The Impure Cross

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Punishment For The Righteous

The last rays of the wary sun shone through the thick, interconnecting, branches of the forest; their dying light illuminating the rich, green, floral bed that lied beneath the trees. Red, blue and violet flowers, mixed in with grass and medicinal herbs, made up the floor of the forest interspersed with moss that covered the fallen tree trunks.

The fading light provided the hunting Sondeliers a barely clear vision of their prey; a black stallion and a maiden in a white gown that walked a hundred feet before them.

The trees within these woods were placed in unusual patterns, forming narrow passages and twisting turns. Some pathways branched out and split off akin to man-made roads, making it difficult for the Sondeliers to keep track of Ayla and Demeter. Serpent-like tree roots permeated the ground while long, leafy, vines slithered down from the tree branches, making it hard to travel on foot.

“I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t let us take the Serpentile through here,” the green-eyed Sondelier complained as he stepped over the large tree roots in their path.

“It would have taken us too long to untie them. Besides, do you think they could travel through this terrain?” the blue-eyed Sondelier responded as he moved a vine away from his face.

“I suppose you are right,” the green-eyed Sondelier sighed as he slowly maneuvered through the vines “What is this place, anyway?”

“I don’t know, but keep your eyes wide opened,” his blue-eyed companion replied as he moved a branch away, trying to see Demeter’s horse better.

“This whole place reeks of magical energy.”

“How can you tell?” the shorter Sondelier asked.

“The unusual pattern of the trees and how they diverge is one of the telltale signs of magical interference,” the taller Sondelier responded “Somebody made these paths for their own travels. Other paths have probably been made to confuse any would-be intruders and lure them into a trap.”

“And you are sure that Demeter knows his way around these woods? Couldn’t he also be dragging us along?” the shorter Sondelier asked.

“I made sure they didn’t see us. Unless,” the Sondelier stopped for a moment as he craned his neck to see his target “Damn it! I lost them!”

“How did you manage to lose them?! We were right on their track!” the green-eyed Sondelier yelled in shock.

“Keep your voice down!” the blue-eyed Sondelier hissed through gritted teeth “This whole place is like a maze. We’ll just have to go off our guesses here. It’s getting dark soon anyway. I am sure they will have to start a fire at the very least. We can locate that light source once that happens.”

“And if that doesn’t happen?” his companion asked.

“We’ll head back empty handed and forget this ever happened.” The blue-eyed Sondelier shrugged “No sense in reporting our blunder to the archbishop.”

“I suppose you are right,” his companion sighed as they ventured deeper into the woods.

As they went forward the vines around them became thicker and the treetops above them blocked out even the last of the sun’s rays. The two barely even noticed that the morning star was now replaced by the faint glow of the silver moon. Wild whistling of the wind and the loud cries of the nocturnal creatures, awaking from their slumber, disturbed the otherwise calm forest and placed the holy guardians on high alert.

“It’s been two hours! They have clearly escaped from our sight,” the green-eyed Sondelier threw his spear down in anger.

“Easy there, brother.” the blue-eyed Sondelier ran up to his comrade.

“You mustn’t lose yourself to anger.”

“Why not?!” the green-eyed Sondelier lashed out at his comrade “We have been walking through these forsaken woods for hours and we are nowhere closer to finding Demeter then we were at the beginning of our journey!” he yelled and slammed his fist against one of the surrounding trees.

Just as he did so, the two Sondeliers could feel something shaking and rumbling beneath their feet. The roots that ran through the ground beneath their feet were now slithering around them, constricting their feet.

The blue-eyed Sondelier attempted to remain calm, unlike his green-eyed companion.

Upon noticing the slithering roots coiling themselves around his ankles, the green-eyed Sondelier picked up his spear and began to slash at the roots. He tore them open, time and time again, but it only had a momentary effect on the roots. In mere moments they would reconnect and constrain his feet, and the feet of his comrade, tighter than before.

“Stop fighting it! You’ll only make it worse for the both of us,” the blue-eyed Sondelier yelled as he winced slightly. The roots were strong enough to bend even his steel armor causing it to dig into his skin.

