The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Nine

Two weeks later Atolibus sat in the King’s seat in the Grand Hall wearily, crown atop his head, listening to reports of conditions in the castle from various councilors. The same basic story kept coming to light – they had lost over half their strength and casualties were heavy. Even the Network had not yet responded, something which struck him as ominous. He feared that the same magic that had allowed the Magus access to Castle Lothanis had also compromised their integrity.

“...and so it will be at least three or four growing seasons before stocks return to pre-war levels,” an older councilor rumbled on, snapping Atolibus out of his silent reverie. Had he been human he would have fallen asleep in his seat by now – the lot of the information he was being exposed to was both dreadful and dull at the same time.

“Very good, Farlan,” Atolibus said noncommittally, waving him off. “The rest of you leave your reports with the various heads of your Councils; I will see to them in due time. Direct orders from your king – deal with them as best you can for the nonce and prepare to weather the storm, because we are surely in for it here in the capitol.” Farlan nodded and rose, turning and heading for the open doors with the rest of the group that had been waiting for an audience with the new king. Atolibus sat silently for a few moments, reflecting. He had a war to direct, but how? And where, more importantly? Even to him the Grand Fortress of the Magus was an unknown location. The single greatest secret that he had yet to unlock, where to find them and hunt them down. He knew there might be a way through magic but he wasn’t sure where to begin.

Reasoning that a little historical research could point him in the right direction he stood up and made his way out of the Grand Hall, heading for the library. Various citizens saluted him in typical style, but his first royal decree seemed to be holding steady – there was no reference to him as a liege lord or any other such nonsense. He didn’t think he would get used to a crown being atop his head, regardless of his first tenure as King of the Realm. It’s been almost a thousand years, small wonder.

Showing himself to Schala and Kristina had been almost painful – the aspect of the True King was one he had endeavored to leave behind. The power of the True King was a cold, cruel light, one that was incapable of such things as forgiveness and mercy. As he rounded the curve of the halls between the living quarters and the various Council meeting rooms he spied Lia, walking alone. His heart leaped at the sight of her – he had feared her dead during the various attacks on the castle in the prior weeks. It looked to him as if she’d aged overnight, though, that or her middle years had finally begun to take their toll.

“Lia,” he said, smiling brightly. She continued walking, perhaps six feet away when she finally noticed him standing in front of her. She stopped, taking in the sight of the man she’d been sharing a bed with until recent months had forced them apart. “You’re alive.”

“Sire,” she muttered dryly, sketching a curtsy. Atolibus sighed – their last meeting had been painfully bitter. She had come to him one night a few months ago, come as she used to, in the dead of night and wearing nothing but a shift.

Banging on his door awakened Atolibus at around one in the morning a few months past, during the depths of the last winter. He had been asleep alone that night, though Kristina shared his bed more and more frequently as of late. Being irritable at having been pulled from a solid night’s sleep he stood up, dressed only in simple linens for the moment, forbearing the armor. After lighting a candle he cracked the door slightly, and there she was. Lia. He had not spoken more than five words to her since Kristina’s arrival at the castle in the beginning of the year and there she stood just as always, shift leaving little to the imagination.

“Lia?” he said. She seemed just as confused as he was, looking around to all corners and refusing to meet his eye.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she said quietly. “I just... I needed to talk to you. Alone. Without her around.” Atolibus sighed, pulling the door open a bit further.

“Come in, of course, come in,” he said. He closed the door behind her as she slid inside silently. She sat on the end of his bed, staring contemplatively at her feet. Atolibus stood in his linens, leaning silently against the door and waiting for her to find the words. True – their relationship had ended, yet he bore her no ill will, no enmity. It had only been a passing fling, and that time was gone. Nothing to do for it, he thought, but to move on. After a few silent moments Lia managed to gather herself enough to speak.

