Desolation left the morning air eerie and silent as Xanenax approached the ruined city nestled at the base of the enormous mountain, the top of which was obscured beneath the smoke and clouds. The haze blackened the sky and turned the sun red as embers fell like listless stars coursing aimlessly about the Hævens. Fragments of the steel and stone walls that surrounded the city lay strewn about as if they had been made of clay. Ash from smoldering corpses and buildings obscured Xanenax’s vision, and the air was still warm and harsh in his throat as he breathed, indicating that the carnage had taken place only hours before. As the demon walked the city’s streets, his bare, clawed feet became stained by the pools of blood congealing on the ground, and his black coat and hooded cowl turned gray with soot from the fires.
Walking amidst the shattered buildings, Xanenax made his way to the city square; its once beautiful and ornate stone platform carved out of the bedrock was now fractured by a crater in its center. The dead that Xanenax came across were mutilated, ravaged, and shredded almost beyond recognition. There was more loose gore than intact body parts lying on the city streets. Claw marks decorated the decimated buildings, and some bodies had even been embedded into them, they had been struck with such force. The corpses of the city’s people had already begun to rot, but the feeling of corruption that remained kept even the carrion feeders at bay.
Xanenax snorted in distaste for the gross violence. Graeff, the grunts of the Fallen Horde, were the largest, most monstrous-looking, and lowest caste of demons and were completely mindless, lacking any sense of finesse, skill, or even intelligence in their less destructive activities, let alone in their execution of combat. They simply obliterated whatever stood in their way.
This was not combat, however. This was a massacre.
The only corpses in military armaments were several dozen imperial guards, most of whom fell together in teams near villagers they had presumably been protecting. Instruments never meant for war, like mining picks and smithing hammers, lay scattered alongside swords and shields.
Some of the citizens must have resisted the siege as well. Xanenax thought to himself. Impressive, given most cognizant beings would have been driven mad.
As Xanenax neared the far end of the smoke-shrouded square, he was astonished at the sight of a downed graeff in front of what appeared to have been a temple with a shattered stained-glass ceiling and broken statues. The gargantuan graeff lay facedown in the bloodied cobblestone street with spears, axes, and tools protruding from its corpse. But it had been one graeff out of hundreds. Around the dead demon lay a field of human death, but that did not concern Xanenax. He only cared about why the attack had occurred at all.
Xanenax walked over to the graeff’s corpse and kicked it over to reveal a shredded, blood-red tabard trimmed in black with a gold insignia: a clawed hand with fingers through the eyes of a human skull. The graeff had belonged to a battalion of Xanenax’s own regiment, the Scorned Reavers.
Xanenax’s tightly controlled emotions suddenly burst into a blazing fury which erupted his senses. The world hummed as if it was made of struck strings. The city blurred and the ground churned like the sea. Squaring his posture, he inhaled deeply, and as he exhaled, he subjugated his emotions by crushing them mentally. It proved a crude yet effective method Xanenax employed for reigning in emotions that would otherwise make him lose all sense of self and completely devolve into something beyond his control.
Once his mind had stabilized, he was able to think coherently again. I cannot let this go unanswered. But I cannot let it be motivated by anger. “And now, we will have to fight humanity as well as the angels,” he muttered to himself.
Miserably, endlessly, reality descended closer and closer to the climax of self-destruction. The world had been ruptured and showed no sign of healing, only perpetual degeneration. The image of the Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of the cosmic serpent eating its own tail, came to Xanenax’s mind, and he sneered at the thought that it was about to be consumed by its own voracious hunger.
And then Xanenax heard a restrained sobbing, almost too quiet to be heard even with his honed senses. It came from underneath a wrecked building a few yards behind the collapsed temple. Effortlessly, Xanenax dashed across the square to the collapsed structure and tore through the building’s wall with his clawed hands.
Within the wreckage huddled a young human male, fifteen years old by Xanenax’s guess, of moderate height and wiry build, with a shock of black hair that fell into his green eyes. The youth kneeled, staring at him in horror. Tears filled his terrified eyes, and he fell forward on trembling hands. The boy did not run or plead; he simply wept, handling imminent death the best that his young and traumatized mind could.
