Book One: Knights' Festival

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Thanks For The Journey

Samantha struggled to move to no avail.

Her voice had been trapped in her throat. She tried to lift her arms but both of them felt like they had anchors strapped to them. Samantha struggled to twist and move her feet only to realize that waist down, her body had turned into gold! Fear flooded inside her when she realized that she could barely scream or show any signs that she was alive.

Someone help me! Her mind internally screamed.

Unfortunately, that was all she could do.

A sharp pain filled her abdomen when she saw more of her body being transformed into solid gold. She was pretty sure that her fingers and her hands would soon follow suit. Despair and dread dropped a rock into her stomach as she struggled to get a spark of magic. She desperately tried concentrating on a spark of mana. Nothing sparked, much to her dismay. Her limbs were numb and heavy. It was as if she was watching from within her body and her eyes were like a magical window of light.

What’s going on? How do I get out of this?!

While she was struggling to summon her magic, she suddenly felt a cold wave hit her. Joy and relief filled her; at least not all of her senses were dead! She could feel her hairs standing on all their ends and her body shivered. It wasn’t like the golden cavern winds that licked against her skin. It was more dread-filling. Her blood curdled and chilled the moment the winds brushed against her skin. Her eyes widened; it was Beatriz’s magic!

Bea! She wailed. Samantha leapt towards the two magical windows of light, slamming her fists frantically. Brandon! Bea! Anybody!

However, she stopped the moment she saw a black scythe swing.

Samantha gasped at the sight. Could it be?

Instead of Beatriz being the one to wield the scythe, it was Luke. Despite him being scrawny, he was able to swing the scythe with almost the same ferocity as Beatriz did. Fury was imbued in every strike as soon his whole body was covered with black briar thorns. She gasped in surprise as Luke swung the scythe and drove a deep gash into the gold cavern floors. It was something new for her; Luke had never shown that kind of ferocity. Neither did he have that kind of berserker fury dancing behind his eyes.

Wow. It was all Samantha could think and believe. Seeing Luke fight with full power filled her with awe. The dryad had always used less violent methods and focused more on restraint. But it was the first time she saw Luke being pushed to his limits. It was then she remembered his words before she had fallen asleep that night.

It’s because I was tamed by my captain that I am responsible for him too.

It was then she saw what Brandon meant. Luke had pledged his loyalty to him and would do anything for him. Even if he had to risk his life, Luke would not think twice. She saw how the scythe slowly enveloped his body with a shadowy dark cloak and covered itself with black, thorny vines. Luke’s once kind expression had become darker and more ruthless.

He really would do anything for him.

It was that kind of loyalty she aspired to have from her knights. But most of the time, she wasn’t sure how it would get that far. Her mind trailed back to the time she was with Beatriz. They had gone through many tough times. Fighting to get Beatriz spared from hanging, fighting her way to Xychosia, helping find allies, and, most of all - keeping her alive. She knew that she could be sort of a handful. Sort of.

Suddenly, another sharp pain shot through her when she saw her arms slowly turning into solid gold. It started from her fingertips and had already gone past her hips. Her waist was slowly turning into gold as her limbs got heavier. Samantha yelped and struggled to swing her limbs only to fail miserably. The princess paced around her mind in terror, realizing her plight. Because she was frozen, her mana was also frozen.

Oh no! Samantha gasped and panicked, turning to the magical windows of light. Luke, please! Do something!


Luke knew he was short on time.

Unfortunately, he was also short on breath.

His legs wobbled and his knees nearly buckled beneath him. Luke winced in pain as the strain and fatigue burned through his fibres. The dryad could feel the scythe draining his life-force; his vision began to blur as he saw nothing but blood splattering from Aurelius’ battered body. The hydra shrieked and lunged at him as Luke only slashed the head halfway to keep the head on, not giving it a chance to unceremoniously rip its head. The dryad suppressed his urge to howl in pain as a sharp pain shot through his palms. He winced and yowled in pain when he saw his own blood dripping onto the scythe and the main briar thorns that pierced through his flesh. The moment the thorns had torn through his flesh and blood dripped on the shaft, the scythe immediately slurped it up hungrily. It was only then that Luke realized why Beatriz had to kill so many people.

Tch, this scythe is alive!

He remembered the time she had licked her scythe in front of all the pirates in The Coven. She had constantly referred to her scythe as her baby that always needed some food to eat. Luke could feel all his mana being sucked out, as if the scythe intended to leave him as an emptied, dead husk. The dryad growled and winced in pain before finally throwing the scythe to the ground. His chest thumped and his lungs burned from the strain as he watched the blackthorn vines wither and die from around the scythe.

