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5.

The cold weather bothered Nikolaos. They rode all night, and he barely had some sleep.  The saddle was hard, and soon he started to feel pain at the bottom of his back and in his thighs. He could not wait to reach the place his father was talking about, but who knows where it was. He heard about the city of Sirmium, but he had never visited anything outside Rome. Maybe it is just behind the next hill, maybe it will take them two weeks of riding to get there. Apparently, they were closer to the latter case. Surprisingly, they did not encounter any serious problems during their journey. There was no trouble, no attacks from the wild tribes, lurking from the darkness of the woods. They were fine, physically. But, the closer they were to Sirmium, the more nervous Georgios was.

Aranth was restless as well. For the first time in his long existence he felt fear. Was it fear of death or fear of failing to fulfil Lavinia’s wishes, he could not tell. They spent the night in the inn, and woke up around noon. The Basic was not comfortable with that, because he knew that the blacksmith had gained advantage while the two of them rested. Nevertheless, the sight of her in the bed beside him suddenly erased all his troubles. She woke up and hugged him. He smiled.

“Good morning,” she said.

“I’m not sure if it’s still morning,” Aranth replied.

“Call it whatever you like,” she said and smiled at him. He was happy, but dark thoughts were not so willing to leave his mind.

“Are you afraid?” he asked. She moved her head away from his, to look at him better.

“I’m not afraid when I’m with you,” she replied and kissed him.

“Lavinia, I feel fear, for the first time in my life. I am starting to act like a human, like you. I am starting to fear death, like you,” he said. She raised her head off the pillow.

“Death is not your enemy, it’s mine. That’s why we are on this journey, remember? So, you have nothing to fear, death cannot hurt you,” Lavinia replied.

“This time, it’s different. This immortality you seek, maybe it’s not meant for you to have it. I understand that you are afraid to die,” he said.

“Are you going to give up? I want immortality, Aranth, because yes, I am afraid of dying. But, your assumptions about me are wrong. I don’t fear death because it will be the absence of life. I fear it because it will be the absence of you,” she said and drowned her face into soft fibber of the pillow.

“I didn’t mean to doubt you. Yet, there will be consequences. There are consequences already,” he said and put his arms around her.

“I know, I am aware of that,” she sighed.

“This blacksmith… I sense he is a dangerous man. Perhaps he wasn’t before, but we have surely made him so,” Aranth said.

“We are so close to success…” Lavinia said.

“And we are going to succeed, no matter what,” the Basic replied. But, if they wanted it to be so, they had to move quickly. There was no time to be waste anymore. The Basic and Lavinia left the room in a hurry, packing as much food as they could carry. Lavinia would need it, because Aranth told her they were unlikely to make another stop until they arrive to the ritual location. Their horses were prepared and they could continue their journey. Aranth hoped that if they rode fast enough, they would catch up with Georgios, and kill the blacksmith before he got closer to the location. If only she was there, she could have helped Aranth. But, she had abandoned the problems of the world long time ago. Now, he was travelling to the sacred place for his kind. The place where she first appeared. He looked at the map that Castor gave him. The location was clearly marked, and the rest of its surrounding were drawn with a lot of detail. He could not miss it. The blacksmith was ahead of them for at least a day, perhaps even two, but he did not have the precise location. Castor might have told him something, but the map was in Aranth’s hands. There was no doubt that their confrontation would be hard and violent. The Basic hoped that perhaps the blacksmith would get lost, because he did not know the land he was in. He looked at Lavinia’s back, as she rode in front of him. Soon, he will need blood. They did bring wine and water along, but that could not keep him fed for the entire journey. However, they went off road, and through the mountain forests, which meant that they were probably being watched by thief scouts. If not human, then there were certainly wild animals, rich in flavour for the Basic to kill them. He would never attack Lavinia. He would never hurt her, even if there were nothing else that he could taste. Aranth made his horse go faster, so he would be closer to her. She did not notice that he was just behind her, that he had reached her hair. It was only when he touched her that she felt he was right next to her. She smiled. Her hair under his fingers felt like silk.

“Is everything alright? You look a bit pale,” she commented.

“Maybe we should take a break. Set camp, and light a fire,” he suggested.

“We have been riding the entire afternoon, and the sunset is almost upon us. But didn’t you say that we won’t stop until we reach the planes? Is the mighty general tired? What kind of immortal are you if I as a human can go on at least for several more hours?” she teased him.

“I’m starting to feel a little bit hungry,” he said shyly. Her face turned kind and caring.

“Let’s stop, then. Are you going to hunt?” she said and got off her horse. She started unpacking the blankets and spreading them on the ground. He joined her soon, and went around, collecting twigs for fire.

“It’s not that cold, and it’s not yet dark,” she made an observations as the flames consumed his wooden tower.

