Take Up the Cross – CH1: Tomb of the First Emperor

Tip-toeing over trapped tiles, the lithe man, wearing a traveling cloak and ragged merchant’s robes, picks through a pile of bones and rubble with his foot. In dripping darkness, under hollowed-out stone, a flitterlight hanging from his neck reveals the characters chiseled into the floor before him.

Crumbs of bread lie behind in this narrow tunnel, marking the safe passage over the tiles, one step off path a certain demise by his reckoning. He is now sure of the tunnel’s destination, briefly stuck within as he marvels at the malice of the tomb’s builder.

In one hand, he holds a plain, poorly bound book with complicated characters filling its rough pages. His hand quickly thumbs between pages, searching for the ones which hold matching characters and definitions to those inscribed on the floor.

Eating bread with his other hand, he chuckles.

(The elemental siphon traps were easier. Serras could just destroy them.)

Not so with this pathway. A nearby mural had listed specific rules for crossing. Given the charred bones filling the hallway, of which there are both animal and human, the effectiveness of the trap is nearly foolproof. If triggered, all in the corridor will die.

(Trying to destroy it could potentially collapse the entire hall. Not to mention the mad fool built this complex branching from the barrow of his most dangerous enemy. Who knows what chaos a single blocked hallway could cause to the overall flow of [aura] down here?)

The location alone would dissuade discovery, as the First Emperor, uniter of Xin and its greatest tyrant, had laid a still-intact curse upon the lands of this former arch-rival. Adris can feel its effects creeping upon his [inner expanse], the interior world of an aura user’s body where his aura flows. The talismans he wears for protection are failing, many of them shriveled and turned useless over the two days spent within the complex.

If the flow of aura, the power contained within people and nature that is used to alter the world itself, was to suddenly warp and wildly manifest, the talismans could prematurely fail.

On a sure timetable to death, Adris has only a day before his body will begin to liquefy, degenerating into a formless amoeba comprised of corporeal aura. His mind, his favorite part, will be rendered insane by the transformation. The thought of shortening that timespan is disconcerting.

(One day is more than enough!)

While it would’ve been overlooked by others, Adris had seen the signs. The First Emperor was cruel and mischievous, indeed. The long stairway landing before the bottom-most levels was not an obvious place for a secret entrance, but his genius had discovered it.

Largely indefensible and offering little accommodation, the uninteresting landing bore litanies carved incorrectly into one of the statues, a desecration the First Emperor would’ve never permitted.

(It was a beautifully hidden door.)

Leading off from the landing, this lateral tunnel went far deeper into the earth, with the thickening of the air’s ambient aura proof of its worth and his ultimate goal.

Smiling at his own wit, Adris pokes the next tile, moving debris from it, when –

“We are running out of time.”

A deep, assertive female voice catches him off guard. As his footing suffers from the jolt of surprise, Adris uses his arms to regain balance, book and bread spread wide in the tunnel. The man looks over his shoulder at the stern, but beautiful, woman standing a tile behind.

Possessing flowing, black hair that mysteriously follows her body curves, the thin figure wearing a simple, dark-blue caftan has no emotion on her face, only her voice conveying her impatience. The tense hand on her curved sword and her black, almond-shaped eyes, narrowed at him in suspicion, indicate her doubts towards Adris’ progress.

“Serras, you can’t leap it. We’ll both die.” Adris smiles, stating what he had hoped was the obvious. “The trap specifically excludes it. You saw the characters, yeah? They’re the instructions for crossing.”

The woman, annoyed, leans in and asks, “If you’ve figured out the mural, then why is it taking so long? The Xin’Reh detachment High Benefactor Soldon sent cannot be far off.”

(Yes, a tricky thing, that detachment.)

Adris sighs, his mind lingering on the otherwise ignored threat. The Xin’Reh, elite soldiers of the existing imperial successor states, are truly elite in comparison to local, conscripted peasant garrisons. Soldon, the regent in charge of a nearby province, has likely sent his best cadre after the two of them.

(It shouldn’t be possible for that fat simpleton Soldon to know where we are, yet…)

Adris’ merry escape through the province had failed to throw off the hounds nipping at them.

“It’s likely that our pursuit has drawn the attention of a higher, ascended being.”

Adris accepts this off-hand explanation as the cause. Since ascended beings possess mysterious powers, and Soldon’s superior is such a being, feeding Soldon information from above this world would make lasting escape nigh impossible.

“The moment we ‘borrowed’ Soldon’s Treatise on Domination, it could be expected that he would cry to his master. Only someone interested in the First Emperor’s personal thoughts would want the book, as it was written by him.”

Adris frowns, narrowing his own eyes at Serras before continuing, “And since someone decided to destroy the west wing of Soldon’s estate, I can guess his interest is quite personal. We’ll be lucky if he kills us outright.”

(There are worse things than death that can happen to captured aura users.)

Serras curtly nods. “I had no other option. The destruction was minor, considering what I am capable of.” Showing rare interest, Serras uncivilly demands an explanation. “What does this trap even do?”

Adris’ eyes stare blankly at her in response, his frustration with her lack of care only hidden by the facade that is his winning smile.

(Minor only in comparison to your talents, not in effect.)