“I have to admit; you have wonderful momentum.” Luke heard Aurelius say.

Luke weakly looked up, wincing from burning only to let out a heavy chesty cough. Blood spewed from his lips and splattered on the floor, realizing that the scythe had drained him out.

Tch, Luke shook his head. He thought the momentum of using the scythe’s brute power would have turned the battle instantly to his favour. He looked towards the Hydra whose heads hissed above him. The dryad breathed slowly, trying to regain his composure. His heart threatened to burst out of his chest and his blood rushed into his limbs. He could feel every fibre in his body screaming at the sight of the hungry Hydra.

“I honestly half expected you to cry and scream like a little baby,” Aurelius scoffed. He then gave the boy a mocking sneer. “But apparently, I was wrong.”

Luke remained silent as Aurelius kicked him in the chin, flipping the boy over. The dryad gasped and keeled over only to slam his back onto the ground. He coughed out blood as Aurelius stomped onto his stomach repeatedly before slamming and crunching his foot against Luke’s breastbone.

“You’re a stupid cunt, you know that.” Aurelius sneered. “You think that a dying little weed like you can save your friends from turning into my personal collection of golden statues?! Think again!”

Luke remained silent and spat in Aurelius’ face.

“How dare you!” He gasped. His face contorted into fury and rage as he stomped again and again on his chest. “How dare you spit at my beautiful face!”

The dryad winced and took in the pain silence. Just like when I was kidnapped back then, Luke mournfully reminisced. He remembered the time that he was strapped to a post and flogged. He remembered every strike, every blow, and every piece of shrapnel that dug itself into his back at every strike. Aurelius’ blows were nothing compared to his slave trader. He remembered being strapped onto an altar before his wrists were slit open to have his blood spill. At that time, the slave trader had belonged to a cult and intended to slay Luke as a sacrifice. For what, he didn’t know.

But it was also that day that he was saved.

He remembered the doors swinging wide open to reveal a dark silhouette of a young man with jet black hair and lavender purple eyes. His bronzed face paled at the sight before turning into fit of anger when he saw what had happened. It was not the explosive kind of anger but a cold and ruthless anger. It was then he saw his captain mercilessly hack off a man’s arm before gleefully cleaving the man in half. He remembered the singing of Brandon’s gunblades as his shackles were cleaved off and he heard Brandon’s cold words.

I’m going to make you regret every fucking thing you did.

Although Luke wasn’t sure why Brandon snuffed out the candles and shattered the lamps, he only heard the cries and screams of terror. He didn’t move; keeping himself perfectly still unless he wanted to get chopped to pieces by accident. All he remembered after that was falling asleep out of exhaustion. It was only a few hours later that he woke up on Brandon’s back, surprised that his captain was carrying him back home.

Back home. I want to go back home.

Home was a weird word for him. In the dictionary that he read in Libraria, the word ‘home’ was understood as a place of dwelling. A place where one can sleep, relax, and be whoever they want to be. But, there was something else. There were many places where he could be. There were many places where he could sleep and relax. But none of them felt right. No matter where he went, he was out of place. There was only one place he knew was home and it was on the Warhammer. It was serving as Brandon’s right hand even if his captain had bullying tendencies sometimes.

“What’s the matter, you ugly weed!?” Aurelius roared. He stomped harder. “Are you too tired to get up?!”

Luke winced at the pain being dealt to his ribs. A few sickening cracks met his ears as he desperately tried to look for a weapon. Beatriz’s scythe was no longer an option; his palms bled out from merely gripping the scythe and it even sucked him dry of his mana. He gasped in agony as Aurelius stomped on his palm, crushing his bones underneath.

“I find dismembering limbs to be such a bore,” Aurelius groaned with a flip of his hair. He then sneered at him. “Instead, I’ll crush every bone you have into little fragments! Just like how I crush those little twigs and leaves under my foot!”

Luke bit his lower lip hard, fighting against the pain. At every sickening crack of his bones, he could hear his fibres threatening to rip his mouth open to release his howls of pain. But he chose not to. He dared not to give Aurelius the satisfaction he sought. Suddenly, he saw a small glint at the corner of his eye. He turned his head a little to see his captain’s gunblade lying on the ground near him.

“Cap’s blade!” Luke whispered in delight.

He looked up and saw Aurelius sneering and gloating at him. The next part of the plan was to get him to stop. Luke knew he couldn’t keep take the battering forever. A smirk curved up the dryad’s lips as he came up with a plan.

