Year 1489, Sograt Desert
Cedric, Hirei, Penelope and Aalaiyah along with their new company, Nellie and the fresh Assassin who revealed his name to be Arsen, were wandering in the Sograt Desert for days now. Al de Baran was still a great distance away and they have a little over a week left to reach the city in time for the big event. Penelope insisted that they should move a little slower and fight the monsters on the way to train their skills and to collect more loot. The sun was heartless and never rested to bring torture to the people in the desert. It has gotten to the point where Hirei was tired of complaining about the heat.
‘How far are we from Prontera?’ asked Nellie, panting from the long walk. ‘I think we need to drop by the city to stock up on some items and sell our loot.
‘A few more days I’m guessing, at the pace we’re going,’ Cedric said with the map of Rune Midgard in his hands. Having experience travelling through the desert from Payon to Morroc, he estimated that they needed almost a week to get to Prontera too. Thinking of Prontera, he pursed his lips. ‘Must we drop by Prontera? I’m… not very keen of going back. I might get caught up and stay in Prontera a little longer than we plan to and delay our journey.’
‘Ced, Penny and I are from Prontera you see,’ Hirei explained to a confused Nellie, both his hands placed casually behind his head. He then gave a pat on Cedric’s back. ‘But don’t you worry Ced! We’re here with you, and we’ll make sure you don’t get sidetracked.’
‘Uh… would it be alright if I request that we take a little detour?’ asked Arsen abruptly, his tan cloak still wrapping his body tightly. ‘It’s just on the way. There’s actually this little debt I need to repay.’
‘Huh, what is it?’ Cedric asked while Arsen moved forward to point at a location on his map. ‘Isn’t this place… the Ant Hell?’
‘What would you want to do at the Ant Hell?’ came Aalaiyah’s voice as her brown head peeked through the papers from Nellie that she was holding in her hands. She had been studying them since the left Morroc. ‘There are just insects down there, aren’t there? Other than that… oh no… you aren’t planning to…?’
Arsen smiled but Nellie was suddenly not amused. ‘You’re going to try slaying the horrible monster that lives in there, aren’t you,’ she said. ‘That pink creature with a long tongue, Phreeoni. It’s dangerous without a proper party, don’t you know?’
‘My mistress has weakened the creature a long time ago. Not mentioning the hundreds of attempts others have taken to hurt it too.’ Arsen continued calmly as if they were asking about the weather. ‘It’s still alive, but is now vulnerable than it used to be.’
‘Isn’t that one of the valuable monsters on the King’s hit list?’ Penelope stammered. ‘Are you sure we’re fit for such a challenge? Cedric, Aalaiyah, Hirei and I have only just passed our first job tests. And it was just barely a month ago that we were just Novices!’
‘But the creature is weakened already, isn’t it? Let’s give it a go!’ Hirei said, all fired up as he held his fist tightly, his face lighting up. ‘I’m sure Ace – Arsen knows what he’s doing.’
‘I’m not sure about this…’ Cedric frowned. ‘I’m sure we can get to Al de Baran in time, but this sounds like a huge risk to the party…’
‘Awwh, come on! I’m with Arsen this time. Let’s just try it out. I wanna see the valuable monster with my own eyes,’ said Hirei. ‘We can run away if we get in danger. I promise to flee this time, alright?’
‘I hope you know what you’re doing, Arsen,’ said Nellie as she stared at Arsen with doubt. ‘Just so you know, I haven’t completely trust you yet even though the four of them took you into their party.’
‘I’m flattered, but you don’t have to worry so much,’ Arsen replied. ‘It’s because of such thoughts about Thieves, Assassins and Rogues that I’m dedicating myself to change.’
‘Good luck with that,’ Nellie said coldly as she turned away from Arsen.
Eventually, the party found themselves walking towards the Ant Hell in a silent agreement of Arsen’s idea. Aalaiyah was mumbling to herself, recalling the facts she had learned about the Phreeoni. Hirei was taking the lead, skipping eagerly forward with his bow in his hands while he turned back occasionally to ask if they were walking the right way. After an hour or so, they found the pit that was the entrance of the Ant Hell. It was evident where the dungeon has gotten is name, as colourful ant-like creatures roam the desert that surrounds it.
‘Remember to keep an eye on our item, alright?’ Nellie warned as they approached the pit. The yellow Andres, green Pierres and red Deniros were looters just like the Poring family.
‘Who says we’re going down there?’ said Arsen when the party prepared to take their step into the Ant Hell. ‘The Phreeoni has been wandering into the land above the Ant Hell for awhile now. Not many know of this fact, that’s why it has taken so many lives of unsuspecting travelers. Now… let us just take a stroll across the dunes until we happen upon the Phreeoni, shall we?’
They circled the Ant Hell, scanning the area with their eyes for the large, pink creature. They happened across several headhunters who had set up their tents to rest, tending to their wounds from the battle. Penelope offered a few waves of Heal to ease their pain.
‘You kids are hunting for the Phreeoni too?’ exclaimed the female Blacksmith in astonishment when they told her why they were here. ‘Oh well… good luck I guess… It’s harder than they say it is…’
They continued on their way, reviewing their techniques and strategies when they would face the Phreeoni. Cedric, Hirei, Penelope and Aalaiyah could not help but notice that hidden under the mountains of sand were several skulls and bones of humans, a memento of those who failed to endure the cruel desert. It gave the four fresh adventurers a chill seeing the reality of the harshness they would face on their journey, and possibly a similar fate they might meet.
‘Shhh, I think I see something coming…’ Hirei hushed suddenly as he crouched down on the ground behind a large stone, already setting his bow with an arrow from his quiver. They followed Hirei and hid themselves behind the stone too, Arsen concealing himself with his Cloaking skill, disappearing completely from sight.
‘Is that it – oh… how horrible!’ Penelope whispered softly, pointing ahead of them. Approximately a hundred meters away, a large creature was hopping about the desert, accompanied by its mob of worm like Hodes and Sandmen. It had a pair of bat like arms extending from its side with short claws at its tips, flapping about with a jelly like consistency. Four eyes sat upon the crown of its egg shaped body that had no divisions for an abdomen or thorax except for a pair of short legs that supported its stout figure surprisingly well. The lack of proper body segmentations was taken by a human sized jaw with a terrifying set of teeth that it was not shy to flaunt. They could see the legs of ants and unidentified scraps of meet stuck between its teeth and was releasing a foul odour that could be smelt from afar. There were many arrows stuck on its thick flesh an green antennae that branches out like a tree on top of its body along with a long sword that was pierced through the side of its body and did not seem to hurt the creature. Clearly, the Phreeoni was a tough monster that does not practice grooming.
