Chapter 35: Majin - The Scattering
[ Cutscene ]
He ran faster than the wind across the field of corpses, friends and foes alike, which had finally stopped raising back to unlife. All around, trapped and maimed souls called out to him, begging for deliverance.
He steeled his mind against their plea—it had become second nature—and he ignored them, as he ignored the pain radiating from his own maimed body. Clean-up would have to wait. Right now, he couldn’t afford to waste time on the suffering dead when the living still might need help. That was why he raced against time, refusing to spare attention to the curse that even now ate away at his own pathetic simulacrum of life.
Not slowing down, he passed through the transparent figure of a man. He had known this person. Once a fierce lieutenant of the third army, he was now no different than the hundreds of thousands of corpses that littered this cursed battlefield, his soul tortured by a misfired spell cast by his own allies.
The running man sidestepped a lingering necrotic singularity and continued to dash forwards, his thoughts floating back, despite himself, to the meeting that had preceded the battle.
The Last Battle, the Princess had called it. She hadn’t even pretended to smile at the prospect of ending this nightmarish war. It had been years since they had seen Her smile, and he blamed himself for failing Her so entirely. She claimed otherwise, of course. Even decades of madness and death hadn’t managed to leave a dent on the kindness the Supreme Commander showed to anyone who wasn’t Her enemy.
Sadly, that kindness didn’t extend to Herself. He hated himself for failing to protect the smile of his Lady and Master. It didn’t matter if the other generals could forgive themselves. He knew he would never be able to do so.
Even before this ultimate clash, the one that was to bring their suffering to an end, he hadn’t found the words to comfort Her, leaving Her to give him an understanding pat on the shoulder as She walked up to Her mount, Huginn, with regal steps and calm resignation.
He knew it would have been useless anyway. Any words would have rung empty. Everything had been said. Be it in victory or defeat, at the end of the day, they already had lost. Everything they swore to defend, everything they took up the arms for, everything they damned themselves to protect, all of it had already been laid to waste—often by the very forces they themselves unleashed but were unable to control.
And, be it fate, irony, or the fleeting desire of some cruel gods… victory it had been.
But at what price? Both armies had been slaughtered, bodies and souls. The land was corrupted for centuries to come. Abominations ran rampant. And now, even their Lady was missing.
The Princess wasn’t dead—that much he knew. Wherever She might be in the world, he would have felt Her soul disappear if she’d passed. Since he hadn’t felt a thing but was still unable to sense Her location, it meant She didn’t want to be found. The possibility that another being had captured the Princess—She who had risen to the closest any living mortal ever came to godhood—wasn’t even worth considering.
It pained him, but he respected Her choice. He had sworn loyalty and obedience. If Her desire was to be left alone, this worthless retainer had no place in pursuing Her Highness. Instead, he would focus on the woman he still had a chance to support.
The others wouldn’t be so accepting, that he knew.
Senar had always been a stupid mutt, mindless and lost without his master. He would pursue the Princess.
Edelwferia would leave with him. The young elven maiden’s feelings for her adoptive Sister had always gone beyond those of mere siblings. For all he knew, the Princess had answered those feelings, even if only to comfort her sick little sister. The Lady had always been selfless in that way. As Edelwferia’s days were numbered, he couldn’t bring himself to blame the girl for going after her Beloved.
Vidal’ten would probably go too—but on his own. He had always been hard to read—being partially immaterial and barely visible didn’t help—and the most solitary and less talkative amongst them. However, he didn’t lose to anyone in terms of admiration for Her Highness.
Melkior… Melkior would do whatever he pleased. He had never been the most dedicated to the cause, although his loyalty had never been in question. Vengeance was a powerful motivation indeed. But for this reason, it was unlikely that he’d go out of his way to search for their missing Commander now that the war was finally over.
As the running man reminisced of his scattering comrades, a large crowded encampment came into view. It was startling to suddenly come upon so much life after the plains of death he had been crossing. However, he wasn’t surprised. His soul had detected those people far before his eyes.
