All this walking forced him to realize that he may have spent a little too much time in his office. Sweat rolled down his beautiful smooth skin, leaving it glistening in the light of the noon sun. The wind ripped and howled up here, up the mountain slope, where patches of snow speckled the hard and rocky ground. He had tied up his long, golden mane into a ponytail to keep it under control, and he would have dressed himself in warmer clothing, had it not been tradition to wear these ceremonial garbs, at times like these. That being said, he was rather fond of them. Elegantly knitted velvet with silver buttons ran up the side of his chest-—purely ornamental, of course. Creamy white dominated the outfit, but slashes of gold ran across the shirt and all the way down to the tip of his shoes. It was an outfit that was only worn once every age, yet somehow it always seemed to fit those who wore it—-some called it magic, others called it divine will. There was no doubt there was some divinity about this whole thing; he was littered in their marks, after all.
On his right hand glove, was the mark of Lyrras, the god of life—-and on his left, the mark of Morrin, death. He figured there was some kind of symbolism here, that he was meant to use his hands to give life as well as death. On his left shoe was the mark of Jullix, goddess of beauty—-and on his right, the mark of Hrumalz, god of war. This, he figured, was meant to show that he would bring beauty wherever he tread, but that he would not hesitate to stomp on those who would dare to oppose him. He rather liked that symbolism, in fact. And then there was the particularly large mark of Keyen, right in the middle of his chest. This was spoke for itself, Keyen being the goddess of good luck and fortune. He was meant to bring fortune and wealth and good times to the people, after all. And if everything went as planned, he would.
He had lost count of the steps, by now. Legend said that there was more than a thousand of them, but he couldn't recall anyone ever counting them. His legs were sore and his heart pounded furiously in his chest, but he did his utmost best not to show it. It was undignified—-embarrassing, even. Of all the times he could show weakness, this was undoubtedly the worst of them all. And the audience certainly wasn't helping.
He tried not to look them too much in the eyes. Tradition, again. He just kept walking up the stairs that slithered up the mountainside like a petrified snake, and while doing so, he began to realize why pilgrims often were in such good shape. All the people of Godshill had gathered here this day, on the mountain slope upon which the city was built, all just to see him climb these thousand steps. They stood in two long, snaking lines around the staircase, heads bowed and eyes in the ground, seeming so horribly dismayed. Butchers, hunters, bakers, the whole ordeal. The death of Magnus had shook the city hard, and the look on their faces made all that very clear. If only they knew. If only they knew who they were about to make king.
The sky above was clear, clouds blown far away by the hard mountain winds, and the sun was at a high. Even though the air was cold with the touch of northern frost, the height of the sun seemed to do a perfectly good job at making this trip a painfully tiring one. With fists clenched and eyes always kept on the steps he was about take, he struggled to keep breathing through his nose, rather than panting for the life of him, as he so much desired. However, mere minutes afterward, he found himself whispering a silent prayer of thanks, as the end came into sight.
Seen from his office window, the Angel's Ascent was a gorgeous thing, but it was even prettier this close. Sheer white marble glimmered like a piece of heaven fallen to earth, carved into the shape of a chapel. It stood there on the edge of the massive cliff that hung over Godshill like an arm reaching out from the mountainside, with nothing but a short steel fence standing there to prevent pilgrims from meeting their gods too soon. The drop was dizzying, and the hard winds up here did nothing to quell the vertigo. Long veins of deep blue and red slithered through the stone, and legend was that there was a color for every spirit in the heavens; and every time a new spirit was born, a new vein appeared in the marble, somewhere. The great doors stood perpetually open, always, never closing; a symbol of hospitality, he figured. What with pilgrims climbing these steps every day to pay their respects to gods, spirits, and ancestors, closing the door for merely an hour would surely cause quite the riot. With doors like these, so heavy that it would need several men to close just one of them, he had decided that it just wasn't worth the effort anyway.
In the doorway, stood a rather familiar face. Somewhat, at least. Wrinkled and old, dressed in porcelain white robes and a tall, proud hat, Bishop Quintus was a man of renown indeed. His title was one thing, very impressive of course, but Quintus had made quite a name of himself after he had torn out his own eye, claiming that seeing eye saw man and mortals, while the blind eye saw gods and heavens. With one eye gone, he claimed that he now saw both. This was several years ago, and at that point, Lucius hadn't thought that you could ever win a promotion by tearing out your own eye. Quintus was a proof of the opposite.
“Come closer, child.” Quintus held out both arms to Lucius, his hands gaunt and bony and his wrinkled face wrought in ceremonial grief “Come closer, to the floors of marble heaven, and the winds of gods' breath. Come closer and step into the shade of the sanctuary where no evil can reach; where the fountain of respite wells true for every man; where our bygone king now does sleep.”
Lucius knew the ceremony quite well. Quintus was supposed to say all this, and Lucius was supposed to say nothing-—so that's exactly what he did. He approached Quintus, who was a rather short man by himself, but his hat served to compensate. The two stared into one another's eyes in silence for a few seconds-—it was in times like these that Lucius was thankful for what Quintus had done, so that those he spoke with wouldn't need to go through the awkwardness of trying to focus on two eyes at the same time. Quintus wore a patch over his absent eye, and on that patch, all five symbols of the gods were etched into the leather. More symbolism, probably. This day sure was full of that stuff, Lucius saw.
“Under the light of heaven, an age has passed. Under the light of heaven, a great soul has transcended from this world, and joined the gods above-—and under the light of heaven, another great man shall take his place!” Quintus raised his arms high as if speaking to the gods themselves, and the audience that had gathered around the entrance of the Angel's Ascent turned their gazes heavenwards, several of them with hands interlocked in prayer.
