After two sleepless nights, refusing to return to the village all the while, Serena finally finished the Pure Soul Puppet Core. With Kakane’s help, she shoved the orb into REAN010’s chest and connected the power source.
“Finally, this stupid puppet is done!” Kakane relished, wiping grease off his hands. “This was such a mundane task for a king such as I. I’m free!”
“Not yet! We still have to test it out! What good is a combat puppet if it can’t even break a few boulders? Or even move?” Serena pointed out. Kakane frowned.
“Ugh, fine! But I’m leaving as soon as this petty ordeal is over with.”
“The area where I first found you should have some boulders and fallen trees we can use as testing grounds. It needs to be cleaned up anyway, because of the mudslide.”
“Let’s go then.”
REAN010 was surprisingly very light. Maybe it was the pinewood? Or the aluminum alloy? The lack of hair could have also played a part. Either way, it did not take Serena and Kakane long at all to arrive at the clearing. In fact, REAN010 was so light, it was almost concerning.
“What if it doesn’t move right? What if it doesn’t get enough power? Oh, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to getting this done correctly! It’d kill me if it didn’t work.”
“Relax, Serena.” Kakane rolled his eyes. “If anything, it means its agility will prevent anyone from even landing a hit on it.”
“If you say so.”
Serena opened REAN010’s chest compartment, connecting the final wire. This would finally activate the core by linking it to the power source. Once it was in place, the Pure Soul Puppet Core lit up in a flash of light before the compartment snapped shut. Blue threads wove in and throughout its body, slowly powering up the puppet’s sturdy limbs.
“It’s going to take a while for it to fully charge,” Serena noted.
“So we just wait? That’s so un-kingly like.” Kakane clicked his tongue. “A king doesn’t wait for anything.”
“Is that so…”
“Finally found you, you beast.”
Kakane froze and Serena blinked, watching a strange group of men dressed in black slink forward from the shadows of the trees. Their leader wore a cape lined with silver and the clink of sinister metal resounded whenever he took a step. From the depths of his hood, Serena could make out a single bright yellow eye. The men behind him all carried long lances with serrated edges covered in red. Serena gulped, realizing it was blood.
“You should have stayed in hiding,” the leader continued. “If you had just laid low for a little longer, you might have escaped our clutches. But now that we’ve found you, we’re not letting you go. Your little escapade ends here, beast prince.”
“Hmph. I take great pride in my royal lineage. Your words fall deaf upon my ears, as I know them to be false. I will never yield. You bounty hunters ought to come up with better insults,” Kakane said, taking a step back.
“Bounty hunters? Is there a price on your head? What did you do?” Serena asked.
“He didn’t do anything. He merely had the misfortune of being born into a country of mindless animals wearing the skins of humans. There’s a hefty price on his head for anyone who brings him in𑁋alive, surprisingly.” Kakane’s eye twitched. Serena glanced at him nervously.
“Mindless animals wearing the skins of humans?” Kakane’s voice had become low and vengeful. There was a sudden change in atmosphere, as his figure trembled and his teeth ground together. He placed several fingers on his scar as if to calm himself. Kakane’s red eyes were full of rage and smoke rose up from his palms in angry wisps. Furiously, he asked, “You dare insult my people in front of me?”
“Don’t deny it, beast prince,” the leader said harshly. “You may have been royalty once but now, you serve no other purpose than to help me make a quick buck.” The dollar signs were practically flashing in his eyes. “Get him.”
The men in black advanced in a crane-like formation, using floating movements that reminded Serena of grim reapers hunting for souls. They moved as if they were legends come to life, and it terrified her. They hovered several centimeters above the ground, levitating menacingly towards Serena and Kakane. Just as before, like in her workshop when he woke up, Kakane’s hands ignited on fire and he shot forward to meet his foes.
“You will pay for offending my people!” he roared furiously.
No wonder he knew so much about combat. His skills on the battlefield were impeccable, honed to a crisp edge. He dodged and danced around the black-cloaked men’s shadowy attacks and silver lances, landing solid hit after hit, singeing their faces and burning the black fabric of their cloaks. Not willing to stand around and let Kakane deal with these bounty hunters on his own, Serena, too, took action.
“You tried fighting us once before only to run away with your tail in between your legs,” the leader mocked. “What makes you think this time will be any different?”
“I will not forgive anyone who hurts my pride, my people!” Kakane declared. “Even if it costs me my life, they will be avenged! You will be crushed, devoured by your sins, and your pitiful slander!”
“Besides, he’s got me backing him up,” Serena added meekly, raising her hands.
A violet spell circle shone at her feet as ancient words were recited through her head, power channeled into her fingertips and released to aid Kakane. The spell was a simple speed and strength booster, but hopefully, it would give the edge he needed to pull off a victory.
