Fighting for his life had become something of an everyday affair for Etral. But there was a pattern to those fights, and the demons just weren't following the rules today.
One of the demons nearly split Etral in half as he spun away, it's long claw digging deep into the tree behind where he'd been standing. The long length of steel in his hands flashed silver as he struck out, slicing the claw off at the joint. The demon howled in agony, it's remaining mantis-like claw waving menacingly, but Etral's spin had already turned into a duck as another demon, this one more like a large dog, flew through the space where his throat had been. That one lost a hind leg, as well as taking a cut to the gut that would have disemboweled a mortal creature.
The problem came down to numbers. The demon horde always had endless numbers, each day revealing more demons than had been present the day before. But for the last thirty years those numbers, as vast as they were, had been spread thin across a front spreading hundreds or even thousands of miles. The demons hadn't stopped at mountain ranges, vast canyons, rivers, forests, or any other natural barrier. They'd spread outward in all directions with no regard for geology, pushing forward without regard for losses, tactics, or strategy other than their cardinal rule of taking down any Knight of Ilarus. The Knights had been all but wiped out when the city of Ilarus fell, but enough of them had survived to slow the demons down, if only a little. Etral knew of at least two others still living -- at least, he prayed at night that they still lived -- and five others that had fallen early on in the course of this long, grudging retreat.
As Etral jumped over the charge of a low-slung, fast demon, actually planting his feat on the beast's back as he tumbled under the mantis-like demon's remaining claw to plant his blade home, he mused over the unfortunate reality that had brought about the current situation. Brevarun was large, but eventually all land came to an end and the demons just didn't seem inclined to push their dominion out into the ocean. Given the ravenous appetites of the massive ocean-dwelling kraken, Etral couldn't blame them. Nothing dared approach within a couple hundred yards of the shore, not even the largest of Brevarun's many predators.
And rumor had it, the Kraken were small compared to some of the things you'd find if you lived long enough to reach the deep ocean.
Whatever the cause, the number of demons available to chase Etral down had skyrocketed recently. Numbers mattered, and unfortunately at the moment numbers were against him.
If he used the silver fire, it would be like lighting a beacon fire for any demons in the area. Sure, the ruckus the fight was making would alert any in earshot but the forest didn't carry sound very well. The silver fire would be like a bonfire, visible through tree and canopy and earth. There were simply too many demons these days. If he used the fire, he would die. They would swarm in with overwhelming numbers until he was dead.
Unfortunately, evidence suggested that if he didn't use the fire, he'd die anyways.
Searing pain ripped through Etral as he missed a parry, and he knew the moment of decision had come. Either he used the silver fire to burn these demons to ash, and then sprint to try and get away from all of their friends who would come looking from him, or he'd refrain from using it and be ripped into pieces. The wound in his side wasn't that bad, but it was bleeding, his strength leaking out of him.
Getting right down to it, there wasn't much of a choice to it at all. Try and maybe live, or don't and definitely die. Etral gathered the fire slowly, achingly slowly, in an effort to minimize the signature. The wound in his side sealed over and his blade began to gleam with it's own light as he slowly pulled the fire together. Even this minimal use redoubled the demon's assault, but with the fire burning even more brightly in his blood Etral's strength was doubled, his speed was doubled, his power was vastly more than merely doubled. He stood on a knife edge between loosing the fire and losing it, and he reveled in those few moments. He was a mere Knight Primus, but this was what made a Knight Trius! His confidence in the balance grew as he wavered on the edge, his awe overshadowed by his glee at the realization of what he was doing. He was doing it! He was holding the balance!
And then his confidence failed him. His concentration faltered for the barest of instants, and the fire slipped away from his reach. The wound in his side reopened as he dodged an attack, and his blade became ordinary, if impossibly well-wrought, steel. Etral shook his head as the backlash struck him, the fire expressing it's displeasure at his failure.
In the end, the fight came down to a small stone. Not a large one, a small round shape perhaps twice the size of a pea. Just small enough to escape notice, just large enough to roll underfoot. A smooth back step as he fought to regain his mental balance turned into a sliding flop onto his back, and Etral's hand's flailed wildly in an effort to regain control. The impact rippled outwards from his chest until it snapped his hand down onto another rock, almost breaking his hand. Worse yet, it sent his blade clattering away across the rough forest floor.
Etral's hands snapped upward, catching the demon that lunged forward to rip his throat out by the jaws. It struggled, it's saliva flying everywhere as it fought to push forward. Etral ignored the burning pain in his hands as the saliva burned his skin, forcing the jaws further and further apart. It took everything he had to keep the creature from killing him. His mental balance was lost, shattered by the fall and the demon's attack. He simply couldn't find that one moment of pure being that he lived in during fights, the calmness that allowed him to perform magic even while fighting for his life. He reached deep inside for strength, reaching past everything he normally drew on to something he'd never felt before. Deep at his core was the reservoir of strength and power that had kept him alive for thirty years, and now he tapped into it directly, consciously ripping aside the veil between his mind and it. The silver fire roared into his mind and he desperately funneled into his body, his strength growing until he successfully ripped the jaws apart. The demon howled its agony, and in the moment of it's distraction Etral was able to twist it's neck sharply sideways. A loud crack announced his success just as two more demons tore into his arms, pulling them away. They worried aggressively at his bracers, pulling his arms away even as two more started at his shins. In his surprise, his concentration slipped and he could no longer pull the fire from his core.
