When Blood Wants Blood

     There is nothing like the smell of Santeria. It is a distinct smell that jolts me into my body the second I find myself enveloped in it: one that suggests cleanliness—in every respect—but with a little magic mixed in. Not easily reproduced, you won’t find it anywhere but homes or other places, such as my botanica—a Santeria supply store—where regular orisha worship happens. It is the intoxicating blend of lavender-scented Fabuloso All-Purpose Cleaner, stale cigar smoke (used for various offerings to our dead and these African gods), burning candle wax, and subtle, earthy hints of animal sacrifice from the past, offered for the sake of continued prosperity, spiritual protection, and other vital blessings from the divine. You won’t find it anywhere else. No, it is not common fare, much like the smell of ozone immediately after a lightning strike: it is a right time, right place kind of thing. But why wax nostalgic (besides the fact that my own home hasn’t smelled like that for a long time)? It will be Dia de Los Muertos tomorrow and there is much work to do. 

     My boveda or spiritual ancestor shrine has gone neglected for months now, squatting in my cramped dining room, cold and lifeless like the spirits it was erected to appease. A thick layer of dust has powdered the picture frames of my dearly departed, making their rectangular glasses dulled and cloudy. I look at the faces of my maternal and paternal grandparents and find that details that were once fine have phased into each other, as if viewed through a thin curtain of gauze: I can’t clearly see them and they—likely—can hardly see me. That is how it feels, anyway. The white tablecloth on top of the table is dingy, looking yellowed and stained from months of occasional sprinklings of agua de florida cologne and errant flakes of cigar ash. The water glasses (nine of them to be exact—one large brandy snifter and four pairs of others in decreasing sizes) seem almost opaque, now, with their contents having long evaporated, leaving behind striated bands of hard mineral and chlorine, plus the occasional dead fly, who’s selfless sacrifice was likely not met with much appreciation by my dead Aunt Minne or PopoEstringel, my mother’s father. Various religious statues call for immediate attention with frozen countenances that glare, annoyed that my Swiffer hasn’t seen the light of day for some weeks, now. Then there is the funky, asymmetrical glass jar on the back right-corner that I use to collect their change. The dead love money (especially mine). This fact has always suggested to me that hunger—in all shapes and forms—lingers, even after the final curtain closes. Makes sense, if you think about it. We gorge ourselves on life, cleave to it when we feel it slip away, and then after we die we

     The statues—mostly Catholic saints—each have their own specific meaning and purpose on my boveda. St. Lazarus provides protection from illness. St. Teresa keeps death at bay. St. Michael and The Sacred Heart of Jesus, which are significantly larger than the other figures, are prominent, flanking either side of the spiritual table, drawing in—and out—energies of protection and—at the same time—mercy; the two things I find myself increasingly in need of these days. At the back of the table, there is a repurposed hutch from an old secretary desk with eight cubbies of varying sizes, where nine silver, metallic ceramic skulls reside that represent my dead, who have passed on (the number nine is the number of the dead in Santeria). They usually shine, quite brightly, in the warm, yellow glow of the dining room’s hanging light fixture, but they look tarnished, as of late, save the eye sockets, which seem to plead for attention, glistening, as if wet with tears. A large resin crucifix rests in the half-full, murky water-glass (the largest one) that rests in the center of the altar. It sounds sacrilegious, but it isn’t, as placing it so calls upon heavenly power to help control the spirits that are attracted (or attached) to the shrine, allowing positive ones to do what they need to do for my well-being, while keeping the negative ones tightly on a leash. Some smaller, but equally as important, fetishes also haunt the altar space, representing spirit guides of mine: African warriors and wise women, a golden bust of an Egyptian sarcophagus, a Native American boy playing a drum, and four steel Hands of Fatima that recently made their way into the mix after a rather nasty spirit settled into my house last year—for a month or so—and created all kinds of chaos and havoc, tormenting me with nightmares—not to mention a ton of bad luck—and my dogs with physical attacks, ultimately resulting in one of them, Argyle, being inexplicably and permanently crippled (but that is another story). Various accents, which I have collected over the years, also add to the ache (power) of the boveda; a multi-colored beaded offering bowl, strands of similarly patterned Czech glass beads, a brass censer atop a wooden base for incenses, a pentacle and athame (from my Wicca days), a deck of Rider-Waite tarot cards in a green velvet pouch with a silver dollar kept inside, and a giant rosary—more appropriate to hang on a wall, actually—made of large wooden beads, dyed red and rose-scented. Looking at all of it in its diminished grandeur, I am reminded of how much I have asked my egun (ancestors) for over the years and can’t help but feel a little ashamed of my non-committal, reactive (not proactive) attitude in terms of their veneration, as well as their regular care and feeding.   

