Celeste AcademyLegend

Chapter 21 ♕ Skeleton Zombie Tunnel

CASeries #2: LEGEND

Chapter 21 ♕ Skeleton Zombie Tunnel

The train of coaches came to a stop altogether in the middle of a heavy blizzard they entered just a few minutes before. The horses were restless and kept on neighing. Their refusal to go farther caused the journey to be halted. The Twelve would have to go on alone from then on if they still wanted to push through the mission. It seemed that the barrier of storm surrounding the entrance towards the city prevented any form of transportation from passing through. The snow was too deep within those parts. The howling winds, as well, were relentless and the coldness they brought was enough to freeze anyone in place. Although the horses selected for the journey were adapted to cold temperatures, even they wouldn’t last long under such a very intense storm.

Charles disembarked from the vehicle, bravely confronting the violent weather with ease. He did not put much effort into opening the door since the winds themselves carried it with force and banged it against the coach. As he took a step out, his feet sank into deep snow. He cursed. He did not know they would confront a perilous weather on their way to the city.

“How long until we arrive?!” he yelled over the strong winds.

“It’s not that far!” replied the driver with an equally loud voice. “After you go around that rock, it’ll lead you to a tunnel on the base of a mountain. Go through it and you’ll see it there!”

The man pointed to a tall, protruding rock a few meters away from them. The sight of it was blurred by the flurry of snow, but he was able to make it out from where he stood. Sure enough, it wasn’t that far.

“I’m sorry! We can’t go any farther!” the driver told him. “We hope you the best!”

“Thank you!” he answered. He pulled his scarf tighter around his neck as he walked back towards the entrance of the carriage. Placing his hand around the frame of the door, he brought down the fabric that covered his mouth and started to speak. “We have to walk from here. The snow has gotten too deep for the coaches to make it far,” he told the others.

“What should we do?” asked Elfre. “Should we carry the packs?”

“Get the others to come and gather in one place. Carry what you can,” he told them before turning away and making his way towards the other coaches.

While Rowe, Aneeka, and Elfre got off to obey Charles’ orders, he turned himself towards the direction of another vehicle and stopped before the door. It took him quite a while to get where he was now, seeing as the wind was so strong that it was pushing him back.

Banging his fists against the door, he called out, “It’s time!”

There was no answer. Not even the slightest whisper.

Curious, he turned the curved knob and pulled the door open. There was just no way something bad would’ve happened to his comrades in the middle of their journey.

His eyes went wide.

Charles had to rapidly clean his glasses to make sure he was seeing right. When he put them back on, he couldn’t resist but heave a sigh. Despite his initial disbelief of finding the two in a very unusual position, there was no time to stand around feeling shocked.

Fisting his gloved hands, he brought it up to his mouth and cleared his throat. “Excuse me. I’m sorry to ruin your sleep, but we need to leave right away.”

The sound of his voice seemed to have awakened the first-ranker. Corvan sat up properly and quickly turned to look at him, seemingly startled by his sudden appearance. He did not look like he knew what just happened. It took a few moments for him to realize, but made no move to open his mouth to utter an excuse. Instead, he tried to remove any trace of evidence that he just fell asleep.

“What is it?”

“The snow has gotten too deep for the coaches. We need to walk by ourselves to the city.” He paused, eyeing the soundly asleep girl who apparently was using Corvan’s shoulder as a pillow. Gazing questioningly into Corvan’s emerald-green eyes, he continued. “Grab the things you need. Make sure the group is gathered.” He paused again. “I’ll try to forget what I saw.”

He then left afterwards, leaving Corvan dumbfounded.

After setting off, he heard the loud voice of Valeriana from outside yelling at Corvan. He heard it all the way to the last coach despite the howling winds.

“You! How much of a jerk are you?!”

“Shut up.”

“Not until you apologize!”

“What should I apologize for?”

“Well, the fact that you’re such a jerk when waking someone up! Seriously, what kind of attitude is that?”

Charles glanced towards the two who were creating a ruckus just in time to see Corvan facing Valeriana with a blunt look on his face.

“You have dried drool on your chin. Good thing it’s not fresh otherwise it’ll freeze,” he said, then left.

Valeriana hastily wiped the whole area around her mouth with her hands before chasing after Corvan. “You . . . jerk wad-en!”

Charles shook his head. “You.” He pointed to Brindon. “Make sure not to give the food to Keelan. He’ll eat it all before we even know it. All of you prepare, bring what you must bring but gather in one place afterwards. Make it fast.”

“Whaaat?” Keelan exclaimed. “I would never do that.”

The fourth-ranker eyed him dubiously. “You always did.”

After Brindon nodded, he decided to leave.

