I stumbled through the underbrush, wondering where the hell Weijia was taking me. She’d set a pretty harsh pace, too. Moving across open ground, I’d have kept up with ease, but moving though the groundcover left me tripping and stumbling like a toddler learning to walk.
“Where are we going?” My breath leaped from my lungs in short, rapid bursts.
“My clan. The Shaman will be able to help you with the lichen on your stomach.”
I stopped. “You’re taking me to an enclave of trolls? Don’t they hate humans?”
She turned with a sigh. “No, Carter. I’m taking you to my tribe. We’re all half-bloods.”
I used the time she paused to catch up. “What’s the hurry?”
“Do you wish to be chained again?”
“Do bears speak Krogan?”
“The answer is no.”
“Then why not say so?”
I hung my head and resumed walking. “That’s what you get for trying to be poetic. Dumbass,” I muttered at myself.
“Did you say something?”
The tone of her question told me she hadn’t heard my mumbling. “No. How much further?”
“We’ll arrive near sunset. Can you keep up?”
“Sure. As soon as we get to a path, or something.”
“Paths would make it easier to track us.”
That didn’t make sense. “Wouldn’t one make it harder to follow us? Heavily travelled versus forcing a trail through the woods and all that.”
She glanced to the sky and then back the way we came. Turning to me, she shook her head. “The path will make it easier to track us, but we’ll move faster on it.”
A flock of birds exploded into the air, chirping and screeching. I looked to my right where they’d taken off from in time to see a couple trees collapse with crashing thuds. Without waiting for input from my companion, I turned and bolted in the opposite direction from the destruction.
I raced past trees and bushes. Hurtled a stream and ducked under a low hanging branch. The path was crossed without a thought. A sapling provided enough support to allow me to whip myself behind a boulder without slowing. A root, or rock, or something ended my running.
I belly flopped down an embankment. Dirt, leaves, twigs and other debris went down my shirt. I slid into a wide, yet shallow, brook. I was soaked, scraped up, and a lot cooler.
The water turned out to be rather refreshing. I lifted my face from it and cleared the liquid from my ears in time to catch the last of Weijia’s words.
“ —ter! Why did you run off?”
I blew water from my lips, trying not to think of what was upstream and pissing in as I lounged in the brook. “I ran from whatever was knocking down the trees.”
“Why? You’re the Walker of Worlds.”
“One, I don’t know how to use my powers, nor what they might be.” I stood and sluiced some water from my body. “Two, if it’s big enough to knock down growing trees, it’s big enough to run from.”
“But, you killed Belial.”
That should have been my first clue that Weijia wasn’t necessarily on my side, but the trembling aftereffects of my sprint and the breeze chilling me in my wet clothes caused that to pass by unremarked. I sloshed through the water and held out my hand. She helped me climb the slippery bank, and I pulled off my shirt. Holding it out between my hands, I spun it in a rope and then folded it over, twisted it more. Water squirted from the wrung out deer hide, but it remained damp.
I sighed and tossed it over my right shoulder. I noted her watching me closely, but thought nothing of it. “Please tell me I at least ran in the right direction and we’re now even closer to your clan.” She shook her head and pointed back the way we came. “Damn it.”
As it neared sunset, the surrounding woods grew thicker. The trees grew closer together and seemed to have distorted faces. ‘Pareidolia and an overactive imagination equals rough night sleeping tonight.’ The denseness caused a premature twilight to fall. As we hiked, I gradually became aware the noise of the forest became quieter.
The drumming of a woodpecker seemed to become the wail of a scared child. I stopped and listened intently, but only heard the hammer of the bird’s beak as it searched for insects. I scratched my head and then resumed walking.
A fog rose from the ground and rolled steadily through the woodlands. Indistinct whispers came to me on the breeze.
“Weijia, do you hear that?”
“Sounds like a group of people whispering nearby.”
We halted and she listened. After several minutes, she shook her head. “I don’t hear anything.”
I raised my eyebrow, but continued on. The ground became softer with each stride. It was like I trudged through mud. When I took my next step, my foot sank into something warm, wet and fetid. The rank odors of sour milk and rancid meat hit my nose. I recoiled from the sensation of squirming maggots around my ankles and fell to the forest floor.
My heart lurched when I discovered the earth was dry and nothing was on my foot.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“Are you okay, Carter?” Weijia came over and knelt beside me.
“Has anything seemed odd to you?”
She shook her head. “The fog may seem a little spooky if you’re not used to it, but all is normal.” She pushed to her feet and offered me her hand. “Come on. We’re not too much further away.”
I accepted the hand up and the apple she tossed to me. I bit into it with a crunch. I wondered where she’d found the red fruit. ‘Oh well. Doesn’t matter.’ The flesh was both sweet and tangy. It reminded me of a Winesap. I absently glanced down to take another huge bite and discovered bloody teeth with chunks of hairy skin. I launched the disgusting thing away with a cry and puked.
I coughed and spat, trying to clear my mouth of the horrid taste of vomit. I shrugged her hand off my back when she touched me.
Standing upright again, I pinned her with a glare. My body was hot. “What the fuck is wrong with you, woman?”
She backed up. “Carter?”
I closed the distance between us. “Why would you give me something like that?” Each of her steps backwards were answered by one forward from me until her back was against the trunk of a black walnut.
“Something like what?” Her voice was high. “Carter, what’s wrong?”
I pointed at the remnants of the apple I’d been eating. “That!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you don’t like apples.”
“Does that look like a fucking apple to you?”
“Are you kidding me?”
I was so close to her face and yelling so hard, flecks of spittle landed on her cheeks. She cried out and cringed away. “Whu-what did I do? Why’re you so mad at me all of a sudden?”
“Look. At. That.” I all but bit the words out as I jerked my finger at the discarded fruit.
Shivering, she turned her head to see what I pointed at. “I don’t know what you want me to see. It’s just a half-eaten apple.”