“The temperature is prone to dropping quickly as the night approaches in the mountains. Besides, I need to lure in my prey,” he said and grinned. Just after he had finished his sentence, they heard breaking of bushes behind them.

“Don’t drag it here, I don’t want to watch a massacre,” she said and took a bite of the bacon she took out of the bag. Aranth moved faster than her eyes could register. It seemed to her as he disappeared in a moment. And then, almost instantly, he was back. His face was dirty and bloody, but she did not worry, because she knew it wasn’t his blood. He wiped his face and sat next to her.

“You should get used to seeing me drink blood, and not run away from it. You’ll be doing it yourself very soon,” he said. She turned her head away, as if she wanted to deny his words.

“Was it a man or an animal?” she asked.

“A man, who was planning to rob us. He’s definitely more useful as my dinner than as thief,” the Basic replied.

“Do I look like I’m mourning him? I don’t care about people you kill in order to feed yourself. But, I think I would be sick if I had to do something like that,” Lavinia said.

“That’s not true. You’ll see. The inevitable hunger will be stronger than any disgust you might feel,” Aranth assured her.

“Do you remember your first… Your first human victim?” she asked.

“Not really. Do you remember the first chicken you’ve eaten?” Aranth replied. Lavinia laughed.

“That’s how it is, isn’t it?” she said.

“Quite like that. Don’t worry about it,” he said. He put his arm around her shoulders. Aranth thought of Rome and the governor. There was a murder and an act of infidelity. It was strange that they hadn’t stumbled upon any soldiers looking for them. Perhaps Atticus gave up on Lavinia, because there was nothing he could have done anyway. The governor definitely suspected of Aranth’s powers and did not dare to go against him. It was a clever decision, giving a free hand to Georgios and getting rid of all the problems at the same time. Atticus weighed, and finally estimated what was best for him. Aranth could not blame him. If he hadn’t met him with his wonderful wife years ago, Basic’s life would be very lonely.

Nikolaos admired his father’s determination, but feared that the blacksmith might exhaust himself before the fight begins. Also, he thought about the weapons they had. None of the swords they carried convinced Nikolaos that they could defeat the general. In his mind, Aranth rose like an unstoppable, always growing shadow that threatened to wipe them out in a single second. He looked at his blade, and it seemed weak and insufficient to him. Nikolaos had to come up with something better. Something that would make Aranth shiver the way Nikolaos shivered when he thought of him.

“Father, I want to melt down my sword,” he said quietly.

“Is that your way of saying that you’re giving up?” Georgios replied. His reaction was calmer than his son was expecting.

“You and Cassius have swords, but I feel that we need something else to defeat Aranth. I kept thinking about stories you told me when I was a child. Monsters are killed when their heart is destroyed. Aranth is a monster and we need something for his heart,” Nikolaos said. Georgios looked frontwards, ignoring Nikolaos for a while.

“This is reality, my son. Not an old tale,” he said, after at least ten minutes of silence.

“Did you expect a reality where a man burns instantly in the sunlight, like he was a dry piece of wood, and another one is stronger than an army? This is beyond what we’re accustomed to, father. In accordance to that, I will make a weapon of my own. You keep your sword. I wanted your approval for this, I want you to tell me that I was right, but I don’t care now,” Nikolaos said and hurried, but the blacksmith stopped him by catching his upper arm.

“My sword was forged with all the hatred and anger directed towards the people who took my sister away. My sword will speak the words of my heart when I meet Aranth,” Georgios said.

“I’m not doing this to oppose you. I want to try, and I feel that it will work,” Nikolaos said.

“What is your plan? You are not such a good blacksmith to forge a weapon good enough to hurt the general,” Georgios said.

“It’s not my intention to make a weapon that will be lasting and enduring. I don’t want to make a piece of metal art, I want it to be effective and to serve its purpose. Trust me, and help me if you think I might need help in the process,” Nikolaos was honest with his father. Georgios and he had spoken seldom since they left Rome.

“Cassius, come here,” the blacksmith called for his apprentice who was riding farther than the two of them.

“What is it, sir?” the young man asked and glanced at Nikolaos, to find an answer on his friend’s face.

“Nikolaos wants to melt his sword. He believes that he can make a better weapon for fighting Aranth,” Georgios said. The apprentice was confused.

“So? What does it have to do with me?” Cassius asked.

“I want your opinion on this,” the blacksmith said.

“Sir, it’s his sword. You and I will keep ours, just in case his weapon does not work, but if he thinks it’s a good idea…” the apprentice replied. The blacksmith laughed.

“Fine, make fun of me,” Nikolaos said quietly.

