His heart thumped like a thunderclap.
Am I alive? This was Alexx Junder’s first thought. His eyes were sealed tight, and ears rang from indistinct noises. Trying to recall how he wound up here, wherever ‘here’ was, only produced shattered memories. Images of voyaging on the Night Reaver, acquiring maps in a bottle from an old man, and entering a dark hallway to an ancient maze. Visions followed of strange creatures, his first mate Ron, a man released from a glowing cage, red symbols, a black portal, and then nothing. Alexx wished he knew how long it’d been since he passed out. Noises- briefly muffled- were coming in clearer. From all around, fire cracked from fresh wood, animals screeched, wings flapped, and people screamed in terror. He was waking up yet kept his eyes shut. No pleasant sounds filled his ears. Perhaps if he played dead for a little while longer, whatever was out there would pass.
This adventure did not seem as though it would end with a round of ale with the crew, especially in light of his recent endeavors. The plunge into the Labyrinth was his last lead on the Moon’s Heart. Not even a cataclysmic event like unleashing a horde of evil monsters onto Rediew really mattered now.
After everything, I've got nothing. Nothing... Nine years, and nothing to show for it. I s’ppose I'll just lay here until this chaos dies down. And then… screw it all.
Though afraid to open his eyes, curiosity urged him to find out where he was and how close to death.
“I know that you have awakened. Rise, young sea thief, your attention is requested.”
Alexx recognized that archaic, deep voice as Senkazital, the one from the cage. He quickly understood the circumstances; he was already dead.
Said Senkazital with a subtle deep pitch, “I thought for a moment you had given up on living. Hearken to me now, vessel; your master needs you.”
Master? Alexx attempted to open his eyes. Surprisingly, it took no effort, and he gazed at the fire and smoke billowing from all directions. A black, unnatural plume transformed the sky. Demonic creatures circled under the clouds, shrilling and scouring for food. Senkazital sat upon a crude, throne-like pile of stones inches from the edge of a giant hole behind him. His long hair was blood red, and his skin darkened to a grayish hue. He wore a pair of ragged britches, but his thin, weathered arms were spread wide in a gesture of welcome. An air of kingship was about him, from the tone of his voice to the aristocratic look in his eyes. He sat erect, back straight and head high.
Questions stirred in Alexx’s head, but he could find no reasonable answer. Was his crew still at the docks? Were they even alive? Where were all the people of Lanrete? How could Senkazital have caused so much destruction in such a short amount of time? What about now? Was he going to torture him, kill him? And where did Ron go? One question above all could not be silenced.
How did I get up here?
All of these thoughts disappeared as a new sensation emerged. The feeling was returning to his body. Before, moving was pointless as the only sensation he felt was pain". Now, the cold embrace of stone and heat from the flames gradually entered his senses. Sensations of pressure swarmed all over his body, altering into pain. Alexx glanced toward the ground and noticed blood -his blood- on the stones in a pool. With fear feeding his energy, he forced his head up to see his body covered in bite marks, claw gashes, exposed bone, and various other bruises and wounds. The agony intensified, and his voice failed him.
“Yes, you’re noticing your injured state. The Kai were without mercy on your body.” Alexx heard Senkazital say.
His breathing grew heavier, mind frantically reeling. He wanted to scream, cover his injuries, hold the blood in, call for help, something, but it seemed the only realistic idea was a slow, asinine death. He tried lifting his arm, but it cracked. The torment was enough to push Alexx to cry out. He continued to groan as his arms fell atop him. That failed to help, but it was all he could do, besides gasping for air.
“Worry not. You will live, seafarer,” the dark master said calmly, offering no immediate help, “Your body will regenerate in time. Now you must pay attention, for I have important things for you to hear.”
Alexx gritted his teeth and groaned again, moving his head to look towards Senkazital. After all, he was the only hope for staying alive at the moment.
“I have chosen you to help me reclaim my kingdom, and conquer Rediew. Your spirit to live impresses me. I see much strength, ambition, and courage in you. Though I sense your heart is too conflicted with morals. I want to transform you into a mighty being filled with unimaginable power, capable of great destruction. A true legend among men. In return, you will help me become a god.”
