The Apostate Saint: Chapter 33 – And Then You’re Gone

Fridok stoked the fire, adjusting the freshly placed log so as to give the flames enough air flow to burn properly. The campsite had become a waiting place for those who remained – not all of whom were doing so with grace and patience. Fridok had practiced waiting patiently his whole life, so it was easy for him to remain calm while they waited for the Son and the others’ return. Even Ervig was showing signs of nervousness, which didn’t help the situation. Things had gotten so tense between those who remained that Bulgar had taken Xanthus out to practice archery a good distance away from the camp. That left Fridok stuck between the ever-agitated Ervig and Geilamir, whom Fridok had still not grown fully comfortable in his presence.

“We’re wasting our time just sitting here,” Geilamir said, loud enough that both Fridok and Ervig might hear him. “We should be doing something.”

“Like what?” Fridok said, tapping a log to expose the unburnt wood to the fire.

“Something. Anything. I feel like we’re wasting all of our initiative by just sitting around waiting to regroup. For all we know, the demons could be planning a raid as we speak. We should be actively searching for their dens or wherever they’re holed up. We sit here, all we’re doing is letting the enemy figure out new ways to attack.”

“What’s your plan if one of us is struck down?” Ervig said, chiding Geilamir. “Without the general there to pick you back up, you’re mortal. One demon gets through the line and we’re all casualties. Even if they make it back here in a few days, there won’t be enough shreds left of us to put back together. They’re starving, boy. You saw how ravenous they were. Have some God-damned patience and you might survive.”

Geilamir scoffed and walked off to sulk. Ervig shook his head dismissively, then took up his spear and began his drills. This was the fifth time today that he ran through his routine. Fridok respected the man’s dedication to remaining sharp even in his advanced age, and decided it was high time for him to run through his drills as well. After all, training was the one thing that had always centered and focused him – he was best to not rest on his laurels until someone who knew better said it was time to return and celebrate a triumph.

Fridok had very few possessions in his life that he actually cared about. His original sword had been the one thing that he had owned that he truly loved, as it represented the culmination of all of his struggles. Even though it had broken in the tournament against Alaric’s much higher quality sword, its sacrifice was never forgotten. Now that he possessed a superior weapon of far greater quality and power, this new blade represented Fridok’s greatest achievement over adversity. It was high time that he started giving it the same time and attention he had given his first sword.

He swung the blade in the same way he had always trained – the same exact same moves he had seen Alaric and the others perform day in and day out during their training sessions. Fridok may not have been a noble, but he learned through sheer will how to train like one.

As he went through the stances one by one, he felt his worries and his stress melt away – mostly. Without any other distractions getting in his way, he felt a wave of peace wash through him.

Even Ervig noticed. Fridok had not known the man very long, but he did know that he wasn’t one to openly praise others. So, when Ervig stopped his own training to watch Fridok methodically emulate the same routine that Ervig himself had likely dictated to his students, Fridok got the sense that something had changed between them. Out here in the great expanse, the societal boundaries that had suffocated Fridok his entire life were beginning to melt away. There was no place out here for words like “rich” or “poor”; there were no Solumians or Primisians in the great wilderness. Out here, the only separation that existed was between the living and the monsters. At last, Fridok had found his place.

Ervig nodded at Fridok, a blessing of acceptance that he had never expected, but would always remember from that moment on. It was too bad, then, that Geilamir looked at their interaction with clear spite and jealousy. Even after so much had evolved in his life, some things, it seemed, would never truly change.

He decided it didn’t matter. Fridok knew he would never be able to please everyone, and, for whatever reason, Geilamir still had a chip on his shoulder with Fridok’s name on it. As Ervig turned back to his own drilling, Geilamir approached Fridok with resentment worn plainly on his face. Fridok didn’t really want to bicker, but it would be a cold day in Mortemia before he would roll over to an insult.

Just as Geilamir opened his mouth to speak, an unintelligible cry was heard from the direction of Bulgar and Xanthus. All three men turned to look. They didn’t have to ask for clarification – they knew immediately what had caused the sound.

