The Weight Of Joy – Part 5: My Little Star Knight
Image by skilled artisans from the mountains
A derelict Star Fort drifted into the custody of a warm, yellow star. The Fort was in ruins, crumbling starlit stone hissed into the ether in its wake.
It came to rest in orbit around an unassuming—but vibrant—little world. Its sphere was mapped with vast oceans and great continents of many different biomes. The climate was as varied as the people who lived there.
If the current denizen of the crumbling Star Fort told you that he was here to experience the richness of that life, he would be telling you a half truth.
He was a servant not of evil, but of something far, far worse.
He was Vurrel Maym, a sorcerer and gargoyle of the Court of Eln—a once great dynasty. Their hardened flocks passed through fabric of the cosmos before The Dark broke them on a whim. And now Vurrel served the bane of his people.
He came to this little world for the life that was there, that was currently being ravaged by ‘The War Of The Damned’, and he was here to reap what he sowed.
Vurrel strode out onto an observation platform atop the ruined Fort. It was like a courtyard made from a slab of starlit stone that was exposed to the great void. The world spread out before him, and from a tiny cluster of islands on the night side, a torrent of green wisps seeped into the ether.
Vurrel smiled, revealing cruel, obsidian fangs. He drew his staff from beneath his cloak like wings—a gnarled totem with a red gem ensnared in the head—and weaved his terrible magic. He directed the flood of released souls into the maws of the hidden predator in wait around the world, into the maws of a single, incorporeal voir of unfathomable magnitude . . . And he laughed all the while . . .
Twenty Light Years Away
Rafek and Arachton huddled against the top of the tunnel, standing upon the shoulders of their fellow Knight’s Cosmic whose technicoloured light danced off the brown stone earth.
“Why did you have to use me as a base?” one of the Knights said.
The Knight was a gnome, who would stand no taller than Rafek’s waist. The monkey Knight’s big boots were currently crushing down upon the poor gnome’s shoulders.
“Ook ook,” Rafek laughed in his typical dopey fashion, “You looked sturdiest out of your team, fellow Knight.” Rafek grunted as he tore more earth away from the tunnel ceiling, which spilled onto the angry gnome.
“Never mind your discomfort,” Arachton chattered, “Have your fellows confirmed that my kin are withdrawn?”
“They have burrowed deep, spider thing.” The centaur knight that supported Arachton said. “I have heard scattered reports of Voir in the depths, but nothing your people can’t handle. It is the swarms digging through from above that we must fear.”
“And that’s what this plan is for.” Rafek grunted as he dislodged more dirt. “If Drade’s psychic warning was not a fever dream, then any surviving Knight Cosmic is outnumbered, wounded or scattered away from the real threat.”
“How can anything but what is happening right now be the real threat?” An elf Knight said, looking down the dark corridors of the tunnel.
“That’s what worries me.” Rafek hummed. “We need to get to your crashed Star Fort and channel our power into it. Between us all we should have enough to launch it from this world and into the stars. As we lift off, I’ll open the soul gates. The scent of soul should be enough to draw the beasts up with us. We send the Fort into the depths of space, drawing the bulk of the enemy away from the innocents here as we make our escape.”
“Yes,” the gnome was fidgeting now, “So you keep saying.”
“It’ll work!” Arachton hissed in defence of Rafek, “It has to.”
“Here,” Rafek wrenched a stone from the earth and the ceiling fell onto the Knights in a cascaded of soil. Through the opening was a cracked stone floor. Rafek pushed through it and pulled himself up into a ruined cellar. “The Star Fort’s lowest room, it seems to be somewhat intact.”
As the rest of the Knights crawled up into the dim space after him they spread out and searched for pathways and other tunnels in the crushed, ruined room.
“How does this work again?” the gnome Knight asked.
“We get to the Common Nexus and summon our Fire into the ruins of the Fort itself.” Rafek said.
“Very well,” the gnome led them up a crumbling stairwell and through a shattered door into a large chamber. The floor here was tilted and rendered almost useless with craters and jutting edges. The ceiling threatened to collapse at the slightest breeze. “This is the place.”
“Alright,” Arachton said, “Spread out, wait for Rafek’s signal, this might draw attention.”
The meagre group of Knights spread throughout the all but annihilated Common Nexus, interspersed between the inert portals, doors, and gates. Rafek nodded, and they all focused on their inner power. Their armour flared bright, iridescent flames wicked from their plating like river mists in the wind and seeped into the walls of the Fort.
The structure rumbled, shifting, awakening. The Knights started to breathe heavy, not just from the exertion, but from the emotions that rose with their call to power.
Rafek gritted his teeth, sweat dripped through his fur and down his brow, stinging his eyes. Arachton was curling her legs, bundling up into a ball, and the gnome clenched her fists, trembling all over as she brimmed with fury.
