Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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XVII

The young Nizain Ziaxe walked briskly down the hall of Salras Palace with the elderly Alavar leading him along. Guards and nobles crowded the halls as everyone bustled around to various destinations. Ziaxe had seldom seen a place quite as busy as this even at the market place in Berania. As they turned another corner, he could not resist a yawn.

“Wake up, Ziaxe,” said Alavar, his gaze still directed in front of them. “You need to look as presentable as possible for the king.”

Ziaxe let out an inaudible groan like a child mocking his parents behind their back. The past couple of days had been exhausting especially after Ziaxe’s haunting experience with the Darkness that kept him up at night. Alavar had decided that it was time for the new King Farli to meet the new Nizain so he urged Ziaxe to spend the last few days readying himself for the meeting. Ziaxe looked the best he had ever looked in his life after a professional haircut, several baths, and clothing made of fine, colorful linen. He was grateful for this transformation, but it felt like these tasks exerted as much energy as his training had.

They continued to walk, Ziaxe trying to look professional by standing up straight and all the passerbys acknowledging Alavar while staring blankly at Ziaxe. It still surprised Ziaxe how popular Alavar was in Salras. He seemed just as well known as he was in Berania if not more.

They eventually came to a door that was guarded by two guards with spears standing taller than them. Ziaxe began to realize how nervous he was to meet this new king. He had barely known of his existence back in Berania, and from the little of him he had seen during the coronation he appeared to be a solemn and possibly intimidating young man. His heart was beating rapidly as anxiety flew threw him and his palms grew sweaty. He told himself not to be ridiculous. He was the Nizain, the person who was supposed to be one of the mightiest warriors in the entire world. Why should he be afraid of a man who was only a few years older than him and was on his side?

Alavar turned his head to Ziaxe and instantly saw the fear in his eyes. “Try to relax, Ziaxe,” he said in a calm, reassuring voice, “I have known Farli all his life. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

Ziaxe tried to take comfort in his words, but there was something in Alavar’s eyes that showed some wariness as if he could not convince himself of his own words.

They stopped in front of the door, and one of the guards walked inside, closing the door behind him. There was complete silence for a moment as the remaining guard stared distantly as if in a trance. Then there was a knock from within, and the guard said in deep, booming voice, “Proceed!” Ziaxe almost jumped five feet in the air at the sudden break in the silence. The guard then pulled the door open to let them in.

The room was a study with bookcases that were each at least five shelves high with hundreds of books lining three of the four walls. What caught Ziaxe’s eyes however was the opposite wall. Sitting at a desk, with the afternoon sun pouring in through a window the size of a door from behind, was the young King Farli with his face cast in the shadows of the sun. Step by painful step, Ziaxe moved towards the king, feeling eyes watch his every move, judging every flaw. The second guard that had gone in first left the room, closing the door once more to complete silence.

Ziaxe’s eyes adjusted to the sun, and he could see Farli’s face clearly for the first time. The face was handsome and emotionless as it was during the coronation, the face of a young man who had given up his life for his responsibilities. He was simpler, more casual clothes than before, but it was his eyes that Ziaxe could not decipher. There was a mix of emotions hidden in those eyes past that stern face, portions of anger, sadness, and confusion all swirled together like a vegetable soup. Ziaxe was unsure if he should be afraid or feel sympathy for the man.

“Alavar,” said a firm voice that came from the stern face, “Is this some kind of joke?”

Ziaxe’s heart fell to his stomach.

“This is the new Nizain named Ziaxe, Farli,” replied Alavar with no attempt at formality. “There is no need for remarks like that. He has journeyed from Berania to come here and train for the war. He has been eagerly awaiting this meeting as much as you have.”

“This is pathetic, Alavar,” said the king, his words cutting at Ziaxe’s pride. “He is still a child, a weakling from the poor district.”

Alavar stepped forward and slammed his palm onto the desk and leaned menacingly towards Farli. “Enough of this foolishness, boy! Ziaxe is the new Nizain! Contain your jealousy!”

The king scowled, staring right back at the professor, his eye contact unyielding in his fury. Something passed between them, and Ziaxe had never felt like more of a third wheel than at that moment. He then felt the need to say something for himself, so he searched deep inside himself for something resembling courage.

