Thebes' Desolation Arc
Chapter 1: The Errand Boy

During the autumn season, the handful of people in Thebes, Upper Cambria, generally liked to stay in their fields and farms, reeling in the last of their crops, left over from the dregs of summer. It was a laidback time of relaxation, where no one worked particularly hard; being several hundred miles off the southern shore of the great continent of Seichi, they had no fear of cold winters, and could replant their fields to keep their wheat and vegetable stores stocked as needed. Thebes and the surrounding villages in a hundred-mile radius were commonly nicknamed the heart of Upper Cambria for this reason—not only did they have enough food to provide for themselves, but they also had plenty extra to ship out to the rest of the kingdom. Several of the town merchants also shipped out their produce to the other six kingdoms on the donut-shaped continent of Seichi, reeling in even more money.

There was just one young man in the entire village of six thousand people who was not relaxed and taking it easy that warm autumn day: the merchant's son, Britan Westwood.

Britan was a sixteen-year-old errand boy for the mayor, excited to be working in his first job. Tall and broad-shouldered, the teen had deep hazel irises and unusual purple hair, which despite all usual genetics was as natural as leaves turning color in the fall. Always dashing about the village to deliver some message or another, or trodding behind the mayor with a tremendous tower of trembling papers clutched tightly in his arms, Britan was the most energetic person in the whole of Thebes, his birthplace and hometown. Part of this was due to a burning desire to impress the mayor, his boss, who had hired him out of respect for his merchant father, who was currently out selling vegetables in Trenton, a sprawling urban jungle over a hundred miles away. The two men had a long-lasting friendship, although Britan had never been privy to the cause of this; and so the mayor hired the spirited teen, which meant that on September the 20th, Year X140 in the recently established Han Dynasty, the cool morning found Britan racing down Thebes' main street with a grave, sealed envelope tucked in his coat pocket.

Lanky and lean, Britan Westwood's legs pumped like bicycle pedals as he raced across the dirt path which cut through the center of town. Sweat gleamed on his skin despite the marginal chill pervading the air. His lips flipped up in a smile that spoke of his fervent desire to complete the tasks given to him; Britan was the kind of young man who, given a pen and several sheets of paper, would not stop writing until every side of each sheet was repleted with his stiff writing; or, given an axe and a truckful of logs, would not strike the axe into the ground until every log had been cleaved in two. Stopping mid-task was as foreign to the errand boy as enjoying homework for a schoolboy or schoolgirl. There was, however, one thing that could distract the purple-haired teenager from his current undertaking: injustice occurring where he could see it.

As Britan passed an empty alleyway between two large oak houses, both dark and proud against the clear autumn sky, he happened to spot out of the corner of his eyes, a small group of three boys circling around a timid fourth boy. The latter was much younger than the former; Britan guessed his age to be around seven years, while the three older boys looked to be thirteen or fourteen. Tears ran down the seven-year-old's eyes like creeks. His tormentors danced around him, poking and prodding him, vultures waiting for their prey to break down.

A moment's hesitation later, Britan slowed to a stop and turned to the alley, folding his arms in front of his chest and shouting, "Hey!"

The bullies jumped like the ground had tossed them up unexpectedly, swiveling around to warily consider Britan with narrowed eyes. One of them, a short kid with slick black hair, his face freckled and rather akin to a meerkat's, took a hesitant step forward and swiped his finger to point at Britan.

"You! You're the brown-nosing mayor's boy!" he shouted. The delinquent's eyes narrowed as he regarded the newcomer. Then he struck a curious pose, his right arm outstretched for his finger to point directly at the teen, his opposite hand covering the right side of his face. At the same time, his left foot quickly slid forward until it was straight, and his right knee bent. "Get out of here, Purple Freak! This doesn't concern you!"

"Brown-nosing?" Britan wrinkled his nose at the pointless accusation, and the unnecessary name-calling. "That's definitely not true. But anyway, what exactly are you doing?"

The black-haired kid, who seemed to be the boys' ringleader, glanced to the terrified seven-year-old automatically, then turned back to Britan. His seemingly uncomfortable pose didn't break in the slightest throughout this time frame. "This kid bumped into us. We're teaching him not to mess with his elders."

