(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thank you!!)
The day started off the same as it had been for the last handful of months for Lizbeth and her girls.
They woke up early in the morning, had their brief exercise, washed up, got dressed in their uniforms then ate the balanced and healthy breakfast, before leaving for the school.
The only difference was that this morning, Lizbeth didn’t feel so good. Morning sickness had descended with a full force and laid her flat. Normally, she’d try to brave it and accompany the girls to school but on this particular day, she felt really bad, really weak.
It kinda felt like all of her energy was being siphoned out by a specter or some such. It wasn’t a nice feeling at all.
So, against her better judgment, she decided to stay at home today. Rosy went with the girls, quietly shadowed by the competent bodyguards of Count Martinus Beaufoy Trentham the Fourth not too far behind them.
Even with all this extra layer of protection, she still felt slightly anxious at this arrangement.
Ironically, it was because of the lengthy inactivity of the Children of The Amber members. If they had moved, showed some signs of threat or something, at least she’d know and take precautions. But with them not doing a thing, the uneasiness in her heart only festered into a full-on bleeding wound.
Anyways, she decided to put her feet up and rest. She took a comfy seat on the living room’s couch with a cup of fine tea.
Savoring the taste, she perused all that happened so far in this crazy year and a bit.
Everything began with Kain. With him taken from her. Then, she had to leave her home of nearly a decade behind. Then her husband went off on a personal vendetta, not even bothering to call on her or inform her just what had happened to him.
And then, there were the two girls. Kaleena’s academic performance was less than stellar.
Rather embarrassingly, however…. Just because she was born with a natural gift of having a multiple Affinity, it didn’t mean Kaleena was smarter than other kids her age. If anything, the opposite proved to be true – her daughter was a blockhead. She’d forget the simplest things the moment she turned around. It was quite infuriating, to be honest. However, she was improving gradually. Via learning through actual, physical activities, not through books and lectures.
On the other hand, though….
Katrina was the star pupil of the school. She swept all and sundry before her with the insatiable desire to learn and better herself. To a point where it was hard to tell whether she was still a child or not. Some said she was driven.
Whether that was a good thing for a child her age remained to be seen but at least she was doing great which caused a good deal of pride for Derrick back in Riverfield.
Lizbeth sighed and chuckled softly. Remembering how not worried her daughter was at not being the top of her class, taking everything in her strides, she thought that Kaleena was more like her father than her. That was slightly disappointing to her but not to the extent that she’d throw a fit over it.
She erased the rueful smile upon hearing a rustle of footsteps. A maidservant appeared, carrying a letter.
“My lady, this came in the mail earlier this morning. It’s from Master Michelle.”
“Thank you,” replied Lizbeth, briefly nodding her head.
Her teacher had gone to the city of Lafayette to research the biological samples of the two Divinity class beings recovered at the site. That was several weeks ago. Her correspondences were frequent enough to alleviate any worries Lizbeth might have towards her teacher’s health and they contained a good amount of info to keep her entertained as well.
“Master also sent this to you,” said the maid as she left a small wooden box the size of a carry bag.
Lizbeth examined it for a second, unable to recognize it. She then broke the wax seal open and read the letter.
“Dear Lizbeth. How are you feeling? The morning sickness must have gotten serious now. Remember to take the concoction I left behind to alleviate the symptoms.
The analysis of the samples of the Divinity class beings is going painfully slow. I have no idea when I can come home. At this rate, maybe only at the end of the year.
Lafayette is still as ravaged as is. There are plenty of reconstruction work being done but if I’m honest, there is still a very long way to go before the life here normalizes.
Oh, and I do hope that boy Count is keeping his hands to himself – he can be a bit frisky fellow, that one.
By the way, remember the acquaintance I mentioned to you before? He gave me a special medicinal mixture. Let Kaleena take it – it might retard the process of her losing the eyesight to see the Aeterna flow. I personally verified the ingredients and they have a high chance of success. Give a single dose every seven days, before she goes to bed.
Let me know if anything changes.
With Love, Michelle.”
Lizbeth opened the wooden box and gazed at the dozen reddish pink pills the size of a lozenge. It looked like a candy, even.
