Sir Ritehart fired his sling. The hare that bounded across the grassy heath leaped only once more before it fell dead. A hound retrieved the animal, and Ritehart turned to the scholar, Priestess Risa Melicles. “How much time passed?” he asked.
Risa examined her hourglass. “Fourteen minutes,” she said and the other hunters applauded. Two hares and a pheasant had fallen to Sir Ritehart’s bullets in under a quarter hour. In fact, Ritehart had won the hunt every year as far back as memory served, and none expected this year to be any different. He was, in fact, a hero.
The wizard Set stepped forward.
“Celebrating so soon?” he hissed, lips twisting over his embittered face. A crow sat upon his shoulder as it had now for days. The bird snatched and grabbed at darkness until it pulled Set’s hood down to expose the side of Set’s bald-shaved head.
“No one has forgotten your turn,” Risa told the wizard.
“As well they should not!” Set huffed, straightening his hood and swatting mildly at the bird. Set closed his eyes, lids aflutter, and the crow lifted from his shoulder into the sky. Sir Ritehart watched with fascination as the bird circled overhead before diving into a nearby grove. Without opening his eyes, Set released his first bullet. And then, another.
Ritehart and the others stood incredulous as two hares, a pheasant, and even a fox fell victim to his mark. For no reason than to flaunt his skill, Set downed a sparrow in flight, and the little bird fell with a plop at Sir Ritehart’s feet.
“Need I ask the time?” Set scowled as he opened his eyes again. “Or should I collect my prize now?”
The hunters stood dumbfounded. Ritehart was the first to congratulate the wizard. “Impressive work!” he said. “How do you manage such a feat?”
“I see what the crow sees,” Set replied. “We are familiar, yes? So I can take only half the credit.”
“Then you should receive only half the prize,” Risa Melicles said, resetting the hourglass. Her face, as beautiful as it was, showed no pleasure. Yet Sir Ritehart knew he’d lost fairly and he patted the wizard’s arm—forgetting how much Set reviled being touched.
Near the grove, one of the other hunters shouted a warning. He pointed across the hillside, but Sir Ritehart saw nothing. A foreboding wind fell from the north, and a shadow spread across the heath. Ritehart squinted at a whirl of dust and leaves in the distance. The hounds barked wildly.
“What is that?” one of the hunters asked, but Sir Ritehart had never seen anything like it. Horror gripped him as the whirlwind swept hungrily toward the hunter. He tried to run, but the thing moved faster than any man or beast. It fell upon the hunter—a blur of gray claws and yellow fangs and shredded the man before he could scream. Ritehart and his fellow hunters fired at the creature. Neither bullet nor arrow could penetrate its hide.
“Demon!” the Priestess Risa Melicles cried. Sir Ritehart had drawn his sword, and she pulled him by the arm. “No! Flee to the city gates!”
The hounds howled and ran, and Ritehart called his men to retreat. Set was already on his way up the hillside toward the gates of Uenden. A sharp-eyed gatekeeper gave the cry, and the doors opened. Ritehart already felt the demon’s breath hot at his back, and the smell of the foul creature was like a sulfur pool. When Set stumbled and fell, Ritehart gathered him over his shoulder and leaped through the city gate.
“Drop the portcullis!” Ritehart cried, and a thousand pounds of spiked iron crashed upon the demon. The thing screamed from many mouths, a dozen claws lashing in every direction. Sir Ritehart set the wizard on his feet. He wiped sweat from his eyes, certain the demon had met its fate. Yet the winds rose again. Lightning flashed, and a swirl of a million colors restored the hellish beast outside the gate. The city walls shook. Archers gathered to fire from battlements and loopholes. It seemed nothing could kill the thing.
“Invincible,” Risa said, chest heaving beneath her vestments.
“No creature is invincible!” Ritehart declared. The wooden walls of the city trembled. Splinters whizzed through the air. Set, with the crow upon his shoulder, agreed with the priestess.
“We must retreat to the castle,” he said, out of breath but strangely calm. “The stone curtain should hold him.”
The people of Uenden poured from their homes and shops. Some of them cried and fell upon their knees as the city walls shuddered. Others gathered weapons, but Sir Ritehart commanded all of them to retreat to the castle. Men gathered their horses to spread the word. Others collected provisions, and a wave of citizens fled up the grassy motte to the castle gates. Finding his white steed, Sir Ritehart ushered as many townspeople as he could find. Over two thousand men, women, and children found salvation behind the stone curtain just as the city walls burst inward. The demon leaped into the city.
“We must go now!” Risa declared.
Ritehart pulled her up behind him. He galloped his horse across the bridge and over the festering moat. He heard the screams of Uenden’s as the creature tore open rooftops and ripped apart flesh, but no time remained to save those good people. Fleeing, the knight never felt so helpless.
