"You're loving this, aren't you?" Kirra asked as he felt Styx relax as he gripped Kirra around his waist. When Styx had first climbed into the saddle with him he had been tense and worried, but not anymore.
"Flying? Yes," Styx answered with a contented sigh. "This is only the second time I've done it, but it already feels natural. It's different from using my hawk to slow my fall. I've never been able to do anything but fall slowly before. This is amazing."
"I know exactly what you mean," Kirra said, stroking the neck of his eagle. "Do you remember when I said I loved your eagle tattoo?"
"How could I forget?" Styx said, leaning in and surprising Kirra with a light peck of his lips just below his ear. "That's a memory I'll keep with me for a long time."
Kirra closed his eyes briefly and sighed, holding onto the feeling of Styx's lips against his skin. "It made me feel close to you, instantly," Kirra explained. "Saiyo is one of few in my life who have never let me down, and I don't know what I'd do without her. Knowing that you have an appreciation for eagles made me want to know everything else about you."
Styx opened his mouth to respond, but their momentary calm was shattered as they neared a pillar in the southern quadrant of the city. The sounds of combat assaulted their ears, metal against metal, and yelling men shouting orders to each other. There were two groups of fighters battling in the streets, but one of the men fighting below them was immediately recognizable to Styx. A bola left the man's hands and wrapped around one of his opponents, confirming without a doubt that it was Dogo.
"We need to get down there," Styx insisted, as he watched the battle. "I recognize one of them, and it looks as if he may need our help."
Kirra nodded and coaxed his eagle into a dive which forced Styx to hang on tighter. The maneuver gave them the lead over the group of Knights, and it was only a matter of seconds before they touched down on the ground. As soon as they landed Styx was able to recognize the others supporting Dogo's position. All four were gladiators he had shared a cell with, and they were fighting Salidar's soldiers with brutal efficiency.
One of Salidar's soldiers took note of the approaching Knights and called out to his fellows. Before Kirra and Styx could enter the fray Salidar's soldiers were retreating, running for the alleyways as fast as they could, though some turned and fired off arrows in their direction. Only one found its mark in an eagle flying several feet above the ground, and the black arrowhead exploded as it made contact with the eagle's feathers, coating them in black tar and bringing the bird down heavily into the ground, crashing and rolling as it threw its rider.
Dogo and his companions looked as if they were about to give chase to the soldiers, but then they noticed the plight of the Knight, and kept out of the way of the flailing eagle. They then looked to Dogo as if they were waiting for the order to flee as well. That was when Dogo's observant eyes settled on Styx, and he motioned for the gladiators to stand down. Though the gladiators eyed Dogo skeptically they did as they were told, and Dogo stepped forward to greet Styx and Kirra.
"Is the battle over already?" Styx asked in wonder as they came close enough for conversation. "Is that it? Have we won?"
"Hardly," Dogo replied with a grimace. "There's five more pillars, and our numbers are small. Grim's in the market plaza where the biggest pillar is."
Fenri's eagle landed a few feet away just as Dogo finished his report. "Point me in that direction," Prism ordered, and seeing the serious look on his face, Dogo nodded and gave quick directions. "Fenri, you have to take me there. If Grim is there, then it means that whatever demon is going to be freed is one he has to stop. I have to help him."
As the last word left his mouth a loud roar erupted through the city, causing everyone but Prism to instinctively cover their ears. Prism's face was expressionless as Styx turned his horrified face toward him and stammered, "What the hell was that?"
"Ibrix," was all Prism said in explanation. He gripped Fenri's arm firmly, bringing the Knight out of his state of shock and said, "Come on, you have to take me there." Calling out to the Knights who had either landed or were hovering nearby he said, "Any of you who are brave enough to face a demon with me, follow our lead."
With eyes that showed his Knight's resolve, Fenri spurred his mount back into the sky. Many of the Knights turned to follow, but not all of the contingent went after Prism and Fenri. Screams were erupting from all around them, and Styx soon realized that several other demons had been successfully freed. The Knights began to break formation, following orders that were shouted by Alsha far above them. The main group followed Fenri but the rest split into four sections, each headed in a different direction.
"That's our cue," Kirra remarked, pulling Styx back with him toward the eagle.
"We'll meet you at the next pillar," Dogo shouted after them. "It's two marks east!"
"Understood," Kirra shouted back, urging Saiyo back into the sky. The sight was now completely different from before as they cleared the height of the rooftops. Styx and Kirra gasped together as they saw the massive fiery demon to the south, swinging its sword with gleeful abandon. But from their vantage point they could see that it was far from the only danger that awaited them. Four other points in the city were erupting in turmoil, though they could actually see only one other demon, and it was much closer to them than the other one.
