Chapter 32 - Serana

Artorias woke in his own bed to the sound of crackling flames and the smell of burning flesh.  Sunlight was peeking through his windows, and he knew that it was morning.

He felt weak, far too weak to do much more than slowly run his hands over his body, trying to check his wounds.  Timotheos had left him with numerous cuts and bruises in addition to the knife to the chest, not to mention the burns from the fire mage on his back, but Artorias couldn’t feel any of them.  It seemed like they were all healed!

But that also left him confused.  His wounds were gone, meaning Leon must’ve done something.  Artorias did remember thinking he heard Leon’s voice before he fell unconscious, but that didn’t explain his weakness.  If he were healed, then he should’ve regained enough strength in those few hours to do more than weakly move his hands.

Artorias stopped thinking about that for a moment.  He had just woken up, after all, so he cleared his mind, and took a second to chase all the grogginess out of his head.  Then, he re-evaluated himself.

His body was devoid of mana.  His blood didn’t have even a single wisp of magical power within it.  His heart gave a startled jump when he realized that, but he was in for far more dire realizations as he continued.  He threw off the blanket that was covering him, and he found that the veins in his chest had turned black, and when he tried using his magic body to see inside, he found that his bones were no longer producing blood or mana.  All the marrow within him was melting into a black sludge, and the only reason he wasn’t screaming in pain, he realized, was a pair of pain-relieving spells on his forearms.

Artorias was panicking now, but his body was so weak he couldn’t do any more than just lay there and continue evaluating his condition.  As it was, he doubted he would live much longer in this state.

His body was a mess, even though all his surface wounds had been healed.  Now, he cast his magic body into his soul realm.

He appeared seated on a throne of white marble on a platform of clouds, high up in a bright, circular throne room at the center of his mind palace.  He immediately rose and vanished out of one of the large nearby windows.  He didn’t stop for a moment to look at anything in the heavenly palace he had constructed but instead flew straight to the edge of his soul realm in an instant.

Normally, the soul realm would always be surrounded by an endless bright grey fog, known as the Mists of Chaos, but that wasn’t what Artorias found.  The sight that greeted him at the very edge of his soul realm was a blackened mist that was slowly dissolving his soul realm, breaking it apart and swallowing it piece by piece.

At that moment, Artorias knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was going to die.

He experienced a whirlwind of emotions, fear, anxiety, sorrow, anger, fury, and so much more.

He raised his fists and screamed at the heavens, in a primal bellow to vent his frustrations, and when he allowed his arms to fall, his face was covered in tears.

He was dying.  He had maybe another day to live, at the rate his soul realm was being consumed.

He stared, hollow-eyed, at the oncoming black fog for a few minutes more, then withdrew his magic body back to his mind palace.  He collected himself, then sat back down on his throne.

His eyes opened, back in his house, and he calmed his wildly beating heart.  If this was going to be it, he decided, then he would go out with some dignity, dammit!  He would honor the memory of his family and his ancestors by not losing his civility in his final moments.

Taking some time to collect his thoughts, he began running through a mental checklist of things he prepared for this event back when he had first started building here.

A few minutes later, his door opened, and Leon entered, dusting off a bit of soot on his shirt as he closed the door behind him.  He looked up and saw that Artorias was awake.

“You’re up!”

Artorias smiled weakly back at his son.  “Your powers of perception are truly legendary, little lion,” he said sarcastically.  He waved Leon over as best he could and had him pull up a nearby chair.  Leon looked alright, no sign of any injuries from the previous night.  “How are you doing?  I thought you had a few broken ribs at least, but you look fine…”

Leon smiled with a bit of embarrassment.  “I did.  When I woke up, you had just finished killing that last guy, then collapsed.  It was kinda painful, but I carried you in here after digging out a few healing spells to stop the bleeding.” Leon nodded to a first-aid box Artorias had made several years ago.  It was normally filled with half a dozen minor healing spells as well as an assortment of other materials for use in making bandages, tourniquets, and splints should those spells fail or prove inadequate, but now those spent spell sheets were lying crumpled up in a pile next to it.  “Afterwards, I searched those bodies and found some much cooler healing spells.  I used two to fix up my ribs, they finished healing a couple hours ago.  Then, I used the last one on you, to clean up the last of your wounds.  How do you feel?”

“… You did a good job, my boy, you really did.  I assume what I’m smelling are our unruly guests being disposed of?  Did you find anything interesting on them beforehand?”

Leon shook his head.  While Artorias was unconscious, Leon had searched their bodies, stripping them of anything of value he found.  They had a fair amount of money, some high-quality weapons, and those powerful healing spells, but little else.  There was no identification, nothing that might’ve told Leon where they had come from or why they attacked.

Once he was done with his search, he piled up their bodies and drew three crude fire runes around them.  He wanted to burn their bodies until they were completely unrecognizable, then bury the remains in the forest, but the fire didn’t start immediately.  After some fiddling around with it, he eventually realized that his fire runes weren’t drawn correctly and tried to correct them.  It took him three tries with the runes before he managed to get the bonfire started.  At this point, the flames were almost half as tall as the obelisk, and he wasn’t sure if there would even be anything left to bury when the fire died down.

“That’s a shame, I was hoping they might have carried something that might have indicated where they came from, though I guess they would’ve had something like that in their soul realm…”  Carrying things in a mage’s soul realm was always pretty risky.  If the mage suffered critical damage to their soul realms, then their things could be lost.  If the mage died, however, then whatever they had in there would certainly be lost forever, which is why most generally kept their wealth and other valuables locked up in a Heaven’s Eye bank, so their families wouldn’t be ruined if they were unexpectedly killed. 

