I passed through a cloud of tangible Darkness energy as I entered the scene of Nalia and Michelle’s battle. The sheer amount of Darkness energy being expended by both of them was overwhelming and suffocating, and even above ground people were becoming panicked by it. The Royal Guard, for whatever reason, had not decided to interfere.
Past the cloud of Darkness and into the room where Nalia and Michelle were fighting, I took a moment to absorb all the information I could. This room, and the temple I’d wandered through to get here, was something ancient and of great importance. It looked almost like an arena- the floor was but a circle of cobblestone, held up by stone pillars but not reaching the walls. Beneath the floor was a thin layer of Darkness energy, and beneath that was the sky.
On the left side of the arena was Nalia, who had his back to a massive gemstone embedded into the island. Now that I was close to it, I could detect it, and I could feel untold amounts of elemental energies.
On the right side of the arena- closer to the center- was Michelle. My older sister.
She was on one knee, her jacket and her shirt torn from deep slashes. She grasped her dual daggers, Tsukimono, quite tightly and stared back at Nalia with an unwavering look of loathing. This was the first time I had seen Michelle since her disappearance.
“Michael!” Nalia shouted, “This isn’t what it looks lik-”
“Michael!” Michelle cried, rather uncharacteristically, “He’s trying to kill me!”
Whatever composure my sister had managed to keep until now had apparently broken as soon as she noticed I was here. I had never known Michelle to be afraid, or to cry, so the fact that she had been pushed this far at all told me more than enough about what was going on here.
“Nalia.” I said, coldly, simply, “I don’t want to hear your excuses. I’ve already decided what needs to happen here.”
I stepped into the arena, staring directly at Nalia as I did so, my right hand on my claymore’s handle over my back.
Nalia grimaced. “I’m serious, Lockheart, it’s not what it looks lik-”
That was the moment I felt everything holding me together fall apart.
My only sister, wounded, crying and covered in her own blood. It was seeing all of my worst fears come true.
What if he killed Richter, too, and that’s why I haven’t seen him yet? What if he’s just been hunting us to check us off a list?
Another time, I would think of this as paranoid speculation. But it felt true. If he was strong enough to wound Michelle like this, he was strong enough to get in a dirty trick on Richter. Definitely strong enough to kill me.
I unsheathed my claymore before Nalia finished speaking. Light burst from every cell of my being, and I was determined to operate at maximum speed and leave no chance whatsoever for Nalia to survive my onslaught. As I felt my heart shatter, I expected to be overcome with fear and pain.
Instead, all that was left was rage. Not rage where I would waste my energy crying and screaming. Rage that focused my entire being on one thing, and one thing only:
The death of Nalia Cynd.
I covered the distance between us in milliseconds. I saw Nalia moving to block as I did this, but he was still too slow. There’s the perk of being the son of Cyria. I have inherited the power of the fastest deity to ever exist- how could anyone, much less a Darkness user, ever hope to match it?
I swung my claymore as hard and fast as I could for Nalia’s neck.
His red eyes, filled with shock and sadness, met mine as I did this. I stared back at him coldly in the fractions of fractions of a second left to him, granting no mercy or reprieve in my gaze or my blade.
And then Nalia disappeared, replaced by a cloud of Darkness particulate.
I felt a blade ripping at my back and I spun out of the way, narrowly avoiding damage to my spine and turning to face Nalia, who had appeared behind me and damn near tore out my spine just now.
I glared at him as the focused nature of my rage began to falter. My voice trembled as I asked, “Dark Step? You stole my brother’s technique?”
Nalia’s face betrayed no emotion as he responded, “Your brother is the one who stole it. Richter uses Dark Step to teleport into the shadow of his enemies. My mother used a similar technique hundreds of years ago to teleport through all shadow on Trine, making her the only creature capable of rivalling your father’s speed.”
No fucking way.