“Well, at least Kaleena won’t mind eating this,” murmured Lizbeth before closing the lid shut.
As she took another sip of the tea, yet another intrusion occurred and interrupted her quiet time.
“My lady, an Adventurer has come with a letter from your husband, Baron Lomax,” said the maidservant.
Lizbeth was stunned to hear this news but composed herself quickly enough. She permitted the maidservant to bring the man inside.
The Adventurer was shown in. He looked scruffy and young. Inexperienced. In other words, a low ranked, the type that was always used as messengers.
Lizbeth frowned a little. Damien sent a messenger? After all this time?
She was slightly ticked off but getting angry at a messenger was uncouth behavior so she held back and simply received the letter.
After giving the young Adventurer some extra coin, she settled her mind and cracked open the wax seal on the letter.
The contents of it were rather shocking, to say the least.
She was already aware of the destruction of the Marlborough City Hall. It was a big news down here in the Capital, after all, and by that extent, the ideal gossipping material for the mothers of the kids attending the schools in the Academy.
But what Damien wrote in the letter was incredibly worrying. This thing about a possible civil war, the acts of aggression of the Barbarians, and the involvement of the Visitors – she had a difficult time wrapping her head around it all.
What made her especially worried even more was the fact that Damien wrote this at the end of the letter:
“By the time you read this letter, I’ll be across the border. I’m planning to set off with a small group of Adventurers with a clear set of grudges up North to track down the Sky Ark construction site as well as the place where the Visitors enter our realm.
I’ll do my best to return before our baby’s born, I promise.
Dear goddess, I miss you, babe. Again, I’m sorry for being an ass and not sending a letter until now. Forgive me, please. When I get back, I will receive every punishment you have lined up for me without complaining.
Wait for me. I will return to your side without fail.”
Lizbeth nearly fell off the couch. Her breath was ragged, harried. How could she remain calm, after reading this? All she thought about in this moment was how foolish his actions were. And how irresponsible they were as well.
She placed a palm over her heart, trying to still her erratic breathing. It wasn’t working. Combined with the weakness she was feeling due to the morning sickness, the strain on her body began to take the toll on her.
Before she could call for help, she faltered and fell.
The last thing she saw between the heavy eyelids were the face of the maidservant full of panic. Lizbeth’s consciousness was slowly swallowed up in the darkness, and a figure of an imaginary demon appeared in her mind, devouring the smiling face of her husband.
All she could say at that moment was….
No, don’t go.
Whenever Damien blew at his hands trying to warm them up, the mist coming out of his mouth turned crystalline like a fog of ice.
He grimaced. It was too early in the year for it to be this cold. He may not have lived in this parts of the world for the last decade or so, but that didn’t mean he forgot all about the climates of this land. Even the accompanying Adventurers thought the Winter was descending far too early this year.
A unwelcoming cold snap was surely heading towards the city of Marlborough in the near future.
Damien and six other seasoned veterans were moving along the ridges of the Northern Mountains, past the snowy peaks and dark, foreboding forests with sharp trees, and into the rocky cliffs of the nameless landscapes.
It had been a week since they had set off. Damien glanced at the men following him, noting their toughened expressions and demeanors.
All these men lost someone recently. Family members, loved ones, whoever. They all had a score of sorts to settle with the ones responsible. And thanks to Damien’s careful wording during the recruitment process, these men now had a clear target to direct their anger at – the Visitors.
The preparation for the expedition up North took more than a week, giving Damien a chance to recover from the physical and mental exhaustion.
He didn’t simply dawdle during this time, though – he fervently studied the available map, planning the route he would take with a religious zeal. He also went around recruiting Adventurers for the trip, with the finances allocated by none other than Count Caleb himself.
And these Adventurers were a bit special; all of them lost someone important during the Barbarians’ assault on the city or when the City Hall exploded. It took a fair bit of doing, but Damien was able to convince them the real culprits were the Visitors and the nobleman from the Capital pulling the strings. Jonas’s journal and its testimony of a dead man, as well as his own status, helped in that regard as well.
