Xian

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Chapter 3.11: From her Perspective.

“Heroism, the final chain that holds us in this wretched life. Heroism: the idea that there is a reason to live life, and to live it well. It is a nuisance to be sure, and the only one keeping me from my true goal. For so long as heroism exists, people will not accept the truth I bring. Thus, for the past thousand years, I have made it my mission break heroes. If I simply killed them, they would be martyrs. But if I can turn them from the futility of life, then the rest will follow.

Of you mortals, only two have defied me thus far. One is a master of magic. He thinks that there is something noble in the soul, and seeks to free it rather than forsake it. The other is more direct. Though stripped of all she loved, she presses on. This makes her dangerous above all others. For if she can bear such scars and remain righteous, then all my works will have been for nothing. But I know she will break, for none know the follies of Heroism better than I…

********

“I don’t know how to describe it, being undead. Try and think of how boring everyday life can be, how tedious the average nine to five existence can play out. And then remove sleep, the need for food, even the ability to lose yourself in booze, or sex, or any other vice, even ones as simple as reading for too long. You are conscious and aware of yourself and every action you take during every single moment of every single day without pause or break.”

“I guess it could be worse, and you can still taste stuff if you’re lucky. So here I am, at this cozy establishment, hoping for maybe two minutes of distraction.”

“Bartender! Some more brandy, and here’s another twenty silver to leave the bottle.”

“The guy nods, and he smiles. I think he’s honestly happy to see me. I never talk more than five minutes with him. But I keep the rowdier customers in line, I pay for any damages that might come from that...and I don’t get drunk and try to come on to him...like five of his exes did. Small miracles I guess. Wow, he actually does look kinda adorable up close, in a dorky way.”

“Here you are, Dame Barbara.”

“Thanks, Jackie. You’re the best.”

“Anytime, Madame.”

“He smiles when he says that, while I give him my customary polite nod. Even as he goes away to the other patrons, I can tell he wants to sneak a peek at me without my mask. It’s not out of lust or anything creepy though. If I saw me walk in here wearing a skull face all the time, I’d probably wonder what I looked like underneath it too. Oh well. The bar certainly has been touched up though, benefits of being underground. What’s the deal with that anyway? Dwarves “needing” to be underground?”

“Well whatever thoughts I might have about all that is getting blocked out by some very noisy footfalls, at least I know who it is.”

“Hello, Jose.”

“Evening my beauty.”

“He of course picks the stool closest to me. But that’s fine, I don’t mind talking right now, there’s a lot on my mind anyway. He’s getting a drink now.”

“I’ll just have some Strumhanden beer. A pint if you don’t mind.”

“The bartender seems to agree with Jose’s taste.”

“Of course, Master Reyes, right away.”

“Jackie gets the drink, puts it at Jose’s slice of the table...then takes one look at us and figures we want some privacy. So, he just smiles.”

“If you need anything, I’ll just be over there.”

“I raise my glass.”

“Thanks, Jackie.”

“He nods, then walks off to the other patrons. This place has gotten pretty noisy now. I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s evening and all the repair workers and mystic engineers are tired and thirsty after all. Also unsurprising is that Jose is the first of us to talk.”

“Are you going to drink that brandy?”

“When I get a little more privacy. Don’t wanna stain the mask.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Here we go, how many times do I have to repeat myself...”

“It’s part of the aesthetic...and frankly, it’s pretty bad-ass.”

“You won’t get any argument from me, my dear. But to wear it even at dinner and at the bar?”

“It can open up at the jaw if I want to. It can still get messy.”

“Jose’s starting to look at me with that bewildered stare of his again.”

“Babs, I can’t help but notice that your hair is lovely as ever and that your eyes are undamaged as well.”

“Your point?”

“I don’t think you have any reason to hide yourself among your friends or even strangers for that matter.”

“My armor, my rules.”

“He looks a little frustrated by this. But then he shrugs his shoulders, accepts that I won’t budge...and yeah, he’s finally drinking. Bout time. Now if I just turn around a little and open up my mask-”

“Have you cried for Atma yet?”

“He’s damn lucky I wasn’t pouring yet. Just set this on the table, close up my visor and-”

“No Jose, I haven’t cried for Atma.”

“I know I have.”

“That’s very nice of you.”

“The old man’s fixing me with another bewildered stare.”

“This worries me, my beauty.”

“Why?”

“You may have only spent a while with her. But you certainly put a lot of effort into protecting the girl.”

“I’m gonna need to push my brandy in a little more, don’t want it falling off.”

