A stallion moves through an endless plain. At first glance, he is an intimidating sight: he is broad and powerful, his coat dark, his features grim. He is easily marked out by the sunlight glinting sharply off his armor, gold and silver, adorned with wicked hooks designed to rend the flesh of any opponent who strays too close. His wings are not feathered, but like his armour metallic, fashioned by fire, tongs and hammers, and are equally cruel-looking-- razor-sharp blades of steel that clink softly with each measured step he takes.
There is a certain complexity in his features. Instead of blunt and aggressive, as his armour might suggest, his countenance is mercurial, quiet like the surface of a pond but with the occasional ambiguous disturbance that speaks of something stirring in his depths. Emotion and thought flit elusively across his face like light and shadow playing over the surface of the pond, sunbeams dancing through shifting leaves.
As always, he΄s lost in the wilderness of his mind.
His memory is like indistinct night. He has a rough understanding of the landscape, but the details are nebulous, obscured by drifting clouds and scudding shadows. Dim light filters through here and there, illuminating memories at random-- some of them are startlingly vivid, some vague. But in between those flashes of recognition, there is only darkness.
His later memories, particularly in the last few days before he was changed, are the clearest. His earlier ones are more often tenebrous impressions than solid remembrances of what happened.
White stone and soaring arches against a halcyon sky. His home, his kingdom-- he would defend it as long as life remained in him. Hot breath and sticky-wet blood and the desperation that filled every precious heartbeat. Each second slowed to a torturous crawl, yet when it was over, the feeling that it had taken no time at all. And throughout it all, despite the knowledge that he was a breath away from death at every moment, exhilaration. Battle coursed like blood through his veins. Fight, to keep the peace. The contradiction rang in his soul, seeming to resonate as a higher truth.
Such conviction. He feels both wry and wistful, thinking about it. How wonderful it would be to return to a time when he was certain he knew the world and where he fit in it. He thinks that he was young and arrogant, and his righteous ideas were naive at best, but it was its own kind of peace.
He can remember countless hazy battles, most of them victories. He can remember attaining fame and glory with his daring exploits (he can also remember that he was rash and headstrong, and in spite of his popularity with the masses, never rose to the top of the ranks: strategy and pragmatism weren΄t high on his list of priorities). And he can remember, most clearly of all, his eventual defeat-- of sorts.
He can΄t remember his name.
He was a knight, though. That part seems as though it was the most significant element of his identity, and that who he was came second to what he was. So it΄s how he thinks of himself now-- Knight. It΄s as good a name as any, though he΄s not sure how much claim he has to it anymore. The only war he fights these days is internal.
He tries not to think about that, though. Yet he has hours to fill, and the thoughts are like a disease, never eradicated completely, always creeping back so slyly they escape notice at first.
He was almost fully healed and impatient to return to the battlefield. The sensation of being without wings was a strange one, and the inability to fly would hamper him somewhat, but it was simply another challenge to be dominated. He was eager to look into the eyes of the ones who had burned and torn his wings away, eager to smile, because he hadn΄t betrayed the secret of his kingdom they had sought with their torches and knives. He was the victor.
They should have realized they couldn΄t break him; even outside of the kingdom, he was famed for his iron will. Everyone said that steel could be shattered more easily than his determination, and it was true.
The metal wings he had had fashioned to wear were like blades, without flight or function but a symbol for the enemies to see. Do what they would to him; he would rise to fight again, more deadly than even he was before.
His old rancor towards the ΄enemies΄ amuses him now. They were military from a kingdom no different from his own, each seeking to expand their boundaries and squabbling over territory.
Of course, that wasn΄t why he was captured and tortured-- or not entirely. The information they wanted is in another memory he still retains, this one jumping between clarity and confusion. He shies away from this recollection, because it΄s too closely related to the subject he tries to avoid thinking about. But the memory is only too eager to fill the void in his head, and without realizing it, he is going over it again, obsessive.
The dungeons beneath the Guild of Sorcerers were meant for those prisoners who could not be held by mere chains and bars: rogues of their own kind. Few knew of the prison; the magic-wielders would never allow their image of shining benevolence to be tarnished with the realization that sorcerers weren΄t higher beings, but creatures with weaknesses and vices like any others. His hooves echoed along the rough-hewn corridor as he helped two of them escort a new prisoner to his cell. Torches threw their wavering, insubstantial shadows over the stony walls.
A scream from another cell at the end of the corridor. The primal cry of some deranged beast, hoarse and ragged, going on and on, flailing through a dozen panting pitches. The cell door exploded from its frame with a hollow boom and clattered to the floor.
Down the corridor and into the tiny room to find a reptile, something that once might have been a draik, but now was some black, creeping half-creature that looked as though it had dragged itself in agony from the underworld where nightmares were born. All angles, ribs and jutting shoulders, torn leathery wings and a face contorted with pain. Its eyes were blank and white, as though a milky film had bled into its pupils and obliterated them. It snarled and shrieked without cease, and for a moment Knight thought he could see something like smoke curling off its rotting black scales in dense tendrils. The creature΄s emaciated arm quivered with tension as it strained against its magical bonds, every vein and tendon standing out starkly, fingers flexing. Spittle ran down its chin, and what teeth it had left gnashed furiously. And then the magical chains snapped and it was free.
Magic blazed through the cell, the other sorcerers fighting to restrain the creature, and Knight lost track of which spell came from whom as he backed out, unable to fight a battle of this kind. Light was painted across his vision in shining streaks.
And then it was over, and the creature had been shackled with magic once more. The sorcerers told Knight he had witnessed something the rulers of their kingdom wished to remain secret, and as soon as he heard that, he knew he would speak no word of it to anyone. His loyalty was unshakable; the word of his king was law. He wouldn΄t even wonder what exactly it was that he had seen, would refuse to contemplate it, because that in itself would be akin to disobeying. Treason was born in the mind before it progressed to action, after all.
Magic was nothing to do with him, and praise the skies above for that.
Frustration lapped like fire inside him. His wounds seared similarly, most of them simple surface injuries that stained his pale white flanks with blood. They throbbed in time with his aggravation, a raging inferno that swelled and subsided, swelled and subsided.
