by Billy Wong
The gods had abandoned their children. That was what most people had come to believe since rainless clouds blanketed the sky and the earth began birthing strange and deadly beings never seen before. Neil disagreed. The gods, he thought, had not just forsaken mankind, but worse yet worked actively against them. He, however, would not just sit back and take it. He was going to assemble an alliance of heroes to storm the gods’ very home, and change their course by tact or force as needed.
Right now, though, his success was much in question, for he risked losing his life before finding his first hero. An entity like a blocky glass statue menaced him from across the parched clearing. As it closed in with bladelike arms raised, his anxious face was reflected back to him from the numerous triangular panels of its body. He drew his sword, but less than two months of training gave him little confidence in using it.
He charged anyway, his sword coming down in a long arc. The glass man hopped away and came back with an arm thrust that grazed his sleeve. He spun aside, landed a chop which only scratched its surprisingly tough back. It swiped at his head; he ducked, and putting all his weight behind the blow ran it through.
Unfortunately, it seemed not the least bothered by the blade transfixing its hollow chest.
The panels he pierced had cracked around his blade, but not shattered. Apparently, his opponent was formed of a material more flexible than normal glass.
It struck at him with its beaked head, and he released his sword as he was driven back. It pressed the attack, slashing wildly with those cruel arms.
Desperately backpedaling, Neil managed to kick the sword hilt against its chest, further cracking it. It reeled back. He grabbed the hilt and twisted, then pulled. The sword came free, and his next kick to its now crack-covered chest knocked it from its feet. Upon hitting the earth, its damaged body broke apart.
He had scarcely registered his victory before nine identical beings grew like grass from the ground, surrounding him. Neil turned in a circle searching for an opening in the ring of foes, but found it quite hopeless. Tears welled up in his eyes while he waited for death. What a fool! he cursed himself. To think he, a simple village youth, had any chance to save the world…
“Close your eyes!” a female voice yelled, and as he expected to die either way Neil obeyed. He heard a bang, and detected the light of a powerful flash even through his lowered eyelids. Some sort of explosive, he guessed, meant to blind the hostiles. But he opened his eyes to find the beings advancing steadily on him. His would-be rescuer had miscalculated.
A blue blur flew in from the side, crashing into a glass man and hurling it powerfully against a tree. A flash of steel was followed by a loud cracking, and another’s head tore apart. A low spinning movement from the blur swept the legs out from under two more. Then Neil’s eyes caught up, to reveal a short girl dressed in blue and wielding a dainty poniard. Yet that blade had disposed of one glass man much easier than his sword.
“Run!” she said with a glance at the opening she’d made in the enemy ranks. Neil tried, but a glass man blocked his path. The monsters rushed in, and she met them. Her poniard pierced a glass throat, then she leapt and swung around her victim blasting kicks into featureless faces. What agility and strength! Was this girl destined to accompany him on his quest?
Neil’s sword hammered into his opponent’s shoulder, knocking it down, and he reached for the girl. Just before he touched her hand, a glass arm passed her guard and impaled her middle.
“Just go!” she gasped as she pushed him away. “Run, and cry for Ace’s help!” Blood gushed down her front, but she kept fighting. After a moment’s hesitation, Neil turned and fled. To his surprise, a look back found the girl running after him—a dying woman, surely, but with the will to carry on a while yet.
“Why aren’t you shouting for help?” she demanded, the glass men hot on her heels. “Ace! Help! Help, Ace, help!” Without any better alternative, Neil joined her in yelling.
Their flight through the fading forest brought Neil into sight of a thin young man reclining against a log. Hearing the girl’s voice, he grabbed up the spear beside him and stood. “Duck!” he cried, and with a twinge of annoyance at his helplessness Neil threw himself down.
A gesture from the youth sent a wave of flame sweeping overhead, warming the back of Neil’s neck, and he peeked back to see the result. Beyond the now-prone girl the fiery wave hit the glass men, slicing through and melting them at the same time, and they collapsed into smoking puddles. Trees, victims of the spell’s indiscriminate wrath, toppled around them.