“I’m not making fun of you, son. I want to see what the third member of this company has to say. He is involved as much as we are, and what his opinion is important to me,” the blacksmith calmed his son. They rode over the meadows, over the green and yellow carpet of grass and flowers. The wind was light and the fields were wide.

“What do you have in mind? What kind of weapon?” Cassius asked Nikolaos, to prevent a possible conflict between the father and the son. The apprentice played the role of the comfort zone for both Philephebos men, and he was aware of it.

“My idea is to make it like a dagger, but heavier, broader. It should be something that I could use quickly, when he’s distracted by you. Something deadly, but small enough to fit under my robe, so that he won’t notice it,” Nikolaos explained.

“Sounds interesting,” Cassius said.

“You really believe that an attempt at his heart, with your dagger, knife, whatever you make, will bring us success?” the blacksmith asked.

“I do believe so,” Nikolaos said with a sigh. His father smiled.

“Let’s hope that that we come across a village in which we could use the tools in the smithy,” the blacksmith said.

After several days, the blacksmith saw a smoke, rising from a vale they had come across. The three men went down and soon small wooden houses appeared in front of them. It was a village, with a military camp nearby.

“We’ll stop here,” Georgios said as they rode through the main street.

“They seem friendly,” Nikolaos said when two villagers without no apparent reason waved at them and smiled.

“I see a tavern at the next corner,” Cassius said.

They stopped at the tavern and tied their horses to a pillar in front of it. Singing was coming from the inside, and when Nikolaos, Georgios and Cassius entered, they found a merry atmosphere among the guests. A woman was singing, and the men at the tables around her served as her supporting vocals. The blacksmith tried to elicit information from the locals about the Black Trees that Castor mentioned. No one knew what Georgios was talking about, except for a baker whose shop was right next to the tavern explained them how to get there directly, without visiting Sirmium. The blacksmith was particularly pleased to hear that they were only half a day away from their goal.

“Do you have a good blacksmith here?” Georgios asked, and offered the baker a seat at the table.

“We had one, of course. But the commander has taken him to the camp to make swords and spears for the army,” the baker explained.

“Pity, we needed a blacksmith,” Georgios said and looked apologetically at his son.

“What for, if you don’t mind me asking?” the baker replied.

“I wanted to make a dagger,” Nikolaos said.

“Who are you?” the baker asked and squinted his eyes at three men. Cassius felt the hilt of his sword under his palm, ready to react.

“It’s none of your concern,” Nikolaos said with panic in his voice.

“Forgive him, please. I am a blacksmith from Rome, and these are my apprentice and my son. We are on an important journey to the Black Trees, and my son wanted to test his skill as the heir to my craft. But, if there is no blacksmith in your village that could assist us, then we won’t bother you anymore,” Georgios said with a sour smile on his face. His only thought was to get the three of them out of there without any commotion. Unexpectedly, the baker laughed at them.

“Yes, the Black Trees… You remember how to get there?” the baker asked.

“You’ve explained it very well,” the blacksmith said and nodded gently.

“No one goes without a sinister intention. You’ve obviously never been there, so I find it obligatory to warn you about that place. It’s not called Black Trees for nothing. Dark forces had settled upon that place long time ago,” the baker said.

“How come no one else has heard about it, but you?” Cassius asked.

“These drunks wouldn’t know their names if you asked them. Besides, most of them are not from these lands, they have come when the army made camp here,” the baker replied.

“Why is it called Black Trees?” Nikolaos was curious.

“Because of the ten black hawthorn trees growing in the area. In the middle of those trees there is also a willow. Older generations think of it as the place where nightly creatures gather and discuss how to trick and kill people,” the baker said.

“Very interesting stories,” the blacksmith replied. Everything he had seen and heard so far seemed like a dream. Great power, fear of the sun, it was all unreal for him until a month ago. But, his hatred was real, it was grounded, it was felt in every cell of his body. The means of achieving his goal were various, but irrelevant to him. Irrelevant, because he did not care how, he knew what he had to do. Kill Aranth, and Lavinia, and end the circle of vengeance with blood. He thought of his wife, and his other children that he left in Rome. He would never see them again. But, it was a right cause that took him away from them, and he did not regret it.

“Maybe they are stories now, but once they were true,” the baker said.

“Do you have a furnace for me to melt metal in it?” Nikolaos said.

“My furnaces are for bread and cakes, not for swords and shields. But, there is one that we use rarely in the bakery, because it’s massive, and it take a lot of time to clean it after work,” the baker said.

“I’ll pay you, let the two of them prepare the furnace for me,” Nikolaos said.

“And where will you be?” the blacksmith asked. He sensed that his son added another feature to his already ridiculous plan, and he wasn’t wrong.

“I will get us a black hawthorn. Because I’m going to put it in my weapon,” Nikolaos said and got up.

