"Tell me everything, Ga'briyel," Ma'ikel said as soon as the younger Anmah walked through his door.
Ga'briyel sighed and dropped into the chair his Siskaska indicated, weary to his bones. "What do you want to know, Ma'ikel?"
"First of all, I hear you died four more times. Tell me about the deaths."
Eyes bright, Ga'briyel stared at the floor. "I do not want to."
He clenched his fists and shoved them under his arms. "Because I want to forget, Ma'ikel, and every time I talk about it, it all comes back."
"You know you will never forget, do you not, Ga'briyel?" Ma'ikel's voice was soft, almost tender, and the young man flinched. "I still remember each and every one of my deaths and it has been almost four thousand years since the first."
"Do you remember the pain, Ma'ikel?"
"Not so much anymore."
"Because I do. I remember the agony when the Daitya's blade sliced across my chest. I remember the anguish as the poison spread through my veins. I remember praying to Yisu that I would not die in that evil temple. And that was just the first, Ma'ikel. The third was the worst." Ga'briyel could not suppress the shudder that ran through him, and he pulled his booted feet onto the chair and hugged his knees tightly to his chest.
"The second?" Ma'ikel said quietly.
"An arrow through the heart. It hurt, but it was nothing compared to the third." Another shudder flowed through him as the first tear fell onto his knees. "It was Zahin who shot me with the arrow, but he was under the control of an Azazil at the time, so I don't blame him at all. Nikale banished the Hellspawn, and now Zahin is just a normal little boy. Very good with a bow, though."
"What was the fourth, Ga'briyel?"
The young Anmah looked up as the tears fell faster down his cheeks. "A Takosa drained me of my blood. He said it tasted like the sweetest wine. I knew the instant the last drop entered his mouth. He kept me weak for days afterward, but I killed him and the four Dirack that were with him. I rescued another Anmah while I was at it."
"Did you? What was the name?"
"I know him. What was he doing there?"
"He said he had been captured by two Takosa and was forced to be hunted every night by Takosa and Dirack. I am glad I was able to get him out of that place. No one deserves that kind of torture." More tears fell, and Ga'briyel buried his face in his knees.
"I am glad as well, Ga'briyel. Thank you."
The young Anmah just shrugged. He was struggling to keep from breaking down into sobbing, but he was losing that battle.
"Will you tell me about the third death now?"
Ga'briyel shook his head against his knees just as the first sob escaped him. "Please do not make me," he choked out, and then he began rocking back and forth as the sobs were wrenched from his chest. Ma'ikel's gentle hand came down on his shoulder, and he lost all control of himself. The sobs came stronger and faster until he was gasping for breath. He never stopped rocking, though, until Ma'ikel knelt before him and gathered his student to himself, holding him tightly.
"You do not have to tell me, Ga'briyel. Not now."
"Not ever, Ma'ikel. Please."
"I must know, Anmah, but not now."
Shaking his head again, Ga'briyel let himself be comforted by Ma'ikel's strong arms. When he had calmed, he pushed himself back and lowered his feet to the floor."Will you at least tell me what it was that killed you, Ga'briyel?"
"A Dirack's flames. I burned Ma'ikel." The tears threatened to fall again, and Ga'briyel quickly stood up and moved to the shelves where he ran his fingers over the spines of the books lined up there like silent soldiers waiting to be used by their general.
"Burning?" Ma'ikel asked with a frown. "I have burned, Ga'briyel, and while not pleasant, it was no more painful than some of the other deaths you have endured."
"This was," Ga'briyel said so softly Ma'ikel barely heard him. "The fire was so hot my flesh melted, Siskaska, melted right off my bones. My eyes exploded in my head, and I died screaming while an eight-year-old girl watched me. But that was not the worst of it."
"No? What was?"
Ga'briyel wrapped his arms around himself and fixed his gaze on the floor. "The pain was still there at first light."
"What? That is impossible!"
"I wish it were, Ma'ikel. When I awoke, I could still feel the flames melting my flesh. I could still feel the agony as my body cooked from the inside out. It lasted until Telantes cooled me to the point of freezing."
