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.:: The Borders of The Blighted Empire; Rayola ::.

 

It was noon.

The sun had reached the height of it’s glory, and the brilliant rays bore through our skin.

The heat was uncomfortable. It was an uncharacteristically hot day.

Maybe it has to do with the humidity around the marsh, maybe just the sun acting up, or perhaps even both. To be honest, I didn’t really feel much of it, but judging from how the others looked, I’d say that it was a fair guess.

What I did, find annoying was the mud and of course, how could I forget this god-forsaken smell?

The Expedition made it’s way through the borders of the blighted lands, which was incidentally, also a marsh. It wasn’t the wet season yet but still, the place was muddy as hell and the smell of rotten eggs permeated the air.

We plodded through the wet Earth.

The repulsive sludge clung to my feet and the lower rims of my trousers. The wet and adhesive soil kept slapping against my feet, sucking in air and repeating the process. I may not be a ‘city girl’ as the locals call them but still, I found the mud incredibly distasteful.

Now I really wished that I had some shoes on. Maybe that was just it.

I needed shoes.

I saw Nirlam slog through ahead of me.

The guy must be the worst off among all of us. He was a vampire after all.

He was strong, but still found it difficult to get himself moving at a fast pace in that Heavy suit of armour. And then there’s the armour itself. That thing must be the equivalent of a furnace in this heat.

I made haste to catch up to him, only for me to slip. Thankfully I didn’t fall over head first, but it was enough to coat half my body in a layer of muck.

"Fuck."

Nirlam turned around to see me. I swear the guy’s laughing his ass off behind that stupid helmet.

He waited for me to catch up.

“Not one word.” I warned him.

He just shrugged.

I stared at him as we marched along.

I did have a hunch when I first met him, but never did I know that he would be some sort of vampire prince with a drive for vengeance. Being a Vampire? I guessed it.

I could tell from the faint feeling of kinship. A familiarity that was based on instinct rather than memory. Maybe all vampires could sense each other properly, but for me, it was faint. It was akin to listening to a song long forgotten once again. So I figured he would be something along the lines.

But being a Lordling? Never.

Not till he bragged about it. Oh yes, the bragging. The guy never stops. I figured princes were supposed to be majestic and honourable and sparkly and everything. Didn’t remember where I got that idea from, but this was an interesting way to shatter my expectations.

Handsome and sparkly? The guy looked like a depressed Blazewort addict who hasn’t had proper sleep in years.

Then there was the formality.

The guy was such a sucker for old customs and etiquette that he appeared stiff. Just looking at him would have been enough to give people cramps.

“So do you know how we’re going to fight the abomination? Do we know anything about it at all?”

His helmet dipped. I guessed that it was his own way of nodding.

“ Earth magic. It is a worthy foe. Very strong too, I hear it managed to escape an entire onslaught of lightning by the mages of the eternal storm.”

I gulped.

“Any idea as to how to defeat it?”

He shrugged again.

“I have a scroll that can set anything on fire, one that cannot be extinguished by standard means, but that probably won’t be enough. We’ll have enough cover fire from the battlemages as it is, but the main problem would be to actually pin down it’s location. I hear it can move through the ground like a fish swimming through water."

I bit my lip.

Its intelligent enough to control every single undead in the vicinity effectively, and employ guerrilla tactics while withholding a majority of it's horde to protect itself.

A nice cherry on top.

“We need to kill it so we can earn the right to speak to the Hero.” He continued. 

“Can’t you just go up and say hi? Jeez.” I shook my head.

“That would place us in a lesser light would it not?”

I was confused.

“How did you ever come to that conclusion?”

“Because it is the assertion of my presence. If I am accomplished, what I say will have value, and people would be inclined to listen.”

I let out a sigh.

“ You don’t have to worry about that you know, Just go up and say hi.”

“ I refuse."

*That's one hell of a stubborn fool* The voice in my mind stated blandly.

{Agreed} I echoed back.

But I was curious.

“Why do you even want to meet the hero in the first place?”

“For our cause. It would be better if he were to assist us on our quest to the Graths than not, no?”

I tilted my head.

