“You know, I've got to say, Milo, your wife is one tough lady,” said Kamal.
Milo smirked and paddled the boat as it headed down-river. “Well, she's from the March of Muri, what do you expect? Enough generations of living next-door to Nihilus would do that to anyone.”
“Sometimes I envy all these happy couples I'm around all the time. You and Sarahi, Omar and Kadasah, Aryn and Tamas...”
“Aryn and Tamas?” Milo asked and pulled the paddle out of the water.
“You didn't already know?” Kamal asked.
“No! What's going on with Aryn and Tamas?”
“Well, he's a handsome man, she's a beautiful woman, you figure it out.”
“Don't talk about her that way!”
“And what proof do you have that anything's going on?” asked Milo.
“They meet in secret quite often. Just the two of them. Sometimes with Shamira waiting outside the door.”
“Why didn't you tell me this before?” Milo asked.
“I thought you knew.”
“How would I know?”
“It's the gossip all throughout the castle...though, I suppose you haven't been there much recently, have you?”
Kamal laughed. “You silly people and your affairs! You think you're being so clever, so secretive. Truth is, everybody knows. Everybody in the castle knew about you and Sarahi, everybody in the castle knew about Hadar and Grigori, and everybody in the castle knows about Aryn and Tamas. Servants need to keep their lives interesting somehow.”
Milo rolled his eyes. “Whatever. We have a job to do. When we get close to the city I'll cover you while you open a hole in the walls big enough for all of us to get through.”
“Surely,” said Kamal.
Far behind both Milo and Kamal on the river were hundreds of other boats, each with at least two knights in them. All of the rest of the army was already in place. They were just waiting on the boats to breach the walls before the rest of the army struck.
The current increased as the river narrowed, and the boat picked up speed. At this point Milo wasn't actually doing much to add to the speed of the boat's flow, all he could do was steer it away from rocks. Up ahead he could see the city of Diga, and the archers gathered on the walls. They might not have guessed that the approaching boat actually had a way to get into the city, given the grate straight ahead of them, but even so they knocked arrows. Milo gently pushed Kamal down and placed a hand on the tower-shield on the boat's floor.
Once they were within range, Kamal worked on shaking loose bricks from the wall. Milo heard the first arrow loosed and pulled the tower-shield over both him and Kamal. Arrows snapped against the shield. There was a clatter as the arrow-heads all bounced and chipped off of the shield, and Milo smiled that they were safe. Until arrows hit the boat itself and water leaked in. Between the weight of his armor, the weight of his sword, the weight of the shield, and the fact that there were two full-grown men in this boat it wouldn't take long for them to sink. Thankfully the arrows mostly plugged up their own holes.
Kamal closed his right hand in a fist and jerked his arm back. The bricks in the wall in front of he and Milo tore out, creating a hole big enough for them to pass through. As soon as they were inside Diga's walls, Milo grabbed Kamal and jumped onto the shore with him, all the while holding the tower-shield overhead. Arrows continued to rain down on them, and Milo could hear the shouting of soldiers drawing near.
Kamal waved his hands in a circular motion and the bricks from the wall whirled around the two of them like a great cyclone. When Milo heard tone of the bricks smash into an enemy soldier's helmet he breathed a sigh of relief.
“How long can you keep this up?” asked Milo over all the noise.
“As long as I need to,” said Kamal.
Milo could barely tell by the shouting all around them that the other boats drew close now, and they'd soon have an army within the walls. Under the tower-shield he could also see the legs of hundreds of Digan city-guard marching on their position. Based on the uniform, these were simply city guards, not soldiers. They would be more used to dealing with thieves and drunken brawls rather than outright battles. The legion was out enforcing Emperor Cyril's will throughout the West. That would make this battle that much easier.
“Alright, on the count of three I'm throwing off the shield,” said Milo.
“If you say so,” said Kamal.
“One...two...three!” Milo threw off the shield and drew his sword to face the advancing city-guard.
Kamal launched his cyclone of bricks at the archers on the wall. The force of the blow knocked the archers over the battlements and into the river on the other side of the city walls. Kamal then re-routed the storm of bricks back at the advancing city-guard, who all raised their shields in defense. No matter, it wasn't an attack as much as it was a distraction. While the guards hid behind their shields the rest of the boats rowed into Diga, and the Arxian soldiers took the streets.