I whirled to pick it up and stopped in my tracks. The only thing on the path was an oddly lumpy red spheroid with rough white pieces exposed where I’d bitten pieces away. There was no sign of the teeth or the skin. “What the fuck is going on?”
His fist came to a halt inches from her face. His index finger flicked out and tapped her nose. “You know better than to sneak up on me, Kirei-chan.”
She wrinkled her nose in that cute way she had. “Sorry. I was entranced with your awkward dancing. Do you have seizures often?”
“It’s called a kata, as I’ve told you before.” He scowled.
Jennifer smiled. “You keep straining like that and you’re gonna crap yourself.”
He couldn’t help it, he started laughing. It was so much fun being around Jennifer. After a few seconds, he grew more serious. He looked her up and down, taking in the turquoise karategi and the tape in her hands. “Couldn’t figure out what to do with the tape, eh?” She shook her head. Rob plucked the roll from her fingers. “This is to help protect your joints, Kirei-chan. Hold out your hand.” She raised her right arm and he began to wrap the adhesive tape around her wrist and hand. When finished, it looked like she had a fingerless tape glove on her hand. As she flexed her hand, getting used to the new feeling, he told her to raise her other hand. Moments later, he had her left hand done as well and had moved down to her feet.
Jennifer sat on the floor to make it easier for him to wrap her feet and ankles. She stared at him when instead of rising to his feet after the taping was done, he began to caress her leg. He grinned at her and slid his hand further along her calf up to her thigh. When he lightly squeezed the back of her thigh with his thumb and index finger, she squirmed away, giggling.
Rob rose easily to his feet and held his hand out to her. She took it and allowed him to pull her to her feet. When she stood this close to him, her heart started to beat a little faster. He smelled so good; leather from the sheathe, Brut aftershave and a clean, masculine scent that seemed to be all his own. ‘If only I knew what he was thinking,’ she thought. ‘Then I might-’ She pushed the thought away. It wasn’t the time or place for thoughts like that. Rob positioned her so that she was a few feet away from him. She enjoyed his strong hands on various parts of her body: her legs as he adjusted her stance, her arms so they were ready to defend her and her waist as he tried to get her to relax. ‘I’ll never tell him that I find it hard to relax when his hands are on me like this.’
Rob shook his head. “It’s gonna hurt if you don’t loosen up.”
“I’m loose, let’s go.”
He nodded. “I’ll start slowly. Don’t worry about countering, or blocking. Just duck each swat. When we have increased to a sufficient speed, we’ll move forward, okay?”
He delivered a long slow swing at her head. It came in so slowly, that she put up her arm as he’d taught her two weeks ago and lightly punched his chest. He raised his eyebrows and she scowled at him, daring him to say anything. Instead, he fired his left hand at her faster than she could see. His open hand tenderly touched her right cheek. She blinked as he grinned. ‘Point taken, Rob.’ Instead of continuing with the lesson, he instead stroked her cheek, lightly trailing his fingertips along her jaw and caressed her lips. ‘His fingers are so gentle. I like the roughness of his callouses. It’s manly.’ She looked into his eyes, trying to mask her thoughts. His pupils were dilated, making his eyes look black. Her breathing came a little quicker. He stepped forward and she took and answering step backward. He stepped forward and she retreated a step once more. They did this twice more, Rob’s grin growing each time.
“Kirei-chan,” he crooned. “Why are you retreating?”
“I’m not. I’m advancing to the rear.”
He paused, the words slowly trickling through his Jennifer filled brain. When they finally sank in, he guffawed. Once again, she had caught him off guard with her wit. She gazed at him, amusement and…something else dancing in them. He approached her again, but this time the wall of the training room was behind her, leaving no place for her to retreat. He stood so that his chest was brushing against hers. She tilted her head up to gaze into his eyes.
“Worth, what are you-”
He tilted his head down and slanted his mouth across hers, catching her with her lips parted. His mouth moved against hers, kissing her with an intensity she had never felt before. When his tongue slid into her mouth and lightly touched her own, she automatically wrapped her arms around his neck as she began to caress his tongue with her own. ‘He’s been eating blueberries,’ she thought briefly. His lips were firm, yet soft. Demanding, yet giving. His scent filled her nostrils as she held him tightly to her. Her pulse thrummed in her veins as she melted against him.
Rob pulled back a bit and began to rain feather light kisses along her jaw as she tried to catch her breath. He kissed his way around to her ear, nibbled it for a second, or two, then moved down the side of her neck. She held him tightly to her, nuzzling the side of his neck. Her breathing was short and shaky as adrenaline raced through her. She ran her hands through his hair, enjoying the silken softness of it. He nibbled the side of her neck before lightly biting it. Jennifer gasped as heat flooded her belly and spread outward. Shortly, Rob’s mouth returned to her lips. She pushed him back a bit and playfully kicked his shin. “What the hell, Worth? What are you doing?”
He chuckled. “You have to use every weapon at your disposal.”
She scowled, eyes narrowed. “Oh really?” She then kicked his shin a bit harder this time. It wasn’t enough to hurt him, she didn’t want that. He hopped up and down on his left leg, clutching his right shin and rubbing it.
“Ow, ow, ow! What the hell, Kirei?”
As he hopped, she stepped forward, gripped his right arm, pivoted into his body and flipped him over her shoulder with a judo throw he’d taught her last week. He slammed to the mat, hard, with the air knocked from his lungs. She stood over him, her hands on her hips. “How’s that for using every weapon at my disposal?”
He started laughing. Before he could formulate a response, Danijela’s voice sounded in the room.
“Mr. Worthington, we have a situation near Fort Avenue. Take your new recruit and investigate.”
“Roger that, Danni. What are the particulars?”
“According to the reports, it seems a wild dog attacked a jogger near the Koba Café. Local Leo’s are on scene. Be careful, you two.”
