Chapter 14: Temple
The days passed in misery as the grasslands stretched in an endless sea. The low hills rolled across the land but gave little to define it. Rocks, grass, and Titan Bulls. That’s all there was, so I focused my attention to the distant clouds.
The small fluffs of white were lonesome and weak. The wind carried them against their will, but it made me glad. At least I wasn’t alone.
If the clouds could see my sorry state, they too would understand.
I rolled my shoulder to shake that awful feeling…that hateful glare.
Adept Ulric snorted and pointed more daggers at my soul. His precious daughter, who was not at all sweet, giggled with shining amber eyes.
There was something wrong with the people in this world.
“Kaiden, we’re almost at the Cowzer Temple,” Mocha laughed as her eyes flicked to the side. She watched her father as he gave another snort. Then he pouted, his lip puckering into a round curve. Mocha must have inherited her immaturity from him.
Or, she had corrupted him with it.
“Hey pervert,” Vaughn said in Gnudeerian, ignorant of his own mistake. “Stop being such a fish.”
I kicked a small stone by my foot. It tumbled into the tall grass, and ignoring Vaughn, I pushed forward and used my hand to clear myself a small path.
There must be something in the water. I would rather have the lofty, overbearing Adept Ulric and the egotistical Vaughn than the two children they had become. It was—creepy. So very creepy.
“Did you hear what I said?” Vaughn asked.
I nodded. “I’m not doing anything.”
“Perverted dead-carcass,” he retorted.
Mocha chuckled, and her eyes fell on me. A shiver shot down my spine.
“I think you’re cute.” She articulated loud and clear for all to hear but specifically for Vaughn.
My stomach lurched. What did I ever do to be caught between a girl and her egotist?
“Shoo! A hundred meters away,” Vaughn barked at me.
“No thanks.” I was already pushing through grass while him and everyone else stood behind Adept Ulric.
As if the Adept knew my thoughts, he lifted his sword. The rune brightened and for the nth time he created a liquid serpent. Then with a small swing of the blade, he caused the spiralling water to shoot forward. It tore through the grass with its fangs, clearing a long path while scarring the ground with a long trail.
On second thought, I moved a few steps to the side.
“More.” Vaughn glared, and I could feel Adept Ulric’s support piercing through my back.
I took a few more steps then glanced at them from the corner of my eye. Mocha winked, and my heart thumped, fearing for my life.
What was I to her? A tool to make Vaughn jealous?
And he fell for it. The egotist bit his bottom lip and snorted at Mocha. With a quick motion to straighten his clothes, he looked me in the eye.
At least Mocha’s father didn’t see the wink.
I twisted my neck and feigned ignorance by staring at the distant clouds. I let out a small whistle—sort of. A pathetic puff of air.
“Kaiden,” Vaughn grumbled.
“Are you jealous?” Mocha chuckled. “Would you like a kiss.”
“No get away!” Vaughn yelled.
‘He’s in denial…’ I crossed two fingers behind my back. Once Vaughn realized his feelings, they’d stop arguing. Maybe.
I let out a long sigh, feeling somewhat jealous of the captured Apprentices. They sat to my left on a floating piece of ice. They rubbed their freezing hands and fidgeted from time to time. It must have been painful, but I would rather be with them and risk hypothermia than be caught in this mess.
I lifted my arm. The Ice Curse had climbed closer to my shoulder. I shook it. No feeling, not even pain.
“Kaiden,” Vaughn began, “You’re a tomato bird.”
I ignored his senseless insult then pushed through the grass and walked higher up the hill. Soon a pair of columns came into view, and the closer I approached, the more they twisted and rose above the grassy planes.
I reached the peak, and staring back at me was a large stone statue situated behind the two columns. A Titan Bull.
“The Cowzer Temple!” Mocha laughed. “I’ll race you down the hill!”
The girl ran forward half sliding through the path cleared by her father. Vaughn rushed after her, and his countenance brightened—eyes shining, lips smiling, cheeks blushing…
I felt a small pang. Was I jealous? No, impossible.
“If I get there first, I get a kiss from Kaiden!” Mocha yelled.
“What! No!” Vaughn cried.
A snort sounded behind me. My body stiffened.
‘I’m a goner.’
I dove to the side, and my legs slipped upon landing against the slope of the cleared path. Leaning inward, I allowed my body to roll.
A water serpent tore through where I had just stood, sending small bits of grass flying through the air. It turned to look at me, and my face paled.
‘Crap, he’s serious!’
I pushed up and ran, adrenaline pumping. A small voice whispered to me, ‘If he wants you dead, you’d already be dead,’ but my heart thumped louder. I couldn’t take the risk that he wouldn’t kill me. I didn’t have the courage…
“Kaiden! Get back here! Do you-”
Memories: twisting streets, towering buildings… What was that?
No time to think.
The sloping hill increased the rate of my descent, and I felt my legs moving faster and faster. My heart clenched, and I resisted the urge to shut my eyes. My body leaned forward; I raised my arms. Falling was imminent.
But then I didn’t.
The adrenaline of fear vanished, replaced by excitement. I felt the earth thrumming beneath my feet, the wind blasting against my skin, the vigor flowing through my body… My legs moved quicker, and I spread my arms. I felt as free as a bird, and I laughed.
