18: Survivors and Warlords
A million images flashed by. Zion, that fallen planet. Asgard City. People… millions of people, all dead. Not all of them by the lavoid. The weight of a thousand generations ran past, their screams of both joy and anguish, their very lives compressed into a heartbeat.
And then those who still lived, those who had been born on Zion. Dying, dead… even though they were physically healthy. Darrell… Darrell.
His face showed up the most often in Terra Lyle’s pain-wracked and unconscious mind. Again and again his green eyes twinkled mischievously at her, again and again an unseen wind brushed through his grey hair. Memories… a million million memories from an all-too short lifetime. The happiness his glee from this or that little victory brought her. A new book, a new scientific discovery. Granted, Darrell hadn’t ever figured out much of anything earth-shattering, and his inventions usually didn’t work very well – and weren’t very useful when they did – but they were part of him.
Terra loved them, for that reason.
Is this it? The thought was visible, superseding the images as they ran by. Death was this? An eternity of perusing the memories of life and wondering what might have been? Wrong, wrong wrong wrong. This couldn’t be it. It was at once incredibly moving… and incredibly painful. Her most dear memories of her life, from her parents to her friends to Darrell – mostly Darrell – all moving past forever, along with the haunting thoughts of what was missed and what was taken.
So much had been taken in that moment Grendel had surfaced. Terra could see that memory now, and it was like being stabbed in the chest. The flames devoured her homeland, and oh-so-many of her hopes and dreams with it. Darrell… her best friend, the most important person in her life, had been changed by those flames. They had served like forge fires, sharpening his being into a mighty and terrible weapon. A weapon which could possibly destroy the lavoid, true, but….
Terra missed the old Darrell, the untempered blade he had been. Then his sharp wit and intelligence had only been turned to creation; Terra had truly believed he would change the Union one day. And she still believed he would, but the message had been changed. Her Darrell had changed, her life had changed.
Everything was wrong and her desires were shattered.
She doubted she’d ever get to tell Darrell how she felt now… even if she wasn’t dead. She’d held it back for so long, figuring she had no chance with her best friend – for the very reason that he was that, her best friend and nothing more. Back on Zion, back before that second time death had came to her, back in the years after her parents’ deaths, she’d planned it all out. Set a date, even. She would have told him how she felt… would have declared her love in an all-too ironic role reversal. The strong willed Darrell, put into the submissive role for once, the intensely intelligent young genius surprised for once. Underneath the twin moons of Zion, she would have told him.
The moons of Zion remained, but the landscape they shone down on was twisted, ruined; along with her own soul. So much had changed, and they’d only been traveling for about a month. New people had come into their lives, new friends… but it was all dedicated to a cause of destruction. Cynewulf had reflected that change in all of them physically; it had really hurt her to see what he’d done to himself. Meryl had become ever more introverted with time, speaking only when necessary. And Darrell… so much had changed in Darrell. He’d been merged with his Id, with this subconscious rage and desire she had never known existed. And now that Id had seemed to dominate him entirely. Their entire goal, pounded hatefully into them twenty four hours every day: revenge revenge revenge revenge. Blood-red, all consuming flames of revenge. That and a feeling of hatred. For Grendel, for the lavoid race, for the people that had created them, for the entire Earth for allowing it, for the very human race.
Had Terra been awake – or was she dead? – she would have wept, as the million million images flashed by, showing her a smiling Darrell that was dead.
Rain fell over the city of Avalon in the night, obscuring the moons and the stars, and casting everything into almost total darkness. Several miles off, the glimmering lights of the Black Tower could just be made out, but they were mostly obscured by the many other fallen buildings and ruins that covered the miles between it and the tiny building where Terra Lyles now lay. She was on a small, hard bed of some sort, covered up with a moth-eaten blanket. Her left arm was bandaged, and, other than that, she was without clothing. It and her gauntlets were laid up in a pile at the foot of the bed. She was completely alone in the room, with only the sound of the falling rain breaking the silence.
