Where Angels Die: Episode 1, chapter 3

Thanks to my 3.6 Loyal Readers for your kind remarks. Comments, as always, are more than welcome.

 

The story so far:

The Summons

Chapter 1: The Taken

Chapter 2: A Battle of Souls


 

Chapter 3

The Food of Demons

 

They set out at a brisk trot, hurrying to put the hill-country behind them before they could be ambushed again. But those same hills delayed them; the road kept doubling back, chasing its own tail. An hour’s hard riding took them little more than a mile, as the crow flies, from the place where Lim died. In that bleak terrain, the enemy’s signals, one band of Taken shouting to the next, travelled faster than horses.

‘If the demons want this place,’ said Revel sourly, ‘I say we let them have it.’

‘It was green and pleasant when I was young, Surin,’ said Jandi. ‘There were such deer in the hills then, a hunter would give a season of his life to catch one. All gone now. They fled at the touch of this winter.’

Revel glanced up at the livid sky. ‘So would we, if we had any sense. How do they work this weather, anyway?’

‘All of Anai asks the same question, Surin. Had we such lore, we could fight them without help. This only we know: wherever the demons go, the sun is hidden and the snows follow.’

Another keening cry rose and fell, closer this time. ‘How far to the Cleft of Bones, Jandi?’

‘Not far, Surin. The river lies just beyond that ridge.’

Ridge, thought Revel, was hardly the word for it. A sheer face of cracked and weathered rock barred their way northward, impassable except where the road passed through a narrow notch and over the storm-scoured crest.

‘They’ll try to stop us.’ The Badger pointed at the notch. ‘There or nowhere.’

‘No chance of sneaking past?’ Revel suggested.

‘After the noise you made back there? We couldn’t attract more attention with fireworks and a marching band.’

‘Sorry about that, Badger-brock. I haven’t got a band in my saddlebags, but maybe some fireworks are in order.’

Revel took out his stave and muttered a few words over the jade ram’s head. A pale but piercing light shone in its eyes, ready to burst into demon-searing flame when the enemy came within reach. The Badger did the same with his own weapon. ‘Keep close behind us,’ he warned the Anayan guide. ‘If we lose you, we won’t be able to turn back.’

The riders approached the ridge at a slow and careful walk. They were about fifty yards away when the Taken came out of hiding. There would be no surprises on either side this time. Twenty of the grey-skinned warriors stood in ragged ranks, brandishing pitchforks and billhooks.

‘They’re just peasants,’ said Revel in disbelief. ‘Look at them! They don’t even know how to hold their weapons.’

‘The demons take whatever bodies they can get,’  the Badger answered grimly. ‘Now!’

Revel spurred his mount into a full gallop. ‘Charge them and they scatter!’ he yelled, swinging his stave in a reckless arc. The horse threw all its strength into a desperate jump, flying over the first row of Taken and landing squarely amidst the second rank. Sensing its rider’s fear, and maddened by the presence of the demons, it kicked out blindly at the grey men behind it. Corpse-like hands clawed and clung at its flanks, trying to drag it to a halt, but the animal shook them off and breasted its way through the confused mass of the enemy. White fire flashed from Revel’s stave, twice, three times, as he brought the ram’s head crashing down on the Taken’s skulls.

Then he was through – and the trap was sprung.

Twenty more Taken stood at the far end of the defile, confronting the three riders with a wall of bristling spears. Between the two ranks of the enemy, they stood in a space no more than thirty yards long and not much wider than the road. Their horses would not be able to gather enough speed for another jump; the space was too narrow for mounted fighting. The walls of the defile were too steep and slippery to climb.

Mute snarls of fear and hatred played across the grey faces, testimony to the demons’ struggle to control their hosts and subdue their own fear of the exorcists’ fire. One or two took a lurching step towards the riders, but no more; they knew enough, or feared enough, not to break ranks. A thin, keening cry of anguish and desolation broke the silence. Revel shuddered. His horse backed and skittered, and he could not calm it, or himself. Then the cry was answered.

All along the high ground overlooking the defile, dozens of human forms came into view. The demons must have possessed an entire village. Women and children, the old and the sick, stared down at the riders, grey faces expressionless, grey hands clutching stones as big as apples. In eerie, silent unison, they raised their arms and began to throw.

A hail of heavy stones pelted down on the riders. Revel threw up his left arm to protect his head, using a fold of his cloak as a shield. His mount bolted, nearly throwing him, but skidded to a halt before the thicket of improvised weapons. The Badger shouted Sethic words to set his stave alight. Then the enemy swarmed in from both ends of the defile.

The Taken fought in deathly silence: no battle cries, no shouts of pain. They feared nothing but the burning staves. A stone smashed one man’s face into jelly; he fell without a sound. The others pressed on, taking no notice. They did not even try to protect themselves. What did a demon care if its stolen body was killed? It could always take another.

