And thus, after three hundred years of darkness, the succession of the Cosmos Order had defeated their mortal nemesis at the end of a pyrrhic campaign. Many had perished, and the world would never return to its former untainted nature, but the spirit of the people would live on.
The battle between the Five Rings of Cosmos and the Lady in Shadow raged on for but a single night — yet the scars left upon the land can still be seen today in the Gravelands. Such displays of martial and arcane might were not witnessed since the Age of the Gods. Mountains were cleaved. Oceans, split. The very sky was broken. And the light of the Rings pierced the darkness — now and forevermore.
Yet their battle would not come easy. The Lady in Shadow was an immortal beast wrought from our sins. As long as we exist, she cannot be destroyed. At the moment she was brought low, our heroes realized what had to be done.
Only by sealing away the Lady in Shadow could the land be freed from her tyranny. The Ring of Arcana constructed a divine barrier around the ruined Origin Spire, and with monumental pain, brought it upon himself to take in a portion of the Shadow’s embrace and seal himself. By sacrificing his future and turning himself into the ultimate barrier between our world and theirs, he has given us the ultimate gift of a free future. We must never forget this sacrifice — for he is the man who hath taken the sins of our people into himself.
May his mind rest easy, his slumber be peaceful, and his soul find a place among the heavens.
The Five Rings of Cosmos returned with only four of their members, their hearts broken with loss.
A grand statue commemorating the Ring of Arcana’s legacy has been constructed in front of the Telltale Castle’s walls in the international capital of Talmai.
Yet this would not be the end of the Five Rings trouble. For another tale awaited the survivors — reunifying the broken world fell to them.
I flipped to the next page in the crisp new tome, gritting my teeth.
TO BE CONTINUED IN VOLUME III: THE FIVE RINGS AND THE WORLD MACHINE.
“A statue? A bloody statue!?” I let out an enraged howl and pitched the tome out the nearest window — the pages fluttered in the crystal light before disappearing. “Oh, great, look, the person who made the ultimate sacrifice gets a statue. Great. Great! That’s wonderful!”
My words echoed in the darkstone library — my scream of rage echoed to eternity and back.
Oh, I was livid. Beyond livid. I almost spontaneously combusted from rage. “An entire three hundred page tome and they don’t even SAY MY NAME! ME! NOT EVEN ONCE!”
“Would you just look at that. Everybody else gets to go on grand adventures. Oh, everybody else gets their happy ending. The muscle-meat head got the overprotective girl. The priest met her god and became the official saint. The martial artist established his own little gods-damned dojo in the mountains. WHAT DO I GET? THIS BULLSHIT.” I had done this song and dance many times before — but every time I’m reminded of this lurid stupidity, I can’t help but get mad. My rage had peaked for the first time this week; there was no stopping my bi-weekly rant. “AND THEY REPLACED ME! THEY. REPLACED. ME. THOSE BLOODY BASTARDS REPLACED ME. THERE’S ALREADY A NEW RING OF ARCANE. GODSDAMNIT. IT HASN’T EVEN BEEN A YEAR.”
I found my punching obelisk and rammed my face against it twenty-seven times. I felt nothing, but the motions helped a little. “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.”
I marched over to the window and faced the abyss outside — I could see the edge of the divine barrier in the distance, a single glimmer of light. I gathered as much air into my lungs as possible, enchanted my vocal cords, and just let loose. “HEY, FUCK YOU KING ASSHAT. I HOPE YOU TRIP AND DIE SUCKING ON YOUR OWN DICK. GIVE ME A STATUE, WOULD YOU? KILL YOURSELF. I HOPE YOUR CHILDREN GET CURSED WITH THE SAME IMPOTENCE THAT GRACED YOUR BRAIN. DOGLICKER. APE-BRAIN.” I threw up the most obscene gestures I could think of and hoped that it would travel to his castle. “THAT WAS MY FIANCE, YOU RAT-SUCKING BASTARD!”
Several floors underneath me, a window popped open — a scruffy demon with ram horns looked up at me. He held his black-axe guitar and a tankard of water. “Hask, could you keep it down? We’re trying to record a new song — we don’t need your vocals yet!”
I responded the only way I remembered how.
“FUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOU TOOOOOOOOO.”
I slammed my window hard enough to shatter the crystalline glass. Then, I opened the window again and leaned out.
“Are we recording ‘BLACK SUNRISE’ or ‘NO DARKNESS WITHOUT LIGHT’ tonight!?”
The scuffy demon was still there — as though he expected me to pop back out. “We’re trying to get the bass solo on Black Sunrise down; could use your help.”
“I’LL BE THERE.”
Then, just to vent the last of my anger, I tore the window from its frame and threw it as hard as I could. It made it halfway across the abyss this time. That’s a new bloody record. I marked it down on the far-throw record billboard as I left.
My name is Haskel, by the way. I’m the Ring of Arcana.
Former Ring of Arcana.
Don’t believe what the Ring of Faith writes — she’s a terrible person. Sure, she’s considered the most virtuous person in the world, but that’s just because a deity went out and vouched for her. And, as I’ve come to learn, ‘deities’ aren’t infallible. It’s their fault in the first place that things got so bad in the first place.
“Oh, let’s just do a bit of divine intervention,” they said. “Let’s reward our faithful prematurely,” they said. “Let’s just go ahead and unravel the fabric of our world just to boost our already transcendental ego,” they said.
Now look. An actual god showed up, decided to spread a pinch of their influence, and guess what? Boom. Humanity, gone. Society, destroyed. Souls, mutated.
See, I can talk about these things. I’m a grandmaster of arcana. The grandmaster of arcana. I know everything there is to know about this universe and the next one over. Though, in this case, it would just be localized to knowledge of our star — Sol. They’re a real asshole, honestly.
I used that knowledge to make the world a half-decent place. Technology was lacking in a few places — most of the developments were locked to a few privileged places. In my time, I helped spread the good stuff far and wide. Leynets, mechanized flight, engines and turbines, record crystals, roads and railways, all the fun trinkets of urban life. Especially plumbing. When you can violate the First Law of Thermodynamics on a technicality, the limits are endless.
I’ll be honest — I copied half of those ideas from other places. But I won’t tell you where from. I’ll let you take a guess.
But sadly, knowledge is useless when you can’t act on it. Just like how memories of food don’t satisfy hunger, nor memories of water to a man’s thirst, you’re not going to get anything out of certain knowledge. It just makes things worse.
I had plans, you know. I had a lot of plans. I finally realized after countless hours of perfecting my displacement and evocation sorceries — that there are other worlds out there. I was going to peace out of this terrible world-line and check out what each different world-line offered. But no. All because nobody else wanted to ante up and fix the situation.
There was another way to defeat the Lady in Shadow. All we needed to do was die.
Yep. In a cruel twist of ironic fate, the very magic we commanded had allowed the Lady in Shadow to thrive. To explain plainly, think of the peaks of a wave graph. The peaks of power we tapped into allowed the Lady in Shadow to reach equal heights with relatively minor effort.
Nobody else would make the ultimate sacrifice — except for me. I genuinely thought I was doing a good thing back then, saving the world. I guess I saved the world, but I’m not happy at all with it. Death would have been preferable to an eternity of torment.
Don’t get me wrong, it was alright at first. I spent the first few days exploiting the remains of the Origin Spire; a good portion of the Lady in Shadow’s lieutenants and servants had survived the ultimate battle. There were about a hundred people in total. Some of them, understandably, were quite angry at me. In the following battles of vengeance, we collectively realized something beyond harrowing.
We were immortal.
The warding boundary combined with the Origin Spire’s mana amplification had essentially trapped the regurgitation of primal energies into a hyper-concentrated field, leaving our souls too strong to detach from our bodies.
A divine hotbox — if you will.
And you bet your damn ass some people got high off that power. I spent three entire weeks being forced to fight an entire army before people started getting sick of it.
Then the existential dread set in. Then came the despair.
For nine days, this place — a realm stuck between this reality and the next — had the highest suicide attempt per capita in recorded history. Some people lost their minds. Some went comatose. I tried my best to rally people and keep spirits high, but one man can only do so much.
In the weeks that followed, I was forced to play a combination of counselor, therapist, architect and diplomat; I probed and fixed the minds of the broken, emotionally patched up some unstable folks, fixed up the Origin Spire to be a little more livable, and mended relationships and turned former enemies into tenuous friends.
Til’girol was one such person I learned to get along with. He was one of the first that approached me — I was commanding my summons to turn the fifth level of the Origin Spire into a recreational facility. Taverns. Singalongs. A place to stretch one’s wings, feet, talons, whatever. Anything was better than a floor-wide torture hall.
“Why are you doing this, Ring of Arcana?” Til’girol, for once, merely watched from a distance as I was sketching out blueprints. “We have tormented your people for generations — I have slain countless warriors. My squire killed your apprentice. Do you not feel the need to take vengeance?”
It wouldn’t quite be right to call him a man — I don’t really think armor has a gender. He was a Gravelord; an existence tied to a suit of magical armor. Within the demonic black armor was the shadow of a man; perhaps he had been a werebeast before his unholy transformation. He lifted his visor when he spoke — an attractive spectre with purple eyes stared in bafflement.
“Hah. No.” I spoke through grit teeth. “I won’t ever forgive or forget what any of your people have done. I don’t care what your reasons were — if I could, I’d blast all of you into non-existence.”
Til’girol narrowed his spectral eyes — his hand went to his red blade. But, as he watched me continue to work without paying him any mind, he stood down. “At the very least, you’re honest. And smarter than the rest of your companions.”
I sighed and stared up at the work-in-progress construction scaffolds. “But, seeing as we are literally stuck here till the end of this world, we might as well make an attempt to get along.”
The summons ran here and there with materials, tearing up the obsidian black walls and injecting them with a bit more colour. Skulls replaced with posters. Blood stains with furnishings.
I gestured to the world around me — the world that I now controlled. “This is my revenge. I’ll make you regret your mistakes for the rest of your miserable lives, each and every last one of you. But, in this particular exception, I’ll do it in a way nobody has even dared think about.” I summoned the most sinister grin I could muster. “I’ll break you and turn you into something you hate.”
“With your spite, I’m sure you would’ve made a fine villain.” Til’girol glanced around at the mundane and colorful furnishing and raised an eyebrow. “Do your worst, hero.”
So I did.
