Part 001

Sidal glowed soft­ly, alone in the twi­light. Outside the city walls, after the first sun set, peo­ple hid in their homes, safe in the illu­mi­na­tion of their gas lanterns or bright-pow­ered ley lights. The world whis­pered. Animals bed­ded down. The wind set­tled. No one want­ed to draw atten­tion from the demons that walked in the shad­ows. Sidal was no excep­tion. The brights in the city had illu­mi­nat­ed Sidal’s thick leather chest-piece, both of their dag­gers, and the pro­tec­tive helm. Light leaked all around them, smok­ing away the dark­ness. They were armed with train­ing, knives, and wits. And as a last resort, a sword with dark­er secrets.

Sidal was one of twelve ser­aphs out­side the walls, watch­ing for demons and pre­pared to defend the city against them. No one else would brave the night. No cit­i­zen would be caught out late or make a mid­night trip to secret ren­dezvous. 

No one but idiot ley­wrights. 

Two robe-clad cit­i­zens stepped away from the pro­tec­tive glow of the white stone wall. The main road fad­ed into twi­light some fifty feet out, branch­ing into small­er paths for carts and hors­es at their var­i­ous farm plots and home­steads. At the bor­der of dark­ness and light, where the ley-pow­er of the city fad­ed and the dark­ness took hold, demons prowled the road and fields with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion. Class two and three beasts clawed over each oth­er and test­ed how close to the city they could reach before the light burned and sent them scur­ry­ing for the sooth­ing dark. 

It was at this bor­der of safe­ty and the rest of the world that the ley­wrights both came to a stop. Sidal took up posi­tion well with­in the safe­ty of the light and paused to watch. It was­n’t in Sidal’s nature to stop idiots at work, but if they endan­gered the city Sidal was pre­pared to inter­vene. No one had the right to put oth­ers at risk, not mat­ter what they believed. 

The ley­wrights appeared to be an appren­tice and mas­ter pair, judg­ing by the respec­tive red and black robes. The younger man stuck close to his elder, afraid of the mon­sters in the dark, but will­ing to prove he deserved to be there. 

Sidal shook their head. It was one thing for a bright to drag ley out of the air from the safe­ty of the city. It was anoth­er to take it from the demons them­selves. Why would any­one risk it?

”Stand up, Kenneth. Straighten out. They’re not going to get you,” the mas­ter said. 

Sidal snort­ed. Of course the demons were try­ing to get them. Only the safe­ty of the light kept them at bay. Kenneth glanced in Sidal’s direc­tion as he stood straighter. Perhaps the kid was hav­ing sec­ond thoughts now that he was face-to-face with the mon­sters. Good. Second thoughts kept peo­ple alive.

Several class two demons–hunters with­out eyes–amassed at the edge of the dark­ness. They reached toward the ley­wrights, send­ing long, thin limbs tipped with claws into the light, pulling them back when they start­ed to smoke and burn. Sidal watched  them scram­ble over and around each oth­er, drawn to the ley­wrights, but unaware. Instinctive. The demons grew more pow­er­ful with each night, but they still only exist­ed to con­sume. There was lit­tle more than hunger there.

The mas­ter ley­wright thrust his hand out, palm toward the demons. His appren­tice mim­ic­ked him with a less steady arm. With his free hand, the mas­ter began a weav­ing, fig­u­ra­tive ges­ture. The mind­less demons yearned for­ward, bend­ing toward the mas­ter’s flow­ing hand. They fol­lowed the ges­ture like moths to a ley light and became focused there. Suddenly the mas­ter lunged toward the mass of demons. He kept his pat­tern steady to hyp­no­tize the crea­tures until his flat palm struck one above a leg joint. 

The demon imme­di­ate­ly froze. The break in pat­tern should have lead to the ley­wright’s death, but instead the dark ley where the mas­ter was in con­tact began to rapid­ly smoke. It flew up in a stun­ning arc of dark­ness, then plunged down into the mas­ter’s open eyes and mouth. He jerked. The pow­er flood­ed him. Light dimmed. Then the demon was gone and the mas­ter’s weav­ing hand only stut­tered in its pat­tern. 

Sidal heard the mas­ter cough once and wipe his mouth with the arm of his robe. Then he made an impa­tient ges­ture at his appren­tice. 

