The Storm King (Ch. 1 - 35)

2»

Comments

  • Chapter 32:  Serana


    Artorias woke in his own bed to the sound of crackling flames and the smell of burning flesh.  Sunlight was peeking through his windows, and he knew that it was morning.

    He felt weak, far too weak to do much more than slowly run his hands over his body, trying to check his wounds.  Timotheos had left him with numerous cuts and bruises in addition to the knife to the chest, not to mention the burns from the fire mage on his back, but Artorias couldn’t feel any of them.  It seemed like they were all healed!

    But that also left him confused.  His wounds were gone, meaning Leon must’ve done something.  Artorias did remember thinking he heard Leon’s voice before he fell unconscious, but that didn’t explain his weakness.  If he were healed, then he should’ve regained enough strength in those few hours to do more than weakly move his hands.

    Artorias stopped thinking about that for a moment.  He had just woken up, after all, so he cleared his mind, and took a second to chase all the grogginess out of his head.  Then, he re-evaluated himself.

    His body was devoid of mana.  His blood didn’t have even a single wisp of magical power within it.  His heart gave a startled jump when he realized that, but he was in for far more dire realizations as he continued.  He threw off the blanket that was covering him, and he found that the veins in his chest had turned black, and when he tried using his magic body to see inside, he found that his bones were no longer producing blood or mana.  All the marrow within him was melting into a black sludge, and the only reason he wasn’t screaming in pain, he realized, was a pair of pain-relieving spells on his forearms.

    Artorias was panicking now, but his body was so weak he couldn’t do any more than just lay there and continue evaluating his condition.  As it was, he doubted he would live much longer in this state.

    His body was a mess, even though all his surface wounds had been healed.  Now, he cast his magic body into his soul realm.

    He appeared seated on a throne of white marble on a platform of clouds, high up in a bright, circular throne room at the center of his mind palace.  He immediately rose and vanished out of one of the large nearby windows.  He didn’t stop for a moment to look at anything in the heavenly palace he had constructed but instead flew straight to the edge of his soul realm in an instant.

    Normally, the soul realm would always be surrounded by an endless bright grey fog, known as the Mists of Chaos, but that wasn’t what Artorias found.  The sight that greeted him at the very edge of his soul realm was a blackened mist that was slowly dissolving his soul realm, breaking it apart and swallowing it piece by piece.

    At that moment, Artorias knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was going to die.

    He experienced a whirlwind of emotions, fear, anxiety, sorrow, anger, fury, and so much more.

    He raised his fists and screamed at the heavens, in a primal bellow to vent his frustrations, and when he allowed his arms to fall, his face was covered in tears.

    He was dying.  He had maybe another day to live, at the rate his soul realm was being consumed.

    He stared, hollow-eyed, at the oncoming black fog for a few minutes more, then withdrew his magic body back to his mind palace.  He collected himself, then sat back down on his throne.

    His eyes opened, back in his house, and he calmed his wildly beating heart.  If this was going to be it, he decided, then he would go out with some dignity, dammit!  He would honor the memory of his family and his ancestors by not losing his civility in his final moments.

    Taking some time to collect his thoughts, he began running through a mental checklist of things he prepared for this event back when he had first started building here.

    A few minutes later, his door opened, and Leon entered, dusting off a bit of soot on his shirt as he closed the door behind him.  He looked up and saw that Artorias was awake.

    “You’re up!”

    Artorias smiled weakly back at his son.  “Your powers of perception are truly legendary, little lion,” he said sarcastically.  He waved Leon over as best he could and had him pull up a nearby chair.  Leon looked alright, no sign of any injuries from the previous night.  “How are you doing?  I thought you had a few broken ribs at least, but you look fine…”

    Leon smiled with a bit of embarrassment.  “I did.  When I woke up, you had just finished killing that last guy, then collapsed.  It was kinda painful, but I carried you in here after digging out a few healing spells to stop the bleeding.” Leon nodded to a first-aid box Artorias had made several years ago.  It was normally filled with half a dozen minor healing spells as well as an assortment of other materials for use in making bandages, tourniquets, and splints should those spells fail or prove inadequate, but now those spent spell sheets were lying crumpled up in a pile next to it.  “Afterwards, I searched those bodies and found some much cooler healing spells.  I used two to fix up my ribs, they finished healing a couple hours ago.  Then, I used the last one on you, to clean up the last of your wounds.  How do you feel?”

    “… You did a good job, my boy, you really did.  I assume what I’m smelling are our unruly guests being disposed of?  Did you find anything interesting on them beforehand?”

    Leon shook his head.  While Artorias was unconscious, Leon had searched their bodies, stripping them of anything of value he found.  They had a fair amount of money, some high-quality weapons, and those powerful healing spells, but little else.  There was no identification, nothing that might’ve told Leon where they had come from or why they attacked.

    Once he was done with his search, he piled up their bodies and drew three crude fire runes around them.  He wanted to burn their bodies until they were completely unrecognizable, then bury the remains in the forest, but the fire didn’t start immediately.  After some fiddling around with it, he eventually realized that his fire runes weren’t drawn correctly and tried to correct them.  It took him three tries with the runes before he managed to get the bonfire started.  At this point, the flames were almost half as tall as the obelisk, and he wasn’t sure if there would even be anything left to bury when the fire died down.

    “That’s a shame, I was hoping they might have carried something that might have indicated where they came from, though I guess they would’ve had something like that in their soul realm…”  Carrying things in a mage’s soul realm was always pretty risky.  If the mage suffered critical damage to their soul realms, then their things could be lost.  If the mage died, however, then whatever they had in there would certainly be lost forever, which is why most generally kept their wealth and other valuables locked up in a Heaven’s Eye bank, so their families wouldn’t be ruined if they were unexpectedly killed. 

