Valley of Blood

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© Sue Vincent

Taylor watched the light from the campfire flicker reflected in his opponent’s all too confident eyes, as he picked himself up from off the ground again and raised his bokken. She was already in position, barely winded, while he was almost totally out of breath. He knew his brother and sisters were watching, but he couldn’t afford to take his eyes of his adversary. They practiced with wooden bokken because they were non-lethal, and for the most part, produced only bruises and welts, but it was still a hard fight, harder than he thought it would be.

Dani was six years older than Taylor, was bigger, stronger, and had a longer reach. Eventually, he’d grow taller, but that would take years, and right now, she had every advantage over him, including that of experience.

“You’re getting better, Taylor,” she taunted him. “I think you’ll make a fine swordsman someday.”

“What do you mean someday?” Suddenly, he raised his bokken over his head and charged.

She just laughed and dodged his clumsy attack, but that was really his trap. Taylor wanted Dani to think there was no way to beat her, but if he couldn’t defeat her with strength and skill, he’d settle for tricking her. Quickly, he swung his stick in an arc low over the ground, and hit her hard in both shins. Dani nearly lost her balance, which gave him a chance to score a blow. Even then, she managed to elude his bokken, but not by much.

The sound of two pieces of wood repeatedly striking each other filled the air, and every time Dani stopped to brag about how he’d never be able to stop her, he’d pull out another surprise.

“Whack! Whack! Whack!” The bokkens continued to clatter against each other.

“Chang!” The sound of metal. They weren’t using bokkens anymore. He had this sword Celeste in his hand, and she was holding Witherbrand, or was she?

It looked like Dani or her close twin, but her hair was darker, almost black, and her eyes were a brilliant blue. Her grin was evil and cruel, and she wore light chain mail of crimson and black.

“You have no chance against me, little boy.”

He tried to parry, but she effortlessly caught his sword against her blade, and flung it out of his grip. Taylor was on his back, helpless as the obsidian Kilij pointed down at his torso.

“Now, I have you. You’ve terrorized me and my friends long enough. It is time to die!”

Terrorized?

She raised her sword high and then drove it down into his chest, piercing his young heart through.

“What?”

He was still huddled next to his brother and sisters on the plateau, the morning sun still low in the Eastern sky, as Danijel and Sakhr continued to battle. The dragonrider averted another blow from the demon’s blade and struck back, making a small cut in her dark twin’s left cheek.

“Very good, Danijel. You show promise. Someday, you may become proficient with the blade, however, I don’t believe you’ll live that long.”

Taylor was trying to make some sort of sense of what had just happened to him. He was remembering his last practice session with Dani. They hadn’t sparred since then because she seemed to have lost control toward the end, treating Taylor as if he was Sakhr, and maybe trying to kill him.

Now, he had just recalled that session, as if the demon herself had been dueling him using real swords. She’d killed him. He remembered dying, but he was still alive.

“Don’t be a fool, boy. She’ll never survive the demon. You are armed, and you are her comrade. Defend her.” The voice inside his head wasn’t the demon’s, it was Azzorh’s, the specter he had encountered in the Hall of the Kings, one of the Elite Royal Guards. Azzorh, or what was left of him, had been among many of the other skeletons, garbed in battered armor and rotted satin, defending masters who were long dead. Taylor had some of the ancient warrior’s memories, and when he recalled them, he felt he also had the soldier’s skills.

Dani couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so scared. She’d faced danger before, but never like this, never so totally alone. She was the only thing standing between the demon and the children, and even wielding Witherbrand, wearing enhanced elven armor, and protected by this shield, she was losing.

She’d managed to strike several blows against Sakhr, drawing blood twice, but they were only minor injuries. She had to put her down hard and fast if she was going to save the Davidson children.

“Argh!” The demon’s Kilij sliced through the armor on her right thigh and Dani quickly moved back. Blood was streaming down her leg into her boots, and she was limping.

“All too easy,” Sahkr chuckled malevolently.

Then she lunged, but Dani managed to parry, and as the demon passed her, she used her shield to strike the base of the creature’s neck, staggering her. With Sakhr’s back still turned, Dani raised her blade and swung down.

At the last second, the demon flattened herself against the ground as Witherbrand passed harmlessly over her. She rolled and then sprang to her feet.

“For a moment, Danijel. But your moment is fading.”

She was right, The teenager was hurt, bleeding, and winded, while the demon, for her injuries, seemed completely fresh. Dani cursed as she realized she’d allowed herself to fall into a half crouch because of her overtaxed stamina. She straightened up just as Sakhr began another attack.