Its body was long; the length of three horses, and it was slender in form. But it bore no true resemblance to anything that either Styx or Kirra had ever seen. From its reptilian mouth to the tip of its barbed tail, the creature was covered in deep purple scales that caught the light in an eerie fashion, reflecting it back in a way that made it difficult to look at. Large leathery wings sprouted from its back, keeping it easily aloft as it screeched at the people below it. Long, sharp-edged quills sprouted along its spine, beginning at the base of its skull and following down most of the length of its tail. Shorter quills stood out from the joints on its four legs, but these looked no less keen than the others. Those same limbs ended in wicked claws that would be more than capable of tearing a man apart in seconds.
"Look, Salidar's men are fighting that thing," Styx said, drawing Kirra's attention toward the rooftop directly beneath the demon. There were twenty or so men, armed with nets and short bows, most of which were aimed toward the flying demon. He instinctively wanted to rush to the soldiers' aid and drew his sword as he prepared to charge, but then he heard something that made him pause.
"Kirra, be careful. This fight is not going to end well if you're brash," his sword spoke to his mind.
It seemed odd for her to point out the obvious and so he questioned, "Have you ever known me not to be careful?"
"I've fought more than one of these before," the sword went on quickly, ignoring his question. "Don't rush in or you'll die. Watch how it moves."
A score of Kirra's fellow Knights were moving into position to engage the demon, and he urged his eagle to follow them at a slower pace, repressing his natural instinct to charge in with them as he flew behind their line. While he was against the idea of abandoning his companions, he trusted the sword's judgment when it came to combat.
The demon was focused on the soldiers below it and appeared to be unaware of the Knights approaching. The eagle riders eagerly urged their birds to charge toward the distracted beast's back, swords and lances leveled to strike as they flew past. Kirra watched the maneuver with growing anxiety, sensing that something was wrong. The moment before the first Knight would have made contact, the demon turned around abruptly, in a stunning display of aerial maneuverability, its wings unfurling wide as it reversed its hover. As it turned, it lashed out with its barbed tail, hitting the lead Knight squarely, knocking him from his saddle and disorientating his eagle.
Kirra sucked in his breath as the eagle fell from the sky, but then exhaled in relief when he saw it regain control and begin its search for its rider. Kirra was similarly confused at the sudden disappearance of the Knight, then recoiled in horror as he realized the Knight had never left the demon's tail. The Knight was impaled on the end of its largest spike, his body hanging limply until the tail swished back violently, finally throwing the Knight from its tip. The eagle moved to catch its rider as soon as it saw the man falling and expected the Knight to catch himself on the saddle, a practiced maneuver that all the Knights trained with their eagles to perform. However, no amount of training could save the dead Knight as he fell past his mount, his limp arms unable to grasp at anything ever again.
Two more Knights were slashed by the demon's massive claws when they were unable to slow their advance. The piercing talons ripped through eagle and rider alike, and Kirra cried out in horror as their broken bodies fell from the sky. The rest of the approaching Knights managed to either pull back or veer to the side, but the demon was far from finished with them. It followed two of the Knights as they moved to its right, and was much faster than either of them. Seeing that there was no escape, the Knights turned to fight as the demon came at them.
Sharp claws arced forward in a quick slash, tearing the closer Knight out of the air before he could even swing his weapon, but the second Knight charged forward in the wake of the attack. Her spear was leveled at the demon's breast, and her resounding war cry cut through the air like thunder. With all the momentum of her charge behind the strike, her spear collided with the demon's chest, driving in deeply.
The demon screeched in pain; the alien sound made Kirra clutch at his ears and he nearly fell from his saddle. Styx held him in place as the demon clutched at its chest with one claw as it pushed back through the air with its broad wings, sweeping its tail across to strike at the Knight who had wounded it. The Knight made an attempt to maneuver out of the way, but the barbed tail collided with her eagle's left wing. The strike left a gash along the wing that trailed blood through the air as it spiraled toward the ground, the Knight clinging desperately to her eagle's saddle as she tried to bring the bird to a safe landing. Kirra cringed as eagle and rider crashed hard onto a rooftop, splintering the timbers as they disappeared through the hole in the roof that their crash had created.
