1408 Billar Canyon, Upperlands
The armor of a hundred knights grated as their mounts pranced restlessly at the bend before the canyon. Meager wisps of sunlight caught the silver metal in occasional bursts.
Captain Deragan Black observed the men surrounding him. Knowing them well-enough to sense their unease.
The desolate quiet offered little warning of their fate on such an average June day. Yet the threat of an ambush hung heavy in the air, feeling as dense as the fog hazing across the rising sun.
The canyon bottom was a long stretch of sand separated by clumps of grass dripping dew. Smelling of moist dirt.
A long stretch where we’ll be exposed. Enhancing the likelihood of an attack.
It’s no wonder we’re apprehensive.
It was odd to see battle-worn knights fearfully eying the high rims above.
Men who’d been bloodied in war without blinking.
He heard the discussions of the ones he knew best. Dark, worried conversations.
He looked up. Shrewd blue eyes catching the approach of Christophe Rhyers, their tracker, rounding the rocky bank. Sand and dirt smudged Rhyers’ face from the many times he’d slid from his mount to inspect the ground. Scouting our path.
“No tracks ahead.” Rhyers advised tossing dark hair from pale eyes. Such an odd shade, they distracted from how keen that green gaze was. Rhyers’ ability to catch every nuance in detail made him an apt tracker. Powerfully adaptable, he was steady in most situations.
But right now…he’s shifting uneasily.
If he’s nervous than I’m not imagining the intensity vibrating through the gorge.
“They’re there.” Lucien Sabias, their tactician, looked down the dusty passage. “It’s ideal ambush country.” Brown hair glinted in the rising light. Burnishing brown eyes nearly amber as they assessed the banks above.
“Dismount.” Deragan directed. “Walk them.”
If Lucien’s right, we don’t need to alert the enemy of our presence by clanging in mounted. Laden with armor.
He and Lucien, his Second in Command, hesitantly led the way. They and the eight just behind them made the closest of the troupe. The leaders…The warriors.
Nonetheless, Deragan shared Lucien’s apprehension. It’s ominous not knowing what’s lurking atop those rims.
Dewy sand blessedly muffled the clop of their horse’s hooves.
“There’s a creek ahead. With slight bushes for cover.” Rhyers whispered before falling back.
Slight cover isn’t going to be enough.
“Good. The horses need drink.” Lucien moved into Rhyers’ place, flanking the Captain.
He’s right. Deragan glanced at his black stallion, noting the bit of froth at his mouth. They are thirsty.
It was an unnerving trek into the canyon. Alarm rising with each step. Thus, it was a great relief when the sand broke for the burbling brook. Deragan forced himself calm to keep from disquieting his men.
The horses pawed eagerly.
Acel Mardichi joined them. His behemoth frame grating heavily in minimal armor.
The way of his people. Only wearing leather armor with metal plates. Cinched with a leather belt.
Lightweight so he can maneuver, he’d say. Deragan had heard it enough to know.
“The birds quieted.” Mardichi’s red hair blew around his face, blue eyes piercing on Raese Merlinus, next to him.
“Using your Devil Magic?” Raese teased.
“’Tis not funny what they say about me.” Mardichi snarled. Short temper surging.
A match to that hair.
Mardichi was always a hairsbreadth from fury.
Raese chuckled. “It’s not surprising they’d think someone of your size a sorcerer. Look at you.” He gestured to Mardichi’s length. “You’re a hulking tree.”
True. Deragan continued leading his mount, staring forward to pretend he didn’t hear every word.
Mardichi glowered. “As I stated…” He said sullenly. “The birds…A sure sign someone’s close.”
“We know they’re there!” Lucien gestured ahead. “You’re not dropping any great secret, Friend!” He tossed over his shoulder at them.
“We just don’t know where.” Chavias Derenoe injected. Stepping next to Mardichi, as he thoughtfully stroked his coal black beard.
He flourishes in battle. While others fear what’s to come, he’s patiently anticipating.
“You look like an animal ready to bite.” Mardichi eyed the dark knight, apparently thinking something similar.
“More than bite.” Chavias glanced over his shoulder at the dual swords crossing his back. Pulling out a tether, he tugged black hair from his face. Cinching it tight. Gaze darkening to match his armor, he assessed the high ledges.
Christophe Rhyers, the tracker, drew close. “I think for this battle, Friend. We unleash your ferocious nature…”
Chavias smiled tightly at him. “I fear it emerges either way.”
We’ll need it. Deragan kept his thoughts to himself.
