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Chapter XIII

A generation later parents would tell their children, or grandparents would tell their grandchildren, the story of where they were when they heard it.

Mahla was on her way to be wed. The citizens of Aius had gathered in the city square for the simple ceremony. Even a royal wedding was a somber ceremony when the Inquisition held all religious power. She had just come around the corner; she saw her groom in his white tunic, then she heard the blast.

. . .

Queen Haldis of Shadia was hiding in the woods in the foot-hills of the mountains. She was building a fire to roast the rabbits her warriors had just caught. Just as she was setting the spit over the flames, she heard the sound of thunder, rolling down from the tallest mountain, followed by an echo and resounding response from the lands down below. It startled her so badly she snapped the spit in half. Once her nerves had calmed, there was no doubt in her mind that the time had come. She grinned at the thought that her vengeance was so close.

. . .

Milo and Sarahi were in bed. It was ten in the morning, but they had the luxury of an uneventful day, or so they thought.

“You know,” said Sarahi, “I was thinking...maybe we could try something both kinky and practical.”

“You had me at 'practical,'” Milo said with a smirk.

Just then, after having waited anxiously for days to hear the sound, they cursed their rotten luck that they heard the voice when they did. This was the call they'd been waiting on.

Aryn was on the road, riding her horse. They were coming up on one of the many bridges that had been repaired after the war two years ago, and she'd been wondering why they hadn't been spotted by any scouting parties yet. She thought surely there would be an enemy army just waiting for them at the bridge. Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard the far-off sound of horns blowing, followed by every tenth member of her own army blasting their own horns. The reverberations were almost deafening, and she could feel the horn's voice in her chest. As she held a hand tightly to her bosom, Erelah, who was riding ahead of her, turned and gave her a knowing smile.

Lila had been steadily recovering from her injuries, thanks to Shiri and Levi's help. She passed the time sitting in the chair outside of Levi's house, reading whatever books Shiri could find for her.

Or, rather, pretending to read. In truth she was watching everyone in the village. Some members of this village were Agalmite clerics, and others may have been Kanai, the Church's assassins. Lila had already failed her mission to find and slay Aryn because of that traitor, Tamas. She needed some way to stay in Mahla's good graces, and helping her catch a village full of traitors seemed like it would at least keep her from totally losing Mahla's favor. Their friendship had been so strained ever since Lila confessed her love to Mahla, and it was strained even more as the rumors were flung at Mahla recently.

Lila's focus was broken when she heard the distant sound of a horn blasting. To her surprise, everyone in the village reacted to it as if they knew exactly what it meant. Ten of the villagers came out of their houses with horns of their own, and sounded the horns loudly. Among them, to Lila's further astonishment, was Shiri. Lila then watched as all of them retreated back into their homes, and emerged a few moments later with swords, daggers, knives, and axes. A few of them were even wearing clay masks, much like Shiri had described. Lila shuddered as she saw that well over twenty Kanai inhabited the village.

Then there was Legate Atius, commander of the Digan Imperial Legion and the force charged with invading Arx. He was just outside of his tent, reading a letter from his daughter.

“Dear Papi,

“You'll be so proud of me when you read this, I know it. The Church of the Mother has accepted me as an acolyte in training. Some day I'll be one of the healers in their temples, and maybe some day I'll even get to be a priestess. I'm so sorry for all the times I complained when you made me read the Holy Books with Mami. I'm really glad you did.

“Mami says you just got promoted and are going to lead the soldiers. Congratulations! Remember, though, you promised me you'd come back alive. I want you to be there on the day I become an acolyte.

“I love you so much, Papi!

“Love Jovita”

Such a bittersweet memory it always was when he read that letter. Every time it brought both a smile to his face and tears to his eyes. A beautiful memory of his little girl, and a painful memory that she was gone, along with her mother. He'd long since made the Uvino soldiers responsible pay for what they'd done. He'd even led the siege of Uvino himself. But spilling the blood of those who'd taken his family from him didn't fill the emptiness inside. As far as Atius was concerned his soul died at the same time they did, now he was just a walking corpse carrying on. He'd thought of taking his own life time and again, but was always too afraid to drive the sword through his own heart. With such cowardice he wondered sometimes how fit he truly was to lead these soldiers into battle.

He carefully folded the letter back up and slid it back into the envelope he kept it in. “You were my joy,” he whispered, as he always did. He wiped the tears from his eyes, lest the soldiers see him crying and think him weak.

As he surveyed his legionaries, watching as they practiced with wooden swords and blunted spears, he heard the echo of the horn-blast from the Arxian mountains. All heads turned to the source of the sound.

“By the gods! What was that?” one of the soldiers shouted.

The soldiers turned to Atius for answers, quizzical looks on their faces. Legate Atius rolled his eyes and said, “Haven’t you studied Arxian history? In the days of old they used to blow the horn all throughout the land as a call to arms. Granted, the signal’s not been used in over one-thousand years, but that’s definitely the sound of a war beginning.”

