Underground Ring: Book 1, page 14
The world had changed, molding and shifting about me like flower petals blowing in the breeze. It was all very opaque and the confusion nearly overwhelmed me. I felt as if I was floating. Had I truly died? Was this heaven?
It was the smell. That was what made colours slowly blend together into some semblance of focus: the smell. The fresh meadow grass, mossy rocks, then, finally, the scent of split wood. I knew where I was before it became real. My childhood home.
The sunlight beamed through the canopy of trees and my feet hugged the dense vegetation beneath my dirty toes. I was convinced now that I had died and, having reached the other side, I would finally meet my father in the place where time held no meaning. A place where we could truly be free. I stood there, mystified by the simplicity of drinking in the moment. I swore I could even hear the echoes of my training cries reverberating in the wild. My eyes snapped open. That was me! And then I could sense something I had not in a long time: my father’s Vitae. Without a moment’s hesitation, I was in full sprint, heart pumping with excitement and pure exhilaration. It wasn’t long before I had rounded the last small creek, leaping over it into the field where Father and I usually trained. What I saw was confusing. My father was there, sweat and blood glinting off of his goatee and forehead in the midday sun, but he was not alone. Lokus, his hand resting on father’s shoulder, was with him.
“Father! Lokus!” I called to them, running across the bright field. Both men ignored me, more content on watching something across the open field. I felt an old pang of annoyance as I rushed in front of them. “Lokus? What are you doing here?”
There was a moment of silence before anyone spoke.
“Do you truly believe he is that important in your war?” My father was solemn.
“Augrais is the only one that could be powerful enough to stop him and save us all, old friend,” Lokus reassured him.
I was standing right in front of them but it was clear that their attention was not upon me. I glanced over my shoulder. What was so damn interesting that they ignored what was right in front of them? My body stiffened as I recognized the boy jogging upon the dirt path to his own freedom. I knew where that path would take him. I knew all too well.
“It will give him confidence to face the dangers of the world of humans,” Lokus went on to say brightly. The wounds I had inflicted on my father moments before were already starting to heal.
“Or the arrogance that will destroy him,” Father answered, brushing his friend’s hand off his shoulder. “Don’t you have a war to win?” My father turned away, striding back to our cabin.
Lokus’s eyes narrowed as he watched his colleague turn his back upon him. “You cannot keep him from this fight, Alexander.”
My father froze and slowly looked over his shoulder. “Why waste your time going down the path you already know?”
“Don’t let your despair blind you,” Lokus said with voice full of pity. “Lucretia’s death was—”
The man that raised me spun around and faced the older Mystic, his voice matching his Vitae’s fury. “She did not die!”
I could scarcely believe what was unfolding before my eyes. Never had I seen my father act with such emotion before. There was true pain in his eyes, an agony that he had always hidden well from me.
“Wake up!” Lokus stepped forward and raised his voice to equal his companion’s. “Laucian is not one for compassion! You know this. Lucretia is dead, Alexander. Accept it and live in the present!” Lokus exhaled, releasing the last of his anger before continuing. “We need your son; we need you to win this war.”
Who was this Lucretia they were talking about? I had never heard my father mention her before.
Alexander, my father, closed his eyes and, even though I could not feel it, I knew he was allowing the Vitae to numb his pain. Allowing the apathy to bleed every last droplet of agony out of his soul. “I will not allow it. Call upon Ravenfury or Anandus to fight your war.” My father strode away, and without looking back added, “I have given enough, Lord Lokus.”
I did not need to use the Earth gift to see the frustration in Lokus. He then spoke quietly, as if making me privy to his thoughts. “I’m sorry. But you no longer have a choice.”
Then, I was pulled as if someone had yanked a giant rope around my waist. I flew forward, the forest blending and morphing out of shape. Nausea and vertigo overtook me, forcing me to close my eyes as the world around me became just flashes of light. The flight stopped as suddenly as it had started, the spinning slowed to nothing, the smells and soft light returned. I was home again.
My father was slowly sharpening Balmung in his hands, as a small bonfire flickered and licked at freshly laid logs. I felt a slight pang of remorse. Oh, if he could see his sword now, Father would not be impressed. A soft chuckle left my lips in spite of the dark sadness that loomed in me. There was no indication of what this was—a dream, a vision, heaven, hell—but one thing was for sure, my presence was invisible to him.
“Father,” I said out loud, hoping some spell could be broken.
Firelight accented his battle-hardened face. The grinding noise was perpetual.
“It is too late now. I understand that,” I spoke again, this time more firmly and not just to my father but to the fates, or to God, or to whomever was listening. “I understand I should have been more grateful. I should have taken care of you and not just relied on you taking care of me. I just wanted…I just wanted to let you know that you are my inspiration. Your work ethic, your strength, is why I am powerful today. I just wish—I wish I could have told you that sooner. You deserved to know that your son—that I—care for you.”
Alexander froze and looked up to me as if my words had crossed the barrier between us.
“Father,” I said again tentatively. Was I getting through to him?
