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Chapter I

“Have you not seen the signs? The hour is upon us! Life in mortal flesh is but a test, one that God has put before us to see who will behave righteously; who is truly loyal and ready to do what is right! In time, the angels will come, and they will take us all home and leave all of the wicked to suffer in the despair they have created for themselves. Yes, I tell you, the wicked are the cause of their own suffering! You will hear the four horns of the mountains blow, and that will be the signal to all that the time of reckoning has come. The day is coming when all who are good and righteous will gather in the halls of Heaven, deep under the ground, and they will forever praise our God.

“And after the wicked have suffered in their own filth for one-thousand years, God will send his angels again, this time to rule over them, to make them righteous. Among these angels will be one greater than all others, the very spirit of the Law itself. With his seven eyes he will see their deeds, and he will heal their souls of the wickedness that torments them so.”

Tamas wasn’t sure why it was that these Agalmite priests thought that quoting their scriptures about the end times and judgment would win them sympathy and comfort other believers. The inquisitors taking these priests off to the stake were likely spurred on when they heard the priests’ heresy, and knowing your killers won’t get away with it is little comfort for a people taught to believe that revenge is wrong.

For the past two years, as Tamas stood guard in Aius, the capital of Arx, and he’d stood by to watch more executions than he could count. The Inquisition had backed Mahla’s reign, and all they asked in return was the utter destruction of the Agalmite Church.

Two large men in the blood red robes of the Inquisition’s witch-hunters dragged the bound priest to the stake. “I forgive you what you’re about to do,” said the priest, smiling at the Inquisition’s trained killers.

“Even blasphemers are not without virtue,” said one of the men in red.

“You should seek forgiveness with God as well,” the priest said.

“God is long since dead,” said the witch-hunter. “We do this in his memory.”

Tamas had seen enough to know how this ended. Every time it was the same. Did he really need to watch another burning? He worried, though, how it would look if he left. He was given guard duty at the execution, and quite a crowd had gathered to watch. The last thing he wanted Queen Mahla to think was that he was shirking his duties to the crown.

Hope came in the form of a noise in an alleyway nearby. Tamas tensed up and drew his claymore from its sheathe, frosty air rising from the glimmering blade. The other knights and guards exchanged glances with him, but he gave them the signal to stay while he checked out the source of the sound alone. Whatever alley-cat or street urchin had caused the disturbance had more than earned Tamas’ gratitude.

Once in the alley, away from the sight of the other guards, and the sight of the execution being undertaken, Tamas looked over the area for the source of the sound. If his compatriots asked him about it later he wanted to be able to at least honestly say he’d searched.

A child covered head to toe in dirt and clad in rags so rank they stung Tamas’ eyes was, apparently, the source of the sound. The child was lying on the ground, apparently having fallen from the side of the nearby house and broken some of the old pots in the alley.

Tamas shook his head and pulled the child up to his feet. Perhaps her feet. Tamas couldn’t exactly tell if this was a boy or a girl he was helping up. To his surprise, no sooner had he gotten the child up again than the child seized him by the throat. Even more surprising was the fact that the child had a grown man's strength in both hands.

“You’ve turned your back on us, Tamas. How could you do that?” the child said, in a voice far too deep for one so small.

In an instant Tamas realized what he was really looking at. This was a daemon of the Void, one that merely wore the form of a small child. In a flash he seized the daemon by the face and smashed its back against the nearest wall. There was a loud crack and the daemon’s hands fell to its sides.

“Maybe I just believe we can resolve things differently. I haven’t forsaken Prunikos.”

“Saklas must die, and for that to happen all of his followers must too,” the daemon said. “Only once Erets has been destroyed will our brethren be free.”

Tamas curled his nose. “Just like the rest, you’ve been repeating those words so long you can’t see past them.” With one swift motion he yanked the daemon down onto the point of his blade and cast the body aside as black blood oozed from the wound.

Having heard some of the commotion, one of the other city guards came running to see what had happened. Tamas cleaned his blade and nodded to the guard. “A daemon in the city.”

The guard stared in disbelief for a moment as the black blood spilled over the floor of the alley, and then the demon's body turned to dust. “No paladin training…yet you handled that demon on your own?” he asked.

