The lake was still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining taking the first step. Then the cracking of the ice like a whip cutting the air. He shivered, the phantom sensations of frigid water washing over him, swallowing him down. Inhaling water. Sinking. Drowning.
It had been a day where anything seemed possible, just as every day with her had been, and just as quick as Hope had taken root in his soul, She’d ripped it to shreds.
Though the lake whispered sweet nothings to him like the lover he’d just lost, his feet remained firmly on the shore. The snow crunched beneath his black combat boots each time he shifted his weight, and the cold seeped into every last inch of him with icy, grasping fingers. He didn’t shiver. In fact, anyone looking on might believe he was at ease, admiring the lake. The only sign of tension was out of sight: his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.
That, and the blood.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been covered with it, though he wished such things had been left in his past where they belonged. But he’d let his guard down and this was the price. He sighed, and turned his face upward to lock onto to the Heavens above, containing thousands of stars, a full moon, and darkness between them all that didn’t hold a candle to the cold dark that consumed his soul. His crystalline blue eyes were flat and dull.
“For over a thousand years I have served you,” he said, the edge of his voice ragged. “Why?” he asked, the word ripped from the rawness of what remained of his soul.
No answer. There never was. He growled, and ran a hand over his blood-spattered, bone white hair.
“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I’d never want to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I love you.” A weak smile lovingly graced her lips, and she brushed an errant lock of his hair from his forehead. Then her smile faltered, her usually warm, caramel eyes slid to a distant point over his left shoulder, and her arm fell to the floor of the cabin. She was gone.
He clutched her tighter to him, his face buried in her shoulder and hair. Even over the multitude of death scents hanging heavy on the air—blood, bowels, burned flesh, and more—he could still smell her. Vanilla, cinnamon, and apples. She’d joked that it probably had nothing to do with what she actually smelled like, and more his insatiable sweet tooth in regards to baked goods.
He’d run his hands through the thick, wavy, golden brown locks each chance he had, and this would be the last. He didn’t even care that said hair was covered in blood. The already drying, tacky fluid on the strands left trails of it on his face, as though someone had raked their claws across it.
He didn’t move for some time, and though his muscles screamed and cramped he refused to break the moment. To leave her. Eventually, though, he did. The only signs of his grief were the clear tracks of skin cutting through the red.
He hadn’t been able to leave her there, amidst the bodies and scattered bits of demon decorating what was left of the main room like gory confetti. But when he’d broken the shovel on his first thrust trying to penetrate the frozen ground, he fell back on the old ways.
Unlike creatures from other realms or dimensions, demons were bound to the earth and did not disappear on death. It was messy business, killing demons, even more so covering the evidence up. The human idea of what they thought their world was versus what is was, was tenuous and fragile. Humans tended to react rather violently at any disturbance in regards to their concept of their world. He could only be glad that his training in the early years happened when telling someone you were hunting demons got you praise, instead of a ‘go straight to the institution’ ticket.
The cottage burned brightly enough that someone might have wagered that white phosphorus had been thrown into the one-room structure, but that wasn’t the case. Lower-level and construct demons—demons created from the blood and/or flesh of more powerful demon—had highly flammable blood. It was not uncommon for larger demons to scoop up a handful, eviscerate them, set them on fire, and then lob them at opposing forces.
He grimaced as one particularly gruesome battle surfaced in his mind. A village, a hot summer, lots of straw, thatched-roof huts, and a horde of construct demons.
After setting the cottage ablaze, which would surely attract the local authorities no matter how remote their location, he moved back over to her cairn. Though he knew it was an abuse of powers, he could not bring himself to care. They could take his power, for all the good it’d done him, and shove it up their self-righteous asses. He’d used the hot, white light that burned deep within his core to carve out a footstone. The cairn itself overlooked the lake, and he would have done better for her if the fight had not taken so much out of him.
Emily Grace Farwell
25 December 2017
“Hope is seeing light in spite of being
surrounded by darkness”
“You were my light,” he rasped, his throat protesting the abuse it’d received between the yelling and smoke inhalation.
He looked to the sky once more and scowled. “I might not have been your most well-behaved soldier, but no one deserved this. Were you trying to teach me I didn’t belong here? Well, bang-up job.” He ground the words out from between clenched teeth.
