Stathis panted, wished she could afford enchanted armour that could keep itself cool. Even with just the breastplate, it was still unpleasantly hot and sticky, sweat making her clothing stick uncomfortably. The bare, red rock canyons and crevasses around them radiated heat, a few tiny scrubs the only living things breaking up the otherwise featureless rock. If it wasn’t for the countless cracks, crags, flash-flood ravines and caves, then this would be simple. But there were plenty of places were even a giant demon could hide, and each one needed examining.
They’d had some success, at least, flushing out a number of imps and other minor demons, quickly slaying them, a few of the other hunters taking trophies. As stone scraped somewhere just out of sight, Stathis drew her sword as Semari jumped over a rocky outcrop, skidding down the steep incline, a bellow coming from behind her as the Hrundarl charged after her, giant feet slamming into the red stone, sending up puffs of dust as it crushed the stone beneath its weight.
A few arrows and mystic bolts shot towards it, either missing or simply having no effect. It bellowed again, a few of the horses panicking, carrying their riders away. It swung at Semari, the attack missing but the cloud of dust from the impact obscuring Semari from view, even as Stathis charged, other hunters rushing in to support her.
A foot stomped down, squashing a less fortunate hunter, their screams growing quiet as they were dragged back, hopefully being given medical aid. Her new blade proved more successful than the old, its golden edge at least able to cut through the beast’s skin, although the wounds being inflicted seemed to be closing, the black ichor healing into scabs, then flaking off to reveal healed, fresh skin beneath.
Terinth struck a dramatic pose, shouting something in a harsh, guttural tongue Stathis recognised as demonic, catching a few of the words. Given what he had said, it wasn’t a surprise when the beast charged towards him, clearly insulted.
‘Semari, can you get onto its head, try and punch it in the face!’
Semari was coated in red dust from the near-miss, clothing even more ragged than usual. ‘I’ll try. You’ve got to take me flying though!’
‘It’s been two days! Yes, I will, just not now!’ Semari was determined to hold her to her promise as soon as possible. ‘Let’s try and not die here first, OK?’
‘Remember you promised!’
As they continued to hack at its legs, avoiding the lethal swings of its axe, a single punch caught Stathis, sending her flying backwards into a canyon wall, impact winding her for a moment. Behind the beast, Semari leapt up, pulling herself onto the canyon walls, before flipping backwards, neatly landing on its shoulders. A hand came up to grab her, as she simply charged towards it face, slamming a fist into a giant eye.
It roared in pain and fury, shaking hard enough to dislodge Semari, sending her flying to the ground. Its remaining eye started to shine, sickly green energy bright enough to be seen even underneath the bright sun, before it retched, a thick, sticky paste spewing onto several unfortunate hunters. From their screams, it must be acidic, even as a stream of water gushed in from a wizard, trying to wash it away.
The beast started to retreat, swinging the axe to create space and make an opening rather than to kill, giant blade sending up whirls of air and dust, before it had enough space to tense and make a massive jump, launching itself into the air.
Stathis swore as it dropped back out of sight. ‘Anyone got a tracking spell? Parth?’
Parth daubed a symbol onto the rock in chalk, carefully drawing around a splatter of dark blood. It flared into life, a circle of light narrowing down, focusing in one direction. Well, that was clear enough. ‘East.’
Terinth was already rounding up the others, bringing a horse around for Stathis. She mounted, Parth hopping on the back, as they rode across the stone, Semari keeping up by taking the direct route, hopping between crags and ravines.
‘Now this is the fun part! The hunt, the blood in the air, the danger of death at any moment!’ Despite the combat, Terinth seemed unfussed, keeping pace, a rapier in his hand. ‘I assume that Lady Janaxia had other engagements?’
‘Still ill. And this isn’t really her sort of thing.’ Anything that involved lots of work, and lots of dust was something Janaxia preferred to avoid, even when her magic was working. Although her clothing would be better for the heat than Stathis’ armour!
‘A shame! I do like to perform for as large an audience as possible. Although I hear she has yet to venture forth from her home – I imagine she is overseeing quite extensive renovations?’
The nobility rumour mill was gearing up, as expected. Gods only knew what they thought of Semari, who looked like a tattered vagabond, even beyond the normal standard of adventurers. Parth, at least, would get a pass for her eccentricities, elves often being a bit weird.
‘Yeah, place has been empty for a while, needs some work.’
‘According to local legend, it is cursed. ‘Tis said that the Frostreaver himself dwelt there, in his days of glory.’
‘Wait, that’s who she’s descended from?’ That explained a lot; who else would Janaxia’s ancestor be but the blood-drenched necromancer that had conquered half the continent in a storm of violence. And then, admittedly, ruled with surprising competency, even if it was mostly built upon the silence of the dead. ‘Thought the place would be bigger.’
‘He was of relatively humble origins. There is a song about him, well, several actually, if…’
‘Not right now. Although I’m sure Janaxia would like to hear them. Once she’s feeling better at least.’
They entered into a narrow canyon, separating from the others as each group tried to find their own way through the canyons, sudden shade welcoming and cool, hoofs echoing loudly around the narrow space. They advanced more slowly, wending through the cramped space, niches in the walls filled with statues, worn and eroded past any recognition, but looking decidedly cultish.
