Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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VIII

Wake up, Ziaxe.

Ziaxe awoke to the familiar soft voice in his head that spoke in his dreams. He opened his eyes slowly and saw that it was still night as the darkness and starlight outside of the tent leaked in through the flaps. As his eyes adjusted to the deep darkness he could see that everyone else was still asleep as far as he could tell. What's going on? he thought.

Ziaxe, listen, I need thee fully awake right now, spoke the voice. It was the voice that Ziaxe remembered from his dream, the soft voice that saved him from the Darkness that threatened to engulf him. The soft, kind voice, yet at the moment it had a tone of urgency in it. The voice had never visited him when he was awake though, so it made him feel as if he was still asleep, stuck in some drowsy dream.

Who are you? asked Ziaxe. What's going on?

Thou dost knoweth already who I am. Thou wilt not accept it though. I need thee to be silent now.

Why? What's going on?

But before he got a response, he heard voices as there was movement at the entrance flap of the tent. He turned to face the exit flap at the opposite end of the tent as he covered himself in his blanket, trying to look as if he was asleep.

There was the sound of footsteps approaching, a small group of people walking down the aisle between the bunk bed rows. A rough voice like the voice that usually accompanies a muscular and ruthless man spoke then. "So these are the new recruits, eh?"

"Yes, Gilart," said a familiar voice. Ziaxe knew almost instantly that the voice was General Virok's. He would never forget the sound of that man's voice. "These are the men of the poor district."

"They don't look like much," scoffed the one called Gilart.

"Well, we're here to make them into the warriors they need to be."

There was the sound of more footsteps as Ziaxe heard the two getting closer to him. When the footsteps stopped, he heard their breathing directly behind him and grew paranoid, thinking that they were right behind him watching him intently, examining him like an animal in a cage.

"And this one," said Gilart, who seemed to be a man with an unpleasant smell and heavy breathing. "This one will be useful."

"Yes," replied Virok. "The one they call Kron. He will be useful, but we do not need him now. We have Vulnor right where we need him. Kron is here just in case we need another pawn."

"Vulnor better be all we need," said Gilart, suddenly angry, irritation in his voice. "I've spent years controlling him."

"Peace, Gilart, it will all work out soon."

The two walked away, leaving Ziaxe confused. Who was this Vulnor? And who was this Gilart? Gilart did not seem like a person that an honorable general would be seen with. He sounded like a big, smelly man that would be more likely found in a tavern than by the side of a famous general.

Their footsteps became distant, and Ziaxe assumed they were walking back towards the entrance. He didn’t want to risk turning to see them though, afraid of looking like a spy who had been awake throughout their whole conversation.

"Now is the time, Gilart," said Virok, strongly with a barely noticeable tone of hesitancy as if whatever they were planning was something he didn’t want to go through with. "We must break the oldest law of the gods, but it must be done."

"Just do it, Virok," replied Gilart impatiently.

And then something happened that Ziaxe could not explain. He felt a sudden chill run through his body as he sensed something approaching slowly behind him. He felt something as cold as ice touch his back as if an ice cube suddenly hit his bare skin, but he kept still, fearing that Virok was watching him. The mysterious coldness moved up across his back like a slithering snake and onto his side. Ziaxe looked down slowly—to not attract attention—and saw a wisp of what seemed to be smoke. The smoke was the color of a dark, stormy rain cloud, and it moved like it had a mind of its own.

The snake-like wisp of dark smoke moved past Ziaxe, almost seeming to ignore him. Ziaxe watched it move off his bed and glide over to the bed across from him where Kycan slept. He watched in terror as the smoke touched Kycan and strangely disappeared as if merging into him, as if it was being absorbed into his body.

There were several other wisps of smoke that flew by Ziaxe to the other beds, each repeating the process of touching a sleeping man and disappearing inside him.

No! yelled the voice in Ziaxe's head in anguish.

After a moment of lying absolutely still for what seemed like hours, the chillness Ziaxe felt vanished. He lay petrified and hopelessly confused at what had happened, and everything grew silent and still, Virok and Gilart appearing to have left.

