Sora slammed awake.
His body trembled from the cold, his clothes, soaked. Icy rain pelted his face like a volley of numbing, liquid arrows. Severe pain drummed his head. He felt sick and his stomach churned until he heaved up a hot helping of vomit. Dizzy and blind, black cloth concealed his vision and a tie of rope constricted his wrists. Around his waist clenched an immense amount of pressure, and while his perception was utterly skewed, he could sense he was being hauled through the air. He called desperately for Jynn.
There was no reply.
He could hardly hear himself think over the turmoil of the monsoon. The storm was worse than he ever could have imagined. He struggled to break his wrists free, twisting and jerking at the bond, but his efforts proved useless. He reached for his sword, “Damn.” – gone. He furiously patted his cloak and was relieved to find the handle of a dagger still concealed underneath. He pulled it from its sheath and with the handle gripped between his teeth, he began sawing the ties at his wrists. With steady effort the rope gave and Sora fumbled to remove the veil from his eyes.
Horror struck him: a fear he hadn’t felt in a long while.
The creature’s stygian wings battered the air like a blacksmith’s hammer. One of its feral talons locked around his waist and in the other was Jynn, limp and unconscious.
He saw dawn rising on the eastern horizon, but the storm showed no sign of ceasing. He called out the casters’ name, drowned out by the quarrel of thunder and lightning. He called again—many times—yet nothing in response. Dread began to settle in his mind, and he prayed against the possibility of Jynn’s death. With another glimpse he caught the bird craning is monstrous neck toward him. Sora did what he thought was best, given the situation. He made slack his body, hoping the winged beast hadn’t noticed, and hung there as if dead.
Sora felt the crow’s eyes drilling into the back of his skull. Every second felt like an eternity, and he had no way of knowing if the nightmare still watched. His thoughts were a stampede of panicked horicons, dashing along with his frayed nerves. He quickly realized that remaining still was as hopeless as it was practical. His entire body trembled within the gusts of frigid air, and if crows are the symbols of wisdom the tales say they are, this one would have seen right though his ploy.
A sudden scream penetrated the line of tension. Jynn! Sora’s eyes shot open and nearly sank back into their sockets. Through an upside-down glare he saw enormous, hellish eyes of lambent crimson laid under a gnarled beak. The crow unleashed a shrill caw he was sure could be heard across the region.
Jynn had awakened, fighting against the beast’s grasp through an onslaught of curses.
“Sora?” the caster replied. “Is that you?”
“Jynn, listen close. Give me your hands. Now!”
And so Jynn did. Sora noticed the bird’s gaze had returned skyward; its wings beating faster against the storm. Constrained within its grasp he struggled to reach the casters hanging from the other talon. The dagger quivered in his hand, and he couldn’t decide if it was from the bitter cold or the fear that had set in his heart. He began cutting through the rope, severing its thick twine little by little until it gave.
With his hands freed, Jynn removed his blind and caught sight of what laid in wait. All but one unpleasant word failed him as he exhaled.
The bird began descending, and quickly. It unleashed another deafening caw.
“Jynn, is there anything you can do?”
“Magi? Not a chance.” Jynn refused his plea. “It would kill me. I’m completely drained.”
Sora had already assumed the worst. “Jynn!” He glanced at the dagger. “On my word, be ready.”
“Wait,” Jynn bleated, “ready for wha—”
Sora sunk the dagger into the beast’s talon and dragged the blade in a ripping motion. The crow released its grip, twisting and shaking its limbs with followed by a distressed caw. They both clenched the bird’s leg, like frightened children embracing their mother. Sora clasped the dagger in his fist and thrust it repeatedly into the bird’s belly. A blackened, powdery substance spewed out of the wound. He had never seen anything quite like it—didn’t much care—but it wasn’t blood, that much he was sure. Rather like dust, dark and dry.
The crow yielded a screech loud enough to make them wince. It fell, flailing its giant wings in an anguished spiral. Wet, slick, and exhausted, Sora struggled to hold on, constantly adjusting his grip with the bird’s movements. They descended ever closer to the ground, fast. “Brace yourself!”
