Story:Search for the Mask of Bara

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Search for the Mask of Bara
User:Krayfishkarl, User:Majoras Revenge!!!, User:Kingliman
ET Background.jpg
Written 22 February - 8 October 2014
Story Arcs Volveros Revolution
Part 1
Wordcount 24,801

Search for the Mask of Bara is the first story in the Volveros Revolution storyline.


Not just Rumors

The man sitting in the bar at a rough wooden table in the corner took another swig out of his mug, still not revealing his hidden face from behind the black hood. He hunched over the table again, looking at the person in a grey robe across from him. The grey hooded man did not have the stench of alcohol that seemed to perpetuate through all others in the bar around them. These other people were oblivious to these two men, instead drinking their worries away and trying to forget what they had come into the bar remembering.

With a low voice and hushed tone the black hooded man spoke again, "What did you really come here for?", he stopped for a wheezy cough, "We both know it isn't just for the pleasantries. You wouldn't have come here unless under special circumstances." The black hood kept facing the grey hood, both men trying to make out the once familiar details under the shade of fabric.

"I need to run an expedition..." The grey hooded man leaned in closer and lowered his voice more " the isles of Kesuma." The grey hooded man leaned back in his chair, looking around for any would-be eavesdroppers.

"Ah..." The black hooded man said with a quiet sigh and then another swig from his mug "I know the item you seek, but I must ask as to why you would want me to go? I am in no fit condition to-" continued the man before being cut off by the other.

"It is not you that I want to go. You will merely be the middle man in this mission. I need that item brought back to me, but I've also heard those rumours which you and I" said the man followed by a gesture "both know aren't just rumours. This item is deadly if acquired and I do not want to be sending my men after it."

Although his face was covered the black hooded man had an obvious sign of confusion in him with his tilted head and frozen fingers. "Well if not me, or your own men, then who is it you want to go on the expedition? And why should I even bother? As far as I'm aware I've fulfilled my punishment, you know full well that fact, Sir."

"I want you to get some hero-wannabees. People who think this is their start-to-fortune quest in the world, idiots, tools if you will. They won't suspect a thing and it will just be like their little stories from home." the grey hooded man replied.

"You still haven't said why I should bother to help, especially after what has happened between me and the kingdom." retorted the black hooded man as he leaned back against the wall and folded his arms. His eyesight was soon distracted by the shining of coins flicking around the grey hooded man's hands.

"I think, if this is successful, that we can both put all of that stuff behind ourselves. Striving forwards, chucking out the old grudges and working together..." said the grey hooded man. "What do you say to that?"

After a few brief seconds of silence as the black hooded man contemplated his fate with this deal he spoke again, "Is there anything particular you want me to miss out on the details?"

Both of the men could tell that on the other's face there was a smile emerging.

The Honorable Orc

Dancing Dragon Inn, Port Arcoris, Gibral Peninsula

"You want something ablaze, eh? Try this one for good measure, my friend." The bartender quickly reached through the multi-colored cabinets pulling out a tall glass bottle with a dragon emblem handing it over to a road weary Orc sitting atop a bar stool. "Lagarto Mead, the strongest beverage we've got. You're the first Orc to try it." The lively bar bustled with travelers from all across Khyorgan.

The Orc Harus Kalla eagerly took the drink into his hands. "I have never seen anyone try this one before. Let's have it!" he said chugging down the bottle without letting a single drop spill. Then, he slammed the bottle against the counter's surface, not quite enough to break it. "Mighty in taste and quite the kicker. I believe I've found a new favorite. Another if you don't mind!" The Orc tossed a few coins on the counter.

The bar started to fill up more quickly as the suns set. Customers hailing from places all over Khyorgan and beyond soon filled every table. The countless varieties of men and elves, the dwarves from Archei, and even some bizarre non-humanoid creatures. Everyone sung, clashing mugs to sea shanty composed by a band comprising of an accordion, fiddle and lute. Everyone except for a shift looking figure sitting in the corner smoking a pipe.

With a hearty grin on his face, Harus excused himself through the crowds, taking a bottle of Lagarto Mead with him. He approached the figure and flashed a slip of paper which he immediately recognized.

"Ah, welcome. I am Busco, a royal emissary for His Highness. You must be in the party that will be going after the Mask of Bara. I didn't make my advertising obvious as I wanted to weed out the not-so-bright ones who want flashing lights to show them where they have to go. Nonetheless, the fact that you found me proves that you are resourceful at the very least.

"I have a question if I may ask," Harus said. "Why do you want this Mask of Bara?"

"Oh, it's not me that wants it," Busco replied. "I'm just the middle man here. It's the royal family that wishes to get their hands on this mask, but quite frankly, it is none of my concern as to what they do with it, and it was certainly not the concern of any adventurer that preceded you. What is my concern though is getting the mask, and delivering it. You see, the rumors about the artifact are true. It does offer amazing magical powers, but it also has the bad tendency to steal your soul. That's already happened to a few unfortunate adventurers I sent out to the island last month.

"Here's the details of the mission," Busco said reaching into his pocket pulling out a slip of paper and handing it to Harus. "Your ship leaves tomorrow morning so you better start getting prepared tonight. You also have four other companions, but if they have any sense of punctuality, they should all be in the marketplace by now. I'm sure you will all make good friends."

Harus nodded. He turned around making his way back out of the inn and into the muggy, twilight air. To his left was a circular plaza with numerous stalls all manner of exotic goods, while out beyond the horizon was an azure yet red-tinted ocean stretching well beyond the horizon.

The Foreign Adventurer

"Best magical cakes in all of Polvora, guaranteed to last for at least a month!" the flier read, though Tigeleman was unimpressed, half of the fun of any adventure was eating the local fauna and flora, after all.

Tigeleman's golden-bronze armor shined from it's well-polished state, and it's effectiveness combined with the extravagant red headdress ontop his helmet sticking out from the rest of the marketgoers, the few with armor having dull leather and chainmail.

Tigeleman had left his family's farm a year or so ago; His father, Zelkhavvus, had expanded it to compensate for his loss of a foot, which he'd blown off with an arquebus after he'd fallen into one of his own bear traps. The larger farm meant Tigeleman's skill at hunting was no longer required to sustain the family, so he set off on his own.

In his short time as an adventurer, Tigeleman had visited Boegaden and then headed south down the the southern coast of Obreidhion before heading west and entering Polvora in search of more treasure.

Tigeleman noticed a magical trinket store with various jewelry and other apparel, along with a few weapons, prominently displayed in it's windows. Tigeleman figured that taking a look couldn't hurt, and pushed open it's old, creaky double doors.

Inside the store, behind a counter, was an elderly upperclassman with white hair. There were no other customers in the store, though a guard leaning against the far wall was watching out for robbers and thieves.

"Ah, welcome good customer." The elderly man began "I've got numerous different magical trinkets with numerous different effects. You might fancy this Flameward Bracelet which will protect you from the heat. It's the last I have in stock, so if you are planning to go near any volcanoes, you best get it before someone else does."

"I've also got a Twin Sun Charm. When activated, the charm can heal major injuries, including broken bones. Best of all, after a single use, it can be recharged by exposing it to sunlight for a day - that is, it needs 24 hours of sunlight before it can be used again, so use it wisely if you are planning to go anywhere dangerous. Lastly, I'm required by law to tell you that it can't cure any permanent conditions - that includes death. This trinket is intended for adventurers rather than medical practitioners, but I'm sure you know that already."

"Those are the rarest pieces I have, but you are welcome to browse around. Let me know if something in particular interests you."

Tigeleman looked around at the various trinkets and novelties, though none of them were impressive compared to his enchanted spear, which would return to him if he was separated from it.

However, Tigeleman quite liked the idea of the flameward bracelet, so he bought it. It wasn't exactly cheap, and lightened his coinpurse quite a bit, but better a few less gold than a few less limbs if it came down to a fiery battle to the death.

"Thank you very much. I hope it suits you well. Is there anything else I can get you?" The shopkeeper asked

"No, I don't think so, thanks for the bracelet though," Tigeleman responded, making his way out of the building.

After struggling to get both the bracelet and his gauntlets on, Tigeleman took a look at the memorandum which had summoned him here; It hinted towards an inn on the far side of the town, the "Dancing Dragon Inn". Tigeleman sighed and began the trek towards adventure.

While he was walking, Tigeleman did a quick inventory check; In addition to his armor and shield, Tigeleman carried a crossbow and bolts, bronze shortsword, lantern, and iron shield.

Tigeleman arrived at the inn and swung open the doors. Looking around, he spotted a shadowy figure sitting next to an Orc with no drinks to speak of, not exactly the norm for someone at a bar.

Tigeleman approached the shadowy figure and looked at the memorandum, it's distinctive appearance immediately alerting the figure as to why he was here.

"Good evening, traveler. You have a good first impression of resourcefulness, since you managed to find me. And I see you've already stocked up on some supplies. Good way to prepare ahead of time."

"Anyway, my name is Busco - a royal emissary sent here to oversee the acquisition of the Mask of Bara. This here is Harus Kalla - you will be traveling with him and a few others to obtain this mask. Bring it back to me in one piece, and you'll be rewarded heftily."

"Your ship leaves tomorrow morning, and I've already arranged a room for you to stay in for your convenience. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask. This is a dangerous mission."

"Where is the room?" the Orc sitting across from the figure inquired, Tigeleman reasoned he was another adventurer on the same quest, and he looked at Busco, equally eager to find out where he would be staying.

"Upstairs - second room from the right," Busco replied "It has two double beds, and an armoire. You're quite lucky that you are getting such a luxurious room for free.".

Tigeleman and the Orc, who's name he would come to find out to be Harus, headed up to the room to scope things out.

Tigeleman conversed shortly with Harus, and they noticed that there were only two beds.

"So, how should we sort this?" Harus asked "We should wait for the others before we decide bed arrangements." Tigeleman responded, not wanting to cut the others out of the planning process, working as a team would be an important aspect of the quest, after all. "How many others should there be?" Harus asked "Uh... I don't know, actually, we should ask that shady guy with the pipe, what was his name again?" Tigeleman responded "Busco," Harus reminded him. "Yeah, that guy!" Tigeleman said enthusiastically

"Anyway, they will come up in due time, since this is the room he got for us. What is your name?" Harus asked "Tigeleman, and you?" "Harus." There was a bit of silence after that, so Harus broke it with another question "Tell me, are you ready for the journey?" "Yeah, very much so, it's a shame we have to wait until mourning, it sounds pretty exciting. I'll go check to see if anyone else has arrived."

He headed back to the bar room to find Busco conversing with three other people he could only presume to be other adventurers. One of the adventurers was a young man in platemail armor, another was a short fellow who he thought may have been a dwarf, and the third was a girl in a cloak.

He listened in while approaching and determined they were also being enlisted for hunting the mask, as he had thought. Getting a closer look, he realized that the shorter adventurer was a Halfling, and the girl was an Elf of some sort.

"Finding more information about this mask is a part of this mission just as much as actually obtaining it," Busco was saying as Tigeleman approached, Busco and the other adventurers looking over at him before he spoke.

"Busco, there are only two beds in that room, and not even counting any others that may show up, there's already 5 of us..." Tigeleman said, counting his fingers to assure he was correct.

"I'm used to sleeping on the ground, having been out on many excursions into the wilderness over the past few years. I guess sleeping on the floor isn't much different." Said the elven girl, the other adventurers nodded and didn't seem to mind either

"Well, if it's fine for all of you..." He said, leading to an awkward pause in the whole conversation.

"Well... I'm off for some last-minute shopping."

"By the way..." He said, stopping and turning to Busco "will you be coming with us?"

"Oh, I have business of my own to attend to," Busco replied.

Tigeleman went back to shopping, buying some food, some pieces of flint, a fishing rod and hook, and a shovel.

He returned a bit later, Busco was gone, and upon heading up to his room, he found the other adventurers all asleep or about to be.

Needing his rest he simply layed on the floor, instead of one of the shared beds, and quickly passed out.

The Aspiring Knight

(Percival's intro)

The Wandering Maiden

(Gabrielle's intro)

The Humble Merchant

(Erebellis's intro)


Dancing Dragon Inn, Port Arcoris, Gibral Peninsula

"...three, four, five," Harus counted. "That should be all of us." With everyone having arrived at the room, the adventuring party made some last minute arrangements, then they slept through the night. It may have been awkward sharing beds with strangers, but in the end, it didn't matter for them.

After a few hours passed, Gabrielle was the first to wake up. The suns had not even risen yet, but the sky was somewhat bright, combined with both the streetlights and the brilliant planetary ring in the sky. It was time to leave, and everyone else got up shortly after.

