PFFT! PFFT! Two crossbow quarrels knifed through the sky and found their mark. Two low-flying crows folded their wings and dropped earthward, landing with a soft thud on the dry, cracked soil of the Dreadlands. Danetta bagged her game and headed back to camp. The heat of the day had passed, and she wanted to be on the move again soon as possible.
Back at camp, she quickly field dressed the crows, filleted the meat off the breast bone, and began roasting two of the four breasts over the fire on a makeshift spit. With dinner cooking, Danetta turned her attention to the remaining meat, and cut it into long, thin strips with her knife. Next, she took some cord she had made from a fibrous plant common to that region and secured the strips to it. This cord was then slung across her body in such a fashion that the meat was arrayed across her back to dry in the hot sun as she traveled.
The meat on the spit began to sizzle. Danetta waited a few more minutes and then took one of breasts off and began to eat. Eating carrion fowl was not her idea of fine dining, but this grim course was better than going hungry. As she chewed, her thoughts returned to the events of three weeks ago when her former masters had tried to kill her. Had she made the right decision in leave the rest of the Demon Hunters? Should she return? No. She couldn’t go back. Something inside her was urging her onward.
With her belly full, Danetta broke camp. Glancing quickly at the sun sinking in the west, she set off with long, easy strides. Under a cloudless sky, stars would soon blanket the heavens and be joined by the full moon as it traversed its celestial path.
Danetta had been walking for three uneventful hours when something in the air changed. She froze. After listening motionless for five minutes, she crouched down and placed her hood over her head. She scanned the night sky while readying her hand crossbows. Each second felt like an eternity, but still she watched and waited. Was it nothing? Was her mind playing tricks on her? A star blinked out, then another. What’s this? thought Danetta. She sniffed the air and discerned the faint smell of sulfur.
With burning eyes, she whispered, “Demons!”
“Ander! Wake up!”
Ander awoke, pulled, unwillingly, from his slumber as if he were a fish being hauled up from the depths of a lake by a hook. He blinked dumbly at his father, vaguely noticing the tightness at the corners of his eyes and mouth.
“Something’s after the pigs, boy. Let’s go.”
A blood curdling squeal from the yard chased away the last remaining cobwebs from Ander’s head. Alert now, he quickly threw on some trousers and boots. His father, with a long stave in hand, stood at the door waiting. Ander, half dressed, hurried to his father’s side, grabbing a lantern on the way.
Once outside, they made their way to the pen and paused at the gate. Ander opened the door of the lantern, casting a thin sliver of yellow light on the ground, and began scanning the area.
“There; something just moved behind that bush!” his father said, unlatching the gate. They both walked into the enclosed yard and headed towards the direction of the movement. Faint sounds of flesh tearing and the clicking of sharp teeth could be heard now. With their pace quickened, they rounded the bush, and the soft light of the lantern revealed a ghastly form hunched over the bleeding carcass of a pig. The winged creature, about the size of a large dog, turned its horned head in their direction, blood streaming down its leathery neck. In an instant it was upon them. Ander braced himself against the assault, ready to fight for his life; however, just before the monster’s gaping maw closed on Ander’s throat, his father adroitly swung the staff upwards, catching the creature’s jaw and sending it hurtling backwards. Wasting no time, Ander’s father followed up his first strike with bone crushing blows, which he delivered to the monster’s head and joints.
With his heart racing, Ander walked over and stared with wonder at the battered monstrosity lying before him.
“Good work, son! Way to keep your cool.”
“But next time, it might be a good idea to duck,” said his father with a wink and a grin.
Ander chuckled. “Sure thing, Pops.”
Ander stood there a moment, admiring his father’s strength, ability, and confidence which could be assessed simply with one look into his blue eyes. Wait, why did his eyes falter just now, thought Ander. He looked on with horror as a spear like tail broke through his father’s chest. Two clawed hands appeared and dug into his father’s muscled shoulders.
With a cry of anger, Ander grabbed the stave from his father’s lax hands and swung with all his might at the now visible head of this new threat. His aim was true, and the monster snarled with rage at the blow received. Releasing Ander’s father from its grasp, the demon turned its attention to Ander, who, not waiting for the foul creature to attack, charged straight at the monster yelling and swinging with all the strength he could muster. But before one of his strokes could connect, the winged demon launched itself into the air and disappeared against the night sky, now devoid of the moon’s silver disc.
Ander spun this way and that, eyes anxiously searching the sky for any sign of the demon. What was that? The faint sound of wind rushing over wings reached his ears and grew louder. He waited, muscles taught, ready for action. Overhead he spotted a dark shape against the starry background. As he watched, the creature tucked its wings and began a corkscrew dive earthward. Ander, eyes now adjusted to the darkness, watched and waited until just before the demon was on him and dove out of the way. He quickly tried to regain his footing and take up a defensive stance but the being launched itself through the air with demonic speed and was upon him in a flash. Ander barely had time to raise his stave and block the fanged mouth from ripping out his throat. As it was, the force of the attack had knocked Ander on his back, and he was now staring up into a face with disturbingly human features and menacing bulbous eyes dark as onyx. He tried to struggle free, but the strength of the beast was too great. He gazed with hatred into those black eyes and spat in its face. Enraged, the demon bared its cruel fangs, ready to end his life. Suddenly, feathered shafts sprouted from the demon’s eye and throat. It reared back, writhing in pain, its claws tearing at its throat and face.
He turned around in time to see a hooded woman with burning eyes fire a third bolt into the base of the demon’s skull, causing its death throws to cease. He called out to her, but she held up a hand to silence him. He glanced around. Could there be more of them? He thought. He looked back at the place where the stranger had been standing moments earlier, but was unable to spot her.
Suddenly, the night sky came alive with demonic shrieks and whistling bolts. All around him winged creatures fell from the sky with pin cushioned hides. He saw other demons alighting on the ground and the roof of the barn. They're trying to surround her! thought Ander. Then he descried a pair of golden eyes moving in the darkness. From them, he was able to make out the rest of her. What he saw astounded him. She moved amongst her foes with uncommon agility. Her precise movements made it so that she appeared to flow over the ground like a gentle meandering river running through a forest. Periodic flashes of light followed by deafening explains briefly illumined her in her deadly dance. Every flash found her in a different position. One moment she was decapitating a demon with a blade, the next revealed her to be a blur of motion, sending bolts and blades in every direction that knifed through their targets with deadly affect.
The explosions and hair raising shrieks ceased. Ander rushed to his father’s side and cradled his head in his arms.
“Dad! Dad!” he cried. His father’s eyes fluttered open and he beheld his sons tear streaked face.
“Don’t weep for me, son, for I go to be with your mother.” His ravaged body was then wracked by a series of paroxysms that caused more blood to ooze from his chest.
With the spasms gone, they locked eyes one last time, and Ander’s father, marshaling his remaining strength, uttered his last words this side of eternity.
”I… love you… son.”