Sin - By Firebrand, Chapter 8, Fantasy

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Sin - By Firebrand, Chapter 8, Fantasy

Post  Firebrand on Fri Apr 06, 2012 8:43 am

Chapter 8

Sin blinked as the fog rolled in. The day had been clear up until this point, so where had it come from? Kelrick was scenting the air. “There’s something unnatural about this. Stay on your guard, everyone.”

“Should we stop?” Julia asked. “Perhaps we can wait it out.”

Anjaru hissed. “I don’t think so. This fog is demon-made. And I know just who it is. Show yourself!” He drew his rapier, and held it aloft. “Show yourself, scum!”

“Gyehehehe!” a shrill voice laughed. “Ooh, you fell right into our trap! Fell right into it good!”

Kelrick grabbed Lisana around her waist, and all but threw her into Dusty’s saddle. “Ride like the most horrible thing you can imagine is chasing you!” he shouted. “Go! Because if you don’t hurry, it soon will be!” The fire demon slapped Dusty’s rump. “Hurry, Mistress Lisana!”

Dusty galloped some distance down the road, screeched in fear, turned and galloped back. Anjaru snatched Lisana off his back before the draft horse stumbled, and rolled onto his side. Dusty’s sides heaved. Chifumi leapt from Sin’s shoulder and scampered over to the horse. Then, she too screamed.

“Hippogriff!” The monkey bolted into the Forest.

Sin scanned the skies, but saw nothing except fog. Thalia glared at him. “You won’t see it. You will see what you fear most. Keep a clear head, human.”

Then, the Ice Maiden screamed as well. A creature of fire rose from the road before her. “No!” she shouted. “Get back! No!” She flung icicles into the creature, but they hissed and evaporated. The humanoid figure reached a fiery hand out for her. “Get away!” the normal stoic woman was on the verge of tears. “Please! Get back! Illyrian! Please!”

Anjaru saw Thalia throw her icicles into thin air, panic evident in her eyes. “It’s begun. I must… prepare. But… for what?”

A man with two day’s growth of beard stepped out of the forest in front of the avian demon. “No.” Anjaru shook his head. “Heath! I… I killed you! Years ago! This… this is an illusion! Anjaru, focus!”

“No, no,” the man, Heath said. “I am here, Anjaru. I am not dead. But you left your mark.” He lifted the edge of his dark tunic, revealing a gaping sword wound, still damp with fresh blood. “And now, I’ve come to pay you in kind.” He drew a thin knife from the folds of his black cloak, and threw it at the Air Master.

“You can’t harm me! You’re not real!” The knife spiraled end over end, seemingly in slow motion. It lodged itself deep in Anjaru’s right shoulder. The bite of the enchanted steel shocked him.

Anjaru clumsily fumbled for his sword with his left hand. “I killed you once. I can kill you again.”

“Have at you!” Heath cried. The man drew a broadsword, and charged. Blood from his wound formed a red mist that scalded Anjaru’s skin just as well as any steel. The Master of Air felt his strength waning, but knew that the spell couldn’t last forever. Could it?

Kelrick saw his friends battling the air, and wondered how soon it would be until he too fell victim of the fear that clouded their minds. Just remember, he told himself. It’s all an illusion. It’s not real.

A pentagram appeared in white light on the ground beneath him. A Sealing Circle. Kelrick had never been Bound before meeting Lisana, but he had heard stories of demons that had tried to break a Sealing Circle. Not one story said the demons survived. A cage with enchanted steel bars appeared around him.

Kelrick snorted. “All right. I just won’t move.” Then, he raised his voice. “You’ve failed! You can’t best me with your fear spell!”

Then, he heard Lisana scream. She held her hands before her face, and was sobbing uncontrollably. Terror was etched into her features, and she was in a heap on the ground.

Kelrick was enraged to see her like this. Despite their relationship being one of servant and master, Lisana never treated him like a subordinate, unless he was being stupid and deserved it. He genuinely cared for the girl, the same way he had cared for his younger sister. But he had been unable to save her…

The Hellhound would not let that happen again.

He slammed himself against the steel and magical confines of his prison. “Lisana!” he roared. “I’ll protect you!” The steel bit into his skin, leaving burns. He drew his sword to hack at the bars, but it did nothing. He ignited his inner fires, fires from the pits of hell. “Burn!”

