Three Months After the Battle at the Bridge of Souls
It was another large room, minimally furnished and walls painted to suit the stone floors. Gale sat at a distance from a curved table with three men seated behind it. He recognized the knight that helped guide him to the World of Transition, and the man who led the Godvildian to victory in the Bridge of Souls. But despite an odd sense of familiarity, the boy failed to identify the third.
“I can at least assume that he’s one of the Three Pillars,” thought Gale, the room in absolute silence.
Akshay Bahrain rested his hands on the table, seated at the centre, and smiled. He realized that the presence of those on his side of the table together made the atmosphere tenser than it should have been.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t meet you sooner, Gale,” apologized Akshay. “The three of us had to visit the Noxun capital to understand their stance presently.”
“And?” asked Gale. “I might as well hear that it went well given my house arrest.”
“Well, the Noxun denied the existence of an alliance with the Relictan,” informed Akshay. “But even with their earnest denials, we requested that they form a temporary pact of non-aggression with the Godvildian.”
“Requested?” said Gale, emphasizing the word with a touch of sarcasm. “Well, that’s good to hear.”
“Our discussions have a way of naturally working itself out,” said Akshay with a laugh. “But more importantly, the matter of this present meeting; we simply wanted to help you understand your position in this world.”
“I’d like to take lead on this, if I may, Lord Bahrain,” said Aaron, speaking for the first time.
“Very well,” said Akshay.
“Gale, it’s important for me to ask if you’ve ever wondered why we only ever recruit a single entity from your former world,” said Aaron. “Better yet, why we don’t venture in as frequently given our affinity to the earth realm.”
“A little bit,” admitted Gale. “I did think I’d run into more of my former people in this world.”
“It’s unlikely you’ll ever meet them,” said Aaron. “The worldly laws forbid the existence of more than one of your kind in this realm at any given point of time. We’ve tried bringing in more in the past, only to find them perish within days of arrival.”
“It’s comforting to hear of these — should I call them experiments?” said Gale.
“We don’t find any happiness in bringing your former people misery,” said Aaron, his tone being genuinely sad. “But these ventures have helped us a lot in the past, more than we could have ever imagined.”
“Time moves differently in the earth realm,” explained Aaron. “Due to severely shorter lifespans, humans evolved with a more urgent sense of accomplishment. We have experienced breakthroughs in agriculture, weapon and armour production, medicine, and military tactics even, through your predecessors.”
“You don’t merely recruit for your army then?” asked Gale, taken aback.
“No, not at all,” said Aaron. “But it is true that the selection itself is randomized; Ehedus guides it, and we never know what we’re bringing back to our world.”
As the truth sunk in, Gale realized that the words hardly bothered him. The boy had grown accustomed to thriving beyond normalcy. He paused to consider if the singularity of his existence might have bothered him in his old world; not here, however, not in a world where knowledge and power ruled at the pinnacle of all else.
“Before you ask though,” said Aaron. “In all my time here, I’ve never once recruited someone within the range of your current combat class and potential. Even the three of us took a while to meet the conditions of a divine blessing.”
“The Three Pillars of Suntaria, was it?” thought Gale. “I’m not surprised to hear that they hold their own divine blessings as well.”
“There is another thing, Gale,” interjected Akshay. “It’s true that we’ve had soldiers in the past come from the earth realm, but even including all the others, they mostly transitioned as Godvildian. We still gave them a choice though.”
“A choice?” Gale slowly said.
“This is a free world,” said Akshay. “I would like to extend to you a formal invitation to join the Suntarian army. Given your current class, it’s not unreasonable to grant you immediate upper-knighthood. Of course, you’ll have to choose a lord to serve under though.”
“That’s correct,” said Aaron in agreement. “It’s nothing to scoff at if you look at the progression metrics as well.”
“While not binding, it’s important to choose your lord carefully,” said Aaron in conclusion. “By associating with us, you become beneficiaries of the divine blessing bestowed upon us. You can expect significant power growth through the ranks.”
