The journey to the crypt had been a long one. Desert sand clung to her eyelashes and dusted her clothing, making them look like ruddy copper rather than the bright red and gold they had been. She reached out a hand, her fingers splaying over the smooth stone of the entrance, her eyes closing as pale blue light traveled from her to the locked door. “Bats’yek.” Open. She said and heard the sound of creaking gears and straining ropes. There was a thunk and then the doors slid open, grinding against the floor before sticking. Darkness greeted her and she slipped through and whispered a command so an orb appeared before her then floated slowly down the shadowed hallway. Dust had long settled here on the coffins set in alcoves along the walls and the subtle scent of long dried up oils permeated the air. This crypt housed many a long dead warrior, buried with their most prized possessions, but the thing she sought was in the room at the end, the thing they supposedly guarded even in death, the one she needed.
The crypt went down, down, down into more darkness and the air grew cooler with each step, causing goosebumps to rise on her flesh. It was almost frighteningly silent, yet she persisted, undeterred. She only paused when she came across bones and upon examination realized that they belonged to others who had come here and died after springing traps. She said a small prayer over them then moved on. The orb paused at the ornately decorated door, the light causing the silver emblems to shimmer. This was the place, his prison. She took a deep breath and placed both hands against it, feeling a shiver run up her spine at how cold the metal was. She commanded it to open and then pushed with all her might, relieved when it gave way and freezing on the threshold at the sleeping warrior. He was bound and gagged on his knees, his head ducked down so dark hair obscured his features. It wasn’t the fact that he was so well preserved that astounded her, but the fact that he had two sharp spikes driven through his back, that crossed and exited at his ribs, holding him there. Here was the one who could save her people from the undead horde coming their way. Some called him the Betrayer, others the Wraith King, but she knew him as Actaeon the Immortal. He had been imprisoned here so long ago that he was nearly a myth, but she had dared to hope he was real.
He began to stir, bringing his head slowly up as though it took tremendous effort. His intense, grey eyes met hers but she couldn’t pin an emotion in them. He had been here so long by himself, an absolutely cruel amount of time to be alone and in the dark. She just hoped he hadn’t lost his mind and therefore, his ability to help her. She spoke before she moved, “I’m going to take that gag out alright?” His eyes stayed locked with hers, not giving any indication that he even heard, but when she took it out she finally saw some emotion. Unsurprisingly he seemed relieved, working his jaw so that it popped a few times.
“Am I finally to be free?”
“Yes…and I’d beg of you to help me.”
“Are you the only one asking?”
“Not truly, I’ll explain everything and while I know you can’t be controlled once you’re let go I’d feel too badly making you stay like that much longer while we spoke. Please, if I let you go listen to me.”
“It’s the least I could do…thank you…” she could tell he wanted her name.
“Semele, I presume you know who I am?”
“I am sure the stories about me are less than favorable.”
He nodded. “Only some, that is surprising.”
She swallowed. “So, how do I get these out?” She pointed at the metal rods.
“They’re enchanted, the spell is old.”
“I can reverse it…at least I can try.”
She saw amusement fill his eyes and it amazed her how he could even think to laugh when he had been locked away for so long. She knew if it had been her, rage and madness would have taken her. “Then release me.”
She stood, letting her fingers slide over the rods, feeling the magic dance against her skin. She closed her eyes, finding the path to reversing the spell. She began to speak, her voice commanding and confident as she erased the magic that held him. Actaeon could feel the binding unravel and he couldn’t help but turn his head so he could watch her. Sweat dotted her brow, sand dusted her skin and clothes, and she was both powerful and beautiful. She stepped back, her hands moving away. “What now?”
“Untie my hands and I will do the rest.”
She made quick work of the knots then watched in amazement as he got himself free and began mending his wounds. “Let me help with that.”
“Thank you.” As she began healing him he urged, “Please tell me why you came here.”
