Chapter 34: Never Turn Back
At the local pub of The Bacchus House, a feeling of unease had permeated the air. To add to this unease, a lone man sat in the corner. No one knew him, no one looked at him, and it was certain that no one liked the look of him. The only company he kept was a pint of ale that he had refreshed several times over the course of the night. Many locals gossiped and chatted about him, completely oblivious that the hooded figure could hear every word they said. Word had spread that something happened at Epsilon Cathedral. None of it was good.
“I heard a monk killed another one.” One man said.
“I heard a demon came and was trying to steal souls, right there in the church!” An older woman whispered, followed by hemming and hawing.
“That’s fool’s gold! I heard they were trying to summon something, and it turned against them!”
“I heard the man in the corner had something to do with it.” One man said to his group of friends, lowering his voice even more than the others.
“Think about it. We’ve never seen this man before. Everyone’s talking about some dark-clad thing at the church…maybe it was him and they just thought it was some dark creature.”
“I dare you to go talk to him.”
“No way! You go talk to him!”
Right in the middle of their argument, the pub door opened and a hush fell over the room. A man clad in the same garb as the mysterious man stepped in, his face covered as well. The hood glanced about the room, seeming to scan over everything. Everyone huddled a bit closer together, their heads facing one another while watching the figure from the corner of their eyes. While not taller than the man in the corner, the new stranger was equally intimidating.
The hood stopped, and all the pub-goers could see that his gaze fell upon the other man in the corner. His average-sized boots seemed to clunk loudly over the sudden silence of the room, so much that it even seemed to catch the stranger’s ear.
“I see the town cats have got all of your tongues.” The dark-coated man quipped in a husky, Spanish accent, then chuckled to himself. He slowly made his way toward the corner , stopped for a moment by the bartender.
“Anything for ya tonight, sir?” The server squeaked out.
“Nothing for me, thanks.”
The white noise of the pub slowly regained its normalcy as the new man made his way to the corner and sat by who seemed to be his cohort. While talking, the two men never kept their gaze away from the door.
“How did you find me?” The taller man started.
“I think you know. I can’t believe you made me come all the way out here,” the new man whispered in irritation.
“You didn’t have to do anything that you didn’t want to, Sade,” the taller man replied.
“You’re as stubborn as always, old friend. I swear, Zen-“
“Don’t think you should be saying that name. The local yokels have already been talking about me all night.”
“Fine. Look…I thought you should know that Aegis is awake now.”
“Perhaps I can put him back to sleep again.”
“Look, I know his plan wasn’t the best.”
“You think? Using us as bait so he could be the hero and kill the Shade? The priest versus the dark forces of the Shade? Even for me, that’s dramatic.”
“I agree, but he was probably just thinking on his feet. The first thing that came to mind. Acting on instinct.”
“You call throwing the people closest to you to the wolves as instinct? Sounds like a cowardly instinct to me. I killed people in cold blood before , but throwing someone else in front of you to dodge the bullet…that’s beyond me.”
“Look…he’s on our side, okay? He feels really bad about it. So much, he’s going to take us personally on his underground steam train to Krane’s facility. Is that good enough for you?”
“Tell that to Alice.”
“Will you stop being difficult? Please, just come back to the cathedral. We need you there.”
“Need me there? For what? So I can go into emotional shock again? I can’t do this…emotion-thing. I liked it better when I could just do what I wanted…no second-guessing myself, no fear, no pain. When I could actually get things done…”
“Listen to yourself, bro’ere. You have gone through…honestly I can’t even say what you’ve gone through because I don’t really know. But I know it’s been a lot. You were drugged up with some chemical, given abilities that most of us could only dream of. Yet, you lost your humanity in the meantime. If it comes down to your powers or your humanity, I will always pick the latter.”
“What good does it do me if I’m dead, and can’t protect the ones I love?”
“You can, though. The reason I liked you is because I saw there was a human being under that indifferent mask you wore. There is so much you’ve had to process in the last year, even in just the last couple of months. Emotionally, you’ve gone from zero to a hundred in a short amount of time. Alice brought that out of you so quickly, you’ve never had time to truly conquer your emotions. Everything must feel like it’s in overdrive for you.”