"Elders? You're, what, thirteen? Fourteen? I'd hardly call that his elder."

He sniffed, cracked his knuckles angrily, and swept his pointing arm out to the side with a flourish. "Shut up, brown-noser! What could you possibly know about it!? Just mind your own damn business!"

Britan returned the boy's glare with equal hostility. "Leave the poor kid alone. He's smaller than you, weaker, and anyway, it was just an accident. If you have a bone to pick with anyone, make it be me for challenging you."

One of his friends, a taller blond kid with nervous brown eyes, stepped up and tugged on the redhead's shoulder. "H-hey, come on, let's just go. We don't want to get in actual trouble with the cops."

"I doubt he even knows how to throw a punch," shot back the ringleader, and he looked back at Britan with escalating ferocity. The purple-haired teen did not drop his stare one second, which only served to make the other boy even angrier. "Alright, you think you're something, Brown Noser? We'll teach freaks like you not to meddle in other people's business. Come on, guys, let's give him what he's asking for."

His two friends exchanged nervous glances, but under a dangerous glare from their ringleader, they nodded rapidly and cracked their knuckles. The trio advanced menacingly towards Britan, who took a deep breath and tried to quell the nervousness rising in his chest, but forced himself not to take even a single step back. The air felt heavy and hot, and the errand boy's skin quickly grew slick with perspiration; but he did not give in to his fear.

"If you don't run now, we'll knock you into next week," warned the short ringleader, punching his fists together and fixating his venomous gaze directly into Britan's soul.

It was a close thing, but Britan didn't so much as glance away. "Go right ahead. I can take it."

The poor victim of all this, the little boy who had accidentally bumped into the gang, watched all of this with wide, terrified eyes. "M-Mister, don't! Don't g-get hurt because of m-me!"

"It's alright," Britan reassured him, breaking his connection with his enemy's eyes momentarily to flash a kind smile at the poor guy, who looked close to tears. "Anything for a friend, eh?"

"A friend?" sneered the ringleader, drawing his fist back in preparation for the first punch. "You want to be friends with a tiny, crybaby runt like him? You're an even bigger freak than I thought. But that doesn't really matter…" The boy's eyes shone dangerously. "I'll punch the freak right out of ya!"

The innocent kid reached out for Britan in a panic. "M-Mister!"

WHAM.

Britan didn't even get the chance to see the fist hurtling towards his face before he felt it slamming into his cheek. The force behind the punch snapped his head back and made his face ache, but nothing worse. He simply turned back to look blankly at his attacker, forcing his face to betray nothing. Knowing that the punch did little to distract Britan seemed to make the angry kid even more pissed. The wannabe-gang's ringleader made a motion with his hands to his two buddies, who swallowed, but stepped around Britan, cutting off all directions of escape except directly behind—not that he'd been planning on running anyway. One of his father's favorite quotes drifted into the foremost of his memories: Sometimes the best way to fight hate is to stare it in the face and turn your other cheek.

"You damn purple-haired freak," spat the ringleader, driving his fist back for another punch. "You're gonna wish for what should have happened: that you should never have been born!"

The next several minutes were a violent flurry of punches of kicks, some more painful than others. Despite the fact that all three of his attackers were younger than Britan and that their far weaker fists and feet were doing little damage by themselves, the more of their hits built up, the more pain Britan felt, until he was barely biting back cries of pain. His eyes watered, and he was sure his body was peppered in nasty bruises of all sizes. But not once did he give the brats the satisfaction of screaming or crying.

At last, the attacks stopped, the three younger boys panting with exhaustion. Sweat pooled on their faces, but they hadn't even made Britan fall over.

"Incredible…" gasped the little guy they'd previously been bullying, his eyes shining in awe. "It's like they didn't do anything at all!"

Gulping and pointing a trembling finger at Britan, the ringleader took a couple steps backward, his black hair shining with tiny beads of salty water. "You… you freak! You should be unconscious!"

