By Captain Raynor
Conkram Kingdom jutted from the surrounding countryside like a mirage; it was a city too beautiful to be real. White marble glistened in the sunlight of early afternoon, dappled with the violet shadows, ever moving, of tree leaves swaying, brushing over eachother and whispering secrets as birdsong punctuated their soft music, chittering ups and downs of gorgeous melody. A dog yapped at the baker's door. Children played in the streets and shouted at eachother, marbles clacking inside shoe-string circles. Citizens strolled the cobblestones, toiling pleasantly beneath the heat of a fresh day.
With little warning, a trumpet screamed for attention and shattered the paperthin tranquility. The children quieted. The faces of the citizens grew ashen. The dog was shushed and the birds flew away.
With a creaking of old hinges and a muttering of protesting wood, Conkram's mighty oaken gates swung slowly open. Unexpressibly unwelcome, a horse-drawn cart entered the city; broad, ridden with the stench of decay and old meat. Flies followed it and buzzards circled overhead. The children retreated inside, frightened of the contrast. The small dog ran forward to sniff at a bloody, cold arm hanging nearly to the ground, slipped roguishly from the stained tarp covering the rest of the bodies held inside. One of the drivers flung an applecore at it and the animal squeeled, dashing away. The cart slunk past the marble with its burden and towards the morgue.
Just as it did every day.
For longer than anyone could even remember.
Cort wasn't sure how long the church had stood there. The looming structure, a cacophony of raucous marble swirls, looming white buttresses, stained glass reaching to the God they'd been built in the name of, had all been there since. . . well, it seemed since the world had been created. And if that wasn't the case, than it didn't matter to Cort. Because the cathedral had stood since before he'd been born. And in the young man's mind, the world hadn't really begun until then.
Cort shuddered at the call. It was a summon and a reminder all at the same time. Features just as cold as the church's marble walls, he stood stately and slow from the pew he'd been sitting in and turned around to face the dark-haired boy running towards him.
The coloured light filtered through the tall windows and flash flooded Gi Delilas in brilliant squares of mosaic illumination. He squinted intermittently as he huffed along, throwing a wink to Cort as the stately seventeen year old eyed his approach.
"Gi, you enter a room like a whirlwind," Cort muttered, stepping into the aisle, throwing a last look towards the alter at the church's front. Gi grinned at him, screeching to a halt and panting.
"Sorry. Master says I should run as much as possible, it's good for my lungs."
"Master Dohati should follow his own advice, he's as fat as a roast turkey. I love watching him demonstrate techniques to you, it's like watching a cow trying to do ballet."
Gi chuckled, throwing his hands in the pockets of his tunic and leaning back on the heels of his boots. His brown hair fell before his reddish eyes and he blew it away with a few impatient puffs from his bright lips. "Don't ever let him hear you talking like that, Prince. He'll tell the King and have you made one of his students."
"Hmph. The Crown Prince of Conkram a student of the mortal techniques? Uncouth to say the least, "Cort scoffed, "You know I'm more interested in the sciences, in Seru studies. Scholarly pursuits, more befitting royalty."
"Aw, stuff it. You know if your dad would allow it you'd be training alongside Lu, Che, and I. Don't try your sour grapes stuff on me, Prince, I'm your best friend, I know you better than you know yourself."
Cort smirked at his friend, winking his green eye and peering at Gi with the other violet one. Crossing his arms and beginning to amble down the aisle of the deserted, quiet church, he muttered, "You're not as smart as you think you are, Gi."
"Oh, you're right. I'm smarter." Gi ran up and popped his friend a good one in the shoulder, then skipped forward towards the church's exit, his lithe form swallowed by the harsh light pouring in from outside, "Now c'mon, Doom'n Gloom, your dad wants you. And he didn't sound too happy when he told me to fetch you. I think you're in trouble."
"What?" Cort looked up and blinked innocently, "You don't think he found out what I did to the kitchen, do you? I thought I hid the explosion quite well."
"I don't know, Prince, "Gi called mischievously, "I think he's just sore because you've been in here praying since ten this morning. That's what. . . four hours? You know your dad gets tired of your bible-beating. You should be boning up on your fencing or something more. . . princely, I don't know. You're always in this damned church kneeling at the alter. Princes don't kneel. Well, they shouldn't, I didn't think..."
Cort shrugged, following his friend outside, his hands in his pockets, his silvery hair falling before his eyes. Gi watched him suspiciously, staying at his side as they approached the magnificent main palace of Conkram Kingdom. The breathtakingly beautiful structure rose before them as though carved from a mountain and, as it always managed to, it intimidated the crap out of Gi. He and his brother and sister had lived in the palace since they were small children, taken in as orphans with the purpose of being trained as Royal bodyguards, but still, he never quite felt right living there. He always felt like a stray dog someone had taken pity on one day, only tolerated because he kept the burglars away. Hmph. In a way, that was the case.
Shaking off the thoughts, Gi turned to Cort with a firm question at the corner of his mouth. "Prince, "he began softly, "What do you pray for all the time?"
"Hmm?" Cort looked up, his own train of thoughts interrupted. He blinked slowly, then smiled at his friend with slightly saddened eyes, "Oh, I don't know. Mainly I pray that the war with Sol will end. But you know, Gi, I'm not always praying inside there. Mainly I'm taking lessons from Zeto. He's teaching me of all sorts of things; of Uru Mais, and Seru-kai, and Genesis Trees. He's teaching me how it all ties in with Tieg. He's convinced I'm going to ascend to the throne as a pious man and bring the cult of Riem back to its proper place in the Conkram hierarchy. He's batty, but I tolerate him. He does know a lot of useful things. He and Jette must be the smartest men in the kingdom. Well, next to the King, of course."
"Of course, "Gi replied automatically, but then his voice softened into a more conversational wave of friendliness. "Speaking of Seru, Prince, do you. . . do you buy into that belief that God sent the Seru to help mankind? To, ah. . . give them an edge?"
"Belief?" Cort asked, cocking his head to one side, "It isn't a matter of believing. It's just. . . the fact of the matter. Seru are a gift from God. A sign of His love for us, His ultimate creations. Though we people waste those sublime gifts horribly, eh?"
"Well, I don't know about that, "Gi said uneasily, balking a bit at the tone of serious anger in his friend's voice, "I mean, in Octam they use them usefully, and my own Seru, heh, I can really do some damage with it on." Gi patted the bulky creature melded to his left arm and grinned, doing a little pose and ending it with a mock punch to Cort's jaw that the young Prince didn't even acknowledge with a blink. "It's like anything else. Seru are just as useful or just as pointless as whoever they're attached to. They're just weapons, Prince, nothing more."
Cort shrugged and replied, "I don't care. But I won't wear one, not unless there's a real use for it. People walk around and lift rocks because they're wearing Seru. Just "because they can". That's wrong, squandering the gifts of God. Zeto says how wrong it is and I believe it. If the people of the world keep being so wasteful, one day, God may just decide to take the Seru back."
"I doubt God cares, "said Gi wryly, "If anything, he's probably more concerned with the way we're all blowing each other to pieces in this war. Quit giving yourself more things to fret over, Prince. It isn't good for you. That Zeto, he's a little nuts, always going around condemning us all for our Seru. I'd like to strap a Seru around his mouth and get him to shut up."
Cort laughed lightly, turning his eyes up the sky, grimacing as the white heat of the sun baked the top of his head. "He is a pompous old man, "he agreed, "But he has a point sometimes. I don't know, Gi, sometimes this world just seems damned strange. With the war raging, people dying, casualty lists as long as I am tall coming in everyday. . . you have to wonder what we're all doing wrong."
Gi didn't answer, he couldn't think of anything worthwhile to say. It was no lie, the horrors of war were truly wicked. But he was used to them. The war had been raging since before either of them had been born, it was something they'd grown up with. He could remember his nanny tucking him in at night and whispering that General Gaza would come and cut him up if he didn't go right to sleep. War was his reality. Cort's too. Gi just didn't understand why his friend let it all eat him up inside so badly. Maybe growing up as Prince, hearing the gruesome details discussed everyday by his royal mother and father over dinner, hearing the numbers of soldiers killed that week tossed around as though it were nothing. . . Gi imagined after long enough, it would start to eat away at him too. Or make him cold to it, turn his heart to ice. Sometimes, with the way Cort talked, Gi wasn't sure which was the case.
"Well, I'm rather dirty from my exercises, "he said suddenly, noticing they were at the main doors of the palace. He gave a grin to Cort who only looked up briefly from his ponderings and offered a half-hearted smile. "I'm off to clean up and get something to eat. Don't let the King chew you out too badly about your spending so much time with Zeto in the church, Prince, I just think he worries about you. You are pale as anything, your grace. A little sun, a little sparring might do you good."
"Gi, you'd mop the floor with me, "Cort said with a grin, "But don't worry about my father. I'm not."
"Heh. All right. I'll see you after Dinner at services. Fare thee well until then, my liege."
Gi bowed as was customary, then skipped away, running as usual, off to find his siblings. Cort watched him go for a moment, then sighed, clasped his slender hands behind his back, and entered the Palace.
"Four hours, Cort, four hours. I'm not sure if you've realised it yet, but people talk. It's unbefitting that the Crown Prince of Conkram should spend so much of his time in tutelage under someone as, as. . . " King Nebular closed his eyes and searched for the most tactful word, "Zealous as your friend Zeto. He's a strange, questionable man who has only befriended you because of your position."
Cort stood respectfully straight, eyes forward, and nodded at his father's words. Nebular watched him and frowned, rubbing his proud chin with two thick fingers. It was a harsh thing to say, but Cort needed to learn how important it was to watch who ones friends were when one was royalty. "I cannot forbid you from going to him during your days, Cort, but I must say that if you don't begin to cut back on your time spent with Zeto, I may have to consider sending you to Drake Kingdom for a spell. King Drake has expressed his willingness on more than one occasion to tutor you in the finer sciences. You could spend your time with his professors, studying the water."
"That sounds delightfully fun, "Cort muttered, still staring forward. Nebular frowned at the rebellious words and crossed his arms, pacing the length of the Palace's gorgeously adorned throne room with loud steps.
"I'm just trying to help you, "he said, attempting to keep his voice friendly instead of strict, "Your mother and I worry about you. Your experiments and your genius make us quite proud, I'm not sure you know how much but, Cort. . . we just ask that you put your intellect towards more wholesome pursuits than Seru study."