“Just make sure it gets stamped back down.” Teverius, snapped from several men over.
Earning a quick glance from Deragan.
“If any of us live through this I’d rather not have our own turning on us.” Teverius gave Chavias a distrustful look.
He’s been threatened at the end of Chavias’ curved blades before.
“Don’t worry, Little Brother. You’re hard to miss.” Chavias’ smile was cold.
Teverius, the youngest of their brotherhood, was every bit as light as Chavias was dark. Pale hair free down his back, save a thin warrior’s braid tapering aside his face. Blue eyes assessed a rock at his feet. Demeanor bleak, he knelt to collect it.
“What is it?” Chavias queried.
Rhyers’ eyes narrowed on the bit of sandy stone Teverius held before he tossed his chin toward the steep embankment. “That came from up there.”
Teverius’ free hand moved to his sword hip as his eyes traveled up.
Deragan noticed the blonde man’s intensity.
“Ground creatures have vanished.” Rhyers’ green eyes squinted into the distance, studying every bit of grass staining the barren expanse.
“Mardichi noticed the birds as well.” Raese Merlinus eyed the tracker. “You look strained.”
“Everything is quiet because there’s evil here. We know how this ends.” Rhyers sighed, giving Raese a sideways glance. “Aren’t you strained?”
“Not until we spent the whole of last night speaking of it...” Raese admitted with a rough chuckle.
It’s a fact. Deragan knew the intruder’s words had been all they discussed, until finally falling into exhausted slumber as the fire waned.
“The old man told us we die today.” The tracker said. “All chances of turning back forsaken.”
“Not an option for me anyway.” Raese’s green eyes were unflinching. “We told the Captain we’d follow. Even into this, I’d not turn back.”
“Nor would I.” Rhyers nodded toward him. “I wasn’t suggesting otherwise.” He sighed. “But we can’t say we’re unaware we aim for our demise.”
They’re good men. Brave. Deragan was proud to walk among them. Prouder to fight alongside them.
Raese Merlinus shrugged. Dark auburn hair may’ve made his features plain were it not for vivid eyes bespeaking Celtic heritage and the regal air he possessed. Made obvious by how gracefully he swept his mantle from the path of his stride.
He wasn’t raised a peasant, not like the rest of us, we all know that.
“Loyal heart beating to the end.” Rhyers’ remarked, eyeing his green-eyed friend.
Raese smiled back at him.
“My friends won’t fall without me!” Acharius Sevence boomed. Thick features too fierce to be European. Norse heritage obvious in the breadth of his chest and arms. Echoed in his blue eyes and the blonde hair draping his armor.
He and Mardichi are our strangest additions. The Viking and the barbarian…
“That metal wear makes you look enormous.” Alazareth Bodane noted.
He’s a behemoth anyway! Deragan would’ve laughed were his gaze not focused on the canyon walls.
“You like it? Freshly forged.” Acharius tapped the metal at his chest with the side of his fist.
“Why on Earth-”
“To be buried in armor that shines.” He tightened his fist in anticipation. “To be remembered for our courage.”
“Courage you have, Brother.” Alazareth slapped the Viking’s back. “But I doubt the army awaiting us will be much impressed.”
“I’m certain they won’t.” Acharius’ chin hitched. “But ask me if I give a damn.”
Deragan nodded, smiling faintly. He’s utterly fearless.
“My skill with a sword and sharp reflexes will keep me afoot long enough to take a number with me!”
“We’ll die a warrior’s death.” Alazar concurred.
“Entrenched in blood and battle.” Acharius nodded.
“I’m honored to be amongst you.” Alazareth said. Tawny features resolute as he nodded.
“You do well pretending calm.” His twin, Sebastian, sidled up to comment from the side of his mouth. “Like you’re not afraid of those awful predictions atall.”
Alazareth always looks calm. But there’s a storm under the surface.
“I fear nothing.” Alazareth’s face hardened. “Least of all an intruder’s hollow warnings.”
“You’re terrified.” His twin said perceptively. Shouldering Alazareth with a cheeky grin. “It’s okay no one can see it but me. You look stone-faced as always.”
“I’m ready.” The somber twin’s look was steady. “And regardless of how much I dislike you, I’ve decided to do my damnedest to make sure you, and the Captain suffer minimally.”
“You will?” Sebastian’s blonde brows shot up as he put a hand to his heart. “How endearing.” His tone eeked honey. A mirror image of Alazareth, save longer hair and more frequent smile, Bast turned away.
“But brother,” Alazareth called in a warning tone.