    Artorias glanced out of the window for a brief moment, then sighed and turned back to Leon.  “Listen, Leon, we need to talk.”

    Leon had been absentmindedly looking around but looked back at his father after hearing his uncharacteristically serious tone.

    “You did a wonderful job patching the two of us up, you really did.  The absolute best you could under the circumstances.  However, I think that that dagger I was stabbed with was poisoned.”  Leon’s eyes widened in shock and his heart jumped in fear and panic.  Artorias used as much strength as he could, and raised his arm, resting it on his son’s shoulder to calm him down.  “I’m probably not going to live long enough to see tomorrow morning.  You need to keep calm, and listen to me now, ok?”

    Leon had no idea what to say, he had never been in a situation like this before and was caught off guard.  His face contorted with grief, anger, worry, and formed twisted expressions he had no words for.  But, his father had raised him to have a powerful killing intent, raised him in the wilds where death was nearly omnipresent and had taught him about death almost from the moment the young boy could hold a bow.

    After a whirlwind of emotion, Leon shut his eyes, grit his teeth, and regained control of himself.  His face settled back into his usual stony expression, though not without a few twitches and minor grimaces.  He could be strong for now, at least until Artorias had said his piece.  No, he would be.

    When Leon’s face fell back into stoicism, Artorias smiled and continued.

    “I’ve never told you about your mother.  That was never fair to you, I let my own grief and anger get to me.  I’m sorry about that, little lion, I should have been strong enough to tell you about her.  A child should know about his parents, especially you, given that the reason she’s not around is the same reason we’re in this vale.”  Artorias paused, searching for the right words, while Leon listened with rapt attention.  He had asked about his mother before, but Artorias had never given him any real, concrete answers.

    “Let’s see, I suppose we should start when we met.  I wasn’t much older than you, it was only a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday.  I was killing some time with some of my friends at a private arena in Teira one of them owned.  It was a nice, chill time.  Some booze, some flirty hosts and hostesses, good food.  There were some small fights going on for the entertainment of the other patrons, but we were only there to hang out and weren’t really paying attention.

    “Well, that is, until one person started winning.  And not just winning, she was annihilating her opponents with a single wave of her hand!  She wasn’t even using any elemental magic, she was just tossing them out of the fighting ring one after the other!

    “When I finally turned my attention to her after ten straight victories, I was immediately captivated.  Hair as dark as night, and these striking gold eyes.  In fact, you get your eyes from her, little lion.  And her face, her body…”  Artorias lost himself for a moment, reminiscing about his wife and her extremely fit and well-endowed figure, but a glance over to Leon brought him back to reality.

    “Ahem!  Serana was exceptionally strong and beautiful, even by the standards of a prideful son of House Raime.  Watching her fight drove me and my lady-loving friends almost into a frenzy.  When she ran out of scheduled opponents, we practically tripped over ourselves challenging her, trying to get her to notice us.

    “She accepted all of our challenges, but only after gouging out ten pounds of silver from each of us.  And she beat every one of us in turn.”  Artorias’ face then broke out into a broad smile, and he puffed out his chest in pride.  “But I, I was the sole man among us who managed to take one of her strikes and not be immediately thrown out of the ring.  Of course, I was pushed right to the edge and just defending against her overwhelmed me, let alone going on the attack, but I will never forget the words she said to me right before hitting me again and finishing the match.  She smiled at me, then said, ‘Huh.  I’ve decided that I like you.’  Then, she kicked me, and I fell on my ass, to the great amusement of the crowd.

    “Needless to say, I asked her out, but she just smiled at me and refused.  Now, little lion, sometimes, when you want to woo someone, you do embarrassing things that you look back on and think, ‘Kill me.  Kill me now.’”  Artorias chuckled, then began turning a bit red from shame.  “I’ll spare you the gory details, but she continued to fight there, and even appeared in other, larger arenas.  I never missed a single match, and I even challenged her a few more times.  We got on good terms, and after some persuasion, I convinced her to come back to the palace and be my sparring partner.

    “Half a year later, we were thoroughly in love, and we weren’t fighting during those sparring sessions anymore, hehehe….”  Leon facepalmed; he didn’t want to hear about that. 

    “… But things couldn’t stay that way forever.  I asked her to marry me, and she said yes.  We were happy as could be for a few weeks while we made our wedding plans until I finally introduced her to my father.  He… was not so happy.  ‘She’s just a commoner!’  ‘An arena whore is no match for you!’  ‘She doesn’t love you, she just wants your name!’”  Artorias put on a very high-pitched and nasally voice when he quoted his father, something which he knew would’ve infuriated the man if he were there. 

    Leon was bursting with questions, but he kept his quiet.  He wanted Artorias to continue, as he didn’t forget that his father told him to listen.

    “Well, he never did accept us.  So, two and a half years later, we lived in the capital, rather than Teira.  We were married, I had just broken through to the fourth-tier, been introduced to the king himself, and assigned to his personal guard.  Serana had just given birth to you, and she was running our small, private estate by herself.  Things were as perfect as they could be.

    “But, good times don’t last.  I remember that day, the day that shattered our lives and forced the two of us to flee all the way to this desolate pile of nothing.”  Artorias’ face rapidly shifted, going from a happy smile to a much darker expression, like barely contained fury and anguish.  Leon recognized it as the one his face would always shift into whenever he asked about his mother before now.

    “It was fifteen years ago, and I heard a knock at our front gate…”

  • Chapter 33:  Fifteen Years Ago


    The Raime villa in the Kingdom’s capital was very different compared to the other noble villas in the district.  The estate was just as extensive as the others, but whereas the other nobles would fill their land with gardens and guest houses, Artorias’ villa was surrounded by a dense forest of exceptionally tall trees and thick bushes.