Eight months in, I had brought nearly everyone down and forced them to act like normal people. Unlimited magical energy meant unlimited resources, and I had an overactive imagination. I made friends. Started a band. Invented divine ale (they were huge fans of this one). Connected to the outside world via leynets, even got a few deliveries made — where did you think I got the tome about myself from? Made a beach. Forced the women to wear actual clothes. Like, at least a t-shirt. Some of them found ways to violate the public moral standard anyway, but hey, can’t blame a guy for trying.
But then she rose from her slumber.
She was the only one who could match me in power.
The ultimate battle had drained the Lady in Shadow, but just as prophecy foretold, she broke from the crystal coffin she encased herself in moments before defeat.
A thousand crystal shards imbued with demonic energy fell, raining death through the tower. It destroyed entire levels in a blink of an eye — we all felt her return. And she was more powerful than ever.
I alone rushed back to the throne room; the others were terrified at the mere presence of their former master.
And there, underneath the glistening purple of corrupt flame, she was waiting for me atop her obsidian throne — the only thing I couldn’t remodel.
She was just as beautiful as I remembered. A single glance could enrapture any mortal man, and a smile could steal the soul of the purest warrior. Long white hair streaked with a sunset orange. Black horns that hugged her head. Elongated ears and a face that fell from heaven.
By the time I stepped foot into the court, the Lady in Shadow had already arrived. She smirked and batted her eyes. “Oh my, my… it seems you’ve made your last mistake, Hero.” A one-piece dress that hugged her body in all the right places and left little to the imagination. White wings that coursed with mana. “I’m more powerful than ever… and as much as I would like to play with you, I’d like much more for you to just… disappear.”
With a single flick of her wrist, reality came crashing down. Solidified mana like black holes began to tear me apart from a distance — there were thousands surrounding me.
However, the Lady in Shadow had underestimated me.
You see, mages are peculiar creatures. Unlike a warrior, who could fight at any time with all of his strength; a priest, who could call the wrath of their faith at a moment’s notice; or even a sorcerer, who’s veins and circuits ran with the essence of nature; if you catch a mage off guard, they’re dead.
Take away their spellbooks, they’re no better than a peasant. Catch them when they’re drained of magic energy and dying dogs could give you more fight. Punch them while they’re preparing their spells, and they’ll give you their lunch money. However—
Give a mage a bit of time to prepare, and he’ll be the biggest threat you’ll ever face. Give a mage who can surpass his weaknesses time to prepare, he’ll become your worst nightmare.
The Lady in Shadow was a mage of sorts, but she spent six months recovering her strength. That means she gave me six months to prepare for her return. In terms of preparation time, I may as well have been preparing from the beginning of time.
She didn’t have time to stop acting smug — I’m not one for fluffing around. At the speed of thought, I activated my first contingency.
Restraints instantly formed around her. Neck. Wrists. Ankles. Brilliant white metal clasped tight around her and flared azure blue — I overpowered her brute force attack with a single unrestrained wave of force. The stained glass windows I had spent months painstakingly remodelling shattered in iridescent rain.
I held out the control I had crafted for her to see and smiled an evil grin.
“Wh-Wh-Wh-Wh—” The Lady in Shadow clawed at her throat; her black and orange eyes widened with panic. Veins of blue ran across her pale skin, snaking underneath her clothes. “My body…!”
She staggered from her throne and landed on her knees, eyes wide. For the second time in her life, I’m sure she felt fear. And I am proudly the person who caused both incidents. I looked down at my handiwork and sighed theatrically.
“As much as I’d like to monologue, I’m a practical person. So I’ll explain in as few words as possible.” I held up the gemstone trigger in my palm into the air. “I’ve smithed divine artifacts that will drain you within an inch of your existence at my command. You will never rule again, Lady in Shadow.”
“No… No!” She clawed at me in desperation — but I stepped out of the way.
The Lady in Shadow fell onto her front. Hate was in her eyes, but even that quickly left. She moaned and writhed in agony on the floor, clawing at the restraints.
Truth be told, that was mostly a bluff. The restraints I created could easily be broken by an outside source or merely overloaded with enough power — but she didn’t need to know that. Neither did anybody else.
I made sure that the restraints’ effects slowed the weaker she became; when she reached the level where she couldn’t even cast spells, she would feel every droplet leaving her body in extreme detail.
Eventually, the others joined to see the second defeat of their formal leaders. I was high and mighty as ever — I had been waiting a long time for this. I held up the symbol of my domination and cackled.
But everybody else just looked at us with a look between abject horror, judgemental concern, and the faintest hint of approval.
“What?” I asked, staring at the small crowd. “What’s the matter? I’ve won!”
Only three souls were brave enough to step forward.
Achernar, the sharply dressed Griffon, came over first and dragged me aside. “Oi, boss,” he whispered, “I don’t think you’re thinking what we’re thinking.”
Xorrog came next. He straightened out the cuffs on his leather jacket, flapped his skeletal wings, then patted me on the shoulder. “Haskel, I think you need to take a very good look at… her.”
The undead Dragon turned me to her, and I stared for a good minute. The Lady in Shadow was drooling, moaning, and struggling for breath — the restraints were working. She wouldn’t be able to fight back for a long time.
“I don’t see what’s wrong here,” I said.
Til’girol, the first one I had trusted, performed the coup de grâce. He pointed at the palm-shaped controller in my palm. The veins that almost looked like wires, the motions she was making — where most of the energy was draining from.
And then, with the tenderness of a mercy kill from a loved one, he informed me of what exactly it looked like.
In that moment, some intangible portion of my soul that I didn’t know I had left shattered. My world crumbled in an instant — I paled to the shade of a ghost. “OH HELL NO. OH GODS FUCK ME I SWEAR THIS ISN’T A FETISH THING.”
But the Lady in Shadow passed out on the ground, looking alarmingly satisfied.
I held back the urge to vomit. I had won the battle, but I had lost the war.
Dear gods did I lose the war. I had to deal with the Lady in Shadow a few days later; I sat in the throne room and waited with the trigger in my palm.
She didn’t even wait to open her eyes before talking. “Once again, the darkness shall fall on the lands and I shall sit upon a throne of—”
I hit the button, and it happened again. Happy thoughts. Ignore the sounds. Please.
“The corrupted phoenix shall rise from the ashes and I will g—”
It happened again a few days later.
“At long last shall I unleash the plague of shadows and evil upon the—”
And again. And again. AGAIN.
“What the hell is wrong with this girl?” I slammed my fifth tankard down for the night and roared. “She doesn’t even look at me before spouting off her bullshit! And the sounds!”
“You could leave it to one of us,” Xorrog said. “If it’s just a press of a button…”
Achernar clicked his tongue and clinked his talon against his wine glass. “The boss has been clear. He rides alone — that’s his style. Capiche?”
Some of my closer acquaintances set up an emotional support group for me; we met in the Glass-Eye tavern. My bartender construct poured another round wordlessly — we would need much more ale where we were going.
“How in the forty-seven hells do you end up as this much of a disaster?!” While taking another sip of soul-soothing ale, I looked to the others for an explanation.
“Well, several factors.” Vaska looked over from the farthest seat. She was a beastwoman with the traits of a lion; sharp feline ears, dangerous eyes, a fluffy brown mane of hair. She and Achernar shared the same fashion sense — a pair sharp as daggers. “Give me a moment.”
A sip of whiskey later and she gave me a sidelong grimace. “Some people are just raised that way. You could say that we are a culmination of our experiences — most believe that the soul is sculpted from birth.”
“Ain’t nobody winning parent of the year awards with her,” I muttered. “Seriously.”
Til’girol was the only one who wasn’t drinking. He couldn’t in the first place — not having a mouth causes those kinds of problems. “I’ve been on the side of the Old Ones for a very long time. Older than all these pups here.”
I raised my tankard. “Go on.”
“Before the Lady in Shadow, there was the Lord in Shadow. Her father was a cruel creature — I’m sure you know the fate of your predecessors.”
A knife of ice stabbed into the back of my head.
My mentor. She was a woman with hair like orange sunrise and soul that burned just as bright. The Phoenix Sorcerer. The previous Ring of Arcana.
She never returned from a particular skirmish twenty-five years ago. Nor had I found any trace of her in the tower.
“Oh.” The words sobered me in an instant. I took a deep breath and stared into my cup. An ogre looked back — red markings line my eyes and face, and talon-sized horns protrude from my forehead. “Did he…?”
“Yeah.” Til’girol looked away. “She raised the girl as her own for some time, tried to raise her right. Had she completely fallen, she might have accepted her new position. But, I suppose in a final moment of lucidity, she took her own life and set into a sequence of events that lead to today.”
My mentor made the same sacrifice I did. I fight against the surge of bitter vitriol in my chest and nod. “So she raised the Lady in Shadow on hot air and fantasies somewhere between evil and good. Great.” I forced myself to at least grin. “That’s so much like her. She used to play practical jokes on me all the time, too. Once she taught me a spell wrong as a joke.”
The others seemed to buy into the act. They broke into a round of mild chuckles, and the night of drinking went on as it usually did. Bad jokes, plans for the future. Bonding.
I drank a lot less that night than usual. I didn’t know how to feel about the revelation — I probably could have gone my entire life treating the Lady in Shadows as a complete stranger.
She was my step-sister, in a sense. We shared no blood, but just the shadow of orange from thinking about her was enough to whittle my resolve.
From that night forward, I decided I would try to reach through to her. I can’t even imagine what kind of life she had been through — but if she was redeemable, then I would try. It’s the least I could do to repay my mentor; if she trained the Lady in Shadow as an air-headed idiot, she must have hoped that the girl would find an alternative fate, eventually.
And I knew exactly what to do.
“Once more, I rise to—” The next time the Lady in Shadow woke up, she cut herself off.
I converted her throne into a recliner; she stared in confusion as the back of her throne lowered itself.
“Hi, I’m Doctor Enomoto Haskell.” I spoke up from the seat beside the throne and tapped my clipboard. “From today onwards, I’ll be working as your therapist. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Eh?” She looked down at herself, placed her fingers on her collarbone, and raised an eyebrow. “Won’t you do that… thing to me again?”
She better not have awakened any sort of weird interests from being magically drained. I cleared my throat and looked down at my notes. “Tell me a bit about yourself.”
I had interviewed most of the denizens of the Origin Spire to build up a profile on the Lady in Shadow. Enough written to get what her deal is, but it’s better to hear it from the source. Self-perception is of utmost importance for understanding one’s mind.
“Hm. Hmhmhmhm. Hahahaha…!” The Lady in Shadow broke into a slow, almost seductive giggle. Her spaded tail leaped up my chair’s side and crept towards my arm. “Dear me, how… cute, this is.”
