There was a district in this city much unlike the others. Just west of the residential district and north of the mage's district, there was a district the people only seemed to visit on certain days of the week, or when they were down on their luck. It was, of course, the church district. Curious, Ramund found, for of all districts in this city, this one seemed the most godforsaken.
Ramund had been to the slum district, and he knew its squalor. He knew the omnipresent stench of filth in there, the sewer entrances that spilled fumes like the open maw of hell itself. He knew the constant threat of thugs and murderers lurking in the shadows. And yet, this place somehow managed to present itself worse than that. For while the slum district held life, it seemed that the same could not be said about this place.
Simply walking its streets made him ill at ease. Everywhere he turned, the pitiful remains of what once may have been a house and a home stood as a neglected testimony to the rigors of war. Ruins, everywhere. The once proud and tall houses of misty stone were reduced to crumbled rubble that had long since seen the last glow of embers fade away. Some of them still stood, but a single push of the loose door would reveal the torn inside, the ceilings that had collapsed upon the floors, and sometimes even the floors that had collapsed into the sewers below. The wooden houses of this district were hardly even recognizable; they were little but scattered and shattered planks with a few nails in, and something that could vaguely resemble furniture.
The streets themselves were as ravaged as the houses in between. Craters lay as brutal wounds in the cobblestones, mud spilled out like clotted blood. All the craters were empty, but the clear marks of the trebuchet shots remained. Sometimes, Ramund could even rewind the course of the crater and see where the shot had crashed through the wall; the walls in the distance remained standing, swiftly repaired, but the masonry was lousy and rushed, much unlike other parts of the same walls. This was going to be a weakness against the demons, Ramund figured, and something had to be done about it. He noted it down in his mind for later.
They said that it was The Silk War that caused all this. The strife between House Hedwen and House Rex had brought oblivion to this realm, and though Ramund doubted at first these words, his doubt was shattered as he laid eyes upon the sorrowful ruins. It had been many years since The Silk War, several decades if Ramund recalled correctly, and yet these ruins had gone completely untouched since the devastation. No one felt any desire to rebuild, it seemed, and now they remained as a quiet testimony to the rigors of the past. Even now, as Ramund wandered down the streets and gazed into the misty alleyways drowned in stray rubble, he could not only hear, but feel the ghosts of murdered families. They blended with the mist, and sought remembrance. But it seemed that the city just wanted to forget about all this... pretend it didn't happen.
But Ramund was not here to speak with ghosts. For he knew, in these strange times, life had returned to this district. Not the kind of life that the Moonby folk had expected, surely, but life nonetheless. He heard it in the distance, over the soft waft of evening winds herding the mist down the ruinous streets. The sound of commands being shouted. The sound of marching, the sound of swords clashing in spars between soldiers. The sound of music too, flutes and drums. The sound of children's voices, but not the children that this city was used to seeing. Three of them passed by in the outskirts of the mist, playing a game of tag, from what Ramund could tell. Their tails, their large ears, and their fur put them aside from regular human children, but Ramund found that despite their physical differences, Myaani children and human children were in essence the same. Perhaps it was when they grew older that they would develop opinions, distinctions, and inevitably: xenophobia. If it was not for the demon army encroaching from the borders, Ramund was certain that this number of Myaani refugees would never have been let through the gates—let alone allowed to settle. But these were strange times... and here they were.
It was curious to see how the influx of refugees had brought life to this broken district—in more ways than one. The ghosts of this place had suddenly found themselves with much more company than they perhaps had hoped for. The outskirts of the district, where it was bordering to the rest of the city, was a place of silence and mourning, but the heart of it had begun to beat once more. Though most would surely find this destruction rather disheartening, the Myaani children seemed all too pleased to leap around in the ruins, playing their hearts out as if the world was as peaceful a place as before they fled their home in The Fairlands. They climbed the tattered walls, bounded over the rubble, and skipped through the glassless windows with all the grace and agility that nature had given them.
But while the children played on the graves of this place, these same graves had been put to much better use, deeper into the district. The nomadic nature of the Myaani came to great expression, when Ramund saw how they had repurposed the ruins, brought them back to life, though in a vastly different form than what they were before. Colorful carpets and great sails of cloth became the substitutes for the dismantled walls and ceilings, wound together in wide linen canopies that flew overhead. All of the ruins had become interconnected by the vibrant weave that brought the color to this place that it so sorely lacked—and that could be said about anywhere in this misty city. This color was complimented even further in the light of the setting sun. The gentle winds sung in wind chimes that hung from the leaning skeletons of stone houses, adding in to the music being played by little troupes of young musicians sitting below, playing their pan flutes and drums, their whistles and their rattles. While proud warriors marched about the place, seeming as stoic and vigilant as always, the tribesmen and women were eagerly reviving another home, bringing it back to usefulness by adding even more carpets and cloth. It became a strange amalgamation between the foundation of grey and drowsy granite, and the vibrancy of Myaani mothers' weave.
