Not too long ago, my city was a happy place filled with happy people and Sentients who thrived in the productive, rich and joyful atmosphere of Aurelia, the Country Centre. I, too, as a young child, frolicked and laughed in the sunshine amongst the fountains and trees with friends and family. Picnics in the shade, swimming in the sparkling turquoise rivers and hide-and-seek in the boulder fields. I lived through my early years in a place of peace and friendship. But on the winter solstice, night of evil, it changed forever. I, Seraphi, would never be the same again.
It was the night of the winter solstice. The city was dilapidated and shadowed, with only the Core Dwelling piercing through the shroud of black to be seen in the oppressive gloom. It had been three years since ChaosHarken had descended upon Aurelia, bringing the slaves of darkness with him. All night long they had slashed and destroyed, leaving only with the coming of the sun. What remained was a dimly lit, ruined scene of destruction. The original leader had long since been enveloped by darkness and held in the clutches of the Dark Descent, unable to be killed completely. Baku-Shan and Zanba patrolled the vicinity of the Core Dwelling and the slaves of darkness roamed the streets, searching for law-breakers. The city of what was now Malmillenia, no longer a kind blessed place c, was an inescapable hell-hole. The Country Centre had been captured, and they had finally depleted the guard shield over the other towns and cities in the country. Total capture was finally underway.
The old porcupine Sentient glimpsed seven lone figures slipped into the Core Dwelling. The guards lay paralysed on the ground, though the porcupine could not guess why. Another figure slipped in behind them, darting to a corner faster than she could blink.
A lone raven flew over the Devildesert Sector. A moving wave of darkness swallowed the sand as the sun set across the horizon. If he had landed, it would have been his doom.
A girl dressed in swirls of blue pressed herself against the wall, shrouding herself in a dark sheet of what appeared to be water to evade detection. She was followed by a boy who smelt like smouldering coals, and a girl whose hair whipped around her head, refusing to be still.
“Aegis!” she hissed, loudly as she dared. “Where are you?” Another boy appeared from the ceiling, lowered by one of the multiple vines choking the room.
“Stop fooling around!” breathed the coal-boy
The boy named Aegis raised a finger to his lips. The water-girl and Aegis stealthily crept into another room, after the girl had silenced the security alarm with a small spell she had made.
The windy girl and the coal-boy hurried after them.
Jiji and Baba waited in their office. It had taken so long to get a position in the offices of ChaosHarken, but they had finally done it, using their knowledge of darkside magic and Baba's amazing acting skill to convince the head of the Admission Staff, who was not the brightest firefly in the woods. And now, as Night Watchservants for the Dark Plants Wing, they waited for the children of the Earth Mother.
Yakatara, the girl with the tousled hair, floated through the door of Jiji and Baba's office, closely followed by Zhuqia, the coal-boy, Azul, the water-girl and Aegis, the boy who manipulated the ceiling and the vines. Close behind came a slim girl with a brilliant yellow kimono and a staff bearing a large gold topaz.
“It is time, my dears. We have fully constructed the plan and we have concocted the powder to place in the ChaosGallance's quarters.” whispered Baba, the old woman who cared for all the children.
“Seraphi, now you will be avenged for the capture of your mother.” said Jiji, Baba's husband.
“We are all ready?” Azul asked. “Then Baba will explain the plan.”
The person the porcupine had seen rushed through every room with stealth, following the Element Children's steps.
As Baba finished explaining her plan to the others, Yakatara froze.
“I hear something! Shhh!” she hissed.
Everyone listened, but only Yakatara's amazing hearing managed to pick up an extremely faint pattering sound coming down the corridor.
“Quick! Veil us with the vines, Aegis!” breathed Zhuqia.
The vines growing all over the Dark Plant Office twisted around them to form a pyramid of plants that shielded them from view. Seconds later the door opened and a tall, slim figure clad in black emerged into the room. The person took something out of a pocket and slipped into the next room. Warily, the vines withdrew to let the seven friends free.
“Who was that?”
“Probably another person trying to get rid of the Chaos Harken.”
“Winter solstice is the only night it is possible to enter the building.”
“Should we stay here?”
A huge scream echoed from the adjacent room and they could only stare helplessly as the Zanba trotted into the room, an angry girl held aloft on the tip of its sword.
“Let me GO!”
The furious girl thrashed and kicked as the two-headed horse-like warrior advanced into the room.
The Zanba waved its arm and the girl's mouth twisted inwards. She fell silent immediately.
“And who are you? Tut, tut, kiddies in the corridors. And trusted employees, too. Master will punish you badly!”
“You have no proof of what we were trying to do!” yelled Zhuqia.
“So what was your friend here doing?”
“We don't know her!” he shouted, guilty and terrified.
Zanba simply bound them in darkness ropes and dragged them after him to the cells, where they would await the judgement of the ChaosHarken.
Seraphi sat huddled in a corner, emitting a faint glow as she tried desperately to cast a spell in the magic-proof room. Zhuqia paced quickly around the magic-reinforced limestone walls, while Azul, Aegis and Yakatara simply lay on the hard floor in despair. Jiji and Baba sat talking to each other in a corner, trying to figure out what to do. And the mystery girl sat in a corner with a guilty look on her face.
Yakatara was eavesdropping on Jiji and Baba when Zanba materialised inside their solid cubic cell.
“The master will see you in thirty minutes. Enjoy your punishment!”
A wicked smile grew across both the Zanba's faces, and he left.
“I don't know if it occurred to any of you, but we should try to get out of here before our execution!” These were the first words of the girl who had got them a death charge in the first place.
“Yeah, it has, but we are in a SPELL-PROOF CELL, IN CASE YOU DIDN'T REALISE! AND IF IT WASN'T FOR YOU, WE WOULDN'T BE HERE!!!!!!!!!”
Quieted by Zhuqia's outburst, the girl simply mumbled: “Bread and water...” and lapsed into silence.
“Hey, what's that?” asked Seraphi in surprise.
“Our pre-execution snack?” Aegis got up and picked it up.
“Don't eat it!” Baba shuffled over and snatched it quickly. “It's poisoned. We suffer before they kill us. We don't really need food half an hour before we're killed. You didn't think ChaosHarken ran a jury, did you?”
Seraphi sat down and thought hard while everyone else inspected the food and water.
They had been given eight stale breadbuns on a crudely fashioned metal plate, and a jug of water. And then her quick mind had an idea.
“Hey, Jiji! You know how last year ten people tried to attack on the winter solstice, and thirty-two the year before? They might think we're just a regular group of people trying like those before us to overthrow the Dark Descent. And you aren't the first staff to try it. Last year, they announced three staff executions. So, they haven't paid too much attention to us in particular or where they put us, right? And these walls are limestone. Best recipient for spell-proofing magic, but highly susceptible to acids. We have a jagged plate, revolting food and eight stomachs full of hydrochloric acid, one of the best acids for dissolving limestone and sandstone. Now go figure.”
Jiji started to speak, but Azul cut in, shimmering like she did when excited.
“One person eats a poisoned bun, then vomits on the wall, then saws through the wall a bit, we repeat the process eight times, then smash the weakened wall through and fly out on Yakatara's' updraught? And isn't that revolting?”
“Yep, but we only have twenty-five minutes, so it's time to start now!!!”
Seraphi glanced at the countdown clock floating in the air nervously.
The mystery girl leapt straight up and took a huge bite out of one of the buns. Her face went white and...She threw up all over the wall, covering it in green sludge. Zhuqia quickly jumped in and sawed furiously at the wall, careful to use only one jagged area. Chips and dust fell out of the wall and made the girl cough loudly. Next was Azul, but this time, small pebble-sized bits of stone came out when the wall was cut. Yakatara, Seraphi, Baba, Jiji (complaining vomiting was bad for old men), and finally Zhuqia all vomited on the wall in turn, and the wall was cut each time. By the end, huge chunks had come out of the wall in places, and the limestone powdered when rubbed. And then, the ram. All the younger people smashed the wall with their feet, and a medium-sized hole appeared in the wall! Another kick, and the hole was big enough for everyone to climb through. But then Seraphi glanced at the countdown clock and gasped. One minute left, and Yakatara was just bringing a cloud up on an updraught to meet them , hovering outside the building. Then Zanba materialised before them.
It all happened in a flash. Everyone leapt onto the cloud without thinking, Aegis summoned up the bits of stone and hurled them back as they zoomed out of sight just after an enormous black shadow appeared at the wreckage. With her last breath, Seraphi wheezed: “Go to the Transfield atop the building!”