“My people are in danger of being wiped out. My father and the emperor didn’t think it was wise to come here for you but…something has always told me the bad stories about you aren’t true, that you were noble until the end. It just doesn’t make sense after a lifetime of being nothing but noble and honest that you’d turn on the man you served.”
“I was put in here to make sure I never told my side of the tale. Thank you for believing in me. Even without further explanation I’ll help. I owe you my life now.”
“Just help us protect ourselves and I wont ask you anything again.”
“I have no reason to hide anything from you. Ask what you wish, I’ll answer honestly.”
“Alright, thank you. Is there anything else you need before we leave?”
“No, my sword is not here, the emperor in my time locked it up in his armory as a trophy. I want it back, it was a gift.”
“I’m sure it won’t be hard to get it back if I ask.”
He nodded. “Then we should go.” Actaeon had to shield his eyes upon exiting, the sun was so bright, brighter than he remembered, but beautiful all the same. He closed his eyes, inhaling the fresh air, feeling the warmth on his skin. “This, I remember. It’s still just as hot and dusty, still just as wild.” He let out a chuckle as he opened his eyes and Semele thought she saw a flicker of sadness there for just a moment.
“Some things have changed, the city for one. My emperor is an elf so some of the architecture is more…”
“Elegant?” She nodded. “I remember the desert clans, I never thought they would take over an empire though. They kept to themselves for the most part. I must have been here longer than I thought, but then again it all becomes one long day when you’re locked in darkness.”
“How did you manage to stay so sane? I mean, you hardly seem like someone who has been locked up with nobody to talk to and in utter darkness.”
“I lived a long time before I became the betrayer. I had many memories to fall back on to keep me going. I also held on to hope someone would finally free me. I’d imagine different ways it might happen. Someone needing my help actually was one. For all the bad stories I knew there still had to be stories of my abilities in battle.”
“What actually happened all that time ago?”
“I discovered how the prisoners of war were being treated. There are certain things you shouldn’t do, even to an enemy. He was cruel and callous under that mask of civility. Then there were his slaves…its still hard to think about the things I discovered he was doing.” She truly believed him, every word. Her father and the current emperor might find her naive but she hoped when he told his story to them they would be able to look into his eyes and see he was telling the truth.
Semele was amazed at how easily he moved over the sand. It was as if he hadn’t just been locked away, like even though his muscles and joints were stiff from lack of use, they still remembered. He didn’t even pause when sweat began to dot his brow, simply removed the coat he wore and slung it over his shoulder. She studied him as they walked, his face set in a mask of determination, his too old eyes that had seen much more than she could begin to imagine. Dark hair hung messily down his back, having grown long after years of not being trimmed. “I know I need a haircut.” He said as he looked at her and she felt a blush of embarrassment heat her cheeks.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”
“You’re a mage, it’s what you do. You study and I must be quite the specimen.” His eyes seemed to see right through her, cutting straight to the heart of things like a sharpened blade. “I admit, you are intriguing as well.”
“You follow your convictions even if they lead you nowhere. What if I had been nothing but a myth? What if you had found only bones?”
“I would have found another way to save everyone.”
“You are as admirable as you are beautiful. Men must not know what to make of you. I bet you surprise them with the power you wield.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “Perhaps.”
He chuckled. “I think I may like you.”
“Good because I already like you. It’s admirable that you’re truly coming with me, that bitterness didn’t consume you and make you utterly selfish.”
“All that time didn’t break me of the fact that you hurt yourself more being angry than you do anybody else. I’m not saying there wasn’t times it was hard not to be bitter but I never let it take me.”
“Well, I can cut your hair for you when we get to where we are going.”
“Are you sure?”
“I know you feel indebted to me for releasing you from the bounds of your prison, but I feel a debt too that can’t be repaid simply by righting a wrong that was done to you. Besides, cutting hair is a simple task, I’m good at it.”
“Thank you then, I like it about here.” He held his hand about halfway down his face.
“Short for safety?”
He smiled. “Absolutely. Short hair is harder to grab, something some of my opponents learned the hard way.”