“Alright you old bastard, you want to know the truth? The whole thing?”

“He nods, with a little bit of eagerness in his eyes. I swear if he’s just using this as fuel for another damn play...Whatever, I might as well get this all out now.”

“I got a farewell message from Miranda. She’d been scattered, and she used whatever energy she had left to call me. She said she had two kids that she wanted me to take care of but then disappeared into the ether or whatever the terminology is before she could finish. I made some inquiries, and found out that she had been looking for...”

“Shit...why is this so hard for me? Why now?”

“She had been looking for Xavier. And they got into a tussle.”

“Him again?”

“Yeah. Another person I cared about, lost to that bastard...and with my luck probably not the last.”

“My hands aren’t shaking. They always used to when I got angry...not anymore. Not ever since putting on this armor and cow-towing to Anubis. But there’s more to tell I guess:”

“I didn’t know where exactly they fought, and it turns out that Miranda’s message had gotten to me several years after her fight with Xavier.”

“Which means whatever fragments of her spirit remained must have traveled across the ether. All to help those children.”

“That was what I thought. So, I didn’t know if my search would really mean anything after that. But I kept at, I followed Miranda’s trail down to Adder’s Fall. Before I decided whether or not to approach them openly, I heard a commotion. I sent some spirits to check it out, and they ran back to me saying that a demon was fighting off several soldiers wearing the Imperial Flames’ colors.”

“Jose takes a drink from his mug. I think he gets where this story’s going.”

“What happened after that?”

“I ran to where the action was. And I saw the demon: a scared barely university-age girl holding off nine fully armored knights with a warlock supporting them. So yeah, I jumped in. We made quick work of them after that. They were distracted with me, and Atma took’em down with her bow. Not bad for a grouchy middle age bitch and an edgy teen...you know what she said to me after we were done?”

“What did she say?”

“She said: “They weren’t always like this...I don’t like that it was me who gave them some peace.” When she said that, I knew that I had found one of Miranda’s kids. When I asked about her brother, she told me he’d would kill both of us if he got a chance. I didn’t question it, and I didn’t feel like fighting a whole army of demon worshiping blood junkies...so we ran, and you know all the rest.”

“Jose nods, but of course he has more to say.”

“It was for Miranda then?”

“It started that way, yeah. But then it was much simpler than that. Atma was a good person. She loved life and wanted everyone to see the beauty in it. Just like...just like my husband did. Just like my kids did. I couldn’t let her down...but I did. I let her get killed by some horny punk and a power-drunk lizard. Even after I promised her that I’d protect her...I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”

“Damn it, I can feel tears sliding around in my mask...shit.”

“I’m taking this off. No comments from you old man.”

“Jose raises his hands like he’s being persecuted and nods. Asshole. But I’ll have to admit, it does feel a lot nicer without this mask on. And I’ve never gotten used to wearing it. But it sets an image and serves a purpose. So I deal with it...Great, now Jackie’s staring at me.”

“What’s wrong kid? See something scary?”

“N-No, not by any means...it’s just that, you look like Uhm…”

“Jose cuts in.”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is: Statuesque.”

“Oh that definitely earns an eye roll.”

“Really, Jose? Really?”

“Bastard just shrugs.”

“Really. You’re a little paler than you used to be, but the desert’s kiss still lays upon you?”

“The desert’s kiss?”

“Sorry. I couldn’t find any other poetic way of saying you still had darker skin than most in Leo.”

“Great. Nice.”

“He smiles and takes another swig from his mug. But yeah, I know what he was trying to do.”

“So did you just do this to see me cry Jose, or for some other reason?”

“As they say: A bit of column A, a bit of Column B. I was curious about your and Atma’s connection. And I knew you needed to mourn your losses. The strong are only strong because they know when to be weak.”

“Wonderful, another quote from the master poet.”

“He raises a glass.”

“Free of charge, my beauty.”

“Well, at least he’s consistent. I haven’t even touched my drink. Guess it’s as good a time as any...well, that is smooth. It’s just a little bit of the taste, and I can feel it. Not close to the full sensation at all, but it’s enough to get by. Well, maybe for me it is. For other people though...”

“Jose?”

“Yes, Babs?”

“Do you believe in Justice?”

“In its existence? Yes. In its supremacy...Sometimes I think justice must mix with mercy. I’ve seen many a just person become a fanatic, and many a merciful person massacred by the unrepentant. It’s complicated I suppose.”