When he turned his eyes back down to the cairn, his glower softened for a moment before snapping back in full force.
“Damn you, Emily! I told you how dangerous it was to be with me, but you never listen. You let optimism and hope guide you, and it set you on the path to your grave.” He shook his head. “I know I’m to blame for this, and you could have had so much—“
“God, you were always pathetic,” a female voice interrupted him, the tone half exasperated and half disgusted.
His frown deepened and his lip curled into sneer. He turned around and took in the figure near the tree line. She was tall, her body hard, lean, and scarred from countless battles. Their uniform had received upgrades over the centuries, evolving with military trends. They currently sported cargo pants, long-sleeved, lightweight tactical combat shirts, combat boots, and armor that consisted of a vest as well as pieces that covered just about anything but their joints. A deviation from the conventional might be their magical shielding that channeled their inner power through the plating, as well as gorgets and inner-thigh plating to discourage werewolves, vampires, and anything else that might want to gain access to a major artery for a snack or quick kill. While a solider in the desert had to worry about IEDs, their brand of combat was more concerned with not having your throat torn open by something with fangs. The material was magically enhanced to be just about anything one could hope for: lightweight, temperature-controlled, flexible, and nigh indestructible. Of course, they never did seem to get away from the red color scheme, which was as dark as a full-bodied red wine like Syrah.
Her platinum white hair was cropped nearly as short as his. Flint grey eyes matched the brittle laugh she let out at his regard, and it sounded as though it was sharp enough to make the air bleed.
The one thing she was not carrying was her sword, which sent a shock through him that trembled down to his very core. No one went anywhere without their weapon. Ever. Even within their stronghold, no one was ever to be unarmed. It was as good as him looking at her naked, which still didn’t even begin to cover how weird it was, since he knew she showered with the damn thing strapped to her back.
“Sabrael,” he greeted, tone cautious. His snarling anger had drained away in the face of her…bareness.
Her eyes narrowed, but a small, vicious smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “I told Them it would get even your temperamental attention, Desh.”
Tadeshiel—Desh—scoffed. “Considering it’s almost like you’re flitting around missing a limb, I’d say so,” he replied scathingly.
“Is that how you’ve felt the last three years?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered him.
Her words jabbed at him like tiny knives in his weakest spots. “That’s not your business,” he hissed, and spat the words at her like venom.
“So that’s a yes,” she said brightly, and ignored his growling in favor of examining her nails. “No one believed you’d last this long, and especially not the human, what with her being as fragile as they are.” She tilted her head to the cairn.
“Also none of your business,” he said, tone low and warning.
It was her turn to scoff. “Not my business? You mean when my partner abandons the Order we’ve been a part of for over a thousand years, and then taking up with a human no less—”
But she overrode him, “—after everyone told him, over and over that it was a bad idea, even by those who had been through the exact same situation? But no, it’s none of my business when the High and Mighty Tadeshiel, He Who is Perfect in Every Way, Slayer of Armies, Possessor of the Thickest Skull in the History of—”
“None of those are my proper titles—”
“—the Order, One Who Knows Better than All, up and abandons us—me!—in the middle of the biggest battle, during the biggest war we’ve had in centuries. That doesn’t concern me?” Her voice had reached a fever pitch with her final word. Her eyes bled from their usual grey to molten gold as her power rose with her anger.
In the face of Desh’s numb silence, she continued.
“Do you realize what you put everyone through when you laid your sword down? I can’t even begin to recount the ramifications, since we were in the middle of a battle and one of our Imperial Legates walked away!”
Still, he said nothing.
“I don’t even know why they sent me out here to speak with you,” she said, her disgust almost palpable on the air like slime. “You’re nothing but a co—”
“I watched him die!” Desh shouted, his chest heaving witht he sudden onslaught of emotions Sabrael’s presence had evoked.
Sabrael’s expression was one of bewilderment. “Who…?”
Desh ran a hand through his hair. He’d done that a lot today. “Douma.”
She raised a single brow. “Douma?”
Desh blew out a sigh and nodded.
“The…healer?” she questioned, not quite able to place the name. To be fair, she had her own legions to oversee, so the fact she could even come close to the mark was impressive. Though, she’d always had a knack for memorizing troop names, faces, and abilities so could put them in a weird ranking system in her mind as to their usefulness. Also, it made punishments easier when she could identify all her troops on sight. He couldn’t figure out how she did it.
