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Great [Monster] Journey 39

RSanon Aug 15th, 2014 1,564 Never
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  1. It wasn't so much the chill that bothered him, but rather the fact it never seemed to touch the burning within. And he wasn't thinking about the throbbing, red mark on his arm where Seira had left her vengeance, though that still smarted something fierce. Seira was sure to rub her fur up against it whenever she felt the need to as well.
  2.  
  3. The flame that bothered him swelled up within his chest all the more fierce the more he thought about it. The chill barrier of his skin remained unaffected. Each time he ran his fingers down his arms in hopes of warming them up, he ended up finding only more of the same. Light air wisped out of his mouth in a long, silent breath, drifting through the hair on his arms before melding with the ever-present wind and soaring away. Drowsiness clogged his thoughts, yet he couldn’t sleep. Questions hammered his mind, yet he could not speak them. Who would have ears to listen, anyways?
  4.  
  5. He glanced behind himself. Sybyll was sitting up straight, as always, eyes vacant and fixed on the land just visible to their port. No, not vacant--not even the stone of Sybyll could be unperturbed and confident in this situation. Yet, even as doubt might nip at her, Galen saw no way to take hold of it and convey the injustice--the wrongness of her situation. There really was no better word than wrongness. Sybyll’s fate was a fault in the world, a cruel torture disguised as something else. She called it ‘duty’. Her resignation had swallowed her and spit out a monster who went by the name of Sybyll. Galen had seen a different monster twice, now thinking on it. Cea’s house and the night she had shown Galen her burden, her ‘greatest contradiction’ as Cea had called it. He hadn’t understood what the ushi-oni meant by it then, or even the night Sybyll revealed it, but now things fit into place.
  6.  
  7. A warrior so intent on duty, so convinced the path of absolute selflessness was the only one to follow, telling herself every day that she must save nothing for herself.
  8.  
  9. ‘Sybyll,’ Galen thought, ‘if that’s the case, why haven’t you thrown it away?’
  10.  
  11. Every time he opened his mouth to ask Sybyll that very question, however, he choked up, swallowing a mouthful of sea, spit, and shame. How could he pretend to know anything, to talk back to her, when he understood nothing himself? When he was the ultimate weakness, the failure in their plan, and still said nothing to anyone about it? Toneruth would never Cut the world in his hands; they would’ve been better off finding someone else, someone with the constitution to carry this through. Maybe he would’ve been that man, had he been the same Galen as when the journey started. A bit more ignorant, perhaps, but confident and unwilling to falter for anything. Brave enough to take on a manticore with a simple iron sword.
  12.  
  13. Galen found himself staring at Seira, and that flame immolating his body once again. Nothing made sense with her any more as far as his thoughts were concerned. He wanted to stop her from killing Medusuub for revenge’s sake, but at the same time, he found something of a respect for her mission. Not in the form, but the function: her desire to set the world right, to fix the glaring wound cut into it when her entire family was murdered. Galen should have no empathy for a monster like Medusuub  who would do such things, a monster he never met, where he knew Seira’s pain well.
  14.  
  15. He wanted to be happy that she would soon become the next monster lord and set things right, per say, but he could only hear a distant and approaching regret growing with the pain in his left shoulder. Once they broke into the castle and, if by some miracle, were able to subdue Medusuub without Toneruth’s greatest power, Seira’s story alongside Galen would end. She would have no need for him, and he, as either an adventurer or a lad set for home, would have no reason to loiter around the monster lord. Galen idly watched her braid fly in the wind and ripples run through her fur. Seira made no effort to hide her feelings as Sybyll did. She kept her eyes forward, narrowed with grim determination.
  16.  
  17. If only he could take some of that for himself, strengthen his resolve and cast the weakness away. For so long had he carried the flag of idealism, of avoiding killing at all costs and trying to make everyone happy. He refused compromise as if it was rotten meat instead of the hope it really offered. He created problems where there should have been none. On the night before they entered the Lands, he could’ve had the harpies and and mothman killed and saved them all so much pain. As for his friends, Sybyll had already resolved herself to the necessity of her station--so why did Galen feel the need to twist that knife further? Mino yearned to find good in the world and traveled across sea and valley for it. Could he show it to her? For decades Seira had sought her revenge and Galen still couldn’t offer anything but rebuke. If she deserved anything, did she not deserve that? Everything she’d lost, the waiting, the running, the planning, the fighting which had led her to this point… was Galen going to try casting it all away for his own ideals?
  18.  
  19. ‘You did what you had to--that’s how things work.’
  20. ‘Your idealism doesn’t belong in this world.’
  21.  
  22. Galen tasted bile in his mouth, thick on his tongue like some foul, spoiled molasses. Hearing those words again brought heat to his body, a new heat that set his eyes aflame and burned to the very tips of his fingers. All he was going to end up doing was prove them right, if he proved anything at all.
  23.  
  24. Night passed to day, but the sun had no warmth that could reach their little boat. The Kraken pulled them along without pause or word and the wind offered no help. Galen saw her tentacles tighten on the boat with each surge forward. How did she feel about this whole thing? She’d been very open with her attitude toward Galen, but said nothing of the mission, of how she felt about pulling along the monsters and man who would kill the monster lord. Her monster lord. Did she feel any attachment toward Medusuub? Poseidon? Or was she simply a soldier who enjoyed her work as she could?
  25.  
  26. “There.”
  27.  
  28. Galen didn’t need to see where Sybyll was pointing. The monument made itself known easily enough.
  29.  
  30. A mist settled over smooth, impossible waterfalls, cascades which roared with lungs mightier than any beast or monster. They didn’t have the angle to look down the gorge, but Galen knew it had no bottom, that the water fell to nothing and no one had ever braved it to find out where it might go. The ravine ran down a perfectly straight line, slowly widening as it went. If one were to follow it far enough, they would find the end, but Galen couldn’t see it from where he stood. His eyes ran the other direction, instead, onto land, where a great cliff had been split in two by the very mark which dove into the ocean. Violence had reached down into the land and sea and made it Nothing.
  31.  
  32. A dark wound upon the earth. A Cut.
  33.  
  34. “The Scar of the World,” said Galen.
  35.  
  36. Seira put her paws on her hips, glancing at the ocean mist before turning to the split cliff. “And while Suusuub III may have been the only monster lord crazy enough to build her castle atop it, it seems none following her have had any trouble living there themselves.”
  37.  
  38. Galen turned to the stop Seira was watching. Sure enough, the peaks of the monster lord’s castle peeked over the edge of the cliffs.
  39.  
  40. Their destination, where they would all meet the chosen end of their journeys.
  41.  
  42. “We can’t approach until night,” Seria told the Kraken. “Take us to the coast where we can wait out the day. Once it is dark, we’ll head right under the cliffs so we can approach without being seen so easily. We’ll have to be quick across the water, though. They’ll undoubtedly have sentries watching it, and the darkness of the water is only so effective.” She looked to Galen. “Let’s hope we have a cloudy night.”
  43.  
  44. His acknowledging nod was so minor he hardly noticed it himself. “Mmm. Yeah.” He hadn’t spared any worry for their approach. Secrecy or open combat, his ultimate goal remained the same. Remained unobtainable. Toneruth would never respond to someone like him.
  45.  
  46. The harsh, grating sound of wood on rocks signaled a respite in their journey. The Kraken pulled it far enough up the beach for it to stay there and the moment it came to a stop, Seira and Mino were out. The former stretched with a groan and the latter skipped down the coastline. Galen thought about calling out and telling her not to wander, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care that much. She was smart enough not to get lost or discovered… hopefully.
  47.  
  48. He would’ve been content to sit in the boat and lose himself in thought, but an outstretched paw threw a wrench in his plans.
  49.  
  50. “Coming?”
  51.  
  52. After a delayed nod, he accepted her paw and allowed himself to be pulled from the boat. The first few steps were a stumble, but the ability to stand hadn’t left him yet. Brushing himself off, he dragged himself over toward a nearby tree. It became welcome shelter from the sun and he let himself have a little smile before collapsing underneath it.
  53.  
  54. Looking up, he found Seira standing over him, her paws at her hips.
  55.  
  56. “What’s eating you?”
  57.  
  58. Ah. Of course she would notice. But that wasn’t a question so easily answered. It was more than despair that ate at him, a defeat accepted before the battle had begun. A harsh truth which Galen should’ve realized long ago. Seira had been trying to open his eyes the entire time, but he’d been so high up in his dreams, so focused on the things that didn’t matter, he hadn’t had the ears to hear until now.
  59.  
  60. “I’m just figuring out the significance of this. Thousands of people and monsters are depending on us, and I’m not sure I’m worth that.”
  61.  
  62. “You? Unsure of yourself? Now I’ve seen everything.” She raised an eyebrow and shot him an incredulous smirk, as if she assumed he was joking around. “You’ve proved yourself already. Hard part’s over, Galen. We’re at the castle, and tonight we’ll sneak right in. All you gotta do is swing that sword. Compared to everything that led us here? Not a problem.”
  63.  
  64. Just gotta ‘swing that sword’, huh? That’s probably as simple as it seemed to Seira, but Toneruth required someone who knew what he was doing, someone with the ability to defy the world. Galen had tried that already, and it hadn’t worked out. How had Seira put it before?
  65.  
  66. “You said before…” His face fell. “’My idealism doesn’t belong in this world.’ I understand why you said that now. You were right.”
  67.  
  68. The air stank of silence so heavy Galen clutched his chest. It hovered in the space between them, infecting the world with stillness, with hesitance. As the seconds passed, each breath became a labor. The silence sunk into his mind so deep he never saw himself forgetting it.
  69.  
  70. “You’re not messing around, are you? You’re actually serious about that.” A pause. “You idiot.”
  71.  
  72. That was not the reaction he expected. Turning to Seira, he saw her face hardened into anger, one so fierce it sucked in the warmth around her and turned it to ice.
  73.  
  74. “Idiot? Seira, you told me--“
  75.  
  76. She swallowed the distance between them in two great strides, seizing the scruff of Galen’s shirt and yanking his face into hers. “This has got to be the STUPIDEST part about you! ‘What I told you’? Seriously? Do you even think these things through before you open that flappy mouth of yours?”
