Chapter 23
The Invader's Folly

Corinth, Gladius

"Power... Its lure is irresistible to mortal men. What some men will do for power... Truly the blackest chapters of human history are those driven by power-mad destroyers. It is written, 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' I can only pity those who do not learn that lesson in time."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Emptying what little remained in his coin pouch, a battered traveler was allowed to enter Corinth. Ever since the attack by the rebels, the town's atmosphere had been more subdued than what it once was. A new mayor had been named, but he could not stir the people as the flamboyant Publius Juvenal once did. Fearing an attack by bloodthirsty confederates, many steered away from the displays of Punishment Square and those who did continued to partake of the bloody spectacle complained that the new Black Angel had only a fraction of his predecessor's skill. Nevertheless, Corinth was still a cruel place. It was still ruled by greed. Because of this, the traveler would see his dreams fulfilled.
No torture was taking place at the time, so the traveler stepped up on Punishment Square. He cast his cloak aside, revealing the ornate armor encrusted with deep indigo gems. Although he still had his pride as an Elemental Knight and the heir to House Serkan, Ludimil the Invader was not the same man he was ten years ago.
His journey to find the so-called Tree of Life had been long and arduous. He had crossed the ruined kingdom of Titan, where anarchy and lawlessness ruled in place of a strong monarch. Then he passed through the Ashen Wastes, the land of burning ground, choking air and foul water. That was not even the worst, for his final destination was the accursed Darklands. There, in that living hell, he found the forest his map promised to hold the Tree of Life. If any of the grim trees bore the fabled fruit, it was the one at the forest's heart. He had taken a few dozen of the tree's fruit, but he had not yet partaken of it. He wanted witnesses for his ascension to godhood.
All his companions had died along the way, many by his own hand. To survive in those unsurvivable lands, he could not hold back. In spite of the horrors wrought in the course of his journey, today was the day he would finally reap the harvest. He had every intention of following through with his original plan of selling the extra fruit to the highest bidder. On the surface, it seemed foolish to allow competition into the ranks of the divine, but as Ludimil saw it, he was already more powerful than normal men. If lesser mortals ascended with him, he would still maintain his superiority.
He took a moment to look at his reflection in his freshly polished vambrace. He was aged beyond his years, scarred and haggard. He looked at the stump where his left hand had been and struggled to hold back the bitter tears. His divine form would be perfect, he told himself. This broken, disfigured body would soon be cast aside. Bearing this in mind, he summoned all the spirit he had left and addressed the townspeople in a loud voice.
"People of this city, listen to me! I have journeyed for many years and have found the legendary Tree of Life that the Wayfarer god feared mortal to partake." He made a sweeping gesture to the few people who had stopped to listen. "I offer you the chance to join me in the ranks of the gods. I have been told this town is wealthy. Prove it. Do not hold back! Is divinity not worth every last copper?"
A flying rock gave Ludimil a glancing blow across the head and the townspeople mocked him. Most were speaking the local language, which he did not know, but one was able to answer him in Bannish.
"Get down from there, fool! Otherwise you'll find yourself in one of those pillories!"
A woman accompanying the Bannish speaker joined in.
"What does a god need gold for? If you want backward fools that'll fall for your trickery, go to Byrn!"
Absently, Ludimil remembered how eager people had been when he was rallying support for the expedition ten years ago. Now he was only met with derision. The broken Invader was on the verge of collapse in every form, but his anger was sparked and it gave him strength. He pulled one of the fruits from his bag and held it high in the air.
"So be it!" he shouted. "You are right. A god has no need for gold. I want no peers anyway. Behold! I shall become a god before your very eyes and wreak my vengeance upon you!"
His teeth tore at the flesh of the fruit and he swallowed without chewing. The juice dribbled down his hand from where he had taken his bite. It was sticky and red like blood. It was even warm like blood. No, surely that was just his imagination.
Almost instantly, he felt something inside of him, a numbing sensation that spread throughout his whole body. The fruit fell from his hand and bounced on the platform. He was not far behind. As he lay on his back, he could hardly breathe, as if a heavy stone bore down on his chest, and his eyes started to cloud over. Was this how the mortal shell was shed?
With his bleary vision, he could barely make out the form of a cloaked figure looming over him. Though his ability to discern details was fading fast, the face seemed familiar. That smile. That smug little smile. And those eyes. Those mad, evil eyes. Brenok? His brother? Alive? Here? It could not possibly be so. The Invader was unable to speak, but that did not stop the figure.
"Is this the godhood you so desired?" the voice taunted. "I knew you'd go this far! I knew it! Do you understand now?" The cloaked figure pointed to himself. "I was the one who drew up that map you prized so. Did you honestly think the Darklands would hold anything but death?" He cackled in twisted glee. "What a fool! Father thought he could just toss me aside like trash while you got everything. I showed him and now I've shown you." The figure--was it really Brenok?--crouched down beside him and spoke in a low voice. "I've found a power greater than that of the Elemental Knights, a power beyond anything you can imagine. If anyone'll be a god, it'll be me!"
There was nothing Ludimil could do. Nothing at all. Had his own brother really betrayed him or was it a hallucination? The cloaked figure looked up to the distance.
"I have some business to attend to," he said. "Try not to die too quickly. Every second of your agony is like a drop of honey to me. Farewell, Brother dear."
The cloak figure disappeared, leaving him alone. Whether it was really his brother or not no longer mattered to him. Having been robbed of godhood, betrayal by his own flesh and blood seemed insignificant.
He could hear the mockers laughing at him. He had thrown away his life for nothing. Was this the harvest he reaped? It all seemed so unfair. His vision had left him entirely, but he did not want to see anyway. As he wallowed in self-pity, even the sound of the mockers died away.