Book One: Knights' Festival

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I am Luke Henshel

Luke sat quietly in front of the fire, not moving or flinching. He could hear the sounds of Samantha’s quiet breathing and a bit of his captain’s snoring. Luke smiled and glanced at each of them sleeping. At least they’re sleeping peacefully, Luke smiled. Despite all the horrible things that happened to them, he was glad that they still managed to close their eyes and get some sleep. Unfortunately for him, his own anxiety of the cave kept him awake. The sight of the solid gold on the walls chilled him to the bone. His ears no longer twitched at the sound of the whispers of the plants. The cavern was literally filled with dead air.

And that did nothing to soothe his anxiety.

He sighed and slumped his back against the cavern wall. Was there anything he could do other than sit around? Then, he realized that he did bring something to keep him occupied. He opened his bag and plucked out a book. It was a thin white book with a picture of a golden haired little boy in a green suit, standing on a field while looking at the many stars that loomed above him. Luke chuckled as he brushed his hand against the book. Despite the many creases, the many tears, and the many instances that his captain offered to replace the book, Luke would have none of it. For there would be no book like this one, Luke had once told him.

“This book may have been reprinted so many times but,” Luke shook his head. “None of them will be the same book that my captain first read to me. It is because we spent time with this book that it will always be our special book.”

He flipped open the page and began to read. It was a bit of a struggle for him at first. He remembered the times he had to squint just to see if he was hallucinating about the letters swapping places. But Brandon had always helped him point it out. A small smile appeared on his lips when he remembered one of the lines his captain first read to him.

“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.” Luke repeated. He even remembered the questions that followed after Brandon read it to him.

Grown-ups? What are grown-ups?

They’re bigger humans, they’re older too.

How do they grow? Do they have roots like plants do? Do they take in sunlight too?

They don’t grow that way. They grow by exploring the world and making sure they don’t die.

Die? What is die?

Goddamn it, beansprout. So many questions…

I’m sorry.

Don’t apologize. Asking questions and learning is better than being ignorant of the things around you.

Oh… What does ‘ignorant’ mean?

Ah goddamn it.

It was then that Luke decided to keep asking questions. Even if they did spend eight hours trying to understand the book, they spent those eight hours together. And those eight hours together with Brandon and the book, could never be replaced with a newer copy of the book. All the memories I spent with it meant something to me, Luke smiled softly. He then looked at the book once more where he opened to a page. He saw then the airplane pilot walk hand-in-hand with the little boy towards a wall and when he turned to the next page, he saw the boy fall to the ground.

“He fell as gently as the tree falls,” Luke read on. “There was not even any sound, because of the sand.”

Small tears began to appear in his eyes as he continued reading. Was that how Death was like? He could do nothing but wonder about it. With a sigh, he then tucked away his book and resumed to watching the purple flame dance again. The dryad quietly hugged his legs as he looked at the golden apples on the tree. They did look lovely. Their skins appeared to be polished, shimmering despite the dim lights of the cavern. How could something look so metallic yet be edible? A frown marred his features as he looked closely at the apple. His foot stepped into the water only for a sharp pain to shoot through his body. He gasped and staggered back when he saw his foot covered in water but slightly turning gold before fading away.

“What in the world was that?” Luke shook his head. He then took a look at his foot, seeing small traces of gold. “Wow, that wasn’t good. I thought this only happened when it was iron...”

Suddenly, he heard shuffling. Luke snapped his head up only to see Beatriz, Samantha, and Brandon all stand up all of a sudden.

“Uh guys?” Luke called out to them. “Is there something wrong?”

The three of them didn’t answer but instead walked straight out of the camp they had built for themselves.

Luke blinked in disbelief; now things were getting strange! His captain would never just sleep walk! When awoken, his captain would just sit up and stare blankly at the wall for a few minutes before groaning and falling back asleep. While he had never seen Samantha and Beatriz fall asleep, he knew now something was wrong. They even ditched their weapons! Luke saw both his captain’s gunblades lying against the wall and Samantha’s staff lying on the ground. Beatriz’s scythe lay folded on one side, abandoned by its owner.

“Okay, this is bad.” Luke muttered. He searched around desperately before grabbing their weapons. “This is really bad.”

Luke quickly strapped on the gunblades to his body, although it somewhat dragged its tips in the dust behind him. He grabbed Beatriz’s folded scythe and shoved it into his bag before making a break for them.

