The party trod wearily through the flattening landscape as the smoke clogged skies dimmed with the setting of the sun. It was quiet here on the far side of the glade, the birds did not sing and the woodland creatures did not scurry. There was only the crunching of foliage under foot, the rattled breath of the beleaguered adventurers, and the rumbling steps of Ot the ogre, who held his sliced belly with his good arm as his bad arm dragged his club in his wake.
“Explain,” Wuppet had said on the edge of the ravine, “Now!”
Laylen looked up at Prahtan who regarded her cautiously, a hint of pity in her yellow orc eyes.
“You best do what he says,” Prahtan said, “If we can’t trust you, we can’t let you run with us.”
Laylen hugged her knees and rocked back and forth. “My mother,” she sobbed, “My mother was one of the most powerful mages in history. She alone had the magical fortitude coursing through her body to survive being possessed by a greater demon… like an Arch Demon or their superiors.”
“There are greater demons out there than Carcenon?” Ot rumbled with concern.
“Oh yes,” Laylen said, “Far more terrifying as well. But one sought to breach this realm long before the veil weakened. Long before the necromancer’s shed their duty to guard those weak places between this world and the underworld. The Demon King of Rarnc’l,” she shivered. “He led the invasion from hell into the underworld, he rules over it now with a sadistic appetite and plays coy games with rival Demon Lords. His drive was always to claim the sun and the wealth of souls that rest within it and he saw a path through my mother. He sent his spirit to possess her, and over months she resisted his will with her might. She eventually exercised him from her body and he slinked back to the underworld to sulk.”
“So how did you happen then?” Wuppet said.
“My mother was already pregnant with me when Rarnc’l tried to dislodge her soul. With the hellish powers coursing through her, counteracted by her own magic defences… something must have happened in the womb. In the place where her body fed mine I was exposed to demon-hood as if I was being grown within one. I am told I would have died or been born a thing of pure evil, had I not been my mother’s daughter.”
“So you were born with this curse?” Prahtan prompted.
“Yes, and whenever I lost control, whenever I used my dark power… well it would be like a beacon to all the demons that had slipped into this realm. My mother died defeating two arch demons single handedly, weakened by waves and waves of their minions. The convent took me in after that and taught me how to conceal my might. So that’s what I did. If I were to use my power, they would be drawn to me, to kill me and feed on my magic, and the ones around me would suffer worse fates. So that’s what I did, I made myself meek, I became this small pathetic thing to keep myself safe.”
Ot grumbled and leaned on his club, Wuppet rolled his eyes and turned away, crossing his arms.
“What are you going to do with me?” Laylen asked.
Prahtan regarded her for a long moment, “You know,” she said softly, “That isn’t what meek means.”
“Meek, it isn’t being weak, or pathetic. To be meek is to possess terrifying strength, but to have enough control over yourself to never have to use it. And when it is used, it is wielded righteously.” She paused, and laughed, “So I guess you really are meek. Meekness is strength under control. In my culture, it is a great honour to be branded as meek.” She reached out and helped Laylen to stand, she took her by the shoulders and gazed into her soul. “You have suffered untold atrocities, and yet you have reigned yourself in to protect those around you. When it came to it, you unleashed your power to save me and my friends. Your power might be like a beacon to the demons of the world—things that would swoop in to tear it from you—your power might make you feel vulnerable, but you possess much might. You are strong enough to be vulnerable, dear, sweet Laylen.” She embraced Laylen warmly, “You can shine your light and fight off the wicked things that seek to snuff it out at the same time.”
“I’m…” Laylen’s breath seized as she suppressed a sob . . . Strong enough to be vulnerable.
“Hush now, little human,” Prahtan squeezed her tightly and released her. “We have a demon on our tail, and if he was telling the truth we have many more on the way. We must soldier on.”
That was hours ago now, by the coursing ravine and the broken dam. Now they trudged into a deep gouge in the earth, scorched and marked by the withered black husks of trees.
“What is this?” Laylen asked.
“Dragon,” Wuppet snarled, “We were so preoccupied by the demon tracking us that we forgot we were hired to rid this glen of a fucking dragon!”
Prahtan knelt in the ash and sniffed the charred out ground, “This was burned out two weeks ago.” She gazed down the trench and cocked her head. “A single line of fire, forming a large perimeter in this section of the forest.”
“Dragons are territorial,” Ot rumbled, “Makes sense.”
“But it doesn’t. Dragons are territorial yes, but one large enough to carve this much out of the forest with its fire would occupy the whole glen, not this little piece of it . . . something is amiss.”