Adris quietly turns back to his book, flipping to a new page.

(You may have grown taller and stronger with age, my beautiful Serras, but wisdom is ever far off. In addition, your curiosity will kill us both.)

In the past year, she has grown ever more temperamental and violent. He’s seen her reduce men to limbs and chopped pieces for the slightest provocations, with still more simply disappearing to never be seen again, their ill comments towards her warrants for their silent deaths. Though he’d finally confronted her about it, telling her that her actions make it impossible to cover their tracks, it has done little to dissuade her blood lust.

(Haven’t we grown sadly distant?)

Adris lingers on the thought, before brushing it aside.

While Adris’ progress should be a grand victory for both of them, it is proving to be an unfulfilling expedition, with them hardly ever speaking civilly.

(No, speaking at all would be an improvement, given the past two weeks.)

Completely clearing the tile with his foot, carefully avoiding touching it, he is finally satisfied by his examination. Adris laughs and smiles, bringing Serras’ attention to him anew, as she expects her answer is forthcoming. Instead of giving one, Adris flips the book closed, stands up, and

moves across the tiles without looking at them, swaying in the manner of a lewd dancer, waving his arms while holding the bread and book, twisting and turning across the tiles.

Serras grips her sword, alert and helpless, as the lithe man dances his way easily across the trap tunnel to the door at the end.

Turning to her and clapping his own applause with objects still in hand, Adris takes a bow as Serras shakes, confused and angry at the display.

“A particularly cruel trap.” Adris begins his explanation, long after it was requested. “It starts as a guidance on the proper elevation of Power of Spirit, but it’s only an illusion. The real message of the trap is…”

As he moves his feet to dance in place, finishing the movement with a spin, he smiles widely.

“A fucking dance. It’s the Movement of Weaving Beauty. And the failure to dance it is… immolation.”

Closing her eyes, Serras opens them a moment later with an ignorant look.

“I was never instructed in this dance?”

(Of course not. It’s the dance of a whore before the consummate act. The last twirl before the pillow.)

The Emperor had pretended that the characters added up to an ascension poem, but the characters actually formed an esoteric vocal accompaniment to a dance. This difference became evident when the next characters were a choice between excellent moral choices or “a woman’s invitations to mortal embrace.” Any astute scholar would overlook those characters’ suggestion of carnal fondness, and instead choose a tile that represents certain doom.

[Power of Spirit], the aura training of elevating one’s spirit to rise above a mortal outlook and achieve a divine one, doesn’t include any such lewd inclinations in its pursuit away from human ignorance.

(Really explains the pile of human bones at this juncture of the hallway, doesn’t it? Victims of the asshole’s debauched joke.)

“It’s a bit esoteric.” Adris says, smiling inwardly. “Don’t worry. Follow these steps…!”

Adris explains the movements, enjoying the sight of his chilly and stoic childhood partner of over twenty years dancing like a woman of pleasure across the tiles, accompanied by Adris’ hands clapping the tempo. With only Adris’ neck light to illuminate her, the outline of her lithe body takes on an erotic flavor Adris sees never often enough. He offers his hand to her at the end of the trap, hoping the darkness hides any lewdness on his face.

“How was it?”

“Vile feeling.” Her response goes in hand with her eyes full of disgust, directed at Adris.

(Don’t concern yourself, I’d give you an eight out of ten, and a tip.)

Fighting back a feeling of arousal at the spectacle, Adris turns to face the door.

Its graven, solid form reflects the Conquest period of the Emperor’s reign. The martial pride etched into it is a memory of that warring era, and the Conquest style is architecture which reveres the act of killing.

Ornamentation and raised surfaces cast a strange shadow play, showing figures that are hidden unless revealed by light at the proper angle, a feature most people do not notice. The ideas of warring light and darkness reflected by the style are a dance, too, which hides the door’s locking mechanism: the etched temple door cut into the larger door itself.

The larger door’s border designs contain easy-to-read pictographs in metallic colors, offering the secret to the lock when dwelt upon.

Artistic scenes surrounding the characters convey important ideas to what, when the door was carved, had been a mostly illiterate public. This makes the pictographic characters seem unimportant to understanding the messages portrayed, effectively hiding the solution in plain sight.

(Aura users were rare in the Emperor’s time, presumably due to him culling them. Without the pursuit of aura as an offer of power, most people wouldn’t deign to learn to read.)

Adris remembers now the scholars’ many stories, detailing the Emperor’s love of martial conquest and his deification of rulership. His decision not to fund the scholars led to their wide denunciations of his rule and lineage, immortalizing his failures for all time. At least, according to them.

(“The temple door is the key, yet no intellect is locked within.”)

Adris snarks inwardly, remembering his disdain for the scholars of his cloistered youth, perhaps the one feeling he and the Emperor share.

Pressing on the temple door, however, reveals no mechanism. Instead, the temple door is just a part of the whole: a wall, and not a door.

(That’s new.)

Adris attempts to locate a secret switch, but can’t. He sweats a bit while Serras watches, before remembering her utility in such situations.

(She is the ultimate lock-pick, after all. And this “door” isn’t trapped, which means it’s… “fair game.”)

Turning to her, he smiles and offers his “solution.”

