Dirt and debris filled the air, clustering as enemy projectiles landed amongst the soldiers. Hot sun beat upon the thrashed earth, drying pools of blood beside the corpses. The burning heat brought the flies in droves and vultures circled the sky. The living soldiers rushed for cover, trying to dodge the stones flung from the wall surrounding the enemy’s fortress. Sturdy, sharp thorns wrapped around each stone, gouging and stabbing any man failing to reach cover. Their cries and screams echoed wretchedly across the plains in dozens of choruses.
Prince Hector scowled at the war zone, safe under the shelter of his command tent. The fortress walls rose thirty feet into the air, stained with fresh blood. The dirt beneath Hector’s feet cracked along the surface as he scuffed his boots along the earth. Four weeks campaigning and not a single drop of rain. His runners were growing ever smaller in number, but he had no choice except to send them to fetch water, which inconveniently lay at least a day’s journey from his present position.
Red sun yawned over the battlefield. General Basque looked at the prince from across the field, raising an eyebrow in question. Hector nodded curtly and the general turned back to his men, yelling for retreat. It was time to retire. They needed some respite before all daylight receded. Desperately, the men retreated from the battlefield. Even with the unmistakable order for retreat, Queen Adeline’s troops still flung the thorned-wrapped stones over the walls. These caught several men in the small of their backs, flinging them forward onto their faces into blood and rocks. One smacked his head on another thorn-wrapped stone, the force of which thankfully ended his suffering. Not every man was so lucky. With the last of the army pulled from the battlefield, the dying screams and whimpers still filled their comrades’ ears. None dared to gather the wounded.
Hector walked through the camp. The soldiers bound each other’s wounds, some tending to the dying as best they could. With their severe lack of water, Hector had given the order to withhold it from any man who wouldn’t make it through the night. They needed it for the living. It was cruel but wars weren’t won through kindness.
The man grunted in acknowledgment as he surveyed the soldiers, his grim face made all the grimmer by the scar running diagonally across it, marring his features. The middle-aged man was no stranger to war and had been instrumental in the king’s success when he’d conquered Castle Ancelm. “I don’t suppose you’ve thought of a plan to get us out here that doesn’t involve permanent retreat?” he asked gruffly.
“I’m working on it. I’m sending someone out tonight.”
Basque chuckled darkly. “Do they understand you’re sending them on a suicide mission?”
Hector bristled at the criticism. “No and that’s why they’ll succeed.”
“Who’re you sending?”
Ever the pragmatist, the general weighed the idea before rejecting it. “That could work.”
“It will work.” Hector left the general standing at the outskirts of the camp and walked back to his command tent, doing his best to ignore the dying men on the battlefield and the ones within the camp. A single soldier gathered enough strength to slowly drag himself across the battlefield. If he made it to the camp, they would help him. If not… Hector didn’t need weak men.
Jack stood waiting impatiently at the command tent, one of Hector’s personal guards standing with him. Hector pulled a bottle of ink from a pouch at his waist. Taking a pointed stick, Hector knelt in front of Jack. The eleven-year-old boy gulped. “So I just have to make it the walls?” he repeated once more.
The prince nodded. “That’s right.” He pulled the stopper from the ink bottle and dipped the stick in. “Give me your arm.” The boy pulled the sleeve of his dirty tunic up and held his arm out. Hector carefully drew a circle with six lines running from the sides, all running to meet at the center. He drew a smaller circle inside around the center
and quickly plugged the ink bottle once more.
“What if I don’t make it?” Jack’s innocent, brown eyes searched the prince for any sign of doubt.
“You will and that symbol will keep you safe. Remember, they cannot touch you as long as you believe they are powerless.” Prince Hector grasped his arm and gently shook it. “Don’t forget. Believe. You’ll be fine, Jack, but only you can do this.”
He nodded. “But why only me?”
“Because you’re a child and the symbol offers the most protection to the innocent. Listen, when the sun goes down, Dallen here is going to escort you to the perimeter. No matter what you hear, keep going until you reach the fortress walls. Find a way in, then come back to us. That’s it. Don’t do anything else. Don’t stop to help anyone. Don’t talk to anyone, even if you think they’re a friend. Ignore them. Focus on the mission.”
Jack released a pent up breath. “All right.”
