Seventeen years later,
Fiery lanterns shimmered along the innermost stone walls and steel gateways that enclosed the cathedral plaza off to the east. They kindled the brace poles on either side of the walkway, guiding any lost wanders to the chantry—or further down the west wing, where the vicar conveyed the doctrine for the day. It was that doctrine they lived by and it was that doctrine they died by.
Natural fire sparkled over the masses below, igniting their red and black non-combatant uniforms in a golden summer glow.
Contemplation lingered in the depths of the vicar’s greying eyes that wandered over the soundless crowd of Excelian Centurions who heeded his words with each breath he bequeathed. He towered over the first row, behind a grandstand on the balcony of the marble stairs, clad in burnt-cerise and silver robes, pressed finely.
In a thunderous yet quavering tenor, coarsened by time, he uttered: “In the past, our people were inflicted with the worst cruelty known to man. When our ancestors, suffered, no one aided them in their time of peril. Instead, they were shunned and shamed for voicing their suffering. Beneath their bruised, bloodied, and blemished skin, they possessed resilience, clarity, and strength of character.
“Despite their squandered hope, something bestowed them with the power to fight their oppressors and encompass liberation. Those who unjustly suffered torture and death became the first guardians of our people.
“Throughout the millennia, many lost their humanity and evolved as Excelians: beings gifted with their own unique natural skills and power, blessed with blood, which is as sacred as the lands we walk on. All of this must be considered, valued, and respected with every action we take for the rest of our lives.
“Even as our muscles are sturdier than the strongest metal excavated, complementing speed as fast as the winds of a destructive hurricane, our minds are just as quick.
“Our senses are heightened beyond our comprehension, to match our elemental abilities and our wounded hearts. It is our wounded hearts, our progenitors’ pain, which drives our connection with the elements and our home and reminds us every day that our carefully cultivated world is a gift to be cherished and not corrupted.
“To believe nothing, is to accept and know that the manifestation of manipulation and misdirected truth exists. To regret nothing, is to understand that for every action conducted to save yourself or many will befall criticism and hatred. See everything, with open eyes, open minds, and open hearts, for the truth will be revealed in every decision made—every action taken will always reveal the truth, often hidden by many layers of secrets and deceit.
“Finally, fear none in the lands beyond ours; fear is a tool to control, oppress and suppress. In saying this, may our blood guide us to value our world and our continued survival.”
Second Lieutenant of the Princeps Core, Gothalia Ignatius-Valdis, joined everyone in the hall in repeating, “May our blood guide us to value our world and our survival.” Then they all climbed to their feet to leave the chantry.
They were the Order of the Phoenix, housed within the Cetatea, that was one of the largest fortresses in New Icarus. It oversaw the training and education of future Centurions, as it had for millennia.
The Cetatea overlooked and guarded the Fire Reserve, protecting it from both the extensive, ancient lava-filled chasms and surface dwellers. With high-set walls, the Cetatea had been crafted to deter those who would dare scale it and ensure climbers would not dare reach its peak.
The towers of amaranthine durability were fortified with motion sensors to detect earthquakes, lava spills and any other infiltrations or disturbances that would befall their home, even if many had believed it could not fall to such frivolous things.
The deep crevices of the Earth’s crust hid the fortress well, tucking it away and out of sight, from prying eyes and poisonous thoughts that threatened invasion. Powerful wards guarded the city and its people, nurtured by Grand Elders, and guarded by the Foreseers.
Gothalia walked the old stone grounds, evading every person at the corner of her vision. She didn’t acknowledge the familiar pieces of the chessboard she passed, nor bother with small talk as she went to meet up with her mentor.
Why provide any chance for their ill words or to incite more gossip? She would often remind herself this, for she knew no one would dare speak to her. They all feared the demon within.
Except for a few, and Anaphora Reagan-Valdis was one of those few. She was a woman of the Valdis clan, by name if not by blood. She never added to Gothalia’s discrimination. She didn’t care who she pushed aside to keep Gothalia safe, for it was her duty. She understood Gothalia’s anathema but never paid it any unnecessary heed.
Anaphora was an intelligent woman, who never hesitated to arm herself with words sharper than her blade.
Even though Gothalia was twenty-three, she was expected, like the rest of the Princeps, to complete one final year under her mentor’s guidance.
Then, she would be free to conduct her missions.
Even so, she recognised the mistrust that would befall her, bloom in the mouths of those with paltry understanding of her.
