Shadows of After - Chapter Nineteen
Chapter 19THE SOUL OF GRADENIA Draconis watched as she entered the schoolhouse, dressed for another day of hard training. He had been pushing her even more than usual, and was thankful her mother had not intervened even once. The girl had been training with Hanako before Draconis began her spiritual training, and never once had she been put through as much as what he was having her do. It was a demanding regimen Draconis had created for his daughter, but Hanako trusted his judgment enough to stay out of their business. “Are you ready?” he asked as she walked in, sliding the doors shut behind her. Draconis could tell she was anxious, and he knew why. He felt a little guilty for pushing her so hard, but she needed conditioning in order to use and control her spiritual energy. She was young, but he knew the immense power that was inside her. She was, after all, partially him. Just the same as Draconis. “Today will be different,” Draconis told her as she sat on her knees before him. “I think it’s time for some energy training.” “Really?” she said, her green eyes lighting up in excitement. “It’s a little early,” said Draconis, “but consider this part of your birthday present. Not every six-year-old gets to train like this in spiritual energy. Teachers usually wait until their student is older, but I don’t think anything is going to happen.” “What could happen?” she asked. “You could hurt me, but I doubt it,” Draconis smirked. “And like I said before, you can’t hurt yourself just by using your energy. You’ll do well, I know it. Let’s begin.” He then kneeled in front of her and took one of her hands in his, turning her palm up. “We’ll start very simply. I want you to close your eyes and focus your mind. Clear it of all thoughts and concentrate only on drawing energy into your hand. It’s going to take a while, so don’t let your mind wander.” They sat there for an hour. She concentrated, and Draconis watched and waited. More time passed, and Draconis could tell that her body was beginning to ache, sitting there on the hard wood floor. Perhaps it was time for a break. “Ah!” she uttered as she felt a sudden warmth in her hand. Draconis saw the flicker of blue briefly before it vanished, leaving no trace behind of its sudden existence. Her eyes shot open and she looked at him, as though searching for some kind of explanation or confirmation. “Well done,” Draconis smiled at her. “I didn’t expect you to be able to do anything on your first try. It usually takes a long time to manipulate your energy initially.” “Did I really do it?” she said, then she looked disappointed for some reason. “My eyes were closed, so I missed it. What did it look like?” “It was blue,” Draconis said, still smiling. “Your energy is blue, Cy–” Suddenly the doors slid open, and Hanako stood there, her expression grave. “What’s wrong?” Draconis said, getting to his feet as his daughter turned around and took the opportunity to sit normally and rest her numb legs. “You need to come out here,” said Hanako. “Stay there,” she told her daughter. Draconis stepped out and shut the doors back. He walked with Hanako to the front of their house, where Marcus was waiting for them. “Wish I brought good tidings,” said the Orelian prince. “What is it, Marcus?” said Draconis. He could assume why Marcus had come, but surely it was too soon… “There’s been a lot more Shadow Soldier activity lately,” Marcus informed him. “I’ve been scouting like a fiend for the last couple of weeks, trying to get an idea of their patterns and movements, and the conclusion I’ve come to isn’t what you want to hear.” “Tell me,” said Draconis. “They’re sweeping west,” said Marcus, “right toward the village. And there’s a lot of them, possibly hundreds.” Hanako let out a gasp and put a hand to her mouth. “We won’t be able to fight off that many.” Draconis silently agreed. There had been Shadow Soldier sightings near the village before, but it had been relatively easy for him to take them out and keep the village safe. This many, however, would be no small task to deal with. Even as powerful as Draconis was, Shadow Soldiers had long developed the ability to slash through spiritual energy, making his defenses useless. On top of that, they had continued to grow more cunning and had taken to hunting in large packs, usually at night in order to utilize the extra cover the darkness provided. Even the mighty tibras were beginning to have difficulty fighting them, and in the rain, they were completely powerless. “Master Kecklish is looking into possibly luring them away,” Marcus continued his report, interrupting Draconis’s thoughts, “but it might not work on that large of a herd. It may be time, Dray.” “No,” said Draconis. “Not yet. There’s still time. How far out are they?” “Roughly a hundred miles…ish?” Marcus replied. “We could send out a couple of teams to help us get rid of them, but…” “It’s risky,” said Draconis. “Not to mention, our troops are stretched pretty thin right now, as are Leonis’s. There are still so many of them out there, and they’re getting harder to kill each day.” “All the more reason you need to consider the option of leaving,” said Marcus. “I know what this place means to you. This is where you found your peace. But you have a wife and daughter to think about. I assume she’s in the schoolhouse right now