Nalia presented his scythe to me again. It was celestial blue, its blade a shade darker, and the body engraved with ornate carvings of crescent moons and…hawks…
“You’re a chimera, too.” I realized, “Of Lerad. I thought the Hawk was a man.”
“You thought wrong,” Nalia responded, the carvings on his scythe beginning to morph and move, “Lerad of the Sky, the Great Beast of Darkness, is my mother. I have a piece of her here.”
The hawk-carvings on Nalia’s scythe sprang to life and burst out, creating a mist of Darkness around Nalia so impossibly strong that my Light-boosted sight could not see through it. The hawks fused into a set of great, celestial blue feathery wings on Nalia’s back. The crescents left on his staff glowed a blinding, bright white as the blade changed to match their color- the color of the moon.
On closer inspection, though, that didn’t seem quite right. The glowing energy on his blade wasn’t glowing, and it certainly didn’t feel anything like Light energy.
That’s White Darkness, I realized.
White Darkness isn’t actually white, in and of itself. It’s a form of Darkness so impossibly condensed and powerful that it absorbs and destroys everything it comes into contact with, leaving a distorted, glowing halo in spacetime wherever it’s present.
Just as Howl is exclusive to my father and is the strongest form of Light, White Darkness is exclusive to Lerad and the strongest form of Darkness.
I glanced around the arena to realize that my sister had disappeared. She’d done so silently and Nalia hadn’t noticed. Good.
“I didn’t want to kill you or your sister.” Nalia sighed, flexing his wings outward as he did so, “But you’ve left me no choice.”
“I’d say I don’t want to kill you, either,” I responded, gripping my claymore tighter, “But I’m not a good liar.”
Twelve Years Ago.
My grandfather, Stane Lockheart, knew that he didn’t have much more time to spend with me. He was growing old and weary, his combat efficiency plummeting. His friends in the Royal Guard urged him to retire, but he refused, pushing himself constantly to do his job to the best of his ability. When he wasn’t doing that, he was teaching me everything he could about our family, the rivalry between my father and my Ancestor, and how to use my abilities.
About a year before he died, at the end of my initial combat training, he passed Murzim on to me. Murzim was a great, white claymore crafted from moonshard by Vincent Lockheart himself. It was used in battle against Cyria on multiple occasions, and perhaps my father’s least favorite of all the Lockheart weapons he’d ever been close to. As I grew to despise my father for his abandonment of me and my siblings, I embraced my Lockheart heritage and the weapon Murzim that Stane had passed on to me.
From the day Saiten Lockheart, my mother and Stane’s daughter, died, Stane took me under his wing to teach me everything he could. This went on for about two before his death, starting just after I turned ten years old. The first was about training me, about turning me into a fighter. The second, as Stane began to understand that death was coming for him, was about turning me into…
Until the day I turned twelve years old, I didn’t truly understand the extent to which my grandfather went to protect us. While Michelle had dived into her studies and Richter into his Royal Guard training after the death of our mother, I was left to be guided by Stane. It was a surprise for many higher members of the Royal Guard, then, that neither Richter or Michelle were the first of the current generation of Lockhearts to oversee one of Stane’s interrogations.
That honor was all mine. It was the most important lesson that my grandfather would ever teach me.
I watched from behind a one-way mirror as my grandfather stepped into the interrogation room at the Royal Guard HQ. The interrogation room was five stories underground, hidden from all but the highest authority in the Royal Guard and inaccessible to all but them…and me. There wasn’t much. Just an operating table, a blinding white light looking down on it, and a pale, emaciated man spread, his limbs outstretched and bound to the table.
He was unconscious. My grandfather harshly slapped his face to fix that, causing the man to gasp in pain as he came to.
“I didn’t do anythi-”
“Quiet.” My grandfather said in an unfamiliar voice, booming with authority and malice.
The prisoner fell silent. My grandfather’s hands were behind his back as he started to pace in circles around the operating table. He’d taken off his black jacket, the vest and the shirt that he normally wore underneath it. His entire upper body was bare, covered in scars from years of combat…and a tattoo of the Lockheart crest over his heart, a tradition started with Vincent himself.
