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Chapter 102

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on August 17, 2016 at 11:55:14 pm

The metal man strode through the debris littered yard. His explosive arrival accompanied by a litany of clicks and clanks. A black silhouette illuminated by a single blood red orb shining through its visor. One thousand clockwork gears sang in chorus as a red halo pieced the settling dust. Each plate strapped to his body adjusted and readjusted in tune to the shifting gears hidden underneath. They moved as if they had a mind of their own and were not strictly bound to the man who moved underneath.


This mountain of charcoal black steel clung to black knight's form. A voice, warped by a metallic cold ring, betrayed its wearer's true identity. Yet Count Aaron had always been a shorter and portly man. Hearing the corrupted voice emerge from behind the inky abyss of the armor's visor had all those present doubting their ears.


Duke Malco pulled himself back to his feet with great effort. He was forced to use the greatsword as a crutch. A dozen others groaned and rolled about with similar injuries, but were rendered causalities. All others cowered in fear. Even Count Aaron's own men shuddered and stared slack jawed from beyond the breach. Despite his head being befuddle due to trauma, the duke managed to raise the point of his of sword toward the intruder.


If the Count's appearance were not enough to instill a sense of terror, the echo in his voice ground down the resolve of men.


     “Let us make this parley frank.”


     “Traitors don't have any right to make demands,” Malco grunted, in spite on the pain.


     “Don't let your pride deceive what your eyes are showing you—”


Aaron raised his right arm and inspected the forearm as he rotated it. He flexed the fingers and seemed to enjoy the intricacies of all the moving parts. He punctuated the pause by making a fist.


     “—You fought bravely... Stubbornly. In vain. But bravely. Surrender yourself and I'll let your men walk free.”


     “Call of your own men and I'll give you the chance to personally make me surrender,” Malco retorted.


     Aaron sighed and appealed to the Duke's men surrounding him in the courtyard, “ Peerage under me for those that make the good Duke see reason!”


Not a single soul moved. Aaron stepped back and turned around, yet not a single one of the Duke's men stepped forward. Some of their eyes averted on instinct when his red orb centered on them, but no one lowered their weapons. Many of them had actually raised them. Those that were on the floor were now beginning to pull themselves off the ground as their lord had. With spears and billhooks in hand, the men began to cautiously make a distant semi-circle beside Malco. A forest of bristling iron points with oaken shaft firmly in their grip.


     “There are things that you can't buy with your silver and gold,” Malco said with a pained grin.


Aaron slowly lowered his arm and glare. He intended to burrow a hole right through his liege's soul, but the Duke remained undeterred.


     “Buy all the swords you want. Pay for hands to wield them and then steal the rest. All that wont purchase men who will stand beside you.”


Malco looked beyond the knight and spied Aaron's mercenaries who had still failed to pass through the breach. They were as terrified as the Duke's own men, but had not the resolve to pass through the threshold toward the steel giant who bushed aside the castle's gates with a sweep of its arm. They had likewise witnessed as Malco armed with Halazuel had cut down dozens with ease. So long as he wielded the heirloom, the man felt he had no reason to fear Count Aaron. His forefathers had triumphed over monstrosities for centuries. Aaron's halo could not taint its bluish-gray steel glint.


     “Whence comes your own claim to Yaleria?” Aaron asked. “Was it not your ancestor who overthrew the rightful king? Do you not notice the irony of his progeny so casually accusing me of treason?.”


     “My ancestor cast down a monster and a threat to all of humanity! How dare you muddle your tantrum with such a just cause!” Malco snapped back, spittle flying from his maw. “The world neared its ending then. The cause of that Apocalypse was cast down. There would have been no future for Yaleria had—”


     “But you do betray the future!” Aaron shouted back. “How much silver have I heaped upon your coffers? My father and my father's father did the same. Can you fathom such a number? And what has come of my enduring loyalty? Did you assume the role of provider? My father proposed a plan to drain the Billowbrook bogs. It would have taken less than a decade and given hectare upon hectare of arable land to feed your people. He spurned my father, and you likewise turned your nose up at such an en devour. You thought it was beneath you. Did you play the builder and make Mornurg an envy of the Western Empire? No! You spic and spanned the walls of the Brightkeep instead. What patronages did you indulge? Where are the artists to make great works which would be an envy of the world? Nowhere! You piled weapons to rust into dust. All in preparation for a phantom. An enemy that will never come!”


Count Aaron raised his arms in prayer toward the overcast skies.


     “And when a man appeared who possessed the will to see these through you shrunk like a shadow under the noonday sun!” Aaron's lowered his arms and pointed furiously at the Duke. “I could blame that all upon poor leadership and lack of vision. Most men are guilty of these things and I have learned you cannot allow yourself to hate your fellow man for such things. Least you grow to hate the world... But you coward. You let her die. Your very own flesh and blood. Your sister. My fiance. Because you'd sacrifice your whole realm so you can continue playing soldier like your cur of a father and his grandfather before him! Your pride could never let the son of a measly peasant outshine the polish on your sword!”


     “Aaron you treacherous son a dirt farmer! How dare you!” Malco erupted.


     “You always thought I had it in me, but figured I never had the means to do it. Didn't you? You thought there would be the time in the world. A simpleminded grunt like yourself could never understand what a true statesman is. How to turn a small fortune into the capital to build a nation is beyond you. You left me every year with so little after those criminal taxes you impose, but a little lending here and there and you can make a mountain out of a molehill.”


     “No mere money-changer can ever be a leader of men!” Malco bellowed.


     “And I will no longer bow to a glorified bandit! Your father and grandfather were at least grounded in reality, You, however, appears to have taken after your neurotic mother. Perhaps, with luck, the bad blood she left behind would have been chased out by my sister.”


     “All so your nieces and nephews would be my heirs...”


A foul mood swept over Malco. He could not resist letting loose with one final barb. The most poisonous one in his collection.


     “... And speaking of which. Have you come to terms what harm your insatiable lust for power had on her health? She was too sweet a thing to be dancing to your strings. No, I doubt you noticed. You only cared about her because through her you could get your greasy hands on Yaleria!”


     “I care for both!” Aaron's metallic voice rang and shook the castle walls. “Which is more than I can say about you!”


     “Your words are as withered as the grapes you try growing on that estate of yours. Yaleria is an old horse, a sick and frail one, but she's resilient and all we have to stand in the face of evil. The men who reside here have always acknowledged their duty. Everyone but you. With blood so thin and minds so weak, the sound of two silver coins rubbing together drove you and your father mad with greed. You'd burden Yaleria with the weight of all your ambitions and break her back. You are no man, but stubborn as an ass and as sour as the wine you make in those wretched and pathetic vineyards you grow on acid soil. And for what reason? To impress those weak louts hailing from the lands of milk and honey throughout the Empire?” Malco pressed on and twist his words into the cracks of Aaron's temperament. “A pathetic man such as yourself who has to rely on sell swords, magic tricks and gadgets has no right to rule these lands. The Almighty will never grace you or your family with the right, the divine right, to carry such a hefty task. Keeping the eternal watch over the Shadelands is bigger than you or I. It is through my family that the Western Empire has not been overrun by the undead many times over.”


