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The smell leaking from the earthen tunnel was uncomfortably familiar. It flowed from the lair thick and heavy, beckoning me forward with a repulsive embrace. It announced in unmistakable fashion what waited inside. Death. I could feel it coating my skin, the emerging air dense with invisible properties of weight and mass, pushing around me. I imagined the decay within, bloated and slug white, a soul having abandoned its rotting carcass in release from confinement. With determined confidence, I once again confronted the mysterious enemy.
I crawled into the dirt opening, wondering if this demon had already expired and was the source of the repugnant odor, or if the smell was that of its decaying victims. Either could be the case, as the locals claimed they had injured and beaten this one into retreat. I had reason to doubt that however, it was more likely that the brute had its way with the locals and was observed going back to its lair with a belly full of human remains.
There were four races known to have been responsible for populating the universe. Of the four, the mysterious Grendelee's were the most prolific -- having seeded hundreds of planets -- but they had disappeared from sight in a typically irresponsible manner ages ago. With so many unmanaged experiments of civilization struggling to survive without the proper guidance, the remaining ancient races felt obligated to act on the deserted people's behalf. They agreed to oversee the abandoned Grendelee's holdings, providing the necessary resources to help the parentless civilizations along.
There is no record of what happened to the Grendelee's. They were the only race to have created demons on their planets along with all the other wonders they were capable of. It was thought that the reasoning behind this was to strengthen the population's resolve against any danger that might confront them. But more often than not, the demons simply ravaged the people mercilessly. Under the proprietorship of the remaining founders committee, it was decided that practice would come to an end.
The slime was a foot deep in the crawlspace leading to my quarry. The demons all used slime profusely as a deterrent. While it served little purpose other than slowing one down, it still had an unsettling psychological effect when used against the general population. All demon tactics and manifestations, including slime, had their source. It was a simple matter for the demons to alter the true form of a substance or living creature into something useful to them in their effort to terrorize and subjugate victims. While their techniques varied greatly, they all seemed to favor slime.
Part of the training provided to us hunters by the founders was to increase ones sensitivities to the presence of certain disturbances in the environment. Spells emit waves of energy that can be detected by utilizing abilities beyond the five senses all people possess.
I remember my instructor's resonating voice telling me to look beyond my sight, and to listening beyond what can be heard. He held an open hand in front of me and asked what I saw.
"I see your empty hand Founder Noth."
"Close your eyes then, your eyes are being deceived. Think of a spell as just a convincing suggestion, trickery of the sort that to the five senses is as undeniable and real as the air.
"Never believe in what you see and hear until you have looked beyond your senses. You and the others that have been chosen have the ability to see past your closed eyes, to cast the shrouding veils aside that conceal the lies and in the process expose the source of them.
I did as instructed and with persistent coaching, my latent abilities surfaced. I saw that founder Noth's hand was horribly misshapen from birth and that he had effectively hidden the fact with a spell.
"Founder Noth! Your hand..."
"Yes, Finnley! All lies begin somewhere; you simply have to follow the trail they leave to the source."
There was nothing simple about it, but I learned. I searched for the tell-tales in the crawlspace -- a disturbed molecule, a distressed atom -- and found the source spell for the slime wedged in a crevice ahead, dispatching it with a few well-chosen words. The slime melted away -- transformed back to its harmless state of water -- and soaked into the porous gravel of the tunnel floor. Training didn't allow for me to simply make it disappear, I had to convert it back to its original form, just in case. A hoard of hungry zombies attacking might just as likely have been a class of picnicking school children at one time. It was as much your duty to return them to their picnic baskets full of cooked chicken and biscuits as it was to eradicate the demon responsible for their forced enlistment.
The tunnel ended abruptly, spilling out onto a ledge above what was quite possibly a bottomless pit. It didn't matter really; an endless fall was just as deadly as a hundred-foot fall, though not quite as quick. I shone my light across the cavern and saw nothing; the seemingly vast distance consumed the beam in its entirety.
The game began as the ledge suddenly gave away beneath my feet, hardly a coincidence I assure you. I instantly created a rope anchored to a structure above, locked my hands securely around it and swung away from the crumbling ledge and over the void below. Unfortunately, the thing I had anchored my rope to was something the demon had left behind as a surprise, and it immediately drew me up towards its gaping maw as I swung helplessly like a pendulum back and forth. I countered by altering the characteristics of the taut rope to that of a rubber cord. The cord stretched in response and I managed to swing safely to a suitable perch on the opposite side of the trap. The rubber cord responded by becoming a clutching tentacle, again pulling at me, so I released it from my original calling. It returned to its true form from which I had beckoned it, a single strand of a spider web I had encountered in the tunnel I had emerged from.
