The solid, powerful haunches of the beast carrying Duncan’s captor clenched and relaxed as its legs kicked. The creature, a transformed monstrosity, had once been a horse. It had no fur or skin, and the almost black bare muscles of flesh that had been expanded glistened. If it hadn’t been moving, it could have been mistaken for a statue carved from red and black marble.
“Keep up,” the rider said, not bothering to look around. She tugged the cord in her hand, the other end tightly bound about Duncan’s wrists.
Pulled sharply, he stumbled as his boots rasped on the cracked asphalt beneath them. Finding his balance, he hung his head and shuffled his feet, watched the weed-filled fractures pass.
“How about we swap places for a while?” He gave a dry laugh before licking his lips, though the sound his tongue made was much like his dragging feet. “Some water and food would be nice, too.”
The rider turned and with her the demonic steed. Its huge head was skull-like, the white bone replaced with dark crystal, like the morax horn tied to the half-demon’sbelt, and the small protrusions on her own forehead.
“What makes you think I’m going to feed you?” A wry smile spread across her face. She idly toyed with bear head, hung from her neck on a length of the same cord that bound him, nestled in her cleavage.
Duncan let out a snort. “You clearly want me alive. When you strip searched me, you didn’t have to give me my boots and clothes back.”
She gave the rolled up leather strapped at her rear a pat. “Good thing I hung onto this though. I think it would have taken hours to find all the little surprises you’ve hidden inside it. The masters in Citadel would not have been too pleased with that.”
The smile crumbled from Duncan’s face. “So that’s where we’re going. Citadel.”
He’d never been and meant to keep it that way given all the stories he’d heard. The dark, towering spires of Citadel stretched like gigantic stalagmites reaching for Heaven to stab at its heart. Or so the demon’s liked to so poetically state. Of the many stories among Bladelanders was that the place had sprung up overnight, it’s numerous jagged peaks piercing through the earth from Hell itself. Others, that the place had fallen from the sky, an infernal craft to carry the demons to Earth.
“Don’t look so down in the mouth, Duncan. I’m sure they’ll put out the welcome wagon for you, along with whatever else they might have planned.”
“So that’s your game now is it, Niz? Playing at bounty hunter for your new masters.”
Niz swung around to glare at him. “Provoke all you want, it won’t change a thing. I’m taking you to them.”
Duncan smiled. “Come hell or high water.” She smirked back. “You know we’re headed toward wetlands, right?”
“Afraid of getting your boots wet, Duncan?”
He kept his mouth shut, concentratedon the steady motion of his feet. As long as he kept a rhythm it wasn’t so bad. Each time he tripped or stumbled it took him longer to get his timing back, tiredness inching up his bones and muscles like maggots, eating away at him.
“Real, cheery, Duncan,” he muttered to himself.
“Don’t lose your mind yet,” Niz called out without turning, her body rocking back and forth as the creature beneath her powered along. “The masters will want something to play with.”
Lifting his bound hands, he extended a mid finger in response. It made him feel marginally better. That small rebellious victory was erased from his memory when bleached, bony trees in water greeted them and his feet started sinking into sodden ground.
Despite his fatigue, Duncan stood alert, eyes darting about. His head snapped back as a thick sound echoed from above. Dark eyes set in black peered at them. With a scrape of claws at the colourless wood, set against a sky of much the same grey, a crow took off, wings rushing. Duncan snorted a sigh.
Niz chuckled. “Afraid of what’s to come soon?” She looked back when he didn’t respond. “Not long now.”
“Nah,” he said with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “I’m just deathly afraid of drop bears.”
She gave a full-throated laugh and a shake of her head. “Koalas should be the last of your worries.”
“Yeah? You seen the koalas lately?” He looked into the dead branches around them. “Not to mention the kangaroos,” he said in a lower voice. His gaze dropped from the thickening branches and air to her, his nose and corners of his eyes wrinkled. “What’s in it for you, Niz? Why take me to them? You’re half human, or had you forgotten?”
Snorting in the back of her throat, Niz hacked up and spat out a gob of mucus. The projectile hit the cracked, grey trunk of a tree and oozed down. “That’s what I think of being human.” She wiped her chin with the back of her hand. “Like it ever did me any good.”
“People may have never trusted you, but can you blame them? And like you can trust the demons.”
Lips pulled back, she spun so hard he thought she might fall from her mount, the bear head swung wildly, looking at Duncan with sad eyes.
Or with accusation. He felt his heart quicken as he remembered when it had come free. Stuffing it and stitching it up. Crushing it in his fingers when finished.
He blinked several times in quick succession to wipe away the past and bring his mind to the here and now. Niz sneered at him.
“Do you know what happened to me when I was a child?” she said. “I was a reviled outcast from both sides. The demons saw me as trash, and the humans as a monster. My only fault was to be born.”
“So you never had a shot? Boo hoo. You still have a choice.”
“Yes, I have a choice, Duncan Foster. I choose to take you to Citadel. The other demons may not accept me, but at least the masters of Citadel give me a chance, and respect my results.”
