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The Meanderer

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|i. Fledging|

"A long, long time ago, there was a little girl that wanted nothing more than to see the world and all the wonders it held.

Since her birth, she had been a bird of clipped wings. The fact did not dither her, though, and only made her yearning grow. To her, the world was a mystery. One that she wished to discover for herself. Despite her clipped wings, her heart soared with wonder, one she wanted to satiate.

One day, after years and years of dreaming, the outside world came to her. From the dark abodes of her keep, she rose and the first thing she saw that would forever be ingrained in her mind would be...that sky.

One so beryl, so vast, so new.

From that day and until her last day, the girl would come to love that empyrean blue and that which it granted her: deliverance itself.

And, oh that sky…"

{i}—

Ragged breath escaped her tired lungs. Her throat parched screamed for relief but she gave it none, too at awe with the scent and feel of the outside. Unable to stop herself, the young girl left the treasure she earned behind and ran up to the edge of the trenching hole.

A trench. Nothing but deepened earth. That's all it was. Just one more obstacle. And what was one more after the hell she lived.

"Slow down, kid."

Despite the chastising, she didn't listen. Her feet beaten from years of walking bare on hardened dirt didn't hurt anymore. Even the dryness of her throat and mouth didn't bother her at all as she climbed over the trench. But being outside the hole wasn't enough. She wanted to see more. So much more. Her eyes quickly scanned the area before landing on the range of small hills that turned into a huge mountain. Surely those would be enough to let her see it all.

Ignoring the weight on her back—a burden forever attached—she dragged herself out to the hills and began climbing. Her strong hands and calloused feet bled from the stone's edge as climbed a mountainside that became steeper and steeper. But she didn't care.

She wanted to see it.

Her yearning brought her to the top of the small mountain soon enough and once there, she ran without a care to the edge where the whole view was hers for the taking.

"You're here now, Noé, so please, be careful. You've climbed much too high."

"It's okay!" Noé whispered passively as she stood on the edge of that cliff. Her hands came up to the necklace that rested at her bosom, a silver arrowhead on a black leather strap, and smiled as her fingers caressed it. "Look, Chief! It's—It's—"

"The sky!"

It was the bluest sky she'd ever seen. Nothing, not even the sky from before, compared to the blue sky that she saw now. Spotted with white, fluffy clouds, and with small creatures flying about in its far blue distance.

Noé lifted her arm and reached her hand skyward. Touch it. If only she could. Her heart soared making her chuckle giddily, her laughter as bubbly as the clouds above her were fluffy. She jumped wanting to reach further but the weight behind her dragged her to the ground again. Pouting, Noé jumped over and over but would just be dragged down again by its weight.

Come on, stupid. Come on! Reach! REACH!

"Noé, watch out!"

Having scrunched her eyes tightly with each jump, Noé hadn't seen how those hops brought her closer to the cliff's edge. Hearing Chief call out to her on that last jump made her open her eyes and see that no more floor was beneath her.

Crap!

Noé scrambled to reach the edge of the cliff she'd left behind but she was too slow. The edge slipped through her fingertips and she quickly began falling. The wind raced past her, whistling in her ears as she held tightly onto the arrowhead.

Chief! Chief Romali! Andromalius!

"I-I can't do anything! You can't equip!"

"Damnit! Activate! Activate you good-for-nothing thing!" Noé screamed at the top of her lungs.

But just as she yelled that into the high heavens, her face began burning with an intensity that she couldn't describe. Clutching at the right side of her face, Noé groaned at the pain but was more surprised to see the bright orange bubble form around her. Before she could even think it, she felt its pull and felt it bounce a second later as it hit against the ground. Like a bubble of glass, the orange sphere burst into tiny fragments before disappearing completely leaving her astounded on the ground.

"T-That was close," Noé stammered with a chuckle to hide her nervousness. One hand still clutching at her face and the other the arrowhead as she raised herself from the ground.

"Too close, kid! Don't do something so idiotic like that again, you hear!"

"Loud and clear." Noé snickered to herself as she felt the heat leave her face. What a save that'd been. Too bad it left her more parched than before. Smacking her lips and wetting them with her tongue proved useless too. "I need a drink."

"You need rest." Chief reminded her about her bleeding feet and hands. Right. She was hurt and bleeding. "I think I saw some smoke rising not far from here. Head there and pray they're not bad guys."

"Bad guys?" Noé repeated as she started off on her way, completely forgetting about the bunch of gold she left behind. Chief Romali scolded her then, shouting obscenities in her head and making her run back for some gold coins and gems before leaving. Well on her way now, Noé sneezed and wiped her face with her dirty forearm. "Say Chief, you think this place has bad people too?"

"Wouldn't doubt it. Take care of yourself and be sure to train with me when you get the chance. You can't rely on that cursed thing forever, you know? Are you even listening to me?!"

"Yes, yes," she repeated but carelessly skipped ahead all the while ignoring her aching feet. Surely, it'd stop hurting. Not her throat though; that never went away. Plus she was way too thirsty. She'd need to get to whomever was at that fire soon. "A'ight, then. Let's go, Chief! There's a huge world out there just waiting for me!"

And it won't slip away from me this time!

Noé lifted her head and watched the blue sky that oversaw her. Reaching her hand skyward, she squealed and jumped up before going off on a run towards the smoke that rose out into that same beautiful blue sky.

{i}—

"How I hate that sky."


|ii. Adult|

Slim fingers strummed a couple of tight strings along the hollow instrument and the soft notes played into a jolly tune. Not wanting to sing this time around, she opted to simply hum under her breath as she strummed the instrument, holding its neck, and tapping her foot as she sat at the edge of a concrete slab. The metal on her sandals clinked loudly to keep time with her music and both noises began to soon grab the attention of passersby as they quickly became onlookers.

Her emerald eyes gleaned the audience before her curiously. They were mostly parents whose children urged them to stop so they could hear the tune and dance to it. The children were clapping along and singing out off tune while the women smiled gleefully at the entertainment given, the soft but jovial tune enough to placate their tired minds from their busy day.

Grinning at the children's dancing and singing, the woman slowed her strumming down even more as the song ended. The children cried aws of disappointment but when their mothers or companions started to clap, they followed suit. The player stood and bowed slightly—their long drape, which she wore properly on her right arm but left loose on her left as the ends of it were tied into a knot, sweeping against the floor—a toothy grin coming from ear to ear as she strapped the instrument behind her back.

Some of them, those that appeared the freer and richer ones of this town or that were travelers with money, tossed a couple of copper coins at her feet. One even a silver. She picked them up and waved a hand over her head gratefully.

"Thanks a lot!" Her voice lilted with her words, the accent quite noticeable, but the onlookers didn't seem to mind and left before long, leaving her to pick up the coins they offered for the show. As she went along picking the ones that rolled away, a certain silver coin hid when a foot fell on top of it as she bent to pick it up.

"Watch where you're going. Damn whore." Before she even got the chance to step aside, the man who spoke shoved her and although she didn't have a problem gaining her footing again, it did peeve her greatly that he didn't even excuse himself.

She was about to chew him off when the clanking of metal chains brought to her attention the slave train that the man had behind him. They were all females, from women in their prime to young girls, and they were all connected by their collars and the shackles around their ankles. The man sneered at her before pulling the one end in his hand, forcefully dragging them behind him and berating the girls that cried.

The woman stood, the silver coin forgotten, as her eyes followed the slave train and trained on the man that had spat on her and continued to do so on the women he dragged around. Her grip hardened as her fingers curled into a fist over and over, but as she did so a voice reached to the back of her mind.

"Don't, Noé. Killing him won't help."

