The ensuing explosion and projectile lion did little to assuage the burn of the beast’s final gift. Granted, ‘final’ was dependent on whether her ‘allies’ were going to make themselves useful and finish the blasted cat off. Polaris had struck true, but it’d struck at range. Not enough power to give the feline circus attraction a frontal lobotomy, but it was sufficient to deliver it to Aurelia’s deadweight comrades.
Suffice to say, their (lack of a) track record didn’t really impress her. While the Imperator had managed to vanquish… what, four-and-a-half beasts? The jiisan and the suit of armour hadn’t managed to take down one—that’s right, one—rat, playing a guitar. Sure, they could argue that it was a bloomin’ big rat, and that the vermin’s instrument was an electric guitar, but all excuses were bad excuses.
At this stage, Aurelia wasn’t really sure if she was going to need treatment for the hole in her stomach or her back.
The Imperator crouched down with a hiss of pain and let right hand drifted to her lips, while its polar went to the hole in her vest. Both came back wet, the latter more so, drawing an annoyed cheh from Aurelia’s lips.
Lesson for the day? Don’t mess with the animals—finish them off as quickly as possible. Hells, she probably still had to do that last part, didn’t she? The fight wasn’t over ‘til the last foe was down and she’d just gone over the whole ‘teammates’ spiel.
She took a sharp breath and forced herself to stand for a moment, before almost dropping back down into the rapidly growing pool of crimson. But it was going to take a lot more than something trivial like blood loss to keep her down.
Without that oversized, crimson cuss nearby, though, there didn’t seem to be any immediate threat. Nothing, save the spectral battle right behind her, though the ghostly combatants continued to ignore her.
And on that very thought, a sombre, haunting song droned through the land, and every phantasmal warrior spun around to face her.
Aurelia froze, eyes shooting skywards to glare at whatever deity was messing with her. Was this seriously about to happen?
Simultaneously, the ghosts fell to their knees in a unified show of fealty. She began to sigh, only to abruptly cut off mid-exhalation and squint. Was it her eyes, or was everything getting br—
Yep, it was definitely getting brighter. The grey sky, the monotoned ground—everything being covered in a blinding whiteness.
This… this was gonna suck. There wasn’t any cover, there wasn’t any time, there wasn’t any bloody—
With a piece of vitriol, the Shattered Dream raised her forearm and dove to the ground as the light consumed her.
Even Flash Grenades had nothing on this. Aurelia imagined that the light would’ve been bright enough to dazzle or possibly blind her through closed eyelids, if she hadn’t been eating her jacket’s sleeve.
And then singing stopped, ending as abruptly as it had started. Aurelia stopped clamping her eyelids shut and relaxed them fractionally. She tentatively lowered her arm, bracing for the unbearable light—
Nope. Well, alright then.
There was a soft click and buzz as something above her activated. Then… more music…?
Hang on… She knew that song. It was an old favourite of hers.
Aurelia opened her eyes. There was a small, square screen angled down from the sky, showing an old, staticky... music video? The quality was less than fantastic, but she could make out what appeared to be subtitled lyrics at the bottom of the screen.
She frowned and began to push herself up—
—only to slip off of the seat she’d been lying on, and crash to the floor in a heap.
Aurelia gave a tired sigh, then grabbed the nearby table and pulled herself. She gave the room a quick once over, and frowned as an uneasy weight settled in her stomach.
A square, budget-sized monitor. Stained booth seats. A dusty, little table, littered with cans and drinks. And the MV—a classic, but she preferred the version that wasn’t covered in white noise.
A karaoke room.
Or what had been a karaoke room. Pretty major scenery change compared to the battlefield, but just as gloomy, so long as the lights were out. Seriously, where the hell were they?
She scanned the walls for a switch, but found little more than flaking paint and a vacant cobweb next to the door. Even the spider had decided this creepy place was the dumps. Was the switch outside mayb—
The shadowborn closed her eyes and took her hand away from the doorknob, before dropping into a seat with a grumble.
Of course it was locked. Fantastic.
She had a hunch that having Polaris ‘negotiate’ with the door wouldn’t make it any more affable. Regardless, it wasn’t like she was in any state to try it. Not with a gaping hole in her—
Hold that thought.
Both gauntlets went down to her belly to find naught but taut muscle and tender flesh. The paladin frowned and checked her sides, only to find her swords had come home. Well, that was nice of… ‘them’. Whoever ‘them’ was.
