Act III – The Second Reality
"You think you've won," the voice said to her. The voice she would always hear in the darkness, the voice that had commanded her for nearly two centuries in her former life. "You think you've escaped me, grown beyond my control. You know nothing, little bird. You dance to my tune and you sing at my beck and call. The world itself is my toy, mine to do with as I please. Your little life? Nothing, to me."
"You are my master no longer," she said quietly, teeth grinding together. Calling on every scrap of magic she had did nothing – she could as well touch her Gift as touch the face of the moon above. "I serve no one but myself and the realm. Begone!" Laughter then, grating as the sound of nails across stone, deep as the chasm behind the castle, unending as the sun.
"You will always be my plaything," he said. "I give you a gift. Open your eyes to the truth." Images assaulted her from every direction, the images she had seen when she'd stepped through the massive gateway Stratos had created in the Joining. Images she refused to believe, refused to share. Images that could not possibly be true. Altherion's voice began to fade. "Keep telling yourself that. Whatever gets you through the day. In the nighttime where you are mine you know it to be true. Sleep well, dove."
Elvina awoke with a start and a cry at the sound of her door being banged on rather heavily. She could hear muffled voices on the other side of the door and she rose slowly, grumbling about the time. Soft silken robes adorned her as she pulled the door open.
"God's eyes woman, took you long enough," Richter said, panting.
"What in the name of the Light are you banging on my sodding door at such an inhuman hour for?" she said, glaring spikes of irritation at him. He ignored the glare – his face was a mask of shock. Immediately, she came to full attention. "What's going on?"
"Come with me," he said. "There's... there's something you have to see." She followed him, pulling the door shut and picking up a brisk stride as he led her towards the council chambers.
"Again with the chambers," she said. "I swear I'm going to set up alternate meeting sites just so I don't have to see this bloody room every sodding day. If you dragged me out of bed for anything less than the end of the world, I swear to you Richter Harris, I'm going to clout you about the arse for a day straight."
"Now that would be a sight to see," Schala said. She was sitting at the meeting table, closest to the end with two women sitting opposite her. Elvina felt the world go gray and nearly plummeted to the floor, being saved from a nasty spill by the very man she'd been berating a moment ago.
"Gods..." she said. The two newcomers looked as alike as siblings, and looked as beautiful as the day they had passed, a few months ago for the one and a century past for the other. "How... how..."
"I'm ascertaining that as we speak," Schala said quietly. Benton came around the corner just then to join them, and Elvina saw his eyes go wide in surprise at the sight of the two ladies in white.
"That's not possible," he said flatly.
"It is," Schala said. "I invite you to see for yourself. Open yourself to your Sight. You'll know." Elvina and Benton both did just that, and both of them felt shock when they realized what Schala had said was true. Sitting before them, alive and clothed in flesh, were Serena and Kaetilia Lumina. "You'll forgive me if I don't scream for joy. I suppose you might say I'm in shock."
"Ditto that," Elvina said softly. "Obvious first question – just how in the seven screaming hells are the two of you here in the first place? And why?"
"The how of it is simple," Serena said. "We used what was left of the gateway Stratos had made, as well as his song. I'll admit, stepping through was terrifying – I've heard of it happening before, but I'd never tried it until today."
"As for why," Kaetilia said, "there are things that need sharing with a certain man in gold, things that we couldn't say when we were beholden to the realm of the dead. Being of it bound our tongues in ways I cannot explain."
"I've a more pertinent question," Benton said. "How were you able to make a gateway into the castle?"
"I was wondering about that," Serena said. "We both felt something strange trying to block our path, but by joining our Gifts we were able to pull it off." She paused for a moment, eying the woman on her right. "This one is rather powerful... more than myself, more than the rest of you lot I'd wager." She eyed Elvina with something akin to sorrow. "Except perhaps you, my dear. But we both know how that song ends, don't we?"
Kaetilia blushed again, while Elvina looked as if she wanted to find the nearest hole and crawl in it. She'd never for a moment forgotten what she'd done to the other woman, and she had never expected to be confronted with it directly.
"The Towers," Schala said. Kaetilia's eyes snapped towards her, as did Serena's. "The Towers are active as we speak." She raised an eyebrow. "That the two of you were able to bore a hole through their barrier is... impressive, to say the least." She chuckled lightly. "To be honest I never expected you to be quite so strong, my daughter."
"This still isn't possible," Benton said, shaking his head in denial. "The dead don't just walk back into the world. It doesn't happen."
"I've died once," Schala said. "So has Elvina."
"You were tied to the Egg, as I've heard it," Benton said. "There's at least a path there. These two, on the other hand... dead and gone, and back again. It isn't right, I say."
"Can't we at least agree that we're glad?" Schala said. She smiled at her daughter. "After all, it's not every day you get someone back, is it?" Benton shook his head, sighing.
"I suppose," he said. "And I realize I should be happy for the both of you, and for our good fortune. But the whole thing smells... wrong to me, somehow. I don't know, maybe it's just the old soldier in me. Some things just aren't meant to be. But knowing one thing, and seeing another, I've no place to speak, really. Welcome back, ladies."
"I assure you, Lord Agares, we wouldn't have made the journey if the effort weren't worth it," Kaetilia said, eyes distant. "I know well and true that the dead belong in the realm of the dead, and not here... but sometimes chances must be taken, when there are things that are important enough to risk them."
"Ye gods, what is Stratos going to think?" Richter said, shaking his head. "I know the man. It's going to be a very interesting day when he returns to find the two of you here, I can tell you that much."
"Is it now?" a voice called from behind them. Turning to face the doorway, Richter watched Stratos and Sarcodus walk into the room, speaking amongst themselves. "I'm surprised to see you all here at such an hour. What's the occasion?" Richter stepped aside to clear the line of sight between them, and Stratos locked eyes on the two women in white. "Now I know old age has finally claimed me. I've gone mad, I tell you. Have I gone mad, Sarcodus old man?"
"If you have, then so have I," he said, three shades paler than usual as he lightly shook his head in disbelief. Kaetilia rose from her seat, smiling hesitantly. The others moved aside, out of their way, but neither of them made to step forward.
"Hi," Kaetilia said, breathing heavily.
"Hi yourself," Stratos said, voice hoarse. They stood thus for a few moments before Serena could no longer stand the weight of the tension.
"God's eyes, man, kiss your woman!" she said, glaring at the man in gold. Two steps cleared the distance between them and Stratos swept his wife into his arms for a passionate embrace. Laughter finally broke out among the others as they began talking amongst themselves, sharing embraces all around.
"I came back tonight because I had good news to share with the rest of you," he said, arm wrapped around Kaetilia, "and instead I find even better news here, waiting for me. I knew it couldn't be real. I knew it wasn't meant to happen. You two... seeing the both of you, here, in the flesh... am I dreaming? Is this happening?"
"My stomach is certainly real enough," Serena said, rising. "It's protesting a hundred year lack of sustenance. Why don't we see about taking care of that, all of us?"
"Indeed," Sarcodus said. "I couldn't eat a bite more, after the night I've had, but I know I could use a drink." They filed out together, talking amongst themselves, leaving Stratos alone with Kaetilia. When the last of them left, he closed the chamber doors behind them.
"Sit with me, my love," he said, taking his seat at the head of the table. Kaetilia sat lightly in his lap, robes draping across him. "Words cannot express how much joy I'm feeling right now." She smiled at him.
"I can see it," she said. "With the Sight, I mean. Your aura is shining brighter than I've ever seen it. I can feel warmth radiating off of you like rays of sunlight." She closed her eyes, tilting her head back ever so slightly. "It feels... clean. Invigorating. Like something long forgotten, a drink of water to the man dying of thirst in the desert, a cool breeze rolling in off of the ocean."
"I didn't think I'd ever see you again," he said. He could feel tears moistening his eyes. "I said what I had come to say, and that was that, I thought. I'd at least had a chance to say it, instead of losing you outright. I thought I could live with that." He laughed lightly. "But here you are, sitting in my lap like nothing ever happened. How is it possible, my love?"
"Because of you," she said. "Serena worked out how to reopen your gateway from the other side, with what residue remained and with the echoes of your song." Her eyes glowed with ethereal blue light. "I shall never forget that song, my love. I first heard it on that day when the world ended for me, and again earlier today... I don't know what language you spoke, if it was even a language at all. The magic of it spoke to me clearly enough. I'll admit, I was surprised – I've never heard you sing, not even the least little bit."
"That's because it isn't safe for me to do, generally speaking," he said. "Singing is the rawest, most primal connection to the human soul, and when you do it you put yourself into it, wholly. For most people, that means raw emotion and perhaps a pleasant melody, but for me... you've seen firsthand what my power can do, misplaced." Darkness crossed her features for a moment.
"I have," she said softly. "I won't forget it, either."
"I'm concerned that it might happen again," he said. "After all, there isn't anything really stopping Altherion from coming with all of his might and taking you or someone else from me again. I've not yet worked out a way around his power, though I've a few ideas about that. I don't know if it will be safe for you here, my love. And I cannot bear the thought of losing you again, not so soon after being reunited."
