Tread lightly where demons are concerned.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Shortly after midnight, Storm was jerked awake by a sudden feeling of danger unlike anything he’d ever experienced. It brought him to his feet in a single bound, sword in either hand. Too late he remembered Lorelei sleeping on his chest. He turned and found her standing beside him, fumbling an arrow into her ever-present bow, looking at him with questioning eyes.
Light snowflakes were drifting down; there was already an inch of it on the ground. Their breath frosted in the cold air, drifting away from them like pipe smoke. On the far side of the wagon they could hear the guards complaining in low mutters about the cold as they huddled close to the fire. The gently falling snow obscured all the normal sounds of the forest. Except for the crackle of the fire and muttering of the guards, it was dead silent.
Storm paused, straining every sense to locate the danger he knew was coming closer.
The mutters on the other side of the wagon, abruptly changed to exclamations of horror. Then a shrill scream split the night. Storm bounded around the wagon. He collided with Durin who was springing up from his blankets. They slipped in the snow then crashed to the ground in a tangled heap. They cursed as they pushed away from each other. Storm rose to his knees then froze as he saw the thing towering over the campfire.
It was tall, taller than the wagon, which reached ten feet from the ground to the arched wooden top covering it. The chest was wide, nearly as wide as Storm was tall, covered with snow-white hair that glistened with pus from the open sores scattered across it. Gigantic, ape-like arms hung nearly to the ground from the massive shoulders. A powerful tail lashed the air behind it, the tip covered with deadly spikes. It had the hindquarters, legs, and feet of a giant goat; the cloven hooves pounding the ground were larger than dinner plates. Vast wings protruded from the misshapen shoulders, fanning the fire, sending clouds of burning embers flying around the tiny camp.
The face . . .
Thousands of razor sharp teeth filled the mouth in what was once a human face, now terrifyingly ruined beyond description, with an impossibly long black forked tongue lolling over the torn and bleeding lips. Wicked horns jutted up from the forehead amid a forest of squirming electric blue eels that served as hair. Bat ears stuck out on either side of the head. Around the whole beast was a glowing, black aura of decay and corruption.
Storm took all of this in, in an instant. But it was the eyes that held him frozen in place.
They were two bright yellow, glaring suns beating down on him from the desecrated face. They were wild with blood lust, murder, and an insensate craving for carnage. Insanity lurked in them, a raging desire to destroy the world merely because it existed. There was screaming madness in those eyes that was evil beyond description. There a hellish, burning hatred of everything that lived; hatred for everything that breathed or walked or crawled or crept upon the earth. Behind all of it, part of all it, was such complete and total evil as to turn a brave man into a shaking coward, begging for mercy. With such eyes might the Lord of the Dead welcome some hideously damned soul to his realm of eternal darkness.
Storm was paralyzed with fear by those eyes.
I know you, they said. I know your every weakness and fear. I know the horrors that creep through your nightmares – and they are me! I will devour your soul! I know you, weakling Ghibbore. I know you!
He shook his head, breaking contact with the sun bright orbs glaring down at him. He gasped at the shock.
It’s talking to me in my head! Trying to frighten me!
The realization brought on a tidal wave of anger, burning away the unholy fear the thing had planted in his heart. He surged to his feet, yanking Durin up with him. The demon-gaze had held him captive for only an instant, even though it felt like years. It still stood there holding a guard in each talon studded paw, blood running in rivers down its arms. The third guard was on the ground, his head squashed like an over-ripe tomato beneath one hoof.
A blood-curdling war cry sounded from around the camp as the men charged the demon from all sides. It answered with a bellow of its own. It hurled the limp bodies at them, knocking them back with brutal force. Bones snapped like dried timbers.
Storm caught a glimpse of Ralt leaping from the wagon as he and Durin charged the demon side by side. He swung his sword in a mighty, unstoppable blow, cleaving the monster’s flesh to the bone. It howled in fury, shaking the trees with the power of its bellow as Durin’s enchanted axe bit into it from the other side. It launched a tremendous, backhanded blow at them. He saw Durin sailing through the air, then he was slammed backward into the wagon with an ear-splitting crash.
He dropped to the ground gasping for breath. He lurched drunkenly to his feet, fighting the waves of darkness threatening to consume him.
Where was Durin?
The demon was still bellowing with pain, a dozen arrows buried in its chest. Lorelei stood beside the wagon, white-faced with fear, launching shaft after shaft at the towering monstrosity.
Then Thomas charged in from nowhere, his sword swinging down to cut one of the demon’s legs from under him. Instead, his sword rang like a bell as it bounced off. Thomas yelped at the stinging pain as the sword vibrated painfully in his hands. Before he could retreat the demon’s tail lashed out, hurling him across the camp. He crashed to the ground in a boneless heap.
Storm gritted his teeth for another charge. A crash of thunder erupted with a blinding flash of light. He staggered backward, blinking watering eyes, trying to see.