″But why have the troops been withdrawn?″ His voice grated and his hooves rang sharply on the cobblestones as he paced, full of aggressive energy in need of an outlet. ″We were making headway.″
″We were doing no such thing.″ His fellow soldier΄s calm tone served only to increase Knight΄s irritation. ″Had we not retreated, we would have been crushed.″
″Fine, then! Better to die bravely defending the capital than to crouch, sniveling, behind a magic barrier.″ He punctuated that with a sneer. ″Magic has no place in a war. We win battles with our sweat and our blood and--″
″You have been ranting in this vein for some time now,″ said the other soldier, whose name is now lost in one of the holes in Knight΄s memory. He was a chestnut stallion, whose leggy frame spoke of speed. Unlike Knight, he had allowed his few wounds to be treated. ″It΄s getting tiresome,″ he continued. ″I will die for my kingdom if I must, but I am not such a fool that I wish to throw my life away in a fit of righteous passion.″
Knight ignored the less-than-veiled insult, wheeling about to pace back in the other direction. His metallic wings clinked softly. The noise brought on another twinge of annoyance. Even his own wings and armour weren΄t free of the sorcerer΄s meddling. They were enchanted so as to remain pristine for eternity, impervious to dents or rust, and to weigh very little. The cursed magic-wielders had no right to interfere with proper combat, where victory was earned with effort, courage and honour, not from a distance, cringing safely behind magic walls, sending alien powers at the enemy. As far as he was concerned, those powers were not meant to be touched.
″And what will happen when the barrier fails?″ he demanded. ″We all know magic has its limits. The sorcerers can΄t keep the invading army out for much longer. All they are doing is delaying the inevitable.″
″They must have some plan, or they wouldn΄t have called us back.″
″How can you be so cer--?″ He cut off abruptly, giving his head an irritable shake. His friend was always like this, complacent and calm and accepting, even in the heat of battle. It was a quality Knight grudgingly admired, but it was no less annoying for that.
The city square was playing host to scattered members of the army who had just returned from the battlefield. The civilians had all retreated to their homes, choosing to believe in the illusion that they would be safer there, if and when the invaders from the neighbouring country stormed the capital. Armoured fighters littered the street incongruously, lounging against the white fountain that spouted water in fanciful arcs, sitting on the cobblestone, tending to their own wounds or to those who were too seriously injured to do it for themselves.
Knight felt forced into dishonour by this retreat. Perhaps the numbers weren΄t in their favour, but they had overcome long odds countless times before, and there was no other glory like that of fighting one΄s way to victory against a stronger opponent. Many of his comrades-in-arms seemed to be taking his friend΄s view of things, and seemed perfectly content to relax. What sort of soldier could be content, denied the right to defend his home?
A kyrii came striding down the main avenue, knots of rank on his plain green coat. He wore a vague frown, a crease between his eyes, and his helmet was in his hands. He was turning it over and over without seeming to realize what he was doing.
Knight stopped pacing immediately and fixed the kyrii with an expectant stare. ″What is happening?″ He had a propensity for speaking out of turn, another thing that earned him hard looks and harder words from his superiors.
The kyrii blinked as though roused from deep thought. ″The king has decided to strike against the invading force with magic. The army will not fight any longer.″
Knight΄s strangled oath mingled with similar noises from some of his fellows. ″But what sort of magic could possibly defeat a force of that size? It΄s impossible!″
″Apparently not,″ said the kyrii, with a sour twist to his mouth that said he΄d rather be fighting, too. A fresh cut down one side of his dark-furred face almost mirrored the old scar on his other cheek. ″The sorcerers were vague about their plans, but they seemed confident they had a way to drive them away, out of the kingdom entirely and back into their own.″
His friend the chestnut stallion had moved forwards to join Knight, studying their superior΄s face with slightly narrowed eyes.
The kyrii sighed and tucked his helmet beneath his arm. ″However... I am still uncertain. Officially, we΄re dismissed, but if any of you choose to stay, we may be needed. If things don΄t go according to plan.″ This last was said with a faint note of hope. It seemed Knight wasn΄t alone in feeling without purpose.
″Magic,″ Knight breathed, investing the word with all the scorn he felt.
As if by speaking the word he had commanded it to be unleashed, a deep rumble rose from the depths of the city. Knight felt it before he heard it, vibrating from the ground, up through his hooves and along his legs. The soldiers tensed and silenced, staring around for some visual clue as to what the sorcerers were doing.
The world seemed to slow, and suddenly Knight felt the strange combination of heightened awareness and tunnel vision that usually came only with battle. He saw another soldier shifting from foot to foot and wetting his lips, saw his friend blink with cattle-eyed placidity, unmoved. He heard leaves scrape along the paving stones in a gust of wind, and the ceaseless bubbling of the fountain behind him. And for a moment, he thought he smelled the rank stench of burning feathers that he still associated with imminent pain. It flitted across his consciousness and was gone almost before he registered it.
Noise. It was difficult to identify, at first-- unearthly keening just beyond hearing, the faint roar of something thunderous as heard from a great distance. Knight did not scare easily, but the almost-noise drilled into his brain in a way he΄d never felt, and he was unsettled. Louder, and louder...
A voice. That was what it was. No-- hundreds of voices united into one collective noise from the sky, the senseless scream of some many-throated creature. Deep bass moans that shook the ground, shrill shrieks that burrowed into Knight΄s eardrums, and every pitch in between. Air-shattering howls of agony beyond knowing, of fury beyond placating. Knight gave an involuntary whicker and tossed his head, though it did nothing to clear it. All around him the soldiers stumbled and cringed, covering ears if they could.
Automatically, Knight glanced in the direction of the Guild of Sorcerers. It was miles away, but the top of the pale, silver-streaked building was readily visible, ornate enough for a palace with its sprawling size and golden domes. There was no sign of anything unusual around it.
And then he saw it. Not near the guild, but far above, a blot of darkness against the sky, previously endlessly blue and flawless as if to mock the seriousness of their battle. The darkness spread like ink on parchment, reaching out tendrils of black and covering the sky. Shadow fell as he found himself transported from day to some twisted parody of twilight.
Within moments, there were no more hints of blue. The sky had been obliterated by darkness through which the sun filtered only weakly, leaving them all in a grey city veiled in shadow. It made everything look somehow unreal, as though the lifeblood had drained from the city, leaving only a dessicated shell that might crumble to dust at a touch. Far overhead, that apocalyptic dirge of a voice faded to a muted growl. It was now like thunder over the horizon that heralded an imminent storm, a storm of unequaled rage that would scour life and existence away.
Voices muttered uneasily, and it took a moment to realize his own was one of them. Bad enough to have magic such a palpable presence in the city, even if they rarely saw it. This was something else entirely.
″What are they doing?″ Knight murmured, gazing upward. It was as though the sky itself had died. ″What is this? How will it defeat the invaders?″
He saw faces at the windows of homes, now, citizens peering out uncertainly to look for the source of the sudden darkness, and the bodiless moaning from above.
Knight΄s ears twitched as he heard footsteps pounding on paving stones. A short mynci, incongruous in the stately robes of a sorcerer, darted towards the group of soldiers from the direction of the Guild. He held a fist before him that blazed with light, as though he held a miniature sun, illuminating the dimness. His steps were erratic, panicked; he seemed to hardly know where he was running to or why, blue eyes glazed and terrified in his simian face.
