The afternoon sunlight, which had been shining dimly through the mist and overhanging trees, flickered and threatened to extinguish, as if a giant was blowing out a candle.
“They came! They heard me and they came!” In spite of their dire circumstances, trapped between an army of demons on one side and a strangely alien Shay accompanied by the resurrected Sakhr on the other, little Zooey was jumping up and down with excitement. Coming in from high above and crossing the sun was an unprecedented legion of vultures. It was impossible to tell the birds apart as the vast flock began its dive toward the demonic forces, but the girl knew that Gyffus was at the lead. She took the single feather he had left behind, held it up and waved.
The rest of them looked up and then back again at the wounded golden dragon and her companion, Dani’s shadowy reflection, who seemed no worse for wear after having been impaled on the dragonrider’s sword.
“Sakhr! I killed you!” Dani’s right hand ached as she tightly gripped Witherbrand’s hilt. The blade felt heavy, threatening to pull her arm downward, lowering her guard.
“Yes, you killed your demon, Danijel. Sakhr is quite dead, or at least rendered helpless until the final flood, but then, with your demon gone, we are both free to be who we really are.” The image of the minion of Asmodeus shimmered and twisted like the surface of a pond disturbed by a stone, and when her form became stable again, she was someone else entirely.
It was one of the two sisters, a member of the four mages from Direhaven who oversaw Dani’s exorcism and drove the demon from her body.
Sapplehenning suddenly leaped from inside of Zooey’s jacket, stood for a moment regarding the dragon, and then ran for the mother of Janellize, Queen of Direhaven. The aged magician bent over and picked up the squealing mouse, petting him softly and then placing him in her robes.
The first wave of carrion birds hit the army, now no more than a quarter mile away, and the sounds of conflict and carnage seized everyone’s attention, in spite of the confusion surrounding the dragon and the sorceress. The wails of torment and sight of flesh and feather being shredded were hideous. All of the Davidsons except Taylor huddled around Mandy, clinging to each other. The boy stood by Dani and while he faced the epic battle scene, viewing it through the eyes of Azzorh, the girl continued to stare in astonishment at the dragon and the mage.
Nearly half of the vultures lay dead and dismembered on the ground, strewn about the swamp like the broken toys of a careless child, but a great number of demons were also wounded and dying. Looking up, Zooey could see Gyffus regrouping his forces for another pass, just as an enormous convocation of eagles appeared over the horizon.
“They killed the Gray God,” wailed Paris. How can a bunch of birds stop them?”
Sadly, it was true. The solemn witnesses watched as with their next attack, all but a remnant of the vultures were destroyed. Next the eagles went in, knowing they were doomed as well, but fighting talon and beak against sword and fang, and while the demon horde had been diminished, the avian forces were all but decimated.
With Shay and Raibyr next to them, the children gazed fearfully at the field of blood. Even with the dragon, injured as she was and her last reserves of power spent, they couldn’t win, and there was nowhere to run. Behind them, the ruins of the great demon of the Quag Lands stood and then the vast wastelands of the swamp blocked their path beyond, and before them were thousands of demons.
Nevertheless, Dani and Taylor, their weapons at the ready, started to walk forward.
“My children, don’t do this.” The dragon made the appeal of a mother. “You will be killed.”
“We’ll be killed if we do nothing, Shay.” Dani was facing the army which had yet to begin advancing again. “You told me to protect the children and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Not alone, you’re not.” Taylor was at her side. His arm was trembling causing Celeste to shake a bit. He didn’t want to die, and even the persistent voice of the soldier inside of him whispered of vanity and defeat, but it also told of courage.
“You are not alone.” It was Raibyr. Of the eight of them, she was the only one possessing an ethereal calm. A slight smile graced her lips.
Finally, Dani turned back to face her. “Eight of us together. No, we’re not alone, but Shay’s right. We’re nothing against that.”
“Hey, look! Something’s happening!” Taylor cried out and pointed at the demonic forces. There was a commotion rippling through their ranks.