“A legend using underhanded methods? How surprising.”
“It’s not always bad to be a little underhanded.”
They ate as they walked, Semele asking more questions about him and trying to avoid the circumstances of his imprisonment. He seemed alright talking about them, but she felt rude bringing it up too much. Instead she asked about his childhood and why he had decided to become a soldier. He explained that warriors ran in his family and that he had been trained from a young age how to use a sword, how to move with speed and efficiency almost like an acrobat. He told her how immortality had granted him the time to further perfect his technique and learn some new ones. He had even learned a few languages along the way.
She enjoyed hearing about all of it so time flew as they traveled. She was surprised by how fast they made it back to her people when the trip to find him had felt so long. It made sense though, she had been stressed and worried the whole way there and Actaeon was a better travel companion than she could have ever imagined. “Before we find my father and the emperor lets get you cleaned up and your hair cut. We might all get right to work and you deserve to be comfortable first. I’m sure you’d even like a nice bath.”
“I’m that smelly?” He asked with a grin, causing her to lightly laugh as she blushed.
“Don’t be, I know you’re just trying to be kind. Please, all that sounds wonderful.”
Semele took him to her living quarters and through to the adjoining bathroom. “This is new.” He said as he looked around.
“Yeah, the previous emperor preferred copper tubs, but the one now liked the bathhouse look so he had everything torn out and replaced the tubs with stone pools.”
“Hot spring water?”
“Yes and filters out to let clean water in.”
“Amazing, thank you.” He pulled his shirt off and her eyes were drawn to his torso. He was well lean of build and surprisingly well muscled for a man who had been locked away for so long. She noticed a few scars here and there, some across his back, one up high that looked like a sword had pierced him. He also had a few on his arms. “From training.” His voice startled her and a blush crawled up her neck as she met his gaze. “The ones on my arms are from training.”
“Oh, I see.” She swallowed.
“It happens when you’re first learning how to block.” He smiled. “So, ready to cut my hair?”
“Yeah.” He took a seat on the lid of her toilet as she looked in a drawer for Scissors, taking the time to calm herself down. As she grabbed a pair she promised to herself that she would quit being rude. Staring at him and bringing up what he just went through was out of the question, even if she was dying to know how he still looked so good. Was his magic truly that powerful? Her ever curious mind was begging to know, to learn from such an obviously skilled man. She began cutting, silence hanging between them until she finished. “Take your time getting cleaned up.”
He walked over to the mirror, a smile adorning his face yet again. “Thank you so much Semele.”
Semele left him alone and he quickly stripped off his remaining clothes and stepped into the hot water and sank down into its waiting heat. He let out a sigh of relief as aching muscles began to relax. He had not realized how sore he really was until now. He allowed his head to rest back on the edge of the pool and closed his eyes, enjoying this moment, knowing it may not last if they tried to lock him up again.
Semele was surprised by her father as she left her room, running right into him, her heart stuttering in her chest. “Daddy, you scared me.”
“I was informed you returned with a guest.”
“Yes, I did.” She finally said, feeling suddenly nervous.
“Is it him?” She nodded. “Is he in there?” He nodded at her door.
“Yes.” He started past her and she quickly stopped him. He arched an eyebrow at her, looking slightly amused. “Sorry, it’s just he’s bathing. I was going to get him clothes.” Her face felt suddenly very hot.
“I see.” He sighed. “Come then, he can borrow some of mine.”
“You too and if you need me for anything, please come get me. I don’t know if you have nightmares, but…”
He chuckled. “Only a brief moment of confusion waking up here. I’m sure it will take a little while for me to get used to being free. Go rest now, I’ll see you in the morning.”
He left her there in front of her door, finding himself wanting to stay, but knowing it would be inappropriate. They hardly knew each other, but she had stolen his heart anyway. Semele went to bed that night thinking about Actaeon. She planned to make everyday new and exciting for him, hoping his time spent in that place would fade to a distant memory after awhile. She closed her eyes, making herself go to sleep so she wouldn’t be exhausted in the morning.
