Endings and Beginnings.
(A Daemonslayers story by Isabelle L. Davis a.k.a. ‘Drakhenliche’. Special thanks to C. Elliot Ritter from the VCL forums for critique and helpful pointers).

The man sat alone beside the still, dark waters of the pool in a shallow cave. Sunlight filtered in through the swamp vegetation growing over much of the entrance, lending the place and his bloodless ashen skin a faintly greenish tinge. He hugged his knees in to his chest; arms wrapped loosely about his shins, resting them just beneath the demon skull kneepads he wore. His waist-length long blonde-brown hair hung loose and straggly, reaching down to the rock he sat on and fanning out around him.

F'lair Hartland, better known by his use-name, Shade, sighed and shut his greenish-yellow eyes, cutting out their faint glow. Then he opened them again, gazing blankly at the glassy surface of the pool. His eyes moved in little saccades as they scanned across the surface. The gentle, earthy light was reflected at just the right angle to prevent him seeing into the pool. After a while a water droplet fell from an overhanging stalactite, breaking the surface with a soft 'plip' easily audible to the dire werewolf's ears. F'lair watched the ripples spread out, becoming smaller and smaller as the wavelets refracted upon themselves from the pool’s edges until, once more, restoring the slick, glassy appearance.

‘Is that me?’ He wondered to himself as the effect of the droplet faded. It had briefly served a purpose, disturbing the surface for a few moments before all returned to normal again. F'lair had been comparing his life, or rather, unlife to this. Wondering that, since the mission he and the cursed black dragon Blackjack had undertaken to destroy the DemonQueen, Shine, and prevent her from destroying their world was fulfilled, what was his reason for being now?

Before he had met Blackjack and learned of the threat to their world Tymaera, F'lair had felt he existed with no purpose. He had enjoyed a brief interlude as a mercenary, but that had ended badly, leaving him even more lost than before and he had roamed the land with no goal, no real reason to be, just an animal that sometimes looked human. Now he felt his sense of purpose slipping away once more. Sure, he and Blackjack still hunted down and slew demons, but the drive wasn't in him anymore.

The werewolf closed his eyes again. He did not fight them out of spite like Syrax did. Shade fought them because he had nothing else to do with his existence. And now he feared he was losing his way.

A soft footfall from behind startled him out of his reverie, "Black', that you?" he looked around but no one was there, "Sy?" Still no response. Shade quietly reached for his sword, the Fireblade, lying a foot or so away.

Without warning a cloven hoof suddenly stamped down on his outstretched arm, pinning it to the ground, "What the- ?" he looked up, following the curve of shapely feminine yet muscular legs until he saw the entirety of the red-skinned creature. He recognised her instantly from descriptions Blackjack had once told him as the demoness, Aster, as the spell of invisibility she was using faded. She looked down at him, pearlescent white eyes glowing in her inhuman yet beautiful face framed by forward-curving horns and long brown hair. A cruel smile twisted its way across her black lips. I'm in trouble... he told himself, releasing a canine growl from deep in his chest, preparing to transform into his powerful wolf form.

Aster was not prepared to give him a chance though and delivered a brutal kick with an iron-hard hoof. It caught him beneath his chin, snapping his head back and painfully whip-lashing his neck. His trapped arm was wrenched then painfully twisted as he was knocked backwards. Before Shade could recover she began to weave a spell, chanting quietly to improve her concentration as her complex hand gestures summoned the magic, inherent in her blood, for the teleportation. Another, almost casual, blow knocked F'lair unconscious. In a glow of red light that intensified to a brief blood-hued flash, the two were gone.


"Shade?" Blackjack looked around and then turned to face the blue-scaled reptilian figure behind him and shrugged, "I saw him round here earlier,"

Darkclaw raised his eye-ridges, their large scales a slightly darker hue than the rest of him. "Admittedly I haven't known him as long as you have Black', but he doesn't exactly strike me as the sort just to up and leave." The hssaar/lizardman halfbreed assassin folded his arms and rested against a ruined wall, broken down to perfect rump-resting height. He started patting his pockets, looking for his bremulen leaf roll-ups.

