Eyes darted around the crowd as nobody dared to approach the shining object. The toad crowned wolves muttered that it was the work of the toad god Crombombulus - Nogard rolled her eyes, sighing. The whirring of the engine slowly subsided before it finally died a sputtering death.
Insects trilled in the newfound silence as all eyes watched Nogard edge her way closer to what could only have been the door. Although the bravest, Nogard was still terrified of what she might unleash.
Just as her snout reached the door, vapor hissed out between its edges before the door detached and awkwardly clanked to the floor. Everyone in the crowd suddenly backed away at the shrill sound. Smoke flooded through the door, enveloping their paws.
The Moonrunners leaned forward, eyes squinting, as a figure fell through the door. Synchronized, they all gasped, eyes widening, hackles rising. The toads jumped off in fright before switching their attention to the insects fluttering about.
To their horror, an emaciated wolf had fallen out from the ship’s door and onto the ground before them. Half their snout had been completely crushed and blood poured in torrents from their mouth, pooling at Nogard’s feet.
Vobis je venind di apurate en ammonirvi de vous casururam errantem supplie unde ho esta noche il dus de stellam meam faire ai desio negra la chè fost la cano quae lumière cu l’erta casa enterrarà è nici sur tot iam les un invero a tus irta rost peurs transitis solibus de duhurile le hermanos muertos lor rele nous vidit hostes autres spre fatture si no non iad opprimés in suas car vei forti derramas la se goni la vias irrumpere nuit iar non sangre al per stirpea engendre et populuum toujours ta quelle matar al di va des suum vexare monstres birui lei enemigo.
Lurching forward, eyes searching for the leader, the wolf began to speak. Their words, garbled by the blood foaming in their mouth, dripped out in pained agony. Nogard understood they had uttered a dying plea, but was unsure of its meaning.
Fanderay ran forward in time for the wolf to die in her arms. Eyes tearing, she looked up at Nogard, as if she had to fix the problem. The manacled prisoner slowly hobbled back to his cell with a wry smile on his face.
Nogard finally saw an opportunity to get answers about Moonrunner origins and immediately ordered her top scientists to replicate the spaceship to the best of their abilities. The Wizard Robed Moonrunners surrounded the ship, opening their alchemy kits, and began frantically taking notes.
The crowd started to disperse while Nogard sat watching the Wizard Robed Moonrunners chew on their pencils with perplexed faces staring at the ship. Her and Aulus stared up at the sky, then to each other, nodding in unison.
The Wizard Robed Moonrunners managed to replicate the ship’s technology, and with the help of Trippy Gang’s eye for design, finished a fleet of twenty ships within six months.
Nogard, still haunted by the alien wolf, trained her Moonrunners to near-death in preparation for what they might face. Ezekiel led the training program alongside Burner, who still had the most combat experience on Primordia.
Ezekiel and Burner built up a friendship over the months of training, both battle-scarred, and eager to see Primordia flourish. Ezekiel, initially wary of Burner’s relationship with Andarax, grew to cherish that friendship.
When the time finally came for Nogard to depart to Carouza with her war tribes, Ezekiel and Fanderay had been put in charge. Burner had been forced to stay behind to protect Primordia in the event of an invasion.
Burner was furious he was overlooked for the journey to Carouza. Nobody had his leadership or battle experience. Nogard insisted it was to protect Primordia, but in truth, she despised the idea of being stuck on a ship with Burner.
Ezekiel pitied Burner’s fate, caught between duty and adventure, but agreed that his experience was needed on Primordia. Ezekiel promised to support Burner in the event of a surprise attack.
Burner looked to Ezekiel for support but received none, for he knew Nogard would remain irrationally obstinate. Burner glared at Ezekiel with a look of betrayal and the fire of a thousand suns for how he had been spurned and promised retribution.
𝕎𝕙𝕖𝕟 𝕤𝕙𝕠𝕦𝕝𝕕 𝕥𝕙𝕖𝕪 𝕛𝕠𝕦𝕣𝕟𝕖𝕪 𝕥𝕠 ℂ𝕒𝕣𝕠𝕦𝕫𝕒?
Final result: 𝕀𝕞𝕞𝕖𝕕𝕚𝕒𝕥𝕖𝕝𝕪
A date was set by Nogard to begin the journey. She spent many sleepless nights deliberating when to depart but finally chose INSERT POLL OPTION HERE. Hundreds of families and well wishers gathered to bid them farewell on their odyssey.
Thousands of Moonrunners hurriedly boarded twenty brand new ships. Moonrunners from every tribe united to avenge their fallen kin, and find answers. Andarax scoffed at Nogard’s childish games for truth. Primordia, he argued, was all that mattered.