     “And if the serfs were not tied to their lands in their serfdom, the miserable wretches would have fled long ago... What do you know of the lesser, common men of Yaleria? What do you know of the hardships they endure under the weight of your boot? Your blood may be as blue as it comes, but blood runs blue when it is cold. Cold and uncaring to the suffering of lesser beings. Perhaps you have been too preoccupied with your toils to realize what events are happening around you. Whole populations are uprooted and flood south. Meanwhile, heretics and monster fornicators are chased by hounds of the inquisition toward the North-East. That Empire you so desperately tied your loyalties to is dying. It will not die quietly, nor gently. When it implodes, the food stocks flooding in which you rely to feed the people will cease. Mass starvation. Mass exodus. You will rule over bones and nothing more.”


     “Snake venom!” Malco roared in reply. “By the grace of the Almighty himself, the covenant was for the Empire of Men to persist henceforth! By his grace I will weather your petty insults, but I will not tolerate your heresy!”


The ebony black helmet encasing Aaron's head shook back and forth. A sign of resignation. Malco would not yield. Not to that which Aaron saw as the embodiment of reason. And Malco could not bring Aaron to heel by reminding him of Yaleria's duty. Aaron could not be persuaded of the Empire's endurance. To say that it could ever fall would be akin to suggesting the sky could fall.


     “So be it,” Aaron cold voice rang. “If you intend to continue clinging to your ways in lieu of reason... I will see to it that your name goes down in history the same manner as the Mad King's did.”


He raised an arm up high, accompanied by the regular clicks and clacks of his armor, and dropped it down in a single violent motion.


     “Resume the attack!


The cut puppet strings of his men were mended. Count Aaron's words were carried on a sinister wind and shocked the nerves of every man present like a bucket of ice water. The front row of mercenaries nearest to the door trudged forward before Malco's men could rally themselves try pushing them back with arrows and slings.


A chill wind gave way to a cold gale. A few more observant soldiers on both sides froze in their tracks and stared bewildered at the air in front of them. Large clouds of mist from a winter frost clouded their vision. After the Count's metallic ring pierced the noon skies, the ground itself began to shake. Aaron and Malco were both forced to fix their footing as the tremor intensified. Neither understood what was happening.


Erupting from the soil was a palisade of ice crystals. Translucent with a pure blue hue, the spears of frost thrust up into the air before the Duke's men. Had they not been sufficiently armored the spear points would have skewered them. Instead, the spikes thudded into their chests and sent the front rank flying back into their comrades. Malco's men on the walls recoiled as the palisade shot up and high enough to tower over the outer walls.


Aaron spun 'round toward the gate which had sealed behind. He strode forward and slammed his fist into surface, but the wall was no mere brittle pond ice. It sung like a struck tuning fork and the crystalline structure diffused the kinetic energy of the inhuman blow throughout its superstructure. Successive blows caused a crude sympathy, but left nothing but a couple centimeters of shaved ice at atop the Count's black sabatons.


Malco's eyes were drawn to follow the currents of the shivering wind. He gazed up to the inner walls surrounding the castle's main keep. High above him he spied the unmistakable black dress flutter in the breeze along with the wavy platinum blonde hair. However, the distinct pale skin was also on display. His men likewise followed the eyes of their liege and pointed in amazement at the woman standing boldly upon the parapet.


Her arms were held out with her wrists slackened, so that they drooped toward the ground. What struck a cold spike in Malco's heart was that her hands were wreathed in that blue ethereal flame. This flame shaped itself into two claws which engulfed her petite and pale hands. They were like oversized gloves, yet moved freely according to her will. And they held dominion over the spires of ice rising into the sky. Their eruption from the earth, as they smothered the battlements below, mirrored the movements of the claws. As she pulled her wrists back, the icicles curled backward and completed the cage.


The Duke had no thoughts of relief. He felt the cold spike of dread through his heart send a shivering tremor throughout his body. Part of it was anger, the prevailing emotion he felt in her presence. Another part would be dread. That specter which haunted him had revealed itself to more than his eyes alone. The rest of it was shame. He knew without her help Sulunaerg's fall would have been immediate. And that's why only in his heart a dull thump of relief beat.


Aaron clawed one more time at the solid wall of ice and found it too slippery to scale it with his gauntlets' claws. He expended all his option and back away from the magical barrier. No one could see his face, but the suit of armor worked so closely in tandem with him that you could gauge his body language with a glance. There was no evident concern. Annoyance is the sole emotion to glean.


That remained true when the Duke's men began to circle around him. They kept their distance because they knew full well what strength he had after smashing apart the gate with ease. A dozen spear points could perhaps prevail with a thousand cuts. The Duke's men corralled the Count against the gate, but waited for their orders before engaging.


     “Well played, boy,” the Count chuckled. “So your mystery courtier was a sorceress all along? I would have executed this scene differently had I known.”


Hyria of the Shadelands, rightful heir to Yaleria, the one better known as the Duke's mystery courtier. She appeared in her true form to no one other than Malco, but she wandered the lands with a human disguise. Count Aaron recognized her since she attended his final social event as Count. No one informed him that she could conjure such an arcane feat, let alone her being versed in the magical arts. His safety had been at great risk and he had been vulnerable at that time. That realization unsettled him.


The pale woman. The beautiful lady with the long platinum blonde hair. Yet no one knew her identity. They suspected her of being the Duke's lover and left it at that. Many were content to know their liege had interest in women at all. They could not have known Hyria bore responsibility for driving away all other suitors. The mystery of her origin and pedigree gnawed at them. She did not have commoner blood, that much they knew for sure. Had they realized her true nature, the Church's Inquisition would have swarmed over Yaleria and burnt the Duke's castle to the ground years ago.


None of that deterred Aaron. He had come too far and given up too much. There would be no going back. Going back would also be unnecessary.


     “Call your men back, Malco,” Aaron's synthetic voice growled.


The Duke manged to pull his eyes off the woman on the battlements above him and leveled his gaze on the shining orb of light quivering within the Count's vizor. Not with fear, but shaking with anger. Malco's emotions were running wild and his focus shattered. He did not have the intestinal wherewithal to commit. An instinct screaming at him from his guts pleaded for him to exercise caution.


     “Steel wins battles, gold wins wars,” Aaron's metal voice seethed. “With this alloy, I will change the world!”


Aaron clenched his fists, and from between his fingers, a purplish-black mist billowed forth and pooled on the ground.




     “The Mk. VI: My greatest accomplishment, “Vee nodded to himself with an air of smug self-satisfaction. “Far from being my true magnum opus, but a great leap forward nonetheless.”


The gaunt and lanky man glowed as he spoke about his work. It gave him a sick, twisted and ironic halo amidst the settling dust. His sterile bald head glistening. It gave the impression of good health, but I knew he himself embodied the opposite. Vee fit the image of a man who subsisted himself on instant noodles and four hours of sleep. I knew the man was far from the paragon of mental health despite his jovial mood. I'd say it's because of the facial tics.


He couldn't keep his pride bottled up any longer.


     “I must admit the minute details of its machinations are a black box to me. It is operational and that is all I care for at the present time. I cannot complain all things considered.”


I remained an unwilling and captive audience. My body battered beyond a good night's rest putting me back on my feet.


     “Did you manage to make it even larger?” I groaned as painful memories returned.


