Fantasy Fiction

Tevi glanced at the speech he had prepared in the morning. The way his hands shook, he couldn’t follow the words on the lines anymore. He'd always known this day would come. It wasn’t the idea of making a speech in front of the nation that gave him the jitters. His station was always going to require it of him at some point, but he never imagined having to pair it with this sort of historical change—the sort that might spell his doom before night’s end. A growl of frustration rumbled from his chest as he jumped to his feet and tossed the papers to the open rolltop. And because it had been that kind of day, the pages sailed over the desk and scattered across the floor instead. He left them there. To hell with it. What right did he have to stand before them after abandoning his duties for so long?

As he paced, his gaze stopped on the portrait of the ancestor who had sold his soul and doomed his line.

“Is there a shred of hope to reverse the tide? It's been so long. Will they even follow me? What is the point?”

As if in answer, Tevi’s feet walked him to the balcony. In the distance stood the reason for his falling out with his family as a teenager, and one of many reasons his journey had brought him back to the capital. On the plateau opposite Duin Sandar Hill, fires roared in defiance of what he was about to do. Still, what choice did he have? No amount of wishing the past to be different would ever make it so. He could only safeguard the future.

Sacrifices. The word alone turned his stomach and soured his thoughts. Every year on Remembrance Day, one hundred ‘volunteers’ from the four corners of Erendis converged on Everia, the island’s capital. Brainwashed, drugged, blackmailed, they offered their lives so the Fates may spare the rest of the nation. Their sacrifice would be honored for all of two days. By morning, like it had the twenty thousand before them, the wind would scatter their ashes in random, remote places where they would lay forgotten until the end of time.

“What a bloody waste…”

Fisted hands in his coat pockets, Tevi stared at the burning pyres. The time had come for the kingdom to step out of the dark age of superstition, reject iniquity, and embrace change. So few knew the truth. Fewer believed, but how could he blame them? Their untrained eyes did not see the twisted things the sacrificed souls became. Even after twenty years of combating them from the shadows, he sometimes found it difficult to believe.

Among those praying over the pyres, a dozen would notice the rupture between the dead and their unconscious. One or two of them may be able to explain it. Two dozen in the crowd might listen. The rest, oblivious to the silent suffering, would prostrate themselves and give thanks while drinking all night.

“A grim reality that will not stop so long as we keep fighting it in the dark.”

With the somber thoughts playing in a loop in his head, Tevi pushed away from the balcony and gathered his speech. He left it in a neat pile on the table as he exited the room. The words were engraved on his mind, had been for a decade as he thought of this day. When he climbed onto the Arch of Remembrance and stood before the celebrants, they tumbled out with the same ease with which they had come as he set them on paper.

Three hundred eighty-eight thousand lived in the capital. Thanks to the ley line network, his voice and a projection of his image would carry across the island to the other nine hundred ninety-six thousand. Even the kingdom's nearest neighbors across the seas would hear his proclamation. By the time he was done, Erendis would either have entered history or fallen into darkness. No pressure, there. A revelation of such magnitude may not be the best way to introduce his reign to millions of witnesses, but if he didn’t speak up now that he was free to do so, he never would.

“I am a needle,” he said in the tumult of turbulent flames and grateful cries. Several heads turned, and their owners frowned as they looked around for the source of the voice. “I am a needle guiding its thread across Destiny.”

The heads angled up, recognition registering on appraising faces. He could all but see the questions forming in their minds. ‘Who is this familiar-looking man?’

“We all have a thread on this fascinating tapestry we call the Veil of Life.” Forcing a smile, he caught the keen eyes of one he hoped might become a link between him and the rest of the audience. “Your thread is one of many woven into the intricate pattern. Its unique journey gives substance to the whole,” he said to the blond youth. “May your journey be fulfilling and resonate in the pattern throughout eternity.”

As the brouhaha faded and fingers pointed at him, his two most trusted companions climbed the arch to stand at his side. Not quite the strength in numbers he hoped to achieve before the end, but strength nonetheless. The ley lines yielded to his will as he embraced the spirit plane, and he amplified his voice for all in the kingdom to hear.

“Most of you know me as the Doomsayer, or perhaps the Voice of Deceit. I prefer to see myself as a needle guiding its thread on the loom of Destiny. I do not pretend to tell you how to guide yours, for that is a decision only you can make. However, as I am one of the few who can see the threads, I consider it my duty to inform.”