Sidal swal­lowed reflex­ive­ly. They knew what dark ley felt like in the body. Cold, most­ly. And some­times hun­gry. It was hos­tile by nature, eter­nal­ly unsat­is­fied, and for­ev­er yearned for more. Leywrights will­ing­ly brought that pow­er into their bod­ies. To use it, they claimed, against the demons they stole from. But Sidal knew how insid­i­ous the pow­er became. They set one hand on the han­dle of their sword, know­ing one day they would have to face that kind of con­sum­ing need again. But not today.

The loss of a sin­gle class two demon did­n’t make a dif­fer­ence to the night. In moments dark ley had man­i­fest­ed anoth­er to take its place. And anoth­er after that. Deeper into the twi­light, class threes and fours prowled in the safe­ty of the dark­ness. Their advanced limbs gave them faster loco­mo­tion and more ele­gant bod­ies. Each one had been pieced togeth­er differently–ley was­n’t exact­ly a con­sis­tent beast–but Sidal could pick out their eye-spots and flash­ing teeth as they devel­oped. 

A class five in the form of a large boar-like ani­mal strolled out of the twi­light dis­tance. It walked on six trunk-sized limbs, each with curled knuck­les and cythe-curved claws. A gap­ing mouth com­prised sev­er­al twist­ed tusks, and when Sidal spot­ted a line of see­ing-eyes down the crea­ture’s body, they straight­ened to atten­tion. Demons with vision were dead­ly, patient hunters. 

The ley­wright appren­tice wove his hand in the hip­not­ic pat­tern that dis­tract­ed class ones and twos. Sometimes a weak three would fall for the motion. But a class five was more alert. Smarter. Like an ani­mal, but with an undy­ing hunger. The beast approached at a steady pace, but Sidal was­n’t fooled. If the demon had seen the ley­wrights behind the mass of less­er crea­tures, they were already tar­get­ed. 

Sidal moved for­ward. They drew one of their ley-touched knives and eyed the class five. They did­n’t want to engage with some­thing so large if it was sim­ply going to turn at the fork in the road and pass them by. Sidal had seen more than one demon look on the city and sim­ply move along, either smart enough to know there was eas­i­er prey in the val­ley, or unwill­ing to risk the light. But Sidal had also been a ser­aph for near­ly ten years, a long employ­ment in this field. They had a feel­ing this class five had a meal in mind.

”Stay back, sereph!” the mas­ter ley­wright shout­ed. He held his hand out to wave Sidal away.

The class five froze. Its dozen eyes swept the night and Sidal’s heart thumped when an addi­tion­al body seg­ment stretched into place. The ley burst in the rear and thinned into an arc­ing tail tipped with a sharp point.  The demon was still gath­er­ing pow­er from the dark­ness. 

The appren­tice ley­wright, Kenneth, made his move. It was clum­sy. The weav­ing pat­tern stopped, start­ed, stopped again. He struck a class two and only man­aged to get its atten­tion, not its ley. The stum­ble sep­a­rat­ed him from the mas­ter, who quick­ly aban­doned his appren­tice to the dark rather than risk him­self. The class twos each scat­tered from the sud­den con­tact, their long legs crack­ing against each oth­er like nuts. 

Sidal lunged for­ward imme­di­ate­ly. Their motion caught the class five’s atten­tion, but it was their only chance to keep the appren­tice alive. Sidal shoul­dered into the class twos, tak­ing advan­tage of their unde­vel­oped eye­spots. The demons were light­weight and reac­tive. They scat­tered fur­ther, crouched low in defense. Several sprout­ed addi­tion­al legs as the threat Sidal pre­sent­ed, prompt­ing them to evolve to class three demons. Creatures with teeth.

Sidal struck the clos­est class two with his ley-knife. He plunged the light weapon into the demon’s insect-like out­er shell and twist­ed it open. The crea­ture col­lapsed as its ley burst in all direc­tions then whis­pered into the twi­light gloom. Sidal snagged Kenneth by the arm and threw him toward his ley­wright mas­ter. They could­n’t turn their back on the dark­ness, though. The near­ly-harm­less class twos were grow­ing. Behind them, the class five prowled clos­er.