Vee's Mk. V had been a giant living suit of armor. That thing enough strength to swat Chris out of the air and knock her unconscious. It's armored hide had been thick enough to resist the razor sharpness of her talons as well. It had hands large enough to grasp my torso like any man could wring another's neck. I had to tear its core from the wound in its chest to stop it. Had I not, the giant suit of armor would have squeezed my innards out through both ends. A monster twice the size would have as much destructive power as a howitzer.


     “Oh ho, no-no-no,” Vee chortled as he waggles a finger in my face. “Bigger is not always better, my friend.”


I nearly snarled at the nerve of him throwing about the word friend so readily. He paced back and forth in front of me and avoided trading the smirk on his face for my furious gaze. Vee drew his attention to a pocket watch which he fished out inner coat pocket instead.


     “Come. We are behind schedule,” he said and turned his back on me.


It took a few steps for him to realize I was not following. I could offer no reaction beside an exasperated shrug. My legs were shot and my body still convulsed in excruciating pain whenever I moved too much. I couldn't muster the strength to flip him off. Something I regretted now more than the pain I had subjected myself to.


Vee turned on his heels and moseyed on back. This time he pulled up his other sleeve and revealed a bracer around his forearm. Two thin fibrous antenna flipped up at opposite ends and were quickly connected by a continuous tendril of lightning. It hummed and crackled weakly, the string of electricity dancing about. I quickly got the impression it was some sort of measuring device. The string became flat-lined, as if calibrated, and then whipped up and down like P and S waves on a seismograph.


     “Residual traces... Far less than a normal decay rate... And do I detect... Yes! And divine as well. Fascinating.”


A flick of his wrist and the contraption folded away and vanished beneath his wrinkly coat which could have used a good ironing a month ago.


     “My apologies. It appears I misjudged the regenerative capabilities of this ward.”


My face went blank. I could feel my face tic and unconsciously blinked a couple times. Vee's latest cryptic curve ball had me shaking the debris out of my head. I just about blurted out 'what ward?', but thought better of it immediately. Once more I would put myself in the subordinate position in this mockery of a conversation.


     “You can detect it with that... thing?”


     “The Divine? No. Not the energy itself. You can, however, detect the divine by measuring its shadow. It is no mere bending of natural laws. That is magic's domain. The divine make a complete mockery of the mundane. It suspends the very laws of nature. Such is the definition of a miracle. Making the impossible possible. Something unpredictable outside of prophecy. It is something mortals were ever meant to comprehend... It lies in the realm of gods and angels. I must now confirm servitors of old gods are capable as well.”


Vee fiddled with the device on his wrist further. He moved dials and other knobs with clicks and clacks as if he were working with an abacus. I continued to stare at him, dumbfounded. How could he piece that together so quickly on so very little?


     “Fascinating. I am sure the Church would throw a fit if they knew. You have revealed such signs to them before have you not? I must assume they mistook it for mere sorcery. The signs of sorcery are certainly there. Yes. They are. The one who cast this is not merely a magical being, but divine as well. Truly fascinating.”


And with a flick of his wrist he stowed away the reading device on his wrist back under the sleeve of his coat. The professorial nut-job's attention snapped back like an overextended rubber band and fixated itself back to me.


     “Conjecture would lead me to say you are holding together thanks to this judiciously applied ward. A great deal of pure positive energy. Ripe with healing properties. Tsk tsk tsk,” He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “Haphazardly applied though. Very sloppy. A great purity of positive energy for healing properties nonetheless.”


Susan's handiwork. But when did she—oh right, the kiss. Remembering it brought a bit of color back to my face. Even at times like that she was looking out for me... But why through a— She wouldn't for such a petty— Would she?


     “Hold on one second, Mr. Laven.” Vee said mirthfully while delving his arm back into his inner coat pockets. “I can remedy this conundrum of ours immediately!”


One glass vial and a red rock later, the alchemist prepared to show his handiwork. He also stumbled along with that I assumed were his best bedside manners.


     “One must dig a solid foundation before one builds. But you, good sir, are akin to permafrost. An effort in futility... Build as high as you wish, but one arctic gale and the whole thing comes tumbling down... I assume it overloaded after compensating for that egregious chest wound.”


Vee dropped the red rock into the liquid and it quickly dissolved and dyed the water red. At least I hope that it's water and nothing else. Like acid. A really strong base could be as disastrous. I got a bad feeling sinking into my chest while guessing what exactly would happen next. This is something you gain through experience.


     “This may sting,” Vee said, ever so casually. “For a moment.”


I still couldn't feel my legs. At least not enough to get out of way. He removed his thumb from the and flicked its contents at me. It struck me right in the chest and face. What I felt immediately was an acute burning sensation. I experienced what it's like to be flayed alive and then dunked into a tank full of moonshine. My body keeled over. Muscle after muscle seized up and a second later I had been reduced to a shivering mess curled up into the fetal position. I very much wanted to scream, but my lungs had imploded as I gasped in pain.


Yet it ended as quickly as it began. I only had to endure about ten seconds of excruciating pain. That seemed to be my lot in life.


One coughing fit later and my chest popped right back out again. My lungs fill with refreshing air. I didn't mind it was still laced with dust. What had felt like every nerve in my body being set on fire with a blowtorch faded. A morphine overdose wishes it had this kind of pain killing strength. I could also feel my legs again. My hands pawed at the ground and I slowly rose back onto my feet.


     “Hmm. My apologies again. That took six seconds longer than it should have. It appears that condition of yours is rather pervasive.”


His blasé attitude made me want to punch him right in the face. I could not muster the strength to do so before glancing down. That wound across my chest had closed. The sight of it gone blew my anger away for a moment. A thin line of scar tissue —from my shoulder to the opposite waist— was all that remained. It felt solid to the touch as well. No pain shooting through me when I pressed it. No rupture. It's no mere suture. That liquid had been a bonafide health potion, the kind of generic thing you purchase in a video game.


     “A Philosopher's Stone?” I croaked.


Vee's eyes lit up. A pursed lip smile spread across his face as he nodded.


     “I heard you say you were a Free Brewer, so I assumed—”


     “That I was well versed in Alchemy? Half true. I spent the teens years of my life apprenticing, but I did not remain long enough to be anything more than a mere apprentice.”


He waved turned his back and beckoned me to follow with a wave of his hand. I took a couple trial steps to see if my balance had returned. My legs were indeed working. However, I decided to follow him slowly. Cautiously. I put my front foot forward onto the staircase with trepidation. A couple shakes of the railing told me it was still quite secure despite the surrounding destruction.


     “I grew disillusioned with alchemy once I fully understood its limits,” Vee said while he climbed the stairs a fair distance above me. “It is nothing more than reconfiguration of base elements.”


     “Lead into gold?” I asked.


     “A procedure rendered impracticable due to the costs involved. You'd do better becoming a prospector.”


     “Eternal life? That's what a stone is for, isn't it?”


     “Had I presented that stone to my old master, the man would have beat me blind. Rife with impurities. Useful as nothing more than a healing poultice. The purest of the pure would have resulted in your body rejecting it with unimaginable convulsions. Your suffering would be so great that it could very well have driven you insane.”


I would have liked to have heard that before it dumped on my head. They have those commercials that are half health risk warnings for a reason.