The city-guard rushed the Arxians, spears first. Milo cut his way through the spear-heads and threw himself into the city-guard. In seconds their ranks broke. The Arxians overtook them in that first street, the element of surprise in their favor. Civilians fled into their homes and locked the doors. Good. Milo preferred not to have to fight desperate civilians wielding rolling-pins and frying pans.
As more of the city-guard ran off to fight the invasion at their eastern wall, Magdiel and his team, who had infiltrated the city a full day earlier, took up their arms and attacked the main gate from the inside. The few guards still standing at the main gate had little time to defend themselves, as arrows from within the city filled the air. Magdiel climbed to the top of the walls over the main gate and flashed a mirror into the sunlight to signal Sarahi. His team took to turning the crank to get the main gate open. Once it was open they joined Magdiel on top of the walls and prepared their bows to hold off anyone who attempted to close the gate again.
From the woods in the distance, Sarahi saw the signal and ordered the charge. The knights of Arx galloped out of the woods straight at the main gate, swords brandished high and shields gleaming in the sunlight.
Members of the city-guard charged the main gate, shields up to block the incoming arrows. “Low!” Magdiel shouted. His archers all knew what it meant. The city-guard were so focused on protecting their torsos and faces that they'd left their feet uncovered. The archers aimed low and shot the guards' feet. Those arrows which did not strike an enemy soldier's foot still stuck in the ground in front of them and caused them to trip up.
“Faster!” cried Sarahi, and the knights spurred their horses on.
In spite of Magdiel's efforts, the city-guard made it to the crank that operated the main gate. “Attack!” Magdiel shouted. With short swords and daggers in hand, Magdiel and his team jumped down upon the city-guardsmen and attacked them at the crank. Magdiel swung low, striking at Achilles tendons to incapacitate his enemies. A city-guardsman turned from the crank operating the gate and swung his sword at Magdiel. Magdiel blocked with both of his diamond-daggers, which cut a notch into the guard's blade. With a flick of his wrist Magdiel whipped the dagger around and cut the soldier's forearm. The blade sliced right through the guard's leather bracer and the muscles underneath. As the guard cried out in pain and dropped his sword, Magdiel kicked him into the other guards at the crank to knock them down.
Sarahi and the knights on horseback rode through the open gate and carved through the city-guard as they tried to close the gate again. Arxian cavaliers filled the Digan streets, and took the bridges and walk-ways over the city's many dams.
City-guardsmen tried to hold each bridge, but they found it difficult to form a strong phalanx on such narrow walkways. Sarahi could see three of them standing in front of her, each with a shield raised. That was all that could fit on that narrow bridge. She took her mace in hand and held it high, the light of the sun shining through it. Just as she drew close to the guardsmen she brought the mace around, using the momentum of her horse's gallop to break through the guards in her way. The city-guardsmen toppled off of the bridge and into the water below.
The Arxian cavaliers took street after street, bridge after bridge. All the while the panicked city-guard fought them at every choke-point.
Milo and the Arxian infantry fought their way through the streets as well. Guards popped out of houses and stores, where they'd been lying in wait, to ambush Milo and his soldiers. Milo pushed them back with the strength of his arms. Kamal kept a storm of flying stones going. The stones would rise high into the air, then smash down upon enemy soldiers with such a force that it split open their armor and crushed their bones. Razor-sharp diamonds flew around Kamal himself. They encircled him, flew outward at any enemy soldiers he saw, and then returned to his side again. Whenever a comrade fell with mortal wounds, Milo stopped to heal them if he could. Likewise, Milo noticed Acolytes of the Mother rushing through the streets to heal fallen guardsmen.
Magdiel and his team took the city walls. They ran across the tops of the walls and loosed arrows both on guardsmen below and on Digan archers who got in their way. At the apex of the wall they could see the Imperial Palace, where Emperor Cyril had likely holed up. If they could take the wall and get into the palace while Sarahi and Milo took the streets to get there they'd take the palace on three fronts.
Magdiel kicked in the door of the first watch-tower they came across, and immediately jumped to one side as the archers inside loosed their arrows. His own archers jumped out from behind cover and returned fire upon the archers inside. After the first volley, Magdiel ran in and slashed the guards in his way with his daggers.