“I can’t argue that. And you’re right about everything….as usual.”
“Why did you come here?”
“I thought of leaving…but I couldn’t do it. So I thought on it….then decided to drink on it. Over and over.”
“Why? How could you leave at a time like this?”
“I kept asking myself the same question….but that question is being overshadowed by another question. “
“Where do I even start? While the Shade was invading my mind, I began to fight back. And it talked to me, in my head. There were so many things going back and forth, I got lost in it. One thing that bothered me the most was that it kept referring to me as if I was more than one person.”
“Exactly. It’s not gone….even the Shade heard it and talked to it. When the Shade said it would kill all I held dear, the Voice replied and said something about me only being able to save myself. I don’t know exactly what it meant, but it’s significant somehow. I think it’s saying that deep down, I’m selfish…that I’ll never completely lay down my life for someone else.”
“That’s not true. You fought for us when the Rainmaker attacked us.”
“I also felt like I wasn’t taking a risk, and was sure that I would win. Sacrifice is when you’re ready to put yourself above others, the ultimate sacrifice being your own life. I felt like I wasn’t giving anything up. And look where it got me.”
“Maybe it’s some sort of premonition. It came from the Voice so…maybe it has something to do with those strange phrases you were hearing. What was it again?”
“Um…let me think. I can’t remember it all, it was just bits of phrases. All quite ominous. I remember….’the color red’ was one. Eve of destiny….end of the beginning. Call to arms…that one must be about the oncoming war. ‘Cleanse with fire’ was another one. Mayhem ensures peace…and nightfall. There were others but…I can’t remember.”
“Next time it happens….write it down. The color red seems significant…that was what used to set you off, right? The sight of blood.”
“Yes, I’ve thought of that one. The one about fire is related to Seraphim, obviously. Nightfall…. …that’s referring to the Shade.”
“I’m not sure how I know this but…Shades have also been called The Nightfall in older texts….I…I didn’t know that before. Perhaps when the Shade was trying to take over, I caught a glimpse of their knowledge? This is all so strange.”
“Well, of course it is. You came back from the dead……” Sade trailed and looked up as if thinking hard.
“What is it?”
“You don’t think….when you came back you brought it with you, do you? Aegis did say that they come from some other world.”
“No, no that can’t be it. Although I swear I’ve dreamt about one before….hmm.”
“Yeesh, I may get a drink after all.”
“It’s on me if you do. Say….insight into dream, that’s another phrase.”
“That’s right…I was dreaming when I heard the phrases….it must be only when I’m asleep.”
“Are you sure Krane and NOSRAD haven’t been brainwashing you all this time? I mean….with all that’s happened so far, it wouldn’t be off limits.”
“You won’t hear me laugh about that…I’ve considered it. I can see it though…it’s like the future but…it’s all desolate. Everyone’s in chains and some sort of collars. And I’m standing next to Krane….”
“Really? That sounds like the dream Alice keeps having.”
“There must be something to it, then. Yet, I can’t imagine why I’d be helping Krane in any way, shape or form.”
“There’s still much about you that you don’t even know. How much do you even know about the Seraphim?”
“Only what the priest at NOSRAD told me…I wish I’d have gotten him out of there. He tried to talk to me out of killing myself. I almost wish Alice hadn’t saved me….I feel like I’m more a danger to all of you now.”
“Is it, though? Once again, there’s something inside me and this time it makes me do things in my sleep...this is too much for me, Sade. I’ve helped all that I can at this point, but I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I do something out of my control. If the dream isn’t enough of a clue..…”
“That’s just it, though. It’s only a dream. Even if it is the future, it can be changed. Alice saw the Rainmaker kill her in her vision, but we saw it coming and changed it. The same goes for you.”
“Maybe….maybe so. At any rate….I no longer feel safe with this. Please take it.” Zenapharr unbuckled his sheath and sword, handing it to Sade under the table. “It’s the only way to be sure.”
“Okay, my friend.” With a small amount of reluctance, Sade took the sword and tied it to his belt from underneath his long jacket. Some suspicious men from the pub nudged one another as they noticed the men were passing the sword under the table.
