Soft rustles drowned under the constant clatters of feet. The grey-bricked road was well maintained despite the daily high traffic of travellers and carriages that passed by. The sinking sun shyly shone through the thinly layered canopy of the bright, tall trees which stood like guards on both sides of the road. Most of the foot traffic headed north of the path, while the carriages containing cargo or wealthy figures made their way south, where there was another connected road which headed east.
Another light breeze swept through the forest as Frosty released a relieved sigh.
“The air’s so clean here.” Frosty hummed delightfully, her gloved hand held against the dimming sunlight that managed to sneak through the cracks of the canopy.
“It’ll only get better. Apparently Farshard’s completely surrounded by dense forests.” Khaos too felt blissful for not having to stand the stench of the ocean anymore.
“Mildly mentioned an even more dense forest just west of the town. The map only marked it with a symbol of some sort. Didn’t have a specific shape either.” Exrite complained a little.
The symbol had been on his mind for some time during their six-hour march up the path. It didn’t resemble anything he knew, nor anything close.
“Didn’t you get good education by your family in Enthile?” Frosty jokingly asked, unknowingly bothering him a little with a small memory trip.
“You can only learn so much from being a living pin cushion.” A sturdy voice left his lips as he folded his hands at the back of his head.
“Ah… sorry.” Frosty’s voice became meek as she awkwardly turned to face him. She hoped she hadn’t sprung up some traumatising memory.
“Don’t worry about it.” Exrite returned his gaze. “I’m just happy that it’s over.”
The sun overhead was beginning to fade. Farshard was only an hour’s walk away, and there weren’t any light sources in sight. Slowly, the leaves on the trees became rounder and rounder the further they traversed. The ragged bark had become so smooth that it even took Frosty by surprise. The leaves went from green to pink, with tiny fur surrounding their shell.
Darkness was beginning to kick in. The evening dusk’s orange glow began to merge with the near-black canopy. But for an unknown reason, everyone on the path were smiling and excited. Even people in their carriages stuck their heads out in enthusiasm.
A single orb appeared in the sky. It wasn’t big or illuminous in any way, but it was there, floating in a blank void. Another seemed to pop in from seemingly nowhere followed by another. And another. And soon, more and more appeared at a faster rate.
The beautiful orbs of light spawned across the roof of the canopy and reached as far as the eye could see along the distance of the road. They weren’t static and moved when the evening winds flew by. They rustled gently, but it wasn’t rough or coarse like before – It was calming.
The group held their own humorous reactions to the majestic sight. Although unanimously, they were in utter awe to the wonderful lights.
“Beautiful… “ Khaos exhaled like the sight had stolen his breath.
“It’s so fluffy.” Frosty whispered as she imagined the texture of the orbs.
Exrite stood there silently as the two siblings walked past. It was beyond anything he had ever seen in his life. No books nor pictures – or paintings have ever depicted such a thing from where they came from.
In that moment of euphoric awe, everything seemed so trivial to him.
“Exrite!” A distinctly masculine voice called from ahead, causing him to snap from the trance. “Are you gonna just stand there?”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” He chuckled and jogged up to them.
The road bustled with clatters and chatter more than before, and the traffic seemed to grow denser and denser as they approached the entrance to Farshard.
* * *
A mesmerising chapel stood near the centre square of the town. Its pale, towering structures could be seen even at a distance away from Farshard. Guards in shining white armour surrounded the gradual staircase that lead to the black-stone doors above. Masterfully articulated carvings on nearby pillars referenceed the Children of Balance in poses that resonated with absolute authority. Even the glowing trees that littered the town seemed to have their branches angled into mysterious shapes or symbols. The more obvious ones were the gears and gem-like shapes.
Within the chapel an angered yell erupted.
“What do you mean we can’t go through!?”
It was a male adventurer, don in luxurious leather armour. He was being lightly restrained by another person beside him, fearing that he’d become violent against the figures that stood diligently in front of them.
“We cannot allow you to pass through the barrier. You have no authority to do so.” A woman in white priestly robes proclaimed as she rooted herself to the marble-tiled floor.
“That’s bullshit! How many more hundreds of years are you going to keep that place to yourselves-!?”
“It belongs to the Children of Balance. You, nor anyone can enter.” A younger girl beside the matured, elder priestess claimed as the golden streaks on her white robes began to slightly glow. “Please leave this place.”
The man noticed the glow and instinctively snatched his arm away from his friend. With a growl, he retreated from the chapel with a parting roar.
A soft sigh left the younger priestess’ lips as she slouched forward slightly. It wasn’t the first time they’d had such difficult people enter their chapel. Even worse was that she was becoming accustomed to it already within the first few weeks of inheriting the role of the main priestess.