Hector stood. “Keep him safe, Dallen.”
The guard squeezed Jack’s shoulder. “I’ll do what I can.” He led the boy away, allowing Hector a moment to eat… and worry.
The prince sat amongst the rest of his guard for dinner, setting himself apart from the common soldiers but still boosting some moral with his presence. The group sat silently as they ate rabbit from the countryside and potato. His hunting party had arrived that morning with the meat and left almost as soon as they’d arrived. Their food supplies were dwindling and anything they could use to supplement their meals was welcomed.
All sunlight faded from the world and moonlight spilled over the army. Swords were loose in their sheaths. The night patrols became more alert, watching for any sign of danger. No matter what happened, it would be a long, tense night.
Dark figures slithered down the fortress walls and wound through the battlefield. The first wave picked up the corpses and trudged back to the fortress. The bodies were lifted over the walls and taken out of sight. The second wave checked the rest of the soldiers. Two crawling soldiers pushed rocks out of their way as they tried to reach the light from the camp. Two dark figures darted forward in unison and swiftly shoved knives through the soldiers’ hearts. Their choking breaths reached the silent camp. More soldiers unsheathed their swords where they stood, but waited for their orders.
General Basque stood rock still, watching as the dark figures stole the last corpses, leaving an empty but blood-stained battlefield.
“May the great Creators be with Jack. They’re preparing to attack.”
Hector glanced at his guard. “May the great Creators be with us,” Hector said. He unsheathed his sword and strode towards the camp’s outskirts. His guards followed. The one who spoke, Alex, stayed close to the prince’s side. Dark clouds covered the moonlight, darkening the fortress. Even with the loss of light, Hector made out the dark forms crawling back over the walls, using the ladders provided by Hector’s men. They’d made it close to the fortress wall in the sunlight, but not without the loss of dozens of good men. It sickened him to see his men’s work benefiting the enemy.
The soldiers shifted nervously edging out from the center of the camp. General Basque issued a quiet command, but the entire camp heard it. The soldiers moved forward to create a defensive ring around the camp. Hector gripped his sword tighter, his heart beating a reluctant rhythm against the dread that took hold of his body. His muscles tensed and stiffened with the waiting. His guards shifted impatiently. Even Alex adjusted his grip on his sword.
Looking at the cloud-covered moon, Hector shook his head. “The Creators can go to Methell,” he muttered.
“They’ll have us killed before the end. One way or another.”
Alex glanced skittishly at the prince. “Sire, I wouldn’t recommend provoking them, especially right now.”
“Don’t worry, Alex; they already are.” He rolled his shoulders. “They already are.”
The night grew even darker but Hector made out the near-silent scuffs from the battlefield. Not even the demons could avoid the sounds, not with the earth being so dry. Hector smirked at the thought. At least they had that much in this fight.
As if the Creators heard his thoughts, thunder rolled across the sky and a sudden downpour drenched the army in mere seconds. Hector cursed violently in the storm and the first of the demons attacked. Metal clashed on metal as Hector narrowly blocked a knife aimed for his throat. He looked into the demon’s black eyes and familiar face. The man had died serving the prince two days ago. Yelling, the prince pushed back and beheaded the demon. The rest of the army and Hector’s guards were engaged in similar exchanges all around the camp.
They hacked and hacked at the demons as they tirelessly presented themselves. Those demons that weren’t beheaded, dragged themselves across the earth, seeking to stab or chew any foot or leg within reach before the last of their warped souls drained from their bodies. The prince fought through the rain and the impenetrable night alongside his men, never seeking any sort of respite, always fighting the exhaustion reaching for his compliance.
War cries deafened even the rolling thunder, blending the night into one battle after another. The army held the line, but not without great cost. Those who had served during the day, had to drop behind those who were more rested. Their adrenaline couldn’t keep them moving all night, not in their weakened state. Those who tried dropped unconscious in the midst of battle. The wounded lay helplessly in the center of the camp, some crying out in terror at the sounds they heard and the faces they beheld.
Every demon attacking the camp had been a soldier in Hector’s army. The faces of the soldiers’ fallen comrades never failed to disconcert them, causing them great emotional anguish as they were forced to behead brothers, fathers, and friends. Black blood soaked their clothes and ran thick in the dirt. With the approaching dawn, the attacks became less frequent but no less vicious.