“Use that pumpkin-sized brain of mine to figure a way out of the problem.” Luke chuckled under his breath. “Look for another angle.”

He then smirked at Aurelius. “You know, being sadistic totally doesn’t suit you.”

Aurelius raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Realizing that he got Aurelius’ attention, the dryad continued. “That disgusting glint in your blue eyes – you really can’t carry it. I’ve seen a little girl carry it better than you!”

“What!?”

“Yeah, look at your reflection! The whole place is capturing how ugly you look.”

Horror painted itself all over Aurelius’ face as he leapt off to look into the golden walls to check on his reflection. Luke beamed as he rolled away from Aurelius’ foot and grabbed the gunblade lying at the side. The dryad quickly got up to his feet as he spotted Aurelius meticulously checking every nook and cranny on his face. He snickered; it was trickery but he remembered what his captain had once said, ‘all was fair in love and war’. With throwing the safety lock up, Luke removed the safety lock on the gun and pointed the gunblade straight at the temple of Aurelius’ head. He heard a small click and despite his fatigue eating away at him, he stood still and kept the gunblade pressed against the champion’s skull.

“Impressive. Playing on my vanity to get out,” Aurelius chuckled but remained still. “And what will you do about it, little dryad? Killing me won’t save your friends.”

Luke growled. “It’s over. Find me another antidote. Now.”

“I don’t take orders from a vegetable. Especially one that’s about to get chewed.”

Luke paused for a moment until he saw a shadow looming above him. The dryad’s eyes widened when he realized whose shadow it was. In a split second, Luke quickly jumped away with the Hydra growling and snapping its jaws. As its eighteen heads lunged after him, Luke leapt onto the golden ledges and bolted away from the creature.

“I have to get to higher ground,” Luke shook his head. “I can’t fight that thing head on!”

He warily spared a glance at his friends who were almost completely encased in gold, halfway through their upper torsos. Luke bit his lip; there had to be another way to stop them from turning into solid gold! His eyes darted to and fro for another flower only to have his thoughts interrupted when one of the hydra’s heads nearly head-butted him into the cavern wall. Luke yelped and dropped to the ground to duck. He snickered at the sight of the hydra smashing its face into the wall.

“Oooh, you better hope your dentist can fix that,” Luke chuckled. “Don’t feel too bad though, they could give you false gold teeth.”

Gold teeth.

Suddenly, Luke had an idea. He glanced towards the waterfall where he remembered throwing Aurelius in. If not for the antidote, Aurelius would have turned into solid gold! A triumphant smirk curved up his lips as he bolted towards the Hydra instead.

“Hey! You want a piece of me!?” Luke goaded. He pointed to himself. “Come and get me!”

The hydra snarled and chased after him. Seeing all its eighteen heads snapping and wanting a piece of him, the dryad quickly bolted to and fro to avoid all the heads coming after him. That’s it, keep ’em coming, Luke chuckled. If there was anything he knew about a creature with too many heads, it was that they were going to be in one hell of a tangled mess. He leapt over one head before bludgeoning one with the gunblade, slipping through a tiny opening between the rearing necks.

“Get the boy, you stupid thing!” Aurelius screamed. “Seize the boy!”

The hydra shrieked and began chasing after Luke only to have them either bump into each other or get tangled. Knowing that he was smaller and faster, Luke used it to his advantage. He pulled out some mushrooms he had picked out from Arachnos and enchanted them, throwing the mushrooms against the ground. The moment he did, the mushrooms exploded into a huge cloud of gas and the force propelled Luke straight up into the air. The dryad then spotted all the heads and their necks getting tangled with one another when he saw an opening on the creature’s back.

“If I can’t cleave your head off,” Luke pointed the blade down and launched himself at the hydra. “I just ought to jam this into your heart and be done with it!”

With one strike, Luke plunged the gunblade into the creature’s back. The hydra screamed and tried to bite his head off only start stumbling around. The dryad grunted and pulled out the blood soaked Neptunian steel gunblade only to see another head shooting for him. He yelped and dropped flat onto its back, narrowly avoiding its attempt to tear his body in two. As its blood began to spurt and splatter, the dryad quickly grabbed Brandon’s gunblade and made his way off the Hydra. With more heads swinging, Luke blocked the incoming heads before sneaking through tiny gaps in between their necks. Now was one of those times that he was thankful for being skinny. Luke slid past the swerving heads and snapping jaws, making his way out from the hydra’s many necks. He slipped into the middle of all the heads, noticing that it had lost him.