Neil gaped in awe. He had thought the girl an impressive fighter, and she was—but this, this was power!
The girl picked herself up and walked forward, one hand clutching her torn midriff. Neil expected her to fall any time now, but apart from a limp and pain-moistened eyes she showed little sign of being mortally wounded. Jogging girlishly before the magic user, she said, “I see you’ve got a suitable element for the day. If you plan on burning down the forest, that is.”
The young man—Ace—stared at the blood covering her abdomen. “Short Stuff, you’re hurt! Are you all right?”
“Am I all right? How about I stab you through the stomach, and see how you answer that?”
Ace patted her shoulder. “You’re fine,” he said with a smile. “You got run through, but you’re fine.”
“I suppose I am. Wake me up when you need me.”
With that, she closed her eyes and crumpled to the ground.
Neil ran to her side and knelt to check for a pulse. “Girl! Is she-”
“Ruby’s okay,” Ace said calmly. “She just fainted, like she always does once she thinks things are safe. Could be fun to trick her about that sometime…” He threw a roll of bandages to Neil. “Here. Pick her up and follow me when you’re done.”
“So you’re from around here?” Ace asked as his heavy boots crunched across the dry forest floor. Magical ability aside, his confidence on uneven terrain made him seem used to roughing it as well. “Didn’t know there even were people on this island.”
“I’m pretty far from home,” Neil said, panting between words. Though decently strong, he was unused to traveling with a heavy load and the day had been exhausting. “Our town’s at the center of the isle, and nobody dares to leave nowadays. What about you?”
He grinned, as if happy to finally give himself a proper introduction. “I’m Ace Hard, fighting mage of the Three Heroes. And the one you hold is our cook, maid, and scribe, Ruby Little Blade.”
He sounded quite cocky, but Neil had been awed enough not to grow too skeptical. “Three Heroes? I see only two.”
“One. Ruby doesn’t count. Granted, she is pretty tough; probably a match for any of us in that lone regard. But the prestige of being an official Hero is another thing altogether.”
Official hero? Must be a big deal wherever they came from.
“Anyway,” Ace continued, “my big brother Ike is on trial for accidentally burning down a town, and our great leader busy arguing on his behalf. Me and Ruby weren’t needed, though, so I decided to find us an adventure of our own.”
“I miss Max,” Ruby mumbled in her sleep.
Neil looked down, but found she was still unconscious. “Will she really be all right? She has a gut wound.”
“I told you, she’s tough. Can’t do much in combat, but when it comes to soaking up damage she’s practically a sponge.
“You said people rarely leave town, and it’s rather obvious why. So what are you doing all the way out here?”
“I was going to seek help.”
“Help for what? I suppose those monsters aren’t normal residents of this place, after all?”
“This place..?” Neil’s eyes widened. “You mean, you don’t have them where you come from?”
Ace laughed. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. We have plenty of monsters where we come from—monsters, dragons, dark gods, evil mages, would-be tyrants, and everything else that makes the heroing business profitable. But I figured there was at least an even chance your people were used to dealing with them.”
“No, they just started appearing a couple weeks ago. They haven’t done so in your part of the world? What about the sky? Has it not darkened, either?”
“Not unless it did since we arrived here today. Are you saying you haven’t seen the sun for weeks, too?”
Neil stared at the ground in shock. Everyone he knew had believed mankind’s fate in question, but perhaps Hitel’s gods were limited in their influence after all. Not something his parents would have liked to know, but a good thing nonetheless.
“It still shines out there, then,” he said at last. “I thought I was trying to save the world, and it turns out it’s just this little island. I guess it does seem more attainable.”
“You’re trying to save the island? You must think you’re pretty strong, to challenge the gods.”
“Not really. But no one else was willing to do it, so I am.”
“Good for you to have met us, then.” Ace smirked. “We’re pretty used to dealing with things like this.”
