43.0 Candela_Chapter 8: Castle

My head hurt like it was being pressed down by an anvil. I raised a hand to my forehead and rubbed it but immediately stopped. There was something…slimy on my hand. I tried to wipe it with my robes but the ensuing squelching noises told me that they were covered in this filthy sludge too. What the hell was this?

I opened my eyes and surveyed my surroundings.

The Alderan Wastes? Shit, not good.

I recognized the sea of viscous ooze and the roiling purple gas. The Alderan Wastes were at once the most famous and the least popular attractions in the Dark kingdom- everyone wanted to see it but no one stayed for long. And you couldn’t blame them, this wasn’t exactly the most picturesque place I’d ever seen.

It was also a very dangerous place. The purple mists and the bubbling sludge would instantly kill anyone below level 50. In fact, I could feel my HP dropping right now but luckily it regenerated immediately. I probably didn’t need to worry about this place and most of the others should be fine too. And as long as Zoe was with Kai, he’d probably figure something out.

But how did I get here?

Last I remembered, I was climbing the stairs to the top of the tower after leading the laborers out of the catacombs and telling them to leave the city. Then I heard a rumbling sound, stumbled and hit my head.

But I was in the middle of the Air kingdom. How did I get all the way to the Alderan Wastes in the Dark kingdom? The Wastes might be right next to the floating island but that doesn’t mean I can just wake up in the middle of the damn place!

I took a deep breath to calm myself. This was only a slight inconvenience, the plan was coming along perfectly. Or well, almost perfectly. The appearance of Origin and Circle was not expected and had made me rework my plans several times, but as it stood, I felt confident that I could achieve my aims.

I’d received a power-up from the Air Goddess and reached level 498. She’d been surprised to learn that I was still alive so I could conclude that Azoth hadn’t told the Goddesses that he’d failed to kill me. This confirmed my hypothesis; Azoth wasn’t working for the Goddesses. In fact, it was entirely plausible that they didn’t know about his actions at all.

Either that or the Air Goddess was just a hopeless shut-in that didn’t know anything anyways. However, in either case, the fact that Azoth did not have the support of the Goddesses on his side meant that I could use them against him, if needed. The actions of the Air Goddess suggested that not only were they able to involve themselves in the affairs of mortals, they were willing to do so if it affected them. Now I just had to make sure that it did.

Shouldn’t be a problem, since my plan pretty much affected everyone. I’d already ruined a couple of countries, though in my defense, only one of those was on purpose. Circle’s rebellion wasn’t something I could have hoped to plan.

But when I learned about the bonded laborers and met Zoe, I knew I’d found the perfect way to complete the next stage of my plan. Of course, I did not like the way the laborers were being abused and a part of my motivation for freeing them had arisen from a noble desire to help the oppressed.

But does anyone really lead a revolution or undermine a government because of a desire for social justice for someone who is completely unrelated to you? Some people might, but I wasn’t one of them. I could condemn evil or objectionable actions when I learned about it, maybe even do my bit and sign a petition or something but I’d never go as far as kidnapping a king and leading a prison-break to help someone else.

The reason I was willing to go so far was because I’d soon realized that the Air kingdom’s economy relied on the mana from these laborers the way humans on Earth relied on fossil fuels. Free the laborers and you take away their energy source, thereby crashing the economy completely.

With that, the Alliance would lose a lot of money and weapons, which was exactly what I wanted. It was all a part of my grand strategy.

Did it make me a bad person because I didn’t want to free the laborers just because they were oppressed? Was I selfish? Did I only care about my own goals? I don’t think so. Apart from the fact that I was at least partially motivated by my disapproval for the treatment of the laborers, apathy doesn’t make me complicit to their actions. I wasn’t the one whipping them, or abusing them. I hadn’t done anything wrong. So why did I have to go fix it?

I shook myself out of my thoughts. I was alone in the middle of the most mysterious place in the world. No one knew what was inside the purple mist. People passed down tales of monsters and spirits which, if this wasn’t a fantasy world where monsters and spirits really did exist, would have been entirely unbelievable. If the legends were true, I had to be really careful here.

Even the game didn’t tell you much about the Wastes. The monsters here were deadlier and much higher leveled compared to the monsters outside but the game didn’t show you much of the scenery. In fact, the whole place was supposed to be flat ground with purple mist floating above it. No landmarks or anything.

Which made the hill I saw in the distance all the more unusual. The hill wasn’t in the game nor had I heard about any statues in the Wastes. This wasn’t the best place to display your art, after all. But still, a creepy circle of statues on a hill rising out of a sea of mist and sludge was unsettling, no matter how you looked at it.