"Serena and I both agreed that coming back was worth the risk," she said. "What is to be, will be. I cannot change that, any more than I can stop the sun from rising. There were things she wanted to say to you that she was incapable of saying while she was still tied to the fabric of the realm of the dead, and she needed my help to reopen the gateway." She smiled again. "Besides, I wouldn't miss possibly the only opportunity to return to you that I would get." Stratos sat silently for a few minutes, just looking her in the eyes. The blue eyes he'd seen every morning upon rising for over six years now, the blue eyes he'd watched the light go out of when she'd been slain by his wayward brother a few months back. Eyes he never expected to see again.
"We'll talk more about that when the day breaks," Stratos said. "For now, we should join the others."
Elvina was sitting with the others at one of the larger round tables in the mess hall. Even in the early hours of the morning, the hall was a busy place, as the night rotation of the castle took their meal times. Waiting staff and cooking staff were always on hand, and Stratos was famous for coming by for a nibble in the early hours. Not being tied to the need to sleep like other men and women, he often found himself awake at all hours, working out some manner of magical mystery or castle business that needed his attention.
"I never thought I'd see you again on this side of the veil," Elvina said, looking at Serena. The blue eyed woman returned her gaze with a strange intensity, ethereal blue light still glowing faintly around them.
"That feeling is mutual," she said. "If I'm to understand it, you've died once yourself. How is it we never encountered one another in the realm of the dead?"
"I couldn't tell you," Elvina said. "One moment I was locked in combat with our mutual friend, and the next I was lying on the floor in some ancient stone ruins. Cold, hungry, but alive and well. Clothed, no less. I still have no idea how that happened." Serena smiled lightly.
"I experienced something similar upon my return," she said. "The robes we are wearing didn't exist until an hour or so ago."
"If you'll pardon my saying so, what was it like?" Benton said. Serena could see the question in his eyes.
"I never came across your family," she said softly. The man in blue nodded, sighing. "Nor yours, Lord... Harris is it?"
"Richter," he said. "Just Richter. I'm no longer landed nobility. A great percentage of the aristocracy has found themselves in a similar predicament."
"None the less, I can see it in your eyes just the same as him," she said, cocking a thumb at Benton. "I am sorry for your losses, gentlemen."
"It's behind me," Richter said offhandedly. Stone filled his gaze. "There is naught to be done for it, anyway. I've no magic of my own to go where Stratos apparently went, and I'm not sure I would even if I did." Benton nodded.
"The realm of the dead is no place for the living," the man in blue said. "And I'm still concerned, milady. No offense intended."
"Your concerns are well founded," she said. "That I was able to do what I did was extraordinary in itself, and that Stratos has the power to come in the first place is still a bit of a shock to me. He came once before that I know of, but nowhere near as deep as he was today." She shuddered. "That place... it felt perfectly natural while I was there, but thinking about it now makes my skin crawl. You become a part of it, the realm. And it becomes a part of you. When you're there, you aren't really one person any more. You're a mishmash of you and everyone else around you. And at any rate, I've no wish to speak of it any further. It isn't why I'm here."
"Why are you here, anyways?" Sarcodus said, folding his arms across his chest. Benton and Richter sat to his right, nodding as if they found the question pertinent.
"Let's wait for the others before I tell my story," Serena said. "I've no wish to repeat myself. Hopefully it's the last I will have to speak of it at all."
"I myself have often wondered what it's like to be truly dead," Sarcodus said, leaning back and rubbing his chin. Benton eyed him sideways. "Of a certainty, I've died more times than I can count, but I always awaken a moment or two later somewhere else altogether. At least, from my perspective. Sometimes it's a few hours, sometimes it's a century, but I always return. I've never been of the realm of the dead itself, not even once."
"You're saying you're immortal, then?" Richter said, eying him askance. Sarcodus shrugged.
"I don't know if I would call it that," he said. "As I said, I've died more times than I can count. As to the how of it, I couldn't tell you even if I wanted to. It's as much a mystery to me as it is to you, I am certain." Richter shook his head, swearing under his breath.
"You know," Richter said, "I had a fairly simple life before I met any of you. I was the lord of a decent sized bit of property in the south, I was known for my hospitality, and the entertainment I could provide was only exceeded by Mekarta in its prime, before Stratos turned it into a slag heap." He shook his head again. "What strange turns life takes. I've no Gift of my own, indeed nothing out of the ordinary about me, and yet I find myself caught in the machinations of powers beyond my estimation."
"Your point?" Benton asked him. Richter shrugged.
"Doesn't matter," he said. "Just an idle thought. I would give anything to see my family again, but I don't think I'd feel comfortable actually having the power to make it happen. That kind of power is the stuff of legends, myths told around campfires to scare and delight a captive audience. That our mutual friend possesses just such a gift is both wonderful and terrifying to me at the same time."
"I can't help but agree with you there," Benton said, stroking the edges of his mustache idly. "My Gift has never brought me anything but grief. I'm just strong enough to have passing decent knowledge about a lot of things, but not powerful enough to affect changes with that knowledge."
"Don't sell yourself short," Sarcodus said, patting him on the shoulder. "From my experience it's almost always more of a curse than a blessing. Sure, you can level a city or two, or you can raise a mountain in a few minutes, but everything you do has consequences, whether or not you live long enough to see them." He sighed. "I can't imagine Stratos' lot. He isn't like me – he's never died. I'm not even sure he can, to be honest. I've seen him take blows from weapons that would have killed a soldier in his prime, without even pausing to recover. Come to think of it, I've never seen the sodding man bleed, either. That's something."
"I think we can all agree Stratos is something of a special case," Elvina said, eyes down, brooding. "It is of no concern to us, though. We've more immediate matters that need consideration. Like the Towers. Or the army camped on our doorstep. Or bloody sodding Altherion, for that matter. I still don't know what we'll do if he decides to pay us a visit. After watching what we all saw a few months ago, I've no doubt he could do the same to any one of us if it suited his fancy. That he hasn't yet is something of a mystery in and of itself."
"We have to assume that whatever he's planning, he's playing the long game," Sarcodus said. "He's had the better part of a thousand years to learn everything he can about magic. How else do you think he was able to exert control over you, Elvina, even with the bulk of his power penned up in the distant north?"
"At least we won't be caught off guard like the last time," Schala said. "After the incident, I've seen to it that regular patrols sweep the castle with a few detection webs, a few truth telling spells, and the Sight to top it off. We can at least tell who he is with our magic." Sarcodus slowly shook his head.
"I wouldn't count on that if I had to," he said. "Just a few hours ago, Stratos was able to create some manner of ward that hid our Gifts from some very interesting folks."
He eyed Elvina directly. "That army you speak of? We met them tonight." Sharp intakes of breath coming from all around the table save Serena answered him. "We have to assume that if he lacks the raw power to do some of the things Stratos does, he has enough finesse to work his way around that limitation."
"So we know he isn't as powerful as Stratos, then?" Elvina said.
"Indeed so," he said. "And if anything it makes him all the more dangerous, because unlike the rest of us he isn't fettered by a conscience or empathy for the living. If he sees a way to take the power he needs, he will do just that. I'm not sure we could stop him, even with all of us together."
"Thoughts for another day," Serena said. "We've matters to attend to."
"So let's be about it," Stratos said, striding into the room with his wife next to him. They joined the others at the table and took a couple empty seats. "Has anyone seen Reia? I should like for her to hear what the others have to say."
"She comes and goes at any possible hour of the day," Schala said. "I'd wager she's out in the world, managing her network of political alliances and information. I'll be sure to fill her in when the chance arises." She looked to Serena. "So. Out with it. Why have you returned to the world of the living, at such great risk? What was worth taking that chance?"
Reia had spent many of the hours in the days since Elvina's return in the castle library, searching for any manner of useful information. She'd found a few scrolls that appeared promising. They were all extremely old, with a few dating back to before the founding of the realm itself. It was the penmanship that had caught her attention – she could recognize Sarcodus' hand on each and every last one of them.
After weeks of meticulous planning and after having slowly moved all of the materials I wanted protected, I fled Castle Lothanis in broad daylight one autumn morning. Leaving in the dead of night would have been simpler on the surface of it, but who knows who's watching in the darkness these days? Something has been amiss among my brethren for months, and it is only now that things are finally coming to a head. Oh, the world will not know for years to come, but I know that the core of the Brotherhood of Vorath is lost, irretrievably lost to the Shadow.
How the events that are taking place around me came about in the first place I cannot say, and I want desperately to understand. Certain things must be taken into consideration first, however. The safeguarding of Syreal. I might have an idea how to go about that, even. I've moved all of the deepest secrets of the Vorathi ahead of time, and I alone had full access to all of the texts. I will ensure it stays this way, before doing anything else.
"How is it these survived the destruction of the upper floor?" Reia said to herself quietly. She pulled another scroll, this one dated about two weeks after the first.
For weeks I have traveled beyond the world of Syreal and the plane it lies on, beyond the veil of reality into a wholly different one. I found a world that is so deeply steeped in magic that my experimentation should be fairly effectively masked. My brethren are going to have their work cut out for them searching for me, and search they will, because I have taken the most dangerous lot of our texts and magical errata with me. They may yet achieve what they desire, but I have at least ensured that it would not be an easy task, and I hope I've bought the world of Syreal and its various nations and kingdoms time. I only hope it will be enough time. Once again I send a prayer to the gods of foresight – the moment I began to notice changes within my brethren, I started hiding texts and scrolls that are particularly dangerous, or useful to my cause.
