June 23rd, 2015
Stefin’s army marched through the doorways the officers had drawn in streamlined precision. Stefin and Giemm watched their progress as the dozen soldiers beside them readied the Light explosive Kieran had built. Once through the door, Giemm would remain with the device and oversee the field. As they waited for the army to cross through, Giemm murmured,
“Don’t get yourself killed, mi senierro.”
“I won’t,” Stefin growled. “You’d better not either.”
Giemm gave him an affectionate peck, then noted the officer’s signal at the nearest door.
“Come on,” said Stefin.
The soldiers behind them braced themselves against the device, rolling it forward. As they passed through the door, the familiar cacophony of war rang up the hill to meet them. Below, Zestir’s fortress of Valstaph was under heavy fire. Falient’s ship circled overhead, emptying its cannons into the walls below. Stefin’s army clamored at the gate, hammering it with an enormous ram.
The Demon glanced over his shoulder to see the soldiers roll the device through to rest on the top of the hill. Giemm cocked his head to inspect it, adjusted a few of the dials, then nodded. Down below, there was a resounding crack as the gate began to give way. Seeing it, Stefin tightened his grip on the battleaxe he carried.
“Go,” Giemm told him. “Fight well.”
Stefin nodded to him, then took off at a run down the hill. He was like a charging bear, enormous, already blazing with fire. The soldiers parted before him like minnows before a shark. He thundered alongside the ram, seeing the hole that had already been pierced through the gate. The soldiers paused for a moment as he passed, their eyes widening as the Demon turned his shoulder toward the hole and shattered his way through. The already splintered gate gave at the force of him, and he burst forward into the courtyard. Behind him, the battering ram resumed, and it took only a few blows to knock the remainder of the debris open.
Stefin was impervious to the shots the enemy fired at him. The arrows and bullets glanced off his scarlet hide like dandelion seeds in the breeze. He bowled through a pack of Warmongers, tearing one of them clean in half as the creature snapped at him. He was like a hammer striking through the ranks. His enormous fists broke skin and bones with every blow. The axe cleaved through everything in its path. He had no mercy and no patience. The enemy soldiers were but inconveniences as he waded through to the keep. Above him, Falient turned the ship in wide circles, crumbling sections of the walls into rubble with thundering cannons. Stefin’s soldiers poured through every opening, setting upon Zestir’s ranks with weapons, claws, and teeth. It was the best grisly chaos.
The Sun Demon kicked open the doors to the keep with one massive foot. Sparks and embers fell from him as he stepped inside. A gaggle of Lakvos shrieked and skittered away from him, and he let them go. He stalked down the main passage, sending a bolt of fire into the midst of the Warmonger guards on his right. They yelped and scrambled, unable to halt his march.
Stefin heard his own soldiers charge into the keep behind him. He knew they would rout the guards out of this place with grim efficiency. He paid them no mind as he continued. There were plenty of locked doors in the stronghold, but Stefin hardly noticed, crashing through them as if it were his routine way of opening doors. He came into the great hall, finding it empty, and bellowed,
“ZESTIR!” The Sun Demon’s voice was like the roar of the ocean. “You never paid me for what you took!”
“Let me guess,” came a voice behind him. As Stefin whirled, Zestir continued, “Kotora eler grymor.”
Stefin moved like lightning. His free hand seized the handle of his whip, lashing the fall out at his enemy. Zestir flickered in an instant, and the whip cracked onto nothing. Zestir stood instead off to the left.
“Coward,” Stefin snarled.
“Hardly,” Zestir replied. He carried a huge black mace, which he drew back as he approached.
The two Demons collided in a shower of sparks. Stefin was bigger than Zestir, but Zestir was far from little. The two stepped around each other, swinging and snarling. Zestir’s mace connected with Stefin’s side, but the Sun Demon didn’t so much as flinch. The mace head bounced off, its spikes sparking against his hide. Stefin knew Zestir would not wear him down with it for many hours. The red Demon had never been so well fed and rested in his life; he had no idea how long his bulletproof skin could endure now, but he knew it would outlast Zestir’s stamina. He swung with the axe, but Zestir was nimble, and his magic potent. The Demon seemed to wink out of the space even as Stefin aimed for him.
The Sun Demon was forced to spin tight circles to keep Zestir in his sight as the Demon teleported in darting motions around the chamber. In an instant, Zestir appeared at the far end of the hall, just as Stefin noticed the cannon there. Zestir lit it before he could dodge. While it blew the Sun Demon off his feet, it did little more than jostle him. Stefin was blasted onto his back, but he dropped the whip to catch the cannon ball instead. He snarled as he rolled back to his feet, and lobbed it back down the length of the hall.
