Artos dashed through the forest, his long blonde hair sticking to the back of his neck. Electricity crackled in the air around him, and the small metallic horns on his forehead pulsed slightly. The sword he clutched in his hands glowed with a silver light, and the raindrops hissed into steam when they touched it. A steel circlet shimmered on his brow, beads of water running down its surface.
He needed to reach the capital at all costs. The Accords had to continue. If he was stopped here, then demons would never be free. He gritted his teeth and pushed his legs as hard as he could.
He slid to a stop in mossy ground of a clearing and whirled around. This was a good place to make a stand, and it was visible from the sky. Where was Anjaru? He, Kelrick and Thalia had staved off the ambush so he could flee into the forest. But that had been hours ago. This cold hard fact slid into Artos's heart. He was alone. He was up against enemies far more powerful than he could handle in his weakened state. He was finished. Worst of all, he was afraid.
Afraid. This seemed to make the odd man pause. Of course! He was afraid, and he was never afraid. This must be Dunyi's doing. He brandished his glowing sword. The slightly curved blade illuminated the shadows around him. "Come on out!" he called in a voice that seemed to shake the earth. "Fight me face to face! Die like a warrior! Do your race proud!"
The shadows quavered to his left, and revealed a beautiful woman with perfect, seductive curves. A tattoo of a snake curled up from her left ankle all the way up to her neck. "Artos," she purred. "You have seen through our ruse?" The man with the glowing sword nodded, and pointed the blade at her. Lightning split the sky and thunder rumbled ominously.
"I'll kill you if I have to," Artos growled at her.
There was a cackling laugh behind him. A man with a long white beard and sunken eyes limped from the shade of the trees. "You can't escape Dunyi, no you can't!" he chortled. "Dunyi and his friends have you in a bind!"
"Shut up, Dunyi," the woman snapped. "Your purpose here is finished. Go inform the Chancellor that Artos is captured. His High Three have fallen." The short man nodded and bowed, revealing that his torso was actually a bare skeleton.
"Ehehehe!" he cackled again. "The Chancellor will come! He will be pleased!" The man jumped up into the trees and swung away.
"Talreya," Artos gasped. "You… you have Bonded yourself to the Chancellor? Why?" He tried to distract her as he sorted through the facts she had unwittingly provided him. His sister was working with the Chancellor. The Three had been defeated. Dunyi the Fear-monger had allied himself was Talreya, and that meant Jaedayan of the Mist had as well. The two always worked together.
The woman, Talreya, smirked. "The humans have tracked down most of the stronger demons," she said with a shrug. "It was only a matter of time before I was captured as well. I merely ensured that I would have a powerful master."
"But why?" Artos said, a pleading note creeping into his voice. Better she think him weak.
"You are begging?" Talreya said with a laugh. "You fool! This is why you were unfit to be king. You are soft. A coward. You fled when attacked, and expected your minions to protect you!"
"They're not my minions!" Artos shouted, and the sky turned white as the lightning intensified. "Anjaru, Kelrick and Thalia are my friends!"
"A king should not have friends! Merely associates! I tried to teach you that!"
Artos took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "I find your methods ineffective. And perhaps I am a slow learner. But some things are not worth teaching!" A bolt of light flew from his mane of golden hair and struck the woman in her midsection.
Talreya was lifted off her feet and thrown several feet back. When she landed, she struggled to regain her composure. "Shiradre! Kutayara! Kill him!"
A man and a woman, alike enough to be brother and sister, alighted in the clearing. The man wore a robe of emerald green, while the woman was clothed in a long black gown that seemed to be made of spider webs.
"Shall we not take him prisoner?" the man asked. "Perhaps he may be useful."
"No," Talreya said. "Artos has proven that he has no love for our cause, and will only stand in our way. In the name of our master, kill him."
"As you command, my queen." The man, Kutayara, drew a long, curving dagger from the folds of his robe. It dripped with an acrid smelling substance that Artos knew was poison. Shiradre lifted the hem of her gown, and a cloud of black widows scurried out. She pulled her lips back in a ghastly grin, revealing pointed fangs that dripped with narcotic venom.
Artos held his katana-like sword in front of him, and an electrical current surged between the tiny horns on his head. "I am not Demon King for nothing," he snarled at the twins. "I warn you, if you fight me, you will be gravely injured. I will hold nothing back."
"Shut up," Talreya murmured, and shot a dark orb from the palm of her hand. It struck Artos's blade, hissed, and disappeared. Artos scowled, and thrust out his left hand. A bolt of lightning dropped from the sky and incinerated several of Shiradre's spiders.
"My babies!" the woman shrieked. "You'll pay for that!"
The twins charged at Artos, and he nimbly parried Kutayara's dagger. He threw a ball of light at the young man, and winced as it exploded, leaving burns all over his body. Harming any demon, even an enemy, was not something the king liked to do.
Kutayara's dagger came back for another sweep, and this time it nicked Artos's face. It was a shallow wound, and the man paid it little attention. Shiradre pulled a whip from around her waist and snapped it at Artos. The man ducked and weaved and tried to avoid the steady assault. He snarled at the brother and sister. "I am the Demon King! Your lord and protector! I demand respect!"
Kutayara smirked. "Why should I respect a king who runs from the humans? Why not stand and fight, like my Dark Lady?"
"I am not fleeing!" Artos roared. "Do you see fear in my eyes?"
Shiradre licked her lips. "Not yet. But soon…" Her hands turned into spiked black claws, and she lunged. Artos sliced at her face, and a line of blood seeped down into her eyes. The spider woman shrieked in agony and drew back.
