Wow, I spent forever on this chapter. 13 pages in Word. Huh. Actually, when I put it that way, it seems rather pathetic.
Believe it or not, most of this chapter was written fairly quickly. But it was two important “talking” scenes of all things that took me three weeks for me to get through. Action? Easy. Talking? Nothing I wrote felt quite “right.” I wanted to fit in a lot of details, but the more I included, the more it felt like unnatural TMI. Took such a long time to strike that balance. I swear, sometimes the characters just seem to talk back to me like prima donna actors talking about how their motivations don’t match up or how their current chemistry with other characters doesn’t warrant the level of closeness in the scene. Drove me crazy. Either that, or believing my own characters are talking to me is a sign that I’m already crazy.
Anyway, this chapter marks a major turning point in the series, and I’m happy to have finally reached it. I have a general idea of where to go from here, but I don’t have the details fully outlined yet, which is why I still don’t have new chapter titles past the next one.
Oh, and I went back and corrected some dates and ages in previous chapters since I rarely consulted the timeline I ACTUALLY WROTE DOWN and ended up writing time frames that made no sense. Here’s a simplified version of the CORRECT relevant timeline:
-25 years: Previous Dragon Hunt (Balken 12 years old)
-13 years: Balken’s rule begins with the fall of Astoria (Balken 19 years old)
-6 years: The Seven Heroes raid Aria (Balken 27 years old, gets reverted to 15-year-old form)
0 years: Bardass! Chapter 1+1 year: Bardass! Chapter 25
Lastly, while I’m still on the subject of Bardass!, Melissa Pagluica (the artist I commissioned for the current Bardass! banner) has the second issue of her self-published comic, Above the Clouds, up for preorder. I’ve already ordered my copy. But even more awesomely, she recently did a variant cover for an issue of the official Adventure Time comic! And BTW, if you haven’t checked it out by now, I commissioned her for another Bardass!-related piece months ago. I expected to advance the story to where the piece would actually be relevant, but I either underestimated how quickly she would finish it or overestimated how long it would take me to write.
Here’s one of the smaller quality images if you want to check it out now:
I also have the ginormous full PDF available for download so you can see it in all its amazing glory (and you really do need to see the full quality version to catch some of the specific details).
Chapter 30: Black Interval
Valast, currently in its armorless “speed” mode, was a dangerous enemy that could strike at any moment. There was no time for what was left of its would-be hunters to come together and construct a plan of attack. But in dire situations as these, everyone began to work out exactly what was needed.
The Dragon would return to its “armor” mode and recover if there were enough Heat Wraiths for it to absorb. Along with its “armor” mode, it also acquires a deadly “explosion” attack that could decimate dozens of fighters and whatever siege engines they managed to bring in. Thus, suppressing Heat Wraiths was the first priority.
The Dragon can only be defeated by the Dreadspire, which required the construction of the Obsidian ballista. Although the ballista parts are immune to Valast’s ranged attacks, they could still be lost. In order to win, the ballista builders had to be protected.
Finally, even if the ballista is constructed, Valast’s speed would make it difficult to aim the Dreadspire. The Dragon needed to be lured into range.
Brier: It seems the Heat Wraiths won’t be much of a problem now that the Harlian soldiers outnumber them. The only problem is the Heat Phantasms.
Avery: I noticed them too… Heat Wraiths that can think and even employ strategy.
Coleen: Stand back!
Coleen used a localized Diamond Barrier to block Valast’s flame breath. The spell only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to save her comrades.
Coleen: We don’t have the luxury of discussing the nature of those Heat… Phantasms?
Brier: Agreed. I have my scepter ready. Are you going to do it?
Coleen: A Dead Ash-powered Chill Blast… I have no idea how powerful it will be…
Brier: It likely won’t be powerful enough… but we have to do what we can.
The three brought their scepters out and held the scepter heads together to complete the rune inscription Coleen carved into them.
Coleen: Brace yourselves. If I recall correctly, this is a spell that damages the user as well as the target.
Brier: Nothing we haven’t already been subjected to.
Coleen: Spirits of Ice, hear my call! Grant me breath colder than the Depths!
The air around the three cooled instantly, before Coleen even released the spell. She looked up and focused her gaze on the flying Dragon, then curved an open pout of her lips to the sky.
A cloud of white mist shot out of her mouth, forming a cone that expanded out, reaching the top of Mt. Harligg itself. The walls of the volcano became covered with a thin, clear sheet of ice that glistened in the light of the moon and lava. Valast, too, was covered in this sheet; but with a flap of its wings, the ice shattered.
Coleen’s lips and face had speckles of white from the backlash of her attack. Her allies were chilled, but otherwise unharmed.
