Myst dropped to her knees, pressing her hand lightly against Flare’s face, staring at the boy’s depleted expression. She reached out, lifting the fiery youth’s head from the ground, cradling it in her lap as she ran a hand over his forehead. He was incredibly warm, and a thin layer of moisture was soaking his skin. He really had forced the water from his body, and then expended even more fluid pinning The Blue Priest. His level of dehydration was undeniable and dangerous – nearly lethal. They didn’t have much time to act.
“Ivy!” The nymph spun her head upward, finding the green-haired girl crouched beside her, already reaching for her sword. There was no need to say anything more as the tomboy gently placed the tip of the Thorn Cutter to the redhead’s chest, the blades bending out to restore the teen’s spent stamina.
“That boy is crazy.”
Myst turned her eyes from the warm, healing glow of the Mystic Blade toward the somber expression of The Blue Priest, finding the man had sat up and was now staring intently at Flare.
“Crazy seems to work for him.” Frost responded first, shrugging, seemingly indifferent to the state of his exhausted companion. “You gotta be careful around him, too, because his crazy is contagious.”
“I think I’m beginning to see that.” The Blue Priest cracked a smile, but it held no disappointment or malice this time. It seemed warm – inviting – completely different from moments ago when he had made himself out to be their enemy.
“You intend to keep your word, then?” The nymph questioned, dubious about the priest’s sudden change of heart.
“I gave my word.” The man in blue nodded, showing her a friendly smile. “Besides… I think I can trust that boy, at the very least. If he says he’ll win, I can be sure he’ll at least do everything in his power to make it happen.”
“So you think we can win?” Ivy questioned the man, turning her focus from healing as Flare began to recover, shifting slightly where he lay.
“Heavens, no.” The Blue Priest chuckled, shaking his head. “I think The Serpent will destroy you all, honestly.”
“Then why?” Myst questioned, looking down at Flare as the boy moved his head in her lap. He was beginning to come to.
“Because I believe that boy believes you can.” The Blue Priest focused in on Flare as the redhead’s eyes began to open. “And, for some reason, I can’t help but believe in that boy.”
“I get that a lot.”
Flare coughed lightly, grinning as he opened his eyes, looking at the group gathered around him. The redhead quickly turned his head down, staring at the vine-like blades that seemed to be penetrating his chest and the strange ethereal glow that was emanating from them. He was beginning to be very glad the tomboy had come with them.
“So what now, then?” Frost asked, giving the redhead a small grin and a quick glance before turning back to the priest. “We’ve got your blessing, I guess, but we still don’t know where the hell The Serpent is.”
“She’s right below us.” The Blue Priest pushed himself to his feet as he replied, turning his eyes down to the spongy surface on which they all stood.
“Then this is The Serpent’s Lair.” Flare responded, lifting an arm to nudge Ivy’s sword away. It resisted for a moment before the twin blades released him and rejoined above his chest.
“Yes.” The Blue Priest nodded. “When The Serpent rose to power, she began her tyranny by sinking the ancient capital of Kumari Kandam in order to make it her lair. This city that stretches out around us – the entire thing is The Serpent’s Lair. But she spends most of her time in the central palace, upon which we are now perched.”
“So how do we get inside?” Myst questioned, turning to look at the strange ‘island’ once more. They had already searched the entire surface of the area and found nothing to suggest a passage anywhere. Despite that, though, The Blue Priest had emerged from some unseen crevice, which suggested there was something they missed.
“Only those with the ability to control and manipulate water can enter or leave.” The Blue Priest explained, lowering his eyes to the ground. “I, myself, cannot make the entrance appear. I must always wait for The Serpent to grant me passage. But as I understand it…”
The Blue Priest lifted his gaze from the ground, turning it to the blue-haired girl who still crouched on the floor, meeting her eyes.
“You have such an ability.”
Myst simply nodded her response, not needing words to confirm the statement. Once more, she was reminded of her magic powers. And once more, those powers were no longer a burden to her.
“Then I guess we know what we’ve got to do.” Flare lifted himself from Myst’s lap, sitting upright as he stretched. He could still feel a bit of reluctance in his body to move – his muscles still wanted to rest. But he had no time to abide by their complaints. They would just have to persevere and overcome, same as he did.
