The discomfort wouldn't go away. It didn't matter if he drank water, took the medicine Thais had prepared for him or if he lay in a darkened corner of the room without moving. His head ached worse than the first time he'd gotten drunk off that green slush the older soldiers always tricked younger ones into trying. The dizziness was back too, along with nausea.
And he wanted to go home. Desperately.
He'd never been so homesick in his whole life; not during his night in Outer Camps, not as a young boy when he and Dylis temporarily had gotten reassigned to different cities, not even the morning he'd woken up and realized their parents never would come back from their fishing trip. It was like a living thing this longing, preventing him from sleeping and eating by clawing and biting at his subconscious, urging him to leave now, soon, immediately!
He twisted in his bed and stared up at the ceiling, willing the thoughts of friends and family to just go away and let him sleep.
<Are you all right?>
Glaw's heart jumped up and lodged itself in his throat at the sight of two glowing eyes in the dark above his bed. It took him a second to place Lykos' voice.
<D-don't do that!> he gasped.
The demon took a seat on the bench next to his bed. <I apologize for disturbing you so late at night.>
Glaw heaved a deep sigh. The pounding inside his head was fading, taking nausea along with it. As soon as his vision was clear, he turned to give Lykos a lopsided smile. <Don't worry about it. I can't sleep anyway.>
Lykos' expression was mildly amused as he said: <I'll tell you a story then.>
<...a bedtime story?>
Lykos shifted in his seat, straightening the folds of his dark blue dress (well, that probably wasn't the word for it, but at this point, Glaw had given up on learning new words for clothes). <If you wish.>
Glaw gave Lykos a long look, one eyebrow raised. When nothing else proved to be forthcoming Glaw shrugged, as best as he could while lying in bed. <Well, nothing else has worked.>
<I'll do my best to at least entertain you,> Lykos said and nudged his glasses further up his nose. <Thais says I have a talent for it.> He paused and clasped his hands together. <Do you know the story of how the war began between your people and mine?>
The question hung in the air for a good ten seconds before Glaw answered: <I know a story. Not sure if it goes well with yours.> He made sure not to meet Lykos' eyes as he spoke.
<Tell me your version, then.>
Glaw frowned and tore his gaze away from the ceiling. <I thought you'd be the one telling bedtime stories.>
<It wouldn't do to bore you with tales you've already heard,> Lykos said and began to untangle his hair from the messy ponytail it was tied up in.
<Don't know, might put me to sleep faster,> Glaw said, ending on a laugh that sounded more brittle than amused. Lykos lifted an eyebrow and Glaw went back to avoiding eye contact.
<All right then,> he said, giving the ceiling the most serious of stares he could muster, <the start of the...> He cast out a mental net for the words, but it came back empty. "Demon War," he settled for and cleared his throat. <Uhm, well, once upon a long, long time ago, the world was full of your kind and you weren't very...nice.>
<Harsher words are deserved,> Lykos cut in, scowling. <Most of my kind were violent and cruel, enslaving all they came across and killing those who didn't submit. There is no need to wrap the past in cotton.>
<Eh, right.> Glaw glanced at Lykos, with eyes caught between widening in surprise and narrowing in confusion. <So yes, your kind were everywhere. You had great cities, built by slaves. Slaves who were of my people.>
<And our own kind.>
Glaw half sat up, steadying himself on his elbows so he could have a better look at the calm, serious expression on Lykos' face. <Really?>
Lykos nodded and his hair swayed with the movement, like a curtain in the wind. <Only the rich had any say in those days. All others were little better than servants or slaves, depending on who won the wars that constantly raged between our cities.>
<Really?> Glaw asked, then snapped his mouth shut. <This story just gets weirder and weirder. Fine, all right, so your kind were horrible to your own and my people alike. But they couldn't be everywhere and conquer all people and one day...> Glaw leaned his head back, stretching his neck. <One day a group of "human" spell-weavers from a hidden city took it upon themselves to free the world from the reign of your kind.>
<And their leader was your "Emperor".>
<That's right.> Glaw gave him a playful glare. <Who is telling this story, you or me? Go back to combing your hair and let me finish.>
Lykos chuckled, grasped a few locks of his hair and begun a braid. <As you wish.>
<Right, so.> Glaw frowned. <"The Emperor.” That wasn't his name at the time, of course, but I can't very well go around calling him by his actual name, lowly soldier that I am. He led the group of spell-weavers in a long war against your kind. They started out with less than a handful of warriors, but they were strong in magic and good strategists. Before long they had many loyal soldiers on their side. In the end, they overthrew the largest of your kind's cities and the rest of your kind fled. My kind had won.>
Glaw paused to cough and took a sip from the glass-mug of water that had been left on a bench by his bed, along with an empty wooden bowl. Lykos continued to braid his hair in silence.
<So that was it. Your kind had been defeated and my kind could take over the cities. But my kind aren't peaceful sheep either, as I'm sure you already know. They began to fight among themselves; to get the best cities, the biggest herds of animals and the best fields to grow crops. And they began to fear spell-weaving. "The Emperor" was not pleased. He'd spent almost a thousand years battling your kind and for what? More war?>
Another sip of water. <No one really knows how he's managed to live as long as he has - magic, I suppose - but "the Emperor" remained, as my kind wasted their newly found freedom on slaughtering each other. Slowly, just as carefully as he'd planned the first attack on your kind, he began to seek new followers. Followers who wanted peace.>
Glaw put the glass-mug back on the bench, careful not to nudge the bowl onto the floor. <Two hundred years ago, "the Emperor" had gathered enough of a following to sail across the ocean and find new land. That was where he built the Eight Cities, founding "the Empire". Sadly it turned out that was where your kind had fled and the war started up again.> He let out a deep breath. <That's all I learned in school. Happy now?>
<Thank you,> Lykos said, throwing another finished braid over his shoulder, <that was very enlightening. Would you lend me that bowl?>
Glaw's brow wrinkled in confusion, but he picked up the bowl next to the glass-mug and handed it to Lykos without comment.
Lykos cupped his hands around the small wooden bowl and stared down in it, like a soothsayer searching for answers in a mug of tea leaves. Slowly his eyes lit up, two blue lights in the dimness of the cellar. This time, Glaw found himself not flinching away from the sight. Instead, he relaxed further into the mattress, reminded of the small electric light his parents had placed by the door in his childhood bedroom.
<Your "Emperor's" long life does indeed has something to do with magic,> Lykos said, his fingers tracing patterns on the underside of the bowl. <My people's magic.>
Glaw had to bite back a gasp. Two small wooden sculptures rose from the middle of the bowl; two demons, or possibly two humans, carved with such fine detail they could have been found at the best of market squares in Art.
<When two of my kind link their minds together, the one who opens to the other and allows them to lead must trust them with much more than commands. Tell me, how old do you think I am?>
Glaw managed to lure his eyes away from the two sculptures long enough to take another look at Lykos' face. He had no wrinkles and no beard, his hair was a deep black without a single trace of gray and he'd crossed his legs beneath himself without winching. <Uhm, thirty perhaps?>
<Two hundred and twelve,> Lykos answered and smirked as Glaw's mouth fell open. <I'm older than your "Empire" and yet I'm far younger than our oldest citizen. How do you think that's possible?>
Glaw tilted his head to the side and frowned thoughtfully. <Well,> he said, <it isn't too strange, really. I mean, I live much longer than a dog and dogs live much longer than a firefly. I guess it all depends on how we're built on the inside, so to speak.>
Lykos nodded and a new figure appeared in the bowl. It looked identical to the other two but wore clothes reminiscent of Glaw's military uniform. <True, but you don't look much like an insect or a dog, do you?>
Glaw shook his head. He'd managed to sit all the way up, resting against the pillows that had been piled against the bed's headboard.
<We do live longer than your kind, most of the time,> Lykos said, letting the human sculpture melt back into the bowl. <Each of my kind is born with an inner fire both of our kind call magic. Your kind has one magic that we share with you, but we have a second kind as well. It allows us to momentarily reshape the world through mere skin contact with our palms or the soles of our feet. It is, to my knowledge, unique to our kind. Some of us have more talent for this unique magic than others; some have barely any. The magnitude of this gift decides two things; how long we can keep the world around us shaped as we please without fainting from exhaustion, and how long we'll live.> The demon sculptures began to shift again, shrinking until they were the size of two children. They quickly began to grow again, but once they'd reached the size of adults, the one on the right's face was covered in wrinkles within seconds.
<Two of my kind can be born at the same time, but one of them may die of old age before the other has gotten their first gray hairs.> The sculpture on the left retained its straight-backed posture and youthful appearance, while its companion got a staff to support its now crooked figure.
<Now, imagine that you're a parent who has the power to live for hundreds of years and you have a child who'll barely pass fifty. What would you do?>
Glaw looked at the bowl. The sculptures had once again changed shape, taking on the guise of a child and an adult holding hands. <Cry my eyes out?>
<A reasonable answer,> Lykos said. <But our kind can do one thing to alleviate such grief. We can share our magic.> The sculptures turned to face each other and the adult knelt down in front of the child, resting its hands on its knees with the palms up.
<If you open your mind to a person you can offer to share your magic with them. Usually, that is a brief aid, giving them more power than they'd otherwise be able to waste in one reshaping or spell.> The child sculpture put one hand on the side of the bowl and the wood gave way, shaping a hole the size of its hand. <But if you’re willing, you can choose to share the source of your magic with others, permanently.> The hole around the child sculpture's hand had grown to the size of a human fist.<The dark side of this is that the first link in a bond-chain can make their followers give pieces of their magic source to them.>
Glaw eyed the sculptures warily. <Doesn't that make it possible for the leader to...>
<Steal years?> Lykos nodded and the sculptures changed back into two adults.<Oh yes. If you allow another person deep enough into your mind, they could do anything they wished; listen to your innermost thoughts, leech off the source of your magic, even make you do or say whatever they pleased.> The sculptures, two adults again, stood facing each other and slowly, as if struggling against an invisible force, one of them knelt. <Very risky, but it has its benefits.>
Glaw snorted. <Benefits?>
The glow from Lykos' eyes flickered once, then steadied. The kneeling sculpture got to its feet again. <Believe it or not, but such close connections weren't uncommon during our times of war,> he said. This time the other sculpture knelt, a small smile forming on its lips, which was answered by a smile on the other sculpture's face.