“Tell me.” Stane said, “What’s your name?”
“Alex.” The prisoner responded. “Alex Mak-”
“I don’t care about your last name.” Stane interrupted, “You don’t have a family anymore. Your only living relative thinks that you’re dead. And you are, Alex. You’re never going to see the light of day again.”
Alex began to tear up. “Please, I-”
“Didn’t mean to?” Stane interrupted, leaning over him, “Didn’t mean to build a bomb? Didn’t mean to set it off at a shopping mall? You killed children, most of whom had yet to awaken the abilities to defend themselves.”
Alex glared back at my grandfather. “I didn’t know they would be there.”
Stane clapped his hands. “Of course!” he declared, “You didn’t know that your actions would result in the death of children! Killing other people is just fine, destroying lives is fine, but children…that’s where you draw the line?”
“Pathetic.” Stane spat, turning away from him and toward me. He couldn’t see me through the one-way glass, but nodded in my direction regardless. Don’t look away, he mouthed.
“You were ready to follow orders, ready to kill, and you didn’t stop to think of the ramifications of your actions. That’s just pathetic.” Stane brandished a large, black combat knife as he turned to face Alex again, causing Alex to struggle against his bonds in response, “If you’re going to be a killer, at least be a good one.”
“What’s the point of this?” Alex spat.
“We know that you were taking orders from someone.” Stane remarked, “We’ve dealt with many a terrorist before. What we aren’t sure about is who. You’re going to tell me that.”
“If you’re going to kill me, why should I talk!?” Alex demanded.
“That’s where you’re mistaken, Alex.” Stane replied, moving to Alex’s right side so I could see, “You’re already dead. This is just a brief stop on your way to Hell.”
Moving rapidly, Stane stabbed his knife through Alex’s palm, causing the man to howl in agony. As I tried to look away, Stane pointed in my direction through the glass and said “Don’t.”
“Who- who are you talking to!?” Alex cried.
Stane paused, then turned to look in my direction. I was frozen in place, unsure how to process what I was seeing. “Come in, Michael.” he said, “Don’t worry. He can’t hurt you.”
Slowly, hesitantly, I moved to the door, opened it and stepped inside.
“Tha- that’s a kid!” Alex shouted in disbelief.
Stane ignored him, moving over to me and crouching down to my level, placing his hands on my shoulders. “Are you scared?” he asked.
I shook my head nervously.
“Be honest, Mikey.” he pressed.
I nodded slowly.
“It’s okay to be scared.” he assured, “I know this is a lot for you. Don’t worry. I’ve never hurt you before and I won’t start now.”
“Why are you doing this to him?” I asked.
“Because, Mikey…” Stane looked downward, formulating his thoughts, “He’s ripped families apart. The same way you lost your mother, he’s taken other people’s mothers…fathers…children. And he’s working with people who want to do more of that.”
Stane stood to his full height, turning away from me. He used a switch to start lowering the operating table, and pulled his knife out of Alex’s palm, causing the man to shriek again.
“We need to make him tell us everything he knows, Mikey.” Stane said, “So we can protect people. Like your brother and sister. Like your mother and grandmother. Do you understand?”
I nodded my head feebly.
Stane handed his knife to me.
Realizing what was about to happen, Alex started struggling and screaming again. “Don’t listen to him, kid! He’s no better than me! He’s a monster!”
Ignoring him, Stane gently placed his hand on my back and pushed me forward. “You remember how I taught you to skin that boar when we went hunting?” he asked.
Stane rubbed Alex’s right forearm. “Start here,” he said, “And don’t stop, no matter what he says, until I tell you to. You need to be able to do anything to protect your family.”
“That’s impressive.” I admitted, “That transformation of yours, I mean. You should catch that on camera. Show off a little.”
Nalia flexed his wings outward and stared back at me, his blood-red eyes betraying no emotion. “You have time to talk now?” he said.
