Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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The Apostle's Tale

by Grisha Syssoyev




"Good and evil are not, and have never been, terms of morality. They are subjective descriptors used by men to decide how an action has personally affected them. Thus, by definition, a man cannot be wholly good or evil, because his actions affect different people differently."

-Apostle of the Sixth Legion


A warhorn blew the dawn blast, three long, mournful sounds that roused the fortress from its sleep. Though the sun was still far below the horizon, the castle slowly came to life as soldiers donned their armor, and sentries left their posts with relief.

The fortress of Aquerano was a massive, imposing structure, ringed with concentric walls--the outer wall encircling an abandoned village, the inner wall, encircling the castle itself. Every stone and pillar of this fortress had been built to last rather than to please the eye, but nonetheless, Aquerano had a certain somber strength that commanded respect.

Beyond Aquerano's walls stood a massive besieging army arrayed in full formation, with tents arranged by squad and company. Banners were planted, displaying the flag of the Empire of Castomir, a black dragon coiled around a sword, and with it, the banner of the Sixth Legion, a dark tree with thorns in place of leaves. Siege weapons had been set up, but unused; the mighty walls of Aquerano were too thick for mere rams and catapults.

And of course, there were the large, shadowed tents, where the demons lay.


* * *

Baron Vural Krol, Castellan of Aquerano and Commander of the 1st Northern Army of the Kingdom of Amon, stepped slowly up the stairs to the wall walk of his castle's furthest wall, looking for all the world like an old man in need of a cane. A halberd-bearing soldier moved to offer him assistance, but Krol waved him away with gaunt, fleshless hand.

The Baron withdrew a spyglass from his pocket, and scanned the enemy battle line for a few moments, before snapping shut the device and putting it in his pocket.

"How is the situation out there, sir?" asked one of the soldiers in a hollow voice.

Krol gave him a weary look. He could see the bones of the poor conscript's skull, and he could see too the light of desperation in his eyes; the desire for a hope that Vural Krol was not capable of providing.

"Same as always," replied the Baron in a reedy voice. It was strange, he mused, that his soldiers had started showing him respect now. Before, they had thought him a pampered nobleman who won his rank through peerage and connections--which was true. Now that he ate what his men ate, and starved when they starved, they had begun to look to him as a savior, as if he could conjure some cunning strategy to save them all from the endless siege.

But he couldn't. He had indeed won his rank through peerage and connection: through the machinations of his late father. He had no cunning strategy.

The soldier seemed disappointed, but Vural Krol could not bring himself to care that much. The lives of three thousand soldiers lay in his hands, but he couldn't bring himself to care about any of them.

Leaning back against the battlements to support his starving, armored body, Krol closed his eyes, and tried not to fall asleep as he waited for his officer corps to join him.

He was joined, soon enough, by his four chief advisors: Tall, craggy Major Knutr, Major Zegher, with his pale eyes and thin smile, the somber Captain Marek, and Captain Logan of the slumped shoulders. With them came Chaplain Gord, though the army's highest-ranking clergyman had not been invited.

The five officers--four in the grey uniform of Amon's military, bedecked in medals and wearing no armor, and the fifth in the white robes and skullcap of the priesthood--saluted their commanding officer. Each one of them looked close to death, with gaunt faces and a dead look in their eyes.

Despite the pall of despair that hung over them all, Major Zegher was able to grin. "What do you call us for, Castellan? Have we died in our sleep, and are you marshaling us to await the gods to take us to heaven?"

The soldier with the halberd chucked, and the Baron managed a terse smile.

"Were it only that easy," he muttered. "Perhaps we have died in our sleep, and been damned to hell instead."

Zegher continued to smile; no one else seemed amused. Distractedly, the Baron recalled that complaining about their conditions was degrading to the soldiers under his command, who were suffering only because he refused to let them give an inch.

"I've called you all up here because I think, given the nature of this meeting, that we should not be distant from the front line," he explained. "It's all too easy to declare our resistance from the safety of the meeting hall, but it takes stauncher hearts to declare resistance when faced with the enemy in all its power."

"You are suggesting we surrender?" asked Major Knutr bluntly. The commander of infantry was not one to skirt difficult questions.