A harsh, growling echo came from somewhere ahead of them, followed by a lower, hissing noise, then similar tortured words, but in a far more normal pitch. Terinth held up a hand for silence as Stathis dismounted. As the sounds continued, Terinth whispered a summary.
‘It seems the Hrundarl isn’t alone. It was speaking to another of its kind, complaining of its injuries. And there’s a person with them, asking about if they pursued.’
‘Shit, is it a…’ she tried to remember the name, ‘…, uh, Lithmara? The one we’ve fought was pretty tough, think we can take one of those as well?’
They moved ahead cautiously, peering around the corner. The Hrundarl had set its axe to one side, and, from its posing, was angrily complaining to another demon, a roiling mass of wings and mist, patches of moist scales appearing through the haze surrounding it. A voice emerged from somewhere at the top of the mist, a triangular shape of darkness floating in the darkness. The patch of shadow bubbled and heaved, making it hard to get any sense of the size of the thing inside, or even how solid it was. Almost lost in the darkness was a human-sized figure, form hidden by plain robes, arcane and occult implements belted around their waist.
Stathis looked at Terinth and Parth, hoping one of them would have some better idea of what it might be weak to. Terinth whispered, ‘It isn’t that powerful, but it can summon demons and other monsters. It can also fly, so we’ll have to get it before it flies away.’
‘OK, Parth – you try and stop that thing flying off. Reckon we can take the big one down? Come at it from the blindside?’
Their planning was interrupted by a cry from above, as Semari leapt down, landing on the Hrundarl’s shoulders and immediately attacking. Stathis didn’t even have to give the order as they charged in for support, Semari’s first strike taking the beast’s other eye. It blundered around, sweeping the air with giant crushing strikes, powerful but untargeted, even as Semari ducked around, trying to find weak points to target.
The haze uncoiled itself, spiny scales appearing from within the darkness, a misshapen form, dozens of feathered wings appearing, coming from a twisted and stunted body, a draconic head perched atop a scaled lump of flesh, a long, scaled tail flicking through the air. A flick of a wing sent a wave of blue fire flying towards them, Stathis jumping in front of Parth, shielding her from the blast.
Another blast of fire swept towards them, the heat lashing her, stinging her eyes and face. ‘Does it have any weaknesses?’
‘Silver, cold iron, holy magic. Sadly, all things I lack!’ He flicked a wrist, a throwing knife hurtling towards the creature, bouncing off a wing without effect. An arrow flew towards it, shimmering with green energy, only to be reduced to ashes by another wave of flame. Stathis sliced at the Hrundarl a few times, managing to evade the clumsy attacks it made, before charging past it towards the Lithmara. From down on the ground, she was limited in what she could reach, slicing at a wing, her blade biting into the wet scales, even as it hissed at her, unfurling larger wings and starting to move upwards.
Several of the smaller wings tensed and then flicked towards her, a cascade of elemental energies, ice, fire, knife-sharp wind all flying towards her. She gritted her teeth, trying to shield herself as best she could, the blasts smacking her around and keeping her off-balance as the creature began to shift upwards, mercifully slow to move away at least. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the others trying to finish off the Hrundarl, now on its knees as Semari continued to batter away at it.
Stathis focused, tuning in on the subtle harmonies of light and glory, always present in the back of her mind. Energy flowed through her, and she leapt, a flap of her wings sending her soaring upwards. In the air it was easier to evade, swooping and dodging around waves of energy, ignoring the smashing, crunching sounds as the attacks smashed into the stone, sending waves of dust and debris skittering downwards.
Despite the power of its attacks, it seemed slow and unskilled, even as it continued to rise in the air, slowly gaining speed as it moved. The central body turned to face her, draconic head amidst the warped flesh screeching incomprehensible words at her. In between blasts and waves of energy, she saw an opening and let herself drop, shooting towards it, blade thrusting forward. It opened its mouth, deep, cold, black energy gathering in its maw, forming into a sphere of energy.
She channelled more of the divine energy into her blade, until it shone like the sun, bright enough to banish the shadows within the canyon. It spat just as she attacked, her blade meeting the burst of energy, splintering the darkness into countless shards, each impacting into the surrounding canyon, scouring deep marks out of the rock. Even with her momentum robbed by the attack, she still had enough power to thrust her blade into the demon, a deep slash barely missing one eye as it twisted away. It screeched and tried to bite her, a slow and easy to evade attack.
This close, it couldn’t summon up energy from any of its wings without hitting itself, and couldn’t move fast enough to get away. A crimson lash of energy suddenly snapped at her from beneath, snagging around her ankle and pulling her down, burning into her flesh. She strained, trying to keep herself flying as she glanced down, seeing the robed figure holding the other end of the spell-lash, as a mystical circle spiralled into being around them. She flexed her wings, trying to pull them off balance, ignoring the pain searing through her ankle, as the Lithmara snapped at her again, teeth scoring off her breastplate.
Below, she saw the robed figure pull out a knife, slicing their hand, blood hanging in the air for a moment before fading, a dark gap forming in the air, a maw of utter darkness snapping into the air, snatching the Lithmara away. When she looked down, the wizard was gone as well, transported by the darkness.
With her target gone, she swept down onto the Hrundarl with a battlecry, blade sinking deep into its body, even its impressive stamina unable to keep up with the attacks it was sustaining. As it stumbled, Terinth jumped onto its back and began to saw through its neck, black ichor spraying everywhere, as it collapsed to the ground, finally destroyed.