“Kneel now, Lucius Pius Deum, and let the gods judge you. Kneel now, and let the word of this day resound throughout the ages, so the world may know whether you be worthy... or not.” Quintus said the last word with a theatrical sense of dire, and some dread seemed to drift across the faces of the audience, at the mere mention of the chance that their coming king might not be fit for the throne. Lucius glanced upwards, to the cloudless sky. Who was really up there, he wondered, and did they really care this much about who called themselves king in this realm of mortals. He took in a long breath. He knelt.
Quintus' hands on his shoulders felt like the emaciated touch of a malnourished beggar—hardly even more than a skeleton. Quintus was such a fragile man, and sometimes Lucius wondered if the winds up here wouldn't one day just sweep him away, and put an end to the man. He stood in the shelter of a nearby marble pillar, but his porcelain white robes swayed and danced in the strong mountain gusts. Lucius wasn't much for kneeling... but tradition was tradition, and he knew he wasn't going to be popular if he made any changes to that.
Quintus' eye shut slowly. Perhaps this was so that he could see the gods with both eyes, instead of just one. The audience quieted down, and for a moment, it seemed almost as if the wind did as well. Quintus' bony fingers tapped slightly on Lucius' shoulders, and incoherent muttering spilled from his mouth. His lips twitched a little, before they spoke.
“Lucius Pius Deum. The gods have seen you. The gods have felt you. The gods have weighed you upon the scale of heavens, and have judged you through and through. With eyes that see more than flesh, with fingers that caress your very soul, the five divines have come to an agreement. Spoken by their voice, I hereby declare you...” Lucius could feel the dagger-sharp stares of the audience behind him, so eager, so tense. Lucius had to confess to a little tension himself, with a heart pounding just as hard as when he ascended those steps. He closed his eyes, and considered praying. But what help would that be, in a situation like this?
Lucius' heart twisted for but a second, but relaxed as he realized the judgment. Relief swept throughout the audience like a wave of warm water, soothing and washing away any doubt they may have held for him. Some of them looked to the skies and gave thanks to those above, while others began to applaud. But whatever they did, there was not a single one who didn't smile.
“The gods have spoken!” Quintus raised both voice and arms to the crowd “Upon this day, the gods accept you, Lucius Pius Deum, as their highest servant of all! Rejoice, for the heavens have deemed you fit for the crown! Rejoice, for within mere days, Godshill—and the entire world-—shall see the beginning of a new age!”
Lucius rose, smiling as the crowd roared in celebration. The mountainside came alive with the applause of the people, their shouting and clapping and whistle-blowing echoing on distant cliffs. They shouted his name, 'Deum, Deum, Deum', as if they had already forgotten all about Magnus. But while the people may have, the ceremony certainly had not.
“Well and good, well and good.” Quintus said calmly, his hands raised to quiet down the crowd-—which they did “Never did we doubt your fortitude and virtue, Lucius, but before we greet our new king, we must first say farewell to our former.” a silence fell over the crowd now, as they were reminded why they were here-—Lucius' coronation wasn't quite yet, he knew. He straightened up and smoothed out his ceremonial outfit, as Quintus stepped aside, revealing the inside of the marble chapel.
The floors had been swept so clean that the sunlight shimmered on them, amplifying all the little colors that ran through the stone like rivers. The benches had been removed, the altar temporarily set aside, and a doorway in the very back of it the chapel opened up. A wind swept through the chapel; in from the front, out from the back. Lucius' eyes focused on what the hind doors revealed. Sitting on a marble pedestal, an urn with a legend painted on its side stood gleaming, as clean as the floors he was soon to walk on. The pedestal stood upon the very tip of the cliff, the absolute edge where one misstep could mean a quick and unpleasant descent into the streets of Godshill so far below. The cheer of the crowd had been killed, as the second phase of the ceremony began.
“Approach now your predecessor, Lucius. Approach what remains of the once-great Magnus, for who better to say farewell to the king, than thee who would sit the throne upon which he once did? Let fly his ashes over his city, so that the gods may carry him where they deem him fit.”
And that was exactly what Lucius did. With the whole city staring at him, he stepped in through the marble doors, through the sacred chapel halls, until he stood before what once was King Magnus. His hair swayed in the moaning winds and his fingers seemed to tingle, as he laid them on the late king's urn. It was odd, Lucius thought, to see him so... reduced. He stood there in silence, forgetting the audience that stared so expectantly at him from behind the marble doors. He stood there and thought to himself, was this really all that remained of man as great as Magnus? It seemed that no matter who you were, in the end, you would still only be this. Ashes. Kings, soldiers, beggars... it didn't matter. When the time came, death would unify them all, regardless of what titles they bore, and what lives they had lived.
I suppose... there's some beauty to be found, in that.
He took in a deep breath, and wasted no more time. These were just ashes, after all, and he had an audience to entertain. He took the urn from its pedestal, approached the edge, and removed the lid. And just like that, out it came. That which once was a king. Black ashes spilled from the marble and was swept away in the winds, bit by bit. Lucius watched attentively as Magnus' remains were emptied completely from the urn-—and only when the last speck of ash poured from the marble rims, did he put it back where it belonged. That was the end of that. The deed was done, and the last word of Magnus' chapter had been written. Now... it was time to write a new one.