“What are you waiting for, boy? Afraid? A warrior sets fear aside for the sake of a companion. She needs you. Strike quickly and they day can still be won.”

Everyone was watching Dani and Sakhr. Taylor put his hand on Celeste’s hilt. It felt warm and alive. He didn’t know if his blade was enchanted like Witherbrand. He couldn’t even beat Dani in a pretend sword fight. How could he face a demon? Then he remembered the Hall of the Kings. He had saved Dani’s life once before when he shattered the ghost skeleton with a spear.

Dani escaped death again thanks to her shield, but her sword arm was getting weak. The demon was swatting her thrusts and swings aside like annoying insects. In desperation, she dropped down low, and avoiding another swing of Sakhr’s blade, she smashed her twin’s kneecap with the edge of her shield. As Sakhu recoiled, Dani thrust Witherbrand at her torso.

The ebony blade slipped into demonic armor, and Sakhr shrieked as it passed through her side. The demon stumbled backward, escaping Witherbrand, and her expression was one of horror, and then rage.

A shrill, inarticulate cry escaped the demon’s throat as she changed forward, swinging her sword with redoubled ferocity, and putting the first dents in Dani’s shield. The girl tried to put her weight on her injured leg and it collapsed beneath her. She fell on her sword arm, pinning it under her. The demon have her no pause as she continued to rain blows upon the shield, threatening to breach Dani’s only remaining defense with each strike.

“You will be only the first to die.”

She raised her sword again and it began its fateful descent upon the girl.

Her arm was trembling, and Dani could hardly hold the shield aloft. She just needed a second to scurry away and regain her feet. Then, she watched in amazement as a shimmering blade protruded through the demon’s chest, spraying the helpless dragonrider with vile, black blood.

The demon cried with the voice of a damned soul as she looked down to see Celeste lodged between her ribs and emerging through the front of her armor. She jumped backward, knocking Taylor away from her. With his grip still tight upon the sword’s hilt, the demon again moved forward, freeing Celeste from her body. The shining steel was polluted with her blood.

The nine-year-old boy fell backward to the stone beneath him, and the impact knocked the sword from his hand.

“You impudent wretch!” Sakhr wheeled around and raised her sword above the helpless third-grader. He would be dead in the next second.

Mandy was already moving, rushing forward. It wasn’t a game this time. Taylor was about to be killed. She couldn’t see where his sword went, and she probably wouldn’t be able to use it anyway, but she had to do something.

The thirteen-year-old jumped between the sword and her brother. Maybe she could block it long enough for Taylor to get away.

“No, Mandy! Don’t,” the boy screamed!

Then there was another scream as Witherbrand struck home, piercing the demon through the back. The ground ran black with the demon’s fluids, but she still did not yield.

Dani withdrew her blade and prepared to strike again when the demon turned. Sakhr spun around, but it was already too late. Danijel landed another blow, and then another. “Leave them alone!” She yelled as she struck with all the might and courage she could summon, determined to slay the demonic minion.

Demon and human grappled in each other’s grip, and Dani felt the creature was much weaker now.

“You fought well, but only succeeded in delaying the inevitable. You will fail and your friends will all die because of it.”

“Not today, demon.”

Then sinewy arms threw Dani backward onto the ground, and instead of pressing this advantage, Sakhr turned again and ran toward the east, sunlight blinding everyone as she vanished the way she came.

They stayed near Orholt several days, in spite of the danger that Sakhr might return. The gash in Dani’s leg was deep, but fortunately, she knew which roots to tell Zooey to gather (found with Sapplehenning’s help) that would prevent infection and promote restoration. Mandy had been studying with Paris about the local healing plants and helped Dani prepare and apply the healing balm.

The mouse again proved handy in locating Celeste for Taylor. Fortunately, it had flown in the opposite direction of the cliff, otherwise it might never have been recovered.

Taylor’s heroic effort had only cost him some bumps and bruises.

He didn’t tell anyone about the voice of Azzorh in his head. Dani was surprised that the boy could use his sword with such power, and supposed it had something to do with whatever enchantment Celeste possessed. Perhaps it did, or just maybe the spirit and strength of Azzorh was with him that morning.

Dani still walked with a limp as they once again set out, this time to the North, toward Vovin. She used a long, nearly straight tree branch as a sturdy cane, denuded of its needles and branch-lings, and hoped they would come up against no further opposition in the near future.

Still, the presence of Sakhr was troubling. Where had she come from? She was supposed to be encased in stone. The Mage sisters Fenian and Raibyr were adamant that their spell did not fail, and that the demon was truly and perpetually trapped.

