A Requiem From Winter Past
~The Wolf, Lion, And Maiden Fair~
(Written by Cocteau L'Enfant Naturel)
His anger is an all-consuming conflagration, Aeravor's wrathful snarl cursing that one person he once regarded a friend: Lars Alterfate the demon hunter... Lars Alterfate the thrice-damned betrayer. They used to start fights together and visit the nearest gi'bang together. They annoyed Tae'Jin till no end and were a constant source of Ji'Yeon's frustration. Then everything went up in flames, every shard of memory becoming the sharpest knife.
“Fight me like a man,” says the ranger with fists tightly clenched, his strength fled from the athletic frame which has conquered whores and foes for countless years.
“Just to make sure I die like one?”
“You don’t deserve to die like one.”
Lolyx does not know whatever going on between the two, but instinct tells her things aren’t that simple. Cale may be an idiot, but he was right in likening a woman's intuition to a razor-sharp dagger. The provocative fellow smiles before an accusation levelling its tip at him. Not a devious grin or a sellsword's leer, but a haunted man's sorrow.
As for the Relentless One, forgive and forget is never part of his language. Mercy is only reserved for the weak who can't hold a sword properly. It takes a monster to kill a demon, for saintly souls are always the first to die. As the saying of his own people goes, mongrel or lion means nothing to the wolves. Gripping the Edge of Answerer tightly despite the searing pain caused by the enemy's Relic, Aeravor displays his defiance through an audible growl. The fighter stands his ground, raging fire stoked inside a forge of flesh and blood. He can’t give in to the pain, he can’t give in to defeat. Kagetsu no Ji'Yeon is the only woman he will ever love, Lars Alterfate is that one person who must die because of her. Even though he knows what the Chains of Judgement can do, it merely means Lars is not the only person wielding a Relic.
“Kill you! Kill you, kill you, I'll kill you! Lars Alterfate!”
Bellowed vengeance rampages throughout the forest, spoken words resounding like a bestial roar. In an awesome show of force, be it due to physical fortitude, a determination of steel, or both, the chains immobilising the ranger shatter before every witness. For the first time since Kain rescued her from the slavers, the taste of fear visits Seelia. The peace and tranquillity ruling as king and queen of this place are usurped by incessant wails, curses, and every expression of bitterness. Something is disturbing about this rogue, it's as if either he sees the world as his enemy or the other way around. If there is any part of Seelia's past which she would rather die than to be reminded of, it'd be her days as a slave raped countless times before she was to be sold. Yet, here it is someone retelling a story of monsters.
It all happened in a momentary flash. In a show of madness, Lolyx rushes towards the man of ivory as another man of dusk prepares to strike. The ranger vanished and reappears behind his wide-eyed prey, surely all will end here in a single blow like that fateful day under the autumn sky. Lars' golden eyes narrow immediately as a crow swoops. From the opposite direction, a silver chain wraps itself around the assailant's neck. Choked from behind and immobilised again, Aeravor glares at the object of his hatred. Unable to utter a word, there is only this far an otherworldly fortitude can go. Senses numbed by the attack, the sellsword put up a struggle to piece his shattered focus back together, pain erupting like a volcano consuming the cities below.
"My thanks, little girl. You don’t have to do this, though."
If Lars’ statement is intended as one of gratitude, Lolyx would have nothing of it.
“Little girl? Look, I’m already eighteen. You know what this means?”
“Why, yes I do. It means having a pair of breasts.”
“What? You know what you’re saying, you deplorable lowlife?”
“Again, yes I do, my dear grown-up kitten. I know your friend over there is also a looker even though her breasts are small. I guess she's also eighteen.”
In front of a banter abruptly sparked, Aeravor gnashes his teeth. It's so much like a past worth countless years of hate, a page of history condemning him forever. If there is truly a life worse than one of despair, it would be this. Lars casts a glance towards the person who used to be his friend.
“You know what it means to be best friends forever? I know that sounds dumb, Aera.”
“You’re dumb and drunk, Lars.”
