The crisp, mountain air was difficult to fly in, though not impossible. The lack of any rising thermals made ascent tiring, and demanded much more effort and focus than, say, flying over the Fire, or the lowlands of Kalahari. For anyone else, the daunting task would have likely been too much, and death by jagged rocks would have been an inevitability—a task doomed from the start. For the Dragon Grakkas, formerly Grakkas Silverclaw, former member of the famed Dawn Patrol, and Guardian of the Dragon Stone, however, endurance was not a concern. The concept of fatigue hadn’t even entered his mind in many years, and certainly had no place with the task at hand. Weariness, whether he felt it or not, was irrelevant in the scope of what was expected of him.
Figuring he should be roughly a mile from his destination, he briefly stopped flapping his wings and dipped below the clouds. He smiled slightly upon recognizing that he was exactly where he expected to be. The Magic in his Stone had long since expanded his mental faculties far beyond anything he could hope to achieve in a mortal life span, and his understanding of many sciences, including geography, meteorology, and topography, had advanced likewise. He could fly blind if he had to.
Pulling his wings in towards his back, Grakkas began a rapid descent groundward. If he needed to, he could empower his vision to double-check his projected landing zone, but he didn’t feel like ruining the surprise. Though a serious task no doubt, he saw no reason to not have a little fun with it. He believed that enjoying something only meant you were more likely to do it right.
The icy wind whipped at his face, the clouds of his breath that streamed into his vision serving to remind him how cold it was this deep in The Spine. He passed the elevation of the nearest major summit, and began furiously pounding with his wings, trying to increase his speed as much as possible. As the sky began to slowly fill with more and more mountain, he made one final push for speed, then rapidly tucked in his wings, and began a snap roll backwards.
At terminal velocity, the average human body might crack a stone or make a small divot in the ground. The average dragonkin might make a slightly more lasting impression, but certainly won’t cause any damage that can’t be easily fixed. To a body that had used Dragon Magic to cause itself to weigh five tons, and was plummeting at a rate nearly twice that of terminal velocity, however, the mark would be noticeable.
Grakkas crashed into the craggy mountainside with enough force to obliterate a castle wall, as he delivered the signature dynamic entry he’d spent half a century perfecting. Dust and rubble were launched into the air around him, and small, fist-sized rocks began pummelling the earth a few seconds later. He looked around, and allowed his gaze to linger on the three Ice Giants that were only now coming to understand what had just happened.
“Hm,” Grakkas thought aloud, in a tongue he could only hope the Giants understood. “I’ve only ever fought one of you before.” The Giants began to shift and turn, bringing their weight to bear against the small figure before them. “This should be fun.”
“You know how he gets. He never listens to anyone once he’s set his mind on something. Not even Sandwich could stop him.” A small, frustrated sigh passed through her lips, disturbing the lock of BROWN hair that had fallen in front of her face. Cerlissa, formerly Cerlissa Grav-Norsca, former member of the Dawn Patrol, and Guardian of the Demon Stone, reached a hand up to her head, and pushed the errant hairs behind her ear. “Besides, I think he’s right. We need to do everything we can.”
Across from her stood a man, clad head to toe in black robes, with just a hint of gold lining. “I know,” he replied. “And I’m not here to argue that. I’m here to help.” He hesitated. “And to… ask you for a favor, of sorts.”
Cerlissa tilted her head. “I always get uncomfortable when you ask for favors.”
A chuckle came from the black-clad man. “That’s probably wise, considering. But I’m serious.”
“So am I. What do you need?”
The man in black hesitated, gently thumbing the head of his warhammer, resting at his side. “I need you to go back on the promise you made to Baldred.”
Cerlissa exhaled sharply, as if the wind had been knocked out of her. After a moment, she found her breath. “You ask much.”
“I know I do, and I wouldn’t if I had another choice. But you know why I need it.”
“I’m not ready to die.”
“I can’t promise anything.” He scanned her face at that, and frowned. “But I’ll do my best.”
After a long moment, Cerlissa nodded. “Alright. Baldred would forgive me, if he knew what was at stake.”
Across from her, Jarl smiled. “Let’s hope he extends the same courtesy to me.”
A hundred-thousand empty hearbeats, marching on to the cadence of life that was as necessary as it was pointless. A ritual wasted on an audience undeserving. The servants were scrambling to perform their daily duties, blissfully unaware that the masters had long since taken their leave. The grim metaphors rolled in as the pulses throbbed gently all around him. The Plague had been here, and it had hit hard. Jarl Eagleface, former member of the Dawn Patrol, and Guardian of the Blood Stone, felt an empty sadness tug at a dark part of him as he realized that though he was surrounded by the living, nothing near him was alive.