Finally, yellow sunlight broke the horizon and the rain relented, revealing the last of the demons as they scurried over the fortress walls. Dark clouds still punctuated the morning sky but not enough to hide the slaughter. At first glance, Hector couldn’t decipher between his soldiers and the demons. Many soldiers collapsed onto their knees where they stood, utterly drained from the night’s ordeal. No one made any move to gather the corpses.
“How many did we lose?”
General Basque stopped just behind the prince. “Forty were killed. Fifteen more are too wounded to fight. We’ll lose at least five of them today.”
The prince shook his head. Alex approached Hector, nodding grimly in greeting. “How many of the guard remain?”
“Everyone survived, Sire.”
“It’s time to clean up then.”
Alex gave a short bow and collected the rest of the guard. They began pulling the demon bodies into a heap far from the camp, flipping their own comrades over to uncover more bodies. When they’d sorted through every corpse and gathered the demons into one pile, Alex lit a torch. He looked at Hector for confirmation. With dozens of eyes watching, Hector nodded the okay and Alex cast the torch onto the demons. Their flesh instantly caught on the flames and the entire pile was alight in seconds. It was the only way to insure they never rose from the dead.
Behind Hector, footsteps crunched over the rocks and parched land, stopping a few feet short of the prince. Hector exhaled a long breath, brushing his untamed black hair from his face and wanting nothing more than to rest after the long night of battle. They wouldn’t continue the fight today; the army needed rest. The night’s attack had been even more brutal than expected and Hector was emotionally spent. As he’d learned long ago though, work never stopped for those in authority. Problems would always find him and demand resolution.
“What is it?” he asked wearily.
“Jack made it,” said Dallen.
The prince eagerly turned around. Dallen’s face was grim, but his eyes glinted in triumph. “He found something then?” The guard nodded.
“He’s at the command tent.”
Hector rushed to the command tent where a frail figure sat hunched over a bowl of food, tiredly shoveling food into his mouth. Jack didn’t register Hector’s arrival, his eyes drooping as he fought sleep long enough to eat.
“Jack. Tell me. What did you find?” Hector’s words were breathy and urgent as he shook the boy awake. Jack gasped at the sudden jerk.
Dallen placed a hand on Hector’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should both rest.”
Anger surged in the prince but he held his tongue and, with great effort, surveyed the camp once more. If he looked half as bad as the rest of the soldiers, then Dallen was right. Reluctantly, he let go of Jack and nodded.
“Get him to bed.”
The soldiers endured the day well. Wounds were tended and Hector tried to rest. Ugly scenes played out behind his eyelids, plaguing the first few hours of rest until his body completely gave out and a deep sleep overtook him. A minimal guard was kept awake to warn of any attack and rotated throughout the day. Swords were cleaned and sharpened, ready for the next battle before any of the owners.
By the time Hector woke, red-orange sunlight spilled over the camp as the day came to a quiet end accompanied by a bone-chilling wind. The fresh sentries nervously glanced at each other, wary of what the night would bring. With the sun’s descent, armor and weapons clanked together as the soldiers readied themselves for another long evening. The prince sat across from Dallen and Alex, mapping out a plan.
“Jack said there’s a small grate in the wall here.” Dallen pointed at the map between the three of them. “The trick will be whether or not we’ll be able to get there undetected. I know Jack was able to, but Jack also wasn’t out to kill anyone. They could’ve just left him alone simply because we were the greater threat.”
Hector shook his head. “No. They left him alone because of sacrificium.”
Alex scowled. “All due respect, Sire, but you don’t actually believe that symbol you drew on his arm really helped, do you?”
“Those demons have no reason to keep him alive.”
“They have no reason to kill him either.”
Hector slowly looked up from the map, his voice dangerously low. “They’re demons. They don’t need a reason. They have no regard for life or its holiness. They will defile it every chance they get.” He returned his gaze to the map. “We will all bear the sacrificium tonight. We’ll slip in through the bars and kill Adeline tonight. Once we’re inside, we’ll be able to dry the demon corpses, but we have to be at the center of Adeline’s power.”
“How do we know the fortress is the center?” Alex asked, frowning.
