The tiny black vee Sam first thought was a bird was the farthest thing from it. Oh sure, it had wings...but its wings were tipped with claws and lined with bone, like webbed fingers. Between the bone, black, leathery skin was stretched taut, purple veins running through the membranous underside. A few twists of the spyglass, and Sam could see a smattering of scales across the wings, iridescent in the sunlight. The scales grew denser at the wing pits and thickened into armored plates coating the rest of its muscular body, supported by four strong limbs. Its tail was longer than head and body combined, covered in spikes and terminating in a bony club. Horns protruded from a serpentine head with a long snout. Set high in its skull, large, round eyes shone crimson, the pupils slit into crescent slivers.
Sam shivered, despite the heat. She had never seen a demon like this one before. Teivel's children were supposed to be abominations, monstrous, malformed beings twisted by his corrupt blood. Though the winged beast was no less a monster, it was whole and sleek and elegant, not a mishmash of illogical parts. Terrifying, but beautiful.
It was hard to gauge size at this distance, but at the speed it was flying toward the ship, it quickly filled her vision. Every flap of its powerful wings sent a mighty gust of wind over the river, stirring the water into choppy swells. The deck shuddered underneath Sam's feet. The world spun before settling, her stomach threatening to rebel. How quickly she'd forgotten what it was like to be seasick.
"If you're going to be ill, do it now," Azi growled.
Wordlessly, she handed the spyglass back to him, ran to the closest part of the ship's rail, and vomited into the river below.
Later, she'd be embarrassed, but now was not the time. The demon wasn't far now, close enough to see without the aid of a spyglass, its massive black wings blotting out the sun. They had minutes, maybe less, before it was right on top of them.
"Fire!" she heard Azi yell. The sound of her retching was drowned out by the twangs of bow-strings and the screams of arrows whistling through the air.
Sam didn't need to watch to know the arrows missed their target; she could tell by their shouts and the unnatural wind that refused to let up. The deck surged again, and Sam leaned over the railing, hurling until her stomach had nothing left to give.
Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Sam looked up just in time to see the impossible: The demon reared its head back, opened its jaws wide and roared, exhaling a steady stream of flame, burning as bright as the rising sun.
Mouth agape, Sam watched the beast fly through the orange blaze and reemerge unscathed, a nightmare cloaked in steam and shadow. The heat rolling off its scaly hide was almost unbearable, the air sweltering and thick like the heat of the Rhean Desert at its worst, far too hot for the early morning. Sweat poured off her in rivulets. Her belly still roiled with nausea, but she was done with being sick, if only by sheer force of her will. She had never fought a demon that breathed fire, and by the stunned looks on their faces, neither had the imperial guard. A distant memory—a story of a world set alight by fire and burned to ash and bone—tugged at her mind, but she ignored it, setting it aside for later contemplation. Who cared if this demon was different? So long as it died when she cut off its head.
An awed silence gripped the entire ship until the last of the dying flames faded from the sky, leaving behind a heavy shroud of smoke. And then the ship's crew—grown men, hardened sailors—began to scream.
"Keep to your positions!" Azi barked, but it was no use. Panic had the crew in its claws, shook, and refused to let go. Some froze in place, while others ran in frantic search of an escape, trampling over each other in the process. Desperate men decided to abandon ship by jumping overboard into the churning river below. Sam hoped for their sake they were strong swimmers. The ship was nowhere near land. Or perhaps they'd knowingly leapt to their death, choosing a watery grave over the pit of a demon's belly.
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*Sequel to Paladin* The kingdom of Thule stands on the brink of civil war between two armies -- the Paladins and the Uriel -- each claiming the right to serve as Thule's protector. Once a Paladin trainee, Lady Samantha of Haywood -- Sam -- has be...