<The leader was referred to as terra, which is a very old word for earth or ground. The other was called arbōs, which means tree. The reasoning was that trees, while mighty and steady things in their own right, would fall and float away on the river, out into the sea, without earth to stand on.>
Tugging the duvet a bit further up his chest, Glaw gave the two smiling sculptures a long look. <So you're saying this wasn't something done on a whim or by just anybody.>
<Correct.> Both sculptures were standing. One was holding a dagger and the other a curved sword. <It was commonly a bond between skilled warriors who trusted each other completely. Being linked means not only more power. It also allows the terra to shield the arbōs from others of our kind who might be... less trustworthy leaders.>
Glaw reached out and gave one of the sculptures a poke; he couldn't help laughing as it glared at him and shouldered his finger aside. <How did they decide who got to be terra? Flip a coin?>
Lykos shook his head, lifting his feet from the floor and balancing the bowl on his crossed ankles. <A mental bond is something you can resist through sheer force of will and magical power, but you can also use force of will and magic to create one without consent.> The two sculptures lunged for each other, grabbing each others' hand and pressing their foreheads together, baring their teeth in silent growls. <For someone not so cunning when it came to mental battle, it was advisable to find a terra who was and who also was trustworthy. Invited or not, anyone of my kind could try to invade the mind of another.>
Lykos looked up from his shaping, his eyes narrowing into two amused looking, glowing slits. <Not you of course, don't look so worried. As I've already said you'd need these extra "ears".> He brushed a couple of fingers over the black spots on his neck. <No, the only ones who have anything to fear are my kind entering enemy territory.>
A third sculpture had joined the two first ones, crouching on the edge of the bowl. <So the benefits you were talking about is protection?> Glaw asked, as the new sculpture circled the other two, walking around the bowl's edge in a crouch.
<Indeed. With such a deep bond it'd be nearly impossible for a stranger to take the terra's place. However,> the new sculpture dived from its place on the bowl's edge and grabbed a hold of the one with the curved sword. It dug its fingers into the shoulders of the other and pressed their foreheads together. The sword-wielder tried to pull away and the one with the dagger made ready to jump to its rescue, but then froze. The sword-wielder had stopped its struggling and stood. <Should the terra come under enemy control, the arbōs would go with him.>
<Like links in a chain,> Glaw murmured under his breath, transfixed by the sight of the suddenly docile sculptures kneeling before the newcomer. <And the stranger could then drain them of every drop of magic they had?>
<That's where my story comes in,> Lykos said and the three sculptures melted back into the wood. The sclera of Lykos' eyes returned, along with his pupils and icy blue irises, the glowing light having gone out like a candle flames caught by a gust of strong wind.
Glaw watched the sculptures disappear, then shook his head quickly, before saying: <Oh, so there is an actual story hidden here somewhere?>
<I'm getting to it now, no need to rush,> Lykos scolded him in a playful tone of voice.
Glaw's smile faltered and he sank back into his bed. <True. It's not like I'm going anywhere, anytime soon.>
If Lykos heard him, he didn't comment. Instead, his eyes lit up again and a few dozen small trees grew up from the bottom of the bowl. In a clearing, in the middle of the miniature forest, two new sculptures appeared, far more detailed than the previous ones. They were both dressed in skirts and armed. The one on the left looked to be a man in his early forties with waist-long hair and a sword. The one on the right was a woman in her thirties, her hair cut short and an ax slung over one shoulder.
<There once were two great warriors of my people. One was famed for his control over the winds; no one could ride on them faster or higher than he. The other was more at home on the ground, but not less deadly. Many years after your kind drove us into hiding they built this city together.> The bowl shifted, houses growing out of its surface to join the trees. <But far from all of us made it to this safe haven and some that did left after a while, unable to adapt their own ways and beliefs to coexist within the city.>
A handful of the houses melted back into the bowl, leaving trees in their place.<Life was peaceful even so until your kind came from across the sea. One of the city founders,> the sculpture of the man took a step forward, <wished to take up the old traditions, to select a caelum to lead us into battle against your people.> The sculpture of the woman also took a step forward and lowered the ax from her shoulder, holding it out as if to halt the other sculpture's way. <But the other she refused, choosing instead to support every citizen's right to be heard in every matter of importance.
<He who would lead us was called Euripides and she who prevented that was Demostrate, the best fighter I ever did see.>
<You saw her?> Glaw asked, frowning.
This earned him a low chuckle from Lykos. <Over two hundred years old, remember?>
Glaw returned his gaze to the bowl. Euripides and Demostrate now stood facing each other, both having crossed their arms over their chests, their stances wide.
<Your kind had been here for less than a year when they stumbled upon our borders.> Shapes appeared among the trees, mounted on horses. <It should have been an easy task for one such as Demostrate to fight back a few scores of your kind, but your "Emperor" had an unexpected weapon on his side.> Yet another new shape appeared, at the top of one of the trees. It wore a mask.
Glaw swallowed; it felt like his throat had been lined with sandpaper. He reached out for the glass-mug and downed the last of the water in one swoop. <One of your kind, loyal to mine.>
<Loyal to your leader,> Lykos said, <and how willingly is to this day a topic of discussion among my people. Other things than wind can make a tree sway.>
Lykos hummed in acknowledgment. The glow of his eyes reflected strangely off his glasses as he bent forward to study the bowl. He let go of it with his right hand and began tracing the veins in the wood that ran along the bottom of it, skirting around the trees and houses, until he'd covered half of the scene with the palm of his hand. He pushed down, crushing the sculpture of Demostrate and several of the houses.
<After days of battle, Demostrate was lost to us, as were several of our other warriors. Along with that blow to our moral your leader used his magic to poison the trees lining the edge of the woods, creating a cursed circle around our city. A barrier.> The outermost trees in the bowl shook. <Our number of skilled fighters were dwindling and your kind's warriors were advancing. The first strategy we tried was to run, but the cursed barrier drained us as we tried to flee, sapping our magic like a flower soaks up water from the ground. We were trapped.>
As he spoke, Lykos paled and the glow from his eyes took on a hollow quality, like two candles burning at the bottom of an empty well. The sculpture of Euripides took center stage in the miniature city and lifted its hands above its head as if calling for the attention of a large crowd.
<Euripides saw this as his moment to grasp power and rallied any who would dare fight to join under the sign of his house. Desperate as we were, he was soon named caelum and all who could fight submitted to him.> New sculptures popped up out of the wood around Euripides, all of them kneeling with their hands on their knees, palms up.
<Connected in a chain to our caelum, our warriors moved as one.> The new sculptures darted in among the trees, leaving Euripides alone in the city. <They always knew where the others were, always knew what the scouts knew, and sharing their powers among themselves they could fight from dusk until dawn without rest.> Shapes darted back and forth among the trees, quicker than Glaw's eyes could follow. <Within a handful of days, your kind had been driven from the forest, back to your cities. Euripides was celebrated as a hero.>
The sculptures returned from among the trees and formed circles around Euripides, bowing. They then melted back into the wood. <But caelum is a position best suited for war. Once your kind had been driven from our city and it was clear we could not leave, most wished to secure our borders and focus on repairing the damage done to the city. They wanted the Senate back and they wanted their right to choose what would happen next. Euripides had other ideas.>
Glaw jump as the wooden eyes of Euripides lit up, two brief sparks of blue light not unlike the shine in Lykos' eyes. Looking up, he noted a faint smile on Lykos' lips. <My talent for spell-weaving is nowhere near Thais' or Aelius', but I do my best.>
He pushed his glasses further up his nose and lifted the bowl higher, tilting it so Glaw could keep an eye on its contests. <The city was rebuilt. Five years passed, ten years passed, and the Senate got its power back, at least officially. Your kind left us in peace, and as a people we got back on our feet.>
In the bowl, more houses popped up and most of the sculptures gathered by them, sitting down in a circle, their expressions peaceful; Lykos' own echoed this, his eyes heavy-lidded and the small smile on his lips widening slightly.
<Sadly, all were not satisfied with this peace. Euripides had loyal followers and together they swayed many warriors who were unskilled at mental combat to their side.>
<Which side was that?> Glaw asked, as more and more wooden followers gathered around the sculpture of Euripides.
Lykos' eyes flared. <The one that wanted revenge.> He spun the bowl and put it down to rest against his ankles. The houses had disappeared, as had the demons, leaving only trees in their wake.
<Many of our kind had been lost. Seeing as your "Emperor" had one of our kin among his soldiers, Euripides suspected that most of the lost had been tricked to your side.> A macabre scene shaped itself out of the bowl; demons crouched high up on tree branches, each holding a blade, watching other sculptures walking below as if frozen in the moment before making their kills. <The course of action was clear to him; find them and execute them for treason, and kill as many of your kind on the way as possible.>
<What?> Glaw exclaimed, pushing himself upright. <That doesn't make any sense! Why kill your own people if they couldn't help themselves?> He paused as Lykos' slowly shook his head. <They didn't have a choice in betraying you, did they?>
The trees in the bowl writhed, like banners caught in a harsh wind. <We don't know how they were swayed, but it mattered little. Executing traitors, no matter if they were willing traitors or not, was a vital part of the old laws.> His brow wrinkled into a troubled frown. <Euripides was very fond of those.>
Silence fell over the cellar as Lykos' eyes lost their glow and the figures in the wooden bowl melted away. He took a deep breath and adjusted his glasses, before he seemed to pull himself back together, squaring his shoulders and smiling politely.
<The situation was rushing out of control,> he said, eyes lighting up again. <The Senate tried to intervene, but Euripides had gathered too many followers at that point and he was voted caelum again. The city thus stood at the brink of full-scale war with your kind.> Trees and houses appeared in the bowl once more, though they seemed to have trouble keeping their shape, changing size and order without rime or reason. <There was only one solution: overthrow Euripides.>
The figures in the bowl stilled and melted away, leaving a lone figure standing in its center.
<That part of the story begins with Aelius,> Lykos said. Leaning over the edge of his bed, Glaw could see that the lone sculpture was a small, wooden copy of the demon in question, holding a dagger. <You've met him already and you've seen him fight. What reason do you think he should have to fear you?>
Glaw thought back to his first night in the forest; the soldiers who'd been herded into the middle of the glade like sheep run around by two dogs. He shuddered. <None. He's faster than I'll ever be and without a doubt a more experienced fighter. He'd have my head before I'd even finished thinking about attacking him.> He gave the pillows a couple of light slaps, fluffing them up. <But if you've been through something bad enough, I guess it doesn't matter how quick you are with a blade; you won't feel safe anyway.>
Lykos gave him a long look, then nodded. <Wise words.> The tiny dagger faded from the sculpture's hand. <During Euripides' reign, Aelius was not a warrior, but a healer. He traveled the outer borders of our territory, tending to the guards and those who didn't wish to live in the city itself.> Trees grew up around the sculpture, along with a few small houses, placed at the farthest sides of the bowl. <And like all healers, he was paired with a guard, who'd keep him safe.>
A new sculpture appeared beside Aelius, armed with a quiver and a bow. <His sister, Vita.>
The scene changed, half the bowl filling with trees. The other half remained empty except for a handful of sculptures dressed in clothes that resembled the Imperial Military's uniforms. <Euripides had been making raids towards your people for years at that point, murdering those brave or foolish enough to live close to our borders.> The sculptures in uniforms moved closer to the treeline. <Your people would not suffer in silence for long. The retaliation attack crashed like a giant wave against our borders. Euripides rallied his warriors and fought them back, protecting the city. Some of us were still cornered, far away from aid and weakened after long days of work, healing our wounded guards.>
The sculptures of Aelius and Vita broke out of the wood and moved to stand back to back. Around them appeared sculptures armed with swords, surrounding them.
<This part of the story was not something I shared in, of course, but I've heard it told from the mouth of Aelius himself. Vita might also have added a word or two.> The sculptures with swords tightened their circle and a knife flew from one of their hands, striking Aelius in the shoulder, making him stumble. Vita steadied him while letting arrows fly, cutting down all soldiers who dared come in range of her bow. Nudging Aelius with one foot she encouraged him to walk in a circle, still back to back with her, as she shot more arrows.
