I came to surrounded by nothing but dry, suffocating heat, embracing my body in all directions. As I attempted to gasp for air, scalding sand filled my mouth and I frantically struggled, pushing and pulling myself out of the sand and into the hot air of the Gilded Deserts.
The sun blinded me while I fell forward and hurled, vomiting sand and blood and the contents of my stomach out in front of me. I nearly fell face-first into it, but I stopped myself with my hands just in time.
My face was wet, but the rest of my body was overwhelmingly dry and hot.
Slowly but surely, I opened my eyes to observe the landscape around me.
The sun’s light bore down harshly upon the Gilded Deserts. Judging by its position in the sky, it had to be somewhere in the afternoon, which meant we were in peak broiler hours.
Littering the sands around me were various bodies. Unlike me, they had the good fortune to have not been buried in the desert for who knows how long, and while they were all unconscious, I could see their midsections slowly heaving with breath.
I looked upward.
Rivers of shining, golden sand rose through the air, twisting and converging and falling back to earth as the result of an unseen gravitational anomaly. Gargantuan shards of stone and bone floated along seemingly unassisted in every direction.
A deep scar had formed in the desert about a mile in front of us. It was a giant, jagged canyon, and littering the sands surrounding it were hundreds of assorted skeletons, each still gleaming with gore and moisture.
What the fuck happened here?
I tried to move my legs, but realized I couldn’t.
Shit. I must have paralyzed myself.
At least for now. The fact I’m still alive after whatever the hell else happened here means my blood must be working hard to regenerate my body.
My arms were still working, so I reached out in front of me and concentrated.
Through Earth manipulation, I created a slab mirror out of the sand before me, just beyond the pile of vomit.
I stared into the mirror to see what state I was in.
My feathery white hair was stained with blood and clouded with sand. My skin, while dark, was even darker in places, especially from my eyes downward. My eyes, at least, looked the same as they ever do for a Cynd- black sclera with a blood-red iris.
My once-white-and-gold Royal Family robes were ruined beyond repair, exposing the black shirt beneath in various places.
I look like shit, and I still don’t know why.
I clenched my right fist, disintegrating the mirror into fine particulate that blew away in the desert wind. With another wave of my right hand, I created a bed of stone under the pile of my vomit, and sent the stone flying away.
That stench was starting to become unbearable.
I pushed my body out of the sand, and began pulling myself across the ground toward the nearest unconscious body. I had a pretty good hunch that we had all been together before this went down.
The first person I reached had dark hair tied back in a ponytail and was laying face-down. He was wearing a horribly-torn black leather jacket, and as I flipped him over, I observed that the tears in his jacket and shirt revealed a tattoo on his chest. A tattoo of a heart with a keyhole in it.
Vincent Lockheart, founder of the Lockheart Family and first member of my Royal Guard, slowly opened his eyes. They were pearly, and white, and faded as they looked into mine.
“Max?” he gasped, “Are you okay?”
I nodded. “Are you?”
He heaved dry air.
“I’ve been better.” he groaned, “Is Sokudo okay?”
I looked over at another of the unconscious bodies. The one with brown hair, Sokudo Lane, was still breathing, same as I last checked. The rest of them seemed to be, too.
“I think everyone is.” I panted, “But I’m still paralyzed from the waist down until I finish regenerating.”
Vincent winced. “That can’t feel good.”
“I mean, right now, I don’t feel anyth- there it is.” I hissed, “There it is.”
I took a deep breath, trying to ignore the newly-resurged pain from the lower half of my body. “What happened?”
Vincent tilted his head. “You…don’t remember?”
I shook my head. “Last I remember we were camping out in the desert with Dad, and-”
I counted the bodies in the sand again.
Me, Vincent, Sokudo, and Chell, the newest member of the Royal Guard, were all present. But not…
“Vincent,” I asked, “Where’s my father?”
