Traz watched multiple campfires burn in the dark, their flames glowing like the eyes of monsters amidst the ruins of the stone battlements. Some flickered faintly in the distance among the surrounding burnt stands of trees, while others were so close Traz could almost feel their heat wash over him. There were about five or six men to each fire, laughing and sharing drinks as their weapons glinted in the firelight.
Traz cursed bitterly. Hadn’t these greedy money-hoarders heard of the dangers - of the death - that whispered to them before coming for their blood in the night? Was the rumor of one miracle treasure really worth throwing away their lives and wealth? Why did they still choose to come?
Traz slumped against a pile of debris that used to be the prison’s outer wall and slid into a sitting position. He laid his knotted wooden crutch beside him and massaged the stump that was all that remained of his left leg. He glowered at the groups of rough-and-tumble men gathered around their comfortable fires. With them here, he didn’t have a chance.
A gust of wind roared through the piles of scorched stone, tearing at Traz’s filthy hair and clothes. He drew his threadbare, moth-eaten cloak more tightly around him and shivered. The gaping void that used to be the prison dungeon lay only a stone’s-throw away, the wind whisking across it. The abyss moaned like the stuff of nightmares, waiting to swallow anyone that wandered too close. Traz shoved himself a little closer to his wall pile, away from the pit. It was going to be a very long night.
“You’re an odd one, aren’t you?”
“Gah!” Traz jumped so violently that he smacked his head against the rock behind him. Somewhat dazed, he tried to get up and run, but forgot he was missing a critical appendage for that. He ended up flat on his face.
Before he could right himself, strong arms grabbed him by the shoulders and sat him back down in front of the wall. Traz’s eyes widened, his skin crawling, when he saw the owner of those arms. It was a man – or at least something that looked like a man – with the most horribly disfigured face Traz had ever seen. Burn scars bubbled over most of it, the skin puckered and blotched with angry red marks. One of his eyes was murky and clouded, while the other was completely bloodshot. He had no eyebrows, and was missing his right ear. White tufts of hair poked out from the few spots on his scalp that hadn’t been burned.
Traz wasn’t going to take any chances that the person wasn’t a monster out to steal his skin. He swung his crutch at him, full force. The man caught it before it made contact and watched Traz mildly. “Now, what was that for?”
Traz’s heart raced. “What do you want from me?” His voice came out sharp and angry.
The man chuckled, his voice oddly kind. “Easy, boy. Though I may not look it, I’m no monster. I won’t eat you.” He relinquished his hold on Traz’s crutch, then sat down next to him. Traz scooted a few inches away. The man didn’t seem to notice, but instead took in the view of the ruins and surrounding fire-blackened forest beneath the moonlight. “What are you doing out here?”
Traz remembered the jeers of the other men camped out in the ruins when they had asked him the same question. With clenched fists, he straightened and puffed out his chest. “Same as everyone else. I’m here for the treasure.”
The man raised an eyebrow – or at least the part of his face where an eyebrow should have been. “Is that so?” He pointedly directed his gaze to Traz’s lack of a leg.
Traz bristled. “What’s it matter to you, old man?”
The man didn’t answer. Instead, he asked, “How old are you, son?”
Traz furled his brow. “Fifteen. Why?”
Again, the stranger ignored his question. “Do you have anyone special waiting for you at home?”
That one caught Traz by surprise. No one ever cared enough to ask him something like that. He found himself responding to the man’s openness before he could stop himself. “I have a younger brother. I used to have an older sister, too, but…” He clenched his jaw and massaged his stump again. He had said too much. “I have a younger brother.”
“Is that the reason you’re out here, then? To die for the sake of your little brother?”
“I don’t plan on dyin’ here,” Traz growled, jutting his chin out defiantly.
“You don’t, huh?” The man gave him a piercing stare with those unnerving eyes. “Then tell me, how does a young, crippled orphan like you plan to succeed where legions of self-proclaimed heroes have failed? You don’t know if the treasure’s even out there.”
“Because I have to!” Traz could feel his veins swell with anger. What did this geezer know or care about his life? “I have to get that sword’s power so I can protect him!”
