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Knight was waiting for me by a noisy cargo elevator, punching buttons and levers with a cigarillo hanging out of his maw. When he saw me alone, he nodded.

“Looks like we’ve got ourselves a lucky break here. Backup generators are still connected to the elevator.”

I sat near the base of the terminal. He took a single glance around at the now ordinary derelict laboratory, then slung me onto his back in a single, smooth motion.

THANK YOU FOR CONTINUED SUPPORT, I said, YOUR RESPONSE IS VALUED, DEAR CUSTOMER. THIS CONVERSATION WILL BE RECORDED FOR TRAINING PURPOSES.

“Hah. You could say that again.”

A pause. “Don’t actually,” he added. “I’d die if everything I’ve ever done was recorded.”

This wasn’t a proper conversation. After losing Lyra to the whims of this world, the questions and answers I wished to ask and receive were locked within me. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to talk, but idle chatter was a whole lot better than being alone with my thoughts.

WHAT IS THE WEATHER TODAY? I said, TODAY, A SPECIAL GUEST IS MAKING AN APPEARANCE. LET’S GIVE IT UP TO—

Knight barely reacted. “Enough,” he said, “Don’t force yourself. Grieve. I get it.”

If I had eyes, a simple statement like that would be enough to drive me to tears. Those words were something I desperately needed to hear.

The elevator ride up gave me enough time to collect my composure in silence.

“Now that we’re home free, it’s probably a good time to be a bit truthful,” Knight said. He spoke spontaneously after an especially loud mechanical clang; it seems like he preferred talking over listening to the shrill machine noises coming off the ancient cables and gears. “Looks like we might be riding together for the foreseeable future for multiple reasons, which I’ll get to. My real name is Jaxl. I make my living as a Relic Hunter, which is typically shortened to Hunter. I’m a Class 0 Hunter, which means I’m the worst of the worst.”

If he’s the worst of the worst, then the rest must be walking gods, I thought to myself.

“I’m not going to say something like, ‘I can’t express my thanks enough,’ as that would be horribly cliche,” Jaxl continued. “You did me a good turn, even though you’re… a rock. But I repay my debts in full. I’ll get you a proper voice and maybe a body — we’re a few days off Hadron Alley, and I know a genius engineer or two. All I ask is that you stick around for a bit — there’s no shortage of people willing to take advantage of you. You can mingle with the degenerates until you get sick of humanity.”

—This bastard.

How dare he dangle exactly what I wanted in front of me?

I’d have to see for myself what he was offering. It would take a lot more than kind words to gain my trust, but it was a good start.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT, I eventually said.

“I’m looking forward to a non-canned response,” he said. “You have no idea how bad dealing with corporate fences is. They’re like robots crammed in human skin.”

We got off a few levels from the surface, into a section that had mostly caved in after some sort of explosive went off. Jaxl clicked his tongue in annoyance and began to backtrack towards another exit; I pointed him towards the source of a faint outside draft, leading him up some steel emergency stairs.

“Terrible idea to stay around these parts,” he said. “I’m sure you’re curious about this place, but it’s not worth it. I’d rather get to some semblance of society than get caught in the ten-way crossfire that’s bound to pop up over the scraps here.”

SPEED IS IMPORTANT IN DELIVERING A PRODUCT TO A CUSTOMER’S SATISFACTION.

Combining fragments of both Lyra’s and the four guardian’s memories, I already understood that this was some sort of black company research site. No need to linger around to investigate. Anything worth collecting, besides the backup generators, was already long gone.

We reached the source of the wind, a metal bloom placed several metres away from a hefty-looking security door. I looked up as Jaxl stepped through, hoping to see something that could soothe my tattered mind.

Samson once told me to look at the sky. If there was a clear blue sky above, then he could rest easy within me. To know that his mission was a success. And as long as there were kind winds and gentle evenings, then I could be at peace.

What awaited us both was a broken sky.

