“The door's unlocked,” a large brute of an elf said in response to someone knocking at his door. He wore a black and gold regal uniform decorated with many badges, medals, and ribbons.
“You summoned me, General?” a much smaller elven woman asked. Her thin, black and violet armor clicked and clanked slightly as she entered the office.
“Ah, Violierna. You've been working on your music, yes?” He asked as he quickly wrote in a large tome, his quill scratched the parchment rapidly, almost threatening to tear the pages.
“Of course I have, Garndt. You wouldn't expect me to go to my own wedding without practicing, in the event I was asked to participate in a piece, right?”
The quill was placed in a drain pot, and the tome closed with a heavy thud, a red ribbon holding the page.
“That's actually why I summoned you here. I wanted to discuss your wedding, and your fiancee.”
A brief silence filled the room.
“So,” Violierna began. “What is it you don't like about Romulus?”
“Where to begin... he's arrogant, self-absorbed, careless about the lives of others, and there's more. Over the past year, he has become increasingly secluded. He watches his back and turns each corner with a kind of paranoia I've never seen, even from the most skittish of criminals. Every time he would catch sight of me, he would duck into anything he could find; gutters, back alleys, even the Cathedral. He's got a kind of rabbit in him that makes me wonder if he's hiding something that would give me good enough reason to gut him. My distrust of him would not be enough probable cause. I would be court martialled and either executed or exiled. You've heard about the disappearances, right?”
“Seven women disappeared in the night. All about your age. The first one, Saemala, was out for a stroll. The others simply vanished from their homes. Which brings me back to Romulus. Do you know that he never went to your family for their blessing, instead simply telling your father when and where the event was going to take place? When Freila heard the news, she was over-joyed, couldn't wait to tell her friends, Bouris came to me immediately after telling her. You can probably guess how I reacted.”
“I knew Saemala,” Violierna began, trying to shift the subject. “I was told she wondered up to the surface, and was captured by an Azhurian patrol.”
“You were gravely misinformed. I witnessed the event. A figure, cloaked in darkness, grabbed her, and silently whisked her away. I gave chase, but lost whatever grabbed her after only a few seconds. Let me guess, Romulus wants you to avoid talking to me, out of fear that I would ruin your special day?”
“I think you're worrying too much, Garndt. Romulus seems like a perfectly fine gentleman. He's energetic, and kind,” her voice trailed off as her vision wondered to the mounted head of a large, lizard-like beast. Its large fangs shown clearly in it's gaping maw, as some soft flesh revealed them, amidst a sturdy exoskeleton, its horns pointing toward the snout.
“General, what are you doing with my bride-to-be?” A man asked. Violierna turned to see a shadow elf with skin darker than her own, short, swept back black hair, wearing a regal uniform similar to Garndt's.
“We were simply talking, Romulus. I've had a lot on my mind lately and needed to consult a friend.”
“My father gave you your rank, but I have the power to strip you of it.”
“Your threats mean little to me, Romulus. You do not have the power to strip me of my rank until you are on your father's throne. Then what? You gonna punch me? Go crying to daddy? Do note that if you hit me and I retaliate, it will hurt you a lot more.”
“I'll have you know that I can personally control the entire military. Even you, General, are no match for an army. An army you created.”
“I'm not the brute that I may appear as, Romulus. I've been around long enough to know my own tactics, and the tactics of the men I train. I can be my own army, Romulus. I have the means.”
“Will you two stop arguing for once? Garndt, leave Romulus alone. He's doing what he thinks is best.”
“Romulus, you may take your leave, now,” Garndt stated, with Romulus promptly leaving the office, shutting the door behind him as he went. “He's minimally courteous, I'll give him that. Listen to me, Violierna. Arranged marriage with no blessing is not our way.”
“You know, Garndt,” Violierna began. “I think you just need to start minding your own business.”
As she left, Garndt opened the tome once more, grabbing his quill.
“You've been talking to Garndt again, haven't you?” Violierna's mother, Freila, asked.
“Yes, why?” Violierna asked. “I know he doesn't like Romulus, but I think he's being a bit extreme in why I shouldn't wed him.”
“Garndt isn't good for you to be around. Romulus, however, can bring you things you had only dreamed of.”
“And if he's right?”
