3 Shadow on the Wall
Chapter 4: The Voice of Enigma
(From the point of view of Violet Belladonna)
The largest empire the world has ever seen...
That is not an understatement. Izrecael truly is the greatest empire throughout Luxael. Caelum has the highest amount of gold in the land. Vega can showcase their dominion over the skies. Chateau Valencia unsurprisingly sends their applause on how mighty their soldiers are. Duibhne will have all the right to flaunt their powerful fleet of warships and their cargo ships of colossal proportions. Of course, the crimson palaces of Nihilheim create the most potent magicians inside the classrooms of Varba. However, none of them could ever contend against the vastness of Izrecael.
Even if all those powerful realms combine the size of their territory, no matter how vast and how immense the outcome of their cute coalition may be, Izrecael is still more substantial in comparison.
Needless to say, a vast empire such as this will inevitably pack a large population, and a large population breeds a large army. Shocker. Without counting the noncombatant citizens, Izrecael has a million and a few thousand more soldiers willing to live and die by the blade in the name of the empire. We make sure the passion, the dedication, the bravery, and the commitment of our soldiers will never break, and our monstrous capabilities to gnaw at our enemies without mercy shall spread throughout Luxemia, so all must know of the beasts living behind the walls of our barracks.
No matter how hopeless a situation is, even if the world seems to be ending in the battlefield, no matter how powerful the foes are, the soldiers of Izrecael will never retreat. They would rather die than suffer the humility of loss in their life. Their act of bravery is one that deserves respect, but they will not find that respect from me. They are men of honor who will never run from a battle even if it's a losing cause, and I think, more than anything in this world, what they were showing is just evidence of how foolish soldiers are when their honor is at stake.
There are a lot of them though, having an exact count of the number of our soldiers is near impossible. Other empires fear the sheer amount of soldiers we have in our army, and it's a fear I can respect. No matter how steadfast a soldier is, if we throw a hundred men at him who were all willing to die just to kill him, then he will fall above the soil he trifled with for sure. However, a vast empire is difficult to rule, and it's obvious to say that anyone who would hold the responsibility of being a king of such an impressive land will subject himself to a considerable amount of stress. Not even the wisest of all kings could handle the weight of millions of people and a thousand miles of territory with his hands alone.
The academe concocted a plan to rule the territory of the empire with ease with the help of the previous royal families to solve this problem. The previous regime, which ruled over Izrecael, had divided the empire into four sectors that soon became cities within the walls of Izrecael.
Abzu is the city in the northwest where soldiers train after ten years of education until their life is forfeit. I have nothing more to say about it aside from the fact that no woman I know other than the queen and I have stepped foot here. They say it's too bloody, too icky, and the rank of soldier's sweat is not something a lady could handle. Cowards. I suppose those ladies are overreacting, for, aside from the sheer amount of soldiers lurking about, it looks exactly like the rest of Izrecael. Some are nice and cozy, you know, very homely, while the other parts have a lot of shit and garbage, I say this literally and figuratively, some people here shouts garbage and smells like shit. See? Perfectly normal city.
Eridu is the port city of Izrecael, in the northeastern part of the empire. They stood there to guard enemies that might sail from far north of Luxael. Though this is mostly just a form of tradition, the realm cannot seem to let go. Guarding Eridu against threats coming from north of the Never-Ending Sea makes little sense, for, as the name of the sea itself implies, there is no one living in the far north, and there is nothing there for the eyes to see but saltwater and death. If you ask me, though, I say Eridu is the punishment city. It's damp, and it smells fishy and salty; the people look like they have seen better days, and the place itself is just one big wet market. The queen still comes here, but, ugh, just… no.
Eshnunna is where travelers can enjoy the company of the common folk. Of course, anyone can visit anywhere anytime they want except, of course, the palace of the royal family. This rule is not an exception to travelers. Still, the people of Izrecael encourage visitors to stay where the common folk lives to showcase that being a part of the 'common' is not synonymous with 'disgusting' and 'barbaric.' They are happy people, they're content with their lives, laughing at the pompousness of the rich, respecting the greatest of the wise, proud of the strength of the soldiers, and loyal to the crown. Their joy fills them with life, and they have nothing but love for being alive. The streets are filled with joy, the smell of freshly baked bread, the fragrance of food being cooked in the furnace mixing with the familiar scent of leaves and soil. They are a huge reason why Izrecael is what it is now, a burgeoning city filled with songs and laughter. I enjoy coming here; I wish I can say the same thing about Eridu, though. God, that place is disgusting.