Sometimes the captain was far too skeptical. “Because Adeline’s body will be there. After she’s killed, the majority of her magic will return to her corpse and we’ll be able to harness enough power.”
Hector waited until inky darkness stole over the sky. The camp fell into a low hum of voices as the wounded soldiers warily rested in their blankets, hearts pounding as they whispered to each other. The fires burnt low, casting the smallest circles of light. Hector nodded to General Basque then beckoned for the rest of his guard. Jack stayed faithfully at his side as they slunk out of the camp.
Once they were beyond the camp border, Alex took the lead and they crept across the field, eyes open for the demons that were sure to come. If everything went as planned and the demons remained true to form, the group had a hour before Adeline would send her creatures. Hector wrapped his hand around Jack’s upper arm, trying to communicate some sort of comfort even as they crossed the open battlefield.
Puddles of blood splashed over their boots. Silence enveloped them in an uncomfortable cocoon, as if it were waiting for their deaths. The heavenly lights hid from the gore and Hector was sure the Creators had completely forsaken them. He had nothing but his sword to get him through this ordeal. And the sacrificium, he thought. The circular symbol stung his skin where he’d drawn it on the inside of his wrist. He’d known it was a risk bearing the symbol, but it was risk he had to take.
The mother goddess didn’t take kindly to those who used the sacrificium in vain. In practice, only children — the truly innocent — where allowed to bear the symbol on their flesh, but the prince was forced to skip that precaution. After all, there wasn’t any proof of any ill befalling those who took the symbols upon themselves after childhood had surpassed them.
Half way there. They had to be half way to the fortress. Hector strained to hear anything, unable to see even inches in front of him. His guards’ breaths were loud in the field. Their footsteps gave away their positions in the deep the silence. Hair stood up on the back of his neck.
“Stop,” he muttered, barely loud enough to be heard, but the rest of his guard froze where they stood.
Malicious hissing sounded a few yards away, growing closer until it sounded nearly on top of them. Hector’s heart beat painfully in his chest. He gripped his dagger in one hand, ready to pull it out at a moment’s notice. The prince hardly dared to breathe, not with the demons so close. Ragged cloth trailed across Hector’s bare flesh, leaving a black residue on his face and neck. He marginally turned his head away, stirring the cloth.
The demon sputtered and whipped around, its hot breath kissing his face. Hector froze, not daring to look the demon in the eye. The urge to look was nearly overwhelming. It took all of his self control to stand there, feeling entirely too vulnerable.
Their presence twisted in his chest. The wrongness lingered upon his very frame. Hector had been in the presence of a true demon before — never had it felt so disturbing. The evil aura from the monster next to him urged him to flee but Hector stayed still. The demon bent forward its nose grazing his cheek, sniffing. It breathed him in as if testing a fine wine. The demon hissed then reared away. The last of it’s rags trailed across Hector’s arm and the demon continued towards the camp.
Hector waited for what he perceived to be a reasonable amount of time before he urged the group forward. The group continued onward once more and, for the first time, the prince was thankful for the moon’s absence. It hid the naked fear in his eyes. What ever was out there was no demon. It was a monster.
They didn’t stop until they stood at the grating at the bottom of the wall. Alex peered through the grates then nodded. Hector pat Jack on the back and the boy easily ducked through the side of the grate. Three bars were bent and no longer flush against the wall. It was a tight fit but the rest of the group managed to follow without losing much time.
The men nervously waited for Hector to join them beyond the grate. Cries from the camp wafted across the wind as the monsters began terrorizing the soldiers. Hector grit his teeth but moved forward.
The fortress courtyard was empty. Rotting bodies lay resting against the walls, staring at the dirt with black eyes. Hector’s eyes lingered on a cold corpse, bloodstains long dried on the soldier’s skin and clothes. He impatiently led the group, not wanting to linger among the dead. There was no telling when they’d awaken, not after days of exposure. Their footsteps echoed on the stone pathway leading to the fortress. Hector carefully led them where the servants’ entrance was marked on the map.
A stirring sense of wrongness lay just beneath the earth’s surface, dormant for the time being but impatiently awaiting its summons. At the fortress entrance, Hector allowed Alex to take the lead. The captain gripped the door latch and slowly lifted it. The door screeched as it swung open.
