Winner: First Place
Arisia 2013 Student Writing Contest
He stood on a cliff, high above those rocks pounded into dusts and grain by the raging sea. Though the air hinted at spring, he still felt the chills of winter. He would have pulled the cloak closer as it billowed out behind him, a black speck waving against the lightest of gray clouds, but he knew it would not give him warmth. He had on the finest furs, layers and layers of forgotten beasts, and still he shivered. He cared not, instead watching the ocean off in the distance, whitecapping waves crashing haphazardly below, like a swarming crowd. Without direction, without intention, without uniformity.* * *
He breathed in, and the chill fell through the furs, tightening his muscles, slowing his heartbeat to a metronome. He closed his eyes, but the crow’s feet stayed across the sides, white streaks in his black hair showing, the façade of a young man cracking and crinkling like paper in a blaze. The winds blew against him, chilling him now inside and out as a cold bath would, turning his bare fingers blue and his breath into steam, stabbing at his nostrils and turning his lips into shriveled ridges.
Beside him, a small willow tree stood, bending with the wind, turning older with the passing time. Caught up in the routines of daily life, he had only noticed it as he walked up to the Cliffside earlier in the morning, only seen then that it, too, was growing old. But where he was cold, the tree simply was. The mysteries of nature would not unravel themselves to the man, not then, not ever.
Many mysteries had, though; many that should not have been answered.
He had once been as happy as he could be, though poor, and grew strong from tending his family’s flocks, especially after his father’s death. By the age of seven, he was a fine strong lad, with a bleak future of nothing of importance. Fate, however, has a hand to play in all lives.
On the last day of his 12th year, the weight of the world shifted, never the same again.
He stared in terror at the inferno before him. He had been walking back with the animals, but they were long gone, having run away just as they approached the clearing where his house was. He had been met with the house and all surrounding it ablaze, and, abandoning the animals, heedless of the flames, ran to find his mother.
He found her just inside the house, blackened and limp, not long dead but dead nonetheless. And holding her was a cold woman.
He did not know how he knew, but she was cold. Pale blue, almost white skin, the fire around her evading the folds of a long white dress, no shadow cast, long black hair flowing across her shoulders, frost forming within strands. A chill met the boy, running down his back even with the heat. As she met his gaze, she faded into mist, leaving him standing agape. As she left, his mother’s body turned to gray ashes, as though her soul had finally gone…
A growling noise made him turn.
A creature from legends stood there, a Fire Demon from the Obsidian Pits. The boy had heard stories, and none turned out well for the hero opposing one of these beasts. Seven feet tall with horns, claws and teeth of the sharpest, blackest rock, jagged armor behind which pure orange and red flames burned heartlessly, white-hot eyes piercing the boy with hatred. Then it chuckled, its voice deep and sinister.
“Mark my words, boy, though you shall not live long enough to hear all of them,” the Demon started, walking forward slowly, flames rising higher on the walls. The boy ran for the door, panicking when he realized that it was ablaze. The Demon continued, calm.
“No matter when she gets back, I will have you as mine own.”
The burning door began to shut, the flames bending to the will of their master, trying to shut out this young one’s last chance at survival…
“Your soul will serve me, your body will do my will.”
He kicked the door, setting his leg aflame.
“I will conquer; she will love me.”
The door splintered, and the boy tumbled out, rolling to frantically put out the searing pain on his leg.
“The world will have blood, but her burden is lifted; the dead are now mine. I shall show her the glory of Lavaendi!”
The boy was crawling now, across the grass, hoping for a miracle that was not there. Lavaendi tore through the door like cardboard, gazing down at the pitiful human. Agony would soon be gone from it…
The clearing exploded with cold white light, and in it, the boy felt himself being lifted. The woman had picked him up, and was cradling him in her arms.
“Am I too heavy a burden?” he asked, barely thinking except for courtesy. Pain was overwhelming him.
She looked surprised for the briefest moment, then smiled.
A gentle voice to be lost in the winds of time. One that beckoned him to close his eyes and rest, slip into the eternal slumber that was… Was…
This woman was Death.
By the time he realized this, though, the light had gone, and they were at the doorstep of the Lord of the region. There were long cliffs that his castle stood upon, and they shone with the moonlight that skipped over her. She looked at him for a short time, searching his eyes as they swam into unconsciousness. Every time, though, she pulled him back.
