Forever Never/The Dawn of Illusion
by Cheryl Pennington
She comes, they wait, their world quakes……
Face to Face
“Where has it gone?!,” shouted Naofa, to no one in particular as she slowly lowered the heavy weapon she was still unfamiliar with. “Do you think it has fallen?”
It was the bluntly honest Warrior who quickly burst her fragile bubble of hope.
“Do not lower your sword, Naofa! It only maneuvers to a more direct path. We must hold this ground! Be ready!”
Naofa looked back at Laoch’s companion. Although the Sorceress was impressed with Ella’s dedication to the Warrior and his friends, as well as her obvious hunting skills, she felt no real affection for the female-not yet.
Something stirred within Eolas and he opened his mouth to share the visions he saw in the caves below Jinetes, that he feared something more fierce than any of their weapons was coming for them; but the forest exploded with the sound of trees cracking and the life within it screaming in agony, and his thought was lost. Eolas stared in disbelief at a dark gaping hole within the forest edge, a hole that seemed to draw in a huge gasp of air then cough it back out in rage, sending a rush of hot, putrid wind across the meadow. It plowed the grasses and whipped across the ground, dropping them all to their hands and knees as the ground below them trembled.
When Naofa looked up again, half of the once majestic forest was ablaze, the treetops engulfed in flames that lit the black night, the air heavy with noxious smoke and the heat like that of a mid cycle sun spreading across the meadow. They coughed and blinked against the fumes. In the next instant another gush of air hit them, but it was icy cold, bringing insane relief for a brief moment as the world became deathly silent. Naofa held her breath, Laoch flexed his arms and gripped his sword, Ella moved away from her Warrior again, closing the gap between herself and the Hunter. Eolas prayed to all that was Light to protect his family.
The silence was short lived, however, and the ground trembled as the creature-what had Ar’tine called it/her? Her mind sought to name this destruction. What was it? What… Damanta! His daughter-As’me Damanta! The beast roared again and thundered into the clearing, none of them prepared for what met their unbelieving eyes. The creature stopped just short of their semi circle and looked from face to face. She opened her jaws, revealing long rows of sharp teeth, her mouth seeming to grin maliciously. They all heard the hissing as a long, wet tongue began slipping out of her cavernous mouth. It crept out in slow motion and slithered across the ground, as though it was a creature independent of its host, and tasted the earth. As Damanta retrieved the thick, pulsing mass from the ground, it flicked, revealing that it was split down the middle, and each half writhed, dripping steamy saliva to the ground below and singed the grasses into huge, black circles.
Ella sighed thankfully when it retreated back inside the beast’s mouth. Of all M’or’s creations that she had experienced, she was least fond of those that slithered.
A flame shot across their heads into the center of the meadow, yet still far enough from the buildings to be threatening. The grasses flared up to the moon like a ceremonial offering. Damanta looked to the Sorceress first, and she raised the sword with both hands, a clumsy move to the keenest eye, but still she held it high over her head and shouted.
“Come on, Daughter of Darkness! Let’s see what the bitter, cold god has taught you!” Naofa thought she saw a brief but certain look of surprise in Damanta’s gray-green eyes that last only a second before the scaled layers of her brow folded in on themselves in a grimace that could only be born of rage. She screeched and twisted her head, raising her leathered wings to the side as she reared back on her haunches and stretched her body to the skies. The slithering double tongue shot up toward the moon as she flung her head back, flexing a long spiny neck with glistening scales that rippled along it into sharp edged weapons from top to bottom, sending out sparks as they clicked into place, the sound like flint to stone. Damanta seemed frozen in the moment as they gazed in awe, mesmerized by the actual beauty of the light from the moon reflecting off her body.
(And you thought I had no gifts, muttered Ar’tine.)