Coleen: It wasn’t enough. Are you good to go again?
Avery: I’m fine.
Brier: Start casting. “Come again, come again, another like before. Gather ’round, gather ’round, they demand an encore!”
Encore: Increases the strength and effect of spells if the same spell is cast twice in succession. If a different spell is cast, all bonuses are reset, and the song may lose effect prematurely.
Brier’s Encore further powered up Coleen’s Chill Blast, creating a burst of white that shot through the mouth of Mt. Harligg.
The Adamantine chains that hung high above the heart of the mountain were turned completely white before the heat quickly started melting the layers of ice. Droplets like rain started falling on the entire battleground.
Valast, too, was covered in ice. Unable to move its wings, the Dragon crashed into the ground, landing on its right wing. It soon got to its feet and turned toward the source of the frost.
Coleen’s entire face was covered with ice from the powered Chill Blast, but was otherwise undamaged. She and Valast locked eyes, and she cracked a smile.
Coleen: Spirits of Ice, hear my call… form a lance to pierce the heart of mine enemy…
Unexpectedly, Brier pulled his scepter away, breaking the rune circuit.
Coleen: Brier, what are you doing?
Brier: I won’t allow you to use that spell.
Coleen: That Dragon is right in front of us. I can finish it off!
Avery: Get down!
Avery pushed his companions down, allowing them to narrowly evade Valast’s charge.
Coleen: Th-that speed… It should have slowed down by now!
Brier: Dragons recover fast.
–25 Years Ago–
–Mt. Harligg, The Heart–
Exolith, impaled by the Dreadspire, was reeled in from the sky, almost completely bled dry. While the Harlians gathered around, ready to hack it to pieces, Jegan’s mercenaries were gathered around Balken.
Silvia, the “Star Archer,” knelt at his side and was the first to speak on the Dragon’s defeat.
Silvia: It’s finally done.
Duggan: Hah! I guess even that wasn’t enough to kill the lad!
Balken: It’s not over yet… The heart…
With a deafening howl, a cascade of Harlians surrounding the Dragon were flung through the air, and Exolith thrashed about in place.
Latham: It lost so much blood… how is it still alive?
Balken: Dragons… can only die… if you destroy their heart… They can shift their heart anywhere in their body…
Latham: Then the only way to kill it…
Duggan: Exactly. It’s to hack away at every inch of its body until the heart is found.
Jegan: If it’s the heart you’re looking for… I think this might be it!
A bright lightning shot out of Exolith’s eye. Jegan, covered in blood, had his arms wrapped around something at least as large as his own body.
Jegan: I’m sending out lightning to act as a beacon. Hone in on it and destroy this thing!
Gunter: You heard him! Attack the area that light is coming from! Do it quickly!
Silvia: I won’t miss…
Duggan: Heh. The Boss is still lively, isn’t he?
Latham: It is exceedingly difficult to kill the Stars, isn’t it?
The Harlians swarmed over the Dragon and skewered what they believed was its heart, lodged behind its hollowed eye socket. Jegan’s strength finally left him, and he tumbled aside to his comrades while the Harlians tore Exolith’s heart out.
The following day…
–Harl, a Mead Hall–
Balken: Tch. After all we did for them, we don’t even get any credit.
Silvia: It’s disgusting! They should be hailing you as a hero, Boss!
Jegan: Hey, we still get our reward. Let them bask in the glory. Besides, Balken did as much as I did.
Balken: I was j-
Silvia: All he did was distract!
Jegan: And a marvelous job of it, too.
Balken: Speaking of not giving credit where credit’s due…
Latham: Mercenaries only need acknowledgment that we did our job. We’re here to get paid, not praised.
Gunter: Well, I don’t see why you can’t have both.
Duggan: Well, if it isn’t the cap’n!
Gunter: For your part in this hunt, you will be handsomely rewarded. But… you will have to forgive my men if they pay little heed to your, ah… accomplishments.
Jegan: Not at all. Many Harlians died to accomplish this feat. A tale of victory is made all the sweeter from sacrifice. Besides, it was Harlians who delivered the fatal blow to the Dragon’s heart.
Gunter: I am glad you understand the situation.
Silvia: Well, when you put it that way… Still, don’t we at least get ONE story about us? We should be worthy of a song, even!
Balken: Hah! A song?
Silvia: What’s wrong with that?
Balken: If there was a song about you, what would it be called?
Silvia: Hmm… “A Tear on the Star Maiden’s Cheek?”
Balken: What was that? “In Fear of the War Maiden’s Shriek?”
Silvia glared at Balken, and raised her fist, but held it back.
