Archaic Era, Year 789
Monsters are real.
As children, we were told that they were children of the Sun Fiend. Footsoldiers in the army of Talon the Half-Drake. Though I had my doubts that such lowly beasts had the intelligence to obey the commands of a general, no matter how wicked or feared, never did I doubt monsterkind’s existence.
A monster is simply what an animal is called when it has an exceptionally long lifespan and magical power. This made monsters quite valuable. Magic was the domain of only the divine and the damned, not something humans could wield on their own.
Many heroes of old and modern knights would go out to hunt monsters. To have them stuffed and mounted as trophies, or fashioned into powerful magic weapons. They were also valued as indispensable ingredients in medicines and elixirs. Many times had I hunted monsters with my fellow knights, many times had I returned home to my wife and children, exhausted but satisfied, trophy firm in hand. Over time I amassed quite the collection, including armor and a sword crafted from monster bones.
This was meant to be yet another simple monster hunt.
As was our custom, we filed into the local tavern, to collect information on our quarry and to celebrate our imminent victory. Sir Nash, bless his soul, stood unnaturally stiff and awkward in the tavern. He was new to his position as a knight, still obsessively polishing his armor and tripping over himself to recall formal addresses.
“It’s bad luck, to drink before a victory,” he said. ”We should try to keep our heads unclouded by alcohol.”
“How’d you land that pretty girl of yours, Anette, with that stick up your arse?” I laughed uproariously, and shoved a mug into Nash’s hands. “You worry too much, boy! Demons are just an old wive’s tale! The ravings of an old coot! They’re what mothers tell their children, to keep them out of the woods at night!”
“Don’t scare the boy too much,” another knight added, “He might fear Old Talon will whisk him away for being naughty!”
“Maybe if prays hard enough, Hallow Elian will appear to save him!”
We laughed and toasted, our cheeks growing redder with alcohol as Nash’s grew redder with embarrassment.
“Fools! Demons are real!” a voice roared. My eyes snapped to the newcomer, expecting an aged drunkard. Instead he was young, his face pale, and his eyes dark and haunted. “I saw the demon with my own eyes! It passed me by, like a wraith!”
“You sure it wasn’t your grandma?” another knight blurted out. We all chuckled. The pale boy only grew more livid.
“No. But maybe I saw yours, back to scold you for your incompetence,” he spat.
“Incompetence, boy?” the knight rose to his feet, and drew his bastard sword. “We’ll see how incompetent you are, in a duel.”
“Sir Blake!” Sir Nash snapped. “Calm yourself. You’d strike the people we’re here to protect?”
“I’d strike an impudent little rat--”
“Now, now, Sir Blake,” I sighed, planting a hand upon my friend’s shoulder. “You’ll get your chance to show this young lad your wisdom and bravery. Instead of laying low a boy who’s barely become a man, shall we show him the benevolence of the knights, and slay whatever beast he thought he saw? Surely by morning, he’ll be singing your praises instead!”
“Mm…” Sir Blake grunted, and sheathed his sword again. “Fine. Lead us to the ‘demon,’ boy.”
Barely had the night begun, and already three of our little party were seething in rage. I only prayed we would finish this mission swiftly, so I could leave this backwater waste and return to my loving wife’s embrace.
Often, these jokes came at the expense of Merril, who stalwartly ignored us. With his face set in an expression of grim determination, he pressed onwards. Not even the clinging briars of the undergrowth, and the devious roots that threatened to trip us, could slow him. We laughed all the harder at his resolution. Only a boy could take mere rumors so seriously.
Our laughter was silenced, when our torches went out all at once.
I heard Blake chuckle anxiously in the darkness. Without torchlight, it was now so dark I could not even see my hand, not even when it was inches from my face. A chill set in, creeping along my spine. Run, little boy, a devil on my shoulder seemed to whisper. Run, and hide beneath your bed. Perhaps this horror will pass you by.
I shrugged off the passing fear. “Squire, relight the torches!” I commanded, but no noise escaped my throat. My eyes darted about in the darkness, seeking to identify the pale faces of my allies, but I saw nothing.
And then I saw it. The demon. The thing that could not, should not have existed, the gaping wound in the world.
