The spear’s serrated, single-edged blade made a sickening sound as the Knight pulled it free from the body of the Horror he’d just killed. The old warrior had done his share of fighting even before he went on this sorry crusade, but it was the first time he’d heard such a sound. It was as if the monster was mocking him, and making him uncomfortable even in its death.
Realizing that the fighting had stopped around him, the old Knight looked about the room. Bodies, or bits and pieces of bodies, lay scattered everywhere, most of them around five other people with him. One of his fellows, a younger Knight whose armor was rent and dented all over and covered in the vile ichor of their adversaries, leaned on a pillar, clutching his left arm.
Another Knight, a woman this time, extricated herself from the pile around her and went to the young one. The older Knight knew she was a gifted healer, and it was because of her skill that they could stand here at this hour.
“Have it here, Greis, that big Horror did a nasty number on your arm,” the female Knight said to her comrade.
“My thanks, Lady Kanaia,” the young Knight named Greis said.
“Be thankful any of our powers still work at all in this Lightforsaken place,” Kanaia retorted. “Otherwise, you and I will not be talking about mending your arm.”
“Yet how many of our brethren have indeed had their powers fail on them?” the young Knight said to no one in particular. “Two score of us assaulted this ziggurat, now there are but six left? What, has the Light indeed forsaken us in this foul place?”
“Hush, boy. This is no time to be doubting the Light,” the older Knight said.
“I apologize, Lord Arkan,” Greis answered, head bowed. But the senior Knight the younger named as Arkan wondered whether he did so out of remorse, or fatigue. Maybe both. Arkan had to agree: this, of all battles they fought in the last six years, has been the most trying. And even he, the Swordmaster of the Order of the Star, found his strength wanting to give way at the oppressive, seemingly alive, darkness that enveloped the innards of this temple. Not even the advanced sensors of their battlearmor helped in that gloom, and if it wasn’t for the fact that each and every one of the StarKnights were psionic, they would be stumbling blind in here.
“Tyrol, gather the rest and help Kanaia tend to the wounded. We are near to the end of this, and we will not fail now,” Arkan said to a Knight bearing a large axe. The Honor Guard commander saluted and silently went about completing his orders.
Arkan turned from his battle brethren and walked to the center of the antechamber where they had fought the tide of Horrors. Arkan and the four others with him had felled dozens, if not hundreds, of the creatures in a massive melee that even the Swordmaster knew not how long it took. They expended every charge on the plasma guns mounted on their offhand gauntlets, drained every reservoir of psionic energy to hold back the tide of darkness that threatened to swallow them.
But it all would have been for naught if the sixth Knight in the room had not intentionally called the attention of the majority of the Horrors, especially the biggest and most frightening of them. Now, they all lay about him in pieces and heaps of broken, burning putrescence.
And for the first time in the decades he has known that Knight, the Swordmaster could not suppress a shudder in seeing those mighty shoulders heaving.
“My Lord Rion? Sire?” Arkan said to his Knight Marshal. “Are you hurt? Do you require any assistance?”
Rion Alexander Raios, Knight Marshal of the Order of the Star and commander of the Army of the Phoenix, looked as if he had not heard his battle brother speak. Arkan was not as powerful in the Gift as many of his brethren – his true talent lay in his ability to wield and master every kind of weapon – but he could feel the tension in his commander.
If not for Rion’s will, his strength, the Army of the Phoenix would have dissolved after that disastrous fourth year in the Great Crusade. Their respect and awe for their commander had kept the troops together, had steeled the Knights, and quieted the more boisterous of the Lords and Ladies. By his will, Rion Raios managed to make the Army of the Phoenix blast and batter its way to this place, what their remaining Seers said was the center of the troubles that have plagued the Hundred States. And when his brother and sister Knights wavered on the entrance to this temple, each and every one of their psionic senses screaming torture at them, Rion had brought them along through the sheer force of his will.
Arkan did not want to even think that, now, the Phoenix himself had broken under the strain.
“How are our brothers and sisters, Lord Arkan?” Rion finally said, his voice, its normally melodious tenor, a dry rasp almost painful to the ears to hear. Arkan felt his old heart would break at the sound of that once mighty voice reduced such.