Neil blinked. Ace was offering to help? He hadn’t even asked yet… “What about your adventure? Will Ruby mind?”
Ace waved his spear dismissively. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing that can’t wait til later. Besides, it is my decision to make. Now, which way do we go?”
Because he did not know where the gods actually lived, nor felt prepared to go there even if he did, Neil led Ace towards town until his companion called for a stop beside a shrinking lake. “We should rest,” he said. “You look tired.”
Perhaps Neil could have gone on if Ace would carry Ruby, but he choose not to say so. He set the girl down against a large rock, and to his surprise Ace bent and lightly slapped her face. “Time to wake up, Short Stuff. Your services are needed.”
Ruby opened her eyes and replied, as if nothing was amiss, “Sorry I didn’t gather any fresh food. I’ll do what I can.”
She started removing an arsenal of cooking utensils from her pack, and Neil asked, “Should you be moving around already?” He looked at Ace. “Maybe one of us should cook, and let her rest.”
“I’m gutstabbed,” Ruby said in a flat tone, “not dead. Some light duty is hardly past me.”
Neil was dumbfounded. A normal person would have been stricken with agony, awaiting merciful death, but though her face was strained she bore her wound like a mere sprain. How could anyone be that inured to pain?
After setting her equipment out on the ground, she stumbled up to gather kindling for a flame. Thankfully, the dry weather made the task easy. A short time later, she was sprinkling spices into a mixture of water, dried meat, and roots in the battered little pot over their campfire.
“We’re not going treasure hunting,” Ace said. “This boy you rescued needs us to save his island first.”
Ruby shrugged. “Fine with me. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to exploring someplace called the Devil’s Lighthouse. Save it from what, the monsters that we fought?”
“Them, and he wants us to clear the clouds out of the sky for him.”
“And how exactly do we do that?”
Neil hesitated. “W-we’ll probably have to confront the gods. This must be their doing, and somebody has to get them to stop.”
Ace chuckled at the shakiness in his voice. “No need to be so tense, we’re used to dealing with godlike beings. Even Ruby here’s killed her share of immortals.”
Neil sat briefly in incredulous silence. “There’s something called the Devil’s Lighthouse on our island?”
They shared the story over Ruby’s unexpectedly tasty trail ration soup, about ships which had approached the isle only to be sunk by a mysterious beam of light from a coastal tower. Neil nodded. “I’ve heard of some ancient towers by the sea. Why do you think they would wreck ships like that?”
“Maybe robbers have taken them over,” Ruby said, “and have some means of salvaging their cargo. Or, somebody could just want to keep visitors off the island.”
“What about you two? Did anything target you?”
“I doubt they noticed us. We got here in the dark, in a rowboat. Wait, could the towers be related to your gods?”
“Perhaps, I suppose. I’ll go and ask about them tomorrow.”
Ace frowned. “Aren’t we closer to one of the towers than to town? We were meaning to go there before we met you.”
“Yes, but we don’t know anything about them. We should find out more-”
“What better way to learn about something than to see it in person? I say we head straight to the nearest tower tomorrow. I can deal with anything that gets in our way.”
“I agree,” Ruby said. “It might be a bit dangerous, but I doubt your neighbors will have much useful advice anyway. Details about ancient ruins don’t tend to be common knowledge.”
Neil realized she was probably right, for he had only heard the towers mentioned as places to avoid and local wisdom on how to actually survive them was likely scarce. “All right.”
Ace retired early to bed, while Ruby went to wash their clothes in the shallows of the lake. Her scrubbing hands looked small and delicate, but Neil knew there was a warrior’s strength in them. “Why do you do everything for him?” he asked her curiously. “I wouldn’t have expected a person like you to accept all these menial duties. You’re really strong, why do you let yourself be treated like a slave?”
“Everything I do for the boys, I choose to.” She sighed. “If I didn’t do things for them, who would? None of them can cook, and they’d blame each other for not doing it well. Better some extra work for me, than the bickering there’d otherwise be.
