Cynical Faith

Chapter 14

This world is full of uncertainty, and we long to bring order to it. When we see chaos, we fear it, and believe it will destroy us. I lived through several hurricanes in my youth, and despite the wisdom of my elders, who told me to stay inside during the storm, I went out to meet it. The swirling chaos of rain and wind was a challenge to my own fear. I had to overcome it, to prove that the order and discipline within me were enough to withstand the storm.

Had I understood the storm better, perhaps I would've realized that at the center of all chaos there is order already. Each hurricane is calm at its center, and it is order that gives birth to chaos, just as chaos compels us to seek order.

We live in cycles, seeking a balance between all these forces. In my youth, I saw only the crumbling disarray of Neredos and his empire. I saw the chaos which had become the way of the world, and decided it was up to me to fix it. I did not recognize the foundations upon which it was built, and I was certain I knew a better way.

But that is the arrogance of all despots who are motivated by a perceived greater good. The truth is never simple, though seeking it is. When we admit that order cannot survive without chaos, and continue to acknowledge where we have gone wrong in achieving that balance, we find truth.

I thought I was saving the world, until I wasn't. The world must be saved differently every day, and the answer of yesterday does not solve today's problems. Learn from your mistakes, do not repeat them because you believe yourself to be correct. An axe can chop down a tree, but it is nearly useless against the stone wall. Don't waste your time using the improper tool for the task. Find a different solution, and you'll survive the storm and thrive.

       ~Hount

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From Alsha's perspective, the battle was going far better than expected. At least half the demons were already dead. Though they had done tremendous damage to the forces allied against them, the losses were disproportionately favorable against those of the demons.

But the battle was far from over, and there remained enemies to slay, whom she would not allow to leave this battlefield. She would give her dying breath before she let a demon escape this day. Oaths sworn in her youth remained as strong in her heart as they always had. A Knight of the Firmament's sworn duty was to prevent the emergence of demonic forces into the world.

She had already failed in that duty, for the demons had been freed under her watch. As much as she told herself that she had done all that she could to prevent it, onus weighed heavily on her heart. This was her mess to clean up, but it would require all those assembled here to do so.

"Reform the ranks!" Alsha shouted to those nearby, hoping her few Knights would hear her call. "Organize the front, the next demons are coming! Let us meet them together!"

To Alsha's great relief, her voice carried to those nearby, and soon a dozen of Hount's soldiers and her Knights—and even a couple of Shades—had rallied to her call. They made an improvised formation and prepared for the next demon to come their way, each man and woman ready to work in synchronization with their comrades.

The first demon was one of the quill-backed cats, and the formation managed to dispatch it with only one casualty. Alsha herself drove her sword into the demon's leg before it went down, then turned to face the next opponent.

But what she saw made her blood chill, and fear threatened to overwhelm her at the sight of the beast now charging toward them. It moved on two huge legs, as thick as mighty tree trunks. Its arms were just as massive, with hands as large as Alsha, and long, thick claws extending from the back of them as they raked through the few soldiers separating it from the formation. A long, alligator-like snout showed rows of sharp teeth, and two pairs of eyes watched everything from between a pair of curving horns. The Goden demon general had come to challenge Alsha's belief that the battle was going well.

"Go for the hamstrings!" She heard herself shout, unsure where she found the strength to speak. "Bring it to the ground as quickly as possible, then strike only when you have an opening."

Alsha wasn't sure if any of her soldiers had heard her, but she knew it was likely down to luck anyway. A demon such as this seemed an insurmountable force, and bringing it down would require tremendous coordination or great fortune. Her forces were prepared to meet it, but it was coming without any care for their formation.

On instinct, Alsha did the one thing she thought might disrupt its charge, and rushed toward it, screaming at the top of her lungs. To her surprise and great relief, the demon slowed its approach, as if unsure whether it should be on the defensive. Alsha detected the subtle shift in its stance; a direct approach now would get her killed the second she came within range of its claws. She altered her trajectory to go around the beast, hoping it would follow her.

Its attention shifted her way for just a moment, which was enough for her soldiers to close the gap. Inspired by her charge, they had followed her just behind enough that the demon's attention had remained on Alsha. As the demon turned to swipe at her, the other soldiers rushed into it.