“God?” Alexx replied faintly, rolling to his side and feeling a slight relief, “What do you mean ‘become a god’?”
“Ah! So you find interest in what I say. Even though your body is broken, your inner will surpasses your physical strength. How intriguing. Very well...”
Senkazital removed a ring from his index finger and let it fall in the pool of blood next to Alexx’s face.
“That ring is imbued with Energy, and upon wearing it, you shall recover. However, it will not protect you from the Kai, and they will most likely seek to devour you.”
The pirate stared at the jewelry and remembered the old man holding them in his hands the night before.
“I can’t use Energy,” he coughed.
“You need only put it on. The ring’s purpose is to bestow healing powers unto the wearer.”
Alexx reached for the ring, wincing in pain. Once he worked his forefinger into it, an overwhelming force flowed through his body. A blue, wispy shroud enveloped his cuts and bruises, and any open tears tingled and fizzled. He was not sure how it worked, but the pain lessened. His bones mended as they would naturally, except faster.
“I find you to be a splendid vessel. No doubt you have questions."
"Sure," Alexx replied, watching the Energy still moving around his limbs and stomach, "I don’t suppose you have a drink, do you?"
"Your thirst for alcohol will have to wait. There is work to be done. Do you know of me?"
"I can't say I'm familiar with your handiwork there, Senkazital. Still trying to figure out if I'm a fan, actually."
"When I last walked Rediew, there was ne'er an opponent who would stand against me. Not even the Amar, those heavenly children, would come near me. They were right to be afraid.
“My citadel was greater than any kingdom. Man, Zane, or Avian, with their sky cities, could not compare. When I tried to open the gate to the Valley Void, my brothers and sisters proceeded to stop me. They rallied all creatures by their side and gave them those damned weapons. I was defeated, cast out from my own kingdom, stripped of my power, and thrown into that infernal prison for- What year is it?”
“That long- thousands. One of my followers stole the weapon capable of killing me and ran. Without it, I remained in that prison, day after day, watching them build this disgusting Labyrinth around me. To the best of my knowledge, that weapon has yet to be found. All is well. I am better off without it. Then there is my necromancer, the creature in the appearance of an old man who gave you the bottle, and the same who gave me my rings. He is responsible for everything happening here today and the events which are about to unfold."
"That old man knew I would follow those maps and free you?"
"Indeed, he has been my eyes and voice in my physical absence. Even now, my forces are gathering; all races who follow me are moving forward to aid my goals. My devoted ones are close to making my special minions, my ship shall soon rise from the depths, and I will be at full strength. Soon the 'heroes', families, and upholders of laws will try to oppose me, but my subjects will stop them.” He paused, then let out a faint chuckle, “and become a number too great to stop."
Alexx nodded his head, seemingly impressed by the speech. "Working on your escape while overthrowing multiple countries in a prison cage? No wonder the entire world banded together. How do you plan on turning into a god?"
"By returning to my beloved citadel. There at its heart is the portal to Valley Void. I will open it, and Rediew will be engulfed in the splendor that lies within . I will transform into the ultimate being, rule this planet, and destroy the gods who created it!"
Alexx was listening to a madman. Regardless of his feelings, he dared not think in any manner that endangered his fragile life and gave strict attention to the power-driven, wanna-be deity.
"Now, I will have you work for me, much like my necromancer. You will begin with a simple assignment. Go into the temple located on this island. There, in the home of those miscreants who worship the sun, is a mask that I want.”
“Mask- wait, you mean that mask they clean and worship is yours?”
“Not necessarily. I did not make it nor was it created for my purposes. It was in my possession, and I need it once more. They were fools for leaving it here, so close to my imprisonment. The ages of peace have made them soft. They left it there as an emergency weapon in case of this day. Surely, now they see the folly in their mistakes. I am still weak from my years imprisoned and quite vulnerable to attack. That mask has power I can use to restore myself.”
The old man stood behind Senkazital with a pleased look on his face.
“Hey- necromancer, was it? What gives?" Alexx proclaimed, "You had these rings and maps the whole time? Why didn’t you do all this work yourself?”
