Numbness. That was all Gale felt as his body touched the ground, charred black from the heat. It reminded him of his first encounter with General Magellan. He looked around and noticed nothing impressive, barren lands as far as the eye could stretch. But there was more to the location that just its appearance. It held a presence that far superseded what he had ever felt in the World of Transition.
As he stood upright, easing the stiffness from his limbs, a gentle light floated by him. It moved away in haste. Another followed, and then hundreds more. Some lingered to observe the boy, others remained steadfast in their mythical desire to push ahead. Gale touched one that had chosen to stay, causing it to radiate a blinding light. In time, it took the shape of woman, smiling down on him.
Tears devoid of any emotion welled in the boy’s eyes. The phenomena confused him, more so because of his inherent ability to remain of sound mind and unfeeling in the world. He took a soft step toward the woman that had appeared before him, but the shape would not hold. Farther still, Gale could slowly identify something that resembled a bridge.
“I would avoid that if I were you,” a voice said, one of Gale’s aides. “These lights, they are soul-fires making their way to Aeterna.”
“You’ll have to be more specific that that, Sebastian,” said Gale. “I’m new, if you remember.”
“When life ends, the body returns to the earth, but the souls return to Aeterna,” explained Sebastian, as briefly as he could. “It’s the source for all power in our world. When Ehedus blesses you, your body becomes able to access more from the Aeterna.”
Gale turned away to reassess his surroundings once more, finding that they were in the presence of an innumerable amount of soul-fires. Every single one of them gravitated toward the bridge, beautiful in their effort.
“And yes, about not touching them,” said Sebastian. “These souls are pure, holding neither will nor intelligence. You probably witnessed her life from birth to death, even the circumstances of it. Looking at your tears, it must have been a sad one.”
“But I don’t recall what she showed me,” said Gale.
“This isn’t something I fully understand,” said Sebastian. “But I think it’s more appropriate to say that you feel their life, and the emotions they went through.”
“And I’m sure you have questions about that black patch as well,” said the other of the two guides. “It is something us Lightning Elementalists deal with. Our abilities let us travel faster than most, but the energy output scorches the earth every now and then.”
“I guessed as much,” said Gale, nodding his head. “Thank you.”
In the brief exchange, Gale understood what Zane had meant by learning from experience. As vast as the World of Transition was, it would have been impossible to understand from an ordinary session of question and answers. He followed his aides, the mark of the shield on both their armours, to a large campsite.
Past the barricade, the boy observed soldiers — some seasoned, others frightened. They reached a beautifully designed seat, atop which sat a man Gale found difficult to gauge.
“Well met, Gale,” said Akshay. “I sent a request for aid across several allies nearby. You come here highly recommended from Zane Morgul himself.”
“Gale, this is Lord Akshay Bahrain,” introduced Sebastian. “He holds the highest rank in the Godvildian military.”
“One of the three?” asked Gale with a smile. “If I remember correctly, Aaron Heart stands your equal.”
“You keep yourself well informed for someone who’s been here for a month at most,” praised the Godvildian Lord. “And from what I hear, you defeated Noah Oblique even.”
Akshay made sure to say that out loud, enough to alert almost everyone in the vicinity. Gale found himself surrounded by curious soldiers, some of whom eyed him cautiously. He noticed a strange sense of fear from the crowd, and perhaps a little disbelief.
“That is true,” admitted Gale. “Does it affect the way I’ll be treated here?”
Lord Bahrain met the boy’s gaze without hesitation, noticing an oddly unrelenting will within them. It echoed years of battle experience, something that under normal circumstances would not have been possible. He remembered what both Aaron and Zane had mentioned regarding the boy, about him being different, even by the standards of those that visit the World of Transition.
“Nothing of the sort,” said Akshay, waving his hand. “I’m just honoured to have you here.”
Watching their leader embrace Gale, the other soldiers eased from their stance of caution. As they walked away, the tension that so thickly clouded the air dissipated. Akshay gestured for his guest to follow, and the two of them strolled to the other end of the campsite. They stopped at the foot of a bridge, the very same that Gale had identified first upon his arrival.
The valley in between held nothing but darkness, and it was harder to breathe for those unaccustomed to the atmosphere. Slowly, the soul-fires gathered, hovering around Gale, with some even moving through his physical body. But unlike last time, the boy remained unfazed. Akshay watched as Gale interacted with the subjects of Aeterna, a rare sight.
“It looks like you’re built for this world,” said Akshay. “Are you able to speak with them?”
“No,” clarified Gale. “It’s just as Sebastian had mentioned, you only feel their every emotion through life.”
“Soul-fires are driven to tell their stories before they reunite with the Aeterna,” revealed Akshay. “Most of us avoid them because of how heavily it affects us. You, on the other hand, you don’t seem too bothered by it.”
“I seem to have lost my humanity,” explained Gale, looking down at his feet. “This world, it disallows me to feel anything of any sort.”
Akshay raised an eyebrow, curious at the boy’s choice of words. Not that it was untrue. He brushed the thought aside, knowing that it was a matter for another time. Instead, the Godvildian Lord pointed to the other end of the bridge. Gale obliged but could see little with the mist that obscured much of the path.
“You’ll need to focus,” said Akshay. “This is something you must see.”