But he'll be dead, Chief. How does that not help?

"It won't free them. They'll just go to another owner. You can't right the wrong with another wrong, kid."

Noé rolled her eyes but accepted that Chief was right. Even if they were freed by her deeds—justly done or otherwise—they would just be recaptured by another slave trader and sold off again. They were in Qishan after all, a slave trading center . She regretted having to stop at the oasis but after having finished the water she'd rationed off after fighting off some desert hyacinth on the way there, she needed the brief rest and hydration.

Smacking her lips at the reminder, she went back and picked up her silver, tossing it in the air on her way to the only place she trusted to give her a humble stay. With those prospects filling her mind, she skipped her way to the red light district.

{ii}—

"I will never understand your tastes."

"It's not about understanding them. It's about enjoying!"

Noé gleefully took another swig of the cup of wine the girls around her kept serving her. Their company was something she always welcomed and because she was used to the odd looks shop owners usually gave her, it never bothered her. The girls weren't judgemental. Most of the time, they appreciated her more than the male customers since all she was there for was the endless complimentary wine and water they offered with the time bought.

The gorgeous company was just an added bonus.

"More wine, miss?" a pretty brunette cheerfully asked, holding up a jug.

Noé nodded but then quickly shook it, thinking better of it. "Water, darling, please. My head's coming loose already as it is. I'd like to be able to walk out of here without help."

Another girl, a blonde this time that sat beside her, chuckled and reached over to the food before their table for her. "But miss, you've barely had four glasses. Surely another wouldn't harm someone like you."

"Believe me, it will." She chortled at that and drank the last of it. Her eyes scanned over the rim of her glass and she choked a bit as she quickly drank what was in her mouth before motioning to the brunette who brought her the single jug of water back. "Oh, darling, I'm gonna need much more than one. Spare your beautiful legs and our time some, and get help to bring more."

"How many more, miss?"

She didn't skip a beat. "Let's start with seven."

The girl's stopped for a minute but Noé ignored them and simply served herself while they took that in. After experiencing that same reaction from so many others, she learned to let it go like a lot of other things people found strange about her.

"I thought you weren't going to waste time this time around."

Chief's nagging voice didn't dampen her mood, or at least she didn't let it as she downed her cup in one swig.

Let me rest. We just crossed the damn sea and desert to get here.

"Which would make me think you'd be more eager about entering it after six months without another in sight."

Chief was actually not wrong there. After the six months it took to travel from Reim to Qishan, there had only been one dungeon to come across and it was her original target. Not one of those damn structures came to exist from there to here which did succeed in dampening her spirits. But she shook it off faster than it got to her.

No biggie. We still got to Qishan and no one has conquered the old man. We just need to find some go-getter and get them through it to talk to him. All's well that ends well.

"That's the thing, kid. This isn't over yet. Not by a long shot."

Noé knew that more than anybody. Heaving a heavy sigh that she hated having let out, she took one of the jugs and instead of filling her cup she took the one swig from the container itself, emptying it in a couple of minutes. Full for now, she asked one of the girls beside her to pass her her small, handmade lute.

"Oh miss, you play?" One of them asked as Noé jesterly plucked at the strings, tuning as she went.

"That I do." Once done she lifted her gaze to look at all of the eight girls around her—that's more than she remembered asking for. "You girls want to hear a song?"

All of them clapped and cheerfully agreed and she happily obliged to their wishes as she began to pluck a ballad. Her humming went along with it as her lean fingers plucked each note, the music telling of the longing a lover falling for a woman he knew he would never have. The pain and anguish he knew of each and everyday of his life as he desperately wanted the most beautiful woman in the world to know of his love for her. Of how he would give anything and everything to have her in his arms. The girls clung to each other as she played, swooning over the gentle, lovesick song.

But over the sound of her own playing, Noé heard some interesting words. "Hey, they have djinn metal vessels in dungeons, right?"

Oh? Could her job actually be that easy?

"Y-Yeah." There was a lag in her hearing as she realized herself missing a note in the song which she rapidly corrected before the girls noticed. By the time she managed to play by heart in order to catch the conversation from before, she only caught the tail end of it. "So that means that you're coming with me, right?"

"Yes!"

Bingo. Found my way out.

Now she could truly relax. Strumming her song to an end, she rapped at the strings which caught the girls by surprise and made them look up to her. Ah, there's twelve now. "Let's play something more danceable, yeah?"

The hostesses' all cooed their agreements and that lifted Noé's spirits even higher as she began a much gaudier song that certainly brought attention to her small harem. Despite that, though, she enjoyed watching the girls having fun as they danced for her and with each other. Letting herself play out of memory, Noé wondered what news she would get this time from this dungeon.

"Hopefully some good news. That and some directions."

To what?

"To where the sane part of your brain went. I'd like to know that very much."

Noé couldn't keep the chortle that escaped her. "You're too much, chief!" How she loved her sense of humor.

{ii}—

There wasn't a lot much to do in Qishan. That's something she noticed quickly after a couple of days of waiting in front of the dungeon's staircase. She visited the shops and replenished her supplies while entertaining with her lute for money to pass time but aside from that, there wasn't really anything to do. Qishan truly was only an oasis city meant to be a respite from the desert. A brief respite. Well, at least for her, it'd be a big gain.

Or so she was hoping for. Tinkering with the silver arrowhead that laid on her bosom, Noé patiently waited at the sidelines for those intrepid divers she overheard in the shop the other day. Something told her they had most likely chickened out and fled after two days—namely, Chief—but her gut told her to wait a little longer. Besides, if time were gold, Noé would have enough to buy the world a thousand times over.

"Even your time shouldn't be waste, Noé."

Laying back against the pillar, she huffed as she placed her arms over her eyes to get some shut eye. "Time isn't wasted when the outcome is worthwhile, Chief. Trust me. If it irks you so, think of it as an investment."

Chief repeated the last word begrudgingly making her chuckle lowly. It was as she laid down that she heard fast treading feet coming towards the dungeon and voices that made her grin at recognizing them briefly.

"I don't see those police guys anymore!"

"Hey look! I see the dungeon entrance straight ahead!"

Oh-ho, look who was right after all.

Chief scoffed in the back of her mind. "That makes it what, 137 times out 356?"

139 but who's counting.

Bickering behind them, Noé waited to hear the two travellers go in first before she bothered getting up. She stretched to relax her stiff muscles after the couple of hours idle before she started for the entrance but stopped herself when she caught sight of the group that was heading straight for the dungeon entrance. It was a large group of people. Out of the bunch, one man stood out in particular, and although he didn't give off any good vibes to her, she let him and his entourage go by. Many of the other people that saw him stared bewildered as the man and the rest entered without a qualm. Whispers picked up immediately after they disappeared.

"Was that—"

"It was."

"But why would Lord Jamil go dungeon diving?"

Jamil? The name didn't ring any bells. Noé shrugged her shoulders; surely no one important, she thought, as she skipped the steps up to the entrance.

"Is that really okay, Noé? To have the master slave trader of Qishan pursue such a powerful object as a metal vessel."

So that's who he was. The name still didn't ring a bell. The title sure did though. The owner of Qishan and master slave trader in this tiny oasis, Noé had heard about him in passing conversations, mostly how known he was for being a monster to his slaves.

"It's no concern of ours who captures the dungeon, Chief," she reminded her, "all that matters is that we have a way out. But you're right, a master slave trader gaining that power would be problematic. But I'll deal with that bridge if and when I cross it."

Frankly, even if the man managed to somehow make it to the treasure room, Noé wouldn't allow such scum of the world to be master of a djinn or to obtain the power to become a king. Pieces of junk like those didn't deserve that privilege. So if it came down to it, she would just give the old geezer one less candidate to worry about.

