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|The Raven has long struggled against the demon infesting his soul. Now the demon is sending him nightmares and hallucinations. It seems only two choices remain: futile resistance, or death. This story is meant to provide some background and development to the character the Raven.||
I stared at the tracks as the morning dew slowly soaked through the knees my ratty old trousers. Two deer, likely a doe and a fawn, had passed by here only a few hours ago. No dew had settled into the tracks yet, which meant that I was close. Well, relatively speaking. Deer can cover a lot of ground in a few hours, and does were particularly cautious this time of year.
I stood slowly, shaking my head to clear it. Why was I even here? I had enough smoked meat and greens back at my camp to hold me down for days yet. And here I found myself, down off the mountainside and deep in the forest, tracking animals that I had no business hunting. The bird calls that filled the air seemed accusatory; one blue jay in a tree above me was particularly vocal. His persistent “Thief! Thief!” call was grating on my nerves.
“Hypocrite.” I muttered, and earned myself what I could only assume was a scowl from the jay.
I rolled my shoulders, trying to think why I was down here. I had been restless this morning, but that wasn’t unusual. Loneliness was a bitter enemy to fight, striking like a hammer and then vanishing like smoke when your blood was high. Maybe a hunt would do me good. Maybe the taste of blood on my lips would…
This time I shook myself more violently. I should have suspected from the beginning. I had to admit, He was getting more subtle. Spilling blood was always hard on me, and had not gotten any easier as the decades passed. He was pushing me now, in the hopes he could find a way through the walls I had built. For all the hundred years he was battering at them, it had done him no good. So, finally, it seemed, the demon was getting sneaky.
“Not today.” I said aloud. Turning myself resolutely away from the trail and towards the mountains. It was a misty morning up there; clouds crowned the highest of the peaks with silver vapors, while further down the mountainsides the mists had been dissipated long since. The peaks rolled and rambled across the horizon like jostling gods, eager for a good seat at the edge of the action. Their jagged beauty never ceased to amaze me.
I stepped out towards them and felt better already.
* * *
I arrived at my camp refreshed. It was noon by this time, and the sun had conquered most of the shadows. Up here, the light warmed the rocks and made basking an attractive activity. I slung my small pack into its familiar corner and sank down with a relieved sigh.
My camp was really little more than a natural cleft in the rock that offered some shelter from the elements. I’d salvaged some canvas and used it to cover the opening when the winter storms got really bad, but I’d be lying if I said the cold really bothered me. Nothing much did, to tell the truth. After so long, discomfort became something that was better off ignored. I couldn’t really afford many mundane distractions, anyway.
My belongings were rather pathetic; a longbow that was slowly rotting away, and was useless to me anyway; a small pile of crudely tanned hides that I’d yet to find a use for; my store of smoked meats; and a pile of old books, stacked carefully at the back of the cave and protected from the elements as much as I could. Some days, those books were all that kept me sane.
I looked out over the land to the west. It was a sea of green, as spring turned over into summer at last. Summer was short this far north, so everything was taking advantage of the sun while it could. The deciduous trees had clothed themselves in leaves and blossoms, and out beyond the woods the grasses had resurrected themselves once again from yellowed corpses. A shining blue river wounds its way through the forest like a massive worm, crawling inexorably towards the distant coast, yielding icy melt-waters to the mighty ocean.
Something flickered at the edges of my vision, and in a moment the land disappeared. Heat washed over me. Flames sprang up on either side. My mother was screaming, and my father was dragging me away…down a street lined with fire. The dead walked out of the flames and reached for me, as if to welcome me into their personal hell. But my father refused to stop, and when I looked up at him he was not my father anymore.
The thing was half again as tall as a man, with a canine snout filled with black teeth. There the resemblance to a wolf ended. Its skin was smooth and hard, covered in armored scales that reflected the flames eerily. It stood slightly hunched, as if the massive muscles of its shoulders twisted its back. Its limbs ended in a fistful of claws the length of daggers, and these were already wet with blood. Its eyes were the true horror, though; not just black, but deep, like a pool of tar that extended down into the depths of the earth…
We stopped. With one shining claw, He pointed.
There she was. She hadn’t been there, when my home burned. She shouldn’t have been there.
Alanna. Lying in the street, like my father had. Bleeding, like my father had.
Dying. Like everyone else.
I couldn’t go to her. I was just a boy here, just a frightened child that knew nothing except fear and the grief gathering like a thunderhead. I could only stare as the demon grinned down at me, laughing low in its throat, with a sound like a rusty bonesaw.