They were all looking now, but it seemed only the mage knew what was happening. “I didn’t come alone. We only needed to delay them, and Zooey’s friends did so with magnificent valor and sacrifice.”
The few remaining vultures and eagles had been circling overhead, and then all of them broke formation and sailed back to the west except one. Gyffus, the griffon vulture, descended and alighted a few yards ahead on the path between them and what was now another battle, with unknown battalions challenging the demons.
“Gyffus!” Her fear set aside, Zooey rushed toward the large bird as it extended its wings outward and then folded them against his sides.
“I’m so sorry about your family, about all the families.” She knelt down before the vulture and shared his grief. Then, she jumped up and shouted, “They did? They’re here?” She whirled around. “The army of elves from Direhaven. They’re attacking the demons!”
She turned back toward the carrion bird as he said something else. “I know you have to go now. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”
The bird nodded in acknowledgement, spread full his ten-foot wingspan, and surged into the misty sky. Zooey waved her feather at him one more time, and then let it be taken aloft as well by the breeze.
The battle was still too far away for any of them to pick out individuals, but they could see the bright silver and blue armor and the banner of Direhaven deep within the broad thicket of the demonic army. The din of swords against swords was carried to their ears. Shields were shattered and chain mail split as the fierce conflict raged.
“There is nothing for us to do except pray that Direhaven is victorious,” murmured Raibyr. She and the dragon sat together and except for Dani and Taylor, the rest joined them.
As for the pair standing and watching the warring factions, they sheathed their swords and turned toward each other.
“Shouldn’t we join them? Fight alongside?” Taylor looked up at her hoping she’d have a good answer.
“Raibyr’s right. We can’t help and I can’t let you get hurt. You and your brother and sisters have already done so much. The only thing we can do now is watch and hope.”
The sun was low on the horizon, its light streaming across the lowlands as the fog began to thicken. Figures were moving in the mist like shadows, and the clanging of swords and shields was steadily diminishing in frequency and intensity. It was ending, but who had won?
Night fell and a great silence came with it. Raibyr had built a fire, much against Dani’s protests, since she felt it would draw the enemy right to them if they were out there. The dragon convinced her it would be safe, and the party warmed themselves, except for Dani and Taylor, who continued to gaze into the darkness. After a time, they heard the sounds of booted feet nearing, but not many, and they were walking, armor and arms clanking and creaking. Then there were lights. Whoever was approaching held torches.
Dani drew Witherbrand and Taylor, Celeste.
“Ho, camp! Stay your weapons. We come as friends.”
It was the voice of Wynjeon, the Queen’s vizier and consort. Raibyr rose and then everyone else did, except the dragon who remained resting by the fire.
Wynjeon and eight of his soldiers, men and women of the elves, emerged from the fog. “Good evening, Mage. He bowed slightly.
“You were victorious as I knew you would be.” The magician walked forward to meet the newcomers.
“Only because of the wise counsel of you and the other three Mages. I bring you greetings from Fenian and Janellize.”
“How is my daughter?”
“Worried, or she was when I last saw her. As always, she hoped for the best but feared the worst. We have sent back word of good tidings, so I suspect that her burden will be lightened with the dawn. I see the children are safe, as it the dragon.” His demeanor was relaxed when he regarded the Davidsons, but changed to apprehension when he looked upon Shay.
“She is our friend and ally,” uttered Raibyr. “Rest easy in her presence.”
“Very well.” He took a step back and addressed the group. “My troops remain camped in the lowlands beyond. Many are engaged in burning the dead of our enemy, and a battalion has been dispatched to rout the few fleeing survivors. We grieve at the loss of so many of your friends among the raptors, and are grateful their intervention gave us time to arrive and engage the foe before they could reach you.”
He lowered his head. “Of course, we will return our own dead to Direhaven.”
“How did you know?” Dani turned from Wynjeon to Raibyr. “And why did you disguise yourself as Sakhr and attack me?”