“Then, I guess it just wasn't meant to be. You are going to wear your armor, in the event of an attack, right? And don't forget to bring your weapons.”
“Mother,” Violierna began. “What exactly is the Old Cathedral?”
“You've only been to the local clergy in the palace, haven't you? Well, the Old Cathedral is a church built centuries ago by the Azhurians that disappeared into the earth, leaving only a massive hole where it stood. Remarkably, its descent seems to have been quite slow, as much of it seems to still be standing. I can't believe it took the humans so long to finish it, only for it to slip from them so quickly.
“I asked what it was, I didn't ask for a history lesson.”
“Violierna,” Freila sighed. “Are you alright? You seem rather moody, as of late.”
“I'm fine, just a bit stressed about what's going on tonight.”
“Your father trusts Garndt, and loves him like he's his brother, but I think Romulus is what's best for you. You wouldn't marry a soldier, or a beggar, would you? I don't think such a person is as deserving of a woman like yourself as Romulus is. When Romulus' father passes on, he will become king, but he can not do so without a bride.”
“I... I have much to think about, mother. If I could just get a few moments to myself...”
“If you insist,” Freila said. She turned to leave the room.
“I just have one thing to ask,” Violierna began, as Freila grasped the door handle. “What happens if I refuse?”
“I don't know,” Freila began. “I've never witnessed a denial.” She left the room and closed the door behind her. Violierna let out a sigh and fell backward onto the bed, her arms sprawled out in frustration and confusion.
A thousand scenarios and conundrums ran rampant through Violierna's mind, becoming tangled and warped as they went, and were only hushed by a pounding at the door.
“Violierna!” Freila shouted. “If we don't leave now, you're going to be late to your own wedding!”
“Coming!” Violierna called back, almost falling over as she shot up.
Nearly tripping over herself twice as she rushed down three flights of spiraling staircase, she reached the carriage her parents were in. It was luxurious, with cushioned seats, a closed top, gold trim, and gemstone anchors.
The ride barely took over an hour, as a stone building with numerous, large, glassless windows with equally massive, arching, A-shaped frames appeared to consume the corner towers. The façade quietly boasted its complex craftsmanship, with a few smaller frames inside the larger ones, vertical lines running its height, and the large, spined pyramids sitting atop the towers, the iron slowly rotting, with large chunks having fallen into the towers, revealing two large, corroded, brass bells. Elaborate flying buttresses reached into the woods from the chevet. Vines could be seen creeping up the façade and buttresses, overtaking the structure after many years of neglect. The sun's light illuminated the Cathedral, and much of the foliage around it.
“Mother, I have to ask,” Violierna began. “How far would you say we are below the surface, right now?”
“If I were to guess? I'd say at least a quarter mile.”
“We're gonna have to proceed on foot, pretty soon. No carriages allowed within a thousand feet of the place,” Violierna's father, Bouris, said. He was a large man, though not nearly to the capacity of Garndt. She couldn't tell if he was upset or just bored. The carriage slowed to a stop.
“I'm sorry, milord, but you will have to continue on foot from this point onward,” the carriage driver said.
“Well, we're just wasting time sitting here. Let's go,” Bouris said.
A path was worn from the edge of the forest. The numerous dead and dying trees gave the place an eerie atmosphere. Proceeding down the trail, rotting sticks and twigs cracked and became pulp underfoot.
Nearing the old church, various cracks became visible in the ancient concrete, with many small vines filling the gaps. It still maintained a very imposing presence, even with its architectural mismanagement.
“Freila, I believe we should enter, now. Violierna, Romulus is not to see you until the procession. I'm afraid you must wait out here until a messenger arrives. When he does, you may proceed.”
Countless, boring minutes passed. Leaning against the church's façade, she idly watched a griffin circle overhead, before quickly disappearing over the edge of the sinkhole's gaping maw. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed an irregular silhouette, which quickly disappeared into the trees. Shuffling and clanking could be heard coming from the cathedral's north side.
“You may proceed when you are ready, ma'am,” the messenger said with a bow.
“I am,” Violierna said, trying to sound confident.
The rusted, iron doors creaked and groaned as they opened without the assistance of an outside force, revealing the long nave with pews on either side filled with many great, wealthy families, ending at the vault, where Garndt and the emperor sat on an elevated platform and the head of the clergy beneath them. The marble and granite reflected much of the sunlight onto the high arcade, illuminating the church's interior from nearly every angle.
