Child of Eidolon

Chapter 5. 'The Changeling'

 

“F’lair?” setting her book down, Soul looked around. A sudden unsettling, nagging sensation at the back of her mind had caused her to speak her lover’s name. She was alone in the room, as she had been for the past hour. Peering at the time candle burning on the dressing table beside the closed window, she could just make out the marker indicating it was coming up to the first bell of the morning. As she watched, it guttered and blew out in an unseen, unfelt breeze. She blinked in surprise and when she opened her eyes saw that it was burning again, “Maybe it was just flickering lots” she said, trying to reassure herself but still her skin crawled and a shiver ran down her spine. “Shit. Feels like someone’s walking all over my grave.” she murmured. Getting out of the warm bed she reached for the dressing robe she had left on the floor when she had gone to bed earlier then changed her mind and went over to the chest of drawers near the screen hiding the garderobe, her tan skin gleaming as she crossed the pool of moonlight pouring in through the window. She hunted through it until she found her trousers and ‘every day’ clothes, dressed quickly and hopped over to the door, pulling her boots on.

She caught herself in the mirror by the door and nodded in approval. Although the fine dresses she had been loaned looked lovely, she felt a lot happier in her armour. The silence brought by her pause by the door proved fortunate indeed as in that moment she heard a slight sound out in the corridor. Drawing her slender brows into a frown that crinkled the tattoo-like mark over her left eye a little, she crept closer to her door, putting an ear against it. There were footsteps outside but not the regular, heavy footfalls of guards on patrol, or the busy steps of servants about their work: these were the careful, affected steps of people trying to be quiet. Sneaking. There was whispering too but strain as she might, she could not make out the words. She could not tell how many people were out there, but it was more than one. She widened her eyes as there came a soft scraping noise, unmistakable to her ears as the sound of a blade being quietly unsheathed.

Padding silently over to the dressing table, she grabbed the ornate candlestick that held the time candle. It was solid metal but she suspected, too heavy for gold. How cheap for a royal palace! She thought. Still, be it gilded lead or iron, it would serve her purpose. Wrapping a light shift she found in a drawer around it to muffle any sound, she slid it across under the handles for the double doors, effectively barring them. As the footsteps grew ever closer, she cast about for another way out of her room, knowing her temporary barrier would not hold whoever was out there for long.

Option one: the balcony with its ledge and trellis plant climbing up from the ground four floors down. ‘Too obvious’ she thought. Option two: the garderobe. ‘Bleeurgh’ Soul immediately vetoed that one with a grimace. She froze as she heard the lock click softly behind her then the doors juddered a little as someone tried to open them, the movement caused the candlestick to shift position and she realised with a gulp that it was not going to hold. “Think fast, girl!” she told herself as the doors rattled again, this time with much more force. The candlestick became dislodged, falling to the floor with a loud thud that resounded through the wooden floor. Then the doors burst open and armed figures dressed in long black robes poured into the room.

 

A loud thud from the room next door started Blackjack from his meditations, nearly making him lose his balance and land on his head. He unfolded his wings from the batlike cocoon they formed about his body, uncrossed his arms and cocked his head, ears pricked as he heard the sounds of movement next door. Hanging upside down by the backs of his knees from the crossbar over the end of the four-poster bed with his tail wrapped around it for extra security, he swung very slightly to and fro, frowning. “That doesn’t sound like F’lair and Mech’ up to stuff.” He thought aloud then fell silent when he heard movement outside the door. He had no candles lit in his room, and the curtains were mostly closed making it almost pitch black. This was not a hindrance for Blackjack, but it certainly made it very noticeable to him when the light coming in under his door from the lamps in the hallway was suddenly extinguished.

With a single flowing movement he swung forward and up, grabbing the crossbar and pulling upward with his arms. Then from this sitting position he bounced up, bringing his legs up beneath him to finish in a crouch. Not much liking the new clothes he had acquired of late, Blackjack had put his usual garb on this evening and quietly thanked Kalganos he still had his knives in their holsters when he heard the lock click. The door swung open, and there was an airy rushing then thudding sound as six crossbow bolts buried themselves in the bed where, had they not changed rooms, Soul and Shade would have been sleeping.

Blackjack’s night vision easily picked up the movements as six robed figures crept into the room, knives held before them. The last one in closed the door, whispering “Get a lamp lit.” One of the other figures reached into his robe.

Not waiting for better illumination to give him away, Blackjack acted. Three knives flew through the air, hitting home with dull, meaty thumps. He saw two of the would-be murderers clutch at their throats while the last, the figure by the door, cried out and grabbed at his shoulder. The wound was already empty though as the knives vaporised, returning to their owner’s hands. Then the lamp flared to life, revealing to the four remaining bewildered men, scrabbling to reload their crossbows, what had just happened to their comrades. They stared at the empty bed, devoid of any dead enemies they might have hoped to find and then as one their gaze drifted upward as Blackjack emitted a blood-curdling hiss and spread his wings like the shadow of death looming over them.

The three uninjured men redoubled their efforts to reload their weapons but, as the old adage went, more haste made less speed and their fumbling got them nowhere. With a throaty snarl Blackjack dropped off the crossbar and landed with all his weight on the assailant directly in front of him, grabbing the top of his head with one hand and twisting with lethal efficiency as they went down, killing him before they fully hit the ground. Snapping his wings open the dracosvulf knocked away the two attackers either side, one of them cracking his head on the sharp corner of a chest of drawers and falling limp to the ground then, knife in hand, launched himself forward at the third quaking foe in front of him. The man whimpered, clutching the unloaded crossbow in both hands and holding it before him like some talisman of protection. It did not offer much defence against an angry dracosvulf however and the robed man was despatched with a single strike to the heart, the knife snicking in then withdrawing with merciful speed.

Before he even crumpled Blackjack focussed his sights on the cowled figure nearest the door. The lamp had been dropped during the fracas but it was still burning, casting long dancing shadows and enough light for the dracosvulf to see this man's robes were less plain than the others', decorated as they were with silver piping and embroidered designs. Through the stench of blood, urine and faeces expelled by the relaxation of muscles in death, Blackjack was sure he recognised the man's scent, but it was too lost in the miasma for him to tell properly as his target backed toward the door, reeking of fear. Smiling a blood-smattered smile, he advanced a step, fingers flexing so that his talons caught the light with a wicked gleam that threatened imminent agony.

The robed stranger cowered against the left-hand door as this fell creature took another step toward him. Just then the other door slammed fully opened and three of his cohorts charged in, crossbow bolts flying. Blackjack deftly evaded two, twisting his body one way then ducking back the other as they thrummed past but the third caught him in the thigh and he stumbled at the wave of agony and the sudden weakness of his leg, dropping into a crouch to save from falling over completely.

Raising his head, he found himself nose to point with a loaded crossbow.

 

 

As the commotion in the room next door began, the intruders searching her room turned and ran out the door. Soul breathed a sigh of relief and stepped out of her cramped hiding place in the tallboy.

Just before her door burst open she had jumped into the cupboard and silently shut the door behind her, taking the key and locking it from the inside. Through her keyhole she watched as the hooded figures ran in, brandishing crossbows and various other sharp implements designed for cutting soft flesh. Seeing no apparent occupant, they had run across to the balcony and spoke to one another in quiet mutterings. She just caught the words ‘…must’ve flown off’.

Of course she thought, they think this is Black’s room. Then she put a hand to her mouth: he was next door, she had to warn him.

“Stay here in case he comes back. Search the room while you’re at it!” whispered one anonymous figure, made slighty less anonymous than the others by the intricate embroidery around the hems of his robes. She thought his voice was familiar but could not place it. From her limited view she saw most of the figures save three leave. The remaining intruders started opening drawers and searching about. She wondered what they expected to find as she, Shade and Blackjack had left all their possessions in Knightmare’s guard down in the stables.

Her heart skipped a beat when intruder tried the cupboard, but when the door failed to open after a quick rattle they seemed to lose interest. The strangers had frozen for a second as the sounds of a fight began next door, then they all rushed out of the room.

