The river flowed slowly, sluggishly, at this time of year, the current fouled by blood, ichor, and worse. Etral, del Ilaria, nen Ilarus saw none of it.
The very flames of hell rose to the sky as the demons charged through their gate. The order-house was in ruins, the temple ran red with the blood of the priests, but the order itself still stood. "Ilarus!" came the cry from a thousand throats.
The shining Knights of Ilarus, the city's first and greatest line of defense, formed an unbreakable line before the temple. Though the demons had desecrated it, befouled it as their first attack on the city, it was still the holy center of their order, and they would not allow the demons to hold it, or to leave it. They would charge in and destroy the demon filth, and shatter the gate that let them in.
"Ready!" Mendor, et Ilaria, nen Ilarus, Etral's superior shouted in command. A thousand knights, armed to the teeth and armored in the power of their faith obeyed, making themselves ready for a charge.
The demons chose that moment to attack, waited until the pride of Ilaria was ready and set to attack, had gathered themselves in one place. In their arrogance, the Knights of Ilarus had concentrated their might and power, a plum ripe for the demons to pick.
The demons charged in, massive, heavy beasts smashing the walls of the temple apart in a shower of rock and fel magic. Instantly, a glowing rampart of silver fire eruptd before the knights, protecting them from the worst of the falling ruble. Smaller, lighter demons ran between the gaps in the heavier creature's line, darting forward fearlessly to die in bursts of silver fire. Like a column of smoke, other demons took to the sky, erupting upwards in a deadly column of black filth.
The demons died by the hundreds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands. Etral lost count of how many were slain as the knights advanced into the counter attack, invincible behind the silver armor of their powers.
But their advance was even slower and more ponderous than that of the heaviest demon, the demons paying dearly to slow them to a crawl. Slowly, inexorably the knights were brought to a standstill, and when all forward progress stopped the demons who hadn't been attacking crushed in from the flanks, pinning them in place.
The knights unleashed their full power then, sheathing their silver swords in favor of eruptions of the pure Power of Ilarus erupting from their hands in great fireballs of devastation. It was more exhausting, but more effective still.
Finally the flying demons swooped in, attacking the center of the circle, where the weakest, most exhausted knights had rotated for a moment's respite before resuming their position on the front lines. Without those few moments of rest, they couldn't recover, they couldn't regain their strength.
Etral didn't understand why the officers ordered a sudden breakout, but he obeyed. The entire order turned, and fought their way clear. His stomach churned as he was forced again and again to obey the orders to leave the wounded behind.
And there were so very, very many wounded. Despite the power burning in the knights veins, turning their blood into a deadly, scourging flame whenever the demons struck at them, the demons still accepted certain death that faced them in return for any chance to wound or kill a knight.
Etral lay close to death as he floated down the river, in the center of the flow of filth, twitching and shaking as visions took him. His long, black hair drifted around him, filthy tangles accenting the shredded rags and jagged scars covering his body.
"Stand! Stand and fight!" Etral screamed as the demons came over the wall again. For three long days the city had held while as many civilians were evacuated as possible. The city elders had complained and interfered until the very end, when they too were shooed out the gate, leaving the city still and quiet. Even the town guard had departed, their training against the wilderness of Brevarun useless. Only Etral, and the small army he had hurriedly trained in the few weeks he had been given remained. Ilaria was fallen, but the Knights of Ilarus still had their duty, and he would not fail it. "Here they come! Remember, let the wards do as much of the work as possible!"
One hundred and fifty men, to hold an entire city. It was impossible -- absurd! -- to think of such a thing. But Etral dared think it, and so did they. They couldn't hold forever, but the city's defenses would let them hold long enough. Long enough to get those who couldn't fight away from the city, long enough to give them a head start that would see them to the relative safety of the next town.
Only the swiftest would make it, even so. Unless they held longer than Etral expected, the demons would soon be pouring over the walls and down the road beyond them, and the flawed nature of the warding spells would let them.
