Chapter 23

Isoldé led Command 1 to a manhole, and climbed up first, pulling Morteus up with. He gasped as he realized where they were. The tumbling hills rolled out behind them in dazzling dapples of green and parched yellow, and a compound of majestic sandy towers rose from the ground in front of them.

“You mean… We were directly under the castle all this time?”

“Yes, we were,” Isoldé smiled wryly. “All these years, and King Periphral never knew he had a nest of enemies living underneath him.”

“That’s frightening,” Morteus was daunted by the terrifying possibilities. “Why wait so long to confront them then?”

Isoldé shook her head. “I can’t believe you still haven’t figured it out. We were waiting for you. And it seemed to take a long time for Von Mont to recruit soldiers that were against Periphral. After all, people don’t go broadcasting their rancor. Rebels aren’t common in this country, either.”

They were inside the gates of the castle already. After the entire of Command 1 had clambered up, Isoldé motioned for them to get into formation and keep quiet until they were in the inner walls of the castle.

Morteus eyed the gates of the castle. Looks like the king knew that they had planned to fight him. There were many guards stationed outside the main gates, but none of them had turned back to see them enter the castle. Is it really this easy to get into the castle? The thought of it was frightening.

They were led through the castle, and as Morteus passed the king’s garden, he frowned. There was something wrong. The castle seemed deserted. Even during a battle, especially during a battle, the castle would be sprawling with people and soldiers. Though they had come in through a passage that was not monitored by the security within the castle, he had expected to encounter at least some kind of resistance.

Isoldé seemed to read his mind. “You lived in the castle before, Morteus. Tell me where we are now,” She spoke softly to avoid being heard.

“We’re in the secluded path leading up to the main hall and main rooms, exclusive only for the king and his closest subjects and relatives,” Morteus answered her.

“There we go,” She said. “Remember the rest of the troops? We only brought about a hundred. The army is probably combating those troops now, acting as a distraction as we go in to find Periphral.”

As expected, once the troops neared the main tower, a small army of the king’s best troops met them. Isoldé reached for her sword, and Morteus reached for his.

“Intruders!” One of the soldiers called out, and all the troops stiffened and unsheathed their swords. Not one of them spoke as they inspected their surroundings. The lone castle rose up high in the air, casting them in its shade. The hot sun beat down on the soldiers, and the shade of the castle not enough to hide the pitiless, emotionless expressions they bore. Morteus shivered.

The warriors looked at each other, ready to act upon command.

“Our king has offered to speak to you to clear all misunderstanding before the fight,” What seemed to be the leader of the king’s troops spoke up. Morteus narrowed his eyes, surprised that it wasn’t Captain Vailos leading them. He had seen this captain before, though, he was sure of it.

“Misunderstanding? What misunderstanding?” Isoldé said derisively. “Is your king trying to back out of this?” She motioned to her troops, and they nodded in unison.

“For the eradication of the king!” Isoldé raised her sword and charged forward.

“Count Von Mont!” The troops raised their swords and shields and ran forward without a moment’s hesitation.

Morteus held his sword, unsure. He was attacking his own castle, and he knew that the soldiers fighting were good, honorable men that just committed themselves to their king.

A king who tried to kill me.

Morteus raced after them, dread overwhelming him as he heard King Periphral’s soldiers bellowing war cries. The two sides clashed and Morteus was lost in the midst of it.

“Isoldé!” Morteus called out her name as he parried a blow from a soldier.

“Morteus?” The soldier was about to launch himself into an attack when he heard his voice and recognized the prince. A horrified expression crossed his face. “My Lord, why are you dressed in this armor? I could’ve killed you, your majesty! Please forgive me, your highness!” The soldier he was fighting fell to his knees.

Morteus stopped in his tracks, perplexed. “Get up, get up!” He hissed, hauling the soldier to his feet. “I’m not a prince anymore. You no longer serve me,” Morteus stared off into the distance. “You should’ve killed me.”

Confusion etched into the soldier’s face, then it froze in place. Morteus snapped back to reality, frowning as the soldier tumbled over onto the ground. Behind him stood Isoldé. “Why did you kill him?” A mixture of anger and bewilderment tainted Morteus’ voice.

“Show no mercy to your enemies,” She shouted.

“He wasn’t planning to kill me!” Morteus bellowed back at her, but she ignored him.

“Come on,” She yelled over the commotion, and Morteus could barely make out her lips moving. Isoldé grabbed his arm, and Morteus pulled back, remembering what Von Mont had said. Kill him… The voice haunted him, sending chills down his spine.