"No. He isn't," agreed the dragon, cursed to remain in the humanoid, semi-canine and mostly dragon-like form of a dracosvulf. Using the sickle shaped spike at the crook of his wing, he scratched at his head through his mane of thick black fur thoughtfully. His fellow demon hunter F'lair came and went as he pleased although he usually let the cursed dragon know he was leaving. But this time something did not seem quite right about this particular absence.

Darkclaw and Blackjack had been searching for F'lair for hours. They had been planning to head north and visit the city of Southrot – a den of theives, gamblers and ne'er-do-wells (and so just up Blackjack's street) – for a few days and wanted to see if he'd come. Either that or see if he would stay 'home' and keep the trolls out while they were gone.

The ruined city of Uth Nagor deep in the Evermoors of Caevalonia that served as Shade and Blackjack's home and base was a huge area to cover. Although the werewolf never entered the cave system beneath the city where Blackjack made his lair, this still left a lot of derelict buildings and secluded swamp groves to search. Finished with his scratching, Syrax put his hands on his hips and frowned, "There's a cove near here that he sometimes goes to when he wants to sit and think, maybe he's there. Follow me."

The assassin nodded and followed his friend's lead. At the moment they stood near the foot of the huge Ziggurat, its black marble form loomed over the whole city, dominating the landscape for miles around. The city itself shrank away from its bulk on the other side of a huge swallow hole, as though hoping the gaping maw in the earth would protect it from the ominous structure.

It was about two miles to the place Blackjack was thinking of and it was a few minutes' walk through the outskirts of the city and then out into some rather rockier terrain. They reached the far end of the rise upon which the Ziggurat squatted and came to a small cliff that marked the end of the dry ground. It was about thirty foot high that dropped away back to the wet, marshy level of the swamp. Blackjack dealt with the obstacle by simply stepping forward and snapping his leathery bat-like wings open as he started to fall and circling round, gliding down for an easy landing. Darkclaw reached the foot of the cliff before he did. He jumped off the edge with a perfect summersault and landed lightly and perfectly on the rock his draconic friend had been aiming for, causing the dracosvulf to veer suddenly to the left to make a less than tidy landing.

“Showoff.” he muttered getting back onto his feet and brushing imaginary dust off his grey furred arms. He turned to look at the cliff. Its limestone face was covered with hanging vines, moss and various other examples of wall-climbing vegetation. His inner eyelids open, Blackjack could easily see the cooler air indicative of the opening of the cove behing the curtain of green. Darkclaw had spotted it too, but lacking in heat-vision, he had noticed where the vegetation had been disturbed. He went in.

At first he thought Shade was a no-show here too as he cast a cursory glance about the calm, damp grotto. Stalagtites hung like misshapen teeth from the low ceiling, almost meeting their earthbound counterpart; stalagmites that rose up around a still, reflective pool. The grotto had once led much deeper, but a cave-in, ancient by the look of the moss on the fallen boulders, had sealed it off. But then recent marks on the ground caught his eye.

"There was a fight here. A brief one...look, hoofmarks, and F'lair's sword," Darkclaw held up the Fireblade as he finished his observations, "There appears to be a note on it for you - I don't recognize the writing though."

“Well d'uh.” Blackjack snatched the scroll from where it was impaled on the end of the gleaming blade. He was more than capable of seeing these things for himself. More than that, he could feel his fur beginning to stand on end and he realised he was sensing a familiar, rancid tang in the air: the lingering presence of demon magic. His hackles already raised, a low growl escaped his throat as he recognised the 'taste' of the magic as belonging to on person. Aster. And that meant her 'husband' (there was no equivalent word in demonic languages), Saragoth was behind this.

With an obsidian claw Blackjack snapped the ribbon holding the scroll rolled up. Darkclaw's quick red eyes watched the piece of material fluttered to the floor. He had thought at first that it was red, but realised, in fact, that it was orange. The red colouring along most of its length was blood. He caught it from the air and held it up, “Shade's headband.” he said, scanning the leathery flesh-toned skin of Blackjack's vaguely canine face for a reaction. He thought he saw the skin round his blue right eye - lent the same colour by its balefire glow - twitch but could not be sure in this light.