Jegan: Well, a song doesn’t sound too bad, honestly. But remember, we’re not heroes. Our only loyalty is…
Silvia: To the job.
Jegan: Wrong. It’s to ourselves. The job is important, but above all else… survive.
–19 Years Ago–
–Triptych Village, Astoria–
Duggan, Aidan and I rushed to Triptych Village as soon as we escaped the trap set for us. We had to warn the others that the job was a pretense.
By the time we reached there, the entire village was empty, and the inn the other team was supposed to be staying in had become a smoking pile of rubble.
Duggan: Were we too late?
Jegan: It’s hard to say. Aidan, have you picked up any sign of those three?
Aidan: I’m seeing a lot of tracks. It seems the villagers were in a panic… wait. I see something.
Jegan: What is it?
Aidan: I think someone went into the forest through here… Not many, so it probably wasn’t villagers.
Jegan: Alright. Lead the way.
Aidan took us through the woods, following a track few others would have been able to notice. Whoever went this way probably wanted to avoid being seen. The tracks eventually led to a main path, where we found a body. It was a young woman with large puncture wounds near her shoulders. Just up the path was another body: a young man with long hair and glasses with broken lenses. He had no visible wounds; his twisted neck seemed to be the cause of his death.
Jegan: Silvia… Latham…
Aidan: It seems Latham died first. And not here. His body was dragged to this path some time after his death. Silvia… It looks like she was pinned down. She probably suffered for some time before dying.
Jegan: Any sign of Balken?
Duggan: If what Aidan’s saying is true, then the way I see it… Latham probably left Balken and Silvia at the inn while he scouted. He was probably taken by surprise and killed, then had his body dragged to the path as bait. When Latham failed to check in, Silvia left Balken to look for him and she got caught in an ambush. Then, while Balken was alone, the inn was set ablaze.
Aidan: What Duggan says is the most likely scenario.
Jegan: Maybe… but if Balken managed to escape, we need to find him. Let’s go back to Triptych. If we can’t find his remains in the inn, we’ll spread out and search for him.
Truthfully, what I wanted to do was search for him immediately, but everyone had to be convinced that Balken was alive.
We made it back to the village and started sifting through the rubble at the inn, but it wasn’t long before we had company. About 12 soldiers from the Astorian army arrived and surrounded us.
Jegan: Can we help you?
Astorian Soldier: That depends. I don’t suppose you plan on coming quietly as we escort you to a dungeon cell?
Jegan: Under what charge?
Astorian Soldier: Breach of contract, conspiracy against the throne, the murder of Captain Hade Eisen, the arson of Onset Inn, and general terrorizing of the populace.
Duggan: Well, that’s quite the list of allegations. But we are in no position to deny the charges or resist.
Astorian Soldier: So, you’ll come quietly?
Aidan: It’s the only logical thing to do. Unfortunately, we don’t pay much heed to logic.
Duggan: Shining Ball!
Shining Ball: A Monk technique in which the caster releases a ball of light into the air, then detonates it, causing a powerful flash of light to wash over the entire battlefield. Because it is a Monk technique, allies will not be blinded.
We took the opportunity to flee, but just outside the village were the villagers that had left. Compared to the soliders, they were weak and unwilling to fight. However, they also had no intention of backing down.
Duggan: I’ll make a path. You two escape.
Jegan: Are you sure?
Duggan: I know you, Boss. We could easily beat these guys, but you don’t want any innocents to die on account of us. I’m the only one here who can fight to his full abilities without killing them.
Jegan: Okay. Don’t take too much time.
Duggan: Hah! No worries there.
Duggan blinded the villagers and used his specialty – techniques that block movement and temporarily stun – against the villagers.
Once Aidan and I were a safe distance from the village, the sky seemed to grow dark. But it wasn’t clouds. Dozens of black daggers appeared over the village.
Aidan: Floating weapons?
* * *
–A cliff overlooking Triptych Village–
Lodi: Don’t do it. A spell of that magnitude… if you release it now, you will be hunted for the rest of your life.
Balken: What of it?
Lodi: I didn’t save your life just so you could throw it away.
Balken: If you were going to save someone, why not Silvia? Why not Latham? Why didn’t you come sooner? You damned hermit!
Lodi: Hmph. Well, sorry for not coming sooner! But you owe me at least this much.
Balken: So be it. I’ll spare them the wrath of the Cataclysm of Fire. But I don’t need that to kill every last one of them.
Balken spread his arms to the sky, and dozens of black daggers appeared in the air.
Lodi: W-what is this… (Is he a Magic Knight? No, this isn’t the same… it’s completely different from any magic…)
Balken: Falling Stars.