"I've come to ask you whether you think we should," replied the Baron. "The decision is mine, but you all know best."

"Our men are dying," replied Knutr, stepping forward to the barricades and resting his callused hands upon them. If he were starving, he showed no sign of it, appearing as imposing and indomitable as always. "The question is, do we let them die the slow death, or do we do the deed quickly, and hope they finish off as much of the enemy as possible?"

"Nut," began the hard-featured Logan calmly, referring to the Major by his nickname, "If you think we'll kill anything in some kind of charge, you're wrong. It's not a question of whether the men are going to die now or later. They're already walking corpses. The enemy has demons on their side. As it stands, just one hellspawn could butcher the entire garrison, provided it could walk through the gates."

"Aye," agreed Major Zegher, nodding his head. "And the enemy has sorcerers with them as well. Such wielders of witchcraft could put an end to us all too quickly if we faced them in open battle."

The soldier with the halberd listened with nervous eyes, as he watched the decision making process that would determine whether he lived or died.

The wind spiked up sharply, cutting through the men on the walls like the arrows of Castomir's legions.

"Speaking of witchcraft," replied Major Knutr sharply, pacing away from the wall. "Weren't we supposed to be reinforced? Why are those cursed sorcerers from the Order not with us? I thought the Sixth Apostle was supposed to be a traitor from their ranks. Don't they even care about that?"

"I have had no contact with any officer of the Order of Saint Aureliano, no," replied the Baron distractedly. "They appear to have abandoned us to our fate."

"What about the Witchunters, or the Danovirites, or any of the other sorcerous brotherhoods?" continued Knutr. "Are we to fight this war alone?"

The Baron shrugged. He did not have the answers everyone around him seemed to want.

"Think on it," said Baron Vural Krol at last. "You all have till the sun rises to give me your decision."

With the exception of Chaplain Gord, who prayed quietly, everyone waited in silence for the sun to rise.

The Baron had his eyes closed, so when the sun rose, he felt, rather then saw the dim light.

"I want your decisions," he said in a quiet voice.

"Fight onward for honor, the king, and our families," replied Knutr harshly.

"Surrender, and hope for peace. We have asked too much of our men already," said Zegher, his features serious for the first time.

"Surrender, for we have been abandoned," added Logan. "No longer should we fight someone else's war."

"Fight onward, because we have nothing to lose," finished Merek.

"Of course it cannot be easy," noted the Baron with a tight grin. "I have no more insight than I had before."

"If we have been abandoned by gods and men," said Chaplain Gord quietly. "Then we are in your hands, lord Baron."

Vural Krol nodded wearily. "I know, Chaplain, I know. By all hells, curse it all. I surrender."

Vural Krol paced to the battlements, facing the distant enemy legion. "Do you hear me!" he screamed in a cracked, broken voice. "We surrender! Curse you all, we surrender to you!"


* * *

Vural Krol awoke in his bed to the smell of breakfast. For a half-mad moment, he smiled. The enemy had executed him, and now he was in heaven, with no battles and worries.

Krol opened his eyes, and sat up.

"Heaven," said Vural Krol to himself. "Looks a lot like my barrack room, and why do I still starve?"

The Baron smiled bitterly, recalling the events of the previous day. Heaven would have been too easy. He had merely surrendered, and the dragon and sword banner of Castomir flew high over Aquerano's walls. Breakfast was no doubt a--chivalrous--last meal.

The Baron took the plate in trembling hands, but as soon as he lifted it, his strength failed, and he dropped it, spilling bread and soup all over his blanket.

Even so, he couldn't help but eat the bread, devouring it so fast he felt sick, and once he had eaten it, tried to scoop up the soup and lick it off his hands, licking until his tongue and stomach hurt, and falling blissfully back into a dreamless sleep.

Vural Krol woke to a knocking on his door.

"Come in," he said, with a sharp feeling of dread. Was this his executioner coming to bring him to the chopping block?

The door opened, and a man stepped in. He wore the black uniform of a soldier of Castomir, and badges on his chest showed the heraldry of his kingdom, the Sixth Legion symbol, and his rank as a high officer.

"I am Marshal Ronen Graves," said the man in a hoarse voice. "You must be the Castellan of this fortress?"

