Ache. Pain all over his body, full of a darkness he had never seen. A darkness they had only told him about.
He cast one last look at his sword, his guiding light, one last hope of being able to fight the outside threat. But it was too far; and he was too weak.
The warrior lay on the floor, everyone present looking at him in silent moral judgment. He had crossed over into the forbidden land, had performed the ritual, had awakened something he did not know and could never have imagined. Something that had corrupted him from within, and at what cost? But it didn't matter. She was more important.
He kept thinking of her, even as the darkness enveloped him. Even in death. The last idol had been destroyed, emanating the last ray of light of those lands; but it had been destroyed too late, and they hadn't been able to stop it in time. Yet, in his body, a small elusive feeling suggested that he had failed, that all had been in vain. If it was really too late, why hadn't she awakened? If he had truly succeeded, why was he now on the ground, lying on the floor, agonizing and weak from his injuries? If he had truly respected the covenants, why did he feel so defeated?
His thoughts began to abandon him. He was still conscious, but he knew he wouldn't be there for long. Life slipped away from his body, while the priests all around seemed patiently waiting for his inevitable end. Those fools, he thought; what can they know about love?
Suddenly, he felt a new strength rise in his veins, a new power awakening his muscles. He stood up, ready to confront his enemies; but he was no longer the same warrior as before.
It was a shadow, ready to devour the light.
The warrior's call rang out across the plain. His faithful steed had fled in panic when that gigantic mobile idol had stamped its majestic forelegs on the ground. A few more inches, and they would both be hit; luckily, Agro had fled, leaving his agile master to dodge the creature's fury with great skill.
But it was time to return to the attack. He still didn't know how, but that gigantic enemy had to fall this time too; there was undoubtedly a way to deal with it, even if he didn't know it yet. Then, he looked around.
The plain was dotted with powerful jets of steam that would overturn even an entire temple. And that creature was little more than a moving temple; with the difference that a shrine has a foundation, and not a soft stomach.
A few arrows ... A few more arrows, the warrior thought. But he needed Agro, to carry out his plan: they would lure that gigantic monster towards one of the geysers, trying to overturn it with a bit of cunning. Hoping his intuition was right. Hoping ...
So it was. The giant tortoise was pushed upward, but was still able to stand on two of the four side legs. Swaying in that position, he was an easy target - at least for a few seconds. But the warrior saw nothing that could be useful to him.
The creature was majestic, too; his balance on two legs was still not enough, and his body was far too far from the young warrior's reach. His faithful steed pushed him up a couple of times, and more than a couple of times the young man stretched out all the muscles in his body, trying to reach any grip. In vain.
The jet of steam ended. The gigantic creature came back on all fours, more aggressive than ever: it had understood the warrior's strategy, but it would not have been so easy to exploit such an advantage. The mobile mountain raised its snout, revealing four curious luminescent glands at the base of the chin; and by the time the warrior became aware of the impending danger, it was already too late.
Four explosive shells hit the floor next to him, knocking him away from Agro and forcing the steed to flee. Wander was wounded, struck by some form of dark magic, halfway between the strength of lightning and the sun; but it was no time to get lost in conjecture. That monster had to fall, and fast. There must be something I can do, he thought.
Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. The light on that plain was very dim, but the sun still managed to pierce the leaden sky from time to time. Keeping a safe distance, the warrior raised his sword to the sky; and the light guided him, once again, as always.
He called his trusty steed. The monster had understood, and it would have been more complicated to attract him to another jet of steam; but they would have succeeded, with a little luck and cunning. For some reason, this creature didn't seem very intelligent; it was as if something was missing, fragments of a being that once had been. Only a few arrows, a few bullets were needed to make the monster nervous and take it where they wanted; and the creature found itself again with two legs in the air, holding on with difficulty on the remaining ones.
Two more arrows, he didn't need any more. Two arrows, one for each leg, to strike those two uncovered vital points, above the hoof; and the creature tumbled onto its back, overturned, exposed to the fury and adrenaline of its opponent. The warrior galloped off; and Agro pushed him to a hold on the giant opponent, helping him climb to one of the monster's most fragile vital points.