The sigh that Chief gave dragged on. "I'll never understand why you don't just conquer them."

That was easy.

No one should have that much power.

"Besides—" she exclaimed with pleasure as she gave the entrance her back, "—I have you, Chief! And I never want any other djinn but you." And like that, she let herself fall back in through the dungeon entrance.

{ii}—

Darken caves of red dirt. Glowing flora and morphing insects. Yeah, this definitely rung a bell. Noé looked over the walls as she strolled through the inside of the dungeon. Said walls were carved with markings, human and otherwise, and by the time she reached the first maze and obstacle, she could tell that many had already attempted to conquer it.

"It's been ten years since it rose. It's not really surprising."

"I suppose," she replied. Right way, right way. Her eyes scanned the huge dome-like space that rose above her, even letting some light in from the thin crust that cracked on the ceiling of the cave which bent and glistened around her. Noé stood briefly to let the rays touch her skin but grimaced at realizing that it wasn't real sunlight. It was just firelight. It always bothered her that dark places, especially dungeons, limited her powers so much.

Wanting to get out as soon as possible, Noé picked a tunnel at random and headed into it. Chief immediately spoke against it. "It could be dangerous."

"What danger am I in when I can use you?" she inquired. That quieted her djinn's protests and let her freely walk into her tunnel of choice.

But by the end of it, she noted that it had been the wrong one as molten insects met her at the dead end she'd stumbled upon.

"Idiot."

Noé didn't listen though and remained still as the insects snapped their jaws at her. She stood still and measured the creatures for a bit, watching as they decided to join together into an even larger amalgamate. But even then she didn't see a need to act and remained still. It wasn't until they were inches away from her face that the creature halted, molten bits falling off its face as it stilled. A multitude of whimpers were heard as the amalgamate ruptured into the tiniest insects that quickly scurried to hide in their homes.

Chief huffed but Noé simply held her smile as she spun on her heels and walked back out, intent on taking a different tunnel.

"They're our natural prey. Backing off in the presence of a predator is normal."

Which is exactly why she wasn't worried and why she knew traversing through the old man's dungeon would be a breeze for her. But after the fourth wrong try, Chief suggested to actually think to solve the puzzle of the maze instead of guessing if she wanted to reach the treasure room in time. Agreeing, it took her a few minutes to finally find the one tunnel that wasn't marked and unexplored.

The trek after that took longer and when she finally exited to caves, the dragon's jaws waited for her on the other extreme. The stone plaque read a cryptic message that she didn't bother fully reading and instead picked up the heftiest rock she found to carry along as she stepped into the jaws and began counting under her breath each step she took from there onward.

"You know you can die too, right?"

Her overly serious tone made Noé chuckled. "...46...Of course, I do. But I don't need to read the riddle when I know the answer. ...57..." Once she got to 79 steps, she stopped and tossed the rock further into the tunnel. The pressure of it made pillars of fire shoot from the ground and sides. Surely whoever stepped unawares would have ended charred. Thankfully, she knew better. She waited for the pillars to stop and only then ran to one of the tunnels and slid inside before the trapdoor closed. Instantly, she hugged the wall and waited to see the one open at the bottom before she lunged at it to dodge the spikes that would've skewered her. Rolling to a stop, she posed with her arms over her head and grinned, "Ten outta ten!"

"Not even close."

"What are you talking about?!" she cried indignantly.

"Take a look at your drape."

Noé blinked and took the tied off end of her drape, gasping at seeing a tear at the end of the knot. "H-How…?"

"You lunged a little too late."

Damn. Well, she guessed she could always improve and also get the drape mended later. For now, she managed to get into the tunnels and that'd been her goal. Going through the entrails of the dragon after it's jaws should be a piece of cake. What sucked, though, was having to go at it in a crawl. Sometimes, she hated being a couple inches short of six feet. She went through it though, and crawled through until she reached the end of the maze and the dragon's tail. On the open space, Noé was surprised to find the door to the necropolis open already.

She whistled impressed. "They're fast."

"Hurry. If they're inside already, then they're not far from the treasure room."

There was that. Quickening her step to a jog, Noé entered and went about running from rooftop to rooftop towards the grand tower that was in the middle of the city. Instinctively, she stopped for a second to let her eyes wander and she saddened at seeing the city as it was. Downcast, desolate, lifeless. What a pity.

"Focus, Noé."

"Right," she muttered. Swiftly and within minutes, she reached the treasure room but apparently had taken her sweet time for too long. Fighting had broken out between two different factions, it seemed. From what she could see there were only five people there aside from her. Two fought nearest to the entrance and were the blond kid she'd followed from the shop and the lord of Qishan. The latter frantically swung his sword while the young boy remained collected and fought with good swordsmanship. The other fight she saw in the distance was what bothered her.

It was the other young boy, the one that accompanied the blond, and he was fighting against a red haired girl. And by the smell of it, it wasn't just any girl.

"Morgiana!" The massive distance she managed to cover with the one jump when her name was called only proved it to her: the kid was a Fanalis. And the blond could only take getting slammed against a pillar before it came to be too much.

Jamil boasted the pain the young Fanalis caused him before torturing the boy. Then he ordered her to kill him. With that, Noé had heard enough.

"I know you dislike it but keep your composure. You're powers are limited here."

"I'll keep it brief." In an instant, she flashed from her place and appeared before the blond to keep Jamil and the Fanalis Morgiana at bay. Needing sincerity in her smile, Noé focused on Morgiana as she spoke. "I'd appreciate it if there wasn't any more bloodshed, my dear."

But that smile fell when Jamil was the one that spoke instead. "W-Who are you!? You wench, how did you get here?"

"You don't have to listen to him, Morgiana," she softly spoke. Although she knew this was a longshot and that it wouldn't be easy, she had to try to calm her and make her see herself as free. "As ingrained as obeying may be in you, you must fight it."

"Shut up, bitch! Morgiana, kill him!"

The girl took another step forward.

Noé got her grin back as she now stood only a few feet in front of the young Fanalis. "It's a shame, Morgiana. If you're willingly following orders from the piece of junk that's stealing our air then I pity you. Especially when I can still see pride deep-seated in those eyes of yours. The eyes of a Fanalis." For an instant, she saw those piercing ruby eyes widen. "And such a proud people you are."

"Kill her, Morgiana!"

Noé saw the dim light in those red eyes die an instant before she saw her kick aimed at her. Barely having enough time to react, she managed to create a strong enough crystal shield to last the hit but it didn't ameliorate the full brunt of it as it actually drove her to the side quite a distance. The light particles she'd forced to join into solid crystals shattered into nothing, disappearing back into light and draining a whole lot of her magoi.

Damn, how she hated fighting in dimly lit places. And as distracted as she was from that drainage of magoi, Noé failed to notice Morgiana raising her sword ready to impale the blond. Before she got to though, something disintegrated the blade of the sword completely. Noé followed where she could barely see the reflection of the rukh's wings against the dim light to a boy, the other boy. One with plaited blue hair and large blue eyes.

Noé stood back as the little boy walked past her and to the blond. Following after him, she watched as the other—Alibaba—looked up as the blue-haired boy asked him if he was okay. He was beaten and cut but he would live thankfully. Rising from his place with Alibaba, the young boy glanced up at Noé.

"Thank you for trying to stop them, onee-san."

Before she could answer, he turned to Jamil and stretched out his open hand. "Give me back my flute." But he refused, playing the idiot and simpleton that he really was. The boy insisted. "My flute, give it back to me."