“I know I’ve said it before,” Ivy spoke up, sighing as she turned her eyes to the floor, “but are we sure we’re ready for this?”
“Do we really have a choice?” Frost countered, shrugging once more, still acting entirely indifferent to the situation surrounding him. “We’re here, now. There’s really not much else to do.”
“Frost’s right.” Myst agreed, nodding as she pushed herself to her feet. “We’re here already. Now’s the time to act.”
“Are you sure?” Ivy replied, reluctant. “You just fought the Sentry. And Flare just nearly killed himself fighting The Blue Priest. Plus, his sword is still dormant!”
“Like I said,” Flare stated, forcing himself to stand as well, “my sword will be ready when we need it.”
“I say let’s do this!” Frost shouted, stretching. “I’m getting tired of just standing around and talking!”
“Then I suppose I’ll leave you all to it.”
The group paused, turning to look at The Blue Priest as the man spoke.
“All I can do for you four is simply wish you luck, and remind you that the lives of thousands are resting on your success.”
“No pressure.” Frost groaned, sighing to himself.
“No worries.” Flare beamed a smile, stretching slightly as he slid his sword back into its sheath. “I’ll make you the same promise I made them: I won’t lose.”
“Let’s hope you’re a man of your word, then.” The Blue Priest grinned, nodding.
“So how do we do this, then?” Frost questioned, turning his gaze to the spongy surface below.
“Let me try something...”
Myst stood as she spoke, no longer needing to support the flame warrior. The nymph strode further on to the island, sliding past The Blue Priest as the eyes of her companions on that island turned to follow. She paused after separating herself from the group, lowering her eyes to the ground, curious if her theory was right. The blue-haired mage closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath as she pointed a palm toward the land in front of her, pushing one thought through her mind:
Part the water.
The island was quick to respond, if one could truly call it that. The spongy ground began to become discolored as it was forcibly dried, the water and dampness flowing away from where the nymph focused her power. A moment later, the arid stain crumbled away, creating a small depression in the surface of the island.
Myst opened her eyes, breathing out as she stared down at the burgeoning hole she had created. A small smile curled at the corners of her mouth, a sense of accomplishment building within her. A proud expression coating her mug, Myst turned her grin to her friends, nodding.
“I've got it.”
“So wait...” Frost strode forward cautiously, curiously staring at the small depression. “This place is made of water?”
“At the very least, something water based.” Myst responded, uncertain herself.
“Don't really care much for the how or the why,” Flare spoke up, moving over to the hole himself, “just as long as it works!”
“I'm just gonna say this once more: I still think this is a bad idea – we should at least wait until your sword is powered back up!” Ivy turned her eyes toward her flame-headed companion, casting worry upon him with a preoccupied look.
“It's fine.” Flare took another step forward, dropping into the depression Myst had created. “Let’s just go!”
“Myst...?” the tomboy turned her concerned gaze to the nymph, frowning, looking for support in the matter.
“She's probably right.” Myst agreed, turning her attention toward the fiery youth. “We should wait.”
“No need.” Flare sighed, lifting a hand to his sword. Clasping down on the hilt, his back to the group, Flare gently slid a portion of the blade from its cover, revealing a fire-like appearance of the weapon had returned.
“Your sword!” Flare finished by sliding the weapon back in place, sealing it back in the sheath as Myst spoke.
“When did...?” Ivy began to question the teen, then sighed and shook her head. “Never mind. Let's just go then...”
“My thoughts exactly!” Frost shouted, leaping into the same hole Flare was standing in. “Let's just get down there already!”
“Fine, fine.” Ivy sighed, reluctantly moving over to join her companions in the small dent in the ground. “I still don't like this, though...”
“Objections noted.” Flare grinned, turning to nod at Myst. “Let’s go!”
The nymph nodded, though she couldn't say that – on some level – she didn't feel the same way Ivy did about the whole scenario. They were about to confront a beast powerful enough to rule the Water Realm for ten thousand years uncontested – this was nothing to scoff at. Gritting her teeth, she lowered her eyes and extended her powers, slowly causing all of them to descend. Ready or not, they were going.
