked, “Don’t you mean a ‘beautiful fireworks show’?” “I know vhat I said.” Hei and Tessa followed Torgrak outside as he chuckled evilly the entire time. And as she stepped outside, she noticed that she now stood at the very edge of Crimsonvale. I guess Hei carried me here… I think? Then a question popped into her mind as she saw the avatar wasn’t any closer to her than when she last saw it. “Hei, didn’t you say that it could smell me or something?” Hei had to remember for a second. “Oh, that? I lied. It can’t actually sense you.” Tessa was about to say something, but then remembered how Hei admitted that the Korlos-incident was mostly an act. Torgrak really wasn’t exaggerating when he said you’re a good actor. Then she spotted Tolan. “Hey, Tolan.” He turned to notice her, nodding for a moment before looking back. “Good to see you up and about. But shouldn’t you be inside resting?” “Torgrak wanted to show me what his ‘big gun’ was capable of.” Tolan was immediately confused. “His what?” Torgrak then handed everyone a pair of glasses with very dark lenses. “Put zhese on an’ keep yer eyes on da avatar. An’ don’t take zhem off until it’s over.” Hei and Tessa did as instructed, but Tolan was hesitant. Tolan asked, “Why do we need these things, exactly?” Torgrak responded, “Would ya razher be blind in a minute?” “Stupid question. Got it.” Tolan put them on, and the four all watched in silence. Tessa and Tolan were still confused, wondering what they were waiting for. But then there was a faint whistling noise. It started quiet, but quickly got louder and louder. Tessa and Tolan shared a quick glance, both equally concerned as they watched the avatar. Tolan asked, “What’s that noise?” Torgrak chuckled, “My most beloved creation.” And then the silence stopped as a massive explosion engulfed the avatar in a scorching ball of fire and light. It roared, but no one could tell if it was out of pain or fury. And a rush of wind whipped past everyone, sending their hair flying for a moment. The cold air biting their skin as the explosion slowly faded away. And as the dust settled, the avatar was still there. But it wasn’t moving as before. It stopped attacking wildly and was more like an animal catching its breath. “I thought you said that thing would be done in by your ‘beautiful show o’ fire’. It’s still alive!” exclaimed Tolan. Torgrak scoffed, “I didn’t say zhat, copper tongue. Zhat light show vas only da beginning. Now da eral fun begins!” “Could you explain?” asked Tessa. Hei elaborated, “Avatars don’t have bodies in the same way other things do. They’re made from the compression of many souls into one body, so their bodies are incredibly resilient and will repel most attacks.” “So, how do you take something like that down?” “You have to wear it down. Make it exhaust its energy until it runs out of energy and can’t recover from the damage its taking. For a monster of this level, you’d normally see armies and multiple Heroes sent in to take it down.” Tessa thought about the word problem before her and connected the dots. “Does that mean Torgrak’s attack basically did the work of thousands in a matter of seconds?” “Aye! An’ now zhat monster be veak enough to slay vith betveen zhirty and sixty platinum ranked adventurers. Not including casualties.” Tolan interjected, “But we don’t have that!” Hei laughed, “You still think that thing’s a threat.” Tolan’s right eye twitched. “Yes. Obviously!” Tessa put her hand on Tolan’s shoulder. “You’re not going to get the answers you’re looking for.” Torgrak laughed, “Ya catch on quick!” Tolan rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Can I at least ask where for where you are on the Adventurers’ Guild’s rankings?” Hei answered, “We’re Custodians.” “That’s not a rank in the guild though, is it?” asked Tessa. Hei responded, “It’s a special rank given to the most special of members.” Tolan huffed, “So we have some super janitors to clean up this mess. Great…” Torgrak chuckled, “Just vatch from here vhere it’s safe. Don’t vant ya gettin’ caught in da splash zone.” With that, Hei and Torgrak began walking towards the avatar. Then a magic circle appeared at their feet, and suddenly they were gone. And in the distance, Tessa noticed a flash of light near the avatar. “I… think they teleported over to where the avatar is.” Tolan looked surprised. “They did what?!” Now a suitable distance from their student, Hei and Torgrak discussed the more private parts of their mission. “Kegs finish yet?” asked Hei. “Aye. Vhile ya vere handling Tessa, he reported in. Da bodies vere disposed in da usual