King and Country. Those had been his values as a child. Now it was something more like ‘Whores and Gold’. That was what he was thinking as he rummaged through the captain’s cabin of the Infinite Dream. He was looking for a sword he’d left there a very long time ago, back when he’d thought he’d never use it again. Today, he was heading to the Serrala Detainment Center, to storm it alone and rescue a woman he’d put in danger without realizing it, and his father’s sword would be a welcome ally. Mikail and Rei stepped into the door way. He didn’t look up; he knew the rhythm of their steps coming down the hallway, and the silence that hung in the air as they watched him confirmed it.
“Captain, you don’t have to –“ Rei started to say.
“You have no idea what I have to do, Rei. It’s my fault that they’re incarcerated now. I should’ve realized who they were sooner.”
“I get that Fox is the princess,” Mikail said, “But who’s Matthias? I don’t think I ever met him before this job.” Mazkus found his father’s sword buried under a pile of laundry, and unsheathed it. The blade was a bright blue, with golden lines tracing it. Azerak is still sharp.
“General Matthias Scales. He was an advisor to King Atlas before the Fall, and also served as the personal bodyguard of Princess Rillian. You wouldn’t have met him unless you were a regular at Royal Council meetings or a playmate of the Princess.”
“And which, pray tell, were you, captain?” asked Rei. Mazkus didn’t answer.
“I’ll just go and get the Dream ready for takeoff.” Mikail said. His footsteps trailed off down the hall, heavy and measured.
Rei wrapped her arms around Mazkus, her red hair pushing against his nose and letting her scent waft into his mind. He returned the hug.
“There are some things you can’t share, Captain, I know. Your past, your bed…” Rei said, her eyes looking up into his, filled with worry.
“My bed isn’t one you should want to be in, kid. As for my past, it’s on a need-to-know basis, and for the moment, you don’t need to know.” He strode out of the cabin, leaving her to sit and pout.
They all knew his plan was stupid.
An hour later, Mazkus found himself standing on the exterior deck of the Dream, his father’s sword Azerak in hand, a brown cloak thrown over his body. The cloak rustled in the wind as the Dream soared through Serralan airspace in the morning light. He sighed as he watched the prison come into view in the distance. They were travelling at legal speeds, on legal airways, keeping to their own business and delivering a shipment of star energy they’d picked up to the facility. It was as good a plan as any at this point: The Dream would dock with the Serrala Detainment Center and Mikail would sell them a small amount of the star power from their engines. As they approached the landing zone, Mazkus would leap down from the deck to the roof, find the princess, bust her out, and meet them at the landing zone. What could go wrong? Mazkus smiled to himself and prayed that nothing would.
The Detainment Center was below them now, and Mazkus knew Mikail was getting the details for docking from the control tower. He looked over the edge and grimaced. The first lesson of being on deck during flight had always been ‘Never. Look. Down’. At least, that was what Ragg had taught him. He was reminded rather quickly of why.
He jumped anyway.
The world had ground to halt along with the battle, and the demons known as the Stoneborn that had surrounded Maya and her friends slipped into the forest and city, fleeing as fast as their serpentine bodies could manage. The big ones, who were shaped like men, backed away slowly and ponderously. At the center of it all, through a line of swords, spears, and axes, stood North Lel. His shirt had been consumed by fire during his duel with Vassago, and for the first time, Maya knew why he had always been fully-clothed lately, never letting anyone see him without a shirt.
Across his back, a large design stretched, from his shoulder blades down to the small of his back. Between his shoulders was a large circle with a triangle transcribed in it, point down. Lines left the circle from each point of the triangle – two pushing out horizontally, with curves branching off of them to follow his shoulders, and one lancing down the middle of his back, following his spine. The latter ended in a chevron. She realized a moment later that the design was his manaburn. Her world was spinning faster and faster as she stumbled toward North, with Ryouta and Duke close behind. Rage was boiling in her heart. Why did men always have to do this?
Northran Lazarus Lel? The Blood of Arthur? What the hell was going on and why would he lie to her? To any of them, for that matter? The red demon’s explanation wasn’t good enough for Maya, not by a long shot. The thought reminded her that she’d have to interrogate Azrael about the demon as well, since he seemed to know him. The red demon turned as she approached, and his hand shot out to grab hers as she aimed a slap at North’s face.
“Easy, girl. There’s no reason for violence here.”
“Let go!” she yelled, but instead he lifted her off the ground by her wrist until she was eye-to-eye with him. His orange gaze was piercing. She stopped struggling after a moment. It was futile anyway. Suddenly, a dagger appeared at the demon’s neck. Duke had come to save her.
“Put the girl down.” Duke ordered. The red demon promptly dropped her, and whirled around to toss Duke down to the dirt next to her.