Once the child had run out of tears, Xanenax he knelt beside the forsaken child. After a while, the youth met the gaze of Xanenax’s own flaming purple eyes with a defiance that surprised Xanenax.
Xanenax lowered the mask of his cowl and asked in his deeply resonant voice, “What is your name?”
The stunned look on the boy’s face suggested he was shocked that a demon was talking to him rather than trying to devour him.
Lightning began coursing through Xanenax’s veins, and he felt his suppressed emotions begin to ignite; he had already been patient by a demon’s standard. “If I wanted to kill you, you would already be dead.”
“How did you survive?”
Tears, anguish, and terror clouded his face again. “…My frie- ...S-...” This time, the boy collapsed, cried out for a time, and lost consciousness.
Xanenax sighed in exasperation. Then, he stood, looked around, and listened. There was no one, no thing, for miles. Even the woodland creatures had fled the scene of annihilation. The wind was just beginning to dissipate the rising clouds of smoke enough to let in short gasps of sunlight and blow ashes into the surrounding forest, blending the putrid smell of death with the fresh scent of spring.
I cannot afford any distractions, Xanenax thought to himself. He began to walk away when he felt something he had almost forgotten was ever there: humanity. It was quiet, soft, and almost unnoticeable in the frozen-hot stillness of the emotions that Xanenax had tirelessly beaten into submission. But even beneath the layers of his own self-hatred, he felt it.
Xanenax turned to look at the boy, lying in a Hæll that no child could dream of or deserve. He knew if he took the boy, he could not guarantee his safety, but he also knew that if he did not, the child would die.
However, on the off chance that he survives, I could forge him into a weapon. It will take time, but if he is made aware of his potential as a human and fulfills it, he could prove useful in reclaiming the throne from Kira’thaz. The demon’s sardonic smile was of curiosity and amusement, or so Xanenax told himself. Besides, what’s one Hæll for another?
Several minutes later, Xanenax returned to the portal through which he had arrived, located in the remains of a city destroyed during the Rending, and ignored the violent crackling from the portal’s contact with the human he carried over his shoulder as he passed through it.
The sun burned Eron’s eyes as he opened them. His limbs felt like lead, his lungs burned, and his head felt like it might explode as blood pounded into his brain.
“I told you to jump further out from the rocks.” Sarya’s voice sounded like it came from a cavern, even though she was bent over right above him.
Eron just stared at her flatly, quietly trying to shrink back into the murky blackness from which Sarya had pulled him. After Sarya had taunted and dared him to jump off of the waterfall that was their usual hangout, his pride dictated that he take her dare without even taking off his dark tunic, pants, or even his leather boots. He pretended to himself that it was the water he had nearly drowned from that tied up his brain, rather than the mouth to mouth Sarya had resuscitated him with.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that embarrassing,” Sarya chided “It would have been way worse if you broke your butt or something. That I would never let you live down.” She beamed down at him, her dripping dark hair framing her tawny round face and playful brown eyes.
Eron felt his cheeks redden even more as he wondered if the intimate contact had been unimportant to Sarya. “Didn’t help that your yelling broke my concentration. And I wouldn’t have almost drowned if you had just stopped laughing.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t help it,” she replied and made a funny face at him. “Plus, I didn’t know that you hit your thick head.”
“I swear, you are the most annoying girl in all of Ma’ro, if not the whole of bleeding Iranor.”
“I know. But like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”
“Lucky me,” Eron muttered, blinking his eyes and shaking his head to clear his mind, pushing his frustration to the back of his mind. Sarya was treating him like a younger brother, as usual. It had only been recently that Eron himself had considered that there could be anything more between them, but he was becoming more and more confused by the conflicting emotions fighting over how he should feel towards her. Eron knew he loved her. Recently, however, what that love meant kept changing. Rapidly.
“Aw, don’t look so sad,” Sarya said playfully. “Come on, let’s see if Essa has something to wrap that cut in.”
Through his bleary vision, Eron looked down and saw what at first looked like a severe gash running down his upper left arm. On closer inspection, although the wound looked severe, most of the red was just bloody water, rather than rivulets of his lifeblood leaking from him. He flexed it and flinched as his muscle ached, though the arm didn’t feel broken.
