Gold Turns To Lead
I left for the woods to master my skills there. I reestablished the old contacts I had before my Cobra days, when I still had my eye injury, and began teaching myself in their arts. Soon after this, the replacement to my visor was made, the eye I have right now.
“What happened to the armor?”
It’s still around, in a location only I know of. If I ever wished to become one with the earth, become a mindless killing machine again, I could always dig it up. But I don’t want that, and I didn’t want it then, either. A good deal of the weapons were recycled into my next outfit, and from there, into my current outfit, though.
From here, I became a bit of a wanderer, traveling throughout almost the entire world. I traveled through many terrains. I learned from roaming nomads, I learned from tribes of forgotten natives pre-dating my own culture, I learned from mountain-men, I learned from frontiersmen, I learned from woodsmen, I learned from everyone about the arts of the land for another five years. I trained in herbs further; I even received lessons from witch doctors. I dabbled with priests and monks, I expanded my horizons elsewhere…I did pretty much everything I felt like, living a completely natural lifestyle, free from a care in the world. Not quite a commoner, but not quite an adventurer.
They were all skills I felt I needed. I was preparing myself for what I had planned ahead. Now a master of herbs, the arts involving wood, mastery of nature, and even archery, I decided that it was time to return to my home of Helios—still thriving. I rekindled many of my contacts with friends. It was time for me to use everything I had learned, and begin to pass it on. Yes… Now, I set out to start an organization of adventurers myself. I named our new order after our specialty—the Rangers, masters of ranged combat.
“Were they really as good as they were said to be?”
In all likelihood, they were actually better than the rumors. I trained my men well, after all. It wasn’t just bows and arrows they had to learn. An image is shown of a map, with men positioned on it. The students are being taught by Darvic how to use the pincer maneuver. Later, they are taught how to think about the battle from multiple perspectives. We learned battle tactics for armies. Nobody was a true master, but we didn’t need to be; being among the best—even if you’re not the best—is still an honor we had.
A similar setup is repeated, but instead of many men on it, there are only a few on each side. Combat strategies for smaller groups. An image is shown of synchronized palm strikes, with a loud yell from each student. Some more projections are shown, of them learning grappling techniques, and strength training for every part of the body, both to toughen their endurance, and increase the strength of their attacks. Darvic smiles in the recording. “Good, we’ve made progress in those areas, but we still need speed, accuracy, and technique!” We trained in martial arts. We might not have been the best at them, but we certainly were close.
Staff fights are displayed, shifting to various forms of close quarter combat weapons, from as small as a knife to as large as a broadsword. I made sure my Rangers knew how to use pretty much any melee weapon they’d encounter.
A student is shown creating a fireball, with Darvic smiling… We did dabble into the arts of magic, but despite me having more knowledge than most people in the art of spirit magic, my teaching skills in traditional magic left something to be desired. …And then the fireball blowing up in the student’s face, covering both the student and Darvic in a layer of soot. “Oops?”
Still, I did teach them, and some even got to know how to use spirit magic, which I could help them better in. But primarily, we were more of a tech-based alliance. While we all knew some level of magic, we’d be massacred by pretty much any other magic-based alliance, so we decided to focus greatly on technology. And we were masters of it, too. We were capable of dealing with new technologies we had never seen before; we invented a few ourselves…
An image of a musket is shown, firing a pointed bullet spinning, instead of flying wildly, with a label above the projection saying “rifle”. We used whatever we could get our hands on, and guns were required training. I’m sure there were people who out-did us technologically, but they were far and few between; we were still pretty darn good.
I made sure my students had at least some medical knowledge, although we mainly focused on a specific area of medicine: herbs. Our knowledge of survival in the forest was a particular area I quite prided myself in. I use those skills I taught back then to survive every day out here. We became masters of the woods, to levels no others I ever found could match. Some came close, and I imagine if we stuck around long enough, we’d find equals, but I don’t think anyone would ever surpass us.
But our true strength was in ranged combat—mainly, archery, of course, but not exclusively. I insisted that everyone be at least marksmen in bows and crossbows and have training in every other form of projectile, but many pursued these other forms of weaponry willingly, to become masters of them.
We had marksmen using knives, daggers, and guns just as well, for example. Like me, due to my Cobra days. People could throw spears, rocks, or any kind of projectile and be good at it; I made sure that my Rangers were better than great at them all. Many were perfect. We had a reputation well-earned for being able to master any ranged weapon we came across.
But still, bows and arrows—and, occasionally, crossbows—were our strength. That was the one thing which we were the undoubted masters of…archery, where not a man in the world could match our talent.
