Be Cleft Thy Shadow

The ghoul clad in rags was throwing them weary glances from behind his stall.

Other that that, none of the undead seemed to mind a battle-ready team of heroes in the heart of their capital. The town guards had let them pass under their false pretense of being artifact merchants – procuring the materials and keeping such products safe in transit required a considerable armed force.

But had they been normal people, it really wouldn't have mattered. The country was at war – no group of people greater than twenty in number could travel freely without a concession approved by the Undead Lords. And even a legion slipping in would pose little threat.

Before them stood Blackgrave – the hill the town had been built around long ago, even before it became the demesne of necromancers. And perched upon it like a beast feasting on fallen prey was Starkraven, more impressive than its foundation, an impregnable obsidian fortress filled to brim with animated corpses who never slept and never rested in their duty to protect it.

Whether a living army existed which could take it was a mystery. And they wouldn't know anytime soon – the forces of Albion were closest, and still they were a week's straight march away from the town. With every step of their path obstructed with unholy fortifications and armies which had long dismissed the weaknesses of morale and life, it could take months for them to get here, if they succeeded at all.

But by then, Hayate knew, the true war would be over and the necromantic hordes would have become invincible, a new terrifying power in their hands.

This made him feel glad that none of them were really normal people.

He nodded at Hinagiku. In the worst case scenario, he would be the one taking the blows meant for them, which was why he was to decide whether they were safe enough to begin. But Hinagiku would be the one calling orders. She nodded back at him.

"Nagi," Hinagiku whispered to the girl behind her without turning around. The word still felt weird on her lips, unused as she was to addressing nobility on first-name basis. But that was not the foremost of her concerns right then "We may proceed."

Hayate saw a flicker of blonde in the corner of his eye and knew that the child, as much as the description didn't seem fitting, had lowered her hood.

Rather than warrior garb: relatively light chainmail armor and metal protectors all around the body like those Hayate and Hinagiku wore, Nagi carried only a set of monk-like robes. There was a second layer of cloth under the matted brown exterior – a lush combination of green and red from the finest materials, laced with magic. That second layer likely granted the girl more effective protection than any amount of stifling steel could. Not that Hayate had ever let her come close enough to harm to test the thing out. It served a more practical purpose hiding her features.

Now Nagi cleared her throat and stretched her arms. If they had garnered only little attention before, more and more heads were now turning towards them. Blonde hair and green eyes were a very rare and very telling combination. It worked the same everywhere they went – nobody wondered why mercenaries dragged around a noble child only as long as they could be convinced the group's smallest member was just an elf. In the middle of the semi-hostile territory of the Undead Lords, however, no amount of convincing would be enough.

Inevitably, one of the town square guards decided the commotion they were causing could no longer be ignored and his skeletal body started limping towards them with the unique click-clack sound of bones hitting each other and the armor plates on them.

Hayate realized that if they were attacked by the town militia, they would end up surrounded, outnumbered and overrun before they knew it, and no feats of bravery would be able to save them. But he didn't yell at the girl to hide her face. He wouldn't tell her to hurry up. They were asking her to do the impossible, and it was up to her alone how she went about doing it. Hayate himself was ready to die to buy her a few seconds, if need be.

But with a final, deep breath she was ready. The boy and the girl shared their last glance and she began.

The approaching skeleton warrior never knew what swept him off his feet.

"Spirit of fire obey this command, come unto this body, weave the requiem of this soul!"

There it was, the overwhelming feeling of insignificance as right behind him power strong enough to immolate a dragon twisted and took form and as the young girl's voice reverberated inside his skull louder than the drums of the greatest army ever could. But he was faring well – he had expected the outburst and had his back turned to the source of it. The undead weren't so lucky and many of them screamed in pain as the sudden brilliance hit them directly in their night-loving eyes. And even those who had no eyes to see backed away from the light and heat.

Hayate had seen her doing something similar, but on a much smaller scale. She had looked divine – a tiny angel cloaked with an overbearing aura of fiery gold. How she changed now he could only dare imagine without risking having his eyes burned out.

"Reach for the moon, immortal smoke. Scatter the winds, holy wings. Cleave through the shadows, blessed radiance."