Rifling through the stack of parchment, Reia found no such material at hand. She continued to read the entries.
I do not know if I will be able to do what I feel needs to be done. I do not know if I'll even survive the attempt, body or mind. The amounts of energy I am planning on dealing with are on a level far greater than any envisioned even by the most deranged of sorcerers on any world. And I wonder, shall I have the intestinal fortitude to carry through with it? What I intend to do would cause death on a massive scale, no matter how things go. Would it be simpler to let Syreal burn, that other worlds may live freely? It is that thought that has caused me the most trepidation. As much as I love my world, as much as I wish things would return to normal and everyone would be free to live their lives as they would, I recognize that the trade I am making is an outright one, world or worlds for one. In the end, what decided me was the final divination of the future I have undertaken. Without a savior, Syreal will burn, and countless other worlds with it. The Shadow will spread, conquering world after world, until eventually the entire cosmos are blotted out. There was something strange in the vision I received, something almost bent, in a fashion, or backwards, but the end result was clear enough.
"What on earth is he talking about?" Reia said, looking through the scattered scrolls and selecting the next nearest dated one. Some of them appeared to be missing vital details, but she kept on anyway.
A year after fleeing Castle Lothanis, I finally have everything in place I will need to carry out my mission. An extensive laboratory filled with all of my stolen volumes, and an entire world to test portions of the various spells that I might need tested. I am going to find a savior for the world of Syreal, and by extension, every other world in the cosmos. The magnitude of my task leaves me feeling small and impotent frequently. How do I have the right, to do what I intend to do? For though I am working towards the greater good, and the ultimate safety of the realm and others beyond it, it is a monstrous crime I am about to commit.
"Evasive as ever I see," she mused. She spotted an empty piece and opened herself to her Sight. The visibly blank parchment suddenly began to have words scrawling across its surface. "Clever, clever man."
It looks like it will require the use of five distinctly different spells, in the end. I am amazed at how ultimately simple this task seems like it will be, and how utterly endless the crime I am about to commit truly is. I don't know if it will work – the (word missing) is such a fluid thing, and the aspect of (words missing) has its own agenda. If they don't cooperate, my task may end prematurely with my own death. But I will not allow my brothers and sisters to enslave the cosmos with their machinations. I have seen the fate of the realm and those beyond if I fail, and it is dismal. My heart is filled with misgivings at every turn. I should not be doing this.
It would be a simple enough matter to pervert one of the spells I am about to use to (words missing) from (words missing), and not another, assuming (words missing) concurred. The problem would be solved... but there would be no savior, should the threat arise on other worlds. For I have little doubt that if (words missing), then it is elsewhere as well, and probably a great deal more so than we suspected in our wildest imaginings. There must be a savior, (words missing). The diffuse will of the elements is simply no longer enough. Mankind on my world and on many other worlds has learned too many secrets to allow events to occur simply as they will.
I realize that I am (words missing). I realize that I should be killed just for pondering such an attempt. The very fact that I potentially have the tools to do so frightens me and unnerves me at the same time. Others could potentially do this. The universe is such an unimaginably vast place, someone else out there has to have tried. I can only hope that the (words missing) the need is pressing enough. Ultimately it will come down to their assent. For if they do not, my quest is at an end, for though I know the spells, I lack the ultimate power needed to wield them. I should not be doing this.
Reia paused for a moment, staring into the distance. Is he talking about what I think he's talking about? She was beginning to suspect she'd found something wholly larger than she had anticipated. Gathering up everything on the table in front of her, she found Jaina, hard at work despite the hour.
"I am taking these," she said. "You will make no record of them being checked out. You will make no note whatsoever that I was here, that I read anything. This I order you as Regent to the throne. Do you understand?"
"State business," Jaina said, nodding. "Aye, milady Queen, I hear you loud and clear. You were never here, and you never took anything."
"Again, let me be clear," Reia said. "Not even should Lord Harris or Lord Arcadia inquire, are you to reveal any of this. Should they ask, you are to direct them to me or the king, understood?"
"This isn't my first night on the job," Jaina said. "Me and mine have served the crown for generations. Unless you had forgotten, my daughter was one of those that gave their lives to light the wretched Towers."
"I hadn't," Reia said. "And I know how you must feel. I meant no offense. I merely wish to impress upon you the severity of my orders."
"I will follow them to the letter, milady," Jaina said. "My Elena... she gave herself willingly in the defense of the realm. I am proud to have been her mother, even as my heart is broken."
"I am sorry," Reia said. "For her, and for everything else as well. It has been a difficult year, the world itself has been remade beneath our feet. I must take my leave of you now, unfortunately."
"You've business to be about, I'm sure," she said. "No one shall learn of the scrolls you hold. Though if I may ask, milady... why are they so important?" Reia paused mid step.
"Let's just say there's a mystery that needs solving," Reia said. "And it's larger and more terrifying than anyone might have guessed."
Stratos' head was ringing.
"I'm sorry, I'm not sure I heard that correctly," he said. "Run that last part by me one more time, for pity's sake."
"I said," Serena said, "that I came to warn you that your brother seeks to destroy both of our realms."
"How is that even possible?" Richter said. "Even with the extra bit of power he gained from our friend in gold here, how is he even remotely capable of such a thing?"
"I know not the means by which he seeks to do so," Serena said. "I merely know that is his goal. This was made known to me in the realm of the dead." The breath left Richter's chest in a rush.
"So we stop him," Elvina said. "Simple as that. We find the bastard and we take his head for a trophy. I'll do it personally if none of you have the stomach for it."
"It isn't as easy as that," Sarcodus said. Elvina shot him a glare that would have withered any other man, but Sarcodus ignored it entirely. "He isn't some madman that we can simply behead and be done with it. He isn't even strictly human, for that matter."
"So what, then?" Stratos said, looking to his old friend. "If we can't just behead him, how do we bring him down? I've been told that he seeks to end both our worlds, and I've been told that no amount of magic will suffice to do the job. It's a double bind. How am I to stop him if not through magic?"
"I don't honestly know," Sarcodus said. "If I did I would have shared that information with you long ago."
"I'm not so certain you would," Schala said. The entire group looked to her. She'd been silent for most of the evening, and that she was now speaking carried some degree of import. "Speaking as someone whose life was bound and tied by your hand, you carry a lot of secrets, old man."
"I do," he said. "Your point?"
"I'm not so certain you would tell us how to bring the man down if you didn't think it was in our best interest to know," she said. "Even if not telling us gets us killed in the process. Or do you forget that many of us around this table have all ready died at least once?"
"Not for a moment," he said. "And you may recall that I myself have died a great deal more times than that. But that isn't relevant right now – if I knew how to bring down Altherion I would tell you all. I want just as much as you do to see him brought to justice, that our worlds may be safe." He eyed the others for a moment before continuing. "For the time being, he is out of our reach. There are other matters, however, that do deserve our attention. Such as the Towers of Dread being active. And the army camped on our doorstep."
"Aye," Stratos said. "We made some progress on that front, him and I. We may end up gaining an ally as opposed to an enemy, if we play our cards right. But the Towers... now, those need attending to." He looked around the group as a whole. "Whose idea was it to light them in the first place?" The majority of the group seated at the table turned to look at Elvina, who sighed and nodded with resignation.
"That would be me," she said, head in her hands, eyes locked on the table. "We discussed the options available to us in council, and of all of the choices to be made, that one was the only one that we felt we could afford. No one knew how long you would be gone, or if we would even see you again. No offense to you, old man, I know what you were going through." She paused for a moment. "I didn't like it as an option, but it was the only way. Or so I felt." She chuckled ruefully. "Those sodding Towers... there is something amiss there. They tried to kill me. Or, rather, something wrapped around them tried to kill me. Some dark magic. When I opened myself to the Sight, I saw..." She shuddered for a moment. "I fear we might have made a rather large error in judgment, on that night. I fear Altherion's hand in this."
"Let's not start jumping at shadows," Sarcodus said. "We can't suspect his work in every last misfortune we experience." Elvina turned to glare at him, incredulous.
"Yes, yes we can," she said, voice rising as she spoke. "That's just the thing, Sarcodus. We bloody well can suspect his hand in every last misfortune we experience, because the sodding man has had centuries to lay out his plans. He used the Magus – the Magus – as a tool to further his own ends. We were great, once. Dark, true, but great. The Magus I was a member of was not the Magus of old. Gregor and I were naught but pawns to him." She paused for a moment. "Let that sink in a tick. Gregor Solara, the man who led the forces of the Shadow a thousand years ago when you first came to this world, Stratos. And his will, before Altherion, was less than dust." She looked back to Sarcodus. "So don't sit there and tell me what to think, you sodding fool."
"Bickering is going to get us nowhere," Richter said wearily. "And it's been an extremely long day for all of us. Honestly, the best I can think of is a good night's sleep for everyone. After all, returning from the dead has to be exhausting, right?"
"Aye," Kaetilia said. "To the bone. Odd sensation, that. I could use a solid night spent in a fluffy bed."