“Greis was injured by one of the giants, M’Lord, but nothing his training and Kanaia’s Gift can’t compensate for,” the Swordmaster replied. “I had Tyrol gather them. We are but six out of the forty that entered these halls, M’Lord, but we will fight on so long as you lead us.”
Rion took off his helmet, and his black hair was wet with perspiration. From where he stood to the left and back of his commander, Arkan noticed that Rion’s eyes were drawn to slits. “And such excellent leadership it has been, eh, Arkan? Nothing but death for us all, and in the shadows, no less. This is no way for a Knight to die.”
Arkan went to his commander and laid a hand on those shoulders, young but bowed already with the weight of his name, his responsibilities, his duty. “We were born to do battle with the Shadow, M’Lord. Although our forebears defeated the Great One, many remain. If not for you, we would not have stood a chance, so far from the Realms of Light as we are now.”
Rion reached up to the Swordmaster’s hand and gripped it tight. Arkan felt a measure of strength return to the bowed shoulders, and the old Knight felt glad that, at least, he could give back so much to his commander. “Thank you, Lord Arkan. I hope I have many more chances to bring truth to the faith you and the others have given me. Anyway, it appears we are near to the center of this evil.”
“True, Lord Rion,” the Knight-Seer Variel said. “I admit my Gifts are as… useless as anyone’s in this unnatural darkness, but there is a place my psionic senses virtually recoil from touching as I probe ahead and about. That most likely is the source of our woes.”
“Where be this place, sister?” Rion asked the Seer.
Variel pointed ahead of Rion. “Around a few hundred meters deeper into that darkness, M’Lord.”
Rion nodded. He put his helmet back on, and swiped his sword, Shadowcleaver, clean of the slime of the dead Horrors. “Yes, the end is near. Come, brothers and sisters, let us end this and go home.”
“Who else among you has charges left in your plasma guns? Tyrol? Deidric? Take point. Blast anything that moves. Reserve your psi for when they mob us again,” Arkan said, the old Knight finding a measure of comfort in the familiar cadences of command. “I’ll take the rear. Greis, stay close to the commander.”
“If something big appears,” Rion said, as he stepped forward, bringing Shadowcleaver up to an instant-strike stance, “leave it to me.”
“Aye, M’Lord. We’ll handle the small fry then,” Arkan said, lifting his own spear to readiness. “Knights, forward. As the Phoenix said, let’s end this.”
The six Knights walked slowly but steadily, each and every one of them expecting that a clawing, gibbering, thing would leap out of the next colonnade or deep patch of shadow. But the chamber remained as quiet as the grave, the footfalls of the Knight’s armored boots the only sound one could hear.
“They’re waiting for something,” Deidric said, his left gauntlet pointed ahead of him, its multibarrel plasma gun ready to spit stellar fire on anything that moves. “I’m not a Seer, but I can feel them skittering at the edges.”
“Stay frosty, Knight, let them come at us,” Arkan said from behind the group.
“Aye, sir, frosty it is,” the Honor Guard member replied. “At least until some ugly shadowspawn leaps out.”
The other five Knights immediately stopped at that single word from Rion. He moved a bit forward from Tyrol and Deidric, both automatically taking up a support positions to the man they were sworn to protect at the cost of their own lives. Rion brought up his left hand and splayed it ahead of him, using it to test the area ahead of him.
“A few meters ahead of us is our quarry, brothers and sisters. Come, let us end this,” the Phoenix said.
But before he could take a step forward, the darkness behind them erupted in shrieks and gibberings.
“Horrors! Turn and stand your ground, warriors of the Light!” Arkan shouted. The two Honor Guard members swiftly went beside the old Knight and started blasting away at the approaching creatures, the sanctified plasma bolts carving out huge spaces in the oncoming horde. The other Knights, their plasma guns depleted long before, let loose with various battle Weaves.
Before the tide of darkness could crash into them, Rion jumped in front of his men, his battle aura fully realized, and cut loose with Shadowcleaver.
The five watched as their commander struck out with a combination of weapon skill, mastery of the Gift, and command of the Light on the mass of shadow bearing down on them. The creatures couldn’t even touch him, as his aura – blessed living fire, so the Priests say – burnt those that came too near.
“Are you going to just gawk like a bunch of Plebes on their first Tourney? Have at the darkness, Knights!” Arkan shouted, and the other five joined their commander, their sacred blades trailing light with each swing and thrust.
