Chapter 3

On the Path, Part 4

Streams of shadow poured from the demon’s severed limbs and rose like smoke into the cold evening air. The massive obsidian body, terrible in its impenetrable negation of light, twisted in the grass and churned up the stony soil. For a long, awkward moment, Aveline and Faolan watched their enemy struggle until finally, the creature ceased its feeble writhing with a grumbling whimper.

It sat very still, assessing its minute opponents with a smooth, featureless face. Seconds, passed, then words formed in the void of the demon’s open jaws.

“A blue cloak. An enchanted sword. A human bearing a sigil…” The Knight raised an eyebrow in surprise; her young companion looked on in indifference. The creature’s voice was possessed of an ethereal listlessness, as if it were indifferent to the violent trauma it had sustained. It tilted its head to one side and extended a grotesque, glassy neck to sniff the air nearest the Knight. Aveline stood her ground and endured the thing’s wretched breath. It stank of death and rot. She gazed into the crystalline visage, where Faolan’s silver spear was still embedded, surrounded by a spider’s web of dark cracks. She thought of abandoned, snowy streets and dreadful, obsidian statues.

“The Knight Aveline, indeed,” the demon casually remarked.

“What do you know of me, fiend?” Aveline readied her still-shining blade again, eager to threaten the arrogant creature with further injury. She raised it to point at the creature’s face and spread her feet wider in case she need strike. “What do you know of Ixiel?”

The creature retracted its neck and opened its black mouth to utter a loud, thundering peel of laughter. Any animal that remained in the vicinity would surely have fled at the sound of such mirth. The monstrous rack of antlers atop its head rocked back and forth, the lattice of dark, matte surfaces drinking in the dying light of the day.

“Know of you? Of Ixiel? So many things.” Like liquid smoke, the sounds of the demon’s voice suffused the atmosphere. It turned its expressionless head to the east to look past the trees, toward the sky, where the setting sun dropped below low, grey clouds. For a brief time, bright rays of unfiltered light pierced through the gloom. The demon seemed transfixed, face aimed at the incandescent globe, as if committing the image to memory. “I know I couldn’t care less about your posturing and threats, but that one there, she doesn’t look good.”

The demon nodded languidly toward Faolan. Reluctant to take her eyes off her opponent, Aveline glanced at the girl. Waiting on one knee with eyes narrowed, breath ragged, body heaving, the young warrior appeared to be in tremendous pain. Dark splotches of blood soaked one side of her green cloak and a smattering of cuts covered her face. With few resources at her disposal, the Knight knew a healer’s skills were required. For a brief moment, Faolan met the Knight’s gaze. Though Aveline nodded in assurance, the girl turned away in defiance.

Exhausted and starving, the Knight sighed. “Your concern does us a great honor.”

“Ha, yes. Sarcasm. At a loss already, brave knight? So worried, so uncertain. You play at courage, but fear consumes you. How you managed to escape a soul trap is beyond me.”

Aveline’s mouth dropped open with a start, before she caught herself and snapped it shut, but the lapse in control did not go unnoticed. “Ah, I know all about that. As do all the void-bound. A young knight, alone in the darkness and cruelly sustained by the Sigil Immortalitas. It’s enough to make one such as I cry! Or laugh.” The creature’s body shook again with a rumbling chuckle.

“But my sympathy has its limits. You see, when this animal’s body dies, I’ll return to the shadow of the abyss, exiled again to the darkness you escaped. Sure, it’s my home, but it’s so… empty. A lifeless reflection of this earth humans take so for granted. You understand. You’ve been there.” There, the demon paused. When it spoke again, its voice grew more agitated by the word. “But in your arrogance, you stole this from me. For Ixiel and Tyrannus and their nonsense, I bear no love. Some of us just want to watch the sun set! But I’m told to kill the knight and like a good soldier, rush out to have MY LIMBS HACKED OFF!” Its mouth snapped open again and again with violent fury. The heaving obsidian body reared back ineffectually on its hind claws in frustration.

The Knight stepped between the creature and Faolan, ready to deflect an attack. Aveline addressed the beast in the most confident tone she could manage. “Your master knows of my escape and my whereabouts?” The worry in her voice was nearly impossible to conceal. Had Faolan not arrived moments earlier, Aveline was sure her death was all but assured, regardless of the sigil.

