Towering red sandstone buildings topped with golden domes filled the skyline. Hordes of pedestrians crowded the richly paved roads, some stopping to browse the windows of the many beautifully decorated stores.
The entire city was enchanted against the harsh desert climate, creating a very different atmosphere inside. Children played in fountains spraying water all over the place, squandering what was otherwise known as the most important resource in the desert.
We walked through the heavy metal gates unhindered, courtesy of Kai’s magic paper, and decided to secure lodging for the night. After paying for four rooms with the Inn’s own money, we made our way down the busy streets while shopping for local specialties.
The Fire King’s palace stood out at the end of the street. No surprise really, since the entire city was built around the palace and every street led to it in the end. Its towers rose up into the sky, shining with a faint red light because of the red tiles that covered the entire palace. It exuded an ethereal air that made it look like a painting from a fairy-tale.
I grabbed a map from a bookstore but it didn’t mention the Crumbling Sand village either, so I put it back on the shelf and frowned.
Where had that village come from?
I walked out of the store with a more detailed map of the route to the Fire Goddess’ shrine. I estimated that it would take us three days to reach it even though it seemed pretty close on the map, since we’d have to cross several mountains and wade through a sea of lava to get there.
Lily bought a saber to replace her now dull and chipped knife, as well as a small steel shield. Since Lily was ‘paying,’ I took the opportunity to buy a shield for myself as well.
Kai disappeared for a while but soon returned with three brown parcels and gave one to each of us.
A gift from Kai? If it’s as amazing as the ring… I thought, excitedly ripping it open.
I frowned. “What the hell is this?”
“Earrings. You don’t want them? I could always take them back.” he said, smirking as he reached over to grab them.
“No.” I said, tacking on the dull graphite bead. Surprisingly, it didn’t pierce through my skin but attached itself to my earlobes instead. “It’s rude to take back gifts.”
“Thanks Kai. These are beautiful!” said Lily, white pearls shining on her ears.
“I agree. This is wonderful!” said Amy, flicking a dangling red ruby.
“What do they do?” I asked.
“They make you look cool!” he said.
“No, I mean what do they do?” I reiterated.
“They make me feel less embarrassed about hanging out with you guys.” he replied with a serious expression.
We continued making light banter as we moved towards the palace. The King was holding an art exhibition and we’d decided to take this opportunity to relax before continuing our journey.
Soon enough, we arrived at the imposing outer gates of the palace and joined the throng of people entering the courtyard. Inside, we saw an impressive assortment of sculptures and paintings as well as other curios.
“Hey, are those the Goddesses?” Lily asked, pointing at a ring of statues at the center of the courtyard.
“I suppose so.” I replied, evaluating the depictions of the most powerful entities on Erath.
Just as I moved to get a closer look at them, a loud siren started blaring throughout the city.
“The emergency alarm?” someone said.
“What happened? Is it a monster horde?” said someone else.
“Did the Demon Lord attack?” asked someone else.
That made me pause.
Did they find me? They couldn’t have. But then what else could it be?
“Citizens! Please, do not panic. We are merely taking precautionary measures because our communications with Ashpoole have temporarily broken down. It is most likely a malfunction in the communications prisms, please do not be alarmed. The gates will be reopened once the situation is resolved. We thank you for your cooperation.” said a voice projected all over the city.
I frowned. Something wasn’t right. Communications prisms didn’t just malfunction, and even if they did, what were the odds that so many prisms would break down at once?
I saw a flicker of unease in Lily’s eyes as we followed the directions of the knights and left the exhibition. Amy’s forehead was creased in a frown as she vigilantly searched for any signs of trouble. Even Kai stopped smiling and adopted a grim expression.
We noticed a group of knights talking in hushed whispers while pointing to a scroll one of them held in her hands. We passed by them but they stopped speaking and didn’t resume until we were out of earshot.
Not that it mattered, of course.
“You got it, right?” I asked.
“Of course.” Lily replied, tossing me the scroll.
I opened it up and started reading.
“Reports of riots…duke’s guards released to quell it…all communications suddenly cease…Ashpoole Royal Army division unresponsive…personal communications prisms unresponsive…emergency measures implemented…communications with scouts severed….” Words kept magically appearing on the scroll but I put it away and faced the others.