"Ronen Graves," mused the Baron. "You're the man they call the Red Horseman of Castomir, are you not?"

"That would be correct."

Ronen Graves was an imposingly tall man, grim, with lank dark hair and unshaven features.

"Are you my executioner?" asked Vural Krol. "I am surprised that they have sent a man with such a reputation as you to be my headsman, when any soldier will do."

Ronen Graves seemed grimly amused. "I'm not here to kill you, no. What gave you that impression? You surrendered. No one is going to be harmed. I'm only here to show you around the castle, explain your duties to you, and take you to the Apostle."

"Duties?" echoed the Baron.

"As the Castellan of Aquerano," explained the Marshal. "In service to Castomir. We are given you a chance to serve us as you served the Kingdom of Amon. If you refuse, then yes, I am your executioner, and we'll just offer the post to one of your subordinates."

The Baron nodded. "Allow me a few minutes to get dressed, Red Horseman of Castomir. If I am to betray my nation, at least I shall not do it naked."


* * *

"Have I only slept for a few hours?" asked the Baron as he stepped out of the barracks into the cold morning air.

"You've slept for two days," replied Marshal Graves.

The two men walked together for a few moments of silence. The Baron felt almost invisible--he did not hold power any more. There was something curiously liberating about that.

With nothing to lose, Vural Krol continued asking questions. "Why did your Apostle let me live? I thought that Castomir didn't ever show mercy."

"For the most part, you'd be right," replied Ronen Graves after a long pause. "Other Apostles, like Valter or Ainsley, would certainly see you killed. Ragnvaldr would have you fed to his demons for cowardice. Our brutal reputation is not without basis in truth, but the fact remains that our Apostle would be a hypocrite if he punished people for betraying their comrades."

"He betrayed the Order of Saint Aureliano, didn't he?" asked the Baron.

"Perhaps I misspoke," said Graves, giving Krol a mistrustful look. "It was he who was betrayed, by the Order, of which he was the rightful leader. If he had been treated with the respect he deserved, he would be our foe today. My point is that betrayal is a very slippery thing, and that our leader understands this very well. He would not punish anyone for it unless he understood his or her situation. That's why, after I show you around the Sixth Legion, you'll be meeting with him."

Vural Krol nodded slowly, and followed the Marshal.

There was no sign of Aquerano's garrison; the Sixth Legion had completely taken their place. Everywhere were signs of activity, with soldiers eating, drinking, sleeping, and performing military drills. Some gave the Baron curious looks; still wearing his uniform, he stood out, a grey man in a sea of black.

"You'll find," began the Marshal in his hoarse voice. "That Castomir's army is structured along the same lines as yours, at least on the level that you'll be commanding. There are squads of ten to twenty led by a sergeant, in companies of fifty to two hundred, led by a captain, in regiments led by majors, and in battalions led by commanders. Your rank will be that of commander in the Sixth Legion, though you will retain your rank as Castellan, since you will be holding this fortress for us. You will report to me, along with the other commanders."

"Will I be expected to command demons?" asked Krol nervously.

Ronen Graves stopped in his tracks, his boots crunching in the gravel underneath and he turned to face the Baron. He seemed to be barking hoarsely, until Krol realized that the Red Horseman of Castomir was laughing.

"No mortal commands demons!" barked Ronen Graves, still shaking with laughter. "They have their own officers, who report to the Apostle directly. Even I, who have no peers in the Sixth Legion, do not give directives to the damned, but yes, there will be demons in your fortress, and they will not obey your orders, and yes, there will be sorcerers as well. You'll get used to them. We all do. Every soldier of Castomir remembers the days when they trembled and pissed themselves at the sight of a demon. Blame your mother and your nurse for telling you foolish stories, not us. Just remember, if they frighten you, their ally, imagine how much they frighten the enemy!"

"Aye, I know how much they frighten the enemy," he replied. "I was one of them, once. The enemy, that is. I've seen brave soldiers who refused to face your demons on the battlefields, and knights who would give up their spurs rather than fight one."

Ronen Graves nodded. "Indeed. It's time to show you the Demons then, so that you can get a sense of them sooner rather then later."

The Baron nodded, and wetted his dry lips nervously.

"Follow me," barked Graves, gesturing to the Baron, who was rooted in his spot.

