No matter how fast Lorelei could draw and loose, the Sword Master’s blades were faster, knocking her shafts harmlessly aside. Durin lay on the floor behind him in a pool of blood, a hand pressed to his stomach, trying to rise and fight on. Only Ralt’s magic seemed to be hurting him but even as Storm watched with his Sight, another fireball fizzled off a magical shield created by the evil bloodstone hanging around his neck. A year ago, or even just a few weeks ago he would have leaped to the attack, unmindful of all else, but now he ran instead to Durin to save a friend closer than a brother.
Niran’s eyes widened at the sight of the demon’s body lying lifeless on the floor. He snarled at Storm but Lorelei was still launching arrows at him, forcing his attention away to deal with them. He screamed in frustration and rage as Storm raced by just out of reach. An instant later his screams turned to pain as Ralt unleashed a rain of magical shafts of light on him.
Storm skidded to a halt beside Durin. Dropping to his knees he began healing him as fast as possible. Durin’s pain filled expression eased almost instantly. “Ah, thanks, laddie. I shoulda stayed further away from ’em,” the dwarf grunted. Storm nodded then sprang to his feet as Lorelei ran out of arrows.
Freed from defending himself against her attack, Niran sprinted toward Ralt, the only one who’d actually been hurting him. The wizard backpedaled furiously. But before Niran could close with him Storm’s blade sliced open his back over his ribs. The Sword Master screamed, swinging around so fast he nearly fell. Their swords came together with a ringing crash.
“Ungrateful whelp!” Niran bellowed. “This is how you repay me?” His riposte ripped the air quicker than the eye could follow.
Storm barely managed to counter it. As always when he and Niran crossed swords it was a contest between Niran’s speed and Storm’s strength. But this time his second sword was still buried in the demon’s body while Niran suffered no such lack. His lightning-fast blades were all but invisible as he pressed the attack. Storm was immediately on the defensive. He backed away, struggling to stay alive until his family came to his aid.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Durin threw himself into the fight with a bellow, swinging Fenris Fang, glowing with raw power, in an arc that shattered Niran’s second sword to pieces. The Sword Master staggered under the blow, his hand almost numb from it.
At nearly the same instant Lorelei slid across the floor on her knees, retrieved an arrow, knocked, and loosed it all in one fluid motion. It buried itself in Niran’s exposed back. He screamed, arching his back from the shock and pain.
The move exposed his chest, wide open and vulnerable. A savage grin etched itself on Storm’s face as he lunged forward for the fatal strike. Niran saw it, his sword too far out of position to protect him. Instead, he grabbed for the bloodstone gem just as Storm’s blade cut through the air where he’d been a fraction of a second before.
Storm stumbled and nearly fell at the unexpected lack of resistance. He caught himself and whipped around, searching furiously for the former Sword Master. “What the . . . ? Where is he?” he shouted in frustration. The others were spinning around too, searching for their enemy. Lorelei was scooping up arrows as her eyes darted here and there.
“He’s gone,” Ralt snapped. “We’ve got to get out of here while we can!”
“What about Krista’s box?” Lorelei asked, still grabbing arrows as fast as she could.
Storm tapped his pouch. “Got it.” He spun around again looking for Niran. “Blast it!” he cursed in fury. “We had him! One more second and he’d have been dead!” Durin echoed his rage, turning the air blue with dwarven curses.
“Quiet!” Ralt shouted, holding up a hand, his head cocked in a listening position.
He turned and sprinted out of the throne room for the window by the stairs. He took one look outside then waved frantically at them, “We’ve got to get out of here, right now! They’re coming!”
No one bothered to ask who ‘they’ were. Storm ripped his second sword out of the demon’s body, wondering briefly why it was still here. At the battle on the road, the body had vanished right away. “Lorelei!”
“Coming!” she shouted. “I had to get my arrows.”
He nodded wordlessly. “Durin! Let’s go!” The dwarf was examining the stacks of paper on the big oak table near the throne. He grabbed a handful then turned, stuffing them in his backpack as he ran.