“Hey, it’s me, your Conscience!” Luke hollered. “I know we haven’t talked in a long time but seriously, you need a bath!”

The hydra roared and snapped its jaws towards its body, tearing off a piece of its flesh. Luke smirked and jumped out of the tangled mess, tumbling out and landing at the edge of the golden pool. He could sense that the hydra was already frustrated with him. He could also hear its stomach growling from hunger. As much as he hated hurting animals, this particular animal wanted to tear him from limb to limb and have him as a salad with blood as its dressing. Luke sighed and shook his head.

“I’ll do my best to keep it painless and quick,” Luke whispered. He then waved his hands in front of the Hydra, yelling. “Hey! Over here!”

The Hydra soon saw Luke and with an angry roar, charged at him. Despite its eighteen heads all tangled up, the creature showed no difficulty in trying to run him over. At the sight of the creature, Luke smirked. He dug his heels into the ground and waited for the creature rush over to him. Its molten gold eyes glared at him with its flaming scales and its golden spade shaped tail, glimmering from the lights within the cavern.

“Hold your ground to the very last moment,” Luke reminded himself. His body trembled at the creature’s heavy footsteps getting louder and stronger. But the moment he saw it had built enough momentum, Luke made his choice. “Now…!”

At the last minute, Luke tumbled out of the way and gave the Hydra no time to stop running. The creature gasped when it saw the golden pool right before it. Struggling to stop, the hydra dug its claws into the ground only to tumble over and fall into the water with a loud splash. The golden water washed over Luke as well from the impact as Aurelius watched on in horror.

“No! No!” Aurelius cried out. “My sheep…!”

Luke gasped in pain when he saw the Hydra crying and screaming. He winced at the sound of its agonized cries, shutting his eyes to keep away from the gruesome sight. He could tell that the creature was already swallowing up big amounts of the golden water, splashing wildly as some of it hit his body. Luke winced as the water whipped against his body from the hydra’s flailing slowly noticing less water had been hitting him. The cries of the Hydra slowly became softer and softer until he heard a loud thud beneath his feet. His eyes slowly opened only to see that the Hydra was now completely submerged in water, condemned to be a golden statue for eternity.

Aurelius rushed towards the pond, screaming. “My sheep, my beautiful beloved sheep - gone!”

Luke shook his head. “Your sheep was a Hydra.”

“It was the one that prevented anyone from taking my gold!”

“Doesn’t change the fact that your ‘sheep’ is still a hydra with eighteen heads.”

Aurelius growled and charged at him with his Qatars swinging, his face purple with rage. “You will pay for this!”

Luke could barely feel his limbs. His grip on Brandon’s gunblade began to loosen up and his vision began to blur. He knew he was at his limit. His eyes however went to Beatriz’s scythe and Brandon’s other gunblade lying on the ground. He spotted the thorns that had fallen off Beatriz’s scythe as an idea hit him. He looked at Brandon’s gunblades before looking at the water once more. A chill ran up his spine at the sight of the gold in the water. As is, metal was terrifying to any Fae-type creature. Most especially Dryads. Metal was the last thing they wanted to come in contact with. Although he was able to hold guns, swords, and, other metal objects, he never did try ingesting it or absorbing it through his pores. But whatever it was, he had no mana and Aurelius still had enough power to pummel him down. Luke shook his head; it was worth a shot.

“I can’t beat him head on,” Luke murmured. He winced for a moment before clenching his hand around the gunblade tightly while dunking his other arm into the golden pool. “But I know Nature can!”

The moment his skin came in contact with the water, his pores sucked up everything. As the gold traces filled his veins, Luke cried out in pain as the metal ores began to burn him from the inside. Sweat poured down his face as he struggled to control the flow of water and sent it straight to Brandon’s gunblade, causing it to suddenly hum and glow to life. The gunblade shimmered into a bright icy blue colour as a blue glyph appeared at the tip of the blade.

“Flow through me!” Luke commanded.

The golden water boiled and exploded, rushing through Luke and out through the gunblade. It burned through Luke as the dryad gasped in pain, struggling to stay standing and to keep the sword pointed straight at Aurelius. The Neptunian steel blade glimmered in both gold and blue as a large, violent torrent of water blasted out from the tip. Aurelius gasped and staggered back with the water blasting him.

“No!” Aurelius roared. He charged on. “No…!”