The cage melted away, leaving only the Sealing Circle. Kelrick threw himself at the boundaries, certain his will could break the illusion. When his body hit the line etched in the ground, it was though every fiber of his being was being rent apart.

He howled in agony.

Lisana tried to stand. Kelrick was fighting his own battle to protect her, and he was suffering gravely for it. She needed to be strong… for him. But the thing before was simply too powerful, too awful, too terrifying.

It was a figure in a long black robe that seemed to be made of smoke. Occasionally a face frozen in fear or agony would surface on its amorphous material. The humanoid creature’s face was a bleached white skull, with smoldering embers for eyes. Its hands were skeletal claws that reached for her, tried to bring her into the folds of its robe.

Lisana tried to be brave, tried to be strong, but even the bravest of men cower before Death.

Death lifted the hem of his cloak, and reached behind it. When he lowered it again, Lisana was greeted with the dead visage of her father. “Do you see what awaits you?” the macabre specter rasped.

“Th-That’s a lie!” Lisana shouted. “My father is alive! Damin told me so!”

“I do not show simply what is,” Death replied. “I can show you all that is to come.”

He reached behind his robe again, and this time drew out Damin’s corpse, and Harrison’s. He cast them at her feet. “Not enough yet?” Now, the phantom procured Grey, Julia and Orrin, their lifeless eyes gaping up at her.

“No!” Lisana shouted. “It’s not real!”

With a wave of his hand, Death laid the corpses of Anjaru, Kelrick and Thalia before the young sorceress. “And it’s all your fault, Lisana. They all die because of you.”

Lisana fumbled for her wand. “Fire. Fire! Fire!” She drew the glyphs, said the words, and channeled the power. And the spell did not come. She sank to her knees and sobbed.

“You can end it, Lisana. All you have to do is come to me.”

“No! I won’t go with you!”

Death shook his skeletal visage. “I thought not.” He snapped his bony fingers, making a sharp crack. The pile of corpses disappeared in a cloud of acrid black smog. “I see. I shall show you all the death you will cause.”

He spread his arms wide, the robe stretching taunt over his bony shoulders. Hundreds of corpses appeared around Lisana. The stench was overpowering. Sightless eyes gazed at her. Lisana bent double, and vomited.

“Are you convinced yet? The safest, cleanest path is to just come with me. Die now, and prevent all of this.”

“It’s… not… real.” Lisana vomited again.

Death folded his hands. “I see. You are tougher than I first supposed.” The mounds of carcasses vanished. “Perhaps I require a more personal touch.” A scythe appeared in his hand, and he used this to impale another body held behind his cloak. He drew it out, and held it in front of her.

“Do you see this Lisana? Do you want this?”

Sin’s lifeless form was suspended in the air in front of Lisana. His eyes were closed, and blood dripped from many wounds all over his body. His chest heaved with labored breath. He wasn’t yet dead, for that would come as mercy. Sin, the boy she had protected from tormentors all their lives, was dying before her and she was powerless to stop it.

“No!” she screamed.

Damin heard her screech, and it tore at his heartstrings. He had known Lisana since she was a baby, and considered himself to be something of an uncle to her. He had been close friends with Derrian since they were children, so he had been around her often enough as she grew.

But he could not go to her side. He had his own problems to deal with.

A giant gray and black wolf snapped at him with jagged fangs the size of kitchen knives. The captain of Harrisholt’s guardsmen drew his broadsword and hacked at the beast. Long gashes appeared where his sword struck, but quickly healed. The wolf pounced on him, knocking him to the ground. It made to snap at his throat, delivering the killing strike.

Grey leapt at the wolf with a yell, plunging his knife deep into its flank. He wrapped his arms around the wolf’s neck, and wrestled it away from Damin.

“You see it too?” Damin cried, incredulous. It seemed as though all of their companions were fighting individual battles against invisible enemies. So why could Grey attack this wolf?

“I’m just a surprised as you are,” Grey snapped, and drew another knife, stabbing the wolf repeatedly. “A little help?”

Damin rushed in, using Grey’s assault as a diversion. He lopped off the wolf’s head, and stepped back. “There. It should go away now.”

The body fell on its side, and twitched. Grey backed away cautiously. “I dunno. Magic made this thing. I don’t think normal rules apply.”

