Thursday, September 16, 2010

week twenty-three: darklings

This week is kind of unique. Until now, I had never ventured into the fantasy genre and decided I should give it a whirl. I actually came up with a bunch of this in eighth grade as a stick figure comic. Anyway, this is less of a short story and more of a first chapter in a novel that doesn't exist.

And I should say this: this story bears no connection to any theology whatsoever.

Travel light and travel in the shadows; there is no other way for a darkling. Sunset is nearing and the citadel is darkening. It is abandoned and there are no torches to light the way. Good. This is the way we darklings do things. Quickly, quietly, and out of sight. But this time, there is no place for tradition. Demetri and his band of darkling warriors run through the spire of Ulun-Thain in desperation. Their comrade, Esthelhain, is in grave danger. He is surrounded by demons with no way out. Demetri's band is all that stands between him and hell. And they may be too late.

There is more to this than compatriotism. There is friendship. Demetri and Esthelhain are old friends. They have fought together and saved one another's lives more times than either can count. Demetri hopes that this time will be no different, but never before has it been this desperate.

They know Esthelhain is in the courtyard at the center of the old tower. Darklings don't fight well in close combat and to march into the thick of it would be suicidal. Darklings fight hidden, from the shadows, and from range. They strike from where they are not seen. With their bows, they are lethal. So they seek high ground where they can defend Esthelhain with their silent arrows.

There is more to this than friendship. There is divinity. Esthelhain is no darkling, he is an angel; a winged creature said to descend from the heavens. His kind is rare and powerful. The demons prey upon angels relentlessly and it was only a matter of time before they could somehow corner one of them. Of course, the angels are far too powerful for the common demon. Most demons are mere cannon fodder, but en mass, they are deadly.

Finally, they arrive at a balcony overlooking it all. Demetri sneaks his way to the side and looks. There is his friend, pinned at the wing to a column by demonic arrows. There are dozens of the demon horde surrounding him, but they dare not get close. Esthelhain calls upon his divine magic to defend himself. Bursts of lightning flow from his sword and fire protects him from further archery. His magic cannot hold out for much longer. Demetri must intervene.

“Show them true shadow,” Demetri readies his bow, which he, like all other darklings, crafted himself. “Show them true, merciless darkness,” he pulls the blackened arrow behind his ear and takes aim. “Be relentless and remember the angel is the light from which shadows are born.” At last, the arrow is released.

Esthelhain is tired. For hours, he fought the demon horde. Very rarely do the demons succeed in killing an angel, but it seemed as though that time was at hand yet again. He had called for his greatest ally, but where was he? Hope sometimes comes in the smallest of things. Esthelhain barely noticed the blackened arrow against the darkening sky, but there it was. His eyes followed it down until it pierced the skull of the nearest demon. Orange blood covered the overgrown cobblestones in the courtyard.

The smallest of things are best when followed by the largest of things. Arrows dotted the sky and rained doom upon the demonic forces. Esthelhain could not muster the smile he wanted; a sigh of relief would have to suffice. He raised his sword and from it he used what was left of his divine magic. As arrows reigned the battlefield, Esthelhain then saw what looked like a shadow dashing through the fray. The cloaked figure was fast and only stopped to slay the occasional demon with a short sword. It was a darkling and only a few of them were that skilled. It must be Demetri.

And it was. Demetri used all of his skill to navigate the field of battle. His friend was near, but not out of danger yet; not while demons still drew breath. At last the darkling arrived and asked of his friend, “How did you get into this one, Esthelhain?”

“I shall yield unto thee an explanation at a fruther moment, for now, I require thy assistance,” Esthelhain answered, pointing to the arrows pinning his wing to the pillar.

“Hold still, this is going to hurt,” Demetri said as he brought his blade down to the cut the arrows. There were four and all were cut in a single, swift slice. Esthelhain did not even wince, but it must have hurt. “There, you're free!”

“I thank thee!” Esthelhain stepped forward, then fell to his knees. There was no telling just how long he had been standing there pinned. “We shall have to advance on foot, for I cannot fly while my wings stand pierced.”

“Don't worry, Est, we'll have you out of this one soon!” Demetri helped his friend to his feet. “My compatriots are on the balcony, but since you can't fly, we can't get back up there. How do we get out of here?”

“Look to the east and ye shall find the door whence I came,” Esthelhain told him.

Demetri nodded and then made a follow gesture to his companions. His lieutenant, Vladimir, responded quickly and soon, the dozen darklings jumped down into the courtyard. Demons are cowardly creatures and they made way. This did not stop the darklings from making their kills as they advannced. The band made it to the door and then continued their run through the haunted corridors. They could hear demons growling, but they were nowhere to be seen. A dozen darklings and an angel were a formidable group. As stupid as demons were, they knew when to step back.

“Stop!” Esthelhain suddenly exclaimed.

“What is it?” Vladimir asked out of turn.

