Courage Under Fire - AdmiralCallista (2024)

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

Chapter Text

It was getting harder and harder with each passing year to tell the difference between a memory and a dream. It all blended together... day after same day, cut off from the light of the sun, cut off from other people except the occasional check-in from an officer or someone who was trying to kill him. The endless string of challengers who came to disturb him, needing to be cut down quickly so he could send their souls back to where they came from. He didn't know why he was assigned to guard that cold, wet cave, but he knew that he was assigned to it, and had a duty there that didn't involve full understanding no matter how much he wanted it. Otherwise Lord Godrick's rest at Castle Stormveil may be disturbed, and his own vow as a soldier be broken.

In Leyndell, so many years ago, centuries turning into millennia, there were twelve guards, handpicked from the hundreds of soldiers for their dedication but not promoted to lieutenant, tasked with guarding and protecting Lord Godrick. Seven of them perished in their flight from the capital when a bloody war broke out. Some of the Lords, the children and descendants of the God-Queen Marika, died, and the others scattered. When Godrick arrived in Limgrave with five remaining, he had them assigned to a post in the cave camps. And since then, four more met their ends.

Three of them had been close friends. Aron with his broad face and curly black hair, and wild tales of growing up at the foothills of snowy mountains. Brinley, who knew every tavern-keeper in the city and where to go late at night for cheap ale and cheaper chickens. Paul, who took a long time to come out of his shell and stop sitting off to the side sharpening his sword and shining his armor, and then turned out to be the biggest joker of the group. The fourth was Stephan, his beloved Stephan. Thomas was sure that was a memory and not a dream, even if he wished it was a dream the last time he saw him and every time he thought of it since then. The day he came to take over his shift in the gloomy cave and found a gloomier scene. The latest over-ambitious Tarnished dashing away, and Stephan face-down in the waters, the gray water turned red around him. When Thomas turned him over his blue eyes were open without seeing, lips parted without breathing, armor broken and a deep, jagged gash on the leather layer underneath. The only consolation was that the Tarnished was injured; Stephan was able to hit her and hobble her a little bit before he died.

They were going to retire, after the warring was all done, after whatever conflicts between the demigods were resolved and peace came to the broken Lands Between once more. When their Lord's rule from Stormveil was firmly established and there were no more challengers. They would put their meager savings together, buy a little bit of land and build a house and a smithery. Those dreams disappeared in one day, and it didn't even matter anymore. There was no end to the Tarnished rushing through on their way to the castle, and either way, Thomas was alone. Guarding the cave path by himself now, for so long. At one time the "Soldier of Godrick" defending Stormveil and all of Limgrave in the caverns' end, preventing invaders from getting any further in their overconfident and poorly chosen journey, was a title, shared among several. Now it was only him. At least he still had a place in the world, as so many lost their way and lost their minds. He knew who he was, and what his purpose was. To guard the cave, assigned to him by a lieutenant, passing orders down from an even higher officer, who Godrick may have saw fit to speak to directly at one point. To protect his post and stand proud to serve his Lord, Godrick the Golden.

He was broken out of his nostalgic thoughts by a sound - a tiny sound, so faint against the background of dripping water and distant crashes that someone not very well trained to hear it and accustomed to picking it out wouldn't have noticed. It was the distinct sound of footsteps outside the yawning cave, running through water and over rocks and coming closer. Another one was approaching. They never learned, they all thought that they would be the one to break through, to murder the rightful Lords and usurp their power. And they always thought that they should wreak havoc on Stormveil first, cutting down Lord Godrick's forces in service to their own dark ambitions.

It didn't matter to him that Lord Godrick the Golden was simply a descendant of Queen Marika and not her son proper. It didn't matter that his power came from intellect and experimentation, the courage to explore new avenues of strength instead of an effortless and unearned gift that expanded on its own when he received a piece of the precious world-rune. He was a Lord like all the others, and Thomas was his servant and protector, sworn to a divine duty that he would uphold no matter the danger or the cost. He pulled his long sword out of the sheath strapped to his back and adjusted his helmet so that he could be sure to see in all directions. Looking for any unusual movement, and trying to pinpoint the source of the slightly out-of-place sounds. He thought he saw a brief flicker near the entrance of the cave, but it disappeared. Then there it was again...

You heard that this would be easy. That the nameless soldier is no better than any other that you would run past or find out in the field, and his armor and his weapons are easily taken. The rumors you heard were wrong.

Then he saw the warrior. This was different - not the first time he'd ever seen someone come to him in those strange robes and the strange stone helmet, but it was nonetheless a rarity. The part that confused and concerned him was that there were two of them, in the same clothing, and one of them had a faint red glow around him. Thomas waited for a few seconds, watching them to see what they would do, ready to charge if they tried anything funny. All they did initially was look at each other and make strange arm movements. Then one of them tripped over their own feet and fell into the water, and the other helped him back up, only to slip and fall himself. What are they doing? Are they toying with me?

The glowing red one lifted a wand and fired off a pebble of glintstone. Thomas was ready to try to block the tiny rock, but it wasn't even close to hitting him; it sailed past his head more than two meters away and harmlessly shattered against the stone wall behind him. The first man also began to throw pebbles in his direction, by the most generous definition of "in his direction," pelting the water and stones and the walls around them. Then the man tried to run towards him, tripping over a rock ih the process and crashing down to his knees.

Enough of this. Thomas focused on the enemy without a glow, since he was the bigger of the two and slightly better with his aim. He'd almost hit Thomas a couple of times. He kept the glowing one in his peripheral vision as he swung his sword around and hit the first man over and over. Most of the Tarnished he fought went down in only a few hits; these kept coming at him, simultaneously completely unable to touch him with their sorceries while they took blows from his sword as if they were only minor scratches from a stick. He didn't understand what was going on, and focused on a single task: kill the invaders. Send them back to their graves, no matter how long it took, no matter how many times he had to watch the glintstone fly past him, had to stay out of its path. How many times he had to strike them. A half-hour later, the stranger crumpled over into an unmoving heap, and it took him another twenty minutes to cut down the red one.

He slowly shook his head. This was a great strangeness, and when he was next visited by one of the lieutenants - he was not allowed to leave his location, for any reason, the instructions from higher command were very clear - he would ask about it. He had to find out if there was any talk about these two magicians dressed as advanced astrologers. Were they drunk? Were they cursed? He couldn't explain what they were, but he knew that at least they were no longer a threat, if they were ever a threat at all. He listened for more invaders, and when he heard nothing, he went on to divest the corpses of anything interesting or useful that he could turn in to the lieutenants or perhaps even use himself.

Thomas took their golden runes and placed them in a pile nearby for the lieutenants to pick up, and looked through the pockets of the men's robes. One of them, the one without the glow, carried nothing unusual, so he threw the man's body near the cave entrance between two rocks, where it wouldn't attract as many rats and insects close to him. Then he checked the red man's pockets, and found strange objects in them. They looked like human fingers, except that they were all red, curled over and smeared with sticky blood, and they had the same faint red glow that persisted even as the corpse dimmed and began to fade away entirely. He pulled three fingers out of the pocket before the corpse, and the robe and pocket, disappeared. It hadn't even been real? The enemy was a phantom? Yet the fingers remained.

He had climbed up onto a rock, to get a brief rest and let the socks under his boots dry out a little bit, when he heard the noises again. Usually there was a longer delay between attacks. Hours, sometimes days if he was lucky. This time he didn't even have enough time find a comfortable position on the rock, as comfortable as sitting atop a mossy, moldy, cold rock could be. There was another Tarnished to dispatch, another fight to start and finish.

Except that it wasn't another one. It was the same man whose body he'd tossed around the corner of the cave wall just a few minutes earlier, the man without the red shimmer around him. He came alone this time, and his steps were faster and more sure. He moved with poise and great speed towards the neat pile of runes that Thomas left for pickup. Thomas tried to stop the sorcerer from retrieving his stolen powers, and didn't arrive in time. The man grabbed the runes and shoved them back into his pockets before he turned with his wand held out.

It was not a glintstone pebble. It was a miniature comet, black rock bathed in bright greenish blue light, charged with power and perfectly focused. It came at him so fast that he couldn't raise his sword in time to block it. The comet slammed into his body and threw him backwards against the rocky cave wall. He felt his ribs crushing inward from the front and back simultaneously, shooting arrows of sharp agony through his entire torso. His head struck the rock and he had the distant sense of his skull cracking into pieces, the grip of his sword slipping out of his hand, along with all of his awareness. A deep, black void descended on the cave and onto him, taking it all into its inky maw.

Chapter 2: Chapter 2


The Soldier of Godrick wakes after defeat in the Land of Shadows instead of fading away forever or reviving in Limgrave, and he struggles to figure out what happened to him and where he is. He finds himself brought before a demigod and sentenced to die, and he makes a deal to send one thousand Tarnished back to their graves in exchange for his own survival, so he can continue to serve Lord Godrick.

Chapter Text

He woke up with a terrible ache, the kind that pounded like being struck with a hammer from the inside of his head and sent shockwaves of pain through his entire body. His muscles twitched and trembled, initially refusing to heed his will. He spat out blood and tried to grip the ground, and slowly the pain receded enough that he could sit up. He sat on the dirt for several more seconds, stomach still twisting, arms and legs still shaky. He could see a little bit now, enough to see shapes and colors dimly in the faintly illuminated night. Boxy brown shapes, gently hilly brown shapes, some large man-made structure off in the distance. He struggled up to a standing position, swaying, almost falling over.

Where am I? What happened?

He still had his armor and sword, and a carrying pouch. But he wasn't in the cave anymore, and everything that he hadn't been wearing or carrying when he was struck with the comet was gone. The only explanation he could think of was that, somehow, he'd survived his injuries. The comet striking him and crushing him against the cave wall was the last thing he remembered before he lost consciousness. Perhaps he still had a little bit of life in him, and he was found by a lieutenant and carried away for treatment. But this place... could it possibly be Limgrave, so dark and strange, nothing like he remembered it to be when he was still permitted to leave the cave and leave its care to another soldier? What happened to flatten the land around Stormveil, and why had it changed so much?

And Thomas didn't have any more time to think about it or question anything. He saw two warriors next to one of the boxy shapes, now coming into slightly better focus as a small semi-permanent military camp structure. They had their bows raised up and were pulling back giant flaming arrows that crackled and sparked with energy. He didn't recognize their insignia, what little he could see in the dim light, and their armor was styled differently than any he had ever seen. "Stop, wait," he said, his voice coming out rough and hoarse, throat still parched. "I mean you no harm. I serve the Lord of the castle."

"You are lying," one of them snarled at him, in a strange accent, and pulled his arrow all the way back.

The second archer, however, paused, and shook his head at the first. "He is not one of us, but he carries no stolen runes and he is alone with no steed and no company. He may not be a trespasser."

"The Tarnished?" Thomas asked. "If they are your enemies, then we are friends, for they are my enemies as well. I have felled many thousands of them, and I need to go back to my post, given to me by my Lord of the God-Queen's bloodline, so I can continue to stop them."

