Anecdote XXX. The Fallen Emperor Flees

March 20th, 2014
Malstefin’s massive feet slipped on the loose gravel, but he caught himself on an outcropping of rock as he scrambled up the ridge. The shrieks of the pursuing Runners echoed behind him. He had always been swift, but never had he needed to run for his life. He pushed himself to the brink of collapsing, racing northward toward his only chance at life. His chest swelled in gasping breaths, throat dry and ragged from dust. He had covered hundreds of miles in the night and the day following. As the second night descended, he entered the last mountain range he hoped to cross.

As he climbed, an arrow grazed his arm and clattered off the rock. Glancing back, he could see his pursuers farther below. One of the Runners had shifted back to her human shape for a moment to take the shot. He hauled himself up onto a ledge of rock and crouched as another arrow came whizzing up at him. Standing, he released a fireball back at the pack chasing him. His magic was weak; the fire dissipated seconds after it hit the stone at their feet, but it was long enough for him to finish the ascent and crest the ridge, disappearing over the rise, out of sight his attackers’ sight.

At least fifty Warmongers and Runners had pursued him from Kotelgrym. He had whittled the number to half that, catching them in the thickets and forests he’d left to the horizon behind him. The remaining Warmongers flagged in the day, and the Runners did not wait for them. Behind him were the last sixteen Runners– persistent bastards, he thought– but in his exhausted and battered state, he knew if they caught him, he would be finished. The only thing he could do was try to stay ahead.

He found a dry streambed down the side of the mountain, and accepted its natural path, winding around the rocks, his bleeding feet practically gliding down the fine silt. The gully led him halfway down the mountainside before it ended at a sharp drop, the ground falling away ahead of him. He looked over the edge, seeing the path resume perhaps twenty feet below. He scanned to either side, looking for the safest path down, but a shriek sounded above him.

Malstefin looked back to see the pack of Runner rounding the peak, beginning the descent after him. He knew their four legs would navigate the stones faster than his two, and couldn’t waste time. Steeling himself, he gauged the mountainside below, then threw himself off the edge.

The Demon let himself collapse as he hit the ground, rolling with the momentum of his fall, digging his claws into the loose gravel and silt to slow himself. Groaning with agony of his protesting body, he hauled himself back to his feet, and forced himself back into a run down the mountain.

*******

Morning was coming. Malstefin stumbled, ragged, through the trees toward the faint grey in the east. Breathing was difficult. His lungs burned, and his chest ached. Exhaling often made him erupt into dry coughing, or rattling wheezes. He left bloody footprints in his wake, an easy trail for his remaining thirteen pursuers. His gait was lurching, blood still flowing from his left leg, where one of the Runners had snapped.

He thought he could see the trees thinning ahead, could hear the distant roar of a waterfall, but before he could let himself hope, something tackled him from behind. He staggered, his wounded leg giving way under him as the Runner drove him to the ground. The Demon roared as the pointed beak stabbed into his back, but he rolled, crushing the Runner beneath him. He reached back, hauling on its skinny neck until he heard a snap, but its companions were coming up fast.

Malstefin scrambled upright, lashing out with a hammer-like fist as the next Runner neared him. The pack was shrieking with anticipation of their close quarry, but Malstefin didn’t wait to see where the others were. He forced himself on through the woods, brambles tugging at his ankles, but he he bulled his way through the brush, the sky growing pale ahead of him. The trees thinned. Something lunged for him from the side, but Malstefin dodged, tearing onward. A clawed foot pinned his tail, sending him stumbling, scraping against a tree trunk, but he wrenched himself loose. He pushed himself away from the tree, the screaming of his pursuers deafening. They were flanking him, and charging close at his heels.

He broke from the trees seeing the river rushing ahead of him. Farther up the edge of the steep bank was the gate, his last chance. He thought he saw someone running the length of the bridge, but could not look. A Runner caught him, snapping at his ribs, tearing loose flesh. His tail stabbed it as he shoved it away, stumbling up river toward the gate.

“Malstefin!” came a voice.

He was almost to the gate when the pack closed on him. Two Runners hit him from behind, their momentum sending him skidding into the grass. He rolled with a roar, tearing at them. He stole a glance toward the gate. It was Falient there. The hunter was pulling at the golden bars. There was someone else with him.

There was the thunder of a gunshot, and one of the Runners screamed as a Light bullet burst in its forehead. Malstefin scrambled away on instinct. He looked back toward the gate. Falient was hauling on the bars, shouting at the gunslinger with him to help.

They can’t get it open, the Demon realized. It won’t open with this Darkness outside.

The Runners were everywhere. Claws and beaks tore at his scarlet skin. He clawed and kicked like a wild beast, his venomous tail lashing, but they were crowded around him, like buzzards over a kill. Malstefin could catches glimpses between them, sighting a sliver of the sun over the falls. Over the cacophony, he could hear Falient screaming with notes of real panic, then another voice sounded like a bell over the chaos,

“STAND ASIDE!”

There was an eruption of fire, and the Runners screamed as the gate blew open with a gust of wind. Malstefin saw a flare of red, a flash of light on steel. The Demon could hardly raise a hand. He lay gasping, bleeding from a hundred places, as the tempest of fire descended. The piercing screams of the Runners threatened to split his head. He could feel the heat of the fire, smelled his own blood steaming in it, but his strength had gone. There was the ring steel above him, the crack of gunshots. In his desperate haze, he looked up, seeing a sword swing above him. He raised a broken hand before his face, the last defense he could muster, but the blade passed over him, cutting down another Runner beside him.

The Demon turned his blood-blurred gaze upward to see the Luminor standing over him, girded in sashes of deadly fire, slicing down the last of the hunting party. The sun glowed over the falls in the east, wreathing the fearsome Rose in gold. When the last Runner fell, he looked down at the Demon at his feet. Malstefin trembled in the bloody grass, battered and helpless at the feet of his enemy. He raised a hand, sputtering,

“Farero… evo Velperanzo… you promised me…”

“You are safe here,” Lask told him. “Do not be afraid.”

The Demon didn’t have the strength to keep his hand extended, or hold his head up. He collapsed back, registering Falient kneeling beside him, but soon everything went black.

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