Numbness fell onto Shiro's bleeding arm as each second passed. At times he couldn't tell if it had been hacked off completely; only the intermittent spasms of pain reminded him otherwise. In the mean time, his left arm was sending him a different, although no less severe, type of pain from over-exertion. His vision also gradually got from bad to worse, as the blurriness now was compounded by moments of darkness. He had to shake his head violently to get his vision back, and even then the returned vision were marred by millions of tiny specks of light, as if they were raining down above.
For a brief moment, a stream of memory from a forgotten past suddenly came back. A vague vision, really, of a single image from a time he had forgotten. A celebration of fire in a dark sky, he remembered. Was it not in Cantha? Perhaps even Kaineng City itself? It was one time when the emperor joined the people in a festival normally enjoyed by peasants, and as his bodyguard Shiro joined, if only hesitantly. It was a simpler time, before all the resentment and realization of the empire's darkness. It was a time when he was content with a good wage for a good day's work at protecting the Emperor. It was a celebration for the end of a year and a beginning of the next, he remembered. He remembered most vividly the sparkles of bright light of many colors in the night skies that illuminated the smiling and admiring faces that gazed up at them. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Canthans and visitors from distant lands celebrated the event. He could smell the burnt powders and the smoke from the fireworks. Even if the foreign visitors did not appreciate the coming of a new Canthan New Year, they would remember the celebration of people and fireworks that night for the rest of their lives.
A hard blow from the right pushed his body down upon the ground and across the coarse gravel, dragging his mind painfully back to the present. His left hand by reflex stabbed the sword's hilt into the ground to stop the sliding. And once he stopped, he grunted as he pushed his body up, all the while with his one good arm sending yet more signals of pain to his mind. His entire body ached, and he had no doubt it was bruised throughout by now. And together with the sensations of weakness, blindness, and frustratingly lethargic responses of the body, he was now reduced to no more than an incapacitated man wielding a sword heavier by the moment. It was a matter of time before he would succumb to the relentless assault of the demons, if not by the assault of the pain. Then suddenly, in a strange dance of fortune and serendipity, there was a break in the conditions. In a rare few moments when the spells expired before the next wave, his mind regained—if only for a short moment—a sliver of clarity. He was not a mere mortal, he remembered. He was Shiro Tagachi, and he shall rain terror among these demons! And with that realization, he quickly seized the moment to summon all his remaining strength.
A mist of purple filled his vision, and then quickly the mist dissipated like the last traces of smoke from an extinguishing candle completely obliterated by a strong gust of wind. Whatever hexes that had plagued him thus far had dissipated. The first thing he felt was the return of his speed. As agile as ever, his left arm, wrist, and hand responded to his mind without delay to eliminate a flank of demons before him. Physically, his mind also ejected the conditions snaring his senses before and forced them upon the remaining demons around him, and soon the creatures themselves—the ones that weren't lying dead already—found themselves blinded and moved as if bound by invisible constraints.
With a pulse of renewed strength, he proceeded to once again to methodically cut down the demons before him. His right arm was still immobilized, as he felt nothing but intermittent spasms of pain from it. A quick glance confirmed that it was covered in dark red to black. The blood had congealed for the most part, he realized. As long as he did not stress the arm and avoid further trauma, the bleeding should be controlled for now.
Unfortunately, the break did not last long. Almost immediately he felt a sudden weight again pulling him back. His left arm again grew weak, and the sword felt unnaturally heavy. So much so that he lost control momentarily and let the blade tip fall to the ground, sending the resulting vibration straight up to his shoulder. Just at the same time, another blade cut into his right arm, sending a pain so strong to his mind that he let out a cry of pain. It was his first for a long time. His knees grew weak and knelt down despite his protesting mind.
There was just too many of them, he relented. He simply couldn't cut them down fast enough before those in the back got the chance to levy their spells on him. And once sufficiently hexed as was now the case, he was little more than a moving sparring target for the warriors. His strength was waning, as were his energy and adrenaline. Panting and straining to see clearly, his visions were only of a blur of darkness from the slowly approaching demons. Inexplicably, he began to think of Xinjuan.