“Promise this, though. If the time comes….will you do what is necessary?” Even with his hood covering his face, Sade felt the pleading eyes of his dear friend.
“Thank you. That is all that I could ever ask of you.”
“Good to see you’re ready to come back. Just know at this point….there’s no turning back. Once we leave to Epsilon, it’s on to Krane’s hideout. Are you ready?”
“More than I ever have been.”
“By the way, how is Alice?”
“She’s still asleep…but there is hope still. The nice thing about Aegis being such an acquirer of treasures and relics is that he doesn’t mind using them. Once he’s moving around, I’m going to help him look for a magical item that might be of use. The only problem is that he’s not sure if he has it, so he doesn’t know where it is if he does.”
“I’ll help you find it.”
“Sounds splendid…I’m ready to get out of here anyway. The Langmeres seem to be especially nosy people.”
“I agree. I’ve felt their eyes on us the whole time, and many of their whisperings. Lucky for them it’s not the old me they’re dealing with. I’d have killed just for looking at me with those….”
“Easy does it, mister assassin. Let’s say we get back?”
“Sure. I’ve drank about all I can here, anyway.”
The two stood up and began shuffling away from their table, not before Zenapharr laid down some coins to pay for his tab. A meek nod from the bartender regarded them as they passed, only followed suit by the stalking eyes of the bar patrons. With a creak of the door, the two left into the humid night air as it was still raining. Their boots clopped and splashed on the cobblestone streets and soon faded from the pub.
An inaudible sigh drifted through the tavern once the men left, and conversation broke out loudly among them all at a feverish pace.
After various discussions among all the patrons, a group of four men stood up and left after paying their own tab. Pulling their coats close to their face, they looked around to find a man with a porkpie hat vicariously leaning against a stone wall. The leader of the group approached the man and said only two words.
The loitering man with the hat shrugged, which was then followed by a coin being thrown from the leader. Without a word, the hatted man caught the coin and stuffed it in his coat pocket. After looking around for a second, the loitering man nodded to the right. The leader of the group clapped one of his men on the arm, and they proceeded down the street indicated by the loiterer…
The doors of the Epsilon Cathedral groaned, soon letting in the two dark-clad figures of Sade and Zenapharr. Monks nearby took notice of their entrance, only made more apparent from the small patter of rain that remained outside. After taking a final glance behind them, the two threw back their hoods and set a wooden bar across the door. Their wet boots softy squished against the carpet, which Zenapharr found to be a strangely pleasing auditory aesthetic. On their way to the office, they passed the monks cleaning up the blood from the horrible encounter with the Shade.
“Good thing they used a red carpet,” Zenapharr thought somberly.
Sade’s eyes met for a moment with one of the monks, and the exchange filled him with sympathy. Within them, he saw both the sorrow of his fallen comrade and the worry for their leader. Trying to fill them with some sense of hope, Sade forced a smile. The monk responded with an equally strained one.
“I hope they don’t think this is our fault,” Zenapharr whispered once they far enough away.
“I don’t think so. Even so…we protected them.”
“But we’re the reason the Shade was here in the first place.”
“It’s best we not think on such things. Let’s just focus on what we have to do.”
Back in the office, they found Aegis sitting upright and looking very alert. His left hand clutched his bandage wrap as he continued flipping through some notebook, only taking a short second to acknowledge them with a slight nod.
“Feeling better?” Zenapharr inquired with a dab of sarcasm.
“Yes, very much, thank you.” The adventurer replied, eyes still glued to his book.
“What is that?”
“It’s a notebook of all my relics. Lists what I have and what properties each item has. It will be the key to helping the girl.”
“Great, what have we got?” Sade sat down to peer into the notebook.
“Two things and…WHAT are you doing? This is for my eyes only.”
“I don’t think you’re in much of a position to be coy,” Zenapharr narrowed his eyes, and an uncomfortableness settled in Aegis’ voice.
“Well, I….it’s just….I like to have my privacy. Can’t have everyone knowing what I’ve got.”
“So have you got something or not?”
“Yes, in fact I have. It does appear I have a crucifix blessed by the High Priest and numerous holy enchantments. The attack on Alice is dark in nature, so this seems the most logical to use. If this does not lift the darkness from her….I’m not sure what else to do.”
