ROAD TO DAMNATION
The crates were put down and most of the voices faded. After waiting an hour, Cael placed his palms against the sides of the crate, found what he saw acceptable and with a sharp knee-kick tore off the flimsily nailed cover.
When the board struck the floor after making a flip, the killer was already standing and taking aim with his bow.
He let the arrow fly.
Beside him, a gauntleted fist, black with golden trimmings, broke through the cover of another crate, sending tiny splinters flying.
“Godsdamnit”, came the voice from inside. Another strike broke the lid off. Belon got to his feet and brought his sword to bear.
Ten strides away the Iomedans were getting out as well.
“Clear”, Cael called out and let his bow arm fall to his side. Stretching his neck and back and rolling his shoulders, he took in his low-lit surroundings in more detail.
They were still at ground level – the cart had never sharply ascended nor descended after they had been let into Horryn’s city estates. From the carts they had been carried into a storage chamber of sorts. A single magical everlight sat on a lantern that in turn hung next to the only exit.
It was an armory. Dozens upon dozens different weapons, from longswords, bows, rapiers, mauls and greataxes to earth breakers were placed on racks. The racks stood in several rows, and to their left and right were crates and chests piled high atop each other. Cael was willing to bet they were filled with shields and armor.
During his years as a slave, Cael had visited the Horryn armories often, but he had never seen them so full of equipment.
He’s going to war, he realized. But against who? The rebels? Other Houses? The General Council?
Did he have the men to match the weapons?
If he had, it meant only more to kill. Thankfully, he had the means to do just that.
Beside him, in a closed crate, awaited the barrels of Galicus’s black powder. Soon, he’d put them to work and level the home of his nightmares.
But he needed to be patient, and shake Nyra and the Iomedans off. After slaying Horryn, he’d backtrack with Belon and plant the bombs.
In his mind’s eye, he already saw the smoking, burning ruins.
First things first. Cael stepped from his hideout and jogged to the lone door before touching its surface.
“No-one’s behind”, he told the others as they left their crates behind. Cael noted Nyra looking at the man he had disposed of with an arrow through the heart. Cael kicked the body around.
“He had a sword but was too slow”, he said defensively, nodding towards the full scabbard on the dead man’s belt. The paladin narrowed her eyes. Maybe she wanted to detain everyone instead. Good luck with that.
“Where to”, Belon asked Cael.
“We’re at the south-east side of the estate, next to the guardhouses, and we need to get north-west. So we go through the central garden, past the entrance to the great hall.“
“Isn’t going across risky? We’d be seen”, Nyra argued. “The guards will fall upon us from every direction.”
Cael shrugged. “It’s the straightest way. Don’t you have magics to conceal yourself?”
Tresh harrumphed. “Of course, I came prepared. I can veil us in a sphere of darkness and silence every sound we make within.”
“I’d rather have you spare your divine powers to actual combat, Stormborn”, Nyra cut in, her arms crossed.
Cael closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He hated changing plans before there was even a real need for it. “Fine. But we’d have to descend underground and use the corridors if we want to get anywhere.”
Nyra was adamant. “Then lead us to the nearest way down.”
It was late evening in the high-walled compound. The wind rustling the leaves and the ruckus of the crickets gave the place a sleepy, tranquil ambience, yet there was tension in the air. Individuals and couples of servants, slaves and guards traversed the grounds, but they presented little threat to the infiltrators. The Horryn city estate was one of the largest, if not the largest in Sweet Orchard, and was built on a hillside like the rest of the nobility’s district. From afar it resembled a sea of flowers on a gravesite, made of gardens of varying size and splendour, blocky guardhouses and storehouses, and the intimidating main building that housed the servants and the nobility – or as it seemed, only Horryn and his mysterious wife. The buildings formed a rough U figure, with the main hall in the center facing north, the guardhouses, storerooms and armories in lower, easternmost side and the accommodations of the nobility at the higher. Tidy paths of flagstones and stairs, made of the remains of competing Houses’ mansions that had been subdued and added to the Horryn estate, criss-crossed the gardens in the middle, and hidden beneath were the underground corridors. There too hid the secrets of the House.
Nevertheless, they had to move fast, so Cael and Belon rushed out into the night. Cael could spot pairs of guards moving around them, brisk and alert but far enough for now. Next to the armory of stone and wood stood a barracks. Light shone from a few windows, crossed by rusted iron bars, so Cael went low, evading as if its touch would harm him. Others followed suit.
Squatting, he put his palm on the wall.
Beyond was a group of guards, a few sleeping in their narrow bunks, the rest awake, gathered around on stools and the floor, talking excitedly. None paid any attention to what was happening outside. It was their off-duty time. They weren’t supposed to.
If he’d have just one barrel of the black powder with him.. Cael shook away the sweet thought. To their left, two guards on patrol marched closer. The shadows and the lushness of the gardens protected the Greymarshes, but time was running short.
“Get over there”, Cael pointed to the right, to the corner of another blocky barracks house. A round plank was on the ground, a lid to an underground passage. “Get it open and descend.”
