Black Smoke, Green Light Carvesh
The demon was vaguely man-shaped—which was to say that it had two legs, two arms and a head. Beyond such cursory resemblance, all similarity ended. In place of skin, its entire body was covered with interlocking plates that had the appearance of both yellowed bone and weathered rock. Its overly long limbs were almost insect-like in the way they bent, and each arm ended in four-fingered talons. Its forearms were ridged with spiny, fin-shaped extrusions that were stained with the bloody promise of pain and death. Rushing forward on powerful legs, the demon threw itself into the air and stretched out its wide, leathery wings.
Its hard, expressionless face was very nearly featureless, a smooth, rounded plate that curved down toward a mouth filled with obsidian teeth and a long, flickering tongue. The only breaks in that face were the small sockets of its black, glassy eyes.
Eyes that were fixed directly on Madik.
The hunter had already drawn another arrow. He loosed it in an instant, but the demon anticipated the attack and deflected the projectile with the spine of its arm. Madik did not have time to nock again. The demon was nearly upon him.
But so was Winter.
With a thunderous growl, the great wolf threw all of its bulk at the demon, knocking it off course before it could catch Madik and rend his flesh. Winter tore at the creature with her fangs and claws, but to little avail. The hard bone protected it like armour, and while it staggered for a moment, it recovered quickly enough to launch a counter attack of its own. Using the reach of its long arms, it grabbed onto the thick scruff of the wolf’s neck, then raised its arm as though to tear her throat open with its sharp spines. But Winter was too strong. Somehow, she managed shake herself free and retreat.
Her grey fur was stained with fresh blood, but the distraction had been enough. Madik had scampered out of the demon’s reach.
Meanwhile, Aurin Carwell had closed the gap.
“Uncle!” Carvesh cried, but the lord paid him no mind. Instead, he raised his sword before him, squaring his legs with his shoulders. His knees had only the slightest bend and he held one foot before the other, as though to brace himself. The demon hesitated only for an instant, regarding the swordsman with its head cocked slightly to one side. Then it sprang forward, its spiny arms crossed defensively. If any other man had been standing there, the demon would have been upon him almost before he could react.
But the Lord of Sheranden was no ordinary man.
He was Flameborn. His eyes burned with an emerald ferocity and his legs moved with unnatural speed.
Aurin danced to his right. He turned and slashed. His long sword cut through the air, a streak of silver that left little more than superficial scratch along the surface of the demon’s armour. If Aurin had expected to do more damage, he showed no hint of surprise or hesitation. He was on the move, seemingly before the first blow had even landed. When the demon countered, its claws found nothing but air. The sword struck again, and again in was deflected. Over and over, Carwell attacked, always with the same effect. And as each blow glanced off of that impenetrable armour, the demon was coming closer and closer to catching the swordsman.
Finally, it trapped the edge of Aurin’s blade in one of its spines. A quick twist of its forearm yanked the weapon from his hands, and sent it crashing across the open road. Yet, weaponless and defenceless as he was, the Lord did not retreat. Instead, he leapt forward with Flameborn speed. The demon lashed out with its talons, but somehow, Aurin evaded the attack and drove his fist into creature’s midsection.
Carvesh expected a scream of pain and a broken hand. Instead, the thunderous crack of a stone on stone echoed through the deepening dusk. The demon flew through the air, crashing into a nearby tree. Aurin stretched his hand then rushed to retrieve his fallen blade.
For a moment, nobody moved. When the demon slowly pushed itself back to its feet, there was a visible crack along its abdomen. Looking down, it ran one twisted hand along the broken plate, and began uttering a series of feral sounds that were like a blend of clicking and hissing. Moments later, a black substance like thick smoke began spilling from the demon’s mouth. Instead of rising up into the air, it descended, twisting and roiling over itself until it came to cover creature’s midsection. There it hovered, thick, inky and pressing itself into the demon’s fractured armour. Carvesh watched in transfixed horror as the crack slowly began to close itself.
By the time the smoke had vanished, so too had all of the damage that Aurin Carwell had inflicted upon the demon.
“It can heal itself,” muttered the lord, his eyes still burning with Flameborn power. “That’s just perfect.”
Still hissing and clicking, the demon fixed its glassy eyes back upon Carwell. It turned each of its talon-like hands toward the sky, and Carvesh heard the soft sound of cracking bone. From each palm, a long, black shaft began to emerge, dripping with thick ichor and glistening dangerously in the fading light. Moments later, they had extended to nearly two feet in length. Sharp, tapered edges gave the strange growths the distinct and unsettling appearance of blades. Using its long fingers to achieve a firm but awkward looking grip on each shaft, the demon crossed them with all the grace of a master swordsman.
Swords! thought Carvesh, his blood running cold with the fresh horror of what he had just witnessed. What kind of creature can grow swords out of its hands?
The demon threw itself into the air, using its powerful wings to propel it forward. At first, it appeared as though it would focus all the force of its attack on Carwell. The lord set his feet and prepared to meet the charge. Then, at the last possible moment, the demon changed directions, surging past the waiting swordsman with an angry hiss. By the time Carwell had turned and lashed out with his blade, the demon was already beyond his reach.
It was rushing directly toward Quelana.
