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CHAPTER I – DUNCAN

Angels and demons sometimes take human forms. But whenever Duncan looks in the mirror, he sees the faces of both.

     At first glance Duncan is just a plain young man of a very young age. Though not exactly tall, he appears taller due to his stiff militaristic stance. His skin is sallow and his eyes are dark brown, like the depths of empty tunnels.

     Duncan is known to be very quiet. Not much is known about his private life and he goes to a certain length to keep it a secret. Yet no one knows that beyond the meek face, a very different Duncan lurks. Angels and demons do take human forms, and in Duncan’s case he had the qualities of both.

     During one clear September midnight, Duncan is not at home but in this queer looking room in an undisclosed location. There is a hassock in the middle facing a plain stone stoup, or Holy Water font where Duncan kneels down to whisper a prayer. The roof is domed and the walls are elaborately carved, giving it a resemblance to a Gothic Baptistery. And adorning the walls are series of stained glass windows where coloured lights flows, illuminating the many statues of Saints guarding the place. It’s already midnight yet daylight seems to pour out from these windows. Stranger still, there are mysterious balls of light drifting around the whole room like live fairy lights. These Light Orbs act as illuminations, further giving the room its mystique.

     After a few minutes of silence, Duncan begins the Cleansing Rites. With eyes remaining closed he washes his face, hands and feet with the water from the stoup while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Curiously Holy Water once left him sickened, burned and disfigured. Now Holy Water is his source of true strength, a strength that makes him more human.

     “Open,” Duncan said deep in his mind. As if responding to his call, a passageway at the opposite end of the room opens. With the Light Orbs leading the way, he proceeds to the passageway and enters a smaller chamber cluttered with treasure boxes the size of desks. The main centrepiece is a cruel looking sheathed sword displayed on a finely crafted stand. This weapon is not a bejewelled toy portrayed in films and playbooks. This is a serious killing tool that had seen many bloodsheds and deaths. It had a robust short blade with spikes for cross-guards and a fluke weight for a hilt.

     “Come to me,” Duncan whispered while doing a low prostrate. The nearest treasure chest opens and Duncan is engulfed in a cloud of dark smoke. Once the smoke clears, a very different Duncan emerges.

     Where he once was now stands a spectral figure clad in black; light armour harder than dragon skin cover his forearms, chest and shins. Half of his face is covered with a velvety mask. Only the fierce blazing yellow eyes are visible and his overall image is hard to spot in the darkness. His hair is completely white, like the fur of a wolf and sharp talons protrude from his long fingers.

     Before leaving the chamber, the now transformed Duncan calls out for his sword. Quickly recognizing its master, it flew from the stand and slings itself to Duncan’s belt. A blink of an eye later and he vanishes. When he reappears Duncan is in a different form of environment.

     Gone is the serene confines of the chamber and the view is replaced by a wilderness of tall grotesque trees and thick vegetation. Duncan is in a different world, a parallel universe where the surroundings bear the oddest of shapes; the trees around will remind you of petrified humanoid giants. There are animals out there like terrible horned wolves, winged deer and birds of prey the size of airplanes. The sky is dominated by mountains floating around like miniature planets.

     And from the darkness, six men emerge to join him. They wear the same black garb and armour except for their Leader who is draped in pelt cloak. Another one arrived, a figure in glistening mail under a monk’s habit. He is a priest, as what the white cross on his tunic indicates.  His hood is kept down but his face is concealed behind a closed helm.

     “Seven Bloodlines of Adam, Seven Children of Eve, be ready,” the Priest announced as everyone, including Duncan groups around him. They all fell on their knees, as a sign of submission to authority. The Priest then raises a large silver crucifix set on a jewel encrusted shaft. This contains a precious relic; the fragment of the True Cross where Christ was crucified.

     “Your attention,” their Leader of the Seven said, as the cloud above opens like a form of a celestial door. Out came three human-like beings, which make a quiet descend beside the Priest. They are Angels. Unlike the Seven who presents dark, imposing and menacing images, the Angels will bring in a different impression. They will inspire fear, but the fear that rouses awe and wonder, not terror and repulse. Stronger than the noontime sun is the warmth their presence brings. Poised for battle they might be but they thrived in the joy of peace, not in the exultation of violence. 

     “Bloodlines of Adam, Children of Eve,” The one standing in the middle, the Archangel greeted them, “tainted your souls might be but the Grace of Heaven is bestowed upon you. By this hour show the world your mettle. The power meant to enslave you will be the instrument of salvation. Terror will be brought upon to the hearts of your adversaries, but heavenly justice will be imposed. Spread your wings and be swift, secretive and fierce, yet merciful to the helpless. In the Name of the Heavenly Father, by the Power of His Son and through the guidance of the Holy Ghost, fly now into Peril!”

     As the traditional sign of willingness and preparedness to battle, the Leader of the Seven presents his pelt cloak to the Archangel. At the back of his cloak is a standard of a winged cross standing on a skull, a representation of the triumph of life over death. This is the symbol of the brotherhood Duncan and the rest are serving in secret; The Poor Fellows of Christ of the Order of the Black Wings. Quickly and silently, the Seven vanish into the wilderness. Their destination is in the very heart of the forest, the realm of the wild where the animals makes their kingdom. Nevertheless it had recently served a different purpose.

     In the place behind curtains of vegetation lurk fifty men draped in ragged cloaks. They may appear as wandering vagabonds seeking refuge in the forest, but behind the disguises are warriors poised to fight. Underneath their tattered clothing are long oversized swords as long as a man is tall. Others carry cross-bows like devices together with a number of knives and poisoned darts in their belts. But aside from blades and bows, they are also armed with something more potent.