Belon went first, then dragged the cover off, allowing Shevar to climb down a ladder. Nyra caught Cael’s eyes. There was a distinct certainty there, one Cael wouldn’t have expected. This wasn’t the first time the holy warrior was sneaking in the shadows.
The nearest guards still approached, talking to each other. Then went in Nyra, followed by Tresh. He could hear the words of the guards, closing fast, coming to the corner where Cael hid.
Last, Belon fit into the narrow passage, despite his armor.
At the last moment. Cael launched himself towards the exposed hole in the ground. As he went, he thought he heard the rumble of an explosion at the other side of the Imperial Castle and Canorate. He didn’t linger to listen closer. If anything, the rebels were useful to him. The guards stopped to curse.
The cover slid back into place.
“Did they see us?” Tresh whispered as Cael leaped down the last few rungs.
The half-elf said nothing and only nodded forward into the darkness of the underground.
An arrow nocked but the bowstring half-drawn, Cael went first. In a sick way he was hardly willing to admit, the familiarity made him feel at home.
“I’ll burn everything”, he muttered.
“What did you say?” Nyra asked, minding her steps. She was right behind him with Tresh. Belon and Shevar, their eyes better suited to low-light than normal human’s, guarded the rear.
“Nothing”, Cael shook his head and cursed his loose lips and wandering thoughts.
They advanced slowly, upwards and into the hill, stopping every time Cael picked up a sound in the distance. But not once were they challenged.
This is too easy, again. The dragon held its jaws open for its unwitting prey, and they walked in without a second thought. Had I really imagined we’d fight our way in instead, leaving a mountain of corpses in our wake like we always did in Varisia?
Under his hood and reaper’s mask, Cael grinned and his bow’s veins and runes briefly glowed with fire and crimson. He wouldn’t mind continuing the tradition. They had been merciless, Cael and his companions. Merciless and effective.
“How did Horryn take your loved ones?”
Nyra’s question made Cael pause. He turned to see whether or not the question was asked genuinely and warranted an answer. Nyra’s face was half covered by her helm, but he could see she expected one.
Ah, what the hells, why not.
“He sicced a company of roving werebeasts Molthuni used to terrorize the Nirmathi against her retinue when she was returning home with our daughter.”
Cael probed for an emotional response in himself as he described the event, but found none. He didn’t know whether to be alarmed or not.
Nyra huffed as she realized something. “Suppression companies. The Molthuni call them suppression companies.”
“Gods..” Belon muttered behind them.
“Semantics. They’re a dead company now.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Aurora and Gabriella are not gone”, Cael said between his teeth, something finally flaring in him, and he turned away.
“Do you know how Horryn has stored their souls?”
It was a relevant question. Cael had no clue.
“I didn’t see any soulstones or phylacteries”, Cael dug into his memory, “doesn’t mean anything though.” He didn’t want to contemplate the possibility that they were somehow already in Hell, like the centaur and the cornugon had told him.
“Would you even be able to identify one, if you saw one?”
A fair point. Cael sniffed. “Not really.”
He heard the smile in the paladin’s voice. “Good thing you have Tresh with you then.”
“I guess so”, Cael responded dryly. Then: “The thing you did with your company – that took guts.” The compliment was awkward, yet he felt the need to say it, for a reason he didn’t know.
“Thank you.” The response was stifled by sorrow. “It might be the best and worst decision of my life.”
Cael snorted. “The day’s not over yet.”
He sensed her eyes on his back, examining him. “You are right, Cael.”
They went further in pitch-black – the sconces on the walls were empty, as were the corridors and staircases. Maybe Horryn had finally barred the underground passages from his slaves and servants. That only helped Cael.
They were damp and cold as always, with small pools of water here and there where tiles had fallen into disrepair. The half-elf could smell the mold.
The roots of his House are rotten.
“How far?” Tresh asked, his voice a rumbling despite him trying to keep it low.
“Till where?” Cael replied.
“The exit or stairs which we take to get back up”, the cleric grunted.
“Not far”, Cael said, already listening ahead, watching the colourless surroundings with his darkvision. “Fifty strides, two junctions.”
“And how far to the arena, and the prisoners?” Nyra asked.
“Hundred strides or more north.” Cael didn’t like the question, yet found himself giving a truthful answer.
The answer surprised Cael. No plea to change the plan, to go after the prisoners first?
He shrugged, and went on.
After turning the second last corner, Cael saw something at the last junction. He shoved Nyra back, and the others stayed put behind the corner.
“A door”, the masked Greymarsh hissed. “Twenty strides away. It’s new – wasn’t there when we last visited.”
“Explains the lack of lighting on this side”, Belon offered from the back, the voice metallic under his helmet.
“I’ll have a look”, Cael nodded and slid the arrow back to the quiver.
“Please, go ahead” Nyra sighed.
Cael didn’t answer, and Nyra didn’t stay put but shadowed the killer. The others followed close behind. Everyone, it seemed to Cael, had issues with trust.
The mortar was fresh, and the stones that framed the heavy wooden door stood out from the old stonework like wolf tracks on fresh snow.
