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Chapter XXXII

“I hear you're refusing to let the Acolytes of the Mother heal you. Why?”

Atius looked up from the cot where he lay in his bandages. “There's no point.”

“What do you mean there's no point?” asked the centurion. “Sir, as far as they can tell your ribs were shattered and you're bleeding inside. You'll die if they don't heal you!”

“I don't care anymore,” said Atius. “I've done my part to send enough men to meet the Father, now it's time for me to meet him too. Hopefully he'll be pleased with what I've done, because I'm not.”

“What are you talking about? Not pleased? Atius, you've been a great leader!”

“No,” Atius pointed an accusing finger. “A great leader doesn't send men to certain death.”

“You're a military commander. It happens.”

“It shouldn't,” said Atius. “Hundreds...even thousands of men lost their lives for a pointless war fought over jealousy and greed. A good leader doesn't sacrifice men for money and glory. A good leader sacrifices money and glory for men. Gods! How could I have been so blind to that all this time! Why did it take so many deaths to make me see that? I cursed the Father for taking my joy from me, then robbed countless parents of their children!”

“If you've learned a lesson you should live on!” said the centurion. “Sir, you should teach others what you have learned. If you think it's right don't let it die with you!”

“I died a long time ago,” said Atius. “The day I lost my little girl I died. Every day after that has been a walking death. Time for these old bones to rest.”

“Sir!”

“Centurion, you will do one last thing for me.”

“Sir!”

“My last order,” said Atius. “You will obey it, as you have every other order I've ever given. You will tell the men still alive to disband. With such a small force we have no hope of taking Arx anymore. They will leave the legion and live peaceful lives. Those with families should return home to them, but they cannot stay in Diga. Emperor Cyril will treat them as deserters and have them killed if they do. Tell them to leave the Empire. Maybe live here in Arx, or down in Subra. As for you, you will carry this message to Emperor Cyril. Tell him that we suffered utter annihilation at the Academy of Caelum. Exaggerate the numbers so he won't even be looking for survivors or deserters. Furthermore tell him that the Arxians attacked us with the largest army we've ever seen. Maybe if he fears the Arxian army he won't risk kicking the hornet's nest. He knows what happened to Nihilus when they did that. Finally, tell him that I died on the battlefield. You've never disobeyed an order before. Please follow this, my final order.”

“Yes, sir.”

Atius sighed. “There's a pointlessness to life. All it leads to is death. There's no way to escape that inevitable end. But, if that's the case, what place is it of any man to take another's life? Our existence in this world is so fleeting, why should any man work to make another miserable during that brief existence? It's such a waste...”

“Your life was not a waste, sir!”

“Yes, it was,” said Atius. “Now, leave me. I will be dead soon, and I wish to say my last prayers in peace.”

. . .

The sound of trumpets and drums signaled Tamas' arrival at Farrah's fortress. He was caught off guard at first, questioning why the Nihilites greeted him with such fanfare, until he heard exactly what it was they were cheering.

“Prince Amhras arrives!”

“Our rightful king is finally here!”

“Therion's true heir!”

Tamas felt uneasy at the idea that all of these people knew who he truly was, for a moment. As he let it sink in, however, and he listened to their cheers and adulation he found himself glad that Erelah had told them who he truly was. He never imagined he'd be greeted as a king, especially since Sahar was the elder twin, if only by minutes.

Tamas did his best to give a courtly wave, as he had seen the princes of Uvino do. This simple gesture only made the crowds cheer even louder.

Farrah came out to greet him in the most elegant and dignified clothes she could find. She wanted her people to remember this as the day that their noble leader joined forces with their king. When they spoke of this moment years from now they would speak of her as if she were a queen.

Farrah curtsied to Tamas as she drew close, and offered her hand for him to kiss. Tamas took her hand and, indeed, gave her the kiss she asked for. Her skin was surprisingly soft on his lips, and the smell of sweet perfume filled his nostrils.

