Welcome dear traveler; if you're a faithful reader, than yes - your mailbox wasn't playing you an April's Fool joke and this story finally Sees its next chapter release! I apologize for the lateness, but with all the madness going around, it has been... troublesome to actually writing this down. But I've managed to finish the next installments of most of my tales and so I'm uploading them now.
I hope that you're in good health (which is the most pressing concern at this time) and that these, little entries will help you pass the time during the global quarantine. Please enjoy the newest installment of "Final Magic":
Chapter #15: Interlude
Title page: a calm evening; Milia and Barrick are standing one the balcony of a tall building with the ecomancer swaying his arm, having his acroglyph explode into fireworks that bright the black sky, while the young cleric is clapping her hands cheerfully at the spectacle
Kalt opened the doors, releasing a creaking sound into the spacious chamber, bouncing off the walls. The room housed heavy machinery on the eastern side, towering over the goblin as the ceiling was located a good ten meters above. Massive boilers and cauldrons stood firm, gathering dust, even as rubble and broken wood piled on the floor. Windows allowed sunlight to fall through the cracked and dirty glass, making thick, spider webs glitter in the corners, yet still leaving a good chunk of the inside dim.
The small humanoid marched through the rundown hall, reaching the wall opposite the entrance, to which a young girl was chained by her hands. The rogue placed the tray he was carrying gently on the nearby table and slowly untied the other end of the chain, allowing the teen's arms to descent lightly, while keeping them in shackles: "I've brought you some food" he announced, trying to sound friendly. "Eat up."
"I'm not very hungry" Milia replied a bit defensively, eying the goblin.
"Don't be like that" Kalt pleaded, giving her a concerned look. "If you won't eat, you'll eventually pass out... or worse."
"And if I do, you won't get as big a payoff as you were supposed to?" the young cleric questioned defiantly, making a hurt expression cross the yellow-skinned humanoid's face. He once more massaged the pink wristband gently, his gaze distant as he stared at it mesmerized.
"We may be thieves" he admitted without looking up, his eyes still settled on his own arm. "But you'd be wrong to assume we're not people; some of the Shadows are far from being virtuous, but not all are as ruthless as you might think" he proclaimed, a hint of sadness in his tone. "And not all of us had a choice when it comes to our profession" he added, the statement hitting Milia by surprise as she recalled the day she got the news of being the chosen one. The next instant her mind drifted to Barrick's reaction to Rogwood's claims back in Syndia, making her lower her head as well.
Glancing at the tray the goblin placed on the table, she moved closer, sat on a crate that acted as a chair and grabbed the bread, taking a bite. For a while she ate in silence, even as the small humanoid raised his eyes to look at her, but eventually the girl spoke up, giving him a concerned look: "So what is the story here?" she asked, taking Kalt by surprise. "I mean: one moment you're a thief... the next you're just an unlucky goblin and than you shift back to a bad guys only to show morals in between" she pointed out, making the rogue's eyes travel to the floor. "You may be misguided, but you never struck me as a bad person..."
Kalt's gaze settled on the wristband once more, though only for a second before he shifted it to look at the brunette again: "Like I said: choices have been made, not all of which ones that I had a say in" he announced, carefully picking his words. "When you're faced with this world's darkest side, you'll cling to whatever lifeline you can find" he stated, shifting his gaze sideways. "Besides: just cause we're thieves doesn't mean we don't have a moral code of our own; master Damascos may seem harsh, but he's not whom I would describe as 'evil'..."
"Your raid on the garrison injured a lot of soldiers... if not worse" Milia noted as she took another bite, forcing a flinch from the goblin. "That hardly sounds like a good thing."
"But we retreated the moment you surrendered, just like master Damascos said we would" Kalt countered, unwilling to change his mind. "We are wanted criminals, so we couldn't just come through the front doors and asked that you come with us. Besides: if we did, would you've complied?" he questioned. The girl didn't reply, yet still froze for a moment at the hint of desperation in the green-skinned humanoid's voice.
