“Son, I have already sent the exemption for recruitment,” my father said for the third time that day, just as he had a dozen times before. “There is no reason for you to join the army! What will happen to this estate if you do not come back?” His exasperation radiated from him. “The land will go back to the crown, that’s what! And I will have worked my whole life for nothing!” He turned around and stormed back into the house.
I looked over at my mother. “You’re our only child,” she said with sad eyes. “He cannot bear to lose you. I know he says it’s all about the land, but it’s only about you.” We lived in a small town just south of Munich, Austria. The estate had been in my family for three generations, so I understood my father’s concerns.
“I know, Mama,” I said, taking her hand. “I will come back to you.”
“You cannot promise that. This Frenchman is hungry for power, and Britain is stalling their support of our army,” she replied. “Already, many young men have died. We do not want our only son to be added to the list.”
She took my hand and looked up at me with her golden-brown eyes. My mother was a very small woman with dark hair and a round face. I didn’t look anything like her, but I was almost the mirror image of my father. He was tall with blue eyes, and his brown hair was several shades lighter than my mother’s. One difference between my father and myself was our height. I was over a head taller than him.
I leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I will come back to you, Mama. I promise.” I let go of her hand and jumped on my waiting horse. I looked back to see tears in her eyes before guiding my horse onto the path towards town.
It was almost Christmas in the year 1800, and for six months we’d been fighting to keep Napoleon’s army out of the Alps, but it was a losing battle. I was a scout for our small platoon, traveling south of Munich to meet up with another scout from the army at Ulm. We had agreed to meet in a remote location and hoped to go unnoticed by the French. I waited at the rendezvous point for hours before the other scout finally appeared, his horse coated in foam from running too hard.
“What is it?” I asked, knowing the answer would not be good.
“They’ve taken Munich,” he replied. “Our troops have fallen back to the River Inn.”
“I’ll report back,” I said as I jumped on my own horse. “You should rest your horse before you return.”
He nodded and sat down, pulling rations from his pack and letting his horse rest.
I rode hard to get back to camp, immediately going to the captain with the news. He dismissed me with a look of concern on his face and started talking quietly with his officers, so I left to find some food and water. While I was eating, one of the lieutenants approached, and I jumped to my feet. “Yes sir!”
“The captain has another assignment for you,” he said. “Follow me.” I stuffed the remainder of my dinner in my mouth and followed. When we were out of earshot of the other soldiers, he relaxed a little. “Darian, we need you to get as close to the enemy troops as possible and find out where they intend to strike next. We know they’re in Munich but suspect they’re already moving again.”
I understood what he was asking. I was very good at avoiding detection, despite my size. I had been retrieving intelligence for them for several months, since the moment the lieutenant realized I was good at it. I rarely spent time in camp, which meant that I also rarely spent time with my fellow soldiers. I was certain there was resentment from some of the other men who felt I was receiving special treatment. Little did they realize that my job was much more dangerous than engaging in a normal battle. I frequently found myself skulking outside the enemy commander’s tent, trying to get close enough to hear battle plans without being seen. If I were caught, I wouldn’t get the pleasure of a quick death.
The lieutenant pulled out a map and showed me where they believed the French troops were located around Munich. I memorized the locations, not needing a map because I knew the area like the back of my hand. I had grown up in a small town between Munich and Salzburg. A town which I now worried was in the path of the French army.
I retrieved a fresh horse and started out again. It was almost dusk when I reached the outskirts of my hometown. I dismounted and tied the horse’s reins to a nearby tree. Something didn’t feel right; it was too quiet. I sat in the shadow of the tree until dark and then started to move towards town. There should have been lights on in the small homes and the inn should have had music and laughter coming from it, but all was quiet and dark. I stopped in the shadows between two buildings as I heard voices around the corner. I didn’t recognize the voices or the language. I was fluent in French, German, English, and Italian, which were the most common among the soldiers, but I could also recognize Russian, Swedish, and Spanish. Extensive schooling was one of the benefits of being nobility.