He was nearly upon the soldiers before he seemed to notice them. He waved his free arm in a wild gesture at the lot of them. ″Flee! Flee, for your lives!″ His voice was frayed and hysterical.
″What do you mean?″ their kyrii commander demanded roughly, jamming his helmet back onto his head and striding over. ″What is going on?″ Knight crowded closer. His need to know had wrestled his desire to stay away from magic into temporary submission.
The sorcerer shook his head frantically as if at a loss for words, swallowing several times. ″The others-- I warned them. This magic is not what they thought it was! If you want to live, flee!″
Knight arched his neck arrogantly and pawed the ground, fixing the petrified sorcerer with a firm look. ″I flee from no enemy,″ he announced, bringing an absent, sidelong frown from the kyrii.
The mynci glanced at Knight and grimaced, making a noise than was half groan, half giggle. ″You war types.″ His voice was disparaging, and at another time, Knight might have taken enough offense to do something about it. ″Sometimes courage is just another word for stupidity. Bone-headed idiocy, in fact, to continue to fight something against which there can be no defense, no victory...″ His eyes strayed helplessly skyward. ″But then, we cannot even retreat from this enemy. There is no point in running. We are doomed! Doomed.″ He gave another wild laugh, apparently having forgotten he had just bidden them all to flee.
Knight΄s friend, as always composed in the face of such things, spoke up as though attempting to soothe everyone to calm sensibility. ″Why do you say that? What is happening?″
The sorcerer gestured violently at the sky with his free hand and shook his head. All his movements were jerky and uncontrolled, a marionette with several strings cut. ″I might as well tell you. We are not going anywhere.″ He drew a ragged breath and squared his shoulders, seeming to try and organize his skewed thoughts.
″There are legends, from ages past,″ he said. ″Difficult to translate. We only understand pieces of them. They speak of a great evil, intangible yet all too real, which at one point threatened to swallow the world itself. We don΄t know what it is precisely, but it΄s called the Calamity. When it was free, it incited death, destruction. Chaos ran wild. But it was sealed away by the ancient sorcerers. We don΄t know how. There are theories, but nothing conclusive. The legends are just that-- legends. Probably equal parts fabrication and fact. Where the Calamity came from in the first place, we cannot say, but it seems likely it has been around, why, since the dawn of creation itself.″ Now his voice had taken on the pedantic tone of a professor lecturing his ignorant inferiors, and he seemed calmer for it, clearly in his element.
″This has been a secret guarded by us, the sorcerers, as we΄re the only ones with the ability to unseal the Calamity-- which is perhaps the only piece of knowledge regarding this phenomenon that we retain in full. The king, meddlesome man that he is, found out about it, and he commanded us to unleash it against the invading army. Fool!″ he spat, gaze wandering in hopelessness as he was recalled to his circumstances. The hand holding the light shook, causing shadows to play strangely across his features. ″They have unsealed this evil out of fear of being conquered, without understanding what it is, what it does. And we can΄t control it. We cannot direct it at the invading army! All we did is set it loose, and now it will wander freely and attack whomsoever it pleases, spreading its influence until the whole world--″
″It doesn΄t seem so terrifying to me,″ Knight cut in, having had rather enough of these dramatics. He looked critically at the sky. ″It΄s dark, yes, but what does it do?″
″Watch!″ the sorcerer said. He sounded as though he might burst into tears, or laughter, or both. Hysteria did odd things to someone. Knight did indeed watch. Within seconds, he saw a tendril of darkness break free from the mass overhead and jet swiftly down at the city. It landed without a sound somewhere in the distance, several streets over by Knight΄s estimation. And there was another falling, further away, and then another. It was a rain of blackness, descending on the streets.
Screaming. Knight lowered his gaze and stared around warily. All throughout the city, something was happening, as distant yells echoed from all directions.
″What is it?″ the kyrii demanded of the sorcerer, who had his eyes closed and was murmuring indistinctly under his breath as though begging for help from some higher power. ″Speak, man!″
The sorcerer opened his eyes, but before he could reply, a stream of darkness shot down from the sky and enveloped him.
The shocked cries of the soldiers rang out as the darkness faded, leaving the sorcerer standing just as he had been, light in hand. No, not as he had been; his fur had been transformed to dead black, his eyes white and pupilless. He regarded them with eerie tranquility, none of his earlier panic in evidence.
Thoughtfully, he glanced at the fistful of light he yet held as though wondering what he was doing with such a thing, and allowed it to vanish. The street seemed twice as dark as before. The darkness seemed to be particularly concentrated around the mynci, thicker somehow, and Knight had a brief impression of black smoke swirling around him.
″Are you all right?″ The kyrii approached the sorcerer cautiously. Knight felt irritated at himself; the mynci was surrounded by soldiers who were supposed to be defending the innocent, even a magic-wielder like him, and they hadn΄t even reacted in time to--
The sorcerer lifted his hand, palm outwards, and unleashed a flare of fire that engulfed the captain.
Knight reared back onto his hind legs in alarm, the sudden burst of light imprinted on his vision. Soldiers cried out. The kyrii screamed and flailed senselessly amid the blaze as his men leapt to his aid. The overpowering stench of burning fur and flesh filled the square, clogging Knight΄s nostrils.
″Treason!″ he bellowed, and galloped at the sorcerer headfirst, prepared to gore him on the horn of his helmet. The sorcerer gave an unhinged giggle and faded from existence, leaving Knight to skid to an unsteady halt through the space he΄d just been.
Time and perception seemed to crash into one another and fracture like so many jagged pieces of glass. The kyrii thrashing on the ground until his movements stilled, smoke and char and other rank smells, the shouts of the other soldiers, disorder overwhelming military precision. More darkness jetting down, more, onto several soldiers, onto Knight΄s friend the chestnut stallion, whose coat was suddenly no longer chestnut but black as the mynci΄s had been. ″Interesting,″ he murmured, and that was the last thing he said before trying to kill Knight.
I flee from no enemy.
Yet he fled.
Chaos had usurped the rule of the land.
Knight galloped from the capital, leaving behind milling throngs of panicking citizens. What could he do to protect them from the rain of darkness? All he could do was seek the border of the Calamity's spread, where the sky would now be deepening into a natural purple twilight. It was true that he could not see this border, but it must exist. The blackness that had swallowed the sky surely couldn't have enveloped the entire world yet. He clung to that hope-- no, that fact-- with steely certainty. Outside, he could find others to help contain the thing. Inside, he feared, he would find no aid.
The land crawled with the transformed. Citizens of the kingdom, who might have previously been bakers or blacksmiths or thatchers with the joyful, stolid work ethic that he so respected in his people, had now become mindless creatures of hatred. They seemed to have no purpose but causing random destruction and pain, and the targets were of no matter to them. They attacked the innocent and they attacked one another.