His leg was burned, helpless, but she touched it once and it was flawless at it had ever been.
“Boy. Newly turned thirteen in the darkest night of year. Old name, like old life, gone already. I call you Demion Grayson, after the demon faced and the gray woman that is now your mother’s spirit.
“Would you fight for me when the time comes? His armies rival man’s, and I cannot face such a task alone.”
There was sadness in her eyes, one that showed through her young face with the knowledge of age.
The boy looked at her. Such a beautiful woman indeed. “I will.”
She smiled, and, from a fold of her dress, took out a sheathed sword, heavier than it looked. She held it out to him, kissing the hilt once. “This sword has the kiss of Death, Demion. It shall cut any before it, so wield it responsibly.
“You cannot go back, though, should you take this. Without it, live a regular life. With it… You will become my champion.”
Demion looked at her, directly into those ageless eyes, and took the sword. Then he fainted.
Demion Grayson was taken into the Lord’s castle at thirteen, and, with the blessed sword, was taken before the Lord directly. Judged by him on tests of valor, compassion and strength, Demion was given a new task, one that he would honor until he died: to protect the Lord’s firstborn son, James, merely a baby of 2 moons.
Demion helped raise the boy like a brother; inseparable, both learning the ways of the sword, though Demion much more so, and James learning all that was fit for the Lord’s son to know. Always, Demion accompanied the boy, watching out for him and teaching him how to survive. Within the first six years of the boy’s life, there had been five assassins sent. Each one, however, met with the kiss of Death. Both young men grew in varying reputations, and when the Lord passed, James took the role, much to the people’s rejoicing. Demion became his advisor, due to the wisdom that the war-stained man had given, although there were plenty of proper men of the courts who thought him vulgar. Demion paid them no mind, focusing on making this young man the best he could be, to help the people. However, with all the lessons given to him, James could think of one question still unanswered.
“Why is it that a man of your… type, who speaks so eloquently with his blade, should try and avoid a brawl?”
“Because, sire, while Death is beautiful, she is the coldest of maidens.”
The few times there was a challenger foolish enough to try and kill James, this cold maiden arrived. The fight would become a dance, and Demion’s bow to his dead opponent would not signify his respect for the fallen other; but thanks for Death to dance with him again.
As time goes on, though, the winds blow far, and not all ears listening to them are friendly.
Across the winds and sands and oceans of the wide world, in the darkest regions where the heat of the center of the world turned stone to magma, Lavaendi opened his eyes and listened as the wind told its tales of the valiant young Lord and Death’s champion. Its heart was blacker than the stone, and its mind twisted repulsive versions of reality. Small, dark eyes beat down upon this hole in the ground, and steam rose from a half open mouth, from which now a growl came through. It turned backwards to the darkness and screeched and screamed like birds and metal on glass. From farther down, deeper into the blackness of the cavern, rotting heads turned and looked towards the sound. They stumbled forward on decayed limbs, coming from the darkness to answer their master.
Above, everything was still after the roar. For a few minutes, the birds flew away, and the few animals not already hibernating scattered to trees. For a few minutes, the world felt the tension of a thousand nightmares, trying to come into reality. Then, when it realized that they were nothing more than a bad dream, the tension began to fade. It let out a sigh of relief…
…And the ground burst open with annihilation. Like cockroaches bursting from dry floorboards, these horrors hauled themselves out, shambling, limbs flailing and hitting one another, expanding like a pool of vile atrophy, dead, once human bodies snapping into place on the land, rusted armor hanging limply from their gray bodies, nothing more than skin and bone; all intestines and muscles and bodily fluids cut out. The winds screamed through empty eye sockets and out of hanging jaws, tongues lolling out over broken teeth, maggots skittering back into the shadows in the stomach.
Finally, after the army burst forth, their leader clawed its way from the deep prison of earth. The world grew colder with winter, but the breeze blew a cold reminiscent of the depths of shadows.
“Get back, sire!”