The dryad bolted after them, listening to their footsteps echo through the hollow caverns. He shivered as the cold winds licked against his skin. When did the caverns become that cold? The winds lashed out at him as it cleaved through his skin, causing him to wince at the searing pain. He gasped and staggered back only to see there was a large searing gash on his arm. Luke winced and looked forward, seeing the silhouette of his captain, the princess, and her lady-in-waiting slowly disappear through the end of the tunnel. His body trembled and fear caused a chill to run down his spine. Was he going to push it?

I’m scared.

Those words echoed loudly in his mind. He remembered the first time he told his captain that. Although Brandon was the last person he wanted to be informed about him being afraid. He was the youngest on the ship those few years ago. He was technically a baby, according to the books and to Brandon’s calculations. He stared for a few moments at the lit up pathway at the end of the tunnel.

Don’t be afraid, Luke. Let’s have a little fun with these scallywags instead.

He smiled warmly at the thought. Everytime he was afraid, Brandon would either whistle or smirk at his opponent. His hands slowly strayed towards his captain’s gunblades that were firmly strapped onto his back. He could feel the power flowing inside the gunblades. It was as if the strength of the entire ocean tossed and turned inside the blades. He slowly drew them both out of their sheathe and gripped the swords tight. Although the fear of the unknown was daunting and that terror continued to rack his insides, Luke took a step forward.

“Don’t be afraid.” He repeated to himself. A small smirk curved up his lips. “Let’s have a little fun instead!”

It was then he made his choice. He had to keep going! His captain never gave up on him, Samantha believed in him, and Beatriz trusted him - he’d be an idiot if he backed down now! He was Luke Henshel, First Mate of the Warhammer! He was not some weakling people would shove aside. The dryad exhaled sharply and steeled himself. Although his fibres screamed in terror, he placed his hand upon his chest to feel his rapidly beating heart.

“You can do this, Luke.” Luke reassured himself. “If Cap never gave up on you then, neither should you give up on him! It’s because...”

“You are forever responsible for what you have tamed.” A fox once said.

The same works vice-versa that because I was tamed by my captain, I too am responsible for him.

It was this that fuelled an adrenaline like no other. Despite the fear causing his hair to stand on all ends, he could feel his own power roiling and boiling inside him. It was as if to spur him on even if the uncertainty of fear seized and froze his blood. Luke gripped the hilts of his gunblades and stared at the bright tunnel. And with whatever courage he had in his little body, he mustered it up and made his choice.

The dryad bolted forward, never looking back. Luke knew there was not much time left. Wherever they were going, he was certain that the princess and two of the other knights had gained a considerable distance ahead of him. Luke closed his eyes and struggled to hear the whispers of the nature around him. Frustration built up inside him and he clucked his tongue. The dryad could barely hear anything! Finally, a blinding light reached his eyes as he burst through the tunnel entrance only to find himself to a new place.

“Ugh,” he winced at the glaring light before managing to get his senses back. “Wh-where am I?”

He gasped at the sight. He stood at what appeared to the base of a golden waterfall. The rushing of the golden water echoed throughout the walls of the caverns as it made ripples in the pond below. Plants had turned solid gold and even the stalactites and stalagmites in the area were made of solid gold. But that wasn’t the thing that worried him. He saw creatures – both human and animal – hardened into solid gold statues! Their expressions mixed, many of them had faces of terror. Luke shivered as he slowly stepped forward, keeping his grip on Brandon’s gunblades.

“I… I don’t remember seeing this place before,” Luke shook his head. Suddenly, he saw Brandon, Samantha, and Beatriz standing on one side. “Cap! Princess! Bea!”

He bolted towards them, sheathing the blades. The moment he got close however, his blood froze with horror. Their bodies slowly were turning golden and their feet seemed to be cemented to the ground. Although their expression was stony as if they were in a trance, Luke quickly tried shaking them out of it. He tried slapping Bea across the face, shaking Brandon’s shoulders wildly and yanking Samantha’s long black hair. Only to no avail, the three of them were completely unresponsive.

“What in the world?” Luke shook his head, stepping back in terror. “How could they possibly be catatonic!? They were okay like 20 minutes ago!”

A small laughter echoed around him. “I see the chaos that the golden apple has caused.”

Luke, admonished, turned around to see a shadow standing above him on a ledge. “Who are you?”

“Me? I’m just a good man named Aurelius, is all.”

The man named Aurelius leapt off the ledge and landed on the ground inaudibly. Luke gasped when he saw the man standing before him with golden hair with ocean blue eyes. Despite his tall, strong, and lean-muscled build, Aurelius still had a childish expression with an impish smile. He strode towards Luke with both qatars strapped to his waist.

“Who are you?” Luke narrowed his eyes. His gut instinct began screaming inside him. That’s not good. “What are you doing here?”

