Chapter VIII - "Courage Under Fire"
Pandemonium. Zell of flesh and blood assailed those of bone and spectral animation. Undead Ys Zell drones swarmed the skies, pelting, pecking and instinctively biting. All whilst fire, ice, acid, electricity and unknown powers streamed in all directions throughout the daytime winds. No human could possibly have survived, nor been able to explain the frantic fracas of muscular wings and scaled torsos twisting and twirling about--all while razor-sharp claws slashed and stabbed. ‘Insanity’ was the wrong word, but--Nae, Naess--there are others, but none other to make the proper comparison. This was ‘Vas Tach’.
Raeniya was imminently attuned to incoming fire, desperately focused on protecting Jackie. But she also attempted to determine the origin. Beyond that, there was another distinct problem, specifically regarding her powers of Flam: setting everything ablaze. Unlike Zell of ice and poison (for example), one misguided blast, and the very forests and grasslands about Kessoshaero would ignite into infernos! In essence, Raeniya was not free to spit flames with reckless abandon--she needed to act judiciously. This was one of the limitations of being a Zell of Flam. But Jackie was also under fire...
More spine-like projectiles burst from what seemed to be the trees themselves, yet, Raeniya was prepared. She deflected several away with her wings and also by shifting her momentum and flight path. Simultaneously, Raeniya incinerated additional bony lances with three swift flashes of her intense, fiery breath. She was nothing if not precise. No wildfires this Sunsday. But the onslaught continued.
Not all Zell powers were of Flam and Frol (fire and ice). Jackie seemed to have no powers of breath at all, and Link was--of course--Ys Zell. She was also unable to shoot volleys of energy from her jaws, but she was quick. Very, very fast. Nearly double the speed of any typical Zell. A huge advantage: haste kept her ALIVE.
More enchanted ivory bolts soared, but Link zipped and circled around each and every with her naturally acrobatic abilities. Link had a ‘reckless’ but effective flight style, one unlike any Zell. Only Ys Zell could perform such tight, twisting figure-eights or corkscrewing twirls! Absolutely nothing hit her.
“SOMEone’s upset about not being inviiiiiitteedddd...!”
Link’s jovial spirit seemed to penetrate even the darkest of moments. As if she was completely impervious to anything evil, anything deadly--everything of imminent doom.
Jackralvian, however, was in imminent danger. He was about to be hit by a larger arrow which even Raeniya did not detect. But Linky spotted it, posthaste. The adrenaline-charged Ys Zell bolted like a rocket, and within milliseconds, she’d aggressively collided into Jackie! Both tumbled haphazardly to the ground, fortunately safe from serious harm. All jagged arrows of bone had just missed the two Amals.
“Chi-Foi work, Link... that was CLOSE...”
The two best Amals arose from the mud and leaves, and reestablished flight. They caught up with Raeniya quickly. While the three pulled back to gain perspective and distance, unfortunately they were subjected to a perspective of a different kind...
Violetta’s sky chariot was now high and far into the horizon. It was simultaneously a sore and sad view, and yet, dejectedly expected. Raeniya took a deep breath, shook her head, exhaled with a squint, and crossed her arms. Everyone knew what that meant.
“And there she goes: decadent coward. Some Princess.”
Link resonated on precisely the same frequency as did Raeniya: disappointed and disgusted.
“All glitter... no gold.”
Jackie was conflicted over the Princess’s hasty retreat. Although he completely disagreed with Violetta’s choices (and her general demeanor), he truly understood what it felt like to live in both fear, and, being singled out as the source of conflict. But, the Zen’th Zell were deadly. Not every member of Kessoshaero was a warrior. However, it sure seemed that every one of their cadaverous enemies were.
Swarms of battles raged on. The individual skirmishes which polluted the Courtyard and its surrounding forestry were dizzying. However, there was one Zell who remained determined to expose their hidden foes. A certain golden-colored, blind wizard trod carefully yet slowly about the forest floor...
Artemis had situated himself far from Kessoshaero’s defenses--in the thick of it all--amongst dozens of trees. While the many Zell of Kessoshaero aggressively flew to engage in one-on-one melee’ combat or wildly hectic ranged assaults... Artemis stood alone amongst the forest. He methodically paced forward.