The water serpent whistled to my side, its body littered with mud and grass. Its glossy eyes looked at me, and I at it. I felt no fear.
Adept Ulric wouldn’t kill me, not yet at least.
“Dad!” Mocha whined at the top of her lungs, causing the serpent to deform. It twisted then popped. The water sprayed into my face; the dirt path turned to mud. I slipped.
I tucked my head close to my chest, and I rolled and slid the rest of the descent—ten meters, maybe.
Crack! My shoulder banged something hard.
I wiped away the mud on my face and opened my eyes. A marble path.
“Kaiden!” Vaughn rushed up to me.
“I’m okay.” My body was fine, maybe a few bruises, but it was the path that I was more worried about. I rubbed my good hand against the newly formed indent and across the jagged cracks.
How was this possible?
“Be more careful!” Vaughn thumped my head. “If you weren’t an Apprentice or a Novice…or whatever the hell you are, you’d be a goner!”
“I don’t think so. Maybe a couple broken ribs.”
“Or a broken neck!”
“You’re pretty lucky,” Mocha chimed in. She nodded to herself. “Yep, lucky.”
“Grrr,” Vaughn growled.
“I’m alive,” I said. My eyes drifted down the small marble path. It led to the Cowzer Temple, but contrary to my expectations, the temple only consisted of the two columns, the bull statue, and a couple steps and a wide marble base.
“So what if you’re alive. You could’ve been dead,” Vaughn argued.
Mocha chuckled. “So, do I get to kiss him?”
“Who’s that?” I asked, ignoring the growling egotist.
An old man sat at the temple’s entrance—if one could call it that, it was barely a landmark. His back leaned against the left column, and the sun shone in his face. His white robe glistened and so did his gray hair.
His eyes fell on me.
I froze. His gaze felt heavy yet light and clear.
An Apprentice? But the robe was different—too ornate yet too simple.
My head tilted to the side. The longer I looked, the more I felt that the old man wasn’t there.
“Grandpa!” Mocha chirped, snapping me from my trance.
She rushed forward, boots clattering against marble. She laughed until she reached the steps. There she rocked her arms back and forth and then pushed off the ground, scaling the four steps in a happy leap.
Adept Ulric strode past me—his pouting face gone, now replaced by a lofty air. Vaughn and I followed after him.
The old man smiled at Mocha and rubbed his hand against her cheek.
“How’s my little Amber?” he said. “Your eye color changed. What happened?”
“Not sure. My soul almost collapsed, but Kaiden saved me. I don’t know why they’re not blue.”
“Kaiden?” the man asked, his smile fading. He looked at the Apprentices and then at me and Vaughn.
I took a small step forward but flinched. Something had touched my back. Adept Ulric. His hand, placed against my shoulder blade, exerted pressure to push me forward, but fear held me still.
“This one,” the man said as he gave me a sudden, forceful shove. My foot collided against a step; I fell.
My hand scraped against the marble floor. A sharp stone had made an incision, and I watched as I began to bleed, but why?
‘Wasn’t I stronger than this?’
The blood trickled down my palm.
Adept Ulric nudged my side with his boot. “Answer the question, boy.”
“Dad,” Mocha growled.
A heavy pressure fell upon my body. I buckled as it slammed me into the ground. The marble shifted, floor cracking. The pressure grew heavier, but none of it hurt.
“Grandpa,” Mocha whined, and the old man humphed and the pressure vanished.
She had a real knack for controlling people.
“How old are you?” the old man asked.
“Seventeen,” I replied as I rubbed my arm at the base of the Ice Curse. It felt colder for some reason, but at least it hadn’t cracked.
“When did you become a 1-Star Novice?”
“A few days ago.” I shrugged. Was I a Novice?
“The same day I became a Novice.”
The old man grabbed me by the robe and pulled me to my feet. He looked me up then down then up again.
“Find someone else,” he said, throwing me back onto the floor.
“Okay,” Mocha chuckled.
“Ulric, ignite the Cowzer flame. Plans will continue as they are and we’ll ignite the other four.”
“Understood,” Ulric replied before entering the temple.
His foot passed the two columns and onto the round stage. The marble around its perimeter lit up, forming a red glowing circle. The Adept lowered his torso and reached down with his right hand. His arm swayed as he let his fingers brush against the surface with each advancing step.
The temple rumbled. The stage shook.
Suddenly, the old man pulled me from the rubble. I righted myself and was about to say “thank you,” but then he flicked his wrist. My mouth shut tight. A thick energy blasted against my body and blew away the mud and dirt.
“Soul rune?” the old man asked as if nothing happened. He didn’t even pay attention to the changes occurring within the temple. I wanted to watch to see the power of magic and to know what was happening, but I held myself back.
Giving the old man my full attention, I answered, “Translation, maybe language.”
“That’s not very good.”
He brushed back his white hair, pausing for a bit. Then he said, “You’ll be part of the sacrifices.”
“No!” Mocha yelled, but the old man had already brought his hand in front of my eyes. He did something, but what?
My stomach churned, energy escaping and hands falling limp. I wanted to yell but couldn’t. My legs, they wouldn’t even budge.