     Normally people will regard magic as something from children’s fairy tales or stuffs of stage acts. This is not the case for these men. Magic is a very real thing for them, a trait born with. Yet they don’t practice magic to entertain. This is their most devastating weapon, more effective than all the man-made implements in their disposal. They have the power to summon fire, command the earth or control water to rain untold mischiefs on their enemies. Death is brought upon with unimaginable efficiency while invisibility is achieved by manipulating light and illusion.

     These are just few of what they could do, and in cases where magic is inapplicable the men will resort to the Iron Beasts. Monstrous is the only thing that could describe it, a fifty foot behemoth that magic cannot stop. The Iron Beasts are gigantic winged suits of armour controlled by a specialized enchantment. Depending on the needs, the human operator could magically merge himself with his machine, or be controlled at a distance. Its thick armour could deflect many forms of curses and an advanced form of sorcery is required to disable it. The men are equipped with thirty of them, all enchanted to be rendered invisible.

     “It’s time,” said one of them, and several curious characters emerge from their hiding places in the bushes. They are neither men nor beasts, they are Earth Demons.

     In this world unclean spirits are known to assume mortal bodies. Earth Demons may appear as badly deformed creatures with a mix of animal parts. In terms of magical skills, they are no different than a normal human practitioner due to the effects of their earthly flesh. They have great physical strength, with one arm able to match the pull of an ox. They could also open the pathway to another World, a skill that requires good knowledge of time and space.

     To show that the Demons meant no harm, they all relinquish their weapons. The men too uncloaked themselves as an honourable gesture.

     “One hundred souls if you open the pathway to another world for us,” said the largest and the meanest of the Fifty, their Captain.

     “As what we agreed upon,” one of the Demons replied.

     “You will receive your sacrifice once we get to our destination.”

     “So, you want to visit the World of Men.”

     “Yes, nothing will stop us in that non magical World.”

     The Captain of the Fifty Vagrants turned east, towards the direction of the village they once occupied.

    "We heard you and your men are feared in this world," the demon said as the Captain of the Fifty thrusts his sword to the ground.

     "We are, and my sword had spilled a lot of blood."

     And he recounts with great relish how they will battle armies, loot villages and murder those who resisted.

     "But we failed in our last raid and we are driven off into this forest," he added, his face contorted with rage.

     "And that's why you want to escape to another World,, you and your men are on the run."

     "It's only a matter of time until we are caught, and we will exact our revenge once we establish our kingdom in the World of Men."

     He then boasted loudly how he would double the human sacrifices and offer them slaves. And from nowhere, a twin blast rips across their camp, sending the men and demons into confusion. Hidden in the bushes the Seven silently watches, waiting for the right moment to attack. Then a type of fire known as the Black Flame erupts from the ground. This no ordinary fire; it gives off darkness rather than light and warmth. This is a cursed flame capable of consuming Demons. Already half of the Earth Demons was annihilated while the blasts had crippled most of the Iron Beasts. Only three are operable and the surviving men scramble to get their remaining machines airborne. Through a specialized enchantment, they merge themselves with their Iron Beasts. A blast of wind sweeps the place as it comes to life, and in a single wing beat the Iron Beasts are airborne.

    This had been a crucial mistake for the men.

     They have discovered that up in the sky the ground is barely visible due to the fumes being given off by the Black Flame. Whenever they try to land, the Black Flame magically explodes to block their paths. This left the others in the ground unprotected. With the men disorganized the Seven makes their move. They split up, sending two of their ranks to hide among the tree tops as the rest deals with the men on the ground. The ferocity the Seven displays are unbelievable, charging with incredible speed and stealth. Invisible hands seem to grasp from nowhere as scores upon scores went down men and demons altogether. Fiercely the men fought with everything they had; swords bows and Magic. The night sky comes alive with murderous roars, death shrieks, and spells shooting blindly at their unseen target. Others conjure spells meant to expose a concealed enemy. In an attempt to protect themselves the men and Demons had grouped together into this tightly packed defensive formation.

     This is the opportunity the Seven had been waiting.

     A signal in a form of a blue flare is given by the Leader of the Seven. Upon seeing the streak of light, his two members hiding among the trees came leaping out. They shed their human forms, transforming into two gigantic beings more terrible than Iron Beasts. One is red in colour, with spiky armour and wings, and carries a fiery sword. The other is steely blue; more heavily armoured and armed with a pair of blazing clubs. They engage the three Iron Beasts who are still attempting to penetrate the grasping wall of Black Flame, and are disposed of at once. The wreckage of these feared weapons falls limply, and exactly where the remnants of the men and demons stood in defence. 

     The Seven are quick to evade the rain of metals that got their enemies completely off guard. The men and demons are crushed by burning debris the size of houses. Some have escaped, only to face the full wrath of the charging Seven. One of them is their Captain, who is now in a duel against Duncan. His sword sings to avenge the loss of his men, while his left hand conjures the deadliest of spells. The fall of the leaves, the clouds in the sky, the wind blow all goes into standstill when one of his enchantments made to stop time takes effect. But Duncan and his kind are immortal beings cursed by time, the spell no longer affects them. And with a single slash from Duncan’s sword, he is dead. The men are about to follow their captain’s fate and their resistance is crushed.

