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Chapter XXII

The quickest way back to the capital was not by any well-traveled road, but cutting straight through the woods that surrounded Blue Mountain. The woods were not as safe as the roads. There were bears, wild boars, and the occasional bandits lurking there. Not far from there was Dead River Pass, a well-protected road often used by merchants. Lila, however, needed to get to Aius faster, and so she was pushing through the trees and hoping her presence would go unnoticed.

When Lila stopped for just a moment to catch her breath she heard the sound of footsteps behind her, which came to a sudden stop just a second after she did. Lila placed a hand on the handle of her dagger and walked a few more steps. Again she heard the shuffling of feet behind her. Those weren't the sound of paws on the ground, no, those were two human feet. The steps were somewhat clumsy too. Not a professional soldier or assassin, an amateur for sure.

Lila rolled her eyes and took her hand away from her dagger as she realized who it was. “Shiri, I know it's you.”

“If you're so smart you should have realized I'd be following you,” said Shiri as she stepped into the moonlight. “You really think you can keep secrets from me?”

Lila gave her a wry smile. “You're such a talker. How did you manage to stay quiet all this time?”

“God may be sleeping, but there are still miracles now and then,” Shiri said. “But for realsies, you're going after Mahla, aren't you? Don't you know she'll never return your feelings? I love you, Lila! Am I not enough for you? Not pretty enough? Not funny enough? Are my breasts too small?”

“No, you're fine. And...your breasts are fine, whatever.”

“Then stay with me!”

“I will.”

“Then what are you doing right now? Hmmm? Doesn't look like you're staying with me.”

“Shiri, please try to understand,” Lila hesitated. “Mahla's my oldest friend, my best friend. We've been together almost as long as I can remember.”

“You still need her in your life?”

“No...no, I think I can let go. As long as I know she's safe. If Aryn's holding her in some dungeon, though, she's not safe.” Lila paused again. “Do you believe everyone deserves a chance at redemption?”

“No.”

“Well, I do,” said Lila. “After all the people I've murdered for money I have to believe that, otherwise I'm damned for sure. Mahla deserves a chance to redeem herself. I just want her to live long enough to have that chance.”

“You're not going to try to get her back on the throne?”

“Of course not!” Lila said. “Two coups in two years is probably all this kingdom can handle, and while Mahla was a great friend she was an awful queen, if I'm being at all honest with myself.”

Shiri shook her head. “Fair enough. So you just intend to break her out of jail, then what?”

“I'll take her down to Subra. Plenty of opportunity for her to start a new life there.”

“A girl with pale white skin and blonde hair in Subra? You don't think she'll stand out a little?”

“Maybe, but in Arx people want her dead. The Subrans have no reason to hate her yet.”

Shiri nodded. “Alright, you've convinced me. I'm coming with you to Aius to break your ex-lover out of prison.”

“My ex...coming with me? Shiri, no! Stay home, wait for me. I'll come back.”

“I can't risk that. You're doing something dangerous. Don't you know this might be the last time I see you or something? No, I want to be there with you. Once we get to the capital I'll stay at an inn or something while you break Mahla out of the dungeon, but after that I'm going with you to Subra. Don't want you cheating on me after all. Oh, don't make that face, you know I'm joking!”

“Fine! Fine, you can come with me!” Lila said. “Just keep an eye out, these woods aren't safe. Did you bring any weapons?”

“No,” said Shiri. “But I don't need weapons.” Shiri waved her hands over the ground and seven stones floated into the air, and soon settled back to the ground.

“You're a geomancer?”

Shiri gave a sarcastic, “No!” and rolled her eyes. “What gave me away?”

“I thought geomancers had to be loyal to the Agalmite God.”

“That's what the priests say, isn't it? It isn't true, really. Not really. Humans were made from clay, there's stone in us, and when God was making humankind he put a part of himself into us as well. That's why we can do magic and cast spells and stuff.”

“Why didn't you tell me this before?” Lila asked.

“You didn't tell me you were an assassin until I seduced it out of you.”

“You didn't seduce it out of me.”

Shiri winked at Lila. “Yes I did, and you know it. Anyway, you're entitled to your mysterious, alluring secrets, and I'm entitled to mine. Now, are we gonna get moving or not? We're losing moonlight here.”

. . .

“Seriously, Omar, none of this seems suspicious to you at all?”

As a senior paladin it was Omar's prerogative to conscript young recruits and new graduates from Caelum Academy to join him on whatever righteous quest he felt needed his attention. When the letter arrived at the academy the professors and most of the other senior paladins didn't want anything to do with it, but Omar was certain that the words were sincere, and a chance to foster future peace with Nihilus.

