Another hidden slick of ice stole her footing and sent her rolling in the snow. She muttered in frustration but stayed careful not to get too angry. It wasn’t easy.
“Wolfscar! Come here, you! Stay closer so I can see the ground!” she yelled at him in between pants. The cold air made it hard to keep her breath. It felt like it was freezing the back of her throat. This was so awful. This was stupid. Why was she doing this again? Seffy was in the other direction. Spirits forget that man completely for talking her into this. “Or at least go fly right above them so I can see you in the air.”
Wolfscar shouted, “Okay!” then flew off toward the horses. His glow lit the treetops in a shifting dance of light as he raced between them. Soon he darted up further into the sky, where he hung like a low star. Without anything to reference, she couldn’t tell exactly how far away he was, but she’d certainly have no trouble heading his direction.
Where were they going? These idiots weren’t going to get far on horses like this! All it would take was one false step and a horse could snap a leg. How could they mistreat their animals like that? Maybe it was just to spite her—after all, they’d caught her several times before and it always really made them mad when they couldn’t prevent her from just grabbing Seffy and leaving. She had no trouble breaking whatever cage or rope they made for her. Or maybe they thought they stood a chance of getting away? Absurd. She could outrun most birds.
Spirits curse and forget them! She picked up the pace and tripped yet again. “I hate this!” she yelled to no one. Finally, she decided she had had it. She stood for a moment to calm down and gathered deep reserves of vitality with each breath. She gathered more and more, letting it fill her until she had trouble concentrating.
With a burst of willpower, she pushed all that vitality into her legs and sprinted as fast as she could, faster than any time since her father was caught. She could feel it burning up like tinder, driving her legs at speeds her mind could only barely handle. She raced along the ground like a diving osprey.
When the trail curved down a long hillside and into a narrows between a rough, wooded patch, she leaped toward one of the tall pines and kicked off it to change direction, flying through the air even faster than before and landing without slowing down. Keeping her feet moving took every ounce of her focus, and each tiny bend in the path she followed threatened to steal her footing and leave her flying into a tree hard enough to break them both.
And then she caught up. Across a short field of flat snow, they rode at a gallop through a gate lit by lantern-light and straight into a wooden-walled fort.
Up until this point, she had been too nice to these people. Her father made her promise not to kill because it would make her soul darkened and repulsive to the Great Ones. These ice people had it too easy. She hadn’t really broken any bones, or smashed their possessions, or anything. But this was it. They were going to leave her alone from now on.
She raced right up to the gate, ignoring the arrows that thumped harmlessly against her, and shattered it in a flying kick with both heels. A clanging alarm of pots and pans sounded as she stood and began walking toward the very, very surprised group of men she found inside. They stared at her with open mouths until Agurne said, “You think she’s dangerous, try untying me!”
One of them, whom Dyana figured was the leader from his stupid bird-wing helmet, whacked Agurne on the back of the head with his knuckles and said, “Shut it! Get them indoors! Kelix, you go free the beast! You have your charm?”
Another man nodded and gripped something around his neck, then left at a run to go further in between the shelters. When others tried to pull Agurne from the horse, she bit them and kicked fiercely. They pulled Garbi down, but her form was still and unresponsive. Spirits preserve her! Was she dead? Wolfscar stayed above her, out of arm’s reach for the men. She couldn’t make him out at this distance but from the way he zipped left and right, he seemed highly agitated.
“Leave them!” shouted Dyana. “I’m done playing games with you people! Leave them be and stop following me!”
“Hurry!” shouted the man in charge, ignoring her. Agurne rolled from the horse, then tried unsuccessfully to get to her feet. One of the men kicked her in the ribs, then pulled at her hair to try and stand her up.
Agurne laughed viciously and rolled over to spit at him. “Garbi kicks harder than that in her sleep! You need a man if you want to manhandle me!” She struggled furiously to escape, but her hands and feet were bound and she didn't accomplish much.
One of them shouted, “Just leave her! Grab the girl and get inside!”
The rest nodded and picked up the little girl and darted into the nearest house, hardly giving a glance to Dyana or Agurne. Wolfscar hesitated for a moment, then found a hole under the roof and followed them in.
Dyana started walking toward the house. “Hey! Come out here! Or I’ll knock that ugly house down!”
