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-whistles innocently- We ain't done yet boys.

Thanks to Silver for sticking around as my beta for this long! Have fun. :)

Chapter 12 - All's Well That Ends Well
With the morning sun blazing orange behind them, two groups stood ready at the compound gate. Bags of meagre belongings were slung over heavily armed backs, their sleepless eyes stared out at the hills that awaited them. What had come to be dubbed as the 'split group' stood to the side, endowed with supplies and equipment more suited to their journey south in search of a new place to set up camp.

The last of goodbyes that hadn't already been exchanged in the quiet of the night had passed through the morning with teary eyes and long-lingering hugs. Now was the space between—not quite apart, but no longer still together. Seth stood at the edge, frowning vaguely in the direction of BTC. He'd expected some sort of final offering from the man, but they'd barely spoken since the trial. The sudden rift between them left Seth feeling hollow.

Pyro, still weak on his feet, had been adamant about joining Guude and the others. The news had him filled with a sudden burst of energy that almost had him back to his old self. Only the sickly pallor of his skin and the occasional loss of balance gave any indication that he was still fighting off whatever he'd caught on the other side of the obsidian portal.

All in all, they were about as ready as they could be. The compound they had built as home was no more than a ghost town, now. Only the campfire ashes, still hot to the touch, gave any sign that the township had been inhabited at all, and those, too, would be lost to the wind with time. They faced their journey with a sense of certainty; no matter what happened, they weren't coming back.

"I feel like I'm going to war," Seth said, to no-one in particular.

"Me too," said Kurt. He looked up at the sky where the last of the stars were fading to clear blue. "But what are we fighting for?"

"Freedom, I hope," Seth answered. "Maybe on the other side of it all we won't feel so trapped by what we don't know."

"Maybe," said Kurt, his gaze fixed to the distance. "But then again, maybe it's the fear of the unknown that keeps us going."

"You think so?"

"Could be. Or maybe we're just the pawns of some all-powerful creator in their own fun little game. Only death holds any hope of answering that, and even then we might never know. Me? I'm content with the mystery."

With Kurt's ponderings of life and death floating in the wind, the last of the mobs fell to ash and the final day began.

~ ~ ~

"Hey, Melonhead!" Beef shouted to Pause who had, contrary to Beef’s taunts, placed a pumpkin over his head in a fit of boredom.

By this point they were nearly three quarters of the way to the portal. Thoughts of those who had chosen to stay behind were pushed aside as the group filled the surrounding jungle with talk of plans and strategy for the battle that awaited them. Emotions were terse as the finality of their decision truly sank in. Anyone who were to back out now would do so alone. With the compound abandoned and the dangers of the night behind them, the only way to go was forward.

Despite the restlessness and heavy thoughts that hung over the group, some still attempted to lighten the mood.

"What's it to you, Pumpkinface?" Pause called back as he left his position on the fringes of the party, sidling over to Beef to pull a pumpkin over his head.

"I dunno, Pause, but I think it's a definite improvement to your ugly mug," Beef taunted with an unseen grin.

With feigned sadness, Pause hung his head low and said, "but I thought you thought my face was beautiful."

"Your face is always beautiful," said Beef, giving Pause's pumpkin a conciliatory pat.

"Aww, thanks Beef," said Pause.

From off to the side, Guude smothered a chuckle at the pair's antics. "Are you two gonna continue being gross or are you actually gonna help us clean up last night's camp like you said you would?" he teased.

"Keep being gross," Pause shot back, although he did begin clearing up some of the gear they'd laid out for the camp, pumpkin still on his head nonetheless.

Leaving them to their mischief, Guude and the others moved forward with the morning's preparation. He and Seth had been carefully marking out the rest of their journey on a map and distributing copies to the rest of the group, just in case they got separated. Once they made it through the rest of the dense jungle, it was a straight shot to the cobble pillar and the stairway he and Seth had dug down to the portal.

Even from this far out, Seth could still feel its pull. It felt stronger than before, as if it knew they were coming, as if it wanted them to come. He feared, briefly, that he was merely a puppet on strings, leading the others into another's well laid plans. But no, all the months here had shown them how truly alone they were. These were plans of their own making. He was certain of it.

With those thoughts brushed aside, they began the march into the jungle where shadows pooled beneath the thick canopy above.

Kurt was the first to notice the purple glow that ducked between the trees. Three sets of violet eyes peered between the leaves like distant stars upon the darkest night. The void-like bodies of the nightmen seemed to melt into the shadows themselves and tear the very fabric of space apart to make room for their appearance. Kurt's call of alarm rippled across the group and they all ducked for cover.

The nightmen approached, aloof to the panic that fell around them.

Seth sucked in a breath, thinking back to his last encounter with a nightman. The scars from its claws were still an angry red against his skin and dreams—nightmares—of what it had shown him continued to plague him at night.

Behind him, something rustled in the bushes and he dared to spare a glance. His call of warning was cut short as Pause and Beef locked eyes with the nightmen. Too late. The two had fallen behind in their shenanigans and hadn't heard the commotion. They froze, their expressions hidden by the pumpkins still covering their heads. Nobody breathed and nobody moved as Pause and Beef stood waiting, hands hovering over the hilts of their swords.