  77.  
  78. Fear twisted to anger inside of Galen. He grabbed the paw holding him and attempted to shake it off. “Of course I do! I’ve given this plenty of thought! I wouldn’t have said--“
  79.  
  80. Seira easily tossed Galen’s hands off her paw and gripped him with the second as well. “You don’t even realize you’re doing it! For the great demon’s sake, you’re actively ignoring the truth because you feel better moping! That’s your problem: you find some tiny flaw in your view and tear the whole thing apart because everything didn’t fit all nice like you wanted. I bet your dad had to slap you around all the time to get you to come to your senses! You’re damn lucky I’m here for it now!”
  81.  
  82. “Hey! I’m just trying to be realistic! That’s what you wanted me to do, right?” Galen’s anger fed on the cold Seira’s generated. “Why are you so mad about it?”
  83.  
  84. “You don’t throw away everything you’ve fought for, everything you believe in, just because you fear being wrong! And that’s all I’m getting from you: fear! ‘Oh, I can’t use Toneruth like the last guy. Better throw in the towel!’ ‘I’m scared I’m gonna have to kill someone. I should run before even knowing for sure!’ ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight--I think I’ll just chase the sun so it never sets!’ Is that really how you were raised? You stink of defeat and we haven’t even started toward the castle yet.”
  85.  
  86. Forcing a swallow down, Galen met Seira’s glare with sharp eyes and gritted teeth. Her crimson was beautiful as ever.
  87.  
  88. “When you find evidence that goes against what you believe, you investigate. You think, and you look for the truth behind it. If it turns out you were wrong, then you accept it and move on. But you know what you’re doing now? You’re running away. On your journey, which you thought would be all sorts of fun, you realized that the world doesn't work all nice and neat. That doing the right thing isn’t as easy as you thought it was. It’s crippled your ability to think for yourself, to make a choice when it counts. You’ve even gone as far as dismissing anything that would prove you right, because then that would mean you don’t get to feel sorry for yourself anymore. That you have to grow up. Do you even remember what I said back then? EXACTLY what I said?”
  89.  
  90. Her grip grew tighter, her words spewed with spit. Galen again tried to free himself to no avail. “I already told you!”
  91.  
  92. “What did I say!?”
  93.  
  94. “’My idealism doesn’t belong in this world!’”
  95.  
  96. “’But I wish it did!’”
  97.  
  98. Galen’s eyes flickered. Had she said that, too?
  99.  
  100. “Of course your idealism doesn’t belong in this world, and the thought of you parading it around makes me sick to my stomach!” She practically screamed in his face. “The world doesn’t work that way! Monster and humans aren’t perfect! Accidents happen! Cruelty will win where it shouldn’t and compassion will hide where it should be seen! And most of all, when people and monsters disagree, they will kill each other to defend what they believe!” Galen was on the ground before he knew it, a powerful throw knocking the air from his lungs. Seira stepped over him and pointed at his face. “And they’re not wrong for doing it! Wouldn’t you fight to protect what you thought was most precious to you? Wouldn’t you take action for yourself, for others? Aren’t you doing that right now?”
  101.  
  102. Galen tried backing up, but Seira landed a foot on his chest to stop him.
  103.  
  104. “That doesn’t mean we’re nothing more than killers, though. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to save lives. Isn’t that why we’re here? To stop the killing? My life is violence, Galen. It’s power, it’s struggling, it’s ruthless and allows not a second of doubt. I know how to do what I think is necessary, and that’s all I know. But what if I’m wrong? I have my weaknesses, my needs, my fears. I need a post, a landmark, something to look at so I can tell where I am, some way to keep from turning into the next Medusuub.” Even now, that last word was foul on her tongue.
  105.  
  106. “’But I wish it did’. For all the fuck in the world, I can hardly stand to look at you! I can’t stand that the one human who might be something different is so blind to what he has, what he is. I can’t stand how you toss the positives of something away just so you can soak in the worst of it and wallow in your fear. It doesn’t make sense how you’ve tackled so many things with enthusiasm, only to succumb when you take a second to swallow in the dangers about you. How can you be here, at the monster lord’s doorstep, Toneruth in hand, thinking of all the ways you could possibly FAIL? I can’t believe I need you for this.” She lifted her foot off him, meeting his eyes in one last withering stare. “Why did you come here in the first place?”
  107.  
  108. Her footsteps faded from hearing, each other rough on the sand. Galen sat up straight and brushed himself off, shooting the distant Seira a sour look. What did she expect from him, a miracle? Why was she expecting anything out of him, in fact? He’d always been the weak one, the one she had to look over, the one she picked on. What had changed?
  109.  
  110. “She isn’t entirely wrong,” said Sybyll, now resting under the tree with Galen.
  111.  
  112. He glanced back at her, a little surprised. He hadn’t heard her approach. “About what? I can’t use Toneruth, you should know that! Especially after you told me what it would do to you! I’m going to be killing at least two monsters the next time I use it, and I should be fine with that!” He collapsed back onto the sand. “But I’m not. I don’t know why I’m not. I wish I weren’t this stubborn. I wish at least some part of this made sense.” Grabbing at his hair, he shook his head back and forth. “Not ‘entirely wrong’? How can I tell if anything she said was wrong or right? How can I be what she wants me to be?”
  113.  
  114. “I think you need to figure out exactly what it is you’re held up on. You are asking yourself too many questions at once, some of which may never have answers. Don’t think about what will happen tonight, focus on clearing your mind, on finding your peace. I believe Seira gave you a good place to start.”
  115.  
  116. Galen let his hands slowly fall down his face. ‘Why did you come here in the first place?’
  117.  
  118. The tree rustled as Sybyll stood up and pushed off it. “I will go follow Seira and make sure she doesn’t run off somewhere. Do not worry about her. Stay here and figure out the question that matters to you most--you may find the rest come much easier.”
  119.  
  120. With that, Galen was alone again. Or maybe he was always alone? A human in the monsters’ world, his guiding light darkening with each step he took. On Nox, answers were always simple to come across--he just had to ask his father. And what had his father said back in Uuluth?
  121.  
  122. ‘You must not let your reason for action be fear!’
  123.  
  124. Yet he’d arrived here by stepping over his father. Pride? Why had he felt pride that night? He was throwing away the one person who could help him where no other could.
  125.  
  126. No, wait. Hadn’t someone just screamed at him the very thing his father had tried to tell him?
  127.  
  128. Someone had just given him a very stern talking-to. Someone had seen him in the dark, did what they could to pull him back to the light, and all he could think about was how lost he was. Maybe she was a touch more harsh than his father, but the words were so similar--and she had said something more. Somehow she knew what he needed: a question.
  129.  
  130. “Why did you come here in the first place?” he said aloud at the sky.
  131.  
  132. He’d been so caught up with his adventure he’d forgotten why he’d set out in the first place. Circumstance and emotion swept him away like a wind would a leaf. Why did he want his father to be proud of him? Why did he want to find Toneruth? Why had he so persistently bothered Seira to stay with him? Why hadn’t he tossed Mino out when Seira urged him to? And why did he care so much for whether Sybyll disappeared or not?
  133.  
  134. What were HIS reasons? Seira wanted revenge and to become the monster lord to lead her kind away from the path Medusuub had set them on. Sybyll wanted to be the monster she thought the men who tied her to Toneruth wanted her to be, drenched in duty and lack of self. Mino wanted to learn, to find the questions her life had given her answers to. His companions, his friends all arrived at this place with their purpose clear in mind, but Galen had merely stumbled along behind them. And he called himself the leader. He dropped his hands into his lap and bumped his head against the tree. Sure, he wanted to help them, but that wasn’t enough, apparently. Something else lingered in his mind, some unconscious force which had pulled him to the monster lord’s doorstep.
  135.  
  136. “Hey!”
  137.  
  138. Galen started, coming off the tree to turn to the sudden voice. Mino grinned and leapt up into the tree, making it shake under the sudden weight. So much for that alone time. Galen frowned. Maybe this could end up helping him, actually.
  139.  
  140. “Mino, why did you come here?”
  141.  
  142. “’Cause you looked sad.” She swayed back and forth on the branch. “And I was curious.”
  143.  
  144. “No, not here-here, but, I mean, here, as in with me and Seira and Sybyll? Why did you stay with us all the way to the monster lord’s castle?”
  145.  
  146. “Still the same answer.”
  147.  
  148. Galen narrowed his eyes. Was she not taking this journey seriously? With Mino, that certainly seemed possible. “So you traveled all the way across plains, mountains, the Scorched Lands, Uuluth and the sea because you were curious?”
  149.  
  150. “And because you looked sad.”
  151.  
  152. Grumbling under his breath, Galen rested his face in his hand. Guess he wasn’t going to get what he was looking for out of this conversation. “You must have some super vision or something, because I can’t remember looking all that sad when I met you.” He paused to reconsider his words. “Or even before I realized you were there.”
  153.  
  154. “Maybe. But you had a different kind of sad, not the one that makes you cry, but the one that weighs you down. You wanted something you knew you couldn’t have, but you wanted it anyways.”
  155.  
  156. “Did I, now?” Life on Nox was perfect compared to this. He couldn’t imagine wanting anything back there, except for maybe some adventure. And his search of that had led him right here.
  157.  
  158. “Mm-hmm. I’ve seen lots of people like you. Gets easier to spot.”
  159.  
  160. “And what did I want?”
  161.  
  162. “Dunno. Shouldn’t you?”
  163.  
  164. Galen opened his mouth to speak, but in reality, ‘No’ was the wrong answer here. He crossed his arms instead. “What were you so curious about?”
  165.  
  166. Mino had made a little game out of drooping from the branch, watching as slime dripped from her body, and catching it before it hit the ground. “I want to know what a good person is. People and monsters can’t ever seem to make up their mind on it, so I decided to see for myself.”
  167.  
  168. “So you’re going to attack the monster lord’s castle with us? Not that I don’t appreciate the help, but Medusuub is technically your leader, isn’t she?”
  169.  
  170. “Just because the king rules all the humans, doesn’t mean every human likes him, does it? But it’s not like I hate her; I’m curious about her, too, in fact. Curious about how she’s going to react to this. Maybe she’s the good one and we’re the bad ones.” Mino shrugged. “All I know is I want to know.”