If a lone guard had suspected them previously, now the whole town knew of their presence. Everyone within it had to feel the monstrous surge of power – those in nearby towns wouldn't experience it only because the town walls were made to absorb energy.

But feeling it did not mean understanding it. Hayate himself had not believed a thirteen year old archmage could exist. And he had been convinced higher echelon spells were to be cast in rune-filled rooms by dozens of priests chanting for hours on end.

And now he knew Nagi, and still wasn't sure if he understood.

"With my mind I captured existence, through existence I felt pain, alongside pain I found wrath, but wrath fell to justice, and from my hands justice soars into heavens."

Now skeletons, zombies and wraiths were coming, all aiming directly for the mage, none of them possessing survival instinct enough to realize they would be scorched before their claws and weapons reached her, not even to see that they couldn't get that far with the silencing flash of Hinagiku's sword and the crushing ferocity of Hayate's blows.

"Ascent of eternal feather!"

This time, Hayate's greater mass made no difference and, along with all his adversaries, he went flying.

As he spun, he saw the spell fly. Already it was far away – in the distance, it almost seemed slow. But it had traveled kilometers in a second, thundering its roar, proud figure of pure flame as long as many houses put together.

Until the red of flaming feathers met with the black of obsidian.

The outer wall of Starkraven fell as much under the magic properties of the spell as it did under the momentum it carried. A narrow segment caved in completely, and a less observant witness would have thought it crumbled immediately, like a paper box folds under a falling rock.

And the spell, if slowed down, went on – piercing the inner wall of the ultimate fortress, akin to an arrow entering flesh. As the fire disappeared within the dark structure, the skies in their entirety seemed to dim.

Hayate had been taught rocks couldn't burn, but he had been taught wrong. And from where he lay, sprawled on his back on the ground, he thought it looked beautiful.

Before another whimsical thought could enter his mind, though, he was already on his feet, rushing to the heavily-breathing Nagi and picking her up in his arms. Hinagiku was by his side, ready to protect both as they ran.

They were fast. Deformed faces of the undead, occasionally mixed in with living people who had been allowed within the town, flashed them by. Nobody was following them. Those present at the square had been stunned by the shock wave. No one else had the slightest idea what was happening.

But Hayate knew better than to relax.

From every structure, every stone they passed, erratic whispers erupted. The wraiths of the town were communicating telepathically, explaining to each other what had happened, who the culprits were. But the sound was not them talking, but travelling.

From where they had been a few seconds ago, the damned spirits rose and gave pursuit, and the whispers grew ever louder, ever closer…

The sound of hooves hitting ground and horses neighing with all their strength deafened it all. A caravan burst from within a nearby alley and aligned itself next to the escapees.

"Don't stop, Maria!" Hinagiku yelled to the driver, although the woman obviously had no intention of doing so, anyway.

Without pausing or letting go of Nagi, Hayate jumped onto the cart carried by the caravan. Few could have performed the maneuver even without armor weighing them down, but he was already there to steady Hinagiku when she did the same.

The pink-haired paladin only required the assistance because she had to cleave the wraith closest to them mid-leap.

Now her holy sword shined its true, previously concealed light and she raised it high into the air.

"Repel Undead!"

As their phantasmal pursuers fled from the flash of light, Hayate turned towards their destination.

The town gates were open. That arrogance was the only leeway the necromancers had given them. And no order could travel faster than the wraiths.

Their part was done.

XXX

Hayate rested the girl in his arms, now wrapped in a thick blanket, on the ground near the crackling bonfire in the middle of the rock-surrounded clearing where they had set up camp.

She had yet to wake up after she fell asleep during their escape. Her breathing had steadied, but her body temperature remained high and she was sweating profusely. They still had to keep her warm, though. The remains of artificial heat from the fire spell would leave her sooner or later, and she wouldn't be able to cope with the cold night when that happened.

Not that Hayate was worried about her that much. The dangerous part had been taking her into the very core of a necromancer town and having her cast insane magic while a hidden archer could spot her at any moment. Since they had overcome that, Nagi would have plenty time to recover from the strenuous activity. To begin with, she was not the type to attempt doing something she couldn't handle.

That wasn't something he could say about all of the group's members – the night was serene, but he could find no peace of mind.