Does he actually think this could hinder our – anyone’s – movement, Cael thought to himself and raised his palm on its surface.
Three armed people waited at the on the other side – crowding a junction to three directions. It was well lit, and they were obviously guards. They stood in silence, spread apart evenly in the narrow space, one across Cael past the door, one to the left, the last to the right.
Cael brought a finger to the leering mouth of his skull mask and waved the others to fall back a few strides.
“Three guards, two to either side, one just behind the door”, he murmured.
“The plan?” Belon whispered the question in reply.
“I’ll step through and kill them.”
“No”, Nyra interjected. Cael was already ahead of her, or so he thought. “If you’re considering taking them alive..”
“No, it’s not that”, Nyra shook her head in the near darkness. “You shouldn’t try it alone.”
Cael sighed. “This from a woman who just let go of her company to fight her own wars?”
The oversized feline growled a wordless warning, or a rebuke or whatever – Cael couldn’t tell.
“She’s right”, Belon said from the back and stepped closer. “I’ll run the door down. Follow my lead.”
My brother the battering ram, the scar-faced warrior rolled his eyes, but gave way. The door wasn’t that sturdy-looking. “Please, go ahead”, he murmured, parroting Nyra.
The others prepared for action and Belon launched himself at the door shoulder-first.
Upon impact, the door let out a hollow thump and a spark of blue energy. It didn’t even budge and the heavily armored warrior let out a surprised groan as he staggered backwards two steps.
Cael was already on the move, gliding through his bulky brother and the enchanted door before materializing among the guards. The first died instantly, the skull face of the reaper the last thing he saw. The second, three strides to Cael’s left, had the time to scream and raise his longsword before losing his life. The third tried to escape. She perished with Cael’s gladius in her back.
Only as he ripped the blade free did Cael notice the fourth guard. He was scrambling away a gently curving corridor south. Towards the old arena, and the captives.
The half-elf ran after him.
A tip of a broad sword made of adamantine pierced the enchanted door, breaking the lock. Cael didn’t see his brother kick it in, but heard it. Nyra hissed a curse to him, but Cael was already too far away, and his attention was on the runner. The guard had fifteen strides on him but he was gaining. He’d catch him soon..
The guard howled in panicked warning, then abruptly changing direction to the right, shouldered his way through a double door. Cael knew where it led and his frantic pursuit faltered to deliberate steps.
He had gone through the same doors only days ago.
His nose wrinkled, he sheathed his bloodied gladius. This time, there would be no approaching in the shadows.
His bow at the ready, he entered.
The captives were still there, hanging from the poles hammered through the carpeted floor, but behind them rose a massive circle with no physical sides that blocked almost the entirety of the arena hall’s rear.
Cael could recognize a portal between dimensions. He had traveled through a few before. But the vista that opened beyond the portal was something he had not seen in the flesh. Only in his nightmares. Under the mask, his mouth fell open and his eyes widened.
The roiling black sky and the crimson ash, both reaching as far as the eye could see. And in the horizon was an army of countless devils, standing at perfect attention, waiting in silence, faced towards Cael.
What have you done, Horryn?
Tendrils of violet smoke wisped from the eight captives like paint leaking the wrong way and formed the edges of the portal.
What bizarre ritual is this?
“Eldric!” Nyra shouted between heavy breaths but had the sense to halt abreast Cael. The others were not far behind and they formed a line as they took in the weirdness.
One of the prisoners, a young man in a bloodied and ripped cloak and armor painted gold and white, raised a heavy head. His face was pale and drained of life.
The big cleric couldn’t contain himself and spurted forward, driven by the desire to help.
“Wait”, Cael’s brother shouted. Cael realized he couldn’t see the escaped guard anywhere.
Tresh Stormborn strode with purpose, armed with a longsword and steel shield, towards the ravaged prisoners, intoning a mighty prayer as he went.
His words were cut short by another tear in reality, a crackling wound of purple and black that rapidly extended wide enough to let out a leering nobleman, two horned devils, and a sorceress with her hands held high and wide before her.
They emerged straight upon Tresh.
Unceremoniously, one of the devils struck sideways with its smoking mace and sent the surprised cleric flying like a ragdoll.
“Tresh!” Nyra screamed again, in double the horror. “In the name of Iomedae, I demand you to surrender-”
“Save your words, little paladin”, Horryn boomed behind the shelter of the two hellish juggernauts. “Your goddess has no authority here. You are breaking both your oath to me and the law, but I thank you for it. You’ve been most useful.”
Nyra growled her wordless anger, and her sword began to glow with powerful white light.
“Brother, temper!” Belon hissed to Cael, brandishing his greatsword. He had never left his side.
The runes on Cael’s bow were blazing in sympathetic fire. The Mark of Wrath on his forehead burned his brow. A heartbeat later, an arrowhead was waiting next to the bow’s side and the string was drawn.
“You little bastards still think you can kill me?” Horryn laughed at his former slaves and his devil bodyguards hunched and brought their wide shields of hell-iron before them, like bulls preparing to rush.