training?” “Yeah,” said Draconis. “She’s moving into learning about energy.” “And we both know why you’re training her,” said Marcus. “It was only a matter of time before they came for this village, Dray. How many others around you are already gone? It’s getting harder to keep the trains going, too.” Draconis gave an aggravated sigh and ran a hand through his long black hair. “I’m packing tonight,” Hanako said to him. “Just to be ready. I’m not giving up on this place yet, either, but…we have to consider all options, Draconis. I’ll get some things packed and then help Cyell pack hers. If we can find a way to stay, fine. But if we can’t, we’ll be ready to leave when that time comes.” She then went inside the house, shutting the front door back behind her. “Han doesn’t really believe that you can stay,” Marcus said to Draconis. “I know she doesn’t,” Draconis replied. “No one seems to,” he pierced Marcus with his violet eyes. “I just want what’s best for you three,” said Marcus. “Don’t give me that look. One reason I’ve been scouting so much is because I’m trying to find a way for you guys to stay here, but if you managed to do so…you’d be the first, Dray.” With that, Marcus left the property. Draconis looked back at the schoolhouse and saw his daughter peeking out at him from the sliding doors. They quickly shut back as their eyes met. The pit of Cyell’s stomach dropped out at Marcus’s words. A thousand thoughts and fears flooded her mind. “What is it, Marcus?” said Draconis. “You just have to see,” Marcus replied. “Hurry.” Everyone rushed forward with Marcus leading, and soon they came upon the southern gate, which had been utterly torn open. “Oh, my gods…” Cyell uttered, her mouth hanging open. “What did this? I thought the gates were nearly impenetrable?” Draconis walked up and examined the edges of the gaping maw in the wooden gate. “No powder…” he said after a moment. “Looks like spiritual energy was used to breach it.” “Not Shadows then,” said Marcus. Sutoko made an odd sound. Everyone looked to see his skin was ashen white, and they knew what he was thinking about. “Sutoko,” Draconis walked over and put his hands firmly on his old friend’s shoulders. “Calm. They’re all right. We’ll go check on them first. Celestra is as tough and smart as they come. I’m certain she was prepared for this. She knew that Quintell’s troops were around the city, and there’s always the risk of Shadows getting within the walls. She’s fine, as are the twins. Breathe, okay?” He squeezed Sutoko’s shoulders and got a firm nod in response. “Good. Let’s go then.” They headed through the broken gate cautiously. The inside of the city was even worse, they quickly discovered. Several buildings were severely damaged, both from powder explosions and fire. Many of the cobblestone streets were also wrecked, with black char marks marring their former splendor. “What the hell happened here?” said Cyell. “Quintell?” “Well if it wasn’t Shadows,” said Marcus. “But did they really attack the city? What kind of insanity is that?” “The kind fueled by knowing you have nothing else to lose,” said Draconis. “Quintell told me as much when we talked. He and his men feel as though there is no other path for them now. We took away their bargaining chip, and this is their response.” “To do this?” said Sutoko. “What good could this possibly do them? Have they strayed so far from Leonis’s philosophies?” He gave a painful expression as he said this, as though his heart was breaking at the thought. “How could Leonis’s own soldiers do something this horrific?” “Maybe it wasn’t them,” said Marcus. “I mean, we haven’t seen anyone yet, so clearly they don’t have control of the city, otherwise someone would have barred us by now – or tried and failed miserably.” “We’re close to the Orelian estate,” said Draconis. “Maybe we’ll find answers there.” “Just as long as we find my family,” said Sutoko. “Preferably alive.” “That would be the hope,” Marcus added, doing an amazing job of keeping calm, Cyell felt. Her own nerves were a wreck all over again at seeing the city in such a state of ruin. Most of the buildings were undamaged, but clearly a massive struggle had taken place here. She and her father had been gone for little over a day, so how did this happen so quickly? Cyell could not help but feel it was some kind of righteous punishment for how the capital had treated her family. “They deserved this…” she muttered aloud, catching the attention of the others. “Whoa, now,” Marcus replied. “Ease up on the righteous retribution talk, Cy. I know how you guys feel toward this place right now, but no one deserves this. I will never defend what happened to Han or what people like Collin have done, but this is still my home, and Celes’s. Whatever took place here…it was not deserved.” Both Cyell and Draconis said nothing to this. At last they reached the Orelian manor, which thankfully looked untouched. The wrought iron gate at the front of the estate was also intact, making everyone breathe internal sighs of relief. Sutoko threw open the gate and jogged up to the front door, fumbling to find his key and unlock it. They entered the house and found it empty, which brought the worry back into Cyell’s mind. The only thing that relieved her was seeing her father remain calm. Until he looked shaken, she felt that things would be fine. “You think she’s