I wrote her words on a transcript page. “Yes, yes, I am obligated to hear you out. Go on.”
“You have the audacity to oppose me, even now? Alone?” Raw disdain flooded into her black eyes; a fresh wave of mana gathered in her fingers. “You think a worm like yourself can handle the presence of the Lady in Shadow herself? You… sicken me.”
I flipped to the next page. “According to some of your peers that are concerned for you, you suffer from severe bursts of memory loss. Do you find yourself troubled by these incidents?”
“I rule a kingdom of death and desecration.” A scowl emerges. “And you dare even attempt to talk down to me?”
I must have touched a nerve; I flipped back and wrote ‘doesn’t like talking about self — insecure about authority.’ It was the fiftieth remark on her profile. Time to change my approach.
“Running a kingdom is a stressful task. It’s alright to feel pressure about such a tiresome thing.”
Something about my words caused her to freeze; I felt the upcoming spell break before she could cast it.
I glanced over; the Lady in Shadow had such a look of utter revulsion on her face that it tempted me to check in the mirror to see if my face had transmuted into a brick. “Right now, I’m not your enemy. The fighting is over — there’s nothing left to fight for.”
“No. Y-You’re wrong, it isn’t over! Not as long as I still draw breath!” Denial washed over her like a white-wash wave. Her relatively laid back expression and posture broke into a panicked stance — a single flap of her wings took her to the air in front of me; she aimed a pulse of black mana towards my still-sitting body. “No one shall stand in my wa—”
I shot her down. I didn’t hesitate — I knew I couldn’t when dealing with somebody who could overthrow my control. A prismatic spark erupted from my palm and engulfed her body; all eight colors of magic. My ultimate spell. Every theory of magic combined into a single beam of deconstruction and demolition.
What? A smart mage throws out their most powerful spell first. The faster things end, the better.
The Lady in Shadow hit the ground as a smouldering wreck; her body was still intact because of the immortality field, but she was completely drained. I doubted she would wake up for another few days.
I flipped to another page and wrote a closing remark. I even circled it in red ink. ‘Important: Lady in Shadow does not remember me or the conclusion of the final battle.’
This was a problem. A really big problem. I don’t think anybody else could even begin to handle a problem like this one.
I’m not even an actual psychologist.
“It’s always been this way, hasn’t it?” I thought to myself, staring out at the nothingness outside the windows, “Always comes down to me.”
Unlike the other Rings, I wasn’t born into the role. I was a street rat.
Laugh it up as much as you want. It’s the truth that the people at the top don’t want you to know. They said it was to keep up the people’s morale or whatever, but I didn’t buy it one bit. Almost certain those bastards wanted to maintain their “pure” image of warriors trained from birth. Incorruptible, incorrigible, untouchable. I take solace in the fact that the priests seethed every time I came back victorious — and because none of them lived to see the end of the war.
I didn’t remember my parents. Neither did any of the gang I ran with. We were just another group of urchins, but we had ambitions.
We would make it big — haul ourselves out of poverty and, I don’t know, settle down in a manor. No more nights of hunger or starvation or stabbing the things that crawled in the alleys. And we had the tools to get somewhere.
We had magic.
Couldn’t exactly sling fireballs or summon thunder at our age, but we had enough stuff to make it through the days. A glimmer to pick a pocket, a pinch of speed to outrun the guards, and transmutation to make moldy bread palatable; these were our tools of survival.
One day, as our gang was recuperating after ‘acquiring’ dinner for the night, a woman slipped past our watchmen.
“So this is our fated meeting!” she declared, unveiling herself from behind a shroud of shadow. “Don’t be afraid! I am the great Phoenix Sorcerer!”
It was a Salamander with bright orange hair — she was nearly blinding in the shade of our hideout. She wore pristine white robes that looked like they were woven from the skies themselves; her eyes were embers of smouldering starlight. And she struck a pose.
We were stunned silent; collectively, we didn’t even know if we should acknowledge the woman. After a painfully lengthy silence, I raised my voice. “Oi. Wuz’this old hag doin’, dressed like a fookin’ doll?”
“HEY. WHO ARE YOU CALLING AN OLD HAG!?”
In an instant, the woman’s cheerful facade broke — she grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me like a maraca. “I’M NOT EVEN OLD ENOUGH TO BE YOUR MOM. SHUT YOUR FACE, KID. SHUT. I’LL KILL YOU.”
Nobody else knew how to respond — the weird lady shook me until I was seeing stars.
Eventually, she regained her composure and settled down enough to actually tell us what she wanted.
“The Thrumas Coalition needs every single piece of help they can get — we’re losing territory against the Lord in Shadow.” The woman, having calmed down, regarded us with a grim expression. “Our reservoir of mages has dried up over the past decade; we need to train anybody we can. I was hoping we could—”
“You want to train us to run off and die for the country,” I interjected. “For what? This fookin’ city didn’t do shite for us, lass. You know how many kids die out here? From the infections?”
A faint chorus of agreement comes from the rest of the gang. The Salamander pursed her lips; her flames dimmed. “I know it’s been tough out here, but—”
“Oi, sag off, ya hag.” Another boy raised his voice. “Y’aint gettin’ shite from us. Prolly just gonna go out and pick the best of us and leave the rest to rot!”
“Wait, please listen to me—”
“Nuh-uh. We’d rather die than deal with you.” A girl this time. She had pink hair, two horns, and furious eyes — even though she was nearly a decade younger than me. “At least we’re free out here. Ain’t that right, fellas?”
The crowd of kids roared; the Salamander realized there was no breaking through. With her shoulders hunched, she rose to her feet and took a few sad steps towards the door. The kids broke into cheers.
“Fuck off, ya hag!” “Piss off!” “Boo!” “Go whore yourself out for coppers!” “Bitch!”
I wanted to say something, back then. I didn’t intend to cause a full-blown denial of her claim; I wanted to hear her explanation. Couldn’t go against the wishes of the gang, though.
She must have sensed my hesitation. The Salamander looked back and locked eyes with me. “I’ll show you my determination. I hope you’ll understand, in time.”
The kid beside me threw a chicken bone at her. “Right outta here, twat!”
The Salamander left that night to the sound of jeers. A grown woman had lowered herself to the level of street rats and got laughed out for it. I had no doubt she could have strong-armed all of us into submission — I was already sensitive to mana. She was more powerful than any of us could have imagined, and only I was aware of it.
I could only imagine what she meant by determination.
For seven days and seven nights, I watched from afar as the Salamander ran around the rundown part of Talmai.
She seemed to be horrified at the things we considered mundane. Our part of the city saw a rapid transformation — she rebuilt houses with a mere flick of her wrist. Cathedrals, restored. Aqueducts ran with clean water.
Another girl approached me then as I observed from my nest — the young girl that spoke up. Her pink eyes raged; she nearly tore off my sleeve’s newly patched up rags.
“Oi. You. Responsibility.”
She scared the daylights out of me. I fell on my ass and pointed up at the little girl accusingly. “How’d the hell d’ya get up here, girl? Ain’t a bite-sized—”
She raised her palm — a pink flame the size of my head blossomed from her palm. I could feel the heat searing the beads of sweat from my brow. She knew the fastest way to shut me up.
“As the leader of the Jade Moon clan, I order you to interrogate that fire lizard lady.”
“Jade Moon?” I ran the facts through my head. This girl, no older than nine or ten, declared herself to be the leader of a gang. It was ludicrous. “Wha?”
Then again, a girl her age creating a fireball that large was also ludicrous. I swallowed my pride and sat up. “Roight. Whaddya want, then?”
She scowled and swirled the ball of fire. “Go before I singe ya right and proper, will ya?”
I took a good look at her ball of fire, then nodded. “Fine. One condition, though.”
I reached up and threw out my fastest left jab. My knuckles burst through her fireball — warm glass shattered and flesh burned — and dispelled the spell. “Don’t go ‘round causing more fires, will ya? Especially with somebody making an attempt to clean the place up, an’ all.”
“C-Cripes, how!?” The girl’s pink eyes widened to saucers. She instantly shielded her head, as though she expected me to hit her.
“I’m basically a genius,” I said. I grabbed her by the wrist and eased her along the old watchtower. “Got special eyes, y’see. Ain’t no magical secrets stayin’ a hot secret ‘round me. And ya best just tell me what you from now on, alright?”
We leapt past the broken staircase and shimmied down the makeshift ladders — I took excellent care of my body. So did the girl. Guess it was just in our Ogre genetics.
“Y’know, ‘least tell a boy ya name if you’re gonna singe ‘em.” I scolded her as we caught our breath. “Name’s Haskel, by the way. Took the name meself — he was an old prophet, y’hear?”
The girl looked like she didn’t know whether to be offended or amazed. “R-Rei, I guess…”
“Rei. Nice name.” I held out a hand to shake.
Rei’s eyes lit up. She pouted and crossed her arms. “Ain’t shaking yer hand, punk. Think a bit of flattery will get to me?” But the glimmer in her eyes was clear.
This girl was a tough one — but I had a secret weapon. I reached back and took out a fist-sized foil-wrapped treat. I had planned on adding it to my stash of quality stuff, but the chance to make a friend only comes once in a while.
“Tell you wot.” I held the thing out in front of her and she nearly gasped — I saw a glimmer of the girl she was supposed to be, had she found herself a proper home. “This ‘ere? Snagged from a prissy noble’s wagon. Fifteen different layers. All different flavors — and at its center? Lil’ mana-infused gummy.”
“Humph.” Her pink eyes narrowed — her arms fell to her side. “Ain’t givin’ ya a thing, if ya think I can be bought like that.”
I grinned. “No need.” I threw the candy in a slow arc, and she caught it like a frog snagging a fly.
Rei cradled the candy to her chest and looked at me like a stray cat. She waited a long time for a catch. I waited a long time with my hand out.
Eventually, with mirthful giggles and renewed spirits, we shook on it.
After the failed attempt to break through to the Lady in Shadow, I spent the rest of the night in my study. Over a cup of tea, I gathered the last of my worldly possessions from my old life and grouped them together at my desk. Knowing what I knew then put me in a rare depressive episode — but there was some comfort in old memories.
That’s the thing with memories — they’re like flames. You can use them to warm your fingers in the darkest of nights, but if you get too close, you’ll end up getting burned.