”You use­less boy,” the mas­ter hissed. ”Take its pow­er. It’s yours to com­mand. You can’t call your­self a ley­wright with­out it.”

”Stop! I’m–I’m done! I want to go home!” Kenneth cried.

”Oh, you want to quit? That’s fine, go on, then–no, not back to the city. If you’re not a ley­wright you’re not wel­come on my cam­pus. Go run back to your farm where you belong.”

”It’s night!”

”That’s too bad. Should have lis­tened to your mas­ter when you had the chance.”

Sidal cringed. 

Then Kenneth stum­bled past them, as if he’d been thrown back to the demons.

The mas­ter shout­ed, ”Take their ley or run home!”

Kenneth nev­er had a chance. The class twos and threes fled sud­den­ly into the dis­tant night. The boar-shaped class five charged for­ward. Kenneth screamed. Sidal threw his light dag­ger at the beast to dis­tract it, but the demon sim­ply reared its head and the knife sprang off of a gleam­ing dark tusk. The hooves of the beast crushed the grav­el. It lunged for Kenneth, who col­lapsed in ter­ror. 

Sidal had no oth­er choice. There was only one way to stop the demon in its tracks. They drew their sword from its pol­ished scab­bard and struck upward just as the boar bar­reled down upon them. The met­al flashed in Sidal’s ley glow, then sliced through the dark with only min­i­mal resis­tance. It was­n’t that the blade was sharp or that Sidal’s tech­nique was per­fect. No, they could stall a class five demon at full charge only because they wield­ed a blade with a hunger that far sur­passed a demon’s. 

The dark ley of the boar col­lapsed instant­ly into the sword. All six legs, the lines of eyes, every sin­gle tusk con­densed into smoke and Sidal felt each drop of pow­er chan­neled from the edge of the blade up into the han­dle. Into their hands, their body. Their very soul. 

The sword awoke in the twi­light for the first time in years, a pres­ence in Sidal’s mind that hun­gered for pow­er. They turned on Kenneth’s Master only to find the ley­wright dis­tant­ly sprint­ing toward the city gates. A cow­ard at heart. Sidal growled soft­ly. 

Kenneth whim­pered at their feet. Sidal looked down at him, vision dark­ened by the pow­er of the ley.

”Your.… your eyes. You–”

”Run,” Sidal snarled. ”Run to the city or be hunt­ed.”

Kenneth scram­bled to his feet as Sidal lift­ed their blade over­head. The weapon screamed in their mind, crav­ing ley with a desire more pow­er­ful than rea­son. It called to Sidal. Seduced them with promis­es and dreams. Sidal brought their blade down. They missed Kenneth by a breath, set­ting the weapon deep into a class two demon just behind him. The spi­der-like legs col­lapsed into the blade. The ley fed the weapon, but it was nev­er sat­is­fied. Sidal turned their back on the city. There were demons to devour.

With sword in hand, Sidal’s light ley bless­ings grew dim. They were sim­ply no match for the dark­ness that flowed through the weapon. Sidal closed their eyes for a moment, feel­ing unnat­u­ral­ly calm in the twi­light. That was anoth­er side-effect of the dark ley. It sup­pressed all strong emo­tion and seemed to offer a chilly, log­i­cal clar­i­ty to their thoughts. Sidal knew it was false. A sign of over­whelm­ing pow­er from the sword, not a true calm. Decisions made under the influ­ence of dark ley nev­er seemed to account for means, only the end mat­tered, and the end jus­ti­fied all things. 

Sidal opened their eyes, unsur­prised to find sev­er­al low-class demons approach­ing cau­tious­ly. Even slow-mov­ing, their pony-sized bod­ies were enough to send most cit­i­zens scream­ing for the light. Their claws and long limbs reached for this new con­cen­tra­tion of dark ley, their man­ner almost curi­ous. Sidal’s sword urged them for­ward. With effort, Sidal backed away. They forced them­selves clos­er to the light of the city. Their back smoked, dark ley burn­ing away in the glow. The demons fol­lowed. 

The light burned but pain, like dark ley, was clar­i­fy­ing. When enough of the pow­er had smoked away, Sidal was able to sheath their sword and mute a bit of that scream­ing desire. They blinked quick­ly, try­ing to clear the dark­ness from the edges of their vision. The demons paused their advance. The sheath blocked much of the dark ley in the sword, and what­ev­er sense demons had for it was blocked. Their heads began weav­ing, seek­ing that intense call once more. 

