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Chapter XXXI

At noon the lookouts spotted the Digan army marching on Caelum. The legions divided up and formed ranks surrounding the academy, but all far outside of bow range. Atius spread his soldiers out across the horizon, impressing upon the paladins within Caelum the sheer numbers they were about to face.

Milo was chained up in a small wagon, surrounded by Atius' soldiers. He would be forced to watch the battle, and know that if the Arxians started raining arrows or debris on the Digans he himself may die alongside his enemies.

Atius rode out in front of his legions and shouted out to them, “Soldiers of the Digan Empire, today we seize glory for ourselves! In just a few short years, the city of Diga rose up and conquered the surrounding cities, uniting them under one banner for one purpose. Standing together, the cities of the West will no longer suffer barbarian attacks, pirate raids, or in-fighting. Now we will show all the world the strength of men of the West. By working together we will show all the world that with the courage of our hearts we can accomplish anything. The land of Arx is a paradise with fertile fields, where no one has to go hungry. Our ancestors, long ago, were denied this land because we would not submit to the oppressive laws of the ancient Arxians' religion. This academy is where those who enforce that oppression train. It is a symbol of the might of their Law. Once we tear it down we will put an end to their hold on this fertile land, and our children's children shall inherit all you see. Look around you, look at the beauty of these green fields and blue mountains. This paradise is what your descendants shall inherit, and all because on this day we crushed the Arxians' strongest fortress!”

The Digans erupted into applause, a roar that echoed off the mountain behind Caelum. Those inside the academy could not make out what Atius was saying, but they could feel the reverberations from his legions cheering. Magdiel watched from one of the towers over-looking the main gate, and prayed the strategy he had come up with would work.

The Digans prepared trebuchet for firing, and Magdiel had his geomancers on standby. Not a stone was to hit the academy, every boulder was to be thrown back at the invaders. He heard the snap and whistling of the trebuchet and the geomancers prepared to use their magic. To their surprise, however, the projectiles coming from the trebuchet were not stone, but, in fact, wood.

Flaming wooden barrels smashed into the academy's walls. The windows were made of precious crystals, so the barrels rarely broke through there. Some fell short of the academy entirely. The oil in the barrels caught fire, but the fire burned outside of the academy.

As the paladins and geomancers inside of Caelum laughed at this apparently foolish strategy, Magdiel felt a chill come over him. He knew that Atius was a great strategist, but for the life of him he could not figure out why such a great strategist would launch wooden barrels at stone walls. Certainly he had to know that stone didn't burn. All he could hear in the laughter around him was a false sense of security, something Atius was probably counting on.

More barrels struck the academy's walls, and the oil splashed down into the fire burning in front of Caelum. The flames leaped up, but the walls of Caelum were so thick that those inside couldn't even feel the heat. Yet, as the smoke rose higher and higher, in thicker plumes, Magdiel began to realize what Atius was actually trying to accomplish. Not enough windows had broken for the smoke to leak into the academy's halls, but enough smoke billowed in front of the academy to obscure their vision.

By now, however, Magdiel had realized Atius' plan too late. More barrels fell short of Caelum and fueled the inferno burning in front of the academy. The fire was nowhere near hot enough to catch the green and fertile fields surrounding Caelum, so Atius could be sure the blaze would be contained. The veil of smoke enveloped Caelum entirely, until the entire fortress was obscured, and no one inside could see what was going on outside.

Some had stopped laughing as the reality of what was going on dawned on them. Others were still laughing so hard their sides hurt. All stopped laughing when something big smashed into the walls of the academy and one of the windows shattered.

“Of course!” Magdiel said as he the fullness of Atius' strategy occurred to him. He'd studied enough about Arx to know that besieging an Arxian fortress by bombarding it with rocks was counter-productive because the Arxian geomancers could manipulate stone. However, he'd also studied enough to know that they need to be able to see what they are doing in order to accomplish this, especially if the stones are hurtling through the air at such a speed.