Several guards wretched as the unexpected stench of rotting bodies assaulted their senses. The bodies in the courtyard were cold, and seemed frozen in time. Cold air seeped from the fortress walls but it didn’t preserve the bodies. At least these men had been spared. They weren’t buried yet, but they weren’t demons lying in wait either. Hector grit his teeth, fighting to keep his own dinner down, sucking air in through his teeth. Nothing helped. Hector tasted the overwhelming stench on his tongue.
Once the guards were through, the prince steeled his senses and Alex led the way into the fortress. The sour smell was tinged with a sickening sweetness. An uncontrollable gag made its way past Hector’s steely determination. Evil laced the air they breathed and everything inside the prince urged him to leave. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option, so he cautiously journeyed further into the stone fort.
Cold seeped from the dark gray, stone walls, into their boots and through their tunics. They ascended a winding stair until they found themselves on the second floor, greeted by an empty hall and a blood-speckled painting. A corpse lay face down on the floor in a drying puddle of its own blood. Hector covered his mouth and nose with a sleeve as they passed the body. Jack gagged loudly, the sound echoing down the halls.
The prince jerked to a stop. “Listen,” he whispered. Silence yawned through the hall. The men’s breath punctuated the air. They shifted where they stood. “Stop,” he ordered. The fidgeting disappeared. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. He heard something. He was prepared to swear it on the mother goddess herself.
“Hector,” Jack hissed. The prince clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth.
Slowly, down a corridor, a screeching, bone-chilling yawn echoed through the fortress. Hector grasped Jack’s arm and pulled him down the hall, rounding several corners before stopping. The guards’ armor clattered throughout the halls. Cursing at the sound, Hector put his back against the wall, the guards lining the stone in a similar manner. The screeching yawns were delicate yet continuous, with the slightest pauses between them as if the demons were awakening from some short slumber.
Jack’s heart pounded against Hector’s arm as he leaned over, trying to see around the corner. Hector sought to keep his own panic down, forcing his face to remain impassive — stone-like. The group listened, hearing only the sounds of their own breaths now.
A single torch burned in the corridor they previously vacated — the only torch they’d seen since entering the castle. A shadow cast across the floor and the torch abruptly died, as if the flames had been sucked from the air. Hector’s breath caught in his throat, waiting. The silence drew out in long, dragging breaths, sucking all sense of well-being from their bones. Jack fisted Hector’s tunic sleeve in one hand as trembling breaths brushed against the prince’s hand. The boy’s frame shook in the silence.
Hector’s heart pounded painfully inside. Something scuffed across the stones. The prince braced himself. He rested a hand on the hilt of his knife, ready to strike and defend. Knife loosening in the sheath, Hector kept his breathing deep and steady. A thick, frigid liquid slithered down his tunic. Hector’s body stiffened as it snaked behind his head and grazed the flesh on his neck in one fluent movement.
Using all of the self-discipline his father had drilled into him, the prince resisted the powerful urge to balk at the movement. Slowly, Hector lifted a shaking hand and brushed his fingers through the substance. It was sludge-like. Familiar. Hector’s skin had been coated in it during last night’s battle. Hector swallowed, fighting the instinct to wipe it all away in hurried movements. The same sludge dripped onto his shoulder, running down his armor.
Hector pulled his knife out but stopped as a ragged breath sounded at the corner of the hall. Two feet tall, a pale, bald creature trudged along with drooping shoulders. The backs of it hands dragged along the floor. Its breaths were slow and rattling. Jack’s hand tightened on Hector’s sleeve.
A cluster of slow, hissing clicks sounded down the hall. Hector carefully peeked around the corner while keeping an eye on the tiny demon. A taller frame stood just at the corridor’s entrance, casting an even darker shadow in the fortress. Its presence was heavy on Hector’s soul. His bones fought to carry him away, his muscles tense and ready for flight. Slowly, it turned to face down the hall. Hector pulled back and stared at the wall across from him. He searched for the smaller demon, eyes darting everywhere, trying to locate it.
Sharp claws settled against the soft flesh on Hector’s neck, creating several wounds as they sunk in as if his body wanted to allow them entrance. Rattling breaths fluttered across his face. Before he could second guess himself, Hector tightly grasped the two-foot demon clinging to the wall by his head and ripped its claws free from his flesh. The demon’s body crumpled as it hit the stone wall.