“What are you talking about? I’m fine with you destroying your sword, and making something else out of it, but now you want to leave us? What has gone into you?” Georgios protested.

“Is there something wrong? It’s alright, young man. There’s no need for you to pay me. Use the furnace, it’s not that important for my work anymore,” the baker said, thinking that he will ease the sudden tension like that.

“Trust me, father. It’s perfect. If at least half of what this man is saying is true, then the trees have a certain power, and I can use that power against Aranth. This is all connected, I cannot understand how you can’t see it, or won’t…” Nikolaos said. The baker scratched his forehead. He had no idea what they were talking about, but he saw a sparkle in the young man, who spoke with such cheer in his voice. Whatever he wanted  to do, he was dedicated to it, with his entire mind.

“I don’t know what you are talking about. And you want me to let you go there, take a piece of a tree, and then come back? It’s a whole day that we are going to lose, because you have an amazing idea. The general might catch up with us if we waste our time for even a moment. This journey was too much for you, I’m sorry that I have taken you with me,” the blacksmith said and put his hands on Nikolaos shoulders. But, his son could not stand to be treated like a child. He pushed his father’s arms, and turned to Cassius. The apprentice obviously did not want to intervene, but also recognized that he was about to be drawn into discussion.

“You believe me, don’t you?” Nikolaos asked Cassius.

“Let him try,” the apprentice told the blacksmith.

“This will jeopardise our mission, our entire plan,” Georgios said.

“Our plan is to murder Aranth. If Nikolaos thinks he can find a better way, I’m willing to stand by his side. Give him a day, to go and return, and then we’ll face the general,” Cassius said. It must have been the first time he directly opposed to Georgios. The baker, listening to the argument, turned pale when he heard the apprentice mentioning a murder.

“You want to kill someone?” the frightened man uttered in trembling voice.

“That someone killed my aunt, and now… We must kill him. Don’t be afraid of us, good man,” Nikolaos said softly.

“You want vengeance. The poison of the Black Trees will help you defeat the evil man. My furnace is yours,” the baker said, although Georgios did not like it.

“Take us to the bakery and let us start,” the apprentice said and went outside of the tavern.

“Please, be careful. I don’t know what’s happening to you, Nikolaos. This whole time, you’ve barely spoken, and now… Where have these ideas come from? You look like you’re possessed, not yourself, your usual self,” the blacksmith said as his son sat in the saddle.

“It was a surprising revelation in my thoughts as well. But, it makes sense, and soon you’ll realize that,” Nikolaos replied.

“When you return, everything will be ready for you. Return to me, I could not bear to lose another of my blood,” the blacksmith said and turned his head away. His son made his horse immediately gallop and disappeared in the yellow could of dirt.

He was not hungry, and he was not thirsty. He was in need to create. A symbiosis of wood and metal would give him satisfaction when he stands over Aranth’s dead body. Nikolaos came at the top of a small hill. Gazing downwards, he noticed how the colour of the soil and plants darkened as it reached a thin line of tree crowns bellow. Those were the black hawthorns, with the willow surrounded by them. Nikolaos got off his horse, and the animal remained still, even as he moved away from it. He went down the side of the hill, his heart beating fast. The muscles in his legs quivered, as he constantly expected to be attacked. He did not know why, he simply thought that the territory and the trees would see him as an enemy and try to fight against him. When he came to the first row of the trees, he gently touched the bark and felt cold wood under his skin. Then, he took out his sword and carefully meditated on which branch to cut. He put his long blade up, but he could not swing it. The ten trees looked like people, their branches were arms, and their trunks were bodies and legs. As if they were addressing him, telling him to give up. His mind was flooded by questions. Why was there ten of them? And what did the willow represent. Nikolaos tried to fight back the confusion in his thoughts, but he had already been submerged into the sea of hallucinations and illusions. Out of nowhere, red mist appeared, taking over the field and the hills, eventually reaching the trees and Nikolaos. His eyes were itchy, and everything around him turned red, like blood, dark red and cold. Something was going on, something was happening to him, but he did not know how to end it. He heard voices, echoing around him, calling him to join them in the invisible realm. He turned his head form one side to the other, left and right, but he could not see anything else but the fog and silhouettes of the trees around him. Nikolaos felt fear he had never felt before. He thought he was going to die. He shouted in panic and despair, but there was no trace of his voice. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. The only sound was the sound of those strange calls that kept coming. Nikolaos held tightly the sword in his hand. It was his only way out, to cut through the fog. With sweat coming down his forehead and his chin, and his sight severely damaged, he swung his sword repeatedly, until the blade met the hard surface of the branches. He hit the branches again and heard the breaking of the wood. He blinked, and the red mist began to decay and disappear. In front of him was one of the black hawthorn trees, broken and cut into smaller parts by his sword. Nikolaos kneeled over the remains of a branch, picking through the dust, looking for a piece that he could properly use. He picked up what was actually a small, pointy branch and observed it in his hands. It was light, but strong. He could not split it or break it any further. The size was no more than a knife he had behind his belt. Nikolaos had found the black hawthorn he needed.