     “Nature abhors an alchemist. The human body rejects such crude methods of longevity. It is possible to extend your lifetime indefinitely with a Philosopher's Stone. But there are few records that suggest anyone lived beyond three centuries with a Stone's aid. One does not come out the other side the same. Eternal life, preservation of the body, all at the cost of the self. A bittersweet irony which the art of Alchemy is famous for.”


Vee reached the top of the stairs, turned around and waited for me. I dreaded the rest of the ascent, but pushed through regardless. A sickening feeling in my stomach remained every time I was forced to look at him. That's neglecting to mention when I'm forced to stand next to him. He stood just about as tall as me, yet he weighed significantly less due to his gangly build. If you looked past the baggy eyes there wasn't much in the way of health. He had glistening eyes, pearly teeth which grinned excessively and nothing more.


     “Abhorrent. That would be were your special clubhouse comes from.”


     “Yes,” Vee nodded. “History has no shortage of persecutions against Alchemy. From the temples of old which accused it of defiling the natural order. Those Universities magi classified it as a banned dark art. Its practitioners were forced into an alliance of self preservation. A crime against one member would behoove all others to harry the lives of the offending party. Their power grew as they gained the ears of the powerful. Those souls which could not petition Wizard nor Priest would come to us.”


The professor gestured for me to walk with him, but I opted to remain put. He took my blowing him off with an understanding bow of his head and continued onward. Because I didn't quite trust him, so I followed behind him by ten steps. Something keep gnawing at me. He intervened late, saved my life, healed me, but there was still something off about his behavior. I could hear a voice of protest yelling out from the back of my mind. Yet I could not place my finger on it. There were too many unanswered questions. I followed along, played along, and hoped that missing piece of the puzzle would reveal itself as Vee kept talking.


     “Now, where was I? Ah yes! Alchemy failed me. What I coveted more than anything else is the power of creation in the hands of a mortal man. Alchemy could make things, but through destruction. A trade. Twas nothing more. My veins do not course with the blood of mages. I am also not a praying man. The powers of the arcane and divine were beyond me. My eyes turned toward the heavens. I reached out with my hands to grasp at the very manifestation of heaven on earth.”


     I hazarded a guess, “Lightning.”


     “Correct!” Vee looked back and smiled. “All the pantheons of the ancients placed the dominion over lightning as the highest or among the most high manifestations of the gods themselves. If I could control it, the mysteries of the world would unravel.”


And he succeeded. His gadgets were proof of that. But along the way he must have realized he was playing with electricity. Right?


     “My research grabbed the attention of Ouroboros. They were surprised to see how far I managed to progress on my own. They offered me a place among them. I gave my name in return and henceforth became known as 'Vee'. But I did not find the solace I expected. I gained access to their archives, and their expertise. To my dismay they had discovered all I had labored over. I found myself forced to accept lightning as but a mere physical phenomenon. I was not much older than you are now when I had yet another dream crushed. It had not my work that impressed them. Only the speed at which I had progressed. They saw latent talent to advance other fields. But they could not help but let me realize the futility by myself and treated it as a joke. Another bittersweet exchange. I had grown accustomed to such things.”


Did that mean that Ouroboros had knowledge of electricity? That would be a huge revelation. If they did, the group was a century or so behind home. First man discovers fire and then makes it ever hotter. He eventually discovers electricity and his hunger for more energy grows. I had to make sure.


     “Then those gadgets of yours are the result of your experiment... Do they work on alternating or direct?”


Vee came to a sudden halt. His whole body turned to face me this time. The first thing I noticed was the puzzled expression on his face. I had something that went over his head. That face was enough to settle the issue. But a more frightening thought struck me. Vee with the tools of Tesla.


     “Direct of course,” Vee said as he pulled another vial from his jacket.


Inside the container surged raw lightning. I got a good look at it for the first time up-close. Sure as shooting it was lightning in a bottle. Sure as  That shouldn't be anything more than a metaphor. Yet there it is bouncing around inside a container no bigger than a D sized battery. Vee's turn to pose questions came. I could watch them form in real time by watching his facial muscle twitch and convulse. I had to move this along and take his mind off it. This man is THE one person I didn't want to know the king of things. I knew about a more modern world.


     “So how the hell does all this Alchemy and lightening tie into your golems? And why does that bring you to dormant magic ley line?”


That's the crux of the matter. Vee hadn't yet been forthwith about the basics of his being here. This world must truly operate on a whole other system. If it wasn't magic holding that lightning inside that thick glass case... Then what the hell was?


I shuddered to think what would happen if you could combine the two. Thankfully someone took pity on me and granted a stroke of luck. He appeared ready to continue gushing about his accomplishments rather than press me on the revolutionary hint I had dropped.


     “The Mk. V —and the others before it— were little more than glorified containment shells. Failures. Every one of them. No matter how attempts I conducted. Nothing more than an assembly line creation of steel women I had yet to perfect constructing a proper core. You could say I accidentally gave birth to hearts instead. Pulsating beings made of abyssal energy which bonded to the metal encasing it. My theory had revolved around preventing that moment of critical mass, the moment accumulating abyssal energy gains sentience. I created something much too large. Too large... As you personally observed.”


About the size of a grapefruit. I was forced to recall the sensation of it in my hand. That bitter cold crawling through my veins as it spread its tendrils across my body.


     “You are shivering. I see, so it invokes a cold sensation.”


My body went rigid and I glared furiously back at Vee as he casually studied my reaction to having these memories dredged back to the surface. He continued to play around at his leisure and it began to piss me off. I threw the ball back into his court, the least I could do in my state was get answers out of him while I had the chance.


     “You wanted a more compact version of the war machine?”


     “I never intended to create war machines to begin with,” Vee replied.


Every question I ask gives birth to a slew of new ones. This was an exercise in futility.


     “We've reached the crux of our misunderstanding, Mr. Laven. Securing funding for my research in this troubled times means I am reduced to playing the role of a petty arms-dealer. In more peaceful times, better times, I would have grown fat off the grants for the various universities and magus academies. No. I've been reduced to achieving my research milestones through trial and error.”


     “To what end?” I asked.


     “You already know. I can feel that you do,” Vee said with another creepy smile. “Don't play dumb with me now... Or is it less painful when it comes from my lips instead of yours?”


An uncharacteristic insult to my courage. So he wants this to turn into a dialogue rather than a lecture. Does he sense that I know more than I wish to let on? That worries me. That's something I do not want to be responsible for, so I'm forced to imagine what he could do with that kind of knowledge. He tosses lightning around like nothing, but does he know Fleming's left hand rule? No. He doesn't even know what AC or DC are. Those are still things better left unexplained. I'd sooner play along with his pseudo-mysticism.


     “...Cores are abyssal energy.”


     “Correct,” Vee nodded.


That left one conclusion.


     “You want to control abyssal energy.”


Vee's lips curled into an ever wider smile. I didn't think he had it in him to be more of a creep. I'll refrain from making that bet in the future.


Fire and a boiling flask were not enough for Vee. Lightning in a bottle was not enough for him either. What he wanted a power greater than that. Something he could call his own and which would act according to his will.


     “Precisely,” he nodded. “Yet each time I obtained a core it gained a level of sentience. Sapience is never far behind. My efforts to create containment shells always resulted in the creation of an artificial lifeforms.”


