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Daybreak

"I remember most of these things as if they happened yesterday. Probably because some of them did happen yesterday... but I digress.

When I was but 18 years old at the turn of the century, I couldn't have imagined the journey I was about to embark on. From being a professional plumber to slaying mythical creatures, I think each of them has shaped who I am now. And what better to show you that than with some storytelling?

This is the tale of how two foolish, eager youths - Amare and Bisa, two former slaves, no less - became caught in a web that would put the fate of the world in balance. It all began at daybreak in a warm riverside swamp on the Thel coast..."

Chapter 1 - Mission Creep

Thwack!

The snot-nosed leatherclad Zombie keeled into the sandbar as a fierce kick crushed his innards, courtesy of my calves. As another duo approached, I continued to question the wisdom behind setting up camp overnight in a rotting swamp. "Bis, i'll toss an early retirement and a small villa your way if you promise-". My ribbing was rudely interrupted by a blast of warm, pungent breath from a centuries-old shambling corpse.

I returned favor with a most graceful combo, integrating both unarmed skill and dagger acumen. In other words, I stabbed him after uppercutting him. As for the Zombie behind him... he died due to old age, apparently. Embarassing.

"Promise what, now?" asked a snarky Bisa, emerging from the makeshift quilt she built as our tent. During my scuffle, she helped bravely by packing our belongings and readying our illustrious donkey, Carl, for the ride.

"To not cut a few decades off my lifespan."

"We'd require more than a small villa to fit your lanky frame. Perhaps a regal manse by the glimmering wayside?" asked Bisa, mocking an upper-class Aragonian accent as she arrogantly fanned herself with some wheat.

"Maybe after we rob every castle in Aquila." I responded confidently as I mounted the saddle on Carl's back. We snapped our cumbersome belongings - sizeable helpings of bread, melons, and pristine carrots - onto his sturdy frame, and began the ride southward with the warm sunlight at our backs.

"What's our itinerary?" My eternally curious - and forgetful - companion asked. "We head south ten thousand blocks to the small farming commune of Katoa. There, we meet with the village elder, Kilos, whose bill we saw posted at the tavern in Nashi. They've been facing a deluge of zombies, and after our encounter back there, I weep for them. I expect we'll arrive at nightfall. They'll brief us there."

"Precise and punctual! I thought you were careless and brash, but you surprise a girl every day..."

"My apologies, but with you as the navigator, the only surprise we'd be getting is a one-way ticket halfway across the world to an early grave in Hesperides!"

With laughs like these, we were completely unaware of the hours rapidly passing by. Well, we also had fun by violently breaking up packs of angry undead. But that's neither here nor there. Soon, night fell on what was perhaps the last "normal" day of my life... a time I certainly miss, but wish to never see return. Shortly, we were at the bright gates of the cozy farmer's town.

"Hark!" Spat an unquestionably rude and large guard stationed below a glowstone lamp, pointing his worn spear at me. "Easy, Tiny. We're here about the bill. Wouldn't want me to die and have a clingy dead man bite your handsome face off, yeah?" I responded, mucho suave.

"Hmph! Pass, ye mercenaries!"

So much for a warm welcome.

"I think the message here is that you've the face of an undead beast." bit Bisa.

"I wasn't going to tell you, but I saw his eyes drifting your way..."

Inside the sturdy oaken walls of the commune was a riveting sight. Between the rising tufts of the sprawling wheat fields were harvesters putting in their night shift as their friends and family went to bed, and in the streets, the townsmen were conducting business, using wheat and eggs as currency in lieu of the emeralds we've seen at more rambunctious towns. With some asking here and there, we managed to find a stable to get Carl tucked away into for the night, with some inferior equine friends to boot.

"Pardon me, friends. Would you happen to be the hunters our Elder requested?" inquired a stoic, older blue-eyed man as we exited the stalls. I couldn't help but notice an aged, but very much visible scar slashing his right cheek in twain. "That's us. We'd like to meet with him before helping the village, if we may..." negotiated my head diplomat, Bisa.

"Of course, madam. We've also arranged for you some furnishings for this cold night. I am Kratos, messenger of sorts to Elder Kilos. Allow me to lead you.". The man politely introduced himself and gestured warmly towards a building in the distance before he began walking with Bisa close behind.

"You, a 'madam'? The world has changed more than I could know!" I mockingly whispered to Bisa. "Well, I do look like the Queen of Aragon next to you... only, you know, a century or two younger.". A scathing reply.

As we stood at the door of the elder's abode, I stood breathless at the beauty of its architecture. It must have been at least forty blocks tall, standing strong in the center of its sprawling village and challenging the calm night sky with its impressive stature.

