When the World Falls to Darkness

A kingdom at war, a web of truth and lies, a vicious game of friendship and betrayal, and a world that will kill you, whatever path you take.
When the World Falls to Darkness, nobody is safe.
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Beautiful cover by River_Summers.

(I also promise much more frequent updates starting July, when exams are over. :D)

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29. Reconaissance

Lukas took a deep breath, gulping in the late afternoon air and letting it flow through him. Freedom, he told himself. Freedom was this morning - with the mist lingering upon the ragged slopes of the mountains, a silver promise of hope, the air fresh, his wounds old and healed over. This was freedom, and this was what he had to protect.

He and Ryuu had been walking for most of the day to reach the elven capital, and neither of them had uttered so much as a word by the time they reached Elveros. Ryuu walked several paces ahead - as he'd been doing for the entire journey, until finally, at the peak of the mountain pass, he stopped.

"Elveros," he called to Lukas, stopping to gaze downwards through the mist. Lukas reached the elf's side, finally setting his eyes upon the elven capital. Instantly, he could see lights singing their melodies within the safe cocoon of the forest below; the city was a perfect ocean of emerald trees and stone, cast gold in the final embers of day. Even from here, he could sense the life radiating from within, and as his eyes wandered he realised just how huge it was; as far as he could see - Elveros. Before, he'd stolen only glimpses of conversations - mere rumours of the city's vast glory. But now...

"It's beautiful," he breathed, but Ryuu was already moving. Lukas followed obediently.

"So here's the plan," Ryuu deadpanned. "We stay in a tavern near the prison and you're going to turn into a really small animal and follow one of the guards home - figure out where he'll be later on. I'll get the information from him after that."

"Very well."

“Elveros is full of Alliance members – remember that you hate the angels and men and dwarves are tolerable. We’ll need proof we’re not on the Dawnbreakers’ side, so take this.” He slipped his hand into his satchel, bringing out an Alliance badge the size of his palm. Lukas took it, recognising the familiar symbol of the hammer and arrow crossed above a leaf. “Don’t lose it. I don’t have another spare.”

Lukas bit his lip before asking, “Where did you get it from?”

“The belongings of corpses are the belongings of whoever gets to them first. They’re useful for spying.”
Lukas shuddered, but didn’t argue. Not for the first time, he wished one of the others were here to fill the silence – but they couldn’t risk it, not with the patrols from Elveros circling about.

"Ryuu, thank you for-"

"Shut up," the elf snapped. "Shut up. I just need you to do your damn job - no sentimental crap. I hate you, and I’m only doing this because Avalon is like a sister to me. Don't thank me."

Lukas flinched. "I'm sorry."

Ryuu said nothing in reply, and quickened his pace.

 

 

Ryuu didn’t speak to him again until they were nearing the Evlveros barrier – a ring of ancient trees surrounding the city, constantly patrolled by guards so that nobody could enter without being noticed.

“Listen carefully,” Ryuu ordered. “The trees are lined by a barrier made of magic. It will only let elves past, so in this body…” He gestured with disgust to Lukas’s elven form. “You should get through disguised like that, and you’ll have to hope the magic can’t identify what you really are. If they stop you, tell them your great-grandmother was human or something.”

“But that’s-“

“Incredibly looked-down upon, yes, but it’d be considerably less revolting than being a Guardian.”

Lukas flinched, but any reply was snatched from him by fear or disappointment or desperate helplessness.

“Got that?” Ryuu snapped.

For a moment, a hundred replies pulsed through Lukas’s mind and danced upon his tongue.

No, because I think and feel and breathe like you.

I saved you from death and you still don’t treat me like I’m more than dirt?

Why are you doing this, what have I done, what did I do to deserve all this?

But none of them made it to his lips, so instead he just choked out a quiet, “Yes.”

They reached the barrier, and the nearest guard had already moved to meet them. She wore leather armour over a green tunic and breeches, and the left side of her tanned face was tattooed with the mark of the Elveros Guard – a snaking vine of leaves that curled from the corner of her lip to her eye. It seemed the rumours were true – the City Guard were loyal, fearless, so proud of their duties that they marked their very skin with it.

