Desolation left the morning air eerie and silent. Xanenax approached the ruined city nestled at the base of the enormous mountain whose top flew out of sight 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. The broken walls of steel and stone that surrounded the city lay strewn about as if 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.
Xanenax made his way to the city square; its once beautiful and ornate stone platform carved out of the bedrock was now cracked and shattered. Every building in sight was demolished, and the rubble of the city was decorated with the corpses of its people. The feeling of corruption that remained kept even the carrion feeders at bay.
The silent ruins of the city were a testament to the raw power Xanenax’s demonic brethren possessed. 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 wreckage and some bodies had even been embedded into the buildings, they had been struck with such force.
Xanenax snorted in distaste for such overt carnage. Most graeff, the largest, most monstrous-looking, and lowest caste of demons, were completely mindless and lacked any sense of finesse, skill, or even intelligence in their less violent 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 wind was just beginning to dissipate the rising clouds of smoke enough to let in short gasps of sunlight and blow the ashes into the surrounding forest, blending the putrid smell of death with the fresh scent of spring.
There were dozens of imperial guards eviscerated and torn apart across the city. Most 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.
It seems some of the citizens tried to resist 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 square, he was astonished at the sight of a downed graeff in front of what appeared to have been a temple with a shattered colored-glass ceiling and once-proud, broken statues. The gargantuan demon lay facedown in the bloodied dirt, spears, axes, and tools protruding from its corpse. But it had been one graeff out of hundreds. The surrounding dead villagers were a field of gore surrounding the dead demon.
Xanenax sighed and walked over to the graeff’s corpse, kicking 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 army, the Scorned Reavers.
Xanenax’s tightly controlled emotions suddenly flared into blazing fury.
Wrath tore open Xanenax’s senses. The world hummed as if it was made of struck strings. The disorientation kept Xanenax from thinking clearly for a few moments. Squaring his posture, he inhaled deeply. As he exhaled, he subjugated his emotions by crushing them mentally. Xanenax found it a crude yet effective method for reigning in emotions that would otherwise make him lose all sense of self and completely devolve into something beyond his control. Xanenax was one of the Exhili, humans who had been transformed into demons during the Rending, a cataclysm that had nearly destroyed the entire Material World. From what Xanenax understood, the hatred, rage, and fear that festered in humanity’s hearts were now reflected in their outer form, though he didn’t know why some of humanity remained as such. Whatever the reason, Xanenax had seen countless demons fall to madness, and he had found no other method that could dependably restrain his overwhelming emotions other than entombing them mentally. With Lucifer missing, as second in command Xanenax could ill afford to let his focus slip, and this brutal method kept his mind clear, focused, cold, and calculating.
Xanenax vowed to learn the truth as to why his army had attacked without his knowledge or authorization as much force as necessary. But he could not let it be motivated by anger, lest he fell into rank with the mindless rabble that filled the Fallen Horde.
“And now, we will have to fight humanity as well as the angels,” he muttered to himself.
Miserably, endlessly, reality slowly seemed to be on the climax of self-destruction. The world had been ruptured and showed no sign of healing, only perpetual disintegration. The Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake 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.
This had to be have been Ki-
And then he heard a restrained sobbing, almost too quiet to hear even with his honed senses. It came from underneath a wrecked building a few yards behind the collapsed temple. He bounded across the square to land beside the building and lifted the shattered roof with a clawed hand.
Beneath 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. He did not run or plead; he simply wept, handling imminent death the best that a young, broken, and scarred adolescent mind could.
Xanenax waited until the boy ran out of tears, and then 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. “What is your name?” Xanenax asked in his deeply resonant voice.
The youth seemed too shocked to reply, hearing a demon engage him in conversation rather than simply kill him.
Xanenax felt his emotions begin to flare up again; he had already been patient by a demon’s standard. “We wouldn’t be speaking if I wanted you dead.”
“How did you survive?”
His tears and fear clouded his face again. “…My frie- ...S-...” This time, the boy collapsed beneath the weight of his grief, cried out for a time, and lost consciousness.
