All I could smell was her hair… Burning.
The exact events of that day are but a distant echo, the last remnants of the girl that I once was. But that last memory of her will be emblazoned in my memory for an eternity. The way that her pristine white dress, which seemed to almost give off an ethereal glow of warmth, crumbled to blackened ashes to match the remains of the place that I once called home.
Home. That word almost seems humorous to me now, but back then… It almost seemed like it really meant something. I know better now. There is no home. Not for people like me, anyway. Not for people like us.
Attachments like that make us weak, unfit to survive in the cold world that I couldn’t bear to fathom back then. After all, I was only a girl. Eight years under my belt, but even that is far too long to be sheltered from the truth.
I know that I should feel grateful for such a revelation, but I must admit that, at times, I feel regret for my actions. Not for disposing of the traitor, mind you, but for abandoning the one closest to me. My infant sister.
She was but a newborn back then, helpless and alone in the pool of blood that we left behind. So innocent, so pure… And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to save her.
That is the source of my conflicting emotions. My regret for my inaction. She was my sister, after all, and yet I abandoned her. Left her to fade away into the ashes, along with the traitor that attempted to take her away from me.
Was it all for naught? I still ask myself that question to this very day. Whether I could save her from the fate, worse than death, that had befallen her. To be entrusted to the very people that sought our destruction. Our sworn enemies from birth.
Perhaps I was at fault, but can you really say that you wouldn’t do the same? A wildfire raging all around, consuming flesh and material alike in an indiscriminate inquisition… Would you not seek shelter?
Instinct is a powerful thing, and by her blessing I have learned to embrace it. As such, I ran. Escaped the nightmare that was my life back then, only to stumble upon the bliss of freedom, granted to us by the Maiden.
Fear, hate, angst… All emotions were cleansed from my being upon meeting her. The maiden in white, lying in wait for me on the outskirts of the forest. Allowing me to fall into her heavenly embrace. Alone, scared, and without any attachments to the mortal world around us.
It was in that moment that I embraced who I really was. Letting free all of the emotions that I had been taught to suppress for all of my life up until that point. Embracing the entirety of my gifted soul.
Some things are best forgotten
Chapter One: Heels of the Devil
“Do you blame the fire for burning, Enya?” Elize’s piercing hazel eyes lock squarely on mine, with the locks of her straw-blonde hair falling over them like golden daggers.
“Of course not.” Though anyone else may balk at such a question, I’ve come to know her well enough over my fourteen years with the Scions that I have an idea where she’s going with this.
“Good.” Her lips begin to curve into a sly smirk, with that classic glimmer returning to her eyes. “So why blame yourself?”
“It’s hardly the same thing.”
“Is it?” Elize sighs, reaching for her boots with a shrug as she turns her attention back towards prepping for the road ahead. “For the fire to continue burning, something else must perish. The fire did what it was created to do, just as you did.”
Pausing for a moment, I can’t bring myself to do anything but return her warm smile. “I suppose you’re right, but…”
“Hush,” Elize interrupts, holding up two fingers to stop me, giving me a careful nod as her expression finally softens into something more timid. The silent acknowledgement of the real danger that someone could be listening.
Such talk is forbidden amongst people such as ourselves, of course. After all, I’m next in line to lead our Vanguard. If one of the masters would hear such things, or even suspect them… Well, it wouldn’t end well for any of us.
Such is true with any disciplinary actions amongst the Scions. All Sentinels within a Vanguard are linked, their fates bonded through immortal coils far stronger than blood ties.
If there’s any saving grace to this dreadful place of decay and torment, surrounded by walls made of a mixture of flesh and earth, it’s that. Knowing that I have my comrades, my true family to fall back on. Always.
“Never fear,” Elize whispers, jumping to her feet as the last of her laces are tied in one swift tug. “Your words are mine alone, sister.”
One hand shoots forwards, helping me off the edge of our makeshift bed. Though calling the thing a “bed” is really pushing the definition.
Hell, even calling this shit hole a room is a stretch.
The thing in question is actually nothing more than a flattened slab of cold cement, but at least it’s free of the decay that consumes the rest of the room.