The first city he came to after the capital was full of screams and the solid, sickening sounds of violence. Masses of black figures blocked the streets in slavering hordes of violence, like clots in the city's veins. Crowds of them tore and beat at one another.
So intent were they on one another, Knight was able to slip into a deserted warren of alleys without drawing attention. As he trotted down a narrow lane, barely wide enough to accommodate him, the frightened shrieks of a girl reached his ears.
She appeared ahead of him in an alley that crossed his own, a small yellow zafara in a torn dress with one of her braids coming unraveled. She repeatedly whipped her head around to look back at what was chasing her. ″Father!″ she wailed. ″Father, don't! It's me!″
The father lumbered after her, fur black as soot and eyes empty, arms outstretched as though to choke the life from the girl. Knight barreled forward and rounded the corner, his hooves clanging their familiar war cry on the unevenly-paved ground.
This time, the horn of his helmet struck its intended target. He gored the man through the back, feeling pressure on his muzzle that suddenly lessened as the horn tunneled straight through the zafara's chest and met open air again. He pulled it free, leaving the father to collapse silently forward.
″It's all right now,″ Knight said, raising his eyes to the frightened girl. ″He--″
″You killed my father!″ she screeched insensibly, clawing at her face as though wishing she could tear out her eyes, along with all they had witnessed. ″You're a monster! A--″
A jet of darkness rained onto the girl before he could react, leaving her as black-furred as her father. She stared at Knight for a moment as if wondering who he was, then gave a demented laugh and skittered away.
Knight took a step after her, but then--
At his feet, the father stirred, rose. He gazed down at the clean, gaping wound in his chest, then looked up at Knight. A smile spread like poison across his face, and Knight numbly realized they couldn't die.
He ran once more, quickly outpacing the zafara. Frustration and shame and fury roiled storm-like in his chest.
He felt trapped in a nightmare as he continued his journey to the border of the Calamity. He traveled across infinite, empty fields with something like panic gnawing at his heart. He tried to calm himself with thoughts of making it outside the Calamity's influence and vanquishing it in some grand manner, but unlike his usual imaginings of conquest and victory, these pictures were pale and grey and tinged with uncertainty. How many dead? How could his kingdom ever recover?
He avoided traveling through towns when he could. He was ineffectual against the transformed, and fighting them off would only slow him down.
He trotted over a hill, too weary by now to keep up his breakneck pace. The Calamity was still shrieking and moaning above.
Abruptly, Knight realized it was becoming rapidly louder to his ears.
Instinctively, he lunged in a random direction. From the corner of his eye, he saw a streak of blackness shoot down as if seeking him out personally. It just missed. Knight turned to stare at the where it had hit. The ground was pitted and smoking, as though acid had been poured on it.
He looked at it for another moment, then began to gallop again.
He reached a town of considerable size, too large to waste time circling around it. The silence was thick on the air, as was the smell of death. There was almost no one left alive.
He heard the voice as he turned a corner. Someone was muttering unintelligibly. Knight proceeded with caution, and was almost upon the speaker before he saw him: a burly yurble, black as a raven's wing. He sat huddled against the door of a cutler's shop, arms wrapped around his knees, rocking forwards and backwards.
The yurble's head snapped up at the sound of Knight's steps, his glazed, white eyes staring. And then he dropped his forehead back to his knees, muttering, ″Fight it... Fight it... Fight it...″
Knight stared, then passed slowly, glancing back. The yurble didn't make a move towards him. He was soon out of sight.
So. The Calamity could be fought, it seemed, even if only by those who had been taken over by it. One weakness probably meant more, and almost certainly one would be a weakness he could exploit. He continued, heartened.
His slightly elevated mood sunk when he finally reached the border.
The Calamity was a dome that rose before him without any discernible way through, a great wall of black that stretched from ground to sky. It wasn't solid, exactly; muted shades of darkness shifted and rolled. The wall was first a dense, smoky fog through which he could almost see the scenery beyond, then a black waterfall rushing from overhead to crash soundlessly in a cloud of fine, dark mist, then it changed and roared upward, instead.
Simply attempting to walk through it would no doubt transform him. Touching it was something he was determined to avoid. Yet what options was he left with? There was no shelter from the rain of darkness. Roofs were no impediment, he had learned. Nothing was.
His weapons, all of his carefully-honed strength and skill, were of as much use as a paper sword. His forte wasn't intense thought and analysis; it was having someone point him at the enemy and loose him like an arrow. Those few times he had taken strategy into his own hands, there had been mistakes, and narrow victories won only by sheer willpower.
That willpower wasn't shaken, precisely, by the sight of the boundary of darkness rising ahead of him like a veil dropped from the sky, but it still wasn't a sight to inspire confidence. He had marched on the walls of fortresses said to be impenetrable, and not once had he doubted his ability to see them fall. This wall was something else entirely.
And it was clearly expanding.
He had watched it for a mere half hour, and it had moved perceptibly outward. If it was allowed to, it would continue to stalk the land like some greedy beast, swallowing more of the world to satisfy its already swollen gullet, until nothing was left.
He still felt as though he were moving through a surreal dream world, and that surely it would all be fixed soon. How could everything he knew be failing so suddenly? His sorrow for his kingdom was strong yet strangely disconnected, as though only some remote part of him had accepted it and was mourning, somewhere bone-deep and quiet, while the rest remained certain that he would somehow do whatever needed to be done, as he had so many times before. Soon it would be over. Soon he would awaken.
Yet that deepest part of him whispered the truth: his beautiful home was dying. The knowledge was quietly chipping away at his confidence, as though a fragment of the toxic darkness had managed to seep into him unnoticed.
″The sorcerers,″ he muttered reluctantly to himself. The thought had been churning in his head for hours, now, and it was time to acknowledge it, before this went any further. If anyone could fight it, it was them. Magic could only be destroyed by magic.
The heart of the capital city was no longer a sprawling center of life and wealth and sunlight, but a dangerous jungle of twisted, blackened buildings and possessed predators. They stalked the streets, untamed and snarling and lashing out with frightening suddenness. Fires had raged through the city during Knight's absence. He could hear a distant crackling and see a faint glow low in the sunless sky that told him more were still burning elsewhere. The smell was an overpowering one of char and death that filled the nostrils and choked the throat. It was a stench he was used to, but this time, it seemed wholly wrong.
Stealth was not Knight's way-- the valiant charge belonged to him-- but he did as best as he could to avoid the transformed citizens, silently cursing the metallic ringing of his horseshoes on the stone. The voice of the Calamity still came from the sky, like trees groaning against the assault of a vicious wind, and for a moment it seemed to be mourning the destruction of Knight's world as he knew it.
