GUARDIANS

Episode Four: Darkest Knight

Chapter Three

- Onboard the Falcon -

- Near the Guaranzen space-border -

Hon Shun awoke with a start as his psychic senses overrode his desire to sleep. Immediately he turned to Hark who was sleeping soundly at the other side of the galley. For the briefest moment he was re-assured that all was well, but the feeling in his mind did not subside. The dream he had been having re-emerged in his powerful mind. The dragon, a resplendent creature with shimmering white scales, stood on the edge of a forest, dipping its head to drink from a lake. The scene emanated beauty and grace. Immediately, now that he was awake, Hon Shun recognised the white dragon as Drake's animal guide, like Hark's bear. As well as providing the Guardians with guidance, the animals provided a mental link between the monk and his students. They were also the source of his dreams. Whenever a Guardian was ready to be discovered and initiated, it was the animal guide who led Hon Shun to his would-be student via a series of cryptic visions. Lately they had appeared for a different reason, prophesising destinies, and warning of dangers to the Guardians.

This was Hon Shun's purpose. To find the Guardians and bring them together; to protect and mould them so that they would become the men they were born to be so that, when the forces of light cried for help, they would be ready to answer the call to arms. Much of his work had been done already, but he sensed that his students still had so much more potential. So much more sheer power than they were showing; or perhaps more than they could show, until the time was right.

Hon Shun sighed, closing his eyes as he concentrated on his dream, remembering what happened next. The dragon looked at its own reflection in the lake. The waves were gentle but as the creature watched, they began to crash against the bank with greater intensity. The dragon looked skyward but suddenly the sun was gone, the tranquil white clouds replaced by those of violent grey. And then the storm came. Thunder. Lightning. Howling wind. The dragon looked to his reflection once again, but he was no longer himself. His eyes were red with rage and his body no longer the purest white, instead an ashen black. He reeled away from the vision in the lake, angry at the change. Angry at the storm. Angry at the forest. As the scene replayed in the monk's head and the dragon roared, unleashing fiery death and chaos upon the trees, Hon Shun knew what the dream was telling him. Gabriel Drake was not having a very good day.

- The River Levon Valley, near Levonia –

- Ghartaria -

"Take them!" Vespirro called. He began to move forwards as his men streamed down to the river. The human had been a phenomenon, a true warrior, but now he was gone and the others were unarmed and sent sprawling by the grenade. It was over and they were there for the taking. Zain would be pleased and perhaps even a reward was in store. Maybe he would be promoted, given his own company. Then he could be rid of Zain. He would no longer be second in command and he would be posted somewhere else. These thoughts filled his mind as his men raced across the water, into the residual smoke, and roughly manhandled the smaller human and Varqueese to their feet. However, as the smoke began to disappear, so did the smile on his face. For even through the cloudy veil, he could see the taller human up on one knee, his head bowed. "Impossible..." He whispered as a shiver ran down his spine.

Odin felt his body being dragged out of the water, to his feet. Mud clouded his eyes but he could see Drake, and he knew he was still alive. He wiped his eyes, pulling the mud from them as Chickaarian soldiers grabbed his arms. Odin looked at Drake, his jaw dropping as he was struck by the oily black eyes staring down at the river. Odin felt the presence; it was Drake but yet, not Drake. It was a new power, far beyond the young Guardian's comprehension and, he was certain, far beyond any creature of his realm.

Still disoriented from the blast, Jax was nonetheless aware that the soldiers who had pulled him from the river where now still. Their hands on his arms, holding him firmly, began shivering slightly. He turned his gaze to the man who appeared in charge, but found only fear in those eyes which were staring beyond him, into the heart of the blast area. He turned his head slowly, praying that Drake was safe. He smiled wide as he saw his friend on his knee, his head bowed. But despite his relief, he knew something was wrong, he could feel something was different as he looked at Drake. The wind picked up and tousled Drakes hair. His clothes, charred and torn, flapped about. And then the black eyes hit him and his chest constricted. "By the gods…" He murmured, his voice quivering at the sight.

"Not at all…" The being spoke up. It was Drake's voice, but strange, swarthy and cocky, with an otherworldly quality. "A mere demon!" The head raised, those sleek black eyes opening wide. A dark, mischievous smile passed over his lips. Rising to his feet, the demon looked to the Chickaarian who had thrown the grenade. As Vespirro's eyes flicked to the side, he didn't need to turn around to know what was happening. "I don't think that's such a good idea boys…" The small group of Chickaarians behind him halted for a second. In the confusion and surreal atmosphere of the previous few minutes, they had taken the opportunity to drag Caar to his feet, aware of the accolades they would receive for recapturing the prisoner. The Guardian was conscious, but still very much out of things, and unable to offer much of a struggle.

The demon turned towards the soldiers and two of them came forward, unwilling to give up the group's prize without a fight. "Two?" He asked, shocked. "Is that all I'm rated these days? I'm only a two man problem? Damn, I've been away a long time." The first of the soldiers aimed a kick for the demon's head. Catching the foot, the being swung his other palm into the Chickaarian's knee, painfully shattering the soldier's leg. "Nice try, sunshine." He said, grabbing the ankle with both hands. Swinging around, he let go, sending the Chickaarian skimming across the river, water spraying violently behind him before he came to a halt facedown in the mud.

