DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Part two of four
Illustrations: Zoe Stead
Illustrations: Zoe Stead
Creatures known as Guardians have been created to serve Fate, but more directly, to serve either the Light or the Dark. They almost exist solely for war and to fight, however, they spend very little time in their long life spans actually participating in battles. The vast majority of their time is spent dormant as living energy within the swords of Ragrathon and Kyartonis. This stasis period is similar to sleep in that the Guardians are not truly aware of all that is happening around them, and yet it is also very different as they drift in nothingness without really dreaming.
For the guardian Rayl, newest Guardian in the Lights line, this strange sleep is nearly all he has known of life. The moment he became the Guardian, he was sealed within to the sword, and there he waited for the first time he would truly live in his new role.
But although he had yet to experience anything himself, he had memories. In his head are the memories of the actions of every other Guardian that has ever served the Light. And from these memories, he knows his duty, he knows his place, he knows all the lore and rules surrounding the Light and the sword. However, having never experienced any of it himself, he knew it all as one would know stories.
A story of a war is very different from actually experiencing it. Without such experience, the stories have little meaning. Such things can only truly be understood when seen firsthand.
* * * * * * * *
The stone of the sword Ragrathon began to glow red.
A strange red light began to surround the weapon, billowing like a fog.
It swirled and moved away, and began to form into a shape of its own. Its intensity brightened until it almost seemed solid, then a form could be seen crouched beneath. The red light began to fade away, and in its place, the young Guardian Rayl remained.
He hardly appeared old enough to take responsibility for himself, let alone shoulder the weight of being the Lights Guardian.
He still wore the clothes hed had when hed been sealed; boots, simple pants, a belt, and a shirt that was in tatters from the appearance of the wings on his back. The brilliantly red feathered wings which matched the color of both his hair and eyes fluttered a bit, settling themselves into place. No one would mistake such an odd creature for human.
He never looked up, but kept his head bowed and one knee on the rough stone floor. I am Rayl, he said softly, almost uncertainly, I am here to serve you, my master.
A few paces away from Rayl stood a man holding the sword Ragrathon. This was Gregor, the Keeper of the sword of Light, and leader of the Lights forces. He was a short man with broad shoulders and thick, dark hair covering his head and face. His clothes were simple, and regal, and he carried himself as a warrior.
He was staring open-mouthed at the creature before him.
Next to the Keeper crouched a black, fur-covered dragon somewhat bigger than a large horse yet small enough to fit into the hall. Its purple eyes watched the scene carefully.
Gregor closed his mouth and furrowed his brow sternly. Then he quickly crossed the few steps to the one kneeling before him and roughly struck the side of his Guardians face with the back of one huge fist.
Rayl was knocked to one side by the unexpected blow, and one hand went to his face. His eyes were wide in shock, but he never turned to look at his new master.
Gregor turned angrily to hulking beast behind him. What the hell is this, dragon?! he demanded harshly, This is the help that Fate sends me?! The Guardian is supposed to be a great warrior who can fight by my side! This thing is little more than a pup! What good can he do?!
The dragon Chaerius narrowed his eyes a bit.Yes, he said, This is the help that Fate has sent you. Youd best get used to the idea, shes not sending you another.
Useless! the man sneered, Am I to fight this damned war myself?!
You are to do what Fate commands, Chaerius said, his temper rising, and nothing more than that.
Gregor turned to look at the young Guardian, who was still on the floor, unsure whether or not he was permitted to stand. He did not look up at his master, but kept his eyes stubbornly downcast. I suppose, the Keeper muttered thoughtfully, this little fool could be replaced.
Now Chaerius reared up and half-spread his wings, snarling angrily. Do not even consider such an option! he roared, Remember, Keeper, I do not serve you! I serve Fate, and if I were to think for a moment that you were endangering the course shes set, then I can promise you that Rayl will no longer be your problem!
Gregor stared at Chaerius for a moment, somewhat defiantly. Yet however strong he considered himself to be, he was wise enough to know better than to go against a dragon, particularly one sent by Fate herself.
He walked over to Rayl. Well? he said gruffly, On your feet, Guardian. You arent here to lay around. Theres work to be done.
As the young Guardian hastily climbed to his feet, Gregor looked him over distastefully. Find one of my servants and get yourself some decent clothing, I wont have you in my presence looking like that.
Rayl nodded, still not looking the Keeper in the eye, or even turning towards him. Gregor paid him no further attention and walked stiffly out of the room, giving a strong impression of barely contained anger.
Chaerius eyed the young Gaurdian before him carefully. The confusion in young Rayls eyes was readily apparent. His first encounter with his new master had obviously left him at a bit of a loss. Hes probably afraid that if he looks Gregor in the eye, the man would take offense to it and attack him again, Chaerius thought ruefully, He knows enough from the memories hes inherited that hes not to fight back or even protect himself.
He climbed to his paws and walked carefully over to the Guardian. Rayl, he softly ventured. Rayl looked up at him. Youd better do as your master says. Youll find a servant to help you get settled in the next room.
Rayl nodded slowly, and turned to do as he was told. Chaerius sat back on his haunches. Not the best introduction to his new life, he shook his head, but I suppose he had to learn that this is what the Guardians life is like. Hed been expecting this, though. He knew much of Gregors personality. Though he had only met the Keeper hours ago, he had seen men like him many times before.
Gregor saw the Guardian for what Fate intended him to be: a tool. He was an object to be used to help the Light succeed, not a living thing. The Guardian was a thing of magic, created for one purpose. To a Keeper like Gregor, he was of no higher importance that a cheap pair of boots, designed to be used and then thrown away.
What Gregor didnt - couldnt - know was that for all his superiority, he was actually the problem.