“Change up, Kirei. I’ll meet you back here in five minutes. There will be a tactical vest in your locker.”
“Roger that, Worth.”
The screams echoed off the stone walls and faded away. A large fire pit sent dancing shadows through the room. Another scream sounded as a dark-haired dwarf in blood begrimed clothes pushed a finger into a wound in a human’s chest. The dwarf withdrew his finger, wiped it on a rust brown rag and picked up a quill pen. Dipping it into an inkwell, he made a few notations and blotted the parchment.
He gestured and a pair of orcs turned large cranks, rotating the table with the prisoner until it was flat. Taking up a thin bladed knife, he sliced a line from the man’s left shoulder, across his chest to his right. Then, he did the same at the human’s waist, from hip to hip, ignoring the wails of pain. A line was cut down the center of his torso, connecting the other two. The prison shrieked even louder than he had before. Blood gushed from the new wound. The dwarf placed the blade next to other sharp instruments and picked up a wooden bowl. Gathering some of the contents in his bloody hand, he sprinkled it over the human while chanting.
The orcs watched the black powder begin to glow and change color as it liquefied. Wherever the magic liquid touched, the blood withdrew into the man. The two looked at each other, and then back to the dwarf. He pulled the wound wide, eliciting a scream that sounded like it tore the human’s throat. To the amazement of the orcs, no further blood flowed. They stepped closer to better see, drawing the dwarf’s attention.
“You appear puzzled, my friends.” His voice was smooth, powerful. They nodded. “Allow me to hypothesize. You desire to know why the human’s lifeblood no longer flows.” Another nod. “The conjuration is named ‘Prohibere Sanguinem.’ It maintains life while I conduct my experimentations.”
The orc to the left spoke. “Why do you experiment, Master?”
“I seek knowledge of better interrogation techniques.”
The one on the right tilted his head. “What information do you seek?”
Drago stared at him, stone faced. “You’re joking.”
“I meant that you would need better interrogation techniques for.”
The Dark Dwarf’s countenance brightened. “Oh. It is for when the demons bring me Keeper Dearbhaile. She has the most delicious secrets, I’m sure.”
A door at the far end of the room opened. Moving with a swiftness that belied their bulk, the orcs slipped between their master and the opened door. One orc drew a hammer from his hip and muttered a command word. Seconds later, the small tool has expanded into a huge Warhammer with a wicked looking spike at the opposite end of the blunt one. The other unhooked a coiled chain and stretched it out, spinning the large spiked ball at the end. The two prepared themselves to fight to their deaths to protect their lord from the intruder. None were allowed to disturb him in his laboratory.
When the human dressed in deer skin, with shoulder length, curly brown hair entered, the orcs dropped to a knee and placed their left hands over their right chest, covering their hearts and offering their fealty. She flicked her gaze over them and walked past, ignoring the orcs’ salutes. She didn’t care for the ugly creatures, always cringing in the face of a superior foe, and then plotting behind its back. . Like the demons, but mortal. Drago continued his experiments, unconcerned with who might have entered. The orcen warriors would have given him enough time to prepare for any enemy. Though she hadn’t seen him in battle, she knew enough about his training regimen to believe he’d be a formidable enemy.
She curled her thick fingers into fists at the thought and then reluctantly opened them. This was not the time to challenge him. For now, his enemies provided enough of a challenge to keep her satisfied with being his second. ‘I wonder how Bjorn and Fenrisúlfr are doing? Do they miss me?’ The twins had been her friends and self-appointed guardians for as long as she could remember. She gave herself a mental shake. ‘Focus on the present. Leave the past where it belongs.’
She clapped her fist over her heart. The deer hide muffled the sound, but she knew the keen ears of Drago picked it up. “Belial has captured Dearbhaile.”
“Of course he did, my friend.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Did you doubt me?”
“No. Just the half-demon. He’s constantly coming up short against Carter.”
Picking up a rag, he surprised her with a laugh as he cleaned his hands. “Belial has a twisted sense of humor.”
“What do you mean?”
“He enjoys setting up his opponents to think they’ve bested him only to later strike them down.”
Her eyebrows went up. “He enjoys being cut down with his own sword?”
“The pure white broadsword?”
“Razorwing cannot harm him. It’s made from his own essence.”
“But, I’ve seen him both decapitated and run through with it.”
“Do not trust your eyes where the Prince is concerned. Or any of your other senses for that matter.”
“Are you trying to tell me he is invincible?”
“Of course not. You just have to know how.”
She walked over to the dangling human. Dried blood covered the areas of his flesh that remained whole. His remaining eye was fogged, whether from pain, or blindness, she didn’t know. With the speed of a striking snake, she punched her fist through his heart, putting him out of his misery.
“Why did you do that, dear Sera?” The dwarf’s voice held only curiosity.
“You can’t learn anything from the tortured.”
“On the contrary. I’ve learned quite a bit from this one.”
“But was it true, or was it a lie to get the pain to stop?”
Drago scratched his smooth cheek, sending scales of dried blood to float through the air. “What do you mean?”
“Back in my world, torture is banned because you cannot gain reliable intel from your victim. People will say anything they think you want to know, just to get the pain to end. It is a sadistic war crime to torture.”
He raised his hand. “Your people try to uphold laws in war?”
“Not during, but after. And only some laws. Usually moral ones.”
He leaned his hip on this table. “Even though morals are subjective?” She nodded. “Humans are odd creatures.”
“We’re odd because we have figured out what works and what doesn’t?”
“No, because of the war crimes. Who decides what the crime was versus what was acceptable in war?”
He laughed, his head thrown back. “Perfect.”
Sera snorted. “I had a feeling you would approve of that.”
He sobered. “Where is Dearbhaile now?”
“Belial is awaiting her delivery to him, and then he will bring her directly to you.”
