It was just after breakfast, Charles’ favorite time of day. On any day, he would sit on his balcony and look out over the city. As a boy, he had wondered why the royal bed-chamber looked directly down on an open marketplace, the sounds of barking stall keepers, the smells of livestock. Still, Charles found the scene magnetic. His people had no modesty. To see them be so nakedly self-interested, vulgar, and wise was like seeing a hawk dive on some varmint. About a month after his coronation, he realized the reason for the bed-chambers’ view. He had told only his wife.
“The more you watch these people, the more you cannot help but love them.”
This afternoon seemed slightly sweeter than most. The sun was dazzling. The sky was so blue it gave one an odd feeling of loneliness. And lonely he was.
“I will kill that boy,” Charles muttered onto the breeze.
“Your grace?” Gillen looked up.
Charles turned to Gillen, “I said I will kill my son’s captors.”
Gillen continued setting the meeting table, “Your grace, if there is anything you need…”
Gillen reached and grasped his King’s arm, “Charles, anything you need. Anything at all.”
Charles smiled and nodded.
The door to the bed-chamber swung open. The guard strode in. “Your grace?”
“You have found my son!?”
“No….” the guard stopped. For an instant, the air in the room hung still.
The King took a breath and then said, “Your news, then?”
The captain stated, “The emissary from the Drain of all Man has arrived. He states that the Tunnel King is approaching.”
Charles studied the man’s face, “Thank you, Captain. Inform him that we can meet as soon as he is rested.”
The captain saluted and turned.
“Your grace?” The captain turned and stood at attention.
Charles spoke without turning his head, “Let’s call the man by his name.”
“Gillen, what do you call a king who takes meetings with heads of state but cannot keep his son from running off on a whim and getting himself kidnapped?”
Gillen stood mute for a moment. Charles always appreciated how thoughtful Gillen was in a conversation.
“I would call him the father of a remarkable young boy. I would say that his son has a will and that all power has its limits, even the power of a king.”
Charles smiled, “Thank you, friend.”
“Of course, your grace,” Gillen moved towards the door. “I will go see if the morning report from the search party has arrived.”
Charles moved to the table and poured himself a glass of wine.
A few weeks before the arrival of the emissary, Prince Jason woke up early and packed a bag. He knew that he must be quick. This could be the last time he would be able to get away from the castle. He had reached a man’s age and his responsibilities were growing. When the King of the Drain arrived later in the month, he knew that he would be swamped with meetings, meals, and hunting trips. This could be his last chance for a day of freedom.
He had made it out of the castle without issue. He had learned early on how to avoid the eyes most interested in keeping him in sight. He stood there in the forest. The air was heavy with dew. False dawn crept over the peaks to the east. He walked deeper into the trees and eventually came to a bluff along the river. He sat and took out a bit of bread and cheese for his breakfast. As he ate, he closed his eyes and listened. He attempted to break down all of what he was hearing, all the chattering of tiny creatures in the understory. He heard birds and the rolling of the river over rocks below. Beyond all of that, he heard something deeper, something grander. It was a constant, background roar. Upon opening his eyes, he saw that he had unconsciously turned his head to look directly upstream. Just barely visible was the sliver of white against the imposing black cliffs, the great cataract. He felt that if he got a move-on, he would be able to eat his lunch at the pool at its base.
He tilted his head back. Only a few stars were still visible. In the fuzzy twilight, a falling star flashed brilliant; a final offering of the night to any earthbound onlooker before yielding to the tyrannical fire of the sun. The star traced a white line towards the cataract. Jason took this as a sign that he should start his move. He packed quickly and set out.
The day had grown hot when he arrived at the falls. He was dripping sweat and breathing heavily but smiled. The light showed straight down the column of water. The cloud of mist lit up. A halo of color ringed the sun. The roar chased all thoughts of meetings and responsibilities from his mind. He stood, for a moment, in complete still existence. He was blank, transparent. He barely felt like an observer. He was almost as much a part of the scenery as the rock upon which he stood.
He stripped off his clothes and waded into the pool. The cold water brought him back into his own head. After a quick swim, he moved to his pack and began to take out his lunch. He tore a piece of bread with his hands and used his knife to cut off several slices of sausage. He ate quietly.
While he was lifting a piece of salted meat to his mouth, he happened to look toward the top of the falls. Something caught his eye, more like caught in his mind. He felt an urge for the thing, a wanting that came from somewhere inside of him. The craving crept from his stomach up into the very front of his brain. It took over all his will. He threw his things in his bag and ran around the edge of the pool to the cliff face. He began to climb.
Beldyn stood at the edge. She looked out through the noonday sun. The whole valley stood before her. Humans had marked it up with their roads and dwellings, yet the colors of life could still be seen. The green of trees and fields gave her some small hope. She might, one day, be able to lead her people back into the valley.
She had told her father that she wanted to see the edge alone. This was true, but not the entire truth. It had been too long since she had communed. Her tether was so strong and taut it felt like it would rip her from this world. She needed this and needed to be alone when it happened.
