Chapter 34 - Artorias' Last Breath

Leon was stunned by Artorias’ story.  The attack on the villa, his mother and her cousins ‘Fain’ and ‘Ryker’, these black-clothed men.  He had just been given plenty to process, but Artorias wasn’t quite done yet.

“I hid in the forests by the capital for a while, before I realized that they weren’t following me.  I rented a room back in the city and laid low for several days.  I hoped Serana would return.  I waited at an old temple, built back before the first Bull King began conquering his neighbors—when the people there still worshipped the sky.  We were married there, and if she came back, that’s where she would’ve gone.

“But she never came.  I waited there a week, and she never came.”  Artorias’ voice was growing weaker, but Leon could still hear the sorrow and bitterness in it. 

“We couldn’t stay there.  The villa was gone, Serana was gone, and my father had disowned me for marrying her.  I could’ve gone back to Teira, done my best to make peace with him, I doubt he would’ve thrown his own infant grandson out onto the street.  But, I was still angry at him.  I took us north, keeping away from prying eyes.  The kingdom thought me dead, and that was for the best.  No one knows the Great Plateau like my family.  There are hidden paths in and out of the Northern Vales, and we slipped through one, arriving here undetected.  After meeting and staying with Torfinn for almost a year, I brought us here, and made it our home.”

“But it was never meant to be permanent…” said Leon quietly.  He remembered a certain ‘training expedition’ five years ago where Artorias took him south through one of those hidden paths.  They stayed far away from any settlements larger than fifty people and made camp several miles away from the outskirts of Teira.  Artorias made Leon wait at the camp, then went into the city.

Leon waited almost the entire day for his father to return, and when he did, he made them pack up and go back north immediately.  It didn’t matter that the sun was setting, they left immediately and were back north of the Frozen Mountains as soon as their legs could carry them.

Artorias’ mood had been weird when he returned, too.  He’d brought a number of books and maps, but he hardly said more than a few words at a time for the next month.

Artorias nodded to Leon, acknowledging him as correct.  “Indeed, this was never meant to be a permanent home.  Five years ago, when we went to Teira, I had meant to find my father and finally make peace.  I had talked myself into thinking that those who attacked our villa in the capital surely weren’t still in the kingdom, they had most certainly moved on by now.

“But when I arrived at the palace, I found it in ruins.  My childhood home was completely wrecked, with hardly a single column left standing.  I asked a nearby citizen what had happened, and he told me that my father and brother had been killed in the battle that destroyed the palace.  No one knows who did it, but their description was familiar: masked men dressed in black.”

Leon understood.  It was obvious what had happened, after failing to find Artorias, their enemies had guessed that he’d gone to his father for help.  They attacked and killed the Archduke, but still failed to find them.

“I should have told you all of this sooner, little lion.  It shouldn’t have taken this… It shouldn’t have taken death to loosen my tongue…”  Artorias’ voice was growing even weaker.  It was becoming a challenge for him to continue speaking, but he needed to.  There were a few last things he wanted Leon to know.

“You’re not going to die, Dad, just tell me what I can do!”

Artorias sighed and smiled at his son.  “There isn’t anything that can be done, my boy.  You already did everything you could when you used those healing spells.  By now, my soul realm is less than ten miles, and I’m not long for this world.”

Leon didn’t want to believe it, but Artorias wouldn’t let him deny it.  Leon’s hands clenched into fists, but his eyes still remained dry.  Artorias appreciated that.  He didn’t want his last memories of his son to be of him crying.

Artorias took a deep breath.  Breathing was starting to get hard, so he had to use it a bit more judiciously.

“Listen, when I’m gone, destroy the obelisk.”

“Wha-… Destroy it?”

“Yes.  Use the circle I designed for it.  There’s something buried underneath that I want you to have.  Other than that, there are maps and books in this house that you will find useful too.  And check the sleigh in the ice shack.  I got you a present when we were last in Vale Town, supposed to be for your birthday…”

“I-… yes.” was all Leon could say.

“Do me one last favor, little lion, won’t you?”

“Anything.”

“Good.  Do you remember the ending to the ‘Epic of Antares’?”  Artorias’ face had gone almost bone white, but his expression still turned somewhat embarrassed.

“Of course.”

“Look in the front pouch of my satchel.”

Leon stiffly walked across the room towards the satchel, and after a moment of rummaging around pulled out two small objects.  They were the heartwood seeds Artorias had found when they had gone out to awaken Leon’s bloodline!  One was glowing a bright gold, so bright that Leon almost had to squint to see it.  The other was completely black, like a lump of coal.  If it didn’t have a radiant magical aura, Leon would assume it was dead.

Leon understood what Artorias wanted, now.  At the end of the Epic of Antares, the titular character is buried in the tradition of the gods; his heart is removed and replaced with a Heartwood seed.

Leon’s hand clenched over the seeds, and he slowly turned back to Artorias.  He looked his father directly in the eye and nodded.

Artorias smiled at his son.  Leon numbly walked back over and sat down.  Neither spoke for what seemed like an eternity.

Artorias broke the silence when he weakly held up his arm and placed it on Leon’s shoulder.

“I don’t say this as often as I should, but I love you, my son, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

He didn’t have the strength left in him to pull Leon into a hug, but Leon didn’t need to be pulled.  He gently wrapped his arms around his father, and the two men held each other close.

“I’m going to find Mom.  I’m going to find her, and I’m going to make those who separated us and killed our family pay.  They’ll realize that making an enemy of House Raime was the worst mistake of their lives.”

Artorias smiled and gave a weak chuckle.  “I’d expect nothing less from my son, and the descendant of the Thunder Kings.”