“Has it ever crossed your mind that he may already be a part of the expedition? He is a Hero of Dray after all. Those guys don’t really sit well with the idea of Dreadlords frolicking around close to their homes you know. There's even a high chance that he may be the one to lead the expedition as well, I didn't check but it feels only right.The Great lake of the Graths shall freeze over for the first time in decades and I don't think the Empire will just squandor that oppertunity. ”

Nirlam froze.

He turned. And stood rooted in place.

“Oh.” He spoke eventually.

“Wait, so did you come all the way here just to…”

He remained silent. We walked ahead in silence.

We were at the Western end of our particular Company of colourful adventurers.

There were actually thousands of them, moving around us, in similar groups of two hundred or so.

We were to be the front line. Adventurers have absolutely no uniformity, but also a wide variety of unique abilities, so we were at the centre, Surrounded by a more organized group of imperial Knights to our left and a whole load of explorers to our right.

The explorers, though, also had a lot of their members spread out along every group, setting up some sort of communication network and aerial reconnaissance. They also left their main intelligence officers back at the fort. Despite having to accept quick orders from someone not even among us, all of us recognized the benefits it would entail. Someone with brains screaming orders to every small group would be better than having no brains at all and running around blind.

It was not that great of a formation, but stable despite what anyone might think. They’ve all done this before. It was called the Barman’s formation. Named after a retired adventurer- turned Barman who marshalled the different factions against an unexpected attack from The Dawn. It was the easiest to set into motion in cases of severe emergencies, and also the most flexible to different scenarios.

As was our case right now. There were signs that the Abomination had plans to retreat deeper into the blighted lands. We had to mobilize quickly to cut off its escape. And thus, here we were.

Eventually, Nirlam and I caught up to Francis, Namiel and Lian. They were immersed in a discussion. 

“ …And the thing is heading right towards the capital! ” Lian exclaimed to the pair.

“What is?” I asked Lian.

“Oh, hey Rayola, Sir Nirlam.” She nodded her head at us

Namiel spoke up.

“Ah, sweet miss Rayola, Greetings, we were merely speaking of the Fortress of Woe.”

“Fortress of woe? What the hell is that?” I asked.

Francis raised his eyebrow.

“Big mechanical dwarven octopus with 17 legs, which was taken over by a dungeon core, Its fully loaded with it’s own tier 9 reality marble and is highly proficient in blowing shit up.”

Nirlam shook his head.

“Mobile dungeons? What’s wrong with the world these days?”

“Hold up. I thought dungeons referred to those spooky underground tunnel systems with lots of monsters. How can it be on the surface and a machine but yet, still called be a dungeon?”

Lian scratched her chin.

“Well, to be honest, it does mean that literally, but what we’re referring to is a living dungeon, or a Mana Core as you could call it. It’s a sentient mass of mana condensed into a crystal and imposes a reality marble onto it’s surroundings. They’re usually born in very large dungeons with lots of mana, thus the name. The thing makes places much larger, diverse, and deadlier than they’re supposed to be. It’s the main reason we keep raiding some of the older dungeons repeatedly, to check if there are any present. A dungeon developing a core can lead to a whole load of trouble.”

“Okay. Got that part.” I said.

Lian nodded before continuing.

“Well, the dwarves raided this ancient dungeon and got this tier 7 core, then went ahead to use it as a power source for a machine of theirs.”

“The big bad octopus.” Francis helped.

Namiel picked up the rest.

“Yea, that. The thing got abandoned after the dwarves had a civil war a few hundred years ago, and the core just wreaked havoc in the area till it got things moving again. It had enough of magic from all their leftover power supplies to grow powerful enough to raid two OTHER dungeons using said mechanical octopus and cannibalize their cores. No-one noticed it till it was too late. It’s nearly unstoppable at the moment, and then there’s the fact that it’s not too happy that it was used as fodder for a magic tool.”

Nirlam laughed.

“Dungeons raiding dungeons. Now I’ve heard everything.”

Lian nodded.

“Strange times, I agree.”

I glanced back briefly but paused as something caught my eyes.

I was confused. I blinked and checked again, but he wasn’t there.

Might just be a mistake.