Glaw had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from cheering her on.
<Vita did her best to keep the enemy at bay,> Lykos said. The sculptures of Aelius and Vita kept circling, Vita's arrows hitting their mark every time. The soldiers were falling in droves, arrows sticking out of their throats and chests, <but they were too many. Aelius and Vita tried to run, but they could not run fast enough to avoid the arrows of the enemy's archers, too exhausted from before the attack and Aelius losing more blood with each heartbeat.>
Vita's sculpture grabbed the last arrow from her quiver and made a lunge for the nearest soldier, cutting his throat open. Wooden blood spilled out, splattering her clothes. From behind them, a soldier mounted on a horse spurred his mount towards Aelius and quick as a weasel pulled the knife from the demon's shoulder, leaving Aelius to crumble to his knees.
The mass of soldiers parted, leaving a narrow path among them. <Vita has always claimed she knew it was a trap, but also that it was their only chance,> Lykos said, as the miniature of Vita bent her knees, bracing herself for something. <Without words she told Aelius to follow her in a desperate sprint for freedom. Gathering the last of her powers she managed to muster enough strength to reshape the air in front of her. She darted towards the trees, faster than the enemy could shoot.>
The sculpture of Vita rushed past the lines of soldiers and up into a tree. The one of Aelius, however, remained on its knees, unmoving. <She managed to get to the edge of the hoard, but realized too late that Aelius hadn't followed and that she no longer could feel her brother at the back of her head, as she should have while they were linked.>
The sculpture of Aelius got to its feet as Vita turned on her tree branch, her mouth hanging open in shock and horror. The man on the horse dried the knife on one of his trouser legs, then put a hand on Aelius' bleeding shoulder. Aelius' face stayed blank. <That was how we learned of the blood curse.>
<Blood curse?> Glaw echoed faintly, eyes fixed on the wooden bowl.
Lykos paused, as if surprised by this interruption, then continued: <It's what we call the manner in which your spell-weavers can break down someone's mental defenses in an instant.> He put a finger on the top of the mounted soldier's head as if pointing him out, before returning his hand to the underside of the bowl. <None of our magic users have been able to figure out exactly how it's done, but it seems the blood of the victim and one of your seashells is needed. Once the blood has been smeared on a seashell the victims fall under the spell-weaver's control.>
Glaw gaped, trying to process these news. The soldiers around Aelius and the man on the horse had all turned to face the tree Vita was standing in. More than twenty archers had their bows strung, aiming arrows at her chest.
<Too weak to take on so many opponents at once, Vita fell back.> The sculpture of Vita took off across the branches and the warriors below gave chase. <Her flight lasted for an hour, halted when she ran into Euthymia and Ligeia, who Euripides had stationed as the first line of defense. The battle that followed was long and bloody.>
The shapes of two female demons, armed to the teeth with daggers and swords, dropped from the trees right into the crowd of human soldiers. The scene soon faded away, giving room for a group of houses inside a ring of trees. The sculpture of Euripides had made a reappearance, surrounded by a good thirty other demons.
<After two days your people's soldiers retreated and Euripides ordered Aelius to be given up for lost. Vita tried to protest, but she was both too wounded and too deep under the influence of Euripides to really put up a fight. In the end, all warriors agreed to remain in the city.> The sculptures crowded together around Euripides, the miniature of Vita kneeling at his feet.
<But not all heeded that order, as I'm sure you've already understood.> A new sculpture took shape at the edge of the crowd, quickly vanishing among the trees. <Nikon has always had raw talent for fighting but had never been snared by Euripides leadership, which all knew irked our dear caelum. Other circumstances that aren't mine to tell demoted him to an outsider, not invited to what passed for a Senate under Euripides rule, and he was allowed no weapon. Having him go off on a rescue mission all on his own without a word to another soul, struck a blow to Euripides' place as absolute leader of our city.>
The figures in the bowl melted away, leaving room for more trees. <Nikon was gone for three days. Neither he nor Aelius has ever spoken of what happened during that time, but on the third day, they returned. Both were beaten bloody and Aelius was barely clinging to wakefulness.> Miniature versions of Aelius and Nikon appeared among the trees, Nikon half carrying his companion. <Aquila and Phaedrus, the guards who first saw them enter back into our territory, said Aelius fainted the moment he saw the roofs of the city.> The sculpture of Aelius' slackened in Nikon's grip.
More sculptures of demons took form on the other side of the bowl, along with houses. The demons approached Nikon and Aelius, led by Euripides and a staggering Vita, who reached out to her brother. Nikon took a step back, dragging Aelius with him. His face was split in a triumphant grin.
<Euripides realized an execution after a successful rescue would lose him the favor of his warriors.> The sculpture of Vita had backed away, her head bowed, while the sculpture of Euripides turned so it could keep an eye on both Nikon and the crowd behind him. <Clever as he was, he immediately announced that Aelius had been pardoned and that a feast would be held in Nikon's honor that very night.>
The scene shifted, taking the form of the deep stairs that Glaw remembered as the Senate. <Nikon said nothing in reply to this and everyone took that as agreement. Little did we know that the moment he had left the unconscious Aelius at his house, he'd rush to the theater, where he called Euripides out.>
Glaw shifted his weight back onto his elbows, tilting his head to change his view of the bowl. The miniature of Nikon stood at the center of the theater stage, clothes torn and wooden blood leaking from various cuts and lacerations all over his body. <He challenged him to a duel?>
<Yes, you could say that,> Lykos said, making the sculpture of Euripides take form at the top of the stairs. <And Euripides accepted, laughing all the way to the challenge arena. Nikon was dead on his feet at that point and Euripides still had a good twelve warriors who would back him up as a mental chain. Nikon had no one.>
The new scene that formed itself in the bowl was of a glade not unlike the one Glaw had first met the demons in. The sculpture of Nikon stood on the right-hand side of it, while Euripides and twelve other sculptures had taken up the left-hand side. Glaw scanned the faces of the other demons and was surprised to recognize one of them.
<I didn't know...eh, what's his name?> he asked, pointing at the sculpture with the familiar face.
<Cato,> Lykos replied, as the miniature took a step forward. <And before you ask anything more, I'd just like you to know that few sons ever could say no to a kind father; no matter how cruel that father could be to others.>
<Huh,> was all Glaw could say, closing his mouth to chew on his lower lip.
The sculptures of Nikon and Euripides walked into the middle of the glade, leaving Euripides' supporters to stand along the treeline. As if on an unheard signal, Euripides grabbed at Nikon's shoulders. Nikon darted back just out of his reach.
<No one but the combatants and their chains was allowed to witness the fight, but after all was said and done it was not kept secret.> The battle in the bowl continued, Euripides attacking and Nikon evading. <For the first half, it looked like Euripides had a clear advantage. Nikon seemed to be doing his best just to keep out of the reach of his opponent's teeth, which->
<His teeth?> Glaw interrupted, his face the picture of confusion. <What was he going to do, bite him?>
Lykos paused, the glow fading from his eyes to revealed honest confusion shining in them. Then realization seemed to dawn. <Ah, but of course, you wouldn't know.> He let his mouth fall open, leaned his head sideways and tugged at the corner of his lips with two fingers, giving Glaw a clear view of his hind teeth. Or hind fangs, rather; the two molars looked sharp enough to cut through skin as if it was butter.
<You know how snakes can have poisonous fangs?> Lykos asked after he'd let go of his lips.
<Yes,> Glaw answered, edging further up towards the headboard of his bed.
<Well, we're a little like that,> Lykos said. <How much do you remember of our first meeting?>
<In the woods? Not much. I...> Glaw fumbled for words, mouth hanging open. <One of you bit me?>
Lykos chuckled and shook his head, moving a hand from the bowl. He placed it behind himself so he could lean back a little, weight resting on his right arm. <No, but like most of the people living along the border, I don't leave my home unarmed. The weapons I bring are always coated with my own poison. It’s not deadly, but it attacks the brain, shuts down a person’s consciousness. If it ends up in your blood you’re easy prey for someone wanting to force a bond on you.> He balanced the wooden bowl on his ankles and stuck a finger of his left hand into his mouth. When he brought it out it was wet with a greenish liquid. A very familiar green color.
Glaw nearly threw himself out of the bed. <You!> he shouted, backing away from Lykos. <You've been poisoning me!>
Lykos' eyes widened dramatically. <Of course I haven't!> he said, putting the bowl aside.
<You'll have to come up with a better excuse than 'uh-uh' to convince me of that!> Glaw said, his voice little more than a hysterical growl. The room was far too open behind him; he needed to get a wall to his back, to make a stand. He thought back to all the unseeing soldiers, shipped out of Outer Camps to likely never recover their minds.
Lykos froze, half-way out of his seat. <I...> He blinked and his eyes seemed to fix on Glaw's face. A visible shudder ran through his body and then, slowly, he sank down onto his knees, mimicking the position Glaw had seen the wooden sculptures assume several times. <I swear I haven't! Please believe me.>
Strangely enough, Glaw found his pulse calming and his panic fade. The idea suddenly seemed absurd. What would Lykos gain from poisoning him? If Thais was to be believed, Bernike had done her utmost to keep Lykos away from him all week.
<I swear that my poison hasn't touched your veins since the night we met,> Lykos said, all blood seemingly having left his face. <If anyone else has been giving you theirs, I will find out who and drag them before the Senate.>
Glaw hesitated, half of him wanting to rush to the wall or lunge at Lykos, to try and take him by surprise. The other half, the stronger half, was relaxing his posture and made him sit back down on the bed. <Fine, I'll believe you,> Glaw found himself saying, unable to take his eyes off of the kneeling Lykos. <But if you get anywhere near me with those fangs, I'll punch you in the face.>
Lykos' shoulders sagged and he bowed his head, as if in thanks. <Understandable.> Slowly, like a man worried about startling a spooked horse, he stood back up and retook his seat on the bench opposite Glaw.
<So,> Glaw said, wringing his hands under the duvet, <the duel?>
<Ah yes, the duel.> Lykos picked the bowl back up and placed it in his lap. The miniatures reformed and began to dart around its surface again, alternating between jumping between tree branches and rushing over the grass, to strike at each other with fists and whatever weapons they could shape out of the ground.
<As I said, Euripides' followers did not worry during the first half of the battle and they weren't too concerned during the first of the second half either. Nikon was dodging more than attacking and he was losing blood. The most danger Euripides seemed to be in was the risk of slipping in the pools of blood Nikon was leaving all over the arena.>
The sculptures rushed on, the one of Nikon moving slower and slower by the second. <Finally, after a good two hours of that game of cat and mouse, Euripides caught Nikon.> The sculpture of Euripides grabbed the one of Nikon by the ankle while they both were in midair and slammed him to the ground, several meters below them. Glaw flinched.
<It seemed victory was assured. Nikon had fallen and could not get back on his feet. All that was left to do was to form a link.> The miniature Cato moved away from Euripides' other followers and approached the fallen Nikon, Euripides standing right beside his defeated opponent.
