Strutting dutifully along the Golden Desert, parting the coarse sand between her feet as she went, Venta, Princess of the House of Vortax of The Vannlak Empire, slowly exhaled as she walked, before breathing once again, the breath a long and shallow one. her two scorpionic legs were working in tandem with the contractions of her lungs, allowing her to receive another filling breath with each iota of exertion that was inflicted upon her.
Venta had been trained to breathe this way for long excursions in the cold and soon to be freezing desert night, so as to conserve her energy and postpone hypothermic precursors. The way she walked had a similar effect: Her animated movement allowed her legs to retain their elasticity, rather than becoming rigid in the cold. A princess should know these things after all.
Venta was resilient in nature, but she could feel the physical strain of her long, laborious venture beginning to take hold, her muscles aching in protest each time she tried, and proceeded, to raise her long. Nethertheless, Venta persisted, in order to accomplish her goal, she would have to. I’ve come too far to quit now, and even if I did, if I could, what then? Should I return and wait for my merciful queen to dispatch of me in the name of politics? Or, shall I become the warrior I was born to be?
Not only did Venta consider herself a warrior, she was formidable, although not merciless. Venta would often reminisce over the night, many years ago, when her quarters had been attacked by agents of the Faith of Stars. At this point, Vannlak and their neighbors had fostered a tenuous agreement, and it had been broken as easily as each assassin’s neck or spine, save one, at the hands of a then adolescent Venta.
Why she had spared one had always perplexed her. She had reasoned that it had been her first time killing, but then countered that her life was in danger. She considered the notion that she might have wanted to send the dishevelled assassin back to his own country, as an emissary of failure and fear, but her begrudging riposte was her knowledge that an assassin caught on the palace grounds would be executed within the fortnight.
She had mentally wrestled with the thought for many years (which was her least favorite type of wrestling), and had eventually come to the conclusion that she had just not wanted to kill the assassin, who had watched all of his associates fall like so many grains of white, snow like sand. What she thought sparing him might accomplish eluded her, but she had tried regardless.
Now, she had no choice but to extend that same magnanimity which she had once considered a weakness unto herself. She thought back to her last day in her esteemed empire’s capital. Then, three days before she left on her journey, she had looked out upon the denizens of her hold, knowing that she would likely never return. Never again would she see the temple, marvel at its beauty, seek solace within its walls, or listen to the priests philosophies about the grandfather.
Then, she thought of the marketplace, where she had bore witness to the trafficking of human lives, who were considered as substandard in Vannlak society. These men and women were pitiful, with no hope of release nor aspiration for reprisal, they were resigned to their fate. Venta would not miss the marketplace one bit.
Images of the destitute slaves struck in her mind, the drive to exact a plan she had been sitting upon for months was suddenly and violently sprung into motion. She had visited an apothecary, gathering food and medicine for her journey, before raiding the palace armory, incapacitating a guard that sought to impede her escape. Venta could not bring herself to kill one of her own subjects lightly.
Venta had known her need for escape for a long time, since talks of perpetual and everlasting peace had begun between her house and the Faith, many of them involving her. While she was not permitted to sit in upon council meetings, nor diplomatic negotiations, she knew those who were, and had heard from her sources that the bartering of her life was likely to facilitate the treaty being drawn up. The lords and kings of each house would offer one of their blue-blooded elites up for sacrifice, to prove their equality and willingness to shed blood for one another.
The High Queen, her mother, had submitted Venta’s name quickly, or so Venta had heard, and the Lords of the Faith had been very agreeable. To be fair and equitable, they had offered a trophy of their own, but they could not match the worth of a Vannlak princess, as the High Queen had likely known, so they had submitted four of their nobles for sacrifice instead.
When Venta had learnt of this transgression, she did not become infuriated. She had long known of her mother’s desire to rule for as long as she was able, and to allow her nation to become as prosperous as it could be, and knew that it outweighed her desire to be a mother. Disillusioned as she was, the only thing she could truly grow angry at was her circumstance, and the fact that the Faith purported to sacrifice her to their god.
How am I to fight a god? It isn’t possible, the Faith’s god is intangible as he is false, there is no way to fight this fate as a warrior, there is only the inevitability of being slaughtered by cattle.
While Venta had once believed in doing all that was possible for the greater good of her kingdom, she had long realised that it was not her kingdom, but the High Queen’s, and that she would never play any part in her people’s lives. The people of Vannlak were long lived, the High Queen, old as she was, would not require a successor for near 80 years, and Venta wondered if she would abdicate even then, her dedication to her own power was tenacious.
It was this tenacity that had put Venta in this situation, one she was meant to be unaware of still. Leave now, or be sacrificed for the good of the country. Venta, in her own act of self mercy, chose life, and the fleeting chance of salvation that it presented. Venta had long heard tale of a tree which grew in the desert, one that would not wither or die, no matter how long it went without rain or sustenance. It was said that this tree had magical properties, greater than those that her people nor any neighboring nation could harness, and that it could be used to grant any wish to its beholder, so long as that person was clear and undiluted in their desire.