The Blue Priest stood to the side, staring as the strange group lowered, only the girl with green hair taking a moment to look back. The rest stayed focused – eyes glued to the ground that slowly pulled itself from beneath their feet. He still held his own doubts about this outcome – about whether or not letting these children face The Serpent was the best choice. But as he stared down, eyes trained on the fiery mane of the warrior he had faced in battle, he decided to put his trust in them – to believe in them. After all, he didn't have much other choice in the matter. Whether he liked it or not, as he watched the roof reform over the descending children, blocking his view of the flame-like hair, there was little else he could do.
Ivy gripped nervously at her own arm, staring down at the retreating substance beneath her feet, trying to summon up the same courage she had had when she had fought Medusa. Somehow, against the odds, she had overcome that obstacle in their path all on her own. Now she wasn't alone – she had Flare, and Myst, and Frost at her side – but somehow, she still felt uneasy. Everyone they had met in this realm had thought them crazy to stand against The Serpent. Even when they had eventually given in and let them proceed, none of them had actually stated they thought their group could win. They all just seemed to give up arguing with them – fighting with them. In the end, the only one she could think of that actually thought they not only could but would win was Flare.
The tomboy turned her gaze toward that teen's wild mane of red hair. She wondered where he got his confidence from. How did he always manage to be so certain about everything? She couldn't be sure. She wasn't sure she would ever understand, but she remembered him saying the people of his realm – the Fire Realm – always stood and fought. Perhaps that was why. Sighing she turned her head back down, waiting for their descent into The Serpent's Lair to end.
“How much longer?” Frost moaned, seeming to echo Ivy's own thoughts. “What the heck is up with this ceiling? How thick—”
The fool was cut off as the building itself answered him in its own way, the ground beneath them suddenly giving out to an empty space. The Bladewarriors hollered, screaming as their support vanished and their bodies entered freefall. The group flailed their limbs helplessly as the air rushed past them, giving way a moment later to a rather solid chunk of floor. The teenagers struck the surface with a resounding thud, followed soon after by a series of painful moans.
“So you’ve finally arrived…”
None of the four even had a moment to collect themselves after striking the ground before that sinister feminine voice filled the air around them, resonating off the arched dome that hung above them and the ornate walls and pillars that surrounded them. Ivy lifted her head quickly, the carefully veiled malice of those reverberating words sending a shiver down her spine. The tomboy’s blue eyes did not need to search for long before they fell upon the wicked elegance that was The Serpent. But it was as Ivy’s pupils focused in on the humanoid beast that fear began to swell within her chest. It was not the malicious grin that coated The Creature’s face, though, or the umbrage that filled the monster’s gaze that gave the tomboy unrest. It was the sight that lay beyond her.
“What is this…?”
Ivy could hear Myst’s disconcerted inquiry, but could not take her eyes off the scene that was plastered upon the wall behind The Serpent.
“I wasn’t sure if you all were going to make it.” The beast’s grin twisted wider as she turned fully to face them, having herself been absorbed in the atrocity beyond. Despite the viciousness of her expression, her words came out cheerful and light, as if she were meeting a new friend. “The Blue Priest had seemed sure he would be able to turn you away. In all honesty, though, I must say I’m rather glad he failed to. I wanted a chance to meet you all.”
“What the hell are you doing…?”
Anger seemed to power Flare’s words as the redhead responded to that sight as well, finding yet another response in combination with Ivy’s shock and Myst’s confusion.
“To be honest, I never thought you all would live quite this long.” The Serpent ignored the boy’s question, slowly beginning to move toward them as she descended from the raised partition on which she was standing, slowly walking down the few steps that led up to it.
“I was sure it had been a fluke when I heard you all had turned away the Sentry at Sentinel Bay.” The monster continued, her beguiling beauty becoming more apparent as she approached. “And then I heard one of you managed to best The Black Priest in combat! Impressive.”
The Serpent raised her hands, beginning a slow, unnerving clap as her smile twisted further, her eyes glaring at the group.
