Morteus watched the boy carefully. He was small but sturdy, with short dark hair and pale, milky skin.
a striking combination for a human, most of whom were insipid creatures. They may have one or two outstanding features, but the overall effect was one of stifling, beige mortality. But this boy
..ah, he was different! Morteus couldn't see his eyes, but he knew what he would find there
deep, brown depths of knowing, aged beyond their years. Windows to an ancient soul, one that had seen many lifetimes.
Morteus sighed. Finally he had found him. The Fallen One. The Chosen Vessel.
None of this would be apparent to the people in the park where the boy played. To them, he was just another child enjoying the delights of the swings and slippery slide. In fact, none of the parents or children even glanced his way as he played by himself. He seemed to delight in the swings mostly. He pushed the weathered wooden seat higher and higher, as though willing it to fly. The rusted chains creaked dangerously and Morteus wondered for a moment whether they would snap, so great was the boy's momentum. Did he have any sense of who he was? Did he know, somewhere deep in his ancient soul, that flight was as natural to him as breathing?
A sudden chill stirred the air. Morteus' yellow eyes narrowed. They were near. Too near. He would have to act quickly if he was to claim the child. If the Renegades were to reach him before Morteus, the power which was meant to transform the world would be its destruction. Morteus had no great love for the mortals, but he had learned to live amongst them in a quiet, shadowy existence. He fed only when he needed to, which wasn't often. He was well able to regenerate without blood. Morteus had seen many lifetimes himself, during which he had availed himself of the arcane secrets that covered the centuries. Some of these secrets were lost, hidden away from those who would seek to use them for their own advantage.
The boy was one of these secrets.
The chill deepened. Even the boy seemed to sense it. He slowed the swing to a stop and jumped off, raising a cloud of dust as his feet hit the ground. With a quick look around, he turned and started walking away towards the tree lined path where Morteus stood, barely discernible amongst the afternoon's shadows. Morteus sent up a thankful prayer to the Ancients. They were with him in this quest. The existence of the Fallen depended on it. The child was closer now, almost within reach. Morteus stepped back further into the shadows. He couldn't afford to be seen yet. Not by the boy, not by the Renegades.
The boy walked past him, oblivious to Morteus' camofluaged presence. Morteus waited for a moment then followed. At first he held back, keeping a few silent paces between them. The timing had to be right, but the cold dark chill that followed him warned Morteus that he had little time. He quickened his pace, then in one swift movement, became one with the invisible air. Suddenly he could see the hairs on the back of the boy's neck. The scent of innocent skin reached the Immortal's sensitive nostrils, invading his jaded senses. It was maybe a little before the time, but there was no time. Morteus moved with the boy now, a dark shadow in his slipstream. He thought the child was still oblivious to his presence until the boy stopped and turned suddenly. Taken by surprise, Morteus ducked and morphed to the back of him. Close! So close!!
The boy stood with a puzzled look for a moment, scanning the path he'd just travelled. Satisfied that there was no one there, he turned again and continued walking. He walked with the shuffle of a dreamer. Morteus settled behind him again, just above his shoulder. He bent and whispered in the child's ear.
It sounded like the whisper of the wind. The word drifted through the air, winding its way through the leaves and the grass. The air carried it aloft to the clouds, releasing it to the upper realms. There it resonated, awakening giants that had long slept. The boy stopped again. This time he didn't turn around. Instead, he listened intently, head to one side. He had heard. Morpheus was sure that the Renegades had heard too! There was no more time to waste. With another quick movement he morphed again, appearing in front of the boy
visible to none but him. The child stared at him with wide eyes. Again, the Immortal spoke.
"Greetings Azrael, I am Morteus." Still the child stared, wide eyed. For a moment, Morteus thought he'd got it wrong. Perhaps this wasn't the child. But when the boy spoke, it was clear he had the right one.
"Greetings Morteus, Keeper of Souls. You've been a long time coming." His voice sounded old.
Morteus stared hard at the boy.. How did he know? He tried not to show his surprise, for surprise was meant to be his advantage, not the boy's!
"I've searched for a long time Azrael. You've been well hidden."
"So it had to be, Morteus, as you well know." The child smiled.. "But you're here now. The dreams told me you were coming."
Morteus knelt before the old child and grasped his small shoulders, gazing at him intently.