An oppressive and mighty force of howling, wailing demons had appeared as if out of nowhere, an inferno in its early stages rising up to swallow those who remained at the camp in mere minutes. Fridok looked at Geilamir and whatever words were just about to be spoken were soon forgotten.

There was no time for disunity now.

The Son, as He allowed others to refer to Him, watched as His chosen warrior Alaric had abandoned Him and the Soularm bestowed upon him. He was disappointed, but not surprised by the boy’s sudden disheartenment. He had seen this before – in the time before His exile. When His people developed the ritual of Soularm creation, they had discovered long ago that it came at a high price. He put himself in the boy’s place and remembered how He felt, knowing that He had caused the deaths of his brother and sister by wielding the sword and the spear they had helped create. Sometimes he felt he could still hear their voices, low whispers cast hopelessly into the howling wind.

Everyone deserves the time it takes to grieve.

He stood alone now, against the organization that was the true legacy of His Father. Before He had departed the City, His Father’s acolytes were primarily servants, book worms whose duties consisted of taking notes and making cosmic observations at His Father’s behest. They were masters of the Gifts, of course, but they were a non-violent group because the thought of actually having to defend Father or the Sanctum where he reigned were simply not things that happened. Father possessed the one Gift that nobody else had, and that Gift was too valuable for the world to risk losing.

Now, Father was gone as was the First Gift. He had come back to a world of Creation, but there was no one remaining with the power to create. Only by opening the sealed door atop the temple would He be able to mimic a fraction of His Father’s power. Only by prying open what His Father had sealed would he be able to save this woman whose very soul was in limbo.

He stood alone.

“You’re not alone,” said Art, the beggar who picked up Alaric’s Soularm. The man, the friend of Fridok whom He had healed prior to departing the City, was no soldier. In fact, the man was likely to cause his own destruction if he attempted to use that blade. He knew it, and chances were that Art knew it, too.

But the monks who stood before them didn’t know that.

“Come to my side,” He said, beckoning Art forward. The man’s clumsiness was evident as he struggled to wield Daemonore. Regardless, the monks would be even more hesitant to make the first move with him here. Trained swordsman or not, a man wielding a Soularm was a dangerous foe.

“You’ve got me, alright?” Art said, with all the confidence of a man surrounded by tigers. “I haven’t forgotten what you’ve done to me. To my legs, I mean.”

He couldn’t imagine what it must have been like, having stumps for legs. His health and immortality, fueled by the Gifts, had always been something He had taken for granted. He simply couldn’t comprehend the struggles that this man must have gone through his entire life.

I may have taken this man for granted. His support in my time of need deserves more reward than to be merely a vessel for Soularm creation. Perhaps when I enter the sanctum I can find a way to protect him from his inevitable fall.

“Thank you, Art,” He said, meaning far more than He was willing to let on about the man’s aid.

“No thanks are necessary. I haven’t done anything yet. Just doing the right thing, yeah?”

He immediately turned His attention high up at the top of the Pearly Stair, where, once again, the Consul Quintus Maximilius stood presiding over the masses.

“Make way!” the Consul shouted, at the top of his lungs. In an instant, the mass of monks split in two, no longer blocking the way up the Pearly Stairs.

He turned to Art. “Be prepared to use that weapon.”

“I’m thirsty to do just that, lord.”

Fridok swung his unnamed but beloved Soularm wildly in an arc from side to side. Three more demons fell. He had to have slain at least thirty by now, their lifeless, black husks littering the ground all around them. Next to him, Geilamir and Ervig held the line. Even though they were vastly outnumbered, they still held the high ground. Righteous energy filled Fridok’s arms and legs, his mind now as sharp as the sword with which he raged against the demons.

This was his place – here – in this untamed land full of opportunity. It was here that he would make his stand. It was here that he would earn his status in the world. It was all his to earn – honor, prestige and glory. He would extract all three from the demons he cut down.

Except… There were too many of them. Fridok heard Geilamir cry out, struck hard by one of the demons with razor-sharp claws.

“Hold the line!” cried Ervig. It was to no avail. Geilamir destroyed the demon that had gotten through, but quickly lost his footing in the process.

“Damn it, boy, get back on your feet!”