***

In the relative calm that follows what is left is a ground strewn with the aftermath of the fight. Broken weapons litter the surroundings mingling with the smouldering remains of the Iron Beasts. There are also mangled corpses of Earth Demons everywhere all in a horrendous condition with some missing a body part. Later on their carcasses will simply vanish for the earth will never accept an unclean flesh. The spirits of the Earth Demons will then be condemned to wander until they are captured by patrolling Angels.

     As for the fifty men, amazingly most of them survived despite of the severe beatings they endured. The Seven had chosen to spare their worthless lives for they are human after all, born from the image of God. They must live to face the punishments of their crime. Their captain wasn’t that fortunate. He’s a real threat and the Seven are given orders to eliminate him. Anyone stumbling upon this man must be ready to deliver the killing blow. It was Duncan who is unfortunate enough to carry out the grim task.

     The Seven had their captives tied with a cursed chain to suppress their magic and one at a time they are being surveyed. The Leader of the Seven raises his staff to put the men under a powerful enchantment; through his will they are reduced to something no larger than an ant. They are sealed in a small glass bottle, and a trained bird of prey will deliver them to their place of imprisonment. The shrouded body of their Captain will be turned over to a local church for a proper burial by a pack of hounds. Duncan remains transfixed as the person he killed is carried away into the darkness. Behind the cold face concealed by a mask a decision was made and he quickly approaches his Captain to whisper something.

     “Sir, can I have a word with you?” He asked.

     Seeing on the way he avoids being overheard by others indicates this is a personal matter.

     “What is it child,” his Captain replied.

     “This is to request a private audience with you Sir, this Sunday.”

     “A meeting, what is your concern then?”

     At first Duncan hesitated, but after gathering his nerves he proceeds.

     “I will just inform you Sir on the day of our meeting. This is just personal,” he said awkwardly.

     His Captain then gave Duncan a penetrating look, a gaze that gives this impression that he could see through thoughts.

     “I understand, so it will be on Sunday then.”

     “Yes Sir, Sunday morning.”

     “Velruthiel must be informed so she could pick you up. I will just be seeing you there.”

     “Thank you Sir,” Duncan said then.

     A few minutes later, Duncan, and all the members of the Seven are gone. Gone too are traces of the brief yet violent encounter. The forest now returns to its slumber.

 

CHAPTER II - VELRUTHIEL

 

What happened in the forest stays in the forest. The men who fought the Seven are cursed to never remember what they saw.  The secrecy of the Poor Fellows of Christ of the Order of the Black Wings must be protected until humans are no longer fearful of the supernatural. The many Worlds are not yet ready for the likes of such brotherhood, and for now the Order had to remain in the shadows.

     Duncan only had scattered memories of their last mission and he spent the next few days alone in his apartment room. Usually he is in a deep contemplation, almost in a meditative trance, and oftentimes he skips regular meals and sleep. He had been like this since he requested a private meeting with his Captain that night after the raid. Duncan seems to be getting anxious, for in just a few days he will be settling this matter in the headquarters of the Order.

     That peaceful Sunday morning, the day of his requested meeting, Duncan is again alone in his apartment room and seemingly waiting for someone to arrive. Clad in plain-clothes and disguised as a human, he is inconspicuous and looks more like a geeky underage anyone could bully. Then at half past ten someone knocks.

     “Good Morning Velruthiel,” Duncan greeted in a low deadpan voice. Stepping in from the front door is a tall beautiful girl with a flowing waste length hair.

     “Thank you,” she replied. “And now be ready, we are about to enter the House of the Order.”

Velruthiel raises a hand, and the world around them spins into a blur of colours. When the view stills they are now in a different place. There is nothing but complete darkness around them, except for an illuminated arched gateway sealed by heavy steel vines. Velruthiel stands nearby. In her true form she is stunning. She is like a goddess in her plain dark gown and flowing cloak. Her long black hair further enhances her mystique. Duncan stood by her side, no longer puny looking but dark and fierce. As tradition dictates whenever in a formal meeting, Duncan must appear fully armoured and draped in deep brown cloak

     “Son of Adam, Child of Eve,” Velruthiel said to him, “you may enter.”

     The steel vines wriggles to life. They recede to form a passageway big enough for two people to step in. They are about to enter the secretive headquarters of the Order.  This place is a separate World, not a castle or any forms of fortification and arguably the smallest. Duncan was once told this World is only the size of a large castle though its exact dimension is still unsure. It had no definite shape and could assume any forms, a feature exploited by the Order to suit its needs. This World even had a life of its own. In fact it had, or she had a human form. Whenever a member of the Order needs assistance it will appear to them as Velruthiel.

     “Your Captain is waiting in the Squad’s Barracks,” Velruthiel said as they stepped into the magical gateway, and a hallway stretching far into the horizon meets them. The presence of strong magic dominates the place, as if the surroundings are alive. Above them countless Light Orbs dots the ceiling like stars in the night sky, illuminating the carvings of Green Men (sculptures of faces surrounded by leaves) peering out from the wall. Stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes watch over the hallway, where the perpetual light from an unknown source flows in.

     Seemingly there is nothing but hallways in the World of Velruthiel. There are no turns or passageways anywhere in sight. Then after a minute of walking they stopped. Velruthiel raises a finger, and a weathered archway emerges from the ground. There is nothing through it but the view of the endless hallway but Duncan tapped its cracked stones three times.

     “Asking for a permission to enter,” he then said.

     From nowhere someone replied.

     “Permission granted.”

