Prologue

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The flames danced rigorously to a nervous tune. Gustav zoned out on the flames, letting their restlessness echo his soul.

Why was he here, today? What had led him so far? Led him to the brink of destruction, to the point of no return?

He stood before his fireplace of obsidian make, observing the fire. His hands were clasped behind his back, his mien ruminant. Behind him waited his destiny. Three layers of attire arrayed on a table, each tailored for the purpose of enduring these "trials" that he was so accustomed to. Trials by fire.

He let his head droop momentarily. Today was a day he'd never forget.

"Dark Lord", his maid said. "I have prepared the things you asked for."

"Good." Gustav turned around, hoping that his broodings would rest with the flames. He walked to Aries. The maid held the fort between Gustav's work desk and a lavish, pure-white-sheeted double-bed. Quite symbolical.

Aries took off Gustav's coat, her hands brushing slightly against his shoulders. Then, a piece of clothing at a time, she undressed Gustav... until he was wearing a pair of comfortable-looking slacks and a worn shirt. She then introduced the first layer of attire from the table - a uniform that appeared erroneously like a suit, yet had cuts by the side, so as to facilitate rapid movement.

She spoke while helping Gustav to suit up. "Was it really necessary, Dark Lord?"

Gustav didn't answer immediately, instead opting to finish buttoning the suit. "It's a precaution, Aries."

Aries pursed her lips. "You've always won," she said, smoothing a wrinkle on his shoulder. "There's never been a need for a precaution like that... spell."

"There is now," Gustav said.

He gestured towards the table, and Aries proceeded to fetch the next piece of attire - a cape too long for normal usage, seeing as it would drag on the ground. She offered it to Gustav, who took the cape from Aries and spun it around his neck, closing the clasps. Upon doing so, the cape took on a dead flutter, floating in the mid-air instead of obeying gravity. A familiar streak of energy coursed through Gustav. The gloom of the room appeared less oppressive now, and he could smell the ashen particles drifting from the fireplace. Also what Aries had eaten for lunch today. Vegetables, mostly.

He clenched his fist hard, and almost felt like he could punch through stone. That feeling, however, was an illusion. Gustav had tried it once, and had only left a dint on the boulder.

Still, the coat pulled more than its weight in adding to Gustav's physical prowess.

"Besides..." Gustav said, "this time is different. The Church sent their very best - a legitimate world-ender."

"A heroine, Gustav," Aries said.

Gustav heard sarcasm in her tone. "Weren't they all?" he said, beckoning to the table again.

As Aries turned, Gustav was left looking at her. The maid's long, lustrous black hair flowed freely over her shoulders. Her maid's attire had an occasional white frill here and there, but was duskier in design than those from the south. Just like Gustav preferred it. Aries's eyes had a dismissive quality to them, but that, too, fit Gustav just fine. He was the dark lord, after all; nothing wrong with a maid commanding respect through gaze alone.

Especially since somebody would have to pick up the command, were Gustav to die in the near future.

He saw Aries pick a small, wooden case. The maid passed it to Gustav with reverence - or, perhaps, fear. Gustav's fingers wrapped protectively over the ornate case, and he laid his eyes on the relief on the lid - a picture of two armoured hands clasped together, glowing.

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