NybCR: Even if it took a while, I said I would redux my old story, and so I have! Taking the beginning a lot slower than in the first one, but I felt it necessary for a decent build-up.
Disclaimer: Though I much admire both the game and the translation done for it, I do not own Summon Night: Swordcraft Story; it belongs to Atlus, Flightplan, Banpresto, and possibly some other game company I forgot to mention.
Beta-read by the wonderful Ruby-Blade-Princess.
Mt. Gokei was known in Silturn for its unforgiving landscape. Hard, rust-colored rock jutted from the ground in jagged lines, the only plants being either tough, gamey shrubs or gnarled thorn trees. As if that did not leave the terrain treacherous enough, a near-perpetual fog clung to the ground, spewed from hot springs and a populace of geysers, concealing from view the various crannies and upheavals of rock scattered across the mountain. In every shadow lurked one beast or another, flitting between hiding places in sharp, sudden movements and fangs ready to unsheathe at a moment's notice.
But more than that, it was treacherous, and a split second's carelessness could end the most hardened traveler's life. It was home to a thousand demons.
An arena sat coiled at the base of the mountain, a stadium that rose above the fog to make for a clear battlefield. A crowd of demons circled it, their attention focused on the center of the arena, where a battle approached its climax.
Flames rode up the Demon King's arms and licked at his shoulders as he summoned a familiar heat to the palm of his hands. His mouth curled into a manic grin as he stared down at his opponent.
His opponent, chest heaving with every breath, stared back, unyielding, and lunged forward, fingertips crackling with lightning. The ring exploded with light and the ear-ringing sound of two monstrous powers colliding full-force.
The cloud of smoke thinned, and the Demon King's fist punched into the air. The crowd exploded into cheers. The tournament had come to an end, and their king had won, as he should. No self-respecting demon would ever let themselves be led by a weak king.
Rasho let the roar of the crowd wash over him. He had been king for decades, and was used to such things by now. After a moment, he let his arm fall to his side and glanced down at his opponent. "I told you I'd win."
His cousin Cezka groaned and got up on her elbows. "Didn't have to knock me flat on my ass."
He snorted. "Don't blame me for that. You told me before not to hold back or you'd kill me."
"Yeah, yeah." She spat out the dust that had collected in her mouth and wiped her face with the back of her hand. "Gonna give me a hand or what?"
Rasho narrowed his eyes at her, and Cezka glared back just as fiercely. Then a grin broke out on his face and he offered his hand, which she took with a firm smack and a crooked grin of her own.
"Good game, cos'," she said as she rose to her feet.
"Good game," he replied, giving her shoulder a heavy pat.
An hour later found both king and cousin soaking in the palace hot springs with a dozen other tournament participants. It was tradition on Mt. Gokei to celebrate the New Year with a tournament of the kingdom's strongest demons. That was not to imply that the competition was any less fierce because it was celebratory. For the demons of Mt. Gokei, fighting was a sport made all the more enjoyable when your life was on the line, proving yourself the strongest out of everyone.
Rasho loved the thrill of battle, but for the past three years, these New Years tournaments seemed bring with them a bitter tang he had never associated with battle before—and he remembered the sound of steel pounded into shape, of a broiling fire growling in a small space, of silence beneath the noise.
When he had worked in the forge with Shintetsu, they never spoke. Their minds had always been too focused on the task at hand—for him, controlling the temperature of the fire, for his partner, hammering the metal into shape. But after the sword or axe or whatever it was had been finished, they smiled, shot off comments, jokes, and taunts.
But that last time, the last and only time, there was only silence, while they both had forged and after they had finished, loomed overhead like a gigantic beast, one that he could not grab hold of and punch into submission like he could with any normal creature. He did not know how to conquer it, and it followed him like a shadow, staring him down at any moment he let himself be still, never growling, never making a move against him, but always, forever there.
Usually it did not bother him, because usually, he was always moving, always doing something—even falling asleep, he was too exhausted to spend any time drifting in his own thoughts. But during the tournaments, it got harder to tell himself that he had been unchanged by his time in Lyndbaum, because it had been a tournament that the Craftlords used to distract the people from the disaster going on beneath their very feet.
It had been like this for three years, and something told him it would not go away until he went back and finished what he and Shintetsu had started. He would have been there and back already, but he had no way to return. Shintetsu had left him with his summonite gem so that he could return to Silturn, but as long as it was in his hands and not in the hands of someone on Lyndbaum, it was just a useless rock.
He should have left it with someone—with Amariss, perhaps, or even Bron—but there was no time. Once they had finished the four swords, Rasho handed them over to the Craftlords for safekeeping, and then he had to go back home. Like hell he would give his summon gem to the Craftlords—they were fools, all of them. After the mess they had made, that they kept making, he could not trust them. And there was no time to find anyone else…
No, that was not it. He could have made time, but who could he give it to? Amariss? How could he possibly face the wife of the man he had helped to kill? But of course, he knew she would never hold that against him; that she understood. He could almost picture her face as it must have been when Shintetsu explained what he was about to do. He could almost see it: that before her face had the chance to fall, she would smile softly at her husband and tell him she understood, her eyes squinted almost shut to dam the tears that would spill forth otherwise.
Even Bron, the brash idiot—he had been friends with Shintetsu years before Rasho had become his Guardian Beast. He never had any love for the loud, thick-headed man, but he was not so heartless as to hand him his summonite gem for convenience's sake. Not to a man who had just lost his best friend—a man, who, six years before that, had lost his own Guardian Beast and never have the heart to summon another.