His mind was flooded with such memories as Agro plummeted down the cliff. Once again, his faithful steed had preferred to sacrifice himself in order to save his master. With a simple bucking, Agro had thrown the warrior to safety across the crumbling bridge; seconds later, the ground beneath his hooves had given way, carrying him down with it into the river below. Agro was no longer there, after so many adventures lived together, after so many defeated opponents, after so many obstacles overcome, after so many heart-pounding battles and at the limit of adrenaline.
The warrior's scream rang throughout the valley. His faithful steed had fallen, plunged into a chasm of death, leaving him alone at the gates of the last obstacle. But the warrior did not allow himself even a tear: he stood up, turned around, and began to climb the last peak that separated him from the end of his journey.
I can't give up ... Not now.
And he didn't give up.
A deafening whistle rang in his ears. An explosion, just a few meters from him, had forced him to look towards the sky: the last Colossus stood out there, on the horizon, as tall and majestic as the Shrine of the Cult. The rain lashed across his face as that giant sorcerer turned his arm towards him; then, a bolt shot from his left hand, darting at full speed towards the warrior. He dashed to the left, behind cover, and dodged the explosion; but that sound had been too powerful, and had certainly damaged his eardrum in some way.
I can't give up… Not now, he thought. He had gained a lot during that journey: he had grown stronger, but he had also lost as much. His mind returned to his beloved, still lying on the altar of the Shrine, and to his faithful steed, who had fallen into that cliff a few minutes earlier. He glanced at the sorcerer, a mountain in motion on the horizon: a thunder tore the sky behind him, casting a giant shadow on the clearing. The warrior gritted his teeth, and stood up: he would not be discouraged by the power of that enemy.
With all his muscles in tension, the boy started running to the next cover, and then to the next one, and then to the next anchor. He threw himself into a hole, falling tumbling to the floor to dodge another bolt, but he did not stop: the adrenaline pushed him to his feet again, and the young man continued his run towards the Colossus, without ever stopping. The climb to the head would not have been easy, but he would have made it: he had no choice.
When he reached the Colossus, he gasped at the majesty of that opponent. He was at least five hundred feet tall, and wore ancient stone armor that would protect him from any existing arrow. Fortunately, that stone armor also provided an endless series of indirect holds.
Before launching towards the first handhold, the warrior paused to think. His mind was flooded with memories of fifteen past adversaries: creatures at least as majestic, ancient and powerful, whom he had eliminated with the grace and determination of a flea. Gladiators, phoenixes, birds of prey, sandworms, nothing had been able to stop him; and he would not have stopped even now, in the face of such a fearful opponent.
It didn't matter how majestic, ancient or powerful they were: those creatures were nothing more than an obstacle, an obstacle between him and the smile of his beloved. And there was nothing more precious than redemption, a second chance to see her again in life.
I can't give up ... Not now, he told himself again.
And he didn't give up. With the determination of a hawk, Wander leapt to the first handhold; and resolutely continued his ascent to Hell.
The warrior rose to his feet, taller than before, more powerful than before. He spoke, but not with his voice, not with his muscles, not with his willpower.
"You have divided our body into sixteen parts," said the warrior, addressing the First Priest. “For an eternity. To seal our power. "
The First Priest was petrified in front of that majestic dark creature. He had failed: he had failed to save the warrior, the one who had performed the forbidden ritual. The one who, now, was imprisoned in the body of that gigantic shadow, tall enough to equal the size of one of the idols on either side of the room.
"We, Dormin, have awakened," the creature continued, just before unleashing the first, terrible attack on its enemies. The priests dodged it, but the punch was so strong, against the ground, that the very foundations of the entire Shrine shook. Those left standing were moved by an unparalleled survival instinct, and began firing desperate darts from their crossbow to defeat the dark creature. But it was all in vain: that shadow was too powerful.
The warrior called upon all his muscles, all his renewed strength to crush his opponents. He found himself watching them from above, from a position he had never had in his entire life, while his body emanated dark power from every pore. The Dormins had awakened, and their fury was unstoppable.
