True to my sense of smell, the silver-haired vampire strode across the grass with fury written all over his face, his bow and quiver slung across his back. I quickly dropped my gaze. Initiating a confrontation was not going to make this any easier.
"Shadow Wolf Alexai Roth..." He started, but I interrupted him before he could continue.
"I know, it was really dirty trick to play on you and I'm really sorry I did. I just had to get away from the clan for a while." Vrael's expression softened slightly, but it didn't last.
"Why can I smell your blood?"
Oh goddess... "We, uh, ran into a demon hunter..." Vrael was instantly next to me, his silver eyes boring into mine.
"Are you hurt? Where?"
I pushed him away gently. "I took a sword through my primary heart, but I'm fine as long as I don't stress myself. Bart's the one with the real problems, not me." Vrael turned to look at the Kraferr, who was starting to look a little unsettled under the vampire's unwavering, scrutinising silver gaze. Vrael sniffed the air.
"By all the gods above and below, Shadow, please tell me you did not..."
"I wasn't thinking." I muttered, looking down at my shoes. "He was so close to dying from blood loss..."
Vrael sighed, rubbing his temples as if he was starting to get a headache. "This breaches so many of the ancient protocols that it aches my mind to contemplate them."
"I know! I already said, I wasn't thinking about protocol..."
"What is done is done. Although I cannot understand one more thing. With your heart so grieviously injured and Bart's current conversion, who slew so many?"
"We picked up a helper along the way," Bart chipped in. All three of us turned to look at Sither, who was roosting up in a tree. He looked, given the circumstances, impeccable. If I hadn't known, I wouldn't have thought that he had just fought such a bloody battle. I wondered how he had done it. I had been so focused on the Outlaws, I hadn't even noticed how he fought. I don't think I was even aware that he was there. Bart scratched the back of his neck.
"Well, we should probably be getting on with the quest before the Outlaws send another party to attack us."
"No, Bart," Vrael snapped. "You require complete rest until your demonic conversion has had time to complete. Shadow and I must return home before word gets to the demon hunters that she is out and not heavily defended."
"Vrael," I growled before Bart could respond. "I said I'd help him in this quest. You know as well as I do that I need something to occupy my mind, else I go mad and surrender myself to Karthragan."
For a moment, I thought the vampire was going to argue back, but he sighed and shook his head. Defeat radiated off him, defeat and worry. He knew well enough that once I had set my mind firmly to something, it was easier to move a mountain than it was to make me change my mind.
"As you wish, Shadow, although I will insist that you at least take the remainder of the night to rest yourselves before undertaking the next leg of your journey."
I glanced at Bart. "Sounds like a fair enough compromise to me." Bart nodded, lying back on the grass once more and staring at the stars. Vrael folded his long legs to sit down, pulling his longbow and quiver from his back. He took wooden shafts, arrow heads and black and red feathers from the quiver, setting about fletching his own arrows. I smiled faintly. Shaeman and Merlas both gave Vrael their moulted feathers for his fletching. It was a comforting thought, thinking about how well the clan worked together despite our demons sides. I gathered some wood, lighting a small fire to ward away the chill of the night. I curled up next to it, closing my eyes to rest, but sleep refused to come. I sighed irritably. My mind was too awake for anything more than waking nightmares as I imagined the horrors waiting for me in the darkness of the city streets and the future. I sat up, rubbing my eyes. I glanced at Bart, making sure he was ok, then at Vrael. The vampire smiled slightly at me, pulling something from his quiver and tossing it to me. I caught it with an ease born of building our house as a team. In my hand was a sharpening stone. I nodded gratefully at my half-brother, pulling out one sword and running the stone along the edges of the blade. Sharpening a sword, practising my moves, target practice with a bow, grooming Merlas, all repetitive actions that helped me calm myself.
"Alexiai, I do not believe that it is safe for us to remain here." Vrael spoke in demonic.
I had to hold back a growl before answering in the same language. "Don't ever call me that!"