"This is insane!" Styx cried, and Kirra couldn't help but agree. Everything was going badly for the Knights, and it was only going to get worse. While the closest Knights had engaged the flying demon, the remaining Knights circled about to charge at its back. Four charged at either wing, while the others moved around to engage the demon from the front. Somehow it managed to sense the plan, and even though it couldn't see the Knights coming toward its wings, it knew they were there. It arched its back, roaring ferociously as a barrage of quills dislodged from its spine, shooting outwards in a spread toward the Knights behind it.
The screams of Knights and eagles filled the air as sharp quills pierced their flesh and that of their mounts, but their screams were cut short as their bodies convulsed, as if they were experiencing seizures. One by one, all eight of the Knights approaching the demon's flank fell from the sky, their bodies limp as they plummeted toward the city below them.
"I was afraid of that. Its twin must also be free," His sword said cryptically.
"Its twin?" Kirra questioned, but unwilling to wait for more information he continued, "Never mind, I can't sit back and watch this anymore. I have to fight." He urged his eagle forward as he shouted, "Hang on, Styx!"
"No! Wait!" The sword screamed, but Kirra's eagle charged ahead. They crossed over the rooftops where Salidar's men were still fighting. He had been paying such close attention to the demon in the air, that he had failed to notice that these soldiers were still engaged with something below them.
His focus was completely on the flying demon when he heard Styx cry, "Kirra! Watch out!"
A cloud of quills erupted from the street below them. The strike was aimed at Salidar's men surrounding the street, but Kirra and Styx were in the middle of the spread of quills just as it occurred. They climbed higher as they tried to escape the quills, and Kirra flailed out with his sword, cutting several out of the air before they reached them, but there were too many to stop. A large quill pierced Saiyo's breast, causing her to shriek in pain. Kirra and Styx joined her pained cry as an electric jolt travelled through the quill into the bird, shocking her and her two riders. Kirra lost consciousness, only to awake a second later as he found himself falling quickly toward the ground.
"Hold on to me!" Styx shouted as he pulled on Kirra's arm. Kirra forced his numb muscles to respond and pulled on Styx in turn, until they managed to lock their arms and legs around each other.
Their descent began to slow as Styx reached up and brushed his tattoo, but they hadn't slowed enough by the time they collided with the rooftop. The impact knocked the wind out of both of them, and they began to roll down the slanted tiles. Kirra managed to ram his sword into the roof, which stopped his slide abruptly, but Styx continued to fall toward the edge of the roof. Only Kirra's quick reflexes allowed him to catch Styx's wrist as he fell, stopping his slide just before the edge of the roof.
Kirra pulled Styx back up the slant of the roof until they were lying side by side, breathing heavily as they tried to force air back into their lungs. Once his breathing was under control, Kirra turned to Styx and asked, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Styx breathed, clutching at his chest, "I'm going to be fine. What hit us?"
"Didn't you yell for me to watch out?" Kirra asked, confused by the question. "I thought you saw what it was."
"I saw the quills coming toward us," Styx replied with a shake of his head. "But all I knew was that they came from below us."
"I'm betting it was another one of those things," Kirra said as he gestured to the demon flying high above them. "Actually, it looks as if we might be winning, now." The Knights who had circled around to serve as decoys had doubled back on the demon. There were only two of the Knights left, but these were the best fliers. Kirra cheered as one of the Knights slashed out with his sword as he flew by the demon's head, cutting it across the eye and generating another alien screech.
A similar sound came from the streets below them, and they turned in that direction to look for its source. They couldn't make out anything from their current vantage point, and so they stood and made their way to the crest of the rooftop, and Kirra and Styx both gasped at the scene before them. Bloody carnage was spread across the entire stretch of street, but still Salidar's soldiers stood fighting the beast in the street, while their fellows rained down arrows from above.
This beast bore little resemblance to the one flying above, other than the quills that sprouted from its back and the slenderness of its form. It was a large feline, with a sleek but thick coat of yellow fur that covered its entire body. Between the quills along its spine and the arrows that punctured its hide, it looked like a giant pincushion.
The demon was moving sluggishly. It was covered in a tar-like substance and its energy had been spent in its fight with Salidar's soldiers, though the carnage on the street indicated it had taken its toll on those fighting it. Whereas the flier seemed to have the advantage in the air, there had been too many soldiers for this beast to face alone, and judging from the demon's current condition this one was going to fall today.
"Is that what you meant by its twin?" Kirra asked his sword as he looked down at the feline.
"Yes," the sword confirmed, "These are Aika demons. They work in pairs from their moment of creation. The theory was that they communicate telepathically, much like you and I are now, except that they even do so across great distances."
"Why didn't you warn me about that?" Kirra asked with annoyance.