The adventuring party made their way to the docks, and found their ship - the S.S. Sidonia. It was a small sailing ship with a minimal amount of cannons. Climbing on board, they found that they were the only passengers, while the ship's crew consisted of only five plus the captain. This was not the most glamorous ship, but it was good enough for an expedition to a foreign island. Finally, the ship was untied from the docks and it set sail just as the suns begun to appear in the horizon.

The sky was perfectly clear and the air was warm - the weather could not be better. At their current speed, it would be a five day journey.

Chapter 1: Out to Sea

"So," Harus begun, "does anyone have any idea where it actually is on the island?"

"Setting aside location, does anyone know what it looks like exactly?" asked Erebellis.

"We should know when we see it. I mean, it is a mask in a volcano," Harus replied.

"I wonder..." Tigeleman stood with his hand at his chin. "Think we're the only ones after the mask?"

"I doubt we are the only ones after it, but that shouldn't deter us," Harus replied pulling out the map he bought. "Hmmm...let's see." He looked more closely spotting what appeared to be a drawing of a volcano. It was not terribly detailed but good enough for now. "From the looks of this map, we will have to travel about 40 miles. Of course, we have to add in a path as we couldn't go straight through it all. I'd say our journey will be roughly 50 miles there, 50 miles back. With stops, I think we should have finished in...less than one month in all. Two weeks if we're good."

Bump. The ship rocked slightly from a rather large wave. Eager to get on with the quest, Tigeleman excitingly danced about on his feet. Another five days. The wait was killing him. Gabrielle and Percival on the other hand stood there in thought unsure of what to say. But regardless, they seemed to go along with whatever the other three were talking about.

The rest of the day went smoothly.

The next morning, a heavy fog cloaked the ship, and the adventuring party remained lying in their beds below deck. The waves continued to rock the ship back and forth. Everyone had felt a bit of queasiness from the motion, but the sensations quickly passed. A light rain began which only moments later, grew more intense until it it pounded against the ocean's surface. A flash of white light lit up the sky for a moment followed by the boom of thunder. The winds grew more violent as the sails rapidly flailed about. The crew quickly got to their stations as they tugged on the ropes, while the companions below deck remained restless.

Moments later, a piercing, scratching noise sounded off from the outside of the ship. They came in rapid succession as if something was climbing the sides. More of these scratches were heard. They weren't alone out there. Not long after, the obnoxious alarm bell got everyone to spring to their feet. The party scurried to the deck to find monstrous humanoid fish-like creatures with teeth and claws have clambered onto the deck. They did't look friendly.

"We've got Lagoonites!" the captain exclaims. He turns to the party. "Take them out while we try to navigate through this storm!" Everyone readied their weapons. Five adventurers against six monsters.

Harus tossed a net in an attempt to ensnare one of the creatures, but it only served to annoy it as it quickly cut through it with its claws. Just as the creature was about to grab Harus, he drove a harpoon into the creature's shoulder, then yanked it out. Blue blood dripped from the creature's wound as it stumbled about. A second Lagoonite to Harus's left leaped at him, managing to strike at his arm. Just a minor wound - nothing too serious.

The injured Lagoonite was not quite dead, but Harus changed his tactics taking a more defensive approach. Got to be more careful, he thought. Eager to make sure it stayed dead, he struck at it with the harpoon again, and then one more time.

Tigeleman was just starting to have fun. A single bolt from his crossbow landed squarely in between the eyes of one of the Lagoonites. He then managed to plunge his spear through the creature's heart, and it dropped dead. Piece of cake.

Gabrielle held back slightly, apprehensive about the situation. What do I do? What do I do? Keep calm. The others seem to be doing just fine. Maybe a Celestial Burst, an energy bolt attack. She gathered her palms together, and a light as bright as the moon formed. With two hands, she swung her arms about, hurling it towards a Lagoonite, leaving a severe burn on its chest. It stumbled about, but it regained its footing quickly. One more of those should do it. She gathered her palms again to form another, bigger light. Before her now was fresh cooked Lagoonite.

"Everyone okay?" Gabrielle asked. Harus had just yanked his harpoon out from the corpse of another Lagoonite. Percival had no trouble either. But Erebellis had collapsed to the floor. "Mr. Took! Mr. Took, are you alright?!" she said running to him.

"Gad, I missed something, didn't I?" Erebellis said slowly getting up and shaking his head. Then, he examined himself for cuts and bruises which he was covered in. "I must have blacked out. Don't mind me. I just need to rest up a bit."

Tigelaman looked about. All six Lagoonites were dead, and he did a victory pose to celebrate.

"Thanks for your hard work." The captain climbed down from the mast. Just as the party was about to walk away, the captain said, "Where are you going? Aren't you going to collect your loot?"

All of them give him a confused look in unison.

"Didn't you know? The monsters in these parts have a strange craving for treasure," the captain said as he pointed to the corpses of the slain creatures. "You'll have in to find it."

Percival was a bit squeamish about actually digging into a corpse. Using his longsword, he sliced it open while everyone did the same. They all searched the creatures' blue-stained innards for anything valuable, and to their surprise, they did. Stashes of low-value gems, assorted dining utensils. Percival in particular happened to find a gold chalice. How the creature managed to swallow such a large object would forever remain a mystery, but regardless, it was all theirs now.

"Hey guys, what do you think? I'm going to mount this as a trophy when I get back!" Tigeleman said as he sliced off one of the creatures' heads as blue blood dripped down from what was once the neck. Everyone else was repulsed by the stench, but Tigeleman was proud as ever.

Chapter 2: Stories

"Land ho!" An unfinished lighthouse shined brightly in the twilight sky, and the shoreline of Kesuma was finally in sight. As the ship approached the dock of the unfinished town of Shinereach, the anchor dropped. The party dragged themselves out relieved to finally be on land again.

"I'm not feeling so well," Mr. Took said grasping his injured leg. The Lagoonite had struck him quite hard. "Looks like I'm..." he paused searching for a word, "out of commission. I can't go with you."

The denizens of the town were just packing up their equipment, storing it away after a long day's work. The town had yet to be wired with ekati lamposts, so the radiant bonfire in the middle stood at the brightest point of light nearby - the small population of the town gathered around it. Curious, Harus got closer joining the group while the rest of the party followed finding many men.

"So when I was a boy, I lived on a poor farm. One day, I was told that I had some sort of destiny to end the reign of a Dark Lord. And after my hometown burned to the ground at the hands of goblin legions, I met a wise old wizard who showed me how to kill giant rats. And then I rescued a princess and slayed a dragon along the way."

"Aye, that happened to me to," another man said.

"Aye, same here." All of them laughed away and clashed their bottles of mead. "We all got a lot in common don't we friends?"

Harus and the others took their seats on the ground. "Shh...look! It's Guru Arif," another said. "The main show is about to begin!" The fire begun to burn in an odd, peculiar way. The flames were not moving naturally.

Finally, Harus could make out a character about as tall as Erebellis. One of the natives, a short, dark skinned man with white hair. It must have been the Guru Arif everyone was talking about. This Halfling twirled a staff about hypnotically as he slowly shuffled from side to side. The flames of the bonfire moved to the rhythm as if it was dancing itself. It had to be some kind of fire magic.

"Let me tell you a story," the Halfling begun, "about the arrival of our goddess." A band of Halflings begun a slow tune starting off with a didgeridoo followed by the slow beat of drums and trilling of a pan flute.

But this was only the beginning. The fire took abstract shapes, forming images and all a manner of bizarre symbols. Then, the flames morphed once more, this time into a conical shape like a great rising mountain, and up from the top emerged the image of an ornate mask split into five sections. There were no eye holes on it, but it had four curved spikes at the corners.

"It's...the Mask of Bara?" Percival said entranced by the dancing flames. The guru did not say anything letting the flames do all the telling.

Then, from the mask, four humanoid figures sprouted like a gushing fountain just as the music started to get more upbeat. At that same moment, off in the distance upon the barely visible horizon, a fiery light glowed from the top of a lonely mountain as the ground slightly shook.

BOOM! Ash and fire spewed out from the lonely mountain. At that same moment, the music halted. Whether the Halfling actually caused the eruption or timed the show to coincide with natural activity, he did not reveal. It made it all the more mysterious. The show was over.

"Only those with a death wish would ever try to get that mask," one of the storytellers interjected. An elderly man who had clearly seen a lot in his lifetime.

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked.

"Sure, it has all these magical abilities, but in the end, there's nothing rewarding about that evil mask. Whatever way you decide to move it, it will always lay its curse on you, and a countdown timer begins before your soul gets stolen - you'll have ten days, and then you're done. Worst of all, it follows you everywhere to remind you of your doom.

"Some decide to slay themselves before the end of the countdown to avoid their terrible fate, while others foolishly wait until the end. Trust me. If you came all this way just to get your hands on the Mask of Bara, then you've wasted your time. Turn back now before you meet yourself a foolish end."

Harus pondered for a moment. All his life, he was told that he must seek a meaningful death. Was this it? Would it be worth it? "Well, I guess you would say I have a death-wish. My cult believes that our bodies should die for others, in the end. I'll gladly take it upon myself if the others object. Where does the soul go? You say stolen but not where to."

"I should have introduced myself," the man said. "My name is Anton. In my younger days, I fought in the war, but I was exiled here after some...disagreements. But enough about me. You and your companions seem to be deeply interested in this mask. By any chance, did a man named Busco happen to send you?"

"Yes, actually. He said there have been many groups sent after it. Is anything important about that?"

Anton got up, seemingly ignoring Harus's question. "Well, I must certainly be going now. It has been great sharing stories." Anton subtly nodded his head at Harus and makes his way into a dimly lit area of the settlement - a cue to follow him?

Harus followed. Gabrielle noticed Harus departing with Anton, and using her Moonshadow Cosmic Spell, she cloaked herself and followed at a good distance.

Harus followed Anton into a dark area behind the town hall. Gabrielle discretely followed with her cloaking spell. Anton looked around and saw nobody else - Percival and Tigeleman were still attending to their own business.

"The Royal Family must be really desperate to hire foreigners to do their work," Anton said to Harus. "Either you're an extraordinary liar, or you quite frankly haven't the slightest clue as to what you've gotten yourself into. The mask is a dangerous weapon in the hands of magician as powerful as Prince Barago.

"Excuse my act as the crazy old drunk. My full name is Anton Volveros, and my goal is to bring justice to the tyrannical Wesigoth family. The one you call Busco is actually an agent of the Secret Royal Guard, and I suspect that he plans to apprehend whoever is the first to touch the mask.

"As for why so many adventurers have failed to get the mask, that's actually my work - not so much the mask itself. You see, I've...taken care of...those who were going after it. Had you not come to see me first, I likely would have done the same to you.

"You may have caught on to my drift - our group is working to destroy the mask. I have a task for you, if you are willing to comply. What say you? Are you willing to side with me?"

Harus did not buy into it. "I'm sorry, but how can I be sure that you are not the one that is lying here?" I look at him for a second. "How am I sure that the Wesigoth family is justified, and that you are a man with a hell-bent grudge?"

"I never asked you to trust me, but I could ask you a similar question. Why are you assisting the Wesigoth family in acquiring a cursed mask that steals souls and grants powerful magical abilities? And as for my grudge, well, I have my reasons. I'll spare you my life story unless you really want to hear it.

"How do you plan to actually give the mask to the Wesigoths? Once you are cursed by it, it is impossible to part with until you die. The only way to get rid of the curse is to destroy the mask. If you do not trust me, that is fine. I'm sure a well-traveled adventurer like you is wise enough to choose who to side with."

"We could be immature about this and bicker all night, but I say otherwise. My motive is for adventure and living the thrill of life. I fear that the more I know about this task, the more complicated and mixed up my morals will be." Harus waited a few seconds to check around himself for anyone close by. "I am not on any side of this. Your quarrel is with this family, not myself or my party. I hope we can respect each other and leave it at this. I have heard enough."

"Let me warn you, then," Anton said. "Your only means of survival is finding an ally. Staying neutral makes you an enemy to everyone."

Gabrielle turned around, contemplating as to whether or not to contact Anton herself. Everyone returned to the main town area and stayed the night in communal establishments.

Chapter 3: Play it by Ear

Gabrielle got up early the next morning, using her spells to conceal herself. Quickly she made her way to Anton. She sneaked behind him, tapping him on the shoulder.

"You were eavesdropping me last night, weren't you?" Anton said.

"I'm wanting to understand this whole thing I got myself into further," she said, ending her spell, reappearing in a shimmer and sparkle of star-like twinkles, now only her actual cloak hiding her features.

Anton spoke. "Well, my lady, the Mask of Bara is far too dangerous to be weaponized. My group wishes for it to be destroyed so that the Wesigoth family cannot use it against their enemies. To put it simply, we're trying to prevent a war that could possibly escalate to that of the conflict against the Demons. Choose to destroy the mask and you'll save millions of lives. But just handing the mask over to the Royal Family is not only guaranteed to cost you your own life, but the Polvora Empire will have a dangerous artifact at their disposal.

