Before the monster could strike, Albin and Pictor moved in from either side to attack, hacking and slashing at the grey-green skin of its legs in an attempt to divert its attention from Vanth. The creature roared in pain and frustration, momentarily deafening Vanth completely and threading a blinding, white pain through her head. It reeled back, slamming into a short row of houses beside the sagging tavern. The buildings began to topple forward, chimneys and roof tiles spilling across the cobbles like scattered sand blown across a beach.
Unperturbed, the monster righted itself and staggered back across the square, closer to the chanting ring of druids. As it moved towards her, crushing brick and glass beneath its feet, Vanth quickly calculated the reach of its outstretched arms as it groped in the grey for its attackers. She saw the creature was aiming for both the chanting druid directly behind her and the group of people from the tavern, huddled on the ground with their arms over their heads. She would not be able to steer it away from all of them.
“Orders are orders, Vanth,” Albin yelled beside her, swiftly coming to the same conclusion and seeing his arms-mate’s hesitation. “Protect the druids.”
Feverishly hoping the creature would withdraw from both attacks, Vanth let her soldier’s muscle memory take over as she joined Albin and Pictor in charging towards the monstrous arm that was now milliseconds away from crushing the druid. Incredibly, the druid seemed unaware of the imminent danger. His eyes remained closed and his face was still and calm, voice ringing out in its droning chant while smoke and ash swirled about him, dirtying his pristine white robes.
The three Salt Swords struck as one, landing a flurry of cuts and blows on the back of the creature’s slimy hand which it balled up into a protective fist before swinging it away, leaving the druid unhurt. Vanth immediately turned to search for the young couple and the changeling but with a brief rush of nausea, she saw that the creature’s second blow had landed true. Their bodies were lying together on the ground, blood pooling beneath their heads to create glistening rivulets of red that ran away to foam against the debris and ash gently sifting on the cobblestones.
As she tore her eyes away from the gruesome sight spreading over the stones before her, looking to rejoin Albin and Pictor, Vanth’s attention was drawn by a strange blue flickering. She readied her daggers for whatever attack might be coming next and had to catch her breath when she saw Gwin approaching the creature. She seemed so out of place against the smoking destruction of Midnight Square, bright blue hair streaming out behind her, that for a brief moment Vanth thought she must be hallucinating. Gwin’s arm was outstretched, her eye pendant clearly blazing between the fingers of her tightly clenched hand. Vanth quickly scanned the immediate area, checking to see if anyone else had seen her. The grim-faced Asrai remained undetected for the time being but with another cold jolt, Vanth recognised Barlo and his friend, Neave. They were cowering against a wall, arms wrapped tightly around each other while they stared wide-eyed at Gwin.
Pulse beginning to hammer once more, Vanth looked from the broken bodies at her feet back to Neave and Barlo, suddenly sure she wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to them. Swallowing her fear and panic as she had been trained to do, Vanth moved to find her arms-mates. She could see what Gwin was attempting to do and in a flash of quiet rebellion, she found herself desperate to aid her.
Albin and Pictor were standing further back in the gloom, close to the druid. He still hadn’t broken his concentration, even though the blood of those who had died in his place was steadily drawing towards him.
“Vanth, we should remain at arm’s breadth,” Pictor said, relieved to see her. “Else we’ll just keep losing sight of each other in this stinking mess.”
“Overseer Jewel wants us to gather on the northern side. The demon is trying to break through the druids’ defences.” Lying to Pictor felt unnatural. Thankfully, the ash and debris still flying through the air obscured her face for Vanth felt sure her tense expression would have made her betrayal clear.
“Let’s go,” Albin said, clapping Pictor on the shoulder as they moved away. Vanth watched them fall into step together, waiting until they had disappeared into the grey haze before turning her attention back to Gwin.
The Asrai was so intent on her task, she jumped when Vanth appeared. The pendant was brilliant in the ashy murk, burning like a star in her hand.
“I thought I told you to leave that bloody thing at home,” Vanth said.
“You will soon be glad I didn’t,” Gwin replied, quickly regaining her focus.
Vanth stared up at the colossal beast. The backs of its thick legs swayed before her, its attention drawn by a group of Salt Swords. They were rushing forward in small waves to attack before dancing away again, dodging the vast hands slick as worn oars. Vanth had a sudden vision of Albin and Pictor being swept aside to lie like bloody piles of rags on the cobblestones. If they died now it would be her fault for putting them in harm’s way.