“I know. I can smell it.” He did not look up from the scroll as he spoke, nor did he show any obvious reaction to its contents as he read it once, and then again. With a sudden motion, startling after his statue-stillness, he crushed the scroll in his hand then dropped the crumpled paper into the pool of water. It ignited into an eerie flame the colour of blood but he did not stay to watch as he stalked back out of the cove. When the unnatural light was gone, so was all evidence of the scroll's existence.

Following him out, Darkclaw raised a questioning eyeridge to which Blackjack responded "It was Chaos Sanskrit: The written language of demons. Apparently I must go to the Stone of Covenants."

"That's hardly the place to choose if they wanted a confrontation with you," reasoned the assassin. To say the Aster and Saragoth were up to something would be akin to stating that the sky was blue. The question was what, exactly, were they planning. Darkclaw thought that there was little the two Lords of Darkness could accomplish in that place.

The dracosvulf snorted, "Maybe they just want a nice little chat," the usual sarcasm in his voice had a wicked edge to it. He spread his wings, beat them a couple of times to warm up the powerful muscles, then crouched ready to take to the air.

"Or maybe not. Going alone, Syrax?" Darkclaw folded his arms, wondering briefly if that was such a wise idea and using Blackjack's real name to make him take notice of the point. Then again, he knew Blackjack well --- both as his current form, and as the awesome dragon Bloodbane and he knew he was more than capable of fending for himself. Not to mention the usual trick up his metaphoric sleeve.

The demon hunter merely nodded then sprang skywards with a powerful lunge. The first, all-important down sweep of his wings sent dead leaves and light dirt flying into the air as it launched him upward. Within a few wing beats he

was lost to the sombre belly of the gathering low clouds above. The Stone of Covenants - a place of vows, used by heroes and villains alike when they chose to undertake a quest that would last the rest of their lives - was housed up in the Griffin Peaks beyond the borders of the Evermoors. It would have been a long flight had Blackjack not briefly resumed his true dragon form in order to teleport himself to the distant mountain range.

He felt weak. And that was wrong.

F'lair stirred, returning slowly and painfully to consciousness. The ache from being struck about the head was gone thanks to the regeneration abilities of his Greater Undead nature, but he shouldn't be feeling weak. It hurt to move, the sensation akin to the horrible ache brought on by oversensitisation of the nerve receptors after a limb has been numb for a while but is now finally regaining feeling.

He opened his eyes and looked around, trying to figure out where he was. He quickly realised that he was chained upright by the wrists to a stone wall. The chains were short, keeping his arms above his head and their rough iron bit cruelly into his pale skin, making him stand tall to try and keep the weight off them. A few feet beyond him, just out of range so he could not kick it away, a short sword was planted blade first into the ground. Its metal was glowing with a faint white light from being in close proximity to him.

Silver, he realised. So, Aster knew he was a werewolf. he could safely assume that this was all part of some devious plan hatched between the cruel demoness and her husband, Saragoth.

Shade reasoned that, seeing as how he had never encountered either of the demons before and that Blackjack had once been almost friends with Saragoth back when he had served Shine, then this whole thing was all geared to involve Blackjack in some way. 'Perhaps revenge for defeating their mistress, Shine' he wondered. At any rate, it was easy enough to guess that he was probably being used as bait to persuade his friend to come here.

In the centre of the chamber was a raised dais of red marble veined with gold. Upon this stood a podium of the same rich material holding a large, smooth stone of pure white onyx. Although the stone was clean its stand and platform were streaked with dried blood. F'lair recognised it from the descriptions in tales he had heard told by bards and storytellers as the Stone of Covenants. The person taking the vow on the stone had to seal the covenant with their own blood - usually by cutting their hand. Hence the term 'Blood Oath'. Blackjack had once told him about it too. Apparently if you swore your life to a single (worthy or otherwise) cause in the name of the appropriate Higher Power, then the Stone would give you a new one. 'Go figure.'

