Chapter 50: Artificing
I turn and grin as I say, “The one and only.”



























































































































































































































She blinks for a moment before she yawns while stretching. The sheet falls from her exposing her tan skin before I avert my gaze as I say, “I brought you some clothes, and there’s breakfast with the others outside.”

I adjust the drawer on the floor before I raise up saying, “There’s a few people I’d like you to meet-”

As I finish my words, Joan’s hands grip around me. I blink for a moment before she says, “Thank you Jack.”

With a kind glow radiating from me, I interlock my hand with hers as I say, “It was my pleasure.”

We stay there frozen for a few seconds before she releases her grip. As I turn towards her, she walks at the same pace as my turning preventing me from seeing her. After I figure out what she did, the sound of shifting clothes grazes the room. Avoiding my awkwardness, I say,

“Are you feeling well enough for moving around or speaking with others? I wouldn’t want you struggling anymore than you have here recently.”

In a light, jovial spirit, she says, “I wouldn’t worry too much about me if I were you. You weren’t so scared of me being feeble last night, were you?”

I blush for a moment before I say, “It’s hard for a man to contain himself with such a sight before him.”

She purrs for a moment before she says, “So are you barely containing yourself right now?”

As she ends her thought, she traces a finger down my cape while pressing on my back. I respond in kind as I turn my head over my shoulder while saying, “Absolutely.”

She giggles for a moment before she says, “Try to keep it together until after breakfast.”

I grin as I say, I grin as I say, “No promises.”

She giggles once more, though with a heavy blush before she says, “Alright, what do you think?”

I turn towards her as Joan wears a fitted leather mantle ending in a skirt composed of several long strips. A set of long socks and boots line her legs while she covers her short, tousled hair with a hood casting a shadow over her face. After inspecting the sight for a moment with a hand on my chin, I say,

“It’s a shift from your previous style, but I like it. There’s more of your charm exposed with this getup.”

Wearing a skeptical grin, she raises an eyebrow before she says, “Was I lacking in charm before?”

I shake my head as I say, “No. Before you seemed more self conscious. Now you let yourself show in all your glory. It’s marvelous.”

Her grin becomes genuine for before I turn and gesture towards the door while saying, “Come now, the others are waiting for us.”

She follows with a far shyer composure than the minutes before as she whispers, “Do you think they’ll think I look weird?”

The back of my cloak pulls for a moment stopping me at the front of the doorway before I think for a moment. I say, “Sophia is amongst those waiting for us along with the golem of the end, Luke, a razor queen, and antoinnette. I doubt you’ll have to worry about appearances.”

The grip loosens from my back before I slide open the door with the others glancing towards us. Each member leans for a better view as Luke says, “What took you so long Jack? You didn’t try anything funny with her while she’s sleeping did you?”

I shake my head before I tug on Joan’s wrist with a supportive hand over her shoulder as I say, “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”

Joan freezes for a moment before Sophia leaps from her seat and sprints over with a energized bounce in her steps. After a mere two seconds, she shoves into Joan with a tackle-hug before Sophia says, “I’m so glad your alright!”

Joan stumbles, though less than I expected before she hugs Sophia back while saying, “It’s good to see you too.”

They push from each other in a well synced motion as Sophia says, “You’ve got a tan now! Is it a part of the healing process? It looks so good.”

Joan blushes as I say, “There may be some complications from my having rejuvenated her, but she is still the Joan I came to love.”

Sophia blushes after I finish as well before she says to Joan, “He’s embarrassing isn’t he?”

She nods before she says with a measure of unease, “I know right? It was romantic at first, but now it just seems kinda...cheesy?”

I grin before I say, “So there's shame in admitting how you feel for another? “

Sophia and Joan give sarcastic nods before I roll my eyes. Aether stares at the display with a keen interest while Luke suppresses his laughter, but as with all things you aren’t allowed to do, his attempts only spur his humor further as he snickers under his breath.

Antoinnette began walking over as Luke began laughing. She crosses the gap with her prim and proper steps before she reaches us. While reaching her hand towards Joan’s white mark, she says, “What is this?”

Before Joan can reply, Antoinette says, “It makes you look like a warrior princess.”

