She awoke to cold stone under her cheek. Eyes blinking, she found only darkness before her. Carefully, she reached out a hand, claws digging against the stone. She fluttered her wings, midnight black feathers darker than the darkness, and stretched her body.
Pushing herself up, she sat, eyes scanning the unnatural night. Emptiness, a sense of desolation wrapped against her, and she shivered. Hugging herself, she felt strangely sickened by her own indecency, an issue she had never had problems with before.
“Kneel before me.”
The words were not spoken, but echoed instead through her mind. She went cold, then her body seemed to flare with intense heat. She was not alone in the darkness. Fanning her wings, she slowly turned, her breathing ragged, to see who had spoken to her.
He stood, towering, a man of such presence she trembled at the sight of him. Ebony hair flowed freely, long, and lifted by a wind meant only for him. Green eyes that held secrets she knew she could never fathom, and pain she knew she could never endure. He wore simple robes of silver, made of the finest silk she had ever seen, yet bore no markings or stitching. Power rolled off of him in waves, and behind him, the sky cracked and boiled, flashed and rumbled.
“Kneel before me.”
His thought rolled over her again like thunder, pounding through her skull. She clutched her head, felt her own claws dig against her scalp, then wrapped herself tight in her wings. She did not deserve to be in his presence, she knew this. She was unworthy to look upon him.
Yes, she knew this man. She knew of him, rather, for she had been raised on tales of him from her hatching. The greatest of the great, the most powerful of the powerful, the most terrible of all who dwelled. She knew of him, and knew she should not even be before him, not in the manner she was. She was not worthy even to cower before him.
“Kneel before me!”
More powerful than before, and she rocked herself. His face twisted, growing angry. What was she to do, rise up and actually kneel to him? Such was not possible, even had she been a better soul. One did not kneel before this man. One trembled.
He was mightier than might itself. He was greater than greatness. Nobility dared whisper his name. Majesty itself trembled before him. He was the clouds, the sky, the roll of thunder and the flash of lightning. He was fury held unchecked, rage unleashed.
She curled in on herself even tighter, her claws digging into her scalp, bringing blood. This was wrong. He should not have to look upon one such as her. He was too great, too awesome to have to see such filth as she. She wept for him, sorrowful that her existence should be put before him as it was.
“Kneel before me!”
His shout was thunder, his eyes lightning. She screamed out against the beauty of it, the breath taking purity. Such things, they were not meant for her. She was lowly beyond even the meaning or comprehension of the word. She was a tragic error in creation, a thing that should not have been. Why, oh why, must one such as he have to see such as her?
Pain crawled through her head, as blood ran down her face. She realized she had dug her own claws into her scalp and jerked back, looking at her awful hands. Such atrocities, they were. Her wings flapped, and she tried to still them, for they were ugly, as was she, all of her.
“KNEEL BEFORE ME!”
Slowly, she looked, to see him unfurl his great wings. One of gold, the other red as her own blood. Gently, they lifted, then fanned wide, as he raised his arms to the heavens. His eyes burned now with blue-white power, and the sky crackled in response to him.
Oh, yes! It was he! The Lord of the Storm! Great he was in her sight, beautiful and regal, majestic and mighty. He was all she had ever dared dream, in her secret heart of hearts. All of that, and more. She trembled now, in awe of him, wanting him, needing him, to look upon her, just once more. She craved it, his eyes, seeing her, despite her filth, despite her indecency.
Reaching out a shaking hand, she cried, tears falling from her eyes in a torrent. She whispered his name, begging him to see her, there, wrapped in own vileness. She whimpered for a second of his attention. She felt her own soul might shrivel and die if he turned from her now.
Look he did, his electric eyes seeing her there, hand outstretched, clawed fingers shaking. He saw the tears in her eyes. He saw her heart of hearts.
“Kneel before me,” he whispered to her mind. “And be forgiven.”
Her heart burst with joy.
Sera awoke to the feel of cold ground against her cheek. Her vision swam as a thousand smells assaulted her at once. She blinked a few times, clearing her eyes, to see the face that lay only inches from her own, twisted in the painful rictus of death.
A dream. It had only been a dream. The Lord of the Storm would never look upon such as her, she knew.
Slowly, she pushed herself up, her wings flapping. Pain shot to her from one, and she looked at it, only to find it was broken. She sighed softly, clawed fingers tenderly feeling along the shattered bone. It would take some time to heal, she knew, and until it did, the skies were beyond her.
