While Julius would have preferred to finish the Wind Temple as soon as possible, what had happened earlier that day just completely took everything out of him. Thankfully, instead of having to go back to the Finja or find an inn, his group was actually allowed to stay in the castle. Even better, they were given separate bedrooms, which gave him time alone.
Something he greatly needed with how his students were staring at him after the discussion with Friedrich. He’d run away from their questions as soon as he could get some excuse to. If he was being somewhat honest, a small part of him wished Valondrac hadn’t stopped to taunt him when they first met so that none of this would have happened. He would have had to suffer less embarrassment in that situation. Though he might’ve been dead…Regardless, he needed his rest, so rest he shall!
That is to say, rest is what he was planning, but soon after the start of his slumber, he opened his eyes to once again find himself sitting in an empty white room with Valondrac across from him.
“Can we please not do this tonight,” interrupted Julius as he looked away from Valondrac, unable to meet her gaze.
“First, don’t interrupt me. Second, I dictate our meetings.”
“I understand that, but please, not tonight. I’ve been through enough already.”
“Huh? Wait, did you meet Fergus already!? Damn it, how are you getting through the temples so quickly!?!”
“Oh, not that then. Ignore that. I said nothing.”
“I’m not even gonna bother asking. Can we just finish this?”
“No, it’s not easy connecting dreams, so you’re staying.” Letting out an irritated sigh, she leaned against her throne, propping up an arm on the armrest. “Also, look me in the eyes when you’re talking.”
He grimaced, still avoiding her gaze. “I really can’t. Not after today.”
“Hmph. Have you at least learned how to play chess in the past few days? Or given my offer more thought?”
“No, sorry. Are we done here?”
Slamming her hands on the table between them, she angrily stood up. “Stop trying to end this! You should be honored I’m taking the time to speak with you!”
“I actually am, but right now is not good.”
“And just why is that? And don’t bother lying to me.”
“…I had to deal with a king giving me romantic advice.”
“…I have no idea what your kings and queens are like so I have no idea what that means.”
“It went poorly.”
“Hmph. And that was enough to get you like this? You’re worse than I thought.”
“It…was a lot.”
“Really now? And yet you’re willing to let simple ‘advice’ break your will so easily? Pathetic.”
Julius frowned, finally looking up at Valondrac as she sat back down. “What do you think of me?”
“You’re a pain in the ass.”
He blinked. “…Well. That was…blunt.”
She shrugged. “You asked my opinion, and I gave it. You’re either an impulsive idiot doing things at random whims, or you’re far more manipulative than I would think and quite possibly the greatest threat I have to my reign.”
“…I feel like there are more options than that.”
“Hmph. No, most of them are essentially rephrasing those two options. ‘Hopeless romantic’ is the same as an impulsive idiot, and ‘skilled foe’ is the same as a manipulative threat. Either way, you’re a danger to my plans, and I will have to deal with you eventually. One way or another.”
“Well. That’s not exactly what I wanted to hear, but…I guess that’s what you think then. Okay.” He frowned, letting his eyes wander down to the red-and-white chessboard. “…So, can I ask what your plans are?”
“You could. I thought you knew what I wanted the cores for.”
“Uh, not that part of it. That’s still kind of horrifying to imagine, but-”
He blinked. “What?”
“Not what, why. Why is it horrifying?”
“…You want the cores to build up an army. An endless army.”
“One of meaningless soldiers. No one with families or friends, or those who would care if they were wiped out. The monsters of the cores are unthinking automatons. Is it wrong to want to use them instead of my own soldiers?”
Julius blinked again. “…I…you’d still be using those ‘unthinking automitins’ to-”
“Automatons. Say it with me. Ah.”
“…Yeah, no, I’m not doing that.”
“You’ll never learn if you don’t try.”
“…” Julius shook his head, refocused. “You want to use those dungeon monsters to slaughter people.”
“Not particularly. While I’m sure Marrow would prefer that outcome, I myself would prefer the nations of the Light Lands surrender with minimal bloodshed.” …Huh. That was- “It’s a great deal more difficult to convince a person to follow you if you murdered their neighbors.” Right.
“Okay, but…back with my original question. Why do you want to conquer the world?”
