“I don’t see it,” Hinaru confessed through gritted teeth, dropping his head in frustration and embarrassment. “I’ve stared at that cage for half of the day and I have not seen anything but empty bars.”
He felt a hand settle on his shoulder. The Chain Breaker, the head of the Demon Guard stood behind the ornate, velvet-cushioned chair where Hinaru sat. The man had remained in the stone hall with him and waited patiently for hours, allowing a potential new initiate every opportunity to pass this final test. But it had been wasted time.
“Forgive me, Breaker Allito,” Hinaru said, trying to keep the stinging in his eyes from resolving into tears. It was bad enough he had to admit defeat, he would not have the highest-ranking soldier in the city see him cry. He could not live with that shame. “I’ve failed you. I will collect my property from the barracks and leave at once.”
“You will not,” said the old soldier behind him. “You have failed no one and you are not going to be banished.”
The Chain Breaker walked around the chair to stand in front of Hinaru. His craggy face, marked deep with the passage of time and painted with a gray stubble along his jawline, was surprisingly kind. He paused a moment, waiting for the younger man to look up and meet his eyes. “You have passed every other test we have administered. You are smart, courageous and, if your instructors are to be believed, one of the finest swordsmen they have trained in years. Even if you can’t see the demon and are unable to join the Demon Guard, you have earned a place with us, Hinaru.
“And, the test is not necessarily over.”
The leader of the Demon Guard pointed to the wall on Hinaru’s right, indicating an assortment of twenty-three swords hanging from metal brackets. Each weapon had a gleaming, narrow blade the color of milk. They appeared as delicate as porcelain, but Hinaru knew they were made of the hardest substance known to the Realm. Forged in Hell, and stolen from the demons during the human uprising, they were nearly indestructible. And they were the only defense men had against any future assault from the underworld.
Several tens of empty brackets were also visible on the wall.
“How many pale blades belong to us?”
“Fifty-seven,” Hinaru answered immediately.
“Fifty-seven,” Breaker Allito repeated. “Very good. You have been paying attention to your lessons. Of those fifty-seven, thirty-four are currently in the hands of guardsmen and twenty-three remain hanging uselessly on our wall. That is not good for us. That leaves us weak and vulnerable. We need men to wield the swords.
“But, we need the right men.” The graying soldier turned his back on Hinaru to face the cage located in the center of the hall. It was a gleaming white monstrosity, all sharp edges and jagged points welded together. The structure was four paces wide and four paces deep; rising from the floor to the height of two tall men. “Do you know why we have the cage, Hinaru?”
“To test new potential soldiers,” he responded. This was common knowledge. “You cannot kill a demon if you can’t see it.”
The Chain Breaker flapped a hand dismissively at his answer. “Yes, yes. But, do you know why the cage was built?” He spread his arms wide, encompassing the metal structure before him. “The humans collected almost two hundred swords from the demons in the uprising. Why do you think building the cage was so important that men would destroy most of the weapons Lars Itarsa, the first Chain Breaker, worked so hard to gain?
Two hundred, thought Hinaru. That was not part of his training. Why would anyone use a hundred and fifty swords to build a cage when those blades could be so much more useful in the hands of trained soldiers?
“I didn’t know about the other swords, Chain Breaker. I thought we always had the cage. I don’t know how to answer your question.”
Breaker Allito nodded, expecting such a response. The man hooked his thumbs into his red leather, sword belt, then turned back to face Hinaru. “It is not a secret, but neither is it discussed much openly. Many thought it a mistake at the time, and some still do now. But that decision was made long before I was even born, so questioning it serves no good purpose. I can tell you the reason it was done, however, if you care to hear the explanation.”
Hinaru nodded quickly, and the Chain Breaker smiled at his eagerness; an expression that sat unexpectedly well on the old soldier’s time-worn face.
“When men organized and revolted against the demons, we won because we outnumbered them, and they had grown careless enough to allow us access to weapons. They did not believe that we were intelligent enough or courageous enough to turn on our fearsome masters. At the time of the uprising, every man, woman, and child in the city could see the demons. We believed this was normal and did not find the fact remarkable.
“Thirty years later, during the Second Wave, the demons almost took the city back. We were lucky there were only a few tens of the creatures that attacked our walls in that assault. Even so, many men died. We discovered that of those born after the uprising, only about one in five could actually see a demon. At first, we thought this was because of something the demons had done to blind us to their presence, but that idea was soon discarded.