When he returned to the village, he saw Cassius waiting for him in front of the bakery. The light was coming from the shop, followed by a pleasant heat.

“Are you alright? You look like you slept in a pool of mud,” Cassius asked when Nikolaos stopped in front of him.

“Those trees have a mind of their own,” Nikolaos said and showed Cassius the branch he took.

“This is what you think will help us against Aranth?” Cassius said and touched the wood.

“Aranth won’t see it coming, I’m assure you. My aunt will be avenged, Cassius, and it will be in the most painful way for the general and his lover,” Nikolaos said.

“You brought back a branch,” Cassius whispered.

“Do you doubt me, Cassius? With this branch, I will give this journey some sense. Admit it, you and father had no plan for attacking Aranth. You just thought to stand in front of him and hope that he would miss with his sword. Now, this will save us,” Nikolaos said and passed the apprentice to enter the bakery.

“This will be your work, but I’ll be next to you, to guide you and help you,” Cassius said.

“And father?” Nikolaos asked. Cassius bowed his head for a second, irritated because Nikolaos did not seem to appreciate his support.

“He’ll supervise everything, relax,” the apprentice replied. When they went inside the bakery, they found an empty lobby, which led to the room where the furnace was. The fire in the furnace was powerful enough to pleasantly warm the entire room, but not enough to let Nikolaos manipulate with metal. The blacksmith and the baker were standing next to each other against the wall and watched as the flames danced inside the stone.

“Father,” Nikolaos said and Georgios put his arms around him.

“What have you found?” the blacksmith asked.

“The Black Trees are truly an unusual place, but I have returned with what I needed,” Nikolaos said. Georgios did not reply. Instead, he approached the furnace and started enhancing the fire, so that his son could begin with his work. Soon, the room became a volcano, and there was no other colour but orange that surrounded them. Nikolaos came to the fire and broke the hilt of his sword in order to pull out the blade. Then, he put the blade into a wider mould and placed it over the fire. He took a narrower mould, which was actually some sort of stone container, and set it at the edge of the furnace, so that it would be heated as well. Four of the waited and observed as the blade gradually became softer and stretched inside the mould, until it finally turned into a shiny, thick liquid. The reddish substance was poured into the other mould and then kept close to the flames to prevent solidification. Cassius then took his blade and started carving the branch, shaping it and peeling it. That way he managed to make it shorter and thinner. He turned it into a regularly shaped stake, with one pointy end and the other one blunt and with a curvy line, to represent a kind of handle. What surprised them the most was that each time a layer would come off, the branch would retain its colour, black.

When Cassius was done with carving, Nikolaos took the stake, put it in the first mould and then carefully poured melted metal over it. The whole time, Cassius was spinning the stake, holding it with tongs, so that every part of the wood would be covered in metal, except for the pointy end. When the steel of the former sword slowly began to cool off, Nikolaos drew deep lines in the metal with a long, thick needle. He thought he was finished, but Georgios tapped him on the shoulder.

“Let me finish it,” the blacksmith said and took out the blade which Philomela had made for the governor. He threw the dagger into the mould and waited until it started melting. Liquid gold was casting light upon his face, as he spilt it into the lines that Nikolaos made. Slowly, the stake became a black and grey weapon, with golden threads and ornaments all over it. When the blacksmith was done, he dipped the stake into the water, and a cloud of hot, white steam covered his face. He wiped the sweat off his face and in the tongs, he held the stake for the Basic’s heart.

“This is marvellous,” the baker broke the silence in the room. He approached the blacksmith, making long steps, full of respect and stood to admire the stake.

“Nikolaos, I hope this will work,” Georgios said and gave the stake to his apprentice who then wrapped it into a leather apron.

“I will not fail you,” Nikolaos said.

“Our death is more certain than our survival. Aranth is a Roman general. Even if he was an average man, his rank would speak enough for him. Our two swords can provide you moments, not minutes to react. You must be quick,” Cassius said. Georgios was surprised because he did not think that his apprentice had such grim, yet realistic thoughts.

“What is that?” the baker asked, putting his head up and looking at the side, to hear better of the commotion that was happening outside. The four men went out of the bakery and into the street, only to witness eight pillars of black smoke rising from the military camp. They heard the villagers shouting, while the soldiers put a lot of effort into maintaining the situation under their control. But, the chaos was already taking over everyone’s minds.

“Are we under attack?” Cassius asked as he looked attentively in the direction of the camp.