     Duncan makes a bow to Velruthiel before stepping into the archway. And suddenly he is now in a spacious chamber with a round table in the middle complete with two handsomely carved chairs. The statue of the Warrior Christ on a grazing horse stands in the other end of the room, while the image of the enthroned Blessed Virgin Mary sits in the left. The coat of arms of the Order hangs from the elaborately painted ceiling. Duncan’s Captain, dressed in mask, armour and pelt cloak awaits him by the side of the table.

     “Be seated Duncan,” his Captain said to him. By tradition the common soldier like him will sit on the left side of the table while his officer will take the right side. Duncan pulls out an envelope made from light yellow parchment sealed with a strange wax symbol; an Angel with a folded wings. In the language of the Order, this is an official request for an indefinite leave.

     “The details are written inside Sir,” Duncan added.

     But his Captain never even bothered reading it. He surveys Duncan with this penetrating stare before burning the letter in his hand.

     “The request is denied?” Duncan asked.

     “It was already approved Duncan. The Order had given its blessings.”

There is a mix of surprise and amazement on Duncan’s face.

     “I did the request on your behalf Duncan,” his Captain added

     “But how did you know Sir?”

     “You're easy to predict. I knew what was coming when you asked me for a private meeting that night. You have been acting strangely these past months.”

     “The members of the Order don’t exactly act normal,” Duncan reasoned.

     “But your case is different. Now Duncan, let’s make this quick.”

     His Captain lowers his mask to reveal a young but battle worn face. His nose bears signs of being broken in a fist fight and his ears are severely deformed.

     “Duncan,” his Captain continues, “You could be brutal and merciless. In our previous missions, you are known to inflict slow and agonizing death to your enemies.”

     “The men of the Order had their own ways of giving justice,” Duncan replied solemnly.

     “Hacking a man many times and letting him bleed to death is not justice Duncan, its sadism. Remember what the Archangel reminded us in each of our missions; be merciful to the helpless. Mercy and honour are what set us apart from common murderers,” his Captain then said.     

     “But mercy should only be granted to the deserving. I’m just giving them what is fitting.”

     “Really, but in our last mission child you are different. You are always an animal in the battlefield, but you are behaving rather strangely.”

     “As what the situation dictates, I must inflict swift death Sir.”

     “I’m talking about what I’m seeing after the fight Duncan. You are staring at your victim with deep remorse as we send his remains for proper burial.”

     “We should be showing respect to the dead Sir.”

     “But you said it yourself; respect is only reserved to the deserving.”

     At that point Duncan went silent.

     “Be honest child, is there something that troubles you,” his Captain asked calmly.

     Duncan lowers his head. Behind his mask, his face remains cold and stony.

     “It seems I have reached the point where too much blood had been spilled,” Duncan muttered.

     His Captain’s unmasked face suddenly went serious.

     “As what I’m suspecting,” he then said.

     “Maybe Sir, I have seen too much death.”

     “I thought you have come to accept that death is a part of our profession. Joining the Order is embracing a possible eternity of bloodshed.”

     “I thought I have Sir, but…”

     Duncan suddenly paused, as if contemplating what he would say.

     "I'm afraid these deaths are now haunting me," he then said.

     After another moment of silence Duncan moves on.

     “I have to be violent Sir, I have to be brutal. I thought being merciless will help me free me of my guilt of inflicting death.”

     Somehow his Captain felt Duncan is not telling him everything.

     “This might explain the reason behind your savagery,” said his Captain then.

     “To embrace death, I must embrace bloodlust. At least that’s how I saw it.”

     His Captain surveys him, his stare ever more penetrating.

     “You are now saying there is guilt in taking a man’s life, But is there something more to be told,” he added shrewdly.

      Duncan began to gaze blankly at a pile of ashes left by his burnt letter as his Captain continues to eye him, as if scanning his every though going within his head.

     “I think you are driven by more than guilt. I think in every man you kill, her image swims back,” his Captain said ominously.

     “I was being punished Sir,” Duncan muttered, “I will ever be tormented by the sin of my First Mission.”

    Duncan bowed his head as if about to recite a prayer.

     “I was arrogant and reckless during those times. It was my rash decisions that caused it,” he added.

     “Duncan, what had happened had happened. The past is non-existent. Do learn to move on.”

     “That’s why I’m planning to take a leave Sir. Just hoping a bit of break will help me get rid of my demons.”

     His Captain let go a deep sigh of reminiscence.

     “Just like them,” he muttered.

     “What do you mean Sir?”

     “There are many others before you who displayed the same form of revulsion towards killing. This is not a bad thing; in fact as the Archangel suggests, it only shows you are still human. I’m not good in offering advices in this sort of problem. Dealing with battle induced trauma is the work of the Order’s Hospitallers, Counsellors and Specialist. But in the end it’s all up to you and to your determination to finally slay your looming demon.”

      Again, his Captain raises his mask as he is about to make Duncan’s request official.

     “For now Duncan, this is the only help I could give you. With the authority given to me, I will give my final blessings. Hopefully you will find the help you’re looking for during your leave.”

     “Thank you Sir,” said Duncan while bowing his head.

     “You have expressed your side. Tomorrow your leave will take effect. And remember, during the duration of your break you have no authorization to use your weapon to stage any violent confrontations unless done in defence or with the consent of the Order.”

     “Acknowledge Sir.”

     “And lastly,” said his Captain seriously, “the Order understands your situation; times might change and you may soon decide to leave. You are free to leave anytime child if there is a need.”

     “It did come to me but somehow I felt that this is not the right thing to do.”

     “In that case I think we will be seeing each other soon Duncan.”

