"Follow me," Sarcodus said. The group had reconvened in the dining antechamber the next morning before deciding to do a little exploring. "And be careful not to touch anything you might see unless you're asked to do so. At the risk of sounding a bit condescending, there are things in here that can do worse than kill you, without the proper precautions." Sarcodus led them down a long hallway that twisted and turned in nearly every direction. Bed chambers were adjacent in some places, locked storerooms in others. A number of narrow tables set against the walls had strange objects of magic on them that even Atolibus would have been hard pressed to make sense of without a fair bit of research. Gregor led the way from in front, while Sarcodus held up the rear. Atolibus had his fingers trailing their surfaces as he walked.
"Being here in person, feeling these walls underneath my fingers, I can remember this place," he said. "This is where I was born, where Sarcodus and I trained, I'm assuming alongside you, Gregor. I can't remember that part."
"I'm not surprised," he said as they walked. "It is entirely likely that your brother played a part in that. He's shown himself capable of extraordinary feats of magic fairly consistently." Sarcodus nodded.
"A thousand years, plus the first four hundred spent moving backwards and then forward in time, has given him an unheard of opportunity to hone his craft," Sarcodus said.
"I seem to recall spending perhaps a year here, working and training," Atolibus said. "Shaping things for when I would be needed, I would guess." He made to continue speaking, but stopped entirely when they exited the narrow corridor and stepped into something altogether different.
Unlike the cozy chambers they'd eaten and slept in the previous night, this space was less a room and more an arena, at least a couple hundred yards by a couple hundred yards on each side. A vaulted ceiling loomed overhead, climbing beyond sight. Richter whistled appreciatively.
"I can feel it, old man," he said. "Power, and a lot of it."
"It's the magic of this plane," Gregor said. "One of the many reasons we chose this location to carry out our duty. Close enough to Syreal that was, facilitating easier travel, but far enough and suffused with enough magic to mask anything we might be attempting." The walls were the same mortar-filled stone as the rest of the building, and the support beams were crafted of some manner of black wood. Atolibus suspected magic, but with everything as volatile as it was where they stood, he couldn't be certain.
"We'll stop over here, first," he said, leading them to a wide, long wooden table. Atolibus' breath stopped short in his chest.
Running his fingers across the smoothness of the wood brought memories flooding to the surface, memories he hadn't seen in over ten centuries.
"This is where I was born, over a thousand years ago, in the depths of a particularly clear night." He moved around to the other side of the table. "This is where my brother was born, at that same moment. For the barest fraction of a second, we both lie on this table next to one another. Then he disappeared, as if he'd never been there at all, and there was only me, lying in the center." His eyes were closed, expression unreadable.
"You all right there, old man?" Richter said, standing next to him and looking up at him. The man in black nodded, eyes closed.
"I'm seeing this in the depths of memory, and yet it feels like the first time," he said quietly. "It's very strange. You must remember, I've over a thousand years of memories, one atop another. Rather like a vast ocean, if you think about it. The newest are bright, near the surface, well lit and easy to recall. The deeper you go, the murkier the depths, until you get to the very bottom, where the light of the sun simply does not reach. I can recall them, but it takes time. Sometimes a great deal of time." He inhaled deeply through his nose. "Standing here, feeling it, smelling it... it comes floating to the surface of its own accord." He opened his eyes, quicksilver locking with dark brown. "I hadn't been certain, until this moment, that it was there. I've heard the story, the words and the impressions Sarcodus left behind, but until now I've not been able to remember it for myself."
"And being here, with that in mind, how do you feel?" Richter asked him. Atolibus cocked his head, smiling.
"Light," he said, laughter in his tones. "Lighter than I've felt in centuries. At least now I know, for well and true, where it all began." He breathed deeply and rocked lightly on his heels. "For the first time since everything began spiraling out of control, I feel at ease, with myself and the world." His eyes narrowed again. "There will be things, in this place, that say otherwise. Have no doubt about it. You said it as much yourself, Gregor." The teal eyed twin nodded.
"Altherion killed me for the first time, about two feet away from where you're standing," the man in silver said, arms folded across his chest, eyes distant. Though he could remember each and every death in complete detail, the first one was always the one he came back to in his thoughts. "I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was one of the devices on hand, here in this very room, that served to suppress any relevant memories or information I carried between deaths. There were things that I could have shared, should have shared long before everything spiraled out of control, but I could not." He sighed, looking around for a moment. "Speaking of devices, there's one here we can use to help us find our people. A little something that facilitates travel between this world and ours."
"That doesn't help us," Elvina said flatly. "Our world is dead and gone, remember?" Sarcodus shook his head in frustration, waving her off.
"That's not important," he said. "What matters is that it's tuned to Syreal and those of it. We may very well be able to adjust its settings, with a little bit of magical tinkering. Gregor, you know which one I'm talking about, right?" Gregor stood for a moment in thought before nodding. Atolibus stared at him sideways.
"You know, that might just be the first useful thing you've said to me in a while, you old goat," he said. Richter chuckled at the rib, and even Gregor smiled. "I am curious, though. Did you use raw magic alone to bring me about, or were there any devices involved?" Sarcodus looked aside for a moment, thinking, and nodded a moment later.
"I don't know if any of them are still functional," he said, "but there are a couple that were important, things I was given by the Heart and the others. Is there anything in particular you wanted to see?" Atolibus rubbed his chin for a moment before deciding.
"Just one," he said. "Was there anything involved in testing the material you were given by the Heart?" Sarcodus cocked his head and narrowed his eyes a bit.
"In private," he said. He swept his eyes across the other members of the group, and turned to Atolibus. "It really is something only for your ears. Join me?" Atolibus nodded. "Gregor, can you and Schala find the item I need over on the western wall?" He nodded, and Atolibus and Sarcodus padded off together for a distant part of the room. Elvina could feel a ward spring to life around them, no doubt to ensure no one was temped to eavesdrop.
"The rest of you, feel free to look around a bit over here," Gregor said. "Any devices you see may not be safe, but all of the parchments and texts we have are, I've seen to that all ready." Schala stood at his side, leaning against him for support, and he stroked her hair gently as she did.
"I wouldn't mind a little bit of reading material," Elvina said. She motioned for Richter to join her, and they walked to their right perhaps fifty yards before scooping up a set of scrolls and taking a seat at what appeared to be a pair of comfortable love seats. Reia looked around for a minute before deciding to join the others.
A ward had sprang to life around Sarcodus and Atolibus as soon as they'd reached the other side of the chamber, a particularly strong one at that.
"What is it you're wanting to know?" Sarcodus said, picking up a few scrolls from a nearby bookshelf and skimming through their contents. "Are you looking for a measurement of the essence of the Heart that you carry?" Atolibus shook his head.
"I could care less about that," he said. "Besides, I all ready know the answer to that question. No, it's the sword. Do you remember how it came to me?"
"How could I forget?" Sarcodus said, chuckling. "Your armor and weapon appeared after you stood for the first time, in nothing but your birthday suit. Or at least, whatever facsimile of one that you possess. I ran a few tests on it, though, if you recall, and I couldn't find anything, or at least not anything of use. The script is indecipherable, though admittedly elegant. Quite a bit like your own handwriting, actually, when I think about it. I'd like to think that's merely a coincidence, but nothing is ever so around us." He paused for a moment, blinking. "If you're wondering if the blade has something to do with the Heart, I very much doubt that. That was one of the first things I checked."
"I'm sure," Atolibus said. "But I've got an inkling that says otherwise, and I need to test it before I make any further decisions." Sarcodus' brow furrowed.
"Would it matter, even if it was?" he asked. "I know I don't believe in coincidence, but there's no rule that every last thing we come across plays a role in shaping the future." Atolibus stared at him flatly.
"Sure there is," he said. "My brother has been using that to his advantage now for years. I'm not sure what to do with the information even if I am correct, but I've a feeling there's a reason. There's always been a reason, even when it didn't seem as such." Sarcodus sighed, opening the scroll and handing it to the man in black. Atolibus read through it quickly, and then started chanting the requisite incantation.
The language was that very same language he couldn't read on the sword's hilt, likely the very same unknown tongue he had used to sing at his wife's death and atop the mountain they entered the realm of the dead through. He tried reading them, but nothing came out. Even speaking them aloud did nothing. It wasn't until he lifted his voice in song that something finally began. A light started to glow along the length of the blade, soft and golden like the power he was used to. Sarcodus furrowed his brow again, confused.
"That didn't happen when I read it," he said, leaning over Atolibus' hands to read the script. "Of course, when I used it the script was in the common tongue of our land, as well. What is this, old man?"
"Something left here for me to find," Atolibus said. His voice rose in song again, and he felt an echoing resonance between the center of his power, deep within his mind, and the edge of the blade. The script on the crossguard changed shape before his eyes for a moment, and instead of reading as nonsense, he saw the words 'the answer to the question' burn brightly. The light was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
"Fuck me," Sarcodus said softly, breath leaving him. He looked up at Atolibus, dawning horror in his eyes. "If we'd known that eight hundred years ago, the Egg would never have been necessary in the first place." He trembled lightly for a moment.
