Red was glad that they didn’t need to ride the elevator to get to the training room. He didn’t want to end up a mess before the Emperor. The Essence stream Roland had supplied Red with closed off, but it didn’t matter.
As they walked, he briefly delved into his internal world and pumped all the Essence he’d acquired from Roland into Power. Red found it strange that the Essence naturally took form as blood in the fountain. He watched as the liquid soared through the sky, entering the cosmic orb of Power.
He hoped it would give him a significant edge in the fight to come, but the liquid Essence within the orb only raised to three-quarters of the way. He had hoped it would be enough to push him to Silver in Power, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“Next time, then.”
Returning from his internal world, he realized that they all stared at him impatiently. With a sheepish grin, he followed after, exiting the Emperor’s office space and walking down a long corridor with several different labeled doors.
One read 'Experiments' in bright red letters, another with 'Reagents' in blue. The door next to it read 'Dangerous Reagents' in bright yellow letters. Shrugging, the spirit followed the procession into a door with 'Training Room' in brown lettering.
Inside, the room was split into four segments. The first had a wooden dummy with various bright blue enchantments across its surface, the second had another similar dummy within. This one wielded an ever-changing assortment of weaponry. In the third, a massive array lined the ground. The amount of Essence within the room was palpable. Red wanted to step into that room, but he knew now wasn’t the time. Lastly, an empty room with powerful arrays on each wall waited for them.
“Let me explain what the room here can do,” the Emperor started. “This room has several different purposes and functions, but to simplify them all, it creates a simulation with each of your capabilities. You won’t fight with your real bodies, but instead, you will fight within an artificial dreamscape.”
Roland nodded while Red stared on in awe, muttering to himself, “That’s incredible.”
“It is, and it took a long time to be able to create it. It used to restore wounds, but the bloodstains were getting gaudy,” the Emperor informed them. Valerie stood by his side as he opened a see-through door, prompting Roland and Red to enter. “We’ll be able to see everything from out here. Ten seconds after you enter, the dreamscape will analyze and recreate you both.”
“This is very impressive, Father,” Roland praised, stepping into the room.
Red followed quickly behind him, excited to test his skills against Roland. Not only did he have to prove himself to Roland and The Emperor, Roland also needed to prove himself to Red.
As soon as the door shut behind them, Red glared at Roland and allowed his bloodlust to ooze freely. A thick aura formed around Red, crashing into Roland’s own. They both madly smiled at each other, excited for the fight to come.
And then it happened. The world took on a grey tone, and they both prepared themselves.
Red held out his hand, creating an exact copy of his blade that he gripped in two hands. Roland pulled his sword that rested below Red’s sheath from its scabbard. Wielding the blade with one hand, a ball of Essence condensed into Roland’s hand.
Red stepped forward, approaching Roland. They didn’t mince words, honoring their battle with unadulterated focus. Then, Red closed the distance between them, feigning a forward stab into Roland’s chest.
Nimbly sidestepping, Roland blasted forward with the ball of Essence. Red had never seen such an attack before, but he knew he needed to evade. Once he sidestepped the attack, he grinned, thinking that he had dodged it.
But he couldn’t be more wrong as it exploded, propelling him toward Roland’s waiting sword. Grunting, Red allowed the momentum to carry him forward, twisting his body away from the waiting blade just in time to stop himself from being impaled through and through.
Red tumbled head over heel, sliding against the ground for the length of three long strides before coming to a stop, but he quickly reoriented himself. The swords clashed for the first time, Roland continuing to wield his sword in one hand while another ball of Essence condensed.
Pushing back with two hands on his sword, Red slowly rose to his feet, teeth clenched tightly. He eyed the nearly condensed ball, I can’t let that thing hit me.
Roland stepped back and cast his skill forward, but Red’s blade cut through the attack with slight resistance. Pressing the attack, he continued forward with another follow-up slash, a testing attack. Instead of attempting to block or parry, Roland put distance between them both.
Grinning happily, Red rushed forward to clash again. His attack carried little power behind it, deceiving Roland into overcommitting in his defense. Releasing his blade, Red stepped forward and struck Roland’s chest three times in rapid succession before grabbing his casting arm and flipping the Heir over his shoulder. His knee slammed into the fleshy arm, pinning Roland to the ground.