Dukakis, in the meantime, redoubled his efforts to bring order to the city while putting out the flames of ire coming from the Capital Argos. That was to be expected – the Magistrate and a whole lot of people were killed, after all. And the acting lord of the territory was caught downplaying the severity of the Barbarian situation, under reporting it to the central government for months.
He had his hands full, hoping to buy some time for Damien to start the expedition which was being organized in secret. Dukakis was literally calling someone important every single day in his office via the communication crystals. He was so occupied that he barely got a wink of sleep during the week.
Damien was also busy during this period. Not as stressful, mind you, but intense enough to nearly forget all about his own wife back in Argos, heavily pregnant with his third child while looking after his daughter and the niece.
If it wasn’t for Cassius reminding Damien of his duties as a father and a husband, he might have gone on the journey without letting his wife know of it.
So, rather hastily, Damien tried to borrow a communication crystal to talk to Lizbeth but…. that idea was rejected just as quickly. Dukakis needed it more. And even though there were supposedly other crystals for a long distance communication, using one for himself was out of the question.
The most obvious one was destroyed along with the City Hall. There were others held by the wealthier merchants but nothing short of being ordered to, they were all going to charge exorbitant sums for a briefest of brief time operating it. That was not going to work for someone with money issues like Damien. And he wasn’t willing to ask for some from his family when he was already getting a lot of help from them as was.
In the end, he could only rely on writing a sealed letter and to hire an Adventurer to safely deliver it.
As he stared at the gray clouds that seemed much closer than before, he wondered whether his carefully worded letter got to its destination unsullied. He had to believe in the young Adventurer, after all.
The thing was, though….
While he was finishing it, he couldn’t help but quietly shed a drop of tear or two. The smiling faces of his family constantly popped up in his eyes, blocking his view and kept on asking him whether this road was the right one to take.
It was difficult to write that letter. He really missed his girls. He missed waking up in the morning next to Lizbeth, missed embracing Kaleena and ruffling her hair and complementing all the progress she had made. He even missed Rosy and her…. ample charms. And not to mention, Derrick and his uptight face, Katrina and her cute attempt at imitating her father, Delilah and her delicious cooking, the endless wheat fields of Riverfield….
“How far are we from our destination?”
One of the Adventurers, a big dude named Feisty – probably not his real name – asked Damien, breaking up his nostalgia-filled daydream. The big man had silently stepped closer to Damien as they took a short break over the crest of a mountain range.
Breaking out of the stupor, Damien pointed over at the huge, foreboding slope a league away, visible to the weary but determined eyes of the group.
“Past there, according to the map. Get some rest, Feisty. Who knows what matter of nasties is waiting for us over yonder? Conserve your strength.”
Feisty nodded grimly. His eyes flickered with terrible killing intent. This man lost his entire family when the City Hall exploded – he was renting a room in a nearby building that collapsed from the shock wave. His wife and two young children were home on that faithful day.
Suffice to say, he had to dig three graves later that week.
He wasn’t the only one angry. The rest of the Adventurers were itching to get some action under their belt. They all lost someone, after all.
Looking and studying the hardened faces of these men, Damien swore in his heart that once this matter was put to bed, he would definitely go and see his family. And tightly embrace each and every one of them. Take a good, long holiday with them.
He firmed his resolve and nodded at the men. “If you’re rested enough, then let us move.”
The men didn’t hesitate nor did they raise a voice of resistance. They moved in unison, like a well-oiled machine on their way to slay the proverbial dragon.
The weather was playing ball as well. Besides the aforementioned clouds, the sky was on the clear side with no sudden snowfall expected.
To the West, the sun was beginning to set beyond the horizon. The group had maybe less than three hours to go over the crest and confirm, once and for all, what was beyond there.
Even if the night fell, the men would not suffer too greatly as they were all experienced in that regard as well. Yes, it was definitely not recommended that one operate in the middle of the darkness surrounded by the frigid conditions but all of them were accustomed to the extreme already so it wasn’t as big an issue as it might seem from the outside.
Undeterred, the group soldiered on, leaving behind the continuous lines of shallow footmarks. And as they got closer to the slope in question, the sky overhead dimmed. The mountains obscured the sunlight and brought the night quicker than it should have been.
