As Roland and Valerie slept, Red observed the world around them, his ability to perceive their surroundings not limited to the confines of their fume-sputtering carriage. They only stopped briefly for the servants to swap out to rest, the one that just got off duty opening a secondary seating area that was attached to the one Red was in.
The vehicle was strange, but it resembled the massive vehicles that the soldiers were loading bodies into back at his birthing spot. He pondered on how they ran, but he knew he would never know until Roland was awake to ask. For a moment, he considered returning to his humanoid form, but space was limited inside their carriage.
He refrained, content with watching their progress over broken roads that passed through several massive cities that lay in shambles. On more than one occasion, he felt a presence of skulking predators following them, hiding within the depths of the city’s shadows. However, every time one got close, the driver would glare in the direction of the shadowy beasts, cowing them into inaction.
Red could feel that the servants were strong, but they weren’t warriors. They wielded magic; one used flames and the other used wind. The old geezer woke for his turn to operate their vehicle, and they came to a soft stop. If Red couldn’t see outside the carriage, he wouldn’t even have noticed the switch happening.
The only thing that stopped him from bugging Roland to fight the creatures was the Heir’s promise of a duel. Hours later, the sun peeked over the horizon, prompting the young man to open his eyes. Taking some time to wake properly, the youth touched a button on the side of the carriage. The tinted windows silently slid down to reveal the city fading in the distance.
What happened there? Red asked.
Leaning onto his arm, Roland sighed. “The Shattering happened, but it was long ago.”
Why has the city not been rebuilt?
“Easier said than done,” Roland scoffed. “If it weren’t for the cloaking enchantments on this truck, we would’ve long since been overrun. The city’s home to an invasive dungeon.”
What’s a dungeon? Red asked curiously. There were many things he didn’t know, and Roland seemed to be far more amenable now that he’d rested.
“You really are a newly formed spirit,” Roland said, channeling Essence into Red. Shockingly, it forced Red to activate Two Forms, though in a more controlled fashion. Almost instantly, his body formed in the space next to Roland. “Dungeons spawn monsters endlessly. Most of them aren’t invasive, happy to live underground, but some refuse that way of living and enthrall anything that they can to attack anything in their surroundings to spread their domain.”
Red crossed his arms. “Is that so? That seems like a great place to go.”
Roland scoffed immediately, “Even Golds won’t go there. To stop the dungeon’s growth, it’s suspected that an entire team of Platinum or Diamonds would need to delve into its deepest depths to shatter the core.”
“Then why don’t they?”
Roland huffed in annoyance, “You really know nothing, and I can’t fault you for that. I should have Levi’s manor repossessed and send him into The Fray. He couldn’t even teach you anything before offering you as a gift? Pathetic.”
Red felt insulted, glowering at the Heir. “Just because I am uninformed doesn’t mean I’m any less valuable.”
Looking back at Red out of the corner of his eyes, Roland squinted. “Do you think you’re special, Red?”
“I know I’m special,” Red immediately responded, brushing his hand through his hair, “and our duel will make you realize that. The way you talk pisses me off a bit.”
“Good, be angry because if you don’t, I’ll make sure you suffer.”
“Please,” Red scoffed, wondering what kind of things Roland thought he could do, “you won’t beat me.”
Silence fell over the carriage - no - the truck, but that only lasted until Valerie woke. She rubbed away the tiredness from her eyes, yawning widely. She looked around in confusion for a moment before her brain caught up, then a beaming smile plastered itself on her face.
“Good morning,” she said, stretching again. “This truck is much comfier than my bed. I didn’t even notice a single bump in the roads.”
Roland’s lips curled upward into a half-smile. His eyes drank in her radiance, “Good morning, I’m glad you slept well.”
Red groaned, earning the ire of both inhabitants. As a weapon spirit, he felt no attraction to these humans. His only passion was in tempering himself and spilling blood. The whole lovey-dovey atmosphere they gave off really made him want to gag.