“I feel you. What I mean is...Is this right? I mean, I’ve had my happy moments sure, but worried I’m that I’m getting too comfortable with my job. People like Atma, my husband...why do they die so easily? I mean those people love life so much more than people like me, but they suffer the most. And the rest of us? The cynics and the casual killers? We endure. We get along day by day, while they burn out, or worse: get stamped out. It’s not fair.”

“Jose sits quietly for a long moment. I can already tell that he’s thought about this before. Finally, he takes a deep breath, and takes a long look into his mug.”

“I have no answer for you my beauty. Except...well, you believe in the Afterlife yes?”

“I don’t really have a choice with that. But as far as Paradise for the good and righteous and punishment for the evil and vicious...I don’t see it here. So I have no clue about whatever the hell is waiting for us out there.”

“But you know that something is. If you will permit a reformed cynic, or rather a penitent old person, to speak his peace: If something is waiting for us beyond this life, it means that this life and this world are not the end. Not for us, or for the ways we grow as ourselves. It is my fervent hope that life here is simply a trial run of sorts, to see where we go on the next leg of our journey as free souls. And once we cross that threshold, only then will we know who we truly are, and only then can true justice and just treatment be meted out.”

“You sound like a damn monk.”

“Perhaps. But it’s what I have for you. Whether you take it to heart or not is your choice.”

“I’m taking a final swig of this brandy. I could have probably chugged this down even when I was mortal...but I guess that’s not a bad thing. Well, I’ve been here long enough. Time to put my mask back on, and time to go back home. It’s not two seconds since I get up when Jose asks:”

“Where are you going, my beauty?”

“I have new squires to train. Lucia and Absalom asked if I’d pick them up. Absalom’s a pretty good kid, and Lucia’s gotten wise since she heard that Skywood was in the hands of the Imperial Flame. Looks like she wants to help people besides herself, just like her sister did...I might as well help coach ’em along with that.”

“What about Xavier?”

“What about him...Well, there’s no use in denying it.”

“I’m trying to learn from Abram’s example if you can believe it. He burned down entire castles and families trying to avenge the dead. And now he sees that it may have been the wrong choice. Maybe the way we honor the fallen is by living. And helping others live too...kinda like what you said on the road.”

“See! I told you poetry and literature aren’t just a bunch of scribbles.”

“We’ll see. Have a good night Jose.”

“And you too Babs. Take care.”

“Already paid my tip, and the horse is still outside. Great. Not surprising that there aren’t many people walking the streets of Ulq besides guards. No one wants to run into desperate crooks, or get accused of being one...The sun’s setting. My son always loved sunsets, he said it was like dancing on the edge of one day and the next. Pretty eloquent for a kid...I’ve done enough crying for one night. And then there’s this.”

“I don’t know where Lorenzo got this medallion, but just holding it now is making my hairs stand. Another mystery to solve, and another evil to hunt. But until then: I’ve got recruits to break in, demonic politicians to keep an eye on, and the next day to prep for...and I think I’m okay with that.”

So ends the tale of “Xian.” First of entry of the “Knightfire Chronicles.”

Epilogue:

“There you have it. This tale of triumph and loss has now ended. Yet while many of its heroes lie slain, still more of their opponents rot with them. Such victories, costly as they were, have given faith to our intrepid survivors. Even worse, the ever-poisonous hope of “redemption” taints their hearts, and fills them with the aspirations of fool children. So onward does the ship of the mortal soul sail, confident in its ability to withstand whatever storms life throws at it.

But there yet remains a path to victory. For all the hate I give mortal pettiness, it is also immensely useful. And I’d be lying if I said helping fools design their own destruction wasn’t hilarious. Where one kingdom prospers, all others will grow fearful. And where one man might rise, a thousand more will seek to drag him down. A sequel to these sordid events already lies in the making, and I am more than happy to the stage for it…

********

To come to this place, and under such circumstances, it was beneath him. That he, Xenon of House Telemachus, should come here as a mere envoy was the worst kind of humiliation. He was a prince of the Dantean republics. And now, because of the ravages of so-called “democracy”, his peers had voted him into being the Assembly’s errand boy.

“Trudging through this wretched and frozen waste...How revolting.”

With his entourage of knights and mages, numbering fifty (fifty one including him), Xenon did his best to climb this great mountain of snow and rock. His thick boots of leather began filling on the insides with slush and ice.

“Damn this place, and all to contract with what? An up-jumped bully?”