“However,” I growled, ignoring Nalia and holding my claymore out toward him, “I wouldn’t bring out the cameras now. I don’t think you’d want to star in a snuff film, would you?”
“I really don’t want to do this.” Nalia said, “But if I can’t hold back against you anymore. This is your last chance. Stand down or I will kill you.”
I answered by rushing Nalia as fast as I could, covering the distance between us in fractions of a second. Nalia channeled Light into his scarlet eyes, which caused them to glow red as he teleported out of the way of my first slash, which sliced through the column he’d been standing in front of.
I felt the arena shift as I did so, and quickly twirled around, just in time to stop a downward swing of Nalia’s scythe. I looked up at Nalia’s moon-colored blade, trembling against my claymore as he tried to split upon my skull. “Nostalgic.” I snarled, “Just like the first time we met.”
I side-stepped to my right, breaking our blade lock before rapidly swinging my claymore upward, hoping to separate one of Nalia’s wings from his back.
As my blade came close to them, the wings released a strong pulse of Gravitational energy, pulling my claymore away from them. I leaped back before Nalia could retaliate, but found my back against yet another one of the pillars holding up the arena.
“Golden Fang!” I shouted.
Golden Fang is the name of one of my father’s techniques, the one allowing him to achieve Light speed. I am unfortunately nowhere near that fast, but channeling the technique grants me a very, very significant speed boost, which allowed me to speed out of the way of another swing from Nalia’s scythe, this time from him teleporting behind the pillar and trying to cut me- and it- in half.
If all the pillars are destroyed, I realized, He can fly. I can’t. It’s dark outside. If we start falling…
We’ll be in his element. He’ll be able to teleport everywhere.
There were only two pillars left.
As I saw them wobble and crack, and felt the arena beneath me begin to fall, I realized I was too late.
Nalia swooped in from behind me as the final two pillars broke and my feet left the ground.
I grasped my claymore with both hands, turned and slashed as hard as I could as we met in midair.
My claymore clashed with and shattered a barrier of Darkness, but left me wide open to Nalia’s counterattack. His scythe ripped through my stomach and I screamed in agony as we began to fall into the skies beneath the floating islands of Lamass.
The night was cold, our twin moons shining bright, the wind rushing all around us as we fell.
I aimed my claymore downward, and channeled Golden Fang into it, causing it to pull me downward. I quickly reached terminal velocity, but…
“That won’t work!” Nalia shouted.
In an instant, he had caught up with me, slamming a hardened Earth-coated foot into my chest and shattering my ribs as he did so.
I lost my grip on Murzim and twirled through the air with the force of his kick.
Before I could fall away into the night, Nalia teleported to close the distance, grabbing me by the collar of my shirt.
We stopped falling for a moment. His wings were flapping, silhouetted by the moonlight, his left hand holding my broken body and his right hand holding his scythe, glowing with pearly moonlight. His eyes were still glowing a sinister red, his skin blending in with the night, our twin moons illuminating him from opposite sides.
He looked almost angelic. The night was freezing, especially this high up, but my blood was still warm, pooling in my jeans and dripping into the darkness below. As he tightened his grip on my collar and raised me higher, I grabbed his arm with my left hand and grasped him as tightly as I could.
“You’ve lost, Lockheart.” he declared, looking down at me coldly.
“I’ll kill you.” I spat.
I felt a piece of my ribcage stab into my lungs.
“You’re already about to die trying.” Nalia remarked.
Charging my right hand with Light energy, I swung for his face. Nalia’s eyes, still glowing red with Light energy, quickly jumped to my right as I did this, and I quickly realized I had made a grave mistake.
I missed as Nalia let go of me and teleported out of my range.
With nothing left to hold me up, I plummeted into the night.
As the Grand Diamond Lake came into sight below, I came to one very simple realization. Freezing winds all around me, my own broken ribs stabbing into my lungs, my stomach cut open, my most prized possession nowhere to be seen as I plummeted out of the sky…
I’m going to die before I hit the water.
