In which Leon's luck is running out
The barbarian gave himself up to death.
The creature threw back its head - but the expected blow never fell. A slender wire dropped over it and snapped taut. For what seemed like eternity, Ewan hung on to the garrotte. The Thing struggled and thrashed in its death throes. Finally, it succumbed, and the nightranger dragged the corpse away from Leon.
Almost exhausted, he dropped to his hands and knees beside the barbarian. Ewan remained thus for some minutes, breathing deeply. When he had recovered a little, he sat back on his heels and looked at his companion. The sight shocked him.
For a moment he thought that, for once, he had indeed arrived too late - that Leon was already dead. The barbarian lay in a state of rigor. His eyes bulged in a vacant and unblinking stare and his face still retained the rictus of that voiceless scream. Ewan leaned over to check for life signs. Leon was breathing very shallowly and his skin was burning to the touch. There was a pulse still, but so rapid as to be almost one continuous pulse.
Ewan tipped a phial of a healing brew into the barbarian's mouth and tilted him slightly. Aghast, he realized that the darkened patch beneath his friend was not shadow. The grass was scorched. What manner of creature had done this thing?
As he waited, Leon's pulse slowed slightly and his skin cooled down to a point close to a natural fever. These were the only changes. The nightranger found himself, unusually, in something of a quandary. He could not easily carry the rigid barbarian back to camp, nor could he abandon him while he fetched the assistance that was clearly needed. Furthermore, he didn't think Leon would appreciate being seen by the others in his present state. Assuming he recovered, that was.
A third option occurred to him. He could fashion a travois. The problem here was that cutting the requisite poles would probably offend the Guardian, and that sort of trouble they could well do without. He would just have to search around in the twilight for dead wood of some sort nearby. Some hope!
There was a sharp crack overhead. Ewan leapt aside as a long, slender branch fell at his feet. He looked at it in amazement, for it was perfect for the job. Could it be that the Guardian was offering a helping hand? Or perhaps he -she? it? - was merely keen to see the back of unwelcome travellers? Or both? Assume the former.
"Thank you, Great One," he said aloud, "thank you for your kind gift to my fallen companion."
He was not expecting a reply and was hence much surprised when one was forthcoming. The voice, though soft and gentle, held an intimation of great power. It seemed to come from nowhere yet was everywhere around him.
"I do not tolerate evil in my domain," it said. "I have looked into your hearts and find you not to be so. Yet evil comes with you. It will, therefore, benefit both my people and yourselves for you to depart from here with all possible celerity. The branch indicates what you seek. You are closer to your camp than you think. When you are ready, I will show you the way."
"Once again, many thanks, Great One," Ewan responded. "Is there aught I can do in return?"
He gestured to the body of the creature.
"The only thing I require of you is your absence, though you are welcome to return once you have destroyed the evil that besets you. Do not concern yourself with the demon. I will return it."
As the Guardian ceased speaking, the ground began to shudder. With a thunderous crack, the earth split asunder beneath the creature which tumbled out of sight. The chasm closed up with a deep subterranean rumble, leaving no trace on the surface. Ewan gave a soundless whistle. It seemed the dialogue was over, so he returned to the fallen branch.
Following the direction in which it lay, he came to an elderly oak tree. On the far side the trunk was split. Within, he found Leon's clothing. In the opposite direction lay another suitable branch. With some difficulty, he achieved a degree of decency for the stricken barbarian. The rest of his apparel Ewan used to fashion a rough and ready travois.
He dragged Leon on to his construction and tied him firmly in place, wondering as he did so how the Guardian proposed to show him the way. Then he saw. Fireflies. A line of them at regular intervals stretched away through the trees into the night.
Kai and Valarien greeted the return with considerable concern, in no way assuaged by the small earthquake. The warrior had brought out his glow-stone to act as a beacon in the absence of a campfire. By its light, the wizard now examined the unfortunate Leon whose temperature was rising again.
"How came he to be in this condition?" Valarien asked sharply.
"Demon," Ewan replied shortly. "So the Guardian said."
"The Guardian?" Kai echoed, amazed.
Ewan sighed. He could see that the other two were not going to be happy until they'd heard the full story so far as he knew it - if 'happy' was the right word. It wasn't. Kai looked grim, Valarien worried.
"If the Guardian desires our - um - prompt departure," Valarien said when Ewan had finished, "I fear he must give us yet more assistance for I confess I am at a loss."
As he spoke, a circle of frost appeared around the barbarian. Slowly, it spread inwards towards him, sparkling in the light of the glow-stone like stars in the grass. When it reached Leon's inert form, it melted and hissed giving off a fine mist of steam as ice and fire fought for possession of his body.