But it was too late to spare Alsha pain, for the demon backhanded her and sent her sprawling. She landed heavily in a pile of rubble, her face colliding with a stone brick so forcefully that she could remember nothing but blackness descending.

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Lord Hount saw the huge Goden in the distance, and was surprised at Alsha's reckless charge toward it. He had noticed her at several points throughout the battle, and admired the way she commanded and fought. She would not have done such a reckless thing without reason, and he quickly saw her logic as the forces behind her collided with the demon.

When the demon sent Alsha flying, Hount suspected she would be out of the action for the time being at least. The forces fighting the Goden would be without a commander, and that weakness was already beginning to show.

The Knights and soldiers who attacked the demon had scored a few hits, but the demon had already turned on them and eviscerated half their number. They were losing, and soon their sacrifice would be completely in vain. It seemed the demons recovered from their injuries quicker than normal beings, absorbing energy from those they killed, to heal their wounds.

In an instant, Hount's perspective on this entire matter shifted. He'd come to this city with every intention of usurping the Eternal King's throne. He would shatter what remained of the old Empire, and build his own on whatever remained of that foundation. He had intended to heal the wounds of the world with the blood of his enemies, and that made him no better than a demon.

This was his fault in a way. While he had not brought the demons to the city, it was his act which had led to their freedom. He had destroyed the Everbright City with the power of the golem, and it was surely that which had ended Neredos' life. Hount had destroyed his enemies, but the wounds remained. He had nearly destroyed the world he wanted to protect.

Suddenly, Alsha's charge angered him in a completely different way. She had known this would happen, that the city would fall to Hount's recklessness, and yet she had been reckless in turn. If she died before he was able to rub that fact in her face, he would become even more bitter than he already was.

"Follow me!" He shouted to his nearby soldiers, then dug his heels into the flanks of the horse he had stolen from one of his officers. He had few cavalrymen left—only a dozen—but all of them followed him in his charge towards the Goden. He gave directions with his sword as the horses navigated the rubble-strewn battlefield, indicating that half the company should veer left and the other to the right to skirmish the demon from opposite sides.

He arrived in time to save a few of the fighters next to the demon from being slaughtered, riding in behind the Goden and slashing at its legs as he passed. The first rider from the other line slashed into the Goden's other leg, then passed behind Hount as if they had practiced the maneuver a hundred times.

Hount was already circling back to come at the demon again as the last of his cavalrymen approached the demon to score their hits wherever they could. But the demon had already recognized the tactic, and though it was limping now, it was still far from finished. It slashed out at the last two riders, perfectly anticipating their position. It shredded horse and rider alike with its claws, sending their mangled corpses tumbling away from it.

One of the survivors from Alsha's company, a Shade by the look of her, aimed a crossbow at the demon's head, and managed to lodge a bolt in one of its eyes. Encouraged that the demon might now be distracted, Hount resumed his approach, hoping to bring it down once and for all.

But the demon recovered quicker than had expected, and Hount barely had time to change his course to evade the sweeping claw coming his way. He managed to avoid being struck, but his horse was not as lucky. The demon's claws sliced the horse's legs out from under it, and the horse stumbled and collapsed, pinning Hount beneath it.

The rest of the cavalry moved in, and though one finally managed to disable the demon's left leg, the Goden dispatched each rider with precise ferocity. Hount watched his soldiers die, fighting the horror and the helplessness threatening to overcome him. Pinned as he was, he could do nothing to help his loyal troops. He had failed once again.

By the time the horsemen were dead, and the Goden had finished the Shade who had shot it in the eye, Hount had only managed to free one of his legs from beneath the horse. The Goden set its eyes on him, and approached with a crumbling growl so loud it could've been a roar on its own.

It seemed almost methodical as it pulled back its hand, aiming its massive claws at Hount's chest. There was nothing Hount could do, except wait for the blow to land. The hand moved forward, and Hount closed his eyes to accept his fate.

Shrill screaming filled his ears, and he felt an impact beside him that sprayed him with stone shrapnel. Hount opened his eyes to see Alsha standing above him, panting and full of rage. She held a broken sword, but the demon had not fared well from her attack either. She had managed to deflect the attack from hitting Hount by slashing into its claws from the side, breaking both the claws and the sword in the same moment.