<Cato was at the end of Euripides' chain of followers, the one free to form a new bond.> The sculpture of Cato knelt by Nikon's side and cupped the fallen demon's head in his hands, cradling it between his palms as if it were a cracked egg, ready to break at any second. <Able to draw from the power of all of Euripides' followers, binding Nikon should have been no problem. But there were complications of this fight that he hadn't foreseen.>
The eyes of the miniature Nikon fluttered open and a mocking grin spread over its face. Looks of tight-lipped shock painted themselves across the faces of the other sculptures and the one of Euripides stumbled and fell. The sculpture of Cato, in its turn, was twitching and writhing, its hands still holding Nikon's head. The muscles in Cato's arms strained and his fingers spread and curled around the sides of Nikon's head as if he was struggling to pull them loose.
And the grin on Nikon's face just grew wider.
<Even the strongest of warriors can't fight nature,> Lykos said, one corner of his lips tugged up into a tiny smile. <Nikon had let Euripides exhaust him and used that to get the upper hand.> The sculpture of Euripides lay writhing on the ground, screaming silently. Along the treeline his followers had fallen to their knees, clawing at their own heads and necks. <Anyone drained to within a drop of their life will not only try to take back what is theirs; they’ll take all they can get. It's pure instinct. Nikon relied on those instincts and they served him well. A magic source left that empty is like a vacuum, nearly impossible to avoid getting sucked into.>
Glaw swallowed, averting his eyes from the tortured wood sculptures.<He drained Euripides?>
Lykos nodded, his smile fading. <Until there was nothing but a pile of dust left.> The sculpture of Euripides crumble and the ones of his followers collapsed in what looked to have been a mass dead faint. <Euripides' followers got caught in the crossfire. Cato took the worst blow.>
Glaw thought back to the silent mumbling the demon in question had been occupying himself with the last time he'd seen him. <Oh.>
The shapes in the wood melted away again, reshaping themselves into an ordinary bowl once more and the glow faded from Lykos' eyes. <Our healers did their best,> he said, putting the bowl down beside him on the bench, <but some wounds just won't mend. And that was the fall of Euripides, the first and last caelum of our city.>
Glaw stayed quiet for a long moment, narrowed eyes focused on the wooden bowl. Then he said: <Uhm, no 'happily ever after' I take it. Did Nikon at least get that feast thrown in his honor? A...> He trailed off, huffed and finally said: "parade?"
<I have no idea what you mean by that last word,> Lykos said, lips twitching with amusement. <But no, there was no feast. For the murder of Euripides, Nikon was banished to the outer borders of our city.>
Glaw's mouth fell open and it took him a moment to close it again. <Murder? But he saved you!>
Lykos repositioned himself on the bench, leaning back on his hands and turning his eyes to the ceiling. He gave a soft hum of agreement before he spoke .<True, the actions of the Senate could be seen as foolish. If we had obeyed by the old laws Nikon would by right have been our new caelum.> He sighed. <But we had new laws, voted forth by the Senate before Euripides time as caelum. They were the laws we had to follow for they were of the people. Those laws state that none shall take the life of another of our kind and be forgiven unless the death in question is an execution decided by a judge. Nikon accepted this and went willingly, and has since then never tried to enter the city, keeping along the border to guard against your kind.>
Glaw gave an annoyed huff of breath and scowled, suppressing a shudder. <Your people's laws make no sense.>
<I'm sure yours would confuse me equally,> Lykos said and lowered his head to look Glaw in the eye. <For example, only having one leader to follow and no voting.>
<Would be chaos, if we did things your way,> Glaw muttered, but avoided eye contact as he did so. <That's it, then?> he hurried to say before Lykos could voice any other thoughts about laws and rules. <Euripides died, Nikon was banished to eternal guard duty and all was well with the land?>
<A few protested his banishment,> Lykos said, his eyes softening. He brushed a wayward braid back over his shoulder to join the others hanging along his back. <Aelius was of course among the foremost of his champions, decrying the Senate's decision for days on end after the trial.>
<No surprise there.>
<Indeed not.> Lykos stretched his legs, his naked feet brushing over the mosaic floor with the soft slide of skin against polished stone. <The Senate remained unmoved. As soon as he was strong enough Aelius gave up on convincing them that Nikon was innocent of any crime. Instead, he took up arms and went to join him guarding the border.>
<That's when they started with the whole 'terra and arbōs'-thing?> Glaw asked and got a nod in reply from Lykos.
<It was quite strange, actually. Before the day of his rescue Aelius had barely spoken a word to Nikon,> Lykos said. <A clear warning sign, if there ever was one. Most believe that Nikon's reasons for killing Euripides were purely selfish and I must confess myself inclined to believe them. He never held any love for our city or its inhabitants, mostly keeping to himself at our borders even before his banishment. What reason would he have to risk his life to save Aelius or us, when he himself was in no danger?>
With a shrug Lykos sat up straight again, folding his hands in his lap. <Maybe he wished to take Euripides' place, maybe he just wished for control of a single mind. All we can know for sure is that the moment Aelius was well enough, he cut ties with his sister and took up the duty of a guard. He went from being a man with many friends who rarely spent an evening without their company, to a man who keeps to the woods, only going into the city on orders from his 'terra'.> Lykos shook his head. <Believe me when I say that Nikon is no slighted hero. He's merely a madman playing some form of game with the lot of us.>
<Well that-> A yawn Glaw couldn't quite stifle interrupted his words and turned them into an incoherent exhale.
Lykos gave a soft laugh. <It seems my long bedtime story has fulfilled its task.> He got up from the bench, brushing imaginary lint off his skirts. <I'll leave you to your sleep; it's almost past midnight.>
Glaw nodded, his head feeling very heavy all of a sudden. Thankfully the pain hadn't returned; not yet at least. <Lykos,> he said, stopping the demon in question on the first step of the stairs, <why do you think someone is trying to kill me?>
<I don't think they are,> Lykos answered, facing the closed exit.
Glaw gave a helpless, hollow laugh and lay down on the bed, eyes closed. <Sorry to say this, but I've sure felt like I've been dying these past few days.> He heard the sound of Lykos' skirts swishing against the demon's legs, but couldn't find the strength to open his eyes and see if he'd turned around or gone further up the stairs.
<No sane member of our community would try to murder you, even if they hated you with all their heart,> Lykos said, his voice from somewhere over by the exit. His tone was deadly serious. <Killing you would only strengthen the curse upon our borders.>
<What do you mean?> Glaw murmured, the words slippery and unshapely on his tongue.
<Your leaders do not tell you much, it seems.> There was a note that could have been concern in Lykos' voice, but Glaw quickly brushed it off as the faint echo created by the impressive size of the cellar. <Every drop of your kind's blood spilled in our woods gives more power to the barrier your "Emperor" cursed us with. The further into our woods your soldiers die, the weaker our guards become. Better to send them back to you lulled by high doses of poison. Letting you die here, in the middle of our city...I wouldn't dare imagine what that would lead to.>
That got Glaw's attention. He struggled to get his eyes open, to sit back up, but every bone in his body felt like it was made of led. Soft darkness soon claimed him. The last sound he heard before falling asleep were Lykos’ steps as he left the room.
The barracks were never empty. Barracks seldom were as soldier tended to work in shifts, but Dylis had never been stationed in such a busy one. There seemed to be soldiers coming night and day, at all hours, and they were seldom subtle about their comings and goings. No matter the hour they all moved in and out with a confident air about them, their way of walking signaling that they wouldn't bother to try and sneak in or stay quiet.
Not that that mattered to Dylis. It was just interesting to see that no one else had complained at being woken in the darkest hours of the night without reason.
Other than that the barracks looked like they did in all other cities of the Empire - not that she understood how Outer Camps could count as a city, being made up entirely of military barracks and a wall that wasn't even made of stone, but who was she to question the Imperial Mapmakers? - full of bunk beds organized by squad.
Dylis had been assigned a bed by the far side of the vast room and had on the first night taken possession of the battered armchair by the nearest fireplace. That was where she now sat, throwing papers onto the fire. There was a large pile of old letters to fallen soldiers that now apparently served as extra firewood. Dylis did her best not to glance at the words while she curled them into balls, sneaking pieces of her own documents into the soon to be burning mess.
Fingers appeared before her eyes, snapping fingers. Unimpressed, Dylis looked up to see a young woman in what looked to be a very new Corporal uniform. The woman's lips were moving and she had a clear glint of annoyance shining in her eyes.
'I'm deaf,' Dylis signed before the woman could babble anything further.
'Those are for getting stubborn flames going not your amusement, private,' the woman signed back, not missing a beat.
Dylis rolled her eyes. I hope I wasn't this snobbish when I was promoted, she thought, throwing the last ball of paper on the fire. 'Aye, sir,' she signed and gave a lazy salute.
The woman narrowed her eyes, but seemed to think better of it and turned around, walking over to the other side of the room and a card game that just had started up.
Dylis caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to see what it had been, sliding the last of the documents back into her sleeve. A man had taken a seat on her bed, his rank stripes also marking him as a corporal, though by the looks of them they were far from new.
'Don't mind her, she's just strutting about trying to be important," he signed, nodding towards the younger corporal, who'd joined the card game. 'Her squad's been losing officers like a tree drops leaves before winter, so I say let her have her fun while she still can.'
Dylis nodded slowly, eyes darting back to the fire. The papers had disappeared completely, leaving a few confetti-sized pieces to flutter upwards on the warm air above the flames.
'Corporal W-Y-N M-O-R-G-A-N,' the man on her bed signed, wrinkles appearing at the corners of his eye, his black beard covering most of the wide grin he gave her. 'Good to have a new recruit in my squad. We were getting short on people too.'
'Glad to be here,' Dylis signed back, doing her best to return his easy smile.
Morgan's face scrunched up in what undoubtedly was a snort of disbelief. 'I'm sure you are,' he signed, shaking his head. 'Here to fight for Emperor and whatever gods you've chosen to be yours, I assume?'
'Something like that,' Dylis answered and fought back the urge to stroke her fingers over the photograph hidden in her sleeve.
'But of course.' Morgan's body sagged with the movement of a sigh. 'They gave you a new one too, I see,' he signed, nodding towards the Emperor's Sign around Dylis' neck. 'You know why they did that?'
'Something about preventing infighting and theft.' Dylis gave the leather string around her neck another tug, trying to adjust the seashell to hang straight. 'Will take some getting used to. Barely noticed the old one, had it for so long you know. Really unnecessary this switching thing.'
'Never had a soldier try to steal anyone's Sign,' Morgan signed, his beard twitching aside for another grin. 'It looks like you're smart enough not to fall for that excuse.'
Dylis shook her head. 'I wasn't born in a cave.'
'It's the tracking spell.' Morgan tugged at the Sign around his own neck. 'You'd think they'd be more open about it since we all knew it was coming, but apparently, they thought to be sneaky about it. Don't know why they bother, but who am I to question our great superiors?'
Dylis frowned, rubbing a hand against her bandaged wrist. 'Then what about the blood? Did they take your blood as well?'