“This door is the final test. See here? The artwork depicting the soldier weathering the storm, only to then blow it away, is the key. Only someone with sufficient [Acuity of Mind] can open the door. I’m afraid that you, Serras, must prove your worth to the First Emperor using -”

Before he can finish, he’s moved out of the way by a stiff hand. The stern beauty brushes her hair back, then adopts a posture of a warrior preparing to draw her sword to slash.

Adris watches in fascination as transparent, almost milky, iridescent, scarlet fluid seems to collect on her now glowing body. It falls upwards like reverse rain drops to dissipate in the air. The air grows heavier than Adris can stand, as the walls seem to beat in time with an invisible heart.

Her hand extends to open facing the door; then, in only one breath, she pulls free her sword from its scabbard with a flash of death filling the tunnel. A serpent-like whip of pure, scarlet aura escapes the drawing cut. A stream like living lightning impacts on the door and disintegrates all it touches, as anything near the direct impact superheats before exploding into the room ahead.

Adris grimaces at the spectacle, pulled forward a bit with the wind itself as it rushes into the new room, the traveling wave so much stronger than it needed to be.

(As always, superb. Destroying a thick wall of granite with barely a few moments of circulation. With how much aura she expended, it’s always impressive to see such a mental strike issued so quickly.)

Acuity of Mind relates to techniques concerning the externalization of one’s aura, and these techniques require as much concentration as they do power.

Serras is a monster who can imagine the end of an opponent in mere moments.

Clapping her on the shoulder, Adris smiles broadly, the woman flinching at his action.

“Man, the Emperor might’ve expected anyone but you to show up. I think he might’ve given up his secrets willingly if he’d known you’d be the one knocking on his door.”

She doesn’t respond to his compliment, but Adris isn’t concerned. He is, however, slightly alarmed once her technique dissipates, as it is replaced by a huge outflow of ambient aura from the room ahead.

The thicker air is far more intoxicating than expected. Suddenly drunk on the rushing power, Adris thinks about how he’d found Serras after returning from his scouting expeditions.

Men, torn to shreds and hanging from trees.

His scouting had forced him to often separate from her, his efforts put into misleading oncoming patrols, driving them astray. When he would return, at least one body of a Xin’Reh scout was always discovered, brutally dispatched by a dispassionate beauty.

 

(Though, it’s odd that none bore Soldon’s colors.)

Adris pushes this thought aside.

 

Serras had resisted their trip to the tomb, even at the point of reaching it, saying that it was too dangerous. When they’d entered, she’d completely given in, all resistance and objections abandoned.

(But, it hardly seems dangerous with her along.)

Adris has handled most of the tomb’s traps with quick hands and eyes. Destroying walls and a few traps are Serras’ greatest contributions so far.

“The main chamber should be ahead!” Adris laughs, Serras’ only response a curt nod.

Adris’ waving flitterlight dimly illuminates the new room. Though detecting no danger in the outflow of power from the room, it still sets him on edge for an unknown reason.

Walking into this once-hidden procession hall, Adris now has not even a shred of doubt regarding the tomb’s owner.

The Conquest style is replaced by the Pinnacle style, the personal architecture of the Emperor and his direct line. Gold trim, jade carvings, and red markings bearing the Emperor’s family sigil cover every surface. The man, who was obsessed with name recognition, was vain, but his mastery of the play of light and shadow is superb.

Adris’ radiance creates specters on the room’s surfaces, bringing new horror to the long-dead place. If the Conquest style plays with shadows, then the Pinnacle style is like a puppeteer demonstrating a grand, terrifying spectacle.

The lack of prior entry into the room is proved by the dust everywhere, lingering clouds of particles thrown up by the previous conflagration. Along with it, the smell of old decay wrinkles Adris’ nose.

A small door at the end of the hall is their goal. To Adris’ left, he sees a lever set into the wall, the end of it cast in brass and in the shape of a great fireball.

Adris glances behind.

(… This must control the previous trap.)

Serras stares with impatience as he looks back. When Adris creeps forward to examine the room for dangers, his concentration is broken by Serras.

“What are you worried about, ‘partner?’ Wasn’t the door the final test?” His self-proclaimed partner whispers with uncharacteristic sarcasm, flecked with a hint of malice.

Adris can only grimace at the comment, before shrugging his shoulders and smiling.

The two enter cautiously, moving up the center of the procession path. The large, marble-tiled walkway in the center is flanked by headless statues of warriors, offering mute salute to those who walk underneath with long, faded banners held crossing overhead. This wide hallway has no apparent ceiling, only darkness overhead.

As they get halfway into the room, an unusual wind whips up, buffeting them and making the banners flap wildly, dry-rotted pieces of them tearing off with the sudden gust.

Serra’s blade is free in a moment, while Adris puts his back to hers and whips out a small pole that elongates into a full-length spear when turned. Serras’ eyes dart around, searching the shadows for enemies.

She grows tense with her inability to locate the danger, before calming a bit when Adris pats her back with five fingers, then raps her twice with his knuckles.

 

[Five enemies, both sides of the hall.]

