Chapter 7 Demon's Edge


A small flash of healing stopped the blood but left a fresh pink scar. She looked a question at him. He answered, "A blood oath always leaves something behind, no matter who heals it."
He began to clear rock from the glinting patch of gold.
Lothor laid the still form on the cracked floor and reached back into the hole. Bella came up, weeping. When he stood her on the ground, she gasped, favoring her right leg. Lothor eased her to a sitting position and turned back to the unconscious prince.
He removed the boy's cracked helmet, exposing a horribly pale face. Blood trickled down it from a deep cut.
Lothor removed his own gauntlets and helm, laying them carefully beside the body. He spread pale long-fingered hands over the wound. Healing was a quieter magic than most, and it barely touched Keleios' magic sense.
She herself had only bruises. Luckweaver had stood her well.
Lothor sat back in meditation while Tobin blinked into the gloom. He was confused, disoriented. She knelt beside him.
He asked, "What happened?"
"They destroyed the tunnel with some kind of spell. The roof and some wall fell in on top of you." Kel hesitated, then said, "Lothor healed you."
Blood dripped down Lothor's white skin, and slowly the wound began to close.
His silver eyes opened and he stared at her for a moment; she did not drop her gaze. He blinked and wiped the blood from his face. He turned to Bella and laid hands upon her ankle. He drew a sharp breath as he took her wound. There was no need for meditation over a broken bone.
He said, "It wasn't a spell that brought down the walls."
"Then what was it?"
"An exploding powder."
"A what?"
He started to say more, but she silenced him. A touch flitted against her mind, waiting for permission to enter. It was one of the journeyman sorcerers. Keleios opened to it. *Keleios: Carrick says, "Where are you, girl? Are the lower regions secure? If yes, get up here now. We need more sorcery." Do you have an answer?*
*Yes, the lower reaches are secure, caved in, in fact. I will be there as soon as possible.*
The contact snapped, and Keleios turned to tell the others. She wondered to herself how a journeyman had ended as the sorcerous backup to Carrick's men. The girl was only a first-year journeyman sorcerer. Keleios wondered just how many were already dead.
It was Tobin who voiced it, as they crawled over the rubble. "What of Melandra?"
Keleios' stomach tightened, but what could she do? The tunnel was completely blocked, and Melandra was on the other side. There was no way to get to her, nothing Keleios could do, but go up and help Carrick. Helpless to save Poula, helpless to save Melandra, helpless to save her own mother. Useless. No. Keleios shoved the thoughts back with an almost physical wave of anger. She could help save this keep. She could save other lives. She was not helpless, not by a long amount. Keleios' voice came out even, no hint of her anger, or her sorrow. "She is lost to us, for now." Keleios vowed to herself, "I will find you, Melandra. I swear."
They came to the top of the stairs and found no clatter of sword on sword, but it was war nonetheless. The singing of arrows rained down and was returned. The screams of the wounded, the stillness of the dead, filled the hallway as far as the eye could follow.
Carrick paced behind his archers. He wore leather and metal-studded armor. A large shield rode his right arm, sword in his left hand. Long poles were propped along the wall to push back the invaders' ladders. Jodda knelt over the fallen; three apprentices or journeyman healers aided her. She was a white pool of soothing in the midst of pain. Keleios experienced what no other healer could do, a wave of calm healing coating the mind within a certain distance of the white healer.
Carrick bellowed, "Ready, loose arrows.'' Bows thrummed throughout the nail. "Down, everyone, down."
The archers hid behind the walls, tucking heads down. Even Carrick knelt behind his shield. And when the returning arrows came, they flamed. Where they struck the stone floor, the rock burned. The journeyman sorcerer, a red-haired girl, vanquished the flames, but sweat drenched her.
Without looking, Keleios could feel the evil reaching outward, the mad joy in destruction. A demon was outside the walls.
Keleios sat Bella by the healer, telling the girl to help and stay out of the way. She went forward to Carrick. "I am here, weapons master."
"Keleios, what is this magic fire that eats stone? Can you do anything about it?"
"'It is illusion."
He stared at her. "Illusion? But it burns. Illusions don't harm."
"It is demon illusion, Carrick. If you believe, then it can do real harm."
The journeyman fell to her knees, gasping. "Not illusion, doesn't feel right for that." Keleios knelt by the girl. "Trust me; I have dealt with demons before. It is illusion."
