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Chapter XIX

Humiliated, crushed, wronged. Sahar still went into fits whenever he thought about how that last battle had gone. All of his work to become King of Arx had been for naught. Shortly after he'd left the capital he stole a horse from some small village, and now he was driving the horse to gallop all the way to Nihilus. Surely his mother would know what to do next. She saw that he'd be able to take the kingdom of Arx in the first place, perhaps she'd already seen what happened after he was driven from the throne.

He rode through burning sunlight, through the rain and the cold, and through deep fog, all the while trying to stay close to the mountains, where trees would conceal him. He'd taken a few small branches to the face, which left cuts and scratches. All the while he tried to feed thoughts into the horse's mind to keep it going, in spite of how exhausted it was. This proved difficult, however, as human beings usually think in words, animals do not. Despite his best efforts, the horse slowed to a trot and ignored his continuous kicks to its ribs.

“Damn you!” Sahar shouted at the animal. “Move! They'll catch me if you don't!” He had not seen or heard anyone pursuing him, but that didn't mean they weren't there. In spite of all of his protests, the horse would not gallop. Sahar tried kicking his heels into its side even harder, and that was when the horse had enough of him. The horse reared back, threw him off, and galloped away without him. It took Sahar a moment to get over the shock from the fall and rise to his feet. “I'll turn you into a pair of boots!” He screamed at the horse as it disappeared from view.

By Prunikos! How was it that everything was going wrong? Sahar cursed the ground and sky again, and started to jog in the direction he'd been heading. For the whole trip he'd been using the sun to guide him east, and as the sun was setting behind him he knew he was at least heading in the right direction.

When he heard voices up ahead Sahar ducked into the bushes nearby. The hairs on his arms stood on end and his heart fluttered as he peered out to see the source of the voices. Arxian soldiers? Paladins? To his surprise, no. There was a small inn in the middle of the woods, along a path that led up the nearest mountain. “The Climber's Respite,” said the sign.

He could smell baked bread in the air, and his stomach rumbled. He hadn't eaten since he'd fled the capital, neither had he rested. The Climber's Respite seemed so welcoming now. Perhaps there were people following him, but he hadn't heard their horses, they couldn't have been following him too closely. Surely he had time for dinner and rest.

Entering the inn he was greeted by a cloud of smoke from the many lit pipes around the room. The clientele was made up of mostly men, who wore dirty clothes and had long beards. Woodcutters, perhaps? Or perhaps stone-cutters working in the quarries and mines? Sahar coughed on the foul-smelling smoke as he moved through the room to the inn-keeper.

“What can I do for you, ma'am?” The inn-keeper said.

It took Sahar a moment to process what the inn-keeper was getting at. He heard a few snickers nearby from some of the bearded men, and then realized what the inn-keeper was getting at. He was mocking Sahar for his long hair and shaved face.

“Do you always insult your customers?” Sahar asked.

The inn-keeper shrugged. “Around here if you can't learn to laugh at yourself and sling a few jabs back once in a while you won't enjoy yourself.”

“You think I'd come to a shabby place like this to enjoy myself?” Sahar asked. For a moment the inn-keeper laughed, but when he saw that Sahar was not smiling he closed his mouth. “Pigs could run a superior establishment, but I'm traveling and I don't have many options. How much for a meal and a room?”

The inn-keeper pointed to the back door. “There's a pig sty out back, why don't you ask the hogs how much they'll charge you for a room?”

Sahar could tell he'd gone too far with this man. Even Sahar's gold wouldn't be enough to get shelter for the night. Sahar cursed himself for making this harder than it needed to be, but then had an idea. He looked up at the inn-keeper and reached out into his mind to read his secrets. The inn-keeper raised an eyebrow at him. Suspicious? Did he know what Sahar was doing? No, he was merely wondering why this young man was staring at him so intently.

“He's a strange one. I might have to have Ziv remove him.”

Sahar started digging deeper, focusing his eyes on a single spot on the inn-keeper's forehead. Finally, he found something worth using.

“Now now, how would the rest of your customers feel if they knew what REALLY happened to your slut of a wife?”

The inn-keeper's eyes widened and his skin went pale. “Umm...what?”

“A room. How much?”

“What? Oh...for you, free of charge.”

“Kind of you. Really. How much for a mug of dark beer?”

“On the house.” The inn-keeper poured Sahar a mug and slid it across the bar to him.

Sahar greedily took the mug and drank. “Bring some bread and mutton too.”

“Yes, sirrah.”

Hearing that title Sahar was glad his well-groomed appearance hadn't given him away as nobility. He was half-expecting that just not smelling like refuse and would be enough to give him away. As he sat, drinking his beer and soon eating the bread, he looked out across the crowd at the bar. Strong men, as far as he could tell. They'd obviously had a rough life. Seen their fair share of winters, lost enough nights' sleep to the cold. Yet even in their old age they were working their fingers to the bone. They were all wasting away in the mines, toiling in the dirt that would become their own graves. All of the joy was drained from them, they clearly came to drown their sorrows and their sins in spirits. Lonely men for whom all of the excitement of life had gone. Their mistake was to try to kill the pain with their cruel God's temptations. They needed the thrill of freedom, of chaos. That was what made a man feel alive again, made him forget the pains of his mortal existence.

