A Soul Alight
Editor(s): Joker, Speedphoenix
A pair of leaders stood beneath Gallia, face to face within the emperor’s laboratory.
“Gojim? What are you doing here, so late at night?” asked Draggodt. He flashed a smile at the other man, the sort that was impossible to read.
“You keep far too many secrets, Rogardian,” said Gojim, with a sour frown. “I was not made aware of this place’s existence.”
“How did you even find this place? I was under the impression that it was well hidden,” said Draggodt. “We’ll have to invest more of our efforts into counterintelligence.”
“…I never would have found it if not for some external guidance,” said Gojim, under his breath.
He had only discovered the location after happening upon a coded magical message left by Lunogill. It was written with a cipher that only select individuals under Phynar’s direct command were aware of, and it just so happened that Gojim was capable of reading it.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked the demon, in a low growl. “Why have you confined yourself in this laboratory, only to play with bones while my brethren offer up their lives for victory?”
He directed his gaze towards the construct, the assembled skeleton that was the lab’s centerpiece. Only two parts of it seemed to be derived from the same creature, its skull and its pelvis. The rest appeared to come from a hodgepodge of others, cobbled together to form something that roughly resembled a dragon. Though undoubtedly dead, bones would pulse periodically, as if they were a heart.
Countless pipes ran across the room, delivering a black haze straight to the reassembled corpse. The mist appeared to be the source of the pulsing and the reason that the bone lizard seemed so eerie.
A repulsive, terrifying sight.
“Do not be so angry. I have assembled this creature for the sake of winning this war… No, that is not quite right. It is the opposite. The war exists for the purposes of its restitution.”
Draggodt’s grin was matched by a suspicious stare.
“I may as well tell you. This is the perfect time to do exactly that,” said the emperor. “This dragon is one that stems from legend, the Hadean Helldrake.”
What came from the emperor’s mouth was a title known to most, the name of a dragon that overran several countries with its undead legion, the fallen Lord of the Underworld itself.
“We were only able to excavate its skull and its pelvis. The rest had either crumbled to unusable bits or vanished altogether. We chose various bones from other large monsters to fill the gaps, and as you can see, the end result has become rather misshapen. That, however, is no matter with regards to its functionality,” explained the Rogardian. “I was rather surprised to hear that you had also made use of a different undead dragon. Quite the chuckle inducing piece of news, I must say.”
He didn’t mind the fact that his words were met with silence and continued to brag about it as a child would a new toy.
“We happened upon it entirely by coincidence following a set of heavy rainstorms that happened approximately 50 years ago. The resulting floods and landslides greatly altered the terrain and exposed it to the outside world. We were not immediately made aware that it belonged to the Hadean Helldrake, but knowledge of its identity is what drove me to orchestrate this war.”
Gojim glanced at his surroundings. He wanted to know how the researchers had deduced its origin, given that Analyze was unlikely to work on something so powerful, but the researchers appeared to have no doubts. He was convinced, after a thought, that they had another technique that they had yet to reveal.
“And this is why you began your research on the undead?”
“Precisely! Does it not fill you with joy and wonder to discover that the legendary helldrake was real all along?” There was a glint in the mad scientist’s eye. “The legions were not the only undead. The helldrake was one as well, which is to say that raising it is not beyond the realm of possibility.”
Gojim’s eyes shot towards the black mist. As the wielder of a cursed blade, he recognized that it was negative mana, the sort of magical energy given off by the dead.
“So this is the real reason that you wished to draw in our foes? I see now why you have chosen your tactics. The inheritance of a labyrinth was not enough to explain them before.”
“Killing the monsters that the labyrinth creates will never produce enough negative mana on its own. War was not my first choice, but it was certainly not one I was unwilling to make. I wish to create an era of stability and peace, and as a ruler, I cannot rely on the goodwill of others. The only choice I have is to subdue them with overwhelming power.”
Undead would be raised in places with significant amounts of negative mana, which could only be produced through death, especially when the deaths involved those bearing heavy grudges. Those places, however, were difficult to prepare. Death needed to be rampant if not also untimely. Only cemeteries, execution chambers, and battlefields were often suitable.
That too was something that Gojim was aware of. He was also doing research into the creation of the undead, after all. His understanding of necromancy was why he was aware of the amount of negative mana required to resurrect a massive calamity class creature.
The instruments strewn throughout the lab would gather the negative mana produced by the soldiers’ deaths. It was no longer a wonder why their tactics had seemed so shabby. It was all because the Rogardians wished to increase the number of casualties on both sides.
“Peace? Nonsense. You are only doing this for the sake of your own ambitions.” Knowing that his men, his sworn brothers, were being used even in death was normally something that would have thrown Gojim into a rage. But he showed no signs of fury, speaking only in a whisper.
