‘There have been some unexpected results in our animal trials. Rietta believes that these are flaws, but I am convinced that they are absolute proof that what we have created is closer to the original phenomena than we could have dreamed. According to the missive I received this morning, the Emperor agrees.’
~ excerpt from the journal of Lena Hiddakko.
Something in Taylin thrilled for this: Throwing herself into the air, weapon in hand surrounded by comrades, all with a common, clear purpose—to destroy the enemy. It was the same part of her that loved fighting and had to be restrained from killing every hailene master she’d ever had… until the time was right. The same part that laughed when she finally got to do just that.
But though the air was filled with the rush of wings and voices intoning spells, it was different in so many ways than her days in slavery. The chorus structure was missing: no one was flying in a neat, efficient ‘V’ with the shocktroops like Taylin at the fore and spellcasters in the rear. There were no barked orders, just shouts in mercenary code back and forth, describing intended courses of action. There was no captain threatening and striking them if they made a misstep. And most importantly, this fight was one she chose of her own free will because it was right.
Tal Eserin passed her by on her right, shouting in mercenary code to the other battlemagi and pointing at Bashurra.
The demon knew they were coming and was working a spellcrafting even though he was half covered in ice and still healing the great, bloody wounds left in him by the hwacha. The ground behind him turned to bubbling mud and belched up great hunks of sodden earth that rose up in an arc above his head.
Steam rose from those clods as they were reshaped into humanoid faces: mostly hailene and half-elves, but one or two minotaurs as well. Each was twisted into a death mask that showed more agony than the Seven Interlocking Hells could provide. Heat shimmered off them and began to melt and crack the ice entrapping Bashurra.
Tal Eserin shouted something and Taylin didn’t have to know the code to know that it roughly translated to ‘Brace for attack’. With a powerful gesture and a string of arcane words, he called forth a nearly invisible screen of force that angled toward the sky to deflect attacks and traveled along ahead of the charge. Other battlemagi began doing the same, but none could conjure vin as extensively and powerfully as the Windmason.
Bashurra grunted dramatically and flexed, breaking the remaining ice apart with his great stength. Let’s match strength for strength, little army. Your Air Screen against my Trauma Barrage.” He waved one hand above his head and the mud faces burst into flames before lurching with great speed and little stability toward the oncoming charge. They vomited up bilious, black smoke along the way.
This isn’t just a direct attack. Ru said in Taylin’s head. Avoid the hit and what comes after.
“I need more explanation than that Ru.” She hissed under her breath. But he didn’t answer, not before the barrage reached them. They hit the screens with jarring force, bringing a few down immediately and continuing through. Others exploded into smoke on contact.
Those in the path of the attack easily evaded it, but suddenly, one of the battlemagi began screaming, turning circles and sending out bursts of lighting and icicle lancets in every direction as he juked and spiraled to avoid something that only he could see.
A hailene woman with a halberd suddenly lunged at another and buried her blade in the poor man’s wing, sending him spiraling to the ground with her diving in pursuit. Nearby, a sniper was swinging his weapon by the barrel against unseen enemies, his panicked flitting causing him to rapidly lose altitude.
Taylin tightened her grip on the Eastern Brand and flew on. The charge had been staggered by the chaos in the ranks, but not broken; at least not where Tal Eserin’s Air Screen was holding the center.
The golden dragonsired was himself stealing glanced backward at the members of his battle group, seemingly driven mad. He bared his teeth and spoke plainly to the group surrounding him. “Damnation abounding. Not a thousand psi masters on the continent and we find ourselves matched against one. Form up: we need to close fast and hit hard.”
Taylin looked over her shoulder at the degenerating situation behind her. Ru? Can you help them?
If I had a mind to. He replied plainly. The spell is similar to the bats Arunsteadeles conjured in the battle with the King of Flame and Steel, only more advanced: general fear can be overcome, but this spell dredges up personal traumas to fool the mind into accepting them as real.
Bashurra let fly a second volley of the macabre missiles as he spoke, focusing them this time on Tal Eserin’s Air Screen.
Ru, it would be very helpful if you started undoing them. Taylin tensed as the attack hammered the screening spell until it finally came apart under the onslaught. A screaming minotaur head, wreathed in flame, flew toward Tal Eserin.
With a powerful pump of her wings, Taylin hurled herself ahead of the mage and raised the Eastern Brand against the attack. “Ignite!” She cried even as she swung. The burning sword easily clove the projectile in two and scattered the pieces, leaving tiny bits of shrapnel and a cloud of smoke to break around her.
