By Ian Taylor and Alex M Saccardo
Lysander felt each one of them die.
Nobody deserves to expend their last breath on the end of a blade, but such was the fate of many who served in Parthon’s Golden Garrison that day.
Lysander was their champion. They followed the same Light. Still, he couldn’t help but think he had led them astray.
Several hundred of Parthon’s most elite warriors would ride after Neferu’s army while the Champion of Death marched deep into Olympian territory. She had claimed so many cities in the name of the Anubian Empire, and the city of T’artess was next in her sights.
Her army of living, breathing warriors was bolstered by hordes of undead, the sheer numbers of which were a surging reminder of the chaos thrust upon Eucos – as unnatural as the permanent solar eclipse that mocked the Light above.
With every passing day the Anubian Empire grew, but the cost of life was catastrophic.
Lysander’s special unit expected to engage the Anubians just as the attack against the Olympians of T’artess began, thus splitting Neferu’s lines and providing enough of a distraction for Grand General Proteus’ main force to steal an unlikely victory.
The last thing Lysander expected was a trap.
The Anubian Rearguard had been a lot stronger than expected. The Olympians ran into hails of arrows and spears, as well as row upon row of mounted Anubians. Ranged attackers and cavalry were rare to find at the back of a marching army. This was a deliberate ruse, and Lysander had fallen for it.
The Golden Garrison fought well, as they always did. If they had fears, they were not apparent. They were the best that Parthon had, but they had been outmaneuvered.
Hopes of victory became hopes of survival, but as more and more swords fell from lifeless hands, hope was replaced with acceptance of the inevitable. Those who fell, rose again.
It was not long before the screaming stopped. There were no more Olympians left to kill.
Lysander had no plan. His soldiers had taken a good number of Anubians with them, but there were still thirty or forty left. All human. Each harboring fantasies of being the one who killed the Champion of Light.
Lysander knew he could just leave. He could take each enemy soldier to the Divine Coronet, one by one, and listen to their screams as he threw them off.
But no. This was war. If these Anubians died by his spear, it would be with a weapon in their hand and a curse on their lips. He would stay true to himself, to the Light, and to Kadmos.
It was more than pride that Lysander felt for his son. Kadmos was never one to back down from anything or anyone, and he had grown so much in the last few years. Kadmos had promised to stay and fight side by side with the Tartessians – once enemies of Parthon, despite both being Olympians. His son finally saw the bigger picture, and Kadmos gave himself completely so they could live.
Yes, it was more than pride Lysander felt. His son inspired him to be better.
Lysander prayed Kadmos would live to see the Light return to Eucos. The Champion of Light had been broken twice in his lifetime, and mended only once. If Kadmos died as a result of Lysander’s failings… not even a god would be able to repair that damage. That third shattering would be his last.
Lysander had followed the Light all of his life, and he had already sacrificed so much to remain on its path, but lately he had felt as if he had taken a wrong turn. The Light should have called on a healer to be its champion. Or a shepherd. It should have no use for a warrior.
And yet, here he was: Lysander, the Champion of Light in a world cast in shadow. The Light seeks the truth, so why did it choose him? Why did Thaeriel…?
Lysander’s attention turned back to the Anubians as they finally started to swarm in. The soldiers did not attack at once, they came in a few at a time. The first was probably hoping for an easy kill, the ones hanging back no doubt preferring to face a tired, possibly wounded Champion of Light.
Lysander was ready. He would give them the death they worshiped, if that was the path they chose. His mercy was not limitless, but even on this dark day when his army was slaughtered he would stay his hand when the opportunity arose.
Seeing Lysander’s confident defensive stance, the Anubians stopped their tentative charge. Lysander took advantage of their reticence. While by no means fluent, Lysander had picked up a few words of the Anubian dialect used by traders and nomads.
He shouted a short phrase that he understood to mean “There is no shame in escape.”
What he actually said was closer to “Cowards feel no shame.”
This might have worked on a single Anubian soldier. Maybe even a pair. But the group became emboldened and resumed their charge with as much vigor as before.
As the first approached, Lysander heard a noise. Or to be more accurate, became aware of a noise. It was very subtle. Like the peal of a temple bell dissipating in the air on a crisp morning.