Eventually, the horde of shadows retreated from the onset of the six, especially from him whose fury burned the brightest. Rion’s last swing before the Horrors fled cut in two a huge monster. Its halves lay twitching on the ground before the Phoenix.
“Sire, there are more on their way. This was but a prelude,” Variel said, her sword thick with the putrid blood of the Horrors.
“Are they endless?” Greis lamented.
“No, they are not,” Rion said, his voice flat. “If I take out whatever’s inside that deeper shadow, this will all end.”
“Forward into the darkness then… uh, M’Lord? Did you say ‘I’?” Arkan asked, unsure if he heard Rion right.
“Aye, Lord Arkan. I will have to do this alone,” Rion answered. “Someone needs to hold these Horrors back; I don’t know if they’ll follow us inside that darkness, and whatever’s in there already feels like a hundred times more than this mob.”
Arkan found himself in a quandary. They all swore to keep Rion safe, but they all knew even he would succumb to fatigue, wounds or numbers or all of those, eventually if they all just stood their ground here. Someone had to go into that patch of shadow and kill the evil inside it.
“Very well, M’Lord,” Arkan said, finally. “We’ll keep these things occupied while you deal with the one behind all this.”
“Thank you, brothers, sisters,” Rion said, clasping the gauntlets or grasping the shoulders of each of his five remaining Knights. “I promise you, we will be able to go home soon enough.”
“I can smell the grasses of Philodos already, sire,” Greis said. And then, the shrieking and gibbering returned. “Although, it seems they’re to be smelled past these monstrosities.”
“Go, sire! We will handle these!” Arkan shouted to Rion as the old Knight brought into being an area-of-effect blast in front of the newly-resurgent Horrors. Rion nodded, and charged into the heart of the shadow.
It’s bigger than I expected, Rion thought as he cautiously walked. He expected to immediately meet the master of the Horrors when he leapt through the visible boundaries of the chamber’s darkness and this one. Right now, Rion couldn’t hear the din of battle where he left his comrades.
Walking a little further on, Rion finally found his quarry. Sitting on a large throne seemingly made of some metallic substance, the creature in the shape of a man barely moved at Rion’s approach. He couldn’t make out what it really was because the armor, ornately gothic in design, hid the identity of its wearer.
A hundred paces to the throne, it suddenly spoke. “You’re late.”
Rion didn’t answer.
“You’re probably thinking why I said that, didn’t you?” the thing on the throne spoke again. “I’ve been waiting for you to get here these past two years. I can’t believe you took so much time. What, all those dead troops and civilians unman you?”
Rion still didn’t answer, and merely prowled in front of the creature, looking for openings, discerning movements for any hint of what it will do.
“You see, Rion, that’s your problem: you’re an arrogant, naïve fool,” the creature said. “What, you thought the Union would just bow down to you because you showed up on their doorstep in your shiny armor and floating ships? Those other States you ‘liberated’ were nothing compared to what the Union could do.”
A wall suddenly came alive with a video feed over to the right of the creature. The scene there showed a large plain. The left of the screen showed a gleaming mass of troops with some things above them. This was the Army of the Phoenix as it tore apart the armies of the Plains Union. Their biggest challenge, but the Army of the Phoenix had won in the end after a year-long grueling campaign. They had broken the last of the Union army, and the spearhead regiments were pushing towards the cities of the Union.
Then, the whole tableau blew up. Literally.
With mushroom clouds.
“Well, they certainly gave you a hot reception, eh?” the creature said, mocking laughter making its chest armor heave.
Rion refused to look, and kept his eyes on the creature.
“I have more to show you, my friend. Look,” the creature said. “These are from your homeland. Oh, look, that one’s your departure video. Look at all that cheering, all that adulation. Oh, are those tears from some of the women? Certainly your mother cried for you. If she knew what was in store for you here, I bet she’d be crying more.”
Rion still didn’t look, but slowly moved forward.
“Oh, this was something no one saw, in their zest to give you and yours the proper send off,” the video the creature was referring to suddenly zoomed, the grainy quality of the video getting clearer after a few seconds as some program compensated for the resolution. “Look, look! Awwww, there it is. She reached out for his hand. And, look, look! He didn’t even make the pretense to let go.”
“The backwash from the warp of your ships wasn’t even minutes gone and they’ve already forgotten you. Were they – dare I say it? – happy to see you gone?”