“Dumb, no. Drunk, maybe. Seriously, how can an idiot shaft a whore since he doesn't know where to put it?”
“Too much children's tales then, whoremonger.”
“I guess so. Erm... Aera?”
“What? You want me to shut up about your adventures in the whorehouse?”
“Thanks, my friend. Ji would kill me and hang me upside down if not for your promise of timely aid. She likes children's tales, but it doesn't mean anything once she starts breathing fire and fury down my neck.”
“You owe me one, Lars. And no best friends forever unless you want me to kill you instead.”
Without a show of farewell save a wounded man's smile, Lars Alterfate departs. His form disintegrates into a murder of crows, incessant caws ringing like piercing shrieks. Lolyx, Adine, and Seelia are left stupefied while Kain exposes only a frown. Aeravor's fury rages like a massive bonfire as he gives in to the searing pain, darkness cloaking his sight and usurping his mind.
“Wait, am I seeing things?”
“I doubt so, Lolyx,” says Adine as the most grotesque sight heralds its coming in the form of a shadowy swarm. Assuming the shape of naked men, nothing is visible between their legs. If they are meant to be women instead, each torso never exposed a single breast. For the first time in her life, Adine knows what the inhumane looks like. Nothing is seen on their faces. Eyes, ears, noses, and mouths... none of them is present. This is a mob of solidified shadows whose only humanity lies in their solid physique. There is something in those things making her tremble with joy and fear. How can this contradiction happen in the first place? What is the fear? And where is the joy? She doesn't want to know, for something within understands that the day she gets the answer is the day she risks losing everything.
As thoughts of unreciprocated love enter her mind, every shadow opens up its formless face, a gaping rift right in the middle revealing an eye spanning from forehead to chin. The willowy brunette's mind is instantly obliterated, countless evils invading her awareness. She witnesses all sorts of wickedness any and every person is capable of. Women are raped while trapped in cages, many of them forced to please two to three drooling scoundrels all at once. Dismembered parts of newborn children are strewn at random places, soldiers of fortune cutting apart pregnant mothers. Men are busy slaughtering each other, each victor in turn slain by his neighbour. Altars are preaching lies, the listeners ignoring the dead. Kings and rulers feast alike, every commoner rich and poor ignoring a slave dead and mutilated.
Curse you... damn you...
Open up your legs for us...
All lives be damned...
For us, not them... we are the gods and they are the monsters...
You... what do you desire, sweet young thing?
The last statement breaks Adine apart, her eyes seeing Cale naked and making her feel good. Then there are Irevia and Seelia tied to a tree and brutally ravaged by an army of men, their eyes glazed over. As for Lukas Brun, his head is lifted on a pole while his body remains impaled on a spike. There is neither guilt nor outrage, only pleasure. All the worst evils and most pleasurable sins are released from a box previously locked, its key believed not to be lost but never existing in the first place.
A stinging slap pulls her back to her senses. Naked body exposed to an unnatural cold, Adine realises Seelia is holding onto her shoulders as if she is a motherly figure to an orphan. Guilt assails the heart, her mind struggling against the truth of what-ifs. As for Lolyx, her trembling frame guides Adine's gaze to a towering frame of black. Gone is the man whose name is Kain, for a knight stands tall before a foul army which could have easily raped all of them had not a bastion of black defended their honour.
“One swipe of his axe and they died just like that...”
Struggling to understand what Lolyx is talking about, Adine soon realises why she said that. A puddle of shadow separates them from the horde, another such pool surrounding her. It is as if something cleaved into these monsters and splattered their blood with nothing else left. She remembers the axe Kain wielded with deceptive grace, a weapon any other person would have gripped with two hands instead of one.
“Where is he, Seelia? I mean...”
Despite knowing the obvious, something in Adine hopes the answer wouldn't be the case.
“You're looking at the angry burnt man if that's what you want to know. And please don't ask me why we're safe so long he stays near us. Just don't you dare run off like just now.”