When Fate took command of the Light and the Dark, her intent was not to ensure victory for one side or the other, but to keep both sides balanced and under control. Though the Light tends to be more positive and is often viewed more favorably than the Dark, it must be remembered that too much light is just as dangerous as too much darkness. Thus, the two sides had to be kept even. Each time the power of the swords came into play it was for the purpose of keeping one side or the other from gaining the upper hand.
The Darks pessimistic and distrusting mentality led them to produce leaders who would strive to bring all people under their control. Humanity, they thought, could not be trusted to rule over itself. They would entice people to join them with their promises of a better world, and as cruel and twisted as these leaders could be, in their hearts they believed that what they did was good and right. The danger with the Dark became men who would try to conquer the world for an ideal, under some belief that they could make things better.
The Light however tended to produce very different leaders. The Lights optimistic view of humanity led them to believe that humanity was a competent and capable race and didnt need to be controlled. The Lights followers tended to have the utmost confidence in all of humanity and all human abilities, so of course this meant a great amount of confidence in themselves. Some of the Lights leaders were very arrogant and sure of themselves and their abilities. Such people would try to conquer the world as well, not for any purpose, but simply to prove that they could. In many ways, such leaders could be much more dangerous than those from the Dark.
Gregor was such a man.
He was ambitious and was certain that he was destined for greatness. He was also an accomplished warlord, who knew his way around a battlefield, and so was a formidable man. He was given the sword Ragrathon as a means of directing that ambition so that he did not turn his attention to the world at large.
The Darks Keeper was likely a man who could equal his abilities on a battlefield, but did not have such grand goals.
Fate understood the nature of a man like Gregor very well. She had dealt with them countless times before, and had initially been fully prepared for him. Rayls predecessor, the Guardian Jeric, was supposed to be the one who stood at Gregors side in this conflict, and that match would have been perfect. Jeric was a seasoned fighter, and well suited to the position of Guardian. He was everything that current Keeper was expecting. However, all that had been changed. Jeric had died before Fate wished him to, and Rayl, who was never suited for the role of Guardian to begin with, had taken his place.
...which left everything in the mess it was now in.
And theres even more to it than that...the dragon thought sadly, who knows what else has been affected by all this. Whats happening outside of Fates control because of this one mistake. Like the proverbial snowball growing larger and larger as it rolls. And still more to consider with Rayl...
It was vital to the equation that the Guardian do as he was told. Because of this, there were many safeguards and bonds placed on him to keep him in line. These were very important to maintain the creatures servitude. The human mind is volatile and difficult to control, but the Guardians mind, for all the simplicity of its function, is far more complex and potentially dangerous. The human named Rayl had been a fairly good-natured young man, but the Guardian was not that person. The Guardian Rayl was built from many sources, that human had only provided the base. There was no telling what was going on within his mind. Chaerius feared that all of the necessary precautions were not properly in place with Rayl, since he had never been intended to be a Guardian, and until they were tested, there was no telling which bonds were still active and which had been left out. Which means he could break our control...and I must prevent that from happening, even at his expense. Luckily, although Rayl was very strong willed, he was also loyal to Fate, and had faith in Her and in Her plans for the world. So long as they could keep him oriented towards Fates goal, all should be well.
Still, Chaerius thought grimly, he bears close watching. If a Guardian breaks free from us, it wont merely be the Dark that will pay for it...It shames me to admit that Gregors suggestion may be the proper course. But that thought disgusts me. Ill do everything I can to find another answer.
* * * * * * * * *
It was two weeks since the Guardians arrival.
Gregor led a band of weary troops back to his keep as the sun steadily set behind them threatening nightfall before they could return home. The soldiers ignored the encroaching darkness, however, they had nothing to fear from it, and though weary, they were very light of heart, talking and joking amongst themselves.
Rayl walked silently just behind Gregor, listening to their conversation as they traveled. He was dressed simply now in what the servants could find that fit him. The shirt he wore was loose-fitting, and made of thick cloth, a very pale grey - almost white in color, with two slits up the back to allow for his wings. The tan pants he wore were held up with a simple black belt. He had a pair of black boots on his feet that were a shade too small, and after the long day theyd had, it was a fact he was painfully aware of. He wore no armor. He hadnt asked for any, and it hadnt been offered. He also carried no weapon, but as a guardian, he was far from helpless.
Those damned darklings! one of the soldiers behind him laughed, they thought they had us beat! I guess we showed them what the Light is made of!
That you did! Gregor laughed heartily, Theyll think twice before picking any fights with the Light again. A few more battles like that, and they wont dare show their ugly snouts near us. Well have the whole of the Dark destroyed within a month!
Bold words, especially considering that the mighty battle that he seemed to be talking of had been anything but.
They had gone out that day to a nearby settlement of people who had been displaced from a town. These people had been driven out for a reason: they were werewolves and the good people of the town feared them. But it was not enough for the townsfolk to simply drive them away. When word reached the town that the Lights Keeper was not far, they sent for him immediately to have this problem resolved.
The werewolves hadnt picked the fight.
They hadnt even put up much of one.
The dragon Chaerius hadnt even bothered to accompany them. They had no need for him on such a simple task. Gregors soldiers had surprised the werewolves as they went about their daily chores. They tried to run, but it was no good. Nearly all of them had been killed.
As the Gaurdian of Light, Rayl instinctively disliked darklings. He could sense their presence, and the instant he did, he had an urge to attack. Yet even so, the attack they had made upon those pitiful wretches made him uneasy. As followers of the Light, he understood that it had been their job, and one that needed doing. What he could not understand was what joy these youths had gotten out of it.
