“Lord Atar is watching. Fight every day as if it were your last.”
Those two phrases every self-respecting citizen from the Arhia province knew and ever heeded. They were also the motto of the Arhian warriors, an elite group of soldiers renowned for their military prowess, those known as the Atarai. The Arhian nation had witnessed the rise of the Gragiyan Empire which united the provinces of Gragiya, Lavinium and Niralis. Arhia was an independent province for many centuries, and even when it became a part of the Gragiyan Empire it still preserved many of its ancient traditions. Its people were permitted to keep their regional dialect and many of their customs in exchange for paying their taxes. While Gragiyan law also decreed that the Atarai were required to provide military aid to the Emperor, should ever the need arise.
For centuries there had been peace within the Empire. However, that all changed after the death of Emperor Akim. The man died without an heir and so the throne passed down to his cousin Vecatian. This proved unpopular with many noble families who believed that they themselves had a better claim to power. The newly crowned Emperor ruled peacefully for his first year and tried his best not gave the citizens any reason for conflict. However, in the second year of Emperor Vecatian’s reign the problems began. A nobleman, Ergon claimed strong family ties to the deceased Emperor Akim. He soon challenged Emperor Vecatian’s authority, staged a coup and started a rebellion in the capital city of Ifirium. Thus the Emperor called on the Atarai to honor their pledge to the Empire and to come to his aid. Their task was to quash Ergon’s rebels and to reclaim the capital city.
“Get away, Arhian scum! We don’t need your help!” – Gragiyan locals yelled as they watched Atarai soldiers march through their streets.
Arhos forced himself to ignore the endless scorn. He was well aware that their armor, blue horse emblems and accents gave them away as Arhians. Arhia may well be a part of the Empire but they had always been poorly regarded by the other provinces, particularly in Gragiya, at the heart of the Empire.
Unlike the Arhians, the rebels were from the heartland and they had the advantage of understanding the lands. They knew exactly where to hide and it made them near impossible to apprehend. Like many of his fellow soldiers, Arhos had been to Ifirium a only handful of times. By the time his legion arrived, the Emperor’s palace had been reclaimed and most of the city had already been liberated. While the final rebels had since barricaded themselves inside the temple of Ifir. And that was exactly where Arhos and his men were ordered to go.
The whole situation posed a moral dilemma for Arhos. He had been ordered to kill any who would not surrender. Those who did yield were to be brought back to the Emperor’s palace to stand trial. His entire life Arhos had been trained to fight, yet this time he trully dreaded it. There was no glory, no honor in killing one’s own people. Traitors or not, the rebels were still citizens of the Empire. If they had any sense they would realize they had little chance of getting out of this alive. Nevertheless there were no guarantees, and those who surrendered could still face execution. Arhos simply hoped that he could reason with them to avoid needless slaughter. As he moved towards his duty, he longed to escort them back to the palace where they still had a chance of pleading for mercy.
Arhos and his men approached the temple from the vast front entrance only to find the doors barred predictably shut. Next he moved to check the side entrance from the gardens. A handful of his comrades joined him and together they strode into the colorful garden area. The others meanwhile remained near the front and attempted to force the doors open.
As they moved forward, they watched as a gang of rebel soldiers rushed towards them. Arhos saw that they were mostly armed with axes but most of them lacked helmets. The Atarai soldiers drew their swords in unison and Arhos yelled:
“Drop your weapons! You are outnumbered. If you do not surrender, we will have no choice but to kill you all.”
One of the rebels, an older man of around forty with a bushy beard and unkempt hair, swaggered forward and spat into Arhos’ face before responding:
“I will take no orders from an Arhian! I would rather die here where I stand than surrender to a false Emperor.”
Arhos wiped his face clean. This insult enraged him to the extent that he decided there was no longer any point in trying to reason with the rebels. Aggravated he shouted in answer:
“Well enough. It is your choice and your funeral!”
He and his soldiers hoisted their glinting swords and the rebels swiftly charged towards them. Swords and axes clashed and blood splattered over the temple grounds. A few rebels managed to block the path to the garden gate leaving the Arhians trapped.