Lastly, what lies in the southeastern part of the empire is the city of Ur. This is the grandiose city of the royal family, and this is where noblemen, wealthy merchants, renowned artists, great thinkers of our time, and anyone who has the money and influence lives to brag about the fact they live near the chamber and the throne of the king. Of course, it's the cleanest part of the city, and this is mostly because people want to fool the king into believing his empire is shining with marble, steel, and other shining splendor with the smell of gardenias and jasmine. In fact, the roads of Ur are one of the very few parts in the kingdom where they did not use the dark mud so that the streets would reflect the glimmer of stars and the sun in the skies. Some people even believe that the shining city of Ur is where the gods themselves reside. Little do they know most of the people in Ur believe in no god but themselves; vanity, fame, power, and money can get anyone anywhere in life, that includes eternal damnation.
This is where I live. Such is the land where King Vortigern rules with the virility of a soldier but the wisdom of a true ruler; here is where Queen Lara once stood proudly with the strength to overcome all men who would dare belittle her for whatever she has hidden between her legs. Foolish men will not suffer severe punishment if they speak ill of the great queen, whom I served for the entirety of my life as a servant, and as a loyal friend, this is the orders of the queen herself. Still, if words spread towards the cities that someone insulted her knowing they are inside the walls of Izrecael, only the gods will know what the people will do to them. The queen doesn't know this. One of my many jobs is to make sure she sleeps well at night.
The king oversees these four cities with the help of eight people. The royal couple, along with twenty-two members of Izrecael's High Office, chooses certain people to rule each city, two rulers for each city, a total of eight expected rulers. Every city has specific standards of how the leaders must behave and perform. This is a troublesome process that leads to a lot of under the table discussion and lip services, but at the end of the day, the just and wise royal couple has the final say on the matter.
The two rulers I speak off have titles too. The people of the empire officially calls them, by the law of our sovereign land, as Ruler of Finance and Ruler of Law. The first guy is the one who makes a lot of money... I wonder how. Meanwhile, the other guy's job is to encourage his people to beat the soul out of anyone who disrespects the queen—it's a joke, but it's not far from the truth either. I mean, after all, it is a law in Izrecael that those who disrespect the queen must be beaten to death, so... Did I lie?
Their job is quite self-explanatory. One handles the city's finance and taxation while the other handles lawmaking and enforcing. Every month, they must report to the council of the king, not only about the cities' well-being but to prove to the noble people before them that they are, indeed, fit to govern the people of Izrecael. Every month, they must report what improvements they made to the city and how they contributed to the betterment of Izrecael.
The pillars are the most critical aspect of the cities. Four pillars reside inside of Izrecael. They are long, no, that's an understatement. They are just… unbelievably lengthy. They're not large or anything, they're not even thick. The width of the pillars is perhaps similar to the width of an ordinary cottage found in a typical neighborhood. However, their length precedes that of the skies itself. They are so long one cannot see the end of it even if they try to fly towards the heavens. The winged-men of Vega told us that the pillars of Izrecael are taller than they could have ever imagined; even if the winged-men flew from up above until they exhaust their wings, they still could not see the end of it. From what they can tell, they're not even halfway to the top of the pillar.
It's such a spectacle to see too, a structure so tall and with such an enigmatic aura surrounding its genesis, but we can only gaze at it as it pierces the clouds.
I'm not sure exactly what these pillars do, and no one knows their real purpose and how it was possible for anyone to build them, to begin with anyway. However, I remembered that her highness Queen Lara once told me that the pillars are a steady source of magical power. The reason why mysticism is such a potent part of the Luxael culture is because of these pillars. Although it is possible to use mysticism and magic without the aid of the pillars, their existence makes it easier for everyone to use magic.
Therefore, Izrecael is such an essential empire in Luxael. Attacking Izrecael means they endanger the pillars. Endangering the pillars means putting mysticism and magecraft in jeopardy. We are untouchable not just as a fortress, not just as a military wonder, and not just as a spectacle giant. Other people are also benefiting from what Izrecael protects.
