I've compiled the two chapters and epilogue together for easier archiving.
All time favourite emo song, Wonderful, now on the Playlist.
Skenda jerked awake, a faint sense of unease pervading his entire being, his hands cold and clammy with sweat. Swinging out of bed, he hurriedly pulled on a shirt and brushing the tent flap aside, he stepped out. The bracing night air greeted him, the moon full and heavy hung just over the western horizon. An ominous portent the court astrologer had said, for the moon had a reddish tinge, its lower half a darker shade akin to a sickly blackish red the colour of dried blood. It gave an observer the impression that the bloodied moon was bleeding copious amounts of blood into an inky sky devoid of stars. Just as worrisome was the fact that the moon had not waned for the past two weeks and had remained immobile, fixed over the horizon like a malevolent eye. The Blood Moon, the phenomenon was called, had not occurred for 2500 years and the last time it had appeared, existing historical sources recorded great disasters and 'gnashing of teeth'.
Suppressing a shudder, Skenda tore his eyes away from the bleeding moon and strolled across the clearing, acknowledging the sentry's salute with a curt nod. Below him some distance to the west lay the great city of Amarivel, first of the seven ancient Cities built by the long dead High Kings of Grunma and one of the last human bastions against the advancing wave of Undead which had risen up so suddenly.
As Prince-Regent of Ortezel, heir to the throne, Skenda had been sent by his ailing father to cement the alliance between the two Cities as well as to discuss the strategy of combining the cities' two great Relics of the Light which lore had it, had once banished the demons back to the Abyss and ended the Age of Chaos. Lately however, communications between the two cities had become strained and the rise of the new Lord Chancellor in Amarivel had cooled relations even further. It was with the hope of reviving the spirit of co-operation and kinship that the ailing ruler of Ortezel sought to send a high ranking delegation under his son to bring it about. This news was received, to Skenda's surprise, with great joy and warmth with the Ortezellans informed that such an esteemed visit would be most welcome and that the Amarivellans hoped much would come from it.
This unexpected response was received with great cheer by Edrion, Skenda's father, and despite Skenda's initial misgivings, was soon making preparations for the delegation's departure. Lord Chamberlain Llaric, his father's aged and trusted advisor, counselled that it was the best option and after a short counsel, Skenda too was forced to admit that it needed to be done. Looking out at Amarivel, the numerous lights of the city twinkling in the darkness, its graceful spires and multi tiered walls brightly illuminated, Skenda thought it looked rather like an exquisite glass crown nestled on a hill.
Yet somehow, he was unable to shake off that gnawing sense of dread, the unease which had wrapped itself tenaciously about him ever since the Blood Moon had appeared. Llaric dismissed it as mere superstition and Edrion was set upon the swift departure of the delegation to restore relations as soon as possible. Skenda had been unable to refuse, there was no rational reason for him to do so and he constantly reminded himself that it was in the best interests of Ortezel to proceed as soon as possible. Llaric noticing his unease had counselled the prince in a tone which sounded almost conspiratory, "For all you know Your Highness, the portent may bode ill for our enemies, the ancient histories never mentioned that the sign was an affliction to all."
Skenda's thoughts inevitably turned to Llaric, his father's most trusted advisor, and who was accompanying Skenda on the delegation. Tall, thin and wiry, Llaric possessed an austere handsomeness which was accentuated by his sharp nose and thin piercing eyes. Eyes which revealed great intelligence and were able to pick apart the many enemies and traps Edrion had encountered. Though stern, he had always been approachable and had been a second father to Skenda. But there had been a subtle change which as far as Skenda could tell, occurred five years ago after Llaric had returned from his pilgrimage to the Shrine of Aariel. What exactly had changed, Skenda could not quite place his finger on. While still approachable, he seemed to possess a certain ability of quietly forcing the people around him into meek submission simply through his presence.
Even his strong willed and independent father, Edrion, seemed somewhat subdued around him. Skenda certainly felt it, at times it was so palpable it was almost like Llaric had an aura emanating from him. 'Cold, isn't it?' An unmistakable voice observed drily. Skenda started. That was another damn thing about Llaric, he was so quiet, few knew when he came or departed. "I'm sorry I affrighted your Highness but tomorrow's matters weighed heavily on my mind." "Oh, not at all." Skenda replied, feeling the familiar tightening of his throat, the chill slowly creeping up his spine.