The golden conjurer of mysticism ignored all else and listened well; his acute, aural abilities: laser-focused! Bone stilettos whizzed past, yet he paid little regard. Though his physical sight had long eroded away, his remaining senses were significantly enhanced, and allowed Artemis to often detect what others could not.
Nearly within a meditative state, he inhaled a deep, full, long breath--and concentrated. Some noise faded. Other wavelengths of sound were magnified: bony, spinal arrows splitting the air... oceanic swells, far off... war cries, shouted orders, and screams of raging pain. All of these teetered at the very fringe of Artemis’ acutely attuned Mea. Only the constant, windy breeze remained an issue, acting like static, white noise--preventing him from pinpointing his foes. And the sheer multitude of tree leaves shimmering about: well, there were so many! Far too many. The howling zephyr obscured the most subtle of sounds.
But just then, a huge gust stronger than all the others struck, and without warning... subsided! A dead stop--quick quiet. It was as if Time itself had ceased in Taelondria. Artemis listened to the subtle vibrations closely.
Deep inside Kessoshaero, Ziwalos also slowed, as if echoing the momentary silence. Six arms... three and three. The indicators all nearly stopped. And, as if the very Timing of this Sunsday was on the razor’s edge of Fate--Artemis pinpointed the most curious of unnatural sounds: heavy rustling amidst the foliage!
Immediately breaking his trance, his face grimaced with anger and conviction as he valiantly turned back toward Kessoshaero’s grounds. His stentorian warning bellowed into the horizons everywhere...
“INVISIBILITY!! They’re in the TREES!!”
His desperate Spohs echoed into the ears of all at Kessoshaero--just as Leijimoto’s had, earlier. And as before, the Zell warriors echoed right back to acknowledge. The balance of power had shifted back to the Light, and the winds howled alive, gusting through the leaves once again. Ziwalos’ resumed its normal cycle of Time.
Hoping to reveal one or more of the cloaked Zen’th Zell--Llewelyn spat a few specifically directed blasts of frosty breath at the forest floor, searching, but the Fates did not favor him. Nothing was revealed. He knew they were close; he could feel it! But where?
“Take flight! I can barely Jee...”
His trouble: Llewelyn had tried his icy breath low to the ground, nearer to the trunks and lower branches. But, he’d not considered that the Zen’th Zell were perched up high! And that they were changing positions. Stealthily. Using that very rustling of the leaves in the wind to guise their primarily invisible movements.
Dupree’ had an idea, though. Probably the best of them all. But, were it not for Artemis’ warnings, it was unlikely the wielder of swords and armor would have fashioned such an illuminating epiphany. He flew up upon Bardiche, calling to him from afar, just before he closed the distance upon his musically gifted Amal...
“BARD!! Bardiche... bless us with a TUNE, Amal?! Attune...”
As if Timing was key and lock this fine Sunsday, Bardiche smirked at Dupree’s jeu de mots. Not only because he’d dedicated his Epochs to poetry and songwriting, but also because the exact same solution brewed in his own Mea not moments prior: to dispel the mirages and Jee beyond the veil. And Spohsing of brews, all things being equal, an icy drink with a frothy top sounded dashingly refreshing to the Bard! Like Leijimoto, he tired of Vas Tach, and longed only for a wonderful quaff to gulp, and a tale to sing in the Tavern...
...but it would all have to wait until after this battle was won.
Zi, Garjeegyl’s yummy mixtures would have to wait. Bardiche was not about to let another moment pass without ‘playing to the shadows in the crowd’. Firmly holding his instrument in the left, Bardiche raised his right arm high, claws fully extended.
“Such ironic Spohs, winsome wielder of wondrous weaponry! I’ve an ENCHANTING chord prepared. One to dispel doubt... and DISILLUSION!”
His Spohs seemed to echo. Bardiche’s claws began to fall. Time seemed to slow. Ziwalos mirrored the stall. Bardiche’s syllabic resonance carried... careened... SOARED!