Ziaxe! yelled the voice in a tone filled with rage. Get up!

What happened? asked Ziaxe, hoping to find some answers.

That fiend Virok broke one of the gravest laws my brothers and I made at the beginning of Light! Get up, Ziaxe! He is gone; Thou must follow him. Destiny calls thee.

Ziaxe had no idea what was happening, but he trusted the strange voice. It was this voice that had saved him from his dream from the other more aggressive voice, the evil voice that tried to capture him in the Darkness. But then he remembered how the end of his dream was as bad as the beginning. The Light at the end of the dream that came along with the kind voice burned him.

This was no time to think though. Virok was up to something.

Ziaxe got up off his bed and slipped on his shoes. When he thought about the situation of following two possibly hostile enemies, he realized the true danger that could be involved, so he picked up his bronze sword and strapped it across his back. Quietly, he crept out of the tent, in pursuit of the two powerful men.

Outside the tent, everything was silent and deserted. There were a few torches lighting the path through the tents and buildings, but Ziaxe found himself straining his eyes to try to see through the night. He expected to see a few guards on duty, but oddly there was almost no one around, the few guards keeping to themselves at random places.

He crept through the maze of the barracks, the lines of tents, keeping to the edges of the main path to reduce the chances of being seen. His heart beat furiously within his chest as he was terrified of what he was trying to do and questioning his actions every step of the way. Ahead of him, he saw the faint figures of Virok and Gilart in the distance. From where Ziaxe followed, Gilart seemed to be a large man with broad shoulders who was most likely strong enough to squish a man who got on his bad side.

Ziaxe gulped nervously at that thought.

The two figures continued to walk through the barracks, seemingly unaware of their spy. Ziaxe followed them at a safe distance as they exited the barracks through the gate and continued in the direction of the castle.

Something was wrong, he knew. He felt a strange tension all around him in the silence of the night. But he continued to move along. Virok and Gilart continued to march on, confident of not being followed yet sneaky as if they were criminals hiding from the law enforcement.

Soon, they approached the castle, and Ziaxe hid behind a tree in the courtyard before the castle doors.

"This is it, Virok," said Gilart's rough voice as he and Virok stood in front of the castle doors. "Are we ready?"

"Yes, Gilart," replied Virok rather tensely. "I have sent the majority of the guard duties on break, so we have at least a half an hour."

"It won't take that long," said Gilart shrewdly.

Then the two opened the castle doors, the large oval shaped doors opening outward with a low rumble. Ziaxe grew even more anxious as he wondered what these two could be doing in the castle this late at night. They said they had sent the guards away for some reason. That didn’t sound good at all.

When the two entered the castle and brought the doors closed behind them, everything grew silent outside. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance, and a soft, chilly wind blew around him. He debated within himself whether he should follow anymore, if he should continue to get involved with this mysterious business. But something inside him told him he had to follow. He felt as if the strange voice that spoke to him was able to will him to do its deeds, making Ziaxe a puppet to some power greater than himself.

And so, no matter what Ziaxe could think or do, he felt as if it was all preordained by the greater powers, by the gods he had to accept. He waited a few moments in the silence, giving his targets time to get away from the door so he can enter and not be discovered. After about a minute, he walked up to the doors and slowly pulled one door towards him. When the door opened a crack, he snuck through it and quietly closed the door behind him, hoping he wasn’t causing too much noise.

The inside of the caste’s entrance room was enormous with the ceiling about a hundred feet high and the walls spread out another hundred feet from each other. Faint torches lit up the path ahead that led to a staircase that split into different corridors. Suits of armor and other types of eccentric decorations lined the walls, giving the dark, gloomy castle a rich and royal appearance.

But there was no time to take in the sights of this famous castle. Ziaxe had to find Virok and Gilart.

He walked up the wide staircase’s red carpet, his footsteps echoing in the complete silence around him and the stairs softly creaking. The staircase led to a corridor that branched off into many other corridors. The whole castle had always looked like a giant maze from the outside, and now Ziaxe knew for certain that the castle was a confusing labyrinth that could cause anyone to get lost.