One of the nighmen burbled and glanced up at something unimportant in the branches of a tree. Then, with a whoosh and a crack, the three nightmen were gone.

An eternity passed before anyone dared to breathe again, still waiting for the nightmen to reappear. With no sign of their return, Seth slumped against the ground and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever had stopped them from attacking, he was grateful for it. They'd lost enough to the nightmen already.

"What the fuck was that!?" Pause called out, pulling off his pumpkin. He stared at it in awe. "I wonder…" he added under his breath.

"Wow," said a rather speechless Beef as he pulled off his own pumpkin. "Boy, am I the luckiest man alive."

"Tell me about it," said Bdubs. "I thought you were goners. Three of them! I don't think I've ever seen more than just the one by itself before."

"Very strange," Kurt agreed.

"But why?" Bdubs asked. "Any more eye contact and I could have called it loving. And they just- they just upped and left. I don't get it."

"Me neither, but I sure as hell ain't gonna question it," said Pause. He looked at the pumpkin again, turning it in his hands. "But maybe it was this?"

"A ghastly face like that could be enough to scare them off," said Beef with a hint of a smile. "A face that only a mother could love."

"Hey!" said Pause. He cuddled his pumpkin 'lovingly'. "Don't you say that about my baby."

"They might not be as smart as we think they are," said Kurt. "They might not recognise us as people when we wear the pumpkins."

"And we've only ever known them to attack people," added Guude, continuing Kurt's thought.

Beef shrugged. "If it works for me then I'll take what I can get," he said.

"Pumpkins for everyone!" Pause declared, pulling out some of the pumpkins he'd collected earlier.

"I would like this to actually be tested before it's put into practice, but please don't go throwing yourself at them now," said Kurt.

Pause nodded sagely. Protective pumpkins or not, the nightmen were still as dangerous as ever and provoking one was a suicide mission. If they encountered any more between here and the portal, it was well and truly best to just leave them alone.

"So onwards and upwards?" Seth said, brushing himself off. It wouldn’t be too long till the pillar marking the portal was in sight. Its strange force pulled at his limbs, calling him closer and closer with every step.

"Onwards and upwards," Guude confirmed. He pulled out his map and traced his finger along the route they were to take. "The portal should only be a few hours through this jungle. Then we're there."

They cut through the jungle with surprising speed. The trek had been tiring but excitement now bubbled through the group as they approached the cobble pillar and made their way down to the portal. The room was cold and silent as if the air itself had been pulled into the portal's void-like depths. No-one dared make a sound.

To Seth, the call of the portal was inescapable now. It filled him like a nightman's scream. His fingers stretched of their own accord to the portal's surface. This was where he was meant to go. There was no doubt about it. Whatever lay on the other side, this was where they'd find answers. This was where they'd find their end.

He could resist the call no longer. With no-one to stop him, he reached down to embrace the portal's icy depths and the world turned to darkness…

~ ~ ~

The end began with static. Tiny prickles ran along his skin and his hair raised in alarm. Next, he noticed the emptiness—the air that both did and didn't exist. Seth breathed and his lungs filled but the air felt too light, as if his sense of touch no longer recognised where he stopped and the air began.

Slowly, he opened his eyes to the darkness around him. The sky glittered above as a fuzzy haze: specs of colour fizzling and merging into a static grey that blanketed the world from all directions. To his left, strange, yellow stone rose in a steep hill on the side of a gargantuan mass that floated above the void. He took a tentative step across the obsidian platform he had materialised on and breathed a sigh of relief when it didn't dissipate below him. This place felt too fragile; as though its very existence rested in a delicate balance.

Behind him, the rattle of swords alerted Seth to the appearance of the others. As they gained their bearings, Guude was the first to speak. "What is this place?" he asked. He crossed the bridge of obsidian and approached the yellow stone, bending down to touch it.

"I don't know," Seth said, softly. "It's certainly something, alright."

"Yeah," Guude agreed, taking in the sights around him.

Together, the group made their way up the hill, coming to a nightman-filled plateau of yellow stone that stretched out before them. Obsidian pillars rose from the ground like pikes, spinning white crystals adorning their tips.

In the distance, something rumbled.

Coming up beside Guude, Bdubs shuddered, visibly. "What was that?" he asked.

"Dunno," said Guude with a frown, "but it sounds big."

"Can I go back now? I think I've done enough adventuring to cover several lifetimes," said Bdubs. He fingered the hilt of his sword and glanced back at the platform they'd appeared on.

"I don't think there is any going back now," said Seth. The void glittered below them, pulling at every thread of life that dared set foot in this wasteland. There was no portal leading back the way they came. There was only onwards to the thing that lurked in the distance.

The air rumbled again with an enranged cry. Seth flinched. Whatever it was, it sounded big.

"Looks like we're stuck fighting this thing," said Guude.

"I don't suppose we can sit here for the rest of eternity and hope that thing never finds us," Beef suggested.