He turned on his heel, carrying no remorse and no weight on his heart, as he left the last thing that remained of the great king Magnus, and embraced the people that once was his. And as he stepped outside, they too did embrace him with cheer and applause. He stood there in the marble doorway, and did nothing but smile. Such was the way of tradition. Throughout this entire ceremony, Lucius was not allowed to say a single word-—and thus, he hadn't. He looked to Quintus, who stood there on his right, smiling just as much. There was satisfaction in his eye. He wouldn't even need to say anything himself, for Lucius to hear the words 'well done'.
The crowd seemed to dissipate, after that. Portion by portion, when they had finished their cheering, they began the descent down the stairs to resume their daily lives. Lucius, however, remained. He stood there in the shade of the marble chapel, hands folded behind his back, chin raised and a smile donned for whatever stragglers remained. Only when the last one had left, did Quintus come walking out from the chapel, dragging a pair of wooden chairs with him.
“You did well, my child.” he said, finally with a voice relaxed and without that ceremonial, theatrical glory “The people are pleased with you.”
Lucius sat into the chair, and let out a breath of relief. He could still feel his legs aching from the trip up here-—never had he appreciated a chair as much as now. He sat facing Quintus, whose one-eyed gaze had already drifted away to the frozen peaks, at the very top of the mountain range upon which Godshill was built. Lucius sunk into his chair, and kept his smile.
“I'm glad they are.” he said “I was afraid they'd just see me as a warmonger. That's how they've known me thus far, after all. Magnus has been very effective of making a name of himself, while I sit in my office and do all the paperwork...” he chuckled slightly “I wonder what poor fool will have to take my former place. Whoever it is, though, I'll make certain that he gets a slice of the cake as well. I'm not going to put him through the same misery that I have endured.”
“Misery?” Quintus chuckled hoarsely “You should know, Lucius, there are people down there who would lash themselves for an entire month, just to have your seat for a week.” his smile lingered “Either way, that will be for you to decide, once you take your place on that throne, Lucius. A king can do much, and I'm sure a man like you can do even more, but a wise leader knows when to share his power.” Quintus said calmly, sounding quite confident in Lucius, in fact “And that is probably the smallest decision you will have to make. With that crown on your head, you will have not only responsibility for the safety and prosperity of Godshill, but for the entire empire as well.” he gave Lucius a sincere look with that one eye of his “I should hope that you are prepared for the task ahead, my child. It will not be easy.”
Lucius smiled “If I thought it would be a breeze, I would have quit while I had the chance. Worry not, Quintus. I am confident that I am fit for the task... as do the gods, don't they?”
“Indeed.” Quintus gave a nod. He leaned back in his chair and turned his eye on the mountain peaks again, keeping quiet as the seconds went by, the howl of the wind filling up the silence. He seemed oddly contemplative for a rather long while, before he spoke.
“Or whomever reigns in the skies, these days.”
Lucius had followed Quintus' stare into the mountains, but now he looked back at him, puzzled “And what's that supposed to mean?”
“Oh come now, Lucius.” Quintus said, meeting Lucius' stare “You know plain well what it is I speak of. This... 'Omnos' character. It concerns me.”
Lucius snorted “You're a wise man, Quintus—-you should know better than to fall for such rumors. Indeed, two people had a dream about the same thing, and that is curious-—but curious is all it is, and all it will ever be. If there truly is something worth investigating, it may be that someone has learned some mind tricks, and is playing a game with us.”
Quintus' gaunt shoulders gave a shrug “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps we are both wrong. Truth or not, it is making the people nervous. Ever since the birth of time, Lucius, never once has the structure of the heavens been questioned by man.” Lucius could see the genuine worry in the old priest's eyes “Why now?”
“These are troubled times, Quintus.” Lucius' fingers tapped on his armrest, uneasy for a moment or two “There have been riders and travelers coming in from the south, carrying stories of a demon army, hailing from deep within the Wastelands, laying waste to all in its path. I suppose the word of Aegon's fall would inevitably reach the people, but I try, Quintus-—I try to keep them calm.” he pursed his lips “But they are like dogs, Quintus. A large, confused pack of dogs. They can feel it in the air and in the ground at their feet, that something is wrong. When doubt and unease begin creeping up the back of their minds, they'll believe anything. They already know that something is coming... and when they are told that some god-king is as well, they'll eat it raw.”
Quintus sighed. There was nothing he could say against that, for it was the ugly truth. His eye fell to the twiddling fingers in his lap, and Lucius could see on his face that he had something in mind. He waited patiently, until he had the courage to say it.
“You should know, Lucius,” he said, looking back at him “The people think it no coincidence, that Magnus died soon after the word of this god-king, Omnos, began to spread. They believe that he will inherit the throne of the heavens, just like you now are inheriting the throne of the world.”
Lucius' eyebrows rose, and his heart seemed to stand still, for but a second. He stared at Quintus in disbelief “You cannot mean—-“
“But I do.” Quintus interrupted, and not without a dire sense of foreboding in his voice “Fortunately, the idea hasn't spread to everyone... but it is there, and it is growing. They think that Omnos... is you, Lucius.”
Lucius sat in staggered silence, as he tried to comprehend what he was being told. Indeed, the people could be easily frightened and easily convinced of even the wildest nonsense... but this? This was too much. Lucius didn't quite know what to say. So, just to say anything, he laughed.
“Hah! Oh Godshill, how gullible you've become.” he chuckled, his smile wide, but his heart full of unease “I know what I said about the people, but I hadn't thought it to be of such... magnitude. They really will believe anything.” his smile dwindled a little, as he exhaled through his nose “But I can't let it get out of hand. I'm not going to risk the wrath of the heavens, by putting on the guise of some fantasy god. I'll have to make an announcement about all this, at my coronation. Best kill the rumor, before it turns into false hope.”