     “... Those living suits of armor.”


     “As inevitable as the sunrise. No matter what I've tried the result has always been the same. Once you gather sufficient abyssal energy, so that it reaches critical mass, the result is a core which takes the form of a monster. And a monster girl, at that. Without fail. No matter how many hundreds of times I have tried. Some external force, some unseen hand, breathes life into it and shapes its form.”


And the result of that would be the steel golems under Price Deron's command. The giant was the result of trying to make a more powerful core. It backfired. I am sure Deron did not complain, but apparently Vee had been disappointed. It had been a step backward in his research.”


     “And this newest version achieved—“


     “—Limited control,” Vee interrupted, unable could not contain himself. “And the solution to the problem is so simple. Rather than allowing the core to reach critical mass, all I needed to do was link a sufficient number of nodes which had equal mass. Keep them moving in a constant state of flux to introduce a false chaos, and it becomes somewhat malleable. It all seems so simple now. I cannot believe it took me more than decade.”


I shuddered to think what brought upon this revelation.


     “All it took was data from a unique case of prolonged exposure.”


Fuck. That would be me.


     “When abyssal energy meets the divine, they annihilate each other in equal proportions. And it does so instantaneously. To see it occur before my very eyes and in slow motion in every detail... Jumping out from the numbers on the page... I thought I would cry.”


And he looked very close to start crying by merely remembering it.


     “And all it took was a few rib fractures,” I spat.


     Vee motioned toward the charred remains of Nerick and said, “Consider that debt paid in full.”


     “I don't. And I wont.”


     “Inconsequential,” Vee said with a dismissive wave of his hand as he turned and walked away. “I suggest we move onto more pressing matters. Onward to the main event.”


     “Wait. What were Mk. one through three?”


I had to ask. Consequences be damned I had to ask. He didn't turn around this time. We had arrived at the foot of the stairs up to the throne overlooking the treasure room. All that dense settling dust lay below us as crisp rays of fresh sunlight shone through the kaleidoscope ceiling of stained glass. It applied a soothing layer of calm to the roiling chaos surrounding me. Everything felt as peaceful as a cathedral in a war zone. A place of sanctuary. But now I felt an oncoming desecration and that peace would not last.


     “My homunculi experiments,” Vee said as he placed his hands on the throne's right arm rest. “A result of blending my middling alchemical skills with my then newfound control of lightning.”


Images of neckbolts danced inside my head.


     “A Frankenstein monstrosity. In other words: Patches.”


     “Patches is the sole member of the Mk. II generation. A failure, but I managed to salvage her into an assistant. And I have not heard of this Frankenstein before. Could you have perchance heard of a similar experiment being conducted? I had believed I was the only one.”


     “No. Just an old folk story,” I said and shook my head.


     “I have no time for stories. We have work to be done. Now. Would you be so kind as to assist me? We need to displace this furniture.”


I looked down at the Throne sitting between us. It looked as solid as a rock. Bolted into the stone.


     “This isn't meant to be moved,” I said.


     “Of course it wasn't. But it still can be. Now push. Or pull. Whatever you prefer.”


I watched as Vee struggled to topple the throne forward with his skinny arms. He clenched his eyes and grit his teeth tight. It was kind of pathetic to watch. I forgot the sensation of disgust for a moment and felt pity for the first time. Next came the feeling of curiosity. What exactly was he trying to show me?


I grabbed hold of the throne's splat and wedged my shoulder behind it for good measure. I struggled to get some good leverage. It seemed to be an effort in futility until the stone slab beneath the throne's legs began to shudder. Whatever mechanism had kept the throne secured had not weathered the years well. After struggling and laboring for about a minute, the throne clicked and jostled forward. Too far forward. That mechanism snapped completely and the throne came loose. I watched it horror as another priceless artifact and national treasure of Yaleria tumbled down the stairs and disintegrated. All that polished wood, precious metal trimmings and velvet scattered across the floor below.


The professor did not care less. His eyes lit up as a hole in the floor opened up into another hidden stairwell.


     “As I suspected. Excellent. Come. Time is short.”


It was pitch dark down there, but Vee showed no concern. He merely uncovered that device on his wrist and activated it again. The glow of flickering lightning radiated a suitable aura of light. He did not wait for me. He didn't look back to make sure I was behind him. I had to hurry up and descend afterward. That electrical wrist torch wasn't that powerful. It would be me stumbling down some ancient stairs in the dark if I hesitated any longer.


     “Is this the pillar you were talking about?” I asked the shadow of the back in front of me.


     “Walls of stone with a quality this poor? No. This is merely a passage toward the terminal... Heh heh heh,” Vee chuckled. “Not even those Yalerian rebels of old could bottle up their curiosity. Not entirely... They could have sealed it completely, but the temptation proved to be too much.”


     “So they moved the seat of power... Figuratively.”


     “That is the most likely of reasons. No one other than members of the Duke's family have access to that treasure room. At least until this week.”


     “And that is how Aaron roped in the Silver Bannermen?”


     “To the tower? No. They would never have such high hopes to plunder the Brightkeep. No. I imagine Count Aaron has dangled access to the plunder the Shadelands as adequate payment for their services... On top of all the gold and silver he paid upfront.”


     “And no one has ever bothered to explore the Shadelands?”


     “Forbidden. Which is a shame since I am certain it holds many secrets.”


That it does. It also holds powerful undead beings in a sort of suspended animation. I imagine that would be the reason why access was traditionally forbidden.


     “The undead have swelled their ranks from those it defeats. To sortie into the Shadelands to cleanse it of evil is to give strength to such a place. The gods sealed it away with stone for that reason.”


And now they would be wary to go for wholly different reason.


     “A well of magic power, right? I asked. “But if that's true, and you cannot use magic, why would you bother coming all this way? You can't tell me it's out curiosity and nothing more than that.”


     “No. Babel was a tool of the ancients. One I wish to understand. I have my suspicions that it was a device attuned to magic and magic alone. I suspect it may have merely used concentrated magic to channel abyssal energy to our world. Of all its wonders it is described being capable of, the mere use of magic would be insufficient. Other scholars have disagreed. My own peers within Ouroboros did so as well. I seek to know once and for all. If I am correct... Then control of abyssal energy is not relegated solely to the Monster Lord Lilith. I can think of no greater waste of its potential than solely within her possession.”


A heard a hint of anger in his voice. Jealousy perhaps. It stuck out like a sore thumb after all his exuberance until now. He had clearly wound himself up into a foul mood very suddenly.


     “The mutation of all and any abyssal energy into licentious female forms... What a disgrace. There is so much more which could be done.”


     “You mean like bringing about the apocalypse?” I said, hazarding Vee's ire.


He stopped in his tracks and looked back up at me. Shadows dancing across his face as the lightning dancing across his wrist flickered.


     “Control,” he replied. “The divine can manifest miracles. So can the abyssal. The divine can rain hellfire and annihilate nations. So too does abyssal energy. That we've seen more productive uses of the divine and destructive of the abyssal is a mere consequence of the beings put in its charge. It was not man who brought about its own destruction with Babel. It unleashed creatures it could not combat. Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz: the original monsters. All other monsters —barring the demons— which exist today were sired from their split blood as the gods slew them. A beast which crushed cities underfoot. A serpent that roiled the oceans into floods which flooded continents. Ziz, a raptor of such immense size that its wingspan blotted out the sun and withered plant-life wherever it flew. These were released by man, not created by!”


