His chest ached, a misery that radiated deep into his body and made every movement with his left arm and right leg an agony. Inhalation and expiration were pure pain as his breath came in short, ragged gasps; anything deeper made suffocation a desirable fate. There was no time to be pathetic. He was the commander. He had to be here, had to know what was going on, not just for his men, but for himself. He could not allow himself this weakness. He had to be strong.
How? How could he be wounded like this? He stood head and shoulders above most men; his strength was unrivaled. He was the strongest! How was it possible for him to suffer a wound like this? A wound even powerful magic could not heal completely? What sort of demon had he faced?
Think on it later! He had to find her. He had to make sure she was safe. She carried...
"What's the status?" he rasped angrily.
"We're still getting information, sir," said one of his soldiers, a bandage wrapped around his head and his arm in a sling. "We still don't know the extent of the damage."
The black demon had burned the entire city. He still could not believe it. How many people had perished? The original raid into the city had been precise and surgical, so casualties had been low at first, but to cover their withdrawal with an artillery bombardment? How many? How many?
A cough wracked his body. He spat out a disgusting lump of blood and phlegm. He would be fine. Her magic, especially her healing powers, far exceeded his own, but the lingering scars from the black demon's attack... he was empowered by darkness. He had to be. It was the only explanation.
"General, we have an update," said the soldier from before.
"Has she been found? Is she safe?"
"She has been found," was the reply. It was what the soldier did not say that warned him.
"Is she safe?" he repeated. It couldn't be. It couldn't...
The soldier averted his gaze. He tried to scream. The pain in his chest was inferior to the pain in his soul. He had given his word. HE HAD GIVEN HIS WORD AND YET HE HAD…
His chest ached, a misery that radiated deep into his body and made every movement with his left arm and right leg an agony. Inhalation and expiration were pure pain as his breath came in short, ragged gasps; anything deeper made suffocation a desirable fate-
His body seized up. A cold that made the subzero nights of Dezolis feel like a summer day penetrated to the deepest parts of his core. Muscles spasmed as frost seemed to coat his nerves. Air came in gasps as his chilled body could not force in more oxygen. Pain filled his chest as his heart attempted to claw out of his torso.
As ice crawled through his veins and knotted his muscles into useless rigidity, the subtle heat that began to envelop him was easily dismissible as a delusion. Slowly, so slowly that he did not believe it was truly happening, warmth began to push the frost out of his body. His body began to relax as the hideous cold retreated.
He opened his eyes.
Hazy. Underwater? Where was he?
Conscious thought glacially returned and brought fragments of memory. Bitter war. Exile. Cryonic sleep. Repeating nightmare.
The fluid began to drain. He finally remembered what he was supposed to do.
Air hissed as his chamber opened. Chilled air recycled by complex machinery was a cold caress that caused shivers to travel down his back. That was the problem with cold stasis, not enough clothing. He was wet, cold, and wearing nothing but shorts in the air conditioned lab did not help. He reached up and yanked off the breathing mask that had fed him the drugs and gases necessary for sustained cryonic sleep. He stood.
"Great One, we welcome your return!"
His vision wavered until a dozen men in jumpsuits came into focus in the small lab that had been made to hold his cryonic chamber. To a man, they were on their knees. He did not recognize a single one of them.
"Great One? The only Great One is Laya," he said churlishly. "I am Lune Kay Eshyr, her general and champion. That's it. How long have I been asleep?"
They looked amongst each other, avoided his gaze. What was going on? "Well? How long have I been asleep? What's the status on the war?"
Again, those furtive glances, like weasels fearful of the fox. He advanced on them, well aware that his gigantic size intimidated anyone not accustomed to dealing with him but indifferent. He wanted answers, so he would get them if he had to shake them by the scruff of their necks.
One man had had the misfortune to be in the lead. Perhaps the technician who had awakened him from cold sleep? Who knew? More importantly, who cared? Lune loomed over him. The man trembled as he resolutely stared at the metallic floor. "Look at me!"
Frightened brown eyes met his gaze. Lune took pity on the poor wretch and crouched down. "Answer my questions," he repeated in a somewhat softer tone. "How long have I been asleep?"
The man took several deep breaths, as if he was preparing himself. "Great...General, you have been asleep for nine hundred ninety-nine years."
Lune sat down heavily. Almost a thousand years. How? He had given his word to Laya. He had sworn a vow. How was it possible...?
"What of Laya? What of the war?" he demanded.