Flashes of memory tore through his mind. The village streets soaked in blood. His sister’s last scream. Agony that raced like fire through his body as the bandit’s sword sliced his leg and jammed itself into his bone. His little brother sobbing in the healer’s hut when he thought Traz was asleep. Traz clenched his teeth and forced the images away.
The man turned his attention back to the landscape. “You got a name?”
“Maybe. Depends on if you’ve got one.”
Traz blinked. He hadn’t expected him to answer so quickly. “I’m Traz.”
Nelson looked at him with a furrowed forehead and a curled lip. “What kind of name is Traz?”
“Same kind of name as Nelson!”
Nelson rolled his eyes and chuckled. “You’ve got me there, I guess.” He procured a small bell from his trousers and absently rolled it between his scarred hands, the clear jingling somehow soothing to Traz’s ears.
Nelson stopped and clenched the bell in his left hand, where he was missing a pinky and ring finger. “Demon repellant.” He stashed the bell back into his pocket. “You say you’re looking for the treasure. Do you even know what it is?”
Uproarious laughter broke through the night from one of the camps, and Traz could smell beef stew. His stomach growled. “Why should I tell you? If you don’t know what you’re looking for, doesn’t that give me the edge?”
Nelson clenched his fists, and his voice turned almost painfully quiet. “Believe me, I’m not going anywhere near that thing.”
A shiver ran down Traz’s spine. Nelson had that experience in his voice; the sound of having something taken away that he would never get back. The same sound Traz had noticed in his own voice a year ago.
“It’s supposed to be a demon sword, right?”
Nelson nodded. “Do you know how it got there?”
Traz shook his head. “Not really. All I know is that it can give its wielder unlimited power, and…”
He glanced at his missing leg, his ears reddening.
“No need to be ashamed,” Nelson said, glancing at his mutilated hands. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be whole again. I wanted that for a long time, too.” He met Traz’s eyes, his face set in grim lines. “Let me make sure you understand the price, though.” He stood up and motioned for Traz to follow him.
Traz struggled to rise, situating his crutch and one good leg beneath him. Though it had been a few months since he had been given permission to move around, he was still getting used to being an invalid. Nelson was surprisingly patient as Traz got settled, something the boy couldn’t decide if he should be grateful for, or irritated with. If Nelson was being patient out of pity, Traz would have none of it.
When Traz was finally ready to move, Nelson set out towards the dungeon pit, slowing his pace just enough for Traz to follow comfortably. Traz kept a dubious eye on the massive, seemingly unending void as they neared it. All the other camps had stayed far from it, and with good reason. Updrafts billowed from the depths of the earth, as if the abyss was breathing. They brought with them a foul stench that Traz recognized all too well: the smell of death. Black, slimy moss crawled its way through the opening, and when Nelson stepped on it, it peeled away with his boot like the skin off a rotting corpse. Traz kept his distance.
Nelson leaned out over the pit, perilously close to falling headlong into it. “Thirty years ago, a demoness and her dragon were imprisoned here.”
“A dragon?” Traz had thought they were all extinct.
Nelson nodded absently. “A colossal, black dragon which spewed flames as searing as the depths of the Devil’s Pit. His mistress was a tiny thing – looked only a few years older than you – but her heart was darker than his hide.” He fell silent, as if lost in time.
Traz waited in the eerie stillness for as long as he could stand it, but when it seemed that Nelson would stay in his own thoughts for eternity, he blurted, “What happened?”
Nelson blinked and pulled absently at one of his tufts of hair. “An old, crippled man came to her rescue.”
Traz furrowed his brow. “How could an old cripple break a demoness out of a prison that she couldn’t escape from herself? Aren’t demons supposed to be all-powerful?”
Nelson crouched at the lip of the crater and pulled his bell out again. He held it loosely in one hand and let it run across his fingers one at a time, back and forth. “According to magical scholars, three of the first races to inhabit this world wove spells into the soul of the earth to curb magic-holders and keep them from destroying us normal folk. They call those spells the
“Ancient Laws”, one of which guarantees that when a magic-user is captured and bound, they are physically unable to use their powers.” Nelson shrugged. “I don’t pretend to understand how it works. That’s just what the books say.”
“How did they capture her in the first place?” Traz asked as he plunked down on the remains of a stone well.
“I don’t know! I wasn’t the one that did it!” Nelson glowered at Traz. “Now will you let me finish the story?”