"Who is Telantes?"
Ga'briyel glanced up at his Siskaska briefly before staring back at the floor. "A Debaduta. He is no longer around, though. He was banished at Hela Era Larai. I do not know when he will return."
"A Debaduta? You spoke with one of Yisu's spirit servants?"
"Numerous times. He and fifty of his brethren tried to help me at the ruins, but they were all banished. That is my fault, Ma'ikel. I should have told them to stay away from me." He sank to the floor and lay on his side, in much the same position he had been in when he had told Ma'ikel of his deaths fifteen years earlier. "I bring death, Siskaska. Everyone around me runs the risk of dying because of what I am, but I cannot do this by myself. I need help, and because I need help, people I care about will die."
"The Debaduta are not dead, Ga'briyel."
"No, but they are gone just the same. Sophyra died because of me, and Dinton and Tero came close."
"Tell me about your wife, Ga'briyel. She is Anmah?"
"She is now."
Ma'ikel frowned. "What do you mean by that?"
"I forced Yisu to make her Anmah because of a stupid, selfish decision of mine."
"What was that decision?"
"I had decided I could not live without her, so I was going to kill myself." Ga'briyel glanced up when he felt Ma'ikel's anger flow over him. "Do not say it, Ma'ikel, please. I know it was wrong, and it was selfish and childish. I know all that, but at the time I did not care. I was in so much pain when Sophyra died, I did not care that the world would be sent to Hell if I died, too." Ma'ikel said nothing, but the heat of his anger intensified. "Nikale said that her death was not as important as my life, so Yisu made her Anmah to save me. And the worst thing about it was that I knew someone was going to die at first light, Ma'ikel. Yisu Himself told me I had to make the choice to lose someone I loved to save the world, but I never thought it would be her."
"The Creator spoke to you?"
"That night," Ga'briyel said with a nod. "He told me I had to enter Grama to save someone vital to my quest, but that if I did, one of those with me would die at first light. I think I was supposed to save Zahin, but it may have been Nikale. It is hard to say."
The two Anmah talked for two more hours, and Ga'briyel told his Siskaska about Luten and Takosa and Dirack and Sisuvu and every other Hellspawn he had encountered. In response, Ma'ikel told Ga'briyel of the Hellspawn he had yet to encounter. He told the young Anmah of Mandae and Sarpa, and when he mentioned the Sarpa's venom, Ga'briyel closed his eyes tightly, and his entire body tensed.
"If it can melt stone, I know what it would do to flesh and bone, and I am going to guess that melting from venom is not the same as melting from flames." Ga'briyel heaved a sigh. "I know I will die that way, too, Ma'ikel."
"How do you know, Ga'briyel?"
"How do I know anything, Siskaska? I just do, and I have a strong feeling it will be soon." He drew his sword slowly, and Ma'ikel gasped when he saw the glowing white light of the blade. "Yisu blessed my sword, Ma'ikel. It will absorb the flames of Dirack, but will it protect me from a Sarpa's venom? I do not think so. I think I must die in excruciating pain again. I just pray that when I wake up it is gone." Then Ga'briyel moved to the door. "I want to go home, Ma'ikel. I want to be with my wife and forget about what I am for one night. I want to be normal." He froze with his hand on the handle. "What would Yisu do if I just decided not to be Sainika anymore? Would He call someone else? Would I be able to have a normal life with my wife?"
"I do not think so, Ga'briyel. I do not think you can just decide not to be what you are. I am sorry, my young friend." Ma'ikel's voice was thick with regret, and Ga'briyel nodded once before leaving the room. He walked down the silent corridors of the palace, ignoring the salutes of the guardsmen he passed, lost in his thoughts, and he did not go home. He made his way up staircases and down more corridors until he found himself in the highest tower of the palace. He walked to a window and looked out over the tiled roofs of Torkeln, his hands tightening on the sill.
