Daenai's feet led her automatically to the empty fire dragon shrine. Her mind was filled with an empty buzzing, but an anger she thought had subsided rose in her heart again. Ducking into the shrine, she stood facing the Red Star, her face blank.
"I shouldn't, it belongs here," she whispered, her lips barely moving.
Take it, it will assist you in what you seek.
A momentary pause…then her hand reached out and removed the star from its cushion. Power, warm, an almost burning sensation flooded through her. The red tattoos underneath her eyes lengthened. There was a darker look to her eyes now, but that didn't matter. She bowed to the platform, turned, and walked out, slipping the star into her front pocket with the diamond.
She saw Kaiser standing by himself in front of the statue. She considered walking up to him, but paused a short distance away, hearing him mutter to himself, wondering aloud if he should part from her. Regardless of his decision, Daenai had different ideas. She had a score to settle, and he couldn't stop her.
"Maybe I should leave her a note, and the extra pieces of the staff that control Lysander," Kaiser mused, still examining the dragon statue. "It might be hard, since I still haven't recovered my ability to use magic, but she'll be safe that way."
News flash, she's here.
Kaiser jumped and turned to see her. He blinked, still unsure if he was making the right choice. "Daenai… I have something to tell you," he started.
Daenai faced him with no question in her expression. She didn't even ask him what it was he had to say. "Did you think you were going to leave without me?" she asked coolly.
"I...I…" Kaiser started to avert his eyes and laughed. "I had an excellent reason, I was going to come back and leave a note," he said, his eyes closed and a hand at the back of his head.
Daenai's eyes narrowed. Her voice was level, but her crossed arms and the posture she assumed spoke volumes. "How thoughtful of you," she began quietly, her tone dripping in sarcasm, growing ever more furious, and frightening, with each word. "Not only were you going to leave me behind, you weren't even going to tell me yourself." Her nostrils flared, and as she glowered at him, the temperature dropped below freezing, as it always seemed to do when Daenai felt murderous.
Run for your life and mine.
Kaiser reacted the only way he could think of. He threw himself onto the ground, his hands together as though praying. Indeed, he was praying for forgiveness. "Please don't kill me," he whimpered.
There was a long, long minute when Daenai glared down at him as though debating whether or not to kick him. She eventually decided not to physically harm him, though the thought was tempting, and instead snapped, "Get up." She pivoted on her heel in an about-face. "I am going to speak with Isei once more, and then we will leave this place." After a few steps forward she turned her head and shot over her shoulder, "And stay there."
"Yes, my lady!" Kaiser stammered, standing up and snapping to attention.
Thank God I don't feel what happens to the body, Zagato said in between cackles.
Daenai stalked away and left to talk to Isei. When she returned, Isei was with her. They muttered to each other in a foreign language Kaiser couldn't understand. As soon as they reached him, Daenai glared at him again and Isei, who seemed well aware of what had transpired, gave Kaiser a sympathetic glance.
"Well, here is where I leave you," he sighed. "I will protect the shrine, but I believe if Beldr's followers do show up, they'll be after you." He bowed once to Kaiser. "Best of luck to you both."
He clasped Daenai's hands in his own, and the Dragonborn's expression softened. "Don't worry," she assured him. "We'll see each other again." With that, she turned, beckoned for Kaiser to follow her, and headed for the main shrine.
Kaiser followed Daenai afraid of the obscure future ahead. Suddenly, Zagato's brothers looked like kids playing at the park to him.
Daenai knelt for a few seconds at the front of the shrine, and centered herself. When Kaiser was next to her, she muttered the same enchantment as before, and white light blurred their vision.
When they could see again, they returned to surroundings that remained the same as though they'd never left. Lysander clasped to Daenai's shoulder. Everything was identical, except Daenai's temper, and the knowledge that they had approximately six evil forces to defeat.
Taking a few steps away from Kaiser, Daenai asked curtly, "Why did you take what you did from Beldr's shrine?"
"Because I don't want to lose all my magic every time I use a powerful spell," Kaiser answered. "It'll also allow me to do some extra crazy stuff, but that's not important right now. Especially because I have no idea how to."
Not to be deterred, Daenai pressed on. "And this promise he talked about…what did you agree on and why the hell do you think he'll keep his word?" This question had obviously been bothering her for some time.
"Let's just say we are on our way to getting rid of our problems," Kaiser said, giving her a totally empty answer. He knew there was a slight chance his plan could fail, and by 'slight' he meant totally possible.