Falling Stars: Balken’s secret technique. A large number of black weapons appear in the sky and fall to the ground, piercing enemies in a wide area. The type and quantity of weapons seems to be random. The weapons disappear shortly after landing.
* * *
–7 Years Ago–
–Aria Grand Library–
Once a scholar’s paradise, the Aria Grand Library became a squatter’s hideout. When Balken came to power, he had the squatters slaughtered. As part of his plan to return it to its former glory, Balken assigned a new Keeper of Tomes to protect the Library.
In the three years since then, none of the planned renovations took place. All of Balken’s time was spent consolidating his power. The new Keeper spent this time salvaging what tomes weren’t already destroyed, organized them, and applied new protective seals on them.
The only light in the library came during the three hours the sun shone directly over Aria, passing through the cracks in the roof. Most days, the only person inside was a small, white-haired boy dressed in a simple tattered cloth.
A loud creaking arose the attention of the Keeper.
Hayle: Who goes there?
Ranka: Hey. Just checking up on you.
Hayle: Oh, Lady Ranka! Is Lord Balken not with you today?
Ranka: No, just me. Looks like you started reading that tome. You know how dangerous it is, don’t you?
Hayle: I am. But I should be fine as long as I don’t listen to the voices.
Ranka: I don’t understand it completely, but it’s a cursed tome, right? I couldn’t imagine reading something like that at your age.
Hayle: Outside of the first few pages, it actually reads more like a journal. Or… a collection of journals. At the same time. Anyway, are you looking for anything in particular, Lady? Another book on ancient herbs?
Ranka: No, nothing like that this time. I was just wondering if Balken ever came by here… you know, by himself?
Hayle: No. Just Lord Lodi when he brings me new books to sort. Why do you ask?
Ranka: Balken hasn’t been himself ever since that last fight. He hardly looks at me now. It’s probably because I was such a burden to him. The one they call the Magic Knight… he was almost Balken’s equal. And because of me, Balken was struck by one of his attacks.
Hayle: I hardly think our lord would bear a grudge over something so trivial. His mood is probably some other reason he doesn’t want us to know about.
Ranka: I just want to do something to cheer him up. I thought maybe you might have some insight.
Hayle: I’m afraid he doesn’t share any of his personal thoughts with me. I thought you would be the expert on that front.
Ranka: What do you mean?
The boy turned his face away as he forced the words out.
Hayle: Don’t you… um… do those things… at night… between a man and a woman… for comfort?
Ranka: You mean sex?
Hayle: Y-yes, that’s the word.
Ranka: Is that what the people think?
Hayle: That isn’t the case?
Ranka: There are… obstacles. Let’s just leave it at that. If he hasn’t told you anything, then… wait. What do you know about what Dragons like to eat?
Hayle: Not much. There aren’t exactly a lot of cases of Dragons interacting with humans. Why?
Ranka: I was just thinking, maybe I could bribe Arco with a treat and he could tell me something to get Balken to open up.
Hayle: Oh. Wait, Arco? You can understand him?
Ranka: You can’t?
Sakar Guard: The kid’s up.
Hayle: Where am… Ah. A blue cross… that’s the emblem of Sakar. I’m in the Sakarlands?
Sakar Guard: We found you just outside the gates, all alone. Don’t tell me you traveled that far by yourself and still don’t know where you are? Did you get lost wandering the plains?
Hayle: No, I… I have something to do here…
Sakar Guard: Hmm… What is your name, traveler?
Hayle: I am… Hayle, of Aria.
Sakar Guard: What is your business in Sakar?
Hayle closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
Hayle: Ah, I was on a Quest to collect some materials, but I was attacked by a Reshrew.
Sakar Guard: A Reshrew? Those are rare. If I remember correctly, they have venomous bites that can cause short-term memory loss. But it seems you recovered. Okay, your story checks out.
Hayle: My story?
Sakar Guard: The person who hired you told us about you, but we needed to corroborate his story. You’re free to go.
Kent: Ha, what did I tell you?
Sarisa: Hey, Hayle.
Hayle: Sarisa? Kendrick?
The three went outside and walked toward the nearest Adventurers’ Guild.
Sarisa: You always were quick on the mark, but it was kind of scary how accurate you were.
Kent: I suppose that’s the ability of a high-level Spirit Attuner.
Hayle: It’s not just that. The wind told me.
Kent: The wind?
Hayle: Yeah, the wind told me about your plan.
Sarisa: Is that a new Spirit Attuner technique I haven’t heard of?
Hayle: No, it’s… something else. But wait, what are you doing here?
Kent and Sarisa told Hayle about the situation and the idea to contact Brier.