Gale paused for a moment to weigh his options. It was easy to understand that the Three Pillars of Suntaria reigned supreme, at the apex of the World of Transition; the opportunities were endless. He eyed each of the men present on the other end of the table, and noticed the one yet to speak. From inference, the boy deduced the darkly-clothed figure to be Masura Bloodseed. He remembered mention of him from Zane, of his annihilation of the Relictan forces at the Bridge of Souls.
“I’m curious,” the boy finally said. “As a High Human, I’m grateful of your acceptance of me. And I have no qualms about serving the kingdom. But that’s exactly it, I wish to serve the kingdom, not a lord.”
For a moment, Aaron and Akshay looked toward each other, a confused expression on both their faces. But before either of two men could respond, the sound of laughter resounded throughout the room. Masura stood at once, visibly delighted by the boy’s response. On cue, a guard entered the room holding what appeared to be a case.
“I wouldn’t have chided you for joining any branch of the Suntarian military,” said Masura. “But your potential doesn’t require any coddling from us.”
“Lord Bloodseed, aren’t you being too hasty?” appealed Aaron. “With access to our guidance, his growth could become more exponential than it is already.”
“Do you mean to say that your guidance is limited to your own soldiers and not to the benefit of others serving the kingdom, Lord Heart?”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” said Aaron, surprised at his friend’s approach to the situation. “I meant that he would receive attributes of our divine blessing in addition to his own.”
“Boy,” said Masura, looking Gale in the eyes. “Is this what you wish, the dilution of your divine blessing by merging it with one of our own?”
Gale responded, without a moment’s hesitation, “I’d honestly prefer exploring my growth on my own, without having to rely on anyone else.”
Masura displaced a smaller table at one part of the room and placed it in front of Gale. The guard followed, setting the sealed case atop it.
“I extracted what remained of the dragon bones from the Elder Undead you had defeated,” said Masura. “At the very top of Arce Caelesti is the divine forge — Arce Male — blessed by Vulcan, the blacksmith god of the Roman pantheon. I had Lord Zane develop an armour for you; the design ought to be of your liking as well.”
“I’m interested to know what would’ve happened had the boy chosen to join us instead,” said Akshay with a smile, accepting that there was no convincing either Masura or Gale.
“Quite simple,” said Masura. “I would have destroyed the armour.”
“That sounds about right,” said Akshay. “Well, even with this decision, we can’t have someone with his combat class walk around without rank. I don’t want any trouble from our people.”
“I have an idea for that as well,” said Masura. “If he’s not going to be part of the Suntarian forces, there’s little point in granting him a military rank. Instead, he’ll stand as a Combat Representative of the kingdom, a Half-Lord, merely a step below our own in rank.”
“Well, that does sound appropriate enough given his combat-class,” admitted Aaron. He turned to Gale and smiled appreciatively, adding, “Your contributions deserve this much. But remember that this rank is only a representation of power and potential, not status.”
“That’s correct,” continued Masura. “We’ll spread word of your triumph against the Elder Undead and grant you a medal to traverse through otherwise inaccessible parts of our lands. But you’ll have to build a reputation for yourself just as we had to in our rise to the apex of Suntaria. Is this acceptable?”
Gale looked a little overwhelmed, having been excluded from the discussion altogether. He touched the case on the table, and withdrew his hand, firm in his desires and expectations within the World of Transition.
“I accept,” the boy finally said without flinching. “After nearly three months of training inside castle walls, I’ve been itching to go outside. This opportunity, I won’t let it go to waste.”
“Perfect,” praised Masura. “In fact, I have just the quest for you to make a loud declaration of your arrival.”
Gale smiled in secret, remembering that someone else had said the exact same thing.
Magellan had his back turned to the two visitors that had arrived, trustworthy soldiers from his elite guard. He looked at a map of Noctemar, a large quill pen in hand, and drew a rough outline of Turrim Gelida’s borders on it.
“The expeditionary group discovered mineral deposits a few kilometres north of the third gate,” explained Magellan. “I’m thinking of gently expanding the border walls to secure the area. What do you the two of you think?”
“It’s going to be a risky effort, Keeper,” said Rollo, offering his recommendation with a bow. “The expansion will require vigilance, especially with the Snowfynds.”
