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Ashen Cycle

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Cycle: a course or series of events that recur regularly and usually lead back to the starting point. Of course, deviations exist. How many cycles can one take, until one finally accepts their fate?

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Dust to Dust

The beings that came from the otherworldly fog were nothing short of ethereal. They held no true shape or form, changing and shifting as they saw fit. They came in great droves, could be felled by any blade, magic, or bow. But the Mist was a seemingly unstoppable entity. Its spawn would always come back, and in greater numbers. The creatures took to the population with curiosity, expressed in bloodshed. Despite having no true form, one was able to barely make out… or rather, “feel” their expressions through their wispy appearance. It was as if they were children, seeing how far their toys would bend before they broke, and so these things, these seemingly infantile beings, played their games, destroying kingdoms, blighting lands, killing thousands, then eventually, millions.

They held no distinction between any of the races. The Mist toyed with everything. The Ellicans, once proud protectors of their great forests, were crushed within their homelands. Doltevs, master blacksmiths, and underground dwellers, were not saved by their craft, nor their home. Trapped beneath the rubble, their great, underground cities were overrun, until not a soul was left to echo within its halls. Falkwyns, in their floating continents, thought themselves safe from the turmoil. Even their magics, which had served them well, were of no use against the flood of The Mist. Their cities came crashing down in a horrific rain of bodies and cobblestone.

It was then that the survivors of each race gathered under one banner. To rebel against the Mist, was their only, and perhaps last, purpose.

This is a tale of the end of days.

He doesn’t quite remember how it started. His mind wasn’t in the right as of the moment. Perhaps, in large part to this large gash he had on his forehead. He felt something warm trickle down the side of his head. Blood, most like. Or tears, perhaps. The pain was wracking his entire body. He felt himself spasm each time he attempted to urge his body to move. He wasn’t so sure where he was. How he got here. His mind drew blanks again and again. All he could focus on was how, instinctively, he wanted to move. He needed to. He had to. There was something at the back of his mind, and it wasn’t the head trauma, that told him that he had something to do, to finish.

A voice echoed in the distance. He forced his eyes open. Only now does he hear his own ragged breaths. Short, stammering, struggling. He coughed and tried to suck up as much air as he could. He coughed again, blood spattering on the ash covered floor marble tiling. Where…?

‘…ko..n..’ there’s a muffled voice. He tries to raise himself upright, gritting his teeth as another bolt of misery wracked his body. He shook it off. He’s crouched over now, steadying himself on his elbows and knees.

‘Ha…k…n…’ There’s the voice again. It sounded urgent. His mid-section was burning. His gut was doing somersaults and he felt like he might keel over again. But something… someone stopped him. An arm wrapped itself around him and helped him upright. His body screamed in protest, but his mind forced the urge to fall back down to retreat. Slowly, he’s regaining his strength. The one who helped him upright shouted again. He raised his head and recognized shrapnel flying around them. The sound of an explosion not too far off bellowed and roared. Bits and pieces of metal flew through the air. They all looked like they were in slow motion. One of them flew past him, missing his neck by inches. A large chunk of metal flew at them. It landed a few feet away from them with a thunderous quake. They both reel, the wind taken out of them. That woke him up. His breathing got even more ragged but he felt awake now. Alive. Despite that, the pain in his head had reached its peak, and he struggled to stay conscious. It was a hollow gesture, as everything faded, before the world around him went dark.

The airship’s glyphs started flashing. The red warning glyphs meant that they were nearing their destination. A few thousand feet above ground, everything seemed solemn, a stark contrast to the goings-on that was happening on the ground, so far below. A war, no, one final struggle, gripped the world, or what was left of it. Soon, they knew, everything would be no more. There were millions dead, hundreds of thousands still fighting, clawing at whatever hope they had left. The Mist would soon overrun everything, leaving no trace behind.

He knew that their plan was by far, a dream. They were assigned the task just before his squad was to be sent to the frontlines. He knew if the Grand Cleric was willing to send his group from the frontlines to chasing fairy-tales, it was either out of desperation, or that they knew the information to be absolute. Either way, it was estimated that their final stronghold, the kingdom-city of Arkana, would only be able to hold out for one more day, if not less. Their knights, mages, and battle-priests, all of their numbers were thinning as fast as he thought about it. Once The Mist reached the Grand Cathedral, all would be lost.

Pondering on all of these thoughts, he found himself lost within the winding metal corridors of the large airship. All that broke the silence was his engraved lance that was latched onto his back, clinking against his armor each time he took a step. He lost himself for a moment. What they were doing was useless, he thought. Nothing would be able to stop the gears set in motion. By the nine hells, they were ignorant of what even set it in motion. Perhaps it was just Divine Providence. Foolish, he thought. He wasn’t one to believe that their lives were controlled by some invisible force of nature, which’d fancied itself a puppeteer and set the entirety of their world on a single path that lead to their demise. He always believed that they were in charge of their own fate. Lately such thoughts seemed as absurd as believing in deities. Just a few moments ago, he thought what they were attempting to do was useless. He knew not what to believe in anymore. All that was left, was their task, and what was here, and now.