#

When they were all gathered—weapons strapped onto themselves and everything else, the group made their way towards the tall rock from a distance. The snow storm proved to be a great pain in the neck for the journey to proceed smoothly. The path towards the rock itself was hard to tread due to the sea of snow covering it.

“Corvan! What the heck are we supposed to do?!” Genevieve shouted.

“H-hey, e-everyone . . .” Keelan clenched his teeth together to stop the chattering while his spoke, but failed. “I-I’m feeling a b-b-bit c-cold.”

“We need to find shelter immediately!” Corvan said.

Being exposed to the weather outside like this wasn’t good to begin with. The cold wind could greatly reduce the body’s core temperature, increasing the risks of hypothermia and frostbites. It had only been five minute since they left the coaches behind.

Courtney didn’t look pleased. “This is colder than any storm I’ve experienced before. And the snow has accumulated for so many days. The unnaturalness is upsetting the balance . . . this storm might just bury this whole place if it continues.” She gritted her teeth as she shivered.

“I’m surprised that it hasn’t been buried,” Charles said.

“It is already half-buried, see?!” Elfre yelled, pointing at how much she sank in already.

“It’s not half-buried,” said Keelan with a sarcastic look in his eyes. “You’re half-buried.”

Elfre rolled her eyes. “Nice comeback, you dimwit.”

Valeriana shivered. Pulling her beanie down further to cover her ears, she felt herself sink farther into snow. “Don’t you guys have snowshoes? We’ll keep sinking into snow going on like this,” she told them, struggling to move her legs. The snow has reached the point below her knees.

“Snowshoes?” Tamara’s voice could barely be heard.

“You do not know what snowshoes are?!” She was horrified. “How come?!”

“No . . .” Charles trailed off. “We have a different way of staying afloat in snow . . .”

“Then what?!”

The fourth-ranker pondered for a moment. He glanced between his comrades who were having deep trouble trying to walk as even he had sunken halfway into the snow. He then sighed, the misty breath barely seen as it was carried away immediately by the wind.

“Tamara!” Charles yelled, turning swiftly to look at the redhead. “It’s time.”

“What is it?” She yelled back.

“We have do that!”

“What’s that?!”

“You idiot! That!

Tamara thought for a moment. “Oh yeah. That!

While the others looked confused, Tamara merely smiled before getting to work. Slipping off her glove, she turned her palm down so that it was facing the ground. She shivered slightly because of her bare skin being exposed to the chilly wind. Still, she did not let it bother her. She slowly moved her hand through the air, her muscles stiffening. She then curled her fingers into a fist with force, causing the snow below her feet to harden. It turned to something firmer and able to support weight without easily crumbling. Charles did the same.

Valeriana hastily climbed out of the snow she sank into. Thankfully, it didn’t become that hard to make it impossible to escape, but it somehow became more ice-like—almost. The top layer crumbled still and she sank as deep as her ankles, but her feet did not sink in like it initially did before.

“What is this?” Valeriana muttered to herself.

Elfre growled but lifted herself with the help of Raziel. “Why didn’t you do this earlier?!”

“I only remembered it now,” Charles reasoned out.

“Agh! Really?”

“Just be thankful I even did.”

Snow or ice was basically solidified water, so it came under the element of Charles and Tamara, who were both Larkovians and water-elementals.

“How long till we reach that damn rock?!” Tamara exclaimed, fighting against the strong currents that practically caused her to fall over.

“I see it!” Aneeka yelled, but fell over. She stood back up, growling in frustration as Rowe came to her aid. “I’m fine! You should be worrying about yourself.”

Rowe merely smiled.

Seeing as they were making very little progress, Corvan decided to come up with an idea. Fighting against the wind currents were hard for everyone to do alone. Especially when, somehow, it was getting stronger. He was sure that everyone noticed it as well. The further they advanced, the harder it was for them to move.

He could help but think . . .

“Everyone! Stop!” the first-ranker said, his eyes momentarily meeting Courtney’s. “We’re not going to make it if we go alone. Grab onto each other and walk simultaneously! Our weight combined will make it harder for the wind to throw us off-course! And it’ll help try to let us stay warm.”

“Better trust the man!” Tamara yelled as she grabbed Brindon close, hooking her arm around his.

“Hurts,” Brindon said.

“Oops. Sorry.”

As everyone moved to obey, Zion stood alone, holding the hood of his coat in place. The wind kept on pushing it back so he had to hold it down to keep it still.

“I really don’t like this,” Zion said, especially when Corvan was the one beside him.

“I should be the one saying that,” Corvan answered, eyeing the other guy with his trademark glower that sent hundreds of his enemies running with their tail between their legs. Zion only returned it with equal force.

“Set aside your rivalry for later, unless you both want to get blown away. That will be unsightly,” Raziel told them.