there, Su?” Marcus asked. “For sure,” Sutoko replied. “Let’s check.” “There where?” Cyell asked, but received no answer. Sutoko led everyone to the door leading into the cellar and carefully climbed the steps, which were almost pitch dark. “Light the way a little?” Cyell suggested. “Someone may sense the energy,” said Draconis. “Keep quiet.” They reached the bottom and Sutoko felt along the wall until he found what he was looking for. A panel slid open and everyone slipped inside. “This room was built generations ago,” Marcus explained to Cyell in barely more than a whisper. “If the city ever came under attack, this saferoom can hold a hundred people easily.” Sutoko crept forward, but stopped when he heard a sound just a few feet away. There was a loud cry and something struck Sutoko’s arm just as he raised it to block. “Yo, little sis,” Marcus grinned. He lit a bright ball of spiritual energy, and there stood Celestra Orelian, wielding a metal fire poker like a sword. “Good thing I blocked that with my energy,” Sutoko grinned as well. “You could have broken my arm with that thing. Celestra dropped the poker with a loud clatter and threw her arms around him in a tight embrace. “Thank the gods you’re back…” “What in the seven hells happened here, Celes?” Marcus asked. “The city’s a wreck.” “Quintell’s forces attacked a few hours ago,” Celestra told him, pulling away from her husband. “Right at sundown, they launched a full assault on the city. I don’t think they even expected to get as far as they did. It seemed to be their last hurrah after losing King Leonis and the tibras. They fought with everything they had at their disposal and breached both the southern and northern gates.” “Geez…” Sutoko uttered. “So, are they all dead?” “No,” Celestra shook her head. “Many are, but there are still pockets of resistance within the city. The battle is still going on.” “Okay, but before we get deeper into all of that,” said Marcus, “are the kids all right?” “They’re fine,” said Celestra. “They’re in the back with Father right now. Things happened so suddenly that we couldn’t get anyone else down here before the gates were breached. I have no idea who else is still out there, but I’m sure Leonis is still fighting.” “I’m worried about Rei and Khardon as well,” said Draconis. “We’ll gather ourselves here and then head for Viner Hand and see what we can find out.” “Cy, why don’t you go see the little ones?” Marcus suggested. “I’m sure you don’t care to stay and hear all the strategy talk.” “All right,” Cyell said, and she headed for the back. “Aren’t you going to see your kids, too?” Marcus asked Sutoko. “Nah,” Sutoko replied. “Celes says they’re fine and I trust that. Let Cy see them for now. They’re good therapy for everything she’s been through.” “I haven’t had the chance to say anything, Draconis,” Celestra said, stepping up to him and putting her arms around him. “I can’t even imagine what you’re dealing with in having lost her… I’m so sorry.” “Thank you,” Draconis said, hugging her back. “I can only keep moving. I’m afraid of what will happen if I stop or lose focus. Ironically, all of the events of the past two days have helped me.” “I heard about Collin,” said Celestra. “I don’t blame you…if you did what they say you did…” “I’m pretty sure they don’t need to make up any stories for that one,” Draconis said with a bitter bite to his tone. “I gave them exactly what they say I do.” “You’re still my brother,” Celestra said, backing away from him. “I know your heart is good, and nothing anyone says will sway me. If you were anything like what Collin claimed, Hanako would have seen it years before him. Don’t let their words get to you, Draconis. You’re much better than that.” “Something else you should know…” Marcus said, his expression twisting in anguish. “Thesbin… The Shadows got to him…” “Oh, no…” Celestra said, putting a hand to her mouth. “Oh, poor Seras… She’ll be destroyed. She’s lost both her husband and now her son… How could any of us tell her?” “I’ll tell her,” said Sutoko. “It’s my fault because I brought him with me down south, but let’s get through one crisis before the next. First we go to the castle and see if Khardon’s there. I hope to hell that he is.” “Same,” said Draconis. Meanwhile, Cyell entered the back part of the saferoom, lighting a ball of spiritual energy so that she could see her way. She soon saw a small glow and headed for it, finding the twins next to an old man with graying hair and thick beard. The glow was from a candle sitting on a small table beside them. “Aunt Cyell!” Kataña cried loudly, and she bolted toward her. “Hey there,” Cyell smiled, and she kneeled down to give the girl a tight hug. Kayus remained at the old man’s side, looking even more withdrawn than normal. “You’ve returned,” said the old man. “It’s good to see you, Cyell.” “Hello, Your Grace,” said Cyell. “How is everyone holding up with what’s happening above?” “Very well, given the circumstances,” said Marcus and Celestra’s father. “You’ve heard what occurred, yes? I assume Draconis is here with you.” “Yes,” said Cyell. “I guess it’s kind of awkward for us to come back like this after… Well, I suppose you heard what happened.” “I did,” said the duke. “I won’t condone what Draconis did, if that is indeed how it played out, but I am well aware of Collin’s propaganda and the falsity of it. Your