Around him, as far as the eye could see, everything was ruin. The red sky above gave witness to the power of whatever tragedy had befallen this place. Smoke curled upward, obscuring his view. Amidst the blackened rubble, fires still burned - some but smoldering ashes, some vast conflagrations that must surely have been burning for weeks, perhaps months.
But despite it all, Ghaleon laughed. Because amidst the desolation, the stench of death, he was alive.
He had only to close his eyes and he was once again atop Althena's Fortress, his moment of glory torn from him by those meddling fools.
"Vengeance," he whispered now, "will find you, Alex of Burg."
Ghaleon shook his head. Such emotion was foolish. Even assuming that he could find his way back during Alex's lifetime, vengeance should be the least of his concerns. One setback, however major, hardly represented the end of his dreams. For what he had witnessed this day gave him a whole new perspective on those dreams. He had been so certain of his own demise. His wounds had been grievous, his blood pouring out onto the stones.
Then he'd felt it, the energy flowing through him, restoring him. He'd forced himself to turn, to see that infernal Alex approach Althena, to see her sacrifice her powers and become merely the girl Luna once more - and from that sacrifice, life flowing back into the world.
And, irony of ironies, into Ghaleon himself.
He had risen, his only purpose to crown that irony by making the first act of his restored life the death of one of his unwitting benefactors. But Althena's Fortress had lost its power when Althena had given up her own. As it began to sink toward the sea, the last of that power had taken Alex and Luna out of Ghaleon's grasp, leaving him to die alone in the resultant explosion, his renewal short-lived indeed.
Once again, death had found him a difficult catch. Who could have imagined that, rather than destroy him, the impact would create such force as to tear a rift in the very fabric of his world?
Who indeed could have guessed that he would survive being cast into that rift, or that within its vacuous confines he would continue to survive? For within that rift, there was nothing. Ghaleon could see nothing, hear nothing, no feeling or scent could be experienced. He opened his mouth to speak, if only to dispel the silent darkness, but found himself without words. Indeed, he could not even know if his mouth had moved at all.
Ghaleon perceived the rift behind him sealing, and he struggled to turn, to reach it before it shut behind him and left him trapped in this shadow world for eternity, floating helplessly.
But before he could turn, or perhaps he could not turn at all, it was gone. He could not understand how he knew this to be so.
Then an idea came to him, and he shut his eyes tightly, if he even had eyes to shut in this place. He concentrated for a moment, and before him, all that had been darkness turned to light. This place was a vacuum, perhaps. But energy suffused it. Everything around Ghaleon was shifting, multi-hued spirals of raw magical energy. It curled and twisted around itself, flowing like some vast river, ignoring that the utter absence of matter rendered motion irrelevant.
Or did it?
Ghaleon had no point of reference, for the magical flow was all around him and all that there was, but he sensed himself not just floating, but drifting with the energy. He had no way of knowing how long he drifted with that flow, or if time was passing at all. The possibility could not be ruled out that this was a mere construct of his mind, that a fraction of an instant only had passed as he was carried helplessly along.
Or, for that matter, that time itself might have come and gone while Ghaleon was trapped there.
And then he saw it.
The energy did not move without purpose. It was flowing toward something, a genuine something that existed in a form Ghaleon could comprehend. Another rift.
A moment of panic shot through him as he saw the energy wash over the rift. Would this tear in the fabric of nothingness likewise be sealed before he reached it? But no, like a tumor grown out of control, this rift could not be healed. Indeed, cancer-like, it seemed to change and corrupt the energy that flowed past it. What Ghaleon saw as light moving toward the rift became a darkness more profound than the bleak emptiness granted by his physical senses. He realized with some interest that the rift was not being healed. It was growing.
And he was moving toward it, more rapidly the closer he approached. Or perhaps only his perception of time changed, rather than time itself. In a world such as this, not really a world at all, the line between perception and reality was blurred. Ghaleon's mind, however, seemed to slow as he approached it. It felt like little more than idle speculation to consider if he would be turned away with the energy tides, if contact with the rift would be as disastrous for him as for that energy.
But he was not turned away. His body and mind were not corrupted.
He'd passed through the rift and stumbled to the ground, real, physical ground that he could put his hands and feet on and know, without a doubt, that it was there.
In this quietly burning ruin.
Ghaleon laughed again.
Yes, this was a solid, material world. He could not begin to wonder where he was, but that did not matter. All that mattered was that he was clearly meant for the godhood he had been so close to achieving. The very fabric of existence could not bear the thought of losing him, and so it had drawn him back.
Ghaleon raised his arms and called upon his potent magics, fully expecting to take flight. But his feet remained firmly planted on the ground. The familiar pins-and-needles sensation of power flowing through his body was gone.
He tried again.
No power. No energy.
Of course! Those invisible flows he had been carried on were the very stuff of magic, permeating and infusing all worlds. But not here. Not with the rift. The energy did not enter. It was changed, unleashed back into the rest of the flow.