  171.  
  172. No more questions came to mind but the one that still gnawed at him. ‘Why are you here?’ It eluded him like mist flowing through his fingers.
  173.  
  174. Mino plopped down in front of him. “Are you curious about something, too?”
  175.  
  176. “I wouldn’t exactly say that.” His thirst had surpassed mere curiosity. “But I do want to know something. About myself. Why I’m here.”
  177.  
  178. “Isn’t it ‘cause your friends are here?”
  179.  
  180. Galen watched her cock her head, wishing he still had that blunt way of thinking. “I am, but not just for that. It isn’t enough.”
  181.  
  182. “Well, what makes you angry?”
  183.  
  184. “Angry?”
  185.  
  186. “Yeah. The stuff you really care about the most is what makes you angry. Kinda like parents when their child has been missing--they get angry when the kid comes back, but that’s because they cared.”
  187.  
  188. Galen adjusted himself against the tree. “I’m not sure that’s the same…”
  189.  
  190. “Nah, it is.” Galen almost felt growling at her for tossing his thoughts out so easily, but then again, Mino probably didn’t mean anything by it. She was just confident in her theory. “So what gets you angry?”
  191.  
  192. “Well, I dunno. Not a whole lot gets me angry. When my friends are attacked, I guess.” He was trying to play along, but didn’t see this going anywhere helpful.
  193.  
  194. “You already said friends weren’t enough, so what else?”
  195.  
  196. “I… I just don’t get angry at a whole lot.”
  197.  
  198. “What about at Mallus? You got angry there.”
  199.  
  200. And ate a mouthful from Seira, too. Twice. “I was angry with myself for not staying in control. For killing the harpy and the mothman. That still doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
  201.  
  202. “Are you sure? Why did you get so mad, hmm?” She stepped to one side of him. “They were gonna kill you, ya know.” She stepped back to the other side. “Why get angry with yourself?”
  203.  
  204. His mouth had curled downward into a grimace with him realizing it. “Anyone would get angry in a situation like that. It’s… not fun to lose control of yourself.”
  205.  
  206. “Are you sure? Anyone? Sybyll might not. Seira definitely not.”
  207.  
  208. “Just, well, they’re different, okay?” This was starting to feel more like an interrogation than anything and oddly oppressive, coming from Mino.
  209.  
  210. “I think there’s a reason you got mad and they wouldn’t. I think there’s a reason you’re starting to get mad now.”
  211.  
  212. “Don’t say I’m mad. I’m not mad.” He lowered his head a moment. There was no way he’d be losing this to Mino. “I guess I was annoyed that I killed them because I said I wouldn’t earlier. So I went back on what I said.” He shrugged. “Happy?”
  213.  
  214. “I don’t know. Maybe? Maybe there’s something else? I don’t think you should’ve been so upset, you know. You did what you had to.”
  215.  
  216. “No! That’s not it! I didn’t--“ He’d raised his finger to jab it at her, but stopped mid-gesture. His mouth hung open a little, his eyes stared off into the distance. Mino was right: he was getting angry. And when she said that last sentence, he’d about stood up and shouted at her. Those words stirred the an anger in him, one that pounced on him out of nowhere. The thought of doing what he was forced to revolted him so much he wanted to puke. Flashbacks of the hospital in Mallus, that welling sickness, the pit in his stomach that seemed like it’d never go away.
  217.  
  218. He blinked. His fingers dug into his pants and scratched the skin beneath. Every time his father or Seira had said those words, ‘what you had to do’, he wanted to punch something. His shoulder burst into pain with a thousand pins and needles, but Galen kept himself from clutching it. He needed to remember this pain, this flame.
  219.  
  220. ‘This was necessary.’
  221. ‘You did what you had to.’
  222.  
  223. Galen found himself panting. His hands had clutched his pants so hard they’d become numb. Galen leapt to his feet, unable to sit still any longer. If Mino wanted him to get mad, well, he now had anger to spare. And an answer.
  224.  
  225. “Thanks, Mino.”
  226.  
  227. “Maybe next time I get you angry it will be just for fun!” She stuck her tongue out at him. “Go do what you gotta do.”
  228.  
  229. The tree had shrunk considerably in Galen’s vision before he realized he had no idea what exactly he was setting out to accomplish. His instinct dragged him toward where he’d seen Seira and Sybyll run off, so apparently he had something in mind. Instead of standing and mulling it over, he shrugged and started to jog. It wouldn’t be long before the sun set and the end of this journey was upon them. He didn’t have time to be pondering and wondering, analyzing and double-checking himself. He had his answers and now he needed to act on them. A cool wind came off the sea, rustling the long grass and pulling at his clothes. With a deep breath, he drew the breeze in, a taste he’d become more familiar with over the past couple days. He remembered it from Nox as well, though the air up here seemed heavier somehow.
  230.  
  231. After a short jog, he caught up with Seira and Sybyll, the former standing on a short hill and watching the sea, arms crossed and unmoving against the wind, and the latter with a similar pose, but eyes on her surroundings as well as the manticore in front of her. From where Galen stood, either Seira didn’t care Sybyll was there, or was doing a good job of hiding any annoyance.
  232.  
  233. While he saw her ears twitch in response to his arrival, it wasn’t Seira he was there for. He came to a stop right in front of Sybyll, still breathing heavy from the jog. Should have probably worked on his endurance a bit, he thought, but it was too late to lament that now. He stretched out his arm and opened his hand.
  234.  
  235. “Give it here.”
  236.  
  237. Sybyll looked down at the hand, then to Galen, a minor twitch of the eyes and nothing more. “I’m not sure I understand.”
  238.  
  239. “’Course you do.” He paused to catch his breath, then emphasized his open hand. “Give it here.”
  240.  
  241. “You want your sword back? I have no objection, but you won’t find it near as effective as Toneruth in the--“ She’d started to unhook the iron sword, but Galen cut her off.
  242.  
  243. “Give it! ‘For duty and want of self’, right? Give it to me so I can do what you’re supposed to do with something like that!”
  244.  
  245. For once, Sybyll had no answer. She stood, anchored in place, eyes locked on Galen and hands frozen in mid-action. Emotion flashed across a face that rarely knew it, like a flash of light in the deepest cellar. It had been so long since someone other than Sybyll had known about the medal that she’d forgotten how to even address the subject when thrust upon her. Her eyes glanced over to Seira, easily within earshot, but now wasn’t time to worry about the secret. In fact, his mission was spoil the knowledge to the entire world. He smiled. That was exactly the reaction he wanted from her.
  246.  
  247. “You going into your final battle, Sybyll. There’s no reason to hide it any more, and even if there was, I think that reason has long since lost its relevance.”
  248.  
  249. She still didn’t reach for it. “Why do you desire it so strongly now?”
  250.  
  251. A deflection. Galen had none of it. “I think you know, and I think you want to give it to me. Besides, I’m not taking it for myself, nor am I throwing it away. I’m doing what needs to be done. Now stop delaying and give it to me.”
  252.  
  253. Her claw moved slowly, eyes switching between Galen and Seira, and her face fought to dismiss the already-obvious conflict twitching her cheeks, her mouth, her eyes. A lump traveled down her throat, but her fingers found the outline of the medal and slid it out from underneath her armor. A clenched fist held it from view for as long as she dared, as long as she could hold onto that doubt, like something terrible would befall her the moment she let go. Yet, when she lifted her hand over Galen’s and released, nothing did.
  254.  
  255. The shimmering gold was heavier than Galen expected, but the weight seemed to fit it. A thick strap, attached to the top of the medal, was probably meant to be worn around the neck, but Galen didn’t want to make a necklace out of the medal, didn’t want to give Sybyll any sort of opportunity to hide it under her shirt. His eyes ran over the inscription again and his thumb pressed against the grooves. It was a neat little contradiction in itself, really: a flashy object meant to be displayed, but the inscription stated a lack of pride, a responsibility to ideals beyond the self. Letting the strap hang out, he stepped up to Sybyll’s right arm, pulled it away from her body, and wrapped the strap tight against her bicep. Once he finished, Sybyll raised her arm to get a good look at Galen’s work. For some reason, she didn’t shrivel up or disappear, even with the medal so brazenly exposed. Her eyes narrowed, focused and sharp, her thoughts just now catching up to the moment. After several seconds, she rested her arm back at her side.
  256.  
  257. “Why? And why now?” she asked.
  258.  
  259. “Because it’s not wrong to be a little selfish. It’s not wrong to want something for yourself. I wanted you to know that before you left.”
  260.  
  261. Her face hinted at a frown. “Galen, my station--“
  262.  
  263. “Doesn’t matter. No one should be so afraid to hold something for themselves, even if something it’s as simple as a feeling. You’ve allowed yourself nothing and it’s going to destroy you.”
  264.  
  265. The reply came with a cracking voice. “When I accepted my duty, I realized certain things would be necessary, and this--“
  266.  
  267. “Don’t say that word in front of me,” he said, emphasizing his statement by jabbing a finger at her chest. “And don’t think the two are incompatible. Don’t you need your own dreams, your own desires, to keep moving forward with a sound mind?”
  268.  
  269. “I don’t… I… I don’t know.” Her gaze drifted away for a moment, unable to meet the depth of Galen’s. It landed on her medal. She huffed as if something more than air was leaving her body. “I suppose it would not hurt to see.”
  270.  
  271. “Good.” He wrapped his arms tight around her, uncaring of the fact his head never reached higher than her chin, or that her armor scapped rough against his skin, or that he felt her body burn hot against his. It’d been far too long since he’d done this. And when she hugged back, he smiled. “Good.”
  272.  
  273. Neither Galen, too busy enjoying the moment, nor Sybyll, wrapped up in the first hug she’d given in a long time, noticed Seira staring.
  274.  
  275. And it wasn’t at Sybyll’s new medal.
  276.  
  277.  
  278. **
  279.  
  280.  