“You make sense,” said Magellan. “But visionaries don’t limit their goals in the face of risk. This find could be rather big for us.”
“What the Keeper wills is for us to obey and follow,” said Rollo. “We shall assist you to the best of our capacity.”
Magellan turned to greet the two guards, a smile on his face. He brushed his beard and slowly walked around them. There was an odd sense of uncertainty within the atmosphere, something that piqued even Rollo’s attention. The discomfort only escalated with time, and just as strangely dissipated all at once.
“I was once told that the trait of empathy is what makes a great leader,” said the Keeper of Noctemar. “But over the years, I’ve realized certain exceptions to the rule.”
Within moments, Magellan stepped away, his axe unstrapped and ready. He swung unfeelingly, guided by the weight of his experience, and decapitated both guards. There was little resistance. He looked at the bodies of both men, disappointed at the thought of betrayal. At the table, he cleaned his blade with a moist cloth and rested.
Magellan rubbed his eyes, tired from the day’s affairs. But even with the conclusion that brought about the death of his men, a certain level of strangeness remained.
“The room itself is void of intent,” thought Magellan. “There shouldn’t be anything to worry about.”
The Keeper opened his eyes to find nothing but darkness. As his vision adjusted, he noticed a vague silhouette obstructing the light. Startled, Magellan bolted to safety, boosting his speed with lightning-based elemental magic. He found a cloaked individual, dark in his complexion and with eyes of a fiercely crimson colour.
“I couldn’t sense him; I still can’t,” thought Magellan, a little unnerved. “Where did he even come from?”
“I allowed you detect me vaguely the first time,” the figure said. “After all, those two guards may have caused some problems. But you seemed aware of my presence even after I had completely masked my existence.”
“Aspect of Radiance: Thunderclap,” whispered Magellan, expanding his aeter for a powerfully violent aura to outline his body. “Come, assassin!”
“Could it be pure instinct?” continued Vincent, ignoring Magellan’s invitation for a battle. “The battle instinct of a veteran isn’t to be underestimated.”
Magellan lowered his body in a stance, infused with the element of lightning. His nerves tickled with power, heightened in every way possible. He moved in inches, wary of the unknown. But with a strong desire toward taking the initiative, he sprinted ahead with murderous intent. Refined in his footwork, the dwarven warrior moved unpredictably, and had even managed to swerve into position behind the assassin.
It was nearly perfect. Behind years of experience and talent, alongside a natural affinity to one of the strongest elements in the World of Transition, Magellan manoeuvred an attack that far exceeded expectation. But that’s all there was to it, near perfection.
The dwarven warrior stood within arm’s length of his target, the grip on his axe weakening. In the face of death, he struggled to understand the magic that had brought him to a standstill. But there was blood — in his throat, staining his teeth, and from his chest.
“This is beyond painful,” stammered Magellan, finding himself impaled by projections from the assassin’s shadow. “Feels about right, I suppose.”
“It’s the Asuran aspect, Shadow Spear,” explained Vincent. “I pray that you rest well in oblivion, good soldier.”
Vincent embraced the cold blizzard, succumbing to its magnificence. He was outside the walls of Turrim Gelida, the free lands of Noctemar. His feet sunk into the snow, swallowing the darkness around him. There was little to see. But there was something he was ordered to return with after his assignment.
After a short wait, they appeared. Just as in the legends, in a group — large in number — and as no more than silhouettes. They had surrounded him. One of them, their leader, walked through the shadows to greet Vincent. The assassin trembled just a little in excitement; there stood a Snowfynd in all its glory — slim bodied, but with disproportionately large arms and legs.
Vincent took a moment to appreciate the creature’s bare limbs, covered in muscles tougher than the sternest of unenchanted armour. There was also the fur, beautifully soft and graced to offer immunity from the cold. But nothing mesmerized more than the perfectly blue crystal firmly embedded onto the creature’s chest, a treasure among treasures.
The Snowfynd growled, commanding the others to tighten formation.
“I do apologize for trespassing,” said Vincent. “But I will be taking that crystal now.”
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