father is a good man, and I truly believe no one else could have saved this city from the Seraphim as he did. As I said, I can’t condone such a violent action against a citizen of this city, but my personal opinion matters little against the opinion of the populace. However, right now that is of little consequence as well.” “No joke,” said Cyell. “One thing at a time, right?” She then realized that Kataña was still latched tightly to her. “Hey,” she said gently, pushing her back to arm’s length. “You good, little adventurer?” “What’s gonna happen to us, Aunt Cyell?” Kataña said, her green eyes watery. “Nothing now that we’re here,” Cyell told her. “Things are scary out there right now, but it’s no different than normal, right? We always keep you safe, so that hasn’t changed, either.” “Mmkay,” Kataña said, giving a small, brave smile. Cyell tousled her hair playfully. “What about you, big brother?” Cyell said to Kayus, standing up. “You better not be wetting yourself back there, huddled in the corner.” “I’m not,” Kayus said in a quiet voice, but that was usual for him. “Is Draconis going to help us?” “Of course,” Cyell said, like that was the most obvious thing in the world. “You know he’s going to beat those guys up and send them packing.” “You were gone for little over a day,” said the duke. “What brought the two of you back so quickly? I presume my son had something to do with it.” “It’s a little more complicated than that,” said Cyell. “And not for sensitive ears. We can go over all of that after Quintell’s goon squad is dealt with. The adults are discussing it right now with Celestra.” “They’ll need to head for Viner Hand castle,” said Duke Orelian. “It’s a certainty that General Delgansi is there.” “That’s what Dad intends to do,” said Cyell. “And I’m sure King Leonis is giving his ex-soldiers hell right now. Oh…sorry…” She forgot the twins were right there. “Are you going to give them hell too, Aunt Cyell?” Kataña asked. The duke cleared his throat as Cyell couldn’t help herself from cracking a grin. “Yes, but let’s not say that again, okay? Your aunt made a big goof.” Kataña giggled at this, and Cyell was glad for it. There was no doubt she and her brother were both terrified right now. The capital had never come under attack like this before, at least not since Cyell had been living here. She could only imagine what was going through the minds of these children, especially when they did not fully understand why it was so dangerous outside the walls. Cyell had never been sure exactly what Sutoko and Celestra had explained to them about the Shadows, but she doubted it was very much. Her father had taught her since she was little that what you didn’t know or understand about something could be far more frightening than the reality. Although in the case of the Shadows, both were horrifying. “Cyell,” Draconis’s voice shot across the room. Cyell walked over to him as Sutoko passed her to see his children. “Hey guys,” he said. “DADDY!!!” Cyell heard Kataña shout as she followed her own father back to where the others were. “What’s going on?” Cyell asked them. “Do we have a plan?” “We’re going to the castle,” Draconis told her. “Once Sutoko sees the twins for a bit, we’ll be heading out. You’re welcome to come with us or stay here with Celestra. It’s up to you.” “Just know that we have no idea what we’ll find once we hit the surface,” said Marcus. “Celes said that Quintell’s troops are still all over the city.” “I’m going with,” Cyell said after a moment’s consideration. “I want to be with you, Dad.” Draconis nodded to this and put his arm around her briefly. “Let’s give Sutoko a moment and then we’ll move out.” “I’m good,” they heard a voice say and turned to see Sutoko standing there. “Let’s go.” “Sure you wouldn’t like another minute?” Marcus asked. “The sooner we go, the sooner we can fix all of this,” said Sutoko. “Until then, my family isn’t safe. Let’s go knock some damn heads in.” “An idea I can definitely get behind,” said Marcus. “These poor saps won’t know what hit them. No holding back this time.” “Agreed,” said Draconis. “I know why they’ve done this, and I sympathize, but they’re going to pay. This is not the answer.” As they turned to leave, Celestra called out. “Wait.” She walked up to Draconis. “This needs to be said before you go. Draconis…promise me that you’ll make this right. I understand your feelings toward this city and its people for what they’ve done to you, and they are completely justified. But whatever else has happened, I still believe in you. Do this, for me.” Her green eyes were sharp and clear as she looked at him. “Do it for me, because I still believe in the hero, Draconis.” Draconis was silent for a moment as the weight of Celestra’s words sank in. At last he said, “I’ll make this right.” Celestra nodded and the team headed upstairs to the first floor of the mansion. They opened the door and headed for Viner Hand castle at the center of the city. “So what’s the plan when we get there?” Cyell asked Draconis as they made their way slowly down the street. Celestra had told them that there was still fighting within the city, so everyone was on the lookout for any signs of struggle, or people that needed help. “We need to see what the situation is from Khardon,” Draconis replied. “It’s my hope that he’s at the castle and is able to inform us on