Inside Kessoshaero’s crystalline walls, the six indicators of Ziwalos sluggishly lingered once more. Ambient sound faded into emptiness. Bardiche’s claws completed the descent, brushing over sinewy strings. Taut, suspended cords vibrated upon his mercurial Leutronica. The minstrel skillfully executed a sharp, magnificent chord. Digits strummed, caressing and finessing the multi-faceted, sonorous Leutronica...
Melodic sound waves arced outwardly, reverberating everywhere! Taelondria and all its atmospheric glory behaved as if a stone had been cast into still waters, and thus, waves and ripples abounded throughout the air. Swells of light were subtly cast about. The surges of sound and illumination floated, fluttered and wavered! Each and every Zen’th Zell--high, low, or mid amidst the trees, all cloaked by invisibility--was penetrated by these magical waves of deep, humming reverberations! Compromised by musical magic.
Perhaps the only way to describe what summarily occurred (at least--to a human) would be that the previously near-invisible silhouettes of each Zen’th Zell... ‘glitched out’. Frazzled as if static on a screen had interrupted a transmission, Bardiche’s power ballad completely dispelled the their insidious subterfuge. Disillusionment no more!
Simultaneously, Titan’s black, charcoal-colored Amulet faintly glowed. Titan bellowed and roared, flying high into the clouds like a streak of lightning. This drained a significant amount of his stamina, but enabled a ‘Dragon’s eye view’ from far above. The timing was perfect: the great azure easily identified every exposed Zen’th Zell below, their tactical formations, and which wielded crossbows.
“Vile traitors! I Jee you ALL!”
Lunging downward--as would an eagle to ensnare a sea creature--so too did Titan! The gargantuan azure dive-bombed with cataclysmic haste, deep into the lower heights of the battle. The muscular hero ripped about the forestry, wreaking brutal havoc and disarray upon his Zen’th Zell enemies! Branches snapped like kindling, but more so did the bones and sinew of his outmatched skeletal adversaries.
Flushed from their revealed positions, the Zen’th formations and firing lines were completely dismantled. Titan’s immense speed, tactics, and stalwart bravery raged through like a cyclone. The balance of power began to further favor of the Zell of Kessoshaero. As always, Titan fought with the strength and honor of three. He was truly a living legend.
Leijimoto valiantly projected commands and instructions, and Llewelyn growled out tactics of his own. Bardiche unlatched the hidden, razor-sharp blade housed within his mystical, musical Leutronica and cut down two of his unsuspecting foes--lopping one at his left, then one at the right! Music was truly: magic.
Garjeegyl was physically weaker than most typical Zell, but his intelligent usage of acidic potions he’d fashioned into projectile weapons really did the trick to dissipate bone! Intoxicating how Jeeg couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn during casual gem-tossing games in the Tavern, nor was he much good for ranged target practice during training. But in a pinch, within a skirmish: he was dead-to-rights on-target!
“AhhhhhhhRIIIITTTE!! I gots ANOTHER bony bony, Bard!”
“Amazing achievement, Amal! But now, now... don’t become a janky jester, Jeeg...”
Bardiche smiled at his quirky Amal’s ingenuity, but always teased him--even amidst danger. Jeeg was already so wiry, wide-eyed and wound up by his very nature--but, Bardiche’s chiding jokes kept Garjeegyl calm.
Skulking in the shadows amidst the foliage, dust, and fog of the cold morning air, Casscadia slithered forth! It was as if the pockets of darkness and shade combined, and rendered the witch incarnate. The cloaked Zen’th Zell had her sights set on Titan. Nitrozite may have claimed her tactical ideas and plans as his own (nearly every time she offered her ingenuity), but, it was of no concern to Casscadia. She was ready to smite Titan from the Oos in order to claim her prize.
“As high as you soar, you do not Jee ME, great one. On this Sunsday, YOU shall perish! Remuneration for the warriors you stole from US!!”
Prepared with a portable ballista of bone and ivory construction, Casscadia enchanted a horrific, spiny projectile with a dark, poisonous magic. Loading this toxic armament into the machine, Casscadia launched the deadly missile from her hidden vantage point. It connected with a terrible thrashing, raking into the legendary azure Zell’s body! On this Sunsday’s battle, it may have been the very first blow which rendered significant, seething damage to Titan, aching throughout his pulsing veins! Until then, little had fazed him; his naturally dense armor and tightly woven leathery scales were far too resilient. But this time, the blow rendered serious damage.