More huge stones smashed into the side of the fortress, followed by small, sharp stones. Atius couldn't tell if he'd broken any windows, or whereabouts those windows would be. Still, he could blindly bombard Caelum for days on end if he had to. The only way those inside would be able to fight back would be if they sent their warriors out to face him, and then he'd have his chance to get inside. He had each of his trebuchet rotating between launching boulders, launching sharp stones and shrapnel, and finally launching more barrels full of oil. He wanted to keep that thick smoke screen over the academy. Let the blindness drive them to panic as their home was crushed.

Magdiel shouted to one of the paladins over the sound of the rocks smashing into the academy, “Tell Herevel to move out now! We need a counter-attack!”

“Yes, sir!”

Geomancers were already at work repairing the damage that the Digans' trebuchet had done, but with the windows shattered smoke poured into the academy itself. The geomancers choked and their eyes watered as they struggled to plug up any holes in Caelum's walls.

The window in front of Magdiel shattered and he dropped to avoid the flying bits of crystal. Tiny, sharp stones cut his skin wherever it was exposed, and he curled up to defend vital parts of his body. The next sound he heard, though, was not the sound of a stone hitting the academy's walls, but of something crashing and snapping into the floor near him. Before he even looked he already knew what had happened. One of the flaming barrels full of oil had flown in through the broken window and had caught fire to the rug in the room.

Magdiel fled from the room, shouting, “Fire! There's fire!” Immediately paladins set out to heap buckets of water on the blaze to put it out. As they stood in that room, throwing water on the fire sharp stones hailed in through the window and pierced their armor.

Now it was Atius' soldiers who laughed as they could hear the panicked screams of everyone inside of the academy. As far as they could tell, Atius intended to keep bombarding Caelum until the whole thing crumbled. But Atius knew that his forces would not be able to keep up this bombardment forever. Eventually the paladins inside would have to retaliate.

And retaliate they did. With all of the laughter and noise among Atius' legionaries they did not notice the sound of holes ripping open in the ground near them. Not until Herevel had already emerged with his army of golems, popping up within the Digans' ranks. They'd taken the ancient tunnels underneath the academy and had geomancers dig a few more for the sake of this surprise attack.

As Milo looked on, Herevel leaped from the hole in the ground and split the first soldier he saw in half with his obsidian saber. Golems rose up, grabbed Digan legionaries, and smashed their heads against the ground. The Digan soldiers took war-hammers and beat at the golems. Each strike chipped at the golems' stone bodies.

Herevel spotted Milo and ran towards him. All the while Digan legionaries stabbed Herevel with their spears, only to have the spear-heads bend and break against Herevel's body. Herevel severed the chains around Milo's wrists and said, “Retreat to the tunnels.”

Milo didn't need to be told twice. He grabbed a spear off of the nearest fallen legionnaire and ran for the nearest tunnel entrance. Legionaries moved to block his path, and he fought them with his spear. The spear-head was stuck in the first one's chest, so he leaped upon the next one and broke his jaw with his brick-hard fist. A paladin was never truly unarmed.

Acolytes of the Father joined in the battle, chanting their macabre incantations. Golems crumbled before them, and the Digans began to gain the upper hand once again.

With much of the confusion subsiding, Atius could finally see how the golems had come upon them. He'd read about the tunnels underneath Caelum, and had hoped that the Arxians would attempt to use this against him, for it was his way in. “Continue the bombardment. Legionaries, storm the tunnels!”

Legionaries dropped into the tunnels with torches in hand. The geomancers inside of the tunnels had been told what to do if the Digans attempted to take the tunnels, however. With waves of their hands they caused the paths before them to collapse. The ground above shook and fell, and legionaries still above ground stumbled.

Milo pushed his way through the Digan legionaries, grabbing weapons off of them whenever he could. He ran for the nearest hole in the ground, hoping to use one of the tunnels to get into Caelum. Legionaries chased after him with swords and spears. He ducked under their strikes and crushed their faces with his fists. He was so used to fighting in full armor that when he wasn't wearing it he felt as nimble as an acrobat.

When Milo dropped into the hole, however, he found that the tunnel had already been sealed. A dead end. He beat his fist on the wall of dirt and shouted out, “It's Milo! Let me through!” Yet, no matter how much he pleaded and how loudly he screamed it seemed that the geomancers on the other side couldn't even hear him over the sounds of the battle above ground.