Taking a breath to steady herself, she proceeded toward the vault, toward Romulus, toward an irreversible decision. She couldn't help but overhear murmurs and notice slight sneers from the most wealthy families. Sixteen soldiers from the Praetorian Guard stood at attention, eight on either side, increasing in rank and skill, the closer they were to the vault, all more skilled than herself. The first one on her left, the lowest-ranking soldier, a Captain, stifled a cough as she passed. Each stood as a statue, their black and green crow's-head helmets unmoving.
After what felt like hours, Violierna finally stood next to Romulus, the bishop reading off their vows, first to Romulus, who responded with a hearty, prideful, “I do.” The bishop quickly gathered himself from the unexpected burst of haughtiness and perceived self-worship before reading Violierna her vows. She stood silent for several seconds before muttering something under her breath.
“I'm sorry?” The bishop asked, trying to get her to raise her voice.
“I... I don't! I can't!” Violierna exclaimed, before being whipped around by the shoulder and receiving a slap to her face. When she steadied her vision, she saw her father standing before her, seething with rage, but looking as if he were about to cry.
“From the time you leave this building on, you are dead to me! Do you hear me? Dead!” Bouris bellowed, before storming off. Romulus was also angered, but unlike Bouris, he was filled with pure rage.
“Get out of this church, and leave Dissidium,” he hissed.
Violierna bolted for the large, iron doors she entered through, with them opening for her long in advance. The wealthy nobles could be heard laughing at and taunting her.
“Violierna!” Garndt shouted as he lept down from the overhang, landing with a thud on a choir bench, snapping it like a twig.
“General!” One of the Majors called after him, only for his cry to fall on deaf ears.
The great iron doors began closing after Violierna rushed out the building, closing completely by the time Garndt had reached them.
“General, calm yourself!” The Major General exclaimed, trying to restrain him. He was simply thrown off, and the others scattered by a strong gale.
“There's no barrier I haven't been able to breach,” Garndt growled as two large, spectral, clawed hands dug into the solid iron, bending and crumpling it before tearing the doors from their hinges, tossing them aside with unnatural ease. Garndt's subordinates staggered onto their feet in awe of what they were seeing, before Garndt sprinted off after Violierna.
“Guards! Hold there!” Romulus ordered. The officers sheathed their weapons as Romulus approached them. “I have a better idea.”
“Violierna, wait!” Garndt called, causing Violierna to glance behind her, losing her footing on a stone slicked with moss, landing face-first into the dirt. Garndt stood only yards away before hearing her weep. He slowly approached her, and just as he was about to lay a hand on her shoulder, she faced him, a stinging line had formed across his cheek, before feeling a warm fluid run down the side of his face, soak his short beard, and drip off his chin onto his uniform. A throwing knife lay imbedded in the tree behind him. It had been so long since another had made him bleed. Yet he felt no anger or disappointment toward his student, but to himself, unlike Violierna, whom he noticed felt much hatred toward him, through her tears.
“I'm sorry,” Garndt uttered. “I know mere words can't undo what has happened today, but if I am to be executed for suppositions about convincing you to not marry Romulus, then all I ask is that you forgive me of that if you feel the same way they might, even though I may be undeserving. Or, if you do feel I am undeserving of your forgiveness, I will think no less of you. I played a role in your decision, and for that, I regret summoning you to my office. Should you survive the surface, I hope that one day, you will forgive an old fool for his blunder.” He turned his back to her and quickly left her to herself, his heart heavy with guilt and grief.
Garndt repeatedly organized his book shelf alphabetically, and by date, and finally combining both methods, tearing the shelf apart and starting over from scratch whenever he made an error.
“I should sleep,” Garndt began, muttering to himself. “But I'll worry about that once I get this shelf stocked...”
“The door's unlocked,” Garndt said, in response to a rapping on his office door. A wave of his hand, and the books flew onto the shelves in no particular order. Looking over, he noticed Violierna, accompanied by one of the Praetorian Guard.
“She wishes to speak with you one last time before being sent off. Your fate is still being decided.”
“I see. Now, leave us,” Garndt ordered. With a wave of his hand, the door closed with a groan and a click. “What is it you wanted to speak with me about?”
