I don’t feel worthy of my own attention

Every time I feel down, I tell myself that I need to forget about it, that there are so many others around me experiencing a sadness that could overwhelm what I feel.

I’ve grown to think that if I help others enough, that if I bring enough happiness to those around me, that they’ll have the solutions to my sadness, the answers will become clear.

Rarely has that been the case

And that’s not because anyone I care for doesn’t want to help in return, it’s that they want to know what I think so that they may be able to understand.

I don’t really know what I think

I simply feel  most of the time.

As though my own gut reaction to everything will always bring me to the best solution, when in fact, I habitually find the most difficult path to a solution.

I’m writing now as a way to externalize the thoughts and feelings I have had of late, as well as partially catalog some of the theories I have come up with in recent history.

In some of my talks with friends or co-workers, I analyze the things I say, the phrasing I use, the amount of feeling I put behind my words, and I’ve come across a noticeable variance in how I interact from one individual to another.

That in itself doesn’t really matter, the issue at hand is trying to understand myself and come up with a solution of my own.

I’ve been told time and time again to make myself happy and once I can do that, I will be ready to make others happy. But when I take the time to really ponder on what I can do to be happy, I draw a blank, it’s as though the idea of making myself happy is beyond understanding.

Hell, when I want to cook for myself, I feel really down and tell myself that I’m not worth the time and effort for that. So I resort to fast food.

Now that has become a near poison to my body in the sense that I get acid re-flux regularly from it. Which in the long run, it’s good that my body is giving me a signal, but it still hasn’t brought me much closer to wanting to really help myself as it now has become more of a necessity rather than a desire.

want to improve, to make myself happy, to heal my own pains.

But it’s all so much.

I can’t be worth all of that effort.

Barkstripe and Salien glanced at each other before turning their attention back to Zeke with expressions like they were seeing him for the first time. Delairyus seemed tense as well, though she remained seated to keep observing the scenario before her. Erikalika calmly sipped on his tea, un-phased by Yazmak’s appearance. Zeke donned his S.W.O.R.D armor and began to charge his buster like a clenched fist at his side, his repressed anger pinching every muscle in his face as he seethed, “You kept making me work on the same experiments over and over, all just because you wanted to keep me close. Why didn’t you ever tell me the truth? I did everything for you and the sake of humanity! What was the point of it all if I had to come here to Stormhaven? Not even just that! But the fact that I’m some ‘heir’ to this Council that has been working behind the scenes of life itself and I’m supposed to just accept responsibility for it? Tell me all you know, right fucking now!
Yazmak matched Zeke’s glare but remained silent, building an unbearable amount of tension in the room. Breaking the silence, sapphire flames trailed out of Yazmak’s mouth as he growled with narrowed eyes, “You dare to challenge me boy? I doubt you can back your aggression towards me!”

Barkstripe, Delairyus, and Salien all stood at Zeke’s side as he didn’t back down, “I’ve got friends here who think differently.”

Salien chimed in with determination set in her jaw, “That’s right! This time you won’t take Zeke from us!”

Folding his arms while giving Yazmak a side-long glance, Barkstripe added, “Damn straight! We’re the ones who will put you in your place!”

A dangerous smile spread over Delairyus’ face, “I agree with lunkhead here for once, this is a battle you’re going to lose.”

Yazmak smiled, “It seems you’ve been reaching out Zeke. Let’s see how far you’ve come then!”
With a whirl of his glaive, Yazmak enveloped the five of them in a sapphire glow and transported them back to the surface. Immediately after doing so, Yazmak rushed at Zeke with his spear ready at his side. Caught by suprise, Zeke released his charge blast at Yazmak while Barkstripe followed Yazmak’s lead and bolted forward, with Delairyus and Salien standing guard ahead and to the side of Zeke. Yazmak caught Zeke’s blast with the end of his glaive and guided it back towards Barkstripe who was leading his charge with an upward swing of his broadsword. When their weapons clashed, the energy from Zeke’s blast exploded, sending the unguarded Barkstripe skidding backwards into a prone position, allowing Yazmak to continue forward unhindered. Salien pulled out Zeke’s Masamune and was next to push forward with covering fire from Zeke. Yazmak expertly flicked away each shot fired at him with his spear while he still advanced, Salien leapt up several feet and clashed with Yazmak’s glaive.

This time when he shoved Salien away with his glaive she only somersaulted backwards to keep herself in Yazmak’s path, allowing her to strike at him once again. Yazmak deflected Salien’s attacks with ease, though Salien remained airborne from the sheer force of their weapons making contact. Zeke keep firing at Yazmak only to have each blast deflected while he fended off Salien’s barrage of attacks. Delairyus calmly observed everything before her, picking apart every detail in her mind. Barkstripe got up and in a flash he jumped into the fray, attacking Yazmak from behind this time. As he came down with an overhead strike, Barkstripe’s blade was blocked by Yazmak’s butt end of his glaive. With an unearthly speed, Yazmak simulataineously blocked Barkstripe, Salien and Zeke’s attacks with ease.

Delairyus’ voice whispered in Zeke’s head, “Concentrate your attacks and charge your boosters, when I give the signal get in Yazmak’s face and let him have it. I’m going in.”

Though Zeke was caught off guard by the sudden voice in his head, he quietly obeyed and began to charge his buster as well as his boosters. Barkstripe and Salien continued their assault while Delairyus strolled forward, showing no sign of readying an attack. Yazmak went on the offensive and dug the blunt of his glaive into Barkstripe’s gut and lifted him up. In one swift motion Yazmak slammed Barkstripe into Salien as he followed through with his attack and brought them to the ground on top of each other. As he went for the killing blow, Delairyus appeared to the side of Yazmak, kicking him in the face with enough force to stagger him. In that instant, Delairyus cried out in Zeke’s mind, “Now!”

In that moment, Zeke flew faster than he thought possible, for that breif time everything was only a blur of color, with only Yazmak in his focus. Barreled into Yazmak, taking him to the ground as he shoved his Buster into Yazmak’s face while yelling, “Eat this!”

There was a small flash as Zeke’s Buster fired on Yazmak’s face.

Everyone froze, unsure of the outcome but it was Delairyus who grabbed everyone’s attention as she called out, “Get back Zeke! He’s far from being done!”

Before Zeke could react, Yazmak’s clawed hand grabbed ahold of him by the neck as he stood up with no visible sign of damage to his face. Holding Zeke aloft, Yazmak cruely smiled, “It seems this armor hasn’t done you much good Zeke, how about I get rid of it for you?”

Using his free hand, Yazmak ripped the front chestplate of Zeke’s armor off, causing prismatic bolts of lightening to cover Zeke’s body as they shot out of his armor while he cried out in pain. This went on for several seconds before Yazmak finally ripped off the chest plate, causing the rest of it to forcefully disengage and fall to the ground. Exhausted from the pain, Zeke dangled in Yazmak’s grip, his eyes only half seeing the world before him. Seeing Zeke in his now helpless state made Yazmak’s face go cold as he huffed in disappointment through his nose, “Useless whelp.”

Without a second thought, Yazmak heaved Zeke to one side before turning his attention to Delairyus. Salien managed to catch Zeke before he hit the ground, cradling him as she cooed, “I’ve got you Zeke, you’re going to be alright.”

Barkstripe gritted his teeth as he got up with one arm over his abdomen, his breathing ragged as he still needed to finish catching his breath. Delairyus called after Barkstripe, “Take a breather meathead, I’ll handle this one.”

Yazmak raised an eyebrow at her, “You intend to fight me alone? What happened to fighting together with everyone?”

Shrugging, Delairyus evenly responded, “Sometimes it doesn’t always work that way. I can handle someone like you though.”
Unamused, Yazmak charged at Delairyus with blinding speed, closing the distance between them within a second. In the next instant, Yazmak swung his glaive, aiming for her ribs, but instead Delairyus grabbed ahold of the blade of the glaive as it went harmlessly by and used the momentum to swing herself up and give Yazmak’s face a staggering roundhouse kick. Instead losing his balance, Yazmak rolled with the blow, twirling his massive body to catch Delairyus with one of his wings while using the bottom end of his glaive to weaken Delairyus. Without missing a beat, Delairyus caught the incoming attack with both hands and instead of stopping herself, she lunged to the ground while still clinging to Yazmak’s weapon, digging her heels into the surface.

Yazmak responded by holding her up while she was still clasping onto his glaive and spun her around. Without Yazmak noticing, Delairyus used the motion to slide herself closer to Yazmak and in a flash she wrapped her legs around Yazmak’s head as she leaned backwards, causing Yazmak to bend painfully backwards as he held onto his glaive. They remained in this pose for several seconds before Delairyus pushed off of Yazmak, taking his glaive with her. Instead of using the glaive for herself, Delairyus flung it at Salien and Zeke, making sure it dug into the ground next to them.

The now unarmed Yazmak mirthlessly smiled and took a boxing stance, his deadly gaze fixated on Delairyus, who didn’t react at the sight of Yazmak and tensed herself for her next move. In a blur, Delairyus rushed forward, appearing before Yazmak’s eyes with her right fist cocked back for a solid punch to the face. Yazmak threw out a quick jab with his left to stop her in her tracks only to connect with air as the visage in front of him faded away. The real Delairyus had slid between Yazmak’s legs, clawing his genitals along the way. This caused Yazmak’s knees to buckle, so when Delairyus grabbed ahold of Yazmak’s tail, it was much easier for her to yank him backwards and off balance. Taking the opportunity, Delairyus leapt at Yazmak and grabbed ahold of his wings as her legs snapped out to kick him in the base of his skull.

As her feet connected Yazmak lost his footing and fell over onto his face with Delairyus standing on top of his head. Continuing in her ruthlessness, Delairyus stomped with all of her might on Yazmak’s head, eliciting a solid grunt as his face was mashed into the ground. As a precaution, Delairyus slashed through the webbing of Yazmak’s wings before stepping off of him, confident in her efforts. Barkstripe, Salien and Zeke were watching with wide-eyed expressions, unsure of how to react to the scene before them.

Delairyus gestured towards Yazmak as she made eye contact with Zeke, “He’s all yours now, I’m sure he’ll answer anything you ask now.”

The drive to do something is there

But with no clear goal

A scarred warrior ready for his past demons to haunt him

But with nothing there

Instead only this writing seems to put to words of how this feeling is

But nothing is changing

Only this quiet desperation for an immediately solution

But it’s never that easy

There is always more to what things are

But…..

