The Devil's Gift

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XXXIV

We stared at the pathway before us. It was long and winding, it must have stretched on for miles. Towering either side was sheer, vast mountain sides. Miles high, the side walls of the mountain towered over the path, flooding the entire path in shadow. Every few hundred yards, a small flowering bush had sprouted from the rock, but other than that, it was pure and total emptiness. No potholes nor flowers, no trees or bushes, just a giant pathway.

‘Well, I guess we should get walking?’ Suggested Oceana.

‘If this thing closes, I’m not sure if we ever get back through, I’d rather not wait around to find out. Let’s go.’ Sophia instructed with authority. We crossed the rubble that littered the floor at our feet, and entered the mountain pass. We began to trudge on for hours, Sophia still sleepy and slightly annoyed at being woken up throughout the night, but we had little choice. The darkness began to ebb away and the light soon replaced the gloom. It took hours after sunrise for the sunlight to hover over the mountain pass, which was quickly submerged in shadow once more as the light slipped back over the mountain. A gentle breeze passed down the path, a hint of something sweet on the air.

‘What is that?’ Oceana asked as she took a deep sniff; there had been no smells or scents of any kind since entering the mountain pass.

‘I don’t know, it’s sweet, but sickly.’ Sophia added. We began to let our noses lead the way and soon found ourselves face to face with another blank stretch of mountain rock that appeared to be secreting the sickly-sweet scent. As we inhaled the blissful smell, I just happened to catch a glimpse of the rock we were staring at, it was incredibly similar to every other blank stretch of wall, but this one just blinked. I pulled Sophia out the way, kicking down Oceana and Armaita in the next move. As they fell, Sophia and I were just missed by a giant set of jaws complete with teeth that threatened to rip the skin off anything it came into contact with. Oceana and Armaita quickly got up and dodged out of the way.

‘It’s a trap!’ I shouted, ‘It’s using scents to lure us in!’ As I waited for the whole body of the beast to emerge from the stone wall, I was taken by surprise when I realise there was no body, it was just a giant head with spiky teeth and a vicious appetite. It was almost like a crude adaptation of a Venus Fly Trap plant. Instead of staying around to fight, and risk Sophia, or worse, the baby, from getting hurt, we ducked and dodged our way past the giant head.

‘Ok, do not trust the walls.’ Armaita spoke. We continued, and with a great deal more concentration, to follow the path. Apparently, by this time, night had fallen; the darkness began to return to Agartha and the sun had long since lost its glow in the sky. We pressed on, adamant on closing enough distance to the kingdom as physically possible. The time soon came where Sophia needed to stop, and this time, it would be for the night. There was no shelter tonight and only a little fire to cook the only food left, two fish. Armaita hurried to cook the fish before the fire went out; there were no more legs beside the ones we’d carried with us which were now being burnt. The small fire cast flickering shadows over the mountain side and my eyes were constantly found studying the walls for signs of movement. I gouged my finger into the rock beside me and slowly carved an arrow pointing in the direction of our way forward.

‘I don’t want another scene like the one back in the forest.’ I spoke out loud, to no one in particular, as the fish began to sizzle in slowly dying flames. As Sophia and Armaita ate, the darkness began to swallow the fire’s light and as another half an hour passed, only the glowing red embers of a now dormant fire, glowed ominously in the mountain pass.

‘I need some sleep, please, if there is any other ghostly apparition that requires some answer to carry on, wait until morning.’ I rolled my eyes discreetly as she turned over, her blanket wrapped tightly around her, and began to fall asleep. Ten minutes later, Armaita began to copy her and they were soon sleeping peacefully, leaving Oceana and I awake to keep watch.

‘It seems so strange to be in a place like this, how long have we been down here?’ Oceana asked quietly and slowly.

