The Fallen Aeneid (Book 2 of The Fallen Odyssey)
What had at first burned and roared with the intensity of many tongues of flame was now only a quiet, green glow, spotting his eyes like the aftereffect of camera flashes. As he waited for his vision to clear and his eyes to adjust, what he found waiting for him was a memory.
He had seen his father cry only twice. Once in the hospital. The second time, at the funeral. In the year since that funeral, Justin thought he had seen his father come close to tears a few times, but never anything like the morning after Thanksgiving, while decorating for Christmas.
The Holmeses didn’t own many Christmas decorations, which made the ones that they did have all the more meaningful. When Justin had expressed his desire to skip Christmas, Benjamin Holmes had adamantly refused, sticking to the same mantra that had gotten them through the past year: “We can be sad that your mother is gone. What we can’t do is let it derail our lives.”
Strangely, it was one of the smallest and unlikeliest of pieces that brought on the tears. While Benjamin waited downstairs in his wheelchair, Justin retrieved the first box from the upstairs crawlspace. By the time he’d returned with the second one, his father had been sitting with his head in one hand. In the other was a small ceramic elf that Justin hardly even remembered. Later, that elf seemed to have gone missing. Funny that Justin would be thinking about that at a time like this, as he reappeared in a dark tunnel, in a palace, in another world. Funny how certain memories came back to him, seemingly at random.
He closed his fingers over the tiny pebble in the palm of his hand. It was still warm from the expended aurym used to transport him back here, and he felt, or sensed, the echoes of that power still hanging in the air around him. He slipped the gauge, the keystone, into his pocket. As he did, he felt his hand brush against cold moisture clinging to his clothing. He rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. Melted snow, from the winter of another planet.
The blurry, greenish spots before his eyes—apparitions of the metaphysical—faded away, but still Justin could see nothing. Nothing but a vision of his father’s face, the way he had seen it just moments ago, through a frosty kitchen window. The loving smile as he’d adjusted his glasses, almost a knowing smile, and a nod.
Justin sighed, lowering his head in the darkness. He knew he would never be able forgive himself for leaving his father like that. No one would be there to take care of him now. No one would be there the next time some random and unlikely trinket brought on the pain. No one, the next time the loss of a wife and now also a son, became too great for him.
“I’m sorry, dad,” he heard himself whisper.
By now, Justin’s eyes were fully adjusted, yet he could still hardly see. The torch in the sconce on the wall had been burning brightly a few moments ago, but now it was out, perhaps doused by the swirling, violent energy that had brought him here.
He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. His brain was sluggish from lack of sleep. He was so tired that it had come full circle, to the point where he was almost too delirious to even realize how tired he was. Through the torturous horrors of the Drekwood and the demons of Avagad, he’d been able to sleep only when he had passed out from exhaustion. The past few days seemed to blend together into one single, terrible night without end. For a moment, he considered just lying down on the stone floor beneath him, right here in this hallway.
But he didn’t have to sleep on the ground anymore. He was in the palace of Hartla, the home of Mythaean nobility, at the twilight of a great victory. Somewhere in this place, just waiting for him, was a bed with his name on it.
Justin smiled. He took the gauge back out of his pocket, feeding a tiny sliver of his spirit energy into it, turning it from an ordinary pebble into a burning emerald ember in his hand. A good night’s sleep—and in a bed, no less—seemed almost too good to be true. Once he was in one, they were going to have a hard time getting him out again.
The glow of his gauge illuminated the hall in clean, green light. The torch on the wall seemed to have indeed gone out, and he could see no other lights up or down the corridor. Fortunately, he remembered which way led back to the main hall.
As he started walking, he ran a hand through his hair, shaking the clinging snow out of it. He really needed a haircut and, he realized as he touched his face, a shave. The boyish, patchy hair sprouting from his chin and cheeks probably looked ridiculous, but it’d been a long time since he’d seen himself in a mirror. Hopefully he’d be able to find those luxuries here, too, assuming he could pull anyone away from the celebrations to help him track them down.
He couldn’t hear any of it yet, but the festivities in the main hall were no doubt still raging, commemorating a triumphant battle at Gaius by the city-state of Hartla and its allies. He’d had to retreat this far into the innards of the palace just to be able to hear himself think, and if all that wine continued to flow, it would only get louder.
Justin sighed. Unlike the others, he was in no mood for a party. He still wasn’t even convinced the events of the day could be counted as a victory at all. Had they really won anything, or had they just survived, delaying the inevitable for a darker day? These were the cynical musings that came along with the burden of knowledge Justin had been cursed with. In a way, it had all felt very anticlimactic. He knew too much now to be happy over simply surviving to see another day. Because, as he had found out, there were worse things than death.
Justin looked down at his left arm. It was wrapped in black satin, but even covering it up couldn’t hide the fact that it was unnaturally narrow. Beneath those wrappings was hidden a mutilated horror: a demonic appendage made of chitinous, rock hard, boney material, so much like those monstrous High Demons known as cythraul.
Much worse things, thought Justin.
His footsteps echoed down the corridor as he went. Ahead was the semicircle of light that marked the entrance into the grand hall. It would be a relief to get out of these dark recesses to where his mind could not so easily wander with thoughts of coblyn demons, giant soldiers, cythraul, and Avagad or his proposal.
One year. One of service in his army, in exchange for the safety of Justin’s friends.
Justin stopped walking. He was a stone’s throw from the opening into the main hall, and his final footstep echoed on a moment after he’d stopped, reverberating down the dark, quiet hallway.
“Why is it so quiet…?” Justin whispered.
And now that he’d stopped to pay attention, Justin realized it was not just quiet. It was completely silent.
It had been only ten or fifteen minutes ago that the main hall had been filled to capacity and so loud and chaotic that he’d had to leave just to hear himself think. Now…
Justin cut off the flow of his power. The light of the stone in his hand went dead, immersing his surroundings in shadow and causing an involuntary shiver to run up his spine. He slipped the gauge back into his pocket, reaching instead over his shoulder, wrapping his hands around the hilt of his sword. The cat’s eye blade sang a quiet song of scraping steel as he pulled it free of the leather-wrapped, wooden sheath strapped to his back.
With the heavy claymore held low, Justin crept forward. Now only a few steps away, he still couldn’t see or hear anyone. A cool breeze swept in through the corridor and tugged at his hair. Something wasn’t right.
Justin flexed his fingers, drawing a tighter grip on the hilt of his sword. He felt the presence of his spirit energy and readied his body to feed it into the sword if need be. The knowledge and ability to use this power had come to him in a time of extreme need, but the power did not come from the sword; it manifested through it. The aurstones in the blade carried no inherent magic unto themselves but were rather a conduit through which the power could be tapped.
But even more than that, Justin had begun to realize that the power was no mere energy source to be harnessed. Aurym did not come from the sword. It did not come from him, either. It existed, and had always existed, outside himself. He, like the sword, was only a conduit through which it could be tapped. It was not a tool. It was an ally.
Justin filled his lungs to capacity and held his breath. He pressed himself against the wall, crept to the edge of the doorway and peeked around the corner.
No candles were lit on the tables in the grand hall. No torches were burning in the walls. The chandeliers, once brightly aflame, were instead doused and broken on the floor. What was illuminating the room instead was an overcast sky, spilling down through a collapsed roof.
Several moments passed in which Justin seemed to have forgotten how to breathe, his muscles holding his body frozen in place by the pure shock of it. For some reason, the collapsed roof didn’t bother him at first nearly as much as the gray twilight shining down through it, for the presence of sunlight clashed violently with his internal clock. Was it morning already? Afternoon? Evening? None of these answers made any sense. No more than an hour ago, the sun had been setting as he and his friends marched triumphantly through the city and across the chasm-spanning bridge to the palace built into the sandstone ridge.