Fragments of orange and blue afternoon swam in a perpetual yawning night. Beyond steel clouds and disjointed pieces of day, a black liquid abyss stares back with transient interconnected lights that flickered and faded at a moment’s notice.

The stars had awoken, and were now judging us from a realm beyond imagining.

Jaxl looked upwards. Then, shaking his head, he said, “Looks like we’ve got a long walk ahead of us. Strap in — we’ll talk when it’s safe.”



Jaxl’s route took us through a withered overland. We got to the remnants of a highway and trekked north, towards a swirling white blot and broken city in the distance.

As per his request, I inspected the nearby surroundings for anything that could come to kill us.

Nothing came.

There was only dust and rust as far as the eye could see. No green signs to tell us where the nearest town was, though there was the occasional reddish crystal rift that jutted from the landscape.

Fragments of the shattered sky bled to grey, then a sickly shade of purple. When night came, there was no starlight to light our path; we moved in complete darkness. But that didn’t seem to be a problem for either of us.

I had my Ether sight, and Jaxl had some sort of mystic night vision. They operated even in the complete darkness that hugged the land like a wet blanket, choking out all sources of light but the distant constellations in the sky.

The stars watched us. My consciousness froze up every so often, when the gaze of a distant constellation fell upon me for a brief moment. These moments were far and few in between — I quickly learned how to filter out their presence for the preservation of whatever sanity was kicking around in my eggshell omelet head.

Jaxl didn’t even stop for rest. He kept moving, eyes only concentrated on the road ahead. Even in the complete darkness, where we were generally pretty safe, he didn’t bother with any conversation.

Our journey was long and winding, and I had much time to analyze Lyra’s scripture. Unlike Samson’s, hers was incomplete, torn before it was finished. There were memories and knowledge that overlapped with what I already knew: she had a similar education to the one I started out with, albeit with a greater understanding of mechanical and electrical engineering.

She was an ordinary person who knew no martial or magical Arts. Yet she was able to obtain something Jaxl referred to as a Manifest: a weapon and armor unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Through Lyra and Samson, I knew of this world and how Qi was used through the ages to produce supernatural effects. I knew of thermodynamics and how energy cannot spontaneously come into existence, but I also knew what I saw.

That emerald blade and armor came from Lyra herself. Instead of falling into the darkest pits of despair and mutating into a creature without humanity like her original, she managed to pull herself back and fight on. Her resolve forged armaments from thin air, pulling on some force or power that I couldn’t comprehend.

When I knelt down and touched the blade, I felt her emotions still surging within. There was both a crushing sense of helplessness and the strength needed to take back control swirling within, a single flame burning in a charred abyss. Such a weapon was too abstract for me to wield; when I intended on lifting it, it phased straight through my hands.

Though I stood by her till the very end, I had yet to fully comprehend the revelations she had gone through. We were fundamentally different people; I couldn’t wield her Manifest, much as she couldn’t hold the blade that I had acquired during my desperate fights for survival. That must’ve been what Samson meant when he refused to give me his gun — without understanding the principle behind their creation, one couldn’t wield another's Manifest. Or so I theorized.

That didn’t bother me. Lyra was more to me than just a weapon and armor; the time we spent together may have been tragically short, but she gave me hope. Intimacy. If an ordinary person like her could eventually overcome an insurmountable trial, then I could follow in those same footsteps and push ahead.

I suspected the cobalt blade was something similar to a Manifest. I didn’t fully understand it myself, which is probably why I could only wield it in the depths of my own mind. Perhaps one day I would understand myself enough to pull out its full potential, but I was in no rush.

My journey had just begun.

 

The next morning, we reached the outskirts of the city. Through collapsed overpasses and concrete alleys long reclaimed by the claws of winter we moved, aimlessly travelling windy corridors.

Around noon, we took shelter in the basement of a blown-out office building on the outskirts of a city. Jaxl created a thin translucent barrier of gold light in the doorway behind us, sealed by a dragon’s glyph in the center.