"Drop your sword to the ground, very slowly, or you will die," the first man said. Thomas hesitated, but another archer had joined them, along with a fourth man who carried a great axe that glimmered with sparks of gold and red, some kind of magic he'd never seen before. He wasn't going to win this fight, especially not when he'd been forbidden to use any sorceries or incantations in his service to Lord Godrick. He'd forgotten almost all of what little he'd been able to pick up from overheard lessons as a youth so many ages ago. All he remembered was a simple incantation to haste himself, making his body move about ten percent faster for a brief time, and another to enhance his senses for an equally brief time. Neither would help him enough now, and these soldiers clearly either had no orders to refrain from using magical arts, or they served someone so powerful that archers with enchanted great-arrows were still tiny ants in comparison. He was outmatched against four of them. So he slowly unfastened the straps that held up the sheath of his sword, the sword still inside, and then set sheath and sword together on the ground.

The second archer spoke again: "Who are you, and who do you serve?"

"I am Thomas of Limgrave. Soldier of Lord Godrick the Golden."

The archers all looked at each other, heads tilted, faces turning to each other as if looking for answers. The axe-wielder laughed, though, and said "If you are telling the truth, soldier, then you are very far away from home... not that it matters now, you will not see it again."

"I must go back. I was assigned a place to guard, for the protection of Stormveil where my Lord and Commander resides, and he needs me to stay in that place. Where am I, and which way will take me back to Limgrave? Just tell me where to go and I will leave you in peace."

Two of the archers kept their arrows pointed at him while the group spoke among each other. "What do we do with him?" the aggressive first one asked. "Why should we not simply kill him and be done with it?"

"I do not know," another of the archers replied. "It is rare for someone from the Lands Between who is not seeking to steal power to cross our paths. I have never met such a traveler. And he came not from the west or south, nor the east or the north, not through any route taken by the Tarnished. Darghan, go and ask the lieutenant what he wishes for us to do with him, and in the meantime, tie him up."

Thomas cursed under his breath while the men took his sword into the closest camp shack and tied his hands behind his back with strong ropes. He had another sword, but it was back in Limgrave where it was of no assistance. They threw him roughly down to the ground at the foot of a tall post, one that had a black flag flying high above, and wrapped more ropes around him and the post. His upper arms were pinned tightly at his sides and the stiff edge of his leather under-armor layer dug into his skin. The axe wielder and one of the archers ran off in the direction of the large structure to the north, and the other two stayed behind with him. They took turns, one of them pointing a blazing arrow at him at all times, but neither of them would speak.

"I do not mean to offend anyone or seem ignorant," he said, "but where am I? You said I was from the Lands Between, and this is true, but does that mean that we are somewhere else?"

"We never gave you permission to speak," the first archer snarled.

"Gillion, why waste energy on unnecessary aggression? He is weakened and bound - he cannot do anything to us," the second said. "Wait for orders. And as for you, Sir Thomas of Limgrave, you do not need answers. You, too, need to wait for word from our lieutenant."

Thomas gave Gillion a dirty look but stayed silent. He couldn't reach his waist pouch, only look down at it in the faint illumination, to see if there was anything still in it. He couldn't feel its contents through his armor, and he thought he saw finger shapes inside the pouch. The pouch seemed thinner than it was when he'd filled it first. He bounced his thigh to make the pouch jump and shift, and he watched it move - it was thinner, containing exactly two fingers. One was gone.

Wherever this lieutenant was, it must have been far away, because Thomas was bound to the post all night and into the morning. It was dawn, a deep and dark dawn, before the third archer returned.

"Well, Darghan?" Gillion asked impatiently. "Do I have permission to kill him? Or we to take him to the prison cells?"

"No," Darghan said, and he turned his head towards Thomas. "You are in luck, Soldier-of-Godrick. You will not be going to the cells, nor to torture. Your journey will end very soon. Our Lord, the mighty Impaler, wants to see you and handle this himself."

"What are you talking about? I apologize, Sir, but I still do not know where I am, and I do not know of whom you speak. I thought I died, and then I ended up here. I took three strange fingers from a Tarnished one. A powerful sorcerer glowing red, who I killed myself without assistance, and now I have only two of the fingers he carried. Does that explain anything? I want an explanation as well."

"I am unsure if I should believe you or not, so I will say nothing, except that if you dare to lie, then you will be found out soon and your end will be merciless. The knight Lukas knows when one attempts to deceive and if you make that attempt, it will be much worse for you than anything true you could have said. Now we have to go, we cannot keep our Lord waiting."

The two men who had gone in search of instructions untied him from the pole and pulled him to his feet, but left his hands bound, and marched him for miles. Down a beaten road, past more camps and more soldiers, more posts and dark grassy fields. They crossed through a gateway cut into a large stone wall, to a platform that took them up from the ground several stories high.

And then they blindfolded him, forcing him to use his hearing and motion to try to figure out what was happening and where they were taking him. They went up stairs, and over rock, and over wood, turning this way and that way - he suspected they were taking him in circles at one point to keep him from memorizing the path, and the twisting and backtracking was enough to make him lose his place in his mental map. In the end he had to simply accept that he was beaten, there was no outsmarting these men, and he didn't know what was waiting for him. Would he find a way back to Limgrave, or would it truly end here, with his post undefended and Tarnished simply walking through with no resistance? For as long as I have breath I will serve my Lord, and I still have breath, he thought. I may be lost, but I am not entirely defeated until defeat comes.

Up lifts, down walkways, he completely lost track of which direction they were going and could only follow along. Exhaustion was beginning to set in, from his injuries and from having no food or water, or sleep, for so long. But he willed himself to keep going, and finally, at long last, they stopped, and one of them pulled the blindfold off his face.

He was standing in front of a blackened iron door, with two heavily armored knights on either side of a large and tall door. Their black mail, boots, and gloves covered them from the chins down, and their helmets covered most of their faces, concealing their expressions. And they said nothing - they only turned to look at the soldiers and then to Thomas, and at last to each other, and they opened the heavily reinforced door.

The first thing he noticed was that he was hit with a blast of hot air from the room as soon as the door opened, like when a stiff breeze blew over a bonfire. Not hot enough to burn him, at least not right away, but enough that if he were there for more than ten minutes he would be sweating heavily in his armor and eventually the iron would damage any bare skin that touched it. The second thing he noticed was his shoulder dislocating as the soldiers yanked him forward into the room and part of the way inside. There were long rows of shields and helms on one side of it, in the styles of the soldiers and guards outside, and suits of armor on the other side. He was kept in the middle of a path in the center of the room, too far away to reach any of the armor even if his hands had been unbound. He spotted two figures at the far end, just in front of another row of plate suits, finer than the others. Before he could get a good look at the two though - another guard and a much taller man in a short cloak - the soldiers threw him to the floor. His knees struck hard stone and he nearly fell forward, and the pain in his shoulder sharpened.

Thomas kept his body still and looked up only moving his eyes, his head still tilted down towards the floor. From what he could see of the guardsman, he was like the others but a little bigger, more like himself - brawny and a head taller than most men, his exact shape hidden behind metal and other padding, face mostly concealed. He had a long sword in a heavy sheath strapped to his waist, and a metal wand with a red crystal tip in a holder hanging from an iron chain around his neck. Easily accessible, with his hands still free. Only his eyes and the skin around them were visible, and they were entirely hairless, nary an eyelash or single hair of an eyebrow, the skin mottled and shining as if wet. And Thomas noticed then that his eyes did not move and he did not blink - both eyes were made of glass, set into scarred sockets. All as if he had once been burned and barely lived, eyes melted away and skin twisted into scars.

The other man, however, appeared unharmed other than one eye simply being missing, the other shining with a rich metallic gold iris. He towered over the first, and over the rows of armor; he and his helmet would have barely cleared the top of the doorway that was already so high that Thomas could not have reached up to touch it even without the ropes around his wrists. And the man didn't wear a full set of armor, only a partial set covering his slender, long forearms and lower legs, a chestplate, and the large jagged helmet of gold. He had a strange orange-red cloak that matched his short tunic, and almost matched his red hair, all draped over his shoulders along with a pair of living snakes nearly as long as he was tall. Thomas sensed some kind of enchantment in the fabric, but it was of a kind he was unfamiliar with.

"Waste not my time," the regal man said, and pivoted to look at the newcomers. "Is this the lost wanderer of whom the officers speak?"

"Yes, my Lord. We have divested him of all belongings save the armor he wears and a pouch he carries. Shall we take that as well?"

"No, and stay where thou art. Lukas, bring him closer." He said something quietly to the scarred and armored man, who immediately approached Thomas without physical sight and took him from the soldiers. He felt strong hands grasp the shoulder that hadn't been injured and he was dragged forward half the remaining distance, about five meters. Now the heat was intensified and his leather layer stuck to his skin. Sweat started to bead on his grimy forehead and drip into his eyes. He was grateful when the guard let go of him; the guardsman's gloves were nearly hot enough to burn him even through a thin layer of leather. Thomas started to raise his head in an attempt to redirect the sweat drops away from his eyes and down the sides of his face instead.

The guard grabbed his head by the back of his helmet and roughly tilted it down again. He said in a very rough baritone: "Keep your back straight and face to the floor. You will show your respect to Lord Messmer, the Impaler, son of Marika."

...what? Thomas' mind went blank for several seconds. A demigod, one he had never heard anyone mention? He heard himself say "Yes, Sir," and his voice sounded flat and distant even to himself. It would explain why the man was tall enough to make a muscled guard look almost like a chubby child in comparison. And why he appeared entirely unaffected by the extreme heat of the room that had no apparent source - he was the source of it. Thomas held absolutely still, in both reverence and bewilderment.

And then the demigod spoke again: "Tell me thy name, and for whom thou takest up thy blade."

"I am Thomas of Limgrave, Soldier of Lord Godrick the Golden, Your, ah, Your Divine Majesty? I was born in Leyndell, before the Shattering War, and went with my Lord when he left to bravely conquer Limgrave and the castle of Stormveil, to take up rulership there." He stifled a wince and waited for a response.

There was no response at first, and then a mocking laugh. "I have heard tell of Godrick's cowardly escape from Leyndell and it as thou sayest not. Darest thou to tell me lies, or accusest thou the men who came before thee of false witness?"

"I - um, I do not know who they are, nor what they saw with their own eyes and what they only heard from rumor. Perhaps they misheard something, Your Divine Majesty, who would have the hubris to try to lie to you? My Lord is a warrior with great courage and a sharp mind, and as I understand it, he is your distant kin. I must return to him. My arrival here was a mistake, to bother anyone here was not my intention. I defeated one of the, um, one of the Tarnished, once forsaken and banished by our God-Queen, when defending my Lord's lands, and he carried with him three severed fingers. Now I have only two, and did not know when I took them that they were meant to send a person here. I think that is how I got here, at least. I still do not understand it fully."

"Lukas, how many falsehoods has this soldier-of-Godrick spoken?"

Thomas glanced quickly up at the guard before remembering to keep his head down, and saw the guard slowly shaking his head side to side, and making a sign with his hand, fingers together and pointing up. "There is no deception in his words, my Lord. I know not what is the truth, yet what he speaks and what he believes are one and the same."

"A steadfast and faithful soldier to his Lord, dauntless in service. A pity his absence will be to those who knew him. Thomas of Limgrave, thou wilt return not to thy Lord. Thou art sworn to me not and none may return to the Lands Between again once they have reached my realm. I disregard not thy trespass. Knowest thou served thy Lord well in the time before thy death. As a reward for thy sincerity, thou wilt not suffer long." Messmer raised one of his long-fingered hands, palm facing up, and in that palm a bright reddish-orange fire, one shot through with black tendrils of smoke, gathered and grew, as if appearing out of the air. Then he quenched the flame by closing his hand. "Men, carry him outside, where he will burn upon the stones."

