Chapter Five: The Accursed One
Anareal de Leonair had always believed himself to be a man of faith.
The barbarians of the north ravaged his lands and plundered his castle, taking all that he had striven for in his adult life. Reluctant to seek revenge against those who knew not the civilised ways, he stayed his hand, believing all the while that Apris would see justice served. Surely the Sun God would not forsake him in his darkest hour, surely not a righteous man who had devoted his youth to spread the blessed word?
It was only when they stole the sun from his heart, his beloved Senra, that he realised the truth.
Apris had abandoned him.
The realization tore at his soul, rending his faith to shreds of bitter revulsion and left him a broken man. Broken, save for the one ray of light left by Senra. His son, a mere babe, but infinitely more precious than all the riches he had lost.
And so Anareal stood at the edge of the abyss, left only with the choice between life and death. Death would reunite him with his beloved and offer eternal rest. Life would give him the reward of watching his son grow into a man. But he chose neither.
He chose revenge.
But he was only a man, weak and fragile. Vengeance against a legion of barbarians was not easily obtained by ones self and Apris had long since fallen deaf to his prayers.
There was but one god who would answer the plea of a man forsaken by faith. Khazrael, Demon of the Eclipse, who demanded not prayer and worship, but flesh and blood.
The price Anareal would pay for his revenge was his son.
But blinded by grief and rage, he agreed to the terrible price, his ravaged mind willing to live with the knowledge that he would lose what little he had left of Senra. And so it was, that on the day Anareal de Leonair exacted his vengeance on the barbarians who had stolen his wife, he gave his only son so that his bloodlust may be sated. It was only once the dark deed was done, that Anareal realized what terrible crime he had committed. On his knees, he begged for the return of his son, even offering himself in exchange.
Khazrael was not without mercy, but he was also not a fool. The child whose fate lay in the palm of his hand was of D'Celestine blood and his value went beyond that of a weak mortal. But he gave the devastated man his word that the boy would be cared for and the promise that his son would become a god among insects.
Cast back into the mire of his ruined home, Anareal was consumed by guilt and poised on the brink of suicide. It was only for the memory of his wife and sake of his still living son that he continued to draw breath.
He resolved to abstain death until the day his son returned to claim his birthright.
But when Sero returned to the house of his forefathers, it was not to claim his inheritance.
It was to destroy all evidence that he had once existed. For the name of Leonair should have died with his father at the hands of the dragon god and Sero foreswore his mortal father, taking the name of Khazrael from the moment Anareal died.
Sero de Khazrael had indeed returned to take his place as a god among men… to reign supreme as the Drakhyl.
Zanrelan de la Senra was dead.
Mikel stood frozen, his eyes fixed on the face desecrated by sickness and age.
It was only when Lunai handed him the torch to light the funeral pyre that he could tear his gaze away. He looked to his sister with blank eyes and she nodded her head wordlessly, reaching out to grasp his hand.
They stood alone in the temple, silence hanging over them like a curse.
Unable to speak, he clutched her hand tighter. Lunai felt the gravity of his grief and understanding moved her to begin the ritual of passing. She took the torch from him and touched it gently to the pyre, watching the dry wood ignite instantly.
Together they watched the body of their father burn, watched the flames devour the body sucked dry by disease.
There would be no other ritual, unless Mikel wished it. Lunai bowed her head, a whispered prayer for their father escaping her lips as she stole a sideward glance at her younger brother. He had not spoken a word since entering the temple hours earlier. But she knew he did not grieve for Zanrelan.
Mikel grieved for himself.
When he failed to acknowledge the address, Lunai roused herself from the hypnotic dance of the flames and nudged her brother gently. He turned, dark eyes confused, to stare at the familiar figure filling the doorway to the temple.
Arafel stepped closer and the haunted gaze of his nephew and new lord followed him. He hesitated and Lunai shot him a warning glance, shaking her head angrily. "Your presence here is hardly appropriate, Master Arafel." Her voice was soft, but louder than had she had shouted.