But as Justin’s eyes strayed from the illogical sunlight, the violated timetable was suddenly the furthest possible thing from his mind. For strewn across the hall—some pinned under debris from the fallen ceiling, some draped across overturned tables and chairs, some lying in torn, mutilated, scattered pieces like the arms and legs of broken dolls—were dead people. Hundreds of dead people.
Their blood crusted the floor, stretched out in asymmetrical, pinwheeling patterns, dark, brown and textured like rust. Discarded weapons lay uselessly alongside the bodies. Their skin was pallid. Their bones, where visible, were the dull off-white of unfinished ceramic. Maggots overflowed from every orifice.
A loud clatter right in front of Justin made him jump. Looking down, he saw his sword wobbling to rest on the stone floor where it had fallen. He hadn’t even felt it leave his fingers.
The sound of his blade against the floor broke the dam of shock that had kept him frozen. Barely able to control his body through the depths of his submerged, drowning awareness, he took an unsure step forward on weak legs. He nearly fell over when the smell hit him. The sour stench of decomposition was so strong that the muscles in his throat flexed spontaneously.
He covered his nose and mouth to fight his gag reflex as his eyes found the twin thrones of Hartla at the front of the room. Close enough was he to recognize the face that lay upon one of the bloodstained seats. The mouth of Admiral Drexel Von Morix’s severed head hung open. His hair was shorn straight across in a strange bob cut. His tongue looked dry.
Suddenly Justin’s mind was a deadly seesaw bouncing up and down between extremes. His perceptions alternated between the brink of unconsciousness and a devastatingly unsparing hyper-awareness. A noise rose from his throat. He didn’t know whether it was speech, a moan, or a gag. He knew he should be crying, but he felt closer to laughter. This, he realized, was what it was to be hysterical. This was what it meant to go insane.
It seemed to him that he had never experienced true silence before this moment, as his body moved forward through the throne room unthinkingly, almost of its own accord. Even if he couldn’t cry, what he was seeing as he crossed that room should have at least made him vomit. But Justin was beyond that now, in a land that was not quite madness but surely bordered it and paid tribute.
The far end of the room was a hillside of broken stone blocks, leading up to a great hole where the wall and roof had once met. Justin dug his toe into a foothold, pulled himself up, and started climbing. Pieces teetered beneath his weight as he went. Rocks came loose and slid down behind him. He slipped and skinned his hand, but he kept climbing, racing toward the gray sunlight, frightened and yet eager to discover what lay beyond.
The top was a mound of jagged, undulating debris. A fierce wind battered him as he crawled on all fours toward the edge.
What was left of the city of Hartla was spread out below him. Everywhere, buildings were collapsed. Rubble clogged the streets. Blackened, smoldering craters pocked the city. Fires raged, pouring so much smoke into the air that Justin wondered if the weather was really overcast at all, or if not even the sun itself could break through to the devastation of the ruins of Hartla. Far off, between the sandstone ridges, he saw the shimmer of the ocean.
Justin could hardly muster the strength to think. Looking back over his shoulder at the thrones below, he once again registered with detachment that Drexel’s head had been cut off. Drexel—a young man hardly older than Justin himself—was dead.
But the other throne was empty. The seat of Drexel’s brother, Count Wulder Von Morix, had a splatter of blood on it but nothing else. Could it be that Wulder had escaped?
This single, simple idea brought Justin’s awareness racing back. Yes, of course it was possible. Justin didn’t know what had happened to this place in the fifteen minutes since he’d left, but clearly more than fifteen minutes had elapsed here while he’d been gone.
A lot of bodies, thought Justin. But nowhere near the number of people who were here last night.
Last night. It ran counter to all logic, but the evidence seemed to indicate that an entire night truly had passed during Justin’s brief visit to Earth. If that was true, it was possible, maybe even likely, that not everybody would still have been in the main hall when this happened. He knew that his friends, Zechariah, Ahlund Sims, Olorus Antony, Hook Bard and Gunnar Erix Nimbus had marched on Gaius by way of a series of tunnels that led through the palace into the open countryside to the north. Something terrible had happened here, but maybe his friends had gotten away. It was dangerous to hope, but it was all that he had.
“Leah,” said Justin. “Please let Leah be alright…”
Suddenly a noise came from down below, behind him, in the throne room. Justin ducked back, drawing his body into cover behind a large boulder.
The thud-thud-thud of many footsteps marching in steady unison grew louder and then stopped completely. Judging by the sound, they’d emerged from a corridor into the main hall, as Justin had just moments ago.
Justin held his breath as he peeked around the side of the boulder, keeping his body pressed tightly against it and out of sight. Down below, he saw soldiers standing at attention; several dozen of them. They wore armor trimmed with white cloth. Instead of helmets, bandanas covered their heads. Most had their hands raised to protect their noses from the smell of decay.
As Justin was studying them, looking for any sign of friend or foe, one last man emerged from the corridor. He wore white-trimmed armor similar to the others, but with a flowing purple cape hovering an inch above the ground behind him as he walked. Upon his head was a white hat whose great, fluffy feather bobbed up and down with his every step. He stopped and looked around the room, revealing a face so familiar that Justin nearly shouted for joy at the sight of it.
He was alive. Gunnar was alive, and that meant whatever disaster had occurred here had not been a complete defeat after all. Justin began to stand, preparing to wave his hand and call out to him.
“He couldn’t have disappeared again!” Gunnar shouted.
The tone of voice surprised Justin so much that it gave him pause. Gunnar sounded uncharacteristically angry, and his face was contorted in a sort of rage Justin never would have expected from the man he’d gotten to know along the Greenspring River, onboard the Gryphon. He knew Gunnar as jovial and good-natured, but there was a fire in his eyes that Justin had never—
Eyes…? thought Justin.
“Damn it!” Gunnar shouted.
He wheeled away from the soldiers, stomped over to the thrones, and without a moment’s hesitation grabbed Drexel Von Morix’s head by a fistful of hair, turned, and flung it across the room.
The dull thump as the head hit the wall made Justin cringe back into hiding.
No, no, no! thought Justin. Not Gunnar. No way! He couldn’t have betrayed us! He wouldn’t!
Justin peeked around the side of the boulder ever so slightly. The soldiers were still standing in place while their leader paced the room. This was not the Gunnar Justin knew. The Gunnar he knew would never have betrayed them. He would never show such disrespect for the dead, especially for a friend. And the Gunnar he knew had only one eye, or at least, he wore an eyepatch over one of them. Could he have been faking the eye injury for some reason? Could he have deceived them all regarding his intentions? Or could Avagad have gotten to him and succeeded in tempting Gunnar where he had failed with Justin?
“Could he have gone into the city, my lord?” one of the soldiers asked.
“I tell you, he was here!” Gunnar growled. “I sensed him, in the palace! But he can’t have gotten far… You. Come with me. The rest of you, into the city. Track him down. Find the ethoul and bring him to me!”
The room erupted with the stomping of many booted feet as the soldiers hurried to comply.
Lord-count, thought Justin. Why does that sound familiar?
And then, he remembered. It had been a seemingly unimportant bit of information at the time, related to him while onboard Gunnar’s newly commandeered ship, the Gryphon II. There was another Erix Nimbus. A man who had betrayed Gunnar, waged war against defenseless colonies, overthrew Mythaean counts and admirals without discretion, and called himself lord-count of the Raedittean.
Of course, thought Justin. Gunnar’s brother!
He peeked back out again, watching as Yordar Erix Nimbus—a near double of his brother, Gunnar—strode across the room seemingly unfazed by the putrid horrors around him. Had Yordar and his forces caused all this, just for sake of power? Could they have invaded in the night and taken over Hartla, as they had to so many other Mythaean colonies?