Joan says with a heartfelt sincerity in her voice, “Ugh, thank you.”

I say to Joan, “This is Antoinnette. She is the daughter of my patron, and she’s also a close friend. I hope you both get along.”

Antoinnette grins before she says, “From what Sophia’s told me, I expected you to be less shy.”

Fighting her discomfort with an inexhaustible will, Joan says, “It’s not everyday you walk out in front of a group of people looking so differently than what you normally think of yourself.”

Antoinnette tosses her hand like she’s throwing something off shoulders as she says, “Pff, you look stunning. Don’t short yourself. I’d die for hair like that.”

Joan purses her lips as she says, “I always hated my hair before.”

Antoinnette raises a hand as she points upwards while saying, “Ah, but now your skin complements it, like how the moon looks so bright in the sky during night time. The darker complexion makes your look pop. That and you can match the leather’s brown color with your own.”

As Joan’s expression relaxes, she props her weight onto one hip as she says, “I suppose it isn’t so bad.”

Antoinnette puts a hand on Joan’s shoulder before she says, “It looks great, and you’ll be able to wear plainer clothing without having to worry about pale skin anymore. I always wanted to try on that outfit, but I’m just too pale. I ended up looking ghastly.”

Sophia giggles for a moment at Antoinnette while I appreciate the suave of Antoinette's words. In our society, the darker a person’s skin is, the less wealthy the generally are. A peasant must work outside all day under the sun giving their skin a deep, golden brown appearance while wealthy aristocrats and nobles can afford to stay inside at all hours in comfort. This leaves them pale.

As Joan was white before, Antoinnette assumed she took great pride in the snow color of her skin, so Antoinette pointed out the benefits of Joan’s tanner complexion in order to smooth over any disgruntling thoughts over the matter. She even turned Joan’s new white mark into a sharp, edgy feature with her warrior princess compliment, and as she knows how Joan takes pride in her fighting abilities, the comment shows depth in its wording as it exposes a deep understanding of Joan’s character.

All of this occurred in the span of a mere minute of discussion, and despite my apprehension at their meeting, I can’t help but marvel over Antoinette's courteous handling of Joan’s changes. As much as it pains me to admit, Antoinette's noble upbringing has given her this level of social handling, and I doubt my own ability for replicating that same level of precise diplomacy.

The entire conversation sparks a growing animation in Joan’s face before the girls ramble about the prevalent fashions of the moment. They chatter like old friends before I splash into their conversation with my own words,

“I don’t mean to interrupt your conversation ladies, but we never introduced Joan to the other members of our entourage.”

Sophia says, “Oh yeah, let me introduce Aether.”

She grabs Joan’s wrist before she tugs with a near childish excitement as she says, “Come on, he won’t bite.”

Joan and Antoinnette follow while I pace behind them before we reach up towards Aether’s silent, hulking frame. As they reach him, Sophia holds out an open palm towards him as she says, “This is Aether. He’s a kind and reliable person, and I think you’ll both be great friends before long.”

Aether glances towards Sophia before he turns his eyes towards Joan as he says, “It is wonderful to meet you Joan. I’ve heard many good things from Sophia about you. She mentions how you inspired her to let go of her own past with tales of your own. I want to thank you for taking care of her for so long.”

Aether’s near absurd sincerity evokes a blush from Joan before she says, “It’s nothing. I’m glad to see your as kind as Sophia said you were.”

Aether nods in response before Sophia chimes in, “You should see the stairs and murals he carved. It’s amazing.”

Luke jumps into the conversation, “I was surprised when he started with the tops of trees as he dug it out, but I gotta admit, it’s pretty cool.”

I point towards Luke as I say, “This is Luke, my roommate from mareovosa. I know, I know, he’s not the most pleasant guy to look at, but please try forgive him. He was born like this.”

Luke punches my shoulder before he says, “Have you looked in the mirror lately? You aren’t the sharpest looking guy either.”

I grin before I cup my chin with a hand while saying, “I respectfully disagree.”

The group laughs for a moment before Joan says, “It’s good to meet you all, but where's the razor queen?”