The demon withdrew its hand from where it had collided with the ground, and this time it roared instead of growling. The sound was so deafening Hount couldn't help but cover his ears with his hands. Alsha did the same, staggering backward as she dropped her broken sword hilt.

But they were done for now, for the demon had them both in its sights, and they were unarmed and helpless. Despite the hopelessness of their situation, Alsha crouched down to help Hount move the dead horse from off his body. He managed to slide his leg free, but then the demon was upon them, raising its other arm for another sweep at their position.

A massive arrow thundered into its neck and drove it backwards. As it staggered and reached in surprise at the wooden shaft jutting from its flesh, a winged young man fluttered into view before it, distracting it as he darted through its field of vision. Styx and Bradeth had come to their rescue, and Hount could only watch in shock.

Three crossbow bolts thundered into its chest, doing minimal damage but drawing the demon's attention. Madame Godani stood with two other Shades, the latter reloading their weapons as the former stood with meditative focus. As the demon took a step toward her, the first of the crossbow bolts exploded in magical energy, blasting a hole in the Goden's chest.

Madame Godani's knees buckled, and the two Shades beside her took up a defensive position in front of her, crossbows raised and pointed at the demon's face. Before the demon could even hope to recover and turn its attention to the Shades, it cried out in pain and fell to one knee.

Kirra Elrhanadan stepped out from behind the beast, his sword leading with a cut into the demon's other ankle, bringing it down the rest of the way. The Shades who had accompanied him followed his lead, stabbing and cutting into the demon with tremendous ferocity, overwhelming it with their attacks. As the demon turned to attack them, Madame Godani's guards each took their shots, and each one found a home in an eye.

This brought the Goden's head low, only a short distance from Hount and Alsha. Hount saw his chance and took it, picking up his sword from where it had fallen and dashing towards the demon, driving it to the hilt into the demon's exposed neck. He held it there as the demon thrashed, trying to claw at him, but within a few seconds the demon stopped moving entirely.

A moment of stunned silence passed between all those who had helped slay the demon, but the battle was not over yet. The silence was broken by a shout from Styx, "Everyone take cover! The Aika's coming our way!"

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Tagren couldn't help but smile at the way the battle had unfolded. He regretted the death and destruction that had ensued as a result of the Everbright City's fall. Once this battle was over, the peoples of the world could rebuild at last. And soon, very soon indeed, that time would come.

The demons had made the battle memorable, and the forces gathered here would never forget how they came together in this great cause. Perhaps it was not as good as the whole world working together, but it would suffice. The Trial had finally done its work.

Of course, nearly half the demons remained, but their forces were dwindling quickly. All but one of Tagren's friends had fallen, and the lesser demons that were left were all weary and nearly defeated. Only one demon remained a true force to be reckoned with, and she would give the heroes a battle that would live on in song and story for ages to come.

A gigantic form descended from the sky, her purple scales glistening with the blood of hundreds of soldiers. She arched her back, and sent a spray of quills at all those surrounding Goden's body. Aika, who had once been renowned for her beauty and grace as a Fedain huntress, had come to claim her spot in history once again in a form none of her legends would recognize.

Styx's quick warning had given the heroes time to take shelter behind rubble, and even Goden's corpse. All of them were spared death as a result, for none of Aika's quills took root in their flesh. The largest of all the demons of her form, her quills were the length of ballista bolts, though they were far thinner. They crackled with electricity, but were likely to kill their targets anyway, without needing to stun them first.

Of all the creations of Ghayle's mind, Tagren appreciated the form given to Aika above the others. When he had last fought demons brought into the world by Naxthul's mind, he had fought similar beasts but none quite like this. Whenever Tagren gazed upon the demons, he felt closer to his lost love, knowing that these had arisen from her nightmares.

He hoped he would soon be able to see Ghayle again, and finally put those nightmares to rest. That was in the hands of the heroes now, but Tagren believed in their capability. They had already proven themselves this day, and though tired from the battle, victory was within their grasp.

But Aika would not give it to them easily. Though she could've slain them all from the air, she landed atop Goden's corpse and lashed out at those nearest to it. Her massive claws struck at Hount first, driving him back. She swept with her tail, colliding with those who had followed Kirra into battle. Some would be broken by that massive whip of bone and muscle, likely killed, and yet Aika remained unharmed.

