Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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XXVIII

As Javen impatiently awaited Ziaxe’s return from the graveyard, he could see all that was happening from the crest of the hill. From where he stood, the battle at the western gate looked like a skirmish between thousands and thousands of ants. But he could see that the invading army of ants was definitely larger.

How can they survive this? Virok planned everything out to the last details. He must’ve known the Army of Light would head to Zaria, so he brought the full force of his army to extinguish his enemy before they would have a chance to grow even more. It was a nightmare, and the fact that his son was going to be caught up in it made it even worse.

He saw something else then. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw what looked like another group of ants in the distance, a group of considerable size heading towards the city from the south. What could that mean? Was Virok trying to envelop them? He already had the power to eventually stomp through them, why would he try a strategy like that?

But then Javen remembered who he was dealing with. He had known Virok personally before; he knew the way the man thought. Virok would not settle with a simple victory. He would want everyone dead. The corpses of every man, woman, and child would have to be lining the streets before he would be fully satisfied with his conquest.

The Army of Light had soldiers within the city still to combat a strategy like that, but this group in the south seemed almost as big as the other two armies. There would be nothing they can do. And what could Javen do to help prevent this? Go up against this southern group on his own? He had no chance.

Then he heard a woman’s shriek come from the city streets. He tightened his hand around the hilt of his sheathed sword with resolve. He was one of Ziaxe’s Guardians, but he couldn’t stand by waiting for him while the weak needed a guardian as well. Ziaxe had been growing steadily into a Nizain that the world needed, and it was time for him to prove that to everyone.

Javen looked down the hill to the graveyard with its strange mist, then back to the city. I believe in you, my son, he thought as he ran towards the scream.

Moments later, Nizain Ziaxe reached the crest of the hill at a dead sprint, his lungs heaving from the steepness. He was almost shocked into complete breathlessness as he saw the battle taking place in the distance. They’re all fighting while I’ve done nothing, he thought in dismay as he felt a wave of guilt hit him. He didn’t know how long he had been down there with the ghost of his ancestor, but it must have been a fair amount of time for the battle to be at the high point it was at now.

Without further thinking, he ran to the city streets and squeezed his way through the many alleys and paths beneath the buildings. He began to hear screams of pain and fear around him. Was he that close to the fighting already? Or was the fighting already this close to him? Had the defences failed?

He exited a street and entered an opening that had once been a bustling marketplace of happy, excited people buying and selling goods to each other. But now it was a place of horror. Shops were closed and boarded up or otherwise falling apart or starting to burn. Dead bodies of adults, Zarian Knights, and children alike littered the stone road. For a moment, his eyes couldn’t leave the bloodied bodies. He felt sick to his stomach, but then his eyes raised and he saw the ones who did this.

They were enemy soldiers laughing and grinning at their power over the weak they had murdered. One soldier carried a chest of jewels and gold coins and bragged about his discovery of it to the others. Other soldiers pulled along the corpses into a pile saying how they’ve already won the battle. Another group of soldiers threw torches in some of the buildings and snickered at the growing flames.

“Please stop!”

Ziaxe turned to the voice. It was a young woman being backed towards a burning building by a soldier brandishing a sword. “Come here, you pretty,” cackled the soldier.

Before Ziaxe could even think about what to do, the soldier stabbed the woman straight through the stomach. The woman choked on blood as blood poured out onto the blade from her wound and died almost instantly. The soldier simply smiled as he pulled his sword out and let the body fall.

The pain he had felt from the memory of Nizain Almar came back to him. He knew how it felt to die. He had to check to see that there wasn’t a gaping hole in his stomach left by Vician’s scythe.

The soldier with the sword noticed him then. “Hey, you morons!” he yelled to the others. “There’s another soldier trying to be a hero!”

They all began to unsheathe their weapons and approach him. There was about a dozen or more of them in all, but when Ziaxe saw their faces he was shocked. Underneath the iron helms they wore, they were all young men, barely older than he was. They were each soldiers like him fighting for they believed in. Somewhere in their lives they probably decided that they wanted a life of adventure just as Ziaxe had wanted. He wondered if they were happy with this life, a life of killing and ransacking.

Even though he knew it was shame, he knew he had to kill these soldiers. He knew he had to defeat the enemies and somehow bring peace. It was time to use his training and be the Nizain he was meant to be. He unsheathed his swords and focused on everything he had been taught.

But as the enemies approached it was hard of him to focus on anything other than the hatred and rage filling him. He felt more ashamed at himself in that moment than afraid. He wanted nothing more than to kill all of them.

