Chapter twenty: Kreptis Etsi Elea (This is the Circle Path)
Shaethan Munotina locked his hands behind his head and gazed up at the flickering grand chandelier. It cast strange light in his hotel room. It was a fair sized suite, the bed big enough for ten more people. It cushioned his back, sore from nights on the hard ground. The décor was themed in colours of honey gold, bark brown and sweet apple red, lending warmth from the wet, snowy chill outside. Floor-to-ceiling gilt windows were covered by stitched silk drapes over fleece and wool curtains, and if the chandelier and other candles were snuffed out it would appear as night. As long as he didn’t uncover the windows, most of the memories of this miserably snowy kingdom stayed away. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that it was twenty years back in time, and she would walk through the door any minute after her nightshift. This was the land of his exile, but as of late he had never been in more luxury and (fabricated) peace.
He sighed, opening his eyes to his reality and rolling off the bed to gaze around at the expansive room. When he had been banished from Despartus he had been sent with naught but the filthy, threadbare clothes on his back, forced to find work or live as a beggar. He had few skills to account for and had been fired from five other jobs before coming to the hotel. For a long time he had possessed the vigor, dexterity, and sharp focus that allowed him to do all the jobs that Benuro, the manager, had thrown at him. His odd muttering and mannerism did not dissuade Benuro as they had Shaethan’s other employers; as long as he did his work and did it well, Benuro was happy. Shaethan desired few possessions and saved up a substantial collection of gold pennies. Learning to still his shifty ways and keep his thoughts in his head, his social status improved a few notches.
Here he had met his wife Dreisda—Drei for short, her friends called her— and when Shaethan had taken over the hotel, Chimley had been born here. No one looked at him in contempt like his old family had, and in light of his newfound respect and importance he forgot them. Chimley and Drei were his family now. With Drei, he had found love for the first time. He held fast to the belief that women were useless for all things besides housekeeping and childcare—still thought this—but Drei soon proved to be special. He didn’t know what the strange feelings inside him were at first, why Drei was always on his mind, why he was so angered by the men who always paid a little too much attention to the exquisitely lovely hotel maid. She was a dark-haired beauty, but he was attuned to the wicked, wily ways of women and tried (unsuccessfully) not to pay her too much attention. She watched him too, as the only other employee not over sixty years old (in appearance, he was in his late twenties). Her unconditional kindness toward him pulled at the shriveled little flower that was his soul, and she saw the goodness inside of him that hadn’t died after all. How was a man starved of love for all of his life to resist? He tentatively let her into her life, and she smoothed away his paralyzing fear.
Drei had been abandoned by her family as well. Their relationship grew carefully, slowly, like a fawn learning to walk, but it was in time as strong and as unshakeable as the oldest trees in the Winter Forest. For the first time he felt like an ordinary person, not a hated aberration.
He thought it would kill him to leave Drei and take her child, because he knew that it would kill her too. After Chimley was born, the Voices never let him forget that this was not his final curtain call; he still had a part in Act II. Though he knew They were right—their mission was bigger than him, his happiness, bigger even than his love for Drei—the truth that he couldn’t take her with him raked his heart like the barbs of a whip.
Shaethan moved to the polished wooden wardrobe that had held Drei’s dresses and shoes. It was empty now, except for his coat, but he imagined that it was filled with her clothes, her favorite blue evening gown and matching high-heeled slippers front and centre. He sighed again, wondering how much longer he could stall for time.
He had rationalised, telling himself that Chimley needed time to gain their trust and confidence, but the two real reasons he had done nothing to make progress thus far were that he was too absorbed in playing pretend, never mind the fact that he truly had no plan farther than this. Go to Wespiser. Find Drei. Start the war. The Voices had also told him to leave Chimley the ring. During his years in Wespiser, Shaethan had learned that the Voices couldn’t communicate with him without it. He hoped Chimley paid it much care.
Without Them, Shaethan didn’t know what to do. Distantly, he wished Chimley were here with him. What a clever boy he was. Looked just like Drei, too, in a more boyish way of course. He knew that Chimley didn’t think much of his old father, didn’t love him as much as Shaethan wished, but this didn’t quell his admiration. Powerful longing for his son choked off his air and he realized that he was alone again. No family to speak of. All alone in Wespiser. No amount of pretending could suppress the raw fact. Was this the circle path he was doomed to always follow? Would he never be happy?
Yes, he would be happy to see his son on the throne.
For now, he had to do his part over here. Had to do something, think of some sort of plan…He had never been a great thinker, or one for monumental ideas. Giving up after a moment, he fell back into the cloudlike bed, closing his eyes against sweet memories of Drei that floated up. Drei…He would give anything to see her just one more time.
