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The Cleansing

By Tom Foster

Santuario, Italy

            Once upon a time this place had been beautiful, cast in varying shades of color both dark and light, an old-world feel that the inhabitants of this region had perhaps always felt yet never truly understood.  Back then had been much simpler times, or so people tried to tell themselves.  Back then life had at least made sense, enough so that the only dangers one felt on a regular basis were highly accredited to what had been dubbed “the human condition”.  It was a hard world that cared not a bit for its inhabitants, sentient or not, but it was the only one they had.

            The small village that lay below the crumbling, towering cliff that loomed over it was little more than a pile of sticks and loosely bound mortar, nothing of what it had been in its more glorious days.  At one time people had flocked to this place, tourists and locals alike, seeking answers, seeking refuge, or simply seeking a place to burrow down and hide from what had seemed to many like the end of the world.  Humans, no matter where they were or how old, usually only had a short array of responses to danger, and the fight or flight response was far more accurate than anything else. 

            Some had fought the darkness that had descended upon the world, while others had tossed valor and nobility to the winds and gone into hiding.  Very few, despite which response they favored, had fared all that well.  In a world where the population had once numbered in the billions, a staggering number to be certain, now there existed less than a million and of those only about three quarters were still entirely human.  The global neighborhood had regressed back to its earliest days, when mankind had only a dim awareness of their existence.  The backward slide had not been expected, nor weathered very well.

            Shadows ruled this small area, darkness that was neither natural nor welcoming as he strode among the ruins, hands empty and body clad only in the clothing he’d worn for so long.  They were representations only of what had been, what had been the norm for appearance back in his day, when the world had been much different.  They were what comforted him however, at least in the manners of dress, and as such he did not feel the need to change.  Some might have argued that a full set of armor, or some equal amount of protection, might have befitted a man who seemed to walk along without a care for what the darkness held, nor what it could possibly take from him should he be so foolish as to turn his back upon the shadows.  Yet he did just that, and did not look back as he continued forth. He had a purpose for being here now, and he meant to see it fulfilled.  The debt he’d owed for too long needed to be paid, and any that stood in his path would be sorry indeed if they attempted to halt his progress.

            He knew the dangers, he knew very well what awaited him, and what might at any

moment step into his path. It didn’t matter, whatever dared to impede him would fall like all the

others that had dared to step in his way throughout the years. While he looked like a regular

human male, perhaps in his early to mid-twenties, he was in fact something far more than this, something much more dangerous, and much more unpredictable. 

            Sandy blond hair, kept cropped close to his head now, matched the neatly trimmed beard and moustache that flowed over the lower half of his face, obscuring his features only slightly. Dark glasses hid away eyes that had seen far too much in the span of a lifetime, enough that he’d wished to spare all those around him from ever having to see. If he’d found it possible back in his past to rid the evils he’d seen and done from the lives of his loved ones he would have gladly done so. But fate was a fickle thing and not prone to the wants of anyone, not even him.  This could be changed, but it was best left alone.

            Wearing a dark windbreaker, a ratty pair of blue jeans and a regular t-shirt beneath he cut the simple appearance of weary traveler that did not belong in this place, but instead a more metropolitan setting.  He looked every inch the carefree beach bum he’d tried for so long ago, though his current stance and the tension within his shoulders belied that carefree attitude, lending a more serious cast to his appearance.  He seemed as one on edge, awaiting something, anything to set him off.  If things went as he expected that something might happen very soon.

            He was counting on it.

*                            *                                  *

Genoa, Italy

            Hard wood met flesh and bone with a hard cracking sound followed by a pained hiss and a muttered curse as she pulled away, shaking out her left hand as she held onto her staff with the other, trying hard to defend as her opponent kept coming, regardless of her suddenly lackluster performance.  It was to be expected of course, no one ever got into the ranks of the Accendiare by being second best, or unwilling to push forward.  Another rap against the last knuckle of her left hand, right on top of her pinky, forced her hand to tighten upon her staff, causing a moment of disruption that her opponent used to his advantage as he slipped in past her guard, poking her in the ribs with one end of his weapon and then driving the tip home in her gut for good measure.

            “Good!” called their instructor, signaling that the match was at an end.  She might have breathed a sigh of relief had it not carried the penalty of being berated in front of the entire class. 

            “Fighters part!”   The two of them took three steps backward as was expected, the look in her opponent’s eyes setting a fire deep in her veins as she held her aching hand to her chest. 

            “Winner, Paulo!”

            The young man, Paulo Rizzo, raised his hands triumphantly as he looked around at the

gathered assembly, taking in their applause and the few hooted cries of approval.  Anna-Marie 

simply shook her head, berating herself inwardly. Lately her head had simply not been where it

needed to be, which was, as always, solely on the matter of the Accendiare and what she could

do to prove she was worthy. 

            It wasn’t entirely her fault, but she couldn’t let her instructors or the selectors, those who

controlled who passed their tests and who would forever be townsfolk, know this.  If such was

discovered she would be outcast and forced to scratch and eke out a living as a servant to the knightly corps, just as many of those she’d grown up with had done.  This was a chance she couldn’t pass up, and one she was determined not to lose.