However, to everyone’s tightening gut reaction, the world before them, past the blind crest, was as bright as the daylight. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that something major was afoot over there.
Their suspicions were confirmed soon enough.
As the group squatted down behind some snow-covered rocky formation, they had a great, unobstructed view towards the valley below. The area was huge; enough to relocate an entire settlement of Marlborough and still have space left over for a handful of its surrounding villages.
That wasn’t the most bizarre thing, though. No, that honor belonged to a series of massive light sources that stood tall and shone incredibly bright with the kind of rays that didn’t lose out to the sun.
They were so bright, in fact, it was hard to see past the glare and confirm what was happening down in the valley without getting closer. Still, the general gist of the matter could be grasped – there were a couple of huge, black shapes that were unmistakably a pair of Sky Arks.
One of them seemed near completion, while the other, only about half of the way, what with all the exposed skeletal frames and stuff on display.
Alongside the massive structures, they saw what looked like giant warehouses; tiny specks of people slowly milling about around them. Again, too far for Damien’s group to check out the identity of those people.
The group quietly studied the dockyard for a dozen breaths of time before moving on. This place wasn’t ultimately their destination but rather, a side attraction, so to speak.
“Let’s come back here later,” whispered Damien to his men.
The group left the spot and headed further Northwards.
The darkness had fully descended on them now. The bright lights of the dockyard behind them could not dispel this gloomy night. The only saving grace was that the weather was still playing nicely, which was good for cutting down on their traveling time.
They climbed up the mountain side until encountering a rocky ravine. Here, all of them softened their footsteps, extra mindful of making any unnecessary noise.
The loose gravel on the ground, coupled with the thick blanket of snow made the traversal of the terrain harder than expected, especially since they were trying to remain as quiet as possible, which was ironic in its own way.
The wind seemed to rise up as they moved in deeper into the ravine. The sharp and pointy rocks here possessed some unearthly, sinister gray color as if they were tombstones erected by the mother nature herself. It wasn’t just the color – it was this eerie feeling coming off of them.
As if they had entered a place they were not permitted to.
The closest comparison Damien could come up with was that this place was way too similar to a Sacred Acre.
Another half hour of walk later, the group finally came upon a ruin of ancient temple. And what a total ruin it was; only a couple of crumbling walls devoid of any carvings or fresco remained standing, trying to remind all the passersby of its former glory. Who knows how long they were left unattended to?
But the most important part wasn’t the walls but what laid beyond them.
The group took shelter behind one of the walls and crouched. Damien peered over the edge and checked out the massive Invocation Array carved on the flat, smooth rocky surface.
Ancient letters and runes, long forgotten by the passage of time, dotted the spaces between the ornately carved lines of the Array.
Right in the middle of the Array, a pair of metallic rings the size of a three-story building floated lazily – not suspended by anything and not affected by the irresistible pull of the planet below.
The rings themselves were full of the unknown runes and symbols. Each of the letters glowed softly and intermittently, and after Damien had gazed at them long enough, he could see that there was some kind of pattern to the light show, the way the symbols flickered in various colors. As to what they meant – that wasn’t really important to them at the moment.
“That must be it,” Damien murmured.
Around the Array, five men walked around the perimeters, covered head to toe in near-white coats, their faces covered in bizarre masks of sorts that covered the faces but also had a clear material over the areas around the eyes. Their job was pretty obvious even to the most casual observer – to guard this Array.
More importantly, though – they were carrying the long metallic cylindrical things, just like the ones at the City Hall, except that now these weapons were colored white, just like their apparels.
“Visitors,” Damien signaled to the rest of the group to take a gander.
Silently, the men took turns to check the targets out and exchanged silent nods.
“Something’s wrong,” said one of the men. “Why are there only so little men guarding the… portal? Surely, if it were left to me, I’d stick a whole company of soldiers to protect that thing.”
Everyone tensed up after the realization hit them. There was just too few of them here.
They became fully alarmed; Damien’s hand reached down to Frostbane, ready to unsheath it.
Then, a loud, thunderous echo cracking the still air.