Knowing he would have to return to the battle above ground in order to escape, Milo steeled himself, said a silent prayer, and picked up one of the Digans' dropped swords.

As the acolytes chanted, the golems crumbled one after another. Atius had his soldiers load the pieces of the broken golems into the trebuchet and launch them at Caelum. If any recognizable part got through the windows it would show those inside that their plan had failed, and hopefully break their spirits.

Milo grabbed one of the legionaries' shields and smashed through the Digans in his way. With his right arm he lashed out the stolen blade at every enemy soldier who dared come close. Then he heard a rumbling, and before his very eyes the ground underneath the soldiers in front of him ripped open. They fell screaming into deep pits, and were immediately buried alive. Milo jumped back from the tear in the ground. Apparently, the geomancers were hitting the Digans from below. This was a clever strategy, but Milo realized that if they continued this plan he'd be likely to fall in one of the pits. He needed to get off of this battlefield as soon as possible.

Atius spotted the gleam of a small mirror on the side of the mountain behind Caelum and gave a knowing smile. “Cease the bombardment!” he ordered. The trebuchet immediately stopped launching stones at the academy, though the smoke still shrouded the old fortress.

As soon as Magdiel realized that the bombardment had ceased, and long before sunset, he knew exactly what it meant. “Send our people to protect any gaps in the walls big enough for full-grown men to fit through! They're coming in!”

Magdiel rushed with the other paladins through the halls to find any possible entry-points. They spotted one clear down at the end of a hallway and ran for it. Before they'd even gotten close, however, men wearing black coats and dark scarfs wrapped around their faces climbed in, smoke trailing in with them. Each Black Coat held a crossbow, and bolts began to fill the air. The paladins rushing the Black Coats took cover behind whatever they could find, but some were not so fortunate and took bolts in the chest.

Magdiel knocked an arrow to his bow and loosed it on the approaching Black Coats. The diamond arrow-head ripped through the closest mercenary's chain-mail armor, and he hit the ground. The other Black Coats stepped over their fallen comrade as they ran in, swords drawn.

The paladins inside Caelum's halls roared as they charged the invading mercenaries. The two armies met in the middle, and a clash so loud it shook the walls reverberated through the hall. Sparks flew and blood painted the walls as the paladins and mercenaries fought. Magdiel tried to pick out a clean shot, but the skirmish was such a mess that he risked hitting one of his own if he loosed any arrows there.

“Cover your faces!” Atius called out. His soldiers all began donning scarves around their mouths and brows, protection against the smoke. Once Atius had given all of them a chance to obey his last command, he called out, “Charge!”

The cavalry took off in a full gallop. They charged through the smoke, sprang over the flames, and searched for the biggest gap in the walls they could find. Geomancers inside, however, had already closed off most of the gaps. One paladin inside of the walls of Caelum saw the passing cavaliers and cried out, “They're at the walls! The archers can hit them!”

Word traveled through the halls, and Magdiel soon joined the archers on the floor above. All of them stood at narrow slits in the walls, and had been prepared to loose arrows upon the enemy since the siege began, if ever they drew close enough.

“You'll be firing blind,” said Magdiel, “But fire enough arrows and you're bound to hit at least a few of the bastards! KNOCK ARROWS! AIM! LOOSE!”

Arrows rained down into the smoke-covered field before the academy. With the fires crackling nearby, the cavaliers didn't hear the whistling of the arrows' approach, and with the smoke all around them they didn't see the arrows coming down. Neither did Atius see that volleys of arrows wiped out so many of his cavaliers.

Not knowing that the paladins had turned the tide back in their own favor again, Atius kept his infantry marching on the academy. As far as Atius was concerned this was the moment of his victory, when his soldiers would breach Caelum's walls and shatter Arx's hope. His legionaries had just entered the veil of smoke when a single cavalier rode out of the smoke, his body full of arrows, and he cried out, “They've sealed any way in! And they're raining arrows on us!”

But Atius was determined not to give up after all that he'd done. The Black Coats surely got in, and Atius knew that a bombardment like that last one would not work a second time. “Find the main gate and break it down!” he called out.