"Why the grim face, Hayate?"

He turned to face Maria. She was always the first one in their group to protest against and criticize their more crazy plans. But when push came to shove, it was her careful planning, strategy and charisma which made those crazy plans work.

Only now, when they had no way of confirming the status of their friend and could do nothing but wait and believe, he found himself sharing Maria's misgivings.

"Everything went according to plan," she reassured him, reading his thoughts from the expression on his face "And look, no dark energy bursts, no hordes of the undead leaving the city – either we did something right or the necromancers just suddenly gave up on assembling the Armor of the Damned. Which of these seems more likely?"

He appreciated the effort, but couldn't calm down.

"What if we hit one of the components with that fire spell? Or some resources required for the ritual? The odds were against us on that, true, but it's possible. And if the necromancers got their hands on an intruder after that…"

"Enough, Hayate" Maria cut him off sternly "You shame your comrades by doubting them. We are all worried, but we also agreed this was the best possible course of action," she looked him in the eyes, daring him to challenge her judgment "You might be thinking about going back there and taking on the entire town, but none of us will allow it. Nearing the place after what we did is a death wish."

Hayate had no counterargument, especially since she was right about one thing – they had already discussed the topic long before they had put their plan into action, and they had agreed on what to do and what not to do, in case of both success and failure.

They spoke no more and only the sounds of firewood burning filled the night air.

Even without paying much attention, Hayate noticed the shadows shifting.

"It appears I will learn nothing of value from you two, after all."

Both Hayate and Maria jumped to their feet at the sound of the raspy and menacing voice

Before them stood a tall, deathly pale man clad in a robe of the highest-grade material. He stood in the shadows cast by nearby rocks, but some of the light from their fireplace reached him – the jewels on his hands reflected it, as did his bared fangs.

Hayate cursed their bad luck. Nagi was unconscious. Maria could only fight good enough to protect herself, and probably not even that against this type of opponent. That meant he would be taking the vampire lord on alone. Not impossible, but nearly so.

His opponent shared this view and laughed in derision when he saw Hayate draw his sword.

"Truly, youngster, I'd like to see you attempt to cut me with your steel, but I did not come alone, and opponents of your level are not worth my time."

The vampire snapped its fingers and Hayate's hands began to sweat.

For a second, nothing happened, but soon a skeletal figure reared its head above the cover of rocks. With strength uncharacteristic of a body lacking muscle, it jumped into the clearing

The skeleton soared through the air, somersaulting in an uncontrolled fashion... until it smashed right into the vampire's face, falling apart and scattering its bones in all directions.

Hayate's jaw slackened in surprise. The vampire remained half-bent from the blow, stunned from the shock.

Pink hair drawing attention to her form, Hinagiku marched into the clearing.

"So the undead I met while scouting weren't just wandering around, after all. Not that they put up much of a fight without a master to order them around, though," she turned towards the vampire "How did you like my flying skeleton attack?"

The creature hissed in anger.

In the next instant, it was already upon Hinagiku, claws flashing a sickly green with every swipe. The girl jumped back, unsheathing her blessed weapon.

The vampire sidestepped her first attack with ease, cutting the distance between them to almost nothing before lunging again.

Hinagiku ducked low while delivering an upward slash. The vampire retreated, attempting another blow even as it did so. From her low position, Hinagiku could only sharply swerve her head. Strands of pink hair flew into the air, and only the lack of pain convinced her she had taken no actual damage.

Superhuman strength and reflexes and hundreds of years of battle experience – just two of the reasons vampires were the worst kind of enemy. But Hayate thought nothing of that as he rushed at the vampire's open back.

But that was just what the creature wanted – it jumped, twisted in midair, nearly flying, and already it was descending upon the exposed boy, claws outstretched.

Noticing this too late, Hayate swung his sword in front of himself, hoping to swat away his attacker.

No such luck – one of the vampire's hands caught the blade expertly, unafraid of injury. The other one cut through air, going straight for Hayate's neck.

For a second, it was silent.

"Impossible," the vampire hissed.

Now holding his sword with one hand only, Hayate used the other one to grip the vampire's arm. Their arms shook in struggle for dominance but neither could gain an advantage.