Still, it was something of an accomplishment that Gregor had sparked such enthusiasm in them. Most of these young men were the sort who usually wouldnt be able to be so carefree about fighting, who wouldnt take much pride in a kill, yet the Keeper had somehow instilled a passion in them. They were now his loyal followers, happy for any chance to prove their worth. It was no spell or trick, the man was simply a good leader, and that was all he needed.
Of course, it wasnt only the young men who followed Gregor. He had a good crew of veterans, gruff and scarred, yet many of them were very out-going and even jolly off of the battle field. They greatly enjoyed showing off their skills to the younger crowd. Even Rayl felt a grudging respect for them.
Next to Gregor walked Norcen. Norcen was Gregors closest friend, though he seemed to be lacking in the public persona that Gregor could adopt. While very similar to the Keeper, he tended to stay quieter in crowds, and speak only to Gregor himself. Something about him bothered the young Guardian. A lot of it had to do with the way he carried himself, arrogant and aloof, but there was nothing to be done. If Gregor wanted him around, then that was all there was.
Rayl sighed a bit, but kept it as quiet as he could. The last thing he needed to do was give Gregor another reason to lash out at him. He seemed to be the Keepers favorite target. And why not? He was the Guardian, it wasnt as though he were a person who had to be respected.
...Though he had to keep reminding himself of that fact every few moments to keep himself in check.
Well! Gregor said in a loud and cheerful voice, I think for a first strike against the Dark we did quite well! This calls for a celebration! There was a flurry of cheers from the soldiers who were close enough to hear him.
The Keeper turned suddenly to Rayl. All right, Guardian. Then its for you to head back ahead of us and deliver the news of our victory so that a suitable welcome can be prepared for these warriors.
Rayl hesitated. With all due respect, sir, he began uncertainly, I am here to protect you, there may be more darklings out and Id really -
The Keeper suddenly seized the front of his shirt, jerking him violently forward. Are you questioning me? Gregor asked in low, dangerous tones, You are here, Guardian, to do as youve been told. He released Rayl and made a sweeping gesture towards the soldiers with one arm. Why would I make one of my men go on ahead? They are already worn out from the day, it would not do to push them further. Thats why I have you around. Now go!
Rayl looked at the Keeper before him a moment more, then nodded slowly. Of course, sir, Im sorry.
Without further discussion, he turned and spread his feathered wings wide. If his master wanted him to do something, then he would do his best to comply. The wings beat down hard, and he pushed himself off of the ground with his legs, ignoring the pains in his muscles from all that theyd done earlier.
As he began to wing away from the group, Gregors voice drifted up to him. And come back as soon as you deliver the message! Ill not have you laying about the keep while our warriors yet march!
* * * * * * * * * * *
It was not long after that first foray that the Dark stepped up its own efforts, and the mood in the keep became far less jovial for all those concerned as the stark realities of a slowly building war began to take shape. No longer were the battles so easy as that first had been. They began to face true warriors, and the grim realizations of what this fighting would truly entail began to dawn on them all.
Yet all the while Gregor stood firm and confidant. He never doubted the strength of his people for a moment, and they continued to draw courage from him. Many times it was their belief in him that led them out to face impossible odds, and more often than not to come out victorious.
Even behind the scenes, Gregor betrayed no worry, no concern, only a ceaseless drive to seek out the Darks followers and destroy them in the Lights name. He would spend many nights huddled with Norcen over maps and diagrams, discussing tactics and planning strategies.
Rayl generally stood silently off to one side for all this.
This was the situation one violently stormy autumn evening, as the Keeper and his closest companion sat before the large stone fireplace in the keeps main hall, trying to reach a decision on a new problem that had arisen. One of the scouts had reported an encampment of the Darks soldiers nearby. It was neither very large, nor did it look to be prepared to march on the keep any time soon. The issue before them now was whether to lead their troops to the encampment, or to wait it out in the keep and meet them as they came. Thunder cracked and rumbled dangerously outside, the wind howled, and the rain pounded at the roof and walls. The two men took no notice.
Come now, Gregor, Norcen took a swig from the goblet before him, I dont think you really need to rush out and greet every enemy who shows his face near here. What if you go out to meet them, and theyre expecting just that? What if they lead you on, then attack the keep while your back is turned? Youd lose everything!
Ah, but sitting idly by and letting them come and go as they please is more than I can bear, the Keeper returned thoughtfully, These darkling scum need to be shown that they do not control this land!
So what do you suggest, then? Dividing our forces?
No, Gregor shook his head. That would simply be inviting disaster. He stopped and leaned back in his chair, one hand pulling at his bearded chin thoughtfully. If only we knew what it was they were planning...I cant understand why they havent come this way yet.
To draw you out, Norcen easily returned, You have a reputation, Gregor, and its not in dragging your feet. If you go out there now, youll be playing into their hands.
...or maybe theyre just waiting for me to show myself. The Keeper returned, maybe theyre not interested in a siege...neither am I when it comes to that. I think wed be at a disadvantage. This keep was built for a much smaller force than I have, we wouldnt be able to hold out here long comfortably.
Since when has comfort bothered you? The other man asked pointedly.
Its not my own comfort Im concerned with. My men are warriors. In battle they will give their all for the Light and for all we stand for. If they must die for this cause, I wont have it be huddled in misery behind stone walls. Gregor stood and paced to one side as the thunder cracked and rumbled outside. So whats to be done then? he asked quietly, staring down at the stone floor below him.
Rayl looked sideways at his master from where he stood at attention to one side.
I still think your best hope is holding out in here. Norcen said idly, as though he hardly noticed the concern in his companions voice, Theyll get tired of waiting out on the open before too long and will either attack or leave. He gestured to a window where the raging storm was plain to be seen, This is not the best country to camp at this time of year.
