At the turn of the third night, Mioverold shifted as an organism would – with unease, and under threat. It tremored at several regions, some with the aftermath of strange events even. But at Shadowmere, the Transitional World resisted, against a strength it had determined as foreign, unwelcome. It pressed to rectify a seal that had weakened beyond hope of repair; it struggled to purify what had become mostly tainted and corrupt.
Upon sunrise, the world quietened. It had stilled in fear – against an army of the dead, against what was to come. The Elder Undead marched without sound, muted by softened mud, and paused at a distance a little away from Shadowmere. They split to form a path, and then separated for comfort – blades raised in a welcome. With a tap, in unison, the soil rose, but muted still; with another – it made a sound. Muffled at first, the Elder Undead clapped feet against soil with an incessant desire for noise, an applause.
When the dust settled, they turned – eyes as red as burning coal – and fixated on the army in front of them, stationed as an impediment to their advance. The Elder Undead clattered their teeth in a laugh, and then louder. It pierced Godvildian morale, and further, when the laughter deafened into howls. Slowly, the trees creaked as well; they fell apart – finished in their duties, and returned to Aeterna, merging with the soul-fires in haste. It marked the start, corruption in the form of something poisonous and unpleasant. The vapour flowed with a dark colour, consuming what was not dead – flesh and bones, and with a gluttonous appetite.
In time, the fog thickened; it worsened as well. Shadowmere had begun to crumble – the gates, the barrier, everything. At the sight, Zane frowned; he felt a sliver of something familiar, an aeter trail – clouded with emotion and ferocity. Amidst the howls, it then followed – laughter, only more human this time. At the sound, the poison rushed in its approach, but halted under stronger influence. It flickered, and later retreated without impact. In its final moments, Shadowmere simply imploded – urging a moment of silence from the Elder Undead.
What once stood as a prison, now sphered into darkness, allowing for the laughter to resume once more. An arm pushed from the black mass, of what remained of Shadowmere. There was another push, another arm – all of it, eventually. With a deep breath, the once prisoner devoured the miasma that had formed; he gazed at the Godvildian army and smiled, wider at the sight of someone familiar.
“I wondered about the person that had managed to repel my miasma,” said the person that had emerged from Shadowmere, eyes upon Zane. “You’ve aged, old friend, quite a bit in fact.”
“And you appear to have worsened; the corruption, it now spoils your blood,” said Zane, with a grim expression on his face. “I had never wished for me to see you again, Ceraunus.”
“You’re too harsh, Lord Zane; then again, I suppose it’s good that you never changed,” said the once Noxun King, with a wry smile. “What was it again – comfort in familiarity?”
“I still can’t believe it; the story was supposed to play with you as the hero – the king, and us as followers to your will for a utopia,” said Zane. “I should’ve looked for a way to kill you. This, your release, I realize the inevitability of it all now. The answer, it was never about keeping you sealed.”
“But you needed me,” said Ceraunus, with a laugh. “For your little gimmick, to stabilize the world you so cherish.”
“A sad truth, indeed.”
Ceraunus merely scoffed in his response – eyes closed and in the comfort of darkness. He focused to cover the entirety of Mioverold, to analyse and understand change. It mattered, the little things – the way they breathed now, the way they used aeter, the spells even. Ceraunus consumed the knowledge that had remained out of reach during his imprisonment. His fingers slipped through the veil that separated his world from that of the dead and more, the Vault of Seraphina. He pulled away, refocusing to the powers that ruled – the Lords, the Grandmasters, and the Suntarian Swords as well. It left him impressed, if only mildly. But in a place, closer to the sea, he felt something else entirely – familiar and yet unneeded, a reminder of old defeats. With a slow breath, he narrowed to assess the threat in front of him – the army, its combat potential, and the person who had yet to speak.
“It’s true, then,” said Ceraunus, a little disappointed. “You shattered your gates to defeat me at the time. Why are you even here, Lord Zane?”
“To assist,” admitted Zane, matter-of-factly. “I’m aware of my inability to battle you given present condition; but three thousand years is a long time, and you’ll soon know – the full might of the Godvildian Empire.”
“He is an exception, even with us to compare to,” admitted Ceraunus, with a laugh. “But where’s the fun in devouring weak prey?”
Masura unfolded his arms at the comment and took a casual step towards his comrade. He gently placed an arm atop Zane’s shoulder and implored a state of calm. “It doesn’t suit you, nor do you need to – speak on my behalf that is,” said the Suntarian Sword, reassuringly. “If the Corrupt King thinks me prey, then so be it. He’s free to embark on a hunt he may never return from.”