"I train everyday and eat a lot of healthy stuff," Hayate half-joked, half explained.

And then he jolted forward, smashing his head into the vampire's face.

This kind of attack could cause little damage, if any at all. But the vampire stumbled back from surprise. That was enough.

Hinagiku's blade found its target with a vicious flash, and the air was filled first with a scream of pain, and then with a flurry of bats.

Hayate and Hinagiku jumped to block the path to Nagi and Maria, but the winged creatures had no sneak attack in mind. They took the chance to retreat a good distance from the pair before reassembling into a single figure. The vampire held his hurting side.

Before any of the heroes could do anything, though, the monster pointed at the ground between them and itself, and the surface filled with cracks, a noxious gas escaping from its depths and infecting the air. That, powerful black magic, was another reason why humans were always handicapped when fighting against vampires.

Now confident that they wouldn't come near, the vampire stretched its lips in a vile smile.

"How naïve, youngsters. Shielding that useless baggage and letting the chance for a meaningful blow slip from your hands so easily."

They glared at him in silence. Passing contact with the fumes would likely mean death, or rather near-death. Slow decay into mindless zombies or simpleton skeletons – with full awareness of the change until your brain rots away. Well, Hayate thought, with her above-average magic capability, Hinagiku could get lucky and emerge as a death knight. Not that it was that much consolation.

Approaching the vampire directly was out of the question. It was unlikely they would be able to outlast it, too. Vampire lords could normally keep even high-level spells going for hours, and the cursed ground they were on would just make things easier. But if they just let it be-

"I'll have the entire town hot on your trails in just a few hours," the vampire spoke Hayate's thoughts out loud "But worry not, youngsters. They are not that angry. You failed to damage any of the important artifacts."

The Undead Lord feasted on their angry, disappointed expressions. It was the best payback for the throbbing pain in its side.

"And you were oh so close, too. One of the objects was almost consumed by the fire. But we were ready to evacuate them – I gave the order myself before setting out to have you for my dinner."

The knights exchanged silent glances.

"For that, we are grateful."

A flash, a swish of air, the vampire lurched forward, a silver dagger going straight through its throat.

Hayate jumped in surprise, Hinagiku scanned the area, as much fear as hope in her eyes, and the voice, its source hidden, went on.

"When can one steal an artifact so tightly guarded, if not in transit?"

Struggling, the vampire turned its head around, until its undead eyes capable of cutting through any shadows saw the offender.

Yet another flash, and another dagger pinned the vampire, this time where its heart would be.

With a great hiss, the creature crumbled into dust.

The fumes dispersed in the air, no longer coming from the cracks in the ground. Even the bones scattered in the area followed the footprints of their creator and fell apart.

The vampire's killer stepped out of the shadows, and the rustle of cloth told them the person removed their hood.

Still, they saw little. Black cloak, black boots, black gloves, black hair and a face smeared with coal – without sunlight, the person could very well be invisible.

But they knew.

"Ayumu!" Hinagiku cried, swinging her sword to ward off any leftover toxins in the air. She rushed to her companion, embracing her tightly.

Ayumu returned the embrace with her right arm only.

"It wasn't easy… but here we have it."

Stepping away from her pink-haired friend, Ayumu reached into one of her concealed pockets and took out a golden, glittering object.

"The Ring of the Forever-damned Ruler, delivered as ordered!" she cheered, first exposing it for everyone to see and then handing it over to Hinagiku.

The paladin took the cursed artifact into her hands; thoughts on how to disable its evil powers or possibly even destroy it racing in her head. But her eyes did not leave Ayumu.

"You didn't move your left arm, how bad is it?"

Ayumu lowered her head at the accusation in Hinagiku's voice. Well, she did have a short history of hiding her wounds…

"A sword slash, deep enough to hurt. Thankfully no poison. I think I got clubbed in the back, too. But it was either that or actually fighting my way through a dozen critters."

Hinagiku nodded and turned around.

"Maria!"

But Maria, as always, was already heading their way with her healer set under her arm.

Hinagiku went to put the ring in secure confinement. Without realizing where his feet were leading him, Hayate took her place.