“There are some things,” she started, “that I think you need to know. And I need you to just listen for a few minutes.” She looked him directly in the eye and he nodded, silent. “I knew when we started... whatever it was we started, that it was only a temporary thing. I’ve known you a few years now and I know how busy your life is, how uncertain things are. I promised myself, six months ago when we started seeing each other, that I wouldn’t get in too deep. Wouldn’t let myself go.” She looked up at the ceiling, eyes glassy. “It’s funny. You can stand there and say over and over, no, I won’t, and suddenly one day you wake up and realize that you all ready did.” She looked him in the eye again, holding him momentarily with her gaze. “I love you, Atolibus Sandrin. I know... oh, but I know, that it means nothing, and it can’t be, but I thought you deserved to know that I love you. In spite of everything... or perhaps because of it, I will never know... in spite of everything you managed to make me fall in love with you.” She rose to her feet, resolute. Drawing herself up to her full height, falling short of Atolibus by nearly a foot, she stepped over to him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. For a moment, he stood, silent as if lost in thought. But that moment was shattered when he slowly pulled her arms off of him and stepped aside.

“I have respect for your feelings,” he said. “You know I do. I would not lie to you, not now, not ever. And there was a time when I might have even said the same thing.” He captured her gaze. “But you know that that time is past.”

“Because of her,” Lia spat. Atolibus’ brow furrowed momentarily.

“Yes, her,” he said. “As you yourself said, you knew getting into this what it meant.” Staring into his eyes she could literally feel the centuries rolling by her, and the weight of all of that time nearly stifled her. “For centuries now I have watched... watched, and waited. A few times, love has found its way to my little corner of the world. But every time I am denied that which I fervently wish for the most. I thought... a hundred years ago, I thought I had found her. But she was taken from me, taken in a vicious and cruel manner that I will not speak of. Taken, I might add, by another woman that had once held my heart.” Atolibus sighed, taking his own turn to look at the floor. “I don’t have a lot of luck with the ladies of this land.” He drew himself up after a moment. “But this time I am certain. this is the one, this is meant to happen – Kristina is the woman that was destined for me, centuries ago in prophecy and story. And you know what’s funny? I’m in love with her, plain and simple. I think I would have found myself besotted with her regardless of prophecy or what have you.”

He laughed then, the crisp, pure laugh that Lia knew came from the heart, one she had heard many times in public and in private. There was ice in his gaze... oh yes, she knew that very well. She herself had had a glimpse at some of the inner demons the man battled with, and she had to admit they had scared her out of her skin more than once. But there was warmth as well, warmth that was almost painful if she spent too long looking at it.

“I haven’t told her yet, you know,” he said. “But I think I will, in fact, this very night. I am sorry for any hurt I might have caused you, but it is over between us. Nothing will change that.” She stared at him, hopeless and helpless, and then silently slid out of his room, closing the door behind her. Atolibus blew out the candle next to his bed and slipped out of his own room, armor appearing to cover his skin in a bare second, door sealing behind him.

The memory of that night still made him wince, even after a couple of months had softened the blow somewhat. For all he’d lived over a thousand years he still felt as if he were fumbling around in the dark with the opposite sex. There had been a time perhaps five hundred years past when he’d actually changed his form to that of a female for a few months, on vacation one year. That had gained him little knowledge, other than that female undergarments were a tremendous irritation to deal with and that castle women didn’t talk to a foreign female any more than the men of the castle would have indulged a foreign male. Though I will admit sex was somewhat more interesting from that perspective. Illuminating, at least.

“If there is nothing you are in need of, sire, I shall be on my way,” she said, curtsying deeply this time. He had a notion that she hoped he would simply allow her to pass without further complication. Without knowing what else to say he nodded his assent, and she scurried away faster than he would have thought possible for a woman in a dress such as hers. He shook his head. It can’t be helped. What’s done is done. He took a deep breath and continued on to the library.

Outside the doors to the library Atolibus heard whispering. Only his magically-assisted ears would have picked up the sound – the doors were shut and they were as heavy as the door to his private chamber. Looking around to make certain that he was alone in the hallway – an oddity in and of itself, given the time of day – he leaned in closely to listen.

On the other side of the door, what sounded like two men were having a quiet yet spirited conversation.

“Are you sure no one saw you coming here?” one voice asked.

“I made doubly certain – magic doesn’t lie,” the other voice responded. This seemed to anger whoever owned the first voice.

“You fool, in this place it does. Have you forgotten who is the king now? Remember that, before you risk both our heads again,” voice number one said.

“Just tell me why you risked so much to call me here,” the second voice said, not at all amused at having to risk blowing what Atolibus thought was his cover with a meeting inside the castle walls.

“The Lord General commanded it, simpleton,” voice number one said. That seemed to placate voice number two, but only to a certain extent. Atolibus’ mind was racing, trying to place the names of the voices.