"Yes tomorrow will be an important day for us all..Llaric. And a fruitful one I pray." Skenda sighed, drawing his shirt about him to block out the sudden chill even though the night remained still, devoid of even a passing breeze. "Best you not think too much your Highness, we have done all we can, the rest... Fate will decide." Llaric paused, rolling the word 'Fate' as if pondering it in bemusement. Bemusement? Skenda's tired mind protested. But Llaric had laid a firm hand on his shoulder and was bidding him to go rest. To Skenda, Llaric's hand felt like a frozen vice and he shuddered involuntarily before retiring to his tent.
Watching the departing Prince's back, Llaric arched an eyebrow before turning round to survey the city of Amarivel once more. "Ah, Amarivel." he sighed, the corners of his lips upturning in the faintest of smiles. Turning, Laric strode back to his tent.
The sun was well on its journey across the heavens and hung directly overhead the delegation when it reached the gates of Amarivel. The Lord Mayor together with a number of city officials were already there waiting for them. A round, colourless man of sallow complexion, the Lord Mayor accorded the delegation the requisite courtesies and uttered the correct formal niceties, right down to the proper amount of deference due a high ranking delegation from a sister City, without so much as a trace of emotion.
'Why the lack of cheer, your Grace?" Skenda could not help commenting. "There is precious little to be happy about with the Undead so near and so much to do; though your Highness's presence brings us much hope." the man smiled wanly and made a visible effort to be more upbeat for the rest of the procession. Riding through the city, Skenda was greeted with loud cheers by the crowds that lined the sides of the streets, throwing confetti and flower petals in their path as the delegation went past. Yet that sense of dread and unease he felt remained unabated, if anything it intensified, reinforced by the veneer of artificiality that Skenda felt underlay the gaiety of the welcome. His instinct had served him well in the past on battlefields and he was not about to discount it.
As if reading his thoughts, Llaric who had urged his mount forward to trot beside Skenda's counselled , "Your Highness, it be normal to feel ill at ease when embarking on such an important mission for nothing can afford to go wrong. I myself was a bundle of nerves when I set off on my first diplomatic mission. But what matters is the mission itself and you must steel yourself to see it through." Skenda nodded and Llaric fell back to his place behind the Prince in the procession. Llaric's advice was invaluable as always, the current mission was important and his inexperience in diplomatic forays could have contributed to his unease.
Yet still that feeling of wrongness remained. Shaking his head, Skenda firmly put all such thoughts out of his mind and focused on the upcoming meeting with the King and ministers of Amarivel. In the distance, the imperial palace could be seen, its golden towers and domes shimmering in the afternoon sun.
After a lavish state luncheon hosted by the withered looking King Ashkon in honour of the visiting Ortezellan delegation, the delegation was ushered into the stately Presence Chamber. The King visibly depleted and trembling slightly pleaded fatigue and retired but not before informing Skenda that his Lord Chancellor, a man he most trusted and to whom he had delegated most of his powers would discuss the strategy with him.
Shortly after the King's exit, the man himself entered. Lord Chancellor Byr, was a big man, powerfully built, his bald pate and angular face detracting nothing from the air of authority about him. "Your Highness, I am sorry for keeping you waiting and indeed I hope you forgive my earlier absence at the banquet. But there is much to do and the forces of Darkness are ever relentless in their assault." Byr bowed. "Of course your Grace, the fight against evil occupies our time so fully now, Light willing, I look forward to the time when we may sleep in peace." Skenda replied graciously.
"Soon, your Highness, soon. But if you will, the following discussion on matters of gravest importance should be left to the highest echelon of government officials." Byr's eyes flicked to the small bevy of bodyguards and scribes, his tone leaving no doubt as to his meaning. Skenda was about to protest but was stopped by Llaric who declared aloud ,"There is wisdom in what the Lord Chancellor says, we would not want the grave and dark matters which we must inevitably discuss weigh unnecessarily on the minds of our subjects or allow the spread of panic by rumours amongst the populace." Unhappy with this sudden state of affairs, Skenda rebutted ," I see no reason why Llaric, Lord Chamberlain of Ortezel, and a scribe to record the agreements reached should not be present." And the look he shot Byr held an unspoken challenge.
Byr held his gaze, then smiling thinly,bowed his head slightly and replied smoothly that no it was no problem at all and that he had been about to suggest the very same thing. The great doors were shut on the backs of the departing members of the delegation and only Llaric, Skenda and Tyron the scribe, a shy lanky lad of thirteen who was beginning to manifest the first signs of puberty, remained. Along with the Lord Chancellor Byr. They proceeded without hesitation and Skenda soon found himself in the thick of the discussion.
