Tristan sat upright against the wall of his father’s bedroom, his head bobbing up and down as he fought to stay awake. He would not surrender to sleep in this house, no matter how hard it pulled at him.
Despite his best efforts, his eyelids dragged shut, as if weighted down with sandbags. His mind drifted, lulled by the sound of Sander’s soft snores, and gradually shapes formed in the space behind his eyes. Nightmares from his past – a glistening snout with serrated tusks, a body with its skin peeled back like an orange, a glowing keyhole that flared to red and then black.
The banging at the door jarred him out of his semi-slumber. One of his trainees? No, the banging was too hard and constant, not at all like a knock. Tristan scrambled to his feet and drew his sword. A fissure ran down the center of the wood panel and then the door splintered apart.
Scraps of wood dangled from three sharp-pointed horns protruding from a bony frill that fanned out at the back of a long, narrow skull. A fourth, shorter horn jutted from the top of a predator’s beak. The colossal head was attached to a stout, silver-brown body, creased with thick folds of skin.
The demon shook off remnants of door from its horns and raised its head, staring at Tristan with yellow, reptilian eyes. It pawed the floor with a stumpy, three-toed foot and charged, bowling Tristan over and rolling him beneath it. His sword found its soft underbelly and he dragged the blade through to its neck. Fluids and tangled intestines spilled from the gaping split, drenching him with putrid fluid. Even without its innards, the demon must have weighed half a ton, and he had to wriggle out from underneath it.
“Untie me,” Sander said. “Untie me now!”
More demons had poured into the bedroom, but not so many that Tristan couldn’t handle it alone. “Not likely,” he said to Sander, and carved through the nearest creature, a winged horse with a mane of fire and the antlers of a deer.
The calm of battle fell over Tristan and he danced with his sword to music only he could hear. A fine red mist followed his movements, saturating the air with the smell of death, none of it human. He slashed and sliced with brutal efficiency. He would see them all dead.
His blade was as much a part of him as an arm or a leg. He had long been beyond sword forms or practiced techniques; his weapon and body moved in complete concert. He killed with a single driving thought: They won’t die until you cut off their heads. He slit through throats with the precision of a surgeon. Heads rolled at his feet.
Tristan ran his sword through the last of them and bent over to clean his blade. “Tristan!” Sander yelled. The Uriel was no longer on the bed but backed against it, his leg muscles tensed. “The door!”
Tristan raised his sword, turned towards the door—and froze.
The demon wore Maira’s face.
Looking into familiar, gold-flecked eyes, Tristan was transported to the past. In front of him, Maira smoothed a stray curl away from her pointed, elfin face – she’d tried a dozen different hair oils, but nothing could tame her unruly locks – and her stern frown turned to a reluctant smile. It was always that way with Maira; she would scold him for his latest misdeed and he would ply her with ridiculous flattery or a clever joke, and she couldn’t stay mad at him. She mothered him because his real mother wasn’t much of one and Danny was too busy learning to be Lord of the Manor to pay him much mind. Tristan loved her; some days he thought he loved her more than did Danny.
Maira’s smile turned playful and she beckoned with her hand, like she did every Midsummer’s festival. He would put his hand in hers and they would dance – just once – twirling and leaping and laughing hysterically. She beckoned again and Tristan reached towards her, eager to claim his song.
He noticed, belatedly, that his outstretched hand held a sword. What was he doing with a sword? He dropped it at once. Maira gave him enough grief about sleeping in bed with the thing; he wasn’t about to dance with it.
Fleetingly, an image of an eyeless face soaked in blood flitted across his vision. No. A steel wall in his mind slammed shut, and it was just his Maira again, brimming with a bright energy that couldn’t be bottled.
Danny called his name. Not now, Danny, I’m dancing with your wife. Danny’s voice grew more urgent. Stop shouting, Danny…no, not Danny…another man’s voice…Sander.
The heel of a sideways-turned foot clipped Maira’s chin and her head swung backwards. Her fingers slipped free from his grip. Not fingers – hooked talons as long as his forearm.
“Whoever you think she is, it’s not her,” said Sander. His breathing was uneven from the effort of his kick. “Pick up your sword.” He shook his head disgustedly when Tristan did nothing. Tristan couldn’t; he was caught halfway between ten years ago and today.
Maira twisted her neck with an audible crunch, and her smiling face was upright once more. “Oh for the gods’ sake,” Sander muttered. “Untie me! Untie me if you won’t kill it yourself.”
A jolt of pain laced through Tristan’s side, and he looked down in surprise. Bright red pooled through his tunic. He lifted up the fabric and his blood gushed forth from three deep punctures. She’d stabbed him.
Maira lunged for him, her talons extended. Tristan stood mutely still, watching her clawed hand fly toward him. Sander bumped him hard with his shoulder, and the talons narrowly missed their mark.
The Uriel jumped, and his leg sailed through the air like the blade of an axe. His aim was true and Maira fell to the floor with a screech. Sander stumbled to his knees, his balance thrown without the use of his hands. He stood up awkwardly and then rammed his foot into her windpipes, refusing to let up. “Look at it!” Sander demanded, his chest heaving. “It isn’t her.”
Reality began to penetrate the cobwebs in Tristan’s brain. The broken bird on the floor wasn’t Maira. Its face and hair were hers, but its breast and belly were feathered with purple plumage. Midnight black wings extended out from underneath its back, blanketing the carpet. Thin, scaly legs ended in webbed feet with a clawed hind toe.
Tristan retrieved his sword from the floor. Blood dripped onto the hilt from cuts at his wrists that he hadn’t noticed were there. He closed the distance to the demon and swung his sword.
Those gold-flecked eyes held him, and the edge of his sword stopped a hair’s breadth away from the demon’s neck. The hesitation was enough. The demon knocked the blade away with its wing and sent Tristan sprawling.
Sander kicked the hilt of the sword towards Tristan and crouched beside him. “Who is she?” he asked.
“Maira,” said Tristan. “I can’t do it.” He shook his head helplessly. “I know it’s not really her, but--”
“Let me,” said Sander. “Untie me and I’ll end it.”
“You know I can’t.”
Frustration colored Sander’s words. “You can tie me up again when it’s dead. I swear to it.”
Tristan looked at the man who had very likely saved his life, and made his decision. “Don’t make me regret this,” Tristan warned, and his sword bit through rope.
Sander flexed his wrists. “Weapon?” Tristan pulled out a short knife from his belt and handed it to him.
“That’ll do,” said the Uriel. “That’ll do just fine.”
A/N: *Photo on the side of Sam is by H4713Y. Amazing.
Also - if you haven't already check out "The Untold Restricted Stories", my Paladin spoof.
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Sam is the most promising swordsman among this year’s crop of Paladin trainees...and knows it. Brash, cocky, and unbeatable with a sword (well, almost), Sam is the kingdom of Thule’s best hope against the violence wrought by demons. The only problem...