The demons swarmed at the weak points in the magic that warded the walls, sacrificing themselves to the immolating flames to drain and weaken the magic. The walls were well crafted, and the wards drew their power directly from the living earth below, but there were still limits. It took time for the wards to regain strength after each draining, and if the demons could force even a single breach only the sword arms and magical might of the remaining soldiers could drive them back.
_And, just as before, the demons came after Etral with their greatest fury. Wherever he stood, there the fighting was hardest, the most bitter. The demons wanted him dead more than anything else, and he used that. Where before he had stood in the weakest points, tried to shore up the weaknesses in the massive rampart of stone and magic, now he stood at the strong points. And still the demons came for him, determined to kill him. His power burned them as they approached, reinforced the wards before him as they climbed the walls, and seared them to ash when they dared come within reach. But still he was an irresistible lure, one they could not help but seek out. _
That had been the demon's pattern since the first battles, seeking out, engaging, trapping, and then killing any Knight of Ilarus they could find.
Around him, Etral sensed it. He'd felt it before, more than once, but this time it was happening too fast. He swept the rampart around him clear of demons with a single cleansing explosion of silver fire, then thrust his hands into the stone battlement before him. The stone melted away, allowing him access to the mystic energy that ran through it. "Retreat!" he called, as he poured a blast of silver fire into the wards, overloading them with the power of his order. The wards wouldn't survive long, they were not designed to handle this kind of power, but they didn't need to. He'd warned the soldiers who had remained behind with him this moment would come, when the increasing demon strength would overcome their waning numbers. Kill one demon, ten more appeared in its place, but alas no reinforcements were available for the city.
As he stepped away from the wall, he saw the soldiers break and run, as ordered. But the collapse had occurred too swiftly, and too many demons had made it over the wall before he'd reinforced the wards. They pressed too hard against the soldier's retreat.
Etral moaned at the pain of the memory, how the demons held his makeshift army in place just long enough for the wards to fail completely, then slaughtered them to a man. Many, many other failures paraded before him. Mordaline, where he had thought it possible for a prepared city to hold against the demon tide and had focused only on defense, not evacuation. Odearel, where the city council had ignored his warnings, refused to prepare or evacuate, and paid the price down to the last babe. Eventilar et Sintarus...
"Run!" Etral screamed. "Just run!"
The roads had been completely overrun within a day of Sintarus falling, just as Etral had expected. What he had not expected was to find a group of refugees paralleling the road, avoiding the demons patrolling it and the raw wilds to either side of it. The demons focusing on the road didn't find them, and though the wilderness pressed hard against the wards guarding the road, the worst of the wild animals rarely came near it. It was hard, slow going, but they managed to survive, if barely.
Etral had lent them his knowledge, and a little of his power. Perhaps that had been their downfall. His power was anathema to the demons, but perhaps it drew them like moths to the flame. Or, more likely, it was just bad luck. The wilderness convulsed and shuddered, animals running in terrified circles or forming into savage, enraged packs. Brevarun was hostile to humanity, but downright aggressive towards the demon hordes. Perhaps it was natural then, that a group of demons should parallel the road as well, and in so doing run into them.
"Run Eventilar!" Etral shouted angrily. "Just run!"
"I can fight!" the woman insisted.
"See these people to safety," Etral insisted. "If the demons catch them, they will need someone who can fight."
"I will find you, if I can, but your duty lies with them, and mine lies here," Etral ordered, glancing anxiously down the pathway. He'd killed the first demon, but it's howling cry had alerted others, and they were coming, fast. "If you move fast, now, maybe some of you will survive. I'll hold them as long as I can. I'll find you, now go."
His last living sight of her was clear as diamond, undimmed by tears or time as she wiped her eyes and led the rest off at a fast run.
Later, he would pile the remains of a dozen demons below her pyre before igniting it with the silver fire that was born of his powers. He'd come along before they did more than ravage her flesh and the sight of her, dead, had been more than he could stand. Then the realization, the impossible realization that he had sensed the ending of not one life, but two had nearly broken him.
So many errors. So many misjudgments. So many innocents dead, either because he'd failed or because he simply wasn't good enough. So many, even his own unborn child.