The war against the undead had not been going well, hampered by the plague and remarkable resiliance shown by the undead. To complicated matters, the commanders of the undead scourge remained enigmas, their identities unknown and all attempts to uncover more about them had failed. Just as Skenda was about to nod off, he was brought back to the dreary reality by a discreet nudge from Llaric.
"Your Excellencies, I understand that you wish to discuss the possibility of combining the two Sacred Relics of our cities as a force to aid us in our struggle. Did you perchance bring it with you?" Byr was saying. "Er.. I'm afraid not, your Grace. The Guardians would not allow the Chalice of Aariel to be brought along on the trip fearing that it would be too dangerous." Skenda explained. Byr arched an eyebrow. "Too dangerous? Surely our Ortezellan brethren are confident of our ability to ensure your Excellencies' safety and that of the Chalice? Or are we suspect too given our proximity to the front lines?"
Skenda looked askance at Llaric, eager to diffuse the sudden tension and partly because the situation had arisen from Llaric's actions. The Guardians recognising the need for an alliance had agreed to let the Chalice travel with the delegation to Amarivel on the condition that four Guardians accompany it. This had been flatly rejected by Llaric who had insisted that the delegation was to be a state affair, any religious representatives out of the question. The Archprelate refused to budge and despite Llaric's cajoling and Edrion's pleading had obstinately refused. So they had gone without the Chalice.
Without missing a beat, Llaric explained smoothly that the Chalice was required for an important ceremony and that the Amarivellans would be able to see it for themselves when they visited Ortezel, assuring Byr that the trust Ortezellans had in their brethren were unshakeable. Byr appeared mollified."One can never be too cautious in times like these." He continued," But it is a great honour to show my brethren from Ortezel, Amarivel's Sacred Relic of the Light, the Orb of Lesmyra." Skenda blinked, "The Orb of Lesmyra?..Now?" "Yes, your Highness, Now." Skenda felt Llaric stir beside him in quiet anticipation. The curiosity Skenda felt was so overwhelming he ignored the faint stirrings of unease. "I'll be honoured your Grace, the Orb of Lesmyra is the most ancient of the Seven Relics and reputedly the most powerful too." Byr nodded and rising, he strode to a side door which he rapped thrice in quick succession. A courtier opened it and after a few whispered instructions bowed and took his leave.
Shortly after, the same courtier appeared holding a cushion upon which lay a rod-like object draped in black velvet. "Behold, the Orb of Lesmyra." Byr waved as if showing off the latest bric-a-brac. By this time, Skenda's disquiet had increased so greatly that he could not help but voice it. "But surely my Lord Chancellor, there is some form of ceremony to be observed before the public unveiling of a Relic? I do not see the requisite four priests and the Keeper of the Relic around."
Byr laughed, a singularly unpleasant one. "Your Highness, here in Amarivel we do not give much weight to useless superstition and ceremonies. Power validates without the need for rituals or form to justify." "But surely, the high priest and his priests would accompany such a sacred Relic?" "The priests are at the front lines and the Archprelate is indisposed,"came the curt reply. "If your Highness feels it unbecoming to unveil the Relic without the priesthood and the proper rituals I can always send it back." "No!" Skenda said a little sharply. "No, I'm sorry I was a little tired. Do please, show us the Orb." Byr nodded and with a swift sweep of his hand, pulled away the black velvet covering the Relic.
The sight which greeted Skenda sent him scrambling to his feet in shock. "How can this..?" The Orb mounted on an intricately carved golden sceptre gave off a sickly green glow, numerous veins of black ichor threading through the orb itself which had lost much of its clarity and looked rather like a grotesque tumor. The signs of corruption were unmistakeable. "But how?" Skenda queried, his mind still reeling from the enormity of what he was witnessing. "The Relics may be corrupted by no force of Darkness!" he reiterated in disbelief.
"In that you are right your Highness but.." "It is the corruption and greed of humans, the guardians of the Relics that has acted as a conduit for corrupting the relics." the cold, clear voice of Llaric interjected cutting Byr off in mid sentence. "Precisely, my Lord." Byr smiled and the deferential bow he gave Llaric was not one exchanged between equals but one unmistakeably reserved for an overlord. "My Lord??" Skenda's eyes narrowed in suspicion as alarm bells went off in his head. " Explain yourself Llaric! What is this man to you?!" he shouted, pointing his finger with ill-concealed hostility at Byr.