“Your pompous friends are too few to matter, Blight of the Abyss or not”, he went on, sneering at Nyra in particular. “This time, we won’t let you run.”
“That portal.. My crusader.. Why are you doing this”, Nyra demanded, each word an effort.
“This is the future of Canorate and Molthune, girl! A new order is about to rise. And you are instrumental in its realization.”
Nyra was left speechless.
Cael hardly listened.
He was hearing something else, something he only could.
Ours, ours, ours, ours..
Doors to their left and right slammed open, and streams of Horryn House guards flooded in, a mass of steel, black and purple. The Greymarshes and the crusaders stood there, impotently, as they circled them – Nyra with Cael and Belon, Shevar to the side, on her knee next to the body of the cleric, hissing at the guards.
The jaws of the dragon, Cael’s thought pushed through the fire of hate and rage and betrayal.
Among the guards, an older, wizened man emerged, his composure business-like. His presence and quality of clothing made him stand out from the guards.
“You”, Belon snarled.
“Yes”, Galicus replied.
“Who is that?” Nyra spat a question that received no answer.
Horryn’s head turned to regard the old alchemist. “Can I kill the bastards now?”
Nine hells.. Cael stepped once closer, away from the others. Towards the alchemist.
“No, you can’t”, Galicus was terse. He nodded at the sorceress once, and she cast a quick spell, sending diamond dust and glowing runes billowing from her hands.
The air rippled almost unnoticeably to either side of the scarred half-elf. In reply, he sent an arrow flying at the sorceress.
One of the devils deftly blocked it.
“Now now”, Horryn barked, and the guards closed on the intruders, shields up, the points of spears and swords a nearly impenetrable wall, a living cage of flesh and steel.
“You are here now, friend”, Galicus talked to Cael as if they were alone, “exactly where you want to be. The time has come.”
Cael’s face of death tilted to the side. He already had nocked a new arrow and was aiming at Horryn.
“Time for what?” He snarled.
“To commit. To embrace who you are.”
“Stop talking in riddles, deceiver.”
“What is this?” Horryn demanded in frustration. Galicus raised a hand to quiet the nobleman and the nobleman was silenced. Cael had never seen anyone do such a thing to Eximedes Horryn.
“You might seek peace and serenity, but you exist to hunt and kill. And you are wonderfully skilled at that. You are a weapon, my friend, don’t deny it. ”
“You already called me that once”, the half-elf hissed. “I am a free man, not a thing.”
“No-one is truly free”, Galicus shook his head. “We are fettered by what we are. And you are an artist of death.”
Cael’s eyes burst into unnatural flames of amaranth.
“If that is so.. I will see that you and everyone here will die.”
“You might be able. But I would hate to see you fail as you tried.”
Galicus went on before Cael lost his temper for good.
“You’ve lost your loved ones. But what if you could get them back?” The old gentleman smiled. “Without a fight?”
Cael fought the urge to do the exact opposite. He had to remain calm and calculating. See the best way to defeat his foes. But the traitor’s words sped his heart to a pace of its own volition.
“He won’t walk out of here alive”, Cael said. Horryn was watching the exchange with parted lips and an uncertain look. “And neither will you, whatever your role is here tonight, Galicus.”
The old man chuckled once.
“Killing us will not get Aurora Dolivar back, my friend.”
Galicus sighed. “Save your bluster. You know it won’t.”
The magical flames strengthened. “I swore to myself all who stand between me and Aurora – all who harmed her and our daughter, would pay in blood.”
Galicus snorted in amusement. “I am not in your way, my friend. On the contrary. I can help you get back what you desire the most.”
“What is this?” Horryn roared – he had managed to get his senses back.
The old man boomed his reply. “You be quiet!”
Galicus’s iron baritone made even Cael flinch. Who is he to command Horryn so? What is their relationship?
“Prove it”, he finally managed, his own voice cracking like ice.
Galicus nodded and gestured towards the massive portal.
As he let his bow fall to his side, the arrow escaped his fingers. His fire withered to embers. Unable to breathe, Cael fell to one knee, pulled back his hood and removed his mask with shaking hands.
In the portal, beyond the veil of sickening hues of crimson and black bile, stood a beautiful brown-haired woman, and in her arms was a squirming bundle of a baby. Her shoulders were slumped and her eyes were vacant.
My beloved.. She can’t see me.
The death’s head fell on the carpet, its thud the loudest voice in the old arena, just above the whimpers of the prisoners and the grunting of the devils.
“Their souls are in Hell, but they are not lost”, Galicus told him. He was only a few steps away from the half-elf, before the two hulking devils.
Cael’s fingers slid into a pouch on his belt, finding the Orb of Sending.
Tears rolled down his cheek.
Aurora.. I’m so sorry..
On the other side, the young woman raised her chin, her eyes as teary as Cael’s.
Cael.. your voice, where are you.. I’m so afraid. I.. I can’t see.
“No, stop! Devils, kill the half-elf!” Horryn commanded with all his authority.