            As the crowd parted slowly, many of her and Paulo’s peers and fellow hopefuls gathering around the winner of the final bout of the month, Anna-Marie slowly walked in the direction of the barracks, still nursing her bruised hand.  She didn’t even register the sound of footsteps until a voice she knew too well rang out at her side, startling her so badly that she cursed aloud. It was  a bad habit, and an even worse one to let slip in the presence of the master of the Accendiare, Amaro Lucenzo. 

            He was an older man, one who had been alive when the wars that had claimed much of the world outside their city had still raged fiercely, pitting mankind against all types of nameless horrors that still plagued the lands surrounding their own.  For the time being however the darkness that had stolen away the world of before seemed content only to hover around and over Genoa, providing a darkened, despairing skyline that had plagued them since she could remember.  Master Lucenzo had fought in many battles and carried the scars of several, though he was still hale and hearty enough to run the order, and on occasion to teach a well-deserved lesson or two.  More than that though, he was the sole reason she was here.

            Amaro had known her father, who in his own time had been a knight of small renown in the Accendiare, and had respected him greatly as a person and as an equal. Her sire, Michael Genevese, had never sought the fame and notoriety that some knights and other members of the Accendiare seemed to enjoy, though he had been the equal of most, a fierce opponent and a loving father and husband.  When he had fallen he’d been honored briefly, and then forgotten.  Only Amaro had never let his memory fade, keeping his promise that he would honor Michael’s last wish that his children, all of them, would be given a chance to fight for their homeland.  To date Anna-Marie’s two elder siblings, Lucia and Fredo, had not proven up to the task of becoming a member of the Accendiare, which left only her.  And each day as of late she felt herself beginning to falter.

            “You didn’t have to let him win,” Amaro said, his deep voice comforting despite the slight frown he wore.  His bushy white moustache hid his lips, but she knew the scowl well enough. 

            “I didn’t, he-“
            “All this time and you’re still a poor liar. I suppose that’s commendable, but it is also highly annoying that you try.  Do stop now.”

            She bit back the next reply that came to her lips, knowing it would only earn her another reprimand. Feeling her cheeks redden just a bit she kept walking as Master Amaro kept in step with her.

            “I have noticed as of late that you seem, distracted,” the Master said, “Why is this?”

            Anna-Marie looked to the sky as she shook her head, not sure of how to respond. A

blanket of leaden gray met her gaze, the same sight that had been seen for months now, ever

since the darkness had been noted to be increasing not only to the north but to the west as well. 

Perhaps taking this as a silent answer Master Amaro responded, casting his gaze skyward as well.

            “The darkness is indeed encroaching on our territory once again young one,” he said honestly, “But the Accendiare and the barrier around the city are still diligent.  I sense however that this is not your true concern.”

            Anna-Marie wanted to tell him about the dreams, particularly the dark man she saw in them, but she didn’t know how.  If only the dreams hadn’t all ended the same way, with people screaming and the sky raining fire, charring the world black as the man continued forward, unfazed and unharmed.  If only that wasn’t what she saw every night, she might have been able to tell him.  Instead she quickly thought of something that while untrue would at least throw him off the trail for a short while.  It was a cheap way to get a man’s attention elsewhere, but at least it would have the effect of explaining in part why she was so distracted.  A woman’s monthlies were nothing to mess with after all, even at her age.

                                                *                      *                      *

Milan, Italy

            This had been a hub of humanity, a place where the rich and powerful had built their empires or exploited those of others.

            It didn’t matter.

            It mattered, but not to him, not to anything or anyone he was any longer.

            Shut up, just shut up!

            Be silent.

            The host body looked around, raking everything with his sickly dark brown gaze, the rot that existed within his body seeking something to alight upon, some unsuspecting victim be it sentient or not. The need to rot, to simply melt away the living things of this world was terrible, an ache deep within the pit of his stomach that needed to be quenched, if only to produce an even fiercer ache for more.

            Feed, feed the need.

            Be quiet damn you!

            The figure, no he had a name, a real name, not just a title, shook his head as though to clear it, clawing faintly at his already scarred and ravaged features as he felt the pull again, like the sweet scent of a memory that continued to dwindle, tugging at him in the ever-enticing way that a flower will pull to a bee.  What was different was that he, they, all of them, would seek only to destroy, not to build, not to create in any way. That was their purpose after all, their only cause and effect upon life in all its various forms. Everything died, everything rotted, and they were a product of that and its harbinger all in one.

            Feed, feed, feed.

            Shut up!

            Must feed, rip, tear, rip and tear.

            It was growing stronger, that hunger, demanding more and more than a simple human body could contain.  And yet the pull, the ever-persistent pull to the southwest had grown ever stronger, urging him on as the darkness had preceded him, seeming to sense his intent as creatures of all sort had flocked to the silent call that had been issued. The Dark was moving, and it meant to eclipse everything in its path, even the sacred glen that stood in stark defiance of its will.  Without a definite master the unrelenting hordes of the Dark had spread throughout the world, sowing chaos and havoc wherever they went, doing what came naturally to quench the Light that existed in this world and make it their own, a den of misery, despair, and utter, beautiful chaos.  It would be glorious in time, but only when the last of the glens had been destroyed.

