Serena couldn’t help but grow more and more anxious as Atlantis drew nearer. It was finally time for them to set foot on the cursed island. For the first time in 15,000 years, someone would walk on Atlantis. The jungle covering it seemed to get greener and greener with each passing second, with the waves lazily lapping up and down the white sand.
From the north, east, and west, three expedition teams would explore the island in pursuit of the ruins of a destroyed city. Evidence suggested it was located somewhere near the center of the island, but there was no telling how much Atlantis had changed in the 15,000 years it had been secluded from the rest of Poseidos. The entire Poseidon navy was also being stationed around Atlantis, in the unlikely case of a disaster.
Serena’s ship finally came close enough to Atlantis for the crew to take rowboats to the shore. The soft white sand tickled through Serena’s fingers as she ran a hand through it. It was very natural and smooth, having remained untouched for thousands of years. Honestly, Serena felt like she was intruding onto some private place she wasn’t supposed to be in. Atlantis looked so different from the rest of Poseidos. It lacked the grand buildings and liveliness of Ali’i and was devoid of the gently rolling plains located on ’Āina. Its jungle was so much wilder, more vivid, possibly more dangerous, and mysterious than the lush forests on Ka Ma’ukele, and it bore no resemblance to Ka Mauna whatsoever.
Being on this great island took Serena’s breath away, and she felt so small surrounded by all this natural beauty. Beside her, Mira and the soldiers looked equally stunned, drinking in their surroundings with a wondrous sparkle in their eyes. Only Kakane was lacking in enthusiasm. Given his behavior as of late, Serena was disappointed, in both herself and her friend, to find that she was expecting this. She stayed close to Kakane, in case something really did go wrong and he needed assistance. He didn’t object to her close proximity, but he was frowning.
“Okay, everyone,” Mira began gathering all of the explorers into a group, talking to them through a megaphone, “we’re on Atlantis and though it seems peaceful, do not let your guard down. We don’t know what’s here. As a reminder, our mission is to find the ruins of any former city that once existed on Atlantis. From the north side of the island, we’re heading south to the center. If we meet up with another team, we’ll compare information before going our separate ways. No matter what, we will leave the island before sunset. Understood?” Everyone nodded. “Then let’s get this show on the road.”
Leading the procession with Kakane and Serena close behind her, Mira tentatively entered the jungle. There were no natural paths, so the three of them worked together to hack away a route. Kakane’s fire magic was extremely helpful when used in small, controlled amounts to burn away the foliage. Serena could tell he was being careful, but his mind or heart didn’t seem in it. If anything, he should have been complaining about how mundane of a task it was for a king. Or so she thought. It did seem like something Kakane would do if he was acting like his usual self. Serena hoped her prayers to Mother Gaia and Creator Ouranous would be answered.
The trio, as well as the soldiers tidying up after them, had barely made a dent in the jungle when a piercing shriek tore through the air. It sounded like nails being dragged down a glass pane while it was shattering at the same time. The cry seemed to vibrate from within itself, throaty and loud. Serena flinched and covered her ears. Next to her, Kakane was hissing. When Serena begrudgingly reopened her eyes, what was before her was a giant creature that blocked out the sky.
“Oh, no, it’s a roc!”
“Uh, Mira, that’s not a rock. That is most definitely a bird.”
“No, a roc! An ancient, prehistoric bird that was prized for its delicious eggs and colorful feathers! But… I never read anything about them getting this monstrously large, though!” The roc let out another shrill cry.
Its head was mostly made up of a sharp, pointed beak, which was halfway open. Inside its mouth, devoid of all moisture, a tongue lolled about. The roc was clearly more monster than bird, as it had four eyes instead of the typical two. The telltale sign and trait of any monster were its eyes, as all monsters had at least three eyes. On either side of the roc’s beak were two tiny, beady black eyes lined in a row.
The roc had a small body mostly composed of its wings, which, compared to the rest of its body, seemed awfully large. But there was no denying that its feathers were gorgeous. Colored bright yellow, sky blue, and fire red, they were fine and lustrous with a natural oily sheen.