Aurelius shrugged. “Oh me? Just a wanderer who’s been trapped in the caves for awhile.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Oh maybe the same time around as you.”

“Did you even know when I entered the caves?”

“It was a good two days ago was it not? After your journey through Spinner’s forest, you made your way here.”

Luke bit his lower lip. How did this man know when they came in? His eyes shifted uneasily to the man’s qatars while his hands slowly moved towards the gunblades. He cast a sideward glance to the princess and his fellow knights; they were already knee high in solid gold! The dryad then slowly backed away and shook his head.

Who are you?” Luke repeated his question again. “And what do you want?”

Aurelius chuckled and ran his fingers through his golden hair. His musical laughter echoing throughout the golden caverns. “My name is Aurelius Prince. I am just a wanderer.”

“I don’t think so.”

“There’s no need to be hostile, little beansprout.”

“I have every reason to be, especially with those qatars glaring straight at me.”

Aurelius pouted and crossed his arms. “Oh and to think you were supposedly the naive one.”

Luke’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

Suddenly, a sinister smirk curved up Aurelius’ lips as his hands shot out for his qatars. Luke sensed his movement right away and drew both of his captain’s gunblades, lodging the weapons in between the two swords. The dryad winced and struggled in parrying the blades. He dug his heel to the ground to keep his steady. He could feel himself being overwhelmed. This man isn’t just any wanderer, Luke thought to himself. His mismatched gold and rose coloured orbs met the impish blue eyes with a serious gaze. He could sense something. It was something so sinister that his body had begun to tremble.

“By the way,” Aurelius chuckled at him and pointed his qatars at him. “Santino says hello.”

Luke swallowed hard; Santino was Samantha’s half-brother! “So you’re…!”

“Yes, I’m one of his knights. Allow me to introduce myself a little more properly, beansprout.” Aurelius chuckled with a sinister smirk. He bowed to the dryad. “I am Ser Aurelius Prince, champion of His Grace and Eminence that is Prince Santino.”

Luke exhaled sharply. He didn’t expect Santino’s champion to go after them! He looked at Fool’s Gold cave and mentally berated himself. The First Mate was at a disadvantage! He could already feel the golden winds searing through his skin as it threatened to burn him to ash. His human flesh had begun to slowly peel off and reveal his dark woody skin beneath. He winced at the burning but he couldn’t fight Aurelius in his human form. He was outmatched!

He was outmatched physically that is.

Much to his chagrin and his captain’s frustration, he never did grow any fatter or bigger. His body was small and scrawny with knobbly knees. It was his biggest frustration which was why he kept his gauntlets as a shield. But ever since Xychosia had shoved it into the weapons vault, he found himself unarmed and more reliant on his Dryad powers. Although his powers had served him well, it had frustrated him to no end that he could barely wield a weapon without his body suffering damage from the recoil. However, he took one more look at his arm. He began to peel the dried human skin, letting its burnt remains fall onto the ground to reveal his woody arm. There was one way to do it.

That should be your last resort. There’s always a solution to the problem! Think, think hard!

Luke glanced around, looking at the cave. Everything was literally covered in gold! As is, being exposed to the gold-laced air already seared through his skin and burned away his human flesh. He shuddered and winced from searing on his arms. I shouldn’t have worn something so thin, Luke berated himself. The only thing that protected him from the gold-laced winds was his clothes. His lungs began to burn from the gold, searing it and causing him to choke. It’s impossible, Luke shook his head. Anything metal was a weakness to Fae and most especially dryads! Anything that was predominantly metal could burn him. What could he possibly do!?

Use that pumpkin-sized brain of yours to figure it out! Look for a new angle!

“New angle,” Luke murmured. He looked at Aurelius when he noticed that the young man had a scarf wrapped around his neck. “What if…”

He then looked at the pool of where the waterfall crashed and ended. His eyes darted back to Aurelius, checking if he made any movement. He then gently nudged a small pebble with the back of his heel. Much to his surprise, the moment the pebble touched the water - it turned into a solid gold nugget. Luke glanced back at Aurelius before a small smirk curved up his lips.

It’s worth the shot, Luke told himself. He then sneered at Aurelius. “You don’t look very gold to me.”

Aurelius raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“Your name is Aurelius right? Doesn’t that mean gold? Also, prince? Please, I have seen pirates look more princely than you.”

“What did you say?”

Luke smirked; it was working! “I know five ugly people and you happen to be three already!”

A vain-glorious rage filled his eyes as Aurelius roared and lunged at Luke with his qatars swinging. A large smirk curved up Luke’s lips as he quickly stepped aside and let Aurelius leap past him. Luke chuckled as he pointed the gunblade at Aurelius, pressing its Neptunian steel blade against his back.