I expected to be filled with some great rage or angst when my time came.
Instead, those feelings and everything else began to fall away.
I closed my eyes.
With a strong surge of Wind, I surged back to life and sky rocketed upward.
I could feel my wounds healing as I ascended. The warmth of my blood regenerating inside me. The Light in me surging back stronger than ever. In a matter of seconds, I was completely rejuvenated, and for the moment I hung in the air before falling again, Nalia stared up at me, wide-eyed in shock.
I felt the charm Jeane had given me- of the Vaten Family, the Ancient Family of Wind- shatter against my bare chest.
That’s what it was. A one-time heal.
Thank you, Zephyr.
I smirked at Nalia, leaning backward as I started to fall and looking down at him as I did so.
I somersaulted in the air, filling my body with Golden Fang’s energy as I did so and blasting toward Nalia at max speed. My right fist slammed through and shattered a Darkness barrier he’d hastily made in an attempt to block my incoming attack, and I punched him in the stomach at full force. Nalia gasped in pain, blood and spit flying from his mouth as he lost his grip on his scythe.
Still propelled by the Golden Fang technique, we blasted through the air.
“How- how-” Nalia wheezed.
“Let me show you.” I snarled, grabbing his neck with my left hand and careening us downward, activating Golden Fang again to begin our descent, “I don’t need my sword to kill you.”
As our speed passed terminal velocity, Nalia began gasping for air and struggling against my grip on his neck. Strong as he was with his Darkness techniques, my physical strength exceeded his significantly. Coming into view below us was the Grand Diamond Lake, and just ahead of that was the stone arena we’d started in, Murzim stabbed into it on one of the far sides.
So that’s where it fell. Convenient.
Nalia attempted to extend his wings to slow our descent, but I activated Golden Fang again, accelerating our speed to the point that the wind felt like it’d start cutting me apart-
We slammed through the center of the arena, shattering it.
I leaped off of Nalia’s chest as we did so, grabbing Murzim as it flew through the air and landing with my feet on one of the fragments of the arena as Nalia re-adjusted himself in the air and conjured his scythe into his hand. He screamed in terrifying rage, blood pouring from his eyes, still glowing a malevolent red from the Light energy he’d channeled into them.
I roared in return. “Golden Fang!” I shouted, blasting at him as fast I could, swinging my claymore as I did.
My blade met his scythe but was unable to break through.
I blasted past him, onto another falling shard of the arena.
“Times two!” I screamed.
I came at him again, attempting to cut off his wings. Transforming into a particulate mist of Darkness, he teleported away and dodged my attack.
“Three!” I chanted, changing direction in midair and careening toward him as he reappeared.
“Enough!” Nalia screamed.
He flexed his wings outward, releasing a pulse of Gravitational energy that slowed my advance to a crawl. He slashed his white-bladed scythe at me, releasing a pulse of White Darkness.
In a haze of rage and desperation, I roared, releasing a surge of scarlet Lightning energy that engulfed the crescent of White Darkness.
The two exploded at the point of contact, causing a blend of all Nine Elements to manifest and burst into the air between us.
So that’s how dad uses Howl. Huh.
“Four!” I hissed, activating Golden Fang again to try and break out of the Gravitational hold pulling me backward.
Nalia soared through the air toward me, scythe raised as if about to behead me.
“It’s over!” Nalia howled.
“GOLDEN FANG,” I growled through my teeth, “TIMES FIVE!”
With one more surge of Light energy, I blasted out of Nalia’s gravitational hold with my claymore pointed forward, covering the distance between us before he anticipated and impaling him through the chest.
We blasted into the Grand Diamond Lake at full speed.
Nalia teleported away as we entered the water and I hissed, channeling my Light-accelerated speed to start running across the surface of the water.
I stopped for a moment, sliding across its surface, creating splashes and waves as I turned to face upward at Nalia. There was a hole in his chest I could see through, but he was still alive, wings flapping. He looked positively livid.
