There is a demon inside all of us, its nature changing along with its host. I lived among demons my entire life and did not see them until I had reached middle age. Some of those demons were hidden out of sight by magic, and some by nothing but my own blindness and ignorance.
I've been told that war brings out the ugliness of a person, and perhaps in some cases that is true. If the war is unjust, and the soldiers performing actions which go contrary to their natures, then it will leave them with horrors they may never escape. Power-hungry leaders can sacrifice youth on the altar of their indifference, knowing that enough blood shed will give them dominion over land and sea.
In my experience, however, those things are temporary. It is not the war that allows the demon inside of us to show its ugly face, it is the repercussions of the war that corrupt us. War is but the catalyst, beginning a series of reactions with seemingly no escape.
There is a stagnation that comes with the shift to power, once it has been firmly established. Leaders assert their will, knowing their soldiers will be emboldened by that recent victory. Soldiers lose themselves to ego and face new challenges with the arrogant belief that they deserve to succeed, because of the group to which they belong. They feel they've earned the right to stand there, so all others should stand beneath them!
Within a generation, everyone has already forgotten the real reasons why the war started. It's history now; a tale told by the survivors and twisted by their bias. Society is free to grow, but only if it does not exceed the boundaries of the framework that has been established for it. Soon the leaders are wardens of the prison of their own progression.
The demon inside us festers when we are not in motion. We stop thinking there is something greater than ourselves and lose our desire to be part of that greater interconnectivity. When ego, dominion, tyranny, fear, and indifference dictate all our actions, we are incapable of growth.
But it does not have to be this way. The choice to grow and connect rests in every soldier's heart, and that particular war is fought by all of us.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The demon on Styx's tail was no common one like the Aika from before. This one was far more familiar, however, for this was not the first time Styx had faced one of the Quay. Unfortunately, this one was far larger than the last one Styx had encountered, and it was much faster as well.
He barely managed to stay ahead of it as he darted about the sky, doing everything he could to avoid the massive beast. He wondered if this was one of the generals Prism had mentioned to him. He didn't have time to survey the battlefield to determine if this was the largest Quay, for to do so would mean becoming its lunch.
But Styx was growing weary, and the longer the demon remained behind him, the more likely it was to catch him. He could feel the way it blocked the sunlight, could hear its beating wings and at times even catch the glinting from its scales.
Fear grew within him, as if wanting to replace the blood in his veins and seep into every corner of his flesh. It wasn't the fear of losing his friends, as he'd felt before the battle, but the growing hopelessness of the prey fleeing before the encroaching jaws of the predator. The fear surging through his veins welled in him like an ocean of internal bleeding.
He had to get away, to escape the flood of fear at all costs; to escape the monster behind him. There was no one to save him here, in the air high above the battlefield. No eagles had escaped the blast from the destruction of the Everbright City, at least well enough to still be capable of flight. That counted as much for the Knights as it did for Hount and his forces. Styx was the only one who could fly, and soon there would be none.
Part of him wanted to give up and accept his fate. There was nothing he could do except continue to fly until his body gave out. He could not hope to kill this demon, not even with all the luck in the world. A demon like this had killed his father, and had nearly killed Styx: it had only been defeated by the last-ditch effort of Drake.
But he had to give this his best effort. While he had not been able to relay a scouting report in some time, he knew his view of the battlefield could prove crucial to saving lives. The brief glances he could catch of the battle proved that. There were several places where the fighting was thickest, and a redistribution of troops could relieve positions that were quickly being overwhelmed. Styx had to keep flying, and somehow evade this demon, so that he could help the others.
He took a risk and entered a sudden dive, hoping the demon would not sense the shift in his movements. As he descended, he put the communications device to his mouth and spoke into it. "Madame Godani, take the Inkblades to the South!"
That was all he had time for, as the Quay quickly changed direction and dove after him. The chase was renewed, and Styx doubted his trick would work again. This demon had proven more intelligent than most, and it thirsted for Styx's blood as if that was the only thing that could sate it.
Minutes passed, Styx's wings feeling the weight of his body as if it were doubled. At least his message to Madame Godani had borne fruit. Her forces had managed to flank a small group of dangerous demons that had been tearing through a regiment of Hount's soldiers. Working together, the two armies had already dispatched several of the demons, and were working hard on the others. Styx hoped it would be enough. There were other places that needed him, if only he had the opportunity.
An Ibrix demon rose before him, a fiery salamander with leathery wings. Styx altered his trajectory as fast as he could, but the quick avoidance cost him, and he lost his already too small lead on the Quay. The Ibrix disappeared from his peripheral vision, falling to the ground for some unknown reason, but it hardly mattered to Styx anyway.
He was done for, exhaustion about to overtake him, with the Quay only a few yards behind him. Death would claim him in seconds, and there was no choice left but to embrace that fate. He could not put his back to it any longer.
