For a while now, I’ve debated including an excerpt from my novel here on my blog. It felt a bit like pandering, to be honest.As if I was begging people to read it. That’s not a feeling I like, so I avoided putting it up.
That’s not the only reason, however. The other is because usually a excerpt is from the first couple of chapters. In this case, those don’t really sell things, since all they do is set up the world and the characters. Even the preface is just set up, so while it’s all important, it isn’t what I’d call the best part.
That would be Chapter 41. Of a 47 chapter book. I’m sure you can see the dilemma this poses.
A few days ago, I was chatting with someone who had recently read the book, however, and he said something that ended up making me decide to share this chapter anyway. Basically, that this was one of the best things he’d read in a long time. That’s a paraphrase, since he said a lot more, but I’m trying to get to the point.
I went back and read the chapter again myself, and I admit, I was surprised by it. Mostly, that this came out of my brain meats. It’s good. Like, better than I think I am good. It’s powerful, poignant, and meaningful.
It also sells the world. Not just the book, or the series, but the world setting. Besides War Witch, I’ve got dozens of works set in this world, and could easily write in it for the rest of my life. This, though, it really does speak to the heart of what this world setting is about. It says everything.
It also manages to be somewhat prescient. It was written several years ago now, before my girlfriend, Storm, got sick. Before the cancer. Before I faced a life where she may not always be a part of it. Reading it again, it struck me, and comforted me in ways I cannot express properly. It was the words I needed, written by myself, years back.
I don’t know how to feel about that. I don’t know what to even think about that.
It was all enough for me to decide that this was the chapter that I should share, however. This is what this book, this series, and this world I have made is saying to any who read it.
There will be parts you won’t understand. That’s okay. The part you will understand will be obvious when you get to it. That’s the part that matters. That’s the part I want to share.
As always, I hope only that you enjoy it, and find some meaning in it.
Chapter Forty One
Untar sagged while cheers rose up from the soldiers gathered around as the flying citadel ripped itself apart from the inside. Weary and wounded, the King started to sink to the ground, only to find himself caught by Esteban, who held him up. Nodding his thanks, he watched the massive structure collapse into the ocean.
A few feet away, Chara slid her mystic weapons away, Shana grasping her shoulder. Leena took off her cracked glasses, unable to suppress her smile as the citadel fell apart. Somehow, they had done it.
The docks shattered, ships tore asunder as the thing fell, sending great waves crashing up, creating even more devastation. Everywhere they looked, buildings lay in ruin, fires burned, and citizens scrambled to put them out, or just wandered in a daze.
The remaining Doppelgangers fled, melting into the crowd, disguising themselves as they sought escape. Untar frowned at that, knowing that somehow, they would have to be rooted out and dealt with. That was a problem for tomorrow though. Today, they had survived.
Healers from the temples arrived a few minutes later, attending to the injured as the city guard fell into their training, organizing the civilians and directing them to places of sanctuary. Wizards and sorcerers from Kormack’s Tower spread out, fighting the fires, and as the shock of the citadel’s arrival faded, the city of Lansing pulled together.
Neighbors helped one another, shops threw wide their doors, giving freely whatever was needed, soldiers dug through rubble to reach survivors, and mages lent their mystic abilities where ever they could.
Up on the wall, Rills squad had gathered, Rakin and Vernit reaching the last cannon just as the citadel began to fall, leaving it to return and gather their comrades. The Lieutenant sat, the full weight of all that had happened finally settling over him, his tear streaked face still somehow showing his pride in them. Toms had collected Ramora’s sword, left lying beside the mystic cannon, a silent testament to her exhaustion. Together, they began the long march down, finding Izra as they went.
Saddened to see another Blessed lost, Rills had reached out, meaning to close her eyes, only to have the Deep Elf jerk her head up. Badly wounded, she still lived, so Rills let her lean on him, and carried her out to find aid.
Chara sat, a temple healer checking her shoulder and head injury, watching as people rushed about. She had never felt so tired in her life. Every inch of her ached, her very soul seeming to beg for sleep.
Through the crowd and smoke, she saw Ramora come through the castle gates, pausing to look over the chaos before walking on, heading down the street and disappearing around a turn as the young woman pushed herself to her feet, waving off the healer.
Catching the eye of Leena, Untar, Esteban, and Shana, they all knew where she was going. They gathered in silence, trying to decide what to do, and if following was the right course, or if the Blessed should be given a moment alone.
Rills squad exited the broken gates a few moments later, spotting Chara and the others turning to follow Ramora. Izra refused the healers, asking to go with them, getting a nod from Rills. Ragged, the squad moved in behind the others, walking down the street until they turned, passing Renfro’s broken form without a thought.