Holding out his hand, he pulled and his blade returned to his hand, but Roland had not been idle. Another, smaller, blast of Essence propelled Red off and away from Roland. Mist radiated from the small wound.
Ignoring it, Red imitated Roland’s first stance, his blade poised behind him. However, contrary to his expectations, Roland smiled back at him. Reaching forward with his casting arm, a slight grimace of pain escaping the Heir's pursed lips, Roland clenched his hands tightly and pulled Red toward his waiting sword.
And thus, Red lurched forward.
Soaring through the air, he brought his blade down into a massive overhead slash, but Roland ducked beneath him, cutting into his back. Red didn’t take this lightly, moving faster than Roland thought possible, and slashed two deep wounds against Roland’s thighs.
Stumbling back, Roland seethed as he clutched his injuries. Red grinned, knowing he still had his last card to play. He had to admit, Roland wasn’t terrible.
Rearing his sword back, Red thought, Heartseeker! An insatiable hunger erupted outward, and all of Red’s bloodlust focused on Roland’s heart, causing him to freeze just long enough for Red to launch his sword forward.
It pierced through Roland’s chest, running the Heir through completely.
The dreamscape vanished and the door behind them opened. Valerie rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Roland.
“That was so incredible, and it looked so real from out there. I thought you actually died for a second there,” she admitted sheepishly. “Your father had to calm me down and explain things to me.”
“Yes, she was quite frantic,” Emperor Abernathy said as he entered. “You both did well. Care to see the replay?”
Roland and Red both shrugged, approaching one another. They shook hands and gave the other a nod of approval.
“Red, you’re actually incredible,” Roland admitted. “Did you know that the sword you fought me with is only half of the power you wield in your actual sword form?”
Red deadpanned, “What?”
“Yes, it’s true,” the Emperor nodded in confirmation. “When a weapon spirit wields a copy of themselves, they lack the Essence supply from a wielder. It becomes more taxing as you split yourself twice. Your energy and power are focused on a subpar blade due to having to keep your humanoid form stable.”
“It’s impressive you’re that strong already. If my blade went up against your blade form, I’m not sure it could withstand a single blow, let alone the entire exchange we just had,” Roland confided.
Red took everything in stride, his smirk painting his inner emotions on his face for all of them to see. Red turned to look at the Emperor, “So?”
Raising a brow, the Emperor turned to Roland. “I can see why you’d like him. You’re both so similar, it’s uncanny.”
Valerie poked her head between them all, “So, does that mean Red and Roland finally accepted each other?”
Emperor Abernathy looked at both of them, “It seems so. I’ll send Mira a message that your new weapon spirit needs educating.”
Shivers roiled down Red’s spine, and he decided that now was a good time to return to his sheath.
Roland parted ways with his father, and they took the elevator back to the first floor. Unclasping Red’s sheath, the Heir left the unwilling spirit in the possession of the secretary they’d seen when they first arrived at the palatial fortress.
In no time at all, Mira took them to a secluded office space and set his sheath on a desk. “Take your human form, blade.”
Red acquiesced, appearing in the chair directly in front of his sheath, his legs kicked up on the table with his arms behind his head. “Name’s Red, secretary.”
She wasn’t amused by his quip, and an invisible force slammed into him, knocking him backward. Hit the ground with a bodily thud, he groaned in displeasure and rolled onto his stomach. Pushing himself up, he fixed his chair and sat down properly, one leg crossed over the other.
“Mira, then.” Another force slammed into him, but he was properly balanced. Still, a groan escaped his lips. “Okay, what do I call you?”
“You don’t address me in any form or fashion. Don’t speak unless I prompt you for a question, then - and only then - you may address me as ‘ma’am’ or ‘Lady Mira’.” She withdrew a silver orb with more of the increasingly familiar blue enchantments and tossed it into the air. It projected images onto the wall. “Pay attention.”
Red nodded, truly interested in the world and its happenings. He just loathed being talked down to.
“Now, I’ll start at the beginning since you’re probably less informed than a newborn.” She swiped her hand and several images passed in rapid succession. “Our world used to rely on technology to function. Our cities were built with vehicles and bots, all of our logistics were handled the same, and everything became automated.
