Chapter 1
 
  

Several years have passed since a great and terrible war took place on a large earth-like planet called Atlas. The invaders were of an energetic and elemental form, craving resources and siphoning energy from whatever they could find. This devastated the utopian life the denizens on Atlas once took for granted for many millennia, and changed its paradise into a virtual hell. Though the war lasted for several years, the Atlasian people were finally victorious. They defeated the elemental raiders, with the bulk of their numbers having retreated to the outer void in space from which they came. However, Atlas' civilization and climate were set back significantly. The Elemental Lords, leaders of the invaders, found their souls trapped inside a highly advanced dimensional prison called the Ethereal Seals, functioned through the power of seven Seal Gems. As long as this barrier held, Atlas was secure from much of the Elemental influence.
 

In the current era, the rejuvenation of Atlas progressed smoothly, albeit slowly, resulting in many more political and racial issues. Rumors of a new threat having infiltrated Atlas surfaced. One of the great generals who led Atlas against the elemental forces vanished without a trace, word of governmental corruption has spread, and sinister mischief-makers roam the countryside, serving some unknown master. The fate of Atlas is still uncertain, however it may rest in the hands of a young woman; a daughter of one of the war heroes who secured victory against the wicked elemental hordes many years ago.
 

The name of the youth is Pepper Slyhart. She is the ilk of a Dragonite mother and an Atlasian father, both of whom had participated in the Elemental War. With much of Atlasian society still devastated by the conflict, her father read an ancient prophecy regarding a half-Dragonite savior, evoking a brilliant restoration for Atlas. He studied his daughter closely, noticing great potential in the bastard child and began training her early in swordplay. To ensure Pepper would succeed, he imposed rigorous training throughout her childhood. The mother worked routinely with Pepper on controlling her dragon blood.  Although peaceful, Pepper's life was busy and full of expectations from her parents. When she reached adulthood, her parents temporarily handed her rights to the family farm before vanishing mysteriously. Pepper remained to till the heirloom acres before being reunited with her old friend, Tarie Beyworth. He was a youth Nymphian cleric at a local abbey. Deciding to visit a nearby town for the day, they discovered an ancient evil brewing underneath the facade of their society. Fearing for the future of her society and through the will of an old hermit, Pepper embarked on a journey to save her planet from certain destruction. Dwyrm, an ancient relic used during the Elemental War, selects her as its next heir-having chosen her father-sealing the scarlet maiden's fate forever more.
 

Her campaign turned long and laborious, facing a plethora of antagonists from a maniacal druid named Dawnstar, to an arrogant Elemental named Zolt; both wished to reopen the Ethereal Seals gate in the name of Shadow, returning Atlas to ruin. Throughout her quest to protect Atlas, Pepper learned what it means to embody leadership, having it inadvertently shoved upon her. She joined a small, tight-knit group of individuals, all bent on stopping Atlas' destruction. Tarie remained by her side, only to discover the two growing closer than friends do. The unbreakable laws of the abbey-punishable by exile-forbid a romantic relationship, thereby placing a wedge between the two lovers. Even so, through much sacrifice, the two accept one another, becoming shunned misfits among the growing darkness of their society. Now placed in a crisis with her few allies and abundant enemies, Pepper has little to gain and much to lose in her quest to change the destiny of her home planet.

Chapter 1.1

­

Shadows crept around the tall, ancient blade as it cut through the air like a hot knife through butter. Its destination was a red-haired young woman, boasting an equally intimidating weapon in her hand. The two knights, one a dark twin of the other, clashed repeatedly at blinding speeds, creating a crescendo of intensity within their shadowy arena. The battle lasted for nigh eternity, but finally the redhead narrowly missed her mark and the dark twin found its own. Defeated, she fell upon the ground, hands going limp at her sides. The girl retreated into a brief moment of silence before the enemy's blade finished its job.

-

Life on Atlas was rarely boring, hosting a treasure trove of archaic relics and ruins from its recent war. For Pepper Slyhart, it may as well be a prison. Her parents had left her the farm and she had promised to watch over it. For how long, however, she did not know. It had been many months since she had seen them and Pepper was not the type of person to break a vow. She feared taking extended periods to travel, for the agricultural plots required constant attention to produce their renowned flavor. Pepper oft took trips to nearby towns to distribute the produce, earning her fair share for the farm's upkeep. To defer these duties would put her family's multi-generational ranch at stake, let alone her pride.

Her eyes glanced over the cracked dirt, noticing the vegetable sprouts arching down.

"Already dry, how typical," she groaned.

Atlas had a relatively stable climate, which alternated between wet and dry seasons. Although there were portions of the world that offered extreme cold, the mainland remained hot and arid without routine rain. Water was highly valued to its people, some venturing to consider it a sacred substance. Under the right conditions of temperature, Atlasian water functioned as a healing salve and frequently found itself in medical elixirs given to the wounded or weary. An adventurer on Atlas rarely traveled without one of these concoctions. 

The girl stood onto solid ground, yawning. She shielded her vision from the bright rays and took notice of a couple space vessels gliding idly through the skies. Further still, she recognized three moons in orbit around her home planet. One of the moons occasionally emitted a bright commercial flash of activity from its surface.