 

Adris has already extended his aura senses using his Power of Spirit, eliminating the need for eyes and ears. He now feels the leak of the enemy’s aura as they move. When the entities begin to close in, Adris is shocked, rapidly striking Serras’ back with a hand gesture he has only used once before.

Serras goes rigid with recognition, then excites visibly as her aura is let to flow without limit, no worry of waste for the coming confrontation. Adris considers voiding his bladder at the despair of his own discovery.

(Memories chained by a total madman.)

 

A strangled groan and a chortling cacophony fill the room, as their enemies notice Adris’ perception of them now, their hostility peaked by being spied upon.

(The Emperor’s tomb guards are tortured revenants, unliving bodies of those who failed their ascensions!)

 

A flash of light fills the chamber, then Adris hears Serras move.

The shining, rising slash doesn’t advance onward, though Adris hears a thud from a furry, boned creature’s knees impacting the ground before her.

Her body crouches low after this technique, allowing a lightning-fast spear to clear her head as Adris vaults over her, plunging into the creature at the spot of Serras’ deep cut into its flesh. The spear punctures its aura core, the central spot where aura circulates within an inner expanse, and then the spearhead radiates the aura technique Adris had primed it with.

Blades of energy erupt out of the creature, its juicy insides spraying out around it.

Serras rolls to Adris’ side as he lands, her body narrowly avoiding two creatures with bladed arms, their weapons awash with lightning and fire, respectively. She turns from her roll, rising with an enormous wave of shaking aura blowing out from her blade, washing over and lifting the creatures up, flinging them back into the darkness.

As they fly, Adris twists his spear before removing it, fully destroying the core of the creature they struck together. With the spearhead freed, the monster falls to the ground while gushing ephemeral fluids onto the stone floor, its wound somehow gasping in agony.

With the three creatures temporarily dealt with, Serras faces the entry door while Adris faces their destination, backs to each other once more. Adris examines the struck enemy, revealing it to be a mass of flesh with mystical characters carved into it.

While its aura core bleeds out, the dying creature struggles to right itself even with its death evident, clutching its wound to hold back the tide.

The vaguely humanoid shape more closely resembles a living tree made of bone and stone, thick skin left to be covered in mossy fur.

 

The sentience that drives it…

(Cannot be a brain.)

For the creature has no head.

 

Adris also notes that the monstrosity is rough in many spots, decayed and in disrepair. The passage of time is possibly these creatures’ true enemy, potentially reducing their original strength considerably.

Being pulled back into the fight, Adris hears Serras tap her right foot. He instinctively shifts right, facing the statues along the side wall. Behind him, he feels an unknown force circulate a massive quantity of aura from above, likely from on top of a statue. Adris’ body feels liquid then, a hostile technique washing through him and forcing him to grit his teeth to resist passing out, as he struggles to correct the flow of his internal expanse.

(High level! My insides will escape!)

The excruciating pain ceases when the room grows colder. Adris feels his partner activate a technique of her own, forcing an inferior one from her area at the same time. Adris has no time to consider her next movement, as a monster larger than the headless one rushes out toward him from between the shadows of two statues.

Looking like an ape with four arms and two legs, this tortured body with nightmarish legs made of its own mummified, internal organs trundles at full speed towards Adris.

He feels a sinister aura from the sword-like tips of the creature’s appendages, purple flames licking off the blades.

Knocking the ground three times with the butt of his spear, Adris then pulls a charm from his robe, rubbing the six-sided gem against his spear. As it dissolves like sugar dipped in water, the spearhead becomes electrified.

Adris lunges forward to intercept the monster, but the blow is deflected by sweeping arms, as Adris predicted. Arcing lightning meets fire, the shock of the resulting clash stalling the creature’s charge, allowing Adris to retreat to his original position.

A green flash lights up the room, accompanied by a winter chill. Adris is confident that the west wall has been consumed by near-permanent ice. The creature he is facing ignores this and resumes its charge.

Adris’ shaft deflects the first strike, and his impaling counter-attack is met by its own parry, as it blindly seeks to close the distance to rend into him from zero range. When its claws come in all at once with its large body following, Adris leaps upwards with all of his might.

The creature strikes empty ground, looking up after to follow a sky-borne Adris, attempting to use its advantage to catch him on the way down.

A flowing blade emerges from thin air. Serras brings down her sword with both hands, no care for guile, entrusting the strike to overpowering strength. The creature’s fatal mistake is perfectly capitalized on by Adris’ partner.

The glowing-blue sword shines like the Sea of Stars, the only sea of Xin, as it mows through the creature’s hasty block. Accompanied by a phantasmal sound of ocean spray, the monster’s haphazard defense ends in a bisecting explosion, the titanic strike sending chunks of dessicated flesh into the darkness behind the statues.

Landing adeptly on Serras’ shoulders, Adris looks to the entry door to see the twin creatures of fire and lightning closing on them once more. The creatures begin to circulate hostile techniques as Adris leaps back into the air, facing them.

(Too late, bastards.)

Adris grins, pulling out a brown ball and crushing it in his hand. Dust erupts and surrounds his body. Rearing back with his spear in his left hand, Adris’ muscles grow thick like cord wood, as he combines a body aura technique with his own weapon. The dusty air becomes a perch, his body moving like a whip as he winds up his spear.