The horned monstrosities stayed put. “We had a deal!” He screamed in a mixture of growing anger and panic that only those who wish to have absolute control feel when they’re losing it.
“Which has been fulfilled to its entirety”, Galicus told him.
“They were to die! All of them! To activate the portal!”
“Who.. are you..?” Cael asked Galicus, the words faint like mist melting in the sun.
“I can make sure they are returned, Cael, unharmed in body, mind and soul.”
“Why.. why do you offer this now?”
“Because now is the right time, and the offer has a price.”
“Of course”, Cael said quietly. “Well, name it.”
“Your soul, Cael of Greymarsh, and your loyalty. To Asmodeus, Lord of Hell.”
Nyra’s mind was racing. They were too few against too many, without a way out. The guards, forty or so, had them surrounded, and a charge now would bring the cornugons upon them.
“Can I kill the bastards now?” Horryn asked, with that despicable leer of his, and a shiver of hate went along Nyra’s spine. At the side of her vision, Shevar was signing beside the crumpled body of cleric Stormborn.
<He’s alive, thank the goddess.>
Nyra nodded to her scout-master.
“No, you can’t”, she heard the newcomer say and as by a cue the sorceress casted a spell. A field of energy appeared around Nyra and Belon, separating them from Cael who stood two steps before them, and the half-elf shot an arrow at the sorceress.
Belon howled a warning, but Cael didn’t react at all.
The field was transparent like glass, but rippling with magic, reminding her of a mirage over a field of sand during the hottest days. She tried to slam her shield against it, but could produce nothing but another ripple.
“Gods! What is going on here? Cael!” Belon shouted and struck the field before him with his sword, to no avail. His brother was still aiming with his bow, completely oblivious to what was happening behind him.
“A wall of force”, Nyra spat, “and it blocks sound too. He can’t hear you.”
“We have to stop Galicus”, Belon exclaimed and spun, searching for a way out. But there was none. The sorceress, behind the shelter of the two beastly devils, was chanting a spell, her hands spread out.
“The sorceress is keeping us separated on purpose.”
“Who is that man?”
“He’s a Chelaxian alchemist we met on our way here”, Belon snarled, talking fast. “He’s the one who got us here. Supposedly he provided the black powder to the Nirmathi separatists who bombed the city.”
“What? Holy Inheritor..”
Belon swung at the force field twice with all his might, venting his anger.
“The sorceress is constantly strengthening the field”, Nyra shouted. “We can’t destroy it.”
Belon still tried for the third time. His figure froze when he was about to hit the fourth strike.
“Nine hells.. Look at the portal, Nyra.”
Nyra glanced towards the shimmering entry to another dimension. On the other side, just a step away from the portal’s edge, was a young naked woman carrying a sleeping baby.
“Is that her..”
“.. she has to be.”
Only then did she spot the army of devils in the portal’s horizon. Another realization came to Nyra.
“That portal.. It is a gateway to Hell.”
“Horryn’s moving something across.” Cold ran across her skin. “That force of devils, I’m sure.”
Belon lowered his sword. “So many.. Why hasn’t he already done it?”
“I guess he cannot activate the connection with normal magic, it’s too large. And for a force that massive to travel through, he’ll need to keep the gate open for a long time.”
“How can he open the connection and keep it open then?”
“With a sacrifice valuable enough for the Powers of Hell, Belon. Blood offerings. With souls that are considered grand”, she explained, then looked him in the eye, “or even unique.”
“My soul”, Cael whispered.
“A simple deal”, Galicus nodded and smiled.
The half-elf looked back to his brother and saw the force field around Belon and Nyra. He locked gazes with Belon. His brother kept slamming the wall with his sword, but Cael couldn’t hear him.
The catfolk, on her knees next to the cleric, let out a growl and drew Cael’s attention, then hissed, as if issuing a threat to Cael. Or a warning. He couldn’t tell.
He was alone with his decisions.
“I can make sure Aurora Dolivar and your daughter will return to Dunbreck, to their family. Untouched by the mistakes and horrors of your past. She’ll remember nothing of what she has endured.”
Cael gazed to his beloved. She was still there, waiting, crying. So close. So far. Cael could walk up to her, perhaps step through the gate to touch her. But he knew it wasn’t possible.
The sight, the thought, both threatened to rip his heart out.
“You can’t live with her – you are a killer, Cael Greymarsh and you will remain one – but atleast you can make sure she and your daughter can live a full life with their family.”
You must be willing to do anything to save your loved ones.
The words, whispered at the back of his mind, were a command, unyielding like unbreakable chains around his arms and feet.
“Don’t let them burn.”
He saw the pool of blood, Aurora and Gabriella catching fire, in his nightmare.
Cael wanted to scream but ground his teeth together. Tears of effort streamed from his closed eyes. His soul was nothing compared to the well-being of Aurora and their daughter. It was all his fault they suffered.
“Give yourself to Asmodeus. Find inner peace in the order of the Lord of Hell. Isn’t that what you want, my friend? Stability? Freedom from persecution? I can give you that too, Cael”, Galicus offered and gestured towards Horryn, who took a step back.
