It was impossible to ignore the sight of the land of the damned.
That was how Adan considered the dome of Terminus. It was a bleak nightmare of a landscape, its vegetation twisted and gnarled by the violent winds. The trees were short, the soil poor, the smell of decay lingered in the air as the rotting corpses of monsters and beasts slowly liquefied, the abandoned meals of the larger predators that menaced his party.
Under Adan's orders, Wren had scouted ahead in his flyer form, searching for a village or settlement. Though the sages of Skyhaven had commanded them to search for the weapons of legend, Adan considered it bad strategy to go ahead with a plan against an enemy no one had met in a thousand years. They needed information, to know their potential opponent before the foe came at them in earnest. Most importantly, Adan needed to see the truth of Terminus with his own eyes.
The people of the floating city had provided nothing but hearsay, legend, and information at least a thousand years out of date. The most outrageous thing they had claimed was that Rulakir Sa Riik, twin brother of his own ancestor Orakio, still lived within the wastes of Terminus, a millennium after the demise of the founder of Landen's royal bloodline. That would have been the most dismissible piece of information, if not for one thing: in Aerone, just before the flight to Dahlia, they had encountered a man who had said that no matter how much knowledge of the past was lost, there was no need to worry, for the Undying King Rulakir remembered it all.
Thinking of Dahlia drew Adan's eye toward the moon princess who walked three steps behind him on his right side. He could just catch a hint of Kara's heart-shaped face as they traveled toward the settlement Wren had found. In Landen, the only woman who walked three steps behind a man was the woman who would become a man's wife. To a right-handed warrior like himself, it was a blind spot, and a lady walked there only when she had absolute faith in her man's strength and his ability to protect her. He wondered if the moon princess knew that.
He wondered why he felt absurdly pleased at the prospect that she did.
Adan shook his head in wonder. Whenever he looked at Kara, or thought of her, a tender feeling warmed his heart. It had taken a second kiss to confirm it, but he was fond –perhaps more than fond –of the moon princess. How fond was something he did not know. Or so he told himself. "Is that the village, Wren?"
"Yes, Master Adan."
The war machine's confirmation only increased Adan's skepticism. The impoverished settlement filling his eyesight was not fit for animals, let alone Palmans. The buildings were shabbily constructed, the twisted logs provided by Terminus' gnarled trees fitting together poorly, exposing the inhabitants to the dust and the wind. The layout was haphazard, the appearance dilapidated even as tiny bits of shiny minerals or metals vainly tried to decorate the place. Scrubby bushes and weakly sprouting grasses competed with dirt trampled into firmness by the feet of generations.
"This place is hideous."
"So our eyes tell us, Gwyn," Kara murmured.
Adan hid a smile as his sister bit off a sharp retort. Kara was an elegant and learned lady, but she still had wonderful spirit. It was something he admired in her. As they walked deeper into the slapdash settlement, the smell of animal waste and unwashed bodies grew to the point where it was overwhelming, but what he found odd was that even as they made their way through the town, they had yet to spot any people.
"This isn't normal," Gwyn said, speaking his thought. "Where is everybody? Mieu? Wren?"
"I detect a large gathering of lifeforms at the center of the settlement, Mistress Gwyn," the black-armored android replied.
Before any of them could reply, a scream broke the stillness. Adan exchanged glances with Gwyn...and hesitated. His first instinct was to rush in first, but he did not want to leave Kara behind. The moon princess solved his dilemma for him by racing ahead. Adan took off after her, his twin and the androids right behind him.
He heard the loud crack of a whip before he saw the silent mass of people in what seemed to be the middle of town. A man's sharp cry temporarily overrode the sounds of feminine weeping. Kara was already pushing her way through the crowd, the sorriest lot he had ever seen. They were dressed in filthy brown clothes that would be poor even for use as wash rags. Their skin dark from labor in the artificial sun, they looked like any other people on Alisa III. But as he began to push his way through, Adan caught sight of their sunken eyes, filled with despair and sorrow. He looked away and heard worse than he saw.
"Please, Lord! My daughter is a virgin!"
The whip's crack cut through the air. The pleading man cried out. The weeping did not cease. The crowd...watched. It was the most appalling thing Adan had ever seen.