"You are awake, I see," spoke a deep, masculine voice. A large figure stepped into view through one of the archways on the room's eastern wall. He was seven foot - perhaps more - tall. Save for his head, a heavy midnight-blue cloak with a high collar mostly covered his heavily muscular form. His face was not at all human, with large, jagged teeth protruding from a slight snout and red-brown leathery skin. Two sets of horns - one set massive and curling forwards on either side of his head and the other growing straight upwards, curving back slightly - adorned his head. This, F'lair knew, was Saragoth. Green-white glowing opaque eyes fixed F'lair with their cold, calculating stare, "I suppose you are wondering why you are here..."

"I could figure that one out for myself," replied Shade, a faint snarl in his voice.

"Oh well done," a second voice joined in, this one female. It was sultry and alluring, but carried a heavily condescending tone. Aster appeared beside her husband, her red skin, beaded with an enticing gleam of sweat from whatever activity she and Saragoth had been recently involved in, glowed an even deeper shade of blood in the torchlight that illuminated the chamber. Not deigning to speak to a lowly dire werewolf any more, the elebas demon, a close but more powerful relative to succubi, turned to Saragoth, "He's here," she said with a hungry smile, black lips contrasting starkly with her perfect white fangs.

"Impolite though it is for a host to leave his guest, I am afraid I must abandon you for now --- a certain shared acquaintance of ours has arrived." Saragoth smiled with mocking politeness as he left the chamber, the echoes of his heavy hooves on the flagstones fading as he walked away through the hallways surrounding the Stone of Covenants' chamber to the gateway, “However, Aster will keep you company.”

Soaring high above the unattended temple built into the mountain's own rock where the Stone of Covenants was kept, Blackjack's keen eyesight easily picked out the red-brown skin and blue cloak of Saragoth standing in the entranceway. His ability to transform into his true form availed itself to him rarely, invariably only during times of great stress, and never lasted long. Once again he was cursed to his dracosvulf form. From the way the demon stood his body language implied he was more interested in talking than fighting, so Blackjack decided it was safe, for now, to land.

"You came sooner than expected...I think Aster may be disappointed that there was no time to have 'fun' with your friend," said the demon. Both of them knew that with Aster's sadistic tendancies the word 'fun' took on a much less pleasant meaning and Saragoth was probing his mortal enemy's reactions to the threat to his friend. Blackjack generally kept his emotions well hidden, but the Greater Demon knew what to look out for and was rewarded by a slight clenching of the dragon's powerful jaw muscles and a dangerous narrowing of his eyes. The demon decided he had been right to use the souless one, Shade, as bait.

"I'll take it you did not invite me here to reminisce over the 'good old days'. What do you want?" The knife-edge in Blackjack's voice further belied his emotions.

"Actually, the 'good old days' are exactly what I brought you here to talk about,"

Blackjack frowned, both angered and perturbed that he could not work out the demon's motives. He had been trying to second-guess Saragoth on his way here and had thought that he wanted revenge for Shine's demise. Then again, something inside had told him that such a motive would have been too predictable for his one-time comrade-in-arms, "And...?" he prompted, hoping the irritable tone in his voice would disguise the underlying uncertainty.

Saragoth flashed him a look of annoyance at being harried then continued in a cool voice, "I've been thinking-"

"Oh, that's a new one. Hope you didn’t strain yourself,"

The demon angered but still continued to speak calmly, keeping his voice treacherously amiable "...Since Shine is no more - a great loss, but one that we must not dwell upon - someone needs to continue her work,"

Blackjack considered using scathing sarcasm again but instead chose to remain silent. The demon beckoned to him follow, walking toward the open entrance that led into the mountain. Having little choice, Blackjack followed mutely, concentrating on trying to plot a way round whatever it was that Saragoth was after as he carried on talking.

“Sadly the DemonQueen's forces are much depleted. Aster and I do what we can with what is left, but what we need is a second in command; someone who can fight; someone who can lead, and, above all, someone intelligent. Now I know we've had our differences of late, but I know you, and I know that you are exactly the one to fit such a description. You cannot deny there is a blackness in your soul. Why else would the tales of your (ahem) 'track record' as Bloodbane still be spoken in hushed, fearful voices by lesser creatures? I want you to lead my Armies of Darkness with me."

