When the World Falls to Darkness

A kingdom at war, a web of truth and lies, a vicious game of friendship and betrayal, and a world that will kill you, whatever path you take.
When the World Falls to Darkness, nobody is safe.
Beautiful cover by River_Summers! <3


22. Alliance

When he woke, his wings were throbbing with pain, and his entire body felt as though it was burning. With a barely audible groan, he blinked. Everything around him was hazy: the clouds were blurred; the trees around him were distorted. For a moment, nothing made sense. Where the hell was he?

And then he remembered. The mission, the shapeshifter, the fight. He'd used magic.

"You're awake?"

A tentative voice, though one that was strangely insistent. He tried to sit, wincing with the agony of the movement, and the voice - whoever belonged to - told him to rest. Quartz ignored them, blinking again and looking up to the sapphire ocean of sky above him.

"What happened?" he asked finally, turning his head to look at the owner of the voice. "After I used the magic."

The shapeshifter, he realised. Who else could it be? His skin was pale - tainted faintly blue - and his eyes were unnaturally gold.

"You were injured, but you took down the dragon," the shapeshifter explained, and Quartz fought against the relief that tried to seep into his expression. "We had to try and heal you."

"How bad?" he asked. His wings were hurting, and as much as he hated to sit and do nothing, there was no way he'd be able to fly.

"They were twisted. I managed to heal the bones, but I'm not sure how long it'll take for you to recover fully. Ryuu says it'll probably be a week at least before you can fly."

"A week?" he echoed. And then, "Who's Ryuu?"

"My... companion," the shapeshifter said after a pause. "The elf."

Quartz vaguely remembered the elf from before, but didn't inquire further.

"Do you want to go and sit with the others?" the shapeshifter asked tentatively.

"Sure. Is Ghost there?" he asked.

"Yes," the shapeshifter nodded. "She was worried about you."

"Ghost?" Quartz scoffed. "She doesn't worry about anybody."

The shapeshifter's lips twitched in the beginnings of a smile, but he didn't reply, as though the words he spoke could be twisted and used as knives to wound him with. It was strange, seeing somebody so powerful so reluctant to use mere speech. Vulnerability was a point of exploitation, and Quartz made a mental note.

Gently, the shapeshifter slipped an arm beneath his shoulder and helped him stand. Every second of movement sent needles of pain through his body, but he grit his teeth and endured it. He was used to enduring. He could handle this.

"I'm Lukas," the shapeshifter said as he helped him stand. "Thank you. For protecting me."

There was a momentary silence. Quartz did not fill it, so the shapeshifter - Lukas - continued.

"It's strange. I've always been alone, but..." Another pause. "But you helped. So thank you."

"You're welcome," Quartz replied. "But you've thanked me twice, now."

"Sorry," the Guardian said awkwardly. And then, "Why? Why did you do it?"

Quartz tried to shrug, but the gesture sent another wave of agony lancing through him. He bit his tongue to refrain the gasp of pain.

"I do not like those who attacked you. Besides, it was the right thing to do, and after everything I've done... It felt like some kind of redemption." Hiding the cold truth between empty, twisted lies and hollow sentiment. He should be used to it by now, but for some reason, the lie did not leave his lips so easily this time. Perhaps it was the pain.

"I see," Lukas replied, and the hint of a smile did not leave his face. Manipulating the shapeshifter was going to be effortless, if things continued at this rate.

They neared the fire at which the others were sitting, and Lukas helped Quartz to sit beside Ghost. She studied him with a mixture of worry and admiration, before the grin spread across her features to hide it all.

"I can't believe you were that pathetic!" she laughed. "Only took one Guardian to take you down? You must be getting soft."

He ignored the smirk, instead glanced to the shapeshifter's companions. One was an angel - the storm mage, most likely. Her silvery eyes gleamed with curiosity as she looked at him.

"You okay?" she asked.

He nodded. "Fine. Thank you."

His gaze turned to the elf - Ryuu, he recalled - who currently was turning slices of meat over the fire. The sight of cooking rabbit made his mouth water, but he tried to ignore the hunger. He could ask for food later.

"Ryuu, have you figured anything out yet?" the angel asked Ryuu. For a moment, the elf appeared confused, but an expression of understanding passed onto his face.

"Not really," he said, and Quartz saw what he thought was the glint of reluctance in his eyes before he continued. "We should likely get the angels on our side first, since their situation could be likened to that of the Guardians. It might give them a little sympathy."

Quartz listened curiously to the elf. What were they talking about? Getting an entire race to join their 'side'? Ghost asked the question for him.

"You trying to build your own army or something?"

The angel turned to Ghost, grinning. "Sort of. We're going to get the other races to accept the Guardians."

Ghost burst out into a fit of laughter. "You ever think that's going to work?" she sniggered. "Gods, you're idealistic. Only chase your dreams if they're within grasp, angel."

"No," she said. "I'll chase them if I'm willing to build a ladder to reach them."

"Some dreams can never be reached," Quartz put in. "The Guardians have been prosecuted for too many years. Doing something so huge with just three people is impossible."

"And that's why we need the angels," the angel girl said stubbornly. Gaining their alliance would prove more difficult than anticipated, apparently.

"Oh?" Ghost sneered. "And how do you suppose you'll get an entire race on your side?"

Narrowing her eyes, the angel clenched her fists, glaring at Ghost. "We're going to figure something out."

"You won't," Ghost retorted.

In a futile attempt to break the fight apart, Ryuu declared that the rabbit had finished cooking.

"We will," the girl snarled, ignoring Ryuu.