‘It doesn’t know we’re here, right? It doesn’t even have a nose…’ said Cedric as he started to shiver slightly, keeping a grip on his Tsurugi.
‘It’s best to keep up our guard,’ came Arsen’s voice from an unseen source. They could hear his voice going further from their hiding place. ‘Remember the strategy we’ve planned out earlier. I’ll lure the monster.’
All the rest could do now is to anticipate the attack as they had no way to track Arsen’s path. Nellie was filling her pouch with gems from her backpack. She took out a number of vivid red ore that was glowing with an orange yellow light. It was an elemental enchanted stone and was blazing with a fire property. Nellie started to read an incantation, the ores bursting into flames and its light swallowed all their weapons.
‘Flame Launcher!’ she whispered, their weapons suddenly turning hot with a fiery energy. ‘I’ve just endowed your weapons with the fire element. It won’t have much effect on the Phreeoni, but it’ll be helpful to fend off its slaves.’
They were interrupted however, when the footsteps grew louder. The Phreeoni was hopping dumbly in their direction with its arms held high in the air like a chimpanzee, chasing after the concealed Arsen, the skill cannot fool an insect’s senses. Quickly, Hirei got on his feet and stroke his arrows on the stone, sending it ablaze before aiming for the Phreeoni. His sniping skills were worthy of praise, hitting his target with accuracy. But it was not enough to weaken the Phreeoni as it continued its pursuit.
‘Let’s go!’ yelled Arsen as he stripped away his disguise several yards away from the hiding place. He switched his double daggers for a pair of katars, holding them in his arms that were crossed in front of his chest, prepared to dodge the attacks of the creature that towered over him, making their tallest team member look like a child. Aalaiyah immediately sent waves of Fire Bolt on the Phreeoni, concentrating her spirit energy at the tip of her wand.
‘Sonic Blow!’ Arsen cried as he sent a series of eight fast strikes against the Phreeoni. It staggered backwards, but was still grinning widely as it swung its arm violently at the Assassin. Arsen did a back flip, dodging its attacks skillfully as they had planned earlier. Receiving a cue from Arsen, Cedric ran forward with his sword high in the air, focusing his energy which set his sword on fire.
‘Magnum Break!’ Cedric yelled as he hurled the fiery sword against the Phreeoni’s slaves. Nellie crushed a yellow gemstone and scattered its dust on the ground while she prepared her spell.
‘Volcano!’ Nellie chanted. The land that surrounded their battle started glowing in a bright red aura, further amplifying any Fire elemental attacks cast in its vicinity. Nellie then proceeded to join Aalaiyah in Fire Bolting the enemy. Hirei continued to shoot the Phreeoni from afar while Penelope kept her distance to provide support to the party.
‘Are you alright, Cedric?’ Arsen asked during an interval after he dodged a strike from the Phreeoni. He was slightly scathed from the clash, but was still standing and keeping the Phreeoni busy with his evasive skills.
‘No problem, you should worry about yourself!’ Cedric answered quickly as he parried an attack from a Sandman while loosening the cap of his orange potion. As he downed the contents of the potion, he felt his body replenished with energy, as well as a strong aftertaste of herbs in his mouth. With another slash of his sword, the Sandman was crushed and returned to the ground as regular, unanimated sand. However, Cedric’s job was far from done. The Phreeoni stood still for a few seconds, summoning another army of Hodes and Sandmen.
‘Will this ever end?’ Cedric said through his clenched teeth, blocking a head thrust from a Hode that threw itself out of the ground with his buckler. The impact sent his shield flying ten meters away. Quickly, he side stepped from harm’s way, only to receive a slap from another Sandman who had been cloaking and waiting for an opportunity to avenge its brethren.
‘Throw Stone!’ Arsen bellowed, swinging a stone from his arm at an amazing speed, hitting the monsters which were currently assaulting Cedric. He continued to attack the other slaves in an attempt to steal their attention, provoking them to attack him instead. Cedric took the time to recover from the attack, Penelope running forward to cast a few healing spells.
‘Thanks Penelope. My shield please, and Caleb’s gift too,’ Cedric said quickly as he pointed at their hiding spot where he had left his rucksack. He had a feeling that it would come in handy, just as it did during their Novice Test against the Mandragora.
‘Don’t push yourself too hard, Cedric,’ she said worriedly, returning him his buckler he slipped earlier, along with the long, wrapped object Cedric had requested for. Cedric nodded thanks and armed himself once again, carrying the wrapped object across his back with a sling he had attached on it. Cedric then dashed forward swiftly to assist Arsen who was facing a hard time dodging the attacks of all eight enemies. He kicked himself off the ground and tried to land on top of the Phreeoni’s head, sharpen katars still in his arms. But while he was still in midair, the Phreeoni took an unexpected leap upwards, expanding its huge mouth and throwing out its long tongue, whipping Arsen with a stunning and soaking lick. Arsen was thrown higher into the air and fell flat down on his back, a loud cracking noise ensued.
‘Arsen!’ Cedric yelled, their main player knocked out on the ground. As he started to run to the rescue, Penelope beat him there first, her chain held high with the chain ball spinning rapidly, her eyes brimming with a fearless stare.
‘Take that!’ Penelope cried, throwing the weight against the Sandman. She turned along with the momentum of her weapon and sent another downwards strike, sending the Sandman into nothingness. Quickly, she opened her palms and transferred her spirit energy into Arsen to repair the damage. The Phreeoni now sensing a new prey changed its target and was now chasing Penelope greedily. Nellie and Aalaiyah’s quick magic spells stunned the enemies and gave Penelope enough time to make a horizontal swing at the feet of the Phreeoni, sending it out of balance and tripping it to the floor. She took this opportunity to carry a sluggish Arsen away from the battle and back to safety. The Phreeoni, enraged by the humiliating attack, casted a spell on Penelope while still on the ground. A dark light enfolded Penelope and suddenly, she ceased all movements, a blank look on her face and her body turning stiff. The Phreeoni made a deafening cry, hungrily pushing itself onto its feet with the help of its tongue and arms.