As Yakatara forced the cloud upwards, everyone else glanced downwards to see a small icy figure with a large bow tied around its middle. It was floating after them with haste, and a small ice cloud blew around its head.
“Faster!” yelled Baba. “That's the Baku-Shan! Don't let her reach us!”
Desperately, Azul tried to hurl some water at her, but with her weakness, hunger and the fact she was poisoned, the small aqueous orb just froze in the air. Zhuqia and Aegis also attempted to do something, but all they managed to do was fill the cloud with mud and set Azul's hair on fire.
“Jiji, Baba! Do something!”
But Baba and Jiji hadn't handled the poison well at all, and they could do nothing but tell Yakatara to go faster. They could see the top of the building, and were only seconds away, but the Baku-Shan was gaining on them, throwing icy hunks as she went. Suddenly, the cloud froze over, but everyone else did not. They went flying into the rooftop, landing on a large pink square surrounded by servants of darkness, scythes, lanterns and all. Everyone simply stood there, waiting to be cut into bits. But they didn't see them. They all turned to Baba, expecting a brainy reply. But all she did was press a button and say:
“Devildesert Sector, request of Baku-Shan, Second-in-Command to ChaosHarken, password S-W-A-R-M. Thank-you, and all support of the Descent. Terminate request.”
And as they saw the Baku-Shan hurl a dark blob directly at them, they vanished.
The strange girl clad in black awoke to see the four strange teenagers stuffing their heads in large orb of water. She knew who they were, but really, she had no intention of revealing what she knew. Not her. The coincidence of running into them had made her wonder about her goal....A faint noise in her head made her jolt quickly upwards. A faint clicking underneath her head. As she brushed sand off her torn garments, the girl dressed in bright yellow, Seraphi, turned to her.
“You slept well for someone with such a guilty conscience! What's that look? I'm joking! Azul's made us some water, and Aegis has conjured some desert onions out of the ground! Zhuqia's roasting them with some fire, Baba has given antidote to everyone, even you in your sleep, and the others are busy eating and drinking. Do you want some onions and water, then?”
The girl nodded meekly and said “Yes, please...” trailing off.
“Come over and sit with our group. If you're coming with us, you need to get to know us better. And I know you surely can't survive out here by yourself with no water or food, so please just come with me. Okay?”
She decided to go with them, though she wasn't looking forward to the whingey old man and the hot-headed fire-boy reprimanding her. Once she had sat down on the grey sand, the girl was passed four slightly charred onions on a strange mud plate. She had a feeling that Aegis (she had heard his name when stuck in the limestone cell) had made this too, and it seemed her suspicions were true: they were the Element Children.
THROUGH THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS, SOMETHING EVIL THIS WAY COMES
“Did you feel that?” asked Yakatara excitedly.
“Smrfflllgrfffl...” mumbled Jiji, interrupted from his doze.
“I did.” said the mystery girl.
“Feel what?” asked Zhuqia in surprise.
“I did too!”
Seraphi and Aegis confirmed Yakatara's sense of touch and hearing was not hyperreactive.
Baba's face suddenly blanched.
“Through the pricking of my thumbs, something evil this way comes...” she chanted in an eerie monotone.
“Hey, don't scare us, Baba!” cried Zhuqia, oblivious to the fact she wasn't acting.
“We need to find a place to hide, and fast! Quickly, children, we must go, before sunset arrives!”
“Can't we just levitate on a cloud?”
“There are no clouds here. And if anything is not ordinary, it will be...inspected. Only Yakatara could hide in the air.”
“So many eyes can surely pick a flaw...”
“Wings of fire?”
“Smoke is smelt, my boy. That is useless.”
“Hiding inside a sandstorm? Giant cactus?”
“There are no cacti large enough to conceal us that live here. And a sandstorm means nothing to the March of Ebony.”
“So, we must march onward until we find...what I hope is there. Jiji, you big lump, get up and direct the children. Seraphi, bring up the rear. And you, my girl, please stay behind a moment.”
After Baba thought Yakatara had passed outside hearing distance, she turned to the girl and spoke softly:
“Shadra, my dear, I know who you are, and what you know. I will have to tell my story later. For now, remember I watch over you.”
And without another word, Shadra and Baba hurried after the others, lest they be left behind.
They had been floating on a lone cloud luckily spotted by Yakatara for hours (though it was running out of puff), and it was starting to cool down at last.
“At last! The hot sun is finally going down!” sighed Yakatara happily.
Everyone else goggled at her before immediately turning to look at the sun. It was indeed becoming smaller on the horizon, and even now they could see it descending further.
“Oh, right, that's bad...” Yakatara mumbled gloomily. She forced the cloud to move as fast as it could, beads of sweat trickling down her face and flying off her whipping hair.
Then they heard the clicking. Everyone this time.
“They're getting closer to the surface every second!” wailed Baba. “Faster! We have to find a cactus forest now!!!”
The cloud sped onwards, its flight disturbed only by the increasingly frequent clicking noises. And then they spotted a lone cactus plant.
“Keep going! A cactus forest is the only place where we can hide!” yelled Baba, but she sounded relatively relieved. They went past more and more cacti, and finally, Baba said: “Stop!” The cloud vaporised and they tumbled into the sand, where they could hear almost constant clicking.
“Quick! Aegis, hide us in a hollow cactus! Now!” said Jiji, trying to take part in the action.
Aegis conjured up a huge cactus plant out of the sand, and it dropped over them, leaving a tiny hole for sight.
And just seconds after they were concealed from sight, a swarm of black burst from the dunes around them.
The ChaosHarken shifted from side to side of his room, its body dematerialising and rematerialising as it struggled with anger.
“They were the children of the Earth Mother?!?!?!?!?! And they have accompanying them the oldest resident of this city, her husband, and the rightful heir to the throne as well?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! Not to mention the child from you-know where?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! AND you say she did not know the others would be there, but she knew who they were?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?! Do you have ANY IDEA what the consequences could be for the whole Dark Descent?!?!?!?!?!?! And you put them in an F-grade cell? And they somehow evaded the servants atop the building?!?!?!?!?!?! YOU MORONIC, @#$%^*,@#$$,@%@&^*,!#^@$%%$#,!@%$#,!#@%$&^#*&^%,!@%^%$ IDIOT!”
“Uh, they have a spell tracker on them, so we can find them if you please, Master...”
“Zanba, you shall go. But not till the night of the Ebony March has passed. And if you do not capture them, you will send for Baku-Shan, hmmmm? And if she fails, and you fail, and the both of you fail, SEND FOR ME! Now go, you stupid, two-headed horse warrior!”
Its voice boiled with repressed rage.
Zanba hurried from the room, weapons in hand, and prepared to leave the following day.
“He smells like a horse, too,” added ChaosHarken to itself as an afterthought, as it flung a chair across the room.
They could only stare helplessly and silently as a wave of huge black scorpion-like creatures rose from the sand and swarmed over the land, pincers clicking, wings whirring, and mouth snapping ferociously. Like a black sheet they spread across the desert, marching on the land, and flying in the air, inspecting everything as they passed. As they tapped the hollow cactus, everyone thought they would be found. But the strange creatures passed them by. An unsuspecting bird soaring too low was snatched and shredded to bits as they watched in terror, then consumed by the black monster in a horribly swift gulp. For hours, they poised motionless as the wave of darkness swarmed over everything, devouring anything they found. For hours, they watched as they scoured every inch of sand. For hours they dared not move, sneeze, eat, drink, and relieve themselves, anything that made a sound. All they could do was watch as the creatures laid rack and ruin to everything. Everything except the cacti. And finally, they saw the black creatures begin to return to the sands from whence they came. Of course, Aegis let out a sneeze.
At first, Aegis thought nothing had happened.
Are we safe?
But then, a lone creature burrowed slowly out of the dunes, and crawled sleepily over to the cactus, clearly dazed by the rising sun. It did not, however, attempt to destroy the cactus. All it did was clamber upwards to peep through the small peephole.
Mother, protect us, and by God, don't let it see us.
But with seven other sets of eyes staring right at the strange creature, it was hard not to miss the eight huddled figures squashed inside.
Zanba galloped swiftly through the thick sand, his specially designed hooves making short work of the unstable surface. He knew where to look. The cactus forest, their only hope. But he still had no clue why that demented old woman and her stupid husband would not remember the March was the night after each solstice.