Sarahi and her knights finally came upon the main doors of the Imperial Palace. The palace itself was clearly built for luxury, not for defense, as it had wide-open windows and balconies. Still, on those balconies stood archers, who rained arrows down on Sarahi and her knights.
“Geomancers!” shouted Sarahi. “Break down the door!”
Hidden amongst Sarahi's knights were the geomancers they'd brought with them. All of them were on horseback and wore chain-mail so as not to draw attention to themselves, but now there was no longer a need to keep their identities hidden. Two geomancers kept a swirling cyclone of stones overhead to block arrows as they rained down upon them as the rest of the geomancers worked together to create a storm of stones to batter the front doors of the palace. The stones smashed into the front doors with a terrible crash and splinters flew. Sarahi's knights rode back and forth to the bridges leading to this point. Every time a group of city-guardsmen tried to come across the bridges to attack the geomancers the knights drove them back, or simply knocked them off the bridges.
With every successive smash of the geomancers' stones against the door the door broke more and more off of its hinges, until finally the front door was completely torn away.
Sarahi shouted out to her cavaliers, “Keep clearing the streets! The infantry will take the palace!”
As if on a cue, Milo, Kamal, and the Arxian infantry arrived at the palace. Sarahi gave Milo a nod and then took off to continue her assault on the city-guard. The geomancers dismounted and joined the infantry as they stormed the entrance hall of Cyril's palace.
Inside the palace soldiers clad in an entirely different uniform rushed out to attack Milo and the infantry. Each of them held two curved swords in his hand, and they moved with such a speed that Milo and his soldiers were blind-sided at first. Milo raised his diamond-claymore to block the onslaught as the palace guards hacked away at him. Sparks flew as tiny edges of the curved blades broke off. An enemy sword caught Milo in the gut, but stopped just short of his skin as it stuck in his armor. Milo grabbed the palace guard who'd attacked him by the face and smashed him into the guard nearest to him. With wide arcs of his sword, Milo forced the palace guards back. As the palace guards stumbled back the Arxian infantry, with new-found confidence, charged them with their spears and long-swords. With his hands waving, Kamal sent the razor-sharp diamonds zipping all over the palace foyer, as did the other geomancers.
Finally, once the foyer was clear, Milo and the infantry pressed on further into the palace.
No sooner had they broken through the next set of doors, however, than there was a flash of red light and Milo doubled over in pain on the ground. As soon as he'd recovered from the shock, Milo looked up to see the source of this surprise attack. At the other end of the long hall stood men and women wearing various different ceremonial robes, each protected by a member of the palace guard, who held up a large, round shield.
Clever. Emperor Cyril had surrounded himself with priests and mystics of various religions to combat anyone who stormed the palace. Priests of various gods unleashed their spells on the charging infantry, causing some merely pain and others mortal woulds. Fire leaped from the lamps along the walls and burned the Arxian infantry charging at the Western priests. Milo recognized one of the chants he heard as the one the Acolytes of the Father spoke, and soon he saw plumes of black smoke chase through the air. He heard his comrades choke on the smoke and fall dead. Kamal and the other geomancers launched a pillar of rock at the enemy priests, only to watch as the rocks scattered against the shields held up to block the way.
With pain still shooting through his body, Milo crawled across the palace floor towards the priests. He prayed silently that they would not see his advance and would be far too concerned with the geomancers' assault.
Kamal and the other geomancers brought stones down on top of the mystics, only to have the palace guard raise their shields to block it yet again. This time, however, Kamal noted that the downward force dented the shields. “Keep bombarding them from above!” he cried out. The stones lifted off of the ground and off of the shields, rose high into the air, and then smashed back down with even greater force. Some of the palace guards' knees buckled under the force of the blow. “We got them! Keep it up!”
Milo continued his slow crawl and dragged his sword along. The pain that had hit him so hard when he'd broken through the doors was finally subsiding. He could see the remnants of the Arxian infantry in that hall taking cover behind whatever they could find as the geomancers battled it out with the mystics at the other end of the hall.