It wasn’t but a moment before the bird crashed hard with a bellow as heavy as the roaring thunder. It landed on its back, rendering Sora and Jynn its body to break most of the fall. Sora strained every muscle to stand, offering a hand to Jynn who sat before him. The crow laid injured, violently twitching and wailing with its awful caws. Ahead of them, face down in the mud, was It—a being of the black; a fable, a myth, manifested into reality before them. A demon.
“Are you hurt?” Sora asked, slinging what grime he could from his garments.
Jynn winced and held his side. “I’m fine, a little bruised is all.” He shot Sora a look of doubt. “You don’t think—”
“What else could it be?”
Sora took a brief moment to collect his thoughts in a conflicting state of marvel and fear. With that, he and the caster set off, determined to go as far and as fast their drenched, injured, and exhausted bodies would allow.
He noticed Jynn’s hand return to his side. “You sure you’re well?”
“I’m fine,” Jynn said. “Damn you and your impulses, Sora! What were you thinking?”
“Who was it that voted to climb into the ravine?”
Sora watched as Jynn began to speak, but his words fell short. “Seems like a good idea now, aye?”
“Well, if I had known I’d be knocked unconscious and hurled through the air in the talons of a godsdamn bird, then aye, I’d say so.” Jynn groaned. “But it is doubtless in what we saw. A demon roams your plains. What do you make of this?”
“I cannot answer that, but I am quite certain this is what the elder—” Sora dug his heels into a halt. “My sword! The rider has my sword. And your bow.”
Jynn cocked him a sharp eye, followed by an expression inferably grim. “You must be jesting? Leave it. We go while we can.”
“Jynn, you know what that blade means to me. We must go back. Besides, only the gods know where we are. These are strange times; what else lies out there? If something were to rise we’d be defenseless. Our end will be the same. You’re drained. You think this measly dagger will be enou—”
“Okay, okay!” Jynn interrupted Sora’s protests, pausing and turning back to look the way they’d came. “I’ll help on one condition.”
“Bold words to demand terms with a king,” Sora jived. “But speak them.”
“If we make it out alive.” Jynn paused. “You must allow me a kiss from Ana—before the wedding.”
Sora only looked at him for a moment, perplexed, but it was just what he’d expect the caster to say. Absurd and always at the most unsuitable of times, and he loved him for it. “Done.” He nodded and extended a hand, which Jynn met with a firm shake. Not knowing what they would do if the beast should attack, they turned and trekked back, treading cautiously as they neared where they had landed. They sought their weapons, but their hope turned to dismay. There lay no crow—no rider even. No sword nor bow at all. “Gone?”
Nothing remained but a trail from the fall, rippling through the plains in muddied waves. Large feathers peppered the ground in black, muddy clumps. Sora spat a curse, picked up a feather, and glanced it over. Most definitely one of the biggest he had ever seen. With finger and thumb he wiped away the mud. The black feather was numbingly cold and unease settled over him. He could feel it—the corruption—pulsing through it in invisible, malevolent waves. It was the same black as he had seen all those years ago; the color of the betrayer, the endless abyss, the mark of ruin. The same dead-black that laid in his father’s eyes. The colors of Hell.
He folded the feather in half and pushed it into the lining of his drenched cloak. He turned to meet Jynn’s stare. The caster stood silent. They were stranded, and defenseless at that. He thought of Ana and how he had promised her he’d be fine; the way she always seemed to make him eat his own words. He wondered what had come of Eoshi, hoping his scaled friend was still alive. He thought of the crow and its hellish stare—the feather, the black. He thought of his father.
He noticed Jynn’s mouth moving, but lost in his thoughts he heard nothing. “Forgive me, Jynn, say again.”
“I asked what plan Your Grace had,” Jynn repeated.
