As the storm raged, Atticus Anoethite stood on the edge of the cliff overlooking Statodnim. "I'm ready," he answered his current training partner, Raisa. Starting off with a run, he quickly teleported to a ledge on the other side. Losing his footing, he stumbled backwards and managed to stop himself from falling by gripping a nearby rock.
Teleporting to a ledge further down, he repeated the process a few times, stumbling across rocks every now and then. After a few minutes, he returned to Raisa's side.
"How did I do that time?"
"You could work on your balance," Raisa said. "Stumbling around won't do you any good, and you've been working on this for a good while now. Laziness won't get you anywhere."
"I'm trying, "Atticus answered. "I just can't seem to get my measurement down. Should I try again?"
Raisa waved her hand away. "You can do it another time. We have more important matters to attend. Now, have you thought of an answer to Xanvi's question? It's not something to take lightly, unlike your training."
"Well, uh, about that," Atticus paused.
Seemingly late at night, Atticus was in the basement working on the weapon Moloch had sent him after. Clueless, he wasn't sure what type of weapon he would need and had spent days working out different shapes and molding together random parts. Growing frustrated, he decided to follow the shape he was working on — he found that, so far, this shape was the easiest to mold the metal into - and managed to create a large circular object. Though he was unsure of what he would do with it, he was satisfied with the creation and decided to work on it further at a later time.
Time flowed differently in Statodnim, and Atticus wasn't sure how long he had actually been there. However, in the "weeks" that flew by since his arrival there, he managed to receive more training and become friendly with most of the Dream Eaters. Even though he tried to slow his training down for as long as possible by making missteps on purpose, he knew this question would eventually appear again and that he would need to speed up his plan.
"I'm still making up my mind. As you can see, I haven't excelled in my training yet."
"Give it time," Atticus turned to see another Dream Eater had teleported to them, Meffe. "I've been part of the group for longer than anyone 'cept Xanvi. It gets easier."
"Thanks for understanding," Atticus nodded. "Teleporting is hard to get a firm grasp of. Can I return to my room, for now?"
"I don't see why not," Meffe shrugged. "Just come back whenever you're ready."
Walking towards the entrance of his room, Atticus glanced out of it. Satisfied with the surrounding view, he quickly teleported to the basement. Walking in, he was startled to see the robed figure of a Dream Eater standing next to Lamassu.
"Moloch?" Atticus called out. "What are you doing down here? I'm still working on the weapon, though it's not much of one yet."
The Dream Eater turned around, holding the smooth disc of metal that Atticus had made in its pallid hands.
"Moloch...?" came the deep voice of Serapis, "So, he's in on this too."
"What?" Atticus asked, stopping in his tracks. "I mean, him and I have just been training down here. It's pretty secluded and I can focus better."
Serapis threw down the object, which embedded in the ground in front of Atticus. Steam came out of the floor.
"I know what you've made. Not only are you a traitor, you're foolish. If you think this thing will be your salvation, then I pity you."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Atticus stated, backing up. "I'm not doing anything wrong, I don't know what that object is."
"Then you shouldn't mind me bringing this up to Xanvi. I'll make sure to bring this Lamassu with me, always good to have an eyewitness account," Serapis spat at Atticus. "Defend yourself, profligate, and bear witness to the might of Statodnim."
Thinking quickly, Atticus teleported to the shield and grabbed it, using it to turn around and bash Serapis' head. Attempting to use his shock against him, Atticus kicked at his legs, hoping to bring the Dream Eater to the floor.
Serapis caught himself as he fell to the ground, transitioning into a handstand and flipping back onto his feet. From his robes he produced a pair of curved blades. To Atticus' surprise, Serapis pointed the weapon towards him, hilt-first.
"I said to defend yourself. No use trying to fight me with that crude thing."
"What happened to bringing me to Xanvi?" Atticus asked, warily grabbing the hilt and pulling it towards himself.
"I never said you'd be in one piece." Serapis swung his own sword down over Atticus' head.
Feeling a rush of adrenaline, Atticus managed to dodge the blow and charged forward, kicking Serapis in the chest. Landing a successful hit, he twisted his sword and attempted to slash it against the throat of the Dream Eater.
With his blade clashing against air, Atticus noticed Serapis was no longer located there.