Doing his best to ignore the two, Red closed his eyes to sense the surroundings to get a better understanding of the world. A massive rift tore open the sky above, coloring the land below in a kaleidoscope of colors. An ephemeral blue-green took up the majority of the sky, swirling and rippling like water.
When he truly focused on the monsters that stalked them, he realized that most of them gave off Bronze or the even stronger Silver auras. It was a strange thing to experience, and Red observed his internal palace. The bronze aura oozed from the cosmic orbs above.
Rage and bloodlust oozed from him, the desire to slaughter all of the creatures rising like vitriol in his throat. If they’re Silver, then that means they should be stronger than me.
“Control yourself,” Roland chastised. “You’ll get us all killed if you keep at it like that.”
Red glared back at the Heir, eyes alight like burning brimstone. “You hide within your truck, cowering before these beasts!”
Roland’s head casually turned to the window as a massive aura billowed out over their truck - a Golden aura that squashed Red’s battle lust.
“If the Bronze and Silvers were the only things to worry about, this place wouldn’t be in ruin,” Roland quipped back. “I’ll speak no more of this, just -.” Warmth channeled through their connection, Essence flowing from Roland into Red. “- I think I like you, Red.”
Once the channel opened, it flowed like a raging river into the spirit. Roland took out a square box from his coat pocket and flipped open the lid, “Take one and roll your window down.”
Looking at the cylindrical sticks, Red wondered what they were for. Roland took one of the sticks and rested it between his lips, pulled out a square of polished steel with the Emperor’s crest on the sides, and opened the lid. A small flame lit the stick as Roland sucked in, puffing the smokey cloud out the open window.
Red shrugged, imitating the Heir. His lungs burned as the acrid smoke passed through them, then he breathed out.
“Halla’s Maw, Red! I said open the damned window first, you’re going to stink up the backseat.” Red shrugged, rolling the window down, and took another puff.
They continued, driving for a little over a day.
Once they arrived at the heavily guarded fortress city, its walls glowing with numerous defensive enchantments and reaching far into the sky, the similarly massive gates opened to allow their truck passage once it was recognized as the vehicle of the Heir.
From the outside, Red hadn’t been able to see the full size of the city. Buildings reached into the sky, all rectangular. One notably flared at the top, standing as tall as the walls, and was mounted with numerous ballistae. The streets formed a grid, and the rest of the city’s traffic paused for the truck to pass.
Red hung his head out the window, staring in awe at the great city. As they passed people on the road, he realized that the majority of the city’s inhabitants were no higher than Bronze. Their auras were far weaker than his. Only one person out of nearly a thousand was a Silver, and it made him realize that these humans were weak.
With so many people, why did they not attack the dungeon together? Surely, the Silver and Golds amongst them could protect them long enough to gain enough energy to reach a higher level of power?
To Red, it seemed like these people had resolved to live in their corner of the world until something strong enough knocked down their walls and killed them all.
“We’re here,” Roland said, pushing his door open and waving Valerie through.
Red’s own door opened, and he stepped through it as Roland had. When he looked around, he realized that they had passed through a secondary boundary into an even more heavily guarded fortress. Each person he checked had an aura of at least Silver here, and that made him feel like these humans might have a slim chance of redemption.
“This way,” prompted one of the guards, waving him after Roland.
With Valerie’s hand clasped in his, the Heir had continued on without looking back at Red. Shrugging, the spirit turned to walk away from the fortress-palace, but he lurched backward as Roland continued walking.
“That’s inconvenient,” Red muttered, turning to follow after Roland so the tether quit trying to drag him along. “This place is strange.”
Entering the massive palace, the tarred ground gave way to pristine tile. A massive corridor greeted Red. Freshly potted plants lined the walls and strange rectangular doors with buttons on their sides, flashing numbers over their frame, numbered in the dozens. Red couldn’t ignore the strange mix of magic and - he didn’t have a word for what the rest of the stuff was.
Tugging him forward, the tether demanded he continue to follow Roland as he steadily walked deeper into the palatial fortress. Red caught up to them, disappointed that there was nothing interesting to gawk at once he passed the doors.