"And I'm sure that's why we didn't," Atolibus said, eyes distant. He set the scroll down gently atop the shelf next to him and ran his eyes and the fingers of his left hand along the sword's edge. "The Heart must have been responsible for it in the first place, somehow, or possibly the Keeper, but it was likely Altherion that buried knowledge that could have helped us so long ago." Sarcodus nodded, eyebrows raised.
"It is in keeping with his personality," he said. "I'll grant you that. What is the significance of the blade's lineage, however, other than as an object of immense power?"
"On the surface of it?" Atolibus said. "Little, if anything. I have quite a bit more at my own disposal barehanded than the blade. Were I skeptical about the issue I would say it was simply a part of the package when you did what you did. What troubles me is that Altherion has one identical to mine, and even money says its nature is the very same." Sarcodus was nodding, foot tapping out of habit.
"Which would almost certainly explain the why of it," he said. "God's eyes, man, that's a far more dangerous thing you hold in your hands than even I might have guessed, and I've probably forgotten more about magic than any other ten men will know in a lifetime. Can I see that for a moment?" Atolibus handed him the weapon, and Sarcodus grunted with the weight of it when the man in black took his hand off of it entirely. "It would also explain why it's so ruddy heavy to anyone other than you. If it is constructed of the Heart's essence, it would respond to your power in any manner you wished. I've seen it do just that, on more than one occasion." He turned his attention to the others, grouped together in the distance closer to the entrance of the chamber. "That information shouldn't leave this ward, old man. That is simply too dangerous to be put out there by anyone, even if we assume your wayward brother is also aware of it." Sarcodus traced the script gently, running his fingers around the hilt, around the crossguard, and up the fuller towards the tip.
"I couldn't tell you how that might come in handy," Atolibus said. "As a guess, I would say the blades are something of a failsafe." Sarcodus shivered at that thought. "After all, if they are both capable of consuming power from either one of us, it stands to reason they could do damage to us directly, under the correct circumstances." He looked around hastily before the scroll he'd set down flashed into a pile of ash, causing Sarcodus to jump a pace. "Sorry about that. It's too dangerous to leave here, old man. Quite frankly, so is the rest of this place. That Altherion hasn't used it to his advantage is beyond me, if I'm being honest with you."
"That would be a sorry assumption to make," a voice called to them from closer to the center of the room. Elysdeon was immediately back in Atolibus' hands and at the ready. Altherion stood a couple dozen yards away from them, but the magic he wielded made his voice audible to everyone in the compound.
Gregor and Schala had made for the western wall as asked. All manners of odd shapes and sizes were seated in the anchored shelves. Gregor ran his hand past several of them with his eyes closed, feeling for the resonance he knew he would find. Being of Syreal stock himself, a small black cube glowed softly as his hand came to rest over it.
"That's it?" Schala said, eying the cube with skepticism. Gregor nodded, and Schala appraised it with her Sight. There was certainly power within it, the nature of which she couldn't immediately divine. Whatever its purpose, she was certain it was something useful. Gregor stroked it gently, and colors rippled across the surface.
"This is something we rescued from the Vorathi archives," he said. "There used to be hundreds of them, thousands even. There was at least one in every corner of the land, thousands of years ago, enabling easy travel even for those lacking the Gift." His eyes went distant for a moment. "Once, before my brotherhood fell to Altherion's shadow, there were many such wonders everywhere in our world. Once, our world itself was greater and grander than anything you could have seen there before the end. The grinding wheel of time, along with Altherion's manipulation, slowly wore that away until what we were left with was but a poor reflection of the original masterpiece." He growled, clenching his fist for a moment. "So many times, watching my mind turn against itself through his dark touch. So many deaths on my hands and those of my brotherhood, and for what?" He looked up at Schala, and she thought she could see a glimmer of the man he was once, long ago. "He is a monster, well and truly, but he could have been great. Gods, my brother and I were trying to help the universe, not trying to burn the house down around our ears. I've oft suspected the Heart's hand in this, and in everything else that has happened. After all, it is the center of fate, the focus of the power of destiny at the center of all existence. I wish I knew how to fight back against that kind of tactical advantage, but for the life of me I've never figured it out. Altherion could take me again any time he wants to, and I spend most nights lying awake with that thought."
"I've noticed," she said softly, rubbing his arm gently.
"I genuinely hope that isn't my future, yet again," he said. "I would prefer to stand at my brother's side before the end, to help put the threat down, but I fear my destiny is less savory than that." He shuddered. "I can remember dying a normal mortal death, a few hundred years ago, and a magical one a couple centuries later. Neither of those are as disconcerting to consider what might happen if that bastard decides he isn't done with me. No, I think my place is best served staying here, guarding this place until the time comes that it either isn't necessary or Atolibus decides to take care of the matter himself."
"They still need your help," she said. "Ours." Gregor snorted.
"They do not," he said. "He does not, and that's the rub. Keeping his friends around him is a decided weakness, and you've seen what happens to those that remain. Altherion had the right of it on that one, I think." Schala frowned.
"I don't see it that way," she said. "I think it's a strength, having those you love around you. Gives you something to defend, something to cherish, a reason to keep fighting even when the battle is utterly lost. The ashes of victory are bitter indeed when there is only one person left to taste them." Gregor sighed, rubbing his temples.
"Forgive me, my dear, I'm an old man," he said. "I lost any sense of idealism I had when I was younger than you were during the last war. My continued existence has been nothing but a burden to me, but no matter how many times I fall, I always wake up again, somewhere down the road. It's exhausting, I tell you." Schala leaned her head against his chest, listening to his heartbeat.
"Let go of your despair," she said softly. "Things will eventually work out for the best. Even if there is more darkness between now and then, Light will eventually find its way through." He gently kissed the top of her head.
"I'm glad it was you I found, and not one of the others," he said, smiling. "At least there is that much." A flash of light from the distance caught their attention, and they both turned to face the source of it.
"These are fantastic," Elvina said quietly. She and Richter were seated on a comfortable couch, reading a set of scrolls they'd picked up nearby. Elvina had skimmed through most of them quickly before sitting down to read one in depth, and all of them were a veritable treasure trove of information. "Take this one. It references a material called 'growsteel', a form of magical tree sap that has the properties of both a wood and metal, whichever suits the needs of the craftsman. You can feed it power and change its shape at will, and it will always return to original form when you put it down. That would have been something useful back in our days."
"This isn't bad, either," Richter said. "Speaks of a treatise known as 'The Great Question'. Sarcodus mentioned something to that effect before our world burned, but he couldn't find any more information than that. This speaks of the nature of fate, and the role free will plays in the universe. Apparently it's been a matter of some debate among philosophers, scientists and mages for countless millenia. A gentleman named Saren posited that the purpose of life and the universe itself was to answer that very same question. He thought it was a metaphor of some sort, but near the end of his life he'd begun to suspect something far more literal in its stead." He set it down, shaking his head. "That is dangerously close to a few stories we've experienced, isn't it?" Elvina nodded without a word. He rolled the vellum back up and tucked it into a pocket of his surcoat. Elvina's brow furrowed.
"I've heard of that somewhere," she said, looking back through the years. "In a voice that sounds like Atolibus', no less. It had to have been something Altherion said to me, in his days as my master." She was about to say more when a commotion from Atolibus' side of the room interrupted her train of thought. The color drained from her skin. "No. Not here. Not now."
"Do you have some strange compulsion with gloating, or are you just rock stupid?" Atolibus said, clenching Elysdeon tightly in his fists. His power was primed and ready, waiting for Altherion to make his move. The other man stood in the familiar golden plate, white sword in hand, looking for all the world identical to his brother.
"We've a matter to settle, you and I," he said, growling. Power danced dangerously in his eyes. "I found your prince, you fool." Rage set him trembling lightly, the first time Atolibus had every seen him betray any manner of sentiment other than cruelty and capriciousness. "His body will recover, but no amount of healing could repair the damage you did to his mind. His connection with my power wasn't strong enough to avert that. I intend for you to pay for that, old man, starting with everyone else in the room." Power lanced forward from Altherion's left hand, a stream of inky darkness that seemed to take in all of the light around it, directed at Sarcodus. Atolibus had a shield of solid Light between the two of them, and in other directions immediately as Altherion whirled and fired again.
"Not here, you bastard, not today," Atolibus said, footfalls echoing loudly as he charged forward. He brought Elysdeon down hard against Altherion's sister blade, and he spun, using the momentum to push his opponent off balance. Both men teleported to behind where the other had been standing, swinging at air. Light flashed brightly as they jumped repeatedly from spot to spot, and the characteristic of the battle took on more of an air of wrestling than one of swordplay. "Sarcodus, take the others and go!" The man in silver began to wield the necessary magic when Gregor appeared behind him with Schala and the others.
"No need, we're here, old man," Gregor said, drawing his own blade. Altherion snarled at the lot of them, a massive, arcing wave of power flowing from the edge of his blade across the room. The energy was deflected off of more shields that Atolibus erected.
"Take them and get out of here!" Atolibus said, checking a vicious strike aimed for his neck and parrying a thrust to the center of his mass. The black coat rippled around him as he spun, breaking up his image in a manner similar to Altherion's cloak. Gregor wasted no time, raising the box in his hands high into the air, head thrown back.
"Everybody hold on, we're leaving now!" he shouted, a wailing screech filling the room as a bizarrely wavering gateway opened before each of them. "I don't have to time to test the tuning, lock hands and stay with me, it will shut as soon as we're through. Find us, Atolibus!"