I edged closer to the corner of the building, and a foul smell drifted towards me. I covered my face with my arm, trying to breathe through my mouth rather than my nose. Just as I was about to look around the corner, a hand grabbed my shoulder, then another wrapped around and covered my mouth. My attacker pulled me back several feet before I got over my shock and reacted. I spun around, pulling myself from his grasp and getting ready to strike the man. His icy blue eyes made me pause, and his intense stare seemed to see right through me. He put a finger to his lips and then pointed towards the edge of the building, where the voices were getting closer. Then he ran quietly in the opposite direction down the narrow street, pausing long enough to motion for me to follow. I was torn between the unknown men around the corner and the stranger beckoning me to follow. The foreign voices continued to get louder; they would see me at any moment. I made the decision to follow the man with the icy blue eyes, sprinting down the alley towards him. I rounded the next corner but couldn’t see him. I thought I had hesitated too long until I heard a small whistle above me and looked up. He had climbed up a trellis and onto the roof of the inn. I followed him up the trellis and onto roof.
We peered over the edge at the front of the building to see the foreign men walking down the street. They were dressed in strange robes that looked like they glowed when the moonlight caught them. The man next to me tapped my shoulder and directed my attention to the opposite end of the street. Four large men were dragging a long line of people who were tied together. The rope tied around each person’s waist, securing their hands behind their back and attaching to the next person in line. I gasped, realizing these were the townspeople. My reaction wasn’t very loud, but I received a harsh look from the man next to me. I looked frantically for my parents but didn’t see them in the line. I hoped they were not among those who were captured.
As the group approached the road beneath us, I noticed that the soldiers appeared to have horns on their heads. Maybe their helmets were designed with horns? As they got closer, however, I realized that was not the case; the horns grew from their heads. These creatures were not soldiers. I didn’t know what they were, but they certainly weren’t human. I looked at the man next to me with panic in my eyes. What was I seeing? He motioned for me to wait. It was extremely difficult to stay still and watch the people I grew up with be led away by these monsters. Who were they, and what did they want?
When the last of the line was out of site, the man next to me closed his eyes and sat perfectly still for several minutes. When he opened them, he spoke with a very thick accent.
“You have just been drawn into a war that you knew nothing about until this moment,” he began. “You have two choices. The first is to ignore what you just saw, find the French army, and report back to your captain. The second is to accept what you just saw and help me fight them.” He looked at me, expecting an answer immediately.
“I have no idea what I just saw.” I replied, trying to stay calm. “How do I make a choice like that when I know so little about what’s going on? Where are they taking the townspeople, and what are their intentions? What were those monsters? How are they real?”
“Your need for answers indicates you have already made your choice,” he said and smiled. His smile made him look like a young teenage boy, which he clearly was not. “The French intend to flank your army in Tyrol and will likely defeat them at Ulm. You can try to prepare, but they will press towards Hohenlinden, and it will be lost before Christmas.”
“How do you know this? Are you a spy for them?” I asked, immediately suspicious.
“Do I look French to you?” he replied, clearly offended by the accusation. He did not look French. He could have been Spanish, with his dark complexion and dark brown hair, but his features where not Spanish either.
“No,” I replied. “Who are you?”
“I’m Raphael,” he replied.
“How do you know all of this?” I was suppressing my anger and panic, but just barely. His boyish face left me feeling vulnerable, and his knowledge frightened me.
“You have a much bigger purpose than to be a scout in the Austrian army,” he replied. “I know you will not abandon your commitment, and I would be disappointed if you did. You should meet me at your parents’ home after the fall of Hohenlinden. Do not get captured with your fellow soldiers!” he commanded. “I will explain everything when we meet again.”
Raphael was right. The Austrian army fought to the end, but Hohenlinden was still lost on December third. When the captain called the last retreat, I disappeared into the Ebersberg Forest. My guilt for abandoning them overwhelmed me. I should have been fighting and dying by their side. Instead, I was skulking away into the snow-laden trees to meet with a stranger who only promised another war.