Serapis appeared behind Atticus, who was able to swiftly turn around and lock blades with him. Serapis gritted his teeth and pulled his weapon back, kicking in Atticus' chest.
Staggering backwards, Atticus managed to catch himself and raised the shield for defense. Charging towards Serapis again, he swung his weapon and slashed part of his robes underneath the neck, drawing blood.
Serapis put his hand to his throat, the black liquid contrasting with his ivory flesh. He began to conjure a dark flame in his palm, before throwing it at Atticus.
Atticus raised the shield and batted it forward, managing to bounce the flame off of it. "Is that all you can do?"
Serapis continued hurling the projectiles, speeding up with the sound of machine gun fire. Atticus deflected every one of them.
"I yield!" Atticus yelled. "I give up, okay. You win, just take me to Xanvi."
"I'm not an idiot, Atticus. When I tell Xanvi what you've tried to do, you'll be nothing more than a red stain on the floor." Serapis ignited his sword, and threw the weapon at Atticus.
"What are you doing?" Atticus yelled, slamming his shield forward and colliding with the flaming weapon. "If that is Xanvi's decision, then I'll accept it. But this fight has to stop."
Surprised at the force of the blade, Atticus managed to send it flying in the direction of Serapis, successfully lodging it against his throat.
Serapis' corpse was pinned against the metal walls by his sword, his body set aflame. Atticus gathered his breath, before a loud popping sound came from behind him. He turned around to see the Dream Eater who had taken Samuel's body, Yaakov.
Oh, great. I guess this is the moment.
Charging the Dream Eater, Atticus swung his blade at him, watching as it went through his body like it was made of air.
Yaakov revealed his arm from his robe, armored in gunmetal ringmail. Tesla coils sparked on his pauldron. A twenty-sided die floated from his hand.
"Most people don't make it this far," Yaakov spoke in monotone. "Congratulations." Without another word, the die split apart into four sharp metal pieces and shot at Atticus' extremities.
A small army was waiting for Cicero as he stepped out of the airlock. Dasim was flanked by rows of commanders: none with a comparable reputation to his, but all great warriors in their own right. Soldiers of Mesto and Vilebluysk stood alongside them. The supreme commander faced Cicero, focusing his wide, rectangular pupils on the approaching demigod. He had a crossbow and quiver at his side. Although he was not fond of it, Dasim usually relied on a sword for self-defense. The heavier bow was reserved for battle.
Cicero stopped in his tracks. "Did something happen, commander?" He eyed the battalion. "Are we under attack?"
"No, Cicero," Dasim stepped forward. "This meeting was called for you to voluntarily relinquish your position as State Council Leader."
"I never took you for the power hungry type, Dasim," Cicero's visor slammed shut. "You know how this is going to end, don't you?"
"I know," the commander reached for his weapon. "Before we get on with it, let me make myself clear: I'm not doing this because I want to kill you. I'm doing this because you have proven yourself unfit to rule. Your obsession with bringing your father back should not supersede your responsibility to lead us."
"We're not carrying out this war for the Nuyovians, we're waging it against the gods. You've really lost sight of what's important. I'm giving you a chance right now to turn around and forget this ever happened," Cicero said, placing a hand on his weapon's hilt. "Or you can point that weapon at me and throw your life away.."
Defiant, Dasim raised his crossbow. The warriors and Avilov's squadron took their own weapons in concert. Bows, swords, rifles and shotguns all pointed at Cicero. The demigod pulled his sword out with a flourish, along with a small shield equipped on his back.
He extended his shield hand towards one of the warriors, whose helmet began to slowly implode on itself. As the man's blood started leaking down his neck, two soldiers on either side of him found themselves pulled towards the nexus of Cicero's attack. The metal of their helmets slammed together and they were quickly knocked unconscious.
Cicero kicked his heels together, creating a jingling noise with his spurs. At once, a black serpent flew from one of the Copperhead's portholes, biting into one of the Nuyovians' throats.
Avilov then moved away from downed soldiers, scurrying over. Not wanting to make himself an obvious target, he then ran over and stealthily hid behind some bushes. Avilov then took out his gun and opened fire at Cicerco's helmet. The shots missed. He ducked back behind cover.