A thick thud echoed within the grand hallway as the giant slate doors shut tightly upon their departure.
“Oh dear, were they rude!” The taller and much mature looking priestess held a stern face as she looked down at the girl with gentle, light blue eyes. “Adventurers always seem to have the shortest fuse!”
As the previous main priestess, her tolerance was wearing thin. She’d sworn that one day she’d end up breaking a couple legs.
“M-mother you’re making a scary face.” The younger girl said shakily as she averted her sky-blue eyes. “We can’t show that to anyone here.”
“My, am I? Sorry, I just get too passionate sometimes.”
“I don’t know if that’s passion anymore.” The girl mumbled, a warm breeze brushing past her long, light blue hair a second later.
“Did you say something, dear Inkshard?” She spoke near her ear.
“N-Nothing!” The girl nearly cried aloud as a dangerous chill ran down her spine.
Inkshard’s mother turned to face an iron clock high above an altar made of black and white gears. Its ambiguity left an impression of awe on her as she softly smiled. A silent clank echoed before she began to make her way towards a black door just to the side, hidden behind a towering marble pillar.
“Dear, can you take the next group while I prepare dinner please?” Her back didn’t turn until Inkshard responded.
“Leave it to me.”
Her mother softly waved back at her before disappearing behind the pillar. The thud echoed nicely in the spacious hallway.
Inkshard’s gaze followed the dark blue carpet that lead from the huge, double slated doors. She anticipated the next group’s entrance and crossed her fingers for a far more level-headed group of adventurers to enter. Or better yet, a local just seeking guidance or even someone just looking for directions.
At such thoughts, her sanctuary of silence suddenly faded. A loud screech wept from the giant slate doors as the light from the previous room painted the floors with its warmth. There, three figures emerged from the light and into the holy hallway, where at the end a pair of sky-blue eyes studied them as they approached.
The tallest one was a man built like a warrior from stories – Their armour was similar to that of a soldier, or a knight from a faraway kingdom. Their short black hair remained unaffected by the soft breeze left behind by the door, and his eyes were closely similar to the woman who walked beside him.
The woman seemed to be a mage of some sort, but Inkshard couldn’t be so sure. The loose, dark blue robes certainly gave off such an impression, but the black-leather gloves contradicted the thought.
Lightning? Was she one of those kinds of mages? Then why does she have cloth robes instead of leather ones?
She failed to decipher her true nature as her attire was far too strange. Even in the first few weeks of becoming the main priestess, she had never seen any adventurers with such ambiguous equipment.
Were they mercenaries perhaps?
And finally, her eyes landed on the last one. A man with no particularly special features about them walked with slightly narrowed eyes, as if surveying the area for any threats. Like the other two, his choice of equipment left a confusing impression on her – A leather chest protector covered the black fabric shirt beneath, and both his legs had metal pieces of armour covering vulnerable spots over brown trousers.
Why did he emphasise protecting his legs over his upper body?
It made no sense to her.
The man too had black, short hair, just slightly longer than the towering man’s. His dark brown eyes finally left the surroundings and landed onto her, where they broadened and mellowed gently.
She raised an outstretched arm. “I welcome you all to the altar of the Children of Balance. Please ask me anything.”
The group stopped just short of the staircase, which led up to the altar and where the young priestess stood. The protruding gears gave off the illusion of wings from behind her, as if she were an angel sent by the Gods themselves.
Exrite’s heart raced.
He knew that past her, they’d be in the realm where the Children of Balance reside.
“Hey.” Khaos whispers as he nudged Exrite’s arm. “You aren’t getting cold feet right before the finish line, are you?”
Exrite could only silently laugh at the joke.
Rather than cold feet.
It was a burning fire.
“We’ve come to meet with the Children of Balance- “
“Sorry, but you all do not have the authority meet with the Gods.” Inkshard immediately shot Exrite down as she pulled her arm back to the side.
The geared altar rumbled mysteriously for a moment – a small gear far on the edges of the abstract construct began to move.
The three were rather shocked to hear those words. Exrite, while slightly annoyed, pressed on regardless.
“I was spoken to by the Children of Balance to meet with them.” He kept his speech as formal as possible, not wanting to show any form of hostility to the priestess.
“And your proof?”
“Proof?” Khaos whispered to no one in particular.
The slow spinning gear activated other surrounding gears discretely behind the unaware priestess, catching the eyes of only Frosty who curiously tilted her head.
“Hey, wait. How am I supposed to show you proof if I was only told to come here by them then?”
Inkshard was a bit dumbstruck by that remark. Rather, she hadn’t thought about it at all. Despite still being the priestess; a very young one at that, she sided with them on that one.
“I-I suppose you’re right.”
