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Chapter XV

A great theologian once said that the problem with prophets is that so often their words seem mad. Sure, there's obvious wisdom there, but madness mixed with the wisdom. Prophets often tell their disciples to do something that seems totally nonsensical, without telling them why, and the disciples only find out the reason long after they'd obeyed.

Such were Erelah's orders as Aryn's army traveled to the capital. She'd divide the army for no apparent reason, order them each to take different routes for a time and meet at a specific location. Then she'd have them stop and wait for a while, again with no explanation, and then continue in double time.

It was only when they were nearly on the capital's doorstep that Aryn realized that they'd not been caught by a single patrol on the way. As far as she could tell, no scouts had seen them. Then the strange orders made sense; she was making sure the army avoided those patrols so that they could hit the capital relatively by surprise. Sure, they'd passed by a few small towns here and there, but if anyone in those towns had been loyal to Mahla they'd have been attacked by then. Erelah knew the exact routes and timing for the army to take to make the siege an ambush.

With the capital in sight Aryn rode up to Erelah. “We still have allies on their way, my Mother and Father, my Aunt, the Shadians. Do we wait for them to arrive?”

“No, they will arrive when they are needed,” said Erelah. “Thou shalt tell thy soldiers to start preparations. We begin the assault in one hour. In the meantime, I must speak with thy lover.”

Aryn blushed. “My...lover?”

“The man thou kissed, yes,” Erelah said. “Realized thou not that kissing in front of the campfire made thee obvious.” Erelah shrugged. “It is of no consequence, so long as thou rememberest to put thy people first and do not get distracted.”

“I will...I mean I won't...I mean...I'll do what's right.”

“Good.” On that note Erelah left Aryn to her embarrassment. She soon found Tamas riding alongside many of Aryn's cavaliers, exchanging bawdy stories. “Tamas, I must speak with thee.”

“Oh, it's an obligation is it?” Tamas asked, giving a fake pout.

“Yes, I must. Aside with me, if thou wilt?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

Tamas rode off to the side with Erelah, and the rode to the top of a hill that overlooked the capital. Erelah brushed her bangs out of her eyes and said, “Now, Tamas, dost thou remember what happened two years ago, when thou defended the capital?”

“We lost the battle,” Tamas said.

“Dost thou remember why?”

“Traitors opened the gates for the enemy.”

“Yes, traitors who'd lost all faith in their queen and their cause when they saw angels fighting against them and demons fighting for them. Because of that they were misled, they believed God was against them.”

“So you're saying it's my fault?”

“Yes, I am,” said Erelah, bluntly. “But it is in the past, and I prefer to keep it that way. There are still inquisitors in the capital, though most of them have been sent away by now. The few remaining can still summon those treacherous angels loyal to Sandalphon. Under no circumstances art thou to conjure demons to take the city, is that understood?”

“It is,” Tamas said. “But...it's my blood that summons them, and not always by my will. If I get seriously wounded I won't have much choice in the matter.”

“Then thou shalt simply have to avoid getting seriously wounded,” Erelah said.

“That's generally a good plan.” Tamas chuckled. Erelah did not.

“Thou art not amusing. This is a serious matter, boy.”

Tamas had learned long ago that Erelah was not the child she appeared to be. Still, being called “boy,” by someone who looked so much younger than him was something he was not prepared for. He snorted, but managed to suppress his laughter.

“I've noticed something strange...we have no siege equipment,” Tamas said. “I was assuming you had some sort of plan that involved us acquiring catapults and battering rams along the way, but...”

“Have faith. I have a plan in place.”

“Faith doesn't tear down city gates.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact it does,” said Erelah.

. . .

Mahla was roused from her papers when she heard the sound of the warning bells ringing and the city guard shouting. She dropped her quill and looked out the window to see an advancing cavalry riding straight towards the city. They were coming down from the surrounding hills, still a long ways off, but they'd be at the city within the hour.

In minutes she was out on the battlements with her soldiers, ready to command them. “What? Do they intend to tear open the gates with their swords?” Mahla asked and rolled her eyes. “Knock arrows!”

