“Come on.” Thana gasped for breath. “Please. Please, just end it.”
“You know I can’t do that.” Kleflis sneered and backhanded her across the face. Her head was smashed backwards into a thick board, and she groaned in pain. “You have to survive until Hunter Septis comes back up out of the pit.”
“He’s been down there for a week!” Thana cried. “He’s dead! He lost! Just admit it!”
“And yet, your friends have yet to emerge, either.” Kleflis sneered. “Perhaps they are both dead and gone, hmm?”
“I’m not betting on it.” Thana screamed and thrashed against her bonds. “Let me go! Let me go!”
Kleflis just sneered and turned away. She gasped and let herself sink in her bonds. She was tied to a wall, stretched out like a carcass, hands and feet spread out in an enormous X that was more than a bit painful. The rags that she had been dressed in hung in tatters, barely covering her at all. Scars and cuts marred her body. If she survived, she was going to appear quite gruesome, indeed. Which, in the line of a Dragon Hunter, would come in quite handy.
As Kleflis sat down on a chair near the far wall, Thana let her head fall and started crying softly. It was a trick that she had learned when she was still but a mere child. If you cried, especially if you were female, people felt sorry for you. And if they felt sorry for you, they let their guard down.
And at that moment, it was critical that Kleflis’s guard be as low as possible.
Carefully, while still maintaining her pathetic appearance, she cast out another call to the magical field. A return call answered her own almost instantly. He was close. He was almost at her location. She just had to wait a few more minutes. That was it.
A smile broke her face for a brief moment. The thought of being free… She was holding up far better than Kleflis imagined that she was holding up, but she still wasn’t going to complain about getting an actual suit of armor again. Unfortunately, that smile brought Kleflis right back to her.
“Do you find something amusing?” The aqahartis stood up, and Thana briefly cursed the species’ ability to hear anything and everything that happened around them. “Does something I do bring happiness to you?”
“No, not at all.” Thana brought her head up, allowing tears to trickle down into her mouth. “I was just… I was just thinking about how nice it was going to be to see my father again.”
“You really think that people see each other in the underworld?” Kleflis spat. “You think you’ll just have a big family reunion with all your ancestors?”
“I can dream.” Thana took a deep, shuddering breath. “It’s nicer than just picturing a black void.”
“Well, that’s not how it works.” Kleflis snarled. “I’ve been to the underworld. Unlike you pansies who faked your death, I’ve been there and back. And I still fulfilled my contact in spite of it.”
“We’re all very proud of your accomplishments.” Thana couldn’t keep the sarcasm inside. “It must have felt truly amazing to kill monsters while the rest of us fought for a way to end the angel crisis.”
Kleflis smirked. “From what I understand, your gathering amounted to very little. Franclin found something, but to my knowledge, has never had cause to use it. The angels came, the angels went, and life went on. The dark angels came, the dark angels went, and life moved on.” Kleflis walked right up next to her. “I didn’t abandon my post. Did you know that, while all of you were hobnobbing around in Donisil, civilian deaths due to monsters spiked by almost five percent. You tried to prevent more deaths, but all you did was bring more. Our presence is protection enough.”
“You say that, and yet you join the Fond’sar.” Thana snarled. “How is that a proud and noble experience? How does that help anyone?”
“If I have to explain it to you, you will never understand.” Kleflis shook his head.
“I’m going to die anyway.” Thana did her best to shrug. “You might as well lay it on me.”
“I might?” Kleflis raised a scaly eyebrow. “And if you do manage to escape?”
“If I escape, I’m already carrying evidence that could sentence you to death.” Thana shrugged. “I already have more than you could ever want me to have.”
“That’s true enough.” Kleflis smirked. “And yet-”
A loud crack echoed through the room, the sound of bricks and stone being smashed under enormous pressure. Kleflis turned to his right, a confused look on his face. Before he could move, a second impact shattered the wall into a thousand pieces. One brick in particular flashed across the room, catching him directly in the face. He was thrown backwards into the far wall, where he smirked and snapped his helmet over his head.
Standing in the gap was… Franclin. Or at least Franclin’s duplicate, the individual that Thana had been in contact with. Physically, he looked almost exactly the same way he had appeared several months earlier. The sandy hair, the blackened and dented armor that still had cooled rock fused to it in places. The odd, haunting look in his eyes that made him appear more like a monster and less like a human. She didn’t know whether to be thankful or terrified that he was standing there. In that moment, all she could do was pray that it turned out well.
Kleflis growled under his helmet. “I was wondering if you actually-”
Franclin brought up both of his hands and fired a searing bolt of yellow magic at Kleflis. The aqahartis spun to his right, narrowing dodging the beam. When the magic struck the wall, a powerful concussive blast rolled outward, striking Thana in the chest.
The concussive blast also had the distinct effect of knocking Kleflis off-balance. Without pausing, Franclin loosed a flurry of ice attacks, flinging clumps of the brilliant magic that froze joints on Kleflis’s armor, sealed his feet to the ground, and created large clumps of ice that simply hung on the steel.