Kakane gathered flames in his hands, cracking his neck and knuckles as he stepped forward menacingly. He let the fire burn brighter and hotter, grinning as he punched the ground. The earth ruptured and scorched, exploding with brimstone, magma, and blistering heat as Kakane ignited a blazing inferno around himself. The black-cloaked men were caught within the circle of fire and thanks to Serena’s buff, Kakane quickly took them out using his fists.
They stumbled but refused to fall. Clicking his tongue in aggravation, Kakane opened a bright red-orange spell circle. Flames danced around the sigil and blasted out of his hands. Caught within the fiery burst, the men shrieked as they were thoroughly burned, soon looking like REAN009. They fell, defeated, as the fire was recollected into Kakane’s palms. He was sneering, turning to the leader with a murderous glint in his eyes.
“This king always wins, you damn bounty hunter. It’s your escapade that ends here!”
The leader remained silent, not even moving as Kakane advanced onto him. Sensing something was off, Serena prepared to cast a shield spell when the leader’s yellow eye turned bright blue and a wave of cold air immediately rushed towards them. A mixture between an enraged shriek and hiss roared through the air. It sounded completely inhuman and grated on Serena’s ears. She winced, covering her head just as she realized that the one who made that horrifying noise was Kakane. His flames doused, he fell to the floor, shivering and crippled. Just as Serena managed to get her thoughts in order, chains of ice pinned her to the forest floor, preventing her from doing anything.
A prolonged snake-like hiss traveled to Serena’s ears, making her realize Kakane was in worse shape than she initially thought. He must really hate low temperatures to have a sudden reaction this bad.
“I knew you’d be weak to the cold, poor beast prince,” the leader said softly. “Now, go to sleep.”
Kakane didn’t say anything. He only struggled to move as even more frost covered his body with every step the leader took. The frigid miasma around the black cloak continually made the red-eyed boy more and more sluggish. His breathing was labored, coming out in frosty wisps. Slowly, he managed to touch his scar, as if trying to muster up some familiarity and comfort. Even from her distance from the leader, Serena could feel ice spreading across her eyelashes and shivered from the cold seeping through the air. The leader raised a hand as he came closer to Kakane. Sinister-looking icicles dripped from his fingers and white frost crackled over his black hood.
There was nothing Serena could do. She could not break free of her binds; furthermore, the ice chains seemed to have been enchanted with a spell that prevented her from using any of her magic. She could only muster up pitiful sparks of pink and violet, dying as soon as they were born from her fingertips. For a prodigy such as Serena, this was a shameful embarrassment to her talents. She was capable of so much more than this! She had the power to help Kakane! Yet the cold of the ice was also beginning to take its toll, numbing Serena’s body and slowing her thinking process.
Feeling so cold and helpless, Serena couldn’t help but think…
Could… Could this really be it?
Was this the end? Of both of them?
But there was so much more she wanted to experience with Kakane… With her friend. Her first true friend. She wanted to show him so… Much… More…
Serena and Kakane both jumped at the sound of a loud clunk, as if two pieces of metal that had been grinding against each other suddenly came to a halt. Even the leader paused, blue eye looking around wildly for the source of the noise. The jarring racket was followed by a series of clicks and whirrs, and finally a strange metallic sound, as if someone were plucking a harp made of steel.
Looking over her shoulder, Serena gasped as the final streaks of blue light ceased to weave themselves in and around REAN010’s body. That meant it was fully powered. After so long, she had done it. Previous REANs never got past this stage. After another halting grinding sound, the puppet slowly opened its eyes.
It was working. It was actually working. Serena couldn’t believe it.
REAN010 blinked curiously, taking in its surroundings. First, it looked at Kakane’s shivering body, then at the men in black littered on the forest floor, then at the leader who was standing right over at Kakane, and finally at Serena, bound to chains of ice. It blinked again, cocking its head to the side. There was a sort of innocent peculiarity and curiousness about it, but now was not the time to be thinking of such trivialities.
“REAN!” Serena gasped. “Help!”
The puppet’s eyes glowed blue, the word “help” having been programmed into its system as a keyword to activate its combat mode. It knew what that word meant. REAN010 blinked again. Suddenly, the direness of the situation at hand was made clear to it. Looking at Serena, it quickly broke the ice chains, snapping them into pieces with its powerful legs.
Finally free, Serena felt some of the numbing, deadly cold go away. Swirling lights of pink and purple danced at her fingertips, active and vibrant. Her magic was back! She could do something now. She could help her friend. Magic continuing to twirl and spin, Serena reached out for Kakane. She barely took a step when the leader suddenly emerged in front of her.
“Not another step!” he hissed.