The soldiers had split up, the bulk of them hurrying for the exit. Yordar marched over to join the twenty or so who still remained in the throne room. As Justin watched the lord-count change course and give Drexel’s head a swift kick, he felt ashamed for mistaking his friend for this backstabbing murderer. He squeezed his hands into fists, wondering what underhanded tactics Yordar must have used to conquer a well-defended, highly populated stronghold like Hartla. It’d be no great loss if Justin had to fight his way out through this man.
He wants to find me, Justin thought, reaching over his shoulder to draw his sword. He’s about to get more than he…
A cold emptiness seized Justin’s stomach as his hand found only air. His sword wasn’t there.
Looking down at the corridor through which he had entered the throne room moments ago, Justin saw the distinctive Y-shaped crossguard of his sword on the ground and silently cursed his own stupidity. The state of the throne room had made him drop it in shock, and in his numb despair, it had not occurred to him to pick it back up before climbing up here. Now, he was stranded, unarmed, and powerless.
But even if he could have used his power, there was great risk involved. His aurym, the legendary power of the ethoul, was so immense that using it was as good as announcing his presence to the world. If he used it to take out Yordar, any aurym-sensitives nearby would know he was here, which could mean trouble. Even Yordar himself had said he’d felt Justin arrive.
And again, Justin felt as if the bottom had dropped out from his stomach.
Of course he felt me arrive, Justin realized. Anyone would have. Everyone would have.
How could he have been so foolish? If the stories were to be believed, Justin’s first arrival in the world known as the Oikoumene had been accompanied by pure aurym power so great that it’d been felt by aurym-sensitives hundreds of miles away. Was there any reason to think this time would be any different? He had returned from Earth by use of the keystone, and Yordar had felt it. Everyone else would have, too.
Including the cythraul.
Justin felt a sharp tingle race down his demon arm. He inched away from cover, backing up toward the precipice that dropped to the city of Hartla below. As he looked over the edge, he realized that a steady incline of debris, much like the one he’d climbed to get here, extended down to ground level outside. There he could see the chasm that separated the palace from the rest of the city. Its depths were shadowed. The bridge he and his friends had marched across the night before had been destroyed. In its place, a long wicker boardwalk spanned the gap. At this very instant, he watched Yordar’s soldiers race across it. A moment later, they disappeared into the ruins of the city, looking for him.
Justin shook his head as he looked out at the desolation of the city. The broken buildings. The blackened craters. Yordar hadn’t done this. This was the kind of destruction only cythraul, wielding the dark, destructive power of daemyn, could deal. Even this hole in the cliff, upon which he now crouched, must have been from a cythraul’s daemyn blast. Either Yordar was in league with them, or he had swept in during the aftermath. Either way, it meant that the demons could not be far away.
Justin crept back over to his point of cover to watch Yordar and the soldiers. He wanted to fight the man—to kill him, even, for playing a part in all this. But even if he could get to his sword, using his power against Yordar and the soldiers would only draw a tighter target down on him for the cythraul to follow. It would be better to wait until they’d dispersed back into the palace corridors, race down, grab his sword and get out of there. He would just have to hope he could find his friends somewhere out there and that they weren’t among the bodies within this room right now.
Suddenly, the purple-robed tyrant stopped in his tracks. His head turned, and his eyes came to rest on something. Following his gaze, Justin realized with horror what Yordar was looking at. Yordar walked to it, bent over, and picked up Justin’s sword.
“Well, well!” Yordar announced, holding up the sword and running his hand lovingly over the forward-sloping quillons. “He is here. And he will not have gone far without this.” And Yordar flicked Justin’s sword with his fingernail for emphasis.
“No!” Justin whispered, pressed closely up against his cover and watching with dread. “My sword! Without that…”
But Justin’s thought was cut off, for at that moment, the cover against which he was leaning suddenly shifted against his weight. Justin fell back in surprise. The boulder dislodged and lurched forward with a crunch. He heard someone below shout in alarm as it broke loose and started rolling.
The boulder rolled down the embankment, bounced, slammed against the palace floor and bounced again. Yordar dove for cover. The soldiers were still trying to scatter as the boulder came down on them, and Justin saw several squashed beneath its massive bulk. As he was pondering the consequences of what he had just done, he saw his sword fall out of Yordar’s grasp mid-roll. It went sliding across the palace floor, spinning at its center of gravity like the hand of a clock.
“Up there!” Yordar was screaming before he was even on his feet. “Get him!”
The boulder rocked against the wall and stopped. Through the settling dust, soldiers rushed toward the debris pile with swords drawn. Some were already climbing. Justin was trapped.
Yordar raced over to retrieve the sword, and Justin acted out of pure instinct. In his battle with the cythraul not so long ago, at the end of all hope, there had come unbidden to his mind the conviction that if he would just reach out his hand, his sword would be there. And now, the feeling was here again. Something seemed to be telling him, without words, Take your sword!
Justin obeyed. With a certainty that surpassed understanding, he reached out his hand.
Yordar picked up the sword. An invisible force wrenched it from his grasp. He shouted in surprise, and the huge cat’s eye claymore was suddenly spinning through the air as if it were no heavier than an autumn leaf on the wind, coming straight for Justin. The velocity with which this deadly weapon came at him would have been frightening, had he not the foreknowledge that its hilt would land precisely within his outstretched hand. The first of the soldiers had already reached the top of the mound when it did. Justin clasped both hands around the sword’s hilt. The soldiers came at him. He slid his sword into the sheath on his back, turned, and jumped.
For a second, all was silence. He was airborne, falling, aiming for a flat platform of stone below, partway down the pile.
The silence was killed by a roaring boom—a boom that a less experienced man might have mistaken for distant thunder. But Justin knew better. His demon arm tingled with cold fire. It was the call of the cythraul.
Then all sound was masked by the whistling of the wind in his ears as he fell. He flailed his arms in panic. He’d made a terrible mistake. The semi-flat platform he was aiming for, an overturned hunk of blasted cliffside, was racing up at him at stunning speed, but the drop was far greater than it had looked from above. Seconds had passed, and he was still falling. His aim was true, but he was coming in too fast. The landing would break his ankles like twigs. Why had he listened to that foolish instinct?
He was still asking that question as he braced himself for the bone-pulverizing impact. His boots hit the rocky surface—
And kept going.
His body weight knocked the chunk of rock loose. Instead of a square, blunt collision, the rock slipped free beneath his weight. His legs flew forward. The stone flipped out under him. His body slammed down. He heard an audible crack and felt a hairline of pain sizzle up his spine. Before it could even occur to him that he had just broken his back, he was careening down the hillside amid a miniature avalanche of rubble.
He bounced. The world turned end-over-end and he bounced again. His neck jerked with whiplash. Amid his wheeling surroundings, he saw a flash of his destination: the black void of the chasm.
Justin reached out, desperately grabbing for anything to slow him down. His hands battered off rocks, but he could find no solid anchor. He only pulled more rubble free as he tumbled out-of-control down the hill, a hundred fists of stone pummeling his body with every roll.
With all he had, Justin threw out his left arm, slamming his elbow down. The impact against the rocks would have been enough to shatter human bone, but not his demon arm. Instead, the anchor of his elbow into the ground turned his tumble into a slide, grinding through the debris. Satin wrappings shredded like snakeskin. Like a rudder, it turned him to face the gaping maw of the canyon that was still coming up at him. He braced his boots against the ground, but it wasn’t enough. His feet slipped over the edge, into the jaws of death. His eyes were closed. His teeth were grinding. Every muscle was contracted, every ounce of energy telling his body to stop.
