Gale hadn’t seen anything quite like it, intelligence beyond expectation. After guidance from the Perytons of Basaraa Forest, he had managed to find the whereabouts of the Hearth King. Through the magic veils and camouflage, the boy uncovered a cave of mystery and myth. It wasn’t on any map he had received, making it an unknown even for those who had lived in the vicinity for generations.
But there was more to it than the cave itself. From a distance, Gale observed militarization beyond what he had expected from the goblin race. In addition to nature’s protection, there existed strongly built fortifications, mentors for various offensive and defensive manoeuvres, and farmlands for a more stable source of food. The goblins moved with a mantle of determination and focus, nothing alike what Gale had studied from his days amidst books.
In his preference towards stealth, Gale spent much of his time canvassing the surroundings around Basaraa Cave. An opportunity did arise, but of a different kind – a weakness of the flesh. After ten days, a little before sunrise, the boy spotted a group of women in chains, who followed their goblin escorts in fear and without hope for survival.
The captors were the first to perish. Gale moved during night-time, as a part of the darkness, mapping the cave as he did, and leaving in his wake – a trail of bodies. He would return closer toward dawn, freeing those captured a little at a time. Whispers spread, of a curse that slaughtered goblins for their atrocities against the Godvildian people.
As a consequence, the expeditions slowed, with goblin explorers and smugglers being reassigned to security. It didn’t matter, not to Gale. He explored as much as time permitted, bearing in mind his responsibility towards those captured. Some of them spoke of homes in Basaraa Village, while others of lands unknown to Gale. On the fourteenth day, the boy had succeeded in unshackling the last of the cave’s prisoners.
“We are indebted to your kindness, Lord Gale,” admitted a woman from Basaraa Village. “As an expeditioner, I take it upon my pride to ensure that your work does not go to waste here.”
“Not at all, Lady Kaela,” said Gale, with a nod. “It’s good fortune that you stood amongst those captured; I can rest easy knowing that there’s someone capable enough to guide those rescued through the forest.”
“I’ll report your success in finding the Hearth King to Elder Gram,” said Kaela, smiling as she did. “Let’s hope you come back to give us news of your triumph.”
Three days since that conversation, in front of Gale now stood what appeared to be blacksmith goblins; they whispered in fear, much like the rest. Striking against air, the boy cleaned his blade and pressed ahead with relative ease. He observed the walls once finished and uncovered crystals emanating an odd aeter formula; it reacted erratically to the boy’s presence inside the cave, oozing malevolence more than anything.
Gale brushed the discovery aside and refocused to the task at hand. With a little exploration, he found a narrow route that allowed deeper passage into the cave. Along the walls, the boy found larger, brighter crystals than the kind he had previously interacted with. It emanated malice to a stronger degree, but not nearly enough to impede the boy’s progress.
In time, Gale reached an area with ample space, dimly illuminated and with patches of darkness. At a distance, he heard a stream – gentle in its flow.
But even with the calm presented, the boy remained alert, even more so at the sound of slow and heavy footsteps. It echoed off the cave’s walls, hidden amidst the darkness and disguised under a veil of tranquillity. Gale turned to face the sound and welcomed what emerged with a face that lacked emotion. A quest, to the boy it meant nothing more. But try as he might, Gale couldn’t help but admire the magnificence of the Hearth King.
What stood before him represented a man adorned in war paint – taller and more robust than the Godvildian people, with skin that shone of a brilliant silver, long, white hair, and eyes of a vivid shade of red. But what mattered most rested atop the Hearth King’s head, the prize, a pair of horns that curved toward the heavens.
“The Curse of the Black Night,” said the Hearth King, addressing his visitor. “I knew you would arrive, just as the stars predicted.”
“It’s Gale Storm, actually,” the boy said, a puzzled expression on his face. “I’m here to resolve a matter with regards to the people of Basaraa Village; they don’t like you very much.”
“We do what we must to survive and then flourish,” said the Hearth King. “Your kind is known to do the same from what I’ve read.”
“Then you are aware of what happens when one pretends to wear the crown of a revolutionary?” said Gale, with a smile. “This matter, as unfortunate as it is, will end in blood.”
“Just as the stars had predicted,” repeated the Hearth King. “But a ruler can only see so far into the future.”
With words exchanged, the Hearth King unsheathed the weapon that rested across his back – tall and heavy. It appeared to rank amongst what soldiers would call a greatsword, something that required both hands to wield. A work of art, the weapon held the markings of a forgotten time – a little from each of its former wielders. It showed aeter inconsistency, but remained poised nonetheless, almost as if improved as a process of its time in the world.
“It has a recorded name, Conclusion, a sword that is meant to see this world through to its end,” said the Hearth King. “And I am Cepheus, among those who will be forgotten.”
“Forgotten, King Cepheus?” asked Gale, curiously.
“Kings aren’t exempt from the cruelty of time,” explained Cepheus, readying his blade. “But this sword, it endures – improving with each wielder, raised only for triumph. Today, it is my turn, and in time, it will be another’s.”
Gale felt the presence of other goblins, hasty in their movements and worried in their thoughts. They rushed from the field of battle, almost as if uncertain of their king’s odds at victory. Amidst the silence, both Gale and Cepheus stood in awe of the other. It was a matter of respect, at least to a certain degree.
