“Hurry up, Leonard!”
At his mother’s call, Leonard tore his eyes away from the brilliant moon. In his boredom, he had been watching the silvery orb and wondering if Illuna could see him from its place in the sky. He hurried to catch up with the cart and hoisted himself up the driver’s seat beside his parents.
“We don’t want to tarry on this road,” his mother said to him. “Not at night. Those cursed sea merchants…I swear, if we could find another dealer, I wouldn’t have to travel through these spirit-forsaken Meridian roads just to keep our accounts!”
“It’s alright, dear,” Leonard’s father said, smoothening his son’s hair. “After all, we’re not traveling alone anymore.” He gestured to the company of guardsmen surrounding their caravan.
“All the same, I’ll be glad when we’re finally home,” his mother muttered. “Being this close to Zennegar…”
“The border is miles away.” Leonard’s father lit his pipe and sniffed the air. “I’m certain it will be fine.”
The voice shook Leonard from his reverie. Raising his lantern, he turned to the fresh-faced squire who had just caught up to him. “Yes, Edgar?”
In the darkness, the young stag gazed at him with large, limpid eyes. “Once we get to the outpost, do you have time to go over our drills?”
Leonard shook his head. These young bucks. Fresh out of the academy and already eager to fight. Part of his duty was to rein them in, make sure they followed commands to the letter. Especially out here, in the wilderness.
“It is better to get some rest,” he said. “We have an early start tomorrow if we want to finish patrolling.”
“Yeah, Edgar,” another of his squires, Ryllia, piped up from behind them. “Some of us do need sleep after trekking 20 miles in a day!”
“That’s because some of us don’t train as hard as the others!” Edgar shot back.
“I can run 20 more miles from the spot where you drop dead, Edgar Farmillian!”
“Alright, enough,” rumbled Leonard, and his entire troop instantly fell silent. “You all know your jobs. We’re not here to play or show off. This is the Zennegar border—a true test of your mettle. You must be ready for combat at any time.” He glanced about then nodded at another squire. “Soran, you take first watch at the outpost.”
“Good. Now hurry, all of you. We are expected there before midnight.” So saying, Leonard turned on his heel and continued his march down the darkened country road.
Beside him, his tigress lieutenant, Kyana, chuckled. “One may accuse you of being too soft on the new blood.”
Leonard smiled. In the three years Kyana had served as his second-in-command, she had never lost her impishness. “We were all new blood once.”
“Well, some of these younglings are a little too eager to impress. Best be careful, Leonard, or they’ll soon they’ll be ordering you around.”
Leonard smiled and inclined his head. “If they advance in the name of duty, then I will chalk it up to the common good.”
“I can’t believe—wait. Did you hear that?”
The two paladins stopped in their tracks, heads inclined to the wind. Above them, Illuna’s face hid behind a cloud, revealing little beyond the light of their lanterns. Behind them, the sergeant called for the company to halt.
“Yes,” muttered Leonard. “I hear it too.” He raised his hand and the troops readied their halberds.
“What is it?” Kyana asked.
Leonard turned to the grasslands to his right. Nothing but shadows and rustling. Just then, a breeze cleared the clouds and the moonlight spread across the landscape. In the distance, the tall grass came alive with several pairs of glowing amber eyes.
Leonard drew his sword. “ZENNEGARS!”
“Company, spear wall!” Kyana shouted as she unslung the mace from her belt. “Stay in formation!”
The night came alive with the sound of roars and battle cries. Some thirty feet away, dozens of Zennegar raiders leaped up from the grass and charged with scimitars and halberds. Leonard ducked behind his tower shield as some arrows zinged past.
But the warriors did not overly concern him. The real danger, the threat that chilled his blood, was baying at the moon as it rapidly closed in from behind the raiders, horned shadow blotting out the stars. He had seen this cursed beast of Umbra before, many years ago: a Fire Ghost.
Heart beating like the wings of a bird, Leonard fled down the dirt path as fast as his legs could carry him. He could still feel the heat of the burning caravan on his back, still hear the cries of the soldiers as the raiders cut them down. The flames threw a myriad of dancing shadows before him, and in his ears, his mother’s cries rang on: “Run, Leonard! Don’t look back!”
And run he did, sweat and tears pouring down his face, legs pumping and lungs fit to burst. Still his mother’s voice kept ringing in his ears, urging him on. But when he paused to catch his breath, he looked behind and found himself alone.
“Hold the line!” Leonard bellowed as the raiders surged around him. “Paladins, to me! Break their charge!” With that, Leonard rushed forward, sword and shield raised high.
The first raider’s blades clanged uselessly against his armor. Aside from bashing them away with his shield, Leonard paid them no mind. He would let the troops clean up. He needed all his strength to fight greatest threat.
The Fire Ghost loomed before him, a hulking mountain in the night sky. It’s baleful red eyes glared down, then it opened its mouth and bellowed a hunting cry that rang in Leonard’s bones.
No, he was not alone after all. A pair of burning amber eyes floated through the darkness towards him. A Fire Ghost was coming, its bounding lope easily closing the gap that had taken nearly all of Leonard’s strength to create.
Leonard cried out and stumbled backwards, landing flat on his back. The beast was upon him. Seeing this trembling, delectable morsel on the ground, it grinned its salivating grin and halted just ten feet away.
Leonard could not move. His head felt heavy, his limbs rooted to the ground and his heart fluttering like a caged bird. He heard distant thunder somewhere behind him. He felt the air stir his hair as the beast’s breath went backward, then heat as fire leaped from its jaws.
He could not even raise a hand to defend himself. A torrent of flame rushed toward him like a river of death.