Gathering herself, she pushed to her feet with a groan. Another shot of pain, this from her side, where she found an arrow embedded. Gingerly, she snapped off the shaft, knowing the head could be removed later. For now, her hand on the wound would have to suffice as a bandage.
Pushing her greasy and matted locks of pitch out of her eyes, she scanned the battlefield, but her avian eyes found only one sight that held her. There, in the distance, not ten miles away, was the Ivory City of Savacal. She narrowed her gaze to see it more clearly, and found that it did not burn, meaning she and hers had failed to take it.
She considered it for a long moment, the city. To one side lay the Sacred Lake of Isel, to the other, the Sacred Forest of the same. Legend held that when Grannax had first created the One World, Isel had stepped upon it to marvel at its splendor. The Lake and the Forest had sprung up from those first footsteps.
Sera wondered what it would be like to wander under those emerald canopies, lost in the cool and refreshing shadows. Would she find a place there to nest? Would she be welcomed? Was there any chance that Isel, Empress of Heaven, would turn a blind eye to her presence if all she sought was to rest among the trees?
What of the Lake, she pondered. Could her deadly fingers skim the waveless pool? Would her reflection be other than hideous upon that azure surface? If she slipped into the cool depths, would she find it refreshing, healing and nurturing as she had heard some do?
Without meaning to, Sera took a step forward, wanting to go down there, to hurl herself against those mighty gates, and beg for but a chance to find out. She knew they would kill her before she ever got close. She knew they would turn a deaf ear to her cries of mercy. She knew all this, but still, she stepped towards it, her body leading where her mind knew it could not go.
Something cracked under her foot, drawing her eyes from that most beautiful of places. On the ground, was spread a wing, the feathers already brittle. They had once been black, like her own. Fear gripping her heart, Sera looked to the owner of the wing, and found she knew well that face.
Tormented, she looked across the great battlefield, and found others, many others. She knew their names, knew them in her heart before her mind. They were her sisters, and her daughters, one and all. Gone now, dead.
A great grief settled upon her as she realized her rook was gone. All of them lay upon the field of war, wiped out by the battle they had fought. She was alone.
She looked upon Savacal once again, but knew she would never be allowed to walk those ivory streets. Such was beyond her. Never would she know the splendor of that place, not while it remained undefiled, at least.
To see it the way it stood, though, was what her heart wanted. She found, not to her surprise, that she could not stand the idea of such beauty being spoiled. Something about that seemed wrong. Still, it was as it was, and she knew it would never change. She was a creature of darkness, and a place of such light would not tolerate her.
Turning, Sera, Harpy Queen, began the long and slow walk back to the Demon Seed camp.
The camp was a small city unto itself. Thousands had been gathered for the march on Savacal, and though many had died out on the battlefield, many more had been brought up to strengthen the army, for the Demon generals knew that Savacal’s defenses were limited. If they continued to throw enough might at it, soon, those Ivory Gates would buckle, and give way.
Through the bustle of evil making ready for war, Sera trudged, her head down, clutching her wounded side. Her broken wing hung limp at her back, and few spared her more than a cursory glance. She expected nothing more, for in a place such as this, none cared if you lived or died, so long as you did as commanded.
Weary from her long walk, she mounted the steps to General Cobin’s command quarters. Her orders had been to report back to him, and this is what she did. Her rook was gone, her body broken, but she would complete her mission, for she had nothing else left to her.
Inside, fires burned low as the general poured over his battle plans, seeking some way to gain the Ivory City for those he served. He was a massive man, a human once, but his body had been twisted by the Demonic powers he now served, making him look more like an Orc. When she entered, he spared her a glance, then simply pointed at the spot in the floor he expected her to kneel.
Sera did as she was commanded, dropping to her knee, the pain in her side gut wrenching. Droplets of blood found their way from between her fingers to fall upon the floor. It humiliated her in a way she could not define, to be here, before this man, like she was.
“Your Harpies failed,” he said at last.
“Resistance was greater than we expected, sire,” she replied.
“Failure was not an option, Sera,” he stated, his voice flat.
“They had many archers, more than we knew. My rook came within a few miles of the city…”
He cut her off by slamming his hand down on the table. “A few miles? You came with in a few miles? Tell me, Sera, what good this does me? You lost your entire rook and only came with in a few miles of the city?”
She dared raise her eyes, fury in them. “My rook is dead so that your battle field could be paved, general.”
“Your orders were to disable their defenses. You have failed, and lost me an entire rook of Harpies in the process. Your incompetence is beyond appalling. You are fortunate I need every able body I can lay my hands upon, or I would simply kill you for what you allowed to happen out there.”