She ran over to the balcony and gauged the distance to the adjacent one. She decided she would need a little ‘extra boost’ to get over.

 

 

Careful not to move, he let his gaze rise up along the weapon and then track up its bearer's arm until he reached the cowled face, hidden by shadows so deep even he could not see in. It was the intruder with the embroidered robes.

“You murdered five of our initiates, you animal!”

“And? They wouldn't have done the same to me?” Blackjack asked dryly, “Or are you trying to tell me they just burst in here to give me a foot-rub, then?” he added, trying to buy time but he was not sure this ploy would work. There were other weapon-bearing figures behind in case he got away from this one, but the sharp point of the bolt, loaded with enough potential energy that if turned into kinetic energy by the simple squeeze of a trigger would be more than adequate to redecorate the wall behind him in an interesting pattern of dracosvulf blood and brains with possibly a few shards of skull for good measure, currently pressing against his nose was a more urgent concern right now. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the curtains billow in the night breeze 'Funny' thought a detached part of his mind 'I thought I'd closed the window'.

The attacker adjusted his grip slightly, prodding the bolt harder against Blackjack's sensitive nose, “You and your companions should never have come here to interfere with Lord Eidolon's affairs. Prepare to dieaaaAARGH” his voice ascended into a scream as something huge and lightning fast lunged at him from the darkness, slamming him aside in a spray of hot, sticky blood. But the initial jarring movement made him squeeze the trigger, loosing the deadly bolt.

Blackjack stayed stock still, suppressing an involuntary whimper. He could feel the trickle of blood run down his cheek as it welled up from the stinging cut left by the bolt as it grazed past him. Very gingerly he reached up and touched the parting in his thick mane where it had passed through as he confirmed with a couple of light touches to check his head was intact.

The fight was over quickly and violently. Suddenly a lupine snout covered in soft reddish fur save for a dark tattoo over one its left eye filled Blackjack's view. Soul's fur was spattered with fresh blood which she tried to lick off with her pink, flat tongue as she tilted her head to the left and made a quizzical whining noise in the back of her cavernous throat.

“Too. Close.” Blackjack replied, still in a state of shock as he touched his fingers to the cut then held them up. Soul sniffed then went to lick them. Sheer revulsion broke through whatever spell the near miss had cast on the Daemonslayer and Blackjack yanked his hand back, “Ergh! That's disgusting Mech', you vile fleabag!”

Soul just gave the werewolf equivalent of a laugh: a wolfish smile and high yap.

“You think it's funny? What would F'lair think?” That stopped her. Within five heartbeats Blackjack was facing Soul's usual human form.

Panting a little to catch her breath after the transformation she shook her head, long hair falling about her shoulders, “Have you seen him? I don’t know where he is!” concern shone bright in her eyes as she rubbed at her face, trying to get the blood off.

“When did you last see him?”

“About an hour ago. He went off to get some bedding.” Soul’s eyes drifted about the carnage in the room, pointedly looking at the doomed would-be assassins before bringing her gaze back to meet Blackjack’s narrow, intense stare, “I’ve not seen him since. And more; just before those guys bust in, I got a real creepy sensation. Something’s going on.”

“Beyond the obvious?” Blackjack said jokingly. Shifting his own gaze away from Soul he ran his left hand, fingers spread, through his mane removing all trace of his latest brush with death, “I felt something too…” he admitted quietly, his voice trailed off uncertain whether he wanted to elaborate on what he thought he had sensed. Then he continued in his usual more brash tone, “We both know what Shade’s luck’s like. He’s probably in twice as much trouble as we nearly were. We’d better go look for him, especially if Lord Eidolon is involved.”

“Here.” She passed him some torn cloth and gritting her teeth in sympathy as she watched as Blackjack set his jaw, put one hand on his injured leg and grasp the shaft of the protruding bolt with the other. With a grunt he yanked it out, trailing blood which he quickly used the cloth to staunch. “Who is this Eidolon anyway?” she asked, offering to help her friend up.

Graciously accepting the proffered hand Blackjack got up and grabbed a halberd from the lifeless fingers of one of Soul’s victims, shut the doors then barred the handles with it, “Eidolon? It's a type of daemon, but also the name of one of the Lords of Darkness. He operates through the infection of mortals because he’s a coward who doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.” He assessed the barricade a moment then, for good measure, he got behind a chest of drawers and shoved it across the doors too. Soul was quick to help as his injury proved a hindrance in the task. “Right. That ought to stop them finding this mess for a bit.” He said, wiping his hands together as if to signify a job well done.

In the meantime, Soul reached toward the bloody robe of the assassin who had threatened Blackjack, “He uses just normal people?” she asked.

“People who might actually be useful, yes.. Them and Changelings.”

Centimetres away she hesitated, then withdrew her hand, drew her sword and instead used its point to push back the dead man’s hood. The ruddy glow of the dying lamp caught the moist glisten of the Seneschal’s dead, staring eyes set above a mouth gaping in a silent scream, “Uh, Blackjack?”

He looked over her shoulder at the corpse and made a grunting noise that could have meant anything. Then he limped over to the window, hopped onto the balcony railing and spread his wings, offering his back to Soul, “Climb aboard; we’re taking the short cut.”

 

The wizard stood over the grisly corpse of the outsider, watching his blood flow sluggishly from the red lake about his lifeless form down along the slight gradient and pattern of channels in the floor, almost imperceptible to the naked eye. It ran in both directions to form a dark circle, moist where it had not yet coagulated. Finally both rivulets met at the far side of the design, completing the circle.

She glanced impatiently at the time candle she had brought with her, her eye ridges knitting to form an annoyed scowl: almost first bell. The Seneschal was late. Of course she was more than capable of performing the Inauguration herself, but it would be impolite of him to miss such an important moment in King Iance’s career. “It would also have been nice to have some help here” she muttered aloud. Picking up the body with a grunt, Erile was surprised at how light he was, but then again, she reasoned, perhaps missing half your chest and most of your blood will do that to a human. Half-carrying half dragging him, she hauled him over to the secret door and left him just inside, out of sight beside the unconscious form of a maidservant she had drugged, the original plan being to sacrifice her lifeblood. “It’s your lucky night,” Erile smirked at her. She would have an acolyte return the girl to her quarters so she would wake up the next morning none the wiser save for a sore head.

Smoothing down her black velvet robes she was surprised again, this time at how little blood she had got over herself and the floor. Not thinking to inspect the gory wound, she pushed the bookcase to and hurried back to the circle.

Iance was already there, standing alone beside the large pool of blood and regarding the dakron with eyes that reflected red when they caught the dim light, “Has the Seneschal dealt with our guests?” he asked.

Erile nodded, “He and some of our initiates were dispatched for the girl and the beast a while ago.” Then she smiled and gestured toward the floor, “As for the man, Shade, he turned out to have his uses.”

Iance looked surprised, and not in a good way “You used the blood of an outlander for the circle?” There was a tinge of outrage in his voice.

“It does not matter whose blood or even what creature the blood came from. So long as at least some of it is from the heart.” The wizard replied quickly, smoothing her hands, palms down, over the air in front of her in a placating gesture.

“I am a King, you know. There are certain standards that really ought to be observed.” Iance put his hands on his hips then sighed, “Still, as long as it does the job, I suppose.” He sniffed, “At least that foreigner was good for something besides scuppering our plan to have those shadow riders conveniently despatch my darling cousin. So, what must I do?”

“Right now, your majesty, you are but a Changeling: a human body housing a hidden demon seed. To allow your power to reach its full extent, we must release your true self from the bonds within that have helped keep you nature hidden throughout the difficult time of childhood.”

“Yes, yes, I know all that. What must I do?” he waved Erile’s words away impatiently with a limp-wristed gesture.