Daenai narrowed her eyes. "I think you're a terrible liar," she said, her voice cold. Lysander looked at Daenai's face, then to Kaiser, and then gave a bird-like shrug. The Dragonborn turned away from him again and grumbled, "the sooner they show up the better."
"That's the solution, but from the other six, there are two we mustn't face," Kaiser said, following his companion. "Zagato is sure Abel is still alive somewhere, and Babel doesn't give a crap about the situation." He continued walking, explaining the deal to Daenai. "The deal I made with Zagato is both simple and hard at the same time. We must defeat four of his brothers, and his father, then find Babel or Abel." Kaiser wasn't sure how to correctly explain it. "So Zagato can leave my body and I can keep his abilities."
If anyone was able to do that, Abel and Babel could while in a coma. Zagato aimed for something beyond Kaiser, but if he couldn't get the first prize, he was going to keep the blademaster's body.
"If he does leave your body, and you keep his powers, will something happen that will give him a form of his own? I highly doubt he…" She glanced up at the sky, her face confused. "That's dumb…defeat his own allies and then leave you alone? Doesn't sound like him." She shook her head and didn't finish, trying to untangle the knot of ideas that had twisted in her mind.
"And I'm telling you, that's stupid."
Daenai's eyes flew wide, and for some reason Kaiser didn't know, a mixture of fear and fury flared in her face. It was a girl's voice that he didn't recognize, but Daenai and Zagato did.
"It is not, it's fun." That was a boy.
"Remember last time? You burned the place to the ground and we didn't even know what it was to begin with."
Speaking of family reunions.
Kaiser turned around and caught sight of the two newcomers. "That was fast," he said to Daenai.
"I…I…" Daenai started to form a reply, but the appearance of two new people stopped her.
One was a woman, her wavy hair long and dark brown, flawless in figure and poise. Her gray eyes were lustful and hungry, and her expression was one Daenai knew. The Dragonborn faltered, her mind returning to the time she had spent begging for death… this was Jezebel, the woman who had, for lack of a better word, betrayed her to the scar-faced man. Jezebel's companion was a disgruntled young boy with orange hair who looked like he'd lost his favorite toy.
Jezebel looked up, saw Kaiser, and smirked. "My, my, what have we here?" Her gaze then flitted to Daenai, and her smirk widened. "What a surprise! I wondered where you'd gotten off to."
Ah, I wondered if they might have met.
What do you mean by that?
You may or may not find out.
Daenai's lip curled over her teeth, a snarl beginning to form, bitterness etched into her posture. The boy glanced at the woman and then at Kaiser. "Jezebel, who is this idiot?"
The woman shrugged. "Either he's going to move out of the way and allow us to enter the shrine, or I'm going to have you burn him."
Tell Belial that his sparks can barely be used to burn a candle and tell Jez she looks as slutty as always.
"That's not polite, but…" Kaiser pointed his finger at the boy. "Belial, your sparks can barely light a candle and you, Jezebel…" he turned his hand to the woman. "You… look… ergh… I will say cheap to avoid any other harsh words," the blademaster finished. Trash talking was not a strong suit of his. At all.
All three looked at Kaiser. Then, the two newcomers both recognized who was really talking.
"Says the one who has to live inside a human in order to exist," Belial retaliated with a snicker.
Jezebel crossed her arms, showing a decent amount of cleavage, and snapped, "I thought you were dead, Zagato." The glare she gave Kaiser said she might have hoped a bit for that.
"Sometimes, I wish," Kaiser answered. "Before you asked, what you seek is not in the shrine anymore. Someone took it first, before we arrived." He was referring to another of Beldr's items. "So, I doubt you would want to attack a deserted place." Suddenly, his voice changed. "Now tell me where Belberith is."
"Damn it," Daenai grumbled, crossed her arms, and looked like she'd love to be anywhere but there.
"Who knows, probably in the Dreadlands somewhere," Jezebel replied, examining her fingernails.
"He said he'd be here," Belial complained. "But everyone knows he's always late."
Zagato laughed. "So everyone will be here? How nice of you. Oh yes, and where is Beldr?" He looked at his siblings, waiting for an answer. "Did any of you already kill him?"
Jezebel and Belial exchanged glances. "We don't know," Jezebel answered. After rolling her eyes once, she added, "We figured he's not dead and this was the place we figured we'd start looking."