The ships’ engines whirred as they slowly lifted off the ground to a cacophony of howls from the crowd. Nogard stood at the glass window watching her planet. She stood with her back to her crew for an hour, before turning away from the only planet she’d ever known.
As soon as they left their atmosphere the kaleidoscopic beauty of the galaxy before them unveiled itself. Nogard couldn’t process its vastness. Overwhelmed, she became disoriented and lost sight of Carouza.
Finally finding the correct rune to put her back on course she pushed the ship's SI Jumper and blasted towards Carouza. Despite the speed, it took her Moonrunners almost two weeks before they reached the Carouzan orbit.
As they began to descend through the Carouzan atmosphere, cities resembling humankind began to appear beneath them. Their ansible, taken from the alien ship, began to beep frantically.
𝕎𝕙𝕒𝕥 𝕤𝕙𝕠𝕦𝕝𝕕 𝕥𝕙𝕖𝕪 𝕕𝕠 𝕨𝕚𝕥𝕙 𝕥𝕙𝕖 𝔸𝕟𝕤𝕚𝕓𝕝𝕖?
Final result: 𝔸𝕟𝕤𝕨𝕖𝕣 𝕚𝕥
They managed to safely steer the ship into landing. A moonrunner, for the first time in their history, was on another planet.
Nogard told her ships to arm themselves, reluctant to trust humans and their warring ways. They managed to safely steer the ship into landing. A moonrunner, for the first time in their history, was on another planet.
They were greeted by the humans with undulating cheers. It reminded them of a time of peace between wolves and humankind. Aulus and Nogard disembarked and were greeted by Nico Lev, their leader.
The leader was clearly concerned by the wolves wearing vampire capes but decided it was best to not ask questions lest they decide to bite her. She ushered the Primordian delegation into the human headquarters.
The style of Carouzan settlements had few similarities to humans’ on Primordia which puzzled Aulus deeply. He wondered how two cultures of the same species might have diverged so much.
Nico Lev could sense Aulus’ confusion and explained that while their ancestors had probably come from the same galaxy, they had lost contact millenia ago. Nogard listened intently, her mind buzzing with questions.
At the first opportunity Nogard interjected and asked about the fate of the wolves on Carouza. Nico Lev hung her head despondently, realizing how little they knew about the tragedy that had befallen their kind.
Harkless. One word that seemed to stretch for eternity, ending in oblivion. The moonrunners were unsure how to react, wondering the possible meanings of such a word. She looked up once more “They killed them all…”
Nogard fought to fathom her words, struggling to comprehend what could have possibly wiped out her kin. Nico Lev began to recount the history of wolves and humans on Carouza, and to explain the presence of Harkless.
What Nico Lev described sounded like pure fantasy, or rather, horror. Four arms, chitinous skin with trees, mushrooms, and flora spawn growing over their bodies, making them essentially invisible in forests.
Nothing was understood of their culture or origins on Carouza. Nico Lev explained how they avoided humankind, usually fleeing on sight, but sought out wolves with unbridled bloodlust and savagery.
Nico Lev explained that very few wolves still existed, with most being hunted to extinction. Her moonrunners began to tremble at what Nico Lev described. Nogard too felt her heart turn to ice.
Nogard gathered her Moonrunner army and decided to set up camp outside the dense forest, wary of falling into a trap. She organized a scouting party with Aulus and six of her best from each tribe.
Ninja and Dragon Skull Moonrunners were assigned to the fore with Nogard and Aulus in the middle acting as the brains of the operation. As they delved further into the mystic forest they could feel a visceral tingling pain.
Their mission dragged on for days, with few sleeping, ever cautious of the Harkless lurking in the shadows. As they penetrated its depths a cacophony of life, filled with scurrying, alien fauna surrounded them.
Two weeks had passed and there was still no sign of the Harkless or any surviving wolves. Nogard began to lose hope of finding answers. Vined bones of long-dead wolves littered the forest floor.
Deep into the forest’s heart Aulus spotted what looked like a temple. He pointed his snout in its direction while whispering to Nogard. The other fighters stopped immediately, sensing how quiet the forest had become.
On Primordia, Burner had isolated himself in an abandoned human settlement, refusing to fulfill his role as protector, assigned by Nogard. Ezekiel beseeched him to stop his sulking and rejoin his old friend to keep Primordia safe.
Burner ignored Ezekiel, his old friend, and only sought counsel from Andarax. Andarax was delighted by Nogard’s absence and began to envision plans of supreme power. He convinced Burner he would rule the planet with his trusted guidance.