I cautiously approached my parents’ home. The snow-covered ground muted everything, and the nearly full moon reflected its light off the snow, which was undisturbed. I couldn’t see where anyone had entered the home within the last few hours. Did that mean that Raphael had not yet arrived? I sat on top of an old barrel in the shadow of the barn, my thoughts wandering. Who was Raphael? Where did he come from? How did he know about the monsters, and where did they come from? Where were they taking all those people, and for what purpose? Moreover, what did he mean when he said I had a much bigger purpose? I was proud of my service to my country. My father would have had me stay at home and marry one of the local women, but I was too restless and eager to see the world. I couldn’t even think about marriage. I let out a long breath, which escaped as a cloud in front of me. My parents, where were they? Did those monsters take them as well?
“Exhaling like that will give away your location.” I jumped at the sound of Raphael’s voice, but he continued in his strange accent, “I’m fairly certain you were taught better than that.”
I was immediately defensive. “Where did you come from?”
“That’s a very long story that we do not have time for now,” he said. “Are you ready to come with me?”
“That depends on where we’re going,” I replied. “Are we going to free the townspeople from those monsters?”
“You and I are not,” he replied. “A friend of mine is already taking care of that.”
“Do you know if my parents are with them?” I asked hopefully.
He shook his head. “Your father fought against them when they tried to take your mother. Both of them were lost.”
I sank to the ground, ignoring the cold, wet snow as it soaked through my clothes. I looked up at my father’s house, my home, my security, the one place I thought I would always be able to come back to. I rose and started walking towards the house. Raphael didn’t try to stop me, following me into the house and closing the door behind us. After I collected the few small items I wanted, I looked at him. “I’m ready to go.” He took hold of my elbow, and my world went dark.
When I opened my eyes again, I was lying on a small bed covered in a light sheet. When I attempted to sit up, nausea assaulted me and the room started spinning. I laid back down.
“The nausea will pass soon,” a soft, feminine voice said in a strange accent that was different from Raphael’s. I looked over to the doorway to see a beautiful young lady staring back at me. She smiled, and I felt a wave of calm wash over me. She was extremely petite, with a small round face, bright blue eyes, and full lips. Her long blond hair cascaded over her shoulders. I knew I was staring, but I couldn’t help it. She smiled again, as if she knew what I was thinking. Maybe she did. I imagine I was not the first young man to find her attractive. Raphael walked through the door behind her, and she turned to smile at him as well.
“I’m glad to see you awake,” Raphael began. “We’re still perfecting the traveling spell. The nausea goes away the more you travel, but you should not pass out again.” He had a guilty look on his face, which brought out his boyish features. “I didn’t consider that we would be traveling so far, and that you could not travel on your own. I have modified the spell to correct that.”
I attempted to stand again. The room started spinning, so I sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for it to stop. I would not empty my stomach in front of this woman. “Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re in Santuario,” Raphael replied, as if I should know exactly what he meant. “Come! There are several people you need to meet.”
Raphael led me out of the room, which opened into a small living space that appeared to be someone’s home. There were three people sitting at a table in what I assumed was the dining area. Raphael began the introductions.
“This is Mikel,” he said, motioning towards an average-sized man with blond hair, gray eyes, and a fair complexion. “He is the leader of our group.” Mikel nodded at me.
“This is Adalina, our master warrior.” Raphael motioned towards a very muscular woman with short spiked hair and square facial features. She was not unattractive, but her obvious strength took away any femininity. She looked at me with hunger in her eyes, as if I would be her next meal. I almost shivered, and she laughed at my obvious discomfort.
“Adalina, don’t toy with him,” Mikel scolded. She tried to look innocent, but it was clear that no one believed her.
“But look how lovely he is,” she said. “I think I can actually look up to him.” She chuckled and gave me another ravenous look.
“Moving on,” Raphael continued. “This is Magdelin, our master healer.” Magdelin was very thin and average height, with shiny black hair and pale skin.
“You have already met Aneera and myself,” Raphael concluded as he sat down in one of the chairs. Aneera stood behind Mikel with her hands on the back of his chair. I looked around the table at this group of strangers. It was obvious that all of them were from different parts of the world. How did they all end up here? And where was here?
“Please sit down,” Mikel requested. “I know you have a great many questions, and I hope to answer most of them, but let’s take care of the immediate answers first. Adalina and her team rescued the people in your hometown. It will take time for them to recover from the shock of their experience. Not all of them made it back home, and the ones that did will have a difficult time accepting what happened.”