 

“My wife takes flight!” Adris screams, dumping half of his total aura reserves into the spear’s point.

 

([Piercing Death].)

 

The spear screams like a shrill bird as it flies inexorably toward its target, closing on the wight at the front of the charge. The creature feels it coming, uncertain whether to dodge or deflect, and then chooses to intercept it with its bladed arm to knock it wide.

(Perfect. Good game.)

The spear is redirected by the curving blade arm, but not to the right side of the creature, as it intended. Instead, it spirals to its left with a snake-like twist, impaling itself in the chest of the creature’s ally behind it.

The first revenant looks back, stunned, to see its ally erupt into ichor and gore as the impaling spear manifests an aura explosion. The spectral blades and residual lightning nearly kill it outright.

Turning back towards Adris to seek revenge, the single, blinded torso eye of the revenant is instead confronted by a phantasmal killer from the dark.

Rushing darkness forms into a bladed assassin that pierces it through its eye. At the same time, a shadow also in the shape of this assassin flies towards the nearly dead monster bearing Adris’ spear, cleaving it in half before vanishing, expertly destroying its aura core and ending it rightly.

The bloated eye of the creature Serras is stabbing pops as she pulls her blade out.

She turns away from it, her victim motionless, before a dozen shadows emerge from the darkness to follow her attack.

These phantom assailants carve up the monster and the floor itself, sending the chunks end-over-end into the entry door of the hallway, spilling over into the trap hall. Adris lands in time to watch an immense flash from the hall disintegrate the pieces that land within.

The entire walkway in front of Serras is a spray of ichor.

Walking up while drenched in sweat, but trying to appear casual, Adris plucks his own spear from the bisected corpse of his opponent. The adrenaline and loss of aura leaves his head buzzing. He sniffs the air, smelling the odor of burnt meat from the trap hall.

“Serras, you just destroyed our trail! Those bread crumbs are ash, now! What am I supposed to do, dance backwards?” Adris falsely complains at first, then tries to level off the complaint with his joke. “Do you like seeing me shake my ass that much?”

Serras looks unamused, dark even, as she ignores the joke. As the only other creature in the room dies with a pathetic death rattle, Serras’ sword briefly glows red, evaporating the gore on it. Adris automatically flicks his own spear, throwing off the partially wet ichor, before reducing its size and sheathing it.

As he uncomfortably waits for a response, she simply walks off, moving back toward their entry point to gaze within it.

(Do we not even have time for humor anymore? It’s not as if I can’t throw the lever.)

Adris thinks back on older days. When forced to kill together, his levity after the fact has always brought some release from it. He and she have often had only each other to lean on in the aftermath, his voice a balm for their tiredness.

Walking down the hallway and concentrating on her handiwork, he is a bit worried by his discovery. A great sheet of green ice has overtaken the entire wall, sealing a disgusting lifeform within. The technique only thaws with the absolute death of its drained victim.

(In and of itself, that is normal. What is not is its potency.)

The extra aura in the air is causing the green ice to expand as it’s absorbed.

(She shouldn’t be using this within the thick, ambient energy of this tomb. It could grow without end, sealing us inside.)

“All in all, hardly a threat. Even monsters like that aren’t much on ice! Though I wouldn’t use more of it…” Adris cheerfully boasts, waving his hand towards Serras contribution. She looks back at him while standing next to the trap tunnel, then glances at the ice.

Examining the ichor and destruction in the room, Serras shows a displeased face again, lips tight and jaw clenched.

(What is this? The one who likes violence is you, right…?)

Adris is discouraged, unable to get even a retort from her. Always unhappy with his words, but ever silent to them, Adris is no longer capable of getting the woman he’s fought by his entire adult life to respond to his jests. She barely even listens to his suggestions, now. The year-long trek to discover the Emperor’s inheritance has bleached the last joy from their partnership. The last time he held her was… weeks ago.

Adris focuses on the thick aura flowing from the antechamber ahead. Even more pronounced than the rapture of Serras’ own aura during her childhood awakening, the ambient air in the burial complex is energizing and lingering.

Passively absorbing it as he walks, his peculiar body constitution helps him to recover from the great expenditure of his relatively meager aura. He thinks about Serras, who has no such ability, and wonders if she has saved enough of her energy for the possible dangers ahead.

His drunkenness increases as he continues forward, scouting out the hallway himself before letting Serras follow…

Entering the dark hallway, Adris’ light barely illuminates the walls, much less ahead.

(That was a hell of an awakening. Even Fatso was dumbstruck.)

It’s an ancient memory.
Old memories are surfacing in this buried tomb, the shadows playing about him now bringing to the surface things Adris rarely recalls.

In their childhood, Adris had been Serras’ impromptu teacher; her, his first pupil, and also his only hope for survival. The fat bastard that had owned them both had given him a year and a day to awaken her to [clear mind], the mental state reached when one becomes perfectly serene and wrenches free their own aura, giving it form for the first time and allowing development.

(How bizarre it is, to define myself by the most hellish time in my life? Nothing has ever been like those days.)

Adris had possessed no real options then, other than to direct his sense of urgency at the young, mute Serras. Other instructors had beaten their students into submission or formed longer-term trusts to help them cultivate. Adris was forced to make Serras dependent on him in every way in order to forcibly gain her trust.