Thomas tried to pull his wrists out of their bindings, but they were tied too tightly and securely for him to even slide them a quarter of an inch, and the more he struggled with them the more they tightened. The soldiers came forward and hooked their hands under his arms to pull him back up - there was no more time, and he had nothing left to lose. Words poured out of his mouth before he could stop any of them: "Your Divine Majesty, please, I beg you to reconsider. I have killed thousands of the Tarnished, those who were once stripped of grace and now have returned to harass the true-born Lords and their subjects. I have prevented as many from approaching the castle of Stormveil and irritating my Lord. They seek his Great Rune, and they seek his power, so that they can grow in strength and turn it towards wicked ends. If any of them succeed, through treachery and trickery, they will absorb that divine power and grow strong enough to threaten all the Lords in the Lands Between. They want to usurp the power of our God and Queen, and though they will fail, they may cause Her frustration. They may even find their way to this place and annoy you. I beg you again, please, send me back to the Lands Between. I swore a duty to Lord Godrick the Golden and I will keep my vow even if it costs me my dignity. I was one of twelve, and then of five, and now only I remain to secure my post. If I die here, then there are none. I wish to live so I can serve my Lord."

Messmer squinted his golden eye and it settled in Thomas' direction, but with a brief lack of focus, as if looking through and past him in thought. "Thou art mistaken, yet honest still. I need not ask, such is clear enough. Thou claimest to have defeated thousands with dark ambitions - art thou certain of thy memory? And intendest thou to vanquish thousands more?"

"Yes, I am sure it was many thousands, though I cannot recall exact numbers. I cannot tell you with confidence if it is ten thousand, or fifteen thousand, or more, only that I returned a great number to their tombs. And I will return thousands more if they do not accept that they must stay away from Limgrave, and stop bothering Lord Godrick the Golden and his men."

"Thou art true of heart and thou hast the light of grace, if weak and faint. ...Very well, then, I shall let thee go. The Tarnished ones have begun to pass through my lands and they are naught but vexation before brought to their ends. Thy help is needed not, only welcomed. I give thee two conditions for thy release, and if thou failest at either of them, then thou wilt perish. And I shall take my time turning thee to ash. The first of these is that thou speakest not of this place, or anyone or anything within it, and thou bearest any cost of thy silence. The second is that thou bringest another thousand of the Tarnished to a violent death. Less than one thousand, and thou wilt be the next to die. Keep thy red fingers, so that if thou art felled, thou wilt return to me and nothing may escape my notice. Wilt thou obey?"

Thomas suddenly let go of the breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. "Yes, yes! Of course I will obey you, Your Divine Majesty. Thank you, I will not forget your leniency, and I owe you a great debt."

"Yes, thou art beholden to my wishes, count thyself fortunate that my only commands to thee are that which I have issued. Men, remove him from my presence and take him to Evana the Harvester. Instruct her to harm not Thomas of Limgrave more than she must to send him back across the veil, as close to the place from whence he came as resources permit, at my demand."

I'm alive, he thought. Relief and new unease washed over him, blending with each other and with suddenly unsuppressed exhaustion, and a slightly self-conscious wondering about whether or not he'd represented his Lord well, if the God-Queen would have approved of him, had he shown the proper respect to Her son? He let me live, of course I did, Thomas thought, and he tried to look up again while the soldiers tied the blindfold around his head again. The last thing he saw before the cloth made him blind was a brief flicker of light from a wall torch, reflecting off a golden eye and golden helmet. Then he was pulled up to his feet and marched back to and through the door, into a hallway that felt much colder than it had only minutes earlier.

It was another long walk, over an hour, and he strained to take the last steps. There was no fuel left in him except determination, and his steps were unsteady by the time they got to the destination. He heard strange sounds - beasts roaring and whimpering, groans, irregular clicks. Dripping water and thicker fluids, chains rattling. He heard another door open, and the air that rushed towards him now was as cool as the hallway but humid, thick with the scents of blood and rot, like what he had occasionally picked up elsewhere on his journey but much stronger and mixed with other odors. The new stench of animal refuse, molds, and acids. He coughed and dry-heaved twice before he was able to tense his empty stomach into stillness.

"You have been ordered to send this one back to the Lands Between," one of the men said. "To Limgrave, if you can, and if not, then the closest location."

There was another voice, clearer, and higher-pitched: "What? Dare you to attempt a prank on me? Are you newly blind, unable to see that I am busy, and have not yet finished removing this hide?"

"The order comes from the Impaler himself. You will obey it, without delay."

"Do not assume that because you carry orders from our Lord that you have any authority yourself. You show why you will never rise in the ranks, and I will inform my brother about your tone so he knows never to recommend you to serve as one of his Lieutenants!... Ah, how very curious that this man is merely to be banished to the other side. I will not question it, for I understand who answers to whom, a lesson lost on some. Fingers from that world are hard to come by, but they are as rarely used as found."

Thomas could hear another roar, much fainter than the others, and the soft click of metal being laid down on a hard surface. He strained to pick out the other sounds - with his eyes covered, he could focus more on what he heard, but still had difficulty with it. I'm not in Limgrave. I'm not fighting. If I try to listen harder, no one will know, and the effect will leave me before I get to my weapons.

He sorted through his memories, trying to recall the words of the incantation he'd heard so very, very long ago, the one that would sharpen all his senses, and enable him to hear more clearly. He found them, hidden deep but still there, and whispered them very quietly while the soldiers threw him down on a table and cut his bindings. At first, the words didn't seem to work, and he felt the chill of iron shackles against the small area of exposed skin between his gloves and arm coverings. Then the chill and hard edges sharpened, and the foul reek of the rancid air made him choke again. He felt a tug as someone pulled his leather pouch off to the side, leaving it attached to him by its cord but not touching his body or his armor.

A small hand, warm and gloved in slick, sticky leather, pressed what felt like a wrinkled, shriveled human finger with paper thin skin into his forehead. Her other hand pushed his chin up away from his chest. Then there was the sharp sting of a thin blade ripping across his throat, burning as if dipped in caustic acid. Veins burst open and spewed blood over him and the table, draining out what was left of his strength. Everything pulled away from him then, the hand and the table, the wrist bindings and the jagged wound in his throat, the smells of death and decay. And he was lying on his back on the ground just outside a graveyard, the clouds above welcoming him back to Limgrave.

Chapter 3: Chapter 3


Thomas, Soldier of Godrick, returns to Limgrave and fulfills his promise to kill a thousand Tarnished - and one of them carried with him strange books full of ancient and otherworldly magic. But they disappear in his hands before he can memorize more than the very first protective incantation. When he is defeated by a samurai who was just a little too fast for him - someone he likely could have beaten if allowed to use all of his skills - he finds himself transported to the shadow world once more, and this time he is given a more challenging assignment, at the same time he discovers thoughts he can only describe as blasphemy beginning to take root in him.

Chapter Text


Thomas looked up to see a lieutenant coming into the cave for his weekly round, and jumped off his favorite perching rock to his feet, landing in the cold, murky water that came up to the middle of his lower legs. He snapped to attention, gloved hand up in a salute. "Yes, Sir!"

"Where were you?" The very angry Lieutenant of Godrick took several menacing steps closer and stopped only just beyond arm's reach. "I came by earlier, and you were missing. You have orders not to leave the cave!"

Thomas paused before speaking. He wasn't sure which of the lieutenants this was - they weren't in the habit of sharing their names or any other information with the soldiers, and there had been a few new officers coming around lately that he didn't know well yet. He didn't know exactly what kind of partial explanation this one would accept. He'd sworn an oath to his Lord, and part of that oath was to tell the truth whenever an officer asked him a question. But he had also sworn to the Impaler not to speak even a single word about him or his lands to anyone who wasn't in those lands. "I was injured, Sir," he said slowly, trying to carefully weave a plausible excuse out of fragments of truth. "Very badly. I was struck with a glintstone comet and my ribs were broken, and I was not in fighting shape right away. I lost consciousness and woke up outside the caves, just outside the graveyard."

"Give me one good reason why I should not report you and have you court-martialed for failure to obey orders."

"Because I have been serving here in this cave, Sir, for thousands of years. For the last two hundred, I have done it alone. I am the last of my squadron, the last of twelve who have fought for Lord Godrick the Golden since our days in Leyndell."

"You are replaceable, Soldier. There are a hundred more like you, and a hundred more after that. Never let this happen again, or you will find yourself locked in a prison cell with no one to talk to even unseen around a corner, or strung up on wood and ropes for the birds to peck at all day and night." The lieutenant sprang forward and grabbed him, then threw him down into the water and kicked the side of his helmet lightly before walking away.

He got up as the lieutenant left, and shook the water and clumps of moss and algae off. Technically, he had broken the rules, though he would have thought that dying and getting another chance to live would have been a good excuse. He had no intention of letting it happen again - and in any case it couldn't, at least not any time soon. Messmer the Impaler, son of the God-Queen Marika, had made it very clear what Thomas had to do: kill a thousand more Tarnished, at a minimum, or next time he died his life was forfeit permanently. Thomas now had two vows, two duties to fulfill, and he could only hope that there would never be a conflict between them. And as long as he completed his task and put ten hundred Tarnished down, then he was safe - or at least, death was no longer certain.

It did not take long before he was upon his task again. Footsteps that were different from those of the other soldiers in other parts of the caverns, the shouting and the groaning of a small and distant battle. The light footsteps got closer, and closer, and then he saw a young woman in the robes and cloak of the astrologers appear at the cave entrance. She carried a staff in one hand and wore a shield, with a shortsword hanging at her side. Her robe was cut in a few places and the edges of the cuts were stained with new blood.

He drew his larger sword and ran towards her; she paused for a second, then tried to circle around him. "Sir, let me go!" she called out. "I have no reason to harm you, unless you give me one; I only want to pass through!"

"No one passes through!" he shouted, and swung his sword just ahead of her to stop her in her tracks.

She jumped backwards and raised her staff - a bit more agile than he would have guessed, he would grant her that much - to shoot off a pebble of glintstone at him. Her first pebble missed, and the second one pinged off his arm, leaving it buzzing with a mildly painful shock and almost certainly leaving a bruise. He knocked her down with a hard strike, his sword connecting solidly with her shield and sending her straight down to the water and rocks. She continued flinging pebbles at him and then switched to fumbling swings with her sword, but by then she seemed exhausted, with little chance of connecting any hits. He struck her again, and again, and the young astrologer collapsed, bleeding heavily from a deep wound in her side, life fading away.

Farewell, and may we never meet again, he thought, and checked the pockets of her robe. He found nothing but a wooden ring and few runes, which he left in their designated place for pickup, and then he dropped her limp body next to the pile. One killed, nine hundred ninety-nine left.


Footsteps, the clashes of blade on blade, and shouts were normal things to hear on a normal - afternoon? evening? he wasn't even sure most of the time - but he picked out a BANG-sizzle, BANG-pop, bzzz-bzzz series of sounds from a few caverns away and was immediately on alert. The echoes of explosions blasted their way from the source all the way to him, and while he didn't know what they were and would have preferred not to be involved with it, he understood there was a very high chance he would be involved with it soon regardless. He thought he heard thunder from inside the caverns, and saw a faint, brief flash of what might have been lightning. He heard shouts of alarm, and picked out "Here he comes!" and "Be ready!" in the voices, but none of them sounded like they were in pain.