“I,” Violierna hesitated, staring at the granite floor while trying to collect her thoughts. “I just wanted to say I'm sorry for nearly killing you.” Expecting to share a reaction similar to her father's , Violierna was surprised to find Garndt just stand at the other end of the room with a slight smile, which quickly turned into him clutching his forehead and pacing around the room.
“Are you alright, Garndt?” She asked, concerned.
“I'm fine, but I need to think of a way to help you survive on the surface. They don't take kindly to us.” His thinking was interrupted by another knock at the door. “What is it?”
The door opened to reveal Garndt's highest-ranking subordinate, a Lieutenant General.
“If you're here to take her, I could save you the trouble and take her to the surface, myself,” Garndt said, in an attempt to persuade him.
“It's funny you mention it, General, because we're to escort the both of you to the surface. Now, pack what you can carry. We'll be waiting outside.”
“Very well,” Garndt said before stretching his arm out, forcing the door to slam. He turned to his desk, closed the tome with a heavy thud, and searched the drawers for anything of potential use.
“Garndt, I have some questions,” Violierna began.
“Well, first off, why bring your log book?”
“This book contains confidential information for my eyes only. Mostly, it's logs on anything our patrols may have encountered, and other details. I can't risk it getting into the wrong hands. Should someone find out this office is vacant, this book will be an invaluable tool in finding where a rival soldier lives, or what they can use as leverage against someone to get what they want. There's little I can do about the corruption in the military, other than filter out the ones in my branch. I can give the other generals recommendations on how to deal with said soldiers, but they can't do anything until that soldier does something worthy of him being court martialled.”
“And, what's the trophy head?”
“That is a creature I hope you never encounter. A single bite or scratch can kill you in minutes. That one almost took my life, so I took his head. They have one weakness, however. While their attacks can easily dismember you, it takes them a relatively long time to recover, but watch out for that tail, and keep an eye open for any friends they may have. That's how it almost killed me. It brought a friend.”
He stood silent for several seconds, staring at the head, before saying, “So, got everything you need? Once we leave, there's no going back.”
“I'm ready,” Violierna said quietly.
“I don't need to be your mentor to know something troubles you. Tell me, what's the weight on your shoulders?”
“What if I had accepted Romulus as my husband? Mother says he was the best thing that could ever happen to me, but father seems to agree with you that he's nothing but bad news...”
“I never said I was certain he was bad news. It was simply suspicions based on current events and his behavior, but my gut told me it couldn't have been anyone else. Now, I'm starting to doubt myself. What if I was wrong and I denied you a better life- a grand future? No turning back now, so no use in regrets. Who knows? Maybe your true destiny lies out there? I know I'm probably being too optimistic, but what's the use in worrying? Whatever happens will happen, and there's little we can do to change the course of destiny. It will be difficult- even nigh impossible, but if you manage to gain the trust of a nation, others may follow suit upon hearing of your works. And I know it isn't your nature, but don't do it, anyway. Do not stab anyone in the back, or it could mean the end of you and anyone you become affiliated with. That may very well be my final order to you.”
“Final order? What are you saying?”
“You will find out soon enough. If I'm correct, I'll be seeing you again, elsewhere. Now, if there's nothing more to discuss, let's get going.”
Heavy armor clanked and ground against mail as over a dozen highly skilled soldiers escorted Garndt and Violierna to the surface, and out of Dissidium. Faint light from a late dusk could be seen coming from the exit, and the Lieutenant General ordered a halt.
“This is as far as you go. Farewell, General. Don't make this worse for yourself. I don't want this to get messy.”
“You misjudge me, soldier. I'm not one to back down. As for you, Vioierna, run, and never look back. Now, go!”
One swung from behind at Garndt, who spun around and caught his arm, and swung him into the one trying to block Violierna. Garndt drew a longsword in his right hand, and a mail breaker in his left, and engaged his former students. The clash of ebony and screams of the dying were clearly audible as Violierna made her escape, the sounds quickly fading as she ran from them.
Crying as she fled, and nearly tripping over roots, stones and her own feet, she felt a sharp pain in her left arm, yelped, and in the fading light, heard footsteps approaching her as she laid on needles and pine cones.
“Well,” a young, male voice began, sighing. “Crap...”