Bree shifted her weight slightly. Her copper tankard banged against her hip. He was here. Her lord, Cayden Cailean was with her. He was always with her. He was here.
Bree swallowed her fear and raised Tempest high. She stepped into the darkness beyond with Kelestair close on her heels.
The room looked nothing like the hallway they had been in. It was more of a cavern than anything. A vast, looming cavern. The air was damp, cool and moist. Writhing roots hung down from the ceiling. At the far end of the cavern was a jagged stone thrust up from the earth around it. Standing upon the platform, was Kardswann.
Bree’s eyes widened. “I killed you.”
Kardswann chuckled. It was a dry, inhuman sound. “Many years have I languished in this foul place, trapped here by the wards set by your Pactmasters.” His voice was a croaking rasp which sounded nothing like it had the last time they had spoken. “Endless decades have I endured the whispering spirits of the wholesome dead, cursing my captors, hating the world I could no longer corrupt.”
A chill went up Bree’s spine. This was not Kardswann. This was Xulthos. This was much, much worse.
“When the Templar came he walked through the walls and the red-men’s seal remained intact. But you have broken the seal and my long captivity is finally at an end. Before I go I will kill one of you so brutally that the other willingly allows himself to be my slave.”
Xulthos-Kardswann stepped forward, off of his stone stage and onto the cavern floor. “Which one of you, I wonder, shall that be?”
Kelestair placed his hand upon Bree’s shoulder and began to chant softly.
“You will have neither of us, Xulthos!” Bree cried. “Our gods will protect us from your corruption!” A slight pulse went through her body and she felt stronger.
Another pulse and this time she felt tougher.
“Today you find not your freedom, but your death!” she yelled.
Kelestair removed his hand and pointed at Xulthos-Kardswann. “Enfabastious vesral!” A sickly looking ray sprung from his hand and struck Xulthos-Kardswann in the chest.
The fiend’s form wavered and then shifted. Kardswann disappeared. In his place was an immense, six legged, insect-like monster with huge claws and a long, serpentine tail tipped with chitinous blades. It had multi-faceted eyes, slavering mandibles and nearly transparent wings upon its back. The torch-light reflected off of its carapace in a dazzling display.
This was Xulthos.
“Enfabastious vesral!” Kelesteir shouted again, causing Xulthos to shrink upon himself slightly.
The fiend’s wings flapped quickly causing another bout of fear to strike Bree, but she shrugged it off easily this time. She would not run. She would fight. She splashed through a reeking puddle of fluids and slashed sideways at Xulthos with a scream upon her lips.
Xulthos shifted his weight slightly. It was the most graceful movement Bree had ever witnessed. Her blade veered off course.
Xulthos lifted his bladed tail high into the air, as if he were a scorpion readying his stinger. Bree wanted nothing more than to just watch. It was beautiful. Hypnotic.
Bree threw herself to the wet, stinking ground and came up in a roll just as Xulthos’ tail tore into the earth beside her. She slashed upwards with Tempest and missed again.
What was wrong with her? She rolled backwards a few paces, regained her feet and eyed Xulthos warily.
Another sickly ray leapt from Kelesteir’s finger and struck Xulthos and he shrunk in on himself a bit more. He turned gracefully – it was a thing of utter, hideous beauty. The way the torchlight made his form seem to shimmer and –
That was it. The light. It reflected off of its carapace in strange, glittering, distracting ripples, making his form waver. But what could she do about that? She couldn’t douse the torch! Kelesteir might manage to continue the fight in the dark but Bree most certainly could not! She would just have to focus. Ignore it.
Yes. She could do it.
Xulthos and Kelestair were across the room. Kelestair didn’t seem badly wounded but his clothing was torn, he bled from both his arms and bore a nasty looking bruise on his face. Xulthos loomed over him and snapped his claws.
Kelestair twisted himself to the side, in between the claws. “Bree!”
She found herself simply standing there, watching as Kelestair was attacked. She shook her head. Ignore it!
Easier said than done.
Kelestair placed his hand upon Xulthos’ face and muttered something. A red pulse of light burst from his hand and Xulthos shrieked. The cuts upon Kelestair’s arms knitted themselves back together.
Xulthos reared back and plunged his tail into Kelestair’s leg. He screamed in agony. Xulthos flicked his tail and sent Kelestair flying across the room. He smashed into the wall and fell to the floor in a heap.