Exrite too, was dumbstruck. This girl was far too incompetent to be a priestess. He imagined that it could’ve been because she was quiet young, looking like she was in her teens. But even so –
“Isn’t there some sort of test you can perform?” Exrite wasn’t going to give up. Not after they’d come so far.
While he and Inkshard continuously debated about how to prove his claim, Khaos simply stood there, enjoying the moment like he was viewing a comedy skit. He didn’t feel particularly concerned since he believed Exrite would pull through somehow. Frosty on the other hand, had witnessed something spectacular in the background.
Every cog on the altar was turning simultaneously, each at different speeds. The centre cog was the largest, and it contained a dim gem in its centre. As it slowly spun in the amalgamation, the gem would occasionally flicker a faint light blue.
Now that it had reached a point worthy of concern, Frosty could only do one thing:
“Guys, the altar’s moving!” She shouted as the priestess recoiled in shock to the sudden noise.
“Eh?” Inkshard immediately spun around on instinct when she finally processed those words.
She was quickly taken aback by the symphony of spinning gears that began to rattle and clunk. A dangerous chill ran down her spine as the gears began to turn faster and faster.
“What’s going on?” Exrite asked the priestess on reflex, seeing as she was the one responsible for the altar.
“I-I don’t know! I’ve never seen anything like this before!” She yelled back, taking a couple steps down the staircase.
Khaos stood there, mesmerised by the gears that ran like clockwork as his sister took a step back, just in case. Inkshard filled the gap she left and stared intently at the anomaly before her.
She thought her mother had taught her everything to look out for as the main priestess – the altar was only supposed to be an object of worship dedicated to the Children of Balance. But right now, it resembled a device more than anything else.
A loud slam erupted from somewhere to the right of the altar, just behind a pillar. There, Inkshard’s mother ran out with a frightful look on her face as she watched the mechanical altar churn like the innards of a clock.
“Dear? What’s happening?” She rushed to the group and cupped Inkshard’s hands between her palms.
“I’m n-not sure! It started moving suddenly and now it won’t stop!” The girl’s eyes were filled to the brim with fear as she looked up at her mother. “Adventurer! D-did you do something!?”
“Hey, I’m only here because I was told to!” Exrite retorted loudly in order for his voice to be heard above the echoing, mechanical rattles.
The girl’s mother moved her eyes onto Exrite upon hearing those words and turned them back onto the altar. There, the shard embedded into the largest cog began to fill with a bright blue light. A high-pitched sound emanated from the shard as its vivid light painted the entirety of the room.
In the midst of the pandemonium, the elder priestess could only mutter one thing as she turned to Exrite.
“Then you’re- “
Suddenly, an ear-splitting screech erupts from the altar behind, causing most of the group to immediately block their ears out from the intense pain it inflicted.
“Shit!” Frosty was mostly inaudible to anyone, even to herself as the light grew and finally consumed her vision.
It was like an empty trance. Nothing could be seen nor heard, but they could still feel everything around them. The air quickly grew warm. It caressed them, almost reassuring their safety as it supressed their fears. Shortly, the noise decayed into a sombre silence.
“Are we still here?” Inkshard asked with a bit of uncertainty.
“Yes.” Her mother reassured as she could still feel the warmth of her daughter’s hand.
“Can’t see anything at all though.” Exrite added nonchalantly.
“Who’s this?” Khaos felt his hand brush against something soft.
“Touch me again and you’re as good as dead.” The voice of his sister growled menacingly.
A moment of awkward silence followed, before being interrupted by the little priestess.
“So, what happens now?”
“We wait for the light to disappear.” Her mother replied, seemingly calm about the situation.
“Blinded by light and hearing other people’s voices... Exrite, is this what death is like?” Khaos joked as a very faint amount of light began to fade away.
“I wish.” The person in question replied with a brief laugh.
“Maybe you should confirm that yourself, Khaos.” Frosty remarked with a light laugh.
Exrite found it hard for himself to hold back a chuckle, let alone the young priestess who was practically crackling in an attempt to not laugh out loud.
The light soon dimmed enough for the others to make note of their surroundings. The source of the remaining light fell from the giant gear and now lay below the altar. It was the shard – which its faint light pulsated like a heartbeat.
“So it fell off.” Inkshard’s mother approached the shard, the gears of the altar slowing their spin to a halt. She picked the seemingly breathing shard in a single hand and inspected it closely.
“Is it really ok to touch it like that?” Frosty felt like the woman was being a bit careless, but she was quickly reassured.
“Of course. It won’t react unless he touches it.” She turned and directed an enthusiastic gaze at the motionless Exrite, who was still trying to process everything that had just occurred.
The priestess’ footsteps echoed in the silent room as she slowly descended towards him.
“Please, hold on a second.” Exrite took a step back, a slight nervousness in his voice. “I want to know what just happened, and what that thing is before I touch it.”