He spun back to the other soldier who had taken several cautious steps back. The Chickaarian pointed a machine gun at him. "Whoa now!" He said, raising his arms in mock surrender.

"Who…What are you?" Quizzed the soldier. He was clearly scared, but seeing what this guy had done to his comrade had filled him with a sense of defiance and he was trying hard to disguise his fear.

"I have many titles." The demon answered blandly, his arms still in the air. "Some call me the Chaos Demon, others call me the Demon of Destruction… Personally, I find Dark Angel of Death has a nice ring to it. Mostly though, people tend to call me Azrael. But as a special treat, you can call me whatever you like. After all," he twisted his arm and tilted his head; checking the time on the watch, "in about ten seconds time I'm gonna kill you either way."

"You think so, asshole?" The soldier asked, taking aim purposefully. Azrael shrugged his shoulders.

"Don't take it personally; it's just what I do." He smiled. "Kinda my thing."

"Yeah? Well this is my thing!" He pressed the trigger, bullets thundering out of the gun. They were quickly joined in the air by thousands more, from all directions around the demon. Within a fraction of a second nearly the entire unit had their weapons trained, loosing round upon round in Azrael's direction. The river became a deafening, inescapable cavern of gunfire.

And then silence, broken only by the sound of bullets falling at his feet, splashing into the river. The soldiers stared at the unholy sight before them as the demon stood on the riverbed, his body covered in bullets, but apparently unharmed. The Chickaarian in the river with him cowered back as his gun clicked empty, no longer able to hide his overwhelming fear as he looked into the burning black eyes before him. An evil smile spread across Azrael's face, creating a light tinkling noise as the bullets lodged in his face moved.

"How sad, little soldier," he began, "that the final action of your life was also the stupidest." With that he thrust his hands down by his sides, tensing the muscles in his body. The bullets shot from his skin, spreading back out across the river just as fast as they had sped towards him. A number of soldiers made it to safety, keeping low, or taking cover behind trees. Many others were caught unawares and struck by their own bullets, dropping to the ground; dozens sliding down the slippery banks to the river, already dead before they hit the water.

Several bullets shot from the demon's chest, straight at the Chickaarian who had led his firing squad. A few fired right through the man's head, many more emerged from his back, having ripped his heart and lungs to shreds. "Medic!" The demon screamed, pointing to the fallen soldier as he raced past the tattered corpse to the edge of the river.

As he reached the bank, Guaranzens burst in upon the riverbed. Rushing from the jungle, they seized upon the remnants of the troop. They had followed the Chickaarians' tracks since reaching the now-abandoned camp, and were only too keen to involve themselves in a battle which was sure to be the first of the war. Eager to use the element of surprise to crush the invasion before it even started, they swarmed around the intruders to claim the first victory for Ghartaria and ridicule the Chickaarian nation. The remainder of the invasion force turned on the new arrivals, gunfire once more ringing out from both directions.

Oblivious to the bullets ripping through his already-destroyed clothing, Azrael lunged into the midst of the Chickaarians. The soldiers, unsure of whether to attack the demon or the advancing Guaranzens, fired haphazardly at all targets. Grinning widely at the lack of effect their rounds had upon him, Azrael grabbed the wrist of a soldier's gun-arm. With the trigger still depressed, bullets were firing into the demon's body from point blank range. The soldier's expression was one of terrified desperation as he dropped his ineffective gun and tried to pull away from the demon's grasp. Still smiling, Azrael twisted hard, easily snapping the man's forearm.

Another soldier leapt for him, but was met in mid-air by the demon's boot driving into his stomach. He collapsed to his knees, clutching his body, gasping for the air which had been forced from his lungs. He looked up just in time to glimpse Azrael's foot connecting with the side of his head, instantly splintering his skull.

With his hand still clutching the first soldier's wrist, a horde of Chickaarian's descended upon the demon. The movements of his feet and free hand became a vision of blurred fury as the Chickaarian screamed out in agony, his broken arm yanked and twisted in a million directions at once. Finally he was released by the demon as a soldier attacked Azrael from behind only to have his head forcibly slammed into that of his injured comrade.

Emerging from their trance-like state, Odin and Jax looked to each other, unsure of what to do. Neither of the men had been in a conflict situation before, let alone a war-zone with a demon. Suddenly a Chickaarian shot between them, his decimated limbs flailing helplessly as he spun through the air.

"Hey, good guys!" The demon's voice rumbled over the ongoing explosion of weapons. They turned to face him as he launched another soldier into a tree effortlessly. The Chickaarians who had surrounded him moments before lay strewn across the bank, bloodied and broken. He turned his deadly attention to the Guaranzens who were rapidly reaching his side of the river, ignoring the two motionless Guardians. "Get your friend to safety and take cover..."

His fist became a dark blur of speed and power as he struck the first of the incoming Guaranzens, hurtling him through the air as if he were a toy. He turned back to the Guardians, a mischievous wicked smile spreading across his lips, his black eyes flickering with violent delight.

"I feel a bout of anarchy coming on."