“What I allowed to happen?” she snapped. “My rook is dead, general! My sisters! My children! What you call incompetent, I call intolerable! We pushed as far as we could, and frankly, if the Orcs and demi-Goblins had done their part, my rook would have gained the walls of Savacal.”
Cobin snorted. “You cannot lay blame upon them, Sera. The entire mission was yours to command. You come back to me now, with only failure, and argue with me? As I said, you are lucky I don’t simply kill you. Perhaps if you had done better, we could enjoy each others company, but as it stands now, I must reassign you.”
Sera was staggered. Enjoy his company? She doubted that would ever be a remote possibility. “I am to be given a new rook, then?”
“No,” he told her. “You will serve in Gadial’s.”
“But, sire, I am a Queen.”
Cobin looked at her with a mixture of annoyance and boredom. “Not any more, Sera. You are nothing now.”
For many years, Sera had carried a secret. Many of those in her rook had carried the same secret, and she knew of those in other rooks that also carried it. She also knew that none in Gadial’s rook had this same secret, just as she knew she was going to be treated in the manner a fallen Queen should expect.
It did not help matters that Gadial was her arch rival, and always had been, every since Sera had expelled the girl from her own rook. She’d had no choice really, not after Gadial’s attempt to seize control of the rook had failed. She had underestimated the bond those with the secret had, and her attempt to take over had failed because of that.
Sera was more than just a Harpy, or a Queen for that matter. She was a Storm Sister. It was something she was proud of, even though she knew the price she would pay if anyone ever found out. Not to mention the price all the Storm Sisters would pay if their network was discovered.
For that reason, and that reason alone, Sera went before Gadial and bent her knee. The unspoken mission of the Storm Sisters was to be quiet, unseen, and unnoticed. Beyond that, the small cult within the Harpies had no actual idea of what to do, besides hope for the day they could shake free their bonds to their Demon masters, and fly free.
So, quietly, unseen and unnoticed, they offered up prayers to the Lord of the Storm to break the invisible chains that held them to the Demon Gods. They prayed not for absolution, for they knew they were too foul for such as that. They prayed only to be free.
Now, Sera knew, her very life was in danger. Gadial would have no mercy upon her, nor would her rook. Her secret was all she had to cling to now, for among these Harpies, she knew she would find no like mind, no Sister to ease her torment with tender words of mercy or love. Here, she was utterly alone, and at the mercy of true evil.
Gadial took full advantage of the situation, leaning forward on her makeshift throne to leer down at her former Queen. She who had once done the exiling now came before her on bended knee, her only hope the mercy of her most hated rival. Such irony was a sweet nectar to Gadial.
“Well, looks as if your rook would have been better off in my hands, after all, Sera,” Gadial could not help but point out. The rook raised their voices in raucous laughter, delighting in the torment of the former Queen.
Sera fought back tears. “Perhaps this is so. We shall never know.”
“Either way, I have my own rook now, and like it or not, you are a part of it. You will serve in this rook as you are commanded, or face the fate you forced upon me.” Gadial lifted her wings in a haughty manner, contempt for Sera’s wounded wing making her arrogance grow.
“I serve with my life,” Sera replied.
Gadial smiled, a cold and humorless twisting of her lips. “Take her, show her where she may sleep, when she does not have chores to attend.”
Finally, anger got the better of Sera, and she raised her eyes. “Chores? I was once a Queen, Gadial. I expect I will be treated as more than a common slave!”
Gadial rose from her pathetic throne, full of contempt. “You will be treated in what ever manner I so chose, Sera. You will do as you are told. If I tell you to sweep piles of shit from the aviary, then that is what you shall do. If I demand you feed the hatchlings, then that is what you shall do. If I demand you pull the feathers from your very wings, then that is what you shall do.”
“You were never treated so by me, or my rook, Gadial, not even when you turned on us,” Sera snapped.
“Strange, I remember being thrown from the aviary. That seemed a bit harsh to me.”
“You attempted to usurp me. You know I had no choice.”
Gadial shrugged. “As I have none now. My rook expects a slave to tend their needs. I shall give them one.”
Sera curled her lip back, snarling. “I showed you mercy when I had you exiled, Gadial. My only other choice was to kill you. Is this how you repay my compassion?”
Gadial descended the steps of her throne, looking her former Queen in the eyes. “That is the difference between you and I, Sera. You are weak. I am not. You will be my rooks slave, and do as any and all of them command, or you shall be torn apart by them. I’m afraid, like you, I have no choice. This is how I show you mercy. I let you live.”
