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