‘It’s Stone Curse! Cedric, you’ve got to help them!’ Nellie shouted as she ran out of the hiding spot, digging into her pouch for something. ‘Gosh… of all the times… Where are my yellow gemstones!’
Feeling an adrenaline rush running through his body, Cedric darted forward, his eyebrows furrowed and determination rising. He stabbed the Phreeoni with one swift movement of his sword, throwing back thrusts with his legs to fend off the slave monsters. The Phreeoni and Cedric entered a yelling match, both with a war cry that pierces the ear. The pink creature started falling into a deeper shade of red, all four eyes with a stare that kills. It used the same licking technique from before on Cedric, who dodged it effortlessly by slipping through the small gap between the Phreeoni’s feet. Cedric pushed himself off the ground and pulled out Caleb’s gift he had strapped on his back. Before the Phreeoni could turn around, Cedric used the sword he had stuck into the flesh of the Phreeoni as a ladder to thrust himself into the air, hurling five rapid hits from afar with the long object, throwing the monster back on to the ground. Cedric landed on the Phreeoni’s back with a bounce, retrieving the Tsurugi stuck on its back.
‘Ugh… finally… Dispel!’ Nellie threw the crushed yellow gemstone at Penelope, a green light negating the curse casted upon her. Penelope’s eyes came back to life as she suddenly took a large gasp of air, oblivious to what have happened to her own body during the duration of the Stone Curse. Arsen finally came back to his senses, standing on his feet weakly as he tried to balance his own weight. Far ahead, they could see the Phreeoni recovering faster than it did before, its movements hasten and strength intensified by a mysterious energy that was surrounding it like an electric current.
‘The Phreeoni is far from dead, we have to retreat now!’ Nellie announced, a quick agreement was expressed by each party member. Cedric was confounded by the attack he did earlier, much like the situation back in the Novice Training Grounds. Nevertheless, he ran quickly to join his friends to safety. However, the Phreeoni was pursuing him tirelessly, throwing its plump body onto Cedric for a body slam. Cedric slipped and was pressed against the rough surface by the weight of the monster.
‘Cedric!’ Penelope cried as she sprinted to help him. It was a thoughtful move, but she had not enough strength to pull Cedric out of the tremendous pressure. In seconds, Arsen appeared before both of them with a smile and placed his arms each on their shoulders.
‘Back Slide!’ Arsen muttered as the three of them reappeared five meters in the opposite direction instantaneously as if their bodies have been pulled backwards by a large string. Arsen repeated this move several times and eventually, the Phreeoni went out of sight.
‘That… was insane…’ Penelope whispered, panting heavily as she fell on her knees. Arsen however, released his grip from their shoulders and dropped sideways with his face on the sandy ground, exhausted from the dodging, injuries and depletion of his spirit energy. Soon, Cedric, Penelope and Arsen were rejoined by Hirei, Aalaiyah and Nellie who had been left behind when Arsen used back slide to flee from the battle.
‘Is everyone alright?’ Aalaiyah asked with concern as soon as she arrived. She bent down and hugged Penelope tightly, glad to see that she was alright.
‘Wow… that battle was just… wow…’ Hirei mumbled, dumbstruck as he helped Arsen to get back up. Everyone was tired and sweating greatly, but no one was in such a bad shape as Arsen, who was almost at the brink of losing his consciousness. The bandages that wrapped the Assassin’s body were torn, the bone on his elbow was noticeably out of its socket and blood was seeping through the fabric of his clothes.
‘I guess I’m not… ready yet…’ Arsen murmured as Penelope casted her healing spell on him and started to tend to his wounds. ‘I’m sorry to have… brought all of you through so much danger.’
‘Don’t be,’ Cedric snapped. ‘You’re the one who made the most sacrifice. It was a good experience, I’m sure everyone would agree.’
‘Yeah, that move there with your wrapped object was crazy, Ced!’ Hirei piped as he nudged Cedric from the side. Cedric cried in pain as having his freshly strained body poked was no fun, and Hirei stepped back, apologizing for the gesture.
‘I still have no idea where it came from. That fast strike back there and the vault back in the Novice Training Grounds,’ said Cedric as he pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘But you know, this thing that Caleb gave me has proven to be pretty useful. I think it’s probably a weapon wrapped in this thing. You know, like a long sword or a spear…’
‘Why don’t you open it to see?’ asked Nellie curiously.
‘I… promised my brother I wouldn’t open it until I became a Knight. It’s just one of the things he asked me to do,’ Cedric explained as he tightened the bonds that held the ragged cloth against the object wrapped inside. Cedric recalled that his brother was always wielding a short blade, often prioritizing his attack speed over the strength of his attacks. ‘I’m guessing it’s a long sword. Caleb never really liked using spears in the first place.’
‘Anyhow, we should set up for camp now. It’s almost close to sunset now and Arsen doesn’t seem like he’s a good shape for travelling at the moment,’ said Nellie as she looked at the Assassin with a hesitant gaze that was trying to be uncaring, yet gentle. ‘Shall we continue tomorrow?’
‘Yes please, and thank you for your concern,’ Arsen answered with a smile. ‘I’ll be well by the next sunrise. Wouldn’t want my bones cracking as we walk and risk them breaking, would we?’
Just as they expected, they have arrived in Prontera after a few more days, with less than a week left to traverse the Mjolnir Mountains up north to Al de Baran. The later days were an easy stroll, as they finally exited the harsh conditions of the Sograt Desert into the peaceful Prontera Fields. It has been a long time since Cedric, Hirei, Penelope and Aalaiyah were away from the grasslands and into the desert, even longer for Nellie and Arsen. They decided to spend only two hours in Prontera to replenish their stock and unload their loots. Cedric vowed to himself not to approach the residential area, and instead waited at the North Gate of Prontera into the Prontera Castle. The Prontera Castle was opened for public entry as the King was fond of visitors and adventurers with curious tales and items to show. However, it has been a long while since they saw the King sitting in his throne room due to his very busy schedule. Hirei accompanied Cedric as they waited for the others. Penelope and Aalaiyah were wandering through the city together, Arsen was minding his own business and Nellie was speaking to the scholars and picking up notes of interest for her studies, even finding the time to take a quick read in the Prontera Library near the centre fountain.