“So why are we here, of all places? It positively reeks with magic,” voice number two said, audibly disgusted, though by the magic itself or the particular type of magic Atolibus could not say.

“That is the very reason – it makes it harder to see, harder to watch, in this place,” voice number one said. “So many of these old books and scrolls have powerful wards set around them, and then there’s the second floor... even I won’t set foot in there.” He paused for a moment before speaking again. “The Lord General says that the plan is working, and the system is being turned from within.” An odd remark, Atolibus mused. What system could he be referring to? Certainly one within the castle. But which, and in what capacity? And who, more importantly. He needed names, not whispers behind closed doors.

“Good, then we aren’t here for nothing,” voice number two said. “All right, so everything is going according to plan. What else? Surely that isn’t all you wanted out of me.”

“Too right you are,” voice number one said. “I wanted to warn you – the old mare is getting restless. Every day she has to pass the new filly in the stalls, and she gets surlier and surlier with each moment. The Lord General thinks she may need to be silenced. He wants to know your thoughts on the matter.” Atolibus knew a code when he heard one, even if he didn’t know what they were referring to.

“Ever the soldier, and never the courtesan,” voice number two said. “He’ll never learn. She was never a trustworthy mount to begin with. And tripping so clumsily at winter’s end... that was a blind mistake. She came to me after that messy little incident. Came to me in tears truth be told. You said she gets surlier with each moment. Small wonder. Horses don’t like giving up their masters to new mounts and new saddles.” He paused in thought for a moment. “Tell the Lord General that I don’t want anyone to move on her... yet. She may still prove useful.” He laughed quietly. “Besides, we can always use her as a spare toy if she does outlive her usefulness. The Seneschals are always looking for a new doll, even one slightly used.”

“Even a tainted one with broken tack?” voice number one asked.

“That matters not,” voice number two said. “They have ways of working around that. Now get thee gone, lest we be seen.” Atolibus realized the door would be opening in a moment, and his heart raced – did he stand his ground and execute the two traitors on the spot, or did he move quickly and not be seen? Neither felt right.

Making certain the hall was still clear, he stepped back from the door and wielded his potent magic on himself. The armor disappeared, the linens he usually wore changed into a work woman’s linen dress while his own body changed into a stout, five foot five cleaning lady in her late middle years, stern and fussy in her own way. A broom and empty bucket also came into his hands, completing the masquerade. He smiled briefly before putting on the face of a tired washer woman, very grumpy and not at all wanting to be bothered in her duties.

As the doors came open he made a note of the two men that came out, each going their own separate ways. He had to admit they were well trained, walking as if they belonged, as if they had passed just by chance – and well they should be, because both men were members of his own Network, hand picked and personally trained. How the Shadow had managed to infiltrate the Network was beyond him, but he berated himself for seven kinds of a fool. It must have been tied to the same magic that had granted the Magus access to the castle. Somehow, someone was able to slip around his own magic and hide their spells at the same time. That thought disturbed him greatly as he stepped into the library, gripping the broom in his hand hard.

“Network members,” he said quietly to himself, surveying the massive rows of books and scrolls before him. “Network members and councilors no less. Two men that by all rights do not know one another, two men who are of no consequence, save that they are present for critical decisions and can report that information to superiors. I’ll gut them both myself once I get to the bottom of this.” Without knowing what to do with himself, he set about to sweeping the entrance to the library. He hadn’t used a broom in centuries, and the experience was almost a novelty, if it hadn’t been so dreadfully boring.

He thought of the last thing the two men had spoken of, the old mare and the filly. That tale had filled his soul with dread in the hearing, though he could not say why. He knew it was important, whatever it was – the two men had risked their very lives just to meet and speak of it. He resolved to dig deeper when the opportunity presented itself. The fact that his entire Network was possibly tainted was not lost on him, either. How he would work around that without alerting the two councilors to his suspicions had not yet occurred to him.

