A snowy wasteland overtook the darkness, its white plains so blinding that they seemed to have no bounds. Yet bit by bit, massive mountains emerged all around, their sides so steep that only someone with specialized equipment could have tried to climb them. Far above, a tower could be seen jutting from the rocks, its size about equal to Modera's. Its topmost floor had crumbled for some reason, and not too long ago, as the debris was lying by the mountainside, only now starting to be covered in snow. Three identical towers lined the mountain range, each in the same condition as the first.
However, what truly captivated Drake's attention was the gargantuan temple rising behind where he had landed. Its color was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding wasteland, perhaps a tad darker than the snow. Smooth pillars held the entrance aloft, which could only be accessed by climbing what must have been a hundred stairs. Each was smaller than a regular foot and also covered in snow, which could easily have turned the process of climbing them into a deadly endeavor.
A colorful barrier swirled in front of the entrance, first drawing everyone's eyes, then refusing to let them see whatever lay beyond. It hummed at a low frequency that was nearly inaudible but managed to make everyone uncomfortable. It's like their bones were being strummed by tiny creatures nestling in their bodies.
“So this is it,” spoke Maximilian from next to Drake. He then reached into his mouth and swiped across his teeth, stroking each and every one of them, especially the canine ones. Satisfied, he exhaled a sigh of relief. “And it seems I'm not a vampire after all.”
Drake turned his head and furrowed his brow. “Why would you be?”
“Because something that looked like Modera turned me into one. After forcing me to cross my own room in the castle of Pagan, which had become a death trap through and through.” He glanced from Drake to Alyssa. “I guess you had similar … encounters?”
“Yeah,” said each of them.
“But it seems none of what happened had any lasting impact,” added Alyssa. “Otherwise, I would be bleeding out by now. If the poison didn't kill me first.”
A moment of silence passed, during which their eyes wandered all over the temple. Not that there was much to see. Whoever had designed the building didn't seem to care for fancy decorations but only for the bare necessities, which didn't include any other openings except the one that could be seen. So there were no windows either.
“Either of you know what purpose this once served?” asked Drake eventually.
“No idea,” said Maximilian with a shrug.
“And I never had a reason to come this far north. But if I'm not mistaken, then maps of before the War depicted only a few villages scattered about this region.”
Drake raised an eyebrow as he looked the building over once again. “So you're saying Assar built this himself?”
“Perhaps. But surely not by hand. I can't even see where the pieces fit together. Or if they do at all. Maybe he just … summoned a huge block and carved it out by magic.”
Maximilian twirled his blade, then aimed it up the stairs. “Doesn't really matter, does it? Let's just finish this … in whatever way we can.”
The others nodded and started climbing, being careful not to slip, mostly by walking sideways in an awkward sort of way, with their eyes glued to the steps so they didn't lose sight of them—not an easy feat with the storm swelling occasionally, turning everything the same shade of white.
“So here you are at last … and without even going through my towers as you should have,” spoke Assar from out of nowhere, his voice echoing like thunder.
Drake and Maximilian slithered back-to-back, their feet seeking steady footing that the stairs refused to provide. Alyssa covered the gap in-between, her body facing the wasteland and her eyes scouring its vast emptiness.
Assar was nowhere to be seen.
“We could also skip this temple too. Just show yourself so we can end this!” bellowed Maximilian.
“And let you skip the final test to prove your mettle? I don't think so.”
“We've killed Dorr'n Selkesch, Modera, Ri'zzar, and even Adrammelech. How is that not proof enough?” yelled Drake, his hands balled tight around his blades.
“Because I'm the one who makes the rules. Don't like it? Then stay right there until you die! There is no leaving this place until I'm done for. Also, if you do nothing, then the visions Cardul showed you will inevitably come true. The world will die even though you could have saved it.”
“But we cannot kill you, can we? Because you're one of the Asen. Soon to be the last, if Mimeidr falls.”
Assar cackled and a swath of snow tumbled down the temple, almost burying them all. They retreated down the stairs, more stumbling than running, then hurried back into formation, just in case Assar decided to change his mind all of a sudden.
“If you truly want an answer to that question, you have to come and meet me face to face. If you're even able to. Until then, I wish you good luck … or a painful death. Whatever applies. I wouldn't mind either, although it would be a shame to lose the chance to kill you personally.”
But Drake already realized that saying anything else would be pointless. Assar had pulled back for now, his ears no longer listening to whatever was happening outside these walls.
The barrier beckoned from above, its glaring colors now visible even through the storm. It reminded Drake of something, but he hoped it wasn't true. That's why the first thing he did after reaching the top was not to step through, but to try and blow a hole into the wall.
“Why do you keep trying to blow stuff up? And don't say I rubbed off on you. The only time I did that, we were separated while going after Dorr'n Selkesch,” said Maximilian.
“Because it worked once? And it would have done the second time too. Even if Cardul might have been pissed.”
This time, however, the wall remained unfazed. Drake's attacks couldn't even scar it. Merging light with darkness didn't make a difference either. All it accomplished was to blow Drake back.
“We could just go right in,” offered Maximilian.