Talreya smiled at Kutayara. "How much longer do you think it will be, my pet?"
"Not long now, my lady," the young man replied.
Talreya held out her right hand, and shadows from the trees rushed to it. A sword appeared, but it was not a beautiful thing like Artos's. It was knobby and sinister. The snake that curled up her body shivered, and became an actual being of flesh and blood. It slithered down to encircle her arm and rest its head upon her blade.
"I control the element of Light!" Artos cried, and hurled a lightning bolt at Kutayara. "We can use this to our advantage! The humans have temples devoted to the heavenly Light! My powers are the reason I became the Demon King! I can make peace with the humans!" He leapt out of the way of Shiradre's lunge, and felt her teeth graze his neck. "We don't have to be their slaves! I can make a world where humans and demons live in harmony!"
"Be silent," Kutayara snarled. He thrust out his dagger and plunged it deep into Artos's heart. Artos gasped for breath, and realized his lungs were paralyzed. Shiradre's numbing venom was more potent than he realized. Talreya smiled and walked over slowly, raising her sword. Artos knew he should run, but he couldn't. He just wanted to lie down and sleep…
Kutayara smirked. "That cut on your cheek was all it took to finish you. Every move you make now pumps my poison through your body. You'll be dead in minutes. My Lady of the Dark is doing you a favor by ending your pain."
"P-Please," Artos stammered. "N-No! It does not have to be this way!"
Talreya brought the sword up. Artos extended his consciousness as his tutors had taught him. Some miles from here, he detected a small spark of life, dwelling in its mother's womb but eager to be free. If only he could…
And then the Demon Queen's sword descended, plunging deeper into his heart than Kutayara's dagger. So deep that Artos did not feel any pain. He accepted the comforting, encircling darkness with a tiny smile on his face.
Though red blood tinged with silver pumped from the wound, it vanished soon after it came into contact with the air. Talreya looked at her subordinates. "The king is dead. Long live the queen." She lifted the steel circlet from Artos's brow, and put it on her own head.
Hours later, the rain stopped. Three men, a woman, and a monkey crept into the clearing. "No!" the tallest man cried when he saw the body on the ground. He had several dark tattoos around his eyes that gave the illusion of fire. "No! Artos!"
He ran to the fallen man and cradled his head in his arms. "How could they? All you wanted… was to make a better world!" He raised his face to the sky and howled, long and bitter. The sound carried rage and sorrow, vengeance and grief.
The woman came up and put her hand on his shoulder. The man with tattoos stiffened, for her touch was ice-cold. Her pale face seemed to become even whiter as she looked at the dead king. But unlike her companion, she said nothing. Still, her cat-like eyes spoke volumes about her sorrow. A small hiss escaped her pursed lips.
The second man had tears drying on his face, and he hurriedly wiped them away. The monkey turned to him with wide, sad eyes. "Anjaru… I'm sorry."
"There's nothing you can do, Chifumi." The man, Anjaru, shifted his long cloak made of falcon feathers. He strode over to Artos, and removed the sword from his grasp. Then, he closed the dead king's eyes, and folded his hands across his chest.
Anjaru handed the sword to the third man. "It's best if you keep this. The steel within is enough to make most demons ill with a mere touch. It will protect you." He placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "Be safe, Harrison."
Harrison nodded, and accepted the sword. He used his free hand to tug at his goatee. "I'm sorry, all of you. Had we acted sooner, we could have prevented this."
Chifumi, the monkey, sniffled. "I want Artos back," she moaned. Her silver fur was matted with rain and salty tears.
Harrison reached down and picked her up. "I do too, little one. But I'm afraid we cannot bring him back." He stroked her head, and she buried her face into his cloak.
The first man stood up. "Then what can we do? You can't go back to the castle! They'll kill you! You stood against the Chancellor's coup, and for all we know, the king is dead! Harrison, you need to hide! And what about us? We're so weak, any sorcerer could bind us!" He snarled and bared his teeth, a distinctly primal signal. "But I ain't going down without a fight!"
Harrison sighed. "All hope is not yet lost. I sense something… off about this situation. It's only speculation, mind you, and I will need time to be sure. Until then, I plan to retire at my holding. You are welcome to take refuge there if you like, for a time. The wards and guardians in place will take care of all but the strongest demon force. I doubt even the Chancellor has resources enough to break through. Though I must ask you remain in human form during your stay. They are convincing enough for people to believe you are humans, not demons. At least, for a time."
Anjaru nodded. "I understand."
Harrison smiled solemnly. "Chifumi, please return home and tell Henrietta to make up three extra beds. We will remain here for a time, and mourn the loss of a dear friend."
Chifumi nodded and darted off into the trees. Harrison picked up a shovel he had dropped upon entering the clearing. The other three did likewise, and began to dig Artos's grave. Once they were sure the monkey-like demon was out of sight, they let their tears flow freely and without remorse.
At a different place in the forest, a young man ran with his wife. She was struggling to keep up, her pregnancy making her stumble. "Please, love, just a little farther," her husband urged. "Harrison's lands are just ahead. Your father's demons can't harm us there."
"I-I can't," the woman stammered. "The baby is coming… now!"
The man swept her up into his arms and ran harder. He heard the baying of a wolf, and knew that if he did not make it these last three miles, he, his wife and his unborn child would all be dead.
A/N: This is a story I've wanted to write for a long time, pretty much since I started Blazing Heart. I'm finally putting it down on paper. This is a side project, and will be updated sporadically, but someday the hope is it will be a full-length novel, same as Blazing Heart. So read, review and enjoy.