Chapter 13 : Exception
"Did you see that?!" Nikkum uttered a scandalized cry.
Saar showed no reaction, probably not wanting to be involved any more in this tale of princess and knight.
"Stop pretending to be asleep," Nikkum's voice suddenly turned serious, "I think it's time that you clear up a thing or two for me."
Saar quickly noticed that his new ally, or enemy, was not joking. He sat up and looked into the beast's eyes fixedly: "So, what do you want to know? If it's about the Eternal Shards, all I can tell is..."
"Save that for later," Nikkum put his tooth Charms back around his neck, with the determination of a warrior ready for a new ruthless battle, "Explain to me how you freed yourself without Charms when I drove my spear into Abedgar's head."
The brute might have fought in an extravagant manner, but he still possessed the basic quality that any good fighter should have: an unflawed perception. No matter how careful and cunning the old fox could be, as long as the young lion was observing the whole situation with its sharp eyes, the scheming animal could hardly hide his tricks. Saar's hesitation only strengthened the warrior's suspicion, as he did resort to a spell without having a single Charm on him. The only thing that remained was how to cover up this fact.
An oppressive silence followed. The little room suddenly seemed to shrink as it filled up with such intensity. The candle's flame flickered in a violent dance, as if the intensity would extinguish its brightness and trigger the first strike. A move by either man would come at lightning-speed and prove to be decisively fatal. The short-lived moonlight that had arrived during Lily's tantrum disappeared again, shyly hiding so as not to dampen the splendid impending spark of released Charms. How many times had Nikkum lived through the same kind of suffocation, how many times had he emerged victorious? But against this young boy, he was unable to convince himself that he would obtain his answer unscarred. His hands were not trembling at all, or at least they didn't have time to tremble. Since dark clouds were slowly building up on Saar's innocent face, even the slightest error of gesture would cost the beast its life. The whimsical princess seemed far away under the knight's charm, and the other guests had stopped their snores as well, to leave this moment of eternal silence only for the two men who were entirely embraced by it.
"I'm an exception." Saar's words were spoken in a monotonous tone, but they struck Nikkum like thunder.
"That's all you can come up with for a lame excuse?" The letdown allowed the warrior to relax his muscles, but not his mind. "I thought you would have preferred to kill me than to resort to some blatant lies that no one would believe."
"I don't have any grudge against you. Rather, I'm trying to help."
"You are expecting something in return, even street beggars can see through that."
"Yes." Saar released a little warm flame from his palm, slowly toying with it, "While being a magus is quite... convenient, someone like you who can fight off Slayers will surely not drag me down."
The flame that glittered in the relentless eyes of Nikkum could barely hide a faint sadness. "I'm just an uninspired ruffian killing people in arenas for gold."
"Till the day you met the little one."
"You know you shouldn't mention her."
"And thanks to her, we've met."
"Don't start the 'fate' thing on me."
"I won't talk about fate, it was me who has chosen you."
"So now I'm the chosen one? The one that can save the world? Same nonsense as 'fate'." Nikkum looked out of the window. In this part of Zeal, none of the illuminated magi towers were to be seen. If it wasn't for their conversation, both men would simply be alone under a starless sky, one outcast by society, another abandoned by time.
"This isn't a world you should save. By 'chosen', I only meant that I saw you as a fit traveling companion, nothing more." The young man stood up and walked to the only window in the room, "What can you see in this dark, when you're alone?"
"Emptiness. No past, no present, no future." The little sigh in the old warrior's voice actually carried more melancholy than any famous dramatic piece.
"But I see so many things Nikkum: I see a vivid picture of Zeal when it still had its leaching roots in the ground, a mob of hot-blooded soldiers fighting for their own land, a surreal angel who turned her back on me and an undying ghost watching me with his eyes of flames." Saar dwelt on in a time unknown to the stone-hearted warrior. Even so, the brief and unreachable sincerity in his words caused an odd feeling to rise within Nikkum's chest, for he had shared the same pain.
"Saar, you know what? When you said you were an exception to the Curse, to be honest, some part of me really believed you."
"As I said before, you don't believe in me, you 'want' to. I have to be someone different; I have to be the one who can do the impossible. No matter how hard you try, you can't deny what your heart is telling you."
"If it hadn't died ages ago..." Nikkum had to keep reminding himself about the past, even if it was unbearably painful to recall.
"Let me get back to your question. Yes, I'm able to use some spells without Charms. Just like the Shadow Spawns who've found a workaround for the Curse and some creatures in our lands that can still fight by instinct, I have this peculiar innate ability that even the most knowledgeable scholar couldn't explain. Asking the 'why' isn't going to bring you any closer to the truth. Unless you're prepared to see it with unclouded eyes, the truth isn't going to reveal itself that easily."