“I will tell you the tale, but first, let us all break bread together. It has been a difficult day for everyone and we must restore ourselves.”
“That’s fine for us, but what about Shay? Our rations put all together wouldn’t begin to feed her, and she’s too weak to hunt.”
“I was told to anticipate this need.” The vizier clapped twice and other people who had been waiting outside the circle of light brought in chests of salted meat, dried fruit and vegetables, plus jugs of water and wine, the latter being only for the adults.
Two soldiers hesitantly approached Shay and laid a chest in front of her. They removed the lid exposing what must have been the remains of a large elk or deer.
“Thank you for your kindness,” the dragon said, first addressing the soldiers and then Wynjeon and Raibyr.
The two burly men moved back hastily and the others laid out a banquet for the group.
“Petran and Genk, take guard duty. The rest of you may dine and rest. Ilir and Nok, replace the guard when you’re through.”
“Yes, Vizier,” they acknowledged in unison.
The children ate the most sumptuous meal they had since their sojourn in Direhaven.
“Wow. This is great,” Jake exclaimed between bites of venison. “How did you carry all this food with your army?”
Mandy frowned at her brother for his casual attitude toward the vizier, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Even an army has to eat. Our supply wagons were at the rear of our formation as we marched. I assure you, the rest of my warriors will dine well tonight in celebration of our victory.”
“Sapplehenning.” The mouse had emerged from Raibyr’s robes, and after finishing a small apricot, scampered over to the five year old and sat on her lap. “Where did you go?”
“The little one was actually working for me.” The mage looked at the child who was now whispering to the rodent.
“What? You were?” Then Zooey’s eyes watered. “Does that mean you’re going to leave me?”
There was a pause as the mouse said something only the little girl could understand. Then she gently lifted Sapplehenning in her hand and rubbed her face against his fur. “I love you, too.”
Then the little girl turned back to the magician. “What’s a familiar?”
“In this case, an animal guide. He assisted me in keeping track of your family and especially Danijel.”
Zooey looked back at the mouse in her hand. “So when you disappeared after the fire…”
“Yes, he was visiting me, relating your plans to rescue Shay. We had also learned from other sources of the battle between the demons and the Gray God. I quickly sent messengers to Direhaven summoning Wynjeon’s forces.”
“I think it’s time you told us the whole story from the beginning.” Dani looked first at Raibyr and then at Shay. The meal had been consumed and the remains quickly disposed of by Wynjeon’s soldiers and attendants. A fresh guard had been posted and there was a relative peace in the camp and surrounding low lands.
Zooey leaned against Mandy and Sapplehenning rested in her lap. Paris was on the other side of her older sister, with Taylor and Jake sitting to the left and right of the vizier. Dani was seated to Jake’s right but looking at Raibyr at her other side. The dragon was behind the magician.
“Starting with where you kept disappearing to, Shay.” Dani looked over Raibyr’s head at the golden dragon.
“As I’m sure you know by now my child, these lands are vastly more infested with the demon horde than we had previously believed. Our departed friend Icarus and his band discovered this on one of their patrols right before you and I left Vovin to meet with the children. I trusted you to care for and guide them as I went ahead and cleared your path. Otherwise you would never have gotten even as far as Direhaven.”
“What about the Hall of the Kings?” Taylor spoke up for the first time since before their meal.
“I had not anticipated this, my child, and only managed to find you there barely in time.”
“However, in one way, it was fortunate you had that encounter, for it revealed the danger to you Danijel, and the danger you represented to the children.” Raibyr was sitting cross-legged and stirring the fire with a stick.
“What do you mean danger?”
“When you were in Direhaven and related your adventures to the Queen and her court, you mentioned that the spirits of the Kings had possessed your party, all except you, Danijel. That was because you were already possessed. We mages were able to divine the nature of the beast within you and that it had possessed you on the night of the Bajang.”
“When was that?” Dani leaned closer to the magician.
“I know. It was Taylor’s cat, wasn’t it?”