"I tried, but you're too headstrong to listen," she replied, sounding every bit as annoyed as he was. "I was searching for signs of this one while you were watching the one in the air, distracted. Did I not tell you to wait?" she asked, and he could hear the smirk in her voice as she chastised him, "Don't be so reckless. Are you trying to get yourself killed?
"Shut up," Kirra ordered. "I'm having a bad enough day as it is."
He was surprised when she complied but was glad that she did. There was no more time to waste on conversation about what he could or should have done. It was time to get back in the action. There were still two demons to fight, but now there was only one that he could reach.
He turned to Styx with a grimace and said, "I think we need to get down there and help those men fight the one on the ground. We can't get back into the air unless we find Saiyo. If she can still fly; if she's even alive."
"Let's go then," Styx agreed, and then started down the slanted side of the roof, looking for the closest building that they could jump toward to progress in that direction. "I remember these rooftops from my excursion into Pentalus yesterday."
"Really?" Kirra asked in surprise, "Are we that close to where we met yesterday?"
"One skill I picked up in my youth is to never forget a rooftop," Styx replied with a slight smile. "You learn to memorize terrain quickly when you live your life by running heists, and rooftops when you can soar."
Before saying another word, Styx jumped across the alleyway separating them from the next building over. Kirra took a running start to clear the distance himself, needing the boost of extra momentum to compensate for the weight of his armor. He landed easily on the other side, but then slipped on the roof tiles, falling to his knees. Styx caught him and hoisted him back up to a standing position.
"Thanks," Kirra said as he maintained his hold on Styx for a moment longer than necessary.
"Don't mention it," Styx replied with a twinkle in his eye. "Come on, you want to get into the fight, don't you?"
Kirra nodded and followed Styx up to the crest of the rooftop. As they reached the top Styx turned back to Kirra and said, "We're about two buildings away from the tavern roof where we met. Which means from here we should be able to see Sabreeza's guildhall." Styx scanned the skyline and then pointed to a distant building, but there was a large estate between them and the guildhall with three figures standing on the roof of it. Styx squinted in the daylight, trying to make out what was happening, when his eyed widened in surprised recognition. "Maxthane!" he shouted in alarm as one of the three figures crumpled to the distant rooftop.
There was something in Styx's eyes that told Kirra the truth of the situation. It was obvious that Styx wanted to go to the rescue of whoever awaited him at that distant point, but something was holding him back. All it took was one distressed glance from Styx back to him for Kirra to know what it was.
"Styx," Kirra said softly, laying a gentle hand on Styx's shoulder, "it's obvious you need to go." Smiling supportively he added, "So go, and we'll meet up afterward."
Styx nodded his thanks and then turned to jump to the next building in that direction. To Kirra's surprise, Styx doubled back and gave him a quick peck on the lips before saying, "Good luck, Kirra. I'll be back as soon as I can."
And then he was gone, leaving Kirra alone and surrounded by the carnage of the city. For a brief instant none of the destruction raging around him seemed to matter. Styx was gone, and off to a fate neither of them could possibly know. Kirra watched him go with apprehension, and a twinge of jealousy. This Maxthane person was the other one who held Styx's heart, but there wasn't anything Kirra could do about it at the moment. He would have to trust that Styx would make the best decision, whatever that might be. He would also have to trust that for the time being Styx would be okay without him, for he had more immediate things to deal with.
"You deceived me," Salidar said furiously, drawing his curved sword from his belt. He knew that he didn't stand a chance against Fasha, but that wouldn't stop him from giving it his best shot. Being the ever-cautious man that he was, he would wait until Fasha advanced on him. Defense had always been where Salidar had excelled in combat, and not even the bleeding body of his son lying at Fasha's feet would make him take the risk of an attack.
"You're finally catching on," Fasha said with a chuckle as he casually juggled one of his knives. "You know, for a man who is known for his powers of perception, you were surprisingly easy to fool. All of these years I've spent guiding you toward this day; toward freeing the other demons, and you never suspected a thing?" Fasha plucked the knife from the air and threw it straight at Salidar's right eye. Salidar ducked the flying blade easily and shuffled to the side, where he was intercepted by another knife, as if Fasha had anticipated where he would step. The second blade was batted aside, only to leave room for a third knife to graze Salidar's left cheek as it sailed over the rooftop.
Another quick series of throws left Salidar with a second graze on his right thigh and a knife that stuck in his right bicep. Though his arm throbbed with pain, Salidar managed to keep his cool as he rethought his strategy. Knowing that he would lose this defensive battle of attrition without ever scoring a blow on Fasha, he dove forward, rolling across the rooftop until he came up slashing, only to find that Fasha was no longer where he had been standing.