Her heart seized with the mindless terror known by children. The world became a confusing blur of sound and color. Someone grabbed her by the nape of the neck, someone far stronger than she, and pulled her backward. She tried to look back, but could only see a blur of bright, fanciful silks and the impression of a stern, expressionless face.
A woman was shouting; angry recriminations mixed with anguished begging. It was the voice from Taylin’s dreams, only twisted by grief. It seemed as if with every word she spoke, she grew farther way and the certainty that Taylin would never hear her voice again grow more certain.
Before her vision flashed a black feather, only in places, the black had been rubbed away, revealing vibrant red.
“My dear child.” A new voice, male and cruel despite sounding for all the world like a large, pleased cat interrupted what Taylin realized was her own voice, only much younger, crying. It is time you realized that you are not truly a person. Ayes ang’hailene.”
Her whole person shuddered as the rage bubbled up. She didn’t want to remember this. She didn’t want to feel the pain anew, not after so many years hiding it away. Her breath quickened and she was no longer a child.
How dare anyone go into those places and steal my memories! She screamed in her own head, the words feeling foreign all the same. Raw will, driven onward by the rage plowed into the forces that made up the spell, and though she couldn’t see them, she felt them being torn to tatters.
The world returned: rushing air, the twin helix blaze that surrounded the Eastern Brand, and Ru’s mind in her head, constructing a spell on the fly.
Behind her, the dark mage turn in air and held out his palm. A dozen streamers of yellow light burst from it, slithering across the sky until they either hit a plum of smoke or one of the trauma-stricken mercenaries. Where they hit smoke, it dispersed into nothingness, and where it struck people, shadowy doppelgangers of them were expelled and similarly dissolved.
Tal Eserin, having seen the entire proceeding, winged his way up even with Taylin. “I’m quite glad we included you two in the formation.”
Taylin just nodded and faced forward again. They had almost closed with Bashurra and the demon was already in the middle of casting another barrage.
“Oh I think not.” Tal Eserin said, allowing for a small spellcrafting of vin to make his voice carry. He flared open his wings to their full span and worked his fingers in front of him in a complex motion. “If you want to match strength for strength, allow me to indulge you, beast, with my own concoction. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Subtle Knife; a spell used by cutpurses to create a small infinitely sharp, and undetectable blade of air for a single moment.”
Bashurra laughed boldly, but didn’t stop his casting. “Then you’ve created a blade of wind to swing at me?”
Tal Eserin laughed right back as the close-in fighters streamed past him, confident in their captain that his plan would turn their charge into something less than a suicide mission. “Please. We are a military, formerly funded by a Prince of Novrom: we use strikers instead of flint and steel, our officers tell time with the finest watches from Rizen: we are ahead of the curve in technology in every way.” He thrust forth his cupped hands. “Behold my Subtle Bullet.”
A sharp crack resounded in the air and an unseen force kicked Tal Eserin backward a few yards. While his spell was unseen, the results were not, as a hole the size of a human head was ripped all the way through the demon’s flesh between his ribs. A continual vortex of wind drove through the wound, expelling even more gore out behind him in a blackish red mist.
The spellcraft Bashurra was working collapsed as his concentration failed and he couldn’t stop himself from bellowing in pain. Slapping a hand over the wound, Bashurra spat curses in the Kaydan language before turning a hateful eye on Tal Eserin. “Only a trifle. Any damage you do to me can be repaired in mere moments.”
To illustrate, he lifted his hand away from the wound and reached out to tap the well of nekras in the Homestead behind him. Nothing came.
Swinging his huge head around, he looked off toward the Homestead. He couldn’t detect nekras directly, but he could tell that the pall had been lifted from the surrounding wall and the land around it. Something had stemmed the tide of dark anima.
“That’s done it!” Percival shouted, winging his way ahead of the charge. “His healing is disabled and he is vulnerable. For Solgrum, for vengeance!”
The close-in fighters sped forward while the snipers and battlemagi held at a prearranged perimeter and let fly with lead and spellcraft. Taylin went along with the former, burning sword held at the ready and her own, roaring anger at the mental attack spurring her forward.
Bashurra turned back in time to meet Percival and the first of the wave. He clawed at them as they came, only to be answered with polearms biting into his flesh. One mercenary even won past his flailing arms to bury a lance in his chest.
