Stygian steel primed to strike, for those lost, for memories washing away. Crystalline blade pointed in challenge, for those that may be met, if one just continued down the river’s flow. An unnatural stillness held over the two fighters, one that couldn’t last long.
Milo felt salt on his tongue as he finished his claim, and the ocean’s wind ruffled his blood-slicked hair and feathers as he spoke of the dragon’s name. His heart skipped a beat and he looked up, towards the pillar of bleached white.
Their dispute, their clash of ideals was meant to be resolved by the hearts that claimed them. In ice, fang, blade and blood. And even as beings higher than them clearly showed where their favors lay, Milo couldn’t feel any joy in his victory. With his eyes wide, he met Crail’s, almost able to pinpoint the moment a spark within them died, a spark that he spent so long bringing to life.
It can’t end like this.
“Crail...” He whispered, taking a step forward. The sword he held so effortlessly before fell under the weight in his arm, hanging limply by his side. The ferocious axe followed, its drop into the sands unfit of a warrior, soft and quiet. Throes of panic set in his heavy chest, spiking as the dragon’s body shuddered with rough, raspy laughter.
He’d heard that sort of laughter before. The laughter of the cornered, the laughter of the ones with a final ace to play, the laughter bouncing within a tower’s walls as a man dies under the debris, knowing he trapped a hollowboned beast within the flames. Milo tried to speak, but his words struggled to climb over a crushing weight, froze when the dragon addressed him directly. Speaking of Niji, waiting beyond oblivion. Of how his tale wasn’t nearing its end.
Crail, don’t… It doesn’t have to end like this…
“Crail, you stubborn fool!” His words finally tore themselves out of his throat as the dragon’s last words echoed. Shrill and desperate not against the freezing and brilliant energies of his breath but what this exertion would mean.
Another fallen. Another one he’d failed to protect.
And even as feathers swirled and whispered of the futility of protecting others in a death tournament, even if he understood the truth between its words for once. Even then, the thought pulled at the corners of his eyes, willed tears to come down as the mage roared without a sound. With a ferocious slam, he brought the orb into the sands. In an instant, his world of crimson sprites lit up in pain, a thousand shards and cuts flaring with exertion. A thousand pawprints of the orb as it marked him over the years, black as night. A wild wave of red welled up between him and the charging dragon, just in time for the sparkles to coalesce in his brilliant maw.
What gives you the right? What gives you the right to abandon what could’ve been, everything you’ve left unfinished?
The brilliant energies that painted the mighty warrior’s throat gave rise to a memory of great black scales, of ember crackling with such ferocity it crawled out between the scales. And even if in the memory, what the drake bellowed was white hot flame, the blue and purple lights would burn just the same.
No matter the Lord fought for.
He willed his quaking arms forward into open palms, the pressure and pull of magic and exhaustion threatening to take them apart as they forced his ripple of red to crystallize into a barrier. A creature would not be able to withstand this frigid cold, Milo realized as heat sapped out of the air and made his breath into vapor.
And then the dragonbreath slammed into his barrier with all of its glittering beauty and death, and Milo realized that he, too, counted as a creature unfit to withstand an onslaught.
For as long as it takes for three sputtering clouds to come out with one’s breath, he lost control, and the barrier had already been littered with cracks, torn at by Crail’s last breath and blades of ice. His head hung low. He couldn’t withstand the light. He couldn’t stare at how his every breath danced in front of his eyes as lights of blue, black and purple, as insistent starlights. He couldn’t bear the weight of the thoughts ringing in his head.
Bear witness to his choice… His choice to not continue on.
It was not ours to take.
All he felt was the white and the crimson. Both crystallizing and searing his skin, frigid wind tearing at his cloak, at his hair, at the pin needles stuck all over his body. He threatened to falter, and somewhere at the back of his mind, a similar situation rose in his mind. Of a shield held up against the raging behemoth’s axe.
A mental spike tore through Milo as he realized Cassius was somewhere out there.
Run, He wanted to scream. I’ll hold it off, don’t worry about me.
Flicks of feather burned like wildfire when he opened his eyes, clawing at the exhaustion setting itself in his bones.
Do you die out here because of pride, because you want to be a hero that badly?
His throat refused to make a sound. Milo’s mind went to reach out to Cassius on instinct, but he cut it off just as fast. The soldier’s plea came to mind, the vision of him frozen and struggling under his voice came to mind. Milo drew in a breath that felt like splinters with how chilly it was, and called, surprised that he could still shout over the ramping storm, even if very barely.
“Cassius, I- I c-can’t hold this alone!”
The earth around them was torn by erupting spikes, and Milo watched in dread as one barely nicked his side, making a clean cut through the fabric of his cloak. Eyes turned back towards his barrier and the brilliant, burning white, he felt Cassius more than he saw him. His breathing hitched. Crystals of ice formed within the cracks of his barrier, weaving it back together. Milo felt nothing but untangling as the ice spreading through the barrier’s crystal crawled on the walls of his veins. It was but a reflected feeling, just a feeling, he hoped with all of his will. He hoped with all of his will to not rupture from within or outside as the brilliant, vibrant wind tore.
