(A/N: Here is the VERY overdue Act 14, "The Devil in White". I had some major problems with my PC and our Internet connection, so please forgive if this came out extremely late. But rest assured that I have no intention of stopping work on this opus. Anyway, read on and tell me what you think! Also, I made some minor changes on the set-up of the city of Caeltainn, as could be attested in the edited Act 7. Enjoy!)
Act 14 – The Devil in White
His dreams and his waking were filled with the slate-grey heavens during the day, and the inky sky during the night, and at every moment the chilly wind of Caeltainn tortured him. The unmistakable smell of Caelhird sometimes wafted to him up here at his prison, the sharp bitter scent of ice and deathly cold drowning him in imagined demise.
Aoikaze Luinhil, once the Vancer of the Sixtieth Lightning Expeditionary Force, was now a prisoner, accounted for the annihilation of his entire unit, stripped of all his honors and privileges. Here, he was forced to suffer the biting wind and the dizzying height of the central tower of the city, along with other prisoners, kept in cages that hung from the topmost branches of the Untíma, or the Sanctuary Tree, where legends said that Urios the Great, first King of the Sinnead, learned the arts of Goetia inside. Spiraling and clawing ever skyward, its crown of magnificent golden boughs forever wreathed in clouds, the White Tower of the Grand City of Caeltainn was built around and on its body. One of its higher branches that spanned a mile out from the trunk held his cramped cage two thousand feet over the city.
A few days ago he had learned to his utmost horror that the door of the cage was open, and he knew that the desire to fly would be his constant companion, all to escape the maddening cold this high. The vista afforded him an all-encompassing view of the tiered city, the river and the outlying countryside, though.
It was morning; that he could see. Nithelice had endured almost two centuries of not seeing the sun rise in the east, but even so people still woke up to the crowing of roosters and the first light that filtered through thick, choking clouds. What was once deep purple was now becoming grey and white; Aoi could survey the Eastern Wall, a rearing mass of mountains that fringed Caeltainn's eastern borders, and the bleak Widow's Marches to the southwest of the city, a vast plain filled with the frozen dead of Cearad and Sinnead alike. And sprawling below him was the merciless city of Cael itself, its needle-like spires, frowning upon sapphire and golden domes and the myriad of pennants, banners and flags that adorned almost every building and battlement, and through it all the symmetrical arrangement of streets and roads crossed the city like an extremely complicated spider web.
He shuddered. He was near his limit now. Soon, he would be flinging himself to the air, with or without Goetia. The Key of Kings, the artifact that made it possible to pursue contracts with summoned demons, thus enabling the Conjurer to call up his creatures, was confiscated, and so he was as useless here as any citizen that he could see below.
Aoi shuddered again and held himself, fighting to keep his teeth from shattering as they ground against each other, and looked around his cage. If I only knew how I got up here, he thought with a touch of annoyance. Before they spirited him to this prison, he believed he had been drugged, so the last thing he knew was his captors standing guard over him as he swooned to unconsciousness. Finding himself with the cold air as companion and his nearest neighbors two thousand feet below him did nothing to improve his mood afterwards; and after three days of being held here, he resigned himself to the fact that this was no imprisonment, but execution. He had no food save the leaves of Untíma, and no water except the snowfall during the day and the dew of the night. He even had no warm clothing to wrap himself with.
And this was his seventh day. He could almost feel death coming.
No, he rebuked himself, vigorously shaking his head. "I can't die… yet…" he croaked. Even his voice was cracked, strained, weak. If not for his training to discipline his body, to feel warm even if cold, he would have died sooner. Yet the mind could only do so much; the body was still a frail and material thing, and he knew he was approaching his limit. It was only a matter of time.
There came a rumble overhead, like a particularly distressing thunder. But it was… shriller, more high-pitched, like the hinging of a rusted iron grate. He looked up and saw nothing but the white thick branch where his cage hung from, the autumn-gold leaves swaying against the cold, gentle wind, and the endless expanse of white above. Nothing.
He shivered again. His breath misted in front of his face.
The rumble growled again, closer and more menacing this time, so loud that he felt its vibrations coursing through the cage. Beneath him, people took notice of it as well, pausing and peering strangely at the skies above them, and even he stood on his unsteady knees.