A well placed arrow struck the demon’s back, but its skeletal armour was too thick. It pressed forward as though nothing had happened.
The healer screamed, trying desperately to save herself.
She was just half a step too slow.
As Quelana dove to her left, the tip of one black blade caught her side. She screamed in pain. Blood burst from the wound, splattering across the Kingsway. Her satchel went flying.
Somehow, the demon turned in mid-air and rushed forward again, intent on finishing what it had started. But Aurin Carwell would was not the sort to be fooled twice. With Flameborn speed, he sprinted to Quelana’s side, standing over her like the embodiment of the Guardian. He fixed his eyes on the demon, tracking its every movement as it approached. His sword flashed once. Twice. Then a third time, throwing the creature back, driving it away from the wounded woman.
Trusting in Aurin’s ability to contain the demon, Carvesh sprinted to Quelana’s side. Jadoc was already there. He had torn the shirt from his back and was pressing it firmly against the wound in an effort to slow the bleeding. The cloth was already thoroughly soaked.
“Help,” Quelana gasped.
“What can I do?” asked Carvesh.
“My bag,” she wheezed.
He nodded. Looking once to ensure that the demon was still engaged with Lord Carwell, he broke into a run, snatching up the satchel and tossing it back toward Jadoc. The farmhand snatched it out of the air. By the time Carvesh came back to Quelana’s side, the healer was already pushing two dark, purplish leaves between her lips. She chewed fiercely for a moment, before spitting the contents of her mouth back into her hand.
“Take the shirt away,” she instructed Jadoc.
“Just do it,” she snapped. Reluctantly, the big farmhand drew back, allowing Quelana to peel away the wet, scarlet-stained cloth. A fresh flow of blood streamed from the wound. Jadoc reached out, as though to reapply the crude bandage, but the healer waved him back. Taking one deep breath, she pushed the chewed leaves into the wound. Her eyes snapped shut and she cried out in pain, but somehow she managed to keep her hand firmly in place. For a moment, Carvesh feared that she would pass out.
When her eyes opened again, however, they blazed with same emerald power as Carwell’s. Carvesh had never seen a Flameborn healer at work, and could not help but gaze in wonder as an unnatural radiance began to form a halo around Quelana’s wound. In its own strange way, the light seemed like an answer to the demon’s black smoke, flowing with a near liquid-like quality from the healer’s palm. It had a distinctly greenish hue as it penetrated and surrounded the ugly gash. Gradually, however, the flow of blood began to lessen. Skin and flesh shift and grew, knitting together as they consumed the chewed leaves.
“There,” said Quelana after a moment. All at once, the light faded away and, although the wound still had a gruesome and dangerous appearance, it had closed enough to have stopped the flow of blood. The last, wet remnants were already beginning to clot and harden into protective scabbing. “That’ll do for now. Is Carwell still alive?”
Carvesh nodded, glancing over his shoulder to where Aurin remained engaged with the demon. He had sustained several minor wounds, but somehow he was managing to keep the monster at bay, driving it back whenever it got too close, but never letting it get far enough away that it could turn its attention on any of the others. Madik was doing his best to help, firing arrows whenever he saw an opening. One or two had even managed to embed themselves in the demon’s bony armour. Winter was there too, nipping at the demon’s flanks.
Still, Carvesh knew that Carwell was pushing himself past the point of his own endurance, drawing on the power of the Flame for speed and stamina that were not his own. It would be wearing on him. Sooner or later, the sheer strength of his will would falter. When that happened, in seemed unlikely that even all his fine swordsmanship would be enough to save him.
Somehow, they needed to kill the demon.
All at once, Carvesh’s mind returned to the shadowbeasts. Their glassy eyes were so similar to those of the demon. They had the same blackness, the same cold, unfeeling quality. In both his first encounter with the beasts and the subsequent battle at the Great Oak, those eyes had been the primary weakness, vulnerable to both sword and arrow. He wondered if the same might be true here, if a strike through the eye might be enough to slay the demon.
He found himself watching the battle more intently, and with every passing moment, he became increasingly certain that there was some level of truth to his assumption. While the creature appeared indifferent to the blows that Aurin rained across its protected body, it was being extremely deliberate in deflecting any stroke that came too close to its head. It also seemed to be keeping its back intentionally turned on Madik, never providing the hunter with a clear view of its face.
“It’s protecting its eyes,” said Carvesh aloud, turning toward Jadoc. “We need to strike it through the eye.”
“Easier said than done, I think,” countered farmhand. “It’s matching Carwell stroke for stroke, and they say he’s one of the best swordsmen in the Realm. I don’t see how we can possibly…” Jadoc trailed off. When he spoke again, his voice was uneven and his eyes had gone wide with shock and fear. “By the all the Holy Nine, what’s he doing?”
At first, Carvesh feared that Carwell had undertaken some suicidal tactic in order to overcome the demon. It was only when he turned and followed the path of Jadoc’s gaze that he realized the truth. A young boy with disheveled, tawny hair had appeared at the edge of the Kingsway. He stood no more than a dozen yards from where Carwell and the demon fought, watching with eyes that reflected a deep sadness.
“Dane!” screamed Carvesh. “Run!”