"Well, he's not here," Zagato told her. "But I think he went towards the Elf Capital." Zagato knew they couldn't defeat both Bels at the same time, so the plan was to make them leave and fight them later. "Contact me if you find him. I highly doubt any of you alone will be powerful enough to face him." He was right, only Babel and perhaps Abel were powerful enough to go solo against Beldr and survive, though their victory wasn't certain. He started to walk away, and his eyes warned Daenai to retreat. "The ruins are empty of material or information. You should try looking at the Dragon's Cave. I will cover the elves." Zagato planned to use the time distortion at the cave to win some time for them. After all, neither Jezebel nor Belial were strong enough to harm a spirit.
Daenai shot Zagato a look that said she'd much rather run him through with her blade, but she skirted around the two demons and walked past him, looking over her shoulder with a glare that, if looks could kill, would have reduced all three to ashes.
Jezebel and Belial glanced at each other. Jezebel shrugged and turned away. "I guess we could," she sighed, as though it was hardly worth her while. "Or maybe Belial could do it and I'll watch."
Belial sniffed and crossed his arms. She rolled her eyes, and then directed her words at Zagato. "We'll get back to you— don't think you can walk out on us." With that, she disappeared. Belial shrugged at Zagato and followed suit.
Zagato focused on Daenai once Jezebel and Belial's presence disappeared. "You should be grateful, we gained enough time for you to master that magical item in your pocket." His eyes narrowed. "And you needn't worry about those two, they lack the skills to harm the spirit in the cave." He then disappeared into Kaiser's mind.
When Zagato mentioned the star, Daenai gave a small start, and frowned. She should have known Zagato would have been able to sense its magic. When the demon relinquished control again, she fell momentarily silent, looking unsettled. She reached into the front pocket and pulled out the red star that was her last reminder of her father, holding it in her open palm. "This is what will destroy them." Her eyes flashed with something foreign. But it was gone immediately, as though it had not been there at all.
Kaiser peered at it, confused. "How does it work?" he inquired. If that was powerful enough to beat the Bels, there were two options. It needed someone extremely skilled to use it, or there was an incredible price to pay.
"Think of it as a kind of superconductor. A battery, if you will. This carries in it all the power my father possessed, and more." An uncharacteristic smirk crossed her face as her fist closed around the star. "With it, I can combine his power, and my own." She turned her back to him, and a dark, humorless laugh escaped her. "There is nothing dangerous than someone with nothing to lose."
Kaiser rather thought that an angry female Dragon with nothing to lose was the most dangerous thing, but he said nothing and decided to follow her. "Does that mean you need to get used to that amount of magic flowing in your body like Zagato did with me?"
Daenai did not speak in reply. Instead, she stopped walking, faced Kaiser, and stood perfectly still. Her hand clenched tighter around the star, and a determined expression settled on her features. For a few seconds, nothing happened, but then, magic transferred visibly from the item to the Dragonborn. Gradually at first, and then with increasing rapidity, the energy coursed through her. The tattoos under her eyes took on a bright glow, and the tattoos on her shoulders, otherwise hidden from view by her jacket, crawled onto her neck. The pure amount of power was magnificent, but it was not just pure power. An underlying hint of malice and vengeance tinted it and added to its force.
Daenai blinked, lowered her arm, and the magic ceased abruptly. Remnants of the surge faded more slowly. She looked down, looked back up at Kaiser again, and though there was confident power there, something was missing. "I think I'll be fine," she said shortly. "I am not foreign to Draconic magic."
Kaiser's eyebrows furrowed. He knew she wasn't actually fine, nothing about this situation was. Slowly but steadily, he started to see the line between good and evil disappear. Although he was still able to have his vengeance, deep inside his soul there was a hole, one that continued to widen. The fighter's eyes showed sadness, determination, and a spark of hope. He knew that things were only going to get harder, stronger, darker, and with that knowledge he looked away from her and said, "Let's continue… we have to do what we have to do."
"Yes," Daenai replied, in a kind of echo. "Always." She offered her arm to Lysander, who hesitantly jumped to her shoulder. "I don't know about the Cave, but I wonder—" Suddenly, she was cut off by a huge surge of energy emanating from where they had just left, near the hidden entrance to the dragon shrine. Daenai's eyes flew wide with confusion… then recognition… and then fear. She turned back down the road they had begun to walk on, and broke into a sprint, pushing past Kaiser. Taken aback by the immense terror in her face, Kaiser stumbled forward, regained his balance, and tore after her. Anything that could frighten the Dragonborn like this could not be a good thing.