The young rogue was right to be cautious. The wolf’s body shuddered, and from the stump of its neck, not one, but two new heads grew. They both looked identical to the last one.

Damin wiped the blood from his blade. “I remember a creature like this from one of Harrison’s stories. It was a snake, but… well, same theory. Grew two new heads when one was chopped off. Only way to defeat it was to cauterize the wounds.”

“I don’t see any fire conveniently laying around.” Grey sighed. “Any other way to kill it?”

Damin sidestepped one of the wolf’s lunges. “The story didn’t say. But… I guess we could stab it through the heart or something. If it has a heart. At least, let’s just avoid the heads.”

Grey nodded and drew a short sword. “Who knows? Maybe it can grow limbs back too. A wolf with five legs might be clumsy enough for us to take down.”

Julia and Orrin saw Grey and Damin leap at their foe, but to them the foe appeared to be nothing more than fog. The earth demon shoved Julia behind him as they faced their shared foe. “Peiotr.”

“How good it is to see you once again, Orrin. Julia.” A man in a fedora and opera cloak drew closer to them. “You look well. It was such a shame you left in a great hurry last time.” He snapped his fingers, and iron shackles appeared on Orrin’s wrists and ankles. The demon winced as the metal scalded his skin.

The man, Peiotr, obviously a sorcerer, pushed down on his shoulders, shoving Orrin to the ground with superhuman strength. “I’ll deal with you later, slave.” He stepped over him to Julia. “Why, my dear, you look just as beautiful as always. And now, I will make you my bride.”

“No!” Julia shouted at him. “I hate you!” She spat in his eye, and drew a knife from her belt. “If you don’t go away, I’ll kill you!”

“Come now, Julia, let’s not play games.”

“I’m warning you, Peiotr! Don’t come any closer!”

The sorcerer sighed. “I see I must do this the hard way. You know I don’t like to hurt you, my love.”

“Don’t call me that! I’ll never love you! Ever! Not after what you did to Orrin!”

Peiotr’s genteel manner dropped. “Silence, wench!” He backhanded her. On the ground, Orrin roared in anger, but an invisible force held him down. The sorcerer threw his cape back, and a shadowy aura leaked out from the material, solidifying into an arm and a hand. It grabbed Julia around her throat, suffocating her.

Peiotr brought his face close to hers. “Marry me, Julia.”

“No…”

“Marry me, and you can live a life of luxury! Anything you want, you shall have!”

“I… want… Orrin…”

“What can he get you? Nothing! You live a terrible life, Julia! I can make you live like a queen!”

Julia spat again. Peiotr moved to hit her once again, and Orrin broke his binding enchantment. “Back, vile beast!” Peiotr snarled, forgetting Julia to whirl on the earth demon. Another shadow darted from under his cape, this one turning into the crude facsimile of a blade that rushed for Orrin’s throat. “I should have kill you when I had the chance!”

All around the clearing, Sin saw his friends shouting at empty air. Thalia’s white traveling dress, normally kept immaculate by the demon’s constant preening, was stained with dirt and tears as she knelt on the ground, her hands held up protectively. Kelrick was smashing against an invisible barrier, and seemed to be in pain. Anjaru fought an unseen opponent, favoring his left side as though injured. Chifumi could be heard, but not seen, scampering through the underbrush, trying to hide from an unseen hippogriff.

Damin and Grey leapt at their invisible foe. Sin wondered how they could both see it, as they had little enough contact on the road. Orrin and Julia both writhed as they shouted into the air. Their eyes seemed to be focused on the mist in front of them. And Lisana…

Lisana cowered on the ground, looking as if she was vomiting. Her nails created tiny streaks of blood on her hands as they dug into her palms. Her face was streaked with tears as she shook her head. “No! No! Take it away! Take it away! Finish it! Please!”

All of his companions seemed to be facing something truly terrifying, and yet Sin stood there, completely unscathed. Perhaps one of the talismans Harrison had given him protected him from whatever enchantment besieged his friends?

“I do believe you are looking for me.”

Sin glanced over to where the voice had come from and saw… himself. Or rather, sort of himself. The clothes were far more elegant and sophisticated, made of expensive material. There was a set in his shoulders and a slight motion and grace in his step that Sin only had when playing his walking game, imitating Damin or Anjaru. And yet this doppelganger made it look so… natural.