The fort started to lift from the mountain side; dust and debris crumbled from the structure and fell . . . but then started drifting upwards, sideways and in all other directions as the sacred powers took hold.
The pulsing, listing, floating, titanic structure would have been a sight to behold as it rose into the sky, but all those close enough to witness it would have already been consumed by the swarms of Voir.
“Just a little more,” Rafek grunted.
From deep within the structure there was a sound of screeching metal and a horrible shudder that filled the Knights with dread.
“Was that . . .” The centaur started to say.
“It was the soul gates, they broke open!” the elf cried. “The Voir will scent the remnants of soul-stuff and swarm through here!”
“That was the plan!” Rafek countered, “Keep channelling your energy.”
“It’s too soon!” the centaur bellowed, “We’ll be torn to shreds while we stand here meditating!”
“Hold you bastards!” the gnome leaped onto and overturned table, her armour shining with such bright fire it was almost white, “This is the burden we bore willingly.” The hideous screeching of the Voir rose upon the currents that drifted through the levitating ruins. “Our enemy will be here soon, I will draw them down into the crater. Rafek, once the fortress is high enough, drop it on them.”
“But . . .”
“I followed your plan, monkey Knight, now follow mine!” the gnome Knight dashed from the table and tore deeper into the star fort.
“Where is she going?” Arachton cried, curling into a tighter and tighter ball as she struggled to produce her Fire.
“She’s gone to the soul gates.” The centaur said. “She is going to soak herself in the remnant scent of a thousand souls and use it to draw the beasts to her.”
“Stay focused!” Rafek was roaring, his voice wavering as heat and fury threatened to overwhelm him.
The air grew cold and thin as the Fort rose further into the atmosphere, and would have caused the Knights to grow dizzy if it were not for the magic in their armour. The magic of the Star Fort was so weak it could not protect them from the thinning air as it usually would; all it could do was levitate at their command, drifting into the beginnings of eternity.
The Common Nexus danced with shadows and echoed with foul shrieks as Voir swarmed over the Fort from outside and wormed into the cracks. Rafek swore. The Knights were rooted to the spot, focusing on keeping the Fort flying; they would be torn to bits.
As the swarm of monstrous beasts started to pour into the Nexus, a great, white comet streaked through from the other direction, trailing wisps of green soul stuff. It was the gnome Knight. The beasts shrieked hungrily and tore after her, following the soul scent and tearing from the Fort to descend into the cratered mountain range below.
“Rafek!” Arachton cried, “I can’t keep this up!”
“HOLD!” Rafek ordered.
He broke a hold of his charging stance and stumbled to the gateway. He peered over the edge of the Fort to find the brown hued world spread out beneath him like a giant orb. Down upon the mountains, he sighted the churning swarm of thousands of Voir, vying for the great light in the centre that thwarted them in their droves. The gnome would not last long.
With a heavy heart, Rafek turned back to the Common Nexus and bellowed the order, “BREAK OFF!”
With gasps, the remaining Knights broke their focus and flew out the gate past Rafek, who stayed rooted to the spot long enough to make sure everyone got out. He held fast even as the Fort started its return journey back to the mountain side and his stomach lurched. As Arachton flew past him, Rafek jumped back out of the gate, and the rest of the ruined Fort sailed past him as it streaked towards the battlefield.
The Knights watched in silence as the rest of their home crumbled and spurted flames as it broke back through the atmosphere, before crashing into the mountain side a second time. But this time it crushed the hungry Voir underneath it—as well as the brave gnome Knight—in a colossal explosion of Prismatic Fire that streaked and ricocheted off the atmosphere like a rolling aurora.
“Will your kin be safe?” The elf Knight asked Arachton who watched the spectacle with morbid wonder.
“They burrowed deepwards, and outwards, they will be fine, and can return to the surface soon enough. Your comrade though, the gnome, what was her name?”
“Glrorin,” the centaur answered.
“A fitting name,” Rafek said quietly. “She gave her life not only for us, but the good people down there and all the other people who are now threatened in the cosmos. Come, we must rally our brothers and sisters and sail for Trist.”
The Roaming Wall drifted within range of a pulsing yellow star, Trist’s star. The stars that soared passed them in transit had settled into their constellations as they slowed down.
As they passed the threshold into the star’s domain, into its arcane ebbs and flows, Drade suppressed a shiver. He had not been back here since . . .
“Captain,” Seria touched his arm, they stood in the open gate of the Roaming Wall, along with the other members of Pride Squadron.
“I’m alright, Seria,” Drade said, “Just old ghosts.”
“You haven’t been the same since your run in with the gargoyle.” Leppin said, “What did his magic do to you?”
