January 26th, 2017
Giemm ventured to the outpost of Cadurapi to check on the operations. In the past six months, Stefin had seized many of his old holdings, and begun to draw continually greater numbers to his side. Word was spreading on the Dark side of the Demon who befriended a Rose and retook his empire. Word spread, too, of the plentiful food, comfortable beds, and the luxuries of life most Dark beings had never experienced. It was easy to lure lesser Dark beings to the Light with nothing more than the promise of protection, kindness, and boarding… and, of course, ask them to risk their lives to convert.
Conversion was never guaranteed. Since Falient arrived, Lask had devoted more and more time to helping him develop more successful methods. Taking the Light would always make a Dark being sick for a few days, but with Lask’s help, they’d been able to lessen the sickness, and reduce the risk of death. It was unknown why conversions failed– sometimes, the Dark being may have taken the Light for deceptive reasons, others, perhaps the Light reached their heart and found no hope. Regardless, all Dark things know the Light could be their death. Still, Stefin’s operation and Falient’s rescues attracted thousands, and in the span of a few months, the Demon had a standing army to rival most of his old enemies. Even so, Giemm remained unconvinced they could rival Moloch.
The bird delivered the bag of supplies he’d brought for Cadurapi’s infirmary, then went to meet the captain– a fellow Runner by the name of Leforn. The captain motioned him up to the ramparts with an eager wave. Giemm trotted up to join him, and looked across the dusty land beyond. Out on the plain were immense constructions, barriers to protect the long range guns. Stefin had acquired them a week ago after conquering a Demon in Afghanistan. Their soldiers had since moved most of the weaponry into position just outside Moloch’s territory. Cadurapi was one of the closest, a neutral land left unoccupied due to its proximity to the Ancient Demon, and second only to the cloaked base where they were tunneling under Moloch’s defenses.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” Giemm remarked, leaning on the ramparts to survey the progress. “Have you calibrated them yet?”
“Yes, sir. Though there’s no way to know for sure without firing.”
“Where is your perimeter?” Giemm peered out at the dusty waste, but could not make out the shape of any guards.
“A bit beyond the farthest gun, just there–” the other Runner pointed, “But it is hard to see without a spyglass. Come, we could walk out that way; you can have a look at the calibrations.”
Giemm followed him out of the fort, out into the path of the hot wind, which blew fine dust into his eyes. The long guns were farther apart than they’d seemed on the ramparts. Each was positioned and angled to take aim at a different part of Moloch’s stronghold or territory. Giemm looked over a few of them, eyeing them with shrewd and skeptical eyes, but the soldiers had done a fine job. A bit to the bird’s disappointment, he could find nothing to correct or squawk about.
He had climbed the back of the third gun from the perimeter, and had his head upside down under the navigation panel when there was a distant scream on the wind. On the ground below, Leforn drew the gun at his side. Giemm looked up in time to see a flash on the perimeter in the distance.
“Leforn!” he screeched. “You’ve been compromised. Get back to the gate, raise the alarm!”
Already, Giemm could see the hunting party that had breached the wards. It seemed an unusually large number– Giemm estimated at least thirty– but didn’t waste time to count at them. He scrambled down the ladder, glancing to see Leforn running full-tilt back toward the gate in his Runner shape.
As Giemm’s feet his the ground, Leforn stumbled and burst into light at the sound of a gunshot. Giemm’s stomach dropped. For a moment, he thought of staying put and hoping the party charged past him, but he knew they had seen him atop the gun. He sprang, throwing himself to all fours and snapping into his Runner shape. He took off across the dust, cutting a weaving line through the artillery. In the haze of fleeing, he thought, Why aren’t they shooting at me?
When he heard the chilling bay of another Runner behind him, he knew.
There was noise from the fort; alarm bells, and distant gunfire. Giemm didn’t have a chance to see if they succeeded in trimming his pursuers. Something glanced off the gun shield to his left, but he tore on, galloping across the plain.
Something hit him in knee, and his feet tangled. The Runner’s speed sent him skidding into the dust, a frantic bundle of spindly legs and feathers. Giemm flailed against the weighted net that had snagged his feet. He tore the ropes with his beak, snapping at his own ankles, but knew he was down.