Then there were wisps of smoke, and streaks of lights: a spray of purple, a shot of blue, multi-colored spirals that looked like throwing stars, but made out of pure light, the colors separated as if being shot out through a prism. He grabbed his sword and stood ready for whatever was on its way, and at last, the warrior appeared.

Thomas had never seen clothes like this man's before - the armor was foreign, and somehow wrong in a way he couldn't place. A reflective material that looked like metal, but moved like cloth, over a breastplate that should have weighed a hundred pounds from how thick it was but didn't seem to slow the man down at all, a blocky visor on his head - what was this? And what was the man carrying? Tools of some kind, or weapons. He couldn't stop too long to figure out what they were or what to focus on first, only react, because he was drawn into a fight almost right away. The man showed his command of otherworldly magic, lifting a small metal wand and flinging thick beams of energy at him. A bright yellow beam hit a rock behind them, and the entire rock instantly turned into a cloud of expanding vapor, with such force from the rapid explosion that it nearly knocked Thomas down.

What the man couldn't do very well, however, was aim the beams. He missed and hit a second rock, evaporating it into nothing but yellow rock-dust as before, and a blue ray went flying harmlessly towards the ceiling of the cave - harmless until they heard the terrified and agonizing cry of a dying bat. Thomas watched the man's arm and the direction the wand was pointing, and managed to dodge out of the way of another cast - and another - and then he had a good opening to rush forward with his sword and strike the intruder in the neck.

One mistake could have ended it all. One failed dodge, one lucky cast, and it would all be over. Six hundred twelve killed. Few of his Lord's soldiers did so well - the hundreds who patrolled Limgrave in Lord Godrick's colors and insignia. Thomas did as he always did then, stripping the felled enemy of anything that the officers may wish to take to Stormveil, and anything that might be of use to him. The armor was certainly interesting, and he got a better look at the other objects. There was a metal tube connected to a handle with a finger-switch, a box full of round metal balls, and a strange box with two metal prongs sticking out of the top. He turned them over in his hands. The boxes had writing on them, but he didn't recognize the language the words were in, and couldn't even begin to interpret any of it. The man also had a sack on his back, fastened to him with thick, stiff fabric straps, and the sack contained two books.

Both of them were bound in some kind of leather, well-tanned and stiffened animal hide though not from any animal that he could easily identify. The brown bound books were both thick, their titles in very archaic language carved into the leather covers. There was a power in them, the exact nature of which was unclear. The lieutenants had told him early on in his career, and many times since: he was not permitted to use any form of magic, whether sorcery or golden incantation, when fighting or in any service to his Lord at all, not even if it was necessary to save his own life. Only a select few associates at Stormveil were permitted to look beyond the material world, and he was absolutely not one of them. However… no one ever told him he wasn't allowed to look at the ancient tomes. They didn't even tell him he wasn't allowed to read them and learn their secrets. Only that he couldn't use them.

He hesitated. He knew what the spirit of the law was. He was to remain a mere grunt, using basic fighting skills only. They had no intention of promoting him, no matter how many of the Tarnished invaders he sent away or how long and how well he defended Limgrave and ultimately Stormveil. But… how could he be sure that it would never happen? And wasn't it in the best interest of his Lord and the other men if he learned all he could, when the opportunity presented itself and didn't require sacrificing any attention owed to his duties? Just in case there was a day of great need and the rules were dropped, or if they changed their mind and did allow him to wear the armor of the Lieutenants? As long as he obeyed the rules as they were issued, they couldn't fault him for their lack of clarity, and it couldn't hurt to learn more.

Thomas took a quick look around the corner to see if anyone else was coming and when he was satisfied that the way was clear and there would be no one entering the cave to bother him in the next few minutes, he sat on a high rock and opened the front cover of the first book. He didn't know how to read the words exactly as they were written at first. The dialect was old, very old, from long before he was born and at first glance it was mostly incomprehensible. The second book was no different. But he did understand a few of the words and the word stems, and could guess at a few of the others. From that, and from the pictures, he was able to figure out the purposes of the books. The first held the secrets of protection, and the second, of creating great offensive beams of energy and light, mimicking different elements and ways of causing distress and damage to his enemies.

He sat on the rock for a full hour, studying the pages of the book of protection. He sounded out some of the words in his mind, and then he understood more of them. The orthography had changed dramatically over the millennia, but the pronunciation at least of the consonants had changed much less, and the descriptions of each protective incantation made sense. They were all surprisingly simple, requiring only a few hand motions and tracing different circles around him on the ground, only once for eternal and complete immunity. One set of motions and circle patterns promised to completely protect the caster from all manners of heat and flame, another from poison of every source, another from lightning and storms, and still another from frost and cold. There were even a few pages that claimed to be able to keep the much-feared Scarlet Rot away, regardless of the intensity of exposure.

This cannot be right, he thought. Nothing known to man or beast could fully hold off the Scarlet Rot. He shook his head and thumbed the pages back, all the way to the beginning. The man was able to make matter disappear with his great energy rays, and the hard corpse of a bat lay only a few feet away on another rock, its flesh turned to stone. He could see it, he probably could touch it, but chose instead to poke at it with a stick. Flesh indeed turned to stone. At least some of the magic did work, it simply required more care and focus than the man who attacked him was able to achieve.

Unable even though the protective incantations looked easy, easy to the point that someone with little understanding could learn and perform them, without any specialized training. How? How can such a thing be possible, that to fully protect oneself against bolts from the sky, the freezing chill of winter's fury, and the rage of a volcano would be as easy as words and a circle? How would it not be that everyone knew it by now? Secrets from another land, and now their people are coming here to the Lands Between? His heart beat faster and harder in his chest. Two lines, just two lines each, and two motions, and the circle. He studied the first one, the one that would allow him to take a burning fire-pot thrown at him from an intruder and suffer no harm, to touch a torch and hold it in his hands without burning them. He wanted to try it and see if it actually worked, but dared not. Do not touch magic that you do not understand, he said to himself. The lieutenants will surely find out if fire pots no longer harm you, and you will be killed for that, or worse. Still, he looked at it again, to make sure he knew each of the steps and could perform them with permission and a reason to do so. If… if people were coming who had that knowledge, then him knowing it as well and being able to teach the other soldiers could be the difference between their victory, and Stormveil being overrun. He felt a twisting in his gut, the stirrings of something akin to anxiety, an excitement that wasn't excitement about anything in particular. A sense of hazy possibilities that he couldn't see clearly and thus he didn't know if he wanted to meet them or not.

He turned over the page to learn how to survive even the most lethal of poisons and venoms, when the book jerked in his hands, and then it shimmered and the cover turned transparent. The leather binding disintegrated and blew away as if there was a breeze in the humid, still cave, and the pages blanked before curling upon themselves and turning brown and brittle. They crumbled into fragments, then to dust, and the dust cloud puffed away as if it was never there. The book of battle spells vanished as well, and he ran to the cave entrance just in time to see the man's corpse and weapons disappearing in the same way. Everything was gone without a trace… except for his memory of the words and the gestures.


His fears about invaders from a foreign land, however, never came to pass. There were only the usual enemies, almost all the same, sometimes they were fighters or priests, sometimes astrologers, sometimes poor souls with almost no possessions and nothing but will and desire for destruction driving them forward. And they dropped to the cave floor the same way, too. He dreamed of a little bit of praise from his commanding officers, which of course never came. One thousand fourteen. Or at least for someone else to be assigned to his spot, so he could see the world outside of it again, and have someone friendly to see and talk to at the same time. He could entertain himself, and he could maintain focus on his job, but once in awhile he thought he would go crazy from being stuck there so long, with no close company but a gruff and sometimes hostile lieutenant or a clearly hostile Tarnished. One thousand three hundred sixty-two. He found parchment, eventually, and burned a thin piece of wood so he could record the words and symbols he remembered from months ago, and make sure not to forget them. Two thousand two hundred eighty-nine.

This samurai was good. They were evenly matched… almost evenly. Thomas found himself reacting for the whole fight instead of acting. He was just a little bit too slow, a little bit behind on his swings. I know how to do this. And he bitterly remembered that even if he could haste himself, even if he was now sure that he remembered how to do it and had the power, it was strictly forbidden. His oaths made to Lord Godrick were above all. He'd completed his other assignment and beyond, and the dilemma of whether to honor a promise to his Lord or a promise to his God-Queen's son was now behind him.

And so was the samurai, still whirling too quickly for him to keep up with and get the upper hand on. The invader swiped his sword quickly towards Thomas and slightly dented his armor, then another swipe found the tiny gap at his waist where he was vulnerable, leaving a slice through the leather underneath and a surface cut across his belly. Thomas raised his own sword to block the next hit, but his swing was a fraction of a second late, and he felt a sudden explosion of a burning chill rip through his navel all the way to his back. The samurai stared him down and pulled the sword back at an angle as he collapsed into the waters, blood and innards spilling out. He felt his strength fade away with it, with a faint vision of a red beam shrinking and disappearing along with his awareness. Everything went pitch-dark.


Once more he found himself on the ground at the side of a well-trod road, and once more a pair of archers were standing above him with their sparking, flaming great-arrows pointed at him. "Wait," he told them. "Do you not remember me? You tied me up and wanted to kill me but your Lord had me brought to him instead. Ask your officers before you do anything hasty."

"You will be waiting for a long time if you want us to ask them anything," the man - Thomas thought his name was Gillion, but he couldn't be sure he remembered correctly - said. "We have orders to guard the road and kill anyone who is not permitted to be here."

"I am permitted! Your friends dragged me away to face the Impaler, and I lived. He let me go. Would you be so bold as to kill a man your he chose not to?"

Gillion reluctantly deactivated his arrow and returned it to his back-mounted quiver. "Then you have chosen to wait until the rest of the armies return from battle, and I do not know whether it will take a day to raze the rebel city, or a week. We will not waste our time watching over you. To the cells!"

They marched him to the keep again, the gigantic military structure looming over the lands, and this time when they ripped the blindfold away from his head he was in a dark, damp prison cell. It was long enough to lie down on the hard wooden bench left there as the only furniture, but not tall enough to stand up in, and he had to lower his head and hunch over to walk. Not that there was anywhere to walk to other than a small hole in the corner of the floor to relieve himself, or a pipe on the other side that dripped slimy water. No one came by with cleaner water or with food, and no one answered when he called out asking if anyone was there. It was three days before the doors opened and two heavily armored guards demanded he go with them.

Thomas found himself in the armory as before, knees on the hard stone, head down, with the psychic guardsman staring down at him. He wished he'd have had an opportunity to rinse himself off before his release from the cell; three days in there had left him wretchedly dirty. His cheeks burned not just from the heat inside the armory but also with shame at his presentation. Messmer stood flawless about five meters away from them, not a spot anywhere on his tunic or his golden armor. Thomas couldn't help but to look up a few times, but he knew to keep his head still and pretend his gaze was fixed at the floor.

"Thou art defeated again, I see," Messmer said. "Tell me, soldier, how many tainted Tarnished hast thou slain since last time thou knelt before me?"

"Two thousand, two hundred eighty-nine, Your Divine Majesty. I am sure of it, I kept count." A pause, and Lukas confirmed that Thomas' words were true.