“That was your question? Well that’s easy. I want to because I want it.”
“Exactly.” She suddenly beamed, her smile wide and surprisingly cute. “I want the world. All of it. You’ve been to the Dark Lands before, haven’t you?”
He blinked at the subject change. “Uh…yes, I have.”
“How many regions?”
“…Korikalaba and Ostrotoba. Irascagan had set up in the swamps.”
Valondrac grinned. “That’s two out of seven.”
“Korikalaba, Ostrotoba, Olafiba, Inrapaba, Maleficaba, Brunzaba and Skiritaba,” she recited, not even stumbling on them in the slightest, “Now, that, of course, isn’t even going into the sheer number of communities, fiefdoms, counties, jarldoms, settled tribes, nomadic tribes, and simple, small towns that populate my continent. What do you know of my lands, Goldforge?”
“…I…Korikalaba is known as the Haylands because of the yellow plains that fill it. A lot of orcs live there in nomadic tribes, and a lot of goblins set up villages there around naturally forming dungeons. Ostrotoba is known as the Swamplands because, well, it’s swampy. Frogfolk and some sub-race of wood elf live there.”
“Anurans, not frogfolk. We don’t call drakes lizardfolk, do we?” Well, some people did. “And those would be swamp elves, though you can call them swampfolk, since they prefer it. I doubt they’d enjoy being classified as a sub-race. As for Korikal, you were pretty close, but you left out the kitsune tribes.”
“…I didn’t know about them. What’s your point here?”
“Do you know what the other lands are like? How Olafiba is full of rocky mountains and crags that both therianthropes and myrmidons eek out a living in? How dour, foggy Inrapaba plays host to aranaeic and vampiric aristocracies alike? How Maleficaba is a burning land described as the most hellish of mortal lands, yet plays host to a wondrous group of heatborn angels seeking their lost god? How Brunzaba, once known as the land of bronze, is an icy tundra even colder than much of the Frost Lands in the north? And what about Skiritaba, a vast peninsula filled with races and plants that could live in no other tropics, where the humid heat can rival the most bountiful jungles of the Sun Lands? Do you know anything about them?”
“…Not as much as you.”
“Exactly. I know so much about my homes. I’ve visited every single one. I spent an entire decade traveling to every last one and learning everything I could, but there is still so much left to me. So much unaccessed. And then, there’s you.”
“You’ve gone to every land in your Light Lands. Describe them to me.”
Julius blinked. “…Uh. I…Okay? Uh, there’s…Luceneva. That’s where I live. It’s…” He swallowed slightly. She was staring right at him, but not…judgmentally or anything. She seemed honestly curious. “…It’s mostly plains. Plains and savannas. There are lakes, sure, but..it gets drier as you go west. Especially around Sollamava…Uh, they’re the nation next to ours, on the left. To the west, I mean. They’re similar, lots of savannahs. Some more deserts though. Not too many, just, some. A lot of minotaurs live there. Then…north from there is Zemava, which is mostly high elf country. They’re…not the best kind of people.” He grimaced a little.
It felt…weird, describing them like that. Like he was bad-mouthing his own people. They were dicks though… “…They’re zealous. They believe in the Church of Light, and they, and the humans and other people that live there too, they can be self-righteous, but…the cities are pretty beautiful. Lots of crystals and marble. The one I’m in is Tramontava. It’s far up north, more forests and stuff. Some mountains. The, uh, Mistral Mountains, that block off the upper coast towards the Frost Lands. And, uh, they figured out airships. Well, a…friend of mine did.
She grinned a little wider. He scratched his cheek. “Then…Naloriva. It’s…It’s mostly forests. People call it the Timberlands. They don’t have royalty right now, since an old Demon Lord killed them off, and nobody has ever really been able to hold central power since then. It’s more like a region than a nation. Below it is Rosiava. They’re…weird. They worship the Rose God there, but also Augant, the Metal God. They call themselves a ‘union’. I lived there for a while, but I still don’t really get it. The same nobles and royals are still in charge like they always were, so it’s not really different, is it?