The demons worried at his limbs, the magically treated leather only just keeping the worst of the injuries from his flesh, and Etral snarled as he realized he was completely pinned. Between the demons holding his limbs, and the one on his chest, there was simply nothing he could do. Closing his eyes, he composed himself with a deep breath. It was hard, but the training to become a Knight of Ilarus was merciless for a reason. He found his center, found the fire in his blood, and called it forth. It exploded from his veins, suffusing his body in an instant, and then was gone. Again and again he tried, but just as he called the power from the fire in his veins it slipped away, draining as if he were completely grounded. It just didn't make sense!
Another mantis demon ripped the corpse pinning him to the ground away, it's insect-like jaws working gleefully as it chittered. With the silver fire gone, his blade lost, body pinned, Etral finally knew defeat. Drawing a deep breath, he prepared to level his death-curse against the beings that had hounded him his entire life.
Then a familiar snarl broke the tableau. A pack of corgar flooded over the demons, snarling and snapping as they attacked. Three of them leapt for the mantis-demon, two impaling themselves willingly on it's deadly blades so the third could rip it's throat out. The pack numbered over a hundred, larger than any pack Etral had ever heard of. The low-slung, massive beasts were almost as deadly as the demons, and Etral had thinned the demons numbers down enough that the corgar solidly outnumbered them. Corgar looked like nothing more than a cross between a man and a dog, full of fury and power. Their long snouts were definitely dog like, but their torsos had broad, strong shoulders that extended to either side of the head, just like a man. Their legs were attached to the side of the torso, unlike a dog's which always appeared part of the torso. The thick, powerful hind legs were a strong contrast to their forelegs, which possessed the same power but had a range of motion similar to human arms. Their paws were filled with razor-sharp claws, though, and they used them to deadly effect when they wanted to.
It was a bloodbath as both sides tried to literally rip their opponents apart, rage and fury and strength without any subtlety, skill, or even the mere suggestion of quarter.
Etral struggled to his hands and crawled weakly in the direction of his sword. A demon saw him, turned from ravaging a corgar to try and run him down, but three more corgar cut it off and bore it to the ground, jaws ripping and claws gouging until the thing was a bloody mess. Another demon stumbled sideways, a corgar latched onto it's throat as the demon's claws ripped it to shreds. Before it could stumble into his path, another corgar darted in and shouldered it aside.
The corgar weren't just killing the demons: they were helping Etral.
The rational part of Etral's mind insisted that was absurd. Corgar's were vicious, predatory animals that feasted on human flesh when they had the chance. Merciless and cruel, the only use they had for humans was as food. They would go out of their way to kill a human farmer if they caught him outside of the walls of a city. They would kill an entire heard of livestock just for the pleasure of it, feeding off one or two animals before letting themselves be chased away by the town guard. Assuming, of course, they weren't daring enough to turn and face the guard, killing until they were driven off by their own losses. It was simply beyond reason to think they'd actually try and help him.
Etral managed to get one hand on his sword, and tried to lever himself to his feet. His injuries were severe, but if he could get on his feet he could still fight. Exhaustion was the worst of it, but he'd fought past exhaustion before. Exhaustion was an old friend these days.
Unfortunately, all he could manage was to rise to his knees. A chittering mantis-demon charged him, and he slipped in the grass, sliding away as he cut clumsily with his blade. The demon hissed, and then a corgar took it in the side. Etral glanced around as he pulled himself to his hands and knees again, but there was nothing left. The demons were dead, as were all of the corgar but one. Opening his mind to the realm of magic, he sensed death all around him, but no live demons for miles. Of more concern was the energy in the air around him, the silver fire somehow floating free in the air.
As if his becoming aware of it triggered something, the energy began to spin around him, forming a vortex of energy that slowly closed inwards until it touched him. The fire flooded back into his veins, and Etral threw his head back, gasping in shock and biting down on a shriek of mingled ecstasy and pain. Panting, he pulled himself to his feet. Whatever had happened was strange, but it left him feeling stronger. Capable of running.
But first, there was a debt to repay. Without the corgar coming to his assistance, he would have died. Without healing, the one corgar still living would die soon enough.
"Hey there," he said softly as he knelt a few feet from the wounded beast. It's whining whimper was agonizing to listen to, a piercing sound that drove red hot spikes into the ears. "Shh, I know it hurts," he pitched his voice low and steady. "I'd like to help you, but I don't want to loose a hand in the process."
The corgar looked at him and whined softly in response. "Can I see the wound?" Etral asked softly. Words weren't important, animals didn't understand what you said, it was the tone that was-
The corgar rolled over slightly to give Etral a better look at the cut. It was long and ragged, and bleeding freely. Bright, brilliant blue was the predominant shade, and it hissed as it hit the ground. "That's a nasty cut," Etral commented softly. "I don't think you'll live without help." Which Etral was honor bound to provide. Corgar or not, this creature had come to his assistance. It hadn't simply attacked the demons, it and it's entire pack had fought to help him. Damnit.
"Alright, this is not going to be fun," Etral bit his lip. The corgar was injured badly enough that maybe it wouldn't snap his hand off given the chance. Maybe. Damnit, the thing had helped him.