‘I don’t know, too long.’ I answered truthfully. Though this was indeed a wondrous place, I missed Italy, the thriving city streets teeming with prey. I missed the sanctity of my castle, my clan and mostly, my freedom. It was difficult to have to sacrifice all of that when I had known no other life for hundreds of years, I’d guessed Oceana was feeling the same. All in all, I was indeed glad to have Oceana with me, not only was she a very loyal and efficient member of my court, she was also a friend, one with whom I felt she never truly saw me as her superior, for that, I was sort of grateful, to have an equal.

‘I really don’t understand what we’re to do if we even manage to capture this weapon.’ Oceana said.

‘We destroy it.’ I answered simply.

‘But if this is the weapon that destroys all evil, is there any way we can?’ She pressed.

‘I’m not sure if it can be, but if we can keep it away from God, then that’s the best we can strive for.’ I responded solemnly. The slight wind began to whistle gently in my ears as the conversation abruptly ended and silence took its place. The night was spent in silence from then on, broken only by the occasional question about random things in her life. As the sky began to brighten and the darkness began to ebb away, Sophia and Armaita awoke, thankfully, in a much better mood. I kicked away the ashes of the small fire and we made our way along the mountain pass once more. It had seemed, after days of aimless walking, there was no more talk to be had; every conversation had been repeated so many times no one bothered to raise them again. Talks over the beautiful scenery of Agartha had long since disappeared, almost being killed numerous times tends to have that effect.

We continued our journey that was slowly taking its toll on not only our patience, but our temper. We’d be constantly snapping at each other over nothing as if we were overcome by some unknown burst of anger. As we finally noticed the edge of the path in the very distance, I began to feel a glimmer of hope. It had taken days and days of walking, numerous encounters with beasts that tested not only our physical agility and skill, but also our intellectual cunning, too. It took us a further few hours to finally reach the end of the infernal path. I gazed over the horizon, once more, in the distance I looked. Set in a large mountain scenery, with lakes and forests, was the Kingdom of Scientia. It must’ve spanned for miles and miles and looked almost like it had been carved into the rock face. There were domes and spires erupting all over the kingdom and many obelisks and towers were scattered, too.

‘Oh my word.’ Oceana breathed.

‘I can’t believe it, it’s there.’ Sophia gasped, too. Armaita remained speechless, her mouth agape as we finally looked upon our destination, the hopeful end of the raging war. I thought back to Reyjak, I wondered how he’d be handling the clans and the uprising. I was sure he’d be coping but somehow, I missed having him around. After all these years he was the closest thing I’d had to a son. I began to think of the others, Noster, Broman and Zaichari. Very loyal, very skilled, each in their own way. Noster was more of a spy, the stealthy type, Zaichari, the intellectual brain behind what could be a very efficient secret organisation. Then there was Broman, he was more of a warrior, a brilliant one. He’d be the man I would call on for protection. But Reyjak, he seemed to have all those qualities.

‘I guess we go on.’ Armaita finally spoke, pulling me sharply back to the current task. I gave a small nod and we then descended the hill that we had been approaching. As we began to descend into the dark shadow that had been cast over the exit of the mountain pass, the Kingdom of Scientia vanished in a thick canopy of trees. The ground became more uneven, a track of dirt now, no longer a long path of concrete, as if chiselled out from the mountain itself. I kept my eyes open and aware for further predators who might seek to surprise us. We continued to walk for a few more hours, before the sun set once more of Agartha. As the darkness rose, and we trudged quietly through what could only be described as a jungle, tiny eyes lit up around us. We all kept close to each other, Sophia closest to me.

It was moments like this that I wished Venator was with me, any predators would certainly have found its match against the werewolf. The eyes seemed to be everywhere, like tiny hovering fireflies in the distance, but they did not attack, they did not move, they just followed us, watching eerily.

‘Roconn, I don’t like this.’ Sophia whispered quietly.

‘I know, neither do I, just keep quiet and move slowly, with any luck, they’ll remain at a comfortable distance.’ I whispered back.