"Likewise," Schala said. "And I think it would be best for all of us to let this matter sit aside until dawn. We'll reconvene here tomorrow morning, let's say around ten o'clock. I've a mind to sleep in, for a change."
"Agreed," Stratos said. "And that's an order from the king. All of you, get some rest. We've had a long day, and we've more ahead of us. Take what moments you can to relax and recover."
Reia found Sarcodus as he was walking through the halls towards his chambers.
"I need a word with you," she said. "Now." He stopped, sighing.
"It's late, milady, and I've no more stomach for talk tonight," he said. "Whatever it is can wait until tomorrow." He made to walk away, but the next sentence out of her mouth stopped him in his tracks.
"Were you planning on telling Stratos about the manner of his birth?" she said. Freezing in place, ice in his veins, he turned to face her.
"What are you talking about?" he said.
"Your journals," she said. "Or rather, what was left of them. What I've spent the last few hours deciphering. Were you planning on telling Stratos?" Sarcodus eyed the hallway around them, making certain they were alone.
"Come with me," he said, taking hold of her wrist. He dragged her into a nearby chamber, empty of any residents. He sat at a dusty table, and she joined him opposite. "What do you know?"
"Enough to be terrified," she said, "and not quite enough to put the whole thing together. They were heavily redacted. Words were missing, sometimes whole paragraphs, but from what I was able to piece together you performed some manner of spell, and a savior was found." Sarcodus sighed.
"I would very dearly like to know where you found these texts," he said.
"The library," she said. "First floor, History of the Realm." He shook his head, chuckling.
"In all of my years, I never thought to bother with the first floor," he said. "I had assumed if any of my texts survived they would have been on the second floor, destroyed along with everything else. The people responsible for filing them in the first place probably gave them little more than a cursory glance, and simply assumed due to their age that they were best suited with other historical artifacts." He looked her in the eye. "I don't think I need to tell you that what I am about to say does not leave this room." She nodded. "Very well. Do you have the scrolls with you?"
"They are tucked away safely in my chambers," she said. "A moment." Closing her eyes and opening herself to her Gift, she exerted enough magical force to draw the documents to her through the aether. A moment later they appeared on the table before them. Sarcodus nodded in approval.
"Subtle," he said. He opened his mouth to speak again, but it was not words that flowed – it was a song. A song in a language that Reia wasn't familiar with, one that shone with the power of Sarcodus' Gift. All of the scrolls before her shimmered for a moment, and then words began to fill the blanks he'd left, over a thousand years ago. Reia rifled through them for a moment, skimming for the areas that had been blank earlier that night. Her eyes appeared to grow wider with each passing line she read, until at last the final piece fell from her hand. She was trembling bodily, something she'd never experienced before.
"This..." she said. "This cannot be. Surely you jest."
"I make no jests when it pertains to magic," he said. Eying the texts once again, scanning their contents, she shook her head repeatedly, sliding her chair backwards a couple feet. "There are details missing, of course I haven't shared everything with you. The story is not complete, as they say – far too dangerous to have a record of, far too dangerous for you to have the whole of it, should certain individuals get their hands on you. But the gist, as they say? The general thrust, as it were? I've never shared even that much with anyone before. You're the first."
"I don't even... I can't wrap my head around..." she stammered.
"I know the feeling," he said. "I remember it as well now as I did on the day that I did it. A thousand years is such a short time, by the reckoning of the parties involved." He sighed for what felt like the hundredth time that night. "I did what was necessary to ensure the survival of our world, at least some part of it at any rate. Given the chance to go back and rethink the decision, I would still have done what I did. The prime movers agreed with me." He chuckled morosely. "God's eyes, it wouldn't have even been possible in the first place if they hadn't. As well move a mountain, or blot out the stars in the sky."
"Except that's precisely what you did," she said. "Great Gods alive, man. How could you fathom doing what you did? What was so dire that Stratos was our only hope?"
"Read the next scroll," he said.
"I don't have any beyond the late midwinter entry," she said. A quick wave of his hand and suddenly there were several more scrolls sitting on the table with the others. Reia picked up the scroll dated closest to the prior one. There were two dates on this one, one a shorthand entry, the other a lengthier piece.
It has begun, on this day. After several months of preparation, I am finally ready to begin my undertaking. The first step is set and ready to go, and I will cast the first spell needed this very morning – I shall travel to the Heart and speak with the universal consciousness. In my travels between realities I have learned that all who have attempted to do so have failed. Most of them simply never return at all. But I think I might know the way of it. Perhaps. We shall know soon enough.
-I was successful in my journey. The first step is complete. I commit these words to memory, to be bound to me at all times.
The Heart was... not something suited to verbal description, in truth, but I will try. I don't believe I shall ever see anything else like it. The only thing that comes to mind is a massive crystal, turning, pulsing, shining with all of the elements in tune. I stood before it, and I poured out my heart. Nothing happened. Told it of everything that I was trying to accomplish, the potential fate of my world and others, nothing. It simply continued to rotate, ominous in its silence. I spent hours before it, pleading on my knees. Nothing. I could feel... something... within it, some manner of consciousness, of a sort, but I knew not the way of interacting with it. I thought of each and every person that had made this journey having had been unsuccessful. This could not be. I must succeed in my goal. So I did the only thing I had left to me. I let go. Of everything. Even my sense of self. In that place, such an act was frighteningly literal.
However, when I began to drift apart, literally and figuratively, a voice called to me in my solitude. It spoke solely in my mind in words I could not understand, the sound of crystals falling like rain. I was able to piece together the meaning quickly enough.
((What do you seek?))
((For whom do you search?))
((Do you understand the price?))
((Can you live with the cost?))
"I can and I will, because I must."
((Would you give up your soul?)) At this question I hesitated. Was I being tested, or was it being truthful? I answered from the heart, to the Heart, as it were.
"Were it mine to barter or trade, I would gladly give my soul, that the souls of those endless men and women might live in peace."
((Do you believe your soul is yours to trade?))
"I believe my soul is the only thing I truly own, and therefore it is priceless."
((Would you seek to affix a price to that which is priceless?))
"The pragmatist in me says yes, my heart says no. My soul is my own, and therefore I cannot give it to you." A strange sensation filled me then. One of peace, and contentment. I had apparently passed whatever test it was that was being put before me.
((Then we are in accordance, and I shall do as you bid, when the time is right. Return from whence you came, Sarcodus Arcadia, with the knowledge that the Heart of the Universe will provide the vessel. You, however, must come to an accordance with the Light to provide the material to fill the vessel. Go forth and commit to thy task. Return here when you have the material required, and we shall proceed.)) The force of the last litany left me reeling, and I felt my all ready fragmented psyche begin to lose complete cohesion, but the Heart reacted and pieced me back together. I returned a much wiser, much humbler, and much more resolute man. I had the vessel I would need. The next step would be the material to fill the vessel. I fear that might be even more difficult.
"What is the Heart of the Universe?" Reia said.
"It is itself, exactly what it is called," Sarcodus said. "The universal consciousness, if you like. Even I don't truly understand it. All I know is that its assistance and acquiescence were both necessary to accomplish my task." Reia stared at him, searching for the right words to express her state of mind. "There is more, if you've the fortitude to live with it." He handed her another scroll.
Today I came to an accord with the Light, and completed the second necessary step of my mission, as well as the third along with it. Matters are progressing far more swiftly than I had anticipated. Perhaps there is yet hope? Judging by what I now possess, that thought is not as distant as it once was. But then, the sheer enormity of it all leaves me breathless.
To speak with the Light itself, I traveled to the void between worlds, deeper than I've ever been, a place of music without sound, of light without shadow. A truly unnerving experience. I've never felt so solitary in my life, and I never wish to feel that again. Although, when I am finished with what I plan to achieve, I doubt I will have the heart for others of my kind. I am certain this will break mine beyond saving.
When I had penetrated to the deepest point of the void, where the essence of the elements themselves began to separate into different aspects, I sought the Light. This was something few could do, though it was done fairly often. The aspects of the elements were communed with in times of great need, or when certain knowledge was sought. They almost always required a heavy price for anything they gave, however, and more often than not the trade was not worth the cost. They are incapable of playing a direct role in human events – above the deepest recesses of the void their power begins to wane and diffuse, until they are simply an ambient part of nature. On their level, they are fully sentient and in control, and deadly when they choose to be, however, which creates something of a stalemate.
I say I sought the Light, when in actuality, one might say it sought me. It, and the rest of its brethren. When I reached a point where I thought I could go no further, I found myself being pulled onwards, until I blacked out entirely. When I came to, I was standing in what appeared to be a courtroom of sorts. Dark, with most of the judges hidden, but I could clearly make out six figures in different colored robes. Standing in the position of the judge were two of them, a tall man in a white robe, and a slender woman in a black robe.
"No living being has ever come this deep," the man in white said, "not and lived to tell about it. We usually do not allow anyone to see this much. What we have created here for you is something your mind can interpret as reality, that you may interact properly with us. Tell us why you have come so deep, at such great risk to yourself?"
"I seek an accord with the power of the Light, that I may bring the savior needed to prevent the Shadow from overrunning the cosmos," I told them. At this, the lady in the black robe chimed in.
