The Woods Near Khoron
Usually, the familiar sounds of an army marching to war would soothe me. As a veteran of thousands of battles, I trusted my men, and they trusted me as their leader. We were the First Regiment. The elite core. The vanguard. We had been through countless wars together. Nothing truly scared us anymore. And yet, even when surrounded by the reassuring strength of my regiment, I couldn't shake the thought that we were marching towards our deaths. I felt the gaze of the reaper upon my back and it terrified me. I never felt the presence of death in such an overbearing manner before. Not before a battle. Not before a duel. Not even before a meeting with the emperor. The day was permeated with a sense that something was terribly, horribly wrong and I had learned over the years to trust my instincts. The beginnings of panic crept in and I could see it spread to the rest of my men.
The reports I read earlier in the morning only contributed to my sense of impending doom. A black cloud that killed nearly everything as it passed the farming town of Shiria. People slaughtered by their own shadows in the trading post of Khoron. It could just be a strange magical creature, but I suspected far worse: a demon. Those bastards from another dimension, enemies to everything in this one. My instincts screamed at me as we approached the forest. I set the entire column on high alert, swords sliding out of their sheathes throughout the regiment with a loud ring. I drew my own swords and continued the march into the forest. The shadows grew longer as we stepped between the tangled oaks and seemed to move and dart around while the regiment trekked deeper and deeper. Suddenly, that sinister feeling intensified, a freezing snake of animalistic fear sliding down my back. Something was there, I knew that for sure. I stopped the column and ordered everyone into a defensive formation. We scanned the forest around us, the trees seeming to lean in, awaiting our demise. The pale moon failed to penetrate the darkness, and within it, we saw things move. Shadows flickered in and out. It was watching us. It surrounded us.
And as if the Fates had damned us, the lieutenant to my left cried, "By the twelve Olympians, what in the name of Hades is that!"
The shadows around me suddenly felt malicious. Unnatural shivers racked my body. I felt violated just by standing in the forest.
"Oh, this is going to be fun." I muttered to myself.
Three days later and I still couldn't do anything. My men were slaughtered, falling left and right, reduced to one feeble company fighting with their broken wills. The shadows of my fallen comrades, given physical bodies kept coming, rising up out of our own shadows, pouring out of the forest. They mimicked our every attack. My men's bodies blackened and withered. The battle dragged on and on. Blood stained the ground. Screams of agony echoed the woods. My friend stood beside me, frantically chanting, causing explosions of flame and light throughout the battlefield. Scales formed on his face as he overused his draconic powers. He was out of breath, with blood seeping down his face and side.
I was in no better shape, having lost my arm in the second day of fighting. Bandages, stained black from blood, wrapped tightly around the stump of my left arm. Blood trickled out of a fresh cut across my face, obscuring my vision.
"We are the undefeated first, the proud defenders of Galia. Don't let some bastard from Hell defeat you." My voice cracked in desperation.
A chuckle resonated from the shadows.
"I hate to overshadow your little speech, but you pathetic humans should just give up. Your cruel insults bring shame to your insignificant existence, well, to the end of it."
As those words pierced the woods, shadowy hands spiraled out of the darkness and slowly wound their way to our wary battle lines. At the same time, my friend whispered a crazy idea into my ear.
"How many bodies have been recovered?" My father asked grimly.
After a pause, Erik, the captain of the Crown's guard replied, "As of yet? Roughly a thousand."
I always looked up to Erik. He was kind and honorable. In the local tavern, he would launch into tales of glorious fights and chivalry. Almost always, these stories were about the Galian Royal Army. Most of the town, including Erik and I were Skanadian, but Erik harboured an deep admiration of the Galian army. An admiration he instilled in me. Erik was a second father to me, as well as my role model. I spent every waking moment following him, dreaming of joining the army and serving the ruler of Galia, Emperor Galiga, as one of his guardsmen. This was my dream. I would constantly pretend to be a soldier on a great adventure, swinging twigs I found in the nearby forest like swords and fighting the great bush dragon.
"Odin's beard! That is an entire regiment of the King's army massacred. Unbelievable!"
"I know. It looks like they were pretty elite too. First regiment, the veteran vanguard. Those soldiers of the empire are a mighty fierce bunch."
"What kind of beast sent by Hel could do this!"
"How am I supposed to know? A tarrasque? That is the only beast I know that could massacre the Royal army like this. The army has been known to win against insurmountable odds."
How? I was always told that the army was unbeatable. What about my dream of becoming a royal guard?
Something had drawn my attention away from the conversation. A figure in the distance had slowly stumbled their way toward the town. "Hey, what is that?"
The guardsman squinted into the distance. "It looks like a soldier. Is he a survivor?"
The figure came to a halt before crumpling to the ground as its legs gave out from under him. We could hear moans of pain coming from the figure's direction.
"Stay here, Son. Erik and I will see to him."