Quintus smiled, and nodded “That is the wisest thing you've said all day, my child.”
Lucius looked back, and mirrored his smile “Well, the ceremony forbid me from saying anything at all, so that's no feat.”
He and Quintus shared a laugh. For a priest so old and so zealous, Quintus was one of the few who knew how to relax and smile once in a while. Most other priests, specifically those dedicated to Morrin, always seemed so glum and boring. Quintus may have torn out his own eye, but at least he could still see the mirth in life, even if his was at its eve.
Lucius slowly rose to his feet, and buttoned up his outfit “Speaking of which, now that the ceremony is finished, I had best get back to work. When one is about to become king, one cannot laze, after all.” he smirked “I wouldn't want to follow Magnus' example.”
Quintus inclined his head “Now now, don't speak ill of the dead. Magnus was a good man, and accomplished much in his time. Were it not for him, we would likely still be isolated completely from the Luminites. It was only when he grew of age, that his body began to slouch and laze set in.”
Lucius gave a few apologetic nods “I suppose that's true. In which case, I'll have something to live up to—-or surpass.” he turned on his heel to face Quintus, and gave a polite nod of his head “Gods be at your side, Quintus.”
Quintus followed Lucius' gesture “As to you... your majesty.”
The way back was possibly the first sign of change that Lucius noticed, now that the crown was figuratively hovering over his head. The descent from the cliff was a peaceful one, and going down was significantly easier than going up, but it was when he stepped in through the mountainside gate of Godshill, that he saw how times had changed. Mere days ago, when Magnus still was king, the people would only have a vague idea of who he was; they'd know he was someone important, being dressed all beautifully and expensively, but rarely could they put a name, or even a title on him. But after today, such things had changed. The guards gave him a polite nod, as per usual, but as he strolled through the sloped streets of Godshill, even the people smiled at him and called him 'my king'. Elders sat in the shade of their humble homes in their narrow cobbled streets, smiling and even saluting at times, as he passed by. It was odd, almost alien, how they saw him now. But the more he wandered the well-kept streets, the more people came to greet him and bless him, and the more he wondered to himself... to whom of these am I a king, and to whom of these, am I a god?
There was something a little haunting in all of it, the more he thought about it. The look in their eye; was it happiness, or was it reverence? Fear, even? Were they afraid of him? The people were easy to scare, as he himself had told Quintus, and if they truly believed that he and Omnos were one and the same, they'd be watching a god-king walk by their front porches. Even he couldn't quite comprehend how the average mind would react to that. To see what they truly believed to be some kind of omniscient and omnipotent being walk by, hands in his pockets and wind in his hair, like was he just another citizen amongst them. Their smiles seemed so comforting, so flattering at first-—but the more he thought about why they may have been smiling, the more uneasy he felt. Becoming a king was big enough... but a god?
He picked up his pace, and took some rather unconventional ways through the city. He looked over his shoulder, and several times he could swear that he saw someone following him. Beady, obsessive eyes seemed to stare through the windows at him, and from the shadows cast by the midday sun. It was with great relief that he took a turn, and stepped in through a rather familiar shop, in one of the less visited districts of the city.
The scent of herbs was strong in here, even deafening at times, if the alchemist of the house had been particularly busy that day. There was a little bell that heralded his entrance, and it rang another time as he closed door. The air in here was thick and musty, and full of a thousand smells that seemed to coil together in a dreadfully confusing cocktail. He was quite used to it, though, unlike many other unfortunate customers who somehow stumble into this place. The owner of this place was a very careful and scheduled man, and thus, everything looked exactly the same, every time Lucius stepped in through that door. Mushrooms, herbs, blood vials, and other ingredients littered the right side shelves; one could glance once over it, and be set on a journey through the entire Mortal Realm as seen through an alchemist's eyes. Everything was in alphabetical order, of course, and by now, Lucius could name the majority of all these little plants and materials. Bladevine from the Jemero keys; Emperor's Grace from the Yantsu Island; Dustbloom from the Dragonlands-—it was all here, and in as good quality as it had always been.
On the left side, though, were all the completed potions. Alphabetically ordered as well, naturally. Hundreds of little vials full of swirling, unearthly liquids was displayed freely for the eager customer to see. The trick was that they all looked quite pretty and healthy, but Lucius had been here enough times to know better. Just one glance over the left side shelf, and he could name at least three poisons that would result in a slow and agonizing demise. Fortunately, that was not common knowledge. In fact, this entire shop wasn't common knowledge.
“Ahh... those footsteps. That gait. The extra weight on the left leg—-but Lucius, what are these? New shoes?”
The voice came from a room behind the desk that filled up the back of the shop, croaking and slithering, like some twisted mix between a snake and a toad. Lucius smiled.
“Were you not at the ceremony, Mr. Grey?”
“Oh Lucius, time and again have I told you to just call me Orlan! By now, some would even call us friends, as much as you come to visit.” the owner of the voice came strutting around the corner, wearing a wide and excited smile “Why sometimes I think you visit just because you want to see me again. I know some people who would pay well for such delicious gossip.”
The dark elf who called himself Orlan was a rather curious creation. Not nearly as tall as the rest of his dark-skinned brethren, merely at eye-height with Lucius, and with a head shaven clean. His elongated ears were riddled with gold and silver rings, as was traditional for most elves, but his swampy brown clothes were surprisingly humble and even ragged, what with all the rips and holes in them. His teeth were all intact, though, for when you were to smile at customers, you'd rather not give them an ugly smile to look at-—Orlan seemed to have understood this message. And thus he smiled, while giving Lucius a deeply amused look through the monocle that had been strapped by leather to his left eye.