For hundreds of years, people had called them the Pillars of Izrecael, the Pillars of Magic, the Breathers of Mana, the Doombringers, the Devil's Spear Piercing the Heavens, and I'm sure there are a lot more names the academe gave the pillars to show their dismay to magic. Not to mention, the pillars are mysterious, and ones are of a bizarre nature. The academe fears what they cannot measure, what they cannot sense, and what they cannot explain—something I wholeheartedly understand.
However, a few decades ago, the fool Edolom the Wise ran around the damp streets of Eridu with a fish on his hand, flailing the said fish towards the direction of Eridu's pillar and screaming something repeatedly.
"This is an enigma! This is an enigma!"
So, of course, many people laughed and poked fun at Edolom the B*tch they threw cow dung at him and called him names, but he persisted, Edolom the F*cktwat kept screaming and screaming those words all over the place as he flailed the fish he was carrying towards the pillar until he reached it. He kept screaming, yelling, yapping, and not minding those who laugh around him every day, crying, "This is an enigma! This is an enigma!"
As time went on, people just went on with it and found his dedication intriguing, and his persistence gained other's respect while some poked fun of him even more.
That's the story of why people called the pillars Disis'an Enigma.
This is quite messed up now that I've thought about it because Edolom the Shit Head breathed his last words while screaming at the pillar till he, well, became Edolom the Dead.
I don't quite understand it, to be honest, but what I am seeing right now is something I don't understand more. As I ran out of the royal palace, what greeted me was the reality of the circumstances outside.
The enemies are not here yet, but the people of Ur are scrambling, out of breath, praying as they kneel on the ground. I ran towards the catacombs as fast as I could with the princes, still resting on my arms, with the eleven soldiers running beside me.
I saw it.
From a distance, I saw thousands of creatures I cannot quite distinguish from afar, climbing towards the pillar at a distant city. From its position, I'm guessing it's the pillar of Eridu.
And I heard it.
I don't know where it was coming from, but it was the sound similar to that of how an old wood sounded when you stepped your foot on it. However, this sound is louder, powerful; it's a sound I'm sure everyone in Izrecael can hear.
I hear it from every direction.
It's coming from all over me, from everywhere.
No matter how hard I tried to push my palm on my ears, I could still hear it.
The pillars are crying for help, asking someone to rescue them, bleeding from inside from the attack of the creatures climbing it. It seemed never-ending; it seemed as if they would surely fill the entire pillar with the ravage savages the enemy uses as soldiers.
Suddenly, I heard a massive banging sound. It came from the gate of Ur. No, it was not a singular banging; it was many, and a symphony of banging sounds accompanied by the screams and yelling of the countless soldiers outside.
"Let us in!"
"They're eating us!"
"They're not humans!"
"We can't defeat them!"
"We're being overpowered!"
"Retreat! We need to retreat! Let us in!"
"There's too many of them!"
"Please! We can't win against them!"
I stood there, dumbfounded as do everyone else. Those who could see the gate of Ur fell into a deafening silence. They could not do anything but listen. The banging sound from afar, the clanking of soldier's armors, the noise that's coming from people scratching their nails on the stone gate of Ur, and the desperate pleas of the soldiers as their voices cracked and boomed from the other side of the gate filled the shimmering streets of Ur. One after another, the people started to break. Some covered their mouths as they wept, most dropped to their knees praying for a god to deliver them from the conquerors, and others started to run about with a face of horror.
Amidst the veil of violence and chaos running rampant all around, I remained silent and still, thinking of what I can do.
... Thinking of the queen will do...
... Thinking of what I must do...
What must I do?
I looked below me; the princes are still clueless about what is happening. Perhaps my barrier is too powerful for them to hear or feel what is happening around them.
I have a mission to save the princes from this hell.
I looked all around—chaos and melancholy, death and suffering, stones and marbles, but not a sight of a catacomb.
I know it's around here; the catacombs are near the king's chamber.