Answering on Seelia's behalf, no mirth is detected in Lolyx's words. The Tamurian is correct, for there's something in the tower of darkest storm preventing those monsters from surrounding them.
“If you feel cold, it means you're safe,” says Seelia as the red-haired girl's words take Lolyx and Adine by surprise. “Trust me. I've been through this before.”
Kain takes a step forward, then the second and third.
“Wait, what is this burnt idiot doing? Is he trying to kill us by walking away?”
Lolyx's fear, however, ends up unproven as the icy fortress never fell. The objects of horror suddenly descend upon a knight armoured by darkness, each one's fingers replaced by massive claws. Attacks come wave after wave, each blow ripping open a massive wound. Nausea churning inside her gut, Adine vomits as the gruesome scene of slaughtered mothers haunts her again and again. As if to taunt her, as if to jeer her, and as if to mock her.
Pain lit its flare inside Kain, the beacon of torment fueling his unquenchable fire. His focus never dimming and ever-burning, every swing from the Cleaver of Mountains reduces their number by more than one. From the ground he is at, his weapon annihilates everything even if any stands at a distance away. From where he is standing, assaults against his head and chest are repelled, the attackers obliterated. Every gash closes up by itself, each injury healed feeding the momentum only a monster is capable of. Where his armour used to be rent, the gaps vanished.
The diabolical entities are swiftly reduced to a score, yet the berserker is now having a harder time. Where it took but a single blow to wipe out either three or four, the very same deadly stroke is unable to repeat this feat. Adine grips tightly onto Lolyx as Seelia wrinkles her frock with both hands. Their black knight hasn't shown signs of fatigue, yet who knows when the inevitable will herald its arrival? One more goes down to the dust. Then the second one follows.
A loud sound of shattered steel suddenly pierces the spectators' ears. Before the humming pain can subside, a roar eerily resembling a wolf's howl shakes the ground. Trees sway violently as if seized by a tempest, the air turning from summer to winter. Greeting Lolyx's widened gaze is a realm of ice, frozen lake, and lifeless tundra. But there's something in it, a life of its own. It curses the world for all things given and taken away, the roaring blizzard challenging some manner of a higher power at work. It's like a brazen rebel cursed with nothing to gain and blessed with nothing to lose, a sellsword mocking death itself.
Hearing Seelia echoing her thoughts is nothing less than shocking. It's one thing to behold an illusion, quite another to realise she's not the only one. Something isn't right as the Tamurian murmurs vulgarities at an annoying half-naked man no longer around. For all she knows, Seelia might have seen the same thing. A biting wind brushes past the trio, the cold assailing them as the obnoxious mercenary ignores them. No strides are made, only a walk towards the battle ahead. Seelia tries to warn Kain, her voice ends up trapped in a cage that is her throat. Eyes of azure blue replaced by jewels of crimson, she's a witness to a mocker's look supplanted by a monster's visage. There's no arrogance in these steps, his shoulders hunched like a beast stalking its prey. His quarry wasn't Kain but the ones battling him. He vanishes instantly, three single-eyed monsters hacked down with neither mercy nor reprieve. Seizing the advantage offered by the unlikeliest ally, Kain makes his advance.
The sight is nothing short of a song sung by bards, for two men who were foes now turn themselves into comrades. When they fought each other, sanity was present. Side by side, only madness defines this alliance, the resultant formation simple and brutal. Power and fortitude serve as shield and cloak, precision and flashing movements are to be the spear and dagger. A rain of fire showers judgement upon the remaining ten or so, a storm of icy wind slows them down. With a devastating stroke, Kain slays them all, his attack ripping the survivors apart like a violent gale stripping trees of their leaves.
To every spectator's horror, the sickly mass of liquid shadow around the supposed victors moves towards Adine. Her mind promptly empties itself, there's only this much she can endure. Without thinking, Lolyx manages to drag her friend away before what is feared materialises. Getting themselves before Kain's feet, the three maidens pay no more than a glance to a being of insanity stepping forth to face a monstrous giant covered with eyes and tentacles. The former are identical to those adorning previous foes, the latter resembling a starfish's arms. In a twisted show of remembrance, Lolyx recalls picking up an otherwise innocuous sea creature when she was only a child of thirteen winters.