“Ahem,” said Ziaxe, in a fake attempt at a cough. The two turned slowly from their staring battle towards him, leaving an awkward silence that Ziaxe knew only he could fill. “Uhm… excuse me… your Majesty…. I know I may not seem like much, but I’m uh… willing to try my best to uhm….”

“Silence, boy!” commanded Farli. “I am disgraced to be one of the first to witness this disappointment in Sargenian history.”

Ziaxe stood frozen, unsure of what to do or say.

Alavar was furious. “Farli, accept that this is the new Nizain. The Power of the Nizain was never yours to inherit. Your father was not a descendent of Lexar!”

Farli turned back to Alavar, rage burning in his eyes. He slowly stood up and walked deliberately to the window, leaving his guests to feel a palpable tension. “And this boy is of the Nizain line?” he asked in a soft voice.

Alavar stood up straight. “Are you truly suggesting this?”

Farli sighed and then turned around. “How can I accept that, Alavar?!” He yelled as he took deliberate steps towards Alavar, each step a menacing threat to Ziaxe. He pointed to Ziaxe when he was inches from Alavar’s face. “How do I know this boy didn’t assassinate my father and take the Power for himself? How can I believe that Virok, the man who has been Beranian General for over twenty years, killed him?”

Alavar put his hands on Farli’s shoulders and held him steady. “Listen to me. Ziaxe did not kill your father. I suspected of Virok’s approaching treachery over the past few years which is why I brought you to Salras. Virok has a dark past that you could not begin to understand.”

The young king scowled with his burning eyes, but said nothing.

“Enough.” Alavar let go of him and turned away. “Speak with Ziaxe, your new Nizain. Befriend each other. You will need all the companions you can get for this approaching war.” He then left the room, storming past the guards in annoyance.

Ziaxe was petrified.

King Farli, seemingly ignoring Ziaxe’s existence, walked back to behind the desk and returned to his seat. After a few more moments of silence where Ziaxe wondered if he should leave, Farli finally spoke once again in a more gentle voice laced with hidden hatred. “I apologize.”

Ziaxe was shocked, but the apology let him relax. “It’s… okay… your Majesty.”

Farli made another slow sigh. “It has been a rough time for me since my father died, but I assume it hasn’t been easier for you either.”

Ziaxe stayed silent.

Farli made eye contact with him. “Please, tell me your story.”

And so Ziaxe reluctantly told Farli about his experiences over the last several weeks, from joining the army to getting the Power of the Nizain to going through the Treemen Forest and to Salras.

The king sat silently, listening carefully and appearing to ponder everything being said. “Interesting.” All traces of the rude, vicious man he was a few minutes ago seemed to vanish after Alavar’s order when he left. “Your story is one of a rising hero, I must say, but right now we need more than a hero to save this world from another Vician War.”

He stood again, this time moving towards a painting on the wall behind him, next to the window. Ziaxe had noticed it when he came in. It was a portrait of a beautiful woman’s face, placed in a bright gold-colored frame that brought out her delicate features and bright blonde hair. She had a sweet smile that strung at Ziaxe’s heart strings and deep, blue eyes as mysterious as the ocean. “Have you ever been in love, Nizain Ziaxe?” asked Farli, suddenly.

The question surprised Ziaxe. “Excuse me… your Majesty?”

“Have you ever been in love? Have you ever known someone who could make you feel complete, someone who can give Light to any Darkness?” While Farli spoke, his eyes never left the eyes of the portrait.

Thoughts and emotions began to swirl inside Ziaxe, a cacophony of internal confusion. He thought about his life in Berania, of all the people he had known throughout his life, from his threatening uncle to his friends Kron and Venna. He found his mind also pass by memories of his recent friends: Sastan and Orlen, the Sargen and the lumberjack who helped him make it out of the Treemen Forest alive even though they barely knew him. Alavar who was like a father to him.

The concept of “love” however perplexed him. Was it the increase in his heartbeat he felt when Venna was around him? Was it the feeling of security that he felt with his friends? Was it providing food and shelter to someone who killed your sister such as Uncle Alben had suffered through?

“Love is a cursing and a blessing as far as I have learned,” said Farli. “It can make you lose faith in living as easily as it can make you feel on top of the world.”

