Chapter 37 – The Dark Lands

It was impossible to tell how much time had passed on the ‘journey’–everything became a blur of fire as the angel flew Julius to wherever they were going–and the instant Julius regained control over his body again, he had to brace himself as Michael dropped him straight to the rough ground. 

A plume of ash burst up and Julius coughed desperately at the burning in his lungs even as he suddenly felt himself sliding down the craggy landscape, gray ash quickly covering him as every rock in his way just started sliding. He barely had a moment to react when he suddenly felt his legs go into the open air, but he managed to dig his fingers into the cliffside before he plunged straight off of it. 

Heat and smoke was blinding him, but Julius could still faintly see the outline of the angel that had abducted him. 

“Gh-P-Pleas-” he tried to plead, and a small flash of light was the only signal he had before a beam of flame seared straight across his cheek. “GKH!”

“Silence you impetuous fool,” Michael ordered, “Were it not for Elder Lucere’s divine grace, you would not even live to feel that pain.” 

Julius didn’t reply. He didn’t want to get burnt again, but dammit, he needed to get back up before he plummeted to his death. 

He just barely managed to get his arm onto the ledge when Michael spoke again, “You are a corrupt, filthy creature. No torture is too good for you, who would so turn from the Light of the Divine, yet is not my duty to cast a judgment upon you. Know then, that if ever you shall set a single toe in the Light Lands, I will take the greatest of pleasures in purging your rot from this world with true, divine flame. 

“Now, repent with what is left of your mortal life.” And with that, the angel that brought him there, who stole him from his friends, left him, all alone in a land he didn’t know.

Once he was on his feet, and actually had his damn footing, Julius looked around the rocky area he’d been brought to. The constant heat quickly made him sweat and he brushed a hand through his hair, trying to look through the raining ash as he started walking up what could be a mountainside. He wasn’t entirely sure where he was, but since he and Michael just went in one direction the entire ‘journey’ over, he’d bet he was somewhere in the Dark Lands.

Where, exactly, he had no idea.

For a moment, he was actually a little worried Michael had somehow dropped him into the Fire Hell, but…no, no, he would know. The constant ash and smell of brimstone wasn’t giving him much confidence, but he did doubt even a big fancy angel like that asshole could get away with ducking into a part of the Abyss…

For a moment, he looked skyward, trying to find some kind of signal of how far he was. Time changed from crossing west to east–on account of where the sun was and how long it took for it to rise or set–so if he could see the sun, he’d at least have an idea of how far he was. 

Unfortunately, his plan required he’d actually be able to see the sun, and the dark clouds covering the sky made that…unlikely. From what little he could see, maybe the sun was setting? It’d still been morning in Zemava, so he’d have to be pretty far if that was the case…How wide were the Dark Lands even? How wide were the Light Lands? 

Did it even matter? Width, time, whatever…he was nowhere near home.

Julius let out an irritated sigh as he raked a hand through his hair again. That bastard angel flew him across two continents, all because he’d…All because of that…

…Vocula said ‘the gods’ had decided on his exile. His…exile. He…Was he exiled? Could they do that? 

They weren’t even living in this world. Just looking down at everyone, thinking they knew everything about people who didn’t even fucking need them. 

Julius could feel his breath get heavy and he grit his teeth hard in an attempt to focus. He kept moving up, away from the edge of the cliff, then took a moment to pause, leaning against the rocky path as he checked himself for wounds. There were a couple of scrapes and bruises, but it didn’t look like he’d been hurt too badly from the fall…aside from the distinct burn in the shape of a hand on his shoulder, which had burned straight through his shirt. And then there was the burn on his cheek…

For a moment, Julius actually considered meditating to call the Butcher for help. If one god–or a lot of them, if that asshole Vocula was telling the truth–got him into this mess, then another could get him out, right? 

But before he could sit down, very loud roar sounded out somewhere nearby. Cursing under his breath, he quickly decided it was best to find somewhere safe first and began to move again. Though he had no idea what actually counted as safe in that ashen landscape…

As far as Julius could tell, there weren’t any caves around the mountainside, and any nooks he could find as he trudged over the thick, gray mess were far too small for him to enter. He figured it was safe to say there wouldn’t be any towns nearby. Sure, there was probably some type of intelligent races that could survive in this heat, maybe in small villages, but he had no idea where they would be and he seriously doubted anyone would want to build on shaky ground like this.

Especially with all the damn smoke around. Julius started to cough again and tugged his shirt up over his mouth, grimacing at how it rubbed against his shoulder. There had to be somewhere he could go. Taking a deep breath as he found himself up against a far more sheer part of the mountain, he let go of his shirt so his hands were free and started climbing up the cliffside he was up against, ignoring how his shoulder burned on the way up. 

