by Barex Aster
“Do you really think it’s that simple?” The dragon said.
The phenomena that shapes reality in accordance with one's very own knowledge and experiences as well as the assimilation of accepted beliefs.
That is Truth.
—Collected Journals of Nygus, the First Artrick
43rd of Rising Lotus, 2999 E5
An endless blanket of bright, gray clouds smothered the sky. Just below it, a raven soared gracefully. It’s bright green eyes observed its spacious surroundings as it twitched its head in different angles.
A blurred figure in black zoomed past it, descending for the world below. The turquoise bob of hair fluttered violently with the airfoil, just as her coat and clothes did. Boots together and gloved hands at her sides, her green eyes remained open and unfazed despite the barrage of air she continued to pierce through.
She shot her arms and legs out to her sides, abruptly slowing down her descent. Flipping to an upright position, a shimmer flashed. Shing. A sword flipped out in front of her, spiraling in the air. Bang! She bashed it at the hilt with a kick, sending it flying like a missile toward the horizon.
After watching the sword for a second longer, she burst into a cloud of black feathers. The feathers shot forward with the winds, the cries of dozens of invisible birds following. They rode the winds, swirling at high speeds, until they reached the soaring sword. The woman then reappeared crouched on the blade with another puff of feathers, her arms extended behind her for balance as she leaned forward. She slowly stood up straight, her hands coming up into her coat pockets as the sword carried her like a hoverboard.
The wind quickly calmed, becoming as peaceful as the woman’s closed-eyed expression.
Croak-croak. The raven flew in from behind her, coming up to her left side.
“Zaxus,” she said, “I’m in position over the area of operation.”
“Excellent, Xaterra,” a male voice said through the com device in her ear. “Ekilon just informed me that the the King herself is soon to discuss the divination. That means you are go for Operation Veiled Star.”
She opened her eyes. “Acknowledged.”
The raven dived for the complex city below.
Hundreds of people walked the metallic streets that ran in between skyscraping structures. They ventured in and out of shops and stores lining the sides, each store having its name projected over their doors. Humanoid droids stood outside restaurants, offering samples for passersby.
A young boy holding the hand of his mother pointed to one of the dozens of floating screens above the streets, the vibrant advertisement of a toy catching his eye. Another group stood by as a hover bus slowly landed in its parking zone. Every street flourished with activity.
Stairs led to a maze of walkways on upper floors that lined the sides of buildings and structures. Bridges connected them to opposing sides. Looking up from the bottom floor introduced all eyes to a complex web of paths for crowds to travel by foot. The city presented like a massive mall that reached for the sky above.
Hover vehicles traveled through invisible streets in between buildings or zoomed through the highways of the more open districts.
A raven soared next to one of the hover cars, keeping up with its breakneck speeds. The man in the vehicle glanced at the raven, giving a baffled, quirked expression, before it made yet another dive. It swiftly descended through the openings between dozens of bridges and walkways, dodging slow-moving hover vehicles and floating screens. With a sudden flick of its wings, it leveled itself and glided through a long, dark alley. The white light of the exit brightened as it closed in, and with a flash, the raven soared into a massive opening in the city.
The raven slowed its glide and observed its surroundings, its head flicking in different angles. All surrounding buildings gave at least a football field’s worth of space to a single structure--a castle of metallic alloys of shimmering platinum and vibrant gold. In the space in between, a cloudy mist made an effort to blanket the frost-covered sides of the plateau that made up its footing and the plummet into the frozen water below. A single wide bridge led from the city to the front of the magnificent structure.
After the brief scan, the raven pivoted and drifted for the castle front….
A silent, fiery explosion reflected from the glistening coat of golden, horror-struck eyes. Kara’s jaw dropped slightly, a short shudder escaping her lips.
Giant cogs and gears rotated and grinded against each other in muted motion, floating as a complex marvel of black silhouettes filling in the background of the empty, white void she stood in.
“And so the prophecy your forebearers foretold-” the massive gray-scaled dragon loomed over the woman on all fours, his sharp white eyes as empty as the void’s hue “-has finally revealed its hand.” His calm yet deep voice spoke through unmoving lips. “The end of the world.”
“Tch…” She squeezed her eyes shut. Her chin tilted down a little, the ponytail of her faded yellow hair shifting a bit around her neck.