He found himself looking outside the airship’s paned glass-windows. The irony of their crisis was that looking outside, it was as if it were one of the most beautiful days in recent memory, more beautiful than the times of war, as he’d been told, by the Mother Priest within the church of his home village in his childhood. The sky’s clarity belied their muddled vision of the land below, which was covered in a thick, encompassing fog.

He sat down on one of the long benches that were laid out, so that one could view the sky lazily as it passed. In addition to his truth coming into question, he’d started to think and ponder on other things. Was it really so bad, that all of this happened? Many times, in their existence, the races almost drove each other to extinction. Wars, that pit steel against steel, magic against magic, ideal against ideal. For centuries, peace and war were two sides of a coin. A truce would be founded, but not even a generation later, a new war would spark, urged by greed or thirst for power.

For the first time, in centuries, or perhaps, even forever, the races united as one against a common threat. From petty squabbles to grand wars in the name of some king, queen, or monarch, none of these mattered anymore, but the survival of all of those who agreed to march under one banner, even if it seemed as if they were only delaying the inevitable. Perhaps it was selfish of him to think it, but maybe he wanted this expedition to fail. Maybe this was the best thing that could have happened to everyone, dying in unity, instead of scattered, alone, scared.

Another Alarm Glyph went off. He rose from his seat and discarded the thoughts he had been burdening himself with for the past days. As of right now, he was a soldier, the right hand, and betrothed, of the Grand Cleric. He would see her wishes fulfilled, or everything would become forfeit. He made his way through the corridors and gateways to the bridge of the airship. The room was large and spacious, enough for at least twenty or so people to be gathered around the war table near the middle of the room. The large windshield of the airship extended from the roof to the flooring, giving them a magnificent view of the clear skies, and of course, the dark, foggy Mist below. The main pilot’s chair was situated near the edge of the room, with four other control seats, where his other comrades sat, helping with managing the airship as best they could. A tall, brusque man, clad only in animal pelt for armor with two massive blades strung behind him, stood up from his seat, noticing that their leader had entered. The bear of a man clasped their leader’s shoulder. ‘Iz almost time, da, Harkonnen?’

Harkonnen looked up. His comrade was almost two heads taller than he was. ‘Yes Khan, that’s what the Glyphs mean,’ he smiled.

The Doltev crossed his arms over his barrel chest. ‘Good, good,’ he faltered with his words. ‘Do you… will dees actually vurk?’

Harknonnen lightly punched Khan on the chest. ‘It will,’ he said, letting everyone in the room hear him. Some sighed with relief. Others looked at him as if they knew what he was truly thinking. He felt like he was lying through his teeth. Perhaps he was, only to keep everyone calm, focused.

Harkonnen walked up to their pilot, Desmond. ‘How far from the Ashen Castle?’

Behind the ship’s controls, Desmond was clearly lost in focus. He was a lanky, wiry figure, wearing leather armor and goggles, a hand axe buckled to his right side, various mechanical and magical tools buckled on his left. ‘Not much farther now,’ he said, scratching his brow. ‘Listen, Hark, I know we all agreed that this was a one way trip, and I know we talked about this before leaving Arkana, but by the looks of things, at this point, I don’t think you’ll be able to say goodbye to her.’

Harkonnen looked solemnly at the onboard readings of the airship, trying to keep his mind off what Desmond had just said. The gears and meters whirred on and in a cacophony of muted musical notes. To him, it was an odd sense of beauty. She would have loved to point that out. ‘I know,’ Came his reply, with finality.

Desmond sighed, and went back to busying himself with keeping the airship afloat, as the others left their stations and gathered around the war-table. In the past three days of their journey, they’d already been attacked countless times by aerial spawn of the Mist. Normally, they would have encountered majestic creatures, large, soaring drakes, dragons, wyverns, ahrimen, the list could go on and on about the diversity of the sky. But now, even the creatures new that something had gone awry with the world. Now, the only thing that stood in their way took the form of large, winge monstrosities, powerful things that seemed to only have the purpose of hunting down their airship and make sure they wouldn’t be able to reach the Ashen Castle. Or maybe, perhaps, it was all coincidence, the world as chaotic as it was now, he didn’t put it past these creatures to merely be curious at this point. Their curiosity, of course, came in the form of ramming their airship with their massive bodies, to the point that they had to drive them off themselves. Of course, they were much deadlier when provoked. To say they were fatigued at this point would be an understatement.

‘Any sign of the Gliders?’ Harkonnen asked. Desmond shook his head.

‘None so far. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the ship’s hull Sensor Glyphs were malfunctioning at this point.’

Harkonnen walked over to a structure in the center of the bridge, sitting on top of the war-table. At its center it showed a glyph map, maintained by the ship’s perpetual mana reserves that showed them a rough estimate of their position from their destination. By the looks of it, they’d reach the castle in less than five minutes.