The hunting party caught up to him in seconds. Giemm hissed and pecked as they crowded in. When they reached for him, one fell dead into the dust, a bullet in his forehead. Behind, soldiers were pouring out of the fort after then.
“Hurry up!” snapped one of the attackers.
Something struck Giemm from behind, and he saw a bright flash explode in his vision. He collapsed, stunned for a moment, long enough for his attackers to grab the net and flee, dragging the fallen Runner through the dust behind him.
Lask heard Stefin’s bellowing before he’d passed upstairs. He entered the strategy room on the upper floor of Kotelvira to find the red Demon raging and sparking, pacing around his table of maps and battalion tokens. When Lask stepped into the room, Stefin swept half the contents of the table into the floor, roaring,
“How did you not see this, farero?!”
“I will burn that entire desert to ash if I have to!” the Demon thundered. “Moloch will–”
“Moloch will no doubt be hoping you do exactly that,” Lask countered, not cowed by the Demon’s temper. “He wants us in the open, but we cannot send the bulk of the force to his stronghold–”
“I can, and I will” Stefin retorted. “I will have that gate broken by sundown! He has my Giemm–”
“And they’re coming here.”
Stefin went silent a moment, and leaned on the table, nostrils flaring in a wary snort. “What do you mean?”
“I came from the watchtower. Moloch’s forces are already mobilized. He knows we’ll come for Giemm, and he’s hoping most of us won’t be here when his army arrives.”
The Demon snarled, and bent down to pick up the things he’d knocked off the table. He smoothed the maps, and placed the tokens back to indicate the placement of their forces.
“He will torture Giemm,” said the Demon, “Perhaps kill him.”
“Moloch won’t kill him yet. He’s too valuable. I need you here to run the defense of our home and command your main force here on the mainland.”
“I can’t leave Giemm in–”
“Falient and Wyatt will retrieve Giemm. I will go after Moloch while the bulk of his soldiers are gone, as originally planned.”
“I know we had a plan, but this–”
“The plan will still work,” Lask insisted. “Moloch is moving exactly as I thought he would when he chose to move. The plan is solid–”
“It is not solid without Giemm,” snapped the Demon, “He was to be here. So was Falient. How do you propose to defend the river from Moloch’s Titan without his ship?”
“There is always a contingency plan.”
The Demon gave a rumbling puff and turned away from the table.
“We will get Giemm back,” Lask told him.
“But in what state?” murmured the Demon.
“As long as he’s alive, I can fix him.”
Stefin was silent, and Lask saw his shoulders fall with a heavy sigh. “When will they get here?” asked the Demon.
“They’ll arrive with the Train a few miles north of here in the night. We’ll be under full attack by noon tomorrow.”
“Don’t suppose I can convince you to leave the Shield in Kotelvira?” The Demon spoke of an alkesh heirloom, capable of preventing damage to any person who carried it, or to any place in which it was properly set.
“The Shield must remain in the watchtower,” Lask replied, though he felt guilty speaking the words. “It is our greatest weapon and advantage. We cannot risk being blinded.”
The Demon swallowed another protest, and said simply, “Many will die.”
“We are at war,” Lask replied. “No defense of our home and lives will be free.”
“It was easier when I was Dark,” said the Demon.
Lask reached for his hand on the table, and closed his white fingers over the Demon’s claws.
“I fear we are not ready, farero,” Stefin rumbled. “When I killed Valefar, I was at the height of my power– millions under my command, two Titans, and all the best weaponry of the age. We’re nowhere close to that.”
“But we are smart and we have the Light, and tonight I will bring forward your Dark army.”
The Demon gave a skeptical snort, as if the Luminor could not understand the scope of “Ancient Demon,” but bowed his head. “I will follow you, farero. If you believe this possible, then I will do it.”
“We can win this,” Lask affirmed. “You are the best commander I’ve ever known– if anyone can keep this place safe, it is you.”
“And if anyone can kill Moloch, it is you,” Stefin replied. “I will stay as you ask, but come back to me with Giemm. If he should die, you will have no more red Demon.”
Lask did not know what the Demon was implying, but decided he didn’t need to. He clasped Stefin’s mighty hand and said only, “We will bring him home.”