Everything suddenly grew utterly silent. She peered around and saw that not even the men who’d been shooting at her were still around. Where did everyone go?
Dyana walked over and helped Agurne free herself from the ropes, then gave her a hand to stand up.
Brushing the dirt from her coat and pants, Agurne said, “You’re not who I was expecting, girl. Where’s the ogre?”
“The boys got taken in another direction, and he went after them. He’s…” Dyana thought about how to explain it for a second, then said, “he’s holding my Seffy ransom against you two. I have to bring you back or he’ll kill him.”
Agurne snorted and grinned. “That sounds like him. Don’t worry about your demon, girl. He won’t hurt him. Now. Hold on a moment, please.”
Dyana nodded, wondering what the woman would do. She crossed her arms and watched Agurne approach the door. The woman rolled up her sleeves, straightened her hair, adjusted her shirt, then pounded on the door and shouted, “I swear by Palthos Misfortune-bringer that if you don’t open this door and give me my little girl right pissing now, I will lay a curse on your people like you’ve never heard of! The tips of your rods will fall off, your women’s breasts will empty and fall flat, their wombs will sicken and fall out of them, your children will vanish in the night, and by the Gods each one of you will die forgotten and unburied! Open up!”
Dyana suppressed a chuckle—that woman was awful. No wonder she was with the bear-man. They were both awful. Although, she didn’t seem evil like he did.
Dyana was just moving to step in and kick the door down when she heard a terrible, ferocious scream from just a bit behind the buildings. She and Agurne looked at each other, and both said, “What was that?” at the same time.
“Gods, girl, can you feel that? It’s like Androkles when he’s angry, but not as friendly.”
A strange feeling descended to rest over the quiet fort, something like the presence that the bear-man had. Except instead of purely angry, this presence felt… diseased. Unwell. Violent and insane. It made her shiver and her stomach threatened to turn with nausea.
“Quick, my charms!” yelled Agurne, who had begun to rummage through the gear on the horses.
“Sacred charms! They’re little… never mind, just keep out of the way!”
Dyana dutifully kept out of Agurne’s way while the woman tossed everything onto the bare ground—some cloth, some bread, a small pot of some liquid that shattered everywhere. “Where is that poxy ogre when you need him!” she shouted in frustration.
Agurne stepped back from the mess she’d made and put her hands on her hips, thinking. She said, “Now what?”
Dyana made a show of cracking her knuckles and said, “I fight, you run?”
Agurne laughed and replied, “You think you’re tougher than me, girl? Have you seen the company I keep?” Then, looking around, she said, “I wish it wasn’t so pissing dark.”
“Just stay behind me,” said Dyana. It was almost here, whatever the thing was they had called ‘the beast’.
“I know you’re tough, girl, but don’t underestimate a priestess of the Child. Or the future wife of Androkles God-slayer, for that matter,” replied Agurne with a hint of pride.
Wait, hadn't Androkles called himself Giant-slayer? They needed to get their stories straight. Dyana nodded and kept her thoughts about that to herself. What a foolish woman! She was unarmed, and soft and fat besides. What was she going to do, jump down on their enemy from a horse? In fact, how was she supposed to do anything wearing so much cloth?
And then the beast was upon them. A dark shape as fast as the shadows that hid it leapt at the horse with a howl that sounded almost like a human cheer of delight. It was so sudden that both women startled, and Dyana almost lost her footing as she stumbled back instinctively. She heard a wet thud and the horse screamed and raced away, leaving a dark trail behind it. After a few paces, it fell and thrashed, blood spurting from a wound in its neck.
The dark shape stood there looking at them for a moment, eyes shining and teeth glinting as it smiled. Dyana knew immediately what it was—it was a grown-up demon, a male one. He wore a simple, dangling loincloth and thick metal rings around his ankles, but his blue-black skin absorbed any light and made other features impossible to discern. She heard his tail slicing the air behind him, too fast to see.
He licked the horse’s blood off his claws and watched them with a smile. “Girls,” he said. “Where men?” His raspy, jagged voice grated in her ears.