Gregor folded his arms behind his back. I suppose you are right, but Id still like to keep an eye on whats happening outside.
What then? Scouts? I suppose you could start stationing them in the morning.
Id really rather not wait for morning, The Keeper growled.
What do you mean? Start now? Norcen blinked up at Gregor in the firelight, have you seen the storm out there? Its not a fit night for man or beast.
Well...its not a fit night for man at any rate...Gregor replied, turning to level his gaze on Rayl.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Rayl landed heavily on the thick branch of a maple tree as the wind and rain whipped about his body and tore his wings in every direction.
Using his wings and staying in the air was not really a good idea in weather like this, but the sky was so dark and the rain made things so hard to see that he would never be able to find anything from the ground. He was forced to resort to hopping from tree to tree. It was the best he could manage under the circumstances. Hed be thrown to the ground and killed if he tried anything else.
At least the cold chill of the wind didnt bother him. He had his own internal heat source. Cold temperatures only affected him if they were very extreme. Heat did not affect him at all. Still, his immunity from the bitter winds was little comfort as he grasped another limb to keep his footing, rain pouring over him, only making him heavier and moving that much more difficult.
Yes, doing things this way was much more difficult, but it had another benefit of allowing him to vent some of his pent-up frustration.
Fury at the injustice of Gregors orders burned in his mind. He knew that Guardians were not human, that they were mere tools for the Keeper to use. He wasnt supposed to care. It shouldnt bother him...
...but it did.
Even as he launched himself from the maple beating down his wings once for lift then folding them tight before the wind could take them, he felt his rage rising. Why should I let him treat me this way?! He inwardly fumed, What have I done to deserve it?! Ive done everything hes asked of me. More! And yet its never good enough! He landed nimbly on his next perch, despite the slick coating of rainwater. The reflexes of a Guardian helped in some cases.
He started to rise, when a particularly violent gust of wind wrapped around the tree and forced him to press himself against the trunk to stay there. When it had passed, he raised his head and resettled his wings on his back, scanning the ground below for signs of invaders. Its true, his mental tirade continued, Im not human.
He leapt from the tree again. Im better than human!
He landed hard, and stood, getting his bearings again. Im stronger, faster, and more powerful than any of the pitiful wretches in his army! Why should I allow myself to be treated this way?! Why should I let a weak little human hold power over me?! How could he even stop me if I decided to disobey?! I could fight them all as easily as - !
Without warning, the young Guardian was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and a powerful sense of duty. They seemed to come less from his own mind and more as a triggered response to his angry and rebellious thoughts. Regardless of their source, they had great effect on his mind. They came at him so suddenly and so strong that he actually stumbled back a pace (luckily along the branch) to fall up against the tree trunk. He immediately felt an immense weight of shame at the direction his thoughts had gone in.
I am a Guardian...he thought humbly, this is my place. This is why I was created. To go against that...if I truly am so much stronger than humans, then I am the only one who can complete this task, and it is my duty to see it through. He felt almost as though he were reciting a lesson, rather than thinking the words himself.
With a small sigh, he leveled himself upright again. His thoughts were evening out from the two extremes they had swung between in the past few seconds, and he just felt annoyed, both and his own weakness in growing angry, and at how quickly he turned to shame.
Almost mechanically now, he turned his gaze to the rain-soaked world before him. An unbidden smile came to his face as he looked below. Well, Ill be...looks like he was right to send me out here after all...
Crouched down on the ground, bowing their heads from the wind and rain, and failing to keep their bodies from shivering uncontrollably were four dark shapes. It took a moment for Rayl to be able to tell more than that, but at length he could see that they were draclings.
Draclings were a composite of humans and dragons that failed to incorporate any of the positive attributes of either race. Still, they made good enough grunts, and the Dark used them well. These four were battling their way toward the Keep.
Rayl pushed away thoughts of pity for them and their situation, so similar to his own in many ways. He had no time to dwell on such things. He was here to do as hed been ordered, as the Guardian should, and he would do his job to the best of his ability.
* * * * * * * * * *
Gregor and Norcen stopped dead in their tracks in the keeps entrance hall, staring at the sight before them.
The Guardian Rayl stood under the archway, soaked from head to foot, covered in blood and mud, and looking weary. Yet his face wore a triumphant smile that he couldnt seem to hide.
Before him were four draclings, each looking as roughed up as the Guardian did, and tied tightly with rope. The ropes themselves were dry. The Guardian could only have hauled them back bodily, perhaps while unconscious, and tied them here in the keep.
They were conscious now, however. Their great, yellow, slitted eyes stared hard at the enemy keeper, and every so often one of them would attempt to free a spidery, clawed hand, or a leathery wing from the confines.
Gregor regained his composure. What is the meaning of this? he asked in a low voice.
Rayls smile finally faded a bit, but he looked more confused than anything. Sir? he asked.
The Keeper sneered and looked over those before him again. This mess youve created in the main hall. Bringing these animals in here. What is the meaning of this? One of the draclings snarled a bit and Rayl struck its head to silence it.
The Guardian straightened, and did his best to look composed. Sir, he said patiently, You ask me to look for the Darks spies surrounding the castle, and I found these. I subdued them, and then restrained them here. I thought you might wish to interrogate them.
You shouldnt have brought them in here, Gregor growled. Behind him, Norcen coughed a bit, looking uncomfortable. Delivering them to me directly is ridiculous, we have perfectly good holding cells, the Keeper went on, I can interrogate prisoners there. Dont soil my keep with their presence.
Rayl looked dumbstruck, but turned to do as he was told.
One more thing, Gregor said, turning away, I dont need to interrogate four of them. One will do.