Just then, the blurry darkness was illuminated by indistinct spots of blinding yellowish light from all around. He recognized the color, and the sense of warmth around him confirmed that they were of fire. The subsequent sound of shrieks was clearly those of pain; that much he knew. The world was now composed of patches of darkness and blobs of brightness, and he was so exhausted he thought he felt the ground pressed up on the rear of his head. Then came darkness.
The courtyard was serene and radiant. The wash of red and sunlight decorated the elegant scene as if nature itself were actively decorating the flora of the garden. And yet, unlike its owner, to reconcile the opulence of this place to the dreadful conditions of the slums just beyond the walls that surround this place was not something Shiro could do.
Perhaps that dichotomy, and all the implications behind it, had played a part in all this, he thought. Yes. That was what he told himself in those times as he went about his own crusade.
As if from the point of view of a swallow resting on an outstretched roof, he saw himself in the garden, facing a band of eight indistinct men and women, all safe but one he recognized. He remembered all that would transpire in the moments to come.
But what was the point in reliving all this?
“Your mind wishes it.”
More words exchanged. The face-off before the fight, such as it was. They were no match for him, of course. Had she not been there....
But she was. It was her, but not her. She was Qin Li, and not so much the Xinjuan that he knew but the resentful, angry, and guilty little girl blinded from all capacity to rational thinking at that point. She felt guilty for a series of events that was not of her own doing, and above all she blamed herself for the death of the old priest. In that old priest's eyes, she was nothing but perhaps one of the more “promising” pawns that would eventually be sacrificed for the greater empire of his half-brother. Yet she was so devoted to him and his teaching.
And the battle began with the group of insignificant self-proclaimed hero deluded by their own myopic ignorance in thinking they were fighting for a greater cause. He had no patience nor reservation in disposing the ignorant agents unknowingly carrying out the insidious generations-long scheme of world dominance, all in the name of the Empire of the Dragon.
He remembered the sequence. Although she was not the Xinjuan he knew, he utilized the best resource he knew to protect her—banishing her from the premises to a remote corridor where she could be kept away from the fight. He was then free to eliminate the rest at his own time. That was the plan, though he didn't anticipate everything. And as fortune had always been against him, there was a defector. Just as there was that despicable assassin years before, it was a defector then in the garden. This was one of the men who supposedly vowed to fight with him to cleanse the empire of its chain of corruption over the generations. But he should have known; the empire was filled with spies and defectors. From deep within the inner council of the Kurzick elders to the rebel enclaves of the Ebon Vanguard in the remote north, the land of Tyria was filled with Canthan spies.
And this man—one of the more trusted, no less—had worked for the emperor to erect an escape portal to compromise Shiro's prison of banishment. The design of it was ingenious in its own way, using some wizardry from a distant race of cave dwellers who apparently traveled by these “gates.” In time, the traitor met his fate. But during that day, his treachery became the one oversight that ruined everything. As she—the then Qin Li—who had no reservation of any sort but was filled with rage and guilt, sought to kill him any way she could, all in the name of vengeance of her faller Master Togo, took no time to use the escape portal to get back into the fight.
And just as the traitorous assassin that disabled him in the Tower of Heavens, this misguided elementalist disabled him in the inner garden of the Imperial Palace. Not wishing to harm her, his hands were tied, allowing her to snare and pummel him with her spells, while trying to work around her to eliminating the others. His luck only held out for so long before one of her spells disabled him. And eventually that one weakness brought him down that day—the day when he was so close to finally liberating the land from the insidious empire.
All that was history, distorted now as the imperial tale spinners did their work to twist and corrupt all the truths that would bring shame upon the empire. Her memories were conveniently compromised by a few spells to fit the tale, and she struggled with the lingering memories for the rest of her short life. And little did the world know about what went on that day in the courtyard. Over the years they were all taught to worship the brave and selfless “heroes” that fought against great odds to destroy the hideous Shiro the Betrayer. It made for a good legend to teach children, and it served the empire.
