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Chapter XXV

Milo could see the sparkling gem that was Caelum resting at the foot of a frost-covered mountain. He could remember that day, when he was only thirteen, climbing that mountain. Back then Hadar tried to talk him out of it.

“You're serious, Milo? You intend to reach the summit?” Hadar had said to him.

“Of course I'm serious! I'll look down on the whole kingdom from there!” Milo told him.

“You'll slip for sure,” said Hadar. “The whole peak's covered in ice.”

“Yes, but you're forgetting something, Hadar, the reason I MUST climb the mountain.”

“Which is?”

“It's there. Every evening its shadow taunts me, by robbing me of a few extra hours of sunlight. I need to conquer it!”

“Fine, if you're determined to go I'll go with you. Someone has to heal your wounds.”

Milo laughed a little at the memory, and then his heart sank when he remembered how his friend met his end. How Milo let him down at Aius. It never really got any easier, having his old friend gone. Sure, after all these years he'd go longer without thinking about him, but when he did it stung just as much as it always had.

“Sir?”

Milo turned to the paladin trying to get his attention. “Yes?”

“Are you alright?”

“Just nostalgia,” said Milo. “You trained here too, right Magdiel?”

“Yes, I did,” said Magdiel. “I remember Professor Shimei's lessons so well.”

“Really? I don't remember him, what did he teach.”

“Strategy. Well, large-scale tactics, really. He taught us how to use terrain to our advantage. I did so well in his class that I earned a reputation for myself as a master tactician. Then I was sent to command our soldiers at Ten Red Pass, and I completely fecked that up.”

Milo could hear the self-blame in Magdiel's voice and he winced at it. For as much as Milo felt responsible for Hadar's death he could only imagine how horrible Magdiel felt that he'd failed to hold Ten Red Pass against the Nihilite army all those years ago. All the countless people who died because the Nihilites got through, Milo couldn't imagine how he bore the weight of such guilt. How did he endure? How did he cope?

Milo decided it was best to change the subject. “You still as good with a bow as you were back then?”

“I'm more accurate than I was,” said Magdiel. “But I've been finding it harder and harder to pull back the bowstring. Forty isn't old, not really, but sometimes it feels old.”

“Well, thank you. Now I know what I have to look forward to in a few years,” said Milo.

“Maybe retirement?”

“Retirement? Please, when's the last time you heard of a paladin retiring?” said Milo. “Really, think about it. Do you know of any retired paladins? No, we either go down in the blaze of glory, or we keep doing our job until the night we go to sleep and don't wake up again. Knights retire, but we are not mere knights. We are holy knights, and our true strength comes from our faith.”

“I nearly lost mine back then.”

“Nearly lost your what?”

“Faith,” said Magdiel. “With all I saw back then, all the horrible things General Meriel was doing to our people, I nearly lost my faith. Then it occurred to me that this was why paladins are necessary. Priests bolster the faithful by teaching them the scriptures and healing the sick, paladins protect the faith. No, not just the faithful, but the very idea of faith itself. We stop bad things from happening as best we can so that the people can go on believing. Protecting the people from demons? That's just a facet of our real purpose. Losing hope is far more lethal than any demon.”

“I never thought of it that way...” Milo considered it for a moment. It seemed so obvious, really. Of course paladins were to inspire hope, that was the whole point of Professor Zebedee's lessons about delivering speeches. It never occurred to him, though, that even as they fought they were keeping hope alive. Every swing of a paladin's sword was like a priest's sermon. Every soldier fighting beside a paladin was like a church's choir.

All the while they'd been riding, drawing closer and closer to Caelum. Therein was the army of warrior priests Milo was to lead against the Digan invaders. He'd deliver his greatest sermon yet. Mahla had stolen so much hope from the people, persecuted their faith, and now these western invaders threatened them with slavery. He'd helped restore a righteous queen to the throne, and now he'd show all of Arx that though they'd been weakened they were still stronger than any threat. The God who created Erets stood with them, they had no reason to fear.

“Thank you, Magdiel,” Milo said before he spurred his horse. All behind him followed suit, seeing that he was determined to reach Caelum before sundown.

Sure enough, before the sun was set they arrived at the doors of Caelum Academy. The great, stone doors groaned open and they were soon greeted by the academy's professors, priests, and priestesses.

“As I live and breathe, Sir Milo!” Professor Zebedee said as he approached. “What brings you to Caelum? Mahla's reign of terror has ended, as I understand.”

“Yes, it has,” said Milo. “However, we face another threat.”

“Nihilite rebels?”

“No. An army from the west. The Digan Empire has invaded,” said Milo.

“That makes no sense,” said one of the priestesses. “The Digans' religion...they follow many different gods out there. Why would they want to wage holy war against us?”

