The Apostate Saint: Chapter 32 – Dal Segno al Coda

The road back to the City was littered with the occasional demon husk, which was in stark contrast to the way the road had been on their way out from the City. There had been at least three skirmishes – if you could call them that – that the Son must have fended off on his way to attempt to save Gailavira. Along with those poorly organized skirmishes, there were several lone demons that must have simply been looking for a quick meal before they met their ultimate end. Nothing would stand in the way of the Son and his mission, but Alaric was hopeful that they might have at least slowed his commander down enough for the four of them to catch up with him. Judging by the inhuman screams echoing through the canyon ahead, Alaric knew that his suspicions were correct.

“Be ready, lad,” Isidore weakly warned Alaric as the two of them rode atop Alaric’s horse. It certainly hadn’t been the most comfortable ride with his mentor and he riding the same horse, but they had no choice after Isidore had been forced to sacrifice his own mortally wounded mount. As the night progressed into morning without incident for the soldiers and the sun rose on the eastern horizon, Isidore’s empowered status had given way to lethargy. Not only had they put off sleep for the night so that they could continue pursuing the Son, the price of Isidore using his Soularm now demanded to be paid. Alaric knew what Isidore was fighting in order to stay awake, and was thankful that they hadn’t had to fight more of the creatures because of the exhaustion that was left behind when the soul energy waned.

“I can see him!” Euric called, as he and Calix were in front as they rode. “He’s surrounded!”

“Are you able to fight?” Alaric said low so only Isidore could hear him. Isidore readied his spear like a jousting lance and tapped Alaric on the side of the leg. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Isidore said, his slouched posture betraying his confidence. “When it’s my time, it won’t be the enemy who takes me from the horse.” Alaric appreciated Isidore’s always-confident candor, even though he still had reservations about bringing his mentor into battle in his condition. “Right there,” Isidore continued. “Let’s send them back to Hell!”

Alaric pressed the horse as hard as she would go and he and his mentor rallied with Euric and Calix and charged into the fray. The Son, seeing the his compatriots had come to his aid, took a defensive position to allow for them to charge into the mob. With his back against the horse carrying Gailavira, he forced it to one side of the chasm to allow Alaric’s horse some room to move through. After a few well-aimed shots by Euric, the wall of demons on the near side broke just ahead of Alaric’s charge.

The joust cleared a great many demons in a line, which also served to completely reinvigorate Isidore. When the horse finally lost momentum, Alaric handed the reins to Isidore and jumped onto the ground – Daemonore in hand. He wasted no time at all in slashing through the outliers of the group. Every swing struck down at least one or two of the lesser demons surrounding the Son. As soon as the horse was ready for another charge, Alaric moved aside and Isidore crashed through the increasingly smaller numbers of demons who must have thought their trap was foolproof. When they started breaking away from the group and running for their lives, Euric’s arrows met them each time.

In no time at all, the entirety of the swarm was dusted and the newly empowered warriors were reunited with their leader, who seemed pleased with the assistance.

“There’s not much time,” the Son told them, pushing aside any formalities. “If I don’t get her to the Sanctum and fast, her soul will be ruined.”

Gailavira’s body was limp atop the Son’s horse. Her face had taken on an uncanny appearance, something that Alaric had only seen on the faces of cadavers at funerals. He hated looking upon the eyes of the dead; it represented to him the loss of potential. Every time he attended a funeral, he thought about how the person who died must have had hopes and dreams, even just before they closed their eyes forever. To Alaric, there was no greater tragedy than the loss of one’s dreams – for in them, he believed, lie the real version of that person – their soul lived there.

“On we go!” shouted Isidore, calling Alaric back onto the horse. They rode fast and hard, knowingly pushing the limits of what they felt their horses should have been able to run, the signs of exhaustion from the horses merely a prelude to the way each one of them would feel after the power had gone from their bodies. The Son’s horse slowed and he addressed them as soon as the City and its great white walls were in view.

“We cannot tarry now,” he warned them. Then, he instructed them. “Place your hand on your horse’s neck and allow a portion of the energy to flow out from you. As soon as the beast receives a portion of your power, you must remove your hand. You don’t want to lose all of it at once or you’ll never make it into the City.” Euric, who had already had practice at this transfer of power from the first battle, was the first to successfully do so with his horse. Immediately, it perked up and nearly bucked Euric and Calix off of it.

“Go!” cried the Son, spurring them on. As they bolted at an even faster pace than when the horse was fully rested, the Son turned to Isidore and Alaric.