Erile sighed, and looked up out of the huge clear glass leaded window as though the night sky could lend her patience. When a lightning bolt had broken the original stained glass window on the night of the king’s birth, it had caused some consternation amongst the nobles when the Seneschal had insisted on overseeing the reconstruction project himself, replacing all the coloured glass with clear crystal. In the end, it had been considered a thing of beauty along with the intricate marquetry floor that had been put in at the same time. As she looked, the cloud that had passed before the moons lifted, allowing the combined light of the red and gold moons to filter through the window and shine in a faintly orange pool across the circle. The shadow pattern of the leaded glass created arcane and demonic symbols in the circle. “I was trying to inject at least some sense of ceremony into the occasion. But, since you do not deem that necessary, all you must do is step into the circle when the moonlight shines upon it.”

“That’s all? Like now?”

“Yes. Now.” She rolled her eyes when the king’s back was turned. Still, she would maintain her patience and console herself with the knowledge that Changelings were not meant to think for themselves much, and certainly not before their Inauguration. They were catspaws, there to occupy a seat of power and issue the commands of their master, who was safely sequestered away controlling his other puppets.

Iance took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, then stepped forward a few paces into the circle’s centre. He tilted his head back letting the soft light wash over his handsome, flaxen features then opened his eyes; they glowed red now, matching the aura about his entire body. When he spoke his voice was deeper, more resonant and sounded older, much older than before, “Is that it?” He felt a little suspicious at how simple this was. Then experienced a sensation as though something had awoken deep within. He realised with this growing sensation that, just as the infernal, patronising wizard had always promised, he did indeed sense a power that had always been there, yet had now grown and was finally within his grasp. He felt as though he could reach out and grab the minds of all around him, bend them to his will and that of his master. His master… he sensed now a connection to a greater being than he. Distant, yet mighty. Iance suddenly realised he wanted to do his master’s bidding, it was his only true desire, the only task worthy of his power.

“I hate to interrupt the moment, but Lord Eidolon’s followers are gathered in the temple below. They expect him to address them through you as his vessel.” Erile had grown quickly tired of watching Iance standing there with a radiant, dumb smile on his face.

“Ah yes. Mine and my master’s minions await.” As he strode out of the circle, toward the secret door the radiance surrounding him faded and the burning embers of his eyes diminished, showing normal, human pupils once more as Iance hid his demonic nature. Erile turned to follow him, but he held up a hand to stop her, “You can join the celebrations once you’ve cleaned up this mess. We don’t want anyone to think there’s been some occult goings on in here now, do we?” he said with a little laugh before stepping through the door and closing it in the wizard’s face.

Unable to fit words to her outrage, Erile’s mouth opened as closed as her livid stare bored into the books covering the secret door. Finally she found the words, “I’m a wizard, not a maidservant you arrogant monkey-man! If it wasn’t for me you’d never have become a Changeling in the first place and your cousin who’s got at least four functioning brain-cells (which is more than twice as many as you) would be king!” she shouted as loud as she dared. Fuming, she glared at the circle and pool of blood, then realised Iance had walked right through it, leaving a trail of footprints across the floor for her to clean up as well. Losing her composure entirely, she picked up a book at random and threw it on the floor, swearing loudly and cursing that arrogant puppet.

Despite a tradition of magic spanning aeons, there were, in fact, no wizards on Tymaera who knew any cleaning spells. Somehow learning about fireballs and magewinds made wizards forget the little things. Muttering balefully to herself Erile stormed out of the library and stomped off to a cleaners’ closet she knew of in a nearby corridor.

Had she not been several corridors away, rooting through the brooms and dust cloths for a mop and bucket, Erile would have instantly sensed the sudden dark presence that awakened back in the library. As it was, she paused in her search as a cold shiver ran down her spine and, although reptiles do not get goose bumps, she felt the skin on her neck begin to prickle. Finally locating the necessary utensils, she hurried back to the library then stopped by the door as she heard a noise from within. Quickly getting out of the doorway she leant against the wall beside the open door, mop and steel bucket clutched to her chest and listened intently, quite unaware that this was where her victim had stood only a short while before.

The sound she had heard was the middle panel of the great glass window opening: it was connected on each side to the surrounding frame and swung open about its axis. She heard some scrambling sounds, then a thud as whatever was out there dropped to the floor.

“Why the library? There’s no one in here” whispered a light female voice.

“The markings on the window. I know I recognise them from somewhere and I’m certain it’s nowhere good-” A second, much harsher voice, this one male, began but was interrupted.

“Gods! Look at the floor!” she heard the first voice gasp. There was another sound, like flapping leathery material followed by a thud and a grunt from the male. Erile narrowed her eyes, recognising the voices’ owners. It was the other Daemonslayers: that fay-girl, Soul and the creature Blackjack. This could only mean trouble. She decided against intervening and stood tensed, ready to run for it if flight became necessary. The eavesdropping wizard surmised this was Blackjack jumping through the window, using his wings for an easy drop, “It’s blood, I think. And look at the pattern.” Soul’s voice continued.

“Changelings.”

“You think?”

“Yeah. The markings form a circle in which a changeling’s Inauguration takes place: where the demon seed in the ‘human’ puppet becomes active rather than dormant, if you will.”

“I have read about them, you know.” Soul sounded a bit irritated.

Blackjack just replied with a sardonic, “Well done.”

“This is blood…” Soul trailed off, her tone preoccupied. Erile heard a sniffing sound like an animal taking in a scent, then Soul spoke again, voice wavering a little, “It’s F’lair’s.” F’lair? Erile thought then decided Soul must have been referring to Shade by his real name. Then the voices became indistinct, as though the speakers had moved away and although she could hear them, Erile could not distinguish actual words or phrases, although she did catch ‘changeling’ a couple more times and the final words she caught was Blackjack saying “…dracoliche on the loose.”

What? What in the Abyss has a dracoliche got to do with this? She stared hard at the opposite wall of the corridor, as though it might yield her an explanation. She certainly could remember no mention in her master’s, Lord Eidolon’s, plans about including one of those awful creatures.

 

 

 

In the darkness of the secret room, Shade’s eyelids flickered then opened. The eyes that looked out, their unnatural vision unimpeded by the lack of light, were not F’lair’s, though: they were Raven’s. The two seas of blackness deep as the Abyss, each pupiled by only a contracted, infernal point of chilling light, took in the surroundings and all there was to know about the room in a fraction of a second. Then he looked down, assessing the state of his host’s body. For the moment, his body. Raven curled a lip in distaste as he noticed the gaping hole in his vessel’s chest. Then his gaze fell upon the bright young soul, surrounded by its miasma of life force glowing in the unconscious servant beside him. With a self-satisfied hiss he reached out a hand, clawing his fingers.

The girl never knew what killed her.

The stolen essence gave Raven something to work with and the damage to his host’s body regenerated at a rate more accelerated than normal, replacing obliterated bone structure and allowing him to get up and move about. In a few minutes the wound would be gone completely, but for the moment Raven had to be content with an unwieldy body that staggered a little as he crossed the chamber. His witchsight had revealed the entrance to the passages beyond the secret room. So, reaching out and leaning clumsily with one hand on the wood-panelled wall for support he rammed the fingers of his free hand into the edge of the hidden door then wrenched it open, his supernatural strength making the movement appear effortless as the wooden door was torn from its hinges. Then he stumbled off into the darkness, cursing humanoids and their weak bodies as he went.

 

After a while he had regenerated enough to recover from the stagger and now Raven slipped silently through the labyrinth of secret passages that honeycombed the walls and basements of Castle Aldoc. Some were lit by guttering torches whilst others were in complete darkness. Raven had originally been seeking an exit: a task that proved itself more difficult that it first seemed. Shade’s body had mostly healed, but all this currently meant was that Raven could simply get lost faster, which made for a rather annoyed dracoliche. Just as he began considering summoning a lost soul from those he could sense in what he presumed to be the dungeons and torture chambers nearby, the tinge of magic on a draft that blew gently from a downward-sloping passage made him stop in his tracks. This corridor enjoyed much better illumination with far more torches in its wall sconces than the others and a comparative lack of dust on the flagstones suggested it was in frequent or at least recent use.