“The truth of what was happening was discovered when survivors of the original uprising shared stories of the demons murdering and eating children by the hundreds. Four out of every five children born were killed. It was believed that these numbers could not be coincidence. Do you see?”
The Chain Breaker paused to allow Hinaru an opportunity to answer, but the young man had not yet made a connection between the story he was hearing and what the soldier wanted him to understand. When it was obvious his young student was unable to respond, the older man continued.
“Only one in five men has ever been able to see a demon. When the creatures ran the city, they eliminated those that could not see them. A slave is of very little use if it cannot see its master.”
Light dawned in Hinaru’s eyes as he digested the information. The people of that time believed that everybody could see demons because everyone alive had the ability. They also thought the death of children at the hands of the demons was a random act rather than the specific selection process it truly was.
“I think I understand. The cage allowed them to test their soldiers and find out who could see the demons. So, the demon in this cage is dead? The body was collected after the Second Wave?”
“Of course, it’s not dead,” snapped Breaker Allito with some disgust at the suggestion. He began to pace, slowly making his way around the chair where Hinaru perched. Hinaru was forced to shift sideways and crane his neck to follow the Breaker’s movements. “A dead demon decomposes too rapidly. Besides, why build a cage to hold a corpse? No, the demon is quite alive.
“When the Second Wave was over, and the Chain Breaker of that time, Samanth Ken, realized the nature of the problem, he gathered the soldiers who had proven themselves able to see the enemy. He formed the first Demon Guard, then collected all the white-metal weapons in the city and placed the pale blades in the hands of those that could most effectively use them. Finally, he put the members of the Demon Guard in charge of the rest of his forces. He made certain that at least one of them was always on the city wall, watching for the demons’ return.
“Time passed. Forty years went by and there were no more attacks. Members of the Demon Guard were growing old and dying, and there was no effective way to test for new recruits. Breaker Ken, himself, eventually died, and Todrick Bortu replaced him. Breaker Bortu was the man who ordered the cage built. He knew that when the last of the Guard was gone, the city would be unable to properly protect itself. The best they would be able to do was to arm men at random and hope by sheer chance that the right people were fighting when the demons came again.
“Because the white metal is the only thing we know that can effectively harm or hold a demon, he ordered that most of the swords the Realm possessed be reforged and made into a cage. He justified his actions, explaining that the only way to protect future generations from the same uncertainty experienced in the Second Wave was to capture a demon and use it to test new Guard members.
“He was taking a great gamble, because if the demons came again after the last of the Demon Guard had died of old age, the reduced number of remaining swords lessened our chances of survival. Although not building the cage, he believed, carried bigger risks.”
Breaker Allito dropped a heavy hand onto Hinaru’s shoulder, startling him. The old soldier leaned forward to speak softly into his ear. “But, you can guess what happened next, can’t you? We are, after all, still here.” He stood, not waiting for Hinaru’s answer, and resumed his pacing.
“Whether by a fool’s luck or by divine intervention, the Third Wave struck the city barely one year after the cage was created. We turned the demons away from our walls and captured the creature that now resides in the cage before you. It was fortunate that Breaker Bortu took the gamble that he did, as it has been over a hundred years since the Third Wave was defeated and there have been no subsequent assaults on the city. There is not a man alive today that has ever seen a demon.”
The Breaker paused in front of Hinaru and pointed a finger, directing his gaze to the center of the great hall; to the gleaming white bars. “Except for the one trapped in this very room.”
“We are alive today, Hinaru, because of the foresight of the Breakers who led this city before me. They decreed that only those who can see our enemy may become soldiers of the Demon Guard. I will not go against their orders. However…”
“Yes?” asked Hinaru when the Chain Breaker paused. “However, what?”
The Breaker smiled again, his bright, blue eyes sparkling kindly. “However, the decision does not have to be made today. You may come back tomorrow morning and try once more to see the demon. It does not happen often, but there have been instances of soldiers who failed on their first attempt yet were later able to see it. Perhaps you will be one of those few.”
Breaker Allito patted the younger man on the cheek like an affectionate parent, then turned and strode away.
Hinaru remained in the chair a moment longer, listening to the soft pad of the Breaker’s leather boots on the stone floor as he exited the chambers. A door opened, hinges groaning slightly as it swung out then back to its closed position.
With one last disgusted glance at the empty cage, Hinaru rose to his feet and stormed angrily across the room to the main entrance of the great hall. There were only two ways in and out of the Chamber of the Demon, as it was called by the soldiers in the barracks. The Breaker had exited through a private passageway to the south that led to his personal chambers, while Hinaru retreated to the massive, wood and metal, double doors at the north end, through which he had originally entered.