A bolt of silver flashed beside Leonard, parting the fire. Leonard blinked back the tears from his eyes. An armored figure stood there with his back to him, his enormous shield glowing from the heat of the beast’s breath. As the Fire Ghost reared up on its hind legs, furious at being cheated, the paladin raised his sword with an answering challenge. Its blazing holy light shone so brightly that it brought back tears to Leonard’s eyes, and before he could say a word, the stranger rushed to the attack.
This Fire Ghost was different from the one he encountered years ago. It was bigger, its dark musculature covered with some form of ebony carapace, and the twin tails that emerged from behind it ended in spiked heads like that of a mace. But it still possessed its sharp, curling horns, and flames played within the cage of its jagged teeth.
Leonard roared his challenge and strode towards the demonic figure. The beast answered him with a blow from its enormous claw, which drew sparks on the surface of his tower shield. Though Leonard held his stance, the strike caused him to fall back a step.
“Flank it!” he cried to Kyana. “Try and get its neck!” Nodding, his co-captain sprinted the beast’s right, but Fire Ghost simply twitched its tail and its spike head smashed into her midsection. Kyana flew backwards, landing in a heap of clanking metal.
The Fire Ghost turned its head to the downed paladin, but Leonard charged once more to grab its attention. His sword found a gap in the monster’s chest armor, biting into its flesh. The beast roared in pain, and its claw slashed down once more. Leonard’s sword flew from his hands as he went sprawling into the dirt.
He shook his head to clear the red haze, then rolled to his left just in time to avoid the spiked tail as it came crashing down onto the ground where he was laying. Regaining his feet, he raised his shield once more to ward off a blast of fire from the monster’s mouth. The shield glowed red from the heat, but Leonard gritted his teeth against the pain and held on.
When he turned to his left, he saw that Kyana had recovered her footing and had raised her mace in challenge. She uttered a prayer to the moon; her weapon shone with a silvery glow, and as the Fire Ghost turned to face this threat, her weapon exploded with the light of a second sunrise. The monster roared in agony, blinded and blinking in pain.
Leonard took his chance. He sprinted to the place where his sword lay and held it aloft. “Illuna,” he whispered, “I call on your aid. Grant me your blessing to lay low the evil of Umbra. By your power…”
A glow emanated from the dividing gap between his twin sword blades. It hummed with holy moonlight, filling his arms with strength and dulling the pain of his wounds.
The searing heat of his shield abated to a soothing warmth, its glow sheathing him in a protective aura.
“…and your grace, let me strike my enemies down!”
Seeing her opening, Kyana rushed forward and struck her mace against the wound Leonard left on its chest. The Fire Ghost roared in agony and dipped its head to bite at her, but she dodged away just in time. And in doing so, the monster had exposed its neck—the chance Leonard was waiting for.
Leonard dropped his shield, raised his blade overhead. Then he lunged. The beast tried to rear back—too late! Leonard’s sword bit deep into the side of its neck. Black fluid gushed from the terrible wound and turned to steam from the burning heat of his sword.
With an anguished groan, the Fire Ghost collapsed on its side. Leonard followed its descent and pulled his sword free. Then he landed a second blow. A third decapitated the beast.
He could feel the fatigue seeping into his arms as the holy aura faded from the sword. He started when a hand laid on his back. Kyana said, “Are you alright?”
“I am. You?”
“None the worse for wear. But the squires…”
Leonard pulled his sword free and ran back to the company behind them. Bodies of Zennegar raiders lay strewn on the grass, felled by spears and arrows. None had escaped. The squires held their own well. Except…
Some of the troops had gathered around a fallen body. Leonard strode to their midst and knelt beside it. In the moonlight, he beheld Edgar’s bloodied face.
“He…he tried to follow you,” Ryllia said in a quivering voice. “He broke formation to guard your back. But the Zennegars…they…they…”
The boy was dead too long; no magic could call back his soul from the beyond. Lowering his head, Leonard whispered a final benediction for his fallen soldier, then lifted up the body in his arms. With slow, measured steps, he marched towards the outpost and his men followed.
“Are you alright, young one?”
The paladin had pulled him to his feet before removing his helm. A grey-haired mastiff gazed down at him paternally. To Leonard, he seemed like a giant clad in molten silver. Just a few feet away, the smoking remains of the Fire Ghost lay cut in twain.
For a long moment, Leonard found he could not speak. His eyes would wander away from the fallen beast to the burning wreckage down the road. He started towards it, but a hand held him back.
“I am sorry,” said the paladin. “There is nothing there you wish to see. Come with me to safety.”
Leonard allowed the knight to lead him to an armored steed, which they mounted together. It took a length of time traveling down the road before Leonard found his voice. “My parents…I left them there.”
“The Zennegars attacked without warning. There is nothing you could have done.”
“I did do something.” Tears flowed down his face, dropping onto his dirty hands. “I fled. They told me to run and I did. Like a coward. I…I wish I could have helped. I wish I could have saved them. I…”
Leonard bowed his head. The paladin said nothing and let him weep.
At length, he asked, “What is your name, young one?”
“Leonard. Today, you could not protect what is most important to you. Such is fate. But tomorrow, tomorrow can be different. You live, and live for a reason. Perhaps it is because you have strength within you. Perhaps it only needs to be discovered.”
Leonard wiped his eyes. “What do you mean, sir?”
“For now, rest. I shall tell you in time. And if you believe you are worthy of it, if you think it is the right path for you, then I shall show you the strength that comes from one’s devotion to Illuna.”
This is the cost of duty, Leonard reminded himself. This is what it means to stand against the Dark. Blood flowed today, blood will flow again tomorrow. When will it end?
The night held no answers. Perhaps tomorrow will be different. Perhaps then he would succeed. Perhaps.
The boy’s body grew heavy in his arms, but Leonard marched on.
-Writen by Mark Aragona