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Daggers and Heroes
The cold was brutal, and the wind even more so lashing at Joe violently, though he could hardly feel that as he looked beyond at the looming hill with the ruined tower atop of it. The very same hill he saw the King of the Blood Demon’s itself crawl into six weeks before. […]
[…] He clutched his dagger tightly as if that would do him much good if the creature stirred from its sleep. Looking down at it, it was unremarkable. But he knew better, it was a gift to his mother from the Empress herself. The same blade she used to kill a dozen Blood demons, or so the stories went.
Part of him wanted to run back to the camp, back to his brother Yon. He thought of all the thousands of things that could go wrong, what would happen to Yon if he never came back. A thirteen-year-old kid alone in this world wouldn’t last long.
But he knew he had no choice, sooner or later either the cold or the hunger or hell maybe even the fighting would kill Yon. Beside’s when the chance for glory was so near how he could not take it. He imagined the men cheering his name, of how the events of tonight would be retold years after he was dead just like his mother.
He would be royalty again; things would be back to the way they should’ve been for the past ten years. He’d be a hero; maybe General Atler would personally praise him. That’s if this plan worked. He took in a deep breath and made his way to the hill with nothing but the faint moonlight to guide his way.
He and Yon had discovered the blood demon a few days after arriving in this barren dead wasteland. Luckily they saw it before it saw them. It was short, only five foot tall and gaunt, a far cry from the hulking beasts with claws longer than a man’s arm and eyes that wept blood. Joe assumed it was a child until he saw the red markings all across its body, markings which distinguished it as none other than the King of the Blood Demons itself.
Joe assumed he was hallucinating until he saw Yon’s face. Every night since then Joe had made his way from their camp to the hill, blade in hand and ready to kill it. And every time he ended up running back to camp. Except this time he couldn’t, after tonight there would be no next time, because in a few hours the battle would start.
Joe made his way down to the base of the hill, right to the boulder he seen the creature slip through. This was the furthest he’d ever made it, like all the other times his mind was frozen with terror his feet kept on moving, with each step his heart pounded more and more until it was all he could hear.
He slipped behind the boulder and into a large gaping hole behind. He stepped into a narrow tunnel, lit only by a faint red light far away in the distance. All at once the cold vanished, replaced by soothing warmth. The stench of decay was replaced by a far sweeter scent, almost sickeningly sweet.
A cold sweat ran across his back as he slowly crept closer and closer to the bright red light. The end of the tunnel opened up into a large cavern, the walls were coated with moss, with strange runes on them. Hanging high above him where large lamps emitting the bright red light, and lying on the center was the creature himself. He’d expected something far more regal for the king of the blood demons rather than a small hovel. That only made him feel worse. Joe imagined it waiting for him perhaps, and what could he do with only a dagger?
It looked peacefully as it slept, its stomach rose and fall which each breath, which reminded Joe of Yon. He supposed that would make sense, after all, Blood Demons were once men before they changed themselves into monsters. By the sight of him, Joe couldn’t imagine why, it was even more sickly then Yon, with pale skin latched onto its bones as if it had no flesh. He crept over towards it, expecting guards to emerge from the shadows. None came, that wasn’t surprising Blood Demons weren’t like men in that regard.
They were loyal to each other; it was their one redeeming quality. A quality which would get them all killed, Joe reckoned there was some deeper meaning to that. The creature stirred, and one of its eight eyes flickered open, and it stared at him. Joe froze, holding the dagger so tightly it hard. And then all at once all eight of its eyes did. The two of them stared at each other for what was a few moments but felt like minutes. Then it stood up letting out an unholy wail.
Instinct kicked in and Joe lunged at the creature as it tried to scramble away. He had been expecting it to fight, to transform into the terrible beast it was supposed to be. But it was surprisingly fragile; Joe managed to plunge his blade in without much resistance. It looked up at him, surprised and confused. And then it started to choke on its own blood, glaring at him its eyes brimming with despair its hands desperately trying to stop the flow of blood. And then it lay still. It can’t be this easy Joe thought expecting the creature to rise from the dead and finish him off; instead, it stayed still, dark red blood gushing out from its throat. In Joe’s imaginations, this moment made him feel triumphant and proud, instead, he felt like retching. It was too easy, too easy and yet much harder then he’d expected.
He rushed out of the cavern, eager to escape the look of the dead body and the wave of guilt that washed over him. It was done now; he had killed the King of the Blood Demons. So why was did he feel so sick? He ran out into the chill black night, pale light seeping into the sky. He ran until he reached the camp, where Yon was standing with a bewildered look on his face. No time to think, he could think later if he lived long enough that was.