“Excellent.” A bell tolled once and then went silent. “Excuse me, my dear. I must see to this.”
She clapped her fist to her chest. “I will go prepare the troops for the invasion.”
Drago dipped his head in acknowledgement and hurried off. The young woman watched him go. ‘I will find out what the hurry is all about soon.’
Agents Markham and Jensen looked around the cave. There was no sign that anyone other than Rob and Jennifer had been there. Jensen was a brunette woman with dark brown eyes that sparkled as if she wear constantly amused. Markham was a bald man with a deeply lined face. He was only 37, yet the stress of the job had him looking much older. They had been partners for seven years and communicated almost silently. At her partner’s nod, Agent Jensen raised her radio to report. Just outside the cave, a small branch crackled as if someone had lightly stepped on it while trying to sneak up on them.
Agent Markham indicated that he was going to investigate, drawing his weapon as he did so. Agent Jensen nodded and drew her own firearm. Markham stealthily crept to the cave opening and peered out. Strain as much as he could, he couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary outside. He pulled a long breath through his nostrils, but couldn’t smell anything either. He turned back to his partner and shook his head. He didn’t see anything. Jensen blinked. When her eyes reopened, her partner was gone. Her jaw dropped and she ran over to the opening of the cave.
She looked out and stared around. Some instinct had her keep silent. It was probably the same one that had her heart racing like an excited horse. Her breathing was coming fast and hard, yet shallowly. Black spots passed before her eyes and the cave felt like it was going to collapse on her. She had her gun pointed out, moving it here and there, jerkily searching for a target. She was so freaked out by Markham’s sudden vanishing act that she wouldn’t have been able to hit the ground had she aimed there.
A branch shook lightly, drawing her attention. The green of the brush’s leaves was a light brighter than she had remembered. She gently pushed aside the roughly barked branch, ignoring the green leaves. Before she could see what had made the branch move, she was abruptly hit in her face with a steam of warm liquid. The hot, greasy, coppery odor told her it was her partner’s blood. Squeezing her eyes shut, she recoiled. She never saw the thick, brown hand that snaked out of the brush and yanked her in. The brush shuddered, then was still. In the distance, birds chirped unconcernedly. A tan doe and white-speckled fawn dipped their heads to drink from the nearby stream.
I opened my eyes to blinding light. Squinting them shut, I raised my hand to shield them. A rattle of a chain sounded as my movement came to an abrupt halt. The sunlight on my face almost blinded me again when my eyes flew open. I pushed the pain to the back of my mind as I blinked my eyes rapidly to clear them. I needed to see what kept my hand from moving. A moment or two later, I made out why: I was chained to stakes, my arms spread in a cruciform fashion. ‘By all the hells…”
“…What the actual fuck?” I yanked on the shackles. “Why am I chained?”
“You attacked Lady Orwen, Carter.” Robilar stood over me, blocking the sunlight from touching me.
A flash of my unprovoked assault went through my mind. With it, the memory of feeling like another was in control of my body. My jaw throbbed as my head ached. “What the hell did she hit me with?”
I slowly shook my head. “Not just her fist. She held a spell.”
“I do not know.” He glanced over his shoulder and then back down at me. “Why did you do it?”
“Another controlled my movements.”
He shook his head. “That’s not possible.”
“Why not? Wen was possessed by Belial.”
“You’re the Walker of Worlds. You can’t be demoniac. Your nature precludes it.”
“Maybe I’m not really him.”
He uttered a tired sounding chuckle and knelt beside me. “You’ve already forgotten what I am?”
I carefully shook my head. “No.”
“Then you know how silly you sounded.”
“Bite me.” I closed my eyes rather than continue to look over at Robilar. “Walker, or no, something was controlling my body. It was like I was literally outside of it, looking on.”
“In all of my long years, I’ve never encountered anything that could.”
My eyes popped open and I turned my head to him so fast my neck cracked. “What? How can that be? You said you knew me in the future.”
“I did, or do. But, I’ve not come back to this point before. Remember my limitation?”
“Yes. Yesterday you said you couldn’t travel back to a point in the past after you’d already hit it.”
“Alright then, how is it that you don’t know about this?”
“In prior lifetimes, we’d meet long after you were the full-fledged Walker. This is the first timeline that I sought you out before that date.”
“So what happened to make you come here?”
“I told you yesterday. The Lamp of Allah-ad-din.”
“Actually, you said your purpose was to make sure Drago didn’t get his hands on it. I’m asking how will being here at this time, help you to do that.”
Before he could respond, Corath touched his shoulder and whispered in his ear. He nodded, rose and followed the Wild Elf, leaving me to lay on the ground, still chained. I lay my head back with my eyes closed. I was grateful this was a springtime sun and not a summer one. ‘How long are they planning on keeping me chained?’
I woke at the sound of my wrist manacles being unlocked. Weijia smiled and placed her index finger over her lips, telling me to keep silent. I sat up as she freed my legs.
“Corath and Robilar are asleep.” Her whisper barely reached my ears.
“What are you doing?” I made sure to speak at the same volume.
“Setting you free. You’re supposed to be our leader, not our prisoner.”
“I did attack Lady Orwen.”
“You said someone was controlling you.” She rose and offered her hand. I took it stood on shaky legs. “I believe you.”
“Where’s the Princess… Queen, I mean?”
“She headed to a nearby temple to pray for guidance from Kellün.”
I followed Weijia as she guided me away from the camp. “I don’t think she’s going to have any success.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Why not?”
“Remember when she tried to heal me and was unable to?”
“Yes. You got really upset about that, too.”
“I wasn’t upset by not being healed. It was because of what she said, that Kellün wasn’t responding to her prayers.”
“Why is that significant?”
I thought back to the BattleHammer rules for clerics and Warpriests. “A god will refuse to answer a cleric or Warpriest who has betrayed that deity’s tenants.”