"How do I destroy it?" Gabrielle asked.

"One of you must be willing to endure the mask's curse," Anton replied. "You must find the four stone giants of Kesuma - you'll know them when you see them. Containing the essence of a malevolent, primordial being, these giants are completely indestructible save for one weakeness: glowing sigils on their bodies. The one who chooses to get cursed must take the mask and plunge it into the sigils to destroy them."

"And what happens next?"

Anton paused for a moment recalling some brief memories. "Upon the destruction of the final giant, the creature inside the mask will be released. From there, you must slay it which will finally destroy the mask once and for all. With the mask destroyed, the curse will be gone for good." Gabrielle stood there, not sure what to think. "I hope you are more cooperative than the Orc. I will not hesitate to stop your companions if they attempt to hand over the mask to the Polvorans."

"I..." Gabrielle paused. "I accept." She shook Anton's hand and returned to the town.

The party regrouped. Gabrielle found the rest of them gathering their items and going to shops to buy additional gear.

"Where were you, Gabrielle?" Harus asked. "Have you gathered your things?"

She paused for a moment. "...Maybe we should...destroy the that guy Anton said."

"I've been thinking the same thing," Harus replied. "But I don't like this anymore than you do. I am adamant on not getting directly involved in these politics. Perhaps destroying the mask is the best way to end the conflict."

"I don't trust that Anton fellow." Percival stepped in with his foot firm on the ground. "We were given orders and we should follow them. Not to mention, I heard that Anton's a criminal. Much of the Volveros Party consists of pirates."

"But the only way we all get out of this alive is if we destroy the mask!" Gabrielle said. "If we turn it over to the Polvorans, whoever touched the mask would die."

"How about let's play it by ear?" Tigeleman interjected. "We all came here for the adventure, right? Let's just do whatever is the most thrilling."

"But-" Percival said.

"I'm saying that we worry about the mask when we get there," Tigeleman said.

Harus stood for a moment. "He's right. We all did come here for the adventure. This is our story, and we should not let either Busco or Anton tell us what to do."

Chapter 4: Divergent Paths

Finally, it was off to Mt. Bara which was visible just above the horizon. They left the bounds of Shinereach heading off into the wilderness. The volcanic, rocky landscape stretched out for miles. No other individual or animal was in sight, and plants were few. It was quiet save for the sound of moderately strong winds that chilled the air. The cloudy skies made it unusually dark for the late morning, but rays of sunlight barely peeked through.

As they all continued, they spotted what seemed to be a faint winding trail likely created from some large slithering creature. The path was certainly more indirect, but it overall seemed less rugged than just going to Mt. Bara. The group paused for a moment.

"I say we continue on a direct path," Harus said. "No need to waste time."

Tigeleman gazed outwards looking side to side. "I agree. It would only waste more time going on the winding path. Let's continue straight."

All of them nodded their heads and continued on the more rugged path. It became more difficult to get proper footing as the terrain became spikier and more uneven. Every step jolted sharp pain into their feet.

But soon, the terrain came to an abrupt thirty foot drop. The only way to continue going straight would be to climb down. Only a short time after encountering the obstacle, Tigeleman perked up. Rocks rustling near the base of the drop.

"Uh...guys. How do rocks rustle?" He peered over the ledge and saw the ground consisting of loose, rocky terrain similar to gravel but not quite. Looking around more, he spotted a crevice going into the wall. Whatever made that noise likely came from there. They all looked at one another and nodded heads.

Harus quickly looked about for any sturdy trees nearby, but didn't see any. He did find a large pointed stone formation which he tied a rope to. Clinging on to it tight, he descended and arrived at the bottom. Upon touching the ground, a sharp hissing noise echoed from the nearby wall crevice.

Gabrielle used the spell "Starlight" creating a small light in her hand. She climbed down Harus's rope to join him. Accompanying another, louder hissing noise was the sound of footsteps in an odd pattern as if whatever was in that cave had six feet. Sensing a possible danger, Tigeleman loaded his crossbow, prepared to shoot. Harus readied his shield and dagger and approached the caves, keeping his distance.

Whatever was making those sounds finally emerged, holding its ground at the cave's entrance. A grey lizard-like beast with six muscular legs and a long tail. It flicked its tongue out several times, tasting the air. It didn't seem to stare at either Harus or Gabrielle directly partly because the creature had no eyes.

The creature took a few steps forwards, stomped three times with its right front foot, then hissed once. After a short pause, it hissed a second time.

Gabrielle whispered to Harus, "Think it's trying to communicate or something?" That was the impression she got from it. The issue now was, if it was communicating, what was it communicating?

Harus kept looking at the beast and started to talk in a quiet voice while keeping eye contact on its mouth. "I think it's being territorial. If we don't provoke it then perhaps we can back away from it without hindrance."

The two of them backed away slowly and quietly. The technique worked, and the creature lost interest in them. However, the creature became aware of Tigeleman's and Percival's presence. Both were still atop the ledge so climbing down could be tricky. The creature hissed towards Tigeleman and Percival while ignoring Harus and Gabrielle.

"We may have to rendevous somewhere else..." Harus looked up at the others pointing for them to go back and round. "It will be easier than confrontation..." A brief pause of silence followed. "Well?"

"Guess we have no other option," Percival replied. Tigeleman simply nodded. Harus carefully took the rope down without drawing attention while Percival and Tigeleman headed back to the winding path from earlier.

"Are you sure about this?" Gabrielle asked.

Harus pulled out the map of Kesuma. According to it, they would be able to rendezvous with one another in an hour.

The trip back to the winding path for Tigeleman and Percival was fairly brisk, but they noticed that the trail was created by a large, slithering creature. Following the trail, they found the slitherer right in front of them, grazing on a bush and blocking the path. Some kind of large, furry snake with the head of a rat. It did not immediately notice the two adventurers nearby.

To be written

Chapter 5: Mt. Bara

"We're here," Gabrielle said.

"Mt. Bara." Percival stood in awe. "What a sight."

Harus took a deep breath. "Taste that air! Nice, fresh, and smoggy. Reminds me of home."

There it was. Mt. Bara, the lonely volcano. Ash and soot filled the sky as the glowing embers of lava trickled downward. A set of spiral stairs circled about the mountain, a great trail leading up to a stone temple.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Tigeleman said excitingly. "The mask is just up ahead, isn't it?"

The party hurried closer towards the volcano. Even with the Fireward Bracelet they bought from the marketplace earlier, the air was still very hot. The ground was soft with soot, and the walk was fairly brisk. They begun their ascent up the spiraling stairs.

"Reminds me of that one story that one of the guys told at the campfire last night," Tigeleman said. "The story about the pair of Halflings that dropped an evil artifact into a volcano."

As they approached the top, the group came to a sudden gap. Part of the stairs seemed to have crumbled away, and it looked too far to jump over. Tigeleman peered over the ledge. Quite a long way down.

BOOM! A thundering burst shook the stairs and the path behind them crumbled away, the rubble tumbling down the hill side.

"We're trapped!" Percival exclaimed.

"Indeed you are." A Polvoran commander in a purple uniform accompanied by three other soldiers descended from the stairs across the gap. "By the orders of Prince Barago, I am here to ensure that you obtain the mask for the Royal Family and no one else."

"You were the one that destroyed these stairs?" Harus frustratingly stomped with one foot forward. "Why so overdramatic?"

"We're taking extra measures to make sure you listen to us, my friends," the commander replied adjusting his tricorn. "The others that came before tried to resist, so they met an untimely end.

"As you can see, the entirety of the stairs leading to Mt. Bara has been rigged with explosives." The commander pulled out a small device. "Should you fail to comply, all it takes is one push of this button, and boom. If you don't get vaporized by the explosion, you plunge off the side of the mountain." One of his men pulled out a crossbow with a grappling hook attached to it, and shot it towards a rock near the party so that they could cross.

"What's that for?" Tigeleman asked.

"I suggest that you come across using the rope. We'll escort you to the top of the volcano and cause you no further harm if you do everything we ask."

The top of the stairs was inside. Pairs of torches and grotesque stone totems stood at the sides of the stairs lead up to a grand, arched entrance. Tigeleman eyed the area, spotting many more soldiers carrying rifle muskets along the way. He turned to Harus.

"There's no way we'll get out of this if we try to steal the mask," Tigeleman whispered.

They got closer and closer to the top until the entrance was only a few steps away. She spotted the detonator, the leverage being used against them, and got an idea. She turned her head to Harus who nodded back at her.

"Ummm...hey," Gabrielle began. "I- I really got to go use the restroom." She faked fidgeting around hoping that would convince the commander. "Like I really, really, really have to go."

"Hmph...and we're so close to the mask," the commander rudely replied. "Alright, fine. But I must send one of my men to watch over you so that you don't try anything funny."

Gabrielle's face reddened with blush. She froze completely unsure of how to respond. "Ermm...uh..."

"That's very rude!" Harus interjected trying to help Gabrielle out. "A woman needs to have her privacy!"

"I thought Polvoran soldiers were far more chivalrous than this," Percival added. "Prince Barago would be more than disappointed with your lack of honor!"

"Wait," Tigeleman said. "Doesn't she have the Moonsha-" Harus firmly nudged him as a cue. Tigeleman wasn't quite aware of Harus's and Gabrielle's plan. "Err...I mean, yeah. Let a woman be to herself."

The commander's face blushed with embarrassment. "My apologies, milady. Go on, Miss Moon Elf. Do what you have to do." It worked. The group stopped and waited.

Gabrielle crept away hiding behind one of the totems. She peered back to make sure no one was looking, and activated her Moonshadow spell to turn invisible. She crept quietly as everyone was still waiting. She came closer and closer to the commander, and then she reached for the detonator. With one swift motion, she swiped the device and took off towards the entrance. Harus, Percival and Tigeleman followed briskly. For now, the commander just assumed that they were eager, but soon grew more and more suspicious.

Just as they stepped underneath the arch, they managed to get a closer look. Even the temple was rigged with explosives, but as they got to the top, they were stopped by the clicks of loading guns. Behind them were lines of soldiers all pointing rifle muskets tipped with bayonets at them.

"Turn around and drop your weapons! Everyone!" the commander barked at the party. "Moon Elf! Hand over the detonator or we'll fire!" Gabrielle refused, holding out her hand over the top of the button. "No! Don't do that! You'll desecrate one of Clan Permulaan's most sacred structures!"

"As if you're any better," Harus replied, cuing Gabrielle to press the button. Boom! The entrance came collapsing down and the soldiers lost their footing. The party quickly fell back into the entrance and the rubble came crashing down separating them from the soldiers. Then, everything went dark as the rocks blocked the light from outside. The party of four was trapped inside the temple.

"There's no turning back now," Harus said.

Chapter 6: The Mask of Bara

After a short descent down a set of stairs, the dim light of torches was before them. They found themselves in a large, spacious chamber with numerous pillars aligned on a grid. Crimson banners dangled from the ceiling as they waved slightly in a warm draft of air.

Only moments after walking into the room, the ground shook in intervals. Footsteps. A great shadowy figure emerged into view, it's head nearly reaching the ceiling. Some kind of stone giant coated in brass, and its face frozen in a content expression. It wore the headdress carved into the shape of a cobra, and it had four arms, each with a scimitar. The giant turned its head, staring at them with glowing red eyes. All four of them froze in place hoping to not draw attention. Only after a few moments, the giant continued on its way, pacing about the large room.

"What...what was that thing?" Percival shuddered having never seen a creature that large.

"Could it be? One of the stone giants that Guru Arif mentioned?" Harus stood a moment. "As intimidating as it looked, it seemed strangely...peaceful."

Wanting to move quickly and in hope of eventually finding a way out, they continued further, following an opulent carpet towards a stone, double door. Harus pushed it open. It was strange, easier to open than it should have been. Most definitely, someone had been through here earlier. Maybe it was the soldiers from outside?

After a walk down a long, winding hallway that eventually spiraled downward, they came to yet another chamber: the heart of the volcano. The smoggy sky loomed over above while a boiling lake of lava was far below, bubbling up as plumes of lava flared upward. A walkway with no rails led to a brimstone altar with a strange object hovering above it. An intricately carved mask divided into five segments, with the fifth in the middle. It had no eye holes or a face of any kind. This was it. The Mask of Bara.

Gabrielle started. "Well, one of us is going to have to get it."

"Not it!" Tigeleman quickly stated. He looked about finding that no one else said anything. Awkward silence followed.

"I'll take it," Percival stated. "By enduring the hardships of the mask, I will most certainly prove that I am worthy of becoming a knight."