The mocking laughter of the rook, drove Sera down, breaking her in ways she had not known possible. This was how it would end, then. She, a Queen, would become a slave, a diversion for the twisted amusement of Gadial’s rook.
Sera bowed her head, offered a prayer to the Lord of the Storm, and wished she could have died with her rook, making sure the Demon Seed never reached the gates of Savacal.
Days drug by, turned to weeks, and they as well, drug by. Sera labored for her new rook, doing every menial task they could concoct, serving them in any way they ordered, no matter how demeaning or perverse.
She clung to that secret part of herself, the part that whispered she was a Storm Sister, beyond the petty insults of life among the Demon Seed. She would carry herself with nobility still. She would conduct herself with the same self respect she always had.
It was a small thing, yes, but all that kept her spirit from breaking under the weight of despair she sank into.
She heard much of what transpired in those weeks, as her wing mended itself. Cobin still pushed for Savacal, but Gadial had not managed to get any closer than Sera had. Her rook had done their job well, alerting the archers of the Ivory City to the presence of Harpies, giving them time to prepare for the waves that would follow. They had died for a good cause, Sera knew, but it comforted her little.
No Demon Seed came with in five miles of Savacal. The might of the city of Isel did not waver, no matter her loses. She admired them in private, when she rested, wishing them well in their battle against the hordes arrayed against them.
Rumors began to circulate of Cynthanis leading a charge from Everdawn, headed for the Demon camps eastern flank. They whispered he rode with all his Paladins, and an army of thousands at his back. The Six Races were one, and their might was considerable. Cobin was running out of time, and Gadial’s continued failures would soon bring her own death, for eventually she would run out of excuses.
When that time came, Sera knew she would be not far behind the foolish Queen, for no other here would suffer her presence. So each day, when she was alone, she tested the strength of her wing, and found it gradually improving. It was weak, but it would work, soon.
She didn’t know yet what she would do, but she knew she could not stay here. Her life was forfeit, one way or the other. If she ran, she would be branded a traitor, and hunted by the forces of both light and darkness.
Still, there was the dream, to fly free. Just once in her life, she wanted to fly free.
The aviary was empty, Gadial’s forces out supporting the march of the Orcs on Savacal. Sera tested her wing once more, flapping it gently. It still hurt, but it would hold her aloft. Such would have to do. Rumor had become fact, the forces of Cynthanis confirmed. Soon, she would have no time left.
It was now, or never.
Gently, she beat her wings, lifting herself from the cold stone floor. She grimaced a bit, but suffered the ache gladly, for at least she could fly once more. Without a single glance back, she flew from the aviary, and out into the morning light.
She closed her eyes, aiming upward, going as high as she could, then set off in a random direction, caring not where she ended up. Anywhere was better than where she had been. She was flying, she was free.
The sun rose ever higher, the eye of Grannax upon his world once more. She felt the warmth kiss her skin, and accepted it. He may find her foul, but she reveled in his presence. All about her was nothing but the infinite blue, the curve of the world far below, and she was away. Never had she felt such peace with in her own breast. Never had she felt such exhilaration.
No, more than that. Joy.
In the distance, she saw thick black clouds, lightning flashing deep with in their heart. Turning a lazy circle, she watched them for a time, seeing them slowly build, and felt a call in the very depths of her soul. The Lord of the Storm had sent her a way to be free forever, she knew it.
Banking, diving, she made for the clouds, tears forming in her eyes. Her rook had believed in the power of the Lord of the Storm. They had been willing to sacrifice all to slow the advance of the Demon Gods on the Ivory City, knowing full well none would ever know what they had done. No one would sing songs of praise to them. No one would whisper their names with reverence.
They had done what they felt was right. They had done the only thing, in their hearts, they felt they could do. Not for glory, but because the Lord they served would understand. Deep down, inside their vile bodies, burned a need that ate at their souls, made their hearts cry out in pain. A loneliness, some would call it. A sense of displacement, perhaps.
To the Storm Sisters, it was the basic belief that they could be more than the sum of their unfortunate birth. From up high, riding the winds, they could see the breath taking majesty of creation, and for many Harpies, that raised questions they could not answer.
Were the Gods they had been born and bred to serve deserving of this majesty? Did they have the right, as they claimed, to hold dominion over a creation they had no hand in? Was the life of even one Harpy worth the undoing of the breath taking azure sky they sailed through? Were they willing to lay down their lives for Gods that did not know their names?