     As a part of the Order’s tradition Duncan must surrender the Cerrice, their ceremonial dagger.

     “Lastly Duncan, Godspeed,” his Captain  

  “Thank you very much Sir.”

     And together they shook hands in a brotherly sort of way. As a sign of goodwill towards a departing member of the Order, Velruthiel will be escorting Duncan all the way to the exit.

     “Guest that we won’t be seeing you for a long time,” Velruthiel whispered to him.

     “It depends on how things will go,” Duncan replied.

     “And I see that you won’t be leaving the Order either.”

     “Maybe, because I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Duncan said then.

Velruthiel then gave Duncan a smile.

     “During your break, try asking yourself,” she whispered.

     “What do you mean?”

     “Try asking yourself why you joined the Order in the first place.”

     And Velruthiel begin to sing this parting song, her voice is indeed enchanting;

 

“A confused soul is about to depart

Journey to answer what troubles his heart

His path unsure, destination unclear

Never even knowing how far or near

 

Into stranger tide his walk will lead him

Into chasms of lands or moonlight’s beam

From Giant’s domain or Elven woods

But answers will continue to elude

 

At times he will be found lost in his thoughts

Under confusion between truth and hoax

Loose not your heart and the faith to walk on

For sooner the challenges will be won

 

When is you return I cannot tell

But assure in God’s hands all will be well

The day you come back, my heart will liven

For the answer you seek is now given.”

***

It was nearly midnight when Duncan had finished his packing. The next day he plans to spend some time away in his hometown Saint Jude to get away from all of this magical madness. Duncan only had a few belongings and his basic things will be stored in the biggest space in the rucksack; a set of clothes, a laptop computer and a phone he rarely use. And when the need arises, the Order had issued him an ominous sealed box with a decorated lid. Inside is a small collection of non-lethal weapons, magical devices and strange looking silver instruments.

     Through magic, he managed to jam his wardrobe into a standard sized rucksack. He then checks himself in the mirror and a tired face looks back. Tomorrow Duncan will live the life of a simple mortal, something most people didn’t appreciated. Magic is a lot more trouble than it’s worth, and he had seen enough to haunt him for eternity. He remembers that back in his childhood, he freaked out after hearing from his parents that he is only part human. He had locked himself in his room for days, refusing meals and doing self-harm. It took an Archangel appearing in his bedside to help him get over with the shock of this sudden revelation. At times he wondered what sort of beings are they. The Order often referred to them as creatures with a part of Heaven, a part of hell and with faces of Men, unnamed beings capable of slaying demons and fallen angels. They are the Devil’s Bane.

     Duncan took a deep yawn as he slumps himself on his bed. He was unsure how their kinds came to be, but their Grandmaster once shared them a rather interesting story. It was said that their forefathers first appeared hundreds of years ago, in a different world far from the World of Men.  Originally they are meant to take on the roles of Antichrists that will hasten the destruction of all known worlds. Their creator is the fallen angel Lucifer who has conceived them by impregnating a harem of witches. These Sons of the Damned are gifted (or some says cursed) with every supernatural abilities an Archangel had, including limitless powers and immortality. They don’t have bodies though, but spirits of a different substance that are made to be touched. Christmas was the intended date when these unholy siblings will be released into the many worlds, to rain fear and death as the unsuspecting humans feast. But within Lucifer’s seemingly perfect plan, he had one disastrous undoing. He had failed to notice that unclean they might be they are still humans with the image of God continuously running in their veins. In that fateful Christmas day that human side to care for their brothers and sisters was awakened when they help restore a dying girl to health. They felt that they had seen God in her eyes, a God that never forsaken them despite of their roots in the darkness. Inspired by the event they then made a vow to be the protector of God’s people. One of them going by the name Gryndel the Black later forms a religious brotherhood which will go on to become the Order.

     Creatures with the part of Heaven, a part of Hell and faces of men indeed; in the history of the Order Duncan counts as the fifty thousandth member. Their kinds are notorious for low birth-rates and the chance of finding one nowadays is slim. For Duncan this is better. The world belongs to the mortals and not to some man-demon hybrids with unimaginable potentials to kill. Monsters are what they are, the true experts of killing. And last year he had experienced how much of a monster he is, when he witnessed for the first time the horrors of death.

     Duncan closes his eyes. Everything seems to go back to that faithful day a year ago. Back then he was in another World, crouching low among the foliage and awaiting the arrival of several people. Supposedly neophyte warriors like him must be accompanied by experienced members of the Order, but he insisted going out alone believing he can do things himself. And after a few minutes of waiting, he spotted them. Five cloaked figures riding on strange animals appeared and Duncan doesn’t waste a single moment. He leaps out from his hiding place like a mad attack dog and began charging relentlessly. The Order had trained Duncan well. No magic or weapons are used; Duncan only needed his dagger and bare hands. The fight ends after a few minutes and it was Duncan who remains standing among several dead bodies. His right hand clutches the loot of war he must retrieve; a precious relic these bands of demons had stolen. Duncan relishes the victory and further defiles his victims by stepping onto them. But the moment of triumph was short lived.

     Upon uncloaking his victims, it was revealed that one of them was a human girl. It was as if his inside starts to melt. He could torture demons to death, but killing a human doesn’t felt right. It was then that Duncan became aware of the blood in his hands. Demons don’t have blood, but humans do. And without knowing what he was doing, Duncan was running away, unable to view the remains of his victims.