Their tempos had fused into one during that year. With her a brute even at that age, she’d awakened incredible power only with equally brutal efforts. Fatso, their purported overseer, had inculcated in Adris one talent: manipulating others to his own ends, using their weaknesses and strengths equally.

They had achieved enormous success as a false family, but only Serras and he had remained together: one body and mind, but increasingly distant hearts.

(To go from total strangers to family is… completely odd.)

Even for Adris, who was already missing something important as a human when Fatso had picked him up, their whirlwind youth seems strange to reflect on. Which is why they never do.

Adris had made steep promises, and told her of awful horrors for her failure. He’d protected her from other students seeking revenge. Had taken her place for beatings, both real and imaginary. Fatso had given Adris free reign and ample support to motivate her, as long as the process showed results.

They’d survived and escaped, even after being forced to kill: him, by necessity; her, out of perhaps anger.

(The air smells like then, when she killed Fatso.)

There had been little left of the corpse when Adris had arrived, only Serras standing drenched in blood in a tent painted red. Adris’ own arm was dripping the life of the other instructor, Fatso’s rival. He’d always wondered what had transpired between the two.

She’d borne no signs of assault, and had never spoken of that night.

Not even while drinking would she relax enough to remember it, except to say that he’d never touched her.

Neither of them have ever really been liberated from the heaviness of those murders, even though they escaped the Xin’Reh detachment thanks to them. Not even killing later, for survival, could push that night from his nightmares. He’d never wanted Serras to have to kill Fatso.

That was Adris’ ambition.
Fatso and he had agreed on that, a private matter between gentlemen.

In the end, the battle in the statue room is just another feather in their caps. Even something as horrifying as aura revenants can be overcome through Serras’ power and his support.

 

(“Serras is the sword; Adris is the hand that guides the sword.”)

Adris replays a line from his memories, spoken to him so often, and repeated even more times than forced on him, that it is like a religious rite, even now.

 

Look out for her.
Take care of her.
Think ahead for her.
Keep others from finding out about her.

Without her-

 

Adris is brought out of his deep thoughts by abruptly reaching a closed door. Surprised, he turns, startled to find that Serras is behind him, gazing at him with a haunted look. Shaking her head, she returns to her imperceptible, stoic face.

He sighs, tired from the stress of his thoughts.

(Isn’t the stress close by?)

 

The thought that comes to him… he buries.

 

Getting over his shock of zoning out from the aura drenching him, he discovers the door is a typical temple lock. The door frees itself with great difficulty when he presses the mechanism. Pushing open the heavy stone door, the exposed room beyond is lit for the first time in over four centuries. Within the room, as Adris swears he hears whispers subside, is…

… a complete lack of opulence.

While the earlier chamber was ornate and priceless, this one’s spartan nature makes the procession hall seem like a sick joke. Its architecture is unfinished, imprecise stonework, and the only thing of worth in the room is a sarcophagus made entirely of an agate. Its short, fifteen-foot roof frames the eighty-square-foot room, the sarcophagus at the edge of a radial wall face beginning halfway in.

“Empty.” Says Serras behind him, with almost a growl. “Destroyed.”

Adris is forced to concur, scanning the room for traps as he also surveys the wreckage. The top of the sarcophagus is missing from it, chunks of it strewn about the room. The walls are scored and crumbling in spots.

The thick aura is obviously leaking from the open sarcophagus, so thick that the air itself forms a wavering cloud above the place of internment. Only a simple meditation circle in the center of the room is safe from the unknown carnage.

As for personal effects? There are none.

The Emperor who had loved women, food, opulence, and bloodshed was buried with neither finery nor funerary gifts. Not even the massacred dead, which Adris had always secretly believed the Emperor would choose to be damned forever with, are to be found here.

Believing the room free of traps, Adris sneaks up to the sarcophagus itself, while Serras stays at the entrance. He peers into the ripped sarcophagus…

A fully preserved body, wrapped in fabric, lies in its original state of internment. The cloth has survived the passage of time, suffering no degradation. The only contents apart from the body are an adjustable mask which covers the eyes and forehead, and a silver cross on top of its chest, its gleaming form embedded with four gems, one at each arm.

Adris picks up the cross and mask, pocketing the strange silver mask as he looks over the cross.

The flowing aura brings to realization the reason for the carnage.

“There was too much, it had nowhere to escape to.” Adris blurts out. Examining the body reveals it is safe, he continues speaking while working, “The preserved body retained all of its aura within the fossilizing internal expanse. Over time, leakage built up…”

Adris laughs uneasily. He’d expected an inheritance, but this is…

(Serras is like a shallow pool in comparison.)

Adris boggles at the discovery. No feeling before this one could have prepared him for the shock he feels now. As though an ant has crept upon a god’s bed, Adris cannot find adequate words to describe the immense impression lashing at his mind as he stares down.

(This sea of authority, even if only a fraction of it can be reclaimed, would make her substantially stronger.)

When Adris began seeking the Emperor’s tomb after the rumor shared by his over-the-hill adorer Lady Yehrlis, a self-purported, direct descendant of the Emperor’s lineage, he’d had little to go on but the novel idea that the Emperor had hidden his tomb within an enemy’s territory.