Soon, Luke saw Aurelius body slowly turn into gold the more he swallowed up the water. His eyes widened as Aurelius screamed in agony as his limbs grew heavier with each step. The dryad shuddered as Aurelius drew closer with his Qatar ready to decapitate him. Luke swallowed hard and snapped his eyes shut. He waited for the blade to lop his head off only to realize a few moments later that he felt no pain. His eyes slowly opened when he saw Aurelius completely frozen as a golden statue with a look of contempt and anger as his expression for all eternity.

“Glad that’s done,” Luke exhaled sharply and dropped flat on the floor, exhausted. He closed his eyes for a moment only to realize that the princess and her knights were still turning into solid gold statues. “Oh no!”

He quickly leapt up and darted towards the princess and her knights. Their expressions, still stolid and emotionless, made Luke fear for the worst. The dryad immediately began scanning the area; there had to be another flower that Aurelius ate! He quickly darted to and fro the cave, digging up the flowers only to realize that there was none left. Despair filled him as the rage threatened to burst from his chest. Despite all the hard work he had put into saving the princess and her knights, he found himself unable to do so. Luke slammed his fist on the ground, crying out in frustration.

“DAMN IT!” Luke screamed and slammed his fist on the floor, letting his voice reverberate all over the caverns. “Damn…”

Luke whimpered at his uselessness. Even if he had defeated Aurelius, it didn’t stop the transformation. The dryad looked around, scampering around in hopes of finding something. He dug through the plants nearest to the soil until he realized something. While the plants had turned gold, their stems and leaves had not. His eyes widened when he looked at himself, then at the ground, and lastly at the princess and her knights. Was it possible? To isolate the gold from their bodies and channel it somewhere else? He looked at his hand and then at the princess and her knights slowly turning into solid gold. But the moment he saw the gold slowly reaching his captain’s shoulders, Luke made his choice.

“I only have one shot at this!” Luke rushed towards them, ignoring the fatigue and strain in his limbs.

He then changed summoned the vines tucked away in his arms and formed sharp needles. With a deep breath, he sent the needles spiralling into their forearms. The moment it pierced their arms, he began to take in their blood. But it wasn’t just blood he was taking in. He was taking in the gold that poisoned their body and other toxins that their bodies had taken in. He winced and gasped, fighting against the burning feeling in all his fibres. His throat burned and all he could manage was a groan of pain burning from his throat. He looked at the princess and her knights, hoping to see any signs of life.

“Come on, please,” Luke begged. “Please work.”

Despair settled into the pit of his stomach when he saw no spark in his captain’s eyes. Fear seized him and ripped his heart apart, seeing no signs of life whatsoever inside him. He glanced also at Samantha to check any signs only for her to stay completely still, unlike her usual air-headed self. Beatriz remained quiet and emotionless, not the usual for someone who ran on bloodlust on a daily basis. He increased the speed of absorbing all the gold from their blood with renewed vigour, noticing that their body was slowly changing back to normal. Soon, he heard a small groan from Beatriz who shook her head.

“Ugh, what happened? I feel like a boulder smashed into my skull.” Beatriz groaned and hung her head limply, seeing that the gold all over her body began to fade. “Whoa! What the fuck is all that!?”

Luke chuckled airily and nodded. “I’ll explain to you later. Right now, I have to finish the process. Please do not move.”

Beatriz, puzzled, turned around to see a vine sucking up blood from her arm. “Ooooh, blood…”

“Yeah, I kinda have to filter it out a bit. Can’t have you walking around with some gold in your body.”

“Hey, leave me some! I might be able to shit out gold nuggets.”

“Uh… no, Bea. It doesn’t work that way.”

“You never know. It could happen.”

Could is different from will and only considers the possibility of it happening.”

Beatriz pouted. “Man, you take out the fun from everything.” She then folded her arms, suddenly struggling. “Ow, why does this thing still feel so heavy!?”

“It’s more because your blood flow had been frozen into solid gold so getting your sensations back will take awhile,” Luke explained. He chuckled and then looked up at Samantha and Brandon. “Sam? Cap?”

At the sound of his voice, Samantha suddenly snapped out of her daze and beamed in delight. “Oh my Deus! Luke, you did it!”

Luke shrugged humbly. “I did what I had to do.”

“Y-you used Bea’s scythe and kicked his behind!”

“I think what you mean to say is, ‘I kicked his ass’. And yes, I did.”

“Whatever! You did that! Totally cool beans!”

The dryad smiled while maintaining his focus on the extraction process. “Well, I had to. He wasn’t going to go down quietly.”