The girl shook her head stubbornly. The healers came and took the exhausted sorcerer away, still protesting.
Keleios went back to Carrick. "You must disbelieve the fire. The arrows are probably real, but not the fire. No fire, even demon fire, burns stone."
She could feel their fear. A body lay against one wall, skin blackened by fire. A woman leaned against the far wall with an arm covered in blisters. Carrick ordered them to return fire. They crouched and hid. Keleios watched the flame eating into the stone, collecting in pools that spread. The fire would actually feed off of the guards' belief. Their belief would make it real. It could eat holes through the stones, destroy the entire keep, if enough people believed.
Keleios took a deep breath and crawled into the nearest pool of fire. She sat in it, untouched. She could feel it like a cold wind on her skin, a ghost's touch. Illusion was always a cold magic. One guard yelled, "It is well for you, sorcerer, but we have no magic to protect us."
"It is illusion; your disbelief will protect you." But she had come too late for simple answers. It was not an easy thing to disbelieve something that you have felt and have seen kill. Keleios looked up at Carrick as she sat in the fire. "Am I the most powerful sorcerer you can lay your hands on right now?"
He crouched beside her. "Yes."
She did not ask what had happened to the others. She knew what had happened to Master Dracen, and Poula. Fidelis, and behind that Harque, had done a very thorough job. Curse them both.
Tobin came to crouch beside them. He passed a hand through the flame. His gauntlet showed through it, like it was orange glass. "What are you planning?" he asked.
"They have to disbelieve or the keep is lost."
He whispered, "Mind control without permission is not allowed."
"Should I let everything be destroyed because of some rule?"
Tobin hung his head then looked at her. His amber eyes were very serious. "No. Do you want me to do it?"
She smiled. "You are better at wardings, but I'm better at controlling minds."
"All right, but be careful." He moved away from her, to let her call her magic.
Keleios called power from within herself, that spark of herself. Sometimes she thought sorcery more than any other magic drew on the power of the caster's soul. She conjured calmness, fearlessness, surety, a deep breathing certainty that this was illusion. She hammered her own disbelief into something almost tangible, and flung it outward to the ends of the hallway. The guards cried out and one, his arm still blackened from the fire, said, "Illusion, it is illusion."
Keleios slumped over the floor, sweat beading her forehead.
Tobin knelt beside her. He whispered, "How do you feel?"
"I'll be all right in a moment. The demon is crippled without its illusion. It was worth it."
When the next rain of arrows came, the fire burned for a time but was ignored and faded accordingly.
When Keleios felt well enough to move, she went to Carrick. "How are they shooting arrows? Why hasn't the courtyard been trapped?" The courtyard was designed so any sorcerer could but touch and speak the words, and the stones would become a pit. Whether it was bottomless or not was a point of long debate.
Carrick rubbed a hand across his chin. "We cannot get a sorcerer near enough to drop the stones from beneath them. Three journeyman have gone and died. It is the demon. He sees them, invisible or no. We have no way to protect them."
"I will go next, but I must see what sort of demon it is first."
He nodded, and she crept to the window. The demon floated on black-feathered wings at level with the windows. Its body was fur covered; its head lionlike, with a full midnight-dark mane. Clawed hands held a great whip, which it whirled round about itself. Its eyes were burning red. A short sword swung at its side, flashing silver, a small magic deowmer on it. Its hooves were cloven like a goat's. Across its sculptured belly ran a livid white scar. Keleios' stomach knotted and beads of sweat broke on her body. A blackmane had been one of her tormentors when Harque the Witch captured her six years back. Demons could heal without scarring, so there couldn't be two blackmanes with the same wound. He had been forced to bear a scar as a mark of failure. She bore his mark for a different failure.
She eased back from the window. "It is a blackmane, one of the most powerful of the lower-level demons. Keep on as before; do nothing special to guard me. If I need you to save me, it will be too late."
Lothor stepped up to her. "You aren't going out there."
She stared at the hand that gripped her arm. "Are you volunteering?" She stepped close and whispered to him. "Have you felt the lash of the black whip? Have you screamed in the third darkness?"
He pushed back from her. "Go, then, but take care."
She stared at him a moment. "You haven't been there, have you?" Her voice sounded the surprise she felt. "The great black prince heir to the demon-got throne hasn't even tasted the whip. Many delights await you beyond that."
