Chapter XII

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I WAS DEEP IN the belly of the beast. Once I finally landed on the bottom of its horrible-smelling stomach, I went to work. Riverso Tondo, a horizontal strike from left to right. The sword cut clean and without effort as I spun through a full 360 degrees, slicing the stomach in half.

Since the thing was so huge, I hadn't done much damage beyond, well, cutting the stomach in half. And then really pissing it off. It must have then twisted itself over because my world went berserk, pitching and rolling wildly.

I tried to get some footing or leverage inside, but the relative isolation of an intact stomach had given way to a flood of viscera and blood crowding in on me from all sides, and I couldn't breathe. I've had about enough of this. I crouched down and held the sword straight out. Giocco Stretto.

I summoned all my strength and then launched, Sword first, thinking of maximum speed and power. The force of my efforts not only sliced the beast through, but because of the blast of my light trail, also tore it asunder behind me.

Emerging into clean air upside down at—it took my eyes a moment to calculate—9,800 feet.

The great demon stopped flapping its wings and groaned as it turned to ash. It rained down like black snow.

Hovering, soaked in blood and guts, the pure blue light that now resided in my heart glowed outward from me against a darkening sky. I huffed a lock of hair out of my face. Well, it's been worse, hasn't it?

I assessed the state of the battle. Straight below me was the tower. There was a new threat—the biggest demon I had ever seen.

Within the sweep of its wings, there were whole battalions of the enemy horde flying escort. It belched miles of scorching crystalline fire from its mouth, and wherever the clear flames licked, all life was desiccated.

This could only be the Devourer.

It was coming right at me. Still a few miles off, it released another burst of fire. The flames, which looked more like ripples of intense heat because they lacked all color, didn't quite reach me where I flew, but I could feel the sucking heat and I wasn't going to hang around until I got burned.

Taking off, I burst immediately to 500 miles per hour. Most of the guts came off me in the wind.

I looked behind me. With one sweep of its wings, the Devourer had halved the distance between us. Its mouth was opening.

I broke left, circling around the tower.

It followed instantly, loosing another barrage.

I dove for the ground and spun around, sword in the Guardia Seconda, angled up and to the left, the flat toward the blast so it could be deflected away from me.

It worked. I broke hard left again, buzzing around the tower like a fly being chased by a hungry bird.

The dragon gave chase, but it wasn't quite as agile as I was, nor as fast. I poured on the speed and circled around to attack it from behind.

It happened in the space of less than two seconds, but time slowed for me as I hacked my way through the lesser demons in the dragon's train. These were hangers-on, like pilot fish attending the shark, and they were quick work. Stocatta, Imbrocatta, Punta Riversi. And then Fendente as I brought the sword down along my own axis, hacking a devil in two from skull to pelvis.

I let fly my battle cry. It was like the shriek of an eagle. I was now chasing the Devourer—its tail was right over my head. I held the sword high and poured on more speed. The blade penetrated deep into its belly, cutting easily from the hindquarters to the ribs, its work like a heavenly rebuke. There was retribution interwoven in this blow, and I was reminded whose sword I wielded.

The beast reacted violently, moving into a displacement roll. With the tower to our left, it broke upward and to the right to get away from me. It barrel rolled, looped, and then banked back toward the tower in an effort to regain the advantage of pure pursuit.

But it was too late. Its wounds were too serious. Whatever its anatomical construction, something had come loose internally, and the fantastic heat and fire it was able to generate as its primary weapon now turned against it.

It caught fire, starting at the cut the sword had made in its gullet. Now completely out of control, it swooped numb and mostly dead directly toward the upper third of the tower.

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