After Samantha had woken up, Brandon stirred a little and shook his head. “Ugh, I feel like puking.”

Upon hearing his captain stir, Luke nearly jumped for joy. And he would have too, if he hadn’t been extracting the rest of the gold from their bodies. He would have thrown himself and hugged his captain if not for the burning pain that seared through his fibres from taking all the gold residue present in their blood. All he could manage to however was force out a smile despite the pain.

“It’s quite normal, Cap.” Luke reassured. “Your body’s still trying to adjust breathing and functioning again after being held in some sort of trance.”

“I feel as if I got kicked into Davy Jones’ Locker, twice.”

“Well, it’s a whole lot better than getting cannon-balled in the face.”

“True that.”

Soon, Luke had drained all the gold from their body and they were moving again. A weak smile curved up his lips as he retracted all the vines that he had used as needles. Beatriz beamed in delight while jumping up and down as if to get her body working again. Samantha twirled around and checked every part of her body, to see if anything was still made in solid gold. Brandon examined his hands and his feet, checking if all his fingers and toes were accounted for.

“Yeap, they’re all stuck to me.” Brandon chuckled and looked up at Luke with a smile of approval. “Way to go.”

Luke chuckled. “Thanks. I’m just glad you guys are okay. Any more silence, I’ll go insane.”

“Probably.” Brandon stretched his arms and wiggled them around for a bit. “You got too used to a noisy deck of sea dogs and Samantha’s screaming.”

Samantha pouted. “I don’t scream.”

“Says the one who was yelling ’Burn Them All!’ against some giant humanoid spider.”

“It was a spider!”

“Does nobody remember how I had to fight that thing alone?”

“I was with you!”

“You weren’t exactly aiming, lass.”

Luke chuckled at the sight of Brandon, Samantha, and Beatriz slowly coming back to life. It was a wonderful sight for him. As much as he wanted to find out who he truly was, he loved spending time with the rest of the knights and the princess. Samantha had become a sister to him; she intrigued him in so many ways that he didn’t understand. How she had the pipes to scream so loud, her insane penchant for purple, and also her weird habit of crushing his face against her breasts - there were so many things that made her more just like a normal girl. But there was also something he took note of: her magic. Her magic was definitely not that of the ordinary kind. She had learned summoning, spoke in Prime Language, and even created spells that supposedly had faded through time.

“That can’t be possible.” He shook his head. “Unless…”

Suddenly, realization hit him. He remembered the discrepancy in her memory when she was asked about the Black Argus disease. She had no clue on what it was! Then again, Luke thought. The disease did make one delirious. She could have also been too young to know what the Black Argus disease was.

But before he could say anything, he felt something bubble inside him. His eyes widened and shrank into his eye sockets as his stomach suddenly began to cramp. Luke gasped and coughed, spitting out blood. He staggered back as a fire burned through his veins when he saw his flesh suddenly beginning to rupture. His eyes widened when he saw golden vines cracking and sprouting out from different parts of his body. Fear seized him as he struggled to stay standing only to keel over on the ground.

Wh-what is this?


“Luke!” Brandon leapt after him.

The pirate couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Luke’s formerly greenish-brown skin slowly started turning gold. But it wasn’t like a solid gold statue. Instead, Luke’s tiny body began to violently tremble and mutate. Luke howled and cried out in agony as spines suddenly sprouted out and ripped through his back, forming bladed spines. His left arm slowly lost its human form and the leaves and thorns that formed the blade on his arm withered and instead violently ripped itself apart to reveal golden claws. The small boy’s legs twisted and cracked with his knees becoming more hock-jointed.

Luke gasped and growled in pain. “C-cap…”

“Fuck, how the hell did this happen!?” Beatriz gawked as she dropped down to her knees, examining Luke’s violent mutation. “How come you’re turning gold!?”

Samantha, jittery, frantically scanned around. “Luke, is there any antidote nearby!?”

Luke winced and chuckled bitterly. “There was. But the dead guy ate it.”

Beatriz blinked. “What dead guy?”

Luke weakly managed to point to the corpse behind him, revealing Aurelius solid gold form. Brandon saw the man’s face contorted in anger with his Qatar frozen mid-swing. Aurelius had been turned into solid gold - all the way to his eyes. Brandon examined the golden statue, running his finger against its golden arm only to wince at the coldness of the metal.

“Wow, we missed a whole episode here,” Beatriz gawked. But she then shook her head. “Wait, how did you manage to cure us then!? We should have been golden statues by now!”