A moment of calm took hold. I glared down suspiciously at Vee and he looked back at me with eyes full of fiery passion. We stood steadfast and unmoving in the cramped spiral staircase leading deep down in the unseen and hidden bowls of the Brightkeep. Some ancient secret lay hidden in its guts. Vee coveted it. I needed to use it. But that gnawing doubt in the back of my head kept biting harder and harder. Yet I still couldn't put my finger on it.


     “You need to unleash this seal, do you not? Vee broke the silence and asked.


I continued to glare at him skeptically.


     “You were hired by the Shadeland royalty, were you not?”


An angry frown spread across my face.


     “She hired you to unleash the sealed magic... She will need it. The Mk. VI will destroy Duke Malco. When he dies, the entire Duchy of Yaleria will descend upon both our heads. The Silver Bannermen will hunt us both down. Aaron's men will surround us and flay us alive. If not them, our tarrying will see us caught in a Church net. Come. Now. Our time is short.”


     “I could manage,” I replied.


     “With your companions? What could make you so deluded.”


He posed that rhetorical question and continued to descend the stairs before I could confront him on his parting remark. I followed once more, but only because the sole light down here came from him. He is also right about my mission. I had to see this through. That's likely the limit of options afforded to me many cruel twists of fate. I could turn around and head upstairs... Maybe find a way out of that throne room, meet up with the girls and make an escape... But I knew there were certain risks involved. Fatal risks. I did not know all the risks of following Vee. They could lead to better consequences than I can imagine if I turned my back.


Vee's echoing footsteps stopped. He had already descended a number of turns down the stairs and there was little light which still reached me. I followed slowly, reluctantly, and the sight which left Vee speechless hit me full force in the face. White. Pure white marble. At least I thought it was marble. Marble typically has imperfections; grains of gray and black coursing through it. It could be polished limestone, but it didn't feel solid enough to be. It actually hurt to look at. If I stared too long my retinas might wreck themselves like an old TV and see nothing but white.


Deep down inside the Brightkeep is this wide and spacious room of pure white. It reflected the light from Vee's wrist device a hundred times and lit it up as brighter than a dozen florescent light bulbs could ever hope to. I guessed this room spread out about fifteen hundred square feet or so. It reached up about as tall as a two story house as well. Yet for all that space there was nothing more than a raised stone platform. It had the look of an altar at first. I had seen quite a few of them recently... But this one gave off a totally different feeling. It couldn't be used for worship. There's nothing holy about this place. Its pure whiteness be damned. It felt sterile. Surgical. No wonder Vee had the looked so at home.


     “Marvelous. Wonderful. Look at the engineering. Not a spec of dust. Mr. Laven, no one has been here before us for about two thousand years. But feast your eyes on it. Not a single sign of structural weakness or decay. Marvelous!”


He rushed off toward the solitary stone furniture and greedily traced his hands over its every crevice. I followed behind and the reason for his ever growing excitement became apparent. Engraved in the white stone were patterns of black. They were not haphazard stains or grains in the rock. No. They were deliberate patterns etched into the surface. Raised patterns. Set in order. Like a—


     “AH!” Vee blurted out so loud I thought my eardrums would implode. “Elder Tongue... It's Elder Tongue!”


     “I'll have elderly hearing if you don't knock it off,” I groaned.


     “It's the language of Canaan. This is a pillar of Babel. There can be no mistake!” Vee continued to shout without care of my protests.


     “So then... What do they say?”


     “I have no idea!” Vee squealed happily


Wait. What?


     “What do you mean you can't read it?”


     “This is the lost language of the ancients. The same the gods themselves speak. Passed down to man. Lost. Revoked. Plucked from t he minds of men as punishment for the rise and fall of Babel.”


They appeared to me like any other esoteric language. I couldn't glean any pattern or meaning from them at a glance either. There was not anything similar to them that I could recall. They certainly were not similar to the runes used throughout the Empire... I had glanced at Susan's work before when she read through half that library. I cannot recall anything in those dusty old tomes looking like these. Neither could I recall anything back home which looked like these scribblings. If you were to mash all the above together into a single jumbled mess you might get something close.


     “It's inert,” Vee said, the enthusiasm finally draining from him. “Quickly now. We need to break the seal.”


My hand automatically reached for the satchel tied around my waist. Inside it jangled the lone green crystal. Through the woven bag it felt like an oversized H-2 pencil. I wrapped my hand around its girth through the bag, but could not bring myself to move forward.


Vee did not have the same patience before as he grumbled. He raised his wrist device back to his face and adjusted something on it. The flat lined tether of lightning kicked off into a flurry of activity. It rose and fell continuously. Made peaks and valley chaotically.


     “He has begun,” Vee's voice spoke up, distorted through the electronic warble of his device.


I turned my head toward him slowly and he in kind turned it gradually to meet my gaze.


     “Begun what?” I asked.


     “Count Aaron has activated the Mk. VI's systems. I have tuned this device to monitor its vitals. Data collection... The one who charged you for this task... There is now a time limit on her head and on that of the Duke.”


     “You can monitor it. That means you can control it... Or did you not think Aaron would turn it on you?”


     “Perhaps. But I have no need to. If I cannot witness this piece of Babel in working order... I will have to take the Mk. VI's maiden activation as a consolation prize.”


He smiled one last time. And not in friendly way either. Vee grinned because he could not suppress his smug satisfaction. His position was a perfect one. He had no losing conditions. Unlike me.


     “Do you think the Count is going to protect you from the Church as well? You said that being here put you in a world of trouble... I've been in one ever since I set out, so that doesn't bother me. But I imagine you'd prefer to keep up your clandestine experiments.”


     “I could mange,” he replied. “You, Mr. Laven, would not. You need Hyria to ensure your safety. And the Mk. VI will destroy her and Malco both. There is no man, woman, weapon or otherwise that can stop that device. Not in all Yaleria. Not as Yaleria stands at this very moment.”


I peeled myself away and stared back down at the console before me. My eyes darted back and forth across the etchings of a language no one left living could read. Betwixt it all I spied a singular crevice in its surface. A closer look revealed a hole in the otherwise flawless white stone. Exactly the right size for the crystal in my pouch. I slipped my hand inside and pulled it free.


A thin coating of green light lit up myself, Vee and the white surface for a few meters around it. I don't remember it ever glowing like that. My confusion was far outshone by Vee's excitement. He could barely contain himself, or salivating, as he looked at the crystal in my grip.


     “Void magic. In your bare hands. Fascinating.”


To me it felt no more impressive than holding some smooth mineral. It felt cold to the touch, but nothing more. Vee, on the other hand, desperately fought back the urge to reach out and touch it. His feet were uneasy on the ground as well. It's as if he were worried its deadly touch would seep its way through the floor and work its way up his legs and into his heart. At least that's how I understood this deadly thing was supposed to be. There's a vacuum of magic inside. The first thing that happens when a high pressure space and a low pressure space meet is equalization. That would mean virtually every drop of magic in you would rush into the crystal on contact. That alone wouldn't explain Vee's excited unease. He claimed to have not a drop of magic talent in his body. So that means it must also suck up life force as well. But that didn't explain why I'm still alive and able to hold it.