He pushed the thought away. This was not a time for grieving.
″Please, spare me!″ a voice echoed distantly, at least one street over. ″I can make you all wealthy beyond your wildest dreams! I can bestow titles and honours upon all of you! Anything you want, anything, please, don't, NO!″
He knew dully that there was no point in trying to save the screaming man. It was already too late. Before he'd taken two more steps, the screams became incoherent howls of agony with a liquid bubbling in them. He pushed the noises away from his awareness and instead fixed his gaze on the Guild of Sorcerers as he approached it.
The sight of the Guild had always narrowed Knight's eyes. Even with its vast size, it somehow appeared delicate and airy, with domed towers rising as high as those of the royal palace, all golden latticework and pale, silver-streaked stone and marble. The sorcerers held themselves apart from the rest of the city, all of them with such airs that they clearly believed themselves above the kingdom, not a part of it. Now, it seemed a hollow mockery of what was happening, lovely even in the false grey dusk, untouched by what was happening.
The only times Knight had entered were when prisoners needed to be escorted to the dungeons beneath the guild. Of course, the only prisoners held there were sorcerers themselves, not anyone Knight could fight, but it was the law for a military presence to be there as well. It was... was...
Abruptly, the memory of one of his journeys down there slammed home with the force of a landslide.
A draik, so dark of scale he seemed to draw light away from his surroundings, a crazed animal that radiated hatred so strongly it seemed to manifest into smoke that curled off him in waves. That draik, whose existence was a secret Knight had been forbidden to tell, the secret that the invading country had been so determined to extract from him.
The stench of char seemed to loom suddenly thicker, and in it he thought he could smell his feathers burning again. He remembered the sound of his own harsh panting, full of whistles and moans as he kept his teeth clenched against the screams that threatened to break loose. Voices demanding he tell them what he knew of the draik that was rumoured to be held in the bowels of the Guild. Flaring forge-fires and vicious blades, and an agony beyond any he'd ever felt before or since...
That draik was the reason he had lost his wings. That draik, who had looked just like the transformed citizens did now. How could he have taken so long to remember? But then, he had dutifully pushed the knowledge of the draik into the back of his mind, had nearly tricked himself into forgetting it. What could it all mean?
His assured strides had faltered, but he now set off with renewed determination, as though meaning to march straight through the massive golden doors of the Guild without waiting for them to be opened. He mounted the broad, deep steps of snowy stone that led to the double doors, each towering so high that a giant could have entered without ducking. Usually, the doors were thrown open as if the sorcerers actually welcomed anyone into their territory, but now they were firmly closed.
Before he could wonder how to enter, one door opened just wide enough to allow a wide-eyed, green-scaled krawk to peer through at him. She took him in-- his gleaming armour, his height, but most particularly his pure white coat-- and opened the door enough for him to enter. ″Quickly!″ she hissed, her voice a whisper. ″In!″ Her eyes darted anxiously around the empty street beyond him.
He strode into the marble entrance hall, and the krawk shut the door hastily behind him. It echoed sonorously like a gong. The krawk muttered several incantations, and a faint golden glow emanated from the doors before fading. Locking them, he supposed. Nothing to feel uneasy about.
The entrance hall was dim, only a few lamps lit as though in haste, not nearly enough to warm the entire hall with their light. Shadows seemed to writhe in the distant marble corners, brushing across each other and holding secret ceremonies. A cluster of sorcerers in their robes stood near the very center of the hall, muttering and gesticulating, all of them looking strained.
The lack of light, the tense mood-- both made this place even more unnerving than it usually was. He could feel the magic here, saturating the air, soaking into him, settling into his blood and bones. It felt as though he would be changed somehow simply by being here, turned into something unnatural and otherworldly.
Well, perhaps he was uneasy at that, but he refused to let it show. He was a stone wall, cold, hard and impenetrable.
″How did you know I was here?″ he asked the krawk who had let him in.
″Spells,″ she said distractedly. ″We're aware if anyone approaches the Guild, and whether they're still themselves, or...″ She let her words trail off and swallowed, rubbing her hands on the sides of her robes as if they felt unclean. ″If anyone comes seeking protection, we let them in. We have added as many defensive spells as we can to the building, and so far, it seems to be working. The... it... can't penetrate the Guild.″ She pointed at the ceiling to indicate the Calamity, still sending its poison rain at the world. ″Yet.″
She heaved a great, weary sigh and rubbed at her dark-circled eyes with her index finger and thumb. She seemed to have lost the cloud of arrogance that always wafted from sorcerers. ″I am Aldra. The others who have sought sanctuary are further in. I'll lead you to them.″
″No.″ Knight raised his chin a notch, looking down at her from his full height. ″I have not come to huddle together with a band of refugees, frightened and sniveling. I've come to find out how you mean to rectify what you've done.″
Aldra gave a bitter laugh. ″There's nothing we can do.″
He felt a flare of anger. ″Really? Defeated already, are you?″ He couldn't keep the contempt from his voice. ″You're just going to let it take over until there's no one left but those monsters outside?″
There was a brief flash of defiance in her brown eyes, but the spark faded quickly. ″We are... discussing options. It's none of your concern. I will show you to the others. Follow m--″ The last of her words was swallowed in an indignant squawk as Knight turned, dismissing her, and marched instead to the crowd of a dozen or so sorcerers.
″The spell repelling the, ah, transformed creatures from the Guild is weakening,″ a xweetok was saying. ″Once it's gone, I fear they'll surround the building and--″ She cut off and eyed Knight mistrustfully as he approached. ″Who are you? What do you want?″
″I want to know what options you're discussing to save us,″ Knight fired at the lot of them. ″I want to know why you're standing there dithering and focusing on temporary measures while our kingdom is destroyed and our people are turned into possessed monsters. I want to know whether it's possible for a sorcerer to do anything but stick their noses in and bring everything to ruination!″
A lupe surveyed him imperiously as though he were a king considering having Knight beheaded for his insolence. ″How dare you speak of anyone else 'sticking their noses in' when you--″
Aldra scurried up to rejoin the group. ″I told you, it is none of your concern!″ she blurted to Knight, casting a nervous glance at her fellow sorcerers as though expecting them to scold her for not keeping him in hand. She planted herself in front of him and waved her arms as though to usher him away with the sheer force of her hand movements. ″You will go to where the others are, and--″
Knight gave an impatient snort and moved around her to address the others again. ″I will not be told to wait and do nothing while you all try feebly to sort things out. I am a knight, a defender of our kingdom and our people, and I will hear your plans by right.″ He gave them all his level, blue-eyed stare.
″Do you always speak as though declaiming from on high?″ asked another sorcerer, a brown-scaled techo. The question was tired-sounding, without bite, but Knight bristled. A sorcerer, accusing him of arrogance?