Luke bit his lip, hanging his head guiltily. “I had to suck the gold out using my vines.”

At the sound of Luke’s confession, Brandon roughly grabbed Luke by the shoulders. “You bloody idiot! You know you’re not supposed to ingest gold!”

“And what would you rather have me do!? Wait and see you guys waste away into golden statues!?”

“You could have found another antidote!”

“There wasn’t any time! You guys would have turned into solid gold by the time I would’ve got back!”

Brandon was horrified. How could Luke bring this upon himself? His heart began to squeeze and threatened to explode out of his chest as rage and frustration began to overwhelm his logic. The pirate captain slammed his fists in the ground. Luke had saved them again! But there was another thing that ripped him apart from inside.

“Luke, you knew…” Brandon shook his head. “You knew, didn’t you?”

Luke chuckled. “I knew what?”

“You knew that you were allergic to gold or any kind of metal.”

“Yeah.”

“But you still went in. Why?”

Luke winced in pain as more spines and claws began to shoot out, slowly disfiguring his body even further. A howl burst from his throat as more spines began to sprout from his arms and his back. His face slowly became more disfigured with his teeth growing longer and more jagged.

“I… I knew that it was the shortest way,” Luke managed to cough out. His voice however had taken a drastic drop in tone and came out like a guttural growl. “I… I just didn’t expect one of Santino’s champions to show up.”

Samantha’s eyes widened. “Santino’s knight!? He was here!?”

“Yeah, agh,” he winced as blood splattered on the floor from his violent transformation. “Aurelius Prince. He was the champion of Santino.” Luke coughed and then glared at golden pool. “And apparently, the Hydra was his sheep.”

Brandon gawked. “His sheep!?”

“The one who would prevent his version of a catastrophe: the robbery of all the gold in Fool’s Gold Pit.”

“So, he decided to get a man-eating serpent!?”

“Well, it’s more of a drake,” Luke chuckled while correcting his captain. Suddenly, he let out a loud cry of pain as he buckled over and threw up golden liquid.

Brandon grabbed a hold of Luke’s shoulders. “Stay with me, Mate. I’m gonna fix this!”

“You can’t reverse this, C-cap,” Luke weakly whispered as his bony fingers gripped Brandon’s arms. “I... I don’t have much left.”

“Use your mana!”

“I would... if Bea’s scythe didn’t suck me dry.”

Beatriz’s eyes widened in astonishment. “You actually got to swing that thing!?”

“It was a pain in the ass but I was able to corner him for awhile.” Luke chuckled and then revealed his bleeding palms. “I only had to drop it after a good ten minutes of swinging the scythe.”

Brandon stared aghast at the sight of Luke’s bloody palms. He could clearly see that something had shredded through his flesh. He saw the puncture holes which he could only assume were from the scythe. Terror seized him as more of Luke’s body began to violently bulge and mutate. Soon, the spines on his back slowly spread out and revealed gold leathery wings with claws on each joint. Another set of smaller wings sprouted out from right above his buttocks as crack lines started appearing on his face.

“C-Cap, please,” Luke begged. “I-I can’t hold this forever!”

Samantha shook her head and turned to Beatriz, frantic. “Isn’t there anything we can do!?”

The lady-in-waiting’s crestfallen and defeated expression said it all. “The-there is no way for someone to overcome mana poisoning.”

Samantha gasped at the revelation. “WHAT!?”

“The only thing we can do now is... is to kill him before he loses his humanity.”

“Y-you can’t be serious!”

“Sam, I wished I was just fucking around like I normally do. But, I’m not.”

Samantha, with tears welling up in her eyes, turned to Brandon and whimpered. “I... I’m so sorry...”

The sentence dropped like a boulder in Brandon’s stomach. He couldn’t kill Luke; he was his First Mate! Brandon’s hands clenched into fists until his knuckles paled. Anger swelled up inside him as he turned to Luke, seeing that the mutation had continued. Luke barely looked recognizable now. His formerly boyish features were replaced with horns and hardened features similar to that of a demon. He could see the light in Luke’s eyes flickering with fear but also with a sense of acceptance. The dryad’s pupils narrowed as he started panting and gasping. Luke then shook his head and forced himself to stand up, charging straight for a wall.

“Luke!” Brandon yelled. “Wait –!”

Luke’s body had slammed full force into the cavern wall, causing a loud thud to echo around the cavern. Luke gasped and whimpered in pain as he curled up in foetal position. The captain could clearly see the stream of tears falling down Luke’s face. The young dryad’s features were mutating between demonic and human, making it a terrifying sight.