Now, as Venta continued to walk, each step morphing into the next in a stupors blur brought about by her latent exhaustion, but not yet noticed by her, she continued walking, by the guide of a map, which she had stolen from the temples months prior.
For a long time now, Venta had known her wish, to be able to form an autonomous nation, free from the constraints her mother might set, and lead her own people to glory, without relying upon her birthright to do so. Now, her wish and the necessity of her leaving happened to coincide, so she had decided to attempt to make her wish, and if nothing came of it, count her losses and keep moving.
That had been the plan, at least. Now, she wondered if she might become stuck after all. The journey so far had been strenuous and her supplies were low, maybe so low that if she continued she would become stuck, but there was nothing left to do now. Maybe, with persistence, topographical knowledge, and a little bit of luck, she would be able to return to the Vannlak empire, but what good would it bring her? She would live a life of luxury, like the one she had lived up until this point, until the time came for her to die, and then, she would fulfil the purpose she had been assigned.
It was with a heavy mind and even heavier limbs that she began to stumble across the very unnatural landmark she had heard to look for, although she barely had the awareness to react with any excitement. Once she had realized exactly where she was, she thought of how she might word her wish, considering her own streak of vanity and hubris, and remembering that it might be important that she imbues the right words in her request, lest she be misunderstood or even betrayed by the tree.
Once she was certain that her thoughts were ordered and her mind was clear of any obstructions, she knelt before the tree, the bending of her knees producing a metallic sound as her submissive right leg became lodged in the sand, before speaking aloud, clear and unhesitant despite her fatigue.
“You, who would be gods to me, I beseech you! I have come before you to pay my homage, and to make a serious and desperate request. I have been cast aside by my mother, megalomaniac as she is, and branded sacrifice, for the good of my empire. I call this unfair, the people who would require my death in order to live can not be my people anymore, and so I have decided, I wish to possess a kingdom of my own, a glorious one, which I would lead with strength and impunity, one that would lead its people to greatness! I do not treat this as my birthright, but as something which I have worked all of my life to achieve, now I ask for the opportunity to make my goal a reality. I ask you, gods of the land and the sky, the sand beneath my boots and the stars that burn above me, you who created all of the wonders of the land and the creatures that walk it, bestow upon me the opportunity to create a grand and powerful kingdom, allow me to prove my worth to--”
At this point, Venta was cut off, a bright light emanating from the already vivid tree, now coupled with its ethereal glow. A voice could be heard drifting from the tree in Venta’s direction, that seemed to draw closer along with the strange light, before pushing forwards and invading her consciousness, much akin to an involuntary thought.
"I am Doctor Ametsuchi, the creator of magic and researcher of the universe. You have been deemed worthy of a special gift: to choose your own destiny. However, there is a great trial that you must overcome, with the odds greatly against you making it back. If you accept my conditions, grab the star, and we shall begin."
With that, one of the stars she had alluded to during her prayer began to descend from the sky, to Venta’s complete shock, before landing on the ground, it’s warmth filling a large section of her surroundings. I knew of the magic of the creators, but this is unheard of. A star descending from the sky? And now I must touch it, yet I find myself hesitant… The god speaks of some great trial, but what is it that must I do? I asked for glory, and now I must work for it, this can only make sense.
Believing her determination to outweigh her fear, Venta extended her arm, removing her large gauntlet before allowing herself to make contact with the star, which was strangely warm and pleasant to the touch, until it was not. It was not because it was no longer there, and neither was Venta.
When Venta next felt anything, she considered the passage of time. She wondered whether it had been seconds, hours or even years since she last moved. She surmised that it could have been a very long time, as she laid somewhere extremely cold, and it was reasonable to assume that she had been in stasis.
As she rose, she took in her surroundings. The white sand around her crunched beneath her feet, and melted at her touch, unlike that which she was used to. After a few seconds, she made a connection between this substance and snow, a decorative blanket of which was considered a beautiful feature of any nation it was native to, with its picturesque look, mouldable heaps and ease to clear. Venta had never seen snow herself, but had not expected it to be this cold, it was colder than the desert at night, to her alarm.
This was not all that served to alarm her. As she studied the land, noting the mountainous terrain in the distance, as well as the questionable floating islands to the south, she found herself being flung into the air with swiftness and violent force.
Shocked as she was, reflex kicked in late, and she was only barely able to implement a basic breakfall, allowing the armor of her gauntlet to absorb the impact of her sidelong landing. As she skipped up, she looked forward to behold little, before discerning that a portion of the snow around her was sleeker and icier than the rest, and was moving in a pattern that resembled a humanoid.
The creature appeared to have four arms, as well as two legs and a large, cubic head. Its chest was translucent in the centre, and its hard and powerful arms, legs, and head were completely opaque and solid. As the creature swung one arm after another at Venta, hands the size of her head, she began to deflect the flurry of blows with a set of parries from her stolen vortex sword. Because the creature was able to incorporate more arms into a continuous attack than any one attacker should be able to, Venta was put at a disadvantage. The creature gained ground as it landed crushing blow after crushing blow upon Venta’s sword, a couple of its attacks hitting her armour also, which it did a reasonable job of deflecting.