‘Oh… hey, you’re Spencer right? Caleb’s little brother,’ said a Knight with a commanding tone and was approaching Cedric and Hirei. Cedric recognized the brown haired Knight as the one who asked him if Caleb was getting a promotion soon from all his secret missions. The man was accompanied by another younger Knight who was pulling a Peco Peco behind him by the reins that Cedric did not know.
‘Yes, sir,’ Cedric replied. ‘You’re Caleb’s friend in the Prontera Chivalry aren’t you? Frodner?’
‘Yeah, that’s me. Sharp kid eh?’ said Frodner. ‘Listen, could you tell me where Caleb’s been? There’s something urgent we need to speak to him about.’
‘Caleb? But I don’t know where he is,’ Cedric answered honestly. ‘I know that he’s out of town for some work. Classified, he told me.’
Frodner turned to his partner, both of them exchanging doubtful looks. ‘Well… I guess that is that then… We’ll just have to catch him elsewhere,’ said Frodner as he shrugged. ‘Oh, and congratulations on becoming a Swordsman! On a journey of your own now?’
‘Thank you sir. Yes, I am,’ Cedric answered happily. ‘It has been a month already. And it’s really an eye-opener.’
‘That’s great to hear! We’ll look forward to your participation in the Prontera Chivalry as a Knight and hope that you’ll be much better than your brother. Or at least, just as good as he is,’ Frodner smiled in return. ‘We’ll take our leave now. Please do inform us if you have any news of Caleb. May Odin bless you on your journey.’
‘Same to you, sir,’ said Cedric in return as he nodded his head deeply, the two Knights leaving for the castle. As the Knights disappeared from sight, Hirei let out a loud sigh.
‘How pompous,’ Hirei frowned. ‘What business do you think they have with your brother?’
‘No idea,’ Cedric said without a clue, only wishing that the rest of their party members would appear soon and they could be ahead on their way. It was a long wait until everyone was finally at the meeting spot, Penelope and Aalaiyah being the last to return.
‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ said Penelope. ‘I went back home to say hi to mum, and then took a visit to the Prontera Church. Are we ready to go now?’
And so, Cedric, Hirei, Penelope, Aalaiyah, Arsen and Nellie took a walk through the Prontera Castle until they reached the North Gates of Prontera to exit into the second half of their journey to Al de Baran.
The Mjolnir Mountains were lush green fields with a rocky terrain. It was filled with many beautiful and unique flora, specifically the large, colourful flowers and man eating Floras, animated plants just like the Mandragora. They had many encounters with overgrown insects as well such as the millipede Argiope and spider Argos. Soon, they came across a barren land with a swamp in the middle of an island linked with two bridges. One, to the land they were walking from, and another to the gates of Al de Baran.
‘Finally! After such a long trip from the south!’ Hirei cheered as the gates open to welcome them into the city. The ground was tiled with pristine white bricks and a quaint environment that reminds them of Izlude. However, Al de Baran was comparatively bigger, and had a beautiful canal that surrounds a clock tower that sits proudly in the middle of the city. Being the city that borders both the Rune Midgard Kingdom and Swartzwald Republic, Al de Baran has garnered many visitors from all across the world, not to mention the coming of the big event Nellie has been talking about. Al de Baran was also the home of Kafra Corporation’s Main Headquarters, as well as the famous Alchemist Union and more elusive Super Novice Guild.
‘I should be meeting my sponsors now. I guess this is where we part,’ said Nellie as they came in front of the great clock tower. ‘Thank you so much for helping me out. It has been great meeting you guys.’
‘Won’t you be joining us, Nellie?’ asked Aalaiyah.
‘Oh, no… I can’t. I’m a researcher and I’m pretty much married to my job,’ Nellie chuckled. ‘Just keep reading the stuff I gave you. You’re brilliant enough to figure them out on your own.’
‘Coming through!’ yelled a man and they quickly took a step back. He was pushing a cart of wine hastily. A few workers followed his lead, moving bottles of wine from a ship that had anchored nearby onto their carts.
‘Excuse me please… just step aside, real quick,’ another man shouldered his way pass Hirei, throwing a red carpet on the floor.
‘Hazardous chemicals, move aside before you get a dose of it!’ another man dressed in an Alchemist’s outfit walked by, balancing a handful of test tubes filled with various liquids and were kept in a transparent box.
‘Whoa, the people here are getting really busy, huh,’ said Hirei.
‘Oh, which reminds me, the event should be on tomorrow, if I’m not mistaken,’ Nellie explained. ‘You could ask a Kafra staff for information, I guess.’
‘Thanks a lot for joining us offering your services,’ said Cedric gratefully. ‘We’ll see you in the future then.’
‘Same to all of you,’ Nellie smiled. ‘If you ever need me, you know where to look. Good bye now, and all the best!’
With that, Nellie left the party and was on her own way. Arsen then turned on his heel and was about to leave, too.
‘Hey! Where are you going, Arsen?’ Hirei inquired as he stopped Arsen with an arm on his shoulder.
‘Just some snooping around. Things that you don’t need to know about,’ Arsen replied curtly. ‘There are some things about me that are not worth your worries.’
‘Could we at least ask the Kafra staff about the event though?’ said Cedric carefully as he tried to suppress the tension between the two. ‘That’s what we’re here for, aren’t we?’
‘Hullo hullo, did I hear you calling for a Kafra staff?’ came a voice from over Arsen’s shoulder. The girl in the brown Kafra dress took a step forward and bowed, Arsen frantically pulling his tan cloak closer to himself. The girl was petite and had two, long ponytails bouncing from either side of her head. She was much younger than the other Kafra staffs they had met before. She giggled in a child-like manner with a sweet voice, apparently loving her job a lot.
‘Oh, hi there!’ Penelope smiled cheerfully. ‘We wondering… could you tell us about the big event that’s happening here?’