I managed to tear my hand away, at last, and found myself lying facedown on the rocks, bleeding from a gash above my eye. I reached up with my left hand, and felt the stinging tingle as it simply passed right into my flesh. I pulled it away, looked down at it. It was so easy, sometimes, to forget what had happened, that I was surprised by my arm’s appearance.
It was a blue, misty ghost of what it had once been. It had been torn away by a loathsome magic, leaving only soul behind. There, laid bare for all to see, was the core of my being. Veins of blackness, like some vile infection, webbed my arms like blood vessels. They were the demon’s stamp on me, the footholds of His possession.
I glanced up at the sky. The sun was now sinking towards the west. Hours had passed during my brief hallucination. I shuddered. Seldom had the demon showed his power over me so boldly. The effort to show me that nightmare... Was He getting impatient? Desperate? Somehow I doubted it.
More frightening than the hallucination itself was what it entailed. I had been in his control for hours, apparently, and hadn’t noticed it. He was gaining the upper hand. After all this time, his subtle worming was getting the better of me. Bloodlust, grief, old fears… he was using every lever he had on me to push me over the brink, to where he could take over once and for all.
I took a long, shuddering sigh. I had always known this day would come. There was only one thing to do. I stood, a little unsteadily, and looked up towards the jagged crown of mountains.
Artemis would know what had to be done.
* * *
It was a long walk, up through the mountain pass. The temperature had dropped fast, and the wind had picked up and now shot daggers of cold into my exposed skin. This kind of cold was difficult to ignore, even if I knew I didn’t have to worry about frostbite. The rock rose on steep cliffs on either side of me, and the clouds that had once been nothing but a beautiful halo from down below had become freezing veils of icy water. The way was slippery, and I was more than a little bruised from the journey. Night had fallen in the mountains, but I continued on. It was reckless, perhaps downright foolish, but I knew that stopping to sleep could give the demon just the opening he needed.
At last, as the sun’s rays were just beginning to banish the velvet darkness, I started the final ascent. I crested the ridge just as the sun dawned-
-And stepped from the frigid cold of the mountains into a warm summer’s day.
Green grass rose to my knees, whispering with a gentle breeze. I looked behind me, watching as the rest of the mountains made their war upon this little glade. It was like a dome of warm summer had hidden itself here, near the mountain peaks, and stubbornly refused to yield to logic or reality. The winds could howl, and the mountains could vent their wrath for a thousand years, and this little pocket would not even tremble.
The grass extended downhill and away from me. The entire pocket was like a gigantic bowl, and at the very bottom stood the only structure. A magnificent statue of an angel stood at the entrance. Fully armed and armored, it bore a great, flaming sword, poised to smite whatever enemy foolish enough to oppose it.
Two parallel rows of stone columns had once flanked a cobblestone pathway to the entrance to the temple. All had fallen to the stone, one even seeming to have melted into the rock, subjected to some great conflagration of heat. Old scars of fiery battle dotted the valley and the temple. The Temple proper was a pentagonal tower, rising from the grass, with crags of stone capping the tower with some kind of barbaric crown. There was one simple entrance, an open archway that led into shadow. The crown of stone seemed to surround a circular hole in the roof, where beams of sunlight could tumble down to light the temple by day, replaced by starlight at night.
The Temple of Mariel, Queen of Angels. And beneath it, I knew, the Arsenal of Heaven.
I took a step through the grass, and felt a convulsion ripple through me. I blinked, and suddenly I was on my knees. My vision flickered again, and I groaned, trying to fight Him off, but I was too weak, too weak by far…
I walked forward in darkness, the cold iron of manacles digging into my wrists. I was drowsy, and everything was indistinct in the dark. I felt only the vague beginnings of fear and panic somewhere in my stomach, but something was keeping me from lashing out, from struggling. I was cripplingly lethargic, and it was all I could do to shuffle forward, following the chains into the darkness.
I emerged into a larger chamber, looking up briefly to see stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Then my eyes turned to the front, and I felt true terror overtake me. There, clothed all in black and with a cruel grin, was Valvich. The man born to lead the armies of the demon lord Daerniss. The man who had murdered my father, and Alanna.
The man who would make me what I was.
His long white hair was streaked with ebony, and his eyes flashed a poisonous green. I looked away from him, my fear ripping through me even as my body refused to respond. I didn’t even struggle against the chains. I followed the shining metal with my eyes to see that my wardens were none other than Norg demons, Daerniss’ spawn.
And on Valvich’s right stood Him. He looked down at me with victory sprawled across his grotesque features. Valvich turned towards the demon, his smile turning to a look of concentration as he began to mutter arcanely under his breath. He reached into his cloak and brought forth a long, thin dagger.