Traz glared back, but clamped his mouth shut.
Nelson let out a deep breath and continued, “I don’t know how, but the demoness’s servant managed to steal all four of the separate keys to his mistress’s prison, poisoned the guards at her cell that night, released her, and returned her cursed sword, which I assume he found on the battle field where she had been captured.”
Traz opened his mouth to ask how the sword had been lost, but a warning glance from Nelson had him reluctantly close it again.
Nelson continued, “The two were about to free the demoness’s dragon when the dead guards were discovered. Hundreds of other guards swarmed down into the keep. The prisoners were trapped.” He let out one small, mirthless bark of laughter, and strangled the bell in his hand. “Or so the guards thought.”
Traz wasn’t sure why, but he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Even though groups of men filled the empty corpse of the prison and beyond, he and Nelson felt like the only two people in the world. The night had grown unnaturally still.
Nelson met Traz’s eyes, the moonlight casting strange, silvery shadows across his uneven scars.
“The demoness drew her sword, even though she was outnumbered three-hundred to one. Instead of turning on us, though, she turned on her servant.”
Traz started. Us?
“She thrust her sword into him without remorse. I have never heard a man scream like that before. She simply watched as he writhed on the blade.” Nelson’s focus was far away now, a haunted expression on his face. “The demoness spoke in the most vile of languages I have ever heard. Darkness gathered around her and the body of the servant she had betrayed. Blinding white flames burst from her sword, completely engulfing him. My guards came after her with everything we had, but her dragon stopped us from reaching her.” He rubbed his eyes. “Only moments later, the demoness removed her sword, and the servant was on his feet again. His old age vanished before our eyes, and his twisted, crippled leg was whole again. There was this… presence about him. Something otherworldly.” A shudder ran through Nelson. “We should have run right then and there. Before we could get our wits about us, though, his mistress gifted her sword to him. He changed again in that instant. What was once something to be wary of turned into pure terror. His very being radiated death, destruction, and power.”
Traz’s eyes widened. His heart thumped wildly. “The sword can really do that?”
Nelson’s features darkened. “Yes, but do you know why?”
“The demoness made room for that power by consuming her servant’s soul.”
Traz cocked an eyebrow. “So?”
Nelson gaped at him. “So? Demons thrive off souls! They consume your essence to strengthen themselves, and you’re left with nothing but an empty husk.”
“But if you get that power, it fills you right back up again, doesn’t it?”
Nelson passed a hand over his face. “Do you want to know what that power did? It wiped out three-hundred men in a matter of minutes.” He pointed to the pit, then spread his arms wide, taking in the entirety of the dead surroundings. “It did this.The demoness escaped on her dragon, raining hellfire down around us, and her servant was left to do as he pleased to cover her escape.” Nelson gestured to himself, to the scars and mutilations all over his body. “Drunk with power, her servant destroyed everyone. He managed to lose his mistress’s sword in his deranged state, but still he continued to slaughter. I was the only one left alive, and I’ve been cursed with a half-life ever since.” He picked at the leathery, burnt flesh on his arm. “I look like a monster now, so I’ve spent the past thirty years here, waiting for the day the real monster decides to show his face again.” His eyes roved the burnt stands of trees, as if searching for the demoness’ servant. After a moment, he cleared his throat and gave Traz another hard look.
“If you find that sword, you might become whole and gain all the power you desire, but are you prepared for the aftermath?”
Traz could feel the blood draining out of his face. He took in the destruction around him, imagining the fire and screams and the horrible vision of a demon slaughtering all in its path.
“Just because he went on a destructive rampage doesn’t mean I have to.”
“See, that’s what your soul thinks now. But what happens when that soul is removed?”
Traz gulped. “I… I could…”
Traz felt anger flare up inside him again. Who did Nelson think he was? He had no right to silence him!
And then the first fire went out.
Traz turned to where the darkness had suddenly materialized. There was no sound. No last-minute whispers. No shuffling as men climbed into their bedrolls. It was simply silent, as if a firefly had been stomped underfoot. All the other groups around their fires carried on as if nothing had happened.
Another fire went out, as silently as the first. Two more followed shortly afterwards. The other groups had finally started to notice that something was wrong. They huddled around their fires, drawing the weapons at their sides and watching the night.