the state of the city and Quintell’s forces currently. Also, we have to find Leonis.” “These were his soldiers,” said Cyell. “I hope he doesn’t decide to ally with them in some way.” “Never gonna happen,” said Sutoko. “Even if Leonis empathizes with his men, this is too far. He would never abide this level of destruction and violence; it’s not his way. And if they try to kill him for resisting, have a good time with that. Leonis is one of the most powerful spiritual warriors living. Probably top five.” “Who’s the strongest?” Cyell naturally wondered. “Is it you, Dad?” Draconis said nothing to this at first. It seemed to be an uncomfortable subject for him. “It is…isn’t it?” said Cyell. “You’re the strongest of all.” Draconis gave a disgruntled sound, clenching his jaw. “I mean, it makes sense,” Cyell went on. “You fought so many battles and struggles, and a lot of people have died along that way, right? You came out on top, so now you’re the strongest.” “It’s a bit more complex than that, Cy,” said Marcus. “But you know, Dray… It’s probably about time that she learned about you, isn’t it? You did make that promise back at the village.” “We’re not through this yet,” said Draconis. “Now isn’t the time for this subject.” He then looked at his daughter, who stared back with those eyes again. Hanako’s face flashed into his mind for a split second. He shook his head to clear the image, then said, “But soon. I haven’t forgotten my promise.” “Good enough,” said Cyell. “Let’s save this shithole city first.” “Eesh, so harsh on my home,” Marcus frowned. “I get it; they were dirtbags to you guys. But a slam on this city is a slam on my family, too. The Orelians built this place, so maybe ease up?” “I’ll try,” Cyell said, but her tone was not very sincere. “I love your family, Marcus, you know that. But it wasn’t Celestra or the duke, or the twins that put Fryysgard and me on trial and sought to execute us. I might have forgiven that before Mom died. And then also finding out that Collin caused it to happen by letting those Shadows out. I bet these people would never have tried him.” “Points and licks taken,” said Marcus. “I could never express enough how sorry I am for Han, Cyell. Your mother was truly one-of-a-kind. She’ll be missed deep–” “Enough!” they suddenly heard Draconis thunder. He turned to them, and his eyes were deadly serious. “We have a job to do. Can we please focus on that for now?” “Yeah, sure,” Marcus said, his voice cracking slightly. “Focus. Job. Castle. Got it.” Draconis gave a firm nod to him, and then resumed his trek to Viner Hand, which loomed closer. As they approached, a sudden explosion rang out close by, sending a plume of black smoke into the air. “There’s the pockets of resistance Celes told us about,” said Marcus. “Should we go check it out?” he turned to Draconis. Draconis thought on it, but a voice quickly broke him of his concentration. “Ah, that was a nice one.” Everyone turned to see who it was, and a block of ice hit the bottom of Cyell’s stomach. “Destrin…” Draconis snarled. The young demon was quickly backed up by several of his fellow soldiers, all with weapons drawn and ready. Destrin, in contrast, kept his blade at his side. Cyell noticed that he had a leather glove on the hand that Fryysgard had sliced the fingers off in their last encounter. “You came back,” Destrin said in his pleasant tone of voice. “My, our antics caught your attention quick, hm? Come to be the hero you once were and drive out another enemy force from the capital? I’m afraid this time might not work out the same for you, Draconis.” “What do you want, Destrin?” said Draconis. “You know what I want,” the young soldier said, his eyes turning cold very briefly before reverting to normal. “But let’s talk about that in a moment, shall we? First, I can see that you’re on your way to the castle. We’ve been watching you for a time – saw you check in on the Orelians first, very sweet of you. I do hope you found them well.” “Terrified, but in good health otherwise,” Marcus spoke up. “I’m surprised you haven’t tried anything if you knew they were in there.” “I’ve no interest in slaughtering little children,” Destrin replied. “Give me some measure of dignity, prince. You think so low of me just because I decided to take hold of my own life, as if you don’t do the very same. Would you not do anything to safeguard your sister and father, or your brother-in-law there next to you? Of course you would, as I would do the same for my brothers and sisters standing here with me now.” His eyes narrowed at them. “As I did.” “Move aside, Destrin,” said Draconis. “Let this end peacefully.” “Assuredly that was the idea originally,” said Destrin. “We started out peacefully in what we did. Instead of killing our wonderful king, we humanely imprisoned him. We didn’t kill the tibras, either, only took them from all of you who were abusing them the same as you abused us. We started our mission peacefully because that was how we wanted it to end…but then you five showed up. Oh, wait… There’s only four of you this time. Did something happen to one of you?” Cyell snarled loudly at these words, and Marcus put his hand on her shoulder to calm her. “This is a dangerous world we live in,” Destrin continued. “One should always take every precaution to protect themselves. You never know what the next day will bring at