Both of them were reluctant to obey until the twins on either side pushed the two of them together, purposely squashing the two which in turn gave them no choice but to hook their arms together. Seeing them hold their heads up despite having their pride wounded was amusing.

Corvan regretted having thought this up.

“Now, everyone,” said Corvan when they were all huddled up together like a circle of penguins. “Walk altogether in one . . .” He made a pause. “Three!”

“What the—” Valeriana didn’t have time to react as everyone started walking.

“Where the heck did the ‘two’ go?!” Elfre screamed.

After a little while, the group was progressively advancing towards the rock. They were following a steady rhythm that involved having to put their legs forward simultaneously in order to prevent messing up the pace. This was the time when they all had to work together to get to the place where they wanted to be.

“We’re almost there!”

Elfre suddenly slipped. Luckily for her though, Raziel was able to hold her in place. The situation was harder than they all could describe.

The whole group stopped.

“Easy now, Elfre!” Raziel said, pulling her up.

“Don’t you think this mission should’ve been given to a Celestial Knight instead of us?!” Zevlin yelled. “I mean, this is really hard!”

Genevieve shot him a piercing look.

“We’re not even in City of Loquin yet! We’re only at its doors, you idiot!” Elfre screamed back at him, scrambling to get on her feet. When she did, they all continued.

“Courtney!” Corvan exclaimed. “Can you do something about this wind current?” he inquired. “Or is it too much to control?”

“I can create a wall,” Courtney answered. “I can weave currents of wind around us so that it’ll act as a barrier, but to make it effective, it’ll need to be as fast as the wind we’re shielding ourselves from or ­faster.”

“I’ll help!” Elfre said. “I sort of get the idea.”

“Good.”

Pursing her lips as they walked, Courtney and Elfre tried to focus their concentration on mustering their power. After a while, the winds around them spun, fanning the hair out of their faces. They revolved around them first but gradually got stronger and expanded until speedily spinning on a big circle around the group. The winds acted like a barrier somewhat, shielding all of them from the currents the storm produced with its own.

The air, being calmer within the circle, made the others sigh and groan.

“Why didn’t we do this from the start?” Keelan asked tiredly.

“Because we didn’t think of it?”

“You guys are the worst,” Aneeka grumbled.

After the rock, finding the tunnel was much easier. The group hurriedly ran towards the opening on the base of the mountain and marveled at how much comfort it gave—shield from the blizzard outside and a warm shelter from the open grounds.

Keelan leaned against the walls of the tunnel and slowly slid down, his knees giving in under him. The others sighed in relief and started to chatter away with each other, letting their voices reverberate across the entire space.

“Can someone light something?” Aneeka whispered, looking around at the unnervingly dark space.

It was pure black, not to mention the reeking smell. Where in the world was it coming from?

“Corvan,” Charles began, but he needn’t continue.

The first-ranker opened his palms and fire flared out immediately. Aiming straight on, he threw it forward. The red, hot flame multiplied, leaving copies of itself, as it flew towards the other end of the tunnel, shedding light on what was once a dark space. It was amazing to watch really. Valeriana wondered just how many tricks Corvan knew.

“I can do that, too,” Zion muttered. “It’s always Corvan this and Corvan that.”

He might’ve been too busy trying to show off and tell everyone that he was better than Corvan that he failed to notice.

“Everyone!” Aneeka exclaimed, turning pale as her eyes scanned the path before her.

Charles’ eyes narrowed and he looked around warily. The look of disbelief was evident across the faces of each one of them within the whole group—except for Brindon of course. Corvan’s expression turned cautious and he instinctively had his hand on the hilt of the weapon he recently strapped around his waist.

“Oh, in the name of . . .” Tamara trailed off.

“Grotesque,” Raziel commented as he looked away.

“This . . .” Courtney growled. “I’ll kill the one responsible for this.”

Valeriana gasped and withheld her scream while Keelan hastily stood up in shock, practically falling over from his hurry. Everyone understood his reaction, though. He just recently found out he was sitting beside the skeleton of someone.

“What in the world is this?” Aneeka inquired, wide-eyed.

Among the path that lead to the other end, bones and skulls alike were all scattered. A path of death, it seemed. It almost appeared to be a graveyard of fallen soldiers that attempted to retake the City of Loquin. It was obvious, judging by the clothing of the skeleton that was leaning against the wall—the one Keelan incidentally sat beside. The armors, weapons, and even the uniform that local soldiers of the Prelurésian Army wore were all over the place, too.

“Calm down, everyone,” Corvan told the others, and turned to see Charles slipping off his winter gloves.

The fourth bent down in front of the skeleton and reached out towards it. Running the pad of his fingers over its clothing, he frowned. He then brought up his hand and examined it, rubbing his fingers together as though feeling for something. Corvan, as well, started looking around himself along with Rowe and a few others who finally managed to compose themselves from the ‘surprise’ greeting.