“In fact, should I so desire, I could provide the world with more gossip than any other man on the face of this earth. Why, you share so many stories with me, I'm beginning to think that we're married, Lucius!”
Lucius sat down on a stool on the other side of Orlan's desk, and gave him a knowing smirk “Don't flatter yourself, Orlan. I gave up marriage ever since I became a sworn of the church—-something even more desirable than a place in paradise will need to appear, for me to undo that.”
Orlan made a theatrically insulted mime “Why I never! I'm insulted, Lucius! And here I thought we were destined for one another!”
Lucius kept his smirk, but raised a finger to wag at Orlan “You should know perfectly well that nothing good can come of love between man and elf. It always just ends with the elf outliving the human-—and that's a tragedy I'm sure you'd rather avoid. I don't share my stories with you, because I'm head over heels for you; I share my stories with you, as a business investment. Trust goes a long way. Besides... I'm sure you'd find it horribly hazardous for your health, if you said anything.”
“Ah yes... you made that wonderfully clear in your letter, didn't you?” Orlan's nimble hand glided in under his desk, and fetched out a small piece of parchment. He sat down in a stool opposite of Lucius, unfolded the parchment, reading aloud “Do not betray me, Mr. Grey. I will personally see to it that your tongue is removed, if it wags the wrong way. And your head too, if it becomes necessary. Do not make it so.”
Orlan folded the parchment together, and put it back where he found it. He gave Lucius a rather disappointed look, lips puckered slightly “That's not very romantic, Lucius.”
“Nor was it supposed to be.” he retorted “I was simply making sure that our mutual understanding remained exactly that: mutual. The last thing I want in a matter as delicate as this one, is a stupid misunderstanding that creates unwanted disturbance.”
“And it didn't come to that, did it?” Orlan asked, folding his dark-skinned fingers in his lap “You got your poison, the king is dead, and you're soon to have his throne. Everyone thinks the old fool's heart simply just betrayed him one day, and that was that. 'Will of the gods', they call it...” his smile grew to become a demon's grin “...and judging by the current rumors about you, Lucius, I'm beginning to think they might be right.”
Lucius' smile was washed away by a disgruntled sneer “Don't, Orlan. This whole Omnos charade is bad enough as it is. I don't want you to become part of it as well.”
Orlan gave a large shrug “Truth be told, I couldn't care less about who sits on the heavenly throne, spewing orders down at us mortal men. Maybe it's my Dus'Fen blood speaking, but I just never had a thing for the divine, you know. Odd that I should end up in a place like Godshill, but hey... I just go where the money flows, like a fish in a river. But if you really are some kind of god-king... well then I might just begin thinking you're out of my league.”
“Which I'm not.” Lucius added “Omnos, that is. I am most definitely out of your league, though. I may not be a god-king, but that doesn't mean I'm all yours. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Disappointed indeed.” Orlan frowned with great exaggeration, but he couldn't keep it for long. He seemed to know very well that his smile was the prettiest thing about him, and thus kept showing it.
“But I'm sure you didn't come here to flirt. Of course, I'd be flattered if you were, but as you said: you're probably out of my league. So if not to flirt... what did you come here for, hm?” he asked, leaning in over the desk, resting his head in his hands.
Lucius gave the odd Dus'Fen a silent look for a moment, eyes wandering. He would clearly have preferred just to point at what he came here for, but he couldn't seem to find it anywhere on Orlan's shelves. He let out a long breath, and looked back into his monocle-adorned gaze.
“I've run out of balm, Orlan. I plan on going to see her today, and tell her about what's happened this past week. While doing so, I figured I'd freshen up her balm a little too.”
Orlan's eyebrows raised “Ahh... of course. Poor girl, that one. You're sweet to take care of her like that.” he scooted off his stool and strolled around behind the desk, glances thrown here and there in lazy search for one particular thing “The usual?”
“The usual.” Lucius echoed “And you know that it's the least I can do. She's in pain, and I find that it's my duty to quell them as much as I can.”
“There are others who aren't nearly as benevolent as you, you know.” Orlan spoke rather nonchalantly as he scooped up a small vial hidden at the end of the table, and gave it a few flicks of his sleek index finger. He looked back at Lucius “What is it again that ails her?”
“Burns.” Lucius said, not without some weight in that word “Demonfire. You know how it is with that. Not a thing in the world can restore to her what she once was, not holy water, not incense, not anything. The best we can do, is soothe her agony.” he wore a distant look, blankly staring into the table where his nail peeled off small strings of wood “So that's exactly what I aim to do.”
“And with this balm, you shall.” Orlan said as he returned to put the vial before Lucius, in which the curious balm swirled. It was a creamy white substance, with strings of magic darting through like tiny insects within. Lucius curled his fingers around it, and felt it tingle. That mere sensation verified its quality; no tingle, no effect. Too many times had he learned that lesson, when trying to purchase similar balms from other alchemists. But none did it as well as Orlan.
“You know, Lucius...” Orlan's smile seemed to disappear for a moment, as he leaned in close, eyes unwavering in their stare “...Most other people would simply put her out of her misery. As you said, demonfire cannot be cured by anything in this world... but death isn't exactly from this world, now is it?”
Lucius' face scrunched up in a disgusted sneer “Back off, Orlan. That's close enough.” he snatched the vial, and trickled some coins unto the desk “You can flirt all you want, but don't push your luck. Even I have my limits.”