Gothalia lingered in the courtyard.
Her thoughts were riddled with persecute retentions, one that would demand a call for mourning.
She observed the dojang in the distance with despondency, this place she had trained at a few years before. A place she believed she could not return to ever again.
From the day she could never return, she changed in a way she never expected. She became cautious of who she would interact with, aware only very few could be trusted—that is until she had let her guard down and paid the ultimate price.
Across the courtyard, she recognised Anaphora’s dark eyes following her, inspecting her. She can tell, Gothalia thought unhappily.
For as long as she had known Anaphora, nothing had ever escaped Anaphora’s uncanny perceptiveness – regardless of how many times Gothalia had endeavoured to hide in the past.
Discreetly, Gothalia allowed the muscles in her face to relax, but the look on Anaphora’s features confirmed it had not made a difference.
The tension in her shoulders was accompanied by a sullen gloom in her dark eyes.
Anaphora waited patiently until Gothalia was close enough before voicing her thoughts, and when she did, her words were detached yet strewn with concern.
“You don’t seem happy.”
Gothalia eyed her old dojang from over her shoulder before turning away, choosing to not look back.
“I could be better.” Gothalia’s attention drifted to her mentor, who in turn, studied the young woman, impassively.
“You will be.” Anaphora crossed her fingers loosely behind her back.
They walked inside, their black combat boots clicked lightly against the opaque black marble floor, engraved with translucent flowers and ancient symbols whose meaning had long been forgotten. “I have a mission for you—tomorrow.”
“To the surface world—why not tonight?” Gothalia pressed, aware her mentor would throw jobs at her left right and centre. Any further questions Gothalia had were halted by the appearance of female Excelians at the end of the hall.
The Excelians were huddled deep in conversation and their focus danced from each other to Gothalia and her mentor and back to each other again. Their hushed words were punctuated with muffled giggles. The women gathered at the mouth of a large breezeway that expanded into a lush garden filled with a varied flowers, trees, herbs, as well as one of the many aqueducts found throughout their home, which carried water from a large central lake. The garden housed a main fountain which was shaped to replicate a female Centurion which many had long forgotten even if her legacy survived.
Anaphora continued, responding to Gothalia’s question:
“You can’t go tonight. I have other matters to tend to, and no, it is not the Northern Reserves this time. There is another matter with the Xzandians that requires our immediate attention. The Northern Earth Reserve seems peaceful for now. No need to interrupt the natural order.”
“Not to be uncouth, but what natural order? The previous ruler of the Northern Reserves may have been a wise man. However, his son is power-hungry and takes what he wants, with no regard or respect for the natural order of things,” Gothalia exclaimed. “Of all the members in the family to ascend to the throne, why did they have to choose him?”
“It’s not our job to understand, only to safeguard. He and his brothers have been warned to be mindful of their actions, but it’s his choice should he decide to be selfish, and if he steps out of line . . . we’ll know.”
Gothalia did not vex Anaphora further with her unwarranted questions. Instead, her gaze dawdled over the women further down the hall, with mild dislike.
The women drew closer to Gothalia and her mentor until their faces became discernible, much to Gothalia’s regret.
An unhinged desire to abandon the area arose, and Gothalia stubbornly refused to listen to such ridiculous fear, to submit any further to the anxiety these women could cause.
An exhausted sigh escaped Gothalia’s lips when the women met her gaze – a reminder of yet another of the unnecessary irritations she was forced to deal with.
“I think you have a different battle of your own right now,” Anaphora hinted, looking with shrewd scrutiny at Persephone Maragos.
As a Lieutenant Colonel, Anaphora had no place intervening in meaningless rivalry. However, as a Triarius, she was regarded highly for her wisdom and tact in such delicate matters.
Anaphora nodded at Persephone and her friends in a silent greeting, which Gothalia did not approve of, then vanished into the shadows of the building, leaving Gothalia alone with the intolerable Excelian women.
Gothalia knew of Persephone’s presence without needing to be informed. Her father was here for another business meeting.
Persephone Maragos was the daughter of a wealthy banker from New Icarus, Michelob Maragos. Whatever she wanted, she procured with little difficulty – including all the men Gothalia had ever been interested in. Which was why she no longer bothered.
“Look who decided to crawl out of the mud! Tell me, did you enjoy your bath?” On cue, her group chimed in laughter.