No, not thing Etral realized as the Corgar shifted further over, leaving it's ample equipment visible. More importantly, Etral recognized the gesture as an attempt to bare it's belly to him. It was submitting to him. If that wasn't a sign of invitation, Etral would eat his hat. "I'll be right back," Etral told the Corgar before trotting off. The fight had gone on for a while under the trees, and it took him several minutes of walking to find where he'd left his pack, but he was able to find it. As usual, the demons had been so intent on him that they'd never even looked at it when he tossed it aside. "Alright, I've got some medical supplies here. They aren't exactly designed for use on wildlife, but I think I can make some of it work."
Etral took a deep breath, and then placed a single gentle hand on the corgar's flank. It twisted it's head over to look at him, then laid it back on the ground. "It looks like your ribs managed to turn the worst of the blow," Etral commented as he felt around the wound, careful not to touch the blood. Demon blood and saliva was nasty enough, but at least the fire would burn that away. Get wild blood on his hands, and he'd spend weeks in agony before the burns healed.
What was worse than the wound itself was what he sensed magically. Deep, slow, weak, but growing in strength was the stench of demon corruption. Etral knew the feel of it, and it couldn't hide from his senses. It just didn't make sense. Oh sure, the demons were themselves a poison, and if they injured you they left a bit of themselves behind as a poison in the wound. But it was a poison, one your body burned away with a little time. That didn't even take the fire! Oh, sure, the silver fire helped, burning it away in an instant, but even normal human beings could burn it away in time. This was more like-
Etral fell back onto his heels as he realized he was in over his head. "I'm sorry," he whispered to the corgar. "The wound isn't all that bad, and I think you know it. It's the poison. Except..." Etral shook his head. "It's not a poison to you, is it? It's more like an infection. One that's going to grow until it consumes you."
There was no mistaking the deliberate head motion for anything other than a nod. "I can stitch up the wound, but that won't help. The infection is in deep. It's already spreading through your blood. Maybe a Knight Grandus could do something about it, they can use the fire to heal, but I'm forbidden to even try."
The corgar whined. "I know, it's silly. You'll die if I don't, but I was given explicit orders not to-" Etral almost laughed. "I'm not to try and heal another human being, or even so much as livestock. But you aren't either."
Etral licked his lips. "I can't control the fire to the degree necessary. But maybe I don't need to. It lives in my blood, it is bound to my blood..."
Etral pulled a small knife out of his pack. "If I tried to dose another human using the fire, it would kill them. It would spread from my blood to theirs because my blood is like their blood. There's a connection, a resonance that grows stronger the more closely related you are. Even if you aren't related, there's still some relation there, a resonance that binds the two together, that lets the fire spread from my blood to theirs."
"But there is no such resonance between our bloods. Do you want me to take the chance, take the risk?" Etral asked. "Do you even understand what-"
The corgar yipped, lightly, before nodding. "Are you telling me to do it?"
The corgar nodded again. "I don't believe this," Etral shook his head. "Your kind are the most bloodthirsty and vicious creatures on a bloodthirsty and vicious planet-"
The strange, wheezing noise as the corgar shook his head was like nothing Etral could have imagined. It didn't have the piercing quality of the beast's whines, and it's flank shook as it tried to restrain the noise. "You kill my people, our livestock, and here I am helping you." Etral used the knife to cut his finger. Concentrating on the fire in his blood, he summoned as much of it as he could bear, focusing it into the drop of blood hanging from the wound. It changed, slowly, first turning silver and then somehow shifting until it was a bead of molten fire, the very essence of the fire burning in his veins. Etral focused on binding the fire to the blood, on making it the purifying fire that burned demon corruption from his veins in an instant. If he'd known how, he would have added the healing component that allowed him to survive the fire burning in his veins. Ever burning, ever healing, the silver fire was a mass of contradictions. Life-giver and life-taker, and tonight he called both. Give life to the corgar, and take the life from the demonic taint.
Time itself seemed to pause as the droplet of blood fell, glistening in the light as it burned in midair. For an eternal moment it hung there, and Etral blessed it with all his power.
The corgar howled and twisted when the flame landed dead center in the middle of the long, ragged cut. Etral scrambled away on hands and feet, avoiding the snarling, snapping monster. The corgar threw it's head back and howled in agony before collapsing.
Etral waited for several long breaths before moving. Slowly, gently, he eased his way forward, just outside of bite range. "You still with me?" he asked softly. The corgar snorted, dragging it's head slowly to face him. "Sorry, I didn't realize that would hurt," Etral shrugged. "Can I see the wound?"
The corgar rolled to it's side again, and Etral examined the injury. It wasn't healed, but it had formed what looked like a solid scab. "That looks like you're partway healed. I bet you're exhausted, aren't you?"
The corgar snorted before closing it's eyes. Etral looked around before sighing. "You're too big for me to carry, but we can't stay here," he informed the Corgar as he repacked his gear. "More demons will come, and they'll sense that I used the fire."
The corgar whimpered a little before snorting. With an obvious effort it pulled itself up. "I'm going to try something," Etral hoped he was right about the creature understanding him. Reaching out, slowly, he laid a hand on it's shoulder. The fire in his veins was strong, and there was the slightest of ghosts of that fire in the corgar. It would pass as the corgar purged his blood from it's system, but for the moment it was there. The strength of the fire always came from the person it healed, but with the fire there, in the corgar, he could reverse the flow. He could feed the corgar his own strength. Slowly, gently, his strength leeched out of him. It was an elementary magic to refresh another using your own strength, but there had to be a point of resonance, of commonality.