“Enough!” Kleflis roared, shattering the ice. A strange song filled the air as spectral weapons cleaved through the room, forming out of nothingness. Franclin didn’t even flinch as the weapons tore through him, not doing an ounce of damage. Kleflis staggered backwards as Franclin slowly stalked towards him. “What…”
Franclin reached the aqahartis and reached out, grabbing the man by his armored throat. Slowly, he lifted the Hunter off the ground, a smirk on his face.
“Can’t cast spells if you can’t talk, huh?” Franclin’s voice was deeper than Thana remembered it. It was deep and gravely, the same as someone trying to speak with an illness of the throat. “Shall I kill him or leave him alive?”
It took Thana several moments to realize that he was speaking to her. “Oh! Kill him. Please.”
Franclin nodded and fired a blast of green magic from his other hand. The body went limp, and he tossed it to the side, allowing it to clatter against the stones in pieces. Slowly, he turned back to her, his eyes deep and hollow. When it spoke, even though she knew he was addressing her, it felt like he was just speaking to the empty air.
“You are the one who called me.”
“Yes.” Thana nodded and called on the magical field. Her bonds sprang loose after a few seconds, and she dropped back to the ground, attempting to cover herself with the rags.
“Please.” Franclin snapped his fingers, causing the shattered wall to rebuild itself. “I’ve seen more than that. Get your armor on.”
Thana paused and sighed. “And you know where my armor is?”
Franclin paused and tilted his head to the side. “The lava, I believe.”
“Great.” Thana sighed, then turned to the fallen aqahartis. “Guess I’ll have to take his.”
“An excellent trophy to take from a fallen foe.” Franclin nodded. “I can even re-size it for you.”
“Thank you?” Thana sighed and walked over to the body, where she bent down and began unbuckling metal plates. “So… What exactly are you? You’re not Franclin. That much I can tell.”
“I will tell you all that you need to know once we are on our way.” Franclin snapped his fingers. “I assume that you know where the true Franclin is?”
Thana nodded slowly. She had rather been hoping that the new Franclin would be content with agreeing to take down Hunter Septis. “I do. But…”
“You need me.” Franclin snorted. “I could hear the desperation in your voice, and I do not think it was to escape from that pathetic aqahartis.” He snapped his fingers, ripping the remaining plates of armor from the Hunter. “I will help you. And, in exchange…” He shrugged. “You will take me to see Franclin.”
“You ready for this?” Franclin glanced to the side at Barn, who appeared more than a bit tattered and ragged.
“Not in the slightest.” The priest took a deep breath and nodded. “But let’s go.”
Franclin forced a smile and slowly snapped his fingers. A spike of ice launched up into the air, the signal to the controller so far away.
Miles behind them, across several rivers of lava and the roughest cave terrain that Franclin had ever seen, stood the metal fortress that housed the controller. With a roar, dozens of enormous crossbows cut loose, flinging enormous steel beams across the distance. Franclin kept his eyes focused on the alcove in the side of the cave, just ahead of him. Inside, it was pitch black, preventing him from seeing a thing. With luck…
The crossbow bolts smashed into the entrance to the alcove, sending rocks flying like deadly shards of shrapnel. Franclin snapped his helmet up over his head, grimacing as the tiny pieces of stone pinged off the metal. That was going to leave a scratch.
As the dust settled, Franclin marched forward, activating dozens of enchantments in his armor. Waves of scanning magic swept across the battlefield, looking for any sign of disturbance. Behind him, dozens of minotaurs took their stances, mentally linking with him awaiting the slightest issue.
Ahead, the dust swirled for a brief moment. It wasn’t much, just enough to be noticeable. Franclin thrust out his hands and screamed.
Spears ripped through the cave’s air, smashing into stone and splitting the dust into pieces. Franclin swore as none of them drew blood. Desperate, he launched a series of fireballs into the rubble, wishing for anything. A brief hit. A hint that they were finally close to catching the infiltrator.
Several seconds passed, and Franclin sighed. The dust began to clear, revealing nothing more than a shattered and destroyed cavern entrance. His scanning magic revealed the same thing his eyes did: There was nothing inside. No life, cloaked or otherwise.
“It’s a bust.” Franclin slowly turned to Barn. “He must have snuck out.”
Barn nodded and closed his eyes, communicating with the controller. A whir echoed through the air, indicating that a flying platform was on its way to pick them up. Meanwhile, the minotaurs stomped forward, vanishing into the cave entrance, doing a more in-depth exploration. Franclin just sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, desperately wishing that they could figure something out.
When the controller had warned them of a Fond’sar attack, Franclin and Barn had rushed outside to face the problem. Of course… The attacker had only rode the platform about halfway down before hijacking its enchantments and crashing it just outside. A few dozen cloaking spells later, he had vanished completely.
The controller had placed the palace itself on complete lockdown, not even allowing Barn and Franclin to come inside. Meanwhile, the two of them had been tasked with finding the infiltrator and making sure that he couldn’t do any harm. And so, Barn and Franclin had set out to do just that. The only problem… It was a big cave, and whoever they were tracking was good.
“We’ve got to be missing something.” Franclin turned to Barn and sighed as a platform buzzed overhead and dropped down to the ground. “We’ve found him so many times. I saw him go into that cave. Nothing could have gotten out. Right?”