The Kafra staff gasped loudly, her white gloved hand covering her mouth as she jumped animatedly. ‘Oh, you’ve come here, but you don’t know anything about it? Hmm, that means the party’s really that famous! You poor souls, let me tell you about it!’ the girl cleared her throat, spreading her arms open in a welcoming manner. ‘Every year, the Alchemist Union would organize a big gathering where the Alchemist would share their thoughts and ideas. It’s also the time for them to show off their skills and present their research findings. Alchemists are pretty much like Wizards and Sages, with lots of researching and reading and experimentation and all.’
‘Eventually, this gathering started to grew in popularity. The Alchemist Union then started inviting scholars from Geffen and Yuno so they could have a bigger talk between the smarties. Soon, more big shots from different guilds across the land attended the gathering too. Then the Alchemist Union thought “Hey, why don’t we make this a social event and invite more people to see the wonders of Alchemy?” And so today – tomorrow, actually – we have the Al de Ball!’ the Kafra staff ended with a spin on her feet and an adorable pose at the end. Sensing an awkward silence, she hopped back on her feet and cleared her throat once again. ‘Anyway, the Al de Ball – also known as the Alchemist’s Ball or Al de Baran’s Ball, get the pattern? – is a grand event and everyone is welcomed to join. But the Ball has grown so big that the real event would only be open to those on the invitation list. You’ll have to be pretty important to get an invitation, or else you’ll just have to waltz around outside the main hall where there would be a large monitor showing what’s going on inside. It still attracts a lot of people though, as it’s a really good opportunity to share interests and talk to people from different places and guilds, as well as getting the hottest news about the guilds, especially the Alchemists.’
The Kafra staff took a breather as she scanned the party with her little eyes. ‘No questions?’ she asked sadly after having to give such a long explanation.
‘Um, could I ask if Nadleeh Wingstaff is coming for the gathering too?’ asked Aalaiyah timidly. She was a fast thinker, and was wondering if she would be able to meet her father at the Ball.
‘Oh, you mean the Chief High Wizard of Geffen? I believe that he and his wife would be making it for the event. He’s been a big supporter of the Ball for many years now,’ answered the Kafra staff smartly, proud of all the facts she had been able to relay. ‘I heard that they have a daughter. But we haven’t seen her any where before. The Wingstaffs has never brought her to the Ball before so I’m guessing that the possibility of her making it is pretty low.’
The Kafra staff might have to review her possibilities again as she did not know that Nadleeh Wingstaff’s daughter, was standing right before her. Aalaiyah quickly turned around to hide the fact that she was blushing.
‘Do you know any other famous people who are coming?’ Hirei asked with a hint of curiosity, crossing his fingers behind his back for his idols to make an appearance.
‘We’ve got the Head Biochemist here with us of course! Along with that, we have the other top Alchemists from the noble Alchemist families like the Guldens, Hyssops and Nelocks. Hmmm… and from outside of Al de Baran…’ the Kafra staff crossed her arms as she started tip toeing, her mind deep in thoughts. She punched her fist into an open palm as she got back her train of thoughts. ‘Oh, there’s going to be many Dancers and Bards coming too! I look forward to their amazing performances! They left everyone speechless last year, I bet it was unforgettable. The Priest’s Order is going to send their High Priests, along with that whiz kid Blanchett. Not to mention the really hot Blacksmiths and Knights, and even the Monks! Mmm… I remember my seniors telling me about this really charming guy from the Crusader’s Legion who came last year too, but I kinda slipped his name out of my mind… All I can tell you is that almost every single individual with a high post in their organization is invited to the Al de Ball! It really is worth coming to!’
‘How do we attend this Ball again?’ Arsen spoke softly out of the sudden, surprising the rest of the party by his sudden interest in the ball when he was rushing to get away earlier. If he was indeed rushing off for an appointment, it must have seemed less important to him right now.
‘Only those with special invitations get a place in the main hall where the event really happens,’ the Kafra staff answered gladly. ‘For commoners, there’ll be a large, empty area to mingle while you watch the happenings of the main hall, live. It’ll be held at the building of the Alchemist’s Union at the southwest corner of the city.’
‘Thanks a lot for your help, miss. I’ll be off now,’ said Arsen with an abrupt bow as he walked off without his party’s opinion.
‘We’ll see you around then. Thanks again!’ Cedric said quickly as they chased after Arsen, puzzled by his sudden actions.
‘Um, what do you plan on doing, Arsen?’ asked Aalaiyah politely as they followed behind him closely.
‘We’ll be in the main hall of the Al de Ball, my treat,’ said Arsen with his trademark mysterious smile, being secretive of his plans and not willing to share his thoughts as usual. He was following the trail of the red carpet which was leading to the ballroom at the Alchemist Union’s building.
‘I thought you weren’t interested in this ball thing,’ Cedric mumbled softly.
‘I changed my mind,’ Arsen continued to smile confidently.
‘Jeez, I wish he stopped being so indecisive, making his own decisions whenever he likes and walking off like that,’ Hirei whispered loudly so that Arsen could hear. I just hope he doesn’t get us into any trouble. That’s my main concern.’
‘Shhh, stop saying that so loudly,’ Penelope frowned as she defended Arsen. ‘He’s been pretty helpful so far. And although he has many requests, he always asked us before he went on with his plans. He’s really responsible too. It’s just that he might’ve moved a little too fast this time around. Besides, wasn’t it the four of us who wanted to see this Ball?’
‘That’s not the only thing! I can’t stand that goody two shoes attitude of his,’ Hirei continued to state his displeasures of Arsen.
‘I personally don’t have a problem about it though. I think he’s quite a gentleman,’ Aalaiyah giggled as she looked at Hirei. ‘Maybe you’re just jealous.’
Cedric could sense that Hirei was unsatisfied and was still a little doubtful about the Thief they just met in Morroc joining their party. Yet, Hirei was so excited and supported Arsen’s idea of hunting down the Phreeoni with great enthusiasm. Then again, Cedric reminded himself that it was Hirei they were talking about, and that he too, was indecisive.
They arrived in front of a large, elegant building with a stylish gray roof. It was decorated partially with banners and a colourful draping. The building was completed with a large double door adorned with leaf like decorations around the body of the building.
‘The Ball’s tomorrow, you know,’ scoffed Hirei.