Of course, the army wasn’t entirely made up of fighters. Blacksmith, tailors, even cooks were there. Although, the number of soldiers who required normal food—or any form of sustenance—had become rather low in the past few years.
Despite his gloomy mood, he felt faintly better seeing that at least some of their forces had survived. It was a shame, though, that the only soul he wanted to check upon was the exact one he was unable to reach. But it was alright still. He could sense his other half, who he knew was next to her. Moreover, he didn’t detect any anguish from his soul-bonded partner, so she was most likely safe.
Then he saw the white-clad corpses being carried out of the camp, and what little colour still dwelled in his pale face drained away. Immediately, he released his power. His body dissolved in a mist of blood droplets carrying his soul. It was a technique he had copied from Vidal’ten. He still wasn’t able to fly through solid walls and force fields like the void elemental, but at least people and clothes weren’t an obstacle anymore.
He darted through the crowd, making a beeline for one of the most imposing tents, almost a palace of cloth, which was baring the crest of a laughing skull. He only switched back to solid form a heartbeat before stepping into the white pavilion, and he barely registered the middle-aged midwife who addressed him a military salute as she exited.
“Oh, oh. Calm down, handsome. Is that the face of a victorious general? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” An old and overused joke reached his ears. Relief washed over him at the sound of his wife’s cheerful voice.
He turned around and let his eyes feast upon the beauty who laid on a large campaign bed, surrounded by a sea of fluffy pillows. Her long and thick white mane spread around her head like a halo. Her striking icy blue eyes were highlighted with unusual dark circles underneath. In her arms, she held a bundle of cloth and a new-born soul. The man’s attention was suddenly so captivated that he barely noticed the last person in the room. But then, he didn’t need to focus to be aware of Lander, his brother and Soulbound.
The tall bald man gave the new father an indulgent smile—a smile impeded by the horrifying burn scars covering his face. He was sitting on an uncomfortable-looking chair by the bed. The worried husband nodded briefly to acknowledge Lander; then his whole attention was on the mother and child duo.
He frowned. “Victorious? Yes, we killed the Ever-Dying King, but nearly all our forces were wiped out as well.”
"Hahaha… I bet he regretted his choice of nickname in the end,” she chuckled weakly. She paused to cough; then her tone became darker. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t be with you on the battlefield. I’m sure I could have reduced our losses.”
Aliade Merle, Aliade Sangbleu for a while now—precisely since their wedding five years ago—was the sixth general of the Raven Army. Ironically, although she was the closest to an undead amongst their group, her personality was the liveliest. It used to be a joke amongst their friends how she was wasted on him, who was such a dull and straight-faced guy.
He knelt by her bed and took her hand in his. “No. Don’t be sorry. The soldiers you raised before the battle were plenty already. It’s not your fault the baby decided to come out four months early.”
“He inherited your impatient personality, and childbirth surprisingly isn’t mentioned in strategy books.”
“An unfortunate blank, but we are used to dealing with the unexpected.” A euphemism to sum up how many times they had been ambushed and outsmarted by enemies who could read the future or even mess with Time itself.
“But you truly didn’t have to leave Lander with me,” she rebuked gently.
“I preferred going to battle with one less worry rather than with one more inefficient sword. He still hasn’t recovered enough to be of any help.” On the side, his brother accepted the comment without objection. Even if Lander hadn’t been rendered mute by a cursed flame spell in the last battle, he still wouldn’t have complained. For the two of them, bluntness was no more than a way to show their mutual respect and trust the other could handle the cold truth.
“Says the man who lost his right arm?” Aliade teased, casting a mocking glance at the stump extending from her husband’s right shoulder.
“I’ll grow it back, and then I will return to clean the aftermath.”
“Such casual attitude about purifying tens of thousands of souls. Are you trying to show-off to your wife, Mister Bloodsoul Mage?”
“Show-off? What matter of a fool would brag over their handling of dead souls in front of the Master of Death?”
Aliade pouted. “I really don’t like that gloomy nickname.”