The two men went to the central walkway, and left the gate of the central portion of the castle. They were now between the two walls, in the villages where six months before, the Baron had been forced to turn out all useless mouths. That had been one of the hardest decisions he had ever had to make, but he knew that if he had not done so, everyone, useful and useless alike, would have starved to death.

Of course, it was now for nothing. Krol did not dare ask what had happened to the innocents his soldiers had forced into the wilderness.

Surrounded by once abandoned villages, the Baron observed the creatures that men called demons.

There was more variation among the damned then there was difference between the damned and the human. Certainly, some held human form, though most didn't. There were those that could be grouped into species of sorts: vampires, gorgons, ghouls, darklings, hydras, and others still, and then there were those that belonged to no breed, each unique in appearance.

The demons milled around the village. Some sat motionless, others fought one another, and others talked among themselves in harsh, cruel tones. Still others feasted on rotting corpses in the uniforms of a soldier of Amon.

The Baron bent over to wretch, vomiting onto his boots, dizzy with horror.

"Those are your soldiers who died of starvation," explained Ronen Graves distantly. "We unearthed all that still had flesh on their bones, to feed to the Demon Army. It was either that, or feed them the living."

The Baron nodded mutely. The demons paid the pair little mind, but a few looked up, and the hunger in their eyes frightened Vural Krol to the depths of his soul.

As they walked, the Marshal continued to speak. "Most of the demons are simply the spawn of Hell, or else they are summoned by our sorcerers. Some, however, were men, once."

One of the demons approached. He was a huge man, wearing armor and a fur cloak, and towering over his fellows. His face was a pale, waxen slab, with fiery eyes and long teeth bared into a twisted leer.

"I am Erikas," growled the creature. "I am the one the Apostle has chosen to garrison your castle. Twenty of my brethren will remain with me."

Baron Krol nodded, and he didn't respond.

"Have the gods taken your tongue?" asked Erikas dismissively. "Or are you just too full of terror to answer?"

By now, many of the horrors gathered nearby were taking notice of the conversation in their midst.

"He's not used to demons," said Ronen Graves calmly. Some of the fiends nearby laughed callously; others barked and brayed like wild beasts.

"I think I am ready to meet with the Apostle," muttered Vural Krol.

The Marshal gave the Baron an appraising look, then nodded. The two of them turned and walked out of the Demon Army camp, and back into the inner walls of Aquerano.

"You will need to feed the demons," explained Graves. "You may feed them animals, feed them your dead, or simply send them to war, but if they don't see blood, they'll turn on you."

His stomach roiling, Vural Krol could not even manage to nod. Stumbling, he reached out to the wall to steady himself. Somewhere, he could hear laughter, but the Baron couldn't be bothered to care.

"If you're not up to the tasks that await you," barked Marshal Graves, all sympathy gone from his voice. "Tell me, and I'll just kill you now. Don't think that you'll save any lives by denying this duty. One of your subordinates will manage the castle in your stead, and we'll keep killing our way down the ranks until we find someone willing to do it. Men will be fed to the demons whether you like it or not, and the only life you have the power to save is your own."

Steadying himself, the Baron nodded. "I am ready now," he whispered.

The Red Horseman of Castomir nodded curtly, and led Baron Krol down the main walkway of the fortress to the grand hall in the center. They were admitted by a pair of guards, who recognized the Marshal on sight, after which Graves and Krol walked up a set of spiral stairs to the observatory tower.

The Baron saw that someone had already taken down the tapestries that had once hung on the walls, leaving the tower a stark, grim place that made him feel as if he were in someone else's home. In a sense, that was true.

Weak from fear and starvation, on the third floor Vural Krol collapsed. Snorting with contempt, Rosen Graves hoisted him up in a fireman's lift and carried him the rest of the way, setting him back on his feet once they reached the top.

At the end of the stairway, a huge, shadowy creature stood guard, his hair with a mane of black hair, and claws like scythes. He was even taller than the Erikas, who had loomed over the Baron and the Marshal. His aspect was one of bloodlust and restless, virile energy.

"Lord Gawain," rasped Graves. "I bring Castellan Vural Krol, who surrendered this castle to the Apostle. He has an audience with his lordship."

