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  1. THE CROWNS SHADOW: REVELATION AMIDST THE REEDS “Where … am I?” As soon as Aleksandr formed the thought, it echoed around him in a disembodied voice. “Where was he?” At first, he thought the voice was mere disorientation. He blinked as the groggy darkness receded, and found himself beneath the bare branches of an oak tree, clawing at a pale sky. The oak stood alone in a glade of tall grass, sparse except for a few saplings that broke through the foliage, and the oak itself seemed to be dead. Slowly, he reached forward, and traced his finger on the deep grooves of the grey bark. He squinted his eyes at what looked like scars and etching in the bark - left by a Descendant hand, not nature. “He wasn’t alone.” That time, he knew the voice was not in his head - or at least, he knew it wasn’t just in his head. Each skittering thought in his frayed mind seemed to … echo, disembodied in the air around him. “How - …?” “He wondered how it was possible.” His heart began to quicken, and he glanced around to see an expanse of that nondescript glaze in every direction. And something about the sky felt … too empty. “Rotting mage,” he found himself growling through grit teeth. “What fell magic is this?! You promised me answers about the stars! Speak, before I carve your lying tongue out!” As his words were swallowed by the empty sky, he knew he was being foolish; knew he was lashing out at something he did not understand. “ … and something he did not understand, and something that his own hubris had wrought,” the disembodied voice finished. Ancient steel hissed against leather as Aleksandr ripped Svjetlast free from its sheath, and brandished it against the emptiness. No sooner than he had, though … “ … drew the famed blade of Svjetlast. Would it serve him any better than a blade of unstoried steel, though?” The words sent a chill lancing through him - he had pondered that very question before, but only to himself, in the deepest pockets of his mind. “And the King wondered how the voice could know those unspoken questions, the likes of which no isolated reflection could recover from his unconscious. So much pride, vested in an old piece of metal … What good did it do him, really?” “You do not command me!” he bellowed so hard his throat stung. “The King proclaimed that it did not command him.” His armour clanged as he sank back against the weathered trunk, and the Voice continued to taunt and tease at his own powerlessness. For what felt like an hour, he could not make out the constant tide of words as the Voice teased him with its monotonous drone, and his vision spun. “I have to move,” he breathed eventually. “I have …” “ … to find a way out of here.” “And so the King weeeent …. That way!” The Voice never faded as he trudged through the grass in a random direction. Despite the fact that there was not a soul in sight, he felt like his boots somehow disturbed the glade’s tranquillity. “ … and he found himself stepping carefully.” He took large strides, and took some small measure of comfort for the sound of the rustling grass just to have some other sound besides the Voice. He resolved to ignore the Voice. “He decided he would try to ignore it.” No matter how far he walked, though, Aleksandr seemed to draw no closer to any of the blurry, distant glades. “And he realised there was nothing else but the tree.” The Voice caused him little duress, now - not while he could narrow his focus on finding out wherever he was, much less how to return home. From the tree, he tried walking every direction - there had to be … “ … something, surely.” Gripping Svjetlast for some vain comfort, he stomped one way. “And so he went -” Narrowing his eyes into a determined glare, he pivoted to another direction. “And then he turned -” He quickened his pace as he changed course yet again. “ … that way!” Aleksandr paused, and Svjetlast fell limp in his hands. He had gone in each cardinal direction - if this place even had directions - and now he faced the way from which he had started. Four directions, four times, and the Voice had input for each of them, practically reading each of Aleksandr’s exact thoughts. Then, he realised. “Are you …” “ … me?” It was no trick of the mage that had teleported him to this place - that much was clear, now. He did not understand how, but it was a projection of him - a vocalisation of his own internal monologue and thoughts. Every action, every belief, and every doubt was laid bare and narrated without filter by the Voice. “ … by himself.” Filled an odd amalgamation of fear and unease, he started forward once more, and the Voice narrated every move. Fear and doubt battled in his mind to trigger panic, but he held his resolve as shakily as he could. “Despair would do him no good, he assured himself.” He counted one-hundred paces from the leafless oak, just to see if anything at all changed -- and he realised that only one thing had. The sun seemed to set quicker, he noticed before long He had no idea if that was because time passed differently here … “ … or if his perception of time was simply warped. In any case, the wayward King certainly had no intention of lingering in this place until nightfall.” It was not just the sun that seemed awry, either; despite its angle in the sky, he had cast no shadow, unlike the endless stalks all around him. Growling in frustration as the tall grass forced him to move with slow strides, he instead sliced with Svjetlast, and sliced his path forward with the ancient relic. The sword of the foregone kings of Ruska - since Barbov the Black himself - used like a peasant’s scythe. “It