Still, being locked in a room was hardly good hospitality. She glanced up at the monitor in time to see the lead singer perform a reverse handstand backflip and she sighed again. This day was gonna make that a habit out of her.
Well, she might as well take the bait. The shadowborn looked amongst the litter on the table, searching for a microphone—
Just as the video cut and the screen glowed gold, bathing the room in aureate light. Harmonic, choral chanting flooded her ears, replacing the song’s crackly, but peppy beats.
That was enough. Aurelia closed her eyes and counted to three, before opening them and putting an arm through the monitor. The music stopped and she grinned to herself triumphantly, until she felt something grab her armoured fist.
An “Ah,” was all she managed before the entity in the display threw her at the far wall.
Contrary to her earlier expectations, the door offered no resistance and exploded into fragments on contact. She landed heavily in the passageway beyond, boots and gloves clacking on the tiles, as ashen scales rained upon her.
Wait. Scales? Iyaaa…. Nononono—
Aurelia blanched and scrambled up, gagging as a black, foul-smelling haze poured into the darkened hall. Clanking footsteps echoed from behind her and the paladin froze between coughs. She was about to turn around, just as the room turned violet and the being roared. Her hands flew down, searching for the Mandates as she finished pivoting—
The world erupted in a cacophony of purple light and abrasive noise.
Everything flipped and spun, blurring past in a whirlwind of light, as Aurelia was turned around and around, head over heels. Something hard cracked into her elbow, then her head, against her back, and then—
And then the shadowborn landed, flat on her back, sliding along the polished, marble floor. Twin rows of ebony pews flanked her passage and paintings loomed above her, their story lost amongst the stars clouding her vision. An organ droned solemnly in the background, heralding Aurelia’s less-than-graceful arrival.
That… had not been fun. It was like being punched into a washing machine, then launched from a spin cycle on to an ice rink, minus all the cold bits. Gods Above and Below, she was going to be spectacularly bruised tomorrow. Not that she’d be able to see them, but anyway.
Aurelia groaned and blinked, willing the spots from her vision.
It was at that moment that she noticed the pale, outstretched hand. The darkforged blinked, then grasped it, and was awarded with a free trip back on to her feet. She blinked again and her saviour—a robed... person with lightless eyes.
“I, uh… thanks. I can, uh... explain,” Aurelia said hesitantly, as she hurriedly scanned her surroundings.
A bone-white altar stood proudly at its rightful place at the room’s head. Surrounding her were rows and rows of ash-black pews, of which she and the robed person stood in the centre aisle. Stained glass windows, towering marble pillars, and monochrome motifs tied the ensemble together.
So… a cathedral. From karaoke to cathedral. Aurelia’s eyes focused on the floor, noting the checkerboard pattern. Well, that answered where she was at least. Now, as for getting out...
It then occurred to her that the cathedral’s attendant was staring blankly at her. Well, she certainly wasn’t one to turn down a staring contest, but even so, that was a tad… odd. Aurelia gave the person a look, and drank in… their features.
Inky, mid-length hair. Milky-white skin. Robes, embroidered with eyes girthed by triangles and . And a face that was equal parts handsome and pretty.
… Yeah, alright. ‘They’ would have to do.
Aurelia frowned, then shook her head apologetically. The... priest had been talking to her, but she couldn’t understand a lick of what they were saying. Their vacant expression certainly didn’t help—at least with normal people, you could try to read them.
A head tilt was the holyperson’s response, with another smattering of… Pallivian? Didn’t matter. Aurelia shook her head again, and then the priest sighed, before addressing her in Standard Common.
“An Imperator that doesn’t know their own tongue?” they asked, in a soft murmur. A gentle hum seemed to shadow their words, echoing and making Aurelia’s temple throb.
Aurelia bristled. “I’m sorry… but... Look. I’ve had a really long day, so if you could give me directions on how to get out of this kooky place, I’d really appreciate it.”
“There was a time where you would have stayed and listened, no matter your trials,” they said, with a small smile.
“Uh, yeah. Sorry, no. Not me. I’ve always been a hands-on lady,” Aurelia responded brusquely. Then she frowned. “Hang on a— Have we met? ‘Cause you seem to know me, but I don’t recollect anyone quite as unique as you.”
They nodded and held their hands out to either side. “I’m the Lightless. And I’ve known you since the Coming of the Dawn, Imperator.”