He opened his eyes. His legs were hanging over the edge. From the knees down, nothing was beneath him but empty air. Above and behind him, a long gouging slice marked the path where his demon arm had cut a ditch through the stone. He heard rubble settling around him and, far, far below, the clacking and crashing of rocks hitting the unknowable bottom.
Working his arm out of the rock, Justin scrambled forward and pulled himself up onto solid ground. His palms were bloody, but he could not yet feel the pain. His heart was pounding so hard that the breastplate of his Hartlan armor jumped with every beat. A stabbing pain in his lower back greeted him as he stood, but reaching instinctively for it, he found the culprit to be a sharp, jagged piece of something. It was the backplate of his armor. It had split down the middle—the crack he had heard when he landed—and had surely saved his life.
Before he could examine himself for further injuries, he was interrupted by a clattering of falling rocks. He looked up to see several white-armored soldiers braving the descent down the pile of rubble.
Turning frantically around, Justin spotted the broken bridge up ahead, where a replacement boardwalk had been extended. He took off running for it. Behind him came a shout of alarm, and looking over his shoulder, he saw one of the soldiers had taken a wrong step and was falling down the pile.
Justin sprinted over the lip of the bridge and hit the boardwalk in stride. He dared not look back. He dared not look down. The broken bridge had left a twenty-foot gap to the other side, spanned only by this narrow boardwalk. His footfalls thudded against it and echoed down into the gorge.
Reaching the other side, he put on the brakes and came to a skidding halt. He turned. The soldier who’d fallen down the debris pile had managed not to slide into the gorge and was now up and limping toward the bridge as more men in white armor came scrambling down. And from the long, gaping corridor that led into the palace of Hartla, a figure materialized. It was Yordar, running out after him.
Justin approached the boardwalk. Bending over, he grabbed the base of it and pulled. The weight was almost too much. He felt it shift, heard it grinding over the stone surface. It started sliding. He ran backward with it.
“No!” shouted Yordar as he ran. “Stop him!”
The limping soldier stopped where he was, drew a bow and pulled an arrow from his quiver. He nocked the arrow and pulled back. Justin was tempted to duck for cover, but he couldn’t stop now. He pulled backward as hard and fast as he could. Yordar was almost to the bridge.
Finally, the opposite side of the boardwalk slipped over the edge. The end in Justin’s hands was flung skyward by the plummeting counterweight like a trebuchet, grinding and pivoting on its fulcrum. As the boardwalk dropped into the canyon, the archer drew aim on Justin.
“Alive, you fool!” Yordar shouted, and he kicked the archer squarely in the small of his back.
The arrow was loosed, flying harmlessly sidelong, bouncing across the ground and snapping in two. The poor archer tumbled forward. He tried to turn to catch himself, but it was hopeless. He didn’t start screaming until he’d already fallen over the edge and disappeared into the canyon, and then it seemed to continue for an eternity.
The screaming of the falling man was drowned out by another thunderous boom, echoing over the broken city and flash-frying the marrow of Justin’s demon arm. He staggered to one knee, his whole body trembling with the pain.
More than one of them, thought Justin. And they’re getting closer!
Yordar started to yell something across the gap, but Justin wasn’t sticking around to chat. Forcing himself to his feet, he took off running into the city. Remembering that Yordar’s other soldiers were somewhere out here looking for him, he took a sharp left and ducked down a back alley.
The city was deadly quietly as he ran. It reeked of the mixed odors of smoke and decay. He didn’t know where he was going, how to get out, where to hide, or who to turn to. But for now, he could just keep running. He had to get away from the cythraul. He had to keep moving.
As Justin emerged from the back alley, he forgot everything his mind had been telling him to do. He slowed down to a trot, then a walk, then stopped dead in his tracks, staring.
He was in the middle of what seemed to have been some sort of market district. The wooden framework of broken stalls lay everywhere. The smoking foundations of former homes sat broken like open wounds oozing daemyn energy. A fallen tower lay across the street before him, broken in half where it had been blasted from its base, an entire house crushed beneath its weight. And everywhere were bodies.
The bodies in the throne room had been soldiers. These were not. And they bore the distinctive feeding wounds of coblyns.
His eyes found a strange smear staining the street and followed it to the unfortunate soul at its end: a man torn in half. He put a hand over his mouth and turned away in disgust, only to find a body seated against a storefront, trying even in death to hold open a disemboweling cut across its stomach. Again, the smell of rot found him, and again, he gagged and retched. He tried to force himself to move—to ignore the horror surrounding him—but it was no use. It was everywhere. Death. Mutilation. Dismemberment.
I should have been here.
His legs buckled. He hit the ground on his knees. While he’d been so concerned about his friends, capable warriors in their own right, it had hardly even occurred to him to worry about those most vulnerable. The innocent, defenseless citizens here. The ones who were currently sprawled out dead before him.
I could have fought. I could have saved them!
Lowering his head, Justin pounded his fist against the bricks of the street.
“I should have been here…!”
Suddenly, Justin heard a sound from nearby. He leaped to his feet and reached for his sword.
And there before him was the last thing in the world he would have ever expected to see: a tiny child—a girl, probably hardly over five or six years old—standing in the shadow of the broken tower. Blonde hair framed her round face as her big blue eyes watched him.
She blinked once, seemingly confused by his presence in the street, and then she said, “Justin?”
When he didn’t answer, she spoke again, in the tiniest voice imaginable.
“Is your name Justin?” she asked.
Before Justin could answer, the pounding of booted feet erupted behind him. Turning, he saw no one, but the noise was coming from the alleyway he had just emerged from. In seconds, they would be around the corner.
Justin started jogging for another side alley, thinking he might be able to double back and circle around to lose them. His eyes found the little girl. She was standing there, frozen in place, staring up the street at the sound of the approaching soldiers.
Redirecting his course, Justin turned away from the alleyway, running instead toward the little girl. A dilapidated window of the broken tower was behind her. Justin scooped her up in his arms, ducked low, and stepped in through the window.
The tower interior was a strange experience. The fall had shifted everything sideways, turning the wall into the floor and vice versa. A spiral staircase hung before him at eye level. Broken furniture lay everywhere with drawers open and odds and ends spilled all around, making it look like the home of a compulsive hoarder.
An old dining table was flipped on its side and propped against the staircase. Picking his way through the junk, Justin crossed the room with the little girl in his arms. One of her tiny shoes bumped a vase lying on an overturned chair, and it shattered against the floor. Justin ducked behind the table, placed the child down on her feet beside him and raised an index finger to tap it against his lips for silence. She nodded.
Through the sideways window, the sound of footfalls approached. Justin held his breath, but no sooner had they arrived than they were drawing farther away again.
Justin didn’t breathe until he was sure the footfalls had faded away completely. The silence of the dead city seemed amplified to haunting extremes within this still tower room. His eyes met the little girl’s. She was staring at him.
What am I going to do now?! he wondered.
Yordar’s soldiers were out there, and cythraul were coming—from multiple directions, if his perceptions were not mistaken. How had this child managed to…?
The light from the window was abruptly blotted, dousing the room into shadow. Turning to the child, Justin tapped his finger against his lips again. He heard a scraping of cloth against stone. He couldn’t see the front of the room from his hiding place, but the implications were clear enough. Someone was climbing through the window.
Feet hit the floor that had once been a wall, and a larger-than-life shadow loomed across the wall that had once been a floor. The unknown seeker pushed inward with a mountainous shadow.
The shadow stopped. It stooped low, and Justin heard a creaking sound as it lifted a piece of furniture. He heard the tinkling of broken glass.
A voice. Deep, thick, and raspy.
“Are you in here?”