I took a deep breath. “Ashpoole…has fallen.”
“What do you mean?” Amy asked.
“The prisms are still working but no one is responding.” I explained.
“How could that-”
She was cut off by the group of knights that came rushing towards us. Her hand went to the pommel of her sword but Kai gave her a sharp glance so she didn’t pull it out.
The knights ran past us to the city gates where rows of armored figures stood in formation. Sensing that something was going to happen, we cautiously approached the knights.
“…we can see them…”
The knights were whispering to each other while readying their weapons. A tall, hulking figure in ornately decorated red armor stood atop the wall and passed directions down to knights amassed below.
“We should check it out for ourselves.” said Kai as he jumped all the way up the wall.
A small flash of heat and light confirmed that Amy had followed him up so Lily and I were left to sneak up on our own. The knights hadn’t noticed us yet so we stuck to the shadows and climbed the walls, hoping that nobody just happened to be looking at this part of the wall.
I grabbed Lily’s hand, allowing her to pull me on top of the wall.
We turned to see Amy and Kai looking grimly outside the wall. Following their gaze, we realized why.
An army was marching towards Beigo. Legions of armored knights, hordes of robed magicians, a fleet of flying beast riders and giant siege weapons covered the sand dunes outside the city.
But what was truly perplexing was the color of their uniform. They were wearing the same red colored armor as the rest of the Fire Army, probably because they were the Fire Army – or at least a part of it. A short, bearded man rode at the front of the army, his intricately decorated armor revealing his status.
“That must be the Duke of Ashpoole.” I said, quietly.
Nobody responded. They could, after all, see the large, sprawling army in front of them and knew that apart from the capital Beigo, only Ashpoole could field this many soldiers.
As they drew closer, I noticed something even more disturbing.
All of them were expressionless.
Not serious or stoic, but expressionless. They marched with a mechanical rigidity that was both imposing and eerie. Something was seriously wrong here.
“Halt!” shouted the armored man on the wall.
The army continued marching, not showing any signs of having heard him at all. Even when the archers fired warning shots at their feet, none of them flinched.
“In the name of the Fire King, I command you to stop!” said the voice that had announced the state of emergency. It seemed to belong to a portly middle aged man who was making his way to the top of the wall.
The army kept marching.
The Fire King reached the top of the wall and began to frown as his sweat started forming on his forehead.
“Stop, in the name of the Fire Goddess. Stop!” he shouted.
This time the army reacted immediately. They ceased marching and looked up at the Fire King. The Duke rode out a little further and spoke;
“Do not mention that false Goddess! Your Fate is sealed and you have but two choices: Join us in our reverence of the true God or perish as heathens and infidels!”
“False Goddess? How dare you!” said the King, incredulously.
True God? Don’t tell me these people are-
They lifted their flags and roared.
“Into the circle! Into the circle!”
I turned around quickly.
“We have to get out of here before the fighting starts. We don’t want to get caught in the middle of this. Come on.” I said, preparing to jump down the wall.
But I stopped.
The sun was snuffed out and the sky painted black, even though it was still early in the afternoon. The Duke jumped off his horse and kneeled on the ground, blood splattering on the ground beneath him as his leg bent in an unimaginable direction.
But he didn’t seem to notice his grave injury as he looked up at the sky with a crazed look on his face. His followers did the same, kneeling on the ground and staring at the pitch black sky above.
“Oh mighty Lord of the heavens, King of the skies and Emperor of the seas! Oh Most Exalted Creator, for whom we would lay down our lives in a heartbeat. Lord, we are not worthy! We are not worthy! We are not worthy!” the Duke rambled at the top of his voice.
The sky shone with a deep, violet light as a giant circle appeared above the Duke’s army. The circle flashed brightly before spinning uncontrollably, so fast that it was just a blur. Soon, it seemed like a violet sphere was hanging in the sky.
Lightning raked across the surface of the sphere; dancing and twirling about like a serpent. Finally, the lightning gathered together to form one large lightning bolt which struck the center of the sphere and caused a blinding flash of violet light.