Zhuqia waited in silence for the odd arachnoid to slice open their hollow hiding spot. But it didn't. What it did do was touch its large pincers to the cactus wall. At first Zhuqia thought nothing was happening, but it soon became apparent that the cactus was withering and dying at a rapid rate. Aegis, for fear of disturbing the inhabitants of the dunes, did not attempt to replenish the cactus at all. All that the companions could do was watch, too cramped to move at all.
Zanba sensed a fire spell to the north-west. He hurried off at breakneck speed, eager to gain back his trust with his Master. For if he failed twice more...that would be it. And Zanba did not want that to be it.
The creature was flung backwards as soon as the fire made contact. Unfortunately, what was left of the cactus went too.
“Fool!” hissed Jiji. “That cactus is all that was keeping us from death!”
But Zhuqia was too busy looking at the lone creature he had attacked. Its hard, obsidian carapace was swelling, and it seemed to be growing, becoming red as it inflated and grew.
“If everything evolves from a lower lifeform, you, Zhuqia, must be a direct descendant of primordial ooze,” said the frustrated Jiji.
By this time, what now appeared to resemble a humongous red monster had just about finished growing, and its pincers and horn were alarmingly large.
What have I done????
“What do we do, Baba?” asked a petrified Azul.
“Well, we cannot hide, we cannot run, and this creature will now recognise a false cactus. So unless anyone knows how to use weather, plants, water, earth, fire, spells or agility here,” grumbled Baba exaggeratedly, “we are stuffed as a glutton.”
With no idea what to do, Jiji impulsively fanned his hands and sent a small blast of white light at the grotesque monster. It just made it madder.
“Great help, but I think what we need is something that can wedge inside the carapace and attack from the inside. It will return to normal afterwards, right?”
It was that “mystery girl” who seemed to get all of Seraphi and Baba's attention.
“Like a ninja star? A dagger? Or a worm-thorn?” asked Seraphi calmly as the monster thrashed around, clearly still recovering from the sudden growth spurt.
“Um...yeah! And I happen to have hand-crafted worm-thorns here with me!”
But now everyone was watching the monster again. It seemed to have recovered from its shock, and was advancing upon them rapidly. Without a word, the strange girl dug a handful of wriggling spiky objects out of a small, undetectable bag concealed in her black clothes.
What the heck is her name?
As the monster released a spurt of poison from its mandibles, easily evaded by even creaky old Jiji, she darted in behind the monster and rammed the fistful of worm-thorns into a small gap in the hide of the mutant. A lot of them fell to the sand, but from the small smile on her face, Zhuqia guessed Anonymous had done it. What she did next surprised everyone, though Baba and Seraphi seemed to share a faint smile with each other.
Or was that my imagination?
She quickly stabbed the scorpion mutant in the same area with a small dagger, then leapt with amazing power to land on its back. As the monster roared in surprise and pain, she threw eight ninja stars straight into its eyes. Every one was a hit. Now blinded and quite disadvantaged, with the worm-thorns obviously weakening it significantly, the monster decided to use a sure-hit technique. With a humongous whack, it sent an enormous volume of sand up into their faces, which bit at everyone and made them flinch. Interestingly enough, no other black arachnoids emerged from the sand. With everybody cowering and sore, it waved a pincer around to determine where they were. But it did not realise that there was a girl on its back. As it leapt forward for breakfast, blue blood dripping from its carapace, Zhuqia saw Ms. Anonymous grab an antenna and jerk it to the left. The scorpion beast screeched and turned left to find the culprit. What she did next amazed everyone. She whacked the now-weak beast on the head and leapt off into the cushioning sand below as the enraged monster smashed its spiked claw into its head attempting to find its assaulter. Instead, it crashed through its hard shell and opened up a gaping wound from which worm-thorns squirmed to plop onto the dunes. Masses of blue blood spurted from the wound accompanied by a burst of hot smoke.
Ewwww! But why is it smoking? Is that my fire escaping and deflating the monster?
The monster was rapidly shrinking as black fumes of smoke issued from its body, stirring up a flurry of sand as it started to burrow down through the sand to return to its nest, to wait for the spring solstice to reawaken and return it to the desert scape.
“Uh, sorry?” Zhuqia mumbled at last.
Everyone glared menacingly at him. Then they burst out laughing.
I am so stupid!
“Hey, why didn't any other creatures come out of the sand??? And what is that girl's name? And where are we going? And why didn't the scorpion-thing just slash the cactus? And how do you know that girl and what was that big swarm of bug-things caused by and what are they and why did fire make them mad and when can I have some food and water and....”
Zhuqia's jumble of questions was cut short by Seraphi, who raised a hand and spoke.
“Baba will explain everything to us tonight when we reach the Thornforest Sector. But for now, let's have some food and drink! Azul, make us some water, please! It's desert onions again, I'm afraid. Oh, and this is Shadra. She knows all of you, though.”
But Zhuqia and everyone else kept quiet, knowing that Baba would have her reasons for waiting until they had gone from the desert. They finished their water and onions quickly, Zhuqia roasting them with small flames. Then they packed up their few belongings (Zanba had taken anything they could use to break out of their cell), and waited for Yakatara to bring a cloud down from the sky to carry them across the desert. Once she had summoned it, they climbed on to the solidified cloud and waited for Yakatara to send the cloud on its course. But no sooner had they mounted the cloud than it vanished to leave them sprawled in the sand. And then Zhuqia felt a terrible feeling in his chest and looked towards the horizon. Zanba stood nearby with a triumphant look on his faces.
“Well, well, well. The Element Children, the Angel Nursery's carer, her husband, the heir to the throne, and a girl who has chosen an incorrect path from her origins. And all in one, ready to be captured. It was a mistake to place you in a low-security cell, but now I have found you puking putzes I can simply take you back with me. This Gate Disc will return you to the city the instant it touches you. Now be good and hand yourselves over. You are wanted alive, but I can hurt you. Badly.”
Zanba's words sent a chill through everyone's bodies as they listened, but none more so than Seraphi, who knew Zanba had been responsible for capturing her mother and handing her over to the ChaosHarken.
“So, will you come quietly, or shall I demonstrate my exceptional battle technique???”
“Please, show us your technique,” replied Baba, angered at Zanba's standoffishness. “Don't give in, children!”
“Like that's gonna happen!” cried Aegis, who conjured a pebble, throwing it at the sand.
“Well, you leave me no choice.” jeered Zanba, brandishing his scythe sword and pawing the ground.
“Not again,” sighed Azul, who made herself melt into a pile of liquid and slinked through the sand.
Aegis turned himself to stone, whilst Zhuqia made a hole appear in his hand, from which magma dribbled. Yakatara surrounded herself with a mini tornado, hair whipping furiously, and Seraphi disappeared to become a small orb of yellow light. Baba bloomed an odd rosebush in her hair, Shadra gripped her worm-thorns and a strange cloak, and Jiji simply stood there with glowing hands.
Zanba charged at Jiji, attempting to lance him with a sword, but stumbled slightly as a grey orb hit him in his horse-face. However, Jiji's magic had little effect, and a quick slash from Zanba sent him falling to the ground.
“Lack of skill and teamwork leads to failure!” retorted Zanba, who was now swiftly spinning on one hoof and cutting patterns in the air around him with his scythe.
How do we get our magic past his air scythe? wondered Aegis, but it seemed Azul had the answer. Her liquid form had not caught the attention of Zanba, and she sank under the sand to reappear underneath his hooves. She blasted a huge pump of water from below, which sent Zanba flying, and returned to her normal form, exhausted from the strength of her attack. Zhuqia took advantage of this to charge up a large fire missile, which zoomed straight at Zanba before he could get up. Yakatara threw the mini sandstorm she had been enveloped in to send the horse-warrior skidding down a sand dune, stopped only by a very spiky cactus plant. They nervously rushed down to see if he was unconscious, but Aegis drew too close, and was met by a very strong kick in the stomach. His rocky body lowered the impact, but he was still knocked over by the force. With Jiji and Aegis out cold, they had no choice but to sweep backwards on a wind blast from Yakatara.
“Two down, six to go!” yelled Zanba, now with a few thorny adornments covering his body.
“At least Zanba is predictable and undisguised,” muttered Baba. “The Baku-Shan is a master of trickery and is by no means a warrior of any kind. And I'm sure she could easily fool some of us. Eeeek!” Baba's train of thought was interrupted by a prickly ball that had been thrown at her face, missing narrowly.