Hayle: Pffffthahahahaha! Balken’s son? You really believe that?
Sarisa: H-hey, you don’t have to laugh that much… (I don’t think I’ve ever heard Hayle laugh…)
Kent: Why do you say that?
Hayle: No, sorry… There’s no way Balken has a child that old. But whoever this Brier is, he could be a useful ally.
Kent: So you’re going to help find him?
Hayle: Hmm… Something like that.
Hayle closed his eyes and lifted his palms and chin to the sky. The wind began to kick up around him.
Kent: The wind…
Sarisa: He said it wasn’t a Spirit Attuner technique, but it seems very similar…
Kent: Maybe it’s a high-level technique no one discovered yet.
Hayle paid them no mind. He was busy reading the wind and filtering out the voices. Ever since he began the process of taking in the Calamity of Wind, Hayle gained the ability to hear voices from far away places. For anyone else, they were a bother. But Hayle was a high-level Spirit Attuner who refused to promote to a caster class. His ability to read signs no one else could see enabled him to flee the fall of Aria. Hayle simply had to apply his skills to his new abilities.
Even with this, whatever information he could gather was greatly limited. The farther away someone was, the less actual speech he could pick up; he could only read powerful emotions.
Hayle: I see it… he’s made many enemies… but he also has allies. And if he’s with his allies, then… far to the northwest…
Kent: In Harl?
Sarisa: That’s too far away.
Kent: Hayle, since you can leave Sakar, would you mind telling our contact, Nutmeg about Brier’s whereabouts?
Hayle: I think she’ll be fine. Don’t worry about Brier for now. There’s something else I need to do. It’s why I was called here.
Sarisa: Oh? You going to set us free?
Hayle: That would make me a target. I don’t plan on being burdened like that. No, I read something powerful while I was listening for Brier.
Hayle: I’m going to follow it. Good luck.
Hayle looked up and briefly considered flying off, but he shook his head and decided to walk out the eastern gate instead.
–Mt. Harligg, The Heart–
After a few charges on land, Valast’s wings finally defrosted, and the Dragon was again able to take to the sky. Brier, Avery and Coleen again came together to release a powered Chill Blast, but Valast knew the attack was coming and flew higher, until it reached the Adamantine chains at the mouth of the volcano. Although it could not avoid the spell, its effects were less effective the farther it spread. Valast then followed up with a swift descent directly against the three.
Avery: It seems the Dragon caught on.
Brier: We have to move…
Coleen: No. Let it get closer.
Brier: A stored spell? No!
Coleen: It’s not what you think. Try to brace yourselves, because I don’t know the kind of effect it will have.
With their staffs still connected, Brier and Avery held on, not at all certain how they should prepare. Coleen grit her teeth in a strange smile that seemed to convey both confidence and fear.
Coleen: Pocket Blast!
A violent burst of wind exploded between the party and Valast, knocking everyone away from the spell’s origin. Coleen, Avery and Brier were flung in opposite directions, and Valast was shot into the Adamantine grating, slamming into it with enough force that it seemed the entire mountain shook. As the Dragon fell, the Dreadspire sprang out from its ballista and plunged into the Dragon’s chest.
Coleen: No… this is my only chance…
Coleen used her scepter like a crutch and struggled to keep herself upright.
Coleen: Spirits of water, your master commands thee!
Brier: Not that… Avery! Can you move?
Avery: N-not easily…
Brier: I don’t care if you have to shoot her in the throat! Stop Coleen from casting that spell!
Brier: I can’t stop her myself! You have to do it!
Avery glared at Brier incredulously for a moment, then quickly loaded a bolt and fired at Coleen. Coleen leapt backward to avoid the attack and turned to Avery.
Coleen: What was that for?
Valast’s roars echoed throughout the entire mountain, and the Dragon flew about erratically, trying in vain to free itself form the Dreadspire. Standing below was Arbel, with a devilish grin on his face, his eyes bulging in excitement.
Arbel: Yes, I can feel it… Your roar is intimidating, but I know… That’s fear! Haaaahahahahaha!
Arbel’s black Obsidian armor began to expand, then, incredibly, the entire suit shattered into pieces.
Coleen: What was…
Brier: Impossible… Berserker… from Obsidian armor?!
Berserker Release: When a Berserker’s morale reaches its peak, all of the Berserker’s armor shatters, granting the fighter with offensive bonuses. The stronger the armor, the greater the bonuses.
Arbel: With a normal set of iron armor, a Berserker’s strength doubles. With Adamantine, a Berserker’s strength quadruples. This armor was made out of an Obsidian-Adamantine mixture alloy! It multiplies my strength by seven!
