I would like to humbly post this chapter in memory of Brian Randall. If you are a frequent reader of fanfiction don't know who he is, you should.
While I knew him only by reputation, he was a wonderful member of our online community whose work has brought myself and thousands of other fans so much joy, and maybe encouraged a few of us to take up the pen for ourselves. He will be missed.
Halkegenia Online v2.0 – Epilogue – Part 6
Ice cold wind would whip and scream across the tortured landscape. Cold stone would groan and shift on its ancient foundations, forever splitting, ice melting and refreezing in an endless cycle of glacial undulation that would change the landscape from day to day. The sky above would be dark, glittering with a thousand crystal facets, substitutes for the moon and stars that this land would never know until Ragnarok arrived in the last days of the world.
It would be a harsh landscape, a brutal one, and yet, it would very soon be barrenly beautiful. When the winds died down across the tundra, ice worn to a mirror finish, the glowing mineral pools and far hanging crystals would refract a million million flickers of light.
Or when the great herd beasts would rise from hibernation to feed on the dripping sap of Mother Yggdrasil's high hanging roots, tend to their brooding females, and nurture their unsteady young who would, themselves, perpetuate the cycle of life in this harsh land.
These moments of beauty to come were lost on the being that would tread the forbidden lands of Jotunheim, would be regarded equally the same as the brutality of her present. She would show no care for the snow, melting and refreezing in her long, golden hair. Nor the ice that would briefly freeze in thin sheets before being shattered from her pale skin by the motions of her gate.
The All-Mother would see fit to furnish her with a robust body when she spun her from her threads of fate and imbued them into stone, breathing life into her, like but utterly unlike the frail forms of the Fae-kin, and exposure to something so trivial as this would not more than inconvenience her.
One foot would set before the other, a steady, patient march against the elements, a hail storm that would be persistently pushing her back, tearing at her robes, causing her to lose half of each step she took. This too would be lost on her, truly. If necessary, she would continue like so for eternity, to the fixed point that existed in the future where she would reach her destination.
There would be no doubt, only the definite.
But even so, to know such with the certainty that the sun would rise the next day in the lands far above which girdled mother Yggdrasil's trunk, would not settle the faint stirrings within her chest of something else.
'Jotunheim has changed.' Skuld, the Goddess Skuld, Goddess of the Future, last daughter born at the All Mother's loom, woven from her threads of the future, would think to herself. And it was this thought that would shake her more than its subject.
For she whose domain would always be the future, to live in the present, and think of the past . . . This feeling, where her surroundings failed, would put her ill at ease.
While her body would patiently progress, her mind would taste this idea, this concept, known to her, but forever alien. Surely it must be so, for to look back, she would only ever see oblivion. She who would not exist in the past, or in the present, but only in the heartbeat after the now into the infinite that followed.
Should she ask Uror? Skuld would wonder. And that too would be strange and wrong, to think of what she should do instead of what she would, to perceive what she had yet to decide.
Her eldest sister would know of such things, for the past would be hers by right of her birth. But . . . And Skuld would fast be learning, there would be so very man 'buts' when the future would collide with the past by way of the present . . . To ask her sister's wisdom would mean knowing where her sister would be, and when Skuld would try to do so, she would fail . . .
'I cannot see . . . What will happen . . . what can happen.' That solitary thought would send alarm coursing through her. Her threads would stretch beyond her, the web of fate whose ultimate knot would always be her beating heart, every ripple of which would lead back to her in due time, would naturally bring her to comprehend all that was, and all that could be, the infinite possible futures.
Instead, she would find those threads frayed, her web reduced from its radiant splendor, to a few fine threads gathered tattered around her, diminished. They would show her glimpses, scenes, an imperfect truth, only as the paths of the future collapsed past the horizon of the now where she ceased to exist They would drag her consciousness to the border of her realm, infinitely close to Sister Verdanthi's domain.
No, Jotunheim was not the only thing that would change. Skuld would find herself changed as well, diminished. And she would most certainly not like it.
Which would bring her inevitably full circle once again. 'Jotunheim has changed.'
She would possess no past, but Skuld would indeed have known what the threads of the future would have held. And this, would most definitely not be it. As she would discover before setting out, opening her eyes amidst a stone circle, covered in strange shattered black granules of obsidian, as if the place of an alter, she would have no knowledge of such a moment arriving, or what she would do next. Only disorientation, and a nauseous unfamiliarity that would leave her grasping for what to do.
"I must . . ." Skuld would pause as a sound reached her keen ears. She would hear, and stop, driving her spear through the half meter of solid ice to anchor herself, she would listen again for the noise, and then . . .
The crying scream, like the call of war trumpets, a sound that would be familiar to her when she rode to war. Or once would have been, if only the future was still what it would be.
Skuld would make her decision swiftly. She would never be indecisive, a conviction she would keep, and would be confident would hold true even into the muddled future that she would see.
The sounds would come again from above and to her left. And then, it would be replaced by deeper cries, and groans, an avalanche going on and on.
Light would flash, harsh and white, and then blood red fire. She would turn her head to regard the uninviting cliff face, nothing but stone and ice rising for fifty meters. Just one of the ways that Jotunheim would be changed, much of its vast tundras replaced by a maze of ice canyons and flows from the mineral lakes, and the great caverns that spread in all directions from Jotunheim's vast central chamber, with their endless galleries and tunnels, the fruitless attempts of the Frost Giants to escape their prison.
She would need to reach its top.
Skuld would regard the vortex of wind, channeled by the canyon walls with minor annoyance. To take flight, beneath the radiant light of Yggdrasil's crown, the stars and the moon, was one thing, but that power would not be of her own domain and would be as forbidden to her in this land as it was to the Fae-kin. Hence why those errant small lives would so rarely venture to this place, and not at all, once Jotunheim changed.
And to do so in a storm would be to dash herself against the walls of the canyon. She would not be so resilient as to disregard that possibility.