He followed after Isoldé, the soldiers too immersed in the fight to see the two of them leaving the battle scene. They reached the entrance of the tower, and Isoldé encountered a large wooden barricade. Morteus offered his help, but she glanced at it, amused, then tossed the wooden barricade aside with a flick of her hand.

They entered the tower silently, and Morteus was astonished to see that the curtains were all drawn back, daylight streaming through the windows. It was as if nothing was going on, and everything was fine. He had half expected the tower to be submerged in darkness, and had prepared for an ambush as the king’s next line of defense.

They rushed up the stairs, stopping at the next floor, cautious to see if there was anyone hiding behind the banisters.

“We have to be careful,” Morteus said in an undertone, the discord and uproar of the battle already a distant noise in the background, probably due to the thickness of the walls.

Isoldé nodded, appearing stunned that they had not stumbled upon any confrontation yet. They sidled forward, both knowing they were aiming for the hall, which the king was bound to be in.

“I’m quite sure we’re playing ourselves into a trap,” Morteus muttered. His senses seemed to be heightened as his heart quickened, his head turning at the slightest bit of noise. The muffled sound of their footsteps seemed uncommonly loud, each step raising the hairs on Morteus’ back.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Isoldé footsteps seemed faster now, and Morteus struggled to keep pace as they walked briskly past neatly furnished rooms. Every large glass panel they passed had red curtains that were drawn back into gold rings, and every room had its door shut.

Morteus felt a pang of sadness as flashes of memories rushed back to him. This was where he lived. He passed by this corridor literally every day, for his entire life.

They almost reached the end of the corridor. Something felt extremely out of place.

“You didn’t think you could get this far without seeing any soldiers, did you?” A pompous, jeering voice startled him, and he skidded to a stop.

He whirled around. The voice was unmistakable.

Darius.

Morteus gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists. The events of the past few days, not to mention the emotional trials he faced, had caused him to forget about his foster brother. Now, he realized, Darius had caused all this.

Darius had wanted to kill him.

Isoldé touched Morteus’ arm. “Who is this?”

Morteus flinched and jumped back from the contact. “Darius. Eldest son of King Periphral,” He hissed through his clenched teeth.

Isoldé opened her mouth to ask another question, but stopped as she saw Morteus’ expression.

“Morteus,” Darius narrowed his eyes. “I suspected you had a part in this, somehow. My father wouldn’t believe me.”

“None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you,” Morteus glared at Darius. “I would be here, fighting alongside you and the king, in blissful ignorance. I suppose I must thank you, for enlightening me in the evils of this world.”

“You are very welcome, brother,” Darius sneered in contempt. “I must say so, it would seem that you have crossed over to the dark side. Why have you come to attack us? My father never meant you any harm. He was always ‘Morteus this, Morteus that’.”

Morteus felt a pang of guilt and shoved it away.

“He loved you so much, more than he loved me,” Pain and intense loathing entered Darius’ voice.

“He never loved me,” Morteus said, his voice hard. Darius ignored him.

“And here you come, intent on destroying us and stealing the throne,” Burning fire danced in his eyes.

Morteus faltered. Is what I’m doing really right? Cardiza… I had been outraged when I learnt that they intended to conquer it. But… have I sunk to their level now? Corrupted by power, greed, and revenge?

He pushed away his conscience and his lips curled into a false smile. “Hark who’s speaking. Who was the one who wanted to kill me? Who had, under no rightful justification, wanted to conquer Cardiza? You.”

Darius’ mouth contorted involuntarily, as if he had just tasted something bitter. “I have not killed you, nor have I conquered Cardiza. But you, you have turned on us, after all we’ve done for you for the past fifteen years. We provided you a home when you had none.”

“You were the one who took away my home in the first place! This palace is rightfully mine. You took it away from my father,” Morteus burst out, his heart pumping at a fiery pace. Anger bubbled in his lungs. He unsheathed his sword and took a step forward.

Isoldé put an arm on his shoulder, restraining him. Morteus shook her hand off and advanced on Darius.

“I wouldn’t fight if I were you,” Darius snapped his fingers, and a circle of guards appeared from behind him. They encircled him, hiding him from view. Morteus looked back, and realized they had no way out. A few guards had come out from the rooms behind them, and Morteus was dully aware that he was right. They had been caught in a trap.

“Jesus,” Isoldé drew in a short breath. Her eyes darted back and forth, counting the numbers. Right now… It was two of them, against twelve guards.

“I won’t let you go!” There was no thinking to it. Morteus charged forward, sword in hand, battling the first guard that resisted him. Isoldé joined him, knowing there was no other choice but to fight.