Artorias glanced out of the window for a brief moment, then sighed and turned back to Leon.  “Listen, Leon, we need to talk.”

Leon had been absentmindedly looking around but looked back at his father after hearing his uncharacteristically serious tone.

“You did a wonderful job patching the two of us up, you really did.  The absolute best you could under the circumstances.  However, I think that that dagger I was stabbed with was poisoned.”  Leon’s eyes widened in shock and his heart jumped in fear and panic.  Artorias used as much strength as he could, and raised his arm, resting it on his son’s shoulder to calm him down.  “I’m probably not going to live long enough to see tomorrow morning.  You need to keep calm, and listen to me now, ok?”

Leon had no idea what to say, he had never been in a situation like this before and was caught off guard.  His face contorted with grief, anger, worry, and formed twisted expressions he had no words for.  But, his father had raised him to have a powerful killing intent, raised him in the wilds where death was nearly omnipresent and had taught him about death almost from the moment the young boy could hold a bow.

After a whirlwind of emotion, Leon shut his eyes, grit his teeth, and regained control of himself.  His face settled back into his usual stony expression, though not without a few twitches and minor grimaces.  He could be strong for now, at least until Artorias had said his piece.  No, he would be.

When Leon’s face fell back into stoicism, Artorias smiled and continued.

“I’ve never told you about your mother.  That was never fair to you, I let my own grief and anger get to me.  I’m sorry about that, little lion, I should have been strong enough to tell you about her.  A child should know about his parents, especially you, given that the reason she’s not around is the same reason we’re in this vale.”  Artorias paused, searching for the right words, while Leon listened with rapt attention.  He had asked about his mother before, but Artorias had never given him any real, concrete answers.

“Let’s see, I suppose we should start when we met.  I wasn’t much older than you, it was only a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday.  I was killing some time with some of my friends at a private arena in Teira one of them owned.  It was a nice, chill time.  Some booze, some flirty hosts and hostesses, good food.  There were some small fights going on for the entertainment of the other patrons, but we were only there to hang out and weren’t really paying attention.

“Well, that is, until one person started winning.  And not just winning, she was annihilating her opponents with a single wave of her hand!  She wasn’t even using any elemental magic, she was just tossing them out of the fighting ring one after the other!

“When I finally turned my attention to her after ten straight victories, I was immediately captivated.  Hair as dark as night, and these striking gold eyes.  In fact, you get your eyes from her, little lion.  And her face, her body…”  Artorias lost himself for a moment, reminiscing about his wife and her extremely fit and well-endowed figure, but a glance over to Leon brought him back to reality.

“Ahem!  Serana was exceptionally strong and beautiful, even by the standards of a prideful son of House Raime.  Watching her fight drove me and my lady-loving friends almost into a frenzy.  When she ran out of scheduled opponents, we practically tripped over ourselves challenging her, trying to get her to notice us.

“She accepted all of our challenges, but only after gouging out ten pounds of silver from each of us.  And she beat every one of us in turn.”  Artorias’ face then broke out into a broad smile, and he puffed out his chest in pride.  “But I, I was the sole man among us who managed to take one of her strikes and not be immediately thrown out of the ring.  Of course, I was pushed right to the edge and just defending against her overwhelmed me, let alone going on the attack, but I will never forget the words she said to me right before hitting me again and finishing the match.  She smiled at me, then said, ‘Huh.  I’ve decided that I like you.’  Then, she kicked me, and I fell on my ass, to the great amusement of the crowd.

“Needless to say, I asked her out, but she just smiled at me and refused.  Now, little lion, sometimes, when you want to woo someone, you do embarrassing things that you look back on and think, ‘Kill me.  Kill me now.’”  Artorias chuckled, then began turning a bit red from shame.  “I’ll spare you the gory details, but she continued to fight there, and even appeared in other, larger arenas.  I never missed a single match, and I even challenged her a few more times.  We got on good terms, and after some persuasion, I convinced her to come back to the palace and be my sparring partner.

“Half a year later, we were thoroughly in love, and we weren’t fighting during those sparring sessions anymore, hehehe….”  Leon facepalmed; he didn’t want to hear about that. 

“… But things couldn’t stay that way forever.  I asked her to marry me, and she said yes.  We were happy as could be for a few weeks while we made our wedding plans until I finally introduced her to my father.  He… was not so happy.  ‘She’s just a commoner!’  ‘An arena whore is no match for you!’  ‘She doesn’t love you, she just wants your name!’”  Artorias put on a very high-pitched and nasally voice when he quoted his father, something which he knew would’ve infuriated the man if he were there. 

Leon was bursting with questions, but he kept his quiet.  He wanted Artorias to continue, as he didn’t forget that his father told him to listen.

“Well, he never did accept us.  So, two and a half years later, we lived in the capital, rather than Teira.  We were married, I had just broken through to the fourth-tier, been introduced to the king himself, and assigned to his personal guard.  Serana had just given birth to you, and she was running our small, private estate by herself.  Things were as perfect as they could be.

“But, good times don’t last.  I remember that day, the day that shattered our lives and forced the two of us to flee all the way to this desolate pile of nothing.”  Artorias’ face rapidly shifted, going from a happy smile to a much darker expression, like barely contained fury and anguish.  Leon recognized it as the one his face would always shift into whenever he asked about his mother before now.

“It was fifteen years ago, and I heard a knock at our front gate…”

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Ooooooh, finally getting some solid details about their history!

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Chapter 33 - Fifteen Years Ago

Chapter 31 - The Fight