Burner’s seething hatred of Nogard and Andarax’s casuistry created the perfect storm. On a still autumn night, as the moon crowned the night, a silent coup had spread like a cancer and unmarked graves were dug.
Andarax gathered his cronies while Burner prepared his arsenal. It started with two moonrunners guarding the Great Hall entrance and ended with over thirty dead and buried before sunrise.
Ezekiel was ripped out of his bed, beaten to a pulp, and thrown into an oubliette beneath the Great Hall. Fanderay too, despite living far from the Great Hall, was also captured picking Silphium almost a week later.
In as little as a week, Primordia had become a junta puppeted by Andarax. He had set Burner up as supreme leader, and, in the event of Nogard’s return, put a warrant out for her arrest and execution for abandoning the Moonrunners.
The reign of Andarax had begun, and since most of Nogard’s supporters were absent on Carouza, none had the courage to stand up to him and his militia. Andarax paid Fanderay weekly visits in her cell, her screams flooding Ezekiel with tears.
Aulus and Nogard were unsure whether to proceed towards the decaying temple. Having seen no sign of the Harkless for over a week and losing hope, Nogard knew it was now or never and led her team towards the mysterious abandoned temple.
In single file they drew closer, edging through the dense vines. A rancid stench filled the air, emanating from the temple’s entranceway. Nogard noticed that the insects stopped trilling and the birds had fallen silent…
Still sensing no sign of movement, they made their way into the temple. They passed strange statues of forgotten gods, giant frogs, dragons, wolves, and demons. They lit the flambeaux lining the wall and delved deeper into the ruin.
Aulus spotted a high ceilinged room overgrown with trees and draped in vines that housed arcane artifacts. He rushed towards the artifacts, eyes wide and tongue out, to inspect the new discovery.
Nogard stopped in her tracks and screamed out to Aulus to stop and, in a lightning blur, a claw flashed past where her head would have been. Those behind her were not so lucky.
The two dragon skull warriors guarding the rear were ripped outside of the room, their screams fading into the distance before the others could even turn to see what took them.
Aulus, in the middle of the chaos, panicked and ran quicker towards the artifacts, seeking refuge. His fear drowned out the screams of Nogard, telling him it was a trap as he fell down a bottomless pit inches away from the artifact.
The two Ninja moonrunners jumped into action, backs to the wall searching for the enemy, with their weapons drawn. But it was futile, they could see no enemy before they were decapitated from above by a long clawed arm.
Nogard and the other two remaining moonrunners ran for their lives. The Harkless had extinguished the torches lining the wall, hoping to blind them in their escape. Her ability to see at night was the only reason she escaped alive.
As she ran for her life she could see the red glint of enormous incorporeal eyes following her. They were clearly not as fast as her but had explosive speed if she got close enough to them. Through survival instinct alone she ducked and weaved her way towards the entrance.
Her two companions’ howls could be heard as they were dismembered while they frantically crawled to safety. Nogard was on the verge of a heart-attack by the time she made it back into the forest. She ran for miles before collapsing by a creek.
The creek’s water level had risen, gently splashing her in the face. She awoke screaming, jumping on her feet and staring at every tree as if it could kill her. The immense weight of guilt that she survived where the rest had died, crippled her.
She waded further into the river and rinsed her fur from the pieces of flesh matted within. Her battle experience on Primordia didn’t prepare her for the Harkless. They were as the humans had warned her - demons of the night.
𝕎𝕙𝕒𝕥 𝕤𝕙𝕠𝕦𝕝𝕕 ℕ𝕠𝕘𝕒𝕣𝕕 𝕕𝕠?
Final result: ℂ𝕠𝕟𝕤𝕦𝕝𝕥 𝕙𝕖𝕣 𝕣𝕦𝕟𝕚𝕔 𝕕𝕚𝕔𝕖
She realized this battle was impossible to fight on her own and began the long journey back to the human settlement to enlist the support of her army, now that she knew where the temple was hidden.
Nogard, in a fit of rage and passion that she had left Aulus behind, began to run towards the temple. Upon seeing the temple she vomited from exhaustion and knew that it was futile, she was in no state to fight anything.
She sat by the river and pulled out her dice, hoping they might guide her to victory. She rerolled numerous times, considering the results and realized that they demanded that she go back and seek support from an unlikely friend.
After a few days of journeying through the forest and with the help of her excellent sense of direction Nogard made it back to Moonrunner basecamp. She was greeted with howls of pain after they witnessed the state of their leader.
Nogard was lost for words, unsure how to explain what they had encountered deep in the jungle. She gathered the tribal leaders and told them their soldiers had quick painless depths, knowing the lie wasn’t believed for a second.