Next would be to use her magic, but she would be loath to do so frivolously as her powers waxed and waned, bound to the sacred Well Spring from which she and her sisters would draw their power. Certain proof of the change in Jotunheim would be that her power had been unsealed in part, but only in part, freeing her from her prison. It would be all that she could do not to return once more to dormant stone.
Which would leave only direct means. Skuld would study the cliff face patiently, eyes expertly tracing her route. Once she committed, her perception of fate would still allow her to perceive a short time into her own future, discerning her path, and then, returning her spear to her back, she would begin her ascent.
The cracking sounds as her fingers dug in, her nails would chip at stone, fingers shatter ice and splinter rock, hands joined as she forced footholds in her steady climb upwards. She would not weary in her ascent, nor slow her pace, these too would be alien to her. Once she had set to a task, it could only be achieved.
The cliff face would crack and creak to bear her weight, tortured ice would cry out, but she would never doubt the surety of her footing until at last she neared the summit, and with it, feeling the ebb of her senses move forward to the next moment, and the next. She would almost know what she would see, what sight would greet her.
A war would be waged.
"Kurururururu!" The trumpet call, the battle cry of the ancient Beast Gods who had arisen when the world was still young and raw.
Eight of them would be arrayed, ancient behemoths, all thick hard shells, and twisting tentacle limbs, and powerful trunks, advancing to the rescue of three of their own, driven to the edge of a crevice by . . .
Skuld would see them, and she would hiss through her teeth, breath jetting into steam as hot as the ice that ran through their veins ran cold. Ice Giants . . . mortal enemies.
Five, there would be only five, but they were titans compared to the herd coming to the aid of their stricken kin, each standing head and shoulders above the squat, primordial, beast gods.
The one at the lead, taller than the rest, and broader, war leader of its tribe no doubt, four mighty limbs would wield swords like cleavers, beaten into blunt instruments that it would use, swinging its upper body in an avalanche motion that would catch the largest Beast God, leading the charge, and divert the creature aside, its trumpet call turning to keening cries of pain, advancing tentacles stumbling over each other, would send the beast into a long, grinding skid.
No sooner would it come to a halt than another of the Jotun's would peel off from its companions, smaller than the rest, and more slender of build, delicate head crowned by crystalline ice shards, and limb terminating in clawed hands and black ice hooves. It would be swift to set upon the stricken beast, hands plunging for the dented and cracked armor, magic crackling at its fingers tips, peeling away armored shell to reach swiftly, and painfully for the soft flesh beneath.
The Beast God would wail, tentacled limbs thrashing furiously. Oh how it would wail!
It's death cries would chill even Skuld's stone heart. But its death would not be in vain, its sacrifice would open the lead giant to attack, fully three of the remaining Beast Gods would see their opportunity to advance, tentacles coiling and uncoiling like springs before launching themselves to collide with the leader of their foes.
Sixty powerful tentacles all told, each would hold fast, to an arm, to a leg, to a sword, or about the Frost Giant's thick neck. They would strain, writhing as they tried to pull the Giant's head from its body, and if not that, then to at least bring it to ground where they might do battle on their own terms. Or so they would hope.
The giant leader would drop one of his weapons, raising a thick, clawed hand against all resistance to tear at the tentacles pulling at his head, and when that failed, the groaning of ice body was joined by the pained call of another Beast God as ice and stone jaws closed about the tentacle that had gagged the Jotun leader. Closing, and closing, until, at last, blood was drawn in a spray of deep blue that darkened the snow and ice and splashed across the Jotun's face and chest like warpaint.
Free to scream out, the Jotun Leader would open his jaws wide, the rumble of his body shifting in never ending avalanche from within joined suddenly by an unholy glow, and then, there would come purest light.
Skuld would know to take shelter from this, as she had, she would anchor herself with her spear, magic crackling from her fingers into a barrier wall that even so would barely be enough to save her from being swept off the shelf and back into the canyon.
The light would span outward in the blink of an eye, and with it, an earth shaking rumble of raw lightning, shot out on a long tongue of blue white brilliance that struck the trailing beast gods one by one, throwing them to the side, stunned and confused, and perfect prey for his lesser kin, as he, and the smaller Jotun who had laid the finishing blow upon the leader of the Beast Gods, would turn to the three fighting for their lives atop him.
Battle would only then join, as the three remaining giants took to the field, long gates turning into powerful sprints to reach the Beast Gods before they could recover.
Skuld would take one step, the Beast Gods were the ancestral allies of the Stone Jotuns, her sisters and herself included, and then gave pause . . . Her threads of fate would not show her how this would end, would not resolve for her to see more than the briefest glimpse of the future. This would not be as things were supposed to be. A wrongness to the universe, to herself.
She would not know how to decide. She would not need to know. The world would decide for her, watching the Ice Giants set to their grizzly work, hacking at armored shells, or skewering tentacles and eye sockets upon their long spears and swords. The power of the Beast God's would be their strength, but the Ice Giants would possess strength too, strength, and intelligence that would be akin to her own kind.
The all mother would have taken the mistake of the frost giants into account when crafting Skuld and her sisters, shaping them from the warm and vibrant hearth of the world, rather than the brackish waters of Ganungagap. That warmth would give them kinship to life. And where there was kinship, there would be duty.
Skuld would take her next step and her next, each met by another sight, another glimpse of her potential future. 'This is all that I can see . . . ' She would know herself as all but blind. Even Odin had traded his eye for wisdom!
Another sword strike, caving in the shell of a Beast God, the creature grabbing hold with six tentacles, dragging the weapon down as another of its akin climbed over to breath fire into the face of the Frost Giant. Ice burst to steam, and an unnaturally high pitched cry would rise from within the Giant as it staggered back, face splitting and shattering like glass.
The Beasts had that one well in hand, but another was turning upon the wounded, driving them to close ranks until they were pressed back against a deep fissure. Five in all. Two of the smaller Beast Gods that had come to help, a still smaller female, and her two foals. Even as Skuld would watch, she would see the mother throwing her tenctacles wide around her young, both to the front to shield them from the giant, and to the back to save them from the fall.
"Kuru – ru!"