“Yes,” Desh said, exasperated. “The healer. He was…newer to our ranks. Under 100. Bright kid.”
Sabrael pursed her lips into a thin line at the mention of the healer’s age. “That’s practically a toddler.” After a small pause, though, she sighed. “Desh, we die all the time. I mean, not as often as the demons, mind you,” she said, and a ghost of a smile played over his lips. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do.”
Desh growled again. “I know that. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he died, it was more how everyone behaved after it.”
A mop of curly black hair, a lopsided, dimpled smile, and eyes that Desh realized now were so close in shade to Emily’s it made his chest ache. The demons had exercised their evil tendencies to the upmost of their ability when they came across the tent of injured warriors. Though immunes were trained in combat, they were caught unawares. None survived.
Desh walked into the small clearing where his immunes used to be, his eyes searching for one face in particular. When he found him, body cut nearly in two as it covered an injured warrior, there was no question in Desh’s mind that Douma had tried to protect the injured with his own life.
‘He was probably waiting for you to show up and save the day,’ a voice had whispered in his mind. A cruel thought from the darkest recess of his mind, and one that had repeated like a mantra since that moment, slowing wearing away at his sanity.
He’d tried to regroup and secure the area, but what he saw on the faces of his soldiers made his gut twist: knotted eyebrows, narrowed eyes, curled lips and wrinkled noses. Disgust. Whether it was at the situation, him, or both, Desh didn’t know. They didn’t want to expend forces to secure a clearing of dead bodies, despite the fact that each of them had been saved by the immunes at one point or another.
It didn’t matter that, logically, the commander in him knew they were correct. All he could think about was the young man who spoke with such passion about being an immune, he’d nearly put Desh’s eye out as he moved his hands with his words. Between the sight of Douma giving his last breath to save his patient, and failing, and what Desh saw on the faces of his soldiers, he was done. Desh looked into each and every face around him for some flicker of guilt or remorse, but when none was forthcoming he drew his sword. Leveling his coldest sneer at the lot of them, he thrust his sword into the blood-soaked earth, turned on his heel, and left everything he’d known for a thousand years.
Now here he was. Douma and Emily were dead, and all he had gained was a seething, thick pool of bitterness and grief weighing on his soul.
She was quiet in the face of his prolonged silence, but tilted her head to let him continue. Feelings and such weren’t really her area of expertise or comfort, but she did care about keeping her mission success rate as close to perfect as possible. She was ruthless and efficient; she applied pressure and words expertly to achieve the desired results and emotions, even if she didn’t completely understand said emotions herself. This contributed to her high success rate, and she’d be damned if Desh was going to try and screw that up—again.
They were opposites in just about every way, but their opposition complemented each other, which is why their legions always worked closely together. Where he was compassionate, she was merciless. Her pragmatism tempered his idealism, and while they were both intelligent, she was shrewder in tactical thinking while Desh was more perceptive with the emotional element. Sabrael was authoritative in her command, while Desh was participative.
And that was where the problem came in.
When he said nothing more, she scowled. “You got too emotionally attached to one of your subordinates, and when everyone else didn’t stop in the middle of a battle and sob along with you, you took it upon yourself to just abandon us?”
He could understand how she might perceive it that way, but… “Douma was young, exceptionally talented, and proud to serve, but none of that mattered to them. Some of Malgareth’s forces managed to break the line close to where the non-combatants were positioned. I had told Tearny, the Prime Immunes, to move camp earlier in the day, but he argued that many of the gravely wounded could not be moved.” His voice went soft at the last part, because that had been his first mistake, borne from his compassion.
Sabrael honed in on it like a bird of prey on a field mouse. “So instead of moving everyone else save the gravely wounded, whose chance of living was less than everyone else around them, you let your subordinate play on your kindness. Instead a handful being slaughtered they wiped out your Immunes, including this Douma,” she finished.
As she spoke, his demeanor shrank in on itself as her words beat him about his head and heart, making him small and frail. There was a howling in the back of his mind, like a storm ready to break upon the shore of his sanity.
“I revise my previous statement: you’re a coward and an idiot.”