‘The education I received may be scarce, but I know very well of the days in the week, and that the sun above my head means that it’s noon. Thank you anyway, Hirei,’ Arsen replied calmly, his eyes concentrated at the doors of the building. ‘You know what… would it be alright if you guys go on ahead without me first? Get an inn or something. I’ll work on getting us an invitation.’
‘How are you planning to do that?’ asked Cedric.
‘When have I ever let us down?’ Arsen smiled as he brushed his flaming red hair neatly, walking bravely into the building of the Alchemist Union.
Cedric, Hirei, Penelope and Aalaiyah found a place to stay for the night after walking through the city for their usual sightseeing session. The city was bustling with activity with the Al de Ball just a night away, and even the inns had limited space. The five of them had to cram into a small little room that came with one toilet. They sat in their room, wondering if Arsen such a genius to get them special invitations and then track them down in one of the many lodgings in Al de Baran.
‘Hello, could you open up please?’ Arsen’s voice appeared along with a knock on the window. He was suspended upside down with his head visible from the window. Cedric slide open the window and Arsen helped himself into the room.
‘How did you manage to find us?’ asked Penelope in awe.
‘It’s an Assassin’s secret,’ Arsen smiled cunningly. ‘And you don’t need to know how I got us invitations into the Al de Ball’s main hall either.’
‘Wow, you really did? You’re amazing,’ Cedric said as he gave Arsen a rewarding pat on the back.
‘It wasn’t much. This is what I specialize in after all,’ said Arsen. ‘Alright, before we sleep tonight, I’ll have to clear some things up about the Ball tomorrow.’
‘What is it, table manners or codes of ethics? I’m sure we know that better than you do,’ Hirei muttered, his back against the wall.
‘First of all, I’ll have to explain that we’re going to be attending this thing under cover. Or in a more blunt manner to say it, illegally,’ said Arsen, paying little attention to Hirei’s mockery. ‘I’ve done some tweaking around with the records so that they’ll have our name in it. We’ll be in disguises too.’
‘Why do we need to get disguises?’ asked Penelope.
‘We don’t have a genuine invitation, so we need to make sure that we do not cause any suspicions. I’m an Assassin, and the rest of you are first jobs, so it’ll be too obvious. I’ll prepare our disguises tomorrow,’ Arsen explained. ‘I reckon that it’ll be quite a havoc, and they shouldn’t be able to catch us. But just to be careful, try not to attract too much attention to yourself. And now… let’s get some sleep, shall we?’
Arsen then pulled a chair that was facing the dressing table and went to the corner of the room. He sat on the chair and crossed his arms, pulling his Assassin’s mask over his mouth and closed his eyes to sleep.
‘Remind me why I dislike him again,’ Hirei moaned.
It was morning and Arsen requested them to wait for him in the rundown, brick building nearby the Alchemist Union’s headquarters. While Arsen was away looking for the appropriate disguises, Cedric, Hirei, Penelope and Aalaiyah continued their little conversation as they watched the busy people of Al de Baran run pass the rundown building unsuspiciously.
‘You know, Arsen’s a really intelligent person,’ said Penelope as she looked over at Hirei nervously, meaning this sentence for him. ‘You can’t deny that he’s really street smart. If he didn’t say he was a Thief who lived all his life in Morroc, he could pass of as a Wizard from a prestigious magic academy in Geffen! I mean, the words he uses are just so intimidating. And he’s as cool as ice!’
Cedric glanced back at Hirei to anticipate his reaction. However, it seems that Hirei had nothing to add or was simply lost for words, crossing his arms as he made faces with his mouth unconsciously in an attempt to release the tension he had against Arsen that was stuck inside.
‘But still, I wonder what made Arsen so keen on going to the Ball all of the sudden,’ said Aalaiyah as she was bouncing her index finger on her cheeks as she rolled her ocean green eyes in deep thoughts. ‘But then, I’m glad that he did and that he was helping us out. I could get a chance to meet my father!’
‘Do you think that Champion Geno will be coming?’ Penelope said excitedly towards Aalaiyah as she had her hands over her mouth in a hush-hush manner. ‘I heard from the Acolytes and Priestesses at the Prontera Church that he’s a really cute guy.’
‘R-Really? But wouldn’t he be old? I mean, since he’s already a Transcendent,’ asked Aalaiyah curiously, her interest piqued.
‘That’s the best part! He’s not old at all!’ Penelope giggled. ‘You see, he’s a Rebirth. He’s only –’
‘Girls…’ Hirei sniggered as he rolled his cinnamon brown eyes, rolling the sleeves of his shirt higher. Cedric laughed in response.
After more giggling and gossiping, Arsen appeared at the entrance of the building, a large rucksack in his arms. ‘Come on, let’s get changed now,’ he whispered as he ushered them in with a wave of his hand. ‘Inside.’
Penelope and Aalaiyah followed without any objections. Thankfully, Hirei followed suit willingly, and there was no struggle. They stepped into the house, dark and gloomy. They could hardly see anything.
‘Cedric, that’s my leg,’ Penelope’s voice issued from the darkness as a masked Arsen locked the door with a click. Cedric quickly leaned against the wall, not wanting to bump into anyone or do anything wrong.
‘If you want us to change, then you should at least get a lamp or some candles,’ Hirei piped next to Cedric. ‘There’s no lighting here at all.’
‘That’s not a problem,’ said Aalaiyah from a hidden corner of the room, who started chanting an incantation that she had memorized during her free time. The magic circle flashed from her feet as an aura started to circle her body. It lit up the room for a moment, and then it was dark again when the magic circle disappeared.
‘Sight!’ Aalaiyah yelled, the aura bursting into red wisps of flames that was harmless, dancing around her and significantly illuminating the whole room. They could see their surroundings clearly now, finding themselves in a sort of warehouse that only had one single large room. There were broken chairs and dusty crates scattered across the room, cobwebs finding their place on all corners of the ceiling. Penelope seemed uncomfortable in the small restricted place.
‘Um… How are we supposed to change here… like this?’ Aalaiyah asked shyly. ‘It’ll be quite inappropriate with you guys around right… if you know what I mean.’