Raven stood still, the draft lifting a few of the loose strands of hair hanging down either side of Shade’s face the only movement about him. Half-closing his eyes as he stared into the smokey gloom and dancing shadows he concentrated on the trace of magic. Without losing awareness of his current surroundings, Raven let his mind follow the magic, tasting its darkness as its path descended in a slow, wide spiral that led to a place of great power and a gathering of… “Souls.” His eyes snapped wide open. Then he smiled unpleasantly. He would find those responsible for the injury caused to his host and then he would make them suffer for daring to cross a dracoliche.

 

 

 

The pungent scent of Shade’s attacker’s perfume was easy to follow as it hung on the sluggish air currents of Castle Aldoc’s secret subterranean regions. With his axe slung ready on his shoulder Blackjack limped along, gritting his teeth against the pain throbbing in his hastily-bandaged thigh.

At the moment he was more concerned for Soul than himself and he cast frequent unnoticed sidelong glances at her. She had fallen strangely quiet since the discovery of Shade’s blood and he was bothered that, given the chance, she would do something rash that would in all likelihood lead to further injury to his personage. That steadily determined glare in her eyes was always a dead giveaway she was going to leap before she looked. Blackjack clicked his upper incisors against his lip ring, congratulating himself on his wise decision not to point out the fresh corpse he had noticed just inside the secret entrance to these catacombs.

They had spotted and followed the bloody foot prints leading across the library and, upon finding the concealed door, Soul had stormed straight through the little antechamber, past the smashed inner door and into the torch lit corridor beyond where the prints started to fade as the blood had dried and worn off from Shade’s attacker’s boot. Advancing more cautiously, Blackjack had taken in the surroundings, instantly spotting the dead body. It was female but the skin was so shrivelled she could have been pushing a hundred winters. She was still warm and, having had the displeasure of seeing such cases before, Blackjack suspected she’d had the essence drawn from her… and seeing there was more of Shade’s blood next to her the conclusion that this was somehow connected to his ‘lodger’ was all too-easy to reach. He decided Soul did not need to know about that little discovery right now: she was upset enough as it was.

“Will you stop that?” Soul snapped suddenly.

“What?”

“That stupid clicking noise.” She growled.

“Only if you stop looking like you’re about to break out in a berserker rage.”

Soul stopped in her tracks, “I do?” she asked, turning to look at him, some of the dangerous, murderous fire draining from her eyes.

“Yes.”

She sighed, shoulders slumping, “I’m just really worried about F’lair.”

“I know. But if you go kamikaze and the situation gets out of hand I’ve little desire be taken down with you.”

They carried on walking in a more comfortable silence until they arrived upon an intersection with two smaller darkened corridors heading off to either side and the larger, better-lit continuation of their current passageway sloping downward straight ahead.

“Not much to choose from, huh?” remarked Soul, looking over at Blackjack who just nodded in reply. He was leaning heavily against the wall and Soul regarded him more closely, starting to worry: he still looked beat up from whatever incident he had been involved in at Boundary and now she noted the fresh blood seeping through his leg bandage. He looked up at her suddenly and she hoped he had not noticed her staring: Blackjack hated being stared at and she wasn’t in the mood for him to get sarcastic as she was sure he would if he realised he was being worried about, “Is your leg okay?” she asked quickly.

“It’s fine. C’mon.” he growled gruffly, starting forward and attempting to hide the limp.

The passage sloped downwards in an increasingly steep spiral for about half a mile or so before flattening out at a transition between lit man-made tunnel and dark natural cave walls with the stunted beginnings of stalactites populating the ceiling. There was a forbidding chill in the air that stemmed from more than just the cold dampness of the deep underground.

There were no more torches and Soul resigned herself to having to trust to Blackjack to warn her of lumps and bumps in the otherwise smooth floor until her eyes became accustomed to the gloom and when they did she realised there was a faint light source up ahead. She sniffed; there was a heavy scent in the air not unlike the incense that pervaded the castle above.

“What’s up there?” she whispered.

Blackjack gave her a nonplussed look, lost on her in the darkness, “How should I know?” he cocked his head, ears pricked, “There’s something… I think I can hear chanting.”

“Me too.” Soul confirmed after a moment’s listening. She frowned, “What happens after this ‘Inauguration’ thing?”

Taking advantage of the pause in proceedings, Blackjack leaned against the cave wall again, shifting his weight to his uninjured leg for a brief moment’s respite, “Usually some kind of gathering. Any changeling has an entourage of hangers-on, helpers, ‘well-wishers’ and so on who’ll congregate to see their efforts reach fruition. For a changeling in an important enough position Lord Eidolon himself might show his ugly face.”

“But why all the way down here?”

“Oh come on, Soul. You know demons and their followers like to be furtive in their activities” replied the dracosvulf matter-of-factly.

A light dawned on Soul’s face, “So what you’re saying is all the bad guys will be in the same place, far away from innocent bystanders?”

The malicious grin that spread across Blackjack’s features, illuminated by his glowing eyes, said far more than words could. Now the penny drops, girl he thought evilly.

“Payback time!” her eyes flashed with the feral, savage light of her werewolf side and she looked back down the passageway to the flickering luminescence ahead. Blackjack shifted his weight back to both his legs, wincing but surreptitiously hiding it when she looked back at him “Let’s go.”

 

 

The ominous chanting grew ever louder as they approached the light until upon rounding a sharp bend they found themselves at the top of a set of steps leading down into a natural amphitheatre. It appeared there was a natural gallery running around the edge of the amphitheatre lined with stalactites and stalagmites which in many places joined to form pillars of calciferous rock. Almost like bars. The floor of the natural cavern was filled out by at least a hundred figures dressed in black robes similar to their earlier (and now late) attackers.

Before the droning audience, upon a raised stony platform stood a lone figure dressed in the same garb save his were intricately patterned in what appeared to be various runes and hermetic symbols, all strangely repulsive to the eye. He was leading the chant. Between the low plateau and the gathering was a pit filled with slowly bubbling and churning black liquid that could have been mistaken for a tar pit were it not for the heavy dark vapour that flowed from it, rolling across the floor like a ground-hugging mist of ill repute.

Realising they were in full view, the two Daemonslayers dived for cover before they were seen. Squabbling and getting in each others’ ways as they quested for the best bit of cover Blackjack and Soul’s unnecessary amount of noise was fortunately hidden by the continuous chant distorted and echoed by the cavern, making the words unintelligible. Suddenly the unholy sound stopped and they froze, Blackjack with his hand in Soul’s face and her in the process of trying to elbow him aside but luckily the unedifying scramble had gone unnoticed. Cautiously they peered out from either side of the pillar they had both been trying to hide behind.

“Where’s Shade?” whispered Soul, loudly as she dared. She bit her lip trying to quell the rising surge of panic – she could not see him anywhere.

“I can’t see him” replied Blackjack.

“You… you don’t think they’d have thrown him in that awful pit, do you?” Soul asked, voice trembling a little at the thought of something horrible happening to her loved one.

Thinking back to the still-warm body of the maidservant, its essence drained dry, Blackjack shook his head, “I doubt that very much,” He said quietly.

The figure on the platform threw back his hood and raised his hands in acceptance of the acclaim of the crowd. Soul put a hand to her mouth, “It’s the king! So Iance was a demon after all! How does it feel to be wrong, eh Black’?” He just ignored her and pretended to concentrate on the scene below.

“It is good that you are all here!” spoke the King. His resonant voice carried a new weight and was strangely amplified in ways that could not be wholly attributed to the cavern’s natural acoustics, “Lord Eidolon extends his gratitude for your service over these long years of my gestation. But now I am whole such patience and loyalty will be rewarded as the base of our master’s power grows through my actions in his name.”

Blackjack and Soul exchanged worried glances as the king spoke of world domination, subjugation and the usual things of which demons and the megalomaniacal tended to dream, how his followers and supporters would reap vast rewards and see their enemies crushed and brought low, starting with the Daemonslayers whose day today had been their last.

“It’s always nice to get a mention,” grinned Blackjack, running a thumb along one of the Unbinder’s blades in anticipation of the carnage he planned to come. He looked with satisfaction at the narrow line of blood it drew.