Zestir flickered out of the way, but too late realized Stefin had not flung the cannon ball at him. Instead, the Sun Demon’s throw sent the cannon ball bursting into one of the the buttresses in the ceiling. Zestir escaped the main bulk of the corner as it collapsed, but was still knocked to the floor by the debris. Stefin wasted no time and lashed with the whip. Zestir nearly teleported fast enough, but the whip coiled around his arm, the spikes lodging in his Dark flesh. Stefin sent his fire down the length of the whip, holding him fast. Zestir roared and thrashed, but Stefin hauled him closer with the whip.
Zestir ducked the swing of the axe and struggled free, dealing another blow with the mace, which Stefin simply headbutted aside. Zestir flung his hand toward the Sun Demon, and a great crackle of lightning sprang from him. Stefin felt it hit him and snarled, bracing himself against it. The electric magic seared through him, but he stood fast, steeling himself, knowing Zestir couldn’t keep it up forever. When it stopped, Stefin was winded and grimacing, but still on his feet, and strong enough to take a mighty swing with the axe the moment the lightning abated.
Zestir flicked out of sight, then reappeared, flinging himself onto Stefin from behind and locking an arm around the Sun Demon’s neck. Stefin’s tail whipped up, striking deep into Zestir’s back, delivering a string that would prove fatal within a half hour, but Stefin didn’t want to wait that long. He threw himself back, crushing Zestir against the floor under his bulk. The Demon howled, but clung on. Stefin rose back to his feet, and struck over his shoulder, bashing Zestir in the head with the whip handle. Stefin flung him off over his head, and Zestir sprawled on to floor in front of him. He could see the Demon gathering his wits, and struck with the whip again before he could flicker away. Zestir screamed as the fire seared him, struggling to free himself, but Stefin planted a massive clawed foot in the center of his chest to hold him down, and snarled,
“Kotora eler grymor.”
Zestir’s eyes flashed with the reflection of the axe as it came down, and in one fell swing, Stefin cleaved off the Demon’s head. For a moment, Stefin lingered over him, ensuring he was dead, and reveling in his long-awaited revenge. He grabbed a fistful of the Demon’s hair, picking the head up to hold it at eye level a moment, as if to admire it. Then, holding it at his side as if it were nothing more than a shopping bag, he went to door and looked out into the hall, seeing his own soldiers cutting through another pack of guards. Stefin whistled to get their attention and waved them down to join him. The Runner captain and her pack of Warmongers came jogging down to meet him. Stefin motioned back into the hall at Zestir’s headless body.
“Take that to Kotelvira,” he instructed them, “Hang it in the dungeon and let it drain. Spill as little as you can.”
They nodded and went inside. Stefin lingered long enough to see them drag the body through a door the Runner drew back into his castillo. After seeing them off, he stomped back to the courtyard, which was teeming with struggling bodies, bursts of magic, and cannon fire. He held Zestir’s head aloft as he walked through the crowds, relishing the shrieks of dismay from Zestir’s soldiers. The chaos thickened as the enemy soldiers began floundering to flee, but Stefin’s soldiers headed them off, preventing escape.
Stefin swaggered back up the hill to where Giemm waited with the device and its guards. The Runner crowed at the sight of Zestir’s head.
“Well done!” he exclaimed. “And the body?”
“Back in Kotelvira already.” Stefin motioned at the device. “Go.”
Giemm armed it, and stepped back, waving the accompanying soldiers forward. They braced themselves against it, until it picked up its own momentum. It rolled down the hill like a charging bull, and Giemm and Stefin watched it go, neither speaking the worry they felt, hoping Kieran had built it well, and it would not harm any Light creatures.
The bomb rolled right into the shattered gate and collided with the rubble, exploding in a blinding burst of Light. The entire fortress was engulfed for a few seconds, and it was bright enough those on the hill all had to turn away. Giemm hissed and squawked at the brightness.
When they looked back, the remains of the stronghold still stood, but they seemed to shimmer with residual light. Falient’s ship hung overhead, and Stefin could see him waving from the helm. For a moment, they peered down the hill, then movement resumed at the gates. Stefin’s soldiers were dusting themselves off, unharmed. He and Giemm both let out a relieved sigh.
“Take care of the fallen enemy,” Stefin instructed, “Make them as comfortable as they can while they weather the Light sickness. Secure this place, and begin the clean up once the wounded have been taken back to Cuartan.”
“And you?” Giemm said.
“I have a Titan to feed,” Stefin replied, hoisting Zestir’s head again.
“You shouldn’t go alone–”
“I’ll not risk anyone else. If the magic on the cave is still intact an hour from now, bring everything you can. Methok will not be easy to kill.”
Giemm was silent. Stefin had not said “assume I am dead,” but it was the logical conclusion. Stefin drew him into a one-armed embrace, and kissed his feathered head. Giemm nodded and stepped back from him saying,
“Come back to me with your Titan, senierro.”
