Ga’briyel could see the glow from the volcano from almost five leagues away. The mountain rose into the sky, looking out of place from their vantage point on the plains below. It was the only mountain for leagues in any direction, and it stuck out of the surrounding landscape like a giant thumb. Granted, it was a thumb with a flattened top and one that oozed the lava that gave off the glow, but it looked like a thumb nonetheless. It had taken four moons to get to their current location, and the Anmah frowned as he thought about how many men would die in the next couple of sennights.
“Foreboding, is it not?” Kajal spoke from his right, quietly as if not to disturb anything around them, although there was nothing to disturb. They hadn’t seen an animal in days, and the evil the Anmah felt flowing from the volcano even from this far away helped explain that.
“It is at that,” Ga’briyel answered just as softly. “It will be even more so as we get closer.” Then he turned and went back to camp. His men were lined up in ranks waiting for his commands. He paced back and forth in front of them, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes on the ground for several minutes before stopping and looking at them. “Tomorrow we reach the volcano. Your responsibility is to find the eggs and crush each and every one of them! My responsibility is to kill anything that might try to stop you. You will not try to take on Dirack or Takosa or any other Hellspawn! They are mine to deal with! I will enter first and destroy all that I can, and then I will give the signal for you to join me! And I swear to Yisu if anyone comes before the signal he will answer to me!” Ga’briyel glared at Dinton as he said that, and the latter simply nodded as he glared back. Tero, Kajal, and Dinton were not happy with the idea of Ga’briyel going into the volcano by himself, but the Anmah had made it clear to them that it was going to happen.
Over the past three moons, Ga’briyel had managed to become immune to almost every way he had died. Lightning could not be commanded at will, but Yisu had informed Telantes that if the Sainika’s blood was drained, no matter the method, it would work as well as if a Takosa did it. The only ways Ga’briyel could be hurt now were lightning, animal attack, drowning, and venom, although Telantes had said he might have found a way around the last. Ga'briyel hoped to Yisu there were no Sarpa at the volcano, or he would be helpless, dismembered, and spread across the face of Duniya, never to reform. The moons it had taken them to reach this place had been full of more pain than anyone in the history of Duniya had ever endured, according to Telantes, but Ga’briyel had come through it amazingly sane and composed.
Dinton and Kajal had followed him one night almost two moons after he had told Tero where he went, and the two were horrified when they saw the spirit push their friend over a cliff. They had rushed to the edge, expecting to see Ga’briyel splattered on the rocks below, but instead they beheld him climbing the cliff’s face with not a scratch on him. That had been the twentieth time Telantes had sent him into the air with nothing underneath him but the rocks far below. Ga’briyel had insisted on the twentieth time just to make sure that rule still applied. When he got to the top of the cliff and saw the two captains, however, he had flown into a rage and had not spoken to either of them for almost a sennight afterward. Tero had been the one to explain why Ga’briyel was having Telantes hurt him, but only after Yisu told the Anmah it was all right. After the sennight of furiously ignoring his friends, though, Ga’briyel had to admit that he was glad they all knew. That way he did not have to sneak off at night. He simply walked out of camp, nodding to the watch, and prepared himself to be hurt in horrible ways.
Now, however, he could see that Dinton wanted to argue yet again that he shouldn’t enter the volcano alone, but he let his eyes flare brightly, and his friend clenched his right hand around his sword’s hilt and ground his teeth. It was enough. Enough to know that his company would not die from a Dirack’s flames or a Takosa’s bite or a Sarpa’s venom. Ga’briyel planned to kill every Hellspawn and every human before he ever gave the signal for his men to join him, although none of them knew that.
“Do not follow me, Captain Sekara,” he growled and waited for Dinton’s nod. When he got it, he spun on his heel and headed across the plains. His men stayed where they were, all of them fuming and burning with frustration that Ga’briyel could feel overpowering him, but the sensation diminished as he moved away from the camp. He stopped half a league away and unsheathed his sword. He started sparring with his imaginary opponents, but unlike other times, he imagined hundreds of them surrounding him. He laughed as he imagined walking through the Dirack’s fire to pierce their orbs, driving his sword behind him as a Takosa attempted to drain his blood, or simply brushing off any attempt by a Daitya or Azazil to poison or pierce him with a sword. He sparred all night, knowing that he did not need to sleep, knowing that he did not want to sleep.