“See ya!” Luke beamed.

The gunblade exploded with a shot burying itself into Aurelius’ back. Luke yelped as the recoil of the gunblade sent him flying. The dryad crashed into the golden stalagmites as they ripped through his shirt and pierced through his back. He gasped in pain as the searing pain burned through his flesh. Quickly realizing that his shirt had been ripped open and he was completely exposed, he quickly kicked himself back up and tumbled down onto the ground. The dryad gasped and winced, curling up in pain as the gold seared into his flesh.

“Agh, okay, I didn’t think that one out too well.” Luke groaned and curled up into a ball, wincing at the searing pain. “Note to self, take note of the gunblade’s recoil.”

He heard Aurelius’ terrified screams and wild splashing, also taking note of his frantically flailing arms. Luke slowly got up, wincing and struggling from the pain, and hobbled his way over to the pool. His eyes darted back to the princess and her knights, noticing that the gold had already made its way to their waist.

“H-how do I stop this?” Luke looked around for a plant. “There’s gotta be some way!”

Suddenly, he noticed a different coloured plant. It was not completely gold but only its flower was gold. His eyes widened; was it possible? He then looked at the princess and her knight then, he turned his gaze to his captain. He clenched his fist; Luke knew he had to try!

He bolted for the flower and ripped out of the ground. Unlike any of the plants he had touched in the cavern, the plant still had soft flesh and its lush green leaves. Luke closed his eyes and let his powers flow into the plant only to see that the plant was exactly what he was looking for.

“An antidote!” Luke beamed in delight. Then, he had another problem. “Now, how to make them eat it?”

He looked at the flower for one moment until another searing pain shot through him. Luke gasped out in pain only to find a large golden spear ripping through his right rib. The dryad stumbled forward to catch himself only to wince from another thundering blow to the head. Luke yelped and fell, crashing onto the gold floors and flung the gunblades aside. The gold burned his skin only to have his head stomped on multiple times. Luke gasped and coughed before looking up only to see that Aurelius had survived.

“How dare you call me ugly!” Aurelius roared and stomped harder on Luke’s face. “My golden hair makes me more beautiful than you’re bony body!”

Luke coughed and gasped, wincing at every blow. As every stomp slammed against his temple, the dryad then reached out for the other gunblade lying on the side before cleaving Aurelius’ leg off. The champion howled in agony as Luke managed to roll out of the way and grab the other gunblade. This time, he held the blade with both hands and pulled the trigger. The recoil knocked him back a little but Luke shot him straight through the neck.

“That’s for stomping on my head,” Luke coldly said.

Aurelius gasped and coughed with blood pouring out of his mouth. Another gunshot exploded as Luke blew off his left arm.

“That’s for kicking me around.”

Aurelius gasped and blood spewed from his arm. Blood splattered on the ground as he gasped and groaned in pain. He winced lightly only to look up. Luke saw his bright blue eyes widen until his lips curved up into a cruel smirk. The dryad, staring at him in confusion, suddenly then felt loud tremours under his feet and a very familiar angry cry from behind him.

“I see you met my sheep,” Aurelius chuckled. “He does love feeding on grass after all.”

Luke turned around and all his confidence leapt out of the window. Standing before him was the hydra who had tried to kill him and the others awhile ago.

“Oh you’ve gotta be kidding,” Luke shook his head. “How’d you thaw yourself out?”

The hydra glared at him with its eighteen heads, snarling and hissing at him.

“I once asked for a muzzle for this guy but unfortunately he just got angrier.” Aurelius shrugged. “You see, people have been invading my home and taking all the gold here. And you know what happens?”

Luke shook his head.

“A catastrophe. It’s a complete catastrophe! All my wonderful gold will be taken!”

The dryad blinked several times in disbelief. Adults are so strange, he remembered the book he read once saying. He remembered saying that to his captain too when they first crossed a noble. It was a man, with an ego the size of andromeda, boasting and demanding that people praise him. Another was a noble who demanded they respect him for everything he ruled over (which happened to only be his mansion).

“You adult humans are odd.” Luke simply said.

Aurelius scoffed and folded his arms, crossly staring him down. “Oh?”

“Gold cannot do everything,” Luke shook his head. “It is only a means. Not an end.”

“What do you know? You’re just a Dryad!”

“True, I am just a Dryad to you.”