It was the kind of voice Justin associated with heavy smokers and asthmatics, and it was shockingly loud within the confines of this quiet room. Footsteps, as the intruder came walking toward them. Justin wondered how far he was from the table. He wondered how quickly he could rise, draw his sword, and take a swing. And he wondered how best to kill a man to prevent him from making any noise.
“I’m right here,” said the little girl.
Justin’s eyes went wide with horror. Before he could react, she had popped up from her hiding place and was stepping out from behind the table.
“There you are!” said the raspy voice.
Justin stood with his hand on his sword. There, silhouetted by the light streaming in through the window, was a big armored man, ducking down over the little girl. An unkempt brown beard covered the lower half of his face like a briar bush. He had one great big hand on the little girl’s shoulder.
“Maera, what in heavens were you thinking running off like that?” said the man.
“I found him!” said the girl, pointing. “I found Justin!”
Justin tensed as the big man looked up. There was a jagged, nasty-looking blade strapped to his back.
Justin’s body was a coiled spring, prepared to duck for cover or defend himself. But instead of attacking, the big man did something quite unexpected. Recognition dawned on his face. He lowered his eyes, dropped down on one knee and said, “Sir!” Beside him, the little girl, Maera, was all smiles.
“I saw him run across the bridge!” she said, in a voice like the squeak of a mouse. “I came to find him! I knew it was him! I woulda swore it was him! With every swear word I ever heard, I woulda…”
“Hush, now!” said the big man, under his breath. Then, to Justin, “Never, even in the darkest of hours, did I lose hope that you would return, sir. My sword is at your service.”
“Sir?” Justin said.
Still, the man remained down on one knee, piously frozen in place with eyes averted.
“Uh, you can stand up,” said Justin.
The man obeyed, standing to full height and staring straight ahead as if ready for a military inspection. The hair on his face looked more like a bird’s nest than a beard. He wasn’t as tall as Justin but was certainly heavier, barrel-chested, with the kind of broad, solid shoulders that implied a lifetime of strenuous, daily labor.
“Very good finding him,” said the man, shooting a sidelong glance at the girl. “But you’re still going to have a lot of explaining to do.”
“Is she,” stammered Justin, gesturing to the girl, who was still all smiles. “Is she your daughter?”
“No, sir. Maera and I are part of a small group of survivors. We long ago gave up on the idea of forbidding her from playing out in the open, but she usually does not go missing for so long. Myself and some other volunteers came out to look for her.” He turned to face Maera again. “And this time I won’t say a word if your grandfather wants to give you a spanking.”
Maera scrunched up her nose and crossed her arms.
“The rest of the search party will have reconvened at base by now,” the man continued. “Major Lycon Belesys, at your duty, sir.”
“How did you know who I was?” Justin asked Maera. As an afterthought, he smiled, trying to look friendly.
Maera shrugged and pointed at his left arm. His demon arm.
The black satin wrappings had been shredded during his descent through the rubble, and the chitinous bone armor of his elbow was exposed. Justin tore off the rest of the wrappings. The arm was unnaturally narrow, blackened like charred wood, and devoid of all skin, muscles, or tendons from shoulder to wrist. Strange, leathery scar tissue marked the borderlands between his demon armor and his natural, human hand. He flexed his fingers, feeling the familiar tug of flesh on non-flesh.
“The child means no offense,” said the man named Lycon.
“No, no, that’s okay,” Justin said.
Maera’s smile widened, revealing a missing baby tooth.
“Our party has managed to stay hidden thus far,” said Lycon, “but now, demon-calls once again echo over Hartla. I fear they come to finish what they began.”
“I think you’re right,” said Justin, running a hand over his demon arm.
The discomfort in it was intensifying by the second, like insects burrowing through his arteries—arteries that, for all intents and purposes, no longer seemed to exist. The daemyn energies of cythraul were closing in.
But stranger still, now that Justin had stopped enough to relax and pay attention, he realized that he could feel something else, too: a burst of energy, far off but distinct, that didn’t feel like daemyn at all.
“I think we should find some better cover, sir,” said Lycon.
Justin blinked, snapping out of his daze. “Yeah. Yeah, I think you might be right.”
Scooping Maera up into his arms, Lycon stepped through the sideways window and out into the street.
Justin exited through the window after him. Lycon took a quick look around and then hustled up the street carrying Maera. As Justin followed, he looked around at the destruction and the bodies and was suddenly concerned, of all things, about what Maera’s eyes were being exposed to.
But this is only the aftermath, thought Justin. She lived through it.
No sign of any white-armored troops, but soldiers were the least of Justin’s worries, now. Humans were one thing. They were made of flesh and blood. Demons, on the other hand. They were something else entirely.
Lycon led him away from the fallen tower. Climbing through a pile of wreckage, they scurried up a side street, and as they took a sharp left down a boulevard of broken building fronts, Justin felt like he had been transported into a bombed European city straight out of World War II.
“Is there any way out of the city?” Justin asked as they ran.
“When the assault began,” said Lycon, “many citizens initially escaped by water, but any ships that lagged behind were targeted and destroyed by the demons’ black magic. There’s not an ocean-worthy vessel left for miles. As for the inland route, Yordar’s forces have blocked it off.”
Lycon came to an abrupt halt that made Justin nearly crash into him. The bushy-faced soldier took a moment to peek out around the corner, looking up and down a wide causeway that ran through the middle of the city. Then he ducked low and dashed across with Maera in his arms and Justin close behind.
When they reached the other side, Lycon traveled only a few more steps before halting and putting Maera down on her feet beside him.
“Do you remember the knock?” he asked.
“Of course I do,” she said.
Justin watched as the little girl knelt down to the base of a cellar door that Justin hadn’t even noticed at first. Forming her hand into a small fist, Maera landed a few quick, hard knocks against the wooden door, beating out a precise rhythm—some sort of secret code.
“As for the tunnels within the palace,” said Lycon, “they were utilized for a mass evacuation into the north that I can only pray was successful. Standing protocol calls for the tunnels to be caved in from behind to prevent pursuit, so that way is also lost to us.”
Justin looked up above the buildings at the sandstone ridges into which Hartla had been built, and he silently cursed them. What had once served as natural fortifications to protect the city had now become a cage, condemning the few survivors to die like rats in a trap.
And now that the cythraul know I’m here, he thought, they’ll rip this place apart.
“The so-called lord-count has the city under heavy guard,” said Lycon with disdain, “which gives us little opportunity to search for supplies or formulate any sort of plan.”
“So Yordar is working with the demons,” Justin said.
“I don’t think so, sir,” said Lycon. “His forces didn’t show up until after the demons had gone. I think it’s more likely that he saw Hartla’s fall as an opportunity and pounced. After our display at the Battle of Gaius, he probably saw Hartla as a threat to his power, so this is his revenge. He’s been executing survivors indiscriminately. If not for his presence, we might have escaped into the countryside weeks ago.”
Justin squeezed his hands into fists, regretting that he hadn’t killed Yordar when he’d had the chance. Was there not enough evil in this world already without the mercilessness of a power-hungry madman like…?
And suddenly, the full meaning of Lycon’s words dawned on Justin.
A thud and a creak sounded below their feet, and the cellar door swung open. A young female soldier, shielding her eyes from the light, took Maera by the hand and helped her down the steps.
“Lycon,” Justin said, stopping the man in his tracks before he stepped down in. “Did you just say, weeks ago?”
“Yes, sir,” said Lycon.
“What do you mean?” Justin demanded. “How long has it been?”
“Since the Battle of Gaius?” said Lycon, seeing the confusion on Justin’s face and taking care with his choice of words. “Why, five weeks, sir.”
Again, Lycon tried to step down into the cellar. Justin grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him back around to face him.
“What are you talking about?” Justin said. “What do you mean five weeks?”
