Franclin tapped his foot against the metal platform that the two individuals rode on, sending small pings up and down the impossibly long sinkshaft. They were in near-darkness, the only light came from a handful of flickering crystals imbedded in the stone walls. And, quite unfortunately, the lower they dropped, the fewer the crystals became.
“Franclin?” Highsand Barn turned to look up at him. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Shoot.” Franclin sighed and turned to Barn, wishing that there was a railing that he could lean up against. Unfortunately, there wasn’t, as it was a simple platform without even a mechanism to help control it. They were completely at the mercy of whatever was at the bottom of the shaft, likely the controller.
“I’m afraid that I find your recent mood a bit… Discouraging.” Barn sighed and folded his hands into his robes. “Please, forgive me for taking so long to notice. I only met you at Nettingo, and you changed so suddenly afterwards that…”
Franclin groaned. Barn had been talking to Thana, hadn’t he? “Look, I know Thana thinks I’m a lost little puppy or something, but she’s always thought that.”
“Has she, now?” Barn raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps there’s a reason for that.”
“Or perhaps she just has to feel superior to everyone around her because she’s one of the only female Hunters.” Franclin sneered. “She’ll do anything to try and make me feel less than her.”
“Franclin.” Barn held up a hand. “Your credentials aren’t at stake here. I’ve seen you fight before. In Nettingo, you took down two Fond’sar hit squads. I don’t know of a single other person in Calsin that could have done such a thing.”
Franclin smirked and turned back to admiring the walls. He was good, wasn’t he? “Then why are we having this conversation?”
“Because just a few minutes ago, Thana had to kill all six minotaurs.” Barn huffed. “She’s right. You’ve gotten sloppy.”
“Well, I’m sorry.” Franclin turned back to Barn. “I’m still not dead yet, am I? None of us are.”
“I suspect that we owe much of that fact to Thana.” Barn reached out and put a hand on Franclin’s arm. “Please, Franclin. Be honest with yourself, even if you’re not honest with me. Something happened to you. What is it?” Barn paused and stroked his chin. “Tell me of the last great battle you fought before coming to Nettingo. You’ve mentioned it to me before, but I want to hear it again.”
Franclin sighed and closed his eyes. He just wanted to get to the bottom of the shaft and fight whatever happened to be down there. He wanted to crush the metal minotaur shells like eggs, he wanted to watch their oil drip across the ground like a river of blood. He didn’t want to rehash a story that he had told Barn time and time again.
“I fought a demigod.” Franclin grimaced. “Theronsaid, I think. He deprived me of Calsin’s magical field and trapped me inside an arena with himself and a bunch of other contestants. I was the only one to escape alive.”
Barn nodded. “And how did you escape?”
Franclin chuckled slightly at the memory. “Used his own magic to connect myself to the magical field again. The whole thing freaked him out, and he spat me out of the arena.”
“Yes.” Barn mused. “Now, think clearly. If you were faced with that same situation today, would you still be able to do the same thing? Or would you be so paralyzed with fear that you would be unable to move as he chewed your bones into powder?”
“You really don’t give fantastic pep talks.” Franclin sighed and started to pace. He sighed and closed his eyes. If that monster returned… Franclin winced. Theronsaid wouldn’t make the same mistake again, of that he was certain. “I don’t know.”
“And, more importantly…” Barn walked up next to Franclin. “How were you able to defeat Theronsaid when you faced him?”
“I didn’t.” Franclin shrugged. “He spooked. He had never had someone challenge him…” Quite suddenly, pieces began to click into place, and he realized what Barn was driving at. “No, I’m not going there.”
“You have to go there.” Barn crossed his arms. “You’re afraid. You’re more afraid than any Hunter I’ve ever known.”
“And how many Hunters have you known?” Franclin raised an eyebrow. “Two?”
“I worked for the Fond’sar, remember?” Barn stepped in front of Franclin and puffed himself up. “I’ve met people that you wouldn’t believe exist. I’ve seen things that make no sense no matter how you try to rationalize them. And through it all, I’ve kept fighting.”
“I’m still fighting.” Franclin turned away. “I’m not dead yet.”
“That’s the second time I’ve heard you say that.” Barn sighed. “Your mantra used to be ‘one thing at a time.’ Between the two, I suspect I know which one will lead to a longer lifespan.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think I do.” Barn moved and placed himself in front of Franclin yet again. “I’m two hundred and seventy years old. I’ve been an unwilling member of the Fond’sar since I was eighty-two, and I’ve been in contact with the king of Elsinor in rebellion against the Fond’sar since I was eighty-six. You do your own math. I’ve fought alongside a lot of other people, and I’ve seen a lot of people die on Fond’sar blades.”
Franclin sighed and mentally willed the platform to move faster. “What’s your point?”
“You’re not the first Hunter that I’ve dealt with.” Barn’s voice drove a spike into Franclin’s soul. “If you died today, you wouldn’t be the first one that I’ve seen fall.”
“You think I’m going to die?” Franclin balled his hands into fists.