Atius' legionaries pushed through the smoke, all while arrows hailed down on them from above. Shield-bearers raised a ceiling of shields over their heads to block the falling missiles. Soon they found the main door of Caelum Academy. Atius already knew, but his soldiers recoiled in horror as they found out that the main door was made of stone. How were they supposed to break this down?

“Clear the way for the acolytes!” Atius commanded. His acolytes, surrounded in a dome of shields, made their way to the front door and began praying to the Father, their god of destruction. As they prayed, cracks appeared in the great, stone doors. Shadows danced across the door. Shadows shaped like tiny hands pulled at the cracks, and the doors began to break apart. Once they were inside, Atius felt confident that with so many soldiers he could take the academy.

But then Atius heard shouting from behind him. He turned and saw the source. Herevel was charging through Atius' soldiers, and they were fleeing as this unstoppable “masked paladin” slashed at them with his obsidian sword. With more soldiers running to get out of his way than to stop him, Herevel was making good time straight at Atius' acolytes.

“Acolytes! Angel behind you!” Atius called out.

The Acolytes of the Father ceased their chanting to break apart the stone doors and turned their attention to the advancing angel. “Irae di Pater! Irae di Pater!” The shield-bearers held close together, hoping to at least slow the advancing enemy.

Knowing there was no point in hiding it anymore, Herevel spread his black, crystal wings. The sharp, obsidian feathers tore through the robes that had been Herevel's disguise, and he flew at the acolytes. The shield-bearers braced themselves as this black angel smashed into them. The shield-bearers all fell back from the force of the blow, some of them falling onto the acolytes. Herevel hacked at the shield-bearers in his way like a butcher chops meat, though far more frantic. As far as he could tell, the Acolytes of the Father were the only way Atius could breach Caelum's walls, and the only way they could even fight an army of angels. Once they were out of the way Atius' invasion was sure to fail.

Legionaries with clubs, flails, axes, and war-hammers all rushed Herevel and hit him as hard as they could. None of the blows did anything to harm Herevel's crystal body, but the impact of each blow slowed him down just a little. Herevel reached one of the acolytes and split him in two. Then another, and another. All the while the acolytes prayed their prayers and black smoke swirled around Herevel. He flailed and thrashed, trying to keep the smoke from reaching his face. His sword slashed randomly, and he killed two more acolytes. Then, the sword lodged itself in the rib-cage of one of the soldiers who'd been attacking Herevel. With his bare-hands he continued the assault. He beat on the shields of every shield-bearer who got in his way. He strangled and crushed the throat of any soldier he could get his hands on. Atius watched on with a sense of both worry and wonder. Anyone who fought with such courage and ferocity was a warrior who deserved respect, even if he was fighting on the wrong side.

Just as Herevel came upon the last acolyte, however, the black smoke found its way into his mouth and his eyes. Herevel cried out as cracks appeared all over his body, the wrath of the Digans' god of death wracking him with pain. With his last moment he reached out and grabbed the face of the last acolyte standing, but before he could do anything to harm him his whole body crumbled into black, glass dust.

Atius cheered, and soon all his men did with him, but they were immediately reminded of the rain of arrows falling down upon them. “Break this door!” Atius shouted. “Acolyte, you heard me, break this door!”

The acolyte who'd just had such a close brush with death continued his chant, and shadows danced over the great stone door once again. As more and more of the door chipped away, the legionaries could see what was on the other side. To their surprise, the other side of the door was not guarded. There was an empty room, with a great, red tapestry hanging on the wall and a blue rug spread out across a stone floor. Atius almost laughed at the foolish confidence the Arxians had that their door would hold.

The sink-holes had long since ceased opening up, and Milo looked back at the smoke-shrouded academy. He could not abandon them at a time like this. He took armor off of one of the fallen legionaries, as well as the largest war-hammer he could find, and ran back towards the academy.

The door finally broke open, and Atius' legionaries stormed the foyer. The red tapestry tore off the wall, and behind it stood lines of archers, all with arrows knocked. They loosed their arrows at the invading legionaries, and brought the first wave down with this surprise attack. The next wave tripped over their fallen comrades and spilled through the open door. The blue rug on the ground was kicked aside, and paladins rushed up from pits in the floor and attacked the second wave as they came through.