“We have to try.”
“Of course. Your timing is impeccable. I think I’m feeling well enough to make it to the treasure room. We’ll need to take Alice there. She’ll be safer there, and we can close the door behind us in the case of any police poking about. I’m sure word has reached the town of our encounter with the Shade already.”
“It has. How did that even happen? Did one of the monks leave and talk to someone?”
“No, fortunately. Apparently during our battle, someone started to come inside and briefly saw what was going on. One of our monks signaled for them to leave, which they did. I had no idea.”
“Nor did I. Then again, we were a little busy at the time. Are you ready to go now?”
“Yes…just give me a moment to stand up. My legs are still weak.”
“Here, let us help you.”
While not happy with the prospect, Zenapharr aided Sade with standing Aegis up and walking him over to the secret door. Down the steps they went, talking as they descended.
“So what got you into all of this, anyway?” Sade inquired of Aegis.
“Well, I didn’t always want to collect. I used to be into history and I—oof, take it easy won’t ya?”
“Sorry, these steps are bumpy,” Zenapharr grumbled.
Sade gave a sidelong glance at Zenapharr, which he intentionally ignored.
“I use to study history…thought it was important to know what got us where we are. I was fascinated by the technology the world used to have, as well as the abandoned tombs and temples and such. I wanted to explore them all, not only to see the world and our past, but was fascinated by how many magical items were lost in the war. There was so much power just out there, waiting to be taken away.”
“So you started doing it pretty early on then.”
“Well not exactly, mate. I was twenty five before I ever ventured out. As you probably know, that’s older than most to start out.”
“Were you not trained before?”
“No, I was trained by my father....oh good we’re here now. Will you do the honors?” The adventurer procured his wind-up key and offered it to Sade. In moments, they were in the treasure room. “Okay now….I think I know where I put this. I can just lean against this counter here, so you are both relieved of your duties.”
Zenapharr let go and rolled his eyes, turning to go back upstairs and bring Alice back down.
“So, back to what you were saying. Your father trained you?” A look of uncomfortableness began to crack in Aegis’ constant smirk at the question. It was not just a coincidence that he stopped talking about it when they reached the door, it was a good excuse for Aegis.
“He trained me, yes. It’s just that he…seemed me not worthy of going with him on his excursions. That’s why I didn’t go until I was twenty five. I always wanted to go together with him so…it wasn’t until after he died that I would go out on my own. That’s all.”
“Ahh, I see. My old man…he was a piece of work himself.”
“It seems common a father doesn’t approve of his son’s way of doing things. I wasn’t considered tough enough because I read books and educated myself. I guess because I didn’t play careds and gamble or act like the alpha male, then I wasn’t tough Ridiculous! He was the one who taught me to defend myself! Said by not letting me go that he was protecting me…what a joke. ”
“Mine showed his disapproval in a much different way.”
Sade pulled his sleeve up enough to show some scars on his forearms.
“By the heavens….he did that to you?”
“Yeah. No worries though. He got his.” A dark look shot across Sade’s face at this. Aegis nodded, notably more uncomfortable at the brief expression. After a moment of reflection, Aegis pulled out his notebook and scanned through it again.
“Already forgot where you put it?”
“No, it’s not in here. But I know I have it. How strange.”
At this, Sade’s foothalls resounded off the stone steps and his silhouette holding the unconscious Alice approached them. The poor child’s face looked flush and gave the impression of a restless sleep. After setting her down on a bench, Zenapharr knelt down and grasped her hand within his.
“Where are you, sweet girl….” Zenapharr spoke aloud, more to himself than to Alice. After a moment, Aegis got up and began rummaging around his items, mumbling to himself all the while.
“Why can’t I find it?!” Aegis huffed, more aggressively rifling through his cabinets and drawers.
“What does it look like?” Zenapharr said, now standing behind them.
“Oh, now you’re willing to help?”
“You heard me, assassin.”
Aegis, while still clutching his side in pain, confidently wheeled around to size up Zenapharr. The Seraphim glowered down at the adventurer, a noticeable head taller.
“Maybe I should rip your tongue out so I don’t have to hear you anymore.”