Sora sighed. “What other choice than walk? The bird carried us east, toward the Sandsea it seems.” He surveyed the area. Visibility was limited, but he could tell they were still in the plains. “Our best option is to head north-west and hope we come across Dry Run, follow it back to the bridge. If they are alive, our mounts should still be at the crossing. Eoshi wouldn’t leave.” Or at least I hope he wouldn’t.
Jynn hunkered into his cloak. It didn’t much matter, as it served little to no warmth. It was wet and cold. Terribly cold. “What makes you think they’ll be waiting? We have no rations, no supplies, and only a dagger as a weapon. Beasts have gone mad, demons roam the skies, and storms form from nothing. I hate to say it, Sora, but I, for once in my life, fear that we may not make it back alive.” He grabbed at his side. “If all else, we’ll freeze to death.”
Sora raised his head in laughter. “You deprive a caster of his magi and they become useless as pigeon shit. White-faced, staining the monuments of will. Where is your will, kin?” He mocked the gatekeep. “What is this hallow shell of a man that travels witcha?”
Jynn smiled. “We will see if you laugh when I slip the Queen a bit of tongue.”
“Or when I slip this boot up your arse.” Sora returned the smile. “Come, caster, we live another day.”
He judged the direction from the eastern dawn. They set out northwest as the storm continued to pound. Streams of lightning cast their silhouettes across the plains. They moved long enough that Sora could no longer feel his limbs; not that he really had felt them prior. Everything had gone nearly dead-numb. His muscles and joints throbbed with the pain of constant shivering; his exposed hands and face in frozen agony. The cold bit to the bone and, in truth, Sora realized there was a chance they may not make it out alive. He looked behind; Jynn had slowed his movements to a crawl. “Jynn?”
The caster’s head hung limp to his chest. He made no reply, hesitantly taking step by slow step. Sora wasn’t quite sure how much longer he could walk in the frigid monsoon, but he knew if he didn’t do something Jynn would die. Would die right here before him, and the gods be damned if the work of a demon would take another life he held close. The harsh reality was there was nothing he could do. What could he do? The fault was his own for going alone. “Jynn, talk to me. Say something.”
Jynn said nothing.
“Think of the castles, the warm beds, the strong ales, the women. Hear me, Jynn. Give me something.” He took the casters’ arm over his shoulder. Jynn winced and Sora watched the hand return to Jynn’s side.
He finally saw.
“By the gods, Jynn! What happened?”
A hole bore though his cloak and tunic. Sora took Jynn’s hand to see it painted in blood, quickly washed by the rain; his body punctured right below the ribs. “Why not tell me? This the crows doing? A talon?” Sora checked the wound; it wasn’t too deep, half a palm in size, but who knew how long he had been bleeding. He wondered why Jynn had kept it from him. Throwing jests to save me from worry?
The caster fell to his knees. Sora’s stomach churned with the sick feeling he associated with fear taking its twisted hold. Through the hood he could see the caster’s face, pale. Deathly pale. “Jynn!” he yelled, his voiced laced with hysteria. “You crazy bastard, don’t you die on me!”
He knew that even if he’d known of the wound prior, it wouldn’t have made any difference. It would have only slowed them down that much more, and they had walked a good ways. The sun behind them hung mid-morning, which was strange in its own right; strange he could see the dawn beyond the storm, way out in skies of clear, but no matter of how far they had walked the rains followed.
His mind scrambled to seek options, but it found none—helpless, lost, and enthralled in a storm. And this cold, this bitter cold from rains lasting half a day, still exhibited no sign of stopping. He thought of the feather and the way it felt: dismal, a wretched cold beyond norm. The storm felt this way. The Crowrider. He recalled an old tale; remembered the book, remembered the demon who rode amongst the winged beast inked onto the cover. The Riders Storm.
Lightning flashed like a surge of realization.
The demon. It made sense, and it surprised Sora that it took him this long to see it. Then again, there wasn’t a moment to really stop and reminisce of old stories. The demon had trapped them in what would be their sodden grave. It was the storm.
He hauled Jynn onto his back and moved forward. “Eoshi!”