“As expected, judging by the state of these remains, it’s recent. Not more than a few days old.”

“Recent?!” Valeriana exclaimed. “Recent, you say? Then shouldn’t it be a corpse before a skeleton?”

“This is not a typical murder scene, Valeriana,” the guy answered. “Although it varies, this is not a very unusual scenario when dealing with demons—when nothing is left but bones.”

“Cruel.” Keelan shook his head. “They won’t even let the person rot.”

Valeriana didn’t know if she was supposed to take that as a joke or not.

Elfre was immediately beside him, hitting him on the back of the head. “Can’t you read the atmosphere, you idiot?”

“O-ow . . .” He looked at her, pained. “What was that for? Isn’t it a part of life to rot when you’re dead?”

“Whatever, dimwit.” She then walked away.

“Is this where the entirety of those nine squadrons of knights ended up?” Rowe asked.

Every footstep they made echoed. Occasionally, they would feel something crumbling underneath their feet. The sharp crunches that came from the bones as they cracked made Valeriana feel crept out. As they all slowly advanced, they couldn’t help but feel wary of their surroundings. Being in such a place, they did not know what to expect.

“Everyone, ready your weapons,” Corvan said as he stood up, apparently finished examining the remains of the fallen soldier.

Rowe decided to speak. “There’s no telling what might happen and this place doesn’t feel right at all.”

He didn’t need to tell them though, everyone within the group were ready for combat if ever. Valeriana had had trouble drawing her sword, but when she did, she clung to it like a lifeline and steadily walked behind the others. Everyone had their own preferred weapons ready—Tamara having her twin swords in a firm grip in both hands, Rowe having secured his arm blades in place, and so on and so forth. Valeriana realized that, although she never actually saw the others fight before, finally having the chance to see them in action excited her. What only she felt strange about was seeing Raziel hold a whip. It wasn’t as though it wasn’t suiting. It was just . . . strange.

Valeriana’s eyes went toward Charles, who suddenly had a big, spear-like weapon in his hand. The only difference was the blade being longer, about forty centimeters or so, and was curved on the end. She did remember its classification, and Charles himself mentioned it before.

“What suddenly got you gawking?” Charles asked her.

“Nothing.” She shook her head. “I was wondering what kind of weapon you’re holding and where in the world it came from.”

“A glaive. I’m able to fold it when needed so that it’s not too troublesome to carry around,” he said. “I told you before, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, I remember. It just slipped from my mind, I guess,” she told him, her voice quieting.

Zion lazily took out a different weapon. He wasn’t using the lance this time. Instead, he had a sword as well. When he caught Valeriana eyeing him questioningly, he flashed her a smile and shot a wink her way.

Valeriana rolled her eyes.

She decided to look ahead and focus when her vision suddenly blurred. A head-splitting headache assaulted her and she doubled over from the agony, the weapon slipping from her hand and making a series of clang on the floor as it fell. Her hands instinctively flew up to cradle the spot where the pain originated.

“Valeriana?” Genevieve asked worriedly.

The whole group stopped and looked back, questioningly gazing at the girl.

Zevlin knelt beside her and kept her from completely falling over. “What is it?”

“It . . . hurts . . .” she whispered, trying to put some pressure on her forehead in failed attempts to ease the pain that tormented her.

Zion ran to her side and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Where does it hurt?”

Corvan narrowed his eyes at this.

“No . . . no . . .” The girl shook her head and lightly pushed at Zion’s chest.

“You’re not helping.” Genevieve frowned, pushing the boy aside and taking his place instead.

“I was just—”

“Let me,” said the ninth-ranker.

While Zion tried to reason out with her, Genevieve ignored him and got to work. She grabbed the hands of Valeriana and gently urged her to put them down, gently letting them rest on her sides. Valeriana clenched them though, unable to resist the agony. While she continued to murmur things in Valeriana’s ear, she slowly ran her hand over her head.

“This won’t take long, don’t worry,” she told her, and her hands began glowing.

After a few moments, Genevieve frowned. Everyone waited in anticipation, wondering what in the world was going on with the fifth ranker.

“It’s . . . not working.” She shook her head. “The pain is not something physical, I guess.” She then turned towards the second-ranker who stood way towards the front of the group. “Rowe! What do you think this is? Possibly something spirit-related?”

“Perhaps,” the second-ranker answered and moved to approach Valeriana.

“No . . . I’m fine . . .” Valeriana grabbed the arm of Genevieve and stood up. “It just . . . came so suddenly.”

“I think it’s your sensitivity to demonic auras,” Charles concluded. “Something must be coming our way.”

“I don’t think it’s coming.” Keelan shook his head, sweat glistening on his forehead. “In fact, they’re already here.”