He knew very little about who he was meant to meet, but given his purpose in doing so, his mission as a Prince of the Dantean Republics, the peasant could not be more than a thug. After a few more meters of trudging along, the party came upon a strange sight. A road. A road that began right there, away from any other. It was paved with ancient cement in the style of old Elysium and was bereft of any snowfall or ice coating.

As they looked upon this strange sight, a smooth and seductive female voice whispered in his ear. “Good evening, Prince Xenon.”

Xenon turned to see a buxom woman in crimson armor with a chained skirt standing behind him. His entourage prepared for battle but found themselves surrounded. Knights in black and crimson armor were lined up in perfect formation. Their clawed gauntlets held halberds and great axes while the knights themselves stared at their prey with eager eyes: glowing red eyes.

Xenon gulped down air. “You...you are Vampires.”

The woman bowed gracefully. “The clan Brennede Blod, your lordship.”

Xenon Telemachus began to tremble, barely retaining his noble arrogance. “I assume that since you have approached us that, you Madame, are the one I was supposed to contact?”

The woman smiled gratefully and placed a dainty hand upon her chest. “Your Lordship, how gracious of you to lavish such presumptions on me. And were it only my clan that was of concern, you might be right. But you are here to entreat he who we are sworn to.”

“And who is this gracious and no doubt powerful gentle?”

The woman’s smile broadened. “You will meet him soon enough. But you will come alone, and leave your entourage here. You can understand that neither we nor our gracious patron would be comfortable letting so many armed strangers into our home.”

Xenon was of course skeptical but felt that appeasement was his only route toward survival, let alone completing his task. “I suppose so...Do I have your word that no harm shall befall them? Or...myself for that matter?”

“On my word as the Matron of my clan, I guarantee your protection within these woods and beneath our patron’s roof. You’d have to do something awfully stupid for us to break such a promise.”

That last sentence was directed more towards the knights and mages of Xenon’s entourage than at the man himself. But he made as grateful an acceptance as he could manage and then followed hostess. He left his soldiers behind, and they took up a phalanx formation. Having confidence in their effectiveness though, and in the thus far courtly manners of his host, Xenon walked on without much of a fuss. And in truth, there wasn’t much fuss to be had.

The road was clear and easy to tread, and smoothly winded its way around the mountain. Finally, they came to their destination. A collection of massive archways hosting gemstone gates was set before them and was carved into the mountainside. The gates did not part so much as recede. The gemstones collapsed into each other and opened a path of entry for Xenon and his hostess.

The vampires inclined her head and waved a hand towards the entry. “Welcome to our home. After you.”

He nodded gratefully and then passed beneath the gates. The gemstones coalesced behind him, and then lights shone above. They were brighter than candlelight, but not so oppressive as to be direct sunlight. The lights were housed in or were perhaps emanating from pieces of crystal that hung from the stone walls and ceiling.

“There is some strange and alien magic at work here. What have my brothers and sister gotten me into now?”

He followed after his hostess, taking careful note of his surroundings. This place, this castle within the mountain did not appear to be of dwarven make. The architecture was too harsh, filled with jagged lines and harsh shades of red and darker purples. Most telling of all were the formations of crystal that formed the doors and perhaps windows of this alien place.

There were legends that Xenon could draw from though, and he decided to inquire about them. “This place...is your patron a survivor of the Crystal Elves?”

The vampiress raise a graceful hand to her lips and chuckled. “Not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, their extinction is largely his doing, and this place is but one of the spoils from that campaign.”

Xenon continued his examinations and noticed that there were in fact sentries and guards about. They had just been so still and cold looking that he had thought them to be statues or displays. But by the look of their armor, they too were members of the Vampire clan that served this mysterious patron. A creature they credited with the extinction of an entire race.

“We only wish for some intimidation, for economic reasons...whatever creature makes its home here is surely ill-suited for-”

The vampiress’ seductive tone once again entered his ear. “This way, please. He is expecting you.”

Xenon nodded and entered into a small chamber of solid blue crystal. The gems then began to twist around, and Xenon realized that they were rising above the entry hall, and into another level. Once they reached it, Xenon was greeted by a veritable corps of vampires lounging about a grand dining hall filled cushioned crystalline chairs and sofas. There was even an arena that could be seen out of the corner of his eye, and chambers and hallways that looked as if they lead into further locales within the mountain.

“This is no castle; this is a city.”

He went through the dining hall, past the Vampires feasting on their thralls both living and corpse. After which he was ushered to another crystal door that was much larger than the previous ones. It was made entirely of ruby gemstone, and above it was an obsidian symbol. It was a strange combination of ancient lettering.