The rebels were fierce and brave but they were poorly armed and lacked the skill, training and discipline of the Arhian soldiers. There Arhos managed to quickly dispatch two of the insurgents: his sword pierced through the gut of one man, the other he decapitated with a single slash of his sword. And so the fight continued. The two groups left evenly matched for the time being.
Suddenly the back door of the temple opened and more rebels came running out, their battle cries filling the air. Within those few seconds it seemed the odds had gone against the Atarai. As the rest of his legion was still forcing the front doorway, Arhos could only hope that his men would hold until the reinforcements arrived.
And so he fought on. As more rebels kept coming, Arhos held up his shield and braced himself for impact. He continued to slash his sword in smooth, clean strokes aiming to kill as many as he could. From the corner of his eye he saw that the man who’d spat at him had already fallen, killed by one of his fellow Atarai. His concentration was soon jilted once again as he suddenly felt a sharp pain. He glanced down to see an axe lodged into his right thigh. The wave of pain was so great that he dropped helplessly to the dusty ground, though his training held and he stilled forced his shield upwards in a desperate attempt to protect himself from attack.
His companions worked tirelessly to distract and force the rebels away from their leader. After tense minutes defending their position, they heard a loud bang. The front door to the temple had finally been forced open and the Arhian reinforcements were rushing into the gardens to help their comrades. With the temple exposed the fight was all but over. Ergon and the rebel leaders were captured and dragged back to the Emperor’s palace for trial and execution.
Once the din had fallen, Arhos heard a familiar voice calling out his name. He tried to stand but was trapped by the excruciating pain. He pulled back, lying on the ground and struggling to breathe. Then he finally spotted his friend approach in the company of a medic.
“Levorian!” he cried out feebly.
He had known Levorian for years, they were old friends from training at the Atarai academy.
Levorian moved to his side with the medic at hand. The man examined Arhos’ wound before declaring:
“This looks incredibly deep. Heavy bleeding. I’m afraid there’s not much I can do.”
Arhos and Levorian watched as the medic moved on to treat the other wounded soldiers.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get here sooner. We needed some help to bring the doors down,” Levorian uttered mournfully.
“You did all you could…,” Arhos stammered whilst coughing. “Levorian, if the Morkrai take me away…I want you to tell Kadri that I’m sorry. I promised her….I would come back,” he finished as his pain returned.
“Arhos, you have nothing to be sorry about. You fought well and stood your ground for as long as you could. Our mission was a success. We restored the peace. Kadri will be proud,” – Levorian responded kindly.
Arhos spoke no more from the pain. Levorian retrieved the man’s sword from the ground and placed it in his grasp.
“You will need this on your final journey,” Levorian whispered whilst returning the sword to Arhos.
Levorian helped to carry his friend to a stretcher. Then his comrades carried him out of the temple grounds. The last thing Arhos saw was the walls of the great city. By the time the sun had set his breathing had broken, more blood poured from his wound, and soon his eyes closed for good.
Days later when they reached their homeland, Arhos was given an Atarai warrior’s burial. His sword was placed within his grave and his armor was returned to his widow, Kadri. That night the shadow beings came for him. Arhos awoke as if from some lucid dream, he felt as though his body was floating in the air. He quickly turned to grab his sword. Soon he was pulled from the living realm as the Morkrai took his hand and dragged him through a tunnel deep in the ground.
Thereafter Arhos found himself in front of the iron gates and looking to the dark halls beyond. A horn swiftly sounded and the gates opened. The Morkrai escorted him inside the halls and towards the thrones. There Arhos saw the grim-looking, dark hooded figure on the great throne.
“Lord Makar,” he called out.
The Lord of the dead responded with cold, emotionless words:
“Arhos, son of Geis of Arhia. I am listening. You may begin.”
Arhos was silent for a while before he again found his voice:
“I am an Arhian Atarai soldier. All my of life I have done nothing but train and fight and follow orders.”