Dyana could feel the demon’s presence seeping into her; something about it made her feel dirty. And afraid. There was something wrong with him. The bear-man’s presence had been immense, and only her experience with her father had let Dyana keep her wits, but it hadn’t made her afraid, exactly. But this demon’s presence was worse. It wasn’t as strong, but it felt like shit and vomit and razors, all swirling around her. It felt the way rotting corpses smelled.
“Who are…” began Agurne, but before she could finish her words, the demon screamed at her, loud and ferocious. When she stopped talking, mouth hanging open, he giggled. Again she tried to say something, and again it screamed over her, taking a step toward them. Agurne shut her mouth.
“Hungry. Scare you?” he asked, sounding somewhere between hopeful and cruel.
“Spirits, no! You don’t scare me, you slithering sea worm!” shouted Dyana, doing her best to imitate her father’s bold posture. She balanced her vitality, ready for a fight.
The demon’s presence darkened, and he crouched low to the ground and screamed like a cursed man, directly into the ground. Then he leaped at Dyana, swiping fiercely.
She was ready for him. Although he was hard to see in the dark, it wasn’t impossible. She stepped in and redirected his slash downward away from her, then struck him hard in the ribs with the point of her elbow.
He whirled away from her with a snarl, smacking her thigh with his tail. It stung, which surprised her. She looked down and saw her leg bleeding, which surprised her even more. Swords couldn’t cut her, most of the time. How…
But she had no time to think. The demon’s attack was like nothing she had been trained for. It was wild, uncoordinated, and unrelenting, and she could barely see him.
He swiped at her eyes, and she stepped away; he spun and whipped her again with his tail, this time in the small ribs, which stung fiercely. A quick glance told her she had been cut there as well.
She took a few quick steps backward, and when he stepped forward after her, she kicked hard at his knee, hoping to break it.
But he somehow twisted to face away from her, and her kick slid harmless off his leg. He over leaned backwards and struck from upside down, thrusting forward with the claws on both hands.
She sidestepped them and pounded her fist into his stomach, which dropped him onto his back.
He snarled and rolled away, where he hunched down and clawed at the dirt like an angry bull. She stepped forward and kicked with her heel, aiming at his teeth. It proved to be a bad idea—he caught her calf with both hands, and only her sudden focus on strengthening the skin kept him from ripping her leg apart. He bit her several times as she tried to pull away, but was unable to puncture her skin.
She pulled her leg in, grabbed his short hair with one hand, and pounded him squarely in the nose with her fist. It broke and flattened beneath her knuckles, and he released her and screamed upward to the sky.
Dyana jumped forward with a kick to his jaw, which connected and sent him tumbling to the ground. Instead of lying there unconscious like she’d been hoping, however, he rolled to his feet and came at her again, shrieking in fury.
His attack gave her no time to do anything but evade and block. He fought like a wild animal more than anything human, but with a cunning that unnerved her. He seemed to know instinctively how his skin hid his movements, and all his strikes came straight forward or at an angle where his arms would be hard to see against his body.
He clawed for her eyes, but it was a feint and he raked at her thigh; he kicked for her stomach, but then rotated his hips and kicked her in the throat instead; he spun, whipping her with his tail. Her training was enough to keep him from cutting her open or breaking her bones, but only barely; he hit harder than seemed possible and kept knocking her off balance. Only her training and her vitality softening the blows kept her alive.
Shit! she thought. He’s strong! He might actually…
For the briefest instant, the demon’s attack flagged slightly and Dyana took the opportunity. She punched for his throat, then followed with a stomping kick aimed at his knee, then another aimed at his stomach. All of them he evaded. He stepped back and looked at her, and again his gaze made her uncomfortable. Before, he had been gleeful; mocking. Now, all joy was gone and he simply looked… hungry.
“You slow,” he said in his grating, grinding voice. When he licked some of her blood off his claws, she suddenly realized that he was doing more damage than she thought. She spared a quick glance down at her body and found herself bleeding from a dozen places. And now that she was aware of it, the chill of wet blood ran down her skin almost everywhere—her arms, her legs, her stomach, her side. The cold made it feel like the life was being sucked out of her.
This one insane demon was more dangerous than a hundred ice-men with swords and horses—none of them had been able to hurt her, no matter how they tried. But she could actually die here--she might really go down. She swallowed the rising swell of fear and buried it deep.