A bitter laugh escaped Duncan’s lips. “You sound just like them when you say my full name like that.”
“Well, we both know names have power, don’t we.” She gave him a knowing look.
Duncan nodded, remembering the names that held the most power and sway over his emotions. And, as it tightened, his heart.
“So do not fear your drop bears, Duncan foster,” Niz called out, her voice ringing off the bark-free trees and skimming from the surface of the shallow water that was pooled among them. “There are far worse things ahead.” She turned to look at him with humour on her lips and in her eyes. “Or do you fear the mosquitoes that buzz around you? Or perhaps the crocodiles, or—”
Intense sound filled the air as a shriek like a locomotive whistle carved from human bone stabbed at Duncan’s ears, rising in pitch and pressure until it was a scream. Before it had finished, an almost identical wail overlapped it to take over, then a third.
Niz’s eyes went wide and she turned to look ahead of them as a mist rolled in. When she turned to him again, eyes full of damnation, another bank of thick vapour had crept in from their rear. She stopped the beast, threw the coil of cord from her hand, and slid from its back as stealthily as she could, arms wrapped about its thick neck so she landed by its head. Leaning in and pulling it down, she whispered into the hole that was once an ear, then dropped to a crouch. The creature cantered away as the fog enveloped Duncan, and moments later he could no longer see Niz or anything else.
Just as Niz had, Duncan ducked low to where the stuff was thicker by the damp ground. It would obscure his vision, but also afford him more cover.
Duncan slowed his breath. Just like he used to. He screwed his eyes to shut out the memories but it only served to focus them. A slender hand touched his chest and made his heart beat as it did now, but without the stink of fear.
He pried his eyes apart and took a deep breath through his nostrils, allowed the miasma to beat the images from his skull.
Thick and heavy like an oily blanket, the mist clung to his skin. Leaving his flesh somehow both warm and cold at once, it left behind a greasy feeling. It cloyed in his nostrils and lungs and exited as thickly as it entered when he exhaled. A taste like old, raw meat crept over his tongue and the roof of his mouth and clogged his sinus.
The triple shrieks sounded again, this time closer.
Duncan craned his head back and made out shadows in the sky. A breeze blew over, caused the smoky air to twist and roil, and created opening enough to see what they were. Ibises. The black headed birds were fleeing, but their flight couldn’t help him. Disoriented by whatever power was in that sound, the birds criss-crossed in each others way instead of flocking, so there was no way to know where the danger lay. But at least they were getting away,
But not all of them were so fortunate. Two collided head on and dropped to land some distance away with a crash of dry branches and twin splashes seconds apart. Water thrashed and the birds squawked in terror. There was a third splash, followed by fourth, then altogether more meatier wet sounds, and the birds were silent.
The death sirens came again from where the birds had been, and this time with it a steady, plodding stab into the muddy water. High above the trees, another silhouette fell through the screen of fog, coalescing and sharpening like a shadow puppet pulled closer to the screen. Before he could make out any details, or vice-versa, he rolled for one of the trees. His body careened sideways in his exhaustion and attempt to be silent and he hit the thick trunk at an angle. Unbalanced, his hand fell to the ground to prop him up, slithering down a thick, snaking root.
The sound reverberated through the wood into his head where it was pressed against the tree at an angle. The plodding walk ceased and Duncan closed his eyes, but this time he had no issues keeping any unwanted visions out.
Behind the tree at his back, something creaked, the noise intensifying. Duncan jumped as a gunshot crack ripped through the tree and a branch fell into the water, the remaining limbs rattling as something moved among them. A hiss of inhaled air and a growl rolled through the air and down his spine as the creature sniffed about. It had to know he was here.
Duncan shifted his wait, inching along the trunk in an effort to see, prepared to move should the demon venture further or discover him. He had to know. He froze as something grabbed him from behind as soon as he exposed his back, covering his mouth. He relaxed as he felt hot, sweet-sour breath on his ear.
Niz shushed him, the sound no more than a slow leak from a pierced lung. “I’ll kill you,” she said, voice barely perceptible but for the fact her lips were pressed into his ear. As soft as it was, the words carried enough intensity that it may as well have been a shout. “You knew there were stalkers here, didn’t you? Nod or shake your head.”
As well as having her lips pressed to his flesh, so was her blade, and it bit into his throat as Duncan shrugged. He stiffened as the stalker shrieked. All three screams now came at once, the sound so shrill the tree vibrated. It had smelled blood.
The branches of the tree groaned as it pushed its way around. One of its four incredibly long, multi segmented legs stabbed the earth with a bony protrusion jutting from its deathly flesh, another joining it as the stalker came into view. Three hairless human torsos had been fused together, one facing front and back each, and one inverted. Its lidless eyes were yellow and ran constantly, thick trails running over the cheeks and attracting flies. Lipless mouths bore carnivore teeth and elongated black tongues, blood-stained white feathers stuck out between the teeth of the head hanging among the four insect-like legs.
All three mouths shrieked again as the stalker saw its two targets and closed in.