At dawn, as I walked out of my bedchamber, met Alpha and Steer, followed them down the dimly lit corridors leading out into the sun soaked facility, and ate a bit of horsemeat, I felt as one undead. Even though I had experienced bliss at its highest but a few short hours before, I felt drained, fatigued, and uneasy.
What struck me the most was that I felt such a thickness in the air; the very same thickness of evil and doubt that I had felt around Snapper and the wretched plants.
I literally only ate a bit of horsemeat, for my stomach felt so small and queasy. Steer noticed this before Alpha did, which surprised me, as Alpha was usually so perceptive and attentive. They kept telling me to eat more of it to restore my strength. I knew that they were correct, but my appetite had completely vanished. Alpha’s pale face became grave and he stopped eating his horsemeat. Steer also abruptly stopped eating his hay.
“Very well, friend,” began Alpha. “If you cannot eat, then neither shall I.”
“Nor I,” said Steer, spitting out his hay and brushing the rest of it into the morning breeze with his hoof.
“No, no, no,” I said, feeling very guilty for inadvertently causing my friends to cease with their breakfast. It did however gladden my heart for a moment, for it was one more instance of how much the best of friends will sacrifice for one another. “I’m not the only one who needs strength.”
Alpha smiled. “Well then,” he continued, “I believe Steer and I both know what we are to do. We knew this would happen, for last night I had to perform some horrible black magic, with Steer knowing that I was doing it. That is what is causing this dreadful thickening of the air, as well as your sudden loss of appetite and strength.”
“Black magic?!?” I exclaimed, deeply shocked and disturbed. “Isn’t that evil? Demonic even?”
“Most of the time,” chuckled Alpha. “But I didn’t commit any sin or evil. I did indeed bring something evil into our midst, but it is for your own good as well as for the good of Happiness. Its sort of like fighting fire with fire….”
“What evil thing is in our midst?” I inquired.
“That isn’t your concern currently, Warrior. Your only concern right now should be recovering your lost strength. Especially to aid you against the result of my deed. You shall see. But forget about it for now. So, back to what I was saying; about how Steer and I are both thinking the same thing right now and have made a pact together inside of our minds. Tell him, my bovine brother.”
“Well,” began Steer with a look of pride and determination upon his furry face. “For every day that you do not eat, Youngling, Alpha and I shall abstain from eating for two days. Oh come now, Youngling, cease with your shouting and protesting – “ for my face was contorted in anger at his words and my lips were yelling in an angry protest – “It’s only fair, you know.”
I actually began to laugh. “How is that fair,” I shouted. “Just because I can’t eat does not mean that you two shouldn’t. That’s ridiculous! You’re just using my guilt against me, and all because I am simply not hungry this morning.”
“You’re lying,” Alpha shouted suddenly, with just a hint of anger. “I know what is happening to you because of the thing I have done. Your stomach is shriveling, your throat is closing, your breathing is labored, and you have lost a few pounds of muscle already within a mere span of hours. You have also lost all the color in your face. You look like you are wearing my face paint. I’m sorry that I have done this to you, Warrior, but I assure you that it is absolutely imperative for the final stage of your training. I don’t blame you if you doubt me or are even angry with me right now, but….do you trust me?”
His words on the night of my ceremony echoed within my mind. Doubt is an illusion. Yes! Of course! Of course I could trust my companion and guide. He had never let me down before. With my anger and doubt now fading away swiftly, I already began to feel some of my strength returning to me. But only a bit. The air still felt dreadfully thick.
“No, Warrior,” said the mind reader. “Not enough strength yet. That is why you must force yourself to eat.”
Steer nudged the plate towards me with his muzzle.
“Before I try,” I started, “Please just tell me why whatever you did is draining away my strength.”
“I told you,” Alpha replied. “You shall see.”
I moved the plate away from me.
“Then I shall not eat.”
Steer kicked my shoulder with one of his hooves, causing me to groan in pain and surprise.
“What on earth was that for, Steer?”
“Oh calm yourself, Youngling,” said Steer with a chuckle. “I have kicked you much harder in the past than that. That was only a nudge. Now, listen here. If you refuse to eat, then Alpha and I shall make our fast three days for your every one.”
I could only sit there in silence. There really wasn’t any point in arguing. My friends were absolutely adamant about this.
“Alright,” I finally conceded, “I shall eat for the sake of the both of you.”
“That’s more like it Young-“
“On one condition,” I said, interrupting Steer. “You must promise me to never address me as Youngling from this moment forth.” Alpha laughed heartily and Steer looked as if he was startled.
“But,” he began with a faltering tone, “I am far older than you are. Centuries old-“
“Yes Steer, I know. You have told me this before. But I am not a child. I have proven myself by fighting Vengeance, Snapper, and the plants. I even overcame them. I have grown very strong…powerful even….”
“Careful, Warrior,” warned Alpha. “You are on the verge of prideful thoughts.”