Blackjack had not been prepared for this. He had betrayed Shine and her intent to absorb this world - and others - into her own demonic dimension. And now Saragoth was asking for him to join the Lords of Darkness on a similar quest? "I'm flattered that you think so highly of me, but-"

It was the demon's turn to interrupt, "'But' nothing. This is an offer you cannot refuse," The chamber housing the Stone of Covenants was not secreted deep within the mountain and the two had now arrived at its entrance. Here Saragoth paused in his stride and turned to look down at the shorter dracosvulf (even though Blackjack was not all that short at 6' 3”) "If you swear your allegiance to me through your blood upon the Stone, then the one who calls himself Shade will go free.” They stepped into the chamber, Saragoth keeping an eye on Blackjack's poker face as he took in the scen presented to him there. “If you refuse, then you die - and so will he." To emphasize the point Aster, now holding the silver short sword and smiling her twisted smile, allowed the point of the metal to touch F'lair's neck. The werewolf winced as, even though barely touching his flesh, the metal burned.

Blackjack knew full well that he did not have a choice. Since the time when he had betrayed Shine, he had learned many valuable lessons, the greatest of which was friendship. After years spent journeying through different worlds and realities, Shade was the only person - besides himself - that the dragon would ever truly owe loyalty to, and there was no way that he could let the undead werewolf die. Again.

Saragoth held a knife fashioned purely of obsidian hilt first towards the dragon. Blackjack took it, eyeing him steadily as he stepped onto the dais and up to the podium. He slowly took off the red, fingerless glove from his right hand and held it above the smooth, flawless surface of the Stone. Across his palm was a diagonal pattern of scar tissue, both old and pale and new and red. Blackjack was sure Saragoth would make a comment, but the demon said nothing.

Syrax's mind was working fast. 'If I swear myself to him through the Stone, then I will never be able to lift a claw against him again,’ he realised. 'He knows that.' Glancing at Aster he could see a burning eagerness in her eyes that he neither liked nor trusted, 'So if they break their promise, then I can do nothing to stop them from killing F'lair'. So either way, Shade was dead. Or at least deader than he was at the moment, 'So what choice do I have?'
Blackjack's momentary pause, knife poised ready to make that final cut, earned the demons' immediate suspicion. Saragoth, looking on expectantly, scowled, "Why the hesitation? Do you not value your friend's life?"

"It's not that," replied the dragon. He put his head on one side and gave the demon a friendly (and frightening) smile. "It's just that I've decided I want this on my terms."

Saragoth growled dangerously and advanced a step towards the smaller being, "My offer is generous enough as it stands!" he snarled. His eyes flashed as he clawed his hands: a sure sign he was losing his composure.

Blackjack shrugged 'No it isn't.' he said offhandedly. Suddenly he flicked his arm out, the movement almost too fast to follow. And far too fast for anyone present to react to. The gleaming black blade flashing from his hand through the air. Reflected torchlight, bright red, described its lethal arc.

The silver sword held close to F'lair's throat jerked and then clattered to the floor as Aster clasped her hands to her neck, mouth open and eyes wide in a silent scream of pain and shock. As she desperately scrabbled for the obsidian knife embedded at the base of her neck blood glowing like orange lava bubbled from her mouth and down her chin. It flowed freely to the ground down her chest, around and between the curve of her cleavage. The demoness staggered and toppled sideways, her left leg giving way. As she hit the ground her body disintegrated into foul black dust, quickly carried away by some unfelt ethereal wind. Without the silver to weaken him Shade felt his strength returning.

"ASTER!!!!" roared Saragoth. He dived at the place she had fallen finding himself clutching at thin air in a futile gesture. Grasping a fist full of the fast dissipating dust he held up his hand and watched it flow between his fingers, staring in shock at what had become of his love. The all-too-brief look of loss in his eyes ignited almost instantly into burning, terrible hatred as he turned his baleful stare to Blackjack. His face contorted in dreadful rage, "You...you killed her!"