The small males cried together, shifting forward, and then back as they faced off against the behemoth that would have to be the War Leaders Lieutenant, a mountain of dirty gray frost shaped into a barely humanoid body, head lost in a gargantuan lump that rose like a castle tower, two fists, far too monstrously big to ever wield swords, but unneeded, for the creature could simply bludgeon anything in its path, as it would attempt to do in but a moments time when Skuld reached out with her free hand and channeled her ancient power.
The Runes came to her without words, Mother Yggdrasil's blessing upon her and her kind. They would shape and unfold, taking geometric elegance and lighting the tundra in their fiery radiance before launching forth, a storm of raw fire crashing into the Jotun, turning it aside to shield itself as each fireball blossomed into an explosion of steam with near apocalyptic force, driving the Jotun back across the ice sheet, and dangerously shaking the footing of the Beast Gods as they threw their tentacles wide to anchor themselves, releasing cries of joy at the sight of their singular rescuer.
Skuld would spare them nary a glance. Though, out of no disrespect. She would knew this herd not. Any that lived now, born long after her imprisonment. But they would know her, or at least, of her and her kind. It was the way of the Beast Gods not to forget.
Her attention was drawn to the next moment, when the Jotun would begin to recover, turning to face her slowly, and look down upon her from on high, faceless head menacing and festooned with ore lamps that would have dazzled her darkness adapted eyes if she had not known to close them.
Skuld unlimbered her spear, pointing the broad head to her enemy, and feeling at once the awakening and exhilaration of the fight, where the next moment became a flicker of certainty before her eyes.
The Jotun broadened its stance, settling itself, bringing broad fists together in a thunderclap as icy knuckles crashed against one another.
There was no need for words, curses, or shouts, they would see each other, know each other, and the fight would begin.
Slow, and old, Skuld would surmise, an ancient one by the looks of him that had only grown stronger as the frost gathered up over his body, building him into a real brute, and worse, gathering to him a rocky layer of armor that had rendered her choice of fire magic less than effective. She would have known if only the future would deign to hold still!
What else could she not see? Not sense? Not know?!
The sweep of an arm, so slow and heavy. Skuld would have been able to see it coming without her cognition of the future. No threat save for the sheer scope of it.
'Sloppy.' She would think. For one so old to not have learned . . . Her kick drove her high into the air, bringing her down lightly on one treacherous forearm, the headless brute groaning mountainously as it shifted to dislodge her. Stone fingers dug into ice skin, holding her in place as the Frost Giant shook and then raised its opposite arm high, intent on smashing her flat.
Blue eyes glinted silver as she saw her next moment and moved to it. A shout as she threw one hand back, a shower of firefly sparks played over the ice of the Frost Giants elbow, melting and weakening it just as the other arm struck, and continued on through, tearing the entire limb from its own body. The squeal of its strangely high pitched scream was lost at once in the tectonics of its own body fragmenting.
'Now where is your accursed brain!' Skuld would think.
A monstrosity like this would want to keep it well hidden. Her eyes suddenly widened. The fragmented futures were growing harder to read by the moment, the chaos of battle almost blinding her, they would offer her few clues save one.
The lump of ice and stone, not much larger than a melon, barely a dot on the Giant's body, but it glittered with two points of light. All that was left exposed of the ancient frost giant that had slowly accumulated into this walking glacier.
'It is no wonder that you are so very stupid.' Skuld would think with a hint of satisfaction as she caught the flat of her spear in a crevice and vaulted the distance, bringing spear over head before swinging down with enough force to cleave a boulder in twain.
The Frost Giant's face shattered beneath the blow, it recoiled with a another squeal. Try as she might, that one blow was not enough to finish it off, thankfully, the creature would be stupid enough to do that on its own.
Not having learned its lesson, Skuld would jump clear as the remaining fist drove its way into, and through the Frost giant's ruined face in a cataclismic display of destruction that did not stop as the Evil God began to collapse and fall backwards, the impact of its body causing the edge of the fissure to calve in two.
The Beast Gods, would release their anchor holds, slithering out of danger just as the shelf gave way, sending the Jotun plummeting into the abyss in a cloud of blinding white.
But there was no time to celebrate. Skuld held her spear close as she gripped at her skull trying, trying madly to see . . . almost blind save for these useless eyes and ears that saw only into the now! Long after what she had gleaned became useless to her.
'I must . . .'
There would be a scream from above, a clawed hand sweeping to catch her. She knew this . . . then . . . why had she not evaded . . . because . . . because she had not foreseen them . . . she had merely seen . . .
Being thrown to the winds did not hurt, nor did flying through the air, it was the landing that caused pain to lance through her, stone bones creaking as she struck, skidded and bounced along, friction turning ice to water, and then the real pain of clipping an outcropping.
Skuld choked on a cry as her arm was broken into a webwork of cracks that spread from shoulder down to elbow and all the way into granite ribs of her chest.
Only when she came tumbling to a halt did she see how swiftly the destruction had been wrought, how quickly the battle had begun and swiftly it had ended, that even as she was now, she should have been able to foresee all of it.
Eleven Beast Gods had taken to the field, eight to protect a mother and her young, now, only the mother, her children, and two wounded males still stood. Some might still live, but they were barely more than feebly twitching wrecks, bleeding the last of their life's heat with their life's blood onto the frozen tundra.
And in so doing, they had fought valiantly to the end.
Five Evil God's had faced them, the greatest, a match for three at once. Skuld had done battle with one while the other four had turned their attention to the Old Ones. Now, only two of the Giant's remained, the War Leader, two of his limbs fallen to broken stumps, his jaw hanging listlessly to reveal the lightning glow within his throat, and this one. The small, graceful, almost frail titan that Skuld had watched deliver the killing blow to the Beast God leader.
Skuld blinked through cracked vision, realizing how badly she had been wounded as she felt the fractures along the side of her face, living stone was more resilient than living ice, but still had its limits. She disregarded it, it would heal, given only a brief time, but it was very doubtful now that she would have a brief time, her perceptions compressed to only the moment after the now.