In the next instant she thudded into the clearing like a felled tree and lunged at Naofa, billows of sulfurous smoke pouring from her nostrils, causing the others to cover their faces protectively. Naofa buried her nose in her tunic; and as Damanta drew closer, she gasped to see her gnarled feet. They were as tree stumps with deadly talons protruding from the ends, which she flexed like fingers. The Sorceress gaped in horror as they cut through the earth, throwing up dirt and grass as the beast bore down on the her. Naofa shouted again and they all began shouting and waving their weapons at it; but it was unmoved, with only hatred in its eyes for the Sorceress. Naofa felt she would surely be in her Mother’s embrace very soon; but the creature stopped as suddenly as it lunged, cocking its head to the side as though thinking…or listening?
(Indeed it was listening. The creature shook its head as though trying to clear it. It heard all the words, but which voice should it follow?)
As’me continued to plead for the Light Ones, continued to try to navigate the labyrinth of the beast’s mind to affect it, but she was too deeply in and the black soul suffocated her. Besides, Damanta liked the other voice. It was more familiar, more rewarding. That voice which loved her. But why was it changing her course? Just when she was ready to do her father’s work, it stopped her.
“No! Not that one. She may yet have purpose for me. It is the home of the Hunter for now. That is where your reward lies. Destroy it and everything else will follow. Take his treasures as they have taken mine. Then you can easily disarm the others and finish them. But not the Sorceress!” he hissed. “Leave her to me.” Then the voice was no more. They were both gone. Left to its own devices, the beast wanted only to please her creator.
The Hunter ran, ran as though he himself were on fire. The Warrior followed, with his own companion close behind, as the Sorceress screeched into the darkness, “Ar’tiiinne..not her!! You can’t take HEEERR!!” Their terror quickly turned to horror as Damanta licked the thatched roof with her serpent tongue, tearing a jagged hole in the straw, and raining fire down into it. In an instant the flames engulfed that which had been heaven to Eolas and his beloved Eagna. The sound he made, the cry from his soul that cut through the night, was indescribable. He was as the wolf gone mad. With no thought for his own safety, he lunged at the beast, plunging his sword deeply into the foot which crushed his home. Which crushed his heart. He twisted it around and around. Damanta howled in pain, but moreso in anger. She wrenched her foot free of his sword, knocking him to the ground.. She turned on the others. There was more work to be done now, her hunger fed, and the sense of power she felt was exhilarating. Eolas got to his feet and ran headlong into the burning dwelling, forgetting the scene behind him, clinging desperately to his sliver of hope.
When the winged beast turned on them, the trio spread out across the meadow. They wouldn’t make anything easy for it, for Ar’tine. Naofa shook with pain and anger, but raised her sword high again, swirling it over head, as she began to taunt the creature, to coax it to her, so that she could finally destroy such an abomination. It would be the only way to ease her shattered heart, to stop the dark god from his manipulation. Her movements mesmerized and intrigued the simple mind of Damanta, and she watched silently…seething.
“What are you waiting for, you stupid beast?! Come to me now, that we may talk!” Naofa hoped she sounded more threatening than she felt. Damanta hissed, her tongue licking between her jaws, and the Sorceress goaded, “You can’t do it, can you? Afraid of a little Sorceress, are you?” The creature took a few menacing steps toward the trembling Sorceress, as acrid saliva dribbled down and pooled at her feet, head cocked sideways again, as though listening. Again the soothing voice spoke louder than the tiny human she faced.
“The Sorceress. She thinks she has great power. And she may indeed be great among her kind, but none can match my power. Play with her if you will, my dear. But no flames. That would be too quick. Leave her to your Father.”
The beast lunged for Naofa who wildly swung the heavy weapon she wielded. It slashed the air before thudding to the ground, nearly dragging Naofa with it. By the Gods, it was so heavy! She couldn’t let the creature see she was unsure of herself. Damanta came again and the Sorceress lifted the sword, pleading to eternity, “Mothers, help me! Pleeease.” She grunted as she lifted the burdensome thing again, and bringing it down with purpose, landed a blow to Damanta’s snout that drew thick, dark blood from the wound, and a furious screech of pain from within the beast’s throat. She pulled away, knocking Naofa to the ground.