Gawain turned cat-like onyx eyes on the Marshal. "Bring him to me," rumbled the demon.

Graves pushed Krol forward, and the demon placed clawed hands on the Baron's shoulders, sniffing the air around him.

"There is no disloyalty in this one," said Gawain in his deep voice. "Only fear."

"This I know," replied Marshal Graves impatiently. "I could tell that without sniffing him. Look at him anyway. He can barely walk. Do you think he could possibly harm our lord, who matched the Grand Master of Aureliano's Order blow for blow, and stands at the right side of the Emperor? You are as cautious as an old woman, Gawain!"

The outburst surprised Krol, who had seen little passion or emotion from the Red Horseman. There seemed to be no love lost between the Marshal and the Apostle's demonic bodyguard.

Gawain did not respond, but only stood aside, observing Ronen Graves with an unreadable look.

The Marshal knocked three times with a gloved fist.

"It is Marshal Graves with the Castellan here to see you, my lord!," rumbled Gawain.

A lock clicked, and the door swung open.

Ronen Graves pushed the Baron forward, then gave him a short, reassuring clap on the shoulder.

Vuron Krol turned around with surprise, but the door swung shut behind him.

It was an observatory, spacious and open to the air, with a telescope set upon a massive tripod and leaning against the battlement. The tower's highest level offered a stunning view of the surrounding countryside and the castle beneath them.

Opposite the telescope, on the far side of the tower, a desk had been set up;, it was covered with a great many of papers. From what the Baron could see, these were comprised of letters, maps, battle plans, and arcane writings, all neatly organized, and held down with various objects and paperweights.

"Sit down," said the man behind the desk in a flat voice.

"There is no chair, my lord," muttered the Baron.

The man raised a hand, and vines slithered up from the cracks in the stonework, twisting themselves to take the shape of a chair. Shocked and hesitant, the Baron sat. Strangely, he thin, swaying vines easily supported his weight.

The Apostle of the Sixth Legion was a tall man. He wore the tunic of a Castomir soldier, over which he had donned a green tabard and a cloak. His heraldry was the thorny tree of his legion, though he bore no other signs of his rank. He wore a hood that shrouded much of his face, though the Baron could make out horrific burn scars, and pale, dead eyes that would not look out of place on a starving man.

"You may call me the Apostle," said the Apostle.

"You don't have a name?" asked Krol without thinking, before regretting his foolishness.

"My name is not important," replied the Apostle, leaning back in his chair and folding his fingers stiffly. He seemed tense, but not nervous, as if he was uncomfortable with his place but not altogether frightened of anything. "If you're curious, you'll likely hear someone else mention it somewhere."

"I was told that you wanted to see me, my lord," began Baron Vural Krol, resting his hands on the vines of his chair. "That you wished to keep me as the Castellan of this fortress."

"Yes, I do," said the Apostle. His voice was even, devoid of passion, and not unpleasant, yet he sounded as though he resented the interruption into his solitude. "I give all my foes a chance to surrender and change sides."

"Thank you, sir," said the Baron nervously. "I am grateful that you spared my men."

"I haven't," muttered the Apostle. "They'll just die in another battle. Don't get me wrong, Baron--this is just waste reduction. If your soldiers die, I'd rather they die for me than against me. The same goes for you. I'm not doing this as some kind of mercy. This isn't some change of allegiance you should take lightly. This is the first time you've given an oath like the one you're going to give me. To the King of Amon, you swore obedience. To the Emperor and me, you're going to give your body and soul. There will be nothing left of you that doesn't belong to me. If you do well, you'll be rewarded with demonhood and immortality. If you die, no one will remember that you lived. Does that make sense to you?"

Vural Krol could not manage a response.

The Apostle leaned forward, resting his elbows on his battle plans. "I hope you don't think ill of what I'm saying. I don't hold myself superior to you at all. Everyone who serves the Emperor of Castomir is treated the same way. I once stood in your shoes, and felt the same sense of internal death and numbness."

"I don't feel internal death and numbness," replied Baron Krol. "I feel horror, shame, and sickness."