“There,” he said, taking a step back to admire his handiwork. “Safety, security, and most importantly, no prying ears coming to ruin our day.”

Snowed in buildings. Frozen roads. A world stuck in a state of permafrost. The very ecology of the world shifted when we got close enough to city limits, like we had passed through some ephemeral barrier between worlds.

At the very center of that world, shrouded by a blizzard, a looming castle of black ice.

Jaxl lit another thin cigarette with the tip of his finger, then flicked away the flame into the darkness. It partially illuminated dusty motivational posters and cubicles already thoroughly ransacked by the ones that came before us.

Hard work beats talent, said a poster with a cat drinking coffee.

Excuses are for the weak, said man climbing a mountain.

The only way to guarantee failure is to never try, said a man surfboarding on a huge wave.

He frowned at the posters. Then, with a snap, he plunged the hideout into comfortable darkness, leaving only the dull purple embers of his smouldering smoke.

“So, how’s the tour so far? You like what you see?” he asked, glancing at the desk I was resting on.

I found a string and pulled it:

BAD.

In the streets lurked more Remnants, roving humanoid shadows marred by red cracks. They were the only creatures we came across in this frozen concrete corpse, though I did pick up on some gunfire and howls in the distance.

It was an insult to compare them to the Princess. She died clinging onto a broken dream — these scum, these fading shadows were barely sentient; they were the scrambled remains of vague wishes. I would’ve crushed them myself had Jaxl not instantly demolished those we came across with flaming fists.

Jaxl pulled up a steel chair and sat across from me, tapping ash onto the torn carpet.

“I used to hear about this city when I was a kid,” he said. “Granport, always known for its ice festivals in the old days. Rumors these days say that if you die here, your body will turn into an ice vampire that’ll eternally seek the warmth of the living.”

BAD. BAD.

“This place is known for spitting out Monarch-class Husks, you know? If we stay here too long, we might come across another Empress of Snow. Maybe the original. Who knows, maybe one’s coming at us right now. Think I hear it now, actually.” He nodded towards his empty blaster. “Get rich or die trying, right? I think you can fit in here, actually.”

That was one class above the Princess. We barely survived her — how could you say that there were stronger things than her casually roaming around?

Jaxl pointed at the sealed doorway. I looked to my side, losing control of my voice string for a moment:

BAD. BAD. BAD. BAD. BAD. BAD. BAD. BAD.

“I’m joking.” Jaxl let out a raspy chuckle as he relaxed into his seat. “Frontier humor.”

I snuffed out his cigar in retaliation. He looked down and remarked, “I probably deserved that.”

Don’t mess with me. My heart needs a few dozen more sutures until I recover from this hell I’ve pushed through.

Grumbling quietly, I scanned through my memory and pulled a pair of strings:

SMOKING KILLS.

USERS ARE ADVISED TO LOOK DOWN. BEWARE OF PERMANENT DAMAGE TO THE RETINAS AND PREFRONTAL CORTEX.

“Some people are too busy leading their lives to care about a few extra years,” he said, relighting his cigar. “Plus, this ain’t a normal cigar. It’s a Pale Dawn cigar. Not only do they taste refined and elegant, but they’re choked up with stuff that’ll help your Qi circulation. These leaves were sourced from the floating mountains of Sorabune, and each leaf’s gotta be carefully infused for a year to get both flavour and effect. You get me?”

Don’t get snooty about cigars with me. I’ll put some dirt in that yapping mouth of yours.

Seeing as he wasn’t getting to me, Jaxl huffed and puffed on his cigar, grumbling, “Listen, have a puff one day and you’ll understand.”

That sounded more like nicotine addiction than anything mystic, but you do you.

“These consumer-grade smokes take an hour or two to kick in and they’ll stave off fatigue long enough to do anything that needs doing. We’ll make a mad dash to the relay and tunnel over to Hadron, and I can stop feeling like an idiot when we slap a voice module on you. Until then, let’s play this game of telephone until one of us gets sick of it.”