“Does that”—Drake swung Carrazon toward the barrier—“look like a normal entrance to you?”
Maximilian cocked his head and stepped a little closer. The barrier's hum swelled and the air began to crackle like a bonfire.
“Wait!” yelled Alyssa and grabbed him by his arm. “I think this might be a trap.”
“What kind of trap? Because I don't see any other entrance, so we have to use this anyway.”
Alyssa stepped up next to him and moved her left hand across the surface of the barrier, making sure to never actually touch it. “Judging by its structure, it might be a one-way portal. So this side will propel us through, but the other will be like a wall.”
“And you cannot cancel this somehow?” asked Drake.
“I don't think so. This opening has been here for quite a while, as you can tell by the scorch marks surrounding it.” Said marks would still have been invisible, if not for the heat permeating from within the barrier. It didn't stretch far, just enough to keep the opening clear. “So it has literally burned itself into the fabric of reality. Having anyone but its summoner try to close it could have catastrophic consequences. Like the building getting ripped apart.”
“Doesn't sound too bad,” interjected Maximilian. “Then Assar would have nowhere left to hide.”
“Or our bodies being torn to shreds.”
“That's … not so good.”
Alyssa nodded. “So going in there seems to be our only choice after all.”
“Then let's give Drake some blood first. Before we forget again.”
They filled some vials, then drank a potion each to replenish what they had given. Afterward, they lined up in front of the barrier and readied themselves for whatever might happen.
One step later, they were yanked through a vast, colorful expanse, before being deposited on a circular platform made of glass.
“I knew it!” said Drake as he pulled himself up. “The Dreamworld.”
And just like he had thought, the Alp was standing straight ahead, his body still concealed by gray robes. Maximilian dashed toward him, Elegnis raised high. Then he suddenly flew back as though bouncing off the air, all because the Alp had waved his right hand.
“Still working with Assar, I see,” grumbled Maximilian and retreated from the edge.
“And this time, you'll be fighting me personally. Because only when I die can you move on.”
Drake chortled. “And you're fine with that?”
“Why wouldn't I be? At least then I can be free, no longer bound to the will of destiny. It trapped me here for far too long … and for what? For putting your journey into motion? I couldn't change what's going to happen, so I might as well have stayed away.”
“Then how about you stop adhering to the rules and hand us that book of yours? You're not going to need it if you plan on dying anyway,” said Maximilian.
The Alp shook his head. “I'm sorry, but the book and me are one. Kill me and it will disperse, giving you no chance to even read a page.”
“Convenient,” muttered Maximilian.
“It cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. And that includes yours.”
Maximilian gripped Elegnis and raised it threateningly. “Then I'll just take it by force. We can always kill you after getting up to speed.”
The Alp spread his arms and his robe billowed for a moment, revealing plain clothes underneath. “I knew you'd say that, so I didn't bring it with me.”
An arrow was suddenly sent flying and would have stabbed the alp directly in his chest if he hadn't thrown himself onto the ground, now looking like a bundle of cloth. He shot forward a second later, instantly zooming past Drake and Maximilian.
Alyssa jumped, but the Alp still caught her by the legs, sending her face smashing into the glass. She rolled away immediately, blood spurting from her nose. The Alp's foot missed her by a hair's breadth, shattering the ground where she had lain.
Drake and Maximilian spun toward the Alp, energy shooting from their blades, but their opponent was gone again before the beams connected.
Looking up, they saw him hovering above, his arms stretched out. His hands crackled visibly before lightning struck from in-between. His opponents scattered quickly, yet the blast still knocked them off their feet.
Drake landed on his stomach and felt a pressure just behind him. He rolled onto his back, saw a spear of light heading for his chest, and quickly kept on rolling to evade it. The glass shattered and the spear burst into a blinding flash that prickled on Drake's skin as though he had fallen into a puddle of acid. He resisted the urge to scratch himself and rolled, then jumped, then dashed away. Once out of reach, he noticed his skin being a bright, puckering red.
Maximilian suddenly came flying and knocked Drake off his feet. They slithered to the edge of the platform, both grasping for support. The Alp followed hard on, his right hand glowing with energy and his coat fluttering wildly. Almost in reach, he bounced off an invisible barrier erected by Alyssa that caused his body to be crunched together and shockwaves to travel through the Void. The glass vibrated in response, its sound resembling a heavenly choir. Then cracks erupted all throughout.
Drake and Maximilian, now back in control, lunged at their opponent, aiming for nothing in particular. The Alp rolled sideways and the blades rushed past, yet blood came spurting from his back. It looked brighter than a normal human's, like the flesh of watermelon. And it even seemed to glow.
“So you actually do bleed,” yelled Maximilian triumphantly, the Alp's blood glistening on his pure white blade.
The Alp retreated to the center of the platform, his eyes jumping from enemy to enemy. “Why wouldn't I? I was a born a human, that much I remember. And then I became … much more. And also less, if that makes sense.”
“I honestly don't care. Because soon, you will be nothing!” And so Maximilian charged him once again.