The moment he looked away from the monitor, a loud rumble echoed through the airship’s onboard speakers. The ship jolted abruptly, sending Harkonnen and the others sprawling to the ground. He gripped a side-rail and scrambled to his feet. The others followed suit, the mages starting to mutter incantations on reflex. This wasn’t the first time that’s happened, but it will probably be the last. ‘I take it that would be them?’

‘Aye,’ came Desmond’s only reply. Beyond the towering glass windshield of the bridge, they saw them rising from the Mist below. Large, shifting, powerful creatures reached up with their claws, maws, and talons to try and grab at the airship. They were much more aggressive than before, likely comrades of those that they’ve slain. The ship rocked back and forth, being thrown around like a rag doll in the air, struggling to stay the course. The hull of the bridge started to bend and break, cracks starting to form around the windshield, steam and excess flow of mana flowing violently out of several pipes.

‘How much more can she take, Desmond?’ A young man with long black hair, wearing embroidered, violet robes asked. His staff was starting to glow with power as he used it to steady himself, and his other hand started to trace shapes in the air, channeling his mana for use the instant he needed it. Desmond grimaced.

‘She’s at the end of her rope,’ he said, struggling with the various levers he now had to constantly shift around. Desmond looked at the meters and valves, which were now spinning and spamming sporadically. He turned to the young man and called out. ‘Filip, when I give the signal, channel your mana into the engine’s glyph receiver.’

The young Falkwyn looked at Desmond like he’d gone mad. ‘The extra mana injection will overload the engines, you twit! The airship would-----’

‘And that’s why,’ Desmond cut him off. ‘I’m telling you all to get to the drop pods. I’m taking her to full speed and dropping you all on the castle as we crash past it.’

They all knew what Desmond was implying. His airship was the only home Desmond had come to know. If it were to sink, he would sink with it. But then that also meant, that Desmond was asking Filip to stay on the bridge to power the airship long enough to reach their destination. Filip smirked grimly. ‘You’re a crazy whoreson until the end, you know that?’

With sweat forming on his brow while he wrenched at the controls, Desmond smiled a little. ‘I try my best,’ he said, without care nor regret in his voice. ‘Hark, the four of you will have to finish this without us. Guess I won’t be able to take you and the Cleric gal back to Silpharis, eh?’

‘I’ll still hold you to it,’ Harkonnen replied.

Desmond’s only final reply was to nod. Filip motioned for them to get to the drop pods on the far side of the airship then took his position near the engine’s receiver glyph. His comrades had already went on ahead of him and towards the drop pods. He rushed down the hallway to catch up.

A sickening crunch came up from behind him, the sound of rending metal, followed by another jolt that sent all of them hurling forwards. He caught himself, as the airship seemed to rise for a moment. A gust of wind caught Harkonnen’s attention. His eyes widened in realization, as the entire bridge of the airship was now in the maw of a gigantic serpentine creature. It continued to fly upwards as it created a break in the fog below from where it came. The creature rose until it was higher than what was left of the airship, its gigantic wings beating furiously, its body glowing magnificently, and its form shifting and changing in the sunlight, before clamping its jaws down once again. The bridge section screamed and shuddered, before being crumpled into the gigantic snake’s mouth. He felt another rumble from the far end of the remaining airship. The engines were roaring, a desperate, deafening shout as all of its mana reserves were redirected to the engine block. It looked like Filip managed to overload the engines in time. The Serpent noticed him from what was left of the airship, and started charging. As it did, an explosion detonated from its maw. Traces of overloaded mana pockets filled the air around the serpent, before detonating again. The creature’s head was blown to cinders before it could even cry out in pain. Filip wasn’t one to go out without a spectacle.

The airship’s mangled remains jettisoned desperately forward, but it was losing altitude rapidly. Harkonnen mustered up his own mana, deploying a large barrier around the remains of the airship. He felt the touch of another mage add to the barrier’s power, and the airship was surrounded by a brilliant white light as it fell rapidly from the sky. For the briefest moments, he saw everything as he crashed past the layers of Mist that hid the monsters that were waiting for them below. He saw numerous of the flying, ethereal serpents, ranging in size, as well as unearthly, demon-angel things with blank faces yet wicked looking bodies that had spines, and magnificent, feathered wings that carried them aloft. He couldn’t make out much else, at the speed that the airship was crashing, but he felt some force as the creatures rammed into their barrier with their powerful bodies, not enough to throw them off course, but the shock sent waves through the barrier. The barrier weakened at some points, and some of the creatures were now battering the hull itself. It sent more shockwaves through as the hull cracked and gave, screaming and shuddering. It became harder and harder to focus. He saw the outline of the Ashen Castle, four wicked spires surrounding one large spire in the middle. He felt the ship rip apart moments before it hit the castle’s grand courtyard, and he heard from far off within the airship, a young girl shouted at the top of her lungs, feeding the barrier more mana, as he did the same, before the barrier finally broke a few moments before impact, before all went black.