'They did,' Morgan confirmed. 'Don't know what that was about. Don't need blood to make a tracking spell, I know that much. All you really need is for a person to touch something you've spell-weaved and then you know where they'll be for the rest of their lives unless you remove the spell.' He shrugged. 'Maybe it's for identifying bodies? Don't mean to scare you, but some of the ones we get back aren't a pretty sight. I've heard some impressive things about the medical spell-weaving they've been working on in Search. Could have to do with that.'
Dylis' hands were still on the armrests of her chair, her eyebrows knitting together into a thoughtful expression.
'Oh well, that's far too high above my rank,' Morgan continued. 'Didn't mean to get your thoughts in a mess, just wanted to welcome you to the squad. I hear you're quite the fighter if the privates who watched you knock out Colonel Blevins told even half the truth. We could use you on our side.' He held up both of his hands, palms facing the ceiling in a helpless gesture. 'If nothing else, it'll be good to have another body carrying an Emperor's Sign at my back.'
'Big believer in the power of the Emperor, are you?' Dylis signed, her eyes wary.
Another snort seemed to be torn from Morgan and he shook his head again, this time with more emphasis. 'You'll be too, once you've been out on patrol.' The fingers of his right hand found their way back to the seashell of his Sign, tracing its spiral pattern. 'Don't rightly know how it works, but it does.'
Dylis grabbed her own Sign and held it up for inspection. It looked like all other of the Emperor's Signs she'd ever seen, though one of the plainest. The shell was beige and barren, no extra lines carved into it for decoration or luck. 'What does it do?'
'You didn't think they were just for decoration, did you?' Morgan signed with his free hand, the other finishing its tracking of his Sign's spiral. 'No lass, they drain them demons of their wicked magic, the moment they come close enough. It's why we stick together, other than to have each others' backs. The more Signs we have, the weaker our opponents will be.'
The grin vanished from his face in the blink of an eye, replaced by a stony stare, serious as death. 'You keep a firm grip on that thing unless your last way out is to throw it at your enemy. And if you have to, pray that your aim is good.'
'Don't need to pray,' Dylis signed, hoping the forceful way she swallowed hadn't been audible. 'Got the best aim. Comes with being a sculptor.'
'Heard you weren't much of a sculptor,' she got in reply.
Dylis gave a one-shoulder shrug. 'Might have had other practice too,' she answered.
Morgan's beard did the smile-twitch for the third time. 'Good to hear.'
From across the room, Private Sayer appeared from the shadows, waving and nodding to several of the barrack's occupants as she passed them by. Morgan gave her a wave and got up from Dylis' bed, stretching. 'Well, I'll leave you to think deep thoughts. We'll go out on patrol bright and early tomorrow, so try to get some sleep.' He turned and gave Sayer a salute. 'Evening, Squirrel,'
'Evening, Corporal!' Sayer signed, a cheerful smile on her lips, proudly showing off her missing tooth. 'Turning in bright and early, so I'll kick an extra amount of demon asses tomorrow!'
'I'm sure you will,' Morgan signed and reached out to pat her on the shoulder. 'Bring extra daggers. We're going deep in this time and you never know what you'll catch a glimpse of in the trees.'
'Aye aye, sir!'
Morgan left in the direction of the card game. Dylis watched him go, her fingers brushing against her Emperor's Sign.
'Hey Squirrel,' she signed as Sayer began climbing the bunk bed, 'two weeks ago, did a man - barely more than a boy - with scars like mine come here?'
Sayer flopped down on the top bunk and crossed her legs. She leaned forward, hands steadied on her crossed ankles. 'A hand scar?' she signed, her expression both teasing and wary.
Dylis gave her a dark glare and pulled down the scarf she'd wrapped around her neck that afternoon (she was still cursing herself for not thinking of doing that earlier.) 'You know what I mean.'
'Fine, fine.' Sayer stuck a finger into one of her ears and dug around for a bit; undoubtedly scratching an itch, if the rest of her body language was telegraphing the truth.
She pulled the finger out and looked the yellowish wax before flicking it off and down onto the floor. 'There was a big hullabaloo about half a month ago around some new arrival,' she signed, making sure to hold Dylis' gaze as she did. 'The carriage he came in was no fancier than any of ours' had been, but from what I hear he got initiated by the Field Marshal himself.'
She made an artful pause and looked somewhat disappointed when the news caused no gasps of shock or wide-eyed wonder from Dylis. Pouting, she continued: 'We were all forbidden from speaking to him and I only saw him at a distance. Some meat-head thought of the bright idea of questioning the boy's special treatment while Blevins was within earshot and he got thrown out on early patrol, so I wasn't about to make myself stand out from the crowd by gawking.' She smirked. 'Got a glimpse of him though.'
Sayer looked up from her own hands and did a double take, the mischievous smirk fading from her lips. Dylis had her eyes locked on Sayer's hands, her gaze focused to the point of making anyone's skin crawl, her concentration almost palpable in the air. On the armrests, her hands had curled into fists and her knuckles had turned white.
Sayer's spindly frame shook with what looked to have been a nervous laugh and she hurried to sign: 'Scrawny kid with muddy brown hair, about average height. And yes, he had some mighty fine scars along both sides of his neck. Looked just as morbid as yours.'
'Where is he?' Dylis signed curtly, her body taut as a bowstring.
'The woods,' Sayer signed and watched Dylis' fingers claw holes in the upholstery. 'He was only here for a day, kept in isolation until he was sent out into the woods. Solo mission. Haven't seen him since.'
The fabric of the armrests ripped under Dylis' stubby nails, wadding escaping the tears in small chunks of fluffy yellow-white. Dylis' breathing had sped up and it took her three deep inhales to calm it back down again.
Sayer didn't comment, only watching. 'You better be as good a fighter as you think you are,' she signed as it seemed Dylis wasn't about to rush up and beat the nearest soldier bloody with the armchair, 'because we'll be out playing demon bait at sunrise and the Colonel himself has promised to lead us.'
Dylis' face remained a blank mask.
'He's going to be riding your ass like a prize stallion!' Sayer signed, sticking her tongue out. When that got no reaction either, she shrugged and made herself comfortable on her bunk, throwing her uniform into a haphazard pile on the floor.
Dylis stayed in her seat for a good hour, her thoughts racing and her limbs frozen. Gods, he's dead. He has to be dead. Sweet Narthela, let it have been quick.
She blinked away the tears that burned at the corner of her eyes, gritting her teeth against the sobs building at the back of her throat. Silly girl, you can't give up when you've come this far! If Glaw is in the woods, that's where you're going. You'll find him or at least his body if you so have to tear out the throats of all the demons in those cursed woods with your teeth!
Bit by bit, her limbs came back under her control. Her fingers sought out the photograph in her sleeve. She didn't take it out, only stroked her fingers against the smooth surface of it, reminding herself that it was safe and sound.
She uncurled the ball of paper she'd hidden in her other sleeve and leaned further back into the armchair. She'd made sure to make it look like she'd taken them from the pile of abandoned letters and glared at anyone who dared try to approach her to start a conversation.
There were three notes left; the ones she hadn't quite figured out yet. The code came easily to her this time, recent in memory as it was, and she'd soon brushed two of the notes aside as an account of medical supplies she had no understanding of and a fragmented mess she had no hope of interpreting. She threw them on the fire without a second thought.
The third one was a list of military personnel. A list of six names. And among them, she read Ffion Hier, Dylis Nevett, Glaw Nevett.
Her heart nearly stopped and when it got going again it was hammering at twice the speed it should. She threw the note into the fireplace and whirled around, stomping over to her bunk. Automatically she took her uniform and folded it neatly, placing it at the foot of the bed.
She didn't close her eyes once before the sun rose.
Glaw wanted to die and yet he couldn't pinpoint exactly why. He wasn't wounded, he wasn't starving, he wasn't freezing and he wasn't burning up, but even so, he hurt. His mind kept going in circles. Was this what the demons' poison felt like? If killing him wasn't an option, then surely someone was trying to quiet his mind for good without spilling his blood.
"Gently." Lykos' voice came from somewhere behind him and it was such a relief to hear human words spoken by someone other than himself that he could have cried, had he had the strength for it. "Gently now, you'll make yourself sick."
He was helped to stand, a warm presence wrapping itself around him like a duvet on a cold winter morning. He found himself on top of a roof. How had he gotten all the way up there? Hadn't they been in the cellar? Had he passed out?
The stars were out, their light muted by the lanterns shining all over the city below them. It must have been quite early for there were people all over the narrow streets. There wasn't the same din there would have been in Trade, but faint voices carried up to where they stood and Glaw felt his guts twist.
"Hold on to me."
Blinking, Glaw turned his head to look up into Lykos' face, barely a hand's breadth from his own. Lykos' arms were wrapped around his waist, the touch gentle yet warm, and his eyes were glowing.
Without thought Glaw did as told, grabbing hold of Lykos' shoulders. They must have looked like a couple at the Spring Ball, ready to tear up the dance floor. The thought had Glaw giggling helplessly.
Lykos jumped and then they were in the air. Standing in the air, to be correct.
Glaw looked down. The soles of his feet were standing on something solid, or at least that's what it felt like, but when he looked down he could see nothing but a good five meters worth of nothing between himself and the roof of the mansion. Numbly, he filed that fact away for later contemplation.
"We're going to run," Lykos whispered, cradling Glaw closer to his chest. "Don't think about the speed, just look at me and hold on."
The command was easy to follow. Glaw wrapped his fingers around the fabric of Lykos' shirt and the straps of the backpack the demon was wearing, knuckles turning white within seconds. There was no wind or pull of gravity, but he could sense that they'd shifted in place, could see the world speed past impossibly fast out of the corner of his eye. This only had him tighten his grip further. He buried his face against the fabric of Lykos' clothes, uncaring that doing so must have made him look like a puppy seeking warmth and protection in its mother's fur.
A minute passed, then five. They came to a gentle halt. Glaw uncurled his fingers from Lykos' clothes and cracked one eye open. He was greeted by the sight of open plains and sky as far as he could see. Biting back a gasp, he looked up and over Lykos' shoulder. The gigantic trees towered there, their branches swaying in the evening breeze.
"You took us to the border," he said, having blinked a few times to make sure the sight of the grasslands wouldn't dissipate and vanish.
"It felt like the right thing to do," Lykos said, giving him a benevolent smile. His glasses slid an inch down his nose as he bent his head to meet Glaw's eyes. "I would have taken you to the doors of your home city, but I fear that would end with me being too drained to get back to my own people."
"You have nothing to apologize for!" Glaw said, grinning so hard it felt like his face would split in two. "You saved me! You all-gods-be-damned saved me!"
Lykos brought a finger to his lips in a hushing gesture. "There are still guards, remember? I took us as far from your kind's settlement as I could without turning us in the wrong direction, but our guards tend to stray up and down the border as they please."
Glaw snapped his mouth shut and just kept himself from clamping a hand over it. "Yes, yes of course, sorry," he babbled, fighting to not go on shouting. He felt light as air; the starry sky above looked much more vast outside the treeline, the grass felt so much softer under his bare feet. He wanted to dance and sing and make a fool out of himself, but victory wasn't quite within reach yet.