Aether chimes in with his uninterruptible voice, “She is overseeing the fortifications and security around the nest. She wants her workers to be less dependent on her judgment if a crisis were to occur.”

I nod as I say, “And she wishes to avoid other incidents like the one with the tarantula slime that attacked me before.”

Aether nods before Sophia says, “Are you hungry then Joan? We finally have meat in our stew thanks to Jack.”

Joan nods as she says, “That sounds wonderful.”

They begin eating as I pace over towards the deer corpse with the intention of disposing it.  Before I grab it, a large red slime rolls up and extends multiple dull spikes from it’s skin. These spines pincer the bones of the creature before it pulls the skinned carcass into itself. Afterwards, it grabs the bits of inedible vegetable bits into itself as well leaving the table spotless.

I wonder what else the slimes assisted them with besides cleaning? They likely assist with the cleaning of waste as well.

The grotesque thought leaves my mind before I pace over towards the group. I sit beside Joan with my own bowl already prepared. Unlike the others who use wooden spoons, I just grab the bowl and dip its contents into my mouth before I chew for a moment and swallow. As I set the bowl down, the others cease their chatter before Luke says with a strange stare,

“What was that?”

I scratch the edge of my cheek as I say, “Um...eating?”

He blinks for a moment before he says, “You ate the entire bowl in a single bite. You literally inhaled that.”

I purse my lips for a moment before I say, “Eh, a growing man needs his food right?”

The group exchanges glances, except Aether and Sophia, before I think towards Deluge, “I think now would be a good time. Would you mind introducing yourself?”

He responds, “Hah, gladly.”

I gesture towards my unknowing friends as I say, “I...I think you all deserve to know why I’ve changed so...drastically since coming to Mareovosa.”

Antoinette, Luke, and Joan’s expression shift to confusion then to a deep curiosity before I continue, “Many months ago, my mother and father died to a strike of lightning. I was then enslaved before I fell down a chasm several hundred feet deep. A meteor fell from the sky after I fell, and that broke my fall.”

I open my arms as I state, “Inside that meteor was a creature from the stars. Unsurprisingly, he’s no angel, but he’s the reason I’ve survived till now and he is the reason I could save Joan. We’ve shared this consciousness until now. He’s a sarcastic ass, so be prepared for rude, stinging words. Meet Deluge.”

Deluge and I swap our conscious as I think, “Please try to maintain a semblance of decency.”

He replies with a mental snicker, “Have I ever disappointed you in that regard?”

Not the most comforting reminder.

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I roll my shoulders for a moment before I clench my fingers while saying, “It feels good to be in control once more.”

The group stares at me with dull, imbecilic glances before Antoinette says, “Is this some elaborate joke?”

I raise an eyebrow as I say, “Come now. Surely you didn’t expect Jack’s unusual occurrences to lack an unusual origin?”

She sputters, “Wh-what? You sound...This isn’t funny.”

I smirk as I say, “To the contrary, I’m rather amused myself.”

Luke blinks for a moment before he says, “So you're the sleepwalker then?”

Hmmmm. He’s sharper than I imagined he would be. I say, “Perceptive. I am the one you met in the mornings. As you could tell, I am poor at hiding my own way of speaking.”

Luke nods as he says, “That’s...wow.”

I shrug before I sit down once more. I lean my head on a hand as I say, “It explains many mysteries you’ve pondered about Jack though, doesn’t it?”

He nods as he says, “You're the one that killed Helfeston then?”

I nod before he continues, “And your why he’s gained a foot in height and turned gray?”

I nod once more before he says, “...You’re why he has that sort of..coldness too?”

I shake my head before I say, “Hmmm. That is a strange accusation, but it is partially true. The distance you felt was due to the secrets he has withheld from you all, and a combination of his own intrinsic resolve.”

I grin as I continue, “That is Jack’s own innate and greatest strength. He is a dreadnought of will. A crusher of souls.”

Joan chimes in, “So uh...did you see us when me and Jack-”

I interrupt, “I’m responsible for healing you Joan. Besides, I hold very little interest in the anatomy of humans. I’ve already explored every inch of both genders. In your case, all the way from your bones to your blood.”