“They are my master’s,” the necromancer replied, “However he chooses to use them is his wish. I would have surely perished, but you and your friend performed greatly. You have my gratitude!”
“What an excuse…” Alexx sighed, too weak to argue and not caring enough to wonder. The damage was done.
He remembered Ron and demanded to know where he was. All Senkazital could do was shake his head. For a moment, the pirate captain was taken back. His first mate, his friend for years, gone.
“Now, go and be quick! I shall need the ring when you return. And you will return to me without thinking of running away or resisting, vessel. Do I make myself clear?”
It was difficult to come back from such difficult news, but Alexx realized Senkazital was not another Crusader captain he could outsmart. Though he and this mysterious man in front of him were weak, Alexx’s odds of living were as thin as the breath he could take. He gathered some gumption and pushed himself off the ground to his feet. Having the strength to stand returned some confidence, as well as a bit of intuition. He wiped the blood from his arms and stomach and tore some fabric from what was left of his pants to make a bandage. When he covered the worst part of his waist, his britches were above his knees. Alexx looked back to Senkazital and replied, “Of course, your majesty!”
It was supposed to be a simple journey: find the Moon's Heart, win the war between military and pirates, become an immortal legend, drink, and travel the seas to the last board and nail.
For a while, his legs moved with a mind of their own, heading in the direction of the temple. The old road rose with the island and curved through the tame woods. Alexx’s focus was barely on his destination, more so trying to take in the last hour multiple times.
He limped with as much speed as his legs could give. Instead of running for a mask, Alexx ran to get off the island. From the sky above to the horizon, black clouds and Kai were en masse with every direction. Assaulting ravenous creatures of darkness out in the open would lead to death. The pirate captain was aware of the Dagan-Kai. He only encountered a few in his life. Kai were not products of Senkazital; they were manifestations of evil. Where they originated from he couldn’t remember, or whether they were actually thinking, feeling beings. Nor could he remember if there was a way to stop them. Whenever one was spotted, the options were flee or die. All he could remember was their hunger. They were always hungry and would feast on any living thing.
Escaping this island would mean getting noticed by the army of flying Kai. The journey to the temple was an hour walk from the Labyrinth, but the creatures made the trip ever longer. Alexx could not relax without ducking behind a tree when a group of them would soar low, slither along the ground, and take off again. Some of them would perch on the tree tops, making him either wait until they flew away or walk a new path. Secrecy, hiding, silence, and waiting were his only options.
Some time passed, and Alexx remained the lone human soul walking the once beautiful path. An encampment he remembered passing some time before, was diminished to destroyed huts. Homes once fully stocked and furnished were reduced to splintered wood, broken glass, and torn fabric. He examined the embers of a large fire pit and found them cold. A day had passed, by his best observation. If the world didn’t know of Senkazitals return, they were surely knowing of it this very minute.
Alexx placed a hand over his stomach. He checked his pockets, though he didn’t expect to find anything. He had the Labyrinth maps, ripped and stained with blood, but that was all he found. Other than his sword, gauntlet, tattered clothes and ring, he had nothing useful and no chance of satisfying hunger. His right leg hindered any serious trekking, making the hunger worse. More than that, the entire island was falling apart and burning.
No one from his crew nor people from the island were seen. Not living at least. He saw bodies that were gnashed by the fowl creatures. What have I done? He looked up to see no sun, but a dark cloud that pulsated, almost like it breathed.
After what seemed like a couple hours, the sky was quiet and the land empty. He had just enough strength to swing his sword maybe twice, but that wouldn’t be enough. Against claws, teeth, and perpetual starvation he still couldn’t stand a chance.
“Get away. Get a boat. Get away. Get away. Get away …” Alexx repeated to himself, running slower down the beaten path filled with debris. He stopped to take a break, sitting next to a fallen tree decorated with flames. Sadly, no dead or roasted animals were in the vicinity. He unwrapped his makeshift bandage to look at the wounds. Surprised, he could see skin already scabbed. Mere bruises and discolored flesh remained from the injuries that had covered his body. The pain subsided, and his muscles had regained their old vigor. He remained on the ground to catch his breath, despite his desire to run.
