by Slawomir Rapala
|Table of Contents|
|Part 1 of 4|
A shred of history long forgotten,
— from “An Ode to Athanasios,”
“Athanasios!” whispered the demon who dwelt at the edge of the world. His voice, though a mere whisper, rose over the thunderous cascades of falling water then soared over hundreds of leagues of mist-covered marshes, thousands of leagues of dim virgin forests, sun-baked deserts and the stormy waters of the ocean; it climbed the slopes of the snow-capped mountains of the North — and the man awoke.
His gaze was steady. Slowly he raised his long frame off the stone slab on which he lay. He gazed into the eternal fire which the Lords had lit before they again left for the Plateau. Its steady flames illuminated the frost-bitten cavern. Thick sheets of ice glittered before the man’s eyes and he looked on with awe. After thousands of years, the sight still moved him. He sighed.
Slowly he reached for his poniard and studied its long blade, glossed over with centuries-old ice. He held it over the fire for a moment, waiting for the steel to emerge from beneath the thick layer of frost. Still sharp. He cut deep into his left wrist and watched with hope as the wound opened beneath the blade. Then hope faded and his eyes returned to their previously expressionless state. Still no blood. I’m still a slave, he thought.
“Athanasios!” the demon’s whisper reached him again.
“Yes?” he asked, his voice resigned.
“An enemy approaches.”
“Man or beast?”
“A dangerous man.”
“No man is dangerous to me.”
“He’s one of the chosen four.”
Athanasios said nothing, his gaze lost in the flames. “Which Age is it now?” he questioned after a moment of silence.
“The third,” the demon’s voice echoed in the grand cavern.
“The Age of Earth, then.”
“Yes. And this man is more dangerous than the others. He comes bearing Vengeance and Hatred. Only the final one will be more powerful, for if he comes he will bring with him the Apocalypse.”
“And I will be free,” Athanasios whispered.
“You are a fool!” the demon hissed. “Can’t you see? Twice we have failed, and the end is near. You must stop this one or we will all die.”
“Such is the way of the world.”
“Maybe yours!” the nameless beast snapped. “Kill him, Athanasios!”
“How can I kill him if he has a destiny to fulfill?”
“Nothing is written in stone, you should know that best,” the demon chuckled. “Your destiny was to fall off the edge of the world three thousand years ago. Instead, you are here.”
Athanasios lowered his eyes. “You are nearsighted, demon,” he remarked. “If I was destined to fall, your hand would not have reached me in time. What if this is my fate?”
“Fate is for the foolish. Remember that, Athanasios. The foolish and the weak who cower before the gods and dare not take responsibility for their lives.”
The demon’s voice grew louder and the walls of the cavern trembled. A few loose rocks and icicles fell to the floor, where they shattered into pieces.
“You used to believe that death is the end of all things,” the Nameless continued, “that all men are fated to die. Now you know otherwise, Athanasios, so keep an open mind.”
“You cannot defeat death,” Athanasios said stubbornly.
“Why not?” the demon scoffed. “I gave you the strength to conquer it, didn’t I?”
“You made me a slave to life.”
“I gave you strength!” the demon roared, unable to control his anger. “Use it now to kill the man!”
“And if I don’t?” Athanasios straightened his back and looked defiantly towards the glittering roof of the cave.
Silence followed. The creature squatted its massive frame at the edge of the world and gazed at the thunderous waterfall beneath its claw-fitted feet. Clouds of mist rose from the dark abyss, obstructing his view of the Underworld.
“If you kill him, Athanasios,” the beast remarked finally, “I will not need you anymore. I will give you what you seek.”
The man weighed the words in his mind. He reached a decision. “What’s his name?”
“He calls himself Aezubah.”
“I will kill him.”
* * *
Edrastos was running blindly through the scarce thicket that covered the slopes of the Treacherous. He turned around frequently, his frantic eyes searching the lower portions of the mountain for any signs of movement. Though he could not see his pursuer, he knew him to be there as sure as death. Each gust of wind rustling through the scant vegetation and each pebble, rattling as it slid down the gravel-littered slope, triggered in the man an overwhelming wave of panic.
His hand tightened the grip on the sword and his eyes darted in all directions, like that of a hunted animal. Nothing moved behind him, though, even as he broke through the thicket and reached the higher portions of the mountain. His boots sounded heavy against the solid rock.
At this altitude the wind was stronger and it pierced through Edrastos’ thin clothing like a thousand knives, urging the man to clench his teeth. But he did not stop, nor did he think of turning around and heading back. Nothing but a few scanty bushes grew on these heights, and Edrastos’ gaze reached far ahead, towards the summit capped by eternal snow. Clouds hung low and only they obscured his vision from time to time as they passed, blown westward by the strong winds.
Further and further the man climbed and soon he was forced to use his hands as well as his feet, for the slope turned upwards and suddenly steepened. His hands gripped smaller rock projections while he pushed himself off the ground with his booted feet.
The wind was picking up speed and the cold was becoming unbearable for the lightly-clad assassin. He had not been prepared for the harsh environment of the Lyonese mountain ranges when he left Reele, heading for the highlander homesteads several days ago. Spies and travellers assured him that spring had arrived early in the highlands and that it was unexpectedly gentle, that even the natives were surprised. Then again, Edrastos reflected, none of his informants had ever ventured this far into these inhospitable regions. He had hardly expected to cover such a distance himself. After all, he was no tracker nor a hunter. He was an assassin and his task was simple: seek out the rebel leader and kill him.