"Why, Yisu? Why me? Why not someone else? Why not some Anmah who has already lived his life?" Ga'briyel clenched his fists and paced back and forth across the width of the tower, his anger and frustration building with every step. When he could stand it no longer, he screamed to the sky, "I am only twenty-one years old, Yisu! I do not want this! I have a wife and a child on the way! I want to be a husband and a father, not Your champion!" He dropped to his knees and hung his head. "I do not want this," he mumbled. "I want to be normal. Is that too much to ask?"
"No, Ga'briyel, it is not."
The Anmah's head whipped up at the deep voice in front of him. His eyes went wide when he saw the Debaduta standing by the stairwell. "Telantes?" he gasped. "This is impossible. You were banished."
"I was, but Yisu did create the world, after all. He brought me back."
"He did not tell me. I assume it was because you needed me."
"I do, Telantes," Ga'briyel said, hanging his head. "I am tired, my friend, and I do not want to die again. I already know what my next death will be, and I do not want it."
"How do you know, Ga'briyel?"
The Anmah scoffed. "My abilities that the Creator, Yisu, graciously gave me. Maybe one of them is seeing the future. I have no idea how I know, but I do." Ga'briyel stood up and moved back to the window. "Did you know that if I threw myself from this window I would not die? I would splatter all over the cobblestones below, but I would not die. I would lie there until my body healed, and I would be in intense pain, but I would not die." He climbed onto the windowsill and sat so that his feet dangled over the edge. "It is a long way down, Telantes."
"You would die, Ga'briyel. It would be the same as if you had thrown yourself on Sophyra's funeral pyre. You would be making the choice to kill yourself."
"And I cannot do that, can I? No! This son of a troll world needs me to live. Needs me to save it!" He kicked his heels at the marble wall of the tower. "Did you know I am going to be a father, Telantes?"
"Are you? Congratulations."
"Thank you, but no. What kind of father can I be if I am never home? If I am out searching the world for Sayatan's evil? Sophyra will be raising our child alone while I am out fighting and killing and dying."
"Not alone, my friend. She will have your parents to help her."
Ga'briyel's fist smacked on the marble windowsill. "But she will not have me! I will not even know my own child, Telantes!"
"Perhaps, Ga'briyel, but perhaps Yisu will make a way for you to know it. He always does what is best."
"I do not think I believe that anymore. I think He does what is best for Him, but not for me or Duniya." He swung his feet back into the room and stood up. "I am going home. If you wish to come, I will not stop you, but it may be hard explaining you to the others."
Telantes stared at Ga'briyel for a brief moment, a deep frown on his face. "No, I will not come with you to your home. Go, my friend, and be with Sophyra and your parents. Be normal for as long as you can. I am truly sorry it will not be for long."
"As am I, Debaduta. But it is not meant to be."
"No, it is not. I will return when you need me Ga'briyel Mistri. I will always be here when you need me."
Ga'briyel just nodded once and left the tower. When he got home, Jarda was waiting for him at the table.
"Where were you, my son?"
His father's eyebrows rose at the childish title. "About what?"
Ga'briyel sat down at the table across from his father, clasped his hands together, and laid his forehead on them. "About how much I do not want to do this anymore, Baba."
"Do what, Ga'briyel?" His father's voice was soft, and it made the tears form again.
"All of this!" He folded his arms over his head as he placed his forehead on the edge of the table and let the tears fall into his lap. "I do not want to be Sainika! I do not want to be Yisu's champion! I do not want to be the only person in this world who can save it! Please, Baba, I do not want this!" When Jarda's arm came around his shoulder, he looked to his left, and the sobs came again when he saw the agony on his father's face and felt his sympathy cover him like a soft blanket.
"Shh, my boy, do not cry. I do not know why Yisu chose you, and I do not know why you must go through this, but that is the way it is. You must be strong, my son, and see this through."
"No!" Ga'briyel surged to his feet, tipping his chair over, and started pacing. His fists clenched and unclenched. "I hate Him, Baba. Hate Him with all that is in me for doing this to me."
"Whom do you hate, Ga'briyel?"
Ga'briyel stopped and glared at his father. "Yisu! I hate Him!"
"No, Ga'briyel, you know that is not true."
"Yes, Father, it is! Right now I hate Him with my entire being!"