    The other nobles’ villas were large and sumptuous, filled with magical trinkets and lavish decorations.  Artorias’ was luxurious to be sure, but it was much smaller, more intimate, and eschewed the gaudy golden trappings of his neighbors in favor of a much simpler and cleaner aesthetic.  The walls were bare, bereft of the intricate mosaics and reliefs that the nobility loved.  There were no marble statues, no grand columns covered in runes, no multicolored magic lanterns.

    It was a small place, built for a private family.  The furniture wasn’t fancy, and the floors were a dark wood with a shiny finish rather than marble.  But that wasn’t to say that the place was cheap, either.  The land itself was just as large as the other estates in the neighborhood, and the building materials were of a very high-quality, despite their simplicity.  Even though he had been exiled from his family, the twenty-two-year-old Artorias was more than wealthy enough to afford this noble estate.  He was a newly made knight in the service of King Julius, and the king was generous to his men, especially when the knight in question was the son of his best friend.

    The road leading into the villa was small, and it wound through the trees like a snake.  Few people bothered going to the villa given the attitude of its residents, but on a seemingly ordinary night fifteen years ago, two men stumbled down this road.

    One of these men was tall, with golden hair and equally golden eyes.  He was well-built and handsome.  The other was shorter and thinner, with sandy hair and light blue eyes.  He was covered in blood and was half-carried, half-dragged by the first man.

    “Hold on, man, we’re almost there.” the first man said to his injured comrade.  He had a small glass orb in his free hand, with a single drop of blood floating inside.  The drop was being pulled in a certain direction, leading the men straight towards the villa.  It was almost touching the glass, indicating that they had almost reached their destination.

    The first man glanced at the man he was carrying.  This was his cousin, Fain.  He was one of their clan’s few experts on spatial magic, and it was by his power that they had gotten so close to their princess.  Unfortunately, the spatial tunnel he created had begun to fray and destabilize near the end of their journey, forcing them out within the capital several miles from their goal and leaving Fain severely injured.

    After a few more agonizing steps, the two finally came within sight of the villa.  Ryker—the first man—spread his magic senses over the entire estate and saw the family within.

    Artorias was in the front courtyard, practicing his techniques with his trusty longsword.  Serana was in the bedroom, rocking baby Leon to sleep.

    When he saw the baby, Ryker felt his blood begin to boil in fury, but he quickly clamped down on it, proceeded to the imposing front gate, and loudly knocked.

    Artorias narrowed his eyes in confusion.  ‘Who would come calling at this hour?’  Night had long since fallen, so even at a more social household, they wouldn’t be expecting visitors.  He sheathed his sword, strode over to the gate, and opened it a crack to see who it was.

    Ryker immediately pushed the gate open even more, shoved past Artorias, and walked into the villa’s courtyard.

    Artorias, in surprise and shock, drew his sword.  “Stop right there!” he shouted.

    Ryker stopped right there.  Then, he slowly turned his head and made eye contact with Artorias.  His boundless killing intent spilled out and hit Artorias like an avalanche, forcing him to his knees and driving all the air out of his lungs.  Artorias hit the ground, unable to lift his arms, or even draw breath.

    “What’s going on out here?”  Serana heard Artorias’ shout and came out to investigate.  When she saw Artorias on the ground, she immediately grew enraged, her hands turned into fists, and she moved to attack Ryker.  But, when he turned back around to face her, her face became one of shock, and she came to a stop.

    “Ryker?” she asked.  Then, she finally fully processed what she was seeing, and noticed who he was carrying.  “Fain!”  She rushed forward and took his other arm, then glared at Ryker.  She didn’t need to say anything for him to get the message, and his killing aura abated, allowing Artorias to stand back up.

    “These are my cousins, get our first aid kit!” Serana shouted to him.  Artorias stared daggers at Ryker, but after a brief moment of hesitation, he quickly ran towards the bathroom.  Then, she addressed Ryker again, with a cold and angry edge to her voice that sent shivers down his spine.  “And you, come with me.”

    They carried Fain into the living room, just off the courtyard, and gently laid him down on a large sofa.  Artorias joined them after a few seconds and began applying healing spells to Fain’s wounds.  Once the bleeding began to stop, Serana turned her full attention to Ryker, who was sitting straight as a board and looked more than a little nervous.

    “Speak.  Why are you here?”

    Ryker’s gaze briefly wandered over to Artorias while he thought about the correct words to say, something that Serana didn’t miss.

    “He’s my husband.  You will treat him the same way you’d treat me.”

    This made Ryker’s heart go into turmoil.  ‘This filthy thing has dared to touch the princess?!’  But, fortunately for him, he didn’t say that out loud.  Given how coldly Serana was treating him for even threatening Artorias, he felt she’d beat him into the ground if he did.

    “Lady Serana, the Patriarch has ordered us to find you and escort you back home.”

    Serana’s eyes widened in anger, and she began shouting, “What?!  No!  He promised me that I could be gone for twenty years, we’re not even a quarter through that yet!  Who does he think he is, going ba-“

    But Ryker cut her off with a single sentence.  “The clan was attacked!”

    Serana quieted down.  Her beautiful face was one of shock, but it very quickly turned back to anger.  “What?  Who would be so bold as to attack us?”

    “We… don’t know.  But, many of our warriors are dead, and the Patriarch was advised by the Council of Elders to recall every clan member from their adventures.  He agreed, and he sent us to you.”

    “Is that why Fain is so badly hurt?”

    “No, the Patriarch ordered us to get you with all haste, and he gave us a dislocation crystal to return.  Unfortunately, we didn’t possess any crystals that would get us here, so Fain had to create a spatial tunnel to get here as fast as possible.  But, this place was a little too far away, and Fain ran low on mana, causing the tunnel to begin collapsing while we were still in it.  He struggled to maintain it, but in the end, we were ejected a few miles to the south, right in the middle of the city.  At least the people here are beyond weak, so we made it here without being detected.”