“Please, sir,” Lycon said, grasping Justin by the shoulder. “We’ll speak inside.”
Justin wouldn’t have been able to resist even if he’d tried. Judging by how effortlessly he pushed him down into the cellar, Lycon could have manhandled Justin if he had to. He was directed beneath an overhang and down a set of stairs and had to stoop to keep the hilt of his sword from touching the ceiling. Lycon shut the door behind them, slid an iron bar across it, and with that, the dank cellar was plunged into total darkness but for the open flame of one dull, lonely candle on the other end of the room. Its light reflected in dozens of tiny, moist orbs. It was with some alarm that Justin realized they were eyes. All of them were looking at him.
The floor was dirt. It reeked of moisture and body odor. How many people were crammed in here? Twenty? Thirty? All forced to hide underground in a storage space. Even in the meager candlelight, Justin could tell they were unwashed and malnourished, refugees in their own homeland.
In the corner, he caught sight of a stooped, bald old man with his arms wrapped around Maera. Tears streamed from his eyes as he rocked her back and forth in speechless gratitude.
With the sound of striking flint, a second light came aglow behind Justin, and he turned to see Lycon with a candle in hand. Beside him was the young female soldier who had let them in. They were the only ones wearing any armor or weapons. The rest were in civilian clothing, some little better than rags.
“Found her in the market, Feliks,” Lycon said. Like Justin, he also had to stoop to keep his sword’s hilt from scraping against the ceiling.
“Bless you,” said the bald old man, hardly even looking up from Maera. “Bless you.”
“And she found a playmate, I see,” said the female soldier.
“She said she saw him run across the bridge,” said Lycon.
“Across the bridge?” said the female soldier. “You mean he was in the palace? What kind of crazy son of a—?”
Justin was looking the other direction at the moment, but by the way the female soldier was suddenly cut off, it sounded like she’d either been elbowed or had a hand clamped over her mouth.
“This,” said Lycon, “is Justin Holmes.”
Hushed gasps erupted all around the room. Even the candlelight rippled, as if their collective inhalation had sucked the oxygen out of the room. And suddenly, just as Lycon had done minutes ago, all of them, even Maera’s grandfather, lowered their gazes to the ground and dropped to their knees.
Justin turned back around. Lycon and the female soldier seemed to be the only ones who weren’t kneeling. Lycon looked solemn. As for the female soldier, far from the veneration of the rest of them, she had only scrutiny and a hint of distrust in her eyes.
“What is going on?” Justin whispered, leaning in toward Lycon. “There’s got to be some mistake. Five weeks? There’s no way it’s been five weeks since Gaius!”
Lycon and the female soldier looked at one another. It was the kind of look shared between individuals confronted by a person outside of his right mind.
“What exactly happened to the city?” asked Justin.
Lycon cleared his throat, but the female soldier cut him off.
“Demon invasion,” she said. “About a week after your vanishing act.”
“Mind your tone, Private Lor,” Lycon growled.
“A week after?” Justin said.
“There were thousands of them,” said the female soldier. “Half our navy was out fighting on the other side of the Raedittean. But even at full force, we’d have never stood a chance against those numbers. Some of the fires still burn where the High Demons rained hell down on Hartla. Our people were either driven out or slaughtered in the streets. No help from our secret weapon, the fallen angel who had conveniently disappeared—”
“Enough, Adonica!” Lycon snapped, so loudly it made Justin jump.
The female soldier said no more. Instead, she placed her helmet down on the dirt floor and used it as a seat. Her blonde hair was in a braid, and she tossed it over her shoulder and propped her elbows on her knees.
“Do you mean to tell me,” Justin whispered, “that these people have been stuck down here all that time?”
Lycon sighed. “It wasn’t long after the demons left that Yordar arrived,” he said, almost apologetically. “As I mentioned before, sir, that jackal knows no pity. He cares not for the sorry state of this city’s survivors. At first, a few optimistic Hartlans attempted to surrender to him…” Lycon shook his head.
“That doesn’t matter anymore.”
Justin turned toward the voice. He was alarmed to realize that all of the people behind him were still down on their knees except for Maera’s grandfather, who was presently in the process of standing up.
“The nightmare is over,” said the old man. Feliks, Lycon had called him. “Justin Holmes has returned. The ethoul has come to save us.”
Many in the room looked up hopefully at those words, but they were like a knife to Justin’s heart. He looked to Lycon for help, but the major was just smiling. Even he believed it.
Five weeks. It can’t be. It just can’t!
A thrill of nerves tightened Justin’s stomach into a ball. What Lycon didn’t know—what none of them seemed to understand—was that the very reason Yordar was here was that he was looking for Justin. And if it was to be believed that five weeks truly had passed during his brief trip to Earth, then these poor people had been stuck underground all that time because of him. Somehow, they had evidently heard about the “fallen angel” named Justin Holmes and the power he was capable of. It had given them hope. And now, they sincerely believed he could save them.
His demon arm was pounding with intense influxes of pain, alerting him to the approaching evil. The accuracy of his clairvoyance was a terrible thing; to know so precisely just how doomed all these people were. One cythraul was enough to contend with a hundred ordinary soldiers, and he could now sense three separate groups of them, five or more in each, all bearing down on Hartla from multiple directions. These people thought Justin had come to save them. How ironic that his arrival, the event they believed to be their salvation, would instead be the very thing that brought the forces of evil finally and definitively crashing down on them.
Again, Justin felt something jump up, as if trying to be noticed among the demonic chaos.
That second force.
Instinctively, Justin turned eastward toward its source and squinted, trying to shut out all distractions. Lycon, Adonica, Feliks, Maera, and all the rest watched him in silence. It probably looked to them as if he were trying to see through the cellar wall, and Justin remembered a time, not so long ago, when he had seen and wondered at Zechariah behaving in similarly strange ways.
Now that it was closer, Justin was all the more convinced that this second energy source wasn’t coming from any demon. It wasn’t daemyn at all. It was the reverse side of the coin, as different from daemyn as life was to death. It was aurym. And it was pulsing, rhythmically, intentionally, as if someone was trying to…
“Trying to signal me,” Justin thought, aloud.
“Pardon me, sir?” Lycon said.
Five weeks, thought Justin. If five weeks have truly passed, then where is everyone? Where are my friends? And where is Avagad?
And what about his proposal?
“Lycon,” Justin said, spinning around to face the big Hartlan. “What happened to the others? Where is Gunnar Erix Nimbus? And Ahlund Sims, and Zechariah? And Leah Anavion, Olorus Antony, and Hook Bard?”
“The princess and her soldiers had already marched westward, to her homeland, by the time the demons arrived,” said Lycon.
“She went back to Nolia?” said Justin, and he left the second part of that thought unspoken.
Then that means she’s still alive! Thank God, she’s still alive!
“As for the others,” said Lycon, “we’ve been cut off from the world. We don’t even know who made it out of the city alive, let alone what’s happened since.”
Justin nodded. Leah was alive, and Olorus and Hook were with her. As far as everyone else, no news was probably good news.
Justin felt the pulse of that aurym signal again. Again, it came from off to the east. The direction of the ocean. He looked around the cellar. Most of the people had by now gotten to their feet. Those who were still kneeling, he motioned to stand, and they hurriedly complied.
“Maera,” said Justin, finding her little blonde head among the people. “The high place where you saw me from. Could you see the ocean from there?”
“Uh-huh,” said Maera.
Then that’s where I need to be, thought Justin.