Thick black veins pulsating and tearing through the concrete of the walls, crumbling away as the exposed pieces of the reddish-black, fleshy mass breaks through. Like a scabbed wound, only reversed.
Indeed, to most people on the outside, it would appear that Elize and I are among the only normal lifeforms in this realm.
Well, some of us more normal than others, by the standards of the Scions.
While most Scions choose to let their hair grow, both as an expression of our freedom and as an attempt to better blend in with the outside world, Elize is one of the few that prefer to keep her hair cut close to the side, allowing only the front of her strawberry-blonde hair to fall over her bronzed skin, and swept to one side to form what resembles a golden dagger. Fitting.
Form over function, as is evident by the simple white cloth garb that she covers herself with. A simple, snow white, hooded jacket. Adorned with nothing aside from the sapphire trimmings on the edges. An outfit customary of even our most elite soldiers, completed by the form-fitted black pants.
In even the most basic of ways, it sometimes seems like we couldn’t be any more different. Choosing to let my deep Auburn hair flow where it may, and choosing only the most basic of customary garments to allow for complete freedom of movement.
But I do have to admit that, different as we may be, I don’t think I could survive in this world without her by my side.
“Got a little messy back there, eh?” I tease, pointing towards the discolored, crusted patches of dried blood littering the lower leg of her pants. “And you were so ecstatic about your perfect record.”
“Asshole.” Elize rolls her eyes, giving me a playful shove back towards the wall. “I would’ve gotten away with a clean kill if someone didn’t have their head in the clouds.”
“Hah! Like you could have done any-”
A deafening rumble of the fracturing concrete all around us, the very floor beneath us giving way. Heaving to and fro with the steady, familiar pulse of tremors as a glacial chill runs down my spine.
The panicked glance that we share in that moment, frozen in time as the memories seize our souls.
The words escape our lips in unison, nothing more than a whisper. A confirmation of what should be our deepest fears made manifest. That is, if it weren’t for the sly grin forming on Elize’s face.
“Elize…” I trail off, my mouth dropping slightly as she bolts towards the weapon rack on the wall, housing her prized Katana. “You can’t be serious.”
Whirling around to face me, that signature grin still plastered on her face, I think I’ve found the only thought more terrifying than a Behemoth wandering so close.
“You did want to prove yourself.”
“I mentioned nothing about committing suicide.” I let out a heavy sigh, cocking my head to the side. “Besides, the Behemoth will be the least of our worries if Chloe finds out that we didn’t wait for her orders.”
“But don’t you remember her motto?”
“Elize, I swear to-”
“Suffer the life of the rebel,” Elize cuts me off with that same tired phrase. As expected. “Or die at the heels of the devil.”
“You’re taking that out of context.”
“And?” Elize simply shoots me one last victorious smirk, making her way for the door. “It’s about the big picture, don’t you see?”
From the moment her hand touches the rusted doorknob, my body springs into that same ritualistic rush. Reluctant at first, but so mechanical at this point that before I even realize it, the tips of my fingers are already wrapping themselves around the cold steel hilt of my blade. The adrenaline and passion pouring out at once, as if the mere contact kindles a fire deep within my soul. The thrill of the hunt, as strong as ever.
“Oh hush. You know you love me!”
The door lets out a hungry groan as she tears it open in one brutal motion, revealing the inky black horizon of the unforgiving world we call home. Air thick with death and decay of those unfit to survive.
Taking my place beside my comrade for what could be the final time, something about that moment makes me realize…
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even with the countless years that I’ve amassed in this damned place, something about the sickening atmosphere still manages to rattle my bones. Maybe it’s just the jarring onslaught of thick, humid fog that clings to my skin as it rolls by, threatening to drag me deep into the inky blackness that seems to hang over the realm like a sickness, corrupting everything that it touches. Or maybe it’s the hundred-foot tall “trees” that cover the horizon, peeking through the darkness as if they were birthed by its otherworldly womb. Twisted manifestations of flesh and earth, much like the rest of this place, but made even worse by the fact that the partially devoured corpses poke through holes in their root systems. Almost like they are reaching out, praying for one last chance to be saved.
“Where on earth could he have gotten to?” Elize brandishes her sword towards the vacant expanse of darkness. Not empty, because that would imply that the solace is anything other than temporary.