“Well this dragon is a strange one,” Wuppet cracked his knuckles. “Was said to be a recluse on White Sun Peak some fifty leagues from here. Never attacked anyone, never hoarded anything. Then all of a sudden it swooped into this glen and drove out two villages . . . which I assume reside somewhere within this perimeter.”
“It’s protecting something then,” Ot said.
“But what?” Wuppet turned on him, “What reason would a dragon have to . . . ah, shit.”
“What?” Prahtan said.
“Those demons are out to consume sources of magic right?” He asked Laylen.
“Yes?” Laylen answered.
“You said that once those sources are consumed, the realm will unravel more which means more demons will be able to cross over into this world?”
“The dragon must have moved in to protect a source of magic then,” Wuppet sighed.
Prahtan snarled, “Carcenon is still on our trail. We have no choice but to continue forward, maybe this dragon could prove an ally?”
“I doubt it,” Ot rumbled, “What we need to decide is whether it’s better to die by dragon-fire, or hell-fire.”
“What is dragon-fire like?” Laylen asked.
“Sears you so intensely and so swiftly that you’re aware of flesh and muscle melting off your bone and your marrow baking within . . . or so the stories say.” Wuppet laughed.
“Dragon-fire is the better death then,” Laylen nodded grimly, “Let’s get this over with.”
The party silently set off as the red sun fell past the edge of the world and twilight turned to morbid night.
It was cold, the stars were veiled by the haze from the burning village and the moon shone a weak yellow through it all.
The party trudged through another clearing, in the middle of which was a large grass mound. The peak of the mound had bubbling brooks spilling down from the top in different directions and was pockmarked by ancient druid stones. There was a mountainous rock on the far side, imposing compared to the druid stones, smooth and out of place.
“Water,” Ot rumbled.
“That looks like a defensible position to camp,” Prahtan gestured to the top of the mound fortified by the druid stones.
“A defensible position yes,” a gargantuan voice echoed out throughout the hallowed space, keening from the stones, rattling the cavities in their chests, “But not a camp for the likes of you.”
The dark mountainous stone on the far side of the mound shifted and expanded. It spread great membranous wings which could canopy the whole clearing and a dragon’s head slinked out from beneath them. Uncoiling, the dragon of the glen spread to its full span and rose over the mound like a great breaking wave.
“Well,” Wuppet sighed, “Fuck.”
“We can take it,” Ot rumbled, “It’s why we came here in the first place.”
“When we were three more strong, and with all of our stamina, and without an army of hell chasing us,” Wuppet lamented, “Face it friends, we’re doomed.”
“Doom?” the great dragon’s voice boomed from the stones again and its head stooped low over the natural fountain. They could just make out its deep amber scales, fiery yellow eyes that glinted in the dimness, white claws and black membranes across its wings. “You have brought doom to many, dwarf. You have led the enemies of this world straight to the magical font I came to protect. Now this whole continent may be lost if I cannot repel the demons. If I fail to prevent them from consuming the font, this glen will become a staging ground for the first great invasion of hell onto the earth.”
Laylen pushed forward from the party and quivered as the dragon regarded her with predatory features. “Great dragon!” she cried, “Your kind is said to possess incredible might, can you not win against Carcenon with the aid of my friends here?”
“So Carcenon is his name? We will fight the great duel of our age then. If the swarms of his minions don’t overwhelm you as we do battle, then they will at least keep you occupied enough to prevent you from aiding me.”
Carcenon’s sinister laugh echoed throughout the forest behind them. The dragon growled and bared its spear-like teeth as the party recoiled up the mound.
“Speak of the wicked!” Carcenon’s voice warped the very air like a plague on reality and his insidious form trudged through the woods to halt at the tree line, “And I shall appear!” He was a tall imposing figure in the darkness, with obsidian black skin laced with veins of hell-fire and broad shoulders with wicked spines that ran down his back. His nightmare face leered at them, crimson jaw gaping and drooling with anticipation and his shifting, maddening eyes regarding them all at once. “How lucky for me, I set out to track down Rarnc’l’s little bitch, to take her power for my own so I can take my rightful place in the upper echelons of hell’s court, and what do I find? A central font of magic! Once I consume that I will be exponentially more powerful . . . and a dragon? Perhaps Rarnc’l might even forgive me for claiming his daughter’s power if I bring him the possessed body of such a mighty creature!”
“You will not claim my body, nor this magic, you foul mould of consciousness!” the dragon reared up and spread its wings, the gust that they wrought bent the trees and knocked the party to the ground, but Carcenon remained still. “I will smite thee like the hammer smites glass, you will shatter in my grip, you will break under my jaw, you will writhe within my fire!” the dragon inhaled, a foreboding orange glow pulsated from its throat. “I AM AMBARON, THE BLAZE OF RIGHTOUS FURY! AND I SHALL BURN YOU ALL!” It breathed a jet of intense, orange fire from its maw. It struck Carcenon and blew out past him, igniting the trees in a cone of fire, illuminating the hundreds of lesser demons that were hiding in the desiccated woods.
