For such a small shack, their numbers were impossible, but more and more men rushed onward in an arrowhead that flooded over and split the oncoming seven guards, . The lead guard fell first, five daggers piercing through his cloak from the startled hands of the men, their nerves high enough to drive them into a frenzy. Two more fell after him before the remaining four could recover, drawing swords to fight their way from the crowd, snarling as flesh masks fell from their faces to reveal the atrocities underneath.

As the nose was ripped off one, rough scales appeared, blues and greens that worked in irregular patterns before disappearing under his scalp. Gills flashed from his neck, gills that gasped for water and found none, but instead settled for air. And next to that demon was another, his complexion like pebbles, his eyes coal, and gravel trickling from the edge of his mouth. Beside him was a pile of rags, seeming to hold itself up on its own tattered ends, the sword at the end of its grasp hovering in translucent purple fingers. And last stood one with burnt, red skin, the eyelids gone, the lips burned away, and smoke curling from its nostrils.

The frontmost men balked, forming a blob as those behind pressed forward, unaware of the threat, throwing themselves against the shrieking figures before them, landing blows and stabs where they could. And as she heard Rorcul curse beside her, Jessica broke away from him, sprinting toward the fray just as the demons were engulfed by the mob again.

“Alretta!” he shouted as she departed. “Alretta, fetch the dogs!”

Demons are nasty things. Monstrous things. But crippled under the drain of vrael, and surrounded by a mob of adrenaline-, anger-, and confusion-filled men, they’d quickly be reminded of their own fallibility. As Jessica dashed into the center of the men, she sensed the fire demon on her right falling, its hot blood spattering on the grass. She searched, turning her head left and right, refusing to look at the growing number of bodies on the ground for Cinis just yet. Then she saw him, and she cursed.

“Damn idiot.”

Cinis faced the Earth demon, a knife in each hand, the brute towering several feet above him. He darted in, his knife sparking against the stone hidden underneath what remained of the demon’s cloak. Confusion crossed his face as the demon howled, gnashing its jagged, stone teeth, and lifting its sword high above its head as Cinis looked upward, still recovering from his own leap.

And then the sword came down, a mighty cleave intending to split Cinis’ skull in half, and Jessica screamed in frustration at having come so close to the target just to see him die.

But at the last second, Cinis crouched, straightened his back, and raised both his knives upward, the blades crossed at the hilt. They caught the demon’s sword at the last instant, stopping it inches above his forehead, absorbing the shock with all the static strength he could muster.

Jessica gasped as she recognized the form, something that she had not seen since Laddergate, and certainly something she would not expect to see outside of Cratus.

Pebble upholding the boulder.

Even as the realization hit her, she was running, casting her senses before her toward the Earth demon, Cesaro’s voice echoing in her head from a lesson he had given her after Laddergate.

“Within all things living, there is Life Magic. My dear, it is the nature of life to couple the weak and the strong. Consider the turtle: His hard shell protects his back, while his underbelly is exposed. So you must search for where the threads of life come together or fall apart, for imperfections and imbalances. In humans, these could be found at the heart, where just the right blow could cause it stop. Or the brain, where the smallest imperfection could wreak havok.”

So she felt the twisted perversion of Life within the demon and searched through it, probing, feeling. Ten feet away, as Cinis crouched under the sword, the tip descending closer and closer toward the beads of sweat on his forehead, she found the demon’s underbelly.

Her hair streamed behind her as she picked up speed, her feet running in rhythm, toes fluttering across the ground as if in a dance. She pushed the vrael away for that moment, focusing, willing her body forward in the motion of perfect grace necessary for the task.

She jumped, her left foot landing atop Cinis’ shoulder blade as she used it as a springboard, and jumped far higher, arcing toward the demon. His black, coal eyes met hers as time slowed, her right hand extending outward as her body turned horizontal, seeming to be suspended by air alone. The her fingers made contact with the demon’s lower throat, the skin there like soft dirt instead of rock, breaking under force it had never been made to withstand. Her arm plunged in up to the elbow and she felt a granite vertebra deep within, cold stone that she grabbed with a fist, and yanked to rip it clear.

There was a grudging pop, like that of pulling boots out from deep mud after a rainy day, and she continued to soar past the demon, her momentum carrying her through a front flip to land in the grass beyond, the stone vertebra still clutched in her hand. She turned back just as the Earth demon’s head rolled backward, nothing left to support it as it fell off the shoulders, its eyes dead before it hit the ground.

Cinis was still crouched, the knives held high as the sword slid off them, and the Earth demon fell, the rocks no longer held together but rather spilling over themselves in a mound. The knives dropped to his side as he gaped, still in the crouching position that had saved his life, still in pebble upholding the boulder.

“Cinis,” she shouted as her hair settled over half her face, and she dropped the vertebra to the ground, “Cinis, you’re coming with me. Now.”

Next Part

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