Cynical Faith

Chapter 10

Gobrak would've told me I'm a fool, and I would deserve it. The way the world changes surprises me at times, even though I know that change is the most common law of all. It is the only thing which guides us to the next moment, that which produces life and ends it in equal measure. When I forget this lesson, I hear Gobrak's voice in my thoughts, and I remember I am foolish.

An Elrok Fletcher must undergo many years of careful study to obtain that cherished rank. I myself was well into my fourth decade when I finally achieved the honor. Even then, there were those who thought I was still too headstrong to deserve it. Yet I persevered, and I obtained what I wanted most of all.

But there was a moment where I decided that something else was more important, and it was only after I became a Fletcher. A bow is only as good as the one who makes it and the one who fires it. We Fletchers are expected to do both, to both make the decisions and carry them out to the best of our ability. We are the arrows, the bow, the archer, and the prey. It is the only way that we can understand the full process of change.

I faced demons in the ruins of a Human city. In the remains of all that they had built, their spirit somehow remained. I saw it in their hearts, as they became the arrows, the bow, the archer, and the prey. When it mattered most, the humans were able to see past everything else and embrace the moment.

What is more important than position? What is more important than honor? Decisive action, and letting the arrow fly when demons await in your path. There's a quiet calm before you loose every arrow, when the bowstring is taut and your breath stills in your throat. That is the moment when change begins. Feel it.

       ~Bradeth

The armies moved as one toward the demons' position, like floodwaters trying to swallow a mountain. Knights, soldiers, and Shades moved with equal determination, ready to barter with death for the fate of the world. Styx flew above them all, in awe of the spectacle.

As soon as the armies came within range, the Aika let fly their quills, raining death on the front lines and beyond, but still the armies pushed forward. Arrows flew from all around, most finding no home in the thick hides of the demons, yet not all failed to hit their mark.

The first demon to fall was a Quay, landing with an arrow through its eye, between the two armies. There was an instant where all eyes were drawn to that corpse, and then the battle truly began as the allied armies cried for death.

"It has begun," Styx said to the communications device in his hand. "The first demon has fallen!"

"We saw!" came Maxthane's reply. "Press onward, let no demon escape this battlefield!"

Styx returned his full attention to the battle. There were no more hailstorms of arrows, for the allied armies did not wish to hit their own troops now that the demons moved amongst their ranks. The reptilian-Aika seemed to have no such concern, and their quills continued to rain down on the armies. The air crackled with energy, and smoke rising from the Ibrix demons filled the air, as if bellows fanned their infernal fires.

Quay and feline-Aika pounced on the forward ranks, and massive Goden and Nobak demons pushed forward with great ferocity behind them. Styx had faced a Goden before, in Salidar's arena, its vicious claws were tipped with a breath-stealing poison. He did not envy those who face those claws now, and indeed there were many who fell before it.

But the Nobak demons seemed even worse, covered as they were by their bony plates, nearly impervious to the attacks of those they fought. There was one larger than all the others, not quite as tall as the fiery Ibrix that Prism and Grim had fought together in Pentalus not long ago, but it was sturdy and thick. It pushed its way through the armies as if they were insignificant gnats, no more than an annoyance.

And it was headed straight for Maxthane's position. Maxthane had decided to stay out of the fighting itself, knowing that he would just get in the way. He stood with a team of human physicians and four Fedain, the only ones they could scrounge up from all the refugees and among Hount's camps. They would be no match for the demon once it arrived, no matter how much protection they had. It would arrive in no time at all with the way it was working its way through the troops. It had already killed a few dozen, and each death of a soldier only served to increase its ferocity.

One Knight stood to face the demon, already seeing its intended path. Kirra Elrhanadan, his sword drawn, as he quickly rallied the small group of guards that Maxthane had retained to protect the medical tent. Styx's pulse raced to a feverish cadence as he feared for the death of his loved ones, but all he could do from his present position was watch them be destroyed.

"Get out of there!" He said through the device. But it was too late. The demon was far too fast. An instant after Styx sent the message, the demon had reached its target.