Vincent was staring into my eyes but somehow past them. He looked horrified, and sympathetic, and sad. “I…” he started, “I don’t know how to tell you this, Max…”
He continued, but I couldn’t really hear the words he was saying.
I stared up, past Vincent, past the bodies of our friends in the sands, past the gravitational anomalies that I seemed to have made myself. I observed the corpses in the distance again, bones still gleaming with moisture, as if the meat had just been stripped right off of them.
The Gilded Deserts is home to the Great Beast of Earth, Skell, and the only known tribe of humanity outside of The Valley, the Terras. At least, it was. In the absence of the humans who lived here and the god they worshiped, all that’s left is a profane display of what exactly happens when that same god chooses to devour every single last fucking one of them to save himself.
I didn’t need to listen to Vincent to know what happened to my father. As hard as I was trying to suppress the memory, I could still see it in the back of my mind and splayed across hundreds of flesh-stripped bodies for miles before me.
All I could do was stare in horror and despair.
With arms covered in obsidian and surging with White Darkness energy, I clutched the body of Jackson Moreno’s spear, which he was currently using like a staff. His blue eyes glowed with Light energy, his arms were covered in an armor of shining diamond, and his teeth were pulled back in a sneer.
“Why won’t you-” I hissed, before biting my lip.
The two of us were fighting for control of the spear, Diarmuid. According to Michelle Lockheart, it could penetrate anything, and I really did not want that theory tested on me. Judging by the look on Jackson Moreno’s face, though…we were not in agreement about this.
“Let’s see!” Moreno snarled, “The King’s direct orders are to kill you for causing the destruction of both the Grand Diamond and the Lamass islands. And I don’t like you.”
“That was him!” I shouted back, “He was sealed away, and he broke out!”
From an outside perspective, Jackson Moreno’s larger, bulkier frame gave away the outcome of our little spear-fight away pretty early. As he grit his teeth and harshly pulled back, I came to the same conclusion and let go as quickly as possible, hoping to throw off the new Royal Guard CO’s balance in doing so.
It worked. He pulled too hard against too little resistance and stumbled backward, which delayed his next swing- accelerated with Light energy- just long enough for me to dodge around it.
My back crashed against a brick wall in the motion of my dodge.
We’re fighting in the alleyway. Right.
Fuck it. I’m a fugitive already, what’s a little property damage?
I swiped my stone-covered right arm through the air, in Moreno’s direction. He raised an eyebrow in confusion, since he was well out of range of the swipe, but then widened his eyes in surprise as he comprehended what had just happened.
A pillar of stone blasted out of the wall to my right and his left, crashing into him and sandwiching him against the opposite wall.
“Cynd!” he screamed.
Due to the diamond coating his entire body and his generally overwhelming tenacity, this attack had done little more than piss him off.
I need to get out of here before his reinforcements arrive. Where is she!?
I pulled back both of my arms, preparing to crush him from both sides-
Moreno roared, releasing a wall of flame in my direction. I channeled Water energy into my mouth, which transformed into a torrent of water, cancelling out Moreno’s Fire attack and filling the alleyway with scorching steam.
I leaped upward and out, landing on the roof of the building behind us and trying desperately to catch my breath before Moreno-
A white spear flew through the mist at terrifying speed, aimed directly at me.
I hardened my chest with the greatest concentration of Earth energy I could muster. Not quite to the level of Moreno’s diamond- I’m not practiced enough with the element- but hopefully enough to…
The spear blasted through the center of my chest, ripping through my ribcage and spine. Its momentum and force should have allowed it to continue indefinitely, but I felt a pulse of Gravitational energy around me to hold it in place.
“Fuck!” I screamed, collapsing to my knees from the pain.
Being around the Lockhearts as much as I’ve been lately has had an…impact on my vocabulary.
I grabbed the shaft of the spear and hissed.
Oooh this fucking hurts!
Moreno blasted upward into the sky. He hung in the air for a moment, silhouetted by the sun behind him. He was still wearing the standard black longcoat that came with the Royal Guard uniform, and the sheer anger in his eyes was apparent as he reached out his right arm in my direction.
