Aaron Heart read the contents of a message sent from Noctemar and frowned. He exited his chambers, paper in hand, and marched over to the common grounds. Past the door, the knight paused to reread the message once more. It didn’t help. Visibly frustrated, he walked over to his two companions — already in the midst of a conversation.
“Well met, Aaron,” greeted Akshay. “I was trying to probe into Masura’s absent years; he’s been firmly silent. Perhaps you’ll have better luck?”
“As much as that interests me, there is another matter we must discuss,” said Aaron. “I apologize for waiting until now to mention it, but I had preferred handling this internally. It appears that I may have underestimated the situation at hand.”
“Do tell, my friend,” said Akshay, straightening his back. “You have our ears.”
“It started some time ago, before the war at the Bridge of Souls even,” said Aaron, a little strained in his voice. “There was a string of assassinations across the lower levels of the military, unaffiliated generals mostly. We did investigate the matter, but there was nothing of note to be found.”
“Yes, I do recall such reports,” said Akshay. “Personnel visiting family, or sent to duty in a different region under Godvildian rule, but never on Suntarian soil. Is that it?”
“That is correct,” said Aaron, affirmatively. “But it never affected our military strength or command, at least not until a few months ago when General Raego fell on a visit to Little Guard.”
“This is interesting,” said Masura. “One of your own, I take it?”
“Right; well, I directed more of our spies to strengthen the reach of our investigation, but to no avail,” said Aaron. “This person is skilled beyond measure, but matters did slow through the war at the Bridge of Souls. Short-lived peace, however; Noctemar just sent news.”
Akshay raised an eyebrow, the air increasingly tense. Masura, despite his absence, also knew of the implications behind the mention of Noctemar. They knew who resided as Keeper in the region, and the dwarf was no ordinary soldier. But with incomplete information in hand, the two Suntarian lords waited for Aaron to break news.
“This hits my military strength quite significantly,” said Aaron, his voice — a slight stammer, as he handed the message over to his comrades. “And personally, because I lost a lot more than just a good soldier. I lost a friend.”
The two lords took turns reading the message from Noctemar, which also happened to include minor mention of the Snowfynds — something about the discovery of several corpses near the borders of Turrim Gelida. Once finished, Akshay slowly slid the report back over to Aaron’s end of the table.
“I’m sorry to hear of this, old friend,” said Akshay sympathetically. “We’ve lost good soldiers in recent times; at least Aayush had the honour of dying in the battlefield.”
“I sympathize as well, but we must move quickly on this matter,” said Masura. “Did your preliminary investigations unveil a path to follow; anything suspicious?”
“I’ve looked at both the Noxun and the Relictan,” revealed Aaron. “However, I believe it to be more strongly a Noxun effort. I noticed several inconsistencies in their stand during our visit there as well.”
“Masura, I know of your feats at Sol Sanctum,” said Aaron with a smile. “I visited the place shortly after; it was there that Great Healer Vetus revealed to me of an alliance between the Noxun and the Relictan — a united stand against us.”
“The Noxun leaders did strongly oppose any affiliation with the Relictan,” recalled Akshay. “And I do remember you briefing me about the matter, Aaron.”
“This is best investigated through the Relictan kind,” said Masura. “I believe it’s time we send some of our spies to monitor the movement of the lords. Do either of you wish to oppose this train of thought?”
“No,” said Aaron and Akshay in unison.
There were stories of it in legend, or rather — mythology. It was odd. Gale wondered if much of the literature in the earth realm stemmed from the World of Transition. He remembered mention of how the worlds formerly exchanged knowledge; it did fascinate him to a certain degree, considering his adoration of books and legend before death.
The boy touched the hilt of his sword, wary of the presence in front of him. It posed little threat, especially with the barrier around camp — an impressive mechanism built for expeditionary groups from Basaraa Village. Gale wondered how much longer he would have to wait. It had been a little over four hours since the creature first arrived, and it was yet to leave.
Gale looked around, his eyes quick to identify potential threats, “Not bad; there are a lot of benefits to these eyes I now possess.” Thoroughly satisfied, the boy snapped his attention back to the creature ahead, “It appears to just be us for now; most of those in the vicinity seem to be moving away from here.”
Another hour passed, and the creature finally stepped out of obscurity — taller than the boy by at least a few feet and heavily built. It held what appeared to be an axe made of stone, but rough and of primitive craftsmanship. Hair, as black as the night itself, covered much of its body, adding to the ferocity of its eyes — redder than hot coal. It rocked its head, horned and shaped like that of a bull’s, eager for combat.
“Do you want me to step out of the barrier?” asked Gale, curiously. “You’ve been patient enough to stare at me all this while.”
In frustration, the creature grunted. On occasion, it forced an exhalation — hot and visible — through its nostrils. But that’s all there was to its communication.
“They called you a Minotaur in my old world,” said Gale. “I suppose now is as good a time as any to analyse the abilities of this new body.”