It was when he refused a second time, claiming that he'd have to take it by force, that the boy obliged. He raised his staff and out of the blue, Noé felt a disturbance in her surroundings. Ridiculous amounts of rukh—amounts she'd only seen a handful able to manipulate—gathered at the tip of the stone cane the boy raised above his head. Shock marred her face as the boy's attack got deviated by Morgiana's kick, making the wall that got targeted explode instead.

What the hell is this kid?

But she knew the answer before she even thought it. The fact that she could so clearly see the rukh as it flew erratically in a whirlwind around him was answer enough. No other being could control the rukh of the world like that.

"...he's a magi."

But her thoughts halted all at once when she saw the expression on his face change drastically and become one deeply sated with disdain directed at the little lord of Qishan. It was the mere look, so reminiscent of another, that made her actually fear for her life after such a long time.

And even though Jamil said he understood what a magi was, his stupid boasting of Morgiana as his Fanalis slave as he ordered the boy to submit to him only showed how little he really understood. Noé knew that not even a Fanalis was a match against a magi. And she was proven right when Morgiana lunged at him only to be swept away by a ball of magoi that glued her to the high ends of a pillar.

The sheer amount of control he had was astounding, but the fact that he was only shooting off magoi told her a little about the boy. A magi he may be but he wasn't knowledgeable in actual magic. At least he wasn't showing any if he knew it. Soon enough, he got the flute he'd been asking for and at last devastated Jamil in his hopes of becoming a king.

Good. All the damn weeds that dirty this garden are nothing but pieces of junk that don't deserve to exist. As a matter of fact, let me do the honors.

"Not in front of the magi, Noé."

For once, she listened to Chief and instead took a few steps back to give the couple of friends some privacy. As he helped Alibaba up, Noé overheard him call the boy Aladdin which rang a rather ingrained bell in her mind. One she had no way of verifying. Not wanting to be over enthused about it, she approached them and reached out a hand. The two stopped before her and she gave them a smile.

"I just want to help. He must be heavy for you to carry alone."

Alibaba was the first to ask, "W-Who are you?"

"My name is Noé." Without waiting for their answer, she took Alibaba's other arm and flung it over her shoulders to help carry his weight. Tall as she was, she had to bend a bit to accommodate. "I didn't come with that brat, so don't worry. I don't intend to harm you."

"I know," Aladdin agreed with a soft smile before turning to Alibaba. "Noé onee-san protected you from the other miss until I woke up." He rubbed at the back of his head instinctively, "That hurt."

"You're lucky to be alive after that kick," Noé told him as she adjusted Alibaba. "But nevermind that, I believe you came here to look for something." When Alibaba gave her a look that screamed of his fear of the treasure being stolen away, she laughed. "And don't worry, I want nothing out of this. Only to talk to someone."

"Talk to someone?" Aladdin repeating those words made his flute begin to glow and when he blew on it, a ray of light shot straight to a pot. She helped them get to it and when Aladdin touched it, the magic stored in it burst out into a pillar of fire as the djinn in the metal vessel showed itself.

"Who is it… Who wants to be king?" The djinn was way too big for the cave itself and shrunk once it saw its candidates. Once smaller, it noticed Aladdin and bowed respectfully before him. By the looks of it, the kid didn't know how important his existence was. Out of the blue, Aladdin's flute shook and from it sprung a blue djinn, one that although she couldn't see the face of, she knew exactly who it was.

How?

But she soon thought the question useless. If he left the Sacred Palace behind to accompany the boy then Noé's suspicions were more than verified. Mentally exhausted from that hit, Noé laughed and fell to a sit on the floor with her legs crossed.

She muttered to herself as she ran her fingers through her hair. "...unbelievable…"

"Onee-san?" She waved a hand dismissively at Aladdin's call so he wouldn't bother with her. There wasn't anything wrong, she just short circuited for a bit there. She regained what mind she'd lost for that brief moment and stood back up as both djinn turned to face them. Out of nowhere, he began to shy away not out of embarrassment, she was sure, but out of remorse when he noticed her there. "Ugo-kun?"

"There's no need to feel ashamed. I'm not mad," she assured him and stood back up from her seat. "I never was." This seemed to calm him down, his body relaxing a moment before he reached out one finger to ruffle her head. The action shocked her and it made her chuckle childishly once she regained her composure.

As he lifted his finger away, the old geezer Amon spoke to her as he stroke his beard. "Lord Ugo says that he's glad you have enjoyed your time in the world."

"I am too."

"And he must ask, what have you come here to do?"

For the first time, Noé gave her answer a long thought. There hadn't ever been a doubt in her, really, but she also didn't want to worry him with all that's happened ever since she came to be.

"Telling him wouldn't hurt."

True.

"I'm looking for my friends. They can help me get rid of the malice and darkness that's been spreading around the world and making so many suffer."

Ugo moved around in makeshift charades and Amon nodded his head as if understanding the djinn and translated to her. "He asks if that really is what you want their help for?" The blatant suggestion that she lied hurt her but she couldn't blame him. Being cautious was a very respectable trait to have.

"Don't tell him the truth."

Noé gave him a sincere grin and nodded. "Of course it is! It's our job to take care of this world after all."

Ugo doesn't respond or say anything to that. Noé didn't know whether he believed her or not but even if he didn't, she didn't care. Their conversation stopped there, apparently, as Amon introduced himself to them to tell them that they have cleared his dungeon. Noé knew what would come of it; he'd finally be able to choose a king and leave this place.

"Take the chance, Noé. You'll need more power to do what you wish to do."

I know. But she didn't want to depend on the powers of djinn. Powers she knew wouldn't help her when it came down to it. Only those aligned to her own could give her a stronger fighting chance. And Chief Andromalius was just that.

She watched over Alibaba who began to gather as much treasure as he could and chuckled. On the other hand, she only heard parts of what Amon explained to Aladdin about his role as a magi and pitied the boy. Magi or not, his existence was much more than that. Coming closer to Aladdin, Noé reached out and ruffled his head. "Thank you for letting me speak with Ugo, little princas."

His brow furrowed at the odd nickname but instead he asked about something else. "You know Ugo-kun, onee-san? How?"

She smiled warmly at him, knowing that that wasn't a tale for her to tell. "It's a secret. But I'll tell you this, little magi," she said lowering her voice as she crouched before him to be at his eye-level, "I'm someone you can always consider a friend. No matter what you choose to do, no matter the side you choose to fight for, I will be by your side and support you, princas."

"P-P-P." When he couldn't pronounce the word, he sighed and shook his head, a meek smile on his face. "My name's Aladdin." He stretched his hand out to her. "And I'd be glad to be your friend, Noé onee-san."

"Likewise, Aladdin," she added as she stood back up to take his handshake. "It'd be a real pleasure to be friends with you."

Out of the blue, the dungeon began to shake around them and that concerned her greatly. Amon's declaration only made that concern more tangible. Someone was trying to collapse the dungeon from the outside. Not wanting to stay, she helped Aladdin with his bag of gold and carried it to the pillar of light that Amon created. But when Amon asked the little Fanalis whether she wanted to stay or leave, Noé found herself looking back at the girl who stood literally stranded between her saving herself and following a dogma beaten into her.

Even when Aladdin and Alibaba cried out for her to leave him behind, she didn't listen and struggled to decide whether to save the piece of trash that had owned her. Thankfully, the other slave that Jamil had brought snapped her to her senses and freed her from the chains that held her down. But by then the pillar was starting to move already and even when the boys begged Amon to delay it for Morgiana, he couldn't.