It was a busy place, bustling and buzzing, chatter everywhere. Ramund strolled quietly through, doing nothing but enjoying the sight of life. The merchants and their wagons, the mothers and their children, and those that Ramund figured were perhaps the Myaani equivalent of politicians, debating away. What Ramund found the most curious, however, was how none of these people seemed particularly afraid about anything. While the humans would huddle and pray in face of the coming demons, the Myaani seemed strangely accepting about it all.
“Nyoukaua, Mjaln!” dashing in from the side, a young Myaani male intercepted Ramund in his path, looking up at him with a big and toothy smile. He was clothed in vividly colored leather and ornamental leaves making up his sleeves—Ramund guessed he was in his early teens “That would be 'hello' in your language. Could I interest in a huulashmen?” he asked. He was rocking back and forth on his large paws, arms swinging gently back and forth, and Ramund noticed how he had no less than two dozen small pouches hanging from his belt and down his legs. Some were even wound into his impressively large mane, which had been delicately braided.
“Pardon?” was all Ramund could ask.
“A huulashmen.” the Myaani repeated “It's a pastry. My mother makes them, and I sell them to people like you. Well... usually, the other tribesmen are more interested, but I figured this is a good chance of getting to share some of our culture. Now... want a huulashmen?”
Ramund gave the young Myaani a skeptical stare and raised both hands in a shrug “But I do not even know what it is.”
“I told you already. It's a pasty.” the Myaani said. It seemed as if he was hiding something “I can give you a sniff, but no taste testing. You bite it, you buy it.”
Ramund folded his large arms and looked down at the Myaani with some suspicion... but the smile he wore was so contagious. Ramund softened up “Consider me interested. But I shall not buy anything I have not seen with my own eyes. Would you show it to me?”
The Myaani scratched the underside of his muzzle, pondering the question, but ending up giving a light shrug “I don't see why not.” he said, and dug his nimble fingers into one of the pouches. Out of it, he pulled a perfectly spherical ball of baked dough; it seemed crunchy, and had a strange orange color. The Myaani rolled it about in his hands and juggled absent-mindedly with it in one hand, his eyes remaining on Ramund—and his beard in particular.
“It's rather small.” Ramund commented—for a man his size, this pastry would be little but a snack “How much do you ask?”
“Oh, as much as you're willing to give.” the Myaani said again, and spoke with quite pronounced gesticulation in his furry hands “How say... twenty crowns?”
Ramund narrowed an eye “I could find myself a bed and a full meal for that price. Let us say ten.”
“Seventeen.” the Myaani countered “What I have here in my hand is culture, Mjaln. I look at the paintings of this city and think the same. Would you pay ten crowns for a painting or a sculpture?”
Ramund snorted over his smile “Ah, but a painting or a sculpture is not made on an afternoon. But I cannot lie: you have made me curious. Let us say fifteen.”
“You got it.” the Myaani said and chucked the pastry to Ramund, who grabbed it with a single hand “You drive a hard bargain, but I'm sure you'll come back for more.”
While Ramund dug out the coins from his own pouch, he gave the Myaani an entertained look “You do know how to sell your wares, my friend. If they are as good as you make them sound, I am certain I shall return for more.” he reached out and trickled the coins into the Myaani's furry palms “Spend them well.”
“Oh, I shall.” the Myaani said as he slipped them into his pockets “Enjoy your pastry, sir. But do it out of sight. It may make you look... indecent.” he gave Ramund a sly wink and a gun-finger gesture with both hands, before slipping away into the busy crowds, gone as quick as he came. Ramund, from this height, could see him disappear into one of the restored houses, where he high-fived a female Myaani of similar age. Ramund sniffed the pastry—it smelled herbal. He shook his head, still smiling, as he tucked it away and resumed his path through the crowd.
The Tu'Myaa settlement expanded far into the district, and the deeper Ramund went, the more lively it became. It was far livelier than what the rest of the city had been, even in times of peace. Moonby Sanctuary had always been a quiet city, and Ramund figured the people here must have found their new guests quite peculiar—and tiring. It was the difference between an energetic child and a sleepy old man, especially considering the young age of the Myaani race as a whole. With only fifty years behind them, it was no wonder that they were eager to make their mark on the world.
Before long, Ramund arrived at what seemed like the only thing that had survived the devastation of war: the church. It was all too quaint that this particular building had gone unscathed, and many had called it divine intervention. In the light of the setting sun, the artistic windows and the white marble pillars donned a new and brighter tint. The church was of a quite peculiar architecture, drawing heavily upon styles from the holy north, but what truly made it so spectacular, was that it was split into five parts. One for each god, so the word was—and it was no small building at all. Each part was as large as a church on its own, and together they formed a truly glorious pantheon housed in clean-scrubbed white marble. Ramund imagined that from above, it must have looked like a starfish.
