With Dunscaith Castle being less than eight-hundred kilometers from Avalon, it was a distance even an Einzbern Homunculi could cover in less than an hour. Thus, while it was an enjoyable and scenic flight, Vahn reached his destination in just under twenty minutes.
Even prior to the event people now called 'The Fall', the Isle of Skye had only ever had around 10,000 inhabitants. It, like much of Scotland, had been relatively untouched by the times due to the efforts of both 'conservationists' and, as could be expected, the many Magus families that could trace their lineage back to the Age of Gods. As a result, it was a beautiful land filled with verdant plains, strange rock formations, and a host of peculiar forests, many rumored to be enchanted by Fae and Spirits.
Now, with few exceptions, most of Skye's inhabitants had migrated east, seeking refuge near larger population centers. Though some remained behind, unable or unwilling to abandon their ancestral homeland, the island now appeared devoid of human life. This included the nearby crofting village of Tokavaig, a popular tourist destination. During his short flight, Vahn had only detected a total of seven people still inhabiting the village, most of which seemed to belong to the same family.
Since this was a personal matter, Vahn really didn't want to get others involved so, while it was more than a little disorienting for the unsuspecting family, he had Alaya teleport them to safety. Once his battle with Scáthach came to an end, he would compensate them for their troubles, even if it meant having to build them a new house with his own two hands.
Though it was called a castle, Vahn was surprised to find that Dunscaith was only about 25m across. It seemed less like a fortress than a stone-forged beach house as, while isolated and in a defensible position, about 12m above the surrounding sea, it would have had no means to resupply during a siege. There was only a single drawbridge connecting it to the mainland but, considering this was a gap of only seven meters, it seemed pointless for keeping anything but 'normal' people out.
Vahn had known that, other than her immediate family and students, Scáthach had chosen to live isolated from the rest of the world. Even then, he had expected something grander than a simple walled castle with nothing more than a small complex, a 10m tall tower, and what appeared to be a stable incapable of housing more than three horses. Though it did radiate a certain majesty, as was the case with all castles, Vahn couldn't help but feel it was a very 'lonely' sight to behold.
Seemingly sharing this sentiment, Arcueid squeezed his hand with her own, worry visible in her eyes as she said, "Be careful..." in a somber tone. In response, Vahn ran his fingers slowly through her hair and, after planting a kiss on the top of her head, he replied, "I shouldn't keep her waiting any longer. Take care of everything else for me, will you...?"
Though she could do little to hide her concern, Arcueid managed a supportive smile as she placed her hand overtop Vahn's and intoned a simple, 'Un...' in response. She was beginning to get a very bad feeling about everything so, while she didn't say it out loud, Arcueid was resolved to step in if things got too dangerous. She believed in Vahn but Scáthach was famous for killing Gods, Divine Spirits, and various immortal creatures. There were no true absolutes in the world so, while it seemed impossible to kill Vahn, there was always a small chance 'something' would happen...
Vahn could see through Arcueid's intentions but, knowing there wasn't much he could do to stop her from worrying, he opted to remain silent and just enjoy their final moment together. He could already feel the aura from within the castle beginning to build, however, so he opted not to remain idle for too long. Thus, after sending Arcueid off with a smile on his face, Vahn turned to the rather demure castle and made his way inside the only building on the relatively small outcrop.
Upon opening the doors to the castle's keep, Vahn found himself face to face with Scáthach who, at the end of an 8m long path, could be found sitting on a rune-covered throne, forged from the same crystalline metal as her weapons. She was even wearing a deep purple gown, not all that dissimilar to the one her Caster counterpart often wore. The only real difference was the fact that this version of the dress still had metallic pauldrons, trimmed with black feathers, while, seated above her ruby-red eyes, a crown reminiscent of black thorns, set with a blood-red gemstone, could be seen...
Though she emanated a regal and inviolable aura, Scáthach was actually just sitting casually on her throne, supporting her head with her right hand, one leg crossed over the other as she lazily gazed at Vahn and muttered, "You don't seem all that impressed by my home...did you expect something grand like the Ivory Castle?"
Not expecting the first thing out of Scáthach's mouth to pertain to her castle, Vahn found himself at a momentary loss for words. Then, forcing him to swallow any kind of excuse he might have come up with, Scáthach raised her hand, her momentum exploding out in an instant. As a result, Vahn was pushed back a few meters, enough to be sent flying from the keep if not for his surroundings having changed in a startling manner.
A stark contrast to the rather homely throne room from before, Vahn now found himself in a vast chamber that was more than a hundred meters deep and thirty across. At the same time, his senses showed that the outside had changed into a veritable fortress, the previous tower now exceeding a hundred meters in height while the cliff upon which the castle was set increased to more than five hundred...
Without needing to ask, Scáthach righted her position on her throne as she explained, "You, of all people, should know better than to base everything off first impressions...Welcome, Vahn Aldrnari Mason...to the Land of Shadows...my home."