“I think I recall you saying it sounded ‘so cool’ just a decade ago.”
“Aaaah!! Don’t remind me of that!”
He granted her one of his rare smiles. His eyes then dropped to the bundle. “So... how is my son?"
“…I suppose that is something to be happy about, with a lich for a mother.”
“A flesh lich, please. Don’t compare me to those bony failures. And I think his father being a ‘vampire’ was more of a concern. Sorry to say, dear, but you made yourself into a mess.”
Greatest Necromancer the world had ever known, Aliade had been able to separate her soul from her body entirely, becoming an immortal lich for all intent and purpose, except that she succeeded in keeping her body perfectly functional through the procedure. To someone unable to sense souls, she wouldn’t appear any different from any other non-undead woman—as long as that someone didn’t try something stupid like stabbing her through the heart or cut her head off, in which case they would notice Aliade didn’t particularly care... just before they died… and came back as her minion.
The vampire sighed. “I know I might have rushed some aspects in reconstructing my body. Will you ever tell me what pun gave birth to the glorious name of my species?” he asked as he moved towards his brother, who handed him a glass bottle full of an unmistakable red fluid.
Aliade smiled maliciously and shook her head. “Nope! It’s your fault for not being able to find a decent name. Even Senar did better."
“Hah,” her husband snorted. “Better? What kind of word is ‘werewolf’. It sounds like something an orc would come up with.”
“It sounds cool. Admit it, your naming sense sucks. That’s why I get to be the one to name our child.”
He gulped down the content of the bottle and sighed in relief when his arm began to regenerate. After checking the progress, he turned back to his undead wife. “So my son was named ‘Master of Death Junior’. I see. How can you be so cruel?”
For years Aliade had dutifully educated her stiff husband in the concept of humour. Now she regretted her actions a bit. She stuck her tongue out. “No.” She raised the small premature boy towards his now two-handed father. Her own arms were shaking slightly, but the vampire put that on account of the recent delivery. “Mordred, say hello to Daddy Markus.”
Markus took the sleeping child from his wife’s shaking grasp and cradled the tiny body in his arms. “Mordred, son of Markus. Sounds dangerous.” He smiled predatorily—the fangs didn’t give him much of a choice—but any who knew him would recognise the look of pride on his face. Looking at Aliade, he added worriedly, “Are you alright?”
“Yes, yes. Just a little tired. I’ll be fine tomorrow. More importantly, I can’t sense the Princess anymore. Did she leave?”
At her words, Markus’ face darkened—and not only because of the matter of their missing Lady. “Yes, but Edelwferia and the mutt went after Her. Vidal’ten too, probably, though even I can’t locate him when he shifts to the elemental plane,” he answered dutifully. “But please don't change the subject.”
“Tsk.” She pouted. “And I thought your revered master would be a good bait.” She did not bother denying the accusation.
“She’s your Master too,” Markus retorted. Aliade rolled her eyes. “But if She doesn’t want me to look for Her, I won’t. So you’re my only concern right now. You, and my son.” He didn’t mention Lander. He and his brother were practically a single entity by now.
“Markus... If I were to find you a fault, I’d say you are too loyal. There’s more to serving someone than being their yes-man.”
“I trust the Princess knows what’s right.”
“And that’s where you failed her.” For the first time, Aliade’s tone was harsh.
Markus felt panic grip his heart. Not because of what she said, but because of how she said it and why she had done so. She knew this was a sore point for him and, even if they had argued about his behaviour numerous times, she had never been this blunt. If she felt the need to push her point across, even if it meant hurting him, then she probably thought like she wouldn’t have another opportunity to try and convince him.
Aliade saw the emotions twist his face as he reached the logical conclusion. She sighed. “Markus…”
“You’re dying.” There was no reproach in his voice, no accusation, just sadness.
He extended his consciousness outwards and reached out for hers. For the first time in decades, he found her defences frail, barely existent. He had no trouble slipping through. He then let his mind follow the immaterial link between her body and the phylactery containing her soul. To his horror, he discovered her essence weakened and still weakening, like a dying candle burning what little wick it had left.