He cleared his throat. Public speaking was not his strong suit. Every time he gave a speech in school, he kept his eyes locked on the back wall of the classroom just to keep from stumbling over his every word. He had to clear his throat a second time before he managed to get started.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he let a long pause follow, just so he could look each one of them straight in the eye, in turn, before proceeding. He made sure he was looking at the female soldier named Adonica as he said, “I’m sorry I disappeared. I… I didn’t mean to.” He turned to look at the rest of them. “And I’m sorry that you’ve been stuck hiding down here all this time. I’m going to… To try to get you out of this city. And I think I can do it, but first, I need to be absolutely sure of something. I need to be able to see the ocean. Can someone take me up where Maera was?”
“I’ll do it,” Adonica said. Her face was expressionless. Justin couldn’t tell if it was determination or indifference.
Justin nodded. “Okay. Everyone else, when we get back, you need to be ready to move. Got it?”
There were a few scattered nods.
“Got it?” Justin repeated, louder this time.
“Aye, aye,” several voices said at once, this time with vigorous head nods.
“Good,” said Justin, squeezing his hand into a fist. “Then let’s do it.”
Justin turned back to Lycon, feeling a lot more like his high school basketball coach than a soldier, but judging by the clamoring that was going on behind him, that little bit of motivation actually had done the trick.
Just like dad always says, thought Justin. Confidence is ninety percent of everything.
“How many of these people are soldiers?” Justin whispered, leaning in closer to Lycon and Adonica.
“You’re looking at ’em, angel,” Adonica said.
“Damn,” Justin breathed.
“We have weapons for everyone,” Lycon said. “Knives. Hatchets. Pitchforks. But these are Hartla’s working people. They’re bakers, butchers. Old Feliks is a brickmaker. They won’t last long in a fight.”
“I don’t want them to fight,” Justin quickly clarified. “And if my guess is correct, they won’t have to. All they’ll have to do is run.”
Lycon nodded. “Can I ask what you’re looking for on the ocean, sir?”
“Only if you stop calling me ‘sir.’”
Lycon smiled. “Understood, Justin.”
“I just need to take a look, to make sure we run in the right direction.”
After snatching up her helmet and pulling a sword belt tight around her waist, Adonica climbed the steps and threw open the cellar door. Even as overcast as the light of day was, it was still a shock to the system after spending those long minutes in the darkness, and Justin had to blink several times before he could follow her up and out into the street.
The cellar door shut behind them, and Justin heard the thud of its bar.
Adonica pulled her braid up into a spiral, then slid the helmet on over her head. It covered her entire face but for two narrow, downward-sloping eyepieces that gave the impression of a scowl. The mouthpiece was only a small semicircle cut out of the bottom, and fully armored, with her face masked as she was, she cast an intimidating figure, all the more so as she whipped the bronze short sword from her belt and gave it a practiced spin.
“Are you sure you know where she was?” Justin asked.
“I got this, angel; don’t you worry,” she said, with her voice echoing inside the helmet. “Just follow me.”
Justin balked at being called “angel” again—a decidedly feminine and none-too-flattering label—but any protest he might have voiced died away in his throat as she took off running up the street. He had to hurry just to keep up with her as she took a sharp right and cut up an adjoining alleyway. It wasn’t difficult to guess their destination, for rising up from the center of town, not far from their position, was what looked to Justin like a large stalagmite. It was a natural rock column almost fifty feet tall. A spiral staircase was carved into its outer surface, wrapping around the column and rising to the very top where sat a lonely portico, some sort of temple, high for all the city to see.
Justin let out a long breath as he ran that shuddered with nerves. Now, removed from the people in that cellar, he could stop pretending to be confident. This situation seemed impossible, and to be suddenly and unexpectedly responsible for so many people was a new and frightening experience. Many in this city had already suffered because of the simple fact that Justin Holmes the ethoul existed. Now the burst of aurym power expelled by his arrival was going to bring even more terror down on this city.
Five weeks. That explained the advanced decay of the bodies. But how was it possible?
Justin narrowed his eyes on the rock column. It didn’t matter. And worrying about it wasn’t going to change it. All that mattered now were the people in that cellar. He couldn’t control what had already happened, but he could still do everything in his power to save those who were left. There was a chance, and as long as there was a chance, he wasn’t giving up.
And Leah is alive, thought Justin.
If nothing else, that fact alone gave him the hope to carry on.
As they reached the base of the rock column, Adonica ducked low and snuck around to the front.
“I hope you realize we’re going to be very exposed up there,” she said.
But Justin didn’t answer. He found himself looking up at the structure in amazement. The staircase had been cut right into the rock and wound around it like a vine. From here, he could see that the column was not entirely vertical, as he’d previously assumed. Instead, it rose and jutted outward slightly, so that the portico at the top actually hung out over the city below.
“Maera was up there?” said Justin. “All by herself?”
“Tenacious little ankle-biter, huh?” was all Adonica said, and then she started racing up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time.
Justin started after her and was seriously reconsidering his plan by only the second time around the column. It had no railings or handholds, but he tried to keep one hand brushing the inner wall at all times. The city ruins turned before him like slow-moving, carousel scenery as he went, and to avoid dizziness, he tried to keep his eyes focused constantly on the next step and only the next step.
Soon Justin could see the river that zigzagged through the center of the city and led out to the harbor. He could see the gap between the sandstone ridges and knew that between them was the ocean, though it was not yet visible. They had to keep climbing.
He could feel the daemyn presence of cythraul drawing nearer, closing in from all sides. He hadn’t heard any roars for a long time, but this did little to calm his nerves. On the contrary, it seemed to make it worse.
Is it possible they’re sneaking up on the city?
The concept made Justin shudder. Despite everything he’d come to know about those creatures, he still tended to think of them as mindless monsters. It was somehow more comforting than the truth: that cythraul were, in reality, intelligent beings, capable of multilingual speech, deductive reasoning, and cunning.
Ever present was the steady, rhythmic pulsing of that unknown aurym power, and its presence parted the darkness with a beam of hope. If only he could get a glimpse of it, just to be sure.
Justin saw the broken cliff face, the mound of rubble he’d scaled, and the gaping hole through which the inner palace was visible even from here. He saw no sign of Yordar or any soldiers until his next time around. He nearly ran into Adonica, who was ducked low and looking down at the palace. This must have been where Maera had seen Justin run across the bridge, for now, he could see the gorge and the broken bridge. And there, on the city-side of the gap, was a group of white-armored soldiers. Some had hammers in their hands, and below the rise and fall of their arms, scrap wood was being nailed together to create a replacement boardwalk for the one Justin had dumped. And there, on the opposite side, shouting orders to his troops across the gap, was Yordar.
Adonica threw Justin a look. Behind her helmet, she was probably expressing skepticism in this course of action, but threat of detection aside, they had to keep moving. Justin nodded, and she continued upward, slowly, hugging the inner wall of the tower.
They were nearing the top, and Justin tried to ignore the fact that he was now displaced and hanging over the city. He could feel the blood pulsing through his brain with every heartbeat. He could feel daemyn energy all around him, making his arm tingle and his heart heavy. He could feel the rhythmic signal-bursts of aurym from the sea. On the next turn, he found Adonica frozen in her tracks. He didn’t stop but snuck up beside her, to the place where a sliver of the ocean was visible between the sandstone ridges of Hartla. And there, between the ridges, was a sight that made his heart skip a beat. A black ship, with black sails.
“A demon ship,” Adonica whispered.
It was too far away to see any details—the banner atop its mast or any people on its decks—but at that moment Justin was given the sign he’d been waiting for. A tiny jet of orange flame sizzled off the bow and hovered momentarily above the water. It coincided with the same aurym-signal Justin had been feeling.
“Not just any demon ship,” Justin said. “That’s the Gryphon II.”
“The Gryphon II?” Adonica said. “Gunnar’s flagship!”
“Come on!” said Justin.
He turned and began hustling down the stairs. Adonica was right behind him.