“Awwww, would you wike Mommy Essa to kiss your arm an’ make you feel bedder?” Sarya teased.
“Shuttit, and help me up,” Eron replied as he finally managed to put a cocky grin on his face and lifted his uninjured arm.
Sarya hauled him up easily. Years of gallivanting around town with the occasionally stolen treat, fleeing from the authorities because of petty crimes, and adventuring in the woods surrounding Ma’ro had left them both much stronger and more agile than most children their age.
“If we don’t hurry, we’re going to miss the rest of the festival,” Sarya said. “Come on, I’ll race you.”
“I don’t think I can,” Eron said weakly, gingerly lifting the not-actually-that-bloodied limb. “I mean, I just fell-” Eron broke off as he darted towards town to get a head start.
“You ass!” Sarya half yelled, half laughed as she charged after him.
“Takes one to know one!” Eron hollered back and then focused on running. Even with a head start, he had to focus if he was going to beat Sarya. Her long legs gave her a decided edge, and he had never won a race against her, even when using underhanded tactics. For as long as Eron had known her, Sarya had been better than him at everything: running, archery contests, Captain Rimor’s combat training, and even in the clever games they both came up with. It was only fair that Eron gave himself every advantage he could.
As Eron rushed through the forest, away from the waterfall and creek towards the winding trail that led to Ma’ro’s main gate, he bounded over fallen trees and rocks and pushed off the edges closest to his destination to accelerate himself even more. The warm spring sun would have been smothering if it weren’t for his damp clothes and the cool breeze whispering through the leaves as he sprinted through the lush greenery. Sunlight trickled down in patches between the thick foliage, painting the forest in luminescent vibrancy. Birds and small animals fled from Eron as he sped by, squawking or yowling indignantly. He didn’t like scaring creatures, but he felt exhilaration as the forest came alive around him.
“Hey” Sarya calmly remarked beside him. Eron was so surprised he almost tripped, but quickly caught himself. “Maybe if you quit daydreaming all the time, you would actually win.” Sarya beamed at him innocently before darting off ahead, her full speed obviously outmatching Eron.
At the next clearing, Eron turned to his left in the direction of the river. The waterfall he had dived into earlier was a runoff from a broad river that had many forks which snaked around the forest. The main vein eventually came to the base of the Northern Mountains and winding near Ma’ro and then to the east; to the west, the river coursed straight to the ocean. Eron figured the river would lead him on the most direct route to the city, whereas Sarya’s path would force her to arc around along the main road. However, Eron knew his shortcut would require him to navigate the forest and then go through the Ruins.
Just to the west of Ma’ro, the Ruins were the shattered shell of a once great city that had been warped during the Rending. The massive buildings’ metal frames had been twisted so that they resembled trees and branches of wrought metal which blocked out the sun where the canopy was densest.
Although the Rending had happened almost five centuries ago, the Ruins bore a feeling of a coldness that touched the soul, a sorrow that burrowed into the mind so deeply, not even the warmth of the sun could melt it away. The metal itself was corroded, some of it crumbling to the touch. However, within the diminished, rusted shells, a core of intact material remained. Once Ma’ro had grown into a city in need of defenses, much of the usable metal from the Ruins had been retrieved and was reused as patchwork reinforcements for the city’s walls. Only the deepest part of the Ruins, through which the river ran, remained. No one in Ma’ro knew how to dismantle buildings that reached upwards of several hundred feet without the industrial tools of the past; the city smiths had crude or ancient steel tools of their own, but humanity’s infrastructure had never recovered after the Rending, so extensive and universal was the devastation.
Eron had visited the Ruins once with Sarya almost three years ago, and he had been overwhelmed with dread and heartache. The enormous metal trees seemed to scream in tragic silence at him, soundlessly lamenting whatever terrible fate had befallen their inhabitants. The Ruins were a place of anguish and death.
Which was worth the risk if Eron was going to beat Sarya. He could only lose so many times before the prospect of winning overshadowed self-preservation.
He wanted to impress her, just once.