He called several times. It was a shot in the dark, but those shots were all he had. Nothing called back. Nothing came. Not that he expected it to.
“Jynn, are you there? Talk to me, kin. Don’t you die on me; I’m going to get you out of this. I swear it on my name. On my word, I swear I’ll get you home. I’ll get us home.” The promise fell from his lips, but this was the first time he felt his words ring utterly hollow. Did he mean what he said? He wanted to, but some sick feeling in his heart told him this could very possibly be their grave. Would anyone find them? Would the demon take their corpses? Ana.
He heard a noise, a sort of snarl. He pushed the thoughts away and snapped his neck to his left to catch sight to a giant lizard-like creature scampering around blindly, smelling the air. A gnawer had awoke, from when he yelled for his mount he assumed. He noted it didn’t look cheerful, no surprise there either. As he had heard before, they had become hostile. Not long before Haede’s death, he received news of a single gnawer destroying an entire merchant caravan, the thought of it shook him. He took some slow steps backward and watched the gnawer follow. The blood! It has scent of Jynn’s blood, he realized. The rain provided good deterrence, but what gnawers lacked in vision, they gained in hearing and smell, pretty exceptional considering the downpour. He rolled his shoulders to get a better hold of Jynn. The caster moaned and with that brought him both relief and concern.
He walked backwards and unsheathed his dagger. The gnawer came that much closer. The short piece of steel trembled in his hand, simply holding it was more painful than one could imagine. His knuckles felt as if they would shatter if he gripped any tighter. He steadily walked backward and the gnawer inched closer by the second. It raised its head and met him eye to eye.
The gnawer opened its wicked jaws with a loud trill. Sora stumbled, with the extra weight, he turned and tripped against his own feet. In that descent, he remembered how he had laughed at his clumsy messenger for doing the same mere hours ago, now, not so nearly as funny. Both the dagger and caster fell from his grasp, all landed hard. The gnawer roared. Sora immediately scrambled to his feet, lunging for the blade. The gnawer moved in, head low, serpentine. It snarled showing rows of serrated teeth. “Shit, shit, shit!” He readied what remained of his strength, blade in a fist, hilt down.
The skies resonated with a caw. The crow. The gnawer stopped abruptly and craned its thick neck skyward.
Sora didn’t hesitate to seize the moment. He vaulted himself onto the gnawers back, wrapping his stiff, aching legs around its throat. The beast growled. He clasped the dagger in two hands and drove the blade into one of the beast’s beady eyes, gratingly twisting the blade in the canal. The gnawer howled. It bucked and rose on two legs with a spin and jerk. Sora locked heel in foot. He withdrawed his dagger. With it, came nerves and what was left on an eye, dangling grotesquely from the end of the blade, leaving the beast a bloody and rather brutalized empty socket.
Above, the crow again voiced its caw. Below the gnawer continued its distressed howling. Sora flicked the eye from the dagger and went for the other, but not with steel. He dug into the socket with his frozen fingers, clawing out the eye with his bare hands. Somewhere inside him, he felt as if a flame had ignited. Not in the sense of warmth, but a like a blaze of adrenaline, and it burned like two hells. He felt his mouth quirk at its corner as he ripped out its other eye. He had never felt this kind of feeling before. This burning inside, it slightly unnerved him. A sick feeling hit him as he glanced at the beady pupil staring back at him. A part of him suddenly wondered what it’d feel like to crush it; wondered if it would run like honey and jam between his fingers.
And so, he did. And so, it was true.
The beast roared, sprawling about in a prance; in one leap, it damned near came down upon Jynn. Sora shoved the dagger down beast’s ear canal with a trained precision. Even for something as vicious as a hostile gnawer, its anguished howls would bring anyone’s heart sorrow. He yanked out the dagger and slid it relentlessly into the beasts neck. Out and in – out and in, over and over until he finally embed the dagger into its skull. The gnawer’s legs buckled. Its howling met an end.
Sora recovered and stood watching the rain wash his red stained hands. The rain was cold, but the blood . . . Warm.