“Several hundred years ago now, the rift opened above and drowned our world in Essence. With the appearance of Essence came the monsters and dungeons, invading our newly anointed world for their personal gain. We do not know how or why this happened, but that is moot at this point.
“This planet contains twelve different continents, and all but this one have been entirely overrun. Vanguard is the final safe haven of humanity.” She paused, glancing in his direction. Seeing his interest, she continued. “In time, we learned their magic and came to understand aura ranks and how to increase them.
Red opened his mouth to voice a question, but a scathing glance from Mira stopped him in his tracks. Noting the question for later, he continued to listen.
“As far as we know, there are six aura ranks - Iron, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. There’s speculation of a seventh, but nobody has reached that level if it exists.”
Red speculated that if it did exist, Emperor Abernathy could definitely reach it. There was no way that man wasn’t the strongest human he’d ever seen. His title of Emperor proved it. Red couldn’t rationalize a world where someone stronger than the Emperor would allow themselves to be ruled under another’s will.
He wouldn’t if he had the choice, but he also doubted he would usurp the Emperor. Red just wanted to fight, and managing an entire city - and the last vestiges of the dying race - seemed tedious at the best of times.
Pictures flashed by on the wall where the floating orb projected images, “It wasn’t until Emperor Abernathy’s great grandfather erected the walls that still defend us today and enchanted almost the entire city singlehandedly that Vanguard truly became a safe haven. Before,” she stared back at him, her nails digging deep into her palm, “the monsters hunted us like livestock.”
Red didn’t find that surprising, especially if what she said about their reliance on this ‘technology’ was true. Really, it sounded like their only downfall was slacking in their own personal training.
“When the Shattering happened and the rift opened above, all our defenses failed. Everything we knew, everything relied on, was all gone. You may think it was our own fault that we’ve been backed into this corner, but even with your power, what would you do against a dragon? Or an eldritch horror? What about a Devil Lord?” she asked, glaring at him.
Scary, he thought.
“You weapon spirits are all the same, blaming us for our failure, but let me ask you this,” she paused, her glare intensifying, “what if I stripped you of everything you were and told you to fight me?”
The answer was obvious, “I would perish, Lady Mira.”
Surprise flashed across her face, but she quickly collected herself. “Yes, so you would. What do you think of us humans, Red?”
Red wondered how the conversation drifted from the history lesson to his personal views on the world. “I need someone to wield me, so I’m reliant on you humans. I don’t particularly care one way or another as long as I can fight and grow stronger, Lady Mira.”
She arched a brow, “Curious.”
Sighing a breath of relief when she finally turned back to the projection, she slammed her hand into the wall, shaking the entire room. “Fifty years ago, there was a civil war inside of Vanguard. Two of the old Emperor’s sons warred against one another to claim the title of Royal Heir. Aragar and Rathor, Emperor Abernathy’s uncles.”
Red found himself scooting to the edge of his chair.
“Aragar and Rathor ravaged the city in their conflict, both having garnered support from the people and nobility. Rathor inevitably slew Aragar, but he was exiled from Vanguard for his wanton destruction of the city and kinslaying. Nobody expected Rathor to survive, but he did.”
A scowl warped Red’s features as he listened, indignation rising in his chest. The better warrior was exiled? Why? Didn’t he prove himself worthy?
“An Emperor is not only strong, but they’re caring. Rathor and Aragar both cared little for the people, but my Emperor cared strongly. His kindness was infectious, and he headed the reconstruction of the city and shored up the breaches caused by Rathor and Aragar’s reckless confrontation.”
An Emperor needs to be strong and kind? Thinking of Emperor Abernathy, he could see what she meant. The current Emperor was very powerful, indeed. Why was he not Heir in the first place?
“My Emperor may not seem that old, but he is nearing a century. His father lived to the age of seven hundred and sixteen before passing his mantle to my Emperor.”
Roland’s father is almost a hundred? The man looked no older than thirty if Levi and the soldiers at Red’s birthing ground were anything to go by. Wait a minute, over seven hundred years old? Aren’t humans a short-lived species?