A tall, skinny soldier with more hair than sense swung at Lysander, a sword in each hand. Lysander deflected one blade and dodged the other before carving a gash in the man’s exposed chest. He fell screaming to the dirt and wisely scrambled away. His friend stopped mid-swing and tried to turn but was met with a quick jab to the side of his knee.
Lysander stepped back and readied himself for the next in line. He repeated the Anubian phrase but it once again served as an inflammatory taunt. Two more soldiers charged. A third drew out a longbow.
The words reverberated through his entire being, but Lysander didn’t miss a beat. He moved faster than the inexperienced archer expected. He ducked the arrow and swept the legs of the first soldier with his spear. Without looking, he cracked the blunt end against the skull of the second Anubian, and caught a spray of hot blood for his trouble.
The Light has returned to Eucos. I am free.
Lysander kicked the second soldier to the ground, where he lay groaning. He cast a dull shadow, a perversion of Light under the black sun.
Had the Light really returned?
Another arrow whistled through the air, cutting his thought short, and the first soldier chose that precise moment to spring up and attack. It struck him in the shoulder. The man turned to his rather sheepish comrade in shock. Lysander closed the gap between them and silenced his protestations with military and proper right cross to the jaw.
Thanks to you, many Olympians across Tartessos will choose a more honorable path. A path that leads to the Light. To me.
Lysander could not ignore the voice any longer. “Tartessos walks its own path, Lord Thaeriel.”
Ah, you do not yet understand the majesty of my Light, and the power of its absence.
Lysander stared down the rest of the Anubians. No others had dared to step forward, but this sudden armistice would not last long.
The sun was still dark.
“Was this your plan?” Lysander asked.
Yes. I anticipated the betrayal by my kin but the outcome was assured. War brings destruction. Survivors turn to despair. And despair brings people to the Light.
“Our sacrifices… they are a game to you.” Lysander paused, realization beginning to dawn. “Do you even feel them any more?”
It is the way of things.
“Did you ever?” he pressed.
But there was no response.
“Answer me!” yelled Lysander.
The echo of stampeding hooves filled the silence that followed Lysander’s outburst. The Anubians started to flee, but they couldn’t escape the Amazon warriors who ran them down. Lysander covered his face to keep out the dust. When he lowered his hand, he found the horses were gone. So was the battlefield.
The Divine Coronet.
A place between realms, high above the clouds. Lysander once brought Neferu here to convince her to abandon her bloody crusade, now he stood in front of a god.
The living aspect of Thaeriel stood near the edge, looking out towards the expanse that showed an impossible view of Eucos. Thaeriel had the power to stand over mountains, exist as a glimmer on the wind, or shine upon all the mortals of Eucos. But he was here, now, with Lysander. His living aspect looked as if it had been plucked from the great tapestries in the Sanctum of Parthon. A warrior king clad in armor that glowed with majesty, a vision made even more brilliant against his dark powerful wings.
From here, one could see more of Eucos than from any other vantage point. The sky was clear and blue, as if the eclipse didn’t touch this place. Thaeriel didn’t turn to face Lysander, and instead addressed his rebuke to the vastness he beheld.
“Choose your words with greater care, champion,” said Thaeriel. “You and I are not equal.”
Far below, the Battle of Whiteplain raged on, and a strange new sensation stirred inside Lysander. It was as if he could feel those moving through the fray.
A pair of Anubian blades shone in the dark as they carved through the lines of Valknir who had come to aid the Olympians, experienced clansmen all. The wielder was unstoppable, clearing a path for her allies, and the undead, to follow.
She too was in pain, a pain caused by injustice, and driven by revenge. She had felt the weight of Olympians long-deceased press down on her people for too many years, and she fought to make their ancestors pay.
In Light’s absence, Death would shine.
Lysander collected his thoughts, piecing together the most searing fragments of his mind.
“This chaos… the pain it’s caused… it’s because of you. Isn’t it?”
“We were meant to have order.” stated Thaeriel. “You. Me. Eucos. If you had been quicker. More obedient. If you had pulled me out of the chains when I commanded it. When all the other gods were trapped. We would have order.”
“Valka,” Thaeriel scoffed. “A mere pawn of Ludia’s feeble insubordination. Deception is a foolish domain. But that is neither here nor there. We are here. Now. The domains leak across Eucos. Perverted. Chaos reigns, and those who wish to reject it, will seek the light.”