“Ah... my bad.” Orlan raised his hands apologetically “I see now that the cat has teeth. I suppose you know best, anyway.”
“Given the circumstances, I think you're right.” Lucius spoke through gritted teeth, as he slipped the vial into his pockets “Now, I think we're just about done. Best stop before things get ugly.”
Orlan gave Lucius an inclined look, the smallest of grins peeking forth at the edge of his lips “Given the circumstances, Lucius, what with the events that have transpired across these recent days... I think things are as ugly as they get.” Lucius saw now that Orlan couldn't stop smiling, that it was like wrestling with a pig in the mud. At the end of the day, the pig enjoyed it. He huffed slightly and shook his head. He had no more words for this alchemist, as he turned around on his heel, and left the shop.
There was peace, finally, as those great palace doors shut behind him. Their resounding clamor echoed throughout the throne halls, again and again upon the great white pillars that held the ceiling aloft. Lucius took in a deep breath of the air that smelled so softly of red royal carpets and solitude. He could hear his leather shoes click against the marble floors, just the way he preferred it. He could hear the sound of his breath whisper from the walls on either side of him, so tall and church-like, with gentle noon light breaking in from the left. And at the very back of it all, so tall and proud in its majestic gold and silver, was the throne. Lucius looked upon it, and couldn't help but smile. Even now he could still imagine Magnus sitting there, looking so old, so weak, so tired of life. But the truth of it was, he was only tired of the throne. The hard gold and silver was not nearly as comfortable as his trusty chair on the balcony, and people came to him with complaints, rather than amphorae full of wine. No wonder that the old man loathed the throne so much. Fortunate, then, that a much more willing heir had risen to relieve him of it.
But instead of heading straight for the throne, Lucius strode by it, though not without gliding his hand over its smooth armrest once. He felt almost as if it tickled in his fingers; like he could feel the importance and power brimming within this sacred seat. But rather than sitting down and claiming it as his own—-for that was much too early, even now—-he turned to his office door instead, and stepped inside.
There was an aura of peace, in here, in the office in which he had spent so many years. By now, it had grown to become more of an office; it had become his home. With a bed, wardrobe, and bookshelves with as much literature as a man could ever want, this place contained more than wealth than an entire district of Godshill did. But even more so were the royal chambers, where Magnus had wasted away, succumbed to gluttony and sloth, so very unlike a king. Lucius had considered ordering it remade and re-purposed as soon as that crown fell on his head... but then again, the room was only as filthy as its king. It would be a fine upgrade from this place, he figured. He sat down by the desk, upon which those stacks of paper stood, tenacious like a hydra; take one paper away, and three more would appear. But despite how tedious these things could be, he felt that he might come to miss the endless stacks of paper one day, after some other poor fool took his place as High Commander. One day, perhaps.
He reached for the feather pen and dipped it a few times in the nearby inkwell. Pulling a blank paper close, he quickly began to write, in that delicate and curling handwriting of his.
I trust that once I am king, you will treat my replacement with as much kindness and loyalty, as you had with me. Although I will not disappear from the world entirely, your days of servitude to me are soon to meet their end. The years in which you have served me have been long and tedious at times, but I would take this moment to thank you for all the hard work you have done, and how you have never failed to carry out my orders. It is with a heavy heart that I write these words, and with a heavy heart, that I issue one last request.
Now that Magnus has left our world, I will free this empire from its political sloth, and restore it to the greatness it is supposed to be. To the south, as you know, both demon and man are threatening our the safety of our nation, and our people. The demons are as demons are, but I see now that I may perhaps need to take this rising rebellion a little more seriously. Demon, rebel, and nobleman alike are as of this moment declared enemies of the empire; and thus, must be stomped out with all due haste. Fortunately for us, all three are bound to collide within the walls of Moonby Sanctuary within mere days. It is a chance that we cannot afford to let slip between our fingers.
Copy this order, and see it delivered to all of my centurions. With Magnus, the age of lethargy has died. Tell them to prepare the angels.
~Lucius Pius Deum, Regent of the Sacred Empire.
He folded the parchment together, stuffed it into an envelope, and sealed it with wax. The seal of a swan with rising wings was saved for urgent letters of great importance, and Lucius had no hesitation as he squeezed it unto the wax. He stood from his desk and dropped the letter down into a small box in the wall, that sent it sliding down a tube to the servants' cellar, where Ferdinand was sure to find it. He watched as the letter disappeared into the chute, and let out a long, relieved sigh. It was done. There was no going back now... not that there was any reason to, of course. In fact, he had wanted this for far too long now, only held back by Magnus' cowardice. But now, all cowardice had been purged from these halls. The crown was not fit for a head full of fear and hesitation. Only an undeniable lust for justice remained.
He quickly turned around, when the deed was done. It was no longer in his hands, but the armored gauntlets of his centurions instead. He turned his eyes on the farthest bookshelf in the corner of the office, and approached it with swift steps. He looked over the titles, most of them being knightly tales written by holy hands, though there were a few amusing ones here and there; one that he held particularly dear, was the one titled 'The Godshill Complex'. A banned book by all means, but who was to question what the High Commander had in his bookshelf? He found that reading about the people's suspicions and conspiracies were almost... flattering. Some of them flew high and wild, proclaiming that the king and the High Commander were returned dragons taking upon a human guise, pulling the strings of the world to regain their seat of power – while others were far more accurate in their claims. Fortunately, the people of Godshill—-and the rest of the world—-were, and would always be, sheep. They'd believe everything stuffed down their throats, and if they believed everything, they could never truly believe anything. That fact was no different, in the case of this book. They believed all of it to be true, and thus, none of it was true. Just as he preferred it.