As my gaze follows the trail of the countless people running about with their pieces of jewelry and beautiful silk clothing, I noticed a black metal gate with peculiar arabesque design. Unlike most metal gates with a single column of thin metal lined up perfectly like how soldiers are before the start of a war, this one has a distinctive design, similar to that of a slower. The metal is bent to create an image of an arabesque pattern I usually see imprinted on the windows and gates of churches built by the priests of Caelum.
This is it—the one we're looking for, the catacombs. I found it!
"Men, we need to go. Now, now!" I shouted as I diverted my attention towards the surrounding soldiers accompanying me, all with the same dumbstruck expression. "The catacombs, stop looking so dumb, and let's get this over with!"
They remained unmoved. I'm not sure if they can hear me.
"Soldiers! Listen to me!" I screamed in desperation. Nobody was listening; I am merely talking to the wind.
I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists as I saw their expressions. Mouth agape, jaw dropped, eyes filled with abject horror, brows furrowed, some even have their saliva dripping from their mouths, and their grip at their weapons are almost loose enough for them to drop their weapons.
My eyes glowed white, and so do the floating balls of crystals around me. A gust of wind blew from within the balls orbiting me. The impact of the strike alone is enough to send these armor-clad 'strongmen' down into the ground.
"Are you not soldiers of Izrecael?" I shouted as the white gleam in my eyes started to dissipate. "Are they not dying out there, while you're here doing the easiest job a soldier could do? Stand up, protect the princes, and you'll leave this place where you wouldn't even see the horrors of the battlefield with your own eyes. Stand up. NOW!"
Damian was the first to stand up from the group of soldiers. Their morale has sunk deeper than anything I've seen in a soldier from Izrecael. Their fellow warriors are on the other side of that gate, and they are all screaming the same protestations.
They are retreating.
The men of Izrecael are retreating. They have all the right to be surprised, but they have an obligation to do, and that same obligation is what's hindering them from keeping the right to feel awe-struck because of what they're seeing.
As the soldiers stood one after another, I didn't wait for them to have their spirits return from within the hollow spaces in their brain as I ran towards the catacombs as fast as I might run with my nimble feet.
As I ran, a soldier caught up to my pace. It's Damian. Wow, of course, the wounded soldier is the one who gets his act together, how foolish of me to believe the perfectly healthy young men behind me wouldn't be the one cowering like cockroaches.
"I'm sorry for how I acted, Madame Belladonna," Damian said to me as he puffs, running towards the gate of the catacombs.
"Your apology won't get the princes out of here. Save it. Run. Protect them." I gasped and panted as I spoke while running, almost biting my tongue in the process. "That's our job."
Damian ran faster, filling the streets with the sound of his war cry, with his sword tightly gripped in his fist. He reached out his hands as his distance between the gates of the catacombs shortens.
I was lagging a few meters away from him. He's running so much, but I don't understand the purpose. He's like a barbarian with a raging flame on his head instead of a brain.
"This stupid soldier!" I whispered to myself, but perhaps I got too passionate because I shouted it instead.
When Damian reached the gate, he pulled and shook it as hard as humanly possible with his bare hands. I do not understand what he was doing, and I was still a few distances away from him. I see no soldiers around me either, but I'm too curious to know what Damian's end goal is instead of looking back to check for more dead weights.
After a while, Damian, the mad soldier, pulled the gate so hard, its design started to distort into an image I cannot even recognize. That metal gate looked like clay in his hands as he pulled it with the strength above what I perceive is normal. With a roar, as he gazed upon the darkened skies, Sir Damian pulled the gates of the catacombs from the dark stone it was attached to like pulling a metal gate from the strongest stone known to man was something he does every day.
He threw the gate nearby with a piercing scream of a tiger for that sound he was making was not something a man could do unless he's hiding steel barbs in his throat.
"Come, come, Madame Belladonna!" He shouted, waving his hands at me, signaling me to hurry.
"Why did you do that?"
"Did what, Madame?"
I stopped running when I reached the entryway towards the catacombs. I panted and gasped for my breath as I hugged the princes on my chest tighter.
"Why did you do that to the gate?" I yelled, panting, gasping for breath. "Why can't you just open it like a normal person?"
"Well," Sir Damian said with a troubled expression, "I know they always locked the catacombs for some whatever because I am buddies with the person who has all the keys to the catacombs, yeah, around in this here empire. So I thought yeah, we can't look for that guy now since, you know, this is happening, so I decided I have to force our way in, yeah?"