‘You won’t be changing into a disguise, Aalaiyah. You don’t have to,’ said Arsen, who suddenly appeared from behind a table. As he came closer to the light source, they noticed that he had already changed out of his Assassin’s garb. He was dressed in a brown outfit with an earth tone, a blue cape worn over a dark brown robe that reaches his thighs and a belt over his waist. He wore a pair of matching long brown pants along with coffee brown shoes. It was a different, fresh new look of Arsen compared to his tight, purple Assassin’s garb and the casual, beige Thief’s outfit. Another unusual sight was his long red hair that had been teased flat with gel, slick and tied neatly into a ponytail. He was also wearing a pair of stylish glasses, adding to his scholar look.
‘That’s the Alchemist’s outfit?’ asked Penelope as her emerald eyes scanned Arsen from top to bottom.
‘Yes. Except that I threw in this pair of glasses. It was too charming to resist. Besides, Assassins like me require more disguise. There’s a lot of things we need to keep secret, you know,’ said Arsen as he tipped his glasses playfully and nodded his head, having save Penelope a second question.
Aalaiyah stepped forward, wanting to inquire about his previous statement. ‘Um, Arsen… What did you mean before? About –’
‘Your name was on the invitation list already, Aalaiyah,’ Arsen said as he started to empty the rucksack in a Santa Claus manner, shoving clothes into Cedric, Hirei and Penelope’s arms one by one. ‘I have an idea of your identity. But I have no interest knowing. If you don’t feel like sharing, you don’t have to.’
Aalaiyah nodded her head in thanks, grateful that Arsen respected her privacy.
‘So, refresh me again about the plan,’ asked Cedric, wanting to confirm that the plan was foolproof.
‘Well, the outfits I have passed each of you were that of Alchemists, just like the one I’m wearing right now. There are many factions in the Alchemist Union, so I’ve picked out a few of the catchy names for us to choose from. We should be able to hide ourselves pretty well because there are thousands of Alchemists at this Ball,’ said Arsen as he peered down at a crumpled paper from behind his glasses. ‘Here we go… Mancenga, Gruyere, Nelock, Hyssop, Gouda, Gulden…’
‘I’ll go with Nelock,’ said Cedric quickly, confused with the many names. ‘Does Hirei have to with a different faction?’
‘He could, but he doesn’t have to. If you both are from the same faction, then I guess it should make things easier. I’ll be roaming on my own though, so that I’ll keep my troubles to myself. I’m Arthur Lutz from the Alchemist Union, by the way,’ said Arsen. ‘Oh, and try not to have too much smart conversations with others. You might give yourself away. So Hirei, have you picked your poison?’
‘Ugh… Nelock too… I guess…’ Hirei muttered, puzzled. Penelope seemed to have a hard time picking out a faction name too.
‘Oh, Penelope, you won’t need to choose a name out of the list too,’ Arsen continued as he raised his right arm to open his cape and threw the paper back into his pocket with his left arm. ‘You’ll be disguised as a Wizard so Aalaiyah won’t look out of place. If we’re ready, then you guys should start changing now. It takes time to get used to these long capes. Trust me, it’ll bother you slightly.’
‘Uh… so… how are we supposed to get changed again? There are no separate rooms here or screen where we can hide behind at,’ Penelope brought up Aalaiyah’s question from before.
‘We can take turns,’ Cedric suggested. ‘One will stay behind, unless they would like company. The rest can wait outside until they are done.’
The boys then found themselves watching the door as Penelope was the first to change, having Aalaiyah with her inside to accompany her.
‘They are taking rather long, eh? It’s just an outfit…’ Hirei said impatiently as he tapped his feet. ‘I bet they are gossiping inside there or talking about Penelope’s new outfit. Girls…’
‘Don’t you live with three sisters?’ Cedric counted with his fingers while he swished a thick tree branch in his hand like a wand. ‘That’s four girls under one roof including your mum, isn’t it?
‘I know, I’m very clear about that, thank you,’ Hirei moaned as he smacked his head with the back of his hand. ‘Thinking that all three of them would grow up to become like Penelope and Aalaiyah… Thank goodness I’m away from home right now. Too bad for otosan though, having to juggle four girls at home alone, hehe. It will be imoto’s tenth birthday soon. Okasan would make a really big feast for our birthdays. I really miss her cooking…’
Cedric leaned against the brick wall, thinking of his own family. Ever since he was little, the only relative he knows of was his brother. He never learned anything about the background of his parents, and learned not to ask too much. What would it be like if he had parents who lived together with him and Caleb in their little home at Prontera? Cedric could not imagine the difference, having no experience in such things before. As he leaned back harder, he felt the long object pressing against his body. It reminded him of the start of his journey where he and his brother parted ways. He could not help but smile as he felt Caleb’s gift slung across his back, knowing that one day they would meet again, both of them as Knights. But right now, Cedric had to wear the outfit of an Alchemist.
‘Don’t worry, we won’t be sidetracked from your journey and ambition. Just take this night as a break away from your quest,’ Arsen spoke with a reassuring smile. ‘Besides, this is an opportunity to talk to some of the prestigious people attending the ball tonight. Who knows? We might be given missions by some of them. We might even bump into a new recruit for the party. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’
Cedric had a feeling that Arsen was capable of mind reading. He would always somehow be able to answer your unquestioned questions. And the answers he gave were always relieving and helpful.
‘Thanks a lot, Arsen,’ Cedric smiled. Whatever that mind reading power might be, it is Arsen’s gift.
‘The name’s Arthur, don’t forget that,’ said Arsen as he brushed his red hair backwards, keeping them in place.
At that moment, the door behind them swung open. The familiar looking Aalaiyah walked out first, followed by a stammering and not so familiar Penelope. She was wearing a revealing purple garment that was hardly meant for summer, even more so for winter. This was thankfully backed up with a long and furry cape worn over her shoulders. Her clothes were decorated with a swirl pattern which can be found even on her knee high boots and the insides of her cape.
‘Stop staring at me like that,’ said Penelope, her peachy cheeks blushing and were much peachier than before. ‘You guys should change now and you guys will now what I’m –’
‘Stop moving around so much Penelope,’ said Arsen as Penelope stopped immediately. He approached her and started to brush her ebony black hair outwards which was pressed under her cape. He then adjusted her cape so that it was neat.