"Anti-magic?" Ghaleon wondered aloud. How was he to achieve his rightful divinity without the power of his magic? How! He fought off a moment of panic. Just a setback. It would not stop him. There would be a solution. "Of course. I must be properly challenged before I can become divine. That is only appropriate."
This would be a challenge indeed - but not an insurmountable one.
First, he must make his way from this place. Ghaleon looked down at himself and shook his head. Although his body had been healed, his armor had not been repaired. Without its enchantments, it was quite uncomfortable, and not at all suitable for walking. He shrugged it off, glad to be relieved of the burden of its weight.
His robes were in little better condition, tattered and bloody. Soon enough fixed, though, he had only to...
To what? Stretch out his hand and whisper a few words of power? Not in this world.
Ghaleon tried to think back to before he had learned to use magic. But that was too long ago, too far away. He could barely even conceive of a time when such a simple thing as repairing his clothing would not have been accomplished with a thought.
"A challenge indeed," he whispered to himself.
Ghaleon's egress had been hastened when he had heard the scuttling of some other living creature, most probably not human, coming from a nearby pile of rubble. As he made his way through the ruins, he saw fleeting images at the edge of his vision. Once, he was startled by a ferocious roar.
He shook his head. At one time, such animals would have been of no more concern to him than pesky insects. But without his magic, he could not hope to stand against all but the weakest of predators.
From the look and sound of things, the survivors of whatever had occurred here were not going to be the weak.
So he had moved as quickly as he could without tiring, and had managed to pick his way out of the ruins without attracting any attention. The sky was just as red, the ground just as barren, but the rubble was strewn with much less density. In the distance he could see a long column of people moving steadily toward the setting sun.
At first Ghaleon thought it might be a military patrol, and he hesitated. He had no interest in facing off with the local authorities, whoever they might be. Not yet. But as he cautiously approached them, it became apparent that these were no soldiers.
Their movements were slow and laboured. Their clothing, even from such a distance, clearly had seen better days. The closer Ghaleon came, the more obvious the deprivations visited on these people became. Most were unnaturally thin. All were covered with grime - a few with blood from ill-treated wounds.
Refugees. Hardly surprising, considering the destruction he had already seen.
He slipped unnoticed into the back of the column, his fellow refugees apparently too tired to even lift their heads to look at him. As the group moved slowly onward, Ghaleon reflected on his situation.
This was most fortuitous. Refugees generally were drawn to a place that they had heard would provide them with safety and solace - which, no doubt, meant a center of civilization large enough for him to learn something about this world, and to do so without attracting undo attention. Because they often came from widely varying backgrounds, a group of refugees would be the best place for a foreigner, as he most certainly was, to hide himself.
The haven toward which the refugee column was moving became visible to Ghaleon in the fading light, and he could only hope that it was this rather meager illumination that cast it in a decidedly un-appetizing mold.
In truth, there didn't seem to be much more to the town than there had been to the ruins he had escaped from. The chief differences were three. First, there were obviously people here. Second, the buildings were mostly wooden rather than stone. And third, at least some attempt was being made to repair the damage.
There was a sign up ahead at the town's entrance, but Ghaleon couldn't make out the words on it - they were worn and faded beyond recognition.
And recognition, he was fairly sure, would have come had they been legible. For during his time with the refugees, he had overheard snippets of conversation, and he counted it very fortunate, and most intriguing, that most of the words were at least familiar. The accent was certainly unusual, and some phrases made little sense to him, but that could be put down to no more than regional differences. Somehow, he marveled, he could communicate with these people.
The column of refugees came abruptly to a halt. A soldier blocked the entrance to the town. There seemed to be a heated exchange taking place, one which, as it presumably impacted his own situation, Ghaleon intended to be involved in. He maneuvered quietly to the front. "What is going on here," he asked, stepping in front of an old woman who was clearly being intimidated.
The soldier straightened up. "We can't take no more tonight. Go back where you came from."
That's rather unlikely, Ghaleon thought. "Why can we not enter?"
"Because I said so," the guard snapped.
A brute. Ghaleon hardly needed magic to deal with the likes of this one. "You think," he said quietly.
"You think you said that we cannot enter. But in fact, I am rather certain you said the opposite."
The guard scrunched up his face. "Don't play games with me," he said. But nervously.
Ghaleon would have smiled if that would not have given it all away. People, it seemed, were uniformly ignorant. "I'm not playing any game. I am merely asserting that your memory of what you said is inherently flawed. You can't perceive your own words the same way I can. I can hear your voice, but you're hearing what you presume is your voice."
"What you are actually certain of is that we are not only allowed to enter, but that we are genuinely valuable. Myself, especially. You have no quarrel with us other than that which you seem to have constructed from a faulty memory of your own words."
The soldier scratched his head.