Tamas chuckled. “I’m a big boy, I can handle myself.”

“So I see.” The guard couldn’t deny that. Tamas towered over most of the other guards and knights in the capital. He was a beast of a man, and his mane of bright red hair and piercing black eyes made him a fearsome sight to behold. The city guards felt safe with him on their side, but they’d be lying if they said the thought of how terrible it would be to have him against them had never crossed their minds.

“Is the execution over?” Tamas asked.

“Yes. Went off without a hitch. The rebels are becoming less and less bold these days,” said the guard.

“Or maybe there are just fewer of them. Only so many times you can attempt some sort of ill-conceived rescue before your numbers start to dwindle.”

“Maybe,” the guard mused. “It’s possible. The Queen is less than convinced, though. Word is she’s fairly certain they’re actually planning something big. Speaking of her Majesty, she’s summoned you.”

Tamas didn’t waste any time getting to the castle. If the Queen had just summoned him that meant there was a special assignment that she needed him for, and he’d built up too good of a reputation over the past two years to keep her waiting.

Over the door leading to the Queen’s office hung Mahla’s banner. The traditional banner of the Royal Family was elaborate, with threads of blue and silver. Now it was simple, the royal crest on a dull, brown banner, not unlike the flag the Dunn Banner Mercenary Company, who raised Mahla, used to carry into battle.

Inside the office, Tamas could see several of the former Dunn Banner mercenaries gathered around Mahla’s desk. It was strange to think that just two years ago these men and women were killers for hire, lowly mercenaries scorned by society because they would sell their souls for coin. Now they were knights of the realm. Even Lila, Mahla’s personal assassin, stood amongst the Queen’s knights. If you killed for money you were a mercenary and despised, but if you killed for land and because your queen told you to you were a knight, and honored.

“You summoned me, your Grace?” Tamas said as he bowed his head to Mahla. In order for his head to be lower than hers, even for a second, he nearly had to bend his whole body in half.

“Yes, Sir Tamas. I’ve read the reports about your service over the past few months. Impressive. From what I hear the gangs abandon a neighborhood if they hear you’re going to patrol there.”

“Probably a slight exaggeration. I imagine the gangs keep their distance from any area they know members of the city guard are going to be patrolling.”

Mahla chuckled. “I’ve also heard of some of the brawls you’ve gotten into. You broke up a tavern brawl single-handedly, am I wrong?”

“I did. That was before your decree shutting down all taverns in the capital. A much more permanent solution, I say.” Tamas read the faces of the Queen’s knights. Nearly all of them showed some sign of regret on their brows when he mentioned that particular law. The Dunn Banner mercenaries loved their drink, but the Inquisition had pushed to get all taverns closed. These once proud dens of sin had now been changed into training and re-education facilities for the Inquisition. In spite of their displeasure at the change, none of the Queen’s knights dared say a word.

“Your accomplishments set you apart, Sir Tamas. I have a special task I need people of your talents to handle.”

“I am eager to serve, your Grace.”

Mahla held a rolled-up map. “Marked on that map is where my scouts believe the Pretender Queen, Aryn, is hiding out. Some of my advisers say she’s probably just trying to survive at this point, but my scouts have reported a large number of people flocking there.”

Tamas unrolled the map and looked it over. The area circled was in Arx’s northern mountain ranges, on the border with the barbaric lands of Shadia. “You want me to march with the soldiers taking the mountain pass?”

Mahla shook her head. “No. Sending a whole regiment of soldiers, even an army would be far too costly. We’d suffer far too many casualties. The truth is we’ve discovered that several defectors, as well as Agalmite clerics, are fleeing to that pass. More than likely they’re rallying there, preparing to retake Arx for their queen. I’m going to send only a small team into that pass. They’ll pretend to be defectors hoping to join Aryn’s cause. Once they’re in I want that pretender killed.”

“I’m flattered that you thought of me, your Grace,” said Tamas, “But I’m afraid I…well, I’m not much of an assassin. Subtlety is rather difficult when you’re at least head taller than everyone else and your head looks like it’s on fire.” Tamas pointed to his red hair.