Commanders down the line of the wall repeated the order, and the archers on the wall knocked arrows to their bows. Mahla was confident that this so-called siege would be over quickly. The enemy army wasn't even properly-equipped. As the cavalry drew closer she called out, “Take aim!”

The archers drew back their bowstrings and aimed high. The cavalry thundered towards the city, and several of the riders sounded horns. Mahla recognized the sound, it was the same as the blast she'd heard on her wedding day. She barely had time to realize the implications of this before the commanders down the line shouted, “LOOSE!”

“NO!” Mahla shouted out. It was far too early for them to loose their arrows, but she'd spoken too late. What happened next was the moment that Mahla could later pinpoint as the end of her reign. First, half of the archers on the city walls loosed the arrows too early, and the arrows fell into the field far in front of the advancing cavalry. Then, the other half, which had not loosed their arrows yet, turned and shot the others. Down below, members of the city guard began attacking others, hitting them by surprise. They stormed the front gate and opened it wide for the advancing cavalry.

Mahla didn't have much time to react to the front gate being open before the same archers who'd shot down her men were loosing arrows at her. She dropped behind her shield just in time, with the sound of the arrows breaking on her shield filling her ears.

Aryn's cavalry rode into the city and stormed the streets, all to the sound of the citizens cheering for their returning queen. Mahla's soldiers were either cut down by the advancing cavalry, or torn down by Aius' own citizens. When Aryn rode in she was surprised to see the people laying their coats out before her, or clearing the streets of the bodies of Mahla's soldiers.

Mahla, in the meantime, viciously lashed out at the soldiers coming after her. She lunged forward with her sword and beheaded those foolish enough to come near her. Witnesses would later describe the scene as a rabid animal, forced into a corner and fighting desperately to live.

Sir Raviv, who'd been sent to Aius to be ready for this moment, saw his opportunity. Perhaps if he could slay Queen Mahla he'd earn his own queen's forgiveness for his crime of incest. He brought a ladder over to the walls and climbed up behind Mahla. While she was busy with the soldiers in front of her, Sir Raviv slashed across the back of her calves and cut her Achilles tendon.

Mahla shrieked in agony and lashed back at Sir Raviv. Her blade slipped over his neck-guard and pushed through his throat. She'd killed her assailant, but that didn't change the fact that her leg was so wounded. She could feel the muscles in her leg bunching up together, and the blood pouring out. The pain was unbearable, and Mahla collapsed as the world grew dark around her.

As Aryn drew closer to the castle, inquisitors and witch-hunters emerged from the houses closest to the keep to greet her. With a wave of her hand, Aryn caused stones to lift from the streets and smash her assailants' heads. As soon as she saw a witch-hunter about to conjure an angel for aid, that one became her new priority target, and as she sent a sharp stone through his lungs he could not finish his spell.

Erelah rode in after the initial shock force. When she raised her staff, many of their allies who'd fallen in battle rose up again, and their wounds healed, though Sir Raviv was left to his fate. With a second raising of her staff, the rats and vermin of the back alleyways poured out and swarmed Mahla's soldiers. The last thing those unfortunate souls heard was the sound of squealing and their own shrieks as the rodents ate their flesh.

. . .

And so the battle raged on. Under Erelah's direction, Aryn's army had taken the city completely by surprise. Unlike the last time the city had been taken, the conqueror was welcomed with open arms. The people were sick of Mahla's oppression, and they made that known through their praise of their returning queen.

All their songs were turned to screams, though, as another army rode through the gates of the city and attacked Aryn's army. Grand Duke Sahar had returned with all of the soldiers he'd taken. Aryn's forces soon found that they were trapped inside the city walls with the largest army in Arx, and that army was against them.

“Save your queen!” Sahar shouted out to his soldiers as they stormed the city. “And kill the traitors!”

Once again, the gutters of Aius' streets ran red as the two armies clashed within the city. Sahar had to suppress a giggle of boyish glee as he saw the beautiful violence that ensued, the way his soldiers painted the whole city scarlet, and the music of the screams of the fallen. He hung back at the gates as his soldiers did their work, simply admiring them.

