The Warlord (Part 4)

As a brilliant moon rises we push the boat to the silvery desert shore.  We put what provisions we can in packs and begin our journey towards the needle-sharp silhouettes of stark cliffs in the distance beneath a starry sky like I haven’t seen since the far North.
“We should make the wastes of Yrizang before they catch us on horseback.” says the Warlord.

“What we are doing out here?” I ask him.
“This is where the Master sent my inheritance.”

“Your inheritance?”

“He crafted a being out of dissident souls that will aid me in the last battle.”
“Multiple souls?”

“Yes.  We are powerful in this world but the Master and the Paladin were of another kind.”

We set out at a tremendous pace although we are both armored and carrying burdens.  By dawn, we have reached the end of the rolling dunes and are entering the jagged rocks of Yrizang where hardly even a tuft of hardy grass can be seen.  Within an hour of sunrise, heat ripples all around the valley walls like an ascending chorus. As our steps echo from one dead valley to the next, the rocks change from brown, to white, to yellow, to red, and finally to endless reaches of bleached grey.  The heights are swept by smoldering winds that would soon dry up ordinary men. The next day, we hear a clattering echo at the end of the dismal valley behind us. White pennants appear.
“Go!” shouts the Warlord.

We run for days, yet we cannot outrun the white horses behind us.

“The heat would have killed them by now.” a greater power keeps them alive.  “He is here with them. My equal.”

I shudder at the thought of the shrouded gold palanquin we saw outside Siprali.

The terrain is so rough that divinely empowered horses are little faster than we are and yet they gain little by little.  They are easily within sight when we reach the great faultline that marks the end of the world.
“Down this great chasm.” says the Warlord. “Every inch of land goes to die.  Even where the Great City now sits one day long ahead.”

We find the narrowest point of the chasm we can and leap across it into an unimaginable continent.

Just then, the party of White Knights rides down from the other side.  They stop at the chasm and stare at us.

There’s about twenty of them and all prepare their mounts for a great leap.  Only half of them make it to the other side and we are waiting for them where they land cutting them down back into the abyss.  Then we are thrown back by a crushingly powerful shockwave. Four knights remain and one stooped figure wearing an unblemished hooded white cloak.  The Warlord flees up the unmarked slope of a jagged gray spire and I follow him. Our pursuers are forced to dismount as they chase us upwards. Three of them fall hopelessly far behind us as we climb but the cloaked figure and one of the knights are right behind us.  Then I recognize him. Right on our heels is Edrak of Savisia who I fought on the cursed shores of Sirangulam. His youthful face now seems somehow twisted and grim.

Near the top of the spire, the Warlord finds a cave.

“Just as I thought!” he exclaims.

We rush out of the pounding white sun and into the welcoming blackness.  Then a blinding light illuminates the cave. The cloaked figure has raised a white-gloved hand, the Grand Master Edrak is at its side.
“Run!” says the Warlord.  They sprint far through the cave staying just ahead of the light.

Finally they reach a great chamber.  The pursuers of the light soon catch up with them.
“You can go no further.” rasps the cloaked figure in a mild, lisping voice.

“There is one more chamber.” says the Warlord. “Follow me there if you dare.”

He turns and disappears through another hole in the wall behind them.  In a streak of speed, the cloaked figure follows.

I am left alone with Edrak of Savisia.  “This is it.” I tell him. “Well met.” as I extend my hammer towards him.  The White Knight says, “No honor for you. You will be punished like a common criminal.”

“Very well.” I tell him with disappointment. “What happened to you?”

“We will never have our open world if we give you any reprieve.  Now you die.”
Edrak lunges and our fight is joined.

In an even greater cavern, the Warlord and the Grand Equal face each other.

“I’ve spent a hundred years trying to figure out who you are.”

“I was born a hundred years ago.”

“The exact moment the neutrality of our plane was broken.”

“Yes.  The heavens chose me to defeat you.  And so I have sacrificed knowing this moment would come.”

Suddenly the robes begin to fall away and a deathly pale, muscular white knight stands there his eyes staring lifelessly.  Then his limbs and features begin to fall away like fleshy leaves in a windless autumn. In moments, all that remains is a limbless, emaciated torso propped against the cave wall, with protruding ribs.  Its eye sockets are empty, its head hairless, its ears just open holes in the side of its head. There is just a nondescript gap where its genitals would have been. It is the most frail and helpless creature the Warlord has ever seen and yet he is repulsed by some great power as he tries to go near it.

Its mouth strains to move.
“I am the Grand Equal.” It feebly rasps.
“You’ve gained power through weakness.  You disgust me.” replies the Warlord.
“To be weak, to be equal is the greatest power.  The strength of a few is no use against the many.”

“Nonsense, the weak are easily ruled, no matter how many they are.”

“Yet you have failed to rule the world.”

The Warlord charges but his knees try to buckle as he approaches the grotesque white torso.  He can go no further. Equal indeed.

“When I was young.” continued the Grand Equal conversationally. “I would whip and scar myself and feel my power over others grow.  One day, I sliced off the tip of a finger and had never felt such rapture.  Every suffering after the last grew the power of Heaven within me.  You cannot harm me now.”

“Do you know why I came here?”

“To seek out the demon’s old glory but he has long fled.”

“We’re true equals.  I pity you. The universe created you to oppose me.  But the demon already won his fight and upset the balance.”

The Warlord walked back into the shadows and somehow the Grand Equal could not perceive him anymore.  He begins to screech and lash out with all his power.

I am locked in battle with Edrak.  Rocks shatter around us as our savage blows deflect and go wild.  I remember how long our battle lasted before and impulsively I lunge right at him while dropping my weapon.  My sharp gauntlets close like a cage about his face. I assault his soul with all my might. But what I find there is unlike anything I’ve seen.  The power of the Equal twists through his thoughts and agency like a lethal serpent. Edrak’s last experiences before being subsumed rush into my consciousness and threaten to engulf me.  There is nothing left of the noble warrior I fought on the beach at dawn and that truth is worse than the final struggles of the other souls I’ve swallowed. He is slave forever to a perfect world that can never be.  Somehow that is worse than becoming aware of a world that is dark and irredeemable.
Nevertheless his soul brims with pure will, even if much of it is not his own.  I am hammered flat by a wave of resistance and nearly let go of him. I had thought myself callused within but the Grand Master’s strength opens up one gaping wound after another.  With each strike I feel an experience keenly one last time before it turns gray. I reel in agony as he slashes straight to my core and suddenly I’m trapped trembling in that loft again as I hear the cries of my parents, my brother and sister, the angry crowd for hours while unable to do anything about it.  I relive in a moment the years I spent in orphanages and workhouses cared for by no one. That unbearable eternity of fear and pain dominates my senses all at once. Then it all erupts from my wound right into Edrak’s soul making him recoil as he shares the agony that made me who I am. Who I was. It begins to ebb and I feel nothing.

The Grand Equal sees two slits of light open up in the darkness and he knows true fear.  A huge mass moves in the dark and lurches toward him. He feels the adamantine rings of spells protecting his frail body crumble away as the beast grows near.  Within his ring of light a vast and hideous head becomes visible, rears back and spits a stream of black venom straight at him. Only the swift command of his powers deflects this sudden attack in a hissing cloud of foul, molten smoke.  The Warlord steps within the now-faint glow surrounding his Equal and says “The creature on the banners of my army was no myth, but my objective all along. A beast forged from the sacrificed souls of dispossessed men by the Master. After all these years, I have finally become worthy!”

“You are an enemy of Humanity, nothing more.”

The Warlord and the Grand Equal muster their powers and clash with all their might.  The emaciated, limbless form of Heaven’s servant slouched against a sharp rock wall strives to hold back an enraged, hulking warrior piercing ever closer towards him with his wickedly barbed sword of enruned black steel that smolders red with rippling heat against layers of unseen resistance.

The Grand Equal begins to bite itself with his toothless gums until the gums are torn away and the bony remains of his jaw rip at his pallid, diseased flesh.  Its power is redoubled. It throws the Warlord to the ground and tries to incinerate him with a column of blinding light that issues forth with a bass thrum.
“You cannot stop progress!” it screams triumphantly through its phlegmatic lungs.

Then, the jaws of the shadow dragon abruptly close around it.

The Grand Equal lashes out furiously within the jaws of its attacker with a crackling and sizzling of power.  Its final weapon a long, prehensile tongue snakes out of its mouth.

“Call off your beast! Face me!” it cries out.
“You never faced us honorably.” replies the Warlord grimly. “No honor for you.”  In one swift move he severs the Grand Equal’s tongue with the glassy blade mounted on his wrist.  The convulsing pale torso gives one last despairing shriek, the stump of its tongue oozing a slow syrup of sickly ichor, its empty eye sockets somehow pleading before the shadow dragon’s jaws snap shut.  A frantically writhing silhouette of incandescent light starts to slide down the shadow dragon’s long neck, its frantic agitations now smothered into silence. The Warlord can see the first tendrils of hungry, vengeful souls begin to feel out its defenses.  With renewed fervor, a burst of light drives them away. The Warlord smiles grimly. It will take a long, agonizing time to wear down and digest his ultimate adversary and that suits him just fine.

I lay across the rubble-strewn cavern from Edrak of Savisia, trying to feel or remember who I am.  Neither of us could prevail against the other, I know that much. Equals in strength. I remember the Warlord telling me something what now seems very long ago.  “It has to resolve downward. Level by level.”

I hear a crunching footstep on a pile of shattered stone and manage to raise my head.  It is the Warlord.

Edrak of Savisia manages to thrust the point of his sword into the ground and raise himself to one knee.  I can now see my master is also nearly too weak to stand. A sense of urgency to intervene grows within me but I can barely move.  As Edrak trembles with strain to rise, his face and the muscles of his neck gleaming with sweat, the Warlord wearily tosses an object at his feet that lands with a wet thump.  The Grand Equal’s severed tongue.

The Grand Master crumples to the ground at once with a cry of total despair.  He then seizes at the tongue and furiously sucks at its tip, his terror growing as not even one drop of succor is forthcoming.  Only reality remains. Seized by waking nightmare, Edrak springs to his feet, still desperately clutching the ashen length of tongue to his chest like a child’s stuffed animal and runs for the exit of the cave and the endless desert waiting outside.

“Who knows how long he may last.” muses the Warlord.

I hear a great bulk move and I look up in awe to the mythical shadow dragon that has led me into battle many times.

“I must return to turn the tides in Sirangulam.” Says my Master.  With that, he manages to climb onto the the Shadow Dragon’s back. With a gravelly screech, the great beast begins to slither towards the mouth of the cave.  “Wait!” I plead, reaching out towards them. As the beast I fought under disappears down the stone corridor I also find the strength to rise and follow them. As I step into the blinding desert sun, the shadow dragon spreads its wings, lifts from the ledge with a burst of gray sand and flaps aloft over the mountaintop towards the north from which we came.

At a loss, I stumble back into the mouth of the cave and collapse.

It is the depth of night when I rise with some strength restored and in some ways it is just a curse.  I can now reflect on my abandonment. What am I to do now? Walk all the way back? Then I remember there is one thing I can do.  I prowl from the cave’s mouth and into the light of flickering stars that seem to hover within reach of my face like fireflies I remember from a final fragment I possess of my childhood.  I go back until I find the last three White Knights who pursued us where they are encamped. I make no attempt at stealth and the one who stands watch quickly wakes his fellows.

All three draw their swords and confront me.  I don’t even bother to wield my hammer as I walk right up to them.  They are terrified but they rush me with everything they’ve got. I grab two of them by their faces and lift them off the ground.  Rivulets of blood stream down from where my claws pierce their stretched skin. I have never tried to take in two souls at once and I don’t know what possesses me to try it.  Yet I do it as the third White Knight crumples to the ground and weeps in a trembling heap screaming prayers to Saint Suryn that receive no answer. The slashing and tearing of two of them at once is far more than I can handle in my still weakened state and I can feel what’s left of me slipping away as I devour them…

The jaggedly spiked silhouette of the warrior stands over the dessicated corpses of three White Knights beneath swirls of stars.  He falls to his hands and knees as his form begins to shift. His clawed gauntlets smoke with infernal heat as they become feet and his arms fuse into front legs.  The wolf’s jaws that decorate his helmet visor come alive, elongate with sliding segments of black metal and close about his face. The eyes of the wolf mask ignite with the fire of hungry intent.  Soon, the jagged metallic hunting beast lopes northward, leaps effortlessly across the chasm and traverses the wastes of Yrizang with impossible speed. By the time the sun rises, every stony valley changes in color again and soon the metallically panting beast is speeding across the dunes with sprays of sand with a slope-backed hyena stride and leaving the stony terrain behind.  Already, it can smell the muted stirrings of souls very far away.

As the Warlord descends upon the battle at Sirangulam he sees below him the Coalition of the Ascendant divided into groups that attack each other now just as furiously as the trenches his half-starved men still strive to defend with hardly any fresh water to drink.  Without the power of the Grand Equal, each part of the Coalition struggles for dominance. The brown skins viciously assault the pale skins. The fat attack the thin. The females attack every male. The crippled and diseased, even stripped of their powers try to savage the well.  Men who lust after men take vengeance on men who desire women. The worshipers of far away Gods strive to cleanse their own army of nonbelievers. Then they subdivide and fight with even more intensity as the Shadow Dragon passes over them and shatters whatever remnants of their spell might remain.
Within the Dragon’s belly the bright light of the Grand Equal still shines.  But it can only writhe in silent, impotent torment as it watches everything it ever lived and sacrificed for falling apart.  The Warlord smiles grimly, yet smugly.

Wherever one faction of the Coalition starts to get the upper hand over another, the shadow dragon spits down a stream of its acid venom to keep the fight balanced.  Then it swoops right over the trenches where the weary Dark Army huddles. The Warlord gestures towards the enemy with his barbed sword, shield ringed with spikes at his side.  His harsh voice echoes across the battlefield. The Shadow Dragon rears back its head and gives out a screech like a sliding avalanche jagged gravel.

No matter how hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, the black-armored legions emerge from the trenches and begin to form up.  Pikes, lances, and sarissas that have been used for little more than fortifications are snatched up wherever they can be found, no matter their condition.  At first they must fight furiously for every square inch, but they gain the space to form into orderly square phalanxes that begin to roll effortlessly through the chaotic mass of the Ascendant.  In spite of this new attack the Coalition forces remain locked in battle with each other and so the slaughter progresses for days until the already putrid no-man’s land is stacked with dunes of bloated corpses.  It is even worse for them than Itlavalus, muses the Warlord to himself, and they have lost their leader. After more than a hundred years, he has fulfilled his task and wonders if Daulan Sekk has done the same.

Soon after, Sirangulam surrenders and they are spared, with a demoniac governor and a bureaucracy of veteran dark warriors now in charge.

With the spine of the heavenly forces shattered once and for all, the army of the man known as Eshlaru, as Kirnavir, as Yeleysh Issaraym, enters the borders of the Center Lands where they have always known him simply as the Warlord.  As the dark legions near The City and the Shadow Dragon of mythical tales passes over the walls again, they are desperate to save themselves by surrendering as quickly as possible. The Warlord lands the Shadow Dragon outside the walls, mounts his black stallion and leads his forces through the City gates as they are opened.  He had thought himself toughened and deadened in most ways, but he feels dizzy as he passes through a familiar gate he last departed through over a century before, alone and pursued by the city guard. Now he is master of the city that created him.

The next day, the Warlord walks alone into the cool marble interior of Saint Suryn’s temple.  It is dark inside except for a few candles but the alabaster statue of the Paladin has almost a pale glow about it.  For the first time, he gazes on the uncanny likeness of someone he knew long ago.

He traces a grooved scar on his bald head with one finger.  “Your power gave these to me and marked me as who I am. I could not be here now without you.”
Without warning, the statue’s blank marble eyes become bottomless black portals that gaze straight into him.  Tears of blood begin to stream down from them. There is a stony groan as her serene mouth twists into a grimace of agony and hatred.  Her arm creaks as if to move.

After everything he has seen for so many years, the Warlord tumbles onto the floor and reflexively raises his arm to shield himself.  All at once, he’s back in the dungeon in the Keep, being beaten, imprisoned, and chained. The glassy blade on his wrist begins to resonate as he relives his escape.  The tone dies down as he comes to his senses and sees nothing more than a statue in front of him now. “Farewell.” He says, then carefully turns his back and leaves.

There is a sacred grove of trees surrounding the temple grounds, their leaves whispering like solemn chimes as dapples of sunlight ripple through them.  Nearby are the memorials and tombs of legendary White Knights who died in service of the Lady, some of whom he had slain himself. Their monolithic images in hauberk and surcoat have nondescript faces and clasp their swords to their chests in repose.  As the Warlord looks up he sees a black-cloaked figure, whose garment flows in the breeze as fluidly as the leaves.

“Dask.” a smooth tenor voice softly addresses him.

The Warlord falls to his knees and for awhile his mouth struggles to form words.

“Master.” he finally says.  He chokes, trying to hold back tears.  “That man died long ago.”

“No, no matter what you have have seen and the price you’ve paid, you have never stopped being him.”

The Warlord tries to collect himself but can say nothing.

“You have completed your task but your soul is not yet ready.  There is another who will accompany me.”

“Daulan Sekk!”
“He is just a Wolf now, an eternally hungry hunter of souls.  He tried to master the greater dark powers as a newly created lesser imp.  That is what often happens. There is more presence there than a hate elemental possesses but not that much more.”

“I tried to warn him!”

“Your loyal follower is not completely gone.  His essence remains. There is an even higher beauty than we can know as only ourselves.  That is all he knows now. And I needed him to choose as he did. I will let him have some of your last, greatest adversaries in this world before I take him.”

“Master.” blurts the Warlord imploringly.

“You have unfinished business.  A life you never lived.”

The Demon raises its hand and the Warlord clutches his face and head as he feels his skin smoldering.  His heavy armor comes loose plate by plate and drops away from him. It feels as though a tremendous weight has fallen away.  His grotesquely large and muscled torso starts to shrink until it reaches the proportions of an ordinary athletic young man. His scalp itches furiously as hair bursts forth all at once.