Purely on instinct, Salidar snapped behind him with his sword, and smiled in triumph as his blade cut deep into Fasha's shoulder. The attack hardly seemed to faze Fasha, and Salidar was forced to pull back as Fasha's kris slashed across his gut.
The wound was like nothing Salidar had ever felt before. It seemed to burn with fire, as if his very blood were igniting inside his veins. He knew that the knife could not have done much more than to scratch his skin, due to the thick leather he wore across his midsection, but it felt as if the knife had disemboweled him. He clutched at the wound with his empty hand as he flailed out with his sword, attempting to drive off any attacks the assassin sent his way.
None came, for Fasha was doing nothing but watching Salidar with a sinister grin, reveling in his suffering. Salidar watched in horror as the wound in Fasha's shoulder sealed itself, and even the tear in the clothing seemed to stitch itself shut leaving no indication that the injury had ever taken place.
"What are you?" Salidar asked between breaths.
"I told you, Salidar," Fasha replied with dramatic flair. "I'm a demon. They call me Vhor. I owe a great deal to you, Salidar. Without you none of this would have been possible."
Wincing as he clutched at his gut again, Salidar went on, "This whole time . . . From the time you pledged your services to me. Unbelievable."
"Unbelievable or not, it's the truth," Fasha replied with a shrug. "You know, I would have let you live for a while if you hadn't decided to betray the plan at the last minute. Demons can't use magic; it was necessary to have someone perform the unbinding spell on the pillars for me," he leaned forward and smiled sweetly at Salidar, "And if you would have simply continued doing as I required, then everything would have worked out."
"Oh no you don't," Fasha said suddenly, confusing Salidar. When a knife whizzed past him he thought that the assassin had thrown another knife at him and missed, but it only took one glance to tell him that Fasha had gained a blade rather than lost one. He looked back at Maxthane and saw that the blade was no longer in his chest, and his son had a dumbfounded look on his face.
"I don't like anyone throwing my knives except me. Shame on you for trying," Fasha admonished the boy, and then, quicker than Salidar could follow, he sent another knife flying toward Maxthane until it sank into his shoulder. As Maxthane cried out in pain, the knife flew back to Fasha's hand as if pulled by some unseen force.
"So, you're just going to toy with us?" Salidar gasped out. He was trying to sound confident, but the pain from his stomach made it difficult to force any facial expression other than a grimace.
"I suppose so," Fasha replied with a noncommittal shrug. "Don't you want to know what you're dying for?"
Somehow Salidar managed to force out a laugh, regardless of the fact that it made his whole body hurt. The laugh became a cough, and he wasn't surprised as a spot of blood hit the ground at the assassin's feet. "Isn't it obvious?" He gasped out bitterly. "You want to resume what your kind started eight hundred years ago."
Fasha laughed loudly at the remark and shook his head. "What my kind started? You don't realize the truth, do you? My kind didn't start anything. I just told you, demons can't perform magic, at least not the kind used to summon us here." With a wicked sneer he added, "One of your kind freed us in the first place, and now one of your kind has freed us again."
Salidar's eyes widened at the accusation, but then he began laughing hysterically until it caused him to cough again. Maxthane stepped up and put a concerned hand on his father's shoulder while glaring at Fasha. "You leave him out of this," Maxthane said angrily. "Freeing the demons will destroy the world. We never had any intention of doing any such thing!"
"Ah yes, your holy crusade against the one man who has held us at bay for eight hundred years," Fasha replied with a dismissive gesture. "You're pitiful, you know that?"
To the surprise of everyone on the rooftop, Maxthane lunged for the assassin, activating a tattoo on his left bicep as he did so. That particular tattoo was infused with the blood of a fire salamander, and it caused Maxthane's entire body to ignite in flames that were harmless to him but dangerous to anything he touched. He embraced Fasha tightly, and Fasha began to scream as the fire burned his body, but almost as soon as it had begun the fire stopped.
Salidar watched in horror as Maxthane fell to his knees, the tip of Fasha's kris protruding from his back. Fasha's skin was blackened and burned, but it slowly began to regenerate as he withdrew the kris and kicked Maxthane away from him. With a glare of contempt at Maxthane who lay struggling to breathe through his now punctured lung, Fasha began to reconstruct himself at a quicker rate.
