As they got closer to the Salt Bell, still sounding with a resonant gong that jarred in her ears, Vanth and her arms-mates were joined by dozens of other Salt Swords. They fell into step beside each other without a word or a glance, each soldier fixed on their destination. Several frenzied horses tore past them, bearing Salt Sword riders coming from the furthest reaches of the city. Vanth and the other soldiers on foot turned another tight corner, skidding on cobblestones slick with sea spray and the dilapidated tower housing the Salt Bell suddenly loomed before them. A harbinger of doom and a call to arms, the Salt Bell had stood in the northeast corner of the city for generations. One lone Salt Sword was posted to watch at all times from a lookout high at the top, constantly scanning the Thet for approaching warships that had not been scouted in over a century. Now that Vanth was directly beneath the crumbling tower, she could hear the groaning of the bell as it swung, ancient metal grinding in protest after being left to moulder in silence for so long.
The Salt Swords assembled in two long rows before Overseer Jewel who was standing on the stone steps at the foot of the tower. Behind him was a warped, salt-rotted door, leading to the twisting staircase at the heart of the Salt Bell. As Vanth filed into line, Albin and Pictor on either side of her, she noticed for the first time how her heart was hammering in her chest, so hard she could feel it thudding in her throat.
A last deafening gong peeled away from the bell, amplifying the silence left in its wake. Overseer Jewell wasted no time in addressing them. He was a tall, lean man who was nevertheless tightly packed with muscles ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. A little too young to be an overseer at thirty-six and a little too handsome, with a long, dark ponytail that snaked beneath his collar, many were the rumours he had gained his position because he and Lord Dewer had once been lovers.
“We have little time to waste,” Overseer Jewel announced, lifting his voice above the hiss of the returning tide. “There is evil abroad in the city.” He paused to survey his troops, taking a moment to watch for any signs of fear or weakness on their faces. Satisfied, he continued. “I am afraid the details I have been given are scant. I only know that some creature or devil has risen quite suddenly in the northwest of the city. We are to travel there immediately and attempt to—”
“I’ll take over from here, Overseer Jewell.”
The Salt Swords turned towards the new voice, a ripple of shock running through their ranks when they saw Lord Dewer approaching. He was flanked by Karane and Critos, his stony-faced personal guards. They were easily marked out by the wine red of their lamellar vests. The other Salt Swords had nicknamed them the red-breasts, although none would dare to call them that to their faces. An oversized bearskin cloak made Dewer’s shoulders appear huge. It caught the stiff breeze coming in from the sea and fanned out behind him as he walked.
“My Swords are yours to command, Lord Dewer,” Overseer Jewel conceded with a bow of his head. He covered his surprise well, but Vanth could see he had not expected to see Lord Dewer that day either. The Lord of Armoria had planned to remain abroad for another two weeks at least.
Lord Dewer climbed the steps before the Salt Bell two at a time and stared hard at the gathered Salt Swords, as if trying to penetrate their thoughts.
“A demon has been sighted in our city,” he began, his deep voice echoing against the tower. “It is a dark, low creature with little intellect, intent only on savagery and destruction.”
“We will deal with it immediately, Lord Dewer,” Overseer Jewel said. Dewer turned to glower at him until he bent his head once more and took a step back.
“My druids are already working to re-capture the creature,” Dewer continued. “It is your duty to protect them at all costs.”
Vanth stole a quick look at her arms-mates to see if they too had baulked at their lord’s use of the word, “re-captured”. Dewer was implying the creature had already been a prisoner of his. A prisoner he had allowed to escape. Albin and Pictor’s faces were placid, their focus intent on their lord and commander. A terrible feeling was beginning to knot in the pit of Vanth’s stomach. This dark demon sounded very much like the monster Gwin had described.
“Work quickly, Salt Swords,” Lord Dewer barked, dismissing them.
The Salt Swords bowed as one and turned, jogging back towards the city. They must have made quite a sight, two black-clad lines of grim-faced soldiers, jogging in unison along the strangely hushed streets of Armoria. Vanth saw several anxious faces watching their progress from their windows, drawing back behind ratty curtains when the Salt Swords drew near. They were far from the boulevards and white stone houses of the Silver Quarter where the more well-to-do Armorians lived. The people here scratched a living from fishing or hauling goods at the dockyard and little loved or trusted Dewer’s soldiers.
A terrible screaming roar suddenly rattled through the sky, shaking the thin windows in their frames and sending several Salt Swords to their knees in terror. Vanth ran to one who had fallen directly in front of her; a young man with strawberry blonde hair who was pressing his hands to his ears. She took hold of his forearm and firmly hoisted him back to his feet.
“Remember your training,” she chided. “Now is the time to push fear aside.”
