As the silence settled in, Samantha sighed in relief. She couldn’t believe how much had happened. Her dark eyes trailed towards the open chasm where the ruined city of Azaleth lay. The once tormented souls of Azaleth were now free. She looked up to the sky where she saw the white soul wisps make their way towards the golden skies. A sigh escaped her lips when she looked towards the empty tree houses, now completely void of life. But despite that, she felt no remorse.
Instead, a wave of relief and satisfaction washed over her.
The souls were no longer bound by a curse. A dark magic curse – it was a magic that could torment one for all eternity. A chill ran down her spine at the thought. If that could happen, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to imagine the other monstrosities. Suddenly, the images of the golden city of Azaleth flashed into her mind. It was soon followed by sacking and pillaging of Sofiene where she saw the fires consume the houses and their greying ghosts rise into the night air.
Samantha snapped out of it only to see Brandon, Beatriz, and Luke staring at her. Concern was clearly written all over their faces. Samantha swallowed hard. Nausea suddenly filled her mind as her vision nearly whited out only for her to snap back into reality. Why was she seeing those visions? Perhaps it was a result of the magic transference? Maybe I’m just tired, she thought.
“You okay?” Luke asked. “You spaced out for quite a bit.”
Samantha nodded. “Y-yeah, I’m okay. I just had a bit of a relapse.”
“A relapse? Isn’t that bad?”
“No. I guess it’s because I used up too much magic.
Beatriz nodded, adding. “You did just use an ancient magic. Summoning Magic has a shit tonne of mechanics and requirements to adhere to before actually summoning something.”
Samantha nodded, shaking off the nausea. It was probably just fatigue, she thought. “So,” she clapped her hands with a smile. “Where are we headed off to?”
“We’re supposed to be heading into Fool’s Gold.” Brandon pointed to a pathway leading out to the edge of the forest. “By heading through Fool’s Gold, we’ll cut our travel time by 3 days.”
Samantha gawked. “Really?”
“Definitely. Most people prefer going around the mountain. But since we’re pressed for time, we’ll have to use a few shortcuts.”
“Yeah but, how do you know where to go?”
“I can fix that,” Luke beamed. He then plucked out a map from one of his pants pockets and unfolded it. “The entrance to Fool’s Gold is at the end of the forest. At the edge of the forest, there’s a mountain range. And according to the map,” Luke pointed down the pathway. “If you follow it down, there should be an entrance.”
Samantha nodded. But another thought began to bother her: where and when did she learn how to summon? She knew Beatriz’s definition of Summoning was correct. It was a magic that called upon a higher power. By calling upon the higher power, there were certain requirements and mechanics to be met. She then looked at the rose-coloured gem that was mounted on the ring. Could it have been Azaleth’s magic? She frowned for a moment until she remembered a warmth that bloomed at her bosom during the summoning. The princess looked down at the pendant dangling on her neck. Could it be possible?
But it still didn’t explain much about the surge of power.
She sighed and shook her head. There was still so much to learn. But the princess couldn’t believe what she had learned. Ever since she had left Xychosia, so much had happened. She fought one of Xychosia’s most esteemed generals, travelled through a forest, stared down her worst nightmare, and learned a new form of magic. The princess couldn’t believe how much she learned. And that happened all one fateful night on her 23rd birthday. Her blood chilled when she recalled the mutated abomination and how someone helped she and Beatriz fight it off. She remembered his boyish grin and his multi-functional umbrella. What was his name again?
“I wonder whatever happened to him,” Samantha murmured.
Brandon raised an eyebrow at her. “What happened to who?”
“There was someone who saved me on my birthday.” The princess said. She then frowned. “I kind of forgot his name though.”
“You mean Daniel Iscariot?” Beatriz raised an eyebrow. “What about him?”
“I just wonder what happened to him is all. He was talented too.”
“Come on Bea. You have to admit, he helped you fight that big mutant creature.”
Brandon raised an eyebrow. “Mutant creature?”
Beatriz nodded with an annoyed scowl. “Yeah, some scrawny jackass helped us kick over some violently mutating ooze.”