It would be so easy to pass over. He felt the other side, beckoning to him. The faint, almost invisible threads of silver fire that ran under his skin were beginning to fade. The power that had preserved him for so long was nearly at it's end.
But duty was heavier than a mountain, and the weight of it held him still. Death would be such an easy escape, but it was still an escape, an intolerable evasion of his sacred duty.
"Sword and shield and key, I bequeath to my children," the priest intoned. "The power of the seal, to break it or preserve it, I grant unto you, my children. And children you are, children of my blood if not of my loins. For I place into you my blood, and with it my power. And thus shall my bloodline preserve and guard this world."
With those words, senior knights placed the Ilarun star into the sword hand of each initiate. "And the day will come when one of my children will call, and I shall answer," the priest completed reading the text of ordainment. Etral stared at the symbol that was about to be cut into his flesh, forged of bright, razor-sharp steel. The five points of the star, bound by a circle that contained them. The symbol of Ilarus' himself, a star that represented the oath he was about to renew, and make binding.
"Affirm your oath," the senior knight assigned to him ordered, one hand holding Etral's up, the other fingering the hilt of his knife. To turn aside was no longer possible, Etral was to be either a Knight of Ilarus, or a corpse.
The thunk of steel meeting flesh sounded, as elsewhere someone refused to take up the binding. The oath they all knew, the meaning of it was as secret known only to the Knights, and a few senior priests.
"I am a sword," Etral swore. "In peace, the shining sword of justice, in war, the red sword of death, and always the silver blade of Ilarus."
"I am a shield," Etral's voice wavered as the knight facing him released his knife, bringing his hand up, to hover over the razor-sharp edges of the symbol. "In peace, in invisible shield of authority, in war the battered shield of the defender, and always the silver shield of Ilarus."
"I am a key," Etral said, forcing the words out instead of a scream. The senior knight was applying force now, using both hands to sandwich Etral's sword hand. The symbol cut cruelly into both of their hands, and Etral felt it burn into his flesh. As the smell of burnt flesh began to rise, he understood that burn was exactly the right word. The pain was unimaginable, and all he could see was the knight standing directly in front of him. The knight was no longer robed in silver cloth, he was forged of a living silver, glowing with the very power of Ilarus. The same power that filled his blood was now dripping into the wound in Etral's hand, and Etral felt his knees buckle as that power forced its way into his veins, searing his flesh and scouring his soul. "In peace the key that opens a door that must not be opened, in war a key that holds shut a door that must not be opened, and always, in the name of Ilarus, a key to the defense of humanity."
"For that is my oath," Etral's body repeated the words by rote as the silver fire burned into him. "I will defend humanity in the name of Ilarus, a shining silver beacon of hope and justice. I will never waver, never stop, never quit, only fight. Fight for humanity, fight for what is right, fight against the darkness."
The silver fire dimmed slowly, oh so slowly, as he fought against death with every inch of will, turning the chant of failures into a scourge. Ilaria, Mordaline, Shakarus, Brethaah, Ventucko, Alcross, Netheriin, Baar, Odearel, Alcapos, Werehent, Corsico, Sintarus...
Slowly, Etral floated down the river, unable to move. In the air, far above him, demons flew a search pattern, searching for him. On either bank, still more demons searched the woods.
But none looked in the river.
For half his life he had waged bitter war, following the course of the once-blue Estrarl river. A river that now ran a bitter, bitter black when it wasn't contaminated by the filth of battle. A blackness, a bitterness not of the flesh but of the soul. No one, not even the Knights, dared immerse themselves in it now, for water that had once brought brilliance and joy now simply crushed the soul of any foolish enough to drink it.
He was, more than any other, resistant to that effect, thanks to the many times when he had been forced to use the river's water. Depressing, soul-crushing though it might be it could still sustain life and quench thirst, and in a cruel twist was a powerful medicine for the washing of wounds. You could live off it, but nothing could live within it.
Ahead, the next stop in his journey awaited him. His next failure stood, gleaming in twilight as behind the fires of hell burned their way across the world.