Drade squeezed his fists until Prismatic Flame sparked and layered him in his translucent plate armour. “The magic showed me my weaknesses, I have stamped them out.”
“Drade . . .” Seria started.
The Knights bit their tongues and summoned their own armour as they came within sight of the world, Trist. A world where in eons past all the races of the cosmos came together in peace and harmony for a time . . . until conflict brewed. The old portals were dismissed, the species and races that contributed to the tapestry of life split into separate threads. Except for here, where most races held out against all odds.
“Fellow Star Fort sighted.” Harahn pointed to a grey speck orbiting around the little blue world, it was arching towards them.
“By the Sun Guardians . . .” Drawg hissed.
As the other Star Fort orbited into view, so did a stream of green and crimson magic that broke upon Trist’s atmosphere. It was the gargoyle’s magic, necromantic power mixed with perverse sorcery. But that was not what made the Knight’s gasp.
Between the orbiting fortress and the world, writhing within the magic, was a titanic, wriggling voir. It was larger than the Star Forts, larger than the Citadel even, perhaps larger than an entire city. It writhed in abhorrent ecstasy as it siphoned off a stream of thousands—no, millions of souls that flared up from the little world.
“How can there be so much death on that world?” Harahn paled, “Has there been some disaster?”
“War.” Drade said. “The world is at war.”
“But no war could possibly produce enough death for so many souls to . . .”
“The gargoyle has been pulling strings for a long time, using his necromantic powers to aid the Voir in their growth, using his sorcery to control them, to control us. I would wager that his trickery extends down to Trist’s surface.” Drade explained.
Drade motioned and the Roaming Wall halted by Trist’s moon. He rose and soared out of the fortress upon technicoloured jets that burst from his boots. His Knights followed, five warriors fuelled by star magic, against the greatest threat the cosmos has ever witnessed.
As they came closer to the other Star Fort they sighted their enemy. He waited upon the upper lookout of the structure. His imposing shale stone figure stood in stark contrast to the dancing blue and silver speckle of the Star Fort he had commandeered.
He now wielded a great, gnarled staff, which he whirled in wide arcs while beating his mighty wings to conjure magic. The magic siphoned the souls that tried to flee from the titanic creature into its very maw. It grew with every soul that was flung into oblivion within its endless belly.
“We have to stop this!” Seria cried. The fury struck deep within her, flame and water coursing against one another in a horrid, chaotic battle.
“If we attack the voir directly, Vurrel will keep siphoning souls directly into it. If we attack Vurrel, the beast will be free to descend onto the world’s surface.” Drade cautioned. “We must divide our forces.”
“But Drade,” Drawg growled, “The five of us alone cannot hope to defeat the voir, let alone if we split up.”
“You once told me that five Knights Cosmic could stand against any force in the cosmos!” Seria said.
“Yeah but,” Drawg gestured to the titan, “I didn’t know ‘that’ was a force that existed.”
Seria drifted over to the lizard man and slapped him hard across the helm. “Gird your loins, Knight. We took an oath to defend lost souls, we are going to uphold it.” Seria turned to Leppin and Harahn who watched in shock. “Do you two have anything to whinge about?”
“No ma’am.” Leppin and Harahn hefted their weapons.
Seria turned to Drade. “I know you Drade, you won’t risk us against the gargoyle’s magic. Keep him off our backs, and we’ll rip the beast’s innards out.”
Drade stared at her for a long moment, then at his depleted squadron, “This may be the last we see each other, whether we achieve victory or not. It was the greatest pleasure in my life to have lived alongside you.” He beat his sword hilt against his chest, and without waiting for their reply, soared towards his enemy, towards Vurrel.
Vurrel cackled as he watched Drade approach. “Welcome home, captain.” He weaved his insidious magic with gusto.
Drade did not slow on, streaking through the ether to strike at the gargoyle like a hurtling comet.
At the last moment Vurrel ducked and Drade swiped through nothing but tendrils of latent sorcery. He collapsed onto the Star Fort’s platform, tumbling and sparking power as his cosmic plate scraped speckled stone.
As he stopped tumbling and grated to a halt, Drade scrambled to stand. The two faced off on the topmost observation platform of the Star fort. It was long and narrow and positioned to offer a prized view of Trist and the titanic voir.
Vurrel stood at the edge of the platform, rearing to his full height—a head and shoulders taller than Drade. He spread his great wings and bore his staff like a holy relic in the hands of a pontificating priest with billowing dark robes.
Behind him, the blue green world of Trist reflected the sunlight—silhouetting the terrible scene. The voir now sought out the streaming green souls from the world’s surface, which was streaked with gouges of fire and warfare.
Drade despaired at the sight, and Vurrel delighted at his anguish.
“Do you like what I’ve done with the place?” Vurrel asked.