Biyack XIV, a grim and feared monarch, had spent two years combing the North in search of the man after a bloody confrontation that took place between Biyack and Lyons, its southernmost province. Its Prince had been murdered some time before and his son captured by Tha-kian slave-traders, leaving the King of Biyack free to choose the Estate’s next ruler. His choice was Vasil, a kin of his, whose iron hand was hardly tempered by the fact that he was a young, ill-mannered and dull-witted son of the ancient Dynasty.
Biyack’s choice outraged the grief-stricken people of Lyons, who still mourned their murdered Prince. This fact alone would be enough to spark a rebellion against the hated Kingdom of Biyack, but to worsen the matter, when Vasil claimed the Lyonese throne, he initiated brutal repressions against the Estate’s natives. A heavy tax levy followed and soon the entire province was brewing with hatred. Vasil laughed at the rabble and taunted them by imprisoning and then killing those of Lyons’ most senior and decorated warriors who did not flee in time.
Biyack XIV was pleased. The Dyansty was once again in control of the North. Even its northernmost boundaries were for a time secured against the vicious Viking tribes who dwelt in ice-covered castles, due to a recent treaty, however shaky it might have been. The Lyonese rabble would soon be trampled by the trained armies of Biyack, Vasil assured his King and protector.
Not only did he underestimate the desperate determination of the Lyonese, but furthermore, he could never have predicted that the rabble would concentrate around one man. That a leader would be chosen, a fearless man who would lead the Lyonese Wolves against the Biyackian troops stationed in the province and decimate them within days. A merciless man whose hand would not quiver while he slaughtered every Biyackian man, woman or child within the borders of Lyons. A skilled and audacious warrior who would not hesitate before invading Biyack itself, the great Northern beast whose ancient and blood-soaked conquests had devoured entire generations.
And although the King had finally defeated the Lyonese and had quenched the rebellion, many lives were lost and much gold was drained from the royal treasury. After months of warring, Lyons was once more subject to Biyack, and Vasil once again sat on her throne. The people were further repressed while the Lyonese army entirely dismembered.
But the rebel leader and his most trusted friends had hidden amidst the sky-scraping highlands of Lyons. There they were embraced by the highlanders, a vicious and particularly savage breed that felt no love for Biyack. The Dreary Mountains of Northern Lyons were impossible to reach with heavy troops, and many thousand of Biyack’s soldiers had lost their lives amidst their snow-capped summits and bottomless gorges. Many more were sacrificed on the altars of the highland war gods. The wind carried their frantic and pained screams over vast stretches of this empty and barren landscape.
Two years passed before the King’s Underworld spies, whose gaze reached further than that of normal men, sought out the rebel leader amidst the highland clans. Men were sent to capture him, but none were heard from again. Finally, Edrastos was sent by the King himself. Where a legion would not succeed, one man would, the aged monarch reasoned. A clever rogue would find his way through the highland scouts and slip into their homesteads unnoticed. A skilled and cold-blooded assassin would not hesitate before plunging the blade into the man’s heart as he slept, rocked by the mountain winds.
Many men of various trades had died under Edrastos’ stealthy hand over the years; aristocrats, priest, politicians, warriors and spies. This man, however, Edrastos muttered an oath as he tripped over a rock projection and fell face first into the gravel, this man was different. No one told him whom he was to kill, no name was mentioned and it was only when he came face to face with him and as he gazed into his unblinking eyes, that Edrastos realized that this mission was to be his last. No one had told him that he was sent to kill General Aezubah.
Edrastos cursed again as he lost his grip and slid several paces down the slope before coming to a halt. He turned on his back, utterly tired, and gazed into the sky. Sweat covered his whole body, making him even more vulnerable to the savage gusts of wind. His chest heaved up and down as he attempted to catch his breath, all the time scouring his nearest surroundings. The world was empty, all but for the scattered rocks and boulders.
Far below, Edrastos saw the dark line of the thicket which he had blindly run through earlier with Aezubah on his trail. Where was he now, the assassin wondered, where was this madman?
His thoughts turned back to his King and he muttered another oath, cursing the wicked monarch to hell. No one in Biyack had suspected that it was Aezubah who led the Lyonese rebellion. His name was kept secret even from the most brave and trusted warriors, for the man was a legend and few would dare to ride into battle against him. The fear that his very name sowed in the hearts of men was greater than loyalty to the ancient Dynasty. It was greater even than fear of the King, an evil and magic-wielding tyrant whose ties with the Underworld demons were well known and had secured him an incredibly long life marked with many bloody conquests and victories.
There was more, Edrastos was realizing now, behind the assassination than ridding the world of a rebel. The King and Aezubah were no strangers to each other. Years ago, the General had led an uprising that almost toppled the Dynasty and for which he was thrown into the dreadful dungeons of Reele and tortured for years. After escaping, Aeuzbah burned the city and slaughtered its inhabitants.
The King had vowed vengeance and tracked the man since then. Their paths had crossed again during the Lyonese rebellion, and Biyack XIV — the Cursed, they called him — used all his powers and all his allies to capture the General.
The man’s true name was hidden and only the King and his most trusted advisors knew whom they hunted. All others sought a mere rebel, a skilled warrior, but nothing more. Such was the man that Edrastos was sent to kill. Instead, he had come face to face with the devil. So he ran, he ran for his life. And now he was here, on the steep face of a mountain. Crisp morning air filled his lungs, and as he watched the brilliant sunlight creep slowly down the slope of the Treacherous, he wondered whether this was to be his final sunrise.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala