When the company reached the Axon, the night sky was still dark, but dawn wasn’t far away. Rebekka was well enough to walk, thanks to Jude’s herbal knowledge, but now she could see the thing she had been dreading for the last three weeks.
The Axon was encompassed by a high and mighty steel wall. So tall it was, one could barely see the top of it through the thick mist. Towering doors of the same steel barricaded against any who thought to invade and worst, any who wanted to get out.
The road they treaded was once muddy, but now had become solid with rock. Water from a recent rain glistened on the path but was mixed with crude oil. Rebekka lost count of how many times Wert slipped and nearly fell because of the treacherous ground. As they approached the large steel doors, Rebekka could make out green torchlight and a lone figure standing nearby it. Some ways from the figure was a large wagon and several horses.
The four prisoners were silent as they approached the steel door. Their fate had arrived, and each felt a certain doom sink in. Rebekka probably felt more doomed than any other. She had tried so desperately to escape before she had come to this point and failed.
What Rebekka had thought to be torchlight was a floating orb of smokeless fire. The figure by the orb of fire was a deathly pale man dressed in black. The green light cast an unearthly glow on his wavy black hair and strangely blank face. As they drew closer, there were whispers between the Superiors. Obviously, they were fazed by the man’s strange appearance and fearlessness of the night. The Head Superior stopped the company about a half a dozen strides before him.
“Are you the gate keeper?” the Head Superior called having a waver of fear in his voice.
“I am Aman,” the man replied. His voice was hoarse and just a grade above a whisper. “loyal only to Father. He has entrusted me to escort the new arrivals. Father wants to look over them personally and requests the attendance of the Head Superior and the Right Command Officer. Once the newcomer’s conditions have been recorded and the finer nuances are in order, you may return to where you came.”
“But we were told we would receive room and board once we reached our destination,” the Head Superior said.
Several Superiors shifted in their saddles.
“Hmm… Perhaps Father is feeling gracious and may accommodate you. Have these requests been understood clearly?”
“Y-yes,” the Head Superior stammered.
Rebekka relished the fear inflicted upon the Superiors, but at the same time was uneasy herself. Something wasn’t quite human about this man before them. She could sense it.
“The rest may stay out here until their commanders’ return,” Aman said and then grinned. “If they return. I suggest the lot of you light touches. Baying wolves are a terrible problem in these parts.”
If Aman’s manner wasn’t enough to put each of the Superiors on edge, standing out in the dark of night with baying wolves was. Nearly all of them jumped from their horses to find a torch.
Aman watched them in their frenzy with silent glee and then moved his unearthly smile to the prisoners. He scrutinized each one with a prudent, pensive eye, his gaze particularly lingering on Rebekka. Why was he staring at her, or better yet, what could he tell?
“Are you going to have your men help move the cage for transport or will I have to do it myself?” Aman asked and looked to the Head Superior.
As the Head Superior barked his orders, Aman continued to watch the chaos. Acidine clawed and bit at each of the Superiors assigned to move its cage. In return they stabbed and thrust it with their torches. After a particularly pitiful scream of pain, Rebekka couldn’t stand any more of it.
“Stop it!” she shouted. “You’re hurting ‘im!” Of course, they didn’t adhere to her plead and continued their brutal act of cruelty. She bolted forward to do something, to do anything, to make them stop, but she was held back by Jude.
“Don’t,” he told her, “there is nothing you can do.”
“But they can’t do that to ‘im,” she said trying to get out of his grasp.
“And what can you do? You are still weak and are outnumbered.”
Defeated by his advice, she eased her resistance. Right after, Acidine wailed out again. She turned her back on the scene and wiped away the tears that had found their way down to her cheeks. She couldn’t tell why she felt attachment to Acidine even after it had nearly killed her, but she felt that bond and it was real. When she looked up, not only did she notice Wert giving her a strange look, but Aman was watching her again. It was his same pensive stare, but this time paired with a frown.
A total of three Superiors had been maimed and injured once Acidine’s cage had been moved. As she watched the maimed being picked up by their fellow Superiors, Rebekka hoped that they would die. She knew that they would, but she wanted it to be in the worst way possible. She hoped that they would choke on their own blood, feel the Acidine’s poison course through their veins like fire, and that they–
Suddenly she was yanked and turned around to face Jude.
“Stop it,” he said.
She gasped, feeling a dark aura dispel away from her. Without realizing it, she had sunk into the deepest darkest corners of her mind.
“Do not fall to his presence and succumb to the evil that lurks within the mind,” Jude told her. The both of them looked to Aman. He was grinning in wicked pleasure. So diabolical it seemed, it made Rebekka shudder.
“Let us continue,” Aman said crisply and turned on a heel. Then he snapped, “And hurry it up!” Without wanting to be told twice, the four prisoners followed him. The wagon carrying Acidine followed close behind, but without a driver. Though they hadn’t been ordered to do so, the Head Superior and his Right Hand strode along each side of the four captives. Perhaps continuing their duty helped with the maddening suspense growing in their mind’s, but in all, it was useless. If any one of the captives tried to escape surely whatever was hiding in the Axon would hunt them down. That or the baying wolves.
“What is he?” Rebekka whispered to Jude.
“A specter,” he replied back. “A person who’s soul is torn between the physical realm and the spiritual one. They are usually the result of a very powerful dark magic. Only few wizards or witches know the spells require to generate one.”
“Eh you,” the Head Superior snapped, “quiet.”
“Oh, it is quite alright,” Aman said turning to the group after he had stopped nearby a panel against the wall. “I just love hearing talk about me. I’m quite… conceited.” He placed his hand against the panel and a large section of the wall vanished. Inside was a narrow corridor, lit with smokeless candles, only wide enough for the wagon behind them. The small party entered inside and just before the wall came in view once more, Rebekka glanced over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of the gently dawning sky.
