The peryton was bigger than Bree had imagined. The beast itself was around six paces tall, but it’s wingspan was almost thirty paces in length. Bree had never seen a bird so big! It had the neck, forelegs, and chest of a large stag, but the plumage, wings and hindquarters of a giant, black eagle. Its head was that of a slavering wolf. Its talons were the size of daggers and atop its head was a massive rack of sharp, black antlers. From various parts of its body burst insectile features. The stag-like hooves on its front legs were broken and hung at an unnatural angle. Giant claws, like those of a scorpion, had burst forth in their place. A curled, tail topped with a stinger had grown from its backside, and chitinous plates stuck out from beneath its feathers at random intervals. The plates were black as pitch, but shone in a shifting rainbow of colours in the sunlight. Mandibles jutted out from its lupine cheeks and curved around the front of its jaw. The shadow it cast was shaped like a man.
Kelestair needn’t have warned them to be quiet. The peryton’s presence scared everyone into silence.
For a moment, at least.
Then all hell broke loose.
A chorus of terrified screams shattered the silence. The people of Thrice Hills ran as fast as they could away from the peryton. They paid no mind to their surroundings or direction, so long as it was away. They trampled each other and many ran straight into the very traps they had set. It was a slaughter, and the peryton hadn’t so much as made a move.
The sight of the peryton filled Bree with feelings of menace and terror so strong she nearly fell to her knees. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and forced her emotions down as far and as deeply as she could. Now was not the time for fear. Now was the time to fight.
The peryton was intercepted in the skies by Undrella who threw vials at the creature. They shattered upon its chitin plates in bursts of acid and flame. The peryton let out a roar that sounded like the anguished screams of a group of men dying in agony. The ghoulish cries chilled Bree to the core. The peryton swooped towards Undrella, tearing at her with its talons and snapping at her with its claws. She pressed her wings to her side and dove straight down, before careening up into the sky again. The peryton kept pace with her. Undrella spun in the air, and threw a handful of vials into the peryton’s face. Another tortured scream rent the air. Bree clutched at her chest. It felt as if her very soul was being drawn to the peryton’s cries. She gasped for breath.
She rose her shivering hand to the sky. “Archers!” she screamed.
Nothing happened. She had expected the people of Thrice Hills to panic, but where were her trained archers? She searched behind her desperately. Kallien had curled herself into a ball and was cowering at the top of the hill. Brotis was nowhere to be seen. Dashki had turned and was running across the field. Only Jamus still stood. He had an arrow notched on his bow, and was aiming at the peryton, but had not fired. His arms shook uncontrollably and he seemed to have trouble looking at the creature. Bree’s terror inched its way to the surface.
Undrella was clearly outmatched. Bree needed the archers to help her, but they had all run away! Froth and foam! How could this have happened?
“Easy,” Kelestair said. “Do not give in to your panic. It is an aura of fear shed by the peryton. Keep your wits about you.”
Bree nodded. How could he be so calm?
“Undrella needs us,” Santon said through tightly gritted teeth, “And our archers fled like cowards. I need a bow.”
“No, Santon. Even a well trained archer could strike Undrella by accident. Best to wait for her to drive the beast to ground.”
High above them, Undrella wavered. Her vials and bombs had barely slowed the peryton down, while its claws and talons had clearly wounded her greatly. She was slowing, and her flight had become erratic.
“She’s not going to drive it to ground, Kel! She’s going to die!”
“If you try firing at them, you will kill her.”
Santon growled in frustration. “Jamus! Take a shot!”
“He’s scared!” Bree yelled. Panic crept into her voice.
They all should be scared.
“Jamus!” Santon shouted.
Jamus set his jaw and let an arrow fly. It went wide and missed both of them. He fumbled as he drew another arrow, scattering his quiver of arrows across the rocks.
The peryton dove at Undrella. She swerved, but took a hit from one of its antlers across her torso. A burst of blood filled the air, and then Undrella went plummeting down to the earth.
“Undrella!” Santon screamed.
The peryton turned its head, searching for the source of the sound. It’s eyes locked on Santon. Santon drew his greatsword and beckoned it forward. “Over here you ugly bird! I’ll rip those horns from your head!”
The peryton banked to the right, putting it on course for Santon.
Jamus fired an arrow. It struck the peryton in the chest, but didn’t seem to bother it. He fired again anyway.
Bree and Kelestair ran to Santon’s side. They would need to work together.