In his panic, the green-eyed Sondelier paid no mind to the wise warning of his older peer and, instead, began to bend down to rip the roots apart with his bare hands. This action caused the vines above him to descend around both of them and grab their arms. Each vine individually wrapped itself around one of the Sondeliers’ arms and pulled them upwards, causing the holy guards to be placed in a holding apparatus. The green-eyed Sondelier thrashed about, attempting to rip out the vines. This only caused the vines to bear deeper, causing them to break his steel armor and wrap themselves around his flesh. The powerful tendrils of the vines dug deep into the Sondelier’s flesh causing him to stop thrashing about due to the sudden jolt of pain.

The green-eyed Sondelier took in quick, deep, breaths of exhaustion as his hung friend looked at him in disappointment.

“I told you to calm down,” the blue-eyed Sondelier hung his head low “At least this explains the magical feel of this place.”

“What do you mean? What is this?!” the green-eyed Sondelier asked in a panic.

“Laveri magic,” the blue-eyed Sondelier responded silently “And judging by the quick response, I’d say the user is nearby.”

“Well, what do they want from us?”

“Why don’t we ask them that ourselves,” the blue-eyed Sondelier pointed his head forward as the vines in front of them began to separate.

From beyond the vines, illuminated by the orange flame of her torch, arose a female form. The bright flame revealed her pale green skin accompanied by her shoulder-length violet hair. A long gown made of dark green leaves covered her curvy figure, stopping just above her ankles. Upon a leather belt laid various brown bags as well as a jagged dagger whose glistening blade shone brightly in the moonlight. Upon her head laid a flowery crown that spread off into three curved horns, one above her forehead and two above her temples. Her red lips curled up into a wide and mischievous grin as her golden eyes glistened with delight at her captives.

“Well, well, well,” the woman spoke in a honeyed tone “What do we have here? Two big hounds that seem to have lost their way,” the woman craned her neck to observe the Sondeliers closely, “Tell me, oh loyal curs of the archbishop, has your master sent you here or have you pups lost your way?”

“How dare you speak to us like that?!” the green-eyed Sondelier tried to lunge at the woman only to be pulled back by the vines.

“Careful. You are on a shorter leash then you are used to,” the woman smiled sweetly at the captured Sondelier.

With a flick of her wrist, the vines around the green-eyed Sondelier tightened harder, cutting into his flesh once more. The green-eyed Sondelier screamed in pain as the green vines constricting his arms felt like sharp daggers slicing his skin.

“Stop that!” the blue-eyed Sondelier yelled, catching the woman’s attention.

“Certainly,” the woman smiled and twisted her wrist in a counterclockwise motion, loosening the vines that tied his green-eyed companion.

Hatred burned within the green-eyed Sondelier. Within his heart he could only feel the rage building up, urging him to escape the hold of the magical plants that surrounded him. Yet, he did not listen to that rage. While the spirit was willing, the body was exasperated and weak.

“How disappointing,” the woman scoffed as she observed the green-eyed Sondelier “It appears that you are one of those hounds that like to bark a lot, but they rarely bite.”

“Just what gives you the right to look down upon us?” the green-eyed Sondelier’s words escaped slowly through his gasping breaths.

“Oh, how rude of me,” the woman covered her lips with her hand in shock “Amidst all of this excitement, I forgot to introduce myself. Well, allow me to correct that transgression. I am Ishmael Il Fayette, leader of the Clomite Laveri,” the woman placed her right hand across her chest and bowed slightly.

“Leader?” the blue-eyed Sondelier raised an eyebrow at her statement, “I thought Raza Al Grandielle was your current leader.”

“That puppet has been deposed for the past three years now.” Ishmael rolled her eyes at the statement and spat on the ground.

“However, that is not important for now. Why do you curs disturb the sanctity of our forest? You know that you are not welcomed here.”

“What are you talking about?” the green-eyed Sondelier interjected, “I don’t care what you are, but if you think—“

“That’s enough!” the blue-eyed Sondelier yelled.

His booming voice was loud enough to echo throughout the forest and it even caused Ishmael to flinch as her golden eyes widened in surprise.

“Honestly, do you know when to keep your mouth shut?” the blue eye Sondelier began “I know you are a rather new recruit and all, but seriously. You have no idea of the gravity of the situation we are in right now, do you?”