"No. A young lad such as you still has a lot to experience in this world, and you do not deserve to have your life cut short. I must take it," Harus begun. "It is the final duty of my kin to find a meaningful death."

"You shouldn't throw away your life either, Harus," Gabrielle said. "I'm sure we can all come out of this alive."

"So..." Tigeleman paused. "What's it going to be? Want to draw straws? Or have a really intense game of rock, paper, scissors?"

"Enough, Tigeleman," Harus said. "I insist that I take it. None of you are bound by an obligation like I am." Slowly, he approached the mask. He reached out and with a single touch, thousands of images flashed through his head all at once. Help us. Help us. Dozens of disembodied voices echoed in his head. Harus felt a sharp pain on the back of his right hand as if someone were carving a knife into him. Then, he dropped to his knees.

"Harus! Give it to me!" Percival called out reaching to take the mask from him hoping to spare him of the pain. His hands passed right through as if he were only touching nothing at all. "What?"

Harus got back up as the pain faded away. "It's bound to me now." As he held upwards, he noticed on the back of his right hand the symbol of an "X". No doubt a branding. A sign of the curse.

"Now, we have to destroy it, right?" Tigeleman asked. "Can't we just drop it into the volcano? That always seems to destroy any evil artifact."

Harus tossed the mask off the side of the walkway, watching it plunge downward towards the lava below. Only moments later, it reappeared in his hands in a puff of shadowy smoke. "I didn't think it would be that easy. Looks like that stone giant from earlier will be the only way."

Chapter 7: Kadala, the Fire Serpent

The party made their way back up the stairs back to the spacious chamber. They stopped, listening for the sound of quaking footsteps and creaking stone. Harus' eyes darted about the room quickly until he spotted a pair of red glowing eyes. That was the target.

As they crept closer, they spotted a glowing sigil similar in shape to the mask on its back. Undoubtedly, some kind of clue. the giant slowly turned to face them. It did not do anything. It tilted its head back and forth curiously wondering what the puny creatures before it were up to.

Harus inched closer, then made his move dashing around to the back of the giant and grasped onto the back of one of its legs. The giant, like a large animal, shook around and panicked. It swung its giant swords around wildly; Tigeleman ducked just before one of the swords offed his head. The other three drew its attention, provoking it to come towards them while it would forget about Harus.

One of the pillars came crashing down as the giant sliced clean through it. The dust from the rubble filled the air. Percival, wiping his eyes, noticed that the giant was standing on the opulent red carpet from before. He knocked over one of the torches setting most of the room alit as the banners hanging from above also caught fire. The giant cowered as it let out a metallic cry of fear. This was Harus's chance.

Using a rope, Harus hoisted himself further upward as he got closer to the sigil of the giant's back. Holding on with one hand, he grabbed the mask from his backpack and slammed it into the sigil as hard as he could. The mask locked in place and Harus jumped off with the rope still attached. He backed up, and watched the giant kneel down as it screamed in agony. Cracks crept all over its body as beams of red light leaked out until it shattered, letting a great wind that blew out all of the raging flames in the room. The light vanished, absorbed into the mask, a portion of it which was now glowing red.

"Wooh! We did it! Yeah! Ha ha!" Tigeleman shouted. "Only three more to go!" Then, he quickly realized he was the only one celebrating. Everyone else had sullen, long faces.

Harus stared into the mask, regret filled his eyes. Strangely, when he touched the mask, it was somehow less daunting and sinister than before. A touch of excitement and determination crept up his arms, but the feelings were most definitely not his own. A mysterious voice echoed in his head. That was fun. Can you play with my other friends, too? He did not mention it to anyone else.

Percival clenched his fists. "That filthy pirate Anton. We just took the life of an innocent creature." Gabrielle stood there silently. Not sure what to think.

"Let's keep going," Harus paused. "We need to find another way out of here."

Chapter 8: The Spy in the Shadows

Erebellis peeked his head around the corner, trying to determine the location of the other team members. He spotted them heading down a small crevice in the wall leading to a dark tunnel that sloped and spiraled downward. Gabrielle had used her moonlight spell to illuminate the path, while the Halfling remained in the shadows relying on his own night vision. He darted his eyes around the room looking for an opening in the cave walls and ceilings, particularly one that was far too small for even someone his size.

Percival had stopped for a moment and looked side to side while Erebellis crept back behind a boulder in the path.

"I think we're being followed," Percival said.

"Oh, you mean that Halfling that joined on the ship to here?" Tigeleman stood for a moment recollecting. "Yeah, he's been following us for the past few hours. Nothing to worry about." After Tigeleman finished, Erebellis waited, continuing to eavesdrop.

Harus crinkled his face slightly in irritation. A new burden to worry about. "What do you mean he's been following us? I thought he was injured." Mr. Took looked at his leg again. Yes, there was an injury, but there were no broken bones or torn tendons. It was a slash wound that he had already patched up by now.

"Eh, I guess he got better and changed his mind to stick around." No one else in the group knew how Tigeleman could be so nonchalant about it.

Mr. Took waited in place, concealing himself in the shadows. The group stopped to look around for him, but even with the moonlight spell, they had no luck.

"Keep your eyes peeled," Harus said. "I don't like this."

The stuffy air soon grew more and more humid as they descended the sloped corridor. The path smoky with a lightly spread out steam, it grew steeper and steeper and muddier and muddier. It was just as muggy as it was back at the port, and it was far harder to keep footing. Percival's heavy armor was not helping. Every step, he slid forward, and he struggled to keep his balance.

Tigeleman found himself in a similar predicament with the slipperiness, except this time, he put out the wrong foot in the wrong place. He tumbled backwards onto his behind and slid down the rest of the tunnel screaming outwards in a combination of terror and thrill. Harus reached for him but missed. Tigeleman slid and slid until he dropped down into a vast, cavernous chamber, finding himself standing in warm, soothing water up to his waist. Natural ekati formations dimly lit up the area - giant glowing crystals jutting out from the walls and ceiling. The sound of a rushing waterfall could be heard in the distance.

"Come on down!" He shouted. "The water's warm." Harus, Percival and Gabrielle followed dipping into the pool.

"This is incredible!" Percival remarked. "All that ekati waiting to mined!"

"Just the natural beauty of it!" Gabrielle said. "I could meditate here for days!"

They continued wading in the water until they found a small, rocky island with grass growth and a single, leafy tree. Will-o-the-wisps gathered around it, flying and prancing about. At the ceiling above emanated beams of light and an open sky, and conveniently, a jutting rock formation spiraled upwards towards it. They all looked upward. Finally, a way out.

Just as the party began to climb the rocky formation to the ceiling, Erebellis crouched downward and held out his hand with his palm facing downward and fingers slightly curled. From the opening in the ceiling flocked a mithril-colored butterfly with rigid, polygonal wings. The butterfly landed on Mr. Took's middle finger, and from there, he whispered an inaudible message. A few moments later, the butterfly flapped its wings and took off, flying from whence it came.

Chapter 9: Fresh Air

Harus clambered upon the surface with Tigeleman, Percival and Gabrielle just behind. The golden dawn sky paired with vibrant, green vegetation made for a heavenly contrast to the volcanic wasteland where they just were. Yet, even with the energizing fresh air, everyone was physically exhausted, panting and crouching slightly from all of the steep hills, running from monsters and trying to follow the map.

"Can we take a break? I'm starving," Tigeleman said. Percival and Gabrielle agreed and asked the same thing, but the orc stood there silently in uneasy wistfulness. Just as Harus was about to reply, the back of his hand tingled with a sensation like the shadowy grip of death. An 'I' had appeared to the left of the 'X' that was previously there.

"Nine days...nine days left until I die." It did not feel like twenty four hours had passed. Being underground so long had made them lose track of time, not to mention that the drastic change of landscape was disorienting. "We have to keep pushing on."

"But we don't even know where to go next!" Percival stood there with his sword planted in the ground.

Standing there for a moment, Harus was convinced enough. "Fine. Let's meet at this spot in an hour. Do what you need to do."

Tigeleman took a knee then sipped from his canteen. When he pushed aside the Lagoonite head and reached into his bag for a croissant, he had found all of his food soaked and inedible. Everyone else checked their bags as well. Ruined, destroyed food. Looks like they needed to stop after all. Tigeleman took off to a nearby pond to spear fish while Harus and Percival went hunting. Gabrielle wandered around, searching for suitable fruits to pick.

As Gabrielle wandered deeper into the forest, she spotted a small bush with some bright, red apple-like fruits. Just staring at it was enough to get her appetite stirred up. As she got closer, a snake slithered out from a burrow just beneath it. She readied a small glow of light preparing to defend herself, and that was enough to scare it away. Gabrielle bent down, picked one of the fruits, then took a bite. Delicious. Scrumptious. Nothing she had ever eaten tasted like it.

Eagerly, Gabrielle picked all of the fruits from the bush and stuffed them into her backpack. Just as she was about to grab the last one, a shorter than usual arrow whizzed right through, striking the fruit with perfect accuracy.

"No one eats fruit of Mother!" The voice came from the direction from which the arrow had been shot. Gabrielle turned her head, dropping the apple and readied her spell. A tiny creature the size of a small child emerged. It was a Halfling, young yet experienced.

"I- I- I didn't mean it!" She stuttered about, but the Halfling readied another arrow covered in a viscous substance.

"This next arrow have Butanaga spit! I shoot you, you die! You come with me!"

Gabrielle being the much larger opponent did not back down, and she readied a magic spell in her defense. The Halfling drew his arrow and fired. It whisked through the air with a whistle and she ducked downwards, dodging it just barely.

"I don't want to hurt you!" Gabrielle pleaded, but the Halfling ignored her. He just readied another poison arrow determined to end her life for whatever reason. The Halfling let go, and to her, everything went to slow motion as the arrow came closer and closer to her heart. Since it was soaked in Butanaga venom, one piercing would mean the end of her.

But at that moment, her adrenaline skyrocketed and her heart rate rose as she raised the palms of her hands putting extra juice into the spell she was readying. The next thing she knew, a great blast of wind pushed the two of them to the ground and flattened some of the nearby foilage. Gabrielle stood up, noticing that her hood was down. Her long, flowing red hair were exposed - something that she would never do in public. Just as she was about to put her hood back up, the Halfling stood up and gasped in total amazement as if he heard the soothing melody of a siren, then he immediately knelt to the ground entranced by her beauty.

"Are...are you Mistress Bara?" the Halfling asked. Gabrielle stood there puzzled and confused. Obviously, this Halfling had never seen a Moon Elf or any elf for that matter. This was her chance to use her wits. If she said no to his question, then he would probably try to kill her again. But if she said yes...think...think.

From her encounter with the Polvoran soldiers at the volcano, Gabrielle had picked up some witty tricks especially from the other members of the party. After a moment of hesitation, she played along. "I am but one of her avatars in mortal form, projecting myself into the physical world." That was the first lie she had told in her life, but she was desperate to get out of this situation. It had been a long time since she had come so close to death.

"I-I-" The Halfling stuttered. "I am Pemburu of Biasa Clan. It is great honor to be in your presence Mother of Halflings! I apologize for what I did to you!"

Gabrielle ran a checklist through her head. This was her opportunity. "I have two requests." Choose the words. Choose them carefully, she thought. Sound high and mighty, eloquent and well-spoken. Don't stutter. With all that stuff going through her head, the natural pause soon became awkward as the Halfling gave her a weird look. "I will accept the fruit I was trying to collect as a gift from you."

Pemburu was confused himself. Eating fruit went against his beliefs, but to him, this was the goddess standing before him. Obligated by his religion, he obeyed and let Gabrielle gather the rest of the fruit.

"What else can Pemburu do for you, my Mistress?"

The party had no idea where the other giants were. But every Halfling knew that the giants were Bara's constructs so that it would not make sense if the real Bara didn't know where her own soul fragments were, right? Right? Was that how that spell worked? Her mind went into rambling mode again. The magic that created those giants was unlike anything she ever studied. But it was doubtful that the Halflings themselves knew of the exact workings behind the spell - far too complex for even modern research to accomplish. Well, magic is magic. Maybe she can make something up.

"Being asleep for so long has made me lose contact with the stone giants of this island. Show me where they dwell so that I can promise good harvests for the next seven years." That was total bogus what she uttered, yet the Halfling bought it.

"Please! Come to village and meet elder! He can show you!"

Chapter 10: The Village of Halflings

Gabrielle followed Pemburu into a tiny village - a small collection of huts each put together with alien asparagus-like logs tied together with some fleshy twine. The trees were certainly not quite those on the mainland. Moments later, she found herself surrounded by Halflings circled about her and all bowed.

"Bara has come! Our Mother is here!" Gabrielle froze for a moment thinking. What would Tigeleman say? Or maybe Harus or Percival? Before she could concoct a response, one of the other Halflings, "You must stay for the feast, milady! This is a glorious day!"