Looking the rogue up and down, she spoke again, cautious with her own words: "You certainly seem to put a lot of faith in that masked man" she admitted, taking another bite, yet her eyes remained upon the goblin.
"He saved me from myself" Kalt explained, now glancing at the ceiling as he rocked back and forth on his chair. "When we first met, you said that you didn't understand why someone of my... kind would pick a human city as the place to live in. Well, the truth is – at the time – I had no, other place to call 'home'. I thought..." he began, yet paused, his mouth slightly ajar. "I thought details like my race or appearance shouldn't matter. In hindsight that was remarkably stupid. And when the weight of the situation came crushing down upon me, it was master Damascos that stepped in, giving direction to my life..."
"Turning you into a thief?" Milia deduced.
"People do what they must to survive" the goblin responded with a hint of shame in his voice. "Stealing is still better than starving to death" he added, face twisting in dismal. "I'm not looking for excuses nor will I ask forgiveness; it is simply how things worked out, tis all..."
"And you have no desire to do better?" the girl questioned doubtfully.
"Do better?" the yellow-skinned rogue repeated, rising his eyebrow. "You're assuming that I can; but this is not really just up to me, is it?" he asked rhetorically, his voice holding the tinniest hint of anger. "Your kind is not welcomed here... just look at that disgusting creature... don't come near it, it's a goblin" he recalled, his face twisting into a grimace with each sentence. "Ever since I left my tribe, I've been judged for my race alone. People make their opinion of me... without even bothering to learn anything about me" he sighed, shaking his head in defeat. "So you tell me: what course can I take?"
Milia lowered her head at those words, the feeling of pity washing over her. Staring blankly at the nearly eaten bread, she remained motionless for a moment, but than spoke, her eyes still set of the food: "You probably know this already, but according to the prophecy, I'm supposed to be the savior of this world" she announced as Kalt's disappointment slowly subsided at the sound of her voice. "My power significantly exceeds other clerics, which everyone considered a sign that I was the Chosen One the ancient texts referred to; a great honor... in receiving which I had no say..."
"As a cleric, my life was never meant to be just my own" she went on with no change in her tone. "But the role cast upon me was far beyond what I was ready for; I no longer was myself... now I was the protector of the world, a light to chase away the darkness in whatever form it might take. The burden grew a hundredfold just from that" she admitted, letting out a sigh. "I could – of course – just ignore the calling; having power and using it are two, different things after all. If I did that, I probably wouldn't have to worry about Dragon Claw going after me... wouldn't need to leave everything behind to set out on this quest... things would be so much easier. But I had to make a choice" she announced, finally lifting her head up to look Kalt straight in the eye: "And so I did."
"I'm not saying it would be easy" Milia stated, her gaze firm. "In fact I can only promise there will be countless hardships along the way... but that is exactly why it's important that you make that choice; whatever stigma hangs above your head... you and you alone decide who you wish to be..."
-that time, temporary headquarters of Hafford's military-
"So, where are your comrades?" Constantine asked calmly, his hands clasped together before his face as he rested the elbows on a table, looking straight at Orak. With the garrison in ruins, most of the operations moved to the nearby, abandoned factory building as the military regrouped. Currently the two sat opposite each other in the center of the room with Nataku and his men – alongside Barrick and the major's assistant – proceeding with the interrogation of the rogue. "It's not like you owe them anything, seeing as how they seem to just disregard you. One-way loyalty is a fool's choice..."
"You don't really comprehend the situation, do you?" the gray-skinned man responded with a smirk, all his arms tied behind his back. "Even if we assume I was left behind, the seven of us virtually took down your, entire garrison... and that was before your numbers has been cut down and your base was in ruin. If my companions choose to attack again, you won't be able to defend yourselves, so I'm your prisoner only as long as we allow you to hold me" he proclaimed with a chuckle.