"Are you perhaps Sarcodus Arcadia?" she asked me. I nodded. "This is the mortal the Heart spoke of. The Heart consented to his request, to provide a vessel. He wishes of us – of you in particular, my friend, but from the rest of us as well – the material needed to bind such a vessel." Her demeanor seemed to change for a moment. "Many groups have been misusing my power lately, more so than usual, twisting the natural order to evil purposes. I would do something about it, but beyond this place my power begins to decline, until I have no control at your level of reality."
"If the Heart agreed... if you were able to do what was needed to commune with the Heart in the first place, then you must be speaking the truth," the man in the white robe said. "However, what you are asking is a great thing indeed, greater than any that has ever been asked of us before. Even with the Heart's recommendation, we cannot simply grant this lightly. To provide you with the essence of the Light would be a simple enough matter, but it is not enough on its own. Doing so risks the very same condition that you intend to reverse, only in the other direction. It is important that the balance be maintained. You will need power from all of us, even my lady of Shadow." I could not see the man's face for the shadows that fell upon most of the judge's circle, but I could swear the man smiled kindly at the lady standing next to him. I was learning a great deal simply standing and observing the interaction of the elements at the deepest level, more than any of my brethren could ever have hoped to in their lifetimes. "Will you create your savior with the knowledge that even as his greatest power shall be in the Light, so too will he know the ways of the Shadow? It is only mortals that have confused the two with good and evil. For this reason, it is important that the soul that will house the vessel and the material, that which will be bound with all of our power, be a fresh one, from the raw source of the stuff."
At this, my mind reeled. I had done something very few had done by seeking the Heart of the Universe, and something no one had done by communing directly with the elements at their very deepest level. And now they wanted me to find a fresh spirit? I had a great deal of magical knowledge at my disposal, more than any one man or woman I knew, but when it came to theology, I knew little more than any other, and that was that we possessed spirits, and those spirits formed the essence of what made us individuals, but beyond that, nothing. I said as much to the elements.
"We shall guide you to the proper place," the man in the white robe said to me. "From there, it is up to you to persuade the Keeper to give you what you ask. I feel, however, that you will be successful. We understand the need behind your quest, and wish you luck." My awareness was once again swept out from underneath me, and for a time I knew naught.
Coming to, I found myself in yet another castle, this one much grander and far more expansive than the small, dark courtroom I'd just stood in. The place was well lit, comfortable even. Even for its size, it had a certain feeling of being at home that I couldn't shake. I was standing in a vast ballroom with pillars that reached above me beyond the bounds of sight, and before me perhaps a hundred yards stood an open door. I walked forward and stepped through that door to meet a man, facing away from me, pondering what appeared to be a sky full of stars.
"I've been expecting you," he said to me. His voice was soothing, a rich bass that filled my heart with thoughts of ease and relaxation. "Sit, my friend, and let us speak of that which you seek from me. I've been communing with the Heart of the Universe, and I know of your quest." I sat in a comfortable lounging chair he indicated, and he sat in a similar chair in front of me. One of the more surreal experiences I've lived through, and coming from me that is saying a lot. "So tell me about your world." At this I was taken aback. Here I was, on a quest to save countless worlds, and he wanted to know about Syreal?
"It's a beautiful world," I said, "though no more than some, and less than others. It's fairly well populated, though there are others that are far more so."
"In other words, no more or less deserving than any other world?" the Keeper asked me. I nodded. "Well then. At least you are honest. Tell me why you feel your world should be spared, then, when it would be a simple enough matter to nip the problem in the bud?"
"For two reasons, one on a cosmic scale, one on a personal one," I replied. "The first, because my world is not the only world in which the Shadow is growing unchecked. Destroying my world would solve the problem temporarily, but not eternally. A living, immortal representation of the power of the Light is needed to bring that to heel, ultimately. My savior's purpose will start out small enough, but will become something far grander. It is to this end that both the Heart of the Universe and the essence of the Light have agreed to assist me."
"And the personal reason?" he asked me. He had a kindly enough face, like someone's grandfather or elder uncle, but I could sense incalculable power underneath that gaze, and I knew he was measuring my words carefully. I was reminded that this place, too, was merely a representation in a form my mind would comprehend best.
"Because it is my home," I said simply. My heart was in my throat at this point. This... being, whatever he was, was quite capable of derailing my plans and ending my quest right there.
"You do understand the other costs of your goal?" he asked me. I nodded, unable to speak. "You know that you are condemning countless numbers of living beings to immediate death when you undertake what you plan to undertake?" Again, I nodded. "Why, then, should your world be worthy of saving? The energy required could easily come from your plane, your savior would still be created, and the universe would have its agent of the Light. Why should your world be spared?"
"Because it is my world!" I replied, choking on my words. "It is I who discovered the method in which this could be done, it is I who have traveled farther and deeper than any other man or woman before me, and it is I who will bear the price for what I ask. In return for that monstrous cost, I wish my world to be spared. I wish for my savior to have a place to grow and learn that I know well, that I may see to it he becomes the man I need him to become."
"You do realize that once you complete your task, once your savior is made, and once he knows more than just his name and a couple of words, that he will be completely out of your control?" the Keeper asked me. "Not only that, he will be completely beyond all control. We will be giving a heart, a soul, a body and a mind to that which has never had conscious control before. It is an incredibly dangerous thing you ask. Once that point of no return is reached, it is not reversible. Once the spirit is whole, it cannot be made unwhole. And there will be no one to stop him if you lose control of him. Do you understand the import of what you seek?"
"I understand that if we do nothing, then the balance will be forever destroyed with the years to come," I said to him, firming in my resolution. "People are fighting the same battle everywhere, but it isn't enough. We need the other side to have a consciousness of its own that it may direct the battle where it needs to be directed, and fight as it sees fit, instead of lying around and doing nothing. I know the risks, I know the costs, and I know the consequences. It cannot be avoided, and you know this better than I ever could."
"I ask of you one last question, before I decide," the Keeper said to me. "How is it you have perceived so much, in such a short period of time?" I blinked, confused. How was this pertinent? I continued as I had, honestly.
"I do not know," I replied. "I've always studied the deeper and subtler nature of magic. As far as the goals I have attempted to accomplish, I devised the method and spells myself through both a lifetime of study, combining bits and pieces of countless hundreds and thousands of other spells, and simple intuition. From whence does intuition come from, but the universal subconscious? For my part, I believe that the Heart of the Universe itself perceived the threat long ago, and planted the need within me to learn and understand, to become what I have become, and whispered the things to me that I needed to understand from time to time, keeping me pointed in the right direction. Every single moment of my life has led me to this point in time. This is what I was born to do." I hadn't realized that moments before, to be honest, but it was coming to me as I spoke. Purest intuition. I ran with it. And the Keeper nodded his assent.
"You will have what you seek," he said. "For you speak the truth, I believe. There are none of us that truly understand the Heart's place in the great game, but we all know that it is what binds us all as one. Give me a few days to prepare the new spirit. The elements will prepare the energy you need from one of the planes lying closest to your own. This should serve to slow the spread of the Shadow for at least a short while. While we are seeing to our tasks, since it is your world we will be sparing, select seven of the best examples of humanity among your world to bring to me. Not just the smartest and fastest – I want all of the qualities of a good human being, and the qualities a savior of worlds will need to get him started on his path. Select a master of weapons, a master of magic, a master of tactics, a master of strategy, a master of ruling men, a master of serving men, and a master of home and hearth. These are what you will need, for once the vessel is filled and bound it will require the essence of seven spirits to bind the fresh one to it." The Keeper smiled at me once more and bid me leave his presence, returning me to my starting point, sitting in my laboratory. I heard his voice fill my head one last time that day. "We shall inform you when the time comes. Choose your seven, and stand ready."
"Are you sure you can handle this?" he said to her. "I can stop at any time if you are not comfortable with any more knowledge." She had paled visibly, but she gritted her teeth in determination none the less.
"I asked the question," she said. "Even if the answer is not to my liking, I did ask the question. Carry on."
"Very well," he said, picking up yet another scroll and handing it to her.
I have succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings, though my heart is forever broken for what I have done. I will not even speak of the process used to bind the vessel with its material. That filled me with both wonder and abject horror at the same time. Nor of the binding of the spirit. The things that can be done with magic, and within nature, are both great and terrifying. No man was ever meant to meddle with these forces. I marvel that I was even allowed the attempt, let alone success.
But I have succeeded, where all others have failed. Our savior is come at last, and he is an impressive one at that. He has yet to awaken, but I know he lives through the use of my Gift. More than that I cannot say. His is the most amazing and most peculiar physiology I've ever seen. He is possessed of a human body, and what feels like a heartbeat, but I can see nothing beyond the surface save blinding Light and chaotic forces that I will not reach towards again. He will stand at a muscular six foot four, when he stands, and he's possessed of short, parted silver hair in an odd combination of Lord General and King, both militant and yet somewhat aesthetically pleasing at the same time. Simple, but I think it suits him.
It's the eyes that caught my attention. His lids haven't opened of their own accord, but I took a look. The strangest thing, a glowing quicksilver that I've never seen in a man or a woman before. I have a feeling that when they are animated by the spirit within, they will be something awe inspiring to behold... and fearsome to those that stand before him.