Don't let its hands collide with you. Kirra's sword spoke into his mind, her words sharp and urgent. He had seen the demon's path and readied himself, knowing it would be him who had to face it. There was no one else, and the medical tent would be crucial to the army's recovery. It had to be protected at all costs.

"Where is it weak?" Kirra asked his sword. "What do I have to do?"

You have to strike between the plates, but don't let it collide with you. It can drain your blood in seconds through the ridges on its plates. You can't let it grab you or this is over.

"Avoid its hands at all costs!" Kirra shouted to the guards with him. "Strike at whatever open flesh you can find, and don't let it hit you!"

To the soldiers' credit, each one stood their ground despite the thunderous approach of the demon. Each of these men and women was a Shade, and had faced danger many times before. Danger was a way of life in The Shade, and though demons were new and frightening, the process remained the same. This obstacle had to be overcome, or they all would perish.

Kirra drew strength from their stance, allowing it to feed his own resolve. He'd experienced fear often over the course of his life, and at times it had left him paralyzed, even when that paralysis meant his potential death. Bradeth had saved him once, recently, when he stood rigid before a demon's attack. The first time, Kirra had been on the brink of passing to the other side, and Maxthane had brought him back at great sacrifice to his own health. Now it was Kirra's turn to return the favor.

He didn't have to glance back at the medical tent to know that Maxthane was with him, watching this new development with a mixture of determination and fear. He could surely see the demon heading their way, and knew it would likely spell their doom, but his spirit affected all those around him. Maxthane was quickly becoming a true King, one who could bring hope and light to his people in the darkest times.

And that was a cause Kirra believed in, and he was willing to die defending it. But he would kill the demon first, even if it took his last breath. The lumbering mass of bone-plated Nobak cleaved through the last ranks of soldiers separating it from the medical tent's position, then roared as it set eyes on Kirra and his determined band of soldiers.

For a moment time stood still, the demon's gaze locked with Kirra's as they silently communicated their mutual goal of the other's destruction. Then the demon lunged forward, an arm as thick as an Elrok slamming toward Kirra's position.

Kirra dashed to the side at the last moment, the spray of shrapnel from the rubble catching him as he landed and knocking him over. He barely had time to stand and raise his sword again, as the demon swept across with its arm as if brushing crumbs from a table. Kirra cut at the arm even as it collided with him, the keen magical blade cutting through the bony plate protecting the demon's flesh and making it cry out in pain.

He had no time to celebrate having wounded the beast, for the sweeping arm sent him sprawling backward to land heavily in the rubble and winding him. Kirra rolled to his side the best he could, struggling to find his breath as he heard the demon roar behind him. He glanced backward, expecting the demon to already be heading his way to finish him off.

Instead, the Shades he had stood with a moment before had organized a quick formation and had circled the demon, keeping it occupied. Kirra's cut into the demon's arm had allowed them the time necessary to flank it. The Shades were nimble and smart, and they did their best to stay out of range of the demon's attacks, only darting in to try to score a hit while the demon was focused on the Shades on the opposite side.

As Kirra regained control of his senses and prepared to rejoin the battle, it turned back to the demon's favor. One of the Shades had managed to score a hit with a spear, impaling it between two bony plates on the demon's leg. She then made the mistake of trying to draw the spear back out, but as the demon shifted its weight, the bone plates clenched the shaft of the spear and wrested it from the Shade's hands. This caused the Shade to stumble, and the demon snatched her with one of his hands.

She died a gruesome death as the demon exsanguinated her, not a drop of her blood hitting the ground as he dropped her withered corpse. Instead, the blood followed channels along the demon's plates up into its mouth where it drank greedily.

Kirra and the Shades watched in horror as the cut on the demon's arm sealed shut. The single kill did not repair all the damage that had been dealt to it however, for the spear remained wedged in the demon's leg. It stumbled as it tried to move forward, and Kirra took the opening to move back in.

The Shades saw his approach and harassed the demon from the opposite side, drawing its attention. They had already seen the power of Kirra's sword, and knew he was their best chance for scoring a serious wound on the demon. Their strategy cost them, however, for the demon smashed two more Shades into the rubble before Kirra reached it.

