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Chapter 347: A Stroll With G.o.ds
A sea of mist moved in the unconscious rhythm of earth and air, eddying around the base of the mountain and under the many-colored bridge that guarded Castle Indrath. Wide, white rivers streamed past further out, away from the tumultuous currents near the stone cliffs.
It was almost as if one could ride the wild river of clouds away from Castle Indrath and into the far reaches of Epheotus, where the politics and intrigue of war were a distant, meaningless shadow.
I’d carried the knowledge of Arthur Leywin’s survival for several days now, but the understanding of what to do with it eluded me. As a soldier, I owed it to my lord to inform him at once, and yet…
My fingers traced the story carved into the wall where I’d stopped to think. It told the tale of an ancient Indrath prince, and how he challenged Geolus, the living mountain. Hundreds of miles had been torn apart by the ferocity of their battle, but in the end, Arka.n.u.s Indrath cleaved Geolus nearly in two, and the mountain fell still.
In ages after, Akra.n.u.s’s descendants built their home on the mountain’s back. As a sign of respect, they forbid the use of mana when ascending or descending Geolus, a tradition that lived on to the present era.
A wisp of earth mana trickled from the runes and along my outstretched fingers, imparting me with the stolid essence of ancient bedrock. My mind quieted as my spirit settled. This tale was a favorite of mine; it imparted the pa.s.siveness of rock and stone, allowing for more rational thought.
“I guessed that I might find you here, old friend,” Windsom's voice came from down the hall. “Is your mind still plagued with doubt?”
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“No,” I answered, half turning to watch the dragon approach. He wore his uniform as always, which denoted his position as a servant of Lord Indrath. The midnight blue fabric was embroidered with gold thread at the cuffs, shoulders, and collar, and a rope of woven gold hung from his right shoulder to the middle b.u.t.ton of his jacket. I had allowed myself more comfort, wearing a simple gray training robe bound with a silk cord.
His gaze settled on me with the weight of the night sky. “When we last spoke…”
He left the rest unsaid, but we both understood well enough. I had expressed concern that our actions had led to more Dicathian deaths than Agrona’s ever had or likely would, a moment of weakness I now regretted.
“I did not carry the burden of my actions lightly or well, but distance widens one’s perspective,” I answered.
Windsom glanced at the story wall. “Are these the words of Aldir, or of Geolus?”
“I am a warrior,” I answered simply. “My mind is full of tactics and battle, and at times requires calming.” Stepping back from the wall, I gestured down the hallway. “Walk with me? I am enjoying the castle this morning.”
Windsom nodded and fell into step beside me, his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes straight ahead. “I’m glad you’ve accepted the necessity of what was done. At least your part is played, for the time being.”
We stepped aside as two armored guards marched past. They stopped to bow deeply before continuing on their patrol. “Is that why you were so quick to volunteer to lead the attack? To end your long-suffered role as guide to the lessers?”
Windsom straightened his uniform. “I will do as Lord Indrath commands, now and always. But the truth is, you had it easy, old friend. The lessers have become more tedious by the day. At least the boy, Arthur, was interesting. The rest are just fireflies.”
I couldn’t be sure if the dragon spoke out of ignorance, or if he was testing me with his suggestion that my task had somehow been “easy.” It was possible he was attempting to push me to anger so that I might reveal some hidden reservation. I let his words go by unanswered.
“Is the situation in Dicathen salvageable?” I asked.
“They have not accepted our version of events as readily as the asuras,” he answered, his tone accusatory. “Lessers are suspicious by nature, and they yearn for hope above all else, even if it means abandoning logic.”
I nodded solemnly as we turned a corner. On our right, a training room was open to the hallway, separated only by a series of columns carved into the shape of serpentine dragons. Four students practiced a coordinated series of movements and strikes, each in near-perfect unison with the others.
I stopped to watch for a moment. I’d witnessed a thousand—maybe even ten thousand—such displays in my life, but now I couldn’t help but see it as much more than the slow perfection of form, speed, and delivery that we taught our youth. With each practiced strike and block, they learned a blow intended to disarm or kill an opponent. If the asuras continued on their current path, these young warriors would have reason to use them soon.
“Taci looks strong,” Windsom remarked, his eyes on a tall young pantheon.
The boy’s head was cleanly shaved, as was the tradition among the fighting cla.s.s of pantheons. His once nut-brown eyes—of which there were only two, a rarity among the pantheon—had darkened to beetle-black.
Taci, the only pantheon among them, was just into his teen years, but time spent training in the aether realm—a privilege, especially for those not of the Indrath Clan—had left him more intense and mature than his age would suggest.