As he pushed through the doors, back into the labyrinthine passages of the Demon Guard’s keep, he was intercepted by one of the guardsmen.
“Hold up, Hinaru. I’d like to speak with you, if I may.”
The man was tall and thin, with a long beard of black hair oiled and twisted to a single braid that hung almost to his belt. He wore the red and brown uniform of the Demon Guard, and pinned to the left breast of his shirt was a small gold medallion in the shape of a closed hand. His name was Oatha, Hinaru recalled. He held the rank of Fist; responsible for the training and supervision of five soldiers. Hinaru stopped and bowed formally.
“Of course. How may I be of service, Fist Oatha?”
“First, you can stop bowing. I am not here as a fist, but rather as a friend.”
Hinaru blinked, unsure what to say.
“You didn’t see the demon?” continued Oatha. “No, don’t answer that. I already know you did not. How could you? There was nothing in that cage to see.”
“What?! What do you mean by….”
Oatha draped a friendly, but firm, arm around Hinaru’s shoulders. He guided the confused young man down one of the many hallways. “Walk with me, Hinaru. A moving conversation is much harder to overhear, and I do not want what I am about to tell you to become common knowledge.”
The two walked in silence for several seconds, Oatha occasionally glancing down branching hallways, or cocking his head slightly as though listening for pursuing footsteps. When he seemed satisfied that they were not being followed or spied upon, he spoke.
“The demon in the cage is a test designed to remove undesirables from the Demon Guard. It is a final challenge for anyone who has passed all the other requirements but, for one reason or another, is still deemed unfit by members of our order. Before you pass the test, a current member of the Guard must judge that you are worthy to join us, then let you in on the secret of the initiation.
“I have seen you spar, and I know you are quick witted enough to make a fine addition to our ranks, so I have decided to give you the information you need to pass this test. Just as another member of the Guard did for me before I joined.”
Hinaru paused, forcing Oatha to stop and turn to face him.
“I still don’t understand,” Hinaru said, his face pinched in thought. “It isn’t real? But what about the white metal? What about the swords, and what the Chain Breaker told me about the Third Wave?”
Oatha placed his hands on Hinaru’s shoulders, squeezing lightly and forcing the recruit to meet his gaze. “I believe that demons used to exist, a very long time ago. They seem as reasonable an explanation as any for the origin of the white metal. But they have been gone a very long time and I think it highly unlikely they will ever return. They probably died out following the Third Wave.”
Oatha slipped a hand behind Hinaru’s back and started them walking again.
“Regardless, whether there were ever demons in the first place, there aren’t any now. If there was a demon in that cage, it died over a hundred years ago because there is nothing at all currently between those bars.”
“The Chain Breaker told me….” Hinaru began.
“Yes, I know what he told you,” Oatha interrupted. “The older officers will never openly admit the truth. Particularly not the Chain Breaker. The Demon Guard is an elite force, destined to carry the pale blades and defend the city from the hordes of Hell. So, consider this: how elite would the Guard be if it became common knowledge that there are no demons? Even though it is a lie, the cage is a symbol of our position. The secret must be kept if the Guard is to survive.
“I believe in you, Hinaru. I think you belong with us, and I think you can keep our secret. That is why I am talking to you, now. I’m going to tell you how to pass your final test.”
Hinaru stopped again and bowed deeply toward Oatha. “Thank you, Fist Oatha. I will not disappoint you. What do I need to do?”
“It’s simple,” said Oatha, taking Hinaru’s arm with exasperation and standing him back up straight. “You must describe the demon in the cage.”
Hinaru’s face fell. Was Oatha toying with him? Was this all an elaborate joke by the Fist before the soldier escorted him to the gates of the keep and kicked him out?
“Fist Oatha, I have not seen a demon. How can I describe something I have never seen?”
“That is the easiest part,” Oatha assured him. “I’m going to tell you what to say to the Chain Breaker. You must describe the creature exactly as I explain it to you. That will let the Breaker know that you have been approached by one of us, and that you are not just guessing.”
Oatha held up one finger. “First, the creature is hideously ugly. Its face is a cluster of horns and spikes over a massive mouth filled with long pointed teeth. It walks on two legs, standing half again the height of a man, and it has two arms that each end in narrow hands with three, clawed fingers. Although tall, it is still slender, and the body moves like that of a serpent. But most importantly, you must mention that in the center of its chest…”