"More than one thousand. Thou hast done as I commanded thee, Thomas, Soldier-of-Godrick. Thou couldst have thrown away thy fingers in defiance, but thou kept them on thy person. Truly loyal to thy word thou art. Hmm. What caused thy defeat? Wert thou distracted, or weakened?"

"I was simply defeated, Your Divine Majesty. A strong samurai with command of swordfighting came to me and I was too slow to get the better of him. I could… it is of no matter."

Lukas made a different sign this time, pointing his fingers at the floor, signaling that Thomas was hiding something.

"I tolerate no deception! What attemptest thou to conceal from me?"

"I, well… I am not permitted to speak incantations, Your Divine Majesty. The great Lord Godrick the Golden of Stormveil does not allow it. I believe I could have defeated the samurai if I could have granted myself haste through the grace and power of gold. I know the words. But my oath to my Lord is paramount, and he is wise. I will not question his orders."

"Godrick forbids it? He allows not his men to defend his castle even with power faint enough for a youth to direct? Soldier-of-Godrick, if thou believest that he is wise, thou art simple for a warrior of thy age. If one gave thee a sword of night and flame, even with thy faith thou wouldst struggle to wield it."

"I do not understand. I have never seen that weapon, Your Divine Majesty."

"I expected thou wouldst understand not." Messmer shook his head, locks of red hair shifting on his armored shoulders, twin snakes slithering over the shining red waves and gleaming gold. "Thou claimest to know how to ask for divine aid and move with greater haste than thy body performs alone. Show me, Soldier-of-Godrick. Thy oaf of a Lord will witness it not. I grant thee permission to stand, and Lukas, unbind him and allow him thy blade. Stay where thou art, Soldier, approach not, and swing the blade without thy incantation first."

Thomas got up slowly and took a step backwards to ensure that he was enough of a distance away not to violate his instructions. He took the longsword offered to him - sharpened so that it would cut anything that could be cut with iron, with a runed grip and ornate hilt. Thomas held it and watched Lukas raise his wand, sending a small projectile, gleaming and gray, at him. He tried to deflect it and failed; the projectile struck him in the chest and knocked him backwards, off-balance and nearly falling.

"Now make thy incantation, and try again."

He is right, Lord Godrick the Golden will never know. He found the words held deep in his memories, and whispered them; he felt as if everything around him was slowed down, and he raised the sword again. Lukas fired another small gray rock at him, and though he was unable to block it, he now brought up the blade quickly enough to touch it slightly, and it bounced off the edge and flew over his shoulder.

Thomas then returned the sword to Lukas and knelt back down on the floor. "Was that demonstration sufficient, Your Divine Majesty?" he asked.

"Sufficient to show thou art indeed capable and chained by a daft command, little more," said Messmer. "I see that even with thy hands bound, so a weakling may think himself mighty, thou art able to destroy thousands of enemies as thou claimest. Thou art a good soldier, Thomas, Soldier-of-Godrick. If thou wert not, thou wouldst have failed at thy task, and I would honor mine own words and kill thee. Thou hast fulfilled thy part, and I shall burn thee not. Instead, I shall issue thee another order."

And Thomas found his eyes drifting upwards again, from the floor to the demigod's polished boots and greaves over lean, long shins. Bare lower thighs, all muscle and bone. The under-tunic of bright, warm orange-red, falling neatly and gracefully to mid-thigh with a bulge in the center, where…

Thomas felt too hot suddenly, and the extra surge came not from the air around him but from within. His imagination ran away from him just for a moment, before his military discipline kicked in and shut the thought down, a filthy thought that bordered on sacrilege, a picture in his mind of what Messmer would look like without the tunic, and without armor, standing nearby with nothing to cover his half-divine body. He is the son of the God-Queen! Thomas quickly suppressed the image, filling his mind with thoughts of the cave he needed to go back to before a lieutenant arrived to find him gone again. It was too late to hold back a physical reaction, though, and he felt the discomfort of his co*ck stiffening and pressing against the inside of his armor.

He didn't dare look up now, and he stared hard at a random spot on the floor while waiting to hear his command. "Thou art to return to thy Lord Godrick, to the place he designated for thee, and engage more of the Tarnished in battle. Shouldst thou find thyself before me again with less than… twenty-five hundred destroyed, then I shall have thee dragged outside, and I shall engulf thee in my flames."

"Yes, yes, Your Divine Majesty," Thomas said quickly. "Thank you for allowing this soldier to uphold his vows."

"To allow it benefits me. Not all Lords are fools. Guards, take him away, and take him to Evana to send to his home in Limgrave."

And again he was blindfolded in the room of the harvester, and again she cut his throat. He used his fledgling power again to run a little bit faster from the outside of the graveyard to his cavern post, and returned to the damp and lonely cave as the incantation wore off, only minutes before the lieutenant arrived.

Chapter 4: Chapter 4


A challenger with a club and no armor defeats the Soldier of Godrick, then goes on to fell three Lords of the Lands Between and cause a wave of destruction in the Land of Shadows before tasting his own first defeat. Facing the loss of his commander and his own death sentence, the now lordless Soldier takes a gamble with an untested incantation and survives his would-be execution. He is offered a second chance at life, but to take it requires that he disclose all his thoughts and fantasies, including those he dare not share with anyone, much less the powerful demigod who features in them. Luckily, the reaction he gets is not what he had feared...

Chapter Text

Thomas narrowed his eyes and kept them focused on the invader. The other man had no armor, and no weapon other than a club, and he carried no bottle or talisman. Thomas had seen such a thing before, a handful of times, always a different person with a different face. This time he thought there was something familiar about the cave intruder, though... he'd seen him before. Ages ago, and he only remembered this one among the many thousands because he looked exactly like the one who'd killed his friend and squadron member Brinley. The last to die, the one whose demise left Thomas to stand guard alone.

"I am going to kill every last one of you," the challenger said. "With this weapon, and this cloth around my waist, and without a crimson tear or summoned spirit. I will bring down everyone who stands in my way, beginning with you, and ending with the Elden Beast itself. I will become Elden Lord."

"And what if you fail?" Thomas asked, never once letting his eyes stray from the strange man, trusting his sharp peripheral vision to alert him if there was a trick he wasn't expecting. "What will you do then?"

"I will not fail."

"But you might. I am not the strongest warrior in the Lands Between, that much is true. But there are many legends who frustrate even the most powerful of challengers. Do you think that you can fight a demigod or demigoddess with that little club? A full-grown dragon at the height of their power? The great beasts from worlds beyond our own?"

"I can, and you are wasting your time arguing with me, Soldier. I will conquer two lands and any who try to stop me will die. It is my destiny to sit upon the throne as the consort of God... unless I choose to destroy it all instead."

"You will find yourself encased in stone again very soon then, Tarnished," said Thomas. "I hope your tomb is cold and you stay trapped in it. I have been practicing, and I have been undefeated for two thousand thirty-six fights. Many of them against warriors much better armed and armored than yourself. I will send you back to your resting place, where you will stay."

"For what? To guard this pathetic little cave, for your pathetic little Lord? Even Kenneth Haight does not respect that grafted wreck. You seem to be the only one, you and the other clingers around Limgrave unable to see you waste your energy for a pretender." The challenger chuckled and shook his head, then charged forward with his club.

Thomas took one sweeping, confident swing at him... and missed. The man ducked and rolled away with impeccable timing, so close that the edge of the blade went through his hair and lopped off an inch of it on one side. He felt a tap on his knee - just barely hard enough for a momentary dull ache, something that would leave a light bruise that faded in two days. This Tarnished was toying with him in overconfidence, obviously, and it was time to put an end to his ridiculous dream. Thomas swung again, and a second time he failed to connect at all, as the challenger jumped out of the way to the opposite side.

An hour later he was pouring sweat and struggling not to limp. He was pretty sure he had at least two broken ribs, and his swollen right knee threatened to buckle and drop him to the waters if he put too much weight on it. But the challenger was injured as well, bleeding from a few nicks and one moderately impressive gash slashed in his right thigh. Thomas had unfortunately missed cutting through any major veins, and the blood loss probably looked much worse than it really was, but it proved the man was not invincible, and if he tried - if he kept trying, and never let up - he might be able to end the man's journey early. Might be able to save himself and fulfill his two promises.

And an hour after that the world was spinning, the sword was too heavy, and he tasted metal and salt at the back of his throat. Colors pulsed all around him, sounds came in distorted and too loud, then too soft, and everything was wrong. He felt another tap to the back of his head, and he lost his balance when swinging around towards it. A second blow knocked him to his knees, suddenly retching and spraying bile and blood on the rocks. A third took the rest of his hearing, and sight, and touch, and even the smells of rain and blood and dirt and sweat left him as he slipped into unconsciousness.


His waking in the Land of Shadows was different as well. It looked as if he was arriving to the aftermath of a battle, with dozens of dead warriors lying on the ground among fires and the survivors gathering up the corpses of their comrades. He saw Gillion cover Darghan's body and say a few words over it before two other soldiers lifted it onto a wagon to take away.

"We have no time to deal with you again," Gillion snapped, but his voice was small and tired. "We will take you to the cells again and you will stay there for the rest of your days, may they be short and few."

"What happened here?"

"It is none of your business! I wonder if you might even be responsible for it."

The other archer who could sometimes be found hanging around them shook his head. "Ignore him," he said to Thomas. "There was an attack this morning. A Tarnished warrior came to us with no armor and wielding only a club. He claimed he was on his way to become Elden Lord, having already killed three Lords and claimed their Great Runes, and he would not rest until he had destroyed everyone who could challenge him here. He killed so many, with the club and nothing else. If he had not run into a furnace golem and been trapped near a wall where he could not escape, I do not know how many more may have fallen."

"Lords with Great Runes... do you know if he had the Great Rune of Lord Godrick the Golden?"

"Of Godrick of Stormveil, and of the General named Radahn, and of a creature they call Mohg. Whether they can be revived or not, I cannot know. All I know is that they were killed by that thing, that fraudulent claimant to power, who harried us all and caused great destruction. Heroes dead, brothers- and sisters-in-arms dead, and had he gotten any further then the Impaler himself would have had to personally intervene and destroy the threat. He'd already begun to gather his best knights to lead to the battleground when the battleground became the invader's gravesite."

"I... failed. I failed in my duty." Thomas leaned against the post where a flag flew and pressed his helmeted forehead into it, eyes shut. "I was supposed to stop invaders so this would never happen." He'd known already that he was marked for death - he hadn't killed enough of the Tarnished to fulfill his promise to Messmer, but to go to his end knowing he'd also failed to protect Lord Godrick made it so much worse. He would die without even the satisfaction of knowing he'd done his part to keep Godrick in power and Stormveil safe.

"Soldier, whatever foul magics this usurper was getting into, it would have been too much for any human warrior to face alone. Now come on, make this easy, and come to the prison willingly. You might find you'll be fed and given water this time."


He heard a key in his cell door, and the door opened. He had been sitting there for five days now, but the soldiers out on the road had made good on their promise, they brought him to a cell where he was given water twice a day, and one meal of dry bread and meat of unknown and highly questionable origin. And this one had a slightly higher ceiling, where he was able to stand without hitting his head, if not by much.

"It is time, prisoner," one of the two black-armored men said, holding out ropes to bind him and take him to his sentencing. "Come quickly, and it will be over with much sooner. Your suffering will be shorter."