I felt the Gravity around me distort as the spear blasted out of me in reverse, returning to Moreno’s hand in an instant. Its previously pristine white was now stained with my blood, which was working rapidly in parallel to repair the damage done inside my own body.
I pushed myself to my feet and glared up at Moreno, who was suspended in the air by a swirling sphere of Wind as he returned my glare.
“I saved your life from an attack just like that one,” I hissed, “What the hell is your problem?”
“Maybe.” Moreno replied, “But you’re not the one who did it to me to begin with. Consider it payback for your dead boyfriend’s little stunt.”
He was referring to Michael Lockheart, who had previously defeated him with the very same spear. The spear that previously belonged to Michael’s also-deceased mother.
A voice in the back of my head reminded me, ‘Let him die. He’ll be a lot of trouble for you if you don’t.’
“Fine.” I said, “I won’t save you this time.”
I channeled Light energy through my eyes and into my nervous system, which would boost my reaction time significantly. I allowed the same Light to extend to my limbs, which would allow my speed to match that reaction time. On my hands and feet, I created a coating of the hardest and sharpest stone I could muster, which was further enhanced with an aura of White Darkness energy, which would increase its cutting power beyond any known element or weapon in existence.
I kneeled down, manipulating Wind and Gravity energy in my wake as I prepared to blast at Moreno as fast as I humanly could, the Light coursing through my system slowing my perception of time down from seconds to deciseconds. As genuinely talented as Moreno was, his mastery of Light and Darkness came nowhere close to mine.
Even he was moving in slow motion. The rest of the world was, too.
All except…all except one thing.
A dark blue blur was rapidly approaching our battle, leaving a trail of dark purple lightning behind it as it leaped rooftop after rooftop.
As the speedster approached, he screamed in thunderclaps. Sokudo Lane, founding member of the Royal Guard and greatest master of the Lightning Element, blasted toward me at unimaginable speed.
And then I saw her. Wearing a black leather jacket with a familiar white heart insignia on its back, clutching a single white dagger in her left hand. Half of Tsukimono. She was turned to her right, facing me and extending her hand outward. Her white eyes stared into mine as she continued to pass through the air in slow motion, between me and my two enemies.
Sokudo came ever closer.
Just two rooftops away now. He could clear the distance between us with a single leap.
I changed my trajectory to leap at Michelle in the last possible moment before my feet left the ground, expelling all the Light energy I could to maximize my speed.
I dispelled the stone and White Darkness covering my right hand as I did so. They disappeared just in time for my palm to hit Michelle’s.
Sokudo’s body had transformed completely into Lightning, besides the black visor that covered his eyes and betrayed no emotion.
He was right beside us now, pulling a flattened hand back, preparing to skewer us both at super-speed.
In an instant, Michelle and I both vanished, avoiding certain death with milliseconds and millimeters to spare.
March 31st, Year P-132.
North Coast City.
In another instant, we reappeared in midair, inside a torn-down room of an abandoned motel. Michelle Lockheart had the great fortune to land on the bed, while I crashed unceremoniously onto the floor. The wooden floor, face-first.
I groaned as I pushed myself up to my knees, then grasped my hair by its roots and screamed the first word that came to mind.
“FUCK!” I shouted, “That was too fucking close! He was going to kill us!”
Michelle sighed, adopting a sitting position and crossing her legs as she looked down at me. “You alright there, your Highness?” she asked.
“NO!” I screamed back, “A month ago, my life was perfect! And somehow between then and now, I lost my rank, I lost my claim to the throne, I made and lost a friend, and I’ve nearly been killed several times over!”
She raised a single eyebrow in response, but didn’t speak.
My face was searing with tears as I grasped at it and took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I don’t know how we’re going to do this.” I gasped, “They’ve all gotten stronger and the Great Beasts were barely able to take care of them the first time. And now there’s Moreno, and Murzim, and Richter’s gone, and Michael’s-”
I stopped and sighed.