Someone rallied them together, a Knight, standing beside a dead horse. Tagren smiled. Alsha Tremlaine, a woman Tagren had met under the guise of Kimbler, and whom he greatly admired. She shouted orders to all the others, even though none of them were under her command. This hardly mattered, for a bit of direction was what the battle needed for the heroes to turn the tide in their favor.

Tagren moved closer to get a better view, eager to watch it unfold. Kirra and his remaining soldiers darted in from behind, wary of the tail thrashing about them. Alsha retrieved a fallen warrior's sword, and Hount retrieved a spear from the battlefield. Both moved in on opposite sides of the demon, striking at its underbelly.

The three Shades with crossbows—including Madame Godani— took aim of the demon's face, while Bradeth of the Clan of Lions focused her attention on the wings. Aika would not escape, though she had no intention of doing so anyway.

Styx continued to flit into the demon's sightline, constantly obscuring her vision, but not enough to keep Aika from defending herself. She kicked out with her hind legs, sending two of Kirra's soldiers sailing backward. Kirra himself scored a hit on one of those legs, but this caused the demon to stumble and land slightly atop him. He limped away from her as quickly as he could, his leg bent slightly out of shape.

A glancing blow to Hount removed him from the fight as well, though Alsha took the opening this afforded her and wedged her sword deep into the armpit of Aika's right forelimb. Bradeth's shot proved true, and it pierced the joint of Aika's left wing where it met her body. The crossbow bolts did little to the demon's face except to irritate it, and Aika had had enough.

She spun with surprising agility despite her injuries, sweeping two more Shades with her tail and slamming Styx out of the sky with her uninjured wing. She then rolled to the side over Alsha and onto some of the still recovering soldiers. When the demon righted herself again, several corpses were stuck to the quills on her back.

Bradeth shot her final arrow, aiming now for the opposite wing. It pierced the cartilage above the joint, wounding but not disabling the limb. Not ready to be out of the fight, Bradeth grabbed the nearest weapon she had access to, a long spear, and rushed toward the demon.

Styx, now favoring a broken wing himself, retrieved a sword from a nearby soldier's corpse and followed Bradeth into the battle. He was no warrior, but that only made Tagren admire him more. Madame Godani, not about to be outdone by her nephew, drew her daggers and rushed the demon as well. Her two companions followed suit, and the battle was joined once again.

All around the battlefield, demons were falling one by one, the allied forces now making short work of the weary creatures. Some of their allies had noticed the fierce battle with Aika and were already making their way toward her. A contingent of Gor archers arrived first. They trusted their aim, and several shots claimed shallow homes in Aika's thick flesh.

She screeched at the Gor and moved as if to bound toward them, but she only made it a couple of feet before she staggered as if struck by a mighty blow. Tagren had to move to the side to get a view of what had happened, and he nearly laughed in amazement at the unexpected sight that awaited him. Kirra had crawled toward Aika and stabbed upward into her underbelly at great risk to himself. She had trampled him slightly as she moved toward the Gor archers, but that had only extended the length of his cut.

Aika's belly now hung open, her blood spilling across the ground. Bradeth took the lead on the other side of the demon, a mighty thrust of her spear piercing the demon's chest. Styx arrived a moment later, and impaled his sword through Aika's foot. Madame Godani leapt into the air with tattoo-aided agility, landing on Aika's snout and ramming both of her daggers into the demon's eyes.

Thrashing and screaming, Aika threw Madame Godani off her, and swept away Bradeth with a swing of her uninjured leg. But she was disoriented and broken, and more forces were arriving by the second to augment the battered fighters. Soldiers swarmed over Aika then, cutting and stabbing her with everything they had.

Tagren closed his eyes and felt Aika's final moments across the bond he shared with all the demons. Naxthul was there as well, and together they shared a brief thought; it was nearly over now. The last of the demon generals had fallen, and soon the rest would follow.

Opening his eyes, Tagren surveyed the battlefield and wished he had the ability to weep. There were less than thirty demons left; Tagren blinked and there were twenty. The forces converged, sensing victory, and five more demons fell. Like the last few grains falling through an hourglass, it only took a few more taps before the last few demons descended to the earth, never to fight again until gravity shifted once more.

The Trial had come to an end, and only the verdict remained to be determined. Two demons remained in the world, one above and one below. Tagren grinned and prepared to meet his death.

 

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