No one seemed to care why. Everyone cared that I could. And nothing more. Hyria, Ba'el and now Vee were a mere sliver shy short of begging me to do this. In these last few seconds, the doubt eating away at me began to chew me up inside. Something else begged me not to. Some invisible strings were trying to pull me back. But my presence here is like a ghost. Unbound. Unnatural. I wasn't supposed to be here. I am a loophole. This crystal wasn't ever meant to return to this place. Had it ever belonged here? I felt like it did. Why did I feel that way?


The questions kept piling up.


     “Now. Insert the key,” Vee gasped, the man having forgetting to breathe.


Promises ran through my head parallel to the warnings. Hyria offered what assistance she could should I perform this task for her. Ba'el said this surge of mana into the world would be a boon. Vee said doing this would turn the tide of a battle raging beyond these walls. The lives of many could be saved. Many could be doomed. They all seemed so far away as the crystal succeeded in sucking my attention toward it like a black hole. The world around me faded out. The white glow of the smooth limestone walls vanished and only the green glow mattered.


Beyond all the threats, the warnings, and the promised rewards... One thing mattered above that all. I asked the crystal. I spoke to it quietly.


     “Will you show me home?”


This place is one of many. There are others. A place which kept many records. Star charts engraved onto the walls of a temple left to rot in a faraway jungle to the south. Along one of its walls lay an alien sky. Alien to this place. Familiar to me. The people who saw that sky also built this place. I was left to wonder what connection these two ruins had.


As I pondered, the crystal did not respond. OF course it wouldn't. I raised my thumb and pushed the head of the crystal down. Its tail protruded from the bottom of my clenched fist. My arm quivered as I held it aloft. I could feel the muscles in my arm twist and groan as it pulled back. Something trying to reel it back. A snap. An audible sound effect resounding inside my head as I stabbed the console and jammed the crystal into its destined slot.


And just like the key it looked like, I gave it a twist.




The console sprung to life. Traces of green light flowed down every groove of the console. It had the color consistency of luminescent radium: a sickly green. That color seized control of the console before spreading to the floor and up the walls until lines met at the ceiling and flashed. From both ends, the start and the finish, yellow followed next and then red. It flashed through all the colors of the rainbow in successive order. A feeling of something breaking was unmistakable. Whatever it is... It began resetting.


And then the ground began to quake.




A new fog joined the eternal blanket which wrapped Yaleria in its eternal embrace. Count Aaron stood at its wellspring, motionless with his hands open and dangling at his sides. From his open palms a black mist billowed forth. It pooled on the ground and coiled around his feet. Those black tendrils lashed out gingerly toward Duke Malco`s knights who inched closer and closer. The rebellion's leader was trapped. Isolated from his men. That did little to dissuade the man in black juggernaut armor.


One of Malco's knights closed in behind with his spear ready let loosed his battle cry. The steel point thrust into the back of knee, a classic weak point in any armor, but the blade broke on impact. It struck true, but bent against the black iron. That spears shattering was accompanied by the sound of grinding metal, the clockwork gears hidden beneath the Mk. VI's armor chewing into the remaining half of the spear head. The knight could not pull away as his hands were locked tight and coursing with adrenaline.


From Aaron's black clad hands an object appeared. Woven from black tendrils out of thin air. Silver in sheen, but totally utilitarian in form. A simple sword with a very simple shape. No imagination or love went into its crafting. If you could say its manifestation was crafting at all. The suit of armor clumsily spun around and the blunt of the blade cleaved straight into the knight's side. It did not stop. A torso went flying and the legs below it collapsed to the ground.


Such a hidious sight would have sent lesser men screaming in terror. But Malco's knights were warriors first and men second. Their nerves ran thin on a razor's edge, but the fury of seeing one of their own so callously cut down caused them to rush forward with an array of blades spread out in a fan.


Yet no matter how savagely and bravely they thrust them forward, the juggernaut cared not an iota. Brave blades were turned away from the blackened surface like water droplets on stone. Count Aaron materialized another identical sword in his other hand and began to gracelessly swing like a machete through overgrowth. His movements were rough and undisciplined, but they could not be stopped. They did not yield. Shields and arms raised to bar its way were shredded. No steel could match that which Aaron created from the void. One knight, two knights, three; Malco's men were cut down one by one. With not such much as a scratch on the Count's ebony hide, the knights hastily backed away.


Aaron pushed forward into the gap. His wailing battle cry shook the air with vibrating metal that finally froze over the hearts of all. But not of Malco himself. The Duke threw himself into the fray with Halazuel held high. He brought it down and clashed steel with the unknown. Both swords groaned, but the greatsword refused to break, unlike the others.


     “Well, I'll be,” Aaron taunted the furious Malco. “It appears you inherited your ancestor's sword after all!”


The two noble lords broke off and returned to a parleying distance.


     “I suppose I must at least recognize your claim... As the progeny of a traitor.”


     “The pride you take in being one does not absolve you of shame or rightful target of scorn!”


     “History will decide that. Not you. The way it is meant to be. The way it has always been!”


Both men had nothing else to say and charged forward to clash blades once again.


Aaron's new height was staggering. He towered a little more than a head's hight taller than Malco. His jet black armor endowed him with great strength. On top of that, the armor made him extremely heavy and immobile. Yet his movements were no greater than an ordinary man's. Malco had trained his whole life to be a fighter. His strength is immense by ordinary standards. He wielded his family's greatsword with relative ease. His blows were not as mighty as Aaron's, but he knew how to fight. Something which Aaron clearly did not.


The Count's attacks were sloppy, predictable, worse than amateurish. They were appallingly bad. Almost embarrassing. But they could likewise not be stopped. As Malco ducked and weaved he soon learned the surroundings would offer no protection. One of Aaron's summoned swords cleaved right through stone wall and pillar with greatest of ease. As masonry collapsed down on top of them, the juggernaut cared not for the bricks which shattered off his helm.


Duke Malco could not match the Count blow for blow either. One weak —but solid— parry sent a tremor up Halazuel and into Malco's arm. It made his bones feel like jelly for a moment. Malco delivered a few blows which would have been lethal against any unarmored foe. To an armored man they would have rattled them and knocked them over long ago. Count Aaron weathered the strikes with an angry grunt and pushed on as if he felt no pain at all.


The battle waged on and that one detail would ultimately decide the outcome of this duel. Aaron did not tire. Sweat began to flow of the Duke's brow.


A windfall came for Malco and was carried by the wind as well. It came in the form of a flaming rock which crashed between the two duelers. It exploded in fiery shrapnel and put a pause on the combat. Both turned to watch as similar explosions rocked the icy bars squeezing down on the castle. Aaron's siege engines had started again in earnest. One of the boulders toward the end of the first volley crashed into the tip of one icicle and snapped it off. Steam erupted from the point of impact and ice showered down like shards of glass.


At the gate to Sulunaerg a battering ram slammed into the ice with relentless zealotry. Thousands of desperate mercenaries clamored to save their paycheck. Malco's men scrambled from their positions where they watched the battle take place and rush back to their defensive positions along the wall. They hurried to rebuild the barricades the best they could as Malco kept Aaron occupied with the one weapon inside the keep which could so much as scratch his twilight armor.