"Well, seems I'm not there quite yet..." she murmured somberly, grazing over the fields. She sighed. "That dream I had the other night felt so real. Maybe someday I'll become a knight and get a chance to explore the world again."

Pepper Slyhart took some time to stretch her tall Atlasian[1] body, the bright light from the sun outlining her developed feminine figure and athletic build. With her azure eyes wincing at the bright star of midday, she combed her head, running fingers through long strands of fiery red hair. Touching the knot of her lengthily ponytail, she withdrew her hand. The girl's tanned and freckled complexion radiated a youthful and clean look, adding to the exotic combination of her face. 

Although the girl appeared biologically to be in her early twenties, she was considerably order. This type of life span was not unheard of on Atlas. Although for Pepper, most of it occurred within her parents' care. After living with them to help with the farm for an extended time, they left for parts unknown, nominating Pepper to watch over the estate. She had settled into a long period of complacency, but now, her patience wore thin. The fields now became a burden, constantly needing care. The mountains called to her, whispering some unsaid promise in the wind.

She dug into her pocket and pulled out a small coin of gold. Despite the edges slightly worn, the central depiction of a sword shrouded in vines shone clear as day. Underneath the illustration, curvy Atlasian cuneiform, engraved with a master smith's arm. "The Slyhart family emblem," Pepper mumbled absently. She smiled. Kissing the coin, she stuffed the bauble back in her tan breeches.  

The young woman meandered towards a fist-sized crystal of alluring aquamarine color lying on the ground. She picked it up, wiping off her rugged and earth-caked work clothes. Her attention concentrated on the shiny device. To her delight, the rows of crops around her soon became drenched from mist produced by the crystal. Pepper lowered the stone after several moments and eyed the waterlogged fields with a solitary nod.

 "There we go. Only about 100 more plots and I will be done for the day," she said aloud. Looking up at the clear blue sky, the girl's lips parted. A deep sense of longing tugged at her heart. Setting the crystal in her pocket, she brought her fists together as if holding a weapon, pretending to fend off imaginary practice targets with great zeal. Pepper felt so enamored with her fantasy that she failed to notice someone approaching. 

"I-I see you're having fun with imaginary s-swordplay again, Miss Pepper Slyhart," said a stuttering, but calm and masculine voice.

Pepper broke from her illusory swordplay, turning to the source of the voice. Smiling widely, she ran eagerly towards a youthful and slender looking Nymphian[2] of white robes. His bright blonde hair, while parted neatly on the top, flowed down his back like a stream of gold shining in the sunlight. He was a head shorter than she was, but that was typical of his race. In his hands, he clutched a narrow staff tipped on the end with a crystal and some prayer beads. "Tarie Beyworth, it has been a while. I was wondering when I would see you again!" she exclaimed.

Glancing over at oaken gemstone staff he carried, she examined a symbol of a roaring holy flame imprinted onto the chest piece of his robe, a representation of the order he followed. She also noticed numerous herbs and medical bags hanging at his waist. She carefully drifted back to his symmetrical face, admiring his delicate, yet pronounced chin. "How are you, my friend? How goes your abbey and the rest of the world?" she asked.

The monk stroked his clean-shaven chin, never to grow facial hair due to Nymphian blood. He cleared his throat, addressing her with a pleasant grin. "W-well, the church has been constantly busy with affairs all around the planet, one in particular involving an emergent clan of rogue druids and brigands causing mischief in several areas. We have teams working on bringing them in." He paused. "I'd say our planet, Atlas, is still recovering from the Great War from years ago." 

Pepper flared her nostrils and clenched her fists. "Those damn Elemental[3] invaders! If they hadn't shown up, we wouldn't be in such a state!" Launching a punch at a nearby bale of hay, it scattered all over the vicinity with a shockwave she had generated. Gritting her teeth, she let out a deep breath to relax.

Tarie leapt back, his pupils wide. "I-I understand your frustration miss Slyhart! Maybe someday the guard patrol at the capital will accept your application as knight. Although, you've tried applying countless times already if I recall..."

Pepper's arms became limp at her sides, shaking her head slowly. "I suppose I can only keep trying, as depressing as it is for me. I've only ever qualified for the rank of squire." She kicked at a rock. "I know I'm worth more. My father was a renowned war hero for Atlas sake. He taught me a lot about swordplay and basic battle tactics." She looked upward. "I just have never had the chance to use them much in a practical situation." 

Tarie frowned at his crestfallen friend, leaning closer to her. "Take heart, Miss Slyhart! Good things come to those who are patient. If there's anything the church or I can do, please feel free to ask and I will see to it."

A faint smile crossed her lips. "I appreciate the concern mister Beyworth, but maybe I am just not cut out for the guard," she took out the blue crystal and gazed at it. "I seem to do fairly well on the farm anyway..."

The monk brought a finger to his chin, gazing upwards thoughtfully. "Perhaps it best you ask around this area for ideas? You may get inspired that way!" the monk shuffled his feet with a brief cough. "Ahem. Anyway, I do believe some food may help you consider the idea better. It'll be on the church!" he said, winking at her with a smile.