Lysander stood in silence, the truth – an unbelievable weight – pressing down upon him. He’d seen the signs, he just couldn’t conceive of the Light straying so far. How could this have happened?
“When my Elania was taken from me,” Lysander began, swallowing hard at the memory, “I told my son that his mother’s sacrifice was painful to us, but that it was more painful to you. He accepted that, and his love for Thaeriel grew stronger as he carried that thought in his heart. The Light lived within his mother, and nobody would feel the loss of her Light more than the God of Light himself… was I wrong?”
Lysander stepped closer to Thaeriel, looking for a reaction, any reaction. There was none.
“The times I held the hand of a comrade in arms, wounded beyond the ken of the healers. I told them to rest easy. That Thaeriel would welcome them into the Light… did you?”
“When I bowed my head in worship alongside hundreds of others doing the same during weekly gatherings in the Sanctum of Parthon…did you hear any of those prayers?”
Thaeriel just stared out at the horizon.
“Each sacrifice is felt an appropriate amount,” said Thaeriel. “You mention your son. Kadmos is a good man. He fights with the Olympians of T’artess, despite their differences, and I have arranged a glorious and heroic death for him.”
Lysander took a half-step back. The words left him feeling as though his soul had just been drained away. A strangled noise escaped his throat, but nothing else.
“If he knew how many Olympians would turn to me after seeing his valiant end, Kadmos would willingly agree that this is indeed a worthy sacrifice. You have doubts, my champion, but you should have faith.”
Through the supreme effort of a lifetime spent on battlefields, Lysander took control over his emotions. Most of them at least.
“You would sacrifice 99 followers to gain a hundred?” he asked in disbelief.
Thaeriel nodded slightly. “Of course.”
The battle below began to escalate, and Lysander felt a surge of desperation.
Olympian, Valknir, Amazon, and Anubian blood flowed freely over the plains in front of the White Mountain.
One Olympian stood tall. Her sheer defiance inspired those around her. And then… she fell. Taken by a blade meant for another. The color drained from her skin; her grip on her staff wavered.
What was it all for?
But she wasn’t done yet. Once more, she stood, white light exploding around her as she desperately tried to shield her allies, desperately holding onto the hope that a new dawn would come.
Lysander’s jaw clenched.
“It’s clear to me now that you covet suffering and blind obedience.”
The breeze. The slight rustle of vines. Otherwise, silence.
He didn’t need a response, nor expect one. For a rare moment in his life, he had so much to say.
“You chose a military man as your champion. For so long I wondered why, when it was so obvious. You needed someone trained to follow when given a command. You encourage combat by suggesting war is a process of cleansing. And from that destruction, you arrive with a promise of hope. You exploit the weak, only elevating those that have hit their lowest point. And you are willing to sacrifice many, including my son, to gain power for yourself.”
Thaeriel turned to face Lysander head on, the glint in his eyes revealing a wordless threat. “I refuse to be judged by other gods. I most certainly will not be judged by you.”
“What makes you fear judgement?” asked Lysander. “One who serves the Light should welcome it.”
“I do not serve the Light,” said Thaeriel. “I am the Light!”
His words were punctuated by a growl of thunder. Thick and angry clouds roiled overhead, blanketing the sky. Champion and god stared at each other. A gentle rain began to fall.
“You are on the wrong path,” Lysander said, coolly. “I see that now. May the Light guide you back.”
“Ignorant speck,” spat Thaeriel through clenched teeth, his voice tense with irritation. “How ungrateful you are to be my champion.”
“I am not your champion,” said Lysander. “I serve the Light.”
“I AM THE LIGHT!” yelled Thaeriel.
Lightning struck nearby. The rain began to pour, heavy now, pelting the smooth floors of the Divine Coronet.
Lysander stood firm. “The Light is greater than all of us. Including you.”
Thaeriel scowled. “Leave my sight, Lysander! You are dismissed. The path of Light, my path, is closed to you.”
“I will not,” said Lysander, his voice raised to combat the building storm.
“Then you defy the Light.”
“No,” said Lysander. “I defy you.”
Thaeriel whirled, and Lysander realized that he was no longer holding his spear. It was now in Thaeriel’s hand, and the God of Light was moving faster than Lysander could react. The champion watched his own spear driven through his chest and felt the tip explode from his back.