Spurred by their sacrifice, Kirra focused his anger into his weapon, allowing it to guide him with a wrathful focus. He slashed as fluidly as he could, carrying the momentum of his charge into each cut of his blade as he unleashed a flurry of strikes on one of the demon's legs. Each one cut into bone with ease. As the demon shifted its weight to try to catch him, Kirra circled around the demon's leg and cut the other side as well, as if he were felling a tree.

A sickening snap filled the air as the demon's leg collapsed under its weight and it fell, first to the side and then forward. Two Shades narrowly missed being crushed by the massive body, though one quickly recovered and darted in for a shot at the demon's head with his sword. He managed to impale the sword through a soft bit of flesh at the demon's neck, but the demon swatted him backward for his efforts. The Shade landed in a heap some distance away, unmoving.

But that attack gave Kirra another opening, and he brought his sword down hard on the exposed and fractured femur of the leg he had already maimed. He severed it in one chop, but the demon rolled over in response, crushing him beneath its massive weight.

Kirra felt several bones in his body snap beneath his armor, and he lost all sense of direction and form as he quickly lost consciousness.

Despite Maxthane's best efforts to remain a bastion of calm for his soldiers, he screamed as Kirra fell and changed direction, rushing back toward the battle. He had done what was required of a good general and stayed away from the front lines so he could live to orchestrate the rest of the battle, but that had not been his desire. Now one of his friends, someone he had come to trust and rely upon in the past few days, lay dead beneath a demon.

Maxthane was certain Kirra could not have survived what had just happened. The demon, thousands of pounds of bone and flesh, had just rested all its bulk on top of him. If Kirra had managed to survive, he wouldn't be alive for long. The only chance he had was Maxthane, or one of the other Fedain, reaching him in time.

But Maxthane pulled up short as the demon clambered forward, grasping at the nearby soldiers as best as it could from its impaired position. Kirra had managed to sever one leg entirely before he fell, and it had significantly impacted the demon's ability to attack those it wanted to destroy. However, it was now on defensive alert, and none of the Shades had any chance of getting within range of it again.

There was nothing Maxthane could do except stare at Kirra's corpse laying a few feet behind the demon now. Corpse? No, Kirra couldn't be dead! Maxthane chastised himself for assuming the worst and focused on the problem instead. He was about to run the risk of moving behind the demon anyway when a soldier approached from the main battlefield.

Krythe wore the black leather of Maxthane's personal guard, something Maxthane had allowed him to retain despite Krythe's attempt to have him killed. Now, as Krythe approached the demon at little more than a stagger, Maxthane was awestruck by the determination on his face. Krythe was proud to wear those leathers, as he'd always been, but now he was here to serve his King.

He glanced Maxthane's way for only a moment, bowed his head in respect, then closed on the demon once again. He held no weapon, having lost it somewhere behind him. He had been part of the company which the demon had plowed its way through on its way to the medical tent, and he appeared to be broken in a few places already. But that didn't stop his approach, only slowed it.

As he came up behind the demon, he paused momentarily at the demon's severed leg and dipped his fingers in the blood at the end of it. With the blood, he drew a quick symbol on his wrist, then clamped his hand over his wrist tightly and glared at the demon.

Flames engulfed the demon as if they had emerged from within it, and it roared and flailed as it tried to put the fire out. After only a few seconds, the flames died and Krythe collapsed to one knee, panting. The demon turned toward him, as if it could sense that Krythe had been the one to light it on fire, and reached out to snatch the Shade in its hand.

To Maxthane surprise, Krythe simply smiled and clamped his hand tighter around his wrist. The demon grabbed Krythe, clutching him tight enough to break bones as it prepared to drink Krythe's blood as it had drunk from the Shade earlier. But as it crushed Krythe, something unexpected happened.

A sound as loud as thunder reverberated across the battlefield as the demon's limbs and torso snapped as if some giant force was crushing it in turn. Its body twisted as it fell, convulsing in the gruesome dance of breaking bones. It lost its grip on Krythe, and the soldier fell in a heap beneath the demon's open hand.