With a single heave of the Dreadspire’s chain, Arbel brought Valast to the ground. He immediately leapt on top of the Dragon and shoved the giant spear through its body, pinning it down. Arbel dug his hands into the Dragon’s wound and pulled, ripping its skin apart, exposing the Dragon’s innards for all to see. He then began repeatedly pounding his fists into the exposed tissue, pulverizing the Dragon from the inside, with not a single care about what he was hitting. Finally, he found the Dragon’s heart and tore it out of the Dragon, holding it above his head like a trophy.
The Hero’s assault was mesmerizing in its brutality. All eyes were on him, and no one noticed the flaming figure standing behind Brier.
Silvia: That girl no longer trusts you. A good lesson to learn.
Brier: She hated me all her life. If she hates both of me, so be it. But since you’re here… sorry.
Silvia: It’s a bit late for that.
Brier: No, I’m not apologizing. I mean I feel sorry for you. Death must be truly terrifying if you hate me just because I survived. What is like there?
Silvia: Don’t feign innocence. You have no idea what it’s like. It was complete darkness, with nothing but my dying thoughts, over and over again. But we don’t remember anything past that. It was like being in a trance. But then something snapped me out of that trance. I heard voices calling out for you. Hateful voices. Thousands of them. I couldn’t go back into that trance. I had to stay awake, hearing about all the terrible things you did to thousands of people. Even your own soldiers cursed your name. I could forgive you for not saving me, but what you did with your life after… for the boy who wanted so badly to become a hero to turn into Rym’s worst villain… that is unforgivable.
Brier: And? What would you have my punishment be?
A swarm of warriors had gathered around Valast and taken scales and bones until nothing was left but a mass of tissue, flesh, and blood. The Dragon’s remains were dumped into the pool of lava in the center of the heart of Mt. Harligg.
Brier turned around, but there was no one to offer him his response. He turned back and used his scepter to help him walk forward and rejoin Coleen and Avery. All three of them avoided locking gazes and focused on the pool of lava as it changed from the Dragon’s remains. It turned a deep, dark red and swirled violently as pillars of flame burst around it. With each flame burst, the pool of lava shrank slightly.
Eventually, what was left was a crater. The pool of lava sank 10 meters down and shrank to a diameter of only 3 meters.
Arbel: That, friends, is the Dragon Forge. This is where miracles are made. The only place on Rym that can forge Obsidian.
Harlian Soldier: Sir, we only have an hour before this level gets filled with toxic gas!
Arbel: Not a problem. This is why I recruited Monks. It will take some time for them to get into position for the purification wards. In the meantime, I want everyone else dumping boulders into that crater to form a bridge to the Dragon Forge. The lava pool may be smaller, but the ground surrounding it is still hot enough to burn through your boots!
Brier: Ah! I almost forgot… The cart!
Brier: My lute is in a cart full of Obsidian items. I have to…
Brier ran north to where he left the cart, but Harlian soldiers had already recovered the cart and brought it into the Heart.
Avery: Well, what shall you do now, Brier? A head-on attack?
Brier: Even if I can take that escort out, I’ll be surrounded by reinforcements.
Avery: In that case, we shall have to resort to diplomacy.
Avery sprinted off toward Arbel, leaving Brier alone with Coleen.
Coleen: You seem averse to battles today.
Brier: I just happen to know which battles to fight and which are best avoided.
Coleen: But you’re losing your touch. I had that Dragon, Brier. I had it under control. What were you so afraid would happen?
Brier: I was worried you might succeed.
Coleen: But why…?
Brier: Even if you had delivered the killing blow, what do you think would have happened? The Harlians are a proud race. They would never acknowledge an outsider as the hero of their most important cultural event. Even if they were to make an exception and give you some credit… Well, there are two sides to making a name for yourself.
–7 Years Ago–
–Dark Capital Aria, Balken’s Chambers–
Balken stood in the darkness, staring out a window. From this vantage point, all he could see was one of the rock walls surrounding Aria. After ten years of his rule, Aria was still without lights.
A single creak sounded off into the nearly empty room.
Balken: You could have knocked.
Ranka: Sorry. I just want to know why you have been avoiding me. Arco told me all about your connection with that rebel leader, Jegan. I can understand your behavior, especially since you had to kill him personally, but you seem to especially go out of your way to avoid me.
Balken: Do you know why I wear this armor?
Ranka: Your Obsidian armor?
Balken: It’s not to protect myself. Well, not entirely.
Balken removed his helmet and dropped it. Then his chestplate, his gauntlets and his leg armor. Ranka instinctively took a step backward and brought her forearm to her nose and mouth.