Barn just shrugged and sighed. “With magic, nothing is impossible, I’ve found. With the Fond’sar, he could have a short-range transportation device that allows him to jump around. I don’t know that for certain, it’s just a hypothesis.” He yawned and climbed up onto the platform, a dejected look on his face. “I just don’t know.”
Franclin climbed on board as well, and the platform shot up into the sky. He closed his eyes and tried to think, running through all the possibilities in his head.
“Do you think-”
“Franclin?” Barn sighed. “Don’t even go there.”
“What?” Franclin shrugged. “I have an idea that might help us.”
“Just don’t think it.” Barn shook his head and sat down. “The controller can hear our thoughts. He’s not going to like that idea.”
Franclin paused. “An idea that could find the guy we’ve been chasing?”
Barn frowned. “You have an idea that could do that?”
“Yes.” Franclin nodded slowly. “What are you thinking?”
Barn groaned and flopped back, rubbing his black eyes. They hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous several days, and it was showing. “Just wondering if this guy was even real or not.”
Franclin barked a laugh. “And you think the controller is just faking it all? Trying to keep us on a wild goose chase while he uses us for some other purpose?”
Barn just groaned. “I don’t want to think that.”
Franclin sighed and nodded, staring out at the cave. The thought had occurred to him, as well. They didn’t know much about the controller, but it was obvious that he was powerful. It was odd, then, that he couldn’t find a single individual somewhere in the cave. Wouldn’t that be well within its powers?
“So what was your idea?” Barn spoke up after a few seconds. “Anything good?”
“I thought so.” Franclin nodded. “The controller is a telepath, right?”
Barn nodded. “Right.”
“And the whole reason that the controller can’t just find the guy is because of some sort of mental masking field, right?”
Barn nodded once more. “Right.”
“Then all we would need to do is break that spell.” Franclin sighed and sat down as the platform coasted through the sky. Below, lava churned and bubbled like water. “If the controller’s latent telepathic field extends throughout this whole cave, then maybe we can tap into it to cast a spellbreaker. It wouldn’t have to be for long, a few seconds would do, but it might just let us figure out exactly where he or she is.”
“Not a bad idea, in theory.” Barn mused. “There’s no way the controller would go for it, but I will give it props for being interesting.”
“Tell me more.” The voice of the controller erupted from the platform itself. “You think you could stop this invader?”
Barn jumped uncomfortably. Franclin frankly wasn’t surprised that the enormously powerful creature could hear things through basically anything and everything in the cave. “I think that if I can find him, he’d be a lot easier to stop than just poking around in the dark like blind men with canes.”
“An unusual analogy, but an accurate one, I suppose.” The controller sounded amused. “How would you propose to go about this plan?”
“Simple.” Franclin shrugged. “Well, simple-ish. I would connect to you through the magical field, and then…”
“No.” The controller snapped. “That’s how we were enslaved in the first place.”
“Told you.” Barn muttered. “It can’t work.”
Franclin sighed and glared down at the platform. “Alright, then, you tap into me and pull the magical field through me or something.”
There was a pause. “I would have complete control over your entire body.”
“Yeah, well…” Franclin shrugged. “I’m getting tired of all this hiding in the dark business. I say we kill him and be done with it. Otherwise, I’ll be down here until I die anyway. If we don’t trust each other, nothing is getting done at all.”
There was another long pause. Finally, the controller spoke again. “I believe you, Franclin.” The platform changed direction ever so slightly. “We will do this. Now.”
“Good.” Franclin nodded, feeling a breath of fresh air burst across his face. “I look forward to ending this.”
He glanced down at Barn, who simply looked pale. Wind whipped through the Highsand’s beard, playing at his robes. Franclin sighed and then turned back to face forward as they coasted through the sky.
He was more than ready to be done with the mysterious cave. He wanted to kill a member of the Fond’sar.
And then he wanted to learn how to kill a whole lot more.
“Alright.” Thana sighed as the two Hunters walked out of the city and onto the bridge to the sinkshaft. Ahead, she could see the torn and scattered bricks from her battle with Hunter Septis. She could barely remember the conflict at all, only that it hadn’t gone well. Parts of the bridge had been patched, likely by dwarven workers, but it obviously hadn’t been a top priority. “Talk to me.”
“What about?” Franclin crossed his arms. “Would you like to hear my kill count? Or would you rather ask me how I found this armor? Or why I spared you back in Donisil?”
“I’d rather ask you about who in Firengot you are.” Thana shook her head. “You’re Franclin, but not.”
“This body belongs to Franclin, yes.” Franclin… or Not-Franclin, depending on how you looked at it, nodded. “The entity controlling the body, myself, does not have a name. If I was seen without a body, I would likely be called a ghost. My official title is Possessor. I believe that the mages in Donisil call me a Wraithguard. More primitive cultures refer to me as an avenging spirit. You may choose whatever title you believe best suits me.”
“Your official title?” Thana shook her head, more than a bit confused. “What are you talking about? Who do you work for?”