And that made me proud. There is a reason that it was at this time that I began to develop a new name. It was at this stage in my life, when I formed the Rangers, that I earned the title I wanted to use for the rest of my life: The alias of Ranger. I deserved it.
I could have mass-recruited every person I came across. Instead, my group remained small. I knew every single soldier by name, I knew each of their stories, I knew their history, their relatives, their beliefs, and I knew everything.
We were just that close. Those who completed their journey under my tutelage and eventually left for their own paths generally tended to keep in contact with me. I was very selective with those to call Rangers, those to call friends.
Some were life-long friends—perhaps not as extremely talented as other groups, but I had known one of my Rangers since my days as an orphan and I wanted to help them no matter what. Others, I came to know when I went by King. An image is shown; all the faces not recognizable as being major figures in Helios politics that had been shown before were there. Some I met when I was a COR, some when in the woods. Others were completely new.
I saw them all as extremely gifted and trained them, like Sir Ed Cobra had seen me all those years ago. All in all, our group never exceeded fifty men at any given time. Unlike great alliances of hundreds or even thousands, we were going to stay a close community, working together without flaw, not very loosely because we had no choice. We were small, but elite, and once you became a Ranger…you never lost that knowledge.
For seven years, I lived that life. Things could not have been better. I had earned my perfect stay in life. I was regarded as one of the greatest rulers of our age before I retired into the life of adventure, where I became one of the greatest heroes in the world, training a group so elite that no other could defeat them.
Now flashing on the screen is an image of Darvic in battle. He shoots a few arrows, but lets his opponent close in on him, instead of vice-versa. When they get closer, he lets loose fifteen bolts from a crossbow. After running out of ammo in that, he deploys the knives he kept from COR. After shooting a volley from his guns, he draws a longsword. Blending into the scenery around him, it takes a while for the survivors of his ambushers to find him, but when they do, he only receives a small scratch to his light leather armor; he dispatches them before they have time to deal more, in only a few strikes.
I had good, life-long friends. An image is shown. Many of the faces are of those from Helios, some were shown when Darvic was training in the Cobras. Still others are new. Darvic is shown in the center of them, wearing a black robe. But of them all, the recording focuses on a single one, a woman, who had been there since almost the very first image shown on the device.
She was the closest someone could ever come to me. No other friend could be that close. Do you understand? The image zooms in even further, focusing on her left hand. There, a familiar red gem shines on a well-known color ring.
And I was truly happy, for so long, living that way…until it all came crashing down.
It was only in one day.
I could not keep evil at bay.
No, forces of darkness would have their way.
When all was done, I had nothing left to say.
It all came down…in that single day…
An unseen plague had fallen upon the land, recently. It was nothing new, but this was not going to go away. This disease spreading across the land destroyed everything in its path, but for so long, remained hidden. Yes, I think you catch the drift…
You got it. He is the biggest threat I’ve ever seen to this land. Presumably, he continues to destroy everything to this day. Whereas before he was too small to be seen, now he is so large that only pockets of resistance remain. Am I correct?
“You are. Nowadays, we’re used to his destruction reining chaos upon the land.”
I know, but back then, could you have thought about the horrors? Perhaps, but certainly not to that scale! Back then, it was a shock. People just couldn’t believe tales of such blackness in a land bathed in golden light. It was thought he was just a rumor, a legend, a myth meant to scare people. I mean, there were a few tales of alleged survivors, but surely, there would be more if it were anything but a fairy tale?
We just couldn’t comprehend that he really was that dangerous, that he was capable of so much damage, because his join-us-or-die policy was so effective. Not only that, but sticking to smaller targets as he grew in strength meant that nobody could accurately pin him down. Everyone thought his early deeds were the handiwork of some bandit, or rival nation plundering.
But he was all too real. He wasn’t a fake. Everything said about him was true. We rejected the idea that such evil could possibly exist…but he did, slowly gaining strength due to our ignorance—and perhaps, a bit of arrogance. He stuck to taking down only targets he knew he could get away with, and everyone knew that part of the story.
So imagine my horror when I learned of his next target. I was among the first to do it—while others had survived before me, it was still a rare feat, one almost never duplicated. I was a first-hand witness to his destruction. I was there when it happened. It was bound to happen eventually, but…I never truly recovered from it.
“None of us did. How could we? Was there any way we’d have known?”
In theory? Yes, we could have. In reality? You’re right. There was simply no way that I had a way of knowing for sure, until it was too late to stop him. I was visiting a contact far away from Helios, an old friend from my woodsman days, for a new Rune my Rangers could use. He warned me that Ati was real, and gave me proof of it.
