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.
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Beautiful cover by River_Summers.

(I also promise much more frequent updates starting July, when exams are over. :D)

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28. Loneliness

HELLO, DEAR READERS. PLEASE DON'T SKIP THIS NOTE.

An earlier form of this chapter has already been published, but I unpublished it, changed a lot of things, and have now republished it. Basically, I was rereading WTWFTD and realised that Quartz's character would make more sense if I made him a manipulative ass. In short, the only reason he hangs around the Guardians and their allies is because he's trying to gain their loyalty and turn them into his weapons. In edits of past chapters, I've also added in details about his past: everybody in his village was slaughtered by raiders (except Frostblade, who betrayed the villagers and sold them out), and Quartz kills people for a guy called Jarl, due to the promise of information about the whereabouts of the people who slaughtered Quartz's friends and family. For more details, see the chapter 'Editing Changes', and go to the subtitle 'Change Six: Quartz'. I apologise for the inconvenience! :(

Since it's been a while since I last updated, here's a reminder of recent events to jog your memory:

Quartz (the angel assassin) and Ghost (his Guardian companion) have agreed to join Avalon, Lukas and Ryuu in attempts to destroy inequality between the Alpha races and Guardians. In the last chapter, Lukas, Avalon and Ghost stormed a prison in which three Guardians were trapped, managing to free them and return them to their camp.

(If you need any more details, just ask. Also, I would like to thank every one of you for pushing this up to 10k views and 6th place in fantasy. <3 You guys are the best!)

 

Quartz watched from a distance as they fussed over the rescued Guardians, his own injuries forgotten by even Ghost in the euphoria of the new Guardians. Ryuu seemed to be the only other one not particularly bothered about whether they were still in pain or cold or needed food, but Ryuu didn't seem one for conversation.

Quartz didn't mind it; for now, his intervention would do little to further his goals. He was a creature of the shadows - the darkness was his weapon, and he its deadly servant. It was only natural that he'd already established this place in their obscure company: the assassin in the shadows. To be ignored unless necessary. To be sheathed until they needed his merciless power.

He was merely surprised that Ghost had left him to be sheathed alone.

Currently, she was conversing with the oldest of the three rescued Guardians. The other two - a young boy and girl, possibly siblings - were nestled together amidst all the blankets and spare cloaks the company could find - but the adult male seemed content to talk with Ghost. Of all three of them, he would make the better weapon. If the elves had finished forging the Guardians, the younger two would probably have broken.

Not all metal is strong enough to make a reliable blade.

Sudden talons of wind clawed at him, and he pulled his wings closer around him, gazing at the fire. He wouldn't be welcome there, where they all laughed together.

Quartz had seen too much of the world to laugh, knew too much of cruelty to lose himself in petty joy. Perhaps the others were strong enough to keep their laughter within them, to cling tight, like it tied them to hope when all else around them was cast in darkness. If that were the case, Quartz was weak, and he didn't particularly care. His joy had been easy to steal, but that made him a better weapon than them.

And joy didn't make a survivor. Heartless strength made a survivor.

He wondered if Jarl was irritated that he hadn't come back in a while. Probably - he'd been the best assassin, and Jarl had relied upon him too heavily. Quartz could return soon and press Jarl for answers.

One by one, the others withdrew from the fire, leaving only Ghost to sit beside the flames. When the last Guardian retreated to the safety of a makeshift tent, Quartz stood and walked to join her. He sat, and for a short while the two of them were cloaked in silence.

Ghost had two layers: her armour, conveying a heartless beast with little emotion, and her softer, gentler interior, hidden from all but him, scarred by the tragedy and loneliness of her past. Until now, Quartz had controlled those shielded emotions, drawing them from her one by one and twisting them as he saw fit.

But he had never seen her speaking to another Guardian, and her reaction to them was foreign. Open friendliness, a willingness to help. Quartz needed to make sure that Ghost remained within her armour; her loyalties couldn't split. He wouldn't let them.

"Trying to heal the broken?" he asked, playing first upon her colder exterior and praying for her to slip back into it.

"He isn't broken," Ghost replied curtly, "and his name is Hokai."

Quartz snorted. "I didn't ask for his name. Growing sentimental?"

"Sentimentality is the weakness of the kind, though perhaps the heartless would be more complex should they possess some."

She refused to meet his gaze, as though he had offended her in some way. Quartz turned his eyes to the leaping flames before him, but his attention was on Ghost. He still had a chance to resonate with her heartless shields - he had to make sure his weapon didn't become weak.

"You are a weapon, Ghost. Don't pretend otherwise."

She did not answer. What was wrong with her? Usually, she would agree, and they would embark upon a pointless conversation revolving around trivial - and occasionally mildly philosophical - matters.

"Ghost," he prompted.

"You're talkative today, aren't you? All that waiting around make you lonely?"