“Oh yes, knight. Oh yes. You are known. And so long as you bear that sigil, you are bound to the shadows of the abyss. My kind will track and find you wherever you roam. There will be no rest. There will be no home. Our teeth and claws and hatred will dog you until the end of your days." There were no lips to curl on the creature’s expressionless face, but even so, a biting sneer was evident in its words. "And those appear to be endless, so I bid you good luck in the hunt. Tell me – and this I’ve always wondered – do you think good king Aurleon was trying to help or hurt you?”

Aveline was speechless. Roland had not mentioned any of this. Perhaps he had not known, but how could the Knight make it across a continent in the face of such circumstances?

“And you, little one, what do you think will happen to your precious village, should you assist our enemy? The same fate that befell your pathetic mother awaits you, child. Betray the knight now and save yourself the heartache, guardian.” Uttered by the beast with searing disdain, the last word seemed to stir something within Faolan.

Roused from her injuries by the thing’s threats, the girl controlled her breathing and raised her head to stare with unyielding intensity at the monster. Her eyes smoldered with hatred, the pupils two shining black pinpricks. Rays of yellow sunlight bounced off the pristine, polished surface of her shield to illuminate a head of auburn hair that blazed like fire.

Aveline sensed control of the encounter slipping away and feared the outcome should the creature recover and Foalan be goaded. She strode toward the black, featureless face and grabbed the young warrior’s silver spear embedded there. In one hard pull, the Knight wrenched it from the obsidian, twisting the shaft in her hand so as to inflict even more discomfort and damage. Howls of pain exploded from the black jaws. Aveline tossed the spear to Faolan, who stood and caught it. Without a word of gratitude, she propped herself up with the weapon.

But despite its pain, the beast would not relent in its mockery. Between agonized roars, it continued.

“What was her name again? ‘Selene,’ or some nonsense?” As the demon spoke, the young warrior’s spear trembled, clenched tight within her fist. The weapon towered over her, much longer than she was tall. She stood perfectly still, as if her body resided outside of time, completely engrossed in the empty chiding of the dark creature. Aveline knew not of whom the demon spoke, but the very mention of the name seemed to transform the girl. Bravado and grace had been replaced by silence and seething. Her face was a stern mask of placid disinterest that did a poor job of hiding the turmoil in her heart.

“Faolan, pay this fiend no mind. Let’s be done with this.” The Knight brandished her sword and stepped toward the girl to rest a comforting hand on her shoulder, but the impenetrable quiet of her companion immobilized her. The Knight knew exactly the pain and anger that now tormented the girl.

The void dweller continued its barrage. “Well, whatever it was, she died.” The creature chuckled again. “Poorly, as I recall.” Its grating simulation of laughter grew to a bass thunder that shook the enormous obsidian body. Puffs of steam rose into the evening air to swirl among the plumes of shadow.

Faolan had heard enough. Tears welled in eyes the color of night, darkened by the dying light of the day. Face twisted by unbridled rage, the straight line of her lips became a stark grimace. Without a word of response to either the demon or Aveline, Faolan buried her spear point in the cold soil, drew her short sword again and approached the dismembered creature. Within three paces, the thing opened its mouth to no doubt utter some taunt, but before it could, she was upon it in a flash.

With almost invisible speed, the young warrior ducked below the demon’s head and sliced up, into its unnaturally long neck, screaming with determination as she did so. The short, silver sword cut far deeper than it ever had before. Black shadow burst from the wound and a rain of crystal sprinkled to the grass. With its mouth still agape, the creature’s head tilted to the left, then tumbled down. The twisted rack of antlers atop its head crashed and splintered as the last breath of life escaped the demonic creature. 

The creature lay motionless and silent. Aveline watched as the crystalline skin evaporated to reveal the headless body of a disfigured elk. Once proud and beautiful, it had been transformed by the soul-invading demonic shadow. Above the skeletal forest canopy, the sun continued its slow descent below the horizon.

An icy wind tore through the demolished glen and the Knight shuddered to remember the long-dead prey that had brought her there. Beside her, Faolan surveyed her handiwork and struggled to catch her breath. A sly grin of satisfaction played on her lips. Aveline breathed deep and moved to address the brave, headstrong girl who had saved her life, but a step away, the green-cloaked warrior collapsed to the ground beside her disintegrating enemy.