The redhead stared at the monk, jumping into the air. "That definitely sounds like something enjoyable, Mister Beyworth!” she replied vigorously. "Let me grab a couple things first at my house and I will be all set!"

Tarie watched Pepper run towards the direction of her cone-shaped residence with a chuckle. "A-alright, I'll just be taking in the scenery here while you prepare." Finding a luxurious pile of hay to fall into, he shut his gaze.

Minutes later, Tarie heard footsteps, turning to see a scarlet haired young woman pleasantly dressed for the occasion in a long emerald dress. He stood before her speechless and slack-jawed, the image of the girl in front of him a clear contrast to the rugged, dirty farmer he had spoken with not long ago. Clearing his throat, he regained his posture. "That green dress looks very good on you, Miss Slyhart, especially with how the gemstones are ornately studded. Are you all set to leave? The place I have in mind shouldn't be too far for us."

Pepper blushed, giving thumbs up to her friend. "Yes, I'm all set here and ready to head out, following your lead!"

He pointed a finger to the sky above. "I take it you still remember the art of flight?"

Pepper bit her lip, glaring at the sky as if it was a malicious entity. "It has been a while and I was never good at it, but I do recollect the basics. I have only really been practicing Atlasian telepathy from time to time. I still feel rather uneasy about flying, but I will attempt to nonetheless." 

"Don't worry; I'll keep an eye open for you in that case," Tarie said telepathically with a wink on his face. "Just be sure to ease into it! Remember to first still your mind and then visualize a sphere of force around your body," he finished with normal talk.

Okay Beyworth, you go first then,” Pepper said telepathically.

He gently closed his vision, kicking off from the ground with his oaken staff and levitating with a soothing gust of energy a few dozen yards above the dirt fields below. His long blonde locks flowed about him, like silk curtains in the breeze. Stopping in place, Tarie gazed back down to watch Pepper.

She watched Tarie until she noticed him waiting above. Taking several deep breaths, Pepper shut her eyes, contorting her face, her body shaking a little, her hands gripping the sides of her dress tightly. Moments later, Pepper ascended, though in a slower and more erratic fashion than her friend. Quickly opening her pupils, she would let out a massive sigh of relief. "Gods, it certainly has been a while. I am so glad I can recollect the basics at least."

With a cheer from the monk, the two set out through the air, traveling with blinding alacrity towards a town they would spot dozens of miles away, invigorating air caressing their bodies as they flew. The countryside of Atlas was beautiful to behold, with numerous magnificent landmarks whooshed by. Above them, great masses of levitating islands, suspended by the marvel of magnetic geology, some releasing sparkling rainbow waterfalls. Below, giant flowering groves and rich forests littered the landscape in small clusters. In the far distance, exquisite snowy mountain ranges of colossal scale would rear themselves.

Shortly after, the two touched down at their destination, choosing a vacant lot just outside town. Unfortunately, Pepper tumbled onto ground painfully, all thanks to a sloppy landing.

"Ouch! Damn me, I goofed! This is why I hate flying!" Pepper swore at her own incompetence, Tarie rushing over to help her.

"E-easy there, it was your first time in a long while, wasn't it? You got too caught up in Atlas' splendors," he said with a chuckle. "Anyway, it's not very ladylike to swear like that, you know," he added with a frown.

Pepper dusted her dress off vigorously, glaring at the monk "Humph! So, where is this place you were talking about?"

"Just follow me this way, Miss Slyhart. It should not be too far," the monk said, gesturing into the nearby town.

The settlement they entered, Traveler's Rest, was a rather small town. It hosted a wide variety of marvels among its gem-paved streets, comfortable inns, hearty bars, well-stocked shops, and other such residential accommodations. The streets would be busy with families, merchants, and tourists alike, expressing a strong sense of vitality for the small settlement. Sounds of kids screaming and housewives berating their husbands flew over the sounds of shop owners hawking their wares.

Occasionally, a humanoid made of reflective crystal trudged through the streets. A golem forged in crystal technology and programmed to serve the public good. More designed for physical labor than combat, the slender golems moved carefully through the thick crowds, carrying bundles of odds and ends under the arm.

Pepper turned her attention away from the machines, drawn in by street performers, juggling small vials of fire that glowed with a rainbow hue. The haunting melody of flutes echoed throughout the streets, adding a calming flair to the busy outpost. Pepper briefly settled on a potion shop, demonstrating a wide array of colorful alchemical mixtures at the front windows.

Pepper followed Tarie, who weaved through the throng towards a tavern near the center of town. She squinted at the signpost, displaying the image of a shining star engulfing a mug of ale. The Cosmic Respite, the display said. The two entered a building with a casual atmosphere, despite the large number of customers and servers. Chandeliers of crystalline nature hung from the ceiling and colorful thick rugs paved the polished wooden floor in an ornate fashion. Small waterfall fountains were flowing gently with colorful stones of all colors throughout the pub.

"Traveler's Rest sure likes to stay busy!" Pepper exclaimed in observation, the two finding an empty booth to sit in with her friend.

"Yes, it is a fairly fundamental gathering center in this part of Atlas," Tarie said.

A waiter soon approached the booth, asking for fare. Tarie obliged by revealing a small silver coin with the insignia of the holy flame on it. The waiter happily took the coin, exchanging two small crystal devices to Pepper and Tarie each.