Gale stepped out from the barrier, drawing his sword through the advance. The minotaur stood motionless, twitching with excitement. For a moment, the boy observed what must have been a smile, merely a flash of something humanlike in what the World of Transition deemed a monster.
And then it occurred, a charge of wild ferocity, unhindered by nothing but the rules of nature. Gale met the creature’s axe with his sword, tilting it in the direction of the attack. His feet moved on instinct, swerving around the creature to a safe distance. Despite the weight behind both the weapon and the charge, the boy found his movements to be effortless. There was a difference.
Gale remembered his battle against Noah, the Relictan Lord, who at the time stood an unsurmountable challenge — something that pushed him to the brink of death.
“That was months ago; and you’re clearly weaker than Lord Noah Oblique,” thought Gale, addressing the minotaur in his head. “But just how much stronger am I in comparison presently?”
Gale sprinted away from the minotaur, allowing a chase in which the latter was no more than a step behind. At the sight of a clearing, the boy turned and darted toward his target, switching directions without a moment’s notice. Disoriented, the minotaur — on instinct — swung its axe, and with deadly precision despite its situation.
The attack, however, was still within bounds of the boy’s calculations. He ducked, with seasoned efficiency and pushed ahead, cleaving the minotaur’s free arm through the assault. Gale swiped the blood clean from his sword and gently stabbed it against the soil. He took in a deep breath and manipulated the aeter within his body, lowering its output to a suitable level.
Deliberately weakened and unarmed, Gale taunted another charge from the minotaur. In evasion, the boy danced, and in offense, he struck with tenacity. His bloodlust heightened, managed only by the tranquillity bestowed upon him.
As the minutes passed, Gale moved with ambition, breaking the creature free from one of its horns. He danced with a violent passion and tore through the other, leaving the minotaur writhing in pain. When the minutes had turned to hours, little remained of the creature’s spirit. Gale faced the minotaur, now on its knees, with neither emotion nor expression. He retrieved and raised his sword — its tip pointing to the heavens, and whispered a prayer.
The boy’s arms trembled with urgency, his murderous intent barely in check. And then it fell, in fluid motion and without resistance.
“Is this a side-effect from the blessing?” thought Gale. “It appears that my tranquillity has partially failed.”
For some reason, the madness lingered. His feet moved without command, settling into a dance that frightened the forest itself. Gale finished at the minotaur’s chest, stomping his feet through flesh and bone alike. In a frenzy, he continued to dance over the corpse until something emerged.
Drenched in sweat, Gale stopped to stare at what may have been the minotaur’s soul-fire. It hovered without desire to move toward Aeterna, a strangeness the boy was unfamiliar with.
“You must eat it,” said a voice. “I’m afraid even your tranquillity won’t be able to fully restrain the effects of the Eternal Dance.”
“The Eternal Dance?” repeated Gale, puzzled in his expression. “I’ll need you be more specific, Bane.”
“You’re still not used to your Divine Blessing, the one from Kali of the Hindu Pantheon,” explained Bane. “In Sanskrit, her name itself implies the cycle of creation, life, and death. You killed the minotaur, and in consuming its soul-fire, you allow the creature to live through you. This dance is a representation of that cycle, and you must complete it.”
“Why is it not moving to Aeterna?”
“A soul-fire cultivates as the body decomposes,” said Bane. “As the circle of life demands, the body must return to the earth, while Aeterna welcomes the soul. Your dance triggered the soul-fire’s emergence well in advance.”
As the forest settled into darkness, the once distant creatures had begun to return. With the minotaur’s passing, the territory was free for occupation. Gale knelt and pulled the soul-fire with him, apologetic of having stolen its opportunity to reunite with Aeterna. The madness tore through him from the inside; there was little time.
Gale opened his mouth and swallowed the soul-fire in its entirety, cultivating its power in his chest. In time, the essence merged with the boy’s power, showing little repulsion. As the process continued, his mind returned to its regular state of being. Gale felt his tranquillity return, and his power rise with it. He retreated to the safety of the camp, unsure of how the minotaur impacted his body.
“No change in my appearance, or how I feel,” thought Gale.
After a quick assessment, the boy closed his eyes, recalling his other point of access to information. Amidst the darkness, words appeared — most of which remained unchanged. But there were changes.
5. Black Tongue of the Wicked
Gale raised his eyebrows, his curiosity piqued. He investigated the guidebook once more, eager to uncover the occurrence of a mutation, if any.
1. Black Night’s Skin
2. Amber Eyes
“Are you presently available, Bane?” asked Gale, scratching his chin; there was no response.
The boy stopped to ponder the implications of having an ability of such high versatility. Just as Bane and Masura had foreshadowed, Gale slowly began to believe that there was more to it — his existence as a singularity in the World of Transition. He retreated to the comfort of his bed, dismissing the thoughts as irrelevant.
“It’s been a month already,” thought Gale. “Goblin occurrences have not been as common as I had anticipated; should I perhaps venture beyond the third barrier?”