Without the sword’s need scream­ing in their mind, Sidal was able to take sev­er­al more steps into the city’s light. Every inch gave them more free­dom from the dark ley. Every step helped them remem­ber who they were. The sword still sang, but its voice remained at a dis­tance. Sidal wiped their face with one hand. They had for­got­ten how seduc­tive that voice was. How easy it was to fall into the bru­tal log­ic of dark ley. They had­n’t drawn the sword in so long they had almost for­got­ten that no one could tru­ly con­trol the weapon. It had a mind and desire of its own. 

And yet Sidal could­n’t part it with it. Whatever pow­er lived in the sword, was also con­tained by it. Breaking the weapon or reforg­ing it would release that ley into the world, and Sidal was sure no good could come of it. So the safest place they knew for such a dan­ger­ous pow­er, was close by Sidal’s side at all times. They resist­ed the sword­call and no one else had to fear what it held. 

Warm, glow­ing stone struck Sidal’s heel and back. They leaned against the safe city wall, breath­ing delib­er­ate­ly. Slowly. Further dark ley smoked from Sidal’s skin and they stood there until the entire vol­ume had been purged from their body. The light ley in their leather chest­plate glowed again, and the sword’s song mut­ed fur­ther. 

Sidal took a deep breath. Both the ley­wright and his appren­tice had made it back to the city. The class five had been elim­i­nat­ed. Sidal them­self was unharmed. Of all the ways the twi­light watch could go wrong, this one some­how had not. 

The sword had been refreshed, but if the demons were going to press their luck as true night approached, Sidal could use the edge that the weapon gave them in com­bat. Their light-touched dag­gers were no com­par­i­son. Sidal opened their eyes and gazed at the hilt of the sword. Voidsong. Its name came from the call that pressed Sidal to find more demons and slaugh­ter them all for their pow­er. It was a dark song.

The han­dle was plain, wrapped in leather and stained with years of use. Unlike Sidal’s knives, the blade nev­er rust­ed when plunged into the ley of a demon. They had nev­er found a knick or a scratch on the edge. The met­al had been ground to a per­fect mir­ror fin­ish. On any oth­er weapon, that fin­ish would tar­nish and fade, but Voidsong was the Demon Eater. A ley arti­fact, ancient and unex­plained. Like the his­to­ry of the peo­ple, Voidsong’s ori­gins were a mys­tery. All Sidal knew for sure was the weapon hun­gered for ley and who­ev­er wield­ed it could access ulti­mate pow­er. They only had to pay a small price: their very soul.

It was that very price that kept Sidal from draw­ing the blade despite the lur­ing song and promised pow­er. When Sidal and their par­ents had made the pil­grim­age from the coast to the pro­tec­tion of the citadel, they had seen more than their fair share of demons in the dusk. And every one of them fell to Sidal’s father wield­ing Voidsong just out­side the ring of fire­light that kept Sidal and their moth­er safe. Sidal had seen exact­ly the kind of pow­er Voidsong could steal, and what that pow­er did to a man when left to run unchecked. Ultimately, dark ley was a demand­ing and unfeel­ing mas­ter. It drove Sidal’s father to the brink of insan­i­ty. Sidal was deter­mined not to fall to the same fate.

They had man­aged to lim­it the sword’s lure in the past few months. By keep­ing the blade sheathed and deny­ing it the dark ley it craved, Sidal noticed the song dim­ming to the point of a faint hum. It occa­sion­al­ly went silent entire­ly. Now that Sidal had fed the blade, though, they won­dered if the song would per­sist this time. Did the weapon know if it bid­ed its time, even­tu­al­ly Sidal would be forced to draw it again? Could it sense the com­ing of true night?

Sidal pushed them­selves off the stone wall. With only the rud­dy glow of the third sun low in the sky, the world was dim. Afterglow was gen­er­al­ly a qui­et time. Most cit­i­zens were asleep with the excep­tion of ser­aphs assigned to the shift. Now it remind­ed Sidal that true dark­ness was com­ing. 

A night so com­plete that the riv­er stars would flood the sky and the demons would swarm. 