Etral was vaguely amused by the thought that this was perhaps the first time in history that point of commonality had been the silver fire running through both their veins, rather than the blood. But only vaguely. The fire was powerful, and demanding, and he was near enough the edges of his own strength. "I hope that's enough," he sighed as he broke the connection. "Come on."
The corgar could only manage a slow walk as it limped along beside him, but Etral wasn't exactly very fast himself. Not right now. They stumbled along the train for an hour or two before Etral finally gave up. He was just to tired to continue any further. Trudging just out of view of the road, he set up a quick camp. Thankfully, the small clearing had an abundance of deadwood just waiting, and he quickly laid a fire in. He'd all but forgotten the corgar trailing behind him until it dropped a log next to the firepit for him. "Thank you," he nodded. "Try to keep away from the fire, I wouldn't want you to get burned."
The corgar wheezed again, the sound just like when he'd commented on them being vicious. Etral got the fire started as it dropped another log beside him. "That's enough for now," he told the corgar. "Go ahead and lie down. Not too close to the fire!"
The corgar wheezed as it turned around in an almost hypnotic curling motion before lying down near the fire. Much closer than Etral would have preferred for it to place it's presumably flammable fur, but it wasn't like he could say 'bad doggie!' and wap it on the nose. Etral stifled a giggle at the probable result of that attempt, which drew the attention of the corgar.
"I was just laughing," he shook his head. The corgar tilted his head, as if asking 'why?' "Oh, it's not that funny," Etral shook his head. "Actually, I suppose it is. You're a bit closer to the fire than I'd prefer, and I was thinking that it's not like I can whap you on the nose and say 'bad doggie'. If I tried, I don't think I'd like the result much."
Again, the corgar made that strange, wheezy burbling sound, and something connected in Etral's head. "You're laughing, aren't you?" The corgar nodded, and Etral started giggling, helplessly. His giggles set the corgar off, and the corgar's 'laughter' set him off even further. By the time they were done, both of them were breathless and smiling. Well, Etral was smiling, anyway. The corgar just looked smug.
After they caught their breath, the corgar coughed a small bark, as if to get Etral's attention. "Is something wrong?" Etral asked.
The corgar shook it's head as it stood. It walked around the fire twice before wandering off to pick up another log. It huffed when Etral's attention wandered, as if demanding that he concentrate. "What is it?" Etral asked.
The corgar, laughing, walked up to the fire and placed the log into it. And since it was holding the log with it's head, that meant it stuck it's entire head into the flames. Etral was on his feet, shouting, in an instant, but the corgar pulled it's head out, barely even singed.
"Oh-kay," Etral drawled out slowly. "I guess I don't have to worry about you catching fire." The corgar laughed before walking back to where it was laying before. It curled around three times again before it settled back down, yawning.
The yawn set Etral off, and after a light stretch he smiled over at the corgar. "Good idea, I think I'm ready for some sleep myself." It was absurd to even think about falling asleep near a vicious predator, much less the slathering monster he knew corgar's to be. Completely and utterly absurd.
Etral stretched out in the early predawn light. The fire was still burning, dim red embers giving off slight warmth to offset the morning chill. The silver fire than ran through his veins did many things, but warmth wasn't exactly what it was intended for. Thankfully, healing was. It had to be for him to survive it.
Then a soft, wuffing snort reminded him that he wasn't alone. He'd survived the night, and so had the corgar.
"How are you doing?" Etral asked softly, slowly rising to his feet. The corgar snorted and shifted around slowly, revealing the wound from yesterday. The blood was gone, but Etral could see that the wound was a dark, angry blue and the flesh underneath had swollen. Reaching out to touch it, he felt the chill of the skin underneath. "Well, I'm not sure what I'm looking at here," Etral admitted. "Can you walk?"
The corgar moaned as it rose to it's feet. Taking a stumbling step, it limped away from the camp slowly. "Guess so," Etral commented, gathering his gear before following. "Listen," he talked to the corgar after catching up, "you're pretty badly hurt. I think you need to hole up somewhere and rest for a while. I'd stay with you, but my presence tends to draw the demons in, especially if I stay in one place for any length of time."
The corgar shifted sideways and bumped Etral away with it's shoulder. "I take it that's a 'go away'?" Etral asked. The corgar stopped and looked at him before nodding. "Alright, see you later." Etral picked up the pace and moved off, trying to find the road he'd been driven away from a few days ago. Being lost sucked.
Etral crouched in the bushes outside a clearing, the ruined shell that had once been a city looming in the distance. It was strange to see ruins like this, with the forest growing over them, rubble spilling outward in a gentle spray from walls rounded with the passage of time.
Those ruins were old, and that was something he hadn't seen in a lifetime. Since the beginning of the fall, the only ruins he had seen were the ruins of cities he had reduced to rubble as he'd fought through them. War had swept it's way across the surface of Brevarun for nearly thirty years now, city after city had been washed away by the tide of destruction, yet here was a city that had been lost to the ravages of time, not demons.