“What are those?” Storm shouted, leading them up to the roof. He hoped the pegasi would accept them as riders, otherwise, they were in trouble.
“Maps and stuff, Niran’s plans,” Durin shouted back, huffing as he chugged up the stairs. “Might come in handy.”
Ralt shook his head as he pounded along with them. “Only if we live. I don’t know where they all came from but there’s several hundred coming our way.”
Several hundred? Storm ground his teeth. We’re dead if the pegasi don’t like us.
They burst onto the roof.
The roof was flat with a layer of dirt spread on it, most likely painstakingly hauled up by hand. Hoof prints were everywhere in the snow covering it. A low stone wall, part of the original construction ran all the way around it, handy for sitting on perhaps but useless for corralling flying mounts. The middle of the roof was occupied by a wooden barn stuffed with hay. A long water trough sat nearby with a thin layer of ice on top. A chill wind, unhindered by any obstacle blew over them, freezing the sweat on their brow from the fierce battle below.
Six pegasi, their wings held fast over their backs with wooden clips, watched them curiously. Before Storm could start for them Ralt grabbed his shoulder. “Let me. I’m part elven. They might be more accepting of me.”
Storm heard the noise of the soldiers below getting closer, “Make it quick.” Skirting around the pegasi he hurried to the edge of the building. Soldiers, armed to the teeth, were running toward the building from all directions. He shook his head in despair.
“Storm! Mount up!”
He whipped around in surprise. Ralt was sitting on a dappled white and gray pegasus, its wings unfurled, ready to fly. He was holding the reins of huge black one with white socks and nose. “This one is for you,” the wizard urged. “Hurry!”
How did Ralt manage that so fast, he wondered as he swung into the saddle? The big animal skittered sideways, just like Specter used to do. In spite of the wings, he felt a sudden kinship with the restless stallion. He pulled the reins around with a practiced hand to see if Lorelei and Durin were ready. She had just finished boosting the dwarf into his saddle on a small, brown pegasus. The doors below crashed open as the soldiers reached the building. She vaulted smoothly onto her own mount, a pure white pegasus that nearly shimmered in the moonlight. Storm laughed as his despair of a moment before turned into wild exultation. He waved at Ralt, “Lead on, oh Giant Killer, oh Rider of the Sky!”
Ralt grinned. “Yah!” he called. His pegasus took off like a shot, wings pumping furiously. The rest followed. Before they were halfway across the roof they were aloft, mounting higher and higher with each powerful stroke of their wings. Two riderless pegasi trailed behind, climbing with them.
Storm looked down.
Soldiers, already growing small in the distance, were still pouring into the central keep, oblivious to their airborne escape. From his new vantage point he could tell the men converging on the keep were night watchmen, running in from their posts on the surrounding outskirts of the encampment, no doubt in response to Niran’s magical call for help through his bloodstone gem. Ever the soldier, Niran has posted guards around the entire circumference of the encampment, but overconfidence led him to neglect posting any inside the encampment so the distance the guards had to cover accounted for their tardiness in arriving. If they’d been any closer they would have already killed or captured his small band. He grinned savagely as he recalled an old saying that was common in the Marines – we live and die by seconds and inches.
The encampment was shrinking fast beneath him. He looked around; which way were they going? Seeing the area from above, at night, caused him to take longer than normal to orient himself. He wasn’t used to seeing it from this perspective. He saw a mountain with a thin stream of smoke issuing from its top; the fort where they’d fought Belker and his men was still smoldering. It was directly ahead of them. Okay, he thought, Ralt is backtracking along our trail. Probably the best way to keep from getting lost, he concluded. He called out to Ralt to get his attention, then gave him a thumbs-up. Ralt grinned and returned it.
He turned his attention to Lorelei to see how she was handling her fear of heights in this situation. He expected to see her clinging blindly to her mount, eyes screwed tight. Instead, she was sitting upright, hair blowing in the breeze, luxuriating in the ride. He urged his pegasus, who he already thought of as Specter Jr., over closer to her. “Hey!” he shouted over to her, “how come you’re not afraid?”