            The mountainous terrain that surrounded him, them, at this moment did little to nothing to interrupt the feeling of the Light that was more than likely many miles distant, only fueling him onward as he, they, felt the burgeoning hunger gnawing away at both soul and body alike.  He’d been a relatively robust man in his late thirties before delving into what he’d thought was welcoming cavern, away from the Dark and all its minions. He hadn’t known it was the worst and last mistake he would make. He hadn’t even seen the eyes of the demon, or demons, until it had been too late.

            Too late, too late for fate.

            Gone, gone away, no more here all must stay.

            He shook his head again, wishing to all hells that the demons had shown him that they would simply shut up and let him do as they’d demanded.  It might have been easier to simply rip his ear drums open and hope for the best, but he doubted it would work.  Any self-mutilation only seemed to egg them on, to make the voices grow louder.

            The ruined metropolis that surrounded him left little if anything to the imagination,

harboring only the things of the Dark, things that the things driving him had no interest in. This

made them angrier however, ravenous in a way that caused his flesh to ripple as he felt his arms

and legs shake with the force of their eagerness. It threatened to tear him apart before he could

even reach the source, the beckoning and hated Light that urged him on, that called to the

demons within his body, feasting upon his blood and soul even as they demanded more, forcing

him forward as he felt one step after the other, a torturous process that outwardly looked just as

normal as anything, but inwardly was more akin to a marionette being guided by an overeager

and amateur puppeteer. 

            Move forward, the voices screamed as one, pushing him towards the south and slightly west, forcing him to make his way towards the far mountains as his legs followed their demands.  The dark skies rolled on ahead of him as thunder rumbled somewhere behind, or in front, he couldn’t tell. All that mattered was moving forward, and easing the hunger.  The Light awaited.

                                                *                      *                      *


            Sleep didn’t come that night, just as it hadn’t for nearly a week now, its elusive grasp slipping away like oil upon water even as she tried to calm herself and think of other things besides the strange dream. She couldn’t bring herself to call it a nightmare for some reason, though it was anything but pleasant. Each night it seemed to grow worse, more vivid, and far too real for her liking.

            There didn’t seem to be anything that could block the dreams either. She’d tried tea, she’d secretly tried something harder than wine only a few times, and nothing had worked.  They still came, and they were still inhabited by the dark, faceless man she could not seem to recognize, no matter that the sense of familiarity was there. How though did one feel such for a person they’d never met in their lives? If he’d been the only troubling aspect of the dream it might have been easy enough to block them out, but that of course was not all.  There was someone else, but it was a figure she could not see, even in her dreams.  Besides the dark man there was another presence that she sensed behind her at all times, though it felt like more, the feeling of staring eyes and, strangely enough, insane hunger gnawing at her mind like a pack of rabid hellhounds, seeking to bring her down like a wolf did a fawn.  The analogy, though fitting, did not help any.

            She’d gone where she always went when her sleep was troubled. Well, one of two places at least.  This night she’d gone to the practice arena, leaving her armor hanging where it was and grabbing a staff to ease her mind as she executed one form after another upon one of the training dummies, a wooden figure hewn out of several different pieces of wood and positioned with both arms held out to its sides and its legs held close together. In her mind it was a terrible simulation of an enemy, but then as her instructors had told her it was simply to perfect the combat forms they were taught. It still didn’t make sense to Anna, a moving opponent was far better practice. 

            Striking low at the dummy’s legs she breathed out as her staff tapped the wooden construct, stepping back to guard only a second later as she contemplated her next move.  It was only a brief second later that she felt eyes upon her, though it was not an unsettling sensation as it would have been had any of her instructors been present. She felt no judgment, no anticipation of her failure, only curiosity, which was odd in and of itself.

            She spun about quickly, staff already raised just in case it was Paulo or one of the other students looking to catch her unawares. Anna was not among the most popular of the students hoping to make her way into the Accendiare, but she was among the most skilled. She could have taken Paulo earlier in the day had her mind not been miles and miles away from her target.  It was a poor excuse but it was all she had.

            As she laid her eyes upon the dark figure that stood only a few dozen feet away however, wrapped in shadows and resembling the form of a man, Anna-Marie felt her breath hitch slightly.  Despite being a relatively warm night she felt a chill creep down her spine as she looked towards his eyes, seeing the faintly reflective lenses that were rare to see any longer, other than upon people who could afford such luxuries.  They were called sunglasses, shades, and many other interesting names, but given their intended use the lenses seemed rather useless in a nighttime setting. 

            “Your guard is too low,” the man said, his voice astounding her. He sounded no older than one of the newly anointed knights!

            “E-excuse me?” she stuttered, keeping her staff close to her body just in case the man came any closer. Something deep within her mind told her that it would be useless to resist, that he would kill her before she could even begin to mount a proper defense, but she ignored this voice for the moment.  Despite feeling unnerved and wary she still felt a tingling she’d only felt briefly as of late, though she wasn’t ready to accept it as gospel.

            “Your guard should be higher, in towards your chest more.  If an attacker came at you in your current pose your chin and chest would be exposed, and thus an easy target.”