“Joe, where the hell…”
“Oy” A sharp voice bellowed. Joe’s heart sank, as he turned around to see a guard facing him. His bright blue eyes bore through him, and his face chiselled out of stone. His eyes lowered down suspiciously to the dagger in his hand. “What in the hell were you doing?” The guard snarled. Joe tried to think of some semi-plausible excuse that would get him out of trouble. When none came he settled on the truth.
“Killing the King of the Blood Demons” Joe answered flatly. The man’s face twitched in angry, he opened his mouth but was cut off by the booming sound of a horn being blasted. Joe’s heart sank even further, and his blood turned cold. A horn only meant one thing, the battle had started.
Battle is chaos in its purest form, that’s the thing the stories never tell you. All around Joe men charging at the enemy, bullets flying everywhere, men were screaming, some in pain, some in terror and some in delight. All the noise had become one deafening sound; if hell was real then surely this is what it sounded like.
Yon held Joe tightly and was sobbing loudly, but his cries were lost amidst the sea of carnage. And what could Joe do but try to run away, there was nothing he could do to stop a bullet, or an axe accidentally hitting him. There were no sides anymore, everyone was for themselves. Corpses were piling up all around him, men and Blood Demons were hacking each other to death.
All of the Blood Demon’s seemed as weak as their king; most of them were running away. An idea of them being a real danger was gone. The battle only lasted minutes, but it might as well have gone on for hours. The noise died down, as men laid down their arms, some of them were lying exhausted or wounded.
Other’s still drunk on bloodlust were hacking apart corpses still screeching their vicious war cry. Most of them were picking through the bodies, picking at whatever was valuable. He was surrounded by mountains of dead, men or Blood Demon’s the dead all looked the same.
“What happened?” Joe asked himself realizing that his face was covered in someone else’s blood.
“We won,” A man with a shaggy black beard said with a gleeful grin on his face.
“The bastards were already fighting themselves by the time we arrived” He continued.
“You” A familiar voice shouted. Joe turned to see the guard staring at him, his tidy hair was frizzy his eyes wild and his face smeared with blood. As if he’s luck could get much worse.
“You said you killed their King”
“Yeah” Joe replied, his voice so low it was hardly a whisper. The man with the shaggy beard snorted.
“Nonsense,” He said.
“They were fighting each other when we arrived,” The guard said.
“And? Your point is”
“Blood Demon’s don’t fight each other,” The guard said walking over to one of the Blood Demon’s who was dragging himself across the ground. The guard grabbed it by the scruff of its neck.
“What the hell are you doing?” The man with the shaggy beard asked.
“Asking one of them,” The guard said pushing the blade of his knife against the creature’s throat.
“Try anything and I push this through your throat” The man threatened.
“Now then is it true, was your King killed?” Joe hoped the creature would shake his head that this whole incident would be forgotten about, everything was going his way and yet he wished it wasn’t. To his dismay, it started nodding frantically.
“Well then,” The man with the shaggy beard said placing an arm around Joe as he watched the guard slit the creature’s throat anyway.
“Atler will want to hear this story”
“Every man in this regiment owes their life to you,” Atler said while chewing his food, with his insufferable capital accent. General Atler was an obese man, long grey whiskers and a pudgy red face, nothing like the fearsome commander he’d heard of that, then again nothing seemed to be like the stories.
“It was nothing” Joe mumbled while nibbling away at the plate of rich food in front of him.
“Nonsense my boy, I was sure that all our days were numbered,” He said though Joe doubted very much that someone like him was ever in any real danger.
“Of course the Blood Demons were doomed regardless, but you put a much swifter end to them than anticipated. The Empress is most pleased, I’m sure she shall send her congratulations” Atler droned on.
“Doomed?” Joe asked.
“Yes, the higher-ups were ready to send three thousand men to crush them once we had lost”. And yet all I’ve heard for the past six weeks is how we were losing, how this was our stand. All lies.
“Why not just send more men then you wouldn’t lose”
“We were meant to lose. I fear that they saw it as an easy way to get rid of some of the lowest scum of the empire. That’s politics for you. Anywho men are men, and you still saved them” Atler said standing up taking one last gulp of wine.
“So are they all gone sir?” Joe asked not sure which answer he wanted to hear.
“More than likely, if not they be will soon,” Atler said shrugging.
“You need to get some rest; tomorrow you and I shall be on our way to the capital. I dare say you’ve quite the military career ahead of you” Atler said striding out of the tent without so much as another glance in his direction. Killing an Innocent creature to save the worst of the worst Joe thought, is that what being a hero is?