“Push through!” Atius shouted. “Kill them all! This fortress is ours!”

The next wave rushed in, but by the time they stepped through the archers were ready for another volley, and more arrows filled the invading Digans. Almost immediately after that Magdiel led another wave of paladins into the foyer, half armed with melee weapons and half armed with bows. Through that narrow space Atius sent more and more of his soldiers, and they barely even made it over their fallen comrades before they died by arrow-head or by sword. Atius could see a few of his legionaries starting to cower at the idea of attempting to climb over the mound of fallen soldiers before them, and he continued to scream his orders that his soldiers charge in. He knew that eventually the defenders on the other side would grow tired, and then his soldiers could defeat them. All he needed to do was get his legion inside the ancient fortress and his victory was assured.

And yet, the hopelessness of it all began to sink in as he saw them all falling. So many men, all with families who would miss them, all forced into the enemies' blades. They were as sheep led to a slaughter, obedient even though they saw the knife about to cut their throats. Atius felt a cold, emptiness wash over him as it struck him that all of this was purely for the sake of his emperor's greed and pride. He'd justified it in his own mind. Told himself that a victory here would bring prosperity to his people. Told himself that his victory would bring glory to the Mother and Father. But where was the glory in this? Where was the victory in this?

As Atius stared at the carnage, he thought back to how much he'd felt the sting when he lost his daughter all those years ago. The hopelessness that had overwhelmed him that day, and he realized that by sending these countless young men to their deaths he'd condemned mothers and fathers throughout the Digan Empire to mourn their sons. He'd wondered before how a god of justice and a goddess of mercy could have dealt him such a merciless injustice, yet here he was, doing the same thing to unfortunate strangers he'd never meet. What was the point of honoring some divine Mother and Father if you brought tears to the eyes of thousands of mortal mothers and fathers? What madness was Atius bringing to the Mother's creation? And what justice was there in this?

Would his men truly break through? The way the bodies piled up they'd form a new wall of bones and meat soon enough. And if they did break through would it truly matter? Even if they took the fortress and killed every enemy soldier inside, at such a cost could it ever truly be called a victory? No, Atius decided. It could not.

“Retreat!” Atius cried. “RETREAT! GET OUT OF THERE!”

His soldiers did not need to be told twice. They turned and fled from there as fast as they could, with arrows still raining down upon them. Atius hung behind to watch and make sure no foolish centurion, or even decanus, would order his men to ignore their legate's orders and continue the assault.

To his astonishment, he did see one legionnaire, a tall one, running against the flow. Was this one legionnaire so obsessed with winning this battle that he would throw his own life away? Perhaps he'd gone blood-drunk, and after seeing so many of his companions fall wanted vengeance. Atius could understand that, and knew he'd never dissuade a young man with a heart sent on vengeance from his course. Atius simply stood and waited, to honor this young man's last moment.

The legionnaire carried a war-hammer, and ran like a wild stallion. Atius admired the determination he could see in this soldier's eyes. Only when this soldier drew close to him did he realize that something was not quite right. The legionnaire was older than most, and his facial features looked distinctly Arxian.

By the time he realized that this was Milo in legionnaire armor it was too late. Milo smashed Atius in the chest with the war-hammer, knocking him to the ground. Legionaries nearby rushed to Atius' side and dragged him away as others chased Milo away with spears. Legionaries threw Atius onto the back of a horse and hit the horse, causing it to gallop away. Milo dodged and weaved as arrows flew down at him from overhead. Surely, his comrades would not recognize him in Digan armor, his only hope was to disappear into the Digans' ranks once again.

Just as Milo reached the main, retreating force, however, the ground beneath them began to shake again. Milo knew what it meant and braced himself. The ground tore open again, this time in a series of pits and sink-holes so vast they swallowed up most of the retreating Digan soldiers. Milo fell with the enemy soldiers, crashing into them on the way down. The last thing he saw before the world around him went dark and cold was the dirt closing back up over he and the Digan legion.

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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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