“There must be a way to kill it. Everything has its weakness—even the gods!”
The sky was cloudless, the moon full. On cool nights such as these, the people of Uenden usually built fires outside of town. They’d eat good food, dance, and sing. But tonight the multitude made no sound. They clung to each other in the courtyard, and even the terrified remained silent as the demon flung itself against the stone castle curtain. Dust rose and mortar strained. The rumbling was terrible, and the beast seemed as tireless as it was cruel. The stone shield held fast for now.
King Urides arrived from the keep. He hoped desperately to offer some solution and suggested that his men sally forward. Risa Melicles argued against it. Countless archers had fired flaming arrows into the demon without effect. Others poured boiling pitch over its shapeless body, and the demon replied with a vengeance by spewing poison clouds from its dozen mouths. Some warriors succumbed to the poison instantly and fell from the battlements. Others remained blinded for hours. The king retreated to his castle.
“It’s a Kliton,” Risa told Sir Ritehart. They sat together with several others in an area of the bailey clear of grass. Set stood over them with his arms crossed. Risa’s face appeared yellow and grim in the flickering light of a small fire. “A Kliton is a demon of Inos…or, somewhere,” she said.
“Somewhere?” Set mocked. He scowled down at the priestess. “For all your scholarship and learning, somewhere is the best you can do?”
His crow chuckled in his ear, and Risa glared back at them. “You have offered no advice, wizard!”
“What about our brave knight here, then? Isn’t it his job to slay errant beasts? Yes, I believe that’s how the folk stories go.”
“The demon wants something. There’s no other reason for it to appear now.”
“Perhaps he wants your knowledge, priestess. How sadly disappointed he will find himself!”
Ritehart listened to the two bicker in vain. The priestess had taken his hand in hers. She held on and squeezed, but no comfort could ease the sickness in his heart. When he’d heard enough, he pushed her hand away in frustration. “The wizard is right,” he said. “I can hear the whispers of our people. I can read their eyes. They expect me to do something.”
“To do what?” Risa sighed.
“To save them!” Sir Ritehart shouted, and he saw that his anger had hurt her. “Risa, please understand. What good am I to be a hero abroad when I cannot save my people at home? What use is the greatest hunter who cannot kill this monster?”
“Second greatest,” the wizard Set muttered.
Set shook his head. “He is the second greatest hunter. Earlier today I—”
Risa Melicles kicked. Her heel struck Set’s shin, and his bird squawked and flapped its wings. “I’m through with you!” she said, standing to dust herself off as the castle curtain thundered from a fresh strike. She turned to Sir Ritehart. “I’m going to the library. Promise me you’ll wait here.”
“It would seem I have little choice.”
“I’m glad you understand,” Risa said, and she started through the crowd toward the keep. The guards all knew her. They snapped at attention and threw open the doors. Ritehart watched her disappear, then cocked his head.
“Do you hear that?”
“What?” Set replied, rubbing his shin. “I hear nothing.”
“Exactly,” Ritehart said. “The demon…he has quieted.”
“Perhaps he needs a nap. That witch of a priestess could use one as well.”
The knight frowned. He strained to listen, but all he heard were the whimpers of frightened children. “Anything that needs rest can be killed,” he said. “Send up your crow.”
“You can see through his eyes, can you not? I want to know what the Kliton is doing.”
The wizard Set got up and spat at Ritehart’s feet. “A sore loser, are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“All my life, I stood in your shadow. You can’t stand that someone actually beat you at your own game. Now you want the demon to kill my crow. Well, I’ll not fall for your tricks!”
“For the love of—!”
“I’m going to my quarters,” Set sneered at him. “My night chamber lies adjacent to that of the king. Where is it that you sleep, heroic knight?”
“The barracks,” Sir Ritehart replied, and Set raised a bony finger at him.
“Aha! And let you not forget it!”
Some things never changed. Set was one of them. He retreated to the castle keep, and Sir Ritehart curled upon the ground. He watched the moon. The castle walls thundered again before dawn, and the knight could only hope that his presence helped calm the people. There was little else he could do.
When the sun rose, so did the smell of food. Ritehart opened his eyes from a slumber, and a child of no more than seven brought him a bowl of spiced porridge. The girl stood far back out of respect, and her blue eyes were wide behind her dirty face. Sir Ritehart smiled and beckoned her near. The girl set down the porridge and scampered away, shouting to her friends that she’d met Uenden’s most famous man.
“You see,” Risa Melicles said. She approached from the castle, and her eyes were dark from lack of sleep. She carried a bound book of leaves. “You still inspire our people.”
“If only I could help them,” Ritehart replied.
“You will,” Risa said. “And I know how.”
She showed him the book and read the important parts to him. The priestess was right. The demon was a Kliton, and his earthly form was strong—but not invincible. To the north a great wall of fire masked a vast underground sea. Beyond both stood a temple door, sealed by magic, the Life of the Kliton hidden inside.