“As for why I do it when it’s just Ace, it’s become habit.”
Her selflessness impressed Neil. He helped her finish her load, then left to record the day’s events in his journal. Hardly aware of the darkening sky, he was well lost in relived excitement when a voice jolted him into the present.
“What are you doing?” Ruby asked as she sat beside him. “I hope you’re not trying to steal my job.”
“You’re still up? I’d think you should be getting a good night’s sleep, with those wounds.”
“I can’t. My stomach hurts too bad.” At his worried look, she smiled. “Besides, I got some sleep when you were walking.”
“How in the world are you so tough? Do you have some kind of magical powers?”
“I’m not sure you’d call it magic,” Ruby said after a pause. “I don’t cast spells or anything, but I manage to survive a lot more than I should. People have suggested that I have ‘magical willpower’ or, as I prefer it to be called, magic of the heart.”
“Magic of the heart? I like the sound of that.”
“It’s no big deal.” She peeked over his shoulder and read, “Even pierced through by the inhuman foe’s dire blow, mighty Ruby surrendered not to death. Oh, the valor! Like a she-lion she leapt, and crashed her foot into her adversary’s breast. How the earth shook when the glass titan fell, and like a crumbling mountain crushed in on itself! And by her own hand, Ruby Little Blade was avenged!” She stopped, and burst out giggling.
“What’s wrong? You don’t like it?”
“Oh, no,” she sputtered, trying in vain to control her mirth. Her laughter hurt her, so that her expression was an odd mix of a grimace and a grin. “It’s not bad, just… different from the way I’m used to thinking about myself. I write down our adventures, too, but not nearly as flavorfully as you. I just summarize things in the most basic fashion. Traveled through swamp. Went to castle. Killed dark lord. That kind of thing.”
Neil shrugged. “Your way is probably better when you’re pressed for time, and I’m sure you usually are. So who’s Max? Is he the leader of the Three Heroes?”
Ruby’s voice took on a wistful tone. “Yes, and the reason I do this stuff. I mean, I’m not really suited to be a fighter.”
“But you’re an amazing fighter!”
She dropped her gaze. “I’m stubborn, that’s all. And Ace is just fearless. Max and Ike are the real heroes.”
Neil found it difficult to imagine anyone being that much more impressive than his two companions. “I think you don’t give yourself enough credit.”
“I know I’m fairly strong, but that’s besides the point. Motivations determine the value of deeds, and I don’t find mine very heroic.”
“Really? What could be more heroic than love?”
“Well, Ace says I’m childish.”
Ruby did look like a child, but her bravery and resilience did not speak of immaturity to Neil. “I wager most adults would be scared mad after going through all you have, if they were even alive. You have no reason to look down on yourself.”
She shook her head. “I don’t. I’m not one to overrate myself, but I don’t despise myself either. I just know who I am, and I’m content with it.
“Thanks for the kind words, though. It’s getting late; we should probably go to bed.”
Neil closed his book. “I’d say you’re right. You’ll be needing the energy to cook and clean for us tomorrow.”
Ruby shoved him in mock outrage. “You bastard! Good night.” She closed her eyes, and slumped down where she sat.
Watching her snore on the cold bare ground, Neil smiled. Of course she could sleep anywhere at a moment’s notice. He covered her with his cloak, then lay down beside her. It was a skill he should learn too, if he expected to become a hero.
They awoke early next morning, and enjoyed a quick breakfast of bread with Ruby’s own creamy spread. Quite tasty, if likely fattening. Ruby said she could walk, but Neil noticed her difficulty keeping up and offered to carry her. She nodded gratefully, and he lifted her into his arms.
“What will we do at the tower?” Neil asked as their journey towards the coast brought a salty smell to their noses. “I know we’re looking for any clues about the gods, but you have more experienced with regard to exploration than me.”
“We won’t know exactly what needs doing until we see it,” Ace said, “but there is the story of the Devil’s Lighthouse. We’ll most probably get to put an end to at least one of those.”