Dasim watched as the warriors and soldiers fought on. He was about to take aim at Cicero when the demigod's backup arrived. Cicero had summoned more than just his pet. Two elite guards, handpicked by Cicero for their personal loyalty to him, were joining the fight as well. Volkov was a ratlike creature whose armor was covered in spikes. He held a glaive. His partner, Dharma, preferred an ax. Dharma was fat and fish-like, dressed in over-sized brass armor.
Cicero kicked off of the ground, spreading his wings and launching into the air with a sonic boom. For a moment, the battlefield was silent, before Volkov and Dharma began to charge the dissidents. The small dragon flew from soldier to soldier, attacking the joints and weak points in their armor.
In the ensuing chaos, the supreme commander focused on Dharma as he ran towards him. He had slashed apart every fighter who stood between him and his target with ease. This gave Dasim ample time to prepare for his arrival, however, and the soldiers had succeeded in breaking some of his armor. As the last man fell, Dharma felt a bolt enter his neck. He felt little more after.
Defeating a member of Cicero's elite bodyguard was not a common achievement, though there was no time to celebrate for Dasim's entourage as Volkov speared three soldiers on the end of his polearm. Dasim loaded another bolt into his weapon as Avilov pumped his shotgun.
The sounds of the battle, however, were quickly drowned out by the rushing of air, and Avilov found himself lifted into the sky by what looked like little more than a dark blur against the grey sky. His screams faded into the distance, and after a few moments Cicero returned to the battlefield.
The burst of adrenaline from killing Dharma faded. Dasim watched as his men began to swarm towards Cicero. He wanted to join them, but he focused on the dragon first. Powehi moved swifter than his bolts could reach, but he kept firing.
As the battle continued and Cicero dispatched the combatants around him with clean sword strikes, his bodyguard began to even out the battlefield. Where once stood a squadron of soldiers, there were only a meager few belligerents left on Dasim's side. The commander knew he could easily deal with Volkov and Powehi, he unfortunately could not say the same about Cicero.
The demigod gritted his teeth as he prepared to swing again, before he felt a searing pain shoot through his fingers and up his right arm. He attempted to bring down his sword once more, though as it clattered to the ground and he was able to look at his hand, Cicero saw that where his appendage once stood, there was not much more than a mangled bit of flesh decorated with white-hot shrapnel.
He kicked off the ground again to escape the field, but all that came of that was feathers falling from the smoldering remains of his right wing. Dasim's men had subdued Volkov and the dragon, and begun to open fire on Cicero with Avilov's weaponry. The godling felt his helmet compress around his head as pellets peppered it, and he heard the metal begin to crack.
The final crack came not from a bullet, but a bolt. Cicero fell to the ground, unable to move. Dasim walked to him, crossbow still in hand, while the remaining warriors kept their distance. The commander knelt down to look upon the godling's partially exposed face.
Cicero, face smeared in blood and drenched in sweat, mustered a curse at Dasim, before his vision began to blur and his eyes became vacant.
Cicero awoke at a long table. It was wooden, and on its surface was a sprawling carving of a topographical map that held a nagging familiarity to him.
A pale man with vacant eyes stood before him. Cicero recognized his father instantly.
"This is our home, Cicero," he said, pointing at the mountains to the west of the map. "We live here because it is far away from the bad people. They live over there." He pointed towards the shining city in the north. "At the center of their home is where the biggest bad guy lives. Do you remember who that is?"
"Close," Xeren smiled. "Vritra."
"Vee-tra," Cicero heard himself trying to pronounce the name.
"Can you tell me why he is bad? What did he do?"
"He made the people he didn't like work all the time."
"But they were freed, weren't they? Who freed them?"
"Not alone. I helped them where I could, but many of them managed to free themselves with a little encouragement."
"Who leads the demon army?"
"Uh, I thought you did, but I thought you freed them. Do they lead themselves?"
Xeren chuckled. "Don't doubt yourself, you were right when you thought I lead them. Last question: who leads the demons if something happens to me?"
"I take your place."
Cicero's eyes began to lose focus, and slowly he returned to reality. He placed his intact hand on the end of Dasim's crossbow, and began to stand up.
"Surrender," the supreme commander ordered. "Surrender now and you can live. Don't make me do this."
Cicero fell to his knees again and he put his hand to the earth beneath him. With one motion, he flung the dirt into Dasim's eye and grabbed his sword once again.