    That derision in Ryker’s last comment made Serana give him a dirty look, but she looked away and began pacing in thought.  She had many questions, but this wasn’t the time for it.  Ryker and Fain were her cousins, they wouldn’t come so far just to lie to her.  So, if the clan was under attack, then as much as she might hate it, they’d have to go home.

    “Very well.  You can take me back to my father…”  Ryker’s face relaxed in relief, but immediately tightened up from discomfort and disgust when she continued.  “… but my son and husband will be coming with.”

    Ryker was about to try to protest, but when he locked eyes with Serana, he froze.  She was smiling, but it was a sinister challenge rather than an expression of happiness.  She was daring him to try and refuse.

    He was no fool.  He reluctantly nodded in agreement.

    “Good!”  Her face lit up with a genuine smile, one which could make the sun pale in comparison.  She then gracefully walked across the room, to where her husband was finishing up tending to Fain.  she hugged Artorias from behind, pressing her ample chest into his broad and muscular back, and whispered into his ear, “You won’t refuse to come with me, will you?”

    Artorias looked around.  He loved this place, but his home was still Teira.  If he did leave the only regret he might have would be leaving his father and brother behind.  They didn’t leave things off on the best terms, with the two almost literally throwing him out of the palace, but Artorias was confident that after a few years away, or maybe a few decades in his father’s case, they’d be able to reconcile.

    Serana noticed the slightly conflicted expression on his face and knew what it meant.  She reached around and took his face in her hands, turning him to look at her, and gave him a sweet, tender smile.

    “It won’t be forever, my love.  We’ll come back as soon as we can, I promise.”

    Artorias only took one more moment to think, then smiled back at her and pressed his forehead to hers, whispering his agreement to her.  Then, he turned to go to the bedroom to pack a few things and to get Leon.

    After he walked out of the room, Ryker spoke up.  “My lady, you are the princess of the clan, the Patriarch’s only daughter, why would you stoop so low as t- “

    “You will not finish that question.”  Serana gave a look that could cause a tree to wither and die, and Ryker immediately shut his mouth tight.

    Right then, the front gate was blasted inwards by a tremendous blast, crashing through the courtyard and into the wall of the villa.  Ryker sprang to his feet, while Artorias ran back into the room holding Leon.

    “Were you followed?!” Serana asked her cousin.

    “Impossible!  No way Fain’s spatial tunnels can be tracked!”

    “But you said it started breaking down at the end…”

    Ryker knew she was probably right as he thought about it, as Fain usually only made short jumps with his spatial magic, but longer jumps were far more complicated.  A jump as long as the one they made to get here, there would be no way to completely mask it.

    He immediately charged out the door to confront whoever attacked the gate.

    Standing in the courtyard were half a dozen man, all dressed in black with their faces covered in featureless masks.  There was absolutely no way to tell who they were, but Ryker didn’t even try.  As soon as he saw them, he opened up with a blast of crimson flame, swallowing up half the courtyard.

    The attack did little against their attackers, however.  A wall of ice appeared between Ryker and the men, dissolving away the instant the fire died down.  The men in black then went on the attack themselves, conjuring enormous blades of wind and spikes of ice and rock to fly towards Ryker.  Or, more accurately, to where Ryker had been before the smoke from his flames obscured his position.

    Their attacks tore into the villa, tearing it to pieces, but none came close to Ryker.

    Ryker took their moment of blindness to send a fireball careening towards the closest of the attackers.  Just as it was about to explode on him, a shield of light appeared in front of him, preventing any injuries.

    “Tch” muttered Ryker.  Even in this brief exchange, he could tell that his opponents were strong, perhaps almost as strong as he was.  Maybe he could take them on one-on-one, but this…  He sent out another blast of flame, but it collided with a blast of ice.  The two attacks tore up the courtyard beyond recognition but did little to either side.

    Before Ryker could follow up with another attack, the ground beneath him cracked open and he lost his balance.  It created a brief moment of distraction, but a moment is all that’s needed in a fight.  Before Ryker could right himself, two wind blades and a beam of light hit him in the chest, throwing him backward and completely destroying that wing of the villa.

    Meanwhile, back in the living room, Serana was just about to head outside to help Ryker when two more attackers burst in through the windows.  She reacted quickly, though, and sent them both flying backward with a kick.

    This stunned Artorias.  He knew she was far stronger than he was, but she was so fast he barely even saw her!  His awe grew even more when black flames sprang out from her arms, setting both attackers alight.  These flames gave him a palpable feeling of dread, and he held his son close.

    These two attackers were injured, but with a quick gust of wind and a flash of light, the flames were extinguished.  They threw themselves into attacking Serana, but she responded in kind.  Black fire was met with blades of wind and light, and the villa was torn asunder.

    Hearing the fighting, Fain blinked awake.  It took him only a moment to realize what was happening, and he pulled the dislocation crystal out of his soul realm and began activating it.

    Ryker pulled himself out of the rubble of the villa and attacked those outside again, but as soon as he felt the magic of the crystal, he put all of his magic into a single attack.  All the ground around him in a twenty-foot radius went up in a tornado of crimson flame that stretched over sixty feet high, and the six men outside briefly retreated.  This gave Ryker the space he needed to fall back to the living room.

    Serana, for her part, had thrown back her two opponents with a pair of black fireballs, and Fain stumbled over to her side.  Ryker burst in and joined them.  Artorias wasn’t too far away, covering Leon with his body, but when he saw the other three group up, he made to do so as well.

    Unfortunately, Fain didn’t give him the opportunity.  Ryker had enough time to give him a disdainful look, while Serana reached back to him in terror after realizing what Fain was doing.  The crystal in Fain’s hand conjured a deep black sphere, with a hint of blue in the center, and enveloped them.  The last thing Artorias heard before the sphere disappeared was Serana’s voice shouting, “No! Wai- “

    And they were gone.