Whatever, I should probably look for the others now.

The only problem was; I didn’t know where they were. I could shoot some magic into the air and hope they saw it. Or maybe using my communications prism would be a better idea.

I took the prism out of my Inventory and began to focus my mana. I was just about to pour it into the prism when I stopped.

Do I really want to find them right now? Maybe it’s time to leave. They’ve helped me take down the Air kingdom and they’ll probably make a mess here in the Dark kingdom too. Lily’s strong enough and even if she wasn’t, Kai and Amy won’t let her die anytime soon. The Hero’s growth is going even better than expected. In fact, she might be growing a little too fast. If I leave now, I can go to the Dark Goddess’ shrine and get her blessing. The others will never be able to find her shrine on their own so it’ll be a power boost just for me.

It was an interesting question. This might be my best opportunity to make sure that I was far stronger than the Hero. I’d need to be, if I wanted the plan to succeed. Besides, other than Lily and Zoe, I couldn’t really trust the others. Kai was a wild card that I still knew nothing about. A variable I couldn’t control.

And based on the strength Amy revealed while fighting Origin and the high-ranked spells she used, her identity was all but confirmed. Only a handful of people could be that strong and only a couple could use Fire magic. Considering all of that, perhaps going off on my own would be the wiser course of action.

I put down the communications prism and prepared to follow the moon’s path through the sky. The sun and moon on Erath followed the same pattern as on Earth, so following the moon’s movement through the sky and moving accordingly would allow me to leave the Wastes and enter the Corridor. From there I could make my way to the shrine alone.

Guess that’s it then. Oh right, I should probably toss this, I thought, turning the ring on my finger.

Kai had said it would serve as a tracker of sorts, so I would have to dispose of it if I wanted to separate. I was slightly unwilling to throw away one of Kai’s rings but this was necessary. I’d already sacrificed a lot for my plan and I was determined to see it through to the end.

I hesitated some more. I couldn’t quite understand why though. Tossing the ring, going off on my own and carrying out the rest of my Grand Strategy was the most logical thing to do. It would give me power, wealth and fame. What more could I ask for?

But then, was that really what I wanted in the first place? I’d enjoyed my time in the Hero’s party. I’d always told myself not to get used to it. That it was all a farce and that I would betray them at the first opportunity. But I found it increasingly more difficult to do that.

When I laughed at their jokes, I laughed for real. I enjoyed teasing Lily and getting her riled up. Kai’s cooking was amazing too and Amy was a wonderful person. Although Zoe was a little unstable, she kept things lively and I didn’t know if Gale was still with them but watching him interact with Zoe in that terribly awkward way was funny as hell.

I don’t remember ever being this emotionally open with anyone before. On Earth, I’d barely opened up to my parents and I didn’t have any friends either. At least not for long. For some reason, people didn’t like me.

But that was okay, I didn’t like them either.

My hand hovered over the ring. I was still wondering whether to leave the party when a beam of light shot through the mists and hit the ring. I reflexively reached for the ring and tried to pull it off but it was stuck. I stared at it for a second, then sighed.

Guess I don’t have a choice anymore.

I gave up on taking off the ring but made a mental note to complain to Kai about a sore ring finger. The light would probably lead them straight to me so I could wait where I was and relax. But I decided to follow the light anyway. Standing in the middle of a putrid sea of sludge wasn’t exactly my favorite hobby.

I trudged through the slime and used air magic to disperse the mists but I still didn’t make a lot of progress. Even though I was almost level 500, the slime was still seriously restricting my movements and I couldn’t see far ahead of me because of the mists.

Soon, I realized that the light ran straight into the hill I’d seen rising out of the mists. Although the statues gave me pause, I decided that getting a vantage point would be helpful. Maybe I could see them off in the distance or look for some other noticeable landmarks along the way.

I climbed the hill, cautiously, while appraising the statues. Most of them were crumbling and had barely distinguishable features. But I could make out a few faces, some limbs and even some runes and symbols that I unfortunately couldn’t recognize.

Wait, that’s odd. The Demon Lord automatically learns every language on Erath, just like the Hero. Is it gibberish? Or is it not a language from Erath?

I felt a shiver run up my spine. This place was way too creepy. I almost gave up on getting to a vantage point but the rational part of my head convinced me otherwise. I was the Demon Lord and I was at level 498. There weren’t a lot of things that could hurt me.

Being scared of a bunch of crumbling statues was a little embarrassing. If Lily found out, she might end up making fun of it like she does for my aversion to heights. Although, at least in this case it might be a legitimate accusation. After all, I wasn’t afraid of heights. I just couldn’t trust myself to stand next to Lily if I was high enough to push her to her death.