“It is his heart,” Risa explained. “His soul. If you destroy it, the Kliton dies.”
Sir Ritehart took things one step at a time, and so concerned himself first with the fiery wall. Nothing could extinguish it, but a hero could pass through unharmed if he wore the proper armor. Only a suit woven from the silk of the yulan worm would do. Such worms dwelled in the burning embers of the sacred willow tree, and King Urides had once received such trees as a gift. One of them was immediately chopped down and set to burn.
Second, Sir Ritehart needed a Hand of Glory to penetrate the magic seal of the temple doors. Such an item could only be made from the hand of a hanged thief. The castle dungeon was not lacking for such criminals, and the martyr King Urides chose seemed almost cheerful that the end of his life should come to some good. Risa chopped off his hand and prepared the rites personally. That left only the underground sea to contend with.
The priestess acknowledged that this was the most difficult part of the task. It stretched for miles, she said, with no place to rise for air. The gill of the copper lancefish offered the only known solution. “You must apply its gill to your mouth,” Risa explained. “It will allow you to breathe for very long periods underwater.”
“Where do I find this fish?”
“At Black Lake,” she told him. “We’re already sending someone.”
“No! I must go myself!”
Risa smiled. “We can’t risk your life. Not if you are going to acquire the heart and soul of the demon.”
But Sir Ritehart, foolishly perhaps, ignored her warning. Few soldiers knew the way to Black Lake. They were too young to remember, but Ritehart had campaigned near there. He set out alone that very night with only a blade, a strong net, and a steady heart. A postern at the back of the castle led him outside.
He sallied forth, hugging the shadows of the night. The demon, so busy hammering the walls and spewing poison, did not see him sneak away. Nor did it see him return six days later. Ritehart saw that the mortar curtain had cracked badly beneath the Kliton’s relentless blows, and stone had crumbled. The wall would only last a few more days.
Sir Ritehart found his people equally shaken and broken down. Some had gone mad. Others stared at the ground in front of them, awaiting their doom. Still, there was hope. The castle’s finest seamstresses had gathered enough yulan silk to weave a suit of fire resistant armor. The Hand of Glory was sufficiently blackened, and its fingers curled like a dead spider to hold the magic within. Ritehart produced the copper lancefish, and Risa sliced it to remove the gills.
“When you enter the sea,” she demonstrated, “you must hold these gills between your lips and teeth. Breathe through them, not your nose.”
“It’s hopeless,” the wizard Set grumbled from nearby. “All this effort will produce nothing. This foolish knight got out through the postern and back again. That’s what we should do!”
“And how many have died trying?” Risa snapped at him. She looked back at Sir Ritehart and sighed. “So many, in fact, that I feared they would spoil your chances for return. Here. Let me help you with that yulan armor.” The suit was heavy, yellow and orange threads glistening. Risa couldn’t help but smile to see him in it.
“Rather ornate, eh?” the knight said, allowing himself a grin.
“More than what I’m used to!” Risa replied, but her mirth soon faded. “You need only wisdom and bravery now. You have everything else that you need.”
“All but one thing,” Ritehart said.
In an act that would have brought him to the gallows on any day but this, the bold knight leaned in his glistening armor and kissed the priestess. Without waiting for a reaction, he turned and mounted his white stallion.
“Sir Ritehart,” Risa said.
She smiled up at him. “When you return—and I am sure you will—make certain that never happens again.”
“I’ll cherish the memory,” the knight replied before setting off into the night.
The map Risa had given Ritehart led through low-lying swamps to the east and mountains in the north. He found the ravine marked on it, and followed a stream into its depths until he came to a fissure in the rock wall. Larger than a man, this crevice blazed with smoke and fire so hot it caused the stream to boil. Sir Ritehart’s horse whinnied at the unnatural heat and fiery roar, and the knight knew that he stood before the wall of fire.
He dismounted and tethered his beast in the shade near the water, promising to return soon. He pulled the coif of his worm-spun mail over his face, and gripped its over-long sleeves about his hands. With every part of him covered, he blindly approached the source of heat. The roar of the blazing wall grew into a horrendous bellow, and his skin blistered even through the protection of his armor. The knight held his breath and hurried through.
Heat and noise vanished, and Sir Ritehart emerged on the other side, surprised to be alive. He uncovered his eyes and found himself in a small grotto enclosed by rock. A small pool of water at its center mirrored the blue sky above. He stripped down to his tunic and breeches, and stuffed the gills of the lancefish into his mouth. He took a hesitant breath, then descended into the pool until the water closed above his head.
The gills proved effective, though they did nothing to help him see. The knight felt his way through the slippery dark, following the meandering cavern for what seemed like miles without any need for air.
At last, the watery passage arched and rose toward daylight.