A swift flick took the grime from his face. Dasim tightly clutched the crossbow. Cicero was still weak. He could kill the demigod with a well-placed shot to the head. Priceless seconds of opportunity as Dasim prepared to take the last shot.
Cicero swung the greatsword around his body and into Dasim's side as the bolt whizzed past his neck. He began to heave as he pushed the sword further.
A long, silver limousine pulled up to the gates of Silivia. In the back half of it, the remaining members of the Port City Eight and their allies in the Search Party were seated.
Due to Blackmore fleeing the Chang Monastery for an unknown reason and a bitter decision made to end the search for Atticus in Aiola, there was tension in the air and conversation had been very scarce.
"We're here," the driver, provided by the Global Union, called out from the front. "Get your things ready."
"So," Zade began, reaching down and grabbing his bag and hiking stick. "What's it like here in Silivia? I've never been here before." For most of the ride, Zade had been hesitant to speak due to the tension surrounding everyone.
"It's a great place," Li answered, looking out the window as they continued to drive through the streets. "For a while, I didn't think I would be able to see this place again. It's good to be back home."
Due to the group deciding to part ways after exiting the limousine, Chris stood on the steps of the Laboratory of the Unexplainable, hoping to see Richard Devlin. Much to Chris' surprise, Beth Darwin, Richard's lab assistant, opened the door.
"Hello, my apologies for Richard not being available. He has been caught up in his work and he's out bowling with some friends. Trying to relax," Beth spoke casually, bringing Chris inside. She led him to a room and sat down, urging him to do the same. "Anyway, what brings you back to the Laboratory, Chris? I saw you were acquitted, I'm glad for that."
"Losing Steven was hard on both of us," Beth answered, sorrow clouding her face. "Sometimes it is still tough, but we will manage somehow. Anyway, about Melissa..." Before she could finish, the door closing could be heard and Richard entered the room. "Welcome back, sir," Beth addressed him.
"What are you doing here?" Richard asked, shocked at seeing Chris.
"It's good to see you again," Richard stammered. "I heard about the trial, but I wasn't expecting to see you here so soon. And losses? You've all got it wrong, Melissa isn't dead. She visited me a week ago, she's in the Ackerman Militia again."
"Melissa's alive?" Chris gasped. "I didn't realize she could have made it all the way back from Headre, we thought the skinwalker demons killed her. Where is she? Can I contact her?"
"We sadly don't have much contact anymore," Richard replied. "She left Silivia right after coming to see us. There's no telling where she might be."
Standing on the steps of the house, Blossom Cane wasn't sure how she felt. On one hand, she was happy to be released from Global Union custody and glad to be in Silivia again — she was finally able to see her parents again. On the other hand, she felt nervous. The last few times she had talked to her parents, they had been angry at her for moving out and renting an apartment with Atticus. And she was certain being in the Port City Eight hadn't improved their feelings towards her.
"Are you going to knock or what?" A female voice called out, interrupting her thoughts. Looking behind her, she noticed Lisa Fiss and Zade were still standing across the street. After spending time on the flight and car ride together, Lisa and Blossom had formed a small friendship and the older girl had agreed to give both Blossom and Zade a ride.
"Yeah, I was just thinking," Blossom answered. After taking a breath, she knocked on the door a few times. Movement could be heard from inside of the house, before a man finally opened it. He was somewhat taller than Blossom and seemed to be in his forties, with a light brown tan and combed black hair that was graying at the edges. Dressed in casual clothes, he seemed to be shocked at receiving a visitor. The expression on his face quickly changed when he noticed her.
"B-Blossom?" Faris Cane asked, shocked. "What are you doing here? After everything? We've been through hell for your actions." After a moment of silence, he sighed. "Well, c'mon inside. We'd better talk this out."
Turning towards her companions, Blossom nodded and followed her father inside. She was led through a small entrance room and into a wider living room with green walls and dark brown furniture spread out. Sitting in a chair in front of a paper-covered table, a woman in a purple dress was drinking from a small mug. She had brown hair and dark eyes, similar to Blossom's appearance and was only slightly taller. Upon seeing the two enter, she set the mug down.
"So," Blossom began. "I know you guys are angry at me, and I get that — I just wanted to stop by. Did you heard of the acquittal?"