It took Sidal sev­er­al pass­es to find their spent knife at the twi­light edge. It was no longer light-touched, and thanks to the dark ley of the class five boar, rust marred the face and blunt­ed the edge. It would need to be re-honed. They tucked it into its sheath and turned their back on the spi­der-like class one demons that smoked and crawled in the dark­ness. 

There were no oth­er dis­tur­bances through after­glow and into even­tide. The world slept peace­ful­ly, demons prowled the sprawled farms, and Sidal kept watch with their team of ser­aphs around the wall. Each home in the dis­tance glowed soft­ly with lamp­light or ley­light, points of safe­ty, each. Sidal would have liked to push the pro­tec­tive light veil fur­ther out, to envel­op each farm, each home­stead with pro­tec­tive, bril­liant illu­mi­na­tion. But watch­ing the twi­light edge and ensur­ing they were avail­able to res­cue any­one who could­n’t save them­selves was as close to such light pro­tec­tion they could give. There sim­ply weren’t enough brights will­ing to donate their time and ener­gy to light every house in the val­ley. And who would sup­ply enough oil to light street lamps down every road? Given the dif­fi­cul­ty, it was impres­sive that the entire city glowed through­out the day and night.

As even­tide gave way to halflight, the out­er vil­lages came back to life and the less­er demons were dri­ven back into the thick for­est. The sec­ond sun, bright and blue, cast harsh light across the val­ley. Darkness smoked away, burned and ban­ished. The for­est edge pro­tect­ed the demons through the day and peo­ple were usu­al­ly smart enough to steer clear. Citizens opened their doors once more, and herd­ed their goats and live­stock out of the safe­ty of the barns. People streamed out of the city walls–individuals who had found lodg­ing for the night or were caught by sun­down and stayed rather than risk the demons to get back home–shouting greet­ings and recon­nect­ing with fam­i­ly divid­ed by a night apart.

Carts pulled by small, stur­dy ponies rat­tled over the cob­ble­stone set into the main street. The light of the sec­ond sun was a fleet­ing and lim­it­ed bless­ing, bare­ly six hours this time of year, which gave every­one an urgent sense of pur­pose. There was no labor lost in the city or out­side of it. 

”Your shift over, Sidal?”

They turned to greet Perciman, a qui­et, stocky man who worked the wall. He stood at least a head taller than Sidal and his shoul­ders were twice as broad. Biceps the size of small mel­ons wrapped around his arms. The sheer mass of him tend­ed to dwarf even the tallest of men and Sidal was­n’t short. He rubbed his hands, a ner­vous ges­ture, and they rasped with cal­lous. The wall work­ers tend­ed to get a jump on their labor like every­one else, so Sidal fre­quent­ly had a chance to chat with Perciman in the ear­ly morn­ing. 

”Nearly so,” Sidal replied. ”All was qui­et through even­tide.”

”Not all.” Perciman point­ed at Sidal’s rusty knife. ”Your blade does­n’t glow.”

Sidal grunt­ed acknowl­edge­ment. ”A ley­wright and his appren­tice decid­ed to take a less­er demon before after­glow and drew the atten­tion of a class five–”

”A class five man­i­fest­ed before after­glow? That’s ear­ly.” Perciman’s brow gath­ered in the mid­dle, his con­cern firm. 

Sidal nod­ded. ”I had to inter­vene, but no one was injured. A minor engage­ment all told.”

Perciman grum­bled and crossed his thick arms. ”Should have let them deal with it on their own, I say. Those ley­wrights have been caus­ing noth­ing but trou­ble. They hide in the city at night just like the coun­cil despite all their talk about free­dom for all. ”

”I could­n’t let them be torn apart. It’s part of the job. Save any­one who needs it.” They rolled their eyes over to Percima. ”Even the idiots.”

Perciman scoffed gen­tly. ”If they had any real pow­er they would sup­ple­ment the ser­aphs and let you peo­ple take a break. I’ve seen your shifts get longer. You’e got gaps in the sched­ule, don’t you?”

”Yeah.” Sidal nod­ded. ”Janetta shuf­fles them around best she can, but our num­bers are falling. No one wants to pay us to fight the mon­sters if they can stay safe in the city. Now that the wall is lit through the night, they don’t think there’s a need for us.”

