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Chapter XXVI

A cool breeze drifted through the open window. It was a beautiful night, not a cloud in the sky to hide that sea of stars. “What do you remember of the Void?” Aryn asked.

Tamas raised an eyebrow. “What brought this on?”

“Well, we're up here, staring at the stars. I can't help but be a little curious what it's like up there. Is it as bad as our scriptures say it is? Or is it really like the Nihilites claim, some kind of paradise?”

“Well, truth be told, I actually don't have many memories from the Void,” said Tamas.

“Why not?”

“Because the Void is so different from Erets that if I did have distinct memories from back then I'd probably be completely crazy. Heh...like my mother...”

“You don't remember anything?”

“Only what I was told,” said Tamas. “The man who raised my brother and I, Caiaphas, he told us what he'd learned of the Void from our mother and from communing with daemons. He said that up there everyone chooses paths they wish to follow.”

“Paths?”

“To try to understand this thing we call 'existence,' or 'life.' What does it all mean? So they try out different ways of living. For a time one will choose the path of a creator, and will spread out moons, stars, and worlds. That same daemon may later choose the path of a destroyer, and obliterate what he created just moments ago. There are many paths for each individual to embrace; the path of rest, the path of passion, the path of song, the path of silence, the path of peace, and the path of violence. When daemons embrace certain paths their bodies change to match that path, and the Void around them also conforms to the path they're following.”

“Why do all demons look so monstrous when they come here, then?” Aryn asked.

“Well, usually when they're coming here they're doing so in their attempts to destroy this world and set the people here free, so you're looking at daemons who've embraced paths of destruction or paths of violence.”

“Why do other demons even allow their own kind to embrace such a destructive path?”

“Why do we allow people to become knights or paladins?” Tamas quipped. “You see, sometimes violence is necessary to achieve one's ends, even if those ends are good. The daemons who embrace the path of violence are most fit for the job Prunikos has for them.” Tamas sighed. “If only Prunikos could see this world the way I have.”

“What difference would that make?”

“Prunikos, and indeed most of the daemons of the Void, look at Erets as a sacrilege, a prison. Saklas...God, rather, was once a daemon of the Void himself. He embraced the path of creation and made the world of Erets. Daemons look at Erets and see it as a prison in large part because it takes away so much of the freedom they have in the Void. The souls here can't choose specific paths for their lives and explore that path in order to better understand life. What the daemons don't realize is that, actually, we can embrace many different paths at the same time. A man on Erets can be a soldier, and embrace the path of violence. That same man can be a father, and embrace both the paths of love and of creation. Again, that same man, if he is a paladin, also embraces the paths of faith, peace, and healing. The daemons of the Void look at Erets and see oppression, a world that keeps its denizens from achieving enlightenment. I look at Erets and see a much better chance at enlightenment than exists in the Void. There's an even greater freedom that comes from the right kinds of restrictions.”

This deep conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door. Aryn jumped out of the bed and pointed to her wardrobe. In a flash, Tamas was out of bed and hiding in the wardrobe. Aryn frantically threw on her nightgown. “Who is it?” she asked.

“It's Captain Gedon, your Majesty.”

Aryn adjusted her night gown to make sure that it looked like she'd been wearing it the whole time and it wasn't just crumpled on her floor, as it had been. Once she was confident that she wouldn't arouse suspicion she opened the door. “What's so important that you need to wake me at this hour?”

“It's Mahla, your Majesty.”

“Did she escape?”

“What? No!” said the gray-haired captain of the guard. “No, actually one of the servants went down to change her sheets, accompanied by several of my guards. Mahla protested that she didn't need new sheets, which made the guards all the more suspicious. She tried to hang onto them, but the servant pried them from her hands. There was blood on Mahla's sheets.”

“Mahla is injured?”

“No, actually,” said Captain Gedon. “The guards had her strip down so that they could look her over for wounds. She wasn't wounded anywhere. The blood was from...well, let's just say we know she was lying about being pregnant.”

Aryn's eyes widened when she heard this. “How many guards are watching Mahla's cell right now?”

“Ten.”

“Double it!” said Aryn. “She knows we know she's not pregnant. That means she'll do anything to escape before we can execute her. If she escapes she could get some followers together and start the whole civil war all over again.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” said Captain Gedon.

Once he was gone and the door shut again, Tamas emerged from the wardrobe. “You're planning on a public execution?”

“Of course,” said Aryn. “The people need to know she's dead, and they deserve the chance to be a part of that.”

“A public execution means a chance for rescue,” said Tamas. “You could just have her killed in her cell.”

“I really don't think I could,” said Aryn. “Even if I display her body after there will be those who doubt she was really killed at all. We need people to spread the word that they saw the exact moment she met her end.”

The next morning the guards took Mahla to the city square. All the while she was calm, somber, and quiet. “My husband will come to my rescue. Sahar loves me, and even if he doesn't he needs me. He can't be King of Arx without me.” She winced as the sunlight burned her eyes. She'd been in darkness for so long she'd almost forgotten what blue skies on a sunny day looked like. In spite of the fact that she couldn't see, she knew exactly where she was when she heard the crowd's jeering.

“Murderer!”

“Whore!”

“Liar!”

“Stone her! Stone her!”

“No, burn her at the stake!”

“Yes, like she did to my mum!”