A blinding blanket of white abruptly invades Seelia's mind, her heartbeat slowing down. Gasping for breath, the scene in front of her is one the Teutonian has never seen before. Yet, why does it feel so real and sorrowful?
“I'm going to become a hero you can be proud of, Seelia. Just wait for it.”
It is the image of a boy standing in the middle of a meadow. Sandy blond hair covering his nape, sapphire eyes reveal an innocence befitting of his age. Ordinary features hiding something extraordinary, he reveals a grin untainted by a cruel world. It is a portrait of solitude, for behind him stands a cottage bereft of life. No smoke rises from the chimney, no sound is heard behind closed doors of lacquered wood. Then he walks away. Away from the empty house and away from her eyes brimming with tears. The boy starts growing. From his scrawny frame sprouts an athletic build, never once does he look back. Is this the journey of a hero? The kind he spoke of?
Realm of ice and force of storms
Mocking death itself my answer calls
Before foes my blade is keen
Demons and mortals not a god is seen
Arrow's flight or fatal swing
Reprisal and a steely ring
One remains, the world asunder
A wolf stands where all faded
Verses of sorrow and rage shake Seelia back to her senses, a poem of fury singing its ire. The reciter wasn't that unknown boy, his voice belonging to the repulsive mocker inexplicably aiding Kain. Her sight recovers in the timeliest manner, wide-eyed horror greeting a scene of someone impaled through the chest. Materialising itself once more, the land of wintry wrath now devours the ground carrying everyone. The haunting image of resurrection appears, death reversing itself through a flash of lightning and frigid wind. The killed becomes the killer, the monstrous giant exploding into pieces of black. Its eyes closing as if peace has arrived, fire consumes them like a parchment fed to a furnace. It's a surreal sight, for who would imagine a diabolical entity understanding tranquillity upon demise?
Silence prevails as the victor faces the one whom he had helped. Inner fire unable to sustain the exterior, Kain sheds his armour, the plates melting away like frost before the springtime sun. Eyes of crimson red stay unchanged, the creature of madness moves towards him. Knowing things have entered another state of peril, the hulking knight is already physically drained from the previous battle. Such is the price of having the Shroud of Blackest Steel. Using one Relic isn't a burden, but two at the same time would have killed any user. Kain is no ordinary wielder, but not even a monster could have ended up unscathed from the crushing weight oppressing body and mind.
The menacing figure closes in on his newly found quarry, shoulders hunched and arms never straying from each one's side painting a portrait of death made flesh. A cool gentle wind breezes past those before a murderous intent, a man of similar build and features stands between hunter and prey. His garb is a long coat dark and blue, his pants of a lighter shade and boots of leather grey. Brown gloves cover his hands and above the wrists, a curved blade is gripped at the sheath near its small rectangular crosspiece. Unlike the red-eyed monster, his hair is long and flowing. Like the entity during his previous form, the stranger's straight almond eyes are of azure blue.
Deathly silence is the duel between them, an eternity taking place. Then miraculously, he turns and walks away. Not the unnamed saviour but that unknown monster.
Words calm and firm catch Adine, Lolyx, and Seelia off their guard, for they have never seen before someone introducing himself in such a manner. As for Kain, he takes a stride.
“Enough, Kain Lamrec. I know you want to cut me down. Do not test me.”
Something snaps inside his mind. Kain knows his full name. However, there's something in him denying the legitimacy of this truth. And that very thing moves him forward by a single step. Aor responds in the same way, his crouching posture preparing to strike.
“This is my final warning, foolish boy knight. I am no god, yet I am the nearest thing to one.”
Ignoring unyielding words of mercy, a huge stride takes the raging hulk within striking distance, his eyes burning with an unyielding flame. Dismissing the Cleaver of Mountains descending upon his head, a single flick of Aor's arm begets flashing of steel together with a giant's head.