Blackjack's face split into an evil, unrepentant smile; "She was a bitch. It was bound to happen sooner or later..."

"RRRRRRAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHH" Saragoth launched at the cursed dragon, all his calm business-like demeanour forgotten in his animal scream of rage. The demon fell upon him before he could to react, slamming the breath out of him with one hand, then, claws splayed, slashing at him with the other. Blackjack felt a tug then a sudden, overwhelming surge of agony as Saragoth's wickedly sharp claws punctured his skin, catching on his ribs. The momentum of the strike allowed the demon's murderous blow to carry through. Bone snapped and cartilage tore under the impact as Saragoth ripped open his chest.

Blackjack gasped, collapsing with one hand clasped over the three deep gouges, trying desperately to quell the river of blood rushing out. He tried to breathe but could not. The sickening pain made his head swim and swallowed all his thoughts. It was all he could do to raise his eyes to look up at what he knew to be his death looming above him.

"I'll send you to the Abyss with her!" snarled the demon, raising his hands for the killing blow.

Suffering from shock and reeling as waves of nausea threatened to sweep him from consciousness Blackjack could not reply. Instead he glared - defiant to the end - into Saragoth's eyes. And then looked past him. The demon half-turned to see what he was looking at, and saw that Shade was gone - the chains that had held him hung empty: snapped and shattered.

A lupine howl filled the air, echoing with the dreadful harmonics that haunted the cry of supernatural dire werewolves. A hulking, monstrous form flew at him from the shadows and suddenly Saragoth found himself pinned to the ground beneath a huge wolf-monster, its razor-sharp teeth slashing and snapping at him with uncontrolled feral rage. The attack was so savage that the demon had trouble fending it off, in spite of his own frenzied rage. Realising that the loss of Aster, his love, was affecting his fighting ability, the demon chose to leave. In a flash of red light he was gone.

Calming himself, F'lair regained control of his rage, and pushed the beast back deep down within him. Returning to human form he knelt beside the fallen dragon.

"S-sorry F'lair...I think yer goin' to have to...manage by...yourself," Blackjack shuddered involuntarily but he did not feel the movement himself. Strangely the pain of the mortal wound had been short-lived and now all he felt was a cold numbness. He lifted his hand and looked at the blood, thick and so dark it was almost black. He turned it so his palm was facing out and watched a trickle navigating its way through his fur down his forearm. It was odd, he did not feel like this was his blood at all. Everything felt so distant, as though he was watching the scene through somebody else’s eyes.

F’lair shook his head in denial. It had all taken place so fast that he was still barely able to register what had just happened. And that which was happening now. He closed his eyes, as though reopening them would make everything change "No! There has to be something..." Then his eyes flew open as an idea struck him. He snapped his fingers, "The Blood Oath! You said it gives a new lease of life."

Syrax half opened his eyes, "You're prepared to hunt demons for... the rest of your existence? Th-there's no going back once you've taken the vow." He managed weakly. Despite his dimming sight, he felt a sudden ray of hope flare up.

Shade nodded decisively, knowing this was a decision he did not even need to think about "I'll do it."

Blackjack smiled slightly, not needing to say anything. They both knew he was willing to take the Blood Oath if it meant being able to save himself. And, although he would never admit it to himself, dedicating his life to fighting evil might relieve the guilt for past crimes that the dragon refused to recognise within.

Helping his friend up, one furry, heavily muscled arm slung over his shoulder, F'lair more or less carried him to the Stone of Covenants. He bit his own hand and held it out to let the blood, its flow sluggish without a pulse, drip onto the stone. Blackjack placed his free hand on it, his own lifeblood mixing with that of his friend's on the Stone’s sacred surface. He closed his eyes as another wave of weakness and nausea flooded through him, his legs buckled but Shade, stronger than he looked, had no trouble supporting the extra weight. A second later he felt a faint pulse of energy he could swear was originating from the stone pass into him, chasing away and engulfing the sensation of frailty.