This isn’t like you.
Deep breaths, Nalia.
“I’m sorry.” I said, taking my hands away from my face and looking up at her, “I know this is hard on you too.”
Neither Michelle’s face, flanked by her flowing brown hair, or her pearl-colored eyes betrayed emotion as she stared down at me. “Got it out of your system?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and wiped my face. “Yeah.” I gasped, taking another deep breath, “Yeah, I’m sorry. I’ve…I’ve never been that close before.”
“What do you mean?”
I thought about how Sokudo looked. Dispassionate and impossibly fast and impossibly ruthless. How we evaded him by the slimmest of margins, how if either of us had taken just a moment longer we’d have both been dead.
“I’ve never been that close to dying before.” I muttered, “Even at his worst, your brother…your brother never made me feel like I was going to die. He certainly tried when we fought, but he was more…more of an incredibly painful annoyance than a threat to my life.”
Michelle chuckled lightly at that.
“But Sokudo,” I said, looking up into her eyes, “Sokudo was different. I doubt you could even see him, he was going so fast. But we were both going to die. The way his shot was lined up, his arm would have skewered you and then me in one shot. You would have died right away, but me…”
I placed my hand over the bloody hole in my shirt, then tore it open to reveal the skin underneath. Where I had been completely impaled by Moreno’s spear throw earlier, my body had already healed to such an extent that it looked like it had never happened.
“My blood would’ve healed me.” I said, placing my right hand over where my wound used to be, “Not enough to survive his onslaught, but enough to pad it out. Long enough that I would suffer.”
Michelle put her hands behind her head and winced. “First time you’ve been scared like that?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Welcome to being human, your highness.” She retorted, “When you bleed, you heal. When we bleed, we die.”
“How long do we have until they find us again?” I asked.
Michelle shrugged. “It was three days, that time.”
“It took four the first time.” I muttered, “They’re getting better at it. Where’s Aiko?”
“She said she’d be back here with some gear for us later tonight.” Michelle said, “We covered a couple hundred miles with that escape teleport. As long as we stay low-key until Aiko arrives, we shouldn’t need to worry about Moreno for at least another two days or so.”
“Any idea what she’s getting?” I asked.
Michelle shrugged, again. Considering how close we both just came to dying, and the apparent death of both of her younger siblings, the motion seemed way too relaxed for my liking. I bit my lip as she replied.
“She didn’t tell me.” Michelle said, “Didn’t want to make any promises, but assured she’d figure something out.”
I pushed myself off of the floor and brushed off my robes as I did so.
“Think it’s safe for me to take a walk?” I asked.
“Hide your energy signature and yeah, probably.” Michelle replied, “This is a pretty empty neighborhood.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, “Hopefully so. I’ll be back in thirty minutes.”
Everyone was there.
My son, beaming up at me. Cecil, standing beside him with a smile. My Royal Guard, and behind them, the palace attendants and a group of citizens who had come to witness my coronation.
Everyone was there.
My son, with his limbs bound, forced to kneel with Moreno’s hand gripped tightly in his hair. Beside Moreno, Sokudo and Vincent and the rest of my original Royal Guard. Behind them, a large group of Royal Guard members, armed to the teeth, but frozen with fear and apprehension. No citizens were here this time, but they would be able to watch through the cameras in the back.
“Are you ready?” asked Cecil, moving to my side, “Once this crown connects to you, that’s it. You’re King.”
In his hands, he held a pointed, porcelain crown with black diamonds. My father rarely ever wore it, but when he did it was connected to the top of his head with Gravitational energy, floating a few inches off the top of his head. I could see it clearly in my mind’s eye: the picture of composure and power.
I nodded solemnly.
“Where is my crown?” I boomed, “I have retaken my rightful place on the throne! The crown passes with death or consent, and I have given neither.”
There was an uneasy murmuring. Dissent.