“Ey, boy!” said the soldier with the sword who was no older than Ziaxe. He had a snarky scowl on his face. “What do you think you’re gonna do against all of us?”

Ziaxe stopped thinking.

A bolt of Dark lightning launched from his fingertips and struck the soldier straight in his chest, killing him before he could speak again.

The other soldiers shared the same look of disbelief then. “What was that?” Ziaxe heard one of them say. “Is he a Vidian or something?”

He sent out another bolt that struck two of the enemies, knocking them down, but not killing them as easily as the other soldier. “Come on!” someone shouted. “Let’s get him!”

The Chill of Darkness ran through Ziaxe then as lightning came at him. He rolled to the side, dodging the bolt and knew then that these were not just any soldiers.

Something strange began to happen as he dodged multiple lightning strikes from the enemies. He felt himself change; he felt the Power of the Nizain forcing itself to take over and protect him. But a part of him refused to let that happen. He refused to lose control out of a feeling selfishness. If the Power took control, then the Power would defeat these monsters. He didn’t want that. He wanted to kill them all himself.

The Darkness boiled inside of him, fueled by his sudden lust to kill. Naz Zarak appeared in a flash of lightning on his right sword. In that moment, his enemies all knew who he was. His blade sliced through the armor of his enemies as easily as a knife through butter as it was powered by the Darkness. It became a sort of dance as he flew through the enemies, dodging and striking where he could.

For the first time in Ziaxe’s life, he felt strong. He embraced this feeling, enjoying every moment of it as he killed the soldiers. Even when the remaining soldiers began to yell for mercy, he continued. There was no mercy for the ones who killed women and children.

While his body seemed to move on instinct, he considered how the people from his past would see him now. He wondered if Alben would still attempt to beat him; he wondered if Kycan would still think he was stronger. But then his thoughts came to Virok and Gilart. Was there a possibility that he was stronger than them? He felt unsure of that, but he knew he would find a way to kill them as well.

He found himself about to defeat the final soldier, a young man, his face hidden in a helm, when something stopped him.

“Ziaxe!?”

It was a voice he had heard before so very long ago. He stopped the deadly movement of Naz Zarak. The soldier removed his helm revealing a childlike face with long sandy hair.

“Ziaxe, is that you?” asked Srion with a quavering voice and tears in his eyes.

The rage, anger, hatred all faded away when he made eye contact with the familiar face. “Wh-what?” he stammered. “How?”

“Is that really you, Ziaxe?” Srion was on the ground with his legs laid out before him. He had stumbled backwards and fallen like some of the other soldiers, but he somehow survived the same punishment.

“Aye, it’s me.” Ziaxe lowered his swords. “Why are you here?”

Srion covered his face as he began to cry again. “It’s all been so complicated since you left Berania,” he said, his voice weak and breaking. “Virok just kept saying that you killed Broniton, and you were our enemy, and whoever helps you is our enemy as well. He said he planned to make us his great warriors and gave us these strange abilities. For some reason, we just believed all he told us. Everyone followed him blindly like they were under his control, but I’ve been unsure and confused.

“Now he’s been making us attack these villages and now this city, and it’s been… hard on me. The others just thought of it as duty, and they all enjoyed these powers they had, but I didn’t want to hurt anybody. Kycan… he… I don’t even know him anymore….”

Ziaxe felt sympathy for his fellow Beranian, but it did confuse him how everyone he had known all his life was fine with the war Virok had begun. It was always said that a soldier never thought beyond what he was ordered to do. But still….

He looked at the soldiers he had killed. Now, despite the wounds, severed body parts, and pools of blood, he recognized some of them. They all wore armor that had a symbol he hadn’t recognized before painted on the shoulderplates: a black wall. They were all Beranian soldiers, some of them fellow peasants that he hadn’t known very well while others were young men from the rich district. He thanked Sarben that Kron wasn’t among them.

“I’m just so tired of all of this!” continued Srion, his voice becoming steady with a growing rage. “I don’t want to go on any more of these attacks. I’ve had to kill soldiers, but I’ve refused so far to kill any civilians. I can’t do that. I won’t do that. I’ll kill Virok before I do that!”

Another Chill ran through Ziaxe again. He could feel the Darkness that Virok had given Srion emanating from him like sweat. Ziaxe remembered the night Virok had given the power to control the Darkness to all of the Beranians in the barracks, breaking one of the “oldest laws of the gods” as Gilart had put it. He had left all of his companions in Berania to struggle alone with this foreign presence inside of them. Javen had helped guide him in understanding what the Darkness can do while these poor young men became slaves under it.