Xanenax sighed in exasperation. He stood, looked around, and listened. There was no one, no thing, for miles. All wild creatures had fled the scene of annihilation.
He began to walk away when he felt something he had almost forgotten it 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 through 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. The demon’s sardonic smile was of curiosity and amusement, or so he told himself. “Well,” he said to himself, “what’s one Hæll for another?”
Xanenax returned to the portal through which he had arrived, ignoring the violent crackling from the portal’s contact with the human he carried over his shoulder.
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. He wasn’t sure what was tying his brain up more: the water he had nearly drowned from, or the mouth to mouth Sarya had given him.
“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 dirty blonde hair framing her round, tawny face and playful brown eyes.
Eron felt his cheeks redden even more, mostly from wondering if the intimate contact had been unimportant to Sarya. She was only a little older than he was, and she had been the first person who had talked to him about what boys and girls did as they grew older. They had grown up like siblings in Ma’ro, one of the oldest cities of the Iranorian kingdom, which arose from the ashes of human civilization after it had been destroyed in the Rending. Eron and Sarya had both been at the temple’s orphanage for as long as he could remember, and she had been everything to him: a sister, a shoulder to cry on, an ardent defender and trainer against bullies, and a close friend with whom to whisper secrets and share laughs with by candlelight long after they were supposed to be in bed asleep. Eron knew he loved her; recently, however, what that love meant kept changing. Rapidly.
“Don’t look so sad, Eron! Come on, let’s see if Essa has something to wrap that cut.”
Eron looked down and saw what at first looked like a severe gash running down his upper left arm. On second glance, the cut was shallow. Although his arm looked bloody, most of the red was just bloody water, rather than rivulets of his lifeblood leaking from him. He flexed it and found it gingerly tender, but not broken.
“Awwww, would you wike Mama Essa to kiss you arm an’ make you feel bedder?” Sarya teased.
“Shut it, and help me up,” Eron replied, finally managing to put a cocky grin on his face and lifting his uninjured arm.
Sarya hauled him up easily. Years of gallivanting around town with the occasionally stolen treat and fleeing from the authorities, together with 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.”
“Seriously? I mean, look at my arm!” Eron cried, dramatically lifting the not-actually-that-bloodied limb. “And I just fell-” Eron broke off as he darted towards town to get a head start.
“You ass!” Sarya half yelled, half laughed, charging after him.
“Takes one to know one!” Eron hollered back and then focused on running. Even with a head start, he had to concentrate if he was going to beat Sarya. Her long legs gave her a decided edge, and he rarely won races, even when using underhanded tactics. 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. Eron was always at a disadvantage with Sarya. It was only fair that he give himself any advantage he could.
As Eron rushed through the forest, away from the waterfall and creek towards the trail that led to Ma’ro’s main gate, he bounded over fallen trees and rocks, pushing off the edges closest to his destination to accelerate himself even more. The sun would have been almost smothering if it weren’t for the cool breeze whispering through the leaves and the wind Eron made as he sprinted through the lush greenery. Sunlight trickled down in patches between the thick foliage, painting the forest in the fresh vibrancy. Birds and small animals leaped from his path as he dashed through, squawking or yowling indignantly as he ran by. He didn’t like scaring creatures, but he felt exhilaration as the forest came alive around him.
It was moments like this that made Spring his favorite time of year.
“Hey” Sarya calmly remarked beside him. Eron turned so quickly in surprise, he almost fell on his face, tripping over a root, but quickly caught himself. “If you quit daydreaming all the time, maybe you would actually win.” Sarya beamed at him innocently before darting off ahead, her full speed obviously outmatching Eron.
Eron quickly pivoted to his left at the next clearing. If he couldn’t beat her in speed, he would have to go for strategy.
The broad river Eron had dived into earlier had many forks that snaked around the forest, the main vein eventually coming to the base of the Northern Mountains to run 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. Eron just had to navigate the forest and then go through the Ruins.