There was a clearing in the houses here, a wide courtyard that surrounded the proud building. It was almost a city square in itself, but curiously tucked away behind the ruins. In the evening light, Ramund saw the wealth of priests and priestesses wandering about, debating all the matters of the world and beyond, each wearing robes colored accordingly to whatever deity they had devoted themselves to. Pilgrims flocked around the grand church, praying before what seemed like holy scriptures inscribed upon the outside walls of each deity's section of the building. But Ramund remembered the last time he was here, and he knew that there were not nearly as many pilgrims now, as there once was. And with hell marching just on the other side of the horizon, he also knew why.
At the corner of each deity's section, there was an entrance to the center of the church. If the entrance was between the section of Keyen and that of Morrin, the great doors would be flanked by statues of these. The same repeated itself on all entrances, but Ramund found himself standing before an entrance that was flanked by the vicious god of war, Hrumalz, and his benevolent father, Lyrras, the god of life. He had expected the priests and the pilgrims passing him by to give him curious looks, wondering what business a Mjaln could ever have in a human church, but he was given none of these. And as he saw Myani wandering about, mingling with the priests and debating theology, he realized why. These were strange times, so strange that a Mjaln at a human church was beginning to seem mundane. It was actually some of a relief, Ramund found. With a confident smile, he entered.
It had begun to drip outside, a drip that heralded a larger shower, so he was pleased to be under the shelter of a roof. The inside of the church was even more magnificent than the outside of it, of this there was no doubt. The glory of human religion could never be overstated, but the architects of this place were surely trying their best, Ramund thought to himself. The center of the church was a wide forum with plenty of space, a circular hall that split into the five sections. It was a busy place, even at this evening hour. The echo of a hundred voices rang off the tall walls; walls where marble statues of ancient heroes and saints and kings stood tall and eternal; walls that had attracted the hand of every artist in the city, draped in an intricacy of mural paintings that Ramund had yet to see rivaled—anywhere. History was written on the walls, even if not in words, and even if from a religious human perspective, but history nonetheless. Ramund could follow the span of ancient times moving across the walls, rising slowly until it met the ceiling, where a glass dome let the blushing sunlight through. But of all the beauties and wonders that this place offered, Ramund was looking for something far more specific.
There were certain times where Ramund felt that he owed gratitude to his makers for the height they had given him—this was one of those times. Being well a few heads taller than everyone else in here, he could spy across the entire crowd, from one end to the other. He could look in one direction and see the proud altar of Lyrras where pilgrims and devotees flocked, praying for a long life for themselves and their nearest—and with just a turn of his head, he could see the vivid altar of the goddess Jullix, where artists and young maidens besought her, wishing for beauty either in song and writing, or in the flesh. But it was by the terrible altar of Hrumalz, that he found what he was looking for.
He was not particularly hard to spot, the Tu'Myaa chieftain. He had taken off his crown, resorting to more simple clothing of leather and leaves, but it was a pair of trusted bodyguards in tribal plating that gave him away. They flanked him on either side, keeping the crowds at a safe distance in some strange display of xenophobic paranoia. With tall feathered lances and with armor designed to give them a wolfish, predator demeanor, they effortlessly kept pilgrims and priests at a distance. But despite this, it seemed the chieftain had company: a priestess. She wore heavy robes of blood red color, battered plates of steel woven into the cloth, making her almost as armored as the guards that stood before her. The red color, the armored robes, and the pair of swords hanging from her belt left no doubt about to what god she was devoted.
“I have great respect for your people, chieftain, but I fail to see how you can denounce the holy five.” as Ramund approached, he began to hear the debate that was going on between the two “History has shown to us their greatness in mentions innumerable. Wars have been won under Hrumalz' banner, wars that faced impossible odds, but were won not through strength in numbers, but strength in virtue. In these times, more than ever, we must turn to the warrior god and seek his protection.” Ramund made no attempt at interrupting, simply watching for a few moments as the Hrumalz priestess gestured to the altar of her bloodthirsty god. He stood there in marble form, a tall and powerful man whose entire body was hidden behind plates of battered steel. He was designed in such a way that made him seem almost demonic, what with terrible spikes and horns sticking out from his armor. But Ramund knew all of this was part of his symbolism: he stood as a testament to the brutality of war. Even his hair, long and cloak-like reaching down past his elbows, was made from a thousand sword blades laid on end.
“I am not denouncing your gods.” the chieftain retorted as soon as the priestess had spoken “I am simply not glorifying them, claiming that they are somehow elevated above all others. These five 'gods' reign over important elements in our world, true, but there are other spirits that are arguably stronger than any of these. Take Magic, for one; she is the very essence that connects the heavens and our mortal realm. Or Fate, the great storyteller who determines the destiny not only of mortals, but spirits too—yes, even your so-called 'gods'. There is a wealth of thousands in the heavens above, and yet you choose to worship only five?” he shook his blindfolded head “Such negligence.”