All of them except Srion it seemed. Perhaps a few of the Beranians had a strong enough will to keep the Darkness under their control. Srion was furious at all Virok had been doing to them, but he was keeping the Darkness inside of him instead of letting it out like an explosion.

“It’ll be all right, Srion,” said Ziaxe. He had returned to normal now, the blood lust leaving him at least for the moment. But he knew there was no time to think about what he had just done, to think about the people he had just killed and the energy he had just shown. “If you want to survive I suggest you take off the armor and run. If anyone here finds you in that armor, they will kill you.”

Srion was already beginning to remove his shoulderplates, unquestioning. “I’m sorry for all of this, Ziaxe. I just… I don’t know anything anymore…. I remember you said how Virok was the enemy, but there was nothing I could do about, nothing any of us could do about it.”

He looked over at the dead Beranians. “I can’t believe you killed them, but what else could you have done?” He paused, his cheeks soaked with his tears. “Oh, what was that weird sword thing you used?”

“Naz Zarak.”

Srion’s eyes went wide and bloodshot. “Wh-wh-what?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m the new Nizain.” Ziaxe gave a wry smile at the absurdity of that statement. “But nevermind that…. Do what I said, and hopefully no one will try to kill you. I have to keep going.”

It had been nice to have a few moments where he felt like he was back in Berania, despite the blood and fires around him, but there a battle to fight. He began to run past Srion as he continued to remove the armor, but Srion yelled to him. “Wait, Ziaxe!”

Ziaxe stopped and turned back to him.

“I have to tell you this. Kron disappeared a month or so ago… along with Venna.”

The words hit Ziaxe hard like a brick. “What do you mean ‘disappeared?’”

“They left the city, and we don’t know where or why. Venna got sick, and she was in the infirmary and—”

“Venna was sick!?” The battle in the distance vanished as Ziaxe’s mind turned to Venna. He could still see her smile in his mind. The smile of an angel. “What happened to her?”

“I don’t know, Ziaxe…. These Zauk-souls attacked Berania, and Kron just found her weak and unconscious.”

Ziaxe heart skipped a beat. Something bad was happening to his best friends, and there was nothing he could do about it. “I need to find them then… somehow.” He turned back to city streets. “I need to help this city first though.” He felt his responsibilities pile up inside him, and he didn’t know what to do, but he knew his duties as Nizain would have to come first no matter what.

Srion nodded, abashed, obviously feeling useless with the information he provided.

Ziaxe began to move again, set on his current mission. Was this what it meant to be Nizain? To feel like you had to do several things at once all of the time, but leave the personal tasks for later?

“Can I ask one more thing, Ziaxe?”

Ziaxe stopped, still facing the street that led to the western wall.

“I’ve seen what you can do now, and if you really are the new Nizain then I can tell you can do much more.” Srion took a deep breath. “I know it is your job to kill Vidians and defend the Light and all that… but if you see Kycan—”

Ziaxe turned to see Srion’s face with eyes wide with fear, the eyes of someone praying to a god for mercy.

“—can you let him live?”

Javen ran through one of the many streets through the city, fighting through the enemy soldiers that had infiltrated through the south wall and helping whoever he could along the way. When he reached the south wall, he saw that there was nothing wrong with it. It was a strong iron portcullis just like the other gates of the city, undamaged and untouched.

It didn’t take him long to realize that the enemies were making their way through the gate by becoming shadows, the basic Vidian trick that has been used since the beginning of the world. He saw another small group of Vidians exit the shadows, their bodies changing shape and image as they returned to the real world. He supposed that this was part of Virok’s plan to have these Vidians catch them off guard, but Javen wouldn’t let that happen as long as he could still fight.

Along with a group of Zarian Knights he fought this next wave of Vidians. The young ones that bore the black wall symbol were unexperienced and easy to defeat, but then others began to show who were more deadly. Lost Vidians entered the city, each of varying sizes and shapes, some small and squat like Gurgan while others were the size of a normal man.

Javen fought, killing enemy after enemy, but still more enemies came. He began to wonder if that large group he saw to the south was supplying these soldiers, but they were still a fair distance away, so he couldn’t be sure. But if there was still yet another group of enemies left to arrive, they truly were in trouble.

Soon the fighting became repetitious, every enemy face looking the same and dying the same. Memories of the Battle of Berania came back to him, unbidden. He had to marvel at how much things had changed. He was fighting on a completely different side now, and he had to hope it was the right decision. A part of him still partially believed in Vician and his beliefs in rebalancing the world, but the only thing that mattered to him now was protecting his son and Gurgan, the only family he had left other than Alben who would most likely prefer to keep away from him.