“Maybe it’s a tribe, trying to get to the village. But… I’ve never seen a tribe causing this much damage,” the baker replied.

“I’m going to see what is going on. Cassius, come with me, and bring the stake,” Nikolaos said and before Georgios could stop him, he mounted his horse and galloped away. The blacksmith turned to the baker and shook his hand. He wanted to thank him for the furnace and support, but a lone arrow found its way to the baker’s head. Georgios turned around and noticed a man covered in animal skin running towards him, and preparing another arrow to shoot. Cassius was ready, as he rode to the man and intercepted him before he could shoot the arrow. The apprentice stabbed him in the shoulder and then in the chest just below the collarbone. The blacksmith was still confused by everything that was going on.

“We have to catch up with Nikolaos! Hurry up!” Cassius shouted at Georgios. Georgios snapped from his surprise and got on his horse. Now, not only the camp was on fire, but the flames had also fell upon the rooftops in the village.

“Can you see him?” Georgios asked, riding alongside his apprentice through the rain of smoke, fire and flesh.

“I think… There, is that him?” Cassius said and pointed forward with his sword. Nikolaos was in the middle of the fights between the soldiers and men who apparently belonged to a tribe. He was using his long knife to fight off his attackers, but more of them came after him. The blacksmith and his apprentice stormed into the conflict and easily killed several attackers.

“Do you have the stake?” Nikolaos asked, catching his breath between swings of his knife.

“Of course I have it,” Cassius said and killed another man.

“He’s here,” Nikolaos replied.

“Who is? Aranth?” the blacksmith asked.

“Yes, the general is here,” Nikolaos said. Cassius and the blacksmith looked at each other. They did not seem to believe what Nikolaos was saying. But, then the blacksmith’s son was proven right.

Thrilled for being a part of the slaughter, Aranth stood at the entrance to the camp, covered in blood and laughing. It was like before, when he had just joined the Roman army. The raids, the battles, the pools of blood, it felt like a perfect life for him. He missed all of that, but now he was reminded of it. He did not need a sword, or a spear, or a shield. He let the soldiers cut him couple of times and then he would grab them and rip their vessels with his fangs. Nikolaos, Georgios and Cassius looked at him creating a path of corpses behind himself. For a moment, all three of them thought the same. But, the unjustly taken life of Philomela had to be avenged.

“General Aranth!” the blacksmith shouted and rushed at the Basic. But, Aranth was skilful to deflect blacksmith’s attack and throw him off his horse.

“Father!” Nikolaos screamed and him and Cassius released their horses and ran towards the Basic and Georgios. The apprentice pushed Aranth with his entire body to stop him from stabbing Georgios. The Basic stumbled a bit, but managed to regain his balance and strike fiercely at the apprentice. Aranth caught his hand in which he held the sword and twisted his wrist. Cassius screamed in pain, and fortunately, Aranth was distracted because Georgios cut his back. In that entire rumble, Nikolaos simply froze. His knife was no match for Aranth, and he the stake was still with Cassius, who remained on the ground, injured. He could distinctively see his father battling the Basic. After all the excitement he felt while searching for the Black Trees and making the stake, now he was lost in the terror that was playing out in front of him.

“Nikolaos…” the apprentice’s voice reached him. The call of his friend, the people running around and screaming, it seemed to him that he was listening it under water. The sounds were not clear. Somehow, he forced his trembling legs to take him to Cassius and help him stand up.

“Let’s move,” Nikolaos said and went away from the camp, into a grove between the army and the village.

“What about Georgios?” Cassius asked, holding his fractured wrist closely to his body.

“He’s behind us. Give me the stake,” Nikolaos said when they came to the trees and hid among them. The blacksmith needed only a second to notice where his son and Cassius were going. The second after that, he had to avoid Aranth’s fists. He stopped counting how many times he had cut or stabbed the Basic. His sword was what kept him alive, but only for a little longer. Georgios did not intend to leave the confrontation with Aranth alive. However, he wanted to die just a moment after the Basic and Lavinia. A moment in which he would witness the fall of Philomela’s murderers. His task was to lure Aranth into the grove, so that Nikolaos could kill him with the stake. Georgios had no doubts anymore. The stake had to work. But, regardless of how close Georgios went to the grove, Aranth wasn’t in much of a hurry to follow him. Instead, the Basic used his great speed to appear on various sides, in order to confuse the blacksmith. Georgios realized what Aranth wanted to achieve, so he remained vigilant and did not waste his strength chasing the Basic. The grove was just there, a step away. A question that haunted Georgios in those moments was simple. If Aranth was in front of him, where was Lavinia? Everywhere he looked there was fire and death. She wasn’t in the camp, and she surely wasn’t in the village. Maybe she left him and went directly to the Black Trees? Then, he saw a small bag, hanging from Aranth’s belt. That bag was the explanation why Aranth was cautious not to let the blacksmith attack him from the left. The Basic suddenly used his speed and in a moment he was behind the blacksmith, ready to kill him. But, reflexes served Georgios well. Sensing what position the Basic would take, he instantly swung his sword backwards, stabbing Aranth in the mouth, all the way out through the back of his head. The blacksmith faced the Basic, and pulled out the sword. Surprised that his move was so well anticipated, Aranth hit the blacksmith, throwing him at a tree. It wasn’t the worst wound he had, but it created a burning sensation inside his head that he could not block. The Basic was disoriented and the blacksmith used it to run to his son and Cassius. Cassius had given the stake to Nikolaos, who waited for the Basic to come.