Khaos seemed to be on the same boat, seen as he gave a slight nod in the sidelines. The same with Inkshard. She was just as clueless as the rest of them were.
She abruptly paused her advancement. A lovely grin formed as she stared at the mesmerising shard.
“My, you don’t know even though you were called by the Children of Balance?” Her voice was almost mocking-like as she advanced a step closer.
“I was only told to come here in order to have my curse removed.” He answered truthfully as he cemented himself in place.
The Children of balance gave no other instruction other than to find them in order to have his curse removed. But the priestess asked something that chilled his blood and rocked his heart. He could not shake off the thought that the removal of the curse was now something amongst a bigger picture.
The woman stared at him with a curious gaze.
“Curse? Oh.” She studied him as she drew hand to the bottom of her lip. “I suppose you cancall it a curse. So that’s why your friend joked about death.”
She knew something he didn’t. It was an unpleasant, gut wrenching thought, but she didn’t come across as someone who’d take advantage of him. Not yet at least. Afterall, she was someone who worked closely with the Gods in question.
“You know about it?” Khaos asked with optimism.
“All of it. Except for the altar, of course.” She came off as carefree to the group, but her light blue eyes were ignited with a flame of burning passion and excitement.
For the past thousands of years, there were only a handful who had made it this far. Generations after generations of waiting for the God’s recipient had led up all to this one moment.
And she was going to give it her all. But first-
“Your name, please.” She closed the gap and offered the shard to Exrite with an open palm.
It’s pulsating beauty was mesmerising. The way the light shone was like that of a beating heart.
“Frost Extrial” He proudly stated. “Please, just call me Exrite.”
The shard begged to be united with its long awaited, pulsating brightly with every inch his hand grew closer. As it entered his palm, an unrelenting surge of pain and shock shot through his arm like an electric current.
The pain wasn’t anything he had felt quiet like before. It was both hot and cold simultaneously, and the pain felt the same throughout the entire length of his arm. His heart rattled as his ears rung with the constant thud of his restless heart.
“Exrite!” Khaos snagged him from the side in order to keep him upright as the shard flew from his grasp.
An instinctive, near instant dash from Frosty allowed the shard to safely remain intact from within her grasp as a loud explosion of air erupted from where she previously stood. Exrite was sweating profusely as he clutched tightly onto his heart. Something was abnormally wrong, and he knew it.
Normally, such things would stop occurring within seconds after they began. Any muscle pains would disappear a second after, and illnesses were none existent due to the nature of his curse. But this was different. He could barely breathe, let alone properly stand upright.
Something was terribly wrong with him, but he knew that he wouldn’t die from such a thing – not until the curse was removed. A horrified Inkshard stood there in terror after she heard his wretched cry. Her legs hardened like stone as she tried to decipher what had just happened.
“My my. You truly are the one we’ve been waiting for.” Her mother held both hands out in front of her and aimed for him.
A glowing circle of magic formed before her pale, open palms. Intricate symbols and writings layered the circle before an aura of light swept onto the crippled Exrite.
Within an instant, his flailing heart subsided, as well as the pain. It was like a pail of freezing water had been doused over his scorched body.
“Tha-thank you… “ He winced, still in considerable pain. “Dammit… what the hell was that?”
Frosty raised an eyebrow as she eyed the mature priestess.
“Chantless magic?” A voice quietly left her lips.
She knew that there weren’t many people in Six Point who could cast magic without reciting a chant or some sort of phrase. Usually, it would take someone with incredible talent or sufficient knowledge of magic to be able to pull off such a feat.
The woman released her arms and let them fall back to the sides. “Surprising, isn’t it? Even though you’re no different.”
Frosty hummed to her response. She had been seen using magic to fling herself forward to catch the shard without muttering a word. A silent curse slipped her lips as the mature priestess approached Exrite.
“Fro- no. Exrite. You asked to know everything you needed, and so I will grant you your wish as Talia Balance, the previous Priestess of Balance.” She proudly announced as an ecstatic smile formed across her face. “Please let this one guide you and your friends.”
“The same here” Inkshard broke free from her spell and followed her mother in suit with elegance. “As Inkshard Balance, the current Priestess of Balance, I will do whatever I can to aid you all in your visit to our Gods.”
In the depths of his pain, Exrite broke into a pleasant grin with eyes brimming in relief.
“W-we’ll be in your care.”
Their doubtful beginnings with the young priestess to the sweet end they now faced was something he delightfully cherished. Khaos was overjoyed by the news and shook Exrite while he repeated “We finally did it!”
Frosty released an exaggerated sigh of relief. Everything they had done till now wasn’t all for nothing, as now – they were finally at the homestretch.