The bulky hero peered about the clouds, shooting his steely gaze in all directions, but Titan was unable to identify the attacker’s origin, and thus, fought on--engaging once more with the foes at hand.
Casscadia smiled, confident that by launching at least three more additionally tainted shots from her powerful ballista... if they struck true, Titan would fall! Permanently.
Unless someone or something intervened...
Meanwhile, far upon a different side of the battlefield, nearest The Courtyard of Courage (and its surrounding waters), another altercation was in flight. Dupree’, Llewelyn and Artemis closed distance upon Scarlassh--having already bested and defeated other, lesser Zen’th Zell. At the lead, arms-master Dupree’ held his sword aloft, striking at Scarlassh, but missed. He persisted with great zeal as they soared about cliffs, ocean and rock. Dupree’ had faced many foes--but never this particular, one-eyed skeletal assailant.
“Taste sharp steel, Zell of Zen’th!”
Another swing, another miss. Scarlassh was a nervous wreck around dangerously unstable overlords such as Nitrozite (who was decidedly absent from this surprise skirmish), but in battle, he proved cunning; deadly. Scarlassh smugly cackled return-fire to his armored foe’s spirited threats.
“Ss--such a barbaric tool! Are your Talos so sh--short and weak? Hehehehhhh!”
Once again, Dupree’ slashed at Scarlassh and connected, but the blow wasn’t powerful enough to stop the dastardly bone drake. Yet, he howled in pain as Dupree’ proclaimed consecrated heroics.
“Short?! Never! But my weapons are RIGHTEOUS! Haaah!”
Dupree’ sliced at Scarlassh yet once more with his unique blade, but now Scarlassh intended to catch him off-guard with a well-timed counter-attack. This was actually worth noting--all Zell fought with cunning tactics, subtle techniques and razor-sharp skills. Any Zell was vulnerable after either slightly missing their target, or, even when they’d actually connected. Although clearly, this would seem counter-intuitive (especially to an untrained, unaware human), it was precisely the advantage of the counter-attack: Timing.
And Time... was everything. Especially in the lands of Taelondria and beyond its reaches...
And thus, just as Dupree’ landed his action--Scarlassh instantly turned about like a whip, howling out a twisting, dust-riddled cone of doom at both Dupree’ and Llewelyn alike! The two brothers-in-arms were caught in the tornado’s violent wake. Their flight paths disrupted by warped wind, the pair convulsed.
Fortunately, Artemis had fallen behind during this chase (or, more aligned with his level of tact and intelligence, the wise gold Zell calculatedly kept Time and Measure), and quickly divined that now, every moment mattered. Detecting trouble, Artemis knew he’d have to act quickly to save his Amals... but how?
Scarlassh’s tsunami-shaped air currents destabilized both Dupree’ and Llewelyn so badly, they wobbled and shuddered as they flew. The conflicting waves of gas amplified tenfold, and the two Zell awkwardly flipped over, gyrating out-of-control within the cavitation of airwaves! Scarlassh’s tornado ‘vortexed’ the two downward, and Lew and Dupe were overtaken by gravity. Blinded, confused, and haphazardly tumbling away, the Zell warriors barely recognized the height of their danger: a ravine of jagged rocks below.
Artemis--still mostly out-of-range--concentrated intensely, chanting ‘SpohsZell’ (spells), to summon roots, rocks and vines! Part of Artemis’ natural powers were binding abilities, and thus, he literally caught his fellow Zell Amals just at the final lengths before the razor-sharp tines below could claim their kills. Artemis had negated Scarlassh’s work: Dupree’ and Llewelyn were spared. Disoriented, the two looked about--only slightly shocked to find their golden wizard savior and Amal hovering just nearby...
“A frustrating, yet formidable foe.”
Scarlassh looked on from a distance, aware that at certain moments, surviving the onslaught of battle was the more ideal step toward ultimate victory. As oppressed as he was by his so-called allies (most Zen’th would easily sacrifice one another in order to preserve themselves, rather than render aid), Scarlassh was well-versed in survival. It was a telling factor when considering the differences between Zell of flesh... and Zell of bone.