  281. Night was never far, but even still it crept upon the group faster than they expected. A few clouds splattered across the sky, but not as many as Galen wanted. From Seira’s constant glances upward, not as many as she wanted, either. The Kraken’s speed surprised Galen even now, after seeing her move with ease through water so many times. While it wasn’t a constant speed like he was used to with boats, each surge of her tentacles launched them forward with force that would’ve tossed him from the boat had he not been bracing himself. The surges came at a constant pace, slowly building on each other until they were practically soaring across the water.
  282.  
  283. Blackness had swallowed nearly everything. The moon still dared to peek out from behind the light cloud cover, but it was hardly full and the sea seemed to consume any sort of light venturing close to them. In rapidly-approaching foreground, the great split cliff holding the monster lord’s castle grew as a curtain of pure black ready to fall over them. Seira and Sybyll kept their eyes upward, searching for flying patrols, but Galen and Mino couldn’t keep their attention from the looming unknown ahead.
  284.  
  285. Galen clutched his heart, trying to keep it from thudding so hard. He worried it might alert the enemy to their presence, assuming it didn’t explode in his chest first. His breathing nearly got away from him as well and he’d started panting before he realized it. He forced himself to close his eyes in order to give himself a moment to concentrate on even breaths, but even those were noisy and harsh. He started a bit when he felt a paw on his shoulder. Swallowing another rude breath, he followed the paw back to its owner, but she was still busy watching the skies. That obvious, huh? This striking anxiety, however, wasn’t for himself, but the task ahead. His friends had made sure he’d taken care of the former. Galen’s lungs felt some ease, finally, but in its place that odd heat grew within him, spreading from his shoulder like Seira was pumping it into him somehow, and his heart still fought to escape the confines of his chest. Nails digging into his skin, he seized at his chest and faked ripping that torturous organ out.
  286.  
  287. Mino somehow gave the appearance of a child seeing mountains or the ocean for the first time. He saw no fear, no determination, just awe. Well, maybe there was a touch of intimidation. Mino didn’t know what she’d find tonight, all she knew was that she had to find out. Was it that she placed so little value on her own life or that her mission was simply so important she never considered her well-being a factor? While he couldn’t share her lack of fear, Galen had dipped into that well of curiosity. He knew what he wanted out of tonight, he just wasn’t completely sure how he might get it. A lump slowly descended his throat. He still didn’t know the how. Maybe he had will, maybe he’d found his reasons, but reality would want something more than that. It demanded a device which fit its own rules. Galen’s hand dug into Toneruth. He might have that, too.
  288.  
  289. The boat hit the rocky beach as silently as the Kraken could manage. Seira and Sybyll deftly leapt from the craft, using their momentum to carry them. Mino hit the rocks with a splat, but was able to reform quickly. Galen didn’t have the leg muscles or coordination in the depth of night to jump like his companions, but several tentacles picked him up and laid him down safely, one lingering on his cheek before disappearing. He turned to the Kraken, who offered a wink in farewell before fading into the night.
  290.  
  291. “Follow me,” said Seira.
  292.  
  293. Made sense. She knew the place best. Galen nodded and fell in right behind her, Mino behind him and Sybyll in the rear. Wait, if the Scar of the World was here, didn’t that mean Sybyll had been here once? At least, before she was banished by the power consumed. Galen gritted his teeth. That was one thing he couldn’t possibly avoid tonight. Sybyll would be leaving, one way or the other. Yet, as the golden medal on her arm bounced around with her run, he saved a little hope for himself.
  294.  
  295. Sybyll noticed his glance and nodded. She might be saving some as well.
  296.  
  297. Seira’s pace was not kind to Galen, just short of a run and entirely uphill. They had to get around the cliff as quickly as possible, but at the same time, they needed to save some energy for when they actually made it to the castle. She never looked back, not even a single time, and Galen expected no less from her. The culmination of so many years led up to this night, and she would never allow herself any distraction from her mission. Tonight she would regain her position as monster lord or die trying… though Galen wasn’t sure if revenge hadn’t since earned that spot atop her priorities. He couldn’t take his eyes away from that braid dancing in the wind and the beat of her run. It gave him something to think about beside the grueling run, the vicious wear on his scrawny body.
  298.  
  299. After far too long, they made it to cliff’s plateau and for the first time, Galen got a good look at the castle. Numerous torches fought back the night, but still it bled over the towers, the walls, the grooves in the stone. The towers had neither the number nor the height Galen expected, and the walls were only a few times his height instead of many. Dull purple and red mixed together to color the stone, likely formed from magic. The color almost reminded him of the buildings from Mallus. The castle had been built directly over the split--how, Galen could only wonder--and the only way to access the front gate was up one of two long, smooth ramps, neither lit, but neither had any sort of railing and Galen doubted all four of them could run up abreast. Shadows came and went, patrols passing by the lighting, sometimes pausing to turn, sometimes stopping for a chat. He could hear faint echoes of voices, but only in his mind. The wind seized anything that attempted to leave the castle and whistled over it with its own power. Thankfully, that would mean their approach would be difficult to hear as well.
  300.  
  301. “The ramp’s dark,” said Galen. “Could we make it to the wall unnoticed?”
  302.  
  303. Seira shook her head. “Not with those patrols. They’re nocturnal.”
  304.  
  305. The break as they watched the castle helped Galen’s burning lungs, but even so, his legs itched to move. “Is there another approach?”
  306.  
  307. “No. The only other way in would be the secret passage I escaped out of, but that’s under the castle, atop the Scar. Only accessible if you’ve got wings or can stick to ceilings.”
  308.  
  309. “Well, you’ve got wings. And I’m sure Mino could stick to the rock. Couldn’t there be some way in?”
  310.  
  311. Seira paused a moment, considering. “No. The passage is meant as an escape. It will not open from the outside. It’s unfortunate, but there truly is no stealthy way in, not with this location.”
  312.  
  313. He waited for Seira to offer something more, but all she did was frown and watch the patrols.
  314.  
  315. “So, this might get noisy pretty quick?”
  316.  
  317. “Yeah. But at the very least we can make it noisy in our favor. Also, these patrols don’t seem as perky as I expected. If we make a break for it at the right time, we could be right on them as they see us.”
  318.  
  319. “How many do you see?”
  320.  
  321. “On patrol? Four. I wouldn’t count on any less than a dozen directly within the walls, though at this time of night, if we hurry, we can make it to the throne room before many are roused.”
  322.  
  323. Galen’s grip on Toneruth tightened. “A dozen… all right. But why the throne room? Wouldn’t it be more likely for Medusuub to be sleeping?”
  324.  
  325. “She might be right now, but once we start a ruckus she’ll head straight for the throne room. Easiest to defend. Plus, if we’re fast enough, there’s a route which might beat the guards to their posts.”
  326.  
  327. “And what about the gate? I know everyone else has a way in, but me?”
  328.  
  329. Seira smiled. “Mino got you over one gate before, right?”
  330.  
  331. Galen’s smile was much more shaky. When he turned back to see the look on Mino’s face, even less so. “I guess that’s that.”
  332.  
  333. “Alright, I think I’ve got the pattern down. We’ll go in a second. Get ready.”
  334.  
  335. Biting his lip, Galen braced himself to explode forward. Every muscle in his body tensed up to the point the tiniest whisper would set him off. He stared hard into the night, trying as best he could to make out their path. His best bet would be to follow Seira close until he made it to the area lit by torches. The air grew thick, the darkness thicker, and each of his breaths was slower than the last. A cold touch on his arm let him know Mino was right next to him, ready to toss him over the gate. While the prospect did little to ease him, other things wove much more potent threads of thought through his mind.
  336.  
  337. “Go!”
  338.  
  339. It was still a whisper, as her other words, but this one struck with the force of a punch. Seira burst into action, hitting a sprint in only a few strides. Galen’s muscles fired with a ferocious power that launched him forward, right behind Seira, his legs and arms pumping like they had the day he flew from Nox. Mino and Sybyll pounced forward as well, the slight scraping of feet against dirt not truly portraying the force with which they’d leapt. Galen’s eyes were locked on that braid again, now flying back and forth in a reckless pattern, bouncing off wings and shoulders. The stone of the pathway to the front gate caught him off-guard, a minor slope of smooth stone coming right off the uneven grass, but his focus and balance both held. They had to: no one would have time to stop for him. Everyone had to make this journey on their own, but missing any one of them, this attack could fail. No, would fail.
  340.  
  341. Not ten steps onto the pathway, Seira slammed into a bright purple wall, sending the force of her run right back into her and throwing her to the ground. Galen gasped. Caught half-way between helping Seira and coming to a stop, he lost his footing and stumbled straight into the barrier that had stopped Seira--and right through it. He hit the ground with a grunt, a sharp pain shooting up the arm he landed on, but he knew it was nothing before the situation at hand. Hopping to his feet, he walked back through the barrier and helped Seira up.
  342.  
  343. “Shit!” she said, rubbing her head where it’d hit the barrier. “What the… and how did you…?”
  344.  
  345. Galen froze, curling his hands into fists and closing his eyes. There was no time to think. How did he get through? What could’ve possibly stopped her and not him? His eyes flew open.
  346.  
  347. “The seal! Ahdria’s seal!”
  348.  
  349. He shoved a hand into his pocket and yanked out the small stone, the ‘key’ Ahdria had given them to make it past the seal.
  350.  
  351. “Thrice-damned bloody demons! I forgot!” spat Seira. She grabbed the hand holding the key and thrust it into the barrier. “Go, you two!”
  352.  
  353. Mino and Sybyll wasted no time breaking through the barrier. Seira and Galen were right behind them and once more their sprint to the wall started. In a situation with no room for error, however, the barrier was more than enough to start their attack off in the worst way. Shouts came from the wall, breaking through the searing wind, and Galen could make out figures against the dancing torchlight.
  354.  
  355. “Faster!” yelled Seira, setting her own legs afire. The walkway, which had seemed so long before, seemed like nothing before the determined, frenzied pace of Galen’s group.
  356.  
  357. Seira hit the wall first, stopping only to keep herself from eating the wall the same way she had the barrier. Wings flourished and carried her straight up the wall in an instant, right on top the nearest guard. Galen couldn’t make out what sort of monster it was, though it never mattered. Seira’s speed caught her off-guard and he only heard a single grunt from her before the dull thud of a body hitting the ground. That was the first. He didn’t know if she was dead or just unconscious, but in this battle, there wouldn’t be room for making the distinction. There were those who stood and their way, and those who no longer could. The rest was irrelevant.