Revel swung his stave wildly to fend off the enemy’s attacks. At first they hung back, jabbing timidly from a distance. Then they grew bolder. As they closed in, they began to drop their weapons. The dead weight of numbers gave them all the strength they needed. Revel’s mount was pressed against the wall of the defile. A dozen grey hands dragged him out of the saddle. He hammered at them with the burning ram’s head. One, two, three went down; then a stone knocked the stave out of his hand. He struggled wildly as the Taken crushed him into the ground. Cold grey fists pounded at his ribs. An old man loomed above him, baring his yellow teeth, leaning in to bite him. Revel threw off two of his captors with the extravagant strength of terror, but there were too many, too many, and those teeth were going to sink right into his flesh, no, not his face—

‘Badger!’ Revel screamed. ‘Badger, help me!’

No answer.

The old man’s hideous grin grew wider. His face was deathly grey, but his breath still had the hot reek of life, and his eyes were alive with his possessor’s gleeful cruelty. He did not break his ghastly silence, but Revel did not need the help of speech to guess the demon’s thoughts. It was enjoying his fear too much to kill him quickly. Let the human wallow in it! And an exorcist too, curse him. No doubt he had sent many a demon to the punishment reserved for the empty-handed. A demon must bring back souls for Hell to feed upon, or be food itself. Now it was his turn; now his soul would be sent on to a place where no man wished to go. Just a moment longer—

It was a moment too long. The stones had stopped thudding against the road. Now there was a new sound, musical, valiant, hateful to the Taken’s ears: horns, horns, wild and jubilant, winding a call to battle. A thunder of hoofs echoed from the walls of the defile. Thirty men on horseback charged into the fray, driving the Taken before them like hares before hounds. The old man’s face twisted in a snarl; then he was spitted and tossed on the point of a spear. A charger’s iron-shod hoofs flashed in the air, scant inches from Revel’s head. Then the horsemen passed, and the fight was over. The Taken were slain or put to flight.

The next thing Revel knew, a booted foot was prodding him in the small of the back. A few of the victors had dismounted and were picking their way back on foot, looking over the fallen fighters one by one. ‘This one’s still moving,’ said a voice behind him. He spoke Prama, but not in the style of the Commonwealth; his accent was strange and harsh.

‘That’s why we check the bodies, trooper,’ answered another. ‘Make sure of him and move on.’

‘Yes, Sergeant.’ There was a hiss of steel. The cold point of a sabre pressed against Revel’s throat. ‘You heard my sergeant, demon. Now it’s back to the Hell you came from.’

The pressure of the blade grew stronger as the trooper prepared to drive it home.

 

I am not a demon! Revel was desperate to form the words, but a heavy curtain of fear had fallen between his mind and his body. He lay speechless and unmoving, waiting for the trooper to finish him. Then came the sound of approaching hoofbeats, and a third voice cried:

‘Hold! Put up that blade, you fool.’

‘But Sergeant Iremba—’

‘Never mind Sergeant Iremba. Can’t you see that man is not Taken? Look at his face. Is it grey? Is it mottled? He’s as brown as you are, Andu, if not as fit. You there! Declare yourself if you want to live.’

Revel managed to open his mouth, but he still could not make any sound come out. ‘Demon got your tongue?’ said the third voice. ‘Andu, check his mouth.’

The trooper’s gloved hands pried Revel’s jaws apart and pulled his tongue this way and that, as if he wanted to yank it out by the roots. The pain helped Revel find his voice at last. ‘Hoth thath!’ he managed to say.

‘What’s that?’ Andu took his fingers out of Revel’s mouth. ‘Speak up, man!’

‘I said stop that. A demon doesn’t possess a man’s tongue and leave the rest of him.’

‘Oho! Know much about it, do you? A demon can take hold anywhere on a man’s body and work inwards from there. They told us to check every part of our captives. They said—’

‘Captain!’ A fourth voice. ‘I found another one.’

‘Let me up,’ said Revel. ‘Badger, is that you?’ He struggled to his feet and tried to limp towards the newest voice.

‘Give me a hand, trooper,’ the Badger croaked. ‘Now I know how a grape feels after it’s been trodden.’

‘Are you fit to travel?’ someone asked.

‘I can’t very well stay here. Luckily, most of my juice is still inside my skin. But I think I’ll be swearing off wine for a while.’

‘That’s enough,’ said the captain. ‘Who and what are you two?’

The Badger turned to face him, leaning heavily on a trooper’s arm. ‘My name is Valerian Brock, and this is my oath brother, Revel Enfield. We’re knights of the Covenant of Justice, on our way to Angel Keep.’

‘Oath brother?’ the captain asked sharply.

‘The usual thing. We saved each other’s lives in battle.’

The sergeant snorted. ‘The stripling doesn’t look like he could save bread crumbs, let alone lives.’