"Head for Earth," he grunted, turning aside another strike. It had been many and more a year since he'd faced an opponent with skill comparable to his own. The ground began to shake, and rubble cracked loose from the distant ceiling, with pieces of it crashing to the ground and kicking up dust piles. "Be quick about it, I'll join you when I can! Now go, God's eyes!" Both men spun, blades ringing loudly, sparks flying between them. Random bursts of magical power flew between the both of them in their contest, spinning and rippling with color faster than the eye could see.
"Your precious world will soon be a smoking crater," Altherion said, grunting with the effort of absorbing blows from his brother's sword. "If it isn't all ready. Tuck your tails between your legs again, children, daddy is coming for you!" Atolibus took a step back, leaning back and away from the pair of blades before him. The group headed through the gateway, Sarcodus leaving last, eyes on Atolibus.
"Just you and me," Atolibus said. He released the power he'd been using to hold the compound together under Altherion's magical assault, and everything began to fall to pieces around him. Atolibus didn't care – it wasn't a threat to either him or his brother – but he was glad his friends had escaped. He only hoped they would get there in time to help what was certain to be a massacre otherwise. Never enough time, he thought to himself, putting all of his considerable strength into a sideways blow that Altherion had to leap backwards from to avoid.
President Eisenhower put the phone on his desk down. The Russian party chairman had informed him of the same thing many of the other leaders of the world had – strange holes in the sky were opening all over the world, and men and women clad in black armor were pouring out of them, wielding some kind of dark power he couldn't understand. He thought back to the man in black's words, and eyed the word etched on his desk. He picked the phone back up, and dialed a short number.
"Tell them it's time," he said, fingers running nervously across his balding head. "Order our forces deployed, and have our nuclear arsenal ready if it comes to the worst." He set the phone down, breathing deeply. He'd never thought that what he had been told would actually happen in his lifetime, but he was glad he'd heeded the warnings he'd been given. Russia had reported the same thing, as well as Great Britain, but China and India were stalling, waiting for orders from their leadership.
Children playing at a school playground on the weekend watched as strange men and women marched towards them in strange metal clothing. Blackness erupted from their fingertips, and half of the children vanished without a trace. The others broke and ran, screaming for their lives. Only a handful got away, and those that did were rounded up fairly quickly, screaming as their lives were taken at the point of a sword.
Richter held on to Elvina's cloak for dear life. The Gift had fled him in his terror, and it was all he could do to stay with the others. They were falling through the void between worlds, and though he knew they would land safely, he was worried about what might happen if he lost his grip. Darkness finally gave way to light as they came crashing to a rolling stop in green grass.
"Everyone present and accounted for?" he asked shakily. Nods from the others, though Gregor looked exhausted. "Let's hope the old man is all right. Anything we can do?"
"There is," Elvina said. "We find our people and rally the troops. Forget what was said about them being an invading army, we need them to turn aside Altherion's forces." Sarcodus scanned the horizon, spotting a small castle a few miles away.
"We should start there," he said, pointing. Gregor nodded, and opened a gateway that would put them right in front of it. "Here goes nothing."
Men and women in a shopping center in Chicago were knocked off of their feet by a massive concussion of power emanating from a storefront nearby. Screams were heard as men and women began appearing out of seemingly thin air, striking people down with weapons and strange power alike. A twenty five year old man walking with his wife and two children shoved them out of the way when one of them descended upon him, killing him in their place. The children bolted in opposite directions, while the wife knelt next to her husband. She never saw the blast that ended her life, but thankfully her children made it to safety.
Automatic weapons fire was heard amidst artillery explosions and massive fireballs erupting in the city streets. Soviet soldiers in the streets of Chelyabinsk killed a fair number of the invaders before they found their bullets reflecting harmlessly, some finding their way back to their origin and killing the marksman instead.
"Retreat!" a young sergeant said, waving a small pocket of soldiers back behind him. He pulled the pin of a grenade, counted to three and hurled it with all of his might. Two of the men and women in black died, while the others in front of him had some manner of protection that bent the flames and shrapnel away from him. The gun in his other hand grew hot, and he threw it to the ground, drawing a knife from his belt instead, charging forward. "Get out of here, all of you, I'll give you a moment if I can, don't waste it!"
Blinding light exploded into life near Kent in the United Kingdom, and Winston Churchill sighed as he finished a glass of scotch. He'd known Richter was being honest with him, and he'd known the day would come. He had simply hoped it wouldn't be in his lifetime, so close to the end. He poured himself another drink and raised his glass in honor of the friend he'd made.
"To you, sir," he said quietly, watching the sky burn.
Elvina's breath caught in her throat – they had found their people, and they were thriving in a way she could never have imagined. Through a strange twist of time, they had had nearly a thousand years pass since they'd seen any of the others, and they had grown truly great, left to their own devices. Standing in the Grand Hall of what Castle Lothanis would have looked like if it had been crafted out of solid white marble, the men and women kneeling before them rose as one.
"You're sure about this?" she said. Their leader nodded, a brown eyed woman at the front named Ophelia Remar, long distant relative of Jaina and House Remar as it had come to be known.
"We always knew you would return to us," she said, the light of the Gift glowing in her eyes. Every last council member before her had it to some degree, and she'd had it explained that the Gift had flourished, when they had been in the process of rebuilding their population all those years ago. "We have been awaiting this day, Grand Master." Elvina trembled lightly, lip quivering. She'd never felt so much pride as she had on that day. Their people had carried on, without help, and had grown great once more, greater than they had ever been in all of her time in Syreal.
"We can have the army ready to deploy in a moments notice," another member, a gray haired man with green eyes, said. "All of the outer posts were placed on high alert when we detected the teleport trace of your arrival." Elvina nodded. "I am a bit surprised, however. I expected there to be more of you when you finally arrived, and I don't see the man in gold with you."
"He wears black now," she said. "And we've lost several of our members. What you see, aside from Atolibus himself, is all that remains of us." The council members bowed their heads in a moment of respect for their fallen. "Do you have means of moving large groups of men and materiel quickly?" The green eyed older gentleman nodded.
"The Passage," he said. "We brought one of the traveling stones with us and worked out the manner of its magic. There is a network of them all over the world that can be used individually or in groups, focusing power from many or all of them onto one place here in the castle, for whatever the need may be." Richter smiled.
"That's brilliant," he said. "God's eyes, I wish we'd thought of that back in the day, we might have been able to save more. For what it's worth, I am deeply sorry about that." Ophelia waved him off.
"There was nothing for it," she said. "We didn't know then, what we know now. With Atolibus behind us, we had grown lax in our studies. That ended in the first few years, when we discovered no help was coming any time soon. The beginning was difficult, aye, but we've come a long way. If one of you can open a gateway to the world in question, we can decipher the coordinates and begin operations immediately." Schala found herself shaking her head again. Elvina took a step aside from the others and opened the gateway for them. Sarcodus eyed it for a moment before nodding.
"Well played, lass," he said. "You really do have a knack for it, don't you?" She nodded, smiling. Ophelia stepped to his side, idly twirling a fiery red lock in the fingers of her left hand as she inspected the gateway. After a moment she nodded.
"That should do for it, you can let it go now," she said. Elvina looked at her, and looked back at the gateway, and shook her head.
"We'll go through first," she said. "Help to pave the way, so to speak. Muster as much force of arms as you can and join us as soon as possible." Ophelia nodded, and Elvina stepped through with the others, closing it behind them, finding herself standing on the outskirts of San Diego once more. Vibrant green grass rolled everywhere she could see. She half expected to be waiting for a time, but within seconds more gateways opened near her and across vast distances on the globe. Men and women in the black and gold livery of Lothanis as she had been came through, followed by mages wearing shimmering white robes. All of them were embracing their not insubstantial Gifts, and she smiled to herself. So we might have a chance to turn this aside, after all. Good.
"Where to, Master?" a young woman in white asked her, kneeling. Elvina scanned the horizon, looking beyond its edge with the Sight. Gods. Everywhere.
"How many are at your disposal?" she asked absently.
"A little over four hundred thousand now, with more on the way," the young woman said. Elvina's eyes goggled at that – they'd been able to muster almost half a million swords that quickly? That in and of itself was a mind boggling thought. Screeching noises overhead screamed across the sky, and she looked up to see a squadron of jets firing on something in the distance. A massive ball of flame flared to life amidst explosions in the sky, and the jets peeled away, breaking in four different directions.
"We'll convene in the distant north, over the polar ice," she said. "I need somewhere we can bivouac safely away from technology." The young woman in white nodded, and further gateways opened, showing sights of snow and ice on the other side. There might just be a chance here. Gods help us if we're wrong, though. Richter stopped her with a hand on her arm before she could step through, and she turned to look at him.
"You know this is just a diversion, right?" he said. "Altherion wants us penned down here so we can't be at Atolibus' side." She nodded – that much had been painfully obvious from the beginning.
"It's still a battle worth fighting," she said. At that he could only agree, and she stepped through the gate.
The darkness of the void surrounded Atolibus and his brother. They had been teleporting repeatedly across worlds, until Atolibus had drawn them somewhere he knew would be safe. Syreal. Or rather, what's left of it. Of his home reality, nothing existed save fire and darkness, and he could hear the screams of the dead from every direction. He paid it little mind, as did Altherion – at least where they fought, no one else could suffer from the collateral damage. Atolibus had the distinct impression that this battle was being watched by more eyes than theirs, however.