“I know how you think. Don’t get your hopes up. I’ll again prove more warrior than you.”
“Again?” Sebastian Bodane’s blue-green eyes lit as he flashed that characteristic grin. “Don’t throw your stones too soon, Brother. I’m happy to die next to men I trust but I intend to fight like a lion.” He tossed his blonde hair like a wild mane.
“You’re a child.” Alazareth said dully. Correcting, “A mad child.”
They often prod each other in times of stress. Deragan knew. The teasing offers a momentary reprieve from the tension.
“Bast is only half crazed.” Lucien Sabias stepped forward to defend Sebastian.
“That’s not true.” Bast waved a finger at him. “I’m quite Mad. On this,” He lifted that finger. “And only this, my brother is quite right.” He grinned.
“Well,” Lucien blew a long breath, gesturing above. “That’s good because the Pope’s men are undoubtedly atop these banks, in dense layers, ready to swarm in an ill-planned ambush.”
“As usual you’re the light of the festivities.” Bast commented dryly.
“You’ve already assessed the situation?” Alazareth queried.
“He can’t help it. He does it on reflex.” Bast said.
“They’ll come down this steep side.” Lucien confirmed, ignoring Bast. “It’s the narrowest part of the canyon, limiting any form of retreat. The best place for them to get at us…They’ll be coming soon.”
“Always methodical.” Bast laughingly shook his head. “It makes sense why the Captain named you his Second. Despite what Alazareth says...”
What Alazareth says? Deragan’s head momentarily whipped to look at Sebastian, despite his efforts to pretend he wasn’t listening. Seeing Bast’s huge grin, he realized the man was just being facetious. He refocused on the gorge they traversed.
And the silence overhead.
“Even now, Bast?” Alazareth called falling back. “Trying to stir dissension for your own amusement, even now?”
“He knows I jest.” Bast’s voice rose in good humor as he winked at Lucien.
Who’s close with both twins.
Deragan glanced up for the hundredth time. They all need to shut up so I can hear up there.
Lucien called back to Alazareth. “We all know it’s his character to jest in trying times.”
“Loosening the mood.” Bast rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck. Drawing daggers from his waist to ensure he was ready. Sobering as he spotted their Captain’s stillness. “Is he ready to die?”
Deragan felt Bast nodding toward his back. Yes, I have been since this all began.
“He is. Has been since last night.” Lucien said gravely. “What’s he left to lose?”
Very little, anymore.
“Us. His brothers.” Bast gestured behind.
“He’s ready to die. For us. For our cause.” Lucien nodded.
He’s right. I am.
“He knows we’re ready to die in service to him.” Mardichi added.
“I won’t flinch.” Chavias vowed.
“None of us will.” Alazareth contributed.
I believe them. They’re fearless.
“As our Captain Commands!” Acharius declared.
Deragan who’d stared boldly through the canyon, now tossed a blue-eyed glance over his armored shoulder. Black hair shining in the ascending sun, face routinely unreadable. Unmoved by what’d unfold. He gave a gesture directing them to quiet.
They instantly silenced.
Enough talk for the day. Time to meet our end. He concentrated on the occasional sliding rock or whispered cough on the wind.
His chin lifted proudly. Grip on his restless stallion’s rein going white-knuckled as he welcomed the promised attack. It will be what it’ll be…
“What are you thinking, Elder?” Pope Clements III whispered to the ancient demon.
Radix stood in torn robes with a gnarled staff. Though frail with a hunched back, he was still tall. Thin gray beard whipping over his shoulder in the wind. Beady eyes narrowed on the scene in the canyon bottom.
His voice emerging a rasping hiss. “I’m thinking I like the sight of them, not at all. They should not be here!” Radix’s eyes flicked to his Commander, Okine, standing next to him.
Okine’s wrinkled face and ghastly pointed ears less noticeable than his mammoth size.
“But you said the Watcher you tortured a fortnight ago foretold of this day. You knew of these men!” Pope Clements muttered accusingly.
“Knew of.” Okine parroted in a voice which was, despite his great size, shockingly shrill. Grating on Radix’s already frayed nerves.
“Knowing and wanting are very different things.” Radix’s eyes were riveted below.
Hundreds of Clements’ guard flanked him. Red capes billowing where they crouched from view of the knights below.
“So, what do we do?” Clements asked from next to Radix.
“I’ll be damned if I let this happen!” Radix’s gray eyes narrowed.
“What do these people matter?” Clements asked.