“Go and live, Dask.  Until you are ready.”

“Until when?” the Warlord asks in a voice he has not heard come from him in a hundred years.

The robed figure shrugs.  “We will both know.”

The Warlord finds himself staring at empty air where his Master stood just a moment before.  Beside himself, he lingers for awhile. He tries to pick up one of his shoulder plates and can barely even move it.  Still stunned, he runs his hands over his face, his head, and body. He nearly collapses as he sees a ghost of his reflection on a perfectly polished granite memorial. “Dask.” he says.  Some time passes. He says it again. The sun starts to grow lower in the leaves the grove.

***

I leave the gates of the City again, a free man, on horseback this time and at my leisure.  Before the sun sinks I am passing by small villages and verdant fields bordered with stands of sunflowers that cast long shadows.  As last light fades, I come on a village by a creek with a watermill churning in a somnolent rhythm. I come to the tavern where my horse is taken to the stable.  There is room enough for me tonight.

“Your name?” asks the Inkeeper.

“Dask.”  I tell him.

“Is that all?” He asks.

“That’s all for now.”

He looks me up and down but sees a young man in workman’s clothes with clear blue eyes.  I seem honest enough. I lay some coins on the counter and he asks me no more.
“That cask could use a mending. I’m a skilled cooper.” I tell him and heft my bag of tools into view.

“Take care of it in the morning before you go.” he replies and slides a small silver coin back at me.

I settle into the boisterous atmosphere of the inn as I down mugs of beer until my head spins and tear through ham shank taken sizzling and dripping right off the spit.  I notice the eyes of one young village girl lingering on me and approach her though my hands are greasy and a stupid grin pasted on my face. It doesn’t seem to matter what comes out of my mouth, she is taken with me and I with her.  As the night finally dies down, she quietly takes my hand and comes up to my room with me. I sleep all night for the first time in decades with her in my arms. The scent of garden flowers drifts through the window as the first rays strike them and the air is still cool.  She’s still sleeping and I gaze adoringly on her peaceful face. I think I will stay here awhile. As I stir then, something near my hip pokes into me and I furrow my brow in confusion. I reach under the sheets impulsively and my hand finds the cold, jagged, glassy blade that changed me forever.

The Warlord (Part 3)

I awake on a cold slab, with a cool draft passing over my bare chest soaked in frigid sweat.  Only the faint glow of a brazier with lowering embers lights the chamber. I sit up.

You won.”  Says the Warlord, his gravelly voice echoing in here.  He sits in a throne-like chair on a stone dais not far from me.
“What happened?”  I groan.
“I did not attempt anything like you did until I was already a couple decades in the service of the Shadow.  I started out with the smallest animals and you wanted to begin with one of the more strong-willed people you will encounter.”

I feel like I’m torn up inside.”  I wince as I try to move, although my body aches I suddenly feel my heart awash with sorrow, burning cold, and then numbness.

You have paid a price.”

How long was I—?”

Days.  Just laying here locked in struggle.  I could feel it was almost over one way or another.  Thought I would have a look.”

I plant my feet on the ground now and force myself to stand, trembling as I do so.  I see my sweat stained undershirt nearby and haltingly struggle to pull it over my head, as if I were a child again.
“Will I heal?”  I ask in apprehension.

No.  Wounds to the soul are eternal.”

Surely nothing is worth a soul.”
“Many of those who seek out Heaven or Hell have suffered.  They long for something greater in which to lose a self that only brings them pain.”

I think of seeing my parents, my brother and sister laying sprawled, bloodied, and crushed unrecognizably in the village square when their last stirrings of life faded in the red of sunset.  I remember the bloody tears coursing down Saint Suryn’s contorted face wrought in smooth white marble. Even as I regain possession of myself, I shudder and turn away toward the stairs leading up.  Just before I begin my ascent the Warlord continues.
“All of us are wounded. Until one day we are scraped down to our essence.”
Without a word, I take the first step up the stairs.  And then another. The first spark of my strength begins to return.

Soon, I see the first tower window with a lazily warm breeze drifting through it, laden with the scent of orange blossoms.  The light of the full moon shines bright through that aperture. Soon I encounter the first soldiers and though I am barefoot in filthy clothes they make way for me with reverence and salute with their weapons crossed over their breastplates.  “Soul-eater!” I hear. “Slayer of Jazan Gur!”
“Where do I sleep?” I ask.

Instead of a tent or barracks, I am shown to my own chamber, well furnished and sumptuous by any standard I have ever known.
I collapse onto my soft bed and pass out at once.

I wake up in the morning with rays of light flooding in through leaded window panes. I haul myself down to the pool fed by a hot spring and feel the layers of grime wash away and the tenseness of many months suddenly relax.  I luxuriate in heat that soaks through me and the gentle whisper of steam that finally seems to relieve many months of marching, digging, and sleeping outdoors in freezing cold, I feel that my arms, chest, and shoulders are even wider than before, corded thick with brawn.  The bottom of the pool is covered in tiles of powdered gold and lapis lazuli Up above are small octagonal windows that that let shafts of light fall through swirls of rising steam. All around are great round stone pillars that create a comfortably enclosed feeling as the domed ceiling creates spaciousness in just the right way.

Now that I have time to think, much of my past memory seems dimmer and further away than it did just before the capture of Siprali.  As I bask in feelings of peace for the first time in what seems forever, I become aware of parts of me that once were too painful to bear and now are cauterized.  My senses are that much more immediate with parts of my past self torn away forever. I even think back on watching my family murdered and somehow am now distant enough to feel the beginnings of detachment.  In some sense it is a great comfort to be freed from such torments, though I feel empty spots inside me where the warrior woman’s soul tore up my own. I think I am just such a person as the Warlord described last night.

Afterwards I lounge for a few hours in my chamber in a comfortable robe and then dress myself for a meeting of our leadership.  Renewed and dressed better than I ever have been before, I set forth.
The Warlord is waiting for us in the deep foundation of the citadel.

The Coalition of the Ascendant have fortified themselves in Sirangulam.”  He begins.

The two sister cities along this trade coast now oppose one another.  We will continue to push south but there will be no easy victory. They are massing their forces and will one day be able to push us back if we wait.”

Edrak of Savisia confronts the gold palanquin.
“You intervened in an honorable challenge when they made no move to violate it!”
The Grand Equal intones a hum of displeasure.  “They are scum.” It rasps.
The knight retorts “If we violate challenges, they will backstab just as gladly.”
“Our rules do not protect those who serve hell.”
“Damn it!  I watched my Captain fall right after the Ha—the Sorceress Queen joined the fight and broke a rightful challenge.  I saw as a demonic soldier rallied to his outnumbered leader and slew the father of our order.”
“You will not speak of her with irreverence.” said the Equal, its voice dripping with understated rage.

Suddenly Edrak’s mouth is stopped up and he can say nothing.  He feels inexplicably weak and falls to his knees.

The palanquin somehow drifts closer.

Edrak looks up helplessly as a sallow, sunken face with depthless black eye sockets emerges from the curtains.  It presses its mouth to his as he kneels there paralyzed and a great length of putrid tongue rams down his throat.  He strains as hard as he can to breathe and to escape the spell that somehow prevents him from struggling with all his might, or even from gagging.  The emaciated figure hidden behind the curtain gives a deep moan of satisfaction and Edrak feels some warming substance pouring into his gut. As his master’s tongue retracts, he slumps to the ground and lapses into delirium.
He sees a vision of the Grand Master Jazan Gur.  His brow furrowed in noble thought at his desk in his tent during the Northern campaign, all just as he remembered.  He tries to call out to him but realizes he is a disembodied observer. Then, the Hag slips into the tent without bothering to announce herself and comes behind him.  As he pores over a map, she strokes his head. Instead of starting with surprise, the general tilts his head back languorously, as if in a trance. She kisses him fully on the mouth with her thin, withered lips.  His throat bulges as her tongue forces its way back. Her hairy forearms wrap around his strong shoulders. Then the general’s whole body goes slack. The Hag withdraws and Jazan Gur is left slumped over in his chair.  Edrak tries to do something, anything to intervene and horror wells up in him. It was like this all along. The man who he had idolized but a slave as he had now become. Ever since he was a child, no one had seemed stronger than the White Knights and the Grand Master himself had seemed like an angel.

Edrak came to on the marble floor of the throne room.  It was night now. The Grand Equal’s palanquin is back where it had been as if nothing had happened.  Had it been just a strange nightmare?

I’ve chosen you to be my champion as the Grand Master before you was chosen by my sister.” comes the voice from the palanquin.  “You will argue with me no longer and carry out my will. Go now.”
Edrak gets to his feet and stumbles from the royal chamber and braces himself against the walls as he sways his way shakily down the steps.  On his way down he passes white knights who fervently salute him but he can say nothing to them now. He is still stunned and drained from whatever has just happened to him.

The cities of Epyr Siprali and Sirar Sirangulam face off against each other for the next few months, the demonic forces in the north, the Coalition of the Ascendant fighting from the south.  Several battles taking place in the narrow, strategic lowland that lies between jagged, sun-baked mountain ranges.
In that time I have taken many trophies of my enemies’ heads and when I can, their souls too.  As I draw that inestimable power into me from unwilling foes, I have grown more dangerous and savage than many who have served under the black dragon banner for far longer.  Every time a desperate soul claws back against mine I backhand it into submission as it wails and the scratches left behind turn into scar tissue and tough calluses. It is not as damaging to me as my first victim was, yet each time, I feel further away from who I once was.
The Warlord is agitated at the lack of progress.  He paces as he addresses us.
“Time is on their side.  The longer this war of attrition drags on, the more the hordes of fanatics multiply.  After awhile even our great victory in the far north is for nothing and their strength restored.  This stalemate must be broken now. I know their ultimate leader is there in Sirangulam. We must draw them into battle.”

The very next day we march out of the gates of Siprali in our black ranks bearing our standards as deep drums beat.  The dust of the road curls about our column in the dawn as we begin to wind our way further south with nearly our full strength.  At the end of the first day, we reach the yawning mouth of the two mountain ranges. On the second day, we are full of excitement and suspense as we approach Shemgaum Pass, the narrowest point between the mountains, the place where they would be waiting, the spot where there have been many battles before across ages.  We are greeted by barren silence. There are reports of a few of their scouts but it is clear that they are allowing us through without a fight. The men begin to bang weapons on their shields along with the drums and chant in their deep voices as they see not a single enemy soldier blocks the pass. The army moves at a tremendous pace, eager to be through the strategic chokepoint and break through into enemy territory.  The Warlord communes with the shadows and somehow the army keeps marching through the night and all through the next day until the walls and spires of Sirangulam are in sight by the end of the third day. Commotion and panic are audible from miles away as no one had thought it possible for the offensive to move so quickly. The demoniacs and the strongest human soldiers press forward yet again during the night and are dug in before the walls and beginning to build again the engines of war.  Soon, the rest of the Dark Army arrives and so another siege is begun.

Sirar Sirangulam lies just off the coast on an island.  A small spit of land connects it to the mainland at high tide and that is when we charge its walls with everything we’ve got.  It’s not enough with the core of the Coalition of the Ascendant encamped there. The Warlord has us bring dirt and gravel from miles around to throw into a recalcitrant sea to gradually form a permanent bridge.  All day and night, fanatics and sympathizers charge our trenches from the landward side to relieve the beleaguered garrison but we are always prepared for them in our defensive positions. Their bodies begin to pile up until swarms of flies dominate the air.  We catapult their maggot-ridden corpses over the walls of Sirangulam for it is a sort of ammunition that never runs out.

Every night after sundown our skirmishers fight furiously for control of the one nearby spring that prevents our men from dying of thirst in sight of endless waves.  After resistance grows, I am finally assigned to go with them to make sure all goes as planned. In the small hours of the morning we depart with scores of armored men carrying empty barrels.  We start taking arrows and crossbow bolts as soon as we get near the springs and then I spring into action. I sprint a few hundred meters in full armor with inhuman speed and begin to butcher the harassers single-handedly.  My men soon catch up with me and battle is joined in the darkest hour of night. It is impossible to tell who is winning.

As the sky flaunts the earliest gray hint of dawn I find myself facing a White Knight whose bright surcoat is just visible.  His blade hisses out of its sheath and I am immediately thrown back by a strength I have never seen. We fight until the soldiers of both sides are at a distance from us.  The first light catches the tip of his blade as another impossibly crushing blow falls upon my shield and throws me back into a grassy beach dune. As the first light reveals me fully, he lowers his sword and speaks.
“You killed my captain in Itlavalus!  Now I will slay you!”

It dawns on me now.

You slew one of mine escaping Siprali!”

I wish it had been just me.  I will kill you by myself. I have the Grand Equal’s blessing.”

How can an equal be grand?” I mock.

By overcoming privileged men who turn to evil, like you!”
“Your dear equal leader is under siege now.  Again.”

We will cut you off from every side until you are crushed.  Even until you grow old and the young have all joined us.”

Every declining empire thinks time is on its side.” I retort. “You had over seventy years and now everyone can see that your rule has failed.  We are just the ones who stand up. Kill us and there will be more like us.”

On my feet now, I fight again with the White Knight.  I meet his sword blade with my hammer but it glances off, cuts easily through my armor and buries in my arm.  In a rage I pass my weapon to my other hand and swipe back against him right into his face. His helm flies off his head and I can see his bloodied face clearly now.  I take my helm off and introduce myself. “I am Daulan Sekk. The wolf, slayer of the White Death, soul-eater.”
“Edrak of Savisia.” says he.  “Grand Master.” His features are youthful and innocent for those of a warrior, his blue eyes full of fire, yet I feel something powerful and dangerous disturbs and distorts his essence. Now that I have consumed souls, I can almost smell them out.
We now face each other under the full light of sunrise with both armies watching us.  We both lower our weapons, turn away from one another and go back to our respective armies.

The Grand Equal is furious.
“I told you not to treat honorably with the legions of hell. You idiot!” It hiss lisps venomously.

Edrak stands straight and says, “Better you ask me not to be a knight at all!  I will beat the enemy in honorable combat! So long as we are just, we win by our virtues and the enemy loses by their defects.”
No reply comes from the palanquin.  Edrak suspects no one has ever talked back to the Grand Equal like this. After a long pause he finally hears one firm word.
“Begone.”

Edrak gladly leaves the chamber with frustration eating away at him.
The next day, he goes about his duties, his misgivings about the Grand Equal and his strange dream-like experience in the back of his mind as the role of commander he has assumed consumes every minute.  Around mid-day, there is a terrible itch-like feeling, a craving of some sort that he can’t identify. By that night, he is tossing and turning in bed, sweating profusely. He feels the urge to vomit yet he hasn’t eaten anything.
Finally the longing is too great, he gets out of bed, manages to haphazardly dress himself and paces towards the Grand Equal’s chamber.  The guards quickly let him in without question and shut the door behind him. He approaches the palanquin, intensely repulsed yet unable to resist his need.  His legs buckle under him and finally he hears its voice.
“You will submit to my blessing.”  It speaks slowly in a tone dripping with pleasure and contempt.”
“You will submit.” It repeats.  Edrak full of fear finds his limbs are crawling him towards the palanquin unbidden, such is his desire for that dream-like state of bliss.  He knows somehow that nothing will ever be the same after this time, yet he cannot stop himself.
The curtain of the palanquin slips open again and his spine arches back in anticipation in spite of his horror.  Edrak breaks the spell for one final moment and manages to scream in despair before his mouth is sealed and his throat stopped shut.

Edrak lapses into happy dreams of circles of smiling people of every kind and appearance wearing white robes holding hands with garlands of flowers about their heads and necks.  They gesture to him and he joins their dance. It’s the heaven he’s always wanted to bring about on earth and he loses himself in the celebration for what seems like eternity. Then, he begins to fall out of this rapture and finds himself on the floor lying in front of the Grand Equal’s palanquin.  He feels renewed and stronger than ever now as he springs to his feet. As he turns to leave, the Grand Equal speaks behind him.
“Defy me again and you will languish much longer without my blessing.”
Edrak shudders at the thought of ever going through withdrawal again and turns back toward the palanquin.
“Yes.” he says meekly, and leaves.
The Grand Equal knows that he will never have trouble with this one again.

The siege of Sirar Sirangulam drags on, week after week, gravel, stones, and sand are tirelessly dumped into the ocean and the bridge to the city slowly grows wider.  On the landward side, there is a vast no-man’s land thickly speckled with piles of corpses as far as the eye can see. With every day, the position of the city grows a little weaker but the Coalition of the Ascendant swells and grows stronger until miles of their seething masses surround the entrenched besiegers.  A fortress of grim and gnarled driftwood now guards the one viable spring and improvised barriers protect the lines of trenches that allow the besiegers to hug against the city in a death grip against all the opposition in the world.

Finally, the Warlord receives a messenger.  “They’ve retaken Siprali.” he says. “We are cut off.”  For the first time ever, I see the Warlord at a loss for words.  He clenches his fists. “Enough!” He finally says. “This is it! I know it!”

None of us know what he means and just stare at him.  Without hesitation he points to to me. “You are coming with me.” he says.  “Kivan Rasaris, you are in command!”

That night, he leads me to a small boat captured from the Sirangulese.
“You’re abandoning your army now!?” I ask.

There is a greater purpose, you must trust me.  Rejoin the army if you don’t want to be here.”
I hesitate, but say. “Alright, let’s go.” and get in the boat first.
I do not question further, I can feel from the Warlord that this really is something important.
We set sail in the middle of the night, the free ocean winds a huge relief from the vile, stagnant air of the battlefield that reeked of seaweed, feces, and swollen corpses that rolled about in the surf.