The Ruins were the shattered shell of a once great city next to which Ma’ro had been built, and they were a terrible sight to behold. The massive buildings’ metal frames had been twisted and distorted so that they resembled trees, branches of wrought metal blocking out the sun where the canopy was densest. Some of the ancient buildings had fallen over, the ruptured ground toppling them atop one another.
Even with the centuries of Nature slowly reclaiming the Ruins, the land 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. Over the centuries, most of the debris had been cleared away and the industrialized steel that could be retrieved was reused as patchwork reinforcements for Ma’ro’s city walls. Only the deepest part of the Ruins, through which the river ran, remained. No one in Ma’ro had figured out how to dismantle buildings that reached upwards of several hundred feet and that were made of wrought steel; although the city smiths had crude or ancient steel tools of their own, and humanity’s infrastructure had never recovered after the Rending, so extensive and universal was the devastation.
The one time Eron had visited the Ruins with Sarya, he had become 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.
Eron ran as fast as he could, figuring that he would need to find the river as soon as possible to lead him back home. Luckily, it was relatively simple to navigate the hard and flat perpendicular broken streets of the Ruins.
Though the Ruins dwarfed the surrounding forest, the lush vegetation kept the towering buildings hidden behind the vast canopy of trees arching overhead, and 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 towers whose structure twisted out at every angle. As he slowed down, gaping in amazement at the sight, he also noticed that he didn’t hear any animals or birds. Several moments passed before Eron realized fear had frozen his steps and sent shivers 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, horrifying the both of them while drawing them in, deeper into the dark depths of the strange tower. They both had run out screaming before they went halfway across the first floor.
Shaking his head, Eron tore himself from his terrified reverie and began to run. Eron focused on breathing, trying desperately to ignore the sheer terror that crawled across his skin as he ran in the shade of the dark monuments.
He knew that the village lay generally to the east, and if he continued zig-zagging in a northeast pattern, he would eventually reach the river. He sped down the paved streets, taking a turn left and right whenever two of the perpendicular roads intersected. There was very little vegetation in the Ruins. What grew there was wilted and frail, maybe due to lack of sun or because of the evil feelings that sucked the life out of everything in the area.
As Eron continued, the sound of rushing water became louder and louder, slowly rising to a dull roar that echoed down the dead halls of the forgotten city.
Finally, Eron thought to himself as he turned the corner. If Sarya wasn’t so damn irritating, I wouldn’t have to go to such ridiculous lengths to know if-
A blinding light broke Eron’s thoughts like glass 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, the light melding into 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 hundred yards in front of Eron. The orb bore strange markings; five runes that he could not read glowed faintly. Around the orb spun lines of flickering red script that looked to be the same language, spinning wildly and hypnotically in a chaotic yet steady pattern. The light of the orb pulsed while the glyphs spun around it as if Eron stared at the heart of some arcane beast.
Eron couldn’t stand to look at it. But neither could he resist the desire to touch it. As the pulses continued, Eron didn’t even notice that he had begun shuffling towards it, first staggering and then running faster than he had down the corridors. As he came closer and closer, the pulsing of light increased, and vaguely Eron noticed it matched the beating of his own racing heart, pounding more and more rapidly, stronger and stronger, threatening to subsume his head and heart apart.
Fear and self-consciousness suddenly came back to Eron, and he threw himself out of the path of the orb when it was only a few feet away, but his right hand glanced off the orb. Though he barely grazed it, the orb sent courses of excruciating pain roaring up his arm that consumed him and threw him into darkness.
Eron awoke for the second time that day on his back, dazed and confused. 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. The sun had sunk considerably since he first entered the Ruins, deepening the shadows and 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. Eron rose on unsteady legs and 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 lingered on the orb as he stumbled to the river, never letting it leave his sight until he turned the corner and he immediately began sprinting as fast as he could.
And so he didn’t see, just after he turned the corner, an elk, fully grown and with majestic antlers, approach the orb, the same crimson light as the orb’s radiating from its eyes, and 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, draining the corpse completely, and setting the first of orb’s five runes ablaze.