"It is not wise to speak of such things with it so near."
"True." There were questions she wanted to ask, but there wasn't time. She turned to Carrick. "I will go out through the hidden gate, no magic. I will drop the stones, but that will not stop the blackmane. Do what you can with it after I succeed."
"Against a demon, we can do little."
Tobin stepped up. "How will you stay hidden without magic?"
"Elven concealment."
"Of course, it is a handy thing to know. Why can't I do it?"
She hesitated then laughed. "I don't know; you've tried hard enough."
Carrick saluted her and turned back to ordering his men.
Lothor paced after her. "You think to escape our bargain by suicide, don't you?"
She started down the stairs before answering him. "Bedding you is not my idea of pleasure, but it is hardly a fate worse than death, especially at the hands of a demon that has already tasted my blood."
He tried to stop her then, but she pulled away. He moved to catch up with her. "If it has already had your blood, then it has certain powers over you."
"And I have certain powers over it."
"You may know its true name, but it will bring back the pain it caused you and cripple you."
"If it is given time."
The main gate rose before them, barred and guarded. Bellenore was captain of the men on this level. She strode forward. "Keleios, you go to try?"
"May the gods smile upon you."
"And on all within this keep tonight."
Bellenore motioned two men to the side of the main gate and Keleios stepped up to the wall.
Lothor called behind her, "Keleios."
She hesitated. There was a cold weight in her stomach, and her mouth was so dry she couldn't swallow. The demon outside had tortured her for weeks. It was not something you could forget.
She shook her head and did not look back. She ran through a quick calming exercise, and shoved her fear down. You could be afraid but it couldn't eat over your skin like a wind. Fear could attract demons. Keleios built a wall around her fear. The hidden gate swung open, and she stepped outside, the two men pulling frantically to close it behind her.
Keleios stood on the top step leading down into the courtyard. She was elven and melted into the stones; no one saw her. There was no empty space to give away or a spell to puzzle men why they couldn't quite look at a certain spot. She moved down, winding through the men that worked at battering the main door in. Their ram would not touch it for it needed magical things to split that door.
Men stood dressed in leather armor, or no armor. They clustered behind shields waiting patiently for the group of black healers to give them the gate. Even now the three magic-users worked spells over the ram, having finally recognized the need. The ram was set on the stones of the courtyard, and all but a handful of the men stood on those same stones. She sidestepped a man with a gold loop in his ear. Four guards stood on the steps, swords and dagger ready. She would have to fight them if she succeeded and if the demon gave her the time.
As she scanned the yard, she noticed the blackened hulk with a small charcoal lump that could only be a rider. By its size it was the female silver; the dragons were down. A wild dragon would never have believed illusion, but the magic sense was blunted in the tame war dragons. Without the dragons the air belonged to the demons. She moved to the last step.
She knelt, close enough to smell the sweat of the magic-users as they cast. The ram was a dark bulk at her side. She laid hands on the courtyard stones and spoke one word.
A sound of thunder shuddered through the courtyard, and the chanting stopped, all eyes searching for the danger. The courtyard fell away.
The ram slid from sight; men fell screaming into a deeper dark than night. As she had known it would, the demon took to the air, great wings fanning the night. She was visible to the four men at her back.
They froze long enough for her to stand, then fell upon her to vent anger and shock on something of flesh and blood. The first one closed too fast. She dunked and foot-swept him into the pit. She came up slicing the belly of the second and taking another across the throat. The last one tried a lunging run, and she sidestepped, putting a knife between his ribs. He fell forward and coughed blood until he died. She retrieved her knife and looked upward.
The demon floated just above her, wings still, levitating. His voice was a tenor, musical and still a surprise to the ears even when prepared. "Nightseer." His wings fanned out, arms flexing, and a grin flashed white teeth.
She inclined her head and greeted him. "Barbarros."
He fanned the night with his wings, and the wind pulled at loose strands of her hair. "So you have not forgotten me. How flattering."
"Barbarros, I would never forget you, your black magnificence, your masterful hand with whip or sword."
He flew higher, preening in the praise, and stopped to float almost even with her. "Nightseer, I will not be tricked by mere flattery. A sacrifice, we could talk about."
She stared into his red eyes with their cold fire. "What sacrifice did you have in mind, Barbarros?"
He tried to smile and made a snarl of black jowls and ivory fangs. "Why you, Nightseer."