"Just a little longer," urged the undead werewolf, shaking the dracosvulf when he saw his eyes start to close. Blackjack opened them but did not look at F’lair, staring down instead at the blood running down his arm and over the surface of the Stone of Covenants. The dark trickles followed unseen paths across the pristine whiteness. "Do you know the words for the vow?" Shade asked.

Blackjack nodded, just to reassure him - for, to be honest, it was the power behind the words that counted and all he was going to do was improvise - and then spoke, "We...er…we call upon Kalganos --- hear our cry,"

The faint energy emanating from the Stone suddenly became stronger, more tangible. Feeling stronger the cursed dragon continued, his voice becoming more steady as he felt the skin on the back of his neck start to tingle,

"We ask your strength so that we can begin our quest. We ask for life to aid us, that we might dedicate the rest of our existence to our cause to purge this mortal plane of Daemonkind. Blood on blood we take this oath, that until we fall our...uh...soul may serve. Never to admit defeat, never to surrender, until the last daemon, be they underworld daemon or Chaos demon, lies dead at our feet."

The Stone of Covenants began to glow, with a soft light emanating from deep within. At first it was red as blood, lightening to yellow. As it grew in intensity it changed to a brilliant white. Then the light flashed out from the Stone in a blinding supernova. A chaos of light danced around the two and both felt something infusing deep within them...their desire to hunt and destroy demons more potent than they had ever felt before. This desire was fuelled into an unquenchable inner inferno as the offering of their dedication was accepted. And then the light was gone.

Both of them fell back, dazed from the power surge. Blackjack staggered but managed to maintain his balance, while F’lair stepped off the edge of the dais and ended up flat on his back on the floor. Shade propped himself up on his elbows, "Whoa! I almost felt alive again! Are you okay?" he looked around, dazzled and trying to see in the sudden (comparative) darkness.

Blackjack gingerly touched his chest wound, to find it was no longer there. The rent had healed over, with only three cruel scars to bare witness to it ever having existed, "Ha! Up yours, Saragoth!" he grinned wickedly. He reached down and gave F’lair a hand up.

Once back outside, the two stood staring at the setting suns. The small red sun Derim had just set, leaving the golden light of Tymaera’s major sun, Mired, to flood the world. Great shafts of yellow light shone out from around the silver-lined cloud that partially obscured Mired’s brilliance. They had closed the great stone doors that guarded the entrance to the halls carved into the mountains, and they were on the ledge just outside, admiring the magnificent view the mountaintop offered. At their feet lay the Griffin Peaks, to the mountains’ north the Empire, to the South, the Evermoors. They felt like the world was theirs.

"So what d'we do now?" asked Shade, tying his long hair back to stop the wind from whipping it into his face. He found his gaze drifting south.

"Like you need to ask! Don't you feel it inside? We're true Daemonslayers now!" replied Blackjack, turning his baleful gaze in the same direction. Out there, thousands of miles away beyond the fearsome Grey Mountains was the Ruined Land. The place where a gateway into the demon realms stood open, allowing their putrid kind into the Prime Material Plane and for this incursion, they would suffer he swore to himself.

"'Daemonslayers'? Where'd you get that name from?"

Blackjack shrugged, "Just seemed to fit,"

"Daemonslayers," repeated Shade rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "I like it!" Blackjack was right, he could feel himself getting into the spirit just by thinking about killing daemons. Just the thought of it felt good, before now he had always been a little unsure of his existence in the world of the living, but now he had a purpose. A reason to be.

Blackjack could sense this from his friend and with a celebratory flourish, took out the flask of Firewater he always carried from the unplumbed recesses of his red denim waistcoat (formerly a jacket until he had torn the arms off). The drink was magically spiked and so potent that you inhaled it almost as much as you drank it, "A toast?" he suggested and then held the flask up "To new beginnings!" he took a quick swig and handed it to Shade.

"Yeah. But if you hadn’t killed Aster, this might not have happened. So I’d say ‘To endings and beginnings," the werewolf shut his eyes and took a long draught. Then spoiled the moment by spraying it back out, choking as the full strength of the near-pure alcohol hit him, burning his throat and making his eyes water.

"You know you're only meant to swig it, not quaff it..."

… and so it begins.

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.

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