"I wish," said Pause, his voice unusually hushed.

"Nebris did say we need to fight this thing to get out," said Seth. He squinted at the horizon, hoping to make out the shape of the creature that awaited them. All he saw was the thick grey sky. Below, the dusty yellow stone began to twinkle. Specs of black and purple darting in and out of existence. "Nightmen..." he whispered.

Kurt looked out in wonder. "I've never seen so many. Do we have to fight them- fight them all?" He took a sharp breath in, knuckles whitening around the grip of his bow.

Another rumble shook the ground beneath their feet.

"I hope not," said Pause, pulling his own bow to the ready.

Seth squinted as something came into focus in the distance - two bright, violet lights, seething and crackling with energy. The thing roared again, its form spreading out across the sky, night swallowed by deeper night. "What is that thing?" he said, throat tightening.

Guude looked up, green eyes glittering. "I- I don't know."

"Heaven help us now," cursed Bdubs. He held his sword up as a challenge to the beast, its violet eyes reflecting off the cold steel.

Kurt nocked back an arrow, eyes trained on the beast before him. It swept out its wings, soaring through the sky. With a guttural roar, a beam of white light shot out through the void from one of the white crystals. The beam sizzled with electric purple light where it came in contact with the beast's flesh. Its eyes burned brighter and the ridges on its back shimmered in the glow.

"Here goes nothing," said Kurt, fingers twitching away from the taught string of his bow. With that, the battle began.

The others leaped forward, arrows arcing through the sky. One by one, they pierced the beast's flesh and it moaned, violet light spilling from the holes in its hide. Hearts drumming a crescendo in their chests, the group watched as another white beam cut through the darkness. Sparks crackled and as the beast snarled out its agony, the arrows piercing it began to sizzle, disintegrating in a shower of light.

A look of horror shadowed Seth's features. "Those crystals," he shouted above the noise of battle, "we have to get rid of them!"

"How?" Pause shouted back, letting another arrow fly.

"I don't know, but we have to try something!" Seth turned his eyes back to the beast, switching to his sword to slash at its hide as it swooped down low.

Pause gritted his teeth, and, with an angry shrug, aimed an arrow at the nearest crystal. He waited, watching as the arrow sank into the crystal's core. He turned back to the beast with a frustrated grunt, cursing his waste of an arrow.


He felt, more than heard, the explosion of the crystal as it shattered into bright hot light.

Cheers resounded across the group at the crystal's destruction. Others turned, shooting at the other crystals atop the pillars.

Blow by blow, the group hacked away at the beast's pitch black armour, crystals bursting like fireworks in tandem. A grunt and a cry as an arrow punctured taut wing membrane and a man-sized claw sent a comrade flying. More shots, more blows, and violet light dripping thick like molasses.

Beef cried out and Seth turned, watching as a black claw pierced Beef's shoulder. Pause let out a frightened cry, bow falling to his side as he ran to his friend's aid. Seth held his sword across his body, guarding as the beast came around for another swoop. The others continued their volley of arrows, tattering its wings and peppering its body with leaking holes.

"It's faltering," Guude called out. "Go for the neck, we can do this!"

The monster roared once more, coming to hover just above the group. Seth slashed at its underbelly, ignoring the sting of violet ichor dripping down onto his skin.

Guude leaped up, jamming his sword in the creature's throat. It gave a gurgled roar as Guude swung around, rending its neck from jaw to clavicle as he pulled free.

The ground shuddered and the air came alive with static, the sky burning with a mosaic of violet and white. The monster froze, hanging, suspended above the group. Seth swallowed, paralysed and trembling with fear. Like a sharp exhale, piercing bolts of light began to shoot from the creature's body. They burned and crackled, filling the sky. The others flinched away, shielding their eyes from the light. Then, with an ethereal breeze, the creature began to dissolve, burning away into violet sparks that floated through the ether.

"We, we did it," Kurt stuttered, his eyes wide with wonder.

"We did it," Pause echoed, voice wavering in awe.

Guude shouted out in triumph, holding his sword high.

"We're fucking invincible, man!" said Bdubs, a curse slipping out in his delight.

"Yeah," Seth nodded absently, eyes still glued to the violet snow slowly drifting out towards the void, "invincible..."

Guude sat down with a thud, falling next to Beef who nursed at his injured shoulder with Pause hovering nervously overhead. He stared at his hands, voice growing sombre. "I can't believe we fucking did it," he said to himself.

"Me neither," Pause agreed with a slow shake of his head. "But what now?"

Guude looked up, eyes brightening at a new structure that had risen from the yellow stone at the beast’s defeat. "Now," he began, "I think we finally go home."

The others cheered, bodies shaking with joy, exhaustion, and adrenaline.

"Wherever home is," Seth added softly, amid the roar of the cheers.

Just beyond the newly formed portal, two violet eyes blinked, unnoticed by the celebrating group.

"Home," Guude said, picking himself back up. He stared at the new portal, something soft and heretofore unseen in his gaze. "We're finally going home."

~ ~ ~

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