I had the belongings of a dying old man; personal trinkets with nothing more than sentimental value. A single dull palm-sized scale that flickered with the echoes of flame. A tattered pink armband. Matching copper bonding rings. My extendable crystalline magus’s staff. A silver coin from all the nations I had visited in my time. I smiled at the coins; if I cashed them in now, I could probably afford a week’s worth of meals at my favorite restaurants.
I wouldn’t have minded going out with that one final bang. I had lived far too long for my own tastes; my soul had already left my body long before I reached this point. The emotions I had long suppressed welled as I stared down at my pitiful collection. I reached for the scale first and ran my fingers along the smooth corners.
Love. Hate. Envy and pride. Joy and despair. Fear, guilt, helplessness, rage; they all washed over me like a merciless tide.
Me and Rei found the Salamander in front of the burnt-out academy down on fifth street. She was waving her hands in front of her, as though conducting a silent choir. The streets themselves sang — piles of rubble and fresh construction material moulded themselves in the air and laid themselves one after another. In only a few hours, she had rebuilt the basic scaffolding all by herself.
The most amazing thing to me was that she did it by herself. She stood cloaked in a field of invisibility on a nearby rooftop, standing above the crowds that had gathered to see the spectacle. I only saw her because of my eyes.
Obscurity. Thanklessness. Sorrow. The lone mage flames burned bright despite.
We climbed to the roof and confronted her from behind. “Oi, lady,” I said. “Why are you doing this?”
The Salamander didn’t turn to us; she responded by dispelling her invisibility. “Are you sure you want an answer? That might tarnish your impressions of me.”
“Ain’t got the slightest of who you are, gov’,” Rei said.
The lady in front of us only chuckled and shrugged. “Ah. Point taken. That’s why I like kids; always honest.” She turned, struck a pose, and pointed towards the red sky. “Very well! I am Ezina Balenor: the Ring of Arcana! Behold the might of the Phoenix Sorcerer!”
My jaw fell off. The Ring of Arcana — one of the five champions of the realm — was right in front of us. She looked a lot less lame this time; with all the magic going on in the background, she actually looked the part.
“But you’re not a bird. You don’t look remotely like a bird.” Rei only looked on with a glazed over eyes. “Nah.”
Ezina’s resolve shattered in live time — the light in her eyes faded nearly instantly. She fell to her knees and tilted her head. “Ah… I guess I’m not that cool after all…”
Rei’s cool girl act shattered even faster. She yelped and raced over to Ezina’s side tearfully, shaking her by the shoulder. “N-No, it’s a cool name! Cool name! I’m sorry, sorry… really sorry… Miss…!”
Evidently, I had missed something. I stood there for a while, watching a girl woman sobbing with a little street urchin. I was still recovering from the revelation.
“This was the idiot protecting the world?” I thought to myself — and I thought about it for exactly seven and a half more seconds.
“Yep.” I nodded with a wisdom well beyond my years, the world’s youngest sage. “We’re screwed.”
It took a while for Ezina to regain her composure. “I didn’t know things had deteriorated so quickly back home,” she said, sitting against the rooftops with us. “Truth be told, this was the first time I’ve been allowed in this part of town, so…”
She looked up at the clear red sky and smiled wistfully. “I’ve been on the front lines ever since I was a girl. And since we… bought some time in the war, we must work hard on reinforcing our losses. I doubt the Lord in Shadow would brave another conquest so soon.”
Even though we were street kids, Rei and I knew what that meant. Another wall had fallen. There weren’t many left to hold back the tides of darkness.
“What are you doing back here?” I asked. “Not much but rats and scum ‘round these parts.”
“I’m not sure,” she freely admitted. “No matter how hard I pray and fight, nothing seems to be enough. People keep dying and suffering.”
We sat in silence.
“This is my redemption,” Ezina said, looking away from us. “I wish I could save everyone, but… I’ve only come to realize I’m one girl. If I keep believing and working hard, then, maybe…”
The old academy continued to rebuild itself as we looked at each other. New windows forged in fire. A roof and lights for the soul.
“I know, I know — I’m a selfish idiot who wanted an excuse to help people. I want to save this world… but it gets hard at times.” Ezina pulled up her knees and rested her chin against her arms. “So maybe if I do enough, this world will forgive me.”
I realized something, then. I should’ve realized it much earlier.
This girl carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. Life in the cities and south of the walls went as it always did — they provided minimal support to the Rings. It was for good reason; a normal hero could never match even a tenth of a champion’s might. They were showered in equipment and gear, but they had to fight with only the company of the other Rings.
Even as a kid, I felt Ezina’s pain. Perhaps I had already become an empath by then — I saw the world she lived in. Alone, atop a tower of magic. Forging staves that crumble after a single spell. The girl who could not save anyone. Endless world of snow.
A woman that would leave nothing behind.
The thoughts were invasive — I clenched my fists and heaved. I already knew what kind of life I’d involve myself if I joined her, but I couldn’t help but admire her. It was my first taste of true selflessness, and it was nothing but blinding.
“If you’re willing to teach me, then I’ll fight.” I decided then. “Even if we can’t even come close to your level, with enough of us, then I’m sure we can put an end to this faster than ever before!”
Rei looked at me like I grew another head. “Hask…?”
One day, I would inherit Ezina’s world. But then, I felt nothing but a child’s boundless energy.
“Don’t go back on your word, miss.” I pointed at Ezina and grinned. “Well?”
The Salamander was stunned silent. She also stared at me like I lost my mind — but she reached out and hugged both me and Rei in a burning hug. I could’ve sworn both girls started sobbing then — but I held nothing but hope.
If only I knew.
Many years passed. Ezina established an arcane academy — The Polar Flares — in the middle of Talmai and transformed the rundown district without a name into the Ascendant District; a place of learning and empowerment. The orphans that had once robbed the nobles now studied and lived with their children. Didn’t stop the endless stream of japes played on the rich bastards; you can teach a street rat to read and write and magic it up, but you ain’t taking the street out of a rat.
I grew close to Rei — she kept bugging me with backhanded compliments and attractions. Even though we lived an entire dorm apart, she kept sneaking over to me to hang out. Eventually, I started returning the favor. She was like the sister I never had — somebody to be myself around. Brotherly love was in no short supply.
By the time I finished my education, I was already well a man, my peers were fine gentlemen and ladies, and Rei — well, Rei was just Rei. The only thing that changed about her was her looks. She only grew more mischievous with age. I suppose that one was my fault — as I grew more mature; she picked up the fallen scraps of my mischief and wore them as bunny ears.
We looked upon the city that we once scorned from the Polar Flare’s highest spire together a few days after graduation. Red skies, lavender seas. Windy embrace. The island-state of Talmai shone iridescently in the noon-day sun.
I rested my forearms on Rei’s head — I was tall enough to do that now — and looked down at her. “Say, runt, ain’t this a nice sight.”
“Say it ain’t so. Also, get off, you git.” Rei said, idly batting at my arms. She looked up and performed her endearing one-sided pout. “Jeez. You haven’t matured at all.”
“Says you. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that little prank of yours last week — I spent the entire day searching through my quarters.” I sighed and pushed down on Rei’s head. “You’re lucky that I only turned your room into a ball pit.”
“You started it.”
“Nuh-uh. You’ve been doing these stupid jokes as long as I can remember.”
“It’s your fault,” she mumbled. “You could’ve just told me to stop.”
“Why would I?” I rested my chin on my arms; Rei’s legs were starting to tremble from the weight. “You were always adorable. I couldn’t remember a day I wasn’t happy to see your dorky face.”
Oops. I shouldn’t have said that out loud.
She slipped out from underneath my arms, turned around, and punched me in the gut.
I felt it through my ceremonial armor — she still had a mean punch. We were both ogres; physical strength was one of our defining abilities. And she took it to another level.
I doubled over and tried to work the air back into my lungs, but she just grabbed me by the collar. She didn’t relent.
“Izzat how ya feel, punk?”
A decade’s worth of etiquette training: gone. Rei was shaking me down like the good ol’ days. It caught me completely off guard — in proper company, she was a quiet sort that always smiled and spoke elegantly. I hadn’t seen this part of her in a long time.
“You think I won’t hit a girl? C’mon, I’ll clobber ya!” I countered — grabbed her by the waist and twisted.
She was ready. We fought like the stray cats we were, laughing and shouting like two overgrown children. Two overgrown children that learned how to utilize magic.
In a contest of speed, I was no match. Even though I had a few heads on her, she eschewed most of her advanced magic training for raw hand to hand prowess. After several exchange moves, she hugged my waist from behind and twisted my arm.
Rei began to lift. “GENDER EQUALITY… SUPLEX… BREAKER!”
“WAIT THAT’S MY LINE—”
Gravity left. The sky turned upside down. And then it came crashing back down.
Bloody hell, did it hurt.
I regained awareness some time later — Rei was on top of me, smiling like the little gremlin she was. Her pink hair fell like shades of a winter sunset around me. She was all I could see, and in that moment, all I wanted to see. That damned girl’s vermilion eyes burned with the same look she always gave me — somewhere between mischief and genuine admiration.
“Try harder,” she said. Then she closed her eyes and pressed her lips against mine.
Warm. She had one of my wrists pinned; I moved my free arm around her torso and hugged her closer. I tasted the cherry pie and coffee she engorged herself on at the graduation banquet, felt the hard enamel of her horns rubbing against mine. I closed my eyes and focused on her warmth.
A little ball of fury and fire. Rei was always there for me after that day — and I was there for her. We had nothing, but by some twist of fate, ended up in each other’s way. Warmth surged in my chest, a wind of soft warmth and tingling springtime cicadas. We felt the same way about each other for a long time — I had planned something more romantic than this for tonight’s ball. But this was alright, too.
She broke off the kiss with a tender smile. I reached out and caressed her cheek — she giggled and pressed her hand against mine.
“I win,” she declared.
We just stared at each other for a while. There wasn’t much of a need for words — we were familiar enough to know each other’s feelings with mere eye contact. She was thankful to have met me, as I was with her. Who knows where we would have been without each other? I considered abandoning the pursuit of magic several times, but she stopped me every time. She ran away too many times to count — and I chased her down and dragged her back. Just looking at her made me warm and fuzzy; any more of it and I would’ve turned into a romantic idiot.
“Now you’ve done it,” I muttered, leaning in. “Now I’ll never let you go.”
She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “Maybe that’s what I want.”
“Oh, that’s where you guys were, I’ve been looking absolutely all over for y—” Before we could progress any further, a certain someone nearly kicked down the nearby doors. Ezina came out with a bottle of bubbling sweet-wine and a too-bubbling smile spread on her scale-flecked face.