He reached forward, to the book. However, instead of taking it from the shelf, his hand slipped in behind it, to flip at a tiny switch hidden behind its pages. The entire bookshelf gave a sudden jerk, and a few seconds afterward, it began to slide sideways. Musty cellar air spilled out of the staircase that was revealed, hidden behind the bookshelf. The light of noon illuminated a few steps, but no more than a few meters down, darkness took over. Shadows as thick as ink, untouched by anyone but himself, having tasted no light but the somber glow of a lantern's fickle flame. Even now, Lucius had already fetched the steel lantern, in which a small candle sat. He struck a match, and led the tiny flame in to kiss the candle's wick. He whipped the match, slew the flame, and put the smoking remains aside once the lantern had been lit. Only then did he turn his eyes into the shadows that lurked below, roiling about in cobwebs and dust. He looked over his shoulder to the door, feeling slightly paranoid that someone might be staring in through the keyhole. But paranoia was all that it was. He shook his head, and took the first steps into the forlorn cellar, his way illuminated by the soft shine of the lantern in his hand.
It was a drastic change, going from the splendor of silk cushions and vivid colors of his office, to the bleak darkness that filled up this dust-smothered staircase. Musty old granite made up the walls, cobwebs hanging like satin threads, lit up by nothing but the humble glow of the lantern. But Lucius knew this place well. He knew it all too well, and held it even more dear. For it contained something that belonged to him, and him alone.
The sound of his shoes clicking on the granite steps echoed ever so faintly in a room at the bottom of the staircase, one which his bubble of light soon merged with. The darkness lurked around him wherever his lanter's glow could not reach, shadows coiling and twisting with every flick and twist of the lantern's flame. He held it out before him, as he descended the last step of the staircase. The shadows squeezed together in dusty corners of this cramped room, fit for nothing, fit for no one. And yet, though there were no chairs, no bed, no tables, there was more life down here than simply spiders and rats.
A second shadow, aside from Lucius'. In the back of the room, a small table-shrine to Hrumalz and one to Lyrras stood side by side, flanked by half a dozen candles, some fresh and tall, others flat and with wax pooling at their feet. The shapes of the shrines were cast unto the walls as sacred shadow-play, the greatsword of Hrumalz and the long robe of Lyrras dancing and swaying in tact with the candle-flames that surrounded them. And before all this, between the glow of the candles and that of Lucius' lantern, a woman lay on her knees, head and back bowed deeply, eyes in the dust. Her hair had been cut short where it hadn't been burned off, but it was growing lengthy again, its deep brown color turning to black in the embrace of shadows. She was little but a silhouette amongst the darkness, her body gentle and smooth, but Lucius knew that she was no longer the beauty she once was, all those years ago. She sat still as he entered, but Lucius knew that she wasn't dead, for he could hear her wheezing, struggling breath as she sat there, her arms raised in chains bound to the walls around her. Six chains there were, three for each hand, and a whole arm's length of an iron clasp, for nothing else would keep her bound. Nothing else could, but iron chains and his own will. Sometimes, it was difficult to tell which one of these it was that truly bound her here.
“You're still alive.” Lucius' voice was somber and quiet, for he knew that he did not need to raise it “You fight well and hard. As you should.”
He bowed down under the three chains that held her left arm, and stepped up before her, so that he could look her in the eyes. It was the least he could do, for a woman so lonely, so broken. At least there was still someone who saw the beauty within her, where others would cry 'monster!'. Her eyes were silent and dead, drowned in the darkness and robbed of any trace of life. He recalled a time where there once was such vigor in that deep blue gaze, but that was a bygone age, and a bygone reality. Now, she sat there, an artificial vestige of someone else; a corpse held alive, where it by all means should be dead. And in many ways, she was. The only life left in her, seemed to be her slow and burdened breath, and even that was hidden behind a mask. A steel mask, covering her face from her nose and down, depicting a horrid demon's mouth where her own hid behind. Jagged, morbid teeth of the hundreds filled up half of her face, engraved upon the steel to never waste away, and to always remind Lucius of what had taken her, and what she had become. From her nose and up, an angel; from her nose and down, a demon. But this mask was much easier on the eyes, than that which it obscured.
“I feel... so cold.” her voice was a whisper, every word spoken through gritted teeth, as if she had slowly begun to forget her own language “The fire never ceases to burn, and yet, I shiver. I shiver, Lucius. I shiver in the hand of a death that hovers over me, but never takes me.” the chains rattled and the shadows seemed to twist as she slowly raised her stare unto Lucius, to look him in the eye “I shiver, Lucius... in fear that I will never feel father Morrin's sweet relief. That I will never find rest when I lay down to die. That I will ascend to the gates of paradise, to stand before their sacred judgment, to hammer wildly on the doors... only to find them locked.”
Lucius lay the lantern at his feet as he crouched down before the woman in chains, his eyes never breaking contact with hers. His lips were a soft smile, gentle and loving, no matter how cold and dead a stare he was given. He reached forward, his smooth hand caressing her cheek, where brutal burn marks had blackened her skin and scorched most of the left side of her face. She flinched slightly at the pain of being touched, but Lucius knew that she was used to it. By now, she had no choice anyway.
“Worry not, precious sister mine.” he said, voice lowered to a whisper, spoken upon a honeyed tongue “No demons can keep you from heaven, no matter how hurt you are. You're a shredded doll; a shattered figurine... but I'll mend you. I'll mend every last bit of you, until not even the gods can tell the difference. Keep praying, and I promise you, you will find your rest.” he let his hand slip from her cheek “Just a few more years. You've come this far. If we cease your training now, all this time will have been for naught. Would you want that?”