“Not even if you bewitched all the minds of all the warriors on that world could you reap enough souls to feed that thing!” Drade pointed with his star forged blade, the tip steady despite his brimming fury.
“Oh but I didn’t.” The gargoyle laughed. It was a rolling sound that was like churning gravel. “I merely suggested to a few necromancers what they could really accomplish with their power. Over years I tended to their egos, until the strongest necromancers toiling in the heights of megalomania broke rank from their sacred duties and waged war against one another. They killed indiscriminately to forge hordes of ghouls for battle. Once the strongest prevailed, once the world was nothing but a dead husk whose surface writhed with souls entrapped in their corpses, I would descend to meet my successful pupil, and execute them. The release of the souls all at once would fuel the glorious beastie you see before you. While I waited for my moment, I kept busy harvesting the souls from the minor conflicts around the cosmos. I created enough voir to run you ragged for years!”
“So you have killed the whole world?” Drade started, pacing forward.
“Oh no,” Vurrel stroked the orb on his staff with a black talon, “The War Of The Damned was thwarted by a group of plucky heroes.” He cackled. “But no matter, as you can see, the sheer amount of death that has already been wrought will be more than enough to slaughter your petty band of Knights!” Vurrel launched into the air and swooped down on Drade.
Stone staff collided with a star forged blade, and man and gargoyle snarled at each other as they exchanged arcane forces in a furious contest.
Seria found herself leading the flying wedge that tore across the void towards the titan creature. Drade did his job, distracting the gargoyle so that the souls were no longer siphoned directly to its circular maw. The creature searched around, coiling upon itself, clicking hideously as its gelatinous mass writhed and its spindly, irregular, deadwood limbs grated against one another.
The voir made a bead for a stream of souls that tried to break around it, and Seria bellowed a battle roar, echoed by her comrades.
Almost perplexed—if a creature like this could experience such a feeling—it looked up as Seria rammed into it on a Pillars of Prismatic Fire, thrusting her spear with fury. The tip of the star forged metal drove deep into the thing’s head before catching on chitinous matter. Seria lost her grip on the spear as it caught and slid forward, colliding into the abhorrent flesh with a squelch and ricocheting off its head in the other direction. Her spear remained behind, still imbedded in rancid flesh.
Harahn swooped in next, hacking with his mighty axe at a place where any sensible creature’s neck would be. It cut a deep gouge and the voir keened in horrible pain before a stray leg batted the orc towards the world.
Leppin and Drawg struck in the next instant. The dwarf swooped and hacked away at the voir’s defending limbs. It struck back with the combined might of a dozen legs, and with a conjured shield of Prismatic Plate, Leppin blocked the reprisal blow. He was bludgeoned back as the tips of the creature’s limbs splintered against his shield.
The voir keened again, spreading its insidious, circular maw to envelop the dwarf into a churning void of rows upon rows of layered teeth. But Drawg redirected his charge between Leppin and the maw, swiping and carving out a gouge in the creature’s rotting gums.
It recoiled, writhing away from the two Knights, only to find Harahn streaking up from the world to slam into its underbelly with another gouging flurry.
The voir spun and flipped, fast—faster than a thing that size should be able to move—and tail whipped Harahn with a colossal snap that sounded like a thunderbolt.
Struck by something the size of a great river, Harahn’s plate failed. It cracked and shattered, rendering bone and rupturing organ. The dead orc tumbled through Trist’s atmosphere, burning to a crisp within seconds.
Consumed by a rage that fuelled her power, Seria descended upon the beast from above, digging her scimitar into its flesh and finding purchase. She stabbed and swiped and slashed—carving a way inside—intent on digging through the foul creature until she found a beating organ so she might tear it asunder.
The beast flopped around, snapping closed into a ball that encircled the ferocious water nymph. It squeezed her into a tiny compartment of horrid gelatinous folds and dead tree limbs. It started writhing again. The twisting, dragging limbs racked at her in a vortex of tearing blades. Every second that passed saw her assailed with dozens of tree trunk like spears that meant to mince her to bits. She bit her lip and focused on her Prismatic Fire, conjuring heat and plate to keep the titan voir from churning her into pulp.
From without, Leppin launched to strike at its head.
It reacted quickly and met him with a clump of pointed limbs. They slammed into the streaking dwarf and pierced through his shield, breast plate and heart with the sound of shattering glass. Leppin’s Prismatic Fire winked out with a gasp, and the voir tossed the now dull dwarf away.
Leppin’s body tumbled limply through the ether.
Drawg hissed in fury, and whizzed about the beast’s head, harrying it with fast strikes. But it would not be distracted from pulverising the nymph within. Seria cried in anger, pain, and despair. The terrible weight crushed in on her from all sides, the horrible pain raked against her armour, every crack and chip that was torn from it was a wound to her very soul. She focused on that, letting the pain fuel her fury. She could not give in, if she did, all of those souls from Trist would be consumed . . . a fate worse than death.
