Luke bit his fingernails, searching around. As much as he didn’t mind being left out, this was one of the few times that he got antsy over it. His captain was down there! Although he was there with the princess, seeing her mortified expression was good enough to anticipate how useless she could possibly be in combat. The princess had fainted when she first came across Sandor and screamed until her eardrums split the moment she saw more spiders.
“C’mon, think!” Luke racked his brains. He jumped up and down, getting anxious. “Cap always said that there was always a solution to every problem! Think, Luke, think!”
He hated being useless and idle. Whenever he was on the ship, he always found something else to do. Whether it be to swab the decks, raise the sails, polish the cannons – he always found something to do! And this was one of the few times he found himself doing absolutely nothing.
“Daaaaamn,” Luke groaned. He then slumped against a tree. “What can I possibly do?!”
The dryad sighed until his hands pressed themselves against the bark of the tall Sequoia trees. His eyes widened. He then turned around when he saw the tree towering straight through the sky and then looked down to see big, thick roots burying into the ground. He saw the dry leaves bobbing and floating before they fell to the ground.
“Ask Mother Nature,” he repeated his words to Brandon before they left. He then stared at his hands for a moment before realization hit him. “Duh.”
He exhaled sharply and leaned against the tree trunk, closing his eyes. He could hear the winds swirling around him. The song of the forest echoed and sang in his ears. The footsteps of the ants pattering on the ground vibrated under his palm. The pebbles and the stones trembled from the footsteps of the creatures. His hands could feel even the roots burying through the soil.
“Mother of the Forest, I seek your counsel,” Luke prayed to the trees. He exhaled sharply and closed his eyes. “Mother, your son beckons you.”
The trees whispered into his mind. My son...
“I desperately seek your counsel,” Luke pleaded. “Please, my captain and the princess are in danger. I seek your counsel.”
Fear not, my son. They are safe. The Forest and the Earth know that your friends are safe.
“Please, tell me where they are!”
I fear I cannot, my son. The Earth cries and weeps for the souls that have been sacrificed to her.
“To whom? To whom, mother?”
She who has lived longer than this forest. She whose power has made her forsake her humanity. It is she who many fear.
“Yes! Yes!” Beatriz moaned in delight. She then raised her scythe with a gleeful gleam in her eyes. “Hit me more! Hit me more!”
Ariadne, for the first time in four hundred years, shivered and felt true fear. Her heart pounded inside her chest and her lungs seized as air stopped right at her throat. Her voice, trapped in her throat, could barely make a sound. She knew what it was like to be feared. To have people flee at the sight of her, to beg for their lives should they come across her - it was then she realized how fearsome she could. But there was a first time for everything. And for the first time, she was now on the receiving end of that fear. While enemies feared looking at her body, her fear of Beatriz was more than just that. The sardonic grin that curved up the small girl’s bright red lips made her blood curdle.
“You...” Ariadne shook her head. “What are you!?”
Beatriz shrugged nonchalantly before slamming her scythe on the ground. “You know, I don’t know.”
Ariadne remained silent.
“I really don’t know. There’re just some things I enjoy and some things that I hate to the core.”
The Lady of Arachnos shook her head. What was this woman? And how could she possibly deal that much damage on her? She looked at the limbs that littered the place. Majority of the limbs that had been hacked off were hers. She looked up only to see that Beatriz was no better off that she was. The little lady was covered in blood yet showed no signs of giving in. Gashes spewed out blood against her jet black armour with her scythe humming to life.
“I could spend all day telling you the sob story of how my mother preferred my sister over me,” Beatriz shrugged.
“My own mother thought I was a monster,” Beatriz softly said, staring down for a few moments. She then snapped out of it with a small grin. “It was true but it still hurt!”
Admonished, Lady Ariadne staggered back. How could she easily brush it off? She remembered the days how she was the one cast aside for her lovelier and sweeter younger sister. Despite the disease that plagued the younger sister, her parents doted and cared for her. She was forced to be her sister’s slave; doing things for her left and right. Over the years, she had grown to hate her sister and had done atrocious things in her name. It was then she remembered how she would lure men and women to their deaths. She had created a cult and say that their blood would heal her sister. Many have given their lives. Others, she had to force.
But doing that did nothing to soothe her jealousy.
Over the years, her sister had become more beautiful. Her hatred finally overflowed when her mother chose the younger sister as her successor as Witch of Azaleth. Her hands gripped tightly into a fist before pointing a spell towards Beatriz. The Doom Mana within her body and around the cave swirled around her hand before forming dark green glyphs in front of her.
“You know nothing of hatred and despair!” Ariadne screeched. “You were the reason why Azaleth was destroyed!”