He eyes scanned for Jynn. He saw the caster lying where he had dropped him. He ran over and took a knee, laying an ear to Jynn’s chilled face. Chilled really beyond an understatement, but he heard what he wanted to hear. The rasped ebb and flow of Jynn’s faint breath. “Stay with me, kin.” He cut his own cloak to pieces until nothing but tatters remained sprawled across his back; enough to make a makeshift bandage to dress Jynn’s wound. The fate of the caster rested beyond his knowledge, but he would do everything he could for the man he called friend. Many summers had passed since he’d come to know the miraculous, Jynn Thorn. Gods, the things we’d get into, he thought. This wasn’t the first time the two had a run in with an angry gnawer. One of the last, it was Jynn who had saved him, AND they escaped with the egg. Magi wasn’t the only thing Jynn excelled at either, he was quite the cook and that day he learned fried gnawer eggs were delicious.
He stood and made back for the creature and pulled the dagger from its sheath of bone. It took everything he had to roll the creature over. He drove the blade into a point right below the gnawer’s throat and filleted the creature neck down. Its organs oozed out from inside. Above he heard the crow again, louder than ever. It seemed close. He couldn’t see it, but he felt it circling them above and he understood what the demon was trying to do. He returned to the thoughts of his father and mother. Anger and the love for a friend was the only thing he had left to fuel him.
He dragged Jynn to the gutted gnawer and rolled him inside, its innards a fine blanket of warmth. He quickly saw the rain would be an issue. If it didn’t stop, if all else, they’d drown. He angled the remains of the gnawer to the side and used the large crow feather and remnants of his cloak to keep the rain from Jynn’s face.
When he heard it, it was already too late.
It came back.
It was faster than he ever could have imagined too. Strange world when one moment your life hangs on the verge of hypothermia, the next your life literally hangs in the crippling hands of a demon. It had Sora by the throat, his feet dangled under him.
His lungs no longer burned from the frigid air, but from the lack thereof. He never thought he’d long for another icy breath the storm so generously bestowed him. The demon held him above like a hooked fish. He kicked and tried to break free of its grasp, a pointless feat, and near pitiful, really. In its other hand it held a long, meaty piece of steel, the greatsword it had taken from him. He watched the demon drive it into the ground and claw back its hood, veiling a face of ages past. Decayed flesh hung loose on a skeletal frame. Hanging with it, a prominent smell of burnt ash and rotting corpses turned his stomach. Heathen-black eyes tugged at his own as if the demons dead stare pull him in, like a part of him was being sucked out.
He couldn’t look away.
His head began to throb miserably. He felt it when it entered his mind, shifting through his memories; visiting places in his head that even he had long forgotten and it tore them apart. He tried to think of Ana, but could not picture her face. His own thoughts seemed like fragments; pieces of things he couldn’t place back together. The demon probed further, filling his thoughts with its own. He saw only what the abomination wanted him to see. He saw the black. He saw the timeless abyss. He saw He, and Sora knew His name.
Words would never truly describe what he saw. A fallen god hung, shackled in chains bolted to the fabric of an empty void, the feeling that overtook him as the god raised his head – indescribably sickening. The eyes of Hell met his own like vile pools of the blackest sin. He looked upon the face of ruin and saw loathing. He saw iniquity. He saw hate, envy, and scorn. He saw death.
But the more he looked, he found something else.
He saw fear.
He saw dread and dismay and trepidation in that face.
He saw terror.
The vision faded as it withdrawed from his thoughts. The demon dropped him. The abhorrent screech it released sent chills crawling up his spine, much worse than any terrible caw the crow could muster. Sora gasped for breath. The frozen embrace that met his lungs was not a pleasant one, but welcomed. The demon fell backwards, clawing at its face yelling in a tongue he did not recognize. The words rang not in one voice, but voices of many.
“Est Nomen Tuum.”
“Filius Dei. Sanctus.”
The demon rolled on its back, screaming, spitting the words repeatedly.