“Prince Amhras, I'm glad to meet you at last,” said Farrah.

“And I you, Lady Farrah. Thank you so much for leading and caring for my people in my absence.”

“Please follow me,” said Farrah. “We have much to discuss.”

Tamas left the square as the teeming masses all around him chanted, “Amhras! Amhras! Amhras! Amhras!” He never imagined he'd feel such pride when anyone said his true name.

In Farrah's office Erelah already sat in wait. Tamas almost didn't recognize her with her dark hair. Also in the room were Lemuel and Mave, who were standing so close that they were only a hair's breadth from touching. Tamas nodded to them, and took a seat across the desk from Farrah.

Farrah took her seat and began. “Let's start with this, Erelah said you would have proof that you are indeed Therion's heir. You truly are just as comely as the late king is said to have been, but she said you had proof that you are an Aeon.”

Tamas looked at Erelah, who nodded to him. He turned back to Farrah and said, “This I shall prove before all of my subjects. I'll display my power before the people who'll be counting on me.”

Farrah smiled. “A public display of power? Good! Word will spread and we'll gain even more followers. Tell me, how much do you know of the current situation?”

“I know my maniac brother is uniting the most extreme Nihilites under his leadership and leading them west. He intends to conquer Nihilus first, and then destroy all of Erets.”

“It's worse than that, even,” said Farrah. “The Nihilites he's working with are a group called the Unchained. Have you heard of them?”

“Can't say I have.”

“Even the most extreme Nihilites, the ones who truly want to see this world come to an end, typically don't have the guts to actually make it happen. They fear suffering, and death. And who can deny that the pleasures of this world are just plain, damn fun? Well, the Unchained have taught themselves to fear neither death nor suffering, and they have nothing but disgust for the pleasures of this world. No, truly!” Farrah could see the skeptical look on Tamas' face. “They consider themselves free and the rest of us slaves. I've even heard reports that they have weapons capable of actually bringing about the end they desire.”

“Sounds like these people are every Nihilite's dream,” said Tamas. “Forgive me, but you're a Nihilite, aren't you? Not just by birth, but also by faith? You pray to Prunikos? Can you really fault these people for being more devout than you are?”

“Piety is all well and good, but these people are converting people to their extreme sect at the point of a sword. I can't tolerate that. True faith doesn't come under duress.”

“But Nihilites still want the end of the world because they see this world as a prison and its God as a tyrant. Isn't that what you want?”

Farrah sighed. “I believe there are better things waiting for us in the Void, infinite possibilities, and joys that would put Erets to shame, but I don't think the end of Erets would be the best way to get that.”

“So you don't think Saklas is a tyrannical God?”

“Of course he is!” said Farrah. “We are born in Erets, incapable of leaving. Even after we die souls either go to Saklas' heaven, which is deep under the surface of Erets, or they wander the surface world invisible and intangible, except to those who practice necromancy. Every perceived method of escape from Erets has been proven nothing more than a superstition. Saklas may have created a beautiful world, but if we have no possibility of leaving it then it's a gilded cage at best.”

“Then you would want to see the world destroyed?”

“No,” said Farrah. “For the sake of those who prefer their cage, no. I just seek to make the best of my eternity in this prison. Certainly murdering the innocent and forcing people to embrace misery isn't going to help anything. That's why the Unchained and your brother need to be stopped.”

Erelah laughed. “If only more Nihilites thought like this.” She nodded. “While certainly I am not happy that thou callest my God a tyrant, thy views are more acceptable than most held by thy kind.”

“I agree,” said Tamas. “Very well. When I am king I will make you a spiritual adviser to all of the realm. If more people come to think as you do Arx and Nihilus may see peace after all.”

“My liege,” said Farrah, bowing her head. “I would be honored!”

“That's a dangerous position to put her in,” said Mave.

“Any position of power is dangerous,” said Farrah.

“No, my lady, I don't think you understand,” said Mave. “You don't even practice daemon-conjuring. How are you to be a spiritual leader to these people? Teachings won't be enough.”

