Nestled in between two mountain ranges with mordacious cold breeze blowing through the majority of the year was the largest metropolis in existence. As the sun rose over Crystal Valley, the city lit up like a searing fire. Quartz spires and glass arches combined with numerous fountains reflected a dance of light like glittering jewels. Even with the promise of snow by the gray clouds to the west, the lights of eternal and severe Crystal Valley defied the will of natural law.
Alexey paused at the main gatehouse and looked up. He muttered the words etched into the keystone.
"Obey, and you shall be rewarded. Rebel, and you shall be overcome."
It was an apt saying. When Crystal Valley was first built, Hikusaak needed to ingrain into the population that dissent was not to be tolerated. At the time, Harmonia had just suffered a debilitating civil war from which Kranach Rugner's Scarlet Moon faction held sway in the south, taking over the Harmonian Capital Rupanda and the fertile lands that surrounded it in Solis 230. It was a bloody and costly war, killing far more people than what it took to establish Harmonia in the first place. Hikusaak's only consolation prize was that all the factions that broke away had peasant rebellion because of the successive famine that followed. The fires of war destroyed the farm plots just before the harvest. The few harsh winters afterwards starved close to the amount of people who died during the civil war.
To solve the situation, Harmonia instituted strict rationing that extended to the aristocrats and priesthood had to comply. Those caught indulging unnecessarily were harshly punished. During those times, a man could suffocate from the inhuman discipline that was required of all Harmonians. Nearly all entertainment was banned, and all available material was devoted to simply feeding the population. After all, they were the embodiment of harmony, highly organized for which all were to work together for one organism to thrive.
Scarlet Moon Empire, however, utilized something far more ingenious than iron law to combat the food shortage crisis. They utilized a special Rune and focused on border disputes with their newly acquired neighbor Kulook to split the attention from the pressing famine. By wearing Kooluk uniform the nobility of Scarlet Moon began the infamous man hunt that lasted for years. Kooluk, whose leaders cared not for the masses, allowed the atrocity to continue.
Unsurprising, to least to him, the resulting internal stability was the same for both Harmonia and Scarlet Moon.
Alexey mused silently as he cycled through the memories of that time. His Rune was busy, always looking for self-righteous hosts, wooing their darker sides, showing them the unlimited power that it could provide and always consuming their souls. Doom from the first touch, even those who figured how to detangle themselves from the Rune ultimately became mad with greed for power again. The most cursed of all Runes, it devoured uncountable hosts, unselective of whom it took. To a relic that dated back to the beginning of time, man must be constantly reminded of their insignificance. It tolerated none, except for one.
Lazlo, as he was called back then, was normal as anyone could discern. A child orphaned at sea, he had the usual two legs, two arms, a pair of eyes, unremarkable feature. He was much more a follower more than a leader. He ran around with Snowe to play, shirking duties as a child. Later, their friends Jewel, Paula, Tal and Kenneth all joined in their subconscious quest to make a name for themselves. They were to become knights of Geien, work for a few years, get married, have a few children and die in relative comfort. It was suppose to be the simple life that everyone wanted.
But Lazlo knew deep down that he was different from many long before he took on a True Rune. As an observant child, he noticed how that strange goat creature, Yohn, shrank away from him when he spoke. He also noticed that he was far more natural using twin sword than the single hand taught at the Razril Military Academy. Someone else must had figured something out of place about him because why was he given a room away from the dormitories at the Academy?
Many years later, after the Island Liberation war, when he finally figured out just how different he really was.
He figured out why Leknaat could not place him when he wished to hide from her visions.
He figured out why he could so miraculously survive the exile from Razril with only a cat kablod and two other friends.
He figured out why the Rune of Punishment could not truly consume him even if he tested it.
He never figured out why his Rune could not cured the common cold though, nor why the blasted thing could never keep his hands and feet warm. One of the most powerful items in the world and it was down right useless in practical matters.
"Keep your face hidden," barked Dios, withdrawing the man out of memory. "Some already noticed you!"
Both were riding along the main boulevard, their tired horses slowed down to a ground grating cantor. As it was still early morning on a blustery cold day, few were out and about.
After seeing Alexey pull down his hood a little further, Dios continued just loud enough for him to hear. "I've spoken with the guards as to the events of the Valley. So far, Sasarai is holding his own. Gabriel will be in the main square as a member of the military tribunal. As you predicted, Millie is approximately six hours behind. Once you enter the Forbidden Chambers, you must leave in time you will miss the your chance at the central square."
Dios kept on speaking of what he knew.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of debriefing, they were in front of the foreboding outer gates into successive terraces that protects the massive complex called Circle Palace. The leaders of Harmonia had learned their lesson from the loss of Rupanda; they designed the Circle Palace more as fortress, delicately deceiving where they could guard the center of government and maintain vigilance over the vast expanse of knowledge inside the One Temple.
Alexey sighed. "We're here."