“Are we through playing, kids?” he asked. They both nodded.
“You have no right to speak to them so, Samael.” Azrael said as he walked up behind them. So, his name was Samael.
“Quiet, Az. These three are your wards. The Scion of Blades is mine.” Samael said before turning back to North. She studied the man for a moment, and wondered if she was seeing the real North for the first time. He was clutching a lime green crystal, staring at it as though it were a sacred treasure, his hands cradling it gingerly, his eyes wide. His swords had disappeared.
“I think it’s time we had some answers, North,” Ryouta said, his brown eyes simmering with anger, “And you as well, Azrael.” North looked up from his crystal, and sighed. Samael put a hand on his shoulder.
“You may want to sit down.” North said. They all did.
He hit the roof of the prison face first, his body going limp as he did. Son of a bitch, he thought, they were right – this was not smart. Not that ‘smart’ was something that figured into his thought process at the moment, since he was in the middle of the craziest prison break ever attempted in Imperial territory. The Empire’s guards were everywhere in the Serrala Detainment Center, and they were incredibly well-trained. Swordplay, sorcery, technology – all of these were parts of the Empire’s training program. But Mazkus had some training of his own - and his father’s Starblade, Azerak. Gathering up his strength after his hilariously bad landing, he made his way along the curtain wall of the prison, dispatching the few guards he ran into. Most of them are inside, guarding Fox. He kept moving, the wind whipping his brown hair around as he sped past tower after tower. The Detainment Center was truly huge, perhaps even the largest building complex on the entire Agart Continent. He could feel the sun shining down on him as he ran, and the stars as well. Today may just be my lucky day after all.
A part of him wanted to run from all of this, to forget that the Princess of his fallen home country was trapped in an enemy prison, sure to be executed. He wanted to tell himself that he wasn’t responsible for her, that it wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t sure what stopped him though. Vanguardia was dead and gone, just another sad, pitiful part of the massive Ra’Zaan Empire now. There was no reason to think this princess could change a damned thing, but somehow his heart wouldn’t let him turn his back on her and the old general. He unsheathed Azerak again as he reached the prison block with the highest security. He swung the blade up and into the neck of a guard to his left, then looped it around into the thigh of the one on the right. Then he pulled a knife from his belt and jammed it into the guard’s skull to silence him. Blood ran over the floor like a red pool. Mazkus kicked in the door to the cell hallway with a quick enchantment on his boots. Magic wasn’t his forte, but at least he could use it to brute-force entry.
The guards inside the hallway turned to face the door as it imploded. It took the closest guard in the face, slamming him into the floor and bloodying him. That’s going to leave a mark. Mazkus was on the next one immediately, burying Azerak in his chest. The guard screamed as Mazkus pulled the sword from his torso and used him as a springboard to take the left arm off the next one. He had to take that one’s neck out too. He’d made enough noise already. He turned when they were all dead, and surveyed the destruction he’d left in his wake. Blood splattered the walls and floors of the corridor, and an alarm had triggered in the main compound. He could hear the sirens wailing, whining, telling him to keep moving. He sighed and rushed down the hall, weary of the copper stench in the air. It had been a long while since he’d killed a man, let alone more than one. It should have given him more pause than it did. He didn’t remember being a cold-hearted murderer.
He turned a corner, and ran straight into a guard who was running toward the gore-filled passage. He reacted quickly, introducing the helmet of his new friend to the metal-worked wall, and his chest to Azerak. More blood began to paint Mazkus’ torso. I should have worn pants I didn’t care about, he reflected. His khakis were already soaked in red.
With the guard dispatched, he continued down to the end of the hall, and at last stood before the door he’d come to break down – a large iron menace, with a tiny barred window just at eye level. He closed his eyes, and focused on his sword.
Starblades. Wrought from the stars themselves, they carry the ability to channel a user’s mana into powerful things. They were the words of an old man he hadn’t seen in many years, a teacher and mentor that had been a close friend of his father. It pained him how much things had changed, that he hadn’t recognized his mentor or his princess, and that they hadn’t recognized him. Had it really been so long? Matthias had taught him how to focus his mana, to let the world flow through him, and it was that focus he used now. Azerak began to vibrate as he concentrated on it, and then he plunged it into the iron door, cutting through it as though it were nothing more than butter. Easier than killing those guards, even.
Inside, he found the two prisoners staring out a small window on the opposite wall.
“That’s the Dream…” Fox – no, Princess Rillian – was saying as he stepped through the hole he’d cut. Her voice spoke of bewilderment. When neither of them moved, he realized they hadn’t seen him. Apparently, Azerak had been noiseless as it sliced through the door. He stood there for a moment, listening to them talk.