At the time, the mist thinned — if only for a moment — almost as if in encouragement from the Godvildian Lord. Gale strained his eyes for a better view, finding what was intended. Camouflaged in darkness, the boy spotted something black, humanoid in shape, and mounted atop what appeared to be the skeletal frame of a horse. As the mist cleared, Gale gulped at the sight of an almost innumerable force on the other end of the bridge.
“Lord Bahrain, if I may ask,” Gale slowly said. “How many soldiers do we have at camp right now?”
“Everyone who could, spared as many men as they could,” said Akshay with a smile. “But if you want me to put a number to it, I’d say — roughly one hundred. Reinforcements are on their way, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic about how much time the enemy’s willing to give us.”
“And how many on their end?”
“Four thousand, easy.”
Akshay stood in silent isolation, his general at a distance behind him. Under the guidance of moonlight, the Godvildian Lord viewed their nemesis. He trembled in eager anticipation of the battle. It’s what made him as great as he was, an earnest desire to walk away from the precipice of death time and time again. He felt incongruent about those thoughts, but despite the guilt that came from it, he couldn’t help but admit his addiction to victory.
“Are you becoming battle-hungry, my lord?” asked Aayush. “You’ll only feel guilty later.”
“I have reached as far as I have, to become one of the three, by forgetting what it feels to treat your soldiers as living beings,” said Akshay. “I love my soldiers, but I’d sooner run them to their demise than fail in my duty to protect the helpless that stand behind us.”
“I’ve never met a man quite like you, someone who both hates and loves war,” said Aayush. “But that’s what many of us are drawn to, and it’s why we bear the shield.”
As the conversation settled into silence, the two men noticed the horses neigh from the other end of the bridge. An arrow — set ablaze at the tip — launched into the air as a warning followed by the deafening sounds of weapons clanking against shields. Torches were raised skyward and the war-cry grew ever louder, moving from soldier to soldier. It was only a matter of time.
“Did you notice something?” asked Akshay. “I sense no more than a thousand soldiers.”
“They’re definitely Relictan, but yes,” said Aayush in agreement. “No more than a thousand soldiers; a cloaking spell perhaps?”
“A necromancer is more like it.”
As the clock ticked closer towards battle, Gale wondered about significance that surrounded the Bridge of Souls. The Aeterna was a source that connected to the World of Transition without discrimination. Even the Relictan kind benefited from its generosity.
Under normal circumstances, he would have simply asked. But tt was something the boy noticed, the soldiers’ unwillingness to engage in conversation with him.
“They should warm up to you soon,” a voice said, tapping Gale on his shoulder. “Don’t let the environment discourage you.”
“I’m more surprised by your lord’s decision to talk of my exploits out loud, General,” said Gale. “The morale here does not look too great.”
“Lord Bahrain has his reasons for doing what he does,” said Aayush. “Your aberrant existence and victory against a third-tier wielder, it just might be what inspires these soldiers today.”
“Aberrant existence is it?” said Gale with a laugh. “I suppose flattery isn’t your strongest suit, General.”
“Well, give them some time.”
Gale looked up at the sky and sighed, acknowledging that at least the Godvildian treated him with nothing but kindness and respect. Aayush sounded genuine, and the fact compelled Gale to accept the circumstance around him.
“There is something I wanted clarified,” said Gale. “You said something about Noah being a third-tier wielder. What does that mean?”
“I forget that you’re new here,” said Aayush. “There’s honestly not much to explain; everything is linked to your relationship with the gods if you’re either Noxun or Godvildian. The Relictan kind are different, of course, but they have their own methods of acquiring strength from the Aeterna.”
Gale nodded in silence, guessing that the explanation was far from finished.
“Regardless of whether you’re an Elementalist or Wielder, your tier classification hinges on the strongest form of magic you can utilize,” explained Aayush. “Most of the soldiers on our side are either of the first or second-tier. Generals, myself included, rank between the third or fourth-tier; the latter being people of extraordinary calibre.”
“Aaron and Lord Bahrain,” said Gale. “I suppose they’re people of extraordinary calibre?”
“You jest,” said Aayush, bursting into laughter. “I’m ranked at the fourth-tier; Lord Heart and Lord Bahrain, they’re unclassified. But based on the spells I’ve known them to utilize, I would put them in the ninth, or even tenth-tier. That, that’s the domain of the gods. It’s why they have soldiers by the thousands under their command.”
Gale understood that the World of Transition largely differed from where he once resided. The laws, and even the physics of things. Despite its largely archaic and fantastical environment, there existed people atop pedestals beyond unreachable for those on earth. They were powerful, and majestically so.
The conversation was at a standstill, and Aayush took a seat beside Gale, offering him a portion of his food. There was no denying the grimness of what was to come, but in the boy’s mind, the soul-fires truly did make the Bridge of Souls a beautiful sight.
“Another thing,” started Gale. “I really want to understand what benefit could the Relictan possibly have of taking control or even damaging this place.”
“I doubt that they actually want the bridge destroyed,” said Aayush. “The concentration of soul-fires near the Bridge of Souls ensure fertility and wealth to everyone around it; in fact, much of our economy depends on the six towns not too far from here.”
“And we stand to defend it with merely a hundred men,” quipped Gale. “How important the Bridge of Souls must be.”
“You’ll soon learn to not complain too much about the cards dealt in battle,” said Aayush. “Besides, I’ve lived long enough to not worry about the odds.”
“Your nonchalance is simply astounding.”
“True,” admitted Aayush. “But that’s what happens when you become part of the undefeated shield.”