“Seems like a pretty contrived way to set a trap, don't you think?” said Omar. As he spoke all his student could see of his face was his toothy smile. His skin was far too dark to be seen in the light of the waning moon. “If they wanted to set a trap don't you think it would have been a distress letter from the bishop herself, begging us to come rescue her? No, this 'Lady Farrah' is actually inviting us. It's too crazy to not be the truth.”

“Unless she's counting on us believing that.”

“Oh, hush, Lemuel. You're just upset because this quest is one test you can't study for. Books won't help you with this one.” Omar said. “Now, you going to get that fire started or not?”

“I've been at it for over an hour!”

“Twenty minutes, by my count.”

“Seriously, Omar, can't you help out even a little?”

Omar took the box of matches from the younger paladin. “Don't see what all the fuss is about, you light enough young ladies' fires with those precious, black curls of yours.”

“That's a bit different,” said Lemuel with a smile.

Omar gathered some kindling into the fire pit and rearranged the logs. “You have to learn to do this yourself sooner or later, Lemuel. Read a book about it or something. It's a useful skill if you ever actually settle down with one of your lady friends.” Omar lit the kindling and blew hard into the fire. The logs soon caught ablaze and they had a campfire going.

“You make it look so easy. Did you ever settle down, Omar? Find a girl, start a family?”

“I did,” Omar said. He went on to tell the long story of how he met and secretly courted his wife, Kadasah. For so long he kept secretly giving her flowers and poems. Lemuel felt ashamed that Omar's story was so much more beautiful than any of his had ever been. “Now I keep a flower garden in the front yard, and pay servants to tend to it when I'm traveling. That way she has flowers every day, ones that don't die in vases.”

“That's my problem right there, I think,” said Lemuel. “I've never done anything like that for a woman.”

“Maybe you don't need to,” said Omar. “Everyone's courtship is different. Your love story will write itself.”

A child's voice rang out in the night, startling the two paladins. “Brethren, might we join thee at the fire?”

Omar and Lemuel both stood and Lemuel drew his diamond long-sword. “Show yourself!” he shouted.

Omar held out a hand in front of Lemuel to calm him. “If whoever it was meant us harm you think they'd have announced themselves?” This made sense, so Lemuel sheathed his sword.

From out of the shadows stepped Erelah and Shamira. Erelah held up a line of thread, on which hung four salmon. “See for thyselves, we're not so threatening as thou didst fear. We merely wish to share thy fire, and possibly the road.”

Omar gave a polite bow of his head. “Dear lady, we would be honored by your presence. I assume you are the prophet we've heard so much about?”

“I am,” said Erelah. “What gave me away?”

“There aren't many children with white hair. Fewer with white eyes,” said Omar. “Nor are there many children so well-spoken, and who would have their own paladin escort. Especially one who typically serves as Queen Aryn's bodyguard.”

“Good to see you again, Omar,” said Shamira, bowing her head to him in return. “Are you still teaching tactics at Caelum?”

“Wouldn't give it up for anything,” said Omar. “Except, of course, for the quest I'm on.”

Erelah skewered all four fish on a stick and held them over the fire to cook. “A quest that takes thee to the land of Nihilus, perhaps?”

“How did you know?” Omar asked.

“I didn't. I just knew I was to meet someone on this path along our way to Nihilus. We are going there to retrieve a woman called Galia, who is destined to be the next Arch-Bishop of the Agalmite Church. Why art thou going to Nihilus?”

“At Caelum Academy we received a letter from Lady Farrah telling us she had one of our bishops, and that she was willing to give the bishop back to us in exchange for our emissary hearing her out. I'm assuming this 'Galia' is the same bishop?”

“Could be,” said Erelah. “We are on our way to see Lady Farrah.”

Omar smiled. “Then we can travel together. Good.”

The four of them sat around the fire; telling stories, singing songs, and enjoying the salmon. For the most part Erelah was silent, and simply observed everything. A few hours went by, and it was obvious that they were all starting to get tired. Their songs were interrupted with yawns, and their eyelids drooped.

“You ever wonder...” began Lemuel. He paused to collect his thoughts. Omar and Shamira's eyes were on him. “You ever wonder why our sacred scriptures start off the way they do? You know, 'And in that infinite Void God created Erets, our world, as a bastion of hope and order in the chaotic nothing that had been the cosmos.' You ever wonder why it starts like that?”

Shamira shook her head. “Makes sense to start at the beginning.”

“Well, yes, but...if it's the beginning why is the first word 'And?'”

Everyone turned to the prophet to see if she had an answer for them, but Erelah had already curled up and gone to sleep. With no satisfying answer to this existential question, the three of them sat up in silence for what seemed like several hours, before the morning light woke them.

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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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