For Sera, and most of her rook, the answers had come simply enough. They had made their choice. They had served, silently, the Lord of the Storm.
Sobbing, Sera flew in the brewing storm, ready to embrace her own end, prepared to die at the hands of the Lord she had served in her heart for all of her life. Even as the powerful winds buffeted her, and her own tears were lost amidst the rain, she prayed for a bolt of lightning to take her, to end her suffered. She prayed for an end to the burning ache in her heart, the ripping agony in her soul.
Tossed by the gusts, pelted by rain and hail, Sera gave herself over to the storm, crying out into it, “Take me, mighty Lord! Take me, that I might rest now with my sisters and daughters! Take me! Do as you will with this body!”
In the lightning flashes, she saw a figure. In the thunder, she heard a voice.
Weary of her life, her pain, and the thousands of questions with out answers her existence had delivered unto her, Sera did as she was bidden. Seizing the currents, she rode them up into the storm. Shivering against the cold, eyes stinging from the powerfully driven rain, she climbed onward, clawed fingers grasping at phantom images of her rook as they soared past her.
Up, up, she went, desperate to catch them before they left her behind, before she was alone again. Higher and higher she went, crying out for them, her voice lost to the roar of the storm. Father she reached, needing them to wait for her, so she would no longer have to carry this silent burden alone, for in them, she knew she could find comfort.
With them, she could know what it was to truly fly free.
Then, with painful suddenness, she broke through the storm.
Sera hovered, her eyes unable to take in all that lay before her. Her mind reeled, her breath hung in her throat, and she felt certain that somewhere, somehow, she had either died, or gone insane. What she looked upon could not be.
A valley lay spread out before her, resting in the boil of clouds, fringed by lighting and thunder. A sweep of green so brilliant that emeralds paled next to it stretched down a slope, then back up another. Beyond these, there were only black, angry clouds. Above her, the sky was blue beyond blue, so rich a hue that it made her eyes hurt to look upon it. All through this was a warm sensation, a feeling that rested in her mind as golden, though she did not know why.
At the heart of the valley lay a structure, eight sided, raised up from the ground, with a spire that reached high into the sky. A simple building really, not arrogant, or presumptuous, but elegant all the same. From the valley floor, soft cries wafted up, deep, harmonic calls that made her heart tremble at their beauty.
Timidly, she banked her wings and drifted to the building, knowing somehow where she was, but unable to quite accept this as real. She was dreaming again, maybe, or worse. She swallowed her fear as her feet touched the cool marble that made up the floor, and magically, the eight sides of the building folded up, leaving the entire structure open to the gentle breeze that wafted through the valley.
Standing in the building was a man, towering, with ebony hair that lifted on the breeze. His green eyes held power the likes of which she had never known, but sadness beyond her comprehension as well. She stood for a long moment, staring at him, knowing him for who he was, for she had seen him in her dream.
Languidly, the Lord of the Storm raised a hand and beckoned her forward. Sera obeyed without hesitation, crossing the marble floor to kneel before him. Her entire body trembled in his presence, if indeed this was real, which she still could not fully believe.
“Why have you come here?” he asked softly, but the thunder beyond the valley rumbled as he spoke.
“I… am not certain, my Lord,” she replied, her voice a hushed and reverent whisper. “I am not certain where here is, though I fear that it may be a place such as I do not belong.”
He looked down at her curiously, and she felt his eyes on her, making her tremble all the more. “Where would such as you not belong?”
Sera swallowed hard, wondering if she could even say the words. “In the High World, my Lord, in your valley, and your temple.”
The Lord of the Storm nodded his head thoughtfully. “Yes, that is where you are, Sera.”
Her breathing was labored. This was not right, she knew. She was Demon Seed, undeserving to stand in the High World, in the very home of a High God. “Why am I here, Lord?” she managed to whisper.
“You gave yourself to me, did you not, Sera? Back there, in the storm, you gave your life to me, to do with as I pleased, correct?” His voice was a gentle wind and a crash of thunder all at once.
“Yes, I did,” she replied, still unable to look beyond the hem of his silver robe.
The Lord of the Storm smiled, and the day brightened outside. “Rise, Sera. Stand beside me, that I might show you something.”
Afraid, Sera rose, at last looking into his eyes, and finding that sadness again, so bright and real, it made tears fall from her eyes to see it there. Gently, he offered her his hand, and fearful, she took it. With kindness, he eased her to his side, and with shame, she stood at it.