Except for the night Telantes had done whatever he had done, Ga’briyel had had nightmares every night. Nightmares that woke him after a few hours of sleep, sweating and gasping for breath. The worst thing was that he could not remember what the dreams were about. Each time he woke, he rose from his pallet, grabbed his sword, and spent the rest of the night sparring his invisible enemies. The watch had gotten used to seeing their leader leave the camp near the end of second watch, but they still frowned as he passed them, and he felt their worry slither over and around him until he was far enough away not to feel it anymore. Only then did he start fighting the adversaries in his mind. Only then did he lose himself to the fighting, relishing in the imaginary wounds he inflicted on those same imaginary foes. He knew that if his friends could see into his mind, they would worry about him even more, so he made sure to keep that side of himself secret and tucked away deep inside of himself.
First light came faster than he had expected, and he stared east at the volcano as it drifted out of the darkness into the light. The sun rose just to the south of the mountain, so there were no shadows to block the rays from warming him the moment the orb rose fully above the horizon. He stood where he was, staring at the mountain and hoping his newly-found protection would indeed hold true. It was not that he doubted Yisu, but he was not quite ready to believe something blindly just because the Creator said it was so, or because Telantes said it was so. Ga’briyel trusted the Debaduta with his life, but the Anmah would be skeptical of everything from now on until he proved it to be accurate.
After ten minutes, he sensed the others coming up behind him, and he stood a bit taller, his sword in his hand. “Half a league, Dinton, and no closer.”
“As you command, Mistri.” Dinton’s voice was tight, but he was a soldier of the crown, and Ga’briyel knew he would obey no matter how much he wanted to do otherwise. The two friends had argued extensively for several evenings past until Ga’briyel had lost his temper and had threatened to arrest Dinton once more if he did not abide by the Anmah’s wishes. At that point, Dinton Sekara had snarled and called Ga’briyel an idiot again, but he promised to follow his leader’s instructions to the letter.
“And no one comes near until I give the signal, understand?”
“You may be an idiot, Ga’briyel Mistri el’Adama, but I am not. I remember your orders, and so do the others.”
Ga’briyel smiled sadly as Dinton put Kumar’s reins in his hand. “I wish I were an idiot, my friend. Perhaps then Yisu would have chosen someone else.”
“And if He had done that, you would not have met and married Sophyra, you would not have a child on the way, and you would have known nothing of the fate of Desa. You would have rotted away in an asylum, perhaps in Torkeln, or you would have died on your way there.”
“Died? No, not died. Remember that I was Anmah before I left Desa. I would have lived, but sometimes I wish my mind was gone before my father found me. Then I would not be Sainika, and I would not be here right now.”
Ga’briyel swung himself up into the saddle and started east toward the volcano. The only noises made as the fifty-odd men of his company followed were the soft swishing of the horses’ legs through the tall grasses, the creaking of saddle leather, and the jingling of tack hardware. Not a word was spoken, but Ga'briyel could feel the horror and dread and worry building the closer they got to the volcano until it threatened to smother him. Finally, they reached the spot where the company was to wait for him, and without speaking, they all stopped, but Ga'briyel continued forward.
"Good fortune be with you, Captain Mistri," Kajal said softly, but Ga'briyel heard him as did the men around him. Ga'briyel halted Kumar and looked behind him.
"Good fortune be with us all, Captain Kajal," the Anmah said with a frown, and then he heeled Kumar into motion once again.