“What makes you say that, Paris?”
“I read about the Bajang in my book. They’re a vampire cat demon.”
“You’re kidding.” Dani looked past Raibyr at Paris.
“We know Onyx was a demon. I wish I’d never decided to bring that ugly cat thing along with us.”
“There was more danger than just the Bajang, Taylor. The hallucination of the Gray God battling the dragon was a distraction so that Sakhr could possess you.”
“I felt like I was drowning.”
“Precisely. The demonic ones wanted to prevent you from reaching Vovin with the children, but with Shay on the wing nearby, they knew a direct assault could fail. That’s why you were to be the instrument of their death.”
“Yes, my children,” the dragon added. “You are very important to us and our enemies discovered this.”
“But you and the other mages exorcised Sakhr. You and Fenian told me it worked. Why was I still having dreams of her?” Dani was still focused on the conjurer.
“We purged the demon from you, but then discovered that on occasion, possession leaves something behind.” Raibyr looked pointedly at Taylor for a moment. “We had done all we could to purge you, and after that, only you could completely free yourself from the compulsion that remained.”
“But why did you disguise yourself as Sakhr and attack Dani?” Mandy had her arm around Zooey who was starting to doze off.
“We needed a method of inspiring Danijel to rid herself of the last of the demon’s influence over her. If left undone, it would have eventually consumed her. She would have turned on you and then the dragon.”
“That’s not an answer. Why didn’t you just tell me?” Dani was frowning at Raibyr and glancing back and forth between her and Shay.
“Under the influence, you would not have believed, and I thought my disguise was very clever. But make no mistake, had you become fully turned, I would have slain you to save the children, or you would have to kill me to get to them.”
“I did kill you, and you still aren’t answering the question.”
“By posing as the demon Sakhr, I could force you to make a choice between her and your true nature. You finally made that decision when we battled in the bowels of the swamp demon. Although the spirit of the demon within urged you to kill Shay and the children, you chose to slay the demon instead. Once you had made that choice, you were free. As far as having killed me, it was the last illusion I employed in your service.”
“So it was all an act.”
“No, Danijel, it was very real. Every cut, every bruise, our conflict was authentic, but it was both for their lives and your soul that I risked my own destruction and yours.”
Dani looked around at the rest of the camp and then back at the mage. Can all of you change shape whenever you feel like it?”
“Only me. I am the deceiver, the shape shifter, the mask among my kind, and it’s a dark magic that my daughter despises, because it reminds her of how close we are to our demonic brethren.”
“Janellize is your daughter. You and your sister hinted at something like that when I tracked you down back at Direhaven.”
“Long, long ago, I was Queen, but even for us, there comes a time in life when we must step down. The truly aged of the royal family mature and step into the role of Mage.”
“Did you know about this?” The teenager looked up at the dragon.
“Most if it, my child. I had spoken with Raibyr privately the night before you left the elven community, and she confided in me. Unfortunately, I was taken captive before I could oversee your progress, and after you left Direhaven, I didn’t see you again until today.”
“Then at the beach, when we talked to you…”
“It was the demon horde disguised as the dragon.” Raibyr injected. “They only decided to kill you once Shay had been captured, and even then, only when they feared you would not turn.”
“Which is why they attacked us after killing Icarus, Daedalus, and the others.” Then she looked at Shay again. “You didn’t betray us. You didn’t abandon me.”
“I would never willingly part from you, my child. I love you too much for that.”
Dani jumped up, ran around the magician and hugged Shay’s neck. “I love you, too. I love you so much.” Hot tears streaked the dragon’s scales, as she lowered her head and nuzzled the girl.
“I want to go home now.”
“Soon, child. Soon.”
“I will have a squad of my best warriors accompany you.” Wynjeon spoke up. “But first, if all your questions have been answered, I suggest we get some rest. Zooey is already asleep and I’m sure the rest of you are greatly fatigued.”
“Not all my questions are answered, but the most important ones are.” Dani was still holding tightly onto the dragon.