“And it begins tonight!” roared Iance, drawing back their attention as he finished his speech to yet more cheers. He motioned to three of the shady figures in the front row to push back their hoods, revealing themselves to their brethren. The two Daemonslayers instantly recognised them as the diplomatic delegation from Brae but their movements were mechanical, their eyes glazed and expressions slack, “Our ‘honoured guests’ will be the first of Lord Eidolon’s ‘adopted’ children and they shall return to their land baring his word.”

“They look like they’re drugged or something. We have to help them!” gasped Soul. She rose to her feet but Blackjack grabbed her arm and pulled her back down to where she had crouched.

“Too late; listen.” He hissed.

“-all thanks to our own Wizard Erile,” Iance was saying, “for delivering them into our power with little more than an after-dinner nibble.” His tone was condescending to match his smile, “And now they shall be given our master’s seed to carry and spread.”

“So they weren’t all for her after all, then. I knew she was too skinny to eat all that.” Mused Blackjack.

“What? What are you on about?” Soul glared at Blackjack then shook her head, “Never mind. What’re we going to do-” she broke off as movement on the cavern floor below caught her eye, “What’s that?” she asked in horror.

Iance had raised his arms and began to speak in an unholy and blasphemous tongue while the Brae diplomats stood in a line before the mysterious pit. The liquid therein had escalated from mere bubbling to a boiling, roiling mass. As it heaved and churned it began to assume hideous form as an unspeakably alien shape that could never be named.

Blackjack watched the horror with his usual stoic expression while Soul stared with open revulsion. “Ew, gods. It’s all mouths and eyes and tentacles. What in all the hells is it?”

“Lord Eidolon.” came the simple, hushed reply.

Here? But you said he didn’t show his face on the mortal plane!”

“Not specifically; I just told you he was fucking ugly. That monstrosity down there is just a sending as he can’t fully enter the Prime Material Plane, but that makes it no less lethal. That pit must be a stress point in the fabric of reality: not quite a gateway between worlds but the walls might be stretched thin enough to allow for some form of portal.”

Soul nodded, mouth open as she stared at the writhing mass. The demon-sending’s burning red eyes, abhorrent fang-toothed mouths and twisting tentacles were senselessly placed all over the pulsating amorphous blob of what could loosely be called its body. There was no sound other than Iance’s chanting now as the followers of Lord Eidolon looked on, entranced. Soul wondered how they could not show the same revilement she felt.

A glowing orb of sickly light appeared at the end of one tentacle and the demon-sending reached slowly toward the diplomat standing at the left end of their short line. The man stood unmoving as the light approached and when it finally touched him the orb broke, disintegrating into what could only be described as glowing maggots. The unfortunate’s body convulsed as these crawled all over him, some disappearing into his robes to be lost from sight while others close to his head crawled into his body through any available orifice. Although he was under a deep spell the man screamed in unmatched agony as the things ate away his very soul to replace it with the demon seed, transforming him into something other than human.

The tentacle retracted and another orb of the same unhealthy glow appeared at its end, reaching toward the second delegate, touching him with the same horrible end as before. Somehow the cries of lancing pain broke through the spell on the third victim as he suddenly started to scream, turned and tried to run. The acolytes behind him were quick to act though, grabbing him and forcefully turning him back to face the demonlord. Without breaking chant Iance pointed at the hapless victim in a very obvious ‘you’re next’ gesture, causing him to cry and gibber in terror as the eyes of the intolerably alien abomination swivelled to fix upon him.

“Well he’s a goner, eh Soul?.” Blackjack remarked, settling on his haunches to watch the show, deciding it would be much safer and more fruitful to attack the assemblage once the sending was gone leaving them to face more … mortal foe, “Soul’?” he swore quietly when he realised he was alone in the gallery and cast about for his comrade. With a sinking heart he spotted her creeping down the staircase into the amphitheatre, making stealthy use of the diversion of attention to the demon, “Aw, crap. What does she think she’s doing?” he groaned, passing a hand in front of his eyes in disbelief.

Good, just keep not looking in this direction, Thought Soul as she crept in her half-crouch. She reached to the quiver on her back for her bow and an arrow before remembering she had left them in the stables. Bugger! Plan B, then. She crept down the remaining stairs behind the eerily silent acolytes, hoping Iance’s chants and the screams of the hostage would mask her approach. Judging by the increasingly frantic cries of the latter’s protestations there was little time left to act as the demon-sending’s infection must be getting close to him. She drew her throwing knife and stood on her toes to see where to aim. There was her target, the glowing orb, just visible over the hooded heads. She took aim, adjusted her grip and drew back her arm then, not noticing the warning hiss and footfalls behind here, threw the blade at the tentacle.

A split second later; a split second too late, Blackjack slammed into her in a desperate and futile bid to stop her throwing the knife, sending them both sprawling.

Soul’s throwing action had been flawless and the knife described a perfect, graceful and glinting arc as it caught the torchlight in its flight. Unfortunately that was all that was perfect about it. The blade flew completely off target, missing the tentacle by miles, sailing over the pulsing, grotesque demon, whistled by just short of Iance’s left armpit and clattered harmlessly to the ground some feet behind him.

The chanting stopped. Even the screaming stopped.

A sea of black hoods swished and whispered as the acolytes turned as one to stare at the two Daemonslayers. A parting appeared in their ranks allowing Iance and several of the demon-sending’s eyes an unimpeded view. “You!” snarled the changeling. If words could kill then that single syllable dripped with enough poison to kill an army “Kill them!” he hissed.

“Not good.” Blackjack growled.

“Well if you got off me then maybe we could both fight!” snapped Soul.

Blackjack gave her an unamused look, “I’ll divert them. Try and kill the king and the infected diplomats. Whatever you do, stay clear of Lord Eidolon’s sending.” Blackjack said quickly through gritted teeth.

As he snapped his wings open Soul felt him tense for a moment before he swept them down, leaping into the air with only a slight wobble thanks to his injury. She was on her feet in an instant, just as the charged. With a deafening bellow that resounded about the cavern Blackjack dropped from the air into the heart of the crowd, swinging his axe before he even hit the ground. At the sudden one-dracosvulf melee erupting in their midst the acolytes turned in on themselves to deal with the threat, leaving Soul (apparently considered a lesser threat, which made her feel rather peeved) with only a couple to dispatch before running round the edge of the mob, ducking low to stay out of Iance’s line of sight.

Reaching the bottom of the platform she saw her quarry was staring into the centre of the brawl and, eyes trained on his face in case he were to look up, she snuck round the edge of the platform until she was behind him. She bit her lip, looking up at the king’s back: cold-blooded backstabbing was more Blackjack’s style, not hers and it was even more off putting when the foe was of human form. Still, Iance was a demon intent on spreading his dark lord’s evil and Blackjack was a bit preoccupied to be doing the dirty work this time. She let the anger at the thought this man had hurt Shade take control, helping wash away any thoughts of conscience, gritted her teeth and climbed onto the platform, drew her sword and raised it for its lethal strike.

The next moments passed in such a blur she barely realised what had happened until Iance had her by the throat. She plunged her sword into his back, or would have done had he not somehow suddenly been turned to face her and, without actually moving, avoided her deadly strike and grabbed her neck. He mercilessly squeezed pressure points until she painfully dropped her sword and then treated her to a dashing, charming and more than a little condescending smile. He commanded the acolytes to stop.

Taking advantage Blackjack hewed down one more opponent with a sneaky backhanded slash neck before stopping when he realised what had happened, “Aw, Soul. Can’t you get anything right?” he complained, lowering his axe.

“Apparently not.” Iance replied for her.

With the ease with which one might lift a straw dolly Iance lifted Soul, struggling only weakly now as breathing was becoming hard, and walked to the very front of his platform. He held her at arm’s length out over the pit. She managed a whimper as she saw the features of the hideous chaos demon-sending below rearrange until most of the mouths were directly below her dangling feet, ready to tear her apart.

“Put up your weapon, Blackjack.”