Suddenly, the dark night sky became as bright as day time. There were figures emerging from everywhere,loudly shouting at Damien and his men.
The man next to Damien grunted and fell. The group couldn’t understand what just had happened. But Damien knew.
“They are onto us!!”
He shouted and dived flat on the ground.
Those with a quick wit followed suit and hit the floor. More of those cracking sounds boomed across the ravine, shredding the cold night air with the shrill scream of destruction.
Of the six Damien came with, two were shot down where they crouched. It was a pinpoint sniping at its finest display. Each of the shots was not fatal but still at the points on the body that would disable the targets.
Cursing inwardly, Damien and company try to hightail it out of there but were swiftly surrounded by the men wielding those cylindrical things. The Visitors were loudly shouting something at Damien and his men, but since the insurmountable wall of language barrier stood between the parties involved, no meaningful exchange of words took place.
At least the gestures of pointing to the ground seemed easier than the most to understand. Damien quickly figured out that these Visitors wanted them to hit the ground again, face down.
In other words, the Visitors wanted a total, unconditional surrender. Peacefully, if possible.
The Visitors, shouting and threatening, pointing those cylindrical things at Damien and his group, approached even from behind.
How did this happen?! God damn it!! Damien continued to curse. How did they know of our presence?! We were so careful with our infiltration!!
One of the Visitors began to yank the longsword strapped to one of the Adventurers. He looked angry but since he was surrounded by the beings with unknown combat potential, he dared not to resist.
As this was going on, Damien noticed that there was this one man who wasn’t dressed the same as the others. He didn’t even hold that cylindrical item either.
He lifted the clear eye-mask thing, exposing his face to Damien and to others.
Damien frowned. This man’s facial structure was foreign to him, although he was undoubtedly a human. A head full of dark hair, a matching pair of eyebrows, deep, dark eyes and flatter cheekbones and jawline – not a face Damien had encountered before.
If Kain was here, he’d recognize it, though – as an Eastern Asian man.
This Asian man spoke English in a cold tone.
“So, you’re the lot that made me freeze my ass waiting for you all this time. Boys, bag ’em and process ’em for an immediate shipping to HQ.”
Damien didn’t understand what this man was saying, but the disdainful intonation was hard not to pick up on. Even Feisty, who was right next to Damien, just about to get stripped of his weapons, understood the sneering tone of the man in front.
Feisty then whispered softly.
“Hey, Damien, listen. I’ll distract them. But in return, you go lay a flower at each of the graves of my family, alright?”
Damien didn’t even have the time to say no. Because, as soon as one of the Visitor got close to Feisty, the burly Adventurer’s hands shot out and grabbed that cylindrical thing and pushed away, dragging in the surprised wielder of the said item into his embrace.
Commotion broke out in that moment. Gritting his teeth, Damien too sprung to action, unsheathing Frostbane and swinging it hard.
The blade of Frostbane shimmered icily as it drew an arc, and as it did so the air solidified into a frozen wall. Being in an environment that suited its natural attribute, the might of the sword was in its full display. Even the armor-piercing rounds failed to get past this Aeterna-created barrier.
Taking this chance, the other Adventurers got into a confused tussle with the rest of the Visitors, and a melee broke out.
Feisty cried out. “Go!! Damien, run!!”
Before any of the Visitors could block the way, Damien was up and running, breaking past the cordon of the Visitors in front and liberally swinging his Frostbane to cause the air to crack apart and freeze.
He dashed hard into the snowy darkness, with people screaming and shouting far behind him.
Bullets flew and grazed him but acting on nothing but instinct, Damien raised his prosthetic arm to deflect them, causing bright sparks to shoot out into the air.
Seeing this, the Asian man’s eyes glittered in avarice. He looked around him, just in time to catch the sight of the U.S. Special Forces operatives finally restraining the rowdy natives, pushing them and locking them on the cold ground.
Nodding coolly, he pointed at the fleeing back of Damien and said, “Sergeant, please apprehend that man alive if possible but intact at the very minimum. His weapon is the first priority. Go.”
“Yes, Doctor Kurosaki.”