Leon and Artorias separated.  Leon didn’t quite know what to do with himself.  He was shaking, Artorias noticed.

“Get out of here,” Artorias said light-heartedly.  Leon looked back in confusion.  “Go on.  You shouldn’t have to be here.  We’ve both said what we need to, now go on, let me die in peace.”  Artorias’ usual smile wasn’t on his face, but he did his best to get it there.

“Go!  I don’t want you to watch me die.  You’re my son.  I don’t want you to see me die.  Go!  Leave me to my thoughts.”  Artorias was more insistent now.  As insistent as he could be.

Leon slowly stood and walked to the door.  Just as he was about to leave Artorias’ bedroom, he turned back and said, “I love you, Dad.  Goodbye.”

Artorias managed to give him a warm smile one last time, and Leon was out the door.

Leon felt numb.  He didn’t quite feel what was happening was real, but he walked out of Artorias’ house anyway.  He stumbled across the cracked and broken stones in the courtyard and collapsed before the obelisk.

He sat with his back against the cool stone for a long time, he didn’t know how long.  It began raining sometime, but he barely noticed.  The bonfire that had consumed the bodies of Adrianos, Timotheos, and the others in the kill team died down, leaving nothing but ash and a few charred bones.  Leon still just sat there, completely numb to it.

After Leon left, Artorias let his smile drop.  ‘This is it, eh?’ he thought.  After losing Serana, it was always his dream to find her, to put what remained of his family back together.  That would never happen now.

Artorias began tearing up.  He couldn’t help it.  No one wants to die, least of all someone who still has unfinished business.

He kept his mouth shut, though.  Leon was all he had left, and he wasn’t going to let his son’s last memory of him be of a broken man crying out of regret.

Leon had grown into a man he could be proud of.  Artorias had done his best to raise Leon in as safe an environment as he could find, and he hoped that Leon would be able to find his own way in the world now.  His only regret about his son was that, out of Artorias’ own paranoia, Leon never grew up with other people around.  He wasn’t a social person.

But he was strong.  With their enemies still out there, strength was what Leon needed, and that was what Artorias had strived to give him.

Artorias closed his eyes and cast his magical body back into his soul realm.  It had yet to fully succumb to the venom that had poisoned him, but it was in complete tatters.  Apart from his mind palace, only a few scattered and rapidly shrinking islands were left.  Even his grand and majestic mind palace was now beginning to crumble.

It’s towers of white gold weakened and collapsed.  The windows shattered, and the stone broke apart.  The columns supporting the great halls cracked, and the halls went the way of the towers.

Artorias watched the gardens wither and die, he watched the barely visible remains of the light in the mists finally fade away, he watched the darkness break the last of the land in his soul realm and encroach upon his throne room, the last vestige of his once beautiful mind palace.

He sat on his throne of stunning white marble and watched the darkness seep through the doors and windows.  The walls were entirely consumed in minutes, allowing the poison to inch across the floor, devouring the granite tiles he had so carefully designed.  The walls splintered and fell, and the darkness rushed in.

He didn’t see what happened next.  He leaned back in his throne and closed his eyes.  Tears still rolled down his cheeks as he thought of his father, always so stern and authoritative.  He thought of his proud and noble brother, his friends from childhood, all the people he’d known from back home.  He thought of the kindness shown to him by King Julius, and of Torfinn, who had always had a place for him and his son in his longhouse.

But most of all, he thought of Serana.  The first time he saw her, his first challenge, the moment she agreed to be his sparring partner, and the moment they first admitted their love to each other.  He vividly remembered when he proposed, when they were married, when she told him she was pregnant, and the birth of Leon.  Above all, he remembered when she was taken from him.

And now, he would never see her again.

The darkness was upon him.  His throne melted away beneath him, and the darkness flooded into his magic body, causing it to dissolve away.

Artorias never opened his eyes.  He didn’t hear the rain fall upon the roof of his house, he didn’t hear the howling wind of a growing storm, and he didn’t hear the thunder that rocked the heavens.

He didn’t see the last light in his soul realm, either.  As he succumbed to the darkness, there was one last thing in his soul realm, one last thing the venom couldn’t touch.  His ancestor flew through the void and watched his magic body disappear.  It watched with its bright eyes as the last thing within Artorias vanished, the enormous marble slab upon which the throne sat.  Carved into it was an intricate formation of runes and runic glyphs telling the story of an immortality-seeking mortal, in the shape of a bird of prey with its wings spread and talons outstretched.  This was Artorias’ mana glyph.

Lightning blazed through the bird’s eyes, and its feathers sparked and flashed.  It witnessed the death of its descendant, and screeched in anger, causing thunder to resound throughout the void.

But Artorias didn’t hear it.  In his house, his body took one more ragged breath, and never took another.

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Over the weekend I started going through all my chapters and giving them some more editing love.  I've already completed going through chapters 1-6.  There aren't any substantial changes to the actual story content of the chapters (yet), but I have been fixing many of the technical problems that others have pointed out to me.  I'll be continuing this editing process for the next couple of weeks, with around three chapters per day.  I'm writing this on Sunday, so chapters 7, 8, and 9 should be edited by the end of today (Monday).  I'd like to give a specific shout-out to THEAGEOFTHEYAK over on Royal Road for their in-depth review that has been of great help to me over the past few days.  I'd also like to thank everyone else who's pointed out spelling and grammar mistakes to me in the comments both here and on RR.

And if you haven't yet, please consider heading over to Royal Road to leave a rating or review!

Chapter 35 - Burial

Chapter 33 - Fifteen Years Ago