“Keeper Dearbhaile said that Lady Orwen was pure. Doesn’t that mean she hadn’t?”
“Yes.” I stepped over the trunk of a fallen tree. “There’s one other time, that I know of, where a god won’t answer prayers.”
“Which is what?”
“When a god is fallen.”
Jennifer looked around the training room. With the exception of the colorful mats on the floor, it was pretty bland. The walls were a stark white and the ceiling matched. Rob pointed to the opening behind him.
“Ladies locker room. You will find a gi in your size. You’ve already been scanned.”
“I have a question, Worth.”
“How did you know I would agree to join?”
“I know all, remember?”
“Right, you’re god. How could I forget?” she said sarcastically.
‘I’ve been too lenient with you mortals lately.” He grinned when she rolled her eyes. She shook her head and headed into the locker room.
She looked around, not really impressed with the interior. It looked like every other locker room she’d been in. Rows of metal lockers stood side by side like soldiers at parade. They were a non-descript utilitarian grey. Each had a copper nameplate near eye level for an average sized woman. Before each row of lockers was a long wooden bench. The benches were a varnished white pine. The floor was a rough textured tile that she could feel through her soft leather boots. As she advanced further in, she was first greeted by the stench of sweat and dirty gym clothes. This was followed by a variety of flowered scents that when taken in all at once, wasn’t all-together unpleasant. She knew these were the body washes and shampoos the others used after their workouts. She came to a locker with her name engraved on the nameplate. She reached out and lightly touched the beautifully flowing script.
Agent of the F.S.I.A.
The letters were etched fairly deeply into the metal. The way the letters streamed into each other felt marvelous. She allowed her hand to slide downward, enjoying the feel of smooth, cold steel. When her hand reached chest level, a beep sounded. Her hand had continued further past, so she stopped and raised her hand to that point again. Three beeps sounded this time, followed by a warm green light playing over her hand. From within the locker, there was a hollow click and the door swung open. She pulled it completely open and a light clicked on. There were two shelves about eighteen inches apart near the top of the locker, and an empty hanger dangling from a crossbar. She peered at the top shelf. On it was a turquoise jacket, pants and belt, carefully folded. On the bottom shelf was a grey sport bra and a pair of grey spankies, athletic underwear. Next to the underwear was a roll of white tape. She dressed, finding that the gi fit perfectly and was incredibly light and smooth. It had to have been made from silk. She grabbed the tape and headed out, barefoot, to the training room.
Rob was already there, dressed similarly except his gi was black and trimmed in red. He was doing some moves like a dance. But, he then snapped out a few kicks and punches in rapid succession. He dropped to the ground, sweeping his right leg around in a circle, then whirling back to his feet. He twirled through the air, kicking out first one leg, then landing on it and thrusting out the other one. He continued this for several moments before halting and smoothly moving into a series of rapid punches. She walked up behind him, causing him to spin while throwing a fist towards her face!
I stalked outside, leaving Adora to jog in my wake. All I found, to my intense displeasure, were Robilar, Corath, and heaps of dead demons, their remains beginning to steam and stink in the early morning sunlight.
“Damn it.” I stopped before the two men and scowled at them. “Did you fuckers have to kill all of them?”
Robilar’s chuckle sounded tired. “We didn’t come close to killing all of them.”
“About twenty minutes ago, the demons broke free, and ran.” Corath wiped at ichor on his face, but only smeared it. “We have no idea why.”
I slammed my sword into its sheathe, cussing under my breath. So much for that idea.
“Where’s the Keeper, Carter?” Whatever he saw on my face caused Robilar to blanch, and back away. “Sore subject. Never mind.”
“I’ll not never mind.” Corath marched up, and poked my chest with his finger. “You have a lot to answer for, human.”
I growled, and reached for my sword. I met Adora’s warm, calloused, hand instead. “Now is not the time, Corath.”
My blade pointed at his larynx, and a ruby droplet formed at the tip. “Utter one more word. I dare you.”
The Gorauch clamped his mouth shut so fast he bit his tongue.
“Smart man,” the Chronomancer said.
“Ha-How did you do that?” The Lady’s voice cracked as she spoke.
I ignored Adora for the time being. “Can you track demons?”
“I can do better than that.”
I sheathed my sword again, and folded my arms over my chest. “Go on.”
“I can bring one from the past, to the present.”
Robilar nodded, closed his eyes, and furrowed his brow. He took a deep breath, and held it. Sweat rolled down his cheeks as he rolled his arms through the air like Dearbhaile has when we played in the river at the beginning of our journey from Lady Soo-jau’s palace. Wonder what the Vaush-Tauric is up to?
A glowing white rectangle appeared before the Chronomancer. His eyes flew open, and he thrust his hands into the light. A mighty yank, and one of the wingless bat-like demons with rippling, angry red muscles, and a clear, glistening and viscous fluid to roiling down its body tumbled free, rolling across the ground.
Before it regained its senses, I had it lifted in the air with my right hand wrapped around its throat. “Hello, Ugly. You’re going to answer some questions for me.”
It screamed, and chittered in rage, slashing at me with its sharp claws. When they raked over my forearm, I squeezed.
“Carter, don’t kill it, yet.” Robilar’s voice was a hoarse wheeze. “I’m not going to be up to Pulling another for some time.”
I growled, and hammered the demon to the earth like I was a professional wrestler executing a choke-slam. Where I got the strength, I didn’t know at that point. The demon had ceased its squirming, stunned from the impact with the ground.
Adora’s rough hand touched my shoulder. “Carter, allow me to question it? I speak Infernus.”
“Really?” I glanced at her over my shoulder. “Alright. Make it quick. We’re losing time.”
The demon rolled to its belly and tried to scamper away. My foot in the small of its back sent it flat again, putting an end to its attempt. The Princess, or Queen, technically, chittered at the daemon which made the sound in return. A few minutes of back and forth made my head hurt worse.
