A Demon of Midwinter: Part 9
If you’ve just joined in, jump back to the beginning here.
Frigid water seeped into Rhys’ shoes despite his hop-skip-jump around the puddles. He tugged his scarf tighter around his neck as fat blobs of icy liquid fell from branches and tried to snake down his back. He pulled his cap lower over his ears. None of it did much good keeping the chill out. Tucking his hands in his pockets, his right bumped up against the jar of salt. He hunched his shoulders and grimaced at the wet ground, hoping a briny circle was enough.
Trudging along the footpath by the river, he tried to appear pathetic and bereft. It came easily; he was very alone on the dimly lit path. Even the nocturnal denizens of the trees seemed to have abandoned the place. But he felt Dar’s eyes watching him, even though the only sounds were his own footsteps and the murmur of the river. A small smile tugged at his mouth, and his left hand lifted to graze his lips.
Glancing over the dark, sluggish water, he caught sight of the first flakes of snow. Then he froze, sensing another presence. His fingers clenched in his right pocket, feeling the weight of its contents. He glanced back to the path, and an utterance of fright leapt into his throat and lodged there.
“You.” The woman arched an eyebrow. She adjusted the black fur that hung off her bare shoulders, and her red lacquered nails played along her collarbone. Her red lips twisted into a smile. “Usually I play with my food…give them pleasure before the pain.”
“But not me.” He dug his hands deeper into his pockets, fingering the hole in the right one to make it larger.
“No, not you.” The smile dropped, as did her hands. “To you, I will only give pain.” A twitch of fear pulsed in Rhys’ stomach as he peered at her fingers — they’d lengthened and become gnarled. “I don’t think you’d enjoy my game.”
She slunk towards him, her movements shifting from sinuous to herky-jerky. Rhys stepped back and to the left. His left hand wrapped around the parchment in his pocket as his right fidgeted with the salt.
“Aren’t you going to run away, little mouse?” Her eyebrows pulled together and her lips shifted to a pout, then her face twisted as her jaw distended.
“What’s the point?” Rhys stepped left again, trying to keep the movement of his hand in his pocket invisible as he endeavoured to pour salt from his pocket onto the ground. She shifted closer. “You’ll just catch me.”
“The point is I want you to.” Her voice betrayed annoyance as she stepped towards him.
Rhys shifted, as if trying to keep the distance between them. “I thought you said you weren’t going to play with me.”
A pale shoulder shrugged. “I lied.” Her lips curled into a snarl, and Rhys glimpsed fangs longer than Dar’s. He took a few quick steps left and sensed the river at his back — the circle was almost complete.
A few seconds later, she leapt towards him. He scurried back and stumbled over the first few words of the incantation.
She landed a few feet away. “I have words of my own.” The words that tumbled from her lips were in a language Rhys had never heard, guttural and harsh, certainly not the Norse of the spell. He inched back, and she strode forward with spider-like legs. At the circle, she stopped short and, with a hiss, bared fangs that could have belonged to a sabre-tooth tiger.
“Circle of salt.” Rhys smiled, happy that the half-dissolved salt was enough. He continued the recitation with more confidence. A droning sound rose around him. He swallowed between beats, unsure if this was the magic he was calling up or something else.
She glanced down and spun around, glaring at the circle she’d landed dead-centre in with her haste to attack. A sound escaped her throat, almost like a cat coughing up a fur ball.
He paused, for a fleeting moment believing it was just that easy. Then he realized the sound wasn’t a cough, and his stomach sank — she was laughing.
When her gaze returned to him, her red eyes glowed with mirth. Her lips sneered, and her words slurred around the fangs when she spoke. “Circle of blood."
The creature, no longer female or feline, crossed the binding circle with ease. Her elongated limbs seemed to have too many joints, and her fingers were like the gnarled branch of some tree. Black fur cloaked her back and peppered her legs. Her mouth was a red gash.