Time stood still, and silence fell among the assembly, a silence broken only by the crackling of flames and the snapping of logs. He hoped not to end up tied to a stake but, come what may, he would not remain silent. The shackles his mother had accepted throughout her life were not his.

“Trust me when I say I rather liked my anonymity and the freedom it granted. So why am I here tonight? Why did I not stay in my gloomy corner of doom and allow you all to celebrate in peace? The answer is simple. I can no longer bear to stand on the sideline and watch the cycle repeat itself year after year. As of today, I also find myself in a position to do something about it. So, tonight, I draw a line in the sand and challenge the forces who seek to grab Erendis by the throat and squeeze the life out of her.”

He raised his hands as voices clamored their indignation and disbelief. Several figures armed themselves with sticks and stones, their eyes gleaming in the light of the fires. Others held them back with urgent words and panicked tugs of their sleeves.

“You should leave before it turns ugly,” Tevi said to his two captains.

Orlan surveyed the crowd, a slight twitch in his jaw the only sign of his unease. “No. The Sentinels are in place and ready.”

“There will be no fighting amongst us, Orlan. We will not do the enemy’s work for it.”

“No fighting, as agreed, but we will extract you if necessary. You, Sir, are more useful to these people alive than dead, and they will understand it soon. Carry on with your duty, and we will carry on with ours.”

Tevi nodded, grateful for the informality of Orlan’s words. It grounded him at a time when his station might threaten to overwhelm him. “My fellow compatriots, I beg you, hear me out and decide for yourselves if my words are worthy of your trust.” He swallowed his jitters and forced his voice past the lump in his throat. No stones flew at him—always a bonus. The blond man nodded, soon followed by two, then one score more. “For two hundred years, we have relied on the legends and put our trust in the Fates. For two hundred years, they have guided us as we walked along our appointed paths.”

He took in the nods and cheers and hardened his resolve. However misguided, they were his people, those he had sworn to protect on his seventeenth birthday and on whom he turned his back for twenty years. None knew him, yet their safety and wellbeing were his responsibility now. The time had come to step out of the shadows.

“For two centuries, we have been deceived,” he said. And so he had the attention of the whole spectrum of beliefs. From the glares to the stunned stares and the knowing nods, they were all ears now. Even the flames seemed to have quietened. You made your bed, Tevi, now lie in it. “You haven’t seen my face in two decades and know me under many disparaging titles. On this somber day, I stand before you as I always should have, as I would have, had I been free to voice my opinion under the name given to me at birth. I am Ottevian Sandar, son of Septima. Yestereve, the thread of Queen Septima’s destiny joined the Shroud of Eternity.” He pressed on before the news sent everyone into another round of dismay. “Tomorrow afternoon, and for a fortnight, the castle crypt and gardens will be open for all who wish to pay their respects. Tonight, however, we have another pressing matter to attend to. I come before you this night, not as your liege but as a fellow human being. You are the heart and the backbone of Erendis, and I believe you should know the truth about the rituals.”

A low buzz of whispering voices filled the night as everyone absorbed the news. Would they believe him? The Queen’s death had not been announced—on his orders—and none but the Sentinels were aware she summoned him to take his place on the throne. Before he lost his nerve and the tenuous hold he had on his citizen’s attention, he called to the spirits of the dead burning on the pyres and unleashed his ancestral power.

“The curse of the Sandari line ends with Septima and will never be mine,” he said. “My vow is as unbreakable as the foundations of the world. I will not sell my soul to entities who have reduced us to thinking about the sacrifice of our fellow citizens as normal. What price for a life? How many lost lives are we willing to accept? For me, the answer is an easy one: none. You will have heard the rumors said to have sprouted from the Doomsayer’s mouth. Most of them were true, albeit distorted. Tonight, I will expose the invisible reality so you may make up your own minds.”

On command, the Veil released a burst of energy strong enough to open the eyes of all those blind to the surrounding magic. As everyone watched, small purple balls of energy fought chains of dark flames, bent on escaping. Two pushed through and disappeared. The others broke against the inferno, instantly swallowed by a maelstrom of Nether essence.