"Weapons development for instance. Jette is even now working with scientists from Octam and Jeremi to develop new offences for the royal army. Jette is very optimistic about some of their research so far." Cort frowned deeply and turned his eyes to the ground, causing Nebular to approach him in concern, placing a fatherly hand on his son's proud shoulder. "I know that the war concerns you, Cort, "he said lowly, low enough so that the guards standing watch at the door couldn't hear. He didn't feel family matters were any of their business. "It should concern you, you are Prince after all. One day, when I am gone, Conkram's future will be in your hands and it'll be your turn to battle Sol. But Cort, instead of avoiding the war, instead of stewing over it, letting your worries eat at your insides. . . "
Cort looked up, mouth open to protest, but Nebular shushed him with an upraised finger.
"Don't bother disagreeing, I see the expression on your face whenever you hear me meeting with the advisors, or with the General. This war sickens you, you hate it. Don't be ashamed to admit it, war is vile, it should be despised. But we cannot avoid it. Our Kingdom and our country are at stake and we must face the threat, eyes forward, swords at the ready."
"But father, "Cort began, still staring intently at the ground, shame welling in his heart, "I have no sword, I'm not a skilled warrior, or tactician. I can't be of any help in ending the fighting."
"Everyone has a different talent, Cort. Yours is science, technology. That's why I suggest you leave Zeto and his pessimistic teachings behind and go to study with Jette. Help him with the development of his weapons, use your intellect to save lives by ending this war. You are Prince Cort of Conkram, make that a name that Sol fears, become as terrible to them as their Gaza is to us. Make the Kingdom proud. Make your mother and I even prouder. We both love you so much, Cort, and we worry that sometimes, you don't see things clearly. You don't need Zeto filling your head with his religious babble. Put your skills to practical use, and if you must study Seru, do so with military intent, not to condemn us all, as Zeto would have."
Nebular laughed heartily and slapped Cort lovingly on the back. Cort gave a weak smile, his eyes still clouded over with his own thoughts. Once his father dismissed him, he left the room with heavy treads, his arms crossed as he went, the corners of his mouth turned down with barely hidden grief and unease. Nebular watched his exit, his own features just as uneasy. A gentle hand fluttering at his back caused the King to turn suddenly. His wife Queen Minea was standing there, grace and beauty almost visibly emanating from her tall and slender frame.
"You spoke to him then, my love?" she queried, her green eyes sparkling with concern.
"Yes, "Nebular returned, his voice low, "It's really up to him. I'm his father, but I can't be there to guide his every step. He'll live his life as he sees fit. I just worry sometimes about some of his influences. Zeto, for all his religious babble. . . sometimes, I see things very. . . for lack of a better word, ungodly in his eyes. I could curse myself for ever appointing him head of the sect. Perhaps there's some truth to separation of church and state. How can I be expected to be any sort of judge as to who's a better earthly representative of Tieg? I don't know, Minea, I just hope that there isn't another casualty of this horrible war right inside these Palace walls. I can't be there for Cort as I'd like to."
"I know. But I trust him, we've raised him well, he knows what he's doing. He'll go to Jette, you'll see. He'll win this war for us, Jette said there wasn't a more gifted young man in the Kingdom."
Nebular grunted noncommittally, then turned and left the throne room, off to meet with the royal advisors. Sol was coming down hard and things were tense, the fighting more brutal and serious than it had been in many years. Bodies lined the streets and the carpenter was running low on wood for the necessary coffins. Nebular was aware that Cort often visited the morgues. He didn't understand why his son would desire to see such things, but he knew quite well of his habits. Perhaps Cort prayed over the murdered soldiers. Perhaps he was punishing himself for not being able to stop their deaths. Nebular didn't know, but he didn't like it. And his instincts as a father and as a King, told him that no good could come of such morbid actions.
Cort left the glittering white of the Palace behind and stepped out into the sun, his short red cloak streaming behind him like a banner, his hair shining silver and bright. The strength and might of Conkram's cathedral stood before him with open arms, longing to hold him, to make him feel some worth. He could be worthy, when he was wrapped in the marble of the church. When Zeto told him how things stood in the world, why there were so many new headstones in the graveyard, why his father was a murderer, why things seemed so wrong, so unfair. Cort bit at his lower lip as he walked, trying to stifle frustrated tears. Why was he crying? He didn't know why. Too many years of standing by, helpless, as more and more of his people were killed. It hurt, after long enough, to be so helpless. To be Prince of the entire realm, to be privileged, pampered, wealthy in love, breeding, and friendship, yet be so helpless. It didn't make sense.
He left the harsh sunlight and suddenly was inside the church. The high walls reached to heaven all around him, the warm red of the long aisle stretching away to the beautiful perfection of Tieg's gold altar at the front. Warm, maternal, and best of all understanding. Cort wasn't sure if it was God that made him feel so at ease when he was in the church, or if it was the church itself. He smeared the tears from his eyes with a disgusted hand, then flung himself on the short set of velvety steps leading up the altar and sighed, leaning his weight on his hands.
The short conversation with his father hadn't helped his state of mind. He'd just felt so on edge lately, so critical of everything going on in the Kingdom. He couldn't understand it. Everything just felt so. . . dirty. Such a waste. Such a lie. Here was beauty, the most beautiful city in the world and what was it built on? Those dead soldiers and a lifetime of war. His father's Palace, his father's clothes, his own clothes, it was all paid for in the blood of innocent young men. It just didn't make sense. Where was the honour in living off of other's deaths? Giving a long, shuddering sigh, Cort rested his tired forehead in his hands and shut his eyes, weary of the thoughts. They seemed the only things on his mind anymore.
"Master Cort, what is wrong?"
The voice was imperial, the voice of a lion if lions could talk. It made Cort snap his head up and his eyes rove the shadows of the church for the speaker. They finally found him, a black blacker than the shadows, a silhouette nearly as immense and intimidating as the church they both stood in.
"Zeto. . . "the young Prince breathed, sitting up a little straighter, slapping his royal dignity and demeanour back on like a well-worn mask, "I didn't know you were in here."
"I seldom leave these walls, Master, you know that. All sanity ends the moment I step from this church. That world outside. . . well, it is disturbing, to say the least."
Cort smiled darkly, leaning his elbows on his knees, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "So you always tell me, Zeto. Strange for such a religious man to be so condemning of God's creations, don't you think?"
"No stranger, young Master, than for the Prince to be so disapproving of his father, the King's, actions. I can read it in your face. You wish this war over with so badly it galls you."
"That's none of your concern, "Cort snapped suddenly, steel in his normally impassive voice, "Don't tell me what I do and don't wish, old man."
"Of course, "Zeto apologised, stepping forward with a friendly smile. The filtered rainbow light from the stained glass lit his face suddenly, revealing his strange, exotic features clearly to Cort. There was something almost too accessible, almost too welcome about him; he seemed to emanate something so open, so bereft of his own personal sins that it was as though he desired to make others just as pure. It was this quality that had made King Nebular appoint him as head of Conkram's religious sect. No one seemed as pure or pious as Zeto. "I just see such things in such a young, promising, talented man and it worries me, "he continued in a drawling but reverberating voice that bounced off the rafters and to Cort's ears eerily. "Do not be dishonest with me, Master. You are one of the few truly good men in this kingdom, perhaps the only one besides myself. It does not befit you to lie."
Cort nearly rebuked him again for calling him a liar, but he found he didn't have the heart. Instead, he began to talk, to spill his soul, to say things he knew he could never say to his father. "A hundred more today, Zeto, " he whispered, closing his eyes, "A hundred more bodies. And if that were all, that would be one thing. But there're so many corpses laying scattered somewhere in Karisto, men, boys who died so far from here, from their families. What did they die for? I asked my father that a few weeks ago. He couldn't give me a straight answer, just a lot of garbage. They died for the honour of Conkram, they died protecting the citizens. Protecting them from what? From Sol? That Tower in the distance and that General Gaza and his vicious sword? It just seems such a pointless, fruitless lie. Why must this war continue and people die? Why do they use the gifts from God as weapons against each other? It's wrong, Zeto. I don't understand it."
"You aren't meant to understand, Master Cort, "Zeto said soothingly, moving a few steps closer, "And neither am I. We are humans and ignorance is our lot in life. Ignorance to the workings of God is our burden. It is a heavy burden, it breaks our backs and steals the sanity from those of us who fight it, but it never lightens, despite our efforts."
"I think this war goes beyond the "workings of God", "Cort whispered. Zeto's keen black eyes widened at the words and he smiled smally as his pupil continued, "I think that humanity's strayed from any grand purposes that God ever had for us. The seru, they were meant to be noble, an augmentation, not a crutch. A tool, not a weapon. But Zeto, the soldiers, Sol and Conkram, they use the seru to slaughter each other. They turn God's gifts to their own destructive purposes. My father, the King, he's just as bad as any of them. And what does my mother do to stop him? Nothing. Some of the battle strategies the armies have used as of late were her very own. They are both murderers, both usurpers and violators of divinity. I don't understand it. I don't. How can they not see that what they're doing is evil? No one is right, not they or Sol. Both sides are corrupt so how is it possible to hope for either to win? If there was any justice in the world, both sides would fail."
The dim insides of the church echoed with his words, shooting them into the young Prince's ears mockingly. He cringed beneath the assaults of his own bitter voice, almost covering his ears with his hands. Zeto watched his struggles, hands folded into the large sleeves of his elaborately decorated robe. After a moment, he began to speak.
"You nearly have to begin to wonder about them at times. . . "
Cort looked up at the strange words, the coloured light reflecting from the tears at his eyes.
"At who, Zeto?" he asked meekly. The dark man turned down and looked at his pupil with malicious wisdom in his gaze.
"At humanity, "he finished with a sweep of his arms. Closing his eyes, he turned away and eyed the golden alter behind Cort, his words low and slow. "They really are little more than animals. They need a god to care for them, to leash them, to fence them in."
"But Tieg does not do that, "Cort replied, remembering his lessons, "It is not God's place to stick an intruding hand in the affairs of his creations."
"And that is why we are at war. . . "Zeto said with half a chuckle.
"Zeto. . . "Cort breathed, "You're not blaming this war on God, are you?"
"No, just the opposite, young Prince. This war is because of a lack of god. If only Tieg would make his presence known, and silence the stupidity, the ignorance of the human race, then people wouldn't have to die everyday. You wouldn't have to go to the morgue to pray over the slain. Your conscience would be cleared."
"My conscience is fine. . . "Cort protested half-heartedly. It was a lie, but he didn't feel it the old man's place to pick him apart for sport. His emotions and his guilt were his own dark little secrets, not Zeto's.
"I will not argue that with you, my liege, "the old man responded with dignity and decorum, "But if there is nothing on your conscience, why are you crying?"
Cort grit his teeth together and shot to his feet, smearing the tears from his eyes. Without a word wasted, he stalked outside, angry that Zeto's presence was making him leave the church, his one refuge in the entire sprawling prison of a palace.