It was in this way that she awoke, gasping for breath as though she had gone without it for years, her eyes shooting open in a fraction of a heartbeat. The first thing she noticed was that her entire body ached from head to toe, and as she attempted – and failed – to sit up, she also found that her left arm was almost certainly broken.
Sighing and letting herself lay back on the hard mattress of the bed, she scanned the room with her eyes. It was dark; the only reason she could see at all was a small candle set on a table across the room from her. It was also obviously very late at night, but the rain that fell outside the window made it very hard to tell the hour beyond that rather vague term.
‘Where am I?’ she thought, almost panicking. The last she remembered, she had been thrown off of the building by a particularly nasty Farilii spell… she’d fallen a long way, and the pain in her body told her that she must’ve hit the ground. But… even that thought didn’t strike her as correct. Surely such a fall would’ve killed her, and even if it hadn’t, that didn’t explain how she had ended up here.
“Darrell? Anybody?” she called experimentally. Only silence and the dismal boom of distant thunder answered her. She waited a few minutes, and, after a few more failed calls, willed herself to sit up. Though that caused her body to give no small amount of protest, she forced herself to ignore it, and eventually pulled herself to a sitting position. This, of course, made her notice that she was naked; it was more than a little cold in the room.
Groaning in pain, she forced herself to her feet. It was as though she were carrying her own weight on her back, and her vision swam in front of her as she took a first step towards her clothing. On the second, it was as though she was being hit in the head with a sledgehammer. The third, fourth and fifth were almost exponentially worse than that, but she managed to keep her feet.
As she bent down to pick up her clothing, she fell to her knees, her head hitting the wooden floor heavily. She barely even felt the impact, though, so bad was the thrumming already going on within it.
It drowned out most sound, too, so that what came next was barely audible, as if it were coming from hundreds of yards away.
“Dear Avatar… you’re awake?” Terra groaned as she struggled to force her eyes open again, to see what in the world had just spoken. It had come to her attention so distorted that she hadn’t even noticed if the speaker had been male, female… or even human.
Then, a sudden flash of green light pervaded her being; well, not so much light as a feeling of light, a sense of something refreshing flowing through her being. The pain in her head lessened to a noticeable degree, and her eyes fluttered up to see a man standing over her, with the light of a curative spell fading from his fingertips.
He was an older man, with straw-thin, short white hair and a sort of ragged goatee. His entire form was covered by a worn, grey, hooded cloak, with only his face and hands left visible. That exposed skin was very pale in hue, so white as to almost seem bluish.
“Who…” Terra coughed as she tried to speak; her throat was unbearably dry. “Who are you?”
The man pulled the young woman to her feet – she found that it was quite a bit easier to stand, now – and ran a hand through his hair. “I suppose you could call me Mishra. Mishra Bishop. People did once, I think…” he shook his head, and looked straight into Terra’s eyes. She noted the deep amethyst hue of his irises. “But that’s not important, not in the least. Names mean so little, when you think about it… just the same, what is yours?”
“Terra Lyles… formerly of the planet Zion.”
Mishra cocked an eyebrow. “Zion? Never heard of it, not with such a name as that, anyway. Even so, that’s a ways off from here. How did a woman such as yourself come to be here?”
Terra started to answer, when she realized that she wasn’t wearing anything. Blushing a deep shade of crimson, she quickly reached down to grab something, anything, to cover herself, when she noticed that she was fully clothed in her old pilot’s fatigues, down to even her Kaiser Knuckles.
Blinking in amazement, she almost completely forgot that Mishra was there; but one quick glance into his deeply probing eyes reminded her of both his presence and his question.
“It’s… a long story. It would take hours to tell it, more than likely. But… actually, I’m not sure how I ended up here, specifically. Where are we?”
The old man nodded his head, understanding her confusion. “Asgard, still. Once-mighty city of the Hunter Council of Riven. I found you out there, in the rain… injured rather badly. I take it you fell from one of the buildings?”