“For the longest time, I tried to convince myself you weren't a monster. Seems I was wrong.”

Sahar knew that voice. He hadn't seen his brother in many years, but he'd never forget that low voice. “Tamas,” Sahar said as he drew his sword. “Don't tell me you're not enjoying this at all.”

“It's sickening!” Tamas said. “Look at it! Take a good look! This bloodshed...it's just horrible! Don't you realize what you're doing? Every one of these soldiers are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers!”

“Clinging to the pointlessness of life, all of them!” Sahar said. “All of life is suffering. Ever wonder why people pinch themselves to know that they've not dreaming? The only way they know how to check if they are awake is to see if they feel pain. Life is defined by pain, so let it all end. It's the only merciful thing to do. End their misery.”

“By the Void! What is wrong with you?” Tamas was truly baffled at how his brother had become so heartless and cruel. “You're the one causing the suffering!”

“One last moment of suffering, followed by an end to it all,” Sahar said. “That's what it's all about, Tamas. That's why our Father wanted this world to end, that's why Prunikos sent us here. Have you forgotten our purpose?”

“You're mad! Your broken, twisted mind has brought you to this point, beyond redemption...I'm sorry, my brother, but I must do this.” Tamas raised his blade high and spurred his horse.

Sahar welcomed the challenge, and spurred his own horse. He held his sword out as well, ready to strike. The two of them closed the distance between them. Tamas brought his sword down at Sahar's head, but Sahar changed directions at the last possible moment and cut Tamas' thigh, right between the plates of armor.

Tamas pressed a hand to the wound in an attempt to keep the blood in, but the blood spilled over his hand and onto the ground. Sahar cackled at the sight of his brother's desperation. “Don't fight it, Tom. Just let it happen. Be what you were always meant to be, a gate!”

Tamas' blood pooled on the city streets, and from that pool crawled out all manner of daemons. “No! No!” Tamas cried out as he saw them.

“Yes! Yes!” Sahar said in a mocking tone. Then he turned to the daemons. “Vanquish my enemies!” He pointed to Aryn's soldiers and the daemons charged them. “Of course they obey me over you, Tamas. I was first out of the womb, I am the older brother. You were not sent to carry out their will, you were sent to provide me with a daemon army.”

The paladins amongst Aryn's soldiers saw the demons coming and rushed out to be the first to face them. With their diamond weapons they held them off, and kept them away from the bulk of the army.

Had Sahar not been watching the carnage with such interest he might have noticed Erelah's arrival at Tamas' side. As it was, he only realized something had happened when the daemons suddenly all disappeared. When he turned his eyes back to Tamas, he saw that Tamas' leg had been healed, and the white-haired little girl responsible for it. The girl turned to face Sahar, piercing his soul with those terrifying, white eyes.

“Who are you?” Sahar asked as he tried to keep his horse from fleeing.

“I am Erelah, the prophetess, returned from days long past to set right all that has been wrong in Arx. I would have thought a man who could read minds would know all about me.” Erelah gave Sahar a moment to realize what she had implied. “I am the blind-spot in thy vision. God hath given me the power to obstruct thy sight. Against me, and against him, thou art powerless, Elykos.”

So his brother had told this prophetess his real name. It was of little consequence to Sahar, truly. Knowing his true name gave her no real power over him, especially since he was going to kill her. Sahar spurred his horse and rode at Erelah with his blade at the ready. Just as he drew close, however, Erelah waved her hand over the ground and a hole tore open in the streets. The horse tripped and Sahar was flung from the saddle. He crashed into a pile of refuse in the alley nearby. While Erelah stopped to heal the horse's broken legs, for the horse was innocent of its rider's crimes, Tamas ran after Sahar.

Sahar pushed himself out of the garbage just in time to see Tamas bring his sword down at him again. Sahar dove to one side to evade the blade, and then turned and ran.

“Don't let him get away!” Erelah shouted.

Tamas had no intention of allowing Sahar to escape. If he could catch him he could end all of this madness.