Bree caught herself watching again, instead of acting and shook her head.
No! NO! Kelestair needed her!
Bree grit her teeth and charged forward just as Xulthos turned on Kelestair. She swung her sword three times, missing repeatedly. Xulthos snapped at her with his claws but Bree dove to the side and slashed up with her blade. Tempest bit deeply this time, slicing through Xulthos’ carapace with ease.
Bree smiled. She had hit him!
A sickly beam hit Xulthos, followed by another. It withered and roared then snapped at Bree again with its claws. She blocked one of the blows with her buckler then parried the other with her scimitar. Her muscles screamed from the force of his blows.
This was his strength after being weakened by Kelestair’s magic? Froth and foam, this fiend was strong!
Bree sliced at him sideways, but Xulthos was ready for her. He snapped his claws at her as she raised her blade, tearing a deep gash across her abdomen. Blood gushed from the wound. She screamed.
Xulthos snapped at her again.
Something knocked Bree to the side, out of the way of the claws. Kelestair? Bree’s head hit the floor with a crack. Darkness overtook her. Something brushed against her face. Something soft. A feather?
The floor was hard beneath her back. She tasted something metallic. Something familiar. Blood? Was it her own? She couldn’t remember.
She heard the sounds of battle around her. Snapping claws. Rending flesh. She shivered. She was cold. So cold. And wet. Where was she?
Someone called her name. A bird squawked loudly in her ear.
Bree tore her eyes open. Husk loomed over her and flapped his wings. Bree moved, but a pain tore through her. A warm, fluid soaked her chest and abdomen. She swooned.
Blood. So much blood.
She was going to die.
Bree pressed her hands to her belly. Oh, gods! It was torn right open! She closed her eyes and prayed.
Sensations overtook her. She was dancing. Singing. Drinking. Laughing. She couldn’t control it. She lost herself.
A man shook his head at her. “No.” His voice was sweet and soothing. Like honey. “Not yet.”
He seemed so familiar. Did she know him?
“Not yet,” he repeated.
Bree frowned. Why was he sending her away? She didn’t want to go!
She came back to herself with a start.
Power flowed through her and she forced it into her stomache. The bleeding stopped. Her wounds bubbled, frothed and then closed.
Husk squawked loudly and nipped at her.
Bree groaned and forced herself to her feet. She was weak. So weak!
Kelestair lay upon the ground covered in wounds. Xulthos loomed over him with his tail raised to the cavern’s roof. He plunged his tail down.
Kelestair didn’t move.
Bree felt as if time had stopped. She ran forward, but she was slow. Too slow! She would never make it in time!
He didn’t. But something else did.
A broadsword tore into Xulthos’ tail causing the beast to scream. Santon roared and ripped his sword to the side, severing Xulthos’ tail from his body. Xulthos retreated further into the cavern but Santon followed him, pressing the attack.
Santon? When had he come back?
Bree staggered over to Kelestair. He was badly wounded. Bree pressed her hands against his chest but then frowned. She would lose herself completely if she tried to channel her gods divinity again. Should she chance it?
No. They needed her.
She removed her hands with a curse. She tore a piece of cloth off of her blouse and tied it tightly around the deepest wound she could see. She offered him her hand and pulled him to his feet.
“My magic is spent,” he said tightly. “I can cast no more spells today.”
Bree handed him his mace. “That doesn’t mean you can’t help.”
Kelestair nodded and clutched his mace. Together, they charged across the cavern and joined Santon who was swinging his sword widely. Savagely. Kelesteir beat upon Xulthos’ carapace with his mace and Bree sliced Tempest along the monsters legs and sides. A slimy green ooze seeped from Xulthos’ wounds.
They could do this! They could win!
Xulthos scuttled backwards and flapped his insectile wings fiercely. A wave of confusion swept through Bree. Strange thoughts and voices invaded her mind.
“Kill!” they screamed. “Bite! Tear! Bleed!”
“Get out of my head!”
The voices retreated.
“Kill them!” Xulthos roared.
Santon swung his broadsword at Xulthos but missed completely and struck Kelestair instead.
His eyes were blank voids. “Yes, master,” he muttered.
No! Santon hadn’t missed. He had aimed for Kelestair.
Kelestair staggered backwards with Husk at his side. Bree slashed at Xulthos again and Tempest sliced his side open.