The guards were the first to be slain. Morteus dodged as two guards slashed at him from left and right, causing them to knock into each other. Morteus took chance of this opportune moment and thrust his sword into one’s heart. He quickly withdrew his sword and plunged it into the other’s chest.

Their eyes widened in horrified realization as they kneeled over and fell onto the floor.

Morteus pulled his sword out, horrified at the blood, at what he had done.

I just killed two innocent people. They were only dedicated to protecting their prince. Morteus shook his head.

They would have killed me. His other voice piped up. These people have lives. Their parents, wives, children… They’ll be mourning for them for years to come. A heavy dread filled Morteus, and a stone settled in his heart.

Morteus’ thoughts were interrupted as another guard charged at him. He jumped to his feet and parried his blow, twirling his sword around and knocking it from his opponent’s hand. “Flee now,” He said to the guard, his voice steely.

“No, I will protect the prince for as long as I am alive,” The guard put up a mask of bravado, then he let out a spluttering gasp and fell on his back.

Morteus looked up to see Isoldé fending off three guards, her sword already withdrawn from the guard’s body.

“He had a dagger behind him,” Isoldé shouted over the clanging of metal. “He would have killed you.”

Morteus put a hand to his heart and realized Isoldé had just saved him. Perhaps she wouldn’t obey Count Von Mont. Perhaps she would leave him alive, and not kill him.

“Concentrate on the fight!” Isoldé screamed, as a guard rushed at him from behind. She blocked off another few blows from the three guards.

Morteus glanced at Darius while fending off the guard.

“Darius! COWARD! Are you using numbers to intimidate us, overwhelm us? Twelve against two is hardly a fair fight.”

Darius looked Morteus straight in the eye and hesitated. “Stop!”

The guards halted, and Isoldé slit the throats of the three she was fighting. Already seven of the guards were slain.

Morteus was breathing heavily, and he couldn’t cover the horrified expression on his face. Seven guards. That’s seven families that will be mourning tomorrow.

Isoldé nodded at his expression, sympathy emanating from her. “Killing… Isn’t as easy as the innocent think. It’s not pleasant.”

“Not particularly,” Morteus breathed in and out.

“It shouldn’t be. That would be immoral,” Isoldé remained in her fighting stance, her gaze set on Darius and the five remaining guards that had surrounded him once more.

“Darius. What a chicken you are,” Morteus sought to provoke him. “Fight, without having your guards to back you up. Fight like a man.”

“Fine,” Two guards stepped aside, leaving Darius in plain sight. “But one-on-one. Your pretty… maiden will have to step aside.”

“Fine-” Morteus was cut off by Isoldé.

“No,” Isoldé stepped out.

I will fight you.”

Morteus had to admit, Isoldé was intimidating. Her long curly hair was swept behind her, and her pants were stained in blood, glinting on the silvery sheen of her armor. Isoldé’s piercing brown eyes glared at Darius as she crouched into a fighting stance.

“What on Earth are you doing?” Morteus hissed. “He’s my brother. I want to finish him off.”

“No offence intended, but I think I would be more capable of that job,” Isoldé replied swiftly.

Morteus drew back, his pride stinging. “Prove it.”

Darius let out a loud, jeering laugh. “You’re sending a girl to fight me? Who’s the milksop now?” The word sounded dirty on his lips.

“Don’t be so haughty. You’re about to be beaten by a girl,” Isoldé beckoned to him. “Come on, show me what you’ve got,” She paused, as if she was hesitating. “Or are you scared of girls? Hmm?” Her mocking tone irked Darius.

Darius came charging towards her headfirst, his sword swishing to and fro in complicated patterns. Isoldé focused on his moves and darted to a side, narrowly missing his sword by an inch. Darius sped past her and whirled back, parrying her blow as she slashed down on him.

“Very. Good,” Darius managed to utter these two words in between blows.

“I’m not what you had expected, am I?” Isoldé said effortlessly. “Humble yourself,” She blocked his blows and started advancing towards him. She thrust her sword forward, missing him by a hair’s breadth. There was an ear-splitting sound of splintering wood as her sword drove into the table behind him.

Isoldé quickly pulled her sword out of the wood before Darius could gain any advantage. She stole a glance in the direction where the sound of metal clashing came, and saw that the guards had taken on Morteus.

“I’ll finish you off,” Isoldé quickened her attacks. Darius knew that he was no match for her, if he fought fairly. He stopped attacking, concentrating on defending himself. Isoldé’s attack slowed as she realized she had to try another strategy. Just as she was about to launch a new attack, Darius looked up in surprise.

“Father!” Darius looked beyond Isoldé’s shoulder. Isoldé whirled backwards, looking for King Periphral.