I stood from my throne and, just for a moment, decided to stop holding all of my strength inside.
There was a deafening clap as everyone present was forced to their knees by the sheer density of my power. The obsidian pillars holding up the ceiling cracked under the pressure, and for a moment, I considered letting it crush them all.
That won’t do. I need them, for now.
I released the pressure on everyone in the room, bringing my power back into myself with a deep breath. I breathed an easy sigh and smiled brightly.
“Do I need to repeat myself?” I asked.
A man with the red eyes of the Cynd family made his way through the crowd, holding a familiar crown. He looked incredibly distraught, and judging by his brown hair and tanned skin, he wasn’t a pureblood Cynd, either. Perhaps he served Cecil’s role for Nalia, then.
He passed Hector with a downcast gaze and ascended the stairs to me, holding up the crown in both of his hands.
I returned to a sitting position.
“Whatever your name is,” I said, “Do it.”
“Dante.” the servant responded, “And yes, Your Majesty.”
Cecil gingerly placed the crown in my hair.
A surge of power coursed upward through my body, locking onto the crown and locking it into place a few inches above the top of my head.
I looked into the crowd and imagined how proud my father would have looked. How happy he would have been to see me this way.
A single, hot tear ran down my right cheek.
Dante cautiously rested the crown on top of my head.
A familiar surge of power coursed through me as it locked into its proper place, just above me. Everything was coming into place.
One day is all it took. One day to retake my crown and my throne.
I smiled, then stood to my full height.
“On your feet.” I boomed, “All of you. Your King has returned from his exile and I have…so much to tell you.”
Season Two: [RE]prisal
Episode Two: Coronation
In a haze of rushing wind, the taste of my own blood in my mouth, I distinctly remember blinking as the basest level of my consciousness returned to my body. While my motions felt free, I also felt an ever-so-slight tug at the beginning of every movement, reminding me that my body is not truly my own.
Had enough of me been present at the time, I would have felt violated. Instead, my immediate survival instincts were focusing on the threat in front of me, some freak wearing white robes and sneering at us, the top half of his face covered by scarlet bandages. We were standing on top of a familiar rapidly-moving train, in the dead of the night.
Oh shit, hey Feathers.
Ruin leered at me- or Vincent in my body, anyway.
“Interesting balancing act there, Vincent,” he commented, “But I’m not sure you can ensure this girl survives AND you remain in her body!”
“You insult me so, Sin Carga,” Vincent replied in my voice, “But I’ve had a century in sleep to practice the ki control necessary for a technique like this.”
Ruin scowled, and I wasn’t sure why.
I’d be scowling too if I were called Sin Carga.
That’s so fuckin’ anime.
“Oh right!” Vincent laughed, “For all your abilities to avoid perception, you still don’t know the first thing about ki.”
Ruin tilted his head in childlike interest. “I have to admit, I’m past 100 kills exactly like the one you just avoided and this is the first time this has happened. You’re right- I should learn more about ki.”
I raised my right-hand knife in Ruin’s direction and allowed the left to rest at my side.
I raised it?
What looked like television interference began phasing in and out around Ruin and he gave a blinding white grin. “Glad you could come to the party this time, Michelle. I wonder if he can let go of enough of you to stop me from killing you without allowing you enough control over your own body to take it back. I always kill the ki users first- those are the hardest to deal with- so don’t take it personally if you die here! Shit always goes better when Vincent isn’t around to fuck it up!”
I’m just collateral damage to you fucking people, aren’t I?
“AREN’T I?” I shouted, in the memory, in my voice, with my present self.
You’re awake now.
Don’t say I never did anything for you.
Kill this guy before he kills your brothers.
If you cooperate, I will spare all three of you when I am unsealed. I promise.
Trust me, Michelle.
I closed our eyes and felt Vincent’s control- and my ability to perceive Ruin- fade yet more. Having only rudimentary training with ki, I never would have noticed him against the darkness of the night atop the train, because he was still damn near translucent to my eyes. But my training with Darkness made up for what I was missing in ki control, so adjusting my eyes accordingly wasn’t an issue.