"Wait," Thomas said. "Give me time. Give me one minute, please, that is all I want. I am marked for death, can you offer me this one small concession? Then I will go with you in peace, and accept whatever my fate may be."

The guard looked around the room suspiciously for tricks and found nothing out of place. Thomas' weapons were long gone and his armor and clothing had been searched thoroughly for hidden weapons and trinkets that he did not have. They'd even taken his carrying pouch, but it didn't matter because it was empty now, the last of the old red fingers gone. "One minute, and that is all. Not one second more and I will be keeping count to sixty outside the door."

As soon as the door closed again, Thomas dropped to his knees. He's been going back and forth in his mind the whole time, unsure what to do, but when the guard came for him he knew that this was his best and possibly only chance. He'd made a copy of the protection incantation from the ancient yet ephemeral book of secrets, and while he didn't have the copy, writing it all down helped to engrave it into his memory. Even without having seen it for awhile now he knew what to do and what to say. He traced a wavy line on the floor with his fingertips, made a sign interlacing his fingers together, then closed his eyes with his palms on the floor. He recited the words with his best guess as to how they should be pronounced. In his mind's eye he saw the image of a swirling fire around a septagon, and a small figure kneeling inside the septagon, fully protected by its borders. He sensed a light, so bright that it shone through his closed eyelids and stung them from the intensity. There was a sudden flash of warmth all around him, growing more and more - it should have been uncomfortable, and then painful, and then it should have begun to burn his flesh and make it fall away from his bones in blackened sheets. But it did nothing, except surround him with a deep and comforting warmth, and make it hard to see for the first few seconds after he opened his eyes again.

A runed circle and a septagon had been burned into the stone floor of the cell, and the wooden bench was charred and smoldering.

The guard opened the door again and looked inside. His face tilted down towards the burn marks. "I do not like it," he growled. "I know not what that is, but I know that I do not trust you, or what you have done."

I am not sure if I trust it either, Thomas thought. He still couldn't be entirely sure that the spell worked properly, though it must have done something if it was able to burn the bench and mar the floor. He took a few deep breaths as the guards bound him and grabbed him by his upper arms to lead him away from the cells. He stilled the twisting in his stomach and put on a brave face - regardless of the outcome, it was true, it would be over soon.

Nobody bothered to blindfold him this time, and he looked all around as he walked, at the surprisingly impressive architecture for a military structure, and how vast it was. There was nothing remotely like it in Limgrave, and even Leyndell's keeps could not rival it in size, though he dimly remembered more finery there, gold wasted on show. This is fit for an army, he thought. A large and well-equipped army, strong enough to conquer entire continents.

They took him down a lift and a long hallway, which ended at a wide door. They pushed the heavy door open and pulled him through it, onto a wide path made of stones, three times wider than the road that he had respawned upon. There was dirt without plants or dried brush on either side of the path, and here the walls of the keep were also made from stone. Much of it was blackened with soot, and there were heavy sooty marks on the path ahead of him, small chunks of something that might have been pieces of bone, and traces of metal smears. And Messmer the Impaler stood at the far end of the path, with Lukas and a second of the guard-knights near him, a few meters past the marks and remains of flash-melted metal. Thomas couldn't read his face, the neutral blank expression telling him nothing. He thought he caught a little bit of disappointment in Messmer's golden eye, but also knew it might have been his imagination, and his own disappointment in himself.

"My Lord," one of the guards said, "I present to you Prisoner Number Twenty-Nine. He is bound, but not stripped of his ability to use his mind."

"Hast thou concern that a mere soldier would be a threat to the mightiest of my warriors? To me, a demigod?"

"No, no, my Lord. Of course there is no reason for concern."

"Then thou art dismissed, and I command thee to return to thy post at the door, so thou wilt speak not. I shall send a different guard to bring the next to perish, when I choose to receive another of the prisoners."

The guard hissed at Thomas not to try anything, shoved him to the ground, and then turned to leave. Thomas stayed there in the middle of the dirty path and he was silent. He noticed an elevation of temperature, but it only felt like a warm summer breeze now.

"Tell me, soldier-of-Godrick, how many of the Tarnished hast thou sent to their deaths now?" Messmer asked him.

"Two thousand thirty-six, Your Divine Majesty. However, it is of no consequence. I failed when it mattered the most, and now the Lord I serve, Godrick the Golden, has been slain. I have no more reason to ask for mercy, no Lord to return to, my friends are long lost, and I have no family. Now that I have no more red fingers, I cannot make a promise to return to you anyway."

"The number is of consequence, Soldier. I gave thee a task, and thou finished it not. My men told me thou claimed to have failed, and I see this is true. I had hoped for more from thee. To end thy life brings me no joy, yet such is thy sentence. Hast thou any last words?"

"Only that I apologize if I disappointed you, Your Divine Majesty. I did my best, I wanted to protect my Lord and honor my promise to you, but my best was not enough. I humbly ask you to end me quickly."

"It is granted, soldier-of-Godrick. Thou wilt now meet thy death in the embrace of my flames."

Thomas watched Messmer raise one hand and gather the orange and red flames and black smoke out of nothing again, a blaze in his palm that suddenly grew into a bright beam of fire, flying towards Thomas and blazing hotter, with streaks of yellow. The soldier tried to keep his eyes open, but the light was much too intense and bright, and his eyelids closed to protect him from the sun-like luminosity. He pushed the fears and stray thoughts away - there was a whooshing sound and a rush of air, crackling, popping, roaring. Smoke filled his nostrils and made him cough. The leather under-layer of his armor and the cloth tabard he wore over his mail caught fire and began to fall away from him in clumps of char and ash, along with the bindings around his wrists. He smelled burning flesh, but it was not his own, only the leather burning away. Then the mail itself deformed and softened, first losing its shape and then turning to liquid. Molten iron poured off his head and body like warm water and splashed on the stones.

The fires had been out for several seconds before Thomas realized that his eyes were still squeezed shut and he was still kneeling on the ground with his fists clenched behind his back. He relaxed his hands and let his arms hang at his sides, then opened his eyes, watering from lights too strong even though closed eyelids and the wisps of smoke swirling around him. The guards, who had moved further away from Messmer and Thomas, were both staring at him with their hands on the grips of their weapons, as if waiting for a signal to strike. Messmer himself didn't move at all at first, his eye fixed on Thomas and his mouth open. Then he finally spoke: "Thou art unburnt."

"Yes, Your Divine Majesty, I am unburnt. I learned how to withstand flame. My armor, it appears, did not fare so well." He suddenly realized that he was naked except for the ashen dust clinging to his body, the ash that used to be leather. He crossed his hands over his crotch and looked down at the shapeless iron pools surrounding him.

"Raxan, go and find a tunic for him to wear, one with enchantments to prevent it from burning too easily. Lukas, return to position. And Soldier of - Soldier Thomas, where didst thou learn such arts? Magic as thou hast shown me is not something taught to mere men. Mine own soldiers and knights, they burn not easily, yet even they would have perished."

"I am not sure what it was, Your Divine Majesty. One of the many Tarnished I cut down had a book with him, an ancient book from a foreign land, not this one or any I have ever heard of. It had strange symbols on the cover, and incantations written in very old language on the pages. When I killed him, I had the book for a brief time, before it simply disappeared in my hands. I may never have been allowed to use it in my service to Lord Godrick the Golden, but nobody ever told me I could not learn. I... I do not know why I did that. Perhaps I thought and hoped the rule would change, and they would let me use my full abilities to serve him better. Perhaps I wanted to show you more than a child's haste-self incantation."

"I see. Willing not to defy an order by thine own election. Now, I forgotten not about thy failure. We agreed that thou must kill two thousand, five hundred Tarnished, and thou didst not. Rememberest thou what I said I would do if thou failest?"

Thomas felt his heart and stomach both sink and his spine sagged with them. "Yes, Your Divine Majesty. That you would kill me."

"No, I said that not. I said that I would have thee brought outside, and I would engulf thee in my flame. Such has been done, and thy sentence is carried out in full. I know with certainty that thou art capable of far, far more than thy Lord allowed thee. Come closer."

Thomas stood up as the guard Raxan came back with a simple black tunic, and he threw it over his head, buying a few seconds to will the wobbling to leave his legs as he adjusted the garment and wiped some of the soot away from his face. At least a week's worth of stink is gone, he thought, noticing that the original grime had been burned away and he only smelled like ash and char. He approached Messmer slowly, waiting for words or a gesture to tell him to stop. He did not get that gesture until he was close enough that he could have reached his arm out to touch gauntlets of gold. He saw Messmer raise his hand and make a downward motion, towards the stony ground, and Thomas instantly obeyed. He dropped again to his knees less than an arm's width away. And then he once again sensed the strong heat currents, the absolute power pouring off the demigod and superheating the air around him. Thomas should have been burning up - only two hours ago and he would have been - but he was not. "Few can be so close to me without their flesh burning and melting. Only those with the most fearsome control of incantations and sorceries, and those with special protections. I know not what book thou hast read and learned from, but I know that thou art loyal, and thou hast great courage. I shall waste thy talents not. I shall allow thee to learn to wield the might of gold with thy weaponry - no, I demand it; I want my forces strong. Thou art permitted to stay here, and serve me, if thou provest thyself trustworthy enough."

"And how would I do that, Your Divine Majesty?"

"Share thy mind. Open it, so my truth-teller may read all of thy thoughts."

Thomas suddenly remembered something he had been told a long, long time ago: if you try not to think about purple runebears, then purple runebears will be all you think about. All the thoughts he had been holding back, suppressing from consciousness with mental control and sometimes prayers, broke through anyway all at once at the time he could afford it the least. Except that instead of trying not to think about runebears in a ludicrous color, he was trying to turn himself away from lustful nigh-blasphemy. His sharp memory was both blessing and curse, and many a time when he was alone upon the rocks in a cave in Limgrave it was both at once, bringing him conjured images of Messmer's long, lean arms, and his narrow and muscular legs, and the way his golden eye glittered in the light and highlighted his perfectly chiseled face. Thomas balled his hands into fists again, and tried to invoke the strategy that sometimes worked to chase away thoughts of runebears, or of mighty demigods with power and beauty beyond any mortal. Think about something else and focus intently on that. His eyes darted around, trying to find something else... the spear that Messmer carried? That didn't help Thomas at all. The two snakes twirling and twisting around each other overhead? That made his situation worse as well, and he caught his lower lip between his teeth for the momentary distraction of light pain. And the only bright colors drawing his gaze were of the cloth he wished was tossed to the stones, golden armor he wanted to unhook and set upon the ground, and red hair that he'd run his fingers through many a time when asleep and dreaming.

"Well, soldier? Wilt thou share the words and images inside thy head?"

"I, ah, Your Divine Majesty, I..." Think about bread! All the kinds of bread that you could get in Leyndell before the Shattering War, and in Limgrave before your assignment kept you away from the bakers. "Yes, I am ready." Little round loaves, crusty old square loaves from the day before, toasted slices, bread with cheese...

Thomas was still while Lukas removed one of his gloves and placed a scarred, disfigured hand on Thomas' forehead. Rye bread, rectangles, oblong loaves. Salted hard bread and soft bread with honey. The little pull-apart loaves, seven small pieces around a center piece, each of them with a different fruit hidden inside for the holidays. The guardsman pulled away then, replaced his glove, and he and Messmer walked a few steps away so Lukas could whisper something. Messmer had to crouch down to receive the quiet words, and the two of them stood in place for a two full minutes, with no visible reaction. Then they both straightened up and returned to where they were.