Light surged around his entire frame, and he unleashed a wave of power more concentrated and more massive than any he'd dared use in his time back home. Altherion flashed out of sight and reappeared at his side, and Atolibus was forced to bring Elysdeon up to avoid being taken by Altherion's blade. The men whirled and titanic forces of magic slammed against each other, stopping dead in the center. In his left hand, an orb of fire appeared, and Atolibus raised it, watching the flames of the void rise hungrily around Altherion. The man in gold simply laughed as they dissipated. He brought his own sword back down hard and Atolibus slipped sideways, dodging the blow altogether.
"You and I are both guilty men," Atolibus said between grunts, "but your crimes outweigh mine. You'll be paying for them today, my friend." Altherion snarled.
"And you will pay for what you did to my lover," he said, eyes narrowing. "Do not deny that you took pleasure in it, brother. I know better." Atolibus' image flickered in and out of sight, blade lashing out towards him from seemingly every direction. The man in gold countered each, spinning on his heels faster than a mortal eye could have seen to deflect each attack.
"I did not," Atolibus said, panting. He'd never had an opponent he was so evenly matched with, and the song of steel called to him loudly. Blade disappearing, he spread out both arms, and blinding power expanded in a sphere away from him. Altherion weathered the storm, a shield of raw Shadow bending his brother's magic away from him. Elysdeon came crashing down against the bubble of power, cleaving it in two. The man in gold barely had time to raise his own blade to avoid being split in half. Both men glided backwards, eying the other warily, swords constantly moving in their hands.
"To me, to me!" Elvina cried. The sounds of gunfire were juxtaposed against the wails of magic and the ringing of steel in every direction. The battlefield she had chosen as hers was in western Europe, amidst fields of green in every direction. Green that was quickly becoming soaked in red blood. Sarcodus was at her side, and together they clove a swath of destruction miles long. More enemy soldiers poured into the arena, bearing the ancient sigil of flame and thunder that had belonged to the Magus in her day. She didn't know where Altherion had found the manpower, and she decided she didn't give the slightest bit of a damn about it. She found herself in a brief moment of respite, and sat down hard on the ground, breathing heavily, gathering strength.
"They aren't making it easy for us," she said, "that's for certain." Sarcodus grinned as he stood by her side.
"Where would the fun be in that?" he said. She chuckled, pulling herself back to her feet. An armored vehicle met them where they waited, and a grizzled older gentleman with a British accent and a set of stars on his lapels jumped out.
"There you are, commander," he said, saluting. Elvina returned the gesture absently. "We've reports that the forces in Provence and Lorraine are being pushed out, thankfully. News from the Chinese front is grim, though, millions lost all ready." She sighed – they hadn't been able to convince the Chinese that they desperately needed her and her people's help, and they were paying for their hubris with great heaps of corpses.
And yet despite everything she found herself impressed. Even lacking magic the soldiers of Earth were putting up a vicious fight. I suppose that's what we get for spending so many years growing lazy in our power. She shuddered to think of what the Magus of Syreal could have done with access to some of the generals that commanded Earth's various military forces.
"Nothing for it," she said, scythe spinning in her hand. Storm clouds sprang to life around them, darkening the skies. "Sound a general retreat, I've got a trick up my sleeve, but I don't want to waste our lives." The general rushed back to his vehicle to give the proper orders, and after a few minutes soldiers were withdrawing. When all that was left before her was a dark mass of Magus soldiers, Elvina smiled, drawing as much power as she could through her Gift and motioning with her hands towards the clouds. The sky grew darker still, and Sarcodus watched as what looked like an orb of pure blackness formed above and in the distance, the clouds twisting violently towards it. The earth around them groaned, and Sarcodus found himself stepping backwards involuntarily.
"Dear gods, is that water?" he said, trembling. Elvina nodded, grinning even as she twisted the clouds even further. Tendrils of Water and Air snaked from her hands in writhing masses of power that left him breathless. They were growing greater and greater with every moment, until the view before him was blocked entirely by raw magical might. In his long years he'd never seen anyone do what she was doing, and the thought was terrifying. She could smash mountains with that thing. Gods. The very air in his lungs grew dry and cold, the moisture of his breath and the sweat on his skin flowing towards the monstrosity she'd created.
"All of the water that storm contains, concentrated," she said. Sarcodus stared at her, wide eyed and unblinking as the half mile wide drop of water came crashing down. Chaos ensued as men and mounts alike were obliterated under a wave that spread for miles, smashing everything in its destructive path to powder. Sarcodus shivered as the wave raced for their position, but Elvina raised her arms and it suddenly came screeching to a halt, slapping loudly against a solid shield of Air woven with Fire. Water flashed into steam where it hit, and then Elvina withdrew the Fire entirely, sending the temperature plummeting below freezing. The unbelievably massive wall of water froze almost instantly, and they had a mass in front of them larger than anything they'd ever seen.
"God's eyes, woman, I'm glad it wasn't you I fought seven years ago," he said, trembling in awe. "I think you might have managed to best me."
"Worry about adulation later," she said, rounding on her heels. "We've more havoc to wreak, in the ways only we can."
The battlefield Atolibus and Altherion shared no longer existed as a physical object, merely a set of constructs and concepts that warped in the presence of the two men. A concentrated mass of Shadow, massive winglike streamers trailing backwards from it, was smashing against a similar winged mass of golden power. They rebounded and crashed against one another time and again, over and over in a ceaseless tide of world ending power. Even the void shook with the force of their fighting, and images kept rippling into existence around them, only to flash into glistening shards a moment later. A snake and a mongoose did battle with one another, the mongoose constantly weaving, the snake's head darting in an attack that was too slow to serve its purpose. Elk bucks, locked horn to horn, unmoving. An alligator dragging a wildebeest to the ground, only to find itself under attack from the rest of the animal's herd.
Come, come now brother, surely you are capable of more than that. Images flooded Atolibus' mind, pieces of scenes he could not understand. Was Altherion attacking him, or speaking? His power took the shape of a sword, slicing through the darkness before him, only to find it flowing back together half a heartbeat later.
This ends today. A massive winged serpent, swooping down towards an archer with a waiting arrow. The archer does not fear the flying hellbeast, and sends his shot flying true. The serpent screams in pain, crashing to the ground, wounded but not beaten. You die today. Here and now. Two young boys with sticks in their hands, playing at swords, the bigger one hammering at the little one until the little one manages to catch the bigger in the eye, eliciting screams of pain.
You've such an imagination, I have to give you that, my foolish friend. A man and woman dancing, twirling together, the man spinning the woman into a tight spiral, the woman pulling herself out by his arm. Two mighty chunks of rock and metal, hurtling through the vastness of space, colliding and annihilating each other. Light and Shadow, reflecting, rebounding, jumping in every direction at once.
I've had the last I can stomach of your kind of perversion. A roaring fire consuming a wooden lodge, with the body of a graying man inside. Another man buried bare in the soft earth, in the final embrace of the loving mother. A woman with a sword sliding through her chest, eyes blinking in confusion even as the light flees them. The Light, trembling and wavering for a moment even as the Shadow looms greater still. A massive burst of power, silver and white and gold dancing, judgment hovering in the skies. The cries of anguish from a woman scorned, and the cry of a nation for a king slain. The Light flickering to a bare ember.
Just accept it, brother. Accept the inevitable. Your life is mine. Your power is mine. Give it up. Give it to me. The blood cry of a man giving his life to a dark tower, energy flowing through the skies. A soft blue glow underfoot, and contentment. A woman's face, smiling and caressing someone gently. The Light, glowing a little brighter. A smiling child, a passionate embrace between lovers, the sweet song of steel on steel. A monstrous crystalline edifice hovering in the distance. Now for the truth
Reia was breathing hard. She and Richter had stayed together for their battle – they couldn't separate by too much or they would both be lost. She was surprised at how adept Richter had quickly become with his power, but she was concerned he was going to burn himself out at the rate he was going. They were standing back to back in the streets of San Diego, choosing to fight in the place they'd begun to call home. They had the descendants of the men and women of Winterhaven fighting under their command, their culture having spread to other parts of their lands, growing year by year into something that was a blend of old and new. No longer shaggy silver maned were they, though – short, golden blonde had taken the place of the unnatural silver, and they wore little if any facial hair. Their gear was similar to the old, however, a lot of leathers and furs, complimented with wickedly sharp steel.
"On your left, old man!" Reia shouted, whirling and striking with a whipcord of Water, taking fifteen men off of their feet. The members of the regiment alongside them fell upon them with swords and killing magic immediately, and they continued to walk and dispatch soldiers in that manner until they reached the end of the street and saw the beach before them. A milling mass of darkness and blood filled their vision, and they charged bolts of power together. Richter waited for Reia's signal, and they released them together, intermingling and crushing a thick knot of black garbed soldiers within seconds. Reia took a moment to look around – the street was clear, and the fighting, for the moment, distant. "Let's catch our breath here, old man." Richter nodded, leaning against a fire hydrant, breathing easily. He'd never had more fun in his entire life, and he felt as if he'd finally found his calling.