They screeched and scurried away from the blast, and Carcenon, inflamed, screaming in rage, leaped from the inferno through the air to strike at the dragon.
“Do not let his minions reach the font!” Ambaron ordered as it struck the streaking form of Carcenon with its tail mid-air. The two became embroiled in a fierce exchange of dragon and hell-fire as their brawl spilled from the top of the mound.
The demons swarmed from the tree line and up the undefended mound. They were of every possible visage imaginable. Great hell hounds, serpents, deformed little men, hawks and many more indescribable beasts.
Ot roared and charged into the mass, swinging his club in a wide arc and splattering many of the lesser demons. The greater demons dove around his swing, or swooped down from on high.
Wuppet chanted, channelling spiritual fire into his brass gauntlets and went to work in Ot’s wake. He struck at the demons that evaded the ogre’s blows and threw his powder infused vials into the fray to disperse and disorient the hell folk.
Prahtan pushed Laylen back and shot at the flyers with her diminishing arrows. She aimed for the pulsating red marks on their obsidian skin, for the eyes, or the jaws—which all seemed to be weak points.
Laylen shrieked as a hellish bull charged up towards them both and Prahtan snarled, drawing her axe and leaping into the air to meet the bull head on. She struck with the might of all of the orcs and cleaved its skull in two.
“Laylen!” she turned and snarled, “Can you fight?”
“I’ll only draw more of them!” Laylen cried back.
“Then get out of here!” Prahtan ordered, kicking back an insidious creature that resembled a giant squid with a serpent’s tail, “Get out of here and don’t let the bastard consume you!”
Laylen looked helplessly across the clearing as more demons swarmed in and up the druid stoned mound. Ot was becoming overwhelmed, unable to fight so fiercely with all of his injuries. Wuppet and Prahtan closed in to support him, but even with their great prowess and abilities, there were just too many demons.
Across the clearing, Ambaron and Carcenon raged against one another in a titanic clash. Carcenon would lash out with his chains, and his claws, and his hell-fire. Despite his small size compared to Ambaron he was still fighting with enough force to make the dragon recoil in pain with his blows.
Ambaron would return with its own bouts, bashing with wings or tail, biting at Carcenon’s form or gouging at him with its claws before unleashing a torrent of amber fire from its maw. Its scales were cracking, its body was bleeding, and Carcenon—despite weathering much damage himself—persisted.
With every blast of fire the dark skies were illuminated, revealing hundreds more winged demons that circled overhead. They swooped at opportune moments to attack Ambaron, or Ot. Or they dove for the magical font before Prahtan shot them down or Wuppet dissuaded them with a well placed vial throw.
With a swing of his hand Carcenon cast forth his hellish chains and they pierced through Ambaron and out the other side in three points like deadly lances. Ambaron screamed in pain and collapsed as Carcenon yanked him down to the earth.
His deadly laughter boomed, “Now Dragon, now your body shall be mine!”
The arch demon dissolved into vaporous hell-fire and seeped into the dragon’s wounds. It writhed and resisted, but had been weakened. The beautiful amber scales charred to obsidian black, hell-fire leaked from its wounds, and its eyes burned from yellow to crimson.
Carcenon rose in Ambaron’s form and roared. The demons attacking the party shrieked and recoiled, receding back into the tree line to clear the way as the demonically possessed dragon lunged for the party of defenders. With a slash of its mighty claws it raked Ot’s chest, sending him flying back against a druid stone on top of the mound, with Prahtan pinned behind him.
Laylen blanched and shrieked, rushing for her downed companions.
Wuppet snarled and threw his final vial. It struck Carcenon’s snout and a yellow gel clung to its nose and eyes. It roared and breathed a heretical combination of hell and dragon-fire at the dwarf, but he chanted and produced a shield of spiritual fire around him like an orb. The blast flowed around him, leaving him untouched. With a roar Wuppet lunged at the blinded dragon and struck out with all of the spiritual fire he could muster into his blows.
Laylen reached Ot as Prahtan pulled herself from him. His chest was a gaping wound, his ribs were cracked and she could see his beating heart beneath the gore.
“Oh god,” she cried, “Oh god, oh no, Ot,” Laylen collapsed at his feet.
Prahtan snarled at her, she was in pain but grit her teeth through it, “Why are you still here? You need to run!”