“Are you kidding?” she laughed, eyes sparkling with excitement. “I’m riding a horse! What’s to be afraid of? I love it!”
Trust a Biqah to see it that way, he chuckled ruefully. “How are you doing, Durin?” he shouted to the dwarf on the other side of her.
“Riding is better than walking,” he roared back over the wind. “Faster too.”
“And warmer,” Storm added. “How come I’m not freezing?” It was true. The bitterly cold winter air should have been turning his blood into ice water by now, but instead, he was surrounded by an unseen blanket of warmth.
Lorelei shook her head. “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Ralt about it. But it’s great!”
The burned-out fort passed beneath them as he waved at Ralt again to get his attention. He motioned him to come closer. “What do you want?”
“How did you make friends with them so fast? And why is it so warm on them?” Storm asked quickly.
“They can smell my elven blood. First time its ever been useful,” Ralt answered. “They came right up to me like we were old friends. I didn’t even have to try.”
Storm nodded. Okay, he could see that. “But why are we so warm? It’s nighttime in the middle of winter. We should be freezing our butts off in this wind.”
“Magic, you big moron. Turn on your Sight,” he laughed at him.
Storm growled but did what he said. Instantly he could see the weave emanating from their mounts; a white-hot inner core around their hearts, radiating outward like a heater. It created a kind of shield all around them, barely an inch from their skin and clothes. The ravine where Ralt had broken his leg and Lorelei nearly killed herself hitting her head on the rocks slipped by beneath them. They were making excellent time.
“Hey!” Ralt called over. “Can I ask you something?”
As they gradually became accustomed to the pegasi they felt comfortable flying closer together so they didn’t have to yell as much. “Sure,” Storm replied. “What do you need?”
“Why didn’t the demon vanish when you killed it? Last time it went poof as soon as it died but this time it was still there when we left.” Ralt gave him a curious look, “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Storm protested. “But I was wondering the same thing. All I did was fight it and kill it.”
“You didn’t use any magic, any Ghibbore powers or something?” Ralt pressed him.
“No, of course n . . .” Storm trailed off as he remembered using his power to heal or to harm against the demon, definitely harming it.
Ralt saw his expression. “What? What happened?”
Storm explained what he’d done during the fight. “But I didn’t kill it that way,” he finished. “I just hurt it. I killed it with my sword.”
Durin and Lorelei had drifted closer to hear what they were talking about. Ralt leaned back in his saddle looking thoughtful. “I don’t see how that could have made any difference,” he conceded. “I’m not an expert on demons, but it’s obvious it did something, otherwise it would have vanished like before.”
“So who would be an expert on demons,” Storm wondered?
Durin laughed, a small rumble of thunder, “That’d be Lamriack. He can bore you for hours talking about those beasties.”
Lorelei’s eyes twinkled. “And just think, that’s exactly who we’re going to see as soon as we hit Robling.” She paused in sudden worry. “You did get Krista’s box, didn’t you?”
Storm pulled it out of his pouch for them all to see. “You already asked me that; got it right here, safe and sound.” He quickly put it back. “Speaking of Robling; Ralt how fast are we going? Can these pegasi make it there without stopping?”
Ralt shook his head. “I don’t know but it’s about seventy leagues back to the road, then nearly a hundred on to Robling. Maybe we should stop in Breckinridge to give them a rest before going on.”
“And us too,” Lorelei added. “A chance to sleep in a real bed sounds heavenly.”
Storm shrugged at them. “You heard her, boys. My wife wants a real bed for a change, so, Breckinridge it is.”
Lorelei’s heart leaped inside her. She favored him with a dazzling smile. “And my husband will reap the benefit of it,” she purred. Ralt and Durin chortled at Storm’s bemused expression.
“Ye may not be gittin much rest after all,” Durin roared with laughter.