They approached a desk full of various colored ink quills, strewn about parchment, and different kinds of reagents in bottles. Red bent over to get a closer look at a small spindly creature swimming inside an azure liquid. As he went to touch it, Roland grabbed his hand and shook his head.
“Is my Royal Father available? He should be aware of my return by now,” Roland said gently. The woman behind the desk, adorned in a simple blouse and denim blue jeans, lowered her spectacles and raised a questioning brow. “Lord Levi’s gifted me with a weapon spirit.”
“Make sure it behaves,” the woman sternly admonished, moving a stack of papers to the side to open up a large tome. “Looks like he’ll be free in about five minutes. You can go on up.”
She closed the tome, acerbically glaring at Red. He’d yet to check her aura, jumping away in surprise when he felt the similar Gold as the monster from the city. Strong!
Coughing to the side, he smoothed down his shirt and pulled his coat into place, acting as though nothing happened. He turned away from the snickering Valerie, his eyes rolling.
“Let’s go up then,” Roland said, walking back toward the shining doors. He found one that wasn’t in use and hit an arrow that pointed up. “My father’s in the Royal Suite where he handles most of his business.”
“This is so cool, Roland. I never thought I’d get to see Vanguard in person,” Valerie said, her eyes twinkling with giddy mirth. “I - when my father told me that you would be coming, I almost didn’t believe him.”
Red’s left eye twitched as she started gushing, but he knew better by now than to voice his complaints. He felt more comfortable in his sword form, but in this form, he at least had the freedom of movement and expression. After being mounted on Levi’s wall - I’ll kill him - he didn’t want to be in a position where he couldn’t move freely again.
Blocking out the sickly sweet words of the girl, Red focused on the number above the reflective door. Once it hit one, it dinged and opened to them. An interesting thought struck him as he followed Roland and Valerie through the door and into a strange box of metal. What would happen if Roland went up to see his father and Red didn’t join? Would the tether drag his form or would it convert him back to his sword form?
Truthfully, he hoped he never had to find out.
A small tip of Essence formed a second layer over Roland’s index finger, and he scrawled in some gobbledygook that Red couldn’t interpret. Once the Heir completed it, the door dinged and a voice echoed through the box, “Identification required to enter the Emperor’s Suite, please state your name and purpose now.”
Roland rolled his eyes but acquiesced to the demands of the strange box-voice. “Roland Abernathy, royal duty.”
Sounding out again with its tinny voice, the box simply stated, “Accepted.”
There was a short lurch as the box started moving, indicated by the numbers slowly increasing. It hit ten, but there was no sign of it stopping. Red felt nervous, if they fell from this height or didn’t stop, he didn’t know how either Roland or Valerie would survive the crash.
I hate this!
Ascending past the fiftieth floor, the number changed to the letters ‘RS’.
As soon as the doors opened, Red stumbled out first and leaned against a wall for support, his legs feeling like mush. Never again!
“He really didn’t like the elevator,” Valerie stated with a giggle. “He doesn’t seem so scary when he’s like this.”
Red glared at the girl, and she cowered behind Roland who was doing his best to school his face. Coughing into his shoulder, he let a half-grin slip onto his face as he approached Red. “What’s wrong, Red? The elevator can’t hurt us.”
“That thing is a death trap!” Red shouted, pointing toward the elevator door. It slid shut but the letters above didn’t change. “You both would be dead if that thing fell or didn’t stop. How are you so calm?”
Roland crossed his arms, putting a hand over his mouth to hide the full-faced smile. “Red, it can’t fall and can’t keep going. The system is full-proof and fool-proof.”
Red stared at them both with wild eyes, “You’re both nuts! No wonder there are so few of you.”
All traces of amusement fell away from Roland’s face, “Your ignorance of the world is unacceptable. I’ll be sure to bring it up to my father.”
Moments later, a quaint door opened and an indignant man with a Bronze aura stormed out with a red face, shoving past Red to get to the elevator.
Feeling insulted, Red blasted the man with the entirety of his bloodlust just to startle him.