“We glorify them not in vain, Myaani.” the priestess said again, chin raised slightly, plated fingers tapping on her elbows “We have picked and chosen out of our own preference, but by the measure of their strength—for I would argue that there exists no other spirit in the heavens that rival our gods. The reason is simple. No other spirits possess two elements at the same time. Hrumalz, the great maker of war, is also the bringer of justice. Lyrras stands for life, but also mercy. Keyen for luck, but also fortune. Jullix for beauty, but also deception. And finally, Morrin, who represents death, but also slumber.” she shrugged her armored shoulders “But surely, you must know this already. Do you not?”
“I believe what the chieftain means to say,” Ramund stepped in to join the discussion “is that it seems negligent to forget about other spirits. There is no doubt that these five possess great strength and importance, but this select elite cannot govern the world alone. We Mjaln, just like the Myaani, revere the spiritual world as a whole; no spirit is greater than the other, for they are all entwined, meaning that the decisions of one will inevitably have consequences for the others. In the north, we do not personify our spirits as much as the Myaani or you humans do, but rather pray to them—as a whole—for whatever it is we need. The skies will provide, by whatever measure is necessary.”
The chieftain did not look up at Ramund, and for a good reason. His large furry ears perked at the sound of his voice while he stared blindly out into thin air, smiling slightly. The priestess, however, looked up at Ramund with suspicion in her stare.
“And you are?” she asked.
“Ramund.” he answered, bowing his bearded head in greeting, once “Sergeant, I would suppose, of the Dawn rebellion.”
“Ah.” she said, as if that was the brick of the puzzle she was missing “Well, sergeant Ramund, I believe you might be glad to know that apprentices, pilgrims, novices, and even certain priests will often give gifts to the more... subordinate elements of the world, if it is a matter too small for the attention of the Five. We are all well aware that the Five do not govern all aspects of our wide and infinitely intricate world, but they have still proven to be superior, and thus deserve our more focused reverence.”
Ramund looked up at the glorious statue of Hrumalz that reached all the way up to the towering ceiling, the citizens and pilgrims kneeling and begging at his heavy sabatons, and the audacious halls that surrounded them “I do see that.” Ramund said, having to confess this obvious fact “We in the north would settle for a small tree made of stone as our shrines... but this will work too. Yes.” he decided not to pursue the issue any longer, his gaze falling to the chieftain next “But I was actually here for you, chieftain. Am I interrupting?”
“If you were, then you already have.” the chieftain said, his smile remaining, a finger raised “But I believe this debate is naught, regardless. What is on your mind, Bjornsson?”
As the priestess left to return to her duties, Ramund took the spot where she had stood. He returned the chieftain's smile, though he wasn't quite certain if it mattered or not for someone as blind as him “I was hoping that you could provide some insight into the battle before us. Being as attuned to the spiritual as you are... perhaps you had received some omens. I am confident that the spirits wish to tell us something, no?”
“Undoubtedly.” the chieftain said “But I have heard quite little. Nothing, as a matter of fact. My time has been exhausted on tending the refugees, arranging accommodations, securing supplies—the list continues. I have not had the chance to sit down and listen.” now, he turned his blindfolded eyes up on Ramund, staring at him through the pale cloth “But as it happens, I find that I may have a moment, as we speak. Perhaps you would like to join me?”
Ramund hadn't expected this “In meditation? Why... I am not certain I know how.”
“I can teach you.” the chieftain said as he pushed himself off the walls “Follow me. If we are swift, we can make it before nightfall.” he gestured Ramund to follow him, and immediately turned to wander down the marble aisle. The armor of his guards rattled as they followed him, and Ramund was caught in a moment of silence, too many questions clogging up his head. He sighed through his nose, decided that they would all be answered in time, and set off to follow the chieftain.
He was led out the great doors of the church and through the pious crowds that gathered around its sacred walls. He knew that the Chieftain was one who only spoke when he had something to say, and thus, Ramund stayed his tongue from small-talk. Silence hung between them as they wandered from the courtyard of the church, and into the ruinous streets once more. Gradually, it became quieter and quieter as they strayed from the chanting pilgrims, priests, and apprentices, the rattling footsteps of the chieftain's guards the only noise that remained. However, this soon came to a stop, as the chieftain gestured them to halt.
Ramund inevitably looked upon the building that the chieftain had led him to. Though whether it was still a building, was not quite certain. Where once there may have stood tall and smooth walls, now there was but a phantom and a hint of what it was before. The shadowy vestige of a manor stood as walls that were only half as tall as they once were, as upper floors that were reduced to lower floors, and lower floors that had collapsed into the sewers below under the wrath of a bygone war. A black fence of steel surrounded that broken manor, but the gates were open, creaking as they swayed in the wind.
