One emotion ran through him with a bitter sting, an emotion he had not felt in decades, if not centuries.
His arrival went unnoticed. The thickening sky, heavy with coming rain, blanketed the town with a stifling silence.
Alighting atop one of the ancient towers that dotted the town’s skyline, he crouched, tucking his wings tight to his body. His fingers briefly danced over his torso, automatically registering the placement of tools and other implements necessary for the night’s work. Piercing blue eyes scanned across the wall that stretched in two directions away from the tower, already compensating for the gloom. Satisfied no one had noticed his appearance, Stefan moved quickly from the tower to the wall and then flitted down to a nearby alley. He kept his wings tight and close, extending only the pinions needed to execute short, controlled falls.
Speed, not grace, was needed; the clock was ticking.
Stefan paused at the alley entrance, listening. The silence was deafening and peculiar; it raised the hair on the back of his neck. Granted, this was his first reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines in centuries. It was natural to feel overly anxious, especially considering the importance of his task. Yet instinctively he knew it wasn’t nerves. Something felt wrong, permeating the air like wisps of a toxic odor.
Not for the first time since being assigned the mission, he wished he was on the front lines again. At least with the brutal chaos of battle, he knew exactly where the danger was coming from. No matter; personnel was short these days and everyone – even the mighty Gabby herself – had to pitch in with tasks once thought beneath their station.
His hand went to his waist, caressing the hilt of his sword. The whorls of the ancient weapon’s haft against his skin comforted him. His gaze took in the silent street, the dim streetlights barely cutting through the heavy gloom. Nothing moved. The street looked like one of the neo-gothic paintings he’d seen at the Metropolitan Art Museum, decades ago.
Stefan grimaced, pushing the thought of her away. Not now, he chided. No distractions.
Flitting from shadow to shadow, he made his way along the thoroughfare towards his target. The empty storefronts stared in silent reproach. Despite his noiseless passage, the shadowy angel could not shake the feeling of being watched.
After several more minutes of back alleys and tight streets, Stefan reached his destination. Before him was the town’s central courtyard. The ancient cobblestones formed a pattern that swirled inwards and terminated at the large black marble fountain. Rising from the basin was a massive statue of Hydra, a mythical nine-headed beast.
Mythical to humans, Stefan thought. If they only knew. It had been centuries since he had faced one, fang-to-sword. A shudder passed through him, his body recoiling at the memory. He turned his eyes back to the statue, noticing the exquisite detail of each sinewy neck and fanged face. As if the artist had intimate knowledge of the beast.
Water arced from each of its terrible mouths, flowing down the creature’s marble body to the pool, where it quietly lapped against the rim. The water’s flow and trickle was the only sound Stefan could detect, a soft whisper of noise in the darkness.
He crouched under a nearby archway, one of five ancient stone structures spaced around the courtyard. He knew from memory that all streets in the city led here, spokes in an ancient, civilized wheel. The town hid its modernism well; its architects and planners were world-renown with their skills in masking new technology under old stones and structure after The Fracture nearly destroyed this place fifty years prior.
Seconds stretched into minutes. Stefan’s eyes darted all along the storefronts and windows that faced the courtyard. Only the intricate iron streetlights illumined the area, bathing the area in gloom and shadow. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being observed, as if he was trapped in a stone fishbowl. His gaze kept returning to the serpentine statue that dominated the fountain. His imagination was running wild with speculation. Did the Hydra look as if it was absorbing the light?
A cold wind blew hard into the courtyard, the rasping of leaves loud and jarring in the silence. The angel shuddered, briefly entertaining the thought of wrapping his wings around his body. The feather totems hanging from his armor’s thin metal shoulder caps snapped and danced. For a brief moment, Stefan closed his eyes against the onslaught, bowing his head.
The warble nearly went unnoticed.
He snapped to full alert, his eyes casting around for the sound’s owner. Nearby, a gray dove cocked its head, a red-rimmed eye fixed upon him. Stefan allowed the wisp of a grin, then nodded to the bird. With a flash of thought, he reassured the animal, felt it connect. A brief moment of peace flooded Stefan from head to toe.
The dove then exploded from its perch, wings spread as it clawed for air. Stefan snapped his head around, already knowing what had spooked the small bird.
One of the Hydra’s heads had repositioned, its malevolent gaze locked onto the ancient warrior. A throbbing sound bubbled forth, followed by a low groan.
The water had stopped flowing.
Stefan blinked rapidly. The wind cold and raw, flayed at his skin like icicle knives. He could feel the groan vibrate through his body. One emotion ran through him with a bitter sting, an emotion he had not felt in decades, if not centuries.
The Hydra’s stone heads began to move, a slow, writhing dance as their jaws flexed, necks rolled. The rhythmic movement of its nine heads was mesmerizing, even as they all turned to face the silent intruder in its midst. They made no sound as they contorted, its slithering bulk undulating. Water frothed, spilling over the basin’s smooth wall.
With a resounding crack, the Hydra broke free from the fountain, a spray of water jetting upwards before falling back to the courtyard in a glitter of liquid jewels. The massive body ground down from the fountain’s granite base, crushing it to powder.
The wind lessened to a gusty breeze, scattering leaves and dust in tiny tornadoes. Stefan cowered against the archway’s wall, his hand fumbling for his sword. His wings snapped open, his feathers emanating a soft violet glow that bathed the immediate area around him. The etching on his sword flared with the same radiance and Stefan felt a surge of adrenaline that beat back the rising fear.