His arms reached out to Ayumu, but he topped himself before they could properly encircle her slight figure. They ended up in an awkward position with Hayate latched onto the girl's sleeves.

"I shouldn't have let you go, after all. Alone in the nest of the undead," Hayate murmured, not meeting her eyes.

"It's in the job description, right?" she replied uneasily, also looking away "Since I can't do anything else, I promised you I would at least become the best thief I can."

They were this way, neither one saying anything or moving, even when Maria finally reached them.

"Hey! What's going on over there!"

The annoyed voice did a great job of breaking them out of their reveries and getting them to separate.

"Get away from my Hayate, thieving Hamster!"

Rubbing her eyes, but with her face a lively red, the just-awoken Nagi approached them at record-breaking speed.

Maria and Hinagiku shared a soft laugh.

Things were quickly getting back to normal, and it never hit them they had saved the world.

Be Cleft Thy Shadow

END


AN: Thanks for reading my work. Make sure to comment on the parts that warrant improvement or that you especially liked.

The idea came from nowhere, like all the crazy ones do. But every story with a varied character set deserves a fantasy interpretation at some point. No honorifics, last names and such because of the setting, but all qualities present in the original should have fantasy world equivalents. A quick rundown of characters as I would see them in an RPG, an optional read:

Hinagiku – A paladin. Friendly with the hero, helps him numerous times even before joining the party. Becomes the de facto leader soon after. With all her stats unfairly high, she deals easily with threats even outside her specialty – the undead and demons. The most well-rounded character.

Hayate – The hero of the story. Hayate possesses no special talents – he comes from a peasant family, but was either abandoned or sold into slavery at a young age. Fortitude allows him to survive the circumstances few others could, and his moral compass impresses a wandering knight enough for him to take Hayate on as an apprentice. As is often the case with heroes, merely doing the right thing gets him involved in a world-saving escapade. He quickly becomes a tank who can go anywhere and simply doesn't die. His battle effectiveness against varying opponents may be average, but it's not like they are effective against him, anyway.

Nagi – A noble and heir to a great fortune. Her family is mostly dead: poisoned, otherwise assassinated, or soon-to-be-betrayed. She ropes an unsuspecting wandering knight (Hayate) into kidnapping her to expose one of the family's top advisors as a power hungry bastard who would be all too happy if she died. After that, citing her own safety as an excuse, she grabs as many useful artifacts from her home as she can and joins the party, supposedly until 'all the advisor's accomplices are rooted out'. Her whims decide the party's path whenever there is no clear goal ahead of them. Nobility comes with magic talent, and Nagi is exceptional in that field. Her magic attack stat is off the scale. Her barrier spells can defend against anything, but for a short time only. After that, she becomes fragile like glass. Originally, Nagi is linked with the eastern dragon. Since only western dragons exist in this world (and their personality isn't as noble), the creature to represent her in the story is the phoenix.

Maria – Nagi's caretaker. Assists the 'grand escape plan' from the shadows. Joins the party once she makes sure that Hayate is "the weird kind of person you can trust". Healing, science, negotiations – everything a team needs outside the battlefield is her domain. Has a habit of taking care of things before proper orders are issued. Greatly tolerant to rough circumstances, despite a seemingly sheltered upbringing. As the only proper healer the party has, she does not boast great stats.

Ayumu – Born in the same village as Hayate, Ayumu quickly realizes that life isn't good and isn't about to get any better. The only thing saving her from starvation is her natural ability to overhear just the things she needs to and pass by others without being noticed. Since lack of presence isn't going to prevent her from being caught 'borrowing' food indefinitely, she soon decides to move out and start stealing more worthwhile stuff, hoping to make enough profit off it to allow her to lower the frequency of her expeditions. Rumors and a hazy memory of a childhood friend lead her to encountering Hayate's party. She shadows the extravagant group for a long time. At first, the presence of her cloaked figure seems ominous, but it becomes obvious soon enough that she is no villain. Recognizing Hayate as the only person in her life who could make her smile, she joins the party and becomes responsible for intelligence gathering and, of course, 'borrowing' stuff when necessary. Great at getting potshot critical hits, but needs to be concealed or shielded to take part in a fight, as she requires time to aim and has only sub-par defensive ability.