"What the… hell…"
The clouds were moving this time, as if they were parting, whirling like a cyclone. Faint flashes of light, like sheet lightning, appeared to be flaring beyond, and the rumblings were this time steadier, closer, faster… more regular, like a gigantic heartbeat.
The wind was picking up speed, and he held himself tighter.
And then they appeared.
They began as streaking blue lines descending from the heavens, bathed in fluorescing sapphire light with thin tails that stretched from the clouds. These plummeting stars were magnificent, like cinders and sparks settling after a hammer beat on the anvil. As the lights fell all around the city, their speed as they raced to the ground was almost graceful, and Aoi felt as if he was a child again.
That was until the largest of them crashed against the Untíma.
The beam impacted with a devastating effect, and instantly a rippling wave of white and blue, like that of a raindrop falling against hard stone, rushed out of the contact point. As the tree and the tower built on it groaned against the collision Aoi held on the frozen bars to steady himself, and seethed when he found that the icy metal nearly seared his skin. His cage swung this way and that, dizzying him so much that he literally bounced inside his confinement.
The falling stars fell down on various parts of the city, demolishing buildings and flattening homes in blazes of blue and green fire. The screams of dying Sinnead or else those frightened out of their wits reached him even here, and more and more of the lights came crashing down, inexorable and merciless. They plowed right through roads, cut furrows through streets, blasted holes through structures, bridges, guildhalls, monuments. Entire plazas were obliterated and edifices honoring Cael were torn down to pieces. Everywhere where those lights touched became raging funeral pyres, scenes of wanton destruction and carnage. Falling comets dashed and pierced through the East and West Shields that covered the bridges, shattering most of them to cold fragments, while others landed on the resting ships on the harbors and piers, smashing them to smithereens.
His revulsion was short-lived however as pieces of Untíma rained around him, splinters of jagged wood, needles and leaves, all falling like snow. He cowered and raised his hands over his head as his cage swung more and more violently.
The lights were ever increasing in frequency, that he felt as if he was in a rain of light. He saw two beams rip through a nearby branch, shredding it to pieces and the remnants falling like sawdust below. Soon there were no sounds that he could hear but the crisp sound of ice being broken, explosions below him, and the dying cry of the Untíma as its higher body began to collapse. Wide faults appeared on the crystal tower, and chunks of it poured like a hail of stones and building blocks, and dust and ice cascaded from the disturbance.
His head swiveled around trying to see if Caeltainn was marshaling its defenders, but so far there were none that he could see. The Hall of Warriors was a smoldering, blackened pit, and the Synod's Tribunal was a hulking mass of fiery ruin, its once splendid pillars broken and littered on the square that fronted it. He could not even find any single Arbiter, the city watch, with their characteristic black cloaks and armor; the crystal spires of the Elementalist Temple were broken, shattered, lying in glistening heaps on the ground like the teardrops of a fallen god.
Aoi was about to look behind him when a brutal jerk toppled him headfirst to the floor of his cage, and as his head rang he saw that the limb from where his pen hung was breaking, the wood rasping as it began to tear off from the rest of the tree. Time seemed to slow as the branch teetered on breaking, creaking and screaming.
He held his breath, and looked down. He was two thousand feet over the city; he couldn't possibly survive the fall, without using Goetia.
There was a golden light up ahead, racing, blazing, lancing through the frigid air like the ray of a rising sun.
Help me, Aoi begged in his mind. Help me…! I don't want to die! I don't want to—
The golden light exploded in a flash of pure white, and Aoi shielded his eyes from the flare.
"Aoikaze," a strong, familiar voice said, its reassuring warm tone that cut against fear and despair. "Aoikaze," it called once again.
He opened his eyes, and beheld a man in white, with a coruscating ring behind him that sparkled like millions of stars all at once. The stranger was standing with perfect balance on the teetering limb, and Aoi found that the door of his cage was open—and more importantly, the visitor's hand was extended to Aoi in that universal sign of help.
"Take my hand. Caeltainn will fall shortly."
