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Chapter 2: The Serpent God

Ballan wondered if it was courage or delusion that made him think he had a goblin's chance at chess of getting out of this situation alive. The odds were certainly stacked against him, propped up by his terrible spellcraft, bad luck, general demeanor, and of course, the hundred-or-so foot serpent that presently loomed over him.

Boots had said Pythogoras wouldn't even be here.

Were it not for the threat of his imminent demise, Ballan may have been mesmerized by the blue, yellow, and brown of his scales, intricately interwoven to form an interlocking pattern of lines and knots.

Unfortunately, Pythogoras' eyes were focused directly upon him. The eyes - yellow, and thin, like a predator - reflected no images despite their sheen, and never blinked.

Ballan had the distinct feeling he was living on borrowed time.

Pythogoras opened his mouth.

"Thou art brazen..." The voice of the serpent god nearly clicked, it was so hoarse. The sounds of chitin upon silt. Ballan attempted to back up a step, and immediately bumped into something sturdy and warm. He flinched, glancing behind him. Sure enough, Pythogoras' coils had cut off his escape. "...and lacketh the necessary precaution to avoid an end such as..." Slowly, the serpent's head floated towards Ballan. His mouth opened wide, revealing a crushing mass of muscle adorned by needle-sharp teeth the size of knives. Pythogoras' enormous black tongue flicked out, missing Ballan's nose by inches. "...Thisss."

All at once, Pythogoras reared up, and it felt as though time began to slow down. In desperation, Ballan attempted to recast the invisibility spell - but nothing happened. Wild-eyed, he looked up - Pythogoras was staring directly at him. Pythogoras, whose very gaze destroys magic... No, that was just what Kahya had said about him. Just as she must not have known about Master Lu Gong's secret use of magic, it would be just as likely that she viewed Pythogoras' gaze as supernatural... when it was, in fact, simply maginatural.

How, then, does a gaze "destroy spells"? Surely if he was simply obliterating all mana, Ballan would have died as soon as he saw the giant Augmentus. Still, each time he tried to reach for the Astral Sea, he found... nothing. There's no way Pythogoras was powerful enough destroy the entire sea, or even block the flow of mana from passing through the Astral tension.

But maybe...Pythogoras could be destroying all the nearby uncharged mana - the ambient mana that seeped in from the Astral Sea. It made sense, the outright destruction of mana would be much easier than trying to fight for control of it. A "normal" caster would never dare because they wouldn't have any mana left over for their own spells... but Pythogoras hardly needed magic to fight, being a serpent that could swallow a horse in one gulp. If he was indeed destroying uncharged mana, Ballan would not have any mana to reach for, let alone to charge and then cast with. Without access to it, he was almost completely helpless.


Ballan had an idea, unfortunately, carrying it out would probably kill him. As time suddenly seemed to return to normal, Ballan watched Pythogoras begin to strike, the snake god's yellow eyes eerily tinged with red as they were fixated directly upon him, unblinking.

Ballan reached within himself, and sensed the part of him that some wizards called the soul. The center of his mana, the wellspring of his magical talent. To use it to cast a spell, would be to burn the very candle of his life. And if he used too much...

The serpent god descended. Ballan set his jaw - maybe he was a dead man, living on borrowed time.

He just hoped he had borrowed a lot of it.

He drew upon the finite power of his soul - and just like always, used it to weave a spell, with spoken word and purposeful gesture. The spell, however, seemed to come so naturally to him - so naturally, in fact, that he almost failed to notice the sudden tendrils of exhaustion that gripped his mind and limbs. There was no time for anything fancy - he could only react, and was forced to do the first thing he could think of:

Ballan created an illusion of the room making it seem like he and the floor were much further away than they actually were. Then, he ripped his cloak off his back and threw it at the diving snake as he dove out of the way and prayed that he was fast enough to...


The sickening sound ricocheted off the stone walls and caused even the sturdy stone of the temple to shake. Ballan had been right next to the source of the shockwave - The Serpent God, with mouth agape, striking the stone floor at full speed.

He had been blown off his feet when the serpent struck. As Ballan collected himself and the dust began to clear, it quickly became apparent that, between the rock floor and the Serpent God, the former had proven worthier.

Pythogoras' eyes had rolled back up into his head, and his mouth lay open, still and unthreatening. Only the hollow sound of the Augmentus' breathing remained.

Ballan sighed in relief, then spotted a bit of cloth beneath Pythogoras' head. He shuffled over gingerly, and with the last of his strength, was able to pull his cloak free. It was only a single tear worse for wear. Ballan laughed helplessly at that.

Then he fell helplessly to the ground.

For a second, the exhaustion was so intense he thought he might black out, but he took a deep breath in then out, steady, nice and slow, until the shadows creeped away from the corners of his vision. Even so, if he trying to stand up right now would only result in a schadenfreude mummer's farce - and with no audience to enjoy his suffering as amelioration!

He was cracking bad mental jokes. It must be close to the end. His body felt like lead, and his mind felt like cotton. He had probably used too much of his soul in the attempt. Even if he did survive, he may have crippled himself... and all for what? Boots' toy crystal?