‘When have we ever had any luck?’ She responded in equal hushed tones. Instead of speaking, I merely placed my hand on her belly, feeling the baby kick beneath her skin. She did not need to speak anymore she was thinking the same, we did have luck, but with luck, comes the chance the take it away, and it’s through those moments you must fight the hardest. The eyes continued to follow us, more lighting up in the distance before the jungle path rounded a corner. I kept my eyes on the ones in the trees, lurking out of sight as we rounded the corner. Sophia and Oceana gasped at the same time and I spun my head around.

‘Why do you trespass in this holy kingdom of knowledge and sanctity?’ Spoke a posh, slow voice. As I looked up, there, in front of me was a tall human-like creature. It stood about six foot tall, and looked uncanny like a human had it not been sporting a pair of small horns that sprouted from its forehead. The horns were small but very prominent on its pale complexion. ‘Who are you?’ The deep male voice spoke once more. A powerful breeze swept through the trees, rustling the bushes and the leaves. I cast my eyes over the, for want of a better word, man’s attire. He wore a long, deep blue robe that was emanated luxury and power, much like the symbolic cloak I usually donned.

‘My name is Roconn Romano, this is Sophia, Armaita and Oceana, we seek entrance to the Kingdom of Scientia.’ I responded, my voice filling with confidence and purpose, neither of which I was feeling very much of right now. The man, or so I found it easier to think of him as, surveyed me through deep blue eyes, his face blank and emotionless.

‘For what purpose do you seek entry?’ He asked, his voice still booming and authority. I thought quickly, of course, I was not going to tell him the full truth.

‘I have come in an attempt to save my people from certain destruction and I believe the answer to my problem lies within your kingdom.’ I spoke, keeping my voice impassive and undecipherable. He remained silent for a moment, the tension was palpable.

‘A very noble goal to force you into the wilderness of Agartha.’ He spoke. I could not tell whether he trusted me or not, he too, was keeping his voice impassive. I quickly flicked my eyes around us, there were still eyes upon me and I attempted to keep the conversation going.

‘Might I ask who you are?’ I said. I noticed Oceana take a sharp intake of breath.

‘I am one of the many scouts in this jungle, it is my duty to locate and question any persons unknown to this land. There is but one reason you are not already dead. I find you mildly intriguing.’ He spoke once more. He stood with shoulders tucked back, in a kind of salute, not unlike a soldier obeying his commander.

‘Well then, for that, I am grateful. Is there a way I might pass?’ I asked. I made a mental to note, if this failed, to strike quickly and flee even faster. I could not tell whether he was bluffing about the number of scouts in the jungle and however many of them were watching me right now, but if I could help it, I did not want to test it out. It became apparent, only then, I could not hear a heartbeat, nor any breathing coming from this man. He appeared to be, had it not been for him standing right in front of me, dead.

‘You will be escorted by royal guard to be judged by our ruler, if she deems you safe to walk among us, then you may have the chance to save your people.’ He said.

‘And if not?’ Oceana spoke nervously. For the first time, he seemed to smile ever so slightly.

‘Then you will be executed. These are the terms on which you have entered our kingdom, now, you must accept them, there is no other way.’ He said simply. I looked to Sophia, well, at least we were getting in the kingdom, whether or not we would make it back out again was a different matter. From nowhere, seven further guards, each wearing exactly the same attire, sprung from the bushed and hedges around us, encircling us, each pointing a very elegant sword at us. We were forced closer together, and I could not risk harming Sophia or the baby should I choose to attack.

‘Well, I guess this is one way in.’ Oceana whispered as we were forced to walk through along the path, surrounded by guards. The sound of boots thumping on the ground rang in my ears as we trudged along the path.

‘So, all part of the plan?’ Sophia asked sarcastically.

‘Well, no, not exactly.’ I replied. I noticed eyes kept darting my way as the guards surveyed me with increasing curiosity.

‘So what is the plan?’ She asked.