Noé didn't hesitate and didn't even gauge her remaining magoi before flashing herself out of the pillar and to Morgiana. Grabbing her wrist, Noé ignored the sane part that told her that this would leave her magoi reservoir exhausted and transported the two of them inside the pillar once more just before it shot through the exit that Amon had created. The familiar pressure of the dungeon's portal fell on her and when she opened her eyes, she found herself alone in a single pillar of light that was heading back to their world.

Despite how exhausted she was, Noé held a satisfied grin on her lips as she laid on the floor of the portal, covering her eyes with her forearm. Silence reigned over the space around until Chief's voice reached her.

"I thought you decided to tell him the truth. Why did you lie?"

"I didn't," she replied. "I only omitted some of it. Besides, the overall objective doesn't change. I do want to rid the world of all the evil and darkness in it. And I do need them."

"Then why not tell him that you intend to use them to release Teosa?"

"Because…" She didn't bother finishing that statement. Andromalius knew very well why she didn't mention that to Ugo.

If she had...he would've been so sad. And she didn't want to be the one to cause that.

Wanting to talk about something else, Noé sat up and looked down to the city below as it became smaller and smaller the closer they got to returning to their world. "I'm thinking about following little princas."

"The magi? How come?"

"Duty, I guess. I mean, Master Teosa respected him a lot. And she loved her. Certainly making sure Aladdin travels safely would be something she'd want."

Chief remained quiet for a second before speaking up again. Her tone this time, though, was much more serious than before. "You are not tied to that world anymore. Look up, child." Doing as she was told, Noé looked skyward to where the portal was nearing the world more and more. "That's your new home. That's where you belong now."

"I know," she whispered and dropped her eyes to the vastness of nothingness that stood between both worlds. Letting go of all the seriousness of the moment, she stretched her arms above her head languidly and smiled. "It's decided then. I'll go with him."

Chief let out a heavy sigh in the back of her mind which she promptly ignored. Her djinn didn't bother with her anymore after that and simply let her travel back in peace. A bright light swallowed her whole and made her close her eyes as she was teleported back to the world. Once she felt the softness of grass underneath her legs, Noé opened her eyes but was perplexed as to why there were so much grass and woods in Qishan now. She grimaced at realizing what happened after being teleported back.

"It took us somewhere else."

Back to normal and no longer discontent with her, Chief sighed one last time before replying. "It must have. And by the looks of it, we're no longer near any deserts. What are you going to do now?"

"That's a good question!"

She stood up from her seat on the grass and stretched as she basked in the sunlight that hit her olive skin. Brushing the dust off the drape, she adjusted the right side so that it was still firmly on over herself but didn't bother with the left one, the sleeve hanging loosely around her elbow. She made sure the knot at the end was tightly secured along with the inside covered in feathers of crimson and gold that seemingly stuck to it. She adjusted the red obi around her waist and adjusted the bulk on her back that ran beneath her drape while she was at it. The white dress she wore hadn't dirtied in all the commotion, thankfully; she inspected it briefly and only stopped to settle the arrowhead over the exposed part of her chest left by the open design of the dress. Lastly, she checked on her sandals that ran up along her leg up to just below her knees, tapping them against the ground to get rid of the sand that happened to get caught.

Everything was in order. Reaching up, Noé took large handfuls of auburn hair in her hands and pulled the halves apart to tighten her high ponytail before letting the voluminous curls fall into place as they would. She fixed the thin gold diadem on her forehead before she fixed her eyes over the horizon, their color the same emerald as that of the nature that surrounded her.

"To which I have no answer whatsoever! So we might as well start walking."

"What happened to helping the magi?"

"Can't really do that when I don't know where he is, can I?" Chief didn't bother replying which made Noé chuckle. "I'll help him whenever we come across him again. And since he's searching for metal vessels and their djinn too then we're bound to meet him again eventually anyway. So there's not really anything to worry about."

"That we certainly will." Chief paused for a second. "So where to now?"

"To wherever the rukh may guide us." With that cheesy and philosophical spiel given, she snickered and started walking, letting her feet take her where they may.


|i|

Sharp yet childish emerald eyes stared owlishly at the grand structure that sunk into the seafloor from her boat, letting waterfalls emerge where even oceans once were. Albeit being only a few miles from the village she'd just left, the area was desolate and barren. Ever since word spread across the nearby countries about 'the ocean floor sinking,' speculations took hold of the logical and superstitions of the gullible.

Men of some parts said the floor moved and caused this. Some others claim that god himself parted the sea to allow this.

But Noé knew better. This was a dungeon. And if she found where its metal vessel laid, she would find the djinn that dwelled it in.

"Who do you think it is?" Her thoughts scattered everywhere as she rowed her tiny boat closer to the edge of the ocean that the dungeon had created. The sound of rushing water was deafening which made her shout the closer they got.

"That it rose in the ocean narrows it somewhat. Maybe Vinea, she's always been fond of the sea. Camio as well. The lunatic of Gaap did too but only for pranking others." Noé chuckled to herself at hearing Chief groan when saying that. "Those are the names that come off the top of my head. Far from exhaustive."

"I know," she said. Forgetting their conversation, she focused more on how her boat began to tilt forward as it began to pass the edge of the waterfall.

"You're not going to equip?"

"Where's the fun in that?" she screamed gleeful as the boat tipped vertically and fell down the waterfall. Gravity took over, the water sprinkling upward from the speed the air was coming at her, and the excitement got her to raise her hands over her head and cheer. Just as the bottom begin to come closer, Noé jumped out of the boat and into the water below, separating herself from it to avoid any accidents, as she took the dive.

Excitement bubbled anew in her chest after that thrill but her lungs asked for air soon enough and made her start her swim towards the surface. The makeshift shawl around her shoulders and neck though, made it quite the chore to swim quickly as the feathers added a lot of extra weight to her small adolescent body. After some struggle, Noé managed to break through the surface and took a big gulp of air as she continued to paddle hard to keep herself and that extra weight afloat.

Heavy.

"Feathers weigh when they're wet, you idiot."

Disregarding Chief's chastising, her eyes scanned the nearby area and quickly found a marbled shore to swim to. Slipping once or twice, she pulled herself out of the water and rolled over onto her back to let herself rest for a second.

"This is a...dungeon, you said?"

The stranger's voice that echoed through the ocean valley made her eyes snap wide open. Wary, she scurried away as fast as her tired legs let her to one of the tall columns keeping the edifice standing. The voice had belonged to a man's. A young man maybe some years younger than her.

"Mm!" This one was different. Still male but it was much younger; a small boy's. "Here is where you'll find the power to become king!"

How does he know that?

Footsteps resounded against marble for a few minutes as the two strangers continued to talk, a bright light shone from beyond her hiding spot, and silence came a moment later. Sensing it safe to step out, Noé made her makeshift shawl again before going out to view the whole of the dungeon's entrance. Not far was the door that glowed brilliantly.

Not wasting a second, she took a few steps back before taking a running start at the entrance. The light engulfed her and she covered her eyes only to open them once she fell against solid ground once more.

Water. There was water everywhere. The walls that made the cave were coral of many different colors that glimmered like jewels. All kinds of shells, even ones that the world outside didn't have, were strewn about on the floor and where much bigger than those she found in beaches or jetties in their world.

Coming closer to one that was just about half her size, Noé poked it curiously a couple of times before it started shaking. A colorful snail popped out of the opening, its large eyes scanning its surroundings until they saw her and startled. The snail panicked and began to haul itself away from her but the fact that it wasn't even moving despite its valiant effort made Noé pity the thing. Wanting to lend a hand, she mockingly pulled back her short sleeves and began pushing the shell as hard as she could. Soon it budged and with how slippery the floor where it'd been, it slid through the sleek ground easily and fell into the small pond that was only a few feet away. Dusting her hands off, she grinned accomplished. But when the room started to tremble, a very bad feeling went down her spine.