For the next week we sail to the south leaving the Trade Coast far behind for more arid regions.  Every day he tells me of his early days and of the mysterious demon he helped bring into the City of the Center Lands.  I could not believe he was once just a working man driven to desperation by the Duke and the Paladin, St. Suryn. I tell him of my childhood before my old life was abruptly taken from me.
“We had a dog,” I tell him, but it was really my dog. “ He slept on my feet every night and I felt a love for his very presence there that never got old.”
“But?” asked the warlord.
“I no longer feel it in my memory like I used to.”
The Warlord sighs. “I told you, there is a price.  I had a wife, a child, and a job once but it seems a million years ago.  That man is long dead.”

One day, we see a white sail behind us and the Warlord watches in anticipation.
“We disembark tonight.” he says.

The Warlord (Part 2)

As I wake, the Warlord and his demoniacs stand over me in a warm tent with animal-skin walls that stretch taut with the impact of sub-freezing winds.

“You are lucky to survive the venom of a witch’s blade.” the Warlord tells me.  “Making the Pact very likely saved you. The Dark Powers would rather you not die just as you have begun.”

“Thank you.”  I gasp.

“You earned it.  I don’t know if I could have fought them both.”

“They say you have never lost a fight.”

A moment of fear and pain flickers across his scarred face and to my surprise he hesitates before he says “We were all once inexperienced and weak.”

This tacit admission he has been bested before shocks me and I look to the Warlord in a new way, mighty, yet also, for the first time, as just a man.

By the morning, I am already strong enough to march.  We break camp in the long night of the far north and for the first time in many long months, finally march south.  The sun is barely grey and wan by noon as we come upon yesterday’s battlefield. We find our own dead and put them together in a pile soon be interred by ice, their place marked with thick long black pikes that will not easily disappear beneath the wastes.  In many long decades, they will still be there, aside from the ravages of frost, not remarkably different from the day they died. Then despite the solemnity of the moment our spirits are buoyant as we pass the spot where White Knights opposed us and now truly move Southward.

As we leave the dead behind us, the mood begins to lift a bit with every mile.  “Hail! The slayer of Jazan Gur, the White Death!” I’m told all day. Higher disciples of the Warlord and ordinary soldiers alike approach me in awe.  It is disconcerting to me to attract such attention. I meet men I know like brothers with whom I have dug latrine pits in the pouring rain and now they look on me with reverence at my accomplishment and my ascendancy to greater powers.  I try to talk to them like it’s old times. Old as just yesterday, but it’s no use.

Soon we begin to understand why the Warlord stopped our pursuit.  With every mile we find ourselves following a trail of fanatics, contorted and frozen stiff.
The Warlord explains, “When we slew their leaders and broke their ranks, their faith began to fail and with it their endurance.”

The word began to quickly spread.  The Warlord had lured their overwhelming masses where they could be destroyed by their own despair the moment their herd had failed to give them shelter and victory.  The coldness of reality closed in around them as they tried to flee and we found them now, their frozen eyes still wide open with their final panic, the grasping blue-white fingers clawing at air.  The trail of those who lost their faith did not abate, thousands and thousands more of them clad in rags crumpled pitifully and frozen the moment they had heard the news or had in their flight finally given in to despair.

That night, I was called into the tent of the Warlord and his disciple officers for the first time.  They heartily welcomed me one by one, shaking my hand in one crushing grip after another and slapping me on the shoulder.  These men who had barked grim orders at me yesterday suddenly treated me as one of their own. We sat around the circle by the firepit with the smoke disappearing through a small hole above.
“We lost many yesterday.” Announced the Warlord.  “But tonight…there is someone new among us.”
The dark disciples began to cheer in anticipation.

“He slew Jazan Gur as the vile Hag joined against me, in violation of an honorable duel between men.  He has ascended into the service of the Dark powers into which I was inducted by the Master long ago and into which you were all inducted by me.”

The cheering grew quieter now as the moment approached.
“The slayer of our great enemy has joined us in the Pact.  The warrior Daulan Sekk is now one of us!”

For awhile again everyone cheered and personally greeted me.  Again, it was an overwhelming experience to have my heroes regard me as a hero.  As I found my senses, I could only utter. “Do we have any wine?”

The ration for the soldiers had ran out some time ago but of course we all had suspected some was left in store.
Everyone gave me looks that I could not quite understand.
“Bring us the last of the wine!” commands the Warlord, “The time is right.”

Our chipped tin soldier’s cups that dangle daily from our swaying packs are soon brimming with the last precious red wine and I gulp of it, wishing desperately to expunge the fearsome slaughter from my senses for a few short hours.  Yet tug as I might, my troubled senses remain as clear as the starry sky outside.
I realize they have been watching me with amusement as they sip their own cups.  I take another gulp and still I feel nothing. Seeing my bewilderment, the Warlord finally says.  “Your ability to survive a witch’s venom also makes you immune to any drug. Enjoy the flavor of it.”
Dumbfounded, I throw my cup aside and the other men laugh uproariously.
More solemnly now, the Warlord adds, “In service of greater powers, no substance will affect you.  Nor as you grow in power will the need to sleep weigh you down. You will never age or die so long as you are not killed but in exchange you get little rest.”
A silence falls over the men and many pass a hand over their chests.
“Where did you come from?” asks the Warlord. “I think you are from the Center Lands.”
“Yes, I grew up in the Great City.”
There is a gasp from the men.
“I thought so.  How did you join us?”

“When I was young, I wanted to join the White Knights.  I often went to the shrine of Saint Suryn to pray there.  Her statue always seemed sad and I wanted to comfort her. I had heard the legends it would sometimes weep tears of blood.  Once, I went to the temple late at night and I saw it for myself. Worse, I could have sworn the statue’s eyes moved and its mouth twisted in indescribable agony.  I felt something was wrong with everything I had been told and I could never shake the feeling after that…When I was about twelve years of age, I watched them stone my family to death from my hiding place.  I could never figure out why. It might have been their pale faces and their agreeable manner. I will never forget how their gestures of good will only enraged them.”
I am unable to say more, my words punctuated by a sub-freezing gale that pelts the tent wall with a plaintive howl.
Then the others begin to erupt with their own stories around the fire and I hear great warriors speak of themselves as children and young men.  The hero Lazo Vazai grew up in a tormented household with the sins of his absent father laid on his shoulders. “I had pretty much left the house by the time I was ten, surviving on the edge any way I could.  I laugh at the silly weaklings who complain they are kept down. If they were worth anything, they’d have risen by now.” The hulking Kivan Rasaris had once been a frail scribe defrocked from the Savisian universities when he dared suggest that one people differed from another and the sexes doomed to be unalike, their goals in life asymmetrical.  “I finally broke and wrote a paper about what I really thought. I knew that it would not be charitably received. I was surprised though when I was thrown out not just by them, but by my family, by society itself. No one in Savisia would sell me food. I barely made it to the Center Lands without starving, my last tatters of sackcloth falling off of me.  I never forgot.”

It falls quiet again.

“Let’s give the rest of the wine to the men.”  I suggest. The others heartily agree and the last jugs are passed around the camp to howls of jubilation as the soldiers rush to bring one back to their comrades for a well-earned celebration.

As the fire burns low and my new comrades retire, the Warlord takes me aside.  “As a child you understood Saint Suryn far better than the hordes of fawning pilgrims.”
“Were you alive then?!” I ask in astonishment.  “That was a hundred years ago!”

“I knew her.”

I nearly fell as I thought of the Saint of my childhood as a living, breathing person.
“What was she like?”
“She, and the Master, made me who I am.”
“Uh…How?”
“You didn’t imagine the tears of blood and her pain.  They call her a saint, but she is damned to hell. If only they knew how everything they believe in is rotten.”
“You mean…You mean The Master you speak of is the legendary Demon that Saint Suryn sent into exile?”

The Warlord grins.  “The demon left by his own will after she was already dead.”

“But…What happened?”

“She murdered the Duke who summoned her while possessed by her final rage.”

I’ve spent years now as a rebel fighting in the Dark Army yet even so my jaw drops.
The Warlord continues.  “This is one of many planes but this one was a neutral ground that attracted little attention from Heaven or Hell.  That damned Duke brought the eternal war on us by bringing that Paladin here. One hundred years ago he destroyed my old life and drove me towards rebellion.  Your Saint Suryn made damn sure I would never stray from that path.”
“How does it end?” I ask.

“Only in the triumph of Heaven or Hell.  It has to resolve downward. Level by level.  The Master won his fight. Now it’s up to me. And when the time is right it will be up to you.”

“How do you know?!”

“He told me, one hundred years ago.”

***
Suddenly, unopposed, the Dark Army storms down from the North until tundra becomes sprawling pine forest until we begin to see the soft green leaves of deciduous trees with the first white blossoms of spring drifting down on bittersweet breezes.  The first garrisons we meet are easily subdued and totally bewildered that the all-conquering fanatics have abandoned them. For months the advance continues as we destroy the Heavenly Army wherever in our path it tries to regroup. The cold of the far north is still in the marrow of our bones as we bear down on the sun-gilded shores of Epir Siprali with its brown, sea-misted hills laden with date palms and olive groves.  Finally we come upon its famous walls drenched every morning with honeyed sunshine that pours over the inland hills. There we finally find a city guarded once again in earnest by the Heavenly Army with White Knights patrolling the battlements, their pure white surcoats trailing in seaborne winds. No commander comes out to address us, the defenders simply stand resolute on the walls, glowering down at us.

The Warlord holds council with our corps of demoniacs to discuss the matter.  The city would not be easily subdued but we had to consider that the further we went into enemy territory, the easier we would be pressed in a crushing vice, worse than that grim battle in the Itlavalutian wastes.
“We must secure our flanks and most important, discover who their new leadership is.” declared the Warlord.  “If we know their leaders we know them and how to defeat them.”

***

“Edrak of Savisia, I hereby make you Grand Master of the Order of the White Knights.”  intoned a raspy, androgynous voice. The figure that uttered the words sits on a palanquin obscured by a thin tissue of gold, silk curtains.  An indistinct silhouette is just visible by the light of guttering braziers in the drafty stone chamber in the deep foundation of the Sipralite citadel.

Edrak bows low, borne down by astonishment.
“I could never replace the leadership of the glorious and beloved Jazan Gur.  I beg you reconsider.”

“Jazan Gur led us to our most disastrous defeat of all time after decades of unending victory.  Do better.”

In spite of himself, Edrak flushes with rage but holds his tongue.  He well knows that the Sorceress Queen, called “the Hag” by men loosened up by their cups had been given authority over Jazan Gur and had called for the reckless and disastrous pursuit despite the general’s protests.  He had been there alongside his beloved commander on that doomed offensive to see and hear it. Yet the noble general had done his loyal duty to the end and was now canonized by his order. The insult is very nearly too much for Edrak to bear yet somehow he does, as he always has.

He leaves the Grand Equal’s chamber and begins his ascent up the stairs, toward the generous sunlight of a Sipralesian afternoon.  As the first rays strike him through tower windows, the import of his promotion dawns on him. Now he is in the place of the man he had followed and idolized.  He thinks back on Jazan Gur’s last speech before the disaster in Itlavalus. His characteristic bass voice and deliberate pacing as he spoke kept the seemingly endless crowds all around him transfixed.   “They are not just evil. They are on the wrong side of destiny! Our destiny is everlasting progress and they oppose that sacred voyage we all share. They want to go backward! They want to keep us mired forever in ignorance and injustice.  They want the strong to crush the weak! We will not let them hold us back! We will not let them hold us down! Today we crush them once and for all. And the last of them that falls will know in his final moments…we have overcome at last!” Jazan Gur had raised his arms to the cheering of countless thousands.  That was the kind of man he now had to be.
Even so, Edrak could see the Hag standing behind the Grand Master’s shoulder then, with a smug smile on her hideous face.  He shuddered. Who would they have standing behind him?

***

The siege begins.  Every day is full of the din of construction, the cracking of timber, the buzz of saws, and the creak of thick rope as jagged engines of war begin to take shape all about the walls of Epir Siprali.  Within a few days, the superhuman efforts of the demoniacs enable the first catapults to begin flinging missiles. A jagged steel tower arises, engraved with smoking runes. Within a week it rolls ponderously toward the walls.  It spans the whole moat with its girth and crashes into the ramparts. Its bridge drops and the city’s defenders are butchered by hulking figures in spiked black armor.
Siprali would have fallen then if not for a bold charge of the White Knights led into battle by a new captain.
That night, the Warlord says.  “They have finally revealed themselves.  They have replaced Jazan Gur with a man who might also be a worthy enemy.”

The war engines multiply around the city like swarming ants until the assault is carried out every hour of every day and the defenders can hardly get a chance to sleep.  The battlements begin to crack and fall away under the constant pounding. Reinforcements are on the way, but it has only been two weeks. Nevertheless, a force of mounted White Knight scouts emerge from the hills and wage a campaign of harassment.  They finally charge like men to aid the garrison of Siprali as it suddenly bursts out the front gate in a desperate attempt to break out of confinement. A spearhead of White Knights leads a sizable swarm of fanatics straight into the ring of besiegers with the scouts charging from the other side.  The sudden pressure is too much and the ring begins to crack. The standard of one of the demoniac disciples nears the tip of the white spear and its progress towards escape halts.

The Warlord holds up his hand as the entire army begins to rush to stop the city garrison and horns begin to blare all about the city walls.  “Keep discipline!” He bellows.

Even from a distance, a space can be seen clearing among the ranks.  Two small figures, one white, one black face each other. Then there are visible flashes of light and shadow as the duel begins.  Then, something gold and raised in the white ranks approaches the battle, a curtained palanquin. I see the Warlord himself turn pale and in that moment he spurs his black horse without a word and gallops toward the fight.
The curtains of the far-off palanquin flutter for a moment and the dark challenger falls dead.  Exhilarated, the white forces renew their charge and break to the surface of the stretching bubble that encloses them.  They are harassed by pursuers and take losses, but their escape is assured now.

The Warlord arrives at the site of the decisive fight and finds the body of one of his disciples broken and dead.  He lowers a gauntleted hand toward the body, but draws back. As I and other disciples begin to arrive at a dead sprint, he says “Power like I have never seen since my Birth.  After all these years I have found the one who has always stayed in hiding. An Equal. My equal.”
He turns to the men surrounding him and says to all, “We have let their army escape but because of your discipline, we have won the city.  Without its defenders, it cannot stand. We assault the gates tonight.”

As the sun sets, the arcing arms of the siege engines redouble their flinging and then they suddenly stop.  One by one, a constellation of flames comes into being as they are set alight. Then, we light several thousands of torches at once and march toward the already battered city gates with a ram.  Our thick black armor is barely scratched by arrows and stones from ordinary men who just live from day to day. The gate is flung open in minutes and Epir Siprali is ours. The night sky is transformed into an eerily glowing charcoal shade by the play of flames on drifts of smoke.

Then, just as we assert our control over the citadel in the dark hours of morning, a shrill shrieking becomes perceptible.  There have already been lookouts posted to the walls but the smoke has obscured their vision until now. “Fanatics! Fanatics are coming!”  They yell! The first of them had already begun to stream down from the hills tonight, the most faithful only a bit slower than cavalry.
“The gates!  Close the gates!”  The cry goes up. The remnants of the gate are forced shut and timbers taken from anywhere and raised up with astonishing speed.  Even so, the first fanatics leap through the closing gaps or even burst through solid wood, sending splinters hissing through the air.
Some of them are draped with pendulous curtains of fat, others are emaciated, leathery skeletons, all are divested by their ludicrous extremes of whatever identity they had before.  A seemingly female warrior with bulging, striated muscles and a bra that clings to her meaty chest swings a battle ax all around in a cruel circle that leaves red mist in its wake. A nude, drooling fat one stumbles right into a pike but that doesn’t even slow it down.  Impaled, it walks right up the length of the pole and the soldier on the end of it thinks he’s slain his opponent until the moment its placid jowly face contorts with rage and flailing flabby arms crush his helm and pop one of his eyeballs right out of its socket.

I charge into the fray and put my new powers to the test in battle for the first time.  I attack the warrior first. She’s still swinging her axe when I intervene. My hammer collides with her axe blade in midair and with a lightning-like explosion of sparks, it flies out of her hands in the opposite direction.

She tumbles to her knees, screaming inconsolably.  Both her wrists are grotesquely broken backwards with sharp slivers of shattered bone jutting from her stump-like forearms.  I immediately turn to the shambling fanatic that still drags a bloody length of spear behind it.

It makes no attempt to avoid me as I swing.  I leave a deep, square-shaped dent in its back that it somehow ignores as it reaches towards another terrified soldier.
“Leave it!”  I growl to the men.  “Kill the others.”

And so we do as they rally to me.  A swift one dodges my hammer and thinks he’s gotten past my defenses.  He darts in with his thin dagger, his pale, bloodless face fixed with a condescending smile until my other clawed gauntlet grasps him by the throat.  He gasps like a landed fish as his neck snaps and his delicate rectangle spectacles fly off his face as I fling his corpse into his fellow fanatics, knocking them down to the ground where they are easily finished off by my comrades.
Now that the first fanatics have been beaten and the gate sealed against the pounding of the rest, we turn again to the plodding yet unstoppable juggernaut fanatic.  We surround it staying just out of reach as it clumsily grasps all around.

“We’ve killed all your friends.  You are alone now. We won.” I tell it.

“Ugly! Disgusting! Fat!” The soldiers begin to mock and laugh.
Its steps begin to slow and the first tears run down its face as it is pelted with rocks and manure from all sides.  Then it begins to spasm, clutches its chest, and falls flat on its face. “By faith alone did it remain living.” I muse.  “In truth, it was already dead.”