The demon was still on its feet, howling with unearthly fury at the scorching pain in its chest where Ralt’s lightning bolt had struck. It roared something in an obscene language and suddenly there were two demons.
Storm’s jaw dropped.
Two of them!?
What had the demon done?!
He adjusted his eyes to see the magic it was using. Abruptly he understood. It was an illusion! He saw Durin charging out of the forest where the thing had flung him. He roared a battle chant as his axe cut into the illusory flesh of the false demon.
“Durin! No!” he bellowed as he launched himself into another attack. “It’s a fake! This one!” His sword sliced into the creature’s side. Blue-and-purple blood spurted in his eyes, blinding him. He felt, rather than saw, a massive blow coming and he dove frantically to the ground, sliding past the demon in the snow.
He wiped the stinging ichor from his eyes in time to see Lorelei scream as the demon flung magic at her. Searing white bolts streaked across the camp, slamming her back against the wagon. She rolled across the wagon seat then dropped to the ground on the far side. He couldn’t tell if she was dead or alive.
He struggled to his feet.
Durin was still fighting the fake demon. From the corner of his eye, he saw two guards charging forward to do battle. “NO!” he yelled, remembering Thomas’ futile attack. “You can’t hurt it without magic!”
His warning went unheeded. They either didn’t hear him over the demon’s bellowing or they didn’t believe him. The demon gestured lazily and one of them suddenly went straight up in the air as if shot from a bow. The beast grabbed the other one. The doomed guard had time for one shrill scream before he was torn in half, bloody entrails spilling on the ground. The demon spreads its wings, creating a hurricane of blinding snow and flying embers as it rose into the air heading for the wagon.
Overhear there was a despairing scream as the guard came hurtling back down like a missile shot from a catapult. He cannoned into the wagon with a tremendous crash. Wood snapped like kindling as the whole wagon swayed crazily on its wheels from the impact, nearly tipping over.
The demon landed beside it with a bellow of triumph. Darkness surrounded the wagon as if a veil had been drawn around it. He saw Ralt incanting, his hands weaving through the air in sorcerous passes.
Storm finally reached Durin and grabbed him by the shoulders, swinging him around. “Ignore it!” he bellowed. “It’s an illusion! A fake! There’s only one demon!”
Durin hesitated, torn by the evidence of his senses and Storm’s obvious sincerity. Ralt saved him from further delay. His spell banished the darkness around the wagon. The illusory demon vanished as well.
The demon, visible again, hurled something at them. They ducked as it landed at their feet. It was Sodan’s head, eyes frozen wide in terror. Durin sobbed in sudden rage then charged the demon, murder on his face, his axe a glittering circle of fire over his head.
Storm found his second sword, buried point down in the snow where he’d dropped it when the demon backhanded him into the wagon. He ripped it out of the ground then hurled it like a knife, spinning through the air to bury itself in the demon’s chest. The monster staggered under the blow, giving Durin the opening he sought. His axe, shining star white with magical power, sheared through the demon’s wrist, lopping off its left hand.
Before it could counter-attack it arched its back in sudden pain, half-spinning to face its new attacker. Storm saw more arrows buried in its back and exulted, knowing Lorelei was still alive and fighting. He bounded across the fire to join Durin’s maddened attack.
They each swung once, twice, three times – cleaving bone and flesh with each stroke. Lightning ravened through the night again, driving it to one knee amid the debris of the wagon.
The remaining guards whooped for joy as they saw victory within their grasp. Surging forward, they closed for the kill.
The demon’s head snapped up, level now with Storm’s. Its eyes glittered with malice as the world dissolved in thundering pain.
Whatever it was, it seemed to hit everyone but Ralt. Guards dropped to the ground like unstrung puppets while Durin collapsed, clutching his head in agony. One of the guards staggered as if from a blow then abruptly shrilled in panic and began hacking frantically at himself with his sword. Storm reeled drunkenly, his vision doubling with pain. Through the haze of agony, he was vaguely aware of Lorelei, doubled up, retching on the ground.
The demon grinned fiendishly. It picked up something from the wreckage of the wagon with a howl of victory. Fighting his double vision Storm saw a delicate box, surrounded by a haze of magic.
He staggered toward the demon, determined not to let it get away with its prize.
It snarled at him, started to its feet then howled with fury as Ralt launched blazing bolts of power into it from the side. It crashed to both knees, barely remaining upright. Storm raised his sword for the final stroke.
From overhead in the darkness came a flapping of wings, and, inexplicably, the whinny of a horse. A calm, unhurried voice said, “Throw it to me.” The voice was strangely familiar.
Storm’s eyes widened. The Leader! He took one step forward, his blade ripping through the air with an audible hiss at the demon’s neck. It was a solid stroke, tearing through bone and muscle in one single, unstoppable blow. Stunned amazement showed on the face as the head sailed through the air, blue-and-purple blood fountaining high into the air from the severed neck.
But the demon had done its master’s bidding. The giant arm, already moving, convulsed in a final spasm, throwing the box containing Krista’s soul high into the darkness overhead. Storm heard a meaty sound as someone caught it in an outstretched hand. “Got it,” the calm voice said. Wings flapped again.