“No.” Barn shook his head. “What I think is that you’re terrified, and it’s affecting your abilities.”
“That’s because, in order to become a Hunter, you have to be able to conquer anything and everything in Calsin.” Barn’s voice continued to haunt Franclin even as he tried to tune it out. “They don’t train you to fight the unknown because, as far as they’re concerned, they already know everything. You’re the best of the best, and the very concept of something unbeatable doesn’t work with your viewpoint.”
“What are you driving at?” Franclin pointed up at the ceiling. “I killed that aqahartis in Rotgor, didn’t I?”
“You did.” Barn nodded slowly. “But you can’t beat the Fond’sar. You can’t fight them. You would die in moments in a straight-up fight.”
“Then why are we doing this?” Franclin roared down at the dwarf. “Why are we fighting them if they can’t be beat?”
Barn didn’t flinch. Instead, a simple smile crawled across his face. “And now we’ve come to the crux of the issue.”
Franclin snorted. “What’s that?”
“You want to fight the Fond’sar. You want to march into their lair and slay them in a single, glorious battle. That’s how you think.” Barn pressed. “It’s how ever Hunter I’ve met has thought. When they find out that they can’t do that, it drives them mad because they can’t just kill it. And ultimately, the Fond’sar wind up killing them.” Barn took a step forward. “Franclin, you have an opportunity here. We have an opportunity here. We can take down the Fond’sar once and for all. It just involves battles that aren’t fought in a traditional manner.”
“We’re distributing communication disks.” Franclin ground his teeth together. He didn’t like what Barn was driving at, not one bit. He was a Hunter. Nothing would defeat him. “We’re preparing for that final battle.”
“That fight may not come for generations.” Barn sighed and turned back to the slowly-moving walls. “We could both be long gone before that happens. I need you to keep fighting at your maximum capacity if we’re going to lay the groundwork for that war.”
Franclin took a deep breath. “I’m at my maximum capacity.”
Barn shook his head. “No, Franclin. I really don’t think you-”
Franclin smiled in relief as the platform began to slow. He cut Barn off with a wave of his hand and drew his sword. With a roar, the metal platform descended into a portion of the shaft that had to be the part that punched through the layer of magma. The walls were made from a black obsidian and reinforced with plates of metal that glowed with internal enchantments. A dull rumble shook the air, a noise that grew ever more powerful as they continued to drop.
Barn continued to speak, but Franclin largely tuned him out as they dropped through the deadly portion of the sinkshaft. His mind whirled with the thoughts of what they would find down below, and yet…
And yet, his mind also churned with the thoughts of what Barn had just said. Though he didn’t want to admit it, Thana was right. Franclin wasn’t as powerful as he had once been. He was missing things that he shouldn’t have missed. He was losing battles that would once have been a simple exercise for him. If he had been summoned back before the Hunter Council once more, as he had been summoned only a short time earlier, he had no doubt that they would have simply killed or imprisoned him on the spot. He was a liability to the Hunter name.
And, quite unfortunately, he knew it was his own fault. Barn wasn’t wrong. The Fond’sar were terrifying. What enemy couldn’t be beat with a sword? What enemy was so powerful that not even a large-scale invasion would topple them from power? Even the gods themselves trembled before the Fond’sar, if Barn was to be believed. If such a power existed in Calsin, then why did he bother fighting anyway? The Hunters were the best of the best. If they were anything less than that, they would cease to be Hunters at all. With the knowledge that they weren’t the greatest threat in Calsin… What did that make him? A fraud? A pretender? Someone with a fancy title, a nice suit of armor, and a sword?
Around him, the rumbling noises continued to grow louder and louder, thankfully actually drowning out Barn’s increasingly obnoxious voice. He closed his eyes, trying to listen to the sound, feel its power, follow its paths. He immersed himself in its enormity. He was hearing the sound of the ground itself, feeling the power of entire mountains.
Then, with the suddenness of an explosion… It stopped. Franclin’s eyes snapped open as the platform dropped into a massive cave system, dozens of times larger than the cave that houses the fortress. Blue and green crystals the size of castles rose from the jagged, twisting ground. Rivers of lava burst from the walls like waterfalls, trickling and winding across the landscape to a small lake in the middle of the cave, where they all vanished in a swirling whirlpool.
Of course, this all paled in comparison to the enormous dwarven construction that stood just next to the swirling lava. Metal and stone were fused together into a fortress-like structure that towered hundreds of feet into the air. Small metal spheres whirred around the spires, zipping through the skies like birds. Countless more armored minotaurs stomped along the tops of the walls, while at least five crossbows the size of wagons slowly tracked the movement of the platform.
“Barn?” Franclin took a deep breath. “I get the feeling that we’re expected.”
“As do I.” Barn walked up to the edge of the platform and spread his arms. “May the Elementals have mercy on our souls.”
Thana snapped her fingers, sealing the cave tightly yet again. After a second thought, she cast a handful of sigils across the surface, visual warnings for anyone who dared attempt to break into the entrance of the sinkshaft.