And then he remembered. Moorstone. It had begun there… the one who told him to go and prevent the imminent war between the humans and the Elves. But now he had failed… was this his failure? The destruction of the homeland that had forsaken him, left him to die of insanity and cold?
He began to weep.
"You must not dwell on failure, Aoi," said the kindly man. "One can only do so much when the gears of fate have already turned."
"Caeltainn…" he uttered hoarsely.
The man shifted on his stance, and the branch wobbled dangerously. Ferocious winds buffeted them but he never even once gave a hint that it affected him; he just stood there as if he was on stable ground. His black velvet skirt fluttered against his thighs, and his white clothing that stuck to his body seemed to reflect the light from the ring on his back. "The Judges have begun their attack on this city, and the lights that you see are them, falling through the sky. They are led by their new leader, and they are determined to crush Caeltainn this very same day."
"How come…?" The Judges? They were powerful, that he could admit, but he hadn't known any Judge who could fly.
The man shook his head. "The Vailedin have put common cause with them," he said sadly.
It was a while before Aoi could recover from the shock. "The sky-people. The exiles," the last word tasted like bile on his mouth. "And Untíma…"
"Yes." The man looked up as if expecting something. "Harmonia has mustered them for the first time in the history of the Winter, and the Vailed have never been rallied or assembled before, nor been swayed to the concerns of the kingdoms of mortals. Something is amiss… and you, again, must take the burden of ascertaining the cause of their mobilization."
"Why me?" Aoi asked, incredulous.
"We must use anything that is on hand," the man only replied, and put a hand inside a secret pocket sewn on his left breast, producing a Key of Kings that he offered to the Conjurer. "Take this."
"This is…" Aoi stood, taking the Key and observing it. "This is not mine—"
The man suddenly yanked him off his feet, wrapped a strong arm about his shoulder and leaped, the frigid air cutting through their clothes like blades of ice. Aoi had no time to react or even complain; the visitor, as he had termed this mysterious male, shoved him downward.
"What are you doing—"
"Fly, Aoikaze!" the visitor urged. "Fly to Harmonia and seize the Fimbulvinter. For it is the only thing… the only one… that could avert a disaster of this scale."
"Fin bell… what?"
"The Winter Keystone," the man explained. "The Tsu—"
A blue light crashed against the man, and it was so close Aoi felt that his skin was seared against its heat, singing his ragged clothing and hissing like a smoldering blade quenched with water. And in the midst of that blue light that spurted from above, he caught a glimpse of a white-clad, red-haired man, a gleaming red horn on his helm-less head, and a bared right arm tattooed with a gleaming serpentine sign.
Aoi fell away, streaking through the air wildly, as he saw that the light, with that man who just saved him, plunged straight down like a lightning bolt to the ground. He was still in mid-air when it crashed to the base of the tower, throwing a massive, flat explosion that swelled rapidly, devastating the already ruined buildings around it. A choking cloud of snow and dust followed, and still more of the shooting stars fell on Caeltainn.
Harmonia is too far, he thought. How would I—
That same light spurted from that cloud and directly at him, but this time he was ready enough. "Agares! Defend me!"
A sun-disc with a frowning eye glowing inside it materialized like shattering glass reversed, shining blue and gold as if it was the cerulean sea under the dawn. He held it in front of him as a shield with only a few heartbeats to spare, and the light—and the man within it, streaming like fire—promptly crashed against him with such great power the air around them shook. Aoi did not expect such force that it carried, though.
The shield-demon he had conjured, Agares, splintered to tiny fragments as the light plowed right through him and beyond him, and Aoi screamed when it tore through the skin on his shoulder. His vision became red, his blood gushing out of his wound in a veritable spray, and he resumed falling, helpless and vulnerable. He saw the light that went past him explode in tiny red and blue sparks above him, exposing a man in white enameled armor with his arms bared, and a livid horn on his forehead, smoldering and fuming.
An insignia of a white wing curled about itself like a snake eating its own tail was embossed on his breastplate.
Judges, he thought futilely as he fell.
And then the attacker lunged at him again, the speed of lightning, of a giant harpoon let loose from a ballista, the speed of a kingfisher lunging for its prey under the surface of water.
