As Octavius stood above the cliff’s
edge, peering down at Carhay, he could not imagine a more blissful city. Carhay
was situated on the edge of the River Fate, between the looming Gemini
Mountains. On the northern side of the city sat the Onyx Waterfall, cascading
into a pool of shimmering turquoise below, so clear Octavius could see the
rainbow colored fish swimming about from where he stood. On the southern edge
roared the Kalandes Waterfall, crashing below onto the most exquisite temple
Octavius had ever seen; three stories tall with a sunburst emblazoned upon its
entrance. It was painted in various shades of red, white, and gold. The
temple’s peaked roof split the rolling water into two separate streams as it
roared down upon it. Octavius could see villagers, dressed in simple robes of
white and crimson, moving about the temple grounds, crossing the intricately
designed wooden bridge that served as the temple’s entrance. Both waterfalls
connected into a glistening river below that snaked through the center of the
small village. Heaven on Eos, Octavius thought. It’s a shame that it
needs to be burned to the ground.
Carhay sat on the southern edge of the Disputed Lands. For centuries, war had been waged upon these grounds without a victor being crowned. Geographically, the area was nigh-impossible to navigate. The territories in the north of the Disputed Lands were more populated, where grassy valleys and thick forests covered the land, but the South told a different story. Jagged peaks covered a majority of the landscape, with icy ledges and a wind so cold it stabbed the heart of you when the faintest breeze whispered by. The roads—if you were to call them roads, as they were more akin to a sea of shattered daggers—were riddled with the bones and carcasses of people who had braved the journey, but only succeeded in meeting the One earlier than they had anticipated.
In the midst of a land that resembled more so death than life sat the city of Carhay; a blossoming rose found on the outskirts of existence. Just above the foothills, the city had been uniquely isolated from the rest of the world. Shrouded by low hanging clouds, Carhay was a mythical city realized. Unfortunately, passage through the city was the most direct route for the Vicedonian Kingdom. Any attempt to circumnavigate the Gemini Mountains would delay the planned military offensive by days they could ill afford to lose. Octavius’ intuition told him that his army could easily proceed through the city without incident. The villagers did not seem to be of a warlike nature; no soldiers could be seen, nor weapons of any kind either. But since the king had decreed that Carhay was to be burnt to the ground, Octavius knew what had to be done.
Octavius took one final look at the city, closed his eyes, and bowed his head as if to offer one final prayer to the people below. He raised his arm, and at the moment he waved it forward, the deafening roar of the army echoed across the valley, and the trembling ground beneath its feet shook the mountains into submission. The bright sunlit sky darkened as arrows and boulders soared without restraint, violently finding their targets below. Villagers ran for shelter, but there was limited protection to be found. The shrill cries of the villagers could be heard from high above where Octavius still stood. Honor. Duty. Kingdom; was the sole thought that ran through his mind now. Once ordered, the assault could not be taken back. It was for the greater good and prosperity of the kingdom that such a sacrifice had to be made. Such sacrifices were necessary.
“This needs to be done… this must be done.” And with that, Octavius began his descent into the fray.
“Poppa! Mama! Kimi!” shouted Raden as he rushed back home from the fields he tilled. The lone thoughts of a seven-year-old boy who, only minutes ago, believed life to be full of promise and opportunity. Now, as the Vicedonian army poured into his peaceful village, he saw that opportunity burn away into ashes as flames consumed the world around him.
Raden ran past the school, the market, and the blacksmith’s shop, choking on the smoke billowing from their charred remains. In his hurry to get home, Raden’s foot caught against the branch of a fallen tree, sending him tumbling into the dirt road. Pain shot up his back, shoulders, and head as he finally skidded to a halt. Confused and dazed, the spinning world slowly came back into focus. His eyes centered on a shadow off in the distance. A lone figure stood atop the mountain’s edge. He appeared to be watching the attack from above, hesitant to join in. Was it doubt that held him back? Raden found him strange and out of place, but the sound of a burning house collapsing to the ground nearby refocused his priorities. He shot back up to his feet, ignoring the fresh cuts and bruises, and ran home. He turned the last corner to his house and made a beeline to his family. Thankfully, his house was still untouched. He raced up the front stairs and burst open the door.
“Raden! You’re safe!” shouted his mother. She clutched him tightly to her bosom, Raden grasping her in kind.
“Quickly, we have to get out of here before the soldiers find us.” Raden’s father hastily threw day-old rice cakes into a bag, slung it over his shoulder, and clutched Kimi, only six months old, in his arms. He exited through the back door, his family following close behind him. The view from their home was unimaginable; fires blazed across the entire village, the Grand Temple of the One peeling apart piece by piece. Vicedonian soldiers flooded the streets, killing indiscriminately.