Ritehart crawled into the open air. Cold and dripping wet, he found himself in a place unlike any other. A green valley stretched to unseen distances. There were white deer and brightly colored flowers with petals that twirled on their stems. He saw vines with fruit as big as sheep, and trees that dripped golden honey from their stems. Perhaps this was the legendary Land of Promise, but he had no time to ponder. The object of his quest lay before him: a temple of stone with massive pillars and stairs that led to a high, golden door.
He ran to the door, but found that it would not budge. Taking the blackened Hand of Glory from inside his tunic, Ritehart tapped the door with it while saying:
Heed the call
Of the hanged thief’s fall!
To the dead man’s knock!
The fingers of the dead hand opened, as did the door itself. Heartened, the knight tossed the expended hand aside. He dashed inside the temple and raced to the stone altar. Risa had told him that the heart of the demon-soul could be anything—a pebble, even some small animal—but that he would recognize it at once. Ritehart found nothing of the sort.
Upon the altar stood the statue of a man. The man had seven arms, and in one of them he held a wicker cage. The cage door was open, and there was nothing inside.
Sir Ritehart fell to his knees. The demon’s heart—whatever it was—had already been taken. His people were in danger, and this foolish quest had only wasted time. Nearly weeping, he shook his fist at the cage.
A bird’s cage.
Just big enough for—
“A crow,” Ritehart said. His chest seethed with anger. He shouted again, but not at the cage this time. He cursed the wizard Set, and now he understood why the demon had appeared so suddenly. He wanted his soul back, now in the form of that infernal crow.
Dashing from the altar, Sir Ritehart stuffed the gills into his mouth and swam back through the watery cavern. He emerged in the grotto at nightfall, but his worm-spun armor was not there. He searched frantically, confused and afraid that he’d swam in the wrong direction.
“Is this what you are looking for?” said a voice.
Ritehart looked up. He saw Set, a black silhouette against the great wall of fire. “Bring me my armor!”
The wizard chuckled. Ritehart had always hated that laugh. Now he had reason to.
“But I like your armor,” Set told him. “Of course I have my own, and I spent months sewing it. Still the royal seamstresses do much finer work.”
“Give it to me!” Sir Ritehart commanded.
Cautiously, the knight moved toward Set. He wanted to kill the wizard, but the man stepped back quickly toward the fire. “Why, Set?” Ritehart cried. “What do you want?”
“Want? I want the things that come so easily to you. I want to win the hunt. I want the admiration of my people. I want Risa. Mostly, Sir Ritehart, I want to be rid of you.”
“For that, you’ll see our city destroyed?” Ritehart shouted in disbelief.
“Even I’m not that cruel. No, I’ll destroy the demon when he breaks through the walls. You can be assured of that, former hero.”
With that, the foul wizard turned and started through the fiery wall. Ritehart had no choice. He would not let it end this way. He dove into the inferno.
The fire chewed at Ritehart. It bit through his flesh and tore into his lungs. Yet he had hold of the wizard now, and no amount of agony could make him let go. The struggle itself was brief. Sir Ritehart pulled Set back into the grotto and grabbed both sets of armor.
“You won’t leave me here!”
“Enjoy eternity,” Ritehart said and marched through the flames.
Despite his horrible injuries, Sir Ritehart rode hard to the castle keep. He entered the postern as the curtain began to fall. Risa wept at the sight of him. All of his hair had burned off, and blackened flesh peeled from his arms. Every breath brought forth bitter pain and blood. She started toward him, but he wasted no time in hurrying up the tower and into Set’s room.
Ritehart found the crow and snatched it from its cage. The bird squawked and pecked at his scabs as Ritehart took it outside. The sun was rising. The air was still. The demon flung itself into the wall one last time.
Stone crumbled and dust rose. The people ran screaming as the demon spat venom and charged. Sir Ritehart stumbled toward the creature, the crow held forward in both hands. He twisted its body.
The demon froze. Then its multitude of eyes grew wide, and it screamed with all the fury of the heavens from all its mouths.
Sir Ritehart tore a wing from the crow. The demon’s limbs snapped. He tore off the bird’s beak, and the creature’s fangs shattered into dust. Soon a convulsing heap of flesh and gristle was all that remained of the demon.
When Ritehart snapped the crow’s neck, both it and the demon’s remains burst into flame. The knight dropped the corpse and staggered back. Smoke rose into the blue sky, the fire quickly reducing horror to a pile of ash.
Ritehart collapsed to the earth. Risa Melicles ran to him, but it was too late. The knight’s flesh had been all but burned away, and his blood boiled like broth in his veins. The priestess applied ointments and balms to soothe his remaining hours, though she knew Sir Ritehart felt little pain. She had seen the gleam in his eyes and knew that he saw only the eternal green valley with the white deer. She prayed that he already tasted the honey upon his scorched lips.