On the blade a rune glowed a pale green, sickly and malevolent. It consisted of a flowing, bending square, from which lines emerged from all four corners. The lines bent after only a little while, curling and intersecting in a complex manner until one was indistinguishable from the others. Slowly, he raised the dagger, and started cutting into the all-too-willing demon.
The blade sliced easily into the armour, drawing forth blood from the well of the demon’s heart. He made a long line that was soon filled with bright green blood that drizzled in rivulets down the demon’s chest. The expression on the Norg’s face was peaceful, showing no pain or discomfort. With careful, precise slowness, Valvich began to carve the rune that glowed on the knife into the Norg’s chest, reproducing the elaborate lines and curves exactly. When he was finished, blood flowed freely from the long, calligraphic wounds that stood out in bright green on the demon’s torso. He raised the long, slender knife high above his head, and suddenly his slow murmurs became a yell.
Then he drove the blade into the demon’s chest. With a roar that tore at my ears and crawled up my spine, the demon sank to its knees even as green smoke poured out of the wound. With a crackling sound of power, the smoke suddenly collapsed into the knife, and the blade drank in the Norg’s essence.
The demon collapsed, drained of its life. Valvich turned to me, holding the knife aloft as it glowed a malevolent green that clawed at my eyes. He smiled, one last time, raised the blade, and drove it down into my chest.
The knife didn’t cut. It didn’t break bones. It did something far worse. It plunged into the depths of me and released its toxin, and the green poison became the choking blackness of the Norg’s soul as it bound itself to me like a parasite. I could feel it, every inch of it, clinging to my soul…
Pain and despair welled suddenly. I cried out…
I was on my back in the grass. I was clutching my chest, and felt tears on my face. I looked down, expecting to see the knife standing out from my chest. But there was no mark. Only the shaky feeling of lost control.
I sat up. “Valvich is dead.” I told myself. “I tore out his heart. He is dead.”
But I am not.
I clutched my head as waves of rolling laughter filled my mind. I tried to dig my fingers in, to wrench the demon out with my bare hands, and failed miserably. He had spoken to me in its own tongue, demonic and bone-grinding, the language of chaos and death and hate. And I had understood Him. I was too close to the edge. I was losing control.
It was time to end all of this.
“Artemis!” I cried, my voice full of pain. “Artemis!”
I kneeled there, in the grass, fighting the demon for every inch of control. He mocked me, but I was able to fight off his hallucinations. I had to keep control for just long enough…long enough…
After an eternity, I looked up, and saw him coming. At first it looked like a burst of light had ripped open the sky and a slash of white fire had leapt from beyond the veil. Then, as the flames approached, I realized I was seeing something else.
The flames were wings, and Artemis was at the center of them.
They extended for hundreds of yards on either side of him, and instead of the human figure at the center I had expected, he was something else. He had no flesh, no armor; his muscle was righteousness, his bones law. He was holy will incarnate. With a mighty flap of the wings of fire he propelled himself across a sky that knew no glory save his.
With a rumble his feet slammed into the ground, his wings spreading back and away, holy, cleansing fire running their length. He was a being of light, of such purity of purpose and power that it blinded me to look upon him.
Suddenly, the vision of fire and holiness faded as the demon temporarily retreated before this vision. My spiritual sense had been briefly heightened, and it seemed I had seen Artemis as he truly was. Now, as he stood before me, I saw something else. Here was a massive figure, fully armored and helmed in ivory-white steel, with dove-white wings spreading from his shoulders. He bore a hammer in his hands, its head massive and stained with old demonic blood, its handle as long as I was tall. On closer inspection, his armor bore signs of battle; claw marks had gouged the steel deeply, and it shone silver where it had been wounded.
I had fought by his side before, against Valvich’s armies. He could not deny me.
I looked up into his eyes. “Artemis.” I whispered.
“Raven.” He said. “What brings you here?”
“I need you.” I managed, struggling against a renewed surge by the demon. Apparently the Archangel inspired more hatred than fear.
“End…this.” I whispered.
He was silent, as he stood over me. I averted my eyes, trying so hard to concentrate. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in…I had to keep fighting.
“Raven,” Artemis began in a kind voice. “You must carry on. Your burden-”
“I’m losing control!” I shouted, then shut my eyes as the demon launched into a furious blasphemy, cursing the angel from the back of my mind. “He’s too strong…and getting stronger. He shows me things, visions, memories. He twists them, to make them like nightmares.”
“Raven, you must be strong.” Artemis said. “Fight him as long as you can…”
“I’ve fought him for a hundred years and more!” I cried. “Please, Artemis. Please. You have to stop me!”