But his direction was wrong—
The white Judge suddenly fell right down as if pulled by an invisible force, and Aoi looked to where he was descending, perplexed even though relieved. He saw his savior spurting straight up to where the Judge was, yanking the enemy close to him as he brandished his double swords of crystalline light about him.
The enemy Judge was a seasoned warrior as well, at the least. He extended his right hand to his side, and a gigantic crimson pole topped with a double-edged blade that hung past the pole itself appeared in a swirl of orange flames. It was so huge it dwarfed both him and Aoi's rescuer, and they raced at each other at a blinding speed.
And then they met. In mid-air they clashed with their blades, and rings of white and red intermittently burst out as they crashed. The wakes of their weapons were like flags flourished in a festival, ending and stopping when they met in sparks and flashes of lightning, and still they fell. Amidst falling debris and pieces of the Sanctuary Tree they fought, struggling comets, conflicting stars piercing through air and bone-wood.
Aoi knew what he must do. "Seire, grant me flight!"
A film of what looked like translucent water appeared before him, enveloped him, and again exploded into thousands of fragments to become black feathered wings wrapped around his knee downward, extending behind him for several feet, the edges frayed and worn as if dissolving, like a myriad of tongues of fire.
They were still fighting below, streaking against one another, colliding past each other, the tree remnants falling around them disintegrating in the face of their combined powers.
"Andras… show me your sword. You who dwell in the darkness of a blade… the sower of discord, of hate, of wrath and rancor. Mene mene tekel upharsin. Cast your weight upon me, so that your sentence to perdition may be appeased."
The Judge and Aoi's rescuer battled for supremacy still below, with the ground rushing to meet them.
Concentric circles of alternating red and black appeared above and behind him, infused with the seals and conjuring characters of the one hundred and three summoned demons of Goetian magic. The innermost was a bulging mass of what looked like tar, as if something behind it was struggling to be released, trying to break out from its seal.
"Andras, pierce my enemy!"
The mass from the inner circle bolted out, still black, and all of a sudden a gigantic segmented sword as large as any building, with a hilt made of skulls, burst out of that hovering lake of black miasma and straight to the battling men below. The passage of that colossal sword rent a vacuum through the air that it sucked falling rubble around it, and Aoi looked on, as time itself seemed to slow, as the summoned sword-demon made its way to the enemy Judge.
The man in white and the Judge broke their assaults upon one another, but only the Judge stayed, staring at his approaching doom with an air of surprise. The ringed warrior hastily leaped away to a nearby falling branch, certain that his ally's attack would destroy his assailant—
The Judge made a fist and struck the incoming tip of the enormous blade, and with an explosion so vast it inundated the wave of the rain of debris and the buildings below, the sword shattered in millions of fragments, causing more fractures to appear in the Untíma. The pieces hovered for a moment in the shape of a sword, then scattered to thousands of directions like flower petals swept by the wind.
"Andras…" Aoi mouthed, disbelieving. This was the second one he had seen utterly crush a devastating summon. The first was another Judge in what seemed like ages ago.
He is too powerful! His mind screamed. How can we hope to win this war…?
Hope left him.
"Aoikaze!" he heard his rescuer yell below him, but it was too late. Too shocked for anything, he was not able to evade the Judge's counterattack, which came through the dispersing fragments of Andras, straight at him. The Judge rammed at him, gripped his throat so forcefully all breath was choked from him, and singed his entire body with his fiery countenance.
"It is unwise to make me wroth so," the man said, in a voice decidedly softer than he had ever imagined.
Aoi, in his dying moments, and with what he could inhale even as it was burning and dry as desert sand, looked at his captor and saw with shock a discovery he was not willing to admit to himself.
"Surprise is a powerful tool, is it not, my filthy, debased Conjurer of cheap magic?" the woman Judge, just like Nanami Hino, said.
The Judge made a deep chuckle. "I do not know of anyone named Nanami. Was she a Judge? These foolish, insensible insects who call themselves Artificers? Fool me not, Conjurer. There will never be Artificers ever again… but you—you are worthy to behold me, the last of a chosen race, independent from the stigma of human weakness, from the unholy mix of your blood with ours."