“My direct superior is Jackal Prime.” The Wraithguard crossed his arms. “He reports directly to Zorcis, son of Nubierd. Once more, make of that what you will.”
“So what exactly do you do?” Thana shrugged. “Come back and possess dead bodies?”
“More or less, yes.” The Wraithguard nodded. “When someone’s soul has become separated from their body, provided that such circumstances were accidental and not an intentional act of malice, I return their body to their soul. I ensure that the body is unharmed, and protect any valuable possessions that they may have had. I ensure that balance is kept.”
Thana nodded slowly. “And all the people you’ve killed?”
“Consider it my payment for trying to return such a powerful body to its soul.” The Wraithguard shrugged. “Most of the assignments I receive are simple. Young children who got too close to witchcraft. I possess their body, figure out where their soul actually is, and perform a quick ritual to fix the problem. A Hunter? That’s an entirely different problem. When I get back to Vorthis, I expect to have a large sum of souls waiting for me.”
Thana just closed her eyes. “You save souls that have been wrongfully separated from their bodies, but you’re perfectly okay with killing and taking people’s souls?”
“I didn’t say wrongfully.” The Wraithguard held up a finger. “I said accidentally. If a witch goes and takes someone’s soul to use for fuel in a magical bonfire, hey! I couldn’t care less. The soul gets used, so balance is preserved.” The creature shrugged. “On the other hand, if the souls are just allowed to wander loose, ghosts will outnumber the living in mere decades. Just look at Delsinar. It’s one of the few places that has an exception filed with my department, and wow! If you’re allergic to ghosts, don’t go there.”
Thana groaned and rubbed her forehead before opening her eyes. “You’re sick, you know that?”
“I’m also your only shot at winning this fight.” The Wraithguard shrugged. “So… You’re stuck with me. At least for the time being.”
“Franclin is alive, though.” Thana finally brought the conversation back on target. “And he has a body. I’ve seen it.”
“So just let me put a sword through his old body, I’ll stick the soul in this new one, and we can move on with life.” The Wraithguard held up his hands. “Trust me, this world sucks. I’m more than ready to go home, and I can’t do that until this body here gets its soul back.”
Thana sighed. “Franclin is going to kill me.”
“If you can accidentally disconnect your soul from your body before that happens, you might stand a chance. We heal all post-separation injuries.”
Thana just ground her teeth together and crossed her arms. The black and orange armor clicked against itself, bringing at least a small smile to her face.
She had to admit, Kleflis’s armor was nice. It wasn’t quite as new as Franclin’s suit, but it was far more recently-made than the shell that she had been wearing. It was amazing that the Wraithguard had been able to kill him at all. Of course, that may have just been a testament to the strength of the Wraithguard, not the weakness of the armor.
In entirely too little time, they found themselves at the mouth of the sinkshaft. The dome that had been there before lay in pieces, scattered around the mouth of the shaft in tiny slivers. Thana took a deep breath and drew her sword, uncertain of what she would find.
“There’s no one here.” The Wraithguard walked up to the edge of the sinkshaft and glanced over the edge. He held out his hand and snapped his fingers a few times, sending resounding pings bouncing up and down the rocks. After a few seconds, he nodded and stepped back. “Looks like about a two mile drop before some sort of obstruction. And a recent obstruction, if I don’t miss my guess.”
Thana nodded slowly. “And what does that mean?” She took a deep breath. “How do we get down there? There was an enchanted platform the last time I was here.”
“We jump.” The Wraithguard shrugged. At Thana’s horrified look, he made a face at her. “Oh, don’t give me that! We’ll be fine. My magic can allow us to survive the fall and hopefully let us break through into the cave below. And if you die, I can always just stick your soul back into your body after I heal it.”
“You’re not filling me full of confidence.” Thana took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “On my mark, then.”
“Or on mine.” The Wraithguard grabbed her hand and jumped over the ledge. Unprepared, Thana was pulled off her stance and into the pit. Rocks raced back on all sides as she plummeted down into the ground. She really wasn’t sure what she was about to find. She wasn’t sure what she was about to face.
In that moment, all she could hope was that she survived.
“Are you sure about this?” The minotaur next to Franclin hissed as steam belched from its joints. “If I am not completely trustworthy…”
“Oh, can it.” Franclin crossed his arms and closed his eyes. He wasn’t particularly pleased about the idea of allowing the controller access to his body, but he didn’t exactly have many choices. “Just do it, now. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can find this guy.”
“As you wish.” The minotaur placed a hand on the back of Franclin’s neck. Something pricked his skin… And the controller was inside him.
It was a strange feeling, really. Franclin had been subject to mind probes in his life many times before. It was routine training at most of the academies and certainly at the Hunter Academy. And yet, nothing was quite the same as an ancient being of unthinkable power trying to force its way into his body. It was like a waterfall of information, cascading through his mind in one single moment.
Franclin felt his knees give way as images poured through his mind. It was a side effect of most mind probes: The individual being probed would often see flashes of the probe’s life. The more powerful the probe, the more was at risk. And, in that moment, Franclin could see quite a lot.
He could feel the ground shake under thousands of dwarven boots. He could smell the smoke from a million forges, the smoke of captivity and slave labor. He could see… By the gods, he could see.