I shrug, unsheathing my own longsword out of habit. “It’s not as though a creature larger than most buildings would be capable of sneaking up on us. But maybe we should-”
“Should what?” Elize whips her head around just ling enough to shoot me a taunting glare. “Wait for Chloe to come and take all of the credit?”
“Enough, Elize!” The words which escape my throat come out as nothing more than a defensive growl, causing her to stagger backwards. “Do you even comprehend what’s truly at risk here?”
“Your reputation,” Elize’s taunting words tug away at my judgement. “Unless you’ve forgotten what’s required of a Scion.”
Gritting my teeth, I barely have the time to move my lips before the earth-shattering, guttural roar tears through the atmosphere from our right. The hungering cries of a Behemoth.
The two of us are suddenly launched into our defensive positions, bracing ourselves back to back in one deeply engrained motion. Turning to face the towering beast before us with both weapons primed to smite.
The Behemoths are truly one of the most detestable, yet fearsome creatures of the realm. Their reputation would be justly earned by their sheer size alone, towering above us at a rough estimate of fifty feet. To many others, that size would render the beasts as mere insurmountable harbingers of death. But for us? Their stature simply adds to the thrill of the hunt.
Along with their gruesome demeanor, anyway. The way that they appear as massive, gray hugs of flesh culminating in a gaping maw, a quarter of the size of the creature itself. Consisting of thousands of blood-encrusted teeth, with skin folding over in ragged flaps where the things eyes should be.
The only other defining feature that the abominations possess is the trunk-like “claws” sprouting from their hands. Nothing more than blunt hunks of bone piercing through the wads of flesh that somewhat resemble hands. Filled with holes, and blackened with decay. A manifestation of the sickness that plagues this realm.
That alone is reason enough to risk our lives purging such sickness from this land. All for the greater honor of the Maiden.
Though the demon may lack physical eyes, the way that it veers its neckless head towards us is more than enough to signal that the beast has sensed us even before we set foot outside.
And indeed, like many creatures of this realm, it has no need for corporeal sight. Such faulty mechanisms are the handicaps of mortals and lowborn. And while this abomination may be vile in nature, it is regarded as a Greater Demon for a reason. They can see through the Veil.
The thing lowers its gaping jaw like a black hole, tearing through the very fabric of reality surrounding it as it prepares to consume all before it. Us.
As the Behemoth lets loose one last earth-shaking roar, a numbing wave of calm falls over me. The endorphins flowing freely through my veins as the flame in my gut kindles higher than ever before, hungering for the souls of the wicked.
“Not nearly as fearsome as I imagined,” Elize clucks her tongue in disappointment. “He’s just a baby, compared to the ones we’ve faced before.”
“Don’t get cocky,” I caution, feeling my body tense instinctively as the creature lumbers back and forth in anticipation. “We’ve never faced one without the full force of our Vanguard, either.”
“You say that like we aren’t the ones pulling all the weight.”
Any words that come after that are blurred into that one singular moment, consumed by the vacuum created by the lumbering beast thrusting itself toward us like a raging bull.
Time slows to a crawl as the hulking mass of the abomination seems to freeze like a statue, allowing the two of us to take full advantage of our heightened state of being. Our fully realized forms.
The two of us run circles around the lumbering creature out of spite at first, purely out of spite. A knick with our blades here or there at the shins of the beast, betraying our normal, efficient protocols only to savor the moment for once in our lives.
Too late to retaliate, the creature lurches to the side. Scooping chunks of decaying earth out of the ground with devastatingly powerful swipes of its malformed claws in a frenzied attempt to end our existence. And it would have surely crushed us in one swipe, were it not for the fact that we saw the movement coming from a mile away. Instead, the opening makes it all too easy for us to finish the fight.
Taking advantage of our opening, Elize begins by plunging her blade straight through the flesh and bone of the creature’s right arm, impaling it with such mechanical ease that it almost seems like a chef driving their knife through a lifeless hunk of steak.
By the time that the Behemoth is able to let out a shrill shriek of agony, I’m already making my way up the beast’s torso like a mountain climber. Using my twin daggers as picks, stabbing and climbing my way up the creature’s torso with one brutal tear after another.