“Let’s do this quickly,” Vanth said, “before the demon kills everyone in the square.”
“This monster is slower than the one that attacked my homeland,” Gwin said. “But it’s also much larger. Can you help me get closer?”
A delicious idea was forming in Vanth’s mind and she grinned at Gwin. It was a smile bordering on a grimace, devoid of warmth. “I can get extremely close,” she said, snatching the pendant from Gwin’s hand and launching herself at the creature’s leg before the other woman could stop her.
“What are you doing?” Gwin cried. “Only I can wield the eye.”
The Asrai reached out to stop her but Vanth was already hoisting herself upwards, trying not to gag as she held fast to one of the oozing tendons. Tucking the pendant into her vest, she began to climb the limb like a slippery tree. It was hard to find purchase against the creature’s damp flesh and when she reached for her next handhold, for one terrible moment Vanth thought she was going to fall back to the ground. Her hand flailed in mid-air as she groped for the edge of the rag tied about the monster’s waist. Finally, she found it and closed her fingers tightly around the filthy material. Bending her knees to push off from the demon’s leg, Vanth swung herself up onto the hanging rag, scrambling madly until she found a more stable position in a stiff fold of the material. She allowed herself a single quick breath before drawing one of her daggers from the holster on her belt. Pulling herself up as high as she could, Vanth bore down with the blade, making a deep slash in the small of the creature’s back before slipping back down to clutch at the rag. She waited for the space of another breath, expecting the creature to rear and scream again or at least try to shake her off. Thankfully, it was still preoccupied with the Salt Swords darting between its flat feet and did not seem to notice the new wound in its back.
Vanth mouthed a silent word of gratitude to Aikana before re-sheaving her dagger and pulling out the eye pendant. She gasped as she touched it. Nestled between the layers of her leather armour, she had not realised how hot it had become. The pendant’s dazzling purple eye was wide open, unblinking even as it flicked back and forth, looking around the square. Rays of blinding light were projecting from the pupil, burnt black amid white-hot brilliance. Vanth found it difficult to look directly at it and turned her head away, squinting into the grey dust of the square as her scorched vision cleared.
“Hurry,” Gwin urged from below. “The pendant is almost at full power.”
Gathering her strength for one final effort, Vanth pulled herself up once more. With one hand gripping the rag so tightly her knuckles burned in protest, she stretched to push the pendant deep inside the stinking wound above her head. This time the creature reacted. It stopped chasing the Salt Swords and paused for one long moment, as if trying to decide what exactly it was experiencing. It straightened and tried to twist around to claw at the burning gash in its back, knocking Vanth from her precarious ledge. She lost her grip and fell to the hard ground below.
With every breath of air knocked from her lungs, Vanth could only stare up from the cobbles as the creature thrashed about once more, becoming enraged and falling against what was left of the Bard’s Rest. The smoking tavern trembled, falling in on itself like a tumbling house of cards. The creature staggered back into the centre of the square and opened its jaws to the heavens, screaming with such deep ferocity that Vanth felt sure she could feel blood boiling up from deep inside her ears. She closed her streaming eyes against it, red-rimmed and aching from the black smoke of the fires raging on all sides.
Vanth was suddenly aware of Barlo and Neave, their concerned faces looming over hers in the gloom. They each grabbed one of her arms, pulling her across the cobblestones. Vanth tried to push them away and climb to her feet but a splitting pain tore through her right leg and she knew she had torn a muscle in the fall. Twisting her head to try and see what was happening, she caught sight of the druid she had been protecting as she was dragged past. She noted with surprise that he was still chanting, eyes shut, face infuriatingly serene. His arms were almost fully extended to either side now, the trembling web of power strung between them continuing to grow. Around the square, Vanth could see other flashes of shimmering pink beginning to radiate against the ash clouds billowing down from blackened rooftops. The druids’ spell would soon be complete, but Vanth and Gwin had beaten them to it.
Barlo hoisted Vanth to a sitting position against the far wall, placing one hand on her shoulder when she tried again to stand.
“Be still, woman, for Thet’s sake.”
“What are you doing here?” Vanth said. “Take Neave and run. Find somewhere to hide.”
“And leave you here like this?”