“Your slaver, the destroyer of your family, your home – I can offer you the chance to exact your vengeance. The devils will stand back. You can kill him for good.”
Deliverance. Peace. Vengeance. He could have it all.
He remembered the venomous words of a proud mother.
Danger flows from you like a damned shadow.
He remembered the whispered words of a small boy.
You’re no hero.
He had come here to kill men, women and children. To end a House. Maybe he was a monster. Maybe he belonged in Hell.
Cael’s eyes opened and fixed into Horryn.
“Guards, attack the Chelaxian”, howled the nobleman.
“Halt.” Again, Galicus’s voice was unnaturally compelling, as if the world pulled down at you twice as much. The guards hesitated. Even Cael was momentarily confused. The tips of their blades and spears trembled. A few shook their heads, as if trying to clear them. “Do it and be slaughtered by the cornugons.”
None of them moved to attack.
Not saying a thing, Cael got back up and stepped towards Horryn. The nobleman cursed and turned to run, but one of the cornugons whipped its tail around him and threw him towards Cael. Horryn fell on his fours to the carpet. He cursed everyone present with an incoherent howl and tried to rise, but the devil stepped on his back and pinned him down.
Horryn’s plight should’ve been sweet like honey, but to Cael it was only fuel for wrath.
The bow of the killer and the mark on his forehead both blazed in unison. The amaranth fire returned, hungry, unwilling to ever die.
“What about them”, he asked from Galicus without turning his attention from the squirming nobleman and the cause of all his pain.
There he is, at your mercy. Unable to escape your vengeance. Make him face the pain and the horrors he has made others endure. The unsaid words of a friend he didn’t know.
“She must die, but your brother is free to join you or leave, unharmed.”
“How will it be, Cael of Greymarsh?”
“Holy Inheritor”, Nyra gasped. She could see it now.
“That old man – he is not a man.. My goddess. He is a devil as well. He has to be.. I can hear him through the barrier.”
Belon’s voice was cold and metallic. “I can too. I think he just commanded Horryn’s men..”
Nyra grimaced as Horryn tried to escape and was thrown on the carpeted floor by one of the horned monstrosities.
“Gods, he’s offering Horryn to Cael”, Belon whispered. “It’s… a bargain.”
The army of devils stirred into march on the other side, approaching unstoppably. The woman and her child vanished.
The half-elf screamed a useless warning to his twin and began to batter the field with unrelenting strokes of his greatsword.
Nyra heard the words of the devil. She must die.
She saw Cael nod.
Nyra realized her moment had come. The army of devils on the move and the soul of the killer, and Iomedae knew whose else, on the line. Iomedae had warned her.
She had to act, now.
“I have to stop it.”
She willed all the divine might she carried in her soul to the fore. Once again the ocean connected to the stream, not the other way around, and flooded it. Nyra barely heard Belon shout her name in surprise.
Her vision swam in gold light as she tensed and focused, and she felt the warmth embracing her all around, the holy touch of her deity. It turned stronger and stronger. She knew her flesh began to glow like it hid the sun itself.
She released it all.
From her, a burst of white light flashed in a shockwave of energy through the wall of force and struck the devils, the circle of guards and the sorceress. A number of the guards perished immediately, their eyes glowing and venting white light, while others cried in pain and fell to their knees, clutching their eyes. Wounds cut across the hides of the cornugons, bleeding black ooze, and they growled in anger, retreating a step. And the sorceress screamed hideously and brought her hands to her face, protecting her vision.
Horryn too grunted in agony but remained flat on his belly as blood seeped from his eyes to the floor.
The magical wall disappeared.
Nyra hurried, rushing forward, and brought up her holy sword, hearing her goddess in her mind.
You must end his life and release his soul into the oblivion before it incinerates all around him.
She understood the message.
She’d alienate her only allies there in the midst of evil, and she’d probably doom herself, Tresh and Shevar. But she’d deny Asmodeus his prize. She’d deny Horryn his army of devils. She had no choice, only Iomedae and her faith.
Cael, just two steps away, was down – he too had suffered from the attack, and the fact only solidified Nyra’s resolve. Her powers didn’t harm good men.
The ancient longsword cut at the exposed neck of the half-elf. Nyra put all her weight behind the swing. She couldn’t miss. She had to be merciless.
The blade never struck flesh. With a clang, a broad greatsword parried it four inches from Cael’s neck. Nyra’s arm trembled as they collided and she almost lost the grip of her sword.
“I can’t let you do that”, Belon’s strained voice came behind her, and the metals sang as he pulled his greatsword back and up, taking the longsword along with it.
“He’s evil!” Nyra roared in anger as much as shock as he spun to Belon, shield up. Around them, the wounded guards retook their positions, shouting obscenities at her. Her one chance, ruined.
What have you done, Belon?
Galicus chuckled and wiped blood off his chin.
“Can’t you see – even your allies are trying to backstab you. Deny you the safety of your beloved. Your vengeance.”