Nikkum listened in silence. Be it honesty or lies, the young magus's words were spoken in a merely human language. However, what mattered most was the inaudible communication between these two men, who were bound by an unperceivable being that commoners called 'fate'. Had they crossed paths in some city under normal circumstances, they would not even have spoken. Despite this fact, the sacrifice of an angel brought them together, forging the divinium chain that locked them together knee to knee and hip to hip. Many believed that those mystical angels were the messengers of the Old Gods, the will of the absolute entity. In Nikkum and Saar's case, some flesh born from the soiled lands had the same impact, leading them to their unchangeable destiny. The replacement of divine purpose with a human body was indeed a sacrilege, and yet it had happened. Both men ignored the suffering to come as they looked into the darkness side by side, even though the pages of their past were so torn and scarred already.
"Mind telling me about the Shards of Eternity while you're at it?" Nikkum changed the topic to something both of them would feel more at ease discussing.
"Do I have to start from the part where the city under our feet began to float or have you already heard enough about the Great War against the Shadow from the tireless storytellers?" Saar was back to his normal self again.
"You can skip that part. Even I have been to the statues of the High Councilors of Zeal. When you read the description under the statues, you learn that they have been erected in memory of honorable ones who sacrificed themselves for humanity." Nikkum recalled.
But the young one let out a small snort as if in mockery of the folklores.
"They couldn't preserve Zeal, yet humanity managed to survive thanks to them. That's why children nowadays are often taught to remember at least their names: Salamath of the Searing Law, Nhyle the Pure Touch, Grallan the...." Saar had a moment of hesitation.
"Grallan and Ukko. Titles were of very informal use anyway, historians just like to call them like that to make their sentences sound better. Salamath of the Searing Law, hmph!" Arrogance was said to lie in youth and wisdom in age.
"So what do they have to do with the Shards of Eternity?" Nikkum had to concede the young man's greater knowledge.
"On the day Zeal was devastated by the Shadowspawns, few have an idea of what the High Councilors actually did to annihilate them all. It was, in fact, a terrible gamble. For months they had used their influence to gather all the Charms of the land inside this town. On the night of the assault, each of them gave out their lives to combine all of these Charms into single powerful items holding unimaginable knowledge and power. We believe the power of just one of these items was released in Zeal, and that was the cause of the destruction of the Shadow army, altogether with the city's devastation and it being lifted in the sky.
"Since four councilors performed the ritual together, aren't there four Shards of Eternity?" The curious barbarian learned his lessons at a surprising speed.
Saar hesitated for a second, then corrected his pupil: "No, eight of them, actually. Four were born in their complete form, but soon split up due to the high polarity of the runes within each Charm. The Shards are so unstable and their structure is so unnatural, that any commoner holding one wouldn't even realize it was a Charm, let alone draw power from it. Furthermore, a powerful magus holding just one half of a shard would have a hard time drawing the spell he wanted from it, and would probably just end up casting some random effect by using it."
"How did you end up with all of your knowledge by the way? I don't read much but I'm sure that even the parasitic bookworms in Zeal's Great Library don't know this much about such things." Nikkum was quick to admit his blind spot, but he still had to raise questions.
Saar giggled as if pleased by the unrefined man's compliments: "You sound like you've actually been in there."
"Well, I don't deny that I've never..."
Before the student could finish his interrogation, the door slowly opened up. Lily was back, her eyes filled with sparkles of happiness. Her right hand was supporting a plate with a tea set on it, and her face was wearing a smile so bright that Nikkum forgot to finish his sentence.
"How about a cup of tea, gentlemen?" The sudden change in Lily's attitude was even weirder than a tea party in the middle of a night.
"You... went to have a tea with... that guy? And you're back... to offer us the same thing?" There were things that even Saar could not ever hope to grasp.
"Yeah! Look, it was brewed with top quality herb and jasmine flowers, you don't get to drink this kind of tea often. Its healing power runs through your throat, warms up your belly, and then mends your whole body! You'll be at such peace that you'll ask for a second cup." Lily was so excited about introducing her service to new customers that her left hand traced the flow of tea that she was speaking of to show how amazing and how effective it was.
"The Princess Lily is now taking the role of a maid?" Saar was uttering words that didn't even pass through his mind; he needed to catch up in this situation.
"Princess? Haha!" Lilly burst into such a laugh that it brought tears to her eyes, "That was a lie, of course."
"Well, I think we all knew it." It was a huge letdown for Saar that he had guessed correctly this time.