Because her soul resided in a separate plane, an interstice between this world and the ether of the afterlife, he usually couldn’t feel it even with the powers of the Bloodsoul Mage. Therefore, she had managed to hide her state until now.
“I saw them carrying your White Lich Guards out. I thought maybe the pain of childbirth had made you lose grip on their souls. But I should have known that you were way too good for such a mistake.”
“That’s me,” she said weakly, her tone thick with self-mockery. “The genius girl who revived her neighbours’ cat in her sleep at the age of five and caused the whole village to freak out.”
She knew from his severe and hurt expression he wasn’t referring to the creepily cute anecdote. She closed her eyes and answered in a sombre tone. “Even the Master of Death isn’t a god, Markus. For the one who is dead to hope to create life without paying the price can only be called foolishness.” She reopened her eyes, staring intently into her husband's. "Our child wouldn't have lived Markus. Growing up in the womb of a body devoid of a soul, he would have been an empty vessel at best. Something that shouldn’t exist. I did what I had to do.”
“You filled him with your own life force.”
“Like a good mother is supposed to.” Her heavy lids were closing again. “Please don’t hate your son. If someone is to blame, it would be me and my own selfishness.”
“I would never hate our son. Nor you. You are the greatest person I know. How could I hate you?”
“The greatest? Me? Hahaha…” she managed a laugh despite her fading voice. “What about your precious Princess?” There was no sarcasm in the question. Aliade too respected their Lady above all, and never had her husband’s blind devotion to the woman led to jealousy. Not to say that it hadn’t prodigiously annoyed the Necromancer at times, but the Supreme Commander of the Eden was, first and furthermost, her best friend.
Markus shook his head. “I trust Her decisions without question because I know, no matter how deep Her hatred, Her Highness still only lives to protect Her people, and because she is a kind and benevolent person. But while She and all of us fought to defeat our enemies and protect what we had too, you, my wife, are the only one among us fools who desired to bring new life as much as to protect it.”
“Haha… What a success that has been, right?” she said, the bitter irony present in her voice at first quickly shifting to sweetness as the corner of her pale lips hooked up in a small smile.
“Yes. A brilliant success,” Markus replied. He lowered his gaze to the child he was holding carefully, afraid his inhuman strength might break the fragile being, or his soul.
“It’s funny,” Aliade whispered. “They praised me as an existence akin to a goddess, the woman who could bring the dead back to life! But all I ever did was to puppet rotting corpses… And now that I finally succeed in bringing forth real, breathing, beautiful life, I won’t be around to witness it bloom and brag about my greatness. Hahaha… How stupid is that?” Tears began flowing down her cheeks, and she turned towards her helpless husband, eyes cracking laboriously open. “Markus… I don’t want to die…”
“I want to see Mordred grow up in the world we created… Protect him from the mistakes we made… Slap him when he makes a girl cry… I know he will… He’s your son after all… You… You were always terrible at handling girls... I... I want to be called ‘mum’ or ‘mama’ and not ‘Master of Death’, ‘One Woman Army’, ‘Heart of Rotten Ice’... I want... I wanted...” Her voice devolved into uncontrolled sobbing.
If her enemies, or even her own few living soldiers, had seen her right now, they wouldn’t have believed this was the same woman who emotionlessly slaughtered thousands of humans, elves, dwarfs, beastmen and every other race alike and reanimated their still-warm corpses to send after their friends, families and loved ones.
That ruthless woman was nowhere to be seen, her mask fallen to reveal the little girl from a backwater village, the one who loved flowers and dreamed of founding a large family. The girl who fell in love with an overly dutiful palace guard and followed him into a mad war, resolving herself to use the gift for Necromancy she had hated above all until then. The girl who befriended her husband’s master and enjoyed sharing worries about banalities over tea and cookies.
“Aliade… I could—”
“No,” she cut him, stopping her sobbing by a sheer act of will, her voice weak but unwavering.