She and the others pale. After a long silence, Sophia says, “Ah, well he’s the one who collected the alexandrite as well. He did it so that we could safely control a soul. Deluge is creepy, but at least he means well.”

I yawn before I say, “Let’s speak of something more important than just introductions, shall we? If you wish to know more of me, ask Aether or Sophia. I’m sure they’ll cast me in a favorable light compared to my own explanations. I tend to come across as coarse.”

I crack my neck before I say, “Here soon, Jack and I will journey across this planet till we've gathered the remnants of Gaia. That very same quest creates a question - who is willing to journey with Jack and I during it?”

Joan purses her lips before she says, “Journey where?”

I shake my head before I say, “Hah, hah, it isn’t a question of where, but for what. We aim to find the remnants of Gaia as they spur the resources and need for soul forging and gemchaining. I don’t believe I need to elaborate why those practices must end, do I Joan?”

She shivers for a moment before I turn towards Sophia as I say, “Sophia and Aether already agreed to join us.” I turn my head towards Antoinette, Luke, and Joan as I say,  “But what of you normal,”

I gesture my left hand outwards towards Joan as I say, “Well, relatively normal humans?”

Antoinette and Luke glance at one another with looks of pure mystique while Joan overcomes her aversion for speech as she says with a cold, frenzied look in her eye, “I’ll join you. My family won’t recognize me, and I can’t imagine returning to such a religious family after what the priests of that religion put me through...all of that...it needs to stop.”

I tap the edge of my cheek as I gaze at her for a moment before I say, “You may face greater tortures yet.” I place my left hand on the table as I raise an eyebrow, “Jack once cut his legs off to escape a monster. Would you be able to do the same?”

In a sudden burst of anger, Joan slams the rock table with her marked hand as she explodes her words, “I will crush every bone in my body if it means stopping them...Every single one of them.”

For a moment, I allow her words time to sink in. Afterwards, I say, “Excellent. Jack never felt such rage for his persecutors.” A deep grin exposing my sharpened canines fills my face as I say, “It will be a bloody process. Jack and I will join you in that sanguine festival.”

I turn my eyes towards Antoinnette and Luke as I say, “You two seem shocked over Jack’s secret. Should I give you time for a decision, or should I take your hesitation as a no?”

They blink for a moment before I sigh and say, “Please, take your time with your decision. I doubt either of you could avoid that suggestion however. You both seem rather dull.”

Antoinette snaps, “What the hell do you know?”

I raise my head from my hand as I turn my face towards them. I interlock my fingers and rest my chin on them as I say, “I know that you’ve never felt the sting of a whip nor the hunger of starvation. You’ve never faced death, and you’ve never killed.”

I shake my head before I continue, “No.” I glare at her as I say, “All you’ve done is be birthed from the womb of a rich mother. That. Is. All.”

A tear pours down her face before I stand and say, “I see I’ve shattered your composure.My mistake in my wording. I only wished to expose your position of ignorance, Antoinnette.”

Luke stands as he says, “So what if she’s lived a charmed life? There’s no shame in that.” He puts a hand on his chest, “You were there when Jack and I had our talk about my sister.”

He shouts, “I know what suffering is, and all I’ve done is be born rich as well. There’s one thing you didn’t get from Jack. It’s called sympathy. You should try it sometime.”

I roll my eyes before I say, “Really now? Perhaps you should heed your own advice. I am no human, and few humans who understood our lives would share your sentiments.” I crack my middle finger with my thumb before I say, “I remember watching an orphan starve on the streets of Tahnar. I watched Jack as he scrambled for purpose and life after facing trials you’ve only dreamt in nightmares.”

In outrage, I spit my words, “There are those surrounded by death. There are those who walk through one hardship to another until they die a slow death, alone. I feel there suffering. I feel there malice. I work to end it.”

I hiss with venom and poison leaking from each word as I say, “You sit here guarded once more by those around you, ignorant of their pain, unknowing of their torment. That is how you shall continue, demanding the protection and respect of others as you hide yourself from the true face of this world.”

An ironclad will slams into me before I grab the edges of my head in pain. I shake and convulse for a moment as Jack wrestles for control. As I focus on the struggle for a moment, a realization dawns on me - Jack’s will has strengthened.