Said tower soon came into view, a stout cylinder of granite blocks covered with moss and vines now withered with the lack of sun. No windows could be seen close to the ground, and what few there were higher up looked too small for a man to enter. Thick stone doors formed the only visible entryway, and Neil tested them to find they did not bulge.
Ace motioned him out of the way, shouted a few odd words, and leveled his spear at the portal. A huge firebolt struck the doors, which broke and crashed down in an explosion of dust.
The shrieks and snarls of inhuman guardians filled the air.
“Put me down,” Ruby said. “I can’t very well fight from your arms.”
Neil set her on her feet moments before a nightmare host rushed screaming for the doors. Dozens of warped creatures, few alike, sallied forth—frog-headed men and man-headed frogs, legless reptiles flopping along on their bellies and flying fish, plants on crab legs and leaping blobs.
Ace spun his spear, which caught flame with a roar and formed a blazing pinwheel in his hand. He threw it like a boomerang through the doors, and its passage through the monstrous ranks enveloped any creature it touched in unusually hungry flames. Their panicked flailing set many a fellow likewise ablaze, and within seconds a veritable army of foes was reduced to little more than stinking lumps of charred flesh.
A few beasts that had been off to the sides made it outside, where with almost casual short thrusts Ruby picked them off. Ace’s spinning spear flew back into his hand, still smoking, and his stab into its side felled a last upright centipede.
“That easily?” Neil breathed.
Ace grinned. “Of course. Who do you think we are?”
“They weren’t fighters,” Ruby said. “Ordinary men would have made more challenging opposition.”
Neil looked over the carpet of bodies and realized that many of them seemed ill designed to live, never mind defend. They had not been true sentries, he thought, but the unattended leftovers of failed experiments.
“Things will probably get harder from here,” Ruby said. “Stay close, and be careful.”
They entered the tower, as unpretentiously stark on the inside as without. Each floor comprised a single chamber; the first was unfurnished save for a couple of stone benches, and they ascended the spiraling staircase along the wall to the next. The second seemed meant for living, with a brick stove and the rotten remnants of a bed, closet, table, and chairs. The third combined a study and library, the contents surprisingly well preserved compared to everything else. Neil figured they would be coming back here soon enough.
The fourth floor must have once been a lab, with unusually shaped sharp instruments and flasks of unknown liquids still lining ancient shelves. Even now, an acrid chemical scent lingered in the thick air.
The fifth could not be named in everyday terms, though skeletal cages against the walls hinted at what it had been used for.
“So much for being an ordinary home,” Ace said. “Looks like no humans have lived here for a while, but could those dumb monsters really have sunk the ships?”
The sixth and final floor was even more empty than the first. Its walls, unlike the others before it, were covered with elaborate frescoes. Glancing over them, Neil mostly saw depictions of human interaction with odd animallike beings, perhaps gods. Standing in front of a large window facing the ocean was a huge, dull lens.
Ace gazed sidelong at the others. “How much would you bet that’s what shoots the beam to sink ships?”
“Are we going to break it?” Neil asked.
Ruby replied, “We probably shouldn’t, not yet. We should learn more about it-”
There was a hiss like of scalding water, and Neil watched the lens turn from dull to diamond bright. Then, before his astonished eyes, it grew two arms, two legs, and a saurian head.
“I knew this would happen!” Ace beamed.
“It’s utterly predictable, right Short Stuff?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
What kind of world did his companions come from? Neil wondered while the towering crystal lizard-lens-man closed in. Ace’s firebolt struck it full in the chest, yet washed over its shining body to no effect. It retaliated with a beam of light shot from one of three close-set eyes, which cut a furrow in the stone as Ace leapt aside. Its head turned to track him, each eye firing a beam apiece. The last grazed a red line in his sleeve.
Neil attacked, swinging his sword into the joint of its shoulder and neck. The blade chipped, but did not even scratch its skin before a glancing swipe of its arm smashed him to the ground. Its eyes glowed with the energy gathering behind them.