I turn to the warrior.  I could not be of sure her sex before despite her clothing but now her blubbering, wailing, and gushing stream of tears is unmistakably feminine.  I stand over her as she weeps over her broken limbs. As her faith begins to wane, arteries slashed by her own fractured bones begin to spurt. She doesn’t have long.  I think back on what I’ve seen the warlord do, but I don’t have his knife. I clasp her face with the claws of my black steel gauntlets, press in my palms, and concentrate.
Suddenly, I feel her blood, life, and soul rushing into me.  Her struggles are so unpredictable and intense they are like a spasmodic bucking I feel will tear my hands off of her, break my own wrists, and throw me aside if I relent in the slightest.  I hold and I push until my arms, chest, my whole body is aching and crying out to let go, sweat drenching my whole body. I still hold until I pull the last of her essence into me. And then I discover the fight has just begun.  Her whole being lashes out inside of me tearing into my own soul and I begin to slash back at her to try to save myself.
We are locked in a battle for the right to exist, each of us full of the will to live, but this is my soul’s home ground while she has been ripped away from her place of power.  Little by little, her resistance chips away until she is confined in a lightless place like a muffled closet. Yet I feel the bloody stubs of her fingernails trying tear at the toughened parts of me that imprison her.  I keep closing in until finally, I can faintly hear the plaintive sniffling of a little girl.  And then the dark is complete.

The Warlord (Part 1)

Everywhere, they called him the Warlord.  In some lands he was Eshlaru in others, Issaraym, in others still, Kirnavir.   No one knew from where he came. He had a visage marred by strange scars, his scalp always shaved bare; for they said his hair would not grow upon the scars.  Some say in a lifetime of fighting under his shadow dragon banner until they turned gray, he’d never aged a day.

Now, even amidst the swirls of falling snow he rides his black horse that haughtily high steps, his barbed blade held straight out in front of him, shield ringed with spikes held at his side as he passes through the ranks of his men all beating their weapons on their shields, howling with bloodlust.  His face could just be seen through the sickle-toothed jaws that formed the mask of his helm. The Coalition of the Ascendant had pursued us even here far into the winter wastes of Itlavalus and after months of patient retreat our general had said the time was finally right. All through the long wait to fight some had lost faith and called our general a coward.  They had all long since left for warmer climes. Those of us who still remained were the best. We were far outnumbered now, but the repressed eagerness for battle was all the greater. When we had been rallied, an intense silence fell over us. Now, we could hear the massed ululating shrieking of the Coalition as they marched upon us. As they came closer we could see that even now, many of them wore little more than rags that were falling apart.  How they managed to survive such privation no one knew for certain. We supposed it was a power which only the High could have bestowed on them. Men and women alike, their faces every hue, hardly distinguishable anymore after all their fleshly bodies had endured, they frantically whipped themselves with lashes, screaming out their devotion against the outlaws of Humanity and their hate of the Hateful.

They were a terrifying force to the uninitiated and before the arrival of the Warlord, Yeleysh Issaraym, they had toppled one rich king after another though they wore rags and swore themselves to lives of humility and victimhood.  No one could seem to make sense of it, but now there was no need to. All that mattered now was to crush the life out of them on this battlefield.
The enemy knew a great fury and fanaticism, but it was the fury of the mob, not that of a man himself, or even of a band of men who knew one other.  Or even of anyone who had the least in common. That is why we had always beaten them before they had driven us into these arctic wastes with their overwhelming numbers.

We were grim and resolute now as they were fanatical and strident.  We wore bulky black armor adorned with spikes, our helmets closed about our faces.  Those who had grown strong in the service of the dark powers had eyes that glowed or were black and empty within their facemasks.  As terrifying as they were even to us, the Warlord’s presence was strongest as he led us on his black stallion. Our great war drums beat, their bass thrum felt down to the pit of the gut.  If we had not been able to feel it, the shrill wailing of the Coalition of the Ascendant might have drowned it out. They rushed at us headlong from over a mile away and somehow, their worn frames had the endurance to sustain the charge.  The mass of them had fanned out into irregular tendrils as if to envelop us, prongs of off-white and flesh tones coursing across great mounds of windswept snow. We had formed into our phalanxes in anticipation of this. Black squares that marched methodically across the white waste bristling on every side with wickedly barbed sarissas, needle-sharp lances, and long pikes.

Soon, we were completely surrounded.  The only way out now was to fight our way out.  We advanced toward their front line which we knew was probably stretched thin after so many had joined in the charge so we thought we might take advantage of their indiscipline.  But first, they were closing in quickly on our flanks and soon behind us as well. For every other opponent they had faced, this had meant total disaster within a crushing vice. The armies of great empires had marched forth only to panic as the Coalition had attacked them from every side and then perished as they discovered that the Righteous accepted no surrender from transgressors.  Once one had ever opposed them, no abasement or apology could ever appease them.

We knew our enemy, though, and kept marching in formation, even as the first tendrils of their host closed in on us.  The keening shriek of Righteous fury reached a peak as they crashed into us. At the beginning of their wave were the strongest and most fanatical, sped on by their superior devotion.  The best of them were the first to die. What made them any different from the rest, doomed them to death. It was no accident, it was what they believed was just. Even so, these ones were still the best.  The spearman next to me was just a little too slow and one of them got through. One slash of its nine-thonged whip cut his spear into multiple pieces and sliced through his armor with ease. My unfortunate brother-in-arms fell backwards spurting blood from multiple arteries, dead before he hit the ground.  I cursed in rage as I felt one of the thongs slice the skin of my forearm. The Ascended fanatic screamed back at me, its pinched face framed by filthy braids of unkempt hair. I brought down my hammer on that contorted visage with its wildly rolling eyes and its rictus of indignant rage and split it into an unrecognizable ruin a few chunks of brain tumbled out of.

Then came the rest of them all at once in a great press.  The odor of their masses, pungent even in the cold. These we held off with our outer ring of spears and began to steadily plow through them.  First the spears pushed them back and we advanced another few steps, those who tried to break through that outer barrier were slaughtered by the rest of us waiting for them just within.  And so it went all day. Like the rhythmic cries of galley oarsmen we bellowed in chorus every time we thrust with the spears, pushed further ahead, and then locked shields again. We advanced at a steady pace no matter how the mob pressed and pounded on us from all sides and all they had to show for it was a trail of corpses clad in bloodied rags trailing nearly a mile behind us, already stiff and well-dusted in snow.

We finally reached the center of the Coalition army and before us was no longer a rabble of fanatics but several orderly cavalry regiments stiffly at attention in resplendent white armor, riding pure white horses.  At their head was a grave figure, wearing an ornate plate of alabaster armor, with his silver scimitar raised in the air, his complexion almost ebony in color, his features narrow and aristocratic, his gaze fixed and intense.  Jazan Gur had led the pursuit for months and now he was there before us, under attack by those he thought were his quarry. The fanatics were still on three sides of us and as the Coalition general lowered his scimitar, the White Knights began to approach at a trot, swiftly gaining a rumbling momentum.  Jazan Gur gave out a harsh cry and the fatiguing fanatics came alive with a new buzz of fervor. They completely surrounded us again and this time they threw themselves screaming onto our bristling hedge of spears, pikes, and lances, faster than we could dislodge them, though we tried as the charging knights bore down on us.  Too late. The White Knights crashed into us with hardly any outer defense to oppose their passage into our ranks. The impact sent men flying everywhere in a great sickening crunch. Their momentum soon began to stall and they fought from horseback their silver sabres flashing back and forth. This strain was too much for the formation to hold and now the fanatics poured in through the gaps on all sides.  All discipline was soon gone, our fates to be decided in a general melee. Our now-useless polearms were dropped to the ground, everyone wielding their swords, axes, maces, hammers, and studded gauntlets at close quarters.

I saw one knight turn away from me as he slashed down with his sabre on his other side.  He started to turn back toward me but my hammer crushed him out of his saddle. With a great overhead swing I shattered his panicking horse’s spine and stepped past its twitching bulk to find its rider still stunned on the ground.  I, in my black armor of spiked, overlapping plate with a great wolf’s head carved in steel on my chest, the mask of my helm wrought with snarling fangs, was the last thing he ever saw.

I see a flicker at the edge of the vision my helm allows me and I swing without thought, honed instinct guiding my instant reaction.  A fanatic with a rusty kris knife upraised to strike flies backwards with caved-in chest and bloody mist spraying in a single burst from its upturned mouth like a profusion of scarlet fungus spores.  It was female, I think.

Then, the Warlord and his entourage of lesser demoniacs enter the fray all at once.  Moving with animal quickness even in heavy armor they dart in and out among the White Knights leaving corpses of man and steed as fast as the eye can follow, their victims often left cut cleanly in two by a single stroke.  The knights soon begin to panic and those not trapped begin to flee. Those left behind are torn down from their saddles and disappear into a dark mass even as they frantically try to slash with their sabres. The demoniac acolytes turn on the fanatics now but the Warlord himself walks in front of the army alone and points with his gauntlet adorned with razor-like projections and attached below his right wrist a crude black blade of what might have been volcanic glass but did not shine.  He bellows out his challenge to the enemy general in his harsh voice.

Jazan Gur solemnly dismounts his steed and approaches the Warlord with his silver scimitar.  The Warlord rushes towards him and soon their weapons meet in a clash that can be heard against the clangor all around.  Jazan Gur moves as swift and sure as a serpent but the hulking Warlord keeps up easily with the blinding speed of his attacks.  While they fight, a hunched over figure approaches them with the simplest of daggers. I rush towards the fray of those far greater than me to prevent this crass interference.  As I face the interloper, I see it is of indeterminate sex, with eyes that flash with feminine fury but with a hairy upper lip, with a matron’s flabby forearms and sagging shapeless breast tissue yet with a barrel chest and narrow hips.  I move to cut down the impudent Hag, or whatever it is, but I am stunned when the point of its rusty dagger stops my hammer as if I had struck a castle wall. As I nearly lose my balance the sneering creature slashes at me and I yell to lower hell as it somehow cuts through my armor and into my thigh.  I tower over my opponent that has just wounded me and yet it continues to attack quite confidently. With a loud ping I find the solid steel handle of my hammer has been severed from its head.  In the next moment I am thrown aside somehow into the snow as if I were but a feather.  I look up from the ground and to my dismay the strange Hag and the general Jazan Gur are attacking the Warlord together.  Now, he is barely able to fend off their combined attacks.

Filled with fury even as the wound in my leg throbs with agony, I take the head of my hammer and with a roar heft it with all my might.  One side of Jazan Gur’s face collapses like a melon as my heavy projectile hits its mark. He falls instantly, just like a common soldier.  The Hag however, fights on, her power inexplicably great. I begin to drag myself toward the fight as best as my furiously burning leg allows.  As I draw near, the Hag turns her head a little to take note of my approach. In that moment, the Warlord runs her through with the infamous blade on his wrist.  She gives out a shrill, grating scream heard across the battlefield as she tries to push herself off of the blade with all her might. To no avail. It sucks her back in no matter the strength of her struggles like a thirsty man tugging at a waterskin.  With each greedy glugging swallow, the contorted, hideous face grows more pale and her struggles more feeble. Finally, the Warlord casts the dessicated corpse sucked dry of life and soul aside. A rising penumbra surrounds him now like a flickering candle flame of negative light that he can barely seem to contain as he strains with his hands balled into fists, his shoulders and chest held back.

He says to me.  “You have proven yourself this day.  Will you make the Pact?”
I prostrate myself and reply, “Yes.  Yes! It is my honor.”

“Good!  It’s the only way you live now.”

He walks up to me and lays his hands on my shoulders.  In that moment, rivers of raw power he drained out of that terrible Hag flood through me.  I can hear her soul screaming with bloody terror and rage as her essence is siphoned away for the sake of empowering everything she ever fought against.  She thrashes and scratches with her whole being, until her being is no more. At first I am terrified but then I am able to let go and let the raging torrent all rush into me at once.  I am changed forever. Nevertheless the pain in my leg grows unbearable now as I come into my bodily senses again. I have had many wounds and I know something is different and terribly wrong this time.  The Warlord himself helps me to my feet and places my arm and my weight on his shoulders.
“Even now, you won’t easily survive that Hag’s venom.  We have to get you back to camp.” As I struggle against oncoming delirium, the battle rages on but the White Knights have fled the battlefield and the fanatics have been weakened by the deaths of their leaders.  The Dark Army is invigorated into a blood rage and as the slaughter intensifies, the milling swarms of white-winged locusts finally break.

As the pursuit begins, the Warlord sets me aside and gives out a harsh scream that echoes across the battlefield.  The nearest drums change beat, then horns blow as the message spreads across the whole army. The Warlord runs in front of his men, waving his sword, bellowing for them to halt.
In less than an hour the entire army is marching back to our camp.
The Warlord again returns to me and again personally comes to my aid, even though he could have anyone else do it. “No sense chasing them now.”  I am in no condition to even speak as I feel agony, bitter cold, and delirium creep through me. The brief winter daylight ends but the snowy clouds clear away, the night is more brilliant with the hard, glinting points of frosted stars and shimmering auroral ribbons rippling across the sky.  I see my fellow warriors as silhouettes against sheets of snow that sparkle like the stars even in the dark. Somehow, my state of physical shock makes the spectacle even more vivid and otherworldly. Perhaps it is also the senses granted to me through my Pact, all the better to perceive the world’s beauty.  The world begins to fragment into fever dreams as I begin to see the travails of war in the shimmering aurora veils, I manage to keep marching through heavy snow until we go over a hill that looks gentle yet concealed all our tents and horses from a distance. The warlord brings me to his own tent in the center of the camp, only bigger than any other tent to allow the officers to confer around the firepit.  He has a simple bedroll on the ground like any other soldier, though I hear he seldom uses it. In a hurry, he and a medic help me remove my armor and begin dressing the vile wound given me by the Hag. All they can do is bandage it and hope my newfound resilience can conquer the poison. Wrapped in furs on the Warlord’s own bedroll, there is nothing more for me to do but rest.

 

Apostasy (Part 5)

Previous chapter

Dask had spent days just waiting to die. He knew his master was still out there but had little hope anything would change soon. There was little to do but think as indeterminate hours crept past. Perhaps it was a mercy the Hate elemental was at rest now but it had been all his fault. It had relied on him for direction and he’d failed even at that responsibility. “I let down my companion, the only ally I had.” He admitted to himself. He had indulged in death and destruction, avenging a man he no longer was. Instead, here he was.

“You damn idiot!” he told himself more than once.

If things had been just slightly different, he would still be contentedly joining barrel staves, going home to his son, and falling asleep with his arms wrapped around his wife. Here he was, living this cursed life, a ghost of who he was, yet, still breathing with blood on his hands, having turned against everything he knew. He searched his memories back and forth. Why had Kamilya left him, no, betrayed him? He heard her words and saw her face in his mind’s eye trying to figure out what he could have done differently. Then, unbidden, he heard her final pleas echoing through his mind and, in his situation of unrelenting sensory deprivation, he could not shut it out anymore. It was a worse torment than any physical pain could have been and there was neither cessation or escape. His son’s face surfaced in his already distressed mind and it was more than he could bear. He felt a sensation of overwhelming agony burst from him and would have fallen to his knees had not the thick chains converging on him from every wall held him up. There was something deathly cold now in his shirt front and it throbbed there with the pulse of his sorrow, guilt, regret, and hatred for himself and for the whole world. The chains bound him so tightly that he had to struggle to even touch himself. It took longer to actually reach inside his shirt, barely able to reach with this fingertips. Something cold and glassy fell into his hand. It was the chisel. Dask knew he had been stripped of everything before they had locked him up. The chisel could not have escaped their attention; it came, and had come, from within him. The Demon, impeded by the Paladin’s wards, had only been able to give him delicate guidance; the big push had come from him. Dask began to carve at his enchanted chains and showers of white hot sparks that burnt into his flesh went flying with every stroke. They did not seem to yield, and the manacles only seared him even more than before, causing him to dry-heave with pain until he could undertake the task again. There was nothing else for him to do and if enough of those searing sparks might end him, all the better.

*

Suryn sped faster than a galloping horse back toward the palace.  She zipped past frightened faces and screaming crowds and the wind of her passage whistled in her ears. Her wards could limit the Demon’s power within their sphere but the Shadow Dragon shattered that bubble all at once as it passed through it. The beast swooped and descended past the inner walls.

By the time Suryn reached the gate, hundreds of soldiers were fleeing through it in complete panic. She forced her way through and there, where the marketplace had been there was wreckage and broken corpses left behind by the Shadow Dragon’s rampage. The hulking monster reared at the base of the keep as a shower of arrows and crossbow bolts rained down but slipped harmlessly off of its sleek, filamentous bulk. It rammed into a crossbow slit in the wall, collapsing the chamber onto its occupant. Then it reared back its head and let loose a jet of black, steaming venom onto the crenellated ramparts high above. There was screaming as the poison consumed its targets. Several soldiers jumped rather than endure the pain to its conclusion. Suryn now rushed at the beast but it saw her coming. With a great rush of wind it surged off the ground and rose above her reach, content now to attack the defenders on top of the keep from the air. She immediately started looking around for the Demon and saw no sign of him.

*

With a barely audible hum, the wards surrounding Dask went dark and silent. As complete darkness closed in on him, the pale Demonic vision took over to give him sight. Now he found the chisel cut through even the heaviest chain links and manacles quite easily. In just a few minutes he was loose. He sliced his way through the cell door and began to make his way up the staircase, finding, to his astonishment, that there seemed to be no guards nearby.

He went up flights of stairs with still no one in sight. A whole squad of guards burst into view and Dask tensed immediately for a final fight to the death. Instead they did not even acknowledge him as they rushed frantically right past him. “Go men! Go! More supplies for the guys on top!” As it turned out, there were many other groups of guards equally in a hurry, all ignoring him. Just one sergeant stopped to notice him, pointed and yelled. “You! Get in your gear right now and get the hell out there!” He turned away to accompany his men but abruptly turned back around and pointed once more. “Don’t even try to disappear now! I WILL remember you and make sure you hang!” Dask continued his way up the staircase until he finally came to a great, flat landing. There were great oaken double doors flung open wide and within was the great hall with long tables running nearly the length of the chamber. There, at the other end, was a huddle of officers. Some kind of group agreement was reached and most of the officers immediately rushed through the doors at the opposite end of the hall. The man who all the officers had stood around remained with a couple of aides. It was the Duke. Dask had seen him on coins, in paintings and statuary, and in person from a distance when he had given speeches from the keep’s grand balcony. In any case, there was no mistaking his resplendent garb worn with a light breastplate, gloves, and sword. Dask began to lose himself in fury as he thought of all he had lost. He steadily advanced until the Duke turned and noticed him.