The second most eye-catching aspects about the bird were its tail and strong, clawed legs. The spindly limbs were covered in scales and ended in razor-sharp black talons with a wicked sheen. The roc’s tail was long like a rat’s but ended in large, colorful feathers. Though the bird had an ugly face and a disproportionate body, the splendor of its wings and tail were enough to take Serena’s breath away. But she could only admire it for a second before the roc let out a piercing screech.
The roc’s talons began glowing bright red and Serena barely had enough time to put up a magic shield before it struck. It swooped down from its position in the sky for added momentum and power when it raked Serena’s shield in a pincer-like motion. The claws grated and slipped on the smooth surface, but the force of the attack shattered the guard immediately. Serena felt the pressure exert throughout her entire body, rattling and booming through her brain. Her arms shook and she felt woozy all of a sudden. She took a few steps back, tripping on a root and falling onto her knees.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Serena told Kakane. “Why is it attacking us?” She turned to Mira in confusion, trying to recover quickly from the roc’s assault.
“I don’t know,” Mira said, chewing her lip. “Rocs are so ancient that there’s not much information on them, and it’s very fragmented to boot. My best guess is,” Mira ducked to avoid a downstroke from the roc’s wings, which had enough power to take off a man’s head, “that without humans occupying Atlantis, rocs became the apex predator with their magic and talons. It either sees us as an easy meal, we’re intruding on its territory, or its nest is nearby!”
“An easy meal, huh?” Kakane muttered. “We’ll see who’s a roast bird after this.” He lit his hand on fire, giving him a glove made of flames that was his signature combat weapon.
“Kakane, wait! You can’t use your fire magic here!” Serena warned. “If you use any big flames, the entire forest will catch on fire and we’ll all die!”
“Tch!” His fist remained lit, but the flames didn’t grow any larger or hotter. “What do you suggest, then?”
“Where are the soldiers?” Mira asked.
“The path is too narrow!” said the guard behind Serena. “If we tried to advance, you all might get accidentally killed in the resulting confusion. Or get trampled on. And that would still probably kill you! Drat, we’re stuck!”
“Shoot! I should have been more prepared!” Mira swore. “Now everyone is going to die because of my foolishness! Oh, gods have mercy on me!”
“It’s okay,” Serena reassured her. “We can get out of this, I’m sure. No one is going to die today. I won’t let them.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, running several strategies through her head. “I have an idea.” Serena turned to the soldier. “Tell everyone to start heading back towards the beach! Spread the message any way you can! Mira and I aren’t suited for combat, so we can’t handle this. But if we head to an area with open space, then Kakane will be able to take care of it for sure!”
“Damn right,” Kakane snorted, rolling his eyes. “I was getting claustrophobic anyway. High time I let loose!” The soldier nodded and started yelling at the row of men behind him.
Slowly, the men got the news and began rushing back. Mira and Serena rotated using their defensive magic to block the roc, who continued to attack. Kakane couldn’t get close to the bird without hurting himself, so he resorted to throwing small fireballs at the roc in a feeble attempt to get its attention. It was humiliating, but he was more than equipped to dodging anything the roc threw at him. In terms of hands-on combat, there wasn’t much he could do in this situation. He sure wished the soldiers would hurry up and move their butts already.
They couldn’t afford to waste precious mana, and Mira would collapse as she did in the Bannaanka Weyn if she used her magic for too long. Serena was doing most of the heavy lifting, but the mist removal from yesterday had taken a heavy toll on her body. She had only cast a few spells yet already she was exhausted. Kakane glanced at her worriedly, but he could feel his thoughts drifting elsewhere, almost as if guided by an invisible hand against his will.
Seeing Atlantis like this, abandoned for thousands of years and overtaken by wildlife and hostile monsters, caused Kakane to wonder about his own kingdom. It was in the control of his sworn enemy, but the last time he checked, they weren’t doing anything besides boast that they had it in their possession. When he went back to his homeland, would it be like Atlantis? Overrun with flora and home to creatures he would be forced to defeat in order to settle there once again?
And if his enemies were secretly doing something to his kingdom under his nose, how much of it would be changed? Would the landscape be unrecognizable? Would it be completely industrialized? How much of his country’s natural beauty would be stripped away? If that was the case, then what was the point of trying to restore it when it was almost entirely destroyed? What good would killing Enjo Hononen do other than laying Kakane’s hatred and anger to rest?
Was Kai really right about protecting the citizens and prioritizing their well-being?