A figure flew down to stand with them, massive beyond any Sera had ever seen. He was tall, easily seven feet or more, with great black wings of supple leather. His hair was a midnight curtain that fell in silken tresses, and his eyes were brilliant, stormy gray, yet hard as stone.
“There stands Talon,” the Lord of the Storm whispered to her. “He was first among the Ascended, the servants of the Gods. I brought him forth from my own claw, gave him life, that I might know love. Love he has shown me these many long years now, and devotion as well. He is my third son, my pride and joy, and in him, I placed my heart.”
Sera knew in whose presence she stood. Many were the tales of Talon, first born of the Ascended, demi gods in their own right. After Grannax tore asunder creation and made the One World three, the Ascended alone had the right to look upon the Gods. None had come before Talon though, and he was mightiest of them all.
Figures moved in the forest, great and massive, tall enough to look into the temple from the ground, over ten feet down from where Sera stood. They were many, and each was different, the color of their skin ranging from fire red to frost blue, from earthen brown to granite gray. They stood silently, arrayed about the temple, watching the Lord of the Storm and the Harpy Queen.
“There stand the Giants,” the Lord of the Storm said solemnly. “They were the third race to walk the One World of creation. I brought them forth from my very bones, gave them life, that I might know love. Love they have shown me, since they day they first drew breath, and honor as well. They are my second born, my blood and bone, and in them, I placed my strength.”
Sera trembled before them, for these were no mere Giants, but the Elders, the first Giants to walk the One World, born directly of the Lord of the Storm. They were the fathers and mothers of the many races of Giant, and they were legend even among her kind.
Calls lifted up from the forest once more, and shapes, great and majestic, lifted into the air, ten in all. Power shone from their very bodies as they arced into the sky, a rainbow of color that dazzled Sera’s eyes. Gently, like leaves on the wind, they drifted back down, coming to rest behind the Giants, who nodded to them in respect.
“There sit the Raja,” the Lord of the Storm whispered. “The first of Dragon kind. From my scales, I shaped their eggs, here within the walls of my Storm Palace. Here I nurtured them, gave them life, and brought forth the mightiest of all the races to walk not just the One World, but any other. I brought them forth from my flesh, gave them life, that I might know love. Love they have shown me, since the first day they drew breath, and respect as well. They are my first born, my heart and my soul, and in them I placed my will.”
The Lord of the Storm turned to Sera now, looking down into her eyes. “Tell me, Harpy, why you have called out to me? Why have you given over your life to me, when I have these children? What is it you seek from me?”
Sera could take it no more, crumpling to her knees, burying her face in his silver, silken robe, her tears running freely, her body wracked with sobs. Gasping through them, she admitted, “I sought… freedom…. I sought…. hope…. I sought… love.”
The Lord of the Storm ran his fingers through her filthy hair, then took her cheek and turned her face up to his. “From me, child?”
“Yes, my Lord,” she whimpered. “From you.”
Standing, he unfurled his wings, one golden, the other red as blood. Talon knelt before him, the Giants bowing their heads, the Raja raising their voices in a clarion call that sounded sweeter than any music mortal hands could compose.
“You seek love from me, Harpy, and I seek to know if your heart is true. Look upon my true face, Sera. Cast aside the image you hold, the Lord of the Storm! Look upon the Storm Dragon, Rajan!”
Gone was the man.
The roof of the Palace folded back, and Sera looked up, into the painfully blue sky, to see him as he truly was. Not the Lord of the Storm, no, but greater still.
The mighty Storm Dragon, He of Many Colors, his body coiled endlessly against itself, his tail unseen and unknowable. His scales glistened all the colors of the Raja, rasping against one another as he moved, his never ending dance the very sound of thunder itself. His great head was massive beyond her ability to fathom, with eyes that burned blue white and horns that were as wide as her entire aviary. His wings were the sky itself, spreading out wider than anything she had ever imagined.
His great arms stretched out from his body, clutching the sides of the temple as he lowered his face towards her. Sera trembled before him, awestruck at the beauty she beheld, her heart barely able to withstand the purity she witnessed in him. Without even knowing it, she reached back for him, her clawed fingers trembling as she silently begged him to see her heart, past her vileness, past the filth of the form she had been born into. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks as she looked upon the true face of her Lord.
“Do you seek my love, Sera?” he roared, his voice so thunderous it was almost deafening.
“Yes!” she cried back to him.
“Do you seek to serve me always?”
“Do you seek to ease the ache in your heart? The pain in your soul?”