When a few minutes had passed and he was satisfied no one was around looking, the broom and bucket disappeared, along with his disguise. He strode into the library proper, surveying countless years of knowledge with a certain fondness. A few scholars were perusing scrolls in various places, but not a man took notice of him beyond a half-hearted wave – these were folks of learning and they had no time for styles and courtesies, even had the man not deemed them unnecessary. He had to smile at that – for once, someone understood. The lack of guards on duty perplexed him for a moment, until he realized that with the lack of strength in the castle they may not have been able to spare the men to watch the generally quiet library. He made his way to the stairs leading to the second floor, expecting to feel his smooth ward around the entrance. When he did not he immediately grew alert, drawing his blade and stalking slowly up the stairs.

Sword arcing brightly in front of her, Schala fended off yet another attacker. The fighting where she was, at the gate of the inner bailey, was the most intense. Kristina stood next to her, staff whirling in her talented hands. Between them they had brought down more than fifty times their own number, but neither knew how long it could continue.

How the fighting broke out Schala did not know. She had been walking down the outer ring of living quarters with Kristina when the sound of steel clashing had brought her running down the hall, sword drawn. Dressed only in plain clothing, she thanked her lucky stars that no blade had yet managed to draw blood from her skin. Kristina’s dress flourished as she moved, confusing her attackers along with the staff whirling in her grip. She didn’t know the woman very well, but her respect for her was growing as they fought.

“To me, to me,” a grizzled army captain shouted, rallying the troops near him and forming a wedge. Their attack had the beginnings of a successful charge until a massive burst of Shadow ripped each man in half where they stood. Schala had just enough time to blink when Kristina unleashed a powerful burst of white light in every direction. The immediate effect was not noticeable, but in a few seconds a roiling cloud had formed directly overhead. Thunder rumbled deeply and lightning began to fall among their enemy. She turned to look at the younger woman.

Kristina’s dress was blowing around her madly, caught in the winds of the storm that had suddenly sprang to life. The woman’s pupils seemed to disappear under the glow of pale light. Kristina stalked forward, staff twirling and breaking bones wherever it went. After slaying two men that had pressed her backwards, Schala rushed forward to follow her. She didn’t know how long the trance the younger woman was in would last but she knew she needed to be near her when she came out of it.

Atolibus sheathed his blade as he reached the top of the stairs. It would have done him little good – the entire place was a piled mass of rubble. He strode to the center of the hallway and took in the devastation, breathless as he sank silently to his knees – the knowledge that was contained in the books and scrolls on this floor was irreplaceable. Countless centuries of wisdom and lore, burned to a cinder.

“How could this be?” he whispered to himself. “All of my protections, every careful ward, unraveled.”

“When the Magus attacked the castle,” a calm voice said from behind him, “the members of your Magery were unable to stop them. Through some artifice, they were able to bypass your magic and commit this atrocity.” He slowly rose and turned to face a man in silver armor that he would have known had a million years passed.

“Sarcodus,” he said quietly. “What do you know of this devastation?”

“Only that it was preordained long before this night,” he said, taking place next to Atolibus, surveying the damage with him. “This library, this entire castle even, will fall. Try as you like you cannot stop it.”

“Riddles and double speak,” Atolibus said. “I should have known to expect as much from you. Speak clearly, man, for once in your life.”

“The castle is under attack,” he said quietly. Fire leaped into Atolibus’ eyes and his sword came into his hand in a blink. “But before you go marching to war stay a minute and listen to what I have to say. You cannot stop this from happening. It is something that must happen.”

“You speak of the wholesale slaughter of my people as if it were a trivial matter,” Atolibus said, straining with the effort of standing and doing nothing. “You know, the last time I saw you I thought it really would be the last, and do you know what I thought? Thank the fucking gods, some respite at last.”

“If you go out there now you will ensure the destruction of this castle singlehandedly, this very day,” Sarcodus said to him, letting the words of anger slide over him. He paused for a moment, eyes distant. “Schala and Kristina are fighting as we speak at the gates. Neither of them knows what is happening, only that they must fight. You know of the Terwynn woman’s affinity for the Gift.” Atolibus nodded slowly. “This event, this battle, will prove to be the catalyst of that Gift.”

Slowly Atolibus understood the point the man was driving at – while there was not time for Kristina to undergo the normal training that mage would undertake, for those with a strong enough affinity for magic a single event could act as a catalyst to that power and bring it to the surface quickly, much faster than the years that training would normally take. It was a dangerous route – many a mage had died in just such a situation, burned to a cinder when they drew too much power and wielded magic beyond their control, but he had confidence that Kristina could handle it. He had seen the depth of her Gift, and he knew it was powerful indeed. He only hoped Schala was there when the initial trance broke – she was likely to be confused and disoriented, if not wholly unconscious. At least possessed of the Gift herself Schala could guide the younger woman in the way of her power.