"Don't run away from me, young Master!" Zeto called, "I'm only trying to help you!"
"No. . . "Cort's voice was a whisper as he left the comforting darkness of the church and its beauty behind for the stinging harshness of mid-afternoon outside. "No, I don't need your help, Zeto. You can't help. And you don't really care, you're just like everyone else, just like my father. A manipulating liar. A selfish, dirty. . . human!"
Zeto watched the young man's retreating form, his long, white fingers protruding from his sleeves and clacking together, playing over the embroidered cuff of his robe pleasurably. After a few moments, Cort's infuriated figure flung itself outside and into the glare of late afternoon, leaving Zeto alone in the dark church. The giant of a man turned slowly away from the exit and began to pace, walking in small, aimless circles.
"Sometimes I'm just not too sure if I'm approaching this the right way," he suddenly began to orate to no one in particular. His deep words reverberated off of the high ceilings and echoed back like the trembling voice of a demon. "He's young, he's impressionable, but his trust is fragile. If I press my advantage too hard he'll begin to turn away from me, just as he has from his parents. That boy can cleanse this world, I've seen it in my dreams. Just the proper influences, the proper powers granted and he can save us all. He can do your will, Tieg...."
Zeto shot his eyes up towards the alter and suddenly dropped reverently to his knees, prostrating himself in front of the shrine. His black eyes shone with a desperate love for his God, sweat beading on his brows and trickling down the sides of his face into his vision. "So long... So long the voices have called. Your divine voice, the voice of Juggernaut, the Rogue Seru from Seru-kai... soon, soon you'll all be free and the Sacred Cleansing can begin. We can be saved... we can. I won't believe that the human race can be so easily damned. I will save this world. Cort will save it. You, Almighty Tieg, will save it..."
Zeto touched his forehead to the carpet, a small damp spot of sweat marring the perfect red plush after he'd risen again. The church loomed around his massive but suddenly dwarfed figure, the buttresses and high walls degrading him, the windows dying him. Zeto laughed at the blessing and turned to leave, long white fingers caressing the black Seru egg in his hands.
"Damn you! Jette!"
Cort ran frantically through the halls of the palace, shouting the name, tripping on the carpet, glad that there were no servants in this restricted portion of the castle who might see him in his undignified dash to to find Conkram's leading scientist. He had to find him. He had to stop this. Zeto was right. His parents were right. And Cort was right. This sudden realisation startled him so that he could feel his heart roaring, desirous to leap through his chest and into the air.
Zeto had said the war was from a lack of God. He was correct with those blasphemous words. And Cort himself knew how wrong the war was, knew in his heart of hearts that people dying for nothing was evil. Mother and Father wanted him to commit himself to designing weaponry. Well damn it, they also, were so correct. He'd design something that could free them all, the entire kingdom, every suffering man, woman, and child from this beastly war and the deaths and heartache that accompanied it. They'd defeat Sol. He didn't have any quarrel with their rivals but what did that matter? If using his skill and intelligence could halt the battles and bodies, he'd do it. Even if it meant killing everyone in Sol.
Could he do that though?
Could he be like his father? Could he make himself become what he so despised?
Gasping for breath, Cort collapsed against the side of one of the palace walls. He'd think about it later, when he was calmer. Right now... right now--
....the floor sloped downwards beneath his feet, leading to the secluded laboratories. Jette had to be down there, he was always down there. Jette would listen, would do as he said. Jette was so smart, he'd help him with his aims. Cort comforted himself as he stood there sweating, a trembling white hand to his throat. Footsteps. He could hear someone running from up above, feet making soft whumps against the palace's plush red carpeting. They couldn't see him. No one could see him looking so weak. He fought for composure, disgustedly smearing the tears from his eyes, Zeto's words harsh and mocking yet in his ears.
I will not argue that with you, my liege, but if there is nothing on your conscience, why are you crying?
His silvery hair was in his eyes and he brushed it away, straightening as the footsteps finally carried their owner to his view. Gi. The boy halted suddenly, almost falling forward, and approached his friend with concern thick on his flushed face.
"Prince..." he breathed hesitantly, holding a hand out, "Are you okay? Do you need anything? I-- I saw you running from the church and then all the way in here... and you say I run too much." Gi tried to grin, putting a hand on Cort's proud shoulder. The young Prince crossed his arms and slowly turned his head to gaze down the dim, uninviting passage leading to Conkram's royal labs. He could feel the burning in his eyes and knew it must be obvious he'd been weeping. Gi couldn't be allowed to know that.
"You hate the labs. Why do you want to go down there?" the boy asked, flinging his right hand towards Cort's destination. "Dinner's soon, Prince. And you hate going down there. All that talk of how many soldiers they can take out with a single shell... military weapon nonsense. You hate that, I know you do." Gi had no idea why, but a feeling in the pit of his stomach told him he had to keep his friend from going down into those laboratories. The expression in Cort's face, the way he refused to look at him. That wasn't like Cort. Cort was proud and serious but he was a grand friend. He wouldn't be giving the cold shoulder now or ever. "Want to go spar?" Gi asked jokingly, "Or go look through the hole in the wall and watch the maids undress? C'mon, Prince, you don't want to go down there..."
"Gi..." Cort's voice was a whisper, soft and feathery to hide the gruff, "Gi, I'm not really sure what I want. No, that's not true. I know what I want. I'm just not sure I'm prepared to do what's necessary to get it. No more deaths... no more, Gi. They're piled on my shoulder, every one of them a stone, building a tower that started the second I was born into this world. How, Gi?! Tell me! How is it fair that I was born a murderer! Never a chance to change my mind, never any options given! Born a murderer and if I don't stop this war, I'll die a murderer! But oh God... if I want to stop all this, I have to become what I hate..."
"What are you talking about?" Gi said as lightly as he could, "You don't have to do anything. What's happened? Something with your father? When I left you, you were fine." Cort ignored his friend, moving a meandering hand up to his face and absently stroking his forehead, playing with the strands of silver bangs hanging in his green and violet eyes. Those eyes were dark with ill thoughts and Gi could see them swirling there, like an unhealthy mist entwining about the Prince's uncanny, brightly-coloured irises. Gi's own eyes narrowed as an idea suddenly popped into his head. "Zeto, eh? You ran out of the church all upset... that nut Zeto's been screwing with you, I know it. Tell the King, Prince, he'll banish ole Zeto with only a word from you, specially if he's been yelling at you, or, or saying things... "
Gi's voice trailed off as Cort turned slowly about to stare at him, features deathly pale but his mouth a firm, thin line of control. "Gi, "he whispered, "Please leave me alone. You just... you just don't know. And I'm glad you don't know. The th-things... the things I have on my conscience... I, I...." Cort began to break down, throwing his arms around his sides then turning violently away as Gi tried to step forward and comfort him. The tormented young Prince stumbled down the dark hallway clumsily, as though something was pulling him there, clawed hands that had a hold of his shoulders, their grips like those of birds of prey. "I think they're driving me mad..." he finally finished quietly, advancing slowly into the black depths of the hallway. His red cloak streamed behind him in the dimness and Gi thought it looked like a shadow of blood. The premonition whispered foulness in his mind and he darted forward fearfully, not understanding.
"What makes you think that, my liege?" he begged, a friendly hand on Cort's armoured shoulder, "There's nothing wrong with you but what that bastard Zeto lies about. Please, please... Cort... " Gi was very hesitant to call his friend by his name. Addressing the Crown Prince of Conkram Kingdom by anything else than his title was punishable by death. Cort didn't even notice. He only flung the hand off and stumbled further into the darkness of the labs.
"Don't follow me... "he demanded, a cutting tone mixed with his piteous sob, "I'll go to hell by myself, Gi. By myself." Gi was too taken back by the vehemence in his friend's voice to immediately follow him. Something was wrong, so so wrong. Something was there... Zeto's influence he supposed. He wouldn't believe Cort was mad, he knew for a fact that he wasn't, Cort was the most level-headed person he'd ever known. But what would have him thinking he'd gone insane? Because he cared about the lives of the people in the kingdom? Because he sobbed over their deaths, because the knowledge of those deaths ate a hole in his heart? No... no... Gi leaned back against the hallwall and frowned anxiously. Cort was sensitive, he was caring. He was too damned sensitive and caring to have been born into a world of war where he was forced to dwell in the most blood-soaked of the fighting. Gi wouldn't let that kindness be his friend's downfall when it was really his most admirable characteristic. Zeto was using him... he wasn't sure how, but he could sense it. All that time in the church, those lessons... why else would the man be so interested in Cort unless he wanted something of him? Why indeed. Heh. Gi would ask. He'd go right up to that pompous zealot and ask him to his face. Gi wouldn't let Cort suffer these agonies. Frowning in determination, the young warrior whipped about, intent on halting the business before it got out of hand.
"Ah... young Master Delilas... how are you this afternoon?"
Gi turned to see Zeto himself standing in the centre of the hallway. Light from the throne room flooded from behind him, obscuring the foreboding man's features in deep brown shadows. His tasselled cloak, receding into a void of eerie black and then shooting outwards again in glints of gold braid, hung dead from his bulbous frame, a frame that blocked the entire passageway, leaving Gi feeling very out of sorts and somewhat threatened. He composed himself as best as he was able, sweeping a hand through his mass of chestnut hair, then replied, "I'm fine, Sir Zeto, how are you?"
Zeto found this composed reply quite hilarious. He chuckled gruffly, putting his hands behind his back and looking down at Gi with a fatherly expression. The boy noticed he was sweating though, the thick perspiration dripped down his face and shone golden, like melted butter, with the distant light. He had something clutched in his hand. Gi craned his neck to try and make it out but Zeto caught him looking and moved further into the shadows.
"It is not fitting for a common boy like yourself to be friends with the Prince of Conkram," Zeto remarked bluntly, "I think it would be more proper if you ceased contact with young Cort."
"That's Prince Cort to you, Zeto, "Gi snapped, trying to inch his way around the man, "He's upset, you've been telling him these lies and, and twisting things around, making him hate the King and Queen, making him think he can actually do anything about this blasted war. He needs a friend more now than ever and I'm going to be here for him."
"I'm his friend."
"Ha..." Gi shook his head, fists clenched at his sides, "You're not fooling anyone, Zeto. Especially not me. I'm going to talk to King Nebular about the way you've been messing with the Prince. He won't like it. He'll take your job away, send you outta the kingdom. You can't hurt Cort..."
"Hurt him? "Zeto echoed in disbelief, peering at Gi through depthless black eyes, "My poor delusional little boy... I'd give my life for Cort. I'd give my life for his cause. His aims are true, his sight is clear. I've waited my whole life to meet a young man like him. He will save us all, clean away the filth of war, of death, of... of humans..."