″Very well,″ the techo continued before Knight could reply. ″There's no point in keeping it from you if you're so determined to know.″ A few of his fellows frowned at him, but did not speak. Perhaps he was of higher rank than they. Knight didn't know how sorcerers decided such things. ″The Calamity can be sealed up in its entirety,″ he said. ″Inside a living creature.″
″That draik I saw,″ Knight said.
The techo frowned as though wondering how Knight had seen the draik, but he simply nodded, obviously too exhausted to bother questioning him. ″That draik. For centuries, he was chained in the dungeons below the Guild. The Calamity was sealed within him, unable to escape and taint the rest of the world. Other kingdoms with knowledge of it have attacked with the intention of capturing him, seeking to harness the power of the Calamity for themselves. Fools. I never thought our own king would be one of those fools.″
″Your king as well,″ Knight said sharply.
The techo shrugged again. ″He knew it to be a great destructive force, felt certain it would slay the invading army and save us all.″ A bitter laugh bubbled up from his throat, and he took a moment before continuing. ″We knew how to release it, but as for trapping it again... We have mainly guesswork to go by. Ideas that may work, and may just as surely destroy us for certain.″
″We are destroyed for certain whether you act or not. Have you even been out there? Have you seen what is happening? Any chance is better than none.″ Knight had never thought he would be encouraging someone to use magic. Magic, moreover, whose success was uncertain at best.
Aldra gave a tight nod at his side. ″As I have been saying, Merik,″ she said quietly.
The techo, Merik, gave her a flat look. ″Yes, Aldra, but first we need someone to try and seal it into.″ His eyes turned to Knight, speculative. He looked like someone examining a tool he was considering for purchase.
Sudden unease webbed thin cracks across Knight's stone wall.
″It can't be one of us,″ Merik continued. ″Sealing purest evil and chaos into the body of a sorcerer... Imagine the destruction he or she could wreak if unable to keep the Calamity in check. Unintelligent animals won't work-- they die on mere contact with the darkness. What we need is someone without our powers, but with extraordinary will. That is how it is fought. Someone with the sense of self and strength of character to wrestle the thing into submission, to overcome the darkness and trap it deep inside one's heart, with nothing but determination.″ More eyes turned to Knight, and recognition lit in some of them. And more speculation, too.
″The draik was a poor choice,″ the sneering lupe announced into the silence. ″The legends say he tried to fight for mere moments before being overwhelmed, and he has needed to be restrained all these years.″
Aldra gestured towards the tall, arched windows, all shuttered now. ″I can't fault him for not being able to stand up to that. Imagine, all that evil out there forced into a single being... Hardly anyone can fight off even the relatively small amounts that are raining down on them.″
This resulted in a brief silence, broken only by the continuing voice of the Calamity and faint, far-off screaming.
In a rare occurrence, Knight was at a loss for words. He fit the requirements perfectly; he was the clear choice to be the seal for the Calamity, its cage. Yet the thought repelled him, horrified him.
He ought to have known better. He had come to this unnatural place where the laws of the world were toyed with indiscriminately, and it was going to change him into something else, an offense to nature itself. Magic would become a part of him, and he of it.
The silence was broken by Merik. ″I recognize you. There was a festival held in your honour once. There was a battle, I believe? Nearly all on your side were slain, and the survivors wanted to retreat, but you rallied them and won, despite the astronomically small odds of you managing such a feat.″
″Yes,″ Knight said. His voice sounded far away to his own ears. ″That's right.″
Aldra's eyes widened. ″That was you? Then you're him, the knight of the iron will!″ She clasped her hands together and took a step towards him, face shining. ″You won us the Battle of Rathorn Plain! You saved--″ She stopped abruptly, realizing she hardly sounded dignified enough for a sorcerer. Turning faintly red, she mumbled, ″That is, I've heard some things about you that bode well for us.″
The xweetok gave her a dry look, then turned her gaze on Knight, flat-eyed yet thoughtful. ″Well, if we're going to do this, there's no point in waiting. I fear the barriers I set up are about to--″
A sharp thunderclap seemed to come from directly outside the Guild, and glittering, multi-coloured motes of magic suddenly rushed in through the walls with the sound of a strong wind. They collapsed in on the xweetok as though she was at the center of a magical implosion. ″Fail,″ she finished, wavering slightly where she stood.
″Yes,″ said Merik briskly. ″We will have to try with what we know. It's a small hope, but the only one we have.″
″Wait a moment,″ Knight protested, finding his voice again. ″This is my choice. You can't just assume I'll--″
″You are a knight!″ Merik snapped suddenly, his voice like a whipcrack in the vast emptiness of the hall. His weariness seemed to have disappeared. ″You are honour-bound to do your duty at any cost, to do everything in your power to protect your kingdom and your people! Are you backing down now? Are you taking the coward's way out? Are you truly no better than that?″
There could not have been a speech better calculated to drive Knight into doing what Merik wished. Yet somehow, the knowledge that he was being manipulated didn't stop it from happening.
Perhaps because he knew the sorcerer was right.
This was not a path he would have chosen for himself, but now that he was on it, he would sooner die than turn back.
″Don't be ridiculous!″ he fired back at the techo. ″I will protect my kingdom for as long as my breath and strength abide! My duty is everything. I am my duty. I am a knight.″ He stretched his neck to its full graceful length, tilting his chin up and gazing down at them all. ″Do it.″
There was a part of his mind that was still aware of his body and his surroundings, a part that watched the sorcerers form a circle around him. He heard their complex chanting that was almost a song in its changing harmonies, saw them gesture cryptically with their hands. This part of him was aware of the lamps abruptly extinguishing as one, turning the hall into a lightless cavern. This part heard the mob of the transformed outside the doors screaming and smashing at the heavy gold, determined to get inside, perhaps because they had sensed what was happening.
By far the larger part of him, though, was somewhere else entirely.
It was as though he were hurtling rapidly backwards, away from the ground, away from the world, away from the universe as he had always imagined it. Still he kept going, and he realized that everything he had ever known was tiny, beyond insignificant, insectile. He had never truly seen existence as it was, the sheer magnitude of it; he had never felt the vast forces of good and evil that moved around him always, clashing with galactic roars and causing tidal waves of incalculable size that smashed through the universe. Crazed vertigo threatened to wash him away entirely as his mind grappled with the concept of a universe in countless dimensions rather than a paltry three.
One of those mysterious forces was very close to him. It pounded like a massive heart, each enormous beat threatening to yank him apart into the fragile atoms that made up who he was, to send them spiraling through space like so much stardust.
And the force was, he realized, coming towards him. Magic was pushing against it, and though the magic was pathetic next to the power of what it was trying to move, it was somehow succeeding. Grimly, relentlessly, the magic shoved, and the massive force was pushed at him.
