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Chapter XXIX

“This is an outrage! I am the rightful King of Nihilus, and I will not be treated like this! Unhand me now!”

The Unchained soldiers forced Sahar down into a hard, wooden chair, their metal gauntlets pushing down on his shoulders. “High Archaya, this young man claims to be Elykos. We will leave the decision of what to do with him up to you.”

“Thank you,” said Quillan, and the two soldiers left the room. Quillan stood from his spot on the floor, where he'd been sitting in quiet mediation. “So, why are you here?”

“I am Elykos, Therion's heir, Aeon from the Void, and rightful King of Nihilus, as I told those stupid brutes mere moments ago,” said Sahar. “And loyal Nihilites are to treat me with respect! I want those men flogged for the way they treated me!”

“And why would you want them flogged? The Unchained no longer fear physical pain, just the same as they are no longer tempted by physical pleasures.. We understand that we are but spirits trapped within chains made of meat and bone.”

“I want them punished for disrespecting me!”

“And what have you done to earn their respect?”

“I told you, I am the rightful King of Arx, and an Aeon from the Void!”

Quillan nodded his head. “Yes, I heard that part already. Why does that mean they should respect you?”

“Because...because I am...” Sahar paused a moment, focused his gaze on Quillan's eyes, and then, without breathing a word, spoke inside Quillan's mind, “I am a daemon of the Void. You worship me.”

“I believe you are who you claim to be,” said Quillan, “and I believe you are powerful, but power does not earn respect, neither does a simple birthright. Not if you are chained.”

“How dare you?”

Quillan stood and paced the room. “You are a daemon, yes. So are we. Human beings are just daemons who were captured by Saklas long ago, and their souls were trapped within these flawed bodies. That means that since you have a human body you are no different from any other human being when all is said and done. It doesn't matter where your soul came from, from whose loins you were conceived, or from whose womb you were born, what matters is whether or not you are chained.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” barked Sahar.

“Are you slave to the pleasures of this world?”

“What?”

“You heard my question. Answer.”

“Of course not! I hate this world!” said Sahar.

“You believe yourself free of the illusions that Saklas has set before you?”

“Of course I am free! I'm here to destroy this world and make everyone else free as well!”

“Then tell me what I am. What do you see when you look at me?”

“What the...what kind of riddle is this?”

“Tell me. What do you think I am?”

“You're a man. A fecking annoying one! A dead one if you keep insulting me!”

“Wrong. I am not a man, neither am I a woman. I am a spirit. Sex is but one more illusion Saklas has placed over our eyes. Gender is meant to define us and the lusts of the flesh to blind us. Why should my reproductive parts define who I am? Would you define me any differently were I to have an extra finger or only one eye? You are chained.”

“So what? You think you're better than me because you can see beyond all this schyte?”

“No. Not better. More satisfied, but never better,” said Quillan. “Until such time as you can see past all of these illusions you will always be chained. You are suffering, but you don't even know it. A man in a pit full of rats is content so long as the rats stay quiet and the pit remains dark. When a lit lantern falls into his pit and the rats stir the man is no longer content, and so he seeks his way out of the pit, into the light and to his freedom. Erets is a pit of rats. The Unchained are those who seek to climb out of that pit, and shine a light upon others who have fallen in so that they can see the filth around them. Once you have cast off your chains you will gain the respect you seek.”

“And then you will help me reclaim my crown?” asked Sahar.

“Your crown? To be the King of Nihilus? Dear friend, I ask you, when Erets is destroyed what is Nihilus? But a memory of a kingdom that tried to be free of Saklas, only to fail at every turn. Your own father and mother gave in to the temptations of the flesh, otherwise you would not be here today. You must be better than either of them. Stronger than Therion, wiser than Deidra.”

“You insult me and everything that makes me who I am!” Sahar shouted.

“No. I celebrate everything that makes you who you are,” said Quillan. “It is you who insults yourself. You define yourself by your birthright? Foolishness! You are more than that! It is you, an Aeon from the Void who should be teaching us, but the tyrant God of Erets has blinded you. You are far greater than you realize. You will never understand who and what you truly are, everything you can be, so long as you define yourself the way that the Enemy would have you define yourself. You are not Elykos, son of Therion and heir to Nihilus. You are Elykos who has embraced the Path of Chaos, the one destined to liberate all of us from Saklas' grip! You are not Sahar, Grand Duke of Arx. You are Sahar, born with the power to speak to the hearts and minds of the people and help them to realize true enlightenment! You are the spirit of freedom who can show us the way back home. You've merely forgotten who you are. The Unchained shall remind you of everything you are destined to be.”

As the words sank in, Sahar felt a strange sense of purpose that he'd never felt before. So much of what Quillan was saying seemed so true. He'd thought, at first, that he...or she...whatever, intended to insult and demean him, but as Quillan spoke Sahar came to realize just how worthless such a title as “King of Nihilus” truly was. All of Erets was nothing, when all was said and done. This he'd known his whole life. It was time to stop fighting for worldly power, which was fleeting, and still subject to the will of Saklas. He needed to remember who he truly was. Only then could he put an end to the illusion of Erets and receive the worship he truly deserved in the Void.