"You're bloody insane, "Gi mumbled, finally managing to squeeze by him. He took a few quick steps out of the hallway, his skin crawling at the tone of Zeto's voice. What was wrong with him? He was a priest or some bunk, he shouldn't be talking like that. Unless he loved his God so much that he couldn't bear the sight, stench, or thought of the humans that just seemed so less than Him. Well, as far as Gi was concerned, if Zeto was going to kill humans, the fat old bastard could start with himself. "I'm going to nip this in the bud, "he threatened as he retreated Zeto's presence with quick treads, "I won't let you hurt the Prince."
"Silly... "Zeto admonished to his back, watching the young man hurry away, steps fuelled by fear and unease, "Silly, silly child..."
Nebular, the King of Conkram, listened to Gi's humble warnings. He listened to the boy's frantic whispers even as he signed and sealed Letters of Condolences that the Palace sent out to the families of slain soldiers. His personal stamp sealed the bottom of each letter, the kiss of royalty, a reassurance from Heaven on Earth to set the grieving commoners at ease. Every death was a heroic one, another step towards victory. Nebular had been giving that spiel for so long he even believed it himself now.
"Sire..." Gi breathed, on one knee at Nebular's feet. His head was bowed submissively, his eyes stung with sweat, "Sire, I only tell you these things because it is what I see. And what I sense. Zeto.... he's hurting Prince Cort, Sire. Telling him things that just aren't true."
"Young Gi, "Nebular replied distractedly, putting the finishing touches on a fresh letter, "Just because you do not believe in the teachings of Tieg does not mean you can disrespect the religion by calling its teachings lies. Zeto is Tieg's Counsellor and while I do not approve of how much time my son spends under his tutelage, he is, at least, turning him into a pious man. Cort's gone to Jette though?" The King's voice was soft, thoughtful. He shrugged his broad shoulders, the ervine mantle flung over them shifting slightly with an imperialistic rustle he absently found pleasure in. "I suppose our conversation this afternoon was not totally fruitless afterall then... boy actually listened to me for once. Hmph." Nebular smiled to himself with no small degree of satisfaction, then went back to his letters, a random page whispering a question in his ear that he responded to with a simple wag of his head.
"But your Highness... "Gi stammered, "There is something so wrong about this. I mean, er, Cort would never do this. He hates everything to do with the war, he'd never go to Jette so suddenly like this. And Zeto, Sire, he is crazy. Some of the things he says gives me chills."
"Gi, Gi, Gi... "Nebular admonished, twinkling green eyes glazed over with distant thoughts, "You're just upset that young Cort won't be as accessible to you now as before is all. Don't worry, you're still his friend, it just seems he's finally taking some responsibility. Working with Jette will be a good thing, it will benefit us all. Cort is a genius, you know. All the scholars say so. He'll win this war for us."
Gi tried a few more futile protests but Nebular was too content with his own explanation to pay them any mind. He waved the boy off and went back to his grim work, pushing the thoughts of his son from his mind, glad to think he'd finally come around, finally decided to take a mature outlook on the situation. He'd done his duties as a father, now he'd do them as King. All was right with the world. Better than right. It seemed Cort was growing up. Why wouldn't this boy with the red eyes, this Gi Delilas child, just accept it? Instead he was prattling on about conspiracies and threats from a man as threatening as a senile old hound dog. Puh. Grasping at straws. Grasping to keep hold of a boyish friendship.
"Shouldn't you go back to Dohati?" Nebular asked with a bit of irritation at the edge of his voice. That shut Gi up. The King's next words made him lower his head in shame, "Really, Gi, go bone up your skills, they are your asset here. Your skills and your Gimard Seru. Go play with your brother and sister. Go spin your stories to Dohati. Leave Cort be. Understood?"
Gi swallowed hard, on his feet, alternatingly clenching his fists and teeth. "As you say, Sire, "he replied, taking a step backward, sickened by the sight of the thoughtless old King. Nebular sat there, making the odd remark to his advisors about Gi's overactive imagination, his son's newfound military prowess, and Gi watched the man with an irrepressible sneer souring his lips. He was going to let it all slide... Gi realized that King Nebular was going to turn his head. As long as the surface looked all right, he'd let Zeto have his way with Cort. No one was going to listen to him. No one paid any attention to the orphaned pauper, the guard-dog. Gi Delilas just didn't make a difference. The King had said so; his skills and his Gimard Seru. That was all he was good for.
Practically growling, mentally muttering every oath he knew, Gi stormed from the throne room, leaving the fatheads alone. He didn't slow his furious retreat until the evening humidity of outside was pressing on him, until he could feel the fat, hot drops of a summer rainstorm on his shoulder. Conkram stretched before him, a beautiful city of white marble... built on blood and bones and rotting corpses. But that was okay. Because on the outside, it was beautiful. And that was all that mattered.
"I don't care, Cort, "Gi muttered through sobs, making his way towards his humble quarters near the Palace's gates. He could hear Lu and Che's voices ringing from inside, quarreling with eachother over trivial things. He didn't want to deal with that when he knew, was so certain he knew what was happening to his best friend inside the castle's walls. "I don't care what you say, Cort... Damn it all to hell, I won't leave you alone. Something's wrong. The world... the world's wrong. But you don't have to fix it, Prince, it's not your place. No matter what the hell Zeto says, it's not up to you to fix what's wrong with the world. Let Nebular, Dohati, all of those pompous adults... let them keep their hold on the world. Don't lower yourself trying to take it from them. It won't work... it just won't work.... "
Gi collapsed against the side of his home, the white stucco pricking him through his thin tunic. That lifeless sprinkling rain had turned into a raging storm. The greenish heavens emptied their tears onto the boy as he wept into his own shoulder, face averted, chest heaving. If only this cruel rain could wash it all away. All of it away. The war, the deaths, the rage, the madness. Gi begged the skies for mercy even as he knelt beneath the fury of the storm.
Over the next few months, Jette was amazed at how fervently Cort worked.
"Like an incensed young man, "he remarked to Nebular when the King asked for information, "Like a demon, I swear to you, Sire. He works for hours, testing seru and their properties, often quite cruel with his treatment of the creatures, then spends more hours turning his findings into something useful. Some of the theories he comes up with are absolutely ridiculous yet before I can finish laughing, he's proven them to me without question. Amazing, Sire, the Prince is truly amazing."
"Oh, yes, Jette, I know, "the King gloated, examining maps with his war advisors. Sol was coming down hard, General Gaza had infiltrated a camp of theirs stationed only two hundred miles to the south of Conkram. The fighting was moving closer to home. And this had Nebular worried. "Really though, Jette. The entire team must redouble its efforts. We cannot allow Sol's army to reach our borders. We cannot have skirmishes on Conkram's own land. A weapon... a tool of some sort that can obliterate that damned Gaza and his soldiers. Just the sight of the demon-man and his sword sends our own ranks into a panic. A weapon... a tool..."
"Yes, Sire, "Jette replied, throwing his words over Nebular's shoulder, the King hunched over documents, "Yes, we are working as fast as we can. But Sire, I was wondering if you could talk to the Prince. He-- he simply will not listen to me..."
"Talk to him? About what?"
Jette crossed his lanky arms, his features taut with worry. "He will not slow down, Sire. He's hurting his health with the intensity of his searching. I don't know his reasons, I don't understand why he... pushes himself like this. For so long, for years, he scorned all that I do for the war efforts. The weapons development, the research, myself and my team.... and then, seemingly out of the blue, he demands to be made leader of the laboratories.... now he buries himself in the work. Pushing like, like... "Jette was going to say "like a madman" but he caught himself in time. "I don't understand his motives, Sire. And although I couldn't tell you for certain, I don't think he's slept for a few days."
"What?" These words caught the King's attention and he straightened, waving the questions of his advisors off with a thick, ringed hand. He narrowed his eyes towards Conkram's head Scientist and asked, "Why would he do that?"
"I ask him that myself, Sire, "Jette responded nervously, "But he doesn't seem to.. . . to think me worthy of an answer. He mutters a few things about his studies, the Seru he's dissected... then says his own health is meaningless compared to the number who die everyday in the fields."
"Perhaps I will talk to him, "Nebular said, turning away, frownlines on his brow, "His own health is hardly meaningless. He's... he's the Prince for god's sake, a symbol to our people. Such thoughts are hardly healthy."
Jette nodded soberly, uneasy with the tone of the King's voice. He thought he should be interested in Cort as a son, not as a Prince. Still, what did he know? Nebular was a magnificient King for that very reason: the Kingdom over his family. It had always been like that and it was truly how it should be, still... Jette shook his head to clear it of the thoughts. Watching Cort the past few months, he'd come to the conclusion that the young man needed a father, not a King. There was something wrong with him, something wrong with his eyes.
"Obsessive and unhealthy though they've been, his toils haven't been fruitless, Sire, "Jette interjected suddenly, "We're on the verge of a breakthrough, a new sort of chemical warfare. It'll be grand and effective if only we can contain it, control it."
"Truly?" Nebular asked hopefully, stroking his red beard with thought, "That is wonderful. But I will not lose our Prince to win the war. I will talk to him, Jette. Thank you for informing me of his state. He never comes to see me... he's never liked to be around me... I hardly blame him for that. The air around me stinks of blood. My fingers drip the color of death... " The King hadn't meant to speak those words aloud but Jette listened to them eagerly. Not that they informed him of anything he wasn't aware of. The Scientist wouldn't have traded places with the man before him for a thousand pieces of gold. He would not have liked to see his own name gracing the bottom of each command memo. Every death sentence shipped to the Kingdom's army. Still, if Cort pulled it off, perhaps this war would end. There'd be no more guilt, no more wasted lives. The King would have to write no more condolances and the Prince wouldn't have to despise the sight of him doing them. Jette hoped to see it happen.
"A Mist, Gi. A Mist of insanity. Do you see? It will corrupt the Seru that the Sol soldiers use and make the creatures turn against their masters. It corrupts the will of Tieg, turning those things he's blessed us with into our own banes. Fitting, don't you think? Taking away those gifts after we humans misuse them? Use them to kill eachother? You see how right this is? You see?"
Gi leaned against the dark wall of the Palace's laboratory, his features a cold mask of indifference. Arms crossed and hair in his eyes, he answered, "Yes, Prince, in a way. But I hardly think it's our place to dispense God's Divine justice with our own mortal hands, do you?"
"This war is from a lack of God, "Cort replied softly, "I mean to ammend that and thus end the fighting."
"A lack of God, eh? That Zeto's nonsense talking? Bloody sounds like it. So tell me, Prince, what will you substitute God with? This mist? Or yourself?"