     Up to this day Duncan is still tormented by the memories of the night. Haunting flashbacks will appear in his dreams, and he will see himself back in the forest clutching his bloody dagger and looking down at the dead form of the girl. This is what he is getting for the sin of arrogance. Back then Duncan’s senses are yet to develop, and he had no way of telling humans from disguised demons. Yet even with underdeveloped magic Duncan still insisted on going out in a mission without the aid of their experienced members. How thick is he to believe that an amateur like him could already fight alone? In the end the only person that must be blamed for the bloodbath is himself.

     Duncan and his kinds really had no need to sleep. But as he drifts into an uneasy slumber, he is jolted awake by a knock on the front door. He is not expecting anyone at this time of the night, at least not someone human. Something in the air tells Duncan that this is someone he ought to speak to.

     “Come in,” he said calmly. When the door opens an interesting character stood there. He is a young man, or is he? Duncan knows that no living person could have skin as bright as moonlight or eyes of polished crystals. His hair flows like strands of silk.

     “Am I disturbing you Duncan,” he asked.

     “Not at all Sir, you know our kind had no need to sleep. In fact …”

     Duncan looked back at his already packed belongings.

     “I could really use someone to talk to Sir,” he added.

     He ushers his visitor towards the coffee table where he is being served with tea and biscuits.

     “No Duncan, you shouldn’t mind,” said his guest, refusing the late snack he offered.

     “You’re the Archangel of the Lord and my visitor. Please feel at home,” Duncan insisted as he pours him tea.

     “I’m just here to give you something. The Captain and the Grandmaster had agreed upon that this should remain with you.”

     The Archangel heaved an elongated package on Duncan’s table wrapped in a beautifully patterned red silk.

     “I’m no longer in your service, I don’t deserve to carry this anymore,” said Duncan weakly.

     “You’re not yet resigned Duncan; you are still connected with the Order.”

     Duncan touches the package but never dared to open it.

     “You will need it when the time comes. You are its rightful owner after all. This object had a part of you,” the Archangel added.

     “A part of a killer that is,” Duncan muttered.

     “Enough of that, anyway …”

     The Archangel looked sideways, at Duncan’s packed things.

     “Been preparing all night Sir,” Duncan said weakly.

     “And where do you plan to spend your vacation?”

     “I will be coming home to the place I grew up, to Saint Jude.”

     There is a look of longing in Duncan’s face as he said those.

     “I just want to get away from all of this violence,” Duncan continues, “for once I want to be free of all of those fighting, magic and killings.”

     “How long are you planning to take a leave?”

     “Indefinite Sir,” Duncan replied. The Archangel then beamed positively at Duncan.

     “I think you are searching for answers,” he then said.

     “What do you mean Sir?

     “You are searching for answers, the reason why you joined the Order.”

     Somehow Duncan didn’t get what the Archangel meant.

     “Let’s put it this way,” the Archangel explained, “try asking yourself; why you joined the Order in the first place?”

     “You know Sir, Velruthiel once said the same thing to me,” he replied as he gives the Archangel a rare smile.

     “And your home, Saint Jude,” the Archangel asked, “where is this place.”

     “In the highlands, near the Three Great Mountains …”

     He then looks at Duncan with a mysterious smile.

     “Let me left these words as you have your little vacation tomorrow. You know, nothing happens by chance. Everything had its reasons. Things happened for they happened. Submit to God’s will and something might be revealed.”

     “What do you mean Sir?”

     “Duncan, Saint Jude might harbour more than childhood memories.”

     “I still don’t get it Sir,” Duncan said, head swimming with questions.

     “You will soon find out. And look it’s getting late; you have to get up early tomorrow. I have said enough Duncan and it’s up to you to do the rest. Now I should be going, Godspeed Duncan.”

     The two shook hands though Duncan is still fighting the urge to ask further questions. But as what he heard, it is up to him to do the rest.

     “Thank you very much Sir,” said Duncan then.

     “For what,” the Archangel asked.

     “For your visit,” he replied.

     Once the Archangel left, Duncan took that elongated package he brought and slip it in an enchanted pocked of his rucksack. Try asking yourself Duncan, why you joined the Order in the first place. Nothing happens by chance. Those are the words the Archangel left him to meditate.

     The next morning when he woke up, Duncan remembers little of those words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER III – SAINT JUDE

 

The air is still misty when Duncan sets out the next day. At seven in the morning the bus going to Saint Jude will leave and he still has an hour to spare. Duncan could have made things easier and use his magic instead, but he is enough with enchantments. It is still too early and the local taxi won’t start their daily operation until six thirty in the morning, so he had to walk all the way to the station. But today he is in luck.

     Suddenly he began to pick up a disturbance in the air indicating the presence of someone around here. Unlike ordinary humans Duncan’s kinds have the ability to sense living creatures. Right now he could tell that another member of the Order is about to arrive, and sure enough a car stops by giving Duncan a friendly honk of its horn. Inside is a very familiar person of Duncan’s age. He had dark brown hair and a friendly face though a prominent scar is visible on the bridge of his nose.

     “Hop in Duncan,” he said.

     And seeing that he won’t take no for an answer Duncan then board his vehicle. He takes the backseat first before moving at the front seat upon the driver’s insistence.

     “Since we’re going on the same way I might as well take you with me,” he smiled.

     “Thank you Clause,” Duncan replied.

     “No problem.”

     For the first half an hour of their trip the two never said a word to each other. The only thing Duncan did is to watch the view in the window flashes past him. Clause understands that Duncan is a very quiet person but he cannot take the undesirable silence.