At the same time the droning turned into a cheer, letting Rhys know it wasn’t the incantation causing it. He glanced at a flicker of movement to his left, expecting Dar to rush out of the trees to his rescue. Instead, his eyes widened at the sight of giant, flea-like insects swarming across the path.
“Don’t worry. My friends have taken care of your vampire.” She lunged at him, pushing him to the earth. He hit the ground, the wind knocked out of him. When she landed on top of him, he braced himself, waiting for fangs to sink into his flesh. He closed his eyes on impending death. Pain seared on his forehead as something sharp dragged across the skin. He thought he’d spoken the truth when he said he wasn’t unafraid of death — and there were worse things — but he didn’t want to die.
But instead of the sigh of death, he heard sniffing, and opened an eye. The creature’s face was centimetres from his, her nostrils flared.
“Your life —” Her words were cut off as she was hauled off of him. He scrambled to his feet, flinging off a few of the insect-like creatures crawling on his arms and legs, and saw Dar’s hands around her throat.
But a moment later, the woman slid out of Dar’s grasp. Rhys tried to follow the sinuous dance of their battle. Dar wove, and she dodged. She stabbed and Dar ducked, but they both moved too fast.
At a tingle on his scalp, he ran his fingers through his hair, dislodging one of the giant fleas. The wound on his head stung as his hand grazed it. Blood dripped down the side of his face. He pulled his hand away and peered at it in the dark, then glanced from it to the combat in front of him. Crouching to the earth, he began muttering the incantation again, trailing his index finger on the ground.
Keeping the two fighters in the corner of his eye, he pressed his hand to his head again. Wincing at the jolt of pain, he forced more blood onto his fingertips, ignoring the biting insects, and continued to chant, crab-walking around the other two.
A cry drew his attention to the combatants. A shock stabbed his heart when he saw Dar lying back, clutching a stained hand to his neck. The creature stood over him, blood dripping from a slender blade. The hilt glinted in her hand despite the dark night around them.
Raising her head, she met his gaze. “Now for you.” She stepped over Dar, intent on Rhys. Fear trilled in his abdomen, but he forced out the last few words of the incantation. She took another half step forward, then she hit a wall that propelled her back. Landing with a thump, she hissed as she glanced around, then returned her angry gaze to him.
“Circle of blood.” He smiled at her.
Without hesitation, Rhys stepped into the circle, clutching the small dagger Dar had insisted he carry ‘just in case’. He loomed over her, holding the blade in front of his torso. His eyes scrunched into a squint as stars speckled the edges of his vision. He stumbled as pain seared in his thigh. Looking down, talons larger than an eagle’s punctured his skin. He dropped to a knee as she used him to pull herself up.
“It only protects you if you stay on the outside.” She lifted his chin with nails coated in his own blood. “And when you die, the circle breaks.”
Her lips sneered around her fangs, then her mouth went wide, as if to let out a hellish scream. But the only sound that came was a weak mew. Rhys squinted, confused. Then his eyes crossed, and he made out the tip of Dar’s blade, channels of silver and lead etched into its wavy length. It protruded from her chest, almost touching Rhys' nose. Steaming blue liquid dripped from the point.
Her blood. The blade disappeared, but still her talons scrambled at her chest, then she slumped to the ground, falling onto her side. Her now-human hands fell to her naked belly. Her eyes narrowed in on Dar as he sank to his knees beside her, and a coughing racked her chest. When a blue smile split her face, Rhys realized she was laughing again. Her entirely normal fingernails clutched Dar’s wrist. His arm jerked, but he couldn’t pull free.
“A night will come when you too will die, beset by shadows. The angels will herald your death and show no mercy.” She glanced over Dar’s shoulder to Rhys, and her laugh turned to a cackle, then became a true cough. After a few seconds it stopped, and her eyes shifted to stare lifeless at the starry sky.
Dar huffed. “I don’t think I’ll make it to your night of shadows.” His hand pressed to his neck as he fell back to sit on the ground.