When they reached shore at the town that wasn't Porttegat, Mandy and Rusk paused at the edge of a forest. It wasn't their forest, but that didn't matter. They had enough power between them to feel what was going on between the trees. Something dark and powerful was in there, and not something on their side. The new guy shivered behind them even though there wasn't any wind. Gedresial told Elena to leave port, and she did. Their Heroes' Ship drifted into the fog, hugging around a nearby cliff, and the water spray spat at Mandy and Rusk's backs. Each of them strung their bows.
The port was smaller than any they'd seen before, and the aura about the place was that of utter foreboding. Rusk felt in his bones it was the monster he'd seen as a child. The one that was behind everything. The embodiment of despair and evil and all things that humanity tries to keep in its underbelly that sometimes bursts to the surface and causes wrongdoings of all kinds. The type of wrongs nobody ever comes back from.
And it was at that moment they turned around to see the new guy had been taken over.
The forest yawned its darkness toward them, and the monster inside the new guy chortled.
"Did you really think we weren't listening?" said the monster. It contorted its face and underneath the human there were only shadows. Only malice. "I sat inside this naïve moron dormant not because of his own efforts, but because of a divine patience. Passed down to me from my creator."
Mandy put herself squarely behind a nearby tree, daring to step into the forest itself, and Rusk knocked an arrow. He couldn't pull from the Elva anymore, but he'd forged plenty with Mandy's help when they were on the island. The volcano's power rivaled that of his forest, even so far from its source, here, where if it erupted it would do no harm.
The surge of power inside the bow urged him to shoot just as the Dragons Knock once had. But that was Mandy's now. So Rusk shot.
The monster caught the arrow midair and snapped it in two. It laughed and stepped closer.
Too much history between monsters and himself made Rusk skip thought and simply act. He knocked one arrow after another and fired, over and over, until one struck true to the monster's heart.
Only then did he realize he'd technically shot an innocent. With a curse in the old language Rusk swore and knocked another, willing his bow to spare the new guy's life. To only kill the monster. And just as he was about to shoot, and the bow was surely about to fulfill that promise, the forest he'd wandered into bent toward him with all its overgrowth, and he found himself fighting off vines and tree limbs and all manner of other forested things. He whacked them this way and that with the volcanic bow, but they wouldn't let up.
Behind him something laughed, and he'd lost track of Mandy.
But Rusk always knew she could take care of herself. So he paid it no mind. Or he tried not to. He had more pressing matters, like the fact there wasn't a way to get the monster out of the new guy without a sacrifice or place switcher, and the fact the forest itself seemed to be fighting against his efforts to stay out of that monster's path. He recognized the other laugh too. That was the one who'd gone after him as a kid. The Monster King.
The Monster King was here and ready. Rusk felt unprepared.
Even so he carved a path through the woods with kicks and extensions of limbs, with clever stabs of arrows not knocked, and made his way deeper, deeper, until there was no turning back. He was far into the Monster King's territory now. It was connected to the Elva Rusk could tell, to his old territory, but this was as if it were the mirror image of that power. It was its opposite, its balance. He knew in that moment there was no way he could kill it for good. Monster had to kill the Monster King.
So he'd just have to recruit a monster. And one was headed right for him.
"You sure you wanna take orders from this guy? I mean what do you get out of it?"
The new guy's body laughed, shaking with mirth. "You're trying to distract me, but it won't work. I'll kill you now, so that your little project will never come to fruition on that island stronghold, and us monsters will be free to reign over the world of humans."
"And why would you want to do that?"
"We're not all that impressive. Why bother?" Rusk hid behind the bark of a tree, ducking in bush and undergrowth, and realized that this particular splotch of land wasn't trying to attack him or impede his efforts. A quick glance around showed that Mandy was nearby, and she held in her hands some artifact Rusk had never seen before. A sense of security, of motherly safety, overcame Rusk, and it made him bold.
He had to buy Mandy time. He knew that in his core. She was doing something, he didn't know what, but it was important, and it would probably solve the problem. So Rusk resolved to keep the monster occupied.
"What did your Monster King promise you if you killed me? Maybe I could make you a better offer."
Rusk came out of hiding. He kept an arrow at the ready but didn't draw back the bow. He even widened his arms. "I'm serious. An open book. Let me know before you kill me, if you won't take me up on mine."
The monster inside the new guy gave Rusk a look like he'd grown two heads. Or some monster equivalent of that same phrase anyway.
"My monsters will never tell you what I have promised them," came the Monster King's voice. It burst out of the shadows underneath all the trees, and Rusk found himself scrambling to get out if its trajectory. This was so like when he was a child. The very same sensation. The very same dread. He would die. He would die here. He knew it. There was no stopping such a force.
"Rusk!" called Mandy.
And she hurtled what she was holding into the ground and the forest caught fire. Actual fire, just like that. Out of nowhere.
And it seemed the Monster King was not immune to fire. It hissed and reeled back, giving Rusk enough time to flee out of its path and knock an arrow into the volcanic bow, which was now at peak advantage thanks to its home element being so close at hand.