The demigod's lips then twisted into a smirk. "He says thou art true of heart, soldier. That thou art sorry thy Lord was lost, and thou gavest him all thy effort without breaking his orders. He also says that thou art hungry, with many thoughts of bread. Were not thy provisions in prison enough for thee?"

"No, Your Divine Majesty, they were not. They were meager, only once a day and none today."

"Didst thou truly believe that giving thy attention to bread would hide thy deeper thoughts and desires, such as when back in thy old cavern, sword in its sheath and staff in hand?"

Now Thomas felt his whole face aflame. "I... I can explain. I, you see, Your Divine Majesty, I... no, I was wrong, I cannot explain anything, and there is no excuse for what I was thinking, or what I did. My deep apologies for any transgression and I meant no disrespect. I only-"

"Of what transgression speakest thou? I take offense not. I have conquered this vast land and rule over all. Should I take an intimate companion and claim them to serve as such, they must be of high standing, as befits a Lord of divine birth. One of royal lineage, or another Lord, or a great leader of legend. Take not this to mean I may choose not with whom to share my bed, and when, as I desire. Rare it is to encounter one who burns not, rarer still one who needs not a talisman, so easily lost. A breach of military custom it is to take pleasure from one's own soldier - but thou hast taken not thy oath. Thou shalt take it in the morning, and thou art my soldier not until that time. Wilt thou join me in my quarters this night?"

Now Thomas did look up, emotions in disarray inside him. "I would, I want to, there is no use in trying to deny that. But I am not worthy of you even for one night. I have no noble blood in my veins, let alone that of a god. I have no title. I have no claim to anything."

"Thou hast the light and grace my mother saw fit to grant thee. If she wanted not thee to be before me, she would have kept thee in Limgrave, and allowed thy life to end. I know not what thou wilt become, only that it is greater than a soldier-of-Godrick. I love thee not, Thomas, this thou must understand. I still choose thy company if thou givest it of thine own will."

Messmer held out his hand, and Thomas hesitantly raised his own to grasp it. Thomas felt first the warmth of his skin, and then, underneath, a darkness, something in the demigod that seemed to be eating away at the light that had once shone bright. And Thomas noticed traces of ancient scars on his palms that were nowhere else, long-healed scorch marks where the flames he carried and threw were once enough to cause him great pain. His own heart ached but he kept it inside, reacting with only a small nod. "I will give it to you, then. Entirely of my own choice."

"Lukas and Raxan, I have changed my mind. No more prisoners are to find their death today. Any sentenced to die are to go instead to the quarry to cut rocks, and I shall decide their fates tomorrow. Raxan, put them to their tasks, and then get a full set of armor for a new soldier, of a size to fit this man. Put it on a training dummy and leave them both outside the door to my quarters. Then thou art dismissed, and Lukas, thou art dismissed now."

"Yes, my Lord," they each said in turn, and then walked away back to the doors into the keep. Thomas watched them leave.

Then he felt a warm hand on his cheek, one finger stroking the thick stubble on his chin, the others turning his face away from the guards' path. Nails gently scratched his skin, and when he looked up, he saw that Lord Messmer had taken his helmet off, his red hair now falling loose and free. The demigod leaned down and forward, at first slowly, and then in one swift motion he closed the rest of the distance between them and pressed his mouth against Thomas'.

The soldier tasted salt, and rich smoke, and rare spices, a pleasant surprise and he wanted more of them. But he was conflicted now, unsure how to proceed without risk of causing offense; it had been so long since he lay with anyone at all, and never a demigod.

Messmer pulled back and tilted Thomas' head up. "I want no hesitation from thee, Soldier Thomas. Come with me to the baths, where thou wilt wash away thy soot and ash, and then I will take thee to my quarters. We spoke of thy capabilities - I want to see them. Show me thy strength."

"Yes, Your Divine Majesty. I will follow."

Chapter 5: Chapter 5 + Epilogue


Before he takes his oath to serve in Messmer's army, the Soldier formerly of Godrick spends one night as a free man without duty, except for the chosen duty of bringing rest and pleasure to the demigod he has chosen to follow.

Chapter Text

Thomas stepped out of the shallow bathing pool and pulled the drain plug out of the bottom. Water, blackened with soot and dirt, swirled around the drain and disappeared into an unseen pipe. The pool looked almost new, even though it had been there for at least a millennium; it was only for the occasional guest. Messmer could not use it himself, because the water would boil away almost immediately, and risk damaging the pool from the force of water suddenly turning into a cloud of vapor.

He took a red towel off a small black table next to the pool and dried some of the water out of his hair before he climbed out and stood on the stone floor. He felt much cleaner now, but water and cloth could not wash away the collection of scars all over his body from millennia of combat. There were pierce marks and long gash marks, and old burns, a few spots where his skin was discolored, the echoes of frostbite and of lightning. And he began to understand what it was like to feel small and weak, a situation a man of his height and solid width rarely encountered.

"Come here." Messmer gestured for Thomas to approach his chair, a long, high lounging chaise made of black marble shot through with thin veins of gold, and edged in similarly gold-veined marble of red, lacking any cushions. "Thou art strong and hardy, and thou hast fought many battles. Thy markings are the markings of a warrior. I know thou wilt fight at least as well and as hard at my command."

"I would, my Lord," Thomas said. He looked for a reaction, and saw only what might have been the corners of Messmer's mouth turning upward. Or it might have been a muscle twitch, or just Thomas' imagination. "Of course I would. Anything you desire from me."

"Anything? Then climb up here with me."

Thomas had to actually climb up onto the long chair, as it was slightly too high for him to simply sit down upon. As he hoisted himself up, Messmer reached out with a glass bottle and small blade in hand. It was a cylindrical bottle two-thirds full of a clear, pale green liquid and closed with a cork at the top, and the blade was slightly curved with a smooth and dull edge. Thomas took the bottle and cautiously pulled out the cork; it was some kind of fruit oil, he couldn't tell exactly what, perfumed with essences of herbs and fragrant wood. Then the two snakes attached to Messmer's back twisted down to remove his cloak and golden pauldrons, while he took off his own gold gauntlets.

There was a light rapping on the outside door of the bedchamber, next to the washing room that they were in. Messmer called out for Raxan to leave the armor and dummy and leave, and then said to Thomas: "He will be gone long before we go in, none will bother us. He has been in my service for thousands of years. Lukas has served almost as long. He knew no incantations, but he had the gift of knowing when one speaks their truth. He learned quickly how to protect himself from the serpent's flame within me, and until then, he burned in his armor. He served faithfully nonetheless." He looked down and made eye contact with Thomas, as if waiting for a response.

"Of course he did, my Lord. Who would not? You are a great conqueror, and your power is unmatched."

"There are some who serve not, though they grow fewer. They turn, or they perish." Messmer stroked Thomas' sandy-brown hair and what traces of water hadn't evaporated yet to steam sizzled away. Then he turned away and lay on his stomach, with his short orange-red tunic folded down and wrapped only around his hips, leaving him bare from the waist up. The twin snakes now looped down to untie and remove his golden greaves and boots. "I want for thee to serve me now as thou art - wear nothing, and use the oil to clean me of the day's dust and ash."

"Yes, my Lord." Thomas poured a small amount of oil out into his palms and rubbed them together to warm it, then shook his head at his own silliness; that would make no noticeable difference. "May I ask you a question?"

"Yes, soldier, ask thy question."

"Are you cold? Do these surfaces and oils and all else feel cold to you?"

There was a long pause. "I notice it not."

"I can find a fire to heat the oil, if it would please you. I can even stand in the fire awhile. It won't hurt me."

"A kind suggestion, but no. Continue as I told thee."

Thomas laid his oil-coated hands down over Messmer's shoulderblades and began to slowly rub the oil into the demigod's smooth skin. There was a slight bubbling and sparking, as whatever had been dissolved in the oil to scent it boiled off almost instantly and left a tiny trail of smoke and vapor. He watched the oil thin out into a shining film and smelled toasted herbals and something akin to a warm winter bonfire. He made sure not to miss even one inch, with his fingers moving in circles and deep lines with great care. He stroked over muscles and tendons, over bones and veins pulsing with blood so hot it would ignite true wood and liquefy tin. And Thomas shivered then, not from any cold, but from eager anticipation and excitement within.

He picked up the dull knife, made of iron, its handle black and gray mother-of-pearl. He used the blade to scrape away all the spent oil, then cleaned it with a cloth and continued his slow work. He took his time with each slow sweep, cautious to pick up and remove the oil evenly and thoroughly. He watched Messmer rest his head down on the chaise and relax in position. "Will you have me wash your serpents as well, my Lord?"

"An oiled cloth will be sufficient for them," Messmer said, and Thomas did as instructed, giving each of them a careful wiping before he moved on to Messmer's shoulders and arms. He used the tip of the blade, as dull as its edge, to clean every speck of ash and dust out from under his Lord's smooth fingernails, and he was gentle with the scarred palms, not knowing if they were still causing him any pain.

The twin snakes coiled themselves into two piles and rested on the stone couch near Messmer's head, and Thomas finished scraping the rest of the now gray and dusty oil away. He reached down for the red cloth tunic and began to tug it down and away, then stopped himself. "May I, my Lord?"

"Thomas. I intend to have my way with thee before the light of dawn. Indeed, thou hast my permission to finish undressing me."

Thomas pulled the cloth down over Messmer's legs, and while he did that he couldn't help but to look at what had been covered. The demigod's co*ck was at least a foot long, and as thick as a man's wrist, extending down from thick red curls and balls the size of Leyndell peaches. He bit his lip to suppress a moan and felt his own co*ck stiffen and swell. He started to reach down, then stopped himself; he had much more interesting places to put his hands, and they had time enough for anything they wanted to do.

"Likest thou that which is before thine eyes?"

"I do, my Lord. I only hope I can please you well."

"Thou wilt, Thomas. That thou wilt, I know. Kiss me."

Thomas was in position almost immediately. He lay down on the hard stone of the chaise and slid closer, under Messmer's outstretched arm. Once more their lips touched, and he felt the intense warmth of the other man's mouth against his. He tasted the salt and smoky spice, the hint of ash, and he felt and heard the snaps as traces of moisture on their lips crackled away. He wanted more then, and found it harder and harder to hold himself back. He told me not to hold back, Thomas thought then, and slid his hands up Messmer's back, over long bones and hard muscles to his Lord's shoulders. His grip was light at first, and then he clutched more tightly. The kiss deepened and softened at the same time. The protection afforded Thomas prevented any evaporation in his mouth. Their tongues twisted around each other, one cool and fiery, and he felt warm fingers tracing lines from his collarbone down to his navel. Something long and hard pressed against his thigh, and then Messmer pulled his face away to lean over and whisper in Thomas' ear: "Finish thy task and we shall go to my bed."