The taller demon rounded the corner, two dull but glowing eyes staring at him. Thick darkness surrounded the group, growing thicker and darker all the while. Suffocating.
Without a thought, Hector instantly thrust the knife into the demon. It screeched a dying breath into his ear and effectively drowned out his guards’ cries. Jack stumbled onto the floor in the mix of bodies as demons came running from the down the halls. Hector twisted the knife and the creature screeched once more, spraying flecks of thick blood onto his neck. One last twist silenced it and a disoriented Hector stood uncertainly on his feet.
The demons screamed as they approached, and the growing noise sent Hector into autopilot. He pulled Jack to his feet and half dragged him away, swiftly running down one hall then another as he half carried the boy with him. The guards’ armor clinked together as they followed him into an empty room. Screams still echoed but were significantly quieter now and the prince took extra care as he soundlessly closed the door. The oak door muffled the demons as they banged their way through the corridors, thoroughly awakened from their slumber.
Hector leaned against the door, straining to hear any approaching steps. Heavy, snuffling breaths seeped into the room from the crack between the stones and the door. The prince’s body tensed but he remained unmoving until the demon outside passed them by. A child’s hand tugged on Hector’s sleeve. He gave Jack a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
Alex’s voice broke the silence. “Hector?”
Dallen gripped his sword. “Who has Jack?” he murmured.
“I do.” Hector gently squeezed the boy’s shoulder.
The prince tried to make out where Alex’s voice was coming from, uselessly squinting in the dark.
“Hector,” said Alex, his voice firmer now, boarding on the line of disrespect. Hector bristled.
“What?” He turned his head this way and that.
“I have Jack.”
The prince frowned. “He’s standing right next to me.”
Jack piped in. “No… I’m not.”
Hector’s hand froze on the child’s shoulder, and he tighten his grip on his knife’s hilt. Sharp teeth sunk into his hand. Hot pain pooled in the immediate area and Hector swore. It raced up his arm, burning from the inside out. His other hand reflexively jerked forward, planting the knife deep into the demon’s chest. The creature’s sharp teeth released him and it sunk to the floor.
Hector sucked a breath in between his teeth, shaking his wounded hand out in the air. “Someone get a torch going. Now.” That was enough. He would no longer roam the fortress without a light.
Stone and flint clinked together, sparking in the darkness. The torch light lit Dallen’s grim face and he held it lower, lighting the child demon’s body. Black blood surrounded the creature’s mouth and crooked teeth. Its jaw was misaligned, the bottom half jerking violently to the left. Black veins ran through its pasty skin, running prominently along the sides of its neck. Its crazed eyes stared angrily at them. Sharp teeth poked red, dry and cracked lips. It was no larger than a seven-year-old, starving child from the streets of Ancelm. Jack approached Hector’s side, his arm brushing against the prince’s.
Hector examined his hand in the light. There wasn’t much they could do until they got back to camp though. Hector gently wiped the streaming blood on his pants, wincing. In the momentary respite, he registered the hot pain throbbing from the wounds in his neck, but they would also have to wait. “All right, lets keep going.”
Without another word, Dallen led the way, opening the door and peering one way then the other. He nodded to the others and, together, they crept towards the center of the stronghold. Death hung heavily in the air, freezing the oxygen with its lifelessness. The torch light flickered on the walls, light bouncing back on Dallen. Hector’s heart settled in his chest but his blood ran cold as he ventured to guess what could possibly be waiting at the heart of the structure.
A heavy wooden door appeared at the end of the hall — a servant’s entrance into the stronghold’s heart. The guards spread out on either side of the door, leaving Hector, Dallen, and Jack in front. The prince leaned forward, his ear almost against the door as he listened for voices and movement. Hector frowned at Dallen.
Dallen gripped his sword hilt. “Perhaps.” He edged in front of Hector, and waited until the prince nodded his permission. Dallen lifted the latch and let the door swing open. The men stood still. Darkness poured from the doorway. Nothing accompanied it.
“Let’s go,” murmured Hector.
The men drew their swords as they entered the room, staying close together as they followed the torch light. The flames flickered ominously forward, licking a design on the floor. Thorny vines wove in and out of a broken shield, the color of which paled in comparison to the vivid brown on the plant. They’d reached the center of the room. The group halted, straining their eyes in an effort to see in the dark. Jack’s trembling breaths blew on Hector’s tunic.