Pepper gazed at the crystal device for several moments, and then glanced up at Tarie. "Fish should be good for today's meal, wouldn't you say?"

Tarie shrugged at Pepper casually. "I'm not too hungry, but feel free to eat as much as you need to."

Similar to the watering crystal from out in the field, Pepper concentrated on the crystal device in front of her. A fishmeal on a silver plate would manifest right on the table, accompanied by a fork and knife. "These ration manifestation crystals sure are handy!" Pepper said, quickly grabbing the utensils and licking her lips a bit.

Meanwhile, Tarie had manifested a glass of water for him to sip, while watching Pepper dig into her fishmeal with great zeal. "I've heard of some people who can even do it without a catalyst, such as these crystals. Who knows, if you manage to get into the guard, you may just meet a few," Tarie said.

Pepper stopped eating and paused, grimacing. "Maybe it's because I'm a simple farmer? It's irritating not getting anywhere with my life!"

Tarie's brow narrowed, leaning forward towards Pepper. "I-I imagine there are checks and balances in the royal court that limit her ability. Regardless, you can't let some snobby men dictate your life."

Pepper wolfed down another large bite, staring at Tarie. "That is easier said than done, Beyworth! I am not sure where to start with all that. Not to mention, compared to other Atlasians, I'm relatively unremarkable in both my physical prowess and ether shifting[4]. 

Tarie raised a finger. "W-well, the art of shifting is fairly useful," he said, "It draws from the primal Goddess and the universal ether all around us." He paused, eying Pepper with a smile and a wink. "W-with the right training and state of mind, anything is possible. Entering a mental state of holy grace and emptiness is the crux of it." He frowned. "But, to use it, one must expend their own etheric life force in exchange. Overuse can lead to exhaustion or even death in extreme cases." The monk shuddered at the thought.

Pepper nodded. "Yes, I've know that for a while. I even refreshed up on it in the pre-exam booklets at the academy, not that I use it much anyway. I prefer crystals; they do all the heavy lifting, even if they are more limited. Technology at its finest - you have to love it!" She held one of the crystal slabs up, examining its polished surface thoroughly

Tarie turned back to Pepper and nodded silently. Pepper took Tarie's silence with a deep sigh. "Anyway, you're better off not worrying too much about me. I may as well accept what I am, staying on the farm fields. Though it is rather boring, I find it a comfortable lifestyle. It helps feed the nearby villages anyway." Pepper then looked down at her fish, and added, "The crystal manifestations are good, but it can't beat crops grown with the kiss of the planet, if you know what I mean." She folded her arms, scowling. "The men can have their royal guard!"

Tarie smiled at her. "Okay Miss Slyhart, do what you feel is best. I am sure you'll grow into a fine farmer given time. If you want to explore the art of shifting, let me know, as I'll be more than happy to take the time."

The two finished their food and drink, setting the crystal devices on the table for the waiter to collect. "It was a great idea coming here though. I feel like it did me good going out with a friend. We should definitely do it again sometime when you are not busy with your duties at the abbey," Pepper said with a stretch.

Tarie put a hand on Pepper's shoulder gently. "Indeed we should! Anyway we should get back..."

As Tarie spoke, a large man barged into the pub not far from their location. He was an elderly man, with a rugged appearance likened to that of an old tire, but matched by an aura of youthful vigor in his face. His large muscles illustrated themselves through his leather-skin tunic, pants, and cloak, all of which were equally as rugged in appearance. The man's long full beard further emphasized his wild appearance. A large scar circumvented one eye, suggesting a detail of experience. Swiftly scanning around the pub, like a feral animal, the stranger settled his gaze on Pepper and Tarie. He walked over to them briskly. "You two, this place is in danger! You must evacuate everyone out of town immediately!" he said, speaking with great vehemence.

Both Pepper and Tarie gawked at the man before the former folded her arms defiantly with a scowl. "Huh? Would you care to explain the demand you just gave there? Maybe you need to settle down a bit!"

"There's no time! We must act now if you care about the lives of those who dwell in this town!" the man commanded.

Tarie pointed an open palm to the man. "W-wait, we would indeed like an explanation before we do as you say. P-please, good sir," Tarie pleaded.

The man groaned, as if in agony, his face wincing painfully. "This town is being targeted by a clan of druids who want to make a sacrifice to their 'god'. They are already...."

The sound of massive explosions interrupted the man's speech, rocking the town in the far distance of town. All three widened their eyes in great surprise

"It's too late!" The man cried, "I must go now, with or without your help!" he dashed out the door as quickly as he entered.

"Wait!" Pepper called back, "Ugh! Stubborn old fool!"

Tarie looked at Pepper with a tightened face. "H-he said clan of druids'! Those must be the ones the church is after, Miss Slyhart!"

Pepper nodded at her friend, pumping her fist out, "I would assume they are the same too. Let's go check it out!"

Pepper and Tarie left the tavern, bent on following the crazed old man. Already, the streets were becoming chaotic, making it difficult navigate. Another explosion sounded somewhere in town, adding to the confusion.