“I won’t deny that,” said Draggodt. “Everything is going according to my plans. We need only wait two more days to put an immediate end to this war and suppress every force on the continent. I cannot wait for the alliance to see what it is I have in store for them.”
“So this is what will win us the war?”
“Yes. It is. Even if they continue to attack with vigour, they have no hope. They are completely outmatched.”
Gojim’s next words were said not with his mouth, but with his blade. He drew the greatsword on his back and swung it at a speed imperceivable to the naked eye. Draggodt would have been out of reach under any ordinary circumstance, but Tortund Ruin was not one for normal circumstances. The sword extended midswing, growing to several times its prior length. The tip opened up like a mouth, like a beast with its maw gaping, ready to swallow its prey whole.
But it was unable. The imperial guard, the men always at the emperor’s side, were prepared. Several shield bearers stepped up immediately, blocking the attack before it could land.
“Tsk.” Gojim clicked his tongue.
“I am one step ahead of you, Gojim,” said Draggodt. “As we have stated on many occasions, we are not true allies. I have always known that you would attack me the moment my plan came to light. You do not wish to see me as this continent’s supreme ruler.”
The sentiment went both ways. Both men had always brought guards on every one of the occasions they met, and both had always been ready for a fight. But Draggodt was better prepared. Knowing of the cursed sword’s abilities, he had opted to keep shielders by his side over the usual barrier mages.
“Release the barrier!” said Draggodt. His order came swiftly and with no hesitation. He had already long prepared for this exact confrontation.
There was a deep groan as the aura around the skeletal dragon shifted. It suddenly began exuding an overbearing pressure, one heavy enough to induce nausea and vomiting in those standing near it. Because the corpse was no longer covered by the layer built to prevent its negative mana from leaking.
Gojim did not react immediately. But his weapon did.
The claymore shook itself free of his grip, squirmed towards the skeleton, and began to chew on it.
“I was the one who gave you that sword, Gojim. I am fully aware that the weapon is a greedy glutton,” he said. “I must say, I couldn’t have asked for better timing. I was planning to have you return it in the near future, as I happen to require it for my plans.”
Tortund Ruin was a cursed blade capable of consuming mana and internalizing it to grow so that it could consume even more. Its infinite appetite served to disrupt all the magical energy in its vicinity, which was why it was difficult for others to cast spells while nearby.
“Kill him,” said Draggodt, with a mocking smile.
Gojim admitted. The human had him beat. Draggodt had seen straight through his intentions and caused his own weapon to betray him. But the fiend was not done. Clenching his teeth, he bellowed at the weapon. A rage filled shout.
“Ruin! Do you prefer those rotten bones to my flesh? You possess one of the most powerful curses. Do not tell me that you are satisfied with mana whose quality is so poor and lacking!”
The blade reacted with a twitch. It stopped gnawing on the skeleton and turned around as would a curious beast.
“If you are that ravenous, then do not consume that,” said the demon, his left arm outstretched. “Consume me.”
A delighted shrill cackle reminiscent of the scraping of metal against metal rang throughout the room, causing discomfort in all that heard it. A moment later, the weapon launched itself through the air and returned to its wielder of its own accord.
“What? That’s impossible!”
Draggodt’s eyes opened wide. The sword had chosen Gojim’s mana, deeming it superior to the negative mana gathered from tens of thousands.
Tortund Ruin split down its center, opening up into a pair of large jaws as it latched onto Gojim’s arm and began chewing. Blood burst from the countless piercing wounds and caused the demon to groan in pain.
Enduring it, he grabbed hold of the blade and pulled it in front of him, his dismembered, shredded limb along with it. The sword continued to chew, no longer seeking to disobey its master.
“You are a very troublesome weapon, Ruin,” said Gojim. “But I see now that you are in good spirits. Know that the arm I offered was payment made in advance. If you wish to consume more, then you will have to earn it.”
He swung his blade in a wide horizontal sweet as he spoke. Again, it grew several times in length, destroying contraptions, severing pipes, and sending Draggodt’s guards flying. A second swing bisected a group of researchers alongside the frame used to hold the Helldrake’s body in place. The corpse collapsed, falling apart atop the lab’s floor.
The various pieces of equipment began catching fire as they were dealt damage, while the remaining researchers began to flee. Because they were Gojim’s targets. He knew that he couldn’t kill the emperor. There was no getting through his defenses. The fiend only pretended to aim at him so that his men would protect him while he slaughtered the scientists and destroyed their findings and tools. Only when the guards shifted their focus did he try to kill Draggodt, still unsuccessfully, of course.
He caused a great deal of damage in a very short period of time, but he was not the only one that found success. While he managed to cut through the first three men that approached him, the fourth managed to inflict a light injury. As his head flew, two more replaced him, striking at him with their blades. If he was quality, then the royal guard was quantity. They swarmed him with their numbers, leveraging it to their advantage.