Rotating, he let himself fall, knowing the demon would be right on top of him. As he turned to face the demon, he took in the sight of its shimmering scales and magnificent wings. As deadly as it was, at least the Quay was beautiful. Fearsome though it was, in that moment when Styx accepted his fate, he smiled, knowing he was dying for a cause greater than himself. He would die facing a foe that needed facing.
The Quay surged toward him, claws and teeth stretched out to grasp him. Styx prepared to meet his end, but the demon suddenly careened in a different direction. It took Styx a moment to process what he was seeing. A large arrow had pierced the wing of the Quay, striking it from below.
With newfound energy and hope, Styx unfurled his wings to stop his descent and righted himself, then flew off as fast as he could away from the Quay. It took him several heart-pounding moments to resume his focus on the battlefield, but soon he was coordinating with the ground forces once again. He doubted he would get lucky again if the battle started going poorly for his allies. He would do everything in his power to prevent that from happening, no matter how many demons he had to face.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"A superb shot on that Ibrix, Bradeth," Gobrak said with a grin, "but the Quay is mine." He let loose an arrow even as he finished speaking, and the missile shot straight and true, past Styx's falling form and into the wing of the giant beast pursuing him.
Bradeth snorted, then nocked another arrow. She had been tracking the Quay ever since she noticed it following Styx. The boy was a useful scout, and important to the success of this battle, and he needed to be protected. She'd only shot the Ibrix because it had decided to join the aerial fight at the last minute, and it had been a relatively stationary target in comparison to the darting forms she'd been tracking before. That Gobrak had capitalized on the opportunity to claim the kill was only a sign of his pride.
"You will address me as Chief on the battlefield, Fletcher," Bradeth said, keeping her eyes on the Quay. She trusted her words to carry her annoyance instead of risking a glance Gobrak's way. Her eyes needed to be on her quarry, and the Quay was far from finished. It was on a tumultuous descent towards the ground, but the fall was unlikely to kill it. "Besides, the kill is not yet yours."
"That remains to be seen," Gobrak said, nocking a second arrow and watching the Quay just as diligently as Bradeth. "I intend to claim my spot as your personal Fletcher, Chief Bradeth, and so I must prove my worth to you," he added, almost as an afterthought.
Despite her earlier focus, this statement momentarily distracted her. She took her eyes off the demon long enough to give Gobrak an incredulous glance. Gobrak had served as a constant obstacle in her path to becoming a Fletcher, always challenging her commitment and right to the position. That he would support her as Chief was expected, as she had clearly earned that title in the proper way. No Elrok would defy her unless she proved unfit to rule. But to become her personal Fletcher meant something else entirely; Gobrak was making a statement of loyalty unmatched by even marriage oaths. To serve her that way would mean to become an extension of her will.
Bradeth doubted it was just a ploy, yet Gobrak's words distracted her enough that she missed the demon's collision with the ground. The cloud of dust and debris rose around it, blocking her view, though Gobrak still let loose his arrow.
It had been difficult for both archers to pick their shots during this battle. Elrok Fletchers were master hunters and could shoot accurately across great distances. However, they were often solitary or worked with very few allies, and on the battlefield it was difficult to avoid hitting the soldiers. But Gobrak had calculated the demon's momentum to gauge the risk of shooting into the battlefield again, knowing the force of the Quay's impact would be enough to drive any allied soldiers away from it. The arrow sailed into the dust cloud and scored a hit, resulting in the terrifying roar that they could hear distinctly over the sounds of battle.
"That won't be enough," Gobrak said. "It'll come for us now. Be ready."
Bradeth snorted again. The nerve of Gobrak telling her how to hunt! But the advice was sound, as she trained her arrow on the cloud of dust all the same. Sure enough, within seconds, the demon emerged from the cloud heading straight for their position. Bradeth let her arrow fly, hoping it would join the one already piercing the wing or its left haunch.
But this was no typical demon, it was one of the generals. The Quay anticipated the shot and zigzagged in its approach, giving it just enough movement to avoid Bradeth's arrow. However, Gobrak had predicted this avoidance and turned his aim on the demon's anticipated position even as it dodged Bradeth. His arrow found the demon's chest just below the neck.
Though staggered from the hit, the Quay barely slowed its approach. It continued with serpentine grace, keeping low to the ground with its wings now tucked behind it, making it an even smaller target. It kept behind the piles of rubble of the ruined city now, and though both Bradeth and Gobrak had already prepared another shot, neither one had a good opportunity to take one before the demon reached their position. Only quick reflexes saved the two Elroks from sudden death at the demon's poison-tipped claws. Bradeth started one way and Gobrak the other, and the demon could only follow one.