  358.  
  359. Sybyll made it only a second behind Seira. Her mighty legs sent her half-way up the gate, where she dug into it with claws and use the leverage to send her the rest of the way over. She landed atop the wall with a roll, drawing Galen’s old sword with one liquid motion coming out of it. He tore his gaze away: it was his turn. Mino had already extended one arm, grown as thick as a log, wrapped it around Galen’s waist, and pulled the the two of them together. The other arm lashed out and wrapped around one of the merlons atop the wall. Using their momentum, Mino pulled both of them right up over the wall in a nauseating fling. Galen’s stomach almost left him when she yanked him to a halt right between Seira and Sybyll.
  360.  
  361. He looked over into the bailey and immediately wished he hadn’t. At least two dozen monsters were down there, scrambling about to fend off the attackers. A surprising majority of them were lamia, but Galen spotted others as well. Several had already climbed the staircases onto the wall, some on Sybyll’s side, some on Seira’s. Galen felt his heart drop. They’d barely broken in and already they were surrounded.
  362.  
  363. “This way!” yelled Seira.
  364.  
  365. Mino had to yank Galen out of his spot, but once his feet got moving, he doubted he could’ve stopped them. Three lamia stood in Seira’s path, charging to meet her. Galen wanted to call out to her, but his voice choked. Seira’s wings flared, her claws came out, and a terrible roar spewed from her mouth. He couldn’t tell which side ate the distance up quicker, but both had already been consumed by the heat of battle. The lamia stuck first with her tail, trying to slam Seira into the ground, but she wasn’t limited to the narrow walkway like the lamia was. Seira leapt off, and with a few beats of her wings, she was in striking distance. Lightning-fast claws tore through the lamia’s face, followed by a vicious punch to the stomach which landed so hard Galen could hear it. Even if Seira had missed the lamia’s eyes with her scratch, that punch took her out long enough for them to pass. The next lamia held a shortsword and shield, keeping her tail ready for any opportunity her sword might miss. Seira didn’t hesitate to leap in; she couldn’t afford to. They had to push through before the monsters behind them caught up and the monsters before them became too many to get through. Seira’s first strike was a plain swipe aimed for the lamia’s chest, which was taken by the shield with ease. The lamia grinned, bringing her sword to bear, but in the next instant it’d fallen from her hand. Seira’ intention was to get ahold of the shield in the first place. Seizing the lamia’s shield-arm behind the elbow, Seira growled and gave the arm a quick jerk. The tell-tale snap and following scream made Galen glad he’d never had an arm broken so rudely. Dazed by pain, the lamia did nothing to stop the following roundhouse kick, and another enemy was down.
  366.  
  367. It occurred to Galen this was the first time he’d seen Seira fight like this. They had a short scuffle in Fullsburg with the lamia, but the atmosphere had been completely different. There had been at least one of them to every enemy, and Galen had never doubted the town guard would come to help eventually. His pride had been on the line, nothing else. And while Seira had fought ferociously there as well, it had been far less focused, a tone of viciousness completely dulled by its bluntness, whereas tonight, he swore even her words could cut.
  368.  
  369. “Draw your damn sword!”
  370.  
  371. Galen started, leaving the daze Seira’s form had put him under. The third lamia was already down and they were past the top the staircase the monsters had been coming up. Sybyll still held up the rear, and Galen’s legs pumped on instinct, but completely absent from his mind was the need to fight. He’d been so intent on the actual infiltration and the weight of their situation he hadn’t had the mind to draw Toneruth. Fumbling with the hilt, he started to pull the blade free, only to be impeded by the sword’s swinging with his run. After several tense seconds, he finally succeeded, looking to Seira with a touch of excitement only to find her charging ahead, Galen’s absent-mindedness already out of her mind. The battlements ended at a door to a tower, which Seira threw open.
  372.  
  373. “Keep close!”
  374.  
  375. Mino and Galen hit the door seconds later. Mino scrambled in first and Galen held the door, looking back for Sybyll. An arachne had climbed the wall straight up to her, but with a few swordstrokes blurred by their speed, the spider-woman was dispatched. When Sybyll saw Galen waiting, she waved him forward.
  376.  
  377. “Onward! You must stay with Seira! I am extremely difficult to kill, but if you are not with her to strike down Medusuub, all is for naught!”
  378.  
  379. He gritted his teeth, turning to the inside of the tower. Seira and Mino were making headway up a spiral staircase.
  380.  
  381. “Don’t you forget what you’re wearing on your arm!” he yelled, and dashed to the staircase. The stone steps gave his rushed footsteps a dull thud, mixing with the sloshing of Mino’s and the scraping of Seira’s. Even here, the stone held an odd smooth quality, as if the entire castle had been carved from a single rock.
  382.  
  383. What felt like only seconds after he’d begun his ascent, Galen’s lungs violently protested with mucus and ragged breaths. His arms and legs burned for rest. The journey from the boat still wore on his mind and body, yet he had no room for hesitation. Too many depended on him, though only a certain few hung on his throughts with any significance. He spit on the ground and hurried forward.
  384.  
  385. The staircase emptied out into another battlement, this one high enough to make out the sea and the terrible sight of the Scar. Below, Galen heard the scrambling and shouts of guards and other denizens of the castle gathering their might to stop the intruders. Torches flashed, throwing shadows on the walls and pushing back the night. Few lit the path before Galen, but he could make out another tower like the one he’d just left at the end of the battlements. Unfortunately, the distance separating them from the tower was not insignificant and, more importantly, wide open. Screeches rained down from the sky and Galen’s head snapped upwards. Seira was not the only one with wings.
  386.  
  387. Harpies made up most of the group coming for them, but Galen made out scales and bat wings as well. The wind shrieked with their approach. Galen ducked just in time to dodge a pair of claws aimed at his head. Seira did the same. Overwhelmed, all they could do was dodge, watch for the next attack, then dodge again. Progress had slowed to little more than a crawl, and Galen heard the thud of monsters landing on either side of them. Had the battlements been wide enough for them all to land, it likely wouldn’ve been the end of Galen’s little attack right there, but his group had weapons as well. Mino, unfazed by a few talons and claws, lauched herself upward, spreading herself thin enough to be a blanket, and sliming up as many monsters as she could. Galen gave a subdued cheer when all the afflicted monsters fell from the sky, unable to keep beating their wings with the additional weight. What remained of Mino’s body landed back on the battlements with a plop, forming into a noticeably-less opaque version of her.
  388.  
  389. “Are you going to be alright?” said Galen.
  390.  
  391. “Yeah! I can deal with this.”
  392.  
  393. He wasn’t entirely convinced, but now wasn’t the time to contest it. He’d just have to trust her. The rush of talons and footsteps snapped Galen’s attention back to the monsters who’d landed around them. Mino had helped, but there were still several monsters to deal with. A cry and slashing claws signaled Seira’s fighting. Swallowing the last of his hesitation, Galen brought Toneruth to bear and leapt at the closest enemy, a harpy. His first slash was dodged, too predictable and carried through without the speed to catch her. She threw her wing at his face, trying to scrape at his eyes with her feathers, but his duck back was just enough to keep him safe. Again, he slashed at her and again he was too slow. Back and forth they attacked, neither able to harm the other, Galen’s swings too deliberate and the harpy unwilling to commit to a more vicious strike. Galen cursed himself. Like this, the harpy was winning. Soon, either monsters would make it up the staircase they’d come from, more aerial reinforcements would arrive, or the harpy would finally connect. He’d been able to hit the lamia back in Fullsburg, right? The harpies in the Lands, too. Why couldn’t he do a thing to this harpy?
  394.  
  395. His next strike came out with a frustrated cry, but his emotion did little to help him land a blow. In fact, the harpy was now smiling. Galen waited for the counterattack, but it never came. The harpy had figured out the situation as well, and stopped attacking completely. Toneruth’s point dipped from its ready stance. ‘Think, Galen! You can’t afford to fail like this! How do you best hit an opponent on a narrow passage?’ His face twisted in concentration. The best method of attack would be… a thrust. Wait, that’s obvious! Why hadn’t he done that before? Taking a full step into his next strike, Galen feinted an overhead cut downward, but the moment the harpy moved to dodge, he snuck in a lighting-fast jab. When her eyes lit up in surprise, he knew the attack had connected. A frigid bite snapped at Galen’s hand, the same he always felt when Toneruth struck. The harpy fell to her knees and Galen quickly readied for the next opponent, trying his hardest not to smile.
  396.  
  397. “Galen! This way! We can’t fight here any longer!”
  398.  
  399. Seira called from behind him, waving toward the other end of the battlements, then took off. In front of Galen another harpy awaited a fight, but he could no longer give her one. He faked a jab to get some distance, then spun around and broke into a sprint. Annoyed at missing her chance, the harpy shrieked, undoubtedly in pursuit, but Galen didn’t look back. He had to put everything to making it to that doorway.
  400.  
  401. Legs and arms blurred as they fired off. Breathing rasped through distressed lungs, harsher than a pant, yet still he forced his body onward. Mino pushed herself to the side to allow Galen past and he buzzed by like a raging wind. Seira made it to the doorway and disappeared inside. Faster, faster, faster. Ignore the pain, the pressure. Stop and you’ll die. Slow and you’ll die. Galen realized at some point he’d started screaming. Shouting and shrieking chased him into the doorway. Made it.
  402.  
  403. He barely slowed to asses the new situation. Another stairway, just like before, but this one led downward. Seira was already halfway down. Galen took it without hesitation, hitting a smooth rhythm to eat up as many steps at a time as he could. Hopefully, Mino had made it out of the battlements as well and Sybyll was on her way to catching up. He grit his teeth. There wasn’t much reason to believe they’d join back up in this chaos, but Galen had to hold onto what he could. Both of them, at least, would be difficult to kill.
  404.  
  405. The stairway spilled out into another doorway, then a hall much wider than the battlements they’d just crossed. Surprisingly, the area was devoid of monsters.
  406.  