“So men and women will die,” Atolibus said, “that she may be granted the full scope of her Gift. That she may have the strength needed to stand beside me in the very end, when Elvina must be brought down.” He shook his head. “That is a cold choice for a man to make, Sarcodus old friend?”

“It is not of my doing, this situation,” he said. “I might have been... absent, at times, but I’ve always watched out for you. I would stop this were it in my power, but as it happens, it is not. As I said, this must happen. You will have need of her Gift in the days to come.” He paused for a moment, eying the man he’d once called ‘pupil’. “There’s another issue, old man – your power.” Atolibus nodded.

“I know,” he said with a sigh. “It’s been growing more and more volatile of late, it’s taken everything I can to keep it under control.” He shook his head with a rueful chuckle. “Too many things on our plate, as always. Would that there were any other way. At least Schala is with her.” His eyes roved the rubble around them. “I lament the loss of this floor, though. So many years of knowledge, all of the magical primers, lost. What will be done without those books? I cannot teach a man my way of magic – I have tried, and it has been for naught.”

“That you will have to determine on your own,” Sarcodus said. “I do know that the most important battles in the days to come will not be fought by the armies, but by a very small group of people, no more than three at that. Kristina is one of those three. I think perhaps Schala may be the other.”

“It is true,” Atolibus said, “that there is more to that woman than meets the eye. She’s a doughty fighter and has proved her mettle time and again. Honestly it’s a shame she’s spent decades in the outer reaches, she would have made a solid Council member. There is something about her... some quality that I can’t quite put my finger on. I wish I knew what it was, it’s been driving me mad. Every time I look at her it grows stronger and stronger, but it’s almost as if something is deliberately keeping me from the answer I seek.”

“Keep her by your side,” he said. “She will prove to be more valuable than you can know.” With a great sigh, he continued. “I must be going, however.” Atolibus turned to look him in the eye. “There are things out there... things that need my attention. But I have something to give you before I leave. I believe you might recognize it.” From within the folds of his crimson cloak he produced a small, glimmering object that held Atolibus’ gaze immediately.

“This,” the latter man muttered. “The Soul Egg... where did you find this?” Sarcodus’ eyes lit up with a merry grin.

“Didn’t you know?” he asked. “I created it, eight hundred years ago.” Atolibus’ eyes went wide. “It was lost in an accident oh so many years ago. This solitary fragment is all that I could keep my hands on. I have held it for safekeeping all of these years, and now I give it to you.” He sighed for a moment, eyes closed, lost in the past. “We’ll find the rest of it, old man. If we find it quickly enough it might just be able to help us turn the tide.” He pressed the small shard into Atolibus’ open hand and then disappeared before his eyes. It was larger than the one he’d found the day before, perhaps three times its size. Atolibus withdrew the shard he all ready had from the folds of his cloak and when the two came within an inch of each other, they fused in a flash of bright light.

Contentment washed over him, a feeling of impending resolution, and he knew immediately that every story that had ever been told regarding the Egg, everything he had heard was true. He could feel its powerful yet benign magic resonating in his hand, spreading waves of relaxation throughout his entire body. He marveled at its strength – if less than half of the Egg could do this he wondered just how powerful the completed object would be. Somehow he knew that the whole would be more than just the sum of its parts.

Standing silently, eyes closed with the incomplete Soul Egg in hand, he could allow his mind to wander away from the present, allow himself to stay away from the fighting going on outside the castle and allow Kristina to become that which she desperately needed to become.

Schala stood dumbfounded as Kristina went to work, her staff lashing out in time with the lightning from her spell in deadly precision. Everywhere around her Magus fell and died, viciously and without quarter. The older woman quickly understood the trance to be what it really was – Kristina’s gift was finally releasing its full potential. She had wondered for a moment why Atolibus had not come storming in with blade in hand, but she was beginning to feel she had the reason pinned down. It’s a hard road to take, but if I were in his position, with the land in a state of war... She sighed to herself.