The bones started moving on their own. The scattered remains of the fallen knights rose from the ground and suddenly started flying in all sorts of direction. Ever so slowly, these parts started rebuilding skeletons all over the place.

Valeriana started screaming in panic. “Zombies! Zombiiieess!”

“Calm down,” Charles scolded. “And these aren’t zombies.”

She hastily clamped a hand over her mouth and looked over at Charles questioningly. “They aren’t?”

“They aren’t! Now grab your weapon!”

Now that Charles mentioned it, the girl just remembered that her sword was still lying on the ground where it fell. She lunged for it and shakily held it between her trembling fingers, eyeing a skeleton which started to stand on its boney feet. The head was still missing, and it looked like the balance was lopsided to its right side. Bits of its flesh clung to the bones as well, making it look more monstrous than it should.

“That’s . . . just . . .” Her face contorted in disgust. “Creepy.”

Her head still ached.

“Protect each other’s backs!” Corvan yelled.

“You don’t need to tell us that,” Zevlin told him.

“We’ll be doing that, otherwise,” someone echoed, and chatters floated right after.

“I get it! Now, fight!” Tamara said.

The group instinctively had their backs against each other as a wave of skeletons attacked them from all sides. It was somehow hard, considering the tunnel was a very cramped space to move in. Not to mention that they had to allow some space for the others to fight in.

“Hiyaaaaa!” Keelan kicked a skeleton on its ribs and it came flying backwards. As it did, it came crashing with its other friends and their body collapsed altogether.

Valeriana shrieked when a skeleton came running towards her. “Go away! Freak! Monster! Beast! Demon!”

The sound it was making made chills run down her back. It was like a rough, guttural scratching that annoyed the heck out of her. But when the other monsters started uttering the same kind of sound, it made her want to run.

Full of fear and anger, she struck it with her sword and it easily crumbled into a heap of bones before her. She eyed it in disbelief, shocked by how it simply fell with one strike.

“Um . . . I never knew they would be this weak,” she said.

“Ha! This’ll be a walk in the park.” Zion grinned.

“Don’t underestimate them,” Corvan yelled. “What they lack for in strength, they make up for in numbers.” He swung his weapon left and right before kicking the other one that lunged for him in front.

“This place . . . how unsightly.” Raziel crinkled his nose in disgust as he threw his whip forward. It wrapped around the head swiftly. The moment he pulled it back, the skull came with it and ended up in his arms.

The skull snapped its jaws at him.

Raziel instinctively tossed it away in disgust.

Rowe himself was engaged in a skeleton that persistently kept on resurrecting itself despite how many times he tried to destroy it.

Frustration spread across his face. “There’s no end to them. No matter how many times . . .”

“How about reducing them to ashes?” Zion suggested.

“Are you crazy?! You’ll burn us all along with it!” Courtney shrieked.

“I’ll just aim for a few. Not everyone!” he yelled.

Valeriana moved away from Charles as he started waving his glaive around, somewhat afraid that he would slice her along with the enemies. He looked scary when doing that, but with him wielding the weapon . . . he made it look so easy.

Besides, everyone was actively participating in the fight. The usually emotionless Brindon was quickly nocking arrows on his bow and shooting them off like bullets. In fact, Valeriana caught him skillfully drawing three or four at once and accurately hitting his targets without fail. The accuracy of his aim was astounding. There was also strength in his firing. Valeriana was sure if she did that, the arrow would have no effect on the skeletons at all, but Brindon managed to reduce them into a harmless pile of bones without fail.

Well, he might’ve been the twelfth but he was still one of the ranking members.

What made him scary was the nonchalant expression on his face.

The headache subsided a little, but her head still throbbed painfully. It distracted her and was bothering her a lot, but she tried to set it aside and focus on the battle at hand.

So her sensitivity to demonic presence made her useless when confronting a real demon? How twisted.

But that made her feel angered all the more.

“These guys . . . are literally making my head ache!” she exclaimed.

Zion snickered while Genevieve started laughing. The others couldn’t help but smile at the irony of her words.

The smiles didn’t last when Valeriana shrank back and shut her eyes from a new wave of pain that came pounding. She groaned and attempted not to let it bother her, but it proved to be complicated. It wasn’t the usual pain she felt that needed the taking of medicine to ease.

“Valeriana, I don’t think you’re in condition to fight,” Genevieve told her, pushing her back. “You can’t handle the mere presence of these guys.”

“All the more reason to get rid of them,” she muttered. “Ah, god.”

Her lids fluttered open. The sight that greeted her was dark and felt as though it would swallow her whole. For a moment, she almost thought she was blind and her hearing suddenly went awry. Everything else just sounded like some sort of whirring from an ambulance.

It was getting worse.

What you are right now is just a piece of who you actually are.