I stepped away, focusing on the smoking ruins of the keep. The fiends had used some magic which had melted stone like tallow. An ungodly scream ripped through the air, causing all the hair on my body to feel as if it all wanted to run. I spun around so fast I must have looked like a top, even though it was a one-eighty. Made me dizzy as hell, too.
A silvery-white glow engulfed Adora’s left hand. The bat demon’s right shoulder oozed a greenish smoke. She chittered something loudly at the creature which then shook its head. Her radiant palm clamped down on it. It shrilled. I thought it was pain, but there was an odd note to it. The Princess… Queen… released her grip. The fiend panted. A glint shone in its eyes. She spoke to it, but it cut her off, much louder.
I strode over and caught her hand as she went to touch it again. A thousand bees stung me simultaneously and acid dripped from their stingers. I felt a jolt in the center of my chest and found myself looking up at the sky with no clue how I got there.
My field of vision grew darker for a moment and then I realized I was surrounded by Adora, Weijia and Robilar. “What happened?” I attempted to sit up, but my abdomen felt as if someone had beat it with hot hammers. “Fuck me.” I tried to scream it, but the pain left me breathless. To be honest, I don’t know if I made a sound other than a groan.
Adora took my hand in hers and fire raced up my arm. I recoiled and rolled to my hands and knees, scrambling away about five feet. I tried to rise, but it was as if someone else controlled my limbs.
“Carter? What’s wrong?” Concern hoarsened her voice.
A crimson bolt shot from my up thrust hand. She leaped away and it hit a tree which exploded in flames. A hissing cackle erupted from my mouth, tearing at my throat. I found myself flying through the air as whoever controlled my body leaped to attack her again.
A black aura engulfed her fist. ‘Oh, shit.’ Her hand suddenly vanished from my sight and the lights went out.
Out in the hallway, away from the others’ sight, Rob turned to Jennifer and pushed her lightly against the wall. He had an intent look on his face, no sign of humor. “What the hell was that in there, Jennifer?”
‘Shit, he’s using my name. This must be serious,’ she thought. “What do you mean, Worth?”
“This is no time for games.”
She could hear his breath coming out of his nostrils. She wanted to laugh about it, but the pulsing vein in his jaw told her maybe now wouldn’t be the best time. “Maybe a clue?” she said in an attempt to be diplomatic.
“The swat on my ass,” he said through clenched teeth.
She blushed as she replayed that event in her mind’s eye. She grinned, eyes going wide, and showing teeth. “I got caught up in the moment?”
That adorable grin defeated him as always. “I have a request: Don’t do it again?” he sighed.
She shook her head, brow furrowed. “Oh no. Definitely not.”
He stared into her eyes for several long moments as if trying to gaze into her soul, then smiled. “Good. Thank you, blue eyes.”
She sagged against the wall as the tension drained from her body. She hadn’t been sure what was going to happen next. He was simply too unpredictable. It looked like she wouldn’t have to disappear from another guy’s life yet. “My eyes are hazel.”
He grinned, face lighting up. “Not under these lights.”
She smiled. “You’re weird, Worthington.”
His grin widened into a full blown smile. “Yeah. It’s part of the reason why you’re so attracted to me.”
She lost her smile. “No, I’m not.”
“Of course you are. But that’s okay. It happens to everyone, eventually.” He sighed, “Oh the perils of being as pretty as me.” That caught her unawares, making her laugh. He had been messing with her again. Rob reached out and gently squashed the tip of her nose with his finger. “Beep.”
Outwardly, she smiled at his actions, but inwardly, she wanted to cry. It always happened this way. She’d meet a guy that she enjoyed spending time with, but wasn’t attracted to, and they’d look for more. After a bit of time, she’d disappear. She was sure it hurt their feelings a little, but it would hurt them a lot less in the long run. She decided to hang out with Rob one more time before vanishing from his life. She recognized the signs of him falling in love with her, but didn’t want to hurt him: he’d already been through a lot.
“Hey, Kirei-chan. Pay attention!”
“Sorry,” she said. “What does “chan” mean?”
“I erred earlier when I called you Kirei-kun.” He smirked. “When a male uses the honorific “kun” for a female, he’s stating a level of intimacy with her. Usually, they are lovers. I should have called you “Kirei-chan,” which would actually be more accurate. Because we are friends.”
“Where are we going?”
“Training room,” he said with a sinister grin.
She raised her eyebrows. “What’s with the grin, Worthington?” He laughed aloud. “Don’t hurt Kirei, Worth,” she said in a small voice.
“Come on. Has Worthington ever hurt his Kirei?”
“Indeed,” he rumbled.
“Oh.” She shook her head. “No, he hasn’t. Kirei is just being sure. Worth likes being mean to Kirei.”
“That’s different. Worthington wants to make sure Kirei doesn’t get used to him being nice to her. Because that would be boring.”
“Indeed,” she said, giggling.
Rob lightly swatted at her butt. “I warned you about using my words. Only I get to.” She blocked his hand with both of hers behind her, laughing with her tongue poked out. He smiled. “Okay, Kirei. Let’s get going.”
We smelled the town of Dunskillen long before we saw it. The area was thick with the acrid odor of smoke and the sick, sweet scent of rotten meat. As we got closer, the breeze changed intensifying the cloying stench. Thinning trees gave us sight of the skyline filled with smoke. I nudged Dearbhaile to behind me. I drew my sword and Robilar did the same.
“Wen, scout ahead,” Corath said. I cocked my head at him. “None of you are as stealthy as Elven.”
I conceded his point with a shrug. The Gorauch disappeared into the distance.
“What should we do, Carter?” Lady Orwen said.
“Ready yourself for battle. We could be attacked at any moment.”