As Venta blocked, dodged and backed up, she started to realise that their was a pattern to her attacker’s movements, the arms were going in sequence, and each swing of the third arm left the creature’s strangely translucent chest exposed. Considering that the creature’s arms were repeatedly striking her sharp sword, she could assume that the creature was strongest where it was the most solid and opaque, so hitting its chest was likely her best chance at a decisive blow.
Not tarrying in the slightest, upon the next rotation, she waited for the creature to raise its upper left arm before jumping up, lunging downwards and plunging her long and thin sword directly into the ice monster’s collar, which it grazed off with a small howl of pain. No! It’ll compensate now, I’ve lost my chance.
Contrary to Venta’s belief, the creature began to swing wildly and with reckless abandon, sometimes putting her in mortal danger, sometimes so off target it was like she was not even being targeted anymore. It was with the creature’s loss of any reason or attack tactic that Venta was able to exploit the creature’s weakness, and then capitalise on it, planting her blade directly in the centre of the creature’s chest as she came upon it, bundling it to the floor, before tearing down to its abdomen, releasing the sword and stabbing it thrice more, for some measure of certainty.
Panting and filled with adrenaline, Venta leaned against her fallen foe for a second before using it as a prop to lift herself from the ground. Using the sheath on her belt to wipe away the ice on her sword, she sheathed her sword, before turning to face a sudden voice in the darkness, her gauntlet clad hand instantly upon the hilt once again.
“Cold enough for you?” The voice laughed derisively, beginning to take a physical form before her eyes. The owner wore a mask, black and white, and a suit of purple colours, his attire would have been comical had it not been so sleek, and his appearance would have been curious to Venta had it not been so startling.
“I’m afraid the boiler has been out of service for many a millennia here, so I suppose a heartwarming apology for the blistering cold shall have to suffice, if you can find one, that is.”
Venta did not appreciate the spirit’s mocking of her, but knew that this floating entity might be the god that sent her here, in another form at least, so she chose to be polite in her response.
“Where exactly am I, if I may ask?”
The spirit waved his hands back and forth and shook his head where he floated. “No no no, you’re doing it wrong! Introductions first, then explanations! Honestly, it’s not that difficult, but then, maybe it is for you, so I’ll start. I am Ko-Reko, although, my friends call me Ko-Reko.”
Venta narrowed her eyes, unsure what to make of the spirit’s strange behaviour, but afraid to anger it regardless. “I am Venta, Princess of the Vannlak empire. Well, former princess I suppose, but--”
“Ah, the Vannlak empire! There’s a lively bunch if I’ve ever seen one. I mean really, murdering, pillaging, enslaving others, engaging in hedonism, you’re all so wonderfully debauched! But seriously, do you realise just how generic your empire is? I mean, you’re just like the Dothraki, the Mongol Empire, the Galactic Empire, the Achaemenid Empire, the list goes on and on really. But you… “Ko-Reko made a circular hand gesture directed at Venta as he spoke, “You seem different. You wish for more than slaves, riches, and pleasures, am I wrong? What was the word you used, glory? And a chance to prove yourself, I believe.”
Suddenly the wording of Venta’s prayer came back to haunt her. “You mean that my great trial is to be a battle?”
“A battle?” the spirit echoed. “Ha! If only it were so easy. No, my princess, you will have to fight a great many of those in order to secure your place in destiny. See that glow on the back of your hand? Those are your stars, small representations of the one you touched to get here! Right now, you are in the Ice Horizon Zone, one of five, to be precise. Your goal whilst here is to fight your way to the top, when you find an opponent worthy of battling you, you will be able to take their stars, should they submit, or should they be unable to stop you from doing so. You cannot, however, kill an opponent to take them, is this clear?”
Venta mulled this over briefly, it would be nice to begin her new life with a clear conscience, even if it might put her at a disadvantage in combat. “I understand this, but what should happen if I lose my stars?”
“You will return to where you were before you set out to find this place. And knowing your background, and what lies ahead of you, I can assure that you don’t want that.”
Venta eyed him with some intensity, scrutinising the small but strange apparition before her. “Are you the god that brought me here?”
The spirit seemed to find this idea whimsical, as his next words were between giggles. “Me? I am simply Ko-Reko, silly. The one that brought you here is outside of even my knowledge, she is… Mysterious to say the least. Should you encounter her, do not irk her, that could be quite problematic. Now, you should get moving, it’s cold here, after all, you don’t want to freeze before your next fight!”
Venta shuddered slightly, reminded of the biting cold surrounding her. “Where should I go? Will you come with me?”
“Wherever your feet take you! Hmm, you intrigue me, so I might pop up on occasion, but don’t expect me to fight for you, that’s your job.”
With this, Venta’s arrogance spiked, and adopted a harsh tone. “No one fights for me, do you understand? I am a warrior, and I will be treated as such.”
“Well then, warrior, you’d best go wage some war, clock’s ticking.” And with that, the impish spirit and his dapper clothing faded, and Venta was left staring at the air.
This is all very strange, but magic has always been that way. I suppose I should set off now, my kingdom isn’t going to win itself.