Nikkum wasn't as wordy as the young man. He swiftly walked to the unsuspecting maid, took a cup of warm tea, and swallowed it down in one quick swig.
"Hey! This isn't your cheap ale!" Lily wasn't pleased with the guest's bad manners, "You need to drink it slowly, to enjoy and to savor it. You should've watched how Celius drank: he was holding the teacup as if it was the most precious thing in the world. He was feeling the herb aroma with his soul instead of sniffing like the mongrel you are; by watching him I could tell that he was becoming one with my tea, which healed him and me!"
Saar was desperate: "She really made a tea party in his room..."
Nikkum quickly retreated to a corner and complained to Saar. "For love's sake, just drink that and we'll all be at peace."
Saar had no choice but to take another cup, put it near his mouth, slowly sipping it empty as the unforgiving trainer of manners had instructed.
Satisfied, the beautiful girl let the tea plate slide onto the floor, which uttered the painful cry of clanging metal. She closed up the door behind her and stole the bed that Saar slept in.
"That's all?" Saar questioned.
"Yeah, that's all." Lily replied.
"Wait; are you alright to be in the same room as us now?" Saar was not used to participating in such a lightning-fast party.
"You're healed." They could tell that Lily now felt at ease.
"What...?" Saar didn't understand.
"Shut up, Saar." Nikkum intervened.
"But she's in the very bed that I slept on before I drank the stupid tea!" Saar turned to the coward.
"I said, shut, up. She fell asleep already." Nikkum looked with one eye open at the pure face of the woman who was apparently exhausted from being so playful.
"..." Saar forced himself to grow wordless and silent.
An indistinct nightmare haunted the much-bothered young magus. He saw himself in a circle of flames, the only sign of life in a complete darkness. Something was hurting his ear drums but he could hear nothing. Like the huge pressure in the depths asphyxiates a man's body, this void suffocated the man's soul. His fingers could feel the dropping temperature, but his chest could not bear the searing pain from inside. His mouth was filled with ashes. He tried to cough, but only black feathers came out. The unbearable heat kept rising, and his consciousness was burning within. Then he looked down to see the head of phoenix tear from his belly, causing him to shriek in silence.
Dreams were worse than reality, because they could recur forever.
When Saar finally regained control of his mind, he was barely able to open his eyes, let alone move a single muscle. The voices of Nikkum and Lily reminded him that this was not a continuation of his nightmare.
"It's fine to leave for good, but leave my bag of gold behind."
"Haha, I'm amazed that you can still talk after drinking my 'special tea'. Don't take that too personally, I just wanted to 'balance' our social inequality. You see, you're rich and I'm penniless. By taking your gold our difference will be negated."
"I don't have a lot of patience."
"Still talking tough? Ha! I don't like flatterers, but stubborn donkeys like you aren't any better. Try to stand if you want to brag... Huh?!"
Saar's vision was still very blurred, but he was still able to make out the scene unfolding before him. The beast suddenly bounced from the corner, grasped the girl by neck and threw her against the wall next to the window. Such violence should not be allowed, but Saar was helpless, his body immobilized by an unknown force. The strength in Nikkum's throw clearly indicated that he was in his usual brutal rage though, so the 'special tea' didn't affect him at all. Lily's pale lip was coated with a layer of blood, making her beauty even more stunning.
The barbarian marched up to her, and took the bag of gold in a single gesture: "I don't know how to deal with women but I do know how to take my things back."
The gaze in Lily's eyes showed surprise, anger and perplexity. "How can this be? I watched you take the paralyzer; I didn't mess-up my dose. Your cup had enough to drop an enraged bull!"
Nikkum looked back at the motionless Saar, then said: "Guess that makes me an exception."
Saar's eyes opened large, round and full of astonishment. An ominous thought was on the verge of eruption at his throat, and yet he could not speak. A cold feeling ran through his fragile body; it was the opposite of what he saw in his dream, but deep inside he felt the same thing, a shiver of death.
The warrior walked away from the now harmless girl, ordering: "Stay there quietly and maybe you'll keep your hands to steal another bag of gold later. Let me deal with this man first."
Lily murmured: "I thought he was your friend."
"Friend?" Nikkum gave back a fearsome glance, "He is the last person in this city I would call 'friend'."
The small room flooded with a bright crimson light. Saar did not dare to look away from the single axe, boiling with killing intent, which had just appeared in Nikkum's hands. He knew it was likely to be the last thing he would ever see.
"Don't, I just wanted some gold! I didn't mean to hurt anyone!"
The young girl's repentance was too late. As she screamed the cutting axe swung down on the mage's face.