“Look at yourself,” his doppelganger mocked. “Pathetic. You can’t even save your friends. You’re powerless.”

“I… I am not!”

“Oh yes you are!” the Other Sin scoffed. “When’s the last time you did anything worthwhile?”

“I fought the bandits!”

“Anjaru, Kelrick and Thalia fought the bandits. You fought a bandit. Grey. Who’s what, two years younger than you?”

“And I fought in Hollyvale!”

“Please. Spare me the theatrics. What did you really do? Nothing.”

Sin drew his sword. “I advise you be quiet and don’t move. I don’t know what you are, but I’m pretty sure enchanted steel will destroy you.”

“Ha!” Other Sin laughed. “Look at you! Where did you learn to be all tough, storybooks? How the others even stand to be around you, I’ll never know.”

“I said be quiet!”

“And why should I listen to you? I’m obviously superior. I think everyone would be better off if I took your place.” Other Sin reached for his own sword, which looked very much like Sin’s.

“What makes you so great?” Sin shouted.

“I could ask you the same question. Sin, you and I both know that you weren’t the best choice for this journey. Harrison only picked you because he thought Lisana would like traveling with you. But does she? Does she even talk to you anymore?”

“Of course she does!” Sin retorted angrily.

Other Sin flicked a lock of hair out of his eyes. Whenever Sin tried that, it looked foolish, but when this Sin did it, he looked incredibly suave. “Not really. Aside from the casual greetings, does she? Does she talk to you like she did when you were younger?”

Sin was sure she did, but some nagging feeling in the back of his mind made him hold back. Did she? No, now that he thought about it. Lisana was drifting further and further away…

“You don’t even have to reply,” Other Sin murmured. “I can tell by the look on your face. Come on, Sin, look at yourself. Your life is meaningless. You don’t even have a home to go back to. Harrison is gone. Who is gong to care for you?”

“I can take care of myself. I’ve hit my majority. I can build my own home, start my own family.” Sin felt tears of rage building in his eyes.

“And who will marry the Outsider? Sin, your very name marks you. You’re named for a mistake, a flaw. Face it. Your life is pointless. And now, look at me. I’m all you could have been. But you’re not. You’re worthless. Pathetic. You doubt yourself. You can’t do anything!”

“Be quiet!” Sin roared.

“Or what? You’ll attack me? Don’t make me laugh. I’m superior to you in every regard. A swordfight with me would be a death wish.”

Sin let his sword clatter to the ground. “You… you’re right. I’m worthless.” He hung his head, despair tightening its icy fingers around his heart.

Fwap!

An arrow flew from somewhere in the forest, hitting Other Sin in the center of his chest. The doppelganger hissed in anger and began to… shift. It looked as though he was becoming intangible, slowly fading away.

“Remember my words, Sin!” he hissed. “I can show you the truth…” Another arrow flew out from the brush, striking just inches to the right of the first. The ghost creature snarled and tried to draw them from it’s disintegrating form. A third arrow embedded itself in Other Sin’s right hand, pinning it to his chest.

Other Sin roared, a primal sound that made Sin shrink back. The doppelganger contorted, and became a creature formed of blue and gray mist. Its eyes glowed in its murky face. The creature reached out for Sin.

“I am you. I know you better than anyone. Help me. Please!”

Sin found his hand moving towards the creature. What if when this creature died, Sin died too? They seemed tied together.

“Don’t touch it!” A man with ragged blond hair and an unkempt beard leapt from the Forest. “He’ll steal your soul!” The man pointed a finger at the mist creature, and a ray of green light shot from his fingertip. “By the power granted to me by the Magic of this Forest, I banish you!”

Vines began to twine around what was left of Other Sin, coiling and squeezing the mist. The man whirled on Sin. “Are you hurt? No? Good. I need to deal with the Fear Monger. Try and help your friends when they wake up.”

“Wake up?”

“Well, something like that,” the man said, and reached into his cloak for what appeared to be a handful of seeds. “I suppose it’s not waking up exactly, more like being freed from a curse, but they are dreaming technically, so I suppose…”

Sin got the feeling the man wasn’t even talking to him anymore, and trying to work out a complex theory in his head. Then, he turned back to Sin. “Got all that? Well, whatever, it doesn’t really make a difference. Just… whatever happens, stay away from me for the next couple minutes. I don’t want you getting caught up in whatever I do next. Who’s the most rational of your companions here, the one who seems least shaken? Start with them and work backwards in terms of strength. I’d leave the girl for last, she’s in bad shape.”