Well, almost nothing. Cerlissa, his friend and former companion, sat nearby. Her eyes were glazed over, and her cheeks were stained with the tears she’d been trying to hide. Jarl didn’t blame her. Westwater was a place of great sadness, and she’d done everything in her power to avoid coming here. Considering how closely it resembled New Turath these days, it didn’t take much to imagine why. Below her face, Cerlissa’s chest heaved and sagged erratically, as though her breath itself had become painful. At her sides, her arms hung emptily, the self-inflicted wounds slowly dripping crimson to the cobbled stones below. Beneath her, and for many feet around her, was a growing pool of blood; the sanguine life that was once hers, now spilled for the benefit of others.
Jarl wasn’t sure if she would survive. She’d given so much blood, it seemed unlikely—but he could still feel her heartbeat, and though it had slowed, it hadn’t yet weakened. Despite his concerns for his friend, however, she would have to wait. Cinderfell was in great danger, and he had a job to do. Calling out to the blood on the ground, he beckoned it serve him. Cerlissa’s blood was strong, and though it was eager to bow to his will, a lesser mage may have struggled to control it.
As he sent it forward, he felt a dark tugging in the back of his mind. Though he’d long since grown accustomed to it, it had always troubled him that it was there. The Stone gave him resistance to the magic’s twisted agenda, but there were so many others in the world who hadn’t been granted that immunity. In a moment, he pitied them, and the darkness that would claim them.
When the Blood left him, he reached out again, to inspect his work. A hundred-thousand empty heartbeats, now pulsing in unison, eagerly awaiting his command. Cinderfell was in danger, and faced a force four times the size of anything she could muster on her own. Cinderfell needed an army, and Jarl had found it.
The rolling hills of Westwater stretched on to the horizon, their serene, verdant curves seemingly unaware of the war that was approaching. The setting sun painted the sky in fading hues of blue, and cast a golden light across the ground that gave everything a near-angelic comfort. A simpler man might be able to relax and enjoy the calm of this land, but Vicorin Blackwood, former member of the Dawn Patrol, and Guardian of the Creation Stone, was no such man.
Leaning on his cane, Vicorin took a few moments to study the landscape while he let his achy joints calm themselves. Unlike his contemporaries, Vicorin had eschewed the immortality his magic had offered, opting for the natural lifespan he’d spent so much of his life counting on. He’d been determined from a young age to die in battle, and circumstances had reliably seemed uninterested in affording him that one comfort, though recent developments had given him one last chance. He wasn’t even remotely interested in the glory or legacy that he knew people would give him, once the dust settled. He just wanted to die a warrior’s death.
To the south, the distant call of a war-horn told Vicorin that his time had come. The Fu army was approaching, and he’d decided he was going to stop it. Bracing himself on his cane, he slowly lowered himself to his knees, where he sat for a moment. Another, alien sound caught his attention, and he looked up, noticing some kind of flying ship disappear into the clouds, seemingly heading south. He shrugged. He’d seen stranger things.
Calling on the Stone, he pulled it into existence in his open palm, and spent a moment studying it. “Well, you piece of shit, I guess it’s time. Let’s make one last Artifact.” He vanished the Stone, and closed his eyes.
In life, there will be many obstacles.
Hit the obstacle.
In the search for enlightenment, you will face distraction.
Hit the distraction.
At the end of the road, when wisdom is yours, you will be one with all things.
Hit all things.
Vicorin opened his eyes. Leaning forward on his knees, he placed his left hand on the ground, and pulled his right back, behind his head. Balling his hand into a fist, he unleashed a haymaker onto the ground, and focused all of his magic—all of his Hit—into the motion.
Pain lanced through Vicorin’s body as the Creation Magic fought him. He felt skin tear and bones fracture as his fist connected with the grassy dirt, but so too did he feel the wall begin to rise before him. Pulling his arm back for another strike, he delivered another blow, and another, lifting the wall higher from the ground, and adding more and more layers of protection to it.
Vicorin felt his skin flay and organs rupture as the all-powerful Magic punished him for breaking the rules of this world. A lesser warrior would have died instantly, dead before he could even finish his spell—but, well, Vicorin was too badass for that.
For a long while, Vicorin beat the shit out of the ground, pounding it into submission. When he was finally done, and released the laws of reality he’d spent the last several minutes pummelling the hell out of, a magical boom erupted from him that he was sure even Cerlissa couldn’t top.
The wall, finished, stood at waist height, and had a bell-tower every fifty yards, set to ring upon the approach of any who were unwelcome in Cinderfell. The sound of the bells ringing would instantly kill anyone on the outside of the wall, and the stones of the wall itself would regenerate immediately upon destruction. If the Fu managed to make it over the wall, they’d find themselves cut off from their supply chain, and would have to pillage and scrounge just to survive. And when they tried again from the north, or the east, or the west, they would find the same wall, standing stalwart through the entirety of Cinderfell’s border. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best he could do.
And as Vicorin lay there dying, his organs slowly failing and his blood slowly spilling out, he smiled. His life had been one long mess, and though he’d tried to keep things in order, he hadn’t always succeeded. He hadn’t been perfect, but he’d done the best he could do.
That was good enough for him.