Overcome with curiosity, Ceraunus eyed the Godvildian Lord once more. He stressed for an answer, eyebrows raised, but relented in time – his attention elsewhere. With a bow, the once Noxun King stepped away from the thought of confrontation. He lowered feet to moist soil instead, and slowly walked towards his nearest soldier; it amazed him – the sight of his army.
“About half is my estimate,” said Ceraunus, abruptly. “Don’t you think so?”
When the Godvildian commanders refused an answer, he continued – eyes atop Masura, “It’s as large as an ocean; it suffocates – your aeter volume. But I estimate it to half the strength of my army. And then, then what?
“Lord Zane knows this as well; it’s why we build armies. Individual strength only gets you so far, and in your case – very, very far. But the question persists, does it not? Then what? Perhaps I step into the battlefield; maybe I avenge my fallen soldiers with Godvildian blood, or better yet – I raise every last one of my fallen soldiers again and repeatedly, until I bleed from aeter depravation. Three thousand years, and the nature of battle remains unchanged. You weigh your threats, you understand the consequences of a state of depletion; it’s why you won’t engage in battle, not unless I do.”
“Intuitive,” said Masura, without emotion. “But three thousand years is a long time; and your knowledge in warfare is a little dated. I don’t liken it to something impossible, because one way or the other – we will force your participation.”
Ceraunus tilted his head and smiled, merely. His aura seeped without form, under threat. Zane observed it as well, cold around his fingertips; it had changed, the aeter essence that had once represented conflict and division.
But even as tension thickened, Ceraunus retreated without the intent of combat – wizened through his time in captivity. He sighed, and then calmed, with a softer expression on his face. His hands rummaged through old pockets, underneath armour, and retrieved what appeared to be a pouch. In slow, dramatic motion, he loosened the small bag to unravel several shards – a small heap, atop palm, and with a strange aeter aura.
“Bold words,” said Ceraunus, in response to Masura. “But as much as I would have liked to take you up on that challenge, I see that I’m needed elsewhere; I find that there is something I ought to verify.”
Zane tremored – his face ashen with fear; he remained chained to his position nonetheless, duty-bound as a commander at war. It marked despair, despite the shroud of mystery – Ceraunus’ intent. The once Noxun King resealed his pouch, one item removed. He taunted with its display and placed it at the tip of his tongue.
“I’ll see you some other time, then, old friend?” asked Ceraunus, as he swallowed the shard. With a wave, he added, “I suppose this does spoil your plan; you know, to capture the source of the undead. Very efficient, if not for the fact that I stole from Mallan right before my imprisonment. I couldn’t use it when we first fought due to the Argonaut’s seal, and it never worked when inside that cage you had built for me, but now – well, I don’t need to spell it out for you. Breaking the mechanics to the shard certainly did take some time. Then again, it is as you so frequently mention – three thousand years, a lot of time.”
The once Noxun King laughed in the wake of an odd light that cloaked him in a warm embrace; it deconstructed his body – from the bottom at first, and then in slow upward progression.
“No goodbyes?” taunted Ceraunus, with a laugh. “Well, well, I’m not one to leave without gifts for the great people of Suntaria; I assure it – your entertainment, for when I disappear from this godforsaken place entirely. It’s good for the heart as well, to be away from anything that bothers the mind.”
“Lord Bloodseed,” addressed Zane, a whisper, and in haste. “Prepare the troops to engage in combat for when the light fades.”
“Very well,” said Masura, with a nod despite puzzlement.
After a pause, Zane added, “Those shards – they’re relics from the era of High Humans, designed for immediate transportation. Ceraunus Antiochus, he’s free and on the move; and I’m afraid I have no idea where to.”
Gale brushed his arm against the table, and then another, shifting to a position of comfort. He waited with an expression of boredom, General Conatus in a seat beside him, in anticipation of a guest – a prisoner of war. In time, the doors opened, with several guards as an escort to the commander of the invading army. She moved in slow steps, shackled to chains designed for the purpose of aeter restriction – never hurried, never touched, merely encouraged to follow from one location to the other.
One of the guards pulled a chair and gestured for the Relictan Lord to take a seat. He later glanced towards his General, and nodded in acknowledgement of a muted command. Without word, he unchained the prisoner and retreated to reunite with his comrades. Jacquelyn massaged her wrists at a slow pace, a little numb from her hours in captivity. She scanned the area, but resigned to settle for her apparent interrogators. Her eyes first assessed General Conatus, a man of great reputation within the World of Transition, and then Gale – an unknown, almost indecipherable.
“I apologize for the inhospitable environment, Lady Jacquelyn; I’m sure you understand it,” said General Conatus, with a cough. “Have our soldiers disrespected you in any way?”
“Not at all; I didn’t expect even this much as a prisoner of war,” admitted Jacquelyn, truthfully. “But I would prefer if we got on with whatever this is, an interrogation?”