Sin blinked in surprise. “What?”

“You really must be dim. Look. My sister will give you what help she can, but she can’t get too close to the Fear Monger. She’s not protected like I am.” He turned and ran into the mist. “Oh, and you never saw me, right?”

“Uh…”

“You didn’t see me here at all. Right?!”

“Oh, yes! Certainly! Never saw you!”

The strange man vanished into the mist. Sin turned. His least shaken companion… that would have to be Anjaru. Now, the only problem would be getting close enough to ‘rouse’ him without being sliced to ribbons by the Air Master’s sword.

Anjaru fought desperately against Heath. The injured man never seemed to tire, and the blood fog only got thicker, choking the demon. He probably wouldn’t last much longer…

“Anjaru!”

The voice seemed to come from far away. Anjaru could only just barely make it out. “Anjaru!” it said again. It sounded faintly like… Master Sin.

“Anjaru! Whatever you’re seeing, it’s not real! Just focus!”

Anjaru knew in some corner of his mind that Heath couldn’t be here. And yet, the sorcerer’s fighting style was exactly as it had been the night Anjaru had killed him. The wound in the same place, the same spells. And yet, there was one thing…

He clung to that, knowing that this would be his ace. He could win with this knowledge.

Heath smiled at him. “Anjaru. Don’t listen to him. I’m real. I stand before you now. How can you deny my existence?”

Anjaru shook his head, his breath coming in gasps. “I don’t know what you are, but you’re not Heath.”

“How can you say that?!”

“Because you threw a knife at my right arm to incapacitate me,” Anjaru hissed. “Heath would have known that I am left handed!” He waved his sword like a wand, whipping up a gale. The wind sliced through Heath, making the long-dead sorcerer ripple like a pond after a stone had been thrown in.

“Anjaru!” Heath shouted. Then, he shattered into hundreds of tiny shards, like broken glass. The blood mist faded, leaving Anjaru standing with Sin at his side. The young boy stabilized him, and brought out a water skin.

“Take a drink, calm down.” Sin spoke in a whisper. Anjaru had no doubt that he too was recovering from his own bout with his worst fears. The pallor of his face and his shaking hands gave testimony to that. And yet the boy was standing tall and trying to be brave for their sakes.

“Try and help Kelrick,” Sin murmured. “Once you can stand. Whatever he’s going up against, it seems to be hurting him. I’ll take care of Thalia.”

Anjaru nodded, and staggered over to where his companion battered against an invisible foe. Kelrick glared at him. “Anjaru! Go help Lisana!”

“I will, friend, but first I need to help you.”

“No! She is our mistress! She must come first!”

Anjaru glared at the fire demon. “Lisana tells us to make our own choices. I’ve made mine. What do you see?”

“I see you being a stubborn fool!”

“I meant what do you see that I obviously cannot?”

Kelrick sank back. “A Sealing Circle. Anjaru… you never told me how much it hurts…” His shoulders heaved with exhaustion, and his face was etched with pain.

“Because words cannot describe it, my friend. Now. The exterior line of this circle, where is it?”

Kelrick blinked. “About a foot in front of you, but I don’t see why that matters.”

Anjaru tentatively stepped forward. “Here? Is my foot on it?”

“Yes. Anjaru, how can you do that? Why aren’t you getting hurt?”

“Because it’s not real to me.” The Air Master rubbed his foot in the dirt of the road. “There. Did I break the line?”

“Yes.”

Anjaru had Kelrick guide him to each of the points of the pentagram, and he rubbed each one out. “Now Kelrick, try to break out.”

“But Anjaru… it hurts.”

“It won’t hurt anymore. Trust me.”

And Kelrick did. He stepped out over the lines, to stand beside his friend. “How did you know?”

“The third time a sorcerer tried to Bind me, two of my friends broke into the Circle, and obliterated it. One was a sorcerer who shared Harrison’s views. The other was Artos. I was freed, and I never forgot how to break a Sealing Circle.”