A blur of movement caught the corner of his eyes as a lion appeared out of thin air and struck down an enemy soldier. For a moment, Javen was shocked motionless until the creature transformed into Sastan, the Tainted Sargen of Salras. The air around Sastan was distorted and looked as if Javen was staring through water. It looked as if Ziaxe’s friend knew enough of the basic Sarben abilities to be a useful Guardian.

Soon after Sastan’s arrival in the battle came Sara and Orlen, the other two from Salras. Javen had been skeptical of allowing these two to join his son’s group, but who was he to restrict their army’s man power? They needed all the men they could get even the men were not even soldiers. Orlen came at the enemies with an axe, cutting off limbs as easily as he would cut tree bark. Sara was more hesitant and stayed back with a dagger at the ready, but Sastan never left her side for too long.

Javen had to smile as he saw the three were proving worthy of being soldiers. He continued to fight his way to their side.

“Ho!” Sastan’s young voice flew over the clash of swords and armor. “You’re one of Ziaxe’s Guardians! Where’s he at!?”

Javen dodged a sword and stabbed its wielder in the throat. Blood came gushing out onto his blade. “He was back in the eastern part of the city! I’m sure he’s fine!”

Sastan frowned, showing distrust in his eyes. “But you’re supposed to be guarding him, aren’t you? If he’s alone how’s he supposed to fight against a group of these intruders?”

Javen had thought about that, but most of the intruders were being stopped by himself and the Zarian Knights and Sargenians within the city. He was certain that Ziaxe could handle the few that got through.

“We need to go find him!” continued Sastan. His boyish features made him look like a frightened child who was separated from his mother. “Orlen, Sara! Come on!”

“Wait!” Javen grabbed Sastan’s arm. “If you want to protect him, fight! Fight the enemy, and keep the city safe. I’m sure Ziaxe will get here soon enough.”

The Sargen’s eyes darted back and forth, taking in all of Javen’s face. “All right,” he replied with a curt nod. He eased his arm from Javen’s grip and returned to the battle, morphing back into his lion disguise.

The battle seemed balanced until the Zauk-souls came.

Over the south wall, the Zauk-souls climbed and flew like bats, entering the city in massive hordes. The city defenders all stood with mouths agape as in only a few seconds time, there were dozens of the shadow beasts inside the city. They ran at the defenders, grabbing them and covering them like a black towel.

This was not the first time Javen had seen this. Zauk-souls had always been mindless creatures, but if they were hungry and desperate they were known to suck the Light out of anything they could and leave it on the verge of death. They had never been gathered like this however and ordered to attack. Virok has gone too far, he thought.

One Sargenian screamed in horror and pain as a Zauk-soul wrapped around him and then left him collapsed on the ground, looking like a wrinkled old man. The Lost Vidians took initiative then and charged forward anew.

It was time for Javen to stop hiding who he was to help them all survive. Up to that point, he had been fighting like a normal soldier with his sword, but in a battle like this where the enemy was this overpowered, he knew he had to call upon the Darkness. Listening to his will, the Darkness left his fingertips like a thin snake. It grew and grew as it went towards the enemies the size of a long rope. It struck the Lost Vidians and Zauk-souls like a whip, cutting them down, the Vidians bleeding while the Zauk-souls vanished in a cloud of smoke.

He heard shouts of confusion around him, but he had no time for that. Once again, he attacked and led his companions against the enemies.

While he was cutting through Zauk-souls with his whip of Darkness, he felt a massive energy enter the city. It felt as if a storm cloud had suddenly covered the area. He hurriedly backed his way out of the fighting, the shouting, and the killing to better examine everything. The source of the energy was moving towards the buildings and streets of the city. Something was trying to get passed the fighting unnoticed, but Javen was trained enough to not let something like this just sneak by.

He found it then, a group of figures moving several feet from where they entered through the shadows of the south gate towards the castle, completely ignoring the fighting. There was an old woman, hunched over and frail-looking, a hooded figure with a sword out, and behind them a young man carrying a female body.

What could that be? he asked himself. Without much though on the subject, he followed the group, keeping distant and silent. It was wrong of him to leave the defenders, but he couldn’t let a group like this pass into the city, unfettered. One of them had a level of Darkness inside that almost seemed to be screaming out to the world, ready to burst out of its body and destroy everything it can.

He looked back at the fighting and saw the Sargen fighting bravely among the trained soldiers, keeping his companions safe alongside him. He left the defenders in good hands.

Nizain Ziaxe ran through the city, fighting the few enemy soldiers that had gotten this far into the city, and trying his best to help the people the soldiers had harmed. There was chaos everywhere; screams, burning fires, blood…. He couldn’t do everything that he would’ve wanted to do.