The creature surged forward, long arms flailing, flattening everything in its path as it swayed and staggered like a drunk man. Vanth gripped the rough edges of the bricks in the wall behind her, desperately trying to pull herself to her feet. Agony splintered through her body, so sharp and piercing it made her dizzy. Barlo tried to restrain her again but she pushed him away with a grunt of pain, sweat beginning to bead on her forehead.
“It will destroy what’s left of Midnight Square,” she managed. When Barlo failed to respond she gripped the front of his shirt, bringing his face close to hers with an effort that made her grimace.
“My arms-mates are out there.”
“Be still,” Barlo repeated. “Gwin has the beast.”
Vanth peered into the dense cloud of dust still swirling in the square, darkening from grey to black as the fires grew closer. A small flash of blue helped her to pick Gwin out, small and fragile-looking beside the enraged creature. The Asrai had placed her slim white hands on the creature’s leg. It should have kicked her away easily but its movements were becoming slower, its shoulders slumping and its arms falling to its sides. As it lifted its head to expel one last, somewhat subdued, bellow, Vanth realised what Gwin was doing. She was freezing the demon as she had frozen Vanth’s arm in the Leafling’s Half. If Vanth squinted against the stinging black ash, roiling through the square and beginning to rebound against the surrounding buildings like a great charcoal wave, she could see the skin of the creature’s leg was becoming hard and glassy. Blue frost crept up its body, disappearing beneath the rag tied at its waist. The demon moaned, its hands balling to useless fists. It fell heavily to its knees with a thump that shattered the cobblestones beneath it and vibrated in the wall behind Vanth.
What happened next was over in a matter of seconds but seemed to exist in a moment that stretched on and on. Gwin turned and ran blindly through the smoke towards them. Neave jumped up, waving her hands in the air.
“Over here,” she shouted.
“Be quiet,” Barlo said, pulling Neave back down as Gwin found them, her face shining in the ashy darkness.
“Goddess be praised you are safe,” she said to Vanth, sliding down the wall to crouch beside the others. “You should all shield your eyes.” Even amid the heat of the encroaching flames, Gwin’s skin was ice cold and tinged with blue. Her breath hung in the air like frozen fog.
Vanth looked back towards the creature, bent double in the middle of the square. The weeping slash in its back was smoking. Long plumes of ice white smoke streamed from the wound to spiral up into the black ash falling all around. Then, with a high pitched boom that made Neave cry out in fright, the entire back half of the creature exploded, spraying long wet chunks of dark organs and festering tissue across the square. Incredibly, the monster still seemed to be alive. It was screaming, a shrill shriek that penetrated Vanth’s bones and rattled her skull. She groped for Barlo beside her, finding his forearm and gripping it tightly. As the terrible cry dwindled, a blue flame sprung up. It rippled across the beast’s quivering body, searing its skin and filling the square with the choking smell of rancid, burnt meat. They all watched the creature burn in silent horror, frozen where they crouched against the wall until it had melted into a fetid heap like so much stinking wax.
Finally rousing herself, Vanth released Barlo’s arm and turned to Gwin. “You must leave quickly,” she said. Her voice was cracked, hoarse from inhaling ash and the acrid reek of the burning demon. “If Albin and Pictor are alive, they’ll be coming to find me.”
Gwin nodded and rose with Neave, but Barlo seemed unwilling to leave her.
“Vanth, I—” he began.
“Please go,” Vanth interrupted him. “I will find you later.”
“Come, Barlo,” Gwin added. “We must get back to Tamsin and Gulpe.”
As she watched them run back behind the line of cross-legged druids, heading for Midnight Lane, Vanth saw the druid she had been supposed to be protecting finally open his eyes. He looked around the ruined square, his expression a mixture of surprise and disappointment. With his concentration broken the dewy web of his spell had turned dull, crumbling in his hands to drift away on the swirling clouds of ash.
Vanth collapsed back against the wall, her breath shallow as she struggled to manage the throbbing pain travelling up and down her right leg. Her arms-mates would find her soon and she would have to act as surprised as any of them as to why the druids’ spell failed and the demon had spontaneously combusted. Looking down at the sticky green residue coating the front of her lamellar vest and the length of her trousers, a souvenir from her climb, Vanth found herself hoping that her leg would heal quickly. She suddenly had a raging thirst she knew would only be quenched by the triple-strength ale sold under the counter at the Leafling’s Half.