‘We’ll soon find out.’ I said. We continued to follow the long, winding path through the jungle, still, more eyes kept watch from the treeline. Soon, the giant gates of the kingdom loomed into view and I marvelled at the detail and intricacy of it. The gates were huge, made of some shining metal that glinted in the sunlight, and sparkled. Each piece of metal had long grooves and swirls giving it a very mystical feel. It was almost something you’d expect to see as the gates of Heaven. As we approached them, the large gates swung open admitting us into a giant courtyard. The grass was vibrant green and a number of oddly coloured bushed had sprung from the ground. We crunched up a long, winding stone path that appeared to lead up to the entrance to the city. There were water fountains everywhere, giant, more like ornamental waterfalls than anything. Sophia, Oceana and Armaita all seemed to marvel at the beauty of such a place. I was fixed more on the destination. The guards led us up to the large doors that were just as intricate and beautiful as the gates. Long swirls and patterns, symbols and runes had been carved and embossed into the doors, these too were made of the same glittering metal.

As we approached the doors, they were opened from the inside, allowing us in, under strict protection of course. As soon as the doors were opened, by armoured guards no less, I was suddenly stunned by the beauty of the city. There were many levels to the city, each level displaying a wondrous assortment of houses. The houses were not like the ones I was used to, they were very decorative, the roofs were long and sweeping, there were many swirls and symbols embossed into the stone that they’d been built from. Even the paths were elaborate. The cobbles and the paving were completely flush with the ground. There were no potholes or anything of the sort, no upturned carts or shopping stalls, everything was perfect, bright and elaborate.

Sophia and the others all seemed just as mesmerised as I was, it was hard to believe such a powerful weapon, that which I’d briefly forgotten about in all the overwhelming events that seemed to be unfolding thick and fast, could be hidden in such a beautiful place. A vast number of obelisks and giant domes, almost like giant elegant mosques seemed to rise far above the line of the giant walls that bordered the city. The guards that surrounded us marched us through the main city. In a way, I was glad, I was glad I got the chance to see this place. I’d never dreamed a city this beautiful, full of golden towers and fancy houses, could even exist. There was so much peace and beauty, so much tranquillity down here. I contemplated staying but I knew we must reach the weapon before anything further was to unfold.

‘Wow,’ Sophia mouthed, her thoughts echoing mine.

‘How is all this below the harshness of the world we live in up there, on the surface?’ Armaita asked. I had no idea who she was asking; I was asking the same question, too. The steel-clad men continued their marching as we trudged through the city, many eyes of the same race of people stared at us as we passed them, clunking heavily and drawing a lot of attention. It was apparent they, too were as shocked to see people like us as were to them. We ascended a shot flight of stairs and was led toward a giant palace that sat to the North. The palace, from what could be seen above the golden city, was similar to the Vatican in many ways. It too, had a giant dome and many pillars, each one, I noticed, was adorned with inlaid steel sculptures of what I had to guess as Gods. The architecture was incredible. Everything had been carved with total perfection, every inch of wall and roof alike were rich with detail no expense had been spared at all.

‘Keep moving.’ A guard to my right snapped as I had stopped to gaze at the palace. I scowled at him but kept moving anyway. We rounded a corner of the white cobbled path and the palace slipped out from view. More stairs we ascended, me supporting Sophia as she struggled slightly with the strain. Though she looked tired, I could still pick up the evident mesmerisation hat had been carved into her face. She stumbled slightly on her dress as we reached the top of the stairs. I caught her gently in my arms and carefully set her steady. The guards waited, albeit reluctantly, for us. The sunlight appeared around the corner of a building, its light almost blinding. I raised my hand to shield my eyes and there it was. Right in front of me, just in the distance, not a hundred feet away, was the giant gates to the palace.