“I need to get away, find the mask, use the mask, find my ship, and get away.” He quickly stood and walked in haste toward the temple. The path led away from the forest to a field. Off in the distance, Kai crawled, slithered, and stumbled as he had never seen before, toward the temple. The church itself looked destroyed.
“Ironic, the sun temple is in flames. Wonder who or what is left guarding the mask?” Alexx remarked, trying to lighten his mood a little. He was happy his humor was intact but still not convinced of his survival. Alexx unsheathed his sword and grasped it firmly.He imagined a battle between himself and a band of evil creatures once they caught a whiff of his scent.
“Probably will last for a minute or two. I hope these creatures are as fragile as they look,” he trailed while stepping into the area of the temple.
Arriving at the temple unseen proved to be an easy task, though litters of bodies tolled on him. He kneeled near some rubble as he approached, but was unable to tell from his hiding spot outside the crumbled sanctuary if Kai were about, or if anyone was alive still. He wanted to call out, but his better judgment held his tongue.
Inside, the Kai were feasting. Morsels of bread, turned over tables of fruits, and clean vegetables found their way into the black stomachs of the evil entities.
And so did the bodies.
Alexx could hardly stomach the view. Stories told of some pirates finding a Dagan-Kai nest where they ate their own, since they had nothing else to consume. To his dismay, no story had spread of any one of them eating their fill.
He slipped in through the entrance undetected and moved inside, off to the side where there were no Kai or dead. The hall and the smaller rooms were ravaged with their share of destruction. It seemed as if all the struggles happened in the center where the victors remained. The pirate kept a close watch on the Kai as he continued sneaking. The torches provided a blanket of shadow covering the rooms off the main chamber.
He kept low as he looked for his next hiding spot. Pew, table, pew, broken statue… He moved more cautiously than before, as he continued to string together his movements.
‘Get away’ Anxiousness was building up. He desired to be far away from the creatures with each passing second. The flickering shadows came to an end, and Alexx moved outside their embrace and along the wall, completely exposed. Closer and closer to the nearing exit of the sanction, and beyond it, the straight road leading to the docks. Almost.
As he moved about the place, there was a corpse with a gleaming silver ring on its finger. It was a ring of the sun devotee order , but to Alexx the pirate, there was value to that ring. And it was a risk worth taking.
With quick feet he moved to the corpse and knelt down, the Kai none the wiser. He reached down, took hold of the ring, slipped it off, and put it on his right hand. It was not until the Kai noticed his presence and turned around, that his smile turned to fear and dread.
They screeched and plunged themselves into a charge right at Alexx’s body. He held the priest’s ring out, and a burst of Energy formed a barrier that repelled the Kai. The shield was in the form of a shell which covered Alexx exceptionally to his liking. They clawed at the Energy shield like it was a wall, but it could not be broken.
Alexx grinned, “Good, now this makes the fight even!” He let down the barrier and with one slash he cut through several Kai, shredding through their bodies as if they were made of clay. After his swing, he released the shield again. They clawed and jumped at the buffer, but like the ones before them, they could not get through. Alexx reared his sword and as he dropped his protection, he swung with great momentum which slayed the last of the Kai facing him.
With a sigh of victorious exhaustion, Alexx put his sword away in its sheath and leaned against the shelter next to him.
“Two priceless rings, and they’re all mine. Sorry, Senkazital, I don’t care how legendary you may be. You’re as daft as a filth-fill outhouse.” Alexx smirked, kissing the rings on his fingers. Turning to the door, he had an idea.
“I could have a mask too. It seems to have a lot of value if ‘his high evil majesty’ wants it. ”
“Mask…” Alexx heard in front of him.
Someone’s still alive! He ran to the body he assumed spoke and found a man still breathing. His arms were eaten, his chest exposed, stomach bleeding, legs ripped like soft bread from his body, yet he could speak.
“You’re still alive?” Alexx proclaimed.
“Sun god? Look, I’m sorry, but where is a god in all this? Wouldn’t he be here protecting you all right now?”