The Archmage bowed to her but his eyes strayed to Mikel. "Forgive my impertinence, Immortei. But time flies against us. The Drakhyl rises with the dawn, I have seen it."
A spasm passed over his young face at the sound of his title. "I know where my duty lies, Arafel. I will go to Airyglyph, as it was sworn by the first son. The Shadow of Sanctity will not fail under my hand," he said calmly, even though his hand trembled.
Arafel shook his head. "It will not be such a simple task, my lord."
A flicker of doubt flitted across his features and his sister raised her head. Mikel turned away from the pyre, fixing his shadowed gaze on the mage. "Tell me."
And Arafel obeyed.
Sweat began to trickle between his shoulder blades as the sun grew in strength but he remained as he was, crimson gaze fixed on the horizon.
I remember my own father bringing me to a place like this. I was little more than a boy then but the memory of it still lingers. There was a soft sigh in his ear. The temple under the sky… how I wish I could show it to you.
Anger rippled through Albel and his hand tightened subconsciously around the hilt of his katana.
The Voice grew pensive, almost wistful. I think you would have liked him, dear heart. You share many of his qualities.
The silence became expectant and when he did not reply, Albel felt a gentle touch on his shoulder, a comforting hand. I understand that you may be feeling less than… affectionate towards me-
"… Affectionate? The way I feel about you borders more on deepest loathing!" He bit out his reply, holding back a curse as his maimed left hand began to ache. Gritting his teeth, he bore the familiar pain but he could not hide it.
Here, let me.
A soothing wave of healing swept over the ruined flesh and Albel was barely able to hold back a sigh of relief, which soon turned into a grimace. Don't expect any thanks. I didn't ask you to do that, he snapped mentally.
You did not have to.
Albel chose to ignore that, but after a few more precious moments, the gnawing concern in his stomach was threatening to claw its way out. Then all at once, he became aware of them: the burning at the back of his mind was intensifying, building into a raging inferno and the dreaded thirst came over him, his throat crying out for a taste of the red elixir.
"No!" he rasped, grabbing his throat in a vain effort to stop the burning.
As the thirst grew, so did the song.
He raised his head, the haunting echo reverberating through his skull and at once thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. The horizon was glowing like it was on fire.
As we will set this world aflame. Why fight it, Albel? Fly with it, become free from the chains of your mortality!
The Voice was filled with dreamy anticipation and excitement spurred him on at the thought of being reunited with his pet.
But hope turned too terrible yearning as the Voice turned to Albel, who was now on the verge of collapsing from the white hot pain searing his mind. I would have you see me with your own eyes, he whispered lovingly. As I would look upon you with my own.
I want you to know who I truly am.
His vision blurred and everything around him became a haze of colour. Albel fell to one knee, his clawed hand digging into the cracks between the stone. His throat was on fire and he gagged, his body screaming for water. "Nel…" he managed to gasp, "I… n-need…"
Gods, his whole body was a furious firestorm and he collapsed on his hands and knees, a wild howl tearing itself from his throat. "Make it stop!" he screamed, the effort ripping him apart. "Goddamn you, make it stop!"
But the blaze continued tearing through him. And although Albel was being consumed by fire and the agony was excruciating, his soul revelled in it. Something inside him wanted it, needed it.
With one eye shut, Kivar tried to pull on his boot for the fifth time. When he failed to meet his target again, he gave up and groaned, falling back onto his bed. What kind of sadistic bastard set training sessions this early?
The kind that could only be a certain sadistic bastard called Albel Nox.
The brunette yawned, warning himself not to fall asleep. But his bed was so warm and cosy… he felt his eyes drifting shut and he gave himself a hard pinch in an effort to keep awake. When that didn't work, Kivar forced himself upright and half dragged himself to the basin beside the window, splashing his face with ice cold water.
A shiver passed through him and he stared out of the window, chin propped on one hand to watch the sunrise. But that was strange… he frowned, certain his eyes were playing tricks on him.
He could swear that the horizon was on fire!