“No!” Ralt screamed. Power streaked upwards from his hands, exploding into a gigantic fireball in the sky. In the brief glare, they saw a dark, distorted shape, already distant, rising into the sky. The light faded and it disappeared.
The demon’s massive body crashed to the ground on top of the ruined wagon, destroying what little remained. The neck continued to gush blood for a moment, then with a silent flash of light, it vanished. An instant later the head vanished the same way.
Storm slumped to his knees.
Stunned silence held them in its grip. Snowflakes drifted lazily down.
Tears streamed down Lorelei’s face as she crawled weakly away from the steaming vomit in the snow. She flopped over on her back, resting her head on a broken wagon wheel. Her chest was heaving. Durin stretched out a trembling hand to pat her shoulder.
Storm watched through dull eyes as Ralt dismissed some kind of protection spell around himself. The magician stumbled through the wreckage to slump down at his side. Together they surveyed the scene.
It was grim.
Except for the four of them, everyone was dead. Only Thomas was still breathing, sprawled in the snow where the demon had tossed him. Everywhere else they looked they saw nothing but death and destruction. Blood stained great swatches of the snow, human and demon alike. Fragments of shattered swords littered the ground between the mangled bodies. The wagon was a total loss, reduced to so much kindling scattered beneath them. The smell of ozone tinged the air from Ralt’s lightning bolts while embers from the fire hissed angrily in the snow. Sometime during the fight, the horses had run off.
Storm pounded softly on the ground. “So close,” he cursed. “So close! If I’d been just a little faster . . . just one second. That’s all it would have taken.”
Lorelei lifted her head with an effort. “Stop it. Just stop it.”
“You don’t understan--”
“Stop it! Stop blaming yourself.” She lifted herself up on one elbow. “We’re lucky to be alive. We did the best we could, Storm, but that was a demon!” She slumped back down in the snow, exhausted from her brief effort. “We’re lucky to be alive,” she repeated.
“Aye. The lass has the right of it, young warrior,” Durin added softly. “There’s no shame to be had here. Against the likes of that,” he gestured at the gruesome puddle of blood, “as fast as it was, as strong as it was, we could easily have wound up like the rest of them.”
“They’re right,” Ralt said wearily. “We all knew going into it this was a long shot; we knew something like this might happen. We were all volunteers because Sodan knew he couldn’t order anyone to take a chance like this, even for Krista’s sake.”
Durin heaved himself up into a sitting position. “I think . . . I’m not sure, but I think that’s why Sodan insisted on coming along. If he wouldn’t risk his life for Krista, how could he ask anyone else to?”
Storm tried to get up then fell back with a groan when the pounding in his head escalated to a crescendo. He massaged his temples gingerly. “What in blazes did that thing hit us with? My head feels like it’s going to explode.”
Ralt, the only one to escape it, waved a hand vaguely in the air. “Some kind of spell obviously. What, I’ve no idea. Who knows how many kinds of magic there are?” He got up and hurried over to Thomas. His expression changed to one of deep concern. “We’ve got to get him warm. He’s freezing to death.”
Storm struggled to get up again, chewing his lip bloody against the pain in his head. He ground his teeth to keep from blacking out as he pulled a flat slab of wagon siding out of the ruins. “Here, put him on this,” he gasped. “Put it near the fire.”
Ralt drug Thomas over and dumped him on the makeshift bed. “Now you sit down,” he said pushing on Storm’s shoulder. “You’re white as a sheet. If you don’t sit down, you’ll fall down.”
Storm shook his head, wincing at the renewed pounding in his skull. “Get him a blanket first,” he gritted, swaying like a man in a high wind.
“I’ll get the blanket,” Ralt insisted. “Now sit down!”
This time Storm let himself be pushed to the ground. “Maybe for a couple of minutes,” he conceded. He looked over at Lorelei. “How are you doing?”
“Terrible,” was her faint response. “I think I need to puke again.” She rolled away from Durin and they heard her retching in the snow. The dwarf turned green at the sound, his jaw muscles clenching.
“Wine. Get me some wine,” Storm mumbled.
“That’s the last thing you need right now,” Ralt snorted, but he obediently dug out a bottle and handed it to him.
“Keeps me warm,” Storm gasped around a mouthful.
“The dream said that’s my job,” Lorelei managed, wiping her mouth. Storm eyed her from around the upturned bottle, wondering what she was talking about; greenish drool was running down her chin. He shook his head, continuing to gulp the wine as fast as he could. When he lowered the bottle, it was empty. He tossed it aside with a gigantic belch.
Ralt shook his head silently but moved to get him another bottle. “Anyone else?” he asked sarcastically. To his dismay, both Durin and Lorelei nodded emphatically. He plopped a bottle next to each of them. Then with a shrug, he pulled out a bottle for himself. “Why not?” he muttered as he took a long drink. “It’s not as if we’ve got anything better to do.”