They reached the break in the trees. Where before there had been only open space, there were now two polar opposites clashing. Daenai and Kaiser arrived just in time to see the dark lance break through the roiling shield of flame and pierce the fire's wielder.
It took Isei a long time to fall…but perhaps time had simply slowed. The fire vanished, and the killer took form. He and Daenai locked gazes; purple eyes met magenta. The face was stoic, but the cold eyes held a malignant leer. Daenai stood, frozen with shock, as the demon recognizable to Zagato as the Plague Bringer stepped back from the fallen sage, and vanished without saying another word.
Kaiser caught sight of the new Bel before Zagato took over his body. "Beelzebub! As useless as usual," he mocked. "You're late, the ruins are useless, and you killed the only man with information that can't come back from the grave." Without being able to use magic, Zagato knew he couldn't face Beelzebub, much less his army of familiars. "Jezebel and Belial already left, now be useful and go find Belberith!"
No answer. It wasn't certain that Beelzebub had heard what Zagato said.
Daenai stumbled forward before falling to her knees beside Isei. The sage was already dead, but a dark magic still pulsed around his body. It quelled and vanished as soon as Daenai's hand touched Isei's shoulder, but a barely noticeable amount jumped onto her wrist before evaporating. The Dragonborn said nothing, couldn't think of anything to say, and simply sat there silently, staring at her mentor.
Anger enveloped Kaiser. But shamefully, this was Zagato's territory now. "Did you hear me, Worm?" Zagato shouted. There was a slight possibility of them being able to slay Beelzebub here with one shot, but he wanted to avoid such a reckless act.
"He's not here anymore," Daenai told him dully, not moving, her hands gripping her knees. "He's gone."
Kaiser blinked, his emotion blocking Zagato momentarily. If Beelzebub wasn't here anymore, he planned to do the best he could helping Daenai with Isei.
Daenai shook herself out of her stupor and put her arms underneath Isei's. "I'm bringing him back into the shrine to bury him with his ancestors," she said flatly, not looking him in the face. "Help me carry him."
Kaiser nodded and did as she said, not exactly sure what he could say. He was bad at reassuring people, it always bothered him that he couldn't fix things with words. With his help, Daenai brought Isei to the hidden entrance and, covering them all with her Draconic energy again, allowed the shield to absorb them.
Back into the shrine they went… only this time, it was empty and cold. Perhaps it was the absence of its last resident that caused the very shrine to weep. One drop, then another, and soon it was raining. Daenai led the way to a small isolated area behind the main shrine, inside a grove of trees. A cemetery. In death, the dragon sage seemed smaller. Daenai was strong enough by herself to lift him, and laid his body underneath one of the trees. She left them for a few moments and returned, holding a shovel. Her hair was plastered to her face and neck and she was soaked through, but she had sad determination in her empty eyes. "I'll do this myself, not by magic," she whispered. "I can do him this last respect. I didn't show him much when he was alive." Turning away from Kaiser, she pressed the shovel into the ground, upturning the dirt. Kaiser stood silently by, covering his head with the cloak. As the hole grew bigger, so did Zagato's smile.
The hole widened, and Daenai relished the strain on her muscles, the ache that developed in the back of her neck, the blisters she felt from the shovel rubbing on her skin. When she decided the grave was big enough, she climbed out of it and, taking hold of Isei, lowered him into it, covering his body with a white cloth from the shrine. She finished closing the grave, her hands bleeding from the blisters, her head lowered. Then, she turned and glared at Kaiser, who blinked, confused as to why she would direct her anger at him. She spoke; "This… this is your fault," she said. "My brother…my father… my mentor… what else are you going to take from me?"