Serras had considered it an idiotic pursuit when he’d approached her, and vigorously attempted to dissuade him… but his subtle manipulations in secret had turned up priceless information. The months taken, and the small fortune spent, to discover the first clue had pissed Serras off so much that she couldn’t talk; but, their joint conversation with the scholar whose debts Adris had repaid lightened her attitude.

(Even I was surprised to discover they’d buried him alive as some sort of plot.)

Adris grins wryly. The scholar had said that the Emperor laying before Adris had been interred alive, spells and tinctures used to preserve him for all time. Clues had taken Adris through multiple hostile temples, the last one being the Solar Ire sect, a hated foe. Serras had been forced to break him out after he’d been captured.

“Soldon had a priceless artifact, yeah?” Adris speaks at Serras as he recollects.

High Benefactor Soldon, the foremost collector of the Emperor’s artifacts, was a backwater regent, so getting in and out of his mansion was easy.

(Though it was…)

Strange how Serras didn’t show up at the meeting place, even though she’d annihilated most of the mansion and the situation was quite desperate. Instead, she’d sent word from outside of town on where to meet up.

(Then again, she’s been oddly paranoid for years. Perhaps it’s good that she’s being more cautious?)

Adris examines the cross in the light coming from his neck.

Serras has never appreciated his way of life. When Adris smooth talks people and back stabs those who cross them, she historically would protest.

At first, Adris thought it was a good thing, that the girl might have some principles greater than his own. He’d been secretly proud of her. When he was forced to carry out his deeds with more guile and surreptitious carefulness, he’d been surprised by the way she changed throughout their partnership. She grew…

(Ever more brutal.)

Bile is in Adris’ mouth as he considers how easy cruelty comes to her, even when she had been a child. Since she has always been strong, growing older never had a chance of changing her. Unlike Adris, who can pretend subservience, Serras has always been slow on words and fast to cut, seeing no point in manipulating others.

She simply assigns them to “right” and “wrong.”

Adris hasn’t been able to change this stance, forced to watch her kill, but…

(How can I oppose it? I’m no saint.)

Adris smirks, gazing longingly at the cross.

While he rarely kills for gain when other options present, there is no harm in taking pleasure from ruining evil men. In fact, he takes pride in being an accomplished sinner and a professional liar. After all, he is manipulating them for Serras’ benefit, first and foremost.

If he enjoys it and personally profits, it’s simply a bonus.

Their differences in lifestyle are a topic they never discuss. They’d never agreed on how they should live, in the first place.

 

They are simply together, and always will be.

 

It is strange, for Adris, to think that he has been the driving force for retrieving the Emperor’s remains, considering he will not be using them.

(All I want is for us to be able to live openly.)

If Serras is strong enough, then they won’t need to hide. In fact, they can simply hire on with a powerful faction and live a relatively easy life.

She’d opposed him at first, but he’d roped her in, as always.

(In the end, I was right. This year has become immensely profitable.)

Adris smiles contentedly, as giving Serras a proper gift after all these years of lean times will feel quite delectable. When she takes the inheritance for herself, she’ll never have to be afraid of anyone.

He puts the silver cross in the inner pocket of his robe, deciding to keep it as his prize. Finishing the inspection, he prepares to call back to Serras.

 

Slamming his hand on the sarcophagus hard, he loudly says,

“No problem~! With materials like these, anyone could become stronger, maybe even stronger than you, Serras~!” He lets a little sarcasm out to lighten the mood.

 

His back hairs suddenly stand on end

 

as he automatically flings himself at the far left wall, mustering all of the aura in his body to defend against an attack that slices through the skin at the right of his chest.

 

In mid flight, he flips around to stare back at his previous spot.

 

A sword is thrust lazily through empty air.

A beautiful, emotionless face with black, gleaming, full-length hair is turned towards him, watching his flight.

 


 

Characters:

Name: Adris fehl Dain
Race: Xin’El, Emperor’s Child (Human)
Sex: Male
Age: 3*

Occupation: Charlatan/Swindler; Xin’Reh (former); Soldier of Fortune; Bounty Hunter
Discipline: Spear Veteran; Aura Warrior, School/Specialization: Self-Taught

Powers:

[Piercing Death] – “Produces blade-like aura at the point of penetration, destroying a creature from the inside. Of no use if you can’t hit, it’s a mortally wounding strike, otherwise.”

[Tool Savant] – “Adris is a tool-collecting-and-utilizing fanatic. Most men would consider him disgusting for loving tools more than his own partner.”

Disposition: Deplorable / Adaptable / Sarcastic
Alignment: Chaotic

Eyes: Black
Hair: Black, with strands of White
Skin: Tanned

Statistics:

R-Value – “Please load additional feature.”

Beauty:

C-Value – “If all men looked like him, it might not be odd for women to think that the gods had painted the world in only the drab color brown? While not ugly, would he not exemplify the idea that ‘normal’ is perhaps indistinguishable from ‘undesirable’?”