It sounded like thousands of high-pitched voices ringing inside her head. This wasn’t the typical voice she heard back then during her duels. This was different.

So, Valeriana, this is the gift of undines to you and one which another cannot take away.

The gift of the undines?

To open your eyes. To open your ears. This will be the Blessing of the Sea!

She blinked numerous times as the words dawned on her. “The Blessing of the Sea . . .” she whispered.

“—iana! Valeriana!” Genevieve was frantically shaking her shoulder. “Please, answer me.”

She couldn’t hear or see anything until that time. Eyeing Genevieve questioningly, she asked her, “What’s happening?”

“Can you hear me now?”

She nodded. “Y-yeah.”

“You weren’t responding to any of my calls,” she answered. “And you keep on saying things to yourself. Are you alright? We’re just at the doors of the city. We aren’t even there yet. Are you sure you can continue?”

Charles looked over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at Valeriana.

“No, no.” She shook her head at the other girl. “I can do it. It’s just . . .”

“Helppp usss.” Groaning voices attacked her from all directions. “Cut the strinnggsss.”

Goosebumps rose on her skin. She looked around frantically, unsure where the voices where coming from.

“Helppp usss.”

Her eyes widening, she eyed the skeletons. Those words came from them!

So the Blessing of the Sea was actually the ability to hear the voices of the dead? She was just given a third eye, to put it simply—or was she?

“Cut the stringsss . . .”

“Cut the strings?” she mused out loud, repeating their words.

“Valeriana?”

“No. I can hear them now,” she said. “They’re saying cut the strings.”

“What? Who?”

“Them!” She pointed to the skulls.

“So, first dolphins, now demons?”

Valeriana shook her head. “No. No. They aren’t demons. I don’t feel anything from them, they aren’t demons.”

She surprisingly felt confident about this.

“Then what about the headache?”

“It’s different.”

She stared at the skeletons and saw something out of place. There were things attached on their limbs—things that resembled threads.

“Strings!” she yelled, finally getting it. “Cut the strings!”

“What?”

“There are strings . . .” Valeriana repeated. “There are strings! We have to cut them. I think that’ll solve the problem.”

“But I don’t see any—” Before the ninth-ranker could continue, Valeriana made a dash for the skeleton zombie—a name which she decided she would call it—swinging her sword straight for the strings manipulating the movements of the poor thing.

The strings were neatly cut by her blade. The skeleton growled at her, but ceased moving. After a few seconds, the bones cracked and it crumbled into nothingness, the ash-like residue carried away by the slight breeze that blew in after.

And for Valeriana, a voice murmured in her ear.

Thank you.”

“Okay . . . okay . . .” she muttered to herself. “Freaky, freaky.”

“So theses skeletons aren’t part of the demon list?” Genevieve asked, eyes widening at the sight of what Valeriana did.

“One becomes a demon when the soul becomes corrupted,” Rowe told them. “In this case, only their bodies are being controlled, but their souls are not affected in anyway. My guess is that this is a mix of necromancy and puppetry—the partial resurrection in order to animate the movements of a body which no longer have a soul, making it much easier for it to fall under control. They’re dolls.”

“Puppetry?” She swung for the next skeleton.

“The strings you talk about,” he answered. “There are other ways, but this is the most unusual. In order to animate dead bodies, you have to put a part of yourself into their own—that means sacrificing a part of your soul.” Rowe kicked a skeleton away that came at him. “It serves as a connection.” He grunted when another clung at his shoulders and attempted to pull him back. “But cutting the strings cut that connection.”

“What in the world is this—” Tamara was able to evade the slash of a sword in time. “Now they’re wielding weapons!” she exclaimed before blocking the next swing with her own blade.

“Troublesome,” Brindon commented.

“Enough chitchat and explaining already!” Courtney hissed. “I’m not interested in the mechanics of how these things work! What I want to know is how to put an end to them! This isn’t a class!” Whirlwinds appeared on her palm. With a swift shot of her hand, she blew all the skeletons away—literally.

“They just . . . keep on coming! Is there no end to this?” Zevlin inquired as he took on three at once.

Corvan frowned. “I’m done. What should we do? How do we cut the strings?” he asked.

They all turned to Valeriana, looking at her from the corner of their eyes while they continued combat. The girl was frantically throwing random strikes in the air that they doubted if she was even thinking about she was moving.

“Well . . .” Another skeleton crumbled at her feet. “I . . . cut the strings!”

“How reliable.” Courtney huffed.

A few sighed. The others groaned.

“The strings resemble the appearance of a thread. But this thread is not normally seen at all.” Rowe took on a wary stance. “It cannot be touched, it cannot be seen. Because it is made up of a person’s soul.”

“So Valeriana’s the only one who can do this?” Corvan looked annoyed.

“It isn’t exactly impossible,” Rowe answered.