“I-I can’t,” Brandon shook his head. He was adamant, throwing his gunblade aside. “I won’t! There’s always a solution to the problem!”

Beatriz snapped. “Right now, the only solution we have is putting him out of his misery!”

“That’s not an option!”

“You bet it is! Unless you can magically inhale all the gold poisoning inside Luke, he’s going to turn into some mindless, rampaging monster!”

Brandon exhaled sharply and walked towards Luke, seeing the dryad shivering and embracing his body tight. He glanced at his gunblade on the ground before slowly picking it up. His hands trembled with fright and guilt. He had never killed anyone before. And he certainly didn’t want Luke’s blood to be the first one he spilled! He kept his hands completely clean in order to slaughter him. But that man wasn’t the one he was thinking about right now. It was Luke. And at the moment, nobody offered him a better solution other than lopping his head off.

Guilt filled Brandon as he made his way to Luke, crouching in front of him. “Mate?”

Luke weakly turned his head towards his captain, still violently convulsing. “Y-yeah?”

“I’m sorry... I wish I could have done more.”

“Don’t feel bad, Cap. I’m just going on another adventure.”

“Yeah, without me.”

Luke chuckled weakly. “Cap, I’ll always be with you. You’re not like those other humans I’ve come across.” He smiled. “You were my special friend.”

Brandon could feel his tears threatening to spill out. All the sentiments and the emotions threatened to burst out of his throat. But his throat clenched and choked back his urge to cry. His heart sank into the pit of his stomach as Luke let out a slight whimper of pain.

“C-Cap, I’m scared.” Luke admitted. He shook his head. “Does Death hurt?”

The captain shook his head. “I promise. I’ll make it quicker than falling asleep.”

“P-please do. But, Cap, can I leave you a present?”

Brandon blinked. “What present?”

The dryad weakly managed to pull out a small pouch from his pocket. “I-I was supposed to wear this when I reached adolescence. B-but, I know I won’t reach that age now... so, I wanted you to have it.”

Brandon looked at the purple pouch in his hand. “What is this?”

The dryad replied. “When you look at the forests and the trees, listen closely to the winds. Listen to the song of the leaves. For perhaps in one of those forests, I’ll be running around there. And when you look at every forest, you will know that I’m there with you.”

Brandon, although he didn’t understand the cryptic meaning behind Luke’s words, simply nodded and placed the pouch in his pocket. “Alright.”

Tears forced their way through his eyes. He managed to catch himself crying and stopped the sudden urge to bawl his eyes out. But I can’t, Brandon shook his head. He didn’t want to make it any harder for Luke.

“Please understand. It’s better this way,” he heard Luke plead. “And, I’d rather have you kill me than someone else.”

Brandon nodded.

“It’s like what he said,” Luke laughed softly, wincing at the pulsing flesh. “I may look dead. But, it isn’t the case.”

The captain nodded. “That’s true.”

“Yeah, this body I have will look like nothing more but an abandoned old shell. Nothing good about those.”

“Except the treasure perhaps housed in them prior.”

“But nonetheless, you already have the treasure. Remember the secret?”

Brandon nodded.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” Luke began.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Brandon finished. He nodded, choking slightly. "Yeah… I know.”

The dryad nodded and extended his hand. “I know I’m a little too old for this but, can you at least hold my hand before you take me out?”

Brandon did more than just hold his hand. His whole body, trembling, threw itself at Luke and wrapped its arms around him tight. The pirate didn’t care that the thorns were already piercing his body; all he wanted to do was give Luke a proper send off. The grip on his gunblade trembled only for Luke to lightly drop his hand on top of his own.

“Thank you for the wonderful three years.” Luke whispered. “It was such a wonderful journey. All the creatures we fought, all the cities we plundered, and all the treasure and sights we saw – everything was the best even if we didn’t have the grandest of lives.”

Brandon’s body continued to tremble as Luke held the captain’s right hand tightly.

“But now that I think about it. I already had the treasure. It was sitting right under my nose. And do you know what it is?”

The captain wasn’t sure if he wanted to cry or scream in rage as he heard Luke’s words.

“The greatest treasure that I ever found was the day you first found me in that Slave Trade and wasted no time in spending your last gold coin to buy me and set me free.”

With those words, Luke nudged Brandon’s hand forward as the captain plunged the gunblade right through the dryad. The First Mate gasped and coughed as his body slowly stopped violently convulsing before his scrawny arms fell limp on Brandon’s shoulders for one last time.

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