"Maybe I shouldn't have done that."Just as she said that, the water began to ripple and from it a monstrous slug emerged that lifted itself before halloring, sharpen teeth baring from its mouth-belly. From behind it, the snail she'd push inside hid with tears in its eyes and a bruise on one eye. Fresh.

"You think?" Chief called sarcastically.

Slowly, Noé took a few steps away from the two monsters and watched from the corner of her eyes as many of the other shells began to show their snails. She chuckled nervously as she retreated but froze as cracking came to her ears. Dread sunk into her. It wasn't until she lifted her foot that she saw a tiny broken shell and a snail just as small angrily screeching. Lifting her gaze, Noé froze at being suddenly confronted with the many snails there, big and small.

One last nervous chuckle escaped her before she booked it without looking back even as a loud roar resounded throughout the coral cavern.

"You idiot!" Chief reprimanded while Noé ran avoiding obstacles and other small dungeon creatures on her way. "These creatures are very protective of their young!"

"How the hell was I supposed to know that!?" she shouted as she ran. Suddenly, the floor steeped and one wrong step sent her sliding down. The slope didn't seem to end and it only added to her speed the more time she slid. But with the same suddenness as before, the slope ended and this time there was no floor to break her fall. Just a pit of nothing but ice spikes.

Instinctively, she kicked and grabbed at the air trying to get near the wall. At feeling the cool wall at her fingertips, Noé gave it another push, this time summoning Chief's powers. The light quickly gathered in her closed hand and solidified into a stake of light that pierced the wall. The stake went deep enough that it sunk into the wall until she stopped. Dangling from the one stake, her eyes briefly glanced down and the sight of the spikes so near made her heart sink.

"Look up, kid." Doing so, her eyes widened at seeing an opening far to the right some good distance away. "Can you flash to it?"

"N-No," she grunted adjusting her slipping grip. Without a clear visual of where she wanted to go, flashing now could very well land her at the spikes she was trying to avoid. Another idea quickly came to her. "Help me."

The warmth from the silver arrowhead told her that Chief was ready and with that she concentrated on creating the same stakes of light in her other hand and underneath the soles of her bare feet. Slamming one after the other, she plunged the stakes against the sleek wall and began to climb towards the opening. It would take awhile to climb the full distance to the edge of it and being this high up with the danger still below her unnerved her plenty. So as soon as her eyes caught sight of at least the inner wall of the opening, she used her powers and flashed. Disappearing in the blinking light, she reappeared with another blink against the wall and fell onto the floor, her feet dangling just off the edge. Scurrying away from it, Noé breathed heavily and grabbed at the right-side of her face from the burning sensation left behind.

"You alright?"

Noé nodded and gulped, trying and failing to make her parched throat any less dry. Dungeon diving was hard. Looking back into the tunnel, she crawled through it wanting to find an exit. The thing got smaller and smaller, finally making her crawl her way out on her stomach for the few meters of the tunnel. Once on the other side, she found herself surrounded by more colorful coral but this time it was menacingly shaped into tridents and lances and other weapons. A closer look told her that those were actual weapons and that the coral had actually grown using them as a base. Looking around and finding mounds of coral made goosebumps rise on her arms at the prospect of what those were.

Wanting to get out of that room, Noé continued to walk as she hugged her arms together. "Do you have any idea whose morbid idea of a graveyard this is?"

"I think I do."

"Whose is it?" Her tone turned frustrated when she began to notice that there was no exit whatsoever. The graveyard was just a damn circle with no way out. "Where the hell is the damn exit!" she bellowed at the top of her lungs. The sound echoed, her words coming back at her, and as they did her eyes glanced up and widened. Stalactites of coral had fallen from the far off ceiling and were quickly approaching her. Noé did her best to avoid them as they came but as she ran around and looked up, she saw a doorway way up against one wall. Her eyes followed the ruins of what she assumed was the stairway that led to it.

She cursed her luck. But a grin appeared on her lips nonetheless as an idea came to her while watching the stalactites falling.

Who needs luck when I'm a damn genius?

Sliding to a stop, she focused her sight on a falling stalactite a brief second before flashing to it. Searching for the next, she flashed upward, leaving trails of fading golden light, and continued her trajectory until she reached the door's height. One last flash took her to other side of the door and she rolled out of her flash, falling to a knee.

Her face burned like the fires of hell and she could feel her head spinning a bit from the sudden dehydration. Feeling her chapped lips and gulping down nothing but dryness in attempts to quell her thirst, she reached back to her gourd and greedily drank away. But after finishing the entirety of it, it still wasn't enough. The only thing that managed to clear was her dizziness; her throat was still dry and her lips just a tad bit less chapped.

But with the dizziness gone it was more than enough to continue. Chief assured her that the treasure room was nearby and that gave her more incentive to go on. After a little over an hour of traversing the dungeon, she finally found herself in front of the treasure room only to find it guarded by a giant crocodile-serpent or whatever hellish thing that was. Hiding behind a mound of purple coral, Noé felt the blood drain from her face and panic slowly set in as she grabbed tightly at her makeshift shawl, the feathers bunching up painfully as she grasped them with her clammy hands.

A reptile. Of all the things it could have been, it had to be a reptile.

Chief's weary sigh only added to her anxiety. "I know what you're thinking but it's not a simple predator-eats-prey world anymore. At least not here. You can defeat it. You have that power now."

"I'm exhausted, though." Flashing took a lot of magoi out of her and after the trek she took to climb that graveyard from before, she was utterly drained.

"You're not giving up that easily, are you?"

Noé furrowed her brow indignantly. Fear and stubbornness clashed as she peeked over to the crocodile and back to the arrowhead that hung from her leather necklace over and over trying to make up her mind. Finally, she dragged her hands down her face and groaned. "I think I have enough for one shot."

"Make it count then."

Groaning louder still, Noé snuck around from mound to mound, avoiding the beasts' sight while doing her best to climb to higher grounds. If she wanted to make the shot count, she'd have to put the odds in her favor.

Height was favorable with such a massive behemoth as her target.

Climbing and hiding, she finally reached a place that was just a tad bit higher than the croc's head. Noé took deep breaths to steady her nerves and ready herself.

You've done this hundreds of times. You've beaten many before, disadvantage and all. Another brute who thinks itself better than you won't be any different.

With her will steeled, her fingers brushed against the silver arrowhead. "Chief." Her answers was the warm of the solid light that gathered at her left hand as a decorative longbow materialized into her grasp. It was orante with whites swirls and encrusted diamonds. It was large enough for a grown adult but after having practiced with it for long enough, even with her smaller stature, Noé wielded it as well as any other bow. No string was visible, only the frame, but as she placed her right hand against the bow and nocked, a thin golden string appeared, as if shimmering into existence, and an arrow made purely of light materialized.

Aiming with both eyes opened, Noé nudged closer to the edge to get a better shot but at doing so knocked a loose end off the edge that noisily fell and caught the crocodile's attention. Brought to a frenzy, it began charging a beam of water in its mouth. Letting go of the arrow, she had no time to think of anything before she found herself jumping off as the beam shot out.

"Noé!"

"I got this!" she shouted. Finding herself close enough to the wall, she kicked off from it to give herself momentum. Focused, she felt the moment freeze in place as she concentrated. In one swift motion, she notched the arrow again, took a deep breath to aim, and released the arrow. The light arrow flew, piercing through the air and piercing through the crocodile's head, right between its eyes.