your feet to deal with. I am all too familiar with how ghastly those Shadows are. “Now then, Draconis. You asked me so kindly to move aside, yet I am unable to comply. We can’t have you just walking into the castle, finding Delgansi and the two of you making some daring plan to further undo our own. I’m afraid the time has passed for you to undermine what we are trying to accomplish. We were civil with you when you found your way to our doorstep back in the Demon Realm, but sadly you didn’t feel obliged to return our good manners. Rather the opposite, wasn’t it? You took our bargaining chip that we had worked so hard to obtain, spitting in our face and on our desire to have the very basic of wants. To live.” “We weren’t trying to spit on anything!” said Sutoko. “What you were doing was causing other people to die! You know good and well how bad things got with the Shadow Soldiers after you stole the tibras.” “Things were already bad,” Destrin said, his expression hardening. “That is what you people seem incapable of comprehending. We were dying…” He gestured to the soldiers around him. “I watched so many of the people I cared about, that I had fought and trained alongside of, lose their lives in a fight we had no hope of winning. And no one seemed to care. You didn’t care, Draconis. Nor did our benevolent king.” “We did care, Destrin,” Draconis said, his voice pleading. “Leonis and I had so many talks about what all of you were going through out there against the Shadows. We were trying to find a way to stop the fighting.” “But you didn’t,” Destrin said, his tone cold and dead. “And now things have come to this…because of your inaction. When inaction takes place for so long, action must replace it. It is a natural and inevitable event. You didn’t act, so we did. I’m sorry that you didn’t like what we came up with, but neither did we. None of us here wanted to lock away Leonis. He was good to all of us. I personally came from Lord Azenroth’s army, and yet I was accepted into the Kyden fold without question or suspicion. Again, you think so low of me, but I suppose that makes sense when you consider yourself on a higher plain than others and look down on them. That’s where my mountain analogy originally came from. We’re taking the mountain for ourselves, and you can sit underneath us for a while.” His lip then curled. “Or you can be thrown off. I leave that choice wholly to you.” “Where’s Quintell?” Draconis asked, deciding to switch subjects. “Does he really approve of this assault on the city?” “Ah, Quintell…” Destrin replied, a smile crossing his thin lips. “Here’s the thing about the captain. He also never liked our plan to imprison Leonis and the tibras. Quintell wanted there to be a more peaceful solution, meaning he wanted to negotiate with the king and find a resolution together. Leonis never granted him that audience, did you know? Always made some excuse that he was too busy with strategies on how to battle the Shadows, or something of the like. Finally, in the end Quintell agreed with the plan I had come up with – yes, it was my idea to take the king and his beasts away. Think ever lower of me, feel free. “Then, after the lot of you brought our plans to an utter standstill, we knew what our path was before us. Once you returned to the city with a thinner Leonis and the few tibras we had on hand, our anonymity would be shot and the capital would turn on us as the monsters they were sure to paint us. We decided our next action, and set up camps around the city.” For some reason, Destrin cracked an amused grin. The sight unnerved Cyell further as she watched. “Quintell… Oh, sweet Captain Quintell. So honorable, so dutybound. Always wanted to do what was best for all, and avoid unnecessary bloodshed. He actually believed we had come here to negotiate. The fool truly thought that was still an option, after all we had done. People don’t negotiate with monsters. If that were true, then we’d be trying to strike up a conversation with the Shadows.” “Where is he, Destrin?” Draconis asked again. Cyell’s hands began to tremble as a horrible notion overtook her. She had a strong feeling she knew where Destrin was going with his story… “Quintell found out what we were really here for,” Destrin went on. “He was understandably displeased with us for misleading him, though that’s not exactly true. We just never bothered to correct his assumptions. Once he discovered our intent to attack the city, he resisted the idea…very shortly.” “You killed him…” said Draconis. Cyell’s hands trembled even more as chills crawled slowly down her spine. “Inaction must be replaced with action,” said Destrin. “First Leonis was the inaction, then it became Quintell. The Shadows are never inactive, even when we think they are. How can we possibly hope to ever be free of them if we keep repeating the same errors over and again? A change needed to happen, and we are the change.” “We can work together,” said Draconis. “It shouldn’t be us against us; it should be all of us against them,” he pointed to the wall on the edge of the city. “You’re right,” Destrin agreed. “Yet, you act as though you believe this whole ‘us against us’ just started here this night, or when we took Leonis and the tibras. Wrong, Draconis. It started when you callously sent us off to die against the Shadows and left us with no other