Revel bridled and would have snapped back, but the Badger cut him short. ‘Down, brother. We’re here to fight demons, not each other. —Now that you have our names, sir, you might return the courtesy.’

‘Sir Ekambil Awar,’ the captain replied grudgingly. ‘If you two are paladins, you should know better than to take on a whole war band of Taken.’

‘If!’ Revel brandished his stave. ‘You can’t get one of these at the town bazaar.’

‘You have one too, I suppose?’ the sergeant sneered.

‘I lost it,’ said the Badger, ‘when your men stampeded over me. You’d be surprised how many things you lose track of when a dozen horses trample on you.’

‘I’ll find it for you,’ said Revel. ‘Take mine for now.’

‘Speaking of lost things,’ said the Badger, ‘has anybody seen Jandi?’

Revel stopped short. ‘I didn’t even think. Sir Ekambil, did your men find an Anayan? Not too heavy, not too young? Looks like he’s made out of beef jerky?’

‘We saw only you two,’ said Sergeant Iremba.

‘Then you’d better get looking,’ the Badger told him crisply.

‘There’s no time,’ said the captain. ‘Count Urdin’s orders. We were sent to patrol the hills while the others strike camp. You two are coming with us.’

‘We three,’ answered the Badger, ‘or none of us. Jandi may just be the bravest man in Anai.’

‘If he lives. If not—’

‘If not, we’ll take him back to Angel Keep for burial. If we leave here without him, you can answer for it to the Baron.’

‘Very well,’ said the captain. ‘Get your Anayan and your stick, and be ready to ride. We have no time to lose.’

They found the Badger’s stave soon enough, under a heap of corpses against the wall of the defile. Jandi did not turn up so quickly. The Anayan guide was lying unconscious in the ditch beside the road, just at the south end of the cutting. He had never made it past the first rank of the Taken when the three riders charged. His horse lay dead in the road. Already a pair of large crows were pecking out its eyes. Not even the demons’ unnatural winter could drive the birds off when it was so easy to find carrion.

The Badger knelt beside Jandi, examined his wounds, peeled back his eyelids to look at his pupils. ‘A bad head wound,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think his skull is broken. Hoy, Captain! Has this count of yours got a surgeon?’

Sir Ekambil Awar rode the length of the defile to look down at Jandi from horseback. ‘He may die if we move him.’

‘He won’t live if we leave him. Have your men rig up a litter.’

The captain gave him a frosty glare. ‘I give the orders in my troop.’

‘Then give them. You’re the one in a hurry.’

‘We saved your lives, Valerian Brock. You should be less insolent to your betters.’

‘Flay me!’ cried Revel. ‘Don’t you know what a paladin is? If anyone here is being insolent, Captain, it’s you. As for your men—’

‘Leave it, Revel,’ said the Badger. ‘Take Jandi’s legs. The captain is right about one thing: we really do have no time to lose. I counted fifteen bodies in that cutting, and that means fifteen demons are looking for new hosts. Let’s not oblige them.’


 

Next: The Cleft of Bones

Comments

  1. I like Brock more and more. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy!

  2. BobtheRegisterredFool says:

    Interesting. How does the thermodynamics of the cooling work?

    • Cf. Vogelgesang, D. A., and Sturluson, S., ‘Thermodynamic Properties of Fimbulwinter’, in the Journal of Diabologenic Climate Change, vol. VIII, no. 4.

      Seriously: The demons have some method of producing permanent high cloud cover over the areas they control, thus increasing the albedo of those regions and sharply reducing net insolation. The effect is similar to that produced by the Tambora eruption of 1815, which gave rise to the ‘Year Without a Summer’ of 1816; but more intense, and localized in the areas that the demons either occupy or (as in Anai) are immediately attacking. The continent containing Anai is large enough to be subject to monsoon effects, and the unseasonably cold weather tends to produce a year-round winter monsoon.

      In Anai particularly, that means a prevailing north wind which tends to repel weather systems moving in from the ocean, changing much of the country’s climate from subtropical maritime to subarctic continental. Even in the areas not under permanent cloud cover, the growing season has shortened dramatically, giving rise to famines and great suffering among the inhabitants.

      The central portion of the continent, having been longest under the demons’ control, is now virtually uninhabitable and has gone into the early stages of an ice age.

      Now that Revel and the Badger have entered the region of the demons’ weather, they will not be seeing the sun again until Episode 8 or thereabouts. You can imagine, I suppose, the sort of thermodynamic effects that arise from that.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Oh, wow! What an awesome story! I didn’t realize you had started this in October!

    I like the three main guys, and the story is very interesting so far.

  4. Friday says:

    A demon must bring back souls for Hell to feed upon, or be food itself.

    Well, since it’s been a year and a half and no one has commented on this, let me be the first to tell you that I appreciated the Screwtape reference.

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