"I guess that means I'm just tougher than you are," Britan said, allowing his voice to drop down into his diaphragm. It came out deeper and menacing, like a gun-toting cowboy. Shaking his head to distract himself from his screaming cheeks, he raised his hand and clenched it into a tight fist. "Take that!"

The flabbergasted boy's eyes flicked away from his, and he backpedaled several more feet. At last, he spat on the ground and glared at his two subordinates. "Pheh. Come on, guys, it's not fun anymore anyway. Let's leave these losers in the dust where they belong."

He turned on a dime and started to walk away quickly, but before long his pace had picked up in a full run. His buddies gulped nervously at each other, took a look at Britan and his piercing glare, and then dashed off, hot on their leader's heels.

Watching them go with a huff, the purple-haired teen folded his now-bruised arms and shifted his eyes to the kid who'd been bullied before, and softened his gaze. "Hey, are you alright?" asked Britan with a gentle smile.

The boy looked away a moment, then hesitantly looked up at the young man. "Y-yeah. Thanks to you."

"They didn't hurt you, did they?"

"N-no."

"What's your name, kid?"

He paused, shifting around a bit, then offered Britan a small smile. "Frederick."

Britan grinned, leaned down, and ruffled the boy's hair. "You're a pretty great kid, Frederick. You run home to your mother, now, alright? She's probably worried sick about you. Oh, and you don't have to worry about those bullies anymore, alright? Your new buddy Britan will take care of them for you if they ever start bothering you again."

"Thanks…" Frederick stammered, his smile widening. "Thanks, Britan." His face fell into a mixture of guilt and concern. "B-But you didn't have to get yourself hurt for me..."

"Stop worrying about it, I'll be fine. Now, I've gotta go, so I'll see ya around!"

Feeling much better about himself, Britan straightened up and kicked off back up the alleyway, waving his hand goodbye as he went. He hadn't expected to make a new friend on his mission today, but sometimes that was just the way the wave crashed. The errand boy ran down his path to his destination with a slightly happier step; his pace was also a bit faster to make up for lost time. Then he winced. His body was a lot sorer than he'd wanted it to be.

His delivery was an urgent letter from one Mrs. Chancer, the first woman to become a gain a seat on the town council, to the mayor. Britan was not sure what exactly the letter's contents consisted of, but Mrs. Chancer was not one to frighten easily; whatever made the letter urgent must have been on the utmost importance. Curiosity welled inside of the errand boy, but he knew better than to look at others' mail, and so he resigned himself to imagining what might have instigated such concern within the councilwoman.

Several minutes later, his feet were sore from pounding against the dirt path in only sandals, but he was at last standing in front of the mayor's office, panting and sweaty. The mayor's office was a large limestone construction straight walls and white windows. The entrance was raised up on a square pad shadowed by an overhang, and ornate Greek pillars supported this triangular roof piece. A dome served for the ceiling. It came to a point that was the highest in the town, and boasted the Upper Cambrian flag on its peak.

Red-faced from sprinting through Thebes, Britan padded up to the mayor's office's entrance, swinging the gaudy spruce door open and stepping inside. He was now in the central room, which seemed unnecessarily grand and spacious for a village whose population was merely six thousand. At the back of the room, an oak desk rested on the red Persian rug that covered the floor, behind which the mayor's clerk sat, sorting papers into manila folders and sipping a mug of tea. Britan quietly closed the door, though despite his care it still shut with an audible click. The clerk, a distractingly beautiful woman named Krystal Reef, with silky blonde hair and a melt-your-heart smile, glanced up at him, distracted from her work by his entry.

"Hello, Britan," she said sweetly, tilting her head. "Are you already back with Mrs. Chancer's letter?"

He nodded, unable to fully look the kind woman in the eyes without his face turning redder than paper Valentine hearts. "Uh, yeah," he mumbled, shifting about as he stumbled his way across the floor. Internally, he cursed himself—why did his brain seem to always turn to mush when he was talking to pretty girls (which definitely included the clerk, despite her being about thirty years too old for him). "Sorry I'm late. I just, y'know, had to make a pitstop first…"

The blonde's eyes flashed with mirth. "Late? Britan, you're ten minutes earlier than we thought you'd be." She paused, then leaned forward in surprise and concern. "Wait, Britan… y-you're all bruised up, and they look recent! Are you alright!?"