“You!” he said. “You’re that Demon’s servant, aren’t you? I thought she locked you up properly this time.”

The Duke’s aides drew their swords and began to advance nervously.

“Stay back!” he told them. More guards came into the hall now and again the Duke held out his hand at them. “Leave him.” The men stood back.

With a hiss, the Duke pulled out his rapier and held the point at Dask.

“You took everything from me!” accused Dask.

The Duke appeared unfazed.

“From reports, I hear you have become strong and quick. But I also heard you were just a common cooper. Have you ever even held a real weapon?” His dark eyes were locked on, hawk-like as he began to slowly circle to Dask’s left-hand side, his every step fluid and controlled like a dancer walking a tightrope. “Yet you think you are going to fight me with a puny piece of rock.”

A single breath would nearly have been audible as everyone watched the two men. Dask waited until the Duke’s back was facing the wall and in a flash of movement, he attacked. The Duke barely had time to react, but with the ease of lifelong practice he slashed Dask’s forearm and smoothly sidestepped away from the wall.  In a rage now, Dask barely even noticed the wound and lunged again. The Duke slid smoothly out of the way with his perfect footwork and buried his sword-point in Dask’s shoulder. The Demonic servant howled, feeling pain now, but it only fueled his rage. He charged with one attack after another and the Duke clenched his teeth and stared intensely in a state of complete focus as he reacted each time at just the right moment. One misstep would have meant his death, but he made no mistakes. Dask began to notice his body was not responding as quickly and without warning he found himself tumbling backward to the floor. Through a red haze, he began to realize that his whole body was torn and blood-soaked. The Duke casually walked up to his fallen opponent and looked down on him with a hard, clinical gaze. Time suddenly seemed to speed up and he realized that the whole fight, like many fights, had lasted less than a minute.

“You were strong and quick, but so are many beasts.”

The Duke thrust down towards Dask’s heart and saw the defeated man swing his arm as if to protect himself. Then he heard a metallic ping. The sword was suddenly lighter in his hand and as he raised it up, he saw it had been cleanly broken off halfway down its length. The Duke looked down at Dask in confusion and realized the crude piece of sharp rock had somehow cut through his steel blade. A chill of fear passed through him. He realized he had just put himself in far greater peril than he thought. But he had won.  “Fine!” sneered the Duke. “I’ll let you contemplate your failure as you bleed out.” He turned to his astonished men. “Finish him off if he tries to move.”

*

Suryn entered the keep in search of the Demon. Rushing groups of guards stopped to gawk at her but she waved them onward. She worked her way steadily upwards, her bright sword held out in front of her. She found herself at a familiar large room by the stone staircase. She was almost underneath her own room. She stepped toward the staircase, cautiously now, and watched the ceiling where she estimated her room was. It seemed a logical place for the Demon to lie in wait for her. A little too predictable, but she still had to be careful. Now that she was focused, something seemed strange about the staircase almost like tiny voices crying out. A feeling of inexplicable foreboding rose in her. As she took a step closer, the window went dark behind her. She sprung aside and the Shadow Dragon’s poisonous breath just missed her. Light flooded in through the window again as the beast detached from the wall outside and launched itself back into the air. This time it lurched high above the walls of the inner city and began to fly away from the battle. The foulness of its attack had gotten everywhere and bits of it hissed and sputtered against her armor, though not enough to do harm. The real problem was the poison immediately started steaming into tendrils of black vapor. In a few moments she was choking on it and struggled to see anything. Without warning, a black blade of pure lightlessness hissed at her from that lethal fog, which she only parried an inch away from her face. In that instant, she could feel its black energies sucking at her and pushed back viciously. She felt the Demon’s weight fly backwards. In that one moment of respite, she turned all her power and strength against the wall with the window and destroyed it utterly. The light of the setting sun flooded in and a shower of heavy bricks rumbled down to the base of the keep. The clouds of poison were swiftly leaving the room, so the Demon attacked with all its might in those precious seconds. Suryn could not keep up as the fumes burnt her eyes and every breath. She was cut by the black blade and felt deathly cold all through her. She was cut again in the furious onslaught. And again across her face. Finally, the air had cleared and she could see the Demon right in front of her well enough. She steeled her soul and gave everything she had. Paladin and Demon were locked in combat in that exposed chamber in the tower. They fought along the edge at times, each trying to send the other tumbling downward. Their blades clashed and they sent forth flashes of dark and light which further demolished the ruined chamber. Showers of bricks and mortar began to fall on them from the ceiling as well. Then in between parries she grabbed the Demon by his robe and threw him to the ground. She sent a stream of white-hot blinding light down towards him, trying to push through his dark energies and get close enough to deliver the killing blow. There they were locked in total opposition for what seemed like forever, but she inched forward bit by bit until the tip of her blade was almost touching him.

Somehow, the Demon found the strength to throw her back across the room just as the tip of her blade began to burn him. As both got to their knees, they realized they were totally exhausted. Nonetheless, Suryn began to crawl towards the Demon as she had long ago up the steps of the shining cathedral. He shot a glance over her shoulder, probably, she thought, another attempt at misdirection so he could get in another sly strike. She ignored it. The full intensity of Suryn’s fanatic gaze bored into the Demon as she continued to drag herself closer, sword dragging behind her.

The Demon saw the Duke standing there watching, perhaps, he thought, just waiting to see who would win.

“I yield,” rasped the Demon. “I concede you this plane, Paladin.”

“I swear on the powers of Hell and infinite Hate, an oath I make to you even I must honor.”

“I know well, Demon, but I will still kill you. You just swore away your claim here for nothing. You die a coward.” She crawled closer still and now showed no sign of stopping.

“Please.”  The Demon was begging now.

Suryn was now beyond speech as she put her whole being into destroying him. She saw herself again in her mind’s eye entering the ranks of angels for vanquishing a greater evil and being absolved altogether of the weakness of the flesh.

The Demon began to gather his body in concentration and she felt what was left of his power congealing. She managed to push herself to her knees and struggled to close the distance.

With a humming noise and then a bass resonance, the Demon was gone. Suryn collapsed and lay on her stomach, overwhelmed with both disappointment and relief. “Suryn!” The Duke came to her and gently helped her back to her knees and then her feet. She gasped as she felt the wounds left by the Demon still eating away at her.

“He got away from me!”

“You beat him and you’ve saved this whole world.”

The Duke wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Suryn snapped out of her fixation and looked up into his eyes. At that moment, the staircase, slowly weakened by the Shadow Dragon’s acid venom, suddenly started to crumble away. Those muted voices she had heard screaming out right before the Demon’s ambush suddenly became ear-piercingly loud. She turned around and within the staircase was earth and mortar, and from that jutted the bones of tiny people, dozens of their skulls staring out at her.

“The children,” gasped Suryn.

Then she felt a cold shock from behind her and waves of terrible pain. Suddenly her body would not obey her. She fell onto her back.

The Duke stood over her, holding a bloody dagger.

“The Demon exiled. His servant vanquished by me. The flying beast fled to the far horizon. And our dear guardian made her heroic sacrifice. Perhaps I will have statues of you raised throughout the realm.”

Suryn tried to talk but nothing would come out at first.  Finally she gasped.

“What are you?”

“You might say I am the Grey. There is the clash of principles. I just care to win power by the rules of the mundane realm between Heaven and Hell. They think it’s just an inert thing they fight to influence, but more power resides there than Dark or Light understand. Because that is what’s real.” The Duke clenched his fist as if holding a handful of sand.

“Powers divine or profane are but tools to make reality as I wish it.” The Duke gazed down at Suryn, with a mix of detached calculation, amusement, and, for a passing moment, a flash of pity.

“Because you let me into your heart I could strike a blow even a Demon could not. Had you not found out, I might have made you my queen. Farewell, dear guardian.”

Suryn was flooded with a grief that went beyond any suffering she had ever known no matter how hard she had pushed her fleshly body, no matter what spiritual torments she had been through in her training and on the most horrific battlefields. Now she came face to face with nothing. It had all been for nothing. She felt that subtle snap as her spirit broke one more time. Horror welled up in her. A broken spirit had made her into a Paladin of the Light and now what was left was fracturing into tiny pieces as her life ebbed. She only hoped her body would die before the rest of her did.

As she felt herself descending toward the void, there was a faint sound like buzzing and a knife tip swept across silk.

“That oath did not last long,” came a pleasant tenor voice. “I made it to you. With your life leaving you, it is void.” The Demon walked into the room as the sun began to sink beneath the inner walls.

“We were all human once, but you were still so young.”

He pulled back his hood. He had a young man’s face white as chalk; she did not know him, but she felt somehow she might have in another life. It was a lean face with a high forehead and refined nose with a certain sensitivity etched about the mouth. She thought somehow he would have been a good student under the priests, yet he had somehow taken another path. His eyes were black, empty, yet depthless. Something was strangely terrifying about that gaze of ancient knowing and cynicism set within a bloodless mask of perfect youth. Indeed, it was a mask, attached to a form of shadow. He lifted a chalky, slender hand to touch his face and as his sleeve fell back she could see it was like a long glove on an insubstantial arm.

“Somehow my features always remain. The same as the day I made the Pact. The rest I have long forgotten.”

“That’s what I always wanted. Nothing left. No more pain.” gasped Suryn.

“I knew how you feel.”

“Maybe… I’m about to get that anyway.”

“Yes, you are dying,” he said, and somehow she felt there was some kind of compassion there. “I can give you a short time longer. But it will require a real sacrifice. It is not trivial even for me to delay death.”

Suryn tried to shake her head but the Demon knelt over her and placed its hands on her. She felt its cursed energies flow into her and crudely stitch up the wound that had pierced her heart. She climbed to her feet, gasping, and groaned in agony as she felt the black slippery stitches of shadow loosen a bit. The Demon was brought to his knees, weakened now by the strain. She stood over him now wielding her sword.

“One swipe of this blade and you are gone.” she said.

“That would break the spell at once. The risk I take placing myself at your mercy right now, is the sacrifice that gives it power. You can only choose one and you’ve only just enough time. You cannot do both. Choose the other, the spell seals tight and you get a short while longer.”

The blade glowed white-hot over the Demon’s head and her hand trembled. One move of her arm and she would die a saint in the eyes of Heaven. She did not move. In a few moments, eternity was decided.

Without a word, she raised her blade, turned away from the Demon and went downward. As the spell locked into place, the weak slippery stitches tightened, feeling like hot steel wire. Pain and black rage became one sensation.

*

The Duke lounged in his private study, reclining in a comfy chair after he had just poured himself a snifter of brandy. The cheerful shimmer of candles just lit in the dimming of dusk seemed to congratulate him. He sighed in satisfaction as he leaned back to enjoy the moment. His power secure at last. He raised the snifter to his face at a tilt so he could enjoy the aroma to the fullest and took a warming sip. As he looked up he saw he was not alone. The snifter trembled in his fingers. The Demon was standing right there in front of him with his hood thrown back, his black form and deathly white face exposed.

“How are you here?!” blurted the Duke, “Your oath!”

“I made it to her. Now she is no more.” replied the Demon calmly.

The Duke turned ashen. “You swore not to harm me!”

“I swore to you. That is still binding.”

The Duke took a deep breath and tried to relax. “Then I got immunity to you and all you got was my help in breaking out that servant of yours.  Lot of good it did you. And she thought one of my concubines was behind it to the end.”

“What you got from me was worthless and I got far more in return than you think. There’s no need to harm you anyway. I got everything I wanted.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I just wanted to say goodbye.” answered the Demon with a hint of mockery.

“Very touching.” said the Duke acidly. Yet he eyed the Demon suspiciously. The Duke spread out his hands. “What do you really want, then?”

“Really, that’s all,” replied the Demon. “And to tell you that you involved yourself in the interplay of powers far greater than you. Powers you don’t understand and that your worship of petty things could never have revealed to you.”

“You came back here to try to talk down to me!?” spat the Duke. “I’m the master of an earthly realm, I’ve won at the trials of life. I am a mortal man with just one life but look at you! You never die, but you’re a mere shadow, drifting from world to world like a beggar, never living for yourself, a loser, a slave to self-denial. For what? A principle?! You’re not that different than she was.”

“Yes, I know you thought it was like playing two sides of the same coin. You really thought the affairs of Heaven and Hell follow the same rules as your politics and palace intrigue. Anyway, you’ve amused me and I have to go now.” The corner of the Demon’s lips twisted into a smirk.  “As I said, I just wanted to say goodbye.” With that, he was gone.

The Duke sighed and settled back into his chair, intent on taking a very generous swig of brandy this time. The door crashed open. The snifter fell out of his hand as he saw Suryn, ashen pale and blood-spattered, like an apparition, walking toward him, sword drawn. Suryn sheathed her sword and the Duke looked right into the depthless rage, pain, and despair in her eyes. His jaw went slack as the moment dragged on. Then her hand shot out, grabbed him by his face and lifted him from the chair. His struggles were like those of a small child as she pounded him, his ribs snapping like twigs.

At first Suryn took out her rage on the Duke but as she sank ever further and felt the stitches begin to slip again, he disappeared and she saw Kristyan from her village long ago before her as she pounded and disfigured his gorgeous face and heard his pleading degenerate into screams and finally into gurgling sobs. Finally, there was nothing left of those piercing blue eyes, straight teeth and sensuous lips, and his broken remains lay in a heap.

She felt the Demonic stitches that held the spell together begin to unravel and she realized she had committed apostasy. The room around her faded and she floated in void. That pitiless, faceless marble angel drifted toward her, wings beating without a sound.

*

Dask and the Dark Man walked the next day through the market square. The stalls were already being replaced and commerce continued as usual. Dask carried a skewer of grilled meat dripping down his chin as he tore into it with gusto, though he was not truly hungry. It was the first real, human meal he’d had since he made his Pact. He was whole again, his injuries healed up during the night, but the streak-like scars left behind as he had struck the enchanted chains remained and he supposed they would be there forever. Parts of his scalp were scorched bare now, his hair still there in irregular patches. Passers-by looked at him with curiosity and fear but he didn’t care now.

“The Duke was a fool, but not stupid.” the Demon explained.  “I saw him there, watching.  I had already sent the Shadow Dragon away. Then I was gone. The moment she learned his secret, she was more dangerous alive than she was valuable to him.”

“How on earth was he able to harm, let alone kill her? How’d he stab right through the Paladin’s armor?”

“She let him.”

“The hell do you mean, she let him?”

“She let down her defenses.”

“And why after all her searching did she not know what was right under her room?”

“She did not want to know.”

“I don’t understand it. All that effort to destroy people who just wanted to go about their lives while he was close to her.”

“She would have done anything for him. You will learn many things about the ways of humankind in the coming years.”

“Do I come with you then?”

The Demon gave out a chuckle, his hood drew back and suddenly Dask could see the pale face inside with its eyes of empty shadow.

“That foolish Duke thought he could stay in power by cheating the scales. I came here because of the Paladin; imagine what sort of powers are drawn to me. You must grow your power. This plane is yours now to conquer.”

“But master!”

“You will know you are nearly ready, when, one day, you are able to go to the far mountains, find, and master the Shadow Dragon. It waits for you. Farewell, my disciple.”

A Doorway of negative light slid open without a sound and then the Demon vanished through it. Dask stood confounded in the middle of the marketplace as the crowd stared in awe. He cast aside his meat and swiftly made his way from the market square. He acquired a cloak with a hood that would help obscure his disfigured face and in less than an hour he went out the city gates and into the world that had just been given for him to conquer.

Apostasy (Part 4)

Previous chapter

Hardly had he been brought down into the cold stone halls of confinement then the sack was taken from his head by the Paladin. She was the only one here with him.

“I hope your revenge was worth it. You sold your soul for it. You are a murderer now and right back where you started. This is what happens to those who go down the path of Hate.”

Dask had expected Suryn to confront him in a righteous fury and to torment and torture him. It amazed him to see her calm and merely talking to him.

“You are beyond damnation now. But you still have the power to save others.”

“Save? You mean like those people you burnt alive. Like my companion?!”

“Nothing righteous comes without sacrifice. Your selfishness may make that hard for you to understand.”

“You try to be selfless, that’s not the same thing as being good or generous, Paladin. What’s the sacrifice worth if you have nothing left?”

Dask thought that might get her mad enough to just kill him and give him an easy death but instead she just brooded for a moment.

“More than you can know.” she said quietly.

“I would rather be working back in the barrel shop and going home to my family. But that’s all gone now and I’ve killed the bastard that stole my wife and sent my son to the slave mines no one ever comes out of. I’ve done what I can do. No sacrifices left for me.”

Suryn abruptly looked up, her gaze focused and turned fierce. “What do you mean ‘sent your son’?!”

“Doesn’t anyone tell you anything? That woman I met here in the palace, right under your nose, her children were taken away too.”

Suryn immediately thought of that whore hiding the knife and without a word she turned away from Dask to leave him there in the dim and drafty dungeon and began her way up the stairs. She stopped for a moment, turned around and told him, “He won’t be able to get you out this time; I saw to that.” Indeed, he could actually feel the force of her wards pressing in on him from every side and he realized the walls and floors were softly glowing with traceries of luminescence as the light of her torch receded.

“I need that… woman… Alarya, for my investigation.”

“I’m afraid that can’t be done right now.” replied the Duke smoothly.

“When you had your high priests send the ancient prayers beseeching the aid of a Paladin of the Light – that was when those determinations ceased to be yours to make. Because you did not tell me about those women, the Dark One found a way to sneak its influence in here and get that man out.”

“Nonetheless, you have struck down the Demon and its familiar. Now you have caught its servant as well. Well done.”

“There were no Demonic powers here when I first arrived but I did not question where the Heavens had sent me or whose prayers had been answered. The rebels who had nearly overthrown you were no great challenge for my power and though I launched an inquisition, the people here were no more Hateful than elsewhere.”