            So flabbergasted was she that Anna-Marie couldn’t even begin to reply as she narrowed her eyes slightly, looking left and right as though expecting at any moment someone to come out of the shadows, or to wake up in her bed sweating and uncertain of what had just happened. When none of these things happened she looked back to the man again, only to find that he was gone.  Her breath hitched instantly, her eyes blinking in a rapid, staccato rhythm as she gasped aloud. He’d just been there!  No one could have possibly slid into the shadows so easily, so soundlessly, without even a whisper of cloth or the sound of a boot scuffing the ground.  But as she stalked forward, still holding her staff close to her body, Anna-Marie saw nothing, only bare courtyard where the shadowy figure had stood just seconds before.

            There wasn’t even a trace of him, nothing to indicate that anyone had been there. 

            “Great,” she muttered into the warm night air, “As if my dreams weren’t bad enough.”

                                                *                      *                      *

            The connections made among the thread of a lifetime were often random despite their necessity and, sometimes, purposeful happening.  Throughout his own life he’d met many people, some by accident, some by design, but this one felt like one of the latter, despite the fact that the two of them had grown up thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart.  So why did he feel the connection even now?

            Seated atop a darkened rooftop overlooking what he presumed was a practice yard with its wooden dummies, iron training bars and other various equipment he watched the young girl go about her training regimen once again, her movements fluid despite the troubled look upon her face.  He got the feeling he’d seen her somewhere before, but knew immediately that was not possible. His trips to Europe, Asia, and various parts of Africa had been limited as of late, and he could not recall this girl’s face at all.  In fact if he were to judge she hadn’t even been born the last time he’d been near these parts.

            But the feeling persisted and would not go away, insisting that he knew her, or at the very

least that there was a connection here.  At the very least he was where he needed to be, and well

enough ahead of the coming storm he’d felt that he could meet it when the tempest arrived.  The

only question now was who was leading the storm, and of course the why of it.  Any motivation

behind the oncoming attack should have been easy enough to divine, but in truth he knew of

many sacred glens throughout the world, and those of the Dark had studiously avoided them

when it was discovered that he had either strengthened them or that he watched over them personally. The latter would soon change, as during his last trip to the dark continent he’d seen things that had forced the loss of faith that finally made his mind up that returning home would be the best option, and the only way to save what was left of his sanity.

            But then he’d felt the pull towards this place, and had known that until he did this he couldn’t possibly just walk away entirely.  He was tired, gods above and below he was tired, but for this once, just this last time, he would do what he had been made for.  If nothing else he was intrigued by this connection, the mild hope that it might foster something positive for once a thin, tenuous thread holding him here at this moment.

            Watching the young girl below he found that he had to at least hope that it would come to something better than his most recent venture, if for her sake.  The connection to the dusky-skinned girl was strong, that much was evident, but he wanted to know why.  If he still remained when the storm had abated he would seek the answer, but only then. For now he had only to wait, and not for long he imagined.

            The Dark knew he was here, and it was coming with ravenous hunger.

                                                *                      *                      *

            He was nearly there. It could be felt in the change of the land, the scent of the air.  There

was a different feel here, a brisk, salt-laden wind that assaulted the senses as though in apology,

carrying with it the varying scents that the demons within his body could so easily decipher. It

was the scent of men and women, the scent of humans that would feed their hunger, that would

sate their desires and their base needs that so disgusted him. He could do nothing to stop them,

he could only move forward, one more shadow in the dark of night as through his eyes the demons could see in the distance the faint glow of the sacred glen as it flickered and faded from human view here and there.

            This made the demons happy, forcing a wicked, cracked smile upon his lips as they perceived that the glen was not as strong as it could be, that it might offer weak spots, and a viable entry that would not torture them without end.  While their human shell could enter they would suffer torment without end upon crossing the barrier, making them easy targets should those within suspect that something was not as it seemed with their host.  The shrieking of so many different voices coming from one set of lips might very well tip them off.

            He continued forward, though stopped as something else suddenly blossomed within the

distance, a feeling, a sense of dread that he could not understand but the demons could feel as a

warning of such immense proportions that he had no choice but to halt in his tracks.  His feet

skidded a bit in the dirt as he felt his head aching from the quarrels of the many spirits inhabiting

his body, their constant squabbling making him wish fervently for a heavy rock to dash his

brains out.  That at least would have stopped his pain, as his soul might well have flown from the

clutches of his captors. The thought alone enticed them to torture him anew with the only images

that could pain him any longer, the slow, lingering deaths they’d forced him to inflict upon his

family and fellow villagers.  He winced, grimacing as they went about their arguing again, fully

confident that he’d been sufficiently cowed. 

            They could feel a presence that was not like them, that did not conform or even bow to the Dark.  It was a violent calm, this presence, a brewing storm waiting to counter the darkness and shadow that now loomed over and all around him.  It was a promise of death they whispered, a promise of war and strife for all that dared to approach. And he was still headed towards it, the challenge they perceived not great enough to shy from.  They welcomed the harbinger of death it would seem, and obviously had no qualms about thrusting their human guise into the mix.  Strangely enough that made him feel better, though he did what he could not to show it.

                                                *                      *                      *

            She still couldn’t sleep, not even when the first rays of light heralding the coming dawn touched upon the horizon.  Anna had gone instead to the library, where the records of past and present were kept, hoping to calm her nerves and thereby induce a more sedate state.  It wasn’t working so far, and she’d started nearly two hours ago.

            “A little early for studying isn’t it? Or are you trying to outdo us all in yet another venue?”