But before the ruin, before the lingering tragedy where the mist coiled through the masonry like a peaceless specter, there was a garden. Quite the impressive one at that. Ramund followed the chieftain and got a closer look, seeing all the bushes and ferns that was surely once quite neatly kept and trimmed, but had now overgrown itself, climbing up the walls and fences. It was spacious, full of quaint little pathways of stone that snaked through the tall, wetly shimmering grass. The rain had given the plants all they needed to go on living, and in the sunlight, they shined. Ramund wondered what kind of place this was, for the more he looked upon it, the more it struck him: this did not look much like a manor at all. It did not have the same glorious entrances and proud doors that other manors would have; not to mention that it wasn't in the noble district either. He looked around for clues, and found a small plaque on the fence. But it was rusted over, hiding whatever words that may once have been inscribed. Fortunately, Ramund had a solution for that.
He reached his hand forward, palm turned upward. He began a quiet and brief chant, words muttered under his breath, which was all that was needed. Seeping through the clinks and cracks of his gauntlet, a metallic-colored energy began to coalesce. Once it had grown large enough, he blew at it, making it spill out over the plaque. The Metal magic cleansed the plaque, melting away the rust like a thin layer of ice doused in boiling water—and within the snap of a finger, the words were once again visible.
The Moonby Institution for the Ill of Mind.
“An Asylum?” Ramund asked with great curiosity, his eyes now on the chieftain.
“An Asylum.” the chieftain confirmed, his blind stare on the garden as well, nose raised to the gentle scent that enveloped it “This is a place of peace; that is what it was built for. The aura of serenity will help us meditate... not to mention that the garden is quite lovely, and I do prefer natural surroundings as I meditate. This city of granite is making me... uncomfortable.” he said. The guards on either side of him gave a few nods and agreed in their native tongue—or so Ramund assumed.
“That is a good point.” Ramund said, nodding too “In contrast to the rest of this sorrowful district, it is quite lovely indeed.”
“Hence my reason for choosing it.” The chieftain said, as he strolled on inside. Ramund followed in through the swaying gates of black steel, unto a pathway that had somehow escaped the destruction of the war. Ramund looked upon the building itself, and could imagine what it was once looked like: tall and squared, much like a hospital, with plenty of windows all around to give the asylum inmates all the daylight they wanted; even now, the fading glow cast some beautiful red trappings upon it. But he could also imagine how it had all come crashing down, as a trebuchet shot soared into it. In fact, with just one look in through the splintered door, he could see the floors that had collapsed on themselves—perhaps a relic of the war was to be found down there.
The chieftain's guards took their place at the gate's flanks, maybe mostly out of habit than anything else. The chieftain, however, led Ramund to a small pond in the corner of the garden. It was a cute little thing, adorned with a marble statue of a nameless woman who smiled brightly at the marble fish that surrounded her, circling around her as if they were birds.
The chieftain sat down on his knees before the pond and the statue, his blindfolded eyes seeming to rest on the gentle ripples that spread through the clear waters. He took deep breaths as if he was inhaling the mist, before he spoke to Ramund “Sit in any way you are comfortable. The less that the physical world may intrude upon you, the better.”
Ramund decided to sit with his legs folded and his hands on his knees. It had been quite some time since Ramund had last meditated; it was something he had sorely forgotten about, as moments of peace had seemed exceedingly rare out there on the battlefield—and even more so these days. He recalled, however, that he would use the tunes of his music box to soothe him... but perhaps not in the chieftain's company.
“Deep breaths, Ramund.” the chieftain said, and demonstrated “Fill your lungs with the mist, absorb it, then let it all out. Let your heartbeat slow and your thoughts fall quiet. In the silence of body and mind, you shall hear the spirits clearer.” he let the long breath out through his black nose “Acknowledge the physical world... then reject it.”
Ramund followed the chieftain's instructions, knowing perfectly well that while he may have been older than him, the chieftain harbored wisdom that age would not freely gift—it had to be earned. He felt the gentle mist pour into his lungs, its cold wetness enveloping him from the inside as well as the outside. It was the incense that would stimulate his senses, now that he took the time to truly acknowledge it... and then reject it. He let out his breath, and felt his eyelids grow heavier. Shadows seemed to seep in from the corners of his eyes, spreading pools of ink ever so gently conquering more and more of him. With his hands resting on his knees, his eyes closed and his breath controlled, he felt his mind slowing down. It was like a machine, a machine that could have no respite and no rest... until now. His thoughts grew heavy and drawn-out, his inner voice seeming curiously lethargic, all before it silenced completely. Slowly, slowly... then it stopped. A perfect stand-still of body, mind, and soul.
But he was ripped back to reality, as a hard and cold wind swept over him. He cringed, bitter at the rude interruption, the freezing bite reminding him of the presence of the physical world. The moan of the winds, the rustling in the trees... but wait a moment. There were no trees in Moonby.
His eyes slowly opened. The blushing eve and the city of stone was suddenly nowhere to be seen; all of it carried away upon the mystic rivers of the spiritual world. The ice he felt biting at his skin was surely no work of the Rimnoll Wetlands either; this was a frost he knew from somewhere else.