What the hell is that thing! I thought, raising my arm in front of me to block the winds blowing across the landscape.
The flash faded, revealing a dark robed figure hovering in the sky. It was wearing a black mask with a violet circle on its forehead.
The Duke and his soldiers bowed their heads. “Your Eminence, we are honored that you deigned to grace us with your presence. Oh Lord Creator, let us cleanse the world from these vile heathens and their false gods. Oh Lord of Fate, let us tear down their cities and soak the ground with their blasphemous blood.” the Duke said, his eyes red with frenzy.
“Oh Lord Origin, let us offer you the world!” he shouted with emotion and tears dripping down his face.
The masked figure looked at him for a moment, its robes staying unnaturally still despite the winds blowing across the sky.
“You will offer me the world?” the figure spoke. He had a deep, rich voice that exuded power and arrogance. “How can you offer me something that is already mine?”
Origin’s words echoed across the desert, causing monsters and humans alike to tremble and fall to their knees. I swayed as I felt a cold sensation in my back but quickly managed to regain control.
I saw Lily leaning against the sword which she had stabbed into the ground. Amy was staring at Origin with wide eyes and her hands were trembling as she clenched her fists.
Kai sighed, pulled something out of his robes and jumped off the wall.
“Kai? What the hell are you-” I started.
A carpet of violet flames fell from the sky and crashed into the city’s protective barrier. The sound of shattered glass heralded the barrier’s destruction and quite possibly, our deaths.
But then Kai reached out with his hands and the flames stopped as if he’d caught them in a giant net. He waved his hands and the flames dissipated, blown away by the winds.
“You know,” Kai said, as he rose up to meet him. He was wearing a smiling white mask that seemed even creepier than Origin’s. “I haven’t had a decent fight for a long time. Try not to bore me will you?”
Origin looked at him silently.
“A shy one are you? It’s okay, I’ll help you open up.” Kai said, rushing at him with his hands outstretched.
Origin rushed forward to meet him and met his open palms with his own, causing a loud bang to resonate for miles. The two pushed against each other, locked in a battle of strength.
Soon, Kai was flung across the sky as Origin kicked him in the chest. He crashed into the city wall, sending debris flying in the air.
All of this happened so quickly that none of us could react but after seeing Kai get swatted into the wall, we snapped out of it and rushed forward to help.
Amy rocketed towards Origin and slashed her sword but it passed right through him. He grabbed the wide eyed Amy and threw her at Lily, who was preparing a spell. The two collided and crashed into the ground.
I bit my lips and racked my Ability for hints, trying to formulate a winning strategy, but no matter how hard I tried it didn’t seem like there was one. Origin looked at me with his cold violet eyes and I felt a piercing pain in my chest.
I fell to my knees, pain flooding through my mind and preventing me from thinking. Had he done it to stop my Ability? Did that mean that there was a way to win, some weakness to exploit or some plan that wouldn’t get us all killed?
Or had he done it just because he could?
“Runir, listen to me. Take Amy and Lily, go to the Shrine and get the Fire Goddess’ help. He isn’t letting anyone leave the city so I’ll distract him so you guys can run. I’ll try to hold him off for as long as I can but I’d really appreciate it if you’d hurry.” said Kai as he appeared beside me.
And then it clicked. I had a plan and I knew how to carry it out but…
“Will you be alright?” I asked.
He smiled. “What do you think?”
I nodded and ran. “Amy, Lily, we have to go. Now.”
They looked at me blankly as I grabbed them. “Amy, do that thing you did when you were looking for Lily. We need to get to the Shrine, fast.”
She hesitated and looked up at Kai, who was floating up to meet Origin.
“Look at him, he’ll be fine.” I said, firmly.
Whether she noticed that there wasn’t a scratch on his body nor a speck of dust on his robes, or she chose to believe in him, I don’t know, but she nodded and a searing heat started building up around us.
She held us tightly and shot off the ground, blasting through the dark sky.
Before everything dissolved into a blur, I noticed Kai smile as he looked at us from the corner of his eyes. His lips moved but I couldn’t hear him.
Good luck to you too Kai. I thought as we whooshed off into the distance.