But he knew of all this. And reliving it would achieve nothing.
“To remind you of what you once believed. To aid you in justifying your feelings for her.”
He opened his eyes to the now familiar dark sky. A few of his Shiro'ken warriors stood in a circle around him, facing outwards. A semi-transparent figure hovered over him, quiet to the point of non-existence.
“How are you, old friend?” the old figure uttered, all the while not moving even his lips.
Shiro took a deep breath and pushed himself up. His right arm, underneath some makeshift bandage, still sent a muffled scream of pain to his mind. While appreciative of the numbing effects of the spell, he was relieved to know that his right arm was still functional.
“We are at best ex-soldiers of a lost fight, Khilbron,” Shiro said after gathering himself, “do not confuse that with friendship.” The Shiro'ken guards were unmoved, practicing perfect discipline, though they were no doubt heartened by Shiro's wakening. He didn't know how he had gotten here. But no doubt he was saved by them after he had become unconscious from the fight.
His next thoughts were to look for Xinjuan, but the Vizier—if not good for anything else—did have a knack for reading people.
“She is fine for now,” the Vizier reassured him. “I would be more concerned about matters of more importance right now.”
“And what,” he sighed and turned to the miserable decrepit of a skeleton of a man, “would that be?” How that feeble bag of bones had lived for so long and transformed himself into the formidable Lich was more a testament of the miracle of magic than anything else.
The figure waved his hands left and right toward the sky. “You must have seen the changes in the world recently?”
“This is no world; it is a prison. It can all collapse into nothingness, if we were so blessed.”
“Then why run from it? Surely you must savor each valuable moment of—” the Vizier paused as if trying to find the right words, “consciousness—now that you have her back?”
But irritating Shiro was not the way to get his cooperation, the vizier quickly realized. Some people can be pushed into action. Others needed to be coaxed. “My colleagues and I share the same concern, believe it or not, that you have.” He took on a gentler tone with his palms held open, as if signifying he had nothing to hide. “Just a modest attempt of self preservation, nothing more.”
“If I know one thing about you, Khilbron—“
Suddenly, one of the visions came to Shiro again. In the vision he saw now more clearly of the state of the Realm. The ever-spanning darkness was swallowing up more and more of the world around them. Once covered, nothing came forth from it. Whereas the Realm had once been pockets of worlds, not unlike continents of land separated by wide spans of treacherous unnavigable waters, it now consisted of all but a handful of lands, with any remaining creatures being forced inward toward the center.
As one would expect when resources were low, inhabitants forced to share them would begin fighting. Some believe it was for their own survival. Others would forgo any such pretense and took it for what it was: greed and ambition. It was true in the slums of Cantha. It was true now in the Realm. It was the nature of worlds.
“I know of your visions, though regrettably I am not similarly blessed,” Khilbron's envy was almost audible. “Surely you must be aware of a more immediate threat than this … collapse.”
Shiro closed his eyes to take in more of the visions. Khilbron gave him the time he needed.
Shiro saw a great wave of his former allies—the transformed followers of the Adaddon cult who called themselves Margonites—overtaking the land and slaughtering all that was in their way. Demons and all creatures alike fell before them, leaving only corpses in their wake. A closer look, however, revealed that these were not exactly the same Margonites that he knew. They were not the disciplined and devoted followers that marched to a hierarchical military structure. These were petty, belligerent, corrupted. Thugs with power. And they followed one being, an unnaturally tall imposing figure—a corrupted form of an ape and a Margonite.
And as if he read Shiro's mind, Khilbron narrated the vision. “Yes. If you see the beast, he calls himself Mallyx. He is a fellow of a different sort, in the least.”
“What do you know of him?”
“Only what his followers tell us before they fell. He is a ruthless unprincipled leader, taking 'survival of the mightiest' to its extreme. He exhibits the most primal persuasions in very much all his actions. As you can tell, the term mercy is foreign to him.”
“He is a tyrant with a strong fist. This world is full of those like him. Why should he be any different?”