The last Frost Giant, stood over her, graceful body of fresh, clear ice, flawlessly sculpted and smooth, lacking the wear and eon's of growth of its kin. But that smallness was deceptive. Swift, much too swift for one of its kind. Skuld decided as a clawed hand reached down for her, batting her spear from her good arm before pinched her wounded side, pain driving breath and concentration from her.
To have the strength to fight only one Jotun . . . how far a Goddess of Fate had fallen. She pondered as she was lifted high into the air to be brought before the Jotun's face, a beautifully sculpted mask of dark ice, illuminated from within by glowing blue eyes, tracks of frost streaming like tears down its cheeks.
"Kurururur!" The beast Gods were crying out, bleating up into the sky all around, or trying to distract the Jotun, but to no avail. The War Leader was still alive, and strong enough to menace them back. The males spat gouts of flames and lightning arced from their tentacles, but it was feeble compared to this monster.
Smooth ice skin, creaked slowly as the small frost giant lifted her high, opening mouth wide, and for an instant, Skuld felt the future collapse completely into the present as at last another echoing cry answered the calls of the Beast Gods.
The evil Gods swept the plains about them, finding no sign.
The War Leader turned its attention to the ice, and downward through a crevice, in search of some Beast God, clever for its kin, trying to sneak up from below.
Lightning blossomed across the back of the War Leader, throwing him forward, and then forward again as another blast crashed into him, cracking and shattering ice. His wounds fracturing along new faults, left side of his torso shearing off as he was struck from behind by a flying mass of wings and long, trailing appendages, less like the strong tentacles of a Beast God and more like fragile vines.
A sight unseen for Aeons in Jotunheim, a being that could take to the skies of this place, a flying creature of eight wings and twenty long tentacles, a powerful trunk, and three black eyes, alien, and strangely beautiful. It was a beauty that again was lost on Skuld, but only for her . . . surprise?
Was that what her sisters would call it?
The War Leader was sent broken into the abyss, torso shearing as he fell, and as the flying creature turned, Skuld's stunned mind would not miss the passing similarity to the face of a Beast God.
'A True Old One?' She pondered this truth as she was thrown, cast aside by the Frost Giant as it turned to its new enemy, swiftly splaying its hoofed feet wide and readying magic in each clawed hand.
It was swift, and powerful, and confident, all the marks of a young warrior, Skuld pondered, the young men who would grow old, or sometimes not, and then inevitably disappear from her sight, into the domain of her sisters when their times came.
The winds gathered, the runes covering the Frost Giant's forearms glowed as it channeled the elemental fury of its domain, driving the Beast God to ground as Skuld stumbled to her feet, staggering forward. She could still fight! Pain flaring through her side as her insides shifted like loose gravel.
But again, she was surprise as she found herself unneeded.
Ringlets of light circled the tentacles of the Beast God as wings trembled, eyes squeezing shut, at last, the rings shattered as one, and the winds broke.
The Frost giant, as much as its kind could appear as such, looked stunned, stumbling to regain its guard as it was besought upon by the flying creature, and discovered at once, that those fragile looking tentacles were every bit as strong as those of the Beast God's land bound kin.
"Kuruuuu!" The flying Beast God cried as it wrapped itself about the Frost giant, wings driving them both backwards until the last Giant began to bend and then toppled back, kicking and struggling, its face twisted into a mask of rage as it shrieked, the glow in its eyes gathering in its throat as it opened mouth wide and released a ice breaking scream that rattled Skuld to her teeth and caused even the Beast Gods trumpeting for their champion to cringe away.
"Ku . . . Ku . . ." The flying God held on for dear life, limbs beginning to glow again with arcing lightning. " . . . Ruuuu!"
The scream went on, and on, slowly changing pitch from rage, to pain, and then indescribable agony as lightning played over the Jotun's ice body, the smooth, sculpted surfaces seeming to age through millenia as they melted, refroze, and melted again, collecting up the stones and frost spread across the ground as it struggled, until at last, only that smooth face remained, lightning pouring into its skull through glowing eyes and into chest through glowing heart.
It was as the heart finally guttered, the light from within its chest fading away, that the Beast God released its hold and drew back.
Skuld watched as the Jotun struggled to right itself, watched as the Ice Giant clutched at the darkness of its chest and then clawed, releasing a horrified wail. It turned its fading eyes to her and her alone, gazing upon her hungrily. Skuld readied herself, wounded as it was, one last spell would finish it.
She found there was no need. As the giant fought to stand, crawling towards hers, reaching out, its movements were joined by a less vibrant series of groans and cracks that signaled something all too amiss. Clear ice darkened and clouded, limbs began to slow, and trembled, and creak, flecks of ice falling. Will alone became insufficient.
A last despairing shriek died on the Jotun's lips as its sculpture's face split into fragments, cracking and shattering, the rest of its ruined body following suit as living ice became once again mere ice deprived of its living essence.
It was a long time in coming to settle, the heap falling still.
Skuld stood before the wreckage that had moments before been an Evil God, and might as well now have been mere rubble, and only as the mournful cries came to her ears did she think to look. The Beast Gods, the children and their mother still lived, and their two injured guards. But there was no celebration, the still heaps laying across the ice would not come back to life.
The Beasts began to trumpet once more, this time, in mournful song. The norn shook her head slowly, she would not belittle them their practices, only pray that the fragments of future she could see for them would come to pass. But now, she was all too unsure.
And perhaps because . . . She looked upon the ruined Jotun, taking one step forward, and grimacing.
The cry coming from all too near, a delicate tentacle extended down from above to offer its support. Skuld regarded the creature thoughtfully. "It is my honor to be saved by a Great Old One." She called softly upward.
"Kuru?" The gigantic creature blinked all three eyes.
A rare smile, her sisters said she did not smile enough, they would be happy to know that she would now. "Thank you for your concern." The norn pushed away the tentacle carefully probing at her arm as still finer tendrils worked beneath her robes and breastplate. "But I will heal just fine." Already the jagged edges were beginning to soften once more into the flesh like texture of living stone. She would be whole again in but a few days time.