Keeper Dearbhaile moved slowly to the center of the circle again, with her lips compressed in a thin, white line, clearly upset, but she held her peace. The sun rose higher in the cloudless sky, pounding down on us. Sweat rolled down my face, and soaked the top of my buckskin pants. The moisture served to aggravate the moss in my belly. The maddening itch mounted in my mind. I squirmed and gripped my sword hilt tighter. My abdomen burned with the urgent need for me to scratch. I groaned, and clenched my jaw. I jumped when a cool hand landed on my back.
“Are ye alright, Carter?”
“Not really.” My voice sounded raspy even to me. “This damned Tianarri moss is driving me bugshit.”
Dearbhaile leaned back, blinking. “Bugshit?”
“What does bugshit mean?” Robilar said.
“Crazy. The desire to scratch is maddening.”
“So scratch.” Robilar chuckled. “What’s hard about that?”
“He cannae. He be infected with Tianarri moss.”
“Wen returns.” Lady Orwen called.
“I’ll fill you in later, Robilar.”
The Gorauch approached at a shambling run. The way his limbs flopped about, as if not under his control, caused a knot to form in my belly, pushing out the urge to scratch. My heart kicked into overdrive as I locked onto his approach. I threw a glance over my shoulder to my Rishka. Seeing she was safe, though intent on the approach of the white-haired Elven, I turned back. I raised my sword while I did so.
“Carter?” Lady Orwen said. My name was the signal Wen waited for. He launched himself into a sprint at me, eyes ablaze. “He’s possessed!”
“Wen!” His brother shouted. Time slowed around me. I moved to intercept him. “No, Carter. He’s my brother!”
Corath’s voice sounded slow, deep, and drawn out. The controlled Elven’s steps decelerated as if he were running through molasses, then halted. I broke into a run, and raced passed Wen. As I did, I caught whiff of decayed vanilla: a L’Arc demon had him. I hoped what I learned about possession during game sessions was accurate and the demon’s body would be nearby. ‘Kill the body, kill the possessor.’
I found the L’Arc standing at the edge of a wall, staring at Wen’s back. This one was different from the others. Its shoulders were broader and it wore blackened gold plate mail. The others were stunning, beautiful, statuesque and nude women with flawless milky skin, raven hair, large bat wings that unfurled from their shoulders and slender black tails. This one had scars over its face, eagle wings and stubble over its jaw. This one must have been one of the males. ‘Wow. Either Belial, or his dad, are sexist bastards. They have the females running around naked, yet they cover the males in heavy armor.’ Not that I wanted to see this demon without clothes. Time resumed its movement. The demon registered my presence, eyes wide. As its mouth dropped open, I ran it through with my sword.
“Carter!” I spun around at Dearbhaile’s scream. The others were under attack. I raced back to my friends. Halfway there, a rush of wings caused me to halt. The sky was blotted out by the shadows of about twenty L’Arc demons. I didn’t wait for them to land before scything into them. ‘Stupid demons.’
I heard my love scream again. I looked over. A large, muscular humanoid with greenish-black skin stretched tight over his frame had her neck in an immense clawed hand. He flipped his middle claw in the air, then vanished with a boom. I howled my rage to the heavens. A crimson fog descended over my eyes. I slashed, and chopped, sliced and hacked at any demon that was near me. I stopped when I realized Corath’s brother stood before me.
“Greetings, Carter Blake.” Wen’s mouth moved, but the hoarse, graveled and sweet voice belonged to Belial. Now I knew who had my love. “I have your woman. If you want to see her again, come to the former tower of Wizard Cora.”
I pointed my blade between Wen’s eyes. “I’m coming for you, Belial.”
He laughed. I bellowed and cleaved his neck with the sharp dryad weapon. Wen’s head fell from his body, still laughing. I kicked it away, and shut my eyes. I visualized the opulent room where I’d last seen Wizard Cora. I saw again the torches as they burned in brackets on stone walls, rich tapestries hung here and there. I remembered seeing the thickest rug I had ever encountered. I was able to picture the entrapment sigil drawn on the floor underneath. The sounds of the battle faded until all was silence. I felt a pressure on my body not unlike that time I’d went scuba diving in the summer when I was nine. I remembered marveling at the knowledge of all those tons of water surrounding my body, waiting to crush me, yet knowing my soft form was capable of withstanding it. I pushed that memory away and refocused on the summoning chamber. How did the outline of that tower look? I intended for nothing to slow my run on the demon’s new headquarters.
The pressure vanished. I opened my eyes, and saw the chamber I’d been visualizing. How the hell did I do that? I shrugged away the question. I’d worry about the riddle later. I readied my sword and went to the door. I placed my ear to it. I heard nothing, so I opened the door. The hallway was also lit by torches. I surprised one of the short humanoid wingless bat-like creatures I’d encountered during my escape from Belial’s fortress. The thing’s angry red muscles rippled as it moved, causing a clear, glistening and viscous fluid to roil down its body. Nictitating membranes flicked across its oil drop eyes when the demon discovered me standing in the room. I reacted first, slashing my blade across its throat. Blue ichor splashed my front as the creature collapsed. I continued on.
Down a second hall, I spotted another of the demons standing guard outside a big wooden door. I slipped along, until I was about a meter away. I hope Ugly doesn’t turn my way. The fiend did, and chittered something at the top of its voice, raising a spear. The door was yanked open. A L’Arc spilled out, shield leading the way. At the same time, a blackish green demon with oversized claws appeared beside me. This was either the one that took my Rishka, or was similar. Either way, he had my full attention. I lunged at him.
A clawed hand intercepted my sword and redirected the weapon to the side. I was hit from behind and shoved towards an incoming swipe from the other hand. My chest was slashed open and I found myself behind the L’Arc. I thrust my blade into her back, right between her wings. The sword went in as if she were warm butter. The bat-like demon thrust its spear through the L’Arc’s body and into my left bicep. I screamed, and was behind the thing without my sword. I felt as if my hands were guided by another as I gripped its head and put it in the path of the black demon’s stab. I shoved the smaller demon forward, further impaling it on the other’s claws which sliced my face. I growled, and tried to ignore the burning of four cuts traveling from my forehead to my cheeks. I didn’t understand how the demon missed my eyes, but I was glad he did. Damned thing tried to blind me!