"Any word from the others?" he said. She shook her head, and he sighed. "I hope they're doing all right. Elvina is certainly capable of handling herself, as is Sarcodus, but I still worry."
"I would be more concerned about you and I," she said, eying the remains of the carnage in every direction. He nodded, breathing deeply with his eyes closed, centering himself in the manner he'd been taught. Elvina had said he'd mastered the exercise faster than anyone she'd ever trained, and he was glad she'd spent at least some time instructing him. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone particularly strong or skilled came along and ended his run, but he was determined to make as much of it as he could.
"Let's move," he said. "They'll be waiting for new orders now that we've routed this lot. What's that fellow's name, the one calling himself 'Lord Mage'?"
"Malak," she said. "Corin Malak." Richter nodded with a grunt.
"Seems awful young for a master," he said. "He's a third my age at best, care to explain that?" Reia shrugged as she opened a gateway.
"It isn't terribly relevant," she said. "We should be on our way." They stepped through together.
Gregor and Schala were together in the distant north of the Alaskan territory. Why the Magus would set a contingent down there she could not guess but it didn't matter to either of them. They fought with everything they had, weapons, magic, even the raw earth itself. Gregor had found his sword knocked away once, and it had seemed he would be struck down when he snatched a handful of dirt and threw it as he rolled away, momentarily blinding his attacker. The blade was back in his hands in an instant and he cleaved the would be killer clean in two with a mighty stroke. Neither of them had time to pause to consider their surroundings – the fighting was too intense, and they didn't have enough backup. Schala had a gateway ready to be opened at a moment's notice, even as they fought.
"Schala, down!" Gregor shouted. She hit the ground just as his sword went whistling through the air above her, taking someone in the sternum and killing them with a single blow. A tendril of power had it back in his hands, blood spraying through the air as it flew. She found her footing and stalked forward, stabbing one soldier through the gut, catching the head of another with the backside of her stroke. "Cover me for a moment, will you?" She nodded, erecting a shield as Gregor sheathed his blade.
He turned to the south, facing a lake that stood not one hundred yards from where they fought. Reaching for the sky with enormous cords of Air and Water, hands making a rapid whirling motion, the clouds themselves swirled and twisted towards the body of water, creating a massive, screaming funnel that drew a goodly portion of the lake's water into it. A keening wail came to life that threatened to shatter Schala's hearing, and she pressed both hands against her ears even as she summoned a ward to dampen the sound. Gregor brought both hands down slowly, and it froze in place, the heat being drawn out of it and funneled through the solid earth below. He paused for a moment, chanting quietly, and then thrust both arms out to his side. The swirling mass of ice exploded, shattered to fine pieces by the force of the tornado he'd created. He swept his arms across the line of Magus in front of them, and a cloud of deadly ice shrapnel hurtled towards them with blinding speed, punching through plate and mail alike, slaughtering thousands. Gregor dropped his left hand but extended his right, and the heat he'd drawn to freeze the mass suddenly gouted upwards through the earth in a line that circled outwards for miles, creating fire and hot gasses that scalded and seared flesh everywhere. Schala blinked at the sight of it – she'd never seen anyone use magic that way before. Gregor sighed, kneeling for a moment to catch his breath.
"Are you all right?" she asked him. He nodded, wavering.
"Promise me something," he said. "You know who I am, and my past. If I don't walk away from all of this... be sure you never tell Elvina who I was."
"She knows, my love," Schala said softly. Gregor turned slowly towards her, horror in his eyes. "It's all right. She asked me last night, because she thought she had worked it out. She was correct. And it's all right. She doesn't hold it against you – neither of you knew who each other was then, at any rate." He nodded, a weight lifting from his chest.
"That's good at least," he said, breathing deeply, finding his feet. "Let's go. There's more to be done."
For minutes or years, the titanic forces of Light and Shadow did battle across the voids of two universes, one drained to create the asked for savior, the other stolen by his dark reflection in an act of unparalleled cruelty and malice. Their power intermingled and twisted around itself even as they fought, and for a time it was not clear to either of them which one was which.
This place screams with death. The echo here is deafening. How can you stand it?
Because it is your end. A song, sung in a language long forgotten and yet known instinctively, rising through the darkness, washing out the void with pure Light. Two white swords ringing against each other as they were always meant to, seeking to devour the other half with every stroke. Two men, wrestling for final dominance over one another. The light of the rising sun, bringing life and renewal to the world below. And at the end of it, a vast field of darkness lit only underfoot, with a malign edifice of power seated at its center, seven standing before it to either side, watching, waiting.
The one that called himself Altherion gradually coalesced back into physical form, wearing the gold he'd worn as his true colors from the beginning. The other one, the one that called himself Atolibus, also reappeared, crouching with blade in hand fifty feet away from his foe, colors rippling throughout his figure. The rippling stopped on white for a moment, but Atolibus shook his head and his black vestments slid down his arms and across his body even as Elysdeon returned to the form he'd wielded her in for most of his life.
"This is who I am," he said, growling, panting for breath. He rose slowly. "I am Atolibus Sandrin, and I choose my own destiny." Altherion smiled and both men leveled their blades towards one another once more, massive unthinkable arcs of pure golden power racing to seek the other.
Sarcodus paused for a moment, his heart pounding in his chest. Something was happening, something with Atolibus and the Heart, he could feel it within him.
"You too?" Elvina said, looking at him sideways. They'd found shelter under a tree for a moment, catching their breath. Sarcodus nodded, and she opened a gateway without hesitation. "Then we are needed. Let's go."
Reia nearly lost her head to a sword when a ripple of golden power swam through her mind and through her Gift, startling her. She turned to Richter and flung a gateway open behind him, shoving him through and snapping it closed behind her before anyone could follow. He thought he could hear a great, deep bell tolling in the endless distance.
Gregor heard the klaxon of destiny ring in his mind clearly the moment it happened, and without a word he pulled Schala through a gateway into darkness. A mighty bell was indeed tolling, deep and rich in tone. Two men stood before them, not far away, even as the others of the group joined together where they'd come in. He could see figures in the distance, as well as an impossibly massive crystal hovering quietly behind them. So, the moment had come. Indeed, indeed. And now it is decided.
Atolibus stood, sword leveled towards Altherion. An impossibly vast column of golden destructive magic charged forward and met his brother's in the center with an ear shattering shriek. Their power twisted and lashed at one another's, blinding and deafening at the same time. Atolibus grunted as he funneled even more strength into his assault, slowly forcing Altherion backward. The other man snarled visibly, but Atolibus thought he could hear faint words at the back of his mind.
Within seconds, it was over as quickly as it had began. His beam of golden power finally overwhelmed his brother's and charged forward, seeking its opposite hungrily. He saw a bright flash followed by a pulse of darkness. The energy between them died out and Altherion's sword came sailing through the air towards him. Massive power flooded into him then, the sum total of both brothers' strength. Ecstasy and bliss in a manner he'd never known, never thought of, wouldn't have dreamed possible. He was whole, for the first time in nearly a thousand years. He could see his friends standing not far away from him, shining in the darkness as the light of the Gift danced in their eyes.
Altherion's words in his head. You can rule, brother.
The Great Question, to be settled at last.
His destiny at hand.
In the space between heartbeats, Atolibus caught his brother's blade and rounded on his heels, pure energy humming to life through both swords as he leveled them towards the Heart. With a mighty roar, he forced every last ounce of planar strength he possessed along with every last bit he'd received when Altherion had died through each blade. A great shattering crack echoed across the dark plains, and everyone's gaze darted to the Heart
No longer did it hover serenely between them. Golden sparks were racing up and down the length of it, dancing across its surface as massive fissures began forming. A glow began to shine from the center even as a hum rose in the darkness, the sound one of both expectation and uncertainty. The once-magenta crystal had turned to pure white, shining brightly before one final pulse of light and sound blinded those observing.
When sight returned the light had died, and all that remained of the Heart was a pile of magenta fragments and dust. Atolibus stepped forward slowly, observing the looks on everyone's faces. The Keeper was staring at him with something akin to reverence, while the Elemental Lords of Power nodded in approval. His friends stood silent, uncertain of what they had just witnessed. The end. Or the end of the beginning, anyways. Reaching the place where the shattered fragments of the Heart lie, he extended both blades to his sides. One last time the mighty weapons shone with power, drawing the essence of the Heart into themselves.
"Well done, Champion," the Keeper said, trying to catch his breath. "Well met indeed." Atolibus ignored him and stepped over to his friends. They all looked at him expectantly.
"Reia, Richter, you know what I need you to do," he said. Reia cocked her head, but Richter nodded. He handed a blade to each of them, gateways swirling to life behind them, gateways that led to opposite points of the universe. The Keeper raised his voice as his eyes went wide with dawning comprehension. Power gathered behind him in a great white cloud, but Atolibus simply waved absently and shut him out of it, ignoring the man's bellowing and protests altogether. Reia looked at the white sword in her hands.
"It isn't heavy any more," she said, eying the blade. Richter nodded, spinning it around once, testing the air with it. She sighed, looking to Richter. "Come on old man, we've a job to do."
"This is the end of the line for us, isn't it?" Richter asked him. Atolibus nodded silently, and Richter sighed. "I had gathered as much. I reckon this is why Altherion wanted us dead, then?"