It will take time, to train him and to temper him, to prepare him in the ways of his powers. Time I'm not sure I will have. But I have to try. For my sake, for my world's sake, for the sake of everyone.
"If Stratos ever learned of this..." Reia said, shaking her head, eyes closed.
"I know," Sarcodus said. "He's asked me numerous times to fill in the blanks for him, but I've always been able to stall him and guide him away from the subject.
"Under any other circumstances I would say he has the right to know his heritage," Reia said. "But in this case, your manner of discretion might just have been necessary. Either way you look at it, it's a difficult situation."
"There is one last surviving scroll," Sarcodus said. "Read on, and then we'll talk."
Such extraordinary things that I am witness to. It is not meet that man is able to behold such miracles.
Our savior awakened today. With no warning at all, he simply went from asleep to awake in one moment. The first thing he did was to survey the room. I could see the gaze of a master tactician there, cataloging everything that might be of some use, calculating whether fight or flight were necessary and how such could be accomplished. When he rose, he moved with the deadly, languorous grace of a master swordsman. I could all ready see that I had succeeded in my goal. When he realized I was in the room, he simply stared at me without a word. I could feel... something... prickling at the back of my mind, and though I quickly threw up a ward against intrusion, he went right underneath it and continued to rummage. Fearing the full knowledge of his creation would be too much for him to handle, I spoke to him.
"That isn't the way of it," I said. "It is not meet to steal the knowledge from a man's head without his consent. If you wish to talk, then do so. I know you're capable of it." He blinked, apparently realizing he could indeed speak, and I could hear an innocence in his voice that nearly set my heart to breaking.
"Sorry," he said. "You were there." He pointed to my head. He scanned the room again, this time scrutinizing the architecture. "Where am I?"
"This is my home," I said to him. "And for the time being it is your home as well. You've free run of the grounds but I ask you not to open any locked doors without my express consent. There are things great and terrible here, and you will need time for me to guide you to that which you seek."
"Seek?" he said. Strange, hearing that innocence from such a hard face. He was a handsome man... aye, handsome, but cold. Everything about his appearance spoke of a man that would brook no dissent, and would quell opposition with deadly force. His face was hard planes and angles, giving him a dour sort of look. I worried about the kind of savior I was visiting upon the cosmos, but when he spoke, my doubts were dampened somewhat. Surely someone who spoke so gently was not a destroyer of worlds.
"That you shall learn in time," I said. "What I have for you now is a name, something I've given a great deal of thought to."
"Name?" he asked me. At this, I was admittedly perplexed. I hadn't honestly thought to name the man. I hadn't honestly thought of him as a man until that moment, and in truth he was no more human than the wind or the sky, but he did possess a man's soul, at the heart of him, and it was for that reason that my plans changed. I had been intending to train a master of the Light in the ways of his power. Now, I was beginning to wonder if I should be training a man in the ways of mankind, instead. When he realized I had no answer, he spoke once more. "Stratos Lumina, that's my name." I blinked. He had named himself Light outright. I suppose I should not have been surprised.
"A fascinating one to say the least," I said, eyes wide. "You've named yourself. One generally does not. I've another for you, old man." He looked to me expectantly. "This comes from the seven who gave of themselves to make you. Atolibus Sandrin." He blinked. "Keep it to yourself, it is a secret, it is your truth. It is for you and you alone." I smiled. "Stratos is a fitting name for you, my young friend." I looked around the room, and finally noted the obvious. "I've clothing for you here, somewhere. Can't have you running around in your skin, you know?" I said.
He blinked, and suddenly his entire body was covered in white plate the likes of which I have never seen. A bright light shone throughout the room, and a massive golden sword was suddenly in his hands. Wherever he had conjured the armor and the sword from, however he'd come about them, they were his and his alone. Looking at that enormous golden blade I didn't think anyone else would be able to effectively wield it the way it was meant to be used. And the armor... it should have been impractical beyond recall and uncomfortable as well but he moved in it like some kind of magnificent cat, lithe and deadly. It was clear to me that the swordsman in him was one of the more dominant aspects of his personality.
"These are mine," he said simply. I nodded. Musing to myself, I decided to begin his training then and there, and I decided it by drawing my own sword. He glanced at me with a quizzical look on his face, and then apparently decided the matter when I advanced on him.
If one has ever attacked a lion with a stick in one's hands, one will understand what I mean when I say I was outclassed in short order. We fought for perhaps ten seconds before he had me disarmed and calling a halt.
"A moment!" I said, gathering my breath. He simply stood, staring at me, gauging my strength, waiting for my next move. All right, I thought, I hadn't used all of my skill, that had been just a test, let's see how he responds when he faces a master of the blade. Recovering my sword from its resting place ten feet away, I moved forward, more slowly this time, blade weaving and spinning, never staying in one place. I thought, perhaps this time we'll have some fun. I was roughly disabused of that notion. The first time his sword connected with mine, I was sent flying through the air with a curious sensation of weightlessness, and numbness in the arms. The sheer force! And that hadn't even been the tenth part of his strength! When I landed... hard... and when I recovered my wits, I looked at him with wonder anew. "If I had wanted you to show me that your magic is greater than that of mine, I would have asked you to. This time, swords alone, no power, no magic. I want to see what you know as a swordsman alone." He nodded, and once more I picked up my blade, advancing yet again.
This time the fight lasted a bit longer, perhaps five minutes. It was clear from the beginning that he was holding himself back, restraining himself from unleashing all of his mastery at once. For what purpose I could only guess, but I surmised that the tactical side of his mind was telling him that he shouldn't show me his whole bag of tricks all at once. After five minutes of futile effort, I called a stop to our activities.
"All right, you're clearly the master I had hoped you would be," I said. "You've bested me thrice now, and I know you aren't fighting with all of the knowledge you've at hand." Panting deeply, I looked at him again, thinking, what have I wrought in him, our savior of Light? Such power needed tempering. I revised my course of action – I would test him in each area of his spiritual bond, to be certain, and then we would work on that which was new to him, the full power of the Light. He did not need to be taught the ways of magic. He needed to be taught the ways of restraint.
-Stratos and I have spent the last month testing all of the seven aspects with which he was formed. He is a true master of them all, and I credit that to the binding and intermingling of each aspect. The interesting part is that there is so much more to him, so much on a deeper level, that I'm finding it more and more difficult to relate in the manner of master and pupil, and I find myself speaking to him as a friend and compatriot. I all ready know he is a man of honor, and one that I would be glad to have at my side with either mead or blade in hand. In this, perhaps, is my greatest success – I have not created a monster, or a weapon. I've created a man, one that is intelligent, insightful, and compassionate. Of all of the seven aspects that were used to bind his spirit, he has no peers.
Which is not to say there haven't been some... interesting incidents. Magic he is well versed in. But his works on such a fundamentally different level than that of a typical Gifted person, myself included, that we're finding it difficult to connect. The end results are always the same, but we've had some spectacular mismatches that have burned a number of the walls in our training area. Thankfully little else. When we speak of magical theory, we can go for days at a time. It's method that separates us. And I believe I know why.
A Gifted individual, no matter how strongly or weakly so, draws their magic from nature and the material plane of existence they live in. Everything they do is a part of that, and all of the energy they command simply transmutes for a time into what they need, eventually returning to the source of the stream. Stratos, however, is different in that respect. When he was created, the full breadth of an entire plane was used to bind the vessel with the material that went to fill it. There are a few reasons that it was done this way. Only that amount of power would have been enough to accomplish the goal we'd set out to undertake. And no matter where he goes, he will have run of the full gamut of his strength, whereas a Gifted person, upon transitioning to another plane, finds their power changing somewhat to match the reality of the world around them. Stratos' comes from within, the length and scale of an entire plane, therefore his is the same no matter what. And that power is limitless, in essence. He has the command of an entire level of reality at his fingertips. When he is fully trained in all of the deeper workings of that power, he will be truly unstoppable. Thinking of the amount of death that was required to invest him with that power still gives me nightmares, but what is one plane to countless others?
It is a great and terrible thing that I have done. But it was necessary, and I feel that Stratos will become a great man, one unlike any the cosmos has ever seen, and he will not shirk his responsibility, when the time comes. I lament the day that must happen, for I feel we shall be parted, and I do not know if I will see him again. But there is always duty, and though I may feel something of a paternal bond, I will do my duty as well.
Reia found herself sighing and trembling lightly.
"This..." she said. "How do you live with yourself, man?"
"I've died many times," he said. "Several of which were at my own hand. Eight hundred years ago when that power was bound by the Soul Egg, among others. Let me tell you, the Heart was not amused by that incident in the least. After weeks spent pleading with it, it reluctantly gave me a small shard of its power to work with. The only thing strong enough to contain the mass of Shadow that Stratos had inadvertently shed into reality. The very same material that served as the empty vessel, before I completed my goal." He withdrew the Egg from the pouch currently tied to his waist. "To think, we are looking at a piece of the driving power of fate itself."
"What about Altherion?" she said. "You haven't spoken of him at all."
"And with very good reason," he said. "Those words were too dangerous to commit to writing. For that matter, so was the rest of the lot, but then again I'm not even certain how they fell into your hands in the first place." Sarcodus eyed the stack of parchment warily. "One might suspect they found their way to you by less than scrupulous means."
