THE FIRST AND FINAL BREATHS
It is the sort of story which repeats through the ages; a power-hungry Duke blinds others with ambition and passion into assisting him in usurping the throne, yet is denied when his struggle proves lacking. It is the sort of story written by winners to belittle the fallen, to discourage ambition from those who would have it. Duke Erdicth knew, when Ishel’s blade fiercely pierced his heart, that such story would be etched into the histories.
Duke Erdicth, Son of Grand Archduke Wovien Erdicth who served Royal Family more devoutly than all those before him, heard the whispers of the dark and converted, abandoning the oath his family had sworn generations ago, vying for the Crown. As he glanced down and saw crimson tide trickling through the etchings of his stained armor, he’d already written out the story itself inside his head. He knew he’d have no honor after death; his name would be turned into a jest, a joke, a mockery of highest order - and a warning.
However, that wasn’t the story. He wasn’t power-hungry idiot who believed himself better than the Emperor and the Empress. With his whole heart, he believed Evelyn can rule as best as any of them, especially when he took a glance at her a few minutes ago. In her, he saw dignity befitting a Ruler of the Nation. He saw fire, passion and drive, pure desire to better the Empire even further. Yet, no one would ever know his story. No one would ever learn his heart.
Ishel’s eyes were cold, frigid despite taking a life of revered Duke. Erdicth - of given name Stor - knew Ishel didn’t care for his story. Devon didn’t care for his story. Empress didn’t care for his story, nor did her Royal Father. He took a look at the obliteration surrounding him, feeling suffocation akin to nothing he ever felt before surge from within the depths of his soul. It was agony, watching men and women he bonded with fall one by one in the symposium of madness... one which he himself had composed.
He wanted to sound out agony and apology to all of them, yet voice wouldn’t break past the barrier. He could only bitterly look at bloodied, maimed, brutalized faces and bodies being coldly scalded from the skies and into the pit of oblivion, to rest forevermore as mere itches of the past.
He began falling, the sort of fall that lasts no longer than a couple of breaths; horizon blended into a warp of various colors, all entangled within the sun’s pure golden. He could swear it, deep inside, he’d seen the meaning of his story dancing in those colors. But his mind was muddled; he couldn’t even ascertain as to what he was thinking. It was flash after flash of memories, of thoughts, of hopes and desires and lingering doubts all mixed together in a pot of complete mania, where there was no distinction between a sound and an image. If only... he were stronger, he would have won. If only... he was smarter, he would have won.
He crashed like a falling star against the floor, yet it felt strangely comfortable. There were no broken bones, there was no impact, no last flash before his death. He was wholly unprotected with Qi, an ordinary man of flesh and bone falling from hundreds of meters onto flat, sturdy concrete. There was only one result: death. Yet, he wasn’t dead. He was very much alive, he felt. His closed eyes shook for a moment before opening up, and he quickly realized he was in a small, narrow alleyway, leaned back-first against the wall. Next to him stood a shabbily-dressed man of uncouth bearing and filth unbefitting of living. Even at the doorsteps of death, Erdicth couldn’t help but frown; it was not the matter of nobility or others, it was a matter of personal desire of betterment. And, Erdicth concluded, man before him had none.
“... why... why did you save me?” Erdicth asked.
“You think I saved you?” the man asked back, seeming confused.
“... temporarily saved me.”
“Oh, yeah, that makes more sense,” the man said. “Your Qi passageways are decimated, half your organs have given up, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how are you still conscious. You can be considered a medical miracle.”
“... you are that filthy beggar everyone has been clamoring about recently?” Erdicth asked. “You really live up to your name.”
“My, my, to think even the great Duke Erdicth has heard of me,” the man said, squatting down next to Erdicth. “I’m honored.”
“... what do you want, beggar?”
“I’ve heard chatter,” the man said. “That, recently, you’ve been employing services of a blacksmith.”
“Oh? What’s that got to do with you?”
“Well, not to brag, but I’m a bit of a blacksmith myself,” the man said, smiling faintly. “And I’m very interested in making acquaintances with that friend of yours, if you’d be so kind as to help me out here.”
“... it cannot be that you saved me for that reason alone, can it?”
“... it’s because I’ve wanted to give you an opportunity, out of respect you’ve earned, to die warrior’s death,” the man said, sighing faintly. “Though you were a fool in the end, you fought till the bitter end. Someone like you doesn’t deserve to die that way.”
“... hah, respect? Wherefore you respect me, little beggar? I am but a traitor of the Crown, shame of the Empire.”
“... for the last part of your life, you’ve yearned for one thing alone,” the man spoke slowly, suddenly raising his arm and placing his thumb onto Erdicth’s forehead. “And, for that reason and that fear, you braved betrayal of all you held dear, of all your ancestors and of all people you respected.” Erdicth felt a sudden jolt whereupon a strange current surged into his body like a tidal wave, besieging him near the point of suffocation. Just as he was about to cry out in protest, an image formed inside his head, and it struck his heart like a bolt.
“Y-you... you... you’re...” Erdicth mumbled while his eyes widened like eggs, staring at this strange man before him, as though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“You wanted them to hear your voice, yet they ignored,” the man said, smiling lightly. “You wanted to tell them your story, yet they ignored. Though, really, you were a bit of a fool toward the end.”