The young Anmah whipped around at Sophyra's soft voice coming from the hallway, his eyes blazing with fury. She and his mother were standing in the doorway, Elise's arm around his wife. Sophyra gasped when she saw his rage, and her hand came up to cover her mouth. The pain and worry flowing from her was more than he could handle, and he turned on his heel and left his home. He knew that she followed him, but he ignored her as he made his way to the training grounds, the look on his face and the stiffness of his body causing every guardsman and Chatra he passed to snap to attention with sharp salutes. Even ordinary citizens turned away from his wrath that showed clearly in his glowing eyes.
When he reached the grounds, he slammed the door open and stalked across the empty space and entered the guardsmen's gymnasium. It was late enough in the day that there were only a few guardmen present, and they were wise enough to salute him and then leave him alone. He moved to the hanging bag at the back of the gymnasium, ripped his shirt off, pulled off his boots, and proceeded to crash his fists into the bag with enough force to drive it into the wall behind it each time.
"Good thing the wall is made of marble, Mistri. Otherwise you would break it down."
"Leave me alone, Sekara." Ga'briyel had known the instant Dinton had entered the gymnasium, of course, but he did not want to talk. He wanted to take out his anger on the bag just as he had when he was six.
"Are you going to tell Sophyra to leave you alone as well?"
"Yes." His fists making contact with the bag made the iron chain creak in protest. Sophyra had followed him into the gymnasium and was watching him from the wall next to the bag. "I want everyone to leave me alone."
"She is worried about you, Ga'briyel. Yisu's beard! I am worried about you!"
"I know that, Dinton. Do you think I cannot feel it? Everyone is worried about me!" Another violent strike to the bag had the wooden ceiling beam supporting the bag shuddering. "Am I not allowed to get angry? Am I supposed to pretend I am all right with what has happened to me? Well, I am not all right with it, Dinton! Not anymore!" One more strike had the bag flying off the hook that held it and into the wall with a loud crash. "Snakes and trolls!" Ga'briyel looked around the room. "Guardsman!" he yelled at the nearest one. The man snapped to attention.
"Yes, Captain Mistri?" The man's apprehension surrounded Ga'briyel and he scowled.
"Fix the bag." That was all that was said before the Anmah stormed out of the room, snatching a wooden sword and staff from their holders as he left. Sophyra and Dinton followed him silently. Ga'briyel stopped in the center of the grounds, dropped the weapons, and proceeded to work his way through the weaponless patterns. These were not the beautiful, flowing moves that Sophyra was used to seeing, though, and after Dinton kissed her cheek and left, she seated herself on the platform, her feet dangling over the edge, and watched her husband. Each move was clearly designed to hurt someone or something. Ga'briyel violently fought with his imaginary opponents, kicking and punching and throwing them with as much intensity as he had shown at the bag. When he completed all the patterns he started them over. Four times he went through the set until sweat was streaming down his torso and his arms and legs ached. Even then he did not stop. He simply grabbed the sword and went through its patterns four times as well, just as violently. He did the same with the staff. He trained through the night, barely noticing when the guardsmen left, and finally he dropped the staff to the ground and looked toward the platform.
Sophyra was curled up on her side, her hands tucked underneath her cheek, fast asleep on the edge of the platform. Her long blonde hair was spread out around her, and Ga'briyel slowly walked to her. He stopped and stared at her, his heart hurting and his fury barely dimmed. He leaned one elbow on the platform and rested his head in his hand while he stretched out his other hand and gently brushed her hair behind her ear.