"Why, your Highness." That word now dripped heavy with sacarsm and venom. "That is Holgyxxia, my Lieutenant-General. Commander of the Western Front." Llaric drawled, his smile mocking. Byr leaned against a pillar smirking. Skenda could barely recognise the strangled gasp that emerged as his. Holgyxxia was one of the Vile Three, subordinate only to the Archdemon Phopyros. If Byr was Holgyxxia, Llaric could only be...
"Foul Demons," he hissed. Drawing his sword form its sheath, Skenda lunged at the thing once called Llaric. Phopyros thrust our his left hand, fingers splayed outwards and the sword was stopped in mid swing by an invisible barrier, clamped immobile by an unseen vice. "Guards! To me!" Skenda bellowed, beads of perspiration appearing on his forehead as he struggled to wrench his sword free. "They will not come. You disappoint me Skenda, did you really think you could stop me with this?" Phopyros advanced, arm still extended, until the blade was bending omniously, metal shrieking under the strain. Byr made a move as if to step forward but Phopyros waved him back.
"Traitor!" Skenda snarled through gritted teeth. "Fool!" Phopyros thundered, his black eyes glittering and with a curt flick of his wrist sent the sword crashing into the pillar beside the terror-stricken scribe. Freed from the immobilizing grip, Skenda lunged forward, executing a powerful kick at Llaric's head. As if swatting a fly, Phopyros gave a nonchalant swing of his arm and Skenda was sent flying across the chamber, landing heavily on the marble floor before sliding to a stop beside a pillar. "Humans, ever so weak." Phopyros spat in disdain.
Skenda spluttered, choking and gasping for air, fingers tearing uselessly at the invisible fingers that had enclosed around his neck as he was lifted into the air, legs kicking. Tyron the scribe who had been stock-still, immobilized by horror as the terrible events had unfolded was finally spurred into action at the sight of the life draining from his Prince, held aloft and strangled by some demonic force. With a wild cry, Tyron ripped the sword free from the pillar and arms extended forward, his slim hands firmly gripping the hilt, charged at Llaric. Byr who had been watching the whole affair with faint amusement stepped forward. Skenda sought to cry out a warning but all that came out was an unintelligible rasp.
Skenda watched in helpless horror as Byr lazily drew back his arm and threw a ferocious punch in the direction of Tyron's head. There was a sickening crunch of snapping vertebrae and Skenda could tell from the impossible angle the head moved in relation to the rest of the body, the long stream of blood flying forth from the open mouth, that Tyron was dead before he even hit the ground. At this moment, the choking vice about Skenda's neck ceased and he fell to the ground, coughing and sobbing in relief. Ignoring the searing pain in his side and the strident protests his body was making, Skenda crawled, weeping in helpless frustration and despair, toward Tyron. The lad had died needlessly, in attempting to save Skenda's life, he had lost his own. And he had been fond of the lad too.
Skenda never reached him. Phopyros who had been watching him scornfully, grasped at air, his hand claw like, was rapidly enveloped in a fiery red nebula. Skenda screamed in agony, his back arched as wave after wave of coruscating pain wrecked his body. Through a red haze of pain, Skenda was dimmly aware that Phopyros was grinning diabolically and was beginning to grasp the red mist even tighter with that claw like hand. A painful shower of sparks erupted in front of his eyes and he cried out like a tortured beast, an inhuman howl of anguish and pain. For the pain afflicting him had intensified and it now felt like a thousand red hot needles were forcing their way out of his skin, inch by inch. He screamed.
Skenda did not know when the maelstorm of pain stopped nor if he had lapsed into unconsciousness. What he did know was that it had stopped, leaving behind faint throbbing aches too numerous to count and the pounding of blood loud in his ears. "Ah, I see our Prince has come round. What did I tell you Holgyxxia, there is indeed some blood of the Old Humans left in him." Phopyros's voice drifted over. "I feared he would not survive your ministrations, my Lord. A dead prince while no barrier to us would hardly be desirable to yourself especially after decomposition sets in. But you were right, he is hardier than he looks." Holgyxxia conceded. Phopyros grimaced. "I certainly have no wish of looking like one of those undead underlings."