“Then how?”

“It will take a great deal of power to momentarily be able to tap into the realm of the spirits. For even though those strings existed right here, right now, they are someplace else which is out of our reach. For me to accomplish it, I’ll have to leave my body.”

“That’s not good. Agh,” Genevieve said, kicking away the weapons that the skeletons carried before grabbing the skulls of the two that attempted to attack her. With a cry, she smashed their heads together. “I don’t think it’s advisable.”

“You aren’t the only one who’s getting tired!” Keelan shouted, hearing her statement. “I’m hungry . . .”

“Mind your food later, you idiot!” Elfre screamed at him. “Can’t you see we’re in a situation here? These guys may be weak, but we can’t go to the city if we don’t go through them first!”

“Can’t you just . . .” Aneeka whirled around with a spinning kick. “Focus?!”

“Grraarrgghh . . .” The growling continued, seeming to reach higher notes the longer they went.

“If we all spend our power here at once, then we won’t stand a chance in surviving within the city,” Charles said, his deft hands handling his weapon skillfully.

“A few of us will suffice,” Corvan commented. “We’re fourteen, are we not? Three or four will be able to handle the job, minus two for Rowe and Valeriana.”

“So who else has sufficient power? And has done this ‘tap into the spirit realm’ matter?” Courtney asked the others.

“Maybe I can do it!” Zion raised his hands up.

“Are you kidding? What do you know about the tapping . . . blah?” Genevieve inquired. “Your element is fire, not the spirit.”

“No,” Brindon quipped.

“But I want to.”

“Aneeka.” Tamara turned. “You’re from Aetheria. You should know a thing or two, right?”

“Maybe,” Aneeka answered, shrugging briefly before catching the blade aimed at her. With a brief brush of her fingers, she had the skeleton’s arm pulled and flying to the other side. The continuous popping and cracking within the room seemed to never get old.

“Oh, come on. I don’t think it’ll be wise to bet me, Charles, or someone else. We don’t know a thing about this,” she argued. “We’ll hold out the rest while you’re at it. Can you handle them all? We’ll cover your backs, anyway.”

“Aneeka is the family warrior.” Rowe chuckled. “If there’s someone who’s much better skilled in than me, it’ll be her—aside from Lord Corvan, of course.”

“Oh, please. Says the second-ranker?” Aneeka spat back.

“I’m the second-ranker by name only.” He laughed.

“Well, whatever.”

“Just do it already!” Courtney yelled at them.

“Ah, as impatient as ever.”

Aneeka and Rowe backed away from battling simultaneously. The group enclosed them within a protective circle and started to fight off the wave of enemies that attempted to break their formation. Within the next few seconds, they all suddenly turned more violent and wild—bloodthirsty.

“Hold on, everyone!” Charles planted his feet to the ground.

Valeriana suddenly had a ridiculous thought, but she could not hold it back. She was nervous—she was scared. “Keeeep hooooldiiiiiing oooonn! ‘Cause you know we’ll make it through! We’ll make it through!” Valeriana sang, her voice echoing throughout the entire tunnel.

“Holy dragon above!” Zion eyed her from the corner of his eyes.

“Oh, gods.” Genevieve turned away.

“My ears . . .” Brindon muttered.

The skeletons themselves looked shaken a bit for a moment that they stopped. Corvan swore that if they had faces, they would look shocked.

The air went still for a moment.

“You know, if I knew your voice had this kind of effect, I’ll ask you to sing in the battlefield. You’ll probably kill a lot more enemies than I would my entire life,” Corvan stated, shaking his head.

“No one asked you people to listen!” Valeriana hissed.

“Never mind that! Aneeka, Rowe, NOW!” Corvan yelled.

“Graarrrgghhh!”

Aneeka and Rowe sat on the ground, their backs against each other. With a big intake of breath, they closed their eyes and started focusing.

“I haven’t done this in a while,” Aneeka said.

Rowe smiled, but didn’t respond.

“Jaenar dohn lilum et farus dohn.”

Rowe’s soul visibly left his body. He seemed almost lightweight and easily carried by the wind, not to mention the see-through appearance as well. Aneeka came a little bit later, stumbling clumsily while she did. Having not done it for quite a while, she seemed to be trying to adapt herself into . . . a change of form.

“So, how do we do this?” Aneeka inquired.

Valeriana stared at Aneeka. “You look different.”

“Rowe!” the tenth shouted. “How are we supposed to touch our weapons?”

“Calm down. I’ll call my familiar.” He then sighed. “Come out, Cheveyo.”

“You can’t. You’ve already drained enough power. You can’t strain yourself any further.”

“Do not worry about me,” Rowe said.

Despite Aneeka’s protests, Rowe chose to call upon his familiar anyway. He was overexerting himself doing this, but he had his own reasons.