His thoughts were disturbed by a long fingernailed hand reaching into his peripheral vision. He batted it away before it could complete whatever mischief it had planned. He could almost hear Cezka's pout.
"You've gotta be kidding me with that, Rasho," she said, settling down on the edge of the hot spring, sticking her legs into the water. "Drifting off to La-La Land and you're still battle-ready enough to notice when someone's sneaking up on you."
"Wouldn't be the king otherwise," he said, leaning back on his elbows to look up at his cousin. She had already gotten dressed after her soak in the hot spring, her short hair plastered flat against her scalp. He could never understand her intolerance for hot springs—maybe it was because she was raised in another part of Silturn, but she could not stand to soak for more than a few dozen minutes. Rasho, on the other hand, could stay in the hot springs for hours.
Ironic, considering lightning was over a dozen times hotter than fire.
Despite their close blood ties, Rasho and Cezka looked nothing alike. Where Rasho was dark skinned with long, flame-red hair, Cezka's skin was the lightest shade of olive, her hair dark, cropped, and smooth. But both were unfailingly headstrong, both unrelenting fighters, and both happiest in the thick of whatever battle they could find.
Rasho tried to settle back into the water and ignore his cousin, but she would have none of it, scooting just that much closer to the Demon King. "What are you thinking about, anyway? You've got this look on your face like you've just swallowed sulfur."
"That's because you keep talking to me."
She tapped the crown of his head with her elbow. He glanced up, annoyed. "You had that look before I ever got here. Tell me what's up before I drag you out of there and beat it out of you."
He snorted and turned away. "If it was any of your business, you'd know about it already."
She stared at him for a moment longer, watching as his mouth turned back into a somber frown and his brow knitted. The other demons were out of listening range, chatting loudly and happily to one another in the hot spring, giving their king a respectful distance. They seemed not to notice his introspection—or if they did, trusted that all he needed was some space. After all, being a king in the demon world entailed leading the troops in battle when there was a war and stomping down any invaders from the outside. For the most part, the demons of Mt. Gokei looked out for themselves, so the duties of their king didn't usually build up a lot of mental stress.
Cezka knew that, for the most part, Rasho could deal with his own problems, so she wasn't really concerned for him… just tired of watching him getting absolutely nowhere with the same old problem.
"Your human back on Lyndbaum was Shintetsu, right?"
Rasho almost winced. Almost. "What of it?"
She paused before proceeding. She had to handle this with care. "You know I've got a human back on Lyndbaum, right?"
His brows drew even further together as he thought of that. She had mentioned it, he knew. And of course, she disappeared on a regular basis, he supposed, but he didn't notice that part so much. "Again, I ask. What of it?"
"Just thought you ought to know my little partner says he's going to be participating in a tournament. Starting tomorrow, I'm not going to be around here much."
He twitched at the mention of a tournament… but Lyndbaum was a big place. Chances were it had nothing to do with Wystern. "Like I'll even notice."
There was another pause. She swished her feet a bit, making waves in the milky red water. Rasho batted at her ankle, and in return she gave him a light kick. "I think you mentioned something about a tournament before your human died. Isn't that right?"
Rasho rose abruptly, sending a wave of hot water to splash at Cezka's knees. She made a high-pitched yelp, but before she had a chance to retaliate, Rasho was climbing out of the spring and making a beeline for the bathhouse.
He was the king, for God's sake. If he didn't want to be interrogated, he damn well wouldn't be, no matter who was asking the questions.
He did not pause until he was inside the bathhouse and staring at the clothes someone had folded for him while he was gone—no doubt one of the attendants at the bathhouse. Rather than look for a towel, he summoned a wave of heat into his hands at let it wash over his skin, evaporating the water droplets and filling the room with steam. He cursed under his breath as some of the droplets settled almost immediately back on his skin courtesy of the steam-filled room. He had forgotten there was a reason he usually used that drying method outside the bathhouse.
The clothes clung to his damp skin seconds after he put them on, but he put it out of his mind. He could always dry himself off again once he got outside.
He remembered the first time he had done that in front of Shintetsu. They had been working in the forge all day, and they were both drenched in sweat. Shintetsu suggested taking a dip outside to clean off the sweat, to which Rasho agreed… until he realized that the sea surrounding Wystern was freezing. He had not been with Shintetsu long at that time, but he had been told that, rather than using public bathhouses or hot springs, the people of Wystern usually just used the water around them to bathe or simply play around in. Just from that, he had assumed that the water was at least temperate, perhaps because it was usually so sunny in Wystern… but he was wrong. The people of Wystern were completely insane and they bathed in water that ought to have landed them all with a bad case of pneumonia.
Well… obviously that was not the case, so part of it might have been owed to the fact that his element was fire. He simply worked better in higher temperatures.
So when he first jumped into the water after Shintetsu, he hadn't been in there for longer than a second before jumping back out again. His partner—then a scrawny, fifteen-year-old boy—laughed so hard he nearly drowned.
Rasho growled just thinking about it.
Of course, he got his revenge soon afterwards, when he decided to get rid of all the cold water covering him with a burst of heat rippling across his skin. Steam exploded around him, making Shintetsu nearly leap out of the water, his expression contorted in almost comical shock when it blasted him full in the face.
He grinned for a long moment before a chill breeze came from the east. He blinked and looked around him. He was almost all the way back to the palace. He hadn't even realized how far he had gotten….
Another breeze caught his hair, and he shook his head, continuing on his way. Now that the New Year's celebration was over, he had to ensure that everything was in order for the year before them. A demon king led a busy life, after all… and come to think of it, he almost looked forward to his cousin trying to interrogate him again. He could really use a punching bag right about now.