“Mask here? You mean that old mask you guys all watch over is still here? Why? How? Where is it?”
“Alt- altar.” The man looked up. Alexx followed the man’s eyes to the other side of the abbey and walked over to the room. He opened the door and saw a small sanctuary in ruins, just like the rest of the abbey. He stepped inside and maneuvered over broken pews and fallen ceiling to the altar, which was scratched and cracked. The entire altar was made of white marble and etched with the sun on top of it, a red tapestry spread over top of it was now ripped and shredded on the ground.
Alexx took a moment to feel its surface. The top served as a lid. His newly acquired ring began to glow, although Alexx did not understand why. He pushed the lid back with ease and moved it to the floor. His ring’s glow faded, and Alexx assumed this meant the ring was like a key, which might explain why no Kai could open the altar. He glanced inside.
There was no trace of anything, except a white marble bottom. His fingers felt around the walls, expecting to find something, but all he could feel was a smooth surface. Then he noticed a hole on the edge , too perfect to be an accident. With his finger, he realized the bottom was another covering and picked it up to reveal a locked hole.
He undid the bolt on the lock and opened the door to find something wrapped in cloth. He picked it up and unwrapped the object revealing the mask. It was made of red metal, bone, and beaded stones.It was well designed, still in good condition despite its age.
“Well I have to give it to Senkazital, he has good taste. But poor judgment in trusting a pirate.” With that, Alexx closed the door and left the sanctuary.
As he made it out, he walked over to the man who directed him towards the mask’s resting place.
“There’s a priestess named Lynn. Was she here?”Alexx asked.
The man did not speak, merely stared at Alexx with a glassy look in his brown eyes. Alexx gave the man a gentle shake and realized he was dead. The young pirate put his hand over the man’s eyes and closed them in respect. Feeling resolved, the pirate made his way for the exit.
“I don’t believe Senkazital told you to go that way.”
Alexx forgot the most important reason why it was impossible to escape. Reluctantly, he turned back to see where that voice came from. Certainly not the dead man.
Was there another person alive? He thought. But there were only breathless corpses and the sound of flapping wings. What he saw hovering above the temple was a nightmare in his waking life. Alexx beheld what was a large creature in the likeness of a bat. With a sudden descent to the dirt, the monster stood tall, thin, and dark, dressed in fine gold and crimson battle garments fit for its body. Its wings were outstretched and were so large, both could wrap around its entire body. Its small red eyes were focused on Alexx, as were its fangs.
“Do we know each other?” Alexx said, realizing he had strength to talk like his courageous self again, “You don’t look like the old man from before.”
“No, you do not know me. I am one of Senkazitals elite and the strongest of his faithful. I am Kryll, and I have been sent here to make sure you come back to Senkazital with the mask.”
Alexx couldn’t help but defend the mask as he watched Kryll’s eyes follow his hands.
“Senkazital sent you?” Alexx asked, avoiding any talk of the mask.
“Yes,” Kryll hissed, “And he is an impatient one, as you will soon come to know. Now come with me immediately.”
“He won’t be coming with you!” Suddenly a voice from behind Alexx made him turn. Behind him was a blond haired man wearing brown leather armor, green garments, green cape, a bulky two handed claymore, and a large metal guard on his left shoulder with an embroidered ‘S’ on it.
“Wait… Trandin!?” Alexx shouted.
“Swordsman!” Kryll shouted in anger, his wings expanding as he took a stance to attack.
“Good to know we can skip the formalities, Alexx, “ He said directing his gaze to the pirate. “You have something I’m looking for. You’re coming with me, pirate.”
“You’re here for the mask too?” Alexx asked.
“Yes I am, and since you have it, I’ll just have to take you with me.”
“Vessel of Senkazital!” Kryll shouted, “You shall come back with me immediately!”
Alexx was astonished to find himself pulled between the forces of good and evil. His own mindset was to save his skin, and now that the famous Trandin had come, it seemed that his dying chances for survival had a one more breath of hope. Meanwhile, death stood on his other side.
With a gesture of his hand, he looked at Kryll and said, “Flutter off, you sack of puss!”