Beatriz narrowed her eyes, readied her stance with her scythe glowing. “No, he was the reason. I was there when Azaleth was destroyed. And you know nothing, spider bitch.”
Samantha gasped as she and Brandon stood at their only entrance and exit to the cavern. She shuddered at the thought of all the spiders rushing towards them. Where did they come from? The princess found herself twitching and sweating as she wiped the back of her neck. If the small ones ran around like that, what about the big spiders? She swallowed nervously as a chill ran up her spine. If there were small ones, that means there were bigger ones! No, she shook her head. Now was not the time to think of that! She snapped her fingers, feeling her mana roiling inside the very fibres of her fingertips. Soon, a small purple fire lit up in her fingertip once more.
“Phew,” Samantha sighed. She beamed. “I am glad that is over!”
Brandon shook his head. “You could make the light now but not when we needed it most!?”
“I was running for my life away from those,” she shuddered. “Things.”
“Shhhhh! Don’t say that!”
“How would you like it if I kept saying ooze?”
Brandon shuddered and shook his head. “Alright, alright, I’ll stop.” He then looked around before kicking a small pebble with his foot. Soft rappings echoed around the cavern as the pebble fell down straight into the abyss. “Hey, Samantha?”
“Can you shine a light down there? I think there’s something down there.”
The princess, quizzical, then pointed the light on her fingertip towards the abyss below only to see nothing but pure darkness. “I don’t see anything.”
“Make it brighter.”
Samantha nodded before focusing more mana into her fingertip. The moment she had focused enough, the mana suddenly flew off her finger. The light swirled around above them before crashing into an ornate inverted dome structure above them that seemed to be a shell for a lamp. The light soon shot out from one lamp to another and another parapet. Soon, the purple flame had lit up the abyss below. Samantha’s eyes widened when she finally saw what lay in the abyss below.
“Brandon, do you see what I see?” The princess gasped.
Brandon nodded slowly. “I… I can see everything.”
Beneath them was a large city. Buildings towered straight into the cavern’s ceilings with their roofs having ornate carvings appearing similar to old tiles. A large dome stood in the centre of the city with a large rusted golden tube with a glass eye in it. Each of the buildings had its own kind of identity yet still held the culture of being a magical city. Dust and sand swirled around and passed through the windows of each structure before flowing out the other window.
“Wow,” Samantha gasped and stared at the empty city. “What is this place?”
Brandon shook his head. “Looks like one of those old empires.”
“Where do you think this is?”
“I just know it’s a city buried under a forest.”
The princess nodded when she saw a stone bridge in front of her. Although the rails have been covered with dust and dirt, she could see that there was a bridge leading to the other side. The princess's body shivered as the cold cavern winds brushed against her. It was an eerie feeling; it wasn’t like the warm rays of the sun she had been used to feeling in Xychosia. It was cold, with the scent of Death on it. She slowly stepped forward, feeling even the smallest of pebbles shift under her feet.
“B-Brandon? I-I’m really scared,” Samantha shook her head vehemently. “How far up are we?”
Brandon glanced down. “We’re far up enough to die by falling.” He then looked forward. “But at least we have a bridge.”
The princess looked up only to see a dusty stone bridge in front of her. Her heart trembled at the sight of the bridge lacking rails. But she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. How could a forest bury an entire empire beneath it? She didn’t see any roots protruding from the surface. All she could see was the buildings that had been neglected over time.
“D-Do you think it could carry us?” Samantha asked.
Brandon shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”
Samantha nervously stepped aside and let Brandon take the first few steps onto the bridge. Her blood rushed and her face paled at the sight of Brandon taking his steps further into the bridge. She could see the sand and the pebbles shifting underneath his boot, shivering at each step. The pirate slowly crept his way through the bridge. Her blood chilled. Would the bridge hold? She was certain that Brandon’s gunshots shook the entire cavern. Samantha shuddered and kept one eye open as Brandon made his way across.
“It can hold,” Brandon stomped on the bridge. “We can go.”
Samantha shivered and looked back, seeing the blocked entrance. She shuddered and stepped forward only to yelp when her foot sent one of the pebbles falling into the city below. A large lump formed in her throat when she stared down at the dark alleyways in between the buildings. She inched towards the bridge as Brandon extended his hand.
“It’s okay, come on.” Brandon reassured. He kept his arm stretched out. “I’ll hold your hand.”
Samantha frowned. “I don’t need hand holding!”
“So says the terrified princess.”
“I’m not terrified!”
“So says the one screaming to the top of her lungs.”
The pirate rolled his eyes. “What? Are you just gonna stand there and whine about it?”