"At this rate, the whole town is going to be damaged!" Pepper cried out to her friend, glancing back at him. Both of them could feel their heartbeats escalating, their breaths quickening; a casual day in town had turned into a frightening nightmare. Nearby, they noticed some injured townsfolk lying against a building. A look of concern flashed over the monk's face. Rushing over to the victims of the incident, Tarie bent down to greet them, a gentle smile on his face. "I can help with your injuries. I am a monk of the church with experience in healing shifting. You are going to be alright."

Pepper caught up to Tarie and the wounded townsfolk. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked him.

He smiled up at her. "See if you can find anymore injured people in town, Pepper. I-I will take care of these people here. My healing arts close wounds and restore blood quite efficiently." the monk said, "If you run into any of those druids by chance, please don't engage them."

"Okay, you take care of yourself, Beyworth. Be sure to make it out!" Pepper rushed off down the streets, checking out the rest of the town. Crumbled remains of buildings obstructed parts of the streets, as additional explosions occurred in the near distance. Biting her lip firmly, Pepper's pulse raced with adrenaline. Spotting a couple Atlasians lifting massive blocks of stone off an encumbered child, she hurried over to their location. With the addition of Pepper's assistance, the child escaped its stony prison. The townsfolk thanked Pepper for the help, causing her to blush. "It's no problem, but we need to move now before the town collapses further!"

Pepper led the band of townsfolk to the entrance of the town, where a big crowd of escapees greeted them with somber cheers. Turning her gaze back to the crumbling town, Pepper scanned around. "I wonder if Tarie and that old man will be okay," she whispered to herself. Taking a deep breath, she zoomed back into the condemned town, despite the warning shouts of the townspeople behind her. "Hang on Tarie!" she shouted to herself.

Hearing shouts coming from one of the alleys, Pepper followed their source, entering into a large clearing. She spotted the elderly man facing off against two individuals wearing bizarre garments and skins resembling twisted animals and demons. Their eyes were bloodshot and wide open, radiating a lifeless gaze that made Pepper lose her breath in shock. Hideous chunks of metal and gems alike dug into their flesh, creating the image of a humanoid monstrosity. On the forehead, a symbol of a star with tendrils sprouting out glimmered ominously. The old man glanced back and noticed Pepper's entrance. "You have come here? Fool! I asked you to help evacuate people, not engage in the danger!" he cried angrily at the young redhead.

"I-I didn't..." Pepper stammered.

One of the dark druids abruptly leapt at the old man like a ravenous tiger, knocking him supine with immense force. The other one would slowly walk towards Pepper, murmuring some dark words that were inaudible to her ears as he stretched out his palm to her.

"D-d-don't come any closer!" Pepper said, her whole body trembling, her breath rapidly increasing. Eying a long piece of discarded metal bar close enough to pick up and use like a weapon, "I'm w-warning you!"

The druid finished its spell, causing a ball of shadow to launch at Pepper's location with blinding speed.

"Eh?!" Pepper noticed the dark sphere aimed at her, rolling out of the way just in time. The sphere struck the alley wall behind her, causing a massive explosion and sending shrapnel all over. Covering her face with her arms, the blouse sleeves of her dress ripped and dampened with fresh blood. 

Pressing the offensive, the enemy dashed at Pepper while she was recovering, driving its spike-filled fist into her chest with great strength and agility. Pepper staggered backwards painfully from the attack, launching her own counterattack by swinging the metal bar she held at the druid's head. He caught the metal piece in his hand before it hit its mark and proceed to crush it with superhuman strength effortlessly. "No! Please not like this..." Pepper cried, her voice failing her. Moving against the nearest wall, she raised her already bloody, trembling arms up for protection, her blouse sleeves torn from the action. Evading a couple more punches from her grisly attacker, Pepper found herself no better off than she was a minute ago. 

Meanwhile, the old man had wrestled the dark druid off himself with equally matched superhuman strength, landing a few blows at the enemy's face and chest, knocking the possessed zealot senseless. While his opponent was stunned, the old man murmured some inaudible words, causing crackling green energy to shoot out from his palms like a lightning bolt, impaling the wicked druid squarely in the chest and inflicting severe burns. The force of the impact slammed the druid back dozens of yards, burying him deeply in the opposing wall.

 The villain confronting Pepper glanced at his injured partner, turning his attention to the old man.

"That's right, it's me you want. Leave the girl alone!" he shouted at the dark druid facing him.

Pepper sighed in great relief, watching the standoff between the two silently.

The old man smirked. "Girl, the name’s Razaeroth by the way, but you may call me Raz if you would like! Now, please don't be alarmed at what you are about to see!" Raz grit his teeth, with his entire body shivering violently. The hair on his body grew excessively, his posture leaning forward on all fours. Within moments, Raz had transformed into a large, muscular bear.

Pepper watched the old man, flabbergasted at what she witnessed. "He used metamorphic shifting! I have rarely seen it used so efficiently!"

The dark druid leapt at the bulky bear, aiming to impale the beast-man. Raz moved with surprisingly high agility for his new form, charging at the attacker and mauling the druid before the opposing attack could connect.

Pepper watched the bear slam the dark druid into the ground, a massive crater forming at the point of impact. "Strong!" she said aloud with a gasp. Pepper noticed the other dark druid free himself from the wall, preparing to launch a spell at the bear. "Old man, look out!" she shouted.