Dejected I’ll slump down and let everything release itself

But that doesn’t solve anything

Only with a clean slate can I move forward without losing anything more

But what about all that was set free

With experience comes better decisions, better results

But you can’t live in constant repeats of past events

Each time I’ll get further than before

But how far are you really getting

Overall progress comes with time

But there is only so much time for each individual

Too many risks lead to devastating consequences

But then where is the real reward

Patience has always been rewarding

But that is too broad, there is more to it

Then…..maybe I haven’t grown all that much

But you said experience has made you better

Not as much as I would like to believe

But then, what are you trying to accomplish

I have no idea

But what about your future

In the end, there may not be all the much to hope for

But you have to keep fighting

Fighting my past or the possibility of danger

………

Then it seems we both don’t know

Salien embraced the teary-eyed Zeke, tightly wrapping her arms around him and squeezing him with her own happiness. Her sobbing friend attempted to hug back with equal strength but was overpowered by Salien’s newfound physical prowess. Muffled blubbering could be heard from Zeke as his face was smothered by Salien’s chest as she realized that she now stood almost a foot higher than Zeke, which alarmed her, and she immediately let go to find that Zeke was heavily gasping for air between joyous sobs. Apologetically rubbing Zeke’s back, Salien weakly smiled, “Sorry about that Zeke. There is just so much to take in at the moment, I had no idea I would be so-”

 

Barkstripe cut her off as he approached with Delairyus and Erikalika, each one of them with a warming smile of their own, “Strong. Yeah, it will take some getting used to but you’ll find that your body will be as strong, if not stronger, than Zeke’s S.W.O.R.D armor.”

 

Without skipping a beat, Salien huffed at Barkstripe, “You always have to be the ‘suave’ one don’t you?”

 

Nonchalantly shrugging, Barkstripe put his hands up in mock surrender as Delairyus spoke for him, “Don’t mind the muscle junkie here, he’s terrible with words.” She folded her arms, sizing up Salien with a hint of jealousy in her voice, “You must be the loved one that these two lost on their way here.”

 

Though Zeke was still holding onto Salien, she only gingerly draped one arm over his shoulders. A hurt smile creased on her face, “Yes, it was terrifying when it happened.”

 

Interjecting, Erikalika motioned towards the chairs, “There is still much to discuss, why not get comfortable with some tea as we shed light on these developments.”

 

Everyone looked to each other in agreement before wandering back over to the chairs. Now that Salien was there, an extra chair was needed, which Erikalika fixed with a snap of his fingers, making an identical chair appear with the rest. Erikalika took his seat while Barkstripe and Delairyus sat in chairs next to each other with Salien and Zeke following suit. After the ragtag group of friends got comfortable, Erikalika asked after sipping his own tea, “Would anyone care for a fresh cup of tea?”

 

Exchanging glances, the four shook their head in turn which made Erikalika grunt, “To each their own then.”

 

Still excited, Zeke didn’t waste time, “So what happened Salien? How were you brought back? Where did you end up after you were taken from your former body?”

 

Though she shook her head, Salien smiled from Zeke’s boundless curiosity, “During our battle with Violet, I could see myself leaving your S.W.O.R.D armor. I tried to call out to you Zeke, but nobody could hear me. Before I knew what to make of the situation, I was taken to a white space. There was nothing else there, except for a single voice calling out to me.”

 

Clearing his throat, Erikalika interjected, “That was me reaching out to Salien here. It took far less time for my words to reach her than most lost souls.”

 

Nodding in acknowledgment, Salien continued, “So after hearing Erikalika’s voice, I followed it. Time didn’t seem to matter in this strange place, so I couldn’t tell you how long I was running for, but Erikalika’s voice changed when I drew closer and a purple miasma appeared around me.”

 
Sitting on the edge of his seat, Zeke asked, “What did you do then?”

 
Shrugging slightly, Salien responded, “Initially, I did nothing. I tried to call out again but this distant voice kept repeating itself, beckoning me closer. So I followed voice and saw two figures in the distance. Suddenly they were directly in front of me.”

 
She paused a moment, the fear of her meeting Narroth still fresh in Salien’s mind. Seeing this in her eyes, Zeke reached out with a comforting hand, covering her hand with his. Barkstripe awkwardly said, “You don’t have to continue if it’s too much.”

 
Delairyus huffed and folded her arms, irritated, “Or Salien could continue. This could be vital information.”

 
Erikalika sipped his tea, calmly agreeing with Delairyus, “You have a point Delairyus,” Looking to Salien he coaxed, “Please continue Salien, this is something we all need to hear.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Salien flashed a smirk at Zeke before recounting her tale, “The two figures turned out to be Narroth, and one of his henchmen named Xiden. Narroth was a tall, buff, red lizard-man with wings and piercing blue eyes. His sidekick, Xiden, had the same kind of eyes but was lanky, dark, and quietly plotting. Narroth kept going on about how he was going to bring Barkstripe and Zeke to this place called Limbo to reunite us, that even though Limbo is unstable, it has yet to be used for it’s true potential. Before I could get any real answers out of Narroth, he left me with Xiden, who immediately made a pit of snakes under me. Thankfully, my training still paid off and I was able to fend of Xiden. Upon doing so, Erikalika here showed up to take me here and offered me a new body. After hearing about how being without one leaves you very vulnerable, I took his offer and now here I am.”

 

Having finished her tale, Salien felt her whole body relax, the memory of her experience having subsided. Zeke kept rubbing his hand over Salien’s in a gesture of sanctuary while Barkstripe thoughtfully scratched his head as he mumbled, “This can’t be good.”

 

 

Delairyus stared knowingly at Erikalika as he tilted his head slightly in acknowledgement, “I know Deli, this bodes ill for all of us.”

 

Erikalika’s words drew everyone’s attention to him, each individual blinking with confusion and intrigue. Silence grew heavy in the room while the group expectantly waited for their billy goat friend to elaborate on his words. Instead it was Delairyus who spoke up, unable to wait, her voice was very matter of fact, “Narroth plans of using the chaotic energies of Limbo to encompass all of Stormhaven, and Earth I would imagine, so that he can control everything. And not just as a monarch or silly figurehead, he wants to become a god.”

 
Her last words pierced through Barkstripe, Salien and Zeke, bringing a horrific picture to all of their minds. Erikalika raised a brow, annoyed, “Your words may be true Deli, but rather dark.” Clearing his throat, he continued, “Nevertheless, evidence thus far would point to an outcome as you have illustrated. Though using the energies of Limbo would be foolhardy at best.”

 

 

Eagerness now overtook Zeke as he redirected his focus on Erikalika, “What do you mean exactly? Why would using the energy in Limbo be a bad idea?”

 

 

After taking a sip of tea, Erikalika placed his cup on a table to his right that appeared before folding his fingers together on his lap, “You recall the being known as Violet, correct?”

 

 
Everyone slowly bobbed their heads to show that they are listening closely, Erikalika continued, “Violet was one such being made from the miasma. Though she had a mind and will of her own, her ultimate goal was to consume other souls to not only sustain herself, but to gather enough necessary to allow Narroth to control the entirety of Limbo. When Violet targeted you Zeke, it was no coincidence. She must have sensed a large amount of energy in you and was drawn to it. Had she succeeded in her endeavor, Narroth would have all he needs to accomplish his goal of enshrouding every realm in Limbo and having complete control of everything.”

 

 

Barkstripe, Salien and Zeke exhanged looks as they digested this information while Delairyus saucily asked, “Even though Zeke has no idea what his potential is, Violet could have still absorbed all of Zeke’s energy and used it for that purpose?”

 

 

Sighing in resignation, Erikalika forlornly replied, “Yes, the mind’s restrictions on how we use our energy does not apply when said mind is no longer in control of it.”

 

 

Bewildered, Zeke exclaimed, “What do you mean my potential? Please explain to me how I have all of this so called power that has yet to be unlocked? The whole point of the S.W.O.R.D armor was to tap into that! How could there still be limits that have yet to be reached?”

 

 

Instead of following suit in comforting Zeke, Salien butted in with determination of her own, “Exactly! Why do you keep talking about Zeke like he’s not even complete? What aren’t you telling us?”

 

 

Barkstripe leaned back in his chair with arms folded, feeling no desire to add on to what has already been clearly stated. Delairyus pointed an accusatory finger at Zeke, “You think that silly suit of yours is going to tap into countless millennia worth of energy? You have no clue as to what’s been happening and you somehow expect that to be all you need to win?”

 

 

Growling, Salien shot up from her seat, “Zeke has always tried his best, pouring all of his heart and soul into his work! How dare you talk to him, as if he is a mere child!”

 

 

Delairyus closed her eyes in irritation as she snorted, “And you think fighting his battles for him is going to help? Maybe you’ve been mothering him for too long that you fail to see how much growing he needs to do!”

 

 

Barkstripe stepped in between them, “Take it easy you two, Zeke here can speak for himself right?”

 
Everyone turned their attention to Zeke, who was now struggling to find the right words, “I-I can…I…don’t know what to s-say.”

 

 

Erikalika calmly added, “How about we have Zeke here explain how his S.W.O.R.D armor works instead? Maybe then we can come to a more accurate conclusion about his potential. Afterwards, we shall reciprocate by explaining what we mean by his untapped power.” Looking at everyone in turn, “Does this satisfy all of you?”

 

 
Slowly each member of the group nodded in agreement before quietly taking their seats once more and turning their attention to Zeke. Closing his eyes, Zeke slowly took several breaths, “I can do this. It’s not any different than when I presented the idea to Yazmak.”

 

 

After pushing aside his nervous tension, Zeke looked around and cleared his throat, “Ok, so as you know, this armor I wear has been called the Symbiotic Wavelength Omni Reishigi Drive, or S.W.O.R.D for short. Engage AUTO mode.”

 

 

Standing up, Zeke stepped out of his S.W.O.R.D armor and pointed where the missing head of the armor would be, “Here is, of course, where the helmet would be, equipped with a Heads-Up Display that can scan the nearby area for incoming traffic, weather conditions, compositions of architecture, as well as give a readout on target Reishigi levels, any possible weapons, on top of being able to give a report on your own Reishigi level, heart rate, condition of your body, i.e. physical injuries, toxins, and how your state of mind is reacting to your current situation.”

 

 

Momentarily Zeke looked around to see his friends were listening intently, even Erikalika had an intrigued gleam in his eyes. This spurred Zeke forward as he pointed to the chest piece, it had horizontally protruding shoulder plates that folded over each side of the shoulders. The center of the chest was comprised of three parts, two of them covered each breast, while the third covered the stomach and core of the wearer. The back of the chest piece had two protruding, half-moon shaped rods that rested at a 45 degree angle with a perfectly round indent beneath where the rods begin. Zeke cheerfully explained, “This chest part of the armor serves as the gathering point for your body’s Reishigi. It draws from your heart as well as your core at your waist, to distribute your energy to the rest of your body, bestowing accelerated strength and speed, as well as bolstering your body’s overall ability to absorb damage. The back of this part contains your boosters, which can be used in quick bursts for evasive action, or for long term flight.”