“I knew you would find me here eventually.” My father’s voice was dangerous and low.
My heart dropped into my stomach as I realized that if I were reliving the past, I knew what was about to transpire.
“Yes, well, you knew you couldn’t hide forever.” Laucian’s voice sent shivers of terror up my spine.
I spun about to see the demon leaning against a tree a few metres away. His violet eyes locked directly on my father like a jaguar who had just found his prey.
Alexander chuckled slightly. “You haven’t aged a day, Laucian.”
“It’s the virgin blood I bathe in every night,” Laucian said, clearly amused as he sauntered over to my father. “It keeps me youthful.”
The demon was approaching for the kill. I had to do something. I had to stop the monster!
“Leave him alone,” I cried and leapt forward, swinging my fist recklessly to catch nothing but wind as my blow went right through the demon as if he were a ghost.
Laucian looked over his shoulder at me, a grin stretching his face and revealing the true beast inside. My eyes widened. Could he see me?
My father stood strong, his face full of cold determination as the monster came closer. “What have you done with Lucretia?”
Why did my father care so much about this woman? A thought suddenly stopped my pounding heart. Could this Lucreita…could she be…?
“I think you know what happened to her,” Laucian taunted, his eyes flicking to his adversary’s weapon. “Besides, you know what I am here for.”
“Balmung?” My father laughed heartily, shifting the weight of the sword in his hands. “You could have taken this long ago. Why the sudden change?”
“Don’t play the fool, Alexander,” Laucian spat.
My father stepped around the fire towards Laucian, speaking as he went. “You know I won’t. You and Lokus have been after the same thing for years.”
“How is the old codger?” Laucian did not move, content to watch my father on his flank for the moment.
“Still alive,” Alexander said, while placing two hands upon Balmung. An attack was imminent.
“There’s nothing left to talk about, Laucian.” My father was ready, ready to face his fate with open arms. The monster was beginning to move. I screamed to warn my father but he did nothing but the strangest thing. A small smile crossed his lips, something I had never seen in all my years. “I’m sorry, Augrais,” he said.
Sparks from the blades flew as they met, the loud clangs of steel frightening flocks of birds off into the distance. I attempted several times to intervene but it did nothing as the battle ended just as swiftly as it began. Balmung soared into the air just as Laucian’s blade ran my father through, blood spraying from the wound. Shock overtook me and I fell to my knees. Again, for the second time, I could not prevent my father’s death. The demon ripped his sword free and flicked the remaining blood off the blade as his adversary fell to his knees. I wanted to shred the skin from my face, rip my eyes out of their sockets, as I screamed. This was hell. My father was on all fours, blood leaking from his chest like a faucet as Laucian strode past him and into the house.
I slide right next to my father. “Don’t die, don’t die.” I kept repeating. My old man’s skin was pale, as a thin film of his sweat began to bead away.
“I’m sorry, Augrais,” his voice was thick from the blood in his mouth. “I’m sorry I will not be there. I know I promised I would protect you. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t. It’s up to you now, son. Please…forgive me.”
“Father—Dad—please.” Although I was a Master, my emotions began to break through the numbness.
“Where is it?” Laucian strode out of the house, swiftly kicking my father in the chest. “Where did you put it, Alexander?”
My father was gasping for air, his life failing.
Laucian’s face contorted to reveal his true form. He roared like a beast, grabbing a log from the fire and throwing it onto our house, my childhood home. The dried wood burned immediately, the blaze reaching dazzling heights in a matter of seconds.
“Where is it?” Laucian screamed, froth spitting from his mouth as he kicked the wood into the forest, causing the fire to spread and destroy everything I had come to cherish. During the chaos of Laucian’s destructive warpath, I saw something I did not fully understand. It was as if there was a disconnect between my brain and reality, as if I could not believe the information my eyes was recording. The events around me, the crackling of fire, Laucian’s screams, began to fade into the background as I focused on one thing. A thin figure was hiding almost out of sight, peeking around a tree. Was that…no, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be.
Laucian’s voice crept back into my ear like a parasite slowly eating its way into my brain. “If I am a demon, then Lokus is the devil.”
Had Lokus been here this entire time? Why wasn’t he doing anything? What the hell was he waiting for?
“If I am a demon, then Lokus is the devil.”
The voices in my head kept repeating these words to me. Did Lokus let my father die? Did he just let my father die?
“If I am a demon, then Lokus is the devil.”
The soft blue eyes of my teacher, Lokus, simply watched as the last light faded forever in Alexander’s eyes.
“No!” I sat up, screaming loudly, visions of the burning woods evaporating in front of me.
There was a groan, then a shift from some blankets as Ben’s voice called out for “Just five more minutes,” before returning to his snoring. I was back in the spare bedroom of Lokus’s mansion. It was very small, barely big enough to fit a bed, a desk, and, of course, the snoring Ben sleeping on the floor. There were various types of machines plugged into me and bandages wrapped my body as if I were an Egyptian mummy ready for burial. The only thing I had on was a pair of loose pants and the chain I was given by Selene, glistening even though there was little natural light.