            The voice should have startled her, but she found in that moment she was at least tired enough to feel her reflexes move far too slow to register surprise.  Instead she merely turned her head towards the voice, watching as one of her only real friends seemed to materialize out of the shadows, the candlelight she’d studied by painting his wide, freckled face with orange-gold warmth as he offered her a light smile.

            “Hello Santino,” she said tiredly, wishing the rest of her body would follow suit, “I just, I couldn’t sleep is all.”

            “More dreams?” He was the only one she’d told her dreams to, and thus the only one that had taken her seriously.  Aside from being her best friend, Santino was also a rather firm believer in the unknown and the unseen, a devout follower of the weird and vaguely truthful world beyond their own, as he would put it.  She’d told him the dream more than once, adding in the changes as they occurred, and he’d listened patiently, never once judging or making a mockery of her. 

            “More than that,” she said, her voice more of a croak than anything, “I saw him.”

            That had the effect of silencing her friend for a moment as he narrowed his eyes slightly, his hands interlaced behind his back as she could see that he’d disdained the use of his armor and weapons this day.  For some odd reason that made her rather nervous, though not enough to be afraid.

            “In another dream you mean?”

            “No Santino,  I saw him, like I’m seeing you now, only…”  she trailed off, not because she didn’t want him to hear this, but because she honestly could not bring herself to finish the thought.  Anna didn’t know how, she could not find the words to describe how she’d felt, or how the man had seemed.

            “Only what?” Santino asked, raising his eyebrows to urge her on. 

            “I don’t know. He was, I don’t, I don’t know. All I saw was shadow, but he seemed, so much more.  I can’t explain it really.  But he was there, I know he was.”

            “I believe you.”

            Those three words alone forced her eyes to widen as she met his gaze again, seeing him nod his head for emphasis as he spoke again.

            “There’s been word of a stranger walking amongst the city streets, a shadowy figure that’s been seen here and there. He hasn’t caused any trouble I’ve heard, but he’s being watched.”

            “If he was a demon or other creature he would be-“

            “Helpless,” Santino finished, nodding again, “I agree.  But regardless he’s a stranger and more than that, he seems able to blend into the shadows rather well.  The patrol that saw him stated that he’d been seen down the old quarter and was then noted to be seen as far as the northern part of the city.”

            Anna felt her eyes widen, unable to fully understand what she’d been told.  How could anyone move that far that fast?  Was he an immortal? Was he one of those few rarities out in the world that she’d heard tales about, the folks that were neither human nor immortal but something else?  It was too hard to know, but another question came to mind in that moment.

            “How in the world do you find this out without being caught?”

            Santino, her friend and a first year squire of the Accendiare, simply shrugged as he smirked, “I hear things.”  He nodded to the blade she had secured to her hip, “Are you expecting trouble?  I assure you, the books won’t bite.”

            Anna looked down at the blade she had fastened to her belt, its weight comforting as she

tried to remember when she’d fastened it there. She knew just as Santino did that hopefuls and

initiates were not disallowed from wearing their blades out in public, but it wasn’t a common practice either.  She just couldn’t recall when she had hung it from her belt.

            “Maybe I’m just being hopeful,” she said, raising her eyebrows as she did.

            The two of them shared a warm smile as the silence stretched for a few moments, comforting her in a way she’d not felt in some time.  As she looked up to Santino she could see he wanted to say something more, but just at that moment something else offered its voice to the coming dawn, a sound that both of them knew immediately meant trouble.  The warning siren that had been kept in service since the time of the world before now wailed into the morning darkness as each of them looked at one another in alarm.  There were only a few reasons that alarm was ever given, and none of them were in any way benign.

            Anna and Santino both bolted from the library, seeking the closest exit that might afford

them a better view of what was happening.  They found it only a few seconds later, bolting out of

a side door that led to the back of the library and its refuse center, a garbage pile that was

allowed to accumulate only so long before it was either burned or buried.  From here though they

could see almost to the water near which their city rested, and a good ways off towards the north

and western horizons. It didn’t matter which way they looked however as the dark skies above

seemed to press down upon their fair city, a malevolence without a name that sought to quench

any it of light it found. 

            They saw another sight soon after this, the dark forms of creatures large and human-sized loping along the shadowed fields and hills beyond their home, their numbers uncountable as they pounded upon the hard earth with claws and other appendages that tore up great clods of dirt and dried grass as they made their maddened ways forward.  The cries of the city defenders rang out through the streets as they listened, eyes wide as they looked at one another.

            Santino had no words, neither did she, but as Anna looked out towards the fields she saw something that turned her blood absolutely cold.  There was a small child and her mother running hard for the city, and they were only a few hundred yards in front of the surging force, unable to go any further. 

            “Santino,” she said, her voice sounding bleak as she caught his attention, “Look.”

            “Oh gods,” Santino breathed, “They’ll be slaughtered,”. 

            Neither one of them was entirely ready for what she did next, but despite not knowing what she was doing or why, Anna was already drawing her blade and making her way down the mound of rubble as she prayed to whatever gods were listening. She could not stand by and allow any citizen of Genoa to perish when she was so close.  Even if she had to sacrifice herself for the greater good, she would make it count.

            She didn’t even hear Santino yelling at her to stop.