 

 

Now with his finger pointed at the arms, beginning from the shoulder the arm was small and smooth, rounding out into larger forearms, with gloves sticking out from the ends. Zeke paused to clear his throat again, “At the arms of the S.W.O.R.D armor, beginning from the shoulder the arm was small and smooth, rounding out into larger forearms, with gloves sticking out from the ends. Zeke paused to clear his throat again, “At the arms of the S.W.O.R.D armor is where weapons like the Ion Buster can be housed. At the rounded section on the forearm is where the muscle enhancing occurs as well as where any compatible weapons can be stored. With a simple flex of your arm, this part of the arm expands and folds out to allow use of said weapon.”

 
Motioning with his finger, Zeke indicated the lower half of the armor, the waist down to the beginning of the knee were straightforward metal leggings. From the rest of the knee to the feet were large boots, adorned only by a single spike on each knee that curved outward with the tip pointing up, “From the waist, there is a built in module that allows the wearer to be unhindered by any change in gravity, as well as preventing disorientation from any usage of the wearer’s boosters. At the boots, this armor has features like the ability to stick to most surfaces, enhanced running speed, an extra set of boosters at the soles of the boots that allow the user to do quick bursts in any direction. As a whole, this armor is capable of many things, what I have explained is only the basics of this armor. Anything beyond this wil be a custom creation and should always be treated with care. Just as a side note, the color scheme of any S.W.O.R.D armor can be customized, but it will otherwise always be a metallic grey.”

 
Salien cocked her head to one side, “Aren’t you forgetting something Zeke?”

 

 

After thinking about it for a moment Zeke’s eyes widened, “Right! My particular armor has the ability to be summoned on command. I can do this because of a special module I built and implanted in my head, which signals the armor and teleports it to my location. This is due to the first two parts in the S.W.O.R.D acronym, Symbiotic Wavelength, which stands for the relationship between the wearer and the armor itself. Upon donning the armor it is powered by your own energy, or Reishigi, allowing the wearer to do fantastic physical feats. But, due to the nature of the armor, it can use so much of your energy that you reach your breaking point, or Soul Shatter, which as far as we know your soul undergoes too much stress, causing it to literally shatter. The Wavelength refers to how each S.W.O.R.D armor in particular is tuned to a particular individual. Should anyone else use it, they will suffer dire consequences, such as a horrific fusion with the armor, or immediate Soul Shatter. Omni is addressing the fact that the wearer’s armor is intended as an all-around enhancement. Reishigi Drive is in direct reference to how your energy is the source of it all.”

 

 
Delairyus sauntered over to Zeke, an eager glint in her eyes as she paced around him and his armor, “So this armor can do all of these things, and yet you still couldn’t beat lunkhead over here?”

 

 

She had a thumb pointed at Barkstripe, who was quietly grumbling to himself while Zeke meekly answered, “Well, I assumed it was a matter of skill, not so much a lack of physical prowess.”

 

 

Maintaining her inquiring tone, Delairyus asked, “It had nothing to do with the fact that every Anthro is easily twice, of not four times in some cases, stronger than a human being? Not to mention the fact that every species of Anthro has their own innate senses on top of that?”

 

 
Nodded in agreement, Zeke replied, “Yes, it all came down to the more experienced fighter, and obviously Barkstripe is just that, a better fighter than me.”

 

 

Swishing her tail while thoughtfully holding her chin, Delairyus slowly admitted, “That may be true. However, in the case of your real potential, none of us here could hold a candle to you Zeke. With the right training from me, you’ll be capable of so much more than you ever believed.”

 

 

A pained smirk spread over Salien’s face, “How do you know that Zeke can do all of this?”

 

 

It was Erikalika and his ever patient tone that replied, “Allow me to explain,” Sipping the rest of his tea, he began, “Though we have referred to Zeke as an ‘heir’ to a seat on the council, he, like other spirits, was not born from a coupling of anyone, but rather a being that was given life from the very balance maintained between each realm.”

 

 

Now that he finished grumbling, Barkstripe jumped in, “What does this for Zeke in particular?”

 

 

Zeke, with a stoic gaze, added, “I want to know all that you can tell me.”

 

 
A polite smile flashed on Erikalika’s face, “Very well then. Boys and girls, get as comfortable as you can because there is quite a bit of ground to cover here.”

 

 

He took a moment to check if his listeners were giving him all of their attention, and to his delight, everyone was waiting with a ravenous desire to know more. Still smiling, Erikalika made a welcoming gesture with his hands, “Let’s start from the beginning shall we?” He cleared his throat, “Long before there were humans, there was the Fey spirits, and Demons. Let me clarify this now, though the Fey are spirits of light, and Demons are spirits of darkness, this does not mean they are good and evil. Rather, they are two sides to one coin, a means of keeping balance, if you will.”

 

 

Erikalika paused to take a sip of tea, “Though they have different names and looks, the Fey and Demons share many walks of life together. And much like humans, spirits have to eke out a living in what ways they can. To paint a picture on this, think of each realm every spirit lives in as a different place in ‘time’ or particular ideology. Take Terragleam for instance, no doubt by now you have come to see that this particular Sector is set in what you would refer to as ‘the dark ages’. These realms exist because time itself means little to spirits, and yet, because of the vast differences in ideas, it was decided that the Council would be made to ensure that everyone was spoken for while placing responsibility on the shoulders of an individual for each Sector. In the case of Terragleam, a spirit does not find life in working for money like humans do, rather, we trade what we craft or find with one another, some of us will hunt dangerous creatures for their own various personal reasons. Whether you create baskets to the finest weaponry for beast slaying, we all count on one particular resource, Aetherium. This mineral comes in many forms, from various plant life to rich ore veins. As to its origins, we concluded that it comes from concentrations of energy from every realm. Conflict would arise in various ways, whether it was a carnivorous Wyvern coming to feast, or a dispute among ourselves, we would have to find a means to push though. Contrary to human beliefs, spirits also experience death, however, not in the same way. For instance, a human will pass on from age or sickness, a spirit can pass on from a lack of energy, or Reishigi. This occurs when a spirit has used up all of their energy, whether from deprivation of balance or from taking on too great of a task. Which leads to the earlier statement that balance is a necessity.”

 

 

Taking a moment to check on his listeners, Erikalika could see the questions on everyone’s faces, except Delairyus, who was cleaning her claws as she listened. Then he continued, “Balance between the realms has been kept by the Council, to which everyone would come together to maintain the energies of every realm. To do so, a ritual would be performed, asking for the world itself to help guide this seemingly boundless Reishigi to where it would be needed most.”

 

 

Zeke butted in, “Where does all of this energy come from? How is it that this Reishigi falls out of balance in the first place?”

 

 

A slight twitch of Erikalika’s brow went unnoticed as he took Zeke’s question into consideration before answering, “From what we understand, this energy has always existed around us. There are fluctuations in the amount of energy as a whole, which is one such reason that led the Demons and Fey to create a Council to find a solution to that. You may be wondering why any sudden changes in energy would be harmful, and my answer to that is this, as spirits we thrive on said energy, too much of it could cause us to become part of this energy and we would simply fade away. The other side to this, is when there is a lack of energy, and best way to describe this is similar to being starved to death. As to why this happens, there are many theories surrounding that. One such theory is from humans developing so much technology and the battles that would follow. Some have blamed greedy Demons or Fey while there are a few that feel it is simply the Earth’s way of keeping us working together. So back to what I was saying, balance is necessary as a means of keeping every spirit alive, because without spirits, Demon and Fey alike, life would cease to exist altogether.”

 

 

Taking this information in brief silence, Barkstripe, Salien and Zeke would look to each other and Erikalika as they wrapped their heads around Erikalika’s words. Even Delairyus stopped what she was doing, her eyes looking past her claws in deep thought. As expected, Zeke stepped in with another question, “How does this affect humanity then? Does having a seat on the Council relate to that?”

 

 

Before letting out a patient sigh, Erikalika gulped the rest of his tea, “Humanity is affected because of how the entire world is connected. Your science may be only aware of life as it is presented before your eyes, but just beyond the Veil lies so much more. Think of the Realm of Humans and the Realm of Spirits as existing side-by-side on the same coin, but because of being on opposite sides, we never see one another. As spirits, we believe that humans came from a union between Demons and Fey, creating a new lifeform altogether. Unfortunately, the exact details of this were erased by Narroth himself, including any spirit who had been there for the event. As for having a seat on the Council, it does relate to humanity as I stated before, without Reishigi and Aetherium, life will no longer exist.”

 

 

This information made Zeke forlornly gaze at the ground while Salien carefully asked, “Then, why Zeke specifically? Couldn’t you have someone else be lined up for a seat on the Council? And why should it matter now?”

 

 

Slowly shaking his head, Erikalika frowned, “As a spirit, Zeke was a dragon, and as such, he is quite literally a force of nature. Due to this, Zeke has limitless potential in Reishigi alone, which is why we need him to be a part of the Council.”

 

 
Though Erikalika paused, everyone could see the words trailing through his eyes. Sensing the uneasiness in the room, he cleared his throat before continuing, “I must say this now, it is because of all that I have explained that Zeke must take Yazmak’s place on the Council. In acting on his own accord, Yazmak made it difficult to trust him, especially after his crossing into the Human Realm.”

 

 

A gruff voice came from behind Erikalika, causing everyone but Erikalika to jump up into a battle stance, “I heard my name, is everyone speaking well of me?”

 

 

Yazmak’s towering form stood over Erikalika, fresh cuts and bruises covered his entire exhausted body. One of his eyes was closed to keep blood from getting into it as his piercing gaze swept over everyone, “No need for alarm everyone, I’m here to help.”

 

 

Delairyus didn’t hesitate to verbally jab at Yazmak, “Unless it’s information your giving, you don’t look like you would be much help.”

 

 

What started as a chuckle turned into a sputtering cough as Yazmak smirked, “Fret not, I have come to shed more light on what Erikalika here has already explained.”

 

 
Barkstripe and Salien stepped protectively in front of Zeke as Salien spat, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re as much a cause of this mess as Narroth is. Why should we listen?”

 

 

Closing his eye a moment, Yazmak took several deep breaths before opening his eye, giving Zeke a pleading look, “Because what I know can help you understand what’s going on.”