Traz’s entire body quivered with terror. The hairs along his neck and arms stood straight up like sentinels. He couldn’t tear his eyes away as three more fires vanished. Then four. Then five. Cries of alarm rose from the remaining fires, but all were swallowed up in the darkness until only one remained.
“Traz, hide! Now!” Nelson hissed.
Traz tried to obey, but his body wouldn’t move. Nelson hauled him away by the collar. The boy’s crutch dropped from his limp hands. Nelson shoved Traz into a nearby niche created by the prison debris, and bundled his ratty cloak around him so he was completely hidden from view.
“Stay here and don’t move.”
Traz doubted he could move, even if he tried.
Nelson turned and started to run in the other direction. Traz had one small hole in his cloak, and he watched Nelson’s uneven scalp bounce as the old man rushed to another hiding spot.
The last fire blew out, this one punctuated with one, shrill scream that pierced the night before it was cut short. The silence that followed rang in Traz’s ears. Time stretched far beyond it’s normal limits. He couldn’t tell if it was moments or hours later when a disembodied voice shattered the stillness with its malevolence.
“I know you.”
With only the moon to see by, Traz watched as a figure suddenly materialized in front of Nelson.
“Where do you think you’re going?” It was that voice again, coming from the figure. The instant its mouth opened and the words escaped, Traz felt a concentrated wave of pure evil wash over him. His heart accelerated to a point that it felt as if it would drill its way out of his chest. His head pounded with adrenaline and abject terror. He couldn’t tell if he was breathing anymore. The figure craned his neck to take in his surroundings, as a tyrant would survey his domain. Traz only saw its face for a brief moment, but that was enough to shake him to his very core.
It was a human face, one that was neither old nor young. He had no hair, but scarlet tattoos and symbols curled their way across his bald scalp, cheekbones, nose, and jaw. Thick, dark eyebrows hooded small eyes, but they could not hide the dead sadistic glint that shone from them.
Whatever was inside this man’s shell was anything but human.
“A demon,” Traz breathed, before slapping a shaking hand over his traitorous mouth.
The demon was pre-occupied, and didn’t seem to have heard Traz’s mistake. He caught Nelson by the throat and hoisted him off his feet. Nelson choked and struggled against the demon’s grip, but it didn’t seem to get him anywhere. The demon studied him coldly. “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”
In response, Nelson spit in his face.
The demon didn’t flinch. Instead, he grinned. It was the most horrifying contortion of a face Traz had ever seen. “Ahh, yes. I do remember you. You were the captain of this crumbling prison, weren’t you? The one that led all his men to their deaths.” The grin dropped off the demon’s face so quickly that Traz didn’t even have time to blink. “I thought I killed you.”
Nelson choked out a laugh. “You thought wrong.”
The demon’s nostrils flared, and his eyes flashed scarlet. “Where is the sword?” He shook Nelson. “I cannot return to my mistress without her sword!”
“Why would you want to? She betrayed you. She took every last bit of humanity from you.”
The demon scoffed bitterly. “Betrayed me, you say? She gave me true life. The ones who betrayed me are the ones who claimed to also have ‘humanity’. They scorned me, beat me, threw me away. There was no place in their world for a cripple.”
Traz’s heart panged, and he glanced at his uneven legs. He remembered the stares, the lips curled in disgust, the cruel whispers behind his back from people he used to know and love.
The demon dug talon-like fingernails into Nelson’s neck, drawing small beads of blood. “My mistress gave me a place. Now, I need that sword to claim it.”
Nelson tsked. “Maybe if you had looked for the right person… you wouldn’t need some dusty sword to “claim” a place,” he wheezed. “They would have given you one… freely.”
A lump rose unbidden in Traz’s throat. An image of his little brother’s gap-toothed grin swam in his vision. He remembered how many splinters he had had to pick out of the seven-year-old’s little hands after he had spent several secret hours whittling a lumpy, knotted crutch for him. Traz remembered his brother’s fists clenched and his face red with fury as he shouted at the older boys that had tripped Traz in the middle of the street. He remembered his head tucked under his chin while he slept, and the tears he had shed when Traz had told him he was going to leave him behind for a bit. Traz’s heart, much as he tried to deny it, ached to see him again.