He found himself capable of emanating dark flames, pregnant with a power that would have reduced any living thing to ashes. He found himself the bearer of a superhuman strength, a divine power typical of the darkest darkness. And he would do anything to exploit it to the last, erasing those dirty humans from those lands, and saving the soul of his beloved.
Already; she. The girl was still lying on the altar, perhaps waiting for the ritual to be brought to completion. It was so close, but now that the First Priest got in the way, it was also so far away. He wouldn't let them take her away; not now, which was in his power.
The thought of her distracted him, taking his mind away from total control over his surroundings. Maybe too much; enough, in any case, not to notice the priest running towards the top of the Shrine, up the spiral staircase, with the Ancient Sword in his hand.
Maybe they would go away. Perhaps all was not lost. Maybe…
"Go away, be unclean!"
The priest's scream rang throughout the Shrine, a curse reinforced by a magical power that he could not resist. The sword fell down from the top of the shrine to a small body of water in the center of the spiral staircase. His descending arc was like an omen, a space of many small, brief moments that drew him to the end; then, it happened.
The Ancient Sword crashed into the pool of water. His power opened a mystical portal that began to draw the warrior towards him, dissolving his flesh and spirit. The shadow that surrounded his body dissolved, leaving room for only two demonic horns on his head; and Wander resumed human form, as the Dormin was sucked into the magical portal. But that wasn't enough: the power of the sixteen Colossi, the sixteen fragments, was still within him, corroding him from within.
The portal longed for his soul, now darkened by the power of the Dormin. If there was a small remnant of human soul in his body, the portal could no longer recognize it: his muscles were drawn, pushed by the whirlwind towards the waterhole of the Shrine, and it seemed useless even to resist.
Still, Wander resisted. His gaze was on his beloved, the young girl who had lost her life because of her. An unforgivable sin, which he could have remedied, if only the First Priest had not interfered. While every fiber of his body tried to escape, throwing itself towards the altar and the light, hatred filled his bowels: hatred for human beings, for their taboos, for their incomprehension. I hate love, which had pushed him so far and deluded him that he could survive, and which had ruined him from within.
But hate wasn't enough: she was more important, she always had been. And Wander kept wanting to reach her, throwing himself towards the altar, in a desperate attempt to look at her one last time, caress her one last time, kiss her one last time. Maybe she would wake up, maybe she would see her smile again; perhaps, if he had lasted long enough.
The forces began to abandon him. He knew that he could not resist the portal forever, and that he would have to let go. But she couldn't: she was still there, lying on the altar, motionless, lifeless. Maybe there was really nothing else to do; perhaps all his efforts had been in vain. But the memory of her would remain with him, even after his body disappeared, even after his soul ended. Perhaps the ritual was not completed after all.
And maybe it was better that way. The past they had shared was too strong, too powerful to relive. Perhaps he should never have gone to those lands ... But he knew he had tried, that he had done everything possible. And that was enough.
The pool of water was behind him, a few meters away. He had now passed the archway of the main nave, although his body continued to resist. Her every muscle was still facing the altar, in one last hope of seeing her awaken. But, perhaps, it was finally time to let go. To surrender to the evidence, and to accept his fate.
Wander stopped resisting. There was nothing he could do, he no longer had a choice, if he ever had. He let the current of air drag him, for the last few meters, towards the mystical portal that would erase him from existence. He had done so much; but it wasn't enough.
Just before plunging into the portal, Wander took one last look at his beloved. It was still there, motionless, stretched out on that ancient stone shelf. Still without life.
Wander gave up. He smiled, and let himself go one last time. As he fell, his mind was crowded with thoughts; and, in all of them, she was there.
"Goodbye, my Mono," she whispered. And the portal engulfed him, forever erasing the memory of the Dormin from that cursed land.
Wander disappeared, becoming nothing more than a shadow in the dark past of those lands. The portal sealed itself; and the young Mono opened her eyes, greeting life once more.
Not far away, a faithful steed was returning, limping, towards the gigantic Shrine of the Cult, in search of its master. Not far away, a baby with horns was throwing its cries to the sky, at the center of a pool of water at the bottom of a spiral staircase. Not far away, a cursed land shone with a light never seen before: the light of a new day.