“My war against their tenets has been centuries long. Painstaking. Beginning long before they were born.”
“Why so long? Why haven’t you massacred them?” Clements eyes flashed darkly.
“Because there are rules, I must follow.”
“Rules?” Clements lifted a haughty brow. “You must follow rules?”
“Yes! Yes!” Okine screeched. “One: Cannot attack direct or doors…” He displayed one meaty finger for emphasis. Lifting another. “Two: Human not know he is. Three: Can’t turn evil, only darken what already in soul.”
“Isn’t there ways around those?” Clements demanded.
“Sometimes...” Radix said slowly. “Today will change nothing.” He shrugged. Pulling the hood of his mantle up as he peered around Okine to assess the readiness of the Pope’s commander.
“You don’t fear the tide swaying in their favor?” Clements dared ask. Proving dumber than he looked.
“I went to their encampment last night. Warned them.”
“That they’d become immortal?” Clements’ head spun to see Radix glowering at him.
“That they will be attacked in this canyon.” Radix snapped. “I thought their desire to live would prevent this.” He tossed his hand.
“No want die?” Okine’s high voice rose to an unbearable level. Vibrating Radix’s ears.
He winced. “I wanted them to find their deaths another way!”
“They didn’t listen?” Clements was astounded.
Radix gestured below agitatedly. “Well, they are here, are they not? Or do my old eyes mistake me?”
Okine tucked his head between wide shoulders. Disliking annoyance in the demon’s voice.
“Like fools they pursued this trek despite my warnings.”
Clements’ lips whitened at Radix’s tone, but he’d enough sense to bite his tongue.
Okine followed his gaze.
Silver armor shined below. The knight’s steps unwavering, proudly wearing white cloaks emblazoned with the bold red cross which had, until recently, symbolized their purpose.
“I hate Templars.” Okine muttered.
Radix’s lips twisted in a dark sneer. Gray eyes lit orange. Fixated on the canyon bottom. His narrow beard twisting in the breeze. Eventually blowing over one shoulder. “We have to kill them before it happens. They must die now!”
Okine nodded vigorously.
At Radix’s cry the Pope’s army leapt into motion. Okine slammed the square helmet over his head and led the troupe down the sheer bank.
To Radix’s horror, gray clouds snapped over the sky. Banishing the cottony fluff that’d ruled a moment ago.
“No!” Radix gasped.
Thunder racked the ridge. The Pope’s knights spilled over the rock faces. The first drop of rain fell into the meager stream. Splashing in a riot of gleaming beads. And with that single drip it began. Dumping in a cascade that tinked off metal armor and wetted the sandy dirt underfoot. Sending rivulets down their helmets. Slicking their saddles and the reins in their hands.
The last of the heavily persecuted Templars moved into a defensive circle under a darkening sky. They witnessed winged terrors with long spindly limbs descending. The likes of which they’d never seen before. Dark rodents poured amidst stumbling knights, orange eyes glowing and skinny tails lashing. Behind them, dark dogs charged the slippery incline. Nearly bald save for a dusting of brown on their shoulders. Mouths full of spiked teeth, and seeping drool.
“What are those things!” One of the knights cried. Voice muffled by a boom of thunder.
“We’re cut off in every direction!” Another frantically shouted.
“Yes!” Radix purred.
Silver strings of lightning whipped across the sky, parting dark clouds and illuminating the white film dropping through.
“What is that?” Clements asked breathlessly. Astonished by the sparkling creature.
Radix strived so hard to abolish the Templars. Maneuvering kings and lords. Manipulating this Pope’s pride. Still…somehow, it led straight to what he’d sought to prevent.
He watched in horror. Clawing fistfuls of scraggly gray hair. “No! No!” He was hysterical. Recognizing this scene as what’d been foretold.
Radix shouted for his flying Sarabi to take to the skies. To stop her.
His raging shouts drowned by growling thunder. As clouds beneath her parted like hands trying to catch her. She slipped through their fingers. Falling irrevocably. Ivory skinned with long silver hair spooling around her in a cradle against gravity. The soundless flailing of her limbs was her terrified struggle against what she’d wrought for herself.
Radix tried everything he knew to keep her from those knights, but their fates had been written on parchment even he couldn’t tear. Written by something more powerful than anything on that ridge.
Radix gnashed rotted teeth, frail hands clasping the billowing gray cloak.
“Is that it?” Clements gasped? “Her?”
Okine shouted from halfway down the ridge. Pointing as though Radix hadn’t already seen it.
