Image of a Ghost
Gwyn gaped at her surroundings, stifling the urge to hide behind her twin. She had thought she had grown out of that infantile habit, but the current environment brought back every childhood terror she had ever felt and magnified it a thousandfold. An invisible miasma permeated the floating city of Lashute in a way that was both horrifying and familiar. It was only natural to seek comfort in a known sanctuary, so there was no reason to feel embarrassed. She was a big girl now and didn't need to hide behind her big brother anymore. Besides, Kara had beaten her to it.
The heavy, thick, dark stone walls oppressed her. Icy men in gold armor stared down from the battlements. Hideous gargoyle statues leered at her from decorative niches. Even if she made the effort to avoid looking into the niches, plaques fastened on the walls revealed engravings of demons engaged in actions that made her flinch. Not even the floor was safe from desecration, as the monsters depicted made her stomach turn.
If the imperceptible dark energy and profane art had been the only things to worry about, she might have been alright. Theoretically. No, what made matters infinitely worse were the man and the woman that appeared throughout. She knew those faces, knew them as well as her twin's.
Her last meal attempted to rise up in revolt when her eyes accidentally fell upon one of the worst pieces, a particularly unholy triptych. In the first panel, her ancestor Orakio, his distinctive black sword held high, was surrounded by monstrosities of every type, their mouths open in mindless shrieks. Cheerless creatures with shallow, skull-like heads misplaced on massive, bulky bodies attacked alongside four-legged demons covered in armor in the second panel, ripping open his flesh even as the ancient swordmaster fought on. In the last, Orakio's head was held up by one of the armored demons, his body obviously being consumed by the other beasts.
Gwyn moved her eyes away to find a worse scene waiting for her. It was a depiction of her Aunt Laya, her ancestor's old foe, in a situation no woman should ever find herself. Her beautiful face, so like her mother's, was twisted in a howl of agony. Tears streamed down Aunt Laya's cheeks as she was mounted by a horrifically ugly beast that Gwyn recognized as one of the bipedal goat monsters that had stalked them on Terminus' plains. The beast's claws dug into Aunt Laya's body, leaving ugly gouges on her aunt's exposed breasts that made Gwyn ache in sympathy even as her stomach threatened to empty on the obscenity.
If the dream man were real, this would be the place he would suffer his damnation.
"The dream man" was what Gwyn called the strange, sorrowful man that had appeared in her dreams since childhood. He was a sad man, a tragic figure she could only pity as he sat his throne, so obviously miserable that, as a child, she had desperately sought a way to help him. She had never been able to interpret his dream, even though it recurred so often she could etch it into stone with her eyes closed.
She shook her head before she looked at her brother out of the corner of her eye. Adan's eyes were focused straight ahead. Anyone who had not grown up with him would assume he was perfectly calm, but the slight twist at the corner of his mouth gave away his disgust. Kara, the lucky brat, was definitely drawing comfort from Adan's protection. No matter how much she looked, Lashute did not feel like the sort of place Orakio would make his headquarters, especially when she compared it to Landen. Even Mieu and Wren, advanced androids and two of Orakio's most loyal servants, seemed overwhelmed by the obscenity of the floating city.
"Excuse me," she called to their guide, a lithe young woman garbed in pink and gold. "Are all of these...decorations...were they all present during the Devastation War?"
Their guide turned her head and forced a smile. "Of course not, Princess Gwyn. Lashute was Orakio's fortress, his military headquarters. He built it to withstand anything his enemies could throw at him, not for creature comfort. Our artwork was added in the centuries after Terminus was sealed."
Even as the relief that her ancestor had had no part in the vileness of the city soothed her frayed nerves, her guide asked an awkward question. "What do you think of our artwork? It is magnificent, is it not?"
Years of playing the nobles' game brought the bland response to her lips faster than Gwyn would have liked. "The workmanship and detail are impressive." And let her take that however she liked!