Faris sat down, and exchanged glances with his wife, Hawa Cane. "Yes, we did hear about that," he answered. He paused to drink from his coffee cup, then continued, "But regardless, I'm still angered over your part in this. Can you explain what happened? How did you even get involved with that group?"
"I don't know what you've heard, so I guess I'll just start from the beginning," Blossom stated.
"Sounds like a good idea," Hawa replied. "Go ahead."
After finishing, Blossom paused. "I know that both of you think that it was stupid to join the group in the first place or move out, but I had my reasons. Despite our plans, we didn't do much at Remnant Rock and we suffered enough for our part. Running through demon-infested continents wasn't easy, losing people we cared about wasn't easy. And we've been acquitted too, though I understand that doesn't erase how people might look at us. I'm just saying I'm sorry."
"We forgive you, Blossom," Hawa nodded. "But I hope you understand that making up for your actions and the damage done to our reputation isn't going to be as simple as apologizing."
Walking towards his home, various thoughts flew through Jordan's mind. A few blocks away was his high school, and close to there was the basketball court that Jordan and Atticus would skip classes to play rounds with Sebastian Cloverdale.
Sebastian Cloverdale was a strange person, and I was right not to trust him. He's the reason that Atticus left the city in the first place - he started that demon hunting group and convinced Atticus to join him. It was pretty sad to hear that Sebastian was found dead with his group, but in the end, I guess we're lucky. Atticus is alive, and now that he's not wanted anymore, he's likely to turn up at any moment.
Turning the street corner, Jordan noticed three people seated on the porch of his home. Walking up to it, he felt wary as he recognized his parents and uncle. "Hey, everyone. I'm home."
"Jordan! I'm so glad to see you again," Mary Walesh jumped from her seat and quickly walked over, hugging him.
"I'm glad to see you too," Jordan replied, pulling away. "I'm sorry that I was gone for so long, I'm sure you saw the news though. We managed to catch up with them."
"But not before the Global Union did, eh?" Aaron asked, standing up and patting his nephew on the back. "It's alright, I'm just glad they were acquitted."
"Where's John at?" Jordan's father, Adande, asked.
"Um," Jordan paused, knowing he was going to be bringing sorrow with his next words. "He didn't make it, he died at Remnant Rock."
Everyone's expressions quickly changed, and Aaron quickly seated himself, putting his hand against his head.
"Can we go inside?" Jordan asked. "There's a lot to discuss."
The Wellington family lived in Gladea, their home not far from the former Alchemilia Corporation building. Dexter had avoided the town from the day he helped Chris escape to the day the Port City Eight returned to Silivia. Accompanied by the two android "brothers," the roboticist nervously knocked on the door. His father, Ray Wellington, answered.
"You're back!" he exclaimed, pulling his son into a tight hug. "Lin, Jim! He's back!" Ray called back into the house.
Linnea and James, mother and adopted brother respectively, ran to join them. James joined in on the group hug on the verge of tears. Linnea kept her distance, although she too had begun to tear up.
After the group hug separated, Dexter introduced the androids. "So, uh, this is Chris. I'm sure you've seen him on the news. That's Charles. He helped us find the 'notorious eight.'"
Ray and James exchanged greetings.
"Thank you for your service, Charles," Linnea said.
"You are very welcome," Charles replied.
"I have nothing to say to you," Linnea continued, glaring at Chris.
"You have every right to be mad at me, I understand," Chris answered.
Linnea ignored him and turned to face Dexter. "You also have a lot to answer for."
"I have a lot to explain about Alchemilia," Dexter started. "There were a lot of very bad people at the top, Ma. They wanted to abuse Chris."
"Don't lie to your mother. I don't know what possessed you to steal from them, or how involved you were in what it ended up doing, but you're not about to make me think—"
"Linnea, our son is back," Ray interrupted. "The least we can do is show him and his guests a little hospitality."
Linnea sighed. "Fine."
Ray led the new arrivals to the living room.
Walking towards the entrance and through the garden path, the group of nine stopped at the mansion's wide doors. Greeted by a man in a suit, they were guided inside and led through several large rooms before stopping in a dining room. A long table sat in the middle of it with dozens of chairs on each side of it. The man instructed them to sit down, and they did, waiting until another middle-aged man and a woman entered the room.