My own will has as well, however, but I decide against instigating him any further. I fall into the subconscious within seconds before I ebb back into consolidation. There is no need for a violent confrontation over this.

Regardless of what he believes, my words hold truth. These children need to be awoken to what is in front of them, and Jack’s attempts at hiding them from their reality will only leave them unprepared for what is to come.

This world is changing, and their lineage may no longer keep them guarded from this world's peril.

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I calm my heavy breathing before I turn towards Antoinette and Luke as I say, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think he’d be like that. I thought-”

Luke hold out a hand as he says, “Just...Just be quiet. For just a minute.”

A spark of anger pulses through my mind as Antoinette’s quiet sobbing fills the cavern. Joan and Aether gaze at the table before Sophia crosses her arms as she says, “That went about as well as I thought it would.”

After shaking her head, she stands up and paces towards Antoinette and puts a hand on her shoulder. Sophia calms her with soothing phrases before she pulls her from her seat and guides her to her room. The sliding of the gem against stone grates through the silence before we permeate in the tense atmosphere for several minutes.

Afterwards, Joan says, “How have you lived with someone like that for so long Jack? I would have lost my sanity if I had to listen to him for so long.”

I bite my lip for a moment before I say, “He means well, though he’s rather...harsh. I’ll speak with him later.” I turn towards Luke before I say, “If there is something I can do-”

He clenches his fist before he says, “Just shut-up. I can’t look at you when you just berated a girl like that.”

I shake my head before he cuts me off right as I begin speaking again, “It felt like it was you alright? I don’t care right now.”

He turns around before he walks towards his room and slams his door. As he does, the pang of anger earlier resurfaces, seething in my mind. I never had the opportunity to run from my problems. I always had to fight them head on and immediately, otherwise I would perish. His immaturity...I can’t deny a revulsion for it.

Deluge aged my body while my own experiences aged my mind well past its own years. I couldn't afford running from my problems. He can, and it frustrates a part of myself that emanates spite and envy.

I shake it from my mind as I scold myself for such frivolous thoughts. Brooding over the lives of others leads to no good, so I sigh before I say to Joan, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner...It was something I thought you’d never have to know.”

She bites her lip as she stares at the ground before she says,”I can’t say I blame you either. I mean...He’s a total ass.” She meets my eyes as she continues with a sly grin, “He’s why Sophia and I are still alive right? He can’t be all bad.”

I nod before I say, “His actions and his words often contradict each other. It leads to remarkable misunderstandings.”

Sophia returns from Antoinette's room as she says, “He seems compelled to preach to others. I wonder why?”

I shrug before I say, “I learned that he almost always has a point behind his tirades. He forces you to face what you’ve been avoiding...I’ll give you an example. Did you know I am only 13 years old?”

A scoff escapes Sophia before I say, “It’s true. I may seem older, but I’ve aged quite a few years since the misery I’ve faced. Deluge’s interference proved pivotal for my maturing. I had to accept what he said. We share a body and a mind. Either we respect one another or we’ll end up in constant conflict.”

I shrug as I say, “That is one of the only times I’ve ever forced him from our conscious. His judgements are normally more sound and rational, but hopefully what he said will end up helping more than they end up hurting.”

Aether nods before he says, “I believe Deluge reacted that way due to a repressed hatred towards them both. He seemed outraged by your guarded reaction towards them.”

Aether’s voice cools the ambience of the room as he says, “Sophia had her soul torn apart. Joan has faced paramount torture. You’ve faced many trials, and I was imprisoned for millennia and taken from my body.”

Aether turns towards Sophia as he says, “They are not like us. They only recently adjusted to my appearance, and they never trusted Razor. I doubt they will ever see Jack as the same either.”

I bite my lip before I drag my hand across my face. I tap my chin for a moment before I say, “I knew confessing would carry consequences, but it needed to be done. Deluge is a part of me, so if you wish to be my friend, you must tolerate him as well. I know it can be hard but...”

Aether nods before he says, “I believe Deluge is good. They may come to this realization as well. We may only hope.”

I nod before I turn towards Sophia as I say, “When would you all be willing to leave? There are few reasons for my continued stay here. I believe that applies to you all at this point.”