Cael got up, grimacing away the agony of the paladin’s attack, and turned to face Nyra and Belon.
“I can save Aurora and Gabriella”, he told his brother, disregarding the alarmed and hateful stare of the paladin.
“No, it’s a ploy to get your soul, they want to unleash Hell’s armies on Canorate-“
Belon was about to reach for his brother, but he was cut short as a new field of force enveloped him and Nyra, forcing them back.
Cael sighed and closed his eyes.
“Is he right?”
“We will bring the army to Canorate, that is true”, Galicus admitted as the devils marched behind him in the false horizon. “This nation needs guidance. A new beginning.”
Cael felt Galicus’s words slither into his head. They were ruthless but all too sensible. All too right. “But this matters little to you, Cael. You don’t care what happens to Canorate, or Molthune. The city has brought you only suffering and given you nothing in return.”
Belon hammered the forcefield at the other side. Nyra just watched him coldly.
The half-elf turned his back to his twin and the paladin, swooped the fallen reaper’s mask and replaced it to his face.
Galicus was right. “Nothing.”
Galicus smiled and as he did, his wounds faded away.
“Sign our pact with the blood of your tormentor”, the old gentleman urged.
Cael walked the few steps to the prone slaver, sliding one of his gladii from its scabbard as he went. The claws of the cornugon’s foot had dug into the back of the slaver, but despite the pain, Horryn seethed at Cael.
“He will.. betray you too-” Bones cracked and he screamed as the devil applied more pressure. The sorceress stood next to the cornugon trapping Horryn and stared at the half-elf with sly curiosity.
You must be willing to do anything to save your loved ones.
The words squirmed in his ears, both a seduction and a command.
If you ever again sacrifice innocent lives in order to reach your goals, I will stop you. And it will be the end of my loyalty. Belon’s oath was a mere echo of a falling drop of water in a cave of ice.
“Your death will not be quick”, Cael promised to Horryn, the sword in one hand, the bow in another.
Deliverance. Peace. Vengeance. Everything he wanted, a bargain for his soul. The choice was obvious.
Cael made his decision, as if there were any options.
I might be a monster.
He saw Gabriella on the ice, sitting next to her prone form, smiling to him.
Powered by his magical abilities, Cael’s sword moved too fast for the eye to see.
But I’ll never be a slave again.
The sorceress never had a chance to evade or scream. The tip of the gladius burst through the back of her head and came out bloodied the way it had come within a fraction of a heartbeat. When the cornugon howled in rage and swiped at Cael with its mace, Cael had already sheathed the sword, rolled away and had the fletched end of a devilbane arrow between his fingers.
Cael had always had trouble trusting others.
Deliverance. Peace. Vengeance. And freedom. The four things he wanted.
As the sorceress’s body slumped down, the wall of force flashed out of existence.
In lockstep, Belon and Nyra charged the cornugons past Cael. Adamantine and blessed steel met hell-forged iron.
“You will never get them back unless you submit”, Galicus’s words tolled like bells of a cathedral, over the clamor of war. Cael’s arrow sunk into the shoulder of one of the cornugons, blackening the hide like poison.
“They were stolen. They are not bargaining chips”, he said back calmly and shot another arrow at Nyra’s foe. “I will free them. And myself.”
The guards came at them like a pack of released hunting hounds.
Shevar was on her feet, cutting and slashing at the House guards with two fearsome machete blades. Behind him was Tresh, miraculously in the fight thanks to Nyra’s holy energies, clutching a longsword two-handed.
“They shouldn’t suffer, Cael”, Galicus said across the arena as he withdrew from the half-elf, a parent chastising a child. “You are being foolish.”
And you are dead, betrayer, Cael replied in his mind and shot a human-bane arrow to the heart of the old man.
It was a perfect hit, a fitting end to his deceit.
Cael had the time to see the alchemist smile and pull out the flaring arrow like it was a tiny splinter in his thumb before three guards stormed him.
Cael evaded the spear thrust of the first attacker, put an arrow in his eye, rolled under the sword swing of the second, kicked his knees from under him, parried aside the third’s spear with his bow and sent the man flying with a sharp straight punch to the face. With the immediate distractions handled, Cael looked for the old Chelaxian, not believing what he had seen.
Galicus was there no longer. In his place was something horrifying. A knight with a steel mantle, gauntlets ending in claws two feet in length. The creature had no face or head, but an emotionless mask of metal hovered above its shoulders.
“What are you”, Cael snarled and took new aim with his bow. The being made of steel slashed air with its claws and Cael yelled in pain as he felt the cuts across his chest. His vision began to blur and his head felt light. The devilbane arrow fell from his fingers.
“Back to Hell with you”, Tresh howled at the devil, then blasted it with a lance of holy energy, pulling away its attention from Cael. The half-elf’s mouth started to fill with blood and his breaths became shallow. Shevar was alone, dueling with three guardsmen. Nyra and Belon had their hands full with the cornugons, yet their backs were exposed to a mass of guardsmen, eager to vent their anger on the paladin in particular.
Cael wasn’t about to give in. But his sanity reeled.