His natural curiosity drew him to the city. Something about it called to him, pulled him in. He sensed, dimly, the deep and powerful magics worked into the very stone of this land. The city was old, the air whispered of age and the earth beneath his feet groaned with the power that had come to rest there. Such power, such age, he hadn't felt anything like it in years. Not since he was still Etral et Ilaria, citizen of the great city of Ilarus. Now he was Etral del Ilaria. The rest of his name never seemed as important as that one, small change. Del Ilaria, fallen Ilaria, lost Ilaria. A citizen of a city that was no more.
But here he felt something akin to that city. A power as old as Ilaria itself, a power that dated back to the age of Ilarus. The walls rose high above the ground where they had not fallen, but strangely they seemed to embrace the wilderness around, not reject it.
A howl behind him decided matters. He was exhausted, nearing his limits, and the demons were close behind him. He hadn't survived by fighting to the last, but by grasping at every straw in reach and refused to concede defeat, constantly scraping through by the slimmest of margins.
Etral dashed through the small clearing, and winced as he heard a whistling shriek overhead, announcing his location for any demon in earshot. He twisted around, still running for the walls, and sought the source of the shriek. As he'd expected, the demon was foolishly diving in to attack, mindless of the danger. His sword seemed to leap in his hand as he stepped sideways, slicing the head of the demon clear off while ducking under the outstretched wings of the beast.
The thing pulled out of it's dive on reflex, but with it's head tumbling through the sharp-edged grass it soon fell out of the sky. Etral imagined feeling the land underneath his feet groan in agony, a purely imaginary conceit that had somehow grown on him over the last few months. The sharp grass had shredded the demon's skin, slicing lightly through the unprotected flesh to draw blood, but the blood was as deadly as the living creature, killing any plant that came in contact with it. Etral was glad of the tough leather boots that protected his feet, a gift from the town of Isowl less than half a year ago. Not only did the tough leather turn aside the sharp-edged grass, but it was well treated with magic that would help keep the destructive demon blood from soaking into it.
Etral was back under the cover of the towering trees now, making his way uphill. The city was placed well, on top of a great hill that gave it a commanding view of the area while also revealing it despite the close-pressed forest around it. Which begged the question of how he'd never heard of it.
Eshar had fallen quickly to the demon advance, and he'd been so busy he hadn't had much time to study the maps of the area. Perhaps he'd simply missed this. Surely it had been on the maps, and had he asked the right questions he'd know why it had been abandoned. But for now, it's power called to him. Another chance to make the demons pay, another chance to bleed them.
Etral sighed. Somehow, the pain never really grew less. He'd always hoped to stop the demons somehow, to cost them enough that their seemingly numberless hordes might diminish. Over the last few years that hope had faded, until now only it's ghost remained to pain him. Some might call his fight futile, but he would battle until the last city fell, and then he would fade away into the wilderness to fight some more. One day the demons would corner him, one day they would cut off all avenue of retreat and force him to face them, but until then he would be a thorn in their side, the bramble in their path.
He was the shield of humanity, bound by oath to defend it. He was it's sword, bound by oath to destroy it's foes. And he couldn't do either of those things dead.
The hill grew steeper now, and as he glanced up he realized he was actually climbing over the rubble of the fallen wall. The walls were impossible. Tall and broad as they'd appeared from a distance, his eyes had deceived him as to their scale. They didn't simply rise over the towering shigu trees thanks to the hill, they towered overhead hundreds of feet from their base, almost as thick through as they were tall. The city itself spread out before him, buildings made of a dusty yellow stone entwined with the trees growing grandly around them. The tree's foliage made a dizzying, graceful display of blue and red, creating the impression that the city was of one piece, buildings and trees built and grown around each other.
But that was absurd. Shevar trees almost inevitably drew the poisonous begra, flying pests who would attack domesticated animals and humans without distinction. The very sap of the belnath tree was poisonous, and no food crops could grow within a hundred yards of single such tree. The dozens upon dozens he saw before him would contaminate the land for miles!
A howl behind him broke him out of his reverie, and he stumbled forward. He wasn't safe yet! He felt the wards in the walls as he passed through them, a tingling sensation that stretched from head to toe and reverberated in his flesh. The silver fire in his veins seemed to pulse in time with the sensation, burning hot enough that the pain became almost unbearable before fading back to it's normal, almost unnoticed intensity. Then, for a bare moment that made Etral gasp, it vanished. The pain was gone. The fire had ceased to burn him!
It only lasted a moment, a moment that was almost painful in it's intensity. It had been more than thirty years since the ever-present searing had been placed into his veins. The silver fire of Ilarus burned in his veins, ever-healing, ever-destroying. To have it cease, even for an instant, was like having the sun turn dark or the ground cease to pull him into it's embrace. It was the sickening moment before a fall, when everything seemed wrong and your stomach seemed to rise into your throat. Then the fire was back again, even stronger. The wards reacted to the fire, the very air seeming to dim and turn thick around him as he ran. Strangely it didn't slow him down, it simply pressed in around him as if a giant hand was squeezing him in it's grasp. If anything, it seemed the rubble underfoot grew firmer, his feet landed more softly yet with greater authority as he flew with a speed and a grace that reminded him of a pack of corgar.
It seemed absurd, but the wards had recognized him, and the silver fire in his veins, and he felt their welcome. He also felt a brush across his mind, and as he pushed the knowledge of the demons at it the wards seemed to harden, reaching out.