The demon was still twitching, but Maxthane saw his opening and took it. He rushed to Kirra's side first, calling for the Fedain to join him. Nearby, the Shades who were still standing closed in on the demon and hacked at every open spot they could find. Maxthane hoped they would make short work of the demon now that it was incapacitated, but he put that combat out of his mind and focused on the task at hand.

As soon as Maxthane touched Kirra's flesh, he knew he had to act fast. Kirra's heart would stop within the next few seconds, and Maxthane did not have his mother or uncle's knowledge of how to bring someone back once that had happened. He fed as much energy as he could into Kirra's body, repairing blood vessels and punctured lungs as quickly as he could manage, then moved on to setting bones.

If Maxthane hadn't been so focused, he would've sighed with relief as soon as Kirra's chest began heaving air into his lungs. But Maxthane continued to feed him energy tell Kirra's eyes opened and he was able to stop Maxthane on his own.

"I'm all right," Kirra said, "The demon?"

Maxthane glanced to the side and saw that the Shades had managed to decapitate the demon. One of the demon generals had fallen, but it had killed hundreds on its way down. Hundreds at least, and more than a few good people in that group.

"It's dead," Maxthane said. "You did it."

"No," Kirra said, shaking his head. He rose to a seated position and glanced at the Shades standing near the decapitated demon.

"You're absolutely right," Maxthane replied, inferring the meaning of Kirra's gesture. "You all did it together." The blood drained from his face as he realized he had one more patient. "By the shadows! Krythe!"

Maxthane pulled away from Kirra, staggering despite the adrenaline in his veins. He'd given so much life force to heal Kirra, he was already exhausted. The days leading up to this one had not been kind to him either, and he was so low on energy he was surprised he was still standing.

But a loyal man needed him. A man Maxthane had never expected to save, or be saved by. Despite his lack of energy, Maxthane needed to make it to Krythe and heal him. Where were those other Fedain? He thought, glancing around deliriously. They had been with him a moment ago, hadn't they? He saw them then, moving through the wounded in the distance. They had already seen to their task, but they were too far away to help Krythe. All his shouting for them had done nothing over the sounds of battle.

As he neared Krythe, he saw the man's pained expression, as a broken arm reached toward him with shaky fingers. "K-king-g… M-maxthane…" Krythe said as if in triumph, and then his body went still.

By the time Maxthane reached Krythe's side, there was no pulse to be found. Krythe had passed on, and no amount of energy would allow Maxthane to accomplish what he did not know how to do. Even still, he took Krythe's hand and held it, hoping that wherever the man's spirit went, he would find some peace.

It was then that Maxthane noticed the Lodani symbol drawn in demon blood on Krythe's wrist; retribution. In the ancient Lodani Ulchreft, the symbol was used to temporarily link two things. Krythe had linked himself to the demon, knowing the demon was about to kill him, and had used that to break most of the bones in the demon's body. But the symbol also had another meaning; 'what was done unto me will be done unto you'.

Krythe's final words rang once again in Maxthane's ears, as he heard that final tone of triumph. Krythe had used his last breath to afford Maxthane the respect he had once denied him, even as Maxthane had respected Krythe and forgiven him.

Maxthane began to weep as he collapsed over Krythe's body, his tears joining the blood of the battlefield. Each tear was for a different soldier who had died that day, and he would do a lot more weeping before the day was done.

He didn't hear the crackle of electricity or even Kirra's shout, as a large Aika quill thundered into him from the side. The shock was enough to stun him, and the quill sharp enough to pierce through his ribs and into his lung.

He remembered being pulled away from the battlefield, and someone calling for a healer, but then there was nothing but the sweet embrace of unconsciousness.

"Is he going to be all right?" Kirra asked the Fedain healer standing over Maxthane's body. They had reclaimed the medical tent, and set the King on one of the cots. He appeared to be breathing normally now, although the Fedain's eyes spoke volumes of Maxthane's true condition.