 

 

Seeing Yazmak in the flesh as something more than human only made Zeke feel curious about the pleading look in Yazmak’s eye as well as something else. No memories were triggered, no sense of duty to his work, no promises. A bitter taste in Zeke’s mouth matched the anger festering in him as he pushed past Barkstripe and Salien to stand resolutely before Yazmak, “There’s a lot I want to understand, especially now, however, take this into account, I don’t know if I can forgive you for manipulating me for so long.”

 

 

A sky blue aura covered Yazmak for several moments as all of his wounds faded away. Now rejuvenated, Yazmak stood up straight, his head only inches from the roof of the room they were in as he tilted his head to crack his neck. Narrowing his eyes, Yazmak icily said, “I would have all of the information possible before making such bold statements if I were you, child.”

Salien woke to see herself leaving Zeke’s S.W.O.R.D armor as she began to drift away from it. Frantically looking around she saw Barkstripe still unconscious inside of Violet’s mass, and turned a little more to see Zeke standing there with his Buster at the ready, a wild look on his face. Salien tried to reach out to him, call his name even, but he didn’t hear her. Moments later everything around her melted away into a white light. Still in a panic, Salien rushed every which way that she could crying out, “Zeke! Barkstripe! Where are you?!”

 
There was no response. No sound, smell, touch, taste, or even see other than the white light around her. After several minutes of this, Salien fell to her knees in tears as she sobbed to herself, “I need you guys. Don’t leave me behind.”

 
A fire woke up inside of Salien from the sound of her own words, a chord in her had been struck by the thought of Zeke still fighting. Gritting her teeth, Salien cursed at herself, “Crying won’t help me. I’m on my own now and I can’t give in. There must be a way out of this.”

 
With a twitch of her right ear, Salien heard a distant, beckoning voice, “This way! Follow my voice and find your way back!”

 
Still grinding her teeth from her vulnerability, Salien hissed, “Who are you? What is the meaning of this?”

 
The disembodied voice only replied with, “This way! Follow my voice and find your way back!”

 
Huffing through her nose, Salien grumbled, “Seems I have no choice then.”

 
Salien ran to her right in the direction of the whispering voice as it kept repeating itself. It didn’t occur to her right away, but after several minutes of running, Salien took note that she wasn’t feeling any wear from her running. Every breath she took felt as real as any other time, and yet her body didn’t show any change in stamina. This intrigued Salien, sparking her interest and driving her forward even faster into a full sprint. Moments later a violet miasma formed around her and Salien ground herself to a halt to examine this strange phenomena. Looking around she could see that it didn’t draw any closer to her, it remained a large distance away from her position, however, it did form a tunnel in front of her. Within the miasma were pulsing veins that crackled with rampant energy.

 
The mysterious voice was much closer now, this time it said, “My name is Erikalika. I’m here to help you return to your friends. Keep going forward!”

 
In a moment of pondering, Salien took note that the voice was different now, that it sounded much deeper, but still carried a warming tone. After blinking a few times, Salien tensed herself for a battle before continuing forward, this time at a steady jog.

 
As she padded along, Salien saw that the miasma wasn’t getting any closer to her. Though what was getting closer was the voice from before, still repeating its name and encouraging her to go forward. Salien’s eyebrow twitched with irritation, “Whoever this Erikalika is, I’m going to sock them at least once.”

 
Ahead of her, Salien could see two siluoettes but couldn’t make out any distinguishable features. She slowed down to a stop to give herself time to examine what she was seeing, but to her surprise the two figures were pulled right to her. Now standing before her were two strange Anthros, to Salien’s left was a strange looking crimson lizard-man that stood about the same height as Salien. He turned to Salien with a cruel smile, his crystal blue eyes pierced through her, sending a chill through her. Two long, wavy whiskers extended from the lizard-man’s nostrils, adding to the ominous feeling from his devious smile. His scaly body was bare, broad shouldered and incredibly muscular with giant dragon wings, a long and thick tail, as well as abounding between his legs.

 
To Salien’s right was a very tall, midnight black-skinned humanoid with matching crystal blue eyes. This figure only gave Salien a sideways glance, though the features were unmistakable, with long wavy horns, a bush of black, pointy hair, a narrow face with a small pointy nose, angular cheeks, and a sharp chin that complimented the scowling expression. The strange figure was willowy and stood on reverse jointed hooved legs with a long, thin tail that had a shock of hair at the end of it.

 
The lizard-man spread his arms out to each side in greeting, “Welcome Salien. You finally made it here!”

 
Though Salien wanted to relax from recognizing the lizard-man’s voice from before, her body remained on edge, “You must be Erikalika then. Where are we?”

 
With that monstrous smile, the lizard-man replied, “Why, we are in a place that anything can happen. A space that is claimed to be unstable, but that is just to cover for its true potential. You can call it Limbo.”

 
The lizard-man raised his eyebrows to accentuate his last words, but Salien still did not feel any better. The other humanoid still silently glowered at Salien, giving no hint to any kind of intentions. Looking to his companion a moment, the lizard-man jeered, “Come on Xiden! This is a big moment! Salien here is going to be reunited with her friends!”

 
Still no response came from the lizard-man’s companion, to which he evilly chuckled, “Well, not everyone likes social gatherings it seems.”

 
Thinking to herself, “My instincts won’t let me drop my guard. I must get some answers.” Salien cautiously asked, “What do you mean by that?”

 

Still heartily giggling, the lizard-man joyously replied, “Why, you want to see Barkstripe and Zeke again don’t you? I’m going to bring them here!”

 

Taking a stance, Salien’s eyes narrowed, her words becoming icy, “That doesn’t seem like a good thing. How about I go to them instead?”

 

This stopped the lizard-man’s chuckling short, though he still gave a wicked smile, “But then I wouldn’t be in the picture. Everyone always comes to Erikalika!

 

The mention of the name Erikalika made Salien grit her teeth from the feeling of an unseen force breezing through her as her eyes narrowed, “I don’t believe you. Tell me how to really get back to everyone.”

 

Cocking his head to one side, the lizard-man looked hurt, “Salien you wound me. I guided you here to offer help and you want to make your own demands instead? How could you be so cruel?”

 
Turning to his companion, the lizard-man gave an exasperated sigh, “It can’t be helped Xiden, you’ll just have to warm her up to being in Limbo. I’ll be back later when you’ve had your fill.”

 

Without changing expression, Xiden’s voice was calm and quiet, “As you wish, Narroth.”

 
Upon hearing the name Narroth, Salien’s eyes almost popped out of her head as she watched Narroth become surrounded by a black bubble and disappear with it. It was at this point that Xiden slowly smiled, his voice was cold and louder, “I know what to do with you.”

 
In a snap of Xiden’s gangly fingers, a large pit opened up beneath Salien. Due to the readiness that Salien maintained, she was able to latch onto the edge of the pit as she could hear a massive amount of angry snakes hissing and snapping below her. Holding on with all she had, Salien looked up to see Xiden kneeling over her, a malicious glint in his eyes, “Good reflexes. Can they save you from the position you’re in?”

 
Lifting her lower half, Salien found that she could plant her feet on the wall of the pit. Now reassured of her position, she looked up with a dark smile of her own, “Let’s find out together shall we?”

 
With a heave from her legs, Salien leapt up and grabbed onto Xiden’s horns. Instead of giving way to her weight, Xiden casually stood up, unhindered by Salien’s added weight. Annoyed, Xiden locked eyes with Salien, “Let’s play then.”

 
In a flash, Xiden swung his body away from the pit, throwing Salien to one side. Doing an acrobatic flip, Salien landed on her feet and redirected her momentum on her toes to spring back at Xiden, fist leading the way. This caught him off guard, connecting with his temple and made him lean backwards. Still up for the fight, Salien let her legs crumple underneath her as she landed and executed a sweeping kick. Her foot slammed into the back of Xiden’s knee, though instead of sending him off of his feet, it only brought him down to one knee. Without stopping, Salien lauched herself with an uppercut to Xiden’s chin. This time Xiden went down on his back with most of his torso hanging over the edge of the pit.

 

Salien didn’t hesitate as her feet met the ground once again and she took Xiden’s legs in each arm and shoved him into the pit of snakes. Looking over the edge, Salien could see Xiden laying in the bed of snakes, irritation still on his face, “This is not what I imagined. I’ll play with you another time.”

 
There was another snap of Xiden’s fingers and in a puff of smoke he and the pit of snakes disappeared. Though Salien still didn’t feel any fatigue, she couldn’t help but fall to her knees in relief as mumbled to herself, “Thank the heavens for all of that training before.”

 

Her solace was short-lived when a voice came from behind her, this one was refined and soft, “Barvo Salien! Good show!”

 

Jumping up in surprise, Salien spun into a defensive stance, “Who’s there?”

 

Alarmed, her newest visitor put up his hands in surrender, “I’m not here to fight you, no, far from it. I’m the one who called you here in the first place to reuinite you with your friends, Barkstripe and Zeke.”

 

Still on edge, Salien growled, “How can I be sure of that? The other two claimed to be here to help and that didn’t work out. What makes you any different?”

 

A calm smile spread on the billy goat’s face, “I’m Erikalika. The real Erikalika. Here, let’s get comfortable.”

 
There was a snap of Erikalika’s fingers and in a blur, they were in a solitary room with four chairs and a fireplace. Erikalika seated himself in the largest chair and motioned for Salien to take a seat in a chair directly in front of him. Narrowing her eyes, Salien remained in position, “No thanks. I still have a hard time believing you.”

 
Patiently, Erikalika shook his head, “I understand, but I must insist that you do get comfortable. Barkstripe and Zeke will still be awhile before they reach here.”

 

Slowly, Salien sat down, her eyes never leaving Erikalika as she remained on the edge of her seat. Yet another snap of fingers made a cup of hot tea appear in Erikalika and Salien’s hands. After taking a sip, Erikalika let out a breath of enjoyment, “Ah! That does the trick every time.”

 

Pulling the cup closer to her face, Salien sniffed it, she could feel the heat of the tea on her face as the aroma of a robust, sweet root emanated from her tea. Still locking her gaze on Erikalika, Salien took a sip of her tea and soon felt a refreshing, warm glow spread throughout her body. An amused smile spread over Erikalika’s face, “It really refreshes the spirit, doesn’t it?”

 

Sitting back in her chair, Salien felt all of her alarms dying down as a glimmer of trust grew in her, “Okay, so you have shown that you don’t want to kill me. Not yet at least.”

