The Headwind swooped down on Marsten, floor tilting beneath Noman as the airship shed altitude. It soon became clear that the city was swarming with demons, more than he would have thought possible. They filled the streets, crowded Hobb Hill, and ran across rooftops. Yet among the horde there was a spot that was conspicuously empty -the large market square in the center of the city. Merchant stalls and carts had all been pushed to the sides, piled into haphazard heaps.
"What's going on over there?" Noman asked, pointing to the square. The airship banked towards the square, affording it's passengers a better view. As they drew closer it turned out that the square wasn't as empty as it first appeared. A small group of demons had gathered in the center. They stood in a rough circle around something...
"Airea's anchor," Noman realized. "What are they doing with it? Where's Olian?"
Do you see the rift above the Tower?
Noman jerked in surprise as Airea's voice invaded his mind for the first time in weeks.
All the demons that have come through that rift... on it's own it carries the potential to destroy your world. Now imagine a rift ten times that size. That's what they're doing with the stone.
"But why?" Noman breathed.
To accommodate something more powerful than a mere demon.
Noman's heart hammered in his chest as the implication became clear. "It's you, isn't it?" he asked. "You're going to cross the barrier..."
No, Noman. Not me.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Esme's curious gaze.
"We have to attack as soon as possible," Noman told her. "We may already be far too late."
"What did she tell you?"
"They're bringing through a god. If they do that we're definitely done for. We have to stop them before it gets to that."
"Can we please leave now?" Bainbridge asked from the pilot's chair. "Those things are watching us fly over and it's making me damned nervous."
"Take us to the Ivory Tower and then back around," Noman ordered. "I still haven't seen anything that looks like a general down there, unless it's in that circle we saw. I'd like to get another look at them anyway."
"Is that really necessary?" Finley asked. "We've seen their strength in the city. It's formidable and growing by the hour. We need to get back and warn the army as soon as possible."
"Until we make a full pass over the city we can't know their full strength for certain," Noman told him. "We'll finish this pass then head back out."
The Ivory Tower grew in size as Bainbridge headed for it, it's top just below the level of the airship. Noman focused his gaze on it as they approached. "Where are you, Olian?" He asked, eyes straining down at the roof to see if he could make out the errant mage. There was a shadow of movement there, but something was wrong about it. It was too big to be human, and the way it moved spoke of a bestial nature. The thing turned to regard the airship passed overhead and began it's slow, ponderous turn to head back the way it had come.
Noman got a good look at the creature as it lurched onto the roof's low wall. The body looked like that of a muscular, deformed man. It had huge forearms nearly twice the size of it's hind legs, which it used to propel itself forward. While the body might have resembled a man the head was nowhere near, looking more like that of a rabid dog with no lips or ears. Black, pointed spines covered the creature's neck, curving to lay along it's back. They stood on end as the creature bellowed it's rage at the airship.
Noman thought it impotent rage until great leathery wings unfurled from it's back. A curse was just passing his lips as the beast turned, ran full tilt across the roof, and catapulted itself headlong into the air. It's wings caught the wind and soon it was tracing an agile arc through the sky that would bring it directly to the Headwind.
"Noman," Finley warned, outstretched arm pointing at the creature.
"I see it. Bainbridge, can we avoid that thing?"
"I'll give it my best," the inventor promised, pulling hard on lever and pushing another forward. The airship tilted sharply, the slow turn gaining surprising speed. The flying creature passed from view and Noman dared hope that they would outrun it. A moment passed, then another. Internally he tired to calculate the creature's speed verses the speed of the airship and when the two would have met. He arrived at a number and anxiously counted down... the time came, and there was no sign of the beast.
"Could it have caught us?" he asked anyway.
"Depends on how fast that damn thing can fly," Bainbridge answered. "I'd like to think nothing with wings could outrun Heady."
"No," Esme interrupted. "It's getting closer." Even Bainbridge spared a look over his shoulder at her, eyebrows raised. "It's..." she frowned. "It's above us. There!" she pointed out through the windows. Noman's eyes turned towards the front of the ship just in time to see the creature diving in at them from above. It slammed into the flight cabin's windows with enough force to crack the glass and made the floor shudder. Even so the thing didn't even appear dazed. It immediately started slamming large fists into the glass, roaring it's rage at those just beyond it's reach.
Everyone took startled steps backward, including Bainbridge, who released the airship's controls and jumped from the pilot's chair. "Shit!" he exclaimed.
"Sit down!" Noman ordered. "Esme," he turned towards the mage to find that her lips were already moving, hand up and pointed at the demon. With one final syllable she unleashed a flash of white energy that tore through the window. The glass shattered completely, sending as much shrapnel into the ship as away from it, but the spell found it's mark. The demon jerked away, one shoulder smoking from the attack. But instead of falling away as Noman had hoped the creature found a handhold on the outside of the ship. Bellowing at them again it clawed it's way towards the top of the Headwind.