Raden’s father quickly refocused his family’s attention, before the grief could consume and paralyze them. “Follow me, now!”
As the army ravaged the village, swords unsheathed within the blink of an eye, transforming from polished virgin steel to maroon soaked instruments of final release. They cleaved through the villagers, from men to women to even children. As the remaining forces reached the bottom, villagers escaped out the entrances of their homes, hoping to find liberation from this sudden nightmare, but were instead greeted by the sting of unexpected arrows.
Everything appeared to move in slow motion as Raden followed his parents through the high grass of the city’s outskirts. The grass stood seven feet tall and easily concealed them as they headed westwards.
“We have to make it to the next village and warn them. Stay low and quiet. Follow me.” Raden’s father moved nimbly through the grass. Raden, clutching his mother’s hand, stared at the ground, fighting with every fiber of his being to not let his emotions overwhelm him. They made their way close to the outer edge of the village, the sound of the River Fate flowing nearby, guiding them step by step. Suddenly, the sound of footsteps halted their advance.
“I thought I saw something move over there,” an unfamiliar voice spoke nearby. The proximity of the strange voice sent a shiver of fear racing down Raden’s spine. He was on the verge of crying when his father covered his mouth. They remained completely still and silent for what seemed like an eternity. When Raden’s father believed it to be safe, they slowly continued their escape.
Octavius looked on as the scene he had brought into existence unfolded. He could see villagers fall, every shriek of pain as distinct as notes on a piano. Catapults continued their bombardment. The booming explosions were deafening as wood and tile debris shot up into the sky and rained back down. Far worse than the sight of it all was the smell—charred wood had combined with burning flesh and the saturated blood of the villagers to create a stench so foul that Octavius needed to cover his mouth.
All in all, the assault had taken little time to complete. The so-called ‘enemy’ was in truth comprised of completely harmless and unarmed villagers, making the mission all the more swift. Nothing remained. The river that snaked through the center had been transformed from a clear surface of reflection into a clouded fog of burgundy. The army settled into their victory and began their search for riches; Octavius left them to their own devices. He called for his second in command.
“Sergeant Markus! What is the status of the perimeter?”
“Sir. We have soldiers patrolling the edges of the River Fate for any escapees. Every possible route is blocked off. No one is making it out of this place.”
“You better hope not. The king doesn’t tolerate failure. We both know that.”
Raden’s family had made it down to the edge of the River Fate, narrowly escaping capture. They could see the river flowing peacefully downstream. All they needed to do now was stay close to the shoreline and head south to the next village. There, they could find help. The voices they had heard earlier were now gone. Only the sounds of nature filled the air. Raden’s mother remained completely silent, but her lips mouthed the Prayers of Deliverance to the One over and over again. Deliver us unto paradise, drowning the darkness away with the light of your glory; reunite us in our lives and in our dreams. Save us and keep us until the end. Raden found himself mouthing the prayer instinctively, too. They followed the river as it bent to the left and saw no movement ahead of them. A brief sigh of relief released from their bodies, the tightness in their muscles finding respite in the growing success of their escape.
It was then that circumstances betrayed their fervent prayers. As Raden’s father continued to move forward, Kimi let out a shrill cry. The family hunkered low, hoping her cry was drowned out by the sound of the river, but it wasn’t.
“Who goes there?” a voice called out ahead of them. The sound of grass brushing aside grew louder as the voice drew nearer.
The family remained still. Raden stared into his parents’ eyes, wondering if this might be the last time he would see them. How he wished he could take back that thought. A soldier appeared out of nowhere, grabbing ahold of his father.
“I’ve got them! They’re over here!”
Raden’s father struggled with all his might, but was no match for the armed soldier. In the chaos of the moment, Raden’s father dropped Kimi to the ground. Somehow, Raden managed to pick her up. He was about to hand Kimi to his mom when another soldier appeared out of the high grass, knocking her to the ground.
“Run, Raden! Escape into the river! Go! Save Kimi!” his father called out while the soldier continued his brutal attack. Raden raced to the river’s edge, but couldn’t bring himself to jump in. His love for his family pulled him back. He turned around, hoping he would somehow see his parents unharmed, that this was all a bad nightmare. But when he did, he saw his father’s lifeless body, and his mother collapsed onto the ground, and with the last bit of life she had, she whispered to him.
“Go.”He jumped into the river, and let fate take its course.