Harkonnen found himself on a cool, marble floor, when he regained consciousness. He realized everything was covered in ash. He remembered what he’d been sent there to do. The source of the Mist, as it was, was said to be here, in the old Ashen Castle of Genesia. What, or who the source was, no one knew. The only thing that was relatively certain was that it was supposed to lie within the castle walls. He surveyed the damage done to his person, and saw a few gashes here and there along his torso, his armor rent and piercing his skin in some places. He forcefully broke some pieces off, grimacing as he did. He felt for the gash on his forehead, cursing as he felt where the blood had trickled from, which he superficially patched up with his limited knowledge of healing magic. He looked around and saw that his surroundings were still set ablaze, the remains of the airship still fresh and real. The carcass of the large serpentine creature Filip had felled in his final moments lay far enough that he could barely make it out in the surrounding Mist. Shrapnel was still falling from the sky in small pieces. Some moments, he’d hear a large clank in the distance. He saw that some parts of the hull had pierced the old castle, lodging multiple large chunks of metal plating and other sizable pieces into the castle interior. His eyes wandered towards what looked like the entrance, a high, large archway that accentuated large wooden doors before he remembered that someone had tried to help him up before he blacked out again. He looked around, and saw a figure to his left. Lying on her side, her long, red hair splayed out all over the ash-covered marble floor, her crossbow in her right hand and her mace still clasped on the right side of her hip. Her Ellican armor was dented, her tunic tattered. He sat up and used his left arm to hold her by her right shoulder.

‘Helena? Helena!’ he shouted weakly, trying to shake her awake. He used both his arms to roll her on her back. ‘Helena…?’

There was a large metal piece sticking out of her plate armor, near her ribs, and her left arm looked broken. It was twisted at a grotesque angle. He heard her groan only a moment later, as he tried to patch the wound on her ribs up. Her eyes fluttered open. ‘Hey, boss…’ she grimaced. ‘You ain’t s’posed to be feeling up a woman when she’s unconscious, y’know that?’

He reached for the metal plate that was lodged in her ribs, ignoring her jab. ‘Ready? You need to bite down on anything?’

Helena laughed. ‘Steak’ould be nice.’

Harkonnen ripped the metal out abruptly, and immediately started to patch the wound up as best he could with magic. All throughout Helena neither winced nor made a sound. She was always brash, and was the type to remain as harsh as a storm even if you put a greatsword through her abdomen. And that’s happened multiple times in the past. Nothing too serious, thanks to her Ellican physiology Soon, she was on her feet and ready to go, albeit still with a broken arm. That would take at least a week to heal properly, given they were alive in a week. She tore off a piece of her tunic to create a makeshift splint, placing her broken arm in it.

Harkonnen slowly raised himself, bearing the pain his body kept relaying to him, and stood up. He unclasped his lance, which was thankfully still with him, from his back, and used it to steady himself, planting it firmly on the ash-covered floor, piercing the old, crumbling marble. He helped Helena unclasp her mace, and mount it like a bayonet onto her crossbow. They looked around for signs of Khan or Cynthia, but saw neither hide nor hair of either of them. He assumed the worst.

‘We can’t stay any longer. We have to push forward,’ Harkonnen finally said.

Helena nodded. They made their way past the grand archway and wooden doors, which opened with an eerily long creak. Piles of ash were kicked around everywhere they stepped. Despite the Mist being heavily apparent outside, the inside of the castle was largely untouched. Before they crashed, Helena had noted that she saw a faint light at the top of the spire. Perhaps they would find answers there.

The castle in itself looked older than most architecture they’d seen before. Silken draperies and old portraits of various men, women, and creatures adorned the stone walls. The hall they’d entered led to a single, winding staircase. Every other pathway to the any of the halls was either blocked by fallen stones or barred with ancient magic. None of them were powerful enough to dispel it. Their footsteps echoed throughout the empty castle, the clinking of armor and weaponry their only solace from maddening silence. On the fifth floor, the hall was blocked by a large part of the airship that had been dislodged mid-flight. From the broken hall they scanned the outside. Hundreds of the Mist’s creatures were starting to flood the castle-grounds. The most curious of the group, wicked looking lupine creatures, had already entered the castle doors.

The moment they passed the debris of the airship, Harkonnen heard something. Helena had heard it too, and raised her good arm wielding her crossbow-mace. She bit a bolt that was nestled in a quiver on her right arm, and loaded it onto her crossbow. Harkonnen inched forward, and saw a trail of blood that lead around the corner. His eyes wandered within the debris of the airship, and he caught his breath. A large part of the castle ceiling had fallen, with a large splash of blood where the piece met the ground. Something was undoubtedly caught between it. They inched their way past the debris, and he saw something that made his heart sink. It was Cynthia.

The young girl propped herself up on a metal plating, sitting and leaning back against the charred remains, her formerly stark white dress bloodied and in. She was looking downwards, distraught. She’d been crying. The ash and soot that found itself onto her face were broken apart by tear tracks. She looked up, and her eyes widened, a smile creeping across her small face. ‘Harky, Lena…?’ she choked, feeling the tears coming back.