"Right, right," he muttered, mostly to himself. "I appreciate your help, in fact, I'm insanely grateful for it! I'll do my best not to get us caught." The corners of his lips twitched, tugging up into another grin. He just couldn't help himself; it was like his face had a life of his own.
"Good," Lykos said, an answering smile on his lips. The blue glow had faded from his eyes. "We have a long walk ahead of us and the others won't be distracted for long. It's best we get going."
Glaw nodded and turned to start walking towards the distant horizon when the words caught up with him. "Distracted?" he asked, giving Lykos a look of pure confusion. "And 'we'? Isn't it dangerous for your kind to leave the woods?"
"Yes, and yes," Lykos said and walked past him, taking the lead. "I couldn't very well spring the only prisoner in the entire city without making sure all watchful eyes would be turned elsewhere?"
"What did you do?" Glaw asked, running a few steps to catch up with him.
The smile on Lykos' face was a serene, polite one. "Nothing too bad. Currently, there are a number of small fires all over the city and more will be starting as we speak. No one will be hurt and we will be long gone before they're put out."
Glaw frowned. He wanted to point out that fire could spread, but for some reason, his lips just couldn't form the words. Instead, he said: "What about the border?"
Lykos spread his arms, the palms of his hands facing the sky and his elbows bent, in an appeasing gesture. "If I ration my strength and eat well, I should be able to get you back to your home city in a day or two. We'll just have to walk for a bit first, wait for me to adjust to the border magic." He pulled at the straps of the bag he had hanging on his back. "I won't leave your side until I know you're safely back with your own kind, far away from whoever it is among my people who wish you dead or mindless."
A voice at the back of his mind nagged at Glaw to ask how exactly it came that Lykos had managed that estimate because he was sure he'd never mentioned how far Trade was from the treeline of the demon forest. He didn't ask, however. He couldn't make himself.
They walked in silence for about an hour. Judging by the position of the stars, Glaw estimated their destination as being southeast, which put his heart at ease immediately. Soon they'd found their way onto a road. It wasn't the main one, it was far too narrow and poorly maintained for that - there were even a few trees planted along it - but it had definitely been made by human hands. There was a river running next to it too. It had an untamed look to it, much unlike the road-channels that crossed the rest of the Empire's lands, but the presence of flowing water raised Glaw's spirits even further.
The road felt like home. As he stepped onto it his legs tingled, as if they belonged to a horse let out of the stables to run across green fields. He was sure he could have run the whole way back to Trade, should he have had to. Lykos kept pace with him, stopping occasionally to pick up a stick or two, fallen from the sparsely growing trees.
The sky was slowly fading from black to blue as the silhouette of high walls appeared in the distance, the stone a dark red.
"What is that?" Lykos asked, breaking the companionable silence.
"That?" Glaw echoed, pointing at the faraway lights and towers. "That's Art. I guess its name is rather self-explanatory."
Lykos tilted his head and narrowed his eyes, fixing them on the faraway shape. "How so?"
"Well, that's where all our artists live." Glaw gestured at the distant walls. "Our best, at least. Not just the ones that paint; sculptors, writers, musicians, chefs..."
"That sounds nice," Lykos said, sweeping the big scarf he'd brought with him over his shoulders. Glaw took note of its clear green color and mentally calculated what price it might fetch on the market in the city (he felt a little guilty as he did so, but he had no clothes or belongings to spare and if they lost the backpack they'd be without food - if there even was food in the backpack), before saying:
"I think it is. Dylis thought so anyway. She was stationed there for a year when I was twelve."
"Dylis?" Lykos asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Yes, Dylis," Glaw said, before giving a laugh. "Of course, I never told you about her! Sorry, that must have been confusing."
The smile stayed on Glaw's lips and he sped up his steps. Lykos did as well. "She's my sister; older sister by three years," Glaw said, words flowing from his mouth with ease. "You'll like each other. She might be a bit gruff at first, us soldiers you know, but she's very kind and just. She'll get over the whole 'you being a demon'-thing the moment I introduce you as my rescuer."
"I am relieved to hear." That serene, polite smile had wormed its way back onto Lykos' face and Glaw had to roll his eyes at the sight.
"Don't you go getting cocky!" he warned, waving a finger at Lykos as if he was a disobedient child questioning its teacher. "I might not have been much of a challenge, even if you hadn't ambushed me, but my sister is a corporal and she’s got skills worthy of her title." A frown stole its way onto his forehead, briefly. "Actually, she could probably beat most of the higher ranking officers at our barracks; or any barrack for that matter. They've probably promoted her since I left. Huw's said she should have made sergeant last spring. I guess it's because of age, or something."
Lykos gave a low chuckle. "I am sure she is a fierce warrior, whom I shall have to tread very carefully around. Never fear, I shall endeavor to not provoke her anger."
"You make light all you want, but when you see her you'll change your tune." Glaw spun around to face Lykos, hands at his hips. "Stick with me and I'll get you on her good side. Once that is done, we'll get ourselves to Palace and I'll put in a good word for your kind with the Emperor himself. Any questions?" The words spilled out of him without his say-so. Go to Palace? Why would they need to do that? He really had to be tired, not thinking straight.
"One," Lykos said, amusement shining in his eyes. "What are those rocks? They don't look like they belong here."
Raising both of his eyebrows, Glaw followed Lykos' gaze to three rocks that reached about as high as his waist. They stood gathered together at what looked to have been an old crossroad. The two roads that forked from the one they were traveling were little more than faded marks under the grass.
"Old mile markers," Glaw said and pointed at the carvings on one of the rocks, worn down by decades of rain and snow. "They used to be, at least. See how the numbers have faded? Hardly anyone travels the land way these days, now that the main channel is finished. The ones who do know it by heart or learn from their masters."
Lykos let his left hand run across the top the rock closest to him, following the cracks and crevices with the pads of his fingers. His other hand was full of sticks; a good two dozen of tiny and gnarly pieces of wood. "So no one has bothered with keeping the mile markers up to shape?"
<My, you two seem to be getting along splendidly.>
Glaw whirled around to face the all too familiar voice. There, in one of the lone trees, sat a black-haired demon, smirking like a cat that had cornered a pair of mice.
<Nikon,> Lykos greeted his kinsman, as if they'd just happened to stumble upon each other during a peaceful stroll in the city. <I didn't know your patrol extended outside of the border.>
Glaw backed away as Nikon jumped down to a lower branch, the staff that seemed to be his ever-present companion slung over one shoulder. <Technically it doesn't, but I can't help but be curious when a prisoner comes strolling right past me with only one guard in tow. A guard who isn't a guard, at that.> The dagger-smile widened further, showing off two rows of very white, very sharp looking teeth. <Mind explaining what's going on, or should we just have the two of you go back to the city with no one the wiser?>
Lykos bent down and calmly added another stick to his growing collection. <I'm afraid I can do neither of those things.>
<Really? And why is that?>
There was no warning. One second Lykos was standing on the ground beside Glaw, the next he was in the air, eyes glowing. The sticks left his hands as a cloud of daggers, aimed straight at the branch Nikon occupied.
Glaw threw himself behind a rock as he saw Nikon vanish, leaving the thin daggers to either hit the tree or fall to the ground. Lykos landed on the empty branch and whirled around, facing the river.
Glaw followed his gaze, holding his breath, and nearly choked as he spotted Nikon on the other side, not twenty meters away from where he'd taken cover.
Nikon clicked his tongue in a scolding manner, shaking his head slowly from side to side. His shining eyes locked with Lykos'. <Careful, friend. You could hurt someone like that.>
The sound that left Lykos' mouth could only with generosity have been called a laugh. His backpack hit the ground with a thud. <Since when do you have friends?>
<You wound me!> Nikon called back, stepping onto the river's rushing water as if it were solid ground. <I'll have you know Aelius is quite fond of me.>
<Toys don't count,> Lykos said, still with that serene smile on his lips.
<So cruel,> Nikon singsonged. <How unlike you to be this frank with me. It's quite refreshing!>
Lykos jumped down from the tree and landed in a crouch, slamming his hands into the ground. The dirt beneath his fingers began to shift, followed by loud rumbling. Glaw held onto the rock he was hiding behind, feeling shudders travel through it and into his hands and arms.
On the river Nikon had stopped and lowered his staff, watching the ground ripple with a look of mild interest. Below him the river water rushed on, lapping against his bare feet in small splashes. It looked like he was standing on an invisible rock in the middle of the current.
<One step closer and you are dead,> Lykos said over the rumbling of the shaking earth, the glow in his eyes as bright as Glaw had ever seen it.
<Oh, I very much doubt that,> Nikon said, but he stayed where he was. His chest heaved, as if with a deep sigh, and he let his head fall forward, so he could look at Lykos through his unruly bangs. <However, I really can't follow you all day. Aelius has been calling me home for a good while. It would seem dear Bernike is making quite a scene now that you've run off and he's having trouble keeping her from tearing the forest apart. Wouldn't do to keep him waiting much longer.> The dagger-smile widened again and he gave them a playful, short bow. <Have a safe trip!>
He was gone before Glaw could blink.
The glow in Lykos' eyes slowly faded, as did the rumbling and shaking around them. The rock Glaw was holding onto stilled and seconds later everything was back to normal.
Lykos got up and brushed dirt from his skirt."He won't follow us further," he said, turning his back on the distant woods. "And I do believe this proves my point."
"Your point?" Glaw asked, shakily getting to his feet.
"That my company would be helpful to you. Who knows what else is lurking down the road to your home?"
"No more demons I hope, " Glaw said and then put his hands up against his chest, palms facing Lykos, in the universal sign of 'sorry'. "No offense!"
"None taken," Lykos said and tugged his backpack back on. "Shall we continue?"
Glaw wanted to say something more, but the mere mention of moving, of getting closer to home, brushed all words from his tongue. Lips spreading into a big grin, he nodded and fell into step behind Lykos. In the distance, the walls of Art beckoned.
Dylis was sitting on the edge of her bed when Colonel Blevins stormed into the barracks. From the look of him, he was hollering and making demands as he went, beating his fists against beds and walls to rouse the sleeping soldiers.
His face fell when he spotted her, already dressed in uniform. He only gave her a dark glare in reply to her salute. Above her, Sayer pushed herself out of bed, nearly tumbling over the edge. She began to dig around in the mess that was her uniform, rubbing at her eyes with the back of one hand.
Dylis was out the door and at the line-up the second her bunkmate had her clothes on.
Outside the sun had barely made it above the horizon; the moon hadn't even bothered to turn in for the day, its pale face barely visible against the grayish blue of the sky. There were some soldiers on guard duty along the wooden walls. Otherwise, the activities in the camp were limited to the small group of soldiers forming lines outside the barrack Dylis just had exited. Corporal Morgan stood at the head of it, brushing a hand through his beard. With a nod to the nearest soldier in line, Dylis took a place next to Sayer and waited.
They had to stand at attention for a quarter of an hour before the colonel came out to join them. He took up position in front of the gathered soldiers as if he were an actor at the theater and they his audience.
'Well squad, we're going into the woods!' he signed, the grin on his face edged with something Dylis really didn't want to think about. 'Seeing as we've gotten ourselves an expert fighter added to our numbers, she takes point.'