“It would have been,” said General Conatus, with a sigh. His eyes, for a moment, slipped a glance at Gale in bewilderment; it puzzled the mind, the Half-Lord’s request. “We have a proposal for you instead.”
Gale leaned onto the table, with dramatic effect, and paused to add to the tension. He intended for it, the wait – the anticipation.
“Lady Jacquelyn, I need an answer from you, about something rather specific,” said the Half-Lord, steadying his posture as he did. “Exactly how loyal are your soldiers to you?”
The Relictan Lord eyed the person that had posed her the question; it reflected the aeter presence of an abyss, and a calm that bothered. She manipulated her aeter to move in strands, with the purpose of assessment, but hesitated – inches from the source. In second attempt, and another failure, her arms reeled into concealment – clenched in fists, tight with frustration, but with a face reflective of a feigned calm.
“I apologize for what it is I’m about to ask,” said Jacquelyn, cautiously. “But who exactly are you?”
“Gale; I’m a Combat Representative for the Kingdom of Suntaria – a Half-Lord,” said Gale, in an introduction. “And there’s no need for an apology. I should have offered the information myself, given how it’s our first time meeting each other.”
Jacquelyn smiled, and slowly turned to Conatus with a puzzled expression on her face. “Half-what?” asked the Relictan Lord. “What does that even mean?”
“Nothing; it means nothing at all,” said Gale, without any hesitation. “All you need to understand is that I have a Godvildian General seated next to me.”
In remark, the words helped the Half-Lord retain control of the conversation. It pulled into an old memory even, one of endurance, of what had extended Gale’s stay within Basaraa Forest. Hands that had calloused, skin that had scarred, eyes that had wizened from the cruelty of Mioverold, and a mind – a mind that had matured under excruciating pain.
Gale trembled upon memory of it, of when he had absorbed the aeter from both the Hearth King and his sword, Conclusion. Thousands of kings, their wisdom and intelligence, everyone worthy to have wielded the sword – they swirled in distress inside of him, inches from the soul, and carnivorous in their collective appetite. It took special circumstance, for the Half-Lord to survive that is; the circumstance of an immunity towards pain, both in body and mind.
“It was worth it, given present situation,” thought Gale, in remembrance. “Strength aside, it crammed my head with knowledge – politics, history, the art of negotiation. I wonder if they would recognize me even, my parents.”
Amidst the silence that followed, Jacquelyn trailed as well – into thoughts of her own. Despite puzzlement, she searched for certain familiarity, in a name that had persisted without answer. With a deep breath, she surrendered to old reports – hundreds – but paused in memory of a comrade.
“You’re the Godvildian Hero from the Bridge of Souls, the one who killed Noah Oblique,” said Jacquelyn, slowly. “We lost you after your battle against the Elder Undead – no reports, no news; we concluded your status as a non-threat, dead. I suppose we were wrong to have done that.”
“I’m sure you had your hands full,” said Gale. “The Godvildian people, they understand how best to control the flow of information.”
“Well, that’s true,” admitted Jacquelyn, with a smile. “How else would I have missed someone as delicious as you are?”
Gale returned the smile, but absent any emotion. “The question; would you be interested in giving me an answer any time soon perhaps?”
“Not very patient, are you?” said Jacquelyn, almost a whisper. “I’m interested, but for all the wrong reasons. Your aura, it weakens.”
Gale leaned against the back of his chair, face without expression. He stared into the eyes of the person in front of him, a person blessed with charisma and intelligence; it magnified given her features – beauty in rare form. The Half-Lord gulped, momentarily, and then laughed. He caught Jacquelyn frown from the corner of his eye; it urged for him to raise an arm in apology.
“I suppose there’s no denying the fact that I am a man – tranquillity or not,” thought Gale. Aloud he said, “I’m sorry, I truly am. It’s just that I’m not used it, women and talk of this nature. My mind, it’s a simple thing.”
“You jest, surely,” said Jacquelyn, resting chin atop palm. “A young soldier rising through the ranks at pace? How daft of Godvildian women.”
“I wouldn’t know; my time in this world latches to blood and decay,” revealed Gale, truthfully. “I seem to have become indifferent to it, the simple pleasures of life.”
“And that bothers you?” asked Jacquelyn, only more interested this time.
As words pressed for continuation, Conatus forced a cough, urging an interruption. He placed an arm atop the Half-Lord’s shoulder and pulled the latter for a message in whispers.
“What are you doing?” asked the Godvildian General, inaudible almost. “We were supposed to talk business; you asked me to trust you with this! Do you not have this under control?”
“I think I do,” whispered Gale in a response, uncertainly. “Wait, wait. I’ll handle it.”
Jacquelyn watched the two men settle into their seats, and clear their throats in unison. It made her laugh almost. She eased to comfort, forgetting her status as prisoner of war, if only for a moment.