Nogard began to have doubts that this war could be won with just her Moonrunner army after her team was massacred in seconds, without even truly seeing the enemy. While her camp slept, she organized a secret rendezvous with Nico Lev.
Nogard came to Nico Lev with desperation in her eyes. Nico Lev pitied Nogard’s quest for answers and wondered how many more of her already endangered kin had to die before she was satisfied with the truth behind Primordia.
Nico Lev refused to provide human troops to support her campaign, reminding Nogard that no blood had ever been spilled between Harkless and Humankind. Clearly disheartened, she motioned to leave, with less hope than she arrived.
Magnanimously, Nico Lev offered Nogard a secret weapon to aid her in her war of truth. Humankind found the device in a secret wolven lab over a century ago and managed to repair it, but never understood how to use it.
𝕎𝕙𝕒𝕥 𝕨𝕖𝕒𝕡𝕠𝕟 𝕤𝕙𝕠𝕦𝕝𝕕 ℕ𝕚𝕔𝕠 𝕃𝕖𝕧 𝕘𝕚𝕧𝕖 ℕ𝕠𝕘𝕒𝕣𝕕 𝕥𝕠 𝕕𝕖𝕗𝕖𝕒𝕥 𝕥𝕙𝕖 ℍ𝕒𝕣𝕜𝕝𝕖𝕤𝕤?
Final Result: 𝕄𝕒𝕘𝕚𝕔 ℂ𝕦𝕓𝕖
Nogard had never seen such an item before. Nico Lev described it as a Magic Cube that might help defeat the Harkless. She held it close to her and went back to camp to sleep before daybreak, dreaming that Aulus lived.
When the sun finally rose Nogard howled her troops into formation. She sat atop a rock in the valley where they were camped and gave a speech that lit a fire in their hearts. Primordia Crowns and Full Moon hats were thrown into the air in support as the valley filled with howls.
The humans watched on in amazement. Having seen the fate of the wolves on Carouza they knew it would be the end of the Moonrunners and all wolven kind. Nico Lev turned away, as if she was unable to watch an entire species march to their death. But Nogard couldn’t be sure.
Nogard climbed down from her perch and began to inspect the armor and weaponry of her troops. As she weaved through the ranks she continued her speech, warning them of what they would soon face from the little she had gleaned.
Thousands of Moonrunners moved as one. Into the forest they crept, no paw out of line, and no sound to be heard other than the chirp of birds and fluttering of insects. Nogard, senses heightened, led the vanguard, snout to the ground and eyes forward.
The Astrologer Hooded Moonrunners consulted the planets and their star charts for omens, good or bad. They decreed it was an auspicious day that would see the Moonrunners victorious, a day that would end in stillness and darkness.
Nogard looked to the supporters of Crombombulus with their frogs asleep on their heads, seeking their opinion and received nothing more than confused nods in approval. She knew that no matter what portents she heard, the fate of today was in her hands.
She thought back to her encounter with the Harkless as she stealthed through the forest and wondered what hidden weaknesses she might have overlooked. Those vermillion red eyes, wide open, floating through the darkness as she escaped, played over and over in her mind.
Monstri ingentes haec latritis faucium in tenebroso templo
strepant adverso cum stant terribilis oculis flammantibus.
Thus strangely is their kind constructed, bound to an ire
The likes of which you cannot escape, if not thanks to _____
Nam umbrarum hic locus est, somni noctisque soporae,
Qui non potest perturbare simplex lupo, sed solus dolus:
Thus this be the void to fulfil, if the ones who dare to fight
Venture the night, ought the nocturnal beasts solely fear the _____!
As before, the journey lasted many days and nights. Morale had wavered by the time the ruined temple was sighted. Rumors had begun to spread through the ranks about the gruesome deaths of the scouting party.
Nogard instructed the main body of her troops to stay out of sight, lining the periphery of the temple grounds. Night had begun to fall when everyone was finally in position to storm the temple and free Aulus.
The Ninja Moonrunners refused to keep their torches, preferring to fight unencumbered. Nogards special forces, comprising fifty of her best, stepped onto the hallowed ground and moved towards the entrance.
In a pocket of darkness, the Ninja Moonrunners began to hear a dripping sound at their paws. Slowly lifting their snouts they saw the floating red eyes staring back at them. By the time they realized what they were looking at, half of them were already decapitated.
The surviving Ninja Moonrunners jumped into the light in the little time they had left to react. Before their feet landed they could feel the wind buffer to the fall of the guillotining arms of the Harkless.
Their howls of alarm were cut short as the other scythe-like Harkless arms came plummeting down, dismembering them where they landed. Their howls were enough to warn the others that they were surrounded.