A plan for both getting out of here and a plan to pass the time until then. Not bad for a big stinkin’ lizard.

If it were possible, I would’ve liked Jaxl to tell me every secret of this world so I could keep myself alive in the future, but that wasn’t an option at the time.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE DRINK? I asked.

“Water,” he replied.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE COLOUR?

“Don’t have one.”

ARE YOU AN EARLY BIRD OR NIGHT OWL?

“I don’t sleep.”

DO YOU PREFER THE TROPICS OR THE TUNDRA?

“Room temperature.”

—This lizard was about as milquetoast as you could get.

I had plenty of other small-talk starters stored up, but I felt like prying a little. This went well and beyond forced apathy; besides his cigars, he didn’t care about anything. I pulled a string I’d been saving for an occasion like this, curious about his answer:

DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS ABOUT TODAY?

“Me? Can’t say I do,” Jaxl said, shaking his head. “I got plenty of regrets from the past, and plenty of regrets waiting in the future, but taking out that Princess Husk? Lyra? Doesn’t even register.”

Is that so?

“Best keep your eyes on the road ahead. Regret is a poison that neither of us can afford.”

Three hundred years of isolation and paranoia. An eternity in the void.

Four guardians that died protecting their home. Countless animals born to die meaningless deaths.

A man who failed his last mission and died in the darkness.

A woman who built a tower she couldn’t escape from.

Two stupid girls crushed by fate.

The regrets of those who came before me dwelled in my heart, preserved by perfect, crystalized memory. Jaxl had a point.

If I let those regrets weigh me down, I wouldn’t be able to see tomorrow.

“Nothing really changes in this world,” Jaxl said, looking to the side. “If it wasn’t us, somebody else would’ve gotten her. Husks get hunted for Relics, dueling companies bid on those Relics, and Relic Hunters die in the crossfire. That’s just how the world is these days.”

A bleak and bitter complement to the winter raging over this dead city.

Tomorrow would mean another day in this place, a new fresh hell that could freeze souls to their core. I could hide in my private world for as long as I wished, but it was only a matter of time before I’d snap for real.

“It’s better in some places than others,” Jaxl said. He flicked away his spent cigar and rested his head against the wall. “Out here, though, you best not hold any expectations. It’s for the best.”

I couldn’t entirely agree with that. Not after Samson and Lyra.

A single helping hand could change the cruel fate in wait. And I didn’t know much about Samson, but he maintained his dignity and composure as he was dying — that took real guts.

I’d be worse than a fool if I discarded all those experiences and simply labelled them nameless regrets. Due to my current state and inability to argue, I figured it was better to just agree to disagree and keep moving until we reached real safety.

Right now, the only expectation I held was for Jaxl to get me the hell out of dodge.

You still owe me a ride for saving your life twice, buddy. Don’t you dare ditch me in this fresh new hellscape.

 

Jaxl didn’t waste any time in getting to our planned rendezvous point. He stuck to the alleyways and, realizing my blessings of wind, he outran anything chasing us and punched through the rest.

I was better at augmenting other’s capabilities than fending for myself, as I learned during my journey with this jackass of a lizard. I had an understanding of the human body and its potential; extrapolating that information to a bipedal lizard took a small shift in mental framework.

Luckily for me, Jaxl was an adaptive sort. I kept turning the dial on my wind, and he adjusted his movements accordingly.

“You’re a wind-based Relic capable of healing, eh?” he said, halfway into a minor skirmish between four dog-like Remnants. “Bet the creeps at the Oracle Bureau would love to get their hands on you.”

When they were close enough to chew his face off, he took a sudden step back and uppercut the air. Wind and golden flame combined to create a miniature vortex of swirling smoke and wind, burning the howling Husks to ash.