“Kill her!” Xulthos clarified.
Santon swung his sword at her. Bree threw herself backwards. The blade missed her by a hairsbreadth but she had no time to rejoice. She knew how Santon fought. He would press the attack relentlessly until she faltered or turned the tables on him.
Santon thrusted at her and this time she sidestepped. He swung again, and again.
Bree was tired and wounded. She could not outlast Santon. She had to fight back. But could she?
Santon swung his blade sideways.
Bree ducked and raised her buckler above her head. As his blade passed over her she pushed up as hard as she could, knocking his blade up with her shield and setting him off balance. She slashed at him with Tempest.
Santon’s blade would be of no use to him. He couldn’t block. He couldn’t parry. He couldn’t dodge. He was defenseless.
She stopped midswing. Tempest hovered inches away from Santon’s left side.
Santon backhanded her across the face then wound up and kicked her in the stomache.
Bree coughed as the air was forced from her lungs. She fell to the ground and clutched her abdomen.
Santon kicked her again.
Xulthos loomed behind him. “Kill her!”
Santon hoisted his broadsword above his head.
Bree struggled to stand, but couldn’t. She was winded and spent. Her legs were useless beneath her.
Santon’s muscles tensed. He plunged his sword down.
Bree’s eyes widened. This was it. Her death. She had never imagined it would be like this.
Santon’s sword shimmered red as it caught the torchlight. Bree looked up into his eyes. They were black, pupil-less voids.
This was it.
Santon’s sword veered off course, behind him and under his arm. Directly into Xulthos’ face. An inhuman scream tore through the chamber.
Santon ripped his sword out with a roar and plunged it back into Xulthos’ multi-faceted eyes.
Such weak willed mortals could never best Xulthos!
And yet they were.
Xulthos’ eyes widened as the stupid, hulking bag of flash and bones raised its sword high over his head.
No! He would not be defeated! Not now! Not ever!
Xulthos gathered up his thoughts and sent them careening into the space above him. Up to the surface they soared. To Kelmarane.
He needed someone. Anyone!
Xulthos’ thoughts scanned the streets but found nothing. Not a soul.
As the human’s blade inched closer to his face, he roared. No!
He sent his thoughts out further. Wider! He needed something. Anything!
Santon drove his sword into Xulthos face. “Stay out of my head!” He yanked his sword out and then plunged it back in.
Xulthos’ body quivered and twitched. Around them the cavern became fuzzy and then suddenly, they weren’t in a cavern at all, but a large tomb just like those they had passed through before.
Bree frowned. There had never been a cavern. Only Xulthos and his tricks. Illusions and enchantments, misdirection and control. Corruption. No wonder Kelmarane had turned on itself.
Santon yelled and stabbed the monster repeatedly.
“He is gone, Santon,” Kelesteir said from across the room. “He will not control you again.”
Santon gritted his teeth. He roared and hurled his sword across the room. It clattered against the far wall. He threw himself to his knees, leaned back and then smashed his forehead into the ground. Another roar escaped his lips. It was savage. Desperate.
Bree stumbled over to Santon.
He breathed in great heaves. His body shuddered. “Get out…” he mumbled. “Get out. Get out!” He smashed his head into the floor once more.
She placed her hand upon his shoulder. “It’s over. Xulthos is dead.”
Santon’s muscles loosened. His breathing slowed. He rose to his feet. Blood poured from his forehead. He wiped the blood from his head with the back of his hand and then turned to Bree and smiled. He looked at her as he always did. As if he hadn’t a care in the world.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was calm, but held none of the joy it usually did.
Bree looked deeper. His hands shook. His eyes were glassy and narrowed. Haunted. Santon was a broken man.
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated.
Bree patted his back. “It’s alright. It’s over now.”
But it wasn’t.
High above Kelmarane, a bird as black as death with the jaws of a wolf and the antlers of a stag circled the skies. Its human-shaped shadow swept across the church and graveyard below.
Xulthos screamed and the peryton let out a soul-numbing screech. Locked within his feathered host, Xulthos seethed.
Those fools thought it was over. That they were safe. That they had won. But they were wrong! It wasn’t over! They weren’t safe! They hadn’t won themselves anything but time!
Xulthos yelled in rage and cursed at the streets below, but his mouth would not obey. The peryton was incapable of speech.
This wasn’t over. This was not the end.
Xulthos would have his revenge.