  407. “Good,” said Seira, glancing back to make sure Galen was there. “We beat them here. Should be smooth sailing until the throne room.”
  408.  
  409. “And how… how far is that?” Galen could hardly talk through his panting. Seira was doing much better, but he didn’t know how long that would last. Their pace must have been eating through her stamina like crazy.
  410.  
  411. “Right here, down a hall, left, another hall, and it’s the double-doors at the end of that.” She grabbed Galen’s wrist and dragged him forward. “Enough resting!”
  412.  
  413. As much as he wanted to negotiate for more time, he knew that wasn’t feasible. Lucky he had Seira here to yank him out of his rest.
  414.  
  415. While they still ran, it was no where near the sprint Seira had kept up thusfar. They must truly have been out of the guards’ reach for her to take it so easy. Galen shook his head, trying to scatter the constant thoughts of stopping and the weariness that snuck further and further into his consciousness. He’d hardly beaten the only monster he’d gone up against and the more he ran, the less energy he’d have to fight. Surely, from his labored breathing and uneven steps, Seira could tell this, right? He looked up to her face, but saw nothing of the sort. Her stare was forward, on their next objective.
  416.  
  417. She had to realize. Even she would be about worn out by the time they made it to the throne room. When they arrived, at the absolute minimum, they would need to deal with Medusuub--wearing the Covenant, assuredly--but more likely she would have some kind of guard. So why, if Seira did realize their situation, did she keep moving? Did she have no choice? Was the time they had before the guards made it not as much as Galen thought? Or was it…?
  418.  
  419. Galen swallowed. She knew what was going on, all right, she just had a different idea of what would happen when they arrived. She expected Galen to step up, swing Toneruth, and deal with everyone in their way with a single blow. He’d never told her he couldn’t use Toneruth like that. His face flushed red. He’d never figured it out, even today! And then he was stupid enough to keep it to himself! Why? He almost stopped to cry. It wasn’t Seira’s fault--in her mind, everything was according to plan. She had no reason to think otherwise.
  420.  
  421. He was going to fail her. Even after all she said to him earlier, he was going to fail. Maybe he had the confidence to not drag his feet, maybe he could put the fire in someone else’s fight, but when it came down to it, he couldn’t Cut with Toneruth. Motive, he had. Motion, he had. But the will to follow through? Could he really do that, knowing every monster before him would die? Knowing Sybyll would disappear, dying again for the sake of duty? When pushed up against the wall by Poseidon back in her dwelling, he’d still managed to weasel out of killing. Here he was again, but this time, it wasn’t a test or a quirk of politics, it was to end a war before it started.
  422.  
  423. Seira’s pace slowed, prompting Galen to look up. The double-doors were before them, sentinels of Galen and Seira’s inevitable fate. She’d been heading here for decades, Galen only weeks. Her excitement boiled to the surface, her crimson eyes alight with anticipation and the beauty Galen had come to recognize. One doorway away, one strike of Toneruth, and she would finally have everything she’d been working so hard for. Galen stepped to the side to avoid her swinging tail. A slight frown creased his face and he fell behind right as they made it to the door. Revenge. Galen was going to get Seira’s revenge for her.
  424.  
  425. She turned around, waving Galen up to the doors. “C’mon. This is it. Do your thing and this is all over.”
  426.  
  427. He glanced at the hallway behind them. Still empty, but he thought he heard footsteps approaching. “What about all the guards? Won’t they be mad at us for killing their monster lord?”
  428.  
  429. A smirk. Such confidence might not fit this situation so well, he thought, but maybe it would be too pessimistic to dismiss it altogether. “Guards and whatever political friends Medusuub have will very quickly become ours. They will follow and respect the ones in power, and after seeing Toneruth again, there will be no doubt where that power lay.”
  430.  
  431. “Mmm.” No pressure. Straightening his back, Galen slipped Toneruth back into its sheath and took a step back from the doors, lining himself up with the middle of them. What he thought about the matter had lost its importance: he needed to strike with Toneruth, and he needed to do it now. His right hand closed once more on the hilt, fingers going numb with their grip. If he couldn’t find a will to Cut with, he would make one. Countless thousands of monsters and humans may die should another war break out. Seira, Mino, and Sybyll would all be doomed should he fail here and Toneruth would fall into enemy hands. Seira would never regain what she lost. Mino’s question would forever remain unanswered. Sybyll would wander, her self eroding until there was nothing left. He would never see Nox again, never see his mother, never make his father proud. He would die, all because he forced his stubbornness into this conflict--because he couldn’t stand the idea of doing what circumstance asked of him. This one time, he would not rebel. He would follow the plan. He had to.
  432.  
  433. His jaw hurt from how hard his teeth gnashed. Spring-loaded muscles gripped Toneruth with steel fingers. It was time.
  434.  
  435. “Open the door.”
  436.  
  437. Unable to hide a smile, Seira nodded at him, turned, and threw the double doors open.
  438.  
  439. Galen pounced. He hit the doorway at a run, his eyes searching for the only thing that mattered now: his target. They landed on the only medusa in the room, right in front of him, standing before a grand throne. A great expanse of no consequence separated them, for the scarlet lightning could explode across distance as if it wasn’t there. A small crowd of onlookers’ gasps tensing did nothing to stop Galen’s motion, his arm commanding he strike, demanding the sword Cut, and obliterate every thing that dared exist in front of him. The sword soared from the sheath as Galen’s voice pounded the air.
  440.  
  441. The end result was several confused monsters, a frigid Seira, and Galen swallowing an embarrassment so thick and stark it almost caught in his throat. Medusuub was the first to recover, pointing at Galen with amusement.
  442.  
  443. “Kill him first. I want to save the manticore for later.”
  444.  
  445. A lamia tail caught Galen full in the chest, flinging him right back out the door he’d charged in. As he lay on the ground, dazed, he heard the scuffling of tails, claws, and paws approaching. So that was it, huh? All that work, the fight for survival, the journey, the indecision, fear, and his triumph over it, all lost because he couldn’t follow a single, simple plan. Some part of him had still held out for something more, wanted to squeeze some fortune out of the drear that drenched them all, and kept the power of Toneruth bottled up within him.
  446.  
  447. “You’re still alive, monkey-fucker! Get up!”
  448.  
  449. A maroon paw seized him by the shirt and yanked him to his feet. Somehow, he stayed upright and when he checked his right hand, found Toneruth still in his grip. It looks like that same part of him hadn’t given up yet.
  450.  
  451. Seira stood by his side, but before them stood much more. The largest of the three lamia which had been pursuing them in Fullsburg earlier was in the front of the group and likely the one who’d sent Galen flying. Behind her, a dragon, a salamander, an oni, and a ushi-oni. The color drained from Galen’s face, and he could swear he heard the same happen to Seira. A group perfect for combat with a mix of strength, speed, and stamina, all far physically superior to a human. Galen had just barely pushed the lamia back the first time they met, and only with a distraction. Here, he would have no such luxury.
  452.  
  453. Seira dropped lower into a ready stance. “Stick together. Don’t let them surround us. Take whatever they give you, but don’t get greedy.”
  454.  
  455. “How cute. You’re even protecting each other.”
  456.  
  457. Galen gritted his teeth and brought Toneruth up. He wouldn’t betray that part of himself by giving up… but hope might not be enough for this. The dragon and the salamander started coming around Galen and Seira’s right, while the oni and ushi-oni took their left and the lamia advanced on their front. They slowly backed up with their enemies’ movements, unwilling to let themselves be surrounded so easily, but it was only a matter of time before one struck.
  458.  
  459. The salamander’s itchy swordarm owned the first blow. It came so fast Galen hardly had time to notice it, her cleaver of a sword slicing the air in one clean stroke, intent on separating Galen’s right arm from his body.
  460.  
  461. Somehow, she lost hers instead.
  462.  
  463. Blood splashed on the salamander and Galen both as her liberated arm flopped to the floor, making him wince without realizing it. In the void of shock following, while everyone stood still and stared at the arm, a flash of green delivered a sword tip straight to the salamander’s heart, diving in and out of her chest in a moment. She crumpled, and a very welcome lizardman stepped up in her place.
  464.  
  465. “That should help the odds a bit.”
  466.  
  467. “Sybyll!” Galen almost dropped Toneruth to hug her. He HAD heard footsteps before, they just didn’t belong to who he’d thought. All he spared was a wide grin before turning back to their opponents. Not only were they still outnumbered, but dragons and ushi-onis were especially hard to take down, the lamia’s body gave her a versatile combat style, and onis were both fiercely strong and quick. If only he could use Toneruth…
  468.  
  469. “I take it the primary plan did not work as intended,” said Sybyll, eyeing the enemy monsters and the very alive and intact Medusuub far behind them.
  470.  
  471. Seira merely growled in response. Galen shuddered at that--she probably had a million things she wanted to yell at him right now. Hopefully she’d be able to use that anger against their enemies and drain it all out before she got the chance to turn it on him.
  472.  
  473. The monsters continued to close in. The battle was seconds away, close enough for Toneruth to churn cold with the anticipation of a cut. Sybyll’s gaze darted around the room, probably considering and dismissing dozens of possibilities each second. While Seira had some fight prowess, it was Sybyll Galen put his real faith in when set up against these sorts of odds.
  474.  
  475. “Follow,” was all she said before bursting forward, straight at the dragon. Her sword was out and clashing against the dragon’s claws before Galen’s legs obeyed his command to run. The lamia, closest of the other monsters, lashed out like a viper with her short sword, intent on skewering Galen, but with a kick from Sybyll on the attacking arm and a slick dodge from Galen, he was past and back into the the throne room. Seira was already up and jumping to Sybyll’s aid, sending a strike at the dragon’s shoulder, but it was tossed away with a wing and the situation reset to what it had been moments before, only this time, Galen and his companions were in the throne room, and three of their four opponents had to fit through the doorway back in to fight.
  476.  
  477. Seira and Sybyll didn’t waste the opportunity. Both laid into the dragon with everything they had. Sybyll’s arms and legs moved with dizzying speed, Seira’s attacks came with enough power to send an echoing thud through the room. Using her wings for defense, the dragon was just barely able to prevent a killing blow, but the tender sections of her wings were starting to tear, and Sybyll’s sword had bitten into her side time and time again. Galen found his hopes rising again.