The Inner Palace was an eerie and ghostly tomb. Sounds of footsteps and whisper of cloaks weaved and echoed through out the endless halls. Each person, even in the One Temple where discussion was encouraged, spoke in soft whispers and some used hand signs instead of speech. No one wanted to disturb the phantoms that haunts the corridors with their own bloodied past and clandestine affairs. There were those, however, who rightfully believed in their position and also rightfully declared their presence to all.
Gabriel took an entourage of servants, sycophants, bodyguards, Temple Guards, and official aids along with him. They crowded about him, some of them chatter incessantly, some of them fawned empty praises into his ears, all of them served as sacrificial bodies. Gabriel was not a paranoid person, but his official aids were. With the return of Alexander, there were bound to be murders and assassinations. That was truly why so many frontier stationed Magicians and Temple Guards were called home.
"You know Gabriel, this situation could work for us," said Drall, walking next to Gabriel.
Drall was a blind man, his milky eyes filmed over with cataracts for years. He was old, with white hair and beard and face as wrinkled as a piece of unfolded crumpled paper. He was also the current head of the Ninth Tier, a highly ranked Archbishop, the official interpreter and speaker for Hikusaak.
Gabriel never understood why Drall wanted to look and be old. With all the knowledge and magicians available to them, extended youth could be obtained with a snap of a finger. Still, Drall held great power because all law were passed down from Hikusaak through Drall's lips.
It was all for the best. Even though Drall had ambitions for himself, he was never clever enough to really realize them.
"The execution of that animal can become a demonstration of our power."
"Or martyr him," Gabriel reminded, always mindful of how the situation could turn on him. "Someone could come after him and use his name to claim power."
"We have the Absolute One's support and power!" said Drall, assured of his position.
"We hold his power as a trust," said Gabriel. Hikusaak was called the Absolute One for a reason and his punishments were just as unquestionable as his name. Besides, Gabriel had survived so long because he knew whom to fear. "We'll just need to make sure that...." Gabriel stopped, eyes narrowing seeing a familiar face.
"Dios," acknowledge Gabriel with a slight nod. Nearly all of the upper tier priests had their own aids; some aids held nearly as much power as the priests themselves. Dios was such an aid.
Dios stopped in his tracks, turning just slightly. The clumsy acolyte next to him, bogged down with the ridiculously heavy ceremonial garb, did not halt in time and almost tripped.
Gabriel resisted the urge to chuckle. There were rumors that Dios had been secretly training a successor for the past months. If this acolyte was the replacement, things would become easier for him.
Dios growled at the acolyte and bite out a few curses for which the acolyte responded with an hackling laugh like a hyena. Gabriel felt bad for whom ever had to deal with the novice.
"How is his holiness Sasarai," asked Drall with a knowing smile, interrupting the acolyte.
"He is well," said Dios tersely. "And he will recover."
"Ah." The answer seemed to have satisfied Drall more than anything for his smile widened.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Your Greatness?" offered Dios with a slight irritation. Men who considered themselves clever but were not actually clever would set anyone on the edge.
"I believe there is. Come, I shall grant you a private audience," said Drall.
The aid's glance was suspicious though his response was polite. "I am honored."
The acolyte followed them but gave backward glances at Gabriel. The acolyte's shoulder shifted as if laughing at the holy man. Gabriel made a mental note to remove the irritating flea before it could bite him. For now, Gabriel had an execution to attend.
"I find it curious that you're training another personal aid," said Drall while searching for an unoccupied room.
Dios shrugged. "I cannot live forever. Sasarai however, is another matter."
Drall gave an understanding look. "Yes. That is true. Sasarai holds the True Earth in his heart and we benefit by the fact that he knows the location of the other True Elemental Runes, though he refuse to send the Hounds for them. But that is the past. I doubt he will live for another month."
"How is that?" asked the acolyte next to Dios.
Dios frowned, confused. He glanced at the acolyte furtively, questioning. He seemed to have missed something.
"It's alright Dios," interrupted Drall. It greatly amused him when he surprised others with his knowledge and power. "It's our duty to educate children. Let me tell you that the Absolute One ordered Sasarai to be cursed. Sasarai is no longer a desired vessel for he has became rebellious and therefore, outgrew his usefulness. However, we could not have him escaping, could we? So we wear his body down, keep him comatose and harmless until a new vessel is available. It's as simple as that."
"So why are you speaking to me now?" asked Dios, his fist clenched. He had suspected that was the case, but never knew that anyone had the audacity to speak so. Sasarai still wielded much influence in all aspects of Harmonia; he only never gave the order to openly assault his enemies.
Drall would had been very dead if he had found himself in disfavor.
The wrinkled, aged priest gave a wan smile. "Because you are, nonetheless, a talented aid and you knew personally know many of Sasarai's secrets. And like my predecessor had said, talent must never be wasted. Think about it."
The acolyte laughed out this time, far too amused. "Drall, you sure are certainly entertaining. Tell me, does Hikusaak find you just as funny as I do?"
Drall's saintly composure immediately melted. "How dare you show such disrespect!"
"I've NEVER showed you respect in the first place." The acolyte removed his heavy cloak, revealing an old style Harmonian general's uniform. However, unlike many priest generals, this one had was armed with twin swords, and he moved quickly like a seasoned Guildsmen.
