The wind howled.
The wind had many voices. He didn't shield his ears from its biting cold truths, just as one wouldn't shy away from a warm breeze whispering promises of honey and flowers. This was not a world of honey and flowers. His was a world of snow and ice--of cold wastelands and bitter wildernesses--of bleak cloudy skies and endless, foreboding oceans. The Utopia was buried in the depths of Styx, and only the wind lamented its loss.
The wind had tough hands and strong arms that bore the power to grind the seas against the cliffs, the craft to whittle rocks into sleek skulls with gaping, hollow eyes, and the ginger touch to lift dandelion seeds into its palm and sow them over places unclaimed by weed or beast.
The wind had colors, too, that only he could see. Like men, the wind was masked in many shades. The White winds of the North and South... The Grays and Pinks of the East... The Purples and Reds of the West... The Blues of the Earth and Heavens...
Then there was that wind not so beautiful or benevolent--that haunting dark wind--his mean, Black wind. It was his necessary evil. It sheered souls from meat and murmured eulogies over unmarked graves. It settled in ghastly palls over battlefields and filled it with unassuaged spectres. It consorted with cruel intentions and men bent with ambition--men without scruples--men with mind and will to pay for their desires with any cost, even blood--men with hearts as hard and black as to accommodate that insidious draft and let it course through their veins...
Men such as himself.
He was such a man, thirsty for retribution to the end that his own life would have been worthy price, to speak nothing for the hundreds of innocents he threw down on the path to oblivion.
However... Revenge, as much as he craved it before, is never as sweet as it is fleeting. Lavos, his mortal enemy, has since been dispatched from mortal grounds. And now...
Now, he had want of nothing--nothing, save the past. There was a past somewhere here, adrift in frost flakes and frigid waters, that he would only find again in dreams. It flouted the peace of a heart that thought it could finally rest once the object of its revenge was slain... But then, thinking was never the heart's forte.
He scowled at the universe. Damn it all. Damn the cold nothing. Damn the void! She would never be there to fill it again. Lavos' demise mended nothing in his world.
Still, he was a wizard, and he had his dignity. He had better things to do than await death while shaking his fist at Fate like some disgruntled, impotent old man. His voluminous cloak clung loosely to him like a lingering fog of deep, bored blue. He took its skirt under his arm and flung it more securely around his form, shutting out the wind. So much of it was black today...
His countenance was like the bald eagle--bleached, sharp, and perpetually glowering, as if some grievance could not be lifted from his brow, so it frowned over the shadows of his eyes. Pale blue hair streamed away from his widow's peak and billowed in the high gales like a frayed scarf. His mane was long and straight and might have been luxurious, if he ever cared about it; outside the instances in which he brushed rowdy strands from his face, he didn't.
His concentration was instead cast over the fathomless sea that churned beneath his feet. He hovered stoically out of its clutches, peering in from a safe height. Of course, the water was only a mirror of the turbulent weather, and he could not view past its face. He didn't expect to find anything. He never did; the patrol was routine. After three years of staring into the same water he had lost his purpose in its depths, and now rather succumbs to habit than musters a search for it again.
The sky behind him cracked. The mage turned, and there was a bright fissure in the overcast firmament that issued from the clouds and broke the waves, kicking up a great boil that finally ruptured into a towering geyser. The bolt of lightning miraculously sustained itself for several seconds before shattering into stars and falling into the wind. When the uproar collapsed beneath it, no trace of the phenomenon was left.
'Strange,' he nonchalantly labeled the occurrence and voted to investigate ground zero, half a way towards the eastern horizon. He coasted over the foaming hills, deftly cutting through the multi-faceted winds like a sparrow. His destination was marked with the streamlined vision of a cat honed on its prey. When he was at last upon the spot, there was nothing remarkable... on the shifting surface.