“But, brother, she can’t --” the green-eyed Sondelier started but was immediately cut off by his elder colleague.

“No, she can,” the blue-eyed Sondelier stated bluntly. “You don’t know the full situation between them and the archbishop. I do. So stay quiet and let me handle this, alright?”

The green-eyed Sondelier wanted to say something, but he decided to keep it to himself as he dropped his head low. Ishmael brought one hand to her pale green chin and observed their interaction with fascination.

“Well, would you look at that?” she vocalized her thoughts. “It would appear that at least one of you hounds can assess his surroundings. That is quite impressive for a loyal dog such as yourself.”

The blue-eyed Sondelier glared at her with a scowl as Ishmael grinned widely, exposing her small, pearly white, teeth.

“I do apologize for our intrusion, Lady Ishmael,” the blue-eyed Sondelier started. “His Holiness did not instruct us to traverse these woods; however, we are on an important mission here. I understand that the situation between your people and His Holiness has been less than favorable, but if you would allow us to carry out this mission, we would be eternally grateful to you and your kind.”

“And what would that mission be?” Ishmael tilted her head quizzically.

“I am afraid I cannot disclose that information at the moment,” the blue-eyed Sondelier said.

“And why is that?” Ishmael pressed on, her playful tone slowly disappearing as the interaction went on.

“Because, our mission contains sensitive information and because we have not cleared you of suspicion just yet,” the blue-eyed Sondelier stated matter-of-factly.

“Oh, I see,” Ishmael stated as she placed her hand in one of her bags. “In that case, I will just have to try another method to find out the truth.”

She pulled out a handful of reddish dust that sparkled slightly in the moonlight. The Sondelier’s eyes widened in surprise. Ishmael separated the red dust in her two hands and held them up to the Sondeliers’ faces. She then proceeded to crane her neck upwards and blew on the red dust, causing it to fly into the nostrils and mouths of the Sondeliers.

Both of them began to cough viciously as the red dust filled every pore of their being.

“Nice going, Avarius,” the green-eyed Sondelier said as he coughed.

“What did you call me, Elzar?” the blue-eyed Sondelier said through his coughs as he looked his colleague in the eyes.

“How do you know my name? Wait, how do I remember your name?” Elzar looked around in panic. His eyes finally honed in on the golden-eyed woman that bewilderedly stared at them.

“What did you do to us?!” Elzar asked as he began to hyperventilate.

The woman shook her head as she broke out of her daze.

“I gave you some of the Veritas Leiron pollen,” the woman explained. “Admittedly it is a more potent version of the ‘truth lily’ you find in nature, enhanced a little by my own magic. This powder is supposed to make you incapable of telling a lie to any question I give, for a short period of time. However, it seems to have a rather unique effect on you as well.”

The voice of the laveri seemed so distant to the blue-eyed Sondelier. His own thoughts enraptured him whole as he gazed down at the ground.

They said it would wipe all of my memories for all eternity,” Avarius lamented.

And yet I always remembered my name. I never forgot it. How is that possible? How is it that this powder was capable to pierce through Odium’s light? Did my faith waver? Is that why it worked? No! It cannot be. I have served Him loyally for ten years!” Avarius shook his head in defiance.

My faith is as strong as it always was! But then, why,” his train of thoughts was shattered by Ishmael as she snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.

He looked over to Elzar and could only see him muttering prayers as tears fell down from his eyes and wetted his cheeks.

“I am so sorry to interrupt your crisis of faith, but I would like to get some answers out of you,” Ishmael waved in front of Avarius’ face.

“Quid pro quo,” Avarius chuckled. “First, you will tell me how you broke through the Holy One’s light. Then I may consider answering your questions.”

“Are you really in a position to bargain like that?” Ishmael cocked her eyebrow at the holy guard.

“I can always bite off my tongue,” Avarius responded coldly. “Then neither one of us will get what they want.”

Ishmael was quite taken aback by his response. With the pollen in his system, she knew he truly meant what he was saying and that he was willing to sacrifice himself in order to find out what happened to him. She began to giggle slightly at the absurdity of her situation. Soon enough that giggle turned into a peal of loud laughter bringing her to tears.