Panic rose. He was less than an insect beside this dark, formless titan. He was nothing. He would be crushed, and it wouldn't even notice him.
Yet somehow, instead of rolling over him like a mindless giant, it was condensed into a thin stream. The magic squeezed the force-- the Calamity-- into a trickle, a trickle that flowed into the essence of himself.
If he had been more connected to his body, he might have screamed, flailed, thrashed. This evil-- for there was no other word for it-- was surely the most foul thing that could possibly exist, even in this new universe of unimagined scope and size. It was cruelty and suffering, every disease and every hurt and every dark intention, every unforgiveable act and every dark thought. Every evil that had ever existed, every evil that would ever exist-- they were all combined and concentrated and they were in him and oh, it hurt it hurt it hurt.
He felt a sense of amusement. Not his own. The dark force was laughing at him, at his feeble mind and fabled willpower, which now seemed as adequate as a piece of string trying to hold back a landslide. Its laughter was soundless, yet one of his newly-awakened senses was nonetheless aware of it. It shook him like an earthquake, leaving his mind a shattered shambles-- except for the steel core that lived within.
Somewhere, far beneath his reeling senses, far beneath the sheer agony this thing had him in, something woke up. Dim and distant it might have been, but this was a part of himself that not only did not want to give up, but was incapable of it. This part would fight and fight and fight long after the rest of him knew it was too late, refused to even be dented, let alone obliterated, like an internal version of his invincible armour.
He fought. The sense of amusement from the evil increased, yet he barely noticed. He fought, and he realized he had never been in a real battle before. This was a real battle. It was like trying to batter down the mountains, to part the oceans, to stop the turn of the world on its axis, all with the sheer force of his will. Every moment he was a hairsbreadth away from toppling over some unseeable edge into a void with no bottom. Still, he fought.
The amusement the thing felt was beginning to fade, replaced with irritation.
That's right, he told it. You've met your match. You've met the cage you're going to be trapped in forever. You can't fight me. You can't win.
In the tiny, cramped, meaningless reality where he stood in the Guild of Sorcerers, the doors burst open in a rush of black cloud. Transformed townspeople flooded in, a shrieking wave of flesh and fur and scales. They descended on the sorcerers, who continued their spell-chanting even as they diverted some power to fight off the transformed.
A jet of darkness came swiftly through the ceiling and fell upon one of the sorcerers, then another, and insanity broke loose. The hall was illuminated by blazing magic, and despite the confused battle, though sorcerers fought and died, those who remained continued chanting the spell for Knight.
He pulled away from that awareness. It was unimportant. The real battle, the much more immediate one, was here... Even though 'here' seemed to be 'nowhere'.
Incredibly, though it seemed he should still be destroyed at any moment, the power of the Calamity had begun to recede somewhat. It struggled like a feral thing, whipping about chaotically, but inch by inch, he was forcing it down into some dark prison within his own heart.
The more of it he crammed down, the less power over him it seemed to have, and suddenly the balance shifted. He was the massive juggernaut now, churning everything in his path to fragments and dust, and the Calamity was at his mercy.
Acting purely on instinct-- none of this had physical reality, after all; it was a matter of strange impressions in his head-- he pulled the rest of it into himself and shut it up in that cage he'd created for it. He was vaguely aware that as he did so, disoriented people in the Guild were suddenly blinking as though coming out of nightmares, and the sky outside had turned azure, as though all the black had been sucked out of it.
And then a supernova exploded inside him, obliterating everything in a shower of molten light. Then there was nothing.
Something was wrong.
In those few heartbeats before he had quite awakened, before any coherent thought could occur to him, he felt anxiety and dread swirl in his chest.
He opened his eyes.
″Blue!″ someone gasped. Hushed voices all around him repeated the word in awed tones, as though it held some great significance.
He was lying down for some reason, still in the Guild, and a crowd of sorcerers and others filled the place from wall to wall, staring at him as though he were at once the most miraculous thing they'd ever seen, and death waiting to be unleashed on all of them. He tried to stand, and couldn't.
For the first time, he realized he was being held in place by magic. He glanced down, and stared uncomprehendingly at his own leg. It was black with grey swirls, and restrained by a glowing golden shackle.
″Black?″ he blurted out, trying wildly to look himself over, although he couldn't move his neck or head, either. ″Why? It worked, didn't it? It worked! I am still myself!″
The crowd stared back at him, murmuring amongst themselves. Panicked, he searched inwardly. He was still himself. He was the knight of the iron will, and he was... many other things that wouldn't quite come to mind at the moment.
But there was a definite change. In the deepest dungeons of his mind, something grotesque pulsed, a malignant black growth. It was surely trapped there. Without a doubt. He thought he could feel, faintly, what it was feeling: some mixture of rage, frustration, and, unsettlingly, sly amusement. Yet it was so distant it might well have been his imagination.
Someone stepped forward from the crowd, and Knight stared at him for a moment. His memory was playing hide-and-seek with him for some inexplicable reason, and it took him a moment to recognize the techo. ″Merik,″ he said. Yes, that was it. ″It worked. You must believe me.″
Merik did not reply, but instead raised his hand, palm out. Knight felt something like a rush of air travel over and through him.
Merik turned back to the crowd. ″It is as I said. The Calamity is trapped within him. His sense of self is somewhat scattered, but whole, and it remains the dominant self. Perhaps he has changed colour simply because the Calamity is inside him now, but it has not taken him over. He has succeeded.″
There were a few beats of silence, then the hall erupted. Knight's ears rang with the myriad cheers. He looked around at the crowd, and faces he almost thought he knew jumped out at him.
He had succeeded. The townspeople were back to their old selves. The magical shackles binding him fell away, and he smiled, somewhat uncertainly, as he was enveloped by the joyous crowd, all of whom seemed eager to give their words of thanks, to tearfully recount what felt like waking from a hideous nightmare, or simply to lay a solemn paw on the hero who had saved them from evil.
The rest of the day was a confused blur of celebration mixed with mourning, for those who had sustained mortal wounds while transformed now joined the dead. Honour after honour was heaped upon him. The king was brought to tears as he gave a speech about Knight's courage. Knight knew, vaguely, that this would normally have been the best and proudest moment of his life, but something was still wrong. He felt as though he were moving underwater, sluggishly trying to comprehend what was going on around him. No one seemed to notice that there was any problem.
But there was. He could barely remember anything before the past day or two.
Merik had said his sense of self was 'somewhat scattered'-- was this why? His entire past seemed to be a foggy blank nothingness. If he concentrated, he could, with relief, bring up a detail here and there, but that was all.
Festivals. Medallions. Hugs from children. Grateful tears from grandmothers. An aisha who told him solemnly that his name would be synonymous with the word 'hero' forevermore.