“Alliance, are you?” she asked, her tone conversational but her stormy eyes searching.

“Yes,” Ryuu replied, as he and Lukas pulled their stolen Alliance badges from their pockets. “Long live the elves of the Alliance, and death to the angels.” He spoke so vehemently that Lukas almost asked himself if Ryuu’s friendship with Avalon was false, but when the guard relaxed her grip on the spear and waved them forwards, Lukas pushed the doubt from his mind. Avalon trusted him.

“Enjoy your time,” the guard told them, and Lukas nodded, sparing her a smile and stepping between the trees. For a dizzying moment, a squall of butterflies exploded in his chest and he half-expected the barrier to push him back – and then the guard would figure it out, and lock him up again-

“Louken,” Ryuu snapped, using his false name, “hurry up.”

Lukas gulped in a breath of air and scurried after him, his shoulders dropping in relief.

He was through, and they were in Elveros.

 

 

As they made their way through the city’s outskirts, night’s veil slipped over the city, and the lights started glowing. The streams that coursed through the city were riddled with naturally formed everglow-rock beds, and the tiny bridges that passed across them were lit with torches bearing blueish flames - probably enchanted by powerful mages to burst into life when darkness fell – and tiny lights, also the result of magic, had been strung in trees and alongside pathways, their hues constantly shifting to cast the city into a beautiful storm of colour.

Some of the houses – those of the wealthier elves, no doubt, had been made of stone and boasted lit gardens with water features and countless exotic plants, while other homes had been built with wood, or into the hollowed trees of Elveros’s ancient forest. Lukas saw a few built higher in the branches, similar to those of the realm of angels, and forced himself to ignore the pang of hope that whispered, they could accept one another, someday.

Elveros’s beauty touched his heart, but it was also so close to the Elveros Mines - the location of the elven capital’s Guardian prisoners and a near-impossible target to attack. Did these elves know how lucky they were, to be born into this world of serenity and light and peace, to be spared the labour and torture and humiliation endured by the Guardians who lived and died so close to them?

They rented a room in an inn near the Mines so that Lukas could transform without being seen, and Ryuu looked away as he shifted into an urban skycat – a small, mild-tempered creature which seemed common in the streets of Elveros. It seemed as though they were everywhere here – miniscule mockeries of the horse-sized wild skycats that roamed in mountain ranges.

Lukas had encountered a few before, and he was lucky to be alive.

“You ready?” Ryuu growled, and Lukas scampered to the door, following Ryuu through the streets as he led him towards the prison. There were sounds and scents everywhere, different people and their animals and their odours and their aromas, exploding from every street and filling him with curiosity.

He almost didn’t notice as Ryuu stopped, nodded sharply towards a stone building nestled in the trees a few hundred metres away, and disappeared into the shadows again.

The air seemed a little less biting when he left.

Lukas waited, his eyes on the prison, but this new form’s senses drinking in so much more than that. The distant hum of music, the laughter of friends, the buzz of voices in the same tongue – everybody moving and speaking and acting in a perfect system.

For a moment, he let himself wonder what that would be like, but it was like gazing through glass, invisible to those on the other side as he withered alone, afraid, hated.

One of the prison guards emerged from the building, and Lukas watched him from the inky shadows that fell from the houses around him. There was a carelessness to the guard’s step, as though torturing Guardians all day was nothing at all, as though he wasn’t a disgusting brute who kept people trapped in a mine to die.

Lukas didn’t want to hurt people. But what this man had done? It made it easier, to cloak himself in night and trail the guard, knowing that at the end of tonight, Ryuu would have interrogated everything out of him. And when the guard finally stopped and unlocked his front door, Lukas burned the location into his mind.

And then he went back for Ryuu.

 

 

“I’ll ask you again. When would be the best time to attack?”