Radix tugged his beard ferociously. Only mildly appeased by knowing firsthand what she’d suffer at impact. The blinding pain of bones crushing to fragments. Those fragments puncturing organs.
“What we do?”
“Kill them!” Radix shrieked. Face turning black and distorting. Small rearing heads emerging from the skin of his cheeks, squealing in slow fury. Eyes orange trimmed in red.
The ground beneath him turned to ash, spanning to run underneath the knights fumbling down the ridge. Tinging everything gray. The rim crumbled then cracked in a jagged line heading to the canyon floor.
Okine tried to make it to the bottom but stumbled, causing the Pope’s knights to trip over one another. Slowing their trek.
“Let her suffer!” Radix hoped. Watching her plummeting to the gorge. Thoughts dark with hatred.
He looked Heavenward and pointed. “That scrap of a thing will not stop my cimmerii. I’ll rain my hoard upon them until none stand.” He clenched a fist.
Light moved above the clouds. Which suddenly changed into the profile of countless heads. With golden light shining behind the full gray clouds the mouths of the figureheads slowly opened and began shrill shrieking. Echoing over the distance and making the ridge rattle.
Radix steadied his footing. Pain searing through his mind. When the banshee shrieks ceased, Clements lay dead next to him. His ears and mouth seeping blood.
Radix snarled in rage. “Have it your way!”
When lightening flashed again it illuminated the countless shining white silhouettes shifting beyond the gray cloud cover. Watching…
The Fallen crashed, jouncing against an unyielding gully floor before sliding on her side into the few shrubs near the creek. Rattling dead leaves in a shower over her.
As the rest of the group froze in total silence, the Captain, always the first to act, strode to stand over her. Cocking his head to eye what rested at his feet. Weak and huffing like an injured bird.
Despite twisted limbs and broken bones, and the flesh scraped loose along her side, she was impossibly…lovely. His jaw hung slack as he blinked into the bluest eyes he’d ever witnessed. Beautiful. Incomparable.
She whimpered pitifully.
In pain. Awed, he lowered to help her sit.
She feebly lifted two crushed hands, reaching for him. But they dropped when her head slumped forward.
“She won’t last long.” Chavias breathed.
It’s true. But it was heartbreaking to think this miraculous creature would soon be dead.
A perfect white wing wrapped her side protectively. The other is too crushed to move. A whimper crackled in her throat as she struggled to lift the bent limb. The hand on that side rising toward him again. Tilting her head, she looked pleadingly up at him.
Irresistibly, the Captain swept the broken girl-being into his arms. Instantly remorseful when she gasped in agony.
I’m sorry. He gave her an apologetic look.
Body flexing against the pain even as she curled into the warmth of his chest.
I’ll hold you, keep you safe.
What have you done? He wondered. Why here? Why now? In the middle of an impending battle?
Radix emitted a sound that sent what remained of the ridge quaking.
As the tortured Watcher predicted the blonde knight, Sebastian, fell to his knees at the Captain’s feet. Reins in hand. Offering himself Heavenward, for the life of the shining creature their Captain held. He murmured the words as she convulsed, surrendering the last vestiges of life.
The Captain watched her achingly. Nearly feeling her pain as his own.
On a last rasping breath, The Fallen shuddered and stilled. A strange silence descended. Blanketing the canyon and muffling the battle cries of the charging army. There was a dull hum then a flash rippling above the ground. Freezing every living thing in its tracks.
Sebastian on his knees, reins in hand, was hit with a heavy dose of what she unleashed. Surpassed only by the man who held her in his arms. The Captain.
The humans were dead. Nothing mortal stood in the canyon any longer.
Okine returned to Radix. Who eased off the ridge, face twisted in terror.
“That’s it!” Radix had no outlet for his frustration. Clawed hands worked tight fists.
“How can be?” Okine questioned. “All you done!”
Radix grimaced. All his plans, centuries worth of meticulous scheming, forever complicated by this one, utterly impossible act.
Lightning split the sky again and Radix took several frightened steps back. Drawing from the stone ridge to retreat down the backside of the cliff.
“What of there.” Okine gestured.
“I’ve no need to witness it.” He spat contemptuously. “There’s no doubt what that cheering means.”
Okine heard it now.
The triumphant shouts of the Templar Knights.
“We’re leaving.” Radix gesture wildly for them to go.
“What we do?”
“To face this, I need far more cimmerii in my armies. More demons then the humans that will be in this fight…You will have to find me more. Many more.”
“We have a new enemy?”
“They will rise.” Radix shook his head in disgust.