     This year’s Dia will be different. It has to be. It’s going to take more than a refreshed boveda and fresh flowers to fix what is going wrong in my life right now; a bowl of fruit and some seven-day candles just won’t cut it. Business at the botanica is slow, money is tight—beyond tight—and all my plans seem to fall apart before they can even get started. The nightmares have come back—a couple of times, anyway—and the dogs grow more and more anxious every day, ready to jump out of their skins at the slightest startle, such as the scratching and scuffling from the large cardboard box that’s tucked away in the garage. My madrina, an old Cuban woman well into her 70s that brought me into the religion and orisha priesthood, told me last night that we all have a spiritual army at our disposal that desperately wants to help us in times of need; meaning our ancestors. She said, with enough faith, one could command legions of them to do one’s bidding, using as little as a few puffs of cigar smoke and a glass of water. While a powerful statement, that isn’t how things roll for me. Her prescription for what ails me was far from that simple. “This year, your muertos need to eat and eat well! They need strength to help you and you need a lot of it. When they are happy, you will be happy. When they are not, you won’t,” she advised, searching my eyes for an anticipated twinge of panic, and they didn’t fail her. I knew—right then and there—what she meant, making my stomach feel as if it had dropped straight down into my Jockey underwear. That feeling may have very well dissuaded me from going through with tonight’s festivities if things were so dire at present. Eyebale is a messy business, regardless of how smooth one is with their knife (blood sacrifice always is, which is why I have always had such a distaste for it. Thank God I only do birds). Regardless of that fact, my egun eat tonight at midnight. I give thanks to my egun tonight at midnight. I—hopefully—change things around tonight at midnight. What else can you do when blood wants blood?                     


Originally published at Digging in the Dirt.

The Seal Maiden & The Spirit Cage

“I can not.” The woman declared, shaking her head, slick red locks swirling like ethereal worms.

“Can not, or will not?” The shaman pressed, narrowing his dark, grey eyes, which shimmered like boiling water, full up with the light of the midday sun.

“I will not.”

“It is my right, as it is thy duty, Sephia.”

“Even still.”

“Obstinate thou art?”

“Aye.”

“If thou wilt bare no child of mine, thy own shall the human form eschew.”

“Spare me this trial, I beseech thee. Mercy begets mercy.”

“Thou shalt beget only seals.”

She shrunk away from the shaman, though she knew he needed no proximity to weave a death-gealdor. She had seen it. The shaman had demanded the hand of the daughter of Low-Frost, the latter refusing, whereupon the shaman had informed him that the spirits would be most displeased and would surely punish him for his insolent selfishness. Low-Frost had collapsed three days later, directly following his third meal of the day. Foam about his mouth. Eyes bulged in terror. His daughter, Dancing Willow, was convinced it was the work of angry spirits and consequently pledged herself to the shaman the following day.

Sephia braced herself against the wall as the mystic took a step forward, his attendants and Dancing Willow watching with nervous anticipation from the middle of the room.

“All thy line shall be contorted by the high-hain. All thy line shall be seals.”

With that, he brushed passed teary-eyed Sephia and passed into the outer bright, his entourage swiftly following.