It was midday here. A cloudless sky spanned overhead, and through the dark green pine crowns, sunlight trickled. He was standing in snow to his knees, and he felt water dripping from the pines around him unto his head. He looked down, and saw that he was no longer in his armor, but in hunting garb of fur and leather. And as he looked up, he saw the rigid peaks of distant mountains—mountains that gave him an instant rush of nostalgia. Even now, he was standing at the side of one, on a steep slope that descended into a great and craggy gulch, so far below. Clouds sat upon the distant peaks like wooly hats and pine forests decorated the mountainsides with their seasonless green. He knelt down to scoop up a handful of snow; the sense of cold tingling in his palm could easily have convinced him that this was reality. But while all of this was quite astounding, he couldn't help but wonder: what was all this for? Why was he here?
He looked up the slope upon which he stood, and had his suspicions confirmed. But a little way up, there was a humble shelter, a wooden house that he once called home—though in truth, he would still call it home, if only he wasn't so far away. Upon recognizing it, however, he felt an immediate pang of concern. Would there be anyone inside? He was not certain he wanted that question answered—and yet, he knew he could not just stand here. With reluctant steps, he ascended the slope, the thick snow crunching underfoot.
He kicked the snow off his furry boots, mostly out of habit from older times. The curtains were drawn over the little windows on the front facade of the house, here were a small porch leaned forward over the slope. For a recreation of the spiritual world, this place was surprisingly detailed—the front porch was decorated with hunting gear on wooden racks, wet laundry drying in the hard winds, even some of his daughter's toys lying around. With such a perfect recreation of his past, he almost felt invaded, as if someone had been watching him for all this time, writing down the minutest of details.
With a careful hand, he pushed the door open. It was unlocked and it creaked as it yawned. Gentle warmth seeped out through the open door, soothing waves that dulled the teeth of ice biting at his skin. He stepped inside, into the humble room that was full of a welcoming warmth from the embers that tenaciously pulsated in the hearth. It was no rich place, hardly anything more than a hunting shack, but still it would house an entire family—he, his wife, and his daughter... but none of them were to be seen. Left and right he looked, and only empty chairs and a pair of beds he found. But the embers were still alive, and even a few candles too. If this had been any other situation, he would immediately have thought that someone had been here recently... but in this case, he could be certain of nothing.
His attention was caught by something. Over the howling of the winds and the quiet spits coming from the heart, he heard something. A rustling noise. It came from one of the side-rooms—his daughter's room, as a matter of fact. He felt his heartbeat rise. Something was amiss, and he grew more and more reluctant, yet anxious, to find out what. But the spirits had put him here for a reason, this he knew. With careful steps, he approached his daughter's room and pushed open the door.
He had thought for a moment that he would find his daughter inside; this would of course have made him quite glad, but he couldn't imagine what the spirits would tell him by doing so. What he found inside, was most certainly not his daughter. Her bed was empty, her toys scattered over the floors as usual, but his eyes fell on something rather odd, on the little table in the center of her room. It was a hat. A top hat, neatly decorated with colorful lining and bright polish... and it was spinning. Spinning, spinning, spinning, twirling around on its rims—and it didn't look like it was going to stop. He looked down at it with curious eyes, watching as it continued to spin.
“What are you trying to tell me?” he asked the top hat. It felt odd speaking to a hat at first, but he figured that he wasn't speaking as much to the hat, as he was speaking to the spirits that had led him here. Unsurprisingly, he received no answer. The hat just continued to spin in an endless loop that obviously defied the laws of physics.
“Are you a symbol of something?” Ramund asked the hat again, pacing around his daughter's room, circling the spinning hat “A symbol of aristocracy? Hrm... but why the spinning?” he stroked his beard as he mused to himself these questions, trying to solve the riddle that the hat posed. But rude as it was, it said nothing, and just continued to spin.
Ramund decided to attempt another approach. He stepped forward, looking at the top hat with challenging eyes. If words weren't going to squeeze secrets out of this hat, perhaps actions would. He put his hand on the hat, meaning to stop it. But it didn't stop. Even with his hand on it, it continued to spin. He frowned and put some more force on the hat, but no, it did not stop spinning. He put a second hand on it, but it didn't matter—it was as if it was many times stronger than him, somehow, not even as much as slowing down the pace of its spin.
“Ach... how frustrating!” Ramund exclaimed as he squeezed both hands unto the hat, to no avail at all. He eventually put his entire weight unto the cursed thing, and yet it completely ignored him—but then, with a sudden crack and a crash, he broke it. Not the hat, but the table upon which it had spun. Down the middle it snapped and he tumbled forward, just barely managing to keep his balance. But as he looked back down at the hat, at the snapped table, he saw to his dread and fury: it was still spinning. He gritted his teeth and reached for his axe, but stopped. He came to realize an undeniable fact.