    Artorias stared in disbelief, but the two men struggling to put out Serana’s black fire brought him back to reality.  He wasted no time and grabbed what he had packed, held Leon closer, and sprinted out of the villa’s back door.

    Ryker’s flame tornado died down as soon as he left, and the six other attackers burst in through the ruined walls.

    “Shit!  We missed them!”

    “The Great Lord damn it!  Even their princess was here!” another shouted.

    “Enough!” the man who was evidently their leader said.  He waved his hand, and a spinning ball of wind helped the last two men beat out the last of the black flame clinging to them.  “There were two more here, a man and a baby.  I think that might’ve been that woman’s husband and child.  We’re going after them.”

    That implication was not lost on his men.  If they killed those two, then this mission wouldn’t be a complete failure.  They’d have to kill them eventually anyway, or the child at least.

    But, before they could spread their magic senses out over the city and find them, they all felt the attention of those far to the south. 

    Six people had seen them.  Four of their magic senses faltered in fear when they felt the strength that came from these eight men.  The leader didn’t pay those four any mind, but the other two came from a giant stone tower in the center of the plane…

    “Wait!” he shouted in panic, “It seems the Grave Warden and his disciple have spotted us.  We must leave now!  Prepare the crystal!”

    One of the men pulled out a dislocation crystal of their own and activated it.  The group huddled around it and waited.  This crystal was clearly inferior to Fain’s, as it charged much slower than his.

    “What are we going to do about those two that are still here?” asked one of them worriedly.

    “We’ll just have to let Lord Kamran know.  He’ll take care of it.  Probably send a vassal like Korintholos or Isynos to deal with them.  We should worry more about what he’ll do to us, though.” the leader responded.  Indeed, they had failed.  They hoped they’d get off light.

    The crystal finally activated, surrounding the eight men in a black sphere, then vanishing.

    The battle was exceptionally loud, but it was a very large neighborhood of wealthy people, all with private security.  Consequently, it took a little while for the local garrison to arrive.  When they did, they found the Raime villa in ruins, with the rubble still burning and immense spikes of rock and ice jutting up from the ground.


  • Chapter 34:  Artorias' Last Breath


    Leon was stunned by Artorias’ story.  The attack on the villa, his mother and her cousins ‘Fain’ and ‘Ryker’, these black-clothed men.  He had just been given plenty to process, but Artorias wasn’t quite done yet.

    “I hid in the forests by the capital for a while, before I realized that they weren’t following me.  I rented a room back in the city and laid low for several days.  I hoped Serana would return.  I waited at an old temple, built back before the first Bull King began conquering his neighbors—when the people there still worshipped the sky.  We were married there, and if she came back, that’s where she would’ve gone.

    “But she never came.  I waited there a week, and she never came.”  Artorias’ voice was growing weaker, but Leon could still hear the sorrow and bitterness in it. 

    “We couldn’t stay there.  The villa was gone, Serana was gone, and my father had disowned me for marrying her.  I could’ve gone back to Teira, done my best to make peace with him, I doubt he would’ve thrown his own infant grandson out onto the street.  But, I was still angry at him.  I took us north, keeping away from prying eyes.  The kingdom thought me dead, and that was for the best.  No one knows the Great Plateau like my family.  There are hidden paths in and out of the Northern Vales, and we slipped through one, arriving here undetected.  After meeting and staying with Torfinn for almost a year, I brought us here, and made it our home.”

    “But it was never meant to be permanent…” said Leon quietly.  He remembered a certain ‘training expedition’ five years ago where Artorias took him south through one of those hidden paths.  They stayed far away from any settlements larger than fifty people and made camp several miles away from the outskirts of Teira.  Artorias made Leon wait at the camp, then went into the city.

    Leon waited almost the entire day for his father to return, and when he did, he made them pack up and go back north immediately.  It didn’t matter that the sun was setting, they left immediately and were back north of the Frozen Mountains as soon as their legs could carry them.

    Artorias’ mood had been weird when he returned, too.  He’d brought a number of books and maps, but he hardly said more than a few words at a time for the next month.

    Artorias nodded to Leon, acknowledging him as correct.  “Indeed, this was never meant to be a permanent home.  Five years ago, when we went to Teira, I had meant to find my father and finally make peace.  I had talked myself into thinking that those who attacked our villa in the capital surely weren’t still in the kingdom, they had most certainly moved on by now.

    “But when I arrived at the palace, I found it in ruins.  My childhood home was completely wrecked, with hardly a single column left standing.  I asked a nearby citizen what had happened, and he told me that my father and brother had been killed in the battle that destroyed the palace.  No one knows who did it, but their description was familiar: masked men dressed in black.”

    Leon understood.  It was obvious what had happened, after failing to find Artorias, their enemies had guessed that he’d gone to his father for help.  They attacked and killed the Archduke, but still failed to find them.

    “I should have told you all of this sooner, little lion.  It shouldn’t have taken this… It shouldn’t have taken death to loosen my tongue…”  Artorias’ voice was growing even weaker.  It was becoming a challenge for him to continue speaking, but he needed to.  There were a few last things he wanted Leon to know.

    “You’re not going to die, Dad, just tell me what I can do!”

    Artorias sighed and smiled at his son.  “There isn’t anything that can be done, my boy.  You already did everything you could when you used those healing spells.  By now, my soul realm is less than ten miles, and I’m not long for this world.”

    Leon didn’t want to believe it, but Artorias wouldn’t let him deny it.  Leon’s hands clenched into fists, but his eyes still remained dry.  Artorias appreciated that.  He didn’t want his last memories of his son to be of him crying.

    Artorias took a deep breath.  Breathing was starting to get hard, so he had to use it a bit more judiciously.

    “Listen, when I’m gone, destroy the obelisk.”