                                                            *                      *                      *

            So his enemy had tipped their hand, and now he knew what he had to do.  The sacred

glen was in as poor shape as he’d seen any of these structures in some time. Those who lived

here obviously knew of its existence, but still could not see it until a creature of the Dark crossed

its border.  The agonizing pain that would grip the offending creature would be great enough to cripple it, but even such barriers had limits.  He’d come to Genoa to fix that, and to insure that the glen had time to mend itself, with his help of course.

            He’d stuck to the shadows thus far, and had emerged only once to view the young woman that he felt so drawn to, instructing her just a bit in order to at least try and make a difference in her life.  Now though he couldn’t think of the young woman, as he had other concerns that demanded his attention.  The skies rumbled as he loosened his grip upon the power that was his dominion to run free for a moment, the clouds darkening as though true night had come already.  Brilliant flashes of light could be seen within their billowing folds as he exerted just a bit more force, allowing his mood to be known as he made his way calmly through town, reaching the spot he’d desired for some time to visit, a place once known as Piazza Raffaele de Ferrari. 

            Many years ago this might have sounded to his ear like a new model of automobile, but

in this age the old fountain that sat in the middle of the plaza had sat dry for many years.  It had

taken on much the same purpose as before, as a gathering place for the people of this city, but as

of now it was largely deserted as the people had scattered throughout the many buildings that

still remained.  The trick they had learned to surviving a force such as the Dark when their

barrier could not be depended upon was to break off in smaller numbers and hope that enough

people survived to rebuild their city once again. It was, in his mind, a pitiful and cowardly way to act, but he wasn’t in charge of the city, nor was he bound to them in any way. 

            It was his job to make sure that humanity survived, and to set the world right once more, in his own time.  At this moment that meant making sure the sacred glen was placed back up to snuff, and that the marauding force was dealt with. As he reached out for empty air he concentrated for mere seconds as the air shimmered, motes of light coalescing from nowhere as within moments a long, white staff had materialized in his right hand.  He wasted no time in activating the staff, the many unknown runes that were carved into its length suddenly coming to life as cerulean flames sprang from their every crevice, burning brightly without harming the staff, or his flesh, as he ascended the few steps of the fountain.

            What he did then was something that no human could possibly do, but what many

immortals could accomplish given time and effort.  He needed neither as he allowed a flicker of

his will to emerge once again, the stone of the fountain’s base parting easily as he set his staff, upright, into the gaping crevice. Holding it there he flexed his will again, and the crevice sealed itself, wrapping snugly around the staff as he released it. 

            “You know what to do,” he said calmly, “Ve sarcha.”

            He lowered his eyes as the staff suddenly burned very, very brightly, the blue giving way to a pure, untainted white as the staff blazed, the power coalescing within its form pulsing outward in concentric waves that washed over him as he walked away, not staggering as each ring of force touched him.  In fact he felt energized with each new wave, his strides coming quicker and stronger as he made his way towards the fields just outside of the city.  He had one more job to accomplish.

                                                            *                      *                      *

            She felt her legs moving, her arms pumping, and her heart thudding in her chest, but the body she inhabited might as well have belonged to someone else.  Anna was unaware of her own heavy breathing, the burning in her arms and legs as she pushed herself to a limit she’d not known she possessed.  Still she made her way forward, her only thought to protect two of her fellow citizens as the distance between them began to close. The demons were tearing up the ground between them as well, gaining on the two without pause as their slavering, tooth-filled maws wagged obscenely, no doubt hungering for the meal to come.

            Anna reached them just as a single demon sprang from the forefront, clawed appendages reaching out for the mother as she shielded her child. She had obviously known the things were drawing close, and instead of denying the inevitable had sought to protect her child.  Demons would never stop once they sensed prey however, and as valiant as her attempt would have been it would have been pointless as well.  Anna positioned herself just in time to swing her blade upward in a powerful arc, splitting the demon from hair-covered groin to chest as it fell away with shriek, of pain or anger she couldn’t tell.

            “Run for the gate!” she roared at the woman, grabbing her by the shoulder as the woman

quickly gathered up her child and ran, her own legs working furiously to keep the sudden and

murderous pace that Anna tried to establish.  She had little if any hope that they would outrun the onrushing horde, but she had to try at least.  Anna could not allow her own people to be slaughtered without a fight.

            But as the three of them came within a hundred yards of the city gates she felt more than heard the sudden leap of another creature and spun while yelling at the woman to get down. To her credit the woman did as she was told, hunkering down as she once again folded herself over her child.  Anna’s blow was much harder this time and far more decisive as she took the head from a lizard-looking creature whose maw was nearly as wide as her body.  It fell away with a pathetic thud she didn’t hear as several more of its companions came rushing forward, eager to taste of her flesh and that of her charges.

            She couldn’t stop them all, there was no way in hell any of them would survive this. But

even as they were pounding closer, something changed. The demons paused, as though sensing

this as well.  Above them, the skies rumbled ominously, brilliant forks of lightning still twisting and dancing through their dark folds. But as they continued to look up, a bright, streaking brand of orange and reddish light cascaded down from the sky, landing hard somewhere within the ranks as a demon shrieked with what sounded like genuine agony. 