. . .

Elsewhere, the battle had not been going well for Aryn. The surprise arrival of Grand Duke Sahar's army had turned the tide of the battle against her, and her soldiers repeatedly fell back.

Then there was a sound much like a trumpet, and for a moment Aryn thought that was what it was. When she heard it the second time, however, she realized it was the sound of some sort of animal. Then she saw the creatures making the sound. She'd never actually seen one before, but she'd heard them described. Big as a house, gray skin, a long nose like an arm, and ears like wings. Elephants charged through the city streets, with riders on their backs. The elephants trampled the enemy soldiers, and the archers riding the elephants rained arrows down upon them. Following the elephants were cavalry forces from Muri, along with Shadian warriors. Erelah was right, they arrived just as they were needed.

As if the elephants weren't enough, assassins wearing masks appeared in the city, seemingly out of nowhere, and ambushed Sahar's soldiers. Between the shock of the surprise attacks and the terror they felt beholding the enormous elephants, Sahar's soldiers began to either surrender or flee.

Tamas had lost Sahar around the corner of an alleyway, and when he rounded the corner he saw two different side streets Sahar could have taken. As he tried to ponder which direction to go, he heard Sahar's voice speaking in his mind. “Oh, which way? To the left or the right? You've lost me, Tamas. You always were the dumb one.” Tamas ran off to the right, hoping he'd picked the correct direction. “WRONG! You'll never find me at this rate!” Tamas looked back for a moment to see if maybe Sahar truly was in the other direction. On the one hand, it would make no sense for Sahar to tell Tamas which direction he'd gone. On the other hand, Sahar could easily be manipulating him into taking the wrong direction, betting that he wouldn't trust Sahar's word. Sahar also could simply be stalling Tamas by making him second guess himself.

Tamas decided that he would continue down the path to the right, which took many twists and turns between the many houses and apartments in the city. “Oh, Tommy, tell me you know me better than that! Didn't you notice that ladder propped up against one of the houses? Why would I run through the back alleys, where people empty their chamber pots, when I can take to the rooftops, hmm?” Tamas was determined not to let Sahar manipulate him. The very fact that Sahar continued to fill his head with these thoughts meant that he was probably on the right track, and so he ran a bit faster. With any luck he'd catch up to his twin brother.

“Yes, run! Quick, like a bunny!” Tamas picked up speed even more, knowing that Sahar couldn't be far. As he rounded the corner, though, he tripped over a pile of dirty laundry that had fallen from someone's window. His face hit the stone street with a hard crack, and he felt his nose break on impact. As he tried to hold in the blood he could hear Sahar's voice in his head laughing hysterically. Tamas didn't want more daemons appearing, since they appeared to follow Sahar's orders more than his own, so he picked up one of the dirty tunics, ripped it in half, and wrapped up the lower half of his face with it. The stench of the dirty tunic, combined with the iron smell of his own blood, filled Tamas' nostrils and made his eyes water. “Well, thank you for the exercise. You made a good effort to find me, but you failed.” Tamas rounded another corner and found himself on a bigger street, with Sahar nowhere in sight.

. . .

Meanwhile, Sahar chuckled to himself for a few moments as he traversed the catacombs under the city. He needed that little game with Tamas to raise his spirits after the way that battle had turned out. Slowly it all came back to him, the realization of everything that this battle implied. Everything he'd been working on was ruined. He was to be king of both Nihilus and Arx and use the armies of both kingdoms to lay waste to the world. He'd been keeping an eye on every major power player he could, entering their minds and learning all of their secrets. That damned little girl had blocked his vision somehow. That prophet had ruined everything. He'd find that little schyte and slit her throat. His teeth clenched and his fists tightened just thinking about how much he hated her.

Perhaps not all was lost, though. The Digan legion was still invading from the West, and the casualties there would be tremendous. Then he had the fanatics and the rebel forces in Nihilus still causing enough bloodshed. And he still had his trump card. No one had taken that away from him. Sahar had been defeated for now, but he was confident that defeat would not last.

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Nicholas S. Casale

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