“You’re not there as an assassin, you’re there to make sure the assassins survive the trip,” Mahla said. “That area is dangerous. Raiders from Shadia sneak through mountain passes all the time, and then there are the mountain lions, bears, and the possibility that Aryn’s supporters won’t be fooled and will try to kill the assassins.”

“Ah. Protection. That I can do.” Tamas smiled. “Who am I traveling with?”

Mahla gestured to Lila. Tamas was hardly surprised. “Lila will have overall command of this mission. The Inquisition said they want to send one of their own witch-hunters as well. Someone named Tekumah. Also, Grand Duke Sahar insisted on sending another knight for protection, Melva.”

“Melva is a Nihilite name,” Tamas said, his face turning grim.

“You’re worried we cannot trust her simply because of her land of origin?”

“And the faith she likely follows as a result.” Tamas shook his head. “You know as well as I do the sort of twisted religion those daemon-worshipers believe in.”

“Not everyone from Nihilus follows their traditional faith. Grand Duke Sahar trusts her, Grand Duke Jachai trusted her before him, so I’m told. That’s good enough for me.” Mahla said. “Besides, even if she were a Nihilite she’d have all the more reason to want to see the Pretender Queen dead.”

It was true, Aryn’s mother, Sarahi, had conquered Nihilus eighteen years ago. Certainly the Nihilites had reason to want revenge. “Forgive me for questioning you, your Grace. I would…just hate to see you taken in by poor council.”

“Your concern is appreciated, but unnecessary,” Mahla said. “You leave first thing in the morning. Get some rest, say your goodbyes, whatever you have to do to prepare, but you must not tell anyone what your mission is.”

Say his goodbyes? To whom was Tamas to say goodbye? Really, living in the capital was a lonely existence. He hadn't made any friends, and he was more than a bit estranged from his family. Still, he let some of his fellow guards know that the Queen was sending him on a special assignment.

Once Tamas had gathered his belongings together for his journey he sat down on his bed and reflected on the events of the past two years. Mahla’s people had found him locked in the dungeons, and he convinced them that he’d been locked up for speaking out against Queen Aryn. He’d been worried that some of the wounded men would recognize him from the battle, as one of the warriors fighting against Mahla’s army, but he’d been fortunate to avoid recognition. That was nothing short of a miracle, really. How many giant, handsome, red-heads were there in the capital of Arx? In Nihilus they were common enough, but certainly not so much in Arx.

He’d endured all of the injustices of Mahla’s rule. He’d stood idly by as she put down any resistance against her, and allowed the Inquisition to stamp out the Agalmite faith from Aius. He was there when they ransacked the Agalmite Grand Cathedral and reformed it as an Inquisition temple.

Every time Tamas let some terrible injustice occur he comforted himself with the words, “Endure minor injustices for now. Survive long enough and you’ll bring justice and peace to all the world.” As the years passed, however, Tamas was beginning to feel as if his words were just that: words. False hopes meant to soothe his heart full of pain. Justification for his cowardice. Now, finally, he had a breakthrough. This mission Mahla was sending him on was his opportunity.

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About the author

Nicholas S. Casale

Bio: Nicholas S. Casale, or "Nico" as his friends call him, was born on Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. When he was eleven years old, he moved to Colorado with his family for his father's new job.

He went to Lewis-Palmer Middle School, where teacher Mrs. Susan Doyle got him interested in history by expressing to him that it was not about facts to memorize, but about stories to be told. During this time, English teacher Mr. Todd Mucci also taught him how to write, and he began work on his first piece of historical fiction.

Though his family was fairly secular, he attended a youth group at the Little Log Church in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

In college, he majored in history, and studied various mythologies and religions throughout the world. After college, he became certified as a paralegal and worked at Wal-Mart for the next three years while he tried to find a job with a law firm.

After landing his first paralegal job, he still felt something was missing in his life, and struggled with bouts of depression and loneliness. That was, until he started attending a Messianic Jewish Synagogue in Colorado Springs, where he met the Hebrew class teacher who would one day become his wife.

He is now happily married to Jenifer E. Casale, who wrote "The Whispered War" with him and is currently working on a feminine counterpart to the famous "Hero's Journey" theory devised by Joseph Campbell.

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