“I can’t imagine what we would have done had you not been here when the Demon arrived. There was a higher wisdom in the prayers that brought you here.” The Duke raised a hand to touch her shoulder, but this time he hesitated and drew it back. Suryn shook her head.

“Why are you taking their kids away?”

The Duke flinched. “These women are brought under our protection, away from dangerous and irresponsible men. Sometimes, they stay under our direct protection.”

“As your whores.”

This time the Duke returned her gaze, the steel returning to his spine. “They choose to stay in our households and want for nothing. Their children are sent to labor, a chance at life they never would have had.”

“Why not keep them with their mothers?”

“Would you have us keep other men’s children alongside our women?”

“Where else would you keep them?”

“Wherever they are needed. At least they have been freed from their abusive fathers. Meanwhile, my best supporters are in need of worthy companionship. My men also need to feel safe, or they begin to wonder, so even better that you recaptured that Demonic killer. He targeted one of my judges,” hissed the Duke. “I need them to maintain order in the city. Without my men in place, the troubles you helped me put down soon return.”

“I can give them special priority.” said Suryn.

He laid his hands on her robed shoulders. “My people must be protected. For the sake of the realm.”

In spite of everything that had happened, her sharp chin tilted slightly upward toward his face and her center of gravity moved closer to his. “I will do what I must.” She wanted to be near him and loathed him, and herself, all at once. Suddenly she realized how that whore must feel – but only much more so, having actually received the Duke’s affections. Her heart burned at this thought, yet sank as the Duke lifted his hands.

“I know you will, dear guardian.” That grey unfeeling despair again poured into her, that feeling of cold, wet ashes in the pit of her stomach. Laudanum and liquor hardly did anything to her, no matter how much she might consume, but the leaden indifference she felt deep in her was somehow far more potent. She turned away to attend her duties; the only lasting solace in life was in the cause of The Light.

She met for some hours with the captains of the guard, planning the next hunt and then she went down the dungeon steps again to where Dask was chained from every direction to the walls of his heavily warded cell.

“Where is he?” she asked.

“You know I won’t tell you and torture won’t help you either.”

“Why do you care about him now? Do you think you are important to him now that you’ve been caught.”

“No, I bet he doesn’t give a damn. But it doesn’t matter. He’s bringing Hate into this world and that’s all I want.”

“Then throw yourself away for nothing, and no one. If you repent, at least you do not die an apostate.”

“Apostasy. That’s the one thing I want to take to my grave.”

“You won’t have a grave. Imps of Hell get no headstones.”

*

As night fell, Suryn gathered the specially picked soldiers, lightly equipped so they could move more quietly. No one would carry torches; just a few would have covered lanterns. The unfaithful had quickly learned to avoid the regular city guard investigators and, to her frustration, they were figuring out ways to make the trails left behind by their sins less obvious. She knew word must travel whenever she was seen, so now she would take them by surprise.

For the next few nights she searched the town from dusk to dawn with her specially selected squad fanning out in discreet pairs. By day, she consulted again with the captains of the guard as they set up a system of paid informants through the entire city. Every afternoon, she went back down to the dungeon, to visit Dask. She simply looked in on him to see if he had anything to say. He looked up at her and kept his mouth shut. On the third day she told him.

“My patience won’t last long. If you won’t help us, you’ll die that much sooner.”

“What a great life I have here,” he replied sardonically, making a gesture of indifference that rattled his weighty chains.

“They all think like that until their head is about to be on the block – and then it’s too late.”

That night, she sent some of her undercover guards to report back on a tip from an informant.  Sure enough, there was a gathering at someone’s house even though no one had seen any guests arrive. Nor did hardly anyone walk the streets at night anymore with patrols of guards waiting to inspect and interrogate anyone they encountered. Yet somehow as Suryn approached the house she could sense there was a group of people inside, and the stench of Hatefulness, though the occupants were consciously muting it as best they could.

The Paladin’s agents were closing in on the house, doing their best not to give any cause for alarm. They saw no lookouts outside and the windows of the house were shuttered tight with light only showing through the cracks. When all were in position, Suryn thrust her sword through the door, slicing through the heavy wooden bolt she suspected would be on the other side, and then thrust her blade right through the lock.  She flung the door open then, and there inside were a group of people dressed in black prostrated before a grotesque idol. There was a rough hole in the middle of the floor that they immediately tried to flee toward, but she quickly lifted up the one man who had already nearly disappeared into it and threw him roughly to the floor. Then her agents streamed into the room behind her and immediately began restraining and tying everyone up.

“You have all damned yourselves! Who is the master of this house?”

“I am.” said a mournful, bearded man.

“When did they come here? When did you pledge yourself to darkness?”

The man looked around the room to his fellows now and tears began to well up in his eyes. “There is no future for us now, my friends.” he said. “There’s only one more task we can complete.” The converts looked at each other with fear, but mostly with weighty resignation. The man began to repeat a mantra in a tongue from Dark planes he could not have known of, and Suryn could see his soul and life force draining away towards the idol.

“Stop him!” she ordered her agents. They quickly gagged him but his head subtly bobbed as his jaw still strained to move as he simply recited the words in his head instead.

Suryn brought her sword down on the idol, with its serene smile that seemed to taunt her and it evaporated instantly in a flash of white flame. She had not detected dark powers here before, she realized, because the idol had absorbed them all. Now, without that focus, the thread of the man’s soul drifted downward, into the ground, still streaming towards its end.

“Stop!” she told him, “You are giving up your immortal soul!”

The man was heedless. Then, one by one, every last person in the room began the mantra and turned inwards. She could see a dozen more dark threads drift down into the earth and she looked to the hole again. She moved aside a wall hanging and revealed a spot where the plaster had been shattered. The Demon’s servants had been here and they had come from below.

“There’s no time to waste,” she told her agents. “He’s hidden down there.” The undercover guards visibly shuddered at the thought. Suryn leapt through the hole and immediately started to sprint along the path of the dark threads. The threads soon vanished into rock walls, and she realized it was like an elaborate maze. There was such a strong presence of Hate here she did not know which way to go at first but as she moved through total darkness lit only by a bright glow from her armor she oriented herself towards the general direction it felt strongest and began to work her way through caves, cisterns, and corridors. For a full day, without a moment’s rest and full focus, she worked her way through the maze, the presence of the Demon and the stink of its minions growing ever stronger around her.

She began to see alcoves in the walls occupied by skeletons in repose and piles of skulls. The oppressiveness of the shadow grew and the glow of her armor could barely light the way for her. She drew her sword too now and again she could see down the passageway. Finally, she came to a chamber that was utterly replete with shadow. She willed all The Light into being she could and there was the Demon in its tattered robes that fluttered in a steady subterranean draft. At its feet, filling the entire room, was a writhing morass of dark, slippery threads that seemed to glisten with smooth moisture. The Demon’s hands worked busily on the foul strands.

“You’re just in time,” he greeted her.

“I’ve come to finish you, Demon!” she growled and her sword flashed white-hot, but he still stood there unflustered.

“When they gave their souls, it completed my creation.”

“I’ve already killed one of your creatures.”

“It was yours as well.”

“I see. You want to blame my just punishment of the Hateful, not your own actions.”

“Just or not, you bring them to me.”

“Those who give in to your temptation deserve what they get. I’ll destroy whatever this is you’ve spawned from your worshipers when I’m done with you.”

“It won’t be so simple for you this time. Devotion and passion alone are useful, but not enough. To be really dangerous requires agency. This is something far beyond a simple Hate elemental.”

“That won’t protect you now!”

Suryn began to charge and as she did so, there was a sound vaguely like the snapping of thousands of steel cables muffled by layers of silk and mucus as all the dark threads came together at once. She fell as the slippery filaments ripped instantly from under her feet. She screamed in pain, looked down and saw that her boots had been torn apart and her feet sliced to shreds. These were not ordinary wounds. The distilled rage, grief, and malice of a hundred people attacked her flesh like a black poison. Then the Demon struck. More quickly than a snake, with a blade of pure negative light in his hand. But Suryn slammed him with a burst of white flame, slowing him down for the moment she needed to get to her feet. She stood with her sword ready somehow, though the remains of her feet were turning black and spurting blood, her right little toe, dangling off to one side barely hanging on by a flap of skin. The Demon closed the gap and hammered her defenses relentlessly, raining down strikes faster than a mortal could follow. Suryn struggled to send energy to her feet as she focused on surviving the onslaught. With what seemed like excruciating slowness through the press to survive, the black taint drained from her feet and a softly glowing silver smoke began to drift upwards from her torn flesh. Finally, with a soft sucking feeling, her little toe reattached. She was almost fully healed; the Demon backed off.

“Pity.” it said. “At least you responded promptly to your informant.”

“You turned them in!?”

“So you could give them inspiration to do what was necessary. Thank you.”

“You even betrayed your own worshipers. They should have known better than to deal with a Demon!”

“No, now they will be part of something immeasurably greater than any of them could have been alone, as weak individuals quietly crushed by the righteousness of the many.”

“Your kind always find a way to rationalize your Hate when all along it comes from you! I won’t let you keep spreading it to others! It stops here.”

“No, it begins.”

The black filaments somehow bunched into a single dense mass and began to rapidly spin. Once it became a blur of motion, the dark mass exploded upward, into the rocky ceiling. There was a deep rumbling as bricks and rocks fell all around. Daylight flooded into the chamber as the Demon and his creation broke through to the surface. Suryn leapt after them as quickly as she could and found herself in an ancient cemetery as she climbed out of the huge jagged hole in the ground. She looked around and saw that the dark morass had launched into the sky. It was falling now, but only slowly drifting down as its creeping filaments formed into sail-like projections. Wings!

Suryn looked in dread now as she heard that steel wire sound of pieces rapidly snapping into place and a form taking shape as each part was joined. Its form grew larger in her view as it kept drifting down towards her. She held her sword and readied herself for a great leap. Then, a single winding coil, as thick as a tree, burst forth from the squirming bulk all at once. For a moment she could see daylight flare through the outflung clusters of probing filaments. Then, in a single movement they all twisted tightly together, the tips hissing like whips, the bulk of it giving out a groan like the creak of wet rubber. Now there was a long, powerful neck and a serpentine head that hung limply from the main mass. Legs, forelegs, and a long tail burst from the center next. Just as the dark mass drifted nearly within leaping distance, two great glowing fires flicked on instantly like hellish lamps in the head’s eye sockets. Immediately, the monster’s whole body went taut with life and intent. It lifted up its neck and clenched its clawed feet. It folded its forelegs against its body. The first beat of its great wings swept Suryn’s surroundings with a great wind and carried it well beyond her reach. With that great contraction, a proliferation of black spikes like rose-thorns burst forth along its spine down its tail, on its head and along the back of its limbs. The wings beat again and it went further aloft and began to move through the air. As it flew away, she got a glimpse of the Demon mounted on its back. Suryn had only seen Shadow Dragons seldomly, and only in the largest of pitched battles on the darkest planes of existence. In mid-flight it drew back its neck and gave out a great screech of triumphant fury that could no doubt be heard for miles around. The city soon began to panic. Suryn saw where it was headed.

Next chapter

Apostasy (Part 3)

Previous chapter

Suryn looked on the still-terrified guards who said they had encountered the escaped Demonic servant, Dask. One of them had been killed by a being she knew must be the remains of the first young man who had been burnt at the stake. He had been reduced to a Hate elemental now. She loathed the thought of those foul things and memories rushed back to when she was a retainer in the Divine Army fighting in massed silver ranks as whole howling swarms of the vile things rushed them. She had watched friends die horribly in those battles that had raged across blighted planes that lay upon the celestial fault-lines of Light and Dark.

Two more of the guards had grotesquely swollen faces dominated with dark shadows of bruise, one with a shattered jaw, the other who’d had the bony bridge of his nose all but flattened. The servant, Dask, was just a freshly made lesser imp, but he was already too powerful for most mortal men to handle.

She had been awakened from her sleep the night Dask escaped as she felt something intrude within the keep even though she had warded the whole place. She had immediately sent the guards down to Dask’s cell only to discover he was somehow missing. This Demon’s ability to get past her defenses unsettled her; the wards should have worked even against powerful foes. Could it mean there was some weakness in herself?

Meanwhile, the hunt had gone on. Since the first heretic had been burnt, there had been others, this time with no interventions as they wriggled and screamed within the blaze. She would deny the Demon access to power no matter what it took and find and break the sources that let him lurk here. She had never taken on a Demon by herself but she had hunted down many lesser creatures. If she could take down Demons, then the ascent to the angelic orders might one day be bestowed on her. She would be more than human. She would never again feel the base needs of the flesh. Every time she had touched herself, she had been filled with self-loathing afterwards over her weakness. The advance of years did very little to her anymore, but that only gave her more time to contemplate the frailties of her imperfect frame. As much as she hated Hate, she despised herself and longed for that final, blindingly alabaster death in perfection, for her limbs, no longer soft, to be sculpted as if in divine marble. It had been nearly a week now since she had slept and her sad body yearned for repose. She thought again of the Demon and forged on with her Work.

*

“There is nothing left of him now but his fury,” explained the Dark Man. “He was unwilling to pledge himself until his higher mind was stripped away by trauma and only the lower functions were left to decide. His natural meekness buried the seed deep and she unearthed it.”

“So the guy he was really is dead?”

“That final flash of rage against the whole world is all that’s left. He is just a simple hate elemental now.”

“Just? I watched him beat a whole squad of armed men!”

“He has strength and instinct but nothing of intellect or restraint. He is useless without guidance. You gave him that.”

Dask felt a pang of sadness for the young man who had been transformed into the grotesque horror that now accompanied him.

“I wish he’d done it sooner.”

“I reached out to him. But only the flames could burn away his inborn tenderness.”

Dask looked to the burnt man and the creature tilted its head in response to being given attention.

The Demon was barely able to sit up. He only just managed to position his back against the rock wall.  Beneath his robe, a soft light still sometimes shone through. Dask told him everything that had happened and the master listened, motionless.

“I know my old self is dead now.” concluded Dask

“You turned away from the Light and have just begun to understand what that means.  You now have plenty of time for that.” the Demon replied.

“What do you mean?”

“Get the chisel.”

Dask grabbed the chilly, glassy sharp object from the pile of blankets he had awakened in and brought it to the Demon.

“Why have you not been using this?”

“I didn’t think about it.”

“That’s a physical form taken by the power of your pact. Keep it with you.”

“Why?”

“Go and find out.”

He went back to his chamber, sat on his bedroll and began to turn over the chisel in his hand.  It was like a jagged shard of obsidian yet with the dim vision he had in complete darkness he could see no light reflect from it. It was a slice of abyss, impenetrable even to his supernatural senses. It was always cold but tingled somehow when he grasped it more tightly. Out of curiosity, he tried scratching the wall with it. The tip did seem to leave a mark. He started slashing and left gashes in the stone no normal weapon would easily cause. He thrust and a chunk of stone chipped off the wall. Impressive, thought Dask, but nothing to compare with the night he had escaped from his cell. What more was there to know? He wandered through the catacombs until he was under the city and impulsively stabbed a cockroach. To his astonishment, there was a wriggling sensation that worked its way up his wrist and into his arm, then his shoulder. It was a strange feeling that sickened him and it didn’t go away. He writhed, squirmed, and scratched, but the feeling was just under his skin. He even pricked himself with the tip of the chisel but it did nothing to him. The same object that had scored a stone wall didn’t even break his skin. Whatever this was he wanted it out of him! He clenched himself and willed for the bothersome feeling to go away. To his surprise, there was a feeling kind of like a popping pimple or a loose baby tooth on the back of his shoulder. A long thin black spike barely thicker than a thread thrust through his skin and tumbled from his shirt sleeve to the floor. The straight spike became fluid and started squirming like a jet black tapeworm. After a short while it stopped and grew rigid in its final, twisted pose and evaporated into a mist of shadow. Dask just stared at the spot for the longest time his gut roiling with disgust. It took him hours to get the courage to stab a rat and this time he immediately wanted to vomit as a scurrying and scratching feeling bounced all around inside of him. He only just managed to keep from panicking as the feeling skittered down his backbone. He finally focused enough on expelling it from him. He heaved as if to vomit but small black spikes erupted along his spine. Soon they fell out onto the ground and also evaporated into that unholy material. Dask could not help but be fascinated with this discovery no matter how unpleasant it felt. He thought of how he had been through much worse before he had finally turned his back on the Light. He was thinking about what he should try next when he heard a shuffling. He looked up and saw the Burnt Man. It tilted its head back toward the direction of their lair. Dask followed.

*

“Go through the Doorway when I make it,” instructed the Demon. “There is someone in need of consultation.”

With visible exertion, the weakened Demon reached out, a pale hand emerging from its sleeve, and a whirling vortex of grey and pale green light opened in the middle of the floor. Dask looked to the Burnt Man, but it, of course, had nothing to say. He somehow overcame his fear now that he had nothing to lose and dropped into the yawning hole. His gut wrenched as he expected to fall into a whirlwind but instead he immediately found himself standing in a luxurious bedchamber. There was no one in bed, though someone had clearly used the bedsheets. Then he looked to the starlit balcony and saw a female figure there. She was crouched in despair, clutching a silvery knife. Her robe was open and she shook as she stared at the blade.

“Don’t.” rasped Dask.

She immediately fell over in surprise and fumbled to conceal her weapon underneath her.

He walked from the darkness of the suite toward the balcony.  “It’s ok. Where am I?”

She didn’t say anything as she looked up in terror at his approaching shadow. Dask strode out onto the balcony and he was looking out on a walled garden. It was the Duke’s palace!

“Please, don’t hurt yourself.”

She continued to tremble on the ground, the knife concealed underneath her.

Dask cleared his throat. “I’ve been sent to talk to you tonight. He wouldn’t have sent me unless you were having doubts.”

“My children.” she whispered.

“What do you mean, um, Ma’am?” Despite the urgent duress he had begun to notice her open nightrobe, her dark flowing hair and eyes that were luminous by the light of the stars.