“Clear your mind. It is much the same as when you lie awake in bed at night with too many thoughts preventing your sleep. Let it go. Find your center. Find the place in your heart where the energy rests. Offer no resistance, but relax your muscles and allow it to part from you.”

Alaric focused his mind, as he often did in times of trouble, on the kinds of things that brought him peace. He thought of art and of music – brush strokes on a canvas as the image in his mind began to take shape on the painting while his mother softly played her harp near the window in his chamber. Alaric’s memory gravitated to their times together learning how to play, how his mother introduced him to the instruments and helped him to find his voice. The harmonies of the string duet and their accompanying vocals created a place in his mind that was always safe and warm. It was his solace, and he missed her already. His heart was filled with joy knowing that he soon would be reunited with her.

Something was wrong, however. He couldn’t describe it, but something stopped him from being able to relax himself enough to let the power go. Luckily for them both, Isidore had taken notice of Alaric’s troubles and performed the act himself. Isidore rest his hand on Alaric’s shoulder, comforting him. “It’s alright, lad. It’s better for us if one of us remain empowered, in case we meet any resistance.”

“On we go!” shouted the Son, already on his way. They followed close behind.

The City drew nearer and nearer, a perspective that Alaric had never known from his entire life. It had always seemed so much bigger when he hadn’t known the world outside. From this distance, its gleaming white walls barely seemed big enough to contain an entire civilization within it. The Son had been right about one thing – the people of the City couldn’t continue forever contained in the City like a coffin. Their crusade was just.

At last they arrived at the gate to the City. The main gate had been replaced with a wooden door erected in the absence of the one the Son had demolished in grand fashion upon his arrival. It was a much less sturdy sort of protection than the one erected by the City’s ancestors, but the City needed something there. If any of these demons that they had encountered were able to pour into the City and there was nobody armed with Soularms to defend it, then that surely would be the end of all of humanity. Alaric felt the urge to volunteer to stay behind to be the one to protect it, but said nothing as he felt he might be judged for simply wanting to stay behind in the comforts of his home. He wouldn’t be wrong to make that assumption, either. The music of his home was already calling to him.

The Son looked up at the guard manning the tower at the gate, a silent warning that if they didn’t open the gate right then and there, that he would open it himself, like he had the last time. The man decided to do what was best and pulled the crank to allow the gate to open.

They entered the City to little fanfare – after all, no one expected them to arrive back so soon after they set out. There were a fair amount of commoners that showed up that were alerted when the gates flew open, but nothing like the crowd that had gathered when the gates crashed down upon the Son’s grand arrival. The passersby saw Gailavira’s body lying on the Son’s horse, as well as the fact that only half of those who set out had returned. They must have feared for the worst, Alaric thought. While their assumptions were obviously wrong, Alaric certainly wouldn’t blame them for thinking what he knew they must be thinking.

The men and their three horses made their way through the City, trying to navigate to the City Center as quickly as possible. Once the crowd changed from unwashed commoners to finely clothed noblemen, Alaric’s suspense grew. Soon, they would be back where it had all began – at the Pearly Stair that led up to the Highest Height. The first time Alaric saw the Son, he had descended from that very temple. It was only fitting that he would ascend once again. After all, he was the heir to that seat – the place from where the First Man had ruled, long ago in ages long since past. It was up there atop that temple that the Son would bring Gailavira’s body to attempt to reunite it with her soul. How, exactly, Alaric still didn’t know – but the Son was confident that this was the only way.

When they did arrive to the City square, however, they were met by an entire host of monks from the Astrum Order, as opposed to their typical (and appropriately staffed, based upon their imposing physiques) two guards. Somehow, they must have gotten word ahead of the arrival of the Son and they were all there, over one hundred of the strongest, most physically fit people on the planet. Even still infused with some of the soul energy of the demons they slew mere hours before, it would be a tough fight to win. It was the first commandment that the Son gave them – never, under any circumstances, use the Soularm upon a human being, even if they are your enemy. Gailavira merely pricked her finger with her dagger and this was the state of her body. There was no greater evidence for the importance of that directive than the shape she was now in.

What would the Son do now, in the face of such massive resistance? Surely, he would not abandon his own morals and use his sword or his spear upon these men. Right?

The monks said nothing at first, but merely stood there in opposition. These militant clergymen studied the Son and his company, and the Son sized them up as well. Alaric turned to Euric and the two shared a look of uneasiness. The tension could have been cut by a knife, it was so thick.