Twenty minutes later, Zanba had proved to be more unpredictable than Baba had expected. Jiji and Aegis were apparently still knocked out, and Zhuqia had been sent to sleep by a misfiring sleepy bubble from Azul. Baba wished that they could sort out things peacefully, or without a heavily armoured evil, mad horse warrior trying to kidnap them. Baba, Azul, Seraphi and Shadra were hiding behind a large cactus growing in some hard-baked soil while Yakatara was forming a large sandstorm, filled with hunks of earth from the cactus forest, sand and bits of cactus and desert onions, and Zanba did a strange war dance that seemed to serve no apparent purpose.
“I'd watch out if I was her. Zanba won't be mincing about.” whispered Seraphi.
Yakatara threw her sandstorm at Zanba who was swept up and tossed out about fifty metres away.
“Now!” hissed Baba urgently.
Shadra burst out from cover and began to run at top speed towards Zanba while Seraphi snuck out and summoned Aegis, Jiji, and Zhuqia's unconscious figures, which started floating slowly over the dunes towards her. Baba simply stood hidden behing the cactus to keep an eye on things. Yakatara appeared to be evading Zanba by dancing in the air, but he was still only war dancing. He stopped just before Shadra reached him and nearly hit her with a sideswipe. But something odd was faling from the sky: a huge black crystal shower which speared both Shadra and Yakatara repeatedly. It seemed that Yakatara had fallen to the ground, but Shadra used her last energy to throw some worm-thorns into Zanba's soft underbelly. Feigning unconsciousness, she lay there without moving. Zanba howled with rage as he saw his previous victims had disappeared.
Seraphi's white magic had already resuscitated Jiji, Aegis and Zhuqia, who were squashed behind the cactus along with Baba. Baba appeared to be draining something from the thorny plant, but the others were too busy looking at Zanba to notice. As a Gate Disc teleported the user and every other animal or vegetable the user was touching upon use, he needed them all unconscious touching each other to leave. But they needed to keep Seraphi from being attacked or they could not resuscitate their friends. Even if Shadra was not really unconscious, she didn't stand much of a chance of breaking away with a super-strong two-headed maniac binding them together. All they had to do was wait for the worm-thorns to cause bad bleeding. It seemed, however, they were a bit late, as Zanba ran towards their hiding spot.
Aegis jumped out before Zanba reached the cactus, throwing a conjured boulder into his face. As Zanba flinched, Aegis turned to stone, and a strange blast of water from Azul in turn made him mud. He and Azul, both in liquid forms, formed a large muddy wave, crashing over the confused warrior. Zanba suffered no injury or pain, but the bits of mud now stuck in his armour plating would prove to help in escaping the resilient henchman of the ChaosHarken.
ChaosHarken was growing impatient. Those ignorant children were surely not hard to injure, and as for the two old codgers, they surely couldn't outrun him. But it had begun to take over the Maritime and Sparklesea Sectors, and the Punee Sector was under total control. More and more people everywhere had swayed to its power for fear of death. Yes, some things were going well...
Zanba didn't know how to hurt mud or water, but he did know that a powerful bit of magic would change them back to normal. So he decided to set up a “shield” to encourage them to break it. They didn't know he couldn't really make one. He began to war dance on the spot. But the aqueous blobs didn't move. Just waited. He kept war dancing, but as it was pretend, nothing happened. Obviously they had guessed it was not realistic. And he did not notice the cactus behind him had gone brown and lifeless, nor that there was a woman with a quivering rose-monster on her head hiding behind it.
From behind the large cactus, Seraphi was turning into a small yellow orb. She floated down right into the sand, and sped off towards Shadra and Yakatara's sprawled bodies, camouflaged by the sand. Meanwhile, Jiji and Zhuqia had decided to get rid of the now shrivelled cactus that barely concealed them and turn it into a weapon. Baba obviously did not need it now she had a monster/bush in her hair. With a burst of flame, the cactus caught on fire. Jiji sent a blast of light at it while the heat-impervious Zhuqia clambered up the plant. It turned into a thorny rocket that zoomed through the air, trailing smoke behind it. Veering around as quickly as he could, Zhuqia used Zanba's confusion to slam directly into his belly, badly burning him in the process. Zhuqia leapt off the cactus, which continued to speed through the air, and rushed back towards Jiji and Baba.
“The old hag has been so close this whole time? The coward!!!”
With magnificent power, Zanba literally exploded with rage, sending Aegis and Azul flying in little drops to return to their human forms, badly injured. Jiji was too close as well, and the power sent him to his knees, moaning and convulsing in spasmodic pain.
“Baba!” croaked Jiji anxiously. “Do something!”
With Seraphi tending to Yakatara, seemingly unnoticed, and Shadra feigning unconsciousness, Baba was the only person left to stop the outrageous and protracted fight. She stood there in silence, an innocent rosebush atop her head.
“She's gone senile! Ha!” laughed Zanba, before charging straight at her. But somehow, she dodged the assault with ease to appear directly behind him. And then he noticed Seraphi, Yakatara and Shadra together in a group. Baba's bush-head silently threw a lone seed at Zanba's head, which simply latched on to the back of his rider-head, doing no more.
A drop of blood fell to the ground as the worm-thorns found their place.
Zanba felt strangely rusty and slightly caked in his armour as he tried to stab Baba again and again, only to have her reappear behind him, planting a seed each time. Small drops of blood began to quench the desert sand's eternal thirst as the worm-thorns burrowed deeper and deeper into Zanba's body. And his armour slowly stuck together as he feebly attempted to slash Baba's bush from her head. Then Baba did something odd. The bush on her head sent out long thin tendrils which reached for Zanba's seed-plagued head. No matter how many he slashed, they kept coming from wherever Baba teleported. In the background Seraphi had turned back into a glowing orb and was hastily drawing nearer to Baba and Zanba, Yakatara hiding inside a far-above cloud, and Shadra with her. Eventually, some tendrils found their anchors, latched onto the seeds and sucked. Zanba had finally noticed he was bleeding, feeling strangely weak. With no time for first aid, he had no choice but to attack Baba. A war dance could not possibly work, unless he gained some distance between Baba and himself. But when he tried to run, he noticed his armour was stiff and inhibiting. When he tried to remove the tendrils from his head, they simply regrew. Now dizzy and faint, he could do nothing but slash the air feebly as the seeds sucked the energy from him, with charred, torn, mud-caked armour doing little. Then he remembered his secret weapon. As Baba pumped energy for her final assault, a blinding flash rocked the desert, hurling everyone on the ground backwards at the same time a huge green bush jumped onto Zanba and blew up in a bomb of green and purple, thorns piercing his unprotected skin. However, Zanba allowed himself a smile as he realised (or thought) that all his enemies were down. But before he could struggle up on his weakened legs, two girls fell on him from the sky and another, the heiress, sent a gigantic golden blow directly at his face, and he slipped into the world of unconsciousness at last...
“Is he alright?” asked Shadra anxiously, staring at the small, exposed pony-like creature lying in the sand.
“He will most certainly be. Seraphi has eliminated the darkness from his heart. Now he is merely a cute Hoofed Sentient who wants nothing more than to return home. And we will let him.” explained Baba.
“We once knew him,” said Jiji wistfully, “but he was consumed by the darkness that spread over his life and turned to ChaosHarken for a way to survive.”
“Let's send him home with the Gate Disc.” suggested Azul helpfully.
Baba inserted the coordinates for his family far away and gently dropped the disc onto his sleeping body. And just like that, he vanished, to return to a life of happiness.
Night had fallen, and the group were gathered around a fire in a forest laden with thornbushes and tall spiky trees.
“Okay, my friends, it is time I told you my story.”
“ A while ago, before anyone here was born (except Jiji, who probably witnessed the birth of the Sentients) I worked in an all-ages nursery and orphanage, taking children of all ages when their parents needed to go somewhere, or for people to stay in hard times. Children who had no parents or a place to live were accommodated in the orphanage. The food was delicious, pay was very little, and only if you were over 22 and under elderly age, and also only if you were staying for convenience. I had set up this place out of the sheer will to help people and Sentients. We had a nightly food give-away for homeless and poor beings, and it was very popular. We received funds from the Core Advisor, enough to happily go about our lives and pay for the business. There were forty-two of us working there, all of us with equal say (though I owned the buildings) and we believed we had found a meaning to life. But then, one day, the Element Mother arrived in disguise with four newborn babies. A creature known in fear as the ChaosHarken had appeared in the world, and was searching for the baby children. She left weeping. From then on, I raised Aegis, Zhuqia, Yakatara and Azul with a wary love, in case this creature appeared. The next day, a young girl clad entirely in black clutching a worm-thorn farm and small bag laden with stealth weapons appeared, her only other possessions a plush Poyo doll and a small black crystal.