Rion didn’t look. But his grip on Shadowcleaver tightened. Inside his helmet, Rion’s eyes glowed, and narrowed to slits.
“Look as these officials, these politicians, discussed what was happening to your ‘Great Crusade’ as the casualties mounted and the weeks lengthened to months and then to years,” the creature said, waving at the bank of monitors that showed various sessions of Congress. “This one was particularly dandy. It’s the one where they received the report from you about what happened in the Plains. Do you know what they said then?”
“This guy here… he’s the majority leader now, you know. Remember him? Praised you to high heavens before you left. Here… he was loudly denouncing you on the floor of Congress. Too young, he said. And among his fellows, he even called you an arrogant child whose only real claim to fame was his surname.”
“These are the people you fight for, Rion?”
Rion didn’t answer. And he continued moving forward.
“Oh, now this is rich. This was after they lost contact with your force, shortly after the core of your army entered my domain,” the creature said, pointing at one of the larger screens. “Did you know that the First Speaker lost so much sleep worrying about you? Such a bad person you are! And here he is, after recovering from overdosing from sleeping pills. Yes, Rion, that man’s a mess because of you.”
Rion still didn’t answer. He couldn’t, anyway, since he was gnashing his teeth inside his helmet.
“Look at your friend here, talking to the public, allaying their fears. See how easily they forget you? See how easily his charm takes away their fears? Such a beautiful, beautiful man, gushed one of the vids. The Realms are so safe beneath his manly wings, they say.”
“All while your men died by the thousands in some far away land where they sent you to.”
Rion kept his mouth shut, although he almost didn’t.
“Hey, I forgot about this one!” the creature said, walking over to one monitor, then waving its contents to the main screen behind the throne. “This was the gala party in honor of your good friend as he received the rank, Marshal of the Armies, commander of all military forces. Hey, wasn’t that your title?”
“Oh, look! Look at her. Got to hand it to the both of you, you pick good. That is one hot woman right there, especially in that dress.”
Rion couldn’t take his eyes off the monitor as the woman approached the man in the gray-and-white dress uniform of the Army of the Light, his Marshal’s baton slung on his left hip. She approached from behind him, and he probably didn’t notice, looking out of that balcony as he did with the party in full swing behind him.
She put his arms around his waist. After a moment of surprise, he turns around and they exchange kisses.
“Oh, I bet you didn’t miss that one,” the creature said from where it was sitting again on the throne.
Rion watched as the two, alone on the balcony, were very intimate with each other. He remembers that balcony. The place was the Bastion after all, training school and headquarters of the Army of the Light. This was Lion Hall, where honors are bestowed and bravery toasted.
And that balcony was where, during the Senior’s Ball, that very same friend had put that very same woman’s hand in his, saying that the First Sword of their batch should not be alone in his moment of triumph.
“Foul creature,” Rion finally spoke, “what do you intend to achieve by showing me these? For all I know, these are all lies.”
“Lies, he says,” the creature said, mirth in its voice. “You know them as truth, Rion. Your soul tells you so. That, and… there, look over there at the bottom right. See that station logo? Yes, these are feeds from the major news network of the Republic of Phildos.”
“And what is your point? Out with it, before I cleave you in two.”
“My point?” the creature said, menace in its voice as it stood. “My point, Knight… is to open your eyes to the truth.”
“What does the shadow know of the truth?”
“Only the ones that people hide from naïve fools like you.”
The creature pointed to the bank of monitors. “Hypocrites”, it said, pointing to the departure video. “greedy, selfish and malicious”, it said, pointing to the monitors showing the sessions of Congress.
“Liars, betrayers and backstabbers,” the creature said, opening its arms as the main screen behind it showed the man and the woman, there on the balcony of Lion’s Hall, exchange a passionate kiss. Amidst the cheering of the crowd.
Rion remembers his night with her. All he heard were the whispers.
He charges the creature.
Effortlessly, the creature blocks his blow with its own sword, eldritch runes running the length of its long, serrated blade while fel energies enveloped it.
A loud explosion. Rion found himself flying to a bank of monitors. He could feel the impact even from within his battlearmor, and he thinks the impact of the explosion cracked a rib or two. Warning lights flashed inside his helmet, and he could feel blood trickling down his mouth. His vision began to go hazy.