Half the eyes in the churning mass of Lord Eidolon’s sending rolled to fix balefully on him and Blackjack found he was unable to move, paralysed where he stood. Those countless ever-shifting mouths moved in unison then, expelling a maddening loathsome sound that was the beast’s abhorrent tongue. Though Blackjack knew a few of the major demonic languages he did not understand this cacophony though by the way Iance nodded it appeared the changeling did.

Suddenly some of the eyes looked away to fix again upon the quavering form of the Braeian diplomat who had been trying to crawl unnoticed away from the drama. A black, wetly shining tentacle lashed out, catching him about the waist and dragging him kicking and screaming inexorably toward the demon’s bulk. He was lifted above the nest of mouths and for a cruel second dangled in the air alongside Soul. She glanced sideways at him and then wished she hadn’t when she caught those desperate eyes, knowing there was nothing she could do to help.

The tentacle let go and he plunged into the waiting maws. Some of them closed upon him and retracted into the demon’s bulk, taking parts of him with them while other mouths grew out on stalks, striking like vipers and tearing flesh from bone. One plunged into his belly and whiplashed back trailing entrails while another bit out his chest from behind, silenced his terrible strangled cries forever so the only remaining sounds were the rending of flesh and the snap of breaking bone.

Iance looked on with the politely inattentive air of a bored royal. He pretended to inspect the perfectly manicured nails of his free hand, “That was just a demonstration.” He said when the last of the doomed victim had been consumed, “As you know, plotting to kill a king is a very serious crime and, as king, I hereby find you both guilty. Your sentence: death. With Lord Eidolon your executioner.”

The wish to survive can lead individuals to perform incredible feats and, somehow, Blackjack forced his gaze away from the demon-sending’s transfixing stare. He jumped, knocked nearby acolytes easily aside with a powerful downsweep of his wings and took to the air. Yet the move was too late as a coiled tentacle unfurled, lashed out like a striking snake and latched on to his uninjured leg. With a violent whiplash movement sent him crashing back to earth and the Unbinder flying from his hands. Stunned, he hazily realised he was being dragged along the ground but a backward glance sent him quickly out of his stupor when he saw those gaping mouths in that shifting, appalling mass. Blackjack scrabbled desperately for purchase and was rewarded when his claws caught on a ridge in the cavern floor. He clung on for all he was worth, evoking a rumble of annoyance from the demon-sending.

Iance shrugged, unperturbed “You’re only delaying the inevitable but if you’re going to insist on being difficult then I shall have to give my master something to occupy him in the meantime.” The happy smile on his handsomely chiselled features turned suddenly cruel. With a nonchalant “oops” he loosed his grip on Soul.

Hearing the scream Blackjack twisted his head far as he dared, saw her fall, “Soul! No!” he cried, wanting to tear his gaze away but somehow unable to do anything but watch her fall, moving as if in slow-motion, toward the waiting death below. Wait a second he thought. Soul had in fact stopped in midair looking as bewildered as she did distressed. The confusion increased as she inexplicably drifted away to one side of the dreadful pit and floated gently down to safety. For a moment Blackjack could have sworn he had seen pale, vaporous forms in the air beneath his stricken comrade keeping her airborne. And that pointed to the work of one person…

And then a new voice spoke, ancient and dry as a tomb it echoed with strange and discordant resonances and whispering undertones surrounding the core of the sound, a voice that was, possibly, human “Release them.” It commanded.

All eyes turned to the top of the stairs. There in the shadows a figure stood, its long blonde hair blowing in a supernatural wind no mortal could feel and black eyes blazing with a terrible energy, their gaze unbearable over any distance as they glared in contempt at the pathetic living creatures before it. Raven.

Iance actually looked shocked now, “But you were dead!” he gasped in a petulant voice that could just as well have been saying ‘it’s not fair’, trying to argue with the facts plainly presented before his eyes.

“You fool. I am dead,” was the reply. The whispering, spine-tingling unnatural tones of Raven’s voice somehow reached the minds of the listeners before the sound produced by his host’s borrowed vocal chords reached their ears. This disconcerting effect led the increasingly frightened remaining acolytes to shuffle nervously backward when, leisurely, he descended the steps. As he moved into the better light of the amphitheatre it became evident the hole in his chest had healed somewhat but there remained a gaping wound making it very obvious he was telling the truth.

From where she stood Soul closed her eyes and turned her head, eyes squeezed shut unwilling to look at the wound and admit into her thoughts the idea of her lover being so badly hurt that his mind would retreat into itself, allowing Raven to take control. When she opened her eyes her gaze fell in Blackjack’s direction. He was still hanging on to whatever purchase he had found for dear life but she could see his muscles trembling under the terrible strain of resisting the much stronger demon-sending’s incessant pull. She had to help him but there was no way through Lord Eidolon’s followers so, facing her fears, she forced her eyes to turn back to Raven and drew breath to shout for his attention. Before even forming the words she felt a sickening, invasive presence inside her head and the strange whispers that had accompanied Raven’s physical voice spoke directly into her mind “I know. A distraction comes. Help him then.

“What?” she replied aloud, but then she heard it; a screaming, calling insane sound thundering down the passageway, accompanied by the ceaseless howlings of beings still attached to the spirit world. Then the black, macabre swarm erupted into the cavern bringing with it the essence of hell.

 

 

Unbeknownst to Soul and Blackjack, Raven had also been watching the earlier proceedings from the natural gallery. Upon finding the hidden amphitheatre his first impulse had been to slay every last one of the pathetic mortals, so self-important in their laughable ceremony, as slowly and painfully as possible but curiosity had gotten the better of him and he instead chose, for the moment, to watch and observe the goings-on. He had seen Soul and Blackjack turn up and subsequently land themselves in trouble and had decided his aid would not go unappreciated. After all, he still had to earn the other Daemonslayers’ trusts before he could really start trying to take this body and its latent abilities for his own.

Raven reached out again with his consciousness, up through the ancient rock and man-made stonework and into Castle Aldoc, seeking something of use, a recent memory of a place plucked from Shade’s mind. When he found it the stones of the black Raven Ring about his left index finger began to glow as he channelled his power through the magical conduit. Up in the Bird Room dusty feathers were caressed and ruffled by an unholy wind and beady dark glass eyes blinked and opened as the summoned spirits, now given corporeal form, answered their master’s call.

 

 

Iance narrowed his eyes. So there had been more to that Shade than met the eye. The changeling could not identify the nature of the thing that lay within the creature he had mistaken earlier for human and this was of great bother to him. What disturbed him further was the unease he could sense in his master’s sending as the image of Lord Eidolon wavered in its intent as its soul-seeing sight beheld something, in this restricted form, it perceived as a threat.

The flock of birds, of fantastic variety and macabre, wholly unnatural life exploded into the cavern accompanied by husky squawks and calls nearly drowned out by a dreadful moaning as though of a wind howling through the blasted ruins of some forsaken place. This lament was matched only by the screams of the acolytes as the flock descended upon them, needle-sharp claws and razor like beaks, preternaturally keen, slashed and pecked and stabbed mercilessly at unprotected eyes, hands and faces while a more invisible enemy of soul-chilling cold pervaded the air, overcoming the weak with something worse than hypothermia as their very essences seemed to freeze.

Pausing only a few moments to stare open mouthed at the morbid, bloody spectacle Soul spurred herself into action. Fetching up her sword she ran, dodging the occasional tentacle or flailing acolyte until she reached Blackjack. Lord Eidolon was rather preoccupied by the undead trophies of Iance’s forbears’ many, many successful hunting trips thus affording Soul the chance to raise her long sword in both hands above her head and then bring it down with all her strength on the tentacle still trying to drag her friend to a very sticky end. It severed its target with surprising ease and the demon-sending’s scream thundered louder even than the roar of the spirit world surrounding them. The severed part writhed on the ground and then simply melted, returning to the black, viscous liquid from which they had seen it form.

With no chance of being heard over the din Blackjack gave Soul a nod of thanks then pointed to Iance and drew a line across his throat. She got the drift when she looked at the human-shaped demon and realised his lips were still moving in the words of his earlier chant: if the royal changeling was killed then the summoning spell would end and the demon-sending would be destroyed (this was hinged on the hope that the chant was needed to keep the demon’s essence in this plane of existence, but Soul quietly put that to the back of her mind).