Though the Ruins dwarfed the surrounding forest, the lush vegetation kept the towering buildings hidden behind the dense canopy of trees arching overhead. It was only when the sun ceased to peak through the trees that Eron knew he was getting close. He couldn’t even see the transformed structures themselves until the treeline ended and the verdant vegetation was replaced by metal towers whose frames splayed out at every angle. As he slowed down, gaping in amazement at the sight, he also noticed that he no longer heard any animals or birds. Several moments passed before Eron realized he had stopped moving entirely, except for the shivers of fear convulsing throughout his body. Steeling himself, he took a deep breath and began to slowly walk into the Ruins.
When Eron and Sarya had ventured into one of the buildings a few years ago, they hadn’t seen anyone, but the icy cold dread that haunted the place infected their hearts and minds. Despite their fear, they had gone into one of the steel towers, and their fascination drew them halfway across the first floor before the building’s emptiness and ominous silence sent them both running out screaming.
Shaking his head, Eron tore himself from his petrifying memory and began to run as fast as he could, figuring that he would need to find the river as soon as possible to lead him back home before Sarya. Luckily, it was relatively simple to navigate the hard and flat perpendicular broken streets of the Ruins. Eron focused on breathing and tried desperately to ignore the sheer terror that crawled across his skin as he ran in the shade of the twisted monuments.
Eron knew that if he continued zig-zagging in a northeast pattern, alternating left then right whenever two of the perpendicular roads met, he would eventually reach the river. His echoing footsteps and his pounding heartbeat were the only sounds he heard as he ran through the city. After what felt like an eternity, the sound of rushing water arose from the silence and slowly became louder and louder until it rose to a dull roar.
Finally, Eron thought to himself as he turned a corner. If Sarya wasn’t so damn confusing, I wouldn’t have to go to such ridiculous lengths to know if-
A blinding light interrupted Eron’s thoughts and forced him to shield his eyes. As his eyes adjusted, he began to see the sun blazing in front of him between the rows of towers and reflecting off of the rushing river, painting the city with the vibrant colors of the impending evening.
Those colors paled in comparison to the crimson light coming from the glowing orb that floated only a few feet off the ground in the middle of the street a few dozen yards in front of Eron. The orb bore strange markings; five runes that he could not read glowed faintly. Around the orb were lines of flickering red script which spun and pulsed wildly and hypnotically in a chaotic yet steady pattern, as if Eron stared at the heart of some arcane beast.
Eron couldn’t stand to look at the orb, but neither could he resist the desire to touch it. The pulses continued, and Eron didn’t even realize that he had begun shuffling towards it. Then his body staggered into a run of its own accord, faster than he had sped down the paved roads. As he came closer and closer, the pulses of light intensified, and Eron vaguely noticed the pulses matched the beating of his own racing heart. Both pounded more rapidly the closer he came to the orb, and the impulse to make contact with the orb became stronger and threatened to subsume him.
Fear and self-consciousness suddenly came back to Eron, and he pulled himself to the side when the orb was only a few feet away, but his right hand glanced off the orb’s surface. Though he barely grazed it, the orb shot excruciating pain that spread up his arm and throughout his body, throwing him into darkness.
Eron awoke for the second time that day in a bewildered state. The pain had receded and left him feeling numb and jittery. He glanced at his right arm but found no trace of contact with the orb, which hung in the air as it had before, only its cryptic symbols had ceased rotating and held a steady light.
Slowly rising to his feet, Eron quickly looked around him and found not much else had changed, but the sun had sunk considerably since he first entered the Ruins, deepening the shadows surrounding him and intensifying the already overwhelming emotions gnawing at him.
Eron stared at the orb for a while. He couldn’t find any change in the orb’s state, apart from its stillness. Though he felt like he could barely stand, he slowly began moving past the orb. He knew he had to tell Essa, the city’s high priestess and custodian of the orphanage. She would know what to do.
She had to.
Eron’s gaze remained transfixed on the orb as he stumbled to the river until he turned the corner and immediately began sprinting as fast as his exhausted legs could manage.
And so he didn’t see, just after he turned the corner, an elk, fully grown and with majestic antlers, approach the orb with the same crimson light emanating from its eyes. He did not see the buck lift its head as an invisible force slashed open its throat. The elk didn’t make a sound as its lifeblood flew up into the orb and its corpse was drained completely, setting the first of the orb’s five runes ablaze.