The Guardian hesitated, as if he were unsure hed heard properly. The draclings themselves were beginning to look frightened. Im not sure I understand, sir, Rayl said quietly, What shall I do with the rest?
Gregor turned back with an irritated frown, What do you think I want you to do? Take the other three outside and execute them.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chaerius flew high over the forests surrounding the keep. The early morning sun was just beginning to show over the horizon, and most of the world was still wet with rain though the storm itself had passed. The dragon himself had escaped the worst of it, hiding out in a cave nearby. Skulking in caverns, he thought in mock irritation, like one of the scaled dragons from the west. Im so ashamed of myself.
He landed lightly on the inside of the keeps walls. The guards were startled at first, but recognized him quickly enough and returned to their watch. He paid them no mind at all. Concentrating a bit, he was able to shrink himself down to about the size of a horse. He could go no smaller in his current state, but this was enough to suit his purposes, even if some of the corridors were a bit tight.
He pushed open one of the doors and walked confidently inside.
He had spent much of him time lately scouting around and relaying reports to Gregor. As a dragon, his role for the Light was technically to be an advisor, in reality however, his true role was as the voice of Fate. He rarely spent much time close to the Keeper unless it became absolutely necessary. The Keepers were generally capable, they did not need him constantly hovering nearby, he would be there only when needed. And although he enjoyed human company and did not disdain them, he found he preferred to get out into the open. Within the walls of the Keep, his movements were very restricted in more ways than one. Any jobs that kept him to the open skies were welcomed.
As he walked through the hallways, lost in his own thoughts, he suddenly smelled something out of place.
He looked down.
Blood was smeared across the stone floor at his paws.
His eyes widened and he leaned closer. There wasnt a lot of it, and it was spread thinly. Whatever it was, hadnt been wounded here. He lifted his head to see another such smear ahead of him, and by raising his head a bit higher, he could see there was indeed a trail.
Cautiously, he began to follow it. There were actual drops of blood here and there, but the smears, as near as the dragon could determine were footsteps.
The trail, thinning with each step, led him down a side hallway, even narrower than most, and much more simply decorated. He recognized the area well enough. Gregor had placed the Guardian in one of these rooms. He certainly pushed Rayl far enough away from himself, he should be keeping the Guardian close by. But the Keeper would never be down here. At least I dont have to worry that its him... Still, even as he thought this, his fear rose. He felt sure he knew where this blood had come from.
As last the trail led him to a simple door that stood slightly ajar. The dragon nosed the door open further and craned his long neck to peer inside.
The blood led directly to Rayl, who was sitting in a shadowed corner, staring down at his hands. Once Chaerius had convinced himself that Rayl was indeed still alive, he let out a relieved breath and pushed his way further into the room.
The young Guardian never looked up, he continued to stare down at his hands. Now the dragon could see that his hands and arms were coated in blood. His clothes too were stained red, and though he was wounded in a few places, Chaerius doubted that much of the blood was his own. His hair and the feathers of his wings were matted and unkempt. His face looked distant, he looked as though he hadnt slept that night. The dragon found himself wondering how long hed been sitting like that.
He waited in silence for a time, and after a moment, Rayl spoke. Why was it, he asked in a small voice, that it was so hard to do? Ive killed before...I know I have...why was this different? It...was so hard...
You killed someone? Chaerius asked. Not accusing. Not shocked. Just a simple question.
Rayl nodded, Draclings. I caught them outside. I had to kill them...but they didnt want to die. They fought back. Even tied, they fought back... Id have done the same, but I had to kill them. He closed his eyes tight and shook his head, They were monsters. They were from the Dark. They would have killed my master. Why was it so hard?
Chaerius felt himself at a loss for words. He had no reply to give. Ordering a Guardian to do this sort of thing was not unheard of, in fact, it was common practice. Most of them had no trouble obeying the command and completing the task. But Rayl was a different case. He had not been chosen by Fate, he did not have the proper mindset that a Guardian should have. Killing in the heat of battle was one thing, but executing a helpless prisoner was something that Rayl was not ready to do. The dragon was torn. He would have liked to offer Rayl some comfort, but in the long run, it would do him no good. This would happen again. If anything, he should scold Rayl for even worrying about it. But there was still one other concern for the dragon. Looking at the young Guardians distant expression, he realized that Rayl was very close to the breaking point. It wouldnt take much to push him over the edge now, and that was the very thing that Chaerius wished to avoid.
In the end, he said nothing in response. He merely backed out of the room and grunted, Well, if youre awake, you should probably get yourself moving. I imagine theres much youll need to do today. Come. Maybe I can just give him something else to think on, but I cant treat him so gently forever...
Rayl dumbly nodded and followed.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the days that followed, Rayl became very quiet and distant. No longer trying so hard to be everything his master wished him to be, he fell into a kind of blankness. He did as he was told and never tried to take any initiative.
Such a change in attitude likely would have pleased Gregor at another time, but he had much else on his mind. The enemy encampment made no move towards the Keep, but each day, it grew larger as more warriors joined them. It became clear enough that the Dark intended this to be their army for a final confrontation. They apparently had no interest in a long, drawn-out war.
They were practically ignoring the Lights base of operations in preparing for their own attack, which for time being allowed the Lights followers to freely come and go without much fear of attack (although there were disappearances, and it was not considered wise to travel too close to the enemy encampment) The Dark knew where their enemy was. They had no interest in picking small fights and letting their numbers get whittled down. They had many more warriors on the way than the Light could have managed in such a short time. They had the advantage, and were just settling back and preparing.
While they had learned much of the Darks plans from the dracling Rayl had captured, the poor creature did not know enough to be of any use before it was too late, and the Darks forces had grown too large for the Keepers men to tackle. Frantic messages had been sent out for reinforcements, but they were too far for them to arrive before the Dark made its move.