The beast swiftly avoided a ball of shadow coming from the attacker, which hit the wall behind Raz with a large explosion. Charging full-force into the druid's face, the bear crushed the druid back against the shattered wall once more, mauling his head severely and tearing open several wounds all over his body with feral rage. Both shadow druids laid silently on the ground, seemingly subdued and without threat. Pepper watched the bear revert into Raz's original human form. "Are you alright?" Raz called out to her, noticing her wounds with an expression of concern.

"I'll be fine," she said, awareness of the pain returning to her with a wince. "I've had much worse and my body is fairly resilient. I am Pepper Slyhart by the way. I apologize for freezing up in front of those...monstrosities. They aren't anything I have ever seen before!"

Raz's paused, his mouth widening a bit with surprise. "...Slyhart?" he repeated, noticing one of the dark druids trying to get up, he walked over and knelt down to grasp the gnarled hair of the druid's head roughly, "You there! Who is your master? Speak!" he shouted harshly.

The dark druid's lips curled with mischief letting out a hoarse chuckle. "This world belongs to the Shadow now! You are fools not to embrace it!" The maddened zealot began murmuring particularly low-pitched words. Raz immediately backed away, glaring at the cultist. Shadowy thorns and roots sprouted from the dark druid's body, beginning to wrap around and consume its master in a horrible scene of mystic cannibalization. As this happened, the mass of misshapen thorns glowed with immense energy. Pepper and Raz noticed the other fallen druid performing the same ritual.

"This isn't good, girl! They are preparing a massive energy technique in an attempt to blow up the entire town! I've seen this trick used before!" Raz hastily informed Pepper. "The best we can do is buffer the explosion when it climaxes! Do you know any barrier techniques to help with that?"

Pepper stared at Razaeroth, her visage growing catatonic, unable to form words properly from the events now unfolding.

"Bah! I should have known..." Raz grumbled irritably, softening his demeanor a moment later. "You best get out of here then before it blows, girl!"

Pepper shook her head, clearing her stunned expression. "Wait, there has to be something I can do to help!" Turning to observe the area, Tarie would dash into the alley clearing. 

"M-miss Slyhart, what happened here!?" he said, speaking with haste. "I heard some loud noises coming from this area and I feared the worst!" he then noticed her wounds, "Y-you're hurt? I can have you fixed up in a jiffy..."

"No time, monk!" Raz called out urgently. "These two masses of shadow are preparing to blow up the entire outpost!"

"W-w-what!?!" Tarie screamed in panic, looking to Pepper for confirmation.

Pepper grabbed Tarie firmly by the shoulders. "Yes, it's true Beyworth, we cannot let that happen!" 

Tarie stifled a gasp. "Wait a minute, I could stay and h-help with this! I have experience in defensive shifting like barriers and healing! If I put up a barrier, it should help buffer the explosion!" Meanwhile, the entire alley was beginning to rumble with great intensity as the energy was building further.

"Then do so, monk! I will assist you with the task! If we work together it won't be a problem!" Raz retorted.

"R-right, let me see here." Tarie said, glancing at Pepper wistfully. Quickly placing a hand on her shoulder, he managed a smile at her, "We've got this Miss Slyhart! Please get out of here!"

A small tear seeped out the side of her eye, her face growing contorted, "What if more of those druids show up?" she said, "The least I can do is distract them while you two focus on the barriers! I may not be very talented at battle, but maybe there is something I can do rather than being totally useless!"

Tarie's face brightened at her plight, "D-don't say that! You're such a nice..."

"Monk, the time is now!" Raz shouted loudly, clenching his fists tightly and gazing at the shadow bombs forming.

Tarie sighed, turning away to focus himself on the situation. "I pray now to the creator god I serve, the Aspect of light: Lumas[5]. May it be with all of us in this hour! Do what you must, Miss Slyhart," he said.

She smiled a little at his encouraging words, wiping a tear out the side of her eye. "I'll keep a look out in that case. Good luck!"

"Mister Beyworth?" the old man asked Tarie. "It's a pleasure. I am Razaeroth or Raz for short. Let's make sure this energy doesn't destroy a chunk of Atlas, eh?" Turning to Pepper, the old man shut his eyes tightly for a moment, as if musing over something important. "Here, use this to defend the area, Pepper Sly-hart," pronouncing the last bits of her name slowly and carefully. Producing a beautifully adorned gemstone blade in a scabbard, he tossed it to the girl. Catching the weapon in her hands clumsily, she starred at it for a moment. Looking up at Raz, Pepper slowly nodded her head obediently. "A-alright, I suppose this will have to do," she fumbled.

Raz turned his attention back to the growing spheres of doom. "Are you both ready?"

Tarie gulped, "I-indeed. I can setup a barrier of photons around those...things where the bombs are forming. It should contain the explosion. And you?"

"I'll fortify your barrier with an earthen vine shield then with my nature shifting. Go!" Raz commanded.