“I can’t just leave you!” Laylen screamed.
“You can’t stay here either! We’re going to lose,” she glanced at the fight between Wuppet and Carcenon.
Carcenon had Wuppet in its jaws, clamping down on the dwarf who held out with a shield of spiritual fire.
“You can win,” Ot mumbled.
“How Ot?” Prahtan hissed, “No power can defeat that thing.” She looked up in despair, at the demons that swarmed and watched the struggle like a deranged match.
“Take my heart,” Ot mumbled. Laylen and Prahtan stopped and looked at him. He gestured to his chest, “Take my heart, embrace the berserk rage of your people. . .”
“Even if she did that,” Laylen wept, “There is no guarantee she will win.”
Ot smiled weakly, “There is never a guarantee, little human. The world is dark and full of horror, and sometimes it seems like nothing can defeat it. But the good must still try, and in trying they discover that are strong enough to face the world’s woes. The fact that I have lived a life of love is a testament to that . . . Prahtan saved me when I was just a teenager, against fearful odds. We are proof that fighting for life can reap its own rewards.”
“Ot,” Prahtan stroked his face, “I can’t just . . .”
Behind them, Carcenon threw its head back and swallowed Wuppet whole.
Prahtan snarled, and reached into Ot’s chest, gripping his heart and wrenching it free. Ot cried out in agony and went still. Prahtan brought his still beating heart to her lips and bit into it with her tusks.
The change was sudden and terrifying. Prahtan’s limbs trembled and her muscles pulsed and swelled, vascular and bulging even under her light scales. Her eyes rolled back into her head, their lovely yellow replaced by an orange veined sinisterness and she turned on the dragon that now regarded them.
Prahtan cried out a mighty, guttural roar that caused Laylen to jump in fright, and charged the enormous dragon with nothing but her axe in hand. She leaped through the air and struck its head which such force that it reeled, crashing into the ground with a titanic quake.
Laylen watched in shock, and glanced at Ot’s still body as Prahtan laid waste to the dragon in her vicious berserk rage.
Despite her immense strength, she would fail. Carcenon would consume her with glee and the demons would devour the magical font so their kind could invade the world.
She could not let that happen, she could not let Prahtan die. It was time she stopped hiding.
As Prahtan’s attacks weakened, as Carcenon gained the upper hand and used his new, terrible body to overpower the raging orc, Laylen climbed up atop a druid stone. She repeated the mantra Prahtan has instilled in her. That she was strong enough to shine and fight off the evils that would seek to snuff her out, she repeated the words that had brought her to tears.
“I’m strong enough to be vulnerable,” she gripped the patterned stone with trembling hands and climbed, “I’m strong enough to be vulnerable.” Carcenon clamped its jaws around Prahtan and shook her like a rag doll before throwing her down at Ot’s body. The orc cried out, she was bleeding from several gouges in her tough yellow hide, and snarled as the dragon bore down on her. “I’m strong enough to be vulnerable,” Laylen stood atop the stone, watching the flank of the dragon as it beared its fangs to end Prahtan. She gazed out over the flocking demons and the insidious critters that lurked in the tree line. She shuddered—knowing what she was about to do—and repeated once more, a battle cry of her own, “I’M STRONG ENOUGH TO BE VULNERABLE!” she widened her stance, raised her arms and roared. For the first time in her life, she unleashed the full might of her power.
A lance of bright crimson beamed from her core and tore into the veiled sky. The power was so forceful it parted the smoke and allowed the stars and moon to shine into the glen in full radiance. Her eyes pulsated with red, her form swam in the bloodied, vaporous power of hell-fire, and the obsidian skin beneath her human veil crept out in patches around her wounds.
Carcenon halted before his teeth clamped into Prahtan, who recoiled and gripped Ot’s body with her eyes jammed shut. She pried them open as Carcenon snarled a smile and turned towards the crimson beacon of power.
The demons cried out in glee and swarmed towards the Demon Princess from the tree line, from the sky, and Carcenon followed suit.
Laylen smiled sinisterly and roared again. She leaped into the sky with a thunderous sound and struck the demons in their scores with jets of crimson hell-fire from her hands. She raked at the ground with her insidious chains and blasted the charging dragon with all of the might of hell untempered.
Carcenon was knocked to the ground, the demons died in droves even as more hundreds swarmed the beacon that was Laylen, drawn to her terrible power.
Prahtan watched in awe as Laylen fought off the hosts of hell with brilliant displays of dark magic. Carcenon rose again and she streaked down into him, colliding with the scaled creature like a meteor and a crackling flash boomed throughout the entire glen.
Carcenon was wrecked upon the mound and the demons fled in terror even as she struck them from the sky.