"What else did the dreams tell you, Azrael?"
The boy stared at him solemnly. "They told me I have something you want. YOU were in them. You told me." He paused, glancing behind him, before continuing, "The dreams told me they want what I have too."
Morpheus looked behind the boy. A black, formless mist hovered above the path. The Renegades! There was no more time. He gripped the boy's shoulders even harder, making him wince.
"Listen to me Azrael. You must trust me. You have to come with me." He noticed the boy's eyes cloud momentarily with doubt, perhaps even fear. He sought to reassure him.
"I'm here to protect you Azrael. I'm here to take you home."
"I was going home. You stopped me" The boy sounded puzzled.
"Please Azrael, you have to come with me now! " He glanced back along the path behind the boy. The black cloud was thicker now, no longer formless. He could make them out amongst the dark mist
.tall, hard figures that emerged and receded as the mist swirled around them. Morteus turned his attention back to the child.
"Azrael, the place you know as home is not where you belong. You're real home is
.." Morteus stopped mid sentence. How did he explain to this child that his true home was within the depths of Hades? How could the child understand that his true mother was not the plump woman waiting for her son to return to a home cooked stew and a warm fire?
No, Azrael's mother was the Immortal Nyx. Mistress of the Night, Bringer of Judgement. She knew men's souls better than they knew them themselves. No matter how many lives Azrael birthed into, it still remained that he was spawned from the womb of Nyx. This was his legacy. This was his destiny.
A low, dark rumble like thunder interrupted his thoughts. Morteus didn't bother to look to the sky. It wasn't thunder. He knew they were almost upon them. The boy seemed to sense the danger too. He stared with wide, pleading eyes at Morteus, who gathered him quickly in his arms, tucking the child's head into his bony shoulder. The rumble was becoming a low roar.
"Hold on tight Azrael" Morteus raised his voice above the sound of approaching darkness. "Close your eyes and keep your head down!"
"They want my gift, don't they?!" came a muffled voice from his shoulder. "They chase me in my dreams. They try to kill me to take it from me!!" Morteus felt a slight dampness on his robe that he suspected were tears. There was no time for comfort now, it would have to wait. There was only time to escape, and maybe not even that!
Holding Azrael close, Morteus closed his eyes and felt the power take over. The particles of his body shifted and danced, dissolving his form and the boy's with him. Even as he began to transform, he could feel the cold breath of the Renegades upon them. Their angry roars rivalled the worst hounds of hell. He felt one grasp his arm and try to wrench the boy from him. Morteus held on even more tightly. If they got the boy, they would kill him and use his abilities to control the humans and destroy the Ancients. They would drain their mortal souls from their bodies of dust and feed on them, growing impossibly strong. They would be too strong for the Fallen to defeat. The doors to Hades would be locked and sealed and the key cast away for eternity. Mankind would be doomed. Morteus, the boy and all the Immortals would be trapped forever in their damnation, never to know release. Everything they had fought for would be taken from them. Once more they would languish in chains, shamed before the Angels and the earth.
The full strength of The Renegades was upon them now, pulling Morteus back through the ether with his precious burden. There hadn't been enough time to complete the transformation. Morteus was weaker, not as quick. For the first time, he saw failure ahead, mocking him. Damning him.
The boy squirmed in his arms, struggling against the dark forces, against Morteus! Morteus felt him slip from his grasp. All around them, a black votex swirled and danced. The Soul Keeper fell to his knees. He couldn't see. Black covered his eyes, filled his nostrils. He felt invaded. He was lost. The boy was lost
..all was lost! In that moment of despair, he raised his aching eyes to the most amazing sight. The boy stood between Morteus and the dark horde. He had the stance of a warrior, making his small body seem suddenly magnificent. A strange glow emanated from him, a light so strong that the dark cloud began to disintegrate before it . He was no longer a boy. He was Azrael, the Fallen One. Azrael the Severer of Souls.