She took a breath and tensed. They were three namings for three. Whatever protection she gained from it, he had quietly taken away. For though Nightseer wasn't a birth name, it was a name of power and would suffice. She managed a smile in return. "Dear Barbarros, that is not something I am willing to give."
His head drew close, and she could smell the rich musky sulphur of demon. "The best sacrifices are unwilling, at first." And he laughed. It echoed in the archway where she stood, bouncing round the walls. The laughter died suddenly, ominously. He flew higher, floating above her like a dark god. "Do you remember pain, little elf?"
She whispered it. "Yes."
She did remember after six years; it was still a frequent nightmare: being tied down on her stomach, the floor cold and harsh against her cheek, the sound of ripping cloth as her back was bared, and him snaking the whip along the ground, rustling, alive. The first stinging bite, tiny hooks biting into flesh and tearing out, again and again and again. The feel of blood, her blood flowing, washing over her back. Pain so sharp that it rode her whole body, in one blinding bloody wave. Keleios closed her eyes and breathed, "I control; I control. It cannot harm me; it cannot harm me." She opened her eyes to find the demon still at level with her. It had tricked her with its eyes. She was careful not to look into them a second time.
He hissed and swung into the sky, hovering. "Pain remembered is not the same. Pain is always better fresh."
Keleios threw a sorcerous shield round herself, but there was a feeling of hopelessness to it. It was a simple spell, and she did it well in class. But she had been helpless against the demon for weeks. She knew as she tried to protect herself that she couldn't. The doubt, of course, was her undoing and the demon's edge.
He stretched out one clawed hand and flexed the fingers.
Keleios screamed as scars ripped open and ran red. Blood soaked through the leather of her armor like a flood, all the blood she had lost over a matter of weeks draining out. She dropped to her knees, one hand steadying herself against the steps. One long ragged scream after another was torn from her throat; it echoed in the archway, mocking her.
The screams turned to a word. "No!" She glared up at the thing and screamed, "Barbarros, begone, ahhhh!" Out of nowhere a bolt of red power struck him in the chest. He reeled backwards in the air, flapping wings to regain his balance. A second bolt hit him, and hands closed on Keleios from behind.
A voice said, "Keleios, it is Bellenore." The fighter picked her up under the arms, but when her back slipped against Bellenore, she screamed.
The demon shrieked and dove after them as they crawled through the gate. A red bolt sent him tumbling out of his dive, and he snarled his rage to the night sky as the gate closed behind them.
She lay for a minute, gasping into the cool stone floor, and whispered, "Someday I'm going to kill that son of a bitch."
Martin, the only male white healer the keep could boast, knelt beside her, his square clean-shaven face frowning down at her. His brown hair was held by a strip of cloth. His hands touched her gently and came away stained with blood. "Get this armor off."
Hands moved to obey and Keleios said, "Gently, this armor took me a long time to make."
Someone laughed, and Bellenore stepped close. "Magic-user or not, you have a warrior's concern for your tools." The second-in-command personally helped remove the armor.
The effort left Keleios gasping on the floor. The linen shirt underneath was stuck to her back, and Martin lifted it slowly. Keleios tried not to cry out. It ripped up the back, and the journeyman healer aiding Martin gasped. He admonished the journeyman for showing such lack of tact, but his face was pale, too. "Cia, preserve us. Keleios, your back is shredded."
Lothor was beside her, helm scraping as he set it down. "It is the way these wounds heal."
Martin looked at him with open contempt. "You know something of this sort of wound?"
"I am a black healer. Whether you like that or not, it makes me something of an expert on demon-got wounds."
Some of the defiance slipped from the white healer. "I will not let my patient suffer for my prejudice. What can be done for her?"
"The wounds are ordinary enough, but be careful. I do not know if white healers can heal demon-got wounds with impunity. The worst is the blood loss and resulting weakness. It will be harder to heal."
"I think I can heal anything a black healer could." The 'and more' was left unsaid, but it hung in the air.
Lothor smiled, a tight pleasant smile, and said, "Be my guest then, white healer. You need no advice from me."
Outside the demon raved and tore at the keep's face. "I will not be cheated this time, Nightseer. I will not be cheated again!"
Martin laid hands on her back, searching the damage. He hissed and drew back from her. "Such pain, such pain, how could you endure it?"