That's how the game is played, spells and counter spells. Transformations made by nudging an object towards your immediate needs. You can't change a toad into a bird, but you can make the toad fly if you are competent. As I looked for a path to follow, I felt a brush of invading contact stir in my mind, a shout of recognition.
"None other," I confirmed. This one obviously knew of me. It is a habit of mine to introduce myself to each demon I dispatch. Perhaps it was only self-gratification that made me do it. But I knew that in their dying screams of defiance, their voices somehow broadcast warnings to others of their kind that another had fallen by my hand.
"We have a surprise waiting for you," said the demon.
"Nothing you can do will surprise me."
"You might be surprised."
"I won't be."
"Come ahead then."
"That is my plan."
"Good, good. Well, what are you waiting for."
"Show me the way, demon."
"Up yours, Finnley."
"Fine, have it your own way, I'll be that much harder on you when we meet."
I have these conversations with them occasionally, nothing new about that. They usually don't openly invite confrontation though. This might be something to be concerned about. I doubted it, but it was best to be prepared.
I always had a few spells at the ready, I sought them out in my mind, wanting to be reassured by their potency. I could feel the complex, intertwining paths, and the power that pulsed impatiently through them, as it should. The blind alleys and switchbacks incorporated within them to confuse those unfamiliar with the making of each spell made it nearly impossible for them to be unraveled or turned impotent and useless. The best use of spells was to hold them back, unleashing them sparingly and only when needed. Satisfied with their readiness, I made my way down the twisting ledge towards where I felt I should go.
I encountered no more tricks. With the discovery of who I was, the demon was obviously convinced of its impending doom. The ledge slowly transformed into a broad entryway; a red carpet adorned the floor and led through a polished stone arch. This was definitely different.
I chose to walk beside the carpet, positive that it was harmless enough. Nothing so obvious would be used to entrap me. It did cross my mind that perhaps the demon wanted me to think just that, and further, actually wanted me to walk beside the carpet instead. But I sensed no danger either way and looked at the red carpet as more of an insult or mocking gesture. I refused to acknowledge it as anything other than that.
I passed under the archway and into the emptiness that lay beyond. The echo of my footsteps indicated the massive size of the chamber. There was a lone flaming torch that stood upon a raised pedestal in the distance. Feeling no advancing threat from the impenetrable shadows, I approached it. As the distance narrowed, I realized the top surface of the pedestal was actually hidden below a protruding rim that surrounded it. Within the concealed depression was a naked female body, and impaled in its chest was the flickering torch. This body was the source of the stinking decay that greeted me above ground in the entranceway.
I stared at the lifeless form, and as I did, the chamber slowly lit in an evil golden glow cast by hundreds of flickering torches. I was completely surrounded by a thousand demons. With a numbing shock that rocked the very fiber of my soul I realized that the body that lay before me on the alter was that of my companion, Adel. Now, barely recognizable, her supple form had given way to the rigors of death, slowly deflating into a pool of putrescence in the confinement of the bowl shaped pedestal.
Even as my heartbeat quickened in a raging, uncontrollable anger, my body trembled with debilitating anguish. An infinite emptiness blossomed in my mind with the thought of life without her. I knew a sterile void of lonely nights in silent conversations with memories of the past would torture me for the rest of my days.
I reluctantly acknowledged an obvious intelligence emanating from the horrors that surrounded me that I had never accredited them with before. Self-indulging confidence with past success against my foe had blinded me to their previously unknown far-reaching capabilities.
I struggled to recover from the chaotic mix of blinding anger and overpowering sorrow. I only had time to shed a single tear for Adel. With my head hung in near defeat, I felt it slide from my cheek and watched it slowly fall, exploding in a little puff from the dust that coated the cavern floor.
As if to signify an end to the allotted time for my grieving, the hoard of demons separated and a particularly vicious looking giant among them came forward from the opening path.
"This is the only warning you will be given, Finnley. We'd rather you would simply retire and take the rest of your 'demon' hunters with you. It will be much simpler for us all that way. You live, we live."
"Why not finish this now?" I whispered, choking back the relentlessly oppressive sorrow for the loss of my loved one.
"If that is your wish. However, we would rather you leave us to ourselves."
"The Grendelee's would not appreciate that. We seriously doubt they meant for your kind to go unchecked."
"You are wrong in that, Finnley."
"And what is it that makes you think different?"
"Because, Finnley, we are the Grendelee's."
A thousand smiling horrors grunted in taunting confirmation, the huge grins spreading impossibly so that their faces seemed in danger of splitting with joy. The simplicity of the deed seemed obvious now. The demons seeded the planets for future feeding grounds. The Grendelee's hadn't just disappeared; they went into hiding having created a bountiful supply of vulnerable feeding stock.
Taking a last parting look at my beloved Adel, my decision was clear. I called on the strongest protective spell I could manage to shield myself, and struck out at the vile abominations that surrounded me with all that I had in preparation. I flung my arms wide and a torrent of death spewed hungrily from my fingertips.