It isn’t until I reach the creature’s neck that it even fully comprehends what’s going on, and by then it is far too late. Swinging back and forth, practically falling backwards in a desperate frenzy, aimed to thrust me off its back, I’m already well at work. Peeling back the thick, leather-like folds of skin protecting the ivory sections of its skull before replacing my daggers with the longsword destined for the final blow.
One decisive blow, plunging the two-foot long blade directly into the opening. The glorious crack of bones splitting reverberating throughout the air, rejuvenating every fiber of my being as the last, pitiful equals of the damned creature are soon to replace it. Filling the air with sounds of our victory, and more importantly, a sign to all other demons that would participate in the same futile resistance. A deafening acknowledgement of our superiority, granted by the glory of the Maiden.
And those moments of glory seem to blur into one continuous stream of consciousness. Feeling the blood drip from my palms, running from the hilt of my sword. Acting as a siphon to my soul, drawing the very last drops of life from the massive beast and rejuvenating my own soul. The weak being consumed by the strong, just as it should be.
Even the deafening crack of its skull beneath my hands is enough to usher in a wave of pure bliss. Forgetting the outside world for but a moment, if only to relish in that glorious moment of my victory. Our victory.
The feeling of the beast finally relenting to its defeat, collapsing beneath me in a sigh of futility, is merely the icing on the cake. Prompting me to collect myself just enough to prepare for the sinking feeling of the massive platform giving way beneath me as I push off with all my might. Landing gracefully on the tips of my feet a good fifty feet away from the collapsing corpse of the creature, dead before it even hits the ground with one last quake.
A deafening silence falls across the landscape in the moments following the beast’s fall, but it doesn’t last for long. Not with Elize, leaping up and down like a child in excitement.
“What?” She moans, still retaining a high pitch to her voice. “Can’t you just appreciate the beauty of the fact that we just took down a Behemoth more smoothly than our leader ever could have?”
“And our leader is still going to kill us when she finds out.”
Just then, I can feel my skin begin to crawl as my senses are overwhelmed with a sudden surge of power coming from directly behind me. Familiar, yet still fearsome all the same.
The horrified look which quickly overtakes Elize’s grin as she looks beyond my shoulder only confirms my fears.
Is she back already? Speak of the devil.
Whipping around in a split second, I waste no time snapping into a salute. Only to find something far more horrifying than the sight of our leader.
Instead, I’m greeted with the distinct, familiar glow of her eyes. A bright, blazing shade of reddish-orange, like two morning suns burning full bright. All in contrast to her snow white hair, falling over her eyes like razor sharp shards of ice. Gleaming under the shadow cast by the hood of her flowing white cloak, adorned with countless sapphire-encrusted symbols showing her rank amongst the chaff.
“Tera… I…” I stutter, trying desperately to collect myself even when every nerve in my body screams at me to run. “We just-”
“I know,” she cuts me off, her voice proving to be even more cold than her appearance. But the two of us are set somewhat at ease by the crooked smile that follows. “I’m pleased with your progress, sister.”
Such things are basically unheard of, at least from her. After all, she’s a direct descendent of the Maiden herself. Flesh and blood!
In fact, holding the highest rank amongst the Scions, it’s unheard of for her to even be showing her face borsch trivial matters.
Her presence does not bode well for us.
“I… Thank you, Night Mother.”
“Please,” the cold figure holds up one hand in greeting. “Call me by my birth name. After all, by the end of the night… You and I will be only one rank apart.”
All of the air suddenly leaves my lungs in that moment, leaving me to recoil under the full weight of her words.
She has just effectively granted me the rank formerly held by Chloe. But that means…
“I can.” Tera concludes with a harsh degree of finality to her tone, shooting a glance towards the frozen Elize before continuing. “Both of you shall accompany me to the trial immediately. Is that clear?”
The trial. That’s it then… This is really happening. But could Chloe truly betray us like this? She seemed to devote her life to the cause, an embodiment of undying conviction.
If not her, then who am I to assume that I can lead my comrades along the righteous path?
Perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for us?
Accusations of treason are treated very seriously amongst the Scions, and the fall of one is normally followed by a swift, ruthless purge.