He’d suspected, back in the cellar, that the aurym signal he’d been feeling belonged to Ahlund Sims, but it was too great a gamble to risk the lives of others on nothing but a hunch. Before taking all those people to the sea, he’d had to be sure. He couldn’t run the risk of leading them into a dead-end. Now, he had confirmation of what before he had hardly dared to believe. His friends were not only alive but had felt the aurym of his arrival. They were coming to find him. If he could get the Hartlan refugees safely to the harbor, they could board the Gryphon II and escape. Maybe the ship was even carrying soldiers that could help them.
Justin skidded to a halt at sight of the activity below. Poles had been extended across the gap between the city and the palace, and along them, a rickety boardwalk was being slid into position. But Yordar Erix Nimbus wasn’t looking at the boardwalk. He was looking at Justin and Adonica. Justin couldn’t hear any voices from this distance, but the meaning was clear enough as Yordar raised his hand, pointing directly at them. The soldiers around him drew their swords and went running into the city.
“Looks like trouble!” Adonica said, passing him by and taking the lead down the stairs.
“We’ll split up!” Justin shouted as he raced after her. “I’ll draw them the opposite direction. You go get the others!”
“You damn fool! You’re going to get yourself killed,” said Adonica. “You get the others, and I’ll draw the soldiers away. Got it?”
“You’re the one who’ll be killed!” said Justin.
“And which of us is worth more alive? Use your head, angel! Think you’re doing anyone any favors by getting yourself kidnapped or killed?”
“I wish you’d stop calling me—!”
But Justin didn’t finish his sentence. For at that moment, daemyn’s long silence was broken.
The cythraul’s roar was long and low. The sound itself was earth-shattering, but the internal effects of daemyn on his soul were so powerful and sudden that it made Justin’s vision waver. He tried to stop moving, but his momentum was too great. He stepped, found nothing beneath his foot, and realized a moment too late that he was going over the edge.
It was either good fortune or quick thinking on Adonica’s part that she turned around at that moment. As Justin started to topple, she grabbed two fistfuls of his clothing and threw all of her weight backward, wrenching him to the safety of the inner wall. But Justin had not even the presence of mind to thank her for saving his life. He was too busy watching in stunned horror as, at the very height of the sandstone wall above the palace of Hartla, two cythraul suddenly appeared. Then two more. Then two more.
Monsters ten feet tall and five feet wide at the shoulders came climbing over the top of the wall. Though distance and motion shadowed much of their features, Justin’s previous encounters with these creatures filled in the blanks. Humanoid in form, with black, bone-armored exoskeletons, they were like the creations of a fevered nightmare. Their heads were like human skulls plagued by brutal mutation—oversized, deformed, black, fleshless, jagged with protruding brows and empty, glowing eye sockets. No two were identical. Dimensions, musculature, and facial features varied. He had known them to grow both human-like hair from their scalps and faces, and animal-like spikes and horns from their heads. The tattered bits of cloth that served as their clothing flapped in the wind as they went. Giant weapons of unknown substance were clutched in boney hands. Swords, spears, and axes.
With pure, brute strength, they punched their hands and feet into the sandstone for footholds and handholds, climbing down the cliff like sure-footed insects on a wall. Great shards of rock were ripped free as they descended. Even as Justin watched, debris rained down on Yordar and his soldiers. Caught unaware, a hunk of rock the size of a house landed on one of them and crushed him like a nut in a cracker. Another piece hit the new bridge, snapping it cleanly through the middle.
More pieces of the wall broke off and fell to the chorus of cythraul roars. Any lingering doubts in Justin’s mind about Yordar’s allegiances were alleviated as the lord-count and his guards turned to retreat down the tunnel, back into the palace. Some of the soldiers across the chasm bravely drew their weapons at first, but in a few moments’ time, all had turned and were fleeing into the city.
Turning to Adonica, Justin saw her eyes through the openings in her helmet. There was no fear in her. Only fire and galvanized anger.
“Come on!” Justin shouted.
The two of them took off running down the stairs again. He no longer had the luxury of careful footing. The steps beneath him became a blur as he raced for the streets below, cythraul roars and the pounding of daemyn assaulting his very soul.
Something in his peripheral vision gave Justin pause. One of the cythraul on the wall, a stout monster with long horns jutting out of its temples like a steer, was racing toward the ground at improbable velocity. By the breakneck speed, Justin thought at first that it had lost its grip and was falling, but a steady gouge was being torn through the cliff in the monster’s wake. A giant dagger was wedged into the sandstone. Frighteningly reminiscent of Justin’s own descent down the palace debris pile, the cythraul was sliding down the wall using its weapon like a rudder.
Justin dipped below the buildings, blocking his line of sight on the monsters. He knew the chasm that had kept back Yordar wouldn’t be enough to stop a cythraul. He heard rumbling and wondered if the palace tunnel had caved in, but the sound was quickly drowned out by a deafening explosion from the opposite end of town and more thunderous roars. They were closing in on both sides.
Justin and Adonica hit the ground and took off sprinting up the street. Splitting up was pointless now. All they could do was run. As they cut through the alleyways, Justin no longer felt the aurym-pulses of Ahlund’s signals. Daemyn was everywhere, overriding his senses, so that the entire city of Hartla seemed utterly immersed in darkness. His demon-arm was alight with cold fire. There had been a time, fleeing into the Shifting Mountains, when the presence of cythraul had caused him to nearly black out. Other times the strength of daemyn sucked him into a terrible, nightmarish realm where Avagad himself spoke to him. Neither was permissible. Not now. Not when so many people needed him.
Turning a corner, Justin’s heart leaped. Lycon had acted on his better judgment, and the Hartlan refugees were already spilling out of the cellar into the street. Lycon was waving them onward.
“Get them to the harbor!” Justin shouted.
“Aye, aye!” Adonica replied, saluting with her sword. “Come on! Everyone, follow me!”
As Adonica led the way, Justin rushed toward Lycon, who at that moment was helping the last of the refugees out of the cellar: frail, old Feliks, carrying his little granddaughter, Maera.
A crash. A shower of stone, brick, and mortar as the building façade exploded. Lycon was blasted backward and rolled across the street. A hailstorm of rubble pelted Justin’s body, breaking the skin. Visible for a split-second through the avalanche of stone and crumbling rooftop were Feliks and Maera. And then the wall collapsed on them.
“No!” Justin screamed.
Materializing through the dust, coming through the broken building, was the silhouette of a monster straight from the pits of hell. Its bone armor plates shifted against one another like an insectoid exoskeleton. The mouth of its fleshless skull was open wide in a demonic roar, venting poisonous, yellow fumes from bladed jaws. It looked at first as if two tusk-like horns grew from the monster’s face. But as it came closer, Justin realized it was the yellowed skull of an elephant, worn atop the cythraul’s head like a helmet.
Clasped in the monster’s right hand was a flail: a long metal rod trailing a chain with links as thick as a man’s hand. And at the end of the chain hung a spiked mace-head the size of a refrigerator.
As it stomped through the building toward him, the creature’s illogical height was baffling, but soon Justin understood. It was not walking at all. It was riding a giant mount. A bone-armored horse, seven feet tall at the shoulders. Its face was jagged, black, and skinless. Teeth and tendons were exposed in the head. Its hooves stamped craters into the street. It had too many legs. Four in the front and four in the back, more arachnid than mammal.
The cythraul looked down at the young man in the street. It raised its opposite hand, pointing a giant, skeletal finger at him. Its mouth opened and it roared.
The monstrous horse reared, kicking the front four of its eight legs one at a time and screaming a ghostly whinny.
Justin’s eyes narrowed into a scowl. He stepped forward. The cythraul raised its weapon. Justin drew his sword.
The adventure continues in The Fallen Aeneid
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