The two of them knelt down next to Cynthia, Harkonnen on her right, and Helena on the left. Tears slowly streamed down the girl’s cheeks again, her sobs coming back in force. Helena embraced the young girl. ‘Hey, hey, yer alright, sugar,’ Helena said, stroking the girl’s curly, blonde hair, trying to calm her down. ‘Big sis is’ere.’

The warm feeling of the reunion was short lived. Harkonnen was smiling but he couldn’t help but trail his eyes downward. Beneath her tattered dress, he saw that Cynthia’s right leg was cut off from the knee below. It was probably what was lodged between the fallen ceiling and the floor. She most likely separated it herself. Her left leg was in no better shape, a large gash ran across from her upper thigh all the way to her knee. She’d lost a lot of blood. Harkonnen knew she tried to heal herself, as the bleeding had already stopped, but she’d already used much of her energy on the barrier for the airship, and the trail and the pool that formed near her legs said a lot about her condition. All he could do was embrace her. Without her, they wouldn’t have survived the crash. He was wracked with guilt. The girl was always well meaning, a powerful mage, but she was still young. On his suggestion that she should stay with the Grand Cleric, she refused, and wanted to stay with the group. Cynthia noticed how distraught he looked. She leaned on him. With a shaky voice, she spoke.

‘Hey, Harky? This isn’t your fault. I wanted to help. And I did, right?’ she said through wheezing breaths.

Harkonnen wanted to reassure her, somehow. There was no longer a point in trying to convince her of a better outcome from her situation. Because of her time with the group, Cynthia understood much of how the world worked despite her age. ‘You did. You did, Cynth, you did good. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you.’

Cynthia smiled. Her sobbing started to abate, before she started to speak again. ‘I’m getting sleepy,’ she said. Her hands were quivering. Harkonnen took Cynthia’s right hand in his, and Helena held Cynthia’s left. ‘Go to bed, sugar,’ Helena started. ‘When ya wake up, we can get some ‘o those cakes you like so much.’

Cynthia nodded before speaking again. ‘Harky? You’ll Send me off, right?’ she said shakily. Helena caught her breath, before looking at Harkonnen.

He felt a pang in his chest. A Sendoff meant a great deal for Falkwyn. Usually it was done by family members, after funeral rites were completed. At this point, they were the only family Cynthia had left. He stroked Cynthia’s hair, trying to comfort her. She knew what was going to happen now, and she didn’t need to be patronized. She was being brave, for their sakes.

‘I’d be honored.’

Cynthia’s last reply was a small sound of affirmation. Her grip on either of them slowly faded, until her arms went slack to her sides. She still had a smile on her face as her eyes lidded closed. Harkonnen breathed in deeply. He stood up, and asked for some space from Helena, who obliged. From down the stairwell, they could hear the creatures that had entered the castle slowly climb the creaking stairwell. He didn’t care. At this point, almost nothing mattered, except what was right in front of him. There was no time for burial rites, nor was there any time for any formalities of any sort. This was all he could do for her, now. Harkonnen planted his lance into the flooring, and started an incantation in the Falkwyn’s language, his homeland’s native tongue. His lance glowed with a gentle, soothing light, and Cynthia’s body emanated a golden aura.

From the skies you were born

To the wind you return

From the Goddess, your life

To her garden, your death

I send you off, child of the sky

I will see you once more, in Eden

Cynthia’s form started to fade. Light surrounded her, before flashing brilliantly. All that was left were her tattered clothes and brooch, and an orb of light that slowly rose through the break in the Castle Walls, and into the sky. The Mist didn’t dare touch it. It even looked like the Mist parted so that the orb would be able to float further up, before rising faster, and out of sight. Harkonnen took his lance back from the ground, and knelt. ‘Memento mori.’

He took Cynthia’s brooch and pocketed it in a small satchel buckled onto his armor. He signaled for Helena to move quickly. The Sendoff had delayed them enough that the head of the pack of creatures were close enough to hear. As they reached the end of the hallway, they found themselves within an inner courtyard of the castle. They looked behind them and found that they had been inside one of the castle’s spires. When they turned back again, to their left and right were the two other spires. The path that they were on lead to a stone bridge that connected to the large, middle spire that he’d seen before they crashed. Sure enough, beyond that, was the fourth spire. They made their way across the stone bridge. They noted the mist getting thicker and thicker the higher up the Ashen castle they went.

The entrance to the tallest spire was a large portcullis, the lever that probably opened it located just to the right, mounted on a stone wall. The mechanisms looked old. ‘Think it’ll open?’ Helena asked. As Harkonnen went up to the lever, the first of the creatures poked its head out of the path from where they came. It was a wolf-like creature, standing on two legs, its fur a dark, crimson color. Its head contained no eyes, but there was a mouth that was foaming ravenously, showing a row wicked spikes for teeth. A bald patch in its fur was right above the creature’s mouth, with one small slit for a nose in its center, twitching erratically. The creature’s body was large, and powerful, two arms on either side of its powerful abdomen, with razor-spikes that ran along from the shoulder down to the elbow, and ended with large, formidable scythe-like claws instead of hands or paws. Its head jerked from side to side, sniffing the air for whatever had gone through before it, its ears twitching rapidly to pick up any and every noise that could be made from its surroundings. Harkonnen looked at Helena, who was quietly loading multiple bolts onto her crossbow, a mechanism allowing it to stack all of the bolts on either of her wrists. Twelve shots, after which she’d have to resort to using the mace. Harkonnen looked at Helena again, who nodded, and back to the creature. More of them started to flood onto the bridge, all of them cautiously making their way across. With one motion, Harkonnen reached for the lever and pulled on it hard. The rusted gears and chains that connected to the portcullis started to move, and slowly the entrance rose. The gears whirred and whined, and the wolves picked up on it instantly. The one they’d seen step in first, the largest of the group, began to snarl and howl wildly, signaling its comrades that it’d found prey.