The woman's mouth was silent behind that demon-wrought mask of steel, her broken stare sinking again, heavy under the burden of Lucius' words. She said nothing for a while as she sat there with her arms outstretched like angel wings, limp and feeble in their iron confinement. Only after a few seconds' passing, did she shake her head.
“No.” she whispered “No. I... I must be strong. I'm sorry, brother mine. I didn't mean to worry you.”
“Oh, I'm not worried.” he said with a smile, voice lightened slightly “I have faith in you, sister. I always had, and always will. When the messengers brought me the letter that spoke of your fate, I feared that you were dead and gone already. I thought to myself: 'Is this truly the last I've seen of my beloved sister Xandra?'. But you were stronger than that. Where other men would have crumbled... you endured.” he stood to his feet, and brushed back some of her hair, undoing a few knots thick with sweat and blood “Mother would be proud of you.”
He walked around her, carrying the lantern with him, shedding its humble glow all over her lithe body. When one did not look at her face, she truly was a work of beauty. Carved by the gods from the finest flesh, given a wood-brown crown of hair that sadly had been succumbed halfway to the demonfire's burn. The traditional white toga slashed with gold that he had given her so long ago, had slowly crumbled to the feast of moths—-but it didn't matter. She was beautiful, no matter what clothes she wore.
“I've come with more balm. I thought you'd be happy to hear that.” he sat down on his knees before her, as he drew the balm from his pocket and pulled the cork. Lucius smiled as he saw how her eyes widened, like a dog seeing its owner present a juicy treat for it. Faint mutterings escaped her hidden lips, a prayer of thanks from what Lucius could tell. She even began to sniff at it, ecstatic of the sweet relief she knew it would bring.
“Now, you know what I've told you.” Lucius continued as he emptied the vial out into his right hand palm “It may ease the pain, but never forget the burns are there. You're supposed to control its power, not forget about it. Understood?”
Xandra nodded, but it was clear she was just eager to be given the balm, no matter what Lucius may have said about it. He reached forward to rub some unto her brutalized cheek, her eyes closing, savoring the gradual disappearance of the agony that had otherwise seemed so endless. He undid the top part of her toga once her cheek, her ear, and the left side of her scalp had been thoroughly covered in balm. Beneath her toga, just scraping her left breast, the burns were even worse. Everything from her shoulder to the bottom of her ribcage was a scorched ruin of wrinkled, blackened skin and flesh, clotted blood speckled over it. She let out a long, euphoric sigh as Lucius rubbed more of the balm unto her, covering every inch of her ravaged skin. Orlan had been very careful with the dosage, it seemed, as the last droplet of balm covered the last inch of skin as well. How typical of him.
“Give thanks now, sister mine.” Lucius whispered into her ear as she fastened her toga again, and true enough, another thankful prayer spilled from her hidden lips. He sat back and watched her finish, listening to her repeat the prayer over and over again, the names of all gods seeming to slur together, so fast she was. Only when she opened her eyes again, did he give her a smile.
“Though demons may have burned you, the gods still do not shy from you. Because they, like myself, have faith in you.” he sat with his hands folded in his lap, and the empty vial cradled in them “As you should have faith in yourself. Like a sword, you've been tempered in fire, and where others would burn and turn to ash, you've only grown harder, stronger, better. Perhaps there is something about that old saying, about what doesn't kill you.” his smile grew a few inches, and he could see by the relaxed and flattered look in Xandra's eyes, that she did too.
“Now, we mustn't forget your training.” Lucius reminded her, voice suddenly turning sincere “Have you been practicing while I've been away?”
Xandra swiftly nodded at this “Of course, brother, of course. Never have I yielded to the burn of these tenacious flames... instead, they have yielded to me.” her breath grew heavy, her fists clenching slowly “Day by day, brother, I conquer more of this curse. Day by day, more of it succumbs to my strength. My body is a battlefield, and by the gods, I am winning this war!” she snarled, all of a sudden vehement in her words, as if spoken through the demon's maw that covered her mouth. The shadows around her began to twist and writhe as if coming alive, and the soft glow of the candles was chased back by the growing darkness. Reality felt oddly distant, as if the membrane between worlds had grown thin and weak, hell naught but a hand's width away. Lucius sat there before her, feeling the power that she had learned to harness through all these years locked in darkness, locked in a body that never ceased to burn. Xandra's shape seemed to blur, and but for a moment, Lucius saw no longer his sister in those chains, but a creature with bloodshot eyes and a bony carapace forged in the fires of hell. While her body remained the same, something ungodly seemed to warp and twist around her, a second shadow, a second soul. But did he flinch? Never. For he knew, no matter what kind of twisted figment she had donned upon herself in that moment, that it was his sister nonetheless.
Only when she calmed down, did the shadows cease to coil, and the wall between worlds grew strong once more. She panted and growled with demons' breath as she hung there, arms outstretched, unblinking eyes staring into the dust. Lucius smiled and reached forth and lifted her chin so that she might look him in the eye.
“The gods have granted you a mighty gift, sister mine. Dark of nature, true, but judge not the crusader upon the sword he wields, but the heart he carries. Keep praying, sister. You will find your respite.”
He leaned forward, and on her forehead, he placed a gentle kiss. Without a word, without as much as a farewell, he picked his lantern from the ground and stood to his feet. He left her there, as he had done so many times before, to share company with no one but the gods and the demon within her. In shadows she was drowned, as Lucius ascended the stairs and closed the secret door behind him.