  478.  
  479. A club lashed out, intercepting one of Seira’s attacks meant for the dragon’s neck. She grunted, falling back, and refocused on her new opponent. The oni had made it through.
  480.  
  481. All this happened in mere seconds. Galen’s mind could hardly keep up with the moment, much less react to it. Such a short time ago he’d been sparring with his father in his backyard, struggling to go beyond intermediate swordplay, but this… how could anything prepare him for this?
  482.  
  483. When the lamia slid up to the dragon’s side, setting Sybyll in a two-on-one, Galen knew his turn was up. It wasn’t a matter of whether he could or could not--his actions would answer that. At least it wasn’t another harpy. He advanced. The lamia regarded him not with the contempt he’d seen for Seira, or the solemnness he’d seen for Sybyll, but rather annoyance. He was the disposable one, the pestering little human who might as well have been a fly buzzing around her face. All she needed to do was swat.
  484.  
  485. Her tail struck first, like a spear jutting out of the air beside her, intent on Galen’s heart. With only inches to spare, he deflected the strike to his side, stepping forward into the parry, and switched his grip to attack. The lamia, however, still had her sword and shield free to deal with his upward cut. She threw his sword aside with a heave, shoving him off-balance, and aimed her own sword at his chest. Tensing at the sight of the strike, he twisted his body, watching as the sword glided across his stomach. It ate skin and clothes, but not much else. Galen hit the ground rolling, and continued to roll until he felt he had put enough space between him and his opponent, then jumped back to his feet as quick as he could. Just as he was bringing Toneruth up again, the lamia’s tail came out once more, this time a sideways sweep aimed at his hip. Too high to jump over, and too low to duck with so little time, he jumped--no, threw his body backwards, out of the tail’s range.
  486.  
  487. His fingers tightened on Toneruth’s hilt. Her tail was the real problem. If he got in close, she could use her sword and shield for defense and smash him with her tail. At any sort of distance, she could strike with impunity and Toneruth would never reach her. Sweat dripped down in front of his eye, and the sound of his heavy breathing hit his ears. In training and in practice, he’d only ever fought opponents who needed some kind of recovery time, or whose attacks had some form of drawback, but with this lamia, he had to defend at least two of her attacks without using Toneruth in order to have it ready for an attack of his own. His eyes went lower. While her human half was certainly the most vulnerable and likely more vital part of her body, it was also easier for her to defend. Maybe if he aimed lower, he could weaken her enough for something for decisive. Those scales wouldn’t be able to match Toneruth.
  488.  
  489. In his moment of thought, the lamia had advanced, this time choosing her sword for the initial attack. Dodge. He had to dodge. Her weight twisted, her shoulders shifted, and Galen moved accordingly--two steps to her right, toward her sword arm. Instincts yelled at Galen, telling him to move away from the danger instead of toward it, but he’d chosen correctly. The sword passed harmlessly to his left. His eyes immediately went to her tail, and just in time. She’d used the attack to give it a chance to coil around him, but with a hurried jump forward, he cleared her tail and the closing trap it had set. He spun around the moment he landed and Toneruth flashed. Magic sword swept through scale as if it weren’t there, and the cold touch of success ran through Galen’s hands.
  490.  
  491. Shouting, the lamia spun and lashed out with her shield. Even injured, she moved with speed easily beyond Galen’s. He was still following through when the shield caught his arm. Pain ripped through the arm and one hand lost its grip on Toneruth, throwing Toneruth’s momentum out of control and forcing Galen to shift his balance to keep from falling over. The lamia never slowed, using the motion of her spin to follow shield with sword and opened a fine wound on Galen’s shoulder. Again pain blossomed. Crying out, Galen stumbled backward, one hand grabbing the cut on instinct. The wound reacted to the touch with a fresh wave of pain.
  492.  
  493. The combatants had a moment to stare at each other, both reeling from a wound, sizing up their opponent with the information gained from the last exchange. Galen had been upgraded to a rat.
  494.  
  495. In the brief reprieve, Galen’s body reminded him of everything it didn’t have, that every moment since he’d hopped off the boat had compounded on those after it. Every second in combat strained him beyond what he’d thought possible, and the only thing keeping him in that realm of impossibility was the knowledge that the alternative was death. Soon enough, he would ask for something his body could not deliver, and that would end him. He blinked constantly, trying to keep the sweat out of his eyes. Toneruth’s blade wavered in his vision, and outside the lamia, the rest of the room blurred. His knees groaned in constant protest, his chest ached, it burned, it pounded, as desperate as Galen himself.
  496.  
  497. He was losing. He was absolutely losing. Even if Seira and Sybyll could defeat the monsters they fought, Galen would find his end here. If, by some stroke of luck, he managed to end it with the next attack, he couldn’t possibly come out unscathed, and another wound piled atop the mountain of burden already upon him would finish him off. Toneruth would no longer have a weilder, and protected by the Covenant, Medusuub would be untouchable. The armies would never see the Toneruth light the sky, no miracle would separate them before they could send humans and monsters down that bloody path once more.
  498.  
  499. Galen spit. Something steadied Toneruth in his grip. The damn sword he’d put so much faith in, put so much time into repairing, was still nothing more than a sword in his hands. Back on Nox, it had been a legend of mystery and power, a goal, an ambition, some relic which could bring dreams to reality. And it could, actually. But it cost. It cost so much. Galen’s gaze focused on Toneruth. It was even laughable at first sight, broken down the middle and the sheath covered in dust. A glint reflected off the sharp edge, making Galen squint. It might even be considered half a sword, with the blade only being on one side, taking from--
  500.  
  501. Wait.
  502.  
  503. The blade was only on one side.
  504.  
  505. Galen nearly lost his grip on the sword.
  506.  
  507. The blade was only on one side.
  508.  
  509. The room faded away to black but for that thin slice of metal before him. Heat washed over him, crashing against his body like a wave. His spine tingled. His eyes went wide. His muscles stopped shaking, all protest lost. The mages who created the sword--Edward said there was much he didn’t know, much they experimented with. Could they have possibly gone beyond experimentation? ‘The sword stands for itself,’ Edward had said. And the blade was only on one side.
  510.  
  511. Galen looked up. His reaction clearly had not gone unnoticed, and the lamia had braced herself instead of striking. He’d inadvertently bought himself the sliver of time he needed. He glanced behind himself to Medusuub, still standing half the room away, intent on the battles before her. With this knowledge, he could strike. He could Cut. It was perfect for him.
  512.  
  513. He turned back to the lamia, glared, then found Sybyll fighting off both the ushi-oni and the dragon. His heart leapt at seeing the medal still shining proudly on her arm, though not without a splash of blood on it. Nothing held her back anymore, just the same as him.
  514.  
  515. He sheathed Toneruth.
  516.  
  517. “Sybyll!” he shouted. She somehow found the room to look back at him.
  518.  
  519. “Goodbye!”
  520.  
  521. That’s all it was. Goodbye. He had no time to add more and his mind frankly hadn’t the strength to push out the words he wanted to say. ‘It’s been fun.’ ‘I’ll miss you.’ ‘I hope you’ve found what you’ve been looking for.’ ‘Thanks for everything.’ A rushed farewell ended up being another transgression forced upon the tireless lizardman. Heck, Seira and Mino didn’t even know she’d be disappearing. Did they have words to say to Sybyll as well? Conversations left unsaid? He never even asked what Sybyll felt about leaving so suddenly. Sure, she said she didn’t care, that it was part of her duty, but something told him the truth lied deeper, with the part of her that wore her medal with pride. Ironic, now, that his regrets all seemed to be centered around other people once he’d gotten his own thoughts together.
  522.  
  523. He’d make it up to her, somehow.
  524.  
  525. Spinning on his heel, Galen exploded forward toward Medusuub. Legs which had burned with fatigue now burned with strength. Labored lungs swallowed air with ease. A dying heart beat life, and fear fled from hope. Galen broke into a sprint that flowed and sped like wind, each part of his body moving with a single purpose.
  526.  
  527. One hand on the sheath, one on the hilt. He kept his posture low, cutting through the space between him and Medusuub as quickly as his legs could eat it up. The lamia chased as fast as she could, but she couldn’t possibly stop him. Nothing could stop him, human, monster, or deity. From the moment he had broke into action, his path had been decided, etched into the flow of time by his will like a chisel took to stone. His voice rose bellowed out, pushing the overflowing raw energy within to the rest of the world to be heard in such a potent manner everyone in the room had to freeze and stare.
  528.  
  529. With a small tilt of his hand, Galen angled Toneruth just how he needed. Medusuub uncrossed her arms, her eyes finally drinking in the full sight of the thing before her. She stood right in front of him, a universe away, it mattered not. His right foot slammed down, his fingers squeezed and pulled with all the vigor he held within. Gleaming metal slipped free without a ripple of resistance. Galen screamed and flicked his wrist; a tiny twitch which made the act his own.
  530.  
  531. And he Cut.
  532.  
  533. Lightning, brighter than the sun and frigid to the core, obliterated everything in front of Galen. The wall behind Medusuub evaporated into a swirl of rock, dust, and debris, roaring outward into the night’s great expanse. It didn’t stop there. Blue lightning erupted from the castle, casting a brilliant wall of light down the line of Galen’s strike and bringing day to night. A visible concussion ripped through the air and pounded on the ears of all who heard it. The lamia, closest to Galen, was thrown several feet back and all of the others lost their balance. Stone shuddered at the might of the Cut, searing into its memory the terrible mark of a second Scar of the World. Through sea, cliff, air and darkness the lightning cut, pushing and paving its way beyond the horizon. Its deafening roar swallowed all sound. Galen’s own clothing tore from the fierce wind screaming from the point of contact, but his feet remained steady, anchored to the ground. He stared into the light, amazed and determined both.
  534.  
  535. After what felt like an eternity, sound returned to the world. The air settled but for the chill wind drifting in from the gaping hole, the void where the wall used to be. Crackling out to its last moments, the lightning faded and fizzled away, though a faint blue glow remained on Toneruth. Galen let the sword lower and its tip touch the ground. A diminishing warmth flowed into his body from the sword, though it did little to sooth his aching, spent muscles. He stood up straight, watching the spot he’d last seen his opponent. Huffing, he steeled his gaze. Toneruth had met his will with magic, and before him lay the result: a woman, entirely human, lying on the floor, eyes closed and breathing peacefully.