He tried telling himself of how the Blood Demon’s had slaughtered millions and put mankind on the brink of extinction. And yet those thoughts felt hollow, doing nothing to get rid of the crushing guilt. With all the other lies he’d heard about why should he believe that story too?
“What’s wrong?” Yon said still devouring his plate of food. Already he looked much healthier, his eyes were no long sunken, his cheeks less hollow. Even his hair was starting to turn back to its original sandy blonde colour after one bath.
“Nothing, just tired” Joe mumbled.
“Did you really kill five of them with just that dagger?” Yon asked in disbelief. The truth has already been lost.
“Not quite,” Joe said.
“Here you can have mine,” He said shoving his plate of food away.
Sleep didn’t come that night no matter how hard he tried. His mind was still locked in that cavern, the scene of the creature gurgling on its own blood replayed over and over again. In the short span of less than twelve hours he’d gotten everything he wanted, he went from sleeping on the cold hard ground with nothing to eat but dry strips of beef to sleeping in a large tent and dining with General Atler himself.
He wondered whether or not his mother would be proud of what he did, then again all he knew of her was that she was an utterly ruthless warrior with a never-ending thirst for blood. Or maybe that was wrong too; perhaps she’d be disgusted with him.
“You hear that?” Yon whispered to him. Joe listened, in the distance; he could faintly hear someone walking. And then he heard someone much closer scream.
“What the hell” Joe said pushing back the flap of the tent. About a hundred meters away he could vaguely make out a group of five or so men. Men with unusually long claws.
“Crap.” They must have found out it wasn’t one of their own that killed their king.
“What is it?” Yon asked.
“We gotta go,” Joe said shoving his boots on. The two of them dashed out into the cold night, where the creatures stared at them. The guard was lying on the ground dead.
“Run” Joe whispered to his brother, and the pair of them ran into the darkness. Behind him, he could hear their footsteps following them. Joe didn’t know whether it would’ve been safer to leave Yon in the tent, for all he knew they were many more of them things surrounding the camp.
It was too late for second-guessing now, so he dragged Yon as they ran, ran as hard as feet could carry him but those things seemed to be gaining momentum. Something whizzed by him hitting the ground, an arrow.
“Goddamit” Joe roared. He was as helpless as he was during the battle. Yon was screaming at him, and all Joe could do was keep running. There was nowhere to hide, nothing to do but hope they would stop following him. Another arrow flew past them, this one barely missing Yon. Joe saw a large boulder standing about twenty feet away.
Just gotta make it there Joe thought, trying his best not to think about what would happen after. What could he do, take on all five of them; he didn’t even have his dagger. Hope that someone was coming to save them?
They hid behind the boulder, Yon clutched him tightly whimpering.
“It’ll be okay,” Joe said soothingly while he himself was shivering badly. He hoped to whatever god was up there that the things would pass by. They stopped running and instead started walking slowly up to the boulder, knowing full well they were behind them.
“Yon you gotta run,” Joe said. He tried thinking of some other way, some way he could save both of them. They were after him after all, not Yon or anyone else, and no one was coming to save them. He shouldn’t have dragged Yon here but it was too late for second thoughts now. The best he could do now was helping him escape.
“No I can’t just leave you here,” Yon said.
“I’ll hold them off maybe you’ll get away,” Joe said trying his damndest to smile.
“They’ll kill you!” Yon said
“Listen you’re gonna be okay, just run back to the camp as fast as you can”.
“Are you gonna come back?”
“Course” Joe lied holding his hand tightly. Joe couldn’t say he didn’t deserve this, with the blood of an entire race on his hands. He could try deluding himself that he killed that creature for Yon, but it was for him. It was for his dreams of glory; the only person he couldn’t fool was himself. Maybe Yon would learn from him that it’s all nonsense, all the stories, the glory of war. The thing he learned far too late.
He should’ve learned from his mother that lesson. “Go!” Joe said. Yon took one last painfully look at him before reluctantly running off. Joe stood out from the boulder, facing the five of them. It was a funny thing, he would be praised as a war hero for killing someone in their sleep, and no one would remember or care about his sacrifice to save his brother, no stories would be told about this. Maybe the real heroes are the ones no one talks about. He supposed there was a deeper meaning in that too.
He hoped that Atler would take care of him that was far from a guarantee but what more could he do?
Joe charged at them, knowing what was coming and yet running anyways. He looked down surprised to see an arrow had plunged through his chest. By the time the pain came, he was already gone.
Daggers and Heroes, by Luke Kiernan