            As she watched, the demons stopped entirely, their gazes focused forward, their dark eyes narrowed and their claws, teeth, and other various appendages stilled as though they were puppets at rest.  She was too stunned in that moment to tell the woman and her child to run, here eye widening noticeably as she took in the full scope of the battlefield, the horde and its unmoving bulk. As she watched though, Anna could see one creature moving forward, and in only a moment she could see that it was not a demon at all, but a man, ravaged and scarred by something unknown to her, but still human.

            The man did not see her it would seem, as his attention was forward, his movements shaky and uncertain as he stared hard at something off to her left.  She was about to look in that direction when the man spoke, and the sound was so unexpected that Anna nearly fell to the ground in shock.

            “We will crush this city, and you, but we will know your name.”

            The words were hard to decipher at first, largely because each and every demon suddenly spoke as one, their lips and teeth moving in the same exact manner, their bodies immobile but their eyes watching and their mouths moving in perfect concert.  Anna felt both disgusted and amazed, but as she fell back, still unable to do much more than stand there, she heard a voice from somewhere behind her.

            “You won’t touch this city, and you’re lucky I even came out.  My name is not important. I’m the one keeping your death in my hand.”

            The cocksure, almost arrogant tone left her wondering just who this man was, but she could not turn around, could not even summon the energy needed to twitch in that direction as the man spoke again. “So who, then, are you?”

            “We are Legion,” the demons said again in perfect unison, “And we will feed!”

            The demons were beginning to move again, their limbs and jaws working slowly as they

began to build speed, the nearest ones looking at her and the woman and child hungrily as Anna finally gained enough nerve to tell them to run, to just run and not look back. She would be joining them, but only after they began to make for the gates again.  She was already turning to run when she heard the man say, with a chuckle no less, “Not today.”

            Several things seemed to happen at once just then.

            The world, which seemed to have all but stopped for that one single moment, now came rushing back as the demons came racing towards them, howling and shrieking for blood as the skies above rumbled with their dire promise once again, pinpoints of reddish orange appearing amidst the darkness as she looked up just once.  Her eyes widened even further as she saw those pinpricks growing as they descended, the burning embers growing to the size of large rocks, even boulders in some cases.

            Even as she was running the falling balls of fire were striking the earth all around them, creating tremendous impacts as the woman and child continued to just run, moving as quickly as they could towards the gate. It was coming close, but the fiery shower was growing worse and worse the further they ran, and as they came within just a hundred yards or less the inevitable happened.  Anna looked up, and with a shout of horror threw herself upon the woman and her child, knocking them both down as a fiery brand the size of her fist struck her fully in the left shoulder, dislocating it entirely and scouring away a large portion of her tunic to leave a bloody, blackened patch of skin as it bounced away.

            Anna cried out in agony as she rolled off, telling them to run, to get to the gate.  She

could not move her left arm, and rising to her knees was painful enough that her vision blurred

immediately. Once or twice she had been wounded in practice, but nothing to this extent. This

type of pain was far and beyond anything she’d ever experienced. It was like the difference

between a roaring typhoon and a mild breeze.  At that moment she felt her body slowly attempting to slip into shock, but as she turned she could see the demons still coming, their numbers great enough that the fiery rain, even as it intensified, could not get to them all. 

            She watched as several demons at a time were immolated and pummeled into the ground as the shower turned into a deluge. This was unfortunate for her however as she was still well outside the gate, and could not hope to reach the safety of the city in time. No one would come for her, not now when the fiery rains were falling so heavily upon the fields, turning nearly everything they touched to ash.

            Anna barely felt as several smaller pieces of burning rock landed in her hair, or scorched her sides and shoulders, but she did feel the finger-sized rock that collided with the back of her neck, scorching a trail down her spine as she was forced to fall forward from the pain, crying and sobbing as she waited to die.  Surely her body could take no more, not after all this.  As she lay upon the ground she watched the battle through pain-blurred eyes, hoping for a quicker end than this as the downpour continued. 

            Instead, what she saw as the fire continued to rain down , was the dark shadow of an

approaching figure, humanoid if her eyes were not deceiving her. He approached slowly, as if he

had absolutely no fear for his life, no concern at all about the rampaging demons all around

them. In fact it was only when he laid his hands upon her that she realized, the screams had stopped. 

            That was all about all she remembered before the darkness took her.

            But later, when her fellow citizens found her amongst the ashes and rubble, she would remember the pain that came next.

                                                *                      *                      *


            That was what the demons had said, in unison, and had it had troubled him not in the least. He’d watched old films that had featured such demonic figures that called themselves by this name, and they’d been just as pathetic as fantasy as they were in real life he now decided.  He’d seen through the being as easily as any other when he had strode onto the field of battle, unafraid and unimpressed. He had seen war on a grand scale by this time, and he knew well enough that this was no concentrated effort, but instead a mass suicide attempt that was masquerading as an all-out stampede.

            The demons that were bound to the single figure that had unleashed them were very real, but they were also very vulnerable.  Most demonic creatures would not be so easily harmed by fire, or any weapon not infused with at least a small measure of the Light. These creatures though were felled easily as the first few had rushed at him, outrunning their companions in order to be the first to take a swing at their desired target.