She stared at us when she realized we were on the ground. “Eh? Am I interrupting something?”
We didn’t dignify her with a response.
“I see, I see. Leave this to the Great Phoenix Sorcerer!” She began digging in her pouches with a sudden zeal. “Before you kids move on to more exciting things, I suppose I must give you the talk. But I’m not very good at talking, so I’ll skip straight to the tools. I always have these just in case other people need them — here’s some contraceptive herbs and a little manual on safe—”
I looked at Rei. She looked at me. We came to the same conclusion in seconds.
We picked Ezina up, pat her on the head, then threw her off the balcony. When she came back up to scold us, we threw her off again.
In the months that followed, a renewed campaign against the Lord in Shadow began. The Fourth Crusade, now bolstered by international cooperation and a newly trained force. Many nations realized that Talmai’s fall would mean an uninterrupted invasion and spread of corruption — and after witnessing the success of Erzina’s Polar Flares Academy, they assigned actual forces to fight beside the Rings.
They assigned Rei and I to Frost Company as leaders; she worked as my apprentice. We were a mage battalion, but since she concentrated on combining martial arts and magic, she couldn’t exactly serve as a proper commander who could bark orders from half an island away. Our initial headquarters was in the Polar Flare, in the same classrooms we learned in.
“What’s with the pink cape?” I asked her when she debuted in her new battle uniform.
“Fashion and moral statements mashed into one,” she said, twirling around. “Capes and cloaks never really go out of fashion, do they?”
“Didn’t think you were one that cared about that kind of stuff.”
Rei blushed, looked around the empty station, and lowered her voice. “I couldn’t help but start caring after what you did to me. Idiot.”
I laughed and pulled her into a hug. She looked up at me and turned an even brighter shade of red, gently hitting my chest with my first. “I-It’s not funny…”
My fingers ran through her silky pink hair and I pecked her on the forehead.“You look fine. Good, even. Maybe even great.”
She just buried her face in my chest. “Ngrgnrngrnrngrngn,” she said.
We stayed like that for a long while, basking in each other’s presence, waiting for the first members of our company to arrive. New comrades would arrive from all over the world; species from the near and far east, the southern wastes, and even the sky citadels would arrive. Mages from all over. But they took their sweet time.
“Hask,” she mumbled, peering up with her pink eyes, “what do you want to do after this is all over?”
“Good question.” I looked down and thought hard. “I was gonna see what I could do for the old neighborhood, but that stupid Ezina has it down pat. The next best thing would be seeing the world — and if we’re really lucky, maybe we can see what lies beyond the Horizon.”
“We could settle down, eventually.” There was a dreamy tone to her voice, almost syrupy sweet. “But honestly, I wouldn’t mind anything, as long as I’m with you…”
I flicked her on the forehead. “Knock it off. You already used your public sappiness token this week.”
“Humph.” She pouted and just stared at me. “This ain’t even that public.” And then, after a few moments of silent intimacy, she grinned like a demon. “Say. I got you a gift.”
That piqued my interest. “Hm?”
“It’s something dangerous and mysterious — so avant-garde that I can’t tell you what it is until we can get rid of all of this crusade business.”
I scowled. “Then why d’you tell me, runt?”
“Because you’re a big dumb ogre that’s fun to tease!”
“Dumb? Why, you…”
We were about to engage in another play fight when the first of the recruits arrived. The very first was a wolf tengu with black hair and a hyperactive tail.
“Aye, aye, is this the place? This is the place!” He looked out the door of the classroom and shouted to his allies. “I’m Knight Cerberus, reporting for duty! Yeah!”
The kid was too excitable for us to figure out a response in time. He sniffed the air and stared at us with bright red eyes. “Aye, why do you two smell like each other? Aye, were you doing the ‘thing’? Niceniceniceniceniceniceniceniceniceniceniceniceni—”
“I want a new team,” I said to Rei.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Waitwaitwaitwaitwait! Give me a chance!” Cerberus — presumably his code name — unleashed his beast magic and rushed at us with his arms primed for a hug. He was nearly in tears.
We didn’t have time to dodge.
After familiarizing ourselves with the company, coordinating attacks, and setting up a few strategies, we set off. The front lines were calling our names, promising us glory. We were but one of the many companies who were prepared to eradicate the blight on our world once and for all.
What we didn’t know was that we were marching into hell.
There was no sun. The rules of our world no longer applied. Where there were once grand cities, now, ruins. The ones that were left behind were twisted beyond recognition — those who resisted the corruption served the Lord in Shadow of their own free will. And they had grown far more powerful than we had ever prepared for.
I saw hell.
The five Rings — creatures who had burdened themselves with powers of near deific might — fought hard and slowly chipped away at the blighted territory. The auxiliary forces supported their advance and pushed in on the flanks — but what are insects to do against a flame?
We paid for advances in waterfalls of blood. Bodies of bright and hopeful souls littered the battlefields, broken and desecrated. Some of our former allies reanimated from the lingering curses — we had to kill our former friends once more. But we made progress and pushed towards the rift that tore into our world.
I saw hell. I saw hell. I saw the hell that Ezina submersed herself in. But we pushed forward — we came into the crusade thinking a world without the influence of the Old Ones was worth any price asked.
I should have turned back. I was too intoxicated with hope and baseless dreams to see what horrors lied in front of me. Every day we stayed, that dream of a free world slipped from our fingers a little more.
But we all fought on. We didn’t give ourselves a choice.
And I paid dearly for my hubris.
It was during the Battle of Ophzina; the former capital of Kamir. The goal of the battle was clear.
We were to re-establish the Warding Stones at any cost. Should we be able to tap into the old artifacts, we would restrain the Lord of Shadow’s influence back to his original rift and the lands surrounding it — from there, the crusade could surround the Origin Spire and send in the Rings to slay the lord.
All the Rings had gathered in a single place — and so came the Lord of Shadow’s generals. Five against eight, dark against the light; in the resulting storm, we would have to activate the Warding Stones’s relays and push back against any minions we encountered.
The Frost Company was to provide battlefield support. At least, that was our intended role. A panicked transmission from the front sealed our fate.
“Commander Haskel! We’ve lost contact with shard-bearers three — we don’t have enough forces to activate the last relay! All of our forces are here, if we don’t activate the barrier, then — ” A soul-haunting crunch. I screamed into the leynet radio, but there was nothing else to be heard.
I knew the consequences of defeat. And so, I gave the order that I would regret for the rest of my existence.
The Frost Company would finish the mission at any cost.
We recovered the warding shard from the bodies of the fallen. The advance took the lives of half of my mage. We left them to die; our number one priority was the Warding Stones. Rei’s presence soothed me — I was already well beyond my breaking point. A ruined cathedral contained the warding relay — but the enemy thoroughly infested it. Not wanting to risk the lives of more warriors, Rei and I found a weak spot and broke through.
“An idiot like you needs somebody to watch your back,” she said, grinning like she always did.
I protested, but we didn’t have enough time.
We found the chamber the relay was in; a hemisphere of withered stone, smoked glass, and crawling shadows. I raced to the splinter of suspended crystal and fought against the primal ether — straightening out the energy left to us by the now-dead gods. And just as I activated the shard, I felt a shove from the side.
An unholy lance of black and red fell through the ceiling. Rei activated her most powerful spell — a burning flare. And the lance veered towards her. Away from me.
It was a trap — I could see it clearly in retrospect. By destroying the last relay just as the Warding Stones reached their full power, they could cause a reflux and cause the energy to invert. They could’ve corrupted all the warriors here in a single fell swoop — and lay claim to the rest of the world.
The lance fell through Rei and pinned her to the ground — I saw her twist in pain as the Warding Stones activated.
Rays of light shot into the sky, piercing the darkness. The corruption cleared nearly instantly as we re-asserted the proper rules of this world. I saw the one who had thrown the lance; a knight in gray riding atop a ghostly steed. But I didn’t care about any of that.
“REI!” I ran to her side. The unholy lance disappeared, leaving a fatal wound in her chest.
“Told… you…” She was writhing in agony — I could tell from a glance the wound was cursed. The spear was something beyond our technology, beyond our knowledge; an artifact of an Old One.
“Hold on, you’ll be fine, I can fix all sorts of wounds!” I poured my ether into Rei’s body, trying to piece together back the parts of her body — but there it wasn’t enough. The lance had seared the very edges of her soul.
I couldn’t heal her.
“We did it, Hask…” She reached up and touched my face, smiling. “Our victory is all but certain…”
“No, no, no…” I didn’t give up. I tried every theory I could. I even tried a forbidden necromantic technique. But nothing could heal a wound that ran so deep.
“I was always so certain… that I’d die alone…” She laughed; an airy, breathless sound. “But you’re here… Love…”
I reached down and held her, hoping my warmth would do something. Anything. “Just hold on, I’m sure Ezina can fix this… Please, just — stay with me.”
“Hask…” She tried a smile. Tired. Pained. Thankful. “I’m glad… I’ll be waiting for you… somewhere…”
I told her to hold on, to fight, but she just closed her eyes and used the last of her strength to kiss me. I held her close and fought back against the pain in my soul. I prayed. I bargained. I pleaded. But no matter what I tried, a last breath rattled through her lips.
She didn’t even let me say goodbye.
I carried Rei outside to the sound of silent celebration. The casualties from both sides came to our knees.
The survivors sat underneath a red sky — our sky — dazed and reeling. We had done it. This would be the last push to take back our world. Flags of the Five Ring coalition hung from makeshift flagpoles, shining in the sun that we had not seen in a year.
But nobody was celebrating.
There wasn’t anybody left who could.
The Five Rings routed the enemy generals. We had established the barrier.
I found Ezina treating the wounded with the Ring of Faith. A single look from her told me everything.
Not even she could bring back the dead.
I lost control. I laid Rei against a flagstone, then beat Ezina. She just laid there and took it. My strikes had no effect on her.
The Ring of Might pried me off her. A hulking Angel. He threw me against the wall and broke my back. I was bleeding from my brain when he came to kill me.
Ezina begged him to not kill me. He listened.
She apologized profusely, but I wasn’t listening. All I could think about was the futility. The loss. How many had died just to arrive at the enemy’s gates?
Ezina said something ridiculous then. “I’ll make it up to you, Haskel, I promise.” She pressed one of her scales into my palm. “I know I didn’t say it but — you two were the closest family I had. I know it doesn’t mean much, but… I’m sorry.”