The pirate shuddered. “Ugh, ooze.”
“Oh come on! Don’t tell me you can’t even look at jell-o or Panna Cotta!”
“That’s different! They just jiggle!”
Beatriz scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she snorted. “Maybe he was useful.”
Samantha shook her head. “You know he was.”
“I said maybe. That’s as good as it gets.”
“You don’t have to be that mean, you know.”
“Pfft, mean is an understatement as to what I am.”
Brandon sighed and glanced around. “Well, we better get started.” He turned his head towards the rose-gold, orange skies, noticing the sun slowly going down. “We have to prepare before making our way through the cave.”
Samantha scoffed and folded her arms. “We could have been prepared if you didn’t get rid of my stuff.”
“It’s called barter and trade, lass. I just got us more money.”
“Wait! You sold my stuff?!”
“You had premium items that fetched a good price, lass. I just swapped it out for something more practical.”
“Practical?! All of my stuff was purple! My beautiful purple clothes!”
“Lass, you were gonna look like a goddamn walking grape.”
“It was my purple clothes!”
Beatriz snorted with an amused smirk. “Sorry, Sam. I’m kinda with the pirate for this one.” She turned to Brandon. “So, what did you swap it out for?”
Brandon pulled out a small pouch and showed them a thin strip of meat. “I swapped it out for food.”
Beatriz beamed. “You got bacon?”
Samantha stared at the thin strip of meat in Brandon’s hand. “Bacon? What’s bacon?”
Brandon and Beatriz, admonished, snapped their heads towards Samantha. Samantha swallowed nervously. Was it something she said? She could see both their eyes widening to the size of dinner plates.
“Um, was it something I said?” Samantha asked with a sheepish grin.
Brandon shook his head. “How can you not know what bacon is?!”
Beatriz shrugged. “That’s what she gets for always eating fancy. I’ve been bringing her tray to her bed for years and not once did I see a strip of bacon.”
Samantha turned to Luke and whispered. “What’s bacon?”
“It’s a thin strip of pork that’s cured and marinated with different herbs for different flavours,” Luke explained. He grinned at Brandon. “What kind of bacon’s that, Cap?”
Brandon gave a strip to Beatriz before eating one of his own. “It’s Wild Boar bacon. It’s technically still considered ‘bacon’.”
“I thought that bacon only referred to domesticated pig meat.”
“Nope. Bacon can be made from Boar or anything from the swine family.”
“Oh. But, where did you get the materials to make it?”
“I didn’t have the materials. I bought some from Xychosia and killed a couple of boars here and borrowed some of the tools of the people here. They had some issues about wild boars smashing their tree so I just killed them off.”
Samantha stared at it sceptically. “Is that even edible?”
“Way better than eating a roasted silkworm,” Brandon smirked. He handed her a strip. “Here, try one.”
The princess, blinking several times, plucked the bacon off Brandon’s fingers. It wasn’t the usual kind of meat. It was dark red in colour and slightly charred on the sides. The bacon glistened under the light with its special glaze. A smoky sweet smell wafted up to her nose before she leaned in for a small nibble. Much to her surprise, the meaty taste melted into her mouth. She swooned in delight as the sweet and smoky flavour exploded and took her taste buds on a trip to heaven.
“Wow! This is good!” Samantha jumped up, all giddy. “Where and how?!”
“When you’re sailing the seven seas, you gotta learn a couple of things.” Brandon shrugged. He then took another bite out of the bacon. “Anyway, we better start sweeping.”
“Oh, I mean looting. We better start looting if we’re going to get to the other side.”
Samantha’s eyes widened. They were going to loot the village? She glanced towards the bridges of where the children of the Arachnos tribe once frolicked and played. She remembered hearing their laughter and the tribe’s people bustling about their chores. Their laughter and voices became nothing but a ghost of their memory as the empty houses had nothing but the winds passing through them. But she still couldn’t believe what they were doing! They were stealing!
“We shouldn’t do this! It’s stealing!” Samantha gawked, completely aghast.
Beatriz shrugged as she took one of the woven mats. “Well, they couldn’t have taken it to wherever they went.”