"I spend too much time in solitude to feel lonely," he replied, trying to push her back into her usual mindset. "You're avoiding the point."

"What point? I didn't realise there was one."

Still, her stormy eyes were locked upon the flames. They reflected in her eyes, dancing and leaping as though they knew they were the only part of her that wasn't dark and enigmatic, and somehow they needed to make up for that.

"You're a weapon," Quartz told her again. "That's the point."

"Am I?" Her voice was low. Dangerous, even. Her hostility sent a flare of anger through his chest, but he tried to quell it. Leash it, contain it, keep every shard of emotion from her. Give her nothing to hold against him.

"Yes."

"And how well do you know me, assassin? I have killed for you, yes, and I have killed for myself. Weapons are heartless."

"You are." He didn't know whether it was a plea or a statement.

"Really?" she hissed. Finally she turned on him, the reflected fire in her eyes quelled by that of a dark and powerful fury. By real flames this time, not mere dancing reflections. Quartz felt their heat, but did not lower his gaze.

"Yes." Calm voice. Steady glare. Motionless posture.

"You know nothing of me, Quartz. You think you can use me as some pawn to bloody as you please, but you don't know me. I'm not the same weapon as you. I'm not a heartless murderer, killing whoever he likes to get by. I will kill the immoral to protect the weak, and that might make me a monster, but I will not be a weapon, and I certainly won't be yours. Why don't you go crawling back to Jarl?" she sneered. "I'm sure he needs a knife to stab his old friends in the back with. I'm sure you won't mind killing honourable men for your precious gold."

And with that, she was gone, leaping to her feet and stalking away, but she did not take the flames of her fury with her. They stayed with Quartz, freezing and searing all at the same time, wounding him somehow in a way they should never have been able to.

It was the first time he really thought about it - the targets Ghost had consented to killing. Only the immoral, she had said, and Quartz realised with an empty feeling that she was right.

For the first time since he'd been cast into the cruelty of the shadows, Quartz felt that freezing pit opening within him.

For the first time since he'd lost everything, Quartz felt alone.

 

 

Quartz had taken the final watch of that night, and the first ribbons of dawn were licking at the sky when Lukas slipped from his shelter and headed towards Quartz and the dying remnants of the fire.

There was a moment's heavy silence before Lukas finally blurted;

"How are your wounds?"

Quartz wanted to be left alone until he unravelled the enigma of Ghost's current sentimentality, but he forced a smile to his lips.

"They're healing well," he replied. "Thank you." Lukas blushed slightly, and Quartz gestured to the space beside him. The shapeshifter sat.

"How did it go with the Guardians yesterday?" Quartz asked eventually, after noticing Lukas's nervous glances. It seemed the shapeshifter sought company, but was inexperienced in the art of conversation.

"It went well," Lukas said. "Hokai - the older one - opened up a little. He said the other two are siblings, but other than that he just talked about things that weren't important - I think it was to calm the siblings down. He thanked us a lot, too."

Quartz nodded. "That's good news." It was anything but good news. Whatever had happened yesterday seemed to have created some childish idiocy within Ghost, and it was something that needed crushing or controlling. So far, crushing it had failed miserably.

"What about the siblings?" Quartz asked. "Did they say anything?"

Lukas shook his head. "I think they were scared," he said softly. "I would be, if I were them."

A rustling behind them, and Quartz's head snapped around. Hokai.

"I heard voices," the red-skinned Guardian said, his voice tinted with pain but otherwise retaining a gravelly strength befitting of his rugged appearance.

"I was just talking to Quartz," Lukas explained. "Are you feeling better today?"

Hokai nodded. "You... Thank you. For everything. Look, if there's anything I can ever do - for any of you - I will gladly do it. I thought they were going to turn me into their weapon. It was... It was everything I'd ever hated. Everything I could never bear to let happen to me." His words tumbled from his lips as though throwing themselves into a glorious freefall of flight. Falling right into Quartz's web - information he could use later.

"I know what it's like," Lukas said quietly.

"And you came back? To another prison?"

"I had to."

Hokai smiled at him. "You spared the elves, as well."

"Is that a compliment?" Lukas asked.

"It's whatever you take it to be," Hokai shrugged, his scarlet-tainted skin brushed by the confident rays of dawn. Hokai thrived in their glow, wearing his scars as badges and his weary knowledge of this cruelty as his armour against the world. A warrior was always useful. "Mercy isn't a bad thing." Quartz knew better, but he remained silent - the darkness at the edge of the room, the weapon they did not want to use.

"Why are you doing this?" Hokai asked. "Was it something random? Are you going to free more of us?"

"We plan to."

"Good." That one word - brimming with hatred and satisfaction and a burning passion that Quartz thought the prisons had always subdued. "I want to help you."