She had hoped when she sensed the young woman’s potential that there would be time to properly train her and undergo the normal process. With what was happening all around them, she knew it to be impossible. And it seemed that despite Kristina’s best efforts to halt the progress of the enemy they were being slowly pressed backwards, inch by inch. She had no illusions about their predicament – if they lost the gate the castle would most likely fall with it. Their forces were vastly weakened from recent attacks and they had little magical support behind them. If they want to break Lothanis, now is the perfect time to do it.

“Do you really think this is the best time to send them out towards the castle, yet again?” Elvina asked Gregor, poised next to him in a seat of slightly less power than earlier that month. They were alone in her chambers, discussing matters of state and the current sortie that was underway.

“For myself, not particularly,” he said. “We run the risk of making a martyr of their royalty, even if we do break them. The council was correct on that matter. However the Master seems to think otherwise.” Gregor grated at that – even risen to the heights he had so recently attained he was denied the one thing he wanted most – revenge. He knew who the Regent was now, knew him to be his ancient nemesis, and yet he was forbidden any action. And just as well, he knew that the sortie would ultimately fail – they had sent a few thousand men, strong ones at that, but ultimately Atolibus himself would intervene and slay them to a man. He was capable of such a thing, he had seen the aftermath, and it was horrifying to behold. To be able to wield such power... he thought he had understood what that was like, once. But it occurred to him that in this, like so many other things, his Master was right – to face Atolibus in the prime of his power would be suicide. So he had to wonder, sitting as he was, what the shadowy man’s aim was.

“So what do we do, then?” Elvina said to him quietly. He shrugged.

“We do as we’re told, you and I, and we wait for this whole thing to end,” he said, disgusted. It was a waste of good manpower, especially grating after having lost the entire Second Army. I know there is a reason behind all of this, Master, but I fail to see what it is. Startling in surprise he heard an audible response, and judging from Elvina’s face she could hear it as well.

The Terwynn woman will become powerful in the course of this,” the voice called to both of them. Unmistakably the voice of their Master. “Much, much more powerful in fact, perhaps as strong or more so than yourselves.”

“If I may...” Gregor said.

You may,” the voice responded.

“That seems dangerous to me, my Master, to grant such power to one so opposed to us,” Gregor said, measuring his words carefully. He knew who his Master was, and thought he understood things a good deal better, but bandying words with the man was still asking for a slow and painful death.

It will be all the sweeter when she falls,” the voice said, laughter riddling the darkness in its tones. “She shall be brought down, and soon. When she falls I want her to be powerful, to know the depths of her fall from grace.” He seemed to pause for a moment and then laughter filled the air. “She is small fry, though, compared to what I truly seek today. I want a public scene, one that will show the world just how far the reach of the Society of the Magus has truly become, to show them that even those closest to their most ancient and powerful protector are not safe.” Their Master laughed again, clear as a bell. “I advise against either one of you setting foot anywhere near the castle today. You lose a few thousand men. Compared to what you lost a few weeks ago that is but a pittance. Their loss is to serve a greater end.” Elvina seemed to shrink inwards – that loss, and the repercussions of it, still stung, even if Gregor had prevented her from facing a lengthy imprisonment or, perish the thought, the loss of her head or her Gift. The presence of their Master faded as he continued to laugh until they were alone once more.

“This bothers you, doesn’t it?” Gregor said to Elvina once he could be certain that they were not being monitored. The woman had a pensive look on her face.

“Throwing away lives always bothers me,” she said, an answer that surprised Gregor more than perhaps anything else she could have said. Compassion, and not for the first time that he’d seen in her. In his former life he would have thought that it was a flaw in her person, a weakness to be exploited. He was finding that he didn’t feel that way, this time around. It seemed, in fact, that it drew him ever closer to her.

He had loved, truly loved, only once in his life, but he wondered if perhaps he was beginning to feel it again. It struck him as odd that it would happen with the very woman he’d been working to manipulate. Ever since their first coupling his efforts to control and govern her had slackened to the point of cessation, and it confused him that his Master said nothing of it. Perhaps even he is not all-seeing and all-knowing. This is too random, too chaotic, too capricious. Perhaps even he has his blind spots. A wry smile crossed his features. It would fit, given who and what he is.

