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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27. Reluctance

Lukas drew a shaky breath as he faced the prison. Their first official rescue mission - three Guardians kept in the outskirts of a small elven city, waiting to be broken by their captors. They had to get them out before that could happen. In theory, it would be simple. A storm mage, a shapeshifter and a dragon Guardian against one prison? To Avalon, it probably seemed easy. But it wasn't the ease that concerned Lukas.

"You'll be fine," Avalon reassured him. 

"I don't want to kill any of them," Lukas choked out before he could take the words back. "I don't want to hurt people. Even if they are trapping Guardians." He paused to look at the angel. "How do you do it? Kill, I mean."

A shard of sorrow flickered across Avalon's expression, but it was quickly replaced by one of steely resolve. "I don't want to," she said. Her seriousness startled him. Was the cheerfulness for battle simply a mask to hide the harsh reality of it? "But I grew up with soldiers. I've grown up learning that this is a war. There's only one way to protect that which you love, and that is to fight for it. Death will come to all eventually. I'm simply speeding up the process, because I don't have a choice. If I had one, I wouldn't ever kill."

She seemed so beyond her years in that one moment. So strangely wise and melancholy that Lukas almost didn't recognise her. And yet despite the power behind her words, he couldn't force himself to believe them. 

Before he could ask her any more, she was standing, her usual grin sliding back into place. She radiated confidence once more.

"Ready?"

Lukas sighed. "No, but I don't suppose you'll take that as an answer."

Avalon punched him lightly. "Just follow me. Don't kill the guards, just scare them and work on freeing the Guardians. I don't think Ghost has any issue with taking people out."

He bit his lip before giving her a slight nod of reply. "Very well."

For the second time since Avalon had saved him, Lukas stood and willed his dragon form to take control.

It started with the tugging of raw power in his gut as it slowly spread through his veins, forcing him into transformation. He could feel the wings exploding from his shoulders as Avalon became smaller, and beneath the glorious pain of turning, there was fear. He was dangerous in this form.

"Let's go!" Avalon called, springing upwards. Lukas suppressed a shudder before launching into the sky behind her. Ghost rose upwards from the other side of the prison; Lukas could see her shadowy form hanging in the air like a vicious phantom from a nightmare.

She had been named well.

Lukas gained height, trying not to succumb to fear and back away. What he was about to do was monstrous. But he couldn't think - he didn't have time to do that. Turning, he dived downwards, fear pumping through his blood but not slowing him down.

At the last minute he rolled sideways, powerful body slamming into the cold stone walls of the prison. Pain exploded through him from the impact, but he realised with a dizzying sense of relief that he'd done it.

He'd penetrated the prison.

Ghost darted in through the breach in the wall, and there was only a shadow and a rush of air against his scales to tell him she'd entered. And then from inside: screaming. Sickening screaming that made him want to flee, to leave behind this bloody world of war and seek refuge in the serenity of desolation.

Avalon was hovering beside him, he realised. Somehow Lukas managed to push himself back up, tossing his head towards the direction Ghost had gone in. Help her, he urged silently. Don't wait for me. She must have understood, because seconds later she was flying in after the other Guardian and leaving Lukas to regain his strength. 

He couldn't just let them fight his battle for him. He had to follow - battles or no battles. Fighting against every urge within him, Lukas folded his wings and charged into the prison. 

It was dark. From the shadows came the moaning of the dying, but Lukas didn't stop to so much as glance at them. He had to head for the heart of the building, get the Guardians out, and leave.

Lukas found Ghost locked in battle with another dragon - not a Guardian, by the looks of it - just a regular dragon. But a powerful one.

He bowled into it, smashing it into the wall opposite Ghost. They barely had space to fight here, but it would have to make do. Lukas surged in for the kill, opening his jaws to crush the dragon's throat. 

He stopped.

Before the dragon could move, Ghost was there, her talons ripping at its hide until its body was limp and lifeless. The other Guardian turned to fix him with a steady glare before she delved further into the prison.

Lukas felt sick. Why? Why couldn't he simply accept death as Ghost and Avalon did?

"Lukas!" Avalon's voice. Urging him on. 

He tried to shake himself out of it as he followed Ghost deeper into the prison. 

More roars: more dragons up ahead. Avalon must have noticed something was wrong because she glanced at him and called out, "We'll hold them off! Go get the Guardians!"

When they met the two dragons around the corner, Lukas charged past. He didn't glance back - he had to trust Avalon. They could handle it.