“Bea! You’re actually condoning this?”
“I did more than just steal before, princess. And I’ve stolen worse things than just inanimate objects.”
“Just because you did something worse, doesn’t mean it can excuse other questionable acts!”
Beatriz scoffed and bagged one of the woven mats. “It’s better than leaving all of this out here for other Graveyard robbers to dig.”
“We’re doing exactly that!”
“Well, at least we have a use for this better than just trading it and bartering it for cash.”
Brandon sighed and shook his head at the princess. “In the wasteland, a lot of things will be morally questionable.”
“Wasteland? This place is barely a wasteland!”
“Sorry, let me rephrase: in the outside world, a lot of things will be morally questionable.”
“That doesn’t mean we have to do those things!”
Brandon shook his head at the princess. “Princess, you can’t keep your little morally ideal fantasy stuck in your little fantasy world. Get out of it.”
Samantha sighed as she looked deep into the pirate’s lavender eyes. His steely gaze bore holes into her soul as she realized one thing: he was right. Although she had only left for a short time, she had done many morally questionable things. She glanced at her hands and saw the glowing jewel of Azaleth on the ring. She remembered the day she ran away from Xychosia without a single good bye. And most of all, the destruction of the ancient city was still fresh in her mind.
“Put it this way,” Beatriz offered to explain. “Did your brothers care when they stole the throne from you?”
“They waged war for it.”
“Did they care about the people who were loyal to you before they slaughtered them?”
“I… I didn’t expect them to.”
“That doesn’t answer the damn question. Did they care?”
Defeat slammed on her shoulders as Samantha hung her head. “No…”
It was something hard for her to understand. All her life in the castle of Sofiene and Xychosia, she had been taught how to be a benevolent ruler. To close the gap between the rich and the poor, to be empathetic to the needs of the people, to know how to make choices that will benefit the people – those were the things she was taught. It was always for the people. Never for herself.
But, did those same rules apply on the wasteland?
After leaving Xychosia and entering Spinner’s Forest, she had never expected betrayal to be so rampant. The death of Sandor and him being turned into a demonic creature, the betrayal of the remaining princesses of Azaleth, Arkamedon's rise to power - there were so many things that had happened. It was then she realized that Beatriz had a point. Things were a lot more different when she entered the outlands. A load of guilt burdened her heart as she let out a sigh.
“You guys go do what you want,” Samantha shook her head. “But, I refuse to steal from people who have been nothing but kind to us.”
Beatriz, nodding, shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
The princess sighed and turned around, leaving the pirates and the lady-in-waiting to loot the empty village. She turned towards the crevice where she saw the once beautiful city of Azaleth deep beneath the ground. Its buildings had been torn and destroyed. The winds carried trails of dust through the windows and cracks in its buildings. She looked up to see the trees that loomed above it have their dried leaves slowly bob and float down as it ended up on the forest floor along with the other leaves.
Samantha’s thoughts floated back to what happened down below. The Lady of Azaleth had passed on whatever was left of Azaleth’s history to her. She glanced once more at her hand where the last royal relic had been placed. The rose quartz glistened as she took a closer look inside the gem. A small aura danced inside the gemstone, flickering and dancing gracefully like a dragon. It was as if there was a tiny fire with a tiny heartbeat, pulsing inside.
“I wonder,” Samantha mused softly. She then took a look at the pendant of Sofiene and the ring of Azaleth. “There may be –”
“ – Sam! We’re done!”
Samantha turned around where she saw all three knights with rucksacks full of supplies. She could see that they managed to get all sorts of things. They had bags filled with mats, food, trinkets, and many other things from the tribal village of Arachnos.
“So, you find anything useful?” Samantha chuckled dryly.
Brandon frowned. “You’re still ticked about the whole looting thing, aren’t ya lass?”
“I don’t condone looting or stealing.”
“Well, that’s your issue. But Bea seems to have found all sorts of stuff.”
Beatriz beamed and revealed a staff. “Here, this might help.” She then tossed the staff to the princess. “Made from Inglewood, it should help in channelling magic.”