As Mahla walked on, her shackles and manacles clanking with each step, her eyes adjusted to the light and she could finally see them. Filthy, disease-ridden commoners lining the streets. To her surprise, though, they weren't the only ones in the crowd demanding her head. Further back she could see knights and members of various noble houses. The treachery of it all, the injustice. Many of these same noble houses had supported her rise to power, and now they had betrayed her as soon as it was convenient. But Mahla was not afraid. She was certain Sahar would be there to save her. She just had to keep an eye out for him. If not him then surely the Inquisition would send someone to save their queen. She'd helped the Inquisition spread its faith all over Arx, surely they would not let her die.

She was dragged up to a post that had been hammered into the ground, and her chains were linked to several padlocks attached to that post. After she'd bitten off the guard's thumb at her trial they certainly couldn't take any chances. She scanned the crowd with her eyes to see if that guard was present. How powerful was the Agalmite priests' healing, exactly? Could they re-attach a lost thumb? She'd always wondered. He was nowhere to be seen. Well, it didn't matter, really. The most Mahla could do right now had he been there would be to gloat about it. She'd have plenty of time to do that once she was queen again.

Aryn approached Mahla, flanked by ten bodyguards. She kept her distance, which made Mahla smirk. This great, powerful queen was still afraid of her. Mahla had a little power here at least, the power to make a queen tremble.

“Mahla,” Aryn began. As soon as she started speaking the crowd quieted down. “You stand charged with heinous crimes. High treason, mass murder, blasphemy...the list goes on and on. As protector of this great kingdom, I, Aryn, Queen of Arx, sentence you to death by stoning, as is our tradition. If you feel true remorse for what you have done then may our God forgive you your sins.”

Mahla said nothing. There was no need for her to speak last words, for she wouldn't need to speak her last words today. Sahar was coming for her, she was sure of it. Over and over she scanned the crowd, looking for some sign that he was near. As she did so it slowly sank in, Sahar wasn't there. He wasn't coming for her. Maybe he had no military strength left, maybe he never cared for her like he claimed, or maybe he was just a coward. In any event, she could see that he wasn't coming.

That was when it truly hit her what she was about to face. Her whole life she had seen miracles, magic abounded everywhere. She'd even seen angels and demons summoned or called into the world. If this didn't prove what religion was right, it at least was evidence that there were powers in the world higher than human beings. If that was the case what would the next life be like? If the Agalmites were right then Mahla had just spent the past two years persecuting followers of that faith. What would their God do to her? She took comfort in the thought that perhaps the True Way was right, and since she'd been its champion for her past two years she felt Sandalphon would surely let her into paradise. But then it occurred to her that while she'd killed plenty of people in the name of the True Way she never truly followed it herself. The religion required its followers to give up worldly pleasures, such as delicious food, drunkenness, sexual relations for fun, and even enjoyable music. Mahla had enjoyed all of those things. Surely, if the True Way was right Sandalphon would still see her as a sinner and never allow her into paradise.

Then she took comfort in the idea that the Nihilites could be right. Yes, the faith of the man who raised her could be right. But then, if that was true, she'd still be wandering Erets forever as a disembodied spirit, suffering the torment of the tyrant God who'd created that world. She'd suffer for countless centuries, until the day finally came that the daemons of the Void finally succeeded and put an end to it all.

She started going over every possibility in her head. Perhaps if the cult of the Mother and Father is right? No, then she would have been a woman taking lives, those gods frowned on that. Besides, the pieces of her soul would just be divided up and formed into a new soul. What if the Saburan necromancers and bokors were right? Well, they believed in surviving through your descendants, and in praying to your ancestors. For a moment Mahla felt confident that her ancestors would welcome her into their halls as one of their own, one who fought for her rightful place as a member of their family. But then she realized that she had persecuted the faith of her ancestors, and torn apart almost everything they'd ever worked for, all for her own ambitions. Perhaps if the Western Pagans were right? No, she'd never prayed to any of their gods. Perhaps the Bear-Worshippers of Shadia? No, she'd killed bears and murdered bear shamans. They would never bring her back on “Winter's End,” the day of resurrection. Even if no god or religion was truly “right” in that sense she certainly would not be remembered fondly. What sort of legacy would she leave?

No matter who was right, as far as Mahla could tell, she was damned. The horrifying nature of everything she was about to face crashed over her in a wave. In an instant she thought back to all of the things she should have done, all of the things she shouldn't have done. So many ways she could have redeemed herself, so many ways she could have left the world better than it was when she'd entered it. So much wasted potential; she felt as if her whole life had been for nothing. Why had she ever bothered to live? Would she have been better off had Tyson simply left her in that burning house? Would she have been better off dying in one of her early battles? Would then she have not lost her innocence or abused her potential to make the world an even worse place than it already had been? The wealth and power that came with being queen; she could take none of that with her when she left. No higher power would treat her as a queen. She'd disappear into the darkness of torment, forever remembered as a waste and a bad joke. She screamed out for mercy, with the sudden wish to undo all the wrong she'd ever done, if for no other reason than to leave behind better memories.

But it was too late. The first stone struck Mahla in the forehead, right between her eyes, and she fell over in white-hot pain. She heard a loud ringing, along with the muffled voices of everyone shouting at her. There was noise, there was light, there was pain, and then there was nothing.

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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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