“So, of course, I sent Medusa to gather you all. Warriors with such power – I had to meet them!” The Serpent let out a laugh as she came to a stop, directly in the center of the room, and now much closer to the group of Bladewarriors that had fallen into her lair. “But then you went and killed my little Medusa.”
The forced air of levity the beast had been displaying began to fade as she continued.
“You all look too young to be parents, so I won’t bother to ask if you know what it’s like to lose a child.” The Serpent dropped her hands to her side, her glare intensifying. “But you little brats didn’t stop there, did you? No, you went and killed my darling Sentry next! You little monsters!”
“I don’t understand…”
Myst’s words echoed out once more, eyes still glued to the spectacle at the other end of the room.
“You don’t understand…?” The beast clenched her hands into fists, narrowing her eyes further, until they were almost closed, as if to focus the rage dwelling there into an intense beam of hatred. “You killed my babies. You took away my family. What is there to not understand!?”
Myst clenched her hands into tight fists, baring her teeth as she stared at the distant wall, eyeing the blood that marred its otherwise pristine, blue surface.
“Why is my father here!?”
It was the question that they had all been wondering as they stared at the distant slab of blue, perched just before the corner of the realms magical barrier, the glow from the distant mystic boundary casting an ominous red glow across the room. Strapped to that blue obelisk was the first man their group had met in that realm – Calder. The nymph’s eyes focused in on the man’s bloody face as he hung almost lifelessly from that wall, his head hung down, his chest soaked in blood. A constant almost rhythmic dripping sound echoed out from that corner as the crimson liquid slowly fell and pooled at the man’s feet.
“So many reasons!” The Serpent bellowed, spinning around to face the dying man. “He was the one to tell me of your blade, you know. Told me exactly where I could find you, too. Told me to kill you and rid the world of a ‘monster’.”
The Serpent cackled shaking her head as she began to walk back toward that man.
“Ironic that he would ask me to slay a monster, isn’t it?” The Serpent sighed, climbing back onto the platform. “Also says a lot about how he feels about you.”
Myst was silent, unsurprised by her father’s lack of love for her.
“So I thought, ‘surely he’d be willing to help me find you again’.” The Serpent lifted a hand, sliding the back of her palm gently across Calder’s cheek as he let out a low groan. “But when I asked… he refused.”
“Humans do not refuse me.” The Serpent spun her head quickly, shooting the group a menacing glare. “So I decided to teach him a lesson. But while instructing him, he taught me something. Do you know what that is?”
“I don’t care.” Myst spat back, pushing herself to her feet as she matched stares with the beast. “Just leave him out of this.”
“Leave him out?” The Creature of the Gods repeated the phrase with bewilderment, astonished by the words flowing from the girl’s mouth. The beast was curious – intrigued by the response – but she had a point to make before she sought an answer to that inquiry.
“Can’t do that.” The Serpent replied, shaking her head. “Because he taught me something interesting. He taught me that there was a force in this realm that he feared more than myself – something I didn’t believe possible, but something that is the case, nonetheless. Aren’t you curious what that is!?”
“Not in the slightest.” The nymph replied, her friends rising beside her.
“Well I’m going to tell you anyway.” The Serpent replied haughtily, turning her eyes from the blue-haired girl to the boy standing beside her – the warrior with the burning gaze. “That boy.”
Flare made no effort to respond as the beast lifted a finger to point him out. With his eyes narrowed, he simply continued to glare in the direction of the mythic beast standing before them.
“A Flamian child!” The Serpent screamed, obviously infuriated by the very idea.
“I still don’t care!” Myst shouted back, reaching down to draw out her saber. “Just let him go!”
“Let him go?” The Serpent repeated the phrase with the same sense of curiosity as she had a moment earlier. “Darling… you almost sound like you care about that man. Didn’t you try to kill him?”
“I did…” Myst’s expression was stern and stoic as she replied, unflinchingly meeting the curious gaze of The Serpent. “To be honest, there’s a part of me that’s happy to see him like this.”
The nymph felt the redhead’s gaze fall upon her, if only for a moment, as if judging her for what she had just said, but the boy didn’t say anything.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he deserves whatever it is you’ve done here, but…” Myst paused, trailing off as she shifted her glance from the serpentine beast to the man slightly behind her. The bastard’s head was still hung low, his dark hair hiding his face from view. If not for the periodic, weak moans that escaped the man’s throat, she might have mistaken him for a corpse the way he was covered in blood and hanging limp.