“Does the truth hurt, o great Phoenix? All this time, all you’ve done… AND THEY’RE ALL WORTH NOTHING. Not in the eyes of your people. Not in the eyes of your leaders.” the creature said, pointing that evil sword in turn to the appropriate monitors.
“Most certainly not in the eyes of your friends,” it said, pointing to one monitor.
“And most certainly not to your best friend,” it said, pointing to man in dress uniform. “Or, most especially, the most delicious truth of all… to the woman you love.”
Rion rose shakily to his feet. His chest hurt and his head felt light. His sword felt like a leaden weight on his right hand, and his feet felt like they were lifting tons. He must be hurt really bad, Rion thought, because his vision was cloudy, and there was a wetness down his face.
“How does it feel to be alone, hurting and unappreciated, Rion? Hurts really bad, doesn’t it?”
“I,” Rion said through gritted teeth, “am going to kill you.”
The creature laughed to his face. “Finally. Some real anger from you. If you had shown that earlier, they could have at least feared you. There is a respect born of fear, and order, too. And sorrow has a way of making you look at your rainbow-colored world in a brand new view, don’t you agree?”
“Come, Knight,” the creature said, readying its own sword. “Meet your Fate, and become the instrument you were meant to be.”
Rion activated his full battle aura, the bright blue Phoenix of the Raios screaming its anger and hate behind him.
Rion Alexander Raios, Knight Marshal of the Order of the Star, called the Phoenix Knight, Protector of the Realms, charged his tormentor. He could hear screams as he did so.
Rion didn’t know that those screams were his.
“How do you think the Lord Phoenix is doing inside, Lord Arkan?” Greis asked as he brought his weapon down on another of these Horrors.
“He’s the Phoenix, Greis,” Arkan answered, his spear bringing down several as he swiped it in a wide arc in front of him. “He’s the strongest of us all. If he falls… He won’t. He just won’t.”
Suddenly, the Horrors stopped attacking and looked up, as if they were listening to something. Then, they fled from the battlefield.
“Oh. What’s going on now?” Greis said.
“Maybe Lord Rion has won,” Arkan said. “Lady Seer, can you check?”
Variel looked into the patch of darkness. “I still can’t… oh, wait. Someone… Someone’s coming out, Lord Arkan.”
“Is it the Lord Phoenix?” Kanaia asked.
On the Strategic Command Center of the Phoenix’ Eyrie, Admiral Aldus Varien paced uneasily. The Lord Phoenix went into that temple with forty of his fellow Knights hours ago and those left behind – the ordinary troops, Guardians in their battlearmor, and all the rest in the Command Company of the Army of the Phoenix – had not heard any word since. The Admiral already sent a scout force, but it came back in tatters not five minutes into stepping into that temple.
If only Rion kept some Knights back. He took all the compliment with him.
Varien massaged his forehead. I’m getting too old for this. I don’t know why Congress picked me to be his XO. Rion’s our best commander, what does he need an old fart like me for?
“Sir?” one of the technicians said. “We have contact. Its like someone’s coming out of the temple.”
“What? Patch me through! That may be Rion!” the Admiral said.
To: Aedon Tash, Marshal of the Armies
From: Monitoring Division, Intelligence Directorate
Re: Status update on the Army of the Phoenix
It is our sad duty to inform the Marshal that the signal from the transponders of the Army of the Phoenix’ flagship, the Eyrie, was lost.
We do not attribute this to equipment failure or a freak natural incident because, shortly after that, the transponders of the other ships in the Command Unit of the Army of the Phoenix were also lost.
Intelligence Director and Strategos Admiral Ichiko Sajuro has used his authority to issue Code Omega to the Army of the Phoenix. We estimate two hours before the first of their ships begin arriving.
Awaiting the Marshal’s further instruction.
To: Aedon Tash, Marshal of the Armies
From: Valedor Augustin, Knight Regent of the Order of the Star
Ishaya finally opened the Tower. Would that it were good news. The Lady of the Naga came out screaming that the Phoenix had been lost.
If you want to know how bad it was, she… Lady Ishaya clawed her own eyes out, Aedon.
I just heard from Ichi. I shall talk to you as soon as the chaos following this news settles down. We have a lot to discuss. And rebuild.
My condolences, Aedon. I know he was like a brother to you.
Extend my condolences to her as well.