He blinked. "Really? And… yeah, relax, I was just helping out a little guy who got on the wrong side of some kids who thought they were all tough."

"Really? You need to live a little, kid; take a break once in awhile. Not get yourself in these positions all the time, Mr. Trouble-Magnet." Krystal's lips, which were turned up on one end, showed she was just teasing him.

Britan shrugged, rubbing his head. "I just… like to help out where I can."

"And that's a great quality in a guy," the clerk said, giggling. "Anyway, go right ahead to see Mayor Tristan. He's in a meeting right now, but it should be finished in a few minutes."

"Erm, thanks, Miss Reef," he murmured through a lump of nervousness in his throat, and awkwardly shuffled to a door at the right of the room. As he turned the brass knob, the clerk called in mock-annoyance to him.

"I've told you a thousand times: just call me Krystal!"

Stammering an inarticulate response behind flushing cheeks, Britan quickly ducked behind the door, which led to a short corridor that ran around the central room's wall. The door groaned shut as he pulled it behind him, and only when he was alone in the hallway did he allow himself to breathe again. Girls always turned him into a bumbling, blundering mess when they spoke to him… not that he'd had much experience speaking with any. For reasons which mystified even him, anytime he got near them, he became a polar bear trying to firewalk: panicked, pathetic, and completely out of his comfort zone.

Giving his poor heart a chance to recuperate, Britan started off down the hallway, well-lit through evenly placed torches on the walls, increasing his pace as he went. A man in a black suit and red tie strolled up the hall, nodding to Britan as he passed; the mayor's meeting must have finished. At the end of the hall, another oak door was cut into the right wall. A plaque hung on it, the words James Tristan emblazoned on it in yellow cursive. The purple-haired errand boy extended his hand to the knob, and was just starting to turn it, when his keen ears picked up voices filtering through the door. Britan froze, went to turn away and wait, but curiosity won over ingrained morals, and he sighed to himself before pressing an ear against the door.

"...it's killed everyone who's gone to fight it," came one of the voices, nervous and pained, and with a start Britan realized it was his father's. Guilt welling up inside him, he almost stopped listening. He only continued because he was puzzled over just why his father was here; the last Britan had heard, Dad wasn't supposed to return from his trip to Salem for several weeks yet. Confounded, Britan hovered against the door, straining his ears to pick up what was being said. "This Asager Shell's one of the toughest, scariest ones I've ever seen. A party of ten highly trained Hunters went to fight it, and only I made it out alive."

Asager Shell?
Britan's head swam, the unknown terms causing his confusion to increase. Hunters? Nine people dead? What the hell's going on?

"What do you suggest we do about it?" Mayor Tristan's gravelly voice asked.

Britan's father sounded extremely anxious, more worried than Britan had ever known him to be as long as he'd lived. "I don't know. But whatever's got its attention is right here in Thebes. Before we attacked the beast, we watched it for weeks, tracking its movements, trying to figure out where it was going. That's what took me so long to get back."

"And its path is here?" the mayor concluded, his voice dripping with concern.

Britan's father paused for a moment, perhaps to swallow; then he said, "Yes. We need all the defense we can get. If our calculations were correct, at the speed it flies—"

"It can fly!?" demanded Mayor Tristan, the sharp slap of a hand striking against a table reverberating through the door. "How on Seichi is that fair!?"

"Trust me, I know the frustration more than anyone," said Dad in a grave voice. "The main reason so many of us died was because our attacks couldn't reach it despite the fact that its ice breath could reach us. Anyway, as I was saying, if our calculations were correct… the Asager Shell should reach Thebes in three days, four at the very most."

"Four days… that doesn't give us much time," acknowledged the mayor resentfully. "I'm not sure if word can reach the Hunter General in time for more Hunters to arrive. I'd doubt if they could arrive in under a week's time… and by then, it would be too late."