"You ambushed us!" Jay snapped, visibly angry; the feeling of helplessness washing over him as he clenched his fist. "That's the only reason you were as successful as you were!"
"Don't kid yourself, brat" Orak responded, unimpressed. "I've seen you struggle against Aion; whether it was a surprise attack or not wouldn't have made much of a difference" he stated, making Nataku flinch, if ever so slightly. "And even if I were to admit Aion is one of the strongest among us, master Damascos is more powerful still. But, you should be fully aware of that part... major" he noted, sending the blond officer a meaningful smile, which only widen at the sight of the man's eye twitching. "Touched a nerve, have I?"
"This is getting us nowhere!" Barrick announced, stepping forward as he reached for his sword. "Every minute we waste on this guy could mean Milia is getting further away!" he added, leaning towards the captive, the tip of his blade pointed at the man's throat. "Tell us what we want to know now or you're dead!"
"Am I?" the rogue questioned with a bored expression, clearly not intimidated. "You're a lousy liar; back in the garrison – when you were soaked in rage – I might've believe this threat, but you're not fooling me now. If you kill me, than you have no way of locating the babe... basically: you will not off me, especially with all these soldiers around. See: you may be a bounty hunter, but they do have a code of conduct and execution without a proper trial is not something they can get away with..."
"Who said I'm gonna ask their permission?" the ecomancer said through clenched teeth, narrowing his eyes.
"Oh?" Orak raised his eyebrow curiously before smiling again. "Proceed than."
"Stop it already" a female voice called out, making the young mage freeze in his tracks and look over his shoulder, settling his gaze on Constantine's assistant, who adjusted her glassed. "With no offense intended, I do not believe you can scare him into submission" he stated, gazing at Barrick. "As formidable a warrior as you are, interrogation takes a different approach; just brute strength isn't enough" she went on, reaching under her skirt. As the sorcerer followed her arm, he noticed small, throwing knives strapped to her thigh, unseen earlier because of her uniform. "This requires a bit more... finesse."
"And am I to understand you're better equipped for this?" the ecomancer asked doubtfully. The female brunette didn't respond however and, in stead, turned to her commander, her voice still as calm as ever:
"Major – with your permission – I would like to have a few moments with our captive; just me and him" she announced, lifting her hand as if to showcase the knife she held in her grip. "After all he has glued me to a wall; I am a bit... anxious for some payback..."
Constantine stared at the girl for a few moments, eying her a bit, but than let out a sigh and motioned with his hand for everyone to leave the room: "Very well; he's all yours. But Lena: don't go overboard like last time" he warned, grabbing the knob while Jay basically pushed Barrick out the door. Once everyone left, the officer followed, shutting the doors tight behind him.
"Is that wise?" the young spellcaster questioned, still unconvinced. "If this Orak guy is so stubborn, can she really make him talk?"
"That you needn't worry about" the blond major assured him with full confidence. "She may not look it, but Lena is highly capable in information gathering... regardless to what that may encompass. At this point it is only a matter of time before she gets the location of the Seven Shadows. In stead of wasting time, we should prepare ourselves for storming their hideout; once we know where they are, Nataku, his men and myself will move out to rescue lady Milia. You are – of course – welcome to join us; your assistance might come in handy..."
"Just the six of us?" Barrick raised his eyebrow, a hint of anger in his voice. "Those guys took on the entire garrison and still managed to escape. I may have acted like a hothead back than, but even I'm not blind enough to not see that this is risky at best! Why not take more men?"
"Sadly the garrison is little more than a pile of rubble right now" Nataku explained, blowing smoke out his mouth, his exterior stoic as usual. "Which means we have – effectively – lost the means to hold all the criminals incarcerated in it. Further still: many of the soldiers got seriously injured and that is still skipping a few casualties" he went on, pausing to take a deep breath at the last part of his report. Releasing the air after a moment, he continued, no change in his tone: "Kidnapping of lady Milia is far from the only crisis we need to deal with at present..."