Fifteen minutes later he was putting the stopper back into the oil bottle and resting the dull knife next to it on the towel table, and he swung around to climb down from the chaise. Before he could reach the floor, though, Messmer collected him up in long arms, slender yet strong enough to lift Thomas as easily as if he were a small sack. Then he was set down just on the other side of the side door, inside the room that served as Messmer's private bedroom when he was at the keep. The room was smaller than a royal bedchamber may be, but large enough to hold a massive stone bed, with a smooth marble headboard and four pillars of black marble holding up a canopy frame. The frame supported a curtain and canopy, both of thin, finely woven black fabric heavily bordered with gold and orange-red runes embroidered into the material. There was also a table next to the bed. No windows, and the walls were plain dark gray stone, adorned with nothing but torches, except for one wall where there was a large, wide painting depicting one of the many battles led by the demigod in years past. Every structure in the painting was ablaze, with hundreds of soldiers in formation marching through, and Messmer himself casting great flames from his hand. Even in a painted image he seemed surrounded by a regal aura of great power.

Messmer noticed Thomas looking at the picture and said: "That was the Battle of Hollowreach, many hundreds of years ago. They held out for four days, and then could not fend off my soldiers, and were overrun. The city lays in ruins to this day, with naught but a military outpost of my own there, halfway between here and Duskmaw."

"You were truly there, then. This is an accurate depiction of the battle, I presume?"

"It is. I would send not my warriors to any place I would take them not myself. They wage war for me, and I stand with them. But tonight I shall stand not. Instead I shall lie on the bed with thee."

The embroidered runes were glowing already, at first holding a little bit of a red glow to offer a hint of light, and the glow was visible once Messmer snuffed out the torches on the walls. Then the symbols grew brighter, deep red and orange, then yellow, white, and white tinged with blue. They held that color, providing both light to see by in the windowless room and protection against the fabrics going up in flames. Thomas lay on top of the mattress as instructed, and tried to recall a time when he'd ever touched fabric like this, so finely woven and interspersed with pure golden threads. Still not the best sight in the room, he thought, and rolled over onto his side.

Messmer was lying close to Thomas and facing him, propped up on one elbow. He reached out with his other hand to touch Thomas' shoulder and stroke his arm, fingers firmly sweeping down over his biceps, and nails leaving very faint scratches along the path. "Strong enough to wield the largest greatsword or battle-axe, should one be wise enough to give it to thee," he said. "And in the morning I shall. Tonight, put it out of thy mind, thou hast no work or worry until the coming of dawn, save to please thy Lord."

"I look forward to that," Thomas said. "I was thinking about it longer than I wanted to admit." He drew in a slow, deep breath as the finger strokes slid all the way down his arm, then crossed to his hip and upper thigh, only stopping at the crease between his thigh and groin. "How will you have me, then?"

"Hands and knees. Face the headboard."

Thomas flipped over and settled into the position immediately, with the soft, fine sheets under his palms and his thick knees. He lifted his head and looked up at the headboard, the black marble polished and shining, enough to see a dim reflection of himself on all fours and Messmer climbing over him. He felt arms pressed against his own, two warm hands covering his, and the demigod's chest resting on his back. Gentle crackling kisses on his neck. Then one hand was freed, for a few moments, so that Messmer could ignite flames on top of the headboard and better illuminate the reflection.

His mind was quiet for once. All he could focus on was the feeling of skin on skin, the reflection now clear and bright enough to make Messmer's golden eye shimmer like a jewel. Thin, long fingers interlaced with his shorter and thicker ones, and lips left a trail of hot kisses over his shoulders without burning. And he was so hard now, almost to the point of pain, but he held still; the greater the arousal now, the stronger the climax later. He watched in the glassy marble as Messmer rose up and leaned over to one side and reached out to a set of small drawers in the bedside table. He was able, barely, to open the top drawer and bring out another bottle of oil, this one smaller than the other. Its stopper was cloudy with dust, but the dust quickly burned off and blew away, leaving the bottle and its contents perfectly clear. Then Messmer let go of Thomas and rose up on his knees. He pulled the stopper out and tossed it onto the floor before pouring out a few drops of the oil onto his hand.

The two of them made eye contact in their reflection, and Messmer smiled at Thomas, knowingly and playfully arrogant. "Watch me," he said. He grabbed his own co*ck and stroked it a few times to cover it in a thin layer of oil.

Thomas bit his lip and was already breathing harder just from taking in the view. Then he was pinned into place again, two legs and one arm over his. They fit perfectly together and he lifted his head, tilting it back. Just to make a little bit more contact, leave as little of their bodies untouched as possible. "I... unngh..."

"What is it, soldier?"

"I want you. I want you, now, please. I know I should be-"

"Shh, quiet now, thou wilt have thine desires, for they are the same as my own."

He felt a hand on his bottom, and a drop of superheated oil mixed with his light sheen of sweat to sizzle it away as hot steam. One long finger found its way between muscled cheeks, to the small puckered hole, and inside of it with slow care. Thomas slowly breathed out and kept his eyes fixed on the headboard, at the Lord who looked down at him and then met his gaze in the reflection with a sly look in his eye. Two oil-slicked fingers now, both sliding in far enough to reach and stroke a delightfully sensitive spot deep inside him and making him inhale sharply. The only thing keeping his eyes from rolling back into his head was the view in the headboard.

Then there was a whisper in his ear: "Stay still for me."

"Yes, my Lord," Thomas croaked out. His voice was much rougher and creakier than he intended, but he had little capacity to care. He felt a slow, firm pressure, and then there was a slight burn, the sweet burn of his hole stretching little by little. He moaned quietly, and then the pressure gave way to the feeling of being filled by a long, thick co*ck sliding into him. It went deeper and deeper, so deep that he wasn't sure he'd be able to take it all, until he felt Messmer's hip bones pressing against him.

The first few strokes were slow and careful, leaving him softly groaning and staring into the mirror-marble. Then Messmer's snakes rose up and coiled themselves around two of the canopy pillars to anchor him. The demigod grabbed Thomas' right shoulder and left side of his head with his now free hands. Thomas yielded and turned his head towards the gripped shoulder, and then they kissed again, gentleness turning hard and deep, mouths pressed together partway open.

In and out, in and out, a little harder and a little faster with each thrust. Thomas was panting now, and almost involuntarily jerking his hips backwards to get that little bit more speed, more contact, to do his part and be more than a passive receiver.

"I said to be still," Messmer growled as he rose back into his kneeling position behind Thomas. But he had a half-smile, and grabbed a handful of the soldier's hair to pull his head back. Then he crossed both arms over Thomas' chest and held the smaller man tightly against his own, with his hips rocking forward and backward at speeds no human man could reach.

Thomas gave himself over to it, to the grip on his shoulders and chest, to the feeling of bone and unfathomably hard muscles pressed into his back, and the ecstasy of being filled so perfectly and entirely, any more and it would hurt him and any less and it would leave him less than completely satisfied. One hand on his shoulder suddenly gripped harder, and the other slid down his chest to his stomach. Then lower, ever lower, fingers spreading out through curly brown hair before wrapping themselves around his stiff rod.

He heard himself grunting and moaning loudly again after just a few firm strokes, and he made no attempt to hide it. He'd said once, so long ago, that serving his Lord was more important than his dignity, and he was serving now, if very differently. His only struggle now was to resist climax a little bit longer. He didn't want to be first, and he wanted to make their time together last. He felt the beginning of a tingle and a pulsing energy, and looking into their reflections made it stronger, so he finally forced himself to look away. He looked down at the fine cloth underneath him, and then to nothing, closing his eyes. Finally, he did something that he never did without a higher command - he defied his orders. Instead of staying still, he lifted one hand, reaching up to touch Messmer's arm, and he allowed his own body to rock back and forth and his shoulders to roll. This time, he was not told to stop.

He wasn't going to be able to hold out very long now. He was trying, but the way their bodies fit together made it impossible. Skin on skin, a hand on his thick co*ck and an even thicker one plunging all the way inside him over and over, the glint of gold in the mirror - it was all too much for a mere man to withstand now. He gripped the sheet tightly with the one hand still on it and gasped for breath. Then not all of the groaning and grunting was his own, and the strokes became jerking and irregular. Thomas bit the inside of his cheek to try to gain a few more seconds, but it was already too late. His entire body shuddered and a wave of ecstatic pleasure crashed over him, one wave after another and another. He felt every muscle spasm and he suddenly shot ropes of white liquid all over the black sheets. As he tensed and relaxed and tensed again, without any control, he felt something else - a surge of something warm inside him, too much to contain, spilling out and running down the backs of his thighs.

Messmer tore the sheet off the bed and threw it on the floor for servants to pick up and wash the next day. Then he lay on his side on the bare mattress, and pulled Thomas closer to him. They rested there in each other's arms, not speaking for several minutes. Thomas knew it would end in the morning, perhaps forever, and their blissful time would transform into only a memory. But for that night, there was nothing but each other and the brief tranquility of the afterglow.


And when morning came, Thomas made the soldiers' oath. He dutifully took the black armor adorned with gold that had been laid out for him and put it on, then went down to the armory where it was adjusted to fit him perfectly. He carried his new great-axe to the training grounds to practice with it, and learn how to use the first basic incantations to make himself a more formidable fighter. He began to make friends, and met the commanding officers he would be reporting to. He walked on dry ground, and saw the sky when he looked up.

Many weeks later, when his training was complete, he dressed in his armor and took up the great-axe, and walked to his position just outside the gate of the Shadow Keep. He still had a place in the world, as so many lost their way and lost their minds. He knew who he was, and what his purpose was. To guard the gate assigned to him, to protect his post and stand proud to serve his Lord, Messmer the Impaler.


EPILOGUE: Shortly thereafter, in another world, on something called a "subreddit":

(65) Yep, I'm getting the Limgrave glitch too now. Anybody have info? Was there an update recently that might have gotten screwed up? - master_mind_flayer1994

(136) Sweet Jesus. I lost two-thirds of my health bar in one hit! The normal soldiers hanging out at the Shadow Keep are pretty manageable but there's one f*cker at the gate with a great-axe who hits way harder for no apparent reason. WTF? - negativemichelinstars4u

(28) The Soldier of Godrick boss isn't showing up for me, what's happening? The arena is there but he won't spawn in - aggressivepomegranates

(11) Check out this hilarious video me and my brother made called the Bumbling Bluntstones, lmao - good thing we got the Limgrave footage way before the glitch happened - on_april_twentieth_1969

(-17) I lost my account because of cheating, but I wasn't in PVP yet! It was just a hack to add two new incantation books to make the fights easier. This is bullsh*t, how do I get my account back? - qbasicprogrammerblackberry

(36) Why is that one Messmer Soldier in particular so tough? The one standing by the Keep gate that wasn't there yesterday - he killed me in two hits! Is there some lore reason? Dev troll? Typo somewhere in the code? - i_was_garden_gnome_food

(5) I think my save file got corrupted? - bag_of_ham_flavored_chips

(12) Missing field boss in Limgrave? - thirtypissedoffseagulls

(8) asdfhdsafaisdaj yeah I ragequit, I broke my controller.... 74 hours into a deathless no-armor challenge run and I got killed by that goddamned furnace golem! Sorry guys but I'm taking a break, maybe do something more relaxing like wrestling co*ked-up crocodiles. - sonoran_desert_mage_717

(64) PSA: Don't bother to use fire attacks on the keep soldier who just got added, no matter how much damage they deal in theory. They're useless. He has 100% fire damage negation. - the_glintstone_enjoyer_33

(9) I hope Sellen's quest doesn't get messed up, it sounds really cool for my newbie astrologer. Are there more glitches or is it just Soldier of Godrick being missing? He beat me and when I went to try again today he was gone. - highway_to_helena_montana

Courage Under Fire - AdmiralCallista (2024)


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