Ramora knelt, Leto’s head pulled into her lap, her fingers stroking his face. For some time, no one moved, simply watching, bearing witness as she relived her greatest pain. She did not scream, or even cry, instead she simply sat there, staring down at him in sadness.
She had turned twenty three today.
Finally, Chara forced herself to walk, her aching legs wobbly as she crossed the distance, what felt like miles, to kneel beside her. The warrior looked up, seeing her friends blood stained and smudged face as behind the injuries, those wide, expressive hazel eyes mourned with her.
Reaching out, Chara rested Ramora’s head on her shoulder, and helped her grieve, so she would not have to do it alone this time. No words were said. None were needed. Not between them.
Shana joined them a moment later, kneeling on Ramora’s other side, her grief welling up again. Her Blessed had fallen. The hole in her soul was too vast for words. She fell into the arm the warrior held out to her, crying enough for them both.
Shrugging off Rills, Izra limped over, collapsing alongside Chara. She too found a shoulder as the young woman pulled her in, unable to imagine her pain. Watching them, knowing he could not be a part of the circle they shared, Rills sank down, sitting in the street as he mourned the passing of his hero. The squad he had been given that morning, men and women he had only known a few hours, joined him, paying their respects for the Blessed that had died protecting them.
Untar remained, leaning on Esteban, both men wanting to go to the women, and seeing they could not. For Untar, it was a matter of respect. They were warriors all, heroes that had risked everything and lost much to save his city. He would not intrude on that moment. He couldn’t. He had no right.
For Esteban, it was the realization that they were beyond his reach. Chara, his beloved, Ramora, his friend, and Izra, his ally, were miles outside his grasp. It was bittersweet, but he accepted it, knowing in that moment they always would be. He lived in their shadow.
Leena watched it all, standing back from the rest. As a Silken Sister, she had learned since childhood how to be detached, emotionless, and above the fray. It was needed, for when a Sister fell, one could not lose themselves to anger. The war rolled on, and she, like all of the Sisters, was a soldier in it.
She would grieve, alone, in silence, when the time was right.
The four women stayed there for some time, grieving the loss of a friend, a lover, a kind, noble soul, and a Blessed of Grannax. The world was darker, and as if the Emperor of Heaven himself shared their sorrow, it began to rain as the sun shone down on them.
Another champion of Heaven had fallen.
Sadness was the common coin of the realm.
It took three days before a proper memorial could be arranged. The devastation of Lansing needed to be attended to first. Many citizens of the great city had been lost, even more gravely injured. Most of the temples in the city had been damaged in the bombardment, leaving little room for a remembrance to be held even had there been time.
Ramora spent those days helping where she could, expending what magic energy her Avatar could muster as it regenerated its leg, tending the injured. When she had nothing left to give there, she lost herself in working at clearing debris. It helped keep her mind from the dark thoughts that swirled endlessly.
Attachments were weapons you handed the Demon Seed so they could rip out your heart.
Meeting Chara, she had thought to leave that behind, wanting to believe that letting others in could make her a stronger person. Losing her, she had almost shut down, retreating back to the shy girl of her youth. Leto had coaxed her back from that, and while she knew what they had shared wasn’t love, it had been something special, a trust that she had hoped would sustain her.
Now that was gone as well. Everyone she reached out to either died, or left her. It was too much hurt, too much sorrow, for her to bear. She couldn’t take it again. Her very soul felt ragged, tattered, and broken beyond repair.
Attachments were weapons you handed the Demon Seed so they could rip out your heart.
She threw herself into whatever she could to escape the agony of being a death sentence to anyone foolish enough to care for her. She lost herself in the simplest of things, to escape the crushing despair.
Draco had taken everything from her again. Even her chance at justice. Without her fellow Blessed, she knew, she would never be able to defeat him, so she resigned herself to die trying. At least then, she would be with her family in Paradise, free of the agony of life.
Chara watched her, unable to bridge the distance the warrior put between herself and everyone. More than anything, she wanted to reach out to her, hold her, comfort her, and be what she needed. More than anything, Chara wanted to turn back time, and choose a different road than the one she walked now, one where she could be there for the ever silent Blessed as more than a friend.
She and Esteban helped clear wreckage, along with Ramora, but though they stood side by side, they were so far apart the young woman felt she would never be able to find her friend again. Looking to the towering werecat, Chara wondered why things had gone the way they did.
Her quiet introspection gave Rakiss no end of trouble as he fought to keep her from unraveling the emotions he had forced on her. Esteban never questioned his love of Chara, but more and more, he found, she did her love of him. Standing behind her, he watched Lansing grieve, and asked himself if he was really doing the right thing.
Was this for the greater good, as he often told himself? Watching Chara work, he had to believe it was. Not just this, or what he had done already, but the awful things to come. They had to be worth it.
He desperately prayed they were.