“Yeah… from what I can remember of it. But I certainly don’t feel all that injured now.” She looked down at her arms, neither of which were bandaged now. In fact, her left arm, which had certainly been broken a few minutes ago, felt just fine. “I take it you used ether energy… some sort of curing spell… on me?”
It was Mishra’s turn to cock an eyebrow. “Ether energy? No, indeed… your healing has a much simpler explanation than anything like that.”
Terra blinked. “I don’t suppose you’d care to give me that simple explanation, would you?”
“I’ve already answered your question, Terra Lyles. It is my turn to do the asking.” Mishra sat down in an old wooden chair and looked straight into the woman’s eyes, his own amethyst orbs flashing with the reflection of the outside lightning. “What is this ‘long story’ of yours? We have all the time we could possibly need for you to tell it.”
Terra didn’t intend to answer, at least not in full. She didn’t trust this strange mine, didn’t trust the strange sparkle in his eyes. She opened her mouth to say as much…
…And nearly half an hour later, Mishra had heard the entire thing, from the destruction of Zion to the Farilii battle. He seemed to have been made a bit uneasy by the tale; anxiousness played over his features, across his face and in his clenched fists. Yet when he spoke again, his voice was as smooth and calm as if there was nothing wrong.
“Most… intriguing, this story.”
Terra shook her head, as if waking from a dream, and she realized everything she’d said. “I…” she trailed off, and rubbed her eyes. Everything seemed blurry, unreal somehow. “Who are you, anyway? I know your name… are you a Hunter?”
Mishra’s eyes narrowed slightly as the term passed her lips, but retreated quickly, like a shadow passing over the sun. “I… yes, I have been called that. As I told you, names mean very little to me, to my people.”
“What has happened to your people?” Terra asked, probing further.
“We fight for control of this planet… our most bitter enemies still try to kill us.”
The young woman nodded. “The Lavoids, right? What happened here?”
Mishra allowed a smirk to creep up his features, and he shook his head. “Not now, not here, child Terra.” He stood up, and looked out the window. The storm was passing; it was nearly dawn. Terra was more than a little surprised, for but moments ago it had seemed impossible that it was far after midnight. Perhaps the solar cycle on Riven ran shorter than she was used to. “We have places to go.”
“What? No, not until I know I can trust you.” That was what Terra wanted to say, what she had fully intended to say when she opened her mouth to speak again. Instead, it came out “Very well.” She looked straight at him, into those amethyst eyes, and found her vision blurring again. An sharp stab of pain cut through her head, and she closed her eyes tight, wiping away tears.
“Today…” Mishra said, “You shall meet my masters. They will be most interested to hear your tale, I think.”
Terra tried to shake her head, tried to disagree, tried to do SOMETHING besides simply stand there in pain. She opened her mouth and gasped for air. “I… we’re going… to meet… Hunters?” It was a struggle to get even that much out, and that fact was scaring her. What was happening?
“Certainly.” Mishra said. “We will meet hunters.”
Elsewhere in the universe, an emperor sat on his throne in the darkness. His eyes were the color of spun gold, and his hair – what little of it was left – was a similar color. He wore long, purple silken robes embroidered with silver wire, and on his head sat a heavy iron crown. He was not a well-built man, for his years had been spent in luxury, but he was not obese, and what muscle he had could be viewed in his gnarled hands, and in his glittering eyes.
He was the Emperor of the Sol Dominion, leader of the most powerful nations in the world, and one of the greatest mages that had ever been seen by mankind.
It was dark in the room only because it suited his mood. He thought better in darkness, and these days had given him much want for thought. The vast empty spaces that the Council Room left when bereft of the idiot beauracrats pooled with darkness, almost gathering it like it had solid form, and sometimes it felt like eyes stared out at him from within it. It was marvelously relaxing.
“Multani.” He said simply, his voice caught by the sound-refracting devices in the chamber and amplified a hundred times over; what had been little more than a ragged whisper was made into a booming knell of thunder.