The dragon continued to watch her. “Your ancestors have sacrificed so much to assimilate this ability of foresight into the blood of your dynasty. And I’ve held my end of the bargain, allowing you and those before you to receive a divination of destruction should it occur within the next year…. This is the revelation your ancestors sought to be prepared for. Annihilation. Oblivion.”
A giant orb hovered still in the air several dozen yards behind him. A scintillating mist radiated outward from it, as if it were a star. Several black rings slowly rotated around it, swirling the mist gently.
“By witnessing the crisis through the Time Nexus, your ancestors believed they might acquire the footing they desired to hold back their extinction. Your extinction.” He lowered his head a bit, a low whirl running through the deafeningly silent air. “And so I ask you, the King who so happens to receive the vision, a simple question… What will you do?”
Kara remained how she stood, still looking down. Her hands clenched into fists at the sides of her black pants.
“All of their ambitions, sacrifices--their very will has fallen to you now. Your decisions from this day forth will reckon all they’ve sought to accomplish, all they’ve sought to save. Can you really hold the weight of this ordeal on your shoulders to the end? The dream of saving the world?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” she said sternly.
The dragon made no response.
Kara looked up at the dragon with a scowl, her eyes no longer revealing despair, but determination. “As you said, my family wished to see the coming crisis before it happened and stop it. This is the moment we’ve lived for since the contract was formed.” Her eyes squinted just slightly, becoming sharper and glistening. “With that, and all you stated, said… what makes you think I have a say in what to do next? The coming choices from this day forth will be in the name of stopping this cataclysm.”
The dragon raised its head back up, the low whirl once again running through the air. “I see….”
Kara turned sideways to him, her black boots tapping against some seemingly invisible surface they stood on. Folding her arms, her maroon-colored button up shirt, neatly fitted with her narrow frame, wrinkled in on itself a bit, especially the long sleeves. She then seemed to stare off into space, quickly running through her thoughts.
“Exactly what did you see, Kara Arselhyne?” the dragon asked.
She looked up at him, looking surprised by the question. She then looked forward again. “I’m fully aware that you can see the same revelations I see when given by the Time Nexus. There’s no reason for me to reiterate it.”
“I’ll ask you once more. What did you see?”
She looked to him again, this time with bewilderment. He merely watched her with the sharp, cold look that comes with a reptilian face, his head slightly turned to see her.
She turned to him completely. “A ball of fire exceeding the size of the planet tenfold. It collides with our world and engulfs it as if it were a mere flake of snow.”
“Then you fully comprehend what you are facing….”
She made no response, instead waiting for him to iterate.
“Would it really be possible for you to stop this, even with the aid of others? In the end, you will be committing your life to the task. Failure would result in the sacrifices of your dynasty to be in vain, and, in a technical perspective, it would be all your fault.”
Kara’s lips curled into a frown.
“Or you can be realistic. You can give up this nonsensical obligation to duty you have engraved in your heart, and understand that this threat is simply too great. Live your final days without the weight of the world on your shoulders and allow the fate your world has been destined to finally pass.”
Kara stood with her head tilted down. A shadow cast over her face and hid all but the thin line of her lips.
“Carry out the ambitions of those before you like a stringless puppet, or let go… and accept the reality of your limitations.”
Only a few seconds of silence followed. The dragon remained seemingly frozen, patiently anticipating an answer.
“I’ve been taught at a young age…” she soon said. She looked up at him. “That there is only one guarantee in this world.”
The dragon’s eyes squinted slightly.
“And that is the failure that comes with giving up.” She then turned and her boots gave a dull clack with every step she took from the dragon. “I will stop this cataclysm, Omega.”
“Hmph,” the dragon lightly laughed. But it quickly manifested into a chuckle and gradually into a hearty laugh.
Boom! His forward left foot smashed into the invisible ground. Kara froze where she stood.
“Do you really think it’s that simple? That you can accomplish any feat with the mere ideology of will?” He watched the back of her head for a second longer before continuing. “As the Icon of Time and Eternity, I have seen the end. And since time itself was birthed, I’ve come to witness that destiny’s hand cannot be stayed. The only string you can hope to pull is how you will go about shaping its ideal future. And so I’ll ask once more, child: how will you go about your final days of existence?”
“Tch, what are you trying to get out of me?” Kara turned back to him, brows furrowed and fists clenched. “You think you can deter me, dragon?”
Omega scowled, lowering his chin.
“I care little what you’ve seen of our future. All that time watching the world play exactly as you’ve seen… it has only allowed the phenomena of absolutes to blind you of what I see. And that is an undecided future. Like I’ve said before, the coming days will be in the name of stopping this crisis.”