Stefin stepped through the doorway and into Verica. He emerged where he had stood the day before, just beyond the glowing lines in the dust. The fiery ward still blazed across the cavern entrance, and as he approached it, the growling of the Titan within resumed. Stefin pricked his finger with a claw again, and stepped into the ward. The heat of the fire washed over him, and he felt a jolt of magic surge through him as he passed through, then he stepped into the cavern on the other side.
Methok waited, snarling through bared teeth, each fang as long as Stefin’s forearm. The dragon coiled, like a snake preparing to strike, trying to flare his wings in the cave, but not having enough space. The embers of his eyes smoldered at the Sun Demon as he held Zestir’s head aloft.
“Methok,” Stefin commanded, “Your master is dead. I am your master now.” With that, he tossed Zestir’s head toward the Titan.
Methok’s jaws snapped like a clap of thunder, and he swallowed the head whole. He seemed to shudder, and snarled, but Stefin stepped forward, extending a hand. Methok continued to growl, but made no move as Stefin reached for the three links of chain dangling from the Titan’s collar. His clawed fingers curled around his chain, but before his proud smile could form, the links turned to dust in his hand.
The metal disintegrated under his touch as if it had been eaten away by a thousand years of rust. The collar too crumbled, and fell into dust at Stefin’s feet. Methok opened his jaws and roared in the Sun Demon’s face, but Stefin braced himself against the gust, standing as tall as he could, and roared back, as stubborn as ever,
“You are mine! Light or Dark, you serve me! I have called you by name, I have slain your master, the one who usurped me, and I have claimed you. You are bound to me by the ancient magic that bore you, and you will bow to the Light and to me.”
Methok recoiled, hissing and spitting. The dragon thrashed, and at first Stefin thought he was striking, but instead Methok twitched and flailed, his great wings scraping against the stone, his cedar-like tail sweeping just inches above Stefin’s head. For a terrible moment, Stefin thought the Titan was dying, but instead, he realized the dragon’s sooty scales seemed to be falling off. Beneath them shone a pearlescent white hide. It was as if the exterior of the Titan was crumbling as the chain and collar had.
Stefin watched, stunned, as ashes fell like snow from the Titan. With each black piece that sloughed off, more of the pristine hide beneath was revealed. Methok groaned and shivered, collapsing into the dust of his own ashes, wheezing and trembling. His hide turned pure milky white, and his black horns shed their dust to become gleaming gold. His wings too shook out of the ash and turned the golden color of sunlight. His belly shone gold like his claws, and he clamped his eyes shut with a rumbling moan. When they opened again, they were bright orange and gold, almost mirrors to Stefin’s, but they closed again as the dragon lay his head down, and the breath rushed out of him.
For a moment, everything was still and silent, as if no life stirred in the dragon. Stefin made no sound, only waiting in tense anticipation. Then, there was a flicker of light in the dragon’s nostrils, a spark of fire rekindling within him. It spread out and along his body, lining his new white scales, sparking off his crown of golden horns, until he blazed as he had before, but the fires burned clean. There was no ash, and no blackness. The dragon’s eyes opened again, and they too glowed again with renewed fire.
The beast groaned again, planting his feet and hefted his enormous bulk from the cavern floor. Stefin stood straighter, regaining his commanding stance, waiting for the Titan to make a move. Methok watched him with brilliant eyes, then bowed, his neck arc downward, and laid his head at Stefin’s feet. The Sun Demon placed a hand on one of the dragon’s horns and said,
“Welcome home, old friend. Rise.”
The Titan stood, head drawing back to loom high above the Sun Demon. Stefin chanced turning away from him, readying himself to dodge just in case, but no strike came. He approached the mouth of the cavern and touched a hand to ward, releasing his magic into it, and it dissolved, leaving the way open. Stefin was startled to see Lask sitting on one of the stones outside the cave. He waited with his back to the cave, as if he were only watching the clouds, but his shoulders were still and tense, and his sword was drawn.
“You made it back I see,” said the Sun Demon.
“So did you.”
Stefin strode from the cavern, and the Titan came behind him. Lask rose to meet him. The dragon blinked as he came into the sunlight and let out a low growl.
“Methok,” Stefin told him, “This is Lask Corilius, Luminor Alcanoren. You will serve him as you serve me.”
Methok bowed his head again, touching his nose to the ground at Lask’s feet. Lask placed a hand on the dragon’s head and said, “We are well met.”
The Titan’s head drew back again, and Stefin couldn’t help but grin with pride.
“Well done,” Lask congratulated him. “Will you go back to Zestir’s fallen fortress and show off your new ally?”
“Of course,” Stefin replied.
“His blood is draining in my dungeon as we speak. You should have more than enough for your potion.”
“Excellent.” Lask beamed. “Congratulations.”
Stefin flashed another pointy-toothed grin.
“Go,” Lask told him, “You have much to do, and much to celebrate.”