The wizard would not be satisfied until he had explored beneath. His gloved fingers threaded a red wind and wove it with magic into his cloak, crafting a bubble of air. With this insulation he dropped into the sea, which received him like a brick. As he began to sink the hidden world below was exposed; it was shallower than he figured.
Rising from the murky floor was something so amazing it marveled the fazeless wizard.
There were only dim lights, at first. They were stringed like dyed glass beads about dark spires that climbed from the indigo mire. The bleak towers multiplied as the wizard drew near, enclosing an obsidian hub that was strewn with ribbons of shimmering silver and lurid violet. The glitter traced the base of the dome as intricate runes scaled to outfit windows.
It was the shadow of a submerged metropolis, haunted by glowing spirits. If it was not the real thing resurrected before his eyes, the wizard could have sworn he was upon a pristine replica of the Ocean Palace, once crumbled asunder at the foot of Lavos.
'This... cannot be!'
He had to get close. He needed to see that this was not a deep mirage, appearing here to patronize his threadbare hope. His descent was swept to a halt by a mighty roar that sounded from the ocean's abysmal throat. It threw a wave up to him that made his bubble waver dangerously.
He paused in the gust of water and fortified the shield of air. The shell of his spell was comprised of dense wind stirred to such high speed that it forced the crushing sea to mold around it. Suspended in the cyclone's core, the wizard was hardly tickled by the localized vacuum as it tugged rogue hairs towards the spinning outer wall.
Following the outburst was a disquieting calm. As cold and composed as ever, the wizard slowly panned over the dark surroundings, scanning the nebulous water for a threat. He stared intently at the neon city below, where a lithe silhouette flickered between the deep alleys. The spectre wound around the peaked towers and slid into the open waters, drawing its length to a massive serpent's. The menacing shape's fins fanned about its slender trunk like gothic wings. It turned towards the trespassing mage, its slitted eyes tinged with luminous rage that highlighted its crystal-bladed crown with royal purple.
The wizard shoved back his cloak, touching a simple metal baton fastened at his hip. He braced himself inside his bubble as the monster rushed forward, speeding through the thick depth as if it were merely air. The baton was loosed into his hand, and with his conjured will the rod stretched into a tall pole. From its extended tip a crescent banner sprouted, glinting with the strength of steel and grinning with the thirst for blood.
The wizard held his scythe before him like a lance, tucked beneath his arm and steadily aimed into the beast's charge. The sea serpent flew into his windy sphere, beakesque jaw agape. The wizard shifted to its side, escaping its cleaving bite. His scythe did not. It hooked the monster's cheek, sinking into the tender inner muscles. The serpent screamed a pitch that could give rise to tsunamis and lashed its long body about the fixed blade. The wizard held his stance, clutching the stalk of his weapon like a determined fisherman.
The monster thrashed like the floundering trout it was, crying to the gods of the sea of the wizard's cruel catch. When panic at last submitted to sense, the serpent worked to wrestle free. The wizard was tossed in loops by the end of his own staff, but he would not relent. The beast flung its own armored tail into its face, striving to smash its antagonist like a fly on one's nose.
The wizard watched his bubble quiver as pressure accumulated behind it, and by this he sensed the pending onslaught. His reflexes told him to teleport out of range, and he obeyed them, plucking his scythe out of the beast's maw for good measure. As the tail crashed through his shield he was without it, reappearing some meters away from the monster. When he witnessed the capsule of air shatter into hollow pearls and felt the weight of the ocean pressing into his nostrils he realized his mistake.
Damnit, damnit, damnit! Teleport the air, too, fool! What an amateur mistake!
The serpent shrugged and flexed its dislocated jaw, fitting it back into its skull. Then it resumed the assault. The wizard snorted to dislodge the brine from his sinuses and readied his scythe again. The combatants suffered a deadly, if repetitive, dance... The monster charged... he ducked, and swiped... missed... charged again... missed... slashed...
A grating clang announced a hit, but the sharpened head of the scythe barely scratched one of the monster's plated scales, which he observed to be surely as thick as the roof of a castle and as sturdy as one's stone foundation.
