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Chapter 3 - Chosen Grief
After hours of riding effortlessly, a rock and iron metropolis climbed over the horizon, a welcome contrast to the murky meadow. The mousy brown steed ferried Vixrol to the gates of the city, only to be confronted by four heavily armed guards.
"Sir, forgive my obstruction." began one of the guards, the only one among them not hidden by a helmet. "It is unlike you to ride unattended, especially given your position."
Vixrol kept his head down, shrouded by a thick red hooded cloak, his hands loosely holding the reins.
"Sir, I'm afraid I must insist you provide evidence that you are in fact Captain Vixrol, and not some damned impostor." the guard insisted, revealing an inch of his silver blade as he pulled it from its sheath out of caution. The other guards soon did the same.
Vixrol glanced through a small opening in his hood, up at the city wall. It was decorated with at least twenty archers, all prepared to fire. Unfortunately for Vixrol, he knew that the archers were famous for their killing blows. Reluctantly, he hopped off his horse, squelching into a deep muddy puddle, ankle deep.
The guard drew another inch. "Sir I must insist."
The captain presented his right arm to the soldier, his palm to the sky and he clenched his fist. The guards focus shifted from the arm to Vixrol, then, he swiftly drew his sword, using the tip of it to shuffle the sleeve of the damp, crimson drapes. His method soon revealed a strange symbol, etched into his arm, resembling some form of star.
The inspector smiled politely, lowering his weapon. "Thank you Sir, though out of curiosity, why do you ride alone?"
Vixrol leaped back onto his panting horse, trotting inside the city without uttering a word.
The splatter of muddy hooves gradually shifted into an empty knocking as he travelled through the cobble streets. Passing market stalls and homeless, battered children, he finally reached the entrance to his quarters. He slumped from his mustang, struggling to find the will to stand, though somehow, he managed. Dragging himself to the stairs, he began to climb the spiraling case. His body felt heavy, his arms hanging by his side, his legs slowly crumbling beneath him. The pita-pata of his feet against the stairway clapped in the echo.
"Sire? Is that you?" peeped a gentle voice.
Suddenly an elegant, slender woman emerged from a small archway, several stairs ahead of Vixrol. She turned, her hair tied up in a messy bunch on top of her head, and smiled innocently as she saw her 'sire', just as he folded his hood to the back of his neck.
"My lord it is so good to meet you again." she bowed, resting her hands on her stained apron.
"You may drop this irritating act Gabriella. I come alone." Vixrol uttered, his first words since his outburst back on the battlefield.
Gabriellas face sank, although inside she was thrilled they were alone.
"Darling what happened? Is it not a gift that you return alive?" she placed a hand on his cheek as he approached. "You are not usually this grim after a battle. Did you lose many men?"
Vixrol slapped her arm away and walked into the room she came from. She followed.
"Vixrol you cannot hold yourself responsible for the death of your men. War is a creation that devours souls." she continued, resting her hands on his shoulders, squeezing slightly. "You are a great captain Vixrol and an even better man, no one can question that."
"I am no captain." he whispered, his head in his hand, his shoulders tense as his 'maid' gripped them.
"I'm sorry darling, I couldn't hear wh-"
"I am no captain!" he bellowed, spinning on the spot, flinging her arms away, knocking her off balance. "And for that matter I am barely even an excuse for a man."
He tweaked the link on his collar, loosening his cape and letting it fall to the floor around him.
"Why do you say such things?" Gabriella asked, a lump in her throat.
"I say these things because they are true. I confronted my Commanders honour." he ripped a band of armour from his bicep and tossed it across the room. "I was stripped.." he unfasten the straps on another. "…of my rank!" again, he tore it from his body and threw it against the sandy plastered wall.
Gabriella covered her mouth in fear and shock, her eyes began to glisten as she backed up against the thick wooden door, closing it.
Vixrol leant with his fists pressed hard against another oak desk. "But worst of all…" he gave it a gentle thump. "Worst of all I know that without me they will all die!" he repeatedly punched the desk, caving its surface, so hard that it began to splinter. Each time he withdrew his arm, speckles of blood leapt from his knuckles.
Gabriellas face morphed from horror to confusion. "Vixrol?" she started. He continued to pound his frustration into the desk. "Vixrol!"
"What!" he cried, panting, wincing in pain from his shattered hands.
"You mean to say that there was no battle?"
"This is exactly what I am telling you. The Prophets were wrong." he cradled his hands, examining the damage.
"Are you doubting our sacred guardians? The very people who gave you a immense honour, simply as a birth right?"
"I do not doubt their judgement however their ability to foresee must be fading. In addition to this, the Commander had the arrogance to suggest that the enemy was actually waiting. Waiting, can you believe that? Creatures who do not stop until they are dead, were waiting, wanting something without striking a blow."
The atmosphere suddenly took a sinister switch.
"Although…his army is now out there, waiting, nowhere near the city. At least a days march. That is providing they are actually alive."
"Vixrol where does this talk come from? This is not like you. You are not the man who stole my heart."
"And you were but a starving slut!" Vixrols words seemed to pierce a hole through her. Her lips twitched as her eyes squinted.