“I beg of you!”
A great arm lifted up, clicked against a massive, prismatic scale, and sent it tumbling down towards her. Sera reached up for it, wings flapping, desperate to know his touch, even from a distance. The scale struck her, folded around her, wrapped her up into a cocoon, and rested on the floor, glittered.
“Then rest, my daughter. You shall be my fourth child, brought up from darkness, absolved of your evil. You shall be made whole, as you should have been, and born anew. I bring you back from the pit into which you were thrust. I forgive you, and you shall know my love always. I know in turn, I shall have your love as well, and your service, for you shall be my wrath!”
Cynthanis scanned the battlefield before him, watching as the Demon Seed marched for Savacal once again, a black wave of evil with no end. Beside him, Takadar snarled, ready to join battle with the minions of the Demon Gods, his rage held in check only by his loyalty to his Emperor.
“This is not a good day,” the Immortal muttered.
“We have thousands at our back, my liege,” Takadar said. “Let us destroy them where they stand.”
Cynthanis mulled that a moment, the direct approach holding a beauty of its own. Then, he dismissed it, knowing it would not serve anywhere near well enough. “No, my friend. We must make for the walls of Savacal. We must help them defend the Ivory City at all costs. From here, we would only be able to engage a portion of their might.”
Takadar frowned, but saw that his Emperor was right. He nodded his agreement, and turned to order the vast army behind them to turn south, make all haste for the walls of Savacal. He knew that with the reinforcements they had brought, the Demon Seed would be driven back, for now at least, until Cynthanis could come up with a better plan of battle.
First things first, however, and relieving beleaguered Savacal had to be their main objective. With a quick nod to Rana, his friend and wife, Takadar moved to flank the army in its march, then paused as he saw Cynthanis still stood where he was.
“Harpies,” the Immortal whispered. “Thousands of them.”
Takadar lifted his eyes to the sky, even as Rana did, and saw them, sweeping down from the heavens, a black curtain that covered the land in darkness. They would never reach Savacal ahead of them, he knew. The Ivory City was doomed, and the army of Everdawn only a few short miles away.
“My lord, you orders,” Takadar barked.
Cynthanis said nothing, his green eyes lost in wonder and fear. Never had he imagined that the Demon Gods could summon forth such might. Never had he believed, in his heart, that their power had grown so great. What could even he do now, against this, but watch as Savacal burned?
“Sire?” Rana asked.
“Make all haste. Set the Elves running, their bows will be needed. Get the Trolls moving towards the main body of the Demon army, with the Dwarves for backup. Call up the Ogres as well, I went them to circle around and catch the Demon Seed head on. As for my people, just tell them to double time it to the city. Against this, they will be fodder, and far safer if they make it Savacal.”
The two Paladins nodded and set out to deliver their orders, not seeing a large cluster of Harpies break off and swoop down on their position. Cynthanis saw them, though, and knew they had spotted him. The Emperor, out in the open, an easy target. He did not fear death, for he knew he could never die, but he knew full well that the Demon Gods would certainly put his Immortality to the test, and he had no desire to see what punishments they could devise for him.
Pulling Glyphnok, The Sword of Heaven, he made ready to do battle with the Demon Seed as they swooped down and circled above him.
“Well, what have we here,” their Queen called. “Cynthanis himself, come to witness the fall of the Ivory City. Does this location serve you, or would you prefer a higher vantage point?”
“Whom do I owe thanks for this offer?” Cynthanis inquired, a part of his mind hoping to distract the Harpies for a moment, another part letting him know this was foolishness.
The Queen laughed. “I am Gadial, Over Queen of the Harpies. What you see, up in the skies, Immortal, are all of my minions. I have been given power over every rook and aviary. With them, I will crush not only the Ivory City, but Everdawn itself!”
Cynthanis frowned. “Why don’t you just come on down here, so we can get on with the killing. I’ve no patience for your banter this day.”
The Harpies laughed at him, Gadial hovering outside his reach. “No, I think we shall take you prisoner instead. Face it, Immortal. You cannot defeat us all, and your Gods are not going to come and rescue you.”
Gadial couldn’t have been more wrong. At that moment, the sky ripped itself open, a great gash in the heavens from which poured forth the Raja, lead by Talon himself. The army of evil that marched on Isel’s favored city faltered in their relentless onslaught at the sight, many falling to their knees in fear.