Fridok watched as the demons recognized the break in the the line and how they focused more and more of their attacks directly upon Geilamir.

At this rate, Geilamir would fall and then Fridok and the rest would be next.

“By the Namer – get back on your feet!”

Art felt the tendrils of weakness spread throughout every inch of his body. He remembered this feeling – it was the same feeling he felt the night where he blacked out and had been thought dead. He knew it could only mean one thing, based on what he now knew about the ritual he had performed for Fridok. He could almost see the demons that he knew Fridok was fighting when he closed his eyes. Somehow, Art needed to find the strength to see this through. The future of the City depended on him being there to defend it.

At last, the Consul reached the bottom of the temple stairs. Art, wavering and light-headed, stood there bravely, like he had seen Fridok do when the sword had materialized in his hands. He could not falter now, when so much was at stake.

A hush covered the crowd, everyone watching with eagerness and terror at what might happen next. Consul Quintus was the first to break the silence.

“Look now, all you people of the City and witness this! Take a moment to appreciate the scene you see playing out before you.”

Art felt more and more drained as he waited for what he knew was going to happen. He had to hold out, despite everything. He thought of the times he had managed to outlast the other drunks in long longs of drinking spoiled wine. It was a pathetic thing to think of in comparison to the things the others had achieved in their lives, but it helped Art stay focused.

“This man, this stranger to our City, has returned from his grand conquest of the demons, to seek out the power contained within the Sealed Sanctum. I challenge any of you True Faithful gathered here today to describe to me and to all of us the gravity of this man’s actions!”

At first, nobody spoke up. Art was really beginning to hate all the theatric pauses. It made it so much harder to maintain the impression that he was actually able to do something with the sword. At this rate, he was more likely to hurt himself than another man.

The Son closed his eyes again, obviously holding back a whole lot of anger. Art wondered how long it would be before the man would break and start going on a rampage?

“I’ll tell you what I see!” shouted a voice from the crowd. The voice came from a man Art only vaguely knew as the senator Tolamirus Aurumantian. Art hadn’t been there when the Son first arrived, but he heard from Fridok that Geilamir’s father had been the loudest critic of the Son, challenging his supposed position. To Art’s surprise, no other Senators were present – just Geilamir’s father.

“I see a man who failed to do what he set out to do! He stole from us the best of our men, the greatest defenders of the City, and for what? He brought with him only a handful of our people, not a legion – out to be slaughtered! Children and this woman, too! Why? For what purpose? It was obvious that you were out of touch from the moment you arrived, but now we have proof of your madness! Where are the rest of them, stranger? Why have you only brought back with you one body?”

Tolamirus’ voice carried with it all of the desperation of a father who believed his son was dead. Art wondered how the Son would handle this addition in the face of the already existing threat standing in his way. He prepared himself mentally to do what must be done. The Son, after much studying of the others, spoke at last.

“There is but one body of which to speak,” he said. “This woman, the esteemed Lady Gailavira, made a sacrifice far greater than anyone here can appreciate, in order to save my life. I stand here today, not in the name of conquest but in mercy. Even the Gifts are not enough to bring her back from damnation. If I cannot ascend these stairs and open that door, then this kind woman’s soul will be lost to this world. For her, there will be no Paradise.”

He turned to the Consul.

“I seek not power. I have power. My intention is to save this City and all who live in it, not rule it. Even if the masses here and my soldiers out there proclaimed me imperator, I would cast off that proclamation. There is too much work left for me to do out there, too many fiends that haunt this world, too much evil that has survived, for me to sit atop any throne. I am no politician nor do I intend to mince more words with any of you. What I am, however, is a man who would go to great lengths to save those who have given everything for my sake. If you seek to stop me, then that is your choice. But before you make your attempt to resist my righteous cause, I want you to realize that only I fully understand the nature of the thing you are defending. It would be a true shame for this world to lose its last great chance to use it.”

Even Tolamirus was speechless. It seemed that he was actually surprised to find out that Geilamir was still alive. Still, there was the matter of the Consul and all of his guards…

Consul Quintus spoke, after observing the reaction from the masses.