Xenon couldn’t help but focus on it, as he’d never seen this symbol before.“An Ω circling an 空. Is this his heraldry? The mark of some god?”

Before he could ask, the gems of the door receded into each other and then reassembled behind him once Xenon entered the new chamber. It was more of a cavern than a hall and looked to span miles before Xenon’s vision. Within the cavern were massive hills of metal and loot. But they were not of gold or silver. They were of steel, thousands upon thousands of conquered weapons and armor.

From within these mountains of war tools came a voice. “Thank you, Laetitia. You may join the festivities until I need you again.”

The voice had indisputable authority, yet had a strange tenor quality to it as well. What was even more surprising was its lack of accent. No person from any nation that Xenon had ever heard spoke in that accent.

Yet the Dantean’s attention was then drawn to the Vampiress clipping her feet together and bringing a flat hand salute to her brow, in the direction of the steel mountain. Adding to the unsettling air was how her tone so easily changed from warm and inviting to crisp and exacting. “Yes sir, at your command.”

The vampires turned on her heel and then made her exit. The doorway parting for her and then coalescing back into itself once she was gone. Now Xenon found himself alone, staring at the mounds of swords, axes, and breastplates. They were an amalgamated graveyard for different cultures from not just this continent, but from places that were foreign and alien to even the greatest navigators of the republic.

The voice rang out again. “It’s about time you got here. I had been expecting you to arrive earlier, since I’ve often had heard that Dantean Ships could sail through any storm, no matter how harsh.”

“Yes, my apologies. You were aware of the storm?”

“A blind and flightless pigeon could have sensed that storm. And it is no achievement for my sorcerers to observe those approaching my home. Especially those who seek a favor.”

Xenon nodded, and managed a polite, if nervous smile. “Of course, it should be expected of a person of your...stature.”

There was a playful laugh that rang throughout the hall. A palpable air of condescension, and perhaps some pity. That last quality filled Xenon with dread, as there were only so many things mighty enough to “pity” royalty. But once the laughter died out, there was movement within the hills of steel. As weapons and armor clattered to the floor two great rifts of golden energy opened from within them...only they weren’t rifts...they were eyes. Great golden eyes of a reptilian look that were as large as the great archways that lead into this very city.

The voice came again. “They actually sent you here without telling you who I was? That’s irresponsible of them and very awkward for you.”

“Indeed. I hope I have caused no offense.”

“If I could to take offense from you, I would not have the reverence your superiors feel for me, and they would not request the sort of favors only I can give. It’s as ludicrous as my feeling pity for the vampiric cowards I tolerate within my halls.”

“You call vampires cowards?”

The voice grew bored. As if Xenon’s question had been from a moron. “Is there any other name for those who have run so far from death?”

Xenon could only manage a polite bow, while his stance became more and more supplicative. “You’ll get no argument from me, my lord. But about our business. On behalf of the Dantean Republics, I would like to offer you a partnership in our business ventures. Specifically, those that are running in competition with the Kingdom of Leo.”

The great golden eyes narrowed. “I see. You want me to be the strong arm of your protection racket. Or perhaps I alone shall be the villain, while you and yours are the benevolent alternatives?”

“Something like that My Lord.”

The laugh came again, this time with a hint of enticement. “And you have the gall to call me a partner...Tell me, when did the word “partner” replace “thug”?”

The sheer venom from this monster’s voice was enough to make Xenon’s hair stand on end. And he hastily babbled out his excuses. “I apologize my Lord...we did not mean to denigrate your capabilities or time by making the task seem so trivial. In fact, had it been up to me-”

“Fine, I’ll do it.”

“Y-you will?”

“Of course. I have not been to Leo in some time. And my last visit had been so delightfully eventful.”

Xenon finally let himself breathe easy again, and even managed to the other tensions in his body...as much as he could in these circumstances at least. “Well, I am so glad to have been of some...some service.”

The great mountains of steel began to shift, and then part. Avalanches of ancient elven armor fell to the stone. And even angel forged halberds and demon wrought flails clattered uselessly off scales of shining red that glinted like blood beneath the glowing crystals of this dead city. The eyes lifted. As the steel blanket parted, the head of a massive red dragon rose from the iron tide. Smoke rose from his nostrils, golden rays emanated from his eyes, and a wide toothless smile spread across his lips.

“Yes. Xavier Bonaparte shall soar the skies once more, and all beneath him cry out, as they return to the ashes that spawned them.”

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