She tried to think; if she could focus she could morph into water and slip away. But she would have to abandon her armour. The instant she did she would be killed by the voir. Not to mention the cosmic magic would not protect her from the void if she was not conjuring it.
All she could do was brace and hold on for dear life.
Upon the observation platform, Drade crouched and swiped low at Vurrel’s legs. Vurrel leaped high and flipped backwards over the attack. Seeing his enemy’s exposed back above, Drade launched himself upon his Pillars of Fire to ram his blade into the gargoyle’s spine. But Vurrel was ready for this; he twisted mid air and battered Drade with his granite like wings, knocking the Knight into the ground with enough force to break stone.
Drade coughed—half winded—and struggled onto his hands and knees in time to dodge out of the path of Vurrel’s spell. Snarling in frustration, the gargoyle strafed the area from above with fire and lighting. Drade danced around the fire bolts as best he could while copping lashes of lighting that strobed across his fluctuating armour.
With a roar, Drade tossed his sword. It flipped through the air, deflecting fire and lighting with its motion, before slamming into the gargoyle’s staff. There was a blast of blue light and Vurrel found himself hurtling into the ground amongst black smog and shards of his shattered staff. He hit the ground, and his own stone skin cracked and crumbled with the impact.
Wheezing through a crumbling neck, Vurrel peered through the smoke to see the bright lights of Drade’s armour charging through the dimness. Vurrel gasped and stretched out his black taloned hand, conjuring the sorcery of mind control. The spell struck Drade as amber flame, igniting his chest in brilliance as he staggered to a halt. The amber wisps and tendrils encircled his helm and dug into his eyes and ears.
“You have proven yourself an equal warrior, human, but you cannot resist my will.”
“I have before!” Drade cried and stumbled forward, it was like forcing his way through thick mud. “Your will is weak!”
“Oh but I have time to break you now, look over yonder.” Vurrel gestured to the battle with his other talon, which was stiff and cracked. “Your Knights are losing. They won’t be able to save you, and without them, you’ll have no foil against my persuasion.”
Drade’s heart fell and his amour waned as he took in the scene. Harahn’s death flared across Trist’s sky, Seria was bound within a churning maelstrom of death, and Leppin was impaled and flung away. Drawg could not hope to defeat the titan voir alone.
“Now,” Vurrel’s wheeze returned to its gravelly charm as his skin repaired itself, bit by bit. “You already want to betray the Sun Guardians, Captain. I feel the urge driving your rage, you want vengeance.”
“Yes!” Drade cried, resisting the feelings that weren’t quite his, “But not against them.”
“Are you sure?” Vurrel twisted his talons and the amber magic dug deeper into Drade’s mind, “Ah, I see. You hate them, but you blame yourself for that little incident . . . I would blame you too.”
“Please, don’t.” Drade collapsed; his voice a whimper.
“Let’s see, little Wundan Drade, just how weak you really are.”
Drade screamed as he was catapulted through time back to the memory of his youth.
It was like he was there again, a small, helpless kid surrounded by death and smoke. His head was throbbing, his vision was wavering, but he could see everything clearly.
Mull—the bandit leader—tied his mother to the stake as his raiders piled oiled wood around it. Then he turned and tossed a small blade to little Wundan with a sneer.
“If you can beat me in a duel, I won’t burn her.” Mull said.
The other raiders laughed as little Wundan Drade picked up the knife and stood against his opponent. Mull stood three times as tall and twice as wide as Wundan, who felt the overwhelming urge to flee. But behind the bandit leader, his mother wept through her gag.
“Come on now, little rat,” Mull taunted, “Come on!”
Wundan roared pitifully and charged forward. Mull mock gasped and sidestepped the attack before kicking the charging child over.
“He can do better than that!” A bandit jeered.
“Come on kid, show him your mettle!”
Wundan stood again, and failed again. Each time his attacks became more desperate, if only I was stronger.
The fifth time Wundan charged, Mull caught him by the knife arm and pummelled him in the face. Wundan fell back with a grunt and fresh, pained tears in his eyes.
“Oh well kid, I guess you didn’t really love her.” Mull shrugged with a sadistic smirk and nodded to his men.
With terrible, laughing jeers they tossed their torches onto the pyre.
Wundan screamed as loud as his mother did, he struggled up to rush into the flames without hesitation. But Mull tackled him back into the ground, holding him in place for what felt like eternity. He held him there until the agonising business was done and his mother finally slumped forward on the pyre. The absence of her screams was a mercy, but it could only mean one thing.