He could see through the eyes of every slave that the dwarves had hooked up to the controller. He could see through the eyes of minotaurs, feeling their brutish impulses as they stomped along the slave cages, snorting down in indifference at the captured souls inside. He could see through the eyes of a dark elven woman, torn from the arms of her lover, with her child torn from her. He could see through the eyes of a lowly dwarven worker, so low-class that no one had bothered to remove him when he had accidentally been locked in a slave cage and fitted with a control mechanism. He could see through the eyes of high elves and humans, orcs and trolls, goblins and horclops. He could feel dwarven spears being thrust through his body as slaves disobeyed or simply failed to live up to their quotas. He could see…
He could see so much, feel so much. When he finally snapped out of the visions, it was like a cloud had slid aside allowing glorious sunlight to finally pour into his life. He fell to the ground, groaning softly. Barn ran to his side, glaring up at the nearby minotaur.
“What did you do?” Barn snarled. “You were supposed to be using his magic to cast a spell breaker!”
“And I apologize.” The minotaur dipped its head. “I was not prepared to insert my consciousness into such a frail vessel. I’m afraid that he received a fair dose of my memories. At least, a fair dose for a mortal mind such as yourself.”
“Did the spell breaker work?” Franclin took a deep breath and forced himself upright again. “Did you succeed?”
There was a pause, and the minotaur sighed. “No. No, I did not. I withdrew for fear of destroying you.”
“Well, try again.” Franclin turned, putting his back to the minotaur. “We have to find him. If a Fond’sar gets ahold of you, everything I just saw could happen again.”
“Are you certain?” Barn stepped up next to him. “You seemed to be in quite a lot of pain.”
“Not as much as we’ll be in if we fail.” Franclin took a deep breath. “Controller! Now!”
The minotaur placed his hand on the back of Franclin’s neck, and the Hunter took a deep breath. If he was going to survive this, he would need a sound mind and…
With a resounding crash, the memories poured through his mind yet again. Knowing that they were coming didn’t help, as the images and sensations bombarded every aspect of his senses imaginable. Hundreds of years of slavery, countless individuals abused, beaten, and killed. He was aware that he was screaming, but he couldn’t even hear his own voice over the cries of the dead.
When he finally came out of it, it felt like it had been an eternity. Every muscle in his body failed to work, and he fell to the ground once more. His limbs twitched, his palms burned. He groaned and tried to sit up, but failed in every aspect. Barn knelt next to him, lips moving in prayer.
“I’m okay.” Franclin took a deep breath and sat up. “Did it work? We need to be moving now if it did.”
“Oh, it worked.” The minotaur’s voice was deep and solemn. “But… I don’t think we’ll need to move anywhere.”
Franclin felt his blood grow cold. Barn’s eyes widened, and his lips began to move even faster. Slowly, Franclin turned his head to face the direction that the minotaur was looking.
Standing at the center of the courtyard, only a dozen feet away, was a Hunter. Not just any hunter, but a dark elf that Franclin knew from the Council. Among the other Hunters, he was said to be first in line for the Council Seat, though Franclin wasn’t sure about that particular detail. In any event, it was obvious that he was extraordinarily deadly… And added so many more twists to the tale.
“No.” Franclin swore and started pushing himself back to his feet. The minotaur bent to help him, but Franclin slapped the hand away. “Controller, you got it wrong.”
“What do you mean?” The minotaur hissed, an angry tone in its voice.
“Yes, what do you mean, young Franclin?” The dark elf raised an eyebrow. “I’m curious, myself.”
“He’s not Fond’sar.” Franclin shook his head, nearly losing his balance as his legs threatened to give out. “He’s a Hunter. Like me. He probably came to investigate things, and then got spooked. He’s no threat.”
The minotaur shook his head. “I’m a telepath. I assure you, he is Fond’sar.”
The dark elf simply crossed his arms, causing his armor to clack loudly. “Is that so hard to believe, Franclin? That the Fond’sar might hold a place on an organization that you consider so sacred?” The elf took a step forward, ignoring the myriad of spears pointed at his chest. “Do tell me, how are you feeling right now?”
In that moment, weary from the overwhelming barrage of memories and exhausted from the weeks of uncertainty, everything came barreling into Franclin’s body in one fell moment. The Fond’sar were everywhere. They couldn’t be beat, they couldn’t be destroyed. They were like water. If you tried to smash a drop of water with a hammer, it would just split into pieces and reform, unharmed. They could be anyone and everyone. They could be friends or foes. And there was no way to defeat them.
“No.” Franclin’s legs ceased to work, and he fell back to his knees. “No, please no.”
In that same moment, his lungs began to stop functioning as well. Any breath came in short gasps, barely enough to keep him alive. The tiny portion of his brain still functioning screamed at him to do something or he would die. The rest of his mind told him that he was already there. He had failed. The Fond’sar couldn’t be beat. Why keep fighting a loosing battle when he could just die and get it all over with?
“Franclin.” Barn pleaded with him. “You have to fight him.”