I snarled, leaping to my feet. Vrael copied my actions. From within my mind, the tendrils of the demon's influence grew and took hold as I struggled to keep on top of it. In front of me, Vrael's eyes had turned red, splitting into four. Demonic possession. Now it was a show of strength. My vision became tinted by crimson. The smell of blood and death became as pleasing a smell as that of fresh air and mountain wind. I released my iron control over my magic, allowing it to erupt into a flaming aura. Vrael copied, his red magic bursting forth in what would have been an impressive show of pyrotechnics. Here and now, all that mattered was showing how strong we were. It was a fight. Anger began to consume me. Until I heard Bart's voice calling my name.
My magic flickered. I stamped down on my demon side, trying to maintain control, to force its influence down. I gasped aloud with the effort. Vrael seized the opportunity. He leapt at me, attempting to make the first strike. I kicked out, managing to force him to divert his course briefly. His strength bolstered by his magic, his fist struck my chest. I felt my ribs crack. I fell back with a shout of pain. Bart jumped towards Vrael.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" The Kraferr snarled. I gasped for breath. Vrael closed his eyes. I felt his anger ebb away as he calmed himself. I glanced over at the pair. Bart stood behind my brother, one arm round his neck, the other wielding its claws as if to gouge out Vrael's eyes. I sat up slowly, cradling my ribs with one arm. Bart released Vrael, still watching him warily out of the corner of his eye as he crouched next to me.
"He missed my heart," I assured him, sensing his concern radiating from him. "He must have broken a rib or two, that's all."
"Yeah, but it's still a broken rib. Come on," he gently pulled my arms away, laying his hand lightly over my splintered bones. I threw my head back and snarled silently to the moon as they snapped back into place. Bart leant back on his heels. "You ok now?"
"Yeah," I replied, "yeah, I'm alright now. Thanks." I lay back, rolling onto my side so that my back was facing Bart. A hint of confusion wafted from him, but he didn't ask. I was glad about that. I was so tired. So sore. All I wanted to do was sleep.
I didn't even notice that Vrael had gone. A wave of anger and confusion hit me like a tsunami. I bolted upright with a gasp. Vrael never felt emotions with such power, but they had undoubtedly come from him. Something was very, very wrong. I grabbed my swords, scrambling to my feet and running back towards the city, towards the epicentre of the emotions, trying to ignore the pain lancing through my chest with every breath I took. I arrived in a back alley on the outskirts of the city.
"Vrael, take high ground!" I shouted in demonic. The vampire, bow in hand, swung himself up onto a fire escape. I drew both my swords, preparing to fight. I faced my opponent. Sither and another, cloaked, figure. I sniffed the air. Kraferr. A female Kraferr whose smell was somewhat close to Bart's. But now was not the time to ponder over the Kraferr's scent. The emotions I was sensing from Sither were not good.
"Why were you really with us, Sither?" I growled, my eyes narrowed. I heard the subtle creaking of Vrael's bow as he drew back the string. Sither grinned at me. I didn't like that. It didn't bode well at all.
My fears were confirmed when Sither morphed. I cursed under my breath. I had forgotten he was a shifter. Kuijin were an increasingly rare shifter race, and damned strong in their 'true' forms. And Sither's form did nothing to inspire confidence within my mind. A two metre tall Praying Mantis was not what I wanted to see. I tightened my grip on my swords, highly conscious that the hilts were starting to feel a little slippery. One of Vrael's arrows appeared out of the corner of my eye. It broke in half as if hit one of the interlocking pieces of armour that formed the Praying Mantis' exoskeleton. I brought both blades up to parry a blow from the giant bug's bladed arms. The impact shook my arms down to the very bone. Goddess, he was strong. I ducked under another attack, swinging my sword in a short arc. I barely scratched his exoskeleton. Growling in frustration, I reluctantly gave ground, concentrating on keeping all my limbs attached to my body. I couldn't see any weak points in his armour plating, nothing I could take advantage of. Another arrow narrowly missed me.
"Watch where you're aiming!" I yelled without taking my eyes off Sither.