Sin knelt beside Thalia. The Ice Maiden was crouching on the ground, her face streaked with tears. “Illyrian!” she muttered. “Go away, Illyrian.”

The fire creature, visible only to her, drew closer. “Why Thalia? Don’t you love me? I thought you cared for me…”

“You changed Illyrian! You became a monster!”

The creature knelt in front of her, and tried to touch her face. Thalia slapped his hand away, and then recoiled with a hiss. The fire burning on him seared her skin. “I became a monster to protect you. So we would never have to be separated again.”

“You killed your sister.”

Illyrian’s canted eyes turned up. “She opposed me. All who oppose me will be burned with the Heavenly Flame.”

“Is that how a protector should talk? Would a guardian harm his charges?” Thalia’s sea green eyes flashed.

Illyrian shook his head. “Thalia, my dear, you could never understand. Someone like you could never understand why a god does what he does.”

“Thalia!” Sin shouted. The ice demon was shuddering uncontrollably, spouting nonsense.

The Ice Maiden could not hear him. Her attention was consumed by Illyrian. “I can’t let it go on like this!” Thalia shouted, and conjured a spear of ice. She tried to drive it through the creature, but it hissed and spat, dissolving in her grasp.

Sin saw her create a spear, and then saw it shatter. Whatever held Thalia in thrall was not something she could defeat on her own. He drew his sword and drove it’s tip into the ground before her. “Focus, Thalia! Can you hear me?”

Her hand shot out like a claw. She lifted him up and threw him aside with superhuman strength, strength Sin had never known the elegant, cold, stoic woman possessed. He tumbled across the ground, and Thalia stalked forward, muttering into the empty air. Then, when her hand found Sin’s sword, she stopped abruptly.

“This… this sword. I know… I know this sword.”

“Yes, Thalia! That’s my sword! Come back, Thalia!”

She drew the blade from the dirt, and held it before her. “I have seen this sword do many things, great and terrible things. I never once dreamed to wield it…”

What’s she going on about? Sin wondered. That sword was locked in Harrison’s wardrobe for years! Great and terrible things? How?

Thalia thrust the blade into the air before her. She saw Illyrian writhe as the blade pierced where his heart once was. He erupted into a column of fire, sending Thalia flying backwards.

He roared at her. “You damned fool, woman! You have no idea what you have done!” Then, he shattered, the illusion broken.

Thalia looked around as if for the first time, and realized she held Sin’s sword. “Oh. I apologize. I believe this is yours.”

Sin sheathed it, a little puzzled. “Yes… Well, come on, let’s help Julia and Orrin.”

But it seemed as though the two of them did not need any help. Orrin bellowed, and slammed his shackled arms down on where Peiotr was ‘standing’. He drove into the ground with enough force to make the rock that made up the road splinter. He tore off his shackles, and stepped over Peiotr’s broken body.

“Julia, my love. Are you injured?”

“No. Orrin, I’m fine.”

Peiotr’s hand lashed out and grabbed Orrin’s ankle. “You kept me from my bride once, vile creature. It won’t happen again!”

“Oh, do be quiet.” Orrin lifted his other foot, and brought is down on Peiotr, shattering the illusion. The fragments of the sorcerer vanished, and Orrin surveyed the scene in front of him.

Anjaru was helping Kelrick stand, while Thalia stood staring at Sin. Lisana cowered on the ground as Damin and Grey slashed at an unseen foe. “There’s no stopping this thing!” Damin roared.

“We’ve tried everything!” Grey hollered back. “Could we just slice it in half? Your sword is big enough!”

Damin threw up his sword in a block, and was pushed back two feet by his opponent. “I don’t want to risk creating two wolves!”

Orrin nodded. He understood why Damin despised and feared wolves, having fought Liath and watch her destroy his village. But why would Grey fear the same thing? So much of his story was a mystery…

There was nothing Orrin could do for them. He instead went to Lisana’s side, and laid a steady hand on her shoulder. “Get away!” she moaned. “Make them all go away…”

“Lisana. It is only I.”

“Go away…”

Sin knelt next to them. “Orrin, she’s not responding to anything. Whatever she’s seeing, it’s probably very intense. I don’t know how to safely rouse her. I don’t think it’s simply a foe that can be defeated.”

Orrin thought for a moment. “Perhaps a shock would do it? Thalia, come here please. I need you to make an intensely cold icicle.”

