Chapter 3.9: Shining Rays of Blood.
“Failure is a constant friend in existence. Both to the mediocre and the beautiful, failure will accompany the lives of all people, across all time. Why then do we mourn it? Why do we hate failure when it is such a constant in our existence? One reason is simply a functional one, if we did not hate failure, we would not grow. If we did not fear loss, we would not fight for what is precious. By this reasoning, Failure is key to progress. So long as it motivates us to surpass it.
This is especially true for my over mentioned exceptionals. They recognize their failures and have the will to grow past them. But even in our youngest days, we know that we are not alone in our failings. All people share in them, as I have so often belabored. This invites the idea that if a person can help themselves, then they might be able to help others. Such an attitude can be very beneficial, yet it will always be dangerous.
For example: If a teacher has thirty students, but decides only twelve are worth their time, then they have had twelve successes. If a saint tries to save the world and is killed by those he would save, then all are lost. These are not even hypotheticals, but a historical constant. Thus, to save anyone, you must be willing to leave others…
The Great Dragon floated before her, coiled around invisible air, and its power radiating as brightly as the sun that gleamed off its scales. He was so confident in that power, so assured of victory. This was a situation that Atma was perfectly comfortable with, as it gave her wounds more time to heal.
But that didn’t make the creature’s voice any easier to listen to. “Strange. Thine presence should be fleeting...Thou oughtn’t to be in this place...Thou shouldst be absent from this time.”
Atma knew she had to keep him talking...and to be honest, The Golden Dragon’s statement had her curious. “From this time? Maybe what Babs said was more than just hyperbole...”
Battling through her pain, and her well-worn fatigue towards yet another impactful speech, Atma did her best to appear meek. “Is your vision painful?”
There was a low growl from the dragon, this Shade of the Emperor. But his eyes did not waver, and his great mass remained in its suspended and floating state. Yet his voice flowed forth in a rhythmic tone. “To witness the collective ignorances and realizations of all peoples, to be conscious of all blatant deceptions and hidden truths: It is pain and ecstasy beyond the conventional knowing. But thou art not conventional, young exile.”
Rays of golden light began to shine Atma, almost like tendrils caressing her shoulders and legs. It was immensely disconcerting. And most importantly: it hurt. But Atma did her best not to reveal this. She had been through much worse than a light show. Unfortunately, her efforts at resistance were enough to gain the Shade Emperor’s attention.
The Dragon growled in its low tone, yet Atma felt no fear. In fact, the sound felt almost musical and soothing. An impulse that was furthered by the creature’s renewed speech. “Though beyond destiny’s gaze, thou art not beyond its wrath.”
Atma’s eyes widened, and she wondered if the Dragon knew that she had been paralyzed by such matters only hours earlier. Despite a contrary instinct and the still-present pain, Atma couldn’t help but ask more. “The magic you use? Is it really divine?”
The dragon gave an alien, albeit regal bow of its head. The creature was happy not only with Atma’s wonder but with itself. “Tis most admirable, that thou hath taken Enlightenment, Mine most sacred service, to heart.”
The Young Demon recognized the arrogance for what it was. Yet entranced as she was, she did not halt the healing of her wounds, and knew to stall for all the time she could get. “I’d heard so many legends. But they were all so, mythical. I had assumed-”
“Thine assumptions were born of cynicism, and perhaps some contempt for mine loyal supplicants. But now, you see that Taiyang’s sun is not birthed from legend, but carried on truth, the truth of mine power. Upon that which is descended from Paradise.”
Paradise, the first realm created. So the legends said at least. It was home of the Angels, Miranda’s home...And Miranda had nothing in common with this polished monster. That truth at least drove Atma to a renewed defiance. “If that’s true, then why conquer? Why oppress?”
“Conquest is not the ambition, but only the first step of rule. The soul of this blessed earth, hath been entombed by bestial preconception. The lessers that count themselves as mine siblings believe mere tutelage shall carry the day, that the simple and mortal souls of the fleshed masses shall bloom into something great. Mine vision allows for the clarity they lack. Such revelations demand swift flight, that I might rescue this Unrealized Cosmos.”