“No!” Samantha snapped. She sighed and then swallowed hard before inching closer and closer to Brandon. “I-I’m almost there.”
The princess finally grabbed Brandon’s hand after a few moments of inching and creeping towards the bridge. Relief flooded through her as she finally felt the pirate’s hand envelope hers. Samantha couldn’t understand the feeling but it was a warm feeling that filled her. It relaxed her pounding heart and calmed her rushing blood as her panicking mana soon relaxed inside her. She followed after Brandon and made their way across the bridge.
“I wonder what city this is,” Samantha looked around. “It seems so old...”
“It’s probably older than you and me put together,” Brandon glanced around below. “You can tell by the architecture alone.”
“How do you think it got down here?”
“Which one? The city?”
Brandon shrugged. “A great flood?”
“Maybe,” Samantha shrugged. She shook her head. “But if it were a flood, wouldn’t this place be a lake?”
“Point. But, it could have dried up too.”
“And have a forest grow on top of it?”
Brandon shook his head. “Well whatever it is, let’s hope the city doesn’t have some gigantic guardian we have to kill.”
The princess gasped and slapped his arm. “Brandon, don’t jinx it!”
“How am I jinxing it? This city’s so damn old, it may as well be the hometown of Ytriel.”
“Ytriel was at the beginning of time!”
“He was still the son of Deus. He may as well have existed with The Heptos.”
Samantha nodded until they reached the end of the bridge safely. She sighed in relief when they saw the alleyway with the buildings closing in on them. The princess looked up and saw a large citadel standing at the far distance with a large black bell tolling throughout the darkness. Its tolls caused her soul to shudder as the cold wind swept around her. She then noticed a dusty tablet at the end of the bridge.
“Oh? What’s this?” Samantha checked the tablet.
Brandon followed after her and peeked over her shoulder. “It’s as dusty as hell,” he then brushed away the dust, coughing. “Ugh. Damn, this is probably as old as Beatriz’s grandmother.”
“What? You never know.”
The pirate then looked at the writings carefully. “Tch,” he shook his head. “I don’t understand what it says.”
Samantha squinted a little only to see the letters glow and shift before her. She gasped as the characters spun slowly and began to turn only to reveal themselves to her. The princess, amazed, brushed her palm against the dusty stone only to have the tablet to start humming. Its mana instantly began to resonate with her own. Samantha yelped at the sight of white mana suddenly swirling out of the tablet and fusing with her own purple coloured mana.
Samantha snapped out of her daze when she saw Brandon standing next to her. “Yes?”
“Is there some weird, ancient magic on it? Because I can’t see anything on it.”
“Well, I’m not sure... I can read it but not completely.”
“Can you at least figure out a paragraph or two?”
Samantha nodded. “Let me try –”
Suddenly, the ground beneath them began to rumble. Samantha yelped and stumbled into Brandon as ancient marks began to glow on the buildings. Her eyes widened when the airs around them began to sparkle as laughter filled the streets. Samantha gasped at the sudden change of scene. Children skipped and leapt around happily, wielding magic without any prejudice. She saw people lighting the candles in the streetlamp with fire magic, performers commanding the rain to fly up instead of drop. Her mouth hung open when she saw ships hovering over the city with a glowing blue eye.
“Wh-what is this?” Samantha gasped. She spun around to hear people roaming the streets. “Where did they come from?”
Suddenly, the tablet near the bridge began to glow as the words read:
Welcome to Azaleth, City of Magic
Samantha gasped. “The legendary empire of Azaleth... I can’t believe it!”
“Azaleth?” Brandon raised an eyebrow. “Where’s that?”
“Long ago, there was a kingdom that was completely populated with magic users. Magic to them was a norm. But it didn’t mean that those who didn’t have magic were treated unkindly.” Samantha explained. She looked around and saw ships flying above them and the buildings glowing. “This is it... but, why does it look like this? The books said that this place was a shining city!”
Brandon, looking around, then bent down to pick up some of the dust on the floor. He brushed the dust and sand in his hands. He frowned before sniffing it. He then let out a loud snort the moment its scent wafted into his nose.
“Ugh!” Brandon gasped and coughed. “It smells worse than one hundred day old fish!”
Samantha glanced towards him. “Which one?”
“The dirt. You try smelling it.”
“Why would I want to snort dirt?!”
“Maybe you can find out why the so-called “shining empire” of Azaleth is nothing but sand and bones in a cavern.”