     “Just bought this car last week, I will be taking this for a spin in the highlands,” said Clause just to break the silence. This did little to enliven the introvert Duncan; he just gave Clause the look that says that’s nice. 

     “Took me five years to invest on this one, I took extra jobs whenever we have time to spare.”

     Duncan’s sole reply is a nod. After that Clause ran out of things to say. In his surprise Duncan then mentioned, “Our house …”

     “Excuse me?”

     “In Saint Jude we had an ancestral home along an old watch tower. It needs to be checked.”

     Smiling, Clause replied, “well our home is not in this World and it was my second Uncle who looks after it.”

    “You’re from a neighbouring World?”

    “Yup, our clan lives in this manor house beside the ruins of a castle. There is magic in our World but I like yours’ much better.”

    “You do know how dull life's here,” said Duncan while watching a group of tired looking office workers get home from their nightly shift.

     “That is why it is so fascinating. I mean how you folks manage without magic and HEY YOU!”

     Clause made a heavy swerve to avoid a speeding motorcycle.

     “Those fool, charging without a helmet. Hah! Serves you right,” said Clause loudly as the driver of that motorcycle was pulled over by an enforcer.

     “Motorcycles, I used to want one until Father had a fight with a street racer. You should see what my Father did to that poor thing,” Duncan mentioned.

     “I heard that your dad works as an archivist in the Order.”

     “Yes, so is my Mother. I’m the first in the family to take on combat related duties.”

     “What made you decide then,” Clause asked as they cross the tollbooth.

     “Actually, I don’t know. Call that rash decision.”

     “Well, it’s family tradition in my case; my clan are known professional soldiers.”

     “So it’s not your decision to become a member.”

     “Not exactly, I was once offered a job as an armourer in the Order but I thought it was too boring. And I always wanted to fight in the battlefield like my forefathers,” said Clause impressively.

     “I envy you. At least you have good reason.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “As I said before joining the Order was a hasty decision for me. I jumped in without thinking. Just look what happened now, I mean...”

     Duncan briefly went silent. Clause also knew that Duncan had killed a girl and is unsure now on what to say.

     “We have heard of it from Kane, our Captain. I wasn’t there so I’m not here to judge but on the way I see it you just did what you must. It seems unavoidable to me.”

     “It was avoidable if not for my ego.”

     “But at least you don’t end up like me.”

     Duncan gave Clause a surprised look.

     “You know in my first mission,” Clause moves on, “I’m a total mess. I got terribly sick after I killed my first man. I’m throwing out everywhere and ends up badly traumatized. My Investiture in the Order was on hold for a year because I need to get a therapy.”

     Duncan finds this hard to belief. He always looks up to Clause and most of their team members as unbreakable.

     “You’re kidding,” said the astonished Duncan.

     “Monsters like us have feelings too,” chuckled Clause. This made Duncan smile and it felt better. Clause offers Duncan some sandwiches which they eat merrily as the view around them starts to change. They began their trip in the confines of the polluted suburbs which gave way to the open space of the freeway, where only the speeding vehicles are visible. One at a time trees began to show up followed by hills as they enter the edge of the countryside. The road starts to elevate, tilting a bit more in every mile they take. The mist too continues to thicken.

     “And another thing,” Duncan said after gulping a mouthful of ham and chicken, “You didn’t do anything to this car, do you?”

     He points at the fuel gauge that reads empty though they are cruising at high speed.

     “I did a few touches you know. Gasoline costs a fortune and we don’t want to ruin the fresh mountain air,” Clause chuckled.

     The fog recedes a bit soon as their vehicle reaches the high ground of the mountainside road. And a view of breath-taking proportion is revealed. On their right side are dark mountains crowned with splotches of clouds, overshadowing the great lake on their left. The early morning sun gave the lake a fiery hue as the volcano peering out of its midst spew steams. It is like a primordial world, a secret realm untouched by man. Duncan and Clause had seen the most bizarre of environments but they agree that nothing compares to this.  

     “Locals often say that a giant serpent lives there,” Duncan mentioned.

     The road went higher and three massive mountains with strange shapes appeared.

     “Mount Aedina, Raina and Urduja,” said Duncan while pointing at the mountains.

     “Strange names those mountains had.”

     “Yup, those mountains are named after the three mythical nature spirits of the forests around Saint Jude. Now, observe...”

     By the light of the dawn the outlines of the mountains becomes defined.

     “The mountains do resemble like reclining women,” said Clause in awe.

     “And no one had seen their western sides before. People are careful not to venture close to the mountains due to the thick fog and for the fear of the Nature Spirits.”

An hour passes and a signpost of a granite club appears.

     “That’s the symbol of Saint Jude, we are near,” Duncan reminded. Not too soon they reach the gateway marking the entrance to Duncan’s beloved town.

     “Here we are, the ancient walled town of Saint Jude,” said Duncan proudly.

     “Looks interesting, let’s go in there.”

     But with face reddening Duncan politely refuses.

     “Maybe next time Clause, I need to go in there alone. You know for some personal matters. I’m sorry.”

     Clause gave Duncan a friendly tap on the shoulder.

     “I understand but please promise me one thing. Your place makes the best strawberry jam, mind bringing some?”

     This made the once overly serious Duncan smile.

     “Certainly,” he assured.

      There is a rush of cool mountain air as Duncan steps out from Clause’s vehicle. Before they part he asked Clause one last thing.

     “Clause, you said earlier that killing your first man had traumatized you, yet you didn’t quit the Order.”

     “I told you before that I want to be like my forefathers. I must carry on the tradition of my family in the battlefield. And besides, there are people we must protect.”