Physical attacks weren't working... He would take a different swing at it, then. If poorly harnessed, he knew a lightning attack performed under underwater would only fry its caster, but he was set to amend his prior folly and prove he was no amateur--to the sea, if no others present.
Chords of ions coalesced between his palms as he cupped them together, preparing to receive the energy his muted incantations summoned. Come bright, golden winds...
The monster, beginning to see the light, reared into a defensive stance and wore its broad fins like a cobra's headdress.
The confluent electricity seethed in the wizard's hands, shining like a hot flare.
The guardian beast growled like an angry whale, as a heavy warning.
Finally the spell was unleashed, and the wizard let the beast have it. Lightning sprang from his fingertips and fell upon the monster like a whip. The attack connected, and there was a great flash that shattered the waves, and then...
The wizard had only blinked. When his eyelids opened again, there was that light everywhere, and...
And then that monster's terrible stare, piercing the radiance, almost mocking it. And a different light hit him. He could feel its impact. It was like being hit with a blinding wall, or throwing yourself at the sun. The water and salt were sheered from him and he was bare to the light.
Then it was dark.
The Black Wind howled.
Darwin shuffled his feet and sighed. He carried abhorrence for these caves that could hardly be expressed with merely a haughty posture and some loathing grunts. However disparaging his attitude, he promised Lord Heckran that he would conduct himself respectably, and he was good for his word--most akios were.
Akios were possessed of a cushy coating of tawny feathers and forelimbs that consisted of short, yet fine and capable wings. The dorsal plumage was a flint blend of gray flecked with white and black, while the tips of the primary feathers were jet black, as if they had been dipped in an inkwell. The airborne mystics were short statured, yet quite confident in their wide and clever range of skills that larger, dumber mystics would never be able to pull off.
Darwin was clad in an earthen-hued vest, open-toed braces for his taloned feet, and a tidy, scarlet bandanna that topped his ruffled crest of feathers. Black pigment crept along one side of his pale beak, and a like-colored pouch was hefted over his right shoulder via a thick strap. He was comfortable enough in his outfit, but still, he had wished to conduct meetings anywhere but here. The smothering darkness besides, the natural plumbing was unbearable. The chipped walls virtually bristled with mildew. Stalagmites protruded from the slick floor, barring any sensible walkways like retarded furniture. Any potentially viable paths that remained where poised rather precipitously over rapid streams that riddled the ground and assured terrestrials that travel from point A to point B would require some fancy tricks above the walking standard.
"Must we meet here? This trail is impossible. I'm an akio, not a ballet dancer," he had once complained, not two hours ago.
"These are the Heckran Caves," Lord Heckran had told him. "We are bound to these caves!"
We was rather subjective, he thought. If Lord Heckran was speaking of mystics in general, then Darwin would find a new species to associate with, for these rotten caves were not becoming of his noble race. He was an akio, one of the avian breed, and proudly so. Birds had no business being cooped in fleapits like this.
Exacerbating the Heckran Caves' humid conditions was the crowd sheltered therein. The grand hall was packed. Darwin could have sworn there were never this many mystics in one place anywhere anytime ever, even during the reign of the Magus, who led armies of the brutes wherever he went. Creatures of every conceivable ilk were gathered here within the feeble glow of mounted torches, placed sparingly around the perimeter: Stumpy imps with cleft craniums, stony diablos with yellowed canines wet with steamy whispers, bats, and rats, and man-eating plants, and eaglets, and bloated gnashers chattering in lisp, and slutty naga-ettes practicing their blush, and octoblushes themselves, and tempurites with the husks of weevils (albeit four-feet-tall ones), and queer little toads that spit acid, and obese goblins and obtuse henches butting heads in sport (as if they could afford to smash any more brain cells), and...