 

This made Erikalika cheerily laugh, “Kill you? My dear, if that was my plan, why would I pull you out of Limbo at all?”

 

Chagrin grew in Salien though she kept it under wraps, “That may be, but how do I know for sure?”

 

Gulping the rest of his tea, Erikalika set it down on the floor before sitting up straight, one leg crossed over a knee with his hands patiently folded on his lap as Erikalika used an even tone, “Because I will give you a new body.”

 

Bewilderment stormed in Salien’s mind as it occurred to her that she was no longer in the S.W.O.R.D armor, which begged the question, how is she alive?

 

Erikalika seemed to know the very question on her mind as he held up one finger, “I will explain what it is you want to know. First, let me clarify that ‘death’ is not the final step in anyone’s journey. Though your former body was manufactured, it was still a suitable home for your spirit. When you were pulled out of it, your spirit was essentially ‘freed’, allowing it to return to its realm of origin. The same can be said for anyone’s spirit when they ‘die’. In your case, you were crossing through the barrier between each Sector here in Stormhaven, otherwise known as Limbo. I tried to reach you when you got there, but it seems that Narroth had beat me to it. Thankfully you are savvy in a fight, because I myself am not quite as well trained as you are. In any case, you were on your way to the Sector Tivolon, the realm of combat and war. After your earlier display, I can see why. But, like anyone else, without a body to house your spirit in, you are at your most vulnerable. I’m sure you noticed how you didn’t have your senses, for instance, smell. This is one of many indicators that you are a free spirit. The part that makes your vulnerable is the fact that any sort of damage you endure while in this state can be permanent. It was very fortunate that no harm came to you while you were on your journey. That being said, if you wish to be with Barkstripe and Zeke, you will need another body to keep your spirit in. Though I must say, you’ll have a bit more luxury in how you would like to look than you did previously.”

 

Shaking her head, Salien still felt off-balance, “You mean to tell me, that if I had actually gotten hurt, that I may not be able to come back from it? And how can you make a body for me? Also, where are Barkstripe and Zeke?”

 

Smiling, Erikalika replied, “Yes, you were in more danger than you initially realized. But that doesn’t matter now that you are here. As for the matter of your body, yes, I can make you one. But it will take some time yet. As for where Barkstripe and Zeke are, they are in the forest above us. Though at the moment they are pre-occupied with battles of their own. I sent my guardian Delairyus out to meet with them so that they can find their way here.”

 

Pondering it all carefully, Salien still felt wary, “Even if all of this is true, how can I trust you? This all sounds too good to be true.”

 

Rubbing his chin, Erikalika patiently responded, “That I cannot tell you. I can only hope that you will put your faith in my word and I will do all I can to help you. I cannot force you into giving me your trust.”

 

After taking a moment to think on it, Salien asked, “Can you show me Barkstripe and Zeke? I want to know if they are alright.”

 

Wordlessly Erikalika traced a large rectangle in the air between them and with a poke of his index finger a conjured screen appeared with an image of Barkstripe fighting a horde of vile creatures while Zeke’s lifeless body was surrounded by a barrier. Seeing this made Salien gasp, “Barkstripe! Zeke!” She shot up from her chair, spilling her tea as she dropped her cup, “I have to go help them! They need me!”

 

Erikalika held up a hand, “You cannot help them as you are now, it would be too dangerous. Those creatures you see there are Husks, beings that got a fractured soul. They devour the souls of everything around them to sate an eternal hunger to be whole. Being a soul yourself, you would be helpless against them. If you want to help them so badly, allow me to make a body for you first.”

 

Salien folded her arms, “Tch! If that’s what it takes to save them, then okay. When can we do this? How long will it take?”

 

Thinking for a moment, Erikalika met Salien’s eyes, “I can start the process now. As for how long, it will take at least twelve hours, if not longer.”

 

Growling, Salien closed her eyes to consider her options, “So either wait and hope they survive? Or go now and get myself killed regardless and hope that it somehow saves their lives?”

 

Sighing in resignation, Salien opened her eyes to meet with Erikalika’s patient gaze, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

 

Clapping his hands together in joy, Erikalika stood up, “Then let’s get started.” He motioned to a wall on his left, “Enter through the door over there and close your eyes. It will happen very fast for you so do not fret. As for any details on how you will look, that will all come together on its own. I guarantee you’ll love the way you will look.”

 

Salien walked over to the wall he indicated and a soft ‘Ding!’ rang out as a door slid open. She walked inside into a dark room and as she turned around the door closed behind her. Taking a few moments to breathe, Salien could hear Erikalika’s voice, “Close your eyes and relax. When you open them again, you’ll be in your new body.”

 

Nodding several times, Salien still felt anxious, “Okay, I’ll try.”

 

Closing her eyes, Salien concentrated on taking deep breaths, pushing away any other concern in her mind with each breath. Several moments later Salien opened her eyes to see that she was still in the dark room and she called out, “Erikalika? Are you still there? I don’t know if it worked!”

 

Instead of a voice in response, a single overhead light came on, revealing a mirror as tall as Salien in front of her. The reflection she saw caught her by surprise as she watched her own eyes grow wide. Starting from her head, Salien ran her hand through her long hair with sapphire blue tips, and her pointy ears had the same color on them. Her sapphire eyes stared at herself from behind her long, sharp, black nosed snout. Her slender shoulders felt very strong, her barrel chest sported ample breasts, as her slightly curvy hips formed strong and thick legs. When she swayed her hips a large, fluffy tail trailed after them as her hands felt her shapely rear end. Taking in her body as a whole, Salien realized that she was in the body of a white Timber Wolf Anthro.

 

After doing a few poses, Salien searched for a way out but didn’t have to go far as the door she entered before was still next to her. As she stepped towards it, the door opened to the room she was in before. Only this time, Barkstripe and Zeke were standing there, their eyes almost burst out of their heads as they laid eyes on her. Silence grew in the air as nobody knew what to say at first, but Zeke broke it moments later when he sped over to Salien with tears in his eyes and outstretched arms as he gasped, “Salien! You’re back!”

The elevator descended for several minutes while the trio passed the time in silence. Barkstripe quietly mulled past events over in his mind while Zeke shifted uncomfortably, still full of questions but unable to bring himself to bring words past his throat, blocked by his building anxiety of who, or what, they are going to meet. So caught up by his discomfort, Zeke didn’t notice Delairyus had shifted herself closer to him until he felt her tail slowly brush its way down his back. Sending chills down his spine, Zeke didn’t move, only using his eyes to look, and out of the corner of his vision he could see Delairyus’s amused lavender eyes watching him.

 

There was a small vibration in the air that brought the trio’s attention away from their own thoughts and to the present moment. Moments later, the elevator stopped and everything felt still around them. Then there was a small ‘Ding!’, signaling that they has reached their destination. A door opened in front of them to a fire lit room before them, and the group walked into it in single file with Delairyus leading the way. Barkstripe and Zeke looked around to take in their surroundings, to their right was an unadorned wall with a single, plain wooden door. In front of them was several wooden shelves with books of various sizes lining them. To their left was the fireplace with four chairs around it, three of them were high-backed, single cushion wooden chairs that faced one large, red cushioned chair with a back rest so high that whoever sat in it would be unseen from behind. The room itself was spacious, though other than the few things Barkstripe and Zeke saw, there was nothing else in it. Upon further examination, they realize the whole room was a hollowed out section of the tree they entered.

 

Delairyus walked over to the fireplace and wordlessly sat herself in a chair to the left of the larger one. She gave no indication on whether or not to join her, leaving the other two feeling confused until they heard a soft, refined and welcoming voice from behind the center chair, “Come, sit down you two, we have much to discuss.”

 

Sharing a glance, Barkstripe and Zeke cautiously made their way over to the fireplace. When they turned to see the owner of the welcoming voice, Barkstripe curtly bowed slightly, speechless as Zeke’s jaw dropped in awe. In the large red chair before them sat a lithe, masculine billy goat Anthro with one leg crossed over the other while his left hand delicately held a plain white cup of hot liquid. The billy goat had two foot long horns that made half-moon shapes with their points facing opposite of each other. His eyes were golden with a horizontal line for pupils, his entire coat of fur was pure white, his nose was a rosy pink color and his upper half was clothed in a blue blazer jacket with a black bow tie at his neck. The billy goat’s beard hung down several inches from his chin, though it moved on its own by an unseen wind.

 

Gesturing with his free hand, the billy goat cordially spoke to Barkstripe and Zeke, “Please, sit you two. I recommend getting comfortable for the upcoming story time we are about to have.”

 

There was a humorous glint in the billy goats eyes that made Zeke wonder what the billy goat meant. Barkstripe and Zeke sat down, shifting about slightly until finding the sweet spot for their rumps to be comfortable. Though Barkstripe showed no sign of forthcoming questions, Zeke felt his own curiosity stacking on top of his growing discomfort, ready to burst forth in an onslaught of questions. As Zeke was about to say something, the billy goat motioned with his free hand to remain silent as he sipped on his hot drink. Doing so seemed to remind the billy goat of something as he made an ‘Ah!’ sound with a mouthful of liquid. After taking a moment to swallow, the billy goat offered to the three of them, “Care for some tea? It will help clear your heads, I guaruntee it.”

 

Without waiting for an answer, the billy goat snapped his fingers and a white cup appeared in the other three’s hands, full of hot tea. Delairyus sniffed it several times before taking a few licks of tea. Barkstripe held his stoic gaze on the billy goat as he simply held his cup of tea. Zeke blew on it several times before taking a sip of his tea. Much to his surprise, a warm feeling grew inside of him from his belly, pushing away any remotely negative feeling that Zeke had at the moment. With renewed vigor, Zeke looked over to see Delairyus had a genuine smile growing on her face and turned his gaze to Barkstripe, who still kept his piercing gaze on the billy goat. Instead of thinking on what was troubling Barkstripe, Zeke then looked to the billy goat and was cut off by their host before he could begin to get the first words of his questions out, “The tea in question is made from a special root not found in the realm of humans. It is called Aether root, and is sought after for its restorative properties.”

 

The billy goat sipped on his tea before continuing, “I simply enjoy its flavor.” His attention went from Barkstripe to Zeke, “My name is Erikalika, and I had Delairyus here look for you two. When I saw what King Dekarius was planning on after sending the formerly three of you out here, I took it upon myself to extend an invitation.”

 

Still keeping his gaze on Zeke, Erikalika spoke to Barkstripe, “If you intend to burn holes through my head with your eyes, then I suggest you do so after drinking some of my tea. You might find that you can think more clearly and redirect your questions on trust elsewhere.”