The rest of Nogard’s contingent bunched together, encircling themselves in a ring of fire. Some had tried to run into the temple so fast that they had extinguished their torches. They died seconds after their lights.
The visceral sound of flesh being torn apart and thrown into the forest filled the Moonrunners with horror, tightening their circle and crushing to death those in the middle. They clawed frantically, unable to yelp in pain, while their lungs collapsed under the pressure.
Nogard could hear the howls outside but knew the only way out was forward, trusting her troops and the training they received from Burner and Ezekiel. A chill ran down her spine as she reentered the hall where she had fled for her life.
The trees and vines lining the hall and ceiling were devoid of watching eyes. She knew they must be there, simply waiting for their time to strike in the darkness. Their perfect state of camouflage briefly made her doubt their existence.
She could feel the magic spreading through her body, no longer fearing the pain. She began to glow purple as she strode down the hall in search of Aulus. With the little torchlight she had, she was able to make out a room at the very end of the hall.
She reached the door and rested her ear on the rotten wood, listening for any signs of life. Nogard looked back to her squad, unable to interpret what she heard. Whatever it was, she knew it was alive…
The liminal air of disquietude remained on Primordia as Andarax did everything in his power to cement Burner’s rule. He knew that Burner would take the fall should they succeed at a revolution, giving him complete impunity.
Burner was aware they had taken prisoners, but only now had learnt their true fate. Fanderay looked as if she was on the verge of death, a crumpled sack of bones, chained to the wall.
Ezekiel, his old friend, fared little better. He grimaced in disgust when he saw the conditions he was subjected to. He hadn’t forgiven him for siding with Nogard, but knew he did not deserve such egregious treatment.
Burner left the prison cells with hollow eyes, questioning if he was among the righteous or the wicked. He never saw Andarax but knew he was always watching like portrait eyes in a haunted house.
For days Burner sought out Andarax to no avail. Like a phantom Andarax wandered the halls at night, fearful of an assassination attempt. There was talk of insurrection amongst the Moonrunners.
Although Burner continued blissfully unaware of the machinations upon him, Andarax fell into a catatonic paranoia. His spies continued to fill his ears with whispers of rebellion.
As the lives of the innocent were extinguished on Primordia, torches for survival were lit on Carouza. A vigil on one planet for a tragedy on another.
Burner finally found Andarax and confronted him about his treatment of the prisoners. Andarax stared into Burner’s soul and responded back, eyes red with insomnia, “what prisoners…?”
Burner paced up and down the halls searching for answers to his guilty conscience as if they could be found between the cracks of the floorboards. Andarax watched intently from the portrait with bloodshot eyes.
In a flash of clarity Burner realized that he’d been manipulated by Andarax to gain power. Nobody around him was safe from Andarax, least of all, him. Sensing he might be watched he calmed himself and casually left the Great Hall.
Andarax squinted through the peephole suspicious of Burner’s intentions. He ordered him to be watched day and night by his spies. Burner walked his usual path home with only one thing on his mind, to plan his escape from Andarax’s web.
On Primordia, Andarax’s tower of lies and deceit was crumbling. On Carouza Nogard’s courage too was crumbling as she pushed her snout into the rotting door. The door creaked open slowly as Nogard’s eyes widened in horror.
Chained up by his paws, hanging from the wall, and delirious from malnourishment, Aulus saw the door open. The incessant muttering and yelping from other tortured wolves made it almost impossible to hear its creaking.
Aulus remembered nothing of how he arrived in the large, open prison, seemingly once a sacred temple to multiple gods. He awoke surrounded by grey haired, haggard wolves that were clearly deformed from torture or some other form of magic.
There were close to seventy wolves chained up with Aulus, demented and insane from years of mental and physical torture. Aulus was glad they too were chained up, fearing for his life if they were let loose.
He noticed some of the other wolves glowed as if imbued by magic while others had additional limbs or were twice his size. Those that glowed always had a tree in front of them at night, that appeared from the cracks in the ground.
Nogard and her fighters stared in horror at the tortured wolves, many turning away in shame at the conditions of their imprisonment. Nogard scanned the filthy room in search of Aulus, spotting him in the distance, barely conscious.
Without thinking, Nogard ran straight for Aulus. She noticed the corpse of another wolf beside Aulus that had enormous iron spikes along its spine. Aulus awoke at the sight of Nogard and smiled with the little energy he still had.
The other Carouzan wolves still chained to the wall began howling in confusion and yelping at the top of their lungs as Nogard managed to solve the puzzle lock attached to Aulus’ manacles. Nogard’s fighters began frantically releasing the other chained wolves once the code was solved.
