Creation and destruction, an endless cycle of hope and despair. One cannot exist without the other, yet neither can they be equal, balanced. In Summer, the enlightened hours stretch like cats basking in the sunlight. In Winter, darkness curls close around our shivering flesh. Each day a battlefield as the Dusk and Dawn wax and wane.
The fighters of Solana and Aria threw back the demon horde with unified defiance, slaughtering the monstrosities until carcasses piled high across the Golden Fields. Yet still, the Demonastery spewed out an endless flow of aberration.
Days of courageous defense stretched into weeks of desperate withdrawal. Despite the struggle and sacrifice, the remaining towns fell. Dorinthea held the road, her knights giving their all—and their ultimate—to protect the last refugees of Solana’s once proud sovereignty. As the final straggler limped through the gateway, Ironsong ordered the retreat. Lightning-tipped arrows rained down from the ramparts, Lexi’s rangers forming a bulwark of elemental mortality. They held the foe at bay as the remaining Rosetta, Ollin, and Hand of Sol fled behind the safety of Solana’s walls.
The last of the eight great gates swung closed with monumental grace. Its sealing kiss forged such a resounding peal of metal on metal that it rang like a temple bell across the city. Dorinthea looked at the people she had saved, the blood-smeared faces of parents clutching ragged children, too shocked, too exhausted to cry. Dorinthea clenched her teeth against the acid guilt that rose like bile in her throat. The Hand of Sol had vowed to protect these people, a promise in their Aesir’s name, a just reward for years of worship and service. Now livelihoods were gone, homes burned, loved ones killed and consumed. They had failed. Dorinthea had failed -- again.
“I know that look,” said Boltyn as kindly as he could, though weariness made his words sound brittle. “We held them longer than we thought. Saved more lives than we hoped.”
“We can thank our friends from Aria for that.”
“Yes, and we can thank Sol. We prayed and Sol answered.”
Dorinthea was about to answer when she noticed a twist in the gathering dusk. Like a worm, it writhed in the corner of her eye. It sent a slimy shiver down her spine. She spun and stared into the crowd. Refugees stared back, eyes bleary. She looked from gaunt faces to smooth facades, casting a sentinel’s scrutiny across the surrounding buildings. Nothing to see but the straight and white - washed lines of armories and barracks, as yet untouched by war.
“Something wrong?” asked Boltyn.
Perhaps a trick of her tired mind, born from the horrors she had witnessed. This was a sanctified city, centuries of arcane artifice etched into every brick and slate. From outer wall to inner sanctum, conduits and runes flowed and connected, flooding the streets and structures with Sol’s divinity.
Dorinthea shook her head. “Let’s find these people some food and shelter.”
Once, and only once, had the Demonastery manifested their foul creations within the city, exploiting a lone frailty left unnoticed over centuries of peace. Thebasto, Magister of Defense, had since eliminated that weakness. The runes were stronger than ever. No Shadow could survive within Solana’s sublime architecture.
In the days to come, Solana’s faith proved out as the city’s runic ramparts thwarted the Demonastery’s endless tide. Time and again they attacked, only to retreat, bloodied and broken, leaving ever more shattered carcasses in their wake like flotsam on a beach. Though their hearts bled for the lands and lives lost beyond the walls, Solana’s champions allowed themselves to breathe, to sleep. In Sol’s embrace, they were safe.
At dusk on the sixth day of the siege, the attacks suddenly abated. Perhaps even the Demonastery’s wanton appetite had soured over the waste of monstrous meat.
That very evening, within the bright heart of the Great Library, the allies drew their plans against the besieging horde. For even the gardens of Octogria could not feed so many for long. Solana had to strike back with a mortal blow, or suffer the slow death of starvation.
Shiyana’s clear voice rang out through the Scholars Assembly as she spoke of the Dimenxxional Gateway -- the Demonastery’s only bridge to the infinite malice of the Embra’s íArathael. Through substantial cost to their order, the Gemini had discovered a path to the portal and the faces of those few Shadow scholars able to control it.
“Our brave Gemini emissaries have brought us a gift beyond anything we might have hoped for,” implored Shiyana. “A way to end this war once and for all.”
Beside her, Prism nodded her agreement, yet it was Dorinthea who spoke. “We must go now, for Solana.” She looked to Bravo and Lexi, Briar and Oldhim, and the brave folk of Aria who remained. “For all of Rathe.”
Behind Dorinthea’s steely gaze, Minerva tumbled over and over into that inky rift on Morlock Hill. Was her friend still alive, held somewhere in the Demonastery? Was it better if she were dead?
Across the hall, Boltyn stood and raised his hands, begging patience. “While Dorinthea speaks true, I have seen the Gemini’s reports. They have sacrificed much, yet we know little of what we shall face beyond the veil. We must prepare. We might not get a second chance.”
Bravo rose to his feet, wincing as his muscles pulled at the bandaged wound on his broad chest. “A storm is coming, and it will shake their damned house to its very foundations. Am I right?!”
The Ollin answered in thunderous agreement, an uproar of such fervor, such courage, that it tugged a smile from even Ser Boltyn’s stern lips.
As the noble assembly dispersed to make its preparations, another parlance was only beginning. Nestled within the entrails of the Demonastery, walled in by Shadow-born runes, the Iron Maiden addressed the Redeemed.