At last, one monk, a cardinal spoke.

“Speak your will and let it be known to all.”

It was a test. This man wanted the Son to admit, in front of the entire clergy and the public beginning to amass there, the fact that the Son wanted to commit a most holy offense. Alaric, terrified of the ensuing conflict, looked up at buildings nearby to check for archers. There, standing along the walls and on balconies were the tops of men’s heads gazing down. While their bows were not visible from this vantage point, Alaric knew that these men held it as their sacred duty to protect the temple against anyone who might attempt to capture it for their own ends. The guardians of this temple were taken by surprise once; the massive resistance they now faced was all the evidence Alaric needed to know that they had no intention of letting the Son climb the stairs again.

Alaric turned an uneasy eye to Isidore, who returned the glance, clearly as concerned as he. Neither spoke; neither knew what to do next but they both understood the situation was serious.

The Son sat atop his horse, allowing the suspense to build silently. He must have known he would meet some resistance, but the showing by the priests surpassed anything Alaric had thought likely. He had spent so much of his energy thinking about simply getting the Son to his destination past foes that he was able to kill, he hadn’t even considered the fact that they would meet a foe who couldn’t be conquered by Daemonore – at least not without committing a mortal sin.

The Son dismounted, then reached up and pulled Gailavira’s body from the horse. He held her limp in his arms, then approached the group of monks who stood before him. Even still, he refused to speak and give the cardinal the satisfaction that he desired. Alaric watched as the Son turned around, surveying the square around them.

It suddenly occurred to Alaric why the Son must have been stalling. It took a long time for the word of their arrival to spread through the masses, but sure enough, they arrived in droves. Much like the first time the Son had come, the people gathered around in anticipation of what this mysterious stranger who possessed the Gifts had to say. There were people of all statuses – Solumians stood side-by-side with Primisians, beggars and slaves. All had come to watch the events unfold, and the Son needed to win them over now more than ever.

The Son stared daggers at the cardinal standing in his way, refusing to give him any ammunition to legally do what Alaric assumed he wanted to do. It benefitted only the clergymen for the Son to give any response at all, something that the Son must have understood well.

As Alaric surveyed the faces in the crowd, though so varied and filled with a general representation of the people, there was an absence now that wasn’t felt in the first gathering in this square.

Among all the people who had come to watch, Alaric didn’t spot one single senator. Last time, along with his father and Geilamir’s father who so brazenly challenged the Son’s claim, there had been at least two dozen senators present. It struck Alaric as odd that they were not in the audience whatsoever this time. He had hoped to see his mother and father there, but was dejected by their absence. He needed his father’s support and his influence upon the ruling body now, more than ever. He also missed his mother, and the comfort she brought him, most of all.

Where are they?

Surprised by a voice coming from his mentor, Alaric nearly fell off the horse as Isidore called out to the clergymen.

“Honorable, steadfast guardians of this temple!” he shouted, with all the ferocity of a wounded, cornered beast. “Your commitment to the safety of this Holy Temple are to be commended and respected. We have come a long way, traveling through the night and a day by horseback to return home, to return here for a holy cause of our own.”

The Son closed his eyes, meditating on the situation.

“We have come bearing great news,” Isidore called out, loud enough that the masses could hear. “We have seen the faces of the demons who haunt this world. We have seen and heard horrible things, far exceeding the stories told about the monsters outside these walls. We have fought them all despite overwhelming numbers standing against us. We have fallen… and we have risen again, victorious against… impossible odds.”

Alaric felt downtrodden, remembering his failure on the night of the first battle. While Isidore painted his first brush with death as a great victory to the masses, he wouldn’t have fallen at all if it weren’t for Alaric’s failure to hold the line. Because of the fact that the Son had to expend so much of his energy resurrecting Isidore, he had nearly died. If that hadn’t happened, then Gailavira wouldn’t have had to take extreme measures to bring him back. Hearing Isidore speak in this way, while kindly trotting down the road Alaric didn’t want to visit, was enough to remind him of his own failure.

“Before you stands the rightful heir to this temple!” Isidore shouted at the top of his lungs, utilizing every ounce of his remaining energy. “I have stood with him in battle and witnessed his… divine blessing firsthand…”

Isidore’s breathing and posture were both affected by over-exertion. Alaric feared that if Isidore continued much longer, his mentor’s well-being would be in jeopardy. Alaric himself had begun to feel the effects of the soul energy leaving his body, taking with it his healthy disposition and his energy. If Alaric was already feeling lethargic from coming down from the recent battle, then Isidore, who was no longer in the prime of this life, who gave much of his energy to Alaric’s horse, might not be able to handle much more of this stress on his heart.