Three days had past. The sun was high, the town was scarred, razed and battered, and the cold maiden was deep into her dance. Beasts and dark creatures ran screaming among the ruins, slashing, slicing, and hacking down the slower peasants. The lucky ones had found refuge in the castle walls, and the unlucky ones found servitude as their corpses became soldiers. Demion shot arrows from the main gate, protected by a wall of stone, pulling the last peasants into the courtyard behind and raising up the drawbridge. The soldiers had all been killed the previous night; Demion was all that was left, besides peasants and James. An explosion of heat within the castle, though, told Demion that the peasants were not more that ashes now, and the reason for the burst of flames walked outside.
“Demion, what IS that?”
Demion did not answer, instead, looking Death, now alongside him. She looked angry, but also perturbed.
“The stuff of Nightmares, sire.”
Lavaendi chuckled, the laugh sinister to their ears, and leaped down to face them, a few feet away; a towering inferno that spoke in a voice that resonated with the deepest darkness.
“I have come to see each of you. The Lord, who would rival my power across this land. The woman I try to win the still heart of, and her would-be man whom I must destroy.”
“What woman, Demion?”
“Death, sire. The coldest maiden.”
James raised an eyebrow, looking at the serious man, and was debating whether or not his bodyguard had deserted his mind. Stranger things had happened, though, and James realized it make sense. “You are Death’s champion, Demion?”
She herself spoke, softly, before Demion could reply. James turned to face her, seeing her for the first time, nodding slowly as he took it all in. Demion still stood facing Lavaendi, who scowled back at him, teeth bared. James smiled slowly at his friend, silently congratulating him, for Death, albeit cold, was beautiful to his tired, battered eyes. Beauty should be embraced.
Before any could react, as the guard was down, the Fire Demon vanished into the shadows. Demion started, and looked quickly for it, but it was gone, except…
Lavaendi leapt up from the young man’s shadow, transporting itself through darkness, blade first in hand, then through him. Before it could be withdrawn, Demion cut through the creature’s arms, yelling wildly, putting all of his rage into a strike that beheaded the hellbeast. It was over.
James stared forward, a small line of blood trailing from cracked lips. His eyes were unfocused, and Death caught him as he fell. His body hit the ground, but the two souls walked into another place, a place of rest. Demion fell too, crying for the first time since his mother’s death, too late to do what he had been entrusted to do. The young man had had such faith in him, even as a baby, and he had let him down.
Outside, the army of dead shuddered as their master was banished into passing, then slipped away themselves into their final death.
Two minutes later, when the woman once again returned, they littered the land, broken and nothing more than corpses. Demion stood, watching the waters. The first spring air blew. She looked on, and walked to meet him.
* * *
He stood on a cliff, high above those rocks pounded into dusts and grain by the raging sea. He looked out and saw nothing, felt nothing, heard nothing but a small, beautiful voice.
“It is not really your fault, you know.”
Demion smiled, but it was not echoed in his eyes. “Not really. I am only the bodyguard. It was my duty. My worth. My responsibility placed by someone who trusted me. Respected me.” The words began to catch in his throat. “He was my friend. He was the closest thing I had to a son.”
She walked to stand next to him, but he would not turn to face her. He merely stared forward. She walked off of the cliff one pace, standing in the air before him, above the rocks. He did not look away.
“Why me, Death?”
“Why would you let me see you? Why would you mark a young child such?”
“There was potential in you. Potential to help the world. It was wasted at your home, and I thought of no other way to bring you here.”
“So I am your pawn.”
“No. No, Demion. Never would you be. You are my champion.”
“You expect love after you take everything that meant something to me.”
She paused. He looked on. Finally, she spoke.
“Everything in this world has a time, Demion. Everything, therefore, must end. I simply guide what has ended to peace.”
He nodded, slowly. She continued, hesitant, careful.
“I could bring you to another kingdom, if you like. You could find people there; the royalty would appreciate you.” Her voice grew quieter. “A maiden would love you.”
Demion smiled, and the happiness found a small niche in his eye. “My time has ended, just as my king’s has. Everything of mine is gone. Besides… There is only one maiden whom I love.”
She looked at him sadly. “You are different, Demion. You shall not find release in death. There will be no peace for you. You would work as I do, beside me, and the weight would be unbearable.”
“But I would be with you?”
“Then there is no other choice I wish to take.”
The words hung there. She smiled, opened her arms.
He stepped off of the cliff into his lover’s embrace.