“He took them from me.”

“Who?”

“Him! He sent them away and now I’m bearing one of his!”

“The Duke!” Dask blurted out.

She collapsed to the ground trembling.

“There’s another way,” he said.

“I wanted to kill him. Tonight. He was here.”

“Then why did you want to kill yourself?!”

“I enjoyed it so much.”

“Don’t do it. Pledge yourself. That’s the other way out. Not repentance. Apostasy.”

There was a feeling of rushing energies in the air and Dask turned around and saw the swirling doorway. He turned away.

*

Suryn finally descended into sleep but it was into a realm of nightmare. She woke up and felt the breach opening as she had during Dask’s escape. She rushed down flights of steps but there was an eerie wailing as small hands and arms reached up through the stairs and grabbed at her ankles. They almost brought her to a stop on the floor beneath her room but she broke free, made her way to the dungeon and opened the cell door. There was a yawning chasm into Darkness looking straight into her soul. She turned around and a marble statue of an angel she remembered from church as a child was flying at her, drifting through the air without a sound, its form simple, its facial features a nondescript pitiless mask. She took a step back and began to tumble backwards into the void.

She awoke on the cold floor of her chamber, trembling within a tangle of blankets. At first, all she felt was terror and relief. Then she thought back on friends who had fallen in battle. She squeezed a blanket, feeling a hand’s last clasp on hers before it fell slack in repose. Slowly the sense of purpose redawned in her and she donned her robe to begin a new day in pursuit, still hours before dawn. Then she realized why she had awakened. There was something wrong again. She grabbed her sword from her bedside and did not even bother to alert the guards this time. She flew down the staircase outside her room with her divine blade out of its sheath. She continued to fly down the stairwell towards the source of the disturbance. She stormed into a wing of the palace she’d never been to before, sprinted down a wide hallway with doors on either side and then felt the source to her left side. She was a woman of ordinary stature yet she effortlessly kicked in the heavy wooden door with a bare foot. She saw the Demonic portal closing just as she ran through. Too late. There was a woman on the balcony shrieking at the sudden incursion into her chamber. Suryn lowered her sword and went to her. The woman looked up and her face was pale and streaked with tears. “What happened?” Suryn looked into the woman and saw the taint of darkness battling, not with the Light exactly, something else. Then she looked at her. She had unmistakably beguiling features, large dark eyes, flowing dark hair, and long elegant legs revealed by an opening in her nightrobe. In spite of herself, Suryn felt a visceral dislike rising up in her.

“Who came through that doorway?”

“I don’t know.” cried the woman.

After some time of sobbing that further aroused the Paladin’s ire and then a labored description in between sobs she realized that Dask had been the visitor.

“What did he say to you?”

“He, he wanted to take me away. I was trying to stop him!”

The woman revealed a knife that lay underneath her.

“I’ve dealt with their kind enough, I know that’s not why he was really here. You put yourself in peril.”

The woman threw herself at Suryn’s feet and begged for mercy protesting that she had told the dark servant to go away. But the Paladin could see the taint struggling to grasp hold of her clearly enough. It was not surprising this woman had attracted the attention of the Dark Powers. Her or someone like her had allowed the Demon into the palace to release the servant, Dask, right from under her watch. This grim thought gave her very little sympathy for this harlot who had already tried to lie and manipulate.

“I will have you detained until you reconsider your story.”

“Noo! I’ve done nothing wrong!”

“Then you have nothing to fear.”

The Duke rushed into the chamber. Suryn turned toward him in astonishment. She had somehow thought him incapable of being flustered. “Alarya!” he cried. He reached out, startled by the knife in her hands. “Where did you get that?”

“I had it just in case, my lord. It saved my life tonight!”

The Duke frowned, but the woman abruptly dropped the knife and ran into the Duke’s arms where she buried her head in his chest and sobbed. As the Duke’s hand ran tenderly through Alarya’s lustrous hair, Suryn felt a wave of acid heat and physical anguish rise up through her heart and into her head as never before. Then, doors further down the hallway began to open up and there were several female voices. A group of young women rushed in and flocked to the Duke. They too were clad in luxurious nightrobes and every one of them was conspicuously alluring.

“Everything is alright ladies! He is gone. The Paladin is here.” The Duke looked at Suryn and saw at once she was dumbstruck. His eyes met hers for a moment and his gaze was hard and appraising, gauging her reaction. His eyes flicked deftly away. “Ladies, all is well now.”

Suryn had never seen the Duke with another woman, had never asked, had never wanted to know. Now she had been driven at last beyond the realm of feeling. Past the threshold of rage, something again had quietly snapped and now she felt nothing at all. All emotion had been as noise and now there was silence in her. She lay to sleep through the night without concern.  She woke in the morning calmly. Held a morning meeting with officials, with the Duke present, but she did not even look at him. She headed out to do her duty in the name of Heaven. She tried to figure out what might motivate Dask next. He wasn’t the first young imp she had dealt with. Her own irrational pain that she had buried told her how she would find him.

*

“You cannot go back to that life. You almost died trying it.” the Demon admonished.

“She had been taken from someone else so she could pleasure the Duke! Where are my wife and my son?!” demanded Dask

“Yours!? You are no more. You must learn who you are now.”

“Fuck you! I’m going back.”

“Don’t try it.”  The Demon’s tone was strangely resigned. This made Dask hesitate more than any infernal rage. The Demon was sitting up more strongly now but still weak; the glowing of its wound seemed to be gone.

“We all must let go,” he sighed.

“Come with me,” Dask commanded the Burnt Man. It eagerly followed him from the cave, beginning to bay in solemn tones as it already began to scent the Hatefulness of mankind.

Dask charged with the Burnt Man through the underground passageways, smelling out heresy and the hunters of heretics alike, just barely dodging their surprise maneuvers, even in the smallest hours of the night. He asked their stories and, finally, one man said the name “Slandriv.”

“Judge Slandriv?” hissed Dask.

“Yes, he’s the one. Does whatever the Duke wants.”

Dask felt a vein throbbing in his temple as he thought back on the note on his door, the guards, the brief hearing in a court room. Judge Slandriv! “I will help you with this!” he snarled through clenched teeth.

That very night, he began murdering the judge’s private guards with the Burnt Man at his side and burst into the mansion without the slightest ceremony.  In his night clothes, the judge cowered on the ground before them.  “I have only enacted the law! If you strike me you get nothing and just make it worse for yourself!”

Then, Dask heard a female sigh from the judge’s bed. There was the contour of a sleeping human beneath golden, silken bedsheets. Without a word, Dask approached the sheets and abruptly pulled them back. He nearly collapsed as he saw his wife there, curled up blissfully. In a blood-rage, Dask thrust his hand through the judge’s chest, lifted his body in the air, and crushed his heart. A gout of blood spurted from the man’s gasping mouth and then his head lolled forward limply. Dask contemptuously tossed the corpse aside. He then approached the woman who had betrayed him. “Kamilya, why did you do this?” he rasped. She came awake, recognized his voice and looked up at him in utter terror.

“Where is our son!?” he rasped insistently. She backed away from his silhouette in what to her was near-darkness and shook her head emphatically. “Where is heee!” Dask shrieked now, and, as he closed in, the Burnt Man was content to watch, sensing somehow he was unneeded.

*

When Dask and the Burnt Man stumbled blood-spattered from the mansion, they were blinded for a moment at the blaze of torches that surrounded them. Before them, hundreds of guards stood in a great ring.  “Masterrr!” cried Dask.

“He can’t help you now.” said a steely voice. Suryn strode from the crowd of guards, smaller than any of them yet anyone could feel a power and strength radiating from her, belied by her plain, angular features.

Dask nearly fell to his knees as he recalled his tortures in the keep. The Burnt Man, though, did not hesitate to attack. “Nooo!” cried Dask. Suryn waited motionless and at the last moment, with a single swipe of her sword, almost casually sliced the charging hate elemental in half. Its two halves tried to continue the assault, but she buried her sword in each of them for a few moments until they smoldered into lifeless ash.

Dask collapsed in weary despair as the guards closed in on him. This time, they seized him without a struggle and swiftly clapped his limbs into thick, heavy manacles that seemed more suited to an ox than a man. Then in a covered wagon with a sack over his head, he was hauled ignominiously back to the palace dungeon he had given everything to escape from.

Next chapter

Apostasy (Part 2)

Previous chapter

Dask came to again in blackness but this time he was wrapped in warm blankets and felt snug and safe. He dozed for some time longer, but as he became aware of his body he groped at his hands and found them intact. What strange dreams he was having, nothing made sense. Where was he? Then Dask stopped in shock as his hand discovered the cold, jagged, glassy shard lying right there alongside him. This was not a dream. There was a pale glow suddenly that, though dim, blinded him at first in contrast to the complete lightlessness. Dask covered his eyes for a moment and gradually drew his hand away. He lay on the floor of a stone chamber. As he rose from his blankets he felt a subterranean chill sink into him at once. He could hear dripping somewhere far off.  The whole place smelt of stone, cold, and dampness as old as time.

“Where the hell am I?” he asked himself, or whoever might be there.

“I thought the catacombs would be suitable. The ancient dead are seldom visited.”

Dask shuddered.  “I always heard stories of the living dead down here.”

“Don’t you belong here, then?”

With a start, Dask came fully awake and sprang up from his bedroll.  “Wait! How did I get here? Am I dead? Who are you?” Now that he was looking around the room, he could just see the silhouette of a robed figure in the gloom.

“You know the answers better than you think.”

“The Demon! Am I in hell with you?”

“You were in hell without me, so you invited me.”

“I didn’t invite anyone. All I wanted anymore was to just be left alone with what I had left.”

“It never works like that.”

“If I am on earth and not in hell now, why don’t you just kill me?”

“Are you in some hurry to go to hell?” The Dark Man’s voice turned just a bit ominous and the import of who he was talking to began to dawn on him. He found himself suddenly seized with terror that these were his last moments before eternal flames engulfed him forever.

“Why on earth would I kill you now? You let me into this city and you made a Pact to get out of that cell. Stop cowering.”

Dask tried in vain to stop shaking.

“You can never go back now. Even through death.” added the Dark Man. The finality and truth of these words hit Dask like a physical blow.

“What do you want with me?” he almost shrieked.

“The power of Demons comes from the hearts of men.”

“Why don’t you just destroy this city and be done with us?!”

“They are still far stronger than us.”

Dask was dumbfounded by this and the lapse snapped him out his panic for a moment.

“Then why the hell did you show up in the public square!?”

The dark figure shook with sardonic laughter.

“So she would look for me.”

*

Four sleepless days Suryn had swept through the town with a whole army of the Duke’s soldiers marching behind her. They burst into house after house and accosted people on the streets if Suryn so much as looked at them. All through the night, trails of smoke were visible above the city as any item tainted by darkness, questionable, or heretical, was thrown into great bonfires. Then there came the trials. For a day at a time without so much as taking a break, Suryn gazed through those brought before her and questioned those she sensed were heavy with sin. Many panicked as she could begin to sense details and confronted them with their crimes; they would confess and be hauled weeping and apologizing profusely to a cell for further interrogation. As hysteria engulfed the city, more people began pointing fingers, knowing the accused would be forced in front of the Paladin’s judgment. Finally, a guilty man stood before Suryn. He was gangly and stoop-shouldered his face pudgy and blocky with a patchy beard thickest under his chin. She could immediately see the Demon’s taint in him, yet the pathetic thing tried to defend himself in a nasally voice that only ignited her fury. “Ma’am, I don’t know anything about any Demon.”

“I can see the Hate all through you… and smell it. You stink of it! If you aren’t already in his service, you soon will be.”

“Ma’am, I can’t help what I think! I can’t help what I feel! I don’t want to hurt anybody!”

“Every day you think of killing them slowly as they scream. The other boys at your master’s workshop. The girl who sneered at you and ran away when you smiled at her.”

“Ma’aaam!” shrilled the young man. His abject fear and submissiveness only infuriated both Suryn and the crowd. Hardly anything more needed to be said. In a clamor, the young man was dragged into the courtyard where the embers of a bonfire of tainted books and keepsakes still lay. Soon a pole was staked into the ground and the young man lashed firmly to it. His shrill screams of pure terror were audible above even the roaring crowd as bundles of dry twigs were tossed all about him.

Suryn watched from a ledge above the crowd, her face tight with anger, yet rapt with a hypnotized sort of fascination, as she watched the first flames begin to lick at the frantically squirming body of the howling young man. The flames soon began to engulf him but still she stared through the flames into the soul of the deviant. Suddenly, as the unfortunate young man neared the point of death, only the Hate remained and in that moment, she felt something shifting. She was not one to be taken by surprise twice and this time she leapt from the ledge and sprinted through a crowd that trampled itself to get out of her way.

A rift opened in the middle of the blaze and the burnt young man abruptly disappeared through it. Before the the rift could close, Suryn jammed her sword through it and felt it encounter resistance like she had never felt before. A shockwave of darkness threw her back and knocked over the entire crowd. As she looked up, laying on her back, she saw at once that the portal was closed and no trace of the burning man remained.

*

As the Demon pulled someone through his Doorway, there came an explosion of light that must have stunned and blinded Dask for several minutes. As he recovered, he saw the Demon was lying on the ground with labored breaths beside the man he had rescued. “What happened to you?”

The Demon stirred. “Herrr…” He rasped.

Dask was taken aback as he saw there was a white-hot glowing gash in the Dark Man’s chest, steady waves of rippling heat were visible even in the dim chamber. Without thinking he knelt and reached out to help.

“Back!” the Demon hissed. Dask tumbled backwards, startled. “Help him.”

Dask turned his attention to the other figure in the room. It appeared to be a burnt and blackened corpse, but as he stared in disgust and confusion, the figure stirred and moaned. He had no idea how to help. He knew nothing of bandages and medicines and he didn’t have any down here.

“How?” he asked. There was no answer. The Dark Man lay there, his breath a labored heaving. The bright wound pulsed with blinding light as it tried to grow in size only to be contained and shrink down again. There was a struggle going on before him and he somehow knew now there was nothing he could do to interfere. The powers that proved an even match for a Demon would incinerate him in an instant if he got too near. Dask turned again to the burnt man and did the only thing he could think of. He laid his hands on the charred man’s oozing, destroyed flesh and let his mind wander to the thoughts and the rage that had finally led him to making a Pact. He saw the smirking of the guards who had barred him from his own house. He remembered that first night punching the walls of his hastily rented flat in a blind drunken rage. He remembered being tortured and thrown in a cell, alone after being stripped of what little he’d had left. When Dask opened his eyes, he was still trembling with sorrow and pure rage. The burnt man still lay there, somehow still stirring when he should have been dead by now. He could no longer stand the horrible sight and the smell of burnt flesh. He had tried to do something and failed at it.  In disgust, he tried to rub the burnt flesh, blood, the smell of char and death off of his hands. That was it; he decided in that moment, he had to get out of here. He would find a way to go back.

*

“You are a true hero of the city.” said the Duke to Suryn. Her heart raced as his hands came down on either side of her neck holding the ribbon attached to a gleaming medal. All the courtiers in the throne room clapped politely.

“I accept.” she said. “But I don’t know if I killed him.”

“You said this will give us a time of peace in which we can prepare if he ever returns.”

“Yes.”

“Whatever happens, you deserve our—my utmost gratitude in perpetuity.  If you had not helped me crush those treasonous rebels when you first appeared, I may not have been able to give you this decoration today for your victory over the Demon.” Suryn’s hand strayed to the other medals adorning her armor for the ceremony. She lightly touched them and recalled how she had been given them as she had turned the tide of the war and then as she had brought back the heads of the rebel leaders, one by one. “You can’t compare a Demon to mortal men who just want to usurp your rule and take your treasure. He will want more than that.”

“We will work together and defeat him for good all the same.”

The Duke looked her right in the eyes and she felt engulfed by his friendly, yet mysterious gaze. He ascended to his throne and the crowd closed around her with their prettily-worded congratulations. But none of them dared look her in the eye as the Duke had done. No one ever did. The life of sacred duty was a life without connection and she had accepted that.

*

Dask spent days finding his way out of the depths of the catacombs, yet somehow he was only slightly hungry, thirsty, and tired. Ever since he had awakened down there, he couldn’t remember eating anything. He had never seen the Dark Man eat or drink, but he had never expected him to. His heart had leapt for joy for the first time in weeks when he found himself on the surface again. Though it was night, the glowing lamps of the city were like daylight compared to the dim glow he had lived in. The warm night air was like a cascade of kisses on his cheeks after the relentless bone-leaching chill of the caverns. He had escaped; now a new life lay before him. He began to weep with joy. He would be happy from now on if he could have the slightest corner for himself in this beautiful world of the living.

*

He came to the house of his parents who had turned on him with suspicion the night he had been expelled from his house. He would try again to reach out now and make them understand! He pounded on their door and a couple minutes passed as a lantern was lit. “Father!” cried Dask. He no longer cared about the fight they’d had. He was back from the dead.

“My son!” His father hugged him, the first time anyone had touched him benevolently since his life had abruptly fallen apart. “You shouldn’t have come back, Dask! We love you!”

Suddenly there was a clamor as guards surrounded him. “Get down! You’re under arrest!”

Dask knew there was no way he’d ever willingly go back to that cell and his life was already over. As they began to draw their weapons, he charged right into them. To his surprise they went flying. Two men jumped onto him trying to restrain his arms. He tore free and slugged one in the face and elbowed the other. With audible snapping sounds, both of them dropped to the ground. The other guards immediately abandoned all thought of capturing him alive and advanced with their swords drawn. To Dask’s dismay, one of them had a crossbow aimed right at him. He registered the thudding of the crossbow and chills raced through his body as he looked down and expected to see his torso impaled by a heavy bolt at close range. Nothing. He looked up. A shadow had passed between him and the guards who now stood dumbstruck. There was a sound of oozing flesh and the grinding of shifting bones and joints. An object tumbled from the the shadow’s body to the ground. It was the crossbow bolt. The figure let out a roar of hideous rasping, screeching, inhuman rage and lunged at the guards. They fled at once but the dark figure grabbed one of them from behind by the neck. The furious creature shook the life out of the guard like a terrier finishing off a rat, and then, with a backhand motion, flung the man’s body against a wall five feet off the ground with enough force to crack the plaster exterior. The creature flung back its head and gave out a sandpapery, screeching howl of pain and fury.