Gothalia wondered if Persephone remembered how that had happened. As usual, Persephone was more concerned with Gothalia’s failings, never on their aftermath. If only everyone knew . . . Gothalia pondered, itching to smile at her the thought she wouldn’t share.
Instead, she responded,
“Why don’t you go and do something worthwhile other than open your legs?” Ignoring Persephone’s stunned reaction, Gothalia tried to push by the woman, only to be held up short when Persephone refused to let her pass.
“You think you can speak to me like that? You’re nothing but a filthy orphan! No one wants you and I’m certain your parents didn’t want you either.” Persephone sneered. The other women stepped back, almost burnt by the scorching fury of Gothalia’s glare.
Persephone’s unsympathetic words met the ears of the male Centurions across the garden, whose curious gazes drifted to the women in the centre.
“You may be a Centurion but you’re a lowlife, unworthy of the title. A loner like you doesn’t deserve it,” she continued. The girls giggled, momentarily forgetting Gothalia’s wrath, while Persephone circled her like a vulture preparing to feast. Gothalia didn’t waver beneath her scrutiny, holding her head high.
It was the eyes of the men that amused Persephone. Her already dangerous smile grew poisonous.
“Look, we have their attention. No matter, it’s not like they’re looking at you.” She batted her eyelashes at the men, before narrowing her cold calculating gaze on Gothalia.
Gothalia rolled her eyes slowly.
“You’re right. They’re not looking at me. You’re the talk of the town.”
“I know.” Persephone sung, in a whimsical voice and her friends fell silent. They watched Gothalia with fearful anticipation of her next words.
“Rumour has it, Daddy’s losing money because of your family’s dirty deeds and illegal affiliations. So, no, those men aren’t looking at me, they’re watching you. You know, because you descend from a line of criminals, a once-proud family now forever tainted, and not very clever. You sully your reputation and everyone who ever worked with your family. If anyone is unwanted around here, it’s you.” Gothalia’s tone switched from sarcasm to warning: “Now, get out of my way before I have the Peacekeepers arrest you for harassment and defamation.”
“You can’t do that!” Persephone wailed.
Gothalia’s dark gaze tightened and an evil smile curled at her pink lips.
“I can, and I will. Or have you forgotten, Daddy has no power here, princess? You are on my turf now, and technically you are a guest. I’d advise you best behave.” With that said, Gothalia left Persephone behind in a bubbling rage. As quickly as Persephone’s anger had erupted, it evaporated.
Her gaze narrowed on Gothalia’s retreating form. “We’ll see, demon.”
Persephone stormed away, then paused to glower at the women, who hadn’t followed.
“You don’t need an invitation. Let’s go!” They hastened after her as she crossed the garden, passing the men who had seen the altercation. The men eagerly avoided eye contact with the raging brunette and her friends, before returning to their duties.
From afar, Gothalia saw Persephone vacate the lush gardens, and questioned whether she was too harsh.
“Don’t stress about it,” a woman said from behind her. Second Lieutenant Princeps Demetria Crystallovis and First Lieutenant Aquilifer Asashin Brutus approached.
Their eyes lingered on Persephone’s figure, until she was out of sight.
“I don’t understand why you feel empathy towards a person like her. Then again, I’m not female so I wouldn’t understand,” Asashin remarked.
“I don’t think it’s a female thing,” Demetria responded, displeased by the comment. “Not all women care for each other, remember?”
Asashin eyed Demetria, surprised by her bluntness, though he knew she meant no disrespect by the question. Nor did she push further; she knew he remembered.
He remembered better than anyone, Gothalia recalled but did not mention, for she knew it was not her place. Demetria had hinted at the Earth Reserve and their only princess, and silence followed the insinuation.
“I’m certain, Lieutenant Colonel Reagan-Valdis will expect us to respond should we need to.”
“For now, I’m told there’s peace in the Earth Reserve and no threats to our home from the surface world. So, there’s nothing to really worry about,” Gothalia added, not entirely believing her words.
“Right?” Demetria said. “And how long is the peace in New Eorthen supposed to last?”
“As long as it needs to.” Asashin interrupted.
His brown eyes peered at Demetria, filled with intellect and acuity. They reflected his strong features, enough so it made Gothalia question how he worked. He was a man that could be difficult to read at times, but there were moments, Gothalia caught a glimmer of his personality—not that she would ever voice this aloud.