Keleios answered him in a strange distant voice. "It wasn't torture as we think of it. They wanted nothing from me. No word, or thought, or thing, that I could do or give them would have freed me. They simply asked that I endure. It is simple to endure something when you have no other choice."
"Mother of us all, greatest healer that has ever been, help me heal this woman." And he touched her again.
Blood soaked his white robe to add to the many stains, now dry. It spread slowly, and at last he withdrew and sat back in deep meditation.
His face bore the complete peace that was the only thing she envied the white healers. He opened his eyes to inspect his work and frowned.
The wounds had scabbed and become scars before their eyes. The scars vanished, leaving the back smooth and clean except for one. It was long and thin, stretching from just below her left shoulder to the top of the right. At the end, like a twisted flower, was a starburst of scars from metal hooks.
The journeyman healer sponged her back gently, as if afraid he would harm her further.
Before anyone could stop him, Martin laid a hand at either end of the scar.
Lothor yelled, "It is not a scar; it's a demon mark!"
A wash of crimson exploded along Martin's back and he screamed. Keleios screamed with him, but his hands remained locked to her back as he rocked and fought the pain.
Keleios yelled, "Get him off me, get him off me!"
Lothor gripped Martin's straining wrists, but the journeyman tried to stop him. "If you break his concentration, you could kill him."
"If I don't break his concentration, he will die."
The boy slumped back, still uncertain, but did not protest as Lothor pulled on the healer. A great warm force held the hands down and another force, not so warm, also held. He was forced to pry a finger at a time, a hand at a time. The healer slumped forward over her body. Lothor lifted the unconscious healer and laid him against a wall. The journeyman laid hands on him, timidly. "He is barely alive, but his magic tries to heal him." He ripped the white robe from Martin's back. Keleios had to turn away. She remembered every lash that his back showed, even to the tiny gouging bites of metal hooks.
The boy asked, "How can we help him? You said it was a demon mark."
"Yes, it only looks like a scar or wound. No healer, be he white, black, or grey, can heal it away. Your white healer must be very strong to still be alive."
The boy touched him, tears shining in his eyes. "Master Martin is that."
Keleios drew a deep breath and waited for pain, but with the contact broken she felt healed. Like six years ago, she couldn't think about the pain. Her mind shied from it, tried to convince itself that it was safe.
Lothor came back to her side. "Do you hurt still?"
Tobin helped her stand. She tore the ruin of linen from her without thinking and reached for her armor. Lothor's silver eyes stared at her bare breasts, and she found herself covering her bareness with her armor. She resisted an urge to spit at him, but remembered that soon enough, if they lived, he would be seeing more than bare breasts. The thought saved her from embarrassment. She glared at him and began putting the armor on with Tobin's help. The look in her eyes told Lothor not even to offer to help.
His eyes found the dagger sheath at her neck, and he wondered for the first time if any bargain would keep her from putting a dagger in him one dark night.
The journeyman sorcerer attached to this level tensed and nearly swayed. "They are overrun. The south wall falls, unless help is forthcoming." He tensed again. "Carrick orders half the men on this level to the south wall. If Keleios is well enough, she is to go too, and Tobin goes with or without her."
Keleios stood, flexing muscles and casually touching to make sure all weapons were in place. "I'm ready."
Bellenore looked doubtful, but chose the men quickly. She put Davin, a senior guard, in charge. He was dependable without much flare for leadership. They were at the south wall soon after.
The sounds of battle were here. Shrieks, the clash of metal on metal, the roaring ozone smell of sorcery, hung heavy on the air. Davin sent Keleios and a young blond guard, named Torgen, to the windows to scout. The south wall was the only one not guarded by enchantment. The stones would not fall here and the battle was waged on the courtyard stones rather than from windows.
The courtyard was littered with bodies, dark shapes that sprang into shadow with each burst of lightning or fire. Allanna stood nearly alone, white fire building in her hands, washing all color from her yellow hair and pale skin. Her blue dress was dimmed to grey by the growing light. Her hair shifted and crackled from her own power being so close. The vain woman was gone; this was Allanna in her power -- tall, deadly, and wondrous.
Both hands went forward, and the glowing ball shot outward to land a dark shape. A second blackmane shrieked and fanned the air with its great dark wings. The white fire exploded like a net of lightning, and the demon began to fall earthward. But Allanna dropped to her knees. An arrow arched toward her, and a guard leapt forward, putting his shield before her. The remaining guards formed a wedge round her and waited shields outward for a last stand.