“What happened to them?” I asked, more confused now than ever.
“I believe you saw your people being led away by a group of demons?” Mikel looked at Raphael for confirmation. “The men you saw are part of a group called the Csökkent. They are fanatics who believe that the demons they summon are fallen angels who are trying to find redemption.” Mikel’s face contorted with disgust. “They use human lives as sacrifices to summon the demons. Your people who did not go home were likely used as sacrifices.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. “Demons? Really? You expect me to believe that some fairy tale monsters meant to scare small children are running around in Austria?”
“Yes, I do!” Mikel said vehemently. “You saw them with your own eyes. How could you doubt it? And they are not just in Austria. They’re all over Europe, Egypt, China, and the Americas. We have not yet determined if they’re also in Southern Africa, or Britain’s new penal colony in the South Pacific Ocean.”
I was in shock. It was difficult to comprehend that a bunch of crazy fanatics were using the lives of the people I loved to summon these monsters. “How is this happening? And how does it involve me?” I asked.
Mikel looked around the table. Raphael and Magdelin nodded at him. Adalina had a strange smile on her face but said nothing. “We are the Council of Light. It is our responsibility to ensure that evil doesn’t overcome good, therefore destroying humanity.” He put his hand over Aneera’s. “Aneera is what we call a Seer. She has visions of possible futures, which helps us locate and destroy large, active groups of Csökkent and their demons. Of course, these visions can be changed with the smallest decision.” He paused, scratching his chin. “For instance, if you had decided to stay at the battle of Hohenlinden rather than joining Raphael, you would be dead, and we would be trying to find someone else to replace you.” He let the thought settle before continuing. “Thankfully, you’re here with us.”
“That still doesn’t explain what’s happening or what you expect from me,” I said, trying to keep the irritation from my voice.
“We need you to be our scout,” Mikel said with conviction. “We need to know if they have moved into Africa and Australia. Aneera’s visions only give us small glimpses of what could be. We need more people who are able to get out into the world to locate the Csökkent and stop them.”
“And you think I’ll be able to do this? How will I be able to travel around the world looking for these monsters?” I was overwhelmed with the thought of hunting down these creatures. I still had a hard time accepting that they even existed. What type of twisted person would want to summon them in the first place?
“You will not be going alone,” Raphael replied. “Adalina will take you to each location that we suspect the Csökkent are active.” Adalina smiled, and it sent shivers down my spine.
Mikel continued, “It’s her responsibility to ensure you arrive safely and are able to scout the area untouched. Under no circumstance are the two of you to engage a group of demons on your own.” He looked directly at Adalina. She feigned innocence again.
“I would not try to defeat a large group of demons on my own,” she said, pretending to be offended by the accusation.
“Darian is not yet trained, Adalina. Engaging in a battle with Darian’s help is the same as doing it on your own.”
It was my turn to be offended. “I’m not a helpless boy who’s incapable of fighting. I’m a soldier, fighting a war. Battle is not unknown to me!”
Aneera smiled at me, and another wave of calm washed over me. I was not happy about it, despite the peaceful sensation. I didn’t appreciate someone toying with my emotions. “These demons are not common soldiers, Darian. You need training and special skills to defeat them,” Mikel replied. “No one doubts your combat skills or your bravery, but you will need more than that in this battle. Adalina knows it and will not put the two of you in a position that will risk your life before your training.” Mikel scowled at Adalina.
She grinned back at him. “Of course, Mikel. Besides, I can’t lose my new pet before I get to play with him.”
“You really expect me to go with her?” I exclaimed.
Adalina laughed. “I’m toying with you, beautiful. I actually take my job very seriously,” she said, all of sudden sobering. “I’ll take you where you need to go and protect you while you do your scouting. We need to know if the demons have covered the earth, because if they have, our job becomes much more difficult.” I eyed her suspiciously, still not trusting her.
I traveled with Adalina to some remote desert in Egypt. I had no idea where we were, but she assured me it was southern Egypt. We walked through a barren canyon, the ground beneath my feet covered in loose rocks. I was still wearing my heavy winter clothes, and it didn’t take long for me feel the heat. I removed my coat and started carrying it. I still had my pistol and rapier from the Austrian army, along with a throwing knife. As we walked, Adalina explained that there were old tombs and caves scattered all throughout the canyon, and they suspected that the Csökkent were using one of them. She’d heard rumors from one of the local villagers that the dead were walking into the villages and taking their children.