“But…” Myst repeated the word again, eyes studying the frail being strapped to the wall, memories of everything he had done to her flashing through her mind. She searched for a reason for why she was stopping The Serpent – a reason why she was demanding the man be spared. Certainly, she had more than enough motive to egg his torture on, rather than halt his suffering. Despite that, though, as she looked at the pitiful man collapsed upon that wall, something about the scene upset her. She had no rational explanation for it. She just knew what she was looking at was wrong. Even if the bastard deserved it – even if he was a loathsome lout who’d earned all the pain that was and would be inflicted upon him by this beast – she still couldn’t allow it.
“But… I still won’t let you do it.” Myst shifted her gaze back to the menacing glare of The Serpent, watching the corner of the monstrosity’s mouth curl into a wicked smile.
“You act as if you have the power to stop me.” The Serpent cackled once more, throwing her fist backward, slamming it into Calder’s stomach. The near lifeless man reacted vigorously, springing to life with surprising energy as he let out an agonizing scream, writhing against the wall. “Who do you think you are? Ilayda?”
“Stop it!” Myst screamed, taking a single step forward as she raised her sword threateningly before her. “I mean it!”
“Little nymph… humans do not refuse me…” The Serpent pulled her hand forward again before slamming it back with even greater force. “And they do not give me orders!”
“Consider it a last request, then.”
Myst turned her head to the side, staring at the firm expression plastered across Flare’s face as the redhead glared forward at the Creature of the Gods.
“A last request?” The Serpent’s laughter echoed through the vast chamber they stood in, filling every empty space. “You ask for a last request when you’ve come to try and kill me? Has it not been your voice and conviction that’s convinced so many to betray me!? And now you ask for a piece of solace to comfort you in your last moments? Have all your words been but pompous flaunts? Empty promises?”
“You misunderstood. What I meant was: think of it as the last request you’ll ever have the pleasure of granting.”
The reverberations of the beast’s cackle died quickly as the monstrous woman’s flippancy quickly evaporated, replaced by a furious glare that fired across the room like a focused jet of steam. The Serpent felt her fists tighten, the incredulousness of this boy invoking an anger she had long since forgotten she was capable of.
“You seem to hold yourself in high regard, boy.” The Serpent hissed, rage seeming to spill from her words.
“Not so much.” Flare countered, shaking his head gently as he lifted a hand, clasping his palm around the hilt of the sword strapped to his back. “I just hold you in a particularly low one.”
“Insolent—“ The Serpent screamed out before cutting herself off, tempering her anger as her hands shook with fury. “You would do well not to anger me, child, or you may regret your words very shortly.”
“There may be things in life that I regret, but the words I’ve said to you are not among them. Even if I die, I’ll be happy if I at least know I’ve told you off.”
“Little brat!” The Serpent roared. “You may want to reconsider that! Because I know your little groups weakness!”
“Oh?” Flare questioned mockingly, grinning as he shifted his weight slightly. “And what might that be?”
“In all your battles thus far, there has been but one factor that lead to your victory. All I need do is eliminate that force!” The Serpent paused as a dull, blue glow began to emanate from her body, shining meekly around her. “Do you know what that annoyance is!?”
Flare had no need to answer the rhetorical inquiry; he was pretty sure he knew already what the beast was getting at. The next instant, though, the shimmering form of the distant Serpent fell apart, crashing to the ground as a mass of water that quickly mingled with the damp spongy surface that also made up the chamber’s floor. In that same moment, the water directly before the Flamian boy quickly rose, molding itself into The Serpent’s shape before solidifying and becoming the beast itself, the ireful eyes appearing directly in front of Flare’s as the monster appeared, her arm already pulled back, her dagger-like nails pointed towards him.
With no more warning, the beast thrust the weapon-like arm forward, stabbing toward the flame warrior’s throat. Flare gritted his teeth, little time to react, almost no time to move. A moment later, the spongy blue floor was stained with a spray of red.