    “Wha-… Destroy it?”

    “Yes.  Use the circle I designed for it.  There’s something buried underneath that I want you to have.  Other than that, there are maps and books in this house that you will find useful too.  And check the sleigh in the ice shack.  I got you a present when we were last in Vale Town, supposed to be for your birthday…”

    “I-… yes.” was all Leon could say.

    “Do me one last favor, little lion, won’t you?”

    “Anything.”

    “Good.  Do you remember the ending to the ‘Epic of Antares’?”  Artorias’ face had gone almost bone white, but his expression still turned somewhat embarrassed.

    “Of course.”

    “Look in the front pouch of my satchel.”

    Leon stiffly walked across the room towards the satchel, and after a moment of rummaging around pulled out two small objects.  They were the heartwood seeds Artorias had found when they had gone out to awaken Leon’s bloodline!  One was glowing a bright gold, so bright that Leon almost had to squint to see it.  The other was completely black, like a lump of coal.  If it didn’t have a radiant magical aura, Leon would assume it was dead.

    Leon understood what Artorias wanted, now.  At the end of the Epic of Antares, the titular character is buried in the tradition of the gods; his heart is removed and replaced with a Heartwood seed.

    Leon’s hand clenched over the seeds, and he slowly turned back to Artorias.  He looked his father directly in the eye and nodded.

    Artorias smiled at his son.  Leon numbly walked back over and sat down.  Neither spoke for what seemed like an eternity.

    Artorias broke the silence when he weakly held up his arm and placed it on Leon’s shoulder.

    “I don’t say this as often as I should, but I love you, my son, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

    He didn’t have the strength left in him to pull Leon into a hug, but Leon didn’t need to be pulled.  He gently wrapped his arms around his father, and the two men held each other close.

    “I’m going to find Mom.  I’m going to find her, and I’m going to make those who separated us and killed our family pay.  They’ll realize that making an enemy of House Raime was the worst mistake of their lives.”

    Artorias smiled and gave a weak chuckle.  “I’d expect nothing less from my son, and the descendant of the Thunder Kings.”

    Leon and Artorias separated.  Leon didn’t quite know what to do with himself.  He was shaking, Artorias noticed.

    “Get out of here,” Artorias said light-heartedly.  Leon looked back in confusion.  “Go on.  You shouldn’t have to be here.  We’ve both said what we need to, now go on, let me die in peace.”  Artorias’ usual smile wasn’t on his face, but he did his best to get it there.

    “Go!  I don’t want you to watch me die.  You’re my son.  I don’t want you to see me die.  Go!  Leave me to my thoughts.”  Artorias was more insistent now.  As insistent as he could be.

    Leon slowly stood and walked to the door.  Just as he was about to leave Artorias’ bedroom, he turned back and said, “I love you, Dad.  Goodbye.”

    Artorias managed to give him a warm smile one last time, and Leon was out the door.

    Leon felt numb.  He didn’t quite feel what was happening was real, but he walked out of Artorias’ house anyway.  He stumbled across the cracked and broken stones in the courtyard and collapsed before the obelisk.

    He sat with his back against the cool stone for a long time, he didn’t know how long.  It began raining sometime, but he barely noticed.  The bonfire that had consumed the bodies of Adrianos, Timotheos, and the others in the kill team died down, leaving nothing but ash and a few charred bones.  Leon still just sat there, completely numb to it.

    After Leon left, Artorias let his smile drop.  ‘This is it, eh?’ he thought.  After losing Serana, it was always his dream to find her, to put what remained of his family back together.  That would never happen now.

    Artorias began tearing up.  He couldn’t help it.  No one wants to die, least of all someone who still has unfinished business.

    He kept his mouth shut, though.  Leon was all he had left, and he wasn’t going to let his son’s last memory of him be of a broken man crying out of regret.

    Leon had grown into a man he could be proud of.  Artorias had done his best to raise Leon in as safe an environment as he could find, and he hoped that Leon would be able to find his own way in the world now.  His only regret about his son was that, out of Artorias’ own paranoia, Leon never grew up with other people around.  He wasn’t a social person.

    But he was strong.  With their enemies still out there, strength was what Leon needed, and that was what Artorias had strived to give him.

    Artorias closed his eyes and cast his magical body back into his soul realm.  It had yet to fully succumb to the venom that had poisoned him, but it was in complete tatters.  Apart from his mind palace, only a few scattered and rapidly shrinking islands were left.  Even his grand and majestic mind palace was now beginning to crumble.

    It’s towers of white gold weakened and collapsed.  The windows shattered, and the stone broke apart.  The columns supporting the great halls cracked, and the halls went the way of the towers.

    Artorias watched the gardens wither and die, he watched the barely visible remains of the light in the mists finally fade away, he watched the darkness break the last of the land in his soul realm and encroach upon his throne room, the last vestige of his once beautiful mind palace.

    He sat on his throne of stunning white marble and watched the darkness seep through the doors and windows.  The walls were entirely consumed in minutes, allowing the poison to inch across the floor, devouring the granite tiles he had so carefully designed.  The walls splintered and fell, and the darkness rushed in.

    He didn’t see what happened next.  He leaned back in his throne and closed his eyes.  Tears still rolled down his cheeks as he thought of his father, always so stern and authoritative.  He thought of his proud and noble brother, his friends from childhood, all the people he’d known from back home.  He thought of the kindness shown to him by King Julius, and of Torfinn, who had always had a place for him and his son in his longhouse.

    But most of all, he thought of Serana.  The first time he saw her, his first challenge, the moment she agreed to be his sparring partner, and the moment they first admitted their love to each other.  He vividly remembered when he proposed, when they were married, when she told him she was pregnant, and the birth of Leon.  Above all, he remembered when she was taken from him.

    And now, he would never see her again.