The Alp thrust his left hand to the side and then swung it to the front. An arrow Alyssa had fired from behind him wobbled mid-motion and changed course, now shooting for Maximilian's chest. Unable to stop in time, he raised Elegnis quickly. A flash of light erupted when the blade and the projectile clashed, sending Maximilian tumbling backward, his eyes unseeing. Something whirred past this ears and he ducked away. Another object still caught his legs and pulled them out from under him. Agony erupted in his chin as it met the glass full force, then his skull began to throb.
Weapons clashed above. Drake was crossing both his blades while the Alp pushed back with only one. His sword was massive, however, maybe bigger than himself. It was made entirely of light and big enough to cleave through a whole body at once. Drake squinted at its brilliance and gritted his teeth, doing his best to ignore his boiling flesh.
The Alp suddenly leapt away and the arrow meant to pierce his back sliced open Drake's shoulder instead. “Sorry!” yelled Alyssa from afar while sending a barrage of arrows after the Alp. Being in mid-air didn't stop him from taking evasive maneuvers, however.
“It's time you get serious!” bellow Assar from the depths of the Void.
The Alp stopped for a moment, but only after raising a hand to freeze Alyssa's remaining projectiles in place. He then rose higher, until Drake and the others had turned to ants in his eyes. His hands began to glow and he raised them above his head. A small orb popped into being, energy crackling within. He pushed against it from both sides and the orb began to swell.
“We have to stop him!” yelled Drake. “Or he will turn us all to dust … if that's what I think it is.”
Alyssa unleashed volley after volley, but the Alp kept swaying from side to side, never even getting close to danger. “Easier said than done,” grumbled the elf, still firing despite it seeming futile.
“Just keep shooting! And you too, Maximilian. I will see about the rest.”
They did as he asked while Drake knelt down, gathering his strength inside his legs. Seconds later, he ascended like a rocket, both his blades pressed against his sides so they wouldn't slow his momentum. Still, his body betrayed him, stopping only a few feet before reaching his goal. Perhaps the Alp had risen even higher.
Drake's heart dropped into his stomach as he fell down all the way. Wind rushed past his ears, his hair was pulled up high, his limbs became like pudding, and vertigo gripped his head.
Alyssa yanked him out of the air and they landed with a thud, the impact rippling through their flesh. The elf then jumped again, just in time to avoid the hole opening beneath her. The damage from earlier had made the glass too brittle.
Meanwhile, a small sun had formed above the Alp, energy surging all across it surface. So Drake had only one more try before it could obliterate them all. Unless, of course, they jumped into the Void. But even if they managed to survive, they would never have reached Assar that way. Not without a guide, at least, of which the Alp was about the only one.
“Any other ideas?” yelled Maximilian while blasting beam after beam into the sky. The Alp's movements were more sluggish now, but the height at which he was floating still allowed him to avoid any sort of injury.
Drake hesitated for a moment, then looked at his belt. “Maybe it's time for Cardul's present.”
“Don't you want to save it for Assar?” asked Alyssa.
“I would have, but if I don't use it now, I may never have another chance. So let's hope this will be enough.” He took the potion meant to strengthen vampires and gulped it down all at once. His throat burned up instantly, quickly followed by his stomach. A sudden jolt of energy surged through his body and made him feel wide awake. Additionally, the world slowed down, as was evident by Alyssa and Maximilian talking in slow motion, their voices dull and stretched. Drake had no idea what they wanted, so all he did was nod before falling to his knees again.
The glass beneath appeared to tremble as he gathered all his new-found power. He raised his head and focused on the Alp, urging his body to get there in time. Everything else became a blur.
Glass shattered as he lifted off, forcing the others to back away. Drake didn't notice. Stopping the Alp was all that mattered.
Within seconds, he was above his target. But he wasn't happy or elated. Just hellbent on killing his opponent no matter what it took.
The Alp looked up as Drake descended. For the fraction of a second, the weary face of a young man came to light, his eyes devoid of life and his lips a thin line. Carrazon and Kal'ed voul'ch then tore through his flesh and sliced off both his arms as well as parts of his torso.
The next thing Drake remembered was kneeling over the Alp's body and seeing Carrazon embedded in his chest. It had been thrust so deep that only the hilt remained to be seen, surely destroying the Alp's heart. His face did not betray the pain he must have felt, depicting only utter resignation. Whoever he once was couldn't have been older than twenty-five before his time was stopped.
Without warning, the fabric of the Void ripped open. The temple beckoned from beyond, its entrance now wide open.
The Alp's body suddenly dispersed, starting from his broken heart. Glittering sparks were all that remained. They ascended like fireflies and spiraled far into the distance, eventually merging with the colorful chaos of the Dreamworld.
“Well done,” said Maximilian from the side. “Let's just hope Assar will be easier to defeat.”
Drake chortled and picked up his sword. “Doesn't seem likely … although he should have less space to move around. Unless the temple is hollow. Or he carves off the roof. Or—”
Maximilian covered Drake's mouth. “Let's just have a look. We can always worry later.”
Drake nodded and they stepped outside, never even noticing a long-haired figure watching them from afar. The Book of Destiny was floating next to it, depicting Assar sitting on what seemed to be a throne, a smile playing around his lips.