*

The pale man appeared at the village without explanation; his manifestation so foreign and his appearance so sudden that many of the villagers believed he was not of the world, but of the spirit plane that lay beyond the veil of the High Mist and the edge of the Great Waters. Despite his peculiarity, the outlander was so courteous and fluent in the native tongue that the villagers could not but welcome him.

Upon his second day at the village his counsel was sought by a middle aged man with a braided beard and a dour expression.

“Outlander, I have heard ye hail from the south; it is said the southerners are versed in the healing arts. Is this so?”

The pale man smiled faintly and adjusted himself upon the rune stone he had taken for a chair and cast his gaze to the south, where the hilly land flattened out and was swallowed up by great and tangled forests that gleamed white with caked-on snow.

“Aye.”

“Then thy aid I need. The moment is dire.”

“Dire, sir? Explain.”

“Its my daughter; afflicted she were and in a sorry state.”

“Afflicted?”

“Aye, and by no ordinary ague, but a spiritual sickness. A curse.”

“Wherefore this fantastical malady?”

“The girl hath refused to bare the child of Singing-Thorn, our shaman, as is his right. For this denial, the spirits have castigated the poor child and her womb swells with their fervor.”

“Grave indeed. I shall go forthwith, if thou wouldst but lead me aright.”

The man nodded, paused and realized he had not made proper greetings.

“Thy name, kind stranger?”

The pale man smiled broadly, “Dren. Drake Dren.”

“I am High-Stone.”

“Well met, sir. Let us make of earth a drum and beat a hasty tune.”

With that the two men left off and in short order made way to a small hut covered with a leather tarp that issued forth small puffs of white smoke; to the outlander, the construct looked akin to a tiny volcano made of sticks. The men passed within whereupon High-Stone gestured to a young woman who lay upon a cot, flush and breathing irregularly and swaddled in blankets. Though she appeared to Drake as somewhat ill, there was no outward sign of injury.

“This is my daughter, Sephia.”

“Quite a departure from the usual nomenclature.”

“Her mother was from southery clime. Same as thee.”

“I see.”

“Please, see to her. I expect not miracles, but the spirits are capricious.”

Drake nodded and knelt upon a rough-sewn rug next to the cot. The woman opened her eyes and withdrew from the man.

“Who is this?”

“Fear not, little one, he’s an outlander, from the south. A healer. He’s here to help.”

“There can be no help… my children shall be seals.”

Drake arched a brow and turned to make a inquiry to his host only to witness High-Stone exiting the hut, muttering, “I have errands I must attend to.” Drake refocused his attention upon the shivering body of the terrified young woman before him and reached out and gently braced her forearm.

“Calm thyself, woman and explain. Wherefore this talk of seals?”

“The shaman… has cursed me.”

“Why?”

“I refused to bare his child.”

“Of that thy father has conveyed all.”

The woman looked away as Dren furrowed his brows momentarily, resuming a open and amiable countenance when she returned her gaze.

“Thou art soul-sick. But despair not, I shall work a charm to remove the gealdor and banish the spirits.”

“Impossible! I thank thee for thy pains, outlander, but there is nothing to be done. The shaman’s gealdory is too powerful to be overcome by one uninitiated in the mysteries of the hain.”

“Who told thee I was uninitiated? I shall show thee the falsity of thy words and swiftly. Let us weave the charm. But first, I need of thee a little of thy knowing. And so, a personal question—I disdain such prying, but know thee, it is imperative—whence last didst thee lay with a man?”

The young woman blushed and pulled the blankets more tightly around her shivering frame.

“Never.”

“I see. Tell me this also, what and when didst last thee eat?”

“Barley.”

“Raw?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

He did not answer and felt her head, then withdrew, sitting upon his haunches and gazing at the ground with his keen, gold-green eyes.

“Drink water plentifully. Rest and exert thyself not. Now I must go; but I shall return shortly. Do as I have bide and leave the rest to me.”

“I shall. I thank thee kindly for thy pains.”