Sheer, sharp pain struck through the numbness and cold. The feeling of lightning tore through his thigh as a spike found its way to the mage too slowed by the frigid cold to move aside. It was in that moment that Milo faltered, and a moment later, their barrier shattered, raining shards with the storm. Milo willed another barrier, barely as big as a buckler - but it saved them from lost eyes.
Cassius, He breathed out. His eyes flicked across the pain to see if the other was okay. Milo strained to move away, leaving a trail of sparkling red behind. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore, the icy feeling having overtaken them. A blade of ice sliced across his chest, locking him in place and missing anything vital by a breath. It stained the gray of his tunic red.
It was so cold.
It was a plain of white with no swift foxtails to stir the snow. If he laid to rest here, he could finally sleep. Let dreams untangle his heart and let it breathe, let all of that blood sink in and break that perfect nothing in half.
I send these two warriors with mine blessing…
May they overcome mine last dying throes lest they join me in the beyond…
The dragon’s final words climbed and shone within the numbness and quiet. They ignited within the fading mage a spark of fury he hungrily held on to, winning himself a moment of clarity within his fading mind.
He did not know what to expect of the beyond. Niji, cradling the fairy he sent for her. Peregrine, though he wasn’t gone. Crail, who he’d scream his parched lungs out at. Not for cutting his life short, but for giving up his own. His Lord, denouncing him for weakness.
In the corner of his eye, he saw the kind seraph, rushing to his side, badly wounded. He struggled to speak, to turn his head, but couldn’t. Focus petered out of his quivering eyes and he was met with white.
At least let me die under my own Lord.
Black ate at the white like dusk gnaws at the sun. Ice was not the one to claim him.
He saw a flock of birds against the night, wings frigid and blue with stars intertwined.
Among them, a black shape that felt so unnatural and final against the nebulae, the place where stars were born. If it was a vulture or something else, he couldn’t tell. He had a feeling it was giving him a side eye, despite having no eyes to speak of.
Who are you?
He couldn’t move, he couldn’t speak, and yet the bird raised its head as if listening.
The mage paused. Which one of those voices… Which one of them was his? He could clearly remember being the one to ask the question. The creature stared at him from its crystalline perch, a tree he could swear was not there a moment ago.
I am power.
I am the divine.
I am the lifeblood of slow and vast.
A vulture, a beast, The words formed but froze in his throat. This voice was not shrill, it was not wild and it was not vile. It was calm, almost eerily so. It was still, and showed no feeling behind those bold claims. It just stated them as truths, as if talking about the colour of the sky, or the wetness of the sea. They held no weight behind them, and yet they crushed at his ribs. He’d imagined - almost hoped for a deathbird, a creature of fury and hatred and hubris to shriek and wail about greatness and announce every failure to him. A creature of guilt. But it was nowhere to be found. The thoughts, black and swirling, as slow as they were under this unbearable cold with no winter in sight, did not belong to the creature in front of him.
It was all… all of that, was… me.
He could not bear to look at them out of his shame. It weighed him down even as his skin flared with a thousand sprouting feathers. His voice strained, coming out only as a thought, left to echo and bounce between the stars. Daring enough to come begging, daring enough to come asking for his crimes to be lifted, with hands bloodied with black and starlight. Daring and foolish enough to think of his crimes as those of a demon.
Is it still?
The entity’s voice cut through his thoughts as they descended and threatened to send him plummeting into the infinite nothings below. Milo dared to look up and met its eyes. Eyes of nothing, eyes no light could meet.
Hours spent on studying anatomy asked the mage how could such an eye work.
He stared up at the lights above, at the chilling wings of great birds. He had learned so much over the years of grieving.
He remembered the egg taken with pride against the dying wails of its mother. He remembered the grief when it hatched, without the one that crime was committed for, with just the man least worthy of its presence to raise it. Teaching to fish, to hunt, warming it in cold nights even as every look at its wise eyes bubbled rage and pain.
He remembered needles of black tearing, saving a man thought lost, thought weak in the eyes of the avian.
Shimmering breeze of a jeweler he shared a moment with. Come to think of it, this nebula did look like xyr boomerang. A prideful seraph, offered kindness and meeting kindness in return, despite his suspicions and disgust. A gleaming and joyful child of an elemental, bringing two fighters aghast with his wishes to play among the stars.
He remembered a warrior of ice scale, and his heart broke.
“Is it enough?”
Milo asked, voice breaking, surprised to hear sounds finally find their way out. The entity tilted its head.
I am not the one who judges that.
Not the one that judges that…
Then whom? The Lord of Darkness?