Sophia taps the table for a moment before she says, “Well, honestly, I could leave today. I would miss Razor, but she’ll be fine here. I do worry about Luke and Antoinette though.”

I shrug before I say, “Their families will protect them. We need only unite them with their kin to ensure their safety, if they are against following us.”

Sophia blinks for a moment before she nods with a spark of understanding dawning on her. She says, “I forgot they had noble parents.”

Joan nods her head as she says, “I know my family would never have allowed what happened to me.”

Aether says, “I can ensure their safe returns if you both would like. I only need directions.”

I nod as I say, “If it comes to that, then I will take your offer. We’ll have to see whether or not they want to go on the odyssey we have planned however.”

Sophia shakes her head as she says, “I know Antoinette doesn't want to. Luke maybe, but he isn’t...well...ready for it. He hears an outburst from Deluge and he has to run into his room to vent his frustration. If he can’t even handle someone’s rudeness then I doubt he could handle a sword coming at his throat.”

I nod for a moment before I say, “Deluge speaks with a sharper tongue than most, but I understand the sentiment, but Luke’s a good friend. He isn’t someone I would want to leave behind, yet if that is what’s best for him, then that’s the course I’ll take.”

After a moment, I turn towards Joan as I say, “Any thoughts on the matter? At least I’m honest, right?”

Joan replies, “I don’t know what to think really. Deluge is...he’s unexpected. I don’t blame them for needing some time for adjusting.”

Sophia states, “I don’t either. It just, hmm. It makes a case against them. If they want to run from something like that, I don’t think they’re ready for something as deadly as what Jack has planned. I could be judging too harshly though.”

I shrug as I say, “I didn’t imagine either of them coming with me. I actually envisioned walking the entire journey on my own. Well, with Deluge of course.”

Aether nods before he says, “It’s a shame so much stew went to waste though.”

I shake my head before I say, “I can finish whatever isn’t eaten.”

Joan raises an eyebrow before I scratch the side of my head while I say, “I have to feed 2 minds, give me a break.”

She blinks for a moment before she replies, “That and being 7 foot tall.”

I frown as I say, “I’m not that tall.”

She squints her eyes as she says teasingly, “Yet. I don’t see why you’d stop growing at this rate.”

She finishes her soup with a final bite before she continues, “It’s kind of nerve wracking whenever I see you gulp an entire bowl in less than a second. It makes me wonder how much you eat.”

I weigh my hands back and forth before I say, “I can eat as much as there is in front of me. Deluge processes it into new mass or something along those lines.”

I tilt my head for a moment before I say, “I also quit sleeping, eating, or using the bathroom. It’s been bizarre to say the least.”

Joan squints her eyebrows before she says, “Come now, surely you still follow the medicinal guidelines for how the body works?”

I shake my head before I say, “Deluge has proven all we know of medicine wrong.”

“How so?”

“For starters, the body is composed of trillions of what Deluge calls, “cells,” and the overall make-up of the body involves far more than just biles, blood, and phlegm.”

Sophia purses her lips for a moment as she says, “How would Deluge know anything?”

I gesture a palm outwards as I say, “He’s able to regenerate a human’s body that isn’t his own for starters. He’s also able to describe in detail what numerous diseases are and their causes along with a variety of cures for them. I’ve yet to share this knowledge as it would be known as heresy throughout our world, but if others can accept his knowledge,”

Sophia adds, “Then they’ll be able to treat the ailments that end so many lives with simple yet effective treatments or preventions.”

I nod before Joan says, “Let’s save that for after harvesting the remnants of Gaia.”

I shrug before I say, “I intended to display that knowledge to other cultures as we traversed through the other territories.”

Joan taps the table before she says, “Good luck convincing a bunch of savages about medicine. The geshians never treat their dying. They believe it’s against Gaia’s will.”

I lean towards her as I say, “They may be closer to true medicine than us at least. According to Deluge, the practice of bloodletting actually hurts the recovery process, unless they have mercury poisoning, but I still don’t know what that is really.”

I shrug as I say, “Apparently it’s a metal that’s liquid at room temperature. It’s so dense that blocks of iron float in it.”