The howls behind him changed in pitch as energy flowed past him, reacting to the presence of the demons with a vicious, deadly attack. The wards didn't simply respond, they reacted.
That made three impossibilities so far, and Etral knew better to ignore that. No, wait, four. A city like this would not go unremarked. There was no way every single person he'd met in the area would have failed to mention it.
As he cleared the inner edge of the walls he turned around and saw another impossibility. Shafts of golden fire lanced out from the walls, striking demon after attacking demon, and the silver fire in his veins began to pulse in time with them. The golden glow was the same as the silver fire. Oh, the color was different, but it was the same fire than ran in his veins.
Etral's eyes widened as he realized the implication of that. The silver fire was an incredibly effective weapon against demons, but it was also a siren's call that drew them in. He backed away, slowly, from the walls in horror as he sensed the massive surge of energy around him. The city's defenses had been roused, triggered by the presence of the demons, and they struck with the full force and fury of a hundred knights, no a thousand, maybe even more. They struck out, and signaled their presence like a bonfire on a mountain's peak.
Which would draw the entire demon horde down on them, and by extension Etral. Every demon for a thousand miles would feel this, and every last one of them would turn to charge in. The sudden shift would draw still more of the demons in as they noticed their brethren moving, in a ripple reaction that would effect the entire demon advance.
Etral reached behind him and pulled his travel sack around to pull out a loaf of bread. Ripping a piece off, he stuffed it in his mouth as he stared at his downfall. Washing it down with a swig of water from his water bottle, he turned around and started calmly picking his way through the city. No point in rushing around like an idiot, he might miss something that would save his life. As he walked down the mossy cobblestones of long-deserted avenues, the city's architecture rose up around him, ancient and dignified in a manner even Ilaria hadn't managed. Humanity's cities were fortresses against the world around them, shrugging aside the natural order to impose something more hospitable to humans. This city embraced the wilderness, with tall, soaring towers that wrapped themselves in the sculpted branches of trees. And the trees were indeed sculpted, with some broad branches drooping down to the ground to form streets up into the sky. Overhead, branches arched across the street to link the trees, the branches splitting over and over and then braiding together until you couldn't tell one tree from the other. You could walk from tree to tree without ever touching the ground.
The silence was the strangest part. As he penetrated deeper into the city, further away from the walls, the silence pressed in against him. The trees, the grass, the crimson moss under his feet, they lived. But that was all that lived here. No packs of corgar hunting their prey, none of the great corlat consuming entire trees, not even the begra swarms that should surround such a profusion of shevar trees. All the city was silent.
Except it wasn't, not quite. It breathed. It moved around Etral. It knew him. It didn't welcome him, exactly, but he knew that he was safe here, for the moment. He couldn't feed himself for long without any domestic plants, but he could stay here for as long as his food held out and be safe. He was a guest, not quite welcome but still granted the hospitality of the city.
As he passed through the center of the city, he came to a great plaza. The red moss didn't cover the great stone slabs here, leaving the stone glowing under the light of the sun. A deep canal formed a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by bridges sculpted out of the roots of a great tree. The tree towered upwards, shrugging the air aside as it soared. Except it wasn't a tree, not really. Doors and windows had been sculpted into the structure, and the leaves were somehow braided to form living walls. Stairs could be seen here and there, cut into the bark to climb in gentle spirals until their path turned into the palace. It's trunk was as large around as the Palace of Light, and as it rose up the branches hundreds of feet overhead thrust outward.
Etral breathed deep, and felt a sense of peace emanating from the tree. Here he was welcome, for who he was and what he was, but a warning underlay it. He couldn't stay, not only because of his food but because danger was coming. This city knew what was happening, and this palace was a living embodiment of the city's will, and it didn't blame him. He had to leave, and leave soon, but just as he had his oath to bind him to his purpose, this city had a purpose. That purpose was beyond his understanding, it was entwined with the wildlife outside and the civilized wildlife inside, but it was just as binding as his oath.
Etral's hand rested on the doorknob of a door before he knew what he was doing, then he stopped himself. "No," he shook his head. "This isn't right." It hurt, almost as if he was tearing a piece of himself off, but he pulled his hand away from the door. Turning his back on the building, he forced himself to walk away. With every step the pain grew, and when he glanced behind him, gaze involuntarily drawn back to the structure, he understood why.
Turning had ripped a part of him away. A part he could never hope to live without. The silver fire danced behind him, a link between him and something inside the palace. Something he had to see, something that the fire wouldn't him leave without seeing even if it meant killing him.
Many things were taught to those that sought to enter the Knights of Ilarus, and many more were held secret to those who had joined. One of those secrets was that when the fire called, you answered. To do otherwise was death, and foolish besides.
Etral turned and walked into the building. Inside, everything was made of living wood, the rooms lit by a gentle green glow that bathed everything in it's light. The sensation of welcome grew stronger as he trudged through the structure, sometimes up stairs and sometimes down, through rooms whose function he couldn't guess and rooms he recognized as ballrooms and storerooms and kitchens. The path twisted and turned with a logic Etral couldn't follow, but there was a path. His hands reached out and touched points on the wall of their own accord, leaving behind a spot of silver fire that slowly turned golden. As he approached walls, his sight seemed to twist around as if being bent by a fool's picture, revealing passages beyond.