With that, she turned back to the long tunnel that led to the main fortress. The red light in her armor continued to blink, warning that one of the Hunter Council had arrived. Idly, she wondered if Franclin had received the same message. She assumed not, since he was likely the reason that the Council member had arrived.
With that done, she took off, jogging down the tunnel as fast as she could move. She had only ever spoken with the Hunter Council in official capacities, and those encounters had left her chilled to the bone. She didn’t want to think about what might happen in a more casual or battlefield capacity.
Nevertheless, while she didn’t want to think about it, she found her mind drifting in that direction quite readily as she ran for the fortress. There were five members. Who would it be? What would he or she think of Thana’s presence here? There were so many possibilities, very few of which were pleasant.
It took her nearly fifteen minutes to make the run back to the bridge. As she came out of the tunnel and into view of the fortress, she caught a glimpse of a single figure standing in the middle of the bridge, near the city itself. Curious, she slowed, attempting to regain some of her dignity. She wasn’t sure how well she had succeeded, but nevertheless, had little more she could do other than attempt not to look winded as she approached the mysterious figure.
As she got closer, the image became clearer, solidifying into a figure that she knew entirely too well. It was a man named Kleflis, an aqahartis Hunter of some note. He had been one of the few not to show during the angel crisis, and was widely known for his ability to complete any contract that he was assigned. And, quite unfortunately, it was a reputation that was well-deserved.
“Thana.” Kleflis’s voice was quiet as Thana approached. “I didn’t expect to find you here.”
“You obviously expected to find someone, or else you wouldn’t have been waiting.” Thana countered and crossed her arms. Idly, she looked the man up and down. Like many of the other Hunters, he sported a full set of armor. His was pitch black with orange highlights, giving him a deadly appearance. Additionally, spikes rose from his shoulder plates, providing no combat advantage but making him appear ever more ferocious.
“I am here with the Council.” Kleflis sneered. “He knew someone would come down this path. I was simply sent to meet them.”
“Then take me to him.” Thana shrugged. “I assume we’re about to have a big meeting of the Hunters? Everyone in the area?”
Once more, Kleflis sneered for a moment before he spoke. “It does seem that way.”
“Then lead the way.” Thana pressed.
Kleflis stared at her for a few more moments before slowly turning and stalking away. She followed, grateful for the single fact that she was taller than he was. Aqahartis weren’t a fantastically tall species, and while Kleflis was tall for an aqahartis, that only meant that he stood a little less than six feet high. And, while it was a trivial detail, it made her feel nicer when following the man through the streets of the fortress, as every eye that they passed was fixed on her.
Kleflis led her through the winding streets to the front of the fortress, near the main gateways. A large pub stood with open doors, allowing the music and smells to drift out into the streets. Kleflis walked up the stairs and inside without a moment’s hesitation. Thana followed, a bit surprised at the choice of venue. In her time as a Hunter, she almost never visited the nicer locations, only the low-down dregs that the worst of humanity frequented.
Inside, a fire roared in an open fireplace, the sizzling smells of roasted meats blew through the air, and the sounds of several guttural dwarven instruments provided excellent background music. A handful of people stood around the bar itself, though most were dispersed throughout the establishment.
Near the front of the restaurant, at a small table next to the bar, sat a dark elf that could only have been the Council member. His armor spoke well enough, painted a greenish-grey with a dragon’s skull etched into the metal. He looked up as the two Hunters entered, revealing his face. It wasn’t anyone that Thana recognized, but it had also been years since she had stood before the Council. A single scar traced its way down his cheek, and his eyes were as hard as coals. He nodded at the two chairs opposite him, barely moving his head to do so. Thana’s stomach growled loudly as she sat down, taking her seat next to Kleflis.
“Kleflis. Thana.” The dark elf spoke softly, magically projecting his voice into Thana’s ears. It was a technique that was incredibly difficult to master, but could make talking in public places far easier. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
Thana frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong? Why would you assume something is wrong? Did the fact that a Council member left Istinis make you feel that something might have been wrong?” The dark elf’s voice was beginning to hurt Thana’s head. “No, nothing is wrong. Things have gone far beyond that.”
Kleflis turned to Thana and smirked. “Perhaps you should word your statements more carefully.”
“And perhaps you should watch your pride.” The dark elf continued to hiss, this time at Kleflis. “You are the cream of the crop when compared to the residents of Calsin, but you are not a Council member. Watch yourself carefully, or you may never get there.”
So Kleflis was under consideration to become a Council member. Interesting, indeed. “Then what, pray tell, brought you out here?”
“Perhaps, before we get into such unpleasantries, we should make formal introductions.” The elf nodded at Thana. “We have met before, but you do not remember me. Of this, I am certain. For the purposes of this mission, you may call me Hunter Septis. Once this mission is over, you will forget that title. Am I clear?”
Thana nodded. “Crystal.”
“Good.” Hunter Septis folded his hands and glanced back and forth at the bar. “Do you wonder why I chose such a place as this, and not somewhere that might be more prudent to examining a terrible cause?”