weighed heavily upon Aleksandr how humiliating it looked - the foremost commander of the Grand Covenant, stalwart King of Haense, and victor many battles, reduced to using his ancestral blade to cut grass.” “What, is this some witty lesson in humility?” he snarled impatiently. “If so, you’ve made it clear enough.” “ … and that it was clear enough.” He let the blade fall still as ribbons of slashed grass drifted around him. “Is that all I have to do? Learn humility?!” He spread his arms. “Fine! You’ve done it; lesson learned! I am a humbled King!” “ … he said, but he knew his words held no truth.” He clenched his jaw, “and hissed in agitation. He believed there was a way out of this place - he had no choice but to cling to that faith. But he knew not whether it was a physical or mental exit; for now, all he could do was to march onwards.” Aleksandr had never imagined he would take umbrage with his own thoughts, but the Voice’s narration felt too much like an external command, that was what boiled his blood. As he took to slashing his way through the chaff once more, he swung Svjetlast with increasing aggression. The angle of the setting sun glared into his eyes, and a biting mark of time’s swift passage and his need to return home. His resolve felt more and more frayed as fear of being trapped in this place - condemned to madness by his own thoughts - gnawed at him. It was just as his hopelessness reached a breaking point that he spotted something that, for the first time since he had awoken here, filled him with hope. A clearing, in the middle of the field. He took off at a clumsy run, his heart pounding until he kicked through the last of the tall chaff, and found himself standing on a flat, perfect circle of earth. Not grass - not even dirt. His boots crunched under something rotten and dry, like dead tubers barely poking through black and burnt soil. It was a circle of death, in a field of life. There was no escape, but there was something there in the clearing with him. It took him a moment to realise what that odd, dark thing was. “A shadow,” he breathed. “His shadow,” finished the Voice. Aleksandr was not sure how he knew it was his shadow that stood in the centre of the dead clearing, “but he simply did know. Yes, he had no doubt. It was innate to him, yet also apart from him. Unreconciled.” The dead soil cracked as he advanced at a slow walk, his eyes fixed on the shadow. The shadow stared back eyelessly, but the weight of that stare almost made Aleksandr flinched. As the King moved, so too did his shadow, holding the shade of Svjetlast in its own featureless hand. Around the shadow, the death rippled, and the soil darkened further as even the tubers withered into crisp, burnt flakes. The shadow raised its blade. “I will not die to some other trick,” he called out bitterly. “And I will not …” “... die without fighting.” He closed the distance, and brought Svjetlast down with pure instinct, and no form nor stance. Like parting water, the shadow glided away from the blow … and the next one, and the next one. Aleksandr drew on whatever measure of composure he could, and fell into his sword-forms as he pursued the shadow: the rapid thrust of Sigismund’s Eye, precisely side-stepped; the tripartite-arc of the Huntide fell inches short; and even Bralt’s Folly, a deadly manoeuvre meant for much younger men, somehow never touched the shade. “... never touched the shadow. He wailed his blade around, trying to hit something that could not be struck.” Aleksandr slowed his strikes. The shadow did not strike back; it merely circled around him, as taunting as the Voice. Of course, that was ridiculous, since … “ … that would only mean he was taunting himself. The Voice, like the Shadow, was him.” Aleksandr clenched his jaw again. “If that’s the case …” “ … then why was it apart from him, he wondered? Separated. Denied.” The anger faltered, marred by doubt. He did not need to ask what he denied himself, for … “... he had always been proud. Too proud to kneel;” As the shadow moved, the clearing rippled, and, for a second, the empty realm changed. Instead of the shadow before him, instead Aleksandr saw … “... himself, when he refused to kneel before his allies and the Pontiff to make peace with the Adrians, long before he ever fought Veletz. The senseless act of kneeling; the ceremony of respect. Denied from himself. Unreconciled.” “Too proud to think.” Another ripple, and another distortion. The shadow became Aleksandr again, staring down at a boy named Louis Dresney as he presented a box of two leather balls before the Haeseni Court. His breath almost caught in his throat as he watched the shadow - “watched himself,” - drew Svjetlast, and skewered the boy for his insult. “Blinded by pride, and sparked to senseless rage. Denied from himself. Unreconciled.” “Too proud to see.” The shadow rippled once more. Now, Aleksandr saw himself standing on an icefield, facing down a gaggle of bearded men. “That …” “... was the memory right before the King had found himself in this place.” From this unseen angle, Aleksandr saw the faces of his retinue standing behind him as he faced the bearded mages, “and he wondered why Ser Walter’s hand was glued to the pommel of his blade, ready to draw. He wondered why his wife’s face was etched with such sickly worry at what she was seeing.” Memories of the biting wind whistled around him. “And he wondered why his own eyes seemed glazed; fixed at something unseen, something greater …” He watched himself step towards the tricksome mage. “ … and yet utterly oblivious to what was happening around him.” As the emptiness stabilised, Aleksandr faced