He had been ordered to find her. She was here, in Wespiser. Whatever happened, he didn’t want it to be this way. But the temptation was too great, his heart thundering ahead of his logic. Even if she didn’t speak to him, didn’t even look at him—she had no reason to after what he had done—he would at least have seen her face. Her beautiful, sweet face.
Was he truly prepared to face her rejection—the most precious person in his life? The same way his family had rejected him, but sevenfold? The same way Chimley rejected him every day?
Deciding there was only one way to find out, Shaethan grabbed his coat from the wardrobe and left the hotel room.
* * *
If not for the would-be defectors, the fugitives would have been making good time over the plains to the canyon. It seemed that every five minutes Givlenen’s loyal ones were rounding up “stragglers”, those who tried to lag behind in hopes of being left behind, left to return to their families, return to the Queen, anything besides racing over the land in the dead of night. Running for their lives for reasons that were lost to them. They had been travelling for half an hour, and half an hour still remained of the journey to the canyon. Less, if the followers could be made to follow.Aram, Tiras and Javan, the biggest and strongest, were out of breath from constantly chasing and dragging back reluctant men.
No one could be left behind. Deserters were a direct line to the Queen.
“What is the matter with you?” Libby shrieked at the bewildered soldiers as they stopped in a dense copse for a headcount disguised as a “rest”. The sallow prisoner snored at her feet, arms wrapped around her ankles like they were a pillow. “Why can’t you all just follow orders? Don’t tell me that after all the planning we went through to get to this point, you are all backing out now! We can get around the Dark Ones. After this night, after this last mission, we are all gone! We defeat the Dark Soldiers and leave! But we must, must complete this last mission. We will never be safe if we don’t. No one will, so escape will be fruitless.” The lies hit her like rocks, but it was the only way.
“But why are we going to the canyon? We don’t even know what’s going on!” protested a Private, running his fingers nervously through his hair. “The plan—we weren’t supposed to leave for another month. That’s what you said. You said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid, you stupid fools, until the time comes.’”
Libby resisted the urge to fidget. “I—we’ve got no time for me to try to explain it. It’s too—he didn’t even explain it all to me… Call it blind faith, but I just know that this is the only way. So…”
“So,” Lieutenant Sihilan stepped up beside Libby, “You can hear it from the man himself when we get to the canyon.” To Libby’s shock, Sihilan presented a small vial filled with liquid from under his cloak. It sparkled in the bright moonlight of the Tenth Full Moon, and its watermelon-pink colour could be detected. “It’s not much, but it should give us at least ten minutes.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Libby demanded. Sihilan deeply bowed his head but did not answer.
“At least let us get you to the canyon,” he continued, addressing the uneasy crowd, “and if you still don’t understand what all this entails after he explains it to you, well, you must be denser than we gave you credit for.” He flashed a small smile. “Now, let’s get moving! And no more trouble for the Commodore!”
Trouble for the Commodore…Ha! They were less than the least of her problems. They weren’t the reason that her stomach was in painful knots. She was being pressed between two walls spiked with her guilt. If only she had listened to herself! Everyone had the feeling that the Queen could somehow see everything that went on in her palace—it was for that reason that no one talked about the plan within the walls. Her fears had never had any substance; they were more like paranoia. She shouldn’t have…
…shouldn’t have what? Tried to help the prisoner, old and wise beyond her own measly years? Tried to be part of a bigger plot to save the world? Maybe she shouldn’t have initiated the plan today, but she saw no other choice. Libby felt like screaming. It was all she could do not to strangle the deserters where they stood. Couldn’t they see that she was trying to help their families? She knew there was no hope for them, not after what they had had to do to the Queen to be able to escape. The Dark Soldiers were probably bearing down on them at that very moment. But at least the women and children would have a chance to escape.
The confusion had been tangible when, after Tiras, Aram and Javan locked her and Sihilan up, she had instructed Tiras to send the signal. The first part of the plan had nonetheless been carried out: three of the maids had drugged the Queen and her sisters upon serving them their evening tea, and the relays had prepared themselves. While the Queen slept, Libby, Sihilan, and their consorts had made their escape with half the soldiers, and the women servants and cooks had gone to town with the other soldiers to hide and wait. Before leaving, Libby ransacked the sleeping Queen’s room for the serum to keep the prisoner alive. She hadn’t had time to look for the solution to clear his thoughts and really bring him to life and was secretly glad that Sihilan had found it; she would have a chance to talk to the prisoner again.
She had also stopped to retrieve a sword from the weapon’s room. It wasn’t her favorite jeweled sword, but it was functional.