“Now I want you to remember that, little shit. You aren’t strong enough to stand up to us!” Mull stomped on the sprawled Wundan for good measure before his band moved out of the dead, burning town.
Drade was pulled back into the present moment, full grown and screaming in absolute agony.
“Well my! What a horrid little story.” Vurrel chirped. “You weren’t strong enough to save your mother, and you’re not strong enough to save your squadron!” His voice turned hard again. “But if the Sun Guardians had sent the Knights to your town before that voir arrived to feast on your neighbour’s souls, maybe they would have been in time to stop the raid.” Vurrel cocked his head, tutting at the now whimpering Knight before him. “If they actually cared about the lives they say they wish to protect, they would have stopped it from happening. They would have made you strong enough to stop it from happening. But we can correct that, Drade. Together, we can overthrow the bastards and usher in new order, under the rule of one who has known their cruelty, one who will rule with strength. Join me Drade, and you can get what you want!”
“But the souls!” Drade cried, “My Knights! Your new order can’t exist without their torment and oblivion!”
“A regrettable sacrifice,” Vurrel nodded solemnly, “But absolutely necessary.”
Drade doubled over, writhing in pain and agony, his armour strobing out of existence as his will and fury waned. He knew what was happening. He knew that the magic was trying to coerce him, making him want the unspeakable as it was offered to him. He had to fight it, to reject it, but how? He was utterly defeated. Even if he won over the gargoyle, his Knights would still be dead, because he wasn’t strong enough to save the people he cared about . . . again.
“I . . .” Drade whimpered, about to give in.
But something stopped him.
There was a streak of light across the battlefield, and a familiar booming bellow that echoed across the ether. “OOK OOK! I AM SIR RAFEK GAUNTLET! I AM THE MONKEE KNIGHT!”
Vurrel, Drade, even the titanic voir stopped to turn and look at the pulsing Knight that had streaked into the fray. Rafek hovered in the void, splayed and proud and bore a mighty warhammer of star forged metal. Another streak came out of the cosmos beside him, producing a second Knight, Arachton.
And then there was another streak of light, and another, a dozen, a score, a hundred more. The Knights Cosmic had gathered from the scattered corners of eternity. They had been betrayed, pushed to the brink of defeat, but were alive and filled with churning, righteous fury.
“Voir!” Rafek bellowed, “I challenge you! Time to drop the Gauntlet!” Rafek streaked across the battlefield, slamming into the voir’s head with a mighty blow from his warhammer.
The concussive force from the blow created a shockwave strong enough to ruffle Vurrel’s stony, robe like wings up on the observation platform. The voir was knocked back, releasing Seria who tumbled from the sharp, constricting innards of its coil. Drawg swooped in to assist her as the hundred Knights soared forward on streaks of Prismatic Fire after Rafek’s lead, swarming over the titanic voir like a flood of light.
It reared and keened and shrieked in vicious contest, but the tide had turned.
Vurrel turned back to Drade with a look of fury. “No!” he spat desperately. “It does not matter how many Knights you have, you will not be victorious. The voir will destroy them all! And you will serve me, Drade.” Vurrel spoke quickly now, the grating stone like nature of his panicked voice was like a crumbling fortress. “You can have what you want, anything you want, if only you serve the Whims of the Dark. Now tell me, what do you want?”
Vurrel’s magic twisted into Drade’s mind, showing visions of strength, of defeated Sun Guardians over a threshold of sunlight, and Drade’s vindictive killing blow. But the vision was nothing compared to the fury of the Knight’s Cosmic that Drade now witnessed before his very eyes.
Fury, he remembered telling Seria, A righteous rage, bent towards righting a wrong.
“I want,” he stammered.
“Yes?” Vurrel leaned closer.
“I want,” Drade looked up, his armour manifesting completely once more as his fury—his true fury—flared. “I want to tear your fucking throat out!”
“What?” Vurrel flinched back.
Drade sprinted forward. Even with the pain of the magic, his wounds and his emotional toll, he closed the distance between himself and his foe in an instant. He gripped the gargoyle’s neck with both hands and wrenched. The crumbling stone skin faltered under Drade’s renewed strength.
Vurrel gasped under the sudden force, his eyes straining as he was throttled to death, as his stone skin cracked and broke away. In desperation he tore at Drade’s stomach with his obsidian talons, rending through even the Prismatic Plate and raking through Drade’s exposed gut.
Drade ignored the pain, through the granular skin of the gargoyle’s neck he felt an artery, and squeezed. Vurrel tore through Drade’s exposed flesh and into his guts, grabbing intestines in taloned hands. Drade squeezed harder in response. Vurrel’s black eyes rolled up into his head, but he still wrenched and pulled Drade’s innards out from his torn belly.