Had I been dreaming? My heart and mind were racing, recollecting each and every moment as if it had just occurred. Laucian, the Violet-Eyed Demon; the death of my father; Lokus! I attempted to jump up from my soft bed only to meet the direct rebellion of my injured body. Pain stemmed from my chest and burned down my arm as I clutched the wooden bed frame. Though the pain was great, it was not as bad as the conflict welling up inside me like the puss in a boil. Had what I just witnessed been the truth? Was it possible for Lokus to betray a friend, my father, like that? A part of me dismissed it immediately. I knew Lokus, had trained with him for so many years. If anything, his teachings promoted teamwork and the safety of comrades above all else. On the other hand, the Air gift was a potent crystal ball, able to magnify events of the future and past that were just out of the one’s sight.
I slowly began to remove the needles and splints holding me together, ignoring the sharp twinges of pain wracking my body. I surmised I would need more information before I could condemn or forgive Lokus. Subtlety would have to be my mantra, as I was in no condition to confront the Vitae Lord if my vision did prove true.
“Augrais?” A voice snapped my concentration.
I glanced over. Ben was now sitting up and looking at me as if he hadn’t seen me in years. He pointed his finger at me and, slowly at first as if he were feeding a great beast in his cage, shifted forward until his finger poked me.
“Ow!” I responded.
Ben suddenly became animated as he leapt into the air. “You sonofabitch! Guys! Guys, Augrais is all better!” My friend then ran around the room cheering with his hands flying above his head.
I smiled in spite of myself. “I’m glad you’re alright too, Ben.”
I checked my ego at the door as Ben took half my weight under him. We slowly made our way towards the others who were training near the same pit where we had all begun our training with Lokus.
“So you survived a sword through your chest. Trosian got clipped on the leg, but he’s good to go. Lee took a freakin’ bullet to the stomach. Lokus had a few slices but they disappeared literally the next day,” Ben summarized the injuries we had all sustained in the battle. “Selene will make a full recovery along with Gerald, Vincent, and the remaining two dozen Pagans.”
“What about you?”
“Me?” Ben’s smile was so bright I questioned its authenticity. “I’m too awesome to get hurt.”
“I heard the Shadows were downright scared to even fight you,” I said, being slightly facetious.
“Damn straight.” Ben’s smile faded slightly as we approached our three comrades.
Lokus stood in the middle of the other two, explaining how perception can affect one’s Vitae under strain.
“Augrais!” Lee interrupted him and sprinted towards Ben and I. He spoke as he approached, “Woah, you’ve been hit by the ugly stick one too many times.”
“Yeah, well, at least he’ll look normal in a month,” Ben shot back. “Unlike your mom.”
“Really? Really? Did you just do that?”
“It’s good to see you have regained consciousness,” Lokus said as he approached me with Trosian following slightly behind.
Trosian nodded respectfully, failing miserably to hold back a grin. “We didn’t think you would last another hour, never mind make a full recovery.”
“Glad you had faith,” I said sarcastically. I stepped away from Ben to attempt to find my wobbly legs again.
“I believe I owe you an apology, Master Augrais,” Lokus said suddenly, breaking up the atmosphere of camaraderie. “It was foolish of me to allow you at your age to undertake such a task.”
Was that an off-handed insult? I thought. “The Shadows retreated. We’re alive and the Pagans are still alive. Surely you can see some victory?” I chose my words carefully, not allowing my reckless nature to get the better of me.
“But at what cost?” Lokus replied, looking rather perturbed as if I had failed to see the simple logic of it all. “The Pagans are on the brink of
“Speaking of which, you told us that once Augrais was awake you would tell us about this Laucian?” Trosian asked, watching our teacher’s reaction. “His powers alone far outstretch anything I have ever seen.”
“Yes, he seemed to know you quite well,” I added, watching Lokus intently.
Lokus’s eyes met mine for a split second before he answered Trosian. “Laucian is an Acerbus and the Master of all Shadows. It is he who murdered our families. He and I have met a few times, many years ago on the field of battle…I narrowly escaped.”
Was he hiding something? It was peculiar that his mind was blocked off and I simply couldn’t conclude anything just by looking at his neutral face.
“So how do you beat something like that?” Ben asked. “I mean, he just hammered Augrais into the ground.”
Flashes of the battle ran through my mind. My skin still tingled and burned from the blows I had withstood.
“Laucian is an adversary that requires years of experience, training, and teamwork to defeat,” Lokus stated calmly. “I am confident that with a few more years of training, you will be ready to encounter the Shadows again.”
“Years?” Lee exclaimed, his jaw dropping.
“We actually defended against and repelled a Shadow force and you are punishing us?” I said, shocked. Despite his clear disapproval of the danger we were in, this was not something I expected from Lokus.
“Don’t speak to me about your victory, boy,” Lokus’s voice suddenly became so enraged that I was taken aback. His face contorted and changed like a violent squall. This was not the Lokus I knew, not Lokus the calm and the wise. “You could have killed yourself and everyone around you with your actions!”