As Aulus came to, he saw the other wolves being freed and screamed to Nogard to tell them to stop before it was too late. Nogard, unable to hear Aulus over the clamor, reassured him that everything was fine and he would be home safe soon.
Within seconds of the other wolves being released, mayhem began. The Carouzan wolves, insane from endless torture turned on their liberators, tearing them limb from limb.
Wolves with magical abilities that Nogard had never thought possible were unleashed on her fighters, who stood no chance. Wolves twice their size, some with laser-eyes, ice spikes, and multiple heads, attacked everything that moved.
Nogard began to glow purple, power coruscating through her as violence raged all around. Aulus, finally freed, limped towards the door to escape the chaos while Nogard kept their path clear.
She came face to face with a wolf three times her size blocking the exit and without hesitating, charged directly into its torso. Her purple glow turning almost to fire, blasted through the behemoth in an explosion of flesh and fur.
Aulus noticed that Nogard carried with her the cube he tried to take before falling into the trap. He noticed the same markings on the cube that were etched into the wall above each of the prisoners and wondered its significance.
Whatever it was, it was clearly highly prized by the Harkless. Nogard had completely forgotten that she was equipped with the cube in the frenzy. Now that they were escaping she thought it best not to waste its potential power.
She handed the cube to a trusted Moonrunner, Picar, who had also survived the onslaught along with a handful of others that were badly wounded. Strangely, no Harkless seemed to be chasing them in the temple.
Nogard and her survivors ran past the shrine to Crombombulus, the amphibian god, and out into the open. Nogard almost breathed a sigh of relief until she saw her reserves encircled by a wall of Harkless and fire.
Believing the Harkless feared fire, she ordered her troops to charge and attack before they burned themselves alive in their collapsing ring of fire. Glowing bright purple, her and the survivors, hanging on by a thread, charged the Harkless treeline.
More chaos ensued as the Harkless robotically began hacking and slicing at everything in sight. Many on the outer edge were annihilated immediately. Nogard yelled FIRE at the top of her lungs.
In unison, while the Harkless were busy maiming and obliterating the outer rim, a sky of fire fell upon them. The Harkless screeched so loudly the Moonrunners cowered in pain, paws on ears.
The alien creatures began to retreat into the earth and forest creating an opening for Nogard and her Moonrunners to escape before the fires were stifled. Many of the dead were left behind on the battlefield during the panicked retreat.
When they had finally arrived back at the camp Nico Lev was stunned. She couldn’t believe they had actually survived the blast. She hesitantly asked if they had used the Magic Cube. Nogard had told her there was no opportunity to test its powers in the fighting.
Nico Lev chuckled and told Nogard to keep it anyway, to take it back to Primordia and use it there instead. Nogard agreed, thankful she would gift such a rare item to her planet.
A few days were spent tending to the wounded before the Moonrunners boarded their ships to return home. Unlike their arrival, there were no humans in sight when they finally departed except for Nico Lev and four top generals.
Nogard was sure it was out of respect and said her goodbyes to the humans who looked disappointed at their departure. Nogard envisioned one day that the two species could live side by side once more as she boarded the ship and sealed the airlock.
The weary faces of Nogard’s companions weighed on her conscience. Had she done the right thing, leaving Primordia? Nogard wondered how her home planet had fared since their departure for Carouza.
In a moment of weakness she considered praying to Crombombulus upon seeing his followers, silent in meditation as their frogs and toads stared blankly ahead. It was a grueling two weeks, spent completely in her head.
As the ship prepared to lower its heavy belly on Primordia’s soil, Picar, the scientist that had been entrusted with the Magic Cube had fallen asleep, with the cube sitting peacefully on his workbench.
Two weeks Picar had spent poring over the markings on the cube trying to decipher their meaning. He was certain he’d seen them somewhere in the temple but couldn’t remember where in the frenzied melee.
The heavy thud of the ship lowering itself onto Primordian soil startled Picar from his sleep. He stared at the cube in front of him suddenly light up and open itself, as if possessed.
With one huge inhale of pure fear Picar watched as the cube armed itself and began to beep frantically. Picar’s superiors in the lab, one with an eyepatch due to some mishandled chemical substance, watched on in a mix of confusion and horror.
The moment it began to levitate Picar started hyperventilating. He was overwhelmed with terror as the magical cube seemed to have a life of its own. All he could do was close his eyes as he went numb from fear.
When he finished howling and opened his eyes, everything was deathly silent and black. Nobody moved, frozen in time and space. Two thoughts crossed his mind, whether he himself had died and was in the afterlife or if he had accidentally killed everyone on Primordia.
