I glared up defiantly at the imposing figure before me, squarely meeting his gaze.
“Lay down your weapon, boy,” the black-haired man advised, again in that smooth baritone of his. “No one needs to get hurt today.”
I scowled up at him. “If you want me, you’ll have to come and get me yourself,” I snapped in reply, drawing Aequivalere in a single, fluid motion.
The man’s grin vanished abruptly, and his voice hardened. “That won’t be necessary,” he said, coldly. “Take him,” he instructed, flicking a hand in my direction.
Figures clad in black exploded out from the shadows, emerging from behind crates and swarming towards me. From where I was standing, I could make out at least fifty of them – far more than I had expected to be waiting in ambush. They surged closer in eerie silence, each wielding a katana similar to the one Black Hood had employed in our fight.
Two weeks ago, the college student known as Shane Davidson would have run screaming to the police, utterly terrified by the mass of murderous agents before him. But that man was long gone. I raised my blade in challenge to my oncoming adversaries, and bounded forward to meet the impending onslaught.
With an effort of will, I ignited Aequivalere, the ancient blade blazing to life in a brilliant burst of flame. Shouting my rage and defiance at the foes before me, I loosed a jet of scorching flame at the nearest column of agents. They went down, screaming horribly, their burning clothes and skin transforming them into human torches. Another squad of agents rushed me from the opposite direction, and I simply vaporized the entire cluster of men with a gigantic fireball, leaving behind a small crater where they had been standing.
And then the rest of the minions were upon me. Chaos ensued, each team of agents attempting to maim or subdue me while I fought valiantly to repel them. I darted back and forth, bobbing and weaving, deflecting blows with my shield and impaling foes with my blade whenever the opportunity presented itself. One agent brought his sword down in a vertical slash that would have taken my arm off at the elbow, but I skipped clear of the blow with inches to spare. I decapitated my assailant with a backhanded blow, and sliced off the sword arm of another with the same stroke. A third agent attempted to ensnare me in a weighted net, but Aequivalere simply parted it down the middle, the red-hot blade melting metal links like candle wax. As the battle wore on, I felt my rage building, bloodlust threatening to overwhelm me.
Then a fiery whip sprouted from the tip of my blade, and I whirled Aequivalere about my head in a circle, much as a cowboy would a lasso. The nearest enemies surrounding me fell to the ground, their bodies twitching in two halves, screaming in agony. Another crack of my sword-whip severed the heads of the next few who dared approach, and they fell to the ground like oversized marbles, bouncing grotesquely. Realizing that the battle was lost, the remaining agents broke and fled, retreating towards the main entrance in wild panic.
Seizing the opportunity, I raced over to the metal cage and struck at the lock with my blade. It gave way easily, melted by the searing heat. Then the door swung open, and Dylan was free.
“Take the other prisoners and go,” I instructed. Dylan hastened to comply, hollering at them to follow his lead.
As the exodus began, prisoners streaming out through a side door, I turned to face the black-haired man who had been giving the orders – only to find that he was no longer there.
“Shane!” shouted Dylan abruptly, “The cultists!”
All at once, I became aware of low, chanting voices emanating from the center of the warehouse. Whirling to face it, I saw the remaining agents huddled in a circle, heads bowed, their hands raised skywards. As I watched, the chanting grew louder, swelling to a crescendo, and a malevolent aurora seemed to descend upon them. I had an ominous premonition that something really bad was about to happen.
Without further ado, I charged the cultists, blade blazing to life once more. I leaped into the air and brought Aequivalere crashing down upon them, intending to vanquish them all in one fell swoop with a well-placed fireball.
I was too late. The malevolent aurora flared with incandescent, sickly green light, and the world exploded in a whirlwind of color and sound. I was thrown backwards through the air by the blast, the entire warehouse reverberating with the impact of it.
I landed on my back with a deafening thud, and the world went black.
Fighting to stay conscious, I attempted to leverage myself up on my elbows, only to have bright spots explode across my field of vision. A sharp spike of pain shot through my head, and I fell back to the ground with a loud groan. In the background, I could faintly make out people screaming, as Dylan’s voice bellowed for them to make their way through the open door.