The man froze in place, glaring back at Red. “You impudent -”
“Leave,” Roland interrupted the man, scathingly glaring in Red’s direction. The spirit tried to look as innocent as possible, whistling a nonsensical tune. Rubbing his temples, Roland approached the spirit. “Don’t do that here. Ever.”
Red opened his mouth to speak, quickly closing it the second the Essence channel clamped closed and left him disoriented. “Ever.”
The finality of Roland’s tone made Red realize that he had messed up big time. It was the first time he’d seen the Heir truly angered. Whoops. To be fair, that guy shouldn't have tried to assert himself over me if his aura was only Bronze.
Roland opened the door for Valerie then entered himself. Red caught the door, rolling his eyes at the pettiness. Entering through, he observed the surprisingly minimally decorated office space of the Emperor.
A literal mountain of paperwork was the only decoration in the room. For how large the office was, taking up half of the entire floor space, it felt very empty. Only one person waited within, presumably the Emperor - Roland’s father.
“Roland, I’m glad to see you’ve returned without trouble,” the Emperor said, his voice carrying a gravitas that commanded respect. Red resisted the urge to prostrate himself in any manner, but Valerie bowed at the waist. “Rise child, you’re to be my daughter. You can drop the formalities at the door.”
Red curiously went to check the Emperor’s aura. His eyes widened and he stepped away. Monster.
The only thing Red could conclude was that the Emperor’s aura eclipsed anything he’d seen before, far surpassing that of the Gold beast. When he looked around, he realized the entire city bathed in the massive aura.
Red met the blue eyes of the Emperor, and he immediately knelt. His head was low in respect, in submission to the mighty warrior before him. One fist crossed over his heart, a salute he’d seen the guards make toward Roland, and his other fist balanced him against the soft carpet that replaced the shiny tile once they entered the room.
Red decided that it was in his best interest to remain silent while in the presence of the Emperor, but his mind worked tirelessly to understand how someone could be so strong. He remembered that Roland mentioned the dungeon requiring a team of Platinum or Diamond auras to even attempt to clear it out, but he had never seen one before.
How strong are you? Red wondered, not daring to raise his head.
“My trip went well, Father. I’ve accepted Valerie’s proposal, and Lord Levi’s gifted me a weapon spirit as her dowry. Do you think we could have Mira give him a history lesson with some other basic knowledge?”
“Levi didn’t do it himself?” Emperor Abernathy asked, his tone reprimanding. Roland must’ve responded nonverbally, as the Emperor grunted. “It’s young, no more than a year at most. It couldn’t have gained sentience too long ago.”
“Levi said it’s been less than a month, but -” Roland paused, his feet moving toward Red. “This is the most docile I’ve seen him since I acquired him.”
“Well, we have plenty in the armory that better suit your needs if he wishes to be unruly. We can put him in Mira’s possession until she whips it into shape?” the Emperor suggested.
“I don’t think I will. Honestly, he’s the most lively spirit I’ve ever seen. Despite how young he is,” Roland touched Red and relieved the monumental pressure from his shoulders, “I can’t ignore the potential I feel within.”
Roland offered Red a helping hand, raising the weapon spirit to his feet. Red made eye contact with the Emperor again, but this time, that crushing weight didn’t send him panicking. Mirth twinkled within those crystalline eyes.
“I see.” Humming, the Emperor made his way around his busy desk and stood before Red. “What say you, spirit?”
Pointing toward Roland, Red grinned. “I want a duel. The one that awakened me, the one that gave me life, was a mighty warrior of great skill -”
The Emperor crossed his arms, tutting. “You think my son is not worthy of you?”
Red didn’t pause in his answer, “I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.”
Deep, booming laughter filled the floor. Wiping a tear from his eye, Emperor Abernathy smiled. “I see what you mean Roland, let’s go to my training room and settle this.”
Red winked at Roland, but immediately, a pressure constricted around his whole being. “Just know if you’re found lacking, I will have you put in the possession of Mira.”
The Emperor’s malicious grin spoke volumes, and Red swore to himself that he wouldn’t fail.