I didn’t care what she said. There was only one thing on my mind. I looked at the distance between Rei and myself and moved.
When I realized my legs didn’t work, I used my hands.
When I reached her, I curled up against her and stayed there until I stopped feeling anything at all.
I placed down the armband and Salamander scale, then heaved. Any tears had long dried up.
No matter how you look at it, I was an old man. I may have had the body of someone in his prime, but my soul — if you could still call that withered prune a soul — had long shed any semblance of innocence.
The memories were all I had left. From time to time, I still think of what could have been. Had I just walked, me and Rei could have been happy somewhere. She haunts my dreams more than anyone else — and if reincarnation was real, then I believed I would meet her again one day.
Sometimes when I’m alone, I can still hear her voice, telling me she’s still with me. Telling me she’s watching, and that it’ll be alright.
I’d be lying if I said I was over it.
You think I’m some sort of all-forgiving hero? I’m the farthest thing from it.
Ezina was the closest thing to a mother I ever had. Rei, a sister. A lover. I had lost and lost and never stopped losing.
In the end, these were all the things that remained to me. Trinkets. I had hands that would never hold anything. Alone did I walk to the end of my path.
This was all that remained, this realm of nothing.
But I wasn’t discouraged — I still had one last thing to do. I gathered the last of my worldly possessions and walked out of my study.
Before I could take down the Lady in Shadow for good, I would need some help.
The people I was forced to co-exist with were my former enemies. Killers. Murderers. Scum. Who better to use as tools for my ultimate revenge?
The rear forces mistook me for a corpse when they found me at Ophzina. I don’t blame them.
The Warding Stones were as good as invincible — they only fell the last time because of a betrayal on our side.
The Ring of Arcana never returned from a mad solo assault. The remaining forces rebuilt. They let me stay there at the united forward base as a living corpse.
Five years later, the rest of the Rings disappeared in a last assault. Apparently, they had all perished in a titanic struggle against the Lord in Shadow and weren’t able to close the rift. Somebody rose to take his place — the Lady in Shadow.
The world needed new Rings to fight another invasion. The cycle would continue.
As a cruel joke, Ezina left me with a fraction of her power — marking me as the most likely candidate. At the time, I didn’t have any other interests other than moping around, eating gruel, and staring at the scrap of Rei’s cape the cleaners let me keep. They tried to find others to become the new Ring of Arcana, but few mages had survived the fourth crusade — and even fewer wanted to go for round two.
They tried plenty of tricks to convince me. Only one of them worked.
A black-haired Dragon woman came in one day. She was made of scales, impressive silver armor, and carried a tower shield. A holy knight in shining armor. She stared into me with glistening draconic yellow eyes and dragged me kicking and screaming back from the abyss with just seven words.
“News,” she said. “Found who killed Rei. You want revenge?”
I had sunken so deep into despair that I hadn’t even considered any alternatives. In that moment, as she showed me the documents she had painstakingly gathered over two months, I felt myself wake up from a long nightmare.
The man who had killed Rei was a defector from the Sky Citadels — a former Dragon dragoon by the name of Aigen Rugen Uf Joum.
“She wanted you to have this,” she said.
The Dragon Knight presented a red velvet box. Inside, two matching tarnished copper rings. They were the cheapest rings you could find on the market. Both said the same thing.
“Every end is a new beginning — yet we will never forget what has been given.”
Rei’s last gift. I held the cold metal in my hand, as though kindling embers. I knew what had to be done. I was still a street rat at heart, despite everything. And rats are very good at one thing.
I returned to Talmai as a changed man. Nobody recognized the once promising magus that served under the Phoenix Sorcerer — all that remained was a war-riddled bag of bones that knew a few alleyway magic tricks.
In essence, right back where I started. Minus the war-scarring.
Talmai was like a time capsule to me. Nothing had really changed besides some fresh faces. They were ignorant of what was going on outside the walls of their city. It wasn’t entirely a bad thing — I slipped back into my old self within days. Just being back among the rabble breathed new life into me. I remembered the smug piece of garbage I was supposed to be.
There was a last-man-standing qualification system in place to determine who would become the new Ring of Arcana. Near instantly, the priests in charge of the process denied me.
It was to be expected. The other Rings attributed Ezina’s disappearance to me before they fucked off and died. But it was no problem; I would just have to get back to work. Polish up my skills, build up my gear, and get back into the groove of things. For Rei.
I would cut out the tongue of the bastard who killed her, pour salt in the wounds, cut off his arms, and then draw squiggles all over his body with a scalpel. Then I’d salt those wounds too. I was getting giddy just thinking about it.
The Dragon Knight — who had been giving me zero privacy up to that point — supported my claim to Ezina’s legacy. I realized she was a strange sort early on; she spoke common in clipped sentences and actively disregarded the idea of personal space.
You know how scary it is to have a knight suddenly appear behind you in a shower? Fully clad in armor? I fainted and nearly drowned, I did.
I finally screamed at her when I woke up. “What’s your problem, lady?”
“I am oath-bound. Assist in any way.” She looked me dead in the eye, still clad in full plate. “Any. Way. Possible.”
“But why? I haven’t done shit for you, or anybody in this world.”
“Incorrect.” She picked me up like an oversized stuffed plush and shook me. “You will understand.”
“WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING.” I watched a localized cosmos form around me. The shaking did not help me understand.
“Obligations. Honor.” The smallest hint of a smile worked its way onto her lips. “Fate.”
“Man down.” I slumped in her hands. She shook the sense out of my mind. “Send… a cleric…”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by fate then, but she took her draconic wings and wrapped me in a bone-breaking hug.
“HNGHRGNHRNHNRHNGHRRGN,” I said.
“Is all right. We will persevere. Dark times over.” She squeezed tighter — pressed me hard against her warm armor. “Hehe.”
I was crushed. I let out a single gurgle, then my arms went limp. She was too strong for her own good, I realized, as another part of my soul faded.
It took a while, but I became the next Ring of Arcana. There wasn’t much of a contest.
Many still had preconceptions of what a hero should be. I didn’t. I used every trick in the book. I won more than half of my duels by just walking up and punching the other mage in the face before they could fire off a single spell. The other half, by casting a basic spell amplified to ludicrous levels.
I was practically cheating — I was taught by the best. No longer did I crumble; I carried the faith of those who came before me. Rei. Ezina. All the others. Simply put, there was no way I could have lost having already mastered as much of the arcane as one man could handle.
And the entire time, the Dragon Knight was there for me. She didn’t even bother telling me her name.
After a while, I sensed a strange one-sided familiarity to her. She treated me like she knew me for her entire life, but this was the first time I ever met her.
I saw her once more when the new Rings of Cosmos met for the first time.
At the Starpoint Cathedral, underneath a brilliant imitation galaxy, the five chosen initiates took up our assigned positions around the pool of crystal and scintillating light that would grant us the power to fight back. We spoke briefly for the sake of introductions.
Saint Zilra Kiz-zai. A tempered beauty who had hailed from the southern frozen wastes. An Ursus who hid her fury underneath a kind smile. The Ring of Faith.
Sir Rohese Cowlyn Abigails. A lance-wielding knight from the everblooming Tian Xhu empire. A Raiju who claimed himself to be the knight of lightning. The Ring of Might.
Master Rokurou. A bare-chested monk from the secluded monasteries of Janaldier. A Jueyuan who could change the winds with a mere spin of his staff. The Ring of Cunning.
These people were actual hero types. The others were me and the dragon lady.
I told them I was Haskel. Just Haskel. Sometimes an Ogre, sometimes an Oni. Depends who’s askin’. No special skills, no residency, no family, broke, and dead inside. Bribed my way to the Ring of Arcana.
The others didn’t like that explanation one bit.
Last was the weird Dragon Lady who’d been following me around for the past few months.
“Dragon Knight lady?” I asked, after all the priests had left. “What are you doing here?”
“I am here. I fight with you.” She spread her wings wide, rippling the pools of water between us. “Vidhyne is name. I am Resolve.”
She explained that she hailed from Utrax, one of the strongest Sky Citadels around.
Her debt was something that haunted her from her past life; she was adopted into the venerable Vertiri clan from birth, despite being a Dragon. After she learned she resulted from a ploy to take over the clan’s right to several of the smaller states within Utrax, she fled and sought a path of justice forged by her own talon and blade — and to find the true heir that was swapped at birth.
She declared that she had finally found them. She raised her talon at me and smiled.
I wasn’t buying it, nor was I into it. I had zero interest in leading anybody — I had already seen what that led to.
And then she declared her intention to become my wife.
In response, I fled. The rest of the Rings had to drag me back and force me to continue through with the ritual. After that day, we were the new Rings of Cosmos, ready to take on the new Lady in Shadow.
We fought. Vidhyne helped find Rei’s murderer. I took three weeks killing him and destroying his soul. I mailed his body back in ten-thousand three-hundred forty-seven preserved chunks back to his master.
We struggled. Many more years passed. Many battles were fought. Many died.
And finally, we won.
Vaska lowered her sunglasses and gawked at me. Her cigarette fell from her lip and burnt the green velvet of the gambling table. “Boss, you wanna do what now?”
I sat with Achernar, Vaska, and Xorrog in a hazy backroom, talking over a game of cards. I had just lost a hand and half my in-game savings, but all of them looked at me like I was losing my mind.
“You sure it’s even worth it, boss?” Achernar took a sip of his wine and sucked a hard breath through his nose. “There’s a reason none of us have dealt with… her since you took over.”
“It’s not worth it,” Vaska added. “The only reason we followed her in the day was because we didn’t have a choice. Now that she’s barely more powerful than most of us, there’s no reason to bother.”
I rested my elbows against the table and stared over my aviators. “I know what I said. But this time, it’s beyond personal.”
Vaska and Achernar squirmed in their seats. They both looked to Xorrog, who gave a single flap of his skeletal wings. “I don’t see a problem. If Haskel wants to do it, then it gets done.” He rhythmically tapped his bony fingers on the table. “No questions asked.”
The sharply dressed pair looked at each other and gulped. They didn’t like the plan. Neither did I, but I was no stranger to doing what needs to be done.
“I still have one question,” Vaska said.
I waved her off. “Shoot.”
“Aren’t you worried that bringing her back in the fold could tip the scales? We have a pretty good gig going.” She picked up her cigarette and gave it a long puff. Wisps of smoke came from her nose.
“Yeah,” Achernar added. “She’s practically an outsider these days. Plus, if news gets out to the outside world, who knows what could happen?”