“A mere window, narrow and fragile,” murmured Vynnset, her words slurred and ephemeral. Most of her mind was elsewhere, holding another conversation that only she could hear. “Nasreth promises nothing more.”
Levia regarded Vynnset with eyes of chilling violet. Her beauty belied the beast within. Her grace concealed the hunger.
“It is all I need.”
Vynnset looked to the trembling man at her feet, plucked from his knightly armor like a soft snail from its shell. On each side, a half dozen of his comrades mirrored his misery. Thirteen in all.
Vynnset pressed the curved blade to his throat, gripping his filthy blond hair with her free hand. She whispered, sharp enough for Levia to hear over the blood sack’s whimpering.
“Apostate of the Ages,” she intoned. “That which you have sewn, I shall reap. Thirteen, I give you, to honor the lives given so long ago. We remember your disciples, our Magister of Shadow, as we remember you.”
A howl echoed through the rafters above them as if from a gust of wind, though they were fathoms underground. The obsidian floor warmed, becoming as pliable as living ebony skin.
“Thank you, my Lord,” whispered the Iron Maiden as she drew the blade across the knight’s throat.
One after the other, she exsanguinated her Solanian captives. The blood had little time to pool before the fleshy floor drank it down. As the last drop dissipated, the chamber’s runes flared with livid hues, turning from a bruised purple to a bright arterial red.
Levia turned to the archway that dominated the zenith of the chamber, watching as it filled with a churning darkness. With neither hesitation nor doubt, she stepped into the sable embrace of the Dimenxxional Gateway.
Back in Solana, as exhausted folk slumbered, their tireless defenders preparing for the bold task ahead, a boy stepped out of a doorway and onto the quiet street. He stood there for a moment, as if taking in the night air, yet his chest moved not a muscle. His face was a rictus mask in the moonlight. His eyes -- once a warm brown that could melt his mother’s heart -- were now sunken into pits of shadow.
“Caylin? Why are you out of bed?”
His mother placed a hand on his bare shoulder. She gasped as her hand withered, her arm blackened. A croak escaped her desiccated throat. Bones, healthy but moments before, shattered as her corpse hit the floor.
The boy walked down the street, not once looking back. Others joined him, women and men of varying ages, a couple of children. By the time they reached the wall, they numbered thirteen.
Sentinels tried to block them on the steps. The thirteen scattered their chalky bones with bare, gray-veined feet. Others held their posts, greeted these roaming refugees with calm questions of concern, then sharp shouts of warning. All fell, their flesh shriveled around crumbling bones.
Once the slaughter was done, the thirteen formed a half circle on the alure. They clasped hands and recited the rite that their lord and master, the Apostate, had taught them so many years ago. In that moment, those thirteen disciples, raised anew in stolen flesh, made their final vow to the woman who watched them from the battlefield below.
Levia the Redeemed answered with a roar. As she surrendered her body to Blasphomet, the thirteen surrendered their souls to the Apostate. Shadow spewed forth, emptying their borrowed vessels. It poured down onto the wall, corroding the stones, drowning their hallowed runes in corruption. It swept from battlement to base like a wave of decay.
“A moment, fleeting at best.”
Even as the wall gleamed around the darkened stain; even as light burned at the clinging gloom -- containing, cleansing -- Levia the Consumed struck the rampart with all of her primordial strength. Stones that had withstood thousands of years now splintered under that gargantuan blow. The wall gave way with an ear-shattering crack and the Consumed broke through into the sleeping city beyond.
Lexi rushed out onto the barrack roof. Her breath caught in her throat as she took in the clouds of dust and smoke. Briar joined her moments later.
“Flow save us,” she whispered as the clouds parted.
Dorinthea and Boltyn rallied a vanguard of those closest at hand, warriors and illusionists of Solana rushing into the fray with the wizards and runeblades of Aria. They led them against the creatures that surged into the city around the towering Consumed. They cut through the Demonastery’s slavering shock troops, buying precious moments for fleeing citizens. Yet they were too few to hold back the tide for long. Half their number fell in the first charge, more as their formation buckled under the sheer weight of the onslaught.
“To the Solarium!” ordered Boltyn, the Wartune’s blessings ringing in his ears. With Dorinthea at his side, Boltyn held the line until the last of the surviving allies had broken free.
Oldhim and Bravo mustered their guardians, leading them toward the column of char-black dust. With shields raised, they strode against a flood of panic, terrified city-folk and bloodied fighters washing around them.
“Look,” growled Oldhim.
The two armored figures of Ser Boltyn and Dorinthea Ironsong sprinted around a corner, their once-white capes now torn rags flapping in their wake.
“Regroup!” Dorinthea shouted. “The Solarium!”
Behind her, the night sprouted claws and teeth, hooves and horns. Too many horrors to count, coming in fast.
“Shield wall!” bellowed Bravo. “Hold the bastards back as we withdraw!” He raised Anothos; felt it crackle with galvanic might in his white-knuckled hands; its weight more reassuring than he would ever dare to admit.
Up on the Great Library’s highest balcony, Shiyana shook her head; a small act of denial beyond thought or reason. “How?”
The stricken scholar beside her could not answer, unable to drag her focus from her strife-torn city. A thousand stories screamed in her mind, a thousand reasons Sol could never let this happen.
Were they forsaken?
Tears streamed from Prism's eyes, for only they told the truth.
Written by Edwin McRae and Rachel Rees.
Directed by Robbie Wen. Illus. by Sam Yang