“Their motivation is not religious, it's merely greed, the reason most wars are fought,” said Milo. “We just tend to forget that after all of Nihilus' crusades against us. No, they just want our land. But, I tell you, this is still a holy war. The Digans may not see it that way, all they see is a lush and fertile land, full of people they can enslave. That's what they see when they look at Arx, but do you know what I see? I see a holy land. I see a beautiful place that God has chosen as the homeland for all who will follow his Law. I see a land that has suffered attack after attack, more than any other, and whose people still stand because of their faith. Furthermore, I see slavery as a form of blasphemy. If God gave us free will who is any man to take it from us? For this reason I call the paladins of Caelum to this holy cause. We will defend our homeland, protect our people, and free those whom they have enslaved!”

For a moment, all stood in awe of Milo's words, but Professor Zebedee chuckled, breaking the silence. “I see all those lessons I taught you weren't wasted.” He adjusted the small, round spectacles on the end of his nose. “What do you need?”

“Any paladin who has graduated recently, or who is about to graduate,” said Milo. “Also, any geomancers. We will meet this threat out in the field, before they get even close to the capital. The capital is in disarray after we put her majesty back on the throne. I do not think it could survive another siege so soon.”

Professor Zuriel smiled at Milo. “More aggressive with your enemies these days, I see. Taking the fight to them?”

“Yes, yes. Enjoy your moment to say 'I told you so.'” Said Milo.

“Oh, that's not it at all,” said Professor Zuriel. “It's just that one of the joys of being a professor is seeing the difference that you made in people's lives. Seeing what they actually did learn from you.”

“We'll get you what you need,” said Professor Zebedee. “It will take some time for everyone to be ready. Why don't you all stay the night?”

“Thank you. It will be just like old times,” said Milo.

“No, we won't put you in one of the smaller rooms this time,” said Professor Zebedee with a laugh.

Milo had been suspicious for a long time that his room was particularly small when he'd been a student at the academy. Now his suspicions were confirmed, though it hardly mattered anymore.

There was no big feast to greet them. Milo was given a bowl of soup and half a loaf of bread in the room that had been prepared for him, along with a glass of wine. Milo never really enjoyed wine too much, but he knew it was rude to refuse to drink it, so he finished off the glass, bit by bit as he ate dinner. His body wasn't used to alcohol, and it had been a long ride, so he collapsed on the bed.

Hours later, in that pitch-blackness, a deep, reverberating voice awoke him. “Milo, rise.” Milo sat up in the bed, just as the strange voice commanded him. He felt a sense of dread creeping along his spine, but he did not reach for his sword. Something deep inside of him told him it would not help anyway. “Good, you are awake,” said the voice in the darkness. “I am Herevel, more commonly known as The Accuser. In the Court of Accusations I tested your wife, Sarahi, to see if she was repentant of her sins. I come to you now because of what you are soon to face. This man who leads the army from the dammed city is a champion of a god who would see all of Arx's people slaughtered. He would see the Holy Land painted with the blood of martyrs. His acolytes have even managed to slay angels. God has decided that I should accompany you to bring this blasphemer to justice.”

Milo wanted to ask this angel why he did not reveal his plan to accompany Milo openly, in front of everyone. When he tried to speak, though, no words came out.

“Listen,” said Herevel. “Do not speak. Mortals fear me, as well they should. I see their sins, both those they regret and those they do not. You, who kept secret that you were Aryn's father for fifteen years, have been chosen to keep this secret. I will travel with you in disguise. You are not to tell anyone who I am. If they ask you will make up a story. You apparently have a talent for that.” Again Milo wished he could speak, but he could not breathe a word. “With my blade I shall slay the enemies of our God. The followers of the Father will not take your sacred home.”

In the morning, when all of the paladins were saddled up and ready to ride out and fight the Digan invaders, among them was a man wearing pale blue robes, with a hood pulled up, a clay mask covering his face, and black gloves. The sword at his hip was in a black, leather sheath.

“Who do you suppose that is?” Magdiel asked Milo. “I'm uneasy about a stranger in a mask following us.”

“He's not a stranger,” said Milo. “He was a student here at Caelum when I attended here. His name is Herevel.”

“Fine...but why does he wear the mask?” Magdiel asked.

“He was horribly disfigured when he was a child. His house burned down, and he lost his family. The only reason he survived was because a paladin found him and healed him as best as he could, but his face...it's still awful. Children run at the sight, babies cry...so rather than deal with all that he just wears a mask.”

It didn't take long for that story to spread, and it didn't take long for that story to change. Soon people were telling stories of the brave Sir Herevel who, when he was but a child, rescued a paladin from a burning house and in the process had his face completely burned off. They told of Sir Herevel the unstoppable, who could no longer feel pain because as a child he'd suffered more than any other man ever had. Some of the female paladins even told stories of what a beautiful heart he had, and said that the mystery of his mask made him alluring to them. Milo's lie had worked far better than the Accuser had planned.

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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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