Once he was on top of the new cliff, he could see what the source of all the ash was. Or, maybe sources were a better way to say it. 

Far off in…whatever direction it was in, there was a large, active volcano with streams of lava flowing out of it into smaller basins all around its sides, like a lake flowing into smaller ponds. For a moment, Julius thought he saw some figures near some of the streams, before a cloud of smoke burst up from somewhere below him and rapidly obscured his vision. Coughing again, he covered his mouth with his shirt and tried to back up, his watering eyes glancing desperately around the immediate area. 

The first thing he noticed was the trees. Tall ones, which seemed to endlessly burn from the fire coating them. For a moment, Julius had to wonder if he was hallucinating as he stared at the ash-colored trees, their ‘wood’ lighter than the dirt around them, fires trailing up their branches as if that’s where they belonged, collecting and swirling together in what looked almost like leaves or flower buds. However, before he could approach the strange grove, he heard yet another roar that seemed even closer than the one from before. 

Quickly ducking toward a nearby rock, Julius hid as best as he could. And within moments, he saw just what was roaring as a chimera came into view, the beast dragging what seemed to be a wyrm’s body behind it with its snake tails. But it wasn’t like the creatures he’d seen before, decades ago, the ones Khor had tamed. Those looked like lions mixed with goats and snakes, with gold fur that melted into gray that turned to scales from the snake or snakes growing in the place of their tail. 

This chimera though, looked like it’d been burned. Its face and most of its fur was a dark black, but its mane and patches of hair across its body were all bright, vivid red, contrasting the black goat horns that arched back from its skull. Noticeably, its multiple snake tails had a similar crimson color to them, but their scales mixed in hues, looking almost like fiery tendrils as they pulled the carcass behind the beast. It was still four-eyed though, with one pair of crimson goat eyes above its normal, equally red, and lion-like set, so there was that.

Seemingly arriving at the place it called home, the chimera began to dig into the dead wyrm, eagerly eating the black and gray draconic serpent while, with slow movements, Julius began to move away from the grove.

He knew it wouldn’t be smart to fight even a lone chimera without any weapons or armor. It was probably bad that it was on its own too. From what he knew, chimeras were like normal lions in the sense that they had prides. A male hunting on its own probably didn’t mean good things for the beast, and he wasn’t eager to see if the demonic animal was aggressive or hungry enough to go after him.

Thankfully, the chimera was way too invested in its food to chase him, even as one of the snake tails flicked toward him when he kicked some pebbles around. The black eyes stared at him, maybe sizing him up, while the other four seemingly scanned the area while the main head ate.

Breathing heavily with a mix of fear and a simple lack of good air, he walked down the path that the chimera had come from in search of somewhere to hide. Whether it was a stroke of luck, or just the possibility the chimera had scared everything else off, Julius didn’t run into any creatures that could have tried to fight him. 

So the instant he found a decently sized cave, he, of course, rushed right in. 

Once inside, he took a sudden, deep, and surprisingly clean breath. Somehow, the ash and smoke wasn’t completely filling the inside of the cave–…And he very quickly found why that likely was. While the cave’s entrance wasn’t too large, just big enough for him to stand without banging his head on the ceiling, it seemed to extend far into the mountainside. The walls weren’t carved and the floor hadn’t turned to cobblestone or anything, but there was a good damn chance that if he went deeper into that darkness, he’d find a dungeon.

So, not wanting to risk that in the slightest, Julius just sat down against the wall of the entrance and enjoyed the ability to actually breathe. He glanced down at himself and grimaced. His clothes were completely covered with ash and dust. He could feel some of it flake off of him just by moving a little, and with how badly he was sweating, it’d already started soaking into his shirt. 

He took a slow breath, then pulled his shirt off and used the slightly cleaner parts to wipe off his face. Sure, it was even filthier afterward, but he actually felt a bit better…Maybe he should start wearing an undershirt. It wouldn’t exactly help much, but dammit, he was starting to get annoyed.

Whatever. He tore a long strip from his shirt and grimaced as he wrapped it around the burn on his shoulder. It wasn’t much of a bandage, but at least it would keep it covered in case anything else decided it wanted to fuck up his shoulder. It would probably scar anyways…

Julius took a breath, sat back against the cool cave wall, focused, and channeled some metal through his body. He felt his skin harden, giving him at least some defence while he meditated. 