A smile sprouted and she cheered, victorious, a second before she plunged into one of the ponds nearby. Surfacing, her eyes caught the bright light that made the dungeon beast explode. Once gone, the door was clear and opened as she ran up to it. Jumping around, she took a victory lap before getting scolded which only changed the direction of her lap into the treasure room. Or at least that's what she'd call it if any of the things in it were actually worth something. They were just stone replicas of jewelry or trinkets. Worthless.

One thing wasn't, though, and because of Chief it was easy to find. The metal vessel was some kind of sword. Very bulky and very heavy as she tried carrying. But as she let it fall from how hefty it was, an eight-pointed star appeared and from it burst out the djinn.

An instinctive chill ran down her spine as her body readied itself to fight or flee. This one she couldn't help. Noé knew there was no threat to be feared from the djinn but the fact that he looked so reptilian made it inevitable.

"Who wishes to be king?"

"I was right. Ose, you cheeky bastard," Chief proclaimed and groaned quite loudly.

Ose, the water djinn, glanced about the treasure room until his eyes landed on her. "Young girl, were you the one that called me?"

"Yes!" she called loudly, wanting to be heard.

"You already hold one of my brethren." It was the statement of a mere fact, it seemed like. His aloof expression remained for a moment as he stared at her but suddenly changed into wariness as it shrunk to a less massive being before her. He cringed and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, "Oh boy. You're Andromalius' master."

Noé opened her mouth to confirm this but flinched at the ruckus that Chief was making inside her head, much of which consisted of her calling Ose really bad names. Trying to quiet her by plucking at her ear, Noé grinned. "Y-Yeah. You should hear her too. She sounds really happy to see you."

Ose chuckled nervously and averted his sapphire gaze. "I highly doubt that." Clearing his throat, Ose smiled and motioned at her. "Tell me, girl. Why have you come to conquer my dungeon when you already have Andromalius? Is she not enough? Do you seek more power still?"

At that, she smiled and shook her head. "No, I don't."

Ose's brow furrowed in confusion. "Then what is it that you came for?"

"To talk to you." An eyebrow raised, Noé took the time to explain it to him. "It's my friends. I came to ask you about the recorders."

At hearing that, his eyes widened, a gleam coming to them before a warm and welcoming smile came to his lips. "So that is why," he mused. "You're searching for Safiro and the others. You're Noé, if I recall correctly."

Noé nodded, smiling at being remembered. "Yes." With that she asked again, wanting to know where her friends were if he knew and if not, some clue about them.

Ose's expression turned glum at hearing her request. "I'm deeply sorry, child, but alas, I do not know of their whereabouts." Noé's spirits fell at hearing this. Ose gave her a small smile in return. "But I'm certain that you will find them. Fate being as it is, your selfless support to us won't go unpaid. Have patience, and I'm sure you will meet them again."

Noé nodded but still held her gloomy grin. "Thanks but I kind of hoped for something more than just that."

The djinn shook his head. "Safiro never spoke to me about the work he undertook. I wouldn't be able to tell you what he did or planned to do that would give you any clue on his whereabouts. However—" Noé felt a small wave of hope wash over her at hearing that, "—perhaps the other djinn may know of them and their work more personally. Search on, child, and perhaps they may be able to help you where I couldn't."

Having that tiny hope brightened her spirits made her nod and give a small genuine smile this time. "Thanks, Ose."

"My pleasure, champion."

Noé chuckled nervously, embarrassed at being called that, and rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly like he had. "By the way, since we're done talking, do you know how I can get out of the dungeon?"

A grimace came to Ose that didn't bode well with her. "There is no exit, child. The only way to leave a dungeon and return to the world outside is to conquer it."

"I told you so."

She hated that she had to admit to not having paid attention when Chief told her that. As she got an earful from Chief, Noé noticed Ose as he tried getting back her attention. "But I might be able to remedy that. Child, you are worthy enough after having made your way here to me. And I'll admit that having a champion as a master would be an honor."

"Thank you for saying that but I'll have to decline." Both Ose and Chief voiced their confusion which made her explain. "As much as I appreciate all that, I have to say that I'm happy enough having only Chief with me. Besides, she's a handful by herself already. I don't think I'm ready to have another little voice in my head nagging me."

Ignoring Chief's bickering, Noé watched as Ose sighed through his nose while smiling warmly. "I understand. However, if that is your choice, then you will have no option but to wait for another to conquer me."

"Then I'll wait!" she replied and plopped right on the floor to sit cross-legged.

"What is that?!" Well, that didn't take long. "W-Who're you? How did you get here by yourself?"

Turning to look over her shoulder, Noé finally got to see the faces of the two strangers she'd overheard at the dungeon entrance. The older boy, a redhead, held a sword in one hand and a broken shield in the other, and like she'd thought from the sound of his voice, he was maybe thirteen or so. Just around her age. The other boy was a tiny little thing. Blond hair so light it almost appeared white with a light shade of gold was gathered into a braid that crowned his head and fell to his hips. Baby blue eyes blinked curious, if not a bit perplexed, as to what she was doing there.

His arm which held a simple wooden staff lowered to his side as he tilted his head inquisitively. "Who are you?"

Noé pursed her lips, very much not wanting to answer that question. Thankfully, Ose interrupted when he bowed at seeing the little blond boy.

"Magi, it's an honor to finally meet you."

"...magi." Noé couldn't believe that a little kid like that was a magi. Magi were supposed to be magicians of creation, powerful beings guided by the rukh. But the kid was, well, a kid. How was something so small supposed to be so powerful?

Chief laughed at hearing that. "Hypocrisy doesn't suit you."

Her comment made Noé pout. The reason she was small was because she was still growing. When she became an adult, she'd be even better at fighting. She'd be bigger and stronger. Even more than she was now. She was sure of it.

"You will be, yes, but that will be years from now. He will be no different. So give him that benefit of the doubt. Like you, he still has a lot to learn."

"You're...Ose, right?" The little magi asked sheepishly as he and his older friend stepped forward. Noé stepped aside giving them room to speak to him.

Ose nodded his head and smiled warmly at the magi. "I am." His eyes turned to the older boy that stood by his side, "And this must be your King's Candidate."

"I think so." Noé's eyebrow twitched, peeved at the weak answer. He thinks so? "My name is Yunan and this is Leo. I brought him here to gain the powers to become king."

The djinn nodded again. "Then he is your candidate, great magi. He is the one you have chosen to rule as your king."

The boy's expression brightened and Noé couldn't help but think him cute at seeing him so happy. "Yes. Leo is braver and kinder than anybody I've met. He will become a good king. I'm sure of it!"

Ose gave him a smile and said, "Then he can become king if you see so much potential in him. Alas, he is not the only candidate that has reached the treasure room." His gaze turned to Noé which brought the other two's scrutiny to her as well.

A bit abashed by the attention, she rubbed the back of her neck before turning to them. "Don't mind me. I already told Ose that I don't want him."

The older boy's eyes, Leo's, widened at hearing this. "You don't?"

She shook her head. "I got what I came for. All I want now is to leave this place. It'll actually be good for me if you conquer him. So…" Her words trailed off, having nothing more to say.

Leo's expression changed and a grin split his face as he turned to Ose. "Then if you'll have me, I want to become king!"

Noé watched from the sidelines as Ose agreed and contracted with Leo, inhabiting the sword he carried. Well, at least now she had an exit. As the portal opened, she hurried to it and joined the duo as they took the dungeon's gold and left the structure. She ignored them on their way back and did as well when they got back to their world.

At being outside, the first thing that welled up in her was a surplus of magoi as the sun rays touched her olive skin. All that exhaustion from before vanished in an instant. All except the thirst. That never left. Reinvigorated with strength, Noé readied herself to leave. Turning to the couple of boys, she gave a quick thank you for having helped her get out of the dungeon before turning to leave.