With cautious strides, they walked off towards the figure, but stopped before reaching It. Horror smeared across their faces as they took shaky steps back. With a sense of curiosity mixed with nervousness creeping over me, I began walking towards It. I had a clear view of It now. Its body was black, leathery and tough. Wisps of black smoke clinged to It's body, and it looked pained, as if at odds with itself. It began moaning softly. It's voice sounded human, but there was something that wasn't quite right about it.
"Get away. Stay away. I can't hold him in. Go aw-" It choked out, before opening its eyes. They were an unnatural yellow, and the smoke thickened around itself. It spoke once again, but It seemed to have a different presence, with a voice that was not befitting of an earthly creature.
"He was very annoying. He had more willpower than your average speck of dust." It smiled to itself before noticing our presence, "Why hello there. You have just volunteered to be my newest insects… to crush." The black smoke that had been collecting around it billowed out, enveloping all of us in darkness.
"Run!" Cried my father. "Back to the village! Warn them!"
"Go, go, go. Don't look back!" Screamed Erik.
I sprinted blindly in the direction of what I hoped was the village. I heard It laugh behind us.
"Run, my little ant. Back to your nest to give me new toys."
I tore free from the smoke, saw the village, and sprinted toward it, yelling the entire time.
"Get the guards! Monster! There is a monster!"
The two guardsmen at the gate froze in horror as they watched the wave of darkness rush towards them. My alarm snapped them out of their shock and the older sentry turned to the second and shouted, "Ring the bell! We need to warn the villagers."
"Yes, sir. Kid, come with me now!"
I followed the soldier to the center of town where he furiously rung the bell, shouting, "Attack at the gates, to arms!"
Men begun pouring out of their houses, brandishing swords, spears, and other makeshift weapons. We all gathered into a mob and charged towards the gates. However, before even reaching our destination, a wave of darkness crashed into us, and the world was engulfed in it. All was silent. I grasped around for someone to comfort the intense dread and panic that swept over me. Suddenly, laughter pierced the silence. I curled up on the ground, praying to Tyr to protect me, to protect all of us from that evil thing.
Behind me, I heard someone shouting, "Evacuate the town! Out the back gates, quickly! Follow the sound of my voice." It was Erik, but he sounded pained. His cry roused movement from around me and I soon found myself being swept along by the mass of people as they rushed past me.
Eventually, I broke free from the black cloud again to see that the entire village was swallowed by darkness. Behind me, the darkness spat out my father. His face was cut, but otherwise, he was fine.
He immediately took charge of the situation. Calling out orders left and right. "Who is missing? Has anyone done a head count?"
"Já, Brandr. Erik and the other two guardsmen are missing. Everyone else is here only has minor cuts and bruises."
"Thanks, Asmund. We should camp outside and wait for It to leave."
"Good idea. Well boys, start making camp."
We returned to the village the next morning and found Erik and the two guardsmen at the center of town. Their bodies were a far cry from their former states. Their bodies, once strong and sturdy, were now black, withered, and lacerated to the point that we couldn't bear to look at their disfigured forms any longer. Their tools were carted to their funeral pyres and I watched as the three men joined the afterlife. My small town was forever changed. We lost three of our bravest men, our protectors, our friends. I was eight years old at the time.
We called it the skiés thanátou. It plagued the town for days. Everyone I cared for was dying. My mom: dead. My brother: dead. I watched them die in front of me. Huddled into the corner, It loomed over my brother and me. I saw tears rolling down Mom's cheeks as she clutched a knife with both hands, shaking. She was terrified, it was obvious. My brother was crying, his screams piercing the air. The scene was burned into my mind. The splatter of blood, the clang of the knife hitting the floor. I closed my eyes, but it did nothing. I already knew what was to come. I heard my father screech from the other room.
I felt warm blood pour onto me and a searing heat. I opened my eyes. Laying upon me was my brother. He was coughing blood. I was not sure if I could do anything, there was so much of it.
"No, no, no." I repeated numbly. I stared at my brother, dying in my lap, unable to do anything. His stomach was torn open, blood pouring out. I could see his innards. My mother laid beside him, her eyes closed. She wasn't breathing. Her throat was cut wide open. I could only stare hopelessly at her. More coughing racked Crono's body, reminding me that he was still alive.
I pressed my hands into the wound. My father rushed to me, his hands glowing with divine light. But it was too late. He stared at me, his mouth set in a grim line, pressing something into my hand.
"Goodbye." His voice had a slight tremble to it. He was trying to reassure me, trying to remain calm.
Afterwards, most of the town took shelter in the church. I was with them, catatonic with grief. I couldn't take it anymore. I had one thing left to live for: my father.
We held out for days, praying fervorously. Occasionally, a skiés thanátou appeared nearby, but our prayers did not cease. The skiés thanátou stayed away from the church as if they were deterred by an invisible force. We rarely stopped to eat, sleep or drink, praying nonstop during that week. We heard reports of an army coming to help. We held out, praying for them to arrive soon.
A low voice entered my head.