The Sergeant then signaled to his men. A fireteam consisting of four men broke away from the full squadron and headed beyond the walls where they promptly pull the covers off five hidden snowmobiles parked there.
Soon, the mountainous landscape was reverberating to the harsh and shrill cries of internal combustion.
The sound, of course, didn’t escape Damien’s hearing either.
What a nerve wrecking thing, that was. The air seemed to shred into bits, the whines of the engines piercing into his brain and scarring his psyche. Not even the most vocal flock of harpies could produce such a sharp screech.
Not only that, those snowmobiles were equipped with high intensity LED lights and were capable of illuminating a deadened football stadium with their combined brightness.
It didn’t take too long for the operatives to zero in on Damien’s location, as he stumbled past the snow covered ground.
He felt the Visitors chasing him down with the kind of relentless pace he could not hope to match. His breathing was getting heavy, his feet were moving slower and slower with every step taken. His energy reserves were being quickly depleted. The overall outlook wasn’t too good at this rate.
A snowmobile carrying the operative closed in from his right side. Damien raised his prosthetic arm just in time to receive a blow to his side. The metal arm absorbed most of the impact but he was still lifted off the feet and fell hard into the snow. His head rang as if a bell went off behind his ears.
What a surprising strength, carried behind that attack. If it weren’t for the arm, his ribs might have been broken. As he laid on the snow, he grimaced in pain, his thoughts beginning to fade away.
But the snow got in the way. Its coldness was truly refreshing. It seeped under his clothes, into his bones, and into his mind, telling him to get up and keep on moving. That’s what he did.
Not only that, the clarity brought on by the bit of snow getting under his clothes meant his thought process livened up more as well. Immediately, he could tell that these Visitors riding on the noisy Invocation Tools were avoiding the grounds with rocky undulations, instead preferring to take the smoother paths.
That gave him an idea.
Rather than trying to plow through the relatively flatter snowy plains, he decided to take his chance and brave the narrower, more treacherous way down the slope of the mountains.
Here, there were many, many more protrusions of sharp and unforgiving rocks; one mistake was enough to send the careless into the abyss below. Surely, those Visitors riding on those fast but unwieldy things would not be able to set foot there.
His perceptions told him there were still several Rutens left before he could reach the potential safety. He figured that it best not to waste time and start moving already.
Damien dived forward to dodge when another of those noisy things rushed in from behind. He got wise after the first hit so he wasn’t going to suffer the second time.
He dodged again when he heard the snowmobiles getting closer. He was now seeing the pattern here. Dodging out of the way was getting easier.
However, that didn’t mean the operatives would just stay still and not improvise. Oh no.
Finally, one of them had enough of as-slippery-as-an-eel Damien and decided he’d rather shoot his quarry.
So, he brought the telescopic lens to his eyes, trained the crosshair behind the moving back of his target, and squeezed the trigger.
His aim wobbled a bit, but the bullet still found the mark and grazed Damien’s shoulder.
The burning pain from being shot, a sensation that was already quite familiar, exploded from the wound, making him grimace bitterly.
The red blood sprayed on the white snow as the bullet went through cleanly. Ignoring the searing pain, Damien took a calculated tumble forward and dived behind a large boulder, trying to put a barrier between him and those troublesome weapons of the Visitors. His head narrowly missed the rough edges of the boulder, but consequently, even though those cracking sounds rang out from the cylindrical weapons, he was protected from the further damage.
Feeling relieved slightly, Damien quickly continued on his way. As for the operatives, they had to dismount from the snowmobiles as the terrain became too unsuitable. However, on foot, the soldiers exhibited the kind of trained movements not even the most experienced mercenaries of this world could pull off. In other words, they were fast. Like, really fast.
The slight gap Damien had opened up was now evaporating fast. The pressure emanating from the operatives were weighing down on his back like a bag of bricks.
More shots were fired, but Damien was somehow able to duck and weave past them. Or, more than likely, the natural formation of the boulders and rocky outcroppings helped him in this regard. Also, the darkness helped a bit too, shadows where the lights from the snowmobiles could not reach making sure he’d be obscured from the sights of the operatives.