A basso snarl issued from the demon as he switched tactics. Instead of trying to tear his foes out of the air, he started trying to grab them. An unfortunate hailene with a glaive was quickly caught and his body crushed in Bashurra’s fist with a sickening crunch. His ruined corpse was then hurled into the midst of his comrades.
Percival shouted a curse at the insult and dove, whirling his halberd overhead to build momentum for a strike at the demon’s face. Bashurra obliged with a toss of his head that brought his antlers to bear on the general, impaling him on a hedge of black spikes.
Through the rush of winged bodies, the lines of searing spells and flying lead, flew Taylin. She wasn’t as agile as the other hailene and was having trouble not getting in the way of the other soldiers as they bobbed and wheeled around Bashurra, striking and retreating where they could.
Finally, she saw and opening: a path to Bashurra’s chest that the others didn’t seem to notice. She pumped her wings mightily and hurtled forward, holding the Eastern Brand overhead like a banner.
But Bashurra saw her coming and snatched her out of the air. The suddenness of the attack knocked the air from her lungs and she lost her grip on the Eastern Brand. She watched helplessly as the blade tumbled to the ground with its flaming helix guttering out.
The sight of what he’d caught made Bashurra pause to stare down at her. “Ha! And Immurai thought so highly of you too. The little master of the Rune Breaker, or so I hear. I think I’ll just keep you in hand as a trophy.” He gave her a sharp, painful squeeze to make his dominant position clear.
Taylin didn’t hear him. The roaring in her head was too loud.
In the best of times, she didn’t like being touched, aside from brief slips in the moment. Touch had never been a good thing in her life. It preceded slaps, floggings, being dragged to isolation cells, and worst of all having her wings taken. In the mines, it also wasn’t uncommon to come into contact with the decaying bodies of workers that hadn’t been so lucky.
Already, she’d been driven to great anger by the mental violation the demon had perpetrated; the galling theft of memories meant to be kept safe and hidden. With the added element of that same monster putting his hand on her, she lost herself completely to the urges inside her that begged to fight, to kill, to annihilate.
She opened her mouth and let out a feral scream that had nothing to do with fear. Scales grew rampant all over her body, from the thick, pentagonal ones she was used to, to lighter colored, but even thicker plates that formed on her belly, across her breasts and along her throat until she was entirely covered by scaled, but for her hair. Her teeth grew sharp and her nails thickened into black claws. Her feet twisted, the long bones expanding until the straps of her sandals tore, and each toe was tipped with a wicked talon. Muscles in her back spasmed and with a sickening pop, her wings were repositioned on her back, with more tendons growing thickly into them.
Formerly rounded pupils changed to catlike slits. Everything before her gained a new dimension of detail, as if she’d been half blind her entire life, and everything seemed to move a fraction more slowly than normal. And the magic… she could smell it as orbs of light and lightning streaked through the air and wardings blossomed into being to protect.
Taylin barely registered the surprise coming from Ru in the link because she had her own set of priorities. The first was the remove Bashurra’s hand from her person—and from Bashurra’s person if need be. She sank all ten claws into the demon’s thumb and twisted. There was resistance for a moment before the joint popped, followed by the tearing of strained tendons.
On instant, Bashurra howled and tried to fling her way, but her claws held fast, giving her a solid platform from which to throw herself into the air. Her wings snapped down with the sound of a gale kicking up, sending her streaking toward Bashurra’s face like a missile.
The demon only laughed, seeing an unarmed and tiny thing screaming toward him. As he’d down with Percival, he led with his antlers. Taylin had seen that rick before, and with her new wing musculature, easily dove down below the killing spikes, only to suddenly scud upward to deliver a rising, striaght-hand strike to the space just between his eyes.
If Bashurra expected his hide to protect him, he was mistaken, as Taylin’s claws pierced it through with no trouble before puncturing the cartilage above his nose so that her arm ended up buried to the elbow in his sinus cavity and awash with clear, sticky and foul smelling liquid.
The demon’s taunts and banter devolved solely into a rant in the Kaydan tongue, and he raised his unwounded arm to swat her down.
A shrill cry pierced the air when he did, preceding a raptor the size of a wagon with a golden brown body and white on its wingtips and tufts around its legs. It dropped from the sky to sink its pounces and talons into the demon’s arm, scoring brutal, jagged wounds. Just as swiftly, it transformed into a great, green and black constrictor snake, whose body wrapped Bashurra’s arm and began to crush the radius and ulna together.
What ever you think you just did, it looked more like a suicide attempt to me. Ru bit out mentally as Bashurra seized his head with his wounded hand and started to pry him off.