Eventually, after long moments of wandering dark, desolate corridors, he heard the familiar voices of Gilart and Virok in the shadows ahead. He turned a corner slowly and saw their shadowy figures by a large set of doors. To the left and right of them, stairs rose and curved to others rooms that Ziaxe assumed overlooked the room ahead of them. The set of doors ahead had carved images and old runes on them, writings of the old languages that has been lost over the many millennia.

Virok pulled one door open and walked in with Gilart in tow. They closed the door behind them, ignorant of their follower.

Ziaxe walked quietly to the set of doors. The images and runes on the doors meant nothing to him. He decided then to try the doors up the stairs to the sides. Perhaps they would provide some sort of vantage point for him to better spy on Virok.

He went up the stairs to the right, reached the door at the top, and opened it. The door opened up to a mezzanine that overlooked a grand throne room. Rows of seats lined the mezzanine as it covered the back and sides of the room walls. At the opposite side of the room, on the level below, was a throne raised on a dais. And upon the throne was the ancient form of King Broniton, a feeble looking body of weak bones and wrinkled skin, a weakened body worn down by hundreds of years of life. As the king sat there at a distance, Ziaxe realized how close to death the old man looked to be.

Ziaxe walked to the wooden railing of the mezzanine, past the several rows of seats, and bent down against it, hiding his body from the king below. He peered over the railing’s top to see Virok marching towards the king, standing straight and tall like some pompous messenger. In the shadows, under the columns that supported the mezzanine, Gilart watched, his big form melting into the shadows.

From where Ziaxe watched, he could see Gilart a little more clearly than he could when he was following him. The sight of this monstrous man caused him to shake slightly as sweat rolled down his brow. Gilart was the epitome of a giant. He stood taller than Virok with a muscular body and long, messy dark hair. His giant, muscular arms most likely had the ability to easily break any of Ziaxe's bones.

A shocking thought he saw though was how Gilart seemed to be a man who had the potential to be handsome, but that idea was destroyed by his obvious lack of personal hygiene. Ziaxe knew that the rancid smell he had smelled earlier from their intrusion in the barracks came from Gilart. The man obviously never bathed. At least, Ziaxe being a peasant tried his hardest to keep up his hygiene. Gilart’s shadowed face had dirt spots and scars on it, showing that he was a man who did not care about what others thought of him.

Virok walked the length of the room, marching to the king on the long red rug that led to the throne between rows of benches like the seats in the mezzanine. When he reached the bottom of the dais, he kneeled in front of King Broniton, recognizing the King of Sargenia. "The recruits are all well and sleeping, your Majesty," he said.

"Very good, Virok," replied the king, weakly, as if he was about to fall asleep. He stood up and limped down the stairs of the dais and past Virok, leaning against his staff as if it was the very lifeline that kept him alive. "All is peaceful… but yet my son is still gone. Any word on the search for Farli?"

"I'm afraid not, your Majesty."

Broniton's head fell down with sadness in his eyes. His weak body that had seen many years was like a limp scarecrow as he tried to move. It seemed that in public he tried his hardest to hide his age, but in the privacy of his own throne room, he let the truth out. He was slowly dying, and with his son Farli, the apparent heir to the throne, missing, who would become king if he died?

"I fear for him, Virok…." the king whispered. “I feel my time slowly ending; I feel the pull of the gods as they wish to claim me. They wish to end my life after letting me live so long.”

He sighed deeply. “It is the curse us mortals live I assume. We grow so attached to this life, but we will all be taken away from it soon enough. I must find him before they take me. I must see him one last time.”

The king’s voice echoed through the cavernous throne room as he stared distantly at some place from some other time long ago. Virok was starting at the empty throne, eyes intense and face expressionless as if something else completely was on his mind. In the shadows, a sly smile came upon Gilart’s face as if he was plotting something sinister.

Ziaxe felt his heart begin to pound. He was tense as he watched everything happening below him. Something was about to happen. But what?