Gregor fussed and fumed within the walls of the keep, even as he prepared to face them. If only Id gone out there when I first wished to! he roared for the tenth time that day, I had them! Why did I not follow my instincts and attack them right away?! None of this would have happened!
He threw one huge fist down on the table before him which was littered with maps and strategies and battle plans. He stood there a moment, then bowed his head and let his shoulders drop. I made them a vow... he said softly. His head came back up, his expression fierce. I made them a vow! he said more forcefully, And I swear I will keep to it!
Rayl stood nearby, not even puzzling what the Keeper could mean by that. Nor did he look at his master as the man walked up to him.
Guardian, Gregor said sternly, Ive decided. We will end this. I will not allow the Dark such arrogance on my very doorstep. Ive faced worse odds than this. We will fight them. Go and get some rest, we will be facing them tomorrow and I want you at you best, however much that may be.
Yes sir, Rayl quietly replied. He carefully bowed, then turned and left the room.
His plan is to rush out and fight them...the young Guardian thought wearily as he walked, taking back corridors to get where he was going more quickly, Such a rash man, my master is. Well, if that is his wish...
As he walked towards his quarters, however, he heard a voice drifting down one of the hallways. It sounded very agitated, and though that was a common occurrence in the keep now, it still caught his attention. It only took a moment for Rayl to realize why the voice was peculiar...simply because he had heard it at all.
The keep was a hive of activity at the moment, everyone rushing about trying to get ready for the fight ahead. He hadnt noticed it at first because he and Gregor had been alone while the Keeper tried to work out what to do, but now that he took the time, the halls should be filled with people bustling about. Why was it so quiet?
An answer came to his mind almost immediately. Whoever the speaker was, they wanted privacy, and so had sent anyone who was poking about here away. They may have even blocked off the corridors, the only one they wouldnt have bothered with would have been the way Rayl came, from the Keepers quarters. The Keeper would never come this way. Which meant that whoever the speaker was, he didnt want anyone to know what he was doing.
This was a very paranoid sort of conclusion to reach, but such is the nature of a Guardians mind, and so without questioning his reasoning for a moment, Rayl turned and headed resolutely in the voices direction.
The voice grew louder, then the young Guardian could hear words, - doing my best! You cant blame me because your servants were caught . . . How should I know what that pig-headed fool is planning? Hes shut himself away to try to figure it all out and will see no one! . . . You cant accuse me of that! I did my part!
The voice was very close now, he was right outside the room. Rayl silently approached, staying close to the wall, then carefully looked into the room.
As he had guessed from the sound of the voice, it was Norcen. Someone else was perched right outside the window, and Rayl could sense that figure was a darkling. Likely a vampire to get up to high so easily without being seen. Done your part? the vampire sneered, and what have you done other than relax here in the luxury of his companionship while the rest of us froze out in the countryside?
Norcens brow furrowed, I prevented him from rushing out to attack while you were still vulnerable, did I not?
The vampire laughed, Aye, though less you than the storm, Id imagine. And you let him send out the Guardian to capture our spies. It almost ruined everything. Luckily, he held off for one more day. Not for your help, I dont think. Youd better have more to offer the master when he comes. You were supposed to be our greatest asset, and yet what have you accomplished? Do you even have a plan?
You doubt my loyalty? My abilities? Norcen sneered, I will level half this garrison before the attack even sounds! Why, Id imagine it may even reach the Keeper himself. The deluded fool is so trusting of all his people, hell never suspect an attack from within!
Rayl had heard enough. He reached out with his right hand and touched the doorway. A jet of fire streaked down the wall, across the floor, and up to the window in the span of mere seconds. The vampire shrieked and vanished. Norcen yelped and turned just as Rayl reached him, but he was no fighter, and it only took the Guardian a moment to wrap an arm around his neck and subdue him.
I will not, Rayl growled darkly at the man, allow you to harm my Keeper.
Guardian! Norcen gasped, Where did you - ? Why arent you with Gregor?!
Traitor! the Guardian snarled in return, You would turn on him! After all the trust and respect hes shown you?!
Norcen was silent for a moment, obviously frightened and not sure what to do next. Rayl went on, So what am I to do with you? Ah yes, I suppose I should just follow my masters teachings, and have an execution here and now. You can join your companions on the other side.
Norcen made choking noises for a moment, then cried out, Help me! This maniac attacked me!
Rayl was about to sneer at this cowardly reaction when he felt a hard blow to the back of his head. He released Norcen in his surprise, but before he could do anything further, something seized the hair at the back of his head, and he felt a sharp point in his back. I heard someone say traitor as I was coming this way, came Gregors voice, And now I can see why.
Rayl stayed frozen where he was, both for the blade in his back, and for the shock of how this had been turned against him. Norcen was a few steps away, clutching the front of his shirt and looking very pale. There were others in the room now too.
Thank goodness you came when you did! Norcen stammered, I never thought he meant to attack me when he came in here! What brought you?
I heard some kind of strange yell down the hall. Wasnt hard to find the source. Now, Guardian, he gave Rayls head a rough shake, You want to tell me why youre attacking my friends?
You cant trust what he says! Norcen spat, the creatures lost his mind! Rayl narrowed his eyes at the one before him, still enraged by Norcens betrayal, and yet he suddenly felt so helpless. He was sure there was nothing he could say to Gregor that would prove his innocence, Norcen had more of the Keepers trust, when it came down to a matter of ones word over the other, the other had the upper hand.
...and yet, were he allowed to go free...
That had to be prevented. Rayl had to protect his Keeper, no matter the cost.