It only took Ga'briyel minutes to reach the base of the volcano, and he dropped from the saddle, his boots thudding dully on the blackened ground. He let Kumar's reins fall, knowing the warhorse would not move until he picked them up again. Taking off his boots and stripping down to his smallclothes, he set it all by Kumar's hooves. He had learned that while he was protected from fire, his clothing was not. Then, one step at a time, the evil suffocating him more than his men's fear had, Ga'briyel Mistri el'Adama, the savior of Duniya and Yisu's champion, zigzagged across the face of the mountain, steadily making his way to the top. He spared no time in trying to avoid the flowing lava after he felt no heat on his bare feet, even when he stepped directly into the fiery liquid.
"Thank you, Yisu," he whispered. He had not sheathed his sword the entire ride to the volcano, and it shone with a bright, white light that only got brighter the closer to the rim he climbed. Finally, after more than two hours, he reached the rim of the volcano and cautiously looked over the edge. What he saw shocked him.
At least five hundred men stood on the inner slopes of the volcano, staggered so that there was no more than a pace between any two. They all had weapons in their hands, and had no more clothes than he did himself except for their boots, but it was the center of the volcano that grabbed Ga'briyel's attention. Nestled in the lava itself were dozens upon dozens of round, speckled eggs. He estimated there were close to a hundred eggs, and surrounding them were eighteen Dirack--nine red and nine black, alternating in color. Their wings were spread out behind them, and these formed a protective shield, but the young Dirack's current residences were clearly visible through the larger Dirack's legs. As Ga'briyel scanned the area, he saw more Takosa than he had thought could exist, but, thankfully, no Sarpa. Luten and Sisuvu were scattered about the floor of the volcano, scurrying around as if running errands for the more important Hellspawn. Among them were creatures Ga'briyel did not recognize.
They were tiny things, no bigger than the palm of Ga'briyel's hand, and they looked just like children, except for the facts that their eyes glowed a bright red and their fingers and toes were tipped with dagger-like claws. The Anmah had no idea what they were, and he was afraid to find out, but first he had to do what he had come to do. Kill every last living creature down there.
As stealthily as he could manage, not wanting to take on hundreds of men at the same time, although he knew he would not be injured by them, Ga'briyel slipped over the rim of the crater, drew his dagger from his sword belt, and neatly sliced the throat of the man nearest to him. Unfortunately, the next man to the right heard the gurgling as blood filled the man's airway, and yelled, "Intruder! Intruder! Protect the eggs!" That was all he managed before Ga'briyel's dagger was sticking out of his chest, and he crumpled to the ground.
"Yisu's beard," the Anmah mumbled as he raised his sword in a front guard. "No rest for me, I guess."
Five hundred men rushed him at that point, and he spent the next several hours killing them all. He felt their blades enter his body numerous times, and he praised Yisu for His protection each time. He laughed loudly as he stepped away from the blades, relished in the lack of pain as they slid from his chest and back, and smirked as he spun to take off the head or arm of whomever had stabbed him. He knew he sounded insane, laughing in the midst of a furious battle, but that was not the case. He was joyous, and he wanted every man there to know it. Finally, there were no more humans standing, although there were quite a few groaning in pain on the ground, bleeding out from wounds to stomachs and chests. Ga'briyel ignored them all as he walked through their blood to face the Dirack, Takosa, and other Hellspawn.
The Dirack had not moved from their positions guarding the eggs, but the Takosa and the smaller Hellspawn had clustered in front of him, and he faced them, standing tall and unafraid.
"Sainika!" one Takosa hissed as he floated to the front of the crowd. "Now you will die!"
Ga'briyel spat out a bitter laugh and grinned. "You can try, Takosa, but you will not succeed. None of you can kill me anymore. None of you can even hurt me anymore. I have Yisu's protection against anything you can do to me. So come and die, spawn of Sayatan. I will kill you all before last light arrives!"