“They must be collecting the bounty on us.” Matthias was saying, “There’s no other reason for them to be here. We’ve been had, Princess. You guessed wrong. It wasn’t him.”
“AHEM.” Makzus coughed mockingly.
He could see the world screaming apart and smashing back together in the clear, beautiful eyes of the princess. Matthias seemed flustered as well. Mazkus supposed it wasn’t every day you were rescued from certain doom by a prodigal son covered in the blood of your enemies. He realized just how bad it must’ve been when Rillian’s nose wrinkled in disgust.
“Gods!”, she screamed, “Did you kill everyone in the building?!”
“You stink of death, Captain Stream. What the hell are you doing here?” Matthias asked.
“I could ask you the same, General Scales. As for you, Princess, I can safely say that I have not killed everyone in the building yet. Which, honestly, is actually why we need to go.” He grabbed her hand without asking and yanked he to her feet. Matthias got up too, and Mazkus cut their shackles from the wall with a quick swipe of Azerak’s vibrating blade. Matthias stared at him.
“So it is you, boy.” The old general looked pale and thin, far older than he was and worn from the beatings in the prison and the long years of exile. Only now did Mazkus really notice the gray hairs beginning to crawl across his head.
“Yes, General Scales, yes it is.”
Where to start? With Arthur? No, that was too far back and too confusing for them, and wouldn’t serve to placate them anyway. What his friends wanted was answers. He wished then that the ones he had were better. Another prayer woefully ungranted. He decided to start with an introduction.
“My full name is Northran Lazarus Lel, Descendant of the Pendragon Line, Blood of Arthur, Heir to the Mortal Throne of the Once and Future King. I have given myself the title of Scion of Blades due to the nature of my abilities gained from the Suul.” Ryouta raised his hand.
“What the hell is the Sool?”
“The Suul is the soul of our planet Earth, power and life in liquid form. Azrael and Samael honestly know more about it than I do. It’s the blue plasma that’s all over the place. Our immersion in it is the cause of our manaburns.” North explained.
“Alright,” Maya piped up, “Now what about this whole Blood of Arthur thing?”
“What about it? There’s really not much to say other than the legendary King Arthur is my ancestor. I’ll eventually be able to summon his sword and that’s about it.”
“So you’re the King then?” Duke asked.
“No, not really. That’s still my dad, unless something…” The thought crossed his mind for the first time. It wasn’t a fun idea. They still had no idea if their families were alright.
“Azrael,” he said, turning to the angel, “Can you take everyone to find their families? If they’re still alive, they shouldn’t be more than a day or two away on foot.”
“You’re ignoring the issue, North.” Azrael answered. “You took this huge task on yourself and did not think to tell your friends. It is a grievous breach of the trust they put in you. It is a breach of the trust I put in you.”
“What was I supposed to do? Come up to you the first day and say ‘Oh, I’m King Arthur’s heir and I know what’s going on’?” North snorted.
“That would’ve been helpful.” Azrael said.
“Well, I can’t change the past. Maybe I was wrong,” North said, turning back towards his friends, “Maybe I should’ve told you all from the start. I’m sorry.”
There was no forgiveness in their eyes, and he didn’t blame them. He felt so stupid for thinking they would be alright with just an apology. He stood up then, and smiled at them.
“There’s not really anything more I can say. Azrael, I regret lying to you, but I do humbly ask that you continue to escort my friends in their travels. I’ve lifted all the bladestorms, so you should be able to go wherever you want now.”
“You seem to be indicating that you are not coming with us.” Azrael stated.
“I’m not. I have a family out there too, after all.” North braced himself for the rebuke that he knew was coming, biting his tongue and closing his eyes. When it didn’t come, he turned to look at them. They were quiet, watching him with jaded eyes and hurt glares, Maya’s the worst. He grimaced. It wasn’t the best outcome he could’ve hoped for, but at least they weren’t trying to stop him. He looked to Samael, who merely nodded and started walking. North followed without looking back.
“You’ll see them again.” Samael told him an hour later, after they’d jumped the huge chasm that split the city. “It may not be soon, but you will meet them again, I promise.”
“I don’t doubt that, Sam. I just hope they find it in themselves to forgive me for this mess.” He didn’t want to think about having to fight them. Even leaving them now, when they had so many questions and worries, felt like another layer of his betrayal. Onward to Avalon, he told himself. It was part of a verse he’d learned as a child, though it was taking on new meaning now. It still comforted him.
A paragon spear,
Through Lightbringer’s eye,
A glancing blow on amber wings.
He hummed the tune to himself as they walked. It kept his mind off of his friends and the Angel of Death. It kept his mind off of Maya.