Gi watched his friend through narrowed eyes. The laboratory was empty, the scientists long since asleep. The Palace stretched around the two young men; silent, still, just as it should be at nearly four o'clock in the morning. Their words echoed eerily in the chilly, recycled air, echoed like ghost-wails from the place's sterile steel walls, off of the buzzing equipment, shelves of chemicals, cages of Seru. The entire complex was decidedly eerie, Gi had decided that a long time ago, when he'd first made up his mind to do his best to keep Cort company on his lonely quest. Much of the time that Cort was there at night, Gi was there too. Both of them were ill with self-deprivation. And neither really cared.
"I don't like your tone, Gi... "Cort warned, working on the calculations before him with weary, bloodshot eyes. He looked like hell, like a shell of what he'd been. His unkempt hair was pasted to his brow and neck, his clothes days old, his hands trembling as they struggled to keep a hold on the quill in his hand. "I cannot be God, don't be ridiculous. I wouldn't want to be, to have to call you creatures my own creations. To have to admit to such mistakes..."
Gi was used to hearing these words. The more Cort worked, the harder he researched, the more he discovered and the less he liked. And Zeto, that bastard Zeto, egged his misanthropy on gleefully. But Gi was helpless to do anything about it. He was watching his friend tear himself apart with misplaced guilt and ill-founded dreams. Mist... Gi laughed bitterly to himself, staring down at the Seru strapped around his arm. If that Mist worked, this Seru could kill him. But the Mist wouldn't work. They couldn't hope to harness such power, Gi wouldn't delude himself.
"My father spoke with me today..."
Cort repeated himself, his words surprising his friend. Nebular seldom took interest in these things, why had he asked his son about them?
"He came to me, "Cort continued, "While you were at lessons.... Jette.... Jette went to him spouting nonsense. Now Nebular says I should slow my work, take it easy... but the moment after he made the "caring admonitions" he immediately turned about and asked me how much longer it would be until the Mist is ready... Gi, I'm a Prince to him. Not a son... never a son... but it doesn't matter. I'm doing what he wanted. I'm going to slaughter his enemies. And allow an entire country to curse my own name with their dying breaths. The same way, Gi, that our soldiers scream Sol's General Gaza's name as they lay dying in the hospitals. Do you think it makes Gaza proud to know that his was the last face so many men saw before being swallowed by death? I don't think so... I don't think anyone could enjoy such knowledge."
"So why don't you quit this then, Prince?" Gi asked softly, hopefully, "I understand. If your parents can't, if Zeto can't, I can. You don't have to prove anything to anyone. Or end anything for that matter. You didn't start the fighting, you are blameless. So stop killing yourself, making yourself sick with toil and guilt over trying to end it... why, Prince? Why all this strife? Why do you work so fiercely?"
"Because it hurts too much not to, "Cort replied quickly, "This is all I have to keep me whole anymore. This working towards destruction. I quit now and this hole in my chest will swallow my heart. Maybe.... maybe I didn't start this fighting, but what does that matter? All my life I watched it and did nothing. Now, I do something. The only thing I can. I work towards a conclusion, a victory. In the name of my great and glorious father, I plan to make the blood flow... damn me. Damn my life... " Cort laughed bitterly, the unhinged chuckles souring the still air. Then it was quiet for a while, and Gi watched the Prince's back as he scribbled away on his notes, eyes thoughtful.
"It's pretty late, "he said softly after a few moments, knowing the words were useless before he even said them, "Maybe we should turn in for the day."
"No... "Cort corrected, a smile twisting his lips, "It's actually pretty early. I have a whole new day, glorious with possibility, to work with. But you go to sleep if you can. Go. Sleep for me. I cannot."
The smile faded away to a frown and the young Prince toiled even more fervidly with his papers, toiled with a desperate intensity that made his eyes tear from abuse, his mind roll over and force him to grab at his head, dizzy. He couldn't sleep, he wasn't lying. ...things.... came to him in his dreams. A voice that startled him. He interpretted it as Tieg and Zeto, when he'd told his mentor of his dreams, had assured him he was correct. Their God Tieg approved of his actions. And so Cort continued; continued for so many reasons. He had to stop the war and deaths, he had to clear his mother and father's names, he had to prove himself worthy as a human being and as a Prince, and he had to serve Tieg. If that was Tieg encouraging him, he had nothing to fear, he must be doing the right thing. He had to be...
"Gi, "he whispered, not looking up from his work. His shoulders trembled and the page swam before his eyes, "Gi... next week we'll test it. Next week we'll know for sure. Perhaps then... then I can sleep. I'm so tired."
Cort laughed, choking with the action. Gi tried to put a hand on his shoulder, to comfort him, to let him know he was there, but the young Prince shoved it away, panting as though he couldn't breath. He swallowed hard, then jerked back around, weaving his long, thin fingers into his hair and clutching his head as he scribbled unintelligable numbers onto the parchment before him. The scratching of the quill and Cort's rapid breaths were the only sounds in the empty laboratory. "She's pregnant."
"What?" Gi took a step back, startled by this new tone in his friend's voice, "You-- you mean your mother? Of course, she's been expecting a child for months. The midwives, they say in a week or two... you'll have a brother, Prince, or a little royal sister. But you know that."
"Another one..." Cort growled, "Another one..."
Gi wasn't sure what he meant. He didn't want to believe it was what he thought.
"Another one... Another... it'll be a murderer, just like me, like Mother, like Father. Like all of us. It'll paint over the bloodstains, and, and, hide the bodies beneath white marble... it'll have to hear the women scream when their husbands don't come home. It'll have to be there and get the same looks as I, the same looks as it walks down the streets and people think, "You murdered my son, my husband, my brother, my friend... murdered them for what? For some land? To win an argument so old that no one remembers it anymore?" Gi, it'll have to go through all I have. I didn't get a chance, a way out. I was never asked if I wanted to be born into these filthy, pretty lies. A brother, or a little royal sister? No. Just another murdering human, another damned Royal butcher. I wish I could warn it. Tell the baby not to come here, to die after it left my mother and spare itself the agony and the flames of hell. But I can't. All I can do is-- is take the murdering all in my own hands so it won't have to deal with it, be soiled with it. I'll kill Sol. I'll kill them all. Kill those poor, poor people so we don't have to die anymore...."
Cort looked harshly around with tears in his eyes but Gi was gone. He'd fled, disgusted with the words. Cort was alone in the lab, ranting, raving mad. "Mad..." he sobbed to himself, letting the tears roll down his nose and stain the parchment beneath his pale hands. "They've made me mad."
"No, young Master..."
Cort jerked his head up, gasping. Zeto. He stood in Gi's place now, nothing visible of his mentor but the golden tassels of his robe, the glint of faint light off his black eyes, the flash of teeth as he spoke. "You're not mad. You're thinking more clearly than ever. But you do look tired."
"I am..." the boy relented, the words coming in a whispered sigh, "But I can't stop now, I'm so close. This'll stop it, this'll turn their own Seru against them. This'll work Zeto, and then it'll be okay. I'll be able to sleep again."
"You can sleep now, if you want."
Zeto advanced, the shapes of his features emerging from the gloom of the lab dramatically, cut by sharp shadows and pits of black. He focased his intense gaze on Cort, smiling gently. Expression unflickering, he laid a thick hand on top of the seated Prince's head, stroking his matted, silver hair soothingly. "I've brought you a gift, "he said in low tones, "Something to help you sleep."
"I told you!" Cort snapped, jerking his head out from under Zeto's unsettling touch, "Old man, there's too much to do. Too much. Leave me."
"But this gift will help you in your aims. It'll help you focas, clear your mind of extraneous thoughts... "Zeto tempted, his left hand clenching something black, roughly-textured, and somewhat sphere-shaped. He ran his cold fingers over its surface, moving towards Cort again. "You've been working too hard, young Prince, too too hard. You deserve a degree of respite now. I have a Seru, you see, a special Seru that will make all of this so much easier."
"I will not wear a Seru, "Cort said wearily, face averted, eyes to his work, "I do not need one. How can I judge people who misuse and take advantage of the gift of those creatures and then don a Seru myself? Out of exhaustion? I tell you again, Zeto, leave me. I will accomplish my aims on my own, with whatever power I have."
"But that is not possible, "Zeto said coldly, a bit of the gentleness fading from his smile. The laboratory stretched dark and cold and Cort could feel the empty air pressing at him, desirous to swallow him. He wished it would. The Prince wished he could dissolve into a mist and just dissipate, let his worries melt away. He wished he could sink into death, into some form of release. Sleep would have been wonderful, but death was preferred. "Mad... "he reiterated blankly, the quill moving on its own, his green and violet eyes empty as he watched the numbers forming on the parchment. Green... and violet. The green of innocence, the imperial purple of royalty. Combined in one young man. He understood why his life was as it was. Those two elements. He couldn't deal with them. They tore him apart. "Look at me, Zeto... what am I doing? I don't even understand myself anymore. I don't want to hurt the people of Sol. I've seen them. They're no different than us. I've seen the prisoners, I've seen the bodies of dead Sol soldiers. Their blood's the same color as ours. I don't want to hurt them... and I don't think I can. Tieg will have to choose another man, I'm too weak. I'll continue to let my kingdom suffer because I-- I just can't kill. This Mist, it's too horrible, I can't use it. It'll hurt so many people, and hurt the Seru too. The Seru... they're innocent. Only as evil or as pure as the person wearing them... and I won't use them to hurt others. I'd be a hypocrite then, wouldn't I? I won't become that. I won't become my father. I won't kill... "
Cort's voice seemed to possess neither the strength nor the will to back those words up though. They rolled off his thick tongue heavily, barely above a whisper, barely above a sigh. As the young Prince let his exhausted head drop onto his arm, his body hunched over the small table he was seated at, Zeto watched, smiling.
"And that is why, young Prince, you cannot cleanse these humans. You're still too human yourself." Zeto waited in patient silence, watching Cort sleep. He watched the boy's body relax as it hadn't been allowed to in days, listened to his breathing slow. He waited until the young Prince was blissfully, deeply unconscious. Then, eyes shining maliciously, the Priest of Tieg grabbed the boy gently by the shoulder and took him up in his arms, carrying him like a small child who'd fallen asleep after playing too hard. Adjusting his hold around Cort's slim figure so that he cradled him in one massive arm, Zeto then brought his right hand around and unclenched his fist to reveal that "gift" he'd offered to him earlier. A Seru egg. But this Seru egg was different, unlike any he'd seen before. Zeto was convinced Tieg himself had sent it to him, he'd found it at the gates of Uru-Mais, embedded in the sands like a precious gem. It was a Rogue Seru, an evil presence from Seru-Kai. He could feel the thing's power throbbing in his hand. It wanted a host. It wanted to increase its power. And, as all Rogue Seru did, it desired destruction.