“He is wounded, but he will recover,” Georgios said, checking the condition of apprentice’s wrist. Cassius let out a quiet cry when the blacksmith pressed the bottom of his hand.

“Did you see the way he moves? I could hardly see him. He’s faster than us, stronger…” Nikolaos began to complain.

“Stay focused, and be precise. I’ll draw his attention, and then you’ll have your chance,” the blacksmith said.

“Where is Lavinia?” Nikolaos asked.

“That troubles me, too,” his father replied.

“Close enough,” a cold voice startled them. Lavinia stood a few metres away from them, between the trees. She saw Aranth coming up to the three men and felt confident to reveal her position. Nikolaos did not know how much of their conversation she heard, but shoved the stake under his leg anyway.

“I was wondering why you kept attacking me,” Aranth joined them in the grove. There was no trace of his wound.

“Your plan to reach the location before us was smart,” Lavinia said.

“Unfortunately, you failed,” Aranth said.

“My son was there, at the Black Trees. It’s just a field, nothing more. I don’t know why it is so important to you,” the blacksmith said. Plans change, and his new one was to stall and keep them busy with talking.

“A human came to the sacred place before I did? That cannot go unpunished,” Aranth laughed. He could kill them all. They would not even realize that they had been killed. The boiling blood in their veins tempted him.

“There isn’t anything special about that place, really,” Nikolaos spoke.

“You’re wrong, boy. That place guards the greatest secret of this world. But, you could not know that, could you? You’re just a boy,” the Basic replied.

“Is this your son? He looks like you, and he talks like you,” the governor’s wife noticed. Georgios bowed his head. Now, they will torture Nikolaos.

“Georgios the blacksmith and his son on a noble quest of revenge. But, there is nothing noble about revenge, and you know it. How irresponsible to involve such a clever young man into this dispute between us. What were you thinking? That once we meet, I would spare him?” Aranth said.

“I want to end his son. You can have him,” Lavinia said and her eyes glowed. Georgios touched his sword.

“There is no other way to finish this, blacksmith. You killed my friend,” Aranth said.

“And you killed my sister,” Georgios replied.

“Yes… She was a sweet girl. Her death was…” the Basic sighed.

“Unnecessary,” Cassius added. The Basic nodded. Lavinia caught a sign of compassion on Aranth’s face.

“But, humans die. Thus, so must you. We did not cause all of this for nothing. We came for you, to stop you, and we will accomplish our goal,” Aranth said.

“I suspected that you were behind this commotion. What did you offer to the tribe in return if they attacked the camp?” the blacksmith asked.

“Not money, that’s for sure. This was no trade. We simply pushed the tribe leaders in the right direction. The direction that served our purpose,” Lavinia replied.

“You’re not like the one we killed. He melted in the sunlight. What are you, general?” Cassius said.

“His kind and mine have similarities. But, there are also differences that give me the superiority over everyone else,” the Basic said. Lavinia made Nikolaos get up, putting her knife under his throat. Nikolaos struggled to hold the stake against his leg and not let Lavinia see it. Georgios stood up carefully, pointing his sword at Lavinia, as if he could cause her damage with it.

“All responsible for Philomela’s death will die,” the blacksmith whispered. Nikolaos kicked Lavinia in the knee, who fell and jumped at the Basic. Aranth avoided his attack, and ran to help Lavinia. Georgios ran after him, cutting his waist and the bag at the same time. Lavinia’s potion touched the ground and governor’s wife grabbed it.

“No!” Aranth shouted, but she had already opened it.

“It will be better if we are both strong,” she replied.

“You can’t, it’s not the right place!” he shouted and tried to prevent her from drinking it. But, it was too late. The potion was inside her. At first, she felt an amazing bolt of power charging her body. Her sight and her hearing were sharper, her skin was more sensitive to everything around her. She could pull a tree from the ground. The Basic was looking at her, disappointed and broken. He did not even bother to defend himself against Nikolaos put his arms around him and pulled him down. Lavinia attacked Cassius, hitting him fast and with all her might. He tried to escape, but she did not give up. She continued scratching and throwing him around, until he finally stopped moving.