            Tyler hadn’t been shy about summoning one weapon and then the next, bludgeoning one demon only to part the head from another before snaking a ghostly white chain around the neck of the next in line before snapping it like a dry branch.  The motes of light that could be summoned to form his implements were dancing about his form like fireflies as he’d fallen into the battle so easily, carving his way through the demonic horde as they had parted like the fabled Red Sea, unable to stop this wild tempest of energy from his furious, headlong charge. 

            Eventually he had come to the originator of the horde, his pallid flesh and crazed eyes seeming unable to focus as he’d knelt upon the ground, somehow unscathed as of yet by the fiery rain that Tyler had called down from the heavens.  The sacred glen would not be harmed by the firestorm he’d created, but the people inside would be able to witness almost everything that transpired outside their barriers, which was just fine.

            The creature, the man, that had summoned the demons, or perhaps been forced to house them judging by the many sigils and markings upon his body, had been just barely conscious, and not at all aware of the warrior standing over him with a heavy blade in one hand and the other clenched in utter frustration.  He’d never had a moral conundrum like this before when he had encountered a human working with demons, though something about this seemed so horribly wrong that he’d been unable to let his blade fall upon the man. Something, some irksome bit of conscience had bid him to stop before he even started his swing.

            He had left the man to fate then, turning about to begin cutting down demons once again

as they had decided that he was in fact worth harassing as his weapons had come easily to hand

once again, initiating the slaughter once more as flesh and parted and bone had cracked.  Eventually one of the fiery missiles from above had found its target, and the demon horde had shuddered as one, their screams and cries of utter frustration and ruination reaching a crescendo such volume that had he been human his ears might have started to bleed.  It was only when he turned to verify the death of the human that he’d seen the charred, ruined mess that had been left. A rock the size of a basketball had obliterated the man’s body from his chin to his navel, punching a hole through him that had almost ripped his arms from his torso. 

            The remaining demons had fallen then, returning to ash and wisps of smoke that faded quickly on the winds as the fiery rain had continued to fall.  Tyler had been taking no chances despite the personal shield he’d placed over himself to avoid being struck by his own deadly effect.  The bodies of those demons he’d killed remained as was normal, their foul carcasses staining the ground for several yards all around where he’d stood. 

            To the near horizon, the city had already been well covered once again by a renewed dome of unseen energy, its pulse evident to him as he had given a mental command to his staff to disperse once again. After that he’d been ready to be on his way again, but before turning around to go he’d caught sight of a form upon the field that was not demonic in nature, and seemed somewhat familiar.  Walking towards the fallen human he’d quickly noticed that the form and, after he’d rolled her over, the ravaged face were indeed familiar. It was the woman he’d felt the connection with, though she had endured more pain from his firestorm than any human had a right to and survive.

            Tyler had concentrated as he’d knelt beside her, willing the skies to darken once more and the lightning to still, the fire to cease, and the clouds to become docile once again.  The smoldering landscape remained in the wake of this sudden reversal of nature, though his focus had been entirely upon the woman, taking in the charred appearance of her face, the missing hair that had been burned away, the black, burnt trail that started at her neck and went down her spin, and the other various injuries as well. 

            Just holding her he could feel her life force fading, and he was thrust back in time to a similar moment when he had held a friend in his arms like this, a friend who had been dying because of his decision to stand firm and face his fate.  Emotion was not an alien concept to Tyler even in this day, but he’d remained stoic as he had fallen deep within himself, willing the power he held to come forth, to put right what he had done, and to defy the natural order once again.

            It was not the first time, and it would just as likely not be the last.

                                                            *                      *                      *

            A scream woke her, but as she opened her eyes Anna startled awake, clutching at something, anything, as hands gently closed around her wrists, holding her in place as she looked one way and then the other. Had the demons returned? Had it all been a ruse to put her and the stranger at ease?  What had happened?

            “Easy Anna, easy!” cautioned Santino, who was currently holding both of her wrists,

cradling her head with his lap as several other forms hovered nearby, some of them paying attention to this little scene while others continued to look around.   

            Anna’s heavy breathing eased after a moment, her sight finally focusing as she looked up at Santino.

            “Where is he?” she croaked, her voice sounding as though she’d attempted to gargle nails.

            “Gone,” Santino sighed, “Right after he left you here, he was gone.”

            She tried to shake her head, but regretted it only a moment later as her temples pounded from the effort. “That’s, not possible.”

            “So you would think,” Santino said with a mild grin, “But then we couldn’t exactly catch him anywhere in the city could we? Out here in the open…”

            He let his sentence hang, and she knew why. The stranger had obviously done what he had meant to do.  That left little reason for him to stay apparently, and so he had left.

            “You should hear what the people inside the walls are saying already, especially the woman and child you helped survive.”

            She closed her eyes, “I didn’t, I just,”

            “You saved their lives Anna,” Santino said, “If you don’t make full knight because of that alone I think the city might riot. That woman was the wife of a very well-respected clergy member, and more than that, one of the ruling council’s daughter and grandchild.”

            She didn’t say anything else, but there was more that she wanted to say.  Her mind was at that moment awhirl with too many unsolved questions and implications of a future she might no longer want.  For now though, silence was the best balm, and she meant to use it.

            As she lay there, supported by her friend, Anna watched the knights that had ringed her surveying the broken and blasted landscape, finding nothing but ash, and dust.  That almost made her laugh.


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