“I know, Alpha, I know. I’m just happy with myself. I’ve done things that I never would have dreamed were possible a few days ago. So, what’s it gonna be Steer? Do you promise to stop calling me Youngling?”
With a mournful sigh, he agreed. “Yes, I promise. Even though I know you enjoy it. Now eat Young – I mean Warrior.”
I consumed all of the meat on the plate faster than I had ever done before. But, upon swallowing, I felt piercing stabs of pain within my abdomen and chest. It felt as if I was going to choke to death. Leaning forward, then collapsing to my knees, I regurgitated all of the food onto the ground. I was stunned. How long would this bulimia and feeling of emptiness last?
“Hopefully,” began the mind reader, “It will stop today.”
He possessed a strange look upon his face; one that I hadn’t yet seen before. It appeared as if he was in an angry sort of trance. I also noticed his hand reach for the sword clipped to his belt.
In a flash, the warrior of all warriors unsheathed his sword and sliced open my vulnerable face. I could feel the blood oozing down my cheek as I stood up in a confused panic.
“What the hell are you doing,” I screamed. For an answer, he lashed his sword wildly at my legs, but I blocked it with my own blade. “Alpha! What is this? We are brothers!”
His only words within the next few minutes were “Put on your helmet!”
Our swords continued to clash, and after a few strikes he successfully sliced open my other cheek. I put on my helmet then. No sooner had I done so that he once again went for my head, but this time more forcefully. His continual hacking at my helmet was sending out showers of sparks that resembled fierce fireworks. Though the helmet was my protection, it was a living part of me and could still feel pain, and this hurt much worse than the slices inflicted on my man-skin. Then, our swords clashed against each other once again, and we spent the better part of a minute pushing at each other and staring each other down.
“Steer!” I cried fretfully as Alpha continued his attack. “Stop him! Please!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could perceive Steer standing there motionless. He remained silent, without the slightest hint of expression of any kind on his face.
The duel went on for a few more minutes, which seemed like an eternity to me. Not only was I feeling pain from the gashes that Alpha was continually inflicting onto my living armor, but I was also feeling every single possible negative emotion. This was the worst pain by far. Feeling confusion from my brother attacking me, sadness from the draining of hope, and fear from the wicked strikes and burning eyes of Alpha, my adrenaline suddenly kicked into overdrive, which caused me to quickly forget the air’s thickness and my body’s weakness.
As I leapt over Alpha to avoid his blade, he finally spoke again. “Why will you not strike me, Warrior? You have had plenty of chances. Retaliate! Quit running and leaping!”
I was utterly dumbfounded. Had something sinister happened to my companion? Was it the work of Omega? Would Steer turn against me as well? Or could this all have to do with the black magic that Alpha spoke of? These questions dominated my mind as I kept trying to avoid his blade and his eyes. I was actually more afraid of his stare than his sword.
“Fight back,” he shouted. “You are supposed to save Happiness. Or…perhaps Snapper was right about you after all.”
Anger bubbled out from the deepest, darkest depths of my heart. I slashed at his stomach, which he quickly avoided just enough for my blade to only lightly slice his belly. He smiled. Then, quickly flipping his sword so that he held it by the blade, he gave my face a swift bludgeon with the sword’s hilt. I staggered briefly then fell on my back.
“Excellent work, Warrior,” said Alpha as he leaned over my face. “That must have greatly confused you. I am sorry, but it was the best possible way to train you. You must be ready to do more than just defend yourself. You must learn to kill anyone if the need arises…..” He glanced to the side, apparently in deep thought. “Even me. I am sorry, friend. Your cuts will heal. Some may remain as scars until you rescue your beloved, perhaps even afterwards. But look at me. I have thousands of scars. To me, they are marks of accomplishment. Every warrior receives them in battle as well as in training. But I am mostly sorry – even deeply remorseful – for what I said about Snapper being right. I did not mean it. Not one little bit. I only wished to provoke you so that you would fight back.”
He backed away as Steer helped me up with his muzzle. I could not bring myself to forgive Alpha. His methods of training were cruel and harsh. In my opinion, he was moving much too quickly. I even wanted to stab him, but was unable to do so, only because now that the fight was over my strength was draining away once again. I could hardly stand.
It was at that very moment that it dawned on me. Alpha was right. On this day, I was weary and weak. But only if I remained stagnant, doing nothing. If I was fighting, my strength returned due to adrenaline, and also due to something unexplainable that I believe must have been a sort of magic. The black magic?
“I understand, Alpha,” I sighed, trying to breathe deeply, which was nearly impossible as I felt like I was suffocating. “You…you are only trying to help me…I forgive you. But please, just please let me rest.”
“I’m sorry, dear friend,” he replied gravely. “But you know I can’t let you do that. If you rest, you will lose your strength altogether. You must stay in motion. You must fight and become stronger so that you can eat and recover even more strength. Though you do not feel ready, I am afraid I must now show you the black magic.”
I staggered from sheer exhaustion. I would have fallen on my face and remained there had not Steer been there to catch me with his back.