Morteus had turned to face Darius when he shouted out. “Watch out, Isoldé! He’s tricking you!” He warded a blow and killed the guard he was battling.

“No!” He dived in front of Isoldé, thrusting his arm up to block Darius’ sword.

Morteus’ shoulder felt a sharp pain as metal met metal. Darius had thrown all the energy he had into this one attack. “You’re… strong,” Morteus panted. His elder brother sneered at having his plan disrupted.

Isoldé turned back, her expression bearing different emotions simultaneously. Horrified, bewildered, and grateful, she took it all in at once and stared at Morteus. “You just… saved my life,” Her voice sounded strangled.

“There’s no time for thank-yous now. You saved my life as well,” Morteus was preoccupied with fighting with Darius. He parried all his blows, but was being steadily pushed back and retreating. “I can hold Darius. Go find King Periphral before he escapes. Run!”

“You… risked your life for me…” Isoldé’s eyes glazed over. “And yet… Morteus, Count Von Mont ordered me to…”

“Kill me. Yes, I know that,” Morteus said, and a fire lit up in the pit of his stomach. “But you won’t. Now go!” Morteus pushed her away with all his might.

“How… How did you know?” Isoldé asked, apprehensive.

“I just know!” Morteus grunted as Darius pushed him back further and further. “Hurry, just go!”

“Thank… you,” Isoldé took one look at him, guilt and regret shining in her eyes, and then turned and ran deeper into the castle.

“Now she’s gone, you’re alone, Morteus,” Darius grinned widely. “This is going to be interesting.”

All the guards were either dead or lying unconscious on the floor by now. “I guess it’s just you and me,” Morteus smiled, grim.

“Yes, afraid, aren’t you?” Darius replied with a smug smile, but his eyes flickered to the window, through which the battlefield was plain in sight.

Morteus eyes followed Darius’ attention. A bit of hope rushed into him as he saw the soldiers. “Scared, dear brother? Hoping that reinforcements will come and help you with this fight?” They circled each other, each one clearly reluctant to begin.

“No, that would be you, I imagine,” Darius scoffed, undoubtedly trying to aggravate Morteus into making the first move. “I thought you had some form of courage, actually having the nerve to intrude on our family for all these years. But I was mistaken, no doubt about that. You ran away, and had to come back with an entire army to back you up. I’m surprised, though, at how fast you could rally up supporters. Told lies about father, I suppose?” said Darius scathingly. “Funny, really, how you could do so. I thought you actually loved him…”

Anger welled up inside Morteus. “Would you love a murderer?” He kept his face straight.

“That is quite a point you’re making,” Darius’ lips curled into a sardonic smile.
“Although your urge for revenge is actually due to your love for your parents, who were nothing but detestable scum…”

“Don’t you dare besmirch my parents’ names,” Potent rage was radiating from Morteus, who was unable to conceal it.

They were the ones who murdered my elder sister without reason,” From Darius’ expression, he wasn’t merely trying to provoke Morteus. The inexplicable expression of fury and wrath could not have been part of his act. “Would you love a murderer?” He repeated Morteus’ rhetorical question in a mocking tone.

“MY. PARENTS. WERE. NOT. MURDERERS,” Darius’ words had evoked a blindingly strong emotion in Morteus. He started shaking and trembling with anger, seconds away from cracking. Rage blinded him as he tried to see through his angry tears. “LIAR!” He charged at Darius without a millisecond’s notice.

Tears of fury were running down Morteus’ face as he hacked at Darius, who had been prepared for his blow.

“I’m not lying,” Darius said in a perfectly calm voice, though his nervousness was evident under his carefully presented façade. “Your parents were murderers,” His face contorted as he said that, hate clearly prevalent on his face.

“No, they were not,” Morteus thrashed about, warding off Darius’ blows. No, don’t believe him. He’s only trying to get you to snap, to give up, so that he can finish you off. He struggled with his own emotions. My parents couldn’t have been murderers, could they? If they were…. Then wouldn’t King Periphral have had reason to kill them? He shuddered, unwilling to go down that path.

“Yes, they were,” Darius feinted to a side and stabbed at Morteus. Morteus blocked his attack, his arm burning ferociously. Morteus averted his attention from Darius’ taunts, trying to keep a clear mind while fighting him. He attacked Darius with a series of blows, his blade reaching barely a few millimeters from his neck. Darius fought back, pushing Morteus backwards as he struggled to parry each of his blows.

“Isoldé!” Morteus looked up, attempting to use Darius’ trick on him. Darius didn’t even glance over his shoulder.