"What of him, though?" she said.
"To understand Altherion, you must first understand Stratos and magic itself," Sarcodus said. "For neither could have existed without the other one being present in the first place." He paused for a moment, eyes closed in deep thought. "Magic, nature, reality itself is balance. Balance with Fire and Water, balance of Earth and Air, balance between Light and Shadow. You've read of how the Vorathi fell in the first place, necessitating my actions. For reasons unknown to me at the time, the power of the Shadow was growing ever larger and more voracious than anything I've ever seen. At first, it was only minor things. Spells of concealment and deceit suddenly becoming more effective, destructive capability growing in parallel. Then came the Vorathi, calling themselves Magus this time. I thought little of it then. Magus is simply an old word that means both 'mage' and 'magic itself'." He sighed heavily. "Then the disappearances started. Stalwart men and women who took to their beds one night only to never be seen again, or worse, being spotted amongst the ranks of the Magus' military might."
"How was it so bad you were willing to commit an atrocity on such a scale, though?" she asked.
"I was getting to that," he said. "Soon after resurfacing with a new name and a new crest, the Magus began their bid to take power for themselves. They very nearly succeeded. The war that we fought six years ago, even the War of the Magus nigh on five hundred years ago, these were both mere echoes of the true War of the Shadow. I am not exaggerating when I say that nine out of every ten men, women and children in every realm were lost to the Shadow one way or another. Stratos' arrival stopped them at the very last, before their victory was complete. Using all of the massive power he had available to him he carved a path of bloody vengeance through their ranks like a butcher's cleaver."
"Were you with him?" Reia asked.
"Sadly I was not," he said. "I had died my first death, at the hands of Altherion himself. When Stratos was created, there had to be an opposing force to balance out the raw power of the elements cascading through Stratos' psyche. When I had just finished the final spell to bring everything together, for a brief moment there were two men, identical in every respect. One of them lie dormant. The other flashed out of existence, never to be seen again. Or so I thought. As it happens, Altherion existed backwards in time, as counter to Stratos existing forward. And at first it wasn't an issue. Reality does not allow paradox, and thus Altherion could not interact with the odd world around him. Never having known the ability to do so, however, he had thought that that was simply the way life worked."
"But he killed you?" Reia said.
"He did," Sarcodus said. "On the very day that Stratos came to Lothanis, mere minutes before he faced him briefly on the battlefield, he returned to my laboratory seeking answers. He seemed half crazed at that point, nattering on about four centuries or some such nonsense. I thought him mad, then. I told him as much, and he skewered me with a sword very much like Elysdeon. When I awoke, nearly two hundred years had passed, and the world was suffering due to the Shadow Stratos had released into it. When I first created the Egg, I learned that I myself had been responsible for Altherion's forward existence. Apparently after two hundred years of hurtling backwards through time, he'd come to a sudden and painful stop. He then existed forwards, in line with the rest of reality. Unable to affect any real manner of change for the two hundred years between where he stood and my laboratory, he instead set to learning everything he could about magic, as well as setting up events to play out in his favor in the coming years. I understand why he was so angry with me – I had been responsible for both his abandonment and his sudden forward momentum in time."
"How is it, then, that you've known of him all this time without saying a word?" she asked, anger simmering towards rage. The man had openly admitted knowledge of what she felt might just have been the greatest threat that either world had ever faced, and he'd said nothing of it until the dying had begun. Sarcodus sighed – he'd been anticipating that question.
"Honestly?" he said. She nodded. "I didn't know he still existed. He was, after all, merely a reflection, and I was nigh certain that he'd disappeared after the creation of the Egg – the last I saw him was all the way back at the beginning." Shaking his head, he continued. "Furthermore, think on the... beings... that I was in congress with, in order to create the savior we needed. Beings of immense power, infinitely ancient, possessed of abilities we couldn't even begin to dream of. Beings, mind, that don't necessarily give a whit for humanity or the mortal races in general. In the interest of disclosure, my dear Queen Regent, I haven't said anything until now because, quite frankly, I haven't been allowed to." He snorted at that. "Either through Altherion's influence, or the Keeper of Souls, or the Heart of the Universe itself. Any one of them would probably have sufficient reason to still my tongue, though to what end I could not say." She sighed, nodding – it made sense, if that of a rather twisted sort.
"How do we stop him?" Reia said. Sarcodus looked her dead in the eye.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm not even sure he can be stopped. He doesn't have the strength that Stratos has, but what he lacks in raw power he more than makes up for in subtlety and finesse, this he has proven."
"God's eyes, man," she said.
"Now you understand why Stratos can never know the full details of his birth and his coming to this world," Sarcodus said. "It would break him, to know the magnitude of the crime I committed." Reia sighed heavily, shaking her head.
"I'll keep your confidence, for the time being," she said. "It's all I really can do, to be honest. But I'd like to know if there's anything I can do to at least help the situation along. Are there any other texts or spells I should know about, while we're here?"
"I've told you everything I know," he said. "I don't even know where his armor and sword came from, to tell you the truth. The armor may or may not be an extension of his own power – I've never been able to prove it conclusively either way, but it is within the realm of possibility. The blade... we may never know." Reia stood up slowly.
"I think I'm going to retire to my chambers for the night," she said. "I have a lot to think about."
"For what it's worth I'm proud of you," Sarcodus said. "You are proving to be a most capable Regent."
"I've been a Queen all my life, this is little different," she said. "Good night."
"Aye, you as well," he said, still seated. "One last thing, before you leave. Though the Towers stand lit, shining their terrible light into the night sky, they offer no protection from Altherion should he choose to seek us out directly. Serena and Kaetilia were powerful enough together to bore a hole through the line, and he is several orders of magnitude more capable than the both of them. Be ever vigilant."
"Always," she said.
Stratos and Kaetilia spent that night sharing their bed and their bodies with one another. After a time, both of them reclined under the sheets.
"I never thought to experience that again," Kaetilia said. "Don't get me wrong, the realm of the dead is peaceful, but there certainly isn't that particular pleasure." Stratos smiled wryly.
"What a day," he said. She looked at him. "It's been a long day. We've been having some of those of late, it would seem. Rather, it seems like, whenever things happen, they just keep coming, all at once."
"Life is complicated," she said. "It moves in fits and starts, sometimes dragging out, sometimes jamming up into big bumps and bunches. It isn't like that, on the other side." Her gaze turned inwards. "It is different on the other side Every moment is much like the last, there is no difference in time the way there is in life. And there isn't a sense of forward motion, like here. I could swear to you I was only there for a day, or for a hundred years. Almost... timeless, if you will." She shook her head. "Even now it's beginning to grow fuzzy. A few hours ago, I could have sworn there was something that I wanted very desperately to tell you, but now there's only a vague echo. I can remember you being there, seeing you... but that's all. Just a few images. I remember the field that we awoke in crystal clear, and every event thereafter, but those directly before... I could not say if they were this morning or years ago. How long has it been?"
"Two months," he said. "Longest two months of my life, and that includes the first forty years of madness." He paused for a moment. "In a way, losing Sara was almost a blessing in disguise. Though I felt anguish as I'd never experienced before, it was the excuse I needed to step aside from the throne and out of the direct eye of the public. I never liked who I was, in those days. Everything was hard, hard and merciless. Like the noon sun reflecting off a vast field of snow, amidst jagged mountain peaks and craggy canyons. Never a moment to laugh, to smile, to jest. To share a ribald story or two with the men in the taverns, or to regale a pack of lordlings at a castle ball. The True King was just, aye, but he was distant, cold, and as terrible as the vast depths of the sea. To this day I don't know how she put up with me, as I was then."
"You're a good man," Kaetilia said. "That much had to be obvious."
"Yes, but good and warm are not necessarily mutually inclusive," he said. "Part of me wonders if she was simply too terrified to say no." He shook his head. "Such thoughts I have, these days. I beg forgiveness. It has been a trying time, and I have spent many an hour pondering the expanse of time between then and now. This is the first time in my long, long life that I've ever actually had time to just sit and think about it all. I can feel the weight of all of those thousand years for the first time, and I find it a heavy load to bear."
"You don't have to bear it alone," she said, clasping hands with him. He smiled lightly for a moment.
"Aye, milady love, but I do," he said. "I very much do." He sat up fully in the bed. "What I learned today, what I have witnessed, merely drove the point home to me. I don't understand the how or the why of it, but I am not like the rest of you. I am neither human nor mortal." She looked him hard in the eye.
"I know you've lived a long time, and I know you came to this world over a thousand years ago to help bring it back from the brink of destruction, but are you certain?" she said.
"I believe so," he said. "The time that I've spent, alone, in isolation from everything and everyone in the world, has not been time spent idly. I was mourning... but I was also thinking." He paused again, eyes unfocused. "I've started to remember things. From the time before my arrival, anyways. Just small bits, flashes and fragments, really. But I know now that there is something there to remember, a life that existed before I came to this world. Who was I? Where was I born? Did I have parents, brothers or sisters? Is there a family out there that bears the name Lumina? I thought, for a time, that it was just a flight of fancy, and pointless to consider, but then I remembered a name." His eyes locked on to hers. "Therese. A woman named Therese. I said this name to Sarcodus, and I watched him do... well, nothing at all, really. As if it meant nothing. Almost perfectly."