The guide dealt with handily, Gwyn quietly glared at Kara out of the corner of her eye. She wasn't jealous of the moon princess, exactly. Sort of. She wouldn't have told Kara about the tradition of walking behind your man to show faith in his protection if she was jealous! Maybe.
It was frustrating. More than frustrating, it was infuriating. Her twin brother had been in Gwyn's complete possession her entire life. Adan was her first friend, the person she was closest to in all the world, her protector and companion, her co-conspirator and alone knew her thoughts and emotions without a word, even as she knew what was going through his head as surely as if it was happening to her. Even if she had known Kara most of her life, it still left the moon princess as an unwelcome interloper into Gwyn's domain.
She hated the very idea of having to share what had been unconditionally hers since the womb. She had hated it ever since the empty-headed chits in her father's court had first started chasing her brother around and she had realized that eventually, someone would marry her brother. Forced to face that reality, she had determinedly kept the chits in check, steadfast in her wish that whoever her twin married be a woman that Gwyn not only liked, but could appreciate her stoic, too-proud brother for who he was. And Laya's bow break if Kara didn't fit both criterion.
Kara's little stunt in the Kensai settlement had left Gwyn ready to chew through laconia. The legendary metal not being handy, she had bitten into the moon princess instead. Really, claiming her brother in front of her, like the moon princess had any right to it! Just to add to the sting were the dozen little ways that Kara complemented Adan that Gwyn did not. Gwyn still wasn't sure how the lime-haired girl did it, but Kara had developed an instinct for taking care of her brother before he even knew he needed it. The moon princess would offer him food before Adan realized he was hungry, or would share water with him before he was thirsty. It was as sweet as it was maddening.
On Skyhaven, Gwyn had been on her way to wring Kara dry when she had seen the open door. A quick inspection revealed her brother sitting by the room's giant window, Kara in his arms and on his lap, wearing her gorgeous golden nightdress and blushing for all she was worth. The both of them had been quietly staring out into the moonlit ice of Frigidia. Gwyn didn't need divination to realize a matched pair when she saw them. She'd kept watch for a while, but it was obvious the two of them had no intention of going beyond cuddling. Adan had returned to his room, and in the morning, before they had come to Terminus, she had grumpily told Kara of the ancient swordsman's tradition, making no mention of what she had seen. It felt like she was helping her own rival usurp her.
Maybe it was this place that was riling her up so much. As always, it had been easy to enter the city, even when the guards attempted to bar their way in. Adan had cut his finger, allowed a single drop of blood to fall on the scanner, and in they had gone. The way Mieu told it, Orakio had programmed all of his fortresses to recognize a specific genetic marker so he would always be able to enter and leave at will. Of course, the marker had been inherited by Orakio's bloodline, and even the Lashutans recognized that when a door opened against their will, it might be smart to let the person who opened that door inside, since you never knew what else their visitor might do.
Gwyn closed her eyes and took a deep breath, drawing on the mental bond that connected her with Adan, sensing the slight shifts and swirls in the air as her twin walked, his stride confident and proud. Without missing a beat, she followed his steps perfectly, her eyes preserved from the vileness that seemed to fill every corner of Lashute. It was a nice parlor trick, being able to follow her brother's lead without even seeing him, but it was not useful. Still, it made her feel a little better, since this was something that would always be exclusively hers, no matter how close Kara got with her brother.
The sound of their boots scraping against ancient, worn stone began to echo. They were in an enclosed space, then. Were they inside a building or just traversing some kind of tunnel? it was impossible for her to tell, and honestly, ignorance was bliss, especially if it meant she did not have to look at Lashute.
There was a trade-off for following her brother rather than using her own eyes. Well, two. For one, her sense of time was impacted, so rather than an eternity under the profane eyes of Lashute, she existed in an undefined moment of blindness, which might last forever or might be over with the next turn in her brother's step. The other was worse: she could detect the miasma of evil more clearly, could feel it trying to seep into her mind, could feel it trying to warp her psyche.
Can't win 'em all.