The pain was brief. And then his consciousness was everywhere at once.
Images passed Lysander’s field of vision. Slices of his life. Meeting Elaina for the first time. His death at the hands of the Tartessians. Kadmos, winning his first fight. Lying in the healer’s tent after being wounded at Shifting Sand. His first night waking up under the stars in the Thebian highlands.
All the moments of his mortal life, a life that ends here, on his own spear, by the god he once trusted.
Only… his previous death had felt very different. This time, he felt more than his own being, more than the Light, at work.
Something in the Cosmos had shifted.
He was not ready to go.
Despite the sheer force of Thaeriel’s blow. Lysander’s body somehow resisted. He felt the spear work through his chest, and Light, rather than blood, spilled out from the wound in Lysander’s back.
Thaeriel staggered back. “Impossible,” he said.
Lysander stared at Thaeriel, something had changed between them.
“Tell me what is happening!” demanded the God of Light.
Lysander took a step closer to Thaeriel, who scuttled back in fear. The light from his wound had grown brighter and seemed to be changing. It called to him, and he finally understood. He guided the light spilling out of his back to spread in two directions, and it complied, forming two radiant wings.
Thaeriel’s mouth dropped. The action was answer enough, and he continued to back away towards the edge of the Coronet. All of Eucos was visible below, an impossible view previously incomprehensible to Lysander, but one that now seemed very familiar. With every moment, he felt Thaeriel’s Light fading.
Lysander effortlessly plucked the spear from his chest.
“I am sorry, Thaeriel,” he said. “The Light has judged you.”
“Please!” cried Thaeriel. “Stop this!”
“I can only offer my blessing. Your fate is your own doing, but where you go from here is up to you.” Lysander bowed his head. “Be at peace, Thaeriel.”
Thaeriel turned to look over the edge of the Coronet but he stumbled as the ground splintered beneath him. Panicked, Thaeriel scrambled away, barely able to get back to his feet. He tried to run towards Lysander but the ground once again lurched and he stumbled back towards the edge.
The clouds parted as the broken edge of the Coronet fell away with a definitive crack. Thaeriel grabbed at anything he could to prevent his fall, but it was an impossible task. He plummeted through the air, one hand reaching towards Lysander. His wings turned to ash. All he could do was scream as he tumbled down. Down the path he chose. One that led into oblivion.
Lysander felt his loss.
The second that Thaeriel’s voice could no longer be heard, there was another flash of light that seemed to come from everywhere. Knowledge filled Lysander’s head like the bells of a temple all sounding at once. He was overwhelmed. Or at least…he should have been, but somehow he was able to withstand it all.
Everything opened to him.
He heard the prayers of the inhabitants of Eucos. He sensed their grief. He felt their joy. He shared their amazement as cracks rippled through the statues in the Sanctums; Thaeriel’s visage fell away, being replaced by the cracked symbol of something, someone, new.
He felt the world begin to mend. The sun shine once again on Eucos. Countless undead return to a final, permanent rest. Weapons dropped to the ground in victory, and in defeat.
He felt the flesh burn off a being who plummeted from a great height, its armor twisting and warping as it made a transition between realms. The last of the Light drained from its body, leaving behind golden scars upon its mortal flesh; a cold fire in its heart.
He felt it all. He felt the Light fill him, Eucos – and the Cosmos as a whole – returning to its natural state: an alignment of the domains.
And then, a familiar cry cut through his reverie.
Lysander gripped his spear.
He would not lose his son.
He would help Kadmos. He would help them all.
Lysander was the new God of Light.
But he was a father first.
Somewhere in the depths of Eucos a figure pulled itself up off the ground.
The cold hard dirt felt brittle between its fingers, and its joints… his joints, actually hurt for the first time in eons. A stab of pain rushed through his arms and ran up his neck. So foreign. So pitiful. He used his sword to steady himself. The handle was hot to the touch but, as everything in his body seemed to burn, it was a mere trifle by comparison. The blade itself had become twisted and gnarled, a rejection of the Light, but there was a comforting order in its chaotic design.
The gravity of his fall hit him, and he quelled a burning fire inside. This world had pushed and pulled its inhabitants for too long, but a greater law had finally revealed itself. The rules of the domains, the law of the Cosmos…
He had been a fool.
Against such forces, a new form of order would need to be established.
And he knew exactly where to start.