"Shad?" Called out Bart's voice. I half turned to tell him to run like the clappers out of here. One of Amarath's combat rules floated through my head: Never turn your back on an enemy. I jumped out of the way just too late. Sither's bladed arms ripped through my calf. I fell hard onto the unforgiving ground. For a moment, I prayed for the fatal blow I knew was going to come. I prayed for it to kill me. To save me from the prophecy. But the blow never came. I glanced up. Bart stood over me, his arms crossed in front of him as he held off Sither's attack. I rolled out of the way. Sither screeched in agony. Blood rained down. I scrambled to my feet, almost falling again as my injured leg gave way beneath me. I grabbed onto a drain pipe. Bart was ripping at Sither's face with his claws as he hung down the Praying Mantis' back. Sither screamed once more, throwing Bart to the ground and fleeing. The Kraferr sprang back to his feet as Vrael swung down from the fire escape. He slung his bow over his back and pulled my arm around his shoulders so he could help support my weight. I leant against him, relief and gratitude flooding through me.
"It is unwise for us to linger here, we should... Bart?" We both turned to look for the Kraferr, who had lapsed into unnerving silence. He lay on the ground. His agony surged through my mind with such an unexpected force it almost blinded me. I pressed the heel of my palm against my eye as I knelt next to him. Vrael was trying to in the Kraferr to the ground to limit his thrashing. Violet fur swept over the brown. Not far off, the silver bracers lay in pieces.
"Bart, come on, let go of your emotions," I tried to urge him, but he was too far gone for us to bring him back with words. His claws lengthened, digging deep grooves into the concrete. His eyes, already red with his Kraferric transformation, split into four. A double row of of bone spikes erupted from his back.
"Vrael! The Salent!" True to form, the vampire handed me a slim vial of silvery liquid. Pulling out the stopped with my teeth, I grimaced as the smell hit me. Salent was a particularly nasty concoction the part demons used in extreme cases to control their brethren. It removed all emotions from the mind for a few moments to a few hours, effectively trapping the demon, who used the emotions to free itself. I grabbed Bart's jaw, trying to ignore the fearsome fangs he now sported, tipping a couple of drops into his mouth. The effect was immediate. He stopped struggling, instead lying on the road much like a limp sock. Slowly, he began to change again. The spikes receded, his claws shortened, his fur turning brown once more. Vrael and I sat in almost identical positions, watching the Kraferr change back into himself. His red eyes, now only two, were still dull. I closed my eyes, focusing on his emotions, blocking out all else. I could feel the faint stirrings of something, but not enough for Bart to pull himself out of the stupor. Not yet.
Ten minutes passed with an agonising slowness. Vrael was on edge, waiting for another attack. I was focused on Bart, praying that he would recover from this. Stronger flickers of emotion started to spark in the weremonkey's mind. Shadow breathed a sigh of relief as Bart slowly sat up, one hand on his head.
"What happened?" He asked groggily. "It feels like I've got a heavy metal band in my head..."
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. "You had a close run in with your demonic side. We were worried that you would not pull through as you are." To his credit, Bart didn't ask any questions. I wasn't sure I would be able to answer them. What he had just gone through was the rough equivalent of what nearly every born part demon went through between the ages of three and five. We discovered our demonic sides, and one side would be chosen, usually because of the strength required to subdue the other side of our personalities. Bart hadn't been expecting his. It was pure luck that he came through still thinking as a human and not as a demon. Bart pulled his watch from his pocket, staring at it for a moment.
"We should probably be going. I don't want to have to explain this to anyone," he reasoned. I glanced at Vrael, who nodded slightly. Getting to his feet, the vampire then helped me to stand, once more helping to support me. With Bart at our sides, we walked back towards the forest, to the mountain where the Kraferr necklace was hidden.
We walked for a handful of miles before Vrael asked to break for a rest. Bart looked as if he were desperate to continue, but he couldn't go against Vrael's words. I was secretly glad. My leg pained me a great deal, but I didn't want either Bart or Vrael to attempt to heal it. They needed their energy to continue on the quest. I sat myself on a fallen tree trunk. The forest was quiet, a silence only broken by a distant river's thunder. I rubbed my temples. Dawn had come over the land not all that long ago, shining through the canopy of leaves to create a forest floor dappled with light. Vrael morphed into his animal form of a panther before he disappeared into the trees. I leant me head back ,glaring at the sky. I didn't want to be stopped for any longer than was strictly necessary. The prophecy loomed over my head like an ominous black cloud that didn't hold a storm but a hurricane. A month. That's all I had left. Just a month. My fingers strayed down to the wound, to determine the extent of the damage Sither had managed to cause. I pressed lightly on the bone in my shin. Pain shot through the entire limb. I couldn't help but wince. The damned Praying Mantis had certainly managed to cause a lot of damage. I felt concern radiating from Bart once more. Glancing up, I saw him watching me with worry on his face.