Boulders of fire continued to rain down on Sulunaerg and the palisade of ice broke, cracked and disintegrated bit by bit. It had bought time, but time was not what Malco needed. He needed an upper hand.


Count Aaron drew his arm back to unleash another devastating blow, but stopped dead in its tracks. Frost bit down into the armor and caused the metal to stick and contract. It created an opening which Malco's instincts naturally took advantage of. His most powerful blow yet came crashing down from the other side. Aaron could not manoeuvre in time to deflect it in his awkward position and sparks flew as the Duke's greatsword cut deep into Aaron's shoulder. But he was immune to pain. With titan strength the giant snapped the ice off and lunged forward to deliver a counterstrike. A patch of slick black ice formed underneath the Count's lead foot a millisecond before making ground-fall. Aaron lost his balance and tumbled forward. His stumble forced one sword from his grip. That sword vanished in a puff of black smoke once released. The hiss of it evaporating got drowned out by the clatter of steel slamming into the ground. Aaron threw out the free hand to break his fall. The Duke pressed his advantage once again and pivoted to deal a hammer blow to his opponents chest as he scrambled to get back to his feet and back away.


Another shower of sparks lit of the billowing clouds of black mist which poured out from Aaron's suit of armor. Groans of anger, but not of anguish, reverberated outward. Aaron retreated out of Malco's strike zone while the Duke himself stayed put and greedily gasped for air.


Two large gashes in the black metal revealed a soft lead like texture underneath. Underneath that impenetrable outer shell appeared a malleable and soft metal unfit to be used in a suit of armor. What looked like a weakness quickly faded as the wounds closed. Malco watched in horror as his advantage vanished before his very eyes. Aaron's armor healed right in front of him.


     “It's alive,” rang a voice behind Malco.


He turned around and saw the pale women herself. Frost billowed from her hands. A white mist in opposition to Mk. VI's ceaseless clouds of black. Malco knew immediately that the freak flash freezes had been her doing. He had been so focused during the fight he hardly noticed, but it clicked now.


     “Living metal. It is magic the likes I have never seen before,” Hyria elucidated.


     “Leave this place!” Malco roared.


Hyria ignored his protests and strode her way beside him. The Duke did nothing physical to protest. He could have chosen to cut her down, yet the though never crossed his mind. More pressing concerns were in front of him. He understands —at least subconsciously— that his life was likely saved by her intervention. Any further protests died prematurely in his throat. Malco could do nothing more than grin and bear her presence. She foresaw that too.


     “Hah! Living metal?” Count Aaron laughed defiantly. “If that were all I would not have paid so much. No. This is far more than mere—”


Aaron's red gaze narrowed and focused. Hyria straightened her back and shifted into a defensive stance as she felt something pierce right through her. Aaron remained motionless. The princess and the count exchanged a long and silent contest of wills. Hyria's red eyes dotted by white pupils refused to look away. The juggernaut the wight sized one another up. A race took place to analyze the other.


     “Ha,” Aaron broke first with a huff of laughter.


Singular at first. And then it grew.


     “Ha. Ha ha ha! AHAHAHA!” Aaron's steel voice creaked, cracked and rung as it burst out laughing.


He threw his head back and directed his mad laughter toward the heavens. Fireballs continued to rain down on the castle throughout. Ice splintered and stone shattered. Fire rose and dust was whipped up into a storm. The eyes of Malco's men were pulled back from their tasks as Aaron's madness demanded their attention. That buckling of the ice wall mattered little. Neither did Sulunaerg's slow disassembling around them.


     “HA HA HA HA HA HA!


Aaron's sanity wavered, but a whip crack of the helmet snapping back into its forward position also meant a sudden and eery end to the laughter.


     “Living? Living you say? That is more than I can say for you! For what else does not breath nor possesses a beating heart... Yet still walks.”


Malco's heart was next to freeze. His shame. His secret. Laid out bare. He could feel it coming. Anger is what he should have succumbed to. Its heat could not survive in the frigid recesses of his heart. Panic. That was the sole emotion which could take hold. A primal feeling. Laced with a child's helplessness. A thousand terrifying memories of the pale lady haunting him throughout his life all surfaced at once. A strong pair of knees and solid back is all that separated him from collapsing under the weight of it all. It still managed to drag the tip of his sword till it sunk into the dirt.


     “It all makes so much sense now!” Aaron cried out with jubilation. “The Pale Lady. Oh, why does her white skin shine with a hint of blue? What romantic rhymes the bards did conjure in secret for our mystery mistress. All of it for nought. The Pale Lady is nought but a corpse. All this time The man who sold the future, the world, conspired with Yaleria's mortal enemy. What a farce! Look at how far the house of Malco has fallen!”


Two blades were now insufficient to embody Aaron's rage. A peacock's tail of swords fanned out from his back. Two dozen swords materializing from the aether. They spread out like angel wings behind him. A righteous angel of vengeance, in his own mind.


     “And all these years I mourned the tragic loss of my dear departed sister. Helpless before fate. Now I see at last. Not lost to illness' stray arrows. MURDERED! For greed! For Lust! By a true traitor's hand. Not a mere traitor to kith or kin, but to mankind itself!”


Aaron's cold metalic voice burned with a firey passion. It echoed though the courtyard and unsettled the hearts and minds of Malco's men. Looks of disbelief were plastered on their faces. They could not believe it, but the closer they looked the more the evidence seemed palpable and the conclusion appeared inescapable.


As ground breaking as that revelation was, the ground itself rumbled greater still. The solid foundation upon which Sulunaerg had been built upon shook uncontrollably. Yaleria sat nowhere near natural fault lines. Earthquakes were totally unknown to those present. It continued and grew more powerful the longer it went. Malco and Hyria nearly lost their footing. Only Aaron remained motionless, but not even his rage could resist being interrupted. His glowing red orb flung to and fro inside its visor trying to regain its bearings. Everyone stumbled, fell and desperately tried to grab onto something solid. Pieces of the castle shattered by the siege broke free prematurely as the castle jostled back and forth. The barrage from below also ended as the mercenaries beyond the ice and walls panicked and fell over one another. Some were thrown down the hill side as they lost their footing.


Those beyond the walls quickly discovered the source. From within the courtyard, the culprit would not be known until much of the ice palisade had crumbled under the stress of the shaking. Malco and Aaron turned to witness the outer layers of the Brightkeep and its wall begin to crumble. A shining pillar of white stone erupted from the top and left the dull stone behind like a snake shedding its skin. Slowly climbed. Inch by inch. Once the main body of this new tower freed itself, the worst of the tremors passed. But it did not stop climbing. It dared to challenge the mountains themselves in height. The tremors continued at a lower magnitude and would not relent until it reached its full height. No one watching could know when that was.


     “It's over, Aaron.” Hyria boasted. “Malco's duty, your dreams... Neither can stand up fate. Neither of you can stop me from making things right. Yaleria will be whole.”


Aaron would not readily surrender. Not in the face of this unknown. Most certainly not to a monster such as herself. The fan of swords levitating behind him shuddered and vibrated. They fluttered back and forth and tested the bounds they could warp reality and the laws of nature around them. Likewise, the abyssal energy pouring forth from his hands flowed out greater than before.


A metallic roar shattered the peace and the juggernaut charged.


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