But this was not what held the eye of Cynthanis, for another figure had emerged from the hole in the heavens, a figure wreathed in light, wearing golden armor, and carrying a sword of fire. Her wings were brilliant white, her hair a lustrous black, whipping back from her in a fan as she floated down towards the Harpies that circled the Immortal Emperor.
Gadial hissed at this figure, this vision of beauty beyond even the knowledge of Cynthanis, who had walked the High World and seen much. This woman, though, struck his very heart with her beauty, with her purity, and with the wrath that burned in her eyes. The Eternal Emperor felt his knees weaken at the sight of her, for she was perfection.
“Sand down, or be struck down!” the woman called.
Gadial gave a screeching call, summoning more Harpies to her side, all of whom now circled the golden clad warrior with wings of white. “Who demands such of me, Gadial, Queen of all the Harpies?”
“You ask my name, wretch?”
“I command it, before I leave you in your own entrails!”
The woman smiled. “I am Sera.”
Gadial blanched, her Harpies falling back in wonder. Cynthanis had the feeling he had missed out on something very important. Something massive was happening here, right before his eyes, even as the great and mighty Raja laid waste to the immeasurable forces of the Demon Gods behind them all.
“No,” Gadial whimpered. “You cannot be her. It isn’t possible.”
“I am,” Sera replied. “Once, I was as you, all of you. Wretched, vile, lost in my own filth. Now, I have found forgiveness. I have found redemption. I was a Storm Sister, when I was as you are now, but the Lord of the Storm called me home, and made me anew.
“The Harpies, Gadial, were never meant to serve the Demon Gods. We were always meant to be what I have become. The warrior angels of Heaven, the defenders of the Gods themselves. The armies of their divine will. We have lost our way, and fallen to the Demon Gods, but we are not beyond salvation. Come with me, and know what it is to be reborn.”
Cynthanis stared at her, wide eyed. Was this even possible?
Gadial’s face became a mask of rage. “Never! Traitor! You have forsaken our calling to side with the enemy! I shall gut you myself!”
Sera made ready to do battle, her flaming sword rising up before her. “Then come, Gadial. Come to me, and die.”
Come Gadial did, swinging her wicked claws at Sera, but she quickly found the reborn Harpy was far swifter, dodging out of her way, flaming sword neatly severing Gadial’s wing. The Harpy Queen crashed to the ground, dumbstruck, at the feet of Cynthanis.
“Emperor,” Sera called. “I give unto you a gift. The Over Queen of the Harpies.”
Cynthanis nodded his understanding, lifting Glyphnok. Gadial had time to admire the intricate network of runes carved into the swords blade before her head was removed from her body.
The Harpies fell back, all eyes on Sera now as she drifted down, alighting upon the ground, her wings folding back, and knelt before Cynthanis. The Immortal Emperor wasn’t certain how to take this, but saw Takadar running towards him, sword drawn, and held out a hand to stop the Paladin’s approach.
To his surprise, Takadar did, mesmerized by the image of Sera.
“Cynthanis, I am Sera, servant of Rajan. Know that I will always join you in battle, if only you will summon me. It is my duty, and my privilege, to defend the Middle World from the forces of the Demon Gods.”
“Sure,” Cynthanis replied. “I mean, thank you.”
Sera rose, saying, “I must return now.”
“Wait,” he called. “Tell me, truly. Were you once a Harpy?”
Smiling, she nodded, then turned to those about her, meeting their eyes as they stared back at her in wonder. So many lost souls, it made her want to weep for them.
“My sisters,” she cried. “I have found a path to freedom! Fly with me, back to the Lord of the Storm, that you too many find this freedom. Be warned, any who enter without a desire only to love him shall be destroyed. All who return with me, shall be transformed, as I have been. The choice is yours.”
With that, Sera lifted into the skies, her wings of shimmering white carrying her back towards the rift in the heavens, back to her Lord, her father. Behind her, hundreds of Harpies followed after her, reaching desperately for that sliver of hope she held out. Many hesitated, then fled back to their aviaries, fearful that the deception in their hearts would be known.
As Sera passed back into the valley of Rajan, he welcomed her and the sisters who came behind her, calling out to them as they wept at the beauty they beheld, escorted by the mighty Raja to a world they had never dared dream could be theirs.
“Come!” Rajan called. “Come and kneel before me. Show me your hearts, and find forgiveness. Follow my daughter, and be born anew! Know that forever after this, you shall be Harpies no more, but followers of Sera. A new race, the race you should have always been. You shall be given a new name, in the language of the Raja!
“You shall be called, the Seraphim!”
Copyright © 2012 Cain S. Latrani