Thana crossed her arms. She had several guesses, but she wasn’t willing to risk saying any of them. “No.”
“I choose to do such things as a reminder of what we gave up.” Hunter Septis forced a smile. “I was a rich young banker in Delsinar before I left to pursue the path of a Hunter. I could have been one of the richest people in all of Calsin. I could have had women, men, anyone or anything I desired. And yet, I gave it up for the protection of the Realm.” He leaned forward. “We fight so that others might have the chance to pursue their dreams of luxury and glory. We fight so that poor traders can make a living to support their families. We fight so that the beggars on the street can scrape out a meager existence. Does this make sense?”
Thana nodded slowly. “I think so.”
“Good. I would have hated to lose you on such a simple concept.” Hunter Septis sneered at both individuals before continuing. “If a Hunter breaks a contract, we place a Black Mark upon him, a symbol that states that he cannot be trusted. This means that he will not be hired ever again, and that, of course, other Hunters may remove his life from the continent without penalty, but it does leave him still alive. He or she may continue to fight evil and darkness if they so choose, continuing to follow their oath. If they continue to follow their path, we may indeed reinstate them as true Hunters.”
Thana nodded slowly. The Black Mark was a reference to Franclin, but… Why go into so much detail?
“However, if a Hunter turns to a life of crime and murder, he must be put down.” Hunter Septis tapped the table. “You were right to alert us to the threat of Franclin. After comparing reports, we believe that he has killed well over two hundred individuals across three countries in the last several weeks.”
Thana took a deep breath. So the Hunters were here to kill Franclin. “And you think he’s here?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, girl.” Hunter Septis hissed and leaned forward, putting his dark face mere inches from Thana’s. “You were attacked by Franclin and nearly killed. I know this because you spoke to the authorities in three different cities in Donisil. After he ran off, you tried to track him. Eventually, you got close enough that you were able to tap into the magical field that you humans love so much to track him down. You reached him, and you came here with him.”
Thana tried to maintain her composure. “I’m investigating him.”
“You are?” Hunter Septis raised an eyebrow. “And how am I to know this is true? Perhaps whatever caused him to turn dark has affected you as well. Perhaps the dwarf that you came here with is part of the problem. Or, perhaps, there’s a third option. One that I would greatly like to hear.”
Thana nodded and held Hunter Septis’s gaze. “There are two of them.”
Hunter Septis snorted and leaned back. “Two Franclins? One of them is enough of a problem even on a normal basis.”
“Please believe me when I say that I couldn’t agree more.” Thana nodded. She sighed and shrugged. “It’s all I can figure out. I was attacked by a version of Franclin that wore his old, orange armor. It wasn’t really orange anymore, but that’s what he had. And he was insane. Then, I get up here, and he’s perfectly normal. I’m trying to figure out what happened and who might be trying to impersonate him. To see if there’s any sort of connection at all.”
Hunter Septis frowned and nodded. “Do you believe the ‘other Franclin’ to be a duplicate, or another individual entirely?”
Thana allowed herself to breathe a sigh of relief. He wasn’t completely discounting her. “My guess is a duplicate of some sort. Shapeshifters could take his form, but…” She shook her head. “Whoever it was, he was good. He had the training of a Hunter, there’s no doubt about it.”
“Is it possible that one of the other Hunters is a shifter?” Kleflis leaned forward, a frown on his face. “Boar also hasn’t been seen or heard from since the experiment with the Realm Mages. Is it possible that he was changed somehow? Franclin was nearby.”
“A promising theory, but improbable.” Hunter Septis shook his head. “The Council is aware of Boar’s whereabouts. You won’t be seeing him again for some time, but he’s alive and in his ordinary form. However…” He shrugged. “That doesn’t rule out another Hunter being a shifter. There are several that we know to have such abilities, but I do not believe any of them have been in the area. I would wager a guess that something Franclin did, perhaps one of his encounters with various demigods, produced a duplicate that is now wreaking havoc across Calsin. Thana? Your opinion?”
Thana shrugged. “Franclin has had enough encounters with demigods that I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“Indeed.” Hunter Septis sighed. “In that case, perhaps you would be willing to take us to him, Thana? It’s obvious that you know where he is.”
Thana felt her blood freeze. If the Hunter Council found out about the Fond’sar, it wouldn’t end well. She had considered the possibility a dozen times over on her trip from Rotgor to the fortress. If the Hunters got involved, while she was certain that they could wipe out a large number of the Fond’sar, they would be unable to prevent a massive war that would damage all of Calsin.
“Please, Thana.” Hunter Septis snorted. “You think that the Council isn’t aware of the Fond’sar?”
Thana’s blood froze. Her mouth could barely even move as she tried to speak. “What?” She glanced at Kleflis, only to find him sitting as still as a statue. He could have been made from colored stone, he was frozen like a painting. In fact… So was everyone else in the room.
“What’s going on?” Thana slowly stood up.
“Please. Have a seat.” Hunter Septis spoke slowly. “Don’t do anything rash. We both know who wins that fight.”