"Do not worry about sending word to the Hunters. After I retreated, I made a pit stop in Pointsburg to get healed and to send a letter ahead of me. The Hunters should already be on their way, although I am still not sure if I sent it soon enough."

There was a brief moment's pause. Then Mayor Tristan spoke, his voice grateful and relieved. "Don't be upset—you did the best you could, and that best was a whole damn lot at that. Well, if that's all, feel free to run home to your family. I'm sure they'll be relieved to see you home safe and sound. Besides, young Britan should be arriving any moment, and Lord knows that boy doesn't need any reason to worry about his father."

"Of course, James," laughed Britan's father, the man's voice growing louder, and the doorknob turned suddenly. With a start, Britan pressed himself flat against the wall in the path of the door's swing, so he might not be discovered eavesdropping. The door groaned open and pushed towards him with a shuddering creak. A second later, Dad swept through, a tall and imposing figure in his black longcoat, striding importantly down the hallway.

"Goddamn that man," sighed Mayor Tristan on the other side of the door. "He never closes the door, no matter how many times I've reminded him to…"

Britan squirmed anxiously as his father reached the opposite end of the hall and left into the central room. Meanwhile, footsteps echoed down the hall as the mayor got to his feet and moved to close the door. Unspotted, the teen waited a few moments further, his skin dreadfully itchy, and at last he reached for the knob and opened the door. He slipped inside, closing it quickly behind him.

The mayor's office itself was rather small, a woolen carpet running across the entire floor to warm one's feet. Mayor Tristan's spruce-carved desk, decorated with a globe of the planet, a clock, stacks of papers and folders, and a picture of his family, rested in the center of the room. Among the rest of the office's contents were a bureau; a case with a glass door behind which thick, boring books grew old from lack of attention; and two thriving plants nestled pleasantly in the corner of the room. It was the sort of room Britan could spend hours and hours reading a book in—if he didn't have anything else to do, at any rate.

"Ah, Britan!" cried Mayor Tristan, perking up immediately upon seeing the young man in question. Like his office, he was small in stature, though very warm and welcoming. The sight of the soft-faced man barely a head over his much longer desk brought a smile to Britan's face. Mayor Tristan had a kind face with sparkling green eyes. His suit was freshly cleaned, a bright tie to match the hue of his eyes hanging on his chest against a blue shirt. "Welcome, welcome!" he said cheerfully. "I didn't expect you to be back already. What happened to your face? You look like you got in a fight."

Britan allowed himself a wide grin. "I didn't lift a finger, I just took the hits for a poor guy who was getting needlessly picked on. How long have you known me?"

"Ah, fair point, quite fair indeed. Still, some of those bruises look nasty. You should get that checked on. Anyway, I suppose you have Mrs. Chancer's letter?"

"That's right, sir." The purple-haired teen patted his pocket and pulled out the envelope. He then walked up to the desk and laid it gently on the surface, sliding it to Mayor Tristan with a light push. "Here you are."

"Thank you very much, my dear boy," said the short man, and he dug around in a drawer of the desk for a few moments, retrieving from it a letter opener at last, with a victorious "Aha!" Humming, he stuck the letter opener through the top of the envelope, then swiped across the edge. He dropped the tiny instrument back into its drawer, and once he'd closed this, he at last withdrew the document from the envelope. He blinked a couple times and held it up in his line of sight, his eyes quickly scanning over the message. Britan noted with some concern that the more that Mayor Tristan read, the deeper his lips descended into a worried frown.

"Um, sir?" Britan swallowed. "What's wrong?"

"Only the fact that you keep calling me 'sir,'" Mayor Tristan replied absently. "Relax, young Britan, there's no need to be so uptight." Not once did he look up from the letter, although his free hand did rise to stroke worriedly at his chin.

"Sir, you're stroking your chin and you don't even have a beard."

The man blinked. "Ah. So I am. And again with the 'sir!'"

"Sorry, sir."

The mayor rolled his eyes and gave a great groan, as if to say What am I going to do with this child?