Samantha caught the staff and examined the carving carefully. The staff appeared to be naturally made with each branch seemingly woven and growing to form the long rod. Mounted at the head of the staff was a lavender-coloured crystal. She could feel the mana flowing from her and into the staff. A stream of electricity seemed to pulse through her as the mana swirled and glowed. The branches seemed to respond to her mana as it let out a low humming sound.
“I... I never really used a staff before,” Samantha admitted mildly. “I’ve always focused on just healing...”
“You did some pretty good offensive spells awhile ago,” Brandon pointed out. “The fire balls were pretty good.” He chuckled dryly. “Even if you nearly shot me.”
Samantha shrugged with a sheepish grin. “A little trick I picked up from the Queen of Xychosia.”
“Thanks, I try.”
Brandon nodded. “Anyway, so now that we’re all fully stocked – shall we get going?”
Samantha glanced around. “But everything looks almost the same here. How do we know we’re going through the right direction?”
Luke proudly beamed. “Leave it to me. I can ask the trees.”
“You’re gonna what?” Beatriz raised an eyebrow. “You can talk to vegetables?”
“Yeah, I’m a Dryad.”
“Great, did you hear the tomatoes crying in agony as they were sliced?”
“I’d rather not. And tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables.”
“Pshe, they’re both plants anyway.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m surprised I don’t hear your brain sometimes. I was pretty sure that you were a vegetable.”
Beatriz gawked while Brandon suppressed a snicker. “You got balls, beansprout.”
“Well, I learned.”
“You learned well, beansprout. But don’t wither up so fast.”
Luke nodded and waved his hand dismissively. “Sure, sure.” He then walked towards the centre of the forest and closed his eyes. “Mother, I seek your counsel. I seek out Fool’s Gold cavern to lead us to The Machinos Empire.”
Suddenly, Samantha, Beatriz, and Brandon looked around them as the trees began to wave and sway. The leaves fluttered and the trees howled. Winds tossed and turned until the winds began to rush through a pathway with the orange and yellow leaves leading them down the pathway.
“Well,” Luke beamed and gestured to the pathway. “Here’s our answer.”
Samantha shook her head. “Did you just call the forest Mother?”
“Yeah, dryads can feel a connection to any place in nature. For me, it’s the Forest.”
“You talk to them as if they were alive.”
“That’s because they are,” Luke smiled. “Just because we don’t hear them speak nor speak our language doesn’t mean that they’re not alive.”
Samantha nodded. Her eyes then turned back to the pendant and the signet ring. She saw the mana swirling inside the gemstones before wondering about Luke’s statement. Was the ring and the pendant really alive? Were there things inside the gemstone? She didn’t know for sure. But she could feel warmth pulsing against her bosom and on her ring finger. She picked up the pendant and pressed it against her ear. There was soft humming that echoed in her ear. What was in the pendant and the ring?
“Anyway,” Brandon strapped the swords to his belt. “We better get going, scallywags. We don’t have much sunlight.”
Samantha nodded and followed after Beatriz, Luke, and Brandon.
The trees proved true. At the edge of the forest, there was a cavern entrance. Although there were a bunch of leaves covering the entrance, Brandon and Beatriz cleaved their way through and revealed a dark hole that lead deep into the mountain range. A cloud of fog and mist swirled above them and covered the mountain range’s peaks. Past the trees, Samantha could see the dark navy streaks in the rose gold sky despite the fog.
“Wow,” Samantha shook her head. “I didn’t know it was literally at the end of the forest.”
Luke nodded. “Well, it did cover up the entrance to the other side. It used to be Azaleth that was here.”
The princess’s dark eyes looked closely into the caverns where she saw small golden lights twinkling inside. She glanced to the side where she saw a plant looking like a mint herb. Her eyes widened when she looked closely at the leaves only to realize that they were sparkling gold. She gasped and squatted down in front of it, brushing her fingers against the leaves to reveal that the leaves were real, solid gold!
“Amazing,” Samantha shook her head. She then turned to Brandon. “Is this for real?”
The pirate glanced down and saw the leaves. “Yeap,” Brandon nodded. “Also known as the famous Midas’ Cavern, the soil, the water here, the cavern literally turns anything into solid gold.”