Atma realized something, if the emperor was conscious of her being affected by his magic, then he must be aware of her healing. The process was already done, she could feel her muscles reaffirming themselves.
“He would have killed me a dozen times over by now, or at least checked my efforts. Why hasn’t he?”
Whatever the reason for her continued survival, Atma could at least count on the customary Draconic arrogance. Which in this creature had been magnified a thousand times over by the reverence of an entire empire. If she could play to such things, then maybe she could find another weakness. One that she could exploit...she found such thinking strange, and that it might very well have been the daily operation of Abram’s mind. But for now, she needed to focus on survival.
The Young Demon’s eyes shifted, giving the air of indecision as if she had been truly touched by The Dragon’s words. “I’ve spent so much time in the company of mortals...I think it’s dulled my-”
“It has. Thine ability to reason and apprehend is blunted by mortal apparition. Notions of honor to banners and loyalty to blood hath infected thine otherwise purest of selves.”
“And you too are pure?”
The hall became warmer, but not unbearably so. And as Atma gazed up at the golden dragon, she noticed something: weariness. Such weariness in fact that it was very un-dragon like, and certainly un-godly.
All the pieces started to come together, and it made her laugh. “You’re not really an Avatar of the Emperor, are you? You’re just one of out the dozens of imperial progeny.”
Smoke rose from the Dragon’s nostrils, while fury and shame shone in its golden eyes. Whatever its original intent, it was longer interested in intrigues and ideological seduction. The beast reared its head and its voice burst forth in a monstrous roar. “I am still powerful enough to end you.”
“No. You might have been before your fight with Master Tristian, but now you’re tired. Why else would you try and “convert” me?”
“You too are spent.”
Atma noticed the dragon’s claw getting closer, just within striking distance, but her preparations were done. She had just forged a usable, if incredibly ugly and unwieldy, Black Blade.
She’d live through this, and if she could do that, then she could conquer anything. With this thought driving her, Atma threw a final challenge at the monster looming above her. “Then it’s up to whoever strikes first.”
Discreetly channeling her forge magic and reinforcing her armor, Atma prepared for her closest scrape with death yet.
And then it happened: footsteps upon the floor, and Lorenzo’s voice screaming out: “Atma!”
The Dragon turned, and Atma seized her unexpected chance even as she cursed the idiot who had just come in. “Why now of all times?”
She thrust forward a swift and desperate hand at the Dragon, and from that shaking palm flew a jagged piece of black metal wreathed in pulsing magics. The blade plunged into the Dragon’s body, sending him into a fit of screams and convulsions. His clawed hand fell with a rabid fury, so much that it plunged into Atma’s chest before she could move. The wound was more painful than any that Atma had ever felt, it was like she was burning from the inside. When she looked for the reason, she was answered by a bright light emanating from the embedded claw.
If the Dragon’s power was entirely divine, even in the body, then the burning sensation in her demonic self was no simple pain. “Have to stop this...have to get out.”
She tried to hit against the claw, hoping to push herself free of it. But she just couldn’t muster the grip. She desperately searched for a way out and saw the Dragon flailing at the Black Blade with his free hand. His efforts only served to drive it deeper into his rapidly degrading form.
Hoping she had the strength to pull off such a feat, Atma reached out with her hand and teleported to the blade. Then with a desperate burst of strength, she lifted the monstrous slab of metal, right through the dragon’s hide and into the beast’s face. There was a final roar, accompanied by a burst of light, and a wave of force so great that Atma was blown away by it.
She crashed into the wall and felt the Black Blade fall out of her hand. She heard it clatter to the ground but couldn’t see where it fell. For the light was so blinding that she had to close her eyes. But finally, it died down, and as she opened her eyes, she saw no dragon, and no great display of mystic might. Instead, she saw a ruined hall, her own wounded body...and Lorenzo, standing over her with the amalgamated Black Blade in his trembling hands.
She looked into his eyes, into the spite bulging within. Whatever she might have felt before, whatever higher feelings she might have listened to just hours earlier, were gone. Atma was done and did nothing to hide such feelings either in her voice or in her cold eyes. “Put it down Lorenzo.”