Once again, the man hesitated. "Many things have changed in the time you have slept. It will take some time to explain everything we have learned."
"Then start explaining," Lune said curtly before he sneezed.
"We have also prepared clothing for you, General," the man said timidly. One of the people near the man extended his arms to reveal a large jumpsuit.
Well, it wouldn't do much good to catch a cold. "Thank you."
"Ah, General? Should we awaken Tribune Kay Eshyr?"
Lune paused in the act of putting on the one-piece garment as he debated whether or not to awaken his younger sister Alair. "I don't need her yet. Let her sleep a while longer."
They adjourned to a conference room with a large video screen, a long table, and plenty of chairs. Lune had planned dozens of campaigns in such rooms, so it was as close to home as he had felt in a long time. He put his booted feet up on the table and crossed his arms. "Now... tell me everything."
'Everything' turned out to be the most fantastic yarn he had ever heard. Laya was a goddess? Well, she was a very holy woman, but a full-blown goddess? How she would have hated that! What about all that business with Orakio? God and demon? What about all this business with kings and nobles? The worlds were sealed by impenetrable barriers?
That deluge of information left one important question unanswered: why had it taken a thousand years to recall Dahlia? Was he forsworn yet again?
"Why did you wait fourteen years to awaken me?" Lune asked when they finished speaking. He had other questions, but he wanted the answer to that one first.
"Well, General, we thought you would be displeased if we did not have answers to all your questions, so it seemed prudent to spend time gathering that information, reactivating your assets here, and preparing for the resumption of the war," the man said sincerely.
"What's your name?" Lune asked.
The man bowed. "I am Prefect Phaxsi, General."
They were good soldiers, descended from some of his best. He had anticipated it might take time for Laya to free him from his lunar prison, so he had placed himself in cryonic sleep. He had reasoned that it would preserve him at his strongest and astound the Orakians with an army superior to what they expected, but why had it taken so long?
A hollow gap grew wide within him. Why had he been denied his revenge?
His scar ached with hatred. Orakio had been dead for centuries. Laya was gone as well. Had they really killed each other in the end? What a bad joke if they had! Orakio was his to kill, damn Laya! She had still had her brat little sister to take care of, so the war had never been as personal for her as it had been to him. He had lost his wife to Orakio's brutal assault.
He had lost his unborn child.
His hands squeezed his biceps, a good pain as his fingernails dug into his flesh. His wife, his unborn child, the family he was going to start. All dead, slaughtered by artillery hellfire. Butchered for what? So Orakio could cover his withdrawal from his suicidal raid into Mystoke! Those primitives didn't know how rightly they named him a demon!
"I want to see the facilities," he said abruptly and stood. They scurried to keep up with him as he navigated the familiar metal tunnels. "What's the status of Dahlia?"
"Ah, all communications have been restored with Aerone," said Phaxsi. "We must ask your pardon, as some systems have failed since your time, but we have managed to maintain 65% functionality of the Bio-plant and its systems, including the cryo-chambers for the old army."
"Not bad," Lune said with a grim smile. 85% had been enough to fight a multiple-front war with Orakio. 65% would be more than enough for the primitives. The majority of his elite troops had joined him in cold slumber, which gave him enough assets to subjugate all of the Alisa III.
"Ah, General? Permission to speak frankly?"
Never a question with good results. "Go ahead."
"I think I speak for all of us when I say I am honored that you awakened during my time. We have waited for a long time to finally crush the Orakians, and with a legend such as you in command, we cannot fail."
Lune gritted his teeth and said nothing. Back on Dezolis, he would have been a Sentinel, one of the Espers chosen to guard the great Lutz and defend the people of the Esper Mansion and its satellite settlements. He would have been called upon to fight against bandits and raiders; every so often, he would have been obliged to destroy monsters or demons. It would have been a simple fate, one forgotten within generations, the only testimony to his existence a cipher in the records.
Laya had changed his destiny. She, the holy woman only one step below Lutz, had plucked him and a double handful of others, had taken them away from their hiemal world and its cold isolation. Thanks to her, he had gained power beyond anything an Esper could have dreamed. If it had not been for her, the warlord within him would never have emerged.
If not for her failure, he would never have lost his family. If not for her failure, he would not be in disgrace.
With a will, he suppressed those bitter recriminations. He had given his oath to follow and obey the Laya. Whatever else, his destiny was her doing. And even though Orakio was dead, his followers still existed. He'd slaughter them until there were none left to venerate that hateful name.
He would regain his honor.