"Too well, you're thinking," she said. He nodded. "So the name does mean something to him, and guessing by the fact that he tried to conceal it, probably something more than just a trivial acquaintance, at that. A lover, perhaps?"
"I don't know," he said. "The fragments I have are at most seconds in length, disconnected and disjointed. Sarcodus has promised on many occasions that he would reveal to me, everything that I wanted to know. Thus far he has managed to evade the issue, or circumvent it entirely with one crisis or another. Gods know there have been enough of them in my life." He shook his head. "It always comes back to that period, the beginning, when I first arrived in the skies of Lothanis blazing with might. I faced Altherion that day. I did not know who or what he was then, but I know now, it was him. It had to be. He calls himself my brother, and he is certainly related to me at least in some fashion. He wouldn't have been able to reproduce my signature otherwise."
"Are you certain of that, though?" she said. "I mean, powerful enough magic can accomplish just about anything."
"Just about," he said. "But not some things. Some things are... different. Special. Unique, rather. There are certain objects, certain spells, certain days, that cannot be repeated. You can call it destiny, you can call if fate, you can call it the will of the gods, whatever you like... but for whatever reason, there exist certain things that are done once, and then cannot be done again. If I were a gambling man I would wager it has something to do with the nature of magic, and balance in said nature."
"How is one singular, unique thing in any kind of balance with anything else?" she said.
"Its very existence would seem to preclude that possibility," he said. "But in this case, balance is still paid. There is an equal and opposite reaction for every action, a price that must be paid for every boon. Take the Soul Egg." She arched an eyebrow at him. "There you have the definition of unique. There has never been such a thing in the history of magic. Never been an object capable of manipulating and penning such truly massive amounts of power, all by itself. That fact that two living spirits were a part of its binding speak to that. And within the Egg itself, we find balance. One, tied to Light, the other tied to Shadow. As for the object itself, I don't know the how of its creation for certain, but I do know that something else would have to have been made at the same time to counterbalance the power going into it. Bits of magical detritus and flotsam, as it were. Most of them are harmless enough. Indeed, most don't even exist long enough to be recognized, but it is the case with all magic. Whether or not that's the case with the Egg I doubt we'll ever know, but there you have it."
"How do you mean?" she said.
"Take for instance a simple spell woven from Fire," he said. "Always, there is at least the tiniest shred of Water added to the mix, in order to tame the flames and bind them to your will. With any spell of Air, you blend Earth to keep it grounded and to determine its general radius of effect. So too are Light and Shadow. It's the reason why when our world was drowning in Shadow Altaris experienced the opposite effect. Reia has filled me in on some of the history of her land and from what she describes men and women there could tap the Light easily, without even needing the Gift to do so."
"The anti Magus, so to speak," she said.
"In that sense, yes," he said. "But much like the Magus, tapping the raw essence of Light without some manner of filter between the power and the user was inherently dangerous. It's why we never used the raw elemental Shadow against the Magus. It would have been an effective countermeasure, if it weren't for the toll it takes on the user and the danger it puts everyone nearby in. Raw forces are not meant to be invoked without the protection afforded by the duality of magic."
"Then how is it you were able to do so?" she said. "I wasn't conscious at the time, but you told me how the fight with Elvina went shortly afterward. You said that you had had drawn from the essence of Light itself to go on the assault, and Elvina had wielded the Shadow in all of its raw, untamed might."
"As to that," he said, sighing, "we can chalk that up to the many contradictions that I carry with me every day. For all intents and purposes, the same should hold true for me and my so-called 'brother'. That it does not leaves me sweating at night." He looked to her once more. "Allow me to share a bit of speculation. The ability of our worlds to join in the first place was likely a direct result of both his and my actions, as a result of my very creation. And consider if you will the general stratagems and tactics employed by our military forces, myself included. I suspect his hand in that. Why do you think no one ever tried scaling the cliffs that led to Sileas Lake, for instance? It never occurred to us likely because he spent enough time getting us to convince ourselves it wasn't necessary, that the equivalent of a skirmish or a back alley brawl was sufficient." He paused, laughing ruefully. "Hell, for all we know the long centuries of peace that we knew were also a part of his plans. Pondering everything I've seen has left me experiencing genuine fear for the first time in my life."
"That seems a bit out of character for you, love," she said with an arched eyebrow.
"I've been plagued by trepidation for nearly my entire span," he said. "I am accustomed to that. But I won't lie, Altherion scares me. On the day you were lost, I was powerless to stop him with any of the means I had at my disposal. Hammering at his shield was like trying to stop the world from turning, and it turned aside Elysdeon as if it were but a paring knife. There was no time to devise a clever solution, to work out some manner of gambit that would have paid off. I reached for what I knew best and they both failed. I can honestly say that's never happened before, not once. And that is what has me frightened. I've no way of ascertaining what he knows and doesn't know, what the limits of his strength and magical power are. No way of knowing what he is planning, or where he will strike when he inevitably gets around to doing so."
"Are you sure about that, though?" she said. "I mean, not to sound judgmental but don't you think you might be over thinking things a bit?"
"A man that can cow Gregor Solara or Elvina Elise with a simple gesture isn't a man you want to underestimate if you value having a head on your shoulders," he said grimly. "I got to witness the results of that manner of hubris firsthand." She could only nod with closed eyes, sighing softly.
"So how do we stop him?" she said. "I gather it's directly at the top of our priorities."
"That's just the thing," he said. "I've tried – believe me I've tried – to bend my efforts to finding him but the man may as well be a ghost for all my power can see. I've worked with the others a time or two as well... nothing. And aside from that we've still a laundry list of items that need seeing to. As I said earlier, we need to decide what to do about the Towers, and I need to determine whether the army camped beyond their borders is an asset or a threat."
"You said we've made some headway in that department," she said. "What are your thoughts?"
"They'd be invaluable to us as a nation," he said. "Having the might of a fully intact army would be a blessing to every person in the Great Alliance. And having the option to openly trade and make common cause with any nation that can field such an army is too tempting a prize to let slip through my fingers." He sighed. "I have my concerns about the timing of their sudden appearance, however. And I would like to know how it was that they made it here in the first place. Winterhaven is not contiguous with the rest of the Great Alliance."
"Sailing ships, perhaps?" she said. He shrugged.
"Possible," he said. "And more likely than anything else. Moving that many men and that much materiel via gateway would be nigh on impossible. Even if every last number of their Gifted could create a stable gateway, even if they could hold them open far longer than the limits of their power would let them, it still wouldn't be enough. There are at least a few hundred thousand out there. Their leaders are very soon going to be forced to take some manner of action, because feeding and arming a group of that size would very quickly strip the land around them bare of all of its bounty. Even with Gifted forming a supply train, the logistics of it would simply be too much to handle. Gateways are meant for a single individual to move swiftly, not for the process of moving armies from battlefield to battlefield over and again."
"I would think that would be an incredible tactical advantage," she said. "And didn't Elvina do something rather similar, during the war?"
"Altherion was behind a good deal of that," he said. "From what she has told me over the last few months, he'd given her a fair number of gifts that enabled her to do what she did. Without his power backing her and the Magus as a whole, their attempt at world domination would never even have been possible. He gave them enough teeth to threaten the Ten Realms, but not enough to finish the job. By all rights the last battle with them should have ended rather differently than it did. Our forces were heavy with losses, and our infrastructure was virtually nonexistent."
"That has the ring of logic to it," she said. "It would explain why they appeared to be capable of coming and going at their leisure, despite all of our efforts to the opposite, and yet did not take that opportunity to finish what they started."
"I do wonder about that time," he said. "In their prime, the full might of Lothanis' military would have been more than sufficient. But they'd taken their time, slowly peeling away our defenses until we were nearly as bad off as the realm was in the first War of the Shadow."
"They did have to contend with heavy losses of their own, though," she said. "After all, you spent a good while roaming and slaughtering their numbers wherever you found them. Whole cities were sometimes consumed in that wrath."
"The more I think about it, the more certain I am that they were never intended to defeat us," he said. "Every action they took deliberately goaded me in some fashion or another. Altherion said to me that he'd been pulling my strings all along, and I'm finding it hard to dispute that notion."
"To what end?" she said, yawning.
"To release his strength," he said. "To complete the Egg and break the seal on his magic. And he's had nearly as long as my lifespan to mix the necessary ingredients to make that happen, longer even, when you think about it. That's part of what frightens me, if I am being honest. I don't know whether he is as strong as I am or not, but I do know he's had a lot more time free to devote to the honing of his art than I have." He paused, looking over at his wife. Her eyes were starting to droop. "At any rate, this is a conversation best continued after some sleep. We both need it."
"Aye," she said. She wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace before rolling over to settle in for sleep. Stratos lie back in bed, eyes open, mind racing. Within less than two minutes, Kaetilia's breathing fell into the deep rhythm of sleep. A flick of his power saw the candles on the table next to the bed snuffed out. If he decides to strike us sooner rather than later, I don't know what I will do to stop him. The night slowly drifted by as he lost himself in deep reflection.