    The darkness was upon him.  His throne melted away beneath him, and the darkness flooded into his magic body, causing it to dissolve away.

    Artorias never opened his eyes.  He didn’t hear the rain fall upon the roof of his house, he didn’t hear the howling wind of a growing storm, and he didn’t hear the thunder that rocked the heavens.

    He didn’t see the last light in his soul realm, either.  As he succumbed to the darkness, there was one last thing in his soul realm, one last thing the venom couldn’t touch.  His ancestor flew through the void and watched his magic body disappear.  It watched with its bright eyes as the last thing within Artorias vanished, the enormous marble slab upon which the throne sat.  Carved into it was an intricate formation of runes and runic glyphs telling the story of an immortality-seeking mortal, in the shape of a bird of prey with its wings spread and talons outstretched.  This was Artorias’ mana glyph.

    Lightning blazed through the bird’s eyes, and its feathers sparked and flashed.  It witnessed the death of its descendant, and screeched in anger, causing thunder to resound throughout the void.

    But Artorias didn’t hear it.  In his house, his body took one more ragged breath, and never took another.


  • Chapter 35:  Burial


    The rain beat down upon the fort.  Wind buffeted the trees in the forest and the walls creaked incessantly.  Lightning flashed across the sky and its thunder was heard far and wide.

    But Leon barely acknowledged any of it.  He still sat slumped against the obelisk, not caring about the rain that soaked his clothes or the wind that howled in his ears.

    His father had died.  Leon didn’t need to see him to know; he could feel it.  He didn’t cry or curse his enemies.  He just sat there, unmoving.

    The storm eventually passed, Leon didn’t notice when.  He must’ve fallen asleep at some point because suddenly the sun was shining down on his face.

    He was still holding the heartwood seeds.  The golden seed pulsed with light and heat, while the black seed felt cold and icy.  Leon gripped the seeds tighter, turned his eyes towards the door to Artorias’ house, and steeled himself for what he now had to do.

    He began moving his stiff body, struggled to his feet, and shook his limbs awake.  He slowly walked to Artorias’ house, stopping just before the door.  He took a deep breath, pushed the door open, then walked inside.

    Unlike Leon’s house, Artorias’ bedroom and living room weren’t separated, so Leon saw his father immediately.  Artorias was still lying in bed, looking almost like he was peacefully sleeping if it weren’t for the grayish tone his skin had taken on.

    Leon knew he was gone, but just to be sure, he checked Artorias’ pulse and made sure he wasn’t breathing.  Then, he carefully removed the fur blanket covering him and gingerly picked his father up, hooking his arm around Artorias’ cold back and legs.

    Leon carried Artorias back outside and laid him down on the stone slab that Artorias used to cook on.  Leon had no intention of ever using the slab for cooking again, so he didn’t much care about keeping it clean.

    He retrieved his hunting knife from his house and came back outside, looking like he was sharpening it on a whetstone.  He walked back to the slab and continued to sharpen his knife.  Leon’s face was stony and detached, but the irregular clinking of the knife against the stone betrayed his agitation; he was going through the motions of sharpening the knife, but his hands were shaking.

    He stood there, pretending to sharpen his knife for several more minutes, but he couldn’t stall forever.  Eventually, he put the whetstone down and took a deep breath.

    Leon had no experience cutting open a person, but he had skinned many an animal in his years of hunting, so he had some confidence he could do this.  He placed the blade of his knife against Artorias’ abdomen, just under the sternum, bit the inside of his cheek to banish the last of his reluctance, and put pressure down on the knife.  The blade slowly sank into Artorias’ skin and Leon carefully sliced downward, until he had enough room to reach his hand in.

    As Leon began reaching his knife hand into Artorias’ chest, slowly moving organs and cutting through muscle, he didn’t realize he was being watched.  Deep within his soul realm, his ancestor observed everything.  The Thunderbird seethed and stewed in its anger, flying in tight circles around that tiny island in the mist.  It had been watching the decline of its clan for years beyond counting and seeing one of the last of its descendants fall destroyed its usually aloof nature.  Lightning arced throughout Leon’s soul realm as the Thunderbird watched Leon prepare Artorias for burial.

    After a few more laps around the island and watching Leon fumble uncertainly with his knife, the Thunderbird finally lost its last tiny reserve of patience and landed on top of the throne.  It stared down at the figure of Leon sitting on the throne with his eyes closed, and lightning began surging out from its feathers and into the young man.

    Outside of his soul realm, Leon grew momentarily nauseous and he stumbled back a little.  Then, his eyes glazed over and the shaking in his hands stopped.  Just as reached back towards Artorias, he heard a voice.

    [Don’t remove his heart.  Cut it open and place the heartwood seed within.]

    The voice was incredibly deep and inhumanely resonant.  Leon was sure without a shadow of a doubt that he’d never heard it before.  But, he implicitly trusted it.  He could feel that it meant him no harm and that it knew far more about this matter than he did.  But, the Thunderbird would take measures to ensure Leon forgot the voice once he was done.  It had a reputation to maintain, after all.

    Leon hadn’t created a magic body yet; the type of artificial magic body he currently possessed was just a weak thing many ancestors would often create for their descendants, so they could access their soul realms during bloodline awakenings.  Only an exceptionally powerful soul residing within a weaker soul realm can create something like this, and it allows the one who made it certain advantages.

    For instance, the Thunderbird was currently using this direct connection between it and Leon’s mind to suppress Leon’s emotions, allowing the young mage to work without the sorrow and anger he felt affecting him.  This connection also allowed it to speak to Leon.  The old legends Leon was familiar with had changed throughout the millennia, and the information presented within wasn’t quite accurate.  The Thunderbird corrected Leon, as the heart should never be removed when burying someone with a heartwood seed.  The proper ceremony was for the seed to take root within the heart, not replace it.