Raven strode calmly amid the chaos, ignoring the spectacle as the mortal humans about him ran to and fro arms waving in ineffectual defence against the airborne menagerie he had instructed to attack them. Not looking for Blackjack or Soul he kept his eyes fixed on his target. Iance, though human by outline, was visible to Raven’s witchsight as anything but: his soul shone darkly and seemed to writhe and twist within his frame, much like the motions of Lord Eidolon’s sending. He could sense the power that misfit soul was capable of but, right now, so freshly relieved of the last shreds of the human spirit the demon seed had been hidden within so many years ago, it was raw and untrained. Raven smiled.

The smile disappeared, replaced by a look of annoyance when as if sensing the threat the demon-sending’s mutable form altered suddenly, launched upward and extended to the sides to form a wall, a shield, in front of the changeling. The surface still churned and twisted, the baleful eyes and dreadful mouths ever shifting, disappearing at one point to reappear at another but the tentacles had receded to little more than vestigial appendages as all of the beast’s dark substance was required to form the barrier to protect its progeny.

As the last of the humans died Raven noticed Soul and Blackjack looking doubtfully at the ‘wall’ before them, standing just out of reach of the waving tentacles, “He must have sensed our intentions.” Blackjack was saying.

“Yeah? I wonder why that was.” Remarked Soul pointedly.

“I thought he was too busy chanting to notice.”

Without warning a tentacle lashed out at them, the demon-sending’s substance redistributing to ‘fuel’ the appendage. With surprised gasps they narrowly avoided it as it whip lashed back into the beast’s greater mass.

“This could get tricky” growled Blackjack, hefting his axe.

“You think?” Soul scanned the ‘wall’ for signs of another attack, “We have to destroy that changeling.”

Raven watched her turn to him, seeing the distaste on her face and feeling the resentment for his control of her lover’s body, but he could see her biting that back, “Raven? Can you do something?” He looked ahead, imagining where he wanted to be and distantly hearing her confused “Raven?” when she realised she was speaking to thin air.

 

Eyes closed, Iance looked out through the eyes of the demon-sending to the scene beyond. The troublesome girl and the dracosvulf would be dead soon enough but the strange disappearance of the undead man troubled him greatly. His Lord Eidolon had communed to him that he faced some form of liche; amongst the most powerful of the ranks of the dead but there was something more than that, and far worse about it that even Eidolon could not entirely discern for it seemed the liche soul did not ‘fit’ its humanoid body. There was a vague suggestion of a memory in what remained of Iance’s human mind, something he had read somewhere perhaps that might shed light on the creature’s nature but it lay exasperatingly beyond reach. Without its full range of sense, dampened as its power was in this sending form Lord Eidolon could not help either.

Iance froze in his ponderings when there came the slightest whisper of movement from behind. An eye popped open on his side of the demon ‘wall’ and Iance saw Shade standing directly behind, the gaping remains of the wound in his chest were mostly healed now but there was blood dripping down his hands from some concealed source up his shirt sleeves. Unnervingly the points of greenish-yellow light adrift in the black voids of his eyes were looking straight back at the spying eye and Iance experienced a nigh physical sensation as they bored into his demon soul. For the first time in his life the changeling knew fear.

“I believe the term you are looking for is ‘dracoliche’.” Shade rasped, “And the name, Raven.”

Slowly Iance turned, desperately keeping the summoning chant going in his mind, clutching to it like a protective mantra for there was no help coming from the demon-sending, preoccupied as it was with the other two Daemonslayers. He was on his own. The world seemed to drop away until all that remained was the inhuman before him and the dark, eldritch power radiating from it, far older and more potent even than his arch-demon master.

Breaking the spell of silence Raven smiled unpleasantly, revealing Shade’s enlarged canines, and said, “I owe you something.” As he spoke he drew his arm back for a wind-up and then suddenly punched forward in a simple left-cross aimed straight at Iance’s chest. The blow impacted with indescribable force accompanied by a meaty crunch as his fist drove through bone on into the chest cavity.

The pain hit Iance an instant later and he would have fallen, overcome, were he not impaled. He looked down at the wound, eyes wide in disbelief at the ruination of his body but the gleaming, eager malevolence in Raven’s eyes told the stricken changeling the dracoliche was not finished yet. Iance started to scream as Raven unleashed magical energies of an unspeakably black nature but the cry disintegrated into a fetid gurgle as his body began to decay. His flesh rotted and putrefied before his eyes and then all physical sensation was gone as his form disintegrated fully, leaving only the demon soul, held enthralled by the sheer power of the ancient dracoliche’s will alone. Then that, too succumbed, shredded and undone in an act of supreme metaphysical violence until the demonic being that would have been king was utterly obliterated.

Nigh overcome with pain himself, Raven dropped to Shade’s knees. The runes Shade had carved into the flesh of his own forearms to prevent or at least deter Raven from using his powers were doing their work, “Curse you,” the dracoliche snarled at his host: the agony induced by the act of destroying Iance had been almost more than even he could bear. He did not even notice Lord Eidolon’s roar of enraged denial as the demon-sending’s form collapsed slowly in on itself, retreating back into the pit from whence it came.

After a while, Soul’s face, her tanned skin flushed and beaded with sweat from the exertion of battle and avoiding the demon’s attacks, appeared in front of him,

“Raven?” she visibly suppressed a shudder when those fearsome eyes swivelled to fix on her, “Uh, Raven, Not that we don’t appreciate the help and all, but can I have my boyfriend back now, please?”

The agony had begun to abate a little and Raven stood up, “Why should I?” he hissed, unwilling to relinquish control to become a mere passenger again, “I have control now, I-” he never got to finish the sentence as something wide, heavy and metallic swished through the air behind him, ending its arc with a dull thud as it connected with the back of his head, pitching him forward into the black, waiting folds of unconsciousness.

Whistling nonchalantly, Blackjack swung the Unbinder, the flat of which he had struck Raven with, over his back again, “For someone ancient enough to be Orphic-Exalted, I become increasingly disappointed every time he falls for that.”

Soul glared at him in reproach, “I can’t believe you keep doing that! That’s my boyfriend you keep hitting over the back of the head. What if you give him amnesia or something?”

“He’s undead, Meccha. How could I possibly do him lasting damage?”

“Hmpf. Anyway, I was going to try talking Raven down. I’m sure I could have but we’ll never know now you’ve gone and spoiled it.”

“Hah!” Blackjack almost burst out laughing.

A soft groan issued from Shade’s prone form. Watching for the tell-tale sign of Raven’s possession, Soul and Blackjack leaned in close as his eyes flickered open. Soul breathed an audible sigh of relief when she saw his eyes were back to their usual mismatched state.

Shade looked about dazedly, “Hey, this isn’t the library,” he started to sit up but checked himself with a wince and put a hand to the back of his head, “The chest injury I remember, but why do I always wake up with this headache?”

“Never mind that,” said Blackjack quickly, “The main thing is you’re back. You want me to fill you in on the details?”

Looking again at the horrible destruction, Shade shook his head, “I don’t think I want to know. Did Raven do this?” he added, noticing the plethora of dead birds scattered about the cavern; without the dracoliche’s summoned spirits to inhabit and animate them they were no longer bound to the long-dead bodies and were now fled back to their dark regions, the sad and bedraggled feathered remnants across the floor amid the bloody bodies of Lord Eidolon’s acolytes the only testament to their presence.

“Yeah. Mostly.” Replied Blackjack, not giving the answer Shade would have like to have heard.

“Can we please get out of here?” asked Soul, “This place gives me the creeps. And the stuff in that pit stinks.”

Holding his breath against the nauseating stench wafting up from it, Blackjack looked into the pit. It descended into impenetrable blackness with no hint of a bottom. He idly booted in a nearby body, listening hard for any heavy ‘thump’ sounds and shrugging innocently in response to Soul and Shade’s joint glares. Despite her disapproval Soul still joined him at the edge when, after thirty seconds or so still no sound of a heavy load striking the bottom was heard.