“You’re in no position to-”
“I don’t care! I already gave you a chance to stop being this-this thing you’ve become. I thought you felt sorry about what you did.” Lorenzo cut her across the face with the amalgamated blade.
She cried out once more and felt her face burn, like the rest of her body.
Lorenzo’s eyes widened, his trembling ceased, and he reached for something in his shirt. “I was ashamed, and then I found this.” He presented a chain necklace, from which hung a medallion of solid ruby-gemstone. The outer part of the medallion was in the shape of the “Omega” (Ω) from Old Elysian which encircled a figure of the Tengu kanji for “Empty” (空).
The Young Demon had never seen that symbol before, but the pain in her body was now replaced with terror. “Where did you get that?” She was as still as a cat readying to jump.
“In a dream.” Lorenzo’s voice came out in a breathy tone. “It was the only reason I made it through the wall your dragon had made.” And though he faced Atma, his eyes stared to some other far off place. “After you rejected me, and when I slept that first night in this castle and stood within a field of stars, they came to me.”
“A girl, no older than twelve. She laughed with the giddiness of her age, yet looked down on me with ageless eyes.”
“An eyeless mass of flesh and chitinous shells. It changed colors with each breath I drew, and reached out to me with ethereal arms.
“A tall woman, wrapped in bandages of iron from head to toe. She floated above the others, her arms folded by her chest, and her eyes blazing with eldritch fire.
“A dragon of red scales. Larger than any I’d ever seen, with golden eyes, and looking at all before him with an alien contempt.
“And above them, seated upon a plain chair of polished wood: was him. His body obscured by shadows, and his face hidden behind a thespians mask shaped from white crystal. One half of his face was carved into uproarious humor, while the other was frozen in stagnant horror. He pointed at my hand, and I found the medallion within it. He whispered to me of the true injustices I suffered, and I knew what I had to do.”
Lorenzo seemed ready to cry. “I betrayed my father for you. My sister died for you. And in my most desperate moment, you rejected me. And for that, you shall-
Atma’s eyes widened, and her jaw nearly broke from how wide it flared. Hurt, disbelief, exhaustion...all these things and more poured forth from the young demon in a long-buried fury. “You think you’re the only one who was suffering? You think you’re the only one who’s ever suffered? If you really needed someone, you would have been fine with a friend, or just sitting down with your brother and sister. But no, you’re just a small man trying to make himself feel great. I don’t know if you were always like this but-”
Lorenzo slashed Atma across the face once more. She fell to her stomach, still alive, but now feeling on fire once again. She tried to rise but felt the blade stab straight through her back and out her stomach. She lost feeling in her legs, and that numbness started to creep in where the pain had once been. She screamed, wept, and choked out silver ichor in increasing amounts.
By contrast, her assassin was overtaken by an ever-rising mania. Laughter echoed throughout the hall, just as drool fell to the ground, trailing from Lorenzo’s outstretched tongue. “Are you crying now? Well, now you know something of what I felt. You know my pain!”
Atma could still move her arms and hands. So she flung one of them upwards, and it connected with Lorenzo’s knee. He was swept off his feet and fell on his back. Even as he grunted in pain, Lorenzo managed to pick himself up. Yet as soon as he stood to his height and looked back at Atma, he saw her pointing a conjured crossbow him. He opened his mouth to speak, and received a crossbow bolt straight through it.
He fell to the floor, his body twitched and there were a few gurgling sounds, and then he laid still. Atma tried one final move and managed to teleport herself into a leaning position on the jagged mess of a Black Blade that she had conjured, then it disappeared, and her legs buckled beneath her. Once more falling on her face, Atma surrendered to the delirium brought on by her man’s injuries. Injuries that were not healing, while an unfamiliar though recognizable stiffness crept further across her body. Knowing she had done her best, and hoping that her true friends had survived, Atma whispered her goodbyes and closed her eyes. She would have gladly accepted her rest, had it not been for the sound of steeled boots approaching from the distance.