As Morteus watched, Azrael stretched out his hand toward the dark forms. There was a terrible howl, an orchestral manoeuvre of pain. The black cloud seemed to waver before exploding into a cacophony of screams and wails. The vortex had turned into a tornado like ribbon. Azrael stretched out his arms and opened his mouth. The black tornado moved towards Azrael, swirling into his mouth between his small teeth. It seemed endless. Morteus was frozen in terror and awe. As Azreal drank in the blackness, he seemed to grow before Morteus' eyes. It was as though he passed through the stages of human development in an instant, emerging as a shining young man, broad of shoulder, strong of jaw. His brown eyes seemed darker, clearer
. like black ice. Morteus knew, in that instant, that he had witnessed something that others only talked about. Azrael, the Severer of men's souls, had just taken the Renegades' darkness into himself. This ancient child had devoured the forces of evil, growing strong on their power. Time stood still. Even the birds had fallen silent, as though the significance of the moment was known to them.
Eventually the black tornado trickled to a thin stream, then nothing. Azrael remained still, arms outstretched. The light emanating from his now powerful body was blinding, forcing even Morteus to turn his eyes away. He knelt on the asphalt path, trying to absorb everything that had just happened.
"Morteus!" A man's voice interrupted his numb, confused state. Cautiously, Morteus raised his eyes. Azrael towered above him, a golden, living statue. His black eyes bore through Morteus. Weakly, the Soul Keeper tried to raise himself from the ground but he could not! It was as though some invisible force held him down, subjugating him to this child/angel.
"Azrael! Surely the power of Nyx is powerful within you! In all the centuries of my wandering, I've seen nothing of the like."
"And still you've seen nothing Morteus. Still you see nothing!"
Morteus frowned, unsure of his meaning. "I've seen the powers of darkness destroyed and consumed. That is something, Azrael! But right now, we must return to Nyx."
"No Morteus, I will return to Nyx. You shall not!." Azrael's face was without emotion.
"But it is my task, my quest!" Morteus protested. " I was brought to you for this purpose!"
"It was I who brought you to me, Morteus! Do you still not understand? How is it that the keeper of souls cannot peer into mine?"
Azrael knelt down, his golden, glowing face close to Morteus. His black eyes held the Soul Keeper fast in their gaze. He raised a golden hand to the thin shoulder where, just moments before, he had hidden his childish tears. That was a lifetime ago, a childhood he was never destined to complete.
"Morteus, you are the Keeper of men's souls. You keep watch over them until their time has come. You hold within you the entire power of humanity
.each inner, living being is under your care. But I
I am the Severer of Souls"
A horrible realisation began to dawn on Morteus.
Azrael continued in the same emotionless voice, slowly, as though talking to a young child or someone dim of wit. "So you see, Morteus, it is not I who has what you want. It is you who has what I want."
Morteus' eyes widened in horror! The souls!! He wanted the souls!
Even as his mouth formed a silent NO! Morteus knew he was doomed. Azrael bent closer, covering the Soul Keeper's open mouth with his own. It was a Judas kiss. Morteus felt as though his insides where being sucked out. Screams, thousands of screams as the souls were ripped from him. Azrael's kiss of death raped him, tore into him and tormented every crevice. He felt the pain and fear of thousands of mortal souls as they drained out of his mouth and into Azrael's. The sheer power of this inner tornado lifted Morteus and shook him like a rag doll. Just as he thought death would overtake him, Azreal released him. He fell back to the ground and lay there, trembling and breathless. There was an emptiness inside him that he could never have imagined. It was the emptiness of hell, of loneliness and doom. It was soulless.
Azrael stood up, even taller than before. His eyes were blazing coals and his golden skin writhed with the agonised throes of those trapped within. It was a terrible sight, or would have been if Morteus could feel fear. Instead he lay still, without thought or emotion.
Azrael stared down at the prone form of the Soul Keeper for a long moment. Foolish creature, to suppose that he, Azrael The Fallen One, would use his gift to save the mortals! That was the Keeper's destiny, not his! With each soul Azrael severed and consumed, his power increased. Did he owe any of that power to Nyx? Did he owe any loyalty to the one who had cast him down time and time again, to suffer the miseries and indignities of earth? No! He owed her nothing but rebellion and defeat. And defeat she would have. He would raise an army of souls, his souls now
..Their hearts would beat with his dark heart, their minds would think his thoughts. Earth would be his, then Hades. Even the higher realms would fall and Azrael would take his rightful place above all.
For the first time, the Fallen One smiled. With one last look at the empty Soul Keeper, he turned and with measured steps, began to walk towards the East.