And then there was Bakan. Bakan was a slovenly, slouching, blundering, stupid-masked clone of his uncle. Lord Heckran took him beneath his figurative wing because he was family, and that was the way of it. That was the only way, Darwin figured, the oaf could meet him in rank.
Heckrans were an imposing lot. They stood nearly two meters high, with blue, scabrous reptilian skin that covered all but the underside, where the scales melted into a fleshy, ridged hide. They were heavy-set beasts, with short, muscular legs that supported a barrel trunk. The ponderous arms were equipped with heavy claws, easily capable of slashing through nearly any form of resistance, and better yet excreting a toxin from their tips that could kill the smaller beasts and cripple a man for at least a day. Two rows of stiff quills trailed alongside their spines and barbed their meaty tails, likewise armed with poison. Of course, that was nothing compared to their true talent...
Bakan had the blunt muzzle of an alligator, with disjointed fangs that didn't conform to any specific direction. He wore an ugly, sadistic grin, and his fat tail ticked back and forth with anxiety.
"MANY MYSTICS HERE." His voice was an egregious belch. "BAKAN EXCITED."
Darwin regretted that beaks couldn't frown. He was posted with the buffoon atop a rock shelf that could pass for a scaffold. Before them was their bold leader, Lord Heckran, prepared to address the potpourri masses.
"My fellow mystics..." he began. Heedless, the rumbling murmurs below persisted. Heckran smirked and reasserted his footing on the platform.
"Fellow mystics..." he tried, louder.
It was like speaking into a running fan--nothing fruitful turned out the other end. The dragon mystic puffed out his chest, collected a roar on his tongue, and threw it on the crowd. The chamber shuddered, jarring one of the torches from its hold. It plopped into a miniature ravine with a quenching hiss, the only vestige of noise once the powerful echoes subsided.
Having subdued his audience, Heckran continued in a reasonable tone. "Brothers, we are here because we are on the brink of a new era. There was a time like this, four hundred years ago, when we were united against a common foe. Although we were defeated, we remain, and so does our cause. The humans think we can live with them 'peaceably'..." He interrupted himself with a sardonic grunt. "Humans have always thought they are superior to us. They have taken the lands with the richest soil for themselves, and built their villages with walls to keep us out."
Some imps near the front row bobbed their bulbous heads in agreement.
"They have driven us into the world's desolate corners: rocky canyons, and festering forests, and stinking, dark caves... like this one!!"
A low chorus of concurring snarls and howls issued from the floor. One of Darwin's bushy brows perked.
"Even before ancient times, I can tell you, that our predecessors were not unlike ourselves--mistreated and outcast by those miserable 'apes,' until they were driven to extinction! Will we allow that to happen to us?"
"Hell no!" a stray diablo exclaimed.
"So, now, what do they give us? How have they tried to reconcile the horrible ways they have treated our kind? 'Here, have you own village,' the humans said. 'We won't bother you there. It's in the middle of NOWHERE.' Bother us? They don't want us bothering THEM! We are the outcast! We're society's rejects!"
The consentient barks and roars built a crescendo that began to rattle the very mountain the mystics took refuge in.
"Who needs it? Why do we even stand for it? Why have we not cast these cretins down like the filthy apes they are, ages ago? I'll tell you why..."
The din tempered itself to listen.
"Because we made the mistake of trusting one of them. We put our faith in a human, that bastard child, the Magus, and what did he do for us in the end??"
"He left us!" another cried.
"Yes, he abandoned us! He was just using our ancestors so he could gain power, and when he was done with the mystics, our brave ancestors, he left them to be slaughtered by the humans! That was the mistake of our ancestors. But now, we have another chance, and we will do things right! No more will we allow ourselves to be misled by the treacherous race of men! What do you say, brothers? I say, as long as there are humans standing over us, making sure we follow their idea of 'peace,' there will be no such peace!"