The pale, angular man then bowed cordially and left Sephia to her travails. Later she rose and drank some water and laid back down and slept until he returned, bearing a strange concoction. He asked her to drink it and she did so without hesitation; if her father trusted him, so too would she. With that Dren informed her to rest and that he would return again once his charm was done.

*

Days passed and with the setting of every sun, Sephia felt a little better. The swelling in her stomach had gone away completely and her fever had subsided. On the second day word began to spread throughout the village; murmurs of a challenger to the shaman’s dominion, one who sought to break his gealdor. On the third day Sephia was feeling good enough to get up and feed her goats, even though her father had seen to them but several hours before, and as she did so she heard the voices of two young men from the village speaking a couple yards away.

“Know ye this outlander, Rough-Stone?”

Rough-Stone shook his shaggy, braided locks, “I know him not, but saw him whence he’d come. He’d strange eyes, what looked gold beneath the sphere’s turning.”

Sephia nodded to herself; his eyes were strange. Every villager knew that the eyes were portals to the soul, which was, they concluded, but further proof of his sorcerous potency.

On the fourth day, Drake returned, a broad smile adorning his sharp and corvine face and a odd contraption clutched in his left hand as he greeted the young woman beside her goats.

“Stranger! Thy charm hath freed me from the spell! See, see,” she grabbed his free hand and pressed it to her belly.

“Thy charm hath removed the seal!”

He held up the little contraption, “Indeed. I captured the spirits in this box where even now they reside.” A little crowd began to gather, tittering with excitement and curiosity.

“If thou canst remove seals, then thou art stronger than the shaman, for the art evades him.”

The crowd swelled and they moved forth to better inspect the stranger, someone muttering, “He broke the shaman’s gealdor; such a thing is not possible!”

In short order the shaman himself appeared, whereupon the crowd made way as he strode confidently and furiously up to Sephia and her newfound friend.

“I see thy baleful machinations! Begone, outlander; thou hath no business here.”

“I am afraid thou art mistaken. My business with thee closely resides. See here this box?”

“Aye.”

“Knowth thee its contents?”

“Nay.”

“Thine spirits, summoned for dear Sephia.”

A beleaguered look passed over what little of the mystic’s face was visible behind his gruesome mask of bone.

“That is not possible.”

“Oh, believe thee not thy own professions?”

“That is not what I meant! The spirits cannot be commanded.”

“And yet thou hath commanded them.”

“Yes, but-”

“So they can be commanded.”

“Yes, but only by one who has knowledge of the other side. What would a outlander such as thee know of it?”

“More than thee.”

The shaman gave a booming laugh.

“Prove it then; open the box.”

A crooked smiled played up the side of the pale man’s face.

“If I open the box, the spirits will be freed. Doth thee wish to birth a seal?”

The crowd chittered. Someone spoke up with nervous agitation, “He’s right; what if the spirits possess one of us?!” A old man declared suddenly, “He must not open the box!” Swiftly the crowd followed suit, urging Dren to keep the contraption closed and chiding the shaman for his recklessness in summoning the spirits to begin with. Their concern became so intense that Drake threw up his free hand in entreaty and spoke with sudden convivial vivacity.

“Fear not, dear people, I shall not open the box unless thy leader commands it.”

They looked to the shaman with fearful expectation; the shaman sighed.

“Leave it.”

The throng breathed a sigh of relief as the outlander pocketed the box triumphantly. The shaman gave his opponent a poisonous glare and then, slump-shouldered, retreated to his lodge with his retinue. The following day, High-Stone returned from his errand with the neighboring tribe and thanked the outlander for freeing his daughter from the spirits of the otherworld they called ‘Coribahn.’ He offered her hand, but Dren politely declined.

In the days that followed, the villagers increasingly turned to the outlander for advice and protection, some dubbing him ‘The Spirit Cage,’ yet others, ‘The Crow of Coribahn.’

Within the month, he had the run of the entire village.

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.

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 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