A spar of ice appeared in the demon’s hand, and she passed it to Orrin. The earth demon placed the flat edge of it on the exposed back of Lisana’s neck.

The sorceress was seeing the faces of everyone she had ever met, dead. Hundreds of people, wherever she looked, gazed back at her. Finally, her eyes fell on… herself. Her dead visage looked incredibly pale, and fragile. There was a thin slice of red on her neck. Her throat had been slit.

“Go away…” Lisana moaned, but Death stood, impartial, and uncaring.

Then, the tip of something cold touched her neck. She screamed in raw terror, but as she watched, Death, and his mountain of carcasses, began to crack, like thin ice on a shallow pool. The ghostly apparition splintered into hundreds of tiny, sharp pieces that fell to the earth.

Lisana felt a steady hand on her shoulder, and coolness on her neck. Thalia, Sin and Orrin stood around her. She gazed up at them. “Wha-?”

Orrin nodded sternly. “Good. You’re safe now. Sin, Thalia, take care of her. I must see to Julia. My fiancé won’t admit it, but she’s very shaken.”

Damin and Grey had been pinned to the ground by their lupine adversary’s strong front paws. Both of its slavering mouths were going for their throats. The captain of the guard glanced at Grey.

“Nice knowing you.”

“If this is an illusion, can we really die?” Grey’s eyes showed the depths of his true terror.

Damin wished he could reassure the boy somehow. But there was nothing, no hope. “Well, I’m really bleeding.”

Fwap! Fwap! Fwap!

Three arrows, fired in rapid succession, slammed into the wolf’s heads. The beast snarled and then whimpered. It broke into so many shards, and then those disappeared like whisps of smoke.

Grey stood slowly, and noted that the fog was lifting. “Well… that was odd.”

Damin was inspecting the arrows. “The shape of these heads is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s strange for sure.”

Chifumi ran out of the forest, and leapt into Damin’s arms. “The hippogriff just… vanished!”

The guardsman blinked. “I see. Chifumi, do you think perhaps it was a spell?”

The monkey nodded. “I think so. But how did the sorcerer know that I was afraid of hippogriffs?”

Damin placed her on his shoulder. “Well, little friend, I think it’s because the caster was not a sorcerer at all. I have a hunch…”

A flash of green came from the receding mist. There was an unearthly wail, and the faint noise of leather shoes racing into the forest. Damin reached down and scooped up one of the arrows. “I don’t know who our benefactor was, but they left the job unfinished. Dunyi, show yourself!”

“Gyehehe!” A small, wizened man leapt from the branches of a tree. The group hefted their weapons, and Chifumi shook an angry fist at him. “Gyehehe! Oh, Dunyi got you all good! You were all really scared!”

Sin noted that the man likely only had about five teeth in his mouth. His shaggy white beard covered most of his torso, down to his stained trousers. The man was laughing manically. “Well,” he wheezed. “I suppose the Chancellor will not be happy with Dunyi, no he won’t. Dunyi failed…” The man pouted for a moment, then brightened. “But no he didn’t! Dunyi discovered what he need! Gyehehe! Bye-bye!”

The man flipped in the air, and Sin saw that the man had no torso to speak of. Where there should have been skin, or muscles, or even organs, there was nothing but bones, dry, bleached white bones. It revolted him. Dunyi completed his aerial routine, snapped his fingers, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

“Damn it!” Anjaru snapped. “He got away!”

Orrin shook his head. “No time for that. Quickly, we must get going. It’s not safe here. Elements, it’s probably not safe anywhere, not at the moment. Still, we must leave this place.”

“Can’t we just make camp?” Grey seemed to be favoring his left side.

“No,” Orrin replied briskly. “They know we’re here. Grey, can you walk?”

The young rogue nodded, went to join the earth demon, stumbled, and fell. Orrin sighed. He swung the boy up onto his shoulders. “We don’t have time to waste. Damin, let Thalia use your horse, and Lisana, you and Kelrick ride Dusty. You’re in the worst shape, and you’d slow us down if you walked.”

Lisana protested, but Sin helped her into the saddle. Kelrick was too tired to play at chivalry, and all but collapsed into the saddle. Damin slapped his horse to bring it to attention, and then they began their hurried flight from the clearing.

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