“These purple lights are the souls of those we sacrificed today. The dark whirls fueling the flames are the infernal forces vying for a chance to claim them,” Tevi said. As expected, the crowd gaped and took a collective step back from the pyres. “How many of the one hundred would you say were willing sacrifices? Eighty? Sixty? No. Even if you said twenty-five, you would be far from the truth. Two consented to the sacrifice: the two souls we saw breaking their bonds. Stripped of their free will, the other ninety-eight cannot move on. When the wind scatters the ashes across the land, the lost souls will join the infernal blight at the center of the island. Soon, they will achieve corporeal form. You know of whom I speak. Liches, demons, hell fiends, wraiths, ghouls, draugrs, spriggans… all of those who threaten our land and our families. The very menace tonight’s sacrifices were supposed to prevent.”

In the stunned silence that settled over the assembly, Tevi released the spiritual energy linking him to the spirit plane, and magic again turned invisible to untrained eyes.

“It is a vicious cycle. One we cannot hope to break until we become conscious of what feeds it. The late King Kendran welcomed infernal entities into our lives. By the time he understood the Fates were not who they said they were, it was too late. He sold his soul for protection and gave us this savage ritual. I went on a self-imposed exile when I realized the curse which held my line would pass to me if I stayed. My Sentinels and I have been battling the abominations ever since. Tonight, I hope you will join us in the fight against them. No one should have to give up their lives so that we might extend ours. Weave your own destinies and refuse to be pawns on a chessboard. I can think of no better way to start than by smothering the infernal flames anchoring us into our dark past.”

“What if we don’t?” someone in the crowd said. Tevi could not see the woman who spoke, but several of her neighbors slapped thick branches against their palms in ascent. “Will you make us? Will you slaughter your subjects, My Lord?”

“Make you? No, and my Sentinels have orders not to intervene. I will, however, show you what becomes of the souls at dawn.”

“If you still live at dawn…”

Before his Sentinels had time to react, Tevi’s spell froze a guard who pointed a sword at her and shoved him against the nearest tree. He ignored the threat behind the woman’s angry words. Getting into a confrontation was the surest way to lose the bigger fight. He had already signed the edicts and sent the orders to the eight districts, besides. This year’s sacrificial ceremony would be the last. Yet, without the weight of his people behind him, the battle against the blight would become an impossible nightmare.

“It matters not,” he said once the guard had been neutralized. “If not me, someone else will. Will you murder me? I am unarmed, and I refuse to fight you. Our strengths are better saved for our common enemy, wouldn’t you agree?”

He breathed a sigh of relief when the blond youth turned to face the crowd. “He is right. The spikes impaled my mother before I knew how to walk, and two dear friends of mine met the same fate since. Who here has lost a neighbor, a friend, or a family member to the pits? How many more before the blighted abominations outnumber us?”

All around, testimonies fused, and Tevi listened. Even if he had never supported the tradition, his predecessors did. Their decisions sat on his shoulders now. He owed it to the dead and the living alike to remember the tales.

“Will you draw a line in the sand as well?” he asked when the flow of stories ended. “Will you give us strength and the means to end the blight?”

As he spoke, a bucketful of water splashed against the flames, too little to douse them, but it marked the turn of the tide. Amidst shouts of ‘starve the beasts’ and ‘death to the blight’, more buckets arrived from the river below. Within the hour, the flames had died out, and he released the souls from their prisons.

“Starting now, the infernal forces of the Nether are personae non gratae in the Kingdom of Erendis. As I prepare to wear the crown, I vow to reign with a firm but fair hand and to lead us into the light of harmony. Join me in making our nation the bright beacon of knowledge and prosperity it is meant to be.”

From Duin Sandar Hill, a young voice broke through the cacophony of cheers. “The Queen is dead. May her soul rest in the merciful light of the Elder Gods. Long live King Ottevian Kesai Sandar. May his reign be measured and his step never falter. And may he be the glue that holds our nation together in the difficult months to come.”

Tevi couldn’t hold back a choked sigh as his daughter spoke the official words of Induction. The last line was a complete departure from tradition, but the unexpected addition filled his chest with pride and his heart with warmth. Despite the inexperience of her eleven summers, the child understood what spurred him on. Thanks to such instinctive insight, the island would flourish for centuries to come.

“And may your descendants be as enlightened as you, Daughter of mine.”

February 08, 2021 17:51

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