He went for my eyes again. I grabbed his wrist. Blasted demon was a hell of a lot stronger than me. All I managed to do was slow the approach of those lethal claws. Once more, I had the feeling that another guided my hand as I punched the demon in the base of his neck. The force on my right hand let up. I rammed the clawed hand into the demon’s own eyes and brain. The demon fell to the floor. I bent at the waist, panting. The adrenaline seeped out, allowing me to feel my wounds more. I leaned against the wall. I gritted my teeth, then bit my tongue to keep the blackness at bay. Dearbhaile needs us, you pussy. Get going!
My left arm burned like fire. I pushed the pain back enough so I could enter the open door. Belial stood within as if he’d been waiting for me. Belial leered at me.
“Where is Dearbhaile?” I yelled.
“She’s… being taken care of.” He laughed. “You’re all alone Carter Blake. No Moment of Prescience, no Dearbhaile to rescue you. This time, I’m going to kill you.”
“Before, I might have needed them. I’m not the same person who surrendered to you to be your slave. I’ve grown.” I raised my sword, tilted my head to the left and right, making my vertebrae crackle. “Let’s dance, monkey.”
He snarled, showing off his black teeth, and charged. Our blades clashed, sending shockwaves through my arms. I tightened my grip, and pushed the steel against his snow white one. I knew he was stronger than me, and wanted him to push back harder.
The half-demon shoved hard. I ducked and at the same time, released my weapon which flew through the air behind me. As I hoped, his arms went over my head, leaving him flat footed. His sword arm was across his chest, and I was in perfect position. I punched him in the groin as hard as I could with both fists. All the air left his lungs in a rush. His grip slackened on the white sword which dropped. Mind blank, I snatched the longsword from the air, spun 180 degrees, and after spinning the weapon to a better grip, slammed the length into him.
The pure white blade sank into the half-demon’s chest like a hot knife into warm tallow. His jaw dropped as if he couldn’t believe what had just happened to him. I released the hilt of the sword which was heating fast. I stepped back and Belial crumpled to the ground. Seconds later, the wound caused by the white blade split open further, spilling out a flood of squirming maggots. I jumped back, trying not to puke in revulsion. The maggots soon evaporated, leaving a pulsating, silver blood-covered sapphire sphere. The sphere, as it pulsed like a beating heart, grew larger before my eyes, draining -something- from Belial’s corpse. The corpse looked more and more desiccated with every passing moment. Soon, a hollow husk was all that remained of Belial. The sapphire sphere pulsed faster and faster. Cracks formed in it, violet light streaming upwards. The sphere shattered into little pieces, leaving a huddled form lying on the ground. As the violet light faded, the form began to move.
The form soon showed itself to be a man curled in a fetal position. He rose to his feet and stood before me. He was about eighteen centimeters shorter than me and about the same in kilograms lighter. He had short brown hair, friendly brown eyes and a faint smile. To my discomfort, he was also nude. Before I could say anything, he looked down at himself, shook his head and caused clothes to appear on his body. He wore a faded blue chambray shirt tucked into sun lightened blue jeans stuck into travel battered leather boots with a pair of crossed gun belts slung low on his hips. Large revolvers with sandal wood grips were in the holsters. A faded bandanna was tied around his neck. He glanced back at me with his hands out to the sides as if asking for my approval of his dress. I noticed I got his eye color wrong. It wasn’t brown after all, but a faded blue color. He looked like the way I always pictured Roland Deschain of Gilead, from Stephan King’s The Dark Tower books.
I folded my arms across my chest and frowned. He looked back down at himself and shrugged. His clothing shimmered, and then changed again. When he looked up at me again, he had dark gray eyes, cinnamon colored hair in a ponytail and a Van Dyke beard. He wore a black three-piece suit with a lavender shirt. He was broader across the shoulders than I and a little narrower at the hips. His grin seemed to ask my opinion of his appearance this time. I shook my head, causing him to shrug again. This shrug seemed to say, “To hell with it.”
His cinnamon hair darkened to the color of fresh coffee, his shirt flashed to white and his eyes showed crimson for a moment before settling on hazel. He grinned at me again, wiggled his fingers at me in a wave and vanished in a flash of black tinged violet light.
I walked over to where the mysterious stranger had been birthed from a sapphire shell and picked up the sword I had used to kill the half-demon Belial, son of Lucien the Demon King and Zatanna the Lich Queen of Amcorath. The sword was no longer pure white. The blade had a faint outline of violet which only showed up when I moved the sword a particular way. The weapon also no longer sent waves of cold through my body, but felt warm to my touch. I turned to join the larger battle outside and discovered Lady Orwen standing in the doorway with a worried look on her face.
“I’m not sure, Carter, but I think he was Samhaine.”
“He ruled the Pits before Lucien. It’s not good that you just freed him.”
I growled. “I was not about to allow Belial to get away with his crimes, Princess.” She blinked as she leaned away from me. I don’t think she was aware of it. I sighed and headed towards the door. I didn’t care for the look of wariness on her face, but bit my tongue. My head throbbed. “We need to find Keeper Dearbhaile.”
“Corath has already searched the tower. He found no sign of her. Carter, I think Drago has her.”
My jaw tightened. I stared at the floor for a few seconds as my heartbeat accelerated again. I gripped the hilt of the white blade so hard my knuckles creaked. I peered at Lady Orwen from under my eyebrows. “Looks like I’m going after her.”
“Where will you search?”
“Let’s ask a demon.”
“I don’t think any will be talkative, Carter. If we can even capture one.”
“I’ll make one talk.”