"Is that still how you envision me? As a common street mite?" she narrowly whimpered.
"The King is defenceless with his finest out of the city." he stated, overlooking the question. "And I so happen to have the one man who he fears most."
Quickly, Gabriellas need for an answer vanished. "Vixrol! You wouldn't! Why would you even think that?!"
Vixrol grinned madly. "And that man so happens to be a vessel of anger, dying for revenge."
Gabriella was stunned once again, horrified at what her beloved was suggesting. Without another word, Vixrol, drunk with potential, shoved his maid to the floor, closely missing the solid metal bed frame. He creaked the door open, slamming it behind him, dust exploding from the hinges. He sprinted down the stairs with thundering steps, the bawling weeps from the room quickly dying out. Rain burst against his grubby skin as he darted across the courtyard, hustling through a crowd of working civilians. Baskets and barrels littered the ground, several of them splitting open, oozing with rare red wine.
Soon, he was sheltered by a grand, derelict chapel. Pristine, divine paintings decorated the ceiling, disrupted by thick, weaving ivy. Huge marble pillars stood tall, burdening the weight of its immense load.
Vixrols eyes rolled up towards the artwork. It reminded him of his childhood. The idea of Angels and Gods, delivering gifts to the Earth. Gifts of food and water, children and shelter. Now though, as a man, the undoubtable truth was this. No matter how badly mankind needed their assistance, no matter how they prayed and pleaded, the Gods would never intervene with the cycle of the world.
Across the way resided a shadowed narrow doorway, hidden by denser undergrowth. He took a deep breath and raised his chest, boldly making his way across the tiled platform, entering the hallway. Eerily, he paused, unsettled by an instinct which he could not describe. He felt threatened and vulnerable, as though he was entering a sealed cage with a tortured, enraged animal. Every fibre of his body was trying to turn away, but he pressed on, driven by his resolve to take his rightful place as ruler of Herateas. His persistence was not rewarded well, very soon he was blocked by a dead end, a solid barrier of stone and mortar.
He sighed with frustration, tapping his forehead against his barricade. It was wet. He silently smirked with delight. The rain could not have reached the wall, it was simple too well cloaked by the chapel. This meant that the wall was newly constructed and easily breachable. This all confirmed that the rumors of his new 'friend's' location were correct. But how could one man demolish an entire wall, which no doubt was built with thick, strong rock. Why else would it be there otherwise.
He pondered for a short while, examining his surroundings for some form of assistance. A chisel, a mallet maybe, but nothing leapt out at him. He wondered outside again, listening to the choir of drizzling pings. A harsh breeze tumbled through the structure, crawling up his spine. He shivered. Then, it came to him. Water expands when it freezes. If there was enough moisture in that wall, he could smash it apart by freezing it. He cautiously scanned the area for signs of any prying eyes. There were none to be seen.
He slithered back towards the obstruction, placing a hand firmly upon it, pushing slightly, his elbow level with his shoulder. The wall began to chill his hand as his eyes closed and his breathing became steady yet deep. Small icy crystals began to spread across the brick, like the ivy on the outside. It grew and grew until it covered its entire face, like a network of twinkling veins. He took one last deep breath.
"Ricktos unro, elcatimai shatrul lec frozdeearin." he chanted quietly. "Trithom sunt terados!"
The frozen complex thickened, jabbing at the wall with tiny, furious pricks, lowering the temperature through and through. In virtually no time at all, his hindrance was now a mass of creaking, groaning ice. Removing his hand, he withdrew a couple of paces, backing away to a safe distance. With a ferocious pop, the wall exploded in all directions, boulders and grit blistered through the air. Vixrol was showered in dirt as he shielded his eyes. As the tumbling crash vanished, he glanced up over his arms. His plan was a success. Before him was a wide, dripping entrance, a clear path into the chamber he had been seeking.
He pranced over the rubble, supporting himself on the jagged stone that remained, keen yet careful not to injure himself.
“You realise that the use of magic outside of a ceremony is an affront to the Gods as well as a brutal abuse of mans’ law?” warned a deep voice of authority.
Vixrol looked up, clambering through the passage. There, before him, stood a man in the centre of the room, long dark hair veiling his face. He looked weak, despite the fact his body was hard, each muscle alive and ready for any physical task. He was a statue, tall and solid, facing his guest. There was no doubt in Vixrols mind that this was the man who would become a crucial part of his plan.
“You, you must be Wrath.” he assumed, crouching to a knee, bowing his head and placing his fist over his heart. “It is a true honour to be in your presence.”
“Do not smother me with compliments and false respect. I know why you come here, former Captain Vixrol.” Wrath contradicted.
Vixrol threw his head back, just enough to glance through the layers of oily hair, revealing a yellow glowing iris. He felt his body tremble. How is it that a prisoner, who had never been introduced, not only knew his name, but also knew things that only those present during his exile, and Gabriella knew.
“Make no mistake, my respect is not false. Though any compliment I may have given, was by all means a misunderstanding.” Vixrol smiled with pride as he began to stand, striding towards the shackled man. “I respect you for your ability to take a life with no remorse, for your will to rip worlds apart to reach your objective. But you are nothing here.”