A small dark figure knelt by the lightning-enrobed demon. From the window Keleios could feel the power. The skyfire drained away and fell sparkling over the man. Keleios got a brief glimpse of pale face before she and Torgen went back to report.
Davin led them to the nearest door, the east door. It led out into the rose garden. Keleios and Torgen again scouted forward through the whispering roses. The coiled thorny vines reached for them but stopped just short of binding round them. It was as if the animated plants could smell the difference between friend and foe. They entered and moved as swiftly as possible. Torgen nervously gripped his weapons as the hedges grew to block their paths, then parted when they had almost touched them. Everywhere was a rustling, grasping, coiling of vines. In the herb garden they found hacked vegetation and two dead intruders nearly covered in leaves.
Just outside the gate to the south court lay the male silver dragon. Half of him smashed the struggling plants of the healers' garden down, forcing a hole through the bay hedge. The courtyard and the dragon runs lay visible through the broken hedge. The battle flashed like a multicolored storm against the night.
The dragon's rider, a dark-haired girl, slumped in the saddle, curiously straight. Keleios motioned Torgen back to wait for the others before following, and she went on. She knelt in the shadow of the dragon and found no light in his eyes, dead. She moved to the rider and found why she was so straight. Arrows pinned left leg; right arm and the broken shaft of a spear made rider and dragon one. Keleios knelt in the shadow of their death and fought a desire to scream to the gods. If Verm could send his demons, then where was the help for the defenders? "May the Mother keep you both."
She pulled an arrow free of the rider's leg, smelled it, and threw it to the ground. She hissed, "Dragon's bane." Trust a Loltun to grow something with only one purpose.
There was no need for scouts now. Davin led them out into the courtyard. The archers readied themselves to kneel and give room to the sorcerers. Davin gave charge of the four journeyman sorcerers to Keleios. They formed a loose double line of thirty men, half the force from the north wall. The demon rose to the air once more and lashed out with a whip of many tails. It flew at the handful of guards crouched around Allanna. It encircled one man's head and neck; he had not hidden far enough behind his shield. The man screamed, and the demon laughed as he dragged the man forward. The guards closed ranks across the hole and waited.
The man was lifted up into the air until the demon held him. The thing laughed in a deep voice and snapped his neck.
Davin whispered an order for the archers to aim at the demon. Keleios stopped him. "Ordinary arrows won't even hit him. You must kill the one that controls it."
"But which one?"
Lothor spoke close at her shoulder. "It is the short man in black robes just under the demon."
She stared at him. "How can you be sure?"
"I can't but it's the best guess I can make."
They accepted that, though Keleios wasn't sure why. Davin gave his orders.
Arrows arched into the night sky and hit their mark, but bounced harmlessly against an invisible shield.
Keleios said, "Everyone with me on his shield, now!"
Five lines of power stretched outward, multicolored destruction. The shield gave with a loud pop. Death flew in at their backs. The other demon flew into them, breaking their concentration, sending most to their knees. Two journeymen came up, raked by claws. Barbarros circled, nearly lost against the blackness, but he would come again. The second blackmane snaked its whip for another try.
Keleios knelt on the ground and refused to look up. "I can't fight two of them. We can't fight two of them."
Tobin knelt beside her. "Keleios, what of the demon-summoning spell? Couldn't another demon fight them?"
"You don't understand. The spell is not designed to gate in a higher demon. And if I could do it, I couldn't control it, not here with no protective circle, no charms. We'd end up with three against us instead of two."
Lothor's voice came silk smooth. "Use the book. Bare your hand and use the book."
"What book?" Tobin asked.
She asked, trying to judge his truth with her eyes, "Would it work?"
"Yes, with the book, your spell, and your highest demon mark, it will work. I have seen it done with lesser books than the one that you hold."
Air whistled down about them, and they cowered behind shields. No one could hit the beast except Keleios and Lothor, for no one else bore magic weapons. It hooked talons under the chin of a young guard and drew him upward. Lothor sliced at the thing with his axe and drew dark blood. The guard fell to the ground with his life burbling from a slit throat.
They would be picked off one by one. The easiest thing that could happen was a quick death. Keleios opened the pouch at her side and withdrew the black book. It burned with ebony flame.
Tobin whispered, "What is it?"