The Takosa simply stared at the Sainika for a moment, and then the mass of Hellspawn swarmed the man. There were far more than five hundred of them, and they almost overpowered him, but, as before, one scratch from the blessed sword had them shrieking and collapsing to the ground. Ga'briyel danced with death, spun and twirled with more evil than he had ever known could exist, and came out the other side unscathed. More times than he could count, the sharp claws of the tiny Hellspawn attempted to open his veins, but they glanced off his body as if he had armor on. The same held true for the Takosa's teeth. Numerous endeavors were made to drain his blood, to weaken him for the others, but even though he felt the prick of their fangs on his neck, they never penetrated, and he did as he had done hundreds of times in his head. As soon as he felt the prick, he drove his sword behind him and skewered the Takosa. Then he spun and removed the head from the body.
If the Anmah had been able to see the sky, he would have known that last light was approaching rapidly, but the glow of the lava and of his sword was all he noticed until the last Takosa fell, the last Luten and Sisuvu were crumpled on the floor of the volcano, and all Ga'briyel had left to kill were the Dirack, but he was tired. He turned to face the eighteen giant beasts, and they were looking at him now.
"Your turn," he spat out and took one step toward them, but then one black Dirack reached behind itself, and Ga'briyel fell to his knees with a garbled, "No! It is impossible!"
The Dirack held Sophyra in his clawed hand, and the creature grinned. "Leave our eggs alone, Sainika, or she dies slowly and painfully. We can control our flames to torment her for moons until she finally succumbs to them, and we will make sure you hear her screams in your dreams for years afterward." The Dirack slowly curled one claw toward Sophyra's swollen belly and punctured her skin. The shriek that came from his wife as the blood stained her white dress red had Ga'briyel leaping to his feet with a roar that rivaled the one that came from all the Dirack.
"Let her go!" he shouted as he rushed the creatures. "Torture her more, and I will make sure your babies are tortured as well! Let her go, and I will kill them quickly!"
"Foolish Sainika!" the Dirack said softly, his claw burrowing closer to Ga'briyel's child. "You cannot kill us all before burning. You will be in more pain than she is, boy!" The creature flung Sophyra to the side where she lay whimpering and sobbing, her hands clenched around the wound that still bled heavily. Ga'briyel glanced at her once, and she shook her head at him, her eyes blazing with fury as she stared at the Dirack and then back again at her husband. He wanted to go to her, but then he heard her voice in his head.
"Ga'briyel, help me, please! Save our baby, my love!"
He shuddered, knowing that he could not stop to check on her. Instead, he raced toward the Dirack, and as one, they released a torrent of flames in his direction. He just grinned and ran through the fire, none of it touching even a single hair on his head. He reached the Dirack who had hurt Sophyra first and slashed at its right leg, severing it instantly. The Dirack howled, its flames only dimming slightly, but it managed to stay upright until Ga'briyel took out its left leg, and then it crashed to the volcano's floor. Lava flew up in a wave that splattered against the other Dirack, but they shrugged it off and kept their fire focused on the Sainika who would not burn. Ga'briyel stepped up to the fallen Dirack and cleanly removed its head from its body, slicing through the orb as he did so. He repeated the process with the other seventeen creatures, and when he was finished, he kicked the heads into the largest pool of lava he could find. Then he turned toward Sophyra, and his eyes went wide. She was gone.
"Sophyra! My heart, where are you?" He twirled in place, his eyes flaring as he tried to see into every nook and cranny of the volcano. Then he saw a blackened body not far from where he had last seen his wife. "No!" he screamed as he stumbled toward it. He fell to his knees beside the body, sobbing as he thought of the anguish she had gone through. "I am so sorry, my heart," he gasped, the tears running down his face evaporating almost instantly in the heat of the lava. "So very sorry."
A blanket of peace covered him, and he stopped crying, but the pain that flowed through him never ceased. "What do You want, Yisu?"
It is not Sophyra. She was never here, my son. Look behind you near the eggs.
Ga'briyel's head snapped up, and he whirled around. Sitting close to the eggs but on the other side of the lake of lava that they were nestled in, were three of the tiny creatures, their red eyes glowing at brightly as his own.
They are Mandae, my son. They can make you see things that are not real. They prey on your deepest fears and will torture you with them if you let them.