“Essence,” Mira answered his unasked question. “Essence is the reason that humanity has a chance to overcome their biological limitations and live to see so many more years, but in the end, we are all mortal. Even Diamond auras pass from old age.”
He raised his hand into the air, hoping she’d let him ask a question that burned inside his mind. She nodded, allowing him permission to speak. “I have two questions, actually, Lady Mira. Do monsters suffer from old age in a similar fashion, and will I ever experience a similar fate?”
The latter was more important to him, but he was doing his best to understand what kind of monsters he would face.
“Those are both decent questions. The origin of a monster determines its life expectancy. Let’s take a common wolf that evolves into a Silver aura. It will still die, but it will live at least ten times longer than if it never gained Essence. As for you, as long as your spirit isn’t corrupted, you’re effectively immortal.”
He internally cheered, happy knowing that he couldn’t die like a mortal.
“Though, I’ve seen more than one weapon spirit go mad. Immortality isn’t as exciting as it seems,” she admonished. “The longer you spend with a wielder, the more in tune with them you’ll become and the more of them becomes you. Has Roland shared any of his Essence with you?” she asked, and he nodded in confirmation. “Did you feel any sense of loss or discomfort when he closed the Essence channel between you two?”
Now that she mentioned it, he felt uneasy being away from the youthful Heir. Not for some human reason like affection, but instead, he felt thirsty. He craved that Essence link. He simply nodded once in response.
“Now, I can’t imagine you’ve spent much time with that link, but imagine if you have spent years - or even decades - drinking from his Essence. What would you do if he were to die?” she asked.
“I -” he wanted to say he was strong enough to shrug it off, to say that he didn’t care, but the nagging thirst scratched at the back of his mind begging for relief. “Lady Mira, I don’t think I can answer this question.”
“You’re surprisingly self-aware. Most weapon spirits think they can handle the loss without any consequences. Consider this,” she started, leaning forward on his desk, “what if you had that bond and then never found another user to wield you?”
Red squirmed in his seat, clenching his teeth as the nagging sensation grew.
“Yes, it could drive you to insanity fairly easy,” she said, backing away from him to return to the projection. Red hadn’t realized it, but she had snuck past his mental defenses and had exacerbated that feeling of loss. Only when she removed her presence was he even aware it had ever happened.
Terrifying, he reconfirmed.
“Now, back to the lesson. I’ll spare you the details of the other continents since you’ll, more than likely, never need to know of them. This,” she pointed to a boot-shaped landmass, “is Astaria, the continent we reside on, and these,” she said pointing to the most southern portion of the continent as she circled three spots on the map, “are the only remaining groups of humans.”
“Wow,” he muttered softly, ignoring the dirty look she gave him.
“Vanguard is the safest by far, this area here,” she pointed toward the farthest from Vanguard, “is where Rathor hid and rebuilt. This one is where the majority of the nobility resides, acting as a first layer of defense against Rathor and his progeny. His grudge runs deep, and he doesn’t recognize my Emperor as the rightful Heir.”
She circled another spot on the map past the noble’s boundary line, “This is where Levi said he found you. Upon further inspection, it is believed that the one that owned you before your awakening was Lord Vaughn Braveheart himself.”
“Lord Vaughn Braveheart,” Red repeated. “Lady Mira, do you think it would be okay to adopt his surname?”
Red wasn’t sure why she tried imitating a fish, her mouth repeatedly making strange ‘oh’ motions. Her lips pursed, and she shook her head. “Red Braveheart. I - I think it sounds just fine.”
Nodding, Red beamed happily. He felt a great fondness for his first owner and rejoiced at their time shared together. Red wished he could’ve been stronger for the one that gave him life, but he could only focus on the present and the future since the past had already happened.
Maybe, just maybe, he could prevent Roland from losing his life. Red shook his head, refocusing on Mira.
She cleared her throat and turned back to the projection, telling him of different cities further north, but she had essentially covered everything.
“One last thing before we finish here,” she interrupted Red’s wandering mind. “Power, Durability, and Attunement, what do these mean to you?”
Red really had to think about this one since the dais didn’t give him much help when it came to understanding their function. He shrugged, not wanting to be miserably wrong with an uneducated guess.