“I’ve known that chaotic brat for the longest time. I’m sure nothing good will come of this. If she’s still in her old ‘ways’, then the hot springs will become practically unbearable.”
Apparently they took ‘one question’ as an invitation to have a discussion. Not that I minded. I liked the chatty types — conversation is one sure way to pass the time.
Xorrog seemed to take Vaska’s words on a personal level. He clasped his hands together and nodded. “We can’t risk the sanctity of the hot springs, no. It’s one of the only ways for these old bones to relax.” He flapped his skeletal wings for emphasis. “Such is a true man’s world.”
Me and Achernar nodded along. We understood the true man’s world of the hot springs. Now that we had established a public moral committee, public lewdness was out of the question.
This had unforeseen consequences. The women of the Origin Spire realized they could gain the upper hand. Although I wasn’t particularly seeking any sort of relationship of that kind, the others still did. I could sympathize with that.
It was basic supply and demand. Should the supply be cut off, the prices would surely rise. Us men had to get crafty.
Vaska looked at us like we were growing mushrooms on top of our heads. “Are you fellas doing alright? Do you have brain damage?”
Us three men nodded to each other. “You’ll understand one day, Vaska,” I said.
She looked away. “I’d rather not, thank you.”
It also occurred to me in a sudden epiphany that I had taken the most round-a-bout route to what my original fate had in store for me. I was smoking a cigar in a suit, tattoos riddling my body, looming over capable subordinates. A bunch of mismatched outcasts forced to become a family. We gambled in wealth that kings would drool about, had a fine dress code, ran distribution rings in our territory, and ran gambling rings of games long banned in more sensible places.
Barring the whole ‘trapped for eternity in darkness’, we were practically a crime family.
At this rate, I would have to appoint an underboss and think of a clan name.
“The Lady in Shadow crossed me. I will get my revenge, one way or another.” I took the cigar I was working at and tapped the ashes onto a silver tray. “And I’m gonna need you three in particular.”
Vaska visibly swallowed her concerns and bowed her head. “Your wish is our command, boss.”
Once again, I approached the throne room.
These obsidian halls held memories. Blackened stained glass illuminated the fragments of my past. Ghosts and figments walked with me in the shadows.
My plan was simple. Armed with everything I remembered, I would break the Lady in Shadow completely. Violence and torture wouldn’t work on somebody who couldn’t remember what happened yesterday — I would have to do something new.
I timed my approach to the very moment she would awake. The crystal lights danced across her pale skin, pulling a veil of purple shade over her eyes.
The Lady in Shadow. The nemesis I fought as a Ring of Cosmos. My enemy. The root of all sin in this world.
I saw the place she had been all her life. From my distant world of snow and broken staves, I saw everything.
“The Lady in Shadow’s memory loss started shortly after her mother’s death,” Til’girol had prior explained, shortly after my previous attempt, “If I had to take a guess, she never really got over what something her mother said to her.”
“I’d liken her state to a never-ending dream,” Vaska said after the card game. “She’s barely lucid, trapped in the delusions planted within her. Sometimes when we told her of results, she became enraptured with this… turbulent anger. Like she didn’t actually want us to carry out her plans.”
“She was a very interesting fellow,” said a black-haired Nogitsune I had asked. “There was a certain fundamental change when she took over. She was obsessed over her image, yes, but that led her on a different route from her father. Our conquests became… carnal in nature, as you may say.” The Nogitsune’s seven tails waved in the air as she licked her lips. “Not that I had a problem with that, my dear…”
Xorrog shook his head when I asked him. “She shows these flashes of recognition, once in a while. Sudden lucidity. She flies into a berserk rampage, crying and destroying everything in sight — and remembers nothing when she wakes up. If she wasn’t so powerful, we would’ve honestly overthrown her long ago.” He shrugged, then patted me on the shoulder. “But that age is over now, ain’t it? You’re the new boss around here.”
The Lady in Shadow. A wayward child. Blindfolded alone, riddled with cracks. Evil without a cause. Innocent desecration. My sister.
For her, I would have no mercy.
She woke wordlessly, stirring in her throne. Her unfocused eyes drifted to me as I approached. “Who… dares approach? I am the Lady in Shadow…”
“You are not,” I declared. I used magic to shift my voice to something ragged and growly — the voice of a proper villain.
I saw a memory twisting in the lights that fell between us — Me, Rei, and Ezina were drinking together after Rei reached legal drinking age. We were extremely intoxicated around midnight; Rei clung onto me and I made sure she didn’t fall face first to the ground.
“Flippin’ lovebirds,” Ezina said between her cups. She scowled and collapsed against my free arm. “Y’know what? If I ever get out of this whole Ring biz’n’all, I swear, I’m gonna finda man and raise a family. I’ve already got all the names, ya hear? Gonna name the first after me mum.”
I focused ahead of me, walking along with my ziraculum staff. “I know who you are. You are Tsumia Balenor, daughter of Ezina Balenor, who had you against her will.”
Tsumia — the Lady in Shadow — visibly cringed. She sat up and raised her palm — black glyphs appeared in spirals around her arm. “W-Who are you?”
My words were anathema. I knew it. She knew it. And I had plenty more where that came from.
This was not an act of redemption. This was an act of revenge.
Tsumia, unknowingly or not, had led a reign of terror. Families were torn apart. Lives were ruined. Even if it was a fraction of what her father had done, she still had the same crimes on her hands. There was no coming back for the ones who had completely lost themselves to the Old Ones’ corruption.
Rei. Ezina. Vidhyne. Countless others. I had lost them all on the path to this encounter.
Had I been able to slay her, I would have done so without hesitation. But a plan such as mine would require some nuance. I had to do more than rely on my experiences and urges — I had to move past myself and focus.
I required the focus that only pure hatred could bring.
“I know you,” I said. “I know you better than you know yourself.” I snapped my fingers — the restraints on Tsumia’s wrists activated. I saw panic flood into her eyes as I cut off her magic. “You think yourself to be a proper overlord — a creature of conquest and destruction — but you’re a failure. A complete and utter failure.”
“Stay away…!” Tsumia flapped her wings, but I activated the restraints again. She let out a yelp as I paralyzed her body.
She wouldn’t be going anywhere. Not anymore.
I knew the role I would play. Clad in the pitch black armor of her father, I was the demon she was unwilling to confront.
She could have tried denying me. All she needed to do was close her eyes and scream loud enough to drown out my voice. But she didn’t — something about my act had already snagged her attention. With the same expression as one would watch a falling guillotine, she watched me approach, unable to look away.
“You are no stranger to helplessness, are you? Because ultimately, you’re helpless against yourself.” I raised my staff and painted the throne room with images from her past; all fabricated, of course, but based on the truths I’ve gathered from her former subordinates. “You’re just a girl stuck between two worlds who can’t make up her mind. You know of both good and evil — of dark and light, and it’s been eating away at you from the inside.”
Vaska and Achernar had served at Tsumia’s caretaker in the past — they knew of everything she had ever done. Props to them for the magically enhanced memory recall.
I summoned the manic cackle I had been practicing — what all the screaming and evil voices had been for. “Yes! Behold! Witness the memories you’ve struggled so hard to suppress! You shall not escape your sins!”
I stood there, casting the mass illusion. Tsumia was transfixed — tears flowed from her eyes as she looked above. She was trembling; her mouth forming unheard words.
I looked to the pillar where I hid Vaska and Achemar in advance. Stacked on top of each other, they gave me two pairs of thumbs up. I was doing great so far.
A morbid thrill rushed through my entire system. I enjoyed this. Tsumia was just an unstable girl trapped in the body of a demon, but I didn’t care. Always knew I wasn’t a good person at heart — this just proves it. With none of my former allies to bear witness, I could become as much of a monster as I wanted.
No, that isn’t right. I already knew what I had become.
I was already a monster.
“Your mother, in her ailing body and mind, desperately gave you the last of her dreams. She wanted you to find a different path — and look at what you did. You defiled. You murdered. You desecrated; You tried convincing yourself otherwise — you’ve hard-wired your duties into your mind. The guilt is so much that you try to forget, only to do the same thing the next day!” I broke into twisted conniptions — nearly doubled over from how funny it all seemed.
“I-I am the Lady in Shadow,” Tsumia nearly whimpered. “T-This is what I was—”
“If you were truly evil, then you wouldn’t care at all. But somewhere in that stained soul of yours, you already knew what wrong is. And you let the evil overtake you. Even now, you can’t bear the thought of throwing away that wish because it’s all you own. You have nothing else but the wish to be good — yet no will to accomplish it.”
I didn’t expect her to actually silence herself, but she did. A tap of my staff against the floor sent a wave of black across the throne room — I plunged us into absolute darkness. The only things visible were me and Tsumia.
“You have reached the end of your path.” I turned, as though to leave. “You will suffer through the greatest of punishments — suffering through eternal solitude. There are no more chances to redeem yourself in this world.”
Those words broke Tsumia. She began thrashing in her restraints, crying, begging for forgiveness — she even started screaming for death.
I prepared my last spell.
This would be my ultimate revenge — I would trap her in a prison of the mind. For eternity, she would suffer through the endless guilt and regret of her own weakness and inaction. A fitting punishment for a sinner such as her.
I raised my staff and channeled; a blinding white light formed at the top of my staff. Multi-layered glyphs formed underneath my feet as I wove together the end to my tale. The miserable story of my life.
“Hey Hask, you listening?”
A voice reached me through the darkness I created. It was faded and distant, but a voice nonetheless.
I looked up and saw swirls of pink in my staff’s light — I suddenly realized I was clutching Rei’s cloth.
It was an illusion. A hallucination. A desperate trick of my conscience to save the last of my dignity — but the memory forced its way before my eyes.
We were stargazing. It was the last night we could — by tomorrow morning, we would be shipped off to the front.
There weren’t many places to stargaze on the isle of Talmai; civilization had already consumed most of the natural spots and the dryads were very fussy about their territory. But we were street rats. We always made do.
We were back where we first began — the old watchtower I used as my observer’s nest when I was an urchin. It had been repaired and converted into a clock tower, but we made our way to the roof. We laid back against the cool brick tiles and let the night pass. Each tick, each thrum, each shake of the clock tower’s mechanisms shook through our bodies.
Rei cuddled against me, splitting her attention between myself and the stars. I was no better — I kept sneaking glances back at her. I melted into her warmth, smelled the lavender perfume she started using last week, snuck honey-flavored kisses like the overly romantic bastard I was.