options. You caused this, with your stubbornness and your inability to see our plight. All of this is on you, and Leonis. And tonight…the king will die.” “No!” said Cyell. “Where is Leonis, Destrin?” “Fighting us, no doubt,” Destrin replied. “Even now, he resists our desire to be free. All we want is to lay claim to our own fate and die as we choose, but the king simply cannot let that be.” “How do you plan to kill him exactly?” Marcus asked in a skeptical tone. “I imagine it would be pretty hard to kill one of the strongest spiritual warriors in the world.” “True,” said Destrin. “But surely you’ve wondered where the rest of the tibras are? You only managed to take seven with you when you stole them from the Bastion. We knew not to have them all in one place just in case what happened, well, happened. They were hidden across the Demon Realm and guarded by a select and trusted few.” Destrin gave a cold smile. “We brought them with us, and they’re very hungry.” “Oh, shit…” Sutoko breathed. “A starved tibra is a very interesting sight to behold,” said Destrin. “We decided to starve a few to see if they lost that docile nature of theirs. It turns out…oh, they’re much worse than a Shadow. Their eyes turn blood-red, and they become ravenous. I call them rabid tibras. Want to know what happened to the ones we starved?” Cyell dreaded the answer. She wished that Destrin would just be quiet and disappear forever, or that her father would blow him away with an energy blast. “They ate one another,” said Destrin. “Tore each other to shreds until only one remained. We found it chewing on the corpse of another tibra, its fur coated crimson. It died soon after from its injuries, but we knew that we had found the perfect weapon to use against the capital.” The twisted demon sneered at Draconis. “Did you really think that I would bet the soul of Gradenia on a straight fight with you, Draconis? Inside you flows the power of a demon god. You defeated Kaladan himself, so what chance would a pauper like me stand against you? No… I’m a soldier, and I was trained by Leonis of Kyden, son of Keladine. War is my very lifeblood, and to win a war, you need the right equipment for the job. A person, machine, or city is only as strong as its weakest point. This city’s weakness is obvious: its craven fear. And what does it fear? It fears beasts. They don’t have to be black or able to morph into puddles. They only have to be a beast that can rend flesh from bone, and that is exactly what I unleashed upon this city.” “You’re an insane bastard!” Cyell shouted. “How could you do this?” “Because I want what you have!” Destrin screamed back. “I want to be the master of my own destiny! And I will walk through the fires of hell and back to achieve it, if I must! Now, I ask of you only one thing: Stand aside and let us have our lives.” “If that’s all you wanted, you could have it, Destrin,” said Draconis. “But you also seek power – power over everyone else’s lives. I can’t let that happen.” “We seek security,” Destrin corrected him. “That’s all. Even if you people just let us walk free, we would be at the mercy of the Shadows. We need to have insurance, and the tibras are that insurance. As far as Leonis goes, he is now expendable and will pay his debt to us before the sun rises. I suggest you go find him before that time comes, if it hasn’t already. Do be watchful of my rabid tibras, though. They have no sense of friend or enemy, and no regard for their own lives. They’re much like the Shadow Soldiers of Azenroth’s time, aren’t they? There’s something poetic in that.” Draconis turned to head off in another direction, and the others followed his lead. “Well this mess just got a whole hell of a lot messier,” Marcus said as they moved. “Do you think Leonis will be okay against these rabid tibras?” “No idea,” said Draconis, “so let’s get to him quickly. We’ll search where that explosion was earlier first and see what clues we can find.” “Or hopefully Leonis himself,” said Sutoko. Cyell’s heart hammered in her chest at the idea of these rabid tibras. The first time she ever saw a tibra, it was when she was still a little girl and she and her family were just moving into the capital after having escaped their village. She had been terrified of the beasts and cried hysterically in her father’s arms, but Draconis’s calm and collected nature managed to settle her nerves and she even touched the beast’s fur when he told her that they were very tranquil creatures. Cyell could not even imagine a tibra being aggressive or dangerous now, and the thought made her feel the same as she did ten years ago when crying as her father held her to him. They reached the area where the explosion took place, but found nothing other than a half-collapsed building. “Looks like whoever was being targeted managed to get away,” said Marcus. “No signs of a further struggle.” “Damn,” Draconis sighed. “Let’s keep moving. This city is barely being held together, and the whole thing could fall to pieces at any minute.” “That’s more optimism than I have at the moment,” said Marcus, “but motion agreed upon. After you, leader man.” They hurried onward, with no clear destination in sight. As they did, another worry began to creep into Cyell’s mind, despite her best efforts. If both the southern and northern gates were currently wide open, there was nothing to stop