"I tire of this game," Fasha growled, kicking Maxthane before returning his attention to Salidar. With a sigh of impatience, Fasha readied another set of throwing knives while Salidar stared at him dumbfounded. The burning in his belly continued to grow and his strength seemed to be leaving him at the same rate. It was all he could do to deflect the first knife, but the other two found their homes in his flesh, one in his weapon hand and the other in his left shoulder.
Salidar sunk to his knees in agony as Fasha regarded him with contempt. Fasha took his kris and cupped Salidar's head gently, and then with a wicked gleam in his eye he made several shallow cuts along the Underking's cheeks. Each one burned with the same fire that the first cut had, and Salidar screamed as he fell forward at Fasha's feet. With his face buried in the tiles of the rooftop, he lost all sense of everything around him, but he hoped that Fasha would make his end swift and finish him with a single blow.
No such blow came. And as the poison flowed deeper into his veins, he was left with no other option but to scream. He didn't have to endure it for long, for within a few seconds the Underking was dead. The rebellion had failed.
Kirra wasn't as comfortable sticking to the rooftops as Styx was; he found a place to climb down to the street. Once he had his feet back on the cobblestones he ran toward the sounds of battle, hoping that he would arrive in time to make a difference.
As he rounded the corner and caught sight of the yellow-furred feline, he slowed his pace for a moment, analyzing the creature in greater detail. Even though it was badly injured, the Aika, or whatever the sword had called it, was still a dangerous opponent. He didn't want to make the same mistake he had made earlier and rush in without knowing what he was up against.
The soldiers facing it seemed to have learned the way it moved, and were doing much better than the carnage indicated. Just as the Knights had done with the flier above, it was clear that they had underestimated the demon at first, indicated by the large number of bodies strewn across the street. This demon moved with a similar level of grace to its airborne counterpart, but there was something different about it. It seemed more feral; more aggressive and willing to go on the offense than the other one had. The soldiers were the ones being kept on the defensive, even though it was practically limping as it struck out at them with its sharp claws and fangs.
Their strategy was keeping the men alive, but it wasn't allowing them the opening they needed to finish it off. Arrows continued to rain down on it from above, but there was little exposed skin left for them to bury into. They needed a way to strike deeper, and they weren't going to get it by fighting defensively. Kirra knew what he had to do, and without any further hesitation he charged the demon, his curved sword held ready to cut upward as soon as he came within striking distance.
Something alerted the demon that he was coming, and it turned to face him, spraying quills at the soldiers surrounding it as it came about. The soldiers managed to dive out of the way of the barrage but the attack had served its true purpose. With the soldiers distracted it broke away from their combat to focus on the newcomer. It bounded toward Kirra quickly, pouncing with its claws poised to slash at him as soon as it landed.
Kirra saw the attack, and though every instinct told him to duck into cover or to try to dodge backward, he knew that it would be the wrong thing to do. He continued his forward momentum, and when the claw came swiping across at him, he jumped and dove over the swiping paw, carrying the movement into a roll. As soon as he completed the tumble he stood, slashing upward with the full momentum of the roll behind the swing. He was under the demon now, and the slash collided with the pit of the demon's forelimb.
The keen edge of Kirra's sword served him once again as it sheared the limb off at the shoulder, spraying him in a shower of dark, hot blood. The demon howled as it collapsed from the strike, nearly landing on Kirra as he jumped to the side. He wasn't about to let the demon recover though, and came back in, slashing at it with abandon.
He hacked at the now exposed underbelly, cutting large gashes in its flesh. The demon continued to howl in agony as Kirra pressed the attack in a flurry of precise strikes. The demon stopped resisting long before Kirra ceased attacking, because the screech of its dying breath never seemed to stop. Instead it seemed to be growing louder by the second, and Kirra didn't realize until the last instant that the screech wasn't coming from the demon in front of him, but from above. He looked up at the exact moment that the flying demon reached him, snapping with its neck to grab him with its jaws.
As the sharp teeth bit down they pierced his armor, and he screamed in pain as they sank into his skin. He stabbed upward with his sword, frantically, but couldn't get a direct hit while the demon shook him about. Kirra continued to scream, and his torso began to shred beneath the fangs of the beast, as if it were tearing him in half.
He hit the ground hard, stealing his breath and stifling his scream. As he gasped for air he looked up in wonder, only to find several arrows protruding from the beast's skull. Feeling a sharp pain in his arm he glanced down to see that an arrow had similarly pierced him and was covering his arm in tar that seeped into the wound and burned his flesh, most likely a miss on the beast that had hit him instead. Whether it had been intended for him or not, his weapon arm now hung uselessly, and the demon still loomed over him, its eyes promising murder to the man who had killed its twin.