She once again forced her stiffening eyelids open and stared angrily at the Bloodsoul Mage. “You won’t do anything! And you won’t tempt me with empty promises. I shouldn’t have told you anything. I know my soul more than anyone, Markus. And I know your powers at least as well as you do. We are the monsters we created ourselves, to survive and destroy our foes. I don’t regret what I have done, and I would do it again if I had too, better maybe, but if I accept your help now—if I let you use your magic to strengthen my mutated soul… It won’t be me. I know it won’t. You know it won’t.”
“I could find a way to—”
“NO!! No—cough! Cough!”
“Aliade!” He made to rush to her.
Her glare stopped him in his track. “Listen to me! You know how many of our ‘experiments’ ended up causing as much damage as the abominations they were meant to stop? Look at your own body! Markus, please… I finally succeeded in leaving a legacy that isn’t tainted with blood and death. Mordred will hear plenty of tales about her horrible demon of a mother growing up. I don’t want to add another about how I had to be put down as a soulless monster for clinging pathetically to a life I had knowingly forsaken.”
Markus didn’t reply. He couldn’t. He only stared at her in silence.
“Markus… please… Just let me go.”
He took a low breath. “…I will make sure Mordred hears all the stories about his beautiful mother who dreamed of a shining world filled with laughs and flowers.”
“Hahaha…” She croaked a broken laugh, but her faint smile was genuine. “Who’s that optimist little idiot? You should introduce us one of these days. Maybe I can slap some sense into her.”
“She is a little idealist, but I love her.”
“…thank you.” Whispering so, she closed her pale blue eyes. And this time, Markus knew the icy blue gems wouldn’t open ever again.
Not a single tear fell from his eyes. Ever since he had altered his body with an original mix of Blood and Soul magic of his own invention, a small anomaly had made his tears become blood. He had never been much for external displays of emotion, so he had never cried a lot anyway, but after then he had learned to repress his rare tears so as not to creep people out.
After all those years, he wasn’t sure he still knew how to.
Markus turned to Lander, who was now silently standing beside him. Carefully, Markus handed the baby to him. Decades of being bonded by their very souls had made words unnecessary between the two brothers. Nevertheless, the grieving husband decided to voice his thoughts out loud, as much to centre himself as because his wife deserved as much.
“Please make preparations to burn Aliade’s corpse as fast as possible. Do the full cleansing ritual. There shouldn’t be any problem, but as she said, we have been wrong before.” He paused, and his gaze became lost in the distance. “Also, have the surviving vampires head to the battlefield as soon as they are done resting and feeding. We’ll want to free the trapped souls as soon as possible, from both sides, and be done with this place.”
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” he said, quietly as he headed for the exit of the large tent. “I need to… take a walk.”
Before stepping out, he looked back one last time. He seemed to hesitate, then finally added, “…and prepare a carriage. As soon as we’re done, we leave for Erwyn. Her grandparents emigrated from there if I remember correctly. The mountains should have protected that place from the worst of the war. It would be the best place for raising a child.”
Another man might have reminded Markus Sangbleu of his duties as a general and Second in Command of the Eden Army, especially now that both the Supreme Commander and every other central authority figure was either gone or dead. Even if every enemy had been dealt with, rebuilding the land would be as hard, if not harder, than the fight that had preceded.
There were also the survivors to deal with, many who had never known a world at peace. Not to mention the remaining immortal super-soldiers, sometimes entire new races, biologically and magically engineered for the sole purpose of killing as efficiently as possible.
Instead of doing that, however, Lander just nodded. A few orders addressed to selected and competent people would take care of those things. If anyone deserved to be a little selfish right now, it was the broken man before him.
Markus nodded back and left General Merle’s headquarters as a blur.
Five minutes later, a distant explosion shook the ground, and every surviving member of the army looked around in fear.
Still holding the sleeping Mordred, Lander Sangbleu silently looked towards the mountains which stood east of the encampment and towards the red cloud rising from behind those tall summits.
Through their bond, his brother’s heart-wrenching roar of grief echoed across his soul.
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