“You misunderstood me, child. For I seek not to stand in your way, but to throw the full support of the Church behind your crusade.”

Shock and awe. Everyone present turned amongst each other, confusion and cheers intermingled.

“The gravity of this man’s actions show that he is a man of his word, a man who is willing to do what he must to save even the life of a widow in his company. You may pass, and none shall stop you.”

Art noticed just then that Tolamirus had turned away, leaving with one of the co-conspirators that had gathered at the house of Valoricus. Art knew that he still had a duty to perform, even in spite of the Consul’s support. For death still lurked at the top of that temple, and Art understood that now, better than anyone. He knew he must do the right thing, despite the difficulty he now faced.

As the Son moved toward the stair, Consul Quintus held his hand out, placing it on the Son’s shoulder.

“It is customary to kneel before your Consul, especially when he has granted you a boon.”

Art moved forward to see the Son’s reaction. He stared at the Consul, and then, looking up at the stair, he must have realized that there was no other way.

Before all who gathered there, the son of the First Man and true heir of the City, kneeled and bowed low at the feet of the man who had been elected temporary leader of one half of the City’s governing body.

Satisfied with the submission to his authority, Consul Quintus allowed the Son to rise again. He stepped aside and, at last, the way was clear.

The Son began his ascent up the stair, and Art followed closely behind, each step more taxing than the last. Whatever trouble Fridok was in, Art was really feeling the effects of it now and it wouldn’t be long until he would no longer have the strength to go on. It would take everything he had to be able to see this through. The Son, seeing Art’s dedication, gave him a slight but knowing nod.

The line was now completely broken, and each of the fighters were on their own. Fridok backed up as he fought through countless monsters rampaging up the hill. He knew if they got much further, it would only be a matter of seconds before Bulgar and Xanthus would be overrun. Bows simply were not a viable option in close combat. At least it seemed that Geilamir had more resolve than Fridok had first thought – the demons may have broken the line, but, damn it, Geilamir still had some fight in him.

To make matters exponentially worse, a deafening roar spread throughout the battlefield. Among the chops and cuts, the screams of demonic agony and the ever-growing desperation of all four crusaders as they fought for their lives, Fridok saw what had produced the awful noise.

There, bounding up the hill was a terrifying, enormous beast with three heads like lions. The fact that it was willing to use its own companion demons as a springboard to reach the four fighters told Fridok everything he needed to know about the fast-approaching threat.

“Fall back!” Ervig shouted, though they were running out of ground to do so. Their strategically placed hilltop campsite was a great location in theory; they had simply stayed too long and lost too many companions to be able to hold it. Now, it seemed, it would be their final resting place.

“Focus on the big one!” Fridok shouted back to Bulgar, who gladly obliged. Blasting the three-headed monstrosity with all of his remaining arrows, Bulgar did a fantastic job of hitting the moving target, and an even better job of royally pissing it off. So angry was this beast at Bulgar, that it focused on him and him alone.

“Look out!” Fridok cried to Bulgar, though he needn’t have wasted his breath. All of them could plainly see the beast’s terrifying figure flying overhead in an unbelievable leap. Its shadow cursed the very ground where Fridok was struggling to keep up with the mob of demons snapping their jaws at his throat.

It crashed its body directly into Bulgar, sending him flying backwards and right off of the rocky cliff behind them. Xanthus had managed to avoid the creature’s landing and rolled closer to Ervig, but that was little comfort to Fridok as he knew the beast would be out for their blood as soon as the laws of nature allowed it to rebound.

Just then, Fridok heard Geilamir cry out with unbearable pain, unlike any sound he had ever heard the man make before.

Seeing Bulgar tossed aside like his body weighed nothing at all and hearing Geilamir’s armor being torn and ripped apart caused something in Fridok to snap. He summoned a strength from within him that he hadn’t known before, even during the battle of a thousand demons, and discovered something new about this power his Soularm gave him.

He felt larger, more powerful. Light burst from him, his skin glowing like the Sun. Without even understanding what he was doing, he swung his blade in a wide arc ahead of him and in the wake of a tremendous shockwave that the sword produced, demons flew back, their bodies melting away in mid-air from the blast. Fridok had summoned something tremendous, a power he could only equate with that of God himself.