“Because he and his Anurs are so imposing that they managed to defeat our forces, despite what I thought of our forces. And I was so convinced that we had the advantage.” Seeing his words were not moving Shiro much, he decided to use his leverage. “And they are relentless in their quest to dominate what is left of this world. Once they catch up to you—and her—they will bring great disruptions to your newly found contentment.”
Seeing that he again got Shiro's attention, he continued. “Still. In the end, we may all be consumed by this great darkness. So perhaps there isn't much difference one way or another.” Feigning a double-take, the type that Shiro knew that conniving schemer was prone to do, Khilbron snapped his fingers. “However, I suppose that makes those few fleeting moments just that much more precious and significant, don't you agree?
“Oh. I heard many different reasons others join in our fight against Mallyx. It was their idea of redeeming themselves of lives and opportunities squandered and missed. Still, others conjured up Abaddon—yes, hail Abaddon—and how his greatness would not tolerate such insolence in his realm. Still. Others were just aching for a glorious end to their, until recently, illustrious existence. For you, however, I see all these to be true. And of course, I haven't even started with her.”
“Your skills of manipulation through words are as sharp as I remember, Khilbron. If you but fight with the same ferocity...”
“Oh no. The burden of battle prowess, I'm afraid, rests on you, my friend. With my ally, her highness Varesh Ossa, we have strategic and tactical. What we lack,” Khilbron held out his fist for effect, “is the final prong to complete the force to defeat this evil.”
“I will not be a pawn of your army!” Shiro yelled out. At the signal, the Shiro'ken guards turned around with the arms drawn. And just as quickly, they raised their spears and swords and pointed directly at the vizier. It was but a gesture, of course, for they all knew Khilbron was impervious to physical weapons in his current state. It did mean, however, that the conversation was over.
“Perhaps I may have a word with the warrior,” a dry but unmistakeably female voice spoke. A dark figure, covered in all by an indistinct cloak, appeared out of the shadows with six purplish sparks, laid in two columns of three, where the face would be. Shiro recognized the eye pattern of the Margonites.
“You don't know me, warrior. I am—was—from the land of Elona. In better times, we would go our respective ways and respectfully leave each to her own affairs. What life you have chosen with your army is not of anyone's concern but yours alone.”
Shiro let her continue. Somehow he felt she was less manipulative than that old fool.
“However, what my associate Kkilbron spoke of is true: this Mallyx evil is a threat to all in this world. We have first-hand account of his battle methods and know much of his strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, that knowledge came at a great cost. My forces have been diminished by half. Further engagements would be impossible.”
“We are both people of war, not sycophantic and patronizing politicians,” the dark figure continued, to the visible irk of the vizier. Shiro smirked at Khilbron's unease at the slight. “I shall speak unceremoniously and unaffectedly of only the facts. And they are such: we each possess skills others do not. Yet independently we do not stand a chance at holding back, let alone defeat, this Mallyx. And although you may not care or intend to engage him, his ever ambitious expansion, perhaps exasperated by the shrinking world, will reach all of us in time. Either we strike on our own time, prepared; or we inevitably will be overwhelmed in by his forces that are growing stronger each moment.”
Varesh paused to let Shiro digest the words. Khilbron had the good sense to remain quiet.
“And even with all of you united, it is not a certainty that you will defeat Mallyx,” a third voice, one with a deeper echo and resonance, added to the conversation.
All except Varesh were surprised by the voice.
A bright silhouette appeared a few feet before them. The few Shiro'ken guards stepped back a couple of steps to make room for the pulsing light, though not retreating by any mean.
The light dimmed to a low-intensity, although still radiant, aura surrounding a female form in white fitting armor, eyes covered by a band around her head. Her complexion was dark, but the aura surrounding her made her presence light up area. The figure remained floating slightly above the ground, though seemingly more naturally so than Khilbron.
“I know that voice!” said Varesh. Immediately a spear was drawn out from under her cloak and sliced through the figure two, three times, before Varesh realized that, like Khilbron, the figure was not affected by normal weapons. And just as fast, Varesh lowered her weapon but remained armed, facing the figure. “What is your business here, Sunspear?”