He needed to get away from the endless swirl of excitement and activity, needed to be alone with himself to remember who, exactly, he was.
The day seemed to skip suddenly to evening, and he found himself cantering across empty fields of gently rolling hills. The sun was sinking syrup-slow to the horizon, streaking the sky with bloody fingers.
″I am a knight,″ he murmured aloud, the soft sound of his voice lost beneath wind in his ears and his grass-muffled hoof beats. ″My name is... my name...″
It wouldn't come. Nor would the name of his kingdom, although he surely must have heard both earlier in the day, during all the ceremony and celebration. His parents? Might well have never existed, for all the recollection he had of them. Where in the kingdom did he live, exactly? He hadn't a clue.
Panic threatened to sweep away what was left of him. ″I am a knight,″ he began again, forcing himself to calm. ″I am famed for my willpower and daring. A great evil called the Calamity was sealed inside me, and I overwhelmed it. So I am still myself, the blue-eyed knight who... who...″ He floundered, unable to think of any other details with which to finish his thought.
″I am me,″ he whispered fiercely to the wind.
He continued swiftly across the land, no destination in mind, no real reason for his speed; he felt, vaguely, as though there were something he needed to outrun. The last sliver of sun cast his long shadow beside him, and then it disappeared, making way for night.
The Calamity stirred in its cage.
He stumbled, nearly endangering his legs, and drew to a halt, holding his breath. He had felt it. He was certain.
Suddenly, there was no doubt at all. That forsaken ball of shadow in his head was expanding, almost leisurely, as if stretching after a period of relaxation. Frantically, he tried to contain it, but it was easily bursting free of the constraints he'd built for it in his mind.
The Calamity seized the part of his mind that was him. He floundered uselessly, and he was suddenly the one in a cage, and now the Calamity was the one who reigned and controlled Knight's body. He knew that had there been anyone to see, they would have witnessed the irises and pupils of his eyes melting away to leave them blank and white, would, perhaps, have caught an impression of black evil drifting from his body like smoke.
He was the Calamity, and he smiled.
″A pleasure to be able to communicate with you finally, my good Sir Knight,″ he said aloud, addressing the pathetic, confused mind that huddled trapped within his own. ″I would lie to you about your circumstances, tell you that I alone will control this body from now on, but you would be able to feel the deceit from me. Sharing a mind is such an inconvenience. But I suppose the truth is enough to horrify you.″
He began to walk, lazily confident, pride and malevolence nearly as tangible as the sometimes-visible smoke-like illusion. He was aware that the knight had stopped struggling and was now listening. ″You put up a good fight,″ he continued. ″Truly. I am amazed that you managed as well as you did. Why, you succeeded in caging me-- partially. You see, I have always had a special affinity with the night, and, as I had hoped, I am able to free myself after sunset. You are to be congratulated. Only one other vessel managed to trap me even that far, and that was millenia ago.
″So, here is our situation. During the day, you will control our body; at night, I will. I will do as I wish during my time. Granted, you still exert a certain amount of restraint over me.″ He frowned. ″In my usual form, I can wreak such destruction as you couldn't conceive. Now, I am limited by what this body is capable of. Still, it's something.
″Another note. My personality tends to be molded by that of the vessel. When I was forced into that draik, he turned mad immediately, and so I was mad as well. Had we been set loose, I would have been incoherent and uncontrollable. This time...″ He paused, sifting through the memories that the knight still retained. ″It seems I've become arrogant, self-assured, determined, and particularly fond of violence-- although your military training, despite your resistance to it, has made me more methodical than blindly chaotic. Not bad, overall. Your rather few 'good' qualities, compassion and valour and such, will of course have no effect on me. If your personality changes naturally, which is likely after this event, mine will not. It was developed based on your personality when I was caged in you, and will remain so.″
It was so good to get these matters out of the way immediately, with a certain businesslike manner. He had lost count of how many vessels he had had over the near-infinite time he had existed, and had this explanation down quite well. He cast his mind back over the countless years, searching for other questions the vessels usually had about him. ″Perhaps you're wondering why those transformed by me in the city were mindless and violent, whereas this is somewhat different? Each had only a drop of me within them, which controlled only their baser, most primal instincts. Since you have been gifted with the entirety of me, I am more sophisticated.
″You might decide, when you have control again, to turn yourself in to your little magic-users for the safety of everyone I might harm at night. Don't bother. As I'm more sophisticated, I will be perfectly able to masquerade as you and talk myself free again, at which point I will slaughter the city as your punishment. Any attempt at rebellion against me will have similar results.″
He would try anyway-- they always did-- but he would learn quickly. They always did that, too.
With luck and patience, both of which he had in abundance, he would not be spending very long within this vessel. Eventually, someone would learn of him and decide to free him again. The cycle was old as the universe itself. It was a shame he had had so short a time free during this revolution, but he would have his freedom again, and that made a century or two with the knight seem quite acceptable.
″Oh, yes, there is an advantage for you I've forgotten to mention,″ he added. ″I am eternal, undying, an integral part of this universe. As long as I remain within you, you cannot die. I hope that softens the sting of losing your nights a little.″
Movement caught his eye. A little foal grazed in the distance, seemingly having wandered far from her mother. ″Ah,″ he murmured. ″Do you feel that, knight? The bloodlust. I must admit, having physical form is not without its high points. The feel of adrenaline, of solid, physical violence... But then, you know how wonderful that is, don't you? So here is a treat for you.″
He felt a distant sense of horror, terror and revulsion from the knight as he set out towards the foal, who regarded him with wide and innocent eyes.
Sometimes he wonders if he is insane. Perhaps the Calamity doesn't surface at all, and he has simply lost his mind. But it feels real. He watches through his own stolen eyes as the thing commits countless nighttime atrocities, aware of all it thinks and feels, unable to hold it back from doing exactly as it likes.
They have developed a strange relationship. He detests it, it is mildly annoyed by him, yet they are entwined together inescapably. They know and understand one another on the deepest levels. They think of one another as brothers, almost. They both call themselves Knight, each with some twisted sense of irony.
His memories before the change remain confused, but he has found that he retains those he's collected in the time since. He almost wishes he would lose them, too, but at least it's some past to cling to.
In the beginning, he tried to find the most deserted places he could during the day, so when night fell, his other half would be far away from anyone to harm. But he grew weary of this constant, daily battle. He has now convinced himself that controlling the other Knight is not his responsibility. He shuts away any guilt and places the blame squarely on the other Knight, and doesn't keep any for himself.
Though he recalls his naive younger self with wryness, he knows the old Knight was better than him in at least one way: he would be outraged to see himself no longer struggling against the inevitable, horrified that he refuses to accept responsibility for what his other half does.
But, for perhaps the first time, he is so tired of fighting.
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