In that brief moment of distraction, as the beast thought only of its pain, As’me fought her way to the door of Damanta’s consciousness. Naofa scrambled to her feet and recovered her sword, finding the strength to swing it high again, ready to strike. Naofa judged Artine’s creation a most vile, hideous, soulless creature; but as she stared into its eyes, once red with rage, she saw a brief, but bright, flash of light. It seemed at first a mere flicker; and she blinked, uncertain of her own ability to see clearly. Yet as the beast licked its foot, focused on the pain in its body, the light grew stronger. Naofa was intrigued and moved closer than was safe so that she could see more clearly.
Laoch and Ella, closing in on the beast from behind, were alarmed by what their friend was doing and looked at each other, confused. The same doubt filled Naofa’s head until she heard the sound, so faint behind the beast’s heavy breathing and the sound of the fires roaring around her. Still…however faint, it was there, somehow inside her mind. And it was not the dark one now. No. There was another, and Naofa struggled to hear it. Still she held her weapon in front of her as she inched dangerously closer, peering curiously, horrified, into the huge eye of the winged horror.
‘Who is that?’, Naofa wondered as the beast continued to lick its wound, the bleeding slowing. She knew it would soon recover.
The voice continued, so filled with pain, “It’s my Father. I love him, but I don’t want to hurt any of you…” The beast began to writhe, now aware of the painful slash on its face, anger rising once more to drown out the the voice.
Naofa was overcome with understanding. She stumbled backward a few steps and lowered the sword, suddenly exhausted. She remembered the Dark One’s words about his creation.
“Dear Mother, what has happened?!”, cried Naofa’s heart. This was not the moment to ask this or any other question, for Damanta had forgotten her wounds and was coming for Naofa again. It slashed a talon in her direction, slicing the dark air between them, but the Sorceress jumped back, just missing the point of its intent. She swung the sword blindly and nicked the corner of Damanta’s eye, bringing new blood to the surface as Laoch and Ella closed in behind. The beast suddenly felt outnumbered.
“Do not allow yourself to become vulnerable.”
The Sorceress swung her weapon in front of the beast, drawing its attention to her again, giving the Warrior a chance to get to his companion. He was already there, dropping to her side, panting, his heart racing as he helped to put out the flames and pull her away from the burning grasses. He saw her charred flesh and the terror in her eyes and clutched her to him tightly, not knowing how to ease her pain. As she panted, gasping for air, he could feel her heart beating against his skin.
Damanta paced and grunted as spittle, like glowing ember, fell from her jaws, unable to pull herself away from the hypnotic movement of the sword. Naofa’s arms ached and trembled but she did not falter, could not allow Damanta to turn away.
Laoch looked up at Naofa, with only the creature standing between them. It was the first moment they looked at one another since he and Ella arrived. There was so much still unsaid between them; and now, with a single look, so many sorrows and questions rose to the surface. In that instant Laoch discovered the weight of regret. Now he was torn and his head spinning; for how could he save this Sorceress-his Sorceress-when his life companion lay stricken at his feet? He held Ella as the beast took a step toward Naofa again, raising its head threateningly. The wounded female put her scorched hands on his chest to push him away.
“Go. You must save her, Laoch.” She looked lovingly at this protector, her Warrior, and felt immense love and sorrow, for in that moment she knew his heart. But what they were facing was greater than her own feelings, and she understood it. With tears of anguish streaming down her face, she told him again. She would have screamed at him if it were possible, but she was too weak. “Please, Laoch, go to the Sorceress! She needs you now. We have already lost a Light One this night. Go now, Loach! I will tend to myself.” She tried to sound forceful so that he would listen and began scratching at the mud, rubbing it against her wounds. He nodded, then leaned down to gently kiss her lips and place a large hand on her stomach. She looked into his eyes and flashed a weak smile. He knows. Their eyes met for a brief moment of understanding before he tore himself away…….