Were strength and power really not everything there was to a king?
How would he choose between killing his sworn enemy or bringing back his beloved country?
What was the point of doing either of those?
Kakane felt his foot slip on some mud and he skidded onto the ground, narrowly avoiding a dust-filled gale caused by a flap of the roc’s mighty wings. He fell into the foliage around him, instantly getting tangled in bushes and creepers. His hand had somehow gotten looped under a collection of knotted vines, trapping him in place. To make things even worse, his foot was trapped beneath a sturdy tree root that wasn’t going to budge any time soon. No matter how much Kakane struggled, he couldn’t get free. And it seemed that karma was ready to bite him back in the butt, for his fireballs from earlier had certainly caught the roc’s attention. Now it was slowly but surely advancing on him.
Frantically, Kakane tried burning the plants keeping him trapped, forest fires be damned. But there was so much water in the dirt and leaves that he couldn’t ignite. The flames were instantly put out by the dampness and all he could muster were sparks, more pathetic than the fireballs he was spewing earlier. Oh, for the love of the gods, this was so damn embarrassing! As a king, Kakane could do so much more than this! How could he let Serena see him so infuriatingly mortifying!?
Gods dammit, and after he said that he wouldn’t allow his problems to catch up to him during the expedition!
Serena and Mira were yelling something in a panic in the background, but Kakane had no time to stop and listen to what they were saying. The roc suddenly appeared over him and he gasped, holding back a scream. Screaming in fright was not the way of a king. As the roc got closer, Kakane could see that the bird’s beak was not smooth, but rather had small hook-like teeth lining the entire perimeter. The black talons adorning its feet suddenly seemed twice as deadly and sharp, ready to tear into his flesh at a moment’s notice.
The air around the roc was practically boiling and Kakane found himself sweating profusely. As a user of fire magic, he thought he was pretty resilient to hot weather but this was ridiculous! Once again, the roc’s talons began glowing a smoldering red, with steam rising off of them maliciously. The roc’s beady eyes, which were crazed and wild, focused on Kakane before it let out one of its ear-piercing shrieks.
Dammit… How could I let this happen? Dammit! I am a king! Kings don’t fail! Yet I…
The roc continued to shriek. Kakane realized, with a start, that this was it. The sudden revelation drained all color from his face and caused his limbs to go slack. Painful memories from ten long years ago flashed before his eyes, driving him to absolute terror. Right now was nothing compared to back then, and yet Kakane was twice as terrified.
Mom, Da, everyone… Cateye, Aaliyah… Serena… I’m sorry.
I’ve failed you all.
Kakane screwed his eyes closed, bracing himself for what was to come. The agonizing sensation of death was not what would truly end him. It would be the crushing defeat he faced now and the destruction of his pride, knowing that in life, he never avenged his people and failed to achieve his dreams. Those that died on that fateful day ten years ago would torment him in the afterlife, asking why. Why did you let that man take us over? How could you have let this come to pass? Why couldn’t you have laid our souls to rest?
You’re supposed to be our king!!
The answer was simple.
It was because Kakane was weak.
The ten years he spent honing his magic and strength to their limits were for nothing. In the end, he couldn’t do anything but fall and wither away. It seemed the restoration of his kingdom was never meant to come. It would never happen. His people would never again see the light of day, return to their homeland, or rejoice at his triumphant return as king. And Enjo Hononen would forever be glorified, all because Kakane failed to kill him.
Doryoku would rule forever.
No one would remember him.
No one would be left to remember him, be there to remember him. He was an insignificant king living in a vast, unforgiving world that offered no second chances.
His people would be mentioned as a race lost to time, fading away in dusty old history books.
And it was all Kakane’s fault.
He deserved to die.
He was a failure, a being doomed to nothing but shame. The souls of the dead would haunt him from his grave for forevermore.
So then why did death evade him?
Kakane’s eyes blinked half-open when something dripped onto his face. When he touched it with his free hand, it was warm and sticky. Turning his head to the side to observe his finger, he saw that it was thick and red.
Surely, it was Kakane’s, right? Or…
He glanced directly in front of him, where the roc was.