Kaiser shook his head slightly, surprised by her words, feeling the sting of them in Zagato's stead, for the demon inside him felt no pity; rather, he cackled. Against any common sense, instead of leaving her be, Kaiser spoke to her. He had buried people before, and it had been his fault then too. "I…I understand," he stammered. "I know…"
At his words, Daenai lifted her head, and fixed her eyes on him. A powerful spark of anger flashed at him, and he faltered, not expecting her fury. "No, you don't understand," she hissed, rising slowly. "No one understands. You know nothing about what I've done. You know nothing, nothing, about me." As she said this, the truth of her words hit him like a mountain. He gathered that she fled the shrine because she'd lost her family, but she had carefully guarded the details. Knowing full well the pain of that loss, Kaiser didn't pry. Yet, there was a sudden stinging in his chest. He opened his mouth to say something, to apologize, but Daenai wouldn't have it. "My mother left me. My father died. Zagato killed my brother. I spent many years in this place with Father and Briareus, inheriting the jeweled blade, training under Isei." She turned her gaze back to the grave. "I was angry and bitter and stubborn after that. But he was kind to me. I lived my years believing I was alone. I never bothered to see that one person alone remained beside me." Her tears gathered in her eyes again. "He always cared for me, and I left. I ran away. I never appreciated what he did." Daenai's voice broke, and Kaiser stared at her. "I said I would never return here. I was ashamed to face him, a petulant ungrateful little child. And I retreated here, where he welcomed me with open arms, the prodigal daughter. I… never thanked him." Daenai met Kaiser's horrified eyes, and as her pain reached him, his heart ached for her. "I never begged his forgiveness. I never repaid his kindness. And now, it's too late." The Dragonborn opened her hands as though in supplication. "I hate myself," she croaked, tears pouring down her tortured face. "I hate myself, all the selfish desires I existed for. It's not your fault, Kaiser," she whispered. Her knees trembled. "It's mine."
She took one step forward and crumbled to the ground. Kaiser broke from his trance in time to catch her, her confession rendering him incapable of speaking. There wasn't any way he could alleviate her agony, not when he himself carried an unforgivable sin. His arms wrapped around her, aware that she wasn't fond of physical contact and not caring. To his surprise, she clutched onto him, as though desperately seeking forgiveness from the one ally she had left. All he could do was hold her, and watch the fearless and hotheaded Dragonborn dissolve and impossibly, painfully, become only human as the idea he called justice blackened and vanished around him.
His fight had been so simple before. A clear line between good and evil, where the bad guys always lost and happy endings came for the hero and his princess, where monsters existed only in fantasy and the righteous were victorious. Now, he realized that justice did not protect the just, that evil was subjective. And as the tears and the rain soaked into his skin, Kaiser cradled his companion, hearing Zagato's voice in his mind…
There is no black, or white, good, or evil. There is only gray and all the uncertainty in between.
The image of his village burning around him sparked the usual pain in his shoulder. He couldn't let her feel the same regret that he did, he wouldn't wish that on anybody. He knew she had suffered the weight of her betrayal for a long, long time, and this only added more. "I'm sorry," he said to her, his words twisted with guilt. "I couldn't do anything, I'm sorry…"
Please, let me bear her burden in her stead…
Zagato attempted to issue a biting remark, but the emotion was so powerful that he found his voice strangled. However, he was still satisfied…the more broken, the easier they were to use, to twist in his benefit. The devil retreated into the back of Kaiser's mind to watch the wake of his family's intrusion, once again, into the dragon mythology.
After what felt like forever, Daenai parted from Kaiser, unsteadily rising to her feet, her hair still covering her eyes. The rain had dwindled, but drops continued falling. She did not speak to him as she turned and walked in the direction of the hot springs. Once alone, Kaiser stood in silence before Isei's grave for a short time before retreating to the main shrine.
At the hot springs, Daenai stared at the image of herself in the peaceful water and saw someone she didn't recognize through the dirt and blood and tears. For the first time in a long time, she wondered why she fought. Would the hurt go away if she gave up?
No, her anger spoke from within the grief, a darker side brought on by her hatred for the seven sons. If you back down now, who will exact vengeance? Yes, she still had a score to settle, and she now held the power with which to achieve it. "You son of a bitch," she murmured, closing her eyes. "I'll kill you first."
Kaiser stood in the middle of nowhere, under the rain, gazing at the emptiness. Bael… how can I believe in justice when I see things like this?
Silly human. The gods stopped caring about this world several centuries before you were born. What makes you think they care now? Zagato taunted with his malefic voice.
The gods are always with us… they just are forbidden to do everything for us.
Is that really what you believe? They have knights! Angels! Avatars! Suddenly, Kaiser could see him and Zagato, in the middle of a desert with a cloudy sky, strewn with dead vegetation. They just do stuff here when they're bored.
No, they do a lot for us, they must be testing us.
Where is the justice in allowing the death of an innocent man, village or town, when the only thing they did was trying to help the ones in need?
Kaiser was out of words. The desert sky showed the signs of a powerful thunderstorm. Zagato started to laugh and vanished, returning Kaiser to the real world. "What is justice? No… the true question is…" the talismans on his body shone for a second. "Does it actually exist?"