She said only she had escaped from her parent and wanted to live here. Of course, I said she could stay. All the staff agreed too, but I wondered about the dark crystal. She seemed to know who the Element Children were, but stayed away from them at all costs. I had personally assigned myself to caring for these five children, for obvious reasons, but I did not hint at Shadra's true identity for a long time. The only further thing to happen afterwards was the induction of a purple Stinkbug into the orphanage a week later. The Stinkbug seemed quite wise, and had a habit of vanishing from the orphanage a lot, but as many residents could do so at will, it was nothing unusual. Just a normal lonely child. It was about a month later that Seraphi started to visit with her mother Ophani and father Kuzuhai, at six years old. They had dropped in to say hello, as I was an old friend, but Seraphi took a shine to me and the staff and regularly popped in. She played often with the Element Children, at first shaking rattles and running around as the babies tried to hit her with splashes of water and ice, fire and magma, rocks and leaves, wind gusts and lightning. For eight years this went on, but Shadra not once was seen at the same time as Seraphi, like some instinct made her leave at her arrival, for not once did she claim to have seen Seraphi at all. After these eight years, Seraphi was fourteen, like Shadra, and the Element Children were all eight. And then we received word that the ChaosHarken was planning to wriggle his underlings into the city and break a hole in the Evil-Proof Dome. He sent in non-evil, gullible henchmen who slowly disintegrated the cities' ways, though not many noticed. The Raccoon Sentients were among the first to find out. The Seraph Squad of Angels also twigged on quickly. The Dog Sentients, Penguinoid Sentients, Seahorse Sentients and Turtle Sentients were soon to follow. The orphanage/nursery lost customers quickly. Many orphans were withdrawn by foster parents worried for children safety.
Through this time my suspicions had been rising, I had done research and then I realised: the ChaosHarken had created a child to be its very important heir in case anything happened. But she had buckled on discovering this, and fled for her life. While Ophani was certainly an authoritative panjandrum, there was only so much she could do. Seeds of chaos slowly mixed through town. The orphans kept being adopted through fear, until only Shadra, the four children, the reclusive Stinkbug Sentient nobody wanted, four staff and Jiji, my husband were left. I realised in time we had to prepare for escape. I knew ChaosHarken would succeed in capturing Aurelia. So I formed a plan with the Element Children, Jiji and Seraphi. But Shadra and Stinkbug had disappeared. I found out Shadra escaped to an abandoned shack to prepare herself as best she could, without ever meeting the Element Children, for fear of doing something uncontrollable towards them. The Stinkbug vanished, but Shadra remained in hiding for three years. And then the night arrived. The dome cracked. Dark slaves and poisoned Sentients arrived in droves. The ChaosHarken was seen swirling across the sky towards the Core Building. And then the light went out. We all heard Ophani and Kuzuhai scream. Every building was ravished, every tree was poisoned, every street was guarded. Kuzuhai escaped and disappeared. Ophani was not able to be killed, instead they placed her in a Dark Torturer Ultimate, where she still writhes in pain today.
For three more years we trod carefully, showing no signs of betrayal, but researching everything about our new city, Malmillenia, that we could. I learnt of the winter solstice, job applications, torture, punishments and more from the Earth Mother's guiding spirit which managed to reach out to me by coming on the winds. The Earth Mother, able to shape the world at will. I still do not know how she managed to talk to me. Jiji and I applied for jobs in the Dark Plant Offices, the only offices that had wide enough air vents for our plan. Acting evil and twisted, we used our universal knowledge of darkness (even long before the catastrophe I read many, many books, as well as regularly talking with the Earth Mother) to fool the Applicatorator. And so we ended up working for the Core Building and got an inconspicuous job tending ugly slimy vines and stinging nettles. Eventually, we devised a plan to get rid of the dark powers once and for all. I concocted a superholy powder from extremely rare ingredients I had collected and saved, such as a shed feather from a Seraph angel, and a ten-year old Snake Sentient tail scale, using an awfully hard method, but I did it in the end, using you children's help to stir, blend and combine. Just a sniff of the powder would instantly destroy pure evil. Then we planned to stay back at work on the winter solstice, the only night anyone could enter Malmillenia's core without interrogation. All the servants were permitted a night off, to wreak havoc amongst the inhabitants of the city and do as they pleased. (Now, none of you know this small part, so listen.) I cooked up a half-baked story about searching for my glasses, which I had unnecessarily worn my whole time as a tool for excuses. The rather hopeless guard warned me to get out in a half hour and cast a Walking-Clock Spell on me, but it was easily cured with a bit of Time Potion (thanks, Jiji) and I began to ready the plan. Now, I also had a very small suspicion Shadra would attempt to break in and seek revenge on her “creator”. So I made sure I had hidden a vast majority of Concealed Concoctions inside my Vanishing Hairdo in case she had come, for I knew she would be caught without ancient magic, unless she happened to be a Chameleonoid Sentient, which was impossible, and we would need to escape.”
“I laid the powder in an air vent which I had....re-hooked to lead to ChaosHarken's quarters. Unable to use modern Magic or any chemical creation, it depended on you, children, to send the powder through the vent without it touching the sides. After I had placed the powder on a small pad next to the vent, I set about stilling the plants writhing around nearby to prevent them hindering or biting any of the Element Children, though I knew Aegis would probably be able to alter their root paths in the soily floors of the department. I checked to see if there was earth through all the floors, as Aegis could only manipulate plants if there were plants growing in the earth nearby, and Aegis' powers were required to hide us in emergency. I made sure that the vents were not fully spell-proof, and they weren't, as they did not normally lead to the ChaosHarken's chambers. I also made sure, through Jiji's Muffler Spell, which ensured that the smoke and flood alarms would not go off. And finally, I checked to see if Baku-Shan, who could walk through walls and move silently, was not inside the building that night. She wasn't, as only Zanba, with no natural attribute to darkness, was not permitted to take the night off, despite his high rank to ChaosHarken. And then, I suppose you all know the rest. The plan, as you know, was to use Yakatara's wind mixed with Azul's water to form a screen around the outside of the vent, forced up by Zhuqia's smoke mixed with Yakatara's gusts, and the powder, parcelled inside a durable stone from Aegis, would be able to make its way through the vent without any contact, either the stone or the powder, to end up forcing itself into ChaosHarken's quarters, splitting as soon as ChaosHarken noticed it, and Malmillenia would have become Aurelia once more. (Yes, I know that was a mouthful and an earful...) So, you all entered the building, seen by a Porcupine Sentient which is NOT good, followed coincidentally closely by Shadra in disguise. You managed to navigate through the building to our office, dispelling the plants and getting through the Dark Lock, once again followed by Shadra. Then I told the intended listeners our plan, still unaware that Shadra had indeed come in that night.”
“She decided to pretend nobody was there, as Aegis covered us with those revolting roots of slime, but what she didn't notice was that tripped over a stumblerope laid there by an extremely lazy night guard, the loud, unconcealed noise attracting Zanba, who then, obviously, found us. But I had felt sure Shadra had not realised that such trivial things as stumbleropes would be set up as security. You have all seen her quick wit and skill (here Shadra blushed), it was merely a lack of knowledge. So, of course, I had bargained on this. Once we were placed in the cell, I noticed it was spell-proof, as I knew, but Zanba had unwittingly not realised any of our identities except Jiji and I, of course. I knew Seraphi's....creative mind would figure out how to escape. I was not able to say anything about escaping as we had a Staff Speaker listening in on us until we left the building, so we felt no good would come of talking unless in an absolute emergency. But due to the poor...ummmm...quality of the cell, built with very porous limestone, we could easily escape. Thank you for being so imaginative for us, Seraphi. So then, we all flew up to the Transfield atop the building to escape to the Devildesert, which did prove to be a mistake.”