Balken: The Cataclysm of Fire inside of me… Every time I use that spell, it grows stronger. Whatever I touch burns. Anything that leaves my body turns into steam and ash. Sweat. Tears. Excrement. I’m not sure you can even call me human. The Obsidian armor keeps the magical energies in my body in check, preventing them from tearing me and everything around me apart.
Balken slowly walked towards Ranka, who was frozen in place, unable to will herself to make a move.
Balken: You know what this means, don’t you? As powerful as the Spells of Cataclysm are, Obsidian can deflect them. Even the Cataclysm of Wind. Jegan… he had a mastery of spells greater than me. But it was his undoing as well. With just one deflected attack, the Cataclysm of Wind turned against him. It took me years to get like… this!
Balken gently placed his hand on Ranka’s shoulder, immediately burning a hand-shaped hole in her clothing.
Ranka: Aah… AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!
Ranka’s knees buckled from the pain, and she quickly slumped to the floor.
Balken: After all the trouble I went through to draw him out, he turned his back on his own morals and took on the power of that forbidden spell. And in a moment of weakness, I threw everything away… to save you?!
As Ranka’s shoulder continued to burn, a red mark started to form on Balken’s own shoulder.
Balken: What’s this?
Balken released his grip and examined his shoulder. The mark was hand-shaped. He moved his own hand over the mark and saw it was a perfect match.
Balken: Your poison is formidable after all…
Ranka: Th-that… that’s no poison…
Balken: Then what is… Ah!
Despite the pain he caused her, the only visible effect on Ranka’s body was a hand-shaped red mark on her skin.
Balken: (She’s resistant to the spell?)
Ranka: I… won’t… apologize…
Ranka: We have committed far too many sins. They can’t be wiped clean with something as cheap as death. Not while you still have promises to live up to.
Balken: So you intend to survive and suffer as well?
Ranka: Compared to the things I have done in your name… your burning touch is nothing. You can do it again if it makes you feel better.
The chamber doors suddenly burst open, and an out-of-breath woman appeared with a lantern in tow.
Svennia: I heard screaming! Is everything all-
Svennia saw her master almost completely naked, with Ranka kneeling in front of him, her top half removed.
Svennia: Ah… ah…. A-as you were!
The girl removed herself from the room and shut the doors behind her.
Ranka: Who was that?
Balken: My chambermaid.
Balken began to put his armor back on.
Balken: I expect you to live up to those words you spoke tonight.
Balken: But… I will have you commit even more crimes along the way.
Ranka: One person’s crime is another person’s justice. You taught me that.
Balken: . . .
Ranka: And if your own words don’t convince you… there’s still one more thing you can do.
Balken: What’s that?
Ranka: Get completely shitfaced.
–Wynn, Dragon’s Tail–
Although Nutmeg had memorized the form and order of her dance, she was still utterly embarrassed to perform in front of other people, and it showed in the redness of her face. This only furthered the appeal of her performance, and the catcalls and hollers of encouragement from her audience only made her blush brighter.
The performance was called the “Dance of the Dragon,” and it was part sensual dance, part stunt play. Using throwing knives, the dancer skillfully cuts off layer after layer of her clothing until just enough remains to leave to the imagination. The finale has the dancer spit alcohol through an open flame to give the impression of breathing fire. As one might expect, there are many reports of novice dancers injuring themselves or even dying while attempting the stunt. Nutmeg had little confidence in her ability to perform it perfectly, so she used a thin barrier to protect herself, not that anyone could tell the difference.
Upon the end of her performance, her audience cheered as a flustered Nutmeg picked up a spare set of clothes and sprinted back toward the bar. As she shuffled behind the counter, an unexpected face greeted her.
Nutmeg: Karen? You should be resting…
Karen: I’m fine. A little heat like that won’t bother me.
Nutmeg: That wasn’t just “a little” heat. It was unreal.
Karen: And I thank you for handling it well.
Karen took a bottle from a top shelf and uncorked it, then took a swig directly from the bottle.
Karen: Seeing you dance reminded me of a time I left behind.
Nutmeg: You mean that guy you talked about before?
Karen placed her bottle on the counter and leaned back on a bar stool. She rested her arm on the counter and gave Nutmeg a nod of confirmation.
Karen: Meg, what about you? Can you tell me about your love?
Nutmeg: My love? I’ve… never been in love before…
Karen: Are you sure? That’s a shame. You’re still young. As for me… I wonder if it’s too late…
Nutmeg: Too late for what? To find a new love?
Karen: It’s just a rumor, but I recently heard that he is still alive.
Nutmeg: What? That’s good, isn’t it? Have you tried contacting him?