As I had expected, and slightly hoped, we began to proceed through them. We were now in a giant courtyard. Each tree, bush and flower bed was neatly pruned and well-maintained. There were no weeds or other unwanted plants growing here. Agartha truly was perfection. There was a large statue in the very centre, glistening a brilliant cream in the sunlight. The huge palace encircled the courtyard. Lanterns hung from large poles that protruded from the building, keeping a steady light on the courtyard in the night. We marched on further as Sophia began to slow down; she was becoming exhausted.

‘This way.’ Came the deep voice of another the guards to my left, this time. We took a left at the statue that centred the courtyard. We were met by two giant, wooden doors, protected by two muscular people, each grasping a long halberd. We stopped at the doors. The guard captain spoke to the men.

‘These trespassers came from the surface, I’m escorting them to the Empress.’ He said quickly, his voice confident as he spoke down the men guarding the doors. They exchanged a quick look before responding to the captain.

‘Very well, you may enter.’ He replied, a look on his face told me he wished to be a higher station. The captain looked smug as they opened the door for him and we strode in. My breath caught in my throat. There were deep crimson chairs that looked plush and expensive. The pillars inside were marble and reflected the glow of the orange lanterns that hung every few metres. I cast my eyes further. To my right and left, a giant staircase wove its way up to the second floor. Sophia, Armaita and Oceana each looked stunned, taken aback by the sheer sophistication and beauty of the palace. I wanted to examine the giant hallway further, but the guards had a different idea. We took a right turn, through an ornate doorway that led into the throne room. Giant tapestries of deep crimson and glistening gold hung from the massive walls that towered over the throne room.

We walked along a giant red carpet that snaked its way up to a glistening, golden throne, encrusted with many jewels, some I had never seen before. There, sat in the middle of the throne, was a woman with a very ornate, intricate crown on sat atop her head of auburn hair. She looked middle-aged, but I guessed she was much older. Something about the way she looked at me as we neared closer told me she was a lot wiser than a woman of her looks would be. The guards stopped marching, the resounding footsteps sounding on for some time afterwards. The throne was flanked by two soldiers who were both wearing heavily polished armour that differed to the ones around me. Their armour was highly decorative, sporting some depiction of what looked like a dragon on either shoulder and a scarlet crimson cape draped half-way down their back.

The guards around us fell instantly to one knee, bowing their head in respect.

‘You highness,’ Spoke the captain, ‘I have discovered a group of trespassers, they come from the surface, my lady.’ Her elegant robe of gold and red flowed around her throne, and was inlaid with fine stitching and runic symbols that even the best of tailors on the surface would struggle to replicate. Her thin face pursed slightly as she raised her eyebrows.

‘And you thought it best to bring them into my city? Unaware of who they are or what they want, did you?’ She spoke. Her voice was strong for a woman of her age. She had a very posh tone and every word was spoken with perfect clarity. The captain exchanged a quick, furtive look with one of the other guards.

‘My lady, they say they’re looking for a way to save their world that lingers on the brink of annihilation.’ She pondered on this for a second. The room was thick with a heavy silence and I stood, watching. Somehow, I saw myself, like I was looking at me for once and how everyone acted around me.

‘Very well. Maybe we should speak to our… guests.’ She said. She turned her gaze toward me.

‘Who are you? Why have you come here?’ I gave a brief explanation of the dangers we faced and how little time we had left. I made sure to leave out the details of vampires, angels, God and the Devil. I felt that would not help our cause.

‘So, we’ve learnt that something has been hidden here and we must find it immediately. The future of my people depend upon it.’ I finished gravely. She did not respond immediately. She slowly took a glass filled with clear liquid from a dark table beside her, took a sip and placed the glass gently down once more.

‘I see. Where is this item you seek?’ She asked me, a tone of distrust evident in her voice. I looked to Sophia, who nodded. I slowly made my way toward the Empress. The second I took one step toward her, all swords had been drawn and were pointed at me with perfect precision. These men were highly trained swordsman; this I could tell for their weapons did not shake and their hands did not quiver. I held up my hands and slowly withdrew the key which I taken from the Vatican. I held it in my outstretched hand.