The cyan shimmer around them broke into birds, into glittering flocks that surrounded the mage, tearing at his cloak with their wind. Above them, in the eye of the storm rested a world, a planet with wild forests and mountains. Somewhere there, vast deserts and red roofs, somewhere there, Bren. He remembered a warrior of ice and scale, lying fallen within its voracious sands.
No. Not the Lord.
Even if his wish were to be granted, the chance to start anew would mean nothing if his own heart remained unchanged, chained to grief with no respite, no outlook towards the future.
His pinions unfurled among the stars, he flew. Towards the brightness like a moth to the flame, towards another day.
He awoke to the sun.
Forms as if made of glass danced about his vision. The exhaustion, the pain, the frostbite and the searing flame across his leg, the needles scattered all over him and frosted in place. It all came back to him. He couldn’t stay here. The fight was over when he said it was.
His lips moved without a sound, with a single parched breath. From within the crimson grains, puddles of blood both human and divine formed streaks and then rivers, rushing to meet their mage from all directions, almost like sunbeams of the radiant orb above. Milo choked out a shaken exhale as the blood forced itself in through the many wounds scattered across his form.
Tower, flames. Obsidian ground, carved with sigils. Divinity denounced, leaving his bloodstream to form the orb. Feathers burning as ichor left. Forever, then. Just for a little longer, now.
With closed eyes and a twitchy, tired movement of his fingers, he led it, asked it to lend its last strength to hold his heart and head together, to stop his burning leg from losing the last of his blood. The frostbite, the limp, the thousand cuts. They’d remain, but all he needed was to stay alive for just a little longer.
He held his arms up, and from within wounds, streaks of blood came rushing back out, their blackness escaping and forming a core. Around it, a thin layer of blood that grew slightly thicker as Milo winced, his breath sharpening.
To stay alive, and to stay a threat.
He put one leg under the other and failed to get up. Pain tore through his muscles as they strained. Despite not wanting to, he glanced at his wound. The fabric was slicked with blood and covered in purple ghosts of feathery flames. He moved and they followed only as an afterthought.
With a groan, he made it, and slightly wobbled. Breathed in the crisp air, caught between heat and frost. He saw a familiar figure crouching over an unfamiliar body.
“Cassius.” Milo croaked, limping towards the two. “Cassius Pallu!” He cawed, this time louder, his voice grating against his dry throat. He glared daggers as he saw, to his disbelief and betrayal, that the younger man was looting Crail’s body for that accursed icy orb. As if not knowing the dangers the seraph could hold with such an artifact, he continued, his voice growing quiet with disappointment. “I come to thank you for your kindness, and I find you desecrating the dead.”
“He fought with valiance and passion, passing his desire for victory onto me. This object will serve us well, and I believe I will honor his legacy by making use of it myself.”
Passing his desire for victory… The young one’s words weighed on Milo. While he understood the meaning, Cassius’ wording did not sit with him well.
The word sent an unfamiliar warmth through him.
Is that us going to last when a pillar falls?
“I will be honest, I have no intention of fighting you unless I have no other choice. You’ve shown yourself capable and distinguished, and I still have a... question I need to ask of Jacklin.”
Jacklin. The name sent shivers down Milo’s spine as the memory of fire and heat resurfaced. An executioner’s sword raised high to cleave him for his sins. A hesitation… Just as Cassius hesitated here, at the end of all things, with nothing but four pillars standing.
“As long as you agree, I believe we should interrupt the others rather than fight over Crail’s body. I... would hate to have my blade end up at your throat.”
Milo’s eyes trailed over to Crail, lying helpless in the sands. Seeing the dragon as a human struck something deep within the mage’s chest, something he refused to act upon. Instead, he closed his eyes.
May you be welcomed by those you loved, those that loved you, great warrior. May you awake no longer chained by dedication and the will of another.
He couldn’t watch as the haze clawed at Crail, its hungry ghosts of crimson eager to devour his body whole.
“His war is over. Let us leave it as such. It’s…”
He locked eyes with Cassius before turning towards the charred woman crouching in the sands, and limping forward.
“It’s up to us who still live and breathe now. Cassius, it’s been an honor to fight by your side.”
Together, they traversed the path towards the last two fighters who had struggled against oblivion with thunder and flame, and their battlefield breathed that fury, sparkled it with life despite all the death present.
Jacklin, dancer of flame and the sun. Your scythe was beautiful. Your executioner’s blade, I have a few complaints about.
His thoughts were firm, but calm. Gentle. He did not mean to tear through her mind like last time. He swiped the blood and ice off his brow, and tethers of red followed the motion, springing from what little remained in his orb. They formed a short sword, somewhere between a dagger and blade, yet intricate enough to match the grace of the two still conscious on the sands.
I have long since atoned for my sins, and I am here to challenge you and your flames. May they cleanse what is left.
Another dagger formed itself, one for each hand as he pointed each at one fighter, this one a bleak mirror of the last.
“I wager my wish, the last of my blood."