"Wait, what exactly is happening?" Schala said. Gregor stroked her hair softly as he stood, silent.
"That which is given cannot be taken," Atolibus said softly. "For the power in those blades to come to rest, it has to be given. As the two of you are linked together through my power, they are tied to that connection. Freely given to you, they will die along with you when your link to me is broken."
"So open a damned gateway and hurl the bloody things through it, then," Elvina said, voice hollow. "Why must they die for this? Any one of us could take it and be done with it, why this?"
"He has the right of it," Richter said. "Just as well. As the two of us are linked by that very same power, it's a necessity. Were I in your place, old man, I would make the same decision. This way there are no questions, no what-ifs, no potential loose threads dangling over our heads in the years to come. It has to end decisively, here and now." He sighed, turning to Elvina. "It's all right. I was supposed to die not long ago anyways, remember? Each of us owes a death save perhaps you, my friend." He extended his hand, and Atolibus shook it firmly one last time. He hugged Elvina one final time, sharing one more passionate kiss before stepping through his gateway.
"Goodbye," Reia said softly. Without another word, she turned and stepped through, and hers closed behind her. In the vast distance, a mournful bell tolled. The Keeper hit his knees, distraught.
"God's eyes, man, you weren't supposed to destroy it, you were supposed to consume it," he said, voice breaking wildly. Tremors shook the ground around them, but subsided quickly. "You were supposed to assume the role of the Heart, and herald a new age for all of the mortal races. With the connection to you broken, the swords become dormant, and the power of the Heart within them dies. How could you do it, Atolibus? How could you condemn us all like that?"
"I condemn no one," he said, voice flat. He didn't think he had any room left in him for compassion or tears. Everything he had ever held dear, everything he had ever loved had been burned behind him to get him to where he was. "It is only fate that has died, on this day. All that remains of the living essence of the Heart is within me, embodied as free will."
"That was the Great Question," the Elemental Lord of Light said, nodding. "The Heart wanted to know if the races of the living could be trusted to free themselves from fate's shackles. It had always been thus. However, I think they are both surprised because, as my friend said, it was not expected of you to simply destroy it outright. The races of the living are finally free to make their own futures, to carve their own path, and to write their own stories. No more existing pointlessly in lock step with an unchanging book written in stone uncountable aeons ago." He chuckled heartily. "Altherion played a good game, well and true, but in the end it came down to your decision, a choice only you and you alone could make... and you erred on the side of freedom instead of safety. Well met, Lord Sandrin. Well met indeed." He and the other Lords and Ladies knelt at Atolibus' feet as the Keeper stared in horror.
"Unacceptable," he said. "Absolutely unacceptable. This wasn't how the game was supposed to end, you absolute incomparable fool. Mark my words, friends, there will be repercussions for this." He disappeared in a twist of teleportation, snarling to the last. Sarcodus shook his head with a sigh.
"I doubt that'll be the end of that," he said. Elvina nodded, still unable to speak. Something within her was beating at her chest, while some of the images she'd seen when Syreal and Altaris had been joined flashed back through her mind. He showed me this, the Heart. This and what I saw when Syreal burned. Why?
"Anestos has always been a bit flighty," the Lady of Shadow said quietly. "He'll come to his senses eventually." She turned back to Atolibus. "What matters is what lies before us, all of us. We swear ourselves into your service here and now, on this day, in this place. Our swords are yours, our power is yours, our lives are yours to do with as you will. What is your bidding, milord?"
"Stand up," Atolibus said. "No one kneels to me anymore. I am no longer that man. I know I've a job to do... and I will do it, but in my own way. You want an order? Leave me, all of you. Leave and stay the fuck out of my life." The Lord of Light nodded and they rose, disappearing. The man in black turned to all of his friends, pain on his face. "Always it is thus. Always. Well, I'm done with that. From here on out my destiny is my own to decide. All of yours are. You are not bound to me by any oaths or bonds, save those of friendship and love." He paused for a moment.
"There remains one manner to be seen to, though. My swords are no more, their power died along with the link between Richter and Reia. There remains but one other piece, aside from myself." Light shone in his hands, and something appeared there, small and glimmering.
"That damnable thing," Sarcodus said, sighing. The Soul Egg sat quietly in Atolibus' hands, radiating peace and serenity.
"Those of you that were bound by the Heart's power are now bound to this," Atolibus said softly. "Therefore if you die, you return. There is just enough power in it to bring back Richter and Reia, but it means consuming the last of it. So you have a choice. You can either keep your immortality, or I can bring our friends back."
"Can I see that?" Sarcodus said. Atolibus handed it to him, and the man in silver sighed as he examined the luminescent artifact. "So many years, so many lives and so many deaths affected by this, and for what?" He hurled it at the ground with all of his might and smashed it under foot, drawing gasps from the others. "I don't know about you, old man, but I'm tired of immortality. It's brought me nothing but grief, over the years. You're stuck with yours, something which I can never be forgiven for, but let ours die here with the rest of it. Richter had the right of it there. Besides, the two of them have people waiting for them when they cross over. At least there's that." Sarcodus turned to his brother, a lightness in his posture that he hadn't felt in centuries. "What do you say, old man? Care to have one last go around the mortal block with your idiot brother?" Gregor chuckled, nodding.
"Wouldn't have it any other way," he said. Sarcodus opened a gateway for them, one that opened to Earth. The view on the other side was San Diego and smoke hung in the air, but it looked as if the forces of the Remnants of Syreal were victorious.
"Looks like you put paid to that. You know where to find me, old man," Sarcodus said. Atolibus nodded as they stepped through, closing it behind them.
"We've someone to find, you and I," Elvina said to Schala in a voice barely above a whisper. Losing Richter as suddenly as she had hadn't registered yet, and she was hoping to defer that pain to a later day. Anything and everything to take her mind off of it. "A sister and a daughter, waiting for us out there somewhere." Schala nodded slowly.
"Aye," she said, and a gateway opened next to her, on the other side a mountain Atolibus didn't recognize. "Take heart, Atolibus. We'll return home soon, and hopefully with good news." He nodded, and they both stepped through. He watched forlornly as their gateway closed. His mind drifted back a few moments, to the space between heartbeats just as his power collided with his brother's.
Even though he was aware of the massive golden beams meeting in the center between the two of them, he could see a softly lit, stony room around him.
"What is this?" he said to no one in particular. An image wavered before him, sitting on a bed he recognized from Jael's memories.
"The first and only chance we have to discuss a few things," Altherion said. Atolibus made to draw Elysdeon, but something gave him pause – Altherion did not have a weapon in hand, nor did he have a spell ready to fly. In fact, he was sitting in resignation, silent, patient. "Please, join me, brother. There are things you have to know, before this is over." Atolibus took a wary seat in a cushioned chair beside him, watching his brother carefully. "I understand your reticence, believe me, I do. I've done everything in my power to engender just such a thing. In that, I was successful, though it is unfortunate that is only here that we can finally speak freely."
"If you seek to trap me here you're going to find yourself mistaken," Atolibus said, glaring at the other man. Altherion shook his head, and for the life of him Atolibus swore he looked genuinely sad. The man in gold waved him off.
"I do not, brother," he said. "However, it is only here that we can speak to one another without being seen. This is the space between the end of one heartbeat and the beginning of the next. For a mortal, that time is almost indeterminably short. For the likes of us, however... Well."
"Spill it, then," Atolibus said. "I'd just as soon return to our fight."
"I don't have time to tell you everything," he said. A small globe of pure Shadow rose in his hand. "Take this with you, it cannot harm you, you know that. This is my memory, and perhaps in it you will see the truth. Believe me when I say my actions have all had a purpose, even the monstrous ones. Especially the monstrous ones."
"What is this new game?" Atolibus said, frowning even as he took the small orb. "Tired of heaving a sword around with me, trying to talk me to death? Is that the way of it?" Altherion chuckled ruefully, and the lights in the room flickered a bit. He looked around, sighing.
"We don't have much time," he said. "What I need you to know, now, is that one of us was always meant to destroy the other." Atolibus blinked. "Indeed. Our weapons were made for just that purpose. I know you figured it out, I left the scroll there so you could."
"Why should I believe a word you are saying?" he asked him. Altherion shrugged.
"Ask Sarcodus, when you get a chance," he said. "For now, just accept that everything I have done has been to push you into this place, because only you are capable of doing what needs to be done. We both represent different facets of a debate it wished settled, something you've probably heard of. The Great Question." Atolibus nodded.
"Whispers and fragments," he said. "Nothing more. I suspected it had something to do with the Heart."
"It has everything to do with the Heart," Altherion said. "The Heart and the both of us. Sarcodus has told you of how I killed him a thousand years ago, yes?" Atolibus nodded. "That was the first time. The second time was two hundred years later, right after the creation of the Soul Egg" He shuddered for a moment, phantoms crossing his vision. The light in the room dimmed briefly as he struggled with his memories. "Another mess in time you can thank the Heart for."
"I've never worked that one out for myself," Atolibus said, eyes remaining locked on his brother. The man's story was interesting, but he wasn't certain how much he could believe. For all that he looks like me, for all that these chambers look a great deal like my own, they are not, and he is not.