It was clear watching him train that he was not in pursuit of physical or mental exercise. No, for Taci, this was about mastering the art of death. I could nearly see the image he held in his mind: an enemy breaking under each punch and kick, an army falling before him.
I understood what he felt, because I was very similar once, a long time ago.
The young warriors finished their form and stopped to give Windsom and me a deep bow. While the others began paring up to continue their training, Taci ran up to us and bowed again.
“Master Windsom. Master Aldir. Please accept my grat.i.tude again for allowing me to train within Castle Indrath,” he said in a crisp, serious tone.
“Kordri has seen great promise in you,” Windsom answered. “See that you live up to it, Taci.”
The fierce young Pantheon bowed yet again and ran back to his training partner.
“If he continues as he has been these last several years, he could be the next wielder of the World Eater technique,” Windsom commented.
“I was over two hundred years old before I was chosen,” I pointed out. “If he were chosen, it would not be for many years yet.”
Inside though, I couldn’t help but wonder: When the elders inevitably asked me to pa.s.s on the technique to another warrior, would I do it? Could I give this burden to another member of my clan, knowing they may one day be forced to use it?
Leaving Taci and the others behind, we continued on our slow circuit of the castle interior. We walked in comfortable silence for a minute before Windsom spoke again.
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“Why do you think he chose to use it this time? Even with the”—Windsom glanced around the hall, making sure we were alone—“djinn, Lord Indrath never considered its use.”
“Your ears are closer to the mouth of our lord than mine,” I pointed out. “But I see no reason we would have needed it. The djinn were pacifists. They had no army and little combat magic. That was a culling, not a war.”
“It was a war,” he countered, watching me from the corner of his eye. “We simply struck preemptively.”
There were few, even among the asuras, who truly understood what had happened to the djinn. Most asuras never looked beyond Epheotus, and cared nothing for the lessers. Those who did were told a very convincing lie. Those who saw through the lie and cared were dealt with.
“Our lord did what he thought needed to be done, both then and now,” I hedged.
Windsom chuckled. “And you say you have no mind for politics. You’re as careful with your words as any courtier.”
“There is no need for caution when words are shared between old friends, is there?” I asked, stopping to ponder a tapestry that hung from floor to ceiling. “Take this image, for example.”
The tapestry portrayed a young Kezzess Indrath at council with his best friend, Mordain, a member of the phoenix race. A golden plaque beneath it was engraved with the t.i.tle: “Let Rest.”
“Even after the formation of the Great Eight, the dragons and the phoenix race carried their ancient animosity openly, but Kezzess and Mordain spoke truly with one another, each opening the other’s eyes to the atrocities of their endless warring.”
Windsom had stopped beside me and was running his fingers along his chin thoughtfully. “And in this comparison, which am I?”
I frowned at the tapestry. “I did not mean to imply—”
“Because, of course,” Windsom said casually, “Mordain was later at odds with our lord on the issue of the djinn, was he not? As prince of the Asclepius Clan, he threatened to reveal Lord Indrath’s actions before disappearing from Epheotus.”
Of those few who knew about the extermination of the djinn, even fewer knew that Mordain and Kezzess had fallen out. Their argument was kept secret so that no asura might ever grow suspicious that Lord Indrath played a role in Mordain’s disappearance. The rumor was later circulated that the Lost Prince, as people began to call him, left Epheotus to join Agrona.
It was a near-perfect parable, if I had wanted to communicate any such thing to Windsom. But I did not.
“It was happenstance alone that brought us to this tapestry, old friend, and my mind was not on the wider story between these two.” I rested a hand on Windsom’s shoulder. “I am not Mordain, and you are not Indrath.”
“Of course not,” Windsom said in answer, turning away to begin walking again. “You asked me about the situation in Dicathen, but my answer was flippant. The truth is that they have no great leaders or mages among them anymore. Unless I am wrong, it will come to war with the Vritra Clan and their mutts.”
We turned down a short corridor and stepped out onto an open terrace overlooking the many-colored bridge. A steady breeze buffeted the castle walls. “That is my fear as well.”
“It is a shame,” Windsom continued. “So much work, wasted…but then, I always thought giving them those artifacts was a bad idea.”
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And yet. you delivered them and taught the lessers to wield their power, I thought, but kept this to myself.
“The Dicathians grew lazy,” he went on, heedless. “With a white core mage soulbound to protect them, the royal families never needed to defend themselves, and their magical strength faltered. As for the mages who benefited from the artifacts…” Windsom scoffed irritably. “They never learned to be strong. They became strong. It is not the same.”
A sky swimmer soared out of the clouds, its iridescent scales glittering in the sunlight. The long, fishlike body was supported by triangular wings that folded and unfolded to catch the updrafts. I watched as the mana beast glided along the top of the clouds for a moment before tucking the wings to its sides and plunging invisibly back into the depths.