Townhouse

"You look like a tourist." said Bisa from the lit doorway, breaking me free from my trance. "No, this is just the first pretty thing I've seen since we left Darv!"

Within the marvelous structure was an equally remarkable interior, furnished with colorful carpets and bookshelves full of mysterious titles. At the other side of a large table sat an elderly man with striking aquamarine eyes, and Kratos took his side. "Have a seat, friends. We have urgent matters at hand." Bisa and I sat close together on a dark oaken chair opposite the two men.

"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, outlanders. I am Elder Kilos, but by the look on your faces I can surmise you already know this. I must also apologize for Keros, our guard - he is merely anxious in the face of this surging blight." spoke the Elder in a firm and unwavering yet gentle voice.

"I can't blame him. We've travelled enough to see the damage these ancient pests have caused, and we'd hate to see more fellow Aquilans fall victim. We only require information; we may discuss payment later." spoke Bisa - formally, for once.

"You misunderstand, child. The creatures you fight are not merely ancient men risen to enjoy a hearty dinner again - these are ones brought to half-life once more by a seething hatred, the source of which... is beyond your understanding. This part of Kilran has seen unbearable suffering throughout its history, and still today petty infighting sunder its people. Allow me to demonstrate." The Elder explained, before gesturing for Kratos to pass him a small painting. The drawing, while worn, could easily be discerned; it was the likeness of an ancient archer captain and his men, staring with aged yet piercing white eyes at the beholder. I could easily recognize the bronze-brown equipment worn by the soldiers.

"This is from the Khaganate era, correct? Why are you showing us this?" I inquired, half out of genuine curiosity and half to flaunt.

"Yes, child, you are wise beyond your years. But it would seem that this man - Captain Genbu - did not wish to stay in the Khaganate era himself. His likeness has been infused with his scathing evil and desire to massacre, and has returned as a destructive being... encouraging countless others to do the same merely by proximity." explained the wise Elder. I was simultaneously fascinated and frightened. Could we really face down a legendary ancient general?

"Where do we find what's left of him?" asked the ever-ready Bisa. I remained transfixed by the painting, which still seemed so otherworldly to me. "Well, then. There is a triad of towers just north of our village. However, those were more than just watchtowers; they are the three surface prongs of a vast underground concentration camp - the Halcon Passage. Throughout the centuries, it has withered into little more than a hotspot for rats and raiders alike. However, in the last few weeks, there's been a... change in atmosphere surrounding the hellish tomb."

"What do you mean?" I asked, snapping out of my transfixed state. "Besides the flood of undead, there's been... apparitions. Identical nightmares among our villagers, who can only explain them with a single phrase: "long life". Our beloved animals, the salt of the earth, have appeared eviscerated at dawn, and while we are wary of plunging into hysteria, there is a certain terror lurking in the air. Kratos here has reported that the next town over is completely vacant, as if its inhabitants were plucked clean from existence. We have nowhere to emigrate. I found myself compelled to beg for help, for my village and for my people. You are our only hope."

"Sounds frightening, but delightfully enticing. We commit ourselves to your quest. All we require for tonight is two beds... and some hot cocoa would be much appreciated." said the very respectful Bisa. "Of course. We would be personally humiliated if our saviors came all this way just to sleep on cold grass!" responded Kratos, seemingly elated from her positive response. As Kratos escorted her out, I gave the fascinating work of art one last look over.

"You seem very wise and interested for a man so young. May I ask how you know of such ancient history?" asked the Elder politely. An innocent question, but with depth immeasurable by words to me.

"Let's just say... people were keen on keeping me from learning, but I didn't much care for them." I responded respectfully, with a faint and sheepish smile, before taking my leave. My time in Vicis... I remember every last second, yet wince whenever I dare recall a single memory. A quirk of mind.

I bought a warm strawberry pie at their surprisingly well-stocked bakery to take my mind off what was in reality a truly innocuous question as I made the short walk to the inn. Upon entering, I found Bisa at a small table, gorging herself on some cookies and hot cocoa. "I see you've been making yourself at home. Best not to eat too much, or you'll lose all that speed." I said, greeting her with the mutual sarcasm we had grown accustomed to between us.

"Relax, I'm not letting you die..." she began as she put down her now-empty pot of cocoa. "...there's a mansion in it for me, remember?". She finished. I was somewhat surprised she remembered, but I had hoped she forgot...

We finished our food and went to sleep. Despite the fact that I was about to be unbelievably free, I dreamt of being in a cage again. Strawberry cake is great for the stomach... not so much for stopping you from lingering in the past.

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