Some life's legacy that was. So much for discovering time travel, he supposed.

His train of thought continued on in a similarly dour fashion until he heard footsteps behind him. Bare feet on stone. So, the monks had decided to come in and see what had happened. Maybe he should have just passed out. If they started torturing him, he wouldn't be able to move a muscle.


Ballan could at least muster up enough energy to lift an eyebrow in surprise.

"Kahya?" He mumbled, his cheek pressed against the ground making him sound like an idiot. He tried to lift his head, but to no avail. Idiot he'd be. "Wha... What happened? I saw..."

He felt a hand grab the hair on the back of his head, and he hissed in pain as Kahya turned him to face her. Her dark eyes were deadly serious, even through the bruising that was quickly swelling one of them shut. Dried blood on her nose, lips, and the back of her hands told the story of her battle - and she held herself as though to hide tenfold more bruises and hurts from his gaze.

"How did you do..." Kahya paused, and looked over at the unconscious snake god, turning his head as she did so so he could see. Viscous drool was beginning to pool beneath Pythogoras' open mouth. "...this."

Ballan understood what she was asking, but he wasn't sure what else to say besides:

"I fooled him." He managed, right as his head began to spin. Darkness was closing in around him, and he was not certain he would ever see light again once it enveloped him. But he would not leave his regret unspoken. "Kahya..." He muttered. "I'm sorry" Kahya had responded to his answer with something in between disapproval and disbelief, but settled on confusion when he apologized. "I left you behind, I didn't even try to..." He sighed, and his voice failed. Kahya was still holding his head up by his hair.

The last thing he saw before darkness took him was Kahya rolling her eyes at him.

In between moments, Ballan realized he was standing.

There was a sense of calm in the air, and it took him a moment to realize that calm was coming from inside of him. There was no sound, and a faint light illuminated only a small area around him, casting everything else into darkness.

A few feet in front of him, a man sat on a stone bench, with his back turned.

"So," he heard the old man speak, and did not recognize the voice. "What did you think about all of that?"

Despite himself, Ballan found himself pondering the question the old man asked, instead of the old man himself. Then he started, though it did not come with any panic.

"Am I dead?" He asked. The idea did not hold any fear for him, strangely.

The old man chuckled.

"Oh, you're brand new." Humor lined the old man's voice. Slowly, he raised a hand, still facing away from Ballan. A medallion tumbled from it, bouncing once upon a chain wrapped around the old man's hand. Ballan recognized it as a Destined medallion immediately, but he could not make out what was etched upon it. "Return to me, when the time is right."

The medallion began to glow.

"Wait - who are you?" Ballan asked, though he received no answer as the glow increased in brightness. "How will I know when the time is right?" He demanded, something besides calm finally rising out of him.

"You will." The old man replied, though the answer was nearly drowned out by a humming noise that increased in volume with the medallion's brightness. This angered Ballan further.

"How will I return!?" Ballan shouted, struggling against a now-palpable force, pushing him away from the medallion as it continued to glow and hum. He felt darkness overtaking him.

"The same way you got here before." The old man said, voice clear as crystal over the intense noise and light.

Then, the second hand moved, and Ballan fell back into darkness.

The first thing Ballan noticed was that whoever had put him in this cart that was clearly trundling down the road, had completely failed to protect his naked face from the sun. The light lit up the back of his eyelids like orange sheets, forcing him to squint. Well, maybe he had noticed a few things before that and had been stoically convincing himself he had died. The charade was over.

He groaned, sat up, and opened his eyes.

"Steady my boy!" He heard Boots call from the front of the cart. "One can never be sure when it comes to Animancy, so take it slow." Ballan looked around.

They were still in the Tangle of Serpents - the jungle he and Boots had traveled to in order to locate Boots' crystal. However, they were presently walking along a riverside free of mangroves. Or rather, Boots and Kahya were walking. Ballan was laying in a wooden cart, with a single pillow for comfort, his legs thrown over the side. His legs...

He couldn't feel his legs.

Panicking, he reached forward and grabbed his shin and - ow, sure enough they were just asleep. Pins and needles ran uncomfortably up and down his legs. Once the feeling subsided, he sighed in relief.

Then slumped over in exhaustion.

"Boots." He managed.

"Yes, my boy?" The bear replied.

"Where the Hells were you?"

"Performing reconnaissance!" Boots said proudly. "You'll be happy to know that I was the second person to know that you'd been caught!" Ballan wasn't sure he followed that.


"Indeed!" Boots continued. "I was one of the snakes in the hallway where you fooled the monk. The other one spotted you first and started talking about how he had to go report to his superiors." Boots sighed. "Dreadful timing, she was an excellent conversationalist."

"You were there?" Ballan hissed. "I nearly died! Why didn't you... do anything?" His anger far outstripped his exhaustion, so there was only so much lividity he could convey at the moment.

"Boots saved me." Kahya spoke for the first time since Ballan had awoken. Then, she shrugged her shoulders. "Well. He led all the other cultists away from Pythogoras, so once I had contended with those who could not defeat me, I was able to follow after you." She explained.

"So you just left the Snake God to me, huh?" Ballan demanded bitterly of the bear.