"From what you've been told," Altherion said, smiling, "and from what Sarcodus thinks he remembers, it was created to pen down the raw elemental Shadow you had inadvertently loosed upon the world. Somehow I got caught in the mix, and my power was trapped as well. That was no accident. That power – your power – was mine. I had laid claim to it a few years after you had loosed it, but it was... different, then. Wild. And I traveled far and wide seeking answers, trying to understand what I was. What we both are. About a hundred and fifty years later, apparently the Heart decided that things were moving too swiftly for his tastes, and through Sarcodus he bound my strength to your world using a small fragment of his own power. Much the same as the manner in which we were created, if you think about it."
"You said a mess in time," Atolibus said. Altherion nodded. "That's the part I don't understand, the part I've never really understood. Sarcodus gave me a basic explanation, but something tells me there's more to it than that."
"But of course," he said. "My forward existence in time was as a result of his actions. The Shadow, growing large and unchecked in the universe, the very thing that called for your birth, was as a result of that. The Heart had created a stable loop in time." Atolibus shook his head, brow furrowed – that was a difficult concept to wrap one's head around. "Believe me, I understand your confusion. I spent years trying to work that one out. Destiny." He spat, sneering. "That's a vile word, if I've ever heard one. So many lives lost, so many worlds burned, all in the name of 'destiny'. I've had my fill of it."
"Fascinating though this may be, you still haven't told me why I should believe you," Atolibus said.
"Ask Sarcodus about that second time that I killed him" he said. "Things went differently than they had, the first time around. I was surprised – he awoke almost immediately, right then and there." He chuckled ruefully. "Very surprised. I'd lashed out in anger, six hundred years of confusion and frustration. When I saw him get back up though, looking at me for all the world like he'd failed me, I broke. We spoke, him and I." The world around them shook and wavered fitfully for a moment, and Altherion looked around, eyes darting back and forth nervously. "There isn't much time left, unfortunately. I've shared everything you need to know, the things you need to understand. For now, just trust me when I say I've been trying to help you for your entire life."
"How is hounding my every step, killing my wife and loved ones and burning my world 'helping'?" Atolibus said, glaring.
"I witnessed the cataclysm that was engendered to create you in the first place, old man," he said. "Twice. Once, on my way backwards, without understanding what I was seeing, and again on my way forwards, completely unable to affect circumstances. I knew what that horror was firsthand, because I got to see it from both sides. You were fortunate in that it was not so with you, but at the same time that was something you needed to witness in the same manner I did, without being able to stop it. I won't apologize to you for what I put you through or for the awful things I did on the way there, but I think when you go through that spell I gave you you'll begin to understand, and perhaps in the future you'll be able to start letting go of all of the pain." He rose. "We will soon depart from here, and you will find yourself facing me down with your power blazing at full against mine. I will not win this contest. We both know when it comes to raw strength, you've got me beat, if only just."
"Then why bother with the fight?" Atolibus said, voice soft. "Why bother with the lies, the deceit, the manipulations, and the treachery? With Serena, Elvina, my wife and the death of my world? Why not just come straight to me from the beginning, explain what is happening, and let me decide what is best?"
"Would that it were that simple," Altherion said, sighing. "Unfortunately, in this case, Arcadia's way is right. You and I are watched at all times, brother. Anything out of place would have been deeply suspect – it's one of the reasons I had to keep his tongue tied in knots for as long as I have. I'm not entirely certain, but I believe the Heart is planning on scrapping the entire experiment if it fails, and the rest of reality along with it."
"Is that possible?" Atolibus asked him, brow furrowing. Altherion shrugged.
"Can he destroy reality itself?" he said. "Of a certainty. He... it... whatever the hell it is, is the driving will behind fate and destiny. He doesn't exactly hold the universe up on his back, I don't think it works that way, but he certainly has the strength to unravel it all. He did, after all, burn an entire universe in a flash to create you in the first place. Could he destroy the two of us? Don't honestly know. You've managed to hold your will against his presence at least once before, if that means anything. And he cannot simply take the power he granted back into himself – that which is given cannot be taken back, yours is inviolate because of that. I do genuinely hope you never put your trust in him, or the Keeper for that matter. They cannot see into our minds, which is the reason we're here in the first place."
"Of course not," he said. "I knew from the beginning they had some manner of ulterior motive. But if our minds are shielded in some fashion, why drag this out? Again, why not simply tell me straight away?"
"I didn't have the power necessary, then," he said. "If things had ended then instead of now, a great number of things would be different, and not for the better. I know you might find the notion strange, but trust me on this one. I've had enough time to know. I couldn't risk my deception unraveling, not when the consequences are leagues so far beyond vast it would twist even your mind." Atolibus locked eyes with him, sight narrowing.
"Is this supposed to change things between us?" Atolibus said, consternation stamped across his face. "Is this supposed to make amends, for everything, just like that?"
"I never said that," Altherion said. "Nor would I. I know full well it isn't possible." He sighed again, scrubbing his fingers through his silver hair even as he stretched out on the bed. "One last time, for old times' sake. When we awaken, we will still be fighting. Do not falter, do not hesitate, because if you do then I must needs take your place, and that would be a disaster. I have enough of the substance of the Heart to be fully aware of its effects, but not enough to affect change, even if I take your power into myself. Only you can do that, brother. You alone have the lion's share, and the strength to pull it off. You alone possess the vessel that is Free Will, that cannot be taken by any means. When the time comes, you shall rule, and I... well, I hope to be free, honestly. My road has been longer and darker than even yours, and there has been very little by way of peace for me." He stood, and Atolibus stood with him. "Just remember, someone has to be there to carry on the fight, even when it seems hopeless. That's you, brother." He smiled even as he faded out of view, and the room around them disappeared.
He pondered the small orb Altherion had left him, and rummaged through its contents. The man had been correct – in the space of seconds, he had learned everything there was to learn from it. He could hear his brother's words in his mind.
You had a thousand years with Syreal to observe what the world is like when a god watches over every one and slaps their hands every time they get close to the fire. Then you observed that world burn, as I observed the world that burned to make us in the first place. You needed to know this. All of the death, the Magus, your wife and your world, all of that pushed you to where I needed you. Where you needed to be, along with the necessary power to carry out the deed.
'ware the Keeper of Souls, old man. I didn't know much, but what I was able to learn disturbed even me. There is more to the man, more power than what we saw. He isn't to be trusted or taken for granted. And 'ware the Remnants of Syreal. Though they came to your call this time that will not last. A thousand years is a long time, old man – your entire life span has passed between when you last saw them and now.
You and I have a tendency to leave behind destruction in our wake, and that hasn't changed with my death. Caution, caution in everything. Especially so with mortals. Your power is like to be far more volatile now than ever before, and there is no force left to check you, should you lose control. That world is more special than you might have guessed, but should you choose to spend your time on Earth have a care to let them tend to their own affairs – they don't need a Regent, they need a Champion, and now they have one.
He stood in silence for several moments afterward listening to what passed for his heartbeat, the only sound for scores of leagues and beyond. A sword flashed into his hands, a white monster visibly identical to Elysdeon but fashioned of his own essence, an extension of his power in the same manner as the armor he'd once worn. Is this victory? Have we truly won, or have I simply gone and made things worse as I almost always do? He could feel the blades he'd sent Richter and Reia to their deaths with, hovering silently in the vast distance. Something about one of them rang peculiar, and after another moment he felt its essence vanish. Altherion's blade, it had to be... Elysdeon lie silently on the other side of the universe, and for a moment he itched to reclaim her. No. Leave it to die, it's better this way. Just leave it, leave all of this behind. A gateway opened and he stepped through without a word.
Elvina sat alone atop one of the many mountains she had pulled up through the earth, watching solitarily as a great fire burned less than fifteen feet in front of her. The flames did not touch her skin, while not even the slightest trace of heat grazed her limbs.
"This would have been what you wanted," she said quietly. "So far away from the rest of civilization, nestled deep within mountains akin to your home lands." An icy chill ran up her spine, and she heard a voice from behind her.
"There's always been something soothing about lonely mountains," he said. Elvina turned to see Richter standing directly behind her, smiling. She found herself unable to speak, and tried to embrace him. She sighed when her hands went through him as they would through open air. "Nothing to be done for it, my love. My time here is nearly at an end. I wanted to take one last opportunity to see you before I head off into the sunset."
"Literally at that," she said, eyes closed. When they opened Richter could see the light of the Gift dancing in her gaze. "I'll call this one a win, regardless." She managed a weak smile even as tears began to cloud her vision. "I find discontent rearing its serpentine gaze more and more, as the days pass. Were it possible I would stay with you forever, my love." Her eyes dropped to the ground as her voice dropped into monotone. "But I wouldn't deny you your freedom and peace." She met his glance one more and smiled, this time fully. "I've lived for over two hundred years, now. I'm almost positive that lifespan is going to continue forward, even with the loss of the Egg and the Heart. Sarcodus might have destroyed the Egg, and that might do for the others, but my case is different. My life wasn't bound by the Egg – it was bound by the magic that created it, magic that I can still feel running through my veins." She shook her head softly. "I'm afraid I won't be joining you, my love. At least, not any time soon." He reached out a spectral hand to gently caress her face, lightly brushing it with his essence.
"It's all right, milady," he said, smiling. "It was absolutely worth the suffering."