Demetria, on the other hand, could be read effortlessly, even when she assumed, she couldn’t.
“Then, we have to go and pick up the pieces again?” she probed, dejected. “Why can’t some people just not cause trouble.”
“Not everyone thinks like we do,” Asashin remarked and crossed his arms, peering down at Demetria, amused by the frustration wrinkling her features.
Grudgingly, she responded, “Don’t remind me.”
How time flies, Gothalia thought, regarding the light blue sky above. She often forgot it was artificial, especially, when she felt the fake heat of the rays on her skin, and the brief cool breeze that filtered through the compound, cooling the warm summer days and bringing with it a lingering, faint smell of dry soil.
“Let’s get going,” Asashin said. “Otherwise we’ll be late.”
“For what?” Gothalia asked, confused. She crossed her arms and shifted her hips.
“The tournament. They’ve announced new competitors.” He wandered past her with Demetria following.
“Why is it always violence that people enjoy? What I wouldn’t give for a good book,” Gothalia muttered despondently beneath her breath, following her friends.
It did not take long for the Centurions of the Dragon Core unit to reach the Colosseo.
As they ventured closer to the amphitheatre, they heard the uproar of the crowd.
Below, and surrounded by onlookers, were men dressed in traditional Excelian armour, their swords drawn and shields steady. With deceased former competitors surrounding them, the two men squared off.
Gothalia was too aware of the deceased competitors. The moderators needed to list every fallen contender and all the injuries sustained. From Gothalia’s perspective there were one too many strikes on most of the bodies; she quickly concluded that the competitors were not too skilled.
“That’s too many cuts-he shouldn’t need that many to take down an opponent. It’s a waste of time.” Demetria echoed beside Gothalia.
“Look at them. They’re going to collapse before they can even deliver the final blow,” Asashin declared, jerking his chin at the struggling, sturdy-built men—clearly less than impressed. “Sloppy.”
Gothalia did not respond.
A voice from beside the group, emanating from the furthest chair at the back, caught every Centurion’s attention:
“Betheous, is struggling. That is a surprise.” A middle-aged man stroked his salt-and-pepper beard. His brown eyes watched Betheous with scrutiny, as though he were about to reprimand a child.
“Heard he was drinking it up and whoring last night,” another man noted, from beside the older man.
“Serves him right I suppose,” the first man declared.
Gothalia, Demetria, and Asashin shared a knowing look before glancing at the timer in the centre of the arena.
Four minutes left until the end of the competition.
If either man did not fall before the timer ceased, the moderators were within their right to call a draw. Considering the time left, Gothalia knew they would not be given another chance to fight each other.
“I say Betheous will fall after two minutes,” Gothalia asserted, eyeing his rapid breathing and the hand that held his sword. It trembled from overuse and excessive strain.
“I say, one,” Demetria announced. “I bet five silver stones.”
“You’re on. I say, he’ll fall within the next minute and a half,” Asashin added. “They don’t look like they can last much longer, to be honest.”
Gothalia’s laughter echoed as the crowd hushed at the intense competition. “Sounds like we have a wager.” She watched the men, entertained.
Demetria groaned, aggravated, when Betheous dropped to one knee after just a minute, before staggering to his feet once more. She muttered,
“Why are you so stubborn?”—or—”Why didn’t you stay down?” The vigorous fight continued, much to Demetria’s palpable frustration.
The bodies that once limited their range of movement faded away. Eventually, Betheous fell, at two minutes and fifty-five seconds until countdown, making the other competitor victorious.
The spectators slowly departed, leaving the older man who had spoken of Betheous in loathing muttering string of curses.
When Demetria and Asashin moved to flee the arena, they were stopped short by Gothalia, who cleared her throat and held out her hand.
“I believe I’m to be rewarded.” The sly expression that masked Gothalia’s face annoyed Demetria more than it bothered Asashin.
“Don’t get smart.” Demetria replied, handing over five silver stones, not meeting her gaze.
Gothalia held out her hand to Asashin who hesitated.
“You said at the two-minute mark.”
“No, I said after two minutes.”
Asashin glanced at Demetria.
“I won’t tell anyone if you slap her.”
“Oh, believe me. I’m considering it.” Demetria folded her arms, disgruntled when Asashin relinquished his silver coins.
Gothalia tucked the coins away in her belt before walking ahead.
“Pleasure doing business with you, both,” she called over her shoulder, not looking back before heading to the debriefing room, pleased she’d make it on time.