Only one maid remained at the palace. The Queen would be waking up right about now, and the maid would frantically tell her that everyone had escaped. She would tell her where she thought they were going, and that they were planning on leaving forever. Libby was grateful that as far as any of them knew, the Queen could not read minds. With any luck—no, Libby was certain—the Queen would summon every Dark Soldier she had to track them down. Especially since they had her precious prisoner. For a moment, the surreality of it all enveloped her. Was it really six months since she found out about the Queen’s…not magic, but…whatever it was. Her witchcraft-like potion work and brewery. The castle was like an outrageous nightmare. Bringing people back from the dead? Somehow knowing everything? And not to mention the Dark Soldiers! Libby shuddered to think about their cold eyes and mechanical obedience. Like walking dead. More so than the prisoner, who was more full of life than one would think.
Only about ten minutes to the canyon. They were almost as far from the castle as they could get. “Sihilan! Javan!” she called and they ran up to her. “Run ahead to the canyon, as fast as you can! Get the fire going, good and hot!” They were off without a word, the new sack of wood pounding Javan’s back.
Emerging from the trees, a large, flat field lay before them and gently rolling hills beyond. They had been moving at a good pace for a while—Sihilan seemed to have subdued them—but now they moved even faster, almost running. It was as if, in the darkness of the cursed night, they could feel the Lost Ones breathing down their necks. Were those horses’ hooves or their heartbeats? The whoop of an enemy soldier or an owl’s hoot? The gravity made it hard to think.
Eternity seemed to pass, dragging their precious minutes with it, before they reached the canyon refuge. In the moonlight, the columns of smoke from the fire looked like larger-than-life specters undulating in the night. Breathlessly the fugitives tumbled down the rocky slope and into the ravine, collapsing in various positions near the fire. Inexplicably, after the prisoner was handed off to Sihilan who had the clarity serum, several of them began to cry.
“Why are we here, Commodore?” wept one of them, tripping up to her. “This isn’t part of the plan! The Soldiers will get us here, for sure.” He paused, wiping his eyes. “You brought us here to die, didn’t you? Didn’t you?” They were all looking at her, not really angry but…scared. Libby remembered that most of them had been forced to join the Queen’s military, forced to take the oaths of service placing their duty above their lives. None had entered prepared to die, as she had. But they wanted to trust her…Really; nothing could keep them here if they didn’t want to be. She wanted to tell them that they could go, that they had done all they could, but she knew that it would be useless. If the Queen and her Soldiers arrived and saw only two or three of them there, the battle wouldn’t last long enough for the people in town to escape.
The spiked walls pressed even tighter around Libby. Thankfully, before she had to answer, Sihilan spoke up and called everyone’s attention to the prisoner who was waking up. Silhouetted by the massive fire, the yellow pallor of his face, the brittle, brownish dryness of his eyes and his straggly hair couldn’t be seen. He straightened as he came to full consciousness. Looking around, a shadowed smile came to his face. Libby moved to stand beside him, and he turned the smile on her. She had never seen him smile before.
“Libby,” he breathed in his rough, wispy voice. “You did it.”
She blinked before brushing off his awe. “Yeah. Now talk to them. They still don’t understand how important this is!” Turning accusing eyes on her soldiers, she saw that most of them were gaping at him. A lot of them had never seen the prisoner alive. No wonder their minds were blown by the urgency the dead man presented.
“Neither do you,” the prisoner murmured, not unkindly, before appraising the gawking collection of teary-eyed soldiers. Their smeared faces were thrown into red-gold relief by the fire. “I don’t think I have much time,” he began, taking a step toward them and away from the blistering fire, “so I will be as blunt as I can. Most of you doubt the supposed importance of this mission that Libby—er, Commodore Givlenen—has thrown upon you, but here is the truth: I hold in my mind a secret knowledge that the Queen would do anything to obtain and I would do anything to keep away from her. If she got a hold of it, it would mean limitless power for her. She still has several other plans to achieve her goal, but if she achieved it by means of what I know, there would be no hope left for the world. At least with her minor plans she might be stopped. I want you all to have a chance. Dying didn’t work the first time, but hopefully in this way I will be gone forever.” He paused, seeming to take a breath even though he didn’t need any. “Do not let the Queen win, gentlemen. Libby.” A tender smile for her.
He nodded once at the men, and then he walked into the fire.
There was less than a second of silence as everyone took in what had just happened, and then the world exploded.
“Look!” someone yelled, and everything erupted into chaos as both edges of the canyon suddenly teemed with riders on huge black horses. They slid fearlessly down the slope, and even as two or three of them stumbled and tumbled down, none of the others even looked or gave pause. The Dark Soldiers. And with them, after their chaotic entrance, rode the livid Queen and her sisters.
“Get him!” she shrieked frantically. “Get the prisoner! Don’t let him burn!”
At the same time that Libby screamed to her soldiers: “Don’t let them get him! Let him burn!”
And the battle began.