"Greetings," the man, Theo Rosington, began. "It's nice to see all of you. This is my wife, Vanessa."
"It's nice to meet all of you!" The woman - blonde with gray eyes and dressed in a short black dress - smiled at them and waved slightly. The two sat down, and Rosington called for a butler to bring meals for everyone.
"I know you might be confused as to why I invited all of you here, but I just wanted to make up for all the trials you have gone through. No citizen of Silivia should have to go through what your group did. I understand we didn't find Atticus and that you lost precious members of your group, but you have finally returned home," Rosington stated as they waited.
"Good to meet you, sir," Chris said. "Though I am suspicious as to why you invited us here when we don't know you that well."
"I've been on your side for a while, Mister Wellington," Rosington answered, glancing at him. "I do not know if Jordan mentioned it to you, but the search party was my idea as well and I assisted him and his team in various ways. And of course, I helped your group by providing you a law—"
"You're the only ones that have seen our son since he left Silivia," the woman, Vanessa, suddenly stated. "How was he? Was he okay? Why did he leave?"
"Atticus was a fantastic friend and a valuable asset to our group. He left us and stayed behind in Aiola while we were seeking refuge at the Chang monastery," Chris explained.
"He didn't make it to the trial," Jordan added.
Florence spoke up. "Your son was gone by the time the Global Union made it into Nirvana. He left in the middle of the night, as far as they know. Didn't say why. They had another companion who left not long after. Refresh me on his name?"
"Blackmore Veers," Marshall answered.
"He suggested that Atticus ratted us out to the GU and ran," Blossom continued.
Before either of the Rosingtons could reply, various servants walked in with plates of food and set them down in front of everyone seated.
"What's going on now?" Zade asked, overhearing the sounds of various servants coming in. Zade kept quiet to himself until now, as he was feeling conflicted. He thought the whole thing was suspicious so far....but he also wasn't sure why.
"Dinner," Dexter told him. "Are you alright?" He added, quieter.
"Don't worry, I'm fine." Zade replied.
"I've been thinking. The night before you all met Blackmore, you were accosted by two armed men. One died, but the gunner got away." Florence continued, "Blackmore was heavily armed when he found you in Headre, right?"
"He was," Li said. "Although it was likely a coincidence. None of us got a good look at the other attacker."
"That leads me into another question. Mister Rosington, did you send a boy named Blackmore Veers to rescue the Port City Eight?"
"No, I didn't send anyone else at all. I only had your group after them," Rosington answered, shooting his wife an odd glance.
Marshall leaned back. "That's not what he said."
Florence nodded. "Exactly. It stands to reason, then, that he might just be the reason that the Global Union was able to find you in the first place. Snitched and ran away."
"So nothing we learned from Blackmore was true," Chris realized. "How could we have been so foolish?"
"Exactly," Blossom added. "I stopped trusting him after he tried to blame Atticus."
"Do you think it's possible that these attackers - and therefore this Blackmore fellow - had any connections to the Svatovid?" Rosington asked Florence. "They've been a major problem these last few months, and our efforts to suppress their numbers in the city hasn't been successful."
Florence nodded. "I wouldn't be surprised. Alchem weapons are the only reason they haven't been flushed into the sewers yet. They've certainly got a motive."
"I am sorry, but what is the Svatovid exactly?" Chris asked.
"Nuyovian thugs, our friendly neighborhood mafia. The 'rumors' are that they're funded by the Coalition. It's an open secret."
"Yeah, we had a run-in with them at Crehambraugh," Lisa commented, finally breaking her silence. "There's been a lot of conflict between the Svatovid and local authorities lately."
"The situation is getting pretty dangerous," Vanessa added. Before anyone else could speak, a loud boom interrupted. It sounded distant, but had enough force to rattle all of the windows. Looking away from his meal with an alarmed gaze, Rosington peered towards the windows.
"What was th-?" Li attempted to say, as another boom could be heard, closer and bringing forth a shattering rain of glass as the windows exploded in the recoil.
"Get out of this room," Rosington yelled as he bolted out of his chair and aides began to rush into the room. "Everyone, get out! Just go!"
With a sense of panic spreading, the seated began to frantically spring out of their seats and began to head towards the entrance of the room. And then — everything went silent as the walls around them exploded and collapsed.