‘I believe this may help.’ I said. The guards looked to the Empress who nodded. They withdrew their weapons and granted me access. I slowly walked up to her and placed the key in her outstretched hands. She turned it over in her long, pale fingers, running her thumb over the runic symbols embossed onto the key. Her face seemed to drop and light up with recognition. She’d seen this key before.

‘Your highness?’ Spoke the captain of the guard. She stood up slowly, her eyes still lingering on the key.

‘This cannot be.’ She whispered to herself. She looked up quickly. Her eyes turned once more to me. Sophia, Oceana and Armaita all looked shocked, as did I. The Empress recovered quickly.

‘You two,’ she pointed to Armaita and Oceana, ‘wait here. The other two, follow me.’ She said. All eyes in the room turned to myself and Sophia who were just as confused as they were.

‘Wait here, I’ll be back soon, I promise.’ I said to Oceana and Armaita as we made our way to the Empress who stood beside yet another door, this one inlaid with a giant brass symbol, one very similar to those on the key. She opened the door which revealed a spiralling stone staircase. She hitched up her dress and ascended quickly for a woman of her age. I assisted Sophia as she, too, climbed the stair case. We reached the top and found ourselves faced with another door, identical to the one we’d just come through.

‘Where are you taking us?’ Sophia asked with forced politeness.

‘You will see.’ She responded. She quickly opened the door, grabbed a lantern and set it alight using the flames of a torch that hung outside on the wall beside the door. Instantly, the black room began to glow as the lantern bathed it in an orange glow. The room was dusty and cobwebs hung freely from every piece of cluttered furniture inside. I could hear insets beneath the floor and on the ceiling above. She strode over to a small round table that was littered with old books and dusty sheaves of parchment. I exchanged a confused look with Sophia who shrugged her shoulders. The Empress set down the lantern, placing the key down gently beside it and began frantically searching the cluttered table until her hands fell upon an old book. One that looked the same as every other book except for the fact the cover was wooden and embossed with the runic symbols that puzzled me greatly. She ran her hand over the cover, wiping it free of most of the dust that had most likely laid there for many years undisturbed. Two guards came clambering up the stairs and went to enter the old, decrepit room that smelt musky.

‘Wait outside.’ She ordered sharply. At once, the men turned around, and faced the stairs.

‘Your highness,’ Sophia started, her voice strained with confusion. The Empress held up her hand, asking her to wait. She began rifling through the pages until finally she smoothed them out and turned the book towards us. In the very centre of the page was a sketch, one that was identical to the key beside the lantern. By its flickering glow, I read the words aloud to Sophia.

As told by our ancestors and theirs before them, this key will unlock the chamber. The prophecy tells of an ancient man, one from the earth’s surface, that will come down to the city. He will carry this key with him. In a time where the world of men faces destruction, it will be our duty to see that he succeeds in becoming their saviour. For with this key, he will have the power to keep the destructive forces from taking over the world of men. The prophecy must be complete, for this is why we live, to grant the saviour the tools to undo the darkness that threatens humanity. The man will come for the item, for many years we’ve wondered what item could lay behind the impenetrable door. Once the door is finally opened, he must return to the surface with haste, for time will be his greatest enemy.

I could not believe it. Neither of us spoke as we contemplated the meaning. We were meant to be here, to take this weapon, to destroy it. But how? How could anyone have known?

‘You see?’ The Empress whispered, her voice low enough that the guards could not hear. ‘This key unlocks the chamber, from within, you will find what you seek. The prophecy is almost complete.’

‘Who’s prophecy?’ I asked.

‘We do not know. We have waited many centuries for you, Roconn. The time has finally arrived. Quickly, come with me, if the prophecy is correct, we have little time to send you back. We must act with haste.’ She said, her voice hushed.

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