“If the miracles he performed before your eyes were not enough… to convince you of this man’s honesty, then I ask that you look again. This woman…. the lady Gailavira… the matron of the hospital, is wounded and her very soul is dying. Look now, at the great lengths this man… this great soul… is willing to go to, to save one person. Though he has only known this woman for a few weeks, he has risked his very life… for the sake… of her soul.”

Isidore’s passionate speech continued despite the fact that his face had lost its color. From where Alaric was sitting, he could also see easily how much Isidore was shaking. He wouldn’t be able to go on much longer without risking a loss of consciousness.

“So you ask… I ask… I… tell… He…” Alaric had to catch Isidore to prevent him from falling off of the horse completely.

Alaric extended his hand to signal to Euric, who was on the other side of the Son’s horse. Euric saw the signal and he and Calix climbed down from their horse. They approached Alaric, but theirs were not the first hands to come to his aid. To his great surprise, Art, the Farraige friend of Fridok, was at his side, helping stabilize and lower Isidore to the ground.

“I’ve got ya,” Art said. “Ease him down and let’s get him somewhere safe.”

They successfully and carefully brought Isidore to the ground. Euric and Calix arrived and each took one of his arms over their shoulders.

“Take him to my father’s house as it’s the closest safe place,” Alaric said. “We will reconvene there once we have this all sorted out.”

“You sure?” Euric said to Alaric, sternly questioning the decision. Alaric, still nervous about violence possibly breaking out, thought about the safety of his friend and Isidore’s ward. This was Alaric’s way of ensuring that the three of them would be safer from violence or legal persecution. It was the least he could do for his friends.

The people gathered around had erupted into a confused droning, which didn’t help the intensity of the stalemate that, despite Isidore’s best efforts, remained. Alaric turned to Art and was immediately taken aback by the man’s sullen demeanor. He bore an expression that said that he was burdened with something terrible, a face that Art had never expressed before, in the short time Alaric had known him.

“Thanks for the help,” Alaric said, straightening his belt, preparing himself for what might be a political or an actual fight. He didn’t want it to come to that, but if the Son was to have to impose his will upon these monks, then Alaric would be by his side to protect and defend his lord. He turned from Art, but as soon as he did, Art spoke the words that would take away the melody of Alaric’s life.

“Your mother has died.”

Alaric turned slowly back to Art. The hit was so hard, it felt as if his soul had momentarily left his body. When the reality of Art’s words sank in, Alaric stumbled to find any words to say at all. No, he thought. That is impossible. He wanted to say a hundred things all at once, but was left speechless, brokenly denying reality itself. His thoughts discordant, his heart out of rhythm and his breaths an unnatural staccato, Alaric rejected Art with immediate anger, shock and denial in syncopation with one another.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but it’s true. It happened suddenly the night after you all left. I hate to be the one to ask, but was there something that happened to you all, several nights ago? I only ask because your mother died around the same time that I lost consciousness and was thought to be dead.”

Alaric processed the words, still out of sync with reality. When he considered what Art said, the fear and dread finally caught up with him. If what Art said was true, that would have been right around the time that they fought the battle against the thousand demons. If, somehow, the events were connected, then Alaric may have been the one responsible for his mother’s death. Thinking of the night that Daemonore was created, he remembered how much the ritual for the creation of the blade had weakened his mother. If her health was still tied to the dark magic of that blade, then it was Alaric himself who wielded the instrument of his mother’s destruction.

He pulled Daemonore out of its sheath, hands trembling in trepidation. Alaric saw his reflection in the blade and despised himself as much as he despised the sword.

How could I have been so foolish as to not realize the danger of using such a terrible weapon?

He slowly traced his gaze onto the Son and realized that he must have known the dangers involved with using this thing, and yet he didn’t warn him about what it could mean for his mother. Alaric held out the blade as if to throw it, but then simply dropped it onto the ground and backed away. He took the lead on his horse and gathered Euric’s horse and started walking away, tears streaming from his eyes.

As he turned around one last time, he saw Art pick up the damned weapon and stare into the abyss of its grandeur.

He can have it.

It was time to finally stop pretending to be someone else and return home to bury the remains of the life he had left behind. The Son and his mission be damned.

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