“Of course,” Elize half-shouts, her voice trembling to match my body as she takes her place beside me, wrapping one arm around my waist like a life rope. “We will do what needs to be done, just as we always have.”
Tera pauses for a moment, looking from Elize to myself in an attempt to document every possible trace of treason in our demeanor before smirking to herself, seemingly pleased.
“Just as you always have,” Tera repeats. A scornful, mocking tone is present in her voice as she locks her gaze squarely on me. Freezing me in place like a goddamn statue. “See to it that you do, Sentinel.”
“If I may…” I choke on my words, struggling to clear the growing lump in my throat. “Are we in your custody?”
“My company.” The question manages to elicit a rare smile from the ice queen. “Your faith is not what’s in question here, Enya.”
“Forgive me,” I stutter, bowing my head in both shame and respect. “It’s just that-”
“Count your blessings, Sentinel.” Tera interrupts with a hint of venom creeping back into her tone. “The Maiden has smiled upon you on this day, and I’d suggest you leave it at that.”
Before I even have the chance to open my stupid mouth again, a hard jab to my side from Elize’s elbow secures my silence.
“Of course, Night Mother.” Elize pleads with her eyes to the god-like figure before us, but receives not the slightest bit of warmth in reply. “Forgive my sister… We just didn’t expect such an honor to be bestowed upon us.”
Tera doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Elize, keeping her piercing eyes fixated squarely on me. The centers of her blazing eyes burning a hole into he back of my skull with every passing moment.
“Very well,” Tera concedes with a sigh, finally turning away fro me to gaze off into the distance. “In that case, we shall take care of the traitor posthaste. Unless there are any further objections?”
“None, Night Mother” The response is just as trained as our reflexes for battle. Accompanying one of the immortal guardians that fought for our freedom at the beginning of time… Such a thing should be regarded as the highest honor amongst our order.
And yet, something about the whole thing feels off. Maybe it’s the fact that both of us should be dead by now, or at least on our way to our inevitable execution. Or maybe it’s just the scornful way that Tera looks at us the entire way, as if tolerating us is something that she is simply forced to do, under the threat of similar punishments from someone with power even greater than herself, the Maiden.
Either way, one thing is certain. That dreadful silence carried on by the three of us, a silent acknowledgement of what is to come… That fear is more powerful than any weapon that any of us could ever hold.
Our reception back at Sanctuary is exactly as I would expect for such an occasion. The mouths of my comrades falling to the floor as they see me walking side-by-side with the Night Mother. The way that their silent resentment towards me grows stronger than ever before.
All Scions are taught to love and cherish their brothers and sisters-in-arms as family, but my treatment has always rendered me as an outsider of sorts.
From the day that I was inducted into the Scions, taken in by Night Mother Tera herself, I’ve always received what would be seen as preferential treatment from the elders in our family. From the days that I was a mere initiate, it was as if the elders saw me as an equal. Looking the other way when I dared to stray from the righteous path, and picking up the slack when I faltered.
For many others, such mistakes mean death. After all, that is one of the harsh realities that has been drilled in our heads since our salvation from the children of Adam. The weak shall perish, and only the strong, no, only the virtuous shall survive.
The scorn in their eyes only serves to add insult to injury. Being led through the cold hallways of the Sanctuary with such an esteemed escort for a proceeding that would spell the doom of any less-fortunate soldiers.
And yet, some part of me can’t help but feel some sense of self-righteous pride as I brush past the masses, clad in their customary, plain, snow white cloaks.
Even my clothing marks me as an outsider, adorned with the same white corset that Elize proudly wears. The mark of a warrior far beyond our time in service to the Maiden, yet granted to us by sheer good fortune, along with a hefty amount of effort, if I’m honest with myself.
“Have no fear,” Tera’s voice falls over us like a raging storm overhead. Calling the crowd around us to a deafening silence as we enter the Court. The cowards recoiling in fear at the very sound of her words echoing through the concrete coliseum. “The death of this traitor will serve as a reminder for all those that question her judgement to appoint you as the successor.”
If only such encouragement didn’t mean the death of a dear friend.
From the moment Elize and I lock eyes with her from across the room, that’s all we can focus on. All sounds drowned out, all sights blurred by the sight of the ginger-haired woman brought to her knees. Stripped of her customary garb in a humiliating display, leaving her deeply scarred and bronzed flesh on display for the gathering crowd of onlookers.