the shadow in the dead clearing once more. The shadow did not move, and nor did he. “What in the Skies am I supposed to do?” he growled. “What, he wondered, was he supposed to do?” He tried to summon his anger again, and grip Svjetlast with determination, but it would not come - what the shadow, what the Voice - what the reflection of himself - had shown him clung too sickly, too cloying. His anger melted out of him. His pride - his strength, his weakness - melted. “What am I,” “supposed to do?” The sun had ebbed almost to the horizon, bathing the empty world in deep gold. His voice quivered as he asked, “What am I supposed to do?” “ … he begged, now. He knew there was no foe here to vanquish; no army to crush. The realm truly was empty, for the King was utterly alone within it. The Voice, his voice; the shadow, his own. The memories …” In the blink of an eye, sprung from the shadow, he saw what felt like everything throughout his life. He saw not only those moments of baneful pride from before, but also … something else. He saw his family - Amaya, with her steadfast love, who ran herself ragged as the very hearth that kept Haense warm; Emma, whose innocent spirit vindicated Aleksandr when he felt the burden of rule; and Ivan, in whom he put all his hopes for the future, and in whose name he did everything for that future. He saw his friends and companions - Viktor var Ruthern, who had worked tirelessly to smith arms and mail so that they would triumph in war; Ser Walter and Ser Gawyn, knights who pledged to him their blades, and their lives; his allied sovereigns, John, Sybille, Catherine, Sigrun, who had all joined their vision together to beckon Aevos into a new age. “ … his regrets,” the Voice finished. For all the love of his family, it had never given pause to his pride - that was the exact reason he had ended up here, fooled by some wizard because he had been so confident he could never be so duped. The same was true for his friends, his allies, his people … “The King looked back towards the lone oak, not far back in the field.” As the sun began to set, he slowly started back towards that tree, and let Svjetlast’s tip loosely scrape against the ground in his limp grip. The sun’s glow grew deeper, from gold to orange, as the shadows fell sharply across the field. His shadow from the dead clearing followed behind him, still. Something - something important - gnawed faintly at his mind as he kicked through the chaff towards the tree, his shoulders slouched. He knew what he had to do. “He just wished to watch the sunset a little before he did it.” He was only mildly surprised when, as he neared, he saw that the oak’s branches were no longer bare. A leafy canopy of brilliant green had sprouted, through which the setting sun’s light fractured in orange cracks. The bark, too, was a lively brown and traced with moss and lichen, but those man-made markings Aleksandr had spotted when he first awoke remained. Aleksandr looked down to Svjetlast, and then raised it. Clumsily, he carved ‘ALEKS’ into the bark in blocky letters to join the markings of those who came before, and idly wondered what fate they had met. “ … and what fate he himself would meet.” As he turned back to face his shadow - which remained some ten feet away - the sunset light had almost faded. The sky was a darkening blue, touched only by the last of the orange light to the west, and he was mildly surprised to see distant constellations sparkle in a sky that was no longer empty. A faint wind blew, stirring the grass around him and the shadow. “He could not kill his shadow, for it was a part of him.” Aleksandr closed his eyes, and drew a deep breath. “It was those parts he had sealed away, and refused to acknowledge.” He slowly opened his eyes, and gripped Svjetlast tightly. “It was cast by him, though he denied it until now.” The last of the sun’s light glimmered on the fabled blade’s edge as he raised it. “And so, he knew how it could be vanquished.” He pressed the blade’s tip against his breastplate, and pushed. No sooner had the point began to press into him did Aleksandr’s eyes pop with the sound of howling winds, and his flesh jolted with biting cold – the warmth of a campfire his lonely company. With a clatter, he dropped Svjetlast to the frozen earth, and staggered back as the gale tugged at his cloak and whipped his hair. It was familiar, alas, “This is …'' He began, and paused. No Voice spoke his thoughts aloud. “ … where I vanished.” The sound of hooves nearing stampeded in the distance, he heard orders shout aloud and the clambering of armour and mail at that same length. “YOUR MAJESTY . . ?” Called one, the voice carrying over the lake and resounding through the valley. He was back, his sword at his feet, and … he blinked, looking around. Tucked under his left arm was some kind of … book? He remembered feeling it within his grasp before, right before he had been transported to that alternate, empty realm. It had been in the hand of the mage, but … why did he have it now? Is this what …? He let the thought trail off. There would be time for answers later. He knew not how long he had been gone, and he knew his absence would have only sewn chaos. “IT’S HIM!'' – “BY GODANS GRACE HE HAS RETURNED!” – “SEEK OUT THE PRINZEN AND KOENAS.” – “SEND WORD HE APPEARS WELL.” Those calls of nearly a dozen knights and soldiers in disarray brought the King to sweep and spin. He must compose himself. He bent down, and picked up Svjetlast. He did not bother to wipe the snow and dirt off it as he slid it back into its sheath. After all, it was just a sword.
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