Semele was amazed at how easily Actaeon carried out his plan and she barely felt the exhaustion of her magic being drained as she watched him. The Sentinels and wolves hit the net the mages had cast and many fell as if shocked. Those that managed to stay low enough were taken down by her father and the other mages. She held the net in place until the last of the winged creatures fell to earth and collapsed back onto the ground when she finally released her hold on it. She laid there for a moment staring up at the sky, panting and sweating.
She knew this wasn’t over quite yet. They had gotten this under control but their anger would forever hold if they didn’t talk sense into them. The wolves had indeed been wronged and maybe that was irreversible but they had to try and maybe if the other beings would just talk this out with them they could work out whatever had made them so angry as well. Emperor Sgaire ordered the Sentinel that was obviously their leader be released to stand on his own. “What do you expect?” He snapped bitterly.
“To talk, please, you and your people keep refusing but I want to end this peacefully.”
“Your kind can’t be peaceful.”
“We can, I swear it, I am not like the emperors of the past…I know why the wolves hate us but please, tell me why you and the Ettins do.”
“We were driven out of our homes, treated like unintelligent animals, many of us were killed. We did nothing wrong, we hurt no one, yet we were treated as lesser.”
“Do you believe you are the only one who has ever been wronged?” Actaeon asked before Sgaire could voice anything further. “Do you think you’re the only one who has felt the cruel sting of betrayal? I spent centuries locked in a tomb, my name and reputation slandered because I stood up and revolted against the emperor I served at the time, but these people,” Actaeon waved his hand to encompass the soldiers and mages and Sgaire, “these are good people, this emperor is a good and honorable man. Let him make amends.”
The Sentinel studied him. “You are familiar.”
“I am Actaeon the Immortal and this is my home. We can all work together if you will speak to Sgaire.”
“Actaeon,” the Sentinel nodded, “I see. I will speak to him then, without bloodshed.”
Sgaire wasn’t even shocked Actaeons name carried such weight, not every race had been foolish enough to believe that Actaeon had been turned. He was embarrassed himself he once believed the slanderous stories that were spread. Sgaire was soon sitting and talking with the leader Sentinel and a few others from the group. They found reconciliation out on that field and began the journey back to the palace to make some changes official, to begin righting past wrongs. The wolves even tagged along though they seemed the most untrusting of this truce. Sgaire, Semele and her father were simply grateful they too were willing to bring this war to an end. Sgaire didn’t rest until all the paperwork was done and stamped, ready to put into motion the next day.
“I thought I’d find you here.” Semele’s voice brought Actaeon out of his thoughts and he turned, smiling at her and holding out his hand. She took it and he pulled her to stand next to them under the tree.
“Just thinking and waiting. Sgaire makes everything official tomorrow and the wolves are still incredibly restless.”
“Do you think they’ll attack?”
“I don’t know, but there’s no harm in making sure. What about you, what are you doing wandering around?”
She blushed. “Looking for you.”
He smiled. “Well I’m glad you did.” He lifted her hand and kissed her fingers, making her heart stutter.
“Who wouldn’t want to spend time with the goddess who rescued them?”
He sighed out a laugh and ran his fingers nervously through his hair. “I…Semele, I’ve grown quite attached to you, you are so amazing and beautiful. You probably think I’m crazy, but I really like you, adore you even.”
She wasn’t going to play coy and ask him if he was serious. She knew he wouldn’t say something like that unless he absolutely meant it. “It’s not so crazy…I adore you too. You’re so handsome and strong willed. I’ve never met such an unbreakable spirit.”
He tucked her hair behind her left ear. “Does that mean we could be more than just friends?” She could feel her face heating, her pulse picking up. She moved to kiss him and he smiled briefly before kissing her back. It was short and said everything she needed to say. Actaeon pulled her into him, feeling lucky and brimming with hope of a peaceful, happy future.
~ The End