“I can't stop it.” he said out loud as he let his hand drop. His eyes narrowed “Is that what you are trying to tell me, top hat? That I can't stop you?” he asked it, naturally with no answer but a continued spinning. But in the silence, a question surfaced inside him. A question that tasted wrong and wicked as it left his mouth, an appetizer for something deeper and darker, something that he wasn't certain he wanted to know of—and yet, he asked.
“...Who are you?”
It became clearer and clearer that whatever message the hat meant to deliver, it had been delivered; the question was whether or not Ramund had received it. He rested his eyes on the thing for a while. His latter question continued to echo in his mind—who, or what, was this hat a symbol of? If it was a symbol of aristocracy, did the spinning imply that the noble ranks were going to be shifted? A revolution, maybe? That would surely be an interesting play on words—and perhaps even a likely outcome. He had seen the filth that the Moonby people had to live in, while the nobles feasted like kings every evening... a revolution could indeed be a possibility.
If, perhaps, the city survived the demon attack.
He shook his head. Enough of this. He turned around, and decided to leave the hat be. But as he opened the door behind him, it was not the living room of the peaceful little mountain hut that it opened up to. The scent of embers had given way to the sharp smell of cleanliness, of a servant's hard-rubbed soap. The humble room had expanded into a hall that seemed like it had been shaped by the hands of gods, white marble and towering pillars everywhere. The little windows became illustrious artworks of mosaic finesse, entire libraries of sacred history unfolding itself upon walls as tall as church halls. An almost blinding midday shine spilled in through these windows of sanctified glory, and he knew instantly where he was, even though he had never been here. The holy symbols and white marble told clear tales, but what truly gave it away, where the banners hanging from the windowsills, emblazoned with a swan that he knew all too well. And at the very back of this proud hall bathed in sunlight that seemed to invade from all sides, spotlighted in their gilded rays, was a throne.
He looked behind him, and saw his daughter's room. He saw the hat that continued to spin, but before him, was nothing short of the holy regent's hall. The king of kings, the uppermost saint of them all—or so the titles went. Ramund had to squint his eyes in the brightness reflecting off the pale white walls and floors, now that his eyes had adapted to the brown and soft colors of his daughter's room. But through his squinted stare, he saw that the throne was empty... almost.
He stepped through the door. In the very second he did so, his hunting outfit was immediately replaced with the armor that he knew so well, that had become his second skin after all this time. The sound of his sabatons meeting the marble floors resounded off the distant walls with silken trappings, followed by the closing of the door behind him—which was far louder than he had anticipated. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the door was no longer the small one leading to his daughter's room, but a great and daunting one, one that would surely require at least three men to open. Or just one Mjaln.
He approached the throne. Wary were his steps as he did so, dreading what the spirits wanted to tell him, yet too curious to let it be. He saw how the throne was not occupied by a king... not all of one, at least. Only his crown, a ceremonial one, flamboyant with velvet drapes and gems innumerable. But for a second, Ramund thought his eyes deceived him: coiled around the crown, was a snake not of flesh and blood, but of solid gold. It writhed and slithered, and from its dazzling fangs, poison stained the vibrant crown.
“Spirits.” Ramund felt his breath stolen as he saw before him a warning and an omen that sent dire shivers down his back. His gaze snapped upward to the decorated ceilings, but he looked through them, staring at his hosts with a look of disbelief. This couldn't be. He prayed that he misinterpreted this symbol, but how? He felt a sudden darkness overcome him, as he had to face the vile truth that was being presented before him.
“I know you.” he said, slowly, his eyes on the golden snake “Don't I?”
The snake's golden eyes dug into Ramund's like needles, sinking deep into his spirit. It slowly rose up, long and powerful creature it was, its brilliant body shimmering in the sunlight. An equally golden tongue chased its wheezing breath, and its lips pulled back to bare its poison-drenched fangs. In its predatory stare, Ramund found his answer.
“You have sunken deep—deeper than I had once thought you capable of.” Ramund continued, the darkness inside him beginning to taint his words with anger and hatred “But it seems I have underestimated your wickedness.”
The snake hissed furiously at him, its golden body twitching and jittering. Its mouth opened up and it seemed ready to lash at him at any second. But Ramund did not waver.
“I should hope you know what you've done—and the consequences that shall inevitably follow.” he dared to take a step closer to the beast “Your lust for power has overtaken you, blinded you. Senselessly, you've walked into its trap; I pity you for your weakness, but that will not save you.” he raised his hand to point at it with an armored finger “We are coming for you. And we will dethrone you... Lucius.”
The snake's eyes flashed with rage at the mention of its name. With a high-pitched hiss, it lashed out at Ramund, fangs bared to bury themselves in his winter-hardened skin. But they never got that far. Ramund's heavy fist closed around the creature's skull through astoundingly sharp reflexes for a man of his age. But instead of crushing its skull then and there, he hurled the snake through the air, smashing it against the nearest marble pillar. It was satisfying to watch it clap against the stone, wrap half-way around the pillar, before falling to the floors. But Ramund was far from done.