“... you... really are...” by now, Erdicth’s entire body was shaking as his eyes grew watery, eventually beginning to spit out tears ceaselessly. “I... my death... my death is not in vain.”
“... hm,” the man nodded faintly, his smile broadening. “How’d you figure out I’d be coming to this place, though?”
“... uh, t-ten years ago or so,” Erdicth mumbled, not bothering to wipe his tears. “I sensed a strange Qi coming from far East, as though something was disturbed. Rather, a trace I left hundreds of years ago was disturbed. The Necropolis. You’ve been there, haven’t you?”
“You have... and so have I. When I got there, I realized it was empty. There were no corpses, there were no tortured, there was not a Mysterious Queen overseeing it. And I knew, because, long ago, she told me. She told me that should she ever vanish without trace it would mean her inheritor had come. And I knew... I knew... yet, I... I had doubts, still. Where were you? Why weren’t you unveiling yourself to the world? So... I studied. I studied you, I studied histories. I learned, all of it.”
“... and the best plan you could come up with was to usurp your Empire and create a massive-scaled formation covering its entire surface that would continuously spit out consistently non-chaotic Qi?”
“... heh... I first proposed it to the Emperor, four years ago,” Erdicth said, smiling bitterly. “He completely ignored me, saying I was spouting nonsense like the Three Seers. I tried numerous times after, but nothing came of it. I had... I had to do something.”
“... you’re draining your Life to talk. Are you sure that’s a good call?” the man asked, sitting down next to Erdicth.
“... heh, who cares? I have met you. In the end, you truly are her inheritor... you truly are... an Empyrean.”
“... you seem strangely proud of meeting me.” the man said, casting a sideways glance at Erdicth.
“... only a fool would not be,” Erdicth said, smiling lightly, his aged features softening in the process. “Fate... Fate told the Seers of you, but I learned of you on my own. I read the books, and I read the stories. In them, you are a Bringer of Chaos, a Demonic Entity beset on destroying the world. Every story of an Empyrean is of a madman’s attempts to bring utter collapse upon us all.”
“... sounds about right.”
“No villain is ever that vilified,” Erdicth said. “No madman ever written of to that extent. It is the quint-essential component of story’s dichotomy; a true masterpiece of a propaganda. And then... there was her. The Mysterious Queen.”
“Eshen.” the man mumbled in a faint tone.
“Ah... so that’s her name...” Erdicth smiled faintly as he closed his eyes. “Even with cruelty of eternal despair chaining her... she still held to her heart. And, she told me... all those bearing the calling of an Empyrean... are the same. She said you were fools assailed with non-existent notions of grandeur, filled to brim with pride over a title you didn’t earn... yet, I knew, right then and there, you were the sort with incorruptible and defiant hearts. Even with the whole of the world standing against you, you would still stand your ground and fight.”
“... aye, we really are fools,” the man said, sighing as he suddenly grasped at Erdicth’s shaking hand and held it. “And you are even greater a fool for still believing in us.”
“... t-tell me... tell me... what’s your name?” a faint voice asked.
“... it’s Lino.”
“Lino... ah... Lino,” Erdicth mumbled. “Thank y--” before the last vowel left his lips, the last breath escaped as Lino pressed the hand tightly, killing Erdicth. He held onto the hand for a moment while gazing at him with strange eyes before letting go and getting up.
“... your heroics have reached as far as this backwater village.” Lino mumbled into the air.
“... none are my heroics.”
“... we are either glorified or vilified,” he said as he left the alleyway in even steps. “Either desired dead, or sitting upon world’s throne. You’ve sorted a beautiful story of us... to the point it seems the whole of the world had forgotten that we are, before everything else, just... us.”
“Now I’m a bit interested in meeting the Seers,” he said as he looked up toward the distant sky. “I wonder to which tune do they dance...”
Evelyn burst with sudden speed far surpassing her prior one, crashing through the space and time itself it seems to appear before the Three Seers. An arc of blinding, white light slashed through the sky, bearing itself through the golden veil and piercing through. A shockwave massive enough to collapse the sky bounced outwardly, scalding all those who’ve felt its reach and braving them further backwards along its waves. Three Seers all catapulted like loosened mountains falling from the sky, crashing into the earth and rumbling through onward for hundreds of meters before stopping, creating a sort of comical trail on earth of their being.
The battle was over; those who ought to have been slain were taking their final breaths, and those who ought to be living were taking their first breaths of new life. On the surface, it almost appeared to be a cathartic sort of a moment. Yet, for all those involved, dead or alive, it was anything but. Perhaps, more so for her than anyone else, Evelyn felt that, despite all, she had still failed. As though a piece of puzzle that was this ensemble was missing from her eyes. Almost instinctively she looked toward the ground, a bit further north in the distance, where she saw Erdicth fall. In her heart, she knew he lay at the heart of it all, perhaps even more so than Damian himself. Yet... the answer to it all still escaped her, like that dream where you eternally chase after the doors you wish to go through only to find them always the same distance that they were at the start.