The angle of the slope became steeper as well. The footing became so loose, a single wrong step could mean the end of the road. It was the same for the operatives as well, so the playing field was entirely at a fair level.
However, Damien held a slight advantage over these men. The reason being that he had seen the map and studied it extensively before climbing the mountains, plus him having seen this particular slope during the day. He knew roughly which way to descend.
Now, the gap between the pursued and the pursuers was growing once more. His confidence at getting away grew as the distance increased. Even though the mission itself was a failure, as long as he made it out alive, then it was quite alright to call it a reasonable success. After all, his wife and daughter were waiting for him to come home.
Before long, the pursuers were so far back Damien could afford to take a breather and slow down his mad dash just a bit. It was still quite dangerous to relax, of course, as the angle of descent remained precarious, and the footing just as loose as before, but if it was for a moment to recover even a sliver of his stamina which would bring him closer to his home, it was worth all the risk.
A smile stretched across his face, the cursings of the Visitors and the loud cracking noises getting further away still. He slipped once or twice, but hell, that was nothing to worry about compared to the fate that may have awaited him if he got captured. So it was all good.
His grin was destroyed in a heartbeat, however, when a roar exploded out of nowhere, coming from deep within the mountain range.
It was a roar quite unlike any other.
The mountains rumbled. The ground quaked suddenly.
Damien lost his footing for good. And so did the Visitors.
The roar continued on for a good few minutes, and the world trembled as if it was terrified by the being capable of making such an incredible racket.
Gradually, the roar faded away, but Damien still felt the aftereffects. He was unable to stand, his knees still trembling in instinctual fear. He wasn’t the only one, too; the Visitors were shivering like a bunch of wet dogs, panting heavily on their kneeling position.
Damien forced himself to stand. Even though his heart was beating so fast, almost as if it wanted to jump straight out of his chest, he had to continue moving. He may be momentarily safe here, but that could be easily shattered by the smallest, littlest things imaginable.
He looked back towards the Visitors, and they too were trying to stand back up.
Beyond them, behind them – he saw a movement.
A white wall was rushing down towards them.
An avalanche was swallowing everything in its path downwards. And its next targets were the Visitors and Damien.
It came down so fast, Damien couldn’t even think of escaping.
All he could do was close his eyes, and think for a brief moment, the images of his family, their faces full of happiness.
Then he was slammed by the rushing snow.
He and the operatives fell headlong into the dark abyss below, their screams drowned out by the tumbling snow.
As the morning sun rose that morning, Count Caleb stirred in his bed, waking up suddenly.
He couldn’t remember when he tucked himself under the sheets. The last thing he did recall, was when he was taking a long, hard chug of the alcoholic beverage brewed up by a local. It was his favorite, this drink. Helped him with his sleep.
He slowly pushed his thinning body out of the bed, and after putting on some robe, he strode out of the chamber. He was headed to Dukakis’s office, his former office, to check out what had transpired during his slumber.
He was greeted by the members of the staff. Caleb returned their practiced bows with a short grunt, knowing that lengthy greetings from him were unnecessary and also not expected. No need to waste time and energy there.
When he arrived at the office, though, he noticed that Dukakis already had a guest. He could see that through the doorway as the maidservants, after delivering the refreshments, were closing the door.
It was surprising to have one so early in the morning, so understandably Caleb was taken aback.
Not even hesitating for a second, Caleb cleared his throat and pushed open the door, striding inside as if he owned the place. Which, in truth, he did.
Dukakis looked startled and stood up from his seat. “Father, you are awake.”
Caleb nodded and turned his gaze toward the person sitting on the sofa opposite Dukakis’s.
The man was clearly a nobleman – a very high ranking one at that, judging by all the luxurious trinkets worn around on his person. And never mind the fact that there were four other people standing near this noble.
Even a blind bat could tell those people “belonged” to the nobleman.
“Why don’t you introduce us, Dukakis. Who is this guest in our house, so early in the morning?”
With a gruff voice, Caleb sharply looked at his son’s face, only to see a strange mixture of apprehension and determination swirling there.
There was sadness in there too. Lots of them. And unmistakably, guilt.