It raised its claws to strike down at him, but the lifted arm was quickly punctured by another barrage of arrows, drawing a new screech from the demon. It launched its own missile attack in response, showering the archers with javelin-like quills. Some of them found their mark, but those archers who remained standing answered with another volley of their own. Each missile struck the beast squarely, and it was clear with each successive hit that the arrows were starting to take their toll.
Growling in wrathful agony, it glared murderously at Kirra one more time before launching itself back into the sky. Kirra watched the demon fly off in retreat, but his own blood continued to spill from the bite marks in his torso, merging with the carnage on the street. A lone eagle Knight pursued the demon until both were out of Kirra's view, and the nearby soldiers cheered as they realized they had finally won. He smiled, as his breathing became more labored. He was dying, but at least he had gone out fighting. There was nothing more he could ask for.
His last image before blacking out was of eagles filling the sky. The rest of the Knights had finally arrived, but they would be too late to save him, or the others who had died. As he drifted off into unconsciousness he realized that it didn't matter. Styx hadn't chosen him anyway.
Maxthane could feel his wounds stitching themselves closed. It was a sensation that seemed both familiar and alien at the same time. It may have been that he had never been injured badly enough to notice it happening before, but he was sure that it had. On a subconscious level he had always known what he was capable of.
Maxthane gasped as he felt the hole in his lung seal itself shut and he was able to take a full breath again. The cuts still burned, and he knew instinctively that it was the result of the poison that covered Fasha's kris, but the pain was slowly fading, as if his blood was forcing the vile substance from his veins.
In a moment he was sitting up, with his wounds completely healed, though he felt more tired than he had ever felt in his life. It was almost enough to cause him to lie back down on the rooftop and sleep there, but then he remembered where he was and what Fasha had been doing to his father.
He glanced around for any sign of Fasha but the demon was nowhere to be found. Satisfied that Fasha had left them for dead, he crawled over to Salidar, hoping to find him still alive.
"Father!" Maxthane cried as he bent over Salidar's body. He checked for a pulse, but not finding one only made his search more urgent. He couldn't accept that his father was dead. Salidar was too strong, too powerful to succumb to mortality. Nothing had ever been able to defeat him, and Maxthane couldn't believe that his father had finally met his match.
Death. The greatest of all warriors had finally challenged his father to combat, and like all mortals, Salidar had lost. No matter how many times Maxthane searched for a pulse, it never appeared. Eventually Maxthane realized the truth, and he laid his head down on his father's chest and wept.
He didn't know how long he lay in that position before he heard a voice calling his name. "Max!" the voice said again. He recognized it, but for some reason he couldn't attach a face to the voice. It seemed as if it was calling from a long distance away, even though he knew that the source of the voice was right in front of him. Undeterred by his lack of response the voice continued, this time posing a question. "What happened here?"
The source of the voice knelt next to him and put a comforting hand on his shoulder, and he was shocked from his daydream. He met the concerned eyes of the boy he loved and came crashing back to reality. "Styx!" Maxthane said in surprise, before glancing back at his father's body, only to have tears well up in his eyes again.
"I'm sorry, Max." Styx said consolingly, rubbing Maxthane's bare shoulder. "Come on, we have to get out of here," Styx insisted, his comforting touch turning firm. Styx nodded toward Salidar's body and added, "There's nothing you can do for him. You'll have to mourn later."
"I can't abandon my people, Styx," Maxthane replied defensively. The realization hit him hard; he was King now. The responsibility of leading the remaining Shades was now his, and he couldn't go with Styx. He had duties to perform.
"Who said anything about abandoning anyone?" Styx asked in confusion. "The demons are still free. I only came here first because I thought you were in danger, but we have to stop them. Prism, Grim, Dogo; they need our help."
Maxthane shook himself to clear his head, trying to push the muddled thoughts out of his mind. He returned his gaze to Styx's eyes, and allowed himself to become grounded by them. Styx was right, at the moment there were more important matters than mourning. "Let's go," he agreed with a resolved nod, wiping away his tears.
He spared one more glance toward his father's body as they left the rooftop. Then he forced himself to put the image out of his mind. There wasn't anything else to be done about it now.
They had gone through two city blocks before Maxthane realized that they were not heading in the anticipated direction of the fiery demon. If Styx wanted to help Grim they were going in the wrong direction, and he felt it was necessary to point that fact out. "Where are we headed, Styx?" he asked, causing his friend to turn around with a raised eyebrow. "Grim isn't in this direction."