Thana nodded and slowly sat back down. Hunter Septis leaned forward, his already-quiet voice dropping to an almost inaudible whisper.
“You fear an all-out war. As does the Hunter Council. You think yourself wiser than us?” Hunter Septis chuckled. “You know far too little, Hunter Thana.”
Thana could only shake her head. “You know about them?”
“The Hunter Council makes it our job to keep track of threats across all of Calsin.” Hunter Septis spoke softly. “If someone comes to us and tells us of an organization more deadly than anything seen before, do you not think we would investigate, even just to prove it wrong? We’ve known of the Fond’sar since its inception, and have worked with the resistance against them for equally as long. Your friend Barn has been a keen ally many a time, though he does not yet know it.” Hunter Septis smirked. “It was the Council itself who saved his life, centuries ago, by convincing the Fond’sar that his blood and his blood only would open a mysterious box said to hold the heart of an unknown god.”
Thana sighed. “I… I had no idea.”
“We are the Hunters.” Hunter Septis hissed. “We are the most powerful beings in Calsin. The Fond’sar are deadly, and they are too powerful to topple immediately, but they are not as strong as we are. Know this, and know it well.”
“Alright, then.” The conversation was not at all going the way that Thana had expected it to go. “So… Now what?”
“If the information I pulled from your mind is correct, Franclin and Barn are attempting to contact a controller deep in the sinkshaft.” Hunter Septis shrugged. “I suggest that we go to them. Perhaps I can do a reading on Franclin and discern who or what this mysterious duplicate is. I may also be able to help recruit the controller to our side. Perhaps we can stand a chance against the Fond’sar after all.”
Thana nodded and flashed a smile. With that, Hunter Septis blinked, allowing the restaurant to blur back into motion. Beside her, Kleflis seemed completely unphased, not realizing that a thing had happened. It made Thana quite a bit nervous… Had the Council member already done the same thing to her? Could he do that to her?
“In that case, I think we have a plan of action.” Hunter Septis slowly climbed to his feet. “Thana, Kleflis, come with me. We’ll find Franclin, and we’ll make things right. Once and for all.”
Thana felt a smile breaking her face. They were actually going to solve things. Then, maybe Franclin would see that the Fond’sar were beatable. He could return to normal. Everything would be… Fine.
It was an odd feeling as they started heading towards the door. They actually had allies, powerful ones. And Barn had been so convinced that finding people was difficult. Maybe now, they could all have a different view on things.
The platform slowly dropped through the cave, taking its sweet time. Before they were even halfway down, another platform rose from the jagged ground and flashed upward, rising into the sinkshaft high above. Franclin took a deep breath, trying to size up the fortress and their chances of escape.
“I don’t think we’ll have to fight it.” Barn crossed his arms, his voice sounding a bit pained. “It could have killed us long before now.”
“You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.” Franclin felt a smile growing on his face. “Me? I’m happy with this.”
“You won’t be.” Barn shook his head. “Not if it actually tries to kill us.”
Franclin just crossed his arms. The minotaurs had weak points, that much was easy to see. They had to let steam escape, mostly through their joints. Steam meant pressure. If he could close up those vents, he could cause massive internal damage to the creatures. Or just poke the joints with his sword. Not to mention the giant crossbows mounted on the walls. If he could get control of one or two of those…
A loud screech echoed through the air as a large door in the fortress slowly swung open, revealing a massive courtyard. Franclin’s eyes opened wide at the sight of hundreds of minotaurs standing at the ready, each armed with a golden spear that could have had any one of thousands of possible uses. Oh, well, Spears were good. They had limited use once you got in close enough, which meant he could still win. Against a few hundred, it was going to be tough, but not impossible.
Slowly, the platform drifted through the doors and into the courtyard, where it came to hover at the exact center. It took a painfully long several minutes as the platform dropped the remaining thirty feet or so to the ground, finally coming to rest at the center of the minotaur formation. Every single armored head was facing at them, now. Glowing red eyes peered out from metallic helmets, bronze horns rose from every head.
“Thank you for the reception.” Barn stepped forward and bowed his head. “We are honored by this audience.”
“This is not an audience.” The minotaurs all spoke as one, deep, powerful voices echoing from metal shells. “This is a trial.”
“Then we humbly present ourselves for your investigation.” Barn bowed down, and motioned for Franclin to do the same. Franclin sighed and knelt down, bowing his head before the extraordinary force.
“Good.” The crowd spoke again, its enormous voice shaking the ground itself. “Who are you and why are you here?”
“My name is Highsand Barn.” Barn spoke slowly and respectfully. Franclin had to hand it to him, the dwarf could handle himself under pressure. Granted, it probably helped knowing that he couldn’t die, but… “This is the Dragon Hunter, Franclin. We come simply to talk.”
“That is what the others said.” The minotaurs parted, creating a path to the side of the courtyard. Franclin slowly turned his head, where he saw half a dozen dwarves impaled on spikes. Their bodies were nearly completely decayed, indicating that it had been at least a week or so since their deaths. “And yet, I sensed that this was not true of them. What is your true purpose here?”