The princess, confused, walked over to the spot that Brandon stood over and crouched down to feel the sand on her hands. The moment she touched it, a hot searing pain shot through her fingertips. Images flashed into her mind as she saw a large green fire that suddenly consumed the city. She heard a woman’s cry of desperation as the citadel suddenly was consumed in green flames. Another image flashed in her mind as she saw a woman, crouching in the corner drenched in blood while holding a screaming baby in her arms as she saw the shadow of a baby’s head being dashed against the wall. She yelped and backed down before falling flat on her behind.
“Wh-what was that!?” Samantha shook her head.
Brandon asked. “What did you see?”
The princess shuddered violently as she shook her head. “Th-there was fire. A large green fire that rushed all around the city. People cried and screamed, begging for mercy as knights in black armour rushed in. I heard a woman’s cry of desperation before seeing green flames consume the city.”
“That’s one hell of a wildfire, lass.”
“Yes, it was. B-but where did that come from? And who were the black knights? And why were they slaughtering the people of Azaleth?”
“You got me.”
Samantha slowly stood up before staring at the citadel before them. “I think all our answers lie there. This city couldn’t have been overrun overnight.”
Suddenly, the ground again began to tremble beneath her. The people roaming the city screamed in terror as their forms vanished. The city seemingly died as a dark green light began to glow and overwhelm the purple lights the princess had left behind. Trembling, the princess gasped when she saw a large humanoid spider giant standing before them with his dark blue eyes beadily glaring at Brandon and her.
“P-please don’t tell me this is the thing Luke fought the other day,” Samantha trembled and slowly stepped away.
Brandon shook his head. “Okay, I won’t.”
The colossal humanoid spider creature roared with its legs swinging. With a single kick, it shattered the buildings and sent debris crashing on the ground. Samantha screamed in terror until someone grabbed her arm and dragged her along. She gasped when she saw Brandon quickly bolting through the alleyways, dodging the web shots aimed for them. She gasped as Brandon flung her behind him before he drew both his swords and cleaved through the shots.
“Looks like he’s not going to go away anytime soon,” Brandon growled. He then turned to Samantha. “How good are you at buffer spells?”
Samantha nodded shakily. “Pretty good.”
“Good, I’m gonna need those more than ever.”
“W-wait, you’re actually going to fight it!?”
Brandon nodded. “If I don’t kill it now, we won’t get our answers. Most of all, we can’t let something this big wander back to the surface.”
Samantha shivered. She had never seen a creature so huge. After all the bloodshed in the civil war of Sofiene, she had half-expected herself to lose her fear and keep her nerve in combat. But unfortunately for her, it was not that simple. She remembered the time she could barely keep her calm when Brandon asked her to form a light. Guilt swelled up inside her as she saw the creature and Brandon standing in front of her. It was always the same. Beatriz was the one protecting her. And now, it was Brandon. It had to stop.
She closed her eyes and clapped her hands together, focusing on the mana around her and into her pendant. She couldn’t keep having Brandon and Beatriz fight her battles for her. What kind of queen just hid behind her subjects? What kind of queen did nothing but sit in the court and look pretty? A new resolve filled her – she had to fight! She could feel the Doom Mana swirling but she refused to let it interfere. Sweat poured down her face as glyphs appeared all around her. Winds swirled around her and into her pendant before she directed them to the floor, carving ancient markings into the cobblestones. Suddenly, the Doom Mana vanished when she felt a new kind of mana swirling. It was pure and raw. It was amoral and unfeeling.
What is this, Samantha gasped as the mana meshed with her own. She could feel her mana roiling faster and faster inside her as the circle that had been engraved on the cobblestones began to glow.
We want our freedom!
This has to end!
Samantha gasped when she saw the souls of the people roaming the city swirling around her like a gust of pure wind. The scent of sweet spring and fresh rain filled her nose as her heart lifted at the emotions that suddenly rushed into her being.
“Sam!” She heard Brandon holler. “What’s happening?”
Samantha suddenly extended her hand and dropped it onto the pirate’s shoulder. She heard him gasp as the power that flowed inside her suddenly joined up with his. She could feel his every heartbeat, hear his every thought, and all his hopes and dreams filled her mind. The winds slowly died down when Brandon staggered back, gasping.
“Wh-what the feth was that?!” Brandon gasped. He glanced at his palms and then at Samantha. “I... I feel alive!”
Samantha shook her head. “I don’t know but I can hear them.”
“Them. The souls of Azaleth, they want their freedom. They want this to end.”
“What are they talking about? What do they want to end?”
The princess shrugged as she fuelled more power into her glyphs. “I don’t know. But we have to take this big thing down first if we want our answers.”
Brandon nodded before drawing out both his swords, whirling them around and facing the colossus. “Just keep me buffed. I’ve fought bigger.”
“Yes!” Samantha beamed. She narrowed her eyes, with her resolve fueling her mana. “Let’s go!”