"Look, Shad, if Vrael didn't heal that, I'm guessing I shouldn't try either. So please, please try not to worsen it?"
I twisted my mouth into a half smile. "You don't have to worry. The injury is minimal. It's what I believe the humans refer to as a 'flesh wound'." Who was I trying to kid? Demons, and by extension, half demons, could normally see through lies if they were looking for them. It wasn't a difficult thing to do. Bart locked gazes with me before he spoke quietly.
"If I said I believed that, I'd be lying, Shad." I closed my eyes and bowed my head. I thought so. I could feel him glaring at me still. He was annoyed that I was trying to hide things from him. I turned my own glare at him out of the corner of my eye.
"You have your things to worry about. I have mine. It would be wise for you to remember that," I growled, getting back to my feet. Knowing that my leg wouldn't hold me, I summoned my magic. Hovering above the ground I willed myself forwards. I passed Vrael slinking back towards our temporary encampment, a few rabbits in his mouth. He nodded his head once to me, his conscious brushing against mine long enough to express his concern that I keep myself safe. I inclined my head slightly, acknowledging his concerns.
I walked a little further into the forest before sitting down with my back against a tree trunk. Leaning my head back, I closed my eyes. A month. It seemed so short. I felt tears beginning to prick the backs of my eyes. Tendrils of someone else's thoughts gently probed mine. Vrael.
Shadow? Are you ok?
Yeah, just... you know... prophecy getting to me again. It's...
I know. Just return to camp, please?
Back at camp, Vrael and Bart were quietly eating the rabbits the vampire had caught, sitting around a small fire. Well, Bart was eating it. Vrael was sucking the blood out of his. Without a word, he tossed the remainder of the three creatures. The smell of it turned my stomach. I felt ill. I ate a few mouthfuls for appearance, then set it aside. There were creatures in the forest who would be glad to eat it for me. Instead, I sat back against a tree. Vrael coughed politely. I glanced at him .He tapped his calf, asking for permission to see to my wound. I sighed, nodding and turning my head away. The vampire moved in, gently pulling the fabric of my trousers away from the gash and setting to work. Within a few minutes, it was cleaned out and stitched. Vrael calmly packed away his tools.
"We should get going, the cave's only a couple of hours away," Bart suggested, getting to his feet.
We arrived in front of a cliff, where symbols had been carved into the stone in the shape of an archway. I chewed the inside of my cheek, leaning heavily on a tree branch I had found, trying to keep the weight off my injured leg. There was magic here, certainly, the same kind that I sensed around Bart. Kraferric magic. I reached out a hand to touch the stone surface, but there was some sort of magical barrier. I couldn't get more than a couple of inches away. Bart stepped closer, unhindered by the magic, to run his fingers over the carvings. I tried to understand the runes, but without success. I had no idea where to even begin to try to read the Kraferr language. Judging by the concentrated look on Vrael's face and the confusion I was feeling coming from him, he had no idea either. Great. Even Bart seemed to be struggling to read them. I wondered if the Kraferrs even taught their Ones how to read the language.
"I've got it!" Bart called back excitedly. He laid a hand on the door, chanting something under his breath that I couldn't understand. With an ominous crack, the rock within the carvings broke away, sliding to the side. Vrael and I glanced at each other as Bart stepped inside. Warily, we followed. For a moment, there was a feeling like walking through syrup before the magic reluctantly let us pass. We were in the cave.
The cave echoed eerily with our combined breathing. Bart's eyes glowed a little in the darkness. Our footsteps resonated off the stone walls. If any of the little group had been human, we wouldn't have been able to see a thing in the gloomy cavern as we crept through the maze. I sniffed the air, trying to get a lock on a possible smell of the locket. I smelt nothing, but I could smell blood. Fresh blood. I opened my mouth to warn the others, but the sound of grinding rock pushed all thoughts from my mind.