As Joan begins her reply, Aether cuts into our conversation once more, “I do not wish to interrupt, but perhaps some sort of plan would do us well in our future journey. Since we are leaving soon, we should start our preparation. I believe with Sophia and Joan’s added knowledge, we will be able to generate a well coordinated effort.”

I nod as I say, “Sounds like an excellent idea.”

--------------------------------------------------------------

Over the course of a few hours, we grind out the details of the plan as each of us brainstormed over the specifics of each phase. We’ll start by infiltrating Bigel’s capital, Nelastra, before we head east towards the Trilel Empire. Afterwards, we’ll head South towards the Geshian’s piece before we ascend mount Alta for its remnant. Afterwards, we’ll find the piece in the aquarell’s empire towards the west.

That’s the general guideline, and we assume that several of the pieces may involve seeking out darker and far more deformed lands in order to find these pieces. Civilizations quell the tide of corruption these shards produce, but when they sit in nature, the very earth itself warps in the wake of the remnant’s influence.

Those shall be our last stopping points. By then, we should all be well accustomed to the trials of finding these shards, and with each problem we solve, we gain the experience required for timely decisions that will leave us alive.

This leaves me with quite a few hours left in my day however, so I say my farewells before I walk through Aether’s murals and into the forest. As I cross through trees, I find a scouting mission with a large party. I assume they aim for my and the student’s I saved heads.

This group of thirty people walk with three plague doctors leading the unit.  A series of armored gemchainers compose a large portion of the other group while two or three trackers fill in the last portions of each team.

Each individual appears skilled with a wide knowledge of combat, but I doubt they’ve ever faced something quite like me. With the aspect of surprise on my side once more, I prepare a sort of killing ground.

As I stand outside their line of sight, I break branches and leave moved bushery in a straight line towards a set of clustered trees that leave bumpy roots all across the forest floor. This litters the place with obstacles restricting their mobility so they can’t escape. I also make sure theses signs reach past my hiding place so they’ll believe I continued past my hiding spot.

Soon, they begin passing through the place I hide in. After the doctor reaches within 10 feet of the trees I hide in, I leap from between two branches overhead straight towards the doctor.

His flesh pulps under my weight as he splatters across the open expanse. Blood gushes in every direction blinding the other nearby members of the troupe. They attempt to rally themselves, but I tear and slice and chomp and mash until I surround myself in carnage.

The massacre ends in seconds without any real retaliation from my enemy. A few impale a sword in my or use a weak gemchain, but I brush these wounds of like the stings of wasps. With the group dispatched and their souls consolidated, I clean myself by wiping larger bits of them from my body and soaking their blood from my clothes with my skin.

My body absorbs without hesitation as I saturate myself in the taste for a moment. I can’t deny a sick sort of pleasure from killing these monsters, but I suppress my bloodlust and urges for eating what’s left. This hunger, it disturbs me.

There’s a distance between me and others now. I no longer think like a human. I stand over the splattered organs and mangled limbs with a piercing indifference. These are humans, and I am a different entity altogether.

I exist as something darker. Empathizing with humans no longer occurs without thought. I must force that pang of guilt which emphasizes my lack of attachment.

I still retain the personal closeness I forged with my friends however. The thought of another being harming Joan or Sophia or the others fills me with fury, and using that affinity for them, I keep grounded. I will follow the ideals of my father and the words of my mother, and through my experiences and undertakings, I will cleanse Gaia’s taint upon this world.

I hope so, at least. As I finish my thoughts, I leave the slaughter and reach through the forest towards the students. As I do so, I reach out towards Deluge. I think towards him, “I’m sorry for lashing out in anger earlier. I shouldn’t have forced you from consciousness like that.”

After a moment, Deluge replies, “...Seeing those two act so angrily despite their ignorance and utter lack of understanding sets these human emotions of mine on fire. They’ve no idea what a hellish place this world is, yet they lash out as if they face their own great trials. It infuriates me.”

I shake my head for a moment before I say, “Tell me Deluge, is ignorance a crime?”

“Hah, it is not ignorance that angered me. It is a lack of self awareness. They see no difference between them and others because they cannot even see themselves.”