‘There you go, now you’re prim and proper,’ Arsen smiled as he turned and walked away with his calm demeanour. Penelope’s cheeks were now redder than Hirei’s Archer clothes.
Snap. The branch held in Cedric’s hand broke into half without Cedric realizing. The broken half fell onto the ground and bounced onto Hirei’s foot. Hirei let out a cry of dismay.
‘Oh, uh, accident!’ Cedric apologized quickly, his eyes still on Penelope. At that moment, he released his clenched fist. The remains of the tree branch fell out of his hand, not before it has been reduced to dust.
‘Ced… Do you have something against me?’
Cedric looked downwards to find the white head of Hirei staring up at him. Somehow, the dust had made its way on to Hirei’s head while he was tending to his foot; the brown wood crumbs were stuck in the forst of Hirei’s spiky hair.
‘S-sorry!’ Cedric apologized once more as he hastily brushed Hirei’s sleet white hair with a violent sweep of his hand.
‘Ah yes, yes, you’re forgiven but please spare my hair, you’re messing up the spikiness!’ Hirei pushed Cedric’s hand off as he edged away from the Swordsman in a mocking way, a smirk spreading across his face. ‘You’re scaring me, Ced. I better go get changed, alone!’
Hirei disappeared behind the door. Cedric followed quickly, hiding himself from Penelope, Aalaiyah and Arsen, pushing the door that was unlocked. Once he got inside, he could hear Hirei’s sneering voice.
‘Shut up already, Rei!’ Cedric exclaimed as he threw the Alchemist’s attire into Hirei’s face, missing it as the room was dark once again. Hirei picked it up from the floor but still would not stop laughing.
‘Gosh, you’re so hilarious!’ he cried as he wiped his watery eyes, holding his abdomen as if worried that his stomach would fall out. ‘I mean, crushing the poor twig into dust?’
‘I don’t know how it happened, so keep quiet already,’ Cedric stomped off the opposite direction from Hirei with his set of clothes in his hands.
‘Well, I definitely know what happened. I mean, it’s obvious that you-’
‘YOU’RE CHANGING LIKE A GIRL SO STOP GOSSIPING ALREADY!’
‘You guys change like girls, huh?’
Cedric and Hirei were finally changed and finished with their bickering, walking back out into the bright outdoors to face two giggling girls and a guy who was hiding his laughter behind his hand. After taking a step out of the dark and stuffy room, the pair finally had a good look at their outfit.
‘Neat!’ Penelope smiled as she approached the new Alchemists.
‘Thanks,’ said Hirei as he flicked his hair and swing his cape back. ‘Guys like me are always the centre of attention.’
‘You shouldn’t be,’ said Arsen bluntly as he took the empty rucksack out of the room, except that the rucksack was not empty anymore as it was filled with their own clothes.
‘What did you say?’ Hirei retorted as he raised his eyebrows.
‘Have you forgotten what I said before? What I mean is, you shouldn’t try to attract too much attention,’ Arsen revised his sentence. ‘Simply wearing a uniform doesn’t make you a Wizard or an Alchemist. If one might ask for evidence if we are, then the party would be over. Try to understand the situation we are in. We are disguising, we are not invited, except for you Aalaiyah. Even so, it doesn’t mean we can cause Aalaiyah difficulties. Her father might be there too, so it is advised to avoid trouble.’
‘Understood,’ said Cedric as he nodded. Arsen had thought of all the possibilities and took the necessary precautions. He was serious about it and Cedric knew that they could trust him.
‘We still have lots of time before the ball starts,’ Arsen said. ‘So before we leave, there are a few things the three of you must keep in mind to make sure that everything goes smoothly.’
‘What is this now after yesterday’s table manners and codes of ethics? “Sneaking With Arsen 101?”’ Hirei sniggered. When the response was cold, he tried to put on a serious face. ‘Fine, so this is important or else we’ll get caught. So, what are the tips to master disguising?’
‘For the last time, it’s Arthur.’
The sun started to set but the hustle and bustle of the city was only starting up. The streets started to fill with people from all across the lands, not including the townspeople of Al de Baran. Arsen was now leading the group, doing their best to fight their way towards the ballroom which was still a distance away. Arsen led them into the narrow and secluded alleys. It seemed like an Assassin’s thing to be able to sneak into the back lanes of a city to make it to your destination when Cedric, Hirei, Penelope and Aalaiyah failed to do so back in Morroc. The shortcuts, despite being daunting was worth the effort as they made it in front of the ballroom in no time without having their elbows colliding with others.
“In a worst case scenario, never reveal the identity of the party which would endanger our members,” said Arsen for the seventh time of the day while briefing the team with do’s and don’ts. “It might sound selfish, but you don’t want anyone else to be caught in your mistake, do you?”
There were hundreds of people flooding the registration area for those who were on the invitation list. There were ten different counters with ten different Alchemists stationed at each of them. Many of the Alchemists attending the ball had brought along all kinds of peculiar machines, prepared to make their debut. Some had their servants balance vials of chemicals.
‘We shall be parting ways here then. The two of you girls should be heading that way,’ Arsen pointed to one of the tables labelled “Mages, Archers and Merchants” after observing the area. ‘As expected… none of them says “Thieves”. Cedric and Hirei, you’ll have to sign up at the counter that has your faction name on it. Well, I will be leaving. Remember to stay low. Meet at the brick building after the ball ends.’
‘See you soon!’
With that, Arsen left the group as he walked towards the counter reading “Hyssop and Soldium”.
‘So… shall we move along?’ said Penelope as she pulled her cape closer, still trying to get used to the Wizard’s garment. ‘We’ll meet you inside then.’
Cedric nodded as Penelope and Aalaiyah left for the counter for Mages. Cedric and Hirei both walked down the small lane until they spotted a counter that read “Nelock and Gouda”. It was a short queue with some Alchemist already standing in line. The receptionist in charge was very efficient at their job. Within minutes, Cedric and Hirei was at the front of the line.
‘Welcome to the Al de Ball. Faction?’ said the bob haired receptionist without even lifting her head to look at them. She seemed very busy as she flipped through the pages of a fat record book.
‘Um... Nelock,’ said Cedric, forgetting his confidence.
Current Word Count: 50,090
Labels: NaNoMadness, The Eminent Guardians