"I love you, my heart," he whispered, "and I am sorry for what I have put you through. I am sorry I will not be here for you and our child. I hate that you will be alone, and I hate Yisu for making me Sainika. I hate Him so much." His voice never rose above a whisper, and his hand moved to caress Sophyra's face. "I do not want to die again, my love. It hurts to die, and I do not want to hurt anymore. But if I do not fulfill my destiny, the world dies and Sayatan wins. I cannot let that happen, and I think I hate Yisu the most for that. He created the world, and he needs me to save it for Him. Why? Why can He not save it Himself? Why does He need me to do it for Him?" Ga'briyel's teeth clenched, and he took his hand from Sophyra so that he did not accidentally hurt her. "I will tell you why," he said bitterly. "Because He cannot be bothered to take action in this world He created. Because He is content to sit in His Heaven and watch as we all scurry around trying our best to do what we think would please Him. I have seen Sayatan's evil, my heart, and I cannot allow him to win, but I will not try to please Yisu anymore. If He will not come down here and save this son of a troll world Himself, I will, but I will not do it for Him. I will do it because I will not let Takosa and Dirack and every other species of Hellspawn overrun the people of this world. I will not let Sayatan win!"
He stared at his love, his reason for living, a moment longer and then carefully gathered her in his arms, cradling her against his chest. She moaned softly and nestled close to him, her arms going around his neck, but she did not wake. He carried her through the palace to his home, his feet and torso still bare. He acknowledged the salutes he got with a slight nod this time, and when he reached home, he shouldered the door open.
"Ga'briyel?" Jarda stepped out of the kitchen, a mug of tea in his hand. "Where have you been, my son?"
"The training grounds," Ga'briyel said shortly, and then he carried Sophyra down the hallway to his room before gently laying her on the bed and pulling the blanket over her. Then he went to the bathing room and cleaned himself up.
"All night, Ga'briyel?" Jarda's voice came from the doorway.
"All night, Father."
"And Sophyra stayed with you?"
"All night," Ga'briyel repeated.
"She must love you very much to do that, my son."
The Anmah stared at his father. "She does, but I love her more." His lips pressed together tightly. "Will you promise me something, Father?"
"If I can."
"Promise me you will keep her safe while I am gone. Please?"
Jarda moved into the room and placed one hand on his son's bare shoulder. "Of course I will, Ga'briyel. Have no fear for her safety. She will greet you with open arms when you return."
"When I return. When will that be, Father? A year? More? Can I return after I destroy the eggs or will Yisu, in all His infinite wisdom, send me somewhere else? North perhaps, or maybe south to the sea. How long before I see my wife again, Father?"
"Such is the life of a soldier, my son. You know this."
"I am not a soldier, Father! I am not going out on campaign for six moons! I am Sainika! The savior of Duniya! How long before Sayatan is defeated, Father? Ten years? Twenty? A hundred? Five hundred? How long must I fight?"
Jarda's hand tightened on his shoulder. "As long as is necessary, Ga'briyel. The world needs you, and you cannot turn your back on it."
"I know that!" Ga'briyal spat out as he wrenched himself from his father's grasp. He stalked out of the room and down the hallway to his room. Once there, he changed into clean clothes. Then he sat on his bed and gently rubbed the back of his sleeping wife. "I have something else to tell you, Baba."
"What is it?"
"Sophyra is with child. I am going to be a father."
The joy that flowed from Jarda was overwhelming, and the general knelt beside his son. "I am very happy to hear that, Ga'briyel." When the Anmah didn't respond, Jarda frowned. "Are you not happy, my son?"
"Of course I am, Baba, but where will I be when the child is born? On my way home or somewhere far away? Will I even know my child, Baba? Will I be here to watch him grow up, or will I be off saving the world while he only has stories about his father? Will I be a stranger to him when I do manage to come home?"
"I do not have the answers to your questions, Ga'briyel, but always remember that Yisu truly cares for us and wants what is best for us." At Ga'briyel's scoff, Jarda continued. "He does, my son. As much as you may not believe that right now, know it is true."
"Perhaps, Baba, but you are right. I do not believe it, but I have seen Sayatan's evil, and I cannot let his creatures overpower the people of Duniya. I will do what I must for them, but not for Yisu. Not anymore." Ga'briyel slid into bed beside his wife and pulled her to himself. "I will do it for my wife and child, Baba, and for you and Mama. I will do it for Dinton and Tero and King Tomas and Ma'ikel, but that is all. I am finished with being Yisu's tool."
"I am sorry to hear you say that, my son, and I pray you change your mind."
Ga'briyel just buried his face in Sophyra's hair and ignored his father. Moments later, he was asleep.