“I can’t.” Franclin shook his head. He fell to the side and pulled his knees up into his chest. “I just can’t. Oh please, I just can’t. You fight him. You do it.”
An enormous crash echoed through the room, and Franclin winced and pulled his legs up tighter against himself. Rocks crashed down around him, and he closed his eyes. When one hit him, he just wanted it to be fast. It could crush him, end him, and he could move on.
Desperately, he prayed for the impact. And, as shouts rose around him, he desperately cried for it to end.
Thana screamed as the Wraithguard smashed into the stones at the bottom of the shaft a mere instant before she did. The rocks turned to powder, and they blew through the remaining rubble in seconds. And that… Well, that’s when the fear really kicked in.
They were falling from the top of the single largest cave she had ever seen in her life. Rivers of lava gushed out of the walls, wrapping down the landscape to a whirlpool of the deadly liquid next to an incredible metal castle.
“And there we go!” The Wraithguard grabbed her hand and pointed at the castle. “Come on!”
Thana didn’t even know what to say as the not-Franclin sprouted spectral wings and soared off towards the structure. She was reduced to simply dangling from his arm, desperately hoping that his magic held and that he didn’t just let go. From what she could tell, it wouldn’t have exactly been outside of his personality to do so.
Thankfully, such an event failed to materialize, and they simply sailed towards the strange metal creation. As they got closer, Thana couldn’t help but notice the abundance of armored minotaurs that graced the walls. She also couldn’t help but notice that they were all facing inwards, as if something was happening at the center of the structure.
“Looks like your friends are alive and well!” The Wraithguard sounded pleased. “Franclin, too! I can go home!”
“After you defeat Hunter Septis.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” The Wraithguard huffed. “Alright, coming in for a landing!”
With that, they swooped over the walls and into a massive courtyard. The space was, unsurprisingly, filled with armored minotaurs. Oh, and three other individuals. A terrified-looking Barn, a dead-looking Franclin, and Hunter Septis.
Without warning, the Wraithguard simply let go, allowing her to fall from the sky. She took a deep breath and called on the magical field, slowing her descent and allowing her to land quite spectacularly in front of Franclin. Her armor crashed into the stones with a resounding boom, and she flashed a smile at Barn. The Wraithguard landed just next to her, executing a rather impressive pose as he struck home. Slowly, he stood up, staring at Hunter Septis.
“What’s this?” Hunter Septis laughed. “You’re going to try to kill me or something?” His eyes narrowed. “Do you think I haven’t fought Wraithguards before?”
“Actually, I know you haven’t.” The Wraithguard shrugged and stepped forward. “As one of the final tests to become a Council member, you are instructed to fight and kill one of us. It’s a horrible job, we all draw straws to avoid it. As I recall, when you went into your trial, you failed to kill the Wraithguard, but offered to bribe it with the prospect of dozens of innocent souls. Am I wrong?”
Hunter Septis ground his teeth together so loudly that Thana could hear them. “I’ve gotten better since then.”
“Of that, I have no doubt.” The Wraithguard shrugged. “But are you good enough?”
In response, Hunter Septis simply blurred forward, moving at speeds that Thana couldn’t even begin to track with her eyes. The Wraithguard just shrugged and snapped his fingers, sending out a blast of brilliant red energy.
The energy tore through Hunter Septis in an instant, causing his body to fall to the ground, quite dead. The Wraithguard walked over to the body and held up a hand, causing tendrils of energy to rise up from the dark elf and into his palm. He smiled as the soul was siphoned into his body, then took a deep breath.
“Well, that was less of a fight than I was expecting.” He turned back to Thana. “So, shall we take care of business now?”
Thana frowned and glanced down at the still-twitching Franclin. Barn stood next to him, a concerned look on his face. He glanced back and forth between Thana and the Wraithguard, frowning at both of them.
“Can I get an explanation?” Barn crossed his arms.
“In a moment, yes.” Thana sighed and nodded at Franclin. “What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s called an anxiety attack.” Barn sighed and shrugged. “I’ve seen them many times during my time as a Highsand. They often occur when one’s worldview has been completely shattered. The mind fractures into pieces, with different aspects of their personality telling them different things.” He folded his hands. “I think this has been building for some time now. Franclin’s Hunter mindset is conflicting with the mindset that the Fond’sar could be anywhere and everywhere. And it’s driven him… Here.”
Thana took a deep breath. “How do we fix it?”
Barn shrugged. “The best way is to wait until he can speak again. Then, we force the two halves of his mind to begin fighting each other. One of the sides will win, and… That’s that.”
Thana nodded slowly. “And what if the wrong side wins out?”
Barn could only glance at the ground. “That’s a risk that we may have to take.”
For a few long moments, Thana just stared at the twitching and miserable Franclin. She just wanted him back to normal. As much as she had despised him prior to the angels… At least he had done something. At least he didn’t just lay there like a lost puppy. At least…
Slowly, a thought began to take form in her mind. It was a bit of a twisted thought, but it was a thought nonetheless. She turned to the Wraithguard and smirked softly.
“You think you can do me one more favor before heading home?”