There was silence for a moment, just the sound of the cart trundling along the ground.

"...Was my faith misplaced?" Boots asked thoughtfully. "T'was not I that felled the serpent, nor I that retrieved the idol" As Boots spoke, Ballan felt his anger cooling. He did not mention that he had simply forgotten what lay beyond the map in his panic. "No, credit must be paid where credit is due, my apprentice. Even with all the odds stacked against you, you found a way to persevere."

"But..." Unconsciously, Ballan reached a hand to his chest.

Boots chortled.

"There's more in your soul than a simple illusion spell, Ballan!" The boisterous bear proclaimed. "You will be tired, yes, but you will recover - and what years you spent today, though they may be lost to time, were spent for all the years still to come." Ballan looked over his shoulder at the Archmage, but Boots was not looking at him. He was facing forward and sort of... shuffling.

Ballan pushed himself up, and looked over the side of the cart.

It was attached to the back of a bicycle. Which Boots was riding.

It was... comically small, compared to the bear.

Ballan looked over at Kahya - finally someone else to see this nonsense - but she just shrugged.

"He did not want to carry you." She said.

"And it is excellent exercise!" Boots shouted, slightly out of breath. "And young Miss Kahya has impressed upon me the need for a Wizard to stay in shape!" Kahya narrowed her eyes at the bear, and then turned those same narrowed eyes at Ballan.

"Yes... As soon as you're recovered, you will join me thrice daily for drills and running." She clicked her tongue. "Were the other monks not so intent on feeding you to Pythogoras, you would have been run down in a moment."

Ballan collapsed back into the cart with a groan, and covered his face.

"Ok." He muttered. "Fine you believed I could do it, and..." He trailed off and it struck him suddenly, while he was detached from the situation and no longer in danger, what exactly he had done. Survived the Snake God. Defeated him, even. In a contest between himself, and Pythogoras, he had proven the victor.

Ballan Agrandian looked Pythogoras in the eyes and lived.

He smiled to himself, and a comfortable silence filled the early morning air, except for the huffing of an overexerted bear. He remembered then, the message Boots had given him from... from his future self. For that was who it must be.

You are not alone in this.

For the first time, Ballan was starting to feel like that might be true.


Mal's eyes scanned the letter in short, controlled flits of movement. His face remained an impassive mask of barely concealed disdain. He was presently in his study, a small fire lit to keep off the night's chill. The decor was lavish, decadent, and comfortable - perfect for someone of his refined taste.

Standing beside him was a halfling butler, unmoving, as he had been ordered to stay until such a time that his master had a reply to the message he brought. Mal finished reading the letter. Then, he read it again. Then, he folded it into thirds - as it had arrived - then folded it in half again, and again, and then tossed it into the fire. With a wave of his hand, the fire suddenly roared to life, completely consuming the letter. The butler did not flinch.

"Please send word to Captain Stonefeet - The bear will be headed east to retrieve his crystal. Ensure it is the bear who acquires the crystal." As he emphasized that word, the fire sparked and the shadows lengthened. Again, the butler did not flinch.

"At once, Lord Malcom." He turned smartly on his heel and left the room, opening, and then closing, the door behind him. Once the door was closed, there was a beat of tense silence as Mal stared at it.

Then, without a sound and without changing expression, he punched a hole through the finished oak surface of his desk. He removed his splintered, cracked and bleeding hand from the ruined desk, watching without expression as the bones popped back into place, the splinters shot out, and the cuts sealed themselves.

The blood remained. It always did. He ran the index finger of his other hand through the blood, and then traced a complicated rune into the air. At first, the rune was invisible, but slowly it began to glow a deep, dark red.

"Let Him embrace you." A genderless, toneless voice spoke from the sigil.

"Another time." Mal replied. "There is another in need of your Lord's succor. I require a Hound."

"Pay the price." The sigil intoned, just as the door to the room opened.

"I have delivered the message-" The butler's voice caught in his throat as he froze. Mal had one hand raised toward him, as though holding him by the neck. Slowly, the butler began to float towards Mal, as the door shut itself. Eventually, the pantomime became reality as Mal's hand closed around the butler's neck. He was short on time, so he simply squeezed, and then jerked his wrist to the right. With a popping noise, he had his payment.

He held the corpse up to the sigil. The sigil alighted on the corpse's head, and he dropped it, though it did not fall. It hung lifelessly in the air, suspended by the sigil he had summoned.

"Provide the mark." This time, the mouth of the halfling moved, and it was his voice that made the demands. Mal produced the only other thing Lucy had sent him, besides the letter indicating she had failed. A small strip of cloth, torn from the cloak of their mysterious thief.

He shoved it into the corpse's mouth, which immediately began to chew, and then swallow the cloth.

"The price has been paid. The mark has been provided. He will embrace them." The butler's voice intoned. Then, the corpse shuddered, and seemed to collapse on itself in a single instant of crunching and squelching. There was a small spray of blood that Mal caught across the cheek without flinching, and then the body was gone.

With the thief problem solved, Mal turned his mind to other matters. It would be several hours before he remembered to clean the blood off of his cheek.