“The proposal, yes?” asked Jacquelyn.
“Yes, the proposal,” repeated Gale. “How about it; are you willing to listen at least?”
“We have danced around the matter long enough, I suppose,” said Jacquelyn, with a sigh. “Very well, to answer your first question, yes – my soldiers would plunge to death upon command; they are that loyal.”
“That’s a satisfactory answer; it certainly helps reaffirm my decision at least,” said Gale, adjusting tone to situation. “But before that, there are certain matters for us to address; you attempted an invasion at Raskas, and you failed. Under Godvildian protocol, and given the world’s condition, we’re only ever allowed to keep the commander alive, for questioning.”
“I’m aware,” said Jacquelyn, without emotion. “It’s a risk we live with as soldiers.”
Gale relaxed his shoulders and sighed; he gazed into the eyes of his prisoner of war, in search of an answer behind the latter’s apathetic exterior.
“You’re speaking the truth,” said Gale, taken aback and in a low voice. “It doesn’t bother you at all, does it?”
“It’s a risk we chose to live with,” stressed Jacquelyn. “But given your knowledge of protocols, you must be aware of what happens after; when captive commanders offer little to no information?”
“Yes, I believe so,” said Gale, unflinchingly. “That’s rather admirable of you.”
“It’s why they follow us,” said Jacquelyn, with a smile. “Our admirability.”
“And what if I told you of an alternative approach to the matter?” said Gale. “An approach that offered you a second chance at life, for both you and the soldiers; interesting, yes?”
“What’s the catch?” asked Jacquelyn, hesitantly.
“Information, of course; we’ll need everything you have,” said Gale, matter-of-factly. “And yes, there is one other thing I’ll need.”
“For you to submit to the Curse of the Black Night, my blessing,” said Gale. “Your soldiers as well. I want you to join my army, as a General.”
As the clock ticked to continuation, Jacquelyn froze in thought of the request. Her mouth almost worded it, a vehement no, but her heart – it spoke with empathy. She bit her lip, the weight of thousands on her shoulders; it wore on her, tired her. But something distracted, a reprieve that offered her time. As it neared, the Relictan Lord trembled – a shiver representative of fear. This, it was different. She startled the Godvildian soldiers on standby, in a hurry and off the chair. It was too fast. Conatus, he noticed it also. And Gale, he noticed it first. They tilted their head towards the ceiling and watched, broken and petrified. It tremored, and then more.
“Take cover!” bellowed Conatus.
They didn’t hear it, not with the explosion that followed. Fire at first, it coursed through the walls with devastating effect. It choked the people that survived, the aura. Amidst the flames, Gale stirred – on the floor, sparsely buried. Weakened and in a daze, the Half-Lord rose to his feet, in a struggle. He couldn’t find them – Conatus, Augustine, anyone. His ears, however, heard a voice. He rushed to find Jacquelyn under heavier debris; she urged for a rescue.
Gale paused at the sound; he shook his head with uncertainty and hurried in his attempt to free the Relictan Lord. He continued without rest, until an arm suggested otherwise. His eyes followed to a finger; it pointed at something. The Godvildian Half-Lord turned to find him, the invader – a picture amidst chaos.
“I’ll be back, Lady Jacquelyn” said Gale, in a whisper. “Don’t close your eyes; just don’t close your eyes.”
“I accessed the vault about information regarding this city, on my way over; they marked it as near impregnable,” said the invader. “Well, I suppose you can’t believe everything you read.”
“Who are you?” asked Gale.
“Is it you? Very impressive for someone so young,” said the invader. “But you don’t threaten as much as Mallan did; what do I call you, a soft Argonaut?”
“Who are you?” repeated Gale, unsheathing his sword this time.
“The rightful heir to this world; its saviour even,” said the invader. “I’m sure you’ve heard the name.”
Gale sprinted on instinct, and leapt, his sword raised with offensive intent. He followed through without effort, but lightened mid-air. His eyes caught the sight of crimson, and an arm right after – his arm, separated from shoulder. Gale raised the other in a sequence, lips in a whisper, and then nothing. His body jerked from the impact, something against his neck, all of it. He fell, or only a part; in pain, the Godvildian Half-Lord rolled to find his body at a distance from his eyes.
“I’m sorry for doing that,” apologized Ceraunus, grabbing what was decapitated by the hair. “You see, I have an unpleasant memory associated with that spell. It was involuntary, I swear.”
The once Noxun King dangled it in front of him, a bloodied head – now drained of life. He flicked at the nose, played with the cheeks, and tossed it aside right after.
“Well, not that I blame you for it,” said Ceraunus, with a shrug. “I happen to often fail when negotiating with an Argonaut.”
End: Book 1