Face blank Dylis took a step forward before the colonel would have a chance to ask her to. She got a few curious glances from the others in her line, but from what she could see their lips remained unmoving.
'She's also the reason I'm signing today. Enjoy your deaf leader, everyone!' And then he began clapping his hands.
Dylis gritted her teeth as the rest of the squad, except for Corporal Morgan, followed suit. They weren't laughing though. In fact, most of the faces around her were stony and tense, like men and women walking to their own graves. Only Sayer seemed chipper, but her smiles had a brittle quality to it
At the colonel's signal, they marched out of the camp, through the narrow gate, Dylis leading the line of soldiers behind him. Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed that Corporal Morgan was following close behind her, and behind him, Sayer.
'Stick close to the colonel,' Morgan signed, one-handed. The parts of his face that could be seen through his unruly beard were as dogged as that of the rest of the soldiers in line. 'Close, but not too close. The colonel always comes back in one piece, but he's not that good at aiming.'
Dylis gave a curt nod, returning her eyes to fixate on Colonel Belvin's back. His shoulders were squared, very military-like, but the skip in his step was that of a school-aged child on the first day of the weekend.
She kept a close eye on his body language as they took off from the road and began rounding the wooden walls of Outer Camps, changing their eastern direction for west. Well around the corner of the wall the trees made themselves known, towering over them like giants waiting to trample them. Their hanging branches swayed in the morning breeze like seaweed or tentacles, beckoning them to enter the darkness between the trunks.
Dylis did her best to follow the colonel as he picked his way through the forest. He brushed aside the low-hanging branches as if they were the curtain of beads separating a waiting area from the office of a healer.
I'll probably need to see one of those once this is over, Dylis thought, dodging a whip-like branch that the Colonel hadn't bothered to let go of gently. The march into the dark forest reminded her of the first raid she'd ever participated in. She'd been green as the leaves hanging around her, barely used to holding a sword. They'd sent her in first, along with the squad's leader, to scout ahead.
Hopefully, this mission would end better than that one had.
The rising sun barely had enough light to push through the thick nest of branches and leaves above their heads, and thus it didn't take Dylis long to lose track of time. After many long marches in the service of the Emperor, she'd begun to make it a habit to go away inside while walking. Her surroundings, so different from the tame parks she'd visited in Art, were no help to keep track of either distance or hour.
What was easier to keep track of, however, was the nerves of the soldiers following behind her. A few looks over her shoulder confirmed that they got more and more on edge the further into the woods they got. A shiver went through the line at one point, as if they'd all been startled by a sudden noise. After that their eyes were fixed straight ahead.
Two hours’ walk from Outer Camps the colonel held up a fist, signaling halt. The tension from the soldiers in the line behind him could almost be tasted in the air.
Dylis gritted her teeth to prevent them from chattering. In the shade of the forest, the morning breeze was even colder than usual and her lack of sleep was doing nothing to keep her temperature up. Her breaths were forming tiny clouds each time she exhaled. Squinting, she tried to make out what lay ahead of them, but there were only more bushes and tree trunks to be seen.
'Clearing, 10 meters, forward. Take up positions,' the colonel signed, sending the line behind him scrambling.
Dylis turned her head from side to side, trying to catch sight of Morgan or Sayer, but they'd vanished among the greenery. Left were only three lower-ranking soldiers, the colonel and herself. Wonderful.
'Let's see what you're made of,' the colonel signed, having turned around to face her. The glint in his eyes was anything but amicable. 'You can't hear it, of course, but I do believe the patrol I sent out earlier today has run into a spot of trouble. We're going to aid them and, as I said, you get the honor of leading the rescue; with these fine young men backing you up.'
Dylis took another look at her back-up. Two of them were little more than boys, trembling in their boots and holding their swords more like clubs than anything else. The third was an impressively tall fellow, one uniform away from being a common street thug by the looks of him.
Clenching her teeth to the point that her jaw was cramping, Dylis turned back to face the colonel. 'Yes, sir,' she signed, one hand already on the hilt of her sword.
The colonel gave her a nod that probably had been meant to look encouraging, but came off more as gloating. 'Straight ahead, private. Emperor's luck to you!'
Dylis watched him go, the dirty green of his uniform melting into their surroundings with ease, before signaling her three would-be subordinates to follow her. Mindful of fallen branches and other things that could break if she stepped on them, she advanced towards the spot the colonel had gestured at. There was faint light up ahead, shining through the thicket of branches and leaves. Hopefully, that was where she was meant to go.
Something came flying towards her. Dylis threw herself to the ground and watched as it hit a nearby tree. It sagged to the ground, not two meters from where she lay. She bit back a grunt of surprise as her eyes focused enough to identify the something as a body, dressed in the Imperial Uniform and sans a head.
'Enemies in front,' she signed, getting up on her elbows to try and catch a glimpse of what it was that had thrown the body. 'Weaknesses?'
The two boys were frozen in place, having thrown themselves to the ground right behind her; they only stared at her with wide, terrified eyes. The tall man, however, had remained standing, and now looked down at her with an amused smirk. Dylis did her best not to scowl at him.
'Cut them and get their blood on your Sign. Other than that, hope you're fast enough to jump out of their way. Whatever they touch with their palms or the soles of their feet, they can change,' the tall man signed. 'Haven't seen them this careless in a while. The first patrol must have done something to really piss them off.'
'Careless?' Dylis signed as she got back on her feet, gesturing for the two boys to follow her lead.
The grin on the tall man's face took on an edge of bloodthirst. 'They bleed, they lose. We bleed, they lose.' He shrugged. 'Don't ask me how because I'm not a spell-weaver, but whatever it is, it works. All hail the Emperor and so on.'
Dylis narrowed her eyes, letting them dart to the spot of light the body had come flying from before she turned her attention back to the tall man. 'What's your name, soldier?'
'M-A-D-D-O-X,' he signed in answer and unsheathed his sword. 'We going or what?'
Dylis gave a curt nod. The two boys had huddled together as far from the body as they could without straying too far from the small square of safety their fellow soldiers provided. Dylis signed for them to step behind her, then held her hand up at the level of her eyes before lowering it to her hip. The other members of her small squad hunched forward and they all started moving again, staying as low as they bushes and ferns allowed them to.
At the edge of the clearing Dylis signaled halt and crouched behind a bush. Ahead of them was chaos.
Whatever it was that had been unleashed on the first patrol it had to be a monster taken right out of the horror plays in Art. The grass was soaked with blood, bodies of fallen soldiers strewn everywhere; some of them in several places at once. A few were still standing, hiding along the treeline. They were barely keeping on their feet by the looks of it, cradling injured body parts.
In the middle of it all stood something that couldn't be anything but a demon.
It had glowing eyes, dark spots on its neck and its robe-like clothes were drenched with the blood of its victims. A dagger was strapped to the upper side of each of its wrists and its wavy black hair had begun to escape from what looked to have been a quite neat pony-tail. Its face was twisted into a fierce scowl and it had its teeth bared as if growling at any who dared approach it.
On her left, one of the boys - his curly hair was the only distinguishing mark she could make out clearly in the dimness - twitched as if making ready to rise.
Dylis grabbed his arm. 'Stay where you are boy or you'll end up in pieces,' she signed, her eyes still on the bloodstained demon. 'It seems the others are getting ready to-'
Another demon had appeared in the trees on the other side of the glade on a branch at least ten meters above ground. Its features were hard to make out, but there were two glowing points of blue light where Dylis assumed its eyes should be.
The bloodstained demon whirled around to glare up at the other, its lips drawn back even further. There was blood on its teeth.
The ground shook. Out of it sprung ten huge snakes made entirely of dirt and grass, each a good five meters long measured from the point where they emerged from the ground. They'd appeared out of the earth as if it was the surface of a lake, opening their large jaws to reveal stone-like fangs. Their bodies elongated and they dove for the demon in the tree.
'Infighting,' Dylis signed, ducking lower. Far above them, the other demon was doing its best to escape the snake-like monstrosities, jumping from branch to branch like a cat on a hot tin roof. 'Must be a bit like dogs then. If we're lucky they'll finish each other off, or at least tire each other out.'
'You planning on us hanging around in these bushes through the whole fight?' Maddox signed, scowling.
'I'm planning on us not getting torn apart by the ground itself, you idiot!' Dylis answered, baring her teeth in a growl of her own. 'I'm deaf, not blind. There are over twenty dead men and women out there, cut to pieces. By the looks of it, they were put there by a single demon.' She paused and gave the earth-snakes climbing the trees a pointed look. 'Now there's two of the cursed things. I don't know about you, but I'm smart enough to wait for them to have a go at each other before I rush in head over heels. This is not a school play, this is real life. Stay where you are!'
'The colonel ordered you to lead the attack,' Maddox signed, his expression darkening by the second.
'And I will,' Dylis signed, holding his glare steadily, 'when the moment is right. Currently, it isn't.'
'The moment is right!' Maddox insisted but remained crouched onto his hands and knees. 'They're slow as syrup.'
Dylis frowned and took another look at the two demons. They were squirrel fast. The one on the ground stomped its feet and waved its arms, which shook the ground to the point where it kept the soldiers along the treeline off balance. At the same time it directed the earth-snakes to curl up the trees in pursuit of the other demon. That demon kept jumping from tree to tree with ease, its eyes flashing an even stronger blue as it paused to have the trees batter at the snakes with their branches.
If that is slow, gods preserve me from encountering a rested demon.
A thinner branch lashed out and hooked itself around one of the earth-snakes, wrapping around where its tail connected to the grass, severing it. The earth-snake fell to the ground in a rain of hassocks and dirt.
Interesting. Dylis got up, ducking behind the trunk of a tree. The new angle this gave her of the glade provided her a better view of the demon rushing about the trees. Each time it switched tree, the old tree stilled and the new one came alive, using its thin branches as whips against the attacking earth-snakes. The earth-snakes in their turn never quite left the ground; they only grew longer and longer, thinning slightly as they got high enough to snap at the tree-walking demon's feet.
Half-made spell-weavers, only shaping what they touch, she reminded herself, eying the bloodstained demon's bare feet. There has got to be a way to use that against them.
'Do we have any cloaks with us?' she signed, attention divided between the demons and her small squad. She took note of the quiver one of the boys had on his back; the bow looked a little short and quite battered, but fully functional.
'Cloaks?' one of the boys signed back dumbly.
Next to him, Maddox scowl melted into a vicious grin. 'Now we're talking!' he signed, unclasping a ratty old thing from his shoulders. Once upon a time, it might have been red. 'Haven't seen anyone try to catch one in a bag since old Lloyd bought the farm. Just tell us where to stand and we'll have us a demon in two minutes flat! We’ll make sure to keep its feet and hands in the air until we can cut them off. Though we’d better not or it’d make a poor present for the Emperor.'
'Don't get cocky,' Dylis signed, but the corner of her lips had tugged themselves up into a smirk. 'You boy, how good are you at tying knots?'
'I'm faster,' the boy with the curly hair answered before the first had time to as much as blink. 'What should I do?'