He definitely need to center himself at the very least. He was stuck in some unknown, unfamiliar place where just about anything could be out there. He knew for a fact there were chimeras around, he was pretty damn sure he was right by a dungeon, and wherever that callous bastard of an angel had brought him, it definitely wasn’t good for him. The smoke alone could probably kill him if he was out in it for too long, especially if he ran into any that was outright toxic instead of just suffocating. 

Which, well…what the hell did he even have to work with? He’d left his sword and his dirk with that fucker’s guards. The only things on him were his clothes and the necklace Tisma gave him. His shirt could probably make a decent mask…it wasn’t like the stupid thing wasn’t already ruined. 

…What was Tisma doing at the moment? She’d notice he was gone, soon enough. She’d notice, and…and what? What could she do? What could Douglas do? What could…anyone do? That angel had brought him as far out as possible, he was sure of that–…Maleficaba. 

His eyes almost shot open at the realization, but he kept them stubbornly closed. He was in Maleficaba. That had to be it. Claire mentioned what kind of place it was, he’d heard legends, he’d read…everyone knew about the ‘Hell on Estus’, the most brutal place on the continent, possibly in the world. A fiery wasteland, eternally burning with demonic fires, where lava ran like water and monsters ruled from ruined palaces made by long dead Demon Lords.

How the fuck did that slip his mind? How the fuck was he still this fucking stupid!? It was the most obvious fucking thing in the entire world and of course he forgot it because he was a gods-damned fuck up–OH WAIT, HE WAS LITERALLY DAMNED BY THE GODS NOW! GREAT!

He felt his fingers digging into his knees, his whole body tense. He needed to center himself. He needed to, he desperately needed to calm down and actually think. He couldn’t just waste away in some fucking dungeon or die by charging out into the smog outside. He had options, he had things he could try. He’d contact the Butcher. He was in a place he could do that, he could meditate, he could link up with her and then what?

What would happen then?

What could she actually give him to get him out of this? Anger power? Blood magic? Then fucking what? He’d make himself the king of the mountain or some shit? He had no way out here.

The gods themselves had thrown him out of the Light Lands. One of their useless thugs just chucked him right out because why not? It’s not like he gave up his adolescence to save those bastards. It’s not like his mentor died for them, it’s not like his mentor’s friends died for them, it’s not like they’d be sending his fucking students to die for them next because the callous fucks cared more about keeping their precious cities pristine than actually going out and fighting their own wars.

He just wanted his shop. He just wanted to forge things, make swords, make armor, create things that would last. He loved teaching. He actually did. 

He loved being able to see his kids learning and getting better and growing and the idea that he wouldn’t see that, that he’d die not from trying to protect them or keeping people safe or even taking some evil bastard down with him…that he’d die just…just out here, not even for someone, just…on his own…

…He’d never go back home. Not to Luceneva, not to Orin, not to the Redforge, not to Graves or Ellen or…even if he made it out, even by the slimmest chance…he’d never see any of that again…

He wasn’t quite sure when he’d started crying. It felt ugly. There wasn’t any dignity, any rage holding him up…he just…lost everything. Not even out of malice, but because the people he wanted to help didn’t like the way he did it.

At some point, he felt like he just sunk, and there was nothing else in the world except for his own misery. 

How long had he even been there? …Did it even matter? 

And then came that clack.

The barest, simplest sound of a claw clacking against stone.

And Julius, miserable, despairing Julius, looked over at the chimera staring at him.

For a moment…he felt a strange sense of comfort. And then the creature growled at him and a few things very quickly slotted into place in Julius’s mind.

How was the chimera surviving up in that grove on its own? It had a hunting ground. 

Where had it gotten that wyrm from? A dungeon, set in the mountainside, that spawned monsters like that to guard itself. 

And where was Julius? Right in the chimera’s hunting ground, the source of its food. 

He stared at the chimera, tears still rolling down his cheeks as it growled again, stepping closer. Its tails were hissing, its hackles raised. It wanted him out of there but how was he supposed to get out if it was standing in the entrance?

Abruptly, he stood, suddenly feeling…something boiling up in him. 

The chimera growled again then outright roared, glaring furiously at him with all its eyes, its patches of red hair suddenly bursting up into actual flame.

And Julius, suddenly overcome with a horrible realization at just how fucked his fortunes had been lately, at just how unfair the last hours had been, at how the gods themselves were treating him as a pathetic toy to be thrown away the instant he wasn’t useful, felt a surge of rage that boiled up past the crushing despair in him and roared straight back, his muscles suddenly bursting with their own redness as his eyes outright burned with a violent rage all his own.

The two beasts in the cave stared each other down, rage built up within both of them, and Julius charged first, howling in a defiant rage louder than ever before as he slammed into the chimera, finally giving into all of his fury.

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