"We'd be glad of your help," Lukas said, and Quartz revelled in the knowledge that both of them were so easily controlled by debt and sentiment and their false ideal of justice.. "We'll need it."

Before either of them could continue spilling their weaknesses to Quartz, Avalon strode up to them, standing between Lukas and Hokai.

"We're going to plan out our attack on Elveros today," she announced.

"Already?" Lukas spluttered., and Quartz couldn't help but agree - even for the idiot, this seemed ridiculous.

"Elveros?" Hokai breathed. "You're going up against the elven capital?"

"Of course we are," Avalon grinned. "There's a huge Guardian prison there. Imagine how powerful we'd be if we got them all on our side."

Hokai stared at her. "You know how well guarded that is, right?"

Avalon nodded. "Exactly. That's why we're going to send Ryuu and Lukas in to do a little spying before we attack."

Lukas frowned. "Spying?"

She refused to say any more until the others joined them, and when eventually they were all awake, she stood, that familiar grin dancing upon her lips. A threat. A dare. A challenge.

"Yesterday, we freed a prison with little difficulty. Soon, we're going to do so again. Elveros holds more Guardians than we could ever dream of. It's perfect. Later, Ryuu and Lukas will go into Elveros and collect information about the prison, and report directly back here to give us all the details we need to attack."

Quartz did not miss the way Lukas sent a hopeful glance in Ryuu's direction or the burning

"Is that clear?" Avalon asked.

"Crystal," Ryuu hissed, standing up and stalking back towards his tent. "We'll leave midday."

"Does he even want to be here?" Ghost hummed.

"He might not be completely convinced of our cause, but he's here to support it," Avalon shrugged. "You have little right to question his loyalty."

Words spoken casually, laced with an undertone of threat. Question Ryuu, and she felt instantly challenged. They were each other's weakness.

"I'm aware," Ghost shrugged. "I was merely stating my observations."

"Observations have implications, sometimes," Avalon replied, then glanced to Hokai. "Will you be helping us?"

He nodded firmly. "You are one of a kind, angel," he said. "You give me faith the world can escape this darkness."

Faith. Another lie - but a blissful one, something sweet and delectable. Quartz had always found it too sugary for his tongue.

Avalon and Hokai engaged in further conversation, and Ghost stood, slipping away. Quartz followed, and it was only when they were alone that they stopped.

"I thought I made it clear that I didn't want to speak with you," she said. Her voice was even, but he could see past it to the festering hurt, anger, frustration. He had to bring out her weakness and make it a strength.

"I know." He tried to find the façade of regret, and pushed it into his words. "I just wanted to tell you that you're wrong. You are not my weapon, Ghost, and you never have been. You're... You're my friend." He choked on the word, tried not to smirk at her silence. "And what I said... I just don't want you to trust somebody and get hurt, Ghost. Because it happened to both of us before, and I don't want to lose you."

There. Her weaknesses - their broken pasts, the baring of his heart, their impossible companionship.

She turned around, and her eyes were no longer angry, but tired. "Thank you for your concern, Quartz." She was choking over her words. Confusion, or perhaps regret. "I just... I want what they want. And it's impossible, but I want it. And I can't help but open up to them, just a little. So thank you. But I'm still annoyed, I guess. So I'll speak to you again when I'm ready."

Some part of him had been expecting this, and he was prepared to answer.

"I understand. I'll be gone for a while."

"Back to see Jarl?" There was nothing of yesterday's mockery in her words.

"Yes. I don't want to leave them all when they're about to do something so big, but..." He fixed her with a look of regret. "I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "See you, then."

"Goodbye, Ghost." He nodded once and turned around. Perfect. This gave her time to reconsider everything, and it gave him time to deal with Jarl. Perhaps it was time Quartz dragged the information from his old tutor - he was tired of waiting. Patience may be a virtue, but complacence was unforgivable.

Quartz stopped to speak to Lukas. "Good luck for today," he said. "I'm going to be leaving for a while."

Lukas stood to face him. "Really? How come?"

Quartz forced a sigh from his lips. "I apologise, but it's something very important to me. And... Tell Ghost I'm sorry."

Lukas bit his lip, evidently verging upon asking for more and keeping quiet. "We had a disagreement," Quartz said eventually. "I just wanted you to tell her I'm sorry again." It would do little to help his situation with Ghost, but Lukas warmed to sentiment.

"Of course," he said, offering a tiny smile. "We'll see you soon?"

Quartz nodded. "If I'm not back before you attack Elveros, then I wish you all the luck in the world. What you're doing... It's going to break borders that I thought only Ghost and I had ever crossed." He nodded to Lukas - this was all the conversation necessary, for now. "Farewell."

Lukas smiled. "Thank you. Goodbye."

Before long, he would have strings around them all and they would dance to his song.

Until then, Jarl was going to tell him exactly what he needed to know.

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