Darker than the darkness. The beast was black on black, like spilled ink spreading through the ocean’s lightless waters. A frigid winter wind left me frozen to the spot. It seemed to kill the forest around it. No, it would be more accurate to say that it erased the forest around it. For all my senses could glean, it had dragged us into a dark and frightful void.
Merril’s sharp gasp cut the silence, reminding me of the others. The sound of footsteps followed, as the boy tried to flee. I felt, rather than saw, the creature pursue him, in a rush of cold and stillness. The boy whimpered, and then fell silent. No screams, no crunches nor tearing of flesh to be heard. Somehow, this was worse. Had I heard these things, I would have known in my heart that Merril was no more. A definite conclusion to his sad and sorry life. But there was none, only an indecisive trailing off.
Sir Nash raised his sword, and exclaimed a hearty battlecry. “In the name of the King!” he cried, and advanced. Some of our allies must have advanced with him, as I heard armor-clad footsteps. “In the name of the goddess, Crown Naruune, in the name of…” The cry died in his throat, the breath stolen from his lungs. The sound of clanking armor died, too. Even those who turned to flee, such as Merril, seemed to vanish from the soundscape.
There were no sounds of animals, insects, or night birds. Perhaps, had we not been so cocky and loud, we would have noticed how wrong this forest truly was. No blood spattered the ground, no bodies strewn around me. I was alone, with no proof of the world beyond, or those who had accompanied me this far.
Perhaps they had survived. Perhaps they had all simply abandoned me, as a cruel prank. Perhaps they were gathered at the forest’s edge, pale-faced and grim, preparing a report to the king how there was no demon, and their fool companion had passed out at the tavern, in a puddle of saliva and bravado.
Perhaps I was to spend an eternity in the dark. Alone. Too cowardly for fight or flight. I was a child again, cowering beneath my blanket at my mother’s stories.
No. If I was to be stuck in a story, I would use all the lessons I had learned over my life, and survive. I would be clever, daring, bold. The spell seemed to break, and I fled.
And then the demon was upon me, and I could no longer feel my arm.
It began as pins and needles in my fingers, but swiftly became a horrid cold marching up first my hand, then my forearm. I could not even gasp or whimper like Merril and my compatriots. Ridiculously, my mind drifted again to my mother’s stories.
The hero was always just clever enough, just strong enough, to trick any enemy who crossed their path. But how could one bargain with nothingness, with the concept of icy death? How could one overpower it? Perhaps a hero could, certainly a god. But the wool had been removed from my eyes. I was neither.
My eyes shut, as the chill reached my shoulder. But then a brilliant golden light penetrated my eyelids. I looked, and saw an angel had fallen to earth. As the demon was darkness and cold, he wielded light and warmth. Red and golden light answered his call, which he used to trade blows with the demon.
No. He was not merely holding his ground-- he was winning! I tried to follow their fight, but mortals were not meant to observe their attacks. First a migraine gripped my brain, then unconsciousness.
When I awoke next, it was to a leaden weight upon my chest, and feathers tickling my nose. A massive avian face, clad in red and gold feathers, gazed down at me. I blinked. It blinked back. Strange, I could have sworn my savior appeared less… birdlike, than this. I struggled to free myself from under it.
“Hey, hey there. Easy.” Two broad hands gently shooed the beast from off of me, and another face came into view. It was difficult to discern in the forest’s dark gloom, but two golden pupils faintly illuminated its features. This man who saved me was a god.
Stories immediately flooded my mind. Without a doubt, this man was Hallow Elian, the Turtle-God. Known by all as the God of Healing and Protection, he who watches over the sleeping and defenseless. Thousands of bards across the years told his tales in taverns and castle halls. Hundreds of times, I had heard of his tales myself. My mind quickly made the connection, and I realized the immense bird must have been his trusty phoenix steed, Crim.
Ha… Demons, Gods, and phoenixes… have I truly wandered into a tale of old? What would appear before me next, vampires and Hell itself?
“M-my lord, Hallow Elian,” I gasped. “Thank you for--”
“Don’t talk,” he said, firmly but gently. “Don’t worry about titles, either. You nearly died. Being polite ain’t important right now.”