The fight is over as Kain stays rooted on the spot, eyes hard as stone widened before narrowing. Everything inside him screams a warning which must be heeded, for this is a god making his stand, a demon and monster he's unable to defeat. His heart is already racing like a horse provoked by a pack of slavering wolves, his body coated in sweat. Speech departs from his mind, silence becomes his only friend.
“Where are the children?”
Roused from his stupor and emotional numbness, Kain turns his sight towards Seelia. Her bravery is a timely balm, a target the white-haired monster of a god is heading to. Nevertheless, helplessness remains as king and conqueror paralysing him.
Move! Move, damn it!
“A brave man any given day can see, but a woman of resolve even years may not be fortunate enough to behold. You, fair maiden, are one such woman.”
Fingers caressing Seelia's chin, Aor's azure eyes gaze into her. For a moment, terror seizes the Teutonian, her courage exposing itself as nothing more than a facade. There is no warmth in that touch, it's as if this person has died despite his living breath and visible life in those eyes. Then her panic vanishes, it ceases to be like the morning dew before the noonday sun.
“They were nothing more than what people like you would call a ghost.”
“Wait, ghosts actually exist?”
Reckless words blurting out from her lips, Lolyx immediately curses herself for being the same kind of person as Cale the cretin. Her father was right all along, that being an idiot has never been a question of who and what but when and whether.
“They are but a figment of longings and perhaps regrets as well. Laws are pulling the strings and puppets are what you see.”
“You mean yourself, unknown monster. What do you know about that thing causing those eyes and shadows to appear?”
Adine's ire shocks both Lolyx and Seelia. It's not so much a matter of blame but the undisguised hatred against someone who just happened to be here. Getting up with a sigh, Aor turns his back.
“Tell me, coward! What are you afraid of?”
“You demand an answer, an answer I shall give.”
The caressing air heralding Aor's coming announces its arrival once more, it is as if the only answer to her anguish. Adine's mind is now the mirror image of her willowy body, perhaps even more fragile. Eyes of bluish calm never shying away from the challenge of a victim's glare, Aor's long white hair billow with the wind. Then he speaks.
“A wolf knows best every man and those like him are known by demons as well. It takes a monster to slay a demon, a cycle to prove two sides of the same coin. Do not assume only a chosen few are the only ones, for demons seek monsters to devour in the first place.”
As he departs before the awestruck and seething, the nearest thing to a god leaves behind these words.
“Befriend a wolf and he will tear out your throat. Extend unto him your hand and he shall bite it off.”
The same thing is happening again, nothing has changed. Aeravor's unconscious self wakes up, the Relentless One descending to the bottom of an icy lake. His eyes are closed, his body remains sober. He's branded an enemy of the world, but that's because Ji'Yeon was declared as one in the first place. His only love became a foe because the world couldn't tolerate her way of life, its animosity conceiving vengeance. Part of him was tiring, the other half determined to reach the other end.
The other end of life...
The other end of winter...
The other end of the past...
His back gently reaches the bottom of the watery pit, opened eyes greeting an endless stretch of clearest blue. Not that of the sky but one of frigid water. He still can breathe. This means he's alive. He remembers someone calling him Steelborn, someone of regal birth and the queen of a people priding themselves as the Homm'Nua. Aeravor understands the meaning of that word, for this is the only path he knows: A life belonging to the sword and mind of steel.
Then something erupts inside him. It is a fiercely burning fire, like one stoked inside a forge. He recalls what was once said to Ji'Yeon during that beautiful night of festive fireworks. Life is about lighting one's pyre, to set itself alight so that nothing is wasted. There is nothing fanciful about dying, yet here his life stands, laughing at death itself. A mother he never knows made sure a curse could save him. Not one of bitterness or words but something else. His mentor's words haunt him, Erik Soaren's statement snapping at his heels at every turn.
“No life deserves to be ended without chances if it's wrong for a person to be hanged without reason. So live on even if you can only do so as Chaos Incarnate.”
Gi'bang: Yaguryeo term for a brothel.