“Est Nomen Tuum.”
“Filius Dei. Sanctus.”
Sora saw his greatsword standing where the demon had left it. His eyes turned to the crow. It studied him queerly, its neck snapped from side to side, silent, watchful.
He moved for the blade.
“Digna . . .”
His hands wrapped around the hilt and he watched the crow warily as he pulled it from the mud.
“Est Nomen Tuum . . .”
He stood over the demon and grasped the blade in both hands.
Sora snapped his gaze up. The crow plunged toward him like a loosed arrow. He threw himself left and swung in a wide arc, his blade seared through the bird’s feathered side as it soared past; dark ash spewed from the wound. The crow screeched and with a swift flail of wings, it turned and came darting back faster than one could blink. With no time to react, the crow came down upon him, pinning him to the ground with its talons. It drilled down with is crude beak. He quickly yanked forward his blade to shield his face. The beak ruthlessly hammered against the faces of the Old Kings engraved along the flat of the steel. Underneath, the sword battered him with each bludgeoning strike.
He felt it – felt it well up inside him again, his heart surging liquid flame through his veins with each boiling pulse. It was stronger than before. He didn’t know what it was, but it scared him; scared him more so than the crow itself. In fact, for a moment he forgot about the crow entirely – the cold, the storm, the demon, his dying friend even, he forgot them all. The feeling grew hotter and hotter until he saw it. His thoughts brought him to the flame, a magnificent fountain of crystal flame locked inside a cage. The flame shone brilliantly, reflecting his image like blazing mirror, the cage surrounding it, dull, black stone.
You must only tell it to open, you know.
He heard these words in his head, but they were so much unlike his own. Were they his own?
Speak the words. It will obey.
Words? What words? He said to himself.
I have given the gift. You only need use it.
I don’t understand?
Speak the command. Tell it to open and it will be so.
His eyes fixed on the flame. Open . . . Nothing happened. Still it blazed beyond the cage.
Speak with the gift.
I don’t understand! What gift? His thoughts brought no reply. He asked again, What gift?
Speak not with your tongue, speak with the gift. Let the word pass you lips, unhindered.
He felt it burn inside him, but he realized it still contained. He saw the cage, no lock, no door. He focused on the flame. He watched it dance, flicker and curl at its end. His mind’s eye became lost in its smokeless beauty. He felt himself take a breath, the air alarmingly warm. With that breath he felt its power. With that breath he inhaled no darkness. With that breath, he found it.
He spoke the gift.
The stone cage shattered before him into shards beyond count. The flames consumed him. His eyes flashed open, no longer their red and blue, but beaming like two suns of brilliant white. When he saw the crow, it would strike him no longer. Its gnarled beak made its last fall when he took hold. The crow squirmed to jerk its head free, but he did not grant it the blessing. ”
The crow began to shake violently. Its flesh bubbled underneath its black feathers. It managed to give a final anguished caw before it erupted into nothing more than black dust.
Sora rose to his feet, turning to the demon. It still lay repeating the same words, its skin clawed and mangled off its grim face, and now, he understood.
“Being of God”
Sora moved for him, his heavy blade drug behind. With a merciless heave, he swung overhead, cutting the demon’s babble short through a split jaw. Half a head rolled away. Its eyes and flesh withered, leaving behind only hollow skeletal remnants. In an instant, the bitter cold left them, as did the rains, cleared up with a single swing. The clouds dissipated and so did his flame. With that brought the dawn and a weathered king.
Sora grinned, because for once, he thought he finally understood what the caster meant by being drained. He turned to meet Jynn’s dead stare. The feather had vanished, exposing the casters ghastly face to the light of the morning. Sora’s tried to speak Jynn’s name, but it never escaped his lips. Strengthless, he collapsed to his knees and onward so to his face. With his last moments, he took one final glimpse of the sun. He wasn’t sure what it was about its embrace - warmth, victory, maybe - but it was enough to bring him one final smile.
"As they always have, kin.”
It was finished.