“Do you happen to know why he left, Virok?” asked the king, his eyes turning to Virok’s back as Virok continued to stare at the throne, his mind on something else entirely.

Virok shook himself out of whatever thoughts he was having and turned to the king. “No, I don’t, your Majesty.”

“I guess he had every right to run away.” King Broniton paused and limped forward to Virok. “I was never the father I should have been. I raised him under cruel rules, teaching him the painful truths of the world when he never needed to know. His mother was more compassionate and caring, and I was cruel to her too.” He shook his head, a small tear slipping out of his eye. “I just want to set it all right before my time comes. I want to tell my son the truth about everything.”

He walked past Virok, back towards the throne, and fell to his knees before it. For a second, Ziaxe thought he had collapsed under his frail bones, but it seemed to be his intention. Broniton dropped his staff and took of the crown he wore. He held the crown before him for a few moments. Then he unexpectedly threw it away, the sound of its landing on the ground a deafening crash that shattered the silence, echoing throughout the castle. When everything was silent once more, the king began to weep into his hands, his sobs the only noise in the room.

After a few moments of complete silence by everyone else in the room, Broniton raised his head, tears streaming down his face, his white hair an unruly mess. “This throne!” he screamed, startling Ziaxe while the others stood in their spots motionless. “This throne has been nothing but trouble! Damned is the king! Damned are all the kings who must rule over this horrid world of violence and everlasting sorrows! Damned are we all who must fight this neverending battle with the Darkness! And now in my time of need the gods must take my son away from me! Why?!” His voice trembled as he returned to his tears, crying out for his lost son, despairing over the hopelessness of a world in Darkness.

Ziaxe was speechless. He sympathized for this old king. The old man must have gone through a lot of pain over his long life. He had been in the Vician War; he had watched thousands die for no reason. He was a king that could do nothing to give the world peace; he was a king who simply wanted to see his son in his final years.

Virok, however, looked unsympathetic towards the king, staring at the old man’s back with cold, unfeeling resolve. His mind was on something else, something dark by the look in his eyes. He turned to look for Gilart in the shadows. Ziaxe followed his gaze from his vantage point and saw Gilart’s wicked smile. Gilart nodded slowly and deliberately to Virok.

And instantly, Ziaxe felt all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. He knew what was happening; he knew what Virok was intending to do.

Virok reached into his sleeve and slowly pulled out a silver dagger. The Sargenian general walked slowly to the king’s back, brandishing the weapon, evil intent in his eyes. Every step he took was heard throughout the room under the cries of Broniton, the slow and steady steps growing nearer and nearer to the ancient King of Sargenia.

No! screamed Ziaxe inside of his mind.

The blade pierced King Broniton’s back, blood slowly spurting from the wound. The king gasped and shook violently as Virok’s hand instantly covered his mouth to stop any scream. Virok’s hands became stained with the king’s blood as blood flowed from the wound and the king’s mouth.

And, all too soon, was the end of the life of Broniton Isonil, King of Sargenia.

Virok lowered the king’s body to the ground. “May your soul find Sydara, and may you see your Polra once more,” he whispered, his whisper audible in the tense silence.

Then, at that moment, Ziaxe felt a strange rush go through him. It felt as if a surge of energy appeared suddenly within him as he shivered from the old man's death. He could not help himself as he gasped from the sudden surge, and Gilart, like a wild animal hearing his prey, turned to face the spy. Ziaxe was spotted.

Virok appeared to realize something terrible as he appeared shocked beyond words. “No,” he said as his eyes caught Ziaxe’s.

Ziaxe stood frozen for a few moments, unsure of what he should do. Gilart gave a fiendish grin and instantly began to sprint towards him. The giant man surprised Ziaxe as he jumped and grabbed onto one of the columns under the mezzanine. He showed strange, flexible skills as he was able to swiftly climb up the column and up to the mezzanine.

“No!” screamed Virok as he was furious at something Ziaxe didn’t understand.

Ziaxe didn’t hesitate then. He did the only thing he knew how to do…. He ran.


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