The exuberant crowd was nearly provoked to riot right there, as if the enemy were before their eyes. There was a charged enthusiasm about the mystic horde that was becoming of the eve of a battle. The bustling monsters were ribbing each other and the darkness, stabbing at the shadows and shooting in the dark, and even those predisposed otherwise were filled with hot blood.
"Tomorrow night, brothers!" Heckran was bellowing over all, sweeping his arm like an axe over the tumultuous gathering, "The humans will rue the day they crossed us! The storm has already begun, and when it passes, their kind will be washed from the face of this world, forever!"
"DEATH TO THE MYSTICS' ENEMIES!" Bakan piped in.
The cheers made thunder deaf.
'This planet sucks.'
There was nothing for her here--not even a clue. The Darkness was as prevalent as ever, and she was not one whit closer to a cure. What a waste of time, mass, and gravity. The place was full of humans. Useless humans, at that. ...Well, that was rather redundant, but the point still stands.
She had nothing but to go back home, now. Home... funny, there wasn't anything for her there, either... except perhaps her old business, and that wasn't a flattering proposition. It was the closest thing to being a whore, in fact.
As if what she was doing now was any better, she supposed. Here she was, slogging through vintage snow drifts, trying to find that bloody cave on this fucktard mountain... what was it called? Something morbid, and probably fitting. She should have been flying, but she wanted to rest her wings, and she'd probably miss the entrance besides. Perhaps it wasn't a good idea to visit some random planet without some foresight. Or gear. Or food. Or even some damn pants. Pants are nice. Pants are better in sub-zero weather.
Speaking of fucktards, here were some humans, now. Not willing to explain herself to anyone, she hid behind a stripped tree, its branches laden with icicles.
A pair of them was moving the opposite way, down the slope. One marched in front, while the other, a plump lad, laboriously tugged a sled with some mechanical trash on board. "Wait up, Jerad," he wheezed, his whine merging with the shrill draft that encompassed the frozen hell.
Jerad did so, setting one hand on his waist and impatiently pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose with the other. "Hurry up, man--it's gonna be dark soon. We need to at least get to the bottom before then."
"Then why don't... you help me...?" the fat kid panted.
"Because, you need the exercise, and it shouldn't take two people to move that thing. It's a fucking sled, man. It has, you know, runners on it, that make it easy to move over snow. What's the big hold-up?"
"I'd be easier if I didn't have to haul all this shit on it! Can't we just leave it and come back later?"
"Dude, you know why we can't. Something could happen to it up there. Besides, we need to take it back to the lab with us if we want to keep working. You know Ramezia doesn't want us sticking around."
"Yeah, that's a load of bull, too. I mean, we're doin' all the work, and it's like Ramezia's takin' all the credit! We don't even get to use the gate, man. Ain't fuckin' fair. How're we ever going to test our results?"
"Yeah, but you have any idea how many credits we're getting for this job? Ends justify the means, man."
"I thought the gate was supposed to be the ends. You got it ass-backwards."
"What? No, I know what I said. Look, we need that money to continue our research. If we didn't take this job we'd be building toy airplanes out of cola cans right now."
"Better than this stupid ice-capade! Man, I'm tellin' you that there better be a big fat wad of dough waitin' for us back home, or to hell with this shit," the burdened kid declared, and resumed towing the crate of supplies behind him.
She waited for them to trudge by... What slow asses.
"Why the hell do we hafta work all the way up here, anyway?? Not even Jack Fucking Frost would set up camp here, man."
"You know why that is, too," Jerad shot back, "'For every trough...'"
The fatty picked up the line, exasperated, "'...there's a peak!' I know! But man, does it have a be a literal peak? Does it have to be Death-Fucking-Peak? Why can't we work in the trough?! I bet it's at least warmer down there!"
"Because it's four hundred feet below sea level, you dumbass," Jerad retorted, "Unless you want to have to take Mike's sub every time we go to work."
The lad shook his heavy frame, as if brushing off an unsettling notion--or the tiers of snow heaped in his blubbery folds. He looked like a roused bear, either way.