He paused. “This perfect woman you see in this painting… she is a Sargen, one of Sarben’s blessed. It may have been my young foolishness and ignorance, but a few years ago I fell in love with her. I had spent a lot of my childhood in Salras as well as other cities in Sargenia. Before the Corruption of Sarbenia when King Vacaldon the Ruthless of Vilaria conquered Southwest Sarbenia which is now Dremun, this land was full of the pure Sargens. This event caused nearly all of the Sargens to escape to the pure island of Paridon. This woman… was a part of one of the few Sargen families left in Sargenia.”

Ziaxe listened intently while unsure if this story was too personal for his ears.

“Over the past few years, however, there have been signs of a Great Darkness coming to the Ancient Kingdoms of Sarbenia. The Treeman Seer gave prophecies and the remaining pure Sargens felt the balance of Light and Darkness twisting even more. If this Great Darkness does indeed take over this land there will be no place for the Sargens and no possible way for this woman to return.”

Farli walked to the side of his desk, letting one hand slide across the top. “Ever since she left I have been thinking about her every day and every night. When she was here with me I had nothing but joy in my heart, but now she is gone as well as my father. I have lost everything except this useless kingdom. No amount of royal jewels or gold can ever compare to the beauty of her smile.”

He looked straight into Ziaxe’s soul then. “Do you know why I tell you this?”

“I’m… not completely sure,” replied Ziaxe, hesitantly.

“I want you to know where I stand on everything now instead of later. Know this, young Nizain, I will lead this kingdom to war and back if I will see her in the end. This kingdom can burn and fall into everlasting Darkness for all I care as long as I see her again. I do this for her, not for you or for Sargenia. My vision of a life of happiness with her steers my destiny. If you fail in your mission as Nizain, then I may have to personally take the Power from you and carry out the mission myself.”

Ziaxe froze at the death threat, heart pounding and sweat rolling down his neck.

Farli stepped closer to Ziaxe, and it took all of Ziaxe’s willpower not to flinch or ready himself for an attack. “For now, you are Nizain, and I am king. I will try to accept that, and may Sarben bless you on your upcoming struggles.”

The young Nizain gulped as Farli stared him down during a moment of tense silence. Ziaxe felt like he was in the presence of a giant ready to squish him even though the two were roughly the same height.

“I’m sure Alavar is eagerly awaiting to see how much we have learned about each other by now.” The king made a small smile that for a second seemed more menacing than the death threat.

Just like he had said, Alavar was outside standing a few feet apart from the guards. The professor still showed some remnants of his anger from his argument with Farli, but he was always able to regain his composure quickly enough. “You two friends now?” he asked with a serious expression.

“Of course, Alavar,” replied the young king with a royal, fake smile that Ziaxe was sure all of Sargenia would easily believe.

Barely half an hour had passed, but Ziaxe had been faced with troubling information from a new, untrustworthy king, a philosophical question that made him consider his life, and a burden even greater than before. It had been one thing for Master Naje and Alavar to discuss how he would become a big part of this upcoming war, but having a king emphasize it to him face-to-face and place his unwilling faith in him was unnerving. Sure, Ziaxe had been training day and night to become as good as any soldier and possibly more than that, but everyone was speaking as if the fate of the world rested in his hands. He had barely entered manhood, and he felt like he carried ten times the burdens of a man who had lived through all of his life.

Alavar and Farli spoke to each other, but Ziaxe drowned them out, trying to find some peace for a moment within himself. He thought of Farli’s question. Have you ever been in love? He gave himself an answer.

Yes.

Love was the feelings he had for his friends, the people he cared for. He may truly love Venna more as a potential mate, but she would never make him forget about the others in his life. Love was everything that this world would need to survive. It drove Farli on, and it would drive Ziaxe as well. He would defend his home kingdoms from this Great Darkness for Venna, for Kron, for Sastan, for Orlen, for Alavar, and even for Alben.

With this determination in his heart, he and Alavar bid the King of Sargenia goodbye, leaving the young king alone in his shadows of loneliness and anticipation for days to come.

Miles to the west, across a forest of dangerous savages ruled by a mysterious Seer and past walls that have never fallen, another king sat on the throne of the recently deceased. Virok—once General of Berania, but now accepting the unspoken title of king—sat alone in the throne room a few feet away from the scene of his treason that stained his hands in unforgotten blood. Or at least he thought he was alone. Kirov, that Zauk-soul he knew well, was most likely hiding in the shadows, watching, perhaps waiting for a moment to strike down the man who had always kept him in check. That day would not be today or anytime soon as long as Virok had a say in it.