Demetria and Asashin watched her leave.
“I could always take her out from behind and you snatch the money. Then we run for our lives,” Demetria offered.
Asashin’s contagious laugh echoed through the halls, catching the attention of nearby Centurions in the middle of their own early morning tasks. He enveloped Demetria in a playful embrace.
“Let’s just get to work, okay?” she said.
Releasing her, Asashin sauntered after Gothalia. Demetria huffed and followed, wondering if he knew she was serious.
When Demetria and Asashin arrived at the debriefing room, they discovered it was unexpectedly crowded with other Centurions of different ranks and from different areas across the Cetatea. They noticed Gothalia sat at the front corner seat with empty chairs beside her.
Taking their seats, she uttered,
“Took you guys long enough. What were you doing?”
“Planning on taking you down,” Asashin responded. “Demetria’s idea.”
“Hey!” Demetria growled, glaring at Asashin. “Whose side are you on? I thought you wanted your money back too!”
Gothalia grinned at the statement.
“Demetria,” she sang with purposeful mockery, “If you want your money back so badly, you’re going to have to win it back.”
“I’m considering wiping that smug look off your face first. Anyway, you’ve always lost in the past, so what makes you think you won’t lose?”
“Bring it. But I assure you, unlike the previous time. I won’t hold back.” Gothalia threatened, holding Demetria’s equally dangerous glare. Demetria muttered,
“Do I have to sit between you two?” Asashin questioned sternly. Both Gothalia and Demetria did not comment, before Demetria murmured to Gothalia:
“This isn’t over.”
“Of course not. It’s just getting started.”
“Again, do I need to separate you two?” Asashin intervened. His brows narrowed at the presentation in front of them as he folded his arms, and neither woman noticed the rapid tapping of his finger against his elbow.
Demetria and Gothalia fell silent, and, with one final shared glare, they turned their attention to the front. Lieutenant Colonel Anaphora Reagan-Valdis stepped forward with Lieutenant Colonel L’Eiron Augustin-Valdis.
L’Eiron’s golden eyes lingered over the gathering of Excelian Centurions, his black-brown hair shimmering beneath the golden torches.
Gothalia was not surprised by their intimidating presence. Instead, she was intrigued by everyone’s whispers and astonishment. According to Demetria, it was rare to see two deadly Centurions in the same room at the Cetatea. Gothalia, on the other hand, had seen them together a little too often—not that she minded.
She had become accustomed to their need to chastise her for something she did or did not do. A lot of the time, she was simply confused as to why she was in trouble to begin with, especially when half of the time she had no idea what to do to avoid it.
“Newly found threats have transpired on the surface world.” Anaphora proclaimed, sharp as the edges of a new-cut diamond. Her voice silenced any further muttering from the group. “As expected, the chances of Humans stumbling upon our existence increases.”
“Extra measures have been put in place to ensure the Alastorian numbers remain limited. Yet, intelligence hints they are spread too thin throughout the world to cause much trouble on their own. In a group, they can take out hundreds. As the upper echelon of the Phoenix Order you are to undergo extensive training or missions to be prepared for this elevated high priority mission, as decreed by the Grand Elders.” Around her, Gothalia heard the other Centurions mumble in concern.
“I thought there were safeguards in place to prevent the increase in their numbers to begin with,” Demetria muttered to Gothalia.
“I know what you mean. She’s being pretty vague about this too,” Gothalia whispered back.
Asashin’s fingers stopped tapping and tightened around his elbow.
“Shh!” he scolded, glaring at Gothalia who couldn’t help but ask,
“What?” She slumped in her seat and crossed her arms and her legs in discontent, unaware, of Demetria smirking at her small victory.
A Centurion woman of the Ranger Squadron heard Asashin disciplining the younger Excelian women.
Both Gothalia and Demetria, returned their attention to the front, without another word, and listening attentively to the rest of the briefing.
Information about the Xzandians did not shock anyone in the room. Then Anaphora informed the group that the Xzandian presence was proportional to the increase in Alastorian sightings–this was when everyone opposite the Triarius collectively inhaled or stared in stunned silence.
It was news that frightened everyone in the room, regardless of how hard they tried to mask their anxiety.
They hadn’t expected it; Gothalia knew that the threat of her home being discovered by the world above would only grow, until her people would be thrown into the dark ages they feared most.