"What of it, cur? A slave dares to defy one of Lashute's chosen? To try to stop him from taking what he wants?"
Once again, the whip cracked, the follow-up howl uncomfortably familiar. At last, Adan reached the front of the crowd. Rage slowly began to gather in his chest as he took in the scene.
A tall, broad man clad in armor burnished until it shone in the sun loomed over a pathetic figure of a man who was little more than bone and sinew, his clothes bloody rags from the brutality of the armored man's assault. The armored man's face could have been carved from stone, his handsomeness fit for a statue in its lack of empathy. His blue clothes were dotted with stains that Adan quickly recognized as drops of blood that had flown from the bony man's back.
A number of fresh, deep wounds on the bony man's discolored back overlapped older injuries that had long since hardened into long bands of ugly, red scars. In his arms, Adan caught sight of a white-haired girl. Her face was buried in the skinny man's chest, her skin a painfully pale contrast that marked her as different from the other laborers. Her sobs filled the air where the man's cries did not. A bit to the side, a group of men in armor similar to the whip-wielder watched, seemingly amused by the spectacle.
"Stop this at once!"
Kara stepped between the pair on the ground and the armored man. Always pretty, the moon princess was absolutely breathtaking whenever her boldness overcame her natural scholarly inclinations.
The armored man stared. "Who in Terminus are you? Get out of the way!"
Her blue eyes chilled, as cold as Frigidia's icy wastes. "I am Princess Kara Kay Eshyr, daughter of Lune!"
A sneer met Kara's bold declaration. "And I'm the Undying King. Get out of the way, whoever you are. I'll kill you too if you keep interfering with proper discipline."
"If rape is proper discipline, then Orakio's Punishers have become nothing more than a pack of mongrels!" Kara snapped back.
Adan kicked himself mentally for not realizing it sooner. In the many legends of the Devastation War, the Punishers had been Orakio's most elite soldiers. Garbed in distinctive golden armor, attracting dangerous attention to themselves every time they joined the fray, the Punishers had been the first to enter the battlefield, the last to leave, always found where the fight was thickest. Being told that one was as bold as a Punisher was a compliment in Landen. It was sickening to see that the courage that had defined the Punishers of old was disgraced by these would-be successors.
The armored man's face darkened. "Watch your tongue, girl."
"Mongrels!" Kara repeated. "Your master would have gladly put you down himself had he seen this scene!"
The man made no reply. He brought his arm up and brought down his whip. The weapon boomed as it crossed the distance between the armored man and the moon princess.
Adan ignored the blood that streamed down his face. He kept his rage in tight reign, but could not keep the ice out of his voice. "It is unwise to attempt to hurt the Princess Kara in my presence, Punisher."
"Tch!" The man's face held onto its sneer. "All sorts of riff-raff are popping up today, aren't they? Like I told your little friend, get out of the way!"
The man raised his weapon, prepared to strike again. Even as the blow came down, Adan drew his sword, calling upon his ancestor's sword art. The Orakian prince did not even notice the impact when Friendless cut through the man's forearm.
Disbelief filled the man's face as he took in the stump spurting blood that had once been his right hand. He howled in outrage, bringing his uninjured arm up, his fingers already in the splayed manner of Technique usage. Faster than thought, his left hand joined his right in the dirt.
Adan made a cutting motion with his sword, paying no mind as most of the blood flew off the blade. The loss of two hands did not seem a severe enough chastisement for attempting to hurt Kara, but he could not do more to an enemy that could no longer defend himself.
An older man strode forward, his clothes gray under his golden armor. Clearly more highly-ranked than the man Adan had punished, he shook his head. "You're of no further use. Feed him to the goats."
The handless man screamed in desperation and attempted to flee. Two of his compatriots easily caught and subdued him. They dragged him off as his wails became pleas for mercy, begging and threatening even as his comrades took him away, heedless of his blood on their clothes and armor. The matter settled, the gray-clothed commander eyed Adan. "As for you lot, you'll be joining him. Defying the Punishers is a capital offense."