He jerked himself free from Gregors gasp and threw himself at Norcen. If I can stop him now, it wont matter what else comes!
Suddenly his body was overcome by a paralyzing pain. He collapsed to the floor before his target.
Gregor walked into view holding Ragrathon. The red stone of the sword was glowing brightly, and a fiery aura surrounded the weapon. Stubborn arent you? the Keeper asked, even right in front of me you wont give up your madness. You forget, I am your master just as I am this swords master. You are bound to it, and so you are bound to me. And I will control you, one way or another. He looked down with a sneer.
Rayl struggled, trying hard to at least say something. To warn Gregor of the danger even if the Keeper refused to believe him, but he could make no sound come out. I am tired of dealing with you, Gregor said at last, The dragon has made it clear that he will not allow me to kill you. But I will no longer tolerate your presence. Youve been a nuisance in this endeavor from the start, and I for one will be glad to be rid of you.
* * * * * * * * * *
That night, the first snow of the season began to fall.
The air was frigid and the ground was hard. The snowflakes were not melting immediately upon hitting the ground, nor were they turning into the thick, heavy sort of snow that makes everything difficult. It was a light, airy snowfall that was simply covering the earth with a slight dusting, not enough to be a nuisance really save for the cold. Still, it was not a good sign for the coming battle.
The Guardian Rayl did not notice the weather conditions. He could certainly not feel the cold, and he could hardly see the outside from where he sat in one of the Keeps small jail cells. But even were the barred window larger, he likely would not have noticed his surroundings. His thoughts were elsewhere entirely.
Gregor had thrown him into the cell the night before, determined to not let Rayl interfere in his war any longer, and there had been ever since.
At least no word had reached him of any terrible occurrences in the keep, and for that much he felt he had done some good.
He had been sitting there for many hours, long after the sun had come up, when suddenly a large shape blotted out the one small window. Rayl? came the dragons rough tones full of surprise, What are you still doing here?! The battle has begun!
My master has ordered me here... Rayl said in a cold voice, and here I will stay until he orders me otherwise.
You cannot just stay behind! Chaerius sounded shocked now, The Guardian of Light remaining out of a battle between Keepers?... Or didnt you hear that their Keeper arrived last night! We have to get going!
Going? Rayl asked dully, havent you noticed the bars on the doors and windows?
You are the Guardian, Rayl, the dragon said darkly, This cell can only hold you as long as you let it.
Rayl stubbornly refused to give in, My master seems to have little use for me, perhaps I will serve him best by staying here.
Chaerius was silent for a moment, then the young guardian heard a low, yet rising rumble. It slowly dawned on him that the dragon was growling. He looked to the window and could see that Chaerius had increased his size. One great, clawed paw suddenly reached for the window, his toes just barely fitting between the iron bars. The claws gripped the window as if his forepaw were a hand, and suddenly, the window and part of the wall were gone, torn away by the dragon.
Chaerius threw the remains of the window aside and reached into the cell, hauling Rayl out bodily and setting him roughly on the ground outside...but he did not release his charge. Instead he lowered his head to stare directly into Rayl face. Listen closely, Guardian, his rumbling voice spoke, you were created to protect the Keeper, and that is the only reason you are in this world! That calling is more important than any other order you receive, even those coming from the Keeper himself. It is your duty to stand by his side and protect him. It doesnt matter if he wants you there, or if you want to be there! That is where you belong! If you arent going to follow this one simple command, then you have no reason left to exist!
He stared at the young Guardian a moment more, then let him go. Think hard, Guardian, he growled, You have a job to do. Its time you did it.
And with that, he turned and leapt into the grey sky, sending flurries of snow flying all about him as he left.
Rayl stood a moment, staring at the peacefully falling snowflakes. He suddenly felt very bewildered, as though he had abruptly found himself in a completely alien world. His mind was blank, and he wasnt sure what he had to do. Then it passed, and the dragons chiding began to sink in.
With a sigh of resignation, he lifted his wings and followed Chaerius lead. Hes right, I know hes right. I dont know whats wrong with me. I know what I have to do, why is it so hard to do it? It just seems so out of place, something doesnt feel right...
He leveled out his wings to glide for a bit, and thought ruefully, maybe its just me...
At that moment he felt a blast of cold air directly behind him, and before he could react to that, a heavy blow struck the middle of his back. His wings snapped vertical, and he instantly began to plummet to the earth. The weight on his back remained, pushing him downward until hed almost reached the ground, then, with one final shove, it left him, far too late for him to be able to prevent a collision with the ground below.
With all the strength he could muster he beat his wings downward. It was difficult to do against the force of the air, but it was enough to level him out a bit so that he did not hit the ground straight-on. Instead he hit at an angle, and skidded along the snowy grass for a moment before he could execute a roll and gain control of himself again.
When he had finally come to a stop, he looked up to face his assailant.
The other was a tall imposing figure. Although his frame was fairly slim, he appeared powerful. He also had feathered wings, bat-shaped wings that were a pale blue in color. He was just standing from a crouch, likely where he landed after kicking away from Rayl. The Guardian of Shades, Rayl realized, my opposite...Elrek...The name came to him easily, which he found odd considering he could find no name to match to the other Dark Guardians in his memories. Only this one stood out clear.
Elrek turned to face his foe and almost immediately a look of shock came across his face. You? he asked incredulously, You are the new Guardian of Light?
Rayl watched him warily. He had never met the Darks Guardian face to face before, yet somehow this outburst seemed unlike Elrek.
The other Guardian stared hard, then burst out, Damn you! Cant you die and leave me in peace?!