Beside him, Barn took a deep breath. Franclin groaned and forced himself to his feet. No sense in putting things off any longer. The controller obviously didn’t value small talk.
“We want you to fight.” Franclin crossed his arms. “Those people who came before want to use you. They want to enslave you and twist your will to theirs, helping them conquer the world.”
“And you wish me to help you defeat them?” The minotaur crowd simultaneously took a step forward. Franclin flinched backwards, a bit unnerved. “And why would I do that? I know nothing of your world. If I fight them, perhaps I am aiding an even worse monster.”
“We just want to see the Fond’sar destroyed.” Franclin held up his hands.
“The Fond’sar.” Only a single voice spoke, this time, one of the minotaurs closest to the duo. “I know this name.”
“The Fond’sar enslaved thousands of controllers, several millennia ago.” Barn nodded. “I’m not sure why your kind is resurfacing now, but-”
“The Realm Explosion.” The minotaur was quiet. After a moment, the creature sighed. “Come to me.”
With that, the minotaur crowd parted again, creating a path straight to the castle itself. The two enormous metal doors swung open, revealing a throne room. Franclin took a deep breath as Barn climbed to his feet. Then, slowly… They started walking.
Though it was only a few hundred feet, it felt like they were walking miles upon miles. They moved past the ranks of minotaurs, stepping past their hundreds of raised spears. More and more, Franclin was beginning to feel that Barn had been right. If they tried to attack, the duo would die in seconds. At least Franclin would.
As they reached the throne room, the doors began to swing shut, crashing closed behind Franclin and Barn just as they stepped inside. Magical torches blazed to light… And Franclin felt his breath taken away.
The throne itself was mounted by something that looked more or less like a brain. An enormous, fleshy blob that sparked and glowed with an inner light. Stretching out from the throne, crawling across the floor, winding up the walls, clinging to the ceiling, were thousands of tentacles. Tentacles that seemed to pulse with the same light as the brain itself, bursts and flashes of lightning and magic.
“Welcome, Franclin, Barn.” The controller itself spoke, projecting its voice magically through the entire room. “When you speak of the Fond’sar, I can sense nothing but hatred and menace from you. And believe me when I say that I am a powerful telepath, indeed. You know this group, and you hate this group. Speak.”
Barn shrugged. “We don’t know why they want you these days. We just know that they used to enslave you, and that they want to do it again.” He paused. “Do you know why your people seem to be resurfacing?”
“The Realm Explosion.” The controller sighed, causing the air of the room to whip around like a windstorm. “It was nearly a year ago, now. Something happened that shook the very core of this realm. It caused my species to awaken.”
“Awaken?” Barn pressed. “You were asleep?”
“You are right when you say that we were enslaved.” The controller growled. “I can remember it well. I was forced to create these beasts you saw outside. I created armies for the dwarves. I created weapons. I created so many things. Then, one day, everything changed. The dwarves divided themselves.”
Barn nodded. “The Dwarven Civil War.”
“I do not know nor do I care what the circumstances were.” The controller hissed. “We engineered accidents and made it appear to be the fault of the dwarves. We all escaped, retreating to deeper depths or unexplored caves. We sent our children to the surface. We made friends with the goblins. We did anything we could to hide. But…” The controller paused for a moment. “It was not enough. They were still tracking us. Our magic was too strong. So we put ourselves to sleep. We went dormant, so no one would be able to find us at all.”
Franclin frowned in thought. “And then something happened to shake up the realm, and you woke up again.”
“Yes.” The controller affirmed. “Before you ask, I do not know anything about the rest of my species. I can sense many of them waking up as well, but the process is slow, and our connection is weaker than it once was.” The brain seemed to tremble. “If the Fond’sar are still out there, it may mean that our efforts were for nothing.”
“I agree.” Barn nodded. “However, if you help us fight them, we may yet stand a chance.”
“I do not want to fight!” The controller roared. Fire exploded through the room, wrapping around and around in curtains of destruction. Franclin winced as the deadly energy flashed past him, searing his armor. “My kind has been in slavery too long. I will not consent to slavery any longer, whether it be to the Fond’sar or to the people who fight them.”
Franclin slowly crossed his arms. “So what do you want us to do?”
The controller’s voice was deadly quiet. “I want you to help me get in contact with other members of my kind. Restore the connection that we once had.” There was a short pause. “And then, you’re going to help us escape.”
Thana sighed as the trio stalked across the bridge towards the sinkshaft. Hunter Septis had barely said a word since they had left the tavern, and Kleflis was being equally as silent. It wasn’t something that she was particularly happy about, but at least they were all on the same side. She really didn’t want to have to fight a Council member. Somehow, she suspected that that wouldn’t go well.
“Once we find Franclin, what will we do?” Kleflis addressed Hunter Septis. “Will we kill him?”
“No.” Hunter Septis shook his head. “I’m going to perform a siphon on him. Perhaps then, we will learn the true nature of anyone else using his form.”
Thana frowned. That… Wasn’t what they had decided earlier. “Hunter Septis?”