The corridor was a long one that seemed to wind forever. They made so many turns and went through so many doors, Rebekka simply stopped counting and just followed her captors to whatever doom she was being led to. Finally, they reached to corridor’s end only to be greeted by a single room with no doors. A gaunt man waited for them there carrying a small box. Before they began the passageway up, Aman had the man open his little box, which contained four metal collars. With a flick of a finger, Aman sent the collars to snap on each of the four prisoners.
“Now we shall proceed,” he said and snapped his fingers twice. The ground beneath them trembled and began to rise. Rebekka stumbled as her footing became unstable, as did Jude’s and Mason’s. Wert however, wasn’t affected by the sudden movement. Was this some sort of contraption? Or was it magic?
In a matter of moments, the ground had lifted them up into a different room. This one was much larger than the last. In fact, it was as large as a throne room. The room was undoubtedly circular, and the ceiling was so tall, Rebekka couldn’t see it. The same smokeless candles provided light to the room, but not very much. Most of the room’s light originated from its center, where a lavish throne chair stood. The light shone down upon the throne, ensuring it was the pinnacle for all to behold.
The throne was made of black steel and silver, set with emeralds, and engraved extravagantly. A platform of marble stairs encircled the throne, polished until they shone. Aman had the wagon carrying Acidine to stop and lead the rest of them towards the throne. As she drew closer, Rebekka could see the person sitting on the throne was reading a blue book, oblivious to their entrance. Their luxuriant dark blue robes spewed from the throne. The strange red hued hair on their head appeared to glow in the unnaturally strong light cast down upon it. What struck Rebekka as a surprise though, was that the book’s cover contained arcane symbols.
Aman stopped them at the stairs.
“Father,” he rasped. “The freshlings have finally arrived.”
“Finally,” the person replied sounding undeniably male, “I’ve been waiting long enough.”
The man closed the book with a snap and placed it on a small table beside him. The very first thing Rebekka noticed was the man’s youth. Aman called him “father”, yet he didn’t appear a day over 30 years. Actually, Aman looked older than he did. The next thing Rebekka noticed was the man’s cunning smile. Paired with his sharp red-violet eyes, that smile meant he held great power and certainly knew how to use it. She knew he was a wizard.
Rebekka felt Jude tense beside her and looked to him. She was surprised to see a look of stunned shock on his usually expressionless face.
Aman looked over his shoulder, with a snarl, and barked, “Bow before Father!”
At once, Rebekka and the other prisoners bowed to a knee. They all did so almost unconsciously but Rebekka knew the influence came from the collars.
“My, my Aman,” the wizard said suavely, “You are too harsh. I really must teach you how to treat guests.” He stood and began a leisure walk towards the stairs. He stopped at the first and looked over each of them with his grin. His gaze stopped on Jude.
“Isn’t this a delightful surprise,” he said and walked down the steps. “Jude? Is that you my boy? I haven’t seen you for five hundred sixty-three years. You haven’t aged a bit.”
Jude growled and made a rush for him. The wizard held up a finger and Jude’s collar stopped him midway.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,’ he said wagging his finger. “So predictable. I see forgiveness isn’t a strong suit of yours.”
“I will never forgive you for what you did to me,” Jude snarled.
“And what? You’ll kill me?” The man burst into a chortle and when he finished, he said, “Your vow, Jude. Remember your vow.” He moved his gaze to Mason. Immediately she shrunk from it.
“Oh, my, my. Who is this young one?” He waved a hand over her which made her whimper and bury her face into Jude’s shoulder. “Don’t worry child. I will not hurt you. Hm… impressive. For one so young and small, you hold a substantial amount of power.” He lifted a finger matter-of-factly. “Power becomes potential my dear. Remember that and–” His eyes cut to Rebekka and sent a chill down her spine. But he didn’t say anything. Instead he cast a small smile at Mason and stepped over to Wert.
“And the pariah son,” he said. “Worthless they have called you no doubt. But hear me well my boy. I see the opposite. We will make you a grand soldier here at the Axon. You will learn to make your enemies quail at your wake. And perhaps… you will make you father proud. He can be such a hard man to please….”
The wizard looked at the Head Superior. “Tell me Head Superior Chantley,” he demanded. “why is it that one under your charge is so grievously injured?”
“We believe she tried to escape sir,” the Head Superior said, trying to keep as much waver as he could from his voice.
“Yes sir. We believe she wanted to release the beast and escape while it caused chaos.”
The wizard turned to Rebekka, “But that doesn’t make since at all. She would have gotten herself killed if anything else.”
“She nearly did sir. The beast did that to her arm.”
“And she didn’t die from the toxic bite I hear it has.” The wizard mused deeply for a moment; his brows knit together, but then perked once more. “Just means I have to keep a close eye on you doesn’t it? We’ll fix that arm up of yours–” He snapped twice and the dull throb Rebekka felt in her arm vanished. “and now Aman if you get them all to the cleaning stalls. When going, please notify everyone that I am not to be disturbed. I have a book I want to finish without interruption. Hurry along now.”
He began his return to his throne but stopped midway and looked over his shoulder.
“Oh, and when you’re finished with all of that, call off your wolves. I think you’ve had enough fun by now.”
Aman frowned at this and barked for the prisoners to stand.
The wizard began back up the stairs to his throne but stopped and hastily turned. “My, my! I almost forgot my manners. Each of you are to call me Keeper or Lord, and if any asks who you serve, tell them The Red Wizard and that should do. Aman will be leading you to your quarters. The lot of you, being so very, very special, will be staying in my domain. I hope that each of you may find comfort, for you are more than welcome here at the Axon One.”
(to be continued…)
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