No, that was impossible. Kivar rubbed his eyes, convinced he was delusional.
"Apris… what is that?"
"Look at me with your own eyes, Albel."
The swordsman, paralysed on his knees, could barely raise his head at the sound of the command. At first, his ravaged mind did not even recognize the shape emerging from the fire.
A man, wreathed in flame, was walking towards him, one hand outstretched. "Surrender yourself to me and I will make it all disappear. You need never feel pain again."
Albel stared into crimson eyes that were the mirror of his own and a face that could have been his. The same pointed chin, the same roguish tilt at the corner of the mouth that could curve into an identical smirk… gods, it was him. But the hair that spilled over his shoulders was a sun kissed mane of gold and he had a long-limbed elegance attributed to his superior height over Albel.
"Why did I never show myself to you?" he answered softly, bending down on one knee before Albel. "We are bound together, you and I. The physical separation is at this very moment killing you, you can feel it ripping your body apart. It is only by my will that you are still living."
Hatred flared in Albel. "Then make it stop!" he cried hoarsely, his arms too weak to strike at him. The Voice caught his raised hand, clasping it with his own. A shock jolted through Albel and a feeling he could only describe as joy flooded him.
"Why…?" he whispered. "I hate you. I know I do."
The Voice released him and bent forward to cup his face in both hands. He tucked a loose wisp of dark hair lovingly behind Albel's ear and brushed a light kiss across his forehead. Albel shivered as an electric bliss tingled across his skin from the contact.
"Hatred is for the weak, Albel. And you want to be strong. I have felt your yearning all these years and oh, I can give it to you. Everything you desire." He paused and smiled victoriously at him. "I will make you a god among insects."
"I want nothing from you!" Albel raised his head to spit in his face but swiftly found his mouth covered by warm lips. His eyes widened with shock, but the more he tried to resist, the more he found he could not pull himself away.
"You see? The more you fight, the more you desire to surrender yourself to me!"
The flames were burning higher and brighter, heat searing his mind and body. The haunting song grew to a feverish pitch and shrieked in his ears, until Albel thought he would go insane.
And then he heard the cry of the beast.
His head fell forward onto his chest and he felt himself hovering dangerously on the brink of defeat. The beast had almost claimed him once before and failed, but in the state Albel was in, you could have hit him with a feather and killed him. Even now, only sheer will was keeping Albel from surrendering.
The Voice raised his head, a smile of pleasure curving his lips. "The beast comes to claim his master." He rose, extending one hand to Albel. "Come, dear heart. Destiny awaits the child she has chosen."
But even as the word left his lips, Albel felt himself reaching up.
The crimson eyes of the Voice watched hungrily as the untouched hand of his beloved rose to meet his own. But before their fingertips could meet, a single voice rose above the roar of the flames.
The two jerked apart like a pair of guilty lovers caught stealing a forbidden kiss. The Voice recovered quickly, rage smoking from his red eyes as they searched for the culprit. "Who dares?"
Through the fire, Albel could see the smoky and indistinct shape of a boy and realization hit him with the force of a charging lum. "Kivar!" he shouted hoarsely. "Run, you stupid maggot!"
But Kivar stood frozen, his eyes wide open in horror. His sword fell uselessly to the stone with a clatter that went unheard above the shrieking flames.
Albel staggered to his feet. "Run, get away from here!"
The Voice smirked, stalking towards the boy as he fumbled on the ground to retrieve his sword. "You should have stayed in bed today, boy."
Finally, he found his voice. "Leave Sir Albel alone!" he cried fiercely, gripping the sword hilt with renewed courage.
He laughed, loud and raucous laughter that melded perfectly with the snarl of the raging inferno. "You hope to save him from himself? You? A pathetic child?"
The unnerving resemblance of the stranger's face to that of Albel was steadily breaking his resolve, but the jibe strengthened it and he hefted the sword into an attacking stance. "Let him go."
The smirk grew wider. "Why attempt to save a man you resent, Kivar? Why save the man who has beaten you down at every opportunity, insulted your ability even when you do your best? Why save a man who calls you a coward. Why, boy?"