“Even a talentless hack like myself can do pretty well with your power,” he said, whistling. “Combine that with sentience and you may as well be a one-of-a-kind.”

If he had no talent, then I might as well kill myself right now.

The only thing I learned from observing Jaxl is that I didn’t know how to use my own power. With only a few hours of practice, he was flipping and flying off walls and barriers like they were nothing, though I had the creeping suspicion that he could do those things without me. He proved himself in a direct battle against the Princess, which was harder than anything I’ve done thus far.

An obsidian gate was the object of our rather short day trip, a semicircle embedded in front of a broken fountain and former city hall. A single bead of purple light swirled in the gate’s center, circling around an invisible point.

Here, the air was quiet. Not even the winter winds dared disturb the tranquillity of fresh snow falling from the sky.

Jaxl slowed when he saw the ruby beads embedded in the white fields. I looked further ahead, noticing a barely concealed field of corpses and the ruins of a massive mechanical Husk partially covered by snow.

The violence was fresh, the result of a battle that had happened no longer than a day ago. Five of the seven bodies had been crushed by a massive object, but two of the corpses were relatively intact. I analyzed those as quickly as I could, piercing through the concealing snow.

Gunshot wounds. One placed through the right eye, another through the heart. Pinpoint entry wound, explosive exit wound.

“Somebody’s here,” Jaxl whispered.

Looks like he was as attentive as I was. I added, DANGER FROM A FAR.

He crouched low and ducked into a nearby building, traversing up the stairs to the upper floors. I flipped open my mental scanners and scanned for anybody who would oppose us.

—The air.

Five drones circled around the gate’s airspace. I sent interfering winds in their direction, hoping to shoot them out of the air.

The moment my winds touched the propeller blades, they disappeared.

One moment they were flying high, and they were gone the next. I tried to relocate them with my Ether, but they had completely vanished from all my senses.

Jaxl snuck onto the fifth story of an office building, snaking his way between desks and drawers. We made it to the next stairwell before we ran right into the eyes of the enemy.

A wiry aluminum shell watched us from the top of the stairwell, propelled by four translucent rotary propellers. The aperture on its camera eye widened, then the thing disappeared.

“Trust me,” Jaxl whispered, taking me off his back.

Not even a second later, a bullet blew out the center of Jaxl’s chest. He staggered, then fell to the ground, dead.

I didn’t get it. Trust him with what? What did you want me to trust you with?

The shot got him through the heart and took out everything in his torso. Bones, internal organs, everything in his chest was displaced by the shot, smeared across the frozen carpet. I immediately began to pour Ether into his body. The wound didn’t close — the bullet somehow seared the gaping wound shut.

We just met. This couldn’t be happening.

This wasn’t happening.

Trust him, Jaxl said. But now he’s dead and I couldn’t recover his body. His wound refused to heal.

Was this my fate?

I continued to pour in Ether, dumping my entire reserve of life-preserving energy. His open wounds smiled back at me, a grotesque smile of ribs and innards.

A minute passed. Then two. Three. His body accepted my Ether, yet nothing happened.

A shadow emerged from the nearest stairwell, a cloaked demon leaking obfuscating black mist from behind an empty hood. They held a smoking bolt-action silver rifle in their hands, chambering in a new round for effect.

They were coming for us. I was stuck underneath Jaxl — I couldn’t move.

Did he intend on getting shot? Why did he take me off his back?

The shadow blinked closer. It stood over us for a moment, then reached down towards me.

Blood everywhere. The warmth was leaving his body.

—Kill or be killed.

Ether was thick in the air. Reflexively, I reached forward and began to create an implosion.

I didn’t know what to think or what to believe. I was already at my limit; my sanity teetered on the crimson brink.

I was going to be alone again. This time, I had to accept that fact. No matter how much it hurt, I had to accept my complete isolation.

Maybe that really was the way the world was.

I’m sorry, Jaxl. The best I can do is avenge you.

Draw a circle and bind your enemy in your hand. Encircle, then execute.