I watched the ground as we trudged along, looking for signs of footprints, but it would be difficult to see them in the hard-packed earth. As we hiked further into the canyon, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I knew we were being watched and looked around the canyon. There were cracks, crevices, and ledges everywhere. It would be very easy for someone to conceal themselves out here.
“You feel the Bedouin watching us,” Adalina said.
“Bedouin?” I asked.
“They are the local people,” she explained. “They watch everyone coming in and out of the canyons.”
“Would they not know if these Csökkent were here, and if so, where?”
“You would think so,” she replied. “But I’ve asked them to tell me, and they claim there is no one.”
I looked her over, taking in her tall boots, dark pants, white shirt, and dark vest. A huge axe strapped to her back completed her wardrobe. She was nearly as tall as I and more muscular. Adalina looked nothing like the average woman, so I imagined the locals would not tell her anything. “Maybe I should try to talk to them?” I suggested.
She noticed me looking at her and chuckled. “You think they would not talk to a woman, huh?”
“Something like that,” I replied, not willing to voice my opinion on her femininity.
“Well, if you can convince one to show himself, then by all means, see if you can get him talking.”
The path ahead of us forked left and right. I started down the path to the right, and then at the very last moment ran back to the left. I sprinted for fifty meters before ducking behind a large boulder. I heard small rocks cascading down the side of the cliff behind me. Adalina had not followed me, so I assumed it was one of the locals. I peered around the boulder and noticed a tall, thin man covered in a sand-colored tunic running along a hidden path just above me. I stepped out from behind the boulder just as he looked over the edge. I nodded at him, clearly catching him off guard. He ducked back away from the edge then looked over again, and I motioned for him to join me. He disappeared again, but I could hear him coming down the path. He emerged a short distance away and walked towards me.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
He shook his head and started speaking in very broken French, “The French come and teach some of us.” He spat on the ground at his feet.
“I assume you don’t care for them?” I asked.
“No, they come here and steal from our ancestors.” He spat again. “They invade our lands and destroy everything.”
I had heard Napoleon’s fleet had come to Egypt, but I had not realized they would be this far south. “The French have destroyed my home as well,” I replied. “I don’t have much love for them either.”
He smiled at me, displaying several missing teeth.
“I am actually looking for a group of thieves,” I lied. “We have been following them for a while. Have you seen strange men in black robes coming into the canyon?”
He looked at me suspiciously. I could tell he didn’t trust me, but was debating if my story about the French was true. “There are strange men in black robes. They go to the last tomb every night.” He hesitated and then spoke softly, as if he were afraid for anyone else to hear. “My cousin says that he saw sons of the devil, with horns, tails, and big, black wings. I think he is drinking too much of the French wine. There are no sons of the devil.” He scoffed, but his facial expression showed that he didn’t entirely dismiss his cousin’s tale. Had he seen the demons? Even if his description was exaggerated, it was similar to what I’d seen in Austria.
“I imagine the French wine is making him see ghosts where there are none,” I said reassuringly. “Do you mind if my friend and I look at the last tomb to see if they are the thieves we’re searching for?”
“Go to the tomb and chase them away. We do not want them disturbing the dead!” He was clearly anxious after talking about his cousin. “Your friend is a woman?” he asked.
“Yes, but she is also a fierce warrior.” I chuckled softly. “We’ll see what we can find.” I turned to walk back towards Adalina. I heard him climbing the hidden path, but I could no longer see him. That trail would be very beneficial. When I reached Adalina, I relayed what he had told me, except for him questioning her gender.
“Sounds like our guys,” she said. “Do you think you can get to that tomb without being seen?”
“Yes, the Bedouin was using a path that is very well hidden. I intend to follow it to the end,” I explained. “It would be a good idea for you to use this trail as well and stay out of sight, rather than down here in the open.”
She growled, “Warriors do not hide, but I understand your theory. Lead the way.”