A recording is shown, of a man wearing a mask and a village burning in the background. He is holding a group of men hostage in front of their families. “That’s only a tenth of the village; Ati already had killed the rest.” The recording of Ati speaks up. “Join me, or you all die—women, children, all of them.”
The men, having been beaten already, surrender to his demands. When he has them under control, separated from the rest, he gives the cruel order. “The same applies to you women, too. Those who do not serve, die. It’s as simple as that.” Those women who show signs of resistance are silenced, to the cries of the men already subdued. The boys too young to have fought for the village are carried away, leaving only young girls behind.
Everyone had to fight for him, or die. Women and children included, though he wanted the girls to survive, almost certainly intentionally, to let them tell the tale. It was too horrifying for me to believe. If it had been anyone else other than a good friend, I wouldn’t have believed him. I took it with some skepticism, but accepted that—at the very least—he believed in Ati’s threat.
But what he said next convinced me. Either Ati had to be a complete lie, or was really that insane, that delusional, that much of a threat. It really threw me into a panic to hear what he said next. No, it wasn’t some small village, or even a little nation. It was far, far worse. I was informed he had grown far stronger than anything the rumors had previously given, and it had made him bold. He knew he was practically invincible, and he wanted to take advantage of it. So, the hearsay placed his next target, as by far his most ambitious, never to be matched by any following. He had a growing army under his command, and power beyond imagining. And he was going to use it to destroy the sun of our world. No, my friend would never joke about something like that. Nobody would, because everyone was well-aware of the meaning behind those words. Nobody would spread such a false rumor, about the beacon of light being destroyed.
I knew what that meant.
“Wait, do you mean it was…”
Yes. It was. There could be no doubt, now. Helios. The place I had built up since childhood, from a town to an empire. He was going to destroy it, along with any in his path. I simply couldn’t bring myself to think that everything I had known could leave me, forever. So, I ran. I almost left behind my bow and arrows in my rush.
An image is shown, of Darvic taking off at a sprint. His black cloak was parallel to the ground due to his speed. Dropping everything he didn’t need, Darvic jumped onto his horse—cutting off extra baggage—and pushed his steed to its limit, in the direction of Helios. Even without a single moment to rest, a solid ride would take days. But I needed to get home. My horse was one of the fastest in the land; Rangers were built for speed.
It just wasn’t enough. But even if it had been, I’m not sure my presence would’ve helped.
It was too long to wait, but I maintained hope that I’d arrive in time. I found signs of carnage along the way, trails of death and destruction obscuring the path before me. I shook my head at the time in disbelief.
Bodies are shown stretched across the roadway, fires from villages just now beginning to die out. Birds circle above, but dare not land yet out of fear. The stench barely registers, as Darvic doesn’t slow down.
Was Ati really capable of such acts of barbarism? Was he truly such a monster, capable of such gruesome brutality I came across on the road? Who else could do such a thing, so constantly? They…weren’t lying when they said that Ati would destroy anything which got in his way—in reality, that meant anything on the pathway to his goal. In other words, everything on the straight road…to Helios.
It was far worse than anyone could have thought. He had stopped trying to cover his tracks. He wanted to be known, and that meant he was confident he could win. And I knew it, but was hoping he was overconfident. I was hoping we stood a chance.
One day later, I saw a sight I couldn’t believe. It just couldn’t have been possible! But…it was. There, before my eyes, I saw Ati’s unleashed wrath on those who I had known for a very long time. COR had been completely and totally obliterated.
Many corpses are strewn across the battlefield before Darvic. Hundreds of dead men, all wearing the snake insignia. The earth was completely shaken, with large pillars of uprooted earth just now beginning to collapse back to the earth. Walls of earth spikes have been shattered already. The fires still burn. Darvic holds the body of Ed.
Of all the current CObRa G members, I could only find the corpses of about 2 out of every 3. I figured that the rest must have been mangled beyond recognition. “Were they?” I imagine not. In truth…COR was a military organization, with some of the members having questionable work ethnics. You can see where I’m going with this; let’s just say…even if true…that’d still make me the only survivor.
One man, surviving out of an organization consisting of hundreds, an alliance which practically built me into who I am today. This was the first atrocity I witnessed, but I knew that there were many before. Just Ati covered his tracks, back then. The fact that he didn’t meant that there were far more to come.
Surely, the COR would have massacred millions before falling, right? We were trained to take on any number, no matter how large, no matter how small, we were a fighting force so good, nothing would’ve stopped us other than sheer numbers?
I was still in disbelief. Hundreds of cities and towns, dozens of alliances, captured by his claws, and yet, I could only now see the results? How could nobody have gotten out? And how could he have gotten an army so large?