Harkonnen didn’t even hesitate. He cast a numbing spell on his body to force it to move despite the pain. He charged eagerly forward, with heavy steps, lance at the ready in his right hand. The wolf-leader, perhaps as some sort of test, sent two of its pack to deal with him. The two wolves smelled at the air for a while, before acknowledging the prey set in front of them, and charged. The first wolf ran towards Harkonnen at speed. It jumped at the last moment, and Harkonnen raised his lance to catch the wolf as it tried to pounce him. It landed with a sickening sound of metal piercing skin, tissue, and bone. Its scythe-arms swung at the air blindly, its maw foaming and bubbling with blood at the same time. Harkonnen hoisted the wolf over one side of the bridge, and it fell, snapping and whimpering, to the ground far below. The other wolf was upon him with lightning speed. Helena was a few meters away, a bolt freshly loosed from the crossbow. The wolf found a bolt lodged all the way through its head, splattering blood and brain matter onto the stone they stood upon. The bolt went further still, pelting one more wolf on the head, and it fell back and thudded onto the stone. The wolves seemed confused for a moment, not being able to process what had just happened. The alpha sniffed at the air, and growled angrily, before sending another wave of wolves at them. Harkonnen twirled his lance around, and pointed his palm at the incoming pack. From his palm, a burst of magical energy pierced through two wolves. A third one was closing in, and he brought his lance to bear, piercing it straight through the throat. Helena was slowly picking off stragglers that were slower than their other comrades. Three more wolves were felled with two bolts, and five more with only three. One wolf jumped higher than Harkonnen expected, and it headed straight for Helena. He cursed loudly, and warned Helena, who’d let lose another bolt to protect him from a wolf about to tear into his flesh. The moment he looked away, a wolf managed to plant two scythes on his right arm, his lance-arm’s shoulder. He would feel that as soon as the numbing spell wore off, but for now, he grabbed the wolf by one of its arms, screaming carnally. He violently pulled the wolf’s head closer to him, and grabbed it with his free hand. In an instant, the wolf’s head disintegrated from the magic emanating from his palm.

The wolf that got through to Helena tore into her armor when she tried to hop away. The scythes missed her torso but barely scratched her left leg. The leather armor wasn’t enough to protect her from the sharp, bladed arms. Helena cursed under her breath and raised her bayonet-mace high. She crushed the wolf’s skull as soon as she’d landed on the stone flooring again. Blood and broken teeth found themselves crashing onto the stone bridge as the wolf toppled over. Focusing her bolts once more, she took out another three wolves with three shots. Harkonnen could feel the numbing spell slowly disappear. His lance became heavy to wield, and his movements started to be impeded by the pain that started to return. With another thrust, he felled two wolves, and with another blast of magic, two more fell over the stone bridge’s ledge. The alpha seemed to be growing impatient.

He felt the blood start to trickle from the wound on his shoulder. He knelt down as another one of Helena’s bolts whiffed past his head and killed two more wolves. He placed his left palm on his right shoulder. He mended the wound closed, but could still feel the pain from the cuts seep into his consciousness. He fell backwards, dropping his lance, woozy from the sudden rush of fatigue. He heard Helena cry out from behind him. She tried to rush to his side, but was met with resistance from two wolves. She smashes the mace into the kneecap of one of the wolves, sending it tripping and over the side of the stone bridge, then smashing the other’s face in with the butt of her crossbow. When she turned her attention back to Harkonnen, the alpha wolf was already rushing forward, eager to taste prey so worthy. Harkonnen gripped his lance again and fought the nausea. In the distance of the bridge, he saw the alpha charging towards him. He didn’t have enough focus to cast another bolt of energy, and his legs didn’t want to obey him to stand and fight. So close, yet so far. He looked behind him and saw the portcullis had already withdrawn fully, leading into a chamber of darkness. He hadn’t noticed, but he’d been slowly forced further and further back by the wolves. He was a few feet away from Helena now.