When the time finally came for the memorial to be held, the city paused in their efforts, looking to the castle, where those who had been lost would be remembered in the courtyard, the only place in the city large enough to hold the gathering properly. Lansing stopped, to remember the fallen.
Six Blessed. One hundred fifty three city guards. Five hundred and ninety eight citizens.
For Untar, as he looked at the small dais that awaited him on that cloudy afternoon, finding the right words seemed an insurmountable task. What could he possibly say that would ease the pain of his people? How could he ever explain that he had grown lax, allowing so many Demon Seed to thrive under his very nose? What would ever make it right again?
Walking to the small podium that would mystically carry his voice across the whole of the city, to every ear, the circlet he wore as a crown felt as heavy as a boulder. He had failed his people, his city, and his friends. Words would not come easy.
On that overcast day, as thunder rumbled in the distance, he looked down to see Ramora sitting front and center, Izra to her left, Chara to her right, and faltered. Esteban and Leena served as bookends to the three women who had done more, sacrificed more, than there was any right to expect, or ask. Just behind them was Rills and the squad that had stood by him during the events of that awful morning, their bravery beyond compare.
Between he and them sat six coffins, the final bed of the Blessed who had died. Lining the courtyard on either side, one hundred and fifty three more, the soldiers who had lost their lives.
The King of Lansing felt unworthy to speak before them.
“Today we bid farewell to heroes,” he said at last, the cool ocean tinged wind tugging at him as the storm that was coming called out to them. “It is not an easy thing to do, saying goodbye, knowing there will not be another greeting to come in this life. It is not an easy thing to reconcile, the loss of those whose lives should have been longer, for they had much more to yet give this world. It is not an easy thing to understand, the cruelty that has taken them from us. It is not an easy thing to manage, the life that continues in their absence.”
Pausing, he forced himself to look to Ramora and Izra, but found no judgment in their eyes. In a way, he felt, it would have been better if he had. Perhaps, it would at least justify what he saw in his own eyes when he looked in the mirror.
“Life does go on, however. It does, because it must. We have that obligation now, thrust upon us in the most unwelcome of ways, leaving us no choice but to shoulder it. Our bodies may hurt, our hearts may bleed, and our souls may weep, as living on is the heaviest burden of all, but shoulder it we must. We did not ask for that responsibility, no more than we desire it, but it is ours none the less, and shoulder it we must.”
Untar gripped the podium, his hands trembling. “How do we do it? How do we carry on, continuing to live, with this gaping hole in our lives? This ragged place in our hearts? I know each of you asks yourself that, as I do, for regardless of our station in life, be it King, or Blessed, soldier, or citizen, we all feel, we all love, we all grieve, and we all do it the same. It is what makes us alike despite our differences, what joins us, gives us common purpose, and allows us to walk together, of one mind, one heart, and one soul, even in these dark times.”
Thunder rolled from the south, giving him a moment to pause, hoping the rain would come soon, that he might hide the tears that Lansing’s King could not show now. Not while the people needed him to be strong, resolute, and unwavering.
“It is there that we find the strength to live on. Not in what we have lost, but in what we have found. Not in the absence of those who are not with us, but in the presence of those who stand by us. It is there we find the means to heal these grievous wounds, in the helping hands of our neighbors, friends, and loved ones. It is there our will to move forward is at its strongest, as we stand as one, that which sets us apart weighing less than that which makes us the same. It is there we find hope.”
Izra wrapped her fingers into Ramora’s hand, the simple gesture giving the warrior comfort. She squeezed the Elf’s hand, and felt it be returned, dispelling a tiny trace of the agony by virtue of the warmth in of her touch.
“Today we say goodbye to those we have lost,” Untar continued. “We know they are in Paradise, at peace, their burdens lifted. We know they wish us only happiness, love, and joy. We know we will see them again, there, one day. We know they do not desire us to rush to it, for we all still have much to give to this world, and that this world needs all we can give it, for it is a tragic world, filled to the brim with sorrow. We know that by standing together, we can make it a world filled with acceptance, understanding, and peace, each in our own way.”
Chara laid her head against Esteban, and felt his strong arm around her. She took comfort in it, for she needed it, craved it, and could not find it where she wanted it most. Torn between sorrow for that, and guilt for taking it, she felt her heart twist painfully, and tried to understand why.
“This is what they have given their lives for,” Untar said, his voice waving slightly. “This is what they believed was worth dying for. That this world can be a better place than it is. That we can see a brighter tomorrow. Let us not grieve that, for there is no greater cause, no better purpose, and no more noble a thing to lay down ones life for. That those we leave behind may see a world that is kinder, gentler, and warmer than the one we depart. I believe those we remember today held that goal with their passing breath, for they were all, to the last, nobler souls than I have ever known. We are all better for having known them, and in their sacrifice, become worthy of them having made it.”