“You don't practice conjuring?” Tamas asked.

“I do not,” said Farrah.

“Well, no matter,” said Tamas. “An Aeon will declare you a spiritual leader, I think that's authority enough. Besides, you can learn conjuring, I'm sure.”

“So, what's our next move?” Farrah asked.

“I thought you'd know,” said Tamas.

“No! I thought that as our future king you'd have a plan.”

Tamas laughed. “I didn't even know you intended to make me your king until I walked up just a half hour ago.”

Erelah chimed in again. “First of all, Tamas must display his power before his people so that word can spread and countless Nihilites will flock here to fight for him. Then he must choose a place to establish as his 'Seat of Power.'”

“Seat of power?” Tamas asked.

“A capital. A place that thou wilt call thy home while here in Nihilus. A place where thy people may come to thee.”

“Right...right. Anyone got a map of Nihilus?”

“Of course! What sort of military leader would I be without one?” Farrah asked. She reached into her desk and produced a rolled scroll of paper.

Tamas took the paper, unrolled it, and looked it over. “I'll want something central, and with some history behind it. What's this spot here?”

Farrah craned her head and looked at the spot he was pointing at. “That's the old Temple of Henwen.”

“The first Aeon?”

“Yes. No one's been there since King Sulaiman murdered her and banned all reverence to her ages ago.”

“That's where my capital will be,” said Tamas. “What place could possibly be more fitting than that ancient place?”

“Brilliant plan!” said Farrah. “Remind people of a time before King Sulaiman! When Henwen was here she was leading the Nihilite people to a better age, an age of peace and reason. Remind them of Henwen's teachings, and how our people got so off track from the right path.”

“It is perfect!” said Erelah. “In the morning, Amhras, gather thy people together for thy demonstration, and then announce this plan to take and re-build the Temple of Henwen. For now, Tamas, thou should rest for the night.”

. . .

With much more fanfare and cheering, Tamas retired to the guest room set aside for him, outside of which seven of Farrah's soldiers stood guard.

Late into the night, when even the chirping crickets had fallen asleep, Farrah slipped out of her bedroom wearing a silk robe over her bare skin. She crept through the darkness, hands nearly trembling with anticipation. She hadn't been able to keep her mind off of Tamas since they'd spoken earlier. Certainly this was because he was handsome, any woman could see that, but more importantly it was because he was soon to become the king. Tamas said he'd support her as a spiritual leader in Nihilus, but she wasn't content with that. She knew that if she could only win his affections she could become Queen of Nihilus. Surely, like any man, he would be subject to her seduction. She'd not met a man yet who wouldn't practically worship her for even the faint hope of lying between her legs. Which was all she gave most men she hoped to manipulate. Faint hope.

The moon was just barely waning that night, giving Farrah the cover of near complete darkness for her salacious deed. She could already feel the rush and tingling in her lower abdomen, the anticipation of the imminent ecstasy.

“Farrah, cease,” came Erelah's child-like voice from nearby. Her voice was not angry, neither was it a reprimand. Erelah almost sounded like a friend giving advice.

“Don't what?” asked Farrah.

“I know what thou art here to do. Thou desirest to seduce Amhras, yes?” Erelah said and shook her head. “I understand why. He is an handsome in appearance and handsome in form. In my last life I might have been inclined to pursue a man like that for a husband myself. Then there is all the power that thou couldst claim if thou did. But know that he will not give in to thy seductions. Another has his love.”

“I can change his mind about that,” said Farrah with a lustful look.

“Thou wilt not,” said Erelah. “All that an attempt to seduce him will do for thee is make matters strange between thee.” Erelah walked up to Farrah and took both her hands in her own. “Thou needest not do this to get the power thou desirest. I know this much, thou shalt be a great leader to thy people, and thou wilt accomplish that with thy heart and mind, not with thy body.”

Farrah opened her mouth as if to speak, but she couldn't think of any words to say.