However, before I could finish my technique, the figure hesitated upon seeing Jaxl’s corpse. That gave me the briefest of pauses — a hand reached out and grabbed the shadow by the neck.

Breaking through my constructed field of Ether, a fatally wounded Jaxl ran through corroded cubicles and smashed the undulating shadow against the wall.

The shadow struggled, but Jaxl kept it pinned.

“Have you ever heard of a mirage?” he said, prying the rifle from its hands and throwing it backwards. “It’s what happens when you look at something too hot for your mind to handle.”

The wound faded, burned away by a golden light. All that remained were two bloodied holes in his shirt, indicators that he did indeed take a hit.

“Who sent you?” Jaxl asked. “What are you after?”

The drones came back in full force, firing their tiny mounted guns at Jaxl. I ran interference and forced the shots wide as the shadow continued to struggle and claw at his hand. There was the faintest semblance of a voice from behind the veil of smoke, but I couldn’t figure out what it was saying.

“Silence, huh?” Jaxl clicked his tongue, as though chiding the shadow. “I mean, I don’t fault you. I get it. It’s just business, ain’t it? But if dealing death is your business, you shouldn’t be surprised when it comes for you.”

“Remember this in your next life,” he said, tightening his grip on its neck. “Respect your elders, and pick a better line of work.”

The shadow was desperately fighting now, clawing against the gloved hand on its throat and reinforcing the muscles and bones in its neck with Ether. The mist faded as it channelled a pitiful amount of Ether, giving me a glimpse of pale skin and dark hair.

—So that was his plan.

The moment Jaxl realized he was about to get shot, he cloaked himself in a flaming mirage. He managed to sever the area around the impact space, took the hit, then faked a grievous wound that fooled even me. The result was a fatal wound, but well within my capabilities to tidy up.

A clean, decisive victory.

A deranged tactic like this only came from experience. How many battlefields do you have to survive to come up with something like that?

And now, Jaxl was going to kill his attacker. Those were the rules of this world.

...Was this really okay?

Wasn’t there a mutual enemy for Relic Hunters to unite against? Why were they killing each other like this?

I understood the answers to my own questions. But I didn’t like them.

Humans excel at the art of murdering one another. In my memories, the records of the weapons used to slaughter other people glimmer like crimson scars.

Rocks. Spears.

Swords. Arrows. Axes.

Chemicals. Explosions. Radiation.

As long as there’s two people alive, one of them will always find a way to kill the other, should the situation arise. Today’s friends may be tomorrow’s enemies; it’s better to make a pre-emptive strike and be done with it.

Yet the opposite may also be true.

Circumstance alone may turn the greatest of enemies into devoted companions tomorrow.

That’s all it took, wasn’t it?

Circumstance was the curse that pulled our strings, the mould that makes us who we are and defines who we cannot be. It’s a cage for the mind with no real escape.

It was so easy to submit to the rules and brush off all responsibility for your actions; I was a hypocrite that killed when it was convenient and grew from the death’s and misery of others. I could continue waxing philosophical after every tragedy and death and personal misery, but if I never did anything about it, I’d be stuck here forever.

I had to accept responsibility for everything I’ve done and strive for the better with my new power. This is what Lyra would’ve wanted — I was the only one in this world who remembered her wish. To be able to create my own future.

It may be a vain and pointless wish in the grand scheme of things, but to me, this was another step in the journey to find myself once more.

Something led this rival Hunter here. I wouldn’t tolerate pointless deaths.

Even if the burden may be heavy, I’ll bear it and keep moving forward.

I slipped my invisible fingers between Jaxl’s and created a thin buffer for the shadow to escape from. The moment there was a proper opening, the shadow flickered and reappeared next to their rifle. In a single smooth gesture, they rearmed and pulled the trigger.

No bullets came. They looked down at their weapon, confused.

I may have been an altruistic rock, but I learned from my past mistakes. Look where your cartridges are.