Her deep blue eyes shine with the glimmer of tears as the twin executioners approach from her side in unison. Each executioner wielding massive, ceremonial silver blades. Wearing their hoods to cover their faces in a shroud of anonymity as they bring the blades into position over my sister’s neck in an X-like formation.
But all of that is simply standard procedure for prisoners in her position. All except for the horrifying display of the macabre that was her mouth. Stitched shut with rusted metal wires, tearing through her flesh for some time as the surrounding flesh of her skull grows black in a discolored display of infection
My heart is just about ready to beat straight out of my chest, and yet everyone around me appears so eager. Everyone except Elize, and the other helpless onlooker in the corner of my eye.
Her black hair shimmering in the distance like strings of obsidian, only to match the crystalline tears crawling down her face. Lara.
Some unseen force seems to transcend the room, connecting the two of us as she looks back to me with a horrified gaze cast towards Tera. A sure sign that she is not entirely safe from these accusations herself, being a member of our Vanguard working alongside Chloe at her time of incrimination.
Casting a quick glance back towards Elize, sharing her horror, the two of us are forced to fall silent once more as elder Amos takes the stand.
“Greetings, my children,” the old man’s voice booms just as loud as ever, no microphone needed. Blending perfectly with his intimidating stature, standing at seven feet with a beard nearly half his size covering his brawny torso. “I must thank all of you for your continued, undying dedication to our cause. A conviction which, unfortunately, could not be shared by the traitor that lies before us!”
Cheers erupt from all around us. Cries for blood. Cries for vengeance. Vengeance for a crime that neither they nor I have any inking of as to what actually transpired, but the word of the Night Mother alone is strong enough, just as it always been.
Those damn fools.
Amos holds up one, block-like fist in the air, signaling the auditorium to fall in silence once more. “I’m sure that each and every one of you is eager to proceed, so we will waste no time with-”
“Of what crimes is she charged?” The guttural scream rips right through my throat, tearing its way past my lips against all better judgement. “She was a model servant of the maiden! Enough to put each and every one of these onlookers to shame!”
Adrenaline pumping through my veins like never before, every judgmental eye in the room suddenly falls on me. Especially Tera, looking back towards me with such scorn that I can feel a fiery hole erupting in the middle of my chest.
But I just don’t give a damn.
“Tell me!” I continue to scream, pushing my way through the crowd as the screams of Elize and Tera are drowned out by the judgmental roars of the crowd. “What could such a dedicated servant of the Maiden do to deserve this? Stripped of her dignity, and unable to defend herself from the accusations which you heap upon her? Like some sort of goddamn prisoner of war?”
The reality of my harsh outburst is only truly realized in the moment that I lock eyes once more with the dishonored soldier, looking upon me with such pain in her eyes. Not pain for herself, but a kind of deep regret that she managed to drag down one of her sisters along with her. The deep-rooted knowledge that what has been set in motion cannot possibly be reversed, and that my defense would spell nothing but disaster in the wake of her death.
I scarcely hear the words that follow from Amos, the walking tank of a man entrusted with overseeing such proceedings. All I can feel is the crowd pulling at me from every direction. Practically tearing me limb from limb as the twin executioners raise their blades high into the air with a kind of haste that only confirms my suspicions.
And yet, for all of my effort… Despite all that I have sacrificed, all that I can do is watch. Stand there in sheer horror as the blades come crashing down like thunder striking the earth in a torrent of blood and gore, as a gut-churning crack reverberates through the auditorium. The snapping of tendons, the cracking of bones, and more importantly, the end of a life.
All in one single, terrifying moment. The one I’ve come to know and respect like the mother I’ve never had, taken away from me like all the others.
A rebel still resigned to the same fate as everyone else. Dying at the heels of the devil,
And that last image of her is the last thing that I see, right before I feel the brunt force of some unseen blow crashing over the back of my skull, like the weight of the world suddenly falling over me. Matched only by the sudden feeling of the earth suddenly giving way beneath my feet.
Leaving me to slip into the abyss of unconsciousness, knowing only blackness.