‘Not… yet…’ Harkonnen muttered. He slowly got up, and held his lance forward, challenging the alpha. Before either of them made contact however. A proud, resounding roar echoed throughout the inner courtyard. For a moment, even the wolves were confused. The alpha stopped in his tracks, and smelled at the air. In almost an instant, the alpha, and a portion of the bridge, disappeared. Something crashed into the stone bridge. In that instant, they both recognized the form of the serpent that had attacked them while they were on the airship. In the blink of an eye, a figure jumped off of the serpent’s head, and landed onto the other side of the stone bridge, where the other wolves had stopped, and waited in a panic. Wielding a massive iron blade as tall as he was, they could make out the silhouette of a bear of a man through the smoke that had formed when the crumbling bridge was taken out. The giant serpent smashed into a wall of the Ashen Castle, sending more dust and debris flying. They saw the figure raise an arm through the smoke, and begin hacking at the other dark shapes, the sound of animalistic shouting and whimpering mixed with the clash of bone-like blades and forged steel. As the dust settled, Khan was standing there, amidst a pile of dead lupine abominations, his blade in his right hand bloodied and stained with bone fragments.

‘Khan!’ Harkonnen called out. Khan looked at him with tired eyes, but a grin on his face.

‘So zorry. There ver… matters I attended to,’ he said, motioning his head to the serpent that crashed into the wall.

Helena whistled. ‘Cheeky bastard.’

They heard a commotion coming from the way they came. It sounded like the rest of the horde was coming. Creatures flooded the pathway to the stone bridge like wildfire. Khan unsheathed his second blade and went to work. The Doltev became a flurry of poetic violence, his blades sinking into each creature in verses. From additional scythe-wolves to one-eyed demon spawn, he sank his blade into each and every one, not letting anything get past him. His blades, seemingly large and ungainly, were like daggers in the hands of a rogue, deftly and tactically cutting through flesh and bone. The surrounding ash from the castle had been thrown into the air from all the new movement, and visibility started to become worse as even the Mist seemed to invade the interior of the castle. Despite being wounded several times, Khan continued, caught up in a battle rage and adrenaline that he had not felt in the longest of times. The finality of his purpose here was clear: to be the unbreakable wall so Harkonnen and Helena would be able to continue to their final destination. If he died here, in glorious battle like this, he could die with a content smile on his face. His masterwork blades started to crack and shudder, being faced with enemies that were not of the common make, their armored shells and talons harder and stronger than any material that he’d come across. With each swing his blades took the lives of two or three creatures at a time, but they’d also started to falter. His tempo became slower, his verses shorter, before needing to back off for a moment to catch his breath, before beginning the attack again.

Harkonnen used his lance to steady himself. He needed to get over to the other side. Through the thickening Mist, he could barely make out the outline of the remains of the stone bridge. The gap that had been created by the giant serpent to the bridge was significant. If he was going to support Khan, he’d need to jump now before his numbness wore off. Helena was in front of him now, looking on as Khan fought valiantly.

‘Let’s go, Helena,’ he said. He went for a running start. But before he could reach the gap, Helena redirected his movement with her good arm, forcing him to circle around her. She whispered into his ear.

‘Sirifas frei,’ she muttered. It meant forgive me, in Ellican. She then used his momentum to throw him through the portcullis. She took her last two bolts and shot the chains that held the portcullis’ door up. The door’s weight was enough to break the chains entirely, and it slammed back down to the stone floor.

‘Y’re in no shape t’fight any more, boss man. Finish what we came’ere for, a’right?’ she said, smiling.

He wanted to call out, but his voice was caught in his throat. In the distance he could see Khan becoming slower and slower, bloodier, battered. A few of the creatures managed to get passed him, two wicked, gargoyle things without wings, with stone-like claws and feet, running on all fours. They managed to leap the entire gap that had been destroyed, but were both smashed to the ground by Helena’s mace, which she’d dislodged from her crossbow. She took her right arm in her left, and forced her broken arm back into place with a sickening crack. Even then, she neither winced nor shouted in pain. She held her mace with both arms, waiting for any other creature that managed to get past.

The numbness was gone now. He felt the pain at his shoulder, as well as his entire body, and instantly had to let go of his lance. It clattered to the stone floor within the portcullis’ chamber. In a moment, a circular sigil lit up, and he was surrounded by a wicked looking purple flame. A teleportation spell, perhaps? He recognized some sigils. It was ancient, archaic, but he could barely make it out. From the gaps within the portcullis door, he saw Khan plant both his blades into the ground. He let out a magnificent warcry. Almost instantly, the creatures, these demonic hellspawn that had caused so many to suffer, looked afraid, afraid of this one man who had a blazing inferno in his eyes. He shouted once more at the fear-stricken creatures.

‘ISHIGAL REM, FHARENSHIR KILIKAS, ISHIGAL REM KHAN FRE HARKONNEN IL AETHRISH, NILIL HASHIL PASA. (I am Fharenshir Kilikas, I am Khan of Harkonnen Il Aethrish, none shall pass.)’

His harsh Doltev accent became fully apparent in his native tongue. His blood boiled with the anger of the ancients. The blood that caked his skin became his armor, the rage that took toll on his mind became his blade. Khan tore into the cowering creatures like in a flurry of chaotic discipline, each strike bloody but calculated, each severing violent, and precise. Khan was now his own greatest creation, his body had become his blade, serving him well in his darkest hour.