“So even in the face of the inevitable, you still choose to face destiny and attempt to change your fate? Even when I can tell you here and now that no matter how much you struggle, what you’ve seen for yourself will never alter in the slightest?” The corner of his mouth twisted up in a scaly smirk. “Perhaps this isn’t some sense of duty after all—but pride. Pride from a child who has yet to experience true failure.”
Kara turned and marched off. “You have my answer. This crisis will be stopped. Even if by my own hands.”
“Such willful ignorance.” Omega watched her for a few more seconds before turning back to the spinning cogs of the Nexus. “And so as the budding King of Xelandor marches on, yet again you prove that not even I can change the future.”
Light bloomed from the large, arched windows as faint rays touched the red and black marble floor. The red hues of the floor trailed from the giant double doors to the stairs and up, resembling a red carpet. Statues of men and women in armor faced inward and lined both sides of the trail of red marble. Each struck a different pose, their valiant stances accentuated by the rays of light from the windows at their backs. Despite their different shapes and armors, they each held the same weapon in their hands. A hefty broadsword with a winged guard.
Up the stairs opposite to the double doors sat a black-framed and red-cushioned throne. A statue of a woman in flowing robes and armor on both sides stood frozen in a graceful pose. They both reached out to each other with closed eyes and a soft grin, mirroring each other in every way. Golden light from the colored windows behind the throne shimmered upon the dozens of blades and shields that decorated the back of the dark-colored throne.
Kara appeared crouched on her left knee several meters from the stairs and facing the throne, as if catching herself from a fall. Her faded yellow ponytail shifted around her neck a bit as her head tilted down, the bangs of hair that ran alongside her white cheeks dangled in front of her face. She stood and took a quick glance around before making her way to the stairs. “Ganyu,” she called.
The pointy nose of a middle-aged man appeared from behind the throne. His partially bald head shimmered the golden glow from the windows as he walked out. “I trust your glimpse in the Time Nexus was uneventful, My King?” He stood at the left side of the throne, his hands behind his back.
Kara made her way up the stairs with haste. “Send a conference call to the Council immediately.”
Ganyu watched her for a moment, his brown eyes studying the frown on her face for a moment. He then held up his left forearm to chest level. “Right away,” he said, typing upon a small holo-screen that appeared upon his said forearm.
She dropped into her throne with an exhale and slouched, arms resting on the arms of the seat. Her eyes only watched the ceiling for a short moment before closing.
Ganyu watched her through the corner of his eyes, his hands once again behind his back.
“Hmph,” she lightly laughed. It then grew into a faint chuckle.
Ganyu’s brows rose slightly as his head turned to her. “Is everything alright?”
Kara watched the ceiling again. “I suppose it was quite a shock at first. How could I expect something like that after five hundred years of nothing.” She grinned. “I should be panicking, but for some reason, I can’t help but feel… excited.”
“I’m afraid I’ve no clue what you’re talking about.”
Seven blue projections blinked into reality around the front of her throne. Men and women in various robes and coats, all of whom looked to be within the same age group as her, if not a somewhat older. They each appeared with a slight bow, their right fist held over their heart.
Kara’s grin faded into a thin line. “Wasted no time, I see.” Her eyes glistened the blue color of the holograms.
“Your Majesty,” the man in the middle said, “it’s a pleasure to be in your presence.” They all stood straight. “It’s not like you to call upon the Council after the divination.”
The woman in the group added, “So we figured this to be of dire importance.”
“Indeed,” Kara said with a smirk, “the fate of the world has finally revealed itself.”
She took the next few minutes to explain the details, watching as they either slowly lowered with horror in their eyes or frowned with intent.
“As far as I can tell,” Kara soon finished, “we have one month.”
“W-What?” One of the councilmen shuddered. “Just one month?”
She held her hands up in front of her jaw, fingers locked together and elbows on the arms of the throne. “Maybe less.”
“The divination should have given us more time than that,” said another councilman.
“So we have less than a month to find a way to stop a star from colliding with our world?” a third said. He gritted his teeth. “Tch…” The sweat on his forehead revealed itself even through his projection. “Damn it. How are we supposed to do something of that scale?”
“My ancestors agreed to the contract so that we may see in the divination a planetary crisis,” she said. “Something of this scale should be expected. The means on the contrary are unpredictable.”