She was led to a long table with two thrones on both ends. The other Halflings were hastily putting together their hunts for the day, trying to make it look nice just for Gabrielle. Ulartikus and Butanaga meat, and some multi-eyed fish creatures. After sitting in the throne, she quickly darted her eyes for anything that wasn't meat. Nothing in sight. A Halfling who was clearly the best dressed sat directly across from her, undoubtedly the village elder.

"What are you waiting for, Mistress?" the elder said. "Dig in! This is all for you!"

What now?! She thought. Gabrielle was a vegetarian. She would never even think to eat meat. But this culture before her was opposite. They would never think to eat plants. Culture tolerance. Culture tolerance she thought. But if she ate the meat, she would break yet another one of her sacred vows. Yet, it would be rude to reject it.

So Gabrielle took a piece of meat that looked the least disgusting, and put it in her mouth. Just chew it and swallow it. It will be over. But the taste was the exact opposite she expected. Way better than any fruit she had ever tasted. She was tempted to grab more, but then she would defiling her own culture. Don't do it. Don't do it. Maybe if she went and asked about what she was really here for, she could avoid eating.

"Mr. Village Elder," she said. "I must find the stone giants to reconnect with myself. Please, tell me where they might be."

The elder stood up from his share to bow. "Milady, the colossus Aji-Raja is the only one in open sight for the other three are hidden. Aji-Raja guards an ancient castle in the marshes to the south of here. It is not too far of a journey for someone like you. But do you remember now? Kadala lives in the fiery mountain, Nazara in the snowy mountain and Hiukan in the reef."

"Thank you, I will-" Wait. It would be rude just to get up and leave after that. "I will stay and continue having this feast."

"Please, stay a while. You must gather your strength."

"Gabrielle!" Percival shouted. "Gabrielle!" It had been hours since the rest of the party regrouped, and everyone else had restocked on food.

"By the gods, where is she?!" Harus paced in rapid circles. His death timer was ticking and ticking in his head. This was no time to be waiting around if he was to die in nine days.

Tigeleman was crawling about, sifting through foliage and looking for clues. Looking closely into the mud, he spotted the drag marks of a robe and elf-sized footprints. He gave a signal for the others to come examine, and they followed it. It led to up to a bush with a small snake burrow. An apple lay in the dirt with an arrow pierced through it. And nearby, there were smaller footprints in a combat stance.

Harus held out his hand. Small dust accumulated on his fingertips. "Ekati. Someone's been casting spells."

"A battle perhaps?" Percival asked.

"Probably," Tigeleman said. No stenches of blood or anything like that. "Nobody's dead. At least not here."

"Look!" Percival said. "Now the two sets of footprints are travelling together. Gabrielle must have been led somewhere. I don't know if it was by force or not."

"Let's follow them," Harus said. "It's our only lead."

Gabrielle had continued to indulge herself with the Halflings' hospitality, but soon, she was rudely interrupted.

"Gabrielle!" Percival said. "We've been looking all over for you!"

"Ooh! Is there enough food for me?" Tigeleman excitedly said dancing around.

The Halfling elder stood up curious as to who these strangers were. "Lady Bara? Who are these other beings? Nothing was said of them in our scriptures."

"We have to go, Gabrielle." Harus stood his ground insisting that she hurry up. "Time is running out."

Gabrielle stood up, reluctantly putting down a half eaten sugary treat. "I guess you're right. We have to slay the rest of the collosi." After that sentence, all the Halflings' eyes widened while the elder's face grew angry. Whoops. A little slip of the tongue.

"Slay? You are going to kill the giants?" the elder said.

"Umm...uh..." Gabrielle stuttered. "I meant to say...find the rest of them."

The elder's hands slammed to the table, shaking all of the food. "You tricked us! You're going to murder the stone giants of Bara! Murder the goddess!"

Tigeleman froze. "Errr...wasn't me. I had nothing to do with this. For real. Nothing at all. You can trust me. Really." An awkward pause followed.

"Gabrielle!" Harus bellowed. "What sort of charade did you put up for these people? I asked you to gather resources for the mission, not steal them!"

Pemburu raised his bow with an arrow dipped in Butanaga venom. The other Halflings picked up their spears, readying them. And then the elder spoke. "Oh, so you all admit it, then? This 'Gabrielle' pretended to be the goddess Bara! But she is no goddess. She's a leech! She ate of the forbidden fruits and defiled our very culture!"

Every Halfling in the village was ready to kill them, and Tigeleman stood perfectly still. "I think we should run. Like now."

Chapter 11: Becoming Fugitives...Again

The party dashed through the jungle, sifting through the thick foliage while dodging oncoming arrows. Running. Running. Running.

As they ran, they had very abruptly came to a small herd of Butanaga feasting on the mangled corpse of a large mammal. Each of them perked their heads and hissed at the interrupting party of adventurers. Not good. But wait, Harus thought. This could work out.

The chasing Halflings drew closer as the Butanaga charged at them, the Halflings now directing their fire at the creatures as they were far more of a threat. In the ensuing confusion and chaos, Harus the team slipped away, hiding in the brush. Slowly, they backed out further and further using the noise of the hissing Butanagas and the wisping volleys of arrows. A short run away, the noise ceased. They were too far from the action to hear anything.

The party had arrived at a charred, bare rocky hill which rose above the treeline of the flat plains. The disturbance they had created made the forest dead silent. Not even the sound of chirping birds of crickets. Only the rustling leaves in the light breeze. They climbed to the top of the outcropping and could now see the horizon, and in the distance was a towering snowy mountain with a chain of smaller peaks leading up to it, and much closer was a ruined stone castle. A place to stop and plan. All of them took seats on some boulders.

"So....where are we going?" Tigeleman butted in breaking the silence. More silence followed. "Eh...hello?"

"Just be quiet, Tigeleman! This is not the time!" An irritated orc was never a pretty sight. Tigeleman immediately dropped his joking demeanor after seeing the sullen faces of everyone else, and with good reason.

"What have I done?" Gabrielle muttered. Those faces of all the Halflings burned into their minds. She and Harus would never forget them. The faces of shock. Anger. Victims of betrayal. "How many more of my own vows do I have to break?"

"Gabrielle," Percival said. "You didn't touch the mask so you can turn back now." The Moon Elf did not respond. Harus was just as sorrowfully silent as she was until he suddenly spoke.

"This is not the glorious path to the death I was hoping for," Harus said. "As an Orc, we respect the cultures of our adversaries. But back there. Why? Must we defile the lives of more to cure this mask?"

"No offense," Tigeleman said. "But are you going to keep moping, Harus? I mean, you've got like nine days left to live. Just go out with a bang, you know? Nothing's more glorious than action and adventure. Live life and get drunk on adrenaline while you're at it."

"Really, Tigeleman?" Percival said almost utterly shocked at the disregard of the conversation's somber tone. "Really?"

"No, he's right." Harus stood up. "The fate of this mask is bigger than all of us. Should I die now, the cycle of death is just going to repeat. We must press on no matter what." Even after such a proclamation, Harus still had difficulty accepting the truth. The ideal death he hoped for would never happen. There would be consequence and collateral damage.

The castle ruins was much closer than the mountain. Harus looked at the map, matching the terrain features with what he saw, and decided the route based on the information Gabrielle discovered from the Halflings. They would continue through the forest and into the swamps ahead.

Chapter 12: Biasa Marshes

They descended from the rocky outcropping and continued through the forest for the next few hours. The sky became cloudy once again and the air grey misty and humid. They could once again hear the chirping of crickets. Life had returned to the forest after that clash. Not too long, they found what seemed to be a field of tall grass and some asparagus trees. The meeping of frogs echoed with the stench in the air.

"D'oh, great..." Perceival found his foot soaking wet. He hadn't watched his step and his foot was sunk deep in the bog. He lifted it back out. It was the deceiving terrain. What looked a simple meadow was actually a marsh. At least they knew they were going in the right direction.

Tigeleman was about to make a snarky comment regarding Perceival's carelessness, but he hadn't fared that much better either. He found his foot sunk deep into some brown, sticky mud. Or at least he hoped it was mud. "Gabrielle, don't you have some kind of levitate spell or something? I mean, it's going to suck going through here..."

Gabrielle shook her head.

"Looks like we're going to get our feet wet," Harus said. "This is the shortest way to the castle."

They proceeded through the tall grass and into the marshes. Percival was using his sword to test the terrain to find the sturdiest place to place their feet. That way, they wouldn't sink into the ground again. Strange, green slime-like creatures slithered about like lumbering snails making sloshing noises as it dragged itself along the damp dirt. Meruap. One of them pounced a large beetle, engulfing it with surprising agility. The beetle struggled until its movement slowed. It had drowned. Then, the slime retreated back into the marshy water carrying away its meal. Freaky, both Percival and Tigeleman thought, but Gabrielle thought something else.

"Those slime things...are they meat?" Gabrielle asked.

"What, are you hungry?" Tigeleman asked.

"No. I'm just curious. I never want to eat meat again as I've broken enough vows already, but if I eat plants...I defile the local culture. I may as well starve for the rest of the journey."

"You need your strength, Gabrielle," Tigeleman said. Surprisingly, he was not being sarcastic. "I mean, I don't meant to trample all over your beliefs or anything, but food is food. You gotta eat before something eats you."

"Self preservation," Percival added. "But we still have to obey our honor code. I've made every effort to remain chivalrous myself."

"But the rules are different depending on where you go," Gabrielle replied. "Do you follow the local rules or follow your own?"

Harus for the most part was ignoring their conversation about philosophy and the circle of life. The task at hand had clouded his mind. But just like Gabrielle, he stopped feeling hunger as well. To him, it was no longer important. All of his strength and energy. Committed to destroying the mask. But everyone else was just there to support him. They weren't bound to a destiny like he was.

While Harus was deep in thought, a pale, emaciated hand lunged out from the swamp and grasped his leg, keeping him locked in place. He tried to move, but couldn't. His heart rate rose rapidly. What's this? Fear? Orcs aren't supposed to fear. This emotion. Come on keep it together. Harus looked about. No one seemed to react. Hello? Can't you see what I'm seeing? He drew his sword and slashed it off, the arm still grasping onto his leg and the severed part dripping with a green ooze. More arms, each hand with sharp, black fingernails, were emerging from the bog soon followed by shrunken heads rising from the mud on the ground.

"Where are you going? Come stay with us," one of the heads said. Harus stomped on it, crushing it into mushy flesh which reformed moments after into a more terrifying shape. "Why do you oppose us? Pray, stay with us. Be at rest."

"Gabrielle! Percival! Tigeleman! Help!" Harus cried out. But then, he saw their faces melting like wax candles. This can't be real. Right? The arms from the bog stretched out longer and longer, swarming him. Each of them grabbed his limbs, trying to pull him apart, but Harus resisted.

"Give up. Give up. Become one with us."

Harus looked to the ground and saw that the mask had slipped from his pouch and onto the ground. Wait, that was it. It was the mask! It had to be. He repeated over and over again. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real. The mask is messing with my head. This is nothing more than a hallucination. Right? Right? If this isn't real, then why does he still feel fear? It's not going away. Maybe these are real after all. He could feel the scratching of the hands' fingernails all throughout his back, digging into him.

The grasp of one particular hand started to stand out, on his shoulder. It squeezed harder and harder. "Harus. Harus." The hands suddenly vanished. "Harus, are you okay?" It was Gabrielle's voice, and that was her hand on his shoulder. Harus came to his senses. He looked about. "You were just standing there, staring into space. The look on your freaked us out."

"It's nothing," Harus said. "I was just..." he paused. The hallucination he saw would get his teammates worried. This was his own problem, and he thought it would be best if morale remained high. "Daydreaming. Deep in thought."

Percival summarized the discussion to Harus thus far. "What do you think?"

Harus added his two cents. "Stay true to what you believe in, Gabrielle. It is impossible to please everyone."

"But doesn't that cause conflict if someone else says that their beliefs are right and yours are wrong?"

"That's why we fight for what we believe is right, to preserve our ideals. In the Kalla Clan, the elders taught that the end result of a fight does not matter so long as we endure and remain strong. Fight and persevere to the end, but respect your adversaries."

Gabrielle stood there, not sure what to think. The conversation continued for at least the next hour proving to be a good distraction from the perilous task at hand since it gave them all something to ponder about. Perhaps he shouldn't stay too focused on the mask. Otherwise, it would start messing with his head again.

Chapter 13: Aji-Raja, the Earth Baboon

Finally, they had come to the stone castle. It towered at least seventy feet above with no obvious front door entrance as whatever that might have been must have sunk into the swamp. Fallen pillars and rubbles adorned the marshy landscape. But then, Harus eyed some eerie sights. Emaciated hands similar to his hallucination. Percival approached one of them.