There are too many, they are too powerful, Cael cursed in a drunken stupor inside his own head as he forced himself to fight. He shot an arrow at a guard trying to flank Nyra. Then killed another. Then a third.
You can’t save us. Aurora’s resignation, emerging from nowhere, strangled his reason. His head felt numb, as if he was slowly bleeding his sense from the unreal claw wounds beneath his armor. He faltered.
The haze pinned him down. It was impossible to think. Everything was so complex.
Something caught his eye. A blazing figure of light, her longsword a shred of the Sun itself. An armored angel of war, battling a roaring devil four times her size. Holding her own.
“Cael – Aurora in the portal – was an illusion. He has the soulstone!” She screamed with her high-pitched voice without looking away from her foe.
Cael evaded a sword swing sluggishly, then caved the attacker’s nose into his brain with a punch, the contact and Nyra’s insight pulling him hard to reality.
He searched the devil – Galicus – who kept slashing nothing but air with his blade-like claws.
Tresh fell from the invisible wounds, vomiting blood.
The stone on Galicus’s neck was still there, though there was nothing to carry the necklace. Like the faceless mask, it hovered over him. In it sparkled the two stars, the same lights Cael had wondered about before.
Two stars. Two souls. Calling at him with every blink. They had been there all along, in plain sight.
Flames licked in hunger from the eye-slits of his mask. The Mark of Wrath on his brow throbbed like a hurt, torrid finger. His veins seared inside, painless, feeding him power. But he went silently for he was no berserker. Burning rage and cold hate joined hands, pushing the killer through the fog the devil had covered his mind with.
Galicus-devil’s claws worked frantically as they cast a spell. Like mindless automatons, the empty-eyed soldiers converged on Cael, forgetting everything else, protecting only the deceiver. Cael shouldered his bow, then drew his gladii as he spurted into a run, charging through the carpeted arena, bulldozing his way past guards. They died on Cael’s way with their throats slashed, hearts and guts stabbed.
“Horryn tried to cheat you from me, years ago. But you have always supposed to be my champion”, the devil said, “with me, you can be content.”
Cael tried not to listen, but the devil’s voice was a siren call. He drowned it with the cries of dying guards.
The devil took steps back as Cael approached, commanding the cornugons in some infernal language. The horned devils bellowed their response, and tried to overpower their little mortal foes – but failed. Belon was too strong, too persevering, Nyra too quick, too antithetical, for them to get in the aid their master. They were buying Cael time.
“You are only denying the truth of who you are, Cael.”
“Galicus”, Cael snarled at the devil to shut it up as he slaughtered his way open. It was not a long way, but the guards swamped him. Like a nightmare of hands reaching out for him, trying to hold him, take him down with them.
Ours ours ours..
The bow was on his back, and his brother’s gladii did the work of the reaper. He hadn’t survived without harm. Blood flowed uncontrollably from multiple wounds, yet they did little to hold him back.
Each wound was a crack in the ice of his mindscape, each venting hissing steam. On the horizon weren’t devils, but the fur-coated woman he loved. He stumbled on the ice covered by a sheet of freshly fallen snow. New cracks burst open, making him almost lose his step, forcing him to swerve. He kept going. She wasn’t far. Pain was an inconsequence.
The devil wasn’t far.
He killed left and right as he struggled forward.
“If you want them, you have to pledge your soul”, the denizen of Hell boomed without a mouth. Yet his words could be heard anywhere in perfect clarity.
You must be willing to do anything to save your loved ones, the wind of winter whispered to Cael in his mind. It had been a friendly voice, offering sensible advice.
The geyser blasts of fury destroying the ice made him hear true, and he felt the words for what they were. Maggots slithering in his ear, itching. Commanding. Lying. Corrupting.
It all made the killer seethe. How had he trusted him. What had fool he had been.
The last guard died gurgling blood, and only the devil remained, and Cael five feet away. He would free Aurora and Gabriella.
“Stop him”, Galicus said calmly past Cael to Shevar who had followed in the wake of warrior’s bloodbath. And the tigress did, without thinking nor breaking her stride. Cael spun, saw the emptiness in her feline eyes and stabbed with both the gladii in unison, reacting all too fast for the scout-master and her machetes, his hands moving by their own will and by years of relentless training.
He had always killed with no hesitation and very little remorse.
“Such ruthlessness. Such an exquisite weapon”, the devil chuckled with the smooth baritone of the old Chelaxian. Having taken human form again, his smile was that of a proud father’s. The air around him crackled with lightning, and he vanished.
The gate to Hell collapsed on itself.
Shevar’s features were full of terror now and she fell into Cael’s lap, suddenly lifeless, two blades of crimson and silver-coated cold iron sticking out of her back.
Sheer exasperation prickled Cael’s sweaty skin – a combination of self-hate for his all too many failures and hate for Shevar for being there, interfering, helping Galicus escape.
For mindlessly standing between him and his loved ones.
He wanted to scream his desperation.
But it was Nyra’s cry that echoed in the former arena when she saw what Cael had done.