The first councilmen then asked, “With all do respect, Your Majesty, what is that even supposed to mean?”
Kara merely sat silently with her eyes closed, leaving the room in silence. Ganyu stood with his hands behind his back, his brown eyes glistening as they watched her through the corner of their sockets.
Everyone stood nearly frozen, waiting for her response, including a young man to the far left in military service uniform. His youthful face and calm demeanor easily differentiated him from the others. With a cold stare, he continued to watch her.
“Don’t tell me you’ve all lost your nerve already,” she said. “As my father once said, ‘fear is a disease that can spread like an epidemic; hope is its only cure’. We cannot allow ourselves to lose our resolve before we’ve even begun to face our fate.”
“Hmph,” the uniformed man lightly laughed. “My sister is always one to quote father’s speeches of hope to ease the minds of others.”
Kara let her hands rest upon the arms of her throne. “His teachings have influenced my character in many aspects, Kel. You’d all do well to listen. I wouldn’t be who I am today without him.”
Kel smirked. “So I’ve noticed from you, Kara. Many would call it admirable of you, I’m sure…” He lowered his chin slightly. “But I trust you have a plan you’d like to place on the table before us to back it up. One cannot simply say, ‘do not lose hope’ and expect fear to suddenly vanish, after all. Was that not somewhere in father’s teachings as well?”
She chuckled a little, closing her eyes and lowering her head a bit. “I suppose you’re right, brother.” Her golden eyes locked with his bluish projection. “It may not be a plan, but I’ve got something that can lead us in the right direction, if that’s more to your liking.”
She leaned back in her chair and relaxed. “With today’s technology we can detect the course of meteors the size of a small city that aren’t even within our galaxy, billions of lightyears out. We’d know well beyond a month before any of them hit. And yet I haven’t heard a single thing about something as massive as a star on course for our planet.”
“Her Majesty is correct.” One of the councilmen pushed up his glasses and held them in place with his middle and index fingers. “As of yet, our astronomy department has not identified any masses heading our way, especially that of a star.” He lowered his hand. “In fact, had they discovered something of this scale, we’d have known about it decades ago.”
“Then why has Her Majesty seen it in the divination?” a councilwoman asked. “Could it be an error on the department’s part?”
“You and I both know that’s highly unlikely, Aira. But I do believe Her Majesty will of course fill us in on the big picture.”
“Indeed,” Kara said. “I’ve no doubt you’ve already ascertained what I’m thinking, Ashval.” He grinned as she said that. “In fact, it should be obvious to everyone in this room now.” She held up her right hand, as if to offer her words. “After all, a star doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. We’d know about it even without the divination. There’s only one way I can theorize after putting the pieces together.”
Kel then put in, “You think that star will be summoned.”
She merely sat with her eyes closed yet again, grinning and allowing the theory to sink in with the other councilmen. They seemed deep in their thoughts, their heads slightly lowered.
Aira then broke the momentary silence. “So you believe the star will be summoned. That means there will be an actual culprit behind this.”
“But not just any culprit,” Ashval added. “To be able to summon something as massive and unstable as a star would be well beyond the bounds of a mere mortal.”
Kara then said, “This is the power of an Icon--divine power.”
The councilmen reacted with unsettled grunts and movements.
One of them responded anxiously, “The power of a Icon? You’re not suggesting they have something to do with this?”
“I’m merely filtering out the cards on the table, Argus. Can you name out any of us mere mortals who could bring about the world’s end with a single spell, let alone summon a star?”
He made no response.
“For all I know, a mortal could have somehow run across the power of the divines. Or perhaps a Sentinel is the cause. There are still too many paths before us to come out with anything conclusive.”
“Then we’re still in square one,” another councilman said.
“Not exactly,” Kel said. He puzzled his chin. “The coming investigation has been narrowed dramatically from these conclusions alone. We’re getting somewhere.”
“I agree,” Kara said. “It just comes down to identifying the motive. Who with such power would want to end the world? That question is where we should start.”
“Xaiyora,” Arra said after a brief silence. She stepped forward, as if to make the point clearer. “Xaiyora. She’s the only one who would do something like this.”
Argus then said, “But she should still be barred away from our very existence through the Trigram Seal.” His face then lit up surprise. “Unless….”
Ashval turned his head slightly to his right. A light shimmered upon his glasses, hiding his eyes. “The calamity that nearly befell us over a century ago. Her very appearance marked the beginning of the corruption of the balance, resulting in the Black Fallout we suffer from today.”
