Night offered the rider no solace.
His steed complained, its protests ignored. The knight felt eyes on his back, a sense of paranoia that lingered no matter how many times he rode in circles or how much he avoided the beaten paths. He had abandoned roads and trails, choosing the hills and woodlands instead. Few animals crept under the light of the stars; his only company his thoughts and the occasional glance of a scarlet figure. Even that might be no more than a manifestation of his burdened conscience.
The hooves of his beast, striking the hard earth, were not the only ones piercing the nocturnal silence. She was always one step behind him, breathing down on his neck, reminding him of misguided youth and hasty vows. He had touched someone’s soul and send their shades into the Underworld; his essence was all over their final breath. She had caught the scent and was in pursuit.
The cold grip in his chest, shredding through his heart, left no space for doubt.
The horse was not privy nor able to understand the apprehension seizing its riders’ mind; the animal only knew it could just not go any further. Slave lost to horse, setting camp for the night. Old habits drilled from an early age die hard, the man not even noticing as he formed a defensive perimeter and gathered wood for a campfire. Staring at the branches and kindling, he hesitated in summoning a spark. He gave up to caution and suffered the cold.
Shivering in his dirty cloak and unable to keep his eyes shut, the rider backtracked in his decision and lit the fire. As soon as the flames roused, he found a scarlet blur at his side, face hidden under a lowered hood. The slave dropped his cloak and rose, exchanging the little warmth for a glacial confrontation.
The new arrival approached him, the little that was perceivable of her feminine face frozen in disappointment. With the careful and energetic stance of an athlete, she delivered a verbal punch that almost ended up this bout in the first round.
“I have no illusions about the man that I bought, Tabula Rasa.” Her tone was too calm, disturbing in how little care she was putting behind each word, as affectionate as the granite slab over a grave. The slave had never heard Lidia speak without exploding with optimism and trust. “If I choose a soldier, the only person I can blame when he behaves like a soldier is myself. It was idiotic from me to hold different expectations.”
“Malice did not guide my hand.”
“And yet you did not stay from delivering a lethal blow, Sextus.”
“They were in my way and compromised my mission.” Sextus, the man that was knight and slave, stated - without much sincerity. He had spent the entire day telling himself the same words.
“You seem to misconstrue the purpose of the mission. I expect you to further reflect on that issue.” She then seemed to ease up in relief. “At least you did not call upon your Triumph.”
“I thought I was under strict orders not to so.” Sextus raised an eyebrow, curious.
“I advised careful judgment; the call of when and if to use it falls upon your shoulders. You must respect that power, and if you choose to yield it poorly and for the wrong purpose, you insult its symbolism and invite danger into the world. It is irrelevant what I tell you, all that matters are your choices. Just as it did today.”
“You keep mentioning dangers, but I still do not know exactly what you mean.” The rider inquired, a bit annoyed at the posturing. “Forgive me, Lidia, you keep hinting that this is not an entirely safe process but you avoid going into details.”
She finally smiled, embarrassment replacing her usual cockiness.
“It is not that I do not want to tell you. I am trying to avoid misleading you. As a Celestial Triumphant do not believe myself familiar enough with the telluric nature of an Infernal to give you useful information, Sextus. All I have are assumptions based on observation of third parties and educated guesses. I would say that your kind draws from the crude reality of the human experience, while I am more attuned to platonic forms, pure concepts and abstractions divorced from mortality.”
“How so? Base instincts, the very things that lead to violence or greed? Can a Triumph be something inherently vile, that will eventually tarnish our divine spark?” The slave was very uncomfortable at the implications created by Lidia’s statement. He knew there was a darkness in his spark, but inherent evil was another matter entirely.
“Those are extreme cases, something that can happen when you tap deep into primal myths and cores and I’ve seen Celestials and Infernals alike give in to corruption. I will not lie to you, deceit would only cause more long term damage. Your very identity is at risk; every time you call Triumph upon you, no matter its origin or flavor, it will try to overwhelm and rewrite the self of the Triumphant. I would say that on the case of the Infernii, they are just more exposed to certain aspects of their own very human flaws, risking to lose themselves within and slowly becoming exaggerated caricatures of the person they used to be - it just hits closer to home.” Lidia presented that hypothesis. “You are still too green, you do not even know what you don’t know. Once you do, I can present you to an old friend of mine; they have forgotten more about Triumph than anyone else ever knew. For now, you must thread the night blind.”
The rider sat down in front of the fire.
“You have given me a lot to think about, Aeneid.” A pause and a contentment smile. “Thank you.”
A deathly neigh in the distance.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Sextus limited himself to a nod.
“I will handle her, get whatever rest you can manage. I will have need of you soon enough, so find out the person you want to be. Do not let yourself be beaten by the first obstacle you face within, Tabula Rasa.” So spoke the scarlet blur, fading into the night.
With dawn, enlightenment. Sextus tore his cloak and picked up his spear, tip pointed towards him. He bound the blade with careful dedication, blunting it. The first step, a pact of his determination in guiding his Triumph with the best of his humanity.
The determination to become more than an empty slate.
To be Virtue.