There was no rhyme, no reason to it that he could detect, but as time passed he did recognize one thing. He was going deeper into the structure. Windows grew more and more rare, fewer and fewer rooms had them. As he traced his path back in his mind he nodded, he had gone down more than up. And, stranger still, it seemed like every turn was always inward. Which was impossible.
Yet as he trudged deeper into the root system of the tree, he finally couldn't doubt it. He was always traveling inward, towards to the core of the tree, even when he had to have traversed it's width three times over. It wasn't possible, of course, it was a trick of the eye and mind, yet he couldn't shake it. It was real.
Then he slipped through one last door, and entered a chamber perhaps thirty feet across. There was a great hole, with a simple railway of stone around it. The path was about five foot of the same, dark stone around the central hole. The ceiling arched upward gracefully, twisting around the central shaft until it breached the top of the tree. A small point of blue far, far away suggested that the shaft reached up to the top of the three without ending. Etral took two long, hesitant steps forward and then leaned over the railing to look down. Deep below there was a malevolent, orange glow that caused all Etral's primal instincts to shriek. Etral looked around, but saw nothing to clue him in to why he'd been drawn here. There were chairs cut as recesses in the wooden flesh of the tree, which merged seamlessly with the stone under his feet. There was only the one door, nothing to lead him further in, so whatever he needed to do was here.
Etral closed his eyes and focused his concentration inward. Past skin, through flesh, over bone, the silver fire ran through his veins. It burned, it consumed, it restored, it destroyed and it saved him. It had drawn him here, refusing to let him leave until he had done what was needed. What did it want now?
The fire pulsed and burned inside him, but gave no guidance. He was where he needed to be, and there didn't seem to be any actions it needed him to take.
Etral opened his eyes, and watched as a lance of silver fire erupted from his outstretched fingers, lancing down to the dim fires below. A subtle, subsonic hum stopped, and even the slight upward motion of air stopped. Perfect, complete, and unyielding silence pressed in. It was as if he'd stood up in the middle of church and shouted out sacrilege, a shocked moment of disbelief as the entire world reeled in shock.
Etral threw himself back as a column of fire erupted from the dim depths below. The tree around him constrained and controlled the eruption, but the heat suddenly became unbearable. He turned and stumbled out the door, which sealed itself silently behind him. He ran, stairs presenting themselves to him until he was on the ground floor, where a single straight corridor lead him directly to the exit.
As he ran from the building, he sensed more than felt the motion of energies deep beneath his feet. He had set something in motion, and he sensed the distant gratitude of the city, along with a warning: leave. Leave now. Leave now. Go. Before it is too late!
The warning drummed in his blood, drowning out even the sound of his own heart until the sound of it was his heart beat. Run-run. Run-run. Run-run, his heart warned. The pounding of his feet hitting the pavement as he ran beneath the triple full moon was the sound of doom, around him the screeches and howls of demons announced that death was loose this night.
Etral stumbled to a shocked halt as his gaze jerked upward. How the hell had he missed that little detail? Not only had the sun set, but there were three moons risen in the sky. Deros, Skyros, and Breros shone proudly down on the screeching sounds of the demon horde.
When he'd entered the city, only Ilthros should have been visible. He must have spent at least a week inside the city. And if he'd spent a week without sleeping or eating, perhaps he'd spent more. Much more.
The ground heaved violently under his feet as the demon's screeching rose in a horrid, victorious crescendo. Etral glanced over his shoulder and started running again. Behind him, the great palace was lined with a soft, golden light that gathered into streamers that rose upwards, until above it a golden pillar of power formed a beacon in the night.
In front of him, the walls were lined in a golden fire, a rampart of power that held back the demon tides. But already, the demons were wearing the walls away. Their headlong rush to destruction forced the wall to burn them away, again, and again, and again, draining it's power slowly but surely. These walls were old, and the power in them ancient, but no power on Brevarun could sustain such a struggle indefinitely. Except, of course, for the demons. They poured out in limitless numbers from fallen Ilaria, an unstoppable tide of death and destruction.
Go. Now! The order hummed in his blood and his feet practically flew as he sprinted down the street. Soon, the walls grew until their true stature could be seen, rather than merely remembered, but there was no breach here for escape. The wall stood true, and tall, and glowed with the brilliant fire that would preserve it against attack.
Then Etral was somehow thrown into a building, as if a great hand had simply swatted him through the door he was passing. As he struggled to his feet, he saw through the window that the golden fire was failing, flowing away from the point where the street met the wall. It didn't make sense, he could feel the motion of energy in the walls and the defenses were gathering their power here, not elsewhere. It made no sense for the defenses to fail where they had gathered their energy!
The wall began to shake as larger demons tore into it, and soon the smaller ones were pouring over it. In typical demonic form, they simply thrust their claws deep into the wall and then let others climb over them. Hundreds died as the claws of their 'friends' ripped into them, but thousands upon thousands simply poured over the wall.
Rubble went flying as impossibly massive demons blasted through the wall. Etral gaped in shock. Larger than a corlat, or even the massive crelnak, they shouldered boulders aside with ease. Standing four times the height of a tall man, they had to mass ton upon ton of thick muscle and durable scale. Etral had never seen their like before. They were demons, obviously, but like nothing he'd ever imagined.