Tarie took a deep breath, preparing to concentrate on his task with a raised hand and gemstone staff. The entire clearing lit up with clusters of light particles manifesting themselves around the shadowy blobs of energy. Meanwhile, Raz extended his arms, summoning up vine clusters to attach to the tangible light dome. The entire area shook violently from tremendous energy building up, with chunks of rocks in the nearby walls crumbled away rapidly. Great cracks formed in the ground, as if a powerful earthquake was happening. Tarie held his ground as he focused on maintaining the light barrier around the exponentially growing masses of energy. "Ugh, I-I think we have this! Maybe?" he said.

Pepper staggered her feet to maintain proper balance in the turbulent arena, watching the two create shields around the treacherous bombs of shadow that were growing in scale by the second. Gripping the sword carefully, she glanced down at the intricate design on its sheath. Her pupils twinkled at the object, as if holding a precious item long lost. "It feels...warm...but-no I can't really describe it. What is it about this weapon that fascinates me so much?" Her observation fell across the smoothly spiraled grip, adorned with a large jade gemstone at its pommel. The cross guard was made of a silvery metal, whose beautiful luster drew the girl's gaze in magnetically. The blade was wide and double-edged, with a sharp point at the end. Despite its girth, the sword felt remarkably light. 

Pepper tore away, noticing a third monstrosity entering the alley. "You cannot stop the might of shadow!" the druid cried in a raspy voice, rushing at Tarie's back. Pepper tensed her entire body upon hearing the druid, cupping her hands in warning after spotting the enemy. "Look out Mister Beyworth!" Rushing over to the monk's side, she blocked the druid's path to Tarie. 

Glancing to the side, Tarie's face grew contorted with worry. "Rats, there just had to be one more!"

Raz glanced at Pepper confronting the druid. "Let's see if my theory was correct," he whispered to himself. Shifting focus back on maintaining his vine shield, he left the conflict in Pepper's hands.

Though still shaking in fright, Pepper held her ground against the horrifying humanoid before her. "Y-you're not going to destroy this town! We'll make sure of that!" she shouted, biting her teeth, fiercely struggling against the emotion of fear trying to win her over. Drawing the sword from its sheath, the metal surface of the blade released a soft gust of energy, surrounding Pepper's body with a dull jade light.

The maddened druid opened his palm, forming a sphere of shadow aimed at the three. The shadow ball launched at the group, crackling with energy in its travel. Winding up her sword like a bat, Pepper struck the ball of energy with the power of her blade, cleaving it clean. The explosive energy of the attack dissipated completely, erasing any level of threat that formerly existed. Staring at her sword in disbelief, Pepper's jaw went slack. "It really worked - this sword is amazing! It's like I am holding a lightning bolt!" Glancing back to the attacker, she felt the trembling and anxiety begin to leave her shaking body. 

Enraged at his failure, the druid charged at Pepper with his spiked-fist out. Pepper met the attack with her glowing sword, clashing repeatedly with the druid in an epic rhythm of battle. Metal clashed against metal, both combatants struggling against the other. After seeing an opening, Pepper kicked her opponent to the ground, ripping part of her dress in the process. Aiming her sword at the staggered enemy, she ended the druid's ability to fight with several opportunistic blows. Taking an extra moment to examine her fallen enemy, she turned her attention back to her allies and the shadow bomb.

By this point, the energy grew so enormous that the shockwaves were rumbling the ground tremendously. Sweat poured down the faces of Tarie and Raz due to exertion. Moments later, the shadow bombs exploded, causing massive trauma to the barriers and intensifying the earthquakes in the vicinity. The nearby buildings shook apart within moments from the strain.

"Hold together, guys!" Pepper cried out to them.

The light barrier fractured subtly at the center, but it held through the barrage of energy slamming against it. The power of the explosions gradually died down, burning out entirely.

Tarie bent over, placing his hands on his forehead, "W-whew! Is it over?"

Razaeroth hummed softly. "Indeed it is over. We have done it!"

Tarie examined the light barrier with vines. Seeing the situation was clear, he dismissed the photons, causing the vines attached to fall to the shattered ground. "S-see, what did I tell you? No trouble at all!" Tarie said, chuckling in great relief.

Pepper dropped her sword, kneeling down in front of the dead druid, expressionless. "I-I did it, I defeated one of those druids..." she stated plainly.

Raz turned to the remaining fallen druid, bending down close and whispering a prayer. The old man waved his hand over the druid's body, causing a black mist to flow out from the body. Raz bent his head, a forlorn gaze on where the motionless enemy lay. "Another one consumed by the shadow..." he whispered. Raz turned to Pepper, shaking his head sadly. "Don't feel regret - it's true these were once normal people. However, their entire consciousness corrupted at some point. You did them a favor by releasing them back to the etheric source."

"I guess..." Pepper murmured weakly, seemingly unsatisfied with the answer. "I did mean to go so far..."

Raz patted her on the back, twisting his lips wistfully. He stood up, examining the destroyed town all about them. "By the way, where is your royal guard? Don't they normally help to enforce the peace around here?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tarie grimaced, "Yes, but I am not sure what the situation is with them. They ought to be here assisting the town. Maybe they too got held up somewhere?"

Pepper stood, gazing around with her hands on her hips, wrinkling her face in disgust. "Yes, they should be here! What is taking them so damn long?"