Lukas stood, setting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Calm down, Avalon," he murmured. With a glare, the angel - Avalon, Lukas had just called her - snatched up some of the meat and tore at it angrily. Lukas must have noticed Quartz's hungry glance, because he passed a strip of meat to him. With a nod of thanks, he bit into it, resisting the urge to wolf all of it down as the flavour exploded on his tongue.

"If you want somebody on your side," he said, considering every word, "then you need them to have a reason to join you. If you were to give them reason to worry about the war, they might negotiate with you to get the strength of a Guardian army."

Ryuu's eyes met his. They had been calm, at first, but now they were both cold and sharp. "You're saying we should attack the angels? You're saying we should turn our backs on our allies and attack them?"

It almost wasn't worth helping them. They failed to see anything - and yet that was exactly why they would prove useful to him. If only he gained their trust and respect, he could wrap puppet strings around their minds, and they would be his to use. Their oblivion was his advantage.

"The angels treat Guardians as insects-"

"As they always will," Ghost cut in amusedly. Avalon turned to glare at her, but Quartz continued before another fight could break out. Petty squabbles were hindering.

"-So they are not your allies," he finished. "And nor will they be until you force them into it."

For a moment, his eyes burned into those of the elf. Finally, Ryuu dropped his gaze and sighed. "I suppose you're right. Though we could only attack raiding parties sent to kill the innocent."

Morality. It weakened you - Quartz knew that only too well. Sometimes, monstrosity was the only way forwards. Morals - albeit not his own - had destroyed this world. Morals let everything crumble, made people weak. And now he'd been turned into this.

"Attacking raiding parties? With three people?" Ghost snorted. "Any raiding parties big enough to worry about would never buckle beneath you all. You barely managed to fight off five Guardians - and that was with our help. Without it, you wouldn't be able to take down any groups whose destruction would worry the angels. You might have a shapeshifter, a powerful mage, and a good fighter, but that doesn't make you immortal," she sneered. "To do anything of importance, you'd need to fight at least ten powerful mages, and just as many Guardians. You'll die."

It took a second for Avalon to react, and in that moment Ghost had fixed every one of them with a heartless stare. Her gaze lingered on Quartz, and he met it with equally unrelenting eyes.

"You're wrong. We-"

"Avalon," the shapeshifter cut in. All eyes were drawn to him. This had been the first time he'd actively contributed; Quartz listened to him with curiosity. "She's right," he said, taking a deep breath. Quartz noted with irritation the smug look on Ghost's face. "We'd die, if we tried to take on that many. You don't have to do this. In fact, please don't. I don't want any of you to die. Not for me, not for anyone. Please."

The emotion flowing through his voice was blindingly obvious; that within Avalon's eyes was equally so. She stood, fists clenched, and grasped his shoulder.

"I am willing to die for this," she growled. "We're strong."

"Avalon, just because you're willing to die, it doesn't mean you should. I... I don't even want to fight. I've spent so long evading becoming a living weapon. Hurting other people would make me little better than that. I don't want to kill. And I don't want you to die."

Quartz was almost tempted to allow them to continue like this - the conversation was almost warming, but at the same time it reminded him of his own emptiness. He ended it.

"Has it not occurred to you that you could gain followers?"

A smirk crossed over the angel's face. "Exactly," she said. "We're going to free other Guardians. We'll start with Elveros."

"Elveros?" Lukas repeated. "That's-"

"The most famous source of Guardian slavery, yes. We'd need a strategy, of course, but we could do it."

Quartz wondered briefly if she was insane or overconfident or both. "You'd need an excellent strategy to achieve such a feat. I would recommend taking on other smaller prisons on the way there, and freeing the Guardians from those. Then you'd be stronger when you faced the entirety of the elven capital."

He nodded the grateful glances of Ryuu and Lukas.

"We'd need to find ourselves a healer, too," Ryuu put in. "The Guardians would be wounded when we save them. And we'd need to find somebody with enchantment magic strong enough to break the link between them." He glared at Lukas. "Not that I think it's really worth it for a few Guardians, but if we need fighters, we'll need them to be in shape."

"Finding Guardians fresh from prison would work more effectively. That way, we wouldn't need to break any bonds," Ghost said absent-mindedly.

Quartz found his eyes snapping to her. She was bored, but that she'd been willing to offer advice to them? It was surprising, to say the least, and as she met his eyes she challenged his surprise silently, as though to tell him he knew nothing about her. Quartz turned his gaze away, not in retreat; not in victory.

"Seems like we've got a good plan," Avalon grinned. "Thanks. We'll plan out our route and everything else until Quartz gets better-"

"So you want me to stay around?" he challenged - a prime opportunity to highlight to them all how useful he was. The angel turned her gaze to him and shrugged loosely.

"Not like you have to," she said. "Do you want to, or not?"

He could feel their eyes, burning into him, trying to see through to his mind even before his answer. Ghost's gaze was the worst, and as he glanced to her, she grinned, daring him to accept, entertainment dancing across her expression. He shouldn't have expected anything more from her; he would merely have to talk to her later and weave another lie to explain why he'd agreed. It would be easy to keep her loyalty - but if he didn't join the others now, future control would be considerably more difficult to gain.

"I'll join you," he said eventually, maintaining the façade. "I want to help you." Before any of them could thank him, he turned to Ghost. "And you?"

He already knew her answer. She would laugh, scorn like she always did. But to help? Ghost never undertook anything like this.

"I'm in," she said eventually. Quartz's eyes widened, and he was too shocked to see the smirk of the angel girl, too shocked to see the smile on the face of the shapeshifter and the surprise on that of the elf.

She shot him a smug look, and in that moment, he realised it.

She might be his weapon, but no matter how long he spent with Ghost, he would never truly know her. Perhaps she didn't even know herself.

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