Wrath flinched, struggling to control his temper, his arms tensing as the chains cut into his flesh.
“In our land, you are a criminal. Nothing but a man who is merely here because we have yet to find a solution to ending you.” Vixrol taunted.
“Be careful human, one day you will have your, what was it…” he paused in thought. “Cursed tongue cut from your head, I believe it was.”
The former captain was locked in a speechless fear. It seems that this man knew, word for word, the last thing that the Commander spoke. It wasn’t possible. Wrath had been imprisoned for just shy of a year. How could he know.
“What’s wrong, boy? Have you exhausted your authority already?” Wrath slowly approached his guest, with eyes alit with heavenly light, he gazed down at him. “Do not speak to me as though we are different. We are the same, to a point. Our means may and crimes may never touch, but like it or not, we are both ‘criminals’ in this land. Exiles from the Kings services and military.”
Being in the presence of a God of any sort was a mammoth emotional experience, and it was starting to take its toll. Vixrols eyes began to burn, desperate to water. It was soon followed by a heavy block in his neck. He knew he was beginning to lose control of his nerves.
“Do not compare me to a sinner like you!” he bellowed in an attempt to distract himself. “I am the Prodigy Child! Hand chosen by the Proph-“
“By the Prophets of Hereteas without whom, everyone would have perished long ago.” Wrath interjected, plunging Vixrol into yet another silence.
A tear rolled down his cheek. “How do you know the truths you speak?” he wept.
“Must I remind you that I was not always a man, starved of freedom. I used to be a God.” He answered, whipping his hair from his face as he turned, his guest still unable to identify him. “You are endlessly surprised at my knowledge, even of events which I have not witnessed with my own eyes. Perhaps if I explain in greater depth, you will understand.” He turned once more, to face Vixrol. As he lay his eyes on Wraths true face for the first time, he was overwhelmed. Tears began to stream down his cheeks, taking with them some dirt from his face.
“I am Wrath, one of the Original Eight. Eight divine beings, created with the single purpose of ensuring the functionality of this realm. Each of us were permitted certain duties. At first, mine was to ensure that the stars in the entire cosmos burned and raged bright enough to sustain life on various planets.” he began.
“I do not understand this talk. You mean to say that those rocks in the Vast Empty have beings like us?”
“One day you will learn.” He continued. “However, as I am sure you have discovered through years of whispers, I was exiled from my home realm for my sins, and sent here to protect mankind from our fallen brothers.”
Vixrol slumped to the floor, his hands clamped like vice onto the sides of his head. “You do not make sense. You’re insane.” he murmured.
“As I told you before there were eight of us.” Wrath began to lose his composed manner. “What do you think happens when one of us breaks our holy law?”
Vixrol looked up with blank confusion, his lips quivering as tears continued to flow.
“At first, we were sent to what you refer to as Hell, the Underworld. All those sent there become twisted in their own anger and pity, until they are no longer themselves. As more of us fell, our law was changed. The level of tasks per God became too great and as such we were punishable by other means. I am the first to be judged by this new law.”
Vixrols eyes squinted as Wraths glowed with recollection of power.
“As opposed to being sentenced to damnation, I was sent here, as I explained earlier. Although if I fail my duties, I will too fall below this world. In other words, this is my purgatory.”
Once again, Vixrol hung his head and shielded it with his hands. “And what if people from his world fail, and sin as a response?” he queried.
“Then you shall fall into Hell and have the displeasure of meeting my brothers.” Cautioned the fallen God.
Vixrol tensed into a ball, blubbering like a terrified child. He rocked to his side and flopped to the ground. “Then I am as good as damned.”
“No Vixrol, you are not.”
He stopped crying briefly, looking to Wrath for proof of his contradiction.
“You came here with every intention of forging a pact with you. I would give you your kingdom and in return, you would return my freedom. Just look at you. Nothing but a coward!”
“I do not force these tears, nor can I explain my fear.”
“No. You are not a coward for fearing me. I give you that title because you are here at all. You were not foreseen as the Prodigy Child by chance, the Gods do cherish your existence, although your purpose has not relayed its way to me. Go back to your ranks, ride as hard as you can and stand by your Commanders side once again.”
“He will never accept me now, I am banished.” He recalled, shuffling up onto his arm.
“If you take my words as truth, then heed what I am to tell you.” Wrath said, looking directly into Vixrols puddles of eyes. “My brother will not be as forgiving to mankind as I am.”
Vixrol gasped in shock, springing to his feet and wrapping a hand around a chain, looping from Wraths neck, pulling it tight towards him. “You mean to tell me that they will lose if I am not there?!”
“You idiot!” Wrath leant over, locking eyes with his guest. “I am telling you they have already lost.”
Vixrols breaths became shaky and unsteady with realisation of his error. He released his hold on Wrath and backed away, to the hole he created.
“Now, will you fight as a warrior, or let them die without their finest captain among them?”
Vixrol didn’t hesitate, he dove through the tunnel, sprinting back to the city. He wiped his face, smearing his tears.
“Excellent decision, Commander Vixrol…”