He could not keep his voice from cracking at the last, and with his pain on display for all of Lansing, continued anyway. “As we commit their mortal remains to the earth, returning their souls to the Heavens, let us never forget that. We are made worthy of their sacrifice in them having made it.”
As he stepped away from the podium, Shana appeared in a swirl of light, accompanied by five other Ascended. From the haunted look in their eyes, it was not hard to guess at who they were. The servants of the Gods, the conduit by which the Divine was passed to mortal hands, to stand against the darkness, had lost a piece of their own soul with the fall of the Blessed they served. With thunder rumbling above them, they joined the city in mourning.
Ramora had known each of the Blessed by reputation the day she had met them, and knew the Ascended by name, for she had lived among them. Seeing them wrapped in their pain made her forget her own for a time as she stood to reach out to them, hugging each in turn as they made ready for the long march to Casterperi Hill, a place for the honored dead, where the Blessed and soldiers would find their final rest.
Caleri, with her blackish green hair and reptile eyes, had stood beside Rick for many years under the auspices of Terakus. Yorndo, the powerfully built, bald Ascended of Verea, with his skin showing the fainest lines of scales, had walked with Sabra by the snake Goddess’s desire. Qaru, with her long, thick horse tail, had guided Bit at the order of Amaron. Larak, bat wings folded tight to his back, grieved the stoic Tanna, not just for himself, but Neglis. Gera, wide raven wings drooping, trailed fingers over Flick’s coffin, saying goodbye for Rialda, and herself.
Chara stood back, watching as Ramora, Izra, and Untar took a moment to offer the demigods their condolences. She wanted to join them, to stand by Shana, express her sorrow, but felt she had no right. They, like the warrior she cared for more than she could say, were beyond her now. She had no place at their side.
Rakiss remained by her, invisible, but knowing the other Ascended could see him. He did not approach, no more than they acknowledged him. He wanted to be among them, for he knew their pain all too well. He thought of Emiline, and with a brief look to Chara, decided to leave them and the mortals to their grief.
He would not sully this day with his works, even if it cost him everything.
The Ascended stood with the three remaining Blessed, and Rills squad, loading the caskets of the fallen agents of Heaven and soldiers alike onto the carts that would carry them to the cemetery. By the time they had finished, the rain had begun, a steady drizzle that none balked from as they made their way out of the courtyard, lead by Untar.
The King walked, a man now and not a ruler, with the Ascended at his back. Ramora and Izra followed, Rills and his soldiers at their heels, Chara, Esteban and Leena the final members of the procession as the small wagons with their woeful loads came after, making the journey in a single line.
Chara paid no heed to the rain, her mind grasping to understand why the world was this way. The stories of how Ker Zet had fallen and brought such great evil to the world did little to ease her grief. Good men and women, friends, people she had come to know, respect, and care for were gone, and she did not understand why.
Why was the world so cruel? So cold? The questions plagued her as she followed in the footsteps of heroes, with martyrs at her back.
She could find no answers, only a last question she pondered for much of the long walk. Was she strong enough to stand by them, and die like them?
The procession wound through Lansing, a route known to all as the Last Road, a wide spiral that allowed the honored dead to pass through much of the city, in turn allowing the city to pay their respects. The way was lined from start to end with citizens of mighty Lansing, their heads bowed as they thanked the fallen for their sacrifice, swearing in their hearts it would not be in vain.
Half way along the Last Road, a boy, no more than five, watched as the procession passed, staring at the coffins for a while before asking his mother, “Why did they die?”
“So we might live,” she answered, pulling him close to her.
“The Gods will send more Blessed to protect us, won’t they?” he pressed.
“We can only hope,” she told him.
He nodded, his young face set and resolute as he said, “Then one day, I’ll become a Blessed, so I can take their place, and protect everyone.”
His mother, saddened and proud at the same time, knelt and gathered him close. “I know you will, Gannon. I know you will.”
Many are those who choose the path of hero, as many as have it fall to them. For each, in the deeds of their lives, and even in the manner of their death, they can serve as an inspiration. Young eyes that look upon them, their legacy, and become driven to aspire to be as selfless. The gentle ripple of a noble action, a sacrifice made for others, spreads in ways that cannot be predicted, often changing the course of a single life, that may go on to save many. A line, unseen, unspoken, that makes a better world, by the subtlest of degrees.
Rain continued to fall as the procession finally arrived at Casterperi Hill, on the eastern edge of the city. A rolling stretch of lush green, it was dotted with ancient oak trees and monuments carved to reflect the good men and women who had found their final rest there. As the thunder rolled slowly over the gathered, they returned to the earth their friends, their family, and their loved ones.
They said goodbye, until they could meet once more, in Paradise.