Windsom’s eyes stayed on me, careless of the wildlife.
“Would you visit Lord Indrath with me?” I asked, finally coming to a decision regarding the Leywin boy.
I could not be certain if it was unnerving or comforting that Windsom showed no surprise at my question, answering only, “Of course, Aldir.”
We did not make for the throne room. Instead, we headed deeper into the castle. The carved, story-filled halls gave way to natural tunnels as we went down. Luminescent moss filled the crags and hung in patches from the roof, and in several places. natural springs sent rivulets of clear water trickling down the sides of the tunnels.
There were no carvings down here, no tapestries or paintings. These tunnels, the veins of the mountain, had been left untouched for a dozen generations of asura.
Earth mana was heavy in the air, and only grew heavier as we proceeded downward. It clung to us as we moved, like mud sticking to our boots. Weaker asura would find these pa.s.sages uncomfortable to navigate as the mana weighed them down, and lessers would quickly crumble under the force of it.
We pa.s.sed several guards in the form of conjured earth golems, but they did not bother us. Above, in a more comfortable guard chamber, the dragons controlling them recognized us and let us pa.s.s.
The tunnel ended in a collapsed wall. Broken stone woven through with thick roots barred the way. Or appeared to, at least.
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I stepped through the illusion first.
And I stepped out into a small cave. A thick carpet of moss-covered the floor, while jewels shone like stars in the ceiling, reflecting the light from the glowing pool that took up most of the cave.
Lord Indrath sat unmoving at the center of the pool, his hands resting palm up on his knees, his eyes closed. He had not changed during my entire life. His cream-colored hair clung wetly to his head, while his unintimidating form dripped with condensation from the pool.
Windsom and I stood to the side and waited.
Lord Indrath enjoyed expressing his displeasure in subtle ways. For example, he was well known for leaving his counselors out of meetings when he was displeased with them, or asking envoys from the other clans to wait for days–or even weeks–if he disagreed with the clan’s lord.
After several hours, Lord Indrath finally stirred. The blue glow reflected off his purple eyes, giving them an unnatural indigo color. The simple change to his visage transformed his face, and I had to resist the urge to step back.
Standing, the Lord of Dragons stepped out of the pool and waved his hand, summoning a white robe.
“Windsom, Aldir. Thank you for waiting.”
We each bowed, staying bent until Lord Indrath spoke again.
“You’ve had something on your mind, Aldir,” he said easily, s.h.i.+fting so that his hands were clasped behind his back. He smiled softly, but his eyes were hard and sharp as obsidian. “You’ve come to tell me what that is.”
“I have, my lord,” I answered, opening my lower two eyes to meet his, which was an expected sign of respect. “I have news that could affect our course in the war.”
I could feel Windsom’s gaze burning into the side of my head, but I kept my eyes on our lord. He was contemplative for a moment, then gave another wave of his hand.
The cave disappeared from around us. Instead, we were standing in a regally appointed solar: one of Lord Indrath’s private rooms. “Sit,” he commanded simply.
Sinking down into the thick cus.h.i.+on of a royal-purple armchair, I laid my arms awkwardly on the rests. Lord Indrath took the seat across from me, while Windsom was placed to the side, more a witness to than partic.i.p.ant in the conversation.
So as not to stare, I let my gaze settle just over Lord Indrath’s shoulder, focusing on the wall of climbing gold and silver vines behind him. Purple flowers bloomed inconsistently over the vines. Very rarely, a tiny sapphire-blue fruit grew as well.
Lord Indrath nodded his head, indicating that I should begin.
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“An envoy of the enemy came to me, seeking to take advantage of some perceived weakness and turn me against my lord,” I said clearly. “To this end, she brought me this piece of information, although the mere fact she thought it might sway my loyalty says more about her than it does of me, I believe.”
The two dragons waited for me to continue.
“According to the Alacryan Scythe, Seris Vritra, Arthur Leywin is still alive,” I announced formally. “He is currently in Alacrya, and he has developed some new power. I believe he witnessed my use of the World Eater technique against the elven homeland.”
There was no twitch of his eyelid or straightening of his back, no hitch in his breathing to tell me my lord was surprised. But there was a faint ripple in his aura, and that was enough: he had not known.
“Then Lady Sylvie may yet—”
Lord Indrath held up a hand to silence Windsom. “We must ascertain both the human’s strength and his att.i.tude. He may still be a useful tool against Agrona and this…Legacy.”
“And if he is no longer willing to work alongside the asura, my lord?” I asked.
My lord’s gaze held true, his tone impa.s.sive. “Then he will die.”