Everything was happening faster than she could process it. One moment she’d been in chains next to Matthias, her last protector, her sworn shield, and the next… the next moment she was rocketing down the hall, following a blood-soaked starchaser as he cut through guard after foolish guard. The air had a copper twinge to it as she chased after Mazkus. Something about his movements told her that not a bit of the blood was his.
I was right, Matt, she thought to herself, it is him. It is my Mazkus. True enough, Mazkus was a common name, especially in Vanguardia around twelve years before its fall… but the Starblade he held now, the Starblade he drove through foe after foe without pause for reflection was undoubtedly the Starblade Azerak – the personal weapon of Grand General Andro. Mazkus looked every bit like his esteemed father now: the perfect warrior, quick, graceful, merciless, and strong.
Matthias stopped a moment to pick up a sword from one of the guards. He flipped it around in his hands for a moment to get a feel for it before charging behind her again. Rillian looked back to make sure he was alright. This is either the stupidest or most romantic thing Mazkus has ever done, she thought. When she really thought about it, it was both. This was a high security prison, and he was dashing through it on a mad rampage with no thought of what would happen after. Even when it had been more than a decade since they’d seen each other, he still stole her heart without trying.
Ahead of her, Mazkus kicked down a door, and light poured in with a flash. A moment later, the trio was dashing along the curtain wall of the prison, and the Infinite Dream was waiting far, far below, taking off from the Detainment Center’s dock. Maybe he’s not so stupid after all.
The alarms were blaring now, everywhere Rillian looked guards were closing in on them. There was no way Mazkus could kill all of them, even with Matthias’ help.
“It’s over, rebel scum!” yelled one of the guards, pointing his sword out towards Mazkus. “There’s nowhere you can run now. We’ve got you cornered!” The guard was right – Rillian, Mazkus, and Matthias were surrounded on three sides, with the edge of the curtain wall and an eighty foot drop to their backs. Her eyes filled with tears unbidden. This was going horribly.
A moment later, the guard was on his knees, and Rillian was fighting the draft of wind to keep from joining him as the nose of the Infinite Dream rose above the curtain wall behind them. Mikail’s voice was coming over the ship’s loudspeakers, telling the guards to stand down.
“Or I’ll blow this entire detention center sky high.” Mikail finished as Mazkus stepped gingerly onto the guard’s chest and pointed the Starblade Azerak down at him. The guard’s helmet had fallen off, and his long blonde hair was spilling out to shine in the light of the sun. His gray eyes were wide with fear as he crossed them to look at the blade. A smile was plastered onto Mazkus’ face, and his green eyes were alive with excitement. At least someone’s having fun here, the Princess thought to herself as she watched the scene with a strange sense of detachment.
Five minutes later she was on the deck of the starship, heading towards the edge of the city, her dyed-brown hair flowing in the winds coming off the Heigan Sea. The young girl that ran the communications on the bridge – Rei Scant was her name – was pushing Mazkus out of the doorway to the interior of the ship.
“You stink, Captain! Get. Out.” Rei yelled as she shoved him one last time. He was still covered in gore. The copper scent had returned to the air. Rillian’s nose crinkled in response. She assumed Matthias was being treated for his wounds inside, as she could hear him and the engineer, Arden Vent, shouting from the other end of the ship. The noises faded as the door to the interior shut and Mazkus took a seat next to her.
“So… Princess Rillian Vanguardia. I would never have imagined it.” Mazkus said, smiling at her. His hair was soaked with blood, as was his clothing. She almost burst out laughing. Only he could smile in a situation like this.
“And it took me getting captured for you to figure it out? Gods, you used to be so much smarter.” Rillian replied as she clapped him on the back. Her hand lingered there afterward, and she scratched absentmindedly. “Thank you, though,” she told him, her voice getting quieter, “for saving me. I never dreamed you would come to get me.” He just stared off into the distance, silent.
“Do you really think there’s no hope for our country, Mazkus? No hope for our people?” she asked, tired of the awkward lull in conversation.
“I think whatever hope we had is long gone, Ril. Gone with your father and mine and your brother.”
“There’s still us.” Rillian whispered. “You, and me, and Matt. We can take back our land, Mazkus. We can take back what was ripped from us – our lives, our futures. And you’re wrong, you know.”
“About what?” he asked.
“About our fathers. They aren’t gone. And I’m pretty sure I know where to find them.”
“People seem to think a King is a symbol of tyranny, a monolith to individual power and the destruction of liberty. Maybe that’s what it used to be. But here, now, I can’t help but think that a King is something else entirely. A King is given power not to oppress his people, but to protect them. He gives them freedom by uniting them, he exists for them. He is called upon to give everything he is to their protection, to their future. And at the end of the day, there isn’t anything left of him to give. “- From The Last King of Men, quoting Northran Lazarus Lel, Scion of Blades