“…Orindaco, where I’m from, is next to there, but it’s more like a city-state. Then Gorokiva is down in the southwest. They have a kinda high population of outworlders over there, a few hundred or so, and a lot of their buildings are really old. It’s almost like a completely different culture from the rest of the continent, but they’re pretty close to Sollamava and Zemava. Geographically and alliance-wise, I mean. I haven’t been there too often, just to Rainfall Island. Some people there are called ‘tigrithropes’, though I’m not sure if they’re actually related to werewolves and the like.
“…I think that’s it,” he finished, then paused as Valondrac applauded him, that same grin still on her face, but somehow looking even happier.
“Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful!”
“Now, Goldforge, I want you to know something. All those places you have described? I have only been to one.” She chuckled and leaned back in her chair. “Naloriva. I was there to make a bad mistake.”
“Killing you. If I had done that, I would have never had this conversation, would I?”
“…I guess not, no.”
“My point is, though, under normal circumstances, I would never set foot in those lands. Why is that?”
He frowned. “I don’t know. People come over, don’t they?”
“Certainly, they do. And then they’re arrested, imprisoned, exiled to the sea instead of sent home, or outright killed. Any invasion must be dealt with, correct?”
“…Does that still happen?”
“The imprisonment and exile, more often. Outright killings have been rarer, for better or worse. My point is, do you think your nations would allow those of the Dark Lands freedom of movement in their lands?”
“There are some. I’ve seen more than a few in Orindaco. I saw a bunyip just recently.”
“Oh, fascinating. And how would you describe Orindaco? I know it’s your home, but would you say it’s an especially pleasant place to live?”
“…It can be.”
“I’m sure. What was the bunyip doing?”
“Sex work then. Lightlanders do so love the exotic, don’t they?” She grinned, wagging a finger. “Now, don’t mistake me. I am an immensely selfish person. For all my lofty ideals, I want them implemented through my actions. I want to seize the jewel that is this beautiful world in my grasp and never let it go. I want to do that, no matter what stands in my way, and once I have the light, I will seek the sun and the frost just as fervently, but I consider it a point of pride to rule over happy people. I will not be a tyrant. I will be adored. The people will see my fingers lacing over their sky and wonder what they could have ever been doing, living in a world free of such a wonderful sight.”
Valondrac laced her fingers together in front of her. “Goldforge, I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time, a young girl was born into a noble, human family, in a land where the true sign of status was immortality and power over the night. The family so wanted to rise, so they saw this girl, the second daughter, and did what would further them the most. An older man, a richer man, took her for a bride, and the girl smiled so deviously, because she had exactly what she wanted. Their honeymoon was one of terror for the lech, and he died so pitifully only a few years later, all so the girl could have an audience with a god. The God of Sickness. The God of Conquest. A god who stole her second title, and ripped it away from the unworthy. It was in her, the girl found an idol worthy of worship. And yet, the girl didn’t want just one. War and Hunger joined her cause soon enough, and the girl turned woman decided she was ready.
Her eyes seemed brighter, somehow. “Nine noble souls bent their knee to her, and she crafted a tenth out of sacred stones. With her generals, the woman stepped forward, and declared her intent, which you now know. I am backed by the gods, Goldforge. I am backed by my generals. My conquest is not a possibility. It is an inevitability.”
“And yet, here you are. A man who drove me off by boldly proposing. A man who has defeated three of my noble generals.” She abruptly chuckled, leaning back in her seat and letting her fingers back down. “I’m almost worried now. But, at the same time, I can see how drawn you are to me, so…what if I gave you a challenge?”
He blinked, finally snapping out of the trance she’d drawn him into. “Uh…w-what…what challenge?”
Valondrac grinned. “Keep going. Don’t back down, don’t give up. Keep going. I have seven generals in the Light Lands, currently. You beat three. Beat the rest, come see me, and we’ll see what happens.” She stood, smiling widely. “If you want to see the same world as me, I would be more than happy to see you by my side at that point.”
Valon…Claire giggled. “Keep it up. Either I get my cores, or I get someone very interesting coming to see me. I can adapt.” The table with the chessboard was gone and she was walking toward him.
“I-I, uh…h-hold on, we shouldn’t make a challenge out of…I-I mean, the fate of the world is…”
“In my hands, yes.” She was standing over him, leaning towards him. “Come, and try to take it from me.”
And then Julius woke up, his face completely red and his heart pounding in his chest.