vay. All zhat remains is da giant eyesore.” “Exemplary as always. Let’s finish work so we can go relax.” “Aye.” Hei summoned forth his sword and Torgrak hands him a fresh shield before coating both of them in protective magic. “Epsdim ble def Evil’s Bane.” Shadows coated the both of them from head to toe, and before pointing his sword at the avatar, and cursed it. The same eye that he put on the Archbishop now appeared on the chest of the avatar. Confused by the symbol, the avatar scratched at the symbol, but found it wouldn’t come off. Turning around, it faced Hei and Torgrak and roared at them. Torgrak then took out something similar to what they drank at the inn, but in a much smaller vial. Inside it, it appeared as though a chunk of ice was floating inside liquid fire. The both of them downed it as flames made of ice rushed over them quickly before fading away. Next, the dwarf cracked his gun open and loaded it with a variation on the cartridge he used against Korlos. But the moment these rounds touched the air, a cold smoke fell from them and coated Torgrak’s fingers in frost. And once loaded in, Torgrak’s gun transformed. Jutting shards of ice coming out along the barrel. The entire thing now letting off a frosty fog. Torgrak yelled the thing as it looked down on them. “Oi! Ya small-horned celestial drop out! Daddy Nencog no longer need ya? Or vere ya just da leftovers of a bad batch?” Hei joined him in insulting the creature. “Now, now. No need to demean this hideous fiend. After all, I’ve killed imps with bigger horns and smellier hides.” Not enjoying the insults, the avatar opened its mouth and let loose a breath attack. Bathing them in its condensed flames for a full six seconds. But after it ended, the avatar looked confused as Hei and Torgrak didn’t seem phased by it. Not even the ground had been vaporized this time. “Nencog be damned! Your breath is amongst the weakest I’ve ever smelled. And that’s including when I had to deal with burning bodies on a battlefield.” Seeing its attack much less effective than expected, it screeched at the heavens in confusion. Taking the opportunity, Hei teleported up onto its arm and cut two gashes in its left bicep before jumping away. The wounds leaked a red light and tried to seal themselves, but a rotting, black energy ate away at the regenerating flesh. Keeping it open. Torgrak followed it up with three cracks of his rifle before the cartridge ejected, blowing holes in the avatar’s side that closed with a creeping ice. Freezing the wounds before the avatar could respond. The avatar reeled in pain, and Torgrak reloaded another of the same cartridge. Infuriated, the avatar clawed at Hei and swung its tail at Torgrak. Its swipes carved gashes in the ground but found no purchase in Hei’s shield. They scraped and dragged, but could do no more than that. And its tail kicked up the stone bricks making the streets, but Torgrak jumped over and dodged the attack. Hei then teleported behind the beast’s right leg and cut its hamstring. His blade carving into the avatar’s flesh with ease as they quickly became infected with the same black energy from before. The avatar let out another cry of pain and fell to one knee. Seeing the opportunity, Torgrak aimed for the face and shot holes in its chin, horn, and left pectoral. The ice drilling in deep and expanding out. A blue blood-like liquid leaked out from the icy wounds, evaporating the moment it hit the ground. Entering a frenzy, it rushed Hei with a flurry of claw attacks. And while they scratched the metal, it couldn’t do much else. Then it tried to grab him, but Hei stabbed it in the palm and made the avatar regret its choice. Shifting its attention to Torgrak, it whipped its tail back and forth. This time catching Torgrak in the side and sending him flying. But the dwarf landed on his feet, sliding backwards but still standing. And a couple of jumps and dashes later, he regrouped with Hei. The two smirking as they enjoyed the battle. Now pissed off beyond belief, the avatar summoned forth every bit of its energy and shot the pair with a concentrated beam of white hot plasma. Overtaxing its magical energy, but aiming to wipe them out in one large blast. Torgrak dodged out of the way, but Hei raised his shield and cast a spell. “Epsmel def Nire’s Hunger!” An eye opened on Hei’s shield that morphed into a wall of darkness with a hungry mouth. And as the breath attack hit Hei, most of it entered the endless void within his barrier. It still singed his skin and weakened his armor, but Hei was far from dying today. Hei smiled, “I