"No don't touch it!" Harus shouted.

"What?" Percival was puzzled at Harus' reaction. "It's just a Unicorntail. Common in swampy areas." Harus shook his head and rubbed his eyes to see that it was indeed true. It was just a Unicorntail.

"Forget it. I thought I saw something else..."

As they approached the castle, something enormous emerged from behind it. A gigantic humanoid figure as tall as the castle wielding a club. It was similar to that other creature they encountered at the volcano. Undoubtedly, this was the giant Aji-Raja. It paced about staring off into the distance. The party drew closer and noticed that the sigil was on its upper back. There were no obvious gripping points along its legs, so they would need to climb the castle to get on top of it.

They circled about, looking for a good way to scale the ruins. There were a few loose bricks that they could grab onto, and Harus begun scaling while the rest remained on the ground to play their roles as distractions. Harus climbed and climbed, watching his footing. The moss covered bricks made it difficult to get a good grip, but Harus was resilient and vigilant. As he was climbing, he grasped one particular mushy stone. Way too soft for it to be just another moss covered brick. But as he gripped harder, he could feel bone.

"Let go!" the handhold said revealing itself to be a severed head dripping with green ooze. Harus grasped on, reassuring himself that it wasn't real. The handholds above morphed into heads which begun shifting around and dancing in mid air. Concentrate. Ignore them. This is the mask's doing. Yet, from the ground, the rest of his companions were puzzled. He was shifting from side to side when the obvious direction would be up. But Harus treaded upward.

Once reaching the top floor, the heads vanished and his vision was his own again. In between sets of pillars barely holding the unstable ceiling, the giant was right in front of him, but he was facing the wrong way. Harus crept closer, but the giant turned its head - it's two glowing green eyes staring him down. Unlike the previous giant which ignored him at first, this one raised its club and smashed it through several of the pillars flinging rubble down below. This one sensed Harus' intent.

Harus crouched to the ground, keeping himself low and navigated about the rubble. Then, he peered over to see it was clear meeting direct eye contact with the giant. It had an expressionless face, but its glowing green eyes gave off a different vibe. He couldn't describe it in words, but he could somehow see the mask's feelings within the giant as if it were being called out to. A reluctant desire to reunite. He didn't know what to think. But remember the mission.

The giant turned its gaze. It was distracted by the other three who were pelting rocks at it. Harus moved closer, but the beast soon realized what was going on, ignoring the diversion. It smashed its club against the castle and more of the ceiling came crashing down as it lost support. Harus needed to act fast or else he would be crushed. The tingling session at the base of his brain was fiery stress amplified by the mask. Come on. What to do? He sat down, hid, and took some breaths to calm down. The giant darted its eyes about, searching for him.

Think. How do I draw its gaze? I've got to do something or I'll be trapped in this swampy castle. Wait. Swamp. That's it! Harus dashed out to a nearby window as fast as he could. "Get it stuck in the mud!" he shouted. He counted on the fact that the giant didn't know the language he was speaking.

The team at the castle's base used a little more force this time. Nothing that could penetrate the rocky hide, but Gabrielle added more amps to her magic. The giant turned around, exposing its back to Harus and raised its club into the air, slamming it into the muddy ground trying to chase Percival, Tigeleman and Gabrielle away. Rather than an earth shattering bam, the club hit with a glorp as it dug deep into the bog. The giant tugged on its club - it's movements being slow as it was such a large creature. But this was Harus's chance.

The Orc dashed out onto the castle's balcony and leaped onto the giant's back grasping onto the rugged surface. He then edged his way over to the glowing sigil, his adrenaline skyrocketing. With one hand, he slapped the mask onto the sigil, and the giant froze. Cracks splint all over it as green light leaked out. Quick! Climb down! But the giant shattered, flinging him downwards. When he smacked against the ground, he found his leg oriented in a location where it shouldn't have been.

No, this was not the time. This would slow him down. Sure, Orcs had much stronger bones than either elves or humans, but had he been either of those, he would have been dead instead from the force of the fall.

"Are you alright?" Percival asked. "You're lucky to have survived that fall."

"Just splint this, and let's go," Harus said. "We have a mission and a time limit."

"No, we have to rest. You're hurt!" Gabrielle pleaded. "You can't be pushing yourself too much."

Reluctantly, Harus agreed, and the team moved him near a large piece of rubble to rest on. Tigeleman found two sticks, and wrapped some bandages around Harus' broken leg. As he sat there, he sensed the mask acting strangely, just the way it did moments before they defeated Kadala. This time, the feeling was a lot more calm and relaxed. A mysterious voice echoed in his head. "Rest easy. One day we'll all be together with my friends."

All of them stared at the crumbled corpse of the giant. Yet another innocent creature gone. But what did it really want? There was something alien about it. Maybe they didn't quite understand the creature's psyche. And they doubted that either Anton or Busco did either.

Chapter 14: The Mithril Butterfly

Harus was frustrated. He yearned to move once more, but his broken leg made it impractical cross the rest of the marsh, and the party would be stuck in the castle ruins for a while as Harus was the only one who could destroy the giants. Gabrielle had been casting healing spells, but it would take time. She never worked with an Orc before. Their bones and hide were made of much different material than either humans or elves.

Tigeleman was out hunting with Percival. As the night drew, the slimes became more numerous. They gathered about the swampy, muddy ground, absorbing ants and grubs. Like sticky automated food collectors. Maybe one day, they could be useful for something whether it be in science or magic, and that would mean cash. Eagerly, Tigeleman took a flask from his side and tried to scoop one of the little ones up, but it begun to wrap itself around his fingers, stinging them. He quickly pulled back. Feisty little devils.

Percival eyed another large slime that had engulfed an odd, yet beautiful insect creature that none of them had seen. Using his sword, he sliced it open and the slime reduced to lifeless green muck. He grabbed the unmoving insect and scrubbed the rest of the muck off only to find that it was no insect.

"It's made of mithril!" He exclaimed. Then, he looked closer. It was covered in tiny, dimmed out intricately carved lines, and written in tiny print was "Manufactured by the Rising Sun". This was no animal. It was some kind of machine. None of the native tribes could have possibly crafted it. Then again, they could not have created the giants either. The two of them ran back to Gabrielle who had more magical knowledge than anyone else in the group. The Moon Elf paused the healing process and examined it.

"I'm not totally familiar with magitek as I've only studied hexing and enchantments. But, I think I know what this is," she explained. She conjured up a tiny, energy spell and jolted it with electricity. The lines glowed a brilliant purple, and it gave off a humming noise and projected words in a light. This kind of technology was unknown to the entire group.

"STARTING UP...OFF COURSE...RECALCULATING PLANAR COORDINATES...PREPARING TO RESUME COURSE" Then, the butterfly begun flapping its wings, but Tigeleman snagged it before it could go any further. After grasping it, a smaller ekati crystal dropped from the butterfly, and Gabrielle picked it up. Runic encryptions in a language she did not immediately recognize. Some kind of encoded message? And the butterfly was delivering it somewhere?

"I believe that belongs to me. I'm going to ask you to hand that over." Out from a patch of Unicorntails emerged a familiar looking Halfling.

"Mr. Took!" Percival exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

"He's been following us, remember?" Harus remarked.

Erebellis shook his head and crossed his arms, getting closer and closer. "Oh my, oh my. You near-sighted mercenaries have no idea what you've gotten yourself into. Things are far more complicated than that mask alone, and that messenger getting caught in a slime has made things inconvenient for me." He reached for a dagger strapped to his boot, slowly pulling it out, alarming everyone. "If you would just give that contraption to me, we can be on our merry ways, hmmm?"

Harus tried to stand up, but his leg had not healed enough getting up so that he could only fall back down. "Tell us who you really are, first!"

Mr. Took knew this was a battle he couldn't win fighting straight on. Three people twice as tall as he was against himself. He gave in, but remained slick. "You are all no fun," Mr. Took said. "Dramatic irony is far more interesting, but if you insist that I tell you my life story." The Halfling put away the knife. "I am from the Empire of the Rising Sun. That mask is the centerpiece of a whole political mess if you haven't figured out, but did you know that your puppetmasters have puppetmasters themselves? There's some large scale social engineering going on here."

"So," Percival said. "You're a spy that is manipulating us? If what you say is true, then even the Polvora Empire and the Volveros are pawns as well!"

" can't be..." Harus uttered.

Tigeleman's reaction was different. The fact that they were now getting into some kind of multi-national conspiracy excited him. Until this moment, he thought politics was boring.

"You are really that ignorant?" Mr. Took said. "Both factions already know what we're doing - making deals and loans for our own economic benefit. And me? I was supposed to be watching over you guys to make sure the pieces fell into play and that butterfly was meant to give status updates to the Emperor. Of course, things would have played out smoother if you did everything you were told, but no matter. If my homeland found I went dark on them, things would get even uglier. But all we're doing is fulfilling the wishes of both sides. They want to start a war to vent out their rage. The Rising Sun makes money in the process. Everybody is happy. Sure, the natives are getting caught in the crossfire, but oh well. There's going to be casualties."

"We have to stop this war!" Gabrielle shouted. "You can't let this happen! Thousands of people will die!"

Mr. Took sighed. "You really think it's that simple? You think these two factions are just going to get over their differences overnight? Don't be so idealistic. The hatred between them runs deep. No mortal could possibly keep their urges bottled up for so long. Even you Gabrielle. Even some wide-eyed child like you has given in to natural, mortal instinct. Pretending to be a goddess to defile generations of culture? Breaking your vows? What makes you so different than myself or anyone involved in this?"

Gabrielle couldn't answer that. She just stood there.

"And what of the mask?" Harus exclaimed. "What does this have to do with the whole grand scheme?"

"Simple," Mr. Took said. "It's an object of hatred, not by mystical means, but just through sheer psychology. No matter what you do with the mask, someone is going to be upset about it. Partly because nobody actually knows if it's evil or not. Everyone involved in the conflict from the natives to the Polvorans have drawn their own conclusions about what the stone giants and the mask are supposed to be. Like Brunikor if anyone knows the truth about it." Harus reached for a knife, about ready to toss it right in between Mr. Took's eyes, but he stopped to let the Halfling continue. "Look, I want to help you. I'm really only doing what I'm told. I'm a pawn, too, after all. But anyway, it doesn't matter what happens with the mask as long as at least one faction benefits from the result. So if you intend to slay the rest of the giants, then slay the two remaining ones."

Finally, Harus gathered enough strength to stand up despite his leg not yet being fully healed. His zealous face frightened the other members of the party. "This war you speak of..." Harus began then paused for a short moment. "It is none of my concern. I'm doing this only for myself." Gabrielle and Percival were struck with shock. How could Harus say something like that? "We came here to acquire the mask, and if slaying the giants is the best way to finish the final chapter of my life, then so be it. Take this butterfly back, and just don't get in our way, Halfling."

"You know," Tigeleman added. "I agree. I just wanted the thrill of adventure. But some things are not in our control."

"But I will not stand for this!" Percival plunged his sword into the ground out of anger. "I don't want to be the catalyst to some warmongering scheme!"

"Neither do I," Gabrielle said. "This is just wrong."

"Walk away, then," Harus replied coldly. "You have no obligations, but I do. I have less than a week left to destroy the mask." She sat down and buried her head into her arms. Percival sat down next to her. Neither of them would sleep that night.

The next morning, both Gabrielle and Percival were gone, leaving nothing of their belongings behind. All who remained in the adventuring party was Harus, Tigeleman and Erebellis who still crept about and hid.

Chapter 15: Mt. Dirgankasa

The terrain grew steeper and drier as they left the swamp. The air became less humid and much cooler. Harus' injury had greatly slowed them down and he was running out of time. They needed to hurry.

After at least another day, the terrain became snowier and before them was a towering mountain with a white peak. At the very top, they could see a dull, grey stone temple. No stairs leading directly up to it like Mt. Bara had. Just slippery rocky outcroppings sloping so high like a wall. Using metal hooks with ropes, they climbed. The air became foggier and snow blew in their faces. And Tigeleman soon realized that a plateskirt wasn't really the best attire to wear in cold weather.

"Man, I'm freezing my-"

"Just keep climbing!" Harus interrupted. But as he climbed, the fog took the shape of a ghastly face with a wispy laugh. Just another hallucination. He was having so many of them, that he just ignored them altogether. But a dark thought soon occurred to Harus after he noticed the numerical marking on his hand. Four days left. Although they could reach the third giant, every plan Harus ran through his head made him realize that the last giant would be impossible to slay in time as the native Halfling tribe claimed it to dwell in the middle of the ocean.