     And the two bid each other farewell with Clause’s words continuously reverberating in Duncan’s head.

***

“I have been away for too long,” Duncan whispered to himself after entering the gates of his beloved hometown. Everything around here had changed. Saint Jude is no longer the humble place he knew. He is now looking at a bustling city, where as far as the eye could see every corner teems with shops, stores and commercial establishments. The place is alive with tourists, students or ordinary people alike doing their shopping or sight-seeing. Newly built structures like tall buildings could be seen at a distance and proud architectural landscapes had reshaped much of the view.

     Saint Jude is now so prosperous, so evolved, and so different. Yet beyond the modern façade, the old Saint Jude still lives on, as Duncan noted while making an early survey of the city.

     Saint Jude is the place where past and present had merged. For one thing gasoline powered vehicle is not that common. The inhabitants had fought well to minimize these smoke belching monsters and Duncan had to contend himself with a horse driven carriage. The ride is bumpy but enjoyable for the road still uses cobbled stones. Around the city ancient structures share their places among modern buildings, like century old houses, ruins of arches, statues of heroes and water fountains. And dominating the skyline is the Cathedral of Saint Jude, a massive four spired Gothic building overlooking the now polished Town Square. Time seems to go back many years ago, when his family will go there to hear the Sunday Mass. And during lunch time, his father will take them to a famous food stop run by an Order of Nuns. Duncan will then spend the remainder of the day playing and frolicking in the Town Square.

     “I should buy a souvenir for my parents once I get back,” Duncan said to himself.

     And with mood uplifted and heart leaping with joy, Duncan then spends the whole morning going to places he fondly remembers as a child, like the University of Saint Jude. Seeing it inspires fantasies of an alternate reality, where a very different Duncan will be standing here had his dream of studying there came true. And there is also the old cafeteria ran by a family friend and the lamp post where his father had pulverized that noisy street racer. And there is the library, the gymnasium, the uphill shrine of Saint Jude and many more. Suddenly the chaos of the battlefield seems miles away. The feeling of overflowing joy is hard to contain and Duncan felt more alive than ever, as if for the first time he is a full human.

     Shortly after lunchtime, Duncan heads out to an old neighbourhood near the remnants of an ancient watchtower. The scent of the air is welcoming and unlike most of the places in Saint Jude, this neighbourhood is still unchanged.

     “Now where is our house,” said Duncan while consulting the map his father gave him. As what’s indicated, their house should be here in an empty lot where a dead maggot infested tree stood.

     “I’m here,” he whispered, and the protective enchantment making the house invisible is deactivated. A simple two storey building now looms over Duncan. There is nothing magical or special about this house, just another old dwelling place you could find anywhere in this neighbourhood.

     “Hello there Duncan,” several people greeted him, as if he had been with them this whole time. It seems that the protective enchantment also had mind altering effects on the townspeople. No one in Saint Jude is aware that Duncan been gone for years. Finally with a satisfied smile, Duncan proceeds into the house feeling home at last.

***

Duncan woke up early next morning both to savour his first day in Saint Jude, and to finish a few articles. For a part time job, and to relax his mind Duncan works as a freelance writer for several online magazines

     “What’s this,” Duncan muttered after reading the email in his laptop. His editor had asked him to compose an essay about dating and relationship. Unable to come up with any ideas, Duncan decided to do his work outside, in a newly opened cafeteria where the lively atmosphere might help him think.

     “This is a tough one,” Duncan muttered while fiddling mindlessly with his laptop. Even after choosing the best seat in the cafeteria (next to a window), and eating his way through several helpings of bacon and eggs, nothing seems to enter his mind. The problem is Duncan never had any serious relationships during his teenage years. He simply had no idea what proper dating should be. A womanizer chasing girls is all the unromantic Duncan could think of.

     To refresh his mind, Duncan briefly closes his eyes. The cafeteria is getting crowded and noisy, better if he move to somewhere else more private. Duncan then hastily closes his laptop and pays for his very large meal which now includes pancakes and milkshakes.

     “I do long distance marathon,” he explained to the giggling waitress who is eyeing the large pile of dishes on his table with amusements.

     “That explains it. Most of our customers here rarely finish a plate. We even have one who will come here just to paint.”

     She pointed behind her, in an empty table where an unfinished painting was left to dry.

     “Amazing,” Duncan exclaimed. He is so struck by the beauty of the painting he gave the grateful waitress a substantial tip.

     “This is the Urduja’s Hollow,” he said to himself while examining the curious artwork. The Urduja’s Hollow is a heavily forested area outside Saint Jude, a misty wilderness visible from the windows of the cafeteria. Its most striking feature is the trees with strange coloured leaves. When seen from above, the forest would resemble an artist’s pallet. It’s a landscape with splashes of auburn, red, orange, and yellow. 

     “It still needs a lot of work though,” said Duncan while observing the painting. There are still rough lines and splashes of paint that Duncan assumed to be trees. Duncan wishes to meet its maker to shake his hand but a sweet scent of woman’s perfume fills the air.

     “You like it,” said a playful voice coming from behind. Duncan turned and there is a girl there, a girl his height and age. Her hair falls just below her nape and she sports horned rimmed glasses. Her face is alive with a sweet and warm smile.

     “Well, y-yeah,” Duncan said nervously.

     “I painted it, took me quite a long time and it is not yet finished,” she smiled.

     “Well, you

Impressum

Verlag: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG

Tag der Veröffentlichung: 21.08.2018
ISBN: 978-3-7438-7849-5

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