Cries from their camp barely made it into the castle, as the soldiers fought whatever horrors the night had unleashed. Hector shifted impatiently. The room seemed to close in on him, fed on by his short breaths. A feminine cackle filled the air. The men turned on their heels, facing the sound at its source. Folds of fabric hissed together as someone moved in the dark.
“My, what lovely faces. What sparkling swords!” Her hysterical voice easily filled the space then dramatically quieted. “I see the blood of my own on some.” The woman cackled again.
The hair on Hector’s neck stood on end. He forced himself to swallow before speaking. “Could it be the lovely Adeline before us? My, how cowardly she is to meet us in the dark.”
“Lovely?” she purred. “No.”
Torches burst to life on the walls and Hector furiously blinked away the black dots obstructing his vision. When his sight cleared, he met the woman’s eyes. Her face was gray and paper-like, and her lips blue, as if they’d frozen in the castle’s cold air. Blood shot, sunken eyes were held open wide as she stared at them. Her bones poked out from beneath the fabric of her ragged dress — a dress that had once been white and now suffered from the presence of blood, dirt, and dust. She had all the makings of a corpse. Even in her state though, Hector recognized the fierce gaze before him. Queen Adeline.
He’d always detested her visits as a child. The sly curve of her mouth always left a tang of disgust on his tongue. She’d made no effort to hide her jealousy but the sly glint in her eyes always put him on edge. Hector’s father had never been a fan of the woman herself, but she’d aided him in his rise to power and such a thing could not be forgotten. Not instantly at least.
Jack’s eyes bounced from Adeline to Hector. “She looks like my dead grandma, you know, the one who was always trying to get me in the oven.” Adeline stiffened at the boy’s words, but Hector couldn’t help his smirk.
“Not doing so well I see.” Hector forced himself to relax somewhat. He chuckled, shaking his head. “How the mighty have fallen.” He made a show of peering at her. “You know, Jack, I think you’re right. She does look like your grandma.”
Jack vigorously shook his head in agreement.
Adeline spat black blood on the floor. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” She thrashed in her stone seat, pounding an armrest with her bony fist, her knuckles bulging under the skin. Thin blond, almost white hair hung in her face.
“Now, now, now.” Hector shook a finger at her. “That’s not the way a Queen should act. Come now, Adeline, we’re your guests.” He sprawled his arms out and gave a condescending, boyish grin — one he knew she couldn’t stand.
She spat at them. “Go die with the rest of your army, Prince.”
“I’m not quite ready yet.”
She cackled. “Then you will be too late. My demons will tear them apart and shred their bones.”
“Tell me, Adeline,” Hector began, ignoring her words, “where are your servants? Your loyal soldiers? Why kill them all? Are there any left in the kingdom?”
Adeline laughed manically, throwing her head back and therefore showing the bright red flesh within her mouth. The contrast against her pale skin was startling. “Are there any left? Of course not!” She screamed her last words. “I am not a fool!” She chuckled to herself. “I’m not a fool,” she repeated, her pitch fluctuating wildly. “But I did kill them. I killed them all. They weren’t expecting a thing, then…,” she chuckled darkly as she carefully chose her words, “then I desecrated their bodies. They are my demons now.” Adeline closed her eyes blissfully. “How their screams were music to my ears.” Her long nails grazed her neck as she folded a hand into a gentle fist. “But you’ve already seen them. Haven’t you?”
Hector clenched his jaw. “I will send them back to their graves, as they deserve.”
“Oh, how merciful of you,” she mocked.
“Just tell me one thing before I kill you.” He lazily spun his sword and Adeline tilted her head. “Why’d you do it? You knew my father would attack the moment you broke the treaty.”
“Why?” She stood stiffly, seemingly appalled at the question. “Revenge of course. Do you know what it’s like to be banished from your own race? To have to painfully adopt a human form when it could not be any further from your true nature? Filthy humans. Gothel will pay for what she’s done. And those humans… oh I will make them suffer for what they did.” She slunk closer to them. “Do you know what it’s like to have wings ripped from your back? Physically ripped from your skin? Do you know the result of such actions?” She turned to reveal her back. The back of her dress only came up to just under her shoulder blades, revealing two open wounds atop the bones, several inches long and at least an inch wide. They were infected, crusted in black and blood. The skin around them colored in a pale, sickly green.