The guard had succumbed to Ryuu’s every question so far, but this one seemed to be beyond him to answer. His bloodied lips trembled, tears sliced across his cheeks, and he was shaking violently. “I can’t, I’m sorry-“ Another sob of pain, and Lukas had to bite his tongue to keep himself from begging Ryuu to stop.

This was to save Guardians like himself, Avalon had commanded this, Lukas had to trust her faith in Ryuu. He tried running a thousand excuses through his head, but it didn’t make it any easier to ignore the pleas of his guilt as it twisted the blood and bruises and tears against him.

This was to save Guardians, but it was heartless.

Another scream, and the guard choked out, “Fine! They lock up the Guardians at the second hour, and they let them rest until the sixth. Do it then.” The guard looked up at Ryuu with eyes that were wide and afraid, the eyes of a man who has just realised he has everything to live for. “Please don’t kill me, please, I have a daughter, please…”

Ryuu turned to Lukas. “Is there anything else you wanted to know?” The question was cold, like a thief had robbed Ryuu of every emotion and replaced it with mechanical hatred.

“No. We’re going to let him go, aren’t we?”

A scowl of annoyance pushed through the callous exterior, and Ryuu turned back to the guard.

“He’d talk.”

Another plea burst from the guard’s lips, and by the time Lukas stumbled forwards to stop Ryuu, the guard already had a blade through his chest.

Silence.

“Let’s go,” Ryuu barked, wrenching the knife from the guard’s chest to wipe it on his cloak, sparing no glance to his body on the ground before drawing himself back to full height. Those piercing eyes found their mark on Lukas, and Ryuu stepped closer.

“Avalon wants to wage a war. For you. And I don’t exactly enjoy doing this, but he’s from the Alliance, and I do not intend for Avalon to die. But you… You’re going to tell me exactly why a goddamn angel wants your freedom more than you do.”

For a moment, Ryuu’s words twisted themselves into Lukas’s lungs, trapping the air until it felt like he was suffocating beneath their weight, because it was true, wasn’t it?

“I want them to be free,” he whispered eventually. “But not… not through torturing and stabbing people in the back and dragging everybody else in. Not like this.”

“This? This is war. This is how you fight, and how you win. You don’t claim victory by being nice, shapeshifter. I thought they taught you that in the prisons.”

“You think you know about their prisons?” Lukas hissed. “They take everything. They take your family and your hope and your will to survive, and if you ever get out, you have nothing left. And some people go crazy. Some cling to what they were before. But I’ve seen torture, and I don’t want to be the one killing somebody else.”
He tried to push his way past Ryuu, but the elf caught his arm in an iron grip.

“And what if you have to kill a monster to save its victims? Because that’s how you see it isn’t it? So what would you do? Let the guard keep hurting them? Avalon is fighting for this. Why the hell aren’t you?” Every word was painted with venom, and the words went straight to Lukas’s head.

And maybe he needed the venom, maybe he needed the hurt and the throbbing of his heartbeat above everything else, maybe he needed an excuse to pour everything from his chest to his lips.

“I am fighting. I will fight for this, but there are so many ways I can do that. I will go to battle beside Avalon, but I will not kill. I don’t want blood on my hands, but it’s already there, isn’t it? Most of it’s from the village where we met. And you know why? Because for all your talk about fighting, you couldn’t, could you?” Lukas wanted to stop here, but for once there was an idiotic courage running through him and he wouldn’t let that go, not now that Ryuu was listening to him. “You couldn’t protect the village, you couldn’t protect Avalon, and you couldn’t even protect yourself. And I got dragged back into the place I hate the most, all for saving you and a village full of people who wanted me dead, and this is all I get? Why don’t you kill me here, then? I won’t fight back. It’s the only way you can kill people, isn’t it? When they can’t fight back.”

A part of him was cowering, wishing he’d never said any of it, but the anger was still blurring his senses, and as Ryuu turned around and swept from the room, Lukas let the satisfaction defeat the fear.

He took one last look at the guard’s body on the floor before following Ryuu back into the streets of Elveros.

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