“I’d like to veto any propositions anyone might have of jumping in to chase that demon gloop.” Said Blackjack after listening to the silence a while longer.

“I’ll second that. How deep d’you reckon it is?” asked Soul.

“I dunno, Mech’. Maybe if you shut up so I can listen for that guy hitting the bottom we could have a guess?” replied Blackjack.

“Maybe it’s a portal of some sort?” suggested Shade but neither of the others were listening as the sound of booted feet and clinking armour drifted into the cavern from the passageway above them.

“Drop your weapons and hold as you are!” barked an authoritative voice. The captain of the guards, Curtswan, and his accompanying men ran out of the passageway and onto the stairs but checked themselves upon seeing the extent of the carnage.

“Uh-oh.” Soul said quietly, dropping her sword. Shade stayed sat on the ground and Blackjack, saying nothing, unslung his battleaxe and planted it at his feet, resting both hands on the handle.

“What in the names of all the gods of light has happened here?” demanded Curtswan in open horror.

“Uhm, well..” started Soul but stopped when a wingtip nudged her in the side.

“Where’s the wizard?” Blackjack folded his arms, eyes narrow as his gaze bored into the captain. He had noticed Hawker hovering at the back of the group, but ignored his presence for now.

Curtswan spluttered “You are in no position to be demanding answers.” He said, recovering admirably from the almost physical blow of the dracosuvlfs stare. Tearing his eyes away he ignored Soul totally and looked to Shade, “You there; an explanation!”

“Well-”

“He was unconscious the entire time! Look at him!” Soul shouted, pointing to Shade’s bloody chest, “It’s a wonder he’s still alive!” She did not notice the meaningful look in Hawker’s eyes at that particular remark but the huntsman remained silent.

Blackjack held a hand out, palm facing her in a gesture for quiet. He spoke in a low, dangerous tone that brooked no interruption, “The reason I asked, Captain Curtswan, is that you will find Erile to be the most able to address your questions.”

“Erile is gone,” blurted out one of the guards, fear loosing his tongue and earning him a furious glance from the Vice Captain.

For a moment Blackjack lost his composure completely, “You let her escape? What kind of blithering idiot-monkeys does Gerhan’s Royal Guard employ? She and the late Seneschal were the keys to all this! He snarled. When the Curtswan (who had gone suitably pale now) did not respond Blackjack took this as his cue to continue, “They were in league with a changeling – a demon hidden in human form who, this night, was to reveal his true nature and infect others so the rot at your kingdom’s heart, “he looked directly at Hawker as he said this, deliberately choosing his words to echo the huntsman’s fears, “could spread. The dead you see around you were all acolytes of the arch demon Lord Eidolon.” If faces were not pale already, they turned ashen at this mention of one of the Lords of Darkness for they were a more than legendary evil known to all.

Curtswan was no fool and had long had suspicions of his own about clandestine goings-on in Gerhan to draw upon which left him inclined to believe the dracosvulf’s explanation. He gave the order for his men to put up their swords, “Very well. But where is this changeling now and what part do you three play in this?”

“Shade was kidnapped by the demon cultists-”

“I was?” Shade interrupted, confused. He definitely did not remember that bit.

“Yes. You were.” Blackjack said firmly, “That blow to the head must have concussed you very badly.”

“Uh, yeah” Shade ruefully prodded at the receding lump on the back of his head and wondered what, exactly had happened. He suspected it was less to do with kidnapping and more to do with a certain dracoliche.

“Now if I can continue without interruption? The cultists were planning to sacrifice him. Fortunately we were able to track them down here in time. Unfortunately we were too late for to save the Braeian diplomats.”

The captain swore an oath beneath his breath, “What happened to them?” he asked looking at the sea of bodies.

“The changeling had summoned a sending of his demon master, Lord Eidolon. The beast infected them – there was nothing we could do.” Blackjack’s voice was the sound of a heavy heart, conveying the hopeless regret, “The demon-sending became angered at our interruption of his scared ritual and summoned this fell flock of birds as ‘punishment’ for his followers’ incompetence.”

“These all came from the Bird Room,” said Hawker, “I’ve ne’er heard of a demon using necromancy.”

“Then you’ve not encountered many demons. Remember, they are creatures created of magic; no such doings are beyond them.” Blackjack gave a small laugh, “Besides, it’s not like any of us possess that degree of power.”

Hawker made no reply but Curtswan spoke again, “Then what of this changeling? Where is he now?”

“When Lord Eidolon receded back into that pit, he took his spawn with him and we weren’t about to jump in after it.” Said Soul, picking up on Blackjack’s comfortably loose end free explanation.

“Who was he?”

“Your king.”

Curtswan pursed his lips, maintaining a commendable poker face in light of these revelations. His men were rather more loose-tongued about their surprise, many cursing in disbelief while other more seasoned veterans maintained they’d had their suspicions that their late king had never been quite ‘right’. He turned to his men, “Erile cannot be long gone. Hawker, organise the hunt: scour the land until that demon-thrall is found. You two! Buntun and Lorse, we must organise the removal of the bodies from here and the Daemonslayers’ quarters… And get that hellish pit sealed up forever!”

 

 

A few short hours later the suns breasted the horizon to illuminate a chill, misty but clear-skied world. After a brief rest in a new set of rather less bloodied quarters, the Daemonslayers reconvened in the stable yard, ill-rested and tired but eager to get out of this decrepit and currently kingless kingdom. Dire rumours and whisperings of foul and demonic deeds had spread like wildfire throughout Castle Aldoc and many of the servants had fled, leaving them to raid the kitchens, prepare for and finally commence their onward journey in peace.

As they reached the city’s outskirts, Shade broached the introspective silence, “Gods, am I glad to be out of that place.” He spat over his shoulder as they crossed the boundary, a traveller’s sign of ‘good riddance’ to any evils they had had the misfortune to encounter.

“Me too,” Soul concurred wholeheartedly. Although it had been nice to sleep in a proper bed she could have done without the changelings, murders, demon acolytes and the unabashed prejudice against women. After a while she added, “I wonder what they’ll do with no heir apparent?”

“That’s their problem.” Blackjack said, walking Knightmare alongside Soul and Shade when the road became wide enough, “But if they’ve any sense they’ll reform that ineffectual feudal system of theirs.”

“There’s someone up ahead.” Warned Shade narrowing his eyes to peer at the shadowy forms appearing through the mist.

Fully alert, the Daemonslayers watched warily until the approaching forms resolved themselves as Hawker and his portion of the search party.

“I can nay blame ye for leaving.” He said when finally close enough. “There was no sign of Wizard Erile on the eastern roads. With luck one of the other search parties has had more success.”

Shade nodded, “She’s a wizard. They don’t get found if they don’t want to be.”

“Aye. I suspect as much but, so long as I ne’er see hide nor hair of that dakron again, I’ll be at least half happy.” Hawker let go of the reins to rub wearily at his face and then checked the splint on his ankle before asking, “So where’ll ye be going now?”

“Wheresoever the spirit winds take us.” Replied Blackjack airily. It was hard to tell whether he was being sardonic or just whimsical.

Shade elaborated, “Our path has a way of guiding itself.”

“That may be a blessing or a curse,” Hawker’s eyes refused to meet Shade’s “I’ll be wishing you all luck. Farewell.” He walked his horse on past followed closely by the rest of his unsuccessful search party who eyed the Daemonslayers warily and gave them a wide brith.

Alone once more, Soul gave Blackjack a sceptical look, “‘Wheresoever the eight winds take us’?” she laughed aloud.

The dracosvulf shrugged, “I thought it sounded rather more dramatic than ‘uh, I dunno, wherever the road goes I guess’.” He said in a bad imitation of her voice, “It’s always good to maintain some sense of mystique, you know.”

Soul just snorted, “You dragons are weird.”

“I’d rather be weird than a bald monkey.”

“At least I don’t get fleas.”

“You want a bet on that?”

Shade sighed and tried to ignore the pointless bickering; wherever they were headed it was going to be a long, long journey.

 

 

Fin

All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2004 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2004

Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragon.com forum.