“Now, how did those servants not see us? Because we had distorted the field around the teleporter by Seraphi and Shadra's crystals reacting to a place both their parents have owned, or, I suppose in your case, Shadra, more a creator. I would never accuse Shadra of evil or malevolence, but the crystal you have, my dear, is made with a core of pure Luciferol, or Darkness. Seraphi, on the other hand, inherited her family's crystal, filled with pure Magnangemol, or Light. The two recognised their importance and place in the Transfield and its universal passageways, reacting even though they had not bonded, sending off a signal that effectively placed us out of this universe for a few seconds, meaning we could slip past. I had not counted on the Baku-Shan chasing us. But I did know what to say to the teleportation pad, from the Earth Mother's whispered words. And so we arrived in the Devildesert. Apparently this was the only perfectly Sentient-free place at the time, and so the only place without spies. I had not realised I had a Spell Tag on me. So Zanba tracked us down. And I also forgot completely that each post-solstice evening, the March of Ebony came out from its home to cleanse the desert sands, ridding it of anything that did not belong. It was only Aegis' hollow cactus which saved us, in the essential second.”
“The March of Ebony cannot cut a cactus, as it is written in their law. They suck the roots of the cacti in their underground state, and believe them to be God's sending, preventing them from completely killing any cactus. All they can do is wither it with poison. The reason only one Ebony Minion came back out after Aegis sneezed is because that cactus was its food plant, and it was the only one with a duty to guard it. The Ebony Minions also become powered by any substance that kills a cactus. It's a simple life support mechanism. But they were placed there originally by none other than ChaosHarken. Long, long before he became known. Spreading seeds of hindrance and chaos around the world, quietly and unnoticeably, in the shadows, creating things that seemed natural to most, so that places should crumble from within. That's what happened to us in Aurelia. This is just one of the things that people have to face now, every day. But those crystals, I feel sure they will have a crucial role at the end of our journey. We are heading for a place hidden deep within the Jinx Jungle, the Shining Glade. It is said by the Earth Mother herself a long time ago that: “When the darkness in one's heart combined with bright shine in a heart made from darkness, the door to victory will open...” And I believe this means Seraphi's flaws will bond with Shadra's unusual kindness for someone made of darkness. Of course, I am sure you others would like to properly meet your mother? And Jiji was sort of obliged to come...”
A chorus of “yes” came from the small group, with what sounded suspiciously like a “stupid hag” from Jiji.
“And that is my tale. We have only to reach the nearest town, collect a map to reach Jinx Jungle, get to the Gully of Vatonage, which is quite near the jungle edge, and unlock the door to the Earth Mother. And...Then our world should be okay for a while. So, who's in?”
Everybody, this time, uttered cries of “Yes!”
“That's great, dears! I hope that long-winded story helped you all to understand a little better about the situation we are in and how we are going to solve it, then. But for now, what we all need is rest.”
And nobody disagreed.
Shadra took a while to take in the scene. Rolling, curved thornwhips branched out from the more neglected corners of the town. The main road appeared to have been manually cleared of thorny flora, but she could see tiny sprouts permeating the loamy grey soil. Small gatherings of people and Sentients were bunched around the shop doors, discussing their matters with one another. She noticed that almost all the Sentients had wings, and the normal people seemed to have wing-like structures strapped to their backs. The sleepy Shadra and the rest of the group moved down the street without uttering a word. And as they drew nearer to the end of the street, Shadra saw...a soaring expanse of thorny paradise, beyond which she could see a sprawling jungle scape. The jungle was divided from the thorns by a faint purple wall of light: the Sector Subdivider. From what she remembered from her escape journey so many years ago, he Subdivider marked transitions into new sectors, so people knew what to expect and when. When inside a Sector, you could not see your own Subdivider. The Superdivider marked important general areas and showed country borders, but only appeared if someone required it. And the Speciodivider marked areas housing a secret, but only if someone was aware a secret existed there or knew something about it.
“Shadra, come and get a better look!”
It was Seraphi, calling over. Shadra shook her head. Was she standing still? Her exhausted figure found the energy to run over to the end of the road. They were staring down a sheer cliff, seemingly in thought.
“Hey, ummm, have you noticed most of the people 'round here have wings? Maybe that's how to get over to the jungle. But couldn't we just ride a cloud or a wind from Yakatara?”
“Sadly, no, we cannot use Yakatara's abilities in this sector. All air-based magic has been banned in this part of the Sector, following multiple accidents with the inhabitants involving cliffs, air blasts, and forests full of giant thorns.” explained Jiji patiently.
“Oh. But what about those wings? Couldn't we just go and get some of those?” yawned Shadra.
“That's the problem. The materials to make them have been stolen.”
“Baku-Shan! Come in, Baku-Shan! Do you read me?”
ChaosHarken spoke angrily and impatiently, a steely edge of determination in its voice.
“Yes, master??? What may I have the honour of doing for you this pleasant day???”
ChaosHarken momentarily flickered in fury, a small segment of its black body appearing at the corner of the room before rejoining to the full body mass, shadows in the room shifting crazily.
“First of all, you may stop being so polite!!! And second of all, lure those infernal do-gooders to the warehouse! Have you already stored the wing materials?”
The beautiful woman nodded her head, her legs vanishing to reveal a ghostly figure, a crimson bow wrapped around its waist with what looked looked faintly like a dress underneath. Ice crystals protruded from her head and large beguiling eyes peered out of their empty sockets.
“Tee-hee, I have, Master. And soon, the whole party will be in your hands!” giggled the small icy spirit.
“Meanwhile, I will go and hide near the Gully of Vatonage. I must say, your ability to become untraceable has certainly come in handy. Information can be very useful....now I will conquer this planet for good!”
The dark mass vanished, but a strong acid stench lingered behind.
“What do we do?” despaired Azul.
The group had been searching town for leads all day to find a safe way to get to Jinx Jungle, with no success. The wing materials were well hidden, and nobody was allowed to lend wings without a permit. Zhuqia had managed to procure a Jinx Jungle map and some insect repellent, but no matter where they searched, no answers were to be found. As they sat in a cafe sipping steaming thorn-berry tea wondering, Baba's knowledge reduced to guesswork at this stage and Jiji reduced to a grumbling heap, an amazingly beautiful woman strode into the building and approached the table.
“Lena Leggings, Town Investigator. Heard you were searching for the missing wing materials? Well, I've had a lead on 'em, and if you want, I can take you to them. Then it'll be easy for you to make some wings at the Wing Centre. So? Up for it? Tee-hee...”
The woman let out a small giggle and winked.
“Yes! Yes! We will! Most certainly!” said Jiji in a somewhat mechanised voice.
“Schmuck...”muttered Baba under her breath.
“I don't think we should....” replied a concerned Aegis, trying to draw attention away from Jiji's theatrics.
“Yes we will!” countered Jiji angrily.
“My gracious....” sighed Baba exasperatedly, resigned to her husband's behaviour.
But they decided to go anyway, thinking that perhaps they would be able to get going faster. Because if ChaosHarken got there first....
The lady called Lena led the party through a few small, thorn-choked streets towards what looked like a wall of thick unduk bushes.
“That's just a bunch of unduk plants, isn't it?” asked Yakatara curiously.
“I don't think so...” butted in Aegis before Lena could respond. “I think they're simply concealing a building. Unduk's pretty soft and easy to move, but it springs easily back into place if you move it. It's probably an abandoned building that has been choked by the unduk. Someone has probably used it to store all the wing materials.”
“Well, yes, that's what I was going to say...tee-hee...”
“Can we go in??” queried Azul. “Is it safe??”
“Of course, dear! Here, let me open the door for you...hee...”
Lena stepped through the wall of what looked like thorny, tufted vines, but the thorns seemed to inflict little in the way of pain, as Lena stood inside the shroud of weeds for quite some time, fiddling with the lock. After a time, she drifted backwards a little to gesture them inside.
“In we go! Come on now! Tee-hee...”
“.....incessant giggling.......” grumbled Baba.
“Why! Thank! You! My! Fair! Lady! It! Is! So! Kind!” emphasised Jiji, striking each word with force.
“....scungefuddler....” fumed Baba in frustration.
Jiji bounded into the old building like a baby lamb on a farm. He was followed nervously by Zhuqia, Yakatara, Aegis and Baba. Seraphi pretended to fiddle with her hair, but in fact had planted a small orb of light inside the building frame, hidden by a stray strand of unduk that had decided to meander into the warehouse. Putting on a nervous face, Seraphi slowly padded into the building, and Shadra followed behind her, obviously feeling nervous too, as she surreptitiously stuck a small black triangle into what looked like the outer wall, but could have been a nursery, and then she too walked into the centre of the room, thorns forcing their way through every available crack.
“Oh, where is that other girl, then?” asked Lena in a somewhat forceful voice.
“Oh, sorry, I was just admiring the plants.” murmured Azul dreamily, emerging from the thick cover of weeds and batting her eyelashes.
“Oh, good, then!” smiled Lena very brightly. “Step inside!”