"You… Really?" I said, impressed at his logic. It's a perfectly reasonable answer too, and it worked after all.
"Yes, Madame." Sir Damian said, now with a silly smile, "Oh, look, the others are here too!"
The soldiers frolicked around me like children running towards their teacher.
"We apologize for our behavior, Madame Belladonna!" The soldier who's probably in charge of this group or something said, "We will accept any punishment you think we deserve!"
"You're sorry, of course. I'd cut your head off right away if I saw you still lying down on the ground where I've last seen you, but here you are now, and you still have a job to do."
The men remained silent and gulped as they heard the deep and commanding voice of the petite woman in front of them. Sorry boys, I grew up in a worse world than the ones you got there in the barracks.
"Now, we have no more time; we need to—"
And then it happened.
The gigantic dark-colored gate, protecting the citizens of Ur from whatever monster from the other side, blasted into the air and buried itself onto the walls of the king's chambers.
I looked at the large gate that flew into the chambers of the most important building of Izrecael from a few meters away as if it was thrown like a ball. My vision caught a glimpse of what horrors lie below as I hear squelching and dripping sounds from all over the place.
I slowly lead my eyes down, down towards the ground, down to where my sight caught a glimpse of something far beyond what I imagined.
Innards, organs, skin, blood—these are things I frequently see in my line of work, but one I have not seen piled like livestock as far my eyes could reach. I felt my stomach churn at the absolute stench of death prowling about the streets. Everywhere... it's everywhere. Blood and guts—the white roads of Ur, now painted with darkened liquid and the pinkish colors of human organs along with the crushed and burned remains of the soldier's armor, now looked like a macabre painting of a deranged artist on a white canvas.
All of them are dead, none survived. The people who were running in circles all over the place got crushed too while I could see some who managed to escape the explosion like us cry, pass out, or downright puke, mixing their excrement with the blood of the dead soldiers.
I almost yelped when a severed head suddenly fell beside my feet. I was perplexed seeing the severed head, I know I'm used to seeing dead bodies, but even I have my limits. It's not every day one sees a flying head of a fallen soldier land on your feet even in my years of experience. I took a few steps forward until I bumped my back on Sir Damian's chest.
"Are you okay, Madame Belladonna?"
"I..." I cleared my throat before continuing, "I'm alright. I just... We need to go."
That's what I said, but I was too stunned, too dumbstruck, too repulsed, too paralyzed to move my body. It seems I have lost control of myself, and now a sort of petrifying sensation lingers on my skin, making me unable to move even an inch of my fingers. Is this what the soldiers felt earlier, is this the true colors of war—red and nothing more? I realized I have been very privileged to be living with the queen, for I do not see this sort of image enough to be used to it, unlike the tall Sir Damian who's standing beside me.
I looked at the severed head. It felt like it's staring into the deepest crevices of my soul, like a sort of dark spell creeping into my mind as it gazed at me. Of course, this statement doesn't make sense because the man's left eye is burned while the other eyeball is hanging outside of its socket. How come I can still feel the intensity of his gaze, though? I could feel his eyes piercing my heart while the number of mosquitos buzzing all over the now singed flesh where his neck was once attached grew.
I can't believe corpses can still affect me.
No, that's not quite right. I'm used to seeing corpses. However, I'm not used to witnessing a massacre.
Magic, perhaps? Perhaps they have the capabilities to create a bomb stronger than dark mud. I don't know anymore, but whatever that explosion came from, it killed all the soldiers retreating and begging for their lives outside the gates of Ur, all perhaps so the forces of our enemy could open the city gates and let hell raise towards the king.
Maybe I'm crazy, maybe I'm losing my mind, maybe all these sudden stress is taking a toll on me, but I feel like I hear them speak. I mean, the pillars, of course. Their screams clearer now that the crestfallen screeches of the retreating soldier seized. I thought I heard them utter a language I could understand as their desperate plea for help rang throughout the horizons.
"We're dying!" They said, "He's coming." They cried.
That day, the explosion which blew the gates away from where it once stood, painted a crimson color on the entryway to Ur as I heard the cries of the pillars grew louder.