On my third try, I managed to get myself into a sitting position, whereupon I was promptly treated to the sight of a truly hellish creature.
Where the circle of cultists had gathered, a monstrous beast had spawned in their place. It was huge and black, covered in leathery skin, and towered at a height thrice as tall as the average man. Glowing, green eyes hung over a long snout and cavernous maw that bristled with rows of serrated fangs, and a pair of gigantic horns spiraled up from both sides of its head. Its eyes gleamed with an uncanny intelligence as it turned and started towards the fleeing prisoners.
My heart was beating so rapidly that it felt ready to burst out of my chest at any moment, but I swallowed my fear and rose to my feet.
“Hey, ugly! Come get some,” I shouted, leveling my blade at the demon’s back and unleashing a fireball in its direction. The resulting explosion merely singed the demon’s skin, but it was enough to catch its attention. With a roar that shook the entire building, the demon turned around and started towards me instead, closing the distance between us rapidly.
“That’s right, boy, come to Papa,” I taunted in a show of bravado, as I unleashed a jet of flame at the demon.
Only that this time, it didn’t work. The demon simply raised a talon-tipped hand, and my fire splashed uselessly against what appeared to be an invisible barrier. I swore and sent another fireball winging its way, only to have it similarly repelled.
“Foolish human,” growled the demon in an inhuman voice. “Your feeble mortal flame cannot harm us. Despair, and tremble before the true power of the Lord of Darkness!”
With that, the demon lumbered towards me, thunderous footsteps shaking the very earth beneath it. I realized that I had clearly bitten off more than I could chew.
“Crap,” I squeaked, and set off running in the opposite direction as fast as I could. Finding my path blocked, I blew open the wall with a concentrated blast of fire and ran on into the adjacent warehouse, praying hard that the demon would not be able to follow suit.
I had evidently not been praying hard enough, because the demon promptly smashed its way through the wall as though it had been made of Lego. Fragments of brick rained down upon me, peppering the floor with a hail of red rubble. A quick glance over my shoulder told me that the barrier had barely slowed the demon down, and it gained on me with broad strides.
I was vaguely, absurdly reminded of a certain fairy tale that went by the title of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Of course, Jack had come out on top in that particular tale, but I didn’t have a giant beanstalk handy that I could trick the demon into climbing. If I went up onto the catwalk, the demon would probably just tear it down by sheer strength alone, taking me with it. So I kept running, and the demon got closer and closer with each passing moment.
At last, I blasted my way out of the last warehouse and into open air. I found myself in a construction site – presumably the starting point for the scheduled renovation work. Realizing that I had run out of places to flee to, I looked about desperately for something – anything – that would help me escape the demon’s wrath.
Five seconds later, the demon’s claws ripped through the crumbling brick and gouged out a gaping hole. With an agility that belied its considerable size, it leaped through the breach in the wall and landed on all fours. As the dust settled, the demon peered about, a bestial grin on its deformed face.
“Hey, ugly,” I hollered once more. “Why don’t you pick on something your own size?”
The demon whirled to the right, snarling in response to my voice – and promptly got clobbered in the face by the enormous wrecking ball that I’d commandeered.
Imagine being hit in the face by a golf ball. Now, blow it up to the size of your head, and replace it with a ball of solid steel. I’m pretty sure that “painful” doesn’t even begin to describe the kind of hurt it’d dish out.
This was exactly what the demon got, except that the steel wrecking ball was actually bigger around than its head. It slammed into the demon’s head with deadly force, crushing bones and pulverizing flesh. I heard a sickly, squishing sound as its brains got splattered, and both its horns shattered from the sheer force of the blow.
For a brief instant, the demon swayed on its feet, actually attempting to stay upright, one mangled eye focused on me. Then, it collapsed to the ground in a senseless heap.
Within moments, the demon had dissolved into ash, and its remains were quickly dispersed by the wind – just like what had happened to Black Hood. It seemed that disintegration upon death was a trait common to the Lord of Darkness’ minions, I noted wryly.
As the thrill of battle faded, I realized that I had no idea where Dylan and the other prisoners were. Hoping that they were safe, I quickly set off at a fast trot for the warehouse entrance.
That had been a little too close for comfort. Literally.