"I am Blanc," said the woman. "And I am the Godhand of these puny warlocks who think themselves immortal. And soon, I will be your master as well. Sinnead and Cearad alike will grovel before my feet."
An Elder, Aoi thought.
He saw his rescuer racing to save him.
Goetia summons dead Elders. Conjurers were trained to dismiss creatures who could not obey them.
"Smile, tiny creature. For you bask in the glory of my power. Choose now your allegiance: kneel at my feet, or forever serve a civilization rotting away in darkness?"
"It is… It is unwise… to tell me who you were," Aoi said, his hands clamping on the flesh of the Judge's arm.
Blanc remained silent, as if trying to puzzle out the meaning of his words.
Aoi took one last gulp of breath and began his incantation. "Thou Blanc, since thou art pernicious and disobedient, I in the name and by the power and dignity of the omnipotent Immortal Lord God of Heaven, the only creator of Heaven and Earth, curse you and deprive you from all your offices…"
Blanc frowned and tightened her grip on Aoi's throat. He coughed.
"And… and I bind thee in the depths of the Abyss, there to remain until the ruin of the world; let all the holy Host of Heaven… curse thee; the sun, moon and stars… curse thee; for I curse thee… into the fire unquenchable, and torments unspeakable."
"You purblinded pathetic fool. Do you think your paltry exorcizing magics could save you from a death that you would otherwise court were I not aggravated by your insolence?" Blanc exclaimed. Her powers released from her, so great that it vibrated the air around them.
But Aoi persevered, and spoke louder this time. "I cast thee now, o thou disobedient spirit into that lake of fire, and there to remain until the world ends and never to be remembered, until the God of Heaven who shall come to judge the quick and the dead, to bathe the world in fire.
"Get thee hence, demon! Ezalna i'dur Sivahin!"
Blanc shrieked. A globe of white light consumed her and Aoi both. Her hand that strangled the half-Elf Conjurer let loose, and for a split-second Aoikaze allowed himself to hope that he had defeated her.
Yet he did not.
That globe rapidly swelled to a staggering explosion that took half of Untíma away, dissolving it instantly as if it consumed it. Aoi was scarcely able to defend himself with re-summoning Agares, yet even so the explosion forced him back so brutally he ground his teeth as he felt his skin trying to flee from him. But before he could disintegrate his rescuer arrived and snatched him away, the orb of light and fire churning, fuming behind them. He landed Aoi on the rooftop of a building near the site, and they looked with horror as this globe melted and atomized everything below it. The earth was shaking and under their feet, and they had nothing to do but to look at the orb seething before them like a second sun, mighty and fearsome.
"She is a foe beyond any of us, Aoikaze," the silent visitor told him after a while. "It is not wise to provoke her, nor destroy her outer shell. Your exorcism did little but to enrage her further."
Aoi just stood silent.
"Go. I will try to delay her from destroying your city, but do not hope. She will destroy Caeltainn with the power of the Godhand."
The globe died away and what remained were like a torrent, a storm of floating light, and high above them was Blanc, shed of all her armor, majestic and golden—her true form, her real appearance.
"Who is she…?"
The visitor faced him. "She… she is the Devil King, Aoikaze." He took the machine-like hilts of his two swords and their sparkling blades surged out, crackling and hissing. "And now, she has the power of the entire fury of humanity, the Vailed, and the powers of Azoth behind her."
The stranger clapped Aoi's shoulder and looked him in the eyes. "And it is up to you now. There is still hope left before they could overrun the world. Go to Harmonia and take the Fimbulvinter… and from there, you will know what to do."
The visitor leaped to where the Judge—no, Blanc… the Devil King—hovered, unsheathing his swords made of pure light. The Devil King raised her arm, and a white wing sprouted from it, spreading, spreading, extending to cover the building where was on with a dark shadow, and still it expanded.
Aoi ground his teeth. "Seire," he said, and the wings on his feet sputtered back to life.
Five minutes later, as he looked back, fleeing across the air and a mission, the entire city of Caeltainn was enveloped of a large mass of a single white wing. It was the last he had seen of his homeland, and his tears left a trail on the cold, misty wind.
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