There was a sound that Milo did not recognize at first, especially with all the rest of the noise filling the halls. It took Milo a moment to register that this sound was the whistling of arrows. Where had it come from? Milo had his answer when he saw the mystics fall dead, each with arrows in their backs. He looked up to see Magdiel and his archers advancing down the hall from the other side, loosing more arrows to slay the rest of the mystics. Just as the palace guards turned to defend themselves against the volleys of arrows from one side, the geomancers crushed them with rocks from the other side.
Milo forced himself to his feet again and said, “Magdiel, your timing couldn't have been better. Alright, Kamal, you take the geomancers to the tallest tower in the palace. Magdiel, you find Emperor Cyril's bedroom. I'll take what's left of the infantry to the throne room.”
“You don't think it's more important for us to stick together?” Kamal asked.
“Not at this point,” said Milo. “We need to find Cyril. Once we've dealt with him this battle is over.”
The three of them split up, each taking their respective teams with them. Milo didn't truly expect to find Cyril in the throne room, it seemed far too obvious, but he'd feel like a fool if he didn't at least check there first.
He could not have been more surprised when he came into the throne room and found that a short man with gray hair actually sat upon the throne there. Standing on either side of the throne were two men in ornate armor. Both of them had their hands on the hilts of their swords.
The white-haired man looked up at Milo. “So, you made it this far. This is...an unexpected turn of events.”
“Emperor Cyril, I presume?” said Milo.
“Certainly I wouldn't allow anyone else to sit upon my throne,” said the man with white hair. “Judging by your uniform you are a paladin from Arx?”
“Yes,” said Milo as he started a slow walk towards the throne. He kept his eye on the two bodyguards, in case they attempted anything.
“First I would like to thank you for ridding me of Legate Atius. He was a real problem,” said Cyril.
“He was your general.”
“Yes, and the biggest threat to my power.”
“Clearly not,” said Milo. “Or have you not guessed that I am here to bring you to justice?”
“Whoever you are, I'm sure we can come to an agreement,” said Cyril. “I have vast stores of gold in my treasury. I'm the richest man in the world, and the mastermind who united the cities of the West under his control. Surely there's something you want that I can buy for you. Let's talk like civilized men.”
Milo laughed. “Everything I have ever wanted I already have. I'm married to the woman I love. I've watched our daughter grow up to be a strong and smart young woman. My homeland is free of tyrants and invaders. Believe me, sir, there's nothing you can buy me that I want.”
“Land? A title? You want your own city?” Cyril squirmed more and more as Milo drew close. “Come now, there must be something you want!”
“There is one thing I want. I want all threats to Arx's safety and liberty to cease,” Milo pointed his sword at Cyril. “For that to happen I'm afraid you cannot stay in power.”
“So, you're going to try to kill me?” Cyril asked. “I warn you, my Praetorian Guards here are the most elite soldiers in my entire legion. Each of them has killed over one-hundred men.”
“I've probably killed at least that many,” said Milo. “And we outnumber you. But no, we don't need to kill you. Surrender peacefully and we'll merely take you prisoner.”
“A prisoner of war? You want me to live out the rest of my days as a prisoner of war?” Cyril shook his head. “To have everything taken from me? My empire, my riches, my legions, all of it? No, I'd rather die. Praetorian!”
The bodyguards both turned to Cyril and spoke in unison. “Yes, your highness?”
“You know what to do,” said Cyril.
Milo raised his sword in preparation to fight the bodyguards. His palms were sweating, but he held the hilt tightly. When he saw them both draw their swords he bent his knees to be ready for what came next. But nothing would have prepared Milo for what came next. The two bodyguards stabbed Cyril in the chest, one through his heart and the other through his lung.
“What the...why did you do that? You're supposed to protect him!” Milo protested.
“We are loyal to Emperor Cyril. That means that we do as he asks. He always told us that he'd rather die than be a prisoner of war.”
Milo lowered his sword. “I see...so you just...ran your own emperor through?”
“It was his wish.”
“So...what happens now?” Milo asked.
“Our master is dead. We will serve whomever becomes the next ruler of this city. Until then we will not fight anyone.”
“Then...” Milo hesitated, and then turned to his comrades. “That means we've won...”
Support "Tales of Erets Book Three: Holding the Heavens"
- Colorado Springs, CO
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.