As quietly, as gently as he could, Zeto unstrapped sleeping Cort's cloak, then moved his slender white fingers over the golden buttons of his charcoal-colored tunic, unclasping them down to his sternum, opening the two flaps wide to reveal his bare chest. It rose and fell with the Prince's gentle breaths yet Zeto could already sense how troubled his sleep was. He moaned quietly, beginning to thrash his arms, assaulted by nightmares. The Priest didn't know where they came from, these dreams of his, nor whose voice it was that called to the boy in his sleep, but Zeto assumed it was simply Tieg aiding his efforts, helping to convince the impressionable boy that he truly was meant to stop Conkram and Sol's bloody warring.
"Oh, but you're meant to stop so much more than the petty arguments of a race of creatures who collectively amount to little more than dirt. Oh, Cort, you'll be the savior of this world, my boy. Humanity has fallen too far to ever rise again, but you can clear them away, let us start anew. This Mist... it is inspiration most divine, most righteous. Clear away, smear away these human pigs with the cleansing fogs. Cover years of mistakes. You can kill, Cort. With aid from this Rogue Seru, you can. It will act as all Seru do... it will aid you. And it will help you kill."
The egg throbbed with dark potentiality and Zeto convulsively closed his hand around it a final time before lowering the unborn evil over Cort's heart and letting the creature sense the nearby vulnerability. An eerie, sickly purple glow rose from the egg's crevices, even as those crevices widened and split, flicking wet strands of barbed flesh outwards, eager to find something warm to latch onto. In one swift movement, Zeto slid his arm from around Cort's shoulder and back, lowering him to the floor of the laboratory just as the Rogue Seru's groping tentacles darted through the boy's flesh and pulled its bulk close to him, embedding itself over his heart in a smooth, blackish-purple lump of tissue and bone. Cort came awake with a stifled cry, instinctively grabbing at the thing, then staring downwards as it didn't come away, horrified.
"Wh-what..?" he stammered, blinking nightmares away. He gasped for air, realizing that the Seru was taking a little of the oxygen he breathed in for itself, having a firm hold on his lungs. "I t-told you, Zeto, I don't want it..."
"I'm sorry, young Master, "the Priest replied, hands folded into the sleeves of his robe, his features unreadable. He was on his feet, looking down at Cort, his figure a looming mountain of intimidation, "You fell asleep, I was going to carry you to your chambers, but you struggled in your sleep, I lost my hold, and you fell to the floor. My Seru rolled down your shirt and apparently liked it there. My humblest apologies."
Cort didn't immediately believe the explanation but he was too busy being disgusted at the Seru embracing his chest to question Zeto further. The thing was pulsing in time to his own heartbeat, feeding off his life to grow stronger. He'd never worn a Seru. He wasn't sure if this was really how it was supposed to feel, if it was supposed to hurt so badly. A few lines of bright red trickled down Cort's chest and he smeared them away with trembling fingers.
"I don't feel good..." he muttered, struggling to regain his feet. Zeto offered him a hand up but Cort ignored it, grabbing at the nearest wall and stumbling out of the laboratory, sweat beading out on his cheeks and forehead, a feverish glaze coating his eyes. This thing was holding on so tight, being so greedy with its want of air, it was making him dizzy. He stumbled along in the dark hallway, gasping, wondering where the headache, the hurt, the roaring of his heart had come from. Was he sick? All of this pushing himself? Maybe Jette had been right, maybe it wasn't very healthy.
It burned, this Seru. It sent a fire licking through his torso, waves of pain, an ocean of hurt. He collapsed forward, grasping at the thing and sweating, his fingers cold. He expected to hear Zeto approaching from the labs, hear him ask what the matter was, hear a rebuke. Nothing though. Just this dark, wet tunnel. The throne rooms were above, maybe father'd find him here in the morning, a cold, stiff corpse with his arms wrapped around the Seru in his chest.
Everything was so quiet. Except for his ragged breaths, it was perfectly quiet. Things dripped in the distance; old pipes, he supposed. Leaky plumbing. The ground beneath him was cold, contrasting with the fire in his chest. He hoped someone would come. Anyone. No, not anyone though. Not Zeto. Let him stay back in the labs and preach to the walls. And Nebular... his father... let him stay away too. And mother, with the unborn murderer kicking in her belly, her false smile, let her remain in her chambers, giggling with the handmaids. Cort didn't want them. He'd die alone... in this hallway. With this burning Seru squeezing the life out of him.
He only distantly heard his name being called. It sounded like Gi, but he didn't dare hope it was. He'd scared Gi off with his ranting, and his friend wouldn't be coming back. Who wanted to be friends with a madman? A madman obsessed with the business of war and killing and guilt and God. Cort didn't want to be near himself, why would anyone else want to be?
"Cort? P-p-prince Cort, are you okay?! What the hell is this? A Seru? I thought-- I thought... what the hell?? Why is it making you bleed? Seru don't make you bleed! What is this?"
Gi knelt at his friend's side, examining the lump of foreign flesh that looked so strange embedded over Cort's pale chest. His fingers brushed over it and he shuddered. This wasn't a normal Seru. This thing had unwholesome intentions, he could feel it. "Don't worry, I'll get this creature off you..."
Cort's eyes were rolled back in his head, his breathing slowed to an unstable whisper. Gi grit his teeth and wrapped two frantic hands around the Seru, intent on pulling the thing off, Seru couldn't stay on a person who didn't want them there, it should come free from his friend easily. He dug his fingers into the soft tissue and yanked. He didn't expect Cort's fist to come smashing into the side of his head as it did. And when the young Prince let out a scream of suffering, the boy nearly jumped out of his skin in surprise.
"Cort! Wh-what is it?! I'm trying to help!"
Gi shot a hand to his head, ready to tackle his friend, but the Prince's attack had been nothing more than a reflex to the pain of the attempt to remove that seru. He'd sunk back down now into apathy, barely breathing, hair soaked with sweat, limbs trembling against agony.
Gi shot to his feet as Zeto arrived, materializing out of the shadows and stepping onto the scene imperially. "If you remove that now, he'll die. Is that what you want?"
"Did you put that on him?" Gi demanded, looking from Cort to Zeto and back again, "Take it off before I go to the King! I'll wake this entire palace and cause the biggest uproar, Zeto! I'm not playing around with you anymore! That thing's hurting him! Get it off!"
"I told you, you stupid boy, I cannot take it off, he'll die. Why don't you put him to bed, Gi, he'll be all right in the morning. You'll see."
"My patience is about this thin with you, old man!!" Gi roared, stepping forward to spit in his face and holding his thumb and forefinger about a quarter inch apart, "I will take you out, I don't care what happens to me! These past few months have been hell for him and you're not bloody helping with your constant condemnations! Maybe if I take you out of the picture for good, the Prince will have a chance to come back to his old self without you shoving your rash of nonsense into his head. What do you think, Zeto? I'll kill you if it keeps him safe. Because it's started to hurt me too much watching you killin' him."
"A threat then? You are more of a child than I originally gave you credit for." Zeto smiled as Gi balled his fists, Cort trembling on the ground, blissfully unaware of the sudden confrontation, only painfully aware of the burning in his chest and the chill of the floor beneath his back. "There's nothing you can do to me, nothing you can do for the Prince. I'm just helping him get what he wants. That's all. If you no longer agree with your friend's viewpoints on the world, perhaps you should be rebuking him and not I. Perhaps whatever friendship you had is dead now, is all, and that bothers you."
A feral growl rolled through the air and it took Gi a moment to realize it was coming from him. But before he could turn the snarl into something more physical and infinitely more dangerous, Zeto sneered and turned and fled, his robes rustling about his frame, the gold glinting bright in the gloom. "Run, run away, coward..." the boy hissed after him, kneeling again at Cort's side, frantic at his fiery forehead and the lifelessness in his staring eyes, "He's gone, Prince, and I'll kill him if he comes back. I'll get Lu and Che and kill him. We're your bodyguards afterall. It's time for me to remember that."
Cort's eyes were open, his voice weak, his lips dry. But he smiled at Gi.
"Beginning of the end for us..."
"Don't say that..."
The young Prince shook his head, his bangs in his eyes, and grabbed at Gi's Seru-arm. "Don't follow me, "he ordered softly, "Because I don't like where it is I'm going..."
"What're you talking about--?"
"This Mist..." Cort replied, staring at the black-enshrouded ceiling above, "I don't know what it is, how I came up with it... not really. Was it Tieg? Or was it my own human nature finally rearing its ugly head; my human nature to destroy anything that allows it. Heh, war's nothing but an excuse for it... some excuse.... Gi. Please. Do not follow me. Leave the Palace, take your brother and sister. I don't have any choices anymore. I don't know how it came this far, but some how... I can't go back, I can't take it back. And... I don't really want to."
"Take what back? Cort, I mean, Prince, please quit this stuff. This quest you're on isn't your own... it's Zeto's..."
"It's my own."
"No!" Gi jumped to his feet, breathing hard and refusing to believe. "It's not! You're not a murderer! And you're not cruel, I've known you so long, almost all your life and you've never done anything ill to anyone! Why then do these things have to come back at you now?? Why did Zeto choose you? Damn it, I know. For those very reasons. You're too sensitive to all this nonsense."
Cort smiled at what he considered to be his friend's naivete, then closed his eyes, absently running a hand over the Seru on his chest. "Don't follow me, Gi. Don't allow anyone to. If this has to happen, I want you to go far away. Go to Rim Elm. Or, or Biron. Go somewhere safe. And don't.... don't follow.... me.... "
Cort lost consciousness with a sigh and Gi bowed his head, somehow knowing of the ill things at hand. The world was going to fall apart. And he didn't really understand why. Zeto... and that Seru... and that damned Mist. An ill-founded inspiration and a lifetime of guilt and anger finally coming to a head. Humanity had done this to his friend. Humanity and the Seru. The two elements of the world; God's two creations. Gi dropped a warm tear onto Cort's arm, then smeared the damp from his eyes and carefully slid his arms under his friend's back, cradling him for a moment, then picking him up completely. With solemn eyes and a hurt expression, Gi carried him down the dark laboratory hallway and back into the throne room, towards the Prince's chambers. At least he was asleep. He deserved that much.
"I'm your bodyguard but I can't protect you from your own head, "he whispered as he walked, his footsteps sounding as empty as his soul felt, "I'm your best friend but I can't help you fight your worst enemy. What use am I at all, Cort? Heh. Useless or not, I'll follow you to hell and back. And I'll die for you, Cort. That is my duty. And my honor. The Mist is salvation granted by God? Then by God, I'll fight by your side. Until there's righteousness in the world again, I'll fight by your side to end our follies. Maybe you're right. Maybe you're wrong. Maybe this isn't you at all... but loyalty is loyalty. And your views will be mine... my liege."