"I managed to stabilize him," the Fedain replied, her gaze locked on Maxthane's face, "but I won't be able to remove that quill until he regains some of his energy, as forcing it out would likely kill him. All I can do is keep his lungs working with my energy to keep his sleep restful."

"See that you do," Kirra said.

The Fedain woman shook her head. "There are other wounded for me to tend to, ones I am much more likely to save. I should be seeing to them, not to—"

"Those wounded are his people, and if they knew you let him die so that they could live, they would gut you," Kirra said forcefully. He pointed to one of the Shades standing nearby. "You stay here and make sure King Maxthane gets the attention required."

"As you command, Captain Kirra," the soldier replied, saluting.

This new title startled Kirra. "Why did you call me that?" He asked.

"King Maxthane appointed you as captain of his personal guard today, and as far as I'm concerned, you've earned it," the soldier said with a grin. "I'll make sure the King stays healthy, and you go win us this battle."

Kirra held the man's gaze for a moment longer, then nodded. "The rest of you are with me. We head straight for the front lines, working together as we did here, and we take every demon with us that we can."

To his surprise, he was met with cheers instead of protest. They all had come to answer the call of their King, and their King had commanded them to face demons. The King of The Shade rarely asked his people to make sacrifices, and by doing so he had ensured their loyalty.

Only one raised a hint of concern, the man who had wounded the demon in the neck before being knocked away. "Aren't we supposed to be protecting the King?" He asked skeptically. "It'll be hard to do that from the front lines."

Kirra looked toward the battle, now largely contained within the outer armies once again. The gap that had been caused by the bone-plated demon's assault had closed. Though several large demons remained, it seemed none of them were intent on making any charges through the ranks.

"I don't believe we're in any danger up here anymore," Kirra said, "but those down there definitely are, and we have already slain one of the generals. Imagine what it will do for morale if we can slay another?"

The soldiers nodded, each one of them grinning. They had faced death today and won, and they could do it again. The adrenaline pumping through them told them as much. Kirra saluted the man he had assigned to stay by Maxthane's side, then turned toward the battle once again. He wouldn't look back until the deed was done.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Styx was grateful that his friends appeared to be doing all right, though he wished he was with them and not where he was now. He had seen the Aika approaching after the demon general was slain, and he had moved to intercept. While he had hoped to distract the demon temporarily, buying enough time for Maxthane to be taken to safety, he had earned the Aika's full ire.

Now it was chasing him across the battlefield, never relenting in its eager hunt for his flesh. Styx's wings were getting tired, and he didn't know how long he would last before the demon caught up to him. He'd already dodged several barrages of quills, narrowly avoided being chased directly into the cloud of flying demons, and—in attempting to reorient himself—he'd had to dash straight through snapping claws.

But he was working on a plan, and he believed it was a good one. It would be reckless, but all his best ones were. He knew that was a lie, but he was running out of options, and there was only one plan left. Reckless or not, something needed to be done about the demon on his tail.

So he flitted through the skies, changing angles as often as he could in attempts to disorient the demon. When that didn't work, he enacted his final plan. Flying straight forward, he knew the demon would take an opportunity for another barrage of quills.

Instead of intentionally dodging through them, he dropped below, catching one out of the sky as he fell toward the streets. He held onto it as if it had pierced him, then brushed a tattoo of the hawk on his cheek and used it to slow his fall just enough to be a tantalizing target to the Aika.

The Aika took the bait, diving after him to finish him off. The quills were meant to stun, not to kill, although they were more than capable of that as well. The demon wouldn't know if the quill had done its job until Styx stopped moving. As slow as Styx was falling, that wasn't happening soon enough.

Styx kept one eye on the demon as he fell, knowing he only had one chance to succeed in his plan. The Aika veered closer and closer, and Styx tightened his grip on the quill. As soon as it opened his mouth to screech in triumph, Styx spun in the air and stabbed upward with the quill, driving it through the soft flesh in the top of the Aika's mouth and into its brain.

The demon fell, and Styx flitted away to resume his survey of the battlefield. Before he could go anywhere at all, he felt a shadow fall behind him. Another demon had taken up the chase.

 

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