"No way. That thing's a floating deathtrap, man. I'd rather freeze to death than drown in that mother-fucker."
"Yeah, well, that's why we leave that place up to Ramezia and just take what she gives us."
"Not like we had a choice anyway, man."
"Whatever. Let's just keep going. I'm freezing my balls off here."
Finally, they left. She appeared from behind her tree and brushed off some stagnant snowflakes. Through the screaming gales, the fellows' voices could still be heard some ways behind her, bitching about something else.
"Dude, stay on the path!"
"Oh, she just told us that to scare us. I'm sure there's somethin' else around here she doesn't want us seeing."
"Yeah, but why take any chances, man?? She said that if we step off the path that monster's gonna come after us! They don't call this Death Peak for nothin', you know. I ain't bein' no worm food, man."
"You're a pussy. Com'on, let's go."
She glanced down at her feet, firmly buried in snow that was a footstep off the boys' trail. Her gaze bounced between her soggy feet, the trail, and back, until she took a discreet step to the left and stood on the solid path.
'Whatever. Fuck this planet. I'm going home.'
She carried herself up the icy crags and at last arrived at that level outcropping where she found the shrine's entrance... and her exit. She crossed the mountain's frosted balcony and entered the rocky antechamber. A crook in the hollow's entryway broke off the chilled wind and afforded a toasty atmosphere inside. It was a plain, dry, empty room with a jutting shelf encircling the walls just out of reach, a structure which suggested a flat ceiling with a large hole punched through its middle, exposing the arched rooftop above. It was all naturally formed, of course, so any flaw in design could only be attributed to the mountain's tastes.
She passed into the heart of the shrine, where a bright blue beacon lit the way. No matter what foreigners insisted on calling it, it would always look like a shrine to her. Four classic marble columns stood atop an elevated altar, each impressed with three-pronged paw print and supporting a umbrella of thatched stone, if such a paradox could describe its roof. The columns were laced with fluorescent wiring that trailed to the ground and flowed within their carved niches along convoluted patterns in the floor, at length converging upon a short pillar at the tiny edifice's median.
Upon this was the matter of the shrine. A polished silver ring as wide as a door was fixed standing atop the pillar, its circumference divided into a hundred or more equal segments by small teeth that held a spinning wheel inside the ring's mold. This wheel contained similar segments, each labeled with a rune, and freely rotating within this ring was a third wheel with its own twelve runes. Yet another inscribed wheel hovered rather mystically within the cage of the other three, and a meager eight runes were allotted to it. At the core of these was a radiant sapphire orb, the source of the chamber's saturated blue tint. It blinked and waned like a candle.
She stopped before the collaboration of rings, wrinkling her brow at an unfamiliar feature.
'A third coordinate ring...?'
She counted again, to test her doubt. The outer shell to set the rings, the outer coordinate ring, the inner coordinate ring, and... well, hell. A third coordinate ring inside that. And only eight runes on it! What of that...?
She wondered of those boys she saw en route to the shrine. They were "working" up here, after all... on the gate rings?
Bloody hell. Just when she thought she had the hang of it, they go and modify the damn contraption. She couldn't imagine the extra part's purpose, but she played with it anyway, taking hold of each ring in turn and twirling them until the inscriptions aligned to her satisfaction.
'This better take me to C'tarot.'
She stepped back and fitted her palm into one of the engraved paw prints. The switch responded to her touch and a pulse of lavender jetted through the incandescent wires, finding the rings and filtering through them to the core. It flashed white for an uncertain moment before the bright orb expanded, blotting out its composite silver shell to fully consume the space between the pearly columns.
She could not help notice that the gate had now the form of a whirlpool, which was distinct from its former, placid texture. It was as if it wanted to suck her in. Perhaps it would be foolery to venture into the unfamiliar.
She shrugged, and stepped through the portal. She had nothing to lose.