She really shouldn't complain. Keeping the dark aura at bay was something she could do in her sleep. Well, that she did do in her sleep and been doing ever since she had been in her cradle. Gwyn still had vague memories of her infancy, though calling them memories was a bit of an exaggeration. They were wordless thoughts, emotions without definition beyond terror, images of being hunted by the hungry maw of an evil beast. Adan had admitted to similar memories, but dismissed them as the detritus of childhood nightmares. But no matter how she questioned him, he had never seen the dream man.
Adan stopped. Gwyn took one more step before she paused and asked, "Are we there yet?"
"Yes, we are," Adan replied, ignoring her playful tone. "Open the doorway, if you please, good woman."
"I am a Fatima, not a 'good woman,'" the guide muttered darkly before she spoke in a normal voice, her tone all civility and false welcome. "I must warn you, the Undying King rarely acknowledges guests. The last time he even spoke was thirty years ago. You'll likely find your trip here to be a waste of time."
"Quit stalling and open the door, redhead," Gwyn replied, her tone filled with a cheerful irreverence she did not feel. "Or are you afraid we'll catch him with his pants down?"
She couldn't see her guide's expression, but she definitely heard her disdainful sniff. "Nonsense! We washed him this morning," the Fatima muttered angrily before raising her voice. "Open the gates!"
Gears ground against each other as rarely used machinery screeched in protest. Apparently, the guide wanted to make an impression. Too bad for her that Gwyn had no intention of letting her. Her mind emptied as the world became one. Musubi was taught to Layan archers and slicers, and she had taught the trick to her twin. He was good at it; Gwyn was better. Her arrows never missed their mark.
She stepped into the invisible vortex as the gated room's air swirled with the currents outside. Her next step took her into the gap the doors made as they opened. The miasma was stronger here. Each step was as sure and straight as an arrow, taking her deeper into the chamber. When she sensed she was close enough to speak to the source of the miasma, she stopped and opened her eyes. Time stood still.
Four men with the complexion of corpses stood at the top of an elevated dais, as still as statues, their eyes hollow windows into nothingness. They wore heavy armor a color so crimson that it uncomfortably reminded Gwyn of muscle exposed by a blade's cut. Their heavy swords curved wickedly as they shone a red the color of blood. The creepy bodyguards were immaterial.
At the center of the dais, a throne stood, its heavy black lacquer perfectly suited to the twisted spikes that haphazardly protruded everywhere. There were no gems, no precious stones to offset the dark grandeur that attempted to oppress the soul of those who approached the throne and the one who sat it.
The man who sat on the throne had his head down, his chin against his breastbone, his eyes closed. He sported an intricate tattoo on his forehead, a pattern an artist would have been hard-pressed to duplicate. He would have been handsome, with his high cheekbones and straight nose, had the flesh on his face not stretched tight like a drum's skin. His robes were yellow, but so faded they could easily have been a thousand years old. The throne was obviously uncomfortable, but he lacked any expression of discomfort, sitting on the wretched thing with a face as expressionless as a cadaver. The weight of centuries sat on his shoulders even as the unnatural dark miasma danced around him like a desert whirlwind.
The dream man. The man who had stood between her and the darkness when she was a child. The vision she could never interpret because it had never been a symbolic dream, but a look into his existence every day. The crushing sorrow that weighed down on her very soul. The dream man was Rulakir Sa Riik. The dream man was a man who had lost everyone he had ever loved. The dream man was a man who had lost his twin, his big brother, and had existed a thousand years without that comforting presence as incomplete, as only half a person. The dream man. The dream man. Her mirror.
Gwyn didn't know why she said it. The word echoed in the chamber. There were a thousand years of generations between her and this man. The only thing they shared was a surname. But that didn't matter. The only thing that mattered to her was that he was family and she could finally help him.
"Uncle?" The Fatima's outraged screech intruded on the nebulous, confusing maelstrom of her mind and emotions. "He's no uncle of anyone! He's the Undying King! He is our-"
Laya's heiress turned on the Fatima. Though she topped Gwyn by a head, the redheaded woman actually took a step back.