If this Sahkr was an impostor, she was convincing, and she was deadly. It was a miracle that no one had been killed. Taylor delayed her long enough for Dani to strike back, and the demon’s wounds were severe enough to drive her away. But in her heart, she knew Sahkr would return again. That next time, they might not be so lucky.

The days continued to grow warm as they followed on the path along the ridges of the Dark Hills, and those days were peaceful. Game remained plentiful, though Zooey and Sapplehenning subsisted on vegetarian fare. The terrain was little changed from what they had experienced, both before and after their sojourn in Direhaven. Paris pursued her studies of the mystic tome, but refrained from practicing any more songs, at least out loud. She had captured a fair grasp of the dragon language used in Vovin, and was helping Dani teach the others, progressing from the equivalent of the “ABCs” to simple words and sentences.

As their legs and the days continued to march by, Dani continued to heal.

Dani, Taylor, and Jake had the most difficulty sleeping at night, for each of them had suffered violent nightmares related to demons and spirits. But with each passing evening, the only dreams they experienced were those typical of human beings.

She was in a valley, or was it a gorge? The sun was overhead, but blocked by a sky of thin, gray clouds. Looking down, everything seemed red, and she checked her face to make sure she wasn’t wearing crimson lens. No, her armored boots and leggings were scarlet and black, the colors of the demon, but why had she donned Sakhr’s chain mail and raiment?

It must have rained recently for there were pools of water all around her, however, they were red as well. What strange light was shining down upon her?

There was a mist rising from the ground. She could hear running water, and turned to see rivulets streaming down the slopes on either side of her. Several were splashing into the puddles and pools they’d created.

The world seemed dreamlike, but she had been having difficulty lately distinguishing between dreams and reality, or if there was any distinction between them. She felt afraid to move, and let herself remain rooted in place for the moment. The mist was beginning to clear and she started to see other colors, the greens of the leaves and grass, the browns of tree trunks and mud.

Her right hand felt heavy. She looked. She was holding Witherbrand. The night-dark blade was covered in blood, human blood, not that of demons. She risked a step backward and felt something. Turning, she saw the first body and her cry choked in her throat.

It was Taylor. There was a great gash across his chest. He was lying in his own blood. She saw he still had Celeste’s hilt in his hand. He had died fighting. Wait. He was lying next to someone else. His sister Paris. He had been protecting her. It hadn’t done any good. She was also dead. Looking up, little Zooey’s lifeless body was the next nearest. To the right, Mandy was on her stomach and Jake was beneath her. She had died trying to save her brother.

Dani sank to her knees, dropped Witherbrand and sobbed. The demon was right. She had failed and now Mandy, Taylor, and the others were all dead, far, far from Vovin.

“Shay, why didn’t you help us?” She felt bile churn in her gut, but she was empty and only heaved thin streams of acid.

How had this happened and why didn’t the demon also slay her? Had she managed to fight off Sakhr again? Obviously, did no good.

Dani was looking down at a pool on the ground and it yielded her reflection. Her hair was dark auburn, approaching black, and her eyes were such a startling blue, they seemed to glow. It was her face, but then it wasn’t. Danijel was staring down, but peering back up from the puddle of water and blood was the demon Sakhr. The dragonrider had become the evil she had fought against.

Gasping, she woke up and looked around. The stars shone brilliantly above them in the night sky. The five Davidson children all slept soundly and safely, but if the dream was right, they were anything but safe. Was this how the demon had returned, not freed from her stone prison, but captured in the girl’s soul? But then again, who was truly inside the stone, Sakhr, minion of Asmodeous, or Danijel the Dragonrider?

I wrote this for the Splash #writephoto writing challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photos to be used by anyone choosing to participate as the inspiration for crafting a poem, short story, or other creative work.

Lately, I’ve been using them to further add to my novel about five siblings trapped in a fantasy realm where their guide is a fifteen-year-old dragonrider named Dani, and how they are set upon by ghosts, demons, and even a god. That way, I write one new chapter a week. In a few more months, I should have the first draft of my novel done.

In the meantime, here’s a partial list of what I’ve written about the Davidson children’s adventures with Dani and Shay so far:

  1. Mr. Covingham’s Secret
  2. Wilderness Pilgrims
  3. The God of the Dark Hills
  4. Hall of the Mountain Kings
  5. Sojourn in Direhaven
  6. Trial at Sakhr
  7. What Secrets We Keep
  8. The Uneasy Pact
  9. The Tracker
  10. Duel at Orholt

I’ll flesh it out as time allows.

Let me know what you think of this story and the very uncertain future of the five Davidson kids. Thanks.

The next chapter is The Fallen.

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