"Hmmmm." The Apostle seemed slightly perturbed. "Perhaps it's just me. Then I might as well warn you. You're going to see and do things that revolt you. You're going to see hell made manifest on earth, again and again, until human suffering becomes normal to you. You can do nothing to stop this. Even if you throw yourself off this tower, someone else will just take your place. The advance of Castomir is a roaring tide of blood that cannot be altered by any individual. Many find it easy to just give into the horror, and let themselves become beasts. It's the easy way out, certainly. Just letting your mind shut off, and giving yourself to the inferno. Alternately, you can try to restrain the worst excesses of your men, and you might even succeed. Either way, know that you have a choice, even if it won't make any difference in the grand scheme of things."

Vural Krol nodded; sweat beading on his neck and back. It was windy on the high tower, and he felt chills run through his body as the beginnings of a fever gripped him.

"Do you have any questions?" asked the Apostle calmly. "This is the one and only time I will speak with you as an equal. I don't want you to be troubled before you undertake your duties."

"Apostle," began Vural Krol hesitantly. "I have been told that you were a member of the Order of Saint Aureliano. Some say you betrayed them, and others say that they betrayed you. I have also betrayed my nation, by surrendering to you. Can you tell me, as one traitor to another--what does it mean, to forsake your countrymen and everything that you have ever known?"

"It means nothing," replied the Apostle curtly. "Nothing at all."

"I'm still troubled," insisted the Baron. "And you said that you don't want that. Can you at least tell me your story, Apostle? Can you tell me how you came to kneel to the Emperor on his throne in Castomir, when you could have been the Grand Master of the Order?"

The Apostle brought a gloved hand to his face, gently touching his burn scars.

"Very well, Vural Krol," he replied. "Very well indeed. Because you want to know so badly. I don't know if you'll get the vindication you seek, but I'll tell you my tale."

The Sixth Apostle bared his teeth in a harsh smile, and suddenly, the Baron felt an overwhelming sense of dread.

His fear must have registered, because the Apostle's face twisted with distaste. "Did I frighten you?" he muttered. "You don't need to be frightened of me. We men are such strange creatures. You had the courage to stand against me in war, against my entire Legion, and now, a simple smile is enough to make you flinch. I hope you're not a coward. You did surrender, although the fact that you put up a fight shows something about you."

Vural Krol was silent. He wanted to reply, but he didn't feel there was any way he could prove anything one way or another. He made eye contact with the Apostle, and turned away, unable to bear the scrutiny.

"My name is Lothaire Parvaiz," the man said at last. "I was born in a small village, where I was raised by my mother, Gal Sameera. My father, Edric, left her before I was born. I left her as well. I suppose it's in the blood. I grew up in the wild, living hand to mouth, sleeping behind hedges and running with wolves. I met a boy, named Osman. He was roughly my age, with black hair and a face like a bird of prey."

"Osman Zenebios?" asked Vural Krol with surprise. "The Grand Master of the Order of Saint Aureliano? I heard that he used to be called the Hawk, but I always thought it was because he was fond of transforming into one during battle."

Lothaire Parvaiz shook his head. "No. It's because of his face. Don't interrupt me while I'm telling you this story."

"My apologies, Apostle," replied Krol quietly.

"Osman was fascinated by me, the wild child, and tried to bait me into following him. One day, I did, and that was the day that the Hawk took me under his wing. I lived with his parents in his village, and when he left home to become a sorcerer's apprentice, he took me with him. We studied under the same master, slept under the same roof, and dreamed the same dreams. Osman always wanted to go to the top--anything less then the best was a challenge for him, a gauntlet hurled at his feet. When we became full members of the Order, we went our separate ways. This was not by choice, but by decree. Members of the Order of Saint Aureliano are required to spend ten years performing missions for a high officer, before they are allowed to retire, or go their own way. Osman, ever charming, was placed on the staff of Lord Sveinn, our ambassador to the Kingdom of Swartene, where he was free to make all the political connections he desired. I was put under the command of General Radovan, and deployed to the front lines of the war against Castomir. When our ten years were over, Osman was Lord Sveinn's chief of staff, and I had command over twenty other men like me--men deemed suited to kill with fire and lightning."

"You don't want me to be a coward, Apostle?" asked Vural Krol, swallowing. "If not, I will tell you that there is no shame in being a soldier. I am a nobleman. I could have been a politician, and yet, here I am, a soldier. There is no shame in it."