“Stay out of this!” Aegis shouted, turning back to Zenapharr.
“Speak your mind, false priest! I believe you were commenting on my contribution.”
“Absolutely. I’ve heard so much about you, and I guess the saying about how the truth gets twisted as it travels keeps true. The Great Zenapharr Meridian…the world’s greatest assassin. And when a threat comes along, he cowers in fear. That’s all that I’ve seen so far.”
“If you knew half the things I’ve done, you’d be cowering before me now. I recall it being Sade that defeated the Shade, and not you.”
“Still better than nothing.”
“You were lucky…too lucky. Only getting away with a little scratch on the tummy, I see. How’s that wound feeling?”
“It’s feeling just fine.”
At this, Zenapharr pulled his arm back and crashed his fist into Aegis’ face, sending him sprawling into the wall of affects. On impact, multiple items clanged and banged on the floor.
“Oouuh, you cretin! You almost broke my jaw!” Aegis howled, cradling his face.
“That was only 10 percent. Keep talking to me like that and you get more. I still owe you that from earlier. You finally gave me the proper motivation.”
“Zenapharr, what are you--?”
“Father Aegis!” A voice called from the steps, and the three stopped to listen in. It was the voice of one of their monks.
“Yes, Nall?” Aegis called, a small wince in his voice.
“The four gentlemen upstairs want to know if they can have confessionals at this time. They were very persistent and sounded quite distraught. I was going to turn them away, but they were soaked through. I think they could be homeless.”
“Nall, how many times have I told you? It’s too late for confessionals…has everything even been cleaned up?”
A look of alarm suddenly crossed Zenapharr’s face.
“Wait, is it those guys poking their heads in the door when I was getting water for Alice?”
The monk’s footsteps continued, but no response now.
Sade and Zenapharr exchanged a cautionary glance.
“Someone from outside saw you?” Sade spoke through gritted teeth.
“I was far away and had my back turned but…Alice’s head may have been showing…”
“Nall, are they inside now?” Aegis yelled out.
“Arm yourselves,” Zenapharr spoke low.
“I hear five footsteps now.”
At this note, shadows played across the stone walls of the room and the monk Nall stepped into view. His was slightly arched and they immediately saw the glint of a blade held against the monk’s throat. A man in a dusty coat stood directly behind him with a snide grin.
“The others….are they dead?” Aegis demanded.
“No, they’re tied up, but if you don’t play your cards right they will be. So…I believe I’ve seen three of you before Mr. Sade, Zenapharr and…..Ms. Alice.” He pointed the blade to each as he mentioned their name. “Now, here’s how it’s going to go. I’ll need the Seraphim to pick the girl up and we’ll tie the other one’s hands.”
Behind him, three other gentlemen flanked him on both sides.
“Any resistance…especially from you, Seraphim, and Nall here’s going to have a nice size hole in his neck. We’re here to collect our reward.”
“Turn back now.” Zenapharr said coldly. Sade could see that he was getting that look.
“No. We’ve got you right where we want you. Why would we turn back now? Are you some kind of idiot?” The thug jeered.
“You don’t have the faintest clue what you’re getting yourself into.”
“I don’t, do I? Why is that?”
“Every…single…one of you.” Zenapharr’s eyes began to turn red and the heat began to rise in the room. “All of you who don’t know me….you judge me. You hate me before you even speak to me. I’m different from you, and that makes it even easier. I’m sick of it…it makes me hate you humans. Even you.” His head turned to look upon Aegis and Sade.
One might think this was some ruse, but the look in his eyes did not change when he glanced at his comrades. The hatred and malice of a thousand years teemed within his gaze. Sade felt afraid…his friend was losing his grip.
“I never said it before….I even thought I was beginning to care….love others but…..it’s a lie. An act I can only keep up for so long. You humans….all you care about are yourselves. You cheat…lie…and kill to get what YOU want from each other! You only band together to get rid of some common problem, then go back to ripping each other apart again! So as far as I’m concerned now… Seraphim is all there is to me. You are all expendable, and you are ALL going to die under my watch. And I’m going to start….”
Zenapharr turned back to the thug holding Nall captive.