“What must I do?” Sahar asked.

“Listen to us,” said Quillan. “Learn from us. Remember that you are more than the body that binds you. Once you are ready we will march west. Together we will set the world on fire.”

. . .

Pleasant dreams. Dreams of times gone past. Dreams of childhood games with Hadar and Sarahi. Dreams of the days when they were students and life was simpler. Dreams of Sarahi's sweet kisses, and of their marital bed. Dreams of holding his daughter when she was still a baby. Dreams of the moment she first called him “Father.” Pleasant dreams. Dreams to make him forget the terrible reality of the present.

When Milo awakened he was chained to two posts in a tent made of a red fabric. He recognized the symbol on the side of the tent as the flag of the Digan Empire. He was a prisoner of war. At the moment, he could not think of a worse fate.

“Looks like he's awake,” said a woman's voice within the tent.

“Good. Glad you were able to save him,” said a man's voice. The voice was older, judging by the sound of it.

Milo looked up as a man with a white beard wearing a Digan uniform approached him. Milo barely recognized the man, having only previously seen him from a distance. “Atius,” Milo wheezed.

“Legate Atius,” the man corrected him. “General, if 'legate' is hard for your Arxian tongue to pronounce properly.”

“I think I've read this book before,” said Milo. “This is the part where you torture me and I tell you I'll never tell you anything, then you come up with some clever way to make me talk?”

“No,” said Atius. “I will not torture you. I know the paladins of Caelum would all rather die than talk. You're far more valuable to me in one piece. Would you like me to have one of the acolytes here feed you some breakfast?” Atius gestured to the women in the tent. Each wore blue robes, and Milo recognized their uniform as the same one worn by the woman who was healing Digan soldiers on the battlefield. That explained how Milo had survived his wounds.

“I'm not hungry.”

“Not yet, anyway,” said Atius. “Really, though we are enemies I want you to understand that I hold you in the highest respect. Any man willing to fight so fervently, suffer, and even die for his cause has earned my respect. Any man who takes life has earned the Father's respect as well.”

“The Father?”

“My God,” said Atius. “It is a man's purpose to take life, just as it is a woman's job to create life. A man is a sword, a woman is a chalice. You are a warrior, and thus you fulfill a man's purpose.”

“I help save life too,” said Milo. “I've healed more people than I've killed.”

“No man is perfect,” said Atius. “Though I doubt that's true. In yesterday's battle alone you killed more than most men's share.”

Milo shrugged, and quickly regretted it because of the soreness in both of his shoulders. “Not my fault your strategy was pathetic.”

“Oh, was it?”

“It was. Seriously, I had a harder time fighting the Nihilites way back when, and their leaders were complete idiots.”

“You're not going to hurt my pride, Milo. I know better,” said Atius.

“If I'm not here so that you can interrogate me why are you keeping me alive?”

“I told you. You're valuable to me,” said Atius. “You are the Queen of Arx's father, her real father. Not that twisted...vermin Hadar.” Milo could hear the disgust in Atius' voice as he spoke about Hadar, and he clenched his fists in repressed anger. “Sickening...that you Arxians ever let some man-lover be your king.”

“You call him vermin because of who he was attracted to?” asked Milo. “What vermin gives his life for his people?”

“One who knows he's worthless and has some sense of honor,” said Atius.

Milo was fuming. He wanted nothing more than to break the chains, or rip the posts right out of the ground, and beat Atius to death. It occurred to him, however, that Atius was likely baiting him. Besides, it was not righteous rage to beat a man to death for cruel words he'd said. Milo had to remember that. If he was every going to kill Atius he needed to keep his heart in the right place. It needed to be justice, not vengeance.

“Oh, and your whole country is full of vermin,” said Atius. “Women who fight in wars, men who tend to the home. The Father and Mother made us man and woman for a reason, and the Arxians, Shadians, and Nihilites are all the same in that they disregard the roles they were meant for.” Atius looked Milo in the eye. “It is for this reason that constant war and disaster has befallen the lands of Arx and Nihilus while the Digan Empire has flourished.”

“Trying to justify this invasion as a holy war?” Milo asked.

“No. I know what this war is really about,” said Atius. “My emperor wants your land, and I am here to take it for him. No, I'm merely telling you why your people are doomed to lose, because I respect you, Milo. I respect you as one soldier to another, as one leader to another, as one father to another. I want you to realize the true folly of Arx, and to let go of all delusions that Arx is going to survive this war.”

By this point Milo had already tuned Atius out. He focused his mind instead on prayers. Prayers for the strength to escape and prayers for rescue. He knew that strong as he was he'd never break the chains that held him, not by hand anyway. Neither could he tear the posts out of the ground. If he could get his hands free it would be all he needed in order to escape. No paladin was ever truly disarmed.

Atius rattled on a little while longer about the evils of Arxian society and the kingdom's inevitable doom. Milo wasn't really listening. Finally Atius left the tent to speak with his centurions about the next battle coming up.

. . .

“What's the price of your loyalty?” asked Magdiel.

Devyn said nothing. He merely sat in the chair he was tied to and avoided eye-contact with Magdiel.

“Come on. You're a mercenary. Leader of the Black Coats, right? How much is Atius paying you?”

Still Devyn said nothing.

Magdiel paced for a moment. “Fine. So you have loyalty to your employers. That's all well and good, but how much loyalty do your employers have to you? Do you think they'll rescue you? No? Is it more likely they'll leave you here?”

Devyn whispered something indistinct.

“You'll have to speak up,” said Magdiel.

Again Devyn whispered, and his voice cracked. Magdiel leaned in closer to hear what Devyn was saying. Devyn whispered just a little louder. “Their God is one of death and war. One whose miracles seem far greater than any of those your God has displayed. Arx is about to meet its end. This fortress will fall, and those of you not slaughtered to appease their Father will be made slaves to fill their emperor's treasury.”

Magdiel backed away from his prisoner. “Well, thank you for informing me that Caelum is their next target. Here I was thinking they'd go straight for the capital.” Magdiel smirked at Devyn before leaving the room to inform everyone of what he had learned.

As soon as Magdiel was out of the room he jumped at the deep voice coming from immediately to his left. “I can make him talk.” In a flash he had one of his daggers in his hand and turned to face the source of the voice. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you,” said Herevel, again in the same deep voice.

Magdiel stared into those piercing eyes, the only facial feature visible through Herevel's mask. “You're a paladin, aren't you? Torture...well, it's just something we don't do.”

“I will not torture him,” said Herevel. “I have other ways to get him to tell us what we want to know. Let me speak to him.”

It was not a request, but rather a demand, and Magdiel felt compelled to obey. He held open the door for Herevel and closed the door behind him.

Herevel looked at Devyn. Devyn stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact. “Prisoner! Look at me!” Herevel boomed. Without thinking Devyn met his gaze. “Thank you. So, you are Devyn, leader of the Black Coats, and you are a terrible liar,” said Herevel.

Devyn said nothing.

“The story you always tell of how you lost your left hand is that you were attacked by a mad dog. According to you the dog bit off your hand, but you killed the dog.” Herevel stepped closer to Devyn, until his shadow blocked the light from the nearby candles and Devyn sat in darkness. “An impressive story. If it were true, anyway. No, the way you lost your hand was quite different. Your father was a bandit, and he was killed while your mother was still pregnant with you. She had awful taste in men, because she married another bandit shortly after that. She bore her new husband two children, a boy and a girl. When giving birth to the girl she died and left you in your step-father's care. Your step-father favored his own children over you, as often happens. So much so that when there was food in the house he would make sure his own children were fed before letting you even touch food.” Devyn's fist clenched, and he struggled to maintain his composure. But Herevel could tell that the memories were getting to him, as was his horror at the fact that Herevel knew all about it. “One day you made the mistake of trying to steal cheese off your step-sister's plate. Your step-father didn't like that. In a flash he took the carving knife and cut off your hand, isn't that right?” Devin shook as the memory of that moment washed over him. For just a moment he could feel the cold blade pass through his wrist all over again. “After that day you ran away from home. I can't say I blame you.”

“Why are you bringing this up? What is the point?” Devyn asked.

“I want you to cooperate with us.”

“Apparently you can read my mind, so just take whatever you want to know. Don't torture me with these memories.”

“I can't read your mind, Devyn. I can only see your sins and your lies,” said Herevel. “And your soul is almost black, so there is much to work with. I do not tell you this to torture you, but rather to threaten you. Do you think the Black Coats would respect you as much if they knew the true story of how you lost your hand? Or the truth about the countless other lies you've told them? You have two life-stories, Devyn. One is the story you've told everyone, the other is the truth. You're not even as skilled a swordsman as you pretend to be. What if these lies were revealed?”

“Alright!” Devyn cried out. “What do you want to know?”

“We know now that Atius plans to attack Caelum. Clearly, if his plan is to lay siege to the strongest fortress that was ever built he must have a cunning plan in mind. We want to know what that plan is.”

“I don't know,” said Devyn. When he saw his captor glaring he said, “I swear! I swear I don't know! I just know that he's staking everything on taking Caelum Academy!”

“What do you mean?”

“He says if he can capture Caelum he'll break the spirit of the Arxian people. No one has ever taken this fortress before. Between that and the paladins who train here this place is a symbol of security to all of Arx. If it falls Arx will crumble.”

“And he didn't share his strategies with you?”

“No! I know he wanted the Black Coats to supplement his main army, but he never told me exactly what we'd be doing.”

“I believe you,” said Herevel. “I was hoping you would be more useful to us.”

“So now you kill me?” asked Devyn, having seen this exact scenario play out dozens of times. “I'm no use to you so you kill me?”

“No,” said Herevel. “If you were in my court I would sentence you to die for what you've done, but here in Caelum Academy it is not my place to sentence you. The paladins will decide what to do with you. If I had to venture a guess you'll be a prisoner the rest of your life. They may even sentence you to hard labor. As much as I would like to, I will not be taking your life.”

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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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