"I left someone behind in order to get to you quicker," Styx explained with a grim expression. "We need to go pick him up." He glanced up at the sky and saw that the large flying demon was on a path to leave Pentalus, a single eagle Knight chasing after it. "It looks like they drove the demon off."
Maxthane followed Styx's gaze and cringed when he saw the demon. There were more eagle Knights flying to intercept it from a different direction, but the demon was a faster flier and would easily escape them if that was its goal. The thought of a demon escaping made him sick.
"This whole thing is such a mess," Maxthane muttered. "It should never have happened."
"Then why did you let it?" Styx asked, turning around angrily.
"Let it?" Maxthane echoed, surprised at Styx's tone. "Styx, the only reason I'm here is because I was trying to stop it from happening. I freed the gladiators, Styx," he added with a growl. "We escaped together and came to stop my father."
"Maxthane!" Styx said as his cheeks colored in embarrassment. He pulled Maxthane into a quick embrace and whispered, "I'm sorry. We'll figure this whole thing out when the battle is over, okay?"
"All right," Maxthane replied with a confused nod.
They made their way through the streets until they found the demon Styx had only seen from above. There was every bit as much carnage as there had been before, but this time something stood one the bodies lying across the cobblestones looked familiar. Kirra.
Styx rushed to Kirra's side and looked over his gruesome wounds. Maxthane followed as quickly as he could, but he was exhausted. Healing his own wounds had taken its toll on him, and he was sure he wouldn't recover until he had a moment to rest.
"Kirra!" Styx panicked as he searched for any sign of response. "What the hell happened!?"
Maxthane could see the desperation in Styx's eyes and posture. Whoever this boy was, he was obviously someone whom Styx cared for deeply. He couldn't bear the thought of Styx enduring any amount of pain, and he knew he had to do everything in his power to prevent such a fate from befalling his love. "Styx, move," Maxthane ordered, laying a gentle hand on Styx's shoulder. "Let me help him."
Styx complied, after giving Maxthane a look of desperate confusion. Maxthane knelt down beside Kirra and placed his hands on Kirra's battered form. This was the only time, other than Grim's arm, that he had ever tried to heal another person's wounds with his Fedain heritage, and these wounds were far more serious than Grim's broken flesh had been, but he still had to try.
It was obvious that Kirra was alive. Maxthane could feel that much as soon as he touched Kirra, but his life force was fading fast. If he didn't figure out how to do it quickly then Kirra would die. He took a deep breath and focused deeply on the wounds beneath his fingertips. He could sense the blood flowing freely from Kirra's many wounds, as if the liquid had been imprisoned within his body and had finally found the opportunity to escape. He began speaking to the blood as if it were sentient, begging it to return to its prison.
To his surprise the blood began to listen. Within seconds Kirra's wounds began to close and his breathing became more regular. Maxthane stopped as soon as he knew that Kirra was going to be all right. His energy was completely spent, and it took all of his remaining willpower to avoid slipping into unconsciousness and keeling over.
Styx watched the scene unfold with growing amazement at Maxthane's sudden display of ability. When Kirra's eyes fluttered open, Styx's attention returned to Kirra who smiled up at him in confusion.
"Styx. . ." Kirra whispered, as he reached up to touch Styx's face, but when he noticed that they were not alone he withdrew his hand and turned to Maxthane and said, "You must be Maxthane."
"I am," Maxthane confirmed with a nod, too tired to think about the exchange between Styx and Kirra. "How are you feeling?"
"A lot better than I was," Kirra replied with a tight smile, "though still far from perfect. I think I lost a lot of blood earlier." He looked down to inspect the wounds that he suddenly realized he could no longer feel. He met Maxthane's eyes when he noticed the blood on Maxthane's hands and asked, "Wait . . . did you heal me?"
"I think so," Maxthane answered with a shrug. "I stopped your bleeding at least." His eyelids drooped as he added, "I'm really tired now."
"Max," Styx said, "How the hell did you pull that off?"
"Apparently, I have Fedain blood in me," Maxthane replied with a tired smile. While he was genuinely happy he had been able to help someone, his exhaustion was enough to keep him from being able to control his expression. "Grim gave me a crash course, but it turns out that I've always known how to use the ability, at an instinctive level."
"Good enough for now," Styx replied with a nod. "Come on, we have to get to Prism and Grim and see if we can help them."
"Right," Kirra and Maxthane said in unison. Kirra climbed to his feet and offered a hand to Maxthane, who took the proffered help and allowed himself to be hoisted up, but as soon as he was standing he collapsed back to the ground in a heap. He was just too tired.