That’s right. They’re mine now, placed firmly underneath my rocky exterior.

“Looking for this?” Jaxl said, raising a black bolt in his left hand. “It looks like the Relic I’m with wanted to save you. Lucky you.”

Jaxl also performed some smooth sleight of hand when he disarmed the shadow. He managed to replace the bolt part of the bolt-action rifle with an illusion and kept the original for himself. Without the bolt, a bolt-action rifle can’t fire.

“Really, you owe that rock your life,” he continued. “I don’t exactly take kindly to people trying to kill me, but I’ll make an exception since this Relic saved my ass.”

Jaxl looked at me and said, “So I hope you have a good reason for this.”

I did. There wasn’t any way to transfer my inner thoughts to physical words, so I mentally shrugged and pulled a line:

PLEASE HOLD THE LINE. HELP WILL BE THERE SHORTLY.

Cautiously, the shadow reengaged its mist and lowered its rifle. It looked between us and said, “You’re not with the Rings.”

A moment of silence.

“I have no idea who that is,” Jaxl said. Neither did I.

“Then why are you in the Ring territory?”

Jaxl shrugged, saying, “A Rosentear dumped me in a ruin after a botch job in PDT, so I helped the Relic over there escape. I was heading over to the nearest Raven Gate to get to Hadron.”

Wait. How did he know where that was without a map?

The shadow looked at us, then looked at the distant bodies in the snow. “The Rings are killing Relic Hunters. I’m almost through the bug on the Gate — fuck right off away from me.”

The bolt in Jaxl’s hand crackled with purple electricity. He let go of it and stepped back, anticipating another attack.

The shadow shimmered and reappeared some distance away, having snatched the bolt away the moment it left Jaxl’s hand. The bullets hidden underneath me were gone, loaded back into its now complete gun.

Teleportation?

“Follow me and I’ll tear off your testicles and shove them down your throat,” the shadow said. “Don’t fuck with me, you scrappy old cunt.”

I picked up accents of faint drawl in their enunciation. The mist that shrouded their identity; was that another sorcery, or something more akin to my winds?

They backed up to the edge of the blown-out glass windows and leapt. The air shimmered, and then they disappeared into the shattered winter sky.

Jaxl made no attempt to follow. He reached into his coat and pulled out his cigar box, saying, “Sheesh. Kids these days, always in such a rush.”

It was over. The shadow messed around with a panel on the gate, and Jaxl took another smoke break. But…

Kids? Old man? Was it only me that had a problem telling other people’s ages? I mean, Jaxl was a bipedal lizard so I assumed the raspiness was part of the reptilian package. Are you telling me that I’ve fallen in league with an old man?

Whatever.

There was little meaning to pursuing these meaningless tangents any further. I was a rational person who endured hardships, which gave me the barest amount of leeway with blatant silliness. When I reached Hadron, there had to be something that could remedy my rocky condition and free me from all these meaningless thoughts.

“By the way,” Jaxl said, stepping to the edge of the ruined office building we were in, “If you can, help me strip those corpses. My wallet’s a bit empty — we can pawn off their equipment and keep anything good for ourselves. I know a guy.”

Jaxl seemed to know a guy for everything, another hallmark of old age. At least he had a good mind of business; I was planning on looting these corpses anyways.

What did this old geezer have planned for me beyond that gate? As much as I would’ve liked to ask, my true voice was sealed within me. I sang a vague song of approval and decided to just get on with it.

The shadow departed first. We spent some time collecting trinkets and equipment from the corpses, activated the gate, then stepped into an endlessly spiralling helix of black light.

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A note from John Fong

The heat from lightning striking beach sand can melt the sand to form a glassy rock called “fulgurite.”

Hey. I like you guys. Have a bonus chapter. They might get kinda long as we transition towards the second arc.


About the author

John Fong

Bio: John Fong is a lawyer for the Yangs, a high-class family in Hong Kong.

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