Franclin squeezed his eyes shut, desperately trying to block it all out. Why wasn’t he dead yet? Why was he still trapped in this world? He just wanted to leave. He wanted to leave it all behind, forget that the Fond’sar existed, retreat to a world of darkness where he could pretend that none of it ever happened.
“Hey!” A voice cut into his mind. His… Own voice? “And just what do you think you’re doing?”
Franclin forced his eyes open. He was still in the courtyard, but… But everyone else was gone. Well, everyone except a ring of armored minotaurs. And himself. A perfect copy of himself, wearing his old, orange armor, stood on the far side. The armor was chipped and cracked, blackened and broken from the lava.
“Who are you?” Franclin forced himself to his feet, feeling his limbs tremble under his weight. “What are you? Is this a dream?”
“Sure.” The other version of himself slowly spread his arms. “If that’s how you can make sense of it.”
“So what do you want?” Franclin slowly brought up his hands. “Are you going to fight me?”
“Not at all.” Other-Franclin shook his head. “I was just going to ask you why you’re still fighting.”
Franclin ground his teeth together. “What do you mean?”
“You’re still going on.” Other-Franclin taunted. “You’re still desperately trying to win. The Fond’sar can’t be beat. They’re going to kill you, they’re going to kill everyone. Just give up! Give up and let yourself fall into the darkness.”
Franclin’s heart yearned at the words. Oh, how he wanted to do just that. And yet…
“No.” The words coming out of his mouth surprised even himself. “No, I can’t stop fighting.”
“But what are you going to fight?” Other-Franclin started circling him, pacing and sneering. “An invisible foe? Easy. There are ways to kill that. But the Fond’sar aren’t invisible. They’re everywhere. And you can’t kill everyone. So what do you do?”
“No!” Franclin screamed at his other self. Fire filled his veins, and he thrust out his hands. Spikes of ice formed in his gauntlets, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. “Stop telling me to fail.”
“Never.” Other-Franclin stalked up to him, sneering in his face. “Look at your armor. The burns. You fell into that lava, and you died. Everything since then has been a dream in the afterlife. Just give up. Stop fighting, and it’ll all be over.”
Franclin slammed his hand into the doppelganger’s chest, tossing him back across the ring. “I’ll never stop fighting.” He swore at the creature. “Even if every other Hunter in existence is a part of the Fond’sar, I swear I will not stop fighting until breath has left my chest or theirs.”
Other-Franclin nodded slowly. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Franclin felt a wave of confusion. “Huh?”
“Just wanted to make sure it was still in you.” A black-armored hand came down on his shoulder. He spun to see Thana sporting a suit of armor that was… Rather impressive, all things considered. “Sorry if we had to trick you a bit.”
“What?” Franclin took a step back as Barn joined the circle as well. “I don’t understand. What… Who…”
“It’s a bit of a long story.” Thana sighed. Franclin felt his breath coming in short gasps. What was happening? He had been dreaming… And now he wasn’t…
“Then start explaining it to me.” He finally gasped and sat down. “Please.”
Thana sighed and crossed her arms as the Wraithguard finished explaining himself. Franclin still sat on the ground, eyes glazed, more than a bit confused. He was better than he had been only a few minutes earlier, but… He still wasn’t doing great.
“So you’re telling me that you need to kill me and stick my soul into that body?” Franclin gestured vaguely at the Wraithguard.
“Yep, it’s as simple as that.” The Wraithguard nodded. “Just say the word and I get to go home.”
Franclin groaned and just shook his head, and Thana had to force herself not to laugh at the befuddled boy. He had been a royal thorn in her side for so long, it was hard not to feel at least a little bit nice at seeing his pain.
“Fine.” Franclin groaned. Thana groaned with him. The Hunter should have been putting up much more of a fight. “Just be quick about it.”
The Wraithguard stepped around behind the still-trembling Franclin. The duplicate chuckled slightly as red magic began to glow in its palm. “You know, I rarely bother asking about the circumstances of events, but you’re a real interesting one. How’d you wind up with two bodies anyhow?”
Franclin just shook his head. “It was the demigod, it had to be. Cifiela, I think. She duplicated me, and put me through this test, and-”
“No.” The Wraithguard let his hand fall to his side. “Please, no. By the gods, no!”
Thana frowned. “What is it?”
Even Franclin turned slightly, a confused look on his face. “What’s going on?”
“Cifiela.” The Wraithguard spat. “She goes and does this all the time. If she duplicated you, it means that this wasn’t an accident, which means that my job was for nothing.”
Thana couldn’t stop a laugh from escaping her mouth. “Are you serious?”
“I wish I wasn’t.” The Wraithguard sighed. “And now…”
“Now you can just go home, right?” Thana held up her hands. “You’re free?”
“It’s not that simple.” The Wraithguard groaned. “I have to undo anything I’ve done in this body, since I was collecting payment for a job that shouldn’t have needed done. I have to return all the souls I took.”
Thana felt a momentary flash of fear. Slowly, she turned and nodded at Hunter Septis. “Including him?”
“I’m afraid so.” The Wraithguard sighed and walked over to the fallen dark elf. “You may want to say your final prayers, because I doubt that he’ll spare you.”