It was time to act now to save his friends, but with the limited time he had in the heat of the moment, he was forced to make a choice he didn’t expect.

The three-headed demon was exposed, still not recovered from the giant leap it had made. Fridok could take it on now, when it wasn’t ready for him, and he would probably be able to stop it. On the other hand, Geilamir was fighting for his life and likely wouldn’t make it if Fridok focused on the three-headed demon.

He had to choose. In that moment, he understood what must be done, though it was hard.

He thought of the night, by the fire. He remembered the taste of the meat that Geilamir had shared with him so kindly. Then, he remembered Alaric’s voice as he sang his song, the feelings that made him so uncomfortable and the way that he sang from his heart.

Fridok knew there would be no going back. Despite the fact that he fully knew he would regret what he was about to do, he committed to doing what he knew he must. He made his choice.

The Son adjusted his sword and spear into safe positions as He reached the top of the Pearly Stair, once again in the place where He had so often tried to gain the acceptance of a father who had no time to be His father. Being immortal, it also probably never occurred to Father to start including his Son on the duties he performed, so He was denied both a father and a teacher who could have been there for Him. His father was the Speaker of God; that meant that his first and most important obligation was to the Namer – a son was always something that seemed to be the least of his concerns. Perhaps if Father would have included Him in his life, then He might never have done what he did and became exiled.

Then again, perhaps things unfolded the way they did because that was how they were always supposed to happen. This City did need a true ruler. Mankind would not be able to regain any portion of its former glory by bickering amongst themselves and sucking all of the wealth and resources dry in their little prison.

There would be a time and a place for all of that, but for now, He had one obligation, and that was to the Lady in His arms. There was nothing standing in the way of the Sealed Sanctum now – all threats had been eliminated without a drop of blood being spilled.

He turned back to see the beggar Art stumbling his way up the stairs. By the extreme exhaustion Art exhibited, He knew that it was very likely that the others left at the camp had to have become embroiled in a battle. It would be irresponsible for Him to make this man take another step. He needed rest. With any luck, Art would survive another day, and He could figure out a way to release the man from the taxation levied upon his body.

Seeing the effect the Soularm link had on Art, He felt a fuller regret about His decision to allow Alaric’s mother to serve as the host for the boy’s Soularm. It was not right for Him to allow someone so fragile to be a part of the Ritual, and He should have found someone else. But He needed Alaric, and Alaric needed someone to bind with him who he truly loved, who truly loved him. There was no one else around who shared a stronger bond. It was, most unfortunately, the only way.

He took pity on Art.

“Take a moment to breath and then find your way back down. It’s dangerous for you to try to keep climbing in your state.”

“No,” Art said, defying the thought. “I’ve come this far, I am not going to turn back now.” He had to take a moment to allow himself to catch his breath, but then he continued. “Besides, it’s not everyday that a guy like me gets to climb up this temple. Great view. I’m glad that I got to see over the walls, at least once in my life.”

The poor man’s willpower alone was enough to inspire Him. He hadn’t considered it before, but now that He saw what this man’s spirit was capable of, He thought that, perhaps, he might be a good addition to their party. Fridok would certainly enjoy his friend’s company, assuming the two of them would be able to reunite out there one day soon. Perhaps he could make a sword of Art’s own as well, assuming He could find someone who loved him enough to perform the ritual.

After confirming that Art would make it up the last few steps safely, He decided it was at last time to do what He had come all this way to do. He would only be able to open the door for a brief time, as inside that Sanctum lie the power of Creation – a power that no man, not even He, could wield for more than a specific, small-scale purpose, and not for more than a moment. His plan was simple: use the power contained within Father’s Sanctum to restore Gailavira’s soul and reconnect it to her body. Her sacrifice would be reversed, and she could choose whether to rejoin Him on the road out of the City.

He placed Gailavira’s body down gently, carefully approaching His father’s sanctum door. On it, though faded with time, were all of the intricate designs His father had painted upon it – the vast histories of the journey of mankind out of the void. The story of His people, the Gifted, was told there on that heavy, round metal door that only the Gifted could open and only His father could truly use.