Sahar focused on the largest, strongest man he could find. Undoubtedly, such a man worked his back broken every day, and his mind was ready to break too. Sahar was right. He could feel this man's anguish at how much he had to do just to afford his daily bread. “These are rough times, Emet.” Sahar said in the strong man's head. “You keep thinking things will get better, but they never really do, do they?” Emet looked down into his glass, wishing so much of his drink wasn't already gone. He'd have to get something stronger next time. “Hey, look at Zad over there. Doesn't he owe you 50 talents? That's a lot of money, isn't it? Enough to buy some whiskey and maybe a harlot for the night?” Emet stood from his table and began to approach Zad.

The next half-hour was a blissful blur for Sahar. A few foolish words and drunken insults exchanged between two men who'd once been friends had erupted into a full brawl. Nearly every man in the inn took out his frustrations on his neighbor, much to the inn-keeper's horror. Glasses and bottles were smashed over heads, fists blackened eyes, and men's weight broke tables in half. Sahar could feel the exhilaration they all felt, whether it was from the burning anger from the men in the brawl or the quaking fear from those cowering on the side, they all felt alive again. Even the pain from their injuries reminded them that they were still alive, that they still could feel.

The only one who wasn't getting even a guilty thrill out of this was the inn-keeper, who watched his establishment erupt into chaos. Oh, how much this would cost him. He'd been saving up so much, too.

Sahar laughed out-loud. “Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I will come around here to enjoy myself. Ha ha ha!”

The inn-keeper hung his head in despair. Sahar patted his shoulder, stuffed the rest of his mutton in his mouth, took a key off the wall, and headed up to his room. The sweet sounds of pandemonium would sing him to sleep.

. . .

Atius looked down at the lake below him, the waters so clear that it felt as if he could fall right into that blue sky if he stepped in it, and sail amongst the clouds. His daughter would have loved such flights of fancy. She always enjoyed it when he spoke such images into her head when they spent a day together. He'd named her Jovita, meaning “My Joy” in old speak, because her very birth was a miracle. Atius had married the love of his life, Priscilla. He did not mind that she was barren, because she was the woman he loved. As time went on, however, he found that while he wasn't saddened by the fact that she couldn't have children, with her this was not the case. She started to cry every night that she could not bring new life into this world. She said she was cursed by the Mother, and often asked for Atius' forgiveness. He was all too willing to forgive her, but she couldn't seem to forgive herself.

Atius began sending their hand-maidens to go and make sacrifices in the temple of the Mother for him. He donated half his family's fortune to the temple of the Mother. Sure enough, this much bribery worked on the goddess, and Priscilla became pregnant. Their little Jovita, their joy, even if only for a few years.

“Legate?” one of Atius' Centurions pulled him out of his memories. Just as well, they were about to turn bitter anyway. Better that he keep his mind on the task at hand.

“Yes?” Atius said.

“Sir, the men were wondering which road we take next.”

Atius turned his eyes back to the meeting table, away from that beautiful lake, and to the map spread out before him. “The east road, obviously.”

“Straight to Caelum Academy?” the Centurion asked. “Sir, isn't confronting the paladins at that fortress a bit risky?”

“Risky? Yes, but extremely important,” said Atius.

“Important how?”

“To break their strongest fortress and massacre the knights of their Church? To attack both their sense of security and their faith? I have no idea why that would be important.” Atius glared at his centurion.

“Ah...yes, I see your point, sir.”

“If Caelum falls the whole kingdom falls. You know how many times the Arxian capital city, Aius, has been taken? Six times in their history has someone seized control of the capital city. No one has EVER taken over Caelum Academy. They'll break.”

“What if...well, no one's ever taken Caelum Academy, what makes you so sure we'll succeed where others have failed?”

Atius smiled. “I have faith in this legion. I have faith in the men that I've trained, and that the Father is standing behind us. The Father will deliver our enemies into our hands.”

This satisfied the Centurion, but the truth was far less noble. Atius felt it unlikely that his legion would be enough to defeat the Arxians and take their land, but he knew that Emperor Cyril was counting on that. Atius was a war hero, having won in several campaigns already. He was more popular in the city of Diga than Emperor Cyril himself, and therein lay the danger. Cyril was determined to both rid himself of a political rival and make a martyr for his soldiers to fight for and take Arx, and had sent Atius to Arx to die. Atius was determined to throw everything behind one attempt that would either capture all of Arx, or be sure to spell Atius' death as quickly as possible. He was ready to be with his joy again.

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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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