“Farrah, I must apologize to thee.”

“What sin have you committed against me?” said Farrah. “Since you've been here you've been nothing but helpful.”

“I have sinned in thought,” said Erelah. “When I first came here, to Nihilus, I expected to find that thou couldst not be reasoned with, that my attempts to make peace with thee would only be a token effort. I expected that I would have to slay thee with thy people in order to rescue Mother Galia and protect Arx.” Erelah beamed at Farrah. The look was both affectionate and proud. “I cannot tell thee how overjoyed I am that this proved not the case. Farrah, the God I serve has feared for the longest time that the Nihilite people and the demons of the Void would one day succeed in destroying his beautiful work. He has known for centuries now that there can never be peace between his people and thine so long as the demons are at war with him. Now...well, he has finally seen that peace is possible, and it is in no small part thanks to thee.”

Farrah smiled and shrugged.

“There's more,” said Erelah. “He has told me that though thou art not what thou claimest to be there is much more to thee than seems. Thou needest not be Cory's daughter to be a great leader, neither must thou be Amhras' wife. Thou wilt lead the people of Nihilus on thine own merits. Thou art far more than thou yet realize, and the day will soon come when everyone will know thy true worth. And it will be because of what's in here.” Erelah touched Farrah's forehead, “and because of what's in here.” Erelah touched Farrah's chest. “No, Farrah, not thy bosom. Clean thy mind.”

Farrah laughed, though her eyes were welling up with tears at Erelah's sweet words. “Thank you.”

“I must leave now,” said Erelah. “Thou needest not my assistance anymore, and, honestly, thy cause will not survive if I stay. Elykos has discovered that I'm here, and he wants me killed. If the assassins he sent fail at this goal then he will next try to expose me, and the Nihilite people will turn on thee if they discover thou allied thyself with an Agalmite prophetess. One day they will be able to accept the truth, but they are not yet there.”

Farrah sighed. “I wish you didn't have to go. You've done so much good in such a short time.”

“I've done all I needed to do,” said Erelah. “Now, I leave this matter in thy capable hands. Yes, capable. Thou art capable of more than thy mind can yet grasp.”

. . .

With her staff in hand, Erelah set out into the wilderness surrounding Farrah's compound. With a barely-waning moon in the sky the night was almost pitch-black. Erelah could barely see the path in front of her, though she knew it mattered not.

An hour's walk out of town, the rustling of leaves nearby alerted Erelah to the fact that she was not alone in those woods. “Reveal thyself!” she called out. “I know thou art here, and I have no intention of running from thee.”

In the darkness she could scarcely make out the shape of three men, all dressed in black, with dark shrouds over their faces. Each one held a knife that gleamed in the moonlight. Each of them stood on a different side of her, making sure she was surrounded. Still they kept some distance, knowing this girl's reputation.

“Elykos sent thee, yes?” asked Erelah.

“No,” said one of the assassins. “Quillan.”

“Oh. Quillan. Well, thou wouldst do well not to disobey her orders.”

“HIS orders,” one of the assassins corrected her.

“No. Quillan is a she,” said Erelah. “But, in any event, do as thou wilt.”

The three assassins all looked at each other. Clearly, none of them expected their target to give up so willingly. All of them wondered if this was some sort of trick.

“Be not shy,” said Erelah. “I would say 'earn thy wages,' but I know thou doest this not for gold.”

“Why are you giving yourself up?” asked one of the assassins.

“Because I need to,” said Erelah. “What does it matter? Wouldst thou prefer I run? Or that I fight thee? Come now, do what must be done.”

One of the assassins sighed, walked over to Erelah, and pushed his knife into her chest. Erelah didn't even flinch at the blade, and made no sound as the knife pierced her heart. Once she was on the ground, the three assassins gave each other puzzled looks, not one of them able to think of the words to say at such a moment. They'd all killed before, even killed children, but never before had they had a target offer herself willingly like this.

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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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