At the first tremor, the Hearth King stepped into a stance of ferocity – bathing in an aura of bloodlust and conviction. When the second occurred, he allowed for the aeter from his sword to fuse onto his own, creating an odd level of synchronicity. Strength, speed, and desire towards conquest, Cepheus held onto them all. He sought the future and smiled, confident that there was none in which he didn’t stand a ruler.
Gale responded in kind, gentler in his approach. His aeter reflected focused aggression, smaller in exhibition, but sharper in effect. At the third tremor, they attacked. When their swords clashed, the cave trembled, in fear of destruction. It was almost at its conclusion, the quest – a declaration of power.
Clouded by the seeds of impatience, Gale retreated from the proximity of combat. He lowered his blade and began chant instead. Cepheus noticed the boy’s aeter change dramatically but displayed little emotion upon realization of the formula in motion.
“Activate Sequence: Corrosion,” whispered Gale.
In that instant of time, two things occurred. Cepheus moved into the door of opportunity that had presented itself, one that had previously evaded him, while Gale uncovered the reasoning behind his discomfort around the large crystals embedded within the cave’s walls. Corrosion never activated, but the boy did find a greatsword force itself onto the side of his chest. On muscle memory alone, however, Gale recovered, escaping further punishment from Cepheus’ attack.
“I don’t believe the sequence was wrong,” thought Gale. “And the aeter flow appears to be normal. I wonder what might have happened.”
“It’s a neutral field,” answered Cepheus, reading the boy’s mind. “It rejects the expressive nature of magic; anything that required projection will be nullified.”
“Bloodier than I had expected, I suppose,” said Gale. “Be warned though; this game, I can play it just as well.”
Wounded on one side of his body, Gale began conquest against the Hearth King once more. His aeter shifted inward, maximizing the potential of his body. He moved with blinding steps, his sword – faster still. Cepheus predicted the first attack but was struck down by the second. It became faster, and then more, until turning into a hurricane that battled from every direction fathomable.
In what Gale considered to be a decisive manoeuvre, the boy pivoted to fall into his adversary’s rear. He hopped and then jammed his blade across the Hearth King’s shoulders, into the latter’s throat. But despite the fierce offensive initiative, Cepheus continued to move. He grabbed and slammed the boy against the floor, repeatedly.
“This is getting difficult,” thought Gale, gasping for breath. “I’m beginning to see less clearly, even.”
With whatever strength he could muster in that moment of time, Gale tore away from his assailant’s grip. He freed his sword from the Hearth King’s flesh and retreated to a safe distance right after, finding that his legs now trembled with weakness.
“We have not reached the end yet,” said Cepheus, in a stammer. “Let me show you our kind’s resolve. Of the goblin lineage, I am the greatest to have ever lived, after all.”
Heavily injured, slashed, and weakened, Cepheus persisted in his endeavor for victory. He moved with the strength of his convictions but lacked focus. Gale evaded the attacks that followed, being unable to do not much more. But after hours of battle, his patience paid dividends. Cepheus’ blade, Conclusion, swung just a little wider than it should have. And in the small window of opportunity, the boy severed the Hearth King’s arm. Drenched in blood, Gale halted at the sight of his fallen opponent, breathless.
“Well, have we reached the end yet?” asked Gale.
“Yes, we have, albeit not as my stars had predicted,” said Cepheus, barely audible. “I wonder if it’s because the world failed to predict the arrival of a singularity, your arrival.”
“What did I tell you about revolutionaries?” said Gale, with a laugh. “They are of a cursed fate.”
“I sense everything in you, invader,” said Cepheus. “A sadness that refuses to relent, overshadowed by an insatiable thirst for knowledge. You see, that’s what helped me build an army – the ability to assess a being’s worth, all of it in my eyes.”
“And what was it, my worth?”
“Everything, or perhaps nothing,” said Cepheus, with a smile. “You could have been my path to greatness, or I to yours. We know the answer now, and you know of what you must do.”
“I wonder what it is that you think I must do.”
“You underestimate me, Curse of the Black Night,” said Cepheus. “I see it all, remember? Your wicked tongue as well, it does not escape me.”
Out of respect, Gale chose not to dance atop the Hearth King’s body. He set it ablaze, watching as the corpse turned to ash. Once aware of their ruler’s demise, the goblins returned. Gale sensed little to no hostility from them. When finished, the boy retrieved the two horns that remained despite the fire. He frowned, briefly, upon remembrance of his promise to the Perytons.
In time, the soul-fires emerged, from both the Hearth King and the sword he wielded. It fused to become larger, a powerful amalgamation of both knowledge and strength. Through the absorption, the goblins gathered as spectators out of sheer curiosity, accommodating of their stronghold’s conqueror. It took some time, but soul-fire assimilated without difficulty.
Once finished, Gale exited the cave without hindrance. There was rain outside, of a different kind. It carried with it an unnatural silence, broken only by the sound of thunder. The boy hesitated, given the state of his body. Would he be allowed to spend more time inside the cave, at least until after the storm? He turned to address the goblins with the request, tired and drained of motivation.
But before that, the boy closed his eyes. He ventured into the ethereal guidebook, merely to reassess his situation in the World of Transition.
Blessing: Divinity from the Goddess of the Black Night
Description: Your ancestry has earned you favour from Kalika, a powerful goddess of the Hindu pantheon.
Gale returned to the material world, finding the goblins deep in discussion. In time, they nodded in agreement. The boy thanked them for their kindness and returned to what little comfort the cave offered. But his mind wandered; the goblins had slowly begun to recede from their superstition around Gale as a curse. They called him something else now, a man of the storm. Tempestatem.