 

Though Delairyus seemed to be looking at a far away place, her ears twitched with anticipation of what Barkstripe might do in response. Ever so slowly, Barkstripe lifted his cup of tea, blew on it for good measure, and took a small sip. Within moments an energetic glow appeared in Barkstripe’s eyes as his face softened and his gaze went downward. Zeke cocked his head to one side, unsure of what to make of what was transpiring before him.

 

With a satisfactory nod, Erikalika asked Zeke, “What would you like to ask me Zeke? I can see those questions are storming around your mind something fierce.”

 

Nodding with excitement, Zeke let loose his questions like a shotgun blast, “How do you know me? How was Stormhaven made? What does a Dragon of Stormhaven do? Do you know how to get Salien back? What is Narroth’s purpose? Why does he want me so badly? Why does Yazmak want the technology here in Stormhaven? What the heck is even going on?! Please! Tell me all that you know-”

 

Erikalika held up a hand as he chuckled, his eyes were lit up with a similar excitement in response to Zeke’s curiosity. So impatient for an answer was Zeke that he didn’t notice Delairyus glowering at him, though Barkstripe seemed rather pleased by Zeke’s hastiness.

 

Taking several moments to compose himself, Erikalika took a patient breath before responding, his tone methodical tone spoke of how he’s been down this avenue before, “I shall answer your questions one by one Zeke, first off, your question of how do I know you? Well, I must ask, are you aware of what the Dragons of Stormhaven are? To clarify, do you know where it is we come from?”

 

This time Barkstripe finally spoke matter-of-factly, “You and five others are from the Council in the realm of spirits. Yazmak shed light on that fact for us.”
Curtly nodding his acknowledgement, Erikalika continued, “Yes, we are the members of the Council. Then to elaborate, the Council gathered to vote on the decision to gather up all of the Anthros on Earth and leave. After having voted on the decision, the Council made their way to the realm of humans with our memories intact. Because of our knowledge of beyond the Veil, when all of the Anthros left Earth on our Ark, it allowed us to create Stormhaven.”

 

Taking a moment to sip his tea, Erikalika looked around to see that the odd trio was listening very intently. Amused by the faces around him, Erikalika smiled, “I’m rather surprised that neither Barkstripe or Delairyus here know about Stormhaven’s origins. This will be intriguing indeed.” Clearing his throat, Erikalika continued, “So, for how Stormhaven was made, it will take some faith on the three of you on whether or not you believe this. In order to create this planet, the Council opened a portal in the Veil, not just to the realm of spirits mind you, but to all five of the realms beyond the Veil simultaneously. In order to do this, each member of the Council had to connect their corresponding realm to the same portal, as for the names of each realm, we kept it simple for ourselves and kept their already existing names, thus forming each Sector as they are now called. Using the energies, from each realm as well as the materials from the Ark itself, the Council was able to form the outer shell of Stormhaven that now acts as an enclosure to the entire planet. At the very center is Tonovin, the land of Overseers as they are called, who monitor the unstable energies that allow each realm to exist in one space, albeit separately with the help of each Council member who are now a Dragon of Stormhaven respectively.”

 

Taking in the new information, Delairyus thoughtfully twitched her ears as her tail slowly wagged up and down. Barkstripe rubbed his chin with his free hand while taking small sips of tea while Zeke remained as excited as ever, now curious about the particulars about the process. Without looking at any of them, Erikalika responded to Zeke’s joyous aura, “No need to go over the details Zeke. For now, let us continue on with what has been laid on the table already, so to speak. You want to know what a Dragon of Stormhaven does? Well, each one has their own particular way of doing things, but in a general sense, each one of us watches over our own realm, policing it as you could say, should there be any activity from Narroth and his crew. In my case, I send Delairyus here out as a messenger to any Kingdom that is in danger and she in turn helps our denizens fend off said danger. Save for the children on this planet, not a single Anthro here on Stormhaven isn’t familiar with battle, due to the War that broke out on Earth. This in turn helps everyone live in relative solidarity and peace is a well known feeling. Of course, there are the odd individuals who stir up trouble but that is to be expected.”

 

With this Erikalika was about to take another sip of his tea, only to find it empty and he made a huff of irritation before snapping his fingers and making fresh hot tea appear in his cup once more. Once again Erikalika answered Zeke’s eagerness without hearing the question, “I can do things, like make this tea appear, because of my position here in Terragleam. One of the few benefits of being me you could say.”

 

Curling up in her chair, Delairyus drifted away into a cat nap, rather bored with the lengthy discussion. Barkstripe on the other hand leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees while still holding his cup of tea, and took a verbal stab of his own as he repeated a question of Zeke’s, “Can you bring Salien back from wherever she is?”

 

This question also had Zeke sitting on the edge of his seat, his interest now turning grim for fear of what he may hear. Sensing this, Erikalika added a consoling tone to his response, “Fret not, I can not only guide her here, I can make a body for her as well. This stems from the fact that as a Dragon of Stormhaven, there are times when a fellow Anthro feels out of place in the realm that they inhabit,” His voice turned sour, “Which was quite common in the beginning, no thanks to your Siphon technology Zeke.”

 

This jab caught Zeke off guard and he recoiled by sitting up in his seat with shock. The implications of Erikalika’s words crashed down on Zeke as he now tried to speculate on the unseen consequences of his past experiments. As quickly as his dark mood appeared, it was wiped away with an apologetic one, “Forgive me, you were not aware of what your project was doing to the spirits beyond the Veil and I should not hold that against you. However, it still caused a bit of turmoil here on Stormhaven as plenty of Anthros here were out of place, and thus needed someone to help guide them to where they belong. Which, technically speaking, Delairyus here is one such soul, but her help is nonetheless crucial to the safety of our people.”

 

As her way of showing that she was still listening, Delairyus flicked her tail in acknowledgement. Zeke still struggled with the guilt that stormed in him from his own ignorance, silently berating himself. Concern creased its way on Barkstripe’s face as he saw his friend’s internal struggle as he soothingly said, “Don’t beat yourself up Zeke. There was no way you could know for certain what was happening during your Reishigi Siphon experiments.”

 

This did little to mitigate Zeke’s self-destructive thoughts as he rubbed his forehead with his free hand. Erikalika chimed in agreement, “Your friend is right Zeke. Without having prior knowledge of what lies beyond the Veil, your research would not have been able to extend past what you had achieved. There is indeed a certain nobility to what you accomplished that cannot be ignored.”

 

Sighing in resignation, Zeke only said, “I guess you’re right.”

 

Unsure of what to do, Barkstripe looked to Erikalika, motioning with his hand for Erikalika to continue, “You were saying how you could guide Salien back. Where is she now?”

 

After enjoying another sip of tea, Erikalika raised his eyebrows momentarily, “Ah, right. As I was saying before, each soul that resides here in Stormhaven has a particular place of origin. When Salien was removed from her manufacture form, her spirit was taken into the energies that hold each realm in place, a limbo if you will, before journeying to a realm you and Delairyus are familiar with, Tivolon.”

 

Hearing this brought Zeke out of his own thoughts, the eagerness to learn now returned to his face, “What happened to Salien when she got there to Tivolon? Did she have a body ready for her?”

 

Raising a finger, Erikalika replied, “That is a good question indeed. As to what form Salien took when she arrived in Tivolon is difficult to ascertain, due to the fact that when a roaming soul enters a new realm, they take a form most akin to who they are. She could be anywhere from a sentient fighting robot to a human such as yourself Zeke. Though she would be as tangible as any of us here in this room, her form would have a certain fragility from her lack of a body to house herself in. Much like your armor Zeke, a body acts as an extension to the soul living within it. Thus, if Salien were to engage in combat for instance, any damage she suffers could be permanent. This, along with a garden variety of reasons, is why having a body at all is so important for a soul. Which is why when she does arrive here in Terragleam, I will have a new body prepared for her so that such risks will not exist.”

 

This information brought a newfound awe to Barkstripe and Zeke, sharing a glance with each other before turning their attention back to Erikalika, their silence seemed to speak volumes to him and Erikalika calmly sipped on his tea. Seeming satisfied with his own discoveries, Erikalika pressed on, “Now then, onto your next question of what Narroth’s purpose is? That is a difficult question. Though he had a seat on the Council, Narroth’s intentions would clearly differ from the rest. Some would say it is due to him being a demon by nature, though what defines a demon is truly based on an individual’s interpretation. Never the less, Narroth viewed humanity as a collective of greedy souls and voiced his rather colorful opinions quite often. That being said, I believe that Narroth intends to claim the human realm for his own, and by extension, Stormhaven, as he would percieve this planet to be a result of humans. Beyond that, our knowledge of Narroth is little, ever since he left the realm of spirits to chase after Yazmak.”

 

Barkstripe gulped the rest of his tea before bringing his cup down to rest on one of his legs while he crossed the other over his knee. Thoughtfully rubbing his chin, Barkstripe asked, “Why would Narroth wait until Yazmak left to enter the realm of humans? He had access of his own before then, and if he detests humanity so much already, why wait?”
Zeke grunted in agreement as he sipped more of his tea as well, “You got a point there Barkstripe. Something must have occurred when Yazmak left that made Narroth want to follow suit. Any ideas Erikalika?”

 

Closing his eyes, Erikalika frowned, “In all of my knowledge, I still cannot say for certain. The Council had to continue to oversee the realm of spirits as Narroth’s minions began to wreak havoc upon his departure. We were unable to conduct a thorough investigation of our own. Which is why we had you, Barkstripe, go in our stead to find out more. However, based on your reaction, I would say that any information you gleaned was lost in your crossing to the human realm.”

 

Tension grew in the air as the three of them were lost to their own speculations. After several minutes of quiet, Erikalika cleared his throat, which snapped Barkstripe and Zeke out of their musings, “Your next question Zeke, I believe was why Narroth wants you specifically, yes?”

 

Zeke nodded several times as he waited for the answer. Erikalika snapped his fingers and made everyone’s cup of tea disappear as he leaned forward, “That is also a challenging question. To put it simply Zeke, your crossing into the human realm was no simple feat. Typically it requires a great amount of energy to do, and yet, you did so with only the smallest amount of guidance from Narroth. As an heir to a seat on the Council, this meant that you are capable of a great many things that would normally require the help of others to accomplish. That fact alone would make others envy you, even if you had no knowledge of it yourself. To elaborate on this, imagine what Barkstripe and yourself were going to do upon your arrival in the Forest of Yggdrasil. Putting that much energy into an entire forest would take a great amount of time for just two individuals, and yet, you alone Zeke, brought life back to it. Anyone else attempting to do that would have given every last ounce of their soul to the task and still would have not achieved what you did. Now in the context of the realm of spirits, such energy would bring life to most everyone in that particular realm, thus keeping the balance of energy between both realms of spirits and humans.”