Ruby dove across Neil’s stunned frame, rolling him out of the path of downward-shooting eyebeams. She came up, blocking a third beam with her sword, then dropkicked the monster in the leg. Off balance, it fell to one knee with tower-shaking force. In response, its fist plowed into Ruby’s face and launched her through the air.
Neil crawled towards her as a massive ball of fire conjured by Ace rolled into the monster and pushed it back. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She sat up, face cut and already beginning to swell, and shook her head to clear it. “Darn, it hits hard!”
“What is it?”
“No idea. But the real problem’s finding a way to damage it!”
It hugged the ball of fire pushing against it, squeezing it out of existence like it had been popped. “Try not using magic!” Neil said. “It doesn’t seem to work…”
“Not use magic? But then how-”
“Ace,” Ruby cried, “look out!”
The three eyes glowed again. Ace deflected one beam with his spear, but the second knocked it from his grasp. He was still massaging his hand when Ruby threw herself in front of him.
The beam pierced through her side and hit him anyway, punching a hole in his thigh. He staggered back, while she tumbled across the stone to lay in a heap at his feet. “Short Stuff?” Ace asked delicately.
“I’m still all right,” she whispered, trying to raise herself on shaking arms. “Just kick its butt.”
Neil noticed it had not moved from its original spot, save for the step it had been pushed back. “We have to get it out the window. That’s our only chance.”
“Together?” Ace asked.
“I’ll go first,” Ruby said, smoke rising from the hole in her back. “I have the best chance of living, even if I get hit.”
They charged as one, a stumbling Ruby in the lead. Eyebeams flew. Ruby ducked and the men sidestepped, though Neil felt a stinging pain on one arm. The small girl tackled the monster’s thighs with all the force she could muster, but though she might have broken her own bones it barely leaned back.
Yet that was enough, for Neil and Ace followed up with a respective tackle and flying kick of their own. Neil screamed as his shoulder dislocated on impact, his agony further increased when Ace dropped from the air across his back. The lens monster took an involuntary step back, caught its leg on the bottom of the window, and toppled out the tower. A sound of shattering crystal proved the heroes victorious.
Ruby struggled to rise, but failed and collapsed again. Ace cradled her in his arms, stroking her hair. “Ruby?” Neil asked, fighting not to faint from the pain of his injured shoulder. “Are you…”
“I won’t die,” she assured him with a weak smile, “I never do. That said, let me rest for a while.” She closed her eyes, and lay still.
“Don’t worry,” Ace said, “she’s had worse. Too bad I didn’t have my ice spells, though, because I’d have taken that thing easy if I did.”
Neil sunk down on his side, preparing to join Ruby in unconsciousness. Ace could take care of them, or if not just wait until he awakened. He desperately needed a rest…
At the sensation of a once-familiar warmth on his face, he opened his eyes and rolled over to face the window. What his sight confirmed made him forget to breathe in shock and joy. The sun! The sun was shining again over his land.
“How can this be?” he asked Ace in a small voice. “The gods…”
“Weren’t responsible for your apocalypse, unless that was one of them. Aren’t you glad? That thing was more than annoying enough.”
“Yes, but… what exactly was it? Are the monsters outside related to it too? Is it all really over?”
Ace shrugged. “I don’t know. Though, I’m guessing we’ll have a better idea how everything fits together once we look at those old books downstairs.
“As for whether it’s over, didn’t you say there was more than one tower? Don’t be surprised if they’ll have to be dealt with too—or even if the sun’s still blocked over the rest of the island. No worries, though, we’ll be there to help you.”
Neil reeled to his feet and rammed his shoulder into a wall, wrenching it back into place. His head swam with the pain and he slumped against the wall, but managed to remain conscious. Gazing out at the bright sky, he smiled. Even if there was much yet to be done, he would be ready to do it.
For the first time in his life, he felt like a real hero.