He raised a frost-covered arm and prepared to lunge at Serena, only to be rammed in the side by REAN010. The leader was sent flying into a tree, but quickly recovered and turned his focus to the puppet instead. He managed to catch one of REAN010’s powerful punches, covering its fist in ice. But REAN010 merely looked down at its frozen hand and blinked. It slapped the leader in the face, the frozen water covering its fist breaking with the contact. REAN010 could not feel temperature differences, so the freezing had little effect.
There was nothing much the leader of the black-cloaked men could do against REAN010, but he seemed determined to put up a valiant struggle. So much so that Serena was able to make her move.
As he and REAN010 were fighting, Serena rushed over to Kakane and threw both of her hands on his back, watching steam rise up as she thawed him with her magic. She didn’t want to hurt his skin or vital organs, so she took her time and concentrated on healing him, hoping that REAN010 was holding up.
His shivering gradually lessened and his breathing evened out, enough so that he was able to open his frost-covered eyes. The ruby-red orbs glanced at Serena and softened. She gave him a small smile, but Kakane seemed almost embarrassed to be in this position. His mouth was contorted into a pout and he looked not like a king but like a child. He refused to meet Serena’s gaze and closed his eyes, embracing the gentle warmth seeping throughout his body.
When she finally did dare to take her eyes off Kakane, Serena was relieved to see REAN010 was just fine. The leader, on the other hand, was a bloody mess at its feet. The black-cloaked man’s blue eye had turned back to yellow, and he was breathing heavily. He spat up some blood and angrily got to his feet, swaying a bit. He shot a dirty look at REAN010 before sneering at Kakane and Serena.
“This isn’t over yet, beast prince.”
Clicking his tongue in pure annoyance, he snapped his fingers, summoning a vortex of snow and ice. Kakane growled again from the presence of the cold, but when the blizzard cleared, all of the men in black were gone.
Kakane shivered a bit but when Serena applied more of her magic, he slowly calmed down. Having finally recovered from his half-frozen state, Kakane groggily got up from the floor, shaking his head and putting a hand to his temples. His hand then moved from his head to his face, grazing over his scar and he grimaced as if remembering something he didn’t want to. When he saw REAN010, however, his mouth split open into a crooked grin and he started laughing.
“You sure showed them, huh? But of course! Something made by the great me can’t be anything less than perfect!”
“Oh, I’m so glad it worked! All of those sleepless nights really did pay off!” Serena cried joyously. She beamed at Kakane, who smirked back with an equal amount of pride.
They beat the bounty hunters, REAN010 was working, the sun was shining, and the ice was finally melting, covering the forest in sparkles reminiscent of gemstones. It was a bit scary at first, but it seemed today would turn out to be a good day.
But then several blue sparks flew off of REAN010, accompanied by a strange electrical noise and a sound similar to the grinding of gears, but higher pitched. REAN010’s eyes flickered between dark and bright blue before it fell onto the floor with a loud thump. Serena ran over to it, hoping it was a mere matter of something being stuck in the puppet’s gears but was dismayed when she saw that REAN010’s eyes were completely lifeless.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen… Where did we go wrong?” she asked herself miserably. Kakane peered over her shoulder. Upon realizing REAN010 would not operate, he gnashed his teeth and threw his hands into the air.
“Seriously!? It broke? This is infuriating!” Kakane seethed. “I won’t allow it! Not after that magnificent demonstration! A king never fails! We’re getting this right, no matter what, dammit!”
“But how? We did everything we could.” Kakane paused. He thought for a moment, as if recalling something, before speaking.
“I’ve heard that Poseidos, the island nation to the southwest, has a vast history of puppetry. Apparently, they were master puppeteers in the distant past. If we go there, we will definitely be able to fix REAN!”
“Poseidos? So then… I’d… Have to leave the village?” Serena bit her lip.
“What’s the matter? You can’t stay in that tiny town forever. Not if you want REAN to work.”
“If this is truly your passion and dream then I’d advise you to come with me to Poseidos,” Kakane said. Serena let her shoulders droop before shaking her head and taking a deep breath.
“If there was something you really didn’t want to do, but doing it anyway would benefit a lot of people, would you still do it?”
“The hell are you talking about?” Serena blinked. Kakane continued, placing a finger on his scar. “I am a king. A king lives his life the way he wants to live it. I will not bow down to anyone to accomplish my goals! To create my future, I refuse to grovel in servitude! Such is the way of a king!”
“But… You’re kind of serving others that way, aren’t you?”
“No! You misunderstand. It’s the people who serve their king, for they rely on him. He must remain vigilant in his rule. If he is forced to bow down to others, who will the people turn to? I do this because I want to do it, for a promise I made to myself, not because I was ordered by someone. This is my will, my choice. You must decide if it’s the same for you, Serena.”
“So? Are you coming to Poseidos with me or not?”
“Give me some time to think about it.”