1: Those Who Bleed Fire

A silhouette inches along a mountain summit, her hands encrusted in dried blood. If you listened long enough, over the roar of her heart pounding in her ears, you can hear her as she mumbles the word, “Higher," in a broken mantra. 

Without a doubt, there was a time when she remembered her name and turned towards it when called, but all she knows herself to be is as ‘the Fallen'. She lifts a sleeve to examine her wrist. A dark, black streak has become what was one of her veins and now extends well past her shoulder. It has colored one of her eyes in a disturbing, pale film, though she has no way of knowing this. There is a cure. Somewhere ... 

“Higher," she mumbles.  

Rolling valleys and impossible stretches of desolate land, glades flourishing with idyllic beauty and cemeteries marked by bones of those who have fought before her. All she has passed through and still there is more to come.

Along the ridge of a cliff, the sun splits through cloud cover like a burst of rain and envelopes her. Reluctantly, she allows herself to falter to exhaustion, kneels, and closes her eyes. An embrace of silence. Her spine shudders pleasantly, and for a moment she forgets why she is climbing. 

Due to the expanse of the mountain, the slow rising of a vaporous blackness from the basins on either side of her appears deceptively slow. These shadows glide up the sides of the ridge in thick masses with only the telling scrape of a gentle wind to herald their coming. The silhouettes of locusts, ravens, beetles, bats and vultures conjoin in a dark amalgamation as they swarm towards the Fallen like sand narrowing to a pinprick in the thin passage of an hourglass. 

Dimly, the Fallen realizes that her rest is soon to end. And in the back of her mind, though she hears the telltale sifting of the swarm’s wind, she tells herself that she will return to that silence. Maybe not tonight. Maybe not tomorrow, she thinks as she wipes her brow of sweat.

“But someday," she says.

Clouds combine and darken with an unnatural haste. A rusted moon rises out from the storm’s billowing center and blots out the sun. Its edges bleed a burning scarlet and flood the world in a deep, muddied red. As the shadows reach over the peak of the ridge, their forms manifest into tangible bodies—walking humanoids with ever changing, horrific faces that gleam with milky eyes and slack smiles beneath drooping hoods.

Without a doubt, there was a time when they remembered their names and turned towards it when called, but all the Fallen knows them to be is as ‘the Lost’.

The Fallen unsheathes a sword and clutches the ivory handle of a lengthy wand with cracks running along its frame.

The horde of the Lost charge all at once and without forewarning.

Were it not for the sound splitting the air with a deafening crack, the Fallen's intonation of a spell would have bounded off the mountain peaks in a screaming echo that stretched for miles.

Instead, a blazing, gilded light strikes from above and connects with her wand, setting her hand scalding as it imbues her. An intoxicating spell that is as agonizing as it is empowering. Her sword, now sparking and afire, cuts through the first row of them. The Fallen approaches a point past exhaustion and adrenaline. Her thoughts slip away from clear dictation. Her lungs beg for air yet she indulges in roaring as she lashes out at innumerable opponents. Her calves shake as she strides over the piling bodies, yet she dances. Her arms refuse to hold her weapons yet her hands continue to summon forth gales of wrath through them. Her mind is numb, yet she feels it all.

Her heart is already corrupted, still, she fights.

The Fallen limps up the mountain, a score of corpses evaporating into the sun now setting beneath the dense covering that seems to dissipate long before it hits the horizon line. A trail of blood follows her ascent. A slow, pattering rhythm she knows well. Still, her pace has not slowed. It was only interrupted.

She sheathes her sword and wand, allowing herself a shallow sigh before setting into a run. Before long, she is clutching a stone jutting out from a cliff beside a waterfall, and begins to haul herself up from that persisting ache setting her forearms into gnawing pains. And if you listened long enough, over the roar of the water pounding in her ears, you can hear her as she mumbles the word:

“Higher.”