After several moments of contemplation, I reach the students before I say, “I don’t know if you’re wrong, but reprimanding them so harshly will only close them off from any advice you offer. Even if your point is justified, berating them as you express it demonstrates your real motives. Self satisfaction.”

“Hah, I gain no satisfaction from tormenting children. I gain satisfaction in ending their blindness.”

As I reach the edge of the encampment, I think, “We’ll discuss it later.”

“I’m readily waiting.”

I reach through the encampment before a pair of eyes glance upon me. After a moment, Francis shouts, “It’s only Jack. Calm down guys.”

The frenzied expression on her contorted face dies as I approach while saying, “How’s the moral?”

She squeezes through a small gap in the enclosure before she says, “Better than I expected. Though after the torment those masked guys gave us, I doubt anything would be painful.”

I nod in agreement before I say, “A friend of mine will carry you towards the nearest family of one of your friends. From there, the family will have the resources for getting all of you home.”

She chuckles with a nervous aversion as before she says, “Who’s your friend?”

I scratch the edge of my face as I say, “Hmm, well...The golem of the end.”

She blinks for a moment before she says with a shaky smile, “He won’t hurt us, will he?”

I turn towards the forest as I say, “Not on purpose at least. I’ll grab something for today's food and water. I’ll be back soon.”

I dash through the forest as she mumbles something even my sharp ears can’t hear. After dashing through the forest for several minutes, I hone in on the burrow of a rabbit. After dispatching it and its children, I dash towards the encampment with the gutted animals prepared for them.

After a few moments of discussion, I leave them with the tools and meat from earlier along with the directions towards a stream nearby. They thank me with a desperate and feverish zeal that unnerves me, but I blame their unending gratitude on the experiences of the doctors. Anyone would be thankful for ending that misery.

With that handled, I dash towards the campus for gathering the necessary supplies on our journey and for checking on those I left behind. As I encroach on the campus’s parameter, the overcast sky unnerves me. Spring encroaches on us, and with that comes the north’s rainy season. The unending torrent will present a problem during our travels, but the dying fauna on the campus presents a far greater omen for trouble.

With the sudden death of the campus’s plants, I skulk behind browned husks before I inspect several of the buildings I never visited during my stay here. Even without the living students, the majesty of the campus takes my breath away.

Each room organizes itself with a sharp pragmatism, yet never do the designers use that practicality as an excuse for a lack of beauty. They mesh these contradicting elements in a seamless mixture of unique layouts for each subject. Killing a few guards and priests along the way dampens this artistry, but all of the palisade must die regardless of the scenery.

After exploring and clearing several of the lesser known buildings, I carry a knapsack full of wax, diningware, and soaps. These luxuries will give us many options for their use while the girls each complained about how little they’ve been able to bathe since being in the cavern. I no longer need to bathe as Deluge keeps us clean.

This isn’t the case with the others however, so with these items in tow, I reach my final checking point for the day - the head office building of the campus. The towering entrance stands accentuated by massive pillars along the sides of the building while the thirty steps leading to the entrance gives another layer of importance. The statues of angels holding bread and fruit express the abundance that was once here and the silver lining between the square blocks of white marble seem to say, “Even our buildings own a silver lining. Welcome.”

Walking through the fine mahogany doors of the entrance, I find the entry room holding pillars and columns mimicking the entrance. These stabilizing marvels surround an equally remarkable tree of blue granite with twelve holes at the center of its trunk.

The tree represents Gaia, but I doubt any thief would be able to pierce the veil the doctors left on the campus so they could steal the gems at the center of the tree. The palisade must be using them for something.

As I near the tree, a loud rumble radiates through the building. The unnatural groan grows until it shakes through the stone of the building building before Deluge shouts, “What have they done here...”

As he says so, I notice the palpable reak of freshly busted organs. At the end of the circular room lies several streaks of blood leading towards the edge of the building while tiny veins pulse at the edge of the doorway. They pump the souls of the surrounding fauna all into one cluster of souls in the abyss of the building.

As the gravity of the situation sinks in, I grit my teeth and think, “They’ve abandoned all reverence. They’ve become a living nightmare.”

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