Keleios laid the clay bottle of demon summoning beside it on the ground. "It is abomination." She began to unlace the glove on her left hand and found the knots so tight she had to cut it with a dagger. She spoke to Davin. "You must protect me until I have raised and sent the demon back. If I am killed beforehand, it will be freed. And you will have one more demon to fight."
They formed a shield wall round her and waited.
The glove slipped off, and she stuck it in her belt. In the center of her palm was a perfect circle. The circle was only as large as a unicorn gold piece, but inside it was disease. Raw and red, bloody, without running onto the hand, pus struggled among the rawness. She whispered, "Unclean." Keleios was careful to hide the mark from the others. A flat shiny scar was one thing; this corruption was a mark of high favor from the dark gods.
When her bare left hand touched the book, power shot up her arm. Joyous release, evil power, and for a moment she froze, listening to promises that the book whispered. Power like sweet wine flowed through her body. She could almost taste it on her tongue. Evil, corruption, power -- but the taste wasn't bitter, it was sweet, comforting. Keleios was tainted, not evil. The book could only persuade, not control. She cleared her mind of its dark promises, but it was a sweet, sour music in her head.
She lifted the book upward and stood with the demon summoning in the other hand. She broke the clay vessel over her left hand, and words poured out of her mouth. No one except Lothor could remember what she said, not even Keleios.
Barbarros dived them desperately, and Lothor cut him once more with his ax. But neither wound was deep, and the demon came again.
The man who controlled the demons was screaming, "Stop her! Bring me that book!"
Barbarros tried, but though he killed others, he could not reach her. The second blackmane rushed in on them, and a guard screamed as the thing stalked them.
Davin's voice came calm. "Hold your position. If we break now, we die. Hold your position."
The demons closed from either side, both floating just above the ground. Whips lashed out and two guardsmen screamed. Hands held them, but the shield wall broke. Barbarros left his half-strangled man and reached for Keleios. With a muffled clap of thunder and a nose-wrinkling smell, a greater demon stood among them.
The shield wall shattered as the guards ran wildly from the fear spell the demon radiated. Tobin stood trembling at her side, barely able to stand in its presence. Lothor knelt and touched his head to the ground. Barbarros and the other blackmane also knelt, staring upward at the thing. It looked like a praying insect, but with hands where front claws would have been and a great battle-ax gripped in its hands. The thing stood over ten feet tall. It turned round insect eyes this way and that, rotating its triangular head almost completely round. Its voice rolled out of its thin insectlike body. "Who summons me?"
Keleios said, "I do."
"What task will you have me do?"
"Defeat the demons that the invaders send against us."
"And what am I to be paid for this task?"
"Nothing. You are mine to command, Nezercabukril."
He hissed, mouth parts clacking. "Nothing! You overstep your bounds, woman." He walked over, towering above her. "You stand without circle or charm. It is you who are mine."
"No, Nezercabukril, by the book that summoned you am I protected."
He swung the great white ax with its haft of bone, and it dug into the ground beside her. Her eyes closed, but she did not move. She now stood alone before him. The demon freed his ax from the ground and said, "I am yours to command, for now." He raised the ax, and it flashed in the moon's light. "You will come to me soon; then I will be paid."
She replied, "The future is only possibilities, Nezercabukril; go do as I bid."
The great white demon, seemingly carved of bone, turned to the first blackmane. "Get out and do not return this night."
The demon vanished.
Barbarros groveled before him, "Master, please grant me a death before you send me away."
"The woman, she is Nightseer. Twice I have been cheated of her death; let it not be three times, Master of Bones."
"That is one thing that I cannot grant tonight."
Barbarros screamed, gnashing his teeth, and vanished.
The ground trembled, and the white demon looked down. "I have done your task; send me back."
"They will gate in more demons. I will need you."
The demon laughed deep in its throat. "There will be no more demons here tonight."
"I warn you, Nezercabukril, do not lie to me."
He laughed, "Warn me. You command me tonight, but do not let it give you delusions of grandeur. I do not lie." The ground trembled again, stones buckling on the courtyard. "Where devils come, demons do not. Release me."
"Devils? What do you mean?"
The courtyard exploded upward in a great tower of flame. The leering face of a devil rode the flames and began to form a body from them.
Nezercabukril said, "That is what I mean."
She whispered, "Begone."
The demon gave a mocking bow, and said, "Thank you, and may you enjoy my master's attentions, personally." With that he vanished.