Eventually he reached the castle and found that the gates had been forced open. He sprinted inside, unwilling to become responsible for the death of either of the kings or the princess and entered the entrance gallery where he had first met King Nari. Once he was inside, he saw corpses of both his army and the enemy army along the carpeted floor. The fighting has reached everywhere, he thought.

A group of three Beranian Vidians stood above a fresh pile of Sargenian soldiers, talking amongst themselves until they saw Ziaxe enter. “Get him!” ordered one of them, and the other two charged like wild boars.

Ziaxe held his swords ready, but did nothing else as the two fell before reaching him. One of them took a throwing knife to the throat and collapsed as he choked on his blood. The other took a bolt of Dark lightning to the face and fell backwards with his face burning.

Copper, the ophaned Zarian thief, was at the door behind Ziaxe with another throwing knife in his hand, ready to attack. Coming out of the shadows of the wall, Gurgan appeared in his hooded cloak also ready to strike again.

Ziaxe was surprised, but it was good to see companions once again. For a moment, he forgot about the remaining enemy and turned to the two. “Thanks for the help, Gurgan,” he said to the Lost Vidian.

“Gurgan helps Ziaxe,” was all the gruff voice could reply.

Ziaxe turned to Copper. The young boy was still wearing rags and had several knives on his belt. His copper red hair was as wild as ever as his face was covered with sweat and dirt and his eyes were full of excitement. “Copper, it’s too dangerous for you to be out here.”

The boy gave a scowl. “Don’t even start!” he shouted like a child having a tantrum. “This is my home, so I’ll defend it if I want! And I’m not completely stupid. I’ve stayed close to the Zarian Knights even though I hate them, but then I saw you running through the city and thought I’d help you.”

Copper was a stubborn child, Ziaxe already knew, but he had to admit that the boy’s knife throw had been accurate and quick. Ziaxe was unsure if he would’ve been able to dodge it if it was aimed at him. There was nothing to be done about Copper anyways. Ziaxe had seen himself that there was nowhere safe left in the city, so the boy might as well be fighting instead of hiding for the enemies to find him.

“Ho, you fools! Don’t think just because you killed them that easily means you can kill me!”

Ziaxe turned to the remaining Beranian. He made eye contact with the young man and became frozen.

“Ziaxe?! That you?”

It was Kycan. It was the snooty blonde young man from the poor district who always believed in his father’s hatred of Vidians. Ziaxe didn’t know if it was the irony of everything that had happened or actually seeing Kycan again that shocked him the most.

“I should’ve known you’d be one of the betrayers,” continued Kycan, his face in a nasty sneer. “I knew all along that you were a Vidian especially after seeing your red eyes. You always thought you were tougher and better than me, but look at you now. All of Berania hates you for killing the Great Broniton. Now it looks like I’ll be the one who gets to kill you.”

“Kycan, don’t be foolish.”

“Me? Foolish?” He let out a burst of scornful laughter. “You’re the one on the losing side. You’re the one who thinks what’re you’re doing is right. Virok is leading us to victory over you traitors. We all know you and the Zarians are rebelling against your rightful ruler.”

He’s speaking nonsense, thought Ziaxe. He’s just as blind as the other ones. Is Srion the only one still sane?

“Gurgan kill boy,” said Gurgan, already readying his energy for another lightning strike.

“No.” Ziaxe took a deep breath. “You two stay back and don’t interfere.”

Gurgan and Copper seemed to accept the order. Ziaxe didn’t look back to them at all as he focused on his childhood enemy. It had been so long ago since he had seen this man as a threat. Now after all he had been through, he looked back on those days and wondered why he was ever afraid. At one point Kycan was stronger than him, but not anymore. At one point Kycan was the biggest enemy in his world… but not anymore….

Without hesitancy, Kycan charged at Ziaxe just like the other two Beranians had, as mindless as Zauk-souls. It reminded him of when he had begun his training with Javen when Javen still called himself Naje. Back then Ziaxe was weak and easily defeated by his experienced father, but now he understood more about battles and how to win them.

Kycan was almost close enough to touch Ziaxe when Ziaxe moved to one side, letting Kycan trip forward like a clumsy fool as all of his force was in his missed attack. As he fell to the ground, Ziaxe slammed his sword’s hilt against the back of his head, knocking him out instantly.

Ziaxe had won the fight he had lost back in Berania, but he felt no satisfaction from it. He had fulfilled Srion’s wish though, and that was all he could promise.

“Let’s go,” he told the other two, and they moved further into the castle.


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