It was easy to say that; to let his conscience rest on another man's. Cort would be his conscience. He'd act accordingly.
"Damn you, Zeto... "he muttered, the harsh lights of the upper palace stinging his eyes. The tears dripping down his face didn't help. "But damn us too. And this war. This is inevitable, Cort, "he finally realized, staring at his friend's almost peaceful face. "You shouldn't feel so bad. This is inevitable."
The square was bustling with thousands of eager citizens. The testing of a new weapon against Sol, a weapon that might very well turn the tide and end the endless war for all time. The buzz was deafening, like a thousand unreleased bees all singing in unison, eager for honey. Royalty was there; King Nebular and his pregnant Queen. She shouldn't have been seen in public in such a condition but this was a special occasion and exceptions were being made. The entire Court was present; Dohati and Zora, the Delilas siblings, Lu, Che, and Gi, though the muttering crowds of Conkram all were of the opinion that Gi Delilas looked troubled. Zeto was there too, standing smiling in the sun, his golden tassels catching the light and twinkling merrily. He waved to the crowds and blessed the odd citizen, shaking hands and speaking benedictions towards the occasion. There were a few Soren hovering overhead, their wings flashing with opalescent rainbow colors in the early afternoon light. They watched the goings on below with nearly as much hope as the citizens of Conkram did. The fighting below soured the view. They wanted to able to see green again.
The crowd and the Royal Court was gathered around a massive glass sphere in the center of the square. Most immediate to the structure, Cort conversed with Jette in low, somber tones. The Prince was a different person, some of Conkram's citizens thought absently. He'd grown up, was how they interpretted it. His smile was gone, as weak as it always was. He only looked upon the crowd occasionally with a small sneer, dark, cold malignance in his eyes. He had a Seru now, they saw, and his attire had been altered according to that fact. But a Seru attached at the chest was a rare thing and got a lot of stares. Conkram loved its young, handsome Prince but they knew he was no warrior. What need could he have for a Seru? They shrugged it off though, too pleased with Cort to question anything he did now. He was going to end the war with his weapon. He was going to stop the deaths.
"An end to Sol!! An end to Gaza!!" the crowd chanted, Nebular and Minea looking on and beaming, never having been quite so proud of their son as they were now. Cort had earned their adolation, he'd worked hard, non-stop, to bring this all about. Nebular was certain now that he'd make a grand King when his day came to ascend to the throne.
Filling the clear blue air with a beautiful, imperial clattering, trumpets were suddenly blasted, long loud songs played to silence the crowds. The people fulfilled the request for quiet fitfully, desirous to continue patting themselves and eachother on the backs, to continue speaking with hope of the future. Stepping forward, Nebular made a speech, Dohati said a few words, and finally Zeto uttered a prayer. Then Jette left Cort's side to explain the particulars of the weapon they were about to test for the ignorant people. He gestured grandly, every bit as skilled an orator as a scientist. A Mist that maddened the Seru of their enemy, he told them in broad, sweeping tones. The crowd saw Gi Delilas stiffen quite noticeably as Jette spun his explanation, while Zeto smiled larger with every word, winking reassuringly to any nervous citizens that glanced his way. The people found themselves loving the massive, muscled priest and Zeto got a few friendly waves. He lapped them up like water from a trough.
A cloud of black among the rays of hope and pompousness, Prince Cort brooded over the controls to his sphere. He glared at the nervous Soldier behind the glass. A young man, his own age. He'd volunteered, eager to be the one to be able to grant so much hope to his people. Cort wondered if he had any idea what this Mist would do to him when it filled that sphere of glass. He hoped he didn't. But he'd find out soon enough.
The Prince wanted to get the testing over with, it bothered him that his parents felt the need to "test" the Mist at all. He'd designed it, he'd discovered it, of course it would function. But father had always been a grand one for show, he wanted to boost Conkram's morale with this little display. Let them have it, he thought bitterly, Let them see how I'll kill their enemies for them. What a bloody fantastic little display. Let that unborn child his mother carried see what awaited it when it was born into the Royal Family of Conkram. Destruction and madness. Yes, let it see... let them all see up close, what Sol would go through. Perhaps that would dull their enthusiasm. Perhaps it would make them start acting human again. Yet...
Yet, their lust for pain from their enemies was so human... It was a terrifying, maddening thought, but Cort wondered if he hated these people because they were human. He was the freak then.... the wrong one. No...
His hands closed around the sphere's controls, trembling, Jette's speech coming to his ears distantly. If those people were the pinnacle of humanity, if humanity wasn't mercy and love and understanding.... if it really was nothing but war and death and bloodlust.... Oh god....
He was acting human now then, wasn't he? By offering his weapon? Oh god....
If that was the case, he didn't want to be human. To be dirty and vicious and thirsty for murder.
But he didn't want to be a freak either.
His mind screamed, his hands tightened around the controls, the Seru grasping at him already, grasped harder, dug deeper.
"... researched and finally began to suspect its existance... "Jette was saying. Cort listened only distantly, thoughts fixating on darker matters, on pain and horrible, horrible truths that he prayed were really false, "...but the true wonder of this Mist isn't the Mist itself but rather the portal that his Highness Prince Cort has discovered leading to the Seru-Kai. The Mist flows from there like a river waiting to be tapped and used. It is truly a sign from Tieg that it is Conkram's destiny to be the victors in this war. Such a discovery is impossible to be made by mortal men but our Prince is blessed. Such is our sign... the sign that we shall prevail!!"
The heartening words caused a roar of approval to rise up from the crowd. Cort sneered, but inaudibly. Butchers, they all were... cheering deaths. Pigs, waiting to be slopped. And he was the bloody pigkeeper, the only sane one among them though he knew he himself had lost his sanity. He'd had to go insane to become sane. He'd had to have a breakdown to get by. Cort had no delusions about his own mind. He wouldn't fool himself. But he saw no need to find his sanity again. It made it so much easier to think about the consequences of his actions when he didn't think at all. The entwining Seru around his chest that grew larger everyday, it burned less, it hurt less when he didn't fight its control and its "aid". Fighting now was like dying a little more each time. Cort wondered how much time he had left.
He watched his white knuckles, clutching the two main levers of the sphere. The volunteer Soldier inside watched him frantically, hoping for a smile of reassurance. He was so young and nervous, the bulky Seru strapped around his arm almost too big for his slight frame. This Mist would hurt him... it might kill him... Cort didn't want to hurt anyone.
But the young volunteer was just another human. Another Soldier. Murderer, pig, filthy, dirty, weak human.
And so was Cort.
He didn't want to murder... but it meant nothing to kill a pig...
Oh, god.... this hurt. This hurt everywhere and his mind roared. Oh, god....
A sudden glance from Nebular snapped the young Prince from his thoughts and the King winked at him, a sign for Cort to give a speech, to encourage his people. But he felt no pride in what he was about to do. Only deep, maddening disgust, a disdain that spread and tented his feelings towards everyone in the kingdom. Everyone, he supposed, except Gi. Gi was the only one among them that knew the particulars, the evil in every one of their hearts. That was why Cort didn't want his best friend to be there. Gi was as he himself used to be, but stronger. He couldn't allow his friend to be twisted by his own dark purposes. Let Gi retain whatever innocence he could yet claim to possess. Let him remain a reminder of what Cort had had stolen from him.
"Prince..." Jette was hissing in his ear, "You should reassure the people, say something, don't you think, your highness?"
"Say something?" the young man replied, eyes blank, two pale hands on the controls to the sphere, "I say damn them all to hell. They're no better than Sol. No, that's not true. They have me. So they're worse. Connect the circuits. And let's give these pigs what they want."
The Mist was beautiful when it came. A vent opened in the bottom of the glass sphere and it oozed upwards in curling white fingers catching the morning sunlight and twisting in prismatic color, throwing shadows of light and smearing away the calves of the test subject inside. The young soldier looked nervous but he retained his smile, seperated from the thousands of eager faces outside by only this thin layer of glass. He slid his cold fingers against it, wondering how hard it would be to break, even as the cold Mist creeped up his legs, wrapping around him lovingly. It was like a million fingers all trying to invade his flesh and find his blood. It looked like fog, nothing more than mist off the fields in the early morning. He'd played among such things a lot, he was only a slight sixteen years old. Yet this Mist... this was different. He hoped it wouldn't hurt. He hoped whatever it was supposed to do wouldn't last long, that his Prince would keep him safe...
Nebular approached Cort, slight anxiety in his features as his subjects' attentions were drawn to the display, hearts in their throats, knuckles to their mouths. They watched the young Soldier's eyes darting anxiously at the rising mist inside the sphere, they watched the stuff center around his Seru and begin to thicken. "Cort, "Nebular whispered in his son's ear, Cort not turning to look at him, "You're sure that glass is unbreakable? We can't have that stuff curling around here. You're sure it's safe?"
The young Prince watched the Soldier beginning to writhe as the Mist seeped into his Seru's senses. The Seru, which controlled a small part of the mind of anyone who wore one, now began to increase control, digging with pincer-like claws into the man's brain. He moaned, falling to his knees, forgetting to be strong for his people, his King, his Prince. Colors exploded in his eyes and he began to lose consciousness.
"Safe?" Cort asked, watching him, "Perfectly safe."
A roar, and the crowd looking on released a thousand gasps in the crystal blue air of morning. Their Soldier was no more. He was on his side and screeching, humanity gone, a monster, spawned from the will of a maddened Seru. His skin was twisted, his features like an animal's with no thought or conscience or consciousness behind them. Only a bloodlust in his eyes, a thirst for murder as he began to pound on the glass. His roving, beast-eyes sought out the King's face and leered. The monster licked his lips, growling.
"By the Grace of God... "Nebular breathed, stepping back, unable to control himself, even with nearly the entire Kingdom looking on, "This isn't right.... is it? Is that what it does? It's inhuman... the Mist.... it turns them .... I don't.... " The King's mouth hung half open and he felt his Queen coming to his side, clutching his arm in a panic. "Cort, "he suddenly snapped, "Cort, turn that damned fog off. Get that man out of there. Now! Turn it off now! This is inhumane!"
The young Prince turned slowly away from the sphere, his hands clasped behind his back. Sweat ran down his face. "But father, "he said softly, panting between his words as though out of breath, "Inhumane, you say? No, no, no, this is so, so human... this is all you are and all you want. Isn't this what you want? What you want? Look, look how he's suffering, beating against the walls of his prision because the pain his Seru sends into his brain is so intense, even with his will gone, he can't stand it. Look, father, look at it. Your "weapon". My design, what you begged me for. Isn't it beautiful? Do you not love it? Aren't you bloody proud of how human your son is afterall? Your... heh heh, your Prince is a more efficient murderer than you... Sire."