Before Dukakis could say anything, the nobleman spoke up first. His voice was calm and cultured, but the domineering attitude could not be disguised within. Nor did the man bother to do so in the first place.
“Oh, my sincerest apologies, Count Lomax. Where are my manners – as you say, it is early in the morning and I don’t usually stay up all night long. Please do forgive my lapse in etiquette, good Sir.”
The nobleman lightly dusted his lap before standing up smartly. With a grin that bothered on an evil sneer, the man spoke as he straightened his back.
“How do you do. I am Grand Duke Maximus Aurelius de Hamilton, the brother-in-law of the Emperor.”
That name ran like a thunder inside Caleb’s head.
Because that name was quite familiar. Only then, did he able to remember the face before him.
This man’s name was on the transit records Damien dragged out from the City Hall. And his face was roughly sketched on one of the pages in the journal written by a man named Jonas Bremble.
Caleb wasn’t a fool. He could put two and two together. His body began trembling like crazy when the implications of this man being inside his house became clear.
“….What did you do, Dukakis?!”
Caleb breathed in heavily, barely containing his fury.
Dukakis’s face was pale, ash-colored. He too was taking a deep, deep breath. He looked so much like a lost kid in that moment, unable to resist the guilt and fear of the punishment.
But that moment passed by quickly and instead, a glint of madness rose in his eyes.
Dukakis silently spat out the words, one by one. “Father, it’s about time I take the proper reigns of this territory. His Imperial Highness has kindly agreed to oversee the process of me inheriting the title of Count as well as the smooth transition of all the responsibilities.”
Caleb was now rooted on his spot, no longer shaking furiously. A chilling coldness swept up all over him as he realized what this was.
“Dukakis, what have you done? Did you make a deal with…. him? Did you sell out your brother?”
“I ensured that this House will continue on,” said Dukakis as he gritted his teeth. “I have made sure we all will thrive in the upcoming era.”
Caleb then dashed forward with a shocking amount of speed, taking almost everyone by surprise. He grabbed the collars of his son with a vice-like grip and shook him, hard.
“What?! Are you trying to doom us all? What have you done, you imbecile!!”
Dukakis’s face remained pale but the madness in his eyes didn’t fade away. Rather, it became fiercer. With a powerful shove, he pushed his father down to the ground, panting heavily like as if he had run a marathon.
Coldly, he looked at his trembling father on the ground and declared.
“Damien was a fool for coming back here. This territory is mine, not yours. Not his, but mine. He dug his own grave.”
Maximus was watching the scene develop with a bemused expression on his face, calming drinking the tea. He was thoroughly enjoying this; after all, he was well aware how the old Count opposed his older sister, the current Queen and her concerted efforts to place one of her sons on the Imperial Throne.
Straightening his rumpled jacket, Dukakis turned to face the Grand Duke and hastily apologized for the unsightly event before handing Jonas’s journal over.
Clicking his tongue, Maximus perused the old and dirty journal for a moment or two, before tossing it in the hearth and its healthy flames.
Then he spoke to Caleb, his domineering attitude fully intact.
“Your son has made the difficult but ultimately the correct decision for your bloodline, good Sir. After a lengthy but tough negotiation, he had struck an advantageous deal for your House, so you should be proud of him. And, as for you…. well.
This is the end of the road for you, Count Lomax – former Count Lomax. Just sit back and enjoy the new era soon to be upon you and this glorious Empire.”
Caleb was short of breath. The poison that was suppressed until now with the help of the medicine, flared up violently and he felt like all the blood flowing within him were drying up.
But he couldn’t care any less about that. All he could think about was the faces of his last born son, Damien, and his wife, Lizbeth. And the faces of his grandchildren. The last two were imaginary, though – since he never got to see them, after all.
One more regret, piled up on top of many others. How unfair it all were.
“Don’t worry, father. You will be taken care of, that I guarantee. I will also take care of Donna and Lady Lizbeth as well. I swear it,” said Dukakis, before calling the servants in from the corridor. “Take Count Lomax to his bed chamber. He needs his medicine. Hurry!!”
As he was being carried away, Caleb noted how gray the sky outside the open windows looked. They were the most gray he had ever seen in his entire life.
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