'If I live in a few days time.' She mused. The idea was not a pleasant one as her attention was drawn back to the broken Jotun. Her curiosity redoubled.
Yes, its body, what was left, still retained a smoothness and clearness to its ice that spoke of impossible youth for one of the Ice Giant race. "You . . . should not exist." Skuld pondered as she made her way into the wreckage with the help of the Great Old One's tentacles for support.
She at last gave pause as she reached the fragmented remains of the Jotuns heart. That which the Beast God above her had shattered to ruin to kill it.
"By the All-Mother. What . . ." Skuld reached out to take hold of a fragment of stone, quite ordinary save for the way it rose of its own volition from the shattered heart of the fallen giant to drift through the air, nor was it the only one, dozens of broken and melted fragments rising to join it " . . . Is this?"
Skuld held the stone close, and even though she could not feel the cold, she shivered. For the first time in her infinite life, the future was closed to her, and she did not think she would be getting it back.
Head bowed, breath held, eyes fixed on the marble floor, polished to such perfection that Father Julio Chesare could see his own reflection in it, red and blue eyes shining back in faded imitation, bisected by a thin channel carved into the stone.
'That channel was meant for drainage.' Julio thought back to his lessons as a young boy. In older, less civil times, there had been many executions held in this room, in the audience of past Popes and the College of Cardinals.
In those times, this room had been floored in stone, and the executions of heretics had occurred so frequently that the channels had been needed to help rinse away the blood of the preferred method of decapitation. A radiating network of grooves that sloped imperceptibly to troughs on either side of the great hall of the Papal audience chamber.
Radiating away, in point of fact, from where Julio now kneeled.
Those days were long gone. The rough stone had been replaced with finely polished marble, and the network of grooves which incidentally formed a lovely pattern, now leafed in gold, had been preserved for aesthetic sake. Their original purpose forgotten to most, but not to Father Julio.
It did not escape his notice that the blades of the Germanian Guard halberdiers at his back, were kept exceptionally keen.
'Which is not more than I may deserve.' He mused as he met his own reflection. Odd the way that the color of an eye could change the countenance. One half, blue, looked resigned, the other, red, was resentful.
Julio knew which of the two was in his heart. He accepted his judgment now. His actions, for good or ill, would be weighed and his fate decided.
"Rise . . . Father Julio."
The young Priest looked up to the steps leading to the elevated station of the throne of the Ruler of the Church within all mortal dominion. Pope Vittorio III stood, head held high, and eyes boring into him.
His Eminence . . . did not look well this day. It would have been invisible to most. But to Julio, the signs were clear as day. Despite the best efforts of an army of attendants. Soft features seeming haggard and diminished, blue eyes dark, and golden blonde hair appearing brittle
And the cause . . . Lack of sleep, of course, brought on by the greater burden of lacking peace of mind. The youngest man to ever hold the station of Pope. He did not seem fit to carry the weight upon his shoulders, responsibility for the one hundred million lives of Brimir's faithful.
'And now I have added to that burden.' Julio admonished himself.
Most had thought little of Vittorio's youth. Young meant inexperienced, foolish, and easily controlled by older, wiser heads, they thought. And that had of course been the plan upon elevating Vittorio to the station of Pope. A puppet to be placed upon the thrown in stead of the real leaders.
Those real leaders had simply never expected their wiser heads to part ways with their old bodies. Some at the hands of Julio himself.
'And now, have I come full circle?' He thought.
"Your Eminence." Julio said softly, and then stopped. No effort to defend himself, no attempt to explain. His intentions had been pure, but his means had been . . . They'd been idiotic, the reckless expedience of desperation.
Vittorio descending the steps to stand level. King and Knight, Master and Familiar. "I command you to be silent and listen. Am I understood?"
Julio hesitated, before nodding his head shamefully, the only reply he could offer.
Vittorio made a small gesture, hidden in the sleeve of his robes, but visible to the guards who at once came to attention.
"Your Eminence!" The Knight Captain standing to Julio's left appeared ready to protest. They were His Eminence's closest guards, to at his side, always.
"I assure you that I am in no danger. This is a matter of highest importance. I wish to speak privately with Father Julio. You will see to that wish, Captain."
The Knights and Guards could not hide their distaste, they were the personal guards of the Holy Father, and loyal to their bones. Even the implication of untrustworthiness would raise their hackles. The Captain's eyes glinted resentfully as he glanced to Julio.
But these men were loyal, and most of all obedient to His Eminence's will. The Guards gathered themselves into formation, six knights, and two dozen Halberdiers forming into a single unit at the center of the hall, bowing as one, and marching from the room in the same disciplined fashion as they would enter and leave at the beginning and end of their watch.
No doubt, they would be waiting just outside the doors to the audience room, ready to burst back in at the slightest hint of distress.
Only when they were gone did Vittorio let out the ghost of an exhalation, barely audible. A hand came unbidden to rub at his eyes. Julio held his silence, as instructed. At last, without looking up, Vittorio spoke.
"I have had the opportunity to examine the girl and her familiar." His Eminence supplied stonily. "It is exactly as you believed. The runes are indeed the mark of Gandalfr. A tour of the armory has proven the familiar's Void-granted power. Louise de La Valliere is Tristain's Void Mage."
Without privilege to speak, Julio could only widen his eyes. To know for himself was an entirely different thing than to hear it said by His Eminence. He had not been mistaken!
Then . . .
"Although I am pleased that we at last have proof of the existence of the other Void Mages, I cannot condone the way in which she was brought before us."
The Young Priest cringed under Vittorio's gaze.
His Eminence's features hardened, eyes sharpening as he regarded Julio, almost, but not quite, with disdain.
And why should he not? Julio thought sullenly.
He had, on his own initiative, spirited away a Noblewoman of Tristain, gotten three quarters of his men, elite knights, killed at the hands of a Legendary Beast and an equally Legendary Mage. Worse, battle had brought him into direct conflict with Forces of Tristain and the Fae.