    With the help of his ancestor, Leon’s work rapidly sped up.  He quickly located Artorias’ heart and made a small incision with his knife.  Then, he removed his hand, put down the knife, and grabbed the golden heartwood seed.  He supposed that the black seed would’ve worked, too, but he wouldn’t feel right using it.  The golden seed was for more appropriate for a burial worthy of divinity.

    With the utmost care, Leon slid the heartwood seed into the hole he’d cut into Artorias’ heart and removed his hand for the final time.

    With that, the most uncomfortable part was over.  Leon went back into Artorias’ house, grabbed a shirt, and pulled it over his father.  For a brief moment, Leon contemplated making a casket with some of the scrap wood, but then he heard that deep voice from within again.

    [The aura of the seed will surround him.  He will be untouched by decay.]

    So, without a need for a casket, Leon moved on to the last item on the agenda: where to lay Artorias to rest.  And he knew exactly where.

    He walked right up to the obelisk and located a runic circle near the bottom that was on the opposite side from the others that controlled the obelisk’s functions.  Leon placed his hand within and began channeling his magic into it, causing it to activate.  There was a slight delay of about five seconds, enough to make sure that the activation wasn’t by accident, and then Leon removed his hand.

    The circle glowed a dark red, and after a few seconds, cracks rapidly spread out from it and spiderwebbed all over the obelisk, shattering it into countless pieces.  The heightened magic density in the air due to the obelisk immediately rushed outwards now that the obelisk was gone, and Leon could sense that the aura chasing away the forest monsters was now coming solely from the wards in the walls.

    Leon began kicking and throwing away the shards and chunks of the obelisk, and after grabbing a shovel from the remnants of the storage shed plus ten minutes of digging, he found a large wooden box beneath the remains of the obelisk’s stone base.  He pulled the box out of the seven-foot-deep hole he was in and set it aside for the moment.

    This was it, right in the center of the fort was where he would bury his father.  Leon cleared away a few more bits of stone, making enough room for Artorias, and he respectfully placed his father within.  Half an hour with a shovel got him enough dirt to cover the grave, and for a finishing touch, Leon used the loose rocks and broken stones from the obelisk to construct a small cairn above the grave.

    With the deed done, Leon finally internalized that it had happened.  Since the day before, there had been a large part of him that wasn’t quite accepting the events of the past couple of days, but now he was coming to terms with reality.

    Within his soul realm, the Thunderbird stopped suppressing Leon’s emotions, but it wasn’t done exerting its influence over its descendant.  The bright mists surrounding the island darkened in an instant, causing rain to fall and wind to pick up.  But, most startling of all was that lightning began to strike the throne, and more importantly, Leon.

    The young man himself didn’t realize it in the state he was in, barely registering anything outside of staring at the cairn, but his body became flooded with magic power, far more than when the obelisk was increasing magic density in the area.  This magic spread throughout his body, fusing with his blood and coursing through his veins.  It was absorbed by his internal organs and much of it was even stored in his heart.  But, most critically, it was seeping into his bones.

    After the ritual, Leon was well on his way to becoming a third-tier mage, he just needed a bit more time to allow his bones to adapt to his magic.  But now, with the help of the Thunderbird, his body was overflowing with magic and a great deal of that magic was being consciously directed by the Thunderbird into Leon’s bones.

    The Thunderbird had taken off and was flying around the island again, but it was still very easily controlling its magic, using it to benefit its descendant.  But, for the briefest of moments, a reddish-orange light pierced through the storm clouds, bathing the island in light, then disappeared as fast as it had come.

    The Thunderbird lazily turned its head in the direction the light had come from, but nothing could be seen.  The dark clouds were thick, and no more light was shining through.  But, the Thunderbird could still vaguely sense it, the other in the mists.

    [Finally feel like joining us?] the Thunderbird asked, its voice casually booming and echoing throughout Leon’s soul realm, but its question was met with silence.

    [I guess not.  Does it truly mar your pride so much that our descendants actually produced such a miracle?  How many childless marriages have our lines had?]  The Thunderbird waited for an answer it knew wasn’t going to come before continuing.

    [Shall I take this as you not knowing?  Well, well, well, look who isn’t so infallible now.]  It chuckled to itself, though its avian face couldn’t smile or make anything resembling human emotion.

    [Well I know how rare such a child is.  And he needs some help.  I will show him my favor and promote him to the third-tier of the magic realm.]  The Thunderbird once again glanced out into the distance, towards the eyes it knew were closed.

    [You should do something, as well.  He awakened his blood, that you now deny him his own power actually sickens me a little.  Ah, well.  Not like I can force you to do anything.  But I will continue watching over this growing lion.  I must do this, he is my last descendant.  Or the last with awakened blood and thus the only one that matters, anyway.  All my other branches have seen too many dormant generations to awaken their power, now…]  It morbidly laughed to itself at the capriciousness of the universe and calmly watched the lightning fall upon Leon.

    [My last true descendant.  And to think, my clan was once one of the mightiest in existence, ruling great swathes of the Nexus and had subjugated entire planes!  They even outnumbered your clan at their peak.  And now this young man is all that’s left.]

    As the Thunderbird immersed itself in memories of a more glorious time, the lightning stopped crashing down upon the throne, the rain stopped pouring, and the wind died down.  The Thunderbird had stopped flooding Leon’s body with magic.  It no longer needed to, given what it could sense coming from Leon’s bones.

    It took one last look in the direction that light had come from, but after seeing nothing, the Thunderbird flew back out into the mists.

    This will probably be the last chapter I post here.  I keep on forgetting to post on time, so the chapters end up hours late.  Not to mention, this isn't really getting a lot of views compared to the other places I've been posting.  So, if you want to continue to read The Storm King, you'll have to visit wardenreading.com (don't worry, it's free).

Sign In or Register to comment.