A guard approached at the far end of the empty hall and announced that a messanger had arrived. Virok told him to let him in. Gilart, the smelly, disgusting piece of filth of a giant entered and walked to the throne with a great grin that showed yellowed, mismatched teeth. “I got more news for ya, Virok,” he said with a cocky wave. He stopped himself in front of the throne’s dais. “Oh, wait! Sorry, your Majesty!” He gave an exaggerated performance of going down on one knee while he feigned an expression of embarrassment and self-disappointment.

Virok sighed, annoyed at this one of many gags that Gilart had pulled ever since the murder of the king. “Just get on with it, Gilart.”

Gilart remained on his knee with his head bowed. “As you have commanded, your army gathers to the north of Berania along with the Zauk-souls who remain outside of the city. So far the Yassons—”

“Just stand up already, you fool.”

“If your Majesty allows it, I shall.” Gilart gave another enthusiastic bow as he stood that was surprising fluid for a man the height and size of him. “As I was saying, your army has been gathering to the north of Berania. You already have your Zauk-souls of course, and now the Yasson Harvorens are there as well, eager to once more fight for the Vidian side and smash some Sarbenian heads in. And the Dremuns will be here soon as well, though Vulnor is not ready to leave his throne yet since he has been focused on weakening Ravilla even more than before so that there is no chance of their help in this war.”

“Good… and the status of the the enemy army?”

Gilart grinned. “I know you were afraid of that new Nizain brat escaping along with the prince, but as far as my spies can see there has been no major gathering of forces as of yet. The Treemen have been gathering most likely because their Seer predicts the war, but it seems unlikely that the Kingdoms of Light will willingly take their help. Right now with Berania under our control we divide Sargenia and Zaria from the kingdoms to the west. If any Mintonite Harvorens or Walrens or even Lysarians try to send soldiers east our army and scouts will most likely be able to cut them down. We are way ahead of those fools of the Light.”

Virok allowed a smile. “Vician would be proud.” His face instantly turned back into the stern, stonelike face it was beore. “Now tell me about the Prince and the Nizain.”

The giant seemed to lose the confidence that came along with his joking attitude. “Well about that… you see….”

“Out with it!” Virok slammed his fist down on the throne.

“As you know… the crown and scepter of the Sargenian king have been stolen… most likely by Alavar or even that Nizain brat…. Apparantly in Salras, there was… a coronation….”

“What!?” screamed Virok as he lept off of the throne with anger burning like fire in his eyes. He quickly regained his composure though. “I knew this was going to happen, but damned Alavar seems to be pushing everyone to make it happen quicker. There’s only so long we can keep the Beranians in the dark about what is actually happening outside these walls. They must continue to believe that the boy killed the king; they must believe that we are going to war against the ones who are commiting treason to this kingdom. Keeping Berania under control is of the utmost importance.”

He paced back and forth on top of the dais. He stopped, staring out to the side of the room. “What about the Nizain?”

“I’m sorry… your Majesty,” replied Gilart, his timid voice contradicting his earlier enthusiasm. “The search parties haven’t found him. At first we thought he must have escaped through the north gate, so they checked the cities to the north, but they haven’t come back to give results.”

“To the north?” Virok considered that. The North Gate of Berania was the only was in and out of Berania… except for hole the Vidians used, the passage that Gilart had used to enter secretely over the last several years. “You fool!” he yelled. He stomped down the stairs of the dais. “The boy wouldn’t have made it through the North Gate! The guards don’t just let anyone pass especially if he escaped at night when they’re most alert. He went through the culvert! He must have!”

Gilart froze as if realizing his deadly mistake and expecting to be killed right then and there.

“Don’t just stand there! You know what to do now! Go take care of it yourself!”

The giant reawoke from his frozen state. He nodded and put on a firm face, a clear goal in his mind. Virok’s ignorant servent turned and left without saying another word.

Virok groaned when he was finally alone. Surrounded by idiots. But he let himself relax, and he climbed the dais to take his seat back on the throne. He was ahead of his enemies, and he took comfort in that. He would finish what Vician had started long ago. He would lead the world into Darkness like the Great Vician had envisioned long, long ago. The only thing that stood in his way… was the Nizain.


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