His eyes shot open and he was instantly overcome with horror. No… It couldn’t be… Suddenly, someone was screaming. Kakane found himself unsurprised that it was him. He was screaming. His voice was full of despair and pain, a culmination of every horribly twisted emotion that had ever existed in the universe. Kakane felt tears prickle at his eyes, something that had never happened for ten years.
The crystalline shards of a broken shield flew around him as Kakane watched, stupefied, as Serena’s blood spurted around him and she fell into his chest. The wounds on her torso were deep, oozing warm, thick, red blood. If not for that shield she would surely be dead. It had barely weakened the attack enough so that she could still breathe. Kakane could see marred bits of Serena’s flesh and even some of her bones, which were cracked and broken. Her breathing was labored and Kakane found himself desperately listening to every wheeze she took, for it was the only action indicating Serena was alive. With her on top of him, he could also feel the feeble beats of her heart, growing weaker and weaker with each passing second.
“Serena!? Serena!” Kakane struggled to free himself, thrashing about wildly but doing his best not to hurt her.
“Please, Kakane…” He paused. “Make it… Off Atlantis…”
“What!? But what about REAN!? Don’t you care at all about completing it!?” His voice had risen to a shrill, desperate shriek, hoarse from his screaming from earlier. Serena looked up at him and smiled. Confused and flabbergasted, Kakane looked deep into her pink eyes, searching for an answer.
Serena continued to smile serenely, even as the light was leaving her eyes and her breath was getting more and more strained. There was something calm and peaceful about the white-haired maiden, even as she was dying. Serena Bly, the sweet, sweet Serena Bly who did absolutely nothing to deserve this was dying right on top of Kakane and yet she was smiling.
“Everyone’s… lives are at stake… right now. What’s more… important, a stupid puppet… or the safety… of everyone else?” Serena closed her eyes and continued smiling.
I’m such an idiot.
Kakane cradled Serena’s head with his free arm, grinding his teeth together and cursing his own stupidity. The feeling of her blood pooling against his chest and running rivers down his body fueled his own rage; at himself. How could he let this happen to her? How could he let her beauty be tarnished like this? This was all his fault, and he knew exactly why.
Of course he could kill Enjo Hononen.
Of course he could restore Draconia.
But not as he was now.
The way he had been going would have spiraled him into despair. Just how much did Kakane owe to Serena? How much would she force him to open his eyes? Kakane didn’t know and he didn’t care. He just knew he had to save her, his loyal subject, on his pride and honor as a king, and as her important friend. It was his weakness that doomed her, but it would be his strength that saved her.
Being strong and powerful were necessary for being a king, but that wasn’t all there was to it. Kai knew that. He had told that to Kakane and yet, like the fool he was, ignored all of the obvious warnings.
“Do you know what makes a good king?”
“Strength. Complete confidence in oneself, and the power to achieve all your goals.”
“I suppose that’s one way of going about it.”
Kai and Kakane were both right. Why didn’t he see that before!? He was such an imbecile. And he was not about to let Serena die because of his own foolishness!
A king was strong, confident, and powerful. But they always needed to look at the bigger picture. What was the best way to aid their subjects? What would lead to a brighter tomorrow? How would peace for their kingdom be obtained in this era? What needed to be sacrificed for the greater good? What were the right, the best, the most peaceful decisions in delegating with other countries? There was no “correct” way to be a king, only the way that you thought was best, the way you chose and fought for yourself. That was what Kai had taught him, and as a fellow king, Kakane swore that he would more than live up to that valuable lesson.
A king’s happiness was their subjects’ happiness. Their sorrow was their subjects’ sorrow. Their rage was their subjects’ rage.
For Kakane, a true king was one of absolute power who accomplished their goals with overwhelming strength, who gained the trust of their subjects with their mighty deeds. But nothing could be done with just strength alone; that strength needed conviction to back it. What was Kakane’s conviction?
He wanted to be a true king, one that used their strength to protect their people and ensure their happiness. They might have to sacrifice something for the sake of peace, but they were the sacred blade that guarded their kingdom. With power, they would create a brighter future for the sake of tomorrow! The future would be filled with smiles, brought upon by the hard work of the kings and people that created it!
And Kakane would not let his future end, not here, not ever! He was only getting started. He was a king with a bright future to look forward to! He would create it, and it would begin with saving Serena’s life, the life of someone precious and beloved to him.