“I AM LAYLEN, DAUGHTER OF CASESSA!” Her voiced filled the night and she turned on the writhing dragon, “BY MY MIGHT I CAST YOU OUT, CARCENON!” She made a pulling gesture and the vaporous hell-fire was drawn from Ambaron’s form. Its amber scales returned to their lustre and it breathed a sigh before collapsing, unconscious. Carcenon’s kneeling form pooled before Laylen as she landed and stood over him.
“You can’t win!” he writhed in her demonic grip, kept on his knees, keening in pain, “More of my kind will come through!”
She waved her hand and his body dissolved from his feet up—slowly—and he screamed the whole time as she laughed.
“You will be dismembered, your spirit will slink back to the abyss you crawled out of, weak, humiliated, and fearful. Report back to your master that YOU FAILED!” she clenched her fist and his writhing intensified. “I will seek out all of your kind foolish enough to rear their heads within this realm and kill them at my leisure!” she pulled her fist down and Carcenon pulsed with red light, his body shattered but the image of his torso and pained face remained in vaporous form, watching Laylen in horror. “And when your pathetic kin realise the danger and flee from this realm in fear, I will use my dark gifts to instil necromancy into a host of my own. I will have them stand guard at all of the weak spots in this realm and chant of your kind’s failings, to be heard everywhere from the depths of hell to the highest peaks of the sun as I follow you into the underworld and dismantle you all! I will find your Demon ‘King’, I will eviscerate him, and use his entrails to seal the portal between hell and the underworld. Your kind will fail and recede into oblivion once more! I’ll . . .”
“Laylen!” Prahtan’s desperate voice cried out from below. Laylen’s eyes flickered from red to blue, regarding the orc huntress. “Laylen, that’s enough, it’s okay . . . you’ve defeated them.”
“I . . .” Laylen glanced at Carcenon’s writhing image and waved her hand. His form dissipated into the depths of the underworld and she gouged at her face, collapsing onto her knees and wailing. “By the spirits, I’m a monster!”
Prahtan limped over to her as dawn crept over the edge of the world, soaking the darkness in light. She embraced Laylen, “No, no, not at all.” She held her close, wrapping her limbs around the sobbing human mage. “You saved us, dear Laylen.”
“But I let Ot die, I let all of your friends die! I relished in the pain I caused those fiends, I’m just as bad as them!”
“Hush, hush,” Prahtan cooed, “Ot lives.”
“You ate his heart!”
“Ogres have three hearts,” behind them, Ot stirred from unconsciousness. “His adventuring days are over, but he can still lead a long, happy life,” Prahtan smiled. “Because you saved us. You were brave enough to reveal your might to the world, you were strong enough to be vulnerable, and you were victorious.”
Laylen looked up into her eyes, “I . . . I . . .”
Ambaron stirred and hissed. In the dawning light its scales shimmered brilliantly even as they were cracked and marred. It coughed, and a little creature wreathed in an orb of spiritual fire tumbled out from its mouth in a heap.
“Wuppet?” Prahtan cried, “You survived!”
Wuppet coughed and spluttered as Ot slowly lumbered over to check on him, gripping his gaping wound as he went.
“You freed me,” Ambaron’s gargantuan voice reverberated throughout the clearing, “And in doing so have revealed a new danger, I should kill you, demon spawn.”
“You should,” Laylen stepped before Prahtan to face the dragon, “But could you?” she pulsed with hell-fire menacingly and the dragon snorted dismissively.
“A fair point to make,” Ambaron slinked low and rested its head. “Perhaps I should heal first, and if by then you have proven to be a threat, I will hunt you down.”
“I will be waiting.” Laylen said, “Wuppet, Ot, are you alright?”
“I feel like this is the worst hangover I’ve ever had,” Wuppet groaned.
“I am in pain, but I still live,” Ot rumbled.
Laylen nodded and turned back to Prahtan, “What of you? Your wounds look fierce.”
“My wounds were sustained during my berserk state, they should scar up nicely,” Prahtan bared her tusks pleasantly and took Laylen’s hand, caressing it gently. “You were, incredible.”
Laylen looked up into her wonderful, yellow eyes, “I wouldn’t have been, without you to believe in me.” Her eyes half closed, her lips parted.
Prahtan inhaled deeply and leaned in, brushing her lips against Laylen’s.
“Ow,” Laylen inched back, giggling, “Your tusks . . .”
“Oh, sorry,” Prahtan laughed, “I’ve never kissed a human before.”
Laylen giggled, “Me neither, actually.”
They nuzzled against each other as the dawn turned to brilliant morning, over a glen cleansed of evil.
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