Atolibus stood alone in the ruins of the second floor of the Library holding the incomplete Soul Egg in his hands, letting waves of contentment and peace wash over him. Tranquility was not something he often felt, and even if it was short lived he took solace in it. Letting his thoughts drift, he could feel strife coming from the gates of the Inner Bailey. Holding the Soul Egg he could let the urge to intervene subside and let events flow as he knew they must.

The truth was, he needed her power to be available to her, and he didn’t have the time to train it properly. If a few hundred or even a few thousand soldiers had to die to accomplish that goal, logistically speaking it was a small loss. Reality began to set in, however, and the feeling of death rolled around him in waves that threatened to break his tranquility. He could feel the men and women that died in his name at the gates. He could sense only a few thousand men pressing them but wondered if the castle forces could hold that number, given their current state.

He thought back to the Towers of Dread and lamented that they were dead once more, lamented the waste of the lives of four of his best and brightest. He suspected Sarcodus had something to do with that and would have grown angry with him had he not been holding the Egg. He rationalized the man’s actions quickly enough as it was, knowing the history of the Towers. They were as much a prison as a defensive line – with them alive and active no one save himself and perhaps a handful of others could pass them by any means, even by gateway or teleportation. How Sarcodus had managed to shut them down he did not know, but that man always had more than his fair share of tricks hidden up his sleeve.

“A few thousand...” he said aloud to himself, breaking the silence. “Can we hold that many?” Only a few thousand, and yet even with well over twenty thousand Lothanis soldiers on hand, the state of disarray they were in prevented them from being fully effective. Given just a little time he could have that mended. The Egg is forcing me to see past the weight of responsibility and despair. Earlier that day, everything had felt as if it were caving in on him, but now, standing alone and holding the Egg, he could feel the light of possibility, could see new avenues. Yes, time to stall. And perhaps it is good for us that the Towers are dead – I could never move the manpower we need past their line. He had a deeper suspicion that the stronghold of the Magus lie somewhere deceptively close and, more importantly, inside the Tower line. Time, that is what I need. And I never seem to have enough of it.

Waves of calm flowed from within as he stood, keeping to his thoughts. All was well until, moments later, a scream pierced his shell of peace and smote all rational thought. Immediately he pinpointed the location – a fist of hardened elites that were moving their way towards the gates. Indecision whirled about him – Sarcodus had warned him that if he intervened today he would lose the castle, but those troops meant her certain death if they made their way through to her position. My kingdom or my love... He made his choice and disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Schala could feel fatigue creeping up her arms. Close combat of this sort was not her strongest point in battle – she felt more at home with a stout bow in her hands. She cursed not having one momentarily and then raised the sword in her hands once more. A young Magus, barely into his shaving years, bore down on her with a blackened stave that promised murder if it passed her guard. It did not. Neatly spinning aside she clove both stave and bearer in two, grunting with the impact of steel on bone. Kristina continued her mad rampage in front of her, slaying more than the whole of the Royal Guard with lightning and tremendous blasts of ice that tore men off of their feet and stole breath from lungs wherever they traveled. Schala wondered for a moment where the reinforcements were – there should still have been a sizable force stationed at Castle Lothanis, even given the events of the previous day. She had the niggling worry that desertion was at an all time high, which troubled her greatly. This battle would almost certainly require the direct intervention of a higher power. She wondered for a moment if that was not the goal of the entire ordeal. And then the light of inspiration hit her with great force.

She knew of Atolibus’ power – she had witnessed it firsthand. She also knew a thing or two about the magic of Castle Lothanis. She could feel the wards woven into the stone of the place, and could feel where they flowed. There was a point a few hundred yards away that seemed to concentrate all of that energy. There was no mistaking who and what that was. It’s all tied to him. She swung her blade, sidestepping and avoiding a blow that would have cost her an arm. Everything that has happened has happened when he was not present. When he was not inside the inner bailey itself. But even then, she thought, the wards were still powerful beyond reckoning, even if they did take a slight dip. What purpose would it serve to draw him out? He left the castle all the time, so she heard. And events had happened even with him present that should not have been possible. She had heard talk from the smallfolk of the castle, talk of strange things, shadows moving where they should not, writing in an ancient language turning up on walls. And then all thought was driven from her head as a massive burst of pure light washed out the sky, blinding all that didn’t immediately cover their eyes. So the King has taken the field, after all.