Immediately, the man who bore the spoken name appeared before him, the residue of a teleportation spell accompanying him. He wore long black robes, and an ash wood staff tipped with a gemstone was held in his hand. He too was ancient, his green eyes reflecting the knowledge – and bitterness – of centuries.
“You have called me, Excellency?” he spoke in a normal tone of voice, for the amplifying devices were magical in nature, and would only work when the Emperor willed them to.
“You know we have, my Archmagus.” The Emperor sighed. “We have need of your services.”
The old wizard nodded, strands of his long, ash-colored hair falling in his face as he did. “You know you need but speak the word, Excellency.”
“It has come to our attention… that the captainship of the Slave Ship has recently changed hands, from former Exploration Team leader Calvin Brock to Dhamon Gyver.”
“The late Victor Jolith’s protégé. Yes, I’d heard that.”
“We’re not quite certain what to make of him, Multani, and we don’t like that feeling.” The Emperor leaned back on his throne, allowing himself a brief moment of relaxation. “For one, he sold out his captain.”
Multani nodded. “Most true, Excellency… but Brock was a spineless wretch. There was no ambition within him, and absolutely no charisma. He’d have fallen quickly, in war.”
“Yes, we know this, Archmagus. If you’ll recall, we only placed him in that position to placate the Explorers’ Party in the Senate. They had been rather… against the upcoming plans.” He shook his head, and sat straight up on his throne – the overall position looking very uncomfortable. “We want you to keep a Scrying Eye on him, Multani. A man with ambition is exactly the type we want running the Lavoid flagship, but a man with too much ambition is incredibly dangerous to our position.”
“Certainly, your Excellency.” Multani said, bowing low as he did. “I shall set up the spell immediately.”
The Emperor nodded, and curled his fingers over the arms of his throne. “And then there is the other bit of news that concerns us, Archmagus Multani.” His golden eyes glittered. “The unidentified ship squadron that challenged the Border Fleet with Slave Ship. Their ship designs didn’t match any listed records, and our ships were unable to follow a single one of them after they broke off the engagement.”
Multani nodded. “Yes, so I heard. They fled for cover the moment a single ship – marked by records as a trade freighter, was it not? – slipped over the border.”
“And it is this that has us concerned. Who could have been flying these ships? And where from? Most certainly not from the Planetary Union… such a massing of ships would have been noticed slipping across the border initially.”
Multani nodded. “Perhaps a group of Union sympathizers, sir?”
The Emperor sighed, letting his breath echo harshly through the refraction devices. “If so, a very dangerous and intelligent group of sympathizers. My…” he shook his head at the slip. “Our meditations on the subject have led us to believe that perhaps it is something even more than that. Something infinitely threatening to the upcoming war effort. Thus, I turn your genius to the task of rooting these ships, and the shipbuilders, out of hiding. Multani, you shall track down these unidentified ships to their source, personally.” A thin smiled passed his lips as he noted his Archmagus’ surprise with the assignment. “Of course, you will be granted anything you need in this regard. Troops, our drawn magic reserves; whatever it takes. We shall not have the upcoming war effort jeopardized by an internal threat. We shall not be surprised.”
Multani stood their a moment in total silence. “As you wish, Excellency.” He said finally, bowing. The Emperor nodded at him, and he instantly vanished, no doubt to his personal quarters to begin preparing the magics necessary for such a monumental task.
“Soon, the Union shall be crushed beneath my heel… beneath the iron-shod boot of the Emperor Cain.”
“Perhaps my vision of the future is incorrect. If that is the case, then let the children of that future damn me themselves. For now, this is all I know… it is most certainly the only course of action I may take.” – Darrell Shanning, in a journal 25 years later.
Author’s Note: I hate to spoil anything, but it is necessary that I say that this is not THE Emperor Cain of Xenogears. My reason for naming him as such is very important, though, and shall eventually be explained in full.
To Chapter 19
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