Though he had already sensed something was off, it was only after Scáthach's words that Vahn was able to realize what was 'different' about her. This caused his eyes to widen considerably, earning a rare smile from her as she nodded her head and stated, "It is as you suspect. Thanks to your efforts in summoning so many of my counterparts, I had little trouble performing the ritual to connect the Land of Shadows to the Surface World. What you see before you is no Spiritual Form...did you really think I would be content fighting against you with the limits of the Throne?"
Hearing Scáthach's words, Vahn couldn't help but feel a tumultuous stirring inside his heart as, even now, he could still feel his connection with all seven versions of her. He couldn't understand how the 'real' her could coexist with the Heroic Spirit versions of herself but, considering who it was sitting across from him, Vahn didn't doubt her words. He honestly shouldn't have even been surprised as, even alone, Scáthach was capable of incomprehensible feats. With six of herself working in concert with each other, there were very few limits to what she could accomplish...
Seeing Vahn quickly recover his composure, Scáthach gave a small nod and, though she wasn't particularly known for her exposition, explained, "You should know...I'm not like the other women you have surrounded yourself with. There are no great tragedies in my past and, while I did lose my father at a young age, that was normal during my lifetime. Rather, from your perspective, I should be considered an enemy...my past is not a secret to you...you know what I have done..."
Though she was idolized as a great hero and an even greater teacher, the true history of Scáthach was a much darker tale. Much like how Cú's own story included events such as him killing his best friend, murdering hundreds, and even committing filicide; Scáthach's was marred with tragedies she had set in motion. She treated her children with such disregard that, even if they were brutally raped or killed, she wouldn't intervene or mourn them. While this might have been driven by her lack of emotions and the corruption of her [Wisdom of the Haunted Ground], it wasn't an exaggeration to say that, rather than a Hero, Scáthach had been one of the most wicked villains of the entire Ulster Cycle...
Despite everything she had done, however, Vahn genuinely believed that Scáthach wasn't a terrible person. Her actions had been the result of her 'knowing' when, where, and how people were going to die. Though she could have tried to fight against fate, preventing tragedies and becoming a far greater Hero than recorded in history, this was all but impossible to accomplish. Even Merlin couldn't fight against fate as, by taking proactive measures to set certain events in motion, you became the very lynchpin of your reality. This was the same reason Zelretch rarely intervened in events and, for much the same reasons as Scáthach, showed disregard for virtually everyone around him...
In essence, had she not 'known everything', Scáthach would have likely walked a very different path than the one she had been set upon for the last twenty-two-hundred-years. Though there was a very good chance she would have become a true villain, that was simply the nature of most Heroes at the end of the Age of Gods. During her era, people with power were expected to act as they pleased as, even if they were spoken about poorly, fame gave people actual power. Most Heroes had committed a few atrocities during their rise but, when it came down to it, they still distinguished themselves as Heroes by setting themselves against greater threats to the people...
Had he entered the Nasuverse around the time of Scáthach's reign, it was all but guaranteed that they would have been enemies. In fact, Scáthach may very well have been his greatest enemy as, with how she treated her people, students, and even family, he wouldn't have been able to forgive her. Now, however, she was just a lonely woman who had suffered for several millennia in solitude, burdened with a power she had never desired. She had already paid a heavier price than most could even fathom and, while her training had been harsh, Scáthach had been one of his strongest pillars of support since entering the Nasuverse.
With more than three years worth of experience dealing with his monstrous Shishou, Vahn knew she wasn't a bad person. Though she couldn't exactly be called good, she shared a lot of similarities with various Goddesses and, with her [Wisdom of the Haunted Ground] serving as a powerful curse, this wasn't all that surprising. Thus, rather than treat her as a human, Vahn looked at Scáthach in the same way he would view a Goddess of Death and Slaughter. Yes, she had done many terrible things but, looking back on his own past, especially the past few months, Vahn knew he couldn't really be considered a paragon of virtue.
With all of this in mind, Vahn couldn't help but shake his head in response to Scáthach's claim about being different from his other women. This caused her to give him a curious look but, before she was able to inquire, he preempted her by stating, "The past doesn't matter in the slightest. The woman I have come to know over the last three years is someone that I, and everyone else in the Empire, can rely on. You have helped to shape me into the man I am today and, while you may resent me for it, I know I have left an impression on you as well...you are not the cold woman your Innates have forced everyone, even yourself, to believe..."
Hearing Vahn's words, Scáthach issued a rare laugh, her deep voice sending shivers along his spine as she rose to her feet and stated, "You are right...feel proud, my foolish little disciple. In all my life, you are but one of three who have left an impression on my heart. Now, I will make you accept the responsibility your careless actions have wrought. Show me how far your greed and ambition can take you..."
With her words trailing, Scáthach's calm and complacent demeanor instantly faded away and, before Vahn was able to answer in kind, he found himself on the receiving end of a cross-shaped red spear, it's surface glistening with runes as it attempted to pierce his heart...
(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'The calm before the storm','Heroes are immortalized by those who survive them','An insatiable desire, a crimson spear...')
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