"Don't care, you can't do a thing to us," Gwyn said breezily, joining Adan and Kara, Wren and Mieu in her wake. "Now, run along and play so I can heal this man."
The commander scowled. He made a gesture, and his troops quickly surrounded them. "You're outnumbered five to one. Let's do this the easy way, shall we? The goats need food."
"Kara, stay behind me," Adan said quietly.
He felt Kara comply, her presence and the hint of fresa all he needed to know she was safely behind him. He did not spare his twin a second glance. "I know it's a difficult concept, but please try to hold back, Gwyn."
"No promises, big brother," Gwyn said lightly as she turned around. He breathed deeply, drawing on the mental bond that had connected him with his twin since birth, sensing her thoughts and emotions, preparing for their joint attack. He sensed his twin's back aligned with his, her incredible reservoirs of power already bubbling, demanding to be put to use.
"The hard way, eh?" The commander shook his head. "The goats prefer their meat live, but food is food. Attack!"
Even as the Punishers closed in, Adan extended his hands, fingers splayed. The royal twins said one word in unison. "Legeon!"
Light exploded. It was how any normal Palman perceived the most powerful Esper spell. Beyond the level the eye could see, electricity filled the air, superheating the invisible building blocks of the universe before breaking apart uncontrollably, unleashing powerful bursts of energy that could shatter the strongest castle wall, perhaps even shatter the Alisa III herself.
Such a mighty magic was difficult to control and bring down to nonlethal levels, but Adan managed, if only just. By the time the spell finished, their enemies were on the ground, their armor shattered, their clothing and flesh charred, but still alive. He inspected the scene, glad to see that they had managed to control the area effect of the attack so that none in the crowd were harmed.
He frowned. They remained docile, neither fleeing from the fight, nor attempting to aid the Punishers. It was such a strange thing.
"Bindwa! Secunda! Tercera! Quarta!"
Adan glanced behind him as his twin began to magically restrain their attackers, working through them as quickly as she could. Bindwa was a spell he had no talent with, so he left his sister to it. Mieu followed with her, alert in the unlikely event one of the Punishers tried to retaliate, while Wren stayed with him, equally watchful. He turned to Kara. "Are you alright?"
The moon princess stared at him, her mouth opened in a perfect circle. He examined her with his eyes, concerned that she might have been hurt by the spell, but he did not find any sign of injury. Adan felt relieved that she was fine, but also felt a bit shy about getting physically closer. It wasn't every day a man acted like a hero out of the stories, telling his lady to get behind him while he defended her.
Kara, however, seemed to view it differently. "You're hurt!"
The Orakian prince blinked, finally recalling the whip injury from earlier. "It's nothing."
"I'm going to heal you," Kara said as she took the step that separated them, her hands cupping his face, heedless of swollen laceration on his cheek or the blood that flowed from it.
"It's nothing. I'd rather keep the sca-"
Once again, Adan marveled at Kara's eyes. Light blue orbs that glittered like clear sapphires, they were a conflagration of emotions. Affection, warmth, concern, determination, admiration, protectiveness, anger, pride...one thing those eyes did make clear, however, was that she was not going to let him continue bleeding. "I don't suppose I have a say in the matter?"
He sighed before he meekly submitted. Kara nodded before she whispered, "Res."
The imperceptible flow of energy from her body to his came over him in gentle waves, soothed his injury, and quickly began to seal it, stitching up the flesh in the blink of an eye. Since the wound was so fresh, the new flesh would be as good as the old, lacking the deficiencies of scar tissue.
The moon princess caressed his cheek. "Good as new?"
Adan smiled at her. "Good as new."
Kara's breath caught. Concerned, he was about to ask her what was the matter when his twin called out, "Adan! Stop flirting with Kara and heal that man, will you? I'm still restraining our foolish friends."
Mieu giggled at Gwyn's side. While what his twin said was embarrassing, Adan did not move away from the caress. Kara, however, turned crimson before she slowly brought her hand down and shouted back, "I was not flirting! I was healing his wound!"
"Is that what it's called on Dahlia?" Gwyn replied before she snapped her fingers. "Bindwa! Secunda! Tercera!"