“I’ve got one,” Mandy turned to Wynjeon. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but why did you win? That was the same army that beat the Gray God.”
“Not quite true. It was the same army but not as large.” He let that thought settle in the children’s minds before continuing. “Their leader Asmodeus and a legion of his finest troops left them after that battle.”
“You can’t guess? The God isn’t dead. Perhaps he cannot die, but I assure you, the demon king has something ghastly in store for him. It was only this, plus the assistance of your avian allies, that allowed us victory.”
Mandy looked at Raibyr. “You knew they’d win. I could see it on your face. How?”
“I didn’t know but young Jacob did.”
“Me? I didn’t.”
“You had a dream.”
“No I didn’t. I don’t remember dreaming about the war.”
“No one remembers all of their dreams.”
“Then how do you know?”
“You talk in your sleep sometimes, and Sapplehenning is an excellent listener.”
“What else did I dream that I don’t remember?”
“Ask him.” The mage waved her hand in the direction of the mouse who had awakened at the sound of his name.
The mouse looked back at Jake and shook his head.
“I suppose it was just that one dream then. My former companion used to sneak out of your camp each night to tell me of your progress. I was never very far away, though you were completely unaware.”
“What about Asmodeus and the God? Shouldn’t we try to help?”
“We have enough difficulties facing us, young Mandy. The next one is ensuring your safe journey to Vovin.” The vizier sat up a little straighter as if to emphasize his authority. “Now to rest. We all have a lengthy journey starting tomorrow and the night is getting late.”
That night, Dani slept nestled next to Shay with the rest of them in their sleeping rolls, secure and safe in the company of vigilant guards, and it was only those night sentinels who saw Jake toss and turn fitfully.
When morning came, the clouds were aflame with amber and crimson as they parted to reveal an azure sky between the trees. After breakfast, the party packed their belongings and prepared to depart the dreadful marsh of the Quag Lands for their new beginning.
“Wake up, Sapplehenning.” Zooey was holding the mouse and stoking his fur. She looked up at Raibyr. “What’s wrong with him?”
She checked the small animal. “He’s still breathing, but we must leave at once. Even with the swamp demon gone, the essence of this place still consumes life force. Being tiny, he is especially susceptible. Next, it will start on you.”
“Then we depart immediately. Warriors, assume a standard formation. We will personally escort the children and dragon to their home after I have notified my captains to return with the army to Direhaven.” The soldiers instantly obeyed Wynjeon’s commands.
Shay tried to stand for the first time since they had made camp and instead collapsed back down, causing the ground to quake.
“I’m sorry, my children. For some reason, I am not healing as well as I anticipated.”
“What’s wrong Shay? Dani placed her hand against the dragon’s neck.
“I can’t walk. Too much of my life energy has been consumed and as long as I stay here, it will not return.”
I wrote this for Thursday photo prompt: Beginnings #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photos as a prompt for anyone who wants to participate to craft a poem, short story, or some other creative work. Today, Sue gave us a choice of two, so I used both.
I’ve been using Sue’s prompts week by week, to write my fantasy novel, one chapter at a time. The Table of Contents of my novel so far is:
- The Forest
- A Tale Shared Among Friends
- Mr. Covingham’s Secret
- Wilderness Pilgrims
- The God of the Dark Hills
- Hall of the Mountain Kings
- Sojourn in Direhaven
- Trial at Sakhr
- What Secrets We Keep
- The Uneasy Pact
- The Tracker
- Duel at Orholt
- Valley of Blood
- The Fallen
I hope the battle scenes were exciting enough. I looked up “how to write a battle scene” but didn’t follow their advice for this first draft. One of the things you’re supposed to do is make the battle personal, but throwing a fifteen-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy into a fight with thousands of demons sounds more like suicide, so I had them wait it out.
I also hope my “evil plot” involving Raibyr seems plausible, even in a fantasy world.
Now how are they going to get a half-ton dragon who can’t walk or fly out of a swamp?