The demon growled. “Spare me your sermons. I have no need for them. Tell me where to find the sword!”
Nelson cackled. “Thirty years… and you think an old… burnt husk can find it better than… an all-powerful demon? Does your… mistress know you… doubt… her gift?”
Traz’s mouth was as dry as old parchment. What did that crazy old man think he was doing? He was going to get himself killed!
The demon’s lip curled up in a snarl. “You don’t have it, do you?”
Nelson cracked a smile. “Nope.”
The demon roared in irritation and raised his other hand to cut Nelson down, but then he paused. His eyes fell on something out of Traz’s view. “What is this?”
Nelson’s eyes followed the demon’s gaze. Though it was hard to tell for sure in the moonlight,
Traz could have almost sworn that Nelson paled. “That’s mine.”
The demon bent down, and it sounded like he picked something up. He straightened and was back in Traz’s view, holding a piece of wood in his hand.
Terror squeezed Traz’s heart so tightly that it felt like it stopped. The demon had his crutch.
The demon looked at Nelson skeptically and sniffed the wood. “You’re lying to me, captain. This smells like young boy.” He took another whiff of the crutch and licked his lips. “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to harvest such a new soul.” He turned his attention back to Nelson. “Since you don’t have the sword, I’ll give you a deal. Tell me where the boy is, and I’ll let you live.”
Traz watched Nelson with wide eyes.
“Where is he?” The demon shook Nelson again, his teeth bared in a snarl. Nelson was gasping for air at this point, his face turning purple and his eyes rolling to the back of his head. “You have about ten seconds left before you die.”
Nelson plucked weakly at the hand around his throat for a few moments more, then hung his head. “Over… there,” he rasped feebly.
Traz’s heart plummeted. He couldn’t see where Nelson was pointing, but he didn’t have to. The traitor had given him away. He was going to die, and would never be able to see his brother again. He would think he had been abandoned by the only family he had left.
Traz heard a sickening snap and watched Nelson’s dead body drop from the demon’s hands. He closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable to come, wishing he could at least tell his brother he hadn’t meant to leave. He heard the demon’s footsteps move away from Nelson’s body, and his own body tensed. He waited.
It took a few more minutes until he realized the demon’s footsteps had moved in the completely opposite direction. Now, there were no sounds but the whispering of the breeze through the brittle trees. Traz stayed where he was. The demon had probably circled back around, and was waiting for him to show himself.
It wasn’t until the first light of dawn began to shine over the ruins that Traz felt safe to move. Nothing had stirred for hours. He slumped in exhaustion and dashed relieved tears from his eyes. Maybe the demon had given up on him.
He sat up slowly, and something dropped out of the folds of his cloak, jingling quietly as it hit the ground. Still on edge, Traz started so badly that dust and debris rained down on him. Coughing and hacking, Traz crawled out of his now demolished spot, and his foot hit the offending object on the way out. He felt around for a moment until he found whatever it was, and then picked it up.
It was Nelson’s bell. He ran it over in his hands, noticing for the first time that it had runes and designs all over its surface. He remembered when a traveling sorcerer had come through his village once. The bell looked just like the talismans the man had tried to sell to ward off bad omens and dark spirits.
Nelson’s demon repellent.
Traz glanced over at Nelson’s body, which lay broken on the ground. His hand was still pointing the way for the demon - in the opposite direction of Traz’s hiding spot.
Tears filled Traz’s eyes again, and a lump formed in his throat. He hunched over, cradling the bell to his chest. “I’m sorry, old man,” he cried. “You didn’t know me at all. Why…?” He let the thought trail off and shook his head. It didn’t matter why. Nelson had made his choice on his own, but because of him, Traz’s brother still had family to call his own.
Traz wiped his nose, the tears running down his cheeks. “Thank you. Thank you so much, Nelson. I won’t waste it.” He thought of the demon, lost and torn and out for blood, and of Nelson, who was strong enough to protect even a lowly stranger to the very end.
The sun began to rise over the ruins, illuminating the patch where Traz had hidden. Something glimmered in the disturbed rubble, something long and sharp and wicked. Traz shuddered and looked away, clenching the bell even tighter in his hand. “You were right, old man. That power is not for me.”