It was time for that power to again be used for the good of mankind, Gifted or not.

He pressed his hands upon both sides of the Sanctum door, allowing much of the soul energy that still coursed through his veins to enter the door. It glowed, accepting the energy willingly, as if it were greeting an old friend. He stood there, listening to the rumbling of the door and watching as its machinations began to spin within it. Soon, the door would open. Hopefully, he had enough Soul energy to pass into it to do the job. He wouldn’t want to deplete himself of it without first doing what he came to do.

As He felt His energies drain away, both His own and the demons’, He almost didn’t noticed that death had come for Him, a betrayal most unwelcome.

It never would have occurred to Him that He was in so much danger, but if He had not reacted as quickly as He had, then any hope He had to save Gailavira, the City or the world would have been struck down right at that moment.

As Daemonore came falling onto the place where He stood, the Son just barely managed to evade the attack. Had the beggar Art not been exhausted and breathing so heavy due to the Soul link to Fridok, then surely He and His very soul would have met their final end, there at the place where His father once stood. It would have been poetic, in a way.

He could tell by Art’s face, full of regret and sorrow, that this betrayal was not his idea. As the Son’s spear tip ran Art through, that look withered away with the rest of Art’s body, a black, soulless husk that had just a second before resembled a man.

Art died while standing on his feet.

Fridok felt a surge of something completely unfamiliar and new. In his mind, he saw Art’s face all of the sudden, and then it was gone. With it, Fridok had suddenly lost connection with the immense energy that had just empowered him. He didn’t know what had happened, but he knew that he had made his choice and now he was going to have to stick with it.

With Geilamir’s bloodied body on his shoulders, Fridok was unable to fight the ever-increasing mass of monsters that have overwhelmed their hilltop. All he could do now was run for his life and keep running until the last bit of his energy was gone. With Ervig grabbing ahold of Xanthus and leaping off of the other side of the hill, Fridok knew that was the only way any of them would be able to survive.

And so he ran. Alone, carrying the deeply wounded friend of Alaric’s who Fridok had never thought he would connect with at the start of the journey. Now, everything rested on the hope that his choice to save Geilamir and not kill the three headed behemoth would not be in vain.

Fridok, the lonesome Solumian, found himself in a situation in which he had never ever expected to be: caring for others, others who he thought of as his friends. Primisians, even. Funny thing.

Be well. Please, be well.

Alaric stepped into the room where his mother’s body lay. He had expected the worst, to not be able to recognize her because of how many days it had been since she had passed.

She was still beautiful, even in death.

He wept, openly and unashamedly as the realization finally dawned upon him how he would never have her there to guide him again, to say kind words when his father couldn’t.

He had lost his songbird. He had lost his song.

Alaric didn’t hear his father come in. His father always told him to conceal his feelings and his emotions – that it was a weakness. Perhaps he was right, but Alaric didn’t care. This was his mom. She was the only person in his life that truly understood him for who he was. Now that she was gone, and because he knew all too well that it was his own fault, Alaric believed that a very real part of him had died with her.

Expecting the worst, knowing he deserved it, Alaric accepted whatever punishment that the “Great Senator” Valoricus was about to dole out.

Instead, his father rested a hand upon Alaric’s shoulder. When Alaric finally looked up at him, he saw tears in his father’s eyes. Alaric wanted to apologize, to take the blame fully upon himself, but he couldn’t find the words among the exhaustion and unbearable sadness he felt. When the two both came to the same conclusion, that no words were going to be right in this occasion, Alaric turned back toward his mother’s body.

Valoricus, the man who had always told Alaric that music was a waste of time, started singing the song that Alaric and his mother had always sung to one another.

In the twinkling stardust
and the scattered ashes of the fallen day
In the fire waning
as the cinders smolder and crumble all away
In the sounds of the lovers
Reaching for all they discover
And in the lost sleep of me and all
of the broken hearted people
I see your eyes,
and then you’re gone.

The song stopped, his father unable to go on. For the first time in Alaric’s life, he wept, openly, together with his father, the hardest man he knew.

End of Book I

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