Demetri ignored Vladimir, “Speak friend, why must we stop?”

“A Praetor,” Esthelhain paused to catch breath. “Standing forth before us, a Praetor lieth in wait.”

“Praetor? Here?” Demetri approached his friend.

“I can sense his darkness; I caution thee.”

“We have no choice, captain, we must move on,” Vladimir interrupted.

“You are correct, let us move!” and so they resumed their run. Demetri kept his hand on his sword. A Praetor, a legionnaire commander of demon hordes, would make a powerful foe indeed.

The halls were dark, which was perfect for the darklings. An angel, however, glowed naturally and the darklings feared that his light would give away their position too easily. Being overrun is always a possibility, especially with a Praetor involved. These concerns were on Vladimir's mind, who softly spoke to his leader, “A Praetor would only be here if the cause were important, captain.”

“We will question Esthelhain when we are free from the citadel, but for now, his survival is more important.”

“Of course,” Vladimir was silent from then on.

There it was! They could see the massive gate that was the entrance to the citadel of Ulun-Thain. In ages past, it was a glorious structure and a marvel to behold. Now, it is overgrown ruin. The stone of the citadel stands, but nothing else. It is long since abandoned. The history and treasures from within are lost. Time has forgotten who once lived and thrived here. Further, time has forgotten what happened to them. Where was this once-great civilization? Nowhere.

And there it was. Standing just before the gate was the Praetor. Red and twice the height of a man with the horns of a ram was the Praetor. Its black wings stood out behind him as a great cloak. In its hands was a flaming rapier. It wore clothes that might call eloquent however none would call this beast eloquent in appearance. But there was something about it that made Demetri question what was about to happen. It was not in a stance for battle. It seemed ready to... talk.

Demetri put an arrow into his bow and saw his comrades do the same. The demon Praetor only stared them down. The darklings took position in a semi-circle around the evil being, but would not fire without their captain's order. Demetri needed to know more. Esthelhain stood behind the darklings and then ordered, “Stand aside, vile creature, lest we send ye back to thy maker.”

The beast smiled, revealing jagged teeth. Its words echoed behind its deep, yet shrill voice, “You all yet live only because I allow it. You will die the moment I demand it.”

“Why hast though let us live still?”

“I will converse with the darkling leader,” the Praetor smiled again. “Which of you leads?”

“I do,” Vladimir stepped forward. Demetri did not stop him. This was practice among the darklings. The second-in-command would always volunteer himself as the leader. They would never reveal who truly led them. Demetri kept his bow trained upon the Praetor, ready to shoot.

“We demons are creatures of true power; of malice,” the Praetor approached Valdimir, who put away his arrow. “But we are not without mercy. We want no unnecessary squabble with the darklings. It would be a pointless waste of time and effort. The time for war is not yet upon us. We only want the angel.”

“We will not negotiate with a demon,” Vladimir growled.

“Give the angel to us and I will spare your lives,” the Praetor snarled.

“As I said, we will not negotiate with a demon.”

The Praetor squinted his eyes at Vladimir, “You must tire of taking orders. You know this is not your call. You will only echo your captain's words. I know what you want. You want to give up the angel and save your comrades, don't you? You can do this. You have that power now.”

Vladimir hesitated then snapped back, “You're wrong, demon, I am the captain and I will give up this angel for no one, especially not scum like you. Stand aside.”

“If this is that fate that you cho-” An arrow interrupted his speech. It only pierced his cheek and stopped his speech. It was Demetri. The demon ripped the arrow back out and snarled, “That was a dire mistake!” It would take much more than that to kill a Praetor.

“Release!” Demetri ordered as he slung another arrow into his bow. His compatriots fired, having most of the arrows blocked by the fiery blade. The Praetor was quick as he spun his blade, slaying anything in the way.

Esthelhain knew he was the only one who could kill the Praetor. Demetri knew this as well. The angel called upon all of the divine magic he could muster and filled his blade with light. With a powerful leap, he used his wings to push himself to the neck of the Praetor. It only took a single, graceful slice to remove the foul creature's head. Esthelhain's landing was far less angelic. He had used all of his energy in that blow and was out of consciousness before he hit the ground.

Demetri surveyed the ground. Four of his men were dead, their bows broken, and their cloaks tattered. Vladimir was not among the dead. He said, “Captain, we have to leave them and get out of this place before more of the demons get here!”

“Agreed,” Demetri picked up his winged friend and the darklings fled the scene.

As they ran, Demetri pondered what had just transpired. Finding demons at a place such as that was not unusual, in fact, infestations such as those were common. Those demons, however, were organized. Not completely, but it was clear that the Praetor was leading them, which meant this was no infestation but rather a deliberate move. What could the demonic forces want with an abandoned citadel? And further, “the time for war is not yet upon us.” Was this to say that war would soon be upon them all? Of course it did. Demons destroy and nothing else. They would see the world burn and laugh as it did.

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