He really is that ruthless; any who don’t join his ranks perish with terrible torture I dare not describe. What you saw me replay was just the tip of the iceberg. He did far worse things, and—yes—I saw them. The village was merciful compared to what he did later.
He had grown strong, and could truly conquer the land if allowed to continue. I redoubled my pace to Helios, hoping to catch up with him. He had a vast army; he couldn’t march that quickly, so maybe, if I caught him, I could do something…so, I left them behind. I wanted to do more, but I couldn’t.
I was joined by some other Cobras, who weren’t fighting due to a mission. They witnessed the destruction themselves. Indeed, the COR members put up a fight, with even their most junior members scoring a ten to one kill ratio. Then, Ati stepped in. He killed Sir Ed, taking out the leadership first, a tactic Cobras were known to employ, ironically. From there, he killed any who got in his way, as he marched out, letting his troops finish the job. The Cobras had killed a few hundred thousand, but Ati’s army was a couple million strong.
The nation of Helios itself had an equal number, but it’d take time to assemble them to a single location, time Ati knew we didn’t have. Helios itself only had a few hundred thousand to defend it, though those few hundred thousand really were the best troops in the world. Even a regular soldier was well-trained, and we had the Rangers.
It just…wasn’t enough.
When I arrived, I saw Helios aflame. Not the city itself, fortunately—though maybe it would have been better that way—but the area around it was. It was so painful to watch even then, though, because…that area, burning, very well could have been a place like my own village, part of a larger territory, one day destined to be immortalized.
Nope, not anymore. Ati’s forces were destroying it. We were discovered, and the Cobras around me sacrificed their lives to get me to my men, knowing if I rejoined my hometown, I might stand a chance of avenging the death of the other Cobras. That worked out well…
After coming into the scene, I took command immediately, leading along side my friends and comrades, new and old. I had been gone from leading for so many years, but everyone there recognized me, knew my former stance as the Hero of Helios, and to have me assisting them…they thought with me, they’d be invincible, that me helping to command them would be all they needed to win.
I was briefed on the situation by my friend, the King. Ati’s forces had come at them full-strength, with no warning arriving before-hand. He feared it was only a matter of time until they were defeated, but we all knew that all we had to do is fight for as long as possible, stall for as much time as we could.
Everyone was there. More were coming, too. We were going to hold them off for as long as we could. And for the most part—even in open combat—we were succeeding. One by one, however, we began to fall, out in open combat. Our casualties were low—don’t get me wrong; even among the normal soldiers, we had only lost a few hundred—but still, every death hurt. We’d killed thousands—if not tens or hundreds of thousands—but we were still being pushed back. By nightfall, we had bought the time for all remaining citizens to get inside the city, but despite our efforts, they were almost to the walls. And worse…When Ati was spotted approaching, a retreat inside the walls was ordered.
I decided to buy my friends the time they needed to get inside to the safety of Helios’s fortress. I knew they only needed to hold off the army until reinforcements came. Besides, I was undefeated; I might be able to end the fight by killing Ati. Either way, I would get the time I needed.
I killed many, until Ati worked up the courage to face me instead of letting his goons take care of me. His very presence inspired his troops. More accurately, I should say they feared retribution and fought harder. So, I knew I needed to take him down, or die trying. Unfortunately, he…he was just too strong for me. I first engaged him in magic, but he somehow countered my every move.
It was like he knew what I was thinking. Yet he was no mind-reader; how could he be that good? When I engaged him with my ranged weaponry, I was expecting to at least have an edge. He managed to dodge or deflect everything I threw at him—from bow, to bolt, to bullet, he kept on slipping through. None of my shots should have missed, yet he never got hit, not even as he was closing the distance between us.
I tried using my arsenal of knives, but he saw every one of them coming, blocking even a barrage of multiple daggers at the same time. The reflexes to do what he did were just unbelievable. I had never met anyone capable of matching my speed, and yet, here Ati was, doing exactly that.
As he closed the gap, I pulled out my longsword to engage him in melee. He had countered every move of mine as a magician. He had managed to match my reflexes at ranged combat. So, surely, he wouldn’t also be able to match me in combat? Nobody could be that good without having gone through everything I, myself, had been through.
…He was. I recognized his combat style, but not where it was from. I didn’t have the time to figure that out. He shattered my blade in only a few strikes. I had two long daggers to replace it, but I barely had the ability to block a few times, yet alone, counter-attack. He was overwhelming me with equal speed and superior strength. It didn’t take long for him to get a single slash in, from my right hip to my left shoulder.