The urge to kill her was getting stronger alongside her own increasing strength. The boost from the Air Goddess’ blessing helped her more, both because the Hero grows faster at the later levels and because I needed an increasingly higher amount of experience points to level-up.

That’s when I realized something. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why I had wanted to leave? Was I afraid that I’d kill Lily if I saw her become stronger? It was entirely plausible and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to consider it. I couldn’t quite say why though.

As i was lost in thought, I reached the first statue. It was smaller than the rest and had beads running around its neck. There were no other distinguishable features on the statue itself but I noticed that the grass around it was shorter and a brighter shade of green than the others.

Hang on…grass? In the Alderan Wastes?

I stared at the startling discovery I’d just made. There were patches of grass around all of the statues; some tall, some short, some fresh, others withered. But regardless, finding grass in the middle of the world’s most poisonous place was extremely unusual. Sunlight wouldn’t be a problem since the hill was raised above the mists but there were no water sources in sight.

Worse, the area should have been tainted with poisonous substances and Dark mana. It shouldn’t be possible for anything to grow here, let alone grass. There weren’t any plants in the Wastes. Even the monsters relied on absorbing mana for sustenance rather than consuming food.

There was a loud roar behind me. I turned around but there was nothing there. My heart fell when I noticed that the noise had made me jump inside the circle of statues. I held my breath, expecting something to happen.

But nothing did. The statues didn’t glow or explode or anything. Quite anti-climatic but I’d prefer it over the alternative.

I calmed my breathing and chastised myself for being afraid of a bunch of statues. Then I reminded myself to always be cautious because only idiots would think that these statues didn’t have some kind of secret to them.

I took the chance to get a closer look at them. There were twelve of them in total and starting from the one I’d first seen-which was also the smallest one- they became progressively more worn down in a clockwise direction. In fact, the statue on the other side of the smallest one was remarkably well preserved.

I walked up to it. Unlike the others, it had a face with barely identifiable features. Raised eyebrows, a thin nose and slightly sunken cheeks. This statue looked oddly familiar but I couldn’t quite say why.

“…cas…”

I turned around.

What the hell was that?

“…pieces…”

“…crumble…”

More voices floated around me. I instantly tried to use void step to leave the circle but I couldn’t go into my shadow. I panicked and tried to shoot a fireball into the air but nothing came out. I tried to run but I ran into an invisible wall.

Crumbling sounds came from the smallest statue. Dust blew off it…no, dust blew onto it. In fact, dust started swirling around the other statues too, with the most worn down ones surrounded by larger clouds of it.

“You…”

The voice came from the most well preserved statue. I stared at it, expecting it to move.

“Built…”

This time it came from behind me. A statue as tall as me but thinner and more curved. Probably a statue of a woman.

“A Castle…”

The dust was filling in their features. The one that just spoke now had a robe on its body as well as hair.

“Piece…”

This one was wearing a strange tunic.

“By Piece…”

Thin lips, arched eyebrows.

“You built a Castle,” said the statue with long hair rolling down its head.

“Piece by piece,” said the statue with a strange hat.

“You took a brick,” said the statue wearing a hood.

“Laid it down at your feet,” said a husky voiced statue with a wicked grin.

“And built a Castle without a wall,” said the statue of a little girl.

“Only to see it crumble…”

“and Fall.”

The dust clouds were disappearing now, leaving behind twelve statues that looked like they’d been freshly sculpted. The sculptures were lifelike; frighteningly so. I was certain that they’d attack me soon and since I couldn’t even use magic, I felt terrified. I’d already gotten used to the feeling of near invulnerability that my status as the Demon Lord and my high level gave me. Even though I’d faced dangerous situations before, I’d always felt like I could at least struggle for victory.

But without my magic, I was just an ordinary teenager in a world of monsters and demons. I wouldn’t have felt this way on Earth, and in fact, I hadn’t been nearly as scared when Frank pulled a gun on me as I was right now. But I’d gotten used to the sense of safety and security. I’d gotten used to being stronger than most or at least to being able to run away whenever I wanted to.

“You built a Castle.”

It was an old man this time.

“Piece by piece.”

A young woman.

“You wanted your own.”

What are they doing?

“But didn’t know why.”

Their words were getting louder and sharper but there was something else too. It felt like they were…

“You wanted your Castle.”

…singing.

“But did it want you?”

The smallest statue moved. A little girl skipping around a field, except her eyes were frozen in a dead stare.

“You built a Castle.”

The hooded man followed the girl, sweeping over the ground without a sound.

“Piece by piece.”

“You thought you had it.”

“But you didn’t.”

“So you left it to the cat.”