He snapped. In his fight with the demons that took Emily’s life, he’d known his physical abilities had deteriorated over the three years he’d been away. Chopping wood was not an equal replacement for near-constant battle training. However, when he flashed across the clearing to attack Sabrael, he realized just how far he’d fallen.
Construct demons were pathetic, and the only advantage they usually had were numbers. That’s what happened with Emily. That and the fact she was human and fragile, and all he had were his personal magics and no sword. Sabrael, on the other hand, was not a construct demon. She’d always been top of just about every class they took, and she relished hand-to-hand combatives.
Sabrael turned, his fist missing her face. She grabbed his arm, continued his momentum with a slight adjustment, and her power flared. Her strength easily tripled with the surge of energy, and the trees surrounding the clearing never stood a chance.
Sabrael flashed to the impact crater past half a mile of splintered evergreens. He was dazed, and the disturbed snow of the trees created a slight haze and drifted slowly to resettle on the land. Though he’d recover quickly, it wasn’t quick enough if he needed to defend himself from her if she decided to go on the offensive. So when her face appeared in his field of vision, he stiffened. A thrill of terror sped through him like rabbits being flushed from their burrow, and his mind scrambled to clamp down on the dread threatening to overwhelm him. She was smiling. Sabrael only smiled when she was going to kill or heavily maim something.
“I—” he spluttered, trying to find the words, willing his body to cooperate.
“I feel better now, don’t you?” she crooned.
His eyes widened.
“Now,” she said, her tone deadly calm and smile sickly sweet, “I read the after battle reports, which were as painful to procure as it would be to drink incaendium piss—” Desh flinched at that glorious imagery, “—because fully half of both our forces were slaughtered. All because you decided to let personal guilt outweigh your duty and responsibility to your people. Not mine, not the Order’s, yours,” she said, the last word hissing and full of contempt.
She kicked him in the ribs. It might not have looked like much, but the cracking that reverberated through his body followed on its heels by searing pain and an inability to breathe begged to differ.
“I’m not finished. It’s rude to interrupt,” she said, voice calm again.
When he finally managed to drag in a breath, he coughed, and could not fully breathe in. His chest was tight, and his vision started to darken around the edges. Sabrael rolled her eyes and leaned over. He tried to move away, but she dug her finger painfully into the spot she’d kicked and he writhed in response. As her power moved through his body, it was as though someone had poured molten metal through his veins. His back arched and his fingers curled with the need to claw at something.
He’d forgotten how much healing hurt, especially coming from someone as unsuited to it as Sabrael. Yes, any of them could heal, but with a lack of a healer’s precision and temperament, it was like cutting off a limb to cure a broken bone. It worked…sort of. The only reason Desh could stand it was the fact they were of a similar potential strength. If she tried this with someone further down the respective ladder than them, they could die from the shock.
When she removed her finger, and along with it her power, he sagged back into his crater. His consciousness and body were floating in the wake of so much foreign power running rampant through his body.
“Drink this, or you’ll be useless for the next day,” a voice said, the words floating like dandelion fluff through his mind.
Something cool and hard pressed into his lips, but when he didn’t open his mouth the voice scoffed with disgust and forced it open. The liquid that hit the back of his throat was refreshing and cool like a mountain stream, followed closely on its heels with what felt like lightning dancing over his nerves. Desh gasped, and then coughed when some of the potion went down the wrong way.
When he’d relearned how to breath, he opened a bleary eye. Desh didn’t know how long he lay there, out of his mind, but when he came to Sabrael was sitting on a stump, her chin propped in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were back to their usual grey, her power having receded to just below the surface.
Given what Desh knew of Sabrael, he wasn’t sure if staying silent or speaking would contribute to his continued existence. As she watched him like a bug she was deciding whether or not to crush, Desh took a chance.
“Why are you here, Sabrael?” The words came out roughly, reflecting his weariness like a mirror.
She simply continued to look at him for a moment, not answering. Just as he started to say something else, she spoke.
“We want you back.”
The words froze his insides as though he’d actually plunged into the lake as he had imagined earlier.
“No.” It was a knee-jerk, instant response. The word hadn’t finished forming in his mind before it flew from his lips.
She raised a single eyebrow, the one on the right that was bisected by one of her many scars.