“Okay! Thanks, Ms. Lena! You have a lovely dress, by the way! Love the colour!”
Lena blushed, pushing the door closed behind her.
“I think those are the wing materials over there, Ms. Lena,” said Azul, pointing vaguely at a massive pile of down, feathers, glue, wood, thin fabric and leaf covering.
“Well, I was right! Shall we make some wings, then? Much more fun manually! I'll just spell-proof the room! Tee-hee...” smirked the woman claiming to be Lena, squirting a blue gas into the air. A grey coating stuck to the walls and the room darkened slightly.
“Wha....you fiend! I thought you liked me!” spluttered Jiji.
“How gross! Old men like you mean nothing to me, the ever-youthful, super-sneaky Baku-Shan....tee-hee...”
Lena seemed to be undergoing a transformation. Her legs sank into her body, the dress became smaller and a crimson bow tied itself around the waist. Her face became rounded, ice crystals sticking out her snow-white head. Large eyes that seemed to scan the room peered from empty dark sockets, glowing in the black holes like the eyes of a cat. Bejewelled arms of snow shot out of her strangely shaped ice figure, with three small fingers on the tips. And holes that showed nothing but darkness spread over her body, pieces of flesh disappearing before everybody's eyes. While she still looked beautiful, there was now an impish glint in her ghostly eyes.
“How did I guess?” yelled Shadra angrily. “Baba, how could you be taken in?”
“I wasn't. I wanted to set the Baku-Shan's spirit free so she can become normal again, a normal Yaku-Ban frostghost sprite once more.”
“Why didn't you tell us?” asked Zhuqia angrily.
“Because we couldn't have her know we knew who she was!”
“Not your most convincing act, was it?” asked Jiji.
Nobody spoke, but everyone stared at him. The Baku-Shan broke the silence.
“I counted on you to drag me here, you lovesick old hound! I knew some of you would notice who I was! Though it seems that Aegis, Yakatara, Zhuqia and Azul did not. The four youngest. I checked their minds, they hadn't a clue. How tragic to send them to ChaosHarken right now. Shadra, want to be reunited with your Papa? Or is it Mama? I could never tell under that writhing shroud of darkness. What is that revolting-smelling thing “under the hood”, so to speak. I may be indebted and tied to the ChaosHarken, but I will say this: it is not what it looks like. Nobody knows what lies within, and only a misshapen purple face protrudes from his cover......tee-hee...... So I couldn't tell you who it really is. And since it wiped your memory of it, you will never know who it is. But enough of this talking! Some action would be better, I think. Make-up? No? Then how about this? A little bit of frame-freezing might help immobilise you. Then I can easily send you to the boss with me. Unlike Zanba, my ways of doing things rely on me, and me alone....tee-hee...hee...heeee....”
Azul's face showed a vacant expression. What was wrong with her? Seraphi was concentrating on the small yellow orb she had planted. Spell-proofing did not erase spells and magic already there.
“By the way, I am free to use magic, wherever I may be... Upside of being a spirit, I guess. Now for your makeovers....tee-hee.....”
Her oddly haunting voice clashed with her speech style a lot, observed Azul. But it didn't seem to be the only thing. While being a spirit, she looked to assume physical form normally. So if surprised, she could be attacked. Obviously, as they could not move their arms or legs from her spirit-bind, Azul could not cast proper magic, and the room was spell-proof anyway. Instead, she focused her mind to become blocked, imprinting a false thought of shoes and lollipops into her mind. Azul was a highly accomplished Neurostal, and able to resist mind-reading and perception of thoughts. Not the ditz Baku-Shan took her for.
“I'm freezing your frames....now!”
The icy blast instantly trapped Jiji and, surprisingly, Baba too. Shadra's clothes seemed to be ice-proof, but when a shadow was cast over her, she did not even blink in response...or was not blinking...Aegis appeared unharmed, but the powdered snow snap-froze him into a block of ice a moment after. Zhuqia's body heat was repeatedly thawing the ice, but as he could not use arms, legs, or spells, he was totally susceptible to shadow binding. Seraphi froze over thinly, but not before an unnoticed yellow orb exploded in the air, burning all the gas in the room. The spell-proof gas gone, Seraphi instantly broke her icy prison and very quickly focused an orb of light into the face of the stunned Baku-Shan. Shadra appeared to have had her shadow bind removed by the shadow she had been “held” in, and quickly ran to the door, picking up the small black item she had previously dropped. Pressing a button, she hastily ran back to her shadow “prison” and leapt in, narrowly missed by a small dark blob from Baku-Shan. The others were still unable to act, all except Azul. Inside a block of ice, she focused her mind extremely hard, her brain bursting at the folds, and sent a massive deluge of water at the Baku-Shan, shattering the ice explosively as it went.
“That water had sea lice in it, by the way...Oh right, <tee-hee>.”
Azul sounded triumphant.
The Baku-Shan smiled and vanished into thin air. But the sea lice somehow remained on her body, perhaps converted to spirit form as well. Azul told Seraphi to throw an orb straight after she threw some water.
“On cue...one, two, three!”
Azul sent the water flying. The Baku-Shan, in spirit form, simply ignored it, but changed back into a more tangible form, and could not evade the following orb of light.
“You won't get me that easily!” cried the Baku-Shan, getting out her spell-proofing gas. But it simply got blasted by another sphere of light from Seraphi and exploded in her hand.
“Oh no...tee-hee...” cried Baku-Shan. “Make for the walls!”
They could all see the piles of oceanic lice drop off her body as she entered the wall, a ball of ice flying from a brick to strike them, which nearly met its targets. Shadra hastily cracked open the others prisons, except for Zhuqia's, detroyed by a small light ray of Seraphi's.
“Now, destroy the walls! Brute tactics!” yelled Azul angrily.
“She won't have left! She has to take us with her, you know!”
Everyone threw their specific magics at different parts of the walls, which bent and busted in some places.
“Sturdy place.” someone mumbled.
Suddenly, one wall brittled and froze. A moment later, a massive wave of ice exploded through the room, freezing up even Zhuqia, whose heat merely made a patch of air inside the giant block. Baku-Shan floated through the wall to meet them.
“Well, I suppose you can't get out now....tee-hee....no ordinary ice at all. Now, where is it? Oh, here it is! My Transportation Crystal. As she held it up to the light, a sense of despair coursed through Azul's frozen veins.
Always the quiet one, standing on the sidelines, was it the best for me? I just ruin things, never connect and bring things together, no matter how calm I am....
Azul figured out what had to happen. The crystals of Seraphi and Shadra's needed to connect!
Come on, mind! Make some hot water for me! Now!
A little hiss issued from the giant ice cube as a few droplets of boiling water made contact with the numbing ice. Azul saw Baku-Shan tap her crystal, and then everything went black.
When Aegis awoke, he noticed that everyone was still in a giant, unmelting cube of ice. But they were no longer inside the Thornforest Sector. He could see trees and vines in the distance, blurred through the ice he was encased in, and trickles of water distorted his vision as the ice slowly melted around him.
A stream of hot water poured into Aegis' air bubble, but cooled down as soon as it came through. More and more hot water appeared to be making a tunnel, and then he saw Azul crawl through.
“We have to get out of here now! Baku-Shan is going to take us to ChaosHarken if we don't hurry! But we are really close to the Gully of Vatonage, because that map we all read earlier shows the Gully of Vatonage is right next to the Chamber of Citrus, where we are now. I've been rearranging the water molecules in the ice, but this enchanted ice-cube is a tough one to crack! Can I get you to help? I know there's no soil or rock in here, but if you focus, you could probably crack the cube from outside. I'll send hot water through as well, to speed it up. Please? Just concentrate hard. I'll give you a clear view with my Water Window.”
Azul made a sheet of light appear between her fingers.
Aegis could suddenly see a bricked hallway styled with ancient material outside the ice-cube. He concentrated extremely hard on a jagged piece of the ceiling. Sweat beads trickled down his forehead as he expended his energy in an attempt to force his control through the ice. Without warning, a small chip fell off the ceiling ornament, and the whole thing went plummeting towards the ground.
Just before the ornamental piece hit the ground, it curved straight back up in an arch, its jagged edge piercing the durable giant ice-cube and sending fissures through the exterior. Azul could see Zhuqia with a fist in the air through the hazy ice, slowly melting his way through. Another smash drove the brick piece further into the ice, creating more fissures and enlarging ones that were already there. A third push, sent a huge hunk of ice crashing to the ground, freeing Zhuqia, who tumbled out and immediately began torching the fissures with fire.