Cheveyo, a beautiful white owl, appeared on Rowe’s shoulder. His eyes were a big, round, and wise-looking and his feathers looked silky. He automatically turned to his contractor and began inquiring about the situation.

“What dost thou need of me?” he asked.

“I need weapons, Cheveyo. I cannot handle material things right now,” he told Cheveyo. “Give me two, preferably.”

‘That is not a very hard request . . . I’ll transform myself into a weapon, twin swords in particular. Is that fine with thee?’

“It’s more than enough.”

Cheveyo flapped his large wings before a bright white light encased his form and he fell into Rowe’s palms as the weapons he requested. The guy quickly gave the other to Aneeka, and they quickly slipped through the protective circle that enclosed their physical bodies in two, opposite directions.

“Do you see it?” Rowe asked.

“I do,” Aneeka answered. “Dark threads.”

“Valeriana!” the second-ranker exclaimed. “Help us out.”

“A-alright.” She reluctantly came running forward.

“That’s where you cut them, right?” He pointed to the strings Valeriana was eyeing.

When a skeleton headed straight for her, Valeriana shrieked and instantaneously swung for the strings above. There were five actually. Four were attached to the hands and feet—two on the wrists, and two on the ankles. The last one was connected to the nape of the neck.

The skeleton tumbled right after and fell apart, crumbling like its other friends.

Rowe copied Valeriana’s actions, but he made it more graceful and much more sophisticated than how she did it. Without even a minute passing by, he already managed to take down five or six. He was surely nothing like Valeriana. He was on a whole other level. Not to mention his sword looked cool.

Rowe integrated his moves with some kick and elbowing while he swung at the strings, making him look more like a stuntman in a TV show than a warrior.

Taking a brief glance at the others, they were wholeheartedly protecting the two’s ‘earthly bodies’. The look of exhaustion was evident across their faces, but they continued to persevere nonetheless. Very admirable people, really.

The groaning of the spirits around her seemed to echo. Their words were already mixed up for her to understand. Even so, she decided to focus on ‘putting’ as many skeletons as she could ‘to rest’.

Some skeleton zombies in particular wielded a weapon, so they were much harder to put down. Valeriana had her experience in swordsmanship and weapon wielding though, so she managed to overcome the attacks despite the odds.

After a while, she grew tired of swinging her weapon. But it paid off, as their numbers became less and less. It came to the point where they only had to focus on eliminating the ones bothering the group.

“At last . . .”

She really should consider working out. More.

When everything else grew quiet and there seemed to no longer be any other left, Valeriana’s feet wobbled. She collapsed on the floor while breathing heavily, dropping her weapon. She was soaked in sweat despite the cold temperature and that didn’t prove to be comfortable.

“I’m dead tired,” she muttered. “God, taking a wave of zombies was harder than I thought in real life.”

Everyone seemed to be in the same condition as well, just not as worse.

“That was tiring,” Rowe muttered.

“I’m beat,” Aneeka whispered. She handed the weapon she held over to Rowe and started walking back towards her body.

“Thank you, Cheveyo,” he told his familiar. The twin swords transformed back into a large bird, flapping its big wings.

“Thou art welcome.”

“So you guys get tired even though you’re spirits?!” Valeriana was dubious. “I didn’t know that.”

“There’s still a strain to our body,” Rowe answered as he started to ‘go back’ as well.

Valeriana watched Aneeka’s soul slip back into its shell simultaneously with Rowe’s.

“Alright, everyone! Gather up and prepare.” Corvan placed a hand on his waist while the other massaged the back of his neck. He didn’t sweat much due to the temperature, but the tiredness was clear on his face.

Charles came forward and started talking to him. Everyone else was either sheathing their weapons or talking to one another regarding what just occurred. Valeriana, however, was too busy trying to catch her breath.

The tenth and second-ranker slowly gained consciousness. Rowe visibly wobbled on his feet as he tried to stand, but Aneeka readily supported him. The job he had done might’ve been too much for him. Having to leave his body and summon his familiar altogether.

“Hey,” Genevieve panted. “Are you sure there aren’t any left of those things?”

“There’s one behind you,” Zevlin told her.

She shrieked and turned, but saw nothing. “How dare you!”

The eight-ranker snickered at her reaction.

“So, since we’re over and done here . . .” Keelan whined. “Can we move on? I really want to find something to eat already. Perhaps a steakhouse on the way.” He licked his lips as he salivated at the thought.

“Yeah, yeah, like there’ll be any. Let’s go.”

“Valeriana,” Charles called.

“What?” the girl asked, struggling to stand up.

The eyes of Charles seemed to be piercing, looking straight to her soul. “We have to talk.”

The whole group turned towards her, questioning and all curious.

“Oh, god,” she muttered. “Not again.”

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