As the peryton neared, the screams from Thrice Hills grew more frantic. A slow, creeping terror welled up in Bree and she had the overwhelming urge to scream. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pressed a hand to the copper tankard dangling at her hip.
“Lend me your courage my Lord,” she prayed. “Let me stand my ground when lesser men would flee.”
The peryton swooped overhead once, causing its shadow to fall over them.
Bree’s hands began to shake. She heard crying from behind her. Jamus had fallen to his knees and had tears pooling down his face.
“Be strong!” Kelestair said firmly. “Do not fall to despair.” He placed his hand upon Santon and Bree’s shoulders and spoke in a commanding voice. “Sestorious lesahownem! Kestral hest moones!” Bree felt a pulse of energy go through her. She felt tougher. Stronger. More powerful. Kelestair removed his hand.
Bree took a deep breath. Together, they could do this.
The peryton finished its wide circle, then swooped down and landed right in front of them. It screamed, though it sounded different from before. It’s cry was less human and more… unearthly. Insectile. Its shadow wavered and shifted, changing from the shape of a man into that of a strange, winged scorpion.
Jamus threw his bow to the ground and fled into Thrice Hills.
“You hurt my woman!” Santon roared at the peryton. He lunged forward with his massive sword. “Die!”
Bree raced in right behind Santon but Santon fell to his knees and clutched at his head. Bree struck him and fell to the ground, cracking her shoulder on the ground and twisting her ankle.
Bree struggled to her feet with a groan.
“Enfabastious vesral!” Kelestair shouted. A sickly looking beam struck the peryton.
The peryton flapped it’s massive wings. A strange, multi-coloured, shimmer trailed along the it’s feathers. Bree felt a wave of panic wash over her. She clutched Tempest tighter. She wouldn’t give in to fear! Not now! Not ever! If she could stand firm against Xulthos, a daemon from Abaddon, then she could fight a peryton without fear!
“Not again,” Santon mumbled to himself. “Not again.”
Kelestair moved into melee with the peryton, swinging his mace. Each of his blows connected with a heavy thud.
Bree hobbled back a step to check on Santon. She reached down to touch his shoulder and he hacked at her with his sword.
“Not again!” Santon roared.
Bree shrieked in surprise and limped back. “Santon, it’s me!”
Santon roared. He locked eyes with her, and then swung again.
“Froth and foam!” Bree shouted. She staggered back as quickly as her ankle allowed. She knew to keep Santon at a distance from the last time he had turned on her and –
Santon swung his blade and Bree ducked. He swung again and she dodged backwards.
Last year Xulthos had controlled Santon and made him attack her. His wings and carapace had shimmered like a rainbow when he moved. He used fear, terror and confusion as his weapons. He had looked like an evil, otherworldly scorpion.
Bree caught sight of the peryton’s strange, insectile shadow. At Xulthos’ shadow.
Santon swung his sword at her and she rolled to the side. Pain lanced through her ankle, but she grit her teeth and came up with both feet firmly on the ground.
How had Xulthos’ powers ended up inside a peryton? They had killed Xulthos, hadn’t they?
Bree frowned. It didn’t matter.
The peryton would die and, if Xulthos was inside it somewhere, he would die again.
“Santon!” Bree shouted. “Fight back! Don’t let Xulthos control you! You’re better than that! You beat him before!”
Santon reeled back as if he had been struck. He dropped his sword and fell to his knees. He pressed his hands to his head and screamed. “Get out of my head!”
“Fight!” Bree yelled.
Santon grabbed his greatsword, hopped to his feet and lunged at the peryton. “NEVER AGAIN!” he roared.
The peryton knocked the sword aside with a claw then roared in rage, right in Santon’s face. Its eyes flickered between the bright orange of a predator, and the reflective, black of Xulthos. Kelestair struck the peryton in its segmented tail, causing it to shriek, and back up a few paces.
Bree spared a glance at Kelestair. He looked heavily wounded, though he had more tears and rips in his clothing than there were wounds. He looked tired, but not in danger of dying.
The peryton looked in worse shape. One of its claws had rotted off. What remained stunk like death. It also had a series of puncture wounds along its chest, as if it had been clawed by large talons. Bree smiled in grim satisfaction. Kelestair had a way of turning his wounds back onto his opponent with magic and if Kelestair alone could inflict this much damage on the peryton, it didn’t stand a chance against the three of them together.
Bree took a clumsy lunge forward and slashed Tempest across the soft looking flesh on the peryton’s side. Blood spurted from the wound. Kelestair smashed its hind foot with his mace and Santon hacked its other claw clean off with his massive sword. The peryton roared and staggered back. Santon drove his blade forward, but the peryton quickly flapped its wings and took to the skies.