Nalia snarled and made an upward flicking motion with his left hand, causing the surface of the water for miles around us to freeze. I leaped upward as this happened, hoping to avoid getting my feet stuck-
And Nalia was already there.
He slashed open my chest for what had to have been the second time since we’ve met.
I howled in pain and fell backward, crashing into the ice. I moved to get up, but he teleported again, this time to slam his foot down onto my chest wound, hard enough to cause the ice under my back to start splitting.
I gasped, but held in the scream, glaring up into his shining red eyes with hatred.
His chest wound had already healed. Fucking Cynd blood.
“I’ll kill you!” I screamed, “I’ll-”
Nalia coated his foot in stone and slammed it down on my chest again. I felt my ribs fracture for the second time that night, but at least they didn’t shatter into my lungs this time.
I whimpered and wheezed, starting to sob in pain and rage.
“I know you did it!” I shouted, “I know you killed him!”
“What?” Nalia interjected.
“Don’t play innocent with me!” I screeched, “I know you killed Richter, just like you tried to kill Michelle and you’re trying to kill me!”
“I’m- godDAMN IT, LOCKHEAR-”
Seeing an opening, I slashed Murzim through his stomach, causing him to fall backward, clutching at his wound as I scrambled to my feet on the ice.
Nalia seethed, blood pouring through his teeth and his eyes, eyes still glowing with demonic light as he clutched his wound. “WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS!?” he screamed, “I’M NOT TRYING TO KILL ANYONE!”
“THEN WHERE’S MY BROTHER!?” I shouted, pointing an accusatory finger at him, “I CAN’T FIND HIM, AND WHEN I FIND MICHELLE YOU’RE TRYING TO KILL MY SISTER!”
I howled. Or, more accurately, Howled. My father’s signature technique, a surge of scarlet Lightning, the strongest form of Light, enough to vaporize anything it touched. If anything could kill Nalia, Howl could.
Nalia hurled his scythe at the bolts of Howl energy. It glowed with White Darkness as the two opposing forces met. Nalia’s scythe shattered and exploded as White Darkness and Howl began to alchemize all Nine Elements.
At the point of contact, Earth. Outward surges of Wind and Gravitational energy came from the blast, as did Fire, Water, Lightning, and Ice.
I channeled Golden Fang one last time, intending to finish this battle with one blow. I lunged Murzim in Nalia’s direction as I blasted through the elements we’d alchemized with our clashing techniques.
But this time, Nalia didn’t move. He didn’t create a Darkness barrier to tank the attack. Instead, he stared at me dead-on as I covered the distance between us, then raised and flattened his right hand as he channeled Earth energy to cover his entire right forearm in stone, with an aura of White Darkness around the improvised weapon.
In the fourth of a second remaining before our final clash, my eyes widened as I realized what was about to transpire. I don’t have enough energy left to Golden Fang in another direction. I’m too close to him to slow down before we meet.
I saw the future and grit my teeth in preparation.
Nalia slapped Murzim aside as I, propelled completely by my own technique, impaled myself through his right arm.
Nalia stared down at me as I grasped onto him and to life.
“Please…”I begged, “Don’t kill my sister…”
He responded by pulling his arm out of my midsection, swiftly and brutally.
My blood splattered to the ice beneath us. I couldn’t even fathom the damage he’d done to my organs, but I couldn’t even feel my legs anymore and I fell to my knees, a cold numbness spreading through my body. No Vaten Family charm to save me this time.
Nalia stared down at me.
“I didn’t kill anyone, and I’m not going to.” he sighed, “Well, except for you. If you survive this, I’ll explain everything.”
Feeling my life leaving me, I stared up at him.
“Are my siblings alive?” I asked.
“Yes.” Nalia responded, “I promise.”
My eyelids became too heavy and my body did too. I pressed my palms against the Ice to try and hold myself up as I said, “That’s good…”
Nalia stared down at me as I fell.