Description:

“A rather plain-looking man wearing traveling robes, what he carries hidden is far more dangerous than his appearance lets on. A disarming smile, leads to you being suckered. A clever tongue, leads to your sorrow. Possessing quick wit and intellect, hubris and arrogance are certain to follow. Well known across the floating islands of Xin, but not by name, only by reputation. Owed many favors, but not with great joy, and certainly not love. The only person he seems to care about other than himself is his lifelong partner.”

Commentary:

“Surely this is the protagonist. Or did I mix him up with the antagonist? It might be a bit odd, but he is surely the focus of the story from the perspective of the reader. Neither devil nor saint, he’s consistently Adris. Perhaps that should be his alignment, instead… Though the author might borrow the name, this character is considered to be the epitome of what the author would not do, so please enjoy his suffering.”


Name: Serras fehr Almet
Race: Xin’El, Emperor’s Child (Human)
Sex: Female
Age: 3*

Occupation: Manslayer; Xin’Reh (former/disavowed); Soldier of Fortune; Bounty Hunter
Discipline: Sword Warlord; Aura Warrior, School/Discipline: Self-Taught

Disposition: Chilling / Hateful / Nostalgic
Alignment: Chaotic

Eyes: Black
Hair: Shining Black
Skin: Tanned

Powers:

[Unnamed Techniques] – “Serras has mastered many annoyingly powerful techniques over her lifetime, though I wonder if she’ll ever thank the person who helped her do it?”

Statistics:

R-Value – “Please load additional feature.”

Beauty:

C-Value – “Her beauty is perhaps like the lingering and deathly frostbite of a frozen winter night? While you might seek out her slender, yet womanly, body, mayhaps all you shall taste is the dirt? Unless your name is Adris, in which case you still might taste your own blood? A solid, desirable nightmare clad in flesh, like moths, men are drawn, but is it the beauty that calls to them or the hatred underneath…? Is it any wonder that she has never married?”

Description:

“A cold beauty who rejects pleasantries, she seems more committed to her blade than to belonging to humanity. Why she follows Adris can be explained by the tortuous path their relationship has taken to reach the tomb they are in. Though they fight like more than siblings, and have committed to the future together, perhaps there’s more to be said and little time to say it? If Adris is the brains, then Serras is surely… The only person she seems to care about other than herself is, oh… nevermind.”

Commentary:

“Surely she is the primary heroine! Haven’t you always wanted a heroine that stabs first and asks questions later? No? What, she’s moe, ain’t she!? I’ll fucking murder you, you little piece of-!”

Glossary:

Flitter Light – “ Relatively cheap aura tool which uses contained aura to produce a light that is invisible to anyone without at least marginal aura sensitivity.”

Inner Expanse – “The interior world of an aura user, where the techniques they claim reside in, and where their aura circulates around in. It can be best understood as being a mental body overlapping their physical one.”

Xin – “World of the main character’s origin. A broken, floating continent contained within the clouds that never part. A place where aura reigns, and life is harsh.”

Xin’El – “The people of Xin. Of them, the two mentioned are the Emperor’s Children (unmentioned, but comprising the populace of the Emperor’s domains) and the Southern Barbarians, who reside more towards the great torch sun and live in warmer lands.”

First Emperor – “The true lord of Xin, the uniter of all Xin’El, and the absolute tyrant of a long-lost period. Nobody recalls his name, and for that, we should be grateful.”

Aura – “The power of the world of Xin. A strength obtained by reaching out to the environment and allowing the secrets of the world into your own body. Allows the user to produce many strange and supernatural effects. Decides the person’s place in the world, as only the strongest users of aura can be said to be secure.”

Clear Mind – “The mental state reached when one becomes perfectly serene and wrenches free their own aura, giving it form for the first time and allowing them to utilize it. This is the first thing a prospective aura user must achieve.”

Power of Spirit – “The discipline of training related to the soul, of which Adris is proficient. The aura training of elevating one’s spirit to rise above a mortal outlook and achieve a divine one, so as to grow in ability.”

Acuity of Mind – “The discipline of training related to externalizing power, of which Serras is a master of. Techniques related to the externalization of one’s aura, requiring as much concentration as they do power.”

High Benefactor Soldon – “The foremost collector of the Emperor’s artifacts, and the man that Adris and Serras rolled over to obtain the book needed to find the tomb.”

Aura Revenant– “Undead-like creatures created by the mixing of two great fetishes: failing to properly ascend in power, and corpse repurposing for tomb guarding. They have all of their powers in mortal life, plus unyielding bodies that fear no death. If they were not in disrepair, not even Serras could’ve beaten them.”

Silver Cross and Mask – “The last possessions of the First Emperor. These must be of minor importance.”

Spear Veteran – “One whose capacity with the spear relates not to developed raw talent, but rather to constant life and death struggle with the weapon. If you use a weapon for long enough in combat, congratulations, you’ve survived for a reason. Often self-taught, these veterans make use of any dirty trick and technique at their disposal to live another day longer.”

Sword Warlord – “One whose capacity with the sword extends beyond mere talent, merging with plentiful combat and duel experience to become a force on the battlefield. Unlike saints, who receive proper instruction, warlords are often self-taught or of poor instructors, consigned to survive by equal parts developed talent, and a veteran fighter’s developed guile and intuition.”

 

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