He was a Holy Knight of the Church, diplomacy was not his purpose, but the consequences were clear, even to him. If they had been able to spirit away Miss Valliere without altercation, if everything had gone as it should have, without outside interference, then his actions might have been justifiable, barely. Which was why he should have known that things would most decidedly not go as planned.
"Now, speak for yourself."
"Begging Your Eminence's pardon," Julio began swiftly, almost stumbling over himself to reply.
"Much more than merely my pardon." Vittorio said without a hint of sympathy.
Julio remembered himself enough to bow once more from the waist. "Your Eminence, I allowed myself to act the fool, and endanger everything in my fear and eagerness. I can offer no excuse."
"No, you cannot." Vittorio agreed. "But you will explain yourself. As it is, you've delivered into our arms the Void Mage of Tristain and her familiar, and at the same time, antagonized Tristain and the Fae-folk."
Had Tristain learned that this was the Church's doing? Julio wondered. Would they? They would always have suspected, but would the battle, and the bodies, be enough? Romalia had long since learned to mask the identities of its Special Forces, even in death, as all of the Kingdom's had. They had been stripped of all marks and clues of their allegiance to the Church of Brimir.
"I plead only weakness of spirit." Julio said, head still bowed. "I had suspected Miss Valliere for some time, upon making her acquaintance and observing her practice of magic. My later studies only made me more certain. Bastard blood of the Royal line, and her failings in magic coincided almost perfectly with what is known of the past Void users."
"Not enough to move against an entire Kingdom." His Eminence said. "Not nearly enough."
"No." Julio agreed. "But what we discovered next . . . The Faerie magic that she used . . ."
To see His Eminence given pause was disturbing of itself, without regard for the subject.
Vittorio turned away from Julio and made his way towards the tall windows lining one wall of the audience chamber, coming still to gaze out over the roofs of the Holy City and down into the squares where the faithful would gather for the essential ceremonies. Pilgrim's came from across the continent in hopes of making it to this place.
"The Founder bequeathed unto his descendants, four fragments of the blessed Void. Each like, and yet not like to the next." Vittorio repeated the words as if by wrote, the product of their studies of the deep archives. "Four mages, four familiars, four rings, and four treasures. Four fours for the true Void to reveal itself."
His Eminence clasped his hands together, but could not stop from twitching his ring finger, a motion that was almost invisible.
"Each Void unto itself, whole and complete, but removed from the Founder's brilliance. As each Void Mage, whole and complete, but removed from the vulgar elements . . . Which means that either the Fae are blessed with more than they can possible know, or . . ."
Another impossibility, for His Eminence to leave a thought unfinished.
Or Louise Valliere had done the impossible and shattered the shackles of Void. What that could mean, Julio could not even begin to imagine. Either a rapturous occasion or an apocalyptic one. For if Louise had freed herself from the limits of her shard of Void, then what did that mean of the immutability of the Founder's divine magic?
"The Windstone concentrations under Tristain are growing faster than ever." Julio said softly. A decade had shrunk to mere years at best, months at worst. Ironic, the Church had acquired the means to track the calamity's progress from a researcher in Tristain. The revelation of her work had driven the poor woman to madness. "If we waited, we might have lost her entirely. And I believed we needed to know. I feared for what it might mean."
His eminence regarded him from the corner of one eye.
"A Void Mage she may be, but Louise Valliere is of no use to us without the Ring of Water and the Founder's Prayer Book. We cannot say where they may be, but the likeliest place is in the home of their rightful master, Tristain, the Kingdom that has every reason to now regard any member of the Church with suspicion as a direct result of your actions. You were sent to observe." Vittorio said.
"And nothing more. Now, we cannot even say how our dealings with the Fae and Tristain will unfold. Perhaps ruined. We cannot afford for the Kingdoms to squabble among themselves now. We must prepare to present a united front against the Great Enemy, if any shred of our civilization is to survive what is to come."
Vittorio turned to fully face Julio, expression as cold as ever. "For the damage you may well have caused, I would not be wrong to wonder if you were a traitor."
Julio could not argue with his Master's reasoning. His Eminence would certainly be justified. Yes, justified, to hand his head to Tristain on a platter if need be.
"If not for your ceaseless commitment and devotion, both as a Priest of the Church, and my Familiar, you would already be facing execution. But also, fault lays with myself as well."
"You Eminence!" Julio took a half step forward, reaching out, shocked.
"So does the Master, so does the Familiar, so does the Familiar, so does the Master. It was I who made use of the improper tool in sending you to Tristain without oversight. I was neglectful. And taking into account that your men did not strongly urge you away from this course of action . . ." Another look of displeasure, Julio pondered whether his two surviving subordinates would receive even a fraction of this mercy. ". . . Your past service, and loyalty, misguided as it has been, has granted you a stay of execution."
Strange, Julio felt light headed, it would never have occurred to him that he had not come to terms with his own death. So as not to leave him too much relieved, Vittorio then added. "For the time being, your life is to be considered forfeit, and whether you can possibly redeem yourself will be up to God and Founder." A fact that was in no way new to Julio. He had always been expendable, from the day he had spoken his oaths and given himself over, body and soul, to the Church. "You will be confined to duty here, within the boundary of the Holy City. Specifically, I wish for you to watch over Miss Valliere. I find it fitting that you do so. Be her guide and assist her in her studies."
"Then," Julio began, "The archives are to be opened to her?" The ancient archives held by the Church since time barely imaginable. He had suggested such things to Louise to gain her cooperation, he had even believed it was possible, but never had he thought it would be granted so casually.
Vittorio nodded. "Under supervision. And our most trusted philosophers as well. For or good or ill, Louise Valliere is in our custody for now, I intend to make full use of studying her. To earn her trust, for what little it is worth."
"And what of Tristain and the Fae?" Julio asked.
They could have been powerful allies to be shaped through diplomacy. Now, they would be antagonistic partners at best, enemies at worst. One thing was certain, the Fae were kind, light hearted, and generally gentle-natured people. Those qualities were not extended to those that wronged them.