“It would appear that there are still strong hounds in the archbishop’s service,” Ishmael exclaimed as she wiped away her tears of laughter. “Very well, you have yourself a deal. However, I must warn you, the answer may not be to your liking.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“What I mean is that I have no idea what you are talking about,” Ishmael shrugged. “The pollen I gave you is enhanced with laveri magic, but that’s only to speed up the process. The wild ‘truth lily’ pollen can take up to several hours for it to work. My version only shortens that waiting period to a few seconds. That’s it. Or at least, that’s how it was when I tested it,” Ishmael scratched the back of her head in confusion.

“Then why do I remember my name?!” Avarius argued. “I could even bring up pictures of my past if I really focus on them. But that is impossible! Odium’s light has destroyed these useless memories. My old life and my name should have been destroyed. So why did that powder bring them back?” Avarius kept shaking his head as his breath quickened.

Feeling his panic, Ishmael decided to take another approach to him. “Perhaps those memories were only suppressed,” Ishmael theorized. “I know of a few plants that could have done so. Whatever the case may be, it’s only going to be temporary. The pollen wears off in about an hour so those memories will be gone by then.”

“I sincerely hope you speak the truth,” Avarius sighed in defeat. “For Elzar’s sake as well.”

“Still, I must admit, you are taking it far better than he is,” Ishmael walked around the praying Elzar. “I can’t even get him to look at me.”

“My mind is much more logical than his is,” Avarius explained. “It makes it easier for me to question the situation we are in and act accordingly. It could also be that I had these doubts before, but had suppressed them due to my faith in the Holy Ones’ word.”

“Perhaps it’s a bit of both,” Ishmael shrugged. “In any case, I still need my answers. Why are you two in my forest?”

“We are tracking down a suspected enemy of His Holiness,” the Sondelier responded monotonously. “Suspected enemies to be exact.”

“And who might that be?” Ishmael’s eyes lit up with curiosity.

“Lord Demeter Antegard and the man and the woman that accompany him,” Avarius stated.

“The King’s Hand?”

“Yes,” the Holy Guard responded in a flat tone of voice. “He was seen transporting a dangerous criminal through these very woods. We suspected that he might lead us to one of their hideouts so we followed him. Unfortunately, we lost him some time back.”

“How peculiar,” Ishmael turned away and walked around. “Well if he was here it is highly unlikely he would still be here. He was probably turned away by another laveri. You can’t really just wander through these woods unless you know exactly where you are going.”

“It would appear so,” the Sondelier agreed with her sentiment. “Which is why I didn’t want to tell you our true purpose. I didn’t, and I still don’t, know if you are protecting them.”

“To be honest, it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest,” Ishmael responded and walked closer to the Sondelier. “Whatever the relationship between your master has with the King's Hand does not concern me in the least. I just hate it when people barge into our woods and make a ruckus, especially when it comes to you and your master.”

“Then why have you captured us?” the Sondelier asked.

“I wanted to see if the archbishop sent you and why;” Ishmael responded bluntly. “If he had then that would be more than enough of a reason for us to cut all ties with the Order. I was also curious to see why you would walk into a hostile, magic-filled territory. Sadly, it seems to be just a wild goose chase.”

“Sorry to have disappointed you,” Avarius responded.

“It’s alright. I am used to it,” Ishmael sighed and waved her hands counterclockwise.

Avarius could feel the roots that constricted his legs were beginning to loosen up. The vines around his arms and wrists began to unwind as well and return to their natural place. As he was released from the holding grip of the roots and vines, Avarius ran towards his comrade who was still muttering prayers to himself.

“Easy there, brother. I got you,” Avarius said with a comforting smile as he supported his comrade.

“Avar-,” the green-eyed Sondelier almost muttered, but he was cut off.

“Don’t utter that name,” the blue-eyed Sondelier spoke calmly. “The Creator is testing our faith by making us remember those accursed names. Keep praying and they will go away.”

“I understand. Thank you brother,” the green-eyed Sondelier muttered under his breath as he winced in pain that seared through his open wounds.

“Do you want me to heal him?” Ishmael asked as she saw Elzar wincing in pain.