"It still is," she said flatly. "I'm not sure that will ever change, no matter how long I am wandering the universe. I'm going to miss you, Richter Harris. May you find the comfort you've earned, comfort and peace." His figure began to fade out of view, until all that was left was his smile and the glow of his eyes. She felt warmth in her chest as he faded entirely. Tears slid down her cheeks freely, and she didn't bother to make any attempt at quelling them. She sighed as she turned to view the pyre once more, and seconds later, a swirling gateway opened before her. Limbs heavy and mind numb, she stepped through, allowing it to shut behind her.
Schala took a deep breath of the freshly mowed grass around her. She was standing in front of a house she'd appropriated after returning from the final showdown between the men in gold. Her eyes were closed, lost in deep thought. I know you are out there, my dearest. Help me. Please. She waited a few moments before opening her eyes and standing, turning around and stepping inside the door of her small home. Sarcodus and Gregor were seated on a leather sofa in the living room, observing the television set she owned quietly. She could sense communication passing between them via narrow threads of magic, but she couldn't make out the words.
"Back so soon?" Sarcodus said from his seat, eyes never leaving the television. He saw her nod in his peripheral. "Take heart, milady. She's out there, somewhere. We'll find her eventually, you know we will."
"I wish I could believe that as firmly as you do," she said, sitting down next to Gregor on his right. An idle hand gently stroked the back of his neck, eliciting a brief sigh of pleasure.
"He's right, my dear," Gregor said. "She's out there. It's just a question of where. We'd be happy to join you in your search, if you'd have us." She nodded mutely. "Take some time to relax, you haven't spared a moment for yourself in months now."
"If I could, I would have done so already," she said, shaking her head. She sighed again, leaning back with her eyes closed. "This seems a hollow victory, considering what we've achieved. If this is the boon we have earned, I'm not even certain it was worth it to begin with. And for that matter, are we genuinely certain that we won in the first place?" Sarcodus broke his attention from the television, gently flicking it off with the tiniest spark of Earth.
"The cost has been monstrous, this is true," Sarcodus said. "And the sacrifices that we've had to make have been painful. But it was worth it. You know it was, Schala. You know we'd do it all over again, if we had to. Just because the price is steep, doesn't mean it isn't worth paying."
"I think I'm going to get some rest," she said, standing and heading for the stairs. It was still sunny outside, but a simple spell would mask that from her as needed. Sarcodus watched her go up the stairs and out of earshot before he spoke again.
"Should we tell her?" he said to his brother. Gregor looked him in the eye, and teal met teal for a moment.
"Not yet," Gregor said. "Not until she's had a chance to take some of the rest that she's earned." Sarcodus shook his head, staring at the floor for a moment.
"I suppose you're right," he said. "As things stand right now, she might just up and decide to finish the job for herself. That'd be a terrible way to ring in the first true era of wonder, considering what was necessary to achieve that."
"We'll burn that bridge when we get there," Gregor said. "For now, let's just try and enjoy what time we have. It isn't permanent, not any more." Sarcodus nodded and flicked the television back on as he reclined in his seat.
Atolibus sat alone in the beach house they'd called home for a time. The others had went their separate ways almost immediately after the fight, with promises to regroup at a later date. He wondered if that would ever happen, given the situation. This must be what dying feels like to those that draw its attention. Numbness crept through his limbs, and he made no effort to get up. Would that it were possible, now more than ever.
Death is always easy, brother. The sound of his brother's admonitions echoed through his mind. Peace is fleeting, happiness is nothing more than a passing excitation of the psyche. Try not to wallow in your brooding – it won't do you any good.
I suppose you would know, at that.
"Not so well as you might think," a voice called to him from the front door. He looked up to see his mirror image standing in the doorway, and he found himself on his feet half a moment later. Altherion smiled wryly. "You didn't think it'd just be that simple, did you?"
"Honestly?" Atolibus said. "I did. Just this once, I really did. I can't say I'm surprised, though. If you're here to spar some more, spare me." His brother joined him, taking a seat in the recliner opposite the sofa Atolibus was sitting on. His outfit was something he'd recently seen on the shoulders of businessmen and politicians of Earth.
"You know I'm not," he said, slouching languorously in his seat. "Besides, after what you did it isn't even possible. The link between myself and destiny has been severed. I'm glad for it – you've done more for me in a short time than anyone or anything else ever has, our makers included. I just figured you could use a little company."
"Yours?" Atolibus said, arching an eyebrow. "What would bring you to that conclusion? The fact that I slew you outright and stole your power and weapon, or that fact that I've burned with hatred for you from the moment we met? You gave me a copy of your memories, and you explained why you did what you did – I won't fault you for that, because in your shoes I might have done the same. Doesn't mean I want to have anything to do with you, brother." Altherion sighed.
"Well, you have it regardless," he said. "And for what it's worth I am sorry for the pain you've suffered at my hands. It was necessary, aye, but cruel at the same time. All I can say for that is that what we achieved was worth the price, worth any price. Much as you might hate me, little brother, you know it's true. You of all people should. Existence gets to continue moving forward because of your sacrifice, and now, for the first time in the vast span of history, people are finally free to write their own stories."
"I'm well aware of what I did. Were you planning on getting to your point any time in the next century?" Atolibus said. "I'd just as soon be quit of you."
"Of a certainty," the other man said. "And you've that right. I'd like to share something with you, two somethings actually. The manner of a certain young redheaded woman, for starters."
"Cecilia's death was far less gruesome than you painted it for us?" Atolibus said. "I know. I saw your bloody past, after all. One way or the other you murdered her in cold blood, do you think this changes anything?"
"Someone had to know," Altherion said with a shudder. "I am a monster, old man, I freely admit this, but that one weighs on me more than most. After fourteen hundred years you would think I am beyond such sentiment, but there you have it."
"What else?" Atolibus said flatly.
"Your wife," Altherion said. Atolibus' eyes narrowed as a snarl played across his lips. "Her and the manner of her disappearance. You might not want to hear this now, but I know eventually it should help. She's out there, somewhere. I'm not entirely certain precisely where, but she's there. And alive, more importantly." Atolibus' mouth moved silently, his gaze muddled and unfocused.
"You... she..." he said, rational thought fleeting from his mind. "How... God's eyes man, just how the fuck did you think that would help? This is typical of you, brother. Bringing hope just to dash it to pieces. You tell me this, knowing full well that I've looked and she is nowhere to be found. Nowhere. So why tell me this if not to wound?"
"Because it is necessary," he said. "And I know you haven't given up. You never do, old man." He laughed, lightly and clearly. "Gods, brother, have you any idea how many times you managed to obliterate the path I'd set you on inadvertently, just by the very nature of your being? This hurts now, but it will pass, and you will be better for it. I know it."
"Get out," Atolibus said, voice barely above a whisper. "There is no purpose to this conversation, none whatsoever. I should kill you right here just for that. Fortunately for you I can't bring myself to care enough to do it, otherwise you'd have lost your head yet again."
"I'll be on my way in a few minutes," Altherion said. "There were a few things that I wanted to leave with you first, and a few more words that I feel you should hear." In a flash of light, a smattering of random shapes and colors appeared on the coffee table in between them. Atolibus took a moment to examine them all, first with his eyes, then with the Sight. His eyes told him they were little more than playthings, but the Sight showed something altogether different.
"Just what exactly are these?" he said. "The colors, the light... what in the world am I looking at?" Altherion smiled.
"Records," he said. "Records of the magical knowledge that had either been stolen or lost through various wars, records of all of the information Sarcodus had possessed before his lab was destroyed, and memories. The first few will no doubt be of interest, but the last few are the ones I am mainly here for."
"Whose memories?" Atolibus said.
"Those that gave their lives to create you," he said softly. Atolibus eyed the odd shapes with head cocked slightly sideways. "I've managed to preserve quite a bit from before the fall. I don't know if the secrets will be of any use to you, but I gather the memories might help. I know they did for me."
"Of all the things..." Atolibus said. "If you're lying you know I'm probably going to spit you for a roast, right?" He opened his Sight once more and dove deep within the currents of magic around him.
Of the others she hadn't seen a single trace. She had awakened in a grassy field, as she had many times before. Still alive, are we? Kaetilia couldn't figure the how of that one and decided not to concern herself with it.
Taking a brief look at her surroundings, she found herself on the dying edges of grass that quickly gave way to dust and soil. She could hear the trumpets and clarion calls of war coming from somewhere relatively nearby, and as she embraced her Gift, her Sight showed her a massive host of black rolling towards her. Behind her, a few thousand men with swords and broken armor, backs against the walls of a mighty castle. A castle she would never forget if she lived a thousand times over and again.
"What..." she said. A high pitched wail from the skies above broke her from her reverie, however, and she watched as a white figure holding a long golden blade hovered into view, observing the battlefield from overhead, silver eyes glowing with fierce light. The color drained from her face. "This is..." The True King hovered in the skies above Lothanis as the rising sun shone upon them all. The ground beneath him had been rendered unrecognizable by the war that had ravaged the land countless times throughout recent years. This is... the past? How? Kaetilia witnessed the man in white blur towards the blackened lines of the Magus in their prime, delivering death in every direction. She stood numbly as she observed events playing out as she'd been told, so long ago, before her marriage and before her death. "This can't be good."
So ends the Third Act of The Reality Saga.