“Hang on to me, brother,” said the noble bovine. “Let’s go. You are doing wonderfully.”
He helped me to walk in the direction that Alpha was walking. We followed him through the courtyard. I did not know where we were going, for I had to fight to keep my eyes open. After a while, as Alpha faded into a blur ahead of me, they remained closed for a good while. But upon opening them, I simply could not believe what was happening.
Before me were the accursed walls of death that had served as the battlefield for my duel with Snapper. I felt the sorcery immediately, and I also felt that it somehow had to do with the Omega inscriptions etched into the stones. Every letter was glowing with a bright blue hue that reminded me of the eyes of both Happiness and Snapper. Two of the bright lights were moving towards me. I could hear what sounded like chains being dragged about the ground.
“What’s going on – “ I stopped speaking abruptly. Everything became clear to me. The letters moving towards me actually were eyes. Beneath them were fangs that reeked of decay, a leathery body that smelled even worse, two fearsome clawed hands that each gripped a sword, and, in between them, a metallic cylinder that swiveled in a circular motion. Snapper was alive once again, and more evil and dangerous than ever.
“Go find your shield,” whispered Alpha. “And when you have defeated him, pull the chains out of his shell.”
I found that I could not move. It was more than just fear. My strength had been almost completely extinguished. Steer moved away from me so that I couldn’t hold onto him any longer. As I fell down, he pushed me into the deathmaze.
The undead turtle charged. I blocked a strike from his right hand sword, then jumped over the left one as it sliced towards my legs. My strength was returning ever so slightly, but not enough for me to leap very high, which is what I was longing for. After seeing Alpha defeat him, I knew that the place I needed to be to deliver the killing strike was atop his wretched shoulders. For now, however, I was confined to the earth.
Our three blades were all glowing red hot from the action. Sparks flew from his carapace and from my armor. What surprised me was that he wasn’t roaring, snarling, or making any sort of vocalization at all. His mouth hung open as if his decayed jaws were paralyzed. He looked like a lumbering, mindless monster; but he still moved very quickly and possessed an even worse light of evil in his eyes than he possessed when he was alive.
I rolled behind a wall and waited. As his heavy footsteps drew closer, I rolled silently to the next wall. Peering out from behind it, I saw his cannon begin to glow. The wall that he thought I was hiding behind, as well as the next three following it, exploded into a fiery blaze of rock like a line of dominoes rigged with dynamite.
I went around a few more walls and then crept up behind him. Suspense and adrenaline were enabling me to feel even more power surging into me. When I felt that I had the amount that I needed, I made my move and leapt to his shoulders.
I realized then two things. One was that with his two swords blocking my every strike, I couldn’t stab him like I needed to. I tried for the back of his neck, but every time I did so he either reached back and blocked my strike or threatened my existence by slashing his other blade at me. I needed my shield.
The second thing I realized was that my very shield was leaning against a wall not twenty paces away from us. As I was about to leap from his shoulders to retrieve my protection, the demon leaned backwards and fell to the ground. He was crushing me with his immense dead weight. Literally, dead weight. My sword was smashed to the earth along with my body, so I was unable to even fight back. I cursed myself for letting this happen. I did not expect such cleverness from a zombie. With my strength draining once more, as well as my oxygen supply, I began to succumb to the thoughts of hopeless defeat.
But then I remembered Happiness. With more strength than I believe I have ever or will ever possess, I heaved the foul ton of slobbering decay off of my body. As I sprung to my feet, my eyes met his wicked glare as he turned around to face me. His cylinder began to rumble and spark. I had no time for the shield. The moment I perceived the fire erupting from his chest, I grabbed the cylinder and pushed it upward with all my might so far that it went into the Kappa himself. The explosion of ember, metal, and rotting flesh sent me reeling backwards. I had killed Snapper for the second time – or so I had thought.
Half of his charred corpse remained, and it began to walk. The legs, the left arm with a sword, and the cannon itself were all still intact. But this remnant possessed no eyes to locate me, so it walked blindly away from me. I began to laugh at what the demon turtle was reduced to, but my laugh soon disappeared and was replaced with panic as I watched the monster walk slowly in circles and fire his cannon in every direction. Even with lacking the ability to aim, the swiveling cylinder fired many shots that narrowly missed me.
Remembering what I had to do, I raced towards him as his back was turned and pulled the chain that was dragging behind him. The blind force of destruction crumbled into ashes. By that time, not a single wall remained in the battlefield. Only smoke and ash. It looked like a barren wasteland, and I was alone.
Then, to my inexpressible delight, Steer trotted towards me out of the smoke.
“Once again, my friend,” he exclaimed with pride, “You have done well. This just keeps getting better and better!”
But the tone of my friend’s voice did no match the expression upon his face. He looked weary and confused.
“What’s wrong, Steer? Where is Alpha?”
Steer exhaled a deep sigh.
“He is gone, my friend. He shall meet with you later on. Now, we shall finally begin the journey.”
He walked towards the jungle. I followed him, questions spiraling within my head.

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