To say that the Rayl was taken aback by this would be an understatement. Yet he was in no mood to let himself be led along by Elreks words. Isnt that what were here for, you and I? he asked, smirking, to die? For the sake of this Keeper or that...but it will end the same for all of us. It always has.
Elreks angry expression faded quickly and was replaced by a far more composed and thoughtful face. I see...this life, its broken you already. A shame. But its to be expected. Id heard you werent meant for this, and now I see why. Everything that made you the perfect choice for your last role makes you all wrong for this. Your pride, your honor, your empathy, they made you so strong before and now they just tear away at you.
Rayl furrowed his brow. What are you rambling about? he asked. He understood nothing of Elreks little speech, and was in no temper to puzzle it out.
Let me give you a lesson, said Elrek in a dull voice, his demeanor returning to what Rayl had expected it should be as he began pacing to one side, You are a Guardian now. As far as the world is concerned, you are not a living being, you are simply an object for your master to use, as he would a sword or a bow. You want to consider yourself a person, you want to take pride in what you do. But such thoughts are meaningless now. You have no achievements of your own. Your whole world is your master. You wish to behave honorably, but we cannot have honor. This life has broken you because you feel you have done wrong, that what youve done has tarnished you. But it cant tarnish you, simply because youve nothing to tarnish. This you must understand, or you will destroy yourself. His voice was cold. He was stating facts, nothing more. This state of affairs did not trouble him as it did Rayl.
He paused, as though considering how best to continue Not that it matters now. Im going to finish this. He reached to his side and withdrew a sword, You are not a proper Guardian, and so Fate needs you out of the way.
Rayl slowly rose, feeling fear creep into his mind. Im...unarmed, he stammered.
Should that stop me? Elrek asked, Did you not understand what I just told you? And with no further warning, he launched himself forward.
Rayl started to jump to one side, but he couldnt get his footing right on the snow covered grass. Elrek was upon him in a second, sword drawn back for the strike. In a panic, Rayl cried out and lashed out at his opponent with a fire-engulfed fist. Somehow he managed to parry the coming attack. He took the momentary reprieve to jump back, and prepare himself for his opponents next move. He did not extinguish the fire surrounding his right fist, it was the only weapon he had at the moment.
Elrek recoiled from the fire, but wasted no time in attacking again. Rayl brought up his right fist, only to find it countered by his opponents left. Elreks hand was surrounded by a pale blue light, both steady and shifting, and frigid to the touch. Each power held the other at bay. The Darks Guardian was far more prepared, however. His right hand still held the sword, which he propelled forward with deadly force.
Rayl was caught somewhat off-balance, and unable to dodge to avoid it. In desperation, he beat down his left wing hard, which threw his body out of the swords way.
Elrek seemed unperturbed by this, and continued his assault. It was all the young Guardian could do to keep to his feet and keep away from the blade. Unfortunately, he was concentrating so hard on the sword, that he did not notice the effect their powers were having on the surroundings. The gentle, dry snow, was quickly turning to slush as the heat from his fire melted it, then freezing again when Elrek drew near.
It wasnt long before the field became an obstacle itself.
Rayl leapt away from another stroke of the blade only to find the ground completely slick. He lost his balance, and fell to one side.
Just as he was hurrying to his feet, he felt something sharp at the back of his neck. He flashed back to the moment when hed been in the same situation with Gregor, and he felt just the same...helpless.
I told you I would finish this, came the Dark Guardians cold voice, You were not meant for this, and this is the only way to take you out of it. He paused a moment, and Rayl waited for the killing stroke. Instead, Elrek spoke up again. Turn around, he ordered.
Rayl found himself thrown off by this. What?
Turn around! Elrek commanded again, more forcefully this time, Ill not stab you in the back.
It took the young Guardian a few moments to comprehend this. When he had grasped the fact that he was still alive when there was nothing to stop Elrek from killing him, he felt an odd sort of smugness. Whats this? he asked, sneering, You wont stab me in the back? Trying to be noble, are you? Didnt you just get through lecturing me on how we have no honor?
This has nothing to do with honor, Elrek returned, its simply something I cannot do.
And you expect that to matter to me?! Rayl spat, I wont help you to kill me!
Elrek was silent a moment. Then he said, Very well...if that is your wish.
A gust of wind buffeted Rayls back. He pivoted his head to look over his shoulder, to see that Elrek had vanished. In the same instant, he felt the air move in front of him, and heard the thud of someone landing. He snapped his head back just in time to see the sword as it stabbed into his chest.
The pain was like nothing hed ever known.
It became the only thing hed ever known.
He couldnt see, couldnt hear, couldnt think. There was nothing but the agony from the sword.
As his enemy withdrew the blade, Rayl clutched instinctively at the wound, trying to collapse himself on it, to protect himself from the torment, but there was no escaping it.
He was dying.
...a voice broke into his mind. He couldnt really grasp the words, but he heard them. The battle has ended already? Feh, your master has denied you even this one simple escape. Elrek, it was Elrek speaking, wasnt it? What did he mean? The battle was over...the Keepers had already decided the outcome? One had defeated the other then. It hardly seemed to matter at the moment which one it was.
...but what...had he been denied...?
His consciousness began to fade, and the thought came to him, this is it then, Im really dying.
With a start, he realized that the pain was growing distant from him, and this loss of consciousness he felt...it was familiar. This had happened before. He looked down at his hands, which were surrounded in a red glow, and he could now see through to the ground below.
He was being drawn back to Ragrathon. Yes...the battle has ended...there is no need for me to be in this world any longer.
It was over. As quickly as it had begun, and with almost no warning, it was over. The sword would heal his wounds as though they had never happened, but he could not shake the thoughts of his last encounter. The feeling of a killing blow, of having his life fade away, and of Elreks words, you were not meant for this...