The heart of the Nocturne Empire was clearly in shambles, and looked as if the epicenter of the destruction had been focused on the chamber ahead. A high, domed ceiling yawned above Court and his two men, but was partially cracked open, allowing the dim gray light to stream in, illuminating tiny flakes of snow drifting down. All around the top of the pale dome was a ledge walkway, where books were stacked on shelves. Below that hung dusty faded tapestries, flags and paintings of the famous Nocturnal aristocrats. There were rows of tall pillars much like the ones outside, with unlit torches sitting dark and mute beneath them. Some of the pillars had cracked or fallen over, but most were intact, stretching into the shaded darkness above.
The large circular room had been pierced by cannon fire from the Garai fleet. On the far eastern wall between racks of ceremonial weaponry, a massive hole had been blasted open, and flowing dark water from the rift washed in. Half the room was flooded as a large, wide crack followed the opening in the wall and right through the center of the chamber, and had filled with water like a black pool. The flooded crack gave the room the effect of being shattered and sinking.
In the center had been an ornate red rug, rolled out to the feet of a tall throne made of polished white marble and encrusted with jewels. Only the ends of the rug were above water now, and the rest of it had been torn loose and drowned in the depths of the water sloshing about in the center of the chamber. Adan and Cael seemed to lighten up a little at the sight of the jeweled throne, and started looking around for any treasure the chamber might hold. Along the far walls, where the two of them began rummaging, were racks full of dusty swords and axes, most of them ceremonial. On either side of the throne room, two strange and beautiful statues, a man and a woman, stood amongst the pillars.
It was very silent in the chamber, save for the gushing water through the wide crack in the floor. There were no scurrying rats, or sounds of wind, no spiders or webs. There weren't any birds or nests in the ceiling, but something was wrong, Court could feel it in his gut. Always on guard, Court kept his hand on his sword hilt, not forgetting what he had sensed here earlier, a whispering unlike the ghosts, a shadow moving amongst shadows.
He stepped forward cautiously over the worn and ancient floor, slipping between the pillars to get a closer look at the two statues of the man and the woman. Both statues were nearly twenty feet tall with a base etched in gold. As he neared, it looked as if the statues were made of the same white marble as the throne, but the golden writing on the base must have been in the Nocturne language, as it was unintelligible to Court. The man and woman were Gods of some sort, naked and fearless with immutable, timeless expressions. As Court gazed into their large oval eyes, it seemed as if they both had words poised on their silent tongues, and if only given a chance, they would speak it to him. Both statues teetered over the brink of the water's edge, as the floor had cracked and sunk all around them.
Who are you? Court wondered, growing ever more fascinated by the place. And then it came to him, as if an alien voice spoke in his mind, we are Marduk and Tiamat.
This alien thought frightened Court. He felt small, glancing up at the pillars all around him reaching to the vast shaded ceilings. For all his power, for all his skills with weapons, Court suddenly wanted to shrink into the shadows and hide.
“Tell me about these people, Captain. What made them our enemies?” Adan's voice trailed from across the chamber, where he was busy rummaging through shelves and pottery. Court came to his senses, and answered, keeping a wary eye on the statues.
“It all began as a territorial dispute, over the Archipelago of the Storms. We learned about how they had built their Empire on the edge of night, across the Jade Sea. They had no power like the Garai, and eventually used machinery to imitate us. Their last Warlord, Aries Black, ended a family dictatorship that had lasted one hundred years or more. An incestuous bastard, married to his own Sister, a witch of some power. His knights wore suits of mechanical black armor, and Dragoon styled helms, with strange red markings running down their sides.”
Court backed further away from the statues, and he glanced up at the walkway circling the top of the dome. All along this ledge ghosts were lined up, silently watching him. They were all of the same garb, hooded and cloaked in black, vaporous like shadows. At their sides were silver pistols and cutlasses, each matching Court in every way. They were the entire Garai order, nearly all, save the one man far below, peering up at them. As Court tried to see into the shadows of their hoods, one of them came forward and spoke.
“Court Beltain.” A strong voice echoed down.
Court was frozen in place, legs trembling. Even Adan and Cael had heard the voice. Here were the souls of Court's friends and family, and now speaking to him from beyond the grave was the familiar voice of his beloved older Brother. He suddenly felt like the young headstrong man who had been with these men ten years ago that fateful night. He fought the stubborn lump in his throat, and addressed the phantom.
“Gage...is it really you?”
The ghostly figure threw back his hood and Court knew him then, the same man from his countless memories and nightmares. His gray hair was thin and long, and though Court could not see it, he knew the stern wrinkles on his Brother's face, and the light in his deep-set blue eyes. He spoke again.
“We have been waiting for you. Waiting for you to seal the rift.”
“But I don't understand! How can one man undo what was the effort of thousands?” Court asked hopelessly, revealing a weakness in his plans that Adan and Cael, who petrified with fear and listening in, had not contemplated.
But we'll never let him, answered the alien voices in Court's mind.
Out of the darkness of the hallway from which Court and the others had just come, a long ghostly procession marched into the chamber. Filed in ranks, marching to the beat of some otherworldly war drum, came a legion of Nocturne soldiers dressed in ceremonial black armor. The head of the procession heralded a large red flag, the unmistakable dark crest of Aries Black dancing in its folds. In life, the noise of their combined armor, and clanking weapons should have shook the entire palace. But it was solemnly silent, save for the vague drumming, far away.
The Nocturne ghosts floated along the entire circular chamber, lining the dim walls. Court and his two men were completely surrounded. There the Nocturne soldiers stood in mute attention, their ghostly armor flickering in and out of existence. Their faces were hidden behind sinister dragoon style helms, their posture frozen with hands resting on their sword hilts. The drumming that echoed in the bowels of the palace came to a sudden halt, and then came a rumble from the shadows.
At the end of the procession was a man, mean and hooded and powerful looking. His armor made such a terrible noise as it stepped forth that even Court winced. From beneath his regal black cloak, plate mail clanked thunderously against the stone floor, echoing up to the dome. Watching grimly, seeing what could only forebode the worst, Court had backed into the center of the chamber, between the mysterious statues. Adan and Cael were on either side of him, and not knowing what else to do, drew their knives in a single act of bravery, useless as it was.
“Venishaad deit gah.” Intoned a deep voice from the hooded, armored man.
The great figure slouched off its black hooded cloak, and it fell to floor as if to crumple, but instead vanished like smoke. Now the identity of this greater man was revealed. He was tall and pale, dark haired with wild burning blue eyes. Middle aged, but not entirely gray. He wore the full black on black armor of a Nocturne General: iron riveted, mechanical plate mail with a strange red star emblem drawn on the chest. The entire suit of armor was a menacing machine. Along the arms and chest ran gears and pistons, enhancing the strength of the wearer tenfold. There was a vivid flash from the golden regalia, the family crest, of the large pistol hanging loosely at his side. Also, Court was quick to note that a broadsword was attached by black leather straps onto his back.
He was Aries Black. Alive.
To Be continued....