'You three need to hold Maddox' cloak between these two trees. Pull it as tight as you can and keep stock still. The moment I've lured one of the demons into it, you wrestle it to the ground and you,' she gave the second boy a look, 'tie it shut as quick as you can. Use all of your belts if you have to and make sure to not let the cursed creature touch anything with its hands and feet. Not even the cloak.'
The earth-snakes rushed passed them. There were only three of them left; the others had crumbled back to dust and dirt, having been cut off at the tail by the demon that still ran around on the branches above.
'How strong are they?' Dylis signed, eying the bloodstained demon. She wasn't sure, but she thought its shoulders had begun to sag. The quaking of the ground had lessened somewhat and no new snakes had appeared to replace the lost ones.
'Not stronger than me,' Maddox signed, his grin showing off all of his teeth. 'Trust me, we'll hold the damned thing. You just worry about getting it to run towards us.'
Dylis gave a curt nod, eyes flickering between the bloodstained demon and the one in the trees. Aim for the unarmed or the exhausted one? she asked herself, watching as the demon in the trees nimbly evade yet another attack. Better go for the closest one and hope either of them falls for it.
Gesturing at the first boy to give her his bow and quiver, Dylis took a step towards the open area in front of them. Knocking an arrow on the string took her two tries, the small bow creating an awkward angle, but once it was in place the bow felt as familiar as ever in her hands. She took aim and let the arrow fly.
It hit the bloodstained demon in the left shoulder. It whirled around towards Dylis' hiding place, eyes aglow and teeth dripping blood. It hadn't even bothered to grab at the arrow sticking out of its shoulder; it just bent its knees and braced for a jump.
Funnily enough it was the demon in the trees that fell into their trap. It froze as the arrow hit its kin and turned its glowing eyes to where Dylis' and her squad hid. Before the bloodstained demon could jump, the tree demon had taken to the air and disappeared.
It landed right in front of Dylis. She got an unclear impression of dark skin, glowing eyes and neatly arranged auburn hair - as well as moving lips - before Maddox and one of the boys dove in with the cloak.
Dylis took a step back to give them room and turned to keep an eye on the glade. The bloodstained demon was nowhere in sight.
It took Maddox and the boy less than thirty seconds to subdue the demon. It was about Dylis' height, which meant the cloak covered it well and good. The boy with the curly hair had not been bragging falsely; he had the sack of demon tied closed at both ends in two shakes of a lamb's tail, binding the creature's wrists and ankles.
There was still no signed of the bloodstained demon. Their own soldiers had also left the glade, hiding among the trees most likely. At least, Dylis hoped so.
'What did it say?' she signed, trying to keep her breathing even.
The boy next to her disappeared, only to reappear stuck to a tree on the other side of the glade; impaled with a branch right through his gut, like a big, ugly butterfly.
Something inside Dylis snapped. She might have made some kind of noise - a shout, a cry, a curse - but if so, there had been no thought behind it. There was just her, the dagger-wielding demon, and a skewered boy soldier nailed to the trunk of a tree.
Dylis rushed forth, but feinted to the right at the last second, dodging a quick swipe of the demon's hands. The demon in its turn whirled around, its glowing eyes wide, and grabbed her ankles, sending her tumbling helter-skelter across the grass.
Scrambling to get to her feet Dylis threw the bow away and tore the quiver from her back. She got back on her feet and turned just in time to evade another blow from the demon. The rush of air as the blade cut above her head had her heart racing.
Out of the corner of her eye, Dylis saw her fellow soldiers - both from the first and the second patrol - beginning to edge their way back to the treeline.
The demon still had the arrow sticking out of its shoulder. Dylis dove for it.
True to Maddox' word the demon had no supernatural strength. Dylis managed to tackle it to the ground, one hand around its throat and the other around the shaft of the arrow, pushing it deeper into the monster's shoulder.
Under her the demon squirmed and bucked, clawing at her sides and arms with sharp nails. Dylis did her best to crawl onto her knees, securing the demon's legs with her own and putting more pressure on its throat.
Seconds later she found herself across the glade, the breath knocked out of her. The handle of her sword had knocked into her side as she fell. She did her best to sit up again, hands slipping on the bloody grass, but her ribs protested. Gasping, she opened her eyes wide.
There were two demons in the glade again. The newcomer was larger in both height and shoulder width when compared to the two others, with a tangle of dark brown curls on its head. It had taken Dylis' place holding down the bloodstained demon. The two were locked in combat, the larger demon lowering its head, jaws wide open, aiming for the bloodstained one's throat, who in turn was clawing at the larger demon with nails that seemed to grow longer by the second.
Suddenly the eyes of the bloodstained demon flashed an even brighter blue. The earth around it rose and rushed against the larger demon, slamming against it and sending it flying a good ten meters.
The bloodstained demon got to its feet, shakily, favoring its arrow pierced shoulder. The larger demon also stood. Unlike its opponent, it didn't look to be growling or hissing. Instead its face was close to a blank mask, caught somewhere between confusion and dead calm.
They faced off again. The bloodstained demon was the first to move, stamping one foot. A wave of dirt and grass rippled from where it had hit, careening towards the other demon, who dodged it at the last second.
In a flash the bloodstained demon disappeared, reappearing a hand's breadth from its opponent. It rammed its daggers into the larger demon's belly. The larger demon stumbled and went down on one knee, pushing a hand against the open wound in its side.
Dylis had gotten to her feet again and unsheathed her sword. The soldiers along the treeline seemed to take this as some form of signal, for they drew their weapons too and began to advance into the glade, forming small groups of threes and fours.
With the larger demon down the bloodstained one whirled on Dylis. It vanished again.
A burst of stinging pain bloomed from Dylis' right shoulder. She skidded back a bit with the force of impact but managed to keep on her feet. The demon was nose to nose with her for a heartbeat, its mouth stretched into a deranged grin. Then it was gone.
Grabbing at her shoulder to try and stem the bleeding, Dylis turned head left and right, desperately trying to locate where the demon had vanished to. A squad of soldiers on her left-hand side had fallen apart, scattered. One of them was on the ground sans one arm and the other three were whirling around, staring at the trees. Looking up, Dylis spotted the bloodstained demon in one of the tree crowns, its eyes glowing like two small lanterns and its grin wide and mad.
The glade erupted into chaos. All the small squads huddled together, forming awkward barricades with the handful of shields they had. A few fell back to the treeline, even going so far as to pull their Emperor's Signs from their necks and throwing them at the demon. They were the first to die, stabbed by the very trees they'd taken protection behind.
Dylis frantically whirled around in a circle, ignoring the disheartening feeling of seashells cracking under the soles of her boots, trying to keep an eye on the cursed thing. It was moving too fast to be seen as little more than a blur, darting from tree top to tree top, making the trees dance and stab at the soldiers below.
Clenching her jaw Dylis tore her eyes from the demon and looked down. Might not be able to hit it with an arrow, but distracting it...
She caught sight of the larger demon, not three meters away. It seemed to have staggered a good ten steps to the right, still clutching at its bleeding wounds with one hand - in the other, it held Dylis' bow. Everywhere around them, soldiers were being torn apart.
Dylis averted her eyes to the treetops once more, her knuckles going white around the hilt of her sword. The bloodstained demon attacked again, diving from a tree crown as if from a bridge in the harbor. Dylis threw herself to the side, crashing into a tree. The impact echoed up her spine and set her ribs aching even worse, but she still had her breath.
The demon was slowing down. Not much, not enough for Dylis to actually have a chance at cutting it, but enough that it was visible to the naked eye while it jumped and struck at throats with its weapons. It came to a brief halt in the middle of the glade, its chest heaving and its arms trembling.
'Flank them!' Dylis signed, hoping someone would have the presence of mind to look at her and to follow orders. Two of the squads snapped to attention and with rough encouragement (mostly in the form of elbowing and kicking), got most of the others to form two circles around the demons.
Even Colonel Blevins was inclined to grace the glade with his presence, appearing along the treeline. Dylis noted that he now had three Emperor's Signs dangling around his neck. He also looked so relaxed she felt like spitting in his face.
'Anyone with a cloak!' Dylis kept her focus on the two demons as she signed, one hand holding her sword at the ready. The bloodstained one was still panting for breath, a fine sheen of sweat on its forehead. The other had paled somewhat, blood leaking out between its fingers. 'Use it to catch them and pull them off the ground. Make sure the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet don’t touch anything!'
That's when she noticed the bloodstained demon's eyes were tracking her hand movements with interest, a mocking smile on its face. Her breath caught in her throat.
Movement from up above had her turning her eyes back to the tree crowns. Yet another demon had joined the crowd, holding something man-sized wrapped in a familiar once-red fabric; like one spouse carrying the other into a house the night after their wedding. Dylis' thoughts made an attempt to stray to Maddox and the boy, but she made herself focus on the here and now.
The new demon had black hair and clothes in forest colors. This made it hard to spot among the branches and leaves once it had set the bundle down and relocated a few branches down. At least until it smiled, showing off pearly white teeth in a grin worthy of a shark. Its lips moved and its eyes focused on the battle on the ground, but it got no acknowledgment from the bloodstained demon, who instead rushed the remaining soldiers, weaving in and out between them. It parted them from their Emperor's Signs, as well as limbs and weapons, with swift cuts from its blades.
Dylis steadied herself against a tree. "You need to call retreat!" she barked at the colonel, uncaring that what she said probably sounded nothing like the words she wanted her mouth to form. "We'll only keep losing soldiers until we do!"
The bloodstained demon rushed towards her and Dylis barely managed to dodge this time, feeling the brush of cold steel against her cheek as she stepped back, nearly falling to the ground. Then, all of a sudden, the demon jumped back and crouched down, arms crossed in front of its face like a shield.
It took Dylis a moment to realize she'd lost momentum and yet another to notice a strange warmth spreading from her lower back and out towards her right side. The pain, when it came, was such a shock to the system that she nearly blacked out.
Eyes wide in surprise and disbelief, she staggered towards the bloodstained demon and twisted her free hand behind her back. The sensation of her fingertips brushing against what could only be bleeding flesh and her own entrails turned her stomach badly. Had she had the chance, she would have fallen to her knees and vomited until she'd spewed up her own lungs.
In front of her, the bloodstained demon's face had twisted back into a deranged grin and it was yelling something. The demon in the forest colored clothes was nowhere to be seen and the large one had fallen to the ground, lying prone and unmoving.
Gritting her teeth hard enough to make her jaw ache, Dylis forced in a deep breath through her nose and steeled herself for another attack. There were still demons in front of her and new enemies at her back; doubling over and reacquainting herself with her breakfast would have to wait, at least ten more seconds.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Blevins, leaning against a tree with a bloodied dagger in hand. He too was grinning and had Dylis had any spare place for a feeling other than physical pain, panic and shock would have made it company in clawing at her mind.
A flash of light had her staggering backward, narrowly avoiding another cut; this time from the bloodstained demon's blades.
Stumbling, Dylis' knees gave out and she tumbled heedlessly to the ground. She barely felt the impact as the bloodied grass rose up to meet her. Her back was on fire and her mind was a jumbled mess of rage and panic. The world around her was a blurry mess of green, red and brown, each color swimming in and out of the others.
And then it all quickly went black.