He skidded to a halt in the next room. Because there, hanging from heavy shackles, were the Guardians.

A group of elves turned to look at him, fear etched deep into their faces. Lukas didn't want to hurt them. Lunging forwards, he opened his jaws and roared, throwing all the fear and desperation and disgust into that one terrifying screech.

The elves scattered, and relief washed over him.

He turned his focus to the Guardians. They were watching him with awe, and he moved closer to them. The chains must be enchanted to stop them transforming - but such things could not stand against his dragon form.

He raised his talons, and cut through the chains.

The first Guardian slumped to the floor, his body weak and frail but his eyes brimming with joy. Lukas moved to cut the next two free, and they too collapsed to the floor beneath them.

Now to get them out.

He crouched as low to the ground as he could, trying to indicate that they should climb on his back. The first of them - a tall man with skin tinted red - nodded and helped to push the other two up. It was warming to see them already supporting one another, and he curled his tail around to help them onto his back.

When they were settled, he crept back out of the room. Ghost and Avalon were still fighting the last dragon, and Lukas waited in the shadows for them to finish the fight. Just to keep the other Guardians safe, he told himself. He didn't ponder over the other reason - his own desire not to kill.

Avalon's lightning flashed before the dragon's eyes and it backed away, snarling in terror. Ghost went in for the final blow, her fangs glinting like rows of sharpened blades.

Lukas looked away as the dragon's body hit the ground.

"You did it!" Avalon grinned, noticing him for what seemed to be the first time. She shot him a reassuring grin before she turned back the way she'd come, leading them towards the hole in the prison wall.

Leading them towards freedom.

 

 

While they'd been attacking the prison, Ryuu had slipped into the city's military base and kidnapped their healer.

Lukas, under Avalon's careful instruction, managed to help the first Guardian they'd saved - the one who, despite his insisting that the other two were worse off, had deeper wounds riddling his flesh. This had been him only weeks ago - weak and helpless and gasping in pain. It sent a blade of memories through his mind, but he managed to push it aside until he'd done as much as he could for the first Guardian.

He left the healer to do the rest.

It was after this that he sought out Avalon as she perched in the branch of a tree, gazing down upon the camp.

"Avalon?" he called up quietly. "Could I speak to you?"

She was beside him in an instant. "Sure."

By some unspoken agreement they started walking through the trees, and Avalon was uncharacteristically quiet as she waited for Lukas to start.

"I think I'm getting worse," Lukas said slowly. 

"Worse? At what?"

Lukas bit his lip. Pouring out his feelings was almost impossible. He was so used to keeping everything bottled up, but the bottle was at bursting point - and he would explode with it.

"You know what I told you about earlier? That... That I can't kill? It keeps getting worse. When I fought the dwarves I could fight. But today I was about to kill the dragon and..." He stopped. Avalon's eyes were gentle, and with their guiding light he managed to choke out, "I couldn't. I just couldn't do it." He looked at her helplessly.

For a moment she did not answer, and Lukas held his breath. Please, he begged her silently. Please help me.

"I don't think the issue is with you not being able to kill," she said. "I think the issue is that the rest of us can."

"But you said earlier-"

"I know what I said," Avalon interrupted. "But you know what? I think I force myself to believe that, to make it easier."

"Do you ever think about the people you kill?" Lukas asked her quietly.

"I try not to," she replied. "But sometimes I can't help it. I think of them, and I feel terrible. But I know that I'll do it all over again, because I don't know any other way to protect the people close to me. But you freed the Guardians without having to kill, didn't you?" 

"Yes." Now that he'd started pouring, it was hard to stop. "But I killed the dwarves before. And I don't remember any of them. I just know that there was a blinding rage. That I had to protect Ryuu. But I don't remember any of them."

He blinked away a tear he hadn't even realised was there.

"Lukas, you did the right thing by saving the village," Avalon said. "I can't make you feel any better. But perhaps it's better you didn't remember them. They'll be remembered in their own kingdom as heroes. Do you remember any of the others?"

This time, he was relieved to nod. "Yes. When we fought the Guardians and the assassins."

"You fought them to save us," Avalon said softly. "Maybe that's why you couldn't kill the dragon today. It posed a threat, but not one that would be guaranteed to kill us if you didn't step in. Maybe you're not getting worse. You're just learning when you really need to use your power. Mercy is an admirable trait, Lukas."

They seemed to have reached the camp again, and Avalon threw him a warming smile as she opened her wings to return to her perch.

"You're not getting worse," she told him. "You're getting better."

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