Perciman glanced down. Back up. ”The wall does more good than harm.”

Sidal put their hand on Perciman’s upper arm. He was a stone­ma­son, a work­er of the wall his entire life. He prob­a­bly loved that struc­ture more than any­one Sidal ever knew. That did­n’t mean it was per­fect, but Perciman was­n’t to blame for the trou­ble it caused. ”I agree,” they said. ”Your work ensures that mine is less nec­es­sary. It is sim­ply a truth.”

Perciman nod­ded. 

The bells of the wak­ing hour rang from the top of the citadel. Sidal exchanged a final farewell with Perciman and head­ed for the city gate. Just inside they cut left and trad­ed nods with a first light shift ser­aph just exit­ing the secu­ri­ty build­ing. The prep room was qui­et. Only a scant few ser­aphs donned their leather and met­al armors dur­ing the day­light hours. It was unusu­al for demons to make runs out of the for­est, so the light-hour shifts were both the eas­i­est and the most bor­ing. When a demon did make the rush, though, they were at least class sev­en, which made the light-hour shifts also the most dead­ly. A gam­ble with every assign­ment.

Janetta called to them from the top of the stairs, ”Sidal, glad I caught you.” Leodin boofed at them. Janetta’s nor­mal­ly orga­nized hair drooped over her ears like a door­mat. She yawned before she could tell Sidal what she need­ed.

”Did you sleep here again, Captain?”

Janetta waved a hand at them. ”I’m not your cap­tain–”

You will be,” said sev­er­al ser­aph in the room at once.

Janetta glared soft­ly at them all. ”Anyway, I want­ed to tell you that I need you to cov­er a gap in the sched­ule at dayspring today.”

”Do you still need me for sun­down?”

”Yeah.” She dropped her hands to the bar of the rail. ”Sorry. I know how crap a dou­ble shift is.”

Sidal shrugged. ”It can’t be helped.” And it ensured a big­ger pay­ment at the end of the week. 

”I want­ed to catch you when you came in so you had time catch some sleep.”

”Thank you,” they said. ”You should too.”

She waved her hand again, turn­ing back to her office. ”I’ll sleep when the suns set.” She paused abrupt­ly at the door­way, then mut­tered, ”Damn.” She shook her head and closed the office door behind her.

Sidal shrugged out of their leather armor and pulled each of the blades from their sheaths for inspec­tion with the excep­tion of Voidsong. They care­ful­ly assessed each point on the leather, eye­ing places where the armor rubbed or bent. Sidal took care­ful men­tal notes where edges were wear­ing and cor­ners were scuffed. They need­ed to oil every­thing, but with a dayspring shift in a few hours it would­n’t have time to set. Inspection com­plete, Sidal hung the armor on their assigned wall hooks, then trad­ed their grungy linen clothes for a fresh set. Communal show­ers were set against the side of the build­ing to the north, but Sidal had a small place of their own and they pre­ferred the pri­va­cy. They were also quite cer­tain they were going to fall asleep the sec­ond the show­er sluiced them clean. Better to do so at home.

Before leav­ing, Sidal took a moment to write an inch of parch­ment review­ing their expe­ri­ence overnight with the ley­wrights and the class five. Janetta liked to have records from each ser­aph to track demon activ­i­ty, though how she did so was beyond Sidal. It just seemed like more work. Nevertheless, the ser­aphs had­n’t been short hand­ed since she took over shift assign­ments, even if there were short­ages some days. So what­ev­er she was doing was work­ing. Her atten­tion to detail was exact­ly why the entire ser­aph task force expect­ed her pro­mo­tion to cap­tain.

With their assign­ment com­plete, Sidal cut the parch­ment and tied it, adding the doc­u­ment to a small pile assigned for Janetta. The woman need­ed an assis­tant. Maybe Sidal would vol­un­teer for the role after they retired from shift work. They were already one of the most expe­ri­enced serephs on assign­ment and they had engaged with near­ly twice as many demons. By all accounts, they had over­stayed their wel­come. They stayed because the work need­ed to be done, and Sidal was­n’t one to step away from a job that need­ed them. Perhaps one day the brights or the schol­ars would find a way to pro­tect the whole val­ley, not just the city. But until then, Sidal was going to take their rest and report back as often as required.