Drade realised it would not be enough to squeeze the artery, it had to rip it from Vurrel’s neck, he had to TEAR it from him.
Sensing Drade’s intentions, Vurrel croaked one last desperate plea. “Without me, the magic of this Fort fails.” It was a pathetic, panicked wheeze, “You armour is broken, your innards will be drawn from you into the void!”
Drade bit down on the bile in his mouth, “A worthy price to pay!” he wrenched and ripped the artery clean out of the gargoyle’s neck.
With a gasp, Vurrel’s wings went into spasms and drooped as Drade discarded his enemy, splattered in the gargoyle’s purple blood. A pulse rippled throughout the Fort as its master’s magic abandoned it, and Drade was exposed to the void. His half dislodged guts were ripped from his belly by the vacuum, jettisoning into the night.
Drade’s armour still protected his chest, limbs and head with its power. So he could still breathe and gasp in shocked pain as he collapsed to his knees. He sucked in a sporadic breath as his vision wavered, but instinct told him to follow the line of his entrails.
He looked past them and to the battle that still raged beyond. A dozen Knights had fallen, but they had drawn the beast to extend itself fully, leaving it vulnerable to constant attack from every angle. Seria bravely flew across its skin, soaring through the forest of abhorrent limbs up to the head, where her spear still protruded from its flesh. She gripped it and called to Rafek, who streaked down to hammer it in like a nail.
With a flash of blinding, technicoloured light the spear drove into the voir’s skull.
The beast’s cry was cut short as went into spasms, and then it finally died and listed in the ether. The Knights cheered amongst themselves as it wilted and the endangered souls flowed unmolested towards their sun.
Despite the pain, and his fading vision, Drade smiled.
A warm light graced him, and his eyes turned to its source. A tall figure encased entirely in golden armour stood close by. It radiated warmth and golden light, with a towering solid gold crest upon its helm that was almost as tall as it was.
“Captain,” it said, its voice was deep, serene and reverberated as if it was some colossus singing in the depths of the ocean.
“So the Guardians are free to escort the dead Knights now?” Drade said, bewildered as to how he could still speak.
“Now that you defeated the gargoyle’s necromantic influence that bound their souls to their armour, yes.”
The Guardian strode silently to stand beside Drade as they watched the celestial scene. Among the dead Knights, there were other Guardians taking their souls and escorting them to their respective suns across the cosmos.
“I guess you’ll be taking me now,” Drade said.
“Perhaps, a war is coming, Captain . . .” the Guardian was interrupted as Drade laughed himself into a coughing fit, then continued, “We will need men like you at the helm.”
“You mean lead the Knights? I’m a soldier, not a general.”
“It will be either you, or Rafek.” The Guardian tilted its head; the enormous crest loomed over Drade.
“Then make it Rafek, that’ll bust his balls. And let me die. I just don’t see why I should bother with it.” Drade sagged.
“You have doubts about our purpose?”
“You know I do. And don’t pretend you don’t know I almost betrayed you . . .”
“But you didn’t . . .”
Drade continued speaking as if the Guardian hadn’t interrupted him. “And why bother with all of this effort, when you can just come in here and essentially resurrect me? Why can’t you just stop all of this horror from the outset?”
The Guardian strode to the edge of the platform, looking out over the world of Trist. “I have often pondered this myself. The powers at be do not allow us to, they have not ever since my kind came into being.”
“As far as I know, you are the powers at be, don’t give me that shit!” Drade’s anger rose—not his fury, but pure, anger. “You could have saved everyone!”
The Guardian’s head drooped, “Like in a dream, I have no recollection of when I began. I was simply there, doing the duty of a Sun Guardian. There was no life back then, just the stars we served that radiated their energy into the cosmos. But eventually, from that energy, life emerged . . . and died. As the souls from these first lives returned to the stars, they could shine brighter, and create even more life. This has led me to one unavoidable conclusion, Drade. The powers at be, the real power we serve,” the Guardian turned back to him, “Is you.”
“All of you, all life,” The Guardian gestured broadly, “You are a product of the stars and a part of them at the same time. Whatever controls the process, made it so we could not interfere with its own designs. We only tend to it. That’s why we can give some measure of our power to paladins, but not intervene ourselves.”
“I thought that Prismatic Fire was your power too?” Drade couldn’t make sense of what he was hearing, he would be dead soon though. So he figured it didn’t really matter.
“No,” the Guardian answered. “The Prismatic Fire is born in some souls that possess the will to safeguard the process.”
“And what process is that? Huh? What’s the point of all of this suffering?”
“I believe, all of this toil is so that you may find the weight of joy. That you may feel it in the palm of your hands, to become that much richer for when you return home and provide that much more to the cosmos.”
“Bullshit!” Drade spat blood, “There are so many horrible creatures! So much misery wrought upon the meek by monsters!”