"You see, you aren't even entirely certain of your own existence, as the proof thereof hinges on a process in which you are categorically incapable of indulging, namely intelligent thought. With that basic uncertainty, how can you possibly claim to know what we can and cannot do?"
The guard didn't even register the insult. People here were even stupider, perhaps.
Ghaleon gently led the old woman past the guard. "I will leave you to ponder this mystery while my companions and I enter your fine city."
The guard backed away with his mouth hanging open, clearly too confused by Ghaleon's rapid-fire verbiage to make any attempt to stop the refugees from entering. Once inside the town, they quickly began to scatter, probably hoping to avoid the attentions of other, possibly more intellectually fit, soldiers. The old woman, however, lagged behind, staring up at Ghaleon with adoration. A man put his arm around her shoulder. "Thank you for helping my mother, sir," he said. "For helping us all." He held out his hand.
Ghaleon looked from the man's tired face to his dirt-encrusted hand. Then spun around and walked off. What had been done was for his benefit alone. He could not have afforded the others forming some kind of mob.
It would have been too conspicuous, too dangerous. And, too exhausting.
But, as he walked through the dark, dingy streets of this town, he came to realize that he might have been wiser to accept their gratitude and any aid that might have come with it.
The simple reality was that Ghaleon had neither money nor goods of value to barter. And while he was perfectly able to talk an ignorant guard into letting him pass, it was a different thing entirely to convince an innkeeper to provide him with bed and board. He might get the room, even the meal, but come morning, no one would be so pathetically stupid as to not realize he had been tricked.
Ghaleon sniffed the salty air. He did not relish the thought of spending a night on these streets. He allowed himself a moment of nostalgia for the graceful, ivy-draped boulevards of Vane.
A crudely painted sign featuring a decapitated dancing clown holding his head caught Ghaleon's weary eye. How charming. Equally enticing, which was to say, not at all, was the music emanating from the inn from which the sign hung.
No goods to barter, but...
Services, yes. Tastes might vary from place to place, but Ghaleon was certain the music being played within this inn was of the lowest possible quality by anyone's standards. And that he could do better.
Using what seemed to him was his last ounce of strength, he pushed open the doors and surveyed the inn's occupants. Most of the patrons seemed little better off than the refugees with whom he had entered the town. The music was being produced by a trio of performers who had presumably been hired not for their musical ability but for their flamboyant appearance. What Ghaleon took to be the innkeeper was seated behind the counter. From the look of him, he had not suffered any deprivation.
Ghaleon picked his way across the room and approached the obese man behind the counter. "I desire accommodations," he said.
The innkeeper shrugged. "You got money?" He pointed to a crudely scrawled sign advertising the room rates. "Payment up front, and meals are extra."
Ghaleon nodded toward the musicians who were attempting to be heard over boos and catcalls. "I propose that you provide me with a room, and that I, in return, replace these three rather lacking entertainers."
The innkeeper lumbered to his feet as a thrown apple that had barely missed the head of one of the performers splattered against the wall. "Think you can do better than them?"
"Undoubtedly," Ghaleon replied.
"You got an instrument?"
"If I did?"
"Maybe I'd try you out," said the innkeeper. "Hell, if I could ditch the three of 'em and pay just one -"
Ghaleon smiled coldly. "How much exactly are you paying them?"
The innkeeper narrowed his eyes.
"Because, sir, I ask only for lodging in payment. Nothing more. No money, no meals."
"Sounds like a good deal," said the innkeeper, smirking.
"Lodging only," Ghaleon repeated. "That, and an instrument."
The innkeeper shrugged again. "Well, I don't got no instrument, so too damn bad."
Ghaleon raised an eyebrow, letting his gaze flicker to the unpleasant looking device which hung behind the counter, a device he was fairly certain was a weapon. "You don't. But they do," he said meaningfully, turning to the trio.
Apparently the innkeeper liked the deal. He snatched the device off the wall and stepped out from behind the counter. Pointing at the musicians he shouted, "Out!" and brandished the weapon.
The music stopped.
"An' leave one of them guitars."
The performers began to protest, but the innkeeper raised his weapon and aimed at the one nearest him.
Moments later, Ghaleon took the instrument from the innkeeper's hands and examined it. "This will do nicely," he said.
Ghaleon quickly learned the differences between the guitar and his old lute, and it was not a particularly unfavorable comparison for the new instrument. Although it was of very poor quality, it had a nice tone. And as for playing in this abominable place - well, perhaps it was not the most dignified endeavor, but it was better than physical labor.
Apparently, his playing had more appeal for the customers than that of the previous entertainers. When Ghaleon finished his performance he passed the metal cup which the trio had left behind and was rewarded with a fair shower of coins. More than enough to purchase a meal in a decent establishment, he was quite sure.
Of far more interest to Ghaleon than his financial reward, however, were the words of an enthusiastic audience member. After all, now that his baser needs were attended to, information was his principal concern.
The man had shouted, "Mister, with talent like that, you should be playing Figaro Castle."