 

Instead of taking time to digest this information, Zeke asked, “If someone like myself could keep balance, why is it then that Narroth didn’t try to throw things out of balance on his own? Or even with the help of his minions?”

 

Resting his chin on his hands with crossed fingers and elbows on his knees, Erikalika speculated, “Because there is the Council. Not just anyone could be a member you see, an individual had to meet a set of requirements, and one of them is to have the sufficient energy to maintain the balance of the Veil. You must wonder, ‘Why have the Veil in the first place?’ and answer to you is, because our lives were unable to coexist with humans. In a time long forgotten by humanity, spirits did live side-by-side with humans, however, as I stated before, without a body like a human’s, a spirit can be very fragile. This was discovered by some humans and we were hunted. Though we fought back, in the end we had to divide our worlds. In retrospect, we repeated our actions with the Anthropomorphics. History has a strange way of coming full circle.”
In disbelief, Zeke shook his head, “I’m not sure I understand. If Narroth is aware of this, does he think of himself as an avenger of some kind against humanity? And besides Narroth, what does Yazmak want with the technology here? Is he planning on recreating the Sectors made here on Stormhaven and implementing them on Earth? But then, how would that put a stop to Narroth?”

 

Barkstripe spoke up, evenly stating, “Everyone’s intentions aside, Narroth needs to be stopped. Clearly his influence should not be allowed to spread, as evidenced by what happened to this Forest of Yggdrasil.”

 

Erikalika and Zeke looked a Barkstripe, nodding their agreement to Barkstripe’s words. Erikalika turned his attention to Zeke, “There was your last question, as to what is going on in general here on Stormhaven I assume?” Zeke looked back at Erikalika, grim determination tightened his expression as he slowly blinked to show that he was listening. Erikalika carried on, “In short, all over Stormhaven there has been very few reports of any activity from Narroth specifically. I don’t know what the state of Earth is now, but I would guess that your presence here means that matters have only worsened. Other than that, I cannot shed any light on Narroth or Yazmak for you. I do hope that my information thus far has been helpful.”

 

Standing up now, Barkstripe and Zeke bowed slightly as the former spoke, giving thanks, “Yes, you have been an immense help. But we do need to report back to King Dekarius and tell him of what we learned.”

 

Politely smiling, Erikalika stood up as well, revealing that he stands a foot taller than Barkstripe and Zeke, he asked, “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”

 

They looked to Delairyus, who still had her eyes closed as she lazily spoke, “I’m still here. Just had to rest my eyes for awhile.”

 

Looking back to Erikalika he tsked, “Not just her, I mean Salien. Your goal was to have her rejoin you, correct?”

 

There was a ‘Ding!’ at the elevator, bringing Barkstripe and Zeke’s attention to behind Erikalika. Their jaws dropped in joy and surprise as they laid their eyes on who it was coming out of the elevator,

 

It was Salien.

As the two friends sat there digesting what they had just learned, Barkstripe chuckled to himself. This raised an eyebrow from Zeke, “What is it?”
Barkstripe shook his head, his focus clearly in the past, “I’m just thinking of when you and I first met in the human realm. Waking up on that strange operating table with knowledge of our lives before that very moment. I was so sure that everything would make sense in it’s own time while you ran me through various tests.” Shaking his head again Barkstripe tsked, “Instead, Yazmak throws the cover off of what we thought we knew and changes everything with just a single story. It’s unbelievable.”
Zeke awkwardly smiled back, still trying to fit the pieces together, “Maybe that’s just more than human nature, to take our inkling of knowledge and play with a wild fire.”
This metaphor only made Barkstripe heartily laugh, “Indeed! And yet here we are, still taken aback by these revelations. One has to wonder what else is in store for us as we continue on in our mission.”
Just the mention of the word mission reminded Zeke of his experience with the black serpent, sending a chill down his spine. Barkstripe’s laughter died down as he took notice of Zeke’s discomfort and with a consoling tone he asked, “What’s on your mind Zeke?”
Now it was Zeke’s turn to look beyond their present moment, his mind already reliving the all too recent events. His voice dripped with fear, “The black serpent. The one that was in the tree.”
Confusion scrunched Barkstripe’s face as he carefully asked, “In the tree? There wasn’t supposed to be anything like that when you went in. What happened while you were in there?”
To remind himself of how he overcame his oppressor, Zeke conjured up his prismatic claymore, holding it aloft to show Barkstripe. His friend’s eyes widened at the sight as his jaw dropped, “I’ve heard the odd tale about a few Anthros here in Stormhaven that could harness their very Mana into a blade like that.” He crawled on all fours over to Zeke to examine it more closely, “I’ve never seen this in all of my time here on Stormhaven.”
This brought about Zeke’s curiosity, “What is so significant about it exactly?”
Barkstripe reached out to touch the strange blade but thought better of it as he replied, “From what I heard it is said to be able to cut the very essence of a being, inflicting injuries beyond any kind of healing. If someone were to be struck by this, there would be no returning from it.” He locked eyes with Zeke to drive his point home, “Whoever is slain by this, would cease to exist in every form.”

Zeke felt a newfound respect for the very weapon that he so carelessly tried to be rid of during his time in the void. He dispelled the phantom claymore as Barkstripe added, “There is a flip side that I should mention about your newfound weapon. Should it ever be broken by another one of its kind, that will be the equivalent to the wielder’s soul being destroyed.”
With a single gulp of reverence, Zeke almost mumbled to himself, “And to think that I tried to get rid of it. I will do all I can to make sure I never have to use that blade.”
A semi-comforting pat on the shoulder from Barkstripe brought a hint of a smile to Zeke’s face. They shared a look with each other, as Barkstripe sat back down on his rump, pulling his tail over his lap as he did so. Then he ventured to ask again, “So are you going to tell me what happened?”
Turning to face Barkstripe, Zeke made sure he was comfortable as he brought up his knees to rest his arms on them, “I went into the trance like you instructed me before, but when I found my light, there was a dark tunnel as well. I assumed that’s how you reached out with your Reishigi to bring proper life back to the tree you had your focus on.”
Zeke paused a moment to see if Barkstripe would add any commentary but was only met with a shaking head and a wave of his hand, urging Zeke to continue. Clearing his throat, Zeke carried on, “So with my inner light, I trekked through this tunnel and I came upon a huge flaming sphere. At first nothing happen when I got there, but as I reached out to touch it, the sphere came to life and spoke to me.”
There was an obvious effort in Barkstripe’s face that he was holding back a large number of things he wanted to say. And yet he kept motioning for Zeke to continue with his story, and so Zeke did just that, “After a short exchange of words, a giant black serpent with those red eyes came out of the flaming sphere. I couldn’t see very much, even with my light, and it got worse as the serpent toyed with me.”
Putting a hand on his head, Zeke’s face was pinched in pain as he felt himself being brought back to that moment. Barkstripe comforted Zeke, his voice carrying a soothing tone that was very unlike him, “You’re alright Zeke. I’m still here with you. You can push through this.”
Taking several deep breaths, Zeke found his courage as he continued, “It felt as if ages had passed. I had tried to call for help, I even called for my S.W.O.R.D armor but nothing worked.”
There was a moment of silence.
Zeke seemed far away as he uttered, “Then I conjured a dagger from what remained of my light. In that moment I fought back, though it was short-lived as the serpent grabbed my arm and threw me about before swallowing me whole. It all happened so fast that I didn’t know where I was anymore. All I saw was complete darkness, a living void where nothing else seemed to exist.”
It was at this time that Zeke felt his determination returning, his voice carried that strength when his eyes locked with Barkstripe’s, “With no concept of time, I contemplated on what I knew at the time. I thought of our meeting for the first time, and of how you always held that air of confidence about you. It was then that I saw that you always held back what you really knew, about Stormhaven, your knowledge of our past, and that you were even holding back when that Wyvern and Violet attacked us.”
Barkstripe looked down from the pang of guilt that now soaked his heart, “Yes, I was withholding a lot from you and Salien. I have no excuse for that. I’m truly sorry.”
Strangely, Zeke felt no hatred or pity towards Barkstripe. In that moment, Zeke was the one who reassured Barkstripe, “The truth is out now, and we have to work together to get Salien back. You and I need each other more than ever now.”
Unable to hold back any longer, Barkstripe cried as he lunged at Zeke, embracing him with all of the compassion he could muster. Though Zeke felt himself being crushed through his armor, he put hugged Barkstripe back, gently patting his back. Moments later however Zeke made a gasp for air as Barkstripe squeezed harder. Hearing his need for air, Barkstripe immediately let go, an embarrassed grin spread on his face, “Sorry about that. I forget my own strength sometimes.”
Smiling back, Zeke gave a thumbs up in a feeble attempt to reassure his friend. After taking a short breather, Zeke took a final deep breath, exhaling his readiness to continue, “So, after putting those pieces together, all that came to mind then was how I needed to bring back Salien. With that newfound courage, I was able to turn what was only a prism dagger, into dirk, then finally into a claymore. After that, I cut my way out of the void, which was still the belly of the serpent, as I learned, due to the fact that it was cut in half upon me breaking free. Then I scared it off before using this mystical blade to return the tree to its former shape. It was only after that I heard you calling to me and suddenly I was back in my own body again and the whole forest was back to normal.”
Nodding his understanding, Barkstripe thoughtfully rubbed his chin as he mumbled, “So that must be why so many of those Husks showed up and wanted to attack you.”