Cort's voice was a maddened lilt, a soft song of insanity. His green and violet eyes shone softly in the sunlight, pointed at the sphere and the writhing creature inside. His right hand strayed up to grab at his chest but struck the Seru there instead. Beneath the folds of his shirt, he could feel the disgusting lump's hold on his body, feel the sharp spikes dug into his flesh. It felt like it had another hold on him though now. A stronger hold somewhere else... "What is this thing?" he whispered, "What is it doing to me? Father? Whose fault is this... oh, god... "
There was terror in Nebular's face but he tried to shove it away, seeing something wrong with his son. Cort had tears in his eyes and was sinking to the ground, gasping for air. The King reached down to brush the tears away, Minea stepping forward and about to wrap her arms around their tormented child, not needing to know the particulars, just that he was upset. But Cort wouldn't have it.
"Get away from me.... " he growled, a catch in his voice at the end of the words, "It's too late. By God.... it's too late.... no, no, no, no...noo... help me but don't.... god...."
Even as he spoke, the Seru-possessed human inside the sphere gave a resounding roar and beat both rock-hard fists against the inside of its prision. A hairline crack snaked its way vertically on the surface, marring the perfect crystal-cut glass, the soft flesh of the monster's hands splitting and smearing red blood against the walls. The citizens of Conkram stared in horror, their festivities ended, panicked shouts beginning to fill the air.
"No, Cort, "Nebular insisted, hearing their cries and grabbing his son firmly by the shoulder, "Control yourself, you're frightening the people with this display. What's going on? What's wrong? Are you hurt? And why are you saying such things, I've never wanted anything more from you than your respect and your love."
"Respect.... and love.... heh...." They didn't love him. He was the Prince was all. They'd used him for his intellect.... yes, his entire tortuous existance had been planned by them, to get him to make them this Mist.... yes.... they'd brought this upon themselves. But why? Why was Cort the one who had to make it happen, drop the ax? He clutched his head, eyes squeezing shut. There was nothing else. And it was too late to go back. And air was too precious a thing to waste now. He felt himself suffocating under the dark Seru's lust for his lungs, his heart, his mind. But it didn't matter... living was trivial. Living in a world of war was hardly living at all.
Cort didn't know where the thoughts were coming from but they suddenly made so much sense. So much sense it was funny. What a damn perfect time for revelations.
As Conkram Kingdom panicked, the glass sphere containing the Seru-possessed Soldier cracking and splitting further apart, hissing mists beginning to seep into the air, citizens struggling to disconnect their own Seru from their bodies, Nebular and Minea listened to their son's laughter. He sounded like a madman.
"You wanted something that'd kill, here it is.... here it is straight from Prince Cort of Conkram Kingdom. And Zeto too, and Gi. Yes, Gi, you hear me.... this was what I was working for and I didn't even know it. How god damned hilarious is that?"
Gi Delilas scowled upon hearing the words. He was a few feet off beside his brother and sister, trying to calm the crowds. He suddenly threw off a panicking man and dashed up to Cort, red eyes snapping in anger. The Mist was hissing from the cracks and the air seemed full of snakes. "Cort! Turn off the Mist! Now! Before there's no going back!"
The King and Queen both looked startled but Cort only laughed, holding onto his constricted chest and coughing, a small stream of blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth, dribbling down his chin. He saw red droplets hitting the dirt at his feet, spattering into perfect little circles and he laughed even harder, sobbing all at the same time. Blood and tears stained his shirtfront.
"No, Gi... you s-said you'd f-f-follow..... me?" He struggled to get the words out, stepping backwards and wrapping both his arms around the sphere's controls as the Seru monster's roars and the sound of shattering glass filled the air. "You said you'd follow me....? Well.... gghhaa-- well.... I'm ch-changing sides..... this blood-blackened Kingdom and its lying leaders don't.... d-don't deserve to win... I'll conquer this hole.... c-c-conquer it in the name of, of Sol.... "
"Cort!!" Nebular thundered, running forward angry and frightened to pry his son's hands away from the controls. "What's gotten into you?!"
"One thing, father.... "Cort replied, voice weak but hands like iron around the controls. That was his Seru's aid, that strength. It would help him kill, just as Zeto had promised. "One thing. The truth. Not Zeto's truths, or yours, or Gi's, or my own. A cosmic truth that's made me mad... but better to be mad... than a delusional pig like you..."
Nebular roared and leapt but was knocked aside by Gi's arm. The boy stood over his King frowning, tears rolling down his face. "I've cast my lot, Sire, "he explained, "I'm sorry. But maybe he's right.... maybe it all should go.... "
The King was going to protest, Minea was going to plea to Cort in a voice choked with sobs but the speeches never came. With a sound like a mountain splitting, the sphere burst apart, shards of glass exploding and slicing into the surrounding citizenry. The Seru Monster lunged, tackling a man and beginning to systematically tear him apart. As the Mist rolled out, spreading like a pool of cold dew, those it engulfed collapsed to the ground, their Seru maddening with the fog's mysterious properties and taking over their owners. Screams of pain and confusion filled the air and Zeto smiled at the pleasing song it created. He loved the music. He stood stoic and still near the remains of the sphere, watching the people die, watching the people turn into the very tools of Tieg's cleansing. He said a prayer of thanksgiving as Conkram fell apart. The Mists washed over him and he raised his arms, the sleeves of his cloak slipping down and revealing his eager flesh. The cold Mist against his skin made him laugh. With happy eyes, he listened to his Prince.
"Will you repent now, father?" Cort was asking through sobs, "Repent and help me? I don't want to hate you..."
"Help you?!" Nebular raged, "Cort! Son! What the hell is wrong with you! Where is all of this coming from?! I thought you were going to help us! I thought you were my son! My Prince! My Heir!"
"I am... more than that. I don't want to be what I was anymore. It was a miserable existance. If you can't understand that, father, then you can stay here in your rotting Kingdom and rot along with it. You love your precious Conkram so much that you'll kill your own people for it? To keep it safe? Then you can rot here with Mother for an eternity. Become one with these walls you love so much."
"Cort!" Minea sobbed, latching onto his shoulder, eyes fearful and glistening with tears, "Cort, love, what is it? This isn't you talking! What's happened?"
The young Prince shook his head, her words stinging his heart. But the emotion faded in almost an instant, and he coughed into his fist, grabbing his chest again. What was happening? Did he... did he want this? Of course he did. He wanted the deaths to stop... but that Mist, twisting around... it would hurt his people.... weren't those bodies on the ground? More... more death, always... oh, god... what was he doing? Why couldn't he stop?
Cort clutched his head in pain, Gi dashing to be by his side, while Nebular grabbed the Queen and began making for the Palace. The grounds around them were littered with corpses, blood splattering beneath the Royal couple's feet as they ran. Seru monsters were busily stalking anything that moved but the Soren above watched the murders in horror, their leader catching sight of the retreating royalty and swooping after them, fighting off the monsters threatening the King and Queen.
Minea looked to her husband for reassurance, halting in her mad dash, groaning suddenly and falling to her knees.
"What is it?!" Nebular demanded, jerking to a stop, clutching at her shoulders, "My love, what is it?"
"The baby... "she answered feebly, gasping, "It's coming.... "
Nebular plucked his wife from the ground and cradled her close, then resumed fleeing, the noise of his dying Kingdom sounding off his in his ears.
"What have I done..?" he murmered, Minea clawing at his chest feebly, moaning with pain, "Cort... my Cort... what have I done to him?"
"No... "Minea protested, "Go back to him, we can't leave him, something's wrong. No, Nebular, don't abandon him!"
The King ignored her, throwing himself inside his warm Palace walls and a few Soren followed him, a few citizens, and that was all. The thick iron gates clanged shut, hiding the guilt, the grief, the questions, behind thick walls of gorgeous white marble. They didn't open again.
Gi heard the sound and thought of it as a death sentence. The Mist was getting closer. The monsters were on the prowl. His own Seru was beginning to burn his skin.
"Prince!" Gi tried to calm his friend but Cort was beyond anything like that. Tears fell from his eyes and blood frothed at his lips as he cried out in agony. "It's.... k-killin' me.... "he sobbed, falling to his knees, "I don't want to die, Gi! D-don't want to, not now, I, I haven't had long enough... Mother.... I love you, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for this... if only I could be born again, into something else. I was just too weak and too unworthy to be what you wanted, what you needed... if only I could start over..."
Cort's Seru was absorbing the Mist and becoming stronger. Gi could feel his own Seru being affected by it and he began to feel dizzy, the edges of his vision blackening as the world around him swam in nauseating circles. Still, he clutched at Cort's shoulder, trying to keep his liege from falling to the dirt. "I don't care what happens, Prince, "Gi whispered, "I'll follow you. I'll follow you to hell, if I have to. I've cast my lot. I'm done with decisions. I wish I had more to give. But I've never had anything in this world but my life. It's yours.... "
The boy collapsed, his Seru pulsing with the Mist. Movement ceased in Conkram Kingdom, all movement save the Seru beasts who wandered aimlessly, beginning to leave the city and go out into the countryside, along with the horrible, curling Mist that just kept coming from the broken sphere. Zeto stood just as motionless as the corpses. His Prince and his entire Royal Court lay unconscious or dead on the ground, controlled by their Seru. The Seru would take what they were weakest in and make it what they were strongest at. Zeto laughed. Tieg had blessed them all.
"Cort... "he whispered, stepping forward until the boy was slumped just at his feet, "My beautiful, righteous Prince... and Gi, so faithful, such a friend. You all are worthy. I am glad to serve you, Cort. So, so glad."
The boy opened his eyes feebly, slow, cold horror passing over his face at the sight of the stacked and scattered bodies of his subjects. They littered the beautiful white marble grounds, their crimson blood seeping into the cracks, running to soak into his clothes. Silouhetted black against the Mist, human-shaped monsters mumbled and paced, eyes reduced to nothing but smears of insanity. Zeto was there too, his broad countenance close to his own. Cort couldn't speak, he could only stare out at it all. And cry.
A battleground stretched before him.
A battleground after the battle.
At the beginning of a new war.
The last thing Prince Cort of Conkram ever saw before falling into a deep and final slumber, were the glistening wings of a retreating Soren in the distance, a wailing bundle clasped in his strong arms. Then the Mist closed and the Kingdom slept.
Cort distractedly thought that perhaps that baby would be able to end the killing.
And be his second chance.