I retraced my steps to the hidden trail the Bedouin had taken. It was more like a goat path, and just as difficult to traverse. I looked back to see Adalina having no trouble at all. Her feet did not slide on the loose stones, and she never lost her balance on the narrow track. For such a huge woman, she almost moved gracefully, but her large frame and the two-headed axe strapped to her back removed any illusion of grace.
“Like what you see, beautiful?” she asked when she noticed me looking at her. I turned back around and kept moving, ignoring her comment. I could almost see her smiling in triumph. She was an infuriating woman. We followed the trail to the end of the canyon. I moved as silently as possible, occasionally looking into the path below to see if the Csökkent where moving through the canyon. We did not encounter anyone along the way. As we approached the opening to the tomb, an acrid stench assaulted us. I covered my face, but it didn’t help.
“Looks like we are in the right place,” Adalina said. Her face was very serious, all the playful banter set aside. “You should sneak inside. Mikel will be angry if I go with you and start a fight.” I nodded and laid my coat on the ground. She picked it up. “I’ll hold this for you, in case we have to exit in a hurry.”
The sun was already setting in the west, so I moved to the shadowed side of the entrance and slid along the wall until I was inside. The light from the sun did not make its way very far into the tomb, but there were sporadic torches on the wall. The smell continued to get worse the farther into the tomb I traveled. The path into the tomb was fairly straight, but there were many passages that broke to each side of me. I decided to stay on the main path so I didn’t get lost. It ended at a large chamber lit with dozens of torches, the illumination preventing me from getting any closer without being seen.
I saw the Csökkent as soon as I peered into the chamber. There were four of them talking quietly in their strange language on the far side of the room. In the center of the chamber was a large ring of stones with a huge pile of wood stacked in the middle. There were several people bound to the walls, their mouths gagged and their fear radiating from their bodies. I felt Adalina walk up behind me, and I turned towards her to see a troubled look on her face. I asked the question with my eyes. She replied by holding up two fingers, then made her fingers walk. There were two people headed our way, which would explain why she followed me in here. She nodded to the side for me to follow her. I shook my head and motioned towards the people in the chamber. She lowered her head with a sad look, then started moving towards the entrance. Were we really going to leave these people here?
I quickly followed her, noticing how silently she moved. She could’ve done this without me. She was so quiet, I hardly heard her. We barely made it to the first intersecting path when I heard the footsteps in front of us. Adalina and I quickly moved into the hallway. However, where I blended into the shadow, she seemed to glow. If they turned this way, we were caught.
I shook my head and turned back towards the entrance of the path. I could see the shadows of the men approaching, but it quickly became obvious that these were not men. The shadows were distorted, with horns protruding from their heads. Fear started racing through me, and I turned to look at Adalina. She had already pulled the axe from her back, again so quietly I did not hear it, even though she was standing right behind me. All I had was my pistol, a sword, and a throwing knife. I was certain a pistol shot would cause the tomb to collapse, so all I really had was an extremely insignificant knife and a sword that would not likely pierce the hides of these creatures. I was angry with myself, and my new friends. I vowed I would not be unprepared again.
As the demons approached the entrance, one of them turned our way. Adalina jumped on him before the other had a chance to turn. In one fluid motion, she swung her huge axe in an arc, removing both of their heads. The demons were at least a foot taller than her and as wide as two men, but with the element of surprise, she made killing them look effortless.
She grinned at me and came back to where I was standing. “Now let’s go save those people.” She was enjoying herself.
“But Mikel said we were here to scout, not to engage the demons,” I whispered back.
“You would leave the people here to die so that the Csökkent can summon more of those?” She motioned towards the headless demons at her feet. “Mikel knows I’ll get into a fight. As long as I don’t get you killed, he won’t stay angry for long.” She smiled another wicked smile and continued. “There were four Csökkent, yes? How good are you at hitting your target with that knife?”
“Very good, but I only have one. That would leave three others,” I replied.
She handed me a nicely crafted throwing knife. It had a short handle and wide blade, but it was perfectly balanced. I flipped it in the air and found that it was very well made.
“Now you have two,” she said with a grin, and I smiled back. “I’ll wait for you to kill the first two; it would be best to put those blades in their necks so that they cannot speak.”