"We've already contacted the garrison from Tylone; the nearest town to the south" Styx interjected, taking over. "They will prepare room in their dungeon for our captives, but because their numbers are small as is, we need to handle the transport. As such, we have to provide enough force to the convoy and with our own garrison destroyed there might be panic on the streets. Again we need men power to keep the peace in the city. With so many soldiers... indisposed at the moment, we'll be stretched thin as it is."
Barrick glanced sideways at the info, twisting his lips as all of that sunk in: "I'm sorry" he finally announced, avoiding eye-contact. "I just... I haven't considered any of that" he admitted, clenching his fists and teeth. His body shook for a second before it relaxed while the ecomancer spun on his foot, showing the servicemen his back. "When you know the location, please let me know" he asked, walking away.
Without any, particular direction in mind, the young mage found himself on the factory roof. Sitting on the edge, he glanced at Hafford as the city bathed in the afternoon light. The sky was slowly turning red as the sun descended, hiding behind the horizon. The temperature began dropping, making the winds a bit chilly, but even now, with the day drawing to a close, the metropolis was still filled with a hubbub that spread through the streets while people moved towards the destination, swerving within the crowds. As if mesmerized by this, Barrick failed to notice he was no longer alone:
"You seem quite agitated" Nataku proclaimed, settling down next to the sorcerer, gazing to the distance as well. "It is a tad surprising, since you struck me as a more... collected type..."
"Coming from an expert, I take that as a compliment" the ecomancer let out a snarl, but quickly sighed, lowering his head. "Sorry; it was meant as a joke" he apologized, lifting his arms to look at while the smoker glanced at him. "Honestly I was surprised myself; I mean I am her bodyguard and I agreed to take her to Siracol because I grew to believe she is a person that's worth protecting... I didn't even get a single coin for it" he recalled with a chuckle. "Yet still, the rage I felt back when those guys attacked and than took her away... my reaction to that was far more extreme than it should be" he stated with a frown.
"The reason behind it seems very clear to me" the silver-haired teen announced, shifting his gaze back towards the city. "Quite a remarkable person by herself, her troubles would – naturally – affect those around her... even if they didn't care for her originally" he offered, making the sorcerer glance at him immediately, his mouth slightly ajar as if he wanted to protest. Whether that was the case or not, Barrick stopped halfway through the motion and as his pupils moved about, he brought his lips together, following his companion's sight:
"When my master and other ecomancers were killed, I was left alone in the world" he finally spoke with some reserve. "I felt like that stupid prophecy about this world's savior has taken everything from me; I wouldn't allow anyone to get close in fear of losing them as well... and than I met her" he snickered, managing a small smile. "The very person who was the center of that whole mambo-jumbo and I was... skeptical, to say the least" he admitted, nodding his head lightly. "Physically weak and rather naive, a part of me was infuriated she was the reason behind all the fuss and tragedy that befell my order..."
"But, over the week we've spent together, she proved me wrong" the mage continued after a short break, chuckling. "I've seen her rush to people's aid with no regard to her own well-being... take all the world threw her way and still smile, filling those around her with hope... in more ways than one she's the strongest person I've met in my life... and just like that - despite the short time we've traveled with each other – she made my old self... the one I so desperately pushed back... resurface" he paused again, recalling the conversation he had with the cleric on the train. "She's always worried about others before herself... there's plenty of reasons for it, but I guess you have a point: I do care about her..."
"And you will assist us bring her back" Nataku proclaimed without the slightest hint of doubt in his voice. "But if you really wish to be useful, you must keep your emotions in check" he reminded him. "Acting purely on rage is not gonna help anyone, aside from your enemies" he pointed out, making Barrick paused for a moment before giving the young soldier a nod in agreement.