Although the hallucinations were not bothering him anymore, Harus' morale dropped. That one single mistake during the battle with the second giant. That one single broken leg. It was going to cost him. What was the point of continuing? And were all his efforts really worth it? Dread overwhelmed him and his head pounded. The hallucinations, real or not, had been amplifying his negative feelings. Four days left. He was compelled to let go of the rocks and let himself slide down the mountain and plummet to his own death, but he told himself. No. That would not be honorable. Giving up before the job was done. Go as far as you can.

Finally, they reached some level ground and the temple was only a short walk away. This gave Harus time to think and plan aloud. How was he going to get to the final giant in time? Then, Erebellis emerged from behind a frost covered boulder. "Perhaps I could help. I know you don't trust me, but I could send a message, requesting a scouting party to locate the fourth giant. Then, they could use cannon fire to keep it confined to a single location until we use a boat to get there."

"Why should we believe you?" Tigeleman sneered. "I mean, you just told us that you've been manipulating us, and we're just pawns in a big conspiracy."

"What other choice do you have?" the Halfling countered. "If the last two giants aren't slain within four days, then Harus will die."

"It doesn't matter." Harus cracked his knuckles. "I don't care if I actually make it or not. I imagined my last battle to be something more one on one. Nazara, the Wind Eagle will be my final kill, and I will do it alone." He went off to the temple entrance.

"Wait! What are you doing?" Tigeleman shouted. "You're not thinking this through! The mask will steal your soul, remember? You won't go to whatever glorious afterlife of yours!" Harus ignored him. "Harus!" The Orc drew his sword, turning around to glare at him with a terrifying, monstrous gaze.

"I said I will do this alone!" Harus towered over him. Erebellis kept his distance not wanting to get involved further. "Do not get in my way!"

Without saying a word, Tigeleman and the Halfling backed away, and headed down the mountain, leaving Harus up top at the summit alone.

Chapter 16: Nazara, the Wind Eagle

Before Harus stood an intricately carved cave entrance with designs similar to that which he recalled at the volcano. He made his way inside. It was a spacious sanctum with eternal torches dimly lighting the area. A perfectly symmetrical room with numerous pillars on both sides and an altar at the top of a slow incline of stairs. Definitely designed by the same architects as that other temple, but the colors were grey and cool.

At the back of the room was a set of spiral stairs, presumably leading to the very top of the mountain. But he didn't go yet. He instead knelt at the altar in solemn silence, uttering a prayer in his native Orcish language. The hallucinations calmed down as he became at inner peace as the wind unnaturally, yet soothingly circled around him. More concentration and focus in his final moments. Even still, in his head, he could still hear the mask.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I'm just...lonely." What are you? Harus tried to ask directly, but he didn't get a direct answer. "Will you please forgive me?" I don't know how to forgive you. I don't know what to forgive you for. What did you do to become like how are you? Still no answers. "Can you be my friend?" Once I die, I'll be with you. You'll take my soul and I'll get to meet you face to face.

Harus readied himself, standing up from his meditation. He ascended the spiral staircase, and it led to the top of the mountain out in heavy snow. Atop a large boulder, the stone giant eagle perched. It had a long feathery tail laying across the rocky ground. Harus looked at it directly, and the giant turned its head to look at him, locking eye contact. This was it. His final battle. The eagle led out a rocky caw like sliding granite, and Harus drew his sword. The creature flapped its wings, getting airborne - surprising for a creature made of stone - and it dove towards him. Harus ducked as it flew right over him, and came circling back.

When the Orc turned around, he noticed its feathery tail still dragging across the ground. That would be the key to getting atop of it. He taunted the eagle, waiting for it come back to him. And it dove again. The tail came sliding. Wait for it. Wait for it. Now! Harus leaped and grabbed the tail as hard as he possible could, and the eagle took off soaring, this time not returning to its eyrie.

Harus looked down for a moment. So high above. It was the most beautiful sight he had seen. The view from the gods. He could almost see the entire island. But enough marveling at landscape. Using all of his strength, he climbed and climbed up the feathery tail, getting closer to the beast's stone body. The eagle spun 360 degrees to the side trying to shake Harus off but he held on tight. He continued.

Then, Harus reached the main body, and the sigil was there, glowing on the eagle's back. Hold on. Hold on. The wind blasted his face, but he held on, but the path towards the sigil became less feathery, giving him something less stable to hold on to. Just one last move. A quick leap while the eagle was right-side up and then plunge the mask into it. Wait for it. Wait for it. Now! Harus reached outward with the mask, slamming it into the sigil as hard as he could. The eagle let out a caw of agony and its wings froze in place. It slowly cracked as white light emanated it from it, and the eagle lost altitude. Harus climbed back to somewhere he could grip safely. Then, he closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. Never before had he felt so free. He had forgotten about the mask's curse during those moments.

Chapter 17: Black Out

"...that's him. Harus Kalla."

"The Orc adventurer who touched the mask? Yeah, we found him near the corpse of one of the stone giants a few dozen klicks away. Took us a couple days to get him over here."

"One of the giants? I'll be damned. He's gotten further than any adventurer we've sent before. I thought he would have been easy to capture, but three of the giants are dead? He must have been working with Anton."

"Where's the fourth and last one?"

"I don't know, but we've got word of a Rising Sun convoy skulking about supposedly looking for it. Perhaps they decided to meddle a bit more?"

Harus slowly opened his eyes and moved around. Where am I? Am I dead? He found himself laying on a cot inside of a large, tent crowded with many other soldiers. The air was muggy. He looked at his cuff bound hand. It was a one. He was still alive. Somehow. Much of his body felt constricted. One of his legs had a tourniquet and his head was wrapped in bandages.

"He's waking up!"

Harus got a good look at the two men who were talking. Polvoran soldiers. One of them a sergeant, and the other a captain. Harus clenched his fists. Furious. Rage. How could this happen? He wanted to die from crashing into the ground, not become the victim of these guys. Or had fate granted him another chance?

"Harus Kalla," the captain spoke. "I'm Captain Parangon. Our op took a bit longer than usual due to your evasiveness. We've spent over a week trying to find you since you blew up the entrance to the Temple of Bara. But it doesn't matter, we have you now. Your little schemes with Anton are over."

"I fight only for myself!" Harus proclaimed. "I don't care about Anton or Prince Barago! The Empire of the Rising Sun is just playing both of you anyway!"

"And you think we don't know that already?" The captain paused for a moment collecting his thoughts. "We're not the bad guys, Mr. Kalla. Look at all of these soldiers. Most of them have wives and kids to feed back home. They are just mortals like you and me. But we must do our jobs, and you must do yours."

"What are you going to do to me, then?" Harus asked.

"Our orders are to send you to the firing squad to be executed so that you no longer bound to the mask."

Harus stopped for a moment. It was one day left. He would never make it in time to the final giant wherever he was. "Very well. I won't resist. I had my final, glorious battle already. I'll accept my death."

Several soldiers hoisted him upwards, the base of his arms on their shoulders, and another soldier placed a black hood over the Orc's head, covering his face.. They carried him out of the tent and next to a smooth rock wall. They set him against it. Three soldiers carrying rifle muskets approached him after his carriers cleared the way. The soldiers took their positions.

Harus could not see anything at all. He heard all movement stop. Then, the three soldiers readied their weapons. He could hear the clicking of the guns being loaded and the safety switch being turned off. Though he was blindfolded, Harus closed his eyes anyway. Waiting. Waiting.

The guns didn't go off. When they pressed the trigger, it was a dull misfire. What? How? One of the soldiers standing in the sidelines tossed her tricorn hat off to the side revealing long, flowing red hair. She waved her hands conjuring a spell that created a blast of wind while pirates dressed in non-uniform garb jumped out from behind some bushes with swords and crossbows. An ambush. And a warrior dressed in bronze armor danced about tossing his magical spear around.

One of the other Polvoran soldiers took cover and ran towards Harus, removed the black hood blindfolding him and cut the bounds around his feet. Harus recognized his face.

"Percival?!" Harus thought he had left him for good.

"I'll explain later. Come on, let's go!" Percival helped Harus off the ground, and led him away from the crossfire, then fired a signal flare high into the sky alerting the other adventurers that it was time to fall back out from the fight. After a few minutes, everyone had gathered behind a nearby boulder a good distance away from the camp. The whole gang was there. Gabrielle and Tigeleman, even Erebellis.

Harus could not believe it. Not at all. Eyes widened, he was speechless seeing everyone together. They all came back. But why? What reason did they have to come for him? He told them all to go away and leave him alone, not to get involved, but they still came back.

Gabrielle knelt down to Harus who was rested against a rock wall. "I finally understood what you told me that night at the marshes. You said we must fight for what we believe is right. And that's what we're doing."

"So," Percival added. "We later met up with Tigeleman and Erebellis and hatched a plan to find you. We saw where Nazara crashed and we followed you. Erebellis worked out all the ingenious planning as to how we would get you out such as jamming the guns that would be used by the firing squad and obtaining proper disguises."

"Not to mention," Erebellis jumped in. "The Rising Sun convoy I called for has found the fourth giant less than a day's travel away in the middle of the ocean. There's still a chance of you getting out of this alive, Mr. Kalla."

Harus was still puzzled. "But Percival, Gabrielle. You said for yourselves earlier. You wanted no part in this because of the consequences that would follow."

Gabrielle replied. "After we left, I got this gut feeling. We all did. By walking out, we were leaving a comrade, and I later realized that I couldn't do that to a friend. That wouldn't be right. It would not be right to leave you alone to die."

"Yes," Percival gave a fist pump. "I understand now, too. We're not doing this for this whole complicated political war. It's to help a friend. You, Harus. You've been a leader and a role model to all of us. None of us would have come this far without you, and you've taught me more than I could possibly learn on my own."

Tigeleman shook his head. "That's the cheesiest thing I've ever heard from you, Percival." That prompted laughter from everyone. Even Harus couldn't help but chuckle slightly. Then, there was a pause.

"Mr. Took," Harus said trying to stand up. "You said we can reach the final giant before the masks's timer expires? Then, let's get going. I believe the gods have granted me another chance, and I best not use it vain."

Chapter 18: Final Voyage

The sky grew ominously cloudy as the party followed Erebellis to a water wheel boat crafted by the Empire of the Rising Sun. At a distance, thunder boomed and the sky flashed with lightning. No rain yet. Just the warm, humid air that was bizarrely chilling. Harus stared at the back of his hand. Less than twenty four hours remained. Once the sun rose the next day, it would be over. True, someone else could finish the job for him, but that wouldn't be right. It would be an anti-climactic tale to tell back at the Dancing Dragon Inn.

All of them boarded the ship while Erebellis controlled the ship following his enchanted compass that would lead to the point where his convoy marked. And while they were sailing, Percival looked through a pair of binoculars that were on the ship. He spotted in the distance. Several large Polvoran ships following them. They knew. And they had better hurry.

Every second that passed was nerve wrecking for everyone. Harus teetered on the edge of death as his mind flashed with agonizing images, but he had learned how to control it. The hallucinations were no longer manifesting into reality. While everyone else was keeping watch, Harus just meditated, calming himself. It would soon all be over.

Raindrops plucked against the ocean surface which soon grew to a shower. The winds grew harsher and so did the rain and thunder. The violent torrents rocked the ship back and forth. Yet, Harus slept through it, saving his energy.

A Lagoonite climbed aboard, but Percival quickly sliced its head off before it could get any closer. That brought back memories from only mere weeks ago, but to all of them, it seemed like years had passed. So much had happened since the day they all set sail from Port Arcoris.

The sky soon grew dark, and the storm was at its peak. Everyone was suspenseful. Frightened. Scared. This was it. The final battle for real. It would only be a few hours before the timer expired.

Chapter 19: Hiukan, the Water Monster

"Uh...Harus," Tigeleman trembled. "I think you should wake up now." Harus awoke, soaked in rain, yet still refreshed. Then, he looked out the port side and saw a foreboding sight.

Obscured by the darkness and the foggy rain, an enormous shadowy figure rose from the ocean's surface, and it was surrounded by Rising Sun ships. Lightning flashed revealing a brief look at the actual creature. It was made of stone, and it had enormous arms covered in coral. It's head shaped like a hatchet, and it carried two large tonfas. It trudged through the water, swatting at the ships and making huge waves. For the party, this was certainly the most terrifying-looking of the giants, as the generations of sea creatures growing on it made it look more alien and otherworldy than it already was.

Accompanying the booms of thunder were rows of cannonfire, pelting the creature. The smell of gunpowder quickly filled the air as the convoy engaged the beast. The cannonballs seemed to do little more than annoy the creature as it smashed one of the ships, sinking it.

"How are we going to get close to that thing?!" Gabrielle exclaimed.