Gradually, the mist subsided leaving Leon's shirt soaked. His skin was shining under a film of dew which then crackled into glittering crystals. The three watchers looked on in awe. Slowly, the frost melted and Valarien knelt beside the barbarian. Leon's body was relaxing and his pulse had slowed right down, but the look of stark terror remained.
The wizard gently tapped his cheek, calling his name softly. It seemed to break into his consciousness, for he gave a sudden shuddering intake of breath and continued gasping like a drowning man coming up for air. Then he screamed. And screamed and screamed and screamed until the others thought he would never stop. At last came silence as he passed out.
Valarien found two phials from somewhere about his person, and was inwardly debating about which one to use.
"The green one," said a voice.
"Eh? Oh, - um - thank you," the wizard replied absently, tipping the approved medicine down the barbarian's throat, while Kai looked around uneasily for the source of the voice.
Leon roused from the faint, and looked up vaguely into the wizard's face.
"Valarien?" he croaked uncertainly, then added apprehensively, "Where am I?"
Kai gave a hoot of laughter that owed far more to relief than to amusement.
"Can't you think of anything more original to say?" he asked.
Leon grinned weakly.
"Kai?" His voice was still a croak. "I'm so thirsty . . . And c-c-cold . . . "
The warrior promptly supplied him with water. He had already retrieved the water-skins during the search when Leon had failed to return. The barbarian drank greedily, draining three of the skins and leaving little in the fourth. By then, he was shivering violently.
"Give him some of your restorative," Kai recommended with an impish grin.
Leon gave him a puzzled frown as Valarien followed Kai's suggestion. Life stirred, bringing with it unwelcome memories. Leon groaned.
"No more. Please no more," he begged, then drifted into sleep.
The night seemed very short to the three who had taken turns on watch while the one who had caused all their worry slept long and late. He awoke refreshed and hungry, just as if the events of the previous evening had never happened.
Typical, Kai thought. Nothing, it seemed, was going to keep Leon down for long. Their start was delayed perforce, while the barbarian partook of a hasty breakfast. As he ate, there was some talk of erecting a shrine in thanksgiving. The voice broke in on the discussion and told them, rather tetchily, not to waste their time.
By midday, the forest was beginning to thin out into a grassy plain. In the distance lay the shining ribbon of the Seolfor River that marked the border between Varraine and Deira.
As they rode onward, it became clear that Leon was not altogether unaffected by his recent experience with the demon. His face was unusually taut and grim, and he was uncharacteristically withdrawn - introspective.
Kai noticed and determined to inquire further into the matter when a suitable moment occurred. Their road ahead crossed the border at the port of Hythe-Emmott, a thriving trading station. It was built entirely upon a rocky island at the confluence of the Seolfor and the Wilsum rivers and connected to both countries by stout wooden bridges.
Dusk was approaching by the time they reached the border, so they made camp for the night in a gentle hollow which was fringed to the north and east by linden trees. For the first time in a week, a fire blazed. Oh, the delight of hot food!
After they had eaten, Kai broached the subject of the previous night with little success. Leon was inclined to be reticent about what had occurred between his departure for the pool and his rescue by Ewan. After several evasive answers, Valarien joined in.
"Though the memory may be painful to you, I think you - um - owe it to the rest of us to explain how you came to be in the - um - demon's power, lest any other among us fall into the same trap."
Leon looked decidedly uncomfortable under the interested gaze of his companions. A secret smile hovering around Ewan's mouth did not help. His memory after the girl's metamorphosis was a blank and he wondered, self-consciously, what the others already knew.
"It's not easy," he said at last.
"We're none of us proof against doing foolish things," Kai put in consolingly, "but the more we know, the less likely we are to repeat our mistakes."
"Oh, I don't know," Leon responded ruefully. "I think Valarien had it about right when he accused us having bollocks for brains." A reluctant dimple appeared. "She was ve-ry beautiful though "
A little hesitantly, he outlined the principal features of the incident during which Kai and Valarien at least managed to preserve a solemn front. Ewan, remembering that Leon had derived the most humour from his own earlier discomfiture, found a quiet moment later to fill in the missing part of the barbarian's memory. Without being malicious exactly, he enjoyed seeing Leon squirm. He relented sufficiently to add that he hadn't revealed the precise details of the state in which he had discovered his boon companion to the other two. Leon thanked him for that and shuddered.
"The most galling thing," he confided, "is that it was all there for me to see - if I hadn't been so goddamned horny. The birds flew off and the deer had gone. It was all so quiet. That should have warned me. And then there was that wound in her - its - thigh. It must have been from my arrow. Talk about not seeing what you don't want to see!"