He shifted his gaze to the blinking cube with a perplexed look in his eyes as a panel had appeared exposing a countdown timer with 12 hours left. In a flash of panic Picar realized he must have accidentally armed what could only be a bomb.
There was a number pad below that he surmised was the only way he could disarm the cube. He still had no idea what the symbols meant but knew that the fate of Primordia was in his shaking paws.
The timer’s gears rotated mechanically every minute Picar failed to find an answer. The sound drove Picar mad with anxiety as he struggled to compose himself. At first he tried inputting random numbers but after the ninth guess a red box appeared around the panel, blinking a warning to him.
He couldn’t leave the tiny vacuum bubble that had been created by the armed bomb to go in search of answers. He thought back to the temple, where he first saw the bomb and its strange symbols.
His time trapped in the temple was a delirious haze, but there were moments of clarity before his capture. He tried desperately to remember all he saw, hoping there would be a clue somewhere along the way.
Panic addled his thoughts so he began to meditate as if he was Crombombulus himself, ever present, and pensive. Slowly but surely, calm washed over him and a solution began to manifest itself from the recesses of his mind.
At last, after rechecking the total over with Magi, he inputted 211811 into the cube and closed his eyes. A high pitched sound and an implosion of air sucked Picar towards the cube.
His lab companion saw him vanish and reappear immediately in a new position with the cube beneath him. She had no idea what she just saw and shook her head in confusion as if she had imagined the whole thing.
Picar, dripping in sweat and panting, stared at her and feebly smiled. He debated whether or not to tell her what happened and that he had almost killed everyone. His eyes searched the room for an answer as she stared at him perplexed.
The council set up by Andarax on Primordia after the disappearance of Burner had unsurprisingly turned out to be an utter farce, a single tilt of Andarax’s head could dictate who could live and who had to die.
A few brave Moonrunners, wearing hoodies to conceal their identities, tried to oppose his unconditional rule. Now, their bodies lay buried deep under Primordia’s bloodied soil. His spies had their tentacles everywhere.
After the failed coup, Andarax managed to dismantle the council altogether. The more unrestrained his power, the more he grew paranoid of being deprived of it.
Primordia had become a dystopia with Andarax as king. Wolves abandoned their tribes to find safety in Primordia’s furthest corners. Viewing them as deserters he put bounties on their heads.
Burner, helpless against Andarax, could do nothing but hide in the face of such atrocities. Guilt and shame burned a hole in his heart to the point he prepared to take his own life.
Completely alone on Primordia he prayed for an end to his torment and for Nogard’s return. He scaled the top of the Dragon’s mountain unseen, braving its bitter winds, and sat stoically, watching the sunset over Primordia.
Nogard and Aulus had finally found him and edged closer to capture Burner for high treason. They stopped in their tracks as they saw him stand up and walk straight towards the edge of the precipice.
Burner had one foot over before Aulus called out for him to stop. Burner, frightened, mid-step, slipped and fell over the ledge, dangling by his paws. Nogard hesitated, wondering whether to intervene.
Burner wasn’t sure why he held on to that ledge, as rocks plummeted all around him. How freeing it must feel to be that rock, weightless, and inert for eternity. Just as he began to relax his paws, Nogard bit down on his scruff and pulled him to safety.
Aulus wasn’t sure if he should attack Burner or console him. Survivors of their nefarious reign had told them he was the reason Moonrunner society had devolved into a dystopia. Burner hung his head in shame and wondered when he would finally be free of his guilt.
Nogard, still cautious of Burner and all the horrific stories she had heard, waited patiently until he began to explain himself. Burner, clearly disappointed he was still alive began to explain what happened.
Nogard listened without emotion, as Burner explained the mass executions. He claimed he had only followed orders but knew their blood was on his hands. Nogard’s face turned to disgust, and then pity as she noticed the remorse in his eyes.
Burner didn’t even notice her pity, painfully insignificant to how much he pitied himself. His feeling of abandonment and regret was palpable as his dirge came to a somber close.
Abandoned on Primordia and tricked by Andarax, he had lost everything. The weight of his mistakes, Nogard realized, had led him to this cliff. Aulus turned away muttering to Nogard to leave the wretch to his own fate.
As Nogard slowly turned away she saw Burner break his semblance of composure and begin to weep quietly, being abandoned a final time before his end. Nogard stopped still a few steps after turning away to follow Aulus.
“Well, are you coming or not…we need your help to find this cockroach” she said as if forced, showing no emotion whatsoever. Burner, head down, raised his eyes, tears running down his snout. He looked back to the edge once more before following Nogard down the mountain.