Striding through the shattered gates of the inner keep with a glow of power surrounding him was the man in gold, quicksilver eyes dancing with dangerous light even as Elysdeon hung lazily in his right hand. The sounds of warfare died, the cries and wailing of wounded men and women ceased as all eyes turned towards the King of Lothanis. His heart was pounding in his ears as the glow of his power began to twist and surge violently. Not now, damn you, not here.

“So, more dogs dare to beg at my doorstep,” he called aloud, voice booming. He could feel tidal forces within shifting, power that once ebbed now rising ever higher. The aspect of the True King threatened to burst forth in harsh, radiant glory, and he fought to master himself. Fire came raining down upon him then, great waves of liquid flame and oppressive heat that tried to sear the man out of existence. A rippling shield of Water and Air bent the flow away and around him even as he slipped to his knees. Elysdeon clattered uselessly to the stone below as he grasped his head, shaking furiously. The glow around his hands became a blaze, blinding white light exploding to life out of what appeared to be cracks in his golden armor, pinholes that opened first on his fingertips quickly racing down his arms. He shook as he looked at his hands, staring in disbelief. Lightning hammered at him from all sides, hammering at his shields until he could no longer contain himself. Casting his eyes to the sky above he rose on primordial currents of magic, his true power finally unleashed in a ripple of sound and light.

When the momentary shock of the echoing wave at last wore off, the man they could see staring back at them was not the same man that had appeared on the field moments before. Kristina gaped openly as she fell out of her trance. The True King hovered above them, silent, arrayed in full white plate, golden sword blazing as the sun in his hands as he judged them all with cold, glowing golden eyes. Oh my... She didn’t understand what was happening or why, only that the man hovering above them in deadly silence was not about to let any of the Magus present walk away with their lives. The look of raw, naked power in his eyes spoke volumes without him ever opening his mouth. Kristina fell to her knees, unable to control the urge. Schala knelt beside her, along with everyone else on the field. All knew and recognized the visage of the True King, it had been trained in every citizen of the Kingdom of Lothanis from birth. Kristina heard him finally speak and the voice that came forth was not that of the man she knew and loved.

“You have trespassed here for the last time, Vorathi,” he called aloud, fire and steel in his tones. “Too many nights have my people lay in fear of your coming, too long have you and yours sought to impugn upon my sovereignty. That ends now, in this very place.” Light, fiery and glorious, began to swirl around his hands, and the feel of charging power smote her like the heat from a blazing furnace. She swooned for a moment before shaking herself awake, grabbing Schala by the shoulders.

“You have to get out of here, now,” she said. Schala seemed caught in a daze, but after a moment of shaking she too awoke and understood the danger.

“It wasn’t to draw him out of the castle...” she said. “It was to draw him out.” Kristina didn’t understand what the woman meant, but whatever the case they needed to move quickly. She heard a male voice behind her.

“Take my hand, both of you,” it said. Sarcodus, without a doubt. Turning and reaching with Schala, both of them took one of his hands. “We need to be as far away from here as possible.” Kristina waited a moment, the sensation of magic humming to life around her growing quickly. A hair before tight cords of Air, Light and Water began lashing out and around their bodies she let go, watching as Schala and Sarcodus disappeared in blurry flash. No doubt traveling immaterial and fast. But I will not leave him here like this, not this time. She rose and turned to where Atolibus hovered in the sky in the avatar of the True King.

“Atolibus,” she said, amplifying the force of her voice with her new found power. He seemed to hear her, for his head whipped in her direction. A new look crossed his hard, radiant face, a look of mixed pleasure and fear. She could feel the turmoil burning within him – it was taking every final inch of his restraint not to unleash his full power and burn the entire city to a cinder with one massive glorious blast. She could feel the want in him... the need to destroy the Magus where they stood, the need to hunt down every last one of them and kill them painfully and slowly. And yet, inside of all of it was the man she loved, Atolibus Sandrin, the real man, at war with himself. “Atolibus, listen to me. This isn’t you. Come out of there, bring back the man I love. I know you can hear me.”

She could feel the turmoil within him shift and it seemed as if he had nearly brought himself back into balance when suddenly all light faded, pain flaring in her head as she went down. The last thing she could see was Atolibus screaming and raining down death and destruction above Castle Lothanis. So the True King has finally returned to Lothanis, she thought as consciousness fled her entirely.

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