“Come back, you coward!” Santon screamed.
“Stand down,” Kelestair ordered.
“We can’t let it get away,” Bree argued.
“It is not fleeing,” Kelestair replied. “Just changing tactics.”
Bree dropped to the ground. The peryton swooped by her head and clenched its talons, missing her by a hairsbreadth. She climbed to her feet, but the peryton had already looped back around. Bree dove out of the way, but the beasts talons tore right through her armour. She screamed in agony. The peryton clutched at her and took hold of her in its claws. Bree was lifted off the ground, but Kelestair and Santon managed to nick it as it passed. It’s grip loosened and Bree squirmed loose.
She screamed as she fell twenty feet to the rocky ground. The collision knocked the breath out of her and forced her shield arm out of it’s socket. Blood poured from her abdomen and a great aching spread its way up her back. She paled and suddenly felt woozy. Cayden’s curse! It must have hit her kidneys. Without her healing powers a wound like this would kill her. Quickly.
“Find cover,” Santon yelled. “Drive it to ground!”
The peryton swooped low over Kelestair and Santon just as Bree struggled up onto her feet. Her legs wobbled beneath her and her ankle threatened to give out at the slightest pressure. She hobbled to the nearest rock and threw her shoulder against it. Agony lanced up her arm, but her shoulder popped back into place.
The peryton swooped for Santon and Kelestair again. They threw themselves to the ground, but Santon took the peryton’s talons across his back. He screamed and blood gushed from the wounds. If the peryton kept this up, they would be dead in a matter of minutes.
Santon and Kelestair rushed forward, continuing on to a large boulder. Bree hobbled after them in a daze. She would soon pass out from blood loss and Kelestair lacked the ability to heal others. She was as good as dead. If she was going to do anything else to help her friends, now was the time. Bree cast her mind around feebly, clutching at any thought or plan. Her mind was jumbled and she had trouble concentrating. She couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t end with her death. Still, she might be able to make her death mean something.
As Kelestair and Santon took shelter under a boulder Bree climbed up on top of it. She unstrapped the Dawn of Freedom from her arm and dropped it to the ground. She clutched Tempest tightly in one hand and waved her other arm above her. Pain lanced down her sides. She clenched her teeth together tightly. Spots entered her vision. She tried to blink them away, but it only made the world around her start to spin. She would soon black out. She was running out of time.
“Over here!” She screamed. “I’m the one you want!”
The peryton swooped down at her with its talons out.
“No!” shouted Santon.
“Run!” yelled Kelestair.
Bree didn’t move. She had only thought of one plan to kill the peryton and to say it was madness was an understatement. Still, it was all she had. She wouldn’t die without a fight.
The peryton neared.
Bree waited until it was almost upon her, then launched herself up, along the rock and into the air. The peryton clutched at empty space and Bree landed upon its back with a thud. She clung to the chitinous plates along it’s spine with one hand, and wrapped her legs around the peryton’s ribs.
The peryton shrieked in surprise and turned up sharply. It climbed higher and higher. Bree cursed and hung on tight. She had seen birds of prey caught in a similar situation a few times before. The peryton was flying up as high as it could, before trying to shake her off so she’d plummet to her death.
The wind whistled past her, causing her hair to fly behind her like a pennant. She had an urge to hang on for dear life, but knew it was useless. Already her grip was slipping. If she didn’t pass out from blood loss she’d slip off shortly.
Bree shifted her weight towards the right and raised Tempest in the air. She slashed down to where the peryton’s wings connected to its back. Blood spurted from the wound and the peryton screamed. Bree slashed Tempest across its wing again, and again. Feathers, blood and bits of flesh were blown away in the wind. The peryton climbed higher and spiraled in the air. Bree clung onto its back with her legs and arm. She dragged Tempest across the gaping wound, sawing back and forth with all she had. It was tough work. Tempest was a blade made for light slashes and cuts, not sawing through flesh and bone. The peryton spiralled faster and Bree almost lost her grip. She hung on for a moment, regained her purchase and sliced Tempest across the wing with all her remaining strength. Bone gave way beneath her blade. Flesh tore. The peryton gave a pained scream as its wing was severed from its body.
The world spun uncontrollably. With only one wing the peryton’s flight was out of control. They were both careening to their deaths. The ground got bigger. Closer.
This was a death she could be proud of.
A death worth dying.
Cayden’s will be done.