Britan shifted on his feet. The memory of Mayor Tristan's private conversation with his father could not escape his mind. The strange terms he'd heard kept bouncing around in his head, as though a greatly annoying kid was tossing balls around in his brain incessantly. Added to the concern that the man before him clearly had due to Mrs. Chancer's letter, Britan could not shake the notion that something very, very bad might be just around the corner, and he had no idea what it was. If there was one thing Britan loathed, it was feeling left out of something monumentally important to his life.

"Sir," he said at last, ignoring the exasperated groan from Mayor Tristan, "what's an Asca… um… Asagh… what's an Asager Shell?"

Mayor Tristan froze. All the color drained from his face, and he looked up, face ashen, at the errand boy, a ghost staring at a living man.

"Britan," his boss enunciated carefully, "where did you hear that term?"

His gaze fell guiltily to the floor. "I, uh… overheard you and Dad talking about one a few minutes ago. I've never heard of them before, and was wondering what… what you were talking about. I'm sorry."

Mayor Tristan stared unblinkingly at him for several minutes, Mrs. Chancer's letter forgotten in his hands. Britan wished he could be anywhere else than there; he wished he had had the sense to not open his big, stupid mouth and instead had just forgotten about the whole affair. Finally, the shorter man said with a grave voice, "It's not my place to tell you. Ask your father if you must, but I will not talk about matters which I meddle not in."

Ashamed of himself, Britan turned his head to stare guiltily at the wall. "Yes, sir."

"In any case, I do not have anything more for you to do today. You're free to go and do whatever it is kids your age do these days. Have fun, live a little."

"Of course, sir," mumbled Britan, and he turned to leave the office. He was almost fully out into the hall when he thought he heard Mayor Tristan murmur to himself, so quietly that the teen almost thought he'd dreamed it:

"Because the gods know we might not have much longer."

A strange chill whose origins Britan could not fathom shuddered down his spine, and, quite suddenly, he felt cramped and claustrophobic in the usually warm hallway. His feet could not carry him to the end of it fast enough.

-TO BE CONTINUED-

Recon Files, Personnel Folders: Britan Westwood
Around 5'10", tall and lanky for his age. 16 years old, homeschooled all his life. Strikingly purple hair akin to a plum's skin color. Deep brown eyes. Incredibly book smart, but also fairly athletic; the latter can be mostly attributed to his job running Mayor Tristan's errands all day. Driven to always complete any task handed to him.

Recon Files, Geography Folders: Thebes
A medium-sized Upper Cambrian farming town, located in a slightly hilly area with soil absolutely ideal for farming. Part of the so-called "Bread Basket of Upper Cambria." Population: around 7,500 people. Mayor: James Tristan, an intelligent, well-respected man loved by many of the townsfolk. Cares deeply for his town and his people. Notably, the centuries-long home of the Westwood family, as well as Mrs. Hestia Chancer. Asager Shell attacks: 0. Location of the Seichi's Largest Pumpkin winner for the past twenty years. Further inquiry as to possible involvement from Mr. Westwood possibly necessary.

Recon Files, Geography Folders: Seichi
A donut-shaped continent, composed of six kingdoms. This number used to be seven, but according to history, thousands of years ago, the country that used to be the "hole in the center" discovered magic and took to the skies to avoid involving themselves with others. No one has been able to replicate this magic since, however, so the amount of truth in this legend is largely debatable. Now, the "hole" is an enormous, ocean-sized lake which sprung up thanks to Hunter activity. The only known continent on the planet. Expeditions across the ocean have been made in an attempt to discover other continents, and legends from famous pirates do tell of other continents existing; however, no one save for pirates have ever returned alive, and even the few pirates who survived the waters were largely insane, so the amount of truth to these legends is again debatable. Rumors of sea monsters and other unnatural horrors convince most to stay ashore. Many of the countries are in peace, having too many internal struggles with the Asager Shells that plague our lands to be bothered with external wars. The two kingdoms of Upper Cambria and Eagledal, however, have been at war for the past few centuries, and whispers on the wind of rebellion in the Regnum Empire are escalating as of late. Asager Shell attacks: ∞