Adeline slowly turned forward again and stepped closer.
The guards shifted as she approached.
She stopped a few feet from them. “They always warn you to stay away from Gothel. The fiend,” she spat. “But no one ever tells you what happens if you don’t. No one tells you that she is the worst demon of us all. No one tells you that she is the greatest traitor of her kind and will take every opportunity to exploit those who displease her.” Adeline bristled at her own words. “Your mother will die, Prince. Mark my words. And she will die because of me.”
Hector cracked a grim smile. “No, Adeline, I don’t think she will.”
Adeline sneered. “Do not belittle me!” She lunged forward but pulled back out of range, teasing the prince’s guards. She purred, a mischievous smile curling on her lips. “I am not the only one who wants her dead. And your father?” She shook her head. “How can you protect such evil?” Adeline dove forward, reaching for Hector’s neck.
The prince pushed Jack out of the way as he amputated a hand. Adeline screamed and staggered away, her body shaking. He didn’t see it before, but Hector saw the hesitation in her step and the labored breaths the former fairy seemed to fight for. Her movements were sluggish, as if standing had become nearly too much. She behaved as if the very streams of Methell, ran through her veins, attacking her very soul.
In a last ditch effort, Adeline dove forward again, mouth open and bearing sharp, elongated teeth. Hector didn’t waste a moment and sliced through her neck. Her skull and body fell with a thump. Hector wiped blood from his face and sheathed the sword.
“Jack,” he pat the boy on the back, “to the throne; you know what to get.”
Hector rolled his shoulders, anything to distract from the throbbing in his neck and hand. He flexed the latter, looking at it in the dimly lit room. It looked worse in the light, black lines threading out from the wounds. He sucked in a breath and watched as Jack reached behind the throne.
The boy wrapped his hand around a small rock, rolling it in his hands as he studied the item. The prince cleared his throat. Jack hurriedly got to his feet and jumped from the dais. Hector frowned at the sacrificium on it, the white design accusing.
A chorus of screeches echoed in the fortress. Hector slipped the stone into his pouch.
The prince lifted his gaze and jerked into action. Adeline’s body lay at his feet, and his army still battled with the monsters she’d sent. The prince swiftly dipped his finger in Adeline’s dark blood and, kneeling on the floor, began to draw a sacrificium. His circle was wide and, not anywhere near perfect, but it would do. He hastily drew the lines from points along the circle and completed the symbol with a a few quick flourishes at the center.
He wiped his fingers on his pants as the demons’ screeches grew closer and the first few in line entered the room, lit by the torch light. Ragged clothes hung from twisted, once-human frames. Each had a similar crazed look in their bloodshot eyes.
Dallen visibly braced himself, grasping the hilt of his sword tighter, his muscles flexing. “Sire?”
Hector took a fighting stance and waved the group into the circle. Any moment now… He closed his eyes and exhaled a slow breath, trying to calm himself. The sacrificium worked before; it would work again. There were no other options. It was an old sign, hardly used since the mass genocide of demons on Ancelm’s soil — an act condoned and led by his grandfather.
The sacrificium began to glow as the demons filed in, pausing just a moment before they ran towards the symbol. The light from the circle grew brighter beside him showing the sharp contrast between the rest of the symbol and the chained chair he’d drawn at the center of it. It wasn’t strictly part of the symbol; in fact, it was seen more as a corruption by those who followed The Religion, but he didn’t have any other options.
Light burst in the room, just as the first demons reached the tips of the guards’ swords. The demons screamed, agony racing through their bones and singing their flesh as the sacrificium turned their bodies to ash. Hector closed his eyes to protect them from the instant brightness. In seconds, the sound faded and the fortress darkened. The atmosphere instantly felt lighter, making it easier to breathe and, surprisingly, move.
Prince Hector waited to hear the sounds of battle from the camp, but only found silence.The guards stood uncertainly, blinking desperately to clear their vision. Hector surveyed the room for more opponents. None came.
Hector chuckled darkly, casting a disgusted yet superior gaze at Adeline’s corpse. “That’s what I call a victory.”