Scarlassh flew off. He had an agenda--namely, with Casscadia. Other Zen’th Zell and undead Ys Zell threatened Dupree’, Lew and Art soon after. Clearly, the three warriors had more battles to endure...
Casscadia’s hidden vantage point was not selected at random. She chose to position herself nearby an ancient Ivory Tower--a structure which was near-poised to give way, due to erosion, weather and dilapidation. She fired yet another deadly bolt from the creaking ballista, flanking Titan once again! Hidden just beyond the shadows and dense foliage nearby the tower, the witch’s post was nearly undetectable.
Jackralvian crawled through ivy and greenery, popping his head out to size up the battles about the skies. He was not merely hoping just to survive, but also attempting to determine any course of action he could take to help. One which would not summarily result in his immediate doom! Jackie was only meagerly trained for Vas Tach, and also small and weak (for his age). Jumping into the fray would have been akin to throwing a newborn Glecko into the mysterious dangers of The Forgotten Forest. Sadly, as luck would have it (or should we label it ‘unluck’?), Jackie stumbled upon the dark witch’s sniper’s spot!
Oblivious, Casscadia continued to assail Titan with her poison-enchanted flechettes. Yet, even though Jackie was behind her--and nearly silent--after six more shots, Casscadia paused. Her claws released the ballista’s triad of triggers. Eerily, the dark sorceress rolled her soulless gaze to her right... and turned about!
“You! I... I KNOW you: I recognize your JEE!”
It seemed impossible: how? How could Casscadia have detected him so quickly, let alone identified him? As Fate would have it, Jackralvian couldn’t deliberate long. But his Mea brewed. He suddenly felt... lost. Hazy!
His vision warped... swooned... parallaxed... and blurred...
Jackralvian’s brainwaves were overrun by a deep, subconscious memory. He recalled his own infancy: a moment from the Past. A terrible storm of thunder and lightning flashed, but it was not here in the Present. Jackralvian was struck in the head by a bolt from the heavens! One just like the Light from his dreams...
It was this very stroke of Thuune which had left the branching ‘Lichtenburg figures’ of burned tissue upon Jackie’s forehead and skull! Scars. At least, this is the closest term that seems comparatively close: an earthen term: ‘Lichtenburg figures’. Snapped back into reality, Jackie shivered and frantically looked about. Reality had returned. He understood none of it, but it wasn’t imperative: Casscadia approached!
No other Zell were within the vicinity. The cries of Vas Tach, hellfire and doom sounded off in the distance, but all too far for anyone to help. He was alone. Jackie trembled, fearfully backing away as Casscadia crept closer with every stride. She was much, much larger than was he--and certainly, beyond a shadow of a doubt, much stronger... and far more deadly.
“Naaeesst...! Don’t be afraid... you were born among us...”
But he was afraid. Casscadia extended an arm, yet her claws were relatively retracted. Jackie questioned the odd moment, confused. It was unclear whether she intended to deceive and to do harm, or somehow, to help.
As it just so happened, Link--amidst a battle of her own--always had radar-like ‘feelers’ when it came to Jackie’s safety. She’d wondered where he was (after they’d briefly been separated), and Time had raced by! Understandably so: all were deep-folded into the pockets of a confusing and chaotic Vas Tach. There was rarely a respite to think. But her tiny nose perked up as she’d scouted one last section of the forest. And, luckily for Jackie, she found line-of-sight with her best Amal. Her delicate whiskers twitched.
There he was--in the distance--but mere wings-lengths from Casscadia!!
Her adrenaline spiked and she nearly choked on her own breath. In shock, she stared--her Jee, wider than both of Taelondria’s moons combined. Casscadia was dangerous--even for Chi-Zell such as Leijimoto or Artemis. As a Bo Zell, Jackie was no match. Neither was Link. Alone, that is.
“Oh, why don’t they just leave us all ALONE!”
The heroic Bo Ys Zell nearly panicked, but even more fortunately than before, she was nearby the most ideal Zell of Kessoshaero who could offer any help. With desperate haste, Link darted toward Titan, floating just within his earshot. She indicated Jackie and Casscadia’s position.
“Need a little HELP here, Mr. Universe!!”