“That’s… quite creepy. I’m Aure—”
“Kurouji Taiyane, eldest of Tsukino and Hironobu, sister of Shion and Yura… First born, first slain,” they said, smiling at the shadowborn’s face. “Or as you prefer, Imperator Aurelia… Once forged, twice slain, thrice born of Shadow. Though we would rather—”
“Yeah, okay, but no. Huge fan or not, you may not have the rights to my autobiography,” Aurelia snapped. “What do you want?”
“We come with an offer for you.”
“Not really interested, but I’ll take a coupon.”
“A choice. Your sister’s life for your killer’s.”
Eh? Aurelia shut her mouth and raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
The Lightless smiled and uttered a single name. “Arturius”
The organs stopped. Not a moment later, a hidden door set into the far wall slammed open and Arturius stepped out, as a weight dropped into the darkforged’s stomach.
“Man, finally. Do you know how hard it is to play an organ with plate gauntlets on?” He paused upon spotting Aurelia. “Oh, hey kid. Made it through, did we? Heh, you’re gonna wish you hadn’t.”
“A life for a life,” the Lightless Priest said, as Arturius walked up to stand beside them. “We offer the King of Kings, for the Tyrant of the Mountain.”
Two stained-glass windows filled with light above the altar; one bearing a purple-haired woman, perched atop a mountain, whilst the other displayed a black-clad man, surrounded by golden flames. Aurelia said nothing, and turned her gaze on to the madman’s leering face.
A few moments passed and Arturius turned to the priest. “Yeah, she does this sometimes. Silent-angry type, you know.”
The Lightless Priest ignored him and approached Aurelia. Motes of light gathered in their raised hand, coalescing into a knife, which they offered to the darkforged.
“A single thrust,” they said. ”And your journey will be at an end. One stab, and your vengeance will be complete.”
Aurelia took the proffered weapon and regarded it warily. “And Shion?”
“Will live. That is the price that must be paid.”
“No. Not happening,” she shook her head, and held the shiv back to the cleric.
They gazed at it, but made no move to take the weapon back. “The tyrant will live, but nothing lasts forever. She will meet her end, but not by your hand.”
“Not good enough.”
“Because I owe it to them,” she answered, handing the weapon back.
There was a clap and Aurelia turned towards the sound. Arturius laughed.
“Oh, that’s rich. Knew you didn’t have it in you, pumpki—,” he started, as the shadowborn rammed a fist into his face.
He stumbled back, reeling, as Aurelia moved in and shot her foot up into his groin with a reverberating crash.
Arturius went down like a sack of bricks.
She turned back to look at the Lightless, who was regarding her with a mixture of curiosity and… pride?
“Tell me then, Aurelia,” they asked, voice echoing throughout the chamber. “To whom do you owe this? Your father? Your family? Your people?”
“All of them.”
“So even now, you serve? You let others command you?”
That drew a frown from her. Something wasn’t right here. Something was suss.
Aurelia glared at the priest. “Right, listen. I serve no one. I command myself, you—”
A loud rumble resonated through the hall, cutting the Imperator off, before a large chunk of stone slammed to the floor behind her. Coloured glass shattered and pews splintered, as an invisible force began to tear the cathedral apart.
The Lightless Priest closed their eyes and smiled, dispersing the knife in their hand, which vanished into the air, as did the Arturius’ caricature on the floor.
“Never would we have thought that we would have ever heard you say those words,” they whispered, their words carrying and resounding through the ruined hall, through Aurelia’s mind.
She winced and made to grab the cleric, but a large chunk of ceiling cut her off. There was another groan from behind her and she turned, to see a pair of wide, double doors open before her, leading to darkness beyond.
“Who in the hells are you?!” Aurelia roared, drawing a gentle smile from the Lightless.
“Once, we were all. But that time has passed, and now we are none,” they said, voice cutting through the din. “But worry not, Aurelia. There will be a time for that. But for now—”
A sense of vertigo came over her, and Aurelia was suddenly beyond the double doors. The Lightless Priest watched her through the archway as the cathedral entered its final throes around them.
“Now, you fight—”
There was a wretched howl that drowned out the priest’s final word, but Aurelia heard them in her mind. Her eyes widened on realisation and she rushed forward, as the double doors slammed close in her face. Heart hammering, she shouted and smashed her fist into the door, again, and again, but to no avail.
The Lightless and the cathedral were gone, closed off to her.
She stepped away from the door, panting, and looked at her surroundings for the first time. There was nothing but darkness around her, save for a single, spiralling staircase, that rose into the heavens.
Aurelia grimaced. So it was time.