felt that one? Actually trying now?” The avatar was now in a much more sorry state than when the battle began. Earlier, its muscles glowed with a vibrant red light. But now that light flickered and faded. The avatar’s body became less divine and more fleshy. And seeing an opening, Hei jumped and teleported up to the avatar’s face and cut at its eye twice. It howled in pain and brought a hand up to its eye. The dark energy now spreading out from every cut Hei made, slowly creeping along the avatar’s skin. And following this up, Torgrak fired off another burst of shots. Critically injuring the monster this time and blowing off one horn completely. Now desperate to survive, the avatar attacked everything around it. Clawing and swiping its tail everywhere, hoping to swat the flies that buzzed about it and injured it so gravely. But in its weakened state, it could do little more than flail about. And with this, Hei and Torgrak went in for the Kill. Hei cut a large gash across its throat, and Torgrak blew a hole in its forehead. The two ending the avatar at the same time. Hei’s sword devoured the souls as they escaped from the demon, and Torgrak carved bits from the avatar’s horn and store them in a special jar before all of its body turned to dust. Hei joked, “How sad our mission is now complete. I rarely get to go all out like that, and yet it ended so quickly.” “Yeah, yeah. Let’s get back to Faezhun so I can start experimentin’ vizh zhis zhing’s horn scrapin’s.” Meanwhile, back where Tessa and Tolan were, the two weren’t sure if their eyes were working properly. Tolan asked, “Did they just…?” “Yep.” “But… that was…” Tessa agreed, “Uh huh.” “What… what are they?!” “I have no idea.” And a few moments later, Hei and Torgrak teleported back to them. Tolan asked, “Aren’t you two ‘custodians’, not demigods?!” Hei smirked, “But that’s all we are. Just a pair of custodians. Or, as you put it, ‘super janitors’. Nothing more, nothing less.” Tolan’s eyes narrowed. “No one with that much power stays hidden for long.” Torgrak agreed, “Aye. But zhis ain’t da time nor place. Let’s just call it a mission completed.” Tolan took in a deep breath of air and recomposed himself. “Well. With how easily you dealt with that thing, you must have some way of fixing all the damages you incurred. Right?” Hei seemed to not be paying attention. “Well? Are you going to pay up for destroying my town?” “Oh! Yes. The town. It is destroyed, isn’t it?” “Quite. Now don’t keep me in suspense. Do you also have some kind of fancy spell or tool that’ll rewind all the damage?” Hei and Torgrak looked at each other. “That… is an excellent question, Tolan.” Tessa immediately got a bad feeling about what was coming next. “Torgrak! Why don’t you tell him what’s going to happen next?” The dwarf was whistling away until Hei hit him in the arm. “Hm?! Ah! Let me just get somezhing real quick…” Torgrak reached into his bag and pulled out a scroll. Stretching it open, he began to read from it. “Ahem! ‘Da Adventurers’ Guild is not subject nor liable for any damage caused as a result of or during da completion of a quest taken on by any Adventurers. If ya seek financial aid ta recover from damages, please contact our human resources department and zhey’ll get back ta ya vithin a veek.’” Tolan’s face fell in disbelief. “What?!” Torgrak continued, “‘However, if da damages vere caused by da Custodians Hei Zhao and Torgrak, please see addendum 914.” “Well… what’s the addendum?” “‘Addendum 914: You are S.o.L.’” Tolan’s face turned completely blank. “Huh?!” Torgrak handed him the scroll. “Here. See for yerself.” Tolan read it from top to bottom, even flipping it over to see if there might be something on the back. But there was nothing else, and it even had the Guild Master’s signature at the bottom to show authenticity. “This… can’t be real.” Tolan looked up from the scroll. “Hey! You two had bet-” Tessa and Tolan then saw that Hei were already booking it down the road. “Get back here, you two! You’re paying for the damages whether you like it or not, yo bastards!!!” He dropped the scroll as he chased after them. And Tessa quickly followed suit as the sun broke over the horizon and signaled the start of a new day. And for as much of a nightmare as these last few days have been, she wondered what adventures lay ahead of her. Smiling as she chased after them. She called out to them. “Hey! Wait for me, you guys!” I’ve got a long road ahead of me. But if what I just witnessed is even a fraction of what I can become, I’ll endure the coming hell and achieve my dream. Becoming a Hero.