“How do you know all of this?” one of the soldiers asked.

“If you intend to conquer a land best know as much about its people as you can.”

“Sir, do you think that signal means they’re preparing for our invasion?”

“Of course!” Legate Atius said. “What sort of fool question is that? And just as they’re using it as their call to arms, so we must use it as our signal to invade. Take the mountain pass! We march for Kolob!”

The order was repeated all throughout the camp. The soldiers packed up their belongings, readied their weapons, and began the march to the beat of the war drums. As they drew closer and closer to Arx, the landscape seemed to be getting greener, prettier. They could see why their emperor coveted this land so.

Soon they found themselves marching in the foothills of the mountains, on their way to the nearest pass. The grass and trees were still vibrant green, but now they were also surrounded by massive cliffs and jagged rocks. It was as the history books said, Arx was a natural fortress, and the surrounding mountains were its walls.

It was here that the legionnaires came to understand just why Legate Atius had special boots made for each of his soldiers, at tremendous cost to the crown. Had they been wearing their usual battle sandals their feet would have been torn to ribbons, and they’d have fallen long before getting through the pass.

Scouts had been sent ahead, and two of them came rushing back to meet Legate Atius on his horse. “Catch your breath, then speak,” he said.

The two of them took a moment to calm their breathing again after that long run, and then said, “Up ahead there’s an army just waiting for us. They’re blocking the path with a phalanx, and men wearing crimson robes over chain mail are on the cliffs above with bows at the ready.”

Atius smiled smugly at the sound of this. “They think they have us. A phalanx in a narrow mountain pass should be indestructible, right?” Atius laughed. “Bring me a horse. The soldier riding that horse will join the infantry rather than continuing on with the cavalry.”

. . .

Further into the mountain pass, Inga and the 500 soldiers Mahla had sent with her, along with the Inquisition’s witch-hunters, watched and waited to see the Digan legion come up the pass. They could hear the rumble of their march in the distance, but that rumbling came to a sudden stop. Inga strained her eyes to see what might have given the Digans pause.

Slowly, they began to hear the sound of a single horse galloping towards them. “Just one horse? They must wish to parley,” thought Inga. She pushed her way through the front of the phalanx, the soldiers moving their shields so that she could pass, and waited to see this Digan soldier who’d come to negotiate.

Imagine her confusion when she not only saw a horse with no rider, but also saw that the horse was carrying several large, heavy saddle-bags, each of them on fire, and the horse was screaming as it galloped towards them.

“Knock and loose!” Inga shouted to the archers above. The archers had only the blink of an eye to react to the order, certainly not enough time to actually take aim. Arrows scattered all over the pass. One arrow struck Inga’s shin, and she fell to her knees in the path of the galloping horse. Another arrow struck the horse’s neck. It let out another painful whinny and crashed into Inga.

The soldiers and witch-hunters all stared at the scene in total silence for a few moments, trying to process both what had happened and why. The fires in on the saddle-bags slowly burned through the leather, and then burned out. Just as the soldiers in the pass thought the danger had cleared, thick black smoke rose in plumes from the saddle-bags. In seconds, the whole path was engulfed in the smoke. The soldiers’ eyes stung and they began to hack and cough. Many dropped to the ground just to get below the smoke and take a breath.

The sound of all of the soldiers hacking and coughing almost completely masked the sound of the Digan cavalry's charge. With the phalanx formation broken, the cavaliers tore right through the soldiers defending the pass. They trampled them, cut them down, and beheaded them on their way through the smoke. Those soldiers who survived the initial hit could hear a strange whistling sound through the air. Not until it was too late did they realize that the sound was that of hundreds of arrows raining down into the path. The witch-hunters on the cliffs, unable to see, were brought down when a wave of arrows peppered the cliff-side.

When the smoke finally cleared, Legate Atius rode up to find the enemy army guarding the pass, utterly crushed. His infantry made short work of the straggling survivors.

“Pray to the Father that all our battles turn out like this,” Atius told his nearest centurion. “And have the men take as many heads as they can, especially from the witch-hunters who fell from the cliffs. I have need of them.”

“The Father certainly smiled on us here,” said the Centurion. “But...I've been thinking...we've heard reports that the Inquisitors can summon angels. We were lucky here that they didn't have a chance to, but when we get into their cities they'll almost certainly call upon angels for help.”

“I'm not hearing a question,” said Atius.

“Well...angels are supposedly so strong that steel weapons cannot hurt them. What are we to do when we come in contact with them?”

“We have acolytes of the Father in our ranks, and they have mastered curses which can kill any living thing instantly, or so I'm told. Perhaps that extends to angels as well. They will handle the angels, while the soldiers slaughter those who conjured the angels.” Atius looked his Centurion in the eye with a stern expression on his face. “I have thought of everything. We've been planning this invasion for nearly two years now. You don't think I spent that time studying, reading books about Arx; its religions, history, geography? I can even speak a few sentences in the Ancient Tongue. Do not doubt me!”

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Nicholas S. Casale

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