He continued to recount his life story, leading up to the events of the rebellion and the fight that took his life at Ifir’s temple. He tried as best he could to describe the event and all the gruesome details. Lord Makar waited until he had finished before responding.
“Do you believe that killing the rebels was just?” – he asked.
Arhos held himself before he replied:
“I think they should have gone to trial, yet they refused. Our orders were to kill all those who refused to surrender. I had no choice but to follow orders.”
Lord Makar went silent as he looked at the shade before him and then finally offered his ruling:
“True words indeed. Such is a soldier’s duty…You lived the life of a warrior therefore your final judgment lies not with me, but with my brother Atar. If he deems you worthy of riding amongst his Enai, I will grant you permission to leave these halls. If not, you shall remain here forevermore.”
The decree proclaimed, the Morkrai soon dragged Arhos into another grim hall. Under the dim light Arhos saw a wall of pale faces, many also wearing armor and fruitlessly grasping their swords. The shadow beings departed and Arhos soon drifted into a trance-like sleep. It was as though time itself stood still. The only few interruptions came from the erratic sound of horns as yet more souls entered and the occasional melancholic dirge of Lady Morae.
In that dark emptiness, he reflected on some of his memories. He recalled his military training with Levorian at the academy. Oh how he hated those first few weeks. The long days of marching, endurance routines, drills and weapons training. Running the long obstacle course was always the worst. He remembered the taste of blood in his mouth and how his muscles ached raw those long days. Even sleep helped little since they would wake at the crack of dawn. Then he thought of Kadri. The day they had met was also the day Levorian had announced his engagement to Kadri’s older sister, Lidris. Kadri was a shy girl of sixteen, like all Arhian girls she wore plain clothes and her hair was cropped short. Yet there was something about her big dark eyes that caught his attention. So much so that as soon as his training at the Atarai academy was complete, he asked her father’s permission for her hand. Arhos was from a renowned Arhian noble family so it was no great task and he was granted consent. Then he thought of their wedding day. Kadri wore an embroidered dress and a family heirloom – a ruby necklace from her mother.
In the two years that they were married Kadri had overcome her initial shyness. She was also finally allowed to grow her hair out. Arhos recalled its light brown color and how it looked golden in the summer sun. He thought of her character too, how she was a good cook and that she loved swimming in the lake near their home. She had been a good wife. How he wished from his lifeless body to hold her one last time. His only cold regret was that they no children.
Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by someone touching his shoulder. He began to hear a voice call out his name. From the tone he realized that this was neither Lord Makar nor his queen rather someone else entirely. He looked upwards to see a tall muscular figure draped in shining armor.
“Lord Atar,” he called out, immediately pulling himself up.
The war-god replied: “Arhos, son of Geis of Arhia. Your courageous battle with the rebels outside my father’s temple impressed me greatly. You have been chosen to ride beside me and my Enai. I am here to take you out from these halls.”
The god of war swiftly lifted Arhos from his trance-like state. Lord Atar proudly lead him out of the halls. The Morkrai opened the iron gates. On the other side, Arhos spotted two horses awaiting them. These however were unlike any horses he had ever seen before. They were blue and their hooves seem not even to touch the ground. Following the god, he mounted in an instant. Together with Lord Atar, they dashed off into the sky. As they rode upwards, he noticed a large group of Enai warriors. Each with dark, braided hair, faces covered with red war paint and armor silver in color. There he also noticed a few pale faced warrior souls among them.
“Oren!” – Lord Atar shouted.
The young Enai warrior stepped out. “Yes, my Lord,” Oren replied courteously.
“Show our latest recruit his place in the ranks,” Lord Atar uttered before returning to his duties.
Still on horseback Arhos followed the Enai warrior to the back of the group.
“You will ride at the rear. If you wish to gain a better place within our ranks you will have to fight one of us first,” – the Enai warrior explained with a smile.
Arhos simply nodded in response and took his place at the back of the line.
“Oh Kadri… if only you could see me now…,” Arhos thought to himself as he took one final look down at the world below before grabbing the reins of his horse as the warriors prepared to move out. Soon after, they rode again galloping away across the sky.