Can barely breathe.
All I can do is think.
And think, I do.
I think of everything.
I fought for survival and won.
I marshaled an army and created a god.
I had the perfect plan to protect the world.
I was bested twice – no, thrice – by that pest of a barbarian.
My god was destroyed and my army eradicated.
I fell off of a gods-forsaken bridge and wound up beaten and broken in this prison of stone.
After all that grand talk of freedom, I end up in chains once again.
I try to move, but my body doesn’t answer. I must’ve broken my neck in the fall.
So why am I still alive?
There’s something keeping me that way; some great thaumaturgical hand pressing down on my chest, forcing my blood to run and my lungs to draw air.
It’s torturous, and I almost yearn for that walking skeleton to show up and finally reap my soul. Any punishment he could levy upon me would be a blessing compared to this.
Time passes, and I think.
I think I hear voices just beyond the stone. They sound familiar. Too familiar.
Something impacts against the wall to my left. Then again. And again, accompanied by screams that I think I’ve heard before.
Then, all goes silent, and I don’t think much of it anymore.
That is, until he visits.
I hear him approach, his footsteps heavier than they usually are, and I feel what I think is his soul, inky and writhing, sting my senses. With a growl, he tosses something to the ground near my face. A bloodied glove.
“I don’t understand why you had so much trouble with the World Guardian, my friend,” he hisses, his voice poisoned with a disgusting amalgamation of glee and disdain. “She proved to be quite, as you would say, ‘pathetic’ when faced with my fists.”
I don’t laugh.
Not because I can’t, however.
I just stare at the glove, and I think of her.
That confusing, naive, insufferable, barbarian wretch whose soul I was never able to obtain.
Just another one of my failures.
I wonder if she’s dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was.
My god, my creation, explodes violently around us, the souls comprising it scattering into uselessness. I try to stand, try to retaliate, but my legs are tired.
I am tired. Unmasked, disarmed, and damnably tired.
Bannbreker stands over me, aiming my staff at my chest. For a moment, I think - I hope - that she’ll do it. That she’ll just get it over with and kill me.
I’ve no reason to live anymore, anyway.
Her allies agree with me. They order her to strike me down where I kneel.
But, she refuses.
The staff leaves my vision, and an outstretched hand replaces it.
I can’t help but voice my disbelief. How many chances has this brat given me? Four? Five? Why?
“Mercy? After everything?”
No - condemning me to live another day in this doomed world with no way to save it is hardly mercy, no matter what she might think.
She calls out to me, pleads with me to take her hand. I hear her say something about finding a way to protect the world without causing any more pain along the way.
How naive she is. It’s a nice sentiment, but an unattainable one, and she should know that by now.
She’s chained, shackled, a slave to her own ideals and cares. Her soft heart and outstretched hands will only further endanger this world. Something needs to be done about that.
And fast - the bridge has started to crumble from the explosion. She notices, urgently brandishing her hand in my face.
“Take my hand. Please!”
And I do.
For the briefest of instances, I’m no longer kneeling on the crumbling bridge. I’m standing on a cliff, the world in front of me, shining and pristine. I no longer feel that horrid nagging in my core, that hunger for souls that has plagued me for as long as I can remember. I feel calm, at peace. The smell of earth, trees, and sunlight washes over me, and I realize what this vision is.
A possible future, seen through the lens of Bannbreker’s soul.
A nice sentiment.
But still. Unattainable.
As the floor gives way beneath my legs, I reach up with my free hand, seizing Bannbreker’s arm just below the elbow.
I watch her smile fade and her face twist in anguish as I force every ounce of magic I can muster through my fingertips. As it shears her flesh and shatters her bones, I mumble something.
A goodbye, perhaps?
I can’t remember.
I’m falling, a severed arm held tightly in my grasp.
Bannbreker’s face grows ever smaller, and her cries quiet against the wind.
Now, we are both free.
Well, not quite.
I, for one, am far from free, if the shadow looming over me is any indication.
He leans over and whispers mockingly in my ear.
“You see, I’ve succeeded where you’ve failed. I’ve managed to chip off a part of the World Guardian’s soul.”
His bragging has merit. I can feel it – the bit of Bannbreker’s soul flickering inside the rat’s nest of shadow that is Sliske’s.
“And soon, the rest of it will be mine.”
So, she’s not dead. No, of course not. She’s the centerpiece of this whole game, this dance of the gods that endangers the world. Sliske wouldn’t kill her. Not yet, at least.
I should have dragged her off the bridge with me and ended the game right then. A small mercy, considering the alternative that will no doubt come to pass.
A finger traces the scar she left between my eyes that day when I tried to claim a piece of the Stone of Jas, leaving a trail of what I think is still wet blood.
“I’m going to need your help on that front, my friend. But, unfortunately, you seem to be a bit broken at the moment.”
I can hear the smile in his voice, and it makes me sick.
“Well, I’ll just have to fix that, won’t I?”
My vision goes dark, and I think no more.