Kivar faltered, throwing a desperate glance at Albel and then his panicked gaze flicked back to the advancing stranger. "I…I…don't know…" he stammered, grey eyes pleading for the swordsman to do something. Albel nodded abruptly, his clawed hand already creeping towards his fallen katana.
But now the Voice was regarding Kivar with something more than just amused irritation, he was studying his face intently. "You… you…" his red eyes widened in shock and an expression of mingled rage and hatred twisted his features.
Confusion and fear flooded Kivar at the sight of the murderous fury that turned the eyes of the Voice a deep black. He cried out in terror as a wall of flames bore down towards him and flung his arms over his face. "Albel!"
But the blow never came. Nervously, he raised his head, only to see his attacker staring rapturously at the burning fireball streaking towards them over the mountains.
"My beast! Come to me, come to your master!" he cried, flinging his arms wide in a gesture of welcome, Kivar forgotten in the face of power.
The song burst across the valley, sending Kivar to his knees. The beautiful melody ensnared his mind, rending him helpless and he felt as if his heart would break, it was so forlorn. Through tear filled eyes, he saw Albel lying on the ground, writhing in agony. "No…" he choked on his words, clutching his aching heart.
The creature drew back its brilliant wings as it streaked across the sky towards its master and landed on the rooftop in a billow of flame, shrieking triumphantly. The sound threatened to break Albel in half and he screamed in pain.
The Voice walked swiftly to him, gathering his limp body in his arms. "It will be as I promised, dear heart. All the pain will go away and we will be one for eternity." He looked up at the beast and stretched out one hand. "Khazrael deems it so."
The creature made a soft noise that could only be described as a coo and Kivar watched horrified as the figures of Albel and the stranger blurred into one. "Sir Albel!" he stumbled to his feet and ran towards the fire, but great walls of flame flared up, blocking the creature and Albel from sight. "No!"
Dazed, Albel barely realized that he was merged again with the Voice and could only stare helplessly at the beast. "You…" he whispered. "Tried to… control… me… no."
Let him take you, the Voice murmured gently from within his mind. Let yourself be bathed in the fires that birthed you. You know this is your destiny. Feel it, take it!
A pained howl ripped from his throat as his exhausted body finally succumbed to the allure he had endured for so long. The explosion rocked the rooftop arena and Kivar was flung back against the wall, his skull smashing into the stone.
His last thought before he slipped into the dark void was of the woman he loved.
Kivar moaned brokenly as he roused himself from unconsciousness, feeling as if his skull had been cracked open like an egg. The instant he tried to move, a bout of nausea gripped his insides in a vice and he lay still. What in the holy name of Apris had happened?
Ugh, but it hurt too much to think.
He had only come here for an early morning training session… with Albel… Albel…
Gods, that thing had Albel!
"Albel!" he cried out hoarsely, his throat literally begging for cool water. Forcing himself upright, he fought a wave of dizziness and it seemed like an eternity until his vision and the smoke cleared.
A man stood in the midst of the smouldering ruin.
The figure was so familiar that a wide smile broke out over Kivar's face. "Sir Albel!" he cried, clamping a hand to the wound on his head and struggling to his feet to greet him. "What was that thing, that man? How did you escape?"
But the man who turned to him was not Albel. Yet it was still Albel. But something was different. Something was horribly wrong.
"Sir Albel?" Even as he said the words, Kivar knew and he took a hesitant step backwards.
"No…" the man shook his head, jet black hair swishing back and forth. "I am something much, much more." He turned to Kivar, who slid down to the ground at the sight of the cold black eyes.
"Who are you?" he whispered, watching the man come towards him.
He smiled cruelly, tilting his chin up to stare directly into his terrified grey eyes. "Raised from the flesh of the Demon of the Eclipse, child of the Accursed One," he intoned softly, his eyes gleaming with malicious laughter.
He paused and Kivar knew, somehow he knew.
"Sero de Khazrael."
To be continued…