“And ran away.”

“Like a filthy rat.”

They were speaking in turns. Popping into verses randomly before moving a little. Each of them had their own movement: the girl skipped, the old man swept his hands and the one with a hat bowed dramatically.

“You built a Castle.”

“Piece by piece.”

“You found a brick.”

“With a tether.”

“You lift it up.”

“And it rose.”

“Then came a hand.”

“Out of nowhere.”

“Smacked the brick, to the ground.”

“But it never made a sound.”

The song didn’t even make any sense and the meter was totally off. Yet, even though the song didn’t make any sense at all, a strange feeling arose inside me.

I need to get out!

I tried to jump out again but this time the hooded man caught me with his arms and threw me back in.

“You built a Castle.”

“Piece by piece.”

“Strong and sturdy it seemed.”

“No flames, no storms.”

“Could break its walls.”

“And so you rested easy.”

The circle shrunk. The little girl’s mouth was frozen in an eerie grin. The old man was cackling. The young woman was sneering and the man with a hat had a polite smile. Their motions were getting faster, the verses more out of tune, and the dance crazier and wilder. Cold sweat poured down my back.

“You built a Castle.”

“Piece by piece.”

“It had a Tower.”

“You made it taller.”

“Until it reached the sky.”

“Then you made the Sun.”

“Fight the Moon.”

“And in the sky, lay the Tower.”

“Caught between, two sacred powers.”

“So all it could do…”

“Was crumble.”

There was a pain in my chest. And I didn’t know why. Tears streamed down my cheeks. But I didn’t know why.

No! No! Make it stop! Make it…

“You built a Castle.”

“Piece by piece.”

“It had a gate.”

“To keep the monsters away.”

“But you left it open.”

“Still no one came.”

“Because the real monster was you.”

No! Shut up! Shut up! S-shut…

“You built a Castle.”

“Piece by piece.”

“It had a king.”

“But no throne.”

“Because who would bow.”

“To someone so low.”

“When they had a cat.”

“Who could chase the rat.”

“Back, into its hole.”

I closed my eyes and lay on the ground. They were running so fast it was all a blur. A hat shot out. A bead bobbed up. A wicked grin flashed. Their voices were loud too. They were speaking over each other. The same words over and over again.

“You built a Castle.”

“Piece by piece.”

Over and over again. Skipping, hopping, running and gliding in a blur. Singing in their disjointed tunes and awkward voices. Laughing, snickering, chuckling and smiling. Were they spirits? Haunting me, taunting me, mocking me.

It was too much. Too much…too…much…

Then it all stopped.

They stopped singing and dancing and skipping and running and whatever else they were doing. I hesitated. I didn’t want to look up. Didn’t want to look them in the eyes even though I somehow knew that was what they were waiting for. My heart thumped in my chest. I waited for what seemed like forever but I couldn’t make myself look up. I couldn’t. I just…couldn’t.

The ground shook a little. One of them moved.

It was the hooded man. The one I’d been staring at before they all came alive. The one that had seemed slightly familiar. He walked up to me and stood in front of my face-his stone knee inches from my face. I steeled myself. I had to do this before he forced me to.

I took a deep breath and looked up. I met his gaze and froze.

He looked familiar because he looked like…

The statue’s hood crumbled, revealing a face that looked just like mine.

“I built a Castle, piece by piece. I wanted to win, so very bad. That when I won, I didn’t see, the Castle up above. I knocked it down, on my own. Watched it crumble. Watched it fall. And so it fell, at my feet. All the pieces, on the ground. My own Castle, broken down, by my own insanity.”

The statue had a deadpan, emotionless expression that terrified me more than anything else.

“So now I know, the price of power. So let me now, save the tower. Before the Moon, outshines the Sun. We must go soon, before it’s done. And we’re the kings of no one. We’ll build a Castle, piece by piece. It won’t crumble, it won’t fall. Because the pieces, will forestall. The tide that sweeps it all away.”

The statue stretched out a hand and poked my forehead. I fell flat to the ground and drifted into unconsciousness but even as my vision faded to darkness I could still hear…

“You built a Castle.”

“Piece by piece.”

“ And now it crumbles.”

“With the sand.”

“Oh, beware the raging seas!”

“They’ll consume.”

“All your hopes and dreams!”

“And leave you an empty beach.”

“So you can start all over again.”

“And build a Castle, piece by piece.”

“Just to watch it wash away again.”

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4 thoughts on “43.0 Candela_Chapter 8: Castle

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    1. It’ll start unraveling soon enough. The characters will know a lot more than the readers before you’re all brought to speed (but then a lot of other stuff will happen too so…)

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