I suppose we were both feeling nostalgic. A lifetime had passed for both of us. We came damn far from a pair of pint-sized thieves with lofty dreams.
“Oi Hask,” she said, nuzzling against me, “why do you think people willingly serve the Lord in Shadow?”
I gave it an honest thought. “Dunno. Maybe they’re not satisfied. Maybe they don’t have a choice.”
She peered back up at me with her pink eyes. However pretty the stars were above, those little globes of pink fire were more beautiful than anything the cosmos could come up with. “You think we will help people? Redeem people? Like real heroes, eh?”
“No idea.” I stroked her head, tenderly. “Don’t get your hopes up. Heard most of those people are too far gone to even be reasoned with.”
“Mhmhm,” she said. Then she crept up and bit on my neck.
It shocked me good — I leapt up a full foot into the air with her attached to me. We nearly fell off the bloody clock tower, we did, tumbling down the slanted roof. The reward for surviving was just a fresh round of saccharine intimacies.
“I win again,” she declared, tackling me back to the rooftop.
I flicked her against the forehead. “You’re still on that?”
She smiled. “I think… if people like us could change, then others could too. As long as they’re willing, right?”
I gave that one an honest thought too. She didn’t give me time to respond — she closed the distance between our lips.
It was just us in our own little world. The stars and moons went around us, two lovers suspended in the eternal night.
When the memories faded, I could only feel a hot trickly stemming from my eyes.
I was crying.
Nowhere near as much as Tsumia, but I was definitely crying.
I saw my own demons in her, just as she saw them in me. I’m the sort to just tell my demons to shove it and do awful things anyway — but I suppose that memory saved her. It saved me.
Our battles were over. We had both reached the ends of our fate — there would be no escape from this damned place.
I turned around and saw Tsumia curled up into a ball. She was a proper overlord in body, but was sniveling on the ground, trying to slit her own throat with her claws. Even now, she still regrets her actions enough to try to take herself out.
But none of us are getting out that easily.
So I resolved myself to do what needed to be done. In Rei’s memory, I would give this oversized baby a chance. Just one.
I cast off the armor with a snap — watched it dissipate into mana — wiped away my tears and stepped to Tsumia’s side. I knelt down and placed a hand on her back to console her. “Despite what you’ve done, you can always start again. The world you once knew is gone — you will never return to it. But if you’re willing…”
Tsumia did her best to look at me. She was a bit of a wreck, honestly. Tears, snot, the complete sadness deal. Not even her innate beauty could save her from looking like a disaster. “I’m evil…” she said between sobs. “Just let me die…”
“You only have one chance,” I said. “But you won’t be alone. You’ll find friends. Companions. Acceptance for who you are.” I took the hand pressed to her throat and held it. “As your mortal enemy, I can promise you that much. I pledge my honor. Or, well, what’s left of it.”
A flash of recognition works its way across her features. Her expression shifts from confusion to hate. To desperation. Distrust. Despair. All the way back to confusion.
Something in her snaps — probably for good — and she breaks into a fresh round of tears. She rose and clung to me in a desperate hug, sobbing and saying nearly incomprehensible works. I hesitated at first, but put my arms around her and held her close.
Up close, I could sense that her inner world was like mine. She was a girl who wandered endlessly, searching for answers that couldn’t be found. Alone in destiny, alone in the dark. Her connection to the Old Ones would never go away, but perhaps in time, she could learn to fight it.
I had reached her. The Lady in Shadow persona would take some time — I couldn’t let her roam free right away. But she had a chance now.
Even if it takes a hundred, maybe a thousand years, she would eventually bring the sun back to her world.
And really, the lot of us who were stuck here had nothing but free time.
Just as the residents of the Origin Spire had first treated me, few had a high opinion of Tsumia.
I spent the rest of the first day explaining what had happened in painful detail. Hearing the details of what transpired between now and when she took over caused her a great deal of visible distress, but she pushed on. She agreed to keep the restraints and promised she would remember as much as she could when she woke up.
We collectively expected nothing from her.
The next morning, we all gathered around her bed and watched. There were maybe a bit too many people crammed into a single room.
Tsumia’s eyes snapped open and stared into all of us with a death glare. “I, THE LADY IN SHADOW, HAVE AWAKENED!” She raised her arms into the air — and before we could do anything, she yawned and stretched. “Good morning! How are all of you?”
We made awkward small talk and gentle pleasantries, trying our best to cram out of the room.
“Hey, why are all of you hiding your hands behind your back?” Tsumia visibly thought for a few seconds, then broke into a smirk. “Do you have a present for me?”
We desperately tried to hide the fact that every one of us was carrying our weapons.
I ended up jumping out the window. As did many others. Tsumia was none the wiser.
After that, we ended up having to show her through the ropes again. I had to wrangle her into learning how to not start off conversations with ‘IT IS I’ or ‘BEAR WITNESS TO MY GLORY.’ She still had a slew of other problems. Memory loss was a big one — for a long time, she ended up as a smug klutz who kept misplacing things and acting all high and mighty about it. The corruption she bore surfaced at times, but I could push it back.
I was the godsdamned Ring of Arcana, after all.
Day to day life wasn’t easy. Everybody was terrible in their own little ways.
Vaska and Achernar fell to their serial addiction to fashion. With access to the leynet, they became faceless designers and set out on world domination from our evil hideout — they would take the world of fashion and make it their own. Say goodbye to the robes and frilly dresses of yesteryear; three-piece suits, cufflinks, and pristine black dress shirts were all the rage.
Unfortunately for us, this meant we were their first victims. Most of the time I ended up as their dress-up doll — Tsumia as their photoshoot model. She wasn’t very good at taking pictures, either.
Til’girol, Xorrog, and I formed the old guard — we were the last big shots remaining. Despite wanting to merely relax, we ended up as community leaders of sorts. We spent most of our days bickering, and once in a while, launching into a fist fight for old times sake. Sometimes things got heated. We spent the other parts of our days fixing up the parts of the tower we broke.
The others were just as bad. Some never truly got over their old habits, and it led to a smidge of chaos here and there. That Nogitsune was one of the worst — a serial tease. And don’t even get me started on the succubi.
Even though time froze solid here, life moved on. Kids were born. Visitors came and went. Leynets allowed us to keep in touch with whoever we wanted. I found a way to expand our territory — we wouldn’t be able to encroach on this world any further, but there were plenty of other worlds out there. Given enough time, I would surely find a way to reach them.
I kept up contact with the outside world. Things weren’t exactly peaceful after the Lady in Shadow fell — a massive power vacuum opened up with the newly found primal ether up for grabs.
On second thought, I think I might have gotten the better end of the deal. The other rings had to fight. I was sealed here for eternity. You don’t exactly retire from being a Ring of Cosmos — you die on the job and somebody coughs up a replacement. That’s that. In retrospect, it was like being a guard perpetually on his last day before retirement — something awful would happen eventually.
Here, the realm trapped between worlds, things were relatively peaceful. Nobody could die. Nobody could leave, either, but we found a few workarounds for that.
One day, I found myself sitting on the upper balconies with Tsumia, staring out at the sky we had created.
It was a half-decent way to relax after a day of utter chaos. I still liked my isolation — Tsumia ended up butting in and sitting around like a cat. The stereotypical white cat of an evil mastermind.
“You should be grateful for my presence, ingrate,” she said, leaning against me. Her bat-like wings hugged my back, and her tail gave away her true emotions — it was flopping around like a reanimated snake. “The Lady in Shadow choses her companions carefully. Many would pay dearly for such treatment.”
Tsumia’s eyes were the same as Ezina’s — mischievous balls of orange sunrise and sunset. She was clearly trying to provoke me into responding.
I pulled her elongated ear. “I want a refund. Now.”
Her smut act fell away — she began slapping against me. “Owowowowowowowowo, that hurts hurts hurts…! Uwah!” Her spaded tail tried to bludgeon me to death.
I let go and struck a silly pose. I knew what she liked — I might as well indulge her from time to time. “You bask in the presence of Haskel, former Ring of Arcana, now, the mage beyond time. You have no power here.”
“Sheesh.” She leaned back, smirking. “You don’t have to go so far to declare your infatuations with me.”
I gave it a thought. “In your dreams, idiot.”
Tsumia crossed her arms and pouted. “Hmph. Maybe I will.”
The woman who was once the Lady in Shadow turned into an absolute dork who kept trying to act cool. It had its own endearing charm, especially when you consider the monster she was before. Perhaps because I was the first one who had reached out to her, she became attached to me. Maybe a bit too attached — but that’s a story for another time.
So really, in other words, I was on vacation for eternity.
I left behind most of my attachments and settled into my new life as a faux demon lord crime boss. I was an Oni, after all. What else did you expect me to do? I made new plans. I had new ideas.
All I would do is have to wait until the end of eternity to enact them.
Can’t be that long, right?
There might be a few lingering questions. I didn’t exactly explain many of the terms, or even give the name of our world. Or, most importantly, why did I bother telling this story?
To tell you the truth; I’m not sure.
If you’re still here, take it as the ramblings of a nostalgic old man. I still crave the tales of other worlds, perhaps this one would fetch me something interesting in time.
I haven’t really been keeping up with the other Rings as of late. Are they dead? Have they gone on new adventures? I sure don’t know. I’m happy with what I’ve got.
I grew close to Tsumia as I did with Rei, but I never got over my first flame. We Oni are loyal bastards — don’t engage one in a relationship, or you’ll end up with a yandere. It’s much less cute when a guy turns into a yandere. Me and Tsumia have an eternity left to bond, and we’re, well, pretty close, so we’ll have to see where it goes. I guess this is what you humans call ‘common law marriage.’
Why do I know what humans are? Why do I know of your time?
As all good stories do, these things will be revealed in time. Perhaps not here, but somewhere else.
I stand on the balcony of the Obsidian tower and stare out at the nothingness beyond — if I reach far enough, I’ll reach the place I desire. I just know it.
You can’t return to the past — I’ve learned that much in my studies. But I’ll see my last wish through, no matter what.
Reincarnation is a fact of this universe. Feelings last through generations, perhaps even universes if one is lucky enough. I wonder if I’ll ever run into Ezina again. Sometimes I wonder if she’s proud of me. Probably not, honestly. I promised Rei that I would meet her again, one day. Even if I’ve fallen a bit with that damned Tsumia, I’ll still hold my feelings for her into eternity..
So, Rei, wherever and whoever you are now — if your feelings haven’t changed after all this time, you know where to find me.