His reports on the Fae were even now being consumed hungrily by Church philosophers, dissecting everything they could learn of the Fae kin. And what was more, their dealings with Tristain.
A combination that he had only begun to examine, and now suspected, if not for the Windstone build up beneath the small Kingdom, he would come to regret. A small, but prosperous Kingdom, blessed with a vitality of magic greater than any of the other Kingdoms of Halkegenia, and joined in hands with them, a new race of flying, physically robust, and potentially powerful magic users, possessed of strange knowledge and even stranger notions.
"This will not be the first time the Church has given refuge to a wayward soul, nor fought to bring them to sanctuary." Albeit, rarely a soul so politically charged as Louise Valliere. Vittorio could only think of a one in recent memory, a candidate for the seat of Emperor of Germania. Romalia had nearly gone to war over that decision two decades ago. "That shelter can only be extended for a brief time, but we will make use of it while we can. For now, we will continue as we have." Vittorio informed him. "We have no choice but to commit ourselves to Tristain's war against Albion."
"The First Contingency." Julio surmised. If catastrophe came, despite their best efforts, and the Holy Land could not be reclaimed, only Albion might offer safe refuge to a few chosen faithful. Albion which was, of its very nature, unassailable. Until the Fae and Tristain had proven it possible.
His Eminence nodded. "As a show of good faith as well. And when our time expires, if need be, I will present myself before Tristain's new monarch to beg forgiveness." Vittorio let that hang in the air. "When that time comes, it may also be with the gift of your head."
"I understand, fully, Your Eminence." Julio said softly.
"As you should." Vittorio agreed as if there was no other conclusion. "Now, make yourself presentable, and find Miss Valliere. Become acquainted with her and her familiar. Learn all that you can. Report everything to me, but take no action of your own will."
"As you wish, your Excellency . . . Though, if I may humbly ask," It was not that he was not eager to gain some small redemption for his actions, even if it would not change his fate, "Do you truly believe we can trust that man? His name . . ."
"The alias of the man who created the Faerie illusion games." Vittorio confirmed. "A mass murderer of the Fae world. His existence as Miss Valliere's familiar is troubling. Removing him, given his innate prowess and the Gandalfr runes now in his possession may prove quite difficult."
"Your Eminence, can we believe what he has said?" Julio wondered aloud. Julio had been given ample time to question the swordsman on their journey back to Romalia. Even with dragons to hasten the trip, it had taken the better part of a week by circuitous routes, with Miss Valliere constantly falling in and out of consciousness in a series of fever dreams, only subsiding when she collapsed from exhaustion.
During that time, the swordsman, Heathcliff, had proven suspiciously docile, exhibiting an almost childish fascination with the passing landscape, like one who had never traveled beyond a single village, much less across the span of the Continent.
The results of his interrogations had been . . . inconclusive . . . confusing . . . Julio had thought he had done well to learn what he could of the Fae Realm, the one they spoke of ironically as 'Iarel', apparently some joke that the Faeries had been reluctant to fully explain, a pun on the words he'd been told. But probing Heathcliff had proven how little he knew. All that he'd learned was that something was not quite right.
"That," Vittorio said, "Is what I want you to find out."
How he wished for the simpler days. "As you wish, Your Eminence."
The afternoon light playing in through tall, curtained windows, the sounds of the birds, and the soft splash of the water in the tub all around her. Louise Francoise le Blanc de La Valliere sat, legs curled up to her chest, lost in her own thoughts, most of them unflattering.
The last lucid memory that Louise had, was touching her lips to the World Tree. After that, it was a mix of feverish moments, seen through blurry eyes. Splitting migraines and fever until, at last, she'd found herself waking in the early light of morning in a bed much too big and soft to have been her own.
She had not woken alone. An attending nurse had been at her side, and word had been sent at once. Before the hour was through, she had found herself in the company of His Holiness himself, and all had been explained to her.
At first, she hadn't known what to make of it. Upset. Only as she'd learned of what had transpired, had she felt sick, and then felt nothing at all. Except maybe gratitude that her stomach had been empty when she was told that her familiar had nearly killed her mother. The servants had only to clean up the gagging mix of saliva and stomach juices.
Even to hear that her sins, real, or imagined, were forgiven and that the Church would honor Father Juilo's offer, had not improved her mood.
Since waking the day before, she had not smiled or laughed, or shown more than the smallest expression. The life had drained out of her, and even the interest in imitating life to the outside world was fast fading. Instead, surrounded by the luxury of the apartments assigned to her, she had turned inwards upon her own thoughts, her own mistakes. There were lots to choose from, to examine, to critique.
It was a familiar ritual for Louise, but somehow changed now. The thoughts were hers, but seemingly with a different . . . flavor? Was that how one thought of such things. Confusing, and often disturbing, like someone else had crawled into her skull and started to whisper to her, or make her feel their commentary.
'And what did you think would happen?'
One part of herself would seem to say.
'You knew he was using you.' Another would chime in. 'You just wouldn't let yourself see.'
'That's right I . . .'
'Did you think what would happen if it didn't work?'
'I . . . I didn't it was just . . . It seemed like the ri-'
'Or if it DID? What if it had enslaved the Pixies? They are bound to their mother after all.'
'No! I'd never . . .'
'Or God, the Fae?!'
'You didn't know any better!'
'Yes you did!'
'This is your fault! Take responsibility!'
'Please'. Louise raised her hands out of the water, placing them firmly against her ears. As if that could block out the broken echoes that faded off after every thought. 'Please, one at a time . . . just one at a time . . . That's all I ask.' The fragmented voices that tumbled off, thousands of facets speaking at once, brilliant and clear, but broken, like dropped crystal. Not more than pieces of pieces. And not at all interested in listening to her.
Louise did the only thing she could think to do. She stopped. Stopped thinking, stopped remembering, almost stopped breathing before faintness reminded her. And when she was done, the voices kept their opinions to themselves. The voices . . . and the source of the voices . . .