In one impressive motion, Libby’s soldiers drew their swords and ringed the pyre shoulder-to-shoulder just as the Dark Soldiers reached them. Hundreds of them! Libby took point, facing off the Queen, slashing at any Dark Soldiers that came near. The horses were just as mechanical as their masters, lifeless and passionless in their movements, but quick and effective nonetheless. In fact, Libby had never seen any creatures move so fast and ruthlessly, without fear of the fire that burned so close and so hotly. The same could be said of the Lost Riders. They were even more deadly than the last time she had dealt with them. Libby’s unimpressive sword flashed in the fire as she slashed the legs of a horse, moving swiftly to intercept the rider who was thrown into her sword by his stumbling mount. After decapitating the rider (to make sure he was dead) Libby tossed him into the fire. For a moment, a headless humanoid silhouette glowed brighter than the flame. She was about to do the same to the next one when suddenly something barrelled into her shoulder, sending her careening sidelong toward the fire.
She had fallen directly into a regular campfire once, and though she now stopped shy of a greedy tongue, the pain was tenfold worse just from being adjacent.
And yet, what was that compared to watching three soldiers shoved into the space she had opened up and into the open furnace?
The flames seemed to affect neither the horses nor the riders. It was only a few seconds later that the three emerged, slightly charred but otherwise unscathed. Some of Libby’s fleet had all stopped to stare, horror-stricken, as Queen Nohela lunged forward from her horse to meet the Lost Ones emerging from the fire.
Libby felt like crying. Never before had she been so happy to see a headless, blackened, crumbling skeleton missing its left arm and leg. She raised an arm in triumph, and a cheer went up from her soldiers.
“No, no!” Nohela shrieked, falling to her knees beside the charred remains. It was the first time Libby had seen her show genuine remorse. “All our work, burned and gone!” She sobbed bitterly, and the rest of Libby’s soldiers gathered around to watch, inadvertently surrounding themselves with Dark Soldiers. Sihilan came up to Libby and nudged her shoulder, flashing a wide smile. Nohela’s sisters were mounted a few meters away, talking quietly between themselves. The Queen tried to clutch the skeleton’s right arm, but it turned to ash in her hands. Shrieking again, she jumped to her feet in a very un-queen-like fashion, flames in her eyes. “Kill them!” she screeched. “Kill them all!”
Libby and her soldiers never had a chance. Before the Queen completed her mandate, a quarter of them were dead.
“Sihilan!” Libby cried, but it was too late. As he drew his sword, the hand was sliced from his wrist, and then his chest was impaled. The Dark Rider who killed him jerked his dripping sword out of his mark and moved on. No distractions! she implored agonizingly, and darted after the young soldier’s killer. She was about to slash the horse’s legs when a voice rang out:
Normally, such an inconsequential word would have not been heeded, but this voice was decimating. It resonated from the canyon walls and assailed ears, and it was even as if Libby could hear it booming in her mind. The voice filled the night like darkness fills the night, and in the silence that followed, she thought she had gone deaf. But no, everyone had simply stopped.
Looking more like a queen than her sister, one of the acolytes—Princess Colta—nudged her horse forward to loom over Queen Nohela. There was a small glint of anger in her otherwise expressionless face. “You fool!” Libby heard her hiss. “Why would you kill them? I told you less than an hour ago that I can feel a war coming. Not a little one. We will need all the soldiers we can get!” The queen seemed to be absorbing the princess’s words. She tilted her head and then nodded to herself. Uneasy now, Libby and her soldiers shifted from foot to foot, uncertain of what would happen next. Many were absorbed with crying over dead companions, but Libby refused to even look in Sihilan’s direction.
Remounting her horse, Queen Nohela addressed her soldiers. “Take them all prisoner, then—don’t harm them more than you have too!” Once again, the Queen hadn’t even finished when Libby felt a strong hand on her shoulder, lifting her to her feet. Coldly she watched as her soldiers were seized as well. Ice water ran through her veins. She couldn’t look them in the eyes, even as they pleaded with her for help. How she felt about leading them to their deaths was a small hole compared to the abysmal grief and guilt she felt now, for this was a fate worse than death. The slowest, most torturous death would be welcomed!
She saw no way that they could escape this new, sick twist their fates had taken as they were marched back to the cursed castle. The Dark Soldiers were faster and stronger, and the fugitives were outnumbered three to one. Nowhere to go but forward, forward to doom and horror. The only solace was that the Queen perhaps hadn’t figured out where the rest of her military had gone—the town had most likely gotten away. Libby tried to take comfort from this small victory, and when she had the chance she would make sure that her men remembered this. Hopefully before the end came. She thought of Sihilan. She didn’t know if they had taken him or left him beside the pyre. The brave young man. Almost like a son. And she had never told him…
Though her heart squeezed unbearably, killing her, Libby refused to let any tears fall or fight the Dark Soldiers who boxed her in. She held her head high and appreciated that for now she was free. She thought only in passing that when morning came, she and her soldiers would belong to the queen in a worse way than they had imagined. She refused to dwell that when the sun rose, they would belong to the Dark and the Lost.