“And those souls are left to toil between stars when we discover their malice, so that they may not contribute to the cycle, and that is what the voir were for. They were supposed to snuff the malcontents from existence. It seems our enemy has weaponised their purpose against us. It is a good thing some souls possess the Prismatic Fire in order to fight them.”
“But she suffered a terrible death!” Drade stumbled up and collapsed again, burying his head in his arms as he wept openly. “She didn’t feel the weight of joy, only the burden of a pointless, painless death.”
“Oh? Don’t be fooled by a terrible end, human. Your mother also felt immeasurable joy.”
The Guardian stepped forward, and took Drade’s face—now free of his helm—in its hands . . . in her hands.
“Wundan,” her voice was like warm honey.
Drade looked up into the Guardian’s eyes, and saw his mother. “Mum?” It was a wet choke of a word.
“Oh Wundan,” she nuzzled into him. “You’ve been fighting again.”
“M-mum?” Drade’s eyes flooded, the tears streaming down his face as he choked back sobs and held her tightly. “Mum, I’m so sorry!”
“What for, honey?” she stroked his hair and cooed, “What for?”
“I couldn’t save you, I wasn’t strong enough, I let you burn!”
“Oh honey, you were just a kid, a kid standing up to a cruel, sadistic man. You were so brave, my little Star Knight.”
Drade just shook his head and buried himself further into his mother’s embrace. “I wasn’t strong enough.”
“You were so very strong, I was so scared you would not survive, but you did. And when that voir crept into our village, when you stood your ground against it and conjured your armour at such a young age, you protected my soul from being consumed. I watched you battle it until that Lion Knight arrived. You did save me Wundan, you were so, so strong. I’m so proud of you. Let go of your guilt, what happened was awful, but it was not because of you. Hush now, my brave, little Star Knight. Hush.” She kissed him on the head and pulled away.
Drade reached out for her, but his hands passed through the empty ether, he instead found the Guardian standing in her place.
“Bring her back!”
“I broke cosmic law just to do that much.”
“What does it matter if I’m about to die anyway?”
Drade looked around, at his entrails scattered about the void, jostling upon stellar winds like the tugging of spider webs. He looked at the dead Knights as the Guardians escorted their souls, at the withering, listing voir and the army of Knights that streaked towards him . . . They needed him . . . He was strong enough now.
“Fine.” Drade spat.
The Guardian shone his light on Drade, and he found himself whole again, armoured and unhurt. Drade stood, relishing the feeling of painlessness, and strode past the Guardian as it started to fade from his sight.
“Prepare your Knights as best you can, General Drade. The enemy—The Dark . . . is out there. And it’s coming.”
“Before you go,” Drade said calmly, “I have two things to say.”
“Speak them.” The image of the Guardian lingered.
“Take care of the Knights that died, make sure they get to their suns.”
“It will be done, I swear.” the Guardian bowed. “And the second thing?”
“If you ever step foot in my jurisdiction again, I’ll break your fucking kneecaps.”
The Guardian hummed, amused, and faded from sight.
“Drade!” Seria cried as she, Rafek, Arachton and Drawg soared towards him and halted over the platform, descending to embrace him.
“We thought you were dead!” Arachton hissed, “We could see the Sun Guardian’s light.”
“I told him to fuck off.” Drade said.
“And he promoted you for it!” Rafek whistled, “Nice fancy armour and crest you have there, Drade.” He gripped the crest and shook Drade’s head while laughing in his ook ook manner.
“And the same to you, commander.” Drade said.
Rafek looked up at his crest and shoulder plates and swore. “Damn it!” They had morphed into that of a commander’s.
“Don’t do such a good job next time.” Drade laughed. “Arachton, Seria, I am making both of you Captains. You did so well, I am proud of you all.”
“Captain . . . General.” Seria nodded as her armour morphed and changed along with Arachton’s. “I suppose this is just the beginning.”
“That it is,” Drade hummed.
“What is wrong Drade?” Rafek grabbed him and held him close, a tight embrace that Drade returned, trembling as the emotions threatened to overwhelm him.
“I have been punishing myself a long time for deeds others committed, I am finally letting go, and I fear it will break me.” Drade said.
“Fret not, brother.” Rafek said. “Countless times have you been strong on all of our behalf. Now our hearts can beat for yours, while it mends from breaking.”
Drade trembled, feeling silly and grateful at the same time. He did not pull away when his former squad huddled in and embraced him, under the watchful eye of the army of surviving Knights who floated in the ether.
“Okay,” Drade said, feeling lighter than he had in an age. “I must address and organise the surviving Knights. The Dark is stirring, and we must be ready to fight it, whatever it is.”
Thanks for reading The Weight of Joy!
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