She set her feet, closed her eyes, and breathed in the world around her.
The flesh of her back began to warm. Her muscles and sinew shifted. Her bones began to strain against the skin. The pain was incredible but familiar. The skin split and within a few moments, her connection was made. From tip to tip, her wings stretched to the length of four grown men laying head to foot. Her communion had commenced. Most mature demons were proficient with their connection, each manifested differently, but Beldyn had taken great care with hers. She had delved into communing as a child. She had read everything her father could find on the subject. She hounded elder demons, asking about how they communed, what they saw, what they felt. She would sit for hours, even days, meditating on her connection to ensure that she knew her Other and that her Other knew her.
She stretched and the world saw her in full resplendence. The flesh stabilized. She brought them close around her body. For a short time, she was lost in admiring the texture and markings.
She saw the sun and left the ground. As she rose, she felt her wings take her weight. The muscles were amazingly powerful, but to feel them flex as they set her onto the air was an intoxicating sensation. She could fly. She could fly when and where she pleased, the movement. The leaving of two dimensions for three became all that she considered.
She climbed. The river, the rocks, and all of life were now under her. The sky became a dance hall and the white ball of nuclear fire above all was her partner. She reached an apogee and went into a dive. The air began to roar in her ears. If she were to hit the rapidly advancing earth, she knew she would die but part of her felt like it would be the earth that would shatter, shatter into tiny bits that a being as powerful as her could soar through and rearrange as she pleased.
Then, she saw something that broke her moment of rapture. A face, a human face. The creature was clinging to the cliff face, staring at her with mouth agape. Her exultation turned to indignant rage. She aimed her dive at him. He could do little but attempt to hold onto the rock face as she plucked him into the air. Her quarry struggled until she squeezed him to her bosom. She had the strength to crush him. His spine would snap and his insides would become soup. She hoped the creature would understand this and cease to struggle.
The creature did not.
While still flying, she felt a twinge of pain in her ribs. She looked down and saw a small trickle of blood. The blood was coming from the cut on her side. The cut with the creature’s knife laying gingerly inside it. The thing had wrapped himself around her and was holding a pitiful kitchen blade.
“If you kill me,” she said calmly, “we will fall and both of us will die.”
“If I kill you, you die. Think of nothing else,” was the whelp’s reply.
The knife rested a little deeper inside of the scratch it had made. She looked into the boy’s eyes and saw fear. She also saw that he was clearly intent on following through with the threat.
“All right then, little squirrel,” she turned to head back to the edge of the bluff.
The two set down on the wet rocks. She released him and he stepped back, removing the knife. They stood in silence for a moment.
Beldyn broke it, “So, what brings a human to the land of demons?”
The boy’s fear began to show in earnest now. He visibly shook as he responded. “I, I saw something. I was at the bottom of the cliff. I was sitting next to the pool and I looked up. I saw something beautiful and I…,” he broke off.
“And you started climbing,” Beldyn finished.
The boy straightened and steeled himself, “Yes. I saw you, didn’t I?”
Beldyn smiled, “Humans react differently to seeing demon magic. Some are repelled and some are enthralled.” She looked down at the cut made in her flesh. “But, they always react the same way to demons.”
Jason held his knife and studied the demon. He had never been in a fight, never cut an opponent, never seen a demon much less flew with one. His nerves were screaming and precise. It took some effort, but he eventually regained control of himself. Across from him was a monstrous being. The demon’s strength was unlike anything he had ever experienced. She could tear him limb from limb if given the opportunity. He had learned that much. She was also the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Jason of House Cairn, Prince of TuGrayn.”
The demon’s face changed. The thing seemed to go rigid.
“You realize that your house is the suffering of my people?” it spoke through grit teeth.
“I know that demons want us out of our own land. I know that raids on our outer villages take the lives of our herds,” he focused his entire being on holding the Demon’s gaze. “As well as the lives of our men, our children, and old women.”
The demon seemed to be contemplating a response when her gaze shifted to something behind him. Her face was suddenly fearful and she screamed “NO!” She kicked Jason in the chest so that he flew backward. Suddenly, the world erupted. A monumental hunk of stone struck the very spot where Jason had been standing. He landed on his back and began to try to suck air back into his lungs. Her kick had sent him flying, saving his life by nearly crushing his ribcage.
Jason looked at the hunk of stone. It had apparently fallen from the sky. He turned to see what had made the she-demon so fearful. He saw a tremendous figure walking out of the treeline. There was no guessing at this figure’s identity. Jason knew it from its terrible reputation. Reports and stories told of a gargantuan demon leader. This being walking towards him had been known to raze villages and strongholds by raining rods of earth from the sky. This demon had to be Marcus. Marcus’ name came up regularly in Jason’s father’s war councils. Generals spoke of him with hatred and a muted awe. They called him “Marcus the Pillar” or “Stone.”