Nightfall offered the rider no solace.
His steed complained, protests that went ignored. He felt eyes on his back, a sense of paranoia that remained no matter how many times he rode in circles and avoided the beaten paths. Long had he left the roads and trails, choosing to climb his way through hills and woodland. Few animals crept under the light of the stars, his only company his thoughts and the occasional glance of a scarlet figure; perhaps even that was no more than a manifestation of his burdened conscience.
Fear was born from threats beyond his sight. The hooves of his beast striking the hard earth were not the only ones that interrupted 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 all over their final breath. She had caught the scent, and, surely as the snow melts, launched a new pursuit.
Evidence? None. All he had to go with was the cold grip in his chest, shredding through his heart.
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 was forced to bend to horse, setting camp for the night. Old habits drilled onto you from an early age die hard, the man not even noticing as he formed a defensive perimeter and was gathering wood for a campfire. Staring at the branches and kindling, he hesitated in introducing them to a spark, giving in to caution and suffering the cold.
Shivering in his dirty cloak and unable to keep eyes shut, the rider backtracked in his decision and welcomed the company of comforting fire. As soon as the flames rouse, he found a scarlet blur by his side, face hidden under a lowered hood. The slave dropped his cloak and rose, abandoning the little warmth he bought yourself in favor of a glacial confrontation.
The newly arrived figure got closer, the little that was perceivable of her feminine face frozen in disappointment. Approaching the rider with the careful and energetic stance of an athlete, she delivered a verbal punch that almost ended up their 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 has never seen Lidia speak without nearly exploding with optimism and blind trust. “If I picked a soldier, the only person I can blame when he behaves like a soldier is myself. It was idiotic from my part to hold different expectations about you.”
“Malice did not guide my hand.”
“And yet you did not saw to stay from 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 him the same words, convincing himself of the need of such finality.
“You seem to misconstrue the purpose of the mission you are doing through my hand on behalf of the State. 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 dimension and invite danger into the world. It is irrelevant what I tell you, all that matters are your choice.”
“You keep mentioning dangers, but I am yet to figure out 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 instead of cockiness.
“It is not that I do not want to tell you, it is that as a Celestial Triumphant, Sextus, I do not believe I am familiar enough with the telluric nature of an Infernal to give you useful information. All I have are assumptions based on observation of third parties and possible contrasts between our sources of power. If I had to guess, 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? The base instincts that lead to violence or greed? Is a Triumph something inherently vile, that is bound to tarnish our divine spark?” The slave was very uncomfortable at the implications created by Lidia’s statement.
“Those are extreme cases, when you tap deep into primal myths and cores. I will not lie to you, for illusions will only cause more damage long term. Your very identity is at risk every time you call Triumph upon you, no matter its origin or flavor, it is always too overwhelming and eager to rewrite the self. I would say that on the case of the Infernii, they are 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.” Lidia presented such hypothesis. “You are still too green, you do not even know what you need to learn. Once you do so, 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 who 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 by then the person you want to be. Do not let yourself be beaten by the first obstacle you encounter within, Tabula Rasa.” So, spoke the scarlet blur as she disappeared.
With dawn, enlightenment. Sextus tore his cloak and picked up his spear, tip pointed towards him. With careful dedication he bound the blade, blunting it. The first step on his declaration, a pact of his determination in guiding all his actions with the best of his human aspects.
The determination to become more than an empty slate.
To be Virtue.