The circle was now half-lit. Helena turned her attention to Harkonnen, and smiled. ‘I’ll be seein’you somewhere, boss,’ she said jokingly. She prepared to jump. She was off to a running start, then pushed herself off the edge magnificently, despite her injuries. She landed in a crouch on the other side, and began helping Khan, her body a lithe, nimble addition to the flailing limbs and bloody splashes. Perhaps the two of them could stem the tide, Harkonnen thought. Then, if he managed to succeed, they could all return to the Grand Cathedral.

The circle was almost completed now. He felt an ethereal tug on his body, and he began to rise. On the outside of the gate, the Mist grew thicker around the two combatants. The creatures on the bridge were being forced to pull back. Just as it seemed like Khan and Helena had would be able to gain some respite, a giant serpent descended from the sky. Harkonnen caught his breath, and wanted to cry out, to call out to his comrades, but it was too late. The magic tugged with finality, and the last image he saw were multiple titanic serpents crashing into the stone bridge.

Harkonnen found himself on a cool, marble floor. The light that surrounded him was almost too magnificent to behold. He noticed that his lance had not accompanied him during the warp. This almost made him feel lament. That lance was given to him by the Grand Cleric herself. She said that it was to symbolize she was always with him, protecting him. It was the last shred of companionship he could have hoped for. Now even that had been torn away from him. He rose on his own, ignoring the pain that coursed through his body once more. It felt like he was empty now. What was he here for? Everyone that he’s come to care for, gone, all except one, and she was far out of his reach.

Where had he been transported, he wondered. It was a simple, white room. Perhaps, room wasn’t appropriate. The white marble floor extended as far as the eye could see, over the horizon. A single structure was present, large and cauldron like, with a torch and flint beside it. The fire within the cauldron looked like it was dying out. He walked toward it, and felt the heat of the flame. It was oddly warm, in the sense that it was a comforting warmth, more so than a normal hearth. It brought on waves of nostalgia, but why, he wondered.

‘It is because you have been here many times before,’ a voice, deep and rumbling, came from behind.

He didn’t seem surprised. Rather, he calmly looked behind him. As soon as he gazed upon the figure, memories flooded his mind. He laughed to himself. A few tears started trickled from his eyes. How foolish, he thought. He’d always been like that.

‘How many times has it been?’ Harkonnen asked. He took the torch in hand and scanned it. The torch was nearly out as well, the wood being less than half his forearm in length.

‘By my count?’ The being started. ‘This is your 416th attempt. I wager you’d go for your 417th now.’

416 attempts to prevent it all from happening. Each time he came back, he was always given a choice. Each time he came back he always wondered if there was a way to change everything. But that was just it. Each time, he always ended up here. In this place of nothingness, and everything at the same time. The light from the cauldron flickered dangerously. It was about to go out.

‘No,’ Harkonnen replied.

‘No?’ the being asked, inquisitively.

‘Was that not in your calculations?’

‘Perhaps, but my calculations always leaned towards you re-attempting to change your fate.’

Fate. It was a funny word. Maybe, at this point, this was the only way he could change his fate. Or, maybe, there was an even higher being than what he was conversing with, and that being had set him on the path to realize that after 416 attempts, perhaps it was time to move on. The cauldron flickered again, as if telling him to decide quickly.

‘May I ask for one final favor?’

The being stayed silent for a moment, before replying. ‘This is surprising. Go on.’

If it were truly an all-knowing being, these actions should have come as no surprise to it. Deciding not to ponder on it any longer, he replied. ‘Is it in your power to bring her here?’

The being chuckled. ‘You question my ability?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘This was the first time you’d ever asked this. Why now, of all times?’

Harkonnen looked at the flickering flame. ‘Perhaps now I’m ready to let go.’

The being shrugged. ‘You have but three minutes.’

A blinding light replaced the being, slowly floating above Harkonnen, before turning into a figure, that floated down gently. Harkonnen caught her in his arms.

She looked tired, her eyes heavyset with bags, her robes in tatters. Her long, brown hair flowed awkwardly in the air, before settling down once the invisible force keeping her afloat disappeared. Her eyes fluttered open. Once she saw his face, she smiled warmly.

‘Is this a dream?’ she asked weakly. Harkonnen stroked her face gently.


She laughed lightly. He helped her up, holding onto her hand. She looked around, wide eyed like a child. Then she looked back at him, knowingly, for some reason. ‘So it was all for naught?’ she asked.

He neither affirmed nor denied it. She looked down, at the pristine white floor, and how their garb, dirty and tattered, seemed such a stark contrast, to the serene beauty that they were now witnessing around them. Her worries, about the world, about everything, seemed to disappear, the longer she stayed, as did his. Tranquil silence. Peaceful thoughts. The cauldron’s fire flickered once more. They watched the flame as it died out, their hands intertwined, finally together, at the end of it all.

The world was covered in a thick Mist

Mist of Ash, as the world was put into a slumber

The cycle, the struggle of one, broken

And the Ash was allowed to encompass


For from Dust the World Had Come

From Dust the World Shall Return

Before it is reborn once more


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