The man nodded and fell back into step beside her as they began to move forward once more, weaving through alleys and back streets, on towards a great, deep rumbling that seemed to rock the earth beneath their feet. Vanth looked up to see a long plume of smoke ahead of them, rising like a black exclamation point in the otherwise cloudless blue sky.
With a small twist of grief, Vanth realised they were heading for her secret sanctuary, the Bard’s Quarter. The flow of jogging Salt Swords eventually slowed as they reached Midnight Square, each soldier momentarily frozen by the terrible sight before them.
The creature was the height of three men and five times as wide. It had no ears, just long, jagged spines protruding from its otherwise bald head. Wet tendons seemed to be wrapped around the creature’s limbs, outside of its body, furred and slick with an iridescent, greenish residue that dripped from it as it stumbled about the square, its great webbed feet slapping the cobbles. Open sores marred its shoulders and the backs of its arms and legs, dark and wet, weeping with blood or pus, Vanth couldn’t tell. The sores puckered and opened like dozens of little mouths, constantly kissing the air. A dirty rag as big as two tablecloths was tied loosely around the monster’s waist and between its legs. Behind it, the stage where Vanth had watched Gwin play her terrifying shadow song just two nights before was lying in splintered ruins, thoughtlessly crushed as though it had been a twig on a forest floor.
The creature ceased its aimless blundering to lift gleaming blank eyes to the sky. It opened its jaws hideously wide, almost splitting the ghastly head in two as it screamed once more, revealing several rows of needle teeth. From this distance, the sound sent a shooting pain through Vanth’s skull that stung the backs of her eyes and rang in her ears.
Overseer Jewel swung into view, waving his arms above his head to gain his troops’ attention. “Fan out, fan out. Surround the demon,” he shouted. “Protect the druids!”
Vanth had barely noticed the druids. She looked for them and saw they were kneeling in a ring around the square, their hands raised to the sky and their eyes closed. Their voices rose and fell in a deep, rhythmic chant.
Carefully avoiding the beast swaying above the buildings of the Bard’s Quarter, the Salt Swords scattered across the square to stand before the druids, swords and daggers drawn. The creature turned its great greasy head to follow them and Vanth stared in horror as it took a lumbering stride towards the Salt Swords gathering on its right, her grip tightening on the twin daggers in her hands. Thick webbed feet split the cobblestones as they set down with a force that made the buildings tremble and the windows and chimney pots rattle. Now Vanth understood what the rumbling beneath their feet had been. If the creature was to be allowed to keep stamping about the city, Armoria would very soon be shaken to broken brick and splinters.
In an effort to keep the creature contained within the circle of druids, several Salt Swords nearest to the monster attempted stabbing the side of its foot, threaded with pulsing veins as thick as rope. Predictably, this only served to anger the beast further. It roared once more, a plaintive howl that pierced Vanth’s eardrums like a needle, and struck out at its aggressors, breaking the bodies of two Salt Swords with the back of one long hand. The hand and the monstrous arm that followed it continued on to crash against the wall of the Bard’s Rest. Much of the right side of the building fell away, revealing the darkened tavern in disarray beyond.
A great cloud of brick dust and debris flew up into the air, filling the square and obscuring the sun with choking grey. Vanth steadied herself, concentrating on slowing her breath. She knew that succumbing to panic now may very well mean the death of her. She could barely see beyond a few metres and Albin and Pictor had been reduced to hazy dark shapes on either side.
“I can’t see a bloody thing,” Albin shouted.
“Be still, Vanth instructed. “Don’t attract its attention.”
A sudden rush of footsteps and muffled crying flew towards her from the gloom. As the sound grew nearer, Vanth could see it was coming from a small group of people, running from the direction of the tavern.
“Idiots,” Vanth hissed beneath her breath. They would have been safer staying in whatever hole they had been cowering in.
Behind her, the druids’ chanting was becoming louder. Vanth risked a look over her shoulder and saw a fine mesh was beginning to sparkle and glint between the hands of each one, stretching over their fingers like fine rose-hued spiderwebs. She realised that a web was exactly what they were making. Each mesh was steadily growing larger and brighter. Vanth guessed this was how they would subdue the beast, by casting a great magickal net over it and bringing it down like a fish being dragged into a boat.
The group of running people passed directly in front of Vanth and she tried to stop them, holding out her hands with her daggers pointed away in what she hoped was a friendly gesture. “Stop, be still,” she implored. “You have only to be quiet, the druids will soon capture the beast.”
The group, a young couple and an older changeling man with night black hair, slowed and turned towards the sound of Vanth’s voice. In a cold flash of dread, she realised she was too late. The creature was already marching towards them through the grey dust, made denser by a rush of smoking flames beginning to ripple across the rooftops of the square. The demon reared before them, its glassy, soulless eyes fixed squarely on Vanth and the fleeing group.