Zeke raised his eyebrows, unsure if he heard correctly and simply asked, “What was that?”
Before Barkstripe could answer a silky yet stern voice came from above them, “Nothing to worry yourself over Zeke.”
Caught unaware, Zeke jumped to his feet and looked around, “Who was are you? How do you know my name?”
Barkstripe only groaned and rolled his eyes as he ran a hand down his face. Though once again, before he could get a word in the owner of the mysterious voice came down from a tree near them and said, “Delairyus is what they call me.”
In his moment of awe, Zeke beheld Delairyus in his gaze. Delairyus was a Calico cat Anthro, her fur was mostly black with splotches of orange all across her body. One such splotch rested on her right eye, drawing Zeke’s focus to her lavender eyes with her short, spiky turquoise hair hung just within reach of her eyes. Though she had a rounded face, her stoic expression held no hint of compassion. Delairyus stood with one clawed hand on her hip as her tail idly swished to and fro behind her. Her height, Zeke estimated to be about four feet and five inches high, her figure was stout, yet curvy. A large patch of white fur covered her front side, matching her clawed hands and feet. Delairyus wore no clothing to speak of and carried no visible weapons, but Zeke held no doubt about her ability to defend herself as he felt an intimidating aura exude from Delairyus.
Delairyus kept her gaze on Zeke as she acknowledged Barkstripe with a simple, “Hello there Meathead.”
This of course frustrated Barkstripe to no end as he clenched his fists and teeth, bringing his emerald flame to bare in his eyes as he growled, “That’s it.” And disappeared in a gray blur, rushing at Delairyus.
Without budging an inch, Delairyus’s tail flicked behind her, wrapping around Barkstripe’s snout before throwing him to the ground and then into the tree behind her. Delairyus calmly approached Zeke, who now had his Ion Buster at the ready and pointed at her face. Still maintaing eye contact with Zeke, Delairyus grabbed Zeke’s Buster arm and with a simple push of a claw on her index finger she deactivated it. A humorous smile crept its way on Delairyus’s face though her tone still had an icy bite to it, “I wouldn’t point that at me if I were you.”
Zeke’s body went slack as he felt his face heat up as he blushed, his eyes struggling to stay locked with Delairyus’s as he looked for the right words to comment on her exposed body, “You-you’re, you k-know-”
Delairyus slowly ran her claw up and down Zeke’s arm, clearly enjoying Zeke’s discomfort, “I know, I’m not wearing clothes like you’re used to. But you’ll adjust with a little bit of time.”
Taking several step back, Zeke was having flashbacks of his encounter with Violet as he continued to stutter, “T-that m-m-may be. But-but, I-I’m not ok-kay with th-this.”
Barkstripe could be heard grunting as he got back to his feet, calling after Delairyus, “Leave him alone Delirious. He’s been through hell recently.”
Delairyus sharply retorted while flicking her tail in Barkstripe’s direction, “No thanks to you buffoon. You’re lucky that Zeke here even managed to free himself.”
Though Barkstripe lowered his glare, he still audibly expressed his frustration by hitting the tree he was next to. Zeke took another step back, his eyes now wide with fear as his voice started to break, “P-please do-don’t hurt me.”
He even tried to conjure his prismatic claymore but to no avail this time due to his turbulent emotions and thoughts. This only served to petrify Zeke as his whole body shivered from the now overwhelming feeling. Delairyus closed her eyes for a moment, composing herself for a moment before opening them, revealing a more reassuring glimmer in her eyes. Though Zeke felt his fear fade away partially, he didn’t dare move closer but neither did Delairyus as she carried a matching tone of reassurance in her voice, “I won’t hurt you Zeke. Violet isn’t here to harm you anymore.”
Barkstripe asked the question on Zeke’s mind, “How do you know about that?”
Still carefully watching Zeke, Delairyus calmly stated, “I’ve been watching you for sometime now. After sensing so much energy in one place I came to see what it was and discovered the three of you fighting that strange purple creature. I didn’t join in because I had yet to determine what you were up to.”
Ignoring Barkstripe’s grumblings following Delairyus’s response, Zeke felt more at ease, his eyes no longer threatened to burst from his head as he breathed a sigh of relief. After regaining some of his composure, Zeke asked the next question that he could think of, “Then why are you here Delairyus?”
As if on cue, Delairyus’s placid expression returned, “To take you to Terragleam’s sacred tree Yggdrasil,” Spreading her arms out to indicate their surroundings, “Which lucky for you two is in this very forest that you saved.”
Instead of feeling awe upon hearing Delairyus’s words, Zeke held one arm across his chest as his other hand thoughtfully held his chin, mumbling half to himself, “Why didn’t King Dekarius mention this before?”
Delairyus raised an eyebrow before countering, “Would you trust someone you just met with vital information?”
This put Zeke on the defensive as he took a ready stance, “Then why should we trust you?”
Nonchalantly shrugging, Delairyus folded her arms as she shifted her weight to one foot, “That’s for you to decide. Though I would take into consideration the fact that I haven’t killed either of you.” She began to walk past Zeke and into the surrounding forest, “Regardless of what you two think, I’m going to see the Dragon here. You can follow me at your own risk.”
Barkstripe drew close to Zeke as they watched Delairyus stoll away from them. Zeke looked to Barkstripe with a puzzled expression, “You know her better than I, should we follow her?”
Still internally licking the wounds on his ego, Barkstripe didn’t meet Zeke’s eyes as he softly ranted to himself. Without giving a verbal answer, Barkstripe followed after Delairyus with Zeke in tow. His companion still looked troubled by the turn of events and asked the inevitable question, “How do you two know each other? From what I see you two are nearly enemies.”
This question seemed to momentarily bring Barkstripe back to the present as he glanced at Zeke to see the genuine concern for his well-being. Upon seeing this, Barkstripe felt some his initial bluster fade and turned his attention to the path ahead, “Don’t worry Zeke. Delairyus and I may not get along very well but in the end we fight for the same thing. We met at a bar once in the Sector Tivolon.” He paused a moment and Zeke could see that Barkstripe was feeling embarrassed but patiently waited for him to continue as Barkstripe cleared his throat, “I, uh, thought myself to be confident and, uh, I tried to make a move on her.”
Zeke seemed to feel Barkstripe’s discomfort as his face also went flush from his own lusty thoughts upon seeing Delairyus up close. This time, Zeke nervously asked, “So then, w-what happened?”
Feeling his own awkwardness growing, Barkstripe began to scratch his head, “Well, to give you some background on this, Delairyus is a well-known Mech Pilot in Tivolon. She was always fierce in battle and has a knack for finding a weakness to expose on and off the battlefield. So naturally, this made others around her, male or female and people like myself, want to find a weakness of hers. Of course, the typical way of thinking was that it would involve something in the way of romance.”
Without hesitation Zeke quickly added, “So you tried to hit on her and she rejected you?”
Taken aback by Zeke’s words, Barkstripe shyly chuckled, “Yeah, but, it wasn’t just the one time though. I, well, you see, attempted this on a multitude of occasions since I wanted to show I’m more stubborn than the average Anthro out there and well, it sorta, backfired on me.”
In a moment of awe, Zeke slowly shook his head as he imagined Barkstripe getting taken down by Delairyus over and over again. It made him wonder how Delairyus could so easily overwhelm Barkstripe, which then led him to a follow up question, “So then, what is a Mech Pilot? Does their training involve techniques like subterfuge?”
With a raised finger, Barkstripe thought carefully on it before answering, “A Mech Pilot is someone who does just that, but the Mechs themselves are called Vauntus. As for how someone pilots them, they use a technology similar to your Reishigi Siphon called the Vauntus Core, that transfer’s your spirit to the core of your Vauntus. They do it this way to insure the pilot’s body isn’t destroyed along with their Vauntus.”
This raised a question for Zeke as he interrupted Barkstripe, “Then are there any deaths in this case? Why fight if everyone can just keep coming back?”
Momentarily caught off guard Barkstripe didn’t answer right away as he collected his thoughts before continuing, “Well, there are definitely Anthros that don’t make it back. You’re familiar with the Soul Shatter principal right?”
Zeke nodded, “Yes, if someone’s soul comes under too much strain from use it will fall apart and can never be found again. That’s why they implement limiters on the Reishigi Siphon and S.W.O.R.D armor so nobody would kill themselves from pushing too hard.”
Barkstripe pointed at Zeke as he said, “Exactly, normally there would be limiters in place for that very reason. But in the case of Tivolon, the Anthros there don’t believe in that. Instead, they encourage everyone to fight to their very last, in every sense of the word.” A dark look passed over Barkstripe’s face, “And if you don’t, then there will be someone who will do it for you. Mercy is not something that is looked upon kindly in Tivolon.”
This made Zeke look down with a saddened expression, “That’s horrible. It’s no wonder that Delairyus is so intimidating.”
Shrugging, Barkstripe went back to his explanation, “Yes, but it is not something I would think upon too much. Now for your other question about subterfuge, in certain schools, yes, there are some individuals who learn more about how to take down your enemies with more than just your fighting abillity. In the case of Mech Pilots, the typical training that everyone goes through is more physically based, for instance, working on your body’s ability to endure extreme amounts of strain, whether through exhaustion or other outside sources like the weather. But in Delairyus’s case, I believe the part of her strength comes from the kind of Anthro she is. Not even from the fact that she is a Feline Anthro, as you might expect, but from how intelligent she is all around, after all her mind is as sharp as any weapon that someone can conjure with their soul.”
Zeke pondered on this carefully, musing out loud, “So then, Delairyus values more than just physical prowess. It would explain why she was able to so easily deactivate my buster, even without having any sort of prior knowledge of it. This makes her dangerous indeed.”
Hearing Zeke’s words made Barkstripe ponder on it as well, “Dangerous is an understatement. But she is an invaluable ally and we should accept what help we can get from her.”
Delairyus’s voice brought the two companions out of their thoughts, “I was wondering when the two of you would get here. Did you need to have some time to think it over?”
As if a switch had been flipped, Barkstripe went from thoughtful to grumpy in a flash. Zeke once again felt his stomach doing somersaults from the creepy uneasiness that was welling up inside of him once again. He remained silent as words now failed to come forth from him, while Barkstripe glared at Delairyus, “We were going over some background about you.”
Cocking her head to one side, Delairyus kept her gaze on Zeke as her voice carried mock concern, “Without giving me the chance to do it myself? That’s no fun.” A devious glimmer appeared in her eyes, “Maybe I’ll fill in the blanks myself in the future.”
Then she turned around to face a tree in front of them. Walking up to it she put her hand on the tree and a door opened up. Without looking back she walked into it, using her tail to beckon for them to follow. Sharing a glance, Barkstripe and Zeke hesitated a moment before following Delairyus into the tree.
As they walked through the opening, Barkstripe and Zeke looked around to see that they were in a small hollowed out room in the tree. A moment later the door closed behind them, leaving them in complete darkness, except for Delairyus’s lavender eyes. This only served to make Zeke feel even more uncomfortable as he folded his arms over his chest and stood as close to Barkstripe as he could. Though he couldn’t see it, Zeke could feel Delairyus’s enjoyment at sensing his discomfort.
Suddenly, the ground vibrated and they were going down. It was then that it occurred to Zeke that they were in an elevator. No light passed by them as they descended, only the sinking sensation of their movement. In an effort to calm himself, Zeke weakly asked, “Where are we going?”
A hint of irritation was in Delairyus’s voice as she replied, “To see the Dragon of Stormhaven, Erikalika.”