I collapsed, in a state near-death, and could only watch the horror to come. Helios’s walls were made of an anti-magic material, but that doesn’t protect against spirit magic. When I built them, I anticipated that, so I had them also built with a spirit-magic resistant material.
Unfortunately—while the anti-magic material remains the same strength no matter what—the spirit magic is proportional to the mass of the material. And as you can imagine, the city’s gate is a lot thinner than a wall.
Even Ati would never be able to break into the city walls, not with any siege engine, not with any form of magic. And with conventional means, he might be able to get through the gate, or overrun the walls, but not before reinforcements arrived—they already were beginning to trickle in.
So, he used Spirit Magic, on the one spot which the spirit magic had the greatest chance of working. And—much to the horror of the defenders—it worked. An image is shown, of the gate shattering into a million pieces of shrapnel, and when it clears, a single figure is standing in front of the gate, eyes shining brightly. Helios had the strongest gates ever built—I made sure of it. They were shielded by more than just the magical barriers. We had a shield from a power generator—Helios was the place where most new technology was invented, after all; we defended it well. But he managed to beat even that.
He had to have had some assistance. In later battles, I never saw that kind of strength. Whatever he used, it was a one-shot deal, but it worked, with horrifying results. It did not take long after that before his forces rushed in. But first…
I was the inspiration for my side. I had kept my forces together. When I fell, they became discouraged, but still had many leaders among them to help. While morale was low, we’re a tough people, and I knew that so long as a single friend of mine was alive, the citizens would be fine. We’d fight until the very end.
But Ati knew Helios. Ati personally challenged them all, and they did even worse than me. My Rangers were there, defending the front, as was the current King of Helios, my good friend, and Helios’s most elite troops.
Now, a recording is shown, of Ati holding up a man in golden armor, snapping his neck. As he falls to the ground, dead, the men charge. With a blast of magic, he kills all of the elite troops, except the commanders and the Rangers. He forms a shield, destroying all the arrows coming in on him, and one by one, kills the leaders of the great city. The Rangers engage Ati in close-quarters, but even working together, even outnumbering him, even with their training, they die.
The last image shown is of a woman, holding her bow in her hand weakly, having the life slowly sucked out of her, strangled by Ati in the air. Both Ati and the woman are staring straight at the recording. As the woman closes her eyes, she tries to form a weak smile, but fails. Ati’s face is mostly covered by a mask, but his teeth show a wicked grin.
Pay attention to the bow in the recording. What does it look like?
“It’s the same as yours.”
Exactly. You’ll note the city had started to burn, by then. With our forces decimated, our leaders dead, and our defenses breached, we didn’t stand a chance, especially not with me on the ground, slowly waiting for death to come. The recording can give you a basic idea of what it was like, but it can’t capture everything. It doesn’t show you the feelings I had, despite being unable to talk. It can’t show you the traumatic sounds I heard that night.
They all…just……died. Everything I had left was…gone. The best of the best in the world, powerless to stop one man and his army. If we had our forces at full strength, then we could have stopped him, even if he himself was more powerful than any individual. Without the strength in numbers and the element of surprise, we would have outclassed him, defeated his army, and with his army gone, a single man wouldn’t stand a chance against an army such as ours. But we didn’t, so we couldn’t, and he got through.
I was powerless to do anything. The hero had melted away, crushed by the force of an enemy too strong for anyone else to face. The greatest hero in the land, crushed by a villain so bad he was thought to be a mere myth. All my strength was worthless, all my resolve did nothing.
All I could do is watch the horrific scene play out. In my weakened state, I had let every piece of my life I had ever known burn, let everyone I ever knew die, be murdered by Ati. I’m sure there were a few survivors who escaped, but for the most part, it was a massacre. All that I had, my men, my friends, my Rangers, everything I cherished…dead.
I felt the heat of the flames consume everything around me. I saw many dead bodies only illuminated by the fires around them, scattered everywhere, most of them people I had known. The screams of people being killed, the shrieks of pain as death consumed the city. The smoke clogged the sky. Everything I had known was being eaten up by the inferno of doom. Feeling for the first time hopeless, I began to fade away.
As the world crashed down in front of me, burning to ashes and cinder, I had nothing left for which to truly cherish. My friends, my kingdom, my comrades, students, my life…all gone. I closed my eyes. I really wanted to die, that day, fearing not that I would never wake, but that my iron-hard will would persevere over death. Part of me wanted to live, to get revenge, but in truth, I wanted to die. With the realities I faced that day, after all, death would have been a blessing I would’ve welcomed with open arms.
Yet my suffering was far from over, yet.