Rusk loosed the arrow.
The Monster King caught it in its shroud of black, and while Rusk was attempting to knock another and try again the other monster caught him from behind, squeezing hard, so hard he couldn't breathe, and the volcanic bow fell to the ground, where it was swallowed.
Mind blank, fear mounting, Rusk clawed at the new guy's arm and choked.
"What can one about to die offer a force of very nature?" asked the monster. It was close to Rusk's ear.
Rusk couldn't choke out a response. The world was fading. He was fading. Mandy, he called inside his mind. Flow!
An arrow caught aflame struck the new guy in the temple, and Mandy came out of the woodwork brandishing another. She had no fear in her eyes. Only duty. There was just the task at hand. There was nothing else.
Rusk collapsed to the ground and tried to get air in his lungs. Each breath was harder than the last.
Mandy stood between him and the new guy, but that meant Rusk was between the Monster King and her. No one could deny the fragile humans were surrounded.
Then the area changed. Warped. It moved from a forested landscape to the edge of a town. Rusk didn't know who moved it or how or even why, but the look on Mandy's face as she loosed another arrow gave him a newfound sense of purpose. He got himself together in record time and pulled the knife Iraiah had granted him for this journey out of his belt. He wasn't going to go down without a fight.
In town, a crowd had gathered.
The darkness spread, but there was a push back, another force preventing it from reaching outside its area of influence, a force which Rusk recognized as the Elva. Pure Elva. As Elena had been. And this wasn't just the Elva itself, no, this was the Elva Portal. Just as the dead portal had been attached to Elena, now this Elva portal was attached to the new guy, and Rusk knew in his soul that somehow Mandy had caused it.
She gave him back the Dragons Knock. "You must shoot the Monster King. I've given this arrow my intent. One shot. Make it count." Then she was unarmed and rushing the new guy, tackling him to the ground in a clumsy but effective manner, and Rusk could do nothing except exactly as she'd instructed.
With power inside him he rose and shot the Monster King.
There was a moment where all was still.
And then with a shriek that lasted for days the Monster King curled in on itself and was no more.
And Rusk, when he looked up from his place collapsed on the ground in the center of some town he'd never known, saw that there were faces leaning over him. Impressed faces. Faces of potential Heroes, he had to say. So he picked himself up and made sure Mandy was alright, thankful she was, and looked over to the new guy who was groaning and trying to right himself.
But he was bleeding bad.
"Move," said Rusk, shoving aside a bystander. "Gotta help him. It's what Heroes do."
The new guy added more pressure to his wounds, but he couldn't do it all himself. He was too hurt in too many places to keep pressure anywhere for long. Mandy swooped on in and helped as best she could, but he was fading.
"Stay with us," said Rusk.
"I'm a doctor," said one of the crowd. "As payment for dealing with our troubles, let me help him. What's his name?"
"He," Rusk cursed in the older language. "He doesn't have one. We don't know."
"No," said the new guy. "I do. It's Nicolas."
"Fitting," said Mandy. Rusk realized she was injured too, and reached out to see how bad it was, but the doctor was fluttering between them and soon all were tended to.
And in the aftermath, after all had been sutured and tended and the rumors had spread that the Monster King was defeated, Rusk and Nicolas and Mandy returned to Elena's ship with a crowd of aspiring Heroes. Felix and Loretta included.
He saw on the horizon as they set sail a figure who looked very much like Greil, and that figure waved in silhouette, but Rusk didn't know if it were apt to wave back.
"Okay recruits," he said to his newfound allies. "Ready to see the Sanctuary?"
Uproarious applause and hooting ensued. He had a good batch of men and women alike here, and Felix and Loretta among them all smiling and ready. Yeah. A good group. An honest one. Not one necromancer or trickster to be seen. And though the connections to the natural elements inside Rusk had dried up, and though Mandy looked worse for wear, and though he didn't really have a plan, Rusk decided he'd have to fake it. Just like he had this entire time.
Hey, that'd gotten him pretty far, now that he thought about it. His grin could carve gold out of mountains with its intensity.
"We've refurbished a few things. And just so you know, we made a deal with the natural forces so they might be around."
"Are you for real?" asked Nicolas.
"Yeah. You didn't know?" Mandy nudged him.
Nicolas shrugged innocently.
Elena drove the ship expertly as always, getting only a few weird looks on account of her being dead every now and then, but most just went with it. The sea and the sky serpent were calm but present, and ushered the newcomers into the island, where Flow stood on the docks waiting.
And behind her. It was the most beautiful thing Rusk had ever seen. The Sanctuary Stronghold was back in business, all reds and purples and whites and blacks, cultivated into the most majestic architecture Rusk had ever laid eyes on.
He marveled at it, and Flow, and their juxtaposition with the rising sun as they all disembarked from Elena's ship, and then turned around and spoke in a booming voice to all the new recruits while Iraiah gave Mandy a greeting.
"Here we are!" Rusk made a fist and punched the air. "Sanctuary's Heroes! Ready to get to work?"