It chose the one who had already injured it, lashing at Bradeth with its tail as it spun. Bradeth took the blow to her chest, the massive tail striking her heavily enough to wind her. She had never experienced such a sensation before, and she collapsed to the cobblestones, struggling to catch her breath.
Before her, the demon roared and thrashed, but it was moving away from her. Gobrak was backpedaling quickly, swinging his thick bow like a club at the demon's snatching claws and fangs. He managed to keep it from striking him, but the ground beneath him was treacherous. Even his surefooted feet, used to moving swiftly over mountainous terrain, could not handle the ferocity he was trying to escape. The rubble made him stumble repeatedly, and though he managed to reclaim his footing each time, the consecutive attacks were putting him increasingly off-balance.
As air finally filled Bradeth's lungs, she drew one of her last two arrows and pulled back on her bow. She had the best shot at the Quay that she'd had so far, and she wasn't about to waste it. She sighted for the back of the demon's head, and released.
Gobrak stumbled again, and this time he was unable to regain his footing. The demon's head lowered just as the arrow was about to connect with it, its jaws snapping down at Gobrak with lightning speed.
Bradeth heard her companion yell in pain, and cursed. She drew her last arrow as quickly as she could, then fired again, though its head was still lowered. She caught it just behind the shoulder, wedging it into the joint and making the limb useless.
The demon spun, limping as it returned its attention to Bradeth. Despite missing the use of one limb, the demon covered the distance between them in what felt like an instant. It was all Bradeth could do to swing her bow at the demon's face like a two-handed club. The hardwood broke across the Quay's snout with a deafening crack, and the demon fell into Bradeth, disoriented.
But it was far from dead, and Bradeth was now unarmed beneath it. Each of its claws were tipped with a virulent poison, and it was poised to strike at Bradeth as soon as it recovered from its daze. Bradeth took what advantage she could and placed her hands and feet against the four limbs of the beast.
The Quay came to its senses, quickly realizing that Bradeth was beneath it. It raised its uninjured forward claws to swipe at her, but Bradeth caught an ankle and pinned it down. It moved to rake at her with its hind claws, but Bradeth quickly stomped down on both those feet and held her ground.
The demon had tremendous strength, enough that Bradeth had little chance of maintaining the pin for long, but still she fought for supremacy. Adrenaline surged in her veins, and she focused into the tribal symbols etched across her skin. One of them allowed her to shift her center of gravity, and she redirected that a dozen times—matching the rhythm of the demon's thrashing limbs—to add extra weight where it was needed most. Another of the symbols increased her grip, as she wrapped her hands and feet even tighter around those of the demon.
But it wouldn't be enough, as the demon quickly realized that extricating itself from Bradeth's grasp was using valuable energy. It contorted its body, stretching backward to allow it serpentine neck to sneak in and bite toward Bradeth's throat. Bradeth let go of her grip on the claw belonging to the limb she had disabled with her arrow, snapping her hand around the demon's lower jaw and fighting to keep it away from her.
Bradeth's whole body screamed in protest, her bones aching, to nearly snap with the tension she had put them under. They were about to give, the Quay's jaws nearly wrestling free from Bradeth's grip with every tug. The disabled limb was still trying to move, its claws inches from scratching into Bradeth side and ending the struggle immediately.
In that moment of perfect clarity before death descended upon her, Bradeth swore all sound stopped, and she heard a great exhale as if all the beings in all the world let out their breath at once. The twitching above her stopped, the body of the Quay going rigid as an arrow pierced the demon's skull from the side, driving so deep as to protrude halfway out the other side.
The demon stopped thrashing, and Bradeth quickly pushed it aside before it fell on top of her. She scrambled out of the way, breathing heavily as the sounds of battle returned to her ears, then looked to where Gobrak stood, his battered bow still in hand.
He wasn't moving. His chest, marred with the bite marks of the Quay's fangs, no longer rose or fell with breath, and his eyes were already beginning to glaze over. The bow fell from his hands, and his knees buckled, and he fell to the ground as heavily as a mighty boulder.
Bradeth knew immediately it was Gobrak's breath she had heard, a primal connection between them allowing her to sense the warrior's last sacrifice for his Chief. He had likely been dead before the arrow had even killed the demon, and only the last traces of his will, fueled by adrenaline, had allowed him the chance to save Bradeth's life.
She moved swiftly to Gobrak's side, checking his vitals just be sure. There was no hint of breath, no pulse nor signs of movement. Bradeth paused for only a moment before picking up Gobrak's bow and taking the arrows from his quiver and sliding them into her own. She would mourn for him as soon as the battle was over, and not a moment sooner. There were demons to be slain, and Gobrak would want her slaying them.
She would carry him with her into battle, each arrow guided by that final breath which had saved her life and ended one of the demon generals.
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