Aurelius gasped when suddenly he saw Luke’s human skin peel away. The ground began to rumble and the sheer force split the earth. Roots had crushed and tore their way through the golden floors, revealing the soil below. More thorny roots forced its way out when it began making its way towards Luke. Aurelius staggered back when he saw Luke standing in his full form as a Dryad.

“But to Princess Samantha, I am her knight. I am Ser Luke Henshel of the Forest!” Luke declared proudly as thorny leaf blades began to form around his arms. “And to my captain, to my saviour,” - his heterochromic eyes revealed a bright molten gold colour and rose pink. “I am Luke Henshel, the First Mate on The Warhammer!”

Luke had never felt so much power in his life. All the leaves grew around his body as the whispers of the earth and nature had grown louder. His ears were no longer curved but instead were pointed like the sharp pieces of a tree’s trunk. The dryad chuckled and spotted both his thorny leaf blades on his arms. The leaves had begun to sprout and sharpen themselves, barely even looking like a leaf. The spines sprouted from the tips of the leaves as his eyes narrowed at Aurelius.

“Time to end this quick!” Luke lunged at him, sparing one side glance to Samantha and the others. I’ll make this quick!

The hydra shrieked as their eighteen heads lunged at him with its snapping jaws. Luke ducked and slid past them. He knew better; cutting the head off of the Hydra wasn’t going to help him. Aurelius roared with his own qatars singing. Luke, bringing out Beatriz’s scythe, charged his energy right through it as the gears burned and revealed black briar thorns.

“Blackthorne Form,” Luke chuckled and nodded. He then looked at the scythe, watching more black vines grow around the shaft. “I should tell Bea about this – !”

“ – Quit mumbling to yourself, you useless weed!” Aurelius growled. His qatars swung faster. “How dare you challenge me! Me, Ser Aurelius Prince of Sofiene!”

Luke glared daggers at Aurelius, whirling his scythe. “You are no knight! You are just a vainglorious scallywag who’s going to get chopped to pieces!”

The weapons clashed and sparked with tiny embers flying between them. Luke winced as Aurelius began pushing him back. Glancing down at the floor, Luke stomped on the ground as roots shot out from the base of his feet to keep him standing. Aurelius, taken aback, dropped his guard as Luke swung the scythe and sent him flying. The dryad gasped and let the vines wrap around his legs, keeping him cemented to the ground.

“You can’t knock me down!” Luke goaded. He then added more spines to the scythe.

Aurelius coughed and gasped before sneering. “Oh, we can do this all day. Because you see,” he plucked out a golden pomegranate and ate six of its seeds. “I’m the one who can survive here.”

Luke gawked; he ate the fruit! “Wait – !”

“Oh no, no need to worry about me. I’ve lived here for years.”

“What?!”

Aurelius snickered and revealed the flower that Luke had plucked out from the ground. “You were right. This flower is known as Golden Lullaby. It is the only known cure to stop people from turning into golden statues.”

The dryad glowered. “Hand it over.”

Santino’s knight hooted with laughter. “It’s amusing to see an unsightly weed making demands of me. You dryads are so naïve.”

“Well, I am just five years old.”

“Unfortunately for you, little boy,” Aurelius chuckled before swallowing the flower whole. “I’m rather in a hasty mood today.”

Luke’s eyes widened in terror; there went the antidote! “No!”

Aurelius sneered at him with his haughty blue eyes staring down at him. “While His Highness did say to bring Samantha back alive, that doesn’t mean I should do the same with her knights!”

Despair boiled inside Luke when he saw the only hope of curing Samantha and the others shoot straight into Aurelius’ throat. He clenched his fist tightly until a warm ooze spread across his palm. His teeth sank into his lower lip; he couldn’t let Aurelius win! His captain would clobber him! Luke dismissed the roots and rerouted all his mana into Beatriz’s scythe. He could feel the darkness inside Beatriz’s scythe. It was a cold and angry mana that clashed with his own. The cold, dark mana cleaved at him from the inside as a dark voice filled his mind.

Give in. Give in to all your rage.

Forgo the teachings of the Forest.

Mother has failed you.

Luke shook his head, wincing at the shredding pain. “Wh-who are you?”

Don’t you understand, Luke? I’ve been with you all this time.

Luke shook his head, puzzled. What was the voice talking about? He had never known anyone else other than Brandon, his former crewmates, the princess, and Beatriz. Luke racked his brains for anybody else. He frowned to himself as he looked at the scythe. Could the weapon possibly be alive? But Beatriz never did talk to herself while fighting. All he remembered was how easily she seemed to be fuelled by her bloodlust. So it couldn’t possibly be her weapon. Who could it possibly be about?

Oh you still don’t know, do you? It’s quite simple...

I am you.

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