The result was spectacular. The entire surrounding hoard of demons burst into flames. The one standing directly in front of me absorbed the brunt of my attack and exploded in a violent plume of crimson mist. As the cloud of gore expanded, it enveloped the burning gallery of demons, smothering the fire that consumed them and plunged the chamber back into nearly complete darkness. All that remained of the raging flame was the torch that had been thrust into Adel's chest.
I removed it gently from her body. What was left of her decaying form liquefied before my eyes and swirled out through a drain in the base of the pedestal. A menacing chuckle came from behind me.
"I had hoped you would consider our offer, Finnley."
I turned and peering into the darkness strained my eyes looking for the origin of the voice. Not a single smoldering corpse remained in the empty chamber. The gallery of demons had been an illusion. I then wondered if Adel was really gone or if the vision of her was a trick as well..."
"I know what you're thinking, and the answer is yes. Your woman satisfied thirty demons before she succumbed. You humans cling so tightly to your existence. Formidable but ever so much more fulfilling when your pathetic emotions release the delicious fear we covet."
I located the shadowed figure and made a move towards it but encountered a thickening of the air and was unable to advance.
"We demand that you abandon your quest to rid our worlds of your so called demons. The Grendelee will no longer tolerate your interference."
"You are in no position to demand anything," I said. "There isn't a single one of you that can stand against us and the people we protect."
"Ah, and therein lies the folly of your ignorance. Our numbers are far greater than you presume. If you continue to meddle about in our affairs, we will take the challenge to your own planets just as we did when we took your woman. We have legions in the waiting. Your own Adel provided the essence for an entire birthing vat just now. Her seeded remains flow even now through the feeder tubes, her ruined body nourishing the young that swim in the pool of creation."
A repulsive shudder shook me as a vivid scene of what the demon described of Adel's fate flashed in my mind. I struggled against the restricting spell that held me -- bent on destroying the fiend responsible at any cost -- but failed to break loose. I was inexplicably powerless to avenge Adel's fate.
"You are the most powerful of those who hunt us. You can see how easily we hold you at bay with a concerted effort." Three more of the Grendelee's stepped out and joined the first in the shadows.
"At least the odds are even now," I said in defiance. "Four of you against one human." My sarcasm lacked the desired effect however and he continued on as if I hadn't spoken.
"Now, Finnley, imagine our power when an army of us brings the battle to your own worlds."
Two of the demons steadily crept forward. I was still held in place by an unseen force and searched feverishly for its point of origin. The source of a spell had to be suspended within a reasonable distance of its sphere of influence in order to remain in effect. If I could find the source and break free, I might at least dispatch the two mindless underlings coming towards me. I had directed my search in a wide sweeping pattern and in desperation at having failed to find the source, drew my senses back within me to start again.
I found it immediately! I held the source of the binding spell in my own hand! It was emanating from the torch I had withdrawn from Adel's body. I found the tendrils of power that held the spell together and shattered them ruthlessly. It was then that I realized the true substance of the object the torch had been created from. It was one of Adel's own rib bones.
Newly enraged I felt it more than appropriate to use her remains for the coming task at hand. I fashioned a skewer from her rib and impaled the closest demon, flowing white-hot heat through the shaft as I did. The demon burst into flames and howled in agonizing pain. I instantly refashioned the skewer into a sword and muscled it straight out from the demon's burning gut, slicing it in half.
I parried a swinging claw aside from the second advancing beast and severed its paw. Reversing the singing blade in the same graceful move, I then removed its head. The body stood in suspended shock for seconds before it fell smoldering at my feet.
"Impressive," said the demon that had mocked me from the shadows. As he and the other backed away, he continued, "We shall meet again, Finnley, though in more appropriate numbers next time. Remember me and heed my warning."
"You'll get no warning from me demon," I yelled as I flung my weapon at the two departing cowards.
The blade soared true through the air but only caught a glancing blow off the head of the demon in command. An echoing snarl reverberated from the walls as the sword clanged to the floor accompanied by the beasts severed ear.
They fled into the darkness and I let them go. I couldn't take the chance of my rage blinding me to the point where I might make a fatal mistake.
I retrieved the bloody sword from where it lay and releasing my control, it reverted back to its origins. The ends of the bone were jagged and cracked. I could only hope that Adel had passed on before they had ripped it from her chest.
I picked up the leathery demon ear and placed it along with the shard of bone in my pouch. I swore that the shattered rib would be the vehicle for the demise of them all. I had something that belonged to the one responsible for her death. The creature was marked by my hand and I would hunt it mercilessly. Back at the empty alter, I bowed my head in a last wrenching goodbye, vowing an oath of revenge for the death of Adel...