This one must be destroyed. Came the reply. And in the next moment, the link was muffled from Taylin’s side. She shot Ru a glare while extracting her arm from Bashurra’s sinus. Holding on to his face with her claws, she found herself staring at his eye. Heat boiled in her belly, a heat she’d always banked, if not snuffed entirely. But this time, she called it up. A gelatinous glob rose up her throat and she spat it directly into the demon’s eye. On contact with the air, the gel burst into flame, and on contact with Bashurra’s eye and the surround area, it stuck fast and burned intensely.
With an oath the invoked darker things than himself or his god, Bashurra let go of Ru and slapped at Taylin, who scrambled up to the crown of his head to evade him.
Taylin found herself between the two racks of murderous antlers that stood proudly on the beast’s head. Here and there, bones and rotten meat from past conquests hung in tattered from the many sharp points. The stench was such that the ensuing nausea almost robbed her of the all consuming rage burning with in her.
As she crouched there, gagging and trying to figure out how to hurt Bashurra more, a flicker of movement caught her attention. Without her expended vision, she might have missed it through the thicket of prongs, but once she knew it was there, it was just a matter of climbing up between them to get a better look.
And what she saw was Percival Cloudherd, very much alive, though pierced through the upper thigh by an antler point. The wound was bleeding freely, and the General’s movements were slow and clumsy as a result, but still he fumbled at something on his belt.
Logic, reason and memory dredged up what Kaiel had explained on the first day they’d encountered Percival: he was wearing grenades: a chemical weapon with the power of a fireball. Percival’s plan was clear: detonate his grenades at point blank range where Bashurra had neither the time nor the foreknowledge to counter or defend himself.
The blast would take a respectable chunk of the demon’s head off, and idea that appealed to her. But Cloudherd would die in the attempt, which did not. For true, his demise would be heroic, but in the dark corners of her mind, she remembered that so had Issacor’s.
Good and worthy people, wasted on the idea that their demise in one moment was worth it for a greater good. Even if that meant leaving those that needed them behind.
Had she really needed Issacor? She didn’t know, and the thoughts Ru had put into her head in the House weren’t helping. Other people surely needed him though: a person who would stand and fight was as much honor as skill for good causes. And Percival’s army needed him too. They had already lost their king, their security, and almost all of their senior officers.
It all seemed so clear to her: anyone who would willingly attempt to sacrifice themselves in such a way were the very people who shouldn’t die that way.
Armed with that clarity, she seized upon her anger and focused it just as she always did in battle. With her rational mind back in play, she twisted and climbed her way up to Percival. Just as his numb finger found the loop of one of his grenade pins, Taylin grabbed it firmly and pulled it away.
“No.” Her voice rattled and hissed with a serpentine quality.
Percival looked at her through the feverish veil on the edge of death. It wasn’t quite clear to her what he was seeing, but he tried to wrench his hand away. “I have to. This creature…” He paused to find the words, “…has to die.”
“And he will.” Taylin hissed. “But not with you.”She reached to pull his thigh from the spar pinning it.
“N-no!” He mustered. “Bleed out.”
Taylin stared at the wound and the copious amounts of blood already dripping everywhere. When she’d been a shocktrooper, she’d seen captains burning grievous wounds closed to keep more useful members of their unit alive until healing could be performed. Percival wasn’t going to like what she was about to do.
“You’ll be fine.” She said, trying in vain to make her voice less threatening and more reassuring. She delicately took hold of his leg above and below the puncture while at the same time reaching down into the fire in her belly. There wasn’t much left, but it should be just enough…
Mustering all her strength and quickness, she pulled Percival straight up off the antler. Blood started to well instantly, but she spat the flaming gel onto his leg, smothering it in the next moment with the leather of her kilt. Percival screamed loudly enough for it to echo in the valley and retched at the burning meat smell from his leg.
Taylin steeled herself against his pain and tried to lift him over her shoulder. His grenade belt caught, stuck on a second antler that had grazed Percival’s back, but tangled in a loop on the belt. It only took a single swipe of her claws to slice the belt off him, and in a moment of inspiration, she grabbed the pins on all three devices and pulled them as she jumped backward off Bashurra’s rack of antlers.
It was a poor showing. She’d only ever carried Motsey or Rale aloft before, and a halfling child was in no way similar to a fully grown, pain stricken hailene. Percival became an unruly jumble of flailing limbs and fluttering wings as they fell. His own effort to slow his fall sent them into a spin while Taylin furiously beat her own wings trying to at least mitigate their death spiral.