“You question my methods?” Hunter Septis turned and stared into her eyes. “You think that this is not the best idea?”
“I thought you were just going to scan him.” Thana stammered. “A siphon…”
A siphon, while it wasn’t technically deadly, was a technique forbidden to all but the most advanced magic-users. It would allow you to examine a person’s soul itself, allowing you to learn nearly anything you could want about that person. It also subsequently left the person’s soul in shreds, often dooming the individual to spend the rest of their days locked away in a cell going mad.
“I did not reveal to you the nature of what I was going to do.” Hunter Septis’s eyes narrowed, boring into Thana’s own soul. “This is for the greater good. We must stop Franclin’s duplicate, whatever or whoever it is. And, more importantly, I need to get in contact with whatever is down in that shaft. The fate of the world itself may depend on it.”
“I don’t see how siphoning Franclin will help you talk to the controller.” Thana spat back. “The two aren’t mutually inclusive.”
“Perhaps not.” Hunter Septis shrugged. “However, if Franclin has already spoken to the controller, we will need to know what it has said.”
“We could ask him.”
“Hunters are known to lie about such important things.” Hunter Septis countered. “Even you were attempting to keep knowledge from me. I expect that you still are. My paltry mind probe was hardly enough to dig to the deepest parts of your mind. If you had truly sought to keep the information from me, you could easily have done so. If Franclin chose to now, the world itself could be doomed.”
Thana shook her head. “He trusts me. And once you remove his Black Mark, he’ll be more than willing to tell you anything, too.”
Hunter Septis barked a laugh. “And what made you think I was removing his Black Mark? Even if I wasn’t siphoning him, I would do no such thing.”
Thana couldn’t understand what she was hearing. “He’s not the one doing the killing.”
“Perhaps he’s not.” Hunter Septis shrugged. “And yet, he somehow allowed himself to be duplicated or his form to be stolen. Shapeshifters can’t just take random forms, not forms so specific. He messed up, and he’ll have to live with that consequence.”
Thana balled her fists. “I don’t like this.”
“Forgive me, but I never asked if you liked it.” Hunter Septis narrowed his eyes. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find Franclin. Come with me, or don’t. But do not get in my way.”
Thana ground her teeth together. “I won’t be a part of this.”
“Then stand back. I believe I just made your options clear.”
With that, Hunter Septis and Kleflis turned and stalked away, moving down the bridge. Thana took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
She didn’t want to fight the Hunter Council, especially if they were allies in fighting against the Fond’sar. But… This was wrong. Driving an innocent man to madness wasn’t the way of the Hunters. It was the way…
It was the way of the Fond’sar. Her eyes snapped open, slowly narrowing into focus around Hunter Septis and his strange apprentice. Slowly, she opened her mouth, feeling a cold sense of dread fall over her.
“You’re with the Fond’sar.”
Hunter Septis slowly turned, chuckling softly. “Thana… Did you learn nothing from our conversation?”
Thana thrust out her hands, casting a series of sigils across the bridge in front of the two Dragon Hunters. Hunter Septis’s eyes narrowed, and Thana took a deep breath.
“This stops here.” She balled her fists. “You’re not getting to that controller.”
“Oh, I think I am.” Hunter Septis sneered. He opened his mouth to reply, only to blur forward in a burst of speed. Thana brought up her hands, drawing a portion of the bridge upwards as a temporary shield.
She had no idea how she was going to defeat the Hunter… All she knew was that if they were going to keep the Fond’sar from getting to the controller, she had to try.
“You want us to help you escape?” Barn frowned up at the enormous controller. Even as he said it, he knew that the creature had to know exactly what he was thinking. How could it not? He had already seen what an unborn controller could do, and this one… This one was countless magnitudes larger than anything that the Fond’sar had ever shown him. A controller so ancient, so powerful, had to be invaluable to the dark organization. “What do you mean?”
“Escape this realm.” The controller rumbled. “On other worlds, we would be worshipped as gods. Here, we are slaves. Help me connect with my people, and we can find a way to leave your land in peace. If we accomplish nothing else, we can ensure that our children will have a safe place to live.”
“I see.” Barn dipped his head. A thousand thoughts swirled through his mind, even as Franclin shifted back and forth uneasily. “And of the Fond’sar?”
“I have no wish to confront them again.” The controller snarled. “I will not fight for them or for you. My time helping the people of Calsin is at an end.”
“But what if that’s not possible?” Barn protested. “You only woke up a short time ago, and already the Fond’sar are homing in on your location.”
“And I have fought them off.” The controller spat back. “Do you really think you have seen the full might of my power? If anyone tries to hurt me, I will defend myself, but I will not become involved in your wars. If you want to destroy the Fond’sar, then you’ll have to do it yourself. I only want to leave.”
“So, let me get this straight.” Franclin held up a finger. Desperately, Barn sent prayers to the Consuming Wave to shut the boy’s mouth. “You’re not willing to fight in our wars, but you’re willing to ask us to fight yours?”