The ascent felt like an age to the paladin. It may have been only five years since she’d left—at least, on Tengamine—but if there was one thing that Aurelia had learnt, it was that time was malleable across the realms. As such, the staircase felt much longer than it had, but she hadn’t climbed those stairs in over thirty years.
The Peak hadn’t changed at all, though. A single room girthed by a wooden platform, at the tallest point on the mountain. It was little wonder that the tallest tower was referred to the Peak of Heaven.
And on that platform stood her sister, back-turned, gazing out at her ill-gotten kingdom.
Shion Kurouji, the Tyrant of the Mountain. Tall for a girl, but not exceptionally so. Long, neat, purple hair, with traces of silver forming through the underside. And probably with a frown on her face. That girl had never learnt how to smile.
Aurelia inhaled and then stepped forward, out of the room and on to the platform. Her sister didn’t react, oblivious to the threat that loomed behind her as the shadowborn stealthily approached.
It would be so easy to kill her now. A single thrust. Or a simple slash, straight across the neck. She would never see it coming—both literally and figuratively.
She took a breath and steeled herself, then whispered. “Hey sis.”
“Hah, knew it. That wasn’t all, was it, kid?”
Aurelia’s eyes widened and she made to whirl, just as an armoured boot struck her, right between the legs. She paused for a moment before the pain hit and she fell, swears and curses flowing freely.
Grimming, Arturius crouched down next to her. “Hurts a touch, doesn’t it? Ah, well, we’ve all been there. Still, the worst wounds are mental ones, and I think you are in for a real treat in that regard. Heh, hell, I think we’re all about to see a good show.”
He stood back up. “It's been real fun and all, sweetheart, but I think it’s time we wrapped things up. Time’s a wasting and you’ve got a battle to fight. Want to do the honours, Shion? For old time’s sake?”
Aurelia gritted her teeth and looked up. The image of her sister approached, warping and blurring, as it approached. There was a screech as she drew her purple blade, and levelled it at the Shattered One’s face.
Arturius winked down at her. “See you on the other side.”
Then to Shion. “She’s all yours.”
Her sister’s blade flashed as Shion gave a mighty slash that cut through reality.
The world shattered.
It would’ve been dishonest to say that the descent was unpleasant. On the contrary, the scenery was fantastic. It was only the departure and the arrival that made it awful.
The shining cone that was her conveyance screamed and howled as it scorched down from the heavens, splitting time and space alike. It was like a ‘falling dream’, but taken to incredible extremes.
But unlike a dream, this journey had an end.
Light met marble in a tremulous clash, the impact shattering the magic cocooning her and shaking Aurelia to her very core. She took a deep breath and wet her lips, before flinching as words echoed through the realm and within her head. Names and titles, proclaiming the champions—the Knights—for the opposing powers.
And then it was her turn—the Knight of the Spearhead.
Aurelia inhaled and then rose, with a glance to the lance strapped to her arm.
Koumetsubou—the fabled Dying of The Light. A priceless treasure that she’d inherited—not earned—that had seen her through thick and thin. Through several lifetimes.
Granted, a lifetime was considerably shorter when someone stabbed you through the chest, though she doubted most people had the ‘pleasure’ of experiencing that. So that claim might not have been as impressive as it sounded.
A grin came to the shadowborn’s face and she licked her lips, as she looked over their opponents. All news faces, huh? Oh, ‘cept one. That’d make her... Spirits, huh? That made sense.
“Right, listen up!” Aurelia shouted, looking back to her own disparate comrades. “Lion Face over there’s a full circus. She’s got pets; at least four of ‘em. Lady herself turns into a bloody big cat—and I don’t mean a cuddly ‘tabby’ either. Found that out the hard way.”
She gave each of her allies a quick eyeball as she finished, raising a brow when her gaze found the caped woman. Everything about her practically screamed ‘let eat cake’, and Aurelia doubted that she was gonna supply them.
Eh, whatever. They could all dress how they wanted. Hells, they could fight stark naked—though admittedly, she’d rather that they’d not—so long as they each pulled their own weight. After all, in this situation, beauty wasn’t simply skin-deep.
Back strength was a major factor as well.
“Anyway, all the best, folks.”
With a flourish, the self-styled Imperator drew her blades and strode towards the crackling pair of water features. An opposing Knight broke off to intercept her—a slim, wood-swathed fellow, wielding a mighty big fire poker.
Gee, which Knight could that possibly be?
Aurelia smiled and shot the man a grateful wink, before raising her swords and quickening her pace.