Suddenly, it felt like they hit a cushion. Wind howled around them at terrific force, slowing them. They still hit the ground with unceremonious thud, but it was a thud that didn’t include broken bones.
Somewhere, Tal Eserin shouted to Percival, but Taylin’s attention was on Bashurra, who hadn’t missed her and Percival leaping away from him. The demon turned, but that was as far as he got before the grenades went off with two resounding thumps. The top right quarter of the demon’s head simply disappeared into a cloud of debris that was tainted red and black with demonic ichor. Such was the force of the blast that Bashurra was forced back half a dozen steps.
A victorious cry went up from the mercenaries and everyone charged to finished the demon off.
But Bashurra the Crevasse didn’t topple. Missing part of his head, with various holes blasted in his body, and practically bristling with arrows, he only sway on his feet, his remaining eye glaring defiance. “It won’t be that simple, little army.” He taunted.
“Cut me off from the Threefold Moon and you weaken me, yes. But what God of War would simply die from a loss of supply lines?” He brought one fist into the palm of the other hand, wincing at his dislocated thumb, and began to chant. Slowly, his bulk began to shrink and his wound heal.
Instinctively, Taylin reached back for the Eastern Brand, but found nothing. The hazy memory of losing it when Bashurra grabbed her flitted through her head. Ru? How is he doing this? It looked like Brin had the seal up earlier…
She does, Miss Taylin. Replied Ru. However, there is still the matter of his personal reserve. He is using it to stave off succumbing to his injuries. He must be disrupted. Do you still have Novacula Kuponya?
Taylin checked the sheathe at her hip. The so called Razorblade of Remedy was still strapped there, as a non-lethal sword was no use in engaging a demon. She didn’t have to tell him ‘yes’, he just plucked the answer from her mind. But this can’t kill him, Ru. Why—
Draw out the sword, Miss Taylin. The Habaense I added to the blade can stun a cavalry unit and all its horses: it will do nicely in breaking this cur’s regeneration spell.
In all honesty, there were many things Taylin wouldn’t trust Ru on: human nature, morality, combat tactics; but she knew that he was a master with spellcraft and not to be doubted in that department. She drew Novacula Kuponya.
Now, pull back as if to strike and recite:
Ru put the words directly into her mind and Taylin found her mouth working all on its own through the spell. “Bright glow hidden deep within. The living soul of all things of this world. Lend of your essence and return it to its age-old form: the flower of being, formed of the fire of creation. Let my foes contemplate their last moments as it blooms anew.”
The blue gem set in the hilt dimmed, but it was replaced by glowing, white lines that traveled slowly up the blade, sometimes diverting off at angles, but always moving toward the tip.
Now, Miss Taylin: thrust while speaking the last words. Aim for Bashurra’s center.
Taylin took a step forward and did just that. “Habaense!”
The white lines of light intensified until the sword’s blade was lost in a white nimbus. Bursts began to erupt from that flare, trailing brightness of their own while homing in on Bashurra. Dozens of them peels off in an ever expanding cascade until the combined trails brought to mind the petals of some exotic flower.
Bashurra sped up his chant, but the barrage from the Habaense plowed into him, streaking through him as if he were nothing more than smoke and rumor. But for each one that struck him, the demon convulsed and his body twisted. He stopped shrinking, and wounds that were once mended split open anew.
The attack went on for longer than a ten count but Taylin’s reckoning before finally subsiding. When the light finally faded, Bashura the Crevasse still stood, but even as the assembled watched, his healing failed him, his last breath lurching out of him in ragged gasps.
He fell to one knee with a fist planted to keep him upright. Starting at the site of every injury he’d taken, a change began to come over him, transforming his corrupt flesh into smoldering ash. His head crumbled off his neck and was dashed to nothing when it hit the grass at his feet. Then his arms came off at the shoulders, causing his entire body to crumble and collapse.
Bashurra the Crevasse, one of the eldest demons of the Threefold Moon, the deadly enemy to dozens of civilizations, was no more.
Taylin waited until the pile of ash was completely still to release her hold on her rage letting it sink back into the depths of her mind. The scales and claws receded and her wings popped back into their normal place. Before long, she was back to herself.
Hands still white knuckled around Novacula Kuponya, she sank down into the grass and sat down. Behind hind her, she heard a commotion being made over Percival. Soon enough he’d be tended to—and then she would have to answer some difficult questions. Questions even she couldn’t fully answer.
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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