Phopyros face swam into view. "Ready, my Prince?" Staring into the cold jet black eyes, Skenda felt something warm and sticky trickle out of his nostril down onto his lip. He tasted it and was rewarded with the salty tang of blood. His blood. Without hesitation, Skenda pursed his lip and spat into Phopyros's face. Phopyros turned but was not quick enough. Skenda looked with satisfaction at his handiwork, a gob of bloody spit slowly trailing down the side of Phopyros's cheek. Holgyxxia started forward , his face convoluted with rage but stopped at Phopyros's upraised hand.
His eyes never leaving Skenda's, Phopyros commented icily, his every word tinged with menace, "I do believe he is ready." And stretched out his right hand above Skenda's face. The pain returned with a vengeance, his entrie body felt as if it was being turned inside out but this pain had a new dimension to it for it was accompanied by a raging black darkness. A consuming darkness with malevolent intelligence that was battering his very soul. He would not give them the satisfaction of hearing him cry out, he would not! Skenda willed himself to remain silent but his body unable to withstand the agonising torture betrayed him and he cried out.
"Kill me, you foul fiend for I shall never serve you or the Dark!" Skenda hissed, voice quaking at the attempt to remain intelligible in spite of the pain. Phopyros smirked. "I'm afraid that choice is not yours to make. Your dear father though would be proud." "You'll not harm my father!!" Skenda managed through gritted teeth. The darkness was ravaging his very being and no matter how hard he fought it, it was continuing its inexorable advance. "Your father? Of course not. You'll be the bearer of great tidings to him. News so wonderful, it would very likely prove fatal." Phopyros grinned maliciously.
"Noooo!!!!!" Skenda's strangled cry tore from his tortured throat as he realised the diabolical plan Phopyros had in mind. "Yes!" Phopyros bent, whispering fiercely in his ear. "How does it feel knowing that you are to be the instrument of your father's death?" A wordless cry of rage, despair, helplessness and pain all mingled into one burst forth, resounding and echoing through the entire hall.
Skenda fought ferociously but his body was failing, having been subject to the tremendous abuse wrought by Phopyros and the darkness was rapidly closing in upon that dwindling spectre of consciousness that still remained. Then darkness descended and with it, oblivion.
Skenda sat up and winced, his body protesting against the sudden movement. Feeling something weighing him down, he looked down and saw Llaric buried face down in his lap, his wispy grey hair in disarray. "That old fool." Skenda said in disgust, shoving the body away forcefully. He noted with some satisfaction, the unmistakeable crunch of breaking bones. Getting to his feet, Skenda brushed himself off and examined himself.
The toned, lightly muscled body was a much better acquisition than a seventy years old one beset with the beginnings of a aching back and rheumy joints. A young healthy body meant possessing none of the ailments that afflicted the aged. The trauma suffered by the body due to Llaric's ministrations were rapidly healing, the bruises lightening, the ache in his side fading. Skenda would be perfectly fine in a couple of minutes.
He turned and saw Byr leaning against the pillar watching him patiently. "That was close," Holgyxxia commented. "He fought harder than I expected. A couple more minutes he would have died before the possession was complete. Who would have thought that word of his father would evoke such strength in him. It was like fighting a Great Adept." Byr raised an eyebrow. "That strong, my Lord? Well it seems there is much about the humans we have yet to learn." "Indeed, there is." came the dry reply.
"But for now, I have good news to bring to that fool Edrion of Ortezel." Skenda smiled. A cruel smile that held no warmth. "Await my signal, you know what to do." Byr nodded. "And these two?" He gestured at the bodies. "Send them to the necromancers or raise them yourself, they'll serve in the army."
Striding down the chamber, the great doors swung open of their own accord to reveal the members of his delegation waiting patiently. To the casual observer, they would appear identical to those who had entered the city and would indeed behave similarly. "Great One!" the demons bowed reverently. "It's your Highness in this form and let none forget it." Skenda corrected. "Yes, your Highness." they chorused.
"Come! We ride for Ortezel. Edrion misses his son." Skenda laughed and turning, he strode off, the delegation hurrying after him.
Author's note: My darkest and certainly longest short story to date. Originally titled as Betrayal, the title Darkness Rising was deemed more apt and the story conceived, as was the case with The Interview, on one of the occasions I was afflicted with Acute Boredom. I might return with a sequel, a pity to let it end hanging but it all depends whether I feel like it. After all this blogging stuff is all about what you feel like talking about,when.
While certainly not everyone's cup of tea, if you read this with the expectation of a happy ending with the gallant knight in shining armour emerging victorious, you've come to the wrong blog. The title should be warning enough already. Enjoy.