“I-- thank you,” I stuttered.
“No need for that either,” he said, an easy smile on his face. All must be well if he was smiling. My anxiously pounding heart began to slow, and my gaze drifted to my numb arm. Then my heart stopped altogether.
It was gone! All gone! No muscle, not even bone, remained. Had you told me I had been born without an arm, I might have believed you. My mouth opened to scream, but only a hoarse gasp escaped my throat.
“It’s okay! It’s okay, don’t panic,” Hallow Elian instructed. “Breathe. Just breathe, okay?”
“I-- you can heal it, can’t you?” I asked. Suddenly, the silence of my companions and their abrupt disappearance returned to my mind. Cold sweat gathered on my brow. “And-- I came here with other knights, there were six of us in total.”
“I’ll look for them,” he said. “But I need you to be calm first, okay? Take in a deep breath through your nose, then out your mouth.”
I obeyed. Though it did little to permanently dispel the fear, it allowed me to regain rationality and calm. “What manner of magic is this?” I glanced again at my missing arm, hoping the magic had somehow affected it. Alas, it remained gone.
“No magic. It’s something anyone can do. Listen.” Hallow Elian pressed a leather pouch into my palm. It clinked as I clutched it. “...There are some wounds even gods can’t heal. We all have our limits. I can’t give you back your arm. What I can do is give you enough money, that you’ll be set for life when you return home. You got family? Kids?”
“Yes. Three. Uther, Ethel, and Joyce, and my wife… Uther’s just begun his training as a squire…”
“Good. Don’t go to sleep, keep thinking about them. Tell Crim about them.” He picked me up, bringing me to the enormous bird, about the size of a broad-shouldered man. I blinked at it again, and it blinked back.
“Tell… your steed? The monster?” I asked.
He deposited me upon its back. “Yup!” he said. “‘The monster’ is a lot smarter than you think. Smarter than some gentry I’ve met. He’ll get you home safe.”
“But what about my party?”
He winked, the light of his eyes twinkling. “That’s why I’m not going with you. I’ll stay behind and keep looking. For them, or… er, signs of where they might’ve gone.” I knew he meant possible remnants. Something to bury, in case their bodies could not be recovered.
It seemed unfair. The demon seemed to punish those who fought and fled alike. Why had it spared me? Why had Hallow Elian not come earlier, and saved the brave men who tried to slay it?
Perhaps I should have joined them in the charge. Then Crown Naruune could welcome us all together into her embrace. Then I would not be forced to accept how I was no hero, undeserving of my titles.
He seemed to sense my inner turmoil, and reached out to pat my shoulder. “Hold on tight to Crim with your legs. Your wife and children would rather have you back alive than on your shield.”
I met his gaze. “Are… are you certain?”
“The dead deserve to be honored. But they can’t help anyone anymore. You may never be a warrior again, but you can still be a husband and father, can’t you?” He turned on his heel, and walked off into the woods, picking his way around the thickets and undergrowth. “And hey-- I’m sure this’ll make one hell of a story. Can’t tell those when you’re dead!”
His phoenix took off, with me on it. He was right. When I returned home, my children cried to see me, and my wife was enraged, but they held me tight. Even after Hallow Elian returned, Nash’s young sweetheart had nothing to hold. He sat by her side, and gave her and the other widows enough money to support themselves. A god’s appearance in our kingdom should have been a happy occasion, but most spent it doing nothing but weeping.
Many begged me to share my story of how I had survived. I did not doubt Hallow Elian, it would have made a good story. Demons, Gods, phoenixes. A great and terrible evil matched by a great and wondrous good. The bards would have sung it for generation upon generation… had I ever told it. But each time I opened my mouth, my tongue froze, and the winter’s chill stole my breath again. The dancing shadows of bar patrons became dark demons, and beneath the chatter and laughter of a dinner with friends, I heard quiet whimpers and gasps.
I was alive. I had survived. But I was no storybook hero. My tale deserved a proper hero, one more brave, more daring, more cunning. The story happened around me as I stood frozen. I had not survived by my own effort, but through sheer luck.
In truth, I could have been anyone else.