Louise stared at the palm of her hand. It was at once, her hand, and not her hand. Because she could remember her hand like . . . the back of her hand . . . and the little digital watch she wore with its little panda decoration, even though she could just get the time off of her phone . . . But . . . what was a Panda? Or a Phone?
"How is it that I know that it's seven hundred steps from my house to the train station", Louise asked, "But I don't know what a train is?"
"Is that some sort of riddle?" The silver haired man standing outside her window, back to her, mused aloud.
She hadn't asked him to stand guard, nor had he told her he intended to do so. And yet, Louise was not upset by this. Even knowing that he was a criminal, a murderer, she was confident he had no interest in spying on her in the bath.
Which was comforting in a way as it meant she could dismiss the ever present servants and be left almost to herself.
"No . . . Its . . . " Louise thought about it. "I don't know what it is really . . ." She sank down in the water until her nose was barely above the surface.
Heathcliff, the name came unbidden to her, quite literally floating in her field of vision when she focused on him with her good eye. Like she did now, feeling her left eye throb vaguely as she concentrated.
She knew that if she concentrated for long enough, she could tease out more of the numbers, numbers with descriptions like 1H Sword and Btl Rcv., nonsense that meant nothing to her.
For others as well, the servants, the guards. Most were nothing but blank marks floating in the air, but she'd found that them slowly being replaced and filled in as time went by. A name here, a title or epitaph there, and more and more showing the odd sets of numbers that Louise had only begun to realize she shouldn't have known how to read.
She'd been afraid of it at first. His Holiness had expressed concern as well when she had confessed to this new symptom of her corruption. But after one or two days, it had simply become another part of her reality, something that she accepted with dull resignation. Just like her familiar.
A criminal familiar . . . It was no more than she deserved she thought bitterly. And she knew, better than anyone save the Fae, what his crimes had been like.
She could have asked to have him removed, or even ordered him from her sight, he had proven infuriatingly willing to obey her whims. Instead, she preferred to keep him in her company, as a reminder. That the Mage summoned a Familiar which suited them. What did that say about her?
'Looks like you found a friend Louise!' The hateful little thought came unbidden.
'Shut up!' She thought viciously.
"I made a mistake." Louise said out loud.
"Is that in general, or are you being specific?" Heathcliff asked back unbidden. She could have lived without his commentary. The voices in her own head were bad enough. "I've been told that discovering oneself to be imperfect is quite the traumatizing experience."
"I should never have listened to Father Julio . . ." Louise continued. "I should never have run away. I should never . . . never . . . have kissed that tree! I've brought nothing but suffering." Hers least of all compared to what she had heaped upon the sixty thousand Faeries. "What . . . What do I do?"
What did she do? She'd meant well. She'd meant to do what was right. It had seemed like the proper thing at the time. Or rather, she'd wanted it to be. She'd wanted it so badly. But if her own judgment was so suspect, what hope did she have?
"You could start by learning from your mistake, and not to make the same one twice." Her familiar offered, never turning his head to her, doing nothing more menacing than observing the sky. "It is my experience that people rarely do anything right the first time."
"It was a simple decision!" Louise hissed. So simple. She could have simply said nothing, done nothing. Nothing had been what was expected of her, and she'd failed at even that!
"Not for one who has never chosen."
Louise ignored the comment. She'd made decisions before. Going to the academy, as was expected of her, taking on responsibilities handed down to her by Henrietta, as was her duty. How would this have been any different?!
'You have to ask?' Darkly sarcastic.
"It may seem like no consolation." Heathcliff said. "But have you ever heard of an opportunity cost?" Louise didn't reply. She didn't really want to listen. Which naturally meant Heathcliff would continue speaking. "An opportunity cost is the cost of taking one action in terms of the actions that are not selected. You feel remorse because you give more weight to the unchosen and thus unknown action than to the one you chose. Balance what your action gains against what it has cost."
What it had cost was her her friends, the trust they had placed in her, the help of the Fae, and . . . her family. Louise almost choked, thinking what this would do to Cattleya. She'd been so bound up in her own self made troubles, she'd barely spared it a thought until it was too late.
And what had throwing away everything she cherished gained her but misery and a guilded cage? She was under no illusion to what this was, not anymore.
"The Church says that they'll help." Louise said. "His Holiness himself is giving me permission to use the archives of the Holy City." Along with nearly two dozen Church scholars who would have no task but to examine her and seek to understand how she had summoned . . . what she had summoned." Helped along by one final detail.
'Void . . . His Holiness says that I possess power of Void. Louise didn't believe it for a moment, to share the Founder's Holy Element. But could any other Element do something like this? Make real the imaginary, breath life back into phantoms.
Her eyes tracked to the man at her window, the swordsman Heathcliff, or the Knights of Blood, of the Floating Castle of Aincrad. For whatever reason, instead of binding the World Tree as her familiar, she had brought him forth. Some . . . figment of the illusion games, the last echoes of their creator.
By now, Louise would not have been shocked to discover the Necromancy was among her powers, or worse.
But then, if not Void, what? Just what was she to summon an entire world? No human could do that.
'Am I not human?' Louise wondered.
'Nay'. The answer came unbidden as water closed over her.
Then as she lay submerged another whisper from deep within her soul. 'I am . . . an Incarnate Radius.'
Authors Note: Thank you to everyone who has remained tolerant of me over this long and winding yarn that I have been weaving these past six months. Though I imagine anyone who dislikes where I've been taking things has long since jumped ship. (I hope I haven't ended up with too much of an echo chamber!)
Now, a confession, looking back, this arc got way out of hand :P. It feels more to me like three or four smaller stories kind of stacked and interwoven with one another, but not in the way that v1.0 managed to mesh.
I really have enjoyed writing this segment, even though there are parts I don't feel should have come out of the way they did, and would like to thank everyone for their heartfelt support.
v3.0 is set to debut soon to a more relaxed pace with much more world building and just a little bit of action on the side.
In the meantime, standby for a short, three chapter, Arrun Parallel Story to be released in the Interim.
-Sincerely, the Author.