And then, more terrifying still, something else forced its way through the tunnel the larger demons had created. Etral's mind balked at defining the scale of it. It oozed through the hole with impossible grace before inflating back up to it's impossible size. The other demons had been large, large enough to simply trample Etral into the dirt if he'd tried to fight them with blade alone. This thing was bigger. Even if he'd called the full might of the silver fire to himself, this thing would simply roll over him. It reared up, it's serpentine bulk still slithering through the gap, but it's head went up and up until it towered over the shigru trees.
Then it's head darted forward, jaws gaping as black bile spewed forth. On contact with the air, the bile seemed to shimmer, and by the time it landed on the shigru trees it burned. It burned with a force that reminded Etral of pottery kilns. The trees it landed on caught fire instantly, engulfed by the flames in an instant. Those further away lasted a few second before the force of the heat caused them to burst into flame as well.
Then the great serpent demon's head slammed down, and Etral fell to his knees in fear as the true power of the beast was unleashed. It lifted the section of it's body still in the tunnel, and suddenly several thousand tons of rock and demon were flying upward, the wall shattered in an instant. The great beast didn't even hesitate after, simply pouring through the gap, head tracking left and right, spewing it's vile flames as it passed.
And then the walls remembered their strength. Or rather, they closed the trap.
The wall snapped shut, golden fire filling the gap in the stone rampart, slicing the great serpent in two. It writhed in agony as the golden fire raced up it's body, spewing a last breath of black bile all over the road. Before the bile could ignite, the golden fire consumed it and left the road clear.
Now. Time passes. Time has passed. Time will pass. Now!
Etral dove out the window and rolled to his feet, sprinting for the gap. Around him the golden fire hung in the air, the ashes of the great serpent somehow being transformed into the very flame that had slain it. As he splinted past the breach in the walls, he saw that the worst of the power had spilled outward. In a great spill away from the walls the golden fire drifted through the air, not in directed lances or the rush of power through solid materials, but as particulate ash will drift through the air, driven by the night breezes.
But still just as deadly to the demon hordes.
Etral sprinted for the forest, the night dancing crazily around him, flashes of light and dark making his shadow shift again and again on the ground, as if days were passing.
Behind him a great roaring sound erupted, and he glanced back to see a column of molten red erupt from the center of the city. Up and up it arced before coming down in a rain of fire, a shock wave of heat and black ash racing behind it on the ground.
And looking up into the night sky, Etral watched the molten flame fade as he ran, the stars and moon and sun spinning impossibly fast, day fading into night into day again. And then behind him the screeching of demons came again, but soft with distance this time, and there was no gap in the wall.
Farewell, Child of Ilarus, and thank you. Etral heard the forest whisper around him as the last trace of the horrible night faded away, leaving only day.
Etral continued running into the forest. He needed to get away. Whatever had happened, he could feel the attentions of the demon horde narrowing in on him.
And that impossible eruption of earth energy was coming. He could feel it in his bones.
Etral stalked through the underbrush half a week later, listening to the sounds of a battle. Ever since the corgar pack had aided him he had debated what he'd seen, pretended he'd imagined it. He'd never quite managed to completely disbelieve it, though, and he owed them a favor or two.
In front of him one single corgar danced with a patrol of demons. It was tired, injured, and around it was piled the many bodies of dead demons. It would soon be overwhelmed by their numbers.
Etral carefully shed his pack, marking the spot carefully, then drew his blade. In a rush he charged out, blade lashing out to slay and destroy. The corgar fell in with his dance, guarding his back as Etral cut through demon after demon. When the demons shifted their attack, focusing on Etral, he switched roles with the Corgar, trusting it to take the forefront while he watched it's back.
Soon enough the demon pack was dead, and the corgar licked it's wounds, watching Etral.
"Debt repaid," Etral bowed to the corgar. Retrieving his pack, he left the corgar behind him. He was less than amused an hour later when he realized it was shadowing him, pacing just out of sight.
"Is there a reason you're following me?" he asked, annoyed. He'd intended to do it a favor, not turn himself into a target for the bloodthirsty-
As the corgar came close, Etral felt the fire burn slightly hotter in his veins in recognition. "Oh," Etral gasped. "Damn."
It wasn't just a corgar; it was the same damned one. The fire had burned out the demon taint, but instead of dying out it had burned itself into the beast.
"Brother," Etral whispered, shocked. Bowing, he drew his shattered manners to him. "It is nice to meet one of the silver flame, so far from the hallowed city of it's birth. Ilarus bless this meeting. I am Etral, of the silver flame, and might you make yourself known?"
"I know that you are a brother of the silver flame, Nen Ilarus," Etral inclined his head. "I do not know how to make my request clearer, but I wish your personal name."
The corgar's strange wheeze was different, now. Etral didn't just think it was laughter, he felt the laughter through the link between them. Flame-brother. We are brothers of the silver-flame. My identity, my self, my... name... is Flame-Brother. Was once Flame-Seeker, now Flame-Brother. Renamed by your sharing.
"Then I greet you, Flame-Brother. May the fires burn long and easy within you," Etral bowed.
Human den not far. Less than day for me, more for you. Follow.
Etral followed the corgar as it led him slightly to the left of his previous course. Eventually they'd find themselves at the city, and he suspected there would be an interesting greeting for them when they reached it.