The Orakian prince moved past the moon princess, pressing his hand against hers and felt her return the affection. He knelt by the bony man, the cause of it all. The man flinched away from him, his eyes wild with fear and determination. "Hold, man. I'm only going to heal you."
"Slaves aren't allowed to be healed," the bony man replied, his eyes still wary, his body shaking with fear. "The god Falz decreed it so."
Adan pursed his lips. Who was Falz? No legend mentioned any such figure. "I follow Orakio and Laya," he said, his hands over the man's back. "I will decide what is and is not allowed. Medice."
The man's back glowed green as magic energy poured over his injuries, closing them up. While healing Techniques were powerful, healing magic could do far more. A heartbeat later, the man's wounds were gone as if they had never been, and even his older scars were less lurid.
Slowly, the man stood, the white-haired girl still in his arms. He flexed his shoulders, stunned. "M-my back..."
"Completely healed," Adan said calmly.
The man slowly released the girl in his arms, moving his arm and body in disbelief, shocked at the restoration of his back and the alleviation of old pains. Adan caught a glimpse of his daughter. White-haired, pale-skinned, red-eyed, it was obvious the girl was an albino, one of those rare individuals paler than snow that could not stay long in the sun for fear of burning. Her coarse dress was torn, and Adan looked away from her exposed breasts. "Do you need healing?"
White-hair mutely shook her head and looked to her father, seemingly asking for guidance. The man smiled encouragingly at her before he bowed before Adan, his face in the dirt. "She is not harmed, Great Lord. The Skyborn Lord did not manage to hurt her. Great Lord, I thank you for your gift of healing." The bony man sighed. "Though I will not live to enjoy it."
"These mongrels won't be able to retaliate for some time," Adan replied. "Though if you fear them so, we can take you elsewhere."
"Could you...could you heal my mother?" White-hair asked suddenly. "She's very sick and the Skyborn Lords...they...they..."
The girl seemed on the verge of tears. Adan exchanged a look with Kara. He could not read her emotions the way he could Gwyn's, but he could see that the moon princess dearly wanted to help the girl. They were pressed for time, so by all rights, he should decline her request but…
"I make no promises that I can heal her, but I'm willing to try," he said, finally. Kara's eyes glowed with warmth and gratitude.
"Great Lord!" The bony man gasped. "I'll bring her! Please, Great Lord! I'll return quickly! Please, Great Lord!" The bony man took off running, shoving his way through the crowd.
"All done?" Gwyn asked.
Adan glanced at his sister before he shook his head. "I think we'll be delayed for a bit. We need to move quickly, but I think it best we move these people to Laya's Temple in Frigidia."
While different in height, appearance, and everything else, the looks of incredulity Gwyn and Kara shot him were identical. Reluctantly, Adan told them what he had figured out. "These people...do not obey Orakio's Law."
His twin stared at him, her eyes the size of saucers. "Impossible."
Adan looked at Mieu. The redhead gynoid understood the unspoken question. "It's actually very possible, Gwyn. Terminus was sealed in the last days of the war, just before my master left me at my lake. I didn't even know about Orakio's Law until your grandfather Rhys told me about it."
"Remember what the whip-wielder said," Adan reminded his twin grimly. "That he'd kill Kara along with our skinny friend. Our skinny friend said he wouldn't live to enjoy what healing had done for him. They don't obey Orakio's Law. They probably don't even know what it is."
"Then what do we do?" Gwyn asked, frowning.
"Take them back to Frigidia, then go straight to Lashute. But first..."
The Orakian prince strode over to the commander, whose body smoked from the burns, but was otherwise alive. Gwyn had deliberately not healed them. Normally, he would reproach his twin for her harshness, but this time he approved of Gwyn's justice. Adan ignored the smell of burnt clothes and flesh as he stared down into the commander's face. "I am Adan Sa Riik, descendant of Orakio, nephew of Laya."
The commander glared at him. "D...damn...you..."
"Who is your master?"
Calmly, Adan rested his boot on the commander's stomach. "I asked the name of your master, not your god."
The pressure on the commander's stomach increased. "A name!"
"Ru...Rulakir." The commander managed a nasty smile. "Twin of... O...rakio...lives...on."