“Wait.” Thana held up a hand and jogged over to the corpse. She drew her sword and stood next to him, weapon ready. “Now do it.”
The Wraithguard flashed a smile, before firing a bolt of greenish magic back into Hunter Septis’s body. The corpse gave a mighty jerk, and the eyes snapped open, eyes full of hatred and anger.
The eyes went dull again as Thana brought her sword down on his neck, severing the head from the body. She kicked it away for good measure, ensuring that he couldn’t just heal.
“And that, if I don’t miss my guess, wasn’t an accident.” Thana raised an eyebrow. She frowned, then shrugged. “I’m sure you’ve killed other criminals. If you’d like, I can help you make sure a few unworthy souls stay where they belong.”
The Wraithguard held out a hand. “I believe we’ve just formed a partnership.”
Thana shook the hand, and the Wraithguard allowed red energy to flow out of his body. Thana didn’t even have time to say goodbye before they were transported away… Into a life that she suspected would be far different than anything she had experienced before.
Two days later…
“And then they just left.” Barn sighed and stroked his beard by the soft candlelight. “It was… Bizarre. No goodbye, no indication of what they had just done. I still don’t understand exactly what was happening.”
Klorific nodded slowly. They were hidden in the secret room of his bar, and had been since they had emerged from the sinkshaft, due to the presence of several high-ranking Fond’sar leaders entering the city to investigate the death of the Hunter. Thankfully… They weren’t likely to find much. Less thankfully was the fact that they hadn’t been able to speak to Klorific since he hid them away, for fear that they would be discovered by the agents canvassing the city.
“Wraithguards, avenging spirits, are not something to be taken lightly.” Klorific sighed. “The Fond’sar have tried to recruit several. They can change their loyalty on whims, rarely explain their intents, and are nearly impossible to kill. If one of your allies is aligned with one, I would be seriously worried, indeed.”
“Good to know.” Barn leaned back in his chair. “I will pray for Thana’s soul.”
“You should pray for a lot more than that, my clerical friend.” Klorific chuckled softly. He glanced to the side, where Franclin lay on a small cot, curled into a ball without his armor on. “If he gets any worse…”
“Believe me, I’m aware of the possibilities.” Barn closed his eyes for a brief moment. After Thana and the Wraithguard left, Franclin had reverted to his afflicted state. It was beyond anything Barn had ever seen before. “While I’m certain this is a problem that’s been building for some time, I’m beginning to fear that his connection to the controller may have been the tipping point. I don’t have any concept of what he must have seen there. It’s possible he may never come back.”
“For all our sakes, I hope that he improves.” Klorific forced a smile. “Now, perhaps you could tell me of the controller itself? Was it impressed by Franclin’s bravery? Did it by any chance decide to come join us as a result?”
“I wish.” Barn just shook his head. “No, it was not. It was moved, however slightly, by the fact that Franclin was willing to allow it inside his head. However, I believe that it thought that Franclin was simply accepting his place as a lesser mortal, sacrificing himself for the greater good.”
Klorific sighed. “So where does that leave us?”
“With a plan, however poor it may seem.” Barn stroked his chin. “The Fond’sar want the controllers. They want them desperately and wholeheartedly. If we cannot convince the controllers to fight on our side, then we must help them escape. Once they are gone, if we can do it in a way that the Fond’sar don’t notice, the organization will spend centuries pursuing something that no longer exists.”
Klorific smirked. “An impossible task.”
“Rebellion in general is always an impossible task.” Barn frowned. “If it were not for the courage of the human slaves a thousand years ago, the Dwarven Empire would likely stand over all of Calsin. Hundreds of thousands of them died, never knowing the results of their actions. Rebellion is the act of taking something impossible and forcing it into the realm of reality.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Klorific mimed hefting a glass of wine. “To the impossible.”
“To the impossible.” Barn agreed. After a moment, he sighed. “Let us know once the last of the Fond’sar have cleared from the city, and we’ll be on our way. I still have more agents to visit, and now…” A genuine smile broke his lips. “Now I have a list of other controller locations. And, thankfully enough, a few of those locations happen to match up.”
“Then I suppose your journey from here should be profitable.” Klorific frowned for a moment. “Where will you head next?”
Barn puffed out his cheeks. A large portion of him didn’t want to tell Klorific at all, but… He had already entrusted him with the communicator. If Klorific wasn’t trustworthy, Barn and Franclin were as good as dead.
“Tifingor.” Barn nodded. “There’s a member of the upper court that has been a part of our ranks for quite some time now.”
Klorific winced. “Tirinnoufin was decimated by the angels, worse than Elsinor in a lot of aspects, at least as far as the reports go. You think he’s still alive?”
“I don’t know.” Barn puffed out his cheeks. “But, if the stories I’ve heard are true, it would take a powerful angel indeed to take him down.”
“Sounds like a man I’d like to meet.” Klorific smirked. “Who is he? Forgive my curiousness, but this is the first I’ve heard of resistance in Tifingor.”
“With luck, you’ll be speaking to him soon enough.” Barn sighed and nodded at the communicator that sat on the small desk. “Talfin. Ambassador Talfin.”
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