Samantha raised an eyebrow. “You’re not gonna steal it?”
“Lass, I’d rather not. There are things that are steal-able and others that are better of left alone.”
“You were willing to raid a dead tribes’ village but not an empty cavern?”
“This cavern may have creepy shit I have no idea of. I’d rather not risk it.”
Samantha sighed and looked back, noticing the trail of dead leaves behind her. A soft wind tossed her dark hair as they whispered softly in her ears. She shuddered as the cold winds licked against her skin when she looked into the caverns. She saw more plants in the ground that turned into solid gold. The monkshood flowers that she remembered were once purple had turned solid gold. A chill ran up her spine; there was something she didn’t like about the cavern.
“Oh, it’s probably just me being paranoid.” Samantha giggled. She shook her head as she saw Brandon, Luke, and Beatriz walking in ahead. “Hey, wait for me!”
As they walked into the cavern, the inside was more majestic than the outside. Even with the darkness from the night outside, the cavern seemed to have its own source of light. All the cavern walls were literally lined with gold. Golden dust seemed to fly by them as each wall was covered with golden panels. Samantha’s eyes widened when she saw some of the plants and flowers in the cavern, glimmering gold.
“Wow,” Samantha stared in amazement. “It’s... It’s beautiful.”
“No kidding,” Beatriz mused.
Brandon nodded before he saw Luke’s eyes shifting uneasily as he slowly inched forward into the cavern. “Luke, you okay?”
The small boy snapped his head towards Brandon, smiling weakly. “Y-yeah, I’m just not used to all the shiny things.”
“Yeah, kinda blinds you doesn’t it?”
“I kinda like a more natural gold. The nice sunlight does best.”
Samantha squatted down in front of one of the plants, noticing a glimmering gold vine. The vine looked as if it was dipped in gold. She stared in amazement and slowly brushed her finger against the vine. The surface was cold, like metal. Her reflection stared back at her as she noticed even the golden thorns on the vine.
“I’m surprised plants could grow here.” Samantha shook her head. “I thought metal wasn’t good for plants.”
Luke nodded. “Well, some metals are good for plants.” He shrugged. “All things in moderation.”
“And some metals are bad.”
“But wait, why aren’t you affected?”
Luke shrugged. “The poison only affects me when I ingest it. As long as I don’t put anything weird in my mouth, I should be okay.”
Samantha nodded before letting out a small yawn. “I’m actually kind of tired.”
“Yeah,” Beatriz stretched her arms up. “I’m actually feeling a slight knot in my shoulders.”
Suddenly, they felt the ground tremble beneath them. Samantha gasped and clung onto Brandon. Beatriz and Luke stood next to each other as the tremors continued. The princess swallowed hard when she looked straight into the darkness with golden red eyes gleaming in the dark. Samantha staggered as she saw the molten angry stare, boring holes into her soul.
“D-Do I even want to know what that thing is?” Samantha shivered.
A low hiss echoed from the darkness as she saw a creature crawl out of it. A large claw stomped on the ground and revealed its bloodstained claws. Its eyes glared at her with its saliva dripping from its dirt stained fangs. It reared its long neck at her and swung its tail with a spade shaped stinger, glimmering bright gold. Despite the cavern gleaming gold, the serpent-like creature seemed to glow brighter with its golden scales and unleashed a sunshine glow. Its tongue slithered and its molten red gold eyes narrowed with demonic and mischievous intent.
“I do have a slight idea what that is though,” Beatriz suddenly said.
“And that would be?” Samantha nervously shook her head.
Beatriz smirked and bit her thumb. Blood spilled from her thumb and down to the back of her hand. The blood continued to spill as her teeth made a large wound on her thumb. The blood began to glow from her hand to all over her body as her dark armour began to mould itself around her body. Her spiked gauntlets and dark leather faulds along with her spiked pauldrons crystallized from the blood all over her body. A sneer curved up her cherry red lips as she revealed her scythe.
“It’s a fucking eyesore!” She shrieked and lunged at it with her gear scythe roaring to life.