“No need,” Avarius responded. “We can heal him easily once we are back at the palace.”

“As you wish,” Ishmael said as she raised her arms once more.

The vines in front of them separated and the tree roots retracted, causing a new passageway to form in front of the two Sondeliers.

“This path will lead you directly to your master’s palace,” Ishmael explained. “Once you are there, tell him that I said ‘hi’ and remind him of what he owes us for the past year’s crops. We aren’t a charity service and we will take more severe actions if his debts continue to pile on.”

“I will,” Avarius responded as he turned away and dragged his wounded brethren through the newly created pathway.

“Oh, and one more thing Avarius,” Ishmael yelled out, making Avarius face her. “You might be a hound, but don’t blindly follow your master. Even a dog can bite his master if he isn’t taking care of him properly.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Avarius shot back as he turned away from Ishmael and continued on to the path.

Silently the two of them walked through the newly created pathway as Elzar slowly stopped his prayers.

“What will we tell His Holiness?” the green-eyed Sondelier asked silently as he dragged his legs upon the moist floral floor.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take full responsibility for what happened,” the blue-eyed Sondelier assured his comrade. “I’ll explain to His Holiness that we were tracking Demeter down and that we ran into some trouble. With any luck, he will understand that we did it out of our loyalty to him and will not punish me too severely.”

The green-eyed Sondelier lowered his gaze again.“You don’t have to do it alone,” he responded silently. “I can take some of the blame as well. After all, my faith wavered as well as yours when that accursed woman blew that dust in our face.”

“I told you already,” the blue-eyed Sondelier sighed. “That was the Creator’s test of our faiths and you have cleared it. Once the memories fade your faith will be stronger tenfold and you will carry out your duties diligently.”

Upon hearing these words the green-eyed Sondelier smiled contently.

“Thank you brother,” he replied graciously. “In your wise words I shall find solace and comfort. One day, I hope to repay your grace as well.”

The blue-eyed Sondelier smiled sorrowfully at his words. Even though he was able to comfort his shaken up comrade, he himself was beginning to have doubts.

While he was training Avarius was constantly told that the archbishop’s light was capable of piercing through his very being. He was told that in His Holiness his old self will be destroyed and that he will be reborn stronger, faster, and more powerful than he was before; all so he could serve to protect the Holy One. He was fine with that. In fact, he welcomed it, as it would finally give his life newfound purpose.

Why was I searching for my purpose back then?” Avarius suddenly thought. “Didn’t I already have a purpose?”

As that thought crossed his mind an image of a woman with braided golden hair and kind emerald green eyes flashed in his mind. She seemed to be smiling at him as golden rays of the Sun bathed her. Her small, soft, arms were wrapped tightly around his waist, and in her eyes, a spark of pure joy beamed back at the Sondelier.

As this image flashed Avarius felt something wet and warm running down his cheek. He brought his free hand to his face and touched the substance. He noticed that a clear liquid was on his gloved hand and looked at it in bewilderment.

Are these my tears? But why am I crying over that image,” he pondered as he wiped away his tears. “Who was that woman anyway?”

More questions arose in his mind, but the Sondelier just shook them away as he saw the image slowly fade away in his mind. The memories, as well as his name, slowly faded, but his feeling still stayed the same. Amidst the sea of these various questions, one quickly rose to the surface. One question whose answer he feared the most. And it arose from one of his fleeting memories.

While Avarius was training to become a Sondelier he would take a glass of ‘holy water’ each day. This ‘holy water’ was said to be the water that flowed through Odium’s valley and that it was blessed by the archbishop himself. Thanks to the archbishop’s light purifying the clean water, he was able to see the truth and find his purpose; serving as the soldier for the Holy One. This water enhanced his growth and gave him the strength, both physical and mental, to fulfill his duty fully. As a side effect, his memories would be lost for all eternity and his old life would cease to exist.

He was willing to take that sacrifice. After all, his servitude gave him a higher purpose than he could ever have in this life. However, if the effects of this ‘holy water’ could be countered with the enhanced pollen of the ‘truth lily’, then that would mean that the ‘holy water’ is not some divine potion blessed by the hand of the Holy One.

If that is the case, then what is in that ‘holy water’?”

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