Strange, though. I swear I saw Nael. Why the hell am I thinking of him in the first place?

He wouldn’t be here, right? Like why would he? What could he possibly gain from being in this battlefield? But then again, Explorers were forced to listen to their superiors right?

I wonder. What would be his reaction if he knew that I was a part of this war? If I did find him here, I would introduce him to my ‘adventurer’ friends, so they could ‘play’ with him for some time, exactly like what he did to me with the kids.

An evil smile broke across my face.

Yes, that's it. A fitting revenge.

 

-::- Nael -::-

 

I felt a shudder up my spine.

I glanced around with a sense of foreboding.

Something terrible was about to happen. I was never wrong about these sorts of things, after all, it had rescued me from countless situations before.

I straightened myself, whatever the hell it may be, It will find me most prepared this time around.

No longer shall I run away from fluffy bears, or degenerate vampires! 

I Shall fight!

I was on a levitating platforming with Sooya and James, Guarding a small metal globe with intricate runes carved into it’s surface around the equator. Four pearls of different colours adorned the twelve slots carved in for the sake of directing the signals to contact specific persons who may be countries away, or just across the field.

It was an interesting object. Made me wonder at how things will progress in the future. I thought of  what wonders awaited me. One day in the future, maybe I’ll get one such orb for my own personal use.

I let out a sigh as Sooya and I exchanged glances.

Her thin lips spread into an unnaturally wide smile as my own frown grew deeper.

Sooya, My team's Captain. She had large thin eyes which were angled downwards, a pale complexion and long black hair. The most noticeable feature was her creepy smile. She had a wide thin mouth, so whenever she smiled, it seemed like someone slashed open her face with a knife. It may not be nice of me to say this given her nice personality, but it still felt unnerving.

James was a lean and lanky redhead with a long nose and a swollen cheek, the last of which I could be held accountable for.

I let out a sigh. 

Why was I dragged into this stupid war again?

What the hell was a group of unspecialised ‘Yellows’ supposed to do out here in an open battlefield?

Weren't it for situations like these that the ‘Blues’ were established for in the first place? I don't see them jumping around here.

Well, it doesn’t matter for today at least. 

Today, I just have to stay here and look handsome, which I undoubedly was good at. 

Simple Job too, just call the appropriate person when the situation calls for it, and there were three of us to do it too.

There wasn’t a lot for me to mess up.

“Okay Nael, Let’s keep the dumbfuckery to a minimum today.”

I prepped myself up for the day. Things were finally going fine for once.

An easy Job, a comfortable position, a satisfying view of my surroundings so nothing could jump me. What could possibly go wrong?

But still, my spine tingled.

Then I saw her.

The Un-vampire.

Rayola.

I was flabbergasted, Shocked speechless.

Then I finally realised what was wrong.

What in the Deities’ names, was she doing out here in the middle of a warzone?

No, the more important question, What the fuck was she doing in a warzone in such close proximity to… ME? This was a recipe for absolute disaster.

Things were looking bleak already.

“Why? Why me? Just leave me alone! Please!” I pleaded to the heavens.

Then at that very moment, she turned towards me.

“OH FUCK!” I yelled as I shot to the Levitating Plaform's floor.

Someone up there really doesn’t like me.

I waited till I was absolutely sure that she didn’t notice. Then I crawled my way towards the back of the platform.

James eyed my sprawled form with a queer expression.

He didn’t speak.

Mostly because he was still recovering from yesterday’s punch.

He managed to bite his tongue at the precise moment of contact. A heavenly bonus to my satisfaction. I’m glad to say that seeing him running around screaming and begging for water was satisfying to watch. Call me sadistic, but after what he’d done to me, it was only reasonable to settle that debt.

I always pay back my debts.

I sighed. What the hell is with this situation? We were right at the cusp of a war and here I am, hiding from a girl.

I should have just stayed in hiding for a few more weeks.

I sighed once again as I peeked at Rayola from the distance.

This was going to be a terrible day.

Not a great way to mentally prepare for war.

Well, what do I say?

Things are looking Bleak.

Very bleak indeed.

 

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Cloudless Night

Bio: Concept Artist, Camouflaged Cloud.

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