While Gojim was a powerful mighty warrior, he was not swift. His focus was power, and the lab was too confined a space for him to fight at his best. There was no room for someone with little finesse to evade. So he suffered hit after hit after hit.
He had his gut run through for destroying a portion of the guard, his back slashed countless times for tearing through all the laboratory’s equipment, and his body pierced with countless arrows for his murder of the scientists. But he never stopped.
He continued to roar, howling with primal rage as he attacked and attacked and attacked. He was like a fierce god, an avatar of destruction, his blade whirling around the room as it reaped life after life. The sheer pressure was intimidating, causing many of the emperor’s troops to falter.
“What are you doing!?” screamed the Rogardian. “Hurry up and kill him! Do not let him cause any more damage. We have spilt too much blood to stop now. He cannot ruin our plans!”
His words moved his men. Ready for death, they charged at the redheaded demon like lambs to the slaughter. It seemed like he would fall. He didn’t flinch, no matter how many times he was hit or how severe his wounds appeared. His assault continued with an undying rage. But he too was mortal.
And eventually, he hit his limit.
The blood loss caused his head to spin and his movements to dull for just a moment. It was only an instant, but three men took advantage of it, each driving a thick, heavy lance into his back. He spun around and cleaved them in half, but this too was an opportunity taken. Another man rushed him down and stabbed him in the thighs, while yet another left a deep slash that ran from his left eye through to his temple.
Gojim continued swinging his blade, but the blow to his head threw off his balance. He was no longer able to direct it where he intended. And that was when they finally managed to swarm him. A flood of soldiers rushed him down. Their blades tore through his lungs, pierced his throat, and gored his heart.
The strength drained from his body as he fell to his knees.
He still tried to raise his blade, but his movements were no longer as smooth.
“Don’t hesitate! Finish him! Now!”
As his control over the cursed blade wavered, he lost the ability to negate the magic around him. The imperial casters took notice, immediately casting their spells, large explosions that hit him dead on. Even at the cost of their allies’ lives.
His remaining arm was swallowed, blown away alongside his sword.
Another magical strike landed shortly after and sent his body flying into a wall, where it slumped over and collapsed in a pool of blood.
“Only half of our equipment is functional, sir! Much of what remains is on fire!”
“A third of the researchers have been killed. Sustaining our mana lines is impossible!”
“What about the payload?”
“The helldrake is at roughly sixty percent, but we can no longer channel any more negative mana into it, sir. The energy is unstable and will soon disperse into the air. At this rate, everything we’ve done will be for naught…”
“Curse that demon! Gather all of the negative mana inside the pool. Focus on putting out the fires. We cannot allow any more damage!”
A set of hazy voices entered his ears as he watched chaos unfold. Men ran to and fro, doing their best to contain the damage.
So this is how it feels to die…
Everything is… so far away.
All the colour is starting to fade.
They had already written him off as dead. And they weren’t wrong in doing so. He could tell that he wasn’t going to last much longer. His consciousness was growing dimmer with every passing moment.
Have I succeeded?
He couldn’t raise his head to check.
Have I succeeded? In sowing the seeds for their, his success?
A drop of blood ran down the side of his mouth.
I think I have. And as bold a claim as it may be, I believe some of them are already starting to sprout.
Phynar will be able to see them through. To bring them to yield.
I just wish I could be there to see it happen.
I wish… I wish I could have destroyed that thing.
And prevented its revival.
I’m guilty of a similar mistake. The emperor and I… we are not so different. But this? This cannot be allowed. It’ll cause too much damage.
And ruin too many.
If it really is the Hadean Helldrake, then it is a calamity level threat.
A threat that the races cannot manage.
Draggodt is confident.
But I know.
There is no way he could possibly keep such a monster under control.
I can only hope that someone else will consign it to the void.
And that my friends and companions.
The people who trusted me.
Will live through this war.
I always thought that I was ready for death. But now… I see I have many regrets.
I did not think myself so stubborn.
He smiled, through his heavily burnt cheeks.
It is a shame that I cannot do anything about them.
I can only believe and leave the rest to those who will outlive me.
A voice rang through his head as the last of his thoughts began to leave him.
He raised his eyes.
“…Oh… you came to pick me up,” he said. To the empty void.
There was nothing.
Nothing but flames.
“Yeah… I tried my best. To do everything I could.”
“T-there is no need… for you to mock me like that… I know it was not… like me. I have always been… the sort of man to seek… a more supportive role… And of that… I am well aware…”
“If even you… say so… then I suppose… it really was worth… giving it… everything I had…”
For the last time, Gojim smiled—
“Yeah… you…’re… right… I’m… a little tired… wake me… up… when… it’s morning…”
—and slowly closed his eyes.