The impression of fighting something that wasn’t truly there persisted as I clashed my blades with Ruin’s, somehow. I’ve fought invisible enemies before- particularly talented Light users can pull off the technique- but this felt different.
If you’re having trouble perceiving him, I can take back a little more-
“I got it, pops,” I said aloud, rolling my eyes, “You talk too much.”
“You’d best lisssszzzzzttttten to him, girl.” Ruin taunted, his voice periodically distorted by static, “This isn’t exactly a stable line from me to you!”
“Speaking of things that aren’t exactly stable…” I pointed at his face behind the bandages, “How fuck-ugly do you gotta be to hide your face like that?”
You really should not talk to him like tha-
Ruin stepped back, clutched at his stomach, and howled with laughter.
His grin didn’t lose an iota of its malice as he shook his head, his shoulders relaxing as he calmed.
“I’ll give you credit where it’s due,” Ruin said, “It feels like it’s been a millennia since I’ve had a laugh like that. Thank you, Michelle Lockheart.”
His face turned to a neutral, almost sad expression. The concealment of the bandages and Vincent’s ki control fluctuating made it hard to be certain.
“Thank you, genuinely.” he repeated, “And goodbye.”
In the space of what felt like an instant, Ruin formed his body into the shape of a cross, opening his palms outward as long, silver blades without a handle shot from his sleeves, extending nearly two meters in each direction. He broke them off and grasped them with his bare hands before raising them above his head and lunging at me-
I raised both daggers of Tsukimono just in time to block the blades coming in from both directions, raising my arms outward to prevent them from slicing at my body. My reverse grip on my daggers made it difficult to hold them in place.
“It’s so much more fun when they fight back.” he sighed happily.
“You could not sound creepier if you tried.”
In an instant, the blades withdrew back into his sleeves and he shrugged.
“Sorry,” Ruin said, “I’ll remember to be friendlier next time I turn someone into a shish-ka-bob.”
Instinctually, I crossed my arms and remained perfectly still as Ruin leaped forward, his left hand forming a diamond-coated skewer that pierced my guard and my chest and my back and-
Harmlessly phased through me.
Your body will remain intangible for as long as you are able to remain completely still.
The moment Ruin’s body passed through me- following the momentum of his attack- I started running as fast as I could across the moving train, carefully controlling my breathing as I did so.
We’re just blades, Michelle.
You think that’s a bad thing, but it’s not.
A blade is necessary. A blade is a person who does what is necessary, no matter how it looks or feels.
And you’re holding two right now.
I pivoted on my left side, throwing my left-hand knife at the man in white as I did so. As I had predicted, he was rushing me with a low stance before my dagger left my fingers, and its trajectory would go right through his skull-
He leaned his head to the side and dodged it, casually, smirking all the while.
I clenched my empty hand once, then twice, and on the third time I teleported to my mid-flight dagger, snatching it out of the air and slashing open Ruin’s back as I did so.
Blood and feathers- an astonishing amount- burst from the wound, the feathers leaving deep cuts in my arms and jacket as they passed me.
And an arm burst through my chest from behind.
“You thought you were the only ones who could do that?” Ruin asked, “Don’t make me laugh.”
He pulled back, ripping something out of me as he did so. It felt like my heart or my spine, but that wasn’t right, nothing was-
I collapsed to my knees, trembling all over.
Ruin muttered, walking past me, “Better than I expected, this time.”
“This time?” I gasped.
“This time.” he confirmed, “Don’t worry. You’ll get another chance before long. Give The Prince my well wishes when you see him next, he’s going to be in…quite the predicament.”
He leaned back and laughed as he slowly disappeared from my sight.
I waited for the moment where Vincent would forcibly re-seize control of my body, pushing my consciousness to the background- and it didn’t come.
He was gone.
And as my body became too heavy, I realized that I was gone, too.