“Wallowing in self-pity for three years isn’t enough?” she asked, scathingly.
Desh scowled. “I just buried someone I loved, and you want me to jump back into the fray?”
Sabrael snorted and shook her head. “As if they’d put you in charge again after what you pulled? No.” She paused and cast a sly glance his way. “Despite the mess you left, I managed to beat back the demon horde, and as a result I earned a shiny new promotion. My record has never been better. We recently won a major battle and they offered me a reward. I chose you.” She shrugged.
Desh’s eyes bulged. “But you said They sent you to talk to me—”
“I lied to make you angry,” she said, cutting him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand as well as her words. She scanned the surrounding area. “And it worked. It broke the tension you were holding like a taut bowstring, and made you stop and listen because I could beat the wings off you right now. Now, do I have your attention?”
He quieted but held his glare. She’d manipulated him, and easily at that. He gave her a grudging nod, his teeth gritted against lashing out with words, and his fists clenched, because using those had proven equally as useless.
“Good,” she said, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “As I said, you were my reward.” She paused again and sniffed, looking down her nose at him. “Though maybe not a good one. This was my one chance to bring you back into the fold with minimal fuss, because they want to keep me happy and winning battles.”
“I still don’t see how this benefits me. I don’t want to go back,” he said, grumpy and dare he think it, even pouting a bit? He didn’t like to lose, and Sabrael had him at a distinct disadvantage.
She huffed out an annoyed breath. “If you’d shut up, I’m not finished,” she snapped.
Desh shut his mouth accordingly, though he still didn’t lose the scowl.
“I knew you’d need an incentive, but I haven’t gotten there yet. First, I want you to hear my terms, and if they are agreeable to you then I’ll tell you why I think you’ll jump at the chance of coming back. Okay?” she asked. She stood up then, hand going to her hips as she gazed down at him in his pathetic state. She knew he just needed a little push.
He didn’t like it, but she was going about this in a very fair way for him, but instead of being relieved, it made him all the more suspicious. Instead of luring him with the incentive, and then forcing him to give into her demands, she was giving him the chance to hear her demands, decide if he could handle them, and then walk away if he couldn’t.
It stank as bad as day-old fish left baking in a high summer heat…
“Fine,” he snapped back.
…but something niggled at the back of his brain, driving him forward.
“Good, now these are my demands…”
She droned on for the better part of fifteen minutes, outlining what would and would not be expected of him. It came down to the fact that Sabrael found herself rather displeased with the combat teachers, stating all the good ones had died, retired, or joined the fight on the battlefields. She was wroth about the whole situation, and the lack of proficient teachers was producing sub-par subordinates. This simply would not do.
She offered him an instructor position, but he’d hold no power—not even allowed the usual authority of a magister. She would assign him someone to dole out punishments and rewards and assist him in any way she deemed necessary. He’d be an old wolf with no fangs, teaching the young pups how to be a proper wolf. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
If she had concerns about his pride getting in the way of having no power while she held it all, then he could definitely say no one had been watching him the last three years. They’d written him off, just as he’d wanted. That being said, it was hard to get upset over hurt pride when you had none anymore.
“Okay,” he said quietly, “those aren’t the worst terms given what I did. They are agreeable, and fair.”
Her eyes went a little wide, and it made him smile. He’d surprised her, and it was an interesting, yet somewhat gratifying, feeling.
“Just like that?” she asked, incredulous.
Desh nodded. “Just like that. Now spill, and tell me why you think I’ll come back, even with such a kind offer,” he said, though he couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice. Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or on Earth would get him to go back…
“Malgareth is back.”
…except maybe that.
Eyes blacker than the void, heartless as a force of nature, curved horns, and a cold smirk danced in his vision, which had gone an alarming shade of crimson. A casual and cruel taunt on the battlefield, suggesting that he should check on his immunes instead of wasting time losing a fight with him.
He closed his eyes, and his body shook with the force of the rage that howled through him like a tornado of fire and fury. Desh was glad he was still laying on the ground. He wasn’t sure he could have kept his feet in the face of that revelation in combination with his recent healing.
When he opened his eyes again, Sabrael’s face was split with a feral, pleased grin at the expression she saw on his face. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and narrowed his gaze on her.
“When can we leave?”
Song Inspiration: Demons by Jacob Lee