Everyone in the room gave him their attention.
“Perhaps it turns out even the Trigram Seal wouldn’t be enough to hold her for long.” He pushed up his glasses once more, washing away the shimmer. “By my own calculations on the topic at hand, I’d say Aira’s speculations have the highest probability of merit for now.”
Kara’s glistening eyes lowered slightly, her expression preoccupied as she drifted deep in her thoughts. “Xaiyora…” she said softly.
“If that is the case…” Kel held up his palm and curled his fingers into a fist. “We may be looking at a second Celestial War. And this time, we’ll be on the frontlines.”
Ashval said, “Nearly a fourth of the planet has been scarred and rendered asunder as the result from the first. Still as arid and dead a place as it was a century ago.”
“The Ashen Sea,” Argus said.
Kel lowered his fist. “Even if we stop the calamity, we may still come out of this worse off than if we just allowed ourselves to be obliterated. We need to kill the seed before it can take root if we really want to stop this.”
“What do you suggest, Chief Commander?” Arra asked.
“If I learned that there was the probability that our walls would fall due to the loosening of a bolt, I’d direct my attention there. Simple logic. Therefore, I suggest we start our investigation where the Celestial War ended. The Trigram Seal.” He looked to his sister. “Kara.”
Her eyes flicked to him.
“Now that you have the sword, you have the ability to travel and meet with Axus. I think it would be beneficial if you do this immediately.”
She chuckled a little. “It’s not as simple as you make it sound. I cannot simply waltz before the Icon of Chaos and Discord at my leisure.”
He merely watched her with no response.
“But I understand your reasoning. Axus was the one to spearhead the seal’s manifestation to end the war. If there are any issues with the seal, he’d know, and we can establish failsafes accordingly. We can then rule out Xaiyora and narrow our investigation.”
“To be fair, I’m confident any shortcomings from the seal would have already been known. But any more information we can gather, the better.”
“Ah…” Aira smiled a little. “Perhaps there is hope after all.”
Ashval chuckled to himself and brushed back some of his shaggy hair.
Arra raised an eyebrow at him. “What is it, Ashval?”
He cocked his head back a little. “It just came to me that no matter what decisions we make here and in the coming days, we’ll never know if it was the right one until the day of reckoning. To think we bound ourselves to such a contract…”
“Our ancestors found themselves in desperate times,” Argus said with a sigh. “For now we can only set about accomplishing the task they entrusted to us.”
Kel folded his arms. “I believe our next move has been determined. It comes down to the King herself to speak with Axus and find out what he knows.”
“So it would seem,” she said, standing up.
Ashval looked to his peers. “As Her Majesty ventures out, I’d suggest we continue to identify our next steps. I doubt this will be simple enough to solve with a single move.”
“Agreed,” nodded Aira.
All of the councilmen bowed their heads slightly. “We await your return, Your Majesty,” Argus said.
Their projections blinked out of reality.
Kara merely stood there for a moment, looking absent. Ganyu watched her quietly, as if trying to read her. “Ganyu,” she soon said without turning to him.
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“As my personal advisor, you were quite reluctant to share any of your thoughts for the duration of the meeting.” She looked at him over her shoulder. “That’s unlike you. Are you feeling well?”
“In light of the current revelations at hand, I am quite swimmingly, Your Majesty.”
She watched him for a second longer before looking forward again. “You still have the tendency to verse dumb vocabulary to me, at least.”
The crow stood unmoving on the window sill, its green eye watching everything within the throne room. It continued to observe as Kara walked down the stairs of the throne--
A silver blade pierced through it, leaving it in frozen agony for a split second before death.
Xaterra‘s eyes opened. “Tch….” She looked down at the city below with a scowl.
She backflipped off the sword, spinning it with her. She then grabbed it before vanishing in a puff of black feathers.
The crow’s carcass faded into tiny black particles, sand drifting into the wind, leaving the stainless silver of the blade naked upon the sill. The black-gloved hand holding it raised it up and near the owner's face.
Only the coffee-colored skin around his hazel eyes peeked from in between his black scarf and steel-rimmed hood as he took a second to examine the blade. He clinged seamlessly to the wall on the right side of the window, as if the fingers of his right hand and his feet were magnetized to it.
“I thought as much,” he said.
After a moment, he looked up at the sky behind him, scanning. Wind picked up and rippled through the hanging end of his scarf and fabric of his black and red gear.
“And so the game of chess begins.”