Andarax had been waiting for them in the Great Hall after his spies informed him their ship had landed. Nogard’s Army marched to the Great Hall in a state of confusion and fear.
Pennants of Andarax flailed wildly in the wind as they marched to the giant oaken doors of the Great Hall. Nogard flung the door open to see Andarax snarling, alone atop his throne of bones.
His eyes pierced Nogard’s confidence, who let out a gasp upon seeing Fanderay lying unconscious on the floor like a broken doll. Andarax’s foot was resting triumphantly on her neck as a hunter over their prey.
Nogard demanded Andarax to release what was left of Fanderay. In return, she promised, they would have him confined for life, rather than executed for high treason.
Andarax, realizing his options were quickly slipping away, began to articulate a reply when Fanderay stirred on the floor, and uttered something incomprehensible. Her throat bruised from the iron collar.
Her bruised eyes reflected the light from the sconces hanging on the walls when Nogard motioned towards her almost unconsciously to help. Fearing an attack, or worse, the truth, Andarax cut her throat immediately.
Fanderay, still in a delirium, felt her face warm with blood as it spurted out of her opened throat. Nogard froze, shocked. Her panic made her completely lose focus of Andarax’s whereabouts.
She didn’t realize until it was too late that Andarax was dangerously close to stabbing her too, a flashing murderous glint in his eyes. Burner, seeing his salvation, launched himself in the path of the knife, stabbing him directly in the chest.
Andarax, furious that Burner had ruined his final chance at vanquishing Nogard spat on his body as it writhed pitifully at his feet. The smile on Burner’s face slowly faded as the crimson pool enveloped him.
Andarax called out to his spies frantically, but only silence answered. He growled at Nogard before fleeing the hall through a secret exit he had built in his paranoia. To the others it seemed as though he simply vanished.
Nogard was catatonic, which life should she rush to save, her friend or her savior? Tears welled up in her eyes as her legs began to quiver at the decision. Just as she motioned towards Fanderay, Aulus pulled her back.
Both had died. Their blood coalesced at Nogard’s feet, as their hollow eyes stared at her as though they wore a macabre death mask. Nogard pushed Aulus away and ensconced herself in Fanderay’s corpse.
Aulus, unsure what to do, reminded Nogard that Andarax had escaped. Nogard’s sadness turned to anger as she heard that demon’s name. She arose gently, as if Fanderay was simply sleeping.
As soon as she was upright she glowed a fiery purple and charged out of the room in search of Andarax. Her senses were heightened as she hunted his spoor. She broke in and out of rooms, smashing down doors until she reached the dungeons.
Crossing the threshold, she could immediately feel Andarax’s presence. The dungeon was unrecognizable, corpses cluttering the cells, and crates of supplies littering the halls. Torture devices she couldn’t fathom still dripped blood onto the soaked cobblestones.
She slowed down and treaded silently through the squalor, lest she walk into a trap. She could sense magic surrounding her as she had experienced on Carouza. What nefarious experiments had Andarax been conducting down here?
The final door at the end of the hall stood ajar with kaleidoscopic lights glowing within. Nogard was certain Andarax was there as she began to hear the clinking of beakers and the shuffling papers.
Nogard nudged the door open to see Andarax unaware of her presence and frantically packing away supplies into a large backpack. Eyes on Andarax, Nogard overlooked the broken glass at her feet. She winced at the pain and caught Andarax’s wide eyes.
Andarax, in a panic, dropped his bag and jumped into an open oubliette. Nogard scoffed at the foolish move and went to close the latch until she peered in to see it completely empty.
Nogard growled at Andarax’s endless scheming and failsafes. The image of Fanderay’s corpse was seared into her mind, and as long as her memory persisted she would seek vengeance.
Nogard lifted her gaze from the empty cell and began to wander around the lab. The smell of potions covered in ancient runes and vats labeled Dragonblood stupefied her. She moved to inspect Andarax’s bag.
Hundreds of diagrams and schematics of scientific equipment, marginalia covered with human handwriting. Nogard couldn’t make sense of it. Huge vats with what looked like eggs resting within.
That’s when she saw them, the dragon eggs, far larger than she remembered, resting peacefully within a heated incubator. Nogard was furious they’d been removed from the chest and experimented upon.
Nogard moved closer until her snout pressed against the glass. She squinted, peering through the warped tank, trying to make out what lay behind the two giant incubators.
The machines seemed to be fuelled by Dragonblood, which she simply couldn’t comprehend. She edged her way around the two behemoths and that’s when she saw the unthinkable. An endless row of incubators, thousands of them, engines softly humming.