“To think that I fought under your banner for all these years!” he shouted at the snake, his voice reverberating off the church-like walls “To think I gave this much of my life, and for what? To serve your poisonous agendas, Lucius? What a fool I have been. But my sacrifice is nothing in comparison to those who gave not just part of their lives, but all of it, in service of you. You could have bolstered Aegon's defenses, but you chose not to. You could have built walls at the borders, but you chose not to... for none of this would qualify as 'war', would it? In your twisted ambitions, you would rather sacrifice the lives of countless thousands, than let your own rank be threatened.” he looked toward the poison-stained crown “And unless I am mercifully mistaken... it seems that your efforts have finally borne fruit. May you choke on them.”
The snake was given no chance to answer. Not even as much as a hiss. For not the snake nor Ramund had expected what happened next. Dust shook from every surface as what felt like an earthquake surged through the floors. Ramund's heart leaped into his throat, and it would only get worse. Ramund watched with disbelieving eyes as the world seemed to break before him. Cracks ran like lightning bolts through the pillars and the floors, but while the pillars remained intact, the same could not be said about the floors. The cracks grew and grew, until they were cracks no more, but fissures. Ramund staggered and tumbled right into the throne, crushing the crown beneath him. He sat there and could not blink, a sudden spectator to what seemed like the end of the world. The elaborate mosaic windows shattered as a second shockwave came to follow the first one, and the brilliant sunlight that had poured through them grew dark, red... and evil. A demonic glow swelled up through the growing fissures in the marble floors, and glass from the ceiling windows started to rain over him. Ramund watched as the snake was consumed by one of the fissures, whipping and writhing helplessly as it tumbled into the depths. In but a few seconds, a place as holy as this had become nothing short of doomsday itself.
But in all the chaos, in all the destruction that unfurled around him, things could still get worse. And they did. The shadows around seemed to thicken like oil, and he felt an immeasurably dark presence filling up the halls. The shadows spilled from the corners, bleeding through tears in reality itself—or whatever this place was. Ramund could only watch, helpless as the floors, the ceiling, and the walls were all swallowed up by this inky blackness. But that was not the worst of it. Roiling from this darkness, a hollow laughter rumbled, rumbled like it was another shockwave. Ramund could feel the strength of it battering in his chest like the sound of a thousand marching sabatons. For once in a long time, Ramund felt something that he once thought himself rid of.
“You are a fly, Ramund Bjornsson.” the laughter began to form words, words that were spoken with a voice that harked hellish wrath “A fly, caught in a web intricate far beyond your mortal comprehension. In a jape of fate, a twist of destiny, and a little lie at the right place... you ended up here. With me.”
Ramund froze, his every organ feeling like it had turned to ice, as this unholy visitor became more than just a voice. Breaking forth from the engulfing darkness and unto the broken marble floors, a claw that seemed forged in hellfire shattered a handful more tiles. Then another similar claw broke through, both of them easily the size of himself. But then, the crown of hell itself made its entrance. The face of the demon king was a product of the darkest nightmares, a sum of all evils concentrated into this dark, black, reptilian mask. Elongated like an arrowhead pointing downward, sleek wherever a spike did not jut forward. Teeth and fangs innumerable filled up a maw from which purple saliva dripped, and from which not one, but six tongues hung. The eyes had several shattered pupils, each and every one dark red, and simply looking into them made Ramund feel as if he was plunging into eternal damnation. An unholy rumble poured from his maw every time he exhaled another smoky, reeking breath.
“You can buzz and you can struggle, little fly, but you are too tightly bound.” he continued, nearing slowly, the darkness peeling off of his abominable figure “You think you are in control here... your little rebellion, your mortal games—it is all part of a greater scheme. From the very beginning, long before any of you were ever born, this scheme has been in motion... and you, though briefly on stage, have been playing a vital role in all of this.” the demon king's breath spilled out over Ramund now, his face so close that he could touch—if he was not frozen in place, overwhelmed and paralyzed “But I am afraid that your part is over, Bjornsson. You have served me well. In exchange for your diligent services, I shall give to you, a worthy rank...” his eyes suddenly came alight with dark purple fire “...in Hell!”
Raising like a guillotine, the demon king brought high his jagged claws, gleaming like steel in the flames that stood from his eyes. Ramund felt like his entire body had been petrified, like every muscle in his body had stiffened to a perfect still—even his heart. Locux's six tongues wagged as he laughed and laughed and laughed, a thunderous roar that felt like it would echo in his mind for centuries after he'd been killed. And as he stared up at the claw, he began to realize: that moment was now. This was what death looked like. As Locux brought down the claw, descending it upon him to rip him apart, he wondered and hoped if this would count as dying in battle.