Titan hardly blinked, immediately scanning toward Link’s emphatic indications. He spotted them.
Time slowed. Titan bellowed, instantly rocketing through the air. His stamina began to wane (as did the mysterious magic of his onyx black Amulet)--and yet he expended all that was necessary to reach Jackie in the shortest amount of Time possible. Like a metallic missile from a crossbow, Titan collided with Casscadia mere claws-lengths before she could reach the Bo Zell. Both tumbled fully clear of Jackie.
But just then... disaster struck.
Multiple Zen’th Zell emerged from the shadows--as if all that had just transpired was part of a sinister plan--and each skeletal foe fired upon Titan simultaneously. Casscadia cackled away as he was struck and pelted.
“Hahahhahah! FOOL! I’d not have harmed him. He belongs with US.”
Overwhelmed and weakened by the combined brutal assaults, sliced again and again at every angle imaginable, the azure Zell FELL! Crashing through branches helped break Titan’s descent, but the monumental hero struck the earthen forest floor with a thundering impression in the mud. Dead branches and falling leaves showered him moments after. The great warrior remained still as the dust cleared.
Jackie stopped breathing a moment: he couldn’t believe his own Jee. Nae... NAE! Not Titan!
But Titan howled in pain, as his Life force faded. Casscadia’s veins throbbed with adrenaline and the thrill of the kill. Cackling, she moved onward and elsewhere, leaving the azure giant for dead. But Titan peered.
Hidden, Jackie made eye contact with the hero, who was clearly in terrible shape. Subtly, Titan shook his head, as if to indicate: “Nae, Bo Zell. Do NOT reveal yourself.” Jackie winced. He wanted to help, but fear had seized him tight, stuck in stalemate within his very own Mea: act, or stand fast.
Surprising each and every, Chi-Zell Leijimoto descended from far above, separating the Zen’th Zell in all cardinal directions! Center to each, Leijimoto roared a resounding “Naaaaaaeessttt!!”, and bashed Scarlassh with a thunderous spinning hook kick. Pivoting, he wing-slapped another bony Zen’th into a tree, and tail-whipped another! As if it were not enough, even as bone arrows still protruded from Leijimoto’s leathery-skin, he rapidly pulled one from his own gullet, and furiously stabbed another Zen’th through its skull! Finally, he wheeled around once more and spat an erratic cyclone of electricity from his jaws. Two more Zen’th (one of which had attempted to clutch him), vaporized into bone meal as they met his sparking stream of rage!
“Naaee!! You shall NEVER take our Cyur! Let havoc FALL. No matter our end, we will PREVAIL!”
His booming voice echoed into the forestry. This Sunsday... had only BEGUN! Leijimoto was engulfed by fury and a guttural instinct for revenge: two emotional states which made him nearly unstoppable. Nearly.
Scarlassh clumsily backed off, cringing in utter fear. Although he’d only just arrived at this stage of the battle, after previously having dealt with Dupree’, Llewelyn and Artemis, he’d decided that regrouping was wise.
“Re... retreat! Let none follow! R... rain smoke and ash upon their JEE!!”
Whispering dark evil, two Zen’th Zell jointly invoked a spell which darkened the skies. Smoke and ash swirled as the two chanted ‘Vas Tirassh Zen’th Oos’... and a monumental twister was made so. Heavy winds blew, and erratic leaves spun, as muddy flotsam flashed throughout all. Vision was poor. Timed perfectly, Casscadia slipped away into the unnatural but overwhelming shadows of debris, leaving Scarlassh and the other Zen’th Zell to fend for themselves. However, the cunning sorceress wasn’t quite ready to exit the battlefield...
Jackie remained hidden within the nearby vines and brush, solemnly keeping watch over Titan.
Engulfed in the smoke and ashen winds, Elder Leijimoto attempted to fight on, but the heavy winds and dust-riddled pebbles which pelted him were beyond overwhelming. Elder’s glasses were ripped away from his cerulean Jee, lost in the violent storm of smoke, ash and debris! His old vision, limited; his sight, blurred.
The ghostly Zen’th Zell took to the skies, using the subterfuge of the stormy spell to guise their exit. Scarlassh remained behind--still hidden--suspiciously waiting for Casscadia to complete her primary objective...