  536.  
  537. He’d done it. Medusuub was defeated. A laugh bubbled up from his stomach at the absurdity of it all, but he swallowed it back down. So long, it seemed he’d been chasing this goal, though not long in days and weeks, but encounters. Mallus. Ahdria. Poseidon. The harpy. Sybyll’s secret. Toneruth’s secret and all the stress it had given him. His father. Eyes sinking to the floor, he pursed his lips and wallowed in silence. His father. What would his father say now? Galen had protected the city, just like he said he would, but he half expected his father to yell at him when he saw him next. Maybe Galen had finally done something to make Hoem proud, and done it without having to compromise, without conceding an inch. A hollow smile creased Galen’s face. Something he could be proud of, at least.
  538.  
  539. The world lurched and Galen stumbled forward, clutching the wound the lamia had given him. Nausea rushed over him in a swoon.  He wanted to flop over and faint, drift into sleep for the next day and dream of peace. He wanted to depart the world and let it sort itself out from what he’d just done. He couldn’t, however. Not yet.
  540.  
  541. Uneven steps approached from behind. Galen’s face fell, but he tossed away the pain before turning around. He was only half done. Even after all he’d asked of his mind and body, he would have to ask more.
  542.  
  543. He came face-to-face with Seira, clutching a wound on her side, her hair a complete mess, blood on her claws and mixing with sweat as it dripped down her face. Still, she kept her feet, kept those red eyes alight, and somehow that braid of hers survived the fight. Her horrid leer, a ghastly mix of excitement and awe, was locked on the sleeping Medusuub.
  544.  
  545. “So… it could do even that,” she said. Her excitement started to win out as a smile grew on her lips.
  546.  
  547. “It could,” said Galen.
  548.  
  549. “Then we’ve won.” Her breathing grew heavier.
  550.  
  551. “Yes, we have, assuming the monsters here behave like you said.”
  552.  
  553. She glanced back at the monsters they’d been fighting a moment ago. All were still in awe of witnessing Toneruth Cut a second time. “Yeah, they will. Don’t worry about it.”
  554.  
  555. “I’m not.” His worries lied elsewhere.
  556.  
  557. They stared at each other for a time, but Seira’s eyes kept drifting off to Medusuub’s unconscious body. She took another step forward. Galen didn’t move.
  558.  
  559. “It’s been too long. Too long running, too long hating, too long hiding and thinking through plans in my head. Too many disappointments and dead ends. Yet, I’m still here. I can have my peace.” Taking her paw off her wound, she laid one more foot-paw forward, her mouth gaping now. Galen spotted drool as well.
  560.  
  561. “This isn’t going to give you peace.”
  562.  
  563. “It has to.” She stepped to the side in order to get around Galen, but he stepped with her. “What are you doing? Get out of the way. You didn’t kill her so I could, right?”
  564.  
  565. “No.”
  566.  
  567. Her crimson glowed and bored a hole through Galen, but still he didn’t move. “Stop acting stupid. You did your part. The plan worked. We saved everyone. Medusuub has to know justice.”
  568.  
  569. “No. This isn’t about justice.”
  570.  
  571. A growl, low enough to make Galen’s bones shudder, emanated from Seira. She lifted her paw at him. “This isn’t the place or the time for your stubbornness. Move.”
  572.  
  573. “No.” The word rang out a third time. It reminded Galen of something like a town bell at midday. “I can’t let you.”
  574.  
  575. “Move!”
  576.  
  577. “It would ruin you.”
  578.  
  579. “Fuck me! I don’t give a spark in hell what it would do to me!”
  580.  
  581. “Even then, I still can’t move.”
  582.  
  583. “Why are you doing this? Out of some misguided commitment to your MORALS? Or do you think I’m some pure, dainty monster who should’nt kill anyone?” He opened his mouth to talk, but she wasn’t done. “Don’t you even THINK you can tell me I’ll become as bad as her, because not only is that impossible, there’s no reason to think it would happen!”
  584.  
  585. “Seira, please. Try to understand.” His body heaved in pain with each word, as if it was trying to reject them.
  586.  
  587. “Answer the question.”
  588.  
  589. Galen shook his head. “I’m not doing it for any of those reasons. It’s not for morals, I can’t speak for you or for her in this situation. I’m too young, too inexperienced. I don’t understand anything and I wouldn’t have the right to make judgements. I’m not doing it because I think you’re ‘pure’ or anything like that. I know you well enough to know you’ve traveled your own path to get here, and most of it was not the same as mine.” He ran his tongue over chapped lips, lips that ached to stay still. “If you kill her, I don’t know what will happen. I don’t think you’ll become anything like her--I think you would rather die before that happened.”
  590.  
  591. Seira finally began to calm, his words helping her to at least release a fist she’d been holding. Her eyes still cut through him, and her body tensed as if about to pounce. “Then why? Why are you stopping me? What possible reason could justify this?”
  592.  
  593. “Because you’re lying to yourself. Long ago, Sybyll told me you said this was to stop Medusuub and save monsters, that it wasn’t for revenge. I've been watching you, listening this entire journey, and you keep reiterating that. You're here to help the monsters, to stop the war, you say. And just now, you said you would kill her for justice, but you and I both know that’s not true. You’ve been lying to yourself this entire time, making up excuses about why it’s okay to kill her, why you deserve to be the one to do it. If you kill her now, it will be because you’ve convinced yourself all those lies are truths. You’ll be giving in to your bloodlust, and when your vision clears, how can you know you won’t give into it again? If you kill her, and you don’t find peace, how will you fill that void, the one you were so sure you’d be rid of? I’m standing in your way because I’m worried about you, and I don’t care what consequences that has if it means I can protect you.”
  594.  
  595. “Protect me? I am NOT some little girl who needs protecting! I know exactly what I am doing, Galen. I knew exactly what would happen when I got here. I know what it means to kill an enemy, to get revenge. Do you think Medusuub is the first monster I’ve sought out? Dozens before her, Galen. Dozens. And each step on that path has only led me here. You don’t need to ‘protect’ me. You can’t.” Her form rose higher, eyes lighting up as she shed the pain and weariness assaulting her. Galen knew the feeling, though his wasn’t born from quite the same emotion. “And you can’t stop me, either.” She took a step forward, one with clear intent. Any hesitance Galen’s presence pushed on her had evaporated.
  596.  
  597. "Doesn't that just confirm what I said? I didn't matter how many monsters you killed, you wanted more. You kept telling yourself lies and when each monster died and you didn't feel better, you believed you'd find peace with the next. Over and over again, you tricked yourself, and if you do this, no lie will save you. You'll be forced to face the truth, or create a lie so grand you won't be living in the real world any more."
  598.  
  599. She still kept moving forward. Raising a paw to push him out of the way, she said, "I don't want to have to hurt you."
  600.  
  601. Why did it have to end this way? “You have to stop. Please.”
  602.  
  603. “Why?”
  604.  
  605. The world went silent around him. “Because I couldn’t love you if you didn’t.”
  606.  
  607. Whatever Seira had to say next was stolen from her along with her breath. Her face flashed away from the murderous rage bearing down on Galen, yielding to something else, but only long enough for her to find a rebuttal. She spoke with unnecessary volume. "I have no reason to like you or care about what you think about me! You were just a traveling partner, nothing more! Who do you think you are, standing up to Seira Khertaleon?! You're nothing to me!"
  608.  
  609. "Then push me aside and take your revenge."
  610.  
  611. Seira grabbed Galen by the scruff of his shirt and shoved her face into his, spit flying from her mouth as she screamed. "Manticores are ferocious monsters! They don't feel any pity for their enemies or their prey! They do what needs to be done! I've worked the last 30 years for this, and your pointless little antics won't get in my way!"
  612.  
  613. "Then toss me away and take your revenge."
  614.  
  615. Somehow, her eyes lit up brighter, as if the fire inside of her was seeking to burst free of her body. Her lips curled up, showing rows of gnashing, furious teeth. Throwing Galen to the ground in front of her, she paced a small circle before coming back to point a finger at his frail form.
  616.  
  617. "When I told you to fight for the stupid things, I wasn't talking about this! Idiot! Buffoon! You weren't supposed to fight for this!" Biting her lip until she drew blood, she shook her head at Galen. Surely a war raged in her head, just as violent as any war fought with pikes and swords, but condensed into the frame of her mind. It ran though victories, defeats, retreats, and advances all told like story with voice of her eyes. Galen even rooted for her silently. ‘Be the manticore I know you are.’ Her mouth opened and closed, words formed and lost before her lungs could give them life. Everything she had clashed against everything she hoped for. Just as she had run through a hundred schemes, a hundred plans which all ended right where she stood, her mind ran through battle after battle, pushing away what she knew to be unavoidable, throwing every excuse at the ultimatum before her and coming up short.
  618.  
  619. Her eyes softened like ice before a ferocious flame. She fell to a knee, eyes brimming with furious tears. "You weren't supposed to fight for this."
  620.  
  621. Galen took a step forward, speaking as gently as he could. "I’m doing it for y--"
  622.  
  623. “Don’t!” she screamed, jabbing a finger at him. “Don’t say ‘you’, don’t say ‘we’, don’t you dare! Don’t say another word!” She struggled back to her feet, stopping to glare at Galen, then pointed to the door. “Go.”
  624.  
  625. “I can’t--“
  626.  
  627. “Shut up. Go. Go. I don’t… I can’t… you will go. Stop standing there like an idiot and GO!”
  628.  
  629. Galen pushed back tears, pushed back the pain and sorrow. Not in front of Seira. He wouldn’t cry in front of her, not over this. He’d made his choice. Heavy feet carried him from the room, the room which stank of blood, pain, and loss. No amount of distance could take Galen away from it, or it away from Galen, but still he walked. He jogged, even if his body had not the strength to do it. He had to, he could no longer stand the stench of that place. The decision he made.
  630.  
  631. So this was what victory felt like.
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