Just as she was to go on her merry way, a tiny voice called out to her. "Um, miss?"

Glancing over her shoulder, Noé watched the tiny magi as he spoke up with his head held up high. His King Candidate stared at him a bit confused as to why he'd called her but didn't question him, instead leaving him to say what he wanted. The little magi took to his bravery and spoke loudly.

"Miss, who are you?"

She pondered whether to tell him. There wasn't any certainty that she'd see him again but she felt like the little boy knowing her name wouldn't be of any consequence. She smiled as she answered, "Noé."

"It was impressive to see someone else in that dungeon. You must be a really good fighter to have gotten there before us!" This hadn't been Yunan speaking. It'd been Leo and his words were full of amazement as he continued, "Noé, right? Would you like to join Yunan and I and travel the world?"

"Nah, I'm good." There was no hesitation. She didn't want to go with them. Being with people was too exhausting. Nevermind making friends.

"Then…" the little magi Yunan's voice rose above a whisper as he asked, seemingly actually curious. "Why enter if you weren't going to conquer it?"

"I don't need power. At least not anymore." Her fingers reached up to the silver arrowhead that gingerly laid on her beneath her clothes. "All I wanted was to ask the djinn if he knew where my friends were." The two looked at her quizzically. Noé didn't expect her reasons to make sense and simply chuckled as she shook her head. "I don't want power anymore," she repeated, "So there's no need for me to go with you. I'd much rather travel alone."

"But the magi raises dungeons, kid. Perhaps following them would be best if you intend to follow Ose's advice."

I do.

But there was still so much of the world left to discover. She wanted the freedom to do so at her own leisure. And being with others would only drag her down.

Besides, we can keep searching as we go. Sure, it may take longer but don't you think it'll be much funner with just us two and nothing but the open world?

Chief's chuckle echoed in her head. "You're right. If that's what you wish, Noé, then so be it. If we've got anything in excess, it's time, after all."

Agreeing with her, Noé gave a quick glance to the little magi and waved her goodbyes before she used her renewed magoi to flash away from the cleared dungeon.

{i}—

A king. A queen. Another queen. Another king. Every new life meant a new king vessel.

And Yunan was growing more and more tired of seeing the same scenario play over and over again. They were such great people, they all wanted great things, and yet they always fell and became dark, empty shells of the greatness they once aspired to be.

It was tiresome being so sad all the time. To watch what he worked so hard and cared for so very much crumble down and disappear like dust in the wind. But as much as he dreaded it, he knew he would meet them, his king vessels.

In this his fifth life, Yunan had already met and watched his king vessel fall when he met her yet again. That green-eyed girl. Even after five of his lives, she only appeared a couple years older than the first time he met her.

She found her perched atop a hill watching as the city—a city he helped build—burned to the ground. It's people had revolted against their queen. After years of suffering strive and hunger, the people had had enough. In their anger, they had killed the queen—his fifth king vessel—and cannibalized her as retribution. Gruesome scene that he'd watched bits of as he fled. Now covered in ashes and blood, he found the girl there as if keeping guard of a great kingdom that used to be.

When their eyes met, he saw the red feathers that came from behind her right ear fall back as her eyes grew in concern at his state. Standing up and hurrying to him, she looked him over for injuries. Yunan only watched as the girl that stood to his chest inspected him. Once assured of his well being, her eyes saddened at looking up at him. Her lips pursed briefly before she spoke softly.

"I'm sorry, Yunan."

He didn't like hearing her say those words. Every time this happened, she would say those exact words to him whenever he met her. She always found out about what transpired and would say those words. Apologies. As if all that happened—all that ever happened—was somehow her fault.

For the first time after so long of this happening, he returned the gesture, giving her a weary smile. "Me too."

Her eyes turned to the city that burned away again as if mesmerized by the outcomes of yet another of his failures. But he knew better than to think so fouly of her. Especially when the girl had been nothing but kind to him in any life she met him.

"What will you do now?"

Yunan didn't have an answer. Not a concrete one, anyway. "Wander, I guess."

Wander until this repeats over again like it's destined to.

After six times, he'd come to expect it almost. Never quite ready for it, though. And he knew that soon enough he'd meet another king vessel. He was a magi, after all. And it'd be a king vessel that would wish for greatness. One who wished to better the world for its people, one who wished things so grand that once they reached them, they would crumble and fall.

It was a cycle. One he was tired of living.

If only there was a king vessel that wouldn't follow that course.

A sudden thought came to him and it made him raise his gaze to the girl that stood beside him. A girl that, like many of his own king vessels, held power, but unlike them, she used it for one, harmless reason.

Perhaps…

"Noé?" Large emerald eyes turned to look at him curious at being called. Yunan hesitated to ask but wariness and a hint of desperation took over his mind for the split second that he spoke. "Would you become my King Candidate?"

Her eyes widened at that, the feathers behind her ear bristling at the question. "What?"

He knew she'd be confused but he was determined to find a different outcome. Something to fix what he was doing wrong. "You don't know who summoned Andromalius' dungeon, isn't that so?"

"It is but—"

Yunan didn't let her interrupt him, already dreading her answer. "If someone like you, a person who wishes nothing but to find her friends again, is to become queen, I think that you won't fall as the others have. Your reason is selfish but what you wish could not possibly hurt anybody. To find your friends, I could help you do that. And once you do, you can create a place that would safeguard them and yourself. You have strong values, I know that, and you could do good for the world. I know you could."

A small smiled came to her lips and his dread only became greater at seeing it. "I'm honored that you would ask that of me, Yunan, but I can't."

"Why not?"

"I don't want power. I have no need for it." That answer again. Yunan pursed his lips at hearing it. "I love this world, Yunan, but I don't want to become queen of any kingdom in it. All I want is to find my friends. Tying myself down is something I don't want to do. Especially not to the people that inhabit this world."

"I don't understand how you can claim to love the world and despise the people in it."

Noé grimaced before turning to the city once more. "I do love the world, Yunan. I love it because it was born of light. It's pure and full of hope and wonder." She motioned out towards the burning city beneath them. "The darkness and cruelty that happens in it is because of people. People lie and cheat, wanting nothing but what's best for themselves. I know because I'm no different. My intentions may seem harmless like you say but I'm selfish all the same. And for selfish reasons, one is capable of anything. I'm not different from them. In fact, I might be the worst."

"I don't believe that." All the times Yunan knew her, Noé had never been anything but kind and loving to the people she cared for. It was how he knew she was a good king vessel. It was the same reason that Andromalius chose her, he thought.

Noé glanced at him and gave him a thin smile. He'd seen that before during his first life, back when he was new to being a magi. To existing. It was a look of pity. "Believe whatever you want, Yunan. It doesn't change the truth."

"Then my offer—"

"Forget it," she deadpanned. Turning her back to him, she began to walk away but stopped and glanced over her shoulder to give him a smile that although sad was hopeful. "I know it seems bleak now, Yunan, but don't lose hope. I'm sure you'll find the king vessel that won't fall like they have. Someday you'll meet them and know that it'll be different this time."

"Is that what you tell yourself after all this time of searching to find nothing?"

He didn't mean for it to sound as derogative as it did. Despite that, Noé's smile didn't falter. It only grew as she nodded. "And I still do. I'll find them just like you'll find your king vessel. Have hope, Yunan."

Those last words said, Yunan only saw Noé disappear in a flash of blinding light. And with that, she was gone.

{i}—

"Saving the world was not a job to be done by one person. And what she realized was that one person alone could not carry the world on their back.

And so, her quest began."