"SHUT UP!" Gwyn took a step toward the idiot, the temptation to strike her becoming more alluring by the moment. "Who do you think you are, you sour-faced harpy? You've left him here alone for a thousand years and think you can tell me anything? You've left him alone and miserable for a thousand years without family, without friends, without anyone, and think you have a right to tell me anything? He doesn't belong to you! We're the descendants of Orakio! He belongs to us! He's our family! He's ours! You think you can stand against that? You think you can stand there and tell me to my face that you have any hold to him? Do you? Do you?"
The redhead seemed to find her spine. She dropped into an unarmed combat stance, her eyes glittering with hatred. Years of practice allowed Gwyn to ready her bow within the blink of an eye, her arrow aimed straight at the Fatima's heart.
Standoff. Before the tension could even build, her brother's sword appeared at the redheaded woman's throat. "If you try to hurt my sister, I will forget Orakio's Law and kill you where you stand."
Adan was her big brother. She was his little sister. Any threat to one would be met by the other with berserker ferocity. He would kill to protect her, and she him. A thousand years without her twin? She would gladly share with the moon princess to avoid anything so terrible.
The Fatima's jaw dropped. She was staring up. Confused, Gwyn followed the redhead's gaze and felt shock seize her body in a vice. The bodyguards on the dais had not moved, oblivious to the near-fight. No, something else had deprived her of the ability to move.
Rulakir had raised his head and opened his eyes.
The Undying King's eyes were dim pieces of green glass. They were windows into a shattered soul, an existence that lingered on without hope or dreams, a being that had long ago abandoned any interest in life and had fallen into a bottomless pit of despair. A dull hatred flickered in those eyes even as an infinite sorrow rolled out of him and suffocated the very air. The unspoken, ancient agony made Gwyn want to break down and cry. He really was nothing more than the image of a ghost. Her voice broke. "Uncle."
Rulakir stared at her. Slowly, ever so slowly, recognition dawned on his face. His eyes went to Adan, and then Kara, stopping to take in Mieu and Wren with a look that seemed to be wryly affectionate before they returned to Gwyn. He nodded slowly before his eyes wandered to the side of the chamber.
Trying to recover her composure, Gwyn followed the Undying King's gaze. Her eyes fell on the only decoration in the immense throne room, a small statue about as tall as her forearm. Two figures fought back to back, the man wielding a black sword, the woman aiming a bow. Gwyn's bow. Laya and Orakio.
"I do not know your name," Rulakir said abruptly, his voice hoarse from thirty years of disuse.
She took a deep breath, gathering her strength before she faced those ancient eyes stained by sorrow. "My name is Gwyn, Uncle."
"Gwyn," he repeated, testing the name as his voice recovered strength. "Are you looking for Orakio's sword?"
"Yes, Uncle," she replied respectfully. She hesitated before she continued. "Uncle, do you know where it is? Please, would you tell us?"
Silence. The Undying King kept his unnerving stare on her. Gwyn reached out to her twin through their bond, mutely asking for help. Adan walked forward, joining her under Rulakir's gaze. The tiniest bit of curiosity entered the ancient king's eyes. "Who are you?"
Adan bowed, an act of humility Gwyn had long thought beyond him. "I am Adan Sa Riik. I am Gwyn's twin...Uncle."
The Undying King blinked. "Twins," he murmured softly, his eyes going back to the small statue of his brother and his hated enemy. Time passed as Rulakir stared at the statue, lost in his own thoughts. She glanced at her twin; Adan shrugged uneasily.
"I don't have Orakio's sword," Rulakir said suddenly. "It's at the bottom of Landen's sea, in a temple sunk a thousand years ago. Take Wren to Landen and he will bring you to Orakio's sword." He closed his eyes. "There is no time to waste. Go."
Before they could reply, the Undying King said, "Gwyn."
She swallowed nervously before she responded. "Yes, Uncle?"
"Do not return here."