"The walls are moving!" Bart cried. The three of us huddled together, the walls shifting like liquid around us. I gritted my teeth, trying to tune out the deafening sound. Gradually, the noise abated. The dust started to settle. We continued on as fast as we could, determined to find the necklace before the walls started to move again. Vrael's nose, more acute than mine, smelt the smell of Kraferr and metal and took the lead until we came to a small, rectangular chamber, right in what we guessed was the heart of the maze. I looked around. In the centre of the room lay an amulet.
"This is too easy, there has to be something else," I muttered.
"There is. Poison," Bart answered. "The decorations on the walls hide poison darts." I glanced at the walls in front of us. Carved into the stone were Kraferr faces posing with various grimaces. Sure enough, there was a faint smell of poison in the air, an overly sweet, metallic tang. I pulled a face. I hate that smell.
"Shadow? Give me your staff," Vrael said quietly. I handed the stick over without a word, leaning against the wall for support. The vampire stepped forwards, crouching low to the ground, using the staff in an attempt to find the trigger for the darts. Without warning, darts started flying out of the walls. Bart and I, still in the corridor, were safe. Vrael dodged, backflipped and ducked. The onslaught stopped. Vrael, breathing heavily, bent to pick up the necklace. In a blur of motion, two figures jumped past, us, heading for Vrael, grabbing the amulet. The smell of Kuijin blood went straight to my head. I clamped my cloak over my nose, trying to filter the scent. Vrael had paled, trembling. I sensed his distress as he tried to keep his hunger contained. I tried to summon my magic. It sparked feebly. I swore. The sheer weight of the Kraferric magic was interfering with mine!
"Sither," Bart growled.
The mantis Kuijin smirked at us, a bandage obscuring his ruined eyes. "Who else?"
"Who's your pal?" I asked, referring to the other person who had ambushed us. The person in question lowered the hood on her cloak. That explained the smell from before. A female Kraferr.
"Name's Domina," she said, the All Teller necklace dangling from her fist. I gritted my teeth. Vrael was crouched on the ground, glaring fixedly at the stone, trying to control himself. Domina handed Sither the necklace. Bart tensed, worry pouring off him.
"You'd better not ask it about my death," the Kraferr growled.
"I don't have to," Sither answered. "You die now!" In a flash, Sither had thrown a dagger at Bart, slicing his neck. He collapsed next to me. Vrael was over in an instant, tense as a coiled spring. I glanced at him worriedly, but he had his medical equipment out, not his fangs. My heart sank. I could smell poison. Anger clouded my mind. Roaring, I leapt at Sither, intent on ripping out the bastard's heart. Domina jumped in front of him, two more daggers at the ready. I dodged, trying to get around her. Stepping back into a defensive position, I watched the female Kraferr carefully. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sither raise the necklace.
"What is the meaning of human existence?"
Bart coughed out a laugh as the amulet started to glow strongly, its white light surrounding the mantis. I squeezed my eyes shut against the glare. By the time it had died down again, Sither was nothing more than a pile of dust. Domina had disappeared. Breathing hard, I scrambled to Bart's side, checking his wound. Vrael had beaten me to it, having already administered an antipoison. I took over pressing the sterile pad to the wound, desperately trying to stem the blood flow. We had come too far to let him die. Too much was at stake for the Kraferr race. Slowly, Bart got to his feet, the compress clamped to his neck.
"Keep an eye on his emotions," Vrael said under his breath to me. I nodded discreetly. Bart wound the amulet's chain around his wrist, gazing down at the heavy gold and blue gemmed necklace. I could feel the weight of it pressing down on him, that there were unanswered questions in his mind, that he held the future of his entire race in his hand.
"Come, Shadow, Bart, I have a scent trail to the outside."
We split up with Bart when we reached the outskirts of the city again. Vrael and I bade our goodbyes and started to walk back towards the forest to teleport out of sight of human eyes. I ran through the procedure in my mind. It shouldn't be too difficult. As soon as we were far enough out of sight, I reached out and touched his shoulder.
"Sorry, Vrael, but I've got to follow Bart and make sure he isn't going to do anything stupid." Releasing the magic, I teleported him back to the house. Casting a charm on my leg to block the pain, I set off after the Kraferr.