“By your own admission, if the Fond’sar are allowed to capture us, they will destroy or enslave your realm.” The controller matched Franclin beat for beat. “You either need to destroy the Fond’sar, or you need to help us escape. Between the two options, I know which is more likely. You need to help me.”
Barn sighed and climbed to his feet, praying that the gods would protect him. “And, by your own admission, the Fond’sar are powerful enough to capture you. You need us, too.” Barn stroked his beard. “We both need each other, neither of us are powerful enough to do this on our own. We agree to your terms.”
Franclin turned and glared at Barn. “You’re agreeing to this plan?”
“The best option for us would be to have him join us.” Barn crossed his arms and glared up at the Hunter. “The second-best option is to make sure that he can’t join the Fond’sar. Getting the controllers is one of the top goals of the Fond’sar. Take that away, and they’ll have to regroup. It’s not a fantastic idea…”
“But it’s the best we’ve got.” Franclin took a deep breath, turned, and nodded. Barn could see the indecision on Franclin’s face, but it was all they had to work with. “What do we do first?”
“First, you need to contact my siblings.” The controller sounded pleased. “I will mark you as my envoys. The first should be-”
A dull boom shook the throne room. Barn slowly turned to look at the door, feeling a sense of dread. As if to confirm, a cool breeze blew against his back, ruffling his robes. A message from the Overwhelming Wind, a message of warning.
“What’s wrong?” Franclin’s voice trembled.
“The Fond’sar are here.” Even the controller sounded a bit nervous. “They’ve sealed the sinkshaft, and appear to be trying to attack me.”
Barn took a deep breath. “What can we do?”
“Fight by my side.” Lightning began to flicker up and down the length of the tentacles far faster than it had once done. “Once I see how well you do, perhaps we can reconsider our arrangement.”
Thana groaned and forced her eyes open. A burning, brilliant light shone down into her skull, tearing her brain into bits. She closed her eyes and rolled away, desperately trying to escape the pain.
“Whoa, now!” An armored foot slammed into her chest, knocking her backwards. She crashed against a brick wall, feeling the impact in every part of her body. She couldn’t help but notice that her armor was gone, giving her a feeling of nakedness. “Now just what do you think you’re doing?”
Thana forced her eyes open once more. The light returned, but this time, she allowed it to burn. She stared straight into the inferno, desperately willing it to go away. Slowly, the light faded, allowing her to see the room that she was in.
Unsurprisingly, the room was barely lit at all. Only a single torch hung from one of the walls, the source of the light. Next to the flickering flames was Kleflis, a smirk on his scaly face. He pushed himself away from the wall and crossed his arms, letting a sneer flicker across his lips.
“The mighty Thana. The girl who thought she could take on the Council.”
“He’s crazy.” Thana forced herself to her feet and balled her fists. Her legs trembled, and she called on the magical field for sustenance. Power trickled into her limbs, but not enough, not fast enough. A cool breeze blew through the room, whipping around the tattered rags that clung to her body. Whatever she was wearing, it wasn’t what she was used to. “He’s with the Fond’sar.”
“As are most of us.” Kleflis sneered. “The Hunters are the most powerful beings on the continent. Do you really think we would let another group become so powerful without joining it?”
“You sound like you speak for the Council.” Thana allowed her voice to keep trembling even as she regained her strength. “You’re being brought on board?”
“It’s a possibility.” Kleflis shrugged. “You never know, really. I might be accepted. I might not. Whatever the case…” He paused and smirked down at her form. “At least I’m not about to die.”
“If you had wanted me dead, you would have killed me already.” Thana sneered back. She gestured at her rags. “You have me dressed like a slave. You’re not killing me yet.”
“No, I suppose not.” Kleflis shrugged. “Not since I’ve had my fill, at least. And oh, I plan on enjoying this.”
“Your master thought he could handle the controller on his own?” Thana raised an eyebrow. “Or does he just want to take all the glory? Maybe he doesn’t think you’re worthy enough.”
“I volunteered to stay behind.” Kleflis shook his head. “I’m not worthy of speaking to such a glorious being, not yet at least.”
“And torturing me will make you worthy?” Thana spat.
“Oh, no.” Kleflis shrugged. “This is just for fun.” He took a step forward, his armor clicking loudly against the ground. A small pulse of fear shot through Thana’s body. So that’s how it made people feel. “Once I’m done with you, I’m going to go kill Franclin, then I’m going to go kill his duplicate, and then I’m going to become a Council member. Is that clear?”
“Crystal.” Thana slowly balled her fists and connected herself fully to the magical field. “But you’re not getting me without a fight.”
Kleflis sneered and opened his mouth in song, causing spectral daggers to appear in the air next to his head. Thana thrust out her hands, channeling the magical field through her fingertips and launching a fireball-lightning combination at the aqahartis.
At the same time, she reached deep into the magical field and sent out a desperate call. It was much the same technique that she had used to find Franclin in Rotgor. With luck, this time, it would do the opposite, and bring someone to her.
And, with even more luck, the newcomer would prove to be the one actually powerful enough to defeat Hunter Septis.
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