"Death approaches. Survive 10 years and find the shadows that plague the world under the capital."
The pocket watch glowed and the engraved inverted torch was set ablaze in a burst of light. The light blinded me, forcing me to look away. When I opened my eyes, I was on a hill, overlooking a forest. I heard the screaming of men as flames descended from the sky. Only two men were left standing, corpses littered on the ground around them. From one of them, a light emitted from his scale-covered body. Magic swirled around him, pulsating with energy as he pointed at the other man. The other faced him, and his form began to distort. His body blackened and horns sprouted from his head. He cackled, his body violently shaking as he shouted.
"It appears Lord Kalkarath came over personally. The portal was a success."
I turned around. There stood a man with youthful features and a cruel smile plastered on his face. His piercing gaze slid past me. I looked down at myself and saw that I could see the ground through my hand. I blinked and saw my father praying again. I shook my head, thinking I was tired. My father stopped praying suddenly.
"Do you feel that?"
A sea of heads nodded in agreement. There was a tremor in the floor. It grew stronger, reverberating through the walls. The skiés thanátou stopped moving. They stared towards the forest. Flames fell from the sky. We heard the shouts and cries of battle.
"The soldiers are here!" Cried the town. Relief swept through everyone's faces as they rushed out, eager to be free of this curse. A strange sense of dread overwhelmed me. I stood, rooted in the church and watched the town celebrate. My father was among them, praising the gods above. In the crowd, there was an unfamiliar figure wearing priestly robes. He stood off to one side and carried an inverted torch. I stared at him. I worked in the church, but I did not recognize him. My gaze drew his attention, he turned to me and smiled. His eyes were a deep obsidian and he began to glow slightly. The crowd didn't notice him.
Another figure walked into town. Now he, I recognized. He was the man from the vision. He donned the same cruel smile. He raised his hands and shouted, "Let this town be the first conquest of the demons!"
Hundreds of skiés thanátou rose up behind him and began slaughtering the town. Panic saturated the air. I hid in the church, praying to the gods. An hour passed and silence. Cautiously, I raised my head to look out the window. The man with the inverted torch from earlier was still there. The glow surrounding him grew brighter until it became a brilliant blue. Wings sprouted from his back. He kneeled down and reached out with his hand to touch the ground. Cracks spread out from behind him, forming a large rectangle. The ground swung down and a blast of cold air washed over me. Was it a door?
From all over town, people began to rise up, only to jump down the door, leaving their bodies behind. The hole closed up and the cracks receded. The figure stood there, a silent tear fell to the floor. "So many untimely deaths." He sighed and looked right at me. "Remember my wishes, Persephone Xenith"
A week passed and soldiers came into town. They were here to investigate the annihilation of the First Regiment. They found me in the church, barely alive. I was brought to the nearby monastery and raised by friends of my father. I was delirious for weeks with shock. My family's death caused my life to spiral into despair. Everyone I cared for died. I was cursed, everyone I loved was doomed to die. I had no one. I will never have someone again. Nothing. I felt… hopeless. But after a time, I realized that there was only one thing to do. I changed my grief into fury, and bent that fury to my will. My first act after my transformation was to begin the task given to me by Thanatos.
Cruising around in my convertible was a good way to calm my nerves. I usually drove to the University in the early hours, when there were no people to pester me. Earlier in the year, we were assigned by the professor to make a model of an ancient civilization of our choice. My sculpture, a miniature replica of the Parthenon, was near completion. Of course, since the model was mine, it would be nothing short of perfect.
I barely registered entering the shared space granted to us, the students, for the purpose of working on our projects. After looking at the other students' models, I allowed myself a smile. It always felt good, being around art, even if it was of questionable quality. I wondered how the citizens of old felt like, I had no idea how they survived being without the comforts of the modern age.
Stopping my admiration for the creations of… I hesitated to call them my peers, I swaggered to my own station and reached for my nearly finished sculpture. Just as my fingertips touched the clay, a shudder ran through the room. An earthquake, perhaps?
I darted to the edge of the room and looked through a window only to see... Nothing. I was confused. There was nothing wrong. It was just a normal dark night, so dark that there didn't appear to be any stars. Come to think of it, no moon either-
Wait, wasn't it just morning?
Suddenly, vertigo overtook me. The room around me spun faster, faster, and faster still! Then I realized that the entirety of the sky was not pitch black. There were two disturbances in it's homogeneity: two large, yellow, malevolent eyes that just begged for the destruction of all things good.
I found myself in a room that was decorated a very tasteful purple. In the center, there was a comfortable-looking bed. Hung on the wall were torches that lit the room in a warm glow.
"My-my lord! Are you alright?" Some weirdo cried out from behind me. I spun around, taking note of the robes that hung around me.
"Who the hell are you? Where am I!" I demanded, raising my hands in anger, only to have my attention pulled by a light shining in my eye. A ring, bedazzled with a single scarlet ruby, lay wrapped around my left index finger.
"Sir? Galia, in the town of Shiria."