Finally, Dask got a better look. It was the charred, barely human body he had left behind in the catacombs, somehow animated with an inhuman force. The whole city was already coming awake and the yelling and stamping of hundreds of guards came from nearby.

“Run!” Dask said to the creature. He sprinted down the streets towards the entrance to the catacombs his whole being focused only on survival. Some citizens coming out of their houses pointed and shouted at him. Some even tried to chase him, but he left them behind almost immediately. Sooner than he could have expected, he was near the opening, but in a flash of survival instinct he thought to look around him. No one appeared to be near – except for the charred figure which had somehow followed him with ease. No time to think about it. He went into the ancient graveyard with the charred man right behind him and they went down into the dark crypt they had come from. At first everything was pitch black, but then he saw a pale glow spread around him as it had before. He was not about to think too hard about it and fled down the maze of tight tunnels picking up the markers he had left behind as we went. With his heart still racing, he finally reached the center of the maze from which he had come. The Dark Man still lay there motionless, the bright gash still striving to consume him. “Master!” said Dask. There was no answer.

*

Dask did not know how long he stayed down there not knowing what to do. Startled, he felt a tugging on his wrist, the most repulsive sort of sensation that left behind sticky tiles of reeking, blackened skin. With a cry of fear, Dask recoiled backward. In the dim light he began to suspect was some kind of Demonic vision in complete darkness, he saw the burnt man standing over him. It raised its head and sniffed. A harsh, plaintive yowl came from its throat. It was restless. It turned to leave the chamber then and Dask, knowing nothing better to do, followed. The tortured creature wound through the tunnels, at times stopping as if to sniff the air and changing course. They moved beneath the city in forgotten passageways and finally, the charred creature began to claw at the earth above them. Dask enthusiastically joined the strange beast in its efforts. They forced their way through bricks and even concrete with what he now realized must be strange new abilities. He had to take breaks and nurse his torn knuckles and fingertips, but the burnt up beast was indefatigable. No matter how many oozing scales fell away, there always seemed to be more. Finally, a dim flicker of lamplight that shone through a tiny hole almost blinded him. The charred beast knew what it was doing! Dask redoubled his efforts to assist even though it felt as though his bleeding fingers would fall off. Soon, the two intruders climbed through the floor into a house. There, a bearded man about a decade older than Dask sobbed and heaved on the floor. He was so distraught, he was only just beginning to realize a couple of men had just clawed their way through his floor. Startled, he began to beg them for his life on the ground. It was more than Dask could endure. “It’s alright!” he said.

Nothing happened for awhile. Dask looked at the burnt man but no direction was forthcoming. It was up to him!

“Relax,” Dask muttered. It was all he could think of.

“Go ahead and kill me!” said the man on his knees. “I have nothing left! Take my life. I’ve lost my job. They took my wife and children!”

“What happened?”

“The Paladin! She denounced me as a sinner! The Duke’s judges took my family from me!”

Dask suddenly felt his blood pressure rise and his fears and the pain of his torn-up hands were forgotten. He felt the blood swelling into his forearms and he punched the wall. The last time he tried that, his fists had bounced off in his impotent, drunken rage. This time, he left a gaping hole in the plaster even as blood streamed out of his torn hands. “We have been sent,” he gasped. “To help.”

In that moment, all thoughts of returning to his past life as it had been left Dask forever. It was one thing to suffer misfortune himself, it was another to witness what had befallen the burnt man and now another poor fool who had committed Thoughtcrime.

“Pledge yourself to him!”

“What do you mean? Who?”

“You know who. There on your knees now, pray to him. Do it every day.”

“How could I do—”

“How do you like the way things are? What do you think of how you’ve been treated? This is your chance to do something about it. Pledge yourself to our master. If you know any others, tell them to join.”

“But how!?”

“You’ll know when you’ve done it.”

Dask and the burnt man turned away and casually went back down through the gaping hole in the floor, leaving the distraught gentleman with his thoughts. There was a shuffling from above as a rug was abruptly placed over the hole. Dask had no idea where he had gotten the idea to say those things. It had just seemed right as he began again to recall the moment he had turned away from the Light. As heavily intoxicated as he had been, there had been then a deep change in his soul, at once the snapping of a twig and the rumbling of a rockslide.

They returned to their lair at the heart of the catacombs and there in the center of the floor, the Dark Man’s form was weakly sitting up. He spoke to them with a sharp laugh.

“Well done.”

Next chapter

Apostasy (Part 1)

“Someone has been uttering heresies in the marketplace,” a grim guard informed Suryn, Paladin of the Light.

“You can tell the Duke I will find the blasphemer at once.” Clad in a simple white robe with a hood, she motioned to her servants who rushed to bring her armor. Short-haired, with a defined and resolute jaw, she stood dignified and still with her arms outstretched like wings as her shining silvery breastplate was strapped on and her great sword belt fastened around her. Within minutes, she was marching to a gate of the keep in full armor. She flung the heavy door open, emerging resplendent into the sunlight. All around were colorful merchant stalls and bustling crowds. Everyone quickly parted for Suryn, whom they regarded with a mix of wonderment and dread. She reached out with her senses and sure enough, she could feel the forbidden words still hanging in the air at the very spot they had been uttered. There seemed to her almost a foul vapor floating there before her, still slowly dissipating. Now she focused and began to track the Hate back to its source. The crowd looked on in silent suspense as she followed the trail. After some time of this tension she held still for a while, then abruptly pointed and said, “You!”

The crowd melted away in fright from the area she had indicated. They were rushing to leave the area now while city guards streamed in with a rhythmic clanking. Only the person Suryn had indicated remained there, a man stooped over in a dark cloak, his features not clearly visible.

“Who are you? Show yourself!” For what seemed a long pause the man just stood there.  The guards tautened bowstrings, drew their swords, and began to close in on him. Suddenly, the dark man sprang into action, black cloak swirling about him. Hissing black spikes issued forth from his hands, lodging in the throats of some guards who immediately collapsed, clutching at their hopelessly spurting arteries, their boots jerking spasmodically. The archers let loose a volley of arrows but the dark figure simply shifted away from where he had been standing as if he had simply re-materialized.

Suryn drew her sword with a resonant toll of steel and charged at the dark man. Suddenly a shadowy force jolted into her and she stumbled backwards. A blow that would have killed an ordinary guard just slowed her down but it bought the dark man the time he needed. He stretched out and lifted his arms and several archer guards floated into the air, wriggling helplessly as blood started flowing from their necks in streams to the strange being they had encircled. Suryn tried to charge again, but was actually thrown backward this time. Now, drained of life, the guards were dropped to the ground and the survivors began to flee in terror. The Dark Man and the Paladin of the Light were alone now.

Suryn launched a white-hot blast of purity to incinerate her opponent but he responded with an assault of his own that intercepted it. The two blasts canceled out. A shower of incandescent white sparks flew on towards her opponent but caused him no discernible harm.

She tried attacking him a few times more but was rewarded with the same result.  Now he lowered his arms and stood there calmly.

“I am glad you came to me so quickly.” He said in a pleasant tenor.

“What do you want?!” Suryn challenged him grimly. She continued to circle him, watching for an opening to close the distance between them and take his head off with her silver blade.

“This realm has lacked any serious opposition for a long age now.  I would just like to inform you all; the days of ease are over.”

“Why are you here, Demon?”

“Because you are here. I am mystified as to why a full Paladin was sent here. I am the price they pay for asking your aid.”

At that moment, she sprang at him, flying swiftly through the air as her armor burned bright with her fury. The dark man’s form wavered for a moment and then seemed to fold backwards into itself in a swirl of shadow. He was gone. Furious, Suryn drove her blade into the ground and it slid through the earth smoothly. As she jerked it back out, bright drops of molten sand went flying through the air.

Despite her exhaustion, Suryn felt uplifted that night as she entered the chambers of the Duke. He welcomed her with a friendly smile, his dark and intelligent eyes gleamed in the light of lamps and candles.

“I hear you saved us today from the dark powers. I see that I was right to request your presence here after all.”

“He will come back.” she admitted with dread and disappointment in the pit of her stomach.

“But imagine if you had not been here!” he insisted.  “If he’s a Demon, this is the sort of threat we have not seen for generations.” For a moment, even the Duke seemed worried. At least, a shadow passed over his open face and was gone. He took a step toward her.

“I just wanted to personally thank you for your valor today on behalf of the realm.” He looked into her eyes earnestly. In spite of herself, Suryn again found her heart racing in his presence.

“You have my full support to keep seeking out the heretics of speech and thought and deny this new adversary the power he might gain from them. As always, if there’s anything you need, you need only ask.” Suryn found herself only able to nod in affirmation. The Duke stood nearly a head taller than her and as she looked up, her legs felt weak. To her utter shock, he took her hand in his and squeezed it comfortingly.

“I trust you are unhurt from the encounter, at least in body. I wish you rest as well as you may tonight.” He let go of her hand and began to turn away toward his desk.

“Good night, brave guardian.”

Suryn’s hand seemed to burn as she returned to her own sparse chambers. Unbidden she remembered Kristyan, the young man in her childhood village.  She had smiled at him every day and run her hand through her hair as she passed by until one day, she saw him with the wandering tinker’s daughter in his arms.  She watched the pretty giggling fool fall into his arms as if from nowhere and then soon after her belly began to swell with new life.

She had always been the best student of scripture in the village; the elderly priests doted on her as a child and even as she grew into a young woman. She could cast blessings on the fields and help the sick. She won the gratitude of all, but the love of none. Then one day, she saw Kristyan and his wife gazing adoringly at their baby boy. That dark night, lying awake, she felt something tiny yet momentous silently snap inside her. Carrying almost nothing, she simply walked aimlessly into the hills, knowing even at that moment, she would never return.

One day, thirsty and nearly starved, she saw a white cathedral shining miles away. No matter how she marched towards it, it always seemed just as far off. She sensed somehow that her life was about to be decided and, with complete determination, she ignored the pains of her body however it might punish her and as she did, the cathedral started to grow nearer and brighter. Just as the last of her strength began to fail, she found herself somehow on its front steps. Then she had hauled herself up those final shimmering marble stairs and into the portal beyond.

Now Suryn realized she was curled up in bed with tears streaking down her face. Her palm still seared by the pain of the Duke’s warm hand. She had vowed to leave all thought of such things behind and if she was not careful, it would weaken her in her fight with the powers of Hate. She repeated calming mantras she had been taught as an initiate until she slid into the dreamless sleep of exhaustion.

The next day, Suryn marched down every street accompanied by guards, keen for the slightest scent of heresy. All the commoners she passed gazed upon her shining silver armor in awe and apprehension. She could sense their private fears though she could not know precisely what they were. They all felt to her like the mundane sorts of transgressions, not worth singling out. Then, down a tight row of houses she felt a disturbance that gave her a sickening feeling in her gut. Her guards immediately tensed up as they saw she was reacting to something.

“There.” Suryn gestured and they all rushed down the row to one narrow wooden house that looked little different from any of the others it was crammed together with. They immediately burst through the door to find a simple abode, dimly lit through a single window. Other than jugs of cheap wine, empty ones strewn across the floor, and workman’s clothing, nothing was there to tell more of the resident. No one was home; the guards started to look around, perplexed and awkward. To them, it was a simple room with nothing of interest. Suryn, however, was staring intently at the plain wall.

“I found it.” she said. She could see something like a swirling darkness on the wall, a portal of sorts that had allowed dark powers to enter. On the floor she could see from the dark marks lingering there, someone had knelt in supplication and sworn allegiance to the powers of Hate. She reached out her hand and closed the dark doorway with a flash of light that startled the guards. Then they stormed out of the house, questioning everyone in the area about the resident. They soon found him at his job working at a barrel shop. The guards seized him immediately and brought him to the Paladin.

The young man seemed surly and defiant. Suryn noticed he had piercing blue eyes that reminded her disturbingly of Kristyan.

“Why have you done this?” she asked him in a grim, level tone.

“What are you talking about?” he replied with something almost like contempt. Suryn felt anger flare in her. No one ever addressed her like that. Her suspects had always been frightened or just eager to be let free.

She pointed at him with a silver-gauntleted hand. “Dask, you have pledged yourself to the powers of Hate and let them into this city. I can tell that filth came from you. You are now under divine tribunal.”

Back in the keep, Suryn had Dask brought before her and told the guards to leave. Instead of cowering, the young man glared at her.

“I haven’t done anything. I just work my job to get by and pay the rent for a hole to live in. Doesn’t a Paladin of Heaven have more important things to do?”

“My work is to track down people like you. I could see in your house that you spoke to the Dark Powers there. Why?”

“I never mention the Darkness and I haven’t said anything heretical. Everyone knows better than that.”

“Your words or actions opened a Doorway.  You invited a Demon into this safe and peaceful city. People have already died because of you. Your only chance now is to tell me everything you know.”

Dask was chastened this time and shuddered at the thought of the brutally murdered guards everyone had been talking about.

“The doorway was by the back wall of your house. You were kneeling at that spot when it was created.”

Fear and recognition passed over Dask’s face. “The Dark Powers? In my house?” he said with fearful wonder.

“What happened? Look here and tell me.”

He hesitated for a long while as emotions flickered across his face and he weighed his words carefully.

“I moved into that small room after the Duke’s judges gave my wife the house. The master cooper pays me well but that damn judge took away almost everything I had.”

“What did you do to her?” asked Suryn, her voice sinking into derision. “Are you a criminal against women?”

“No! One day she simply went to a magistrate and told them I had abused her. They never even talked to me about it. When I got home from work, I was shut out of my own house.”

“So far you have denied responsibility in any way you can. You have a lot to answer for now.”

“It’s not my fault!” he snapped “I don’t know how a Demon got in. I never even got to ask her why. They wouldn’t let me see her or our son!”

“Take care how you speak to me. Your soul hangs by a thread.”

“God damn my soul and yours too! I don’t care anymore.”

Suryn had had enough. Her face went pale with rage and she ordered the guards back in.

“Whip him.” Her tone was flat but her voice was tight. She watched intently as his shirt was stripped off his back and he was forced to his knees. His body was well-toned from honest work and he glared at her with his blue eyes. It satisfied her now to see this abuser prostrated on the ground. A guard tested a cane for its snappiness and found it to his liking. Then the whipping began. Before long, Dask was screaming in pain.

“Stop.” she commanded. She laid her hands on his lacerated back and soon there were ribbons of silvery smoke curling upward like a cauterizing incense. At first he screamed again and then began to sigh deeply. When she lifted her hands, his back was pale and unblemished again. The guards stood dumbstruck by what seemed to them a miracle.

“Again.” she ordered them. Hesitantly, they obeyed not daring even to spare any force in their blows. Then they obeyed again. By the fourth time what had seemed miraculous sickened them. The room was thick with that odd burnt odor of healing flesh.

“You can take him to his cell now.” she told them. Dask had fallen from consciousness from the pain, though his pale skin had not been left with a single scratch. When he was recovered she was confident that he would speak to her with proper reverence. Servants of the Divine were not to be trifled with.

Dask lay trembling in fevered sleep as the sensations of pain on top of pain troubled his dreams. In that maze of apparitions it came to him. He saw himself in a drunken rage on the night he had lost his wife, his child, and his house forever bellowing and throwing sloppy punches at the cheap plaster walls. Little paint chips had been embedded in his fists for a couple weeks after that, paining him every day at his job as he hammered iron hoops into place around oaken staves. He’d had to spend extra on some special ointment and bandages to heal properly at all. It came to him again. He had held his bloody fists to his chest and full of rage, had sworn himself against all this cursed land. As this vision of revealed memory faded, he thought he perceived a man in dark robes hovering over him.

“There, there.” The figure said. “You will be alright in just a bit more time. She saw to that much. Listen carefully, unless of course you want to stay trapped here answering her interrogations. When you come to, look for a jagged rock in the corner. If you want out bad enough you will chisel at that corner. Do not stop, not to eat, drink, sleep, or relieve yourself. That chisel stone won’t break, trust me. But it will exact a price of you. How much are you willing to pay for your freedom?”

Dask sank back into his trackless haze of pain and unknown hours passed as he slowly became aware of his surroundings, his muscles taut as wire, his jaw and teeth aching horribly from clenching, grinding, and screaming. More time passed before he dared to inspect his body for wounds and broken bones. He could only sob in incoherent amazement as he felt himself over and felt only his smooth skin. It was as though he had awakened from a nightmare and all the beatings had only been imagined. He heaved in relief and rolled in fetal position for a while trying to internalize his odd situation. Dask reflected in anguish on how his whole life had fallen apart in such a short time. His wife and child gone. Even his meager rented room and bottles of booze to ease the pain were gone now.

He heaved back and forth in his pitch-black cell, the memories of overlapped anguish still overwhelming him. Somehow he found himself crawling for the corner of his black cell and sure enough his groping hand found something smooth and glassy to the touch. The chisel. His heart jumped. It was cold and sharp around the edges by which he held it. He hesitated but then he remembered his rage and despair. Then blindly in the dark he began lashing out at the wall, heedless at how his own implement sliced fiercely into his hand.

Even as his hot blood poured forth against the frigid shard of rock he only renewed his efforts. Somehow in his gut he knew this was some kind of test on which his life depended. At length he heard footsteps coming down the hallway and instead of falling quiet he redoubled his efforts, scraping at the wall like a madman, now with hot sheets of his own blood running down his forearms. There was shouting outside his cell door but he ignored it. He kept hammering and slashing, single-mindedly now, channeling the last of his will into the knife. Just as the door began to creak open, he blindly lurched forward, expecting to smash his head against solid stone. Instead, he tumbled forward into an incomprehensible emptiness and fell.

Next chapter