Standing tall before the granite beast, he stepped from the arch’s protection and raised his sword in defiance. “HOLD.” The word exploded from his mouth, echoing around the courtyard. Somewhere close by, several windows shattered.
The Hydra paused, its writhing heads pulling back. They bobbed and weaved in a slower pattern. Stefan forced himself to look away, focusing instead at the juncture of the beast’s necks and its thick, scaled torso. He watched as the beast continued to transform itself, the marble fading into more refined scales that gleamed in the weak moonlight.
He remembered his last encounter with the beast. It had cost him decades of time recovering in Purgasis, one of the worst injuries he had ever suffered. Stefan’s mind screamed, voices hammering at him of defeat, injury, death. Annihilation.
He felt another stab of fear. Swallowing hard, he pushed the rising bile back down and took a step forward, fingers tight around the hilt of his weapon. His wings stretched to their fullest span, each feather limed in burning violet. His eyes blazed as he drew strength from his sword. For the briefest of moments, he imagined himself returning to the Ladder, the Hydra’s heads tied as a bundled trophy. A thrill of pride rippled through him…
In that moment, the Hydra struck.
Three adder-like heads shot low, fangs extended. Stefan cleaved his sword downwards, catching two of them just behind the skull and ending in the third’s face along its snout. The weapon’s engravings flared brightly as he struck; two heads dropped to the cobblestones.
The remnants of Stefan’s victory dream distracted him for another crucial second.
Four heads swooped from above, the Hydra’s necks elongating into an organic arch. Two sets of fangs buried themselves deep into Stefan’s shoulder blades, where his wings joined his body, as the other two fastened their jaws into his spine between the feathers. His leather harness did little to stop the penetration of the beast’s needle-sharp teeth.
Pain exploded across Stefan’s body. Every nerve afire, he cried out in a short, piercing shriek.
Stefan tried to whirl, attempting to sweep the blade across the arcing necks. The remaining two heads bobbed and weaved at the fringe of the assault, distorting his peripheral vision through distraction. With the mouths firmly latched onto him, teeth buried deep into his flesh, Stefan stumbled from the disorientation and the pain. A sharp cry erupted as his one knee drove into the cobblestones, a dry crack echoing like a gunshot.
His sword fell from nerveless fingers as he curled instinctively against the pain. The clatter of the weapon against the stones only spurred the dark serpent further, its heads lifting the trapped angel from the street and then driving him again and again into the unyielding ground. The cobblestones cracked and shattered with each strike, a shallow pit taking shape as the Hydra kept up its relentless assault.
Pain was everywhere. Stefan could barely think, his mind raw with shards of agony. With each strike against the ground, more of him went numb – and perversely, the pain lessened. Soon Stefan felt his mind detach and peace flooded through him. His eyes still saw, his ears still heard, but his body no longer felt. He gasped and went limp.
The Hydra, sensing Stefan’s surrender, released him. The broken angel lay in a shallow depression, lined with broken cobblestones and gore. His head flopped to the side, eyes fixed upon the shattered fountain. He saw the Hydra’s heads dip and rise at the edge of his vision, the severed necks budding with regrowth, but he didn’t care.
He needed to see. The others had to be warned.
That was his mission.
The granite base exploded, raining chunks of hardened stone against rooftops and walls. More windows shattered and a muffled scream came from a distance. The Hydra continued to feed on his broken body, ignoring the display.
Seeping from the jagged hole, a dark mist oozed amongst the rubble. Water fanning from the broken fountain hissed as droplets touched the vapor, sizzling against the stones as they fell. The shadowy haze pooled in front of the Hydra and began to rise, creating the shadowed form of a woman. Two embers appeared where her eyes would be, a faceless head slightly paler than the wispy smoke of its substance.
If Stefan had been able to breathe, he would have gasped.
There was no doubt. It was her.
The eyes raked over the Hydra. The beast halted its grisly feast and slid backwards, every head turning to meet the newcomer’s gaze. Then it bowed, fanged faces lowering to the cobblestones in a dark parody of ancient courtesy. Nodding, the woman bent over Stefan’s savaged form, her gaseous fingers teasing along his pallid flesh.
Stefan’s eyes drank in every detail even as his vision began to gray. With one last effort, he tore his eyes from the shade and upwards, fixating on the lintel of a nearby window. A breath bubbled from his throat, his eyes widening from effort.
The shade hissed violently, her misty fingers clawing into his broken chest. Squeezing, she tore the last shred of his lifecord from his heart and scattered the silvery mist. His body collapsed into dust, leaving behind nothing but broken cobblestones and fading gore.
She straightened, her vaporous body mimicking a stretch. Her eyes turned in the direction of the dead angel’s gaze, seeing only a gray feather lying on a window sill. A low, hissing laugh permeated the courtyard.
Turning, she spotted the warrior’s fallen blade, its runes softly pulsing. As her hand grasped the hilt, the sword flared. Violet lightning arced through the shade and her form stiffened, then relaxed as the sword emptied itself. Her body now more substantial, she dropped the weapon to the hard cobblestones, where it shattered.
She moved across the courtyard, the Hydra at her side.
High above, a gray dove circled, its eye fixed upon the enemy’s passage. With a gentle warble, Stefan spread his wings and soared away, the news of Asher’s arrival spurring him home.
[Image note: I found this under a Creative Commons search for “hydra serpent” on RWYB but could not find who to credit. If it’s yours and you want it removed, just message me and I’ll be happy to comply. I really want to give credit where it’s due, and with the Internet being the way it is… ~BHR]