That night, the barbarian's sleep was disturbed by frightful dreams. Valarien, who had taken first watch, came running to his side as Leon's unconscious mumblings grew louder and more agitated. His limbs began flailing as though he were fighting off some invisible foe. It took a while and a good deal of shaking at some personal risk to himself before he managed to break into the nightmare.
Leon sat up abruptly and glared at the wizard with eyes slightly glazed.
"Who are you?" he demanded suspiciously, clearly disoriented.
"Valarien," came the soft reply.
Leon exhaled deeply.
"Oh. I am awake, then?" he whispered.
"Bad dream?" the wizard asked sympathetically.
"I'll say! Is it my watch now?"
"Think I'll take it anyway. I don't want to go to sleep ever again!"
"I-It was that demon the she-wolf. It came back. For me . . . pulling me down through the earth. Then we were falling - spinning round and round -towards a pit of fire... and I couldn't make her let go Oh Valarien!"
He covered his face with his hands as though to blot out a vision still before his eyes, and shivered. Valarien, deeply worried, said nothing.
The little group negotiated the border crossing without any difficulties and bought in more supplies, also without any problems. The wizard yielded to suggestions of taking lunch at a smart little inn named the "Jewel of the Isle". It seemed he had an ulterior motive.
After a light repast, he went off on a mission of his own, leaving the trenchermen to eat their fill. He returned nearly an hour later looking more troubled, and brushed aside solicitous queries.
As they continued their journey west that afternoon, Kai dropped back alongside the wizard, determined to know the source of Valarien's patent concern.
"I am afraid our - um - amorous friend may not have escaped so lightly as we had thought," Valarien said quietly.
He related the previous night's disturbance.
"I had thought that the creature was merely a succubus. Now, I fear it may have been something much more - um - deadly."
"Just a nightmare, surely?" Kai responded prosaically. "It would be more likely than not after such an ordeal."
"Hm. I wish you may be right. It is well that you are aware of - um - what happened, however. When you're on watch, keep an eye on him. And - um - warn Ewan also when he relieves you.
Kai soon found that the wizard's fears were not unfounded as he roused the barbarian from another nightmare in the early hours of the following morning. He elected to take his watch early, promising to wake Ewan later. This he neglected to do and was looking distinctly lethargic by sunrise.
This series of events was repeated for the next three nights. Leon became more and more haggard as a result. Valarien tried not to let his annoyance show as he took the sufferer to task.
"But what am I to do?" Leon asked wearily. "Every time I close my eyes, it's there. I don't think I'll ever be free of it while I live - and then... "
His voice sank to an appalled whisper and he looked away. Valarien was silenced.
For the rest of the day, he was locked away in a brown study debating with himself, knowing what he must do, yet fearing to make so serious a decision. The sombre hush which had descended over the little group was in stark contrast to the cheerful banter of the haymakers at work under a benign sun. Several times, Valarien roused himself from his preoccupation to have a few words with the workers. Each time the response was in the negative.
As the day wore on, Leon drifted between wakefulness and nightmare, dragging the wizard closer to the decision he did not want to make. By supper time, it could be postponed no longer.
"Is there nothing we can do?" Kai asked in deep concern as he watched the barbarian battling to remain awake.
"He can't go on like this for much longer."
"No, he cannot," Valarien agreed. "We have to find a priest - or some such - who can - um - perform an exorcism. Unfortunately, so far I have not met with success."
"Exorcism?" Kai murmured warily.
"Yes, and as soon as possible. I fear that the creature which - um - possessed him physically, is now taking possession of his mind, though not, I think, his soul. Not yet, anyway, but he cannot resist forever, and he will then become a danger both to us and to our - um - mission."
"What are our chances of finding such a priest before "
"Before it's too late? Very slim. The Dierans are down-to-earth people who have little truck with either gods or - um - demons. They reason that if they don't trouble the Immortals, the Immortals won't trouble them. So, apart from a few perfunctory rites of - um - appeasement, they don't bother much. Seems to work quite well from what I hear, but when things - um - go wrong, they tend to go wrong in a big way."
"Could you not use your crystal to locate a priest ? No I suppose not," Kai added quickly, reading the wizard's look.
Valarien relented. "Although I am also a mage, my expertise in that field is somewhat - um -limited," he admitted a little uncomfortably. "The crystal needs to be properly cleansed before it is used again - especially in the - um - present circumstances - and I - um - haven't learned that yet."
"Great. He's had it then, poor bugger."
"Not... necessarily, no. There is something I can do, but I fear to do it. It is a negative spell, and And it would be better avoided," the wizard finished hastily.
Kai looked across at the pale agonized face of their companion.
"You've no choice. Just do it," he said brusquely.