“Quick! They'll have heard!”
Aegis broke a chunk of wall off with sheer determination, still looking through the Water Window, willing it it to strike the ice. And it did. With a resounding crash, massive blocks of ice cracked apart and crashed into the ground with deafening crunches. Aegis jumped out of his ice fragment with Azul as the small hole caved in behind them. Yakatara came spinning over, with Baba, Jiji, Shadra and Seraphi following behind.
“Quick! We have to get out now! Baku-Shan and ChaosHarken will have heard us by now! Quick!” shrilled Azul urgently.
“The Gully of Vatonage is just ten minutes south. We must make haste and unlock the door that will restore this world to health! All of you play an important role. The four element children, Seraphi, the heir, Shadra the malcreated dark slave made by ChaosHarken itself, I, the one who raised and guided you, and Jiji, who, uh........is a devout husband and loves me very much!” spoke Baba.
And they all raced off, hearts a-pounding
“They've escaped! Explain how!”
“I don't know....my incompetence...tee-hee....my beauty exploded the ice cube?”
“DO NOT BE IMPERTINENT WITH ME!”
“Now, we shall both go, on foot, after those pets. They are so close.....This journey is over for them, or us. At least you have a previous form to revert to if you get killed. NOW, HURRY! It has been too long since I met the old woman, the angel girl, the Element Children, the pesky old wart and...I finally see how my daughter is growing...But if those crystals are not reclaimed immediately, we have failed...”
Baku-Shan glimpsed a flicker of sadness and resignation flicker over ChaosHarken's ugly, antennaed face. Just the shadows?
They hurried after the others as quickly as they dared.
A short while after escaping certain doom, the octet of adventurers arrived in front of a blank and shiny cliff with a white line running through the middle. Six symbols were engraved on the door: an ember, a rock with a blade of grass, a gust symbol with a thundercloud, a drop of water, a halo with a crystal and....Baba did not ever know this......a heart silhouette with a devil's fork behind it, and another crystal. If they had not met Shadra, the ChaosHarken would have perished, but because they had, they had come all the way here...but perhaps Shadra would have been sure to appear anyway....Baba tried to think straight. Zhuqia, Azul, Aegis and Yakatara were each streaming flames, water jets, pebble volleys and streams of wind respectively at each of the four symbols they interpreted to be their own. All four lit up at once, the brilliant shine playing across the trees. ChaosHarken could not be far away now....but how to react the crystals.....Seraphi and Shadra had been pressed close together on that small cloud to the Transfield, and they had frozen the guards...on the small cloud over the desert, the cloud had mysteriously sped up, even without Yakatara's assistance. Maybe it was.....their hearts! When their hearts were touched together, the crystals reacted to the impurities in each of their opposites …
“Shadra, Seraphi, to open this door, you need to....touch hearts! Hug each other! Now! And hold it! It's the key to the Shining Glade!”
Shadra and Seraphi gasped, but did as they were told. As the rest of them watched in astonishment, small sparkles of light and dark began to radiate from their middles, where the crystals were hidden. As they watched, the sparkles became a shine, then a glow, and then, the whole gully exploded with rays of darkness and holiness which seemed to combine to form a brilliant purple colour which engulfed the entire area. And then, they heard the doors creak open.
As Seraphi and Shadra released their embrace, they noticed the whole gully sparkled with something whole and complete. Something whole and pure. Rushing after the others, they emerged onto a large dais with a single sentence engraved on it: Here needs to be someone with a purest heart.
“None of us have pure hearts, do we? We were told by Baba at the campfire.” said a confused and still slightly dazed Zhuqia.
“But Zhuqia and Seraphi are like ying-yang, balancing out each other's flaws. Right?”
“There is room for one on that central Circle, not two.”
A large writhing mass of dark power appeared from the gateway.
The large twisting, squirming black body that seemed to engulf the ChaosHarken was terrible to behold, being pure darkness itself. A small antennaed purple face was moving near the centre of the behemoth figure.
“I am the ChaosHarken, supreme ruler of Malmillenia and leader of the Dark Descent. Bow before me or pay the price. NOW!”
Everyone did, forced down by an invisible power.
“I have chased you since I heard of your identities from that idiot Zanba. Now freed, I have one less servant and no supreme warrior. Because of you! You eluded the Ebony March, not to mention escaped from my prison! You destroyed my converted horse warrior. You tramped through a thorn forest. Nearly escaped Baku-Shan, and then since transported here, managed to succeed! BUT IN THE PAST! You Element Children, Earth Mother's only hope, to keep her alive in hiding! Seraphi, the rightful contender for throne if your mother dies! Which she refuses to DO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Screwing up my life since you entered Shadra's! At the orphanage, when you began visiting my already imperfect creation's new home and permeating her room with kindness, despite the fact she hid from you! And you, Baba, caring for each and every one of them, raising and TEACHING THEM??? Secretly speaking with the Earth Mother, who directed your very fate! And Shadra, who I created to become my heir should I be killed as I NEVER die! You became tainted with happiness as a baby, and grew with a spark of hope inside you. Disliking me, running from me, and then absorbing the kindness of others! But I followed you all that time, unable to hurt you, instead having to plan the whole world carefully, for fear of being recognised. Hundreds of years ago, I was never wanted. It tore my heart. And now, I still have NEVER BEEN WANTED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOW I WILL KILL YOU ALL AND DESTROY THE EARTH MOTHER'S HAVEN!”
And then something clicked in the face of ChaosHarken that made Shadra simply say:
ChaosHarken's eyes widened. His darkness writhed all around him (for it was now definitely confirmed as to who it was) and slowly vanished, each time sending stabbing pain through his body. Slowly, the darkness dissipated, and when it was all gone, they stood over the small, bright purple body of a Stinkbug Sentient from Baja's orphanage.
“What? Where am I? Shadra? Is that you? Oh, I feel so sore...I will surely die soon....but wait...I will briefly explain to you of this sudden event...”
“Stinkbug Sentients never grow old. They die only through injury, murder, sickness, and similar complaints. I have been alive hundreds of years. Growing up, I was pushed from my own home. Nobody wanted me. So I brooded, tainting my untouched heart, and wished for the ability to not care about others. It was granted, and a small tuft of darkness clumped on my heart and body. As time went by, it spread, and I became bitter and twisted, unable to control myself. My heart was almost fully evil. Before I lost all conscious thought, I wanted to create something that would want me. But nobody ever wanted me...She felt the happiness in the air when she went outside, and the kindness from the winds that blew pollen of flowers into her little nose. She eventually became so distraught with repression she ran away with nothing but a plush doll, a treasured crystal I picked up the same day I met darkness, and a ninja bag she found at a dump. The next day I woke up, I could not control the darkness, losing all control. All I remember is storing it inside and chasing her to Baja's orphanage, pretending to be a normal Stinkbug. Once there, my darkness plotted a way to take total control. Nobody could not want me if I ruled them, I thought. I vanished every night to wherever my darkness took me, sowing seeds of evil and destruction. This...went on for years, until I became confident enough in my corrupt shell to launch the Dark Descent. Start with the most significant building in the world. I tried to kill Seraphi's mother, but her holiness levels prevented it. I could not even get close. My servants put her in a torture chamber and left it at that. But I only became like that because my heart was pure and weak. Humans have strong hearts to absorb the flaws they find in the world. But I had no will or strength, and so that one very bitter feeling overtook me. But now I know...someone wanted me, after all. You, Shadra. Seraphi and Shadra, your complete opposites have made this world a better place. I will die soon. Baku-Shan's pure form will be found unconscious outside this temple. But before I perish and remove the curse from my followers and the world, I think my pure heart needs to be placed in the center ring first. Thankyou, everyone. You have spared the world a horrid fate through the power of the heart and brain. Remember what vatonage means: for darkness inside a heart to be reawakened. No heart should ever be perfect, but you must always, always guard it, or you, too may end up like me. Goodbye, and thankyou.”
Crying horribly and happily, Shadra and Seraphi carried Stinky onto the centre circle. And with a small twitch, he died.
The walls split apart to radiate a pure purple light the same as Seraphi and Shadra's combined hearts had produced. And then a large female figure drifted out.
“Good afternoon,” said the Earth Mother. “You have all been so brave and faithful, and so strong to get here. And my darlings have been cared for well, I see. Thankyou for that too. But first, come and have a drink. We have an awful lot of fixing up to do tomorrow.”
And they walked along the room, to a new beginning.