The archangel drew back a step. I fell back to my knees, my breathing coming in gasps and sobs now. The voice was devouring my mind, and I couldn’t concentrate anymore…
I heard myself repeating the words over and over: “Stop me, stop me, stop me…”
“I don’t know if I can.”
I looked up again into the angel’s eyes. His glance flicked to my soul-arm, veined as it was with throbbing chaos. I knew what that chaos could do. With that arm, I had torn out the heart of Ian Valvich.
“I can’t let him gain control.” I said. “Artemis, for all I’ve done…don’t let him take me…”
Finally, in great sadness, the archangel nodded.
I steeled myself for the blow. Things had happened so fast, it seemed surreal. Only this morning, I had been hunting in the woods…and now? Now, release.
Artemis raised his great hammer.
And the demon surged forward.
It felt like someone in a crowd grabbing your shoulder and hauling you back. Suddenly it was like I saw everything from a great distance, and that my limbs had been spirited away. I could see, hear, taste and feel, but none of it was mine anymore, it had all been taken away.
I fought him. With all my strength, I hurled myself forward, towards control, but he batted me aside and grew stronger from my struggles. And as the hammer fell towards me, and release was in sight, the demon moved.
He lunged upward from his knees and grabbed the hammer, stopping its irrevocable descent easily. His – my- soul arm flashed upwards, reaching for Artemis’ heart. The angel flung himself away, wrenching the hammer free again and swinging it for his head. He ducked it easily, and then flung himself forward once again, reveling in his control as I watched helpless and bound.
I raged and wept inside as he advanced on the angel. Artemis was backpedaling now, fighting the demon but unprepared for his speed or strength. His hammer seemed to move sluggishly through the air, never even coming close to striking him. At last, Artemis saw an opening, and lunged forward, hammer raised for the blow.
The demon sprang forward, knocking the angel out of the air and hurling him to the ground. He stood over the angel, clenching his soul-fist, readying himself for the glorious kill. And afterwards, he would drink the angel’s blood, and ignore its burning…
I launched myself forward with all my strength, broke the walls he had used to imprison me in my own mind. My arms were mine, and my legs, and my eyes and ears…
I lurched away from Artemis, feeling the convulsions as the demon tore me up inside, raging as I snatched away his victory. I stumbled and fell. I heard Artemis’ footsteps behind me, looked up and behind as he held out a hand to me.
“Raven? Are you back?”
I bit back a snarl as the demon came forward for a split second. It was too much, too much with the angel there in harm’s way. But if Artemis couldn’t help me…
“Get away!” I screamed, doubling over again. “Get away, or he’ll kill you. He’s too strong…I’ll get him away from the temple and the Arsenal. Just…get out of my way…”
“Raven, I will not abandon you.”
I lurched to my feet, grabbed the angel by an edge on his breastplate, and with terrible, demonic strength, lifted him into the air. “Artemis!” I shouted into his face. “Go!”
I hurled him skyward with all my strength, wondering at the power that flowed through me. I watched the angel hurtle through the air before spreading his wings with a snap. With a roll and another flap he propelled himself up and into a loop. A moment later, he hovered above me, his wings rolling in the air like a harrier’s.
“Get clear of the Arsenal if you can!” he shouted down to me. “I will shadow you.”
“No!” I yelled back. “You can’t stop me. Stay here. If I…He… comes back, you’ll want to fight him on your ground.”
Artemis, at last, grudgingly nodded, and with another few flaps of his outstretched wings, he was gone. I turned and stumbled away. My vision was flickering and I felt as if His claws were digging into my shoulders, hauling and tearing at me, trying to gain control.
* * *
I don’t remember much of my journey down the mountains. It was pure luck that I didn’t fall to my death… or some capricious torment of fate. The demon took control a few times, but I held him off somehow until we were nearly at my camp.
I could see the tiny opening of my dwelling, and something went out of me. Maybe the sight of home made me relax unconsciously. Whatever the case, the demon took its chance then. It tore through my paper-thin mental barricades and took control. I slunk back into the far reaches of my mind, wounded terribly and bleeding memories. I was so tired…I had been fighting for so long that rest had become something foreign. He had been weakening me all this time, I realized, and now I could only watch in horror as he stood to my full height, took a deep breath into my lungs, and defiled my tongue with the Norg language.
“Now I shall have all the blood that you denied me, mortal. All the blood in the world.”
|Tribunal Part II: Infiltration||The Fallen Moon Part 5|
|Tribunal Part V: At the Arsenal of Heaven||The Fallen Moon Part 9|
Godhunter Part IX: Rifts
|The Fallen Moon Part 3|