“I’m not that naïve, Morteus,” He said in a relatively monotonous voice, as if he was bored by his unsuccessful ruse. “I suggest you try something better, next time.”

Morteus stabbed at his foster brother in frustration. “What do you want from me?” He grimaced as Darius nearly sliced off his hand.

“I want… I want…” Darius was momentarily stymied. Why bear such bitterness and resentment against Morteus? Darius immediately answered himself.

“Ever since you… Intruded on our family, Father has always favored you, always pampered you. He treated you like his son… Like one of us,” Darius scowled. “So much that I think he was intending to leave you the throne. He said that it belonged to you, after all,” He seemed to spit out every word.

Morteus recoiled, shocked at how Darius viewed the entire matter. So King Periphral didn’t really want to kill me? He loved me? Then… that would mean that I shouldn’t be attacking him now. Morteus was unwilling to accept that he had been wrong. He killed my father. He reasoned with himself, and hardened his resolve.

Darius continued on his rant. “What do I want from you, Morteus?” He glared at him. “I want you to bow down to me. I want you to admit that I am better than you.”

“That’s all?” Morteus fought the bizarre urge to laugh. “This is all that you want from me? It’s only-” He laughed in shock. “It’s only- only- jealousy– that brought on this tirade, and this entire chain of events?”

Darius ignored Morteus’ comments. “Bow to me.”

Morteus took a step back, not daring to withdraw his sword. His incredulous countenance made Darius’ confidence and pride waver.

“Very well,” Morteus couldn’t believe this was the cause of all the enmity that Darius bore. “If I bowed to you, would you let me pass?” He looked at Darius, who was trying to hide a smug smile. Morteus frowned. That smile made him come back to reality, as his vision sharpened and his perspective shifted. What if this is a trick? Morteus wondered to himself. A trick for you to lower your defenses? He could have smacked himself for not grasping that possibility earlier. A dirty trick, but effective nonetheless.

            “How should I know you won’t slash down on me the second I bend down?” Morteus asked, fixing his eyes on Darius. Darius mouth gave a little twitch.

“On the count of three, we’ll drop our swords,” Darius said haughtily. “I see that you can’t put your mind at rest.”

“One…” Morteus couldn’t help but think this was another deception.

“Two…” Darius held his sword out, tempting Morteus, testing him.

“Three!” Morteus watched Darius’ sword clatter to the floor and let his weapon drop, full of trepidation as he heard the clanking sound of his sword hitting the ground.

Darius had an elated expression on his face as he commanded Morteus. “Now bow to me, or the battle continues!”

Morteus calculated the risks. It seemed ridiculous that Darius wanted him to bow down to him. But Darius was Darius… Besides, there couldn’t be anything fatal that Darius could do in that short second that bowing required.

“Fine, Darius,” Morteus bent down, at once feeling too aware of Darius standing imperiously over him. Then the dangers immediately appeared to him, and in that split second, multiple things seemed to happen. It wasn’t in slow motion, but instead Morteus’ senses seemed to take everything at a million times its normal speed.

Morteus was dully conscious that Darius had made a sudden movement above him, so he grabbed the two swords on the floor and upturned them quickly, flipping over so that he was facing Darius. He felt one of the swords make contact with a small thud. He stared, shocked at what was facing him.

Darius was above him, holding a dagger that he had drawn from his robes. He had his mouth open in shock as he looked down at the blade that had sliced through his robes and armor, piercing his chest.

Morteus blinked, not capable of taking it in. He withdrew his sword, his eyes widening as Darius fell onto his back, one finger pointing weakly at him, the other hand clutching at thin air, too weak to hold the dagger.

“You…” Darius was beside himself in anger and incredulity. “Morteus…” He groaned and closed his eyes.

Morteus stood up and crouched over his foster brother. “No… I didn’t mean…”

Darius opened his eyes. “You…” He whispered.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to-” Morteus couldn’t feel the slightest bit of anger that he had felt before, only remorse.

“Your parents deserved to die,” Darius hissed, forcing out the words with the last of his strength. Then, to Morteus’ great disbelief, his eyes slid close, and he fell silent.

Morteus got up, frightened yet enraged by his last words. All regret washed out of him as he stared down at the unmoving Darius on the floor. He deserved to die… He thought to himself. That impertinent, over-confident vermin. Cold hate hardened him, and he could not find the pity and remorse that he had felt moments before. Does anyone deserve to die? A tiny voice questioned him.

Morteus pushed all compassion and forgiveness away, his eyes narrowing into slits. His parents. He must take revenge for them.

Vengeance. He must have it.

With that, he picked up his sword and hurried down the corridor.

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