"I do not understand."
Did you feel Sophyra's pain and horror, my son? They can make you see things, but they cannot make you feel what is not there. Remember that, Ga'briyel. If you do not feel it, it is not real.
Ga'briyel growled as he stared at the tiny Hellspawn, his violet eyes shining brightly with the rage that filled him. He stood and stepped into the lava surrounding the eggs, and the Mandae looked surprised. Their red eyes dimmed as he advanced on them, walking through the lava as if it were the calmest, warmest water on Duniya. His growl increased as he reached them, and he swung his sword once, slicing through all three. Their upper halves fell behind their lower halves which crumpled off the small shelf they had been perched on, falling into the lava and burning up instantly. Ga'briyel stood looking at the halves that were still on the ledge, and the fire in his blood slowly cooled. His eyes still blazed as he stormed back across the volcano floor, however, and he climbed to the rim, stuck his fingers in his mouth, and let loose with a shrill whistle. He heard a return whistle from Dinton, and then he walked back down into the volcano. He had not expected for the eggs to be in the lava itself, and he had to remove them in order for his men to destroy them. He could have crushed them himself, of course, but Tero had convinced him to let the soldiers have some part in protecting Duniya from the Dirack, so Ga'briyel had agreed to let them be the ones to destroy the eggs. Besides, he was tired. So very, very tired, and he just wanted to sleep for days. He forced his eyes to stay open as he waded back into the lava pool.
Each Dirack egg was the size of a large melon, and when he picked one up, it jerked with the motion of the small creature inside. He placed it at the edge of the pool and pushed it so that it rolled away about two paces. He continued doing this until he heard footsteps moving near the edge of the volcano. He glanced up and saw the three captains making their way down the inner slope with the soldiers following close behind. Ga'briyel sighed and continued moving the eggs from the lava to the floor of the volcano. He felt the horror and disbelief of over fifty men inundate him as they looked around the floor of the volcano at over a thousand corpses. They shied away from the headless bodies of the Dirack, and more than half made the sign for Yisu's protection, thumb and middle finger connected in a circle, over their hearts.
"Are you all right, Ga'briyel?" Dinton asked as he stood near the edge of the lava pool.
"Just tired, Dinton, that is all. I need to sleep after this, but I do not know if I can. I know I do not want to."
"Yes, and now I have something else to dream about. Mandae were here, Dinton, and I saw a Dirack torturing Sophyra and threatening my child! I saw her burned body, but Yisu told me it wasn't her. She wasn't here, Dinton, but those Hellspawn made me think she was! How can I protect myself against that? How can I protect anyone from that kind of power? The power to make you see things that are not there?"
"I do not know," Dinton said, glancing over his shoulder at the pile of eggs behind him. There were almost half of the total eggs sitting there waiting for the soldiers to crush them. "Just put the eggs here, my friend. I will get them to the pile."
"No, Dinton, you cannot. They are too hot. Your hands will burn." With another heavy sigh, Ga'briyel said, "Mine will not. I must do this alone as always." He turned toward the remaining eggs. "Always alone," he muttered, and he felt his friend's worry slither over him. "Go away, please, Dinton, if you are going to worry about me," he said bitterly. "I do not want to feel it anymore."
"As you wish, Ga'briyel." Dinton walked to the pile of eggs, dodging out of the way as his best friend sent another egg clunking into the pile. "Well, Tero? Can it be done?"
The older man just shook his head and watched as Kajal attemped to cut into an egg with his sword. The metal glanced off the shell of the egg and barely missed cutting off Dinton's foot as it hit the volcano's floor. With a grimace, Dinton looked back at Ga'briyel who was walking back and forth from the dwindling pile of eggs in the lava to the edge of the pool. "Always alone," he said softly as he walked to his friend. "Ga'briyel?"
"What, Dinton? What do you want?"
"Our swords will not even dent the shells, my friend. I am sorry, but I think you will have to destroy the eggs as well."