Before Drall knew what had happened, he faltered backwards against a wall as he felt the man approach. From his years in the Temple, Drall knew exactly who carried that half-mocking and half-threatening presence like a giant among ants.
"ALEX!" Drall gasped. His old heart beating harder than ever, filmy eyes wide as if attempting to see. "You're suppose to be DEAD!" he managed to rasp out.
"You know, everyone tells me that," came the amused tone. Alex always had a sense of grating sardonic humor; one could never know if he was serious or not. "But I don't feel dead."
"But...if you're...here!...Then!" Drall thought back of the report that Harmonia had captured the dissenter posing as Alex.
"...Then who is out there awaiting trial?" Alex smiled. "Well, I wasn't blessed with an ordinary face for nothing."
"Dios! Sound the alarm!" Drall cried.
However, Dios only paced away from the two calmly. "I'll be preparing," said Dios to Alex, completely ignoring Drall, before leaving the room. "And please keep the blood splatter to a minimum."
"Dios! I command you to sound the alarm!" shouted Drall, much to his own dismay. He looked at Alex with mad cataract eyes. The air of imperturbable calm and constant amusement were signature composure of the much hated Healer who was known to his enemies as the Confessor. "You're going to kill me? The great peacemaker? The merciful Healer? You don't have the stomach for blood!"
"That is where you are wrong Drall. I can stand blood just as well, if not better than ex Archbishop Lisk."
"Lisk? The first Archbishop? He killed hundred of thousands of Aronians! Charismatic, yes. But he was so blood thirsty that Hikusaak had to put him down like a mad dog!"
Alex gave the sword a well practiced push. The blade pierced through Drall's sternum and into the old man's body, through his heart. The old man never made a sound.
"Thank you for staying quiet," Alex said expressionlessly to Drall's sagging body. "And there are many more parasites like you I must eliminate for the sake of Humanity."
What a disaster.
Newest alliance with a powerful conglomeration of merchant princes had turned sour faster than fresh milk left out in the open. The said queen of the merchant princes unexpectedly demonstrated the military prowess that kept the Islands strong through the last two centuries.
What was worse, Marcus never expected that the kidnapping of a single child could set off such a string of events that would incapacitate the higher echelons of Zexen military. At least there were enough second-in-commands and lieutenants that somewhat salvaged the situation.
Marcus wanted some type of scapegoat to blame all this on. He really did not care who would suffer, may it be some homeless bum, the offending tree, or even one of the mighty six.
But first, Marcus would have to sit with the council of thirteen plus their sullen Lady Chris who all demanded a audience Nina.
"I'm looking for criminal with a True Rune," Nina explained calmly. Contrary to her prior meekness, she now exuded an aura of confidence and arrogance. She even forgo a translator and spoke the universal tongue with a guttural accent to the council.
"The bearer is wanted by several southern nations for espionage and assassinations. If found, we are to arrest or kill him."
Marcus and the councilmen looked at each other. There were people who lusted after the True Runes.
Some, however, were already appreciative of this mere woman's audacity. To some council members who knew of the True Rune in their midst, were wary of their lack of control over that mere woman. Lady Chris could be trusted to do the right thing, though her idea of the 'right thing' rarely coincided with the goal of the council.
"Are you here to gather the True Runes?"
Nina shook her head. "Every True Rune Bearer is cursed, some less and some more. I wish none of that for me nor my countrymen."
"Truly? Not even for the power that it grants?" the councilman prodded. It was the simplest question to ask. Power at a whim and here was someone who desire it not?
Nina pursed her lips. How foolish were these northerners? "Power, yes. The insanity, no."
"Insanity?" laughed Marcus as he gave a furtive glance at their Lady Chris. "You have to be joking."
Nina kept her express as neutral. "Then you have never witnessed True destruction, or you would not make light of the divine."
That brought Marcus short.
"But that does not explain why you're after your so called criminal," said another councilmen.
"It's a policy, set during in the beginnings of our Federation. One of our greatest leaders, Prince Lazlo, had set laws to forbid the gathering of True Runes and any hints of summoning permanent creatures from the World of Emptiness."
"World of Emptiness?" a councilman said in disbelief. "Why, that is a myth!"
"Yes! That is why it's called the World of Emptiness," followed another.
Nina's expression was one of amusement as the dozen plus men bantered and guffawed about the absurdity of her conviction. These men had never seen the battlefield, nor seen the nonchalance of a God at death of millions. They knew not the fear and obedience a True Rune could inspire.
Lady Chris's look, however, was solemn. She knew what Nina spoke of, and that doubled that gnawing suspicion about Nina's true purpose here.
"Believe as you wish," said Nina. "But our maritime law will prohibit you from interfering with our mission."
"We must destroy all that are infected by that troll, including the child, Morgan."
"You cannot," Lady Chris spoke quite firmly. "You must save Morgan and the others who were kidnapped."
"There is no saving the infected," said Nina. "If you need convincing, you may come along, and see for yourself."