The Apostle's lips curled with anger. "You are an accidental soldier!," he snarled, fists clenching. "You only saw combat because we were better then your family thought! You only fought because we took Xanilar, and we took Pelardul, and Casperion, and Ferrardene, and all the other so-called indestructible fortresses! And we'll take Casernul, and Sarantana, until all the Kingdom of Amon is ours, and we'll take Swartene too!"

The Baron trembled in the face of the Apostle's sudden storm of fury. "If you resented being a soldier," he whispered. "Then why, at the end of the day, are you still a soldier?"

Parvaiz leaned in, tips tight and teeth bared. "I don't resent being a soldier," he whispered, matching the Baron's pitch. "I resent men like you questioning my motives. I thought you might understand. I thought you might be able to hear my tale for what it is."

"Then what is it?" asked Vural Krol. "The ramblings of a madman? A turncoat's justifications? I thought I would be able to understand you as well. I thought that there might be a noble traitor, someone I could relate to, and thank the gods, I can't relate to you at all."

"Is that so?" murmured the Apostle coldly, his rage fading as quickly as it had come. "Then I will tell you what my tale is… none of your concern. That's what it is. You can leave now, Vural Krol. Rule this fortress, commit suicide, I don't care."

Rising from his chair of vines, Vural Krol saluted. "Yes, Apostle," he replied curtly. "As you command."

The vines crumbled to dust beneath him. He stepped out of the room, and closed the door behind him. Gawain and Ronen Graves awaited him on the landing. The demon sniffed him again, before growling with contempt.

"Nothing but despair and confusion," he rumbled.

The Red Horseman of Castomir cast a disdainful look at the Apostle's bodyguard, before gesturing for Vural Krol to follow him.

As they walked down the stairway, Ronen Graves gave the Baron a searching look. "What do you think of him?" he asked. "What do you think of the man you have sworn service to?"

Vural Krol wondered whether he should lie or not. It would be all too easy to lie, and he might save himself a great deal of trouble, but on the other hand, Ronen Graves might appreciate honesty.

"I hate him!" he replied at last, surprising even himself with the sudden outburst of vehemence. "He is a beast in the skin of a man."

"And yet Gawain sensed no disloyalty in you," noted Graves, eyes narrowed. They had reached the penultimate floor, and were standing in front of an open window. They were high enough above the ground for the fall to be fatal.

"How could I be disloyal to him?" said Krol, shifting to place his back against the opposite wall. Graves stood between him and the window. "I know why you are leaving demons with me. One move against him, and I'll be feeding them! You might as well push me out this window, and spare them the trouble!"

"Spare me," snorted Ronen Graves, crossing his arms. "I'm not going to push you out the window. I was just asking you a question. The Apostle, it seems, disappoints you. That's only fair, since you must have disappointed him."

"What's the point of this, then?" asked the Baron with desperate fury. "If I'm loyal enough for you, just let me go! I've already surrendered to you, and your demon says I'm loyal. Don't make me play your games!"

The Marshal sighed, leaning back against the window ledge. His face softened slightly. "Don't fault me, Vural Krol. I'm just trying to see where we stand, but if you want, you can just go. Just as the Apostle no doubt told you, nothing you do matters in the grand scheme of things. Just go. I won't make you play any games."

"No," replied the Baron, grinning savagely. "That's not true. There is still one last thing I can do."

"Oh?", asked Graves, raising a dark eyebrow. "Tell me."

Krol met Graves' eyes, and did not turn. Behind him, the window loomed, wind howling outside.

Ronen Graves narrowed his eyes, sensing the Baron's intention. It was too late.

"Long live the Kingdom of Amon," whispered Vural Krol. Rushing forward, he shoved the Red Horseman of Castomir backwards.

The Baron was a starving man, while Ronen Graves was fit and ready. The Red Horseman stumbled backwards, groping for the ledge, only to slip and hang perilously into the void. They struggled wildly, the Baron desperately shoving him, while Graves kicked out and spat into his assailant's eyes.

"I can kill you!" snarled the Baron. "My life for yours; the Kingdom comes out the better for this trade! What's the life of an accidental soldier worth compared to the Red Horseman of Castomir? Tell me that!"