"Corporal Nataku, Barrick" Jay's voice rang in their ears as they glanced over their shoulder to see the rookie serviceman standing behind them, a little winded. "We know where to go" he announced.
-a little later, Seven Shadows' hideout-
"You sure took your, sweet time" Nebin said in an accusatory manner, eying Kalt suspiciously as the goblin returned to the building's office where the rest of the Shadows gathered. "What: you decided to play with the girl?" he asked rhetorically with an unpleasant smirk. The yellow-skinned humanoid didn't respond to the insinuation, merely sending the gnome a bored look before he scanned the rest of the room.
"Orak hasn't returned yet?" the small thief questioned, failing to see the four-armed man among his companions.
"He has not" Aion gave him a nod of confirmation, his voice rid of any concern. "I think we should start considering the possibility he actually got captured by the military... which could prove problematic, given he knows our, current location..."
"Than why didn't you or Kevan went after him when he failed to report back?" Kalt pushed, glaring at the pale-skinned brunette.
"We're Seven Shadows, pipsqueak" Kevan responded with a grimace. "Thieves; powers or not, each of us should be skilled enough to sneak out in the chaos. If Orak couldn't, that just proves he was never worth the effort" he proclaimed, making the goblin narrow his eyes at the comment. "Besides: our raid was as successful as it was partly due to the element of surprise; with the military on high alert, we lose an important advantage. Going back to save Orak is simply too risky..."
"So what: we're just leaving him behind?!" the yellow-skinned rogue raised his voice, visibly agitated. Sure, he didn't particularly like the four-armed man, but they were still partners and – as far as Kalt was concerned – that entitled him for better treatment. "And everyone's okay with that?!" he asked, glancing over the other Shadows. "What if it was one of you guys that got caught?!" he pushed, gaze stopping on Korbac, making the tigrian look away.
"What happened to Orak is... regrettable" Damascos suddenly spoke up, gaining the goblin's attention as the small humanoid glanced to the corner where the masked man sat without flinching. "But taking risks for the sake of one person is a fool's choice" he announced calmly. At hearing this Kalt clenched his teeth, allowing their leader to continue: "Getting caught is an occupational hazard; one all of us need to deal with on every outing. And mistakes have consequences" he added, getting up to walk over to the yellow-skinned rogue. "I will not exclude anyone from dealing with the fallout of their won ineptitude."
Kalt lowered his head, his lips twitching a bit as he felt his body shaking. His hands balled into fists as he felt like screaming, but the voice stuck in his throat; his comrades' sentiments aside, the argument was logical, but even so this was not the Damascos he believed in. And this was not a decision he could just accept...
Meanwhile Barrick and the local military neared the industrial district, the ecomancer carefully scanning the area; the complex seemed very much abandoned, the majority of the structures looking rundown. Most of the glass windows were either broken with a gaping hole in them or were simply covered with wooden planks. The plaster on the walls has crumbled away in many places while soot and filth covered much of the buildings along with crates and canisters that laid scattered on the ground. The fence that surrounded the site – even from the distance – was clearly eaten by rust, sporting a plethora of gaps. Even the gate at the entrance was broken off as the road into the premises was cracked with grass squeezing through the asphalt.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" the young mage allowed himself a little skepticism as he glanced at Lena, doubt creeping into his mind at the state the complex was in.
"That is what the four-armed freak said" the girl responded simply without even turning to the bounty hunter.
"Maybe he lied?" Barrick offered.
"No" the female replied immediately without a hint of doubt in her voice.
"Regardless, if this is Shadows' territory, we must stay on our guard" Constantine stated, surveying the site as well. "It is likely there are traps set around the whole place, even if they didn't expect us to come. We should tread carefully" he added, receiving nods from everyone gathered. The ecomancer hesitated with his reaction, but eventually agreed too and shifting his attention back to the complex, he spoke up again:
"So what is the plan?" he asked, anxious to storm the site...
-the final showdown with the Seven Shadows begins!-