“Cassius, no…” Nikolaos cried. Lavinia’s transformation had begun. Although she thought that she was gaining more strength, soon she realized that her figure was starting to deform. Her jaws were too small for her teeth that were growing, her hair had fallen on her back and began spreading like fur. She screamed out of panic and pain, watching as her fingers turned into long claws.

“Aranth, what is happening to me…?” she said in a changing voice that became deeper, until it sounded like barking and growling.

“Lavinia…” the Basic said, reaching for her hand. She looked at him for the last time as herself, and then her pupils dilated and spilt like a black ink inside her eyes. The blacksmith realized that they were all in danger of the hideous creature governor’s wife had become, so he acted quickly. The creature understood blacksmith’s intention and tried to hit him with its claws, but missed. Georgios then took his sword with both hands and plunged it deep into the creature’s stomach, and then pulled upwards. The cut was deep and deadly, and his blade had shattered when it went through the creature’s throat. Aranth shook off Nikolaos, who could not get a proper chance for his heart and punched Georgios as hard as he could. With every breath, the blacksmith could taste blood coming from his lungs.

“Nikolaos, you must…” Georgios said, before bright red liquid, filled with bubbles poured out of his mouth. When Aranth fell on his knees and pulled up the creature’s head into his lap, Nikolaos felt that it was the decisive moment. As it became colder, the creature slowly changed back into Lavinia. He caressed her soft skin. Even with the gaping cut from her stomach to her throat, she was still wonderful, amazing. Nikolaos raised the stake high above his head, aiming for Aranth’s heart. Before the tip of the stake touched him, Aranth quickly turned around and stopped Nikolaos. He now held Lavinia’s body firmly with his one arm, pressing her cheek against his. With his other arm, he supported blacksmith’s son weight. Nikolaos was squeezing the stake and standing diagonally in the air, leaning onto Aranth’s hand. Basic’s gaze was unbearable. The enemy was not so evil anymore.

“I was wrong. Everything dies,” Aranth said and let go of Nikolaos. Blacksmith’s son fell forward and the stake went through Basic’s heart. The tip of the black hawthorn was soaked in Aranth’s blood, creating a mysterious poison that spread fast through his system. The Basic turned blue, as if he was made of dark marble, and then started decay into chunks of dust. In a matter of seconds, Aranth was the first Basic to perish.

Nikolaos pulled out the stake, but cut his palm on the golden edge and few drops of his blood mixed with the Basic’s in the hawthorn core. Georgios was smiling.

“You were… Right… That weapon of yours actually… You were right,” he said, his words breaking as every breath took him closer to death.

“It is done, father,” Nikolaos said, looking at the lifeless apprentice next to Georgios.

“Only a part of it is. There are more of these all around the world, Nikolaos. You must fight them, all the time. Philephebos must fight them…” the blacksmith said.

“Philomela is avenged,” his son said.

“But, her innocence is not, and never will be until our family kills the last of them… You have created something majestic, something grand… Teach your brothers and sisters, their children and your children… Tell them about what happened, and why we did this. They will understand,” the blacksmith said and spit a handful of blood.

“So, this is a war now?” Nikolaos asked.

“Yes, it is. Leave me here, and go back to Rome, and… My state is beyond repair… Tell your mother I loved her. And be good to her and your siblings,” Georgios said. Nikolaos face was wet with tears.

“I will miss you,” Nikolaos said. He went to Cassius and held his hand for a couple of moments, without a word. Then, he left the grove to find a horse. The soldiers had won against the raging tribe, and the field was filled with bodies, arrows and spears. Georgios still had the remains of his sword close.

“All who did you wrong, Philomela… We will pay the price of our lives,” he said and ended his suffering with the broken blade.

Nikolaos took the stake with him to Rome. His mother cried when she saw him standing on the doorstep without his father. He told her every detail of their quest, and to his surprise, she agreed with his father’s wishes. It was then that he had realized how desire for revenge would determine the rest of his life, and the lives of the future generations of the Philephebos family. His father lost his sister, Aranth lost his friend, Lavinia lost her dignity, his mother lost her husband, he had lost his dearest friend, and his brothers and sisters and he lost their father. The hatred between humans and those who were not humans was properly established.

In the centuries that followed, the stake was often give a new appearance. More gold was added, some iron as well, and for two hundred years or so, it was even attached to a silver chain. Some changes were permanent, others, like the chain and the iron were not. But, whatever form it took, the stake retained its core at all times. Black hawthorn, covered in steel of a young man’s sword and the gold of a young woman’s dagger.

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