They both hung out into the void. Only Vural Krol's weight was still keeping Graves pinned to the window ledge, as he struggled to force both of them out.

"No more then yours, Vural Krol," growled Ronen Graves with a hard smile. "You think anything will come of pushing me out of this window? The Apostle will find a replacement for you. He'll find a replacement for me. I do not flatter myself; I am hardly the only man worthy of being Marshal to the Sixth Legion. Your courage is stirring, but I can see why the Apostle was disappointed. You will never move anything in this world, but the Apostle will. I do not question his character. I do not question his motives, and I certainly do not question the fact that he is a man who moves worlds, and that is why I follow him. Like you, I am not content to hurl my strength against the mountain, but unlike you, I know where to apply force! And it is certainly not against me!"

"Men on death's door say and do desperate things," snarled the Baron. "I'll put down your ramblings to that notion."

Ronen Graves was upside down, his knees hooked over the ledge. Vural Krol was hanging face down, trying to pitch them both over. It was only a matter of time before they both lost their strength, and fell to their deaths.

Beneath them, soldiers from Castomir were gathering. Many pointed and shouted, gathering beneath where Graves would fall, to catch their commander. The Baron's face twisted with dismay, and Graves laughed, before taking a brief glance downwards.

"What are you going to do, then," he began. "If you can't kill me? We can stay here all day, talking, or we can fall, and be caught. What are you going to do?"

"I can test how good your soldiers are at catching falling bodies!" hissed the Baron.

At last, the two men fell. The air whistled around them, and the Baron's stomach clenched with fear. Following a few panic-stricken moments, he felt rough hands catch him. He was slammed face-first into the ground, and he grunted with pain as someone put a knee upon his back and a dagger against his throat.

"Do you have anything to say before you die?" asked Ronen Graves from somewhere above him. "Because I'm sure you know that you're about to."

Vural Krol's thoughts raced madly. He did not want his final endeavor to be a failure.

"I'll die in a duel," he grunted. "Me and you, Ronen Graves. I don't want to die like a dog. I want to face you in a duel before I die, to the death."

Some of the soldiers cursed; others whistled. Some seemed impressed.

"You really want to kill me," mused Ronen Graves. "If that's your wish, I'll grant it, but under one condition--if I beat you, you go back into that tower, apologize to the Apostle, and beg for him to show you mercy."

"You should accept the Red Horseman's offer, scum," hissed the soldier with the knee on his back. "He's showing you mercy you don't deserve!"

"I don't need anybody's mercy," said Krol. "Just give me a sword!"

The knee was taken off his chest. Someone helped him to his feet, and a sword was shoved in his hands. The soldiers formed a ring around them, and Graves drew his sabre, saluting him like a fencer ready to enter a bout.

The Baron swallowed. Now that he had the duel he wished for, he did not know what to make of it. The soldiers nearby were smirking at him, although the Marshal himself appeared emotionless.

Screaming a battle cry, Vural Krol launched a furious attack.

Ronen Graves parried calmly, before seizing his foe's wrist, and twisting savagely. The Baron dropped his sword, and fell to his knees. He felt his foe's cold steel touch his neck.

"When this war is over, we will fight again, Vural Krol," promised Graves. "On that day, it will be to the death, but this day, you will live, because I am not fond of wasting anything that belongs to the Apostle."

"I will serve," whispered the Baron. "And I will live for that day."

Vural Krol raised his eyes to the heavens, but his roving gaze only found the observatory tower. The Sixth Apostle stood, observing the events below him, hands resting on the battlements. Though Parvaiz's face was indistinct, the Baron imagined meeting his eyes.

"I will live for that day," he murmured to himself. "And I live for the day when I will learn the rest of your cursed tale, even if I must steal it off the point of my blade."

The Red Horseman of Castomir made no sign of having heard, but suddenly, he closed his right eye for the briefest of moments.

Had he winked? If so, what reason did he have to do so? Unable to piece the day's events together, the Baron gave way to exhaustion, falling into blissful darkness.


THE END


2015 Grisha Syssoyev

Bio: Grisha Syssoyev is a young writer with no prior publishing experience. Grisha attended the Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the NYS Summer Young Writer's Institute.

E-mail: Grisha Syssoyev

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