the Shadows from getting into the city. It would be a nightmare beyond what happened only two days ago – when her mother was killed. It was already a nightmare beyond that, Cyell thought to herself. “Leonis!” Sutoko’s voice pierced her thoughts, and her heart leaped into her throat. Indeed, the king of demons lay facedown near a group of wrecked houses. Cyell noticed large claw marks on the outer walls of the homes…and the blood pooled around the fallen Leonis. Draconis kneeled down to examine him, and found his back slashed open. “Please don’t be dead…” Sutoko prayed aloud. “Not him… Not so soon after Han and Thes…” “It’s bad,” Draconis said after a moment, “but he’s breathing.” He then poured his spiritual energy into Leonis’s wounds as he had done to Marcus when he was injured at Yomen’s compound. After a moment, the king began to groan and stir. “Leonis,” Cyell said, kneeling on the other side of him. “Are you okay?” She looked at her father, wondering more than ever where he had acquired such strange and unique abilities. Destrin had said that he had the power of a demon god, whatever that meant. But now was not the time to ask as Leonis tried to speak. “Be vigilant…” he said in a very weak voice. “Tibras…not normal…” “We know,” said Draconis. “We already found Destrin, and he told us about his experiment.” “They are pure rage and hunger,” Leonis said more clearly as he rolled over and sat up. “I never knew they could be so powerful. It seems when they are on the brink of starvation, their bodies release all limitations on their hunting abilities. Spiritual power does little to stave them off, as I learned…” “Good to see you still with us, in any case,” Marcus said, helping him to his feet. “Looks like Shadows aren’t the only ones talented at back-scratching.” “So it would seem,” Leonis smirked. He then turned to Draconis. “Destrin has the castle surrounded with Khardon and the other leaders inside. He intends to use them for ransom and claim control of the city. If you met him, then you know of Quintell’s fate…” “He has to be stopped,” said Draconis. “He’s gone completely off the deep end. This has become about much more than he and his comrades taking control of their lives.” “He likes this, I think,” Cyell said, and everyone turned to her. “He likes the death and destruction. He’s twisted.” “Destrin has let this world remake him,” said Leonis. “He was a kind-hearted young man at one time, and I still believed that he was even recently. But yes, Draconis, I concur that he needs to be stopped. However, I fear that while it may be possible to halt Destrin’s plans, I’m not sure what can stop the tibras. These hunger-driven ones are far more ferocious and powerful, and do not recognize their allies any longer.” “Water,” said Cyell. “Right? Water makes their fur weak.” “Hmm…” Marcus thought quickly. “We can probably lead them back to my family’s estate. It’ll be easier to deal with them from there, and there’s a huge well on the property. It may take some time, though, since we don’t know how many are in the city.” “It’s our best option currently,” said Draconis. “Let’s go then.” Suddenly a shadow moved over them from above, and they looked to see Fryysgard leaping across the rooftops with incredible agility. It looked like he was heading straight for Viner Hand. “Oh, no!” Cyell gasped suddenly. She turned to Draconis. “When I was out with Captain Rei scouting Quintell’s camps, I ran into Destrin and – I’ll keep this short. Fryysgard appeared and cut off some of his fingers. If he’s heading for the castle and Destrin is there, he’ll kill Fryysgard for sure! He’s in danger, Dad!” “Good, more complications,” said Marcus. “Okay, here’s the deal. Dray and I are the best-suited to lure the tibras to the well, because we have hyper speed. The rest of you follow Fryysgard and make sure he isn’t turned into kiblets.” “No,” Draconis said at once, and he looked at his daughter. Cyell knew exactly what he was thinking. “I don’t like it, either, Dad. But this is the only way. We have to stop Destrin and the tibras soon, before more people are killed and the Shadows find out that our gates no longer keep them out. You know Marcus is right on this.” “…Fine,” Draconis relented. “Marcus and I will look for the tibras while you go help Fryysgard, whatever he’s intending to do.” “I swear she will be safe,” Leonis said, gripping the blade at his hip tightly in his right hand. “I owe you my life tonight, Draconis. Be very wary of Destrin’s beasts. They are not normal tibras in any way, and make the Shadows pale in their viciousness.” The team split up, and Cyell followed Sutoko and Leonis back toward Viner Hand castle. “What in the hell is he doing?” she heard Sutoko mutter as they ran. “Tonight is not the night to test that whole ‘nothing-can-kill-me’ philosophy he has.” Cyell didn’t know, either. All she knew was that she did not want to see Fryysgard die. There had been too much death in her life for the past two days, and she shuddered internally at the thought that if they did somehow manage to survive this ordeal, they would have to find out who had already been killed in the city. She was thankful, though, that Leonis was still among the living at least.Just as the castle was coming into view, something jumped into their path, barring them. It was large, muscular…and had glowing red eyes.