Karen: No. And it’s not good at all. Him being alive just means all the more reason I should have stayed by his side. Besides, I was young then. I loved him far more than whatever affection he showed me. He probably doesn’t even think of me anymore.
Nutmeg: You can’t know for certain until you go out and find him.
Karen: Maybe. But I like it here. Dragon’s Tail is where I can do the most good with my life.
Nutmeg: If that’s the way you really feel, then fine. But it sounds to me like you’re still just running away.
Karen: Ha… I just might be. Still, it is just a rumor. I’m going to need more than that to drop everything I have here.
–Mt. Harligg, The Heart–
Brier: So, how did your “diplomacy” go?
Avery: Not perfectly. Arbel wants to keep all the rare materials for a project called “Obsidian Knights.”
Brier: I’ve heard of that myself.
Avery: However, he has allowed us a small share of Obsidian or reward of equal value for our efforts. Your reward is much smaller than Coleen’s since he thinks your contribution was, well… trivial.
Avery: Also, it appears I will be leaving you two here, as I had to make a special deal with Arbel in order to get what I wanted. I need Obsidian for my newest invention. When I described its potential to Arbel, he told me he would allow me enough Obsidian to create prototypes as long as I made perfected models for his elite soldiers.
Brier: The news keeps getting worse. So, how much Obsidian do I get?
Avery: Not enough for your lute, I’m afraid. But Coleen’s share should be able to cover it.
Coleen: That sounds promising. Then it’s settled.
Brier: You’ll get my lute back?
Coleen: No. I’m going back home to Helia. I figure just half of what your lute is worth should be enough to get me across the snowfields solo. The rest I can give out to the villagers.
Coleen: It’s my reward, and I can do what I want with it. I suggest you start thinking of what to use your reward on. I imagine it will be a tough trek for you and Arco no matter what your next destination is.
* * *
Coleen’s departure was abrupt, leaving Avery and Brier at a loss for even a reaction. Brier couldn’t think of a new course of action and ended up accepting his paltry gold reward instead of his share of Obsidian. After buying a bottle of ale at Harl, he returned to Mt. Harligg and the Dragon Forge. He opened the bottle and took a drink as he watched his lute tossed into the forge to be melted down into raw Obsidian.
After another sip, Brier’s eye caught a glimpse of something in the rock wall surrounding the forge. He got up and started running to the object.
Avery: Brier? What’s the rush?
Brier: You’re here.. Good, I need confirmation that I’m not seeing things. Look.
Brier pointed at what at first appeared to be one of a score of large black cracks in the wall. But upon closer inspection, the surface of the crack was very different from the stone around it.
Avery: It looks like wood. Charcoal, perhaps?
Brier: It’s more than that. It’s a root.
Avery: A root? You don’t mean…
Avery placed his hand on the root and brushed against it. A black, powdery substance dusted off, revealing a completely undamaged light brown wood.
Avery: Impossible! That’s Dead Ash!
Brier: What do you think? Can you use it?
Avery: Use it? For what?
Brier: I still have that staff. If we use wood from this root, we can make me a new lute.
Avery: Doesn’t that seem… incredibly dangerous? I’m aware of the power of the Dead Ash, but it can’t reflect magic like your Obsidian lute could, and if it ever burns…
Brier: If the right Monk enchantments are carved into it… Luckily, we know Arbel hired some skilled Monks to purify this mountain. The only problem is the cost for a crafter skilled enough to make the lute without dying.
Avery: Hmm… I suppose it’s possible. Very well. I’ll help you out on this. But I do wonder… just how far do these Dead Ash roots extend? And I wonder what their effect is on this mountain?
Brier held his chin and paced away. Arco climbed up on his shoulder and growled.
Brier: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. It’s been a long time, but I have to be sure.
Brier: I know, I know. It’s going to take more than what we have now to get back to Aria. Since we’ll be traveling alone, we can’t afford to go directly to Fugue. And it’s not like we can follow Coleen into Helia, either. We’ll have to stop by Wynn first.
Brier turned around and stared again at the Dead Ash root.
Brier: So that’s why she showed up here. The upside-down tree of souls in the center of the world…
In the next chapter of Bardass! Harl, a land ruled by people descended from the slayers of the mighty Dragon, Harligg. As the years passed, many of its inhabitants clung to the belief that it was birthright alone that made them the strongest in all of Rym. But there were also those who believed Harl had long fallen from grace. There were two men who dreamed of a new Harl that would reclaim its former glory, though they disagreed completely on how or why it should be created. One of those men chose to abandon Harl. The other became its mightiest Chief. Break 4 – Arbel the Immovable.