Ga'briyel just nodded, his eyes blazing, grabbed his sword from where he had placed it on the edge of the lava pool, and swung it at the nearest egg. When the blade touched the shell, the egg shattered, and the creature inside fell into the lava with a flare of fire.
"Is it dead, Ga'briyel?"
"How am I supposed to know that, Dinton? I hope so, but I know nothing about whether they can survive this heat or not." Ga'briyel struck at another egg, and it, too, shattered, the creature inside flaming as it fell into the lava.
"They are dead, Sainika."
Ga'briyel snarled at the title as he stared at Telantes. The spirit was standing next to Dinton, but Ga'briyel knew his friend could not see him, for Dinton made no such indication.
"Good." Slashing left and right, Ga'briyel counted in his head how many eggs he destroyed. When he finished all he could see, he kicked his feet and felt around in the lava for any he may have missed. He walked around the entire pool and found no others.
"That is all of them in the pool, Sainika, but you must destroy the others now."
"Why did you not tell me that normal swords would have no effect on the eggs, Debaduta? Did you not think that little bit of information would be useful?" Fury dripped from every word that Ga'briyel spoke, but he kept his voice down so the men did not hear him speaking to nothing.
"I was not allowed, Ga'briyel. I cannot say why, but you needed to find that out for yourself."
With another snarl, the Anmah left the lava pool, ignored the wide eyes of his men, felt their awe surround him thickly, and proceeded to destroy the eggs he had already taken out of the lava. When the shells were scattered, he picked up the as yet unformed Dirack and threw them into the pool. Then he stormed through his men, climbed the volcano's slope, and scrambled down the other side until he reached Kumar and his clothing. He dressed slowly to give his men time to join him. Telantes had followed him, and the spirit sighed a very human-sounding sigh.
"I am sorry, Ga'briyel."
"For what? For the fact that I saw my wife pierced by a Dirack's claw? For the fact that I cannot stop being what I am? For what, Telantes?"
"Yes, both of those, and I am sorry you have been suffering at night. Why did you not tell me you were having nightmares? I could have kept them away as I did before." Telantes tilted his head and studied Ga'briyel with concern. "I am here to help you, Sainika, but you have to let me do so."
The rest of the company had joined Ga'briyel by that time, and the Anmah picked up Kumar's reins and swung up into his saddle. Without another word to anyone, he turned his horse west and kicked him into a trot. He felt his company's surprise, but he ignored it as he had ignored their awe. He wanted to get back to Torkeln as quickly as possible, and if that meant he left his men behind while he traveled without rest, he would do that.
"You cannot, Ga'briyel. Yisu has another message for you." Telantes was floating next to Kumar, easily keeping pace with the animal.
"No, Telantes! I do not want to hear it! I am tired, so very, very tired." Ga'briyel's shoulders slumped, and he hunched into himself. "I just want to sleep if you can make it so I do not dream. For days, my friend, please. I have not slept more than a few hours a night in almost four moons, Telantes. Please just let me sleep. Please."
Telantes cocked his head in the way he did when Yisu was talking to him, and then he nodded. "Yisu says you may take a few days to rest, my friend, but there is more work for you to do."
A sob escaped the Anmah, and he reined Kumar to a halt. "Why? Why can I not be with my wife when she gives birth to my child? Why do I have to do this, Telantes? How many more years until Sayatan is no longer a threat?" Ga'briyel dropped from the saddle and sat on the ground, idly plucking blades of grass. He started braiding them together just to have something to do and waited for an answer he knew would not come. An answer only Yisu knew. An answer He was not telling anyone. "I am so tired, Telantes. I am tired of killing, tired of worrying about my family and friends dying, tired of all of this! And I am just tired."
Without a word, Telantes stepped up behind his friend and laid his hands on the Anmah's temples. He muttered something unintelligable, and Ga'briyel slumped in the Debaduta's arms, unconscious. Telantes laid him gently in the grass and waited for the others. He would tell Dinton and Tero that their leader would not wake for three days, but at that time, they would have to be ready to travel wherever Yisu sent them next.