"Just you watch," Erebellis said. "There's a reason why I was chosen for this mission." The Halfling pulled a few levers and maneuvered the ship with surprising agility. Percival with the binoculars spotted the creature's dim sigil on the top of the creature's head. They would need to get it to lower itself somehow. Then, he whispered into the mithril butterfly, and sent it to one of the other ships. They waited. Erebellis had a plan.

Half an hour later, what appeared to be some kind of whale emerged from the water, but upon closer inspection, it was no whale. It was made of metal.

Percival's jaw dropped utterly amazed. "Is that...a submarine?!"

"I am the most resourceful Halfling anyone could ask for." The submarine dove into the water again, firing torpedoes at the giant's legs. It didn't cause any damage, but it stumbled. After a few more shots, the giant fell to its knees which plunked against the ocean floor. Now, the water level was only to its chest. Now was there chance. Erebellis brought them in, circling around from behind. Then, it went in close right to the spines.

"Go for it, man!" Tigeleman cheered. "We're counting on you!" Harus leaped out of the boat and grabbed onto the back of the giant, climbing and climbing for his life up the slippery, barnacle covered skin of the giant. Almost there. Almost there.

The rain died down, but the sky was still dark and cloudy. When Harus reached the top of the giant's flat head, he saw the glowing sigil. There it was. This was it. And it would all be over. He ran towards it, but then he collapsed, his heart feeling as if it was about to burst. He clenched in pain. No. It couldn't be. Had he run out of time? The mask was fighting back and giving its last stand. Echoing in his head. "No, I don't want this. I don't want this. Please, don't hurt me." Harus tried his best to ignore the pain and the voices as he crawled his way forward. "Please, can't you be with me? Can't we be friends?" He kept crawling and crawling. The pain grew stronger, and this time, it was all over his body. His breaths grew short, and he could feel his life slipping away. Only a few inches away from the sigil. Then, he plunged the mask in, and everything turned white.

At that moment, all of Harus' pain slipped away, and the crashing waves grew silent. He was calm now. Everything was serene. The mask echoed in his head. "There's so much evil in the world. Come with me. Let's all forget about it." In his mind, Harus saw something, a vision which the mask imposed upon him. A hallucination, no doubt, but this one was different. Harus could hear children giggling and playing. And the environment around him changed to an open grassy field with soothing wind, birds chirping. Peace. He was at peace at least.

Chapter 20: The Creature of the Mask

Harus looked around. He felt very light, unconstrained as if he were freely floating about. Trying to walk, he couldn't keep his feet on the ground. So instead, he just floated away, wandering about this hallucination which seemed to get more and more real.

After wandering about, he ran into a young girl with a white dress holding a daisy in her hands. She had pointed ears and her skin was red, and her hair a flaming red. Gabrielle? No. It couldn't be. This was clearly not an elf or any humanoid that he knew of. He recalled what that Moon Elf described to him when recounting her tale at the Halfling village. Then, it became clear to him.

"It's you, isn't it?" Harus began. "Bara..."

"Can't you be my friend, too?" the girl asked.

"Why are you doing this? Why do you steal the souls of those who touch the mask?"

"Being trapped in here has gotten so lonely. The little mortals get scared of me. I'm...I'm just no good at talking to them."

Harus knelt down so that he could be at Bara's eye level. He put his hands together, this time trying to assume a comforting tone. "Tell me. How did you get trapped here? Who did this to you?"

Bara grew solemn when her memories came back to her. "I did. I trapped myself in here, putting together that complicated spell. Many years ago, when I freely pranced about Kesuma, entertaining the baby Halflings, I started getting these memories. Memories from a time long gone. Some kind of mother goddess who cared for all of her children, and everyone was happy. I was eager to keep acquiring those memories. But then...but then..." Bara started to cry. She knelt down, sobbing. Harus placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Then what? What happened?" Harus asked in a gentle voice.

"I got the memory of their deaths!" Bara shouted, her eyes full of tears. "They all died, burned from the fires of war! The world was destroyed, ripped apart with blood! They were all gone!" Bara was nearing hyperventilation as she breathed harder and harder. Then, she paused collecting herself. "It was just a nightmare, but it was too real. Everything that goddess felt, I felt. Every emotion she had, I had. Every painful feeling. Regret. Sorrow. Everything. I knew that one day, the world you live in would meet a similar fate, but I didn't want those good times to end. So I created this paradise and the four giants to watch the people of Kesuma."

Harus wondered. "So the paradise is the place where all those stolen souls go. Did you steal my soul, too? Am I dead?"

"No," Bara said. "This is still a hallucination. I wanted to stay in this paradise forever with someone nice like you, so I stopped time moments before you plunged the mask into that last giant to get you to change your mind." Her tone shifted to begging and her eyes widened with pleas. "Don't do this. Please. I don't want to leave this place."

"But you have to, Bara," Harus pleaded back. "Don't you know what is going on in the outside world? There's...there's another war about to happen."

"NO!" Bara screamed in despair. "I don't want another war! I don't want to see those children die again! I don't want to be a part of this!"

This time, Harus grew stern. The conversation seemed all too familiar. "Bara, I know it sounds harsh, but you are the reason for this war. The ones who are fighting are fighting over your great magical powers."

"I can't!" Bara said getting teary eyed again. "I can't do it!"

Harus stood up more getting more stern. "You can't hide in illusions anymore, Bara. People's lives are at stake! You have to face reality and stop the war that you are causing! As a being thousands of year older than I am with more wisdom than any mortal could possibly have, you of all entities should realize this!" The Orc finally gained control of the hallucination. He begun to let himself out of it - the landscape was changing back into the top of the giant's head. Bara knelt to the ground.

"Please! Please! Don't go!" Bara curled into the fetal position. "I don't know what to do. I just want to be friends!"

"I am your friend," Harus said as the hallucination faded more and more. "I'll look out for you. Will you do the same for me?"

Chapter 21: Innocence Lost

Harus had wheeled himself back into reality, and he pressed the mask harder against the sigil. The giant underneath his feet cracked and blue light leaked out. With the mask in hand, he leaped down into the water as the corpse of the giant shattered, each piece sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Harus came up to the surface and Percival and Tigeleman helped him out of the water and back onto the ship. The Orc paused to catch his breath as he coughed up saltwater. Looking about, it was dawn. Had he delayed for a few more moments, he would have failed.

The mask begun to act strangely. All five segments of it lit up, and the same red-skinned little girl Harus saw in the hallucination appeared into reality, just behind the mask as if it were wearing it. The child curled up into a ball and shivered, whimpering in pain and not saying a word. They all stared at the child. So pitiful it looked. So pathetic. Was this really that so-called monstrosity that was the center piece of everything?

The ironclad Polvoran ships soon caught up, getting close to the Rising Sun convoy. The great chimneys pumped smoke into the air just as Busco and a few other soldiers stepped out onto the deck. The black sailed Volveros ships approached as well - Anton and a few pirates stepped outside. The party was caught in the middle of everything.

"What are you waiting for, Orc?!" Anton shouted. "Kill it! Now's your chance!" Harus raised his sword about to strike, but he hesitated as that hallucination flashed through his memory once more. He didn't set down his sword. He just froze in place.

"Well, well. Looks like you have a choice to make," Busco said. "You've destroyed all the giants and freed Bara from her prison. I wasn't counting on that, but we can work with this. Give her over to us so that we can look after her for safekeeping."

"Do you have any idea what they'll do to her?!" Anton drew his rapier. "They'll lock her up in a laboratory and perform experiments on her! That's all the Wesigoths want. They want nothing but power and glory! Kill her out of mercy! Deny those tyrannical Wesigoths a possible superweapon to destroy us all!"

"Look at her!" Busco drew his magical staff. "You would really murder an innocent creature in cold blood? Where is your honor?!"

Harus still remained frozen, and so did everyone in the party. Erebellis rubbed his hands together eagerly awaiting the outcome. Ooh, this was getting interesting. The Orc stood there, thinking and thinking as all sorts of thoughts rushed through his head like a great deluge - his stream of consciousness overflowing and rising above its banks. There was a moment of silence save for the ocean waves, and the foreboding wind. Then, the clinging metal of a sword falling to the floor. Harus dropped his weapon. Busco grinned slightly, but did so too soon.

"Leave her alone!" Harus shouted. "Both of you! This creature wants nothing but peace, so let her have it!"

Busco leaped off with his staff in hand onto the party's ship while Anton climbed down with a rope and boarded it. Busco readied a spell while Anton drew a handheld pistol pointing it at Bara's head. A few other men from both sides also boarded the ship just to back them up.

"You've made your choice, then?" Anton stated. "Neutrality makes you an enemy of everyone."

"But it doesn't matter." Busco twirled his staff once. "You've all served your purposes! Now stand aside!" The spell Busco powered up grew brighter while Anton cocked the pistol back, releasing the safety and was about to fire. But that moment, Bara's entire body begun to glow. Rainbow light emanated from her as her breathing grew more intense. Then, she let out an ear-piercing scream as her whole body enveloped itself in flames as waves of heat blasted outward forcing Busco and Anton back several steps. Erebellis's ship caught fire. But, then, they all looked to the sky. Meteors rained down like great fiery teardrops.

Bara jumped upwards and levitated in mid air as her anger continued manifesting into hellish flames. She screamed. Screamed. The meteor showers grew more intense as they came down harder like pouring rain. She circled about setting aflame everything she touched, and ships from all sides sunk, but even so Anton's pirates launched volleys of arrows while the mages among the Polvoran soldiers launched bolts of ice magic. Not long after, the exchange of cannonfire followed, each shot like a boom of thunder. As noisy as the fires of war were, to Harus, his mind went silent as his ears rung. Percival and the others were equally frozen in shock.

Then, one of the cannonballs struck the party's ship, hitting it in a weakspot. Crossfire. It seemed the factions didn't care where they were shooting. More cannonballs smashed upon the ship, and soon, the vessel cracked apart like a walnut. Everyone had jumped off to the side and into the ocean abandoning all of their gear. That moment, all what Harus knew was just struggle, accidentally gulping down saltwater as he tried to gasp for air. He desperately swam towards a floating plank, trying to look for everyone else. Percival? Gabrielle? Tigeleman? Erebellis? But he didn't see any of them. So Harus just concentrated on calming himself. Focus. Focus. Keep strong.

As he stayed afloat, his mind immediately went to Bara. Why did she attack? She must have been frightened, right? Frightened of emerging into the real world after thousands of years. But neither of them understood that. To them, she was just a beast. But one thing he hoped: That Bara would understand what Harus did for her.

Epilogue: Eye of the Storm

The sky was a deep blue, and soothing waves crashed against the beach. An Orc lay face down on a beach next to a plank as seagulls sung merrily. After coughing for a bit, he looked around. Before him stood a rocky outcropping and a coastline that extended quite a ways horizontally. None of it looked familiar. Back on Kesuma? An uncharted island?

Not a long walk later, he ran into Percival who was sitting on the sand clutching the side of his arm. Harus reached with his hand and helped him stand up. Tigeleman and Gabrielle were also nearby, but Erebellis was nowhere to be found.

"Well...we got what we came for," Percival said. "I wanted to go on this adventure for the mask just to prove my worth to become a knight."

"You've done more than that, young lad," Harus replied. "You came back and saved me even when you could have just walked away. You've shown that you can do what you believe is right even in the face of dire circumstances."

"You've given me too much credit," Percival chuckled slightly. "After all, you're the one who carried the mask the whole time. I'm not sure I could have done it after I saw what you went through."

Tigeleman stretched his arms and yawned getting ready to lay down in the sand. "Man, I would just like to relax and just sit here for a while."

"Me, too," Gabrielle added. "I want some time to meditate."

"But what of the war?" Percival said. "Are we just going to let all this blood be spilled?"

Harus was hesitant this time not nearly as eager as he was during the journey. "I don't know. This may be out of our hands. I'm no politician or activist, just a wandering monk looking to fulfill his final destiny. Heck, I had not even planned to come out of this whole ordeal alive. Must I spend the next few years handing out fliers and preaching peace to stop this war? I have lived longer than what the gods initially intended me for."

"You said for yourself earlier, Harus," Gabrielle pointed out. "Fight for what you believe is right." This time, Harus did not answer.

Not long after, a mithril butterfly glided about and softly landed on the sand. Tigeleman eagerly ran over to pick it up, removing the ekati crystal stored inside. This time, it was not encrypted. It was intended for them. He read the message aloud.

"If you're reading this, then you just lived to tell the tale about the first battle of what we'll call the Volveros Revolution. We don't know what happened to Bara, but do you want to wrap things up for good and close the case? Then, make your way to the attached coordinates. The Rising Sun has a task for you if you choose to accept.

-Erebellis Took"

"It's not over yet" Percival looked out to the horizon collecting his solemn thoughts. "This is only the eye of the storm. We were the catalysts to this conflict between the Polvorans and the Volveros. Once we've gathered our strength, we should set things right."