"Thank the gods it's gone," Finley exclaimed.
"No!" Bainbridge shouted over the roar of the wind in the now exposed flight cabin. "Noman, you've got to get that thing! If it damages one of the rotors or... or ye gods, if it tears into one of the gas envelopes we may not make it back through that storm! We might not even make it that far!"
Noman nodded his understanding. "Get us out of here," he ordered. "I'll take care of that thing. Esme?"
"Up!" she said, pointing through the walls of the airship as if they weren't even there. "Come on!"
The pair raced through the airship's corridors. Noman grabbed one of the crewmen in passing and used the hapless airman to find a way out onto the airship's roof. And, because he hardly intended to try this madness alone, he gathered every rifle wielding soldier he could find along the way.
The wind nearly tore Noman's arm off as he opened the hatch, tearing the metal from his grasp and slamming it down onto the airship's hull. Thankfully it stayed there.
One of the Headwind's crew had thought to grab long lengths of rope from the ship's stores for this exercise in madness. Noman was glad to have it. One end he tied securely around his waist, the other to safety anchors installed on the hull right next to the hatch. That completed he clambered out into the howling wind. He wasn't sure if it was the Headwind's flight that caused the gale, the massive rotor blades spinning above, or both.Either way he staggered more than once and struggled to maintain his footing as he searched around for the demon.
Soldiers followed Noman's lead, tying off and climbing into the hull where many a fancy hat was lost. Esme, for her part, stayed partially in the hatchway, feet braced against the ladder and hands clinging to the hull. "Where is it?" Noman demanded, shouting at the top of his lungs to be heard.
"It's here somewhere, I can feel it!" Esme shouted back.
With no more direction than that Noman ordered the soldiers to spread out along the sides of the airship. It was nowhere to be seen on the roof and so, he reasoned, it must be clinging to the side of the ship somewhere. It was then that Noman realized he had no weapon, and he quickly took a curved sword from one of the soldiers. Thankfully they still carried such weapons in addition to their rifles.
A nearby cry of alarm drew Noman's attention. Only twenty feet away one of the soldiers was backing away from the safety railing that ran along the edges of the Headwind's roof, rifle pointed at nothing. No, not nothing... an overly large, leathery arm swung up to grab the railing. The demon hauled itself up into view. The soldier fired. Noman knew he'd fired only from the puff of smoke whisked quickly away by the wind - the weapon's report had be swept away before reaching his ears.
The demon jerked as the bullet pierced it's chest - Noman saw a spray of black ichor leave it's back - but it didn't slow down. Instead it vaulted over the railing and grabbed the hapless soldier. It tried to fling the man from the roof and off into empty sky. Instead he reached the end of his safety tether and was flung hard into the side of the airship, where he hung limply. The demon looked curiously at his dangling form, then at the rope which held it. Before it could do anything more a volley of gunfire peppered the demon. Enraged it charged the nearest soldier, only to be struck by a spell from Esme.
The demon lost it's footing and tumbled to the deck and the soldiers swarmed it, stabbing with swords or beating at it with their rifles. Unfortunately for them the demon was not incapacitated. It surged to it's feet, flinging soldiers aside with it's powerful arms and raking terrible gashes in their flesh with it's claws. One it even caught in it's larger jaws, shaking the man from side to side like a rag doll before letting him fall in a bloody heap.
Another blast of magical energy connected with the demon and it's attention focussed on the new attacker. With a snarl it charged forward towards Esme. Noman rushed to meet it, sword raised. He had to lunge forward to intercept it, raking the blade across the creature's face and nearly losing his balance. The demon's arm lashed out, slamming into Noman's chest. He could feel it's claws digging into his ribs, piercing deeply into his flesh. With grim determination he wrapped his legs around the arm and, his free hand gripping one of it's massive fingers, he speared the sword in at it's face once more.
The demon howled in rage and swung it's other arm at him. He saw the strike coming and pushed away from the demon, bracing one foot in the bend at it's elbow. He successfully evaded the swing but hit the deck hard. He found himself rolling out of control, stopped only by the safety railing at the edge of the deck. He stood, bracing himself against the railing. His sword was gone, lost over the side. He cursed the weapon's loss as the demon focused on him, baleful green eyes burning with blind fury.
With no other option, he launched himself backwards over the railing. The demon's lunging form passed just overhead. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he saw Esme reaching a hand out towards him, face contorted in a shout of warning he couldn't hear. Then he saw the frayed end of his safety rope, severed by the demon's claws, following him over the railing and out over nothing....
"Well," some irrationally calm part of his mind said, "this is going to be interesting."