Raz glowered at Pepper and Tarie with his gnarled brow. "Anyway, it was quite reckless for you two to stay in town, meeting those druids head on with me. I appreciate the assistance, but without fully understanding the situation, you could have been killed!" he said sternly, eying Pepper in particular. "That does remind me of a reckless someone I used to know: Saul Slyhart." he added with a smile.

Pepper raised an eyebrow at Raz in confused curiosity. "Did you know my father personally?"

"I fought alongside him and your mother during the Elemental invasion many years ago. Those two were dear friends of mine, although they were significantly more skilled than the rookie I see before me!" Raz grumbled.

"Hey, it's not fair comparing me to my parents! They were war heroes after all! I am just a farmer who works the fields. I can't even fly right through the air, let alone barely hold my own in combat against just one of those monsters!" Pepper shouted, clenching both of her fists.

"E-easy you two, please don't get so upset!" Tarie interjected with a frown.

"You don't give yourself enough credit, daughter of Slyhart!" Raz growled. "You have the potential to be an amazing knight or shifter. You should try to believe in yourself a bit more!"

Pepper folded her arms, glaring at the old man in kind. "I've tried to enter the guard numerous times and to no avail. It's a pointless dream to try to join their ranks!"

"And where are they now?" Raz added with a grin, "Who was it that helped save the citizens of this town?"

Pepper relaxed her demeanor, becoming speechless for several moments. "I see your point," she said in a fading voice.

Raz shrugged, "It is your choice, daughter of Slyhart. The path is now open to you, but if you need further guidance, this I can provide. Atlas needs defenders now more than ever. With the blood of a war hero flowing through you, the potential to save Atlas is within your grasp. Look at this town," Raz gestured a finger to the crumbling remains. "Soon all of the planet will look like this if nothing is done to stop the druids. If you reconsider, come to the peak of 'Valerian Heights', the mountain range just north of here. I will be waiting for you there. If you can triumph the mountain, I will teach you what I know of the Slyharts."

"'Valerian heights' is a dangerous area you know!" Tarie yelped at Raz.

Pepper raised an eyebrow, running her fingers through the back of her ruffled hair and ponytail. "I'll think about it old man-no, Razaeroth!"

"You would do well to consider it, especially since the gift from your parents believes you are worthy to wield it," he said, gesturing to the jade-tinted blade on the ground.

Pepper turned to examine the blade, picking it up with her hands. "You mean, this is the sword my father used?"

"Yes, its name is Dwyrm - a sword forged from a rare metal produced by dying stars. It was a key tool used in the Elemental War and has tremendous power, but only if you have the experience and willingness to tap into it. As I said, I will tell you more, but first you must prove to me you possess the drive to seek out that power to protect Atlas and its people." Raz waved respectfully at Pepper, making his exit. "The town needs you now, so take your time, but not too long!" he finished.

Tarie watched the old man leave, turning to say a prayer of blessing over the fallen druid. He then looked at Pepper with a frazzled look. "Sorry Miss Slyhart, but I had no idea going out to lunch would be this...dramatic!"

Pepper remained silent for several moments, considering the destroyed town nearby and the mystical sword in her hands. Finally, she shook her head at her friend. "It's fine, but I think I may have to do this," she said, clenching her fist. "He's right that Atlas is in jeopardy right now. I can't just sit on a farm tolling away my life at the ground. Atlas is my home and I'll be damned if I let it crumble like this town!"

"First, let's help clean up the town," she continued, "The guard, whatever they are doing, should arrive eventually. Once the situation here has stabilized, I head to Valerian Heights, and you're coming with me!" she added with a grin as sharp as her new sword.

"I-I was afraid you'd say that!" Tarie said with a big gulp, "No doubt, it'll be a treacherous venture. This involves the church, so I will provide any assistance you may require." He paused. "What about your farm?"

Pepper's face twitched. "It'll be fine for a day or two."

"Okay," Tarie said, gazing at the snowy mountains in the far distance.

"Thanks, Beyworth," Pepper replied, leaving the ravaged alleyway with her friend. The mysterious blade strapped on her shoulder glowed faintly, a gentle jade light dancing around its sharp edges. With a gaze fixated on the horizon, the redhead made her way to the townsfolk outside, the monk following behind.

    

[1] Atlasians are the default, or 'normal' race of humanoids on Atlas. They greatly resemble real-life humans, but possess superhuman tendencies and some basic psychic abilities, in addition to longer life spans.


[2] Nymphians are another variant race of Atlas. Possessing slender and graceful physiques, they resemble elves from other folklore. Their long ears serve to enhance their sense of hearing. Like other races, they enjoy long life spans.


[3] Elementals are a belligerent alien species typically composed of pure energy, given humanoid form. During the late war, they invaded Atlas, pillaging resources and killing natives. Now defeated, they dwell away from society, seeking a means to survive on a planet they once tried for conquest.


[4]  Ether shifting is the 'magic' used in Ethereal Seals. It involves aligning oneself with the ether, which is an omnipresent energy in all things. Practitioners of this art call themselves 'shifters', while performing the art of this magic is 'shifting'.


[5] Lumas is the deity of light that those of the church worship. Creational deities, known as 'Aspects', govern a given element in Ethereal Seals. 

   owed them frh&.