They moved along as quietly as they could. Maza took the lead and Korina followed close behind her, arms at the ready, but she made sure that Tam, Elice, and Voren didn’t fall behind.
The gloom of the woods closed in thick around them. The sinking sun was entirely lost as soon as they stepped under the eaves of the Duskwood and no breeze stirred the air. They were fortunate that the dense moss underfoot muffled their boots, but every step stirred smells of rot and decay that hung heavy in the breathless air. The gnarled trunks seemed to lean in around them like disapproving elders. Out of the sun’s sight, the air was cool and Korina was glad to pull her new cloak around her again. Still the distant flicker of fire led them on into the darkness.
It seemed that they trudged on for hours and the light came no closer, but in time they began to make out shapes moving past the fire. Sounds began to carry to them, muffled and deadened by the trees, but growing clearer as they drew closer. Before long they could make out low voices chanting.
At last Maza held out her hand to signal a stop. Everyone else gathered around her. She crouched on the ground and motioned the rest down with her. As they all sank into the moss, she gestured that she should crawl forward to scout, then come back. Korina nodded and Maza slithered silently forward.
As they waited, the four humans tried to make themselves comfortable in the damp moss. Elice waved Voren in close to her and whispered:
“Can you understand what they’re chanting?”
“Only enough to know that it’s not good,” he whispered back.
As they sat in silence, Korina tried to stay still while every muscle in her body was urging her to either get up and charge into the fight or get up and run away. A part of her mind still insisted that Maza wouldn’t be coming back, or worse would be leading the warlocks when she did, but she did her best to make that part sit down and shut up. She cast a glance over at Elice. Elice had arranged herself as neatly as she could against a tree trunk and was sitting with her eyes closed and her hands folded. Korina knew she was meditating and envied her for it. She wished she had something to calm her nerves right now.
Before long, Maza slipped back into their midst and gestured for them to follow her. Slowly and soundlessly, they squirmed along the ground after her as she led them to a little hump of ground where the soil had fallen away exposing an arching tree root. Huddling behind the hummock and peeking out under the cover of the root, they could look into a little clear patch under the lip of a steep, crumbling slope. By the light of a small campfire they could see at last what they had only fearfully imagined until now.
Esma Whitfeld’s body hung naked and limp, tied by her hands to the branches of two old trees, her legs dangling above an iron cauldron. Trickles of blood worked their way down her body from dozens of tiny cuts to fall drip by drip into the cauldron, each one raising a sizzle of steam as it landed, even though the cauldron was not on the fire. At the sight of her, Elice reached out to give Korina’s hand a hard squeeze. When Esma’s head lifted and lolled a little and she let out the merest of whimpers, Korina squeezed back just as hard.
Three orcs in long robes knelt around the cauldron, chanting with their arms outstretched. Another two orcs in patchy leather and chain armor sat a few yards away at the fire; they were relaxed, but they had their weapons ready to hand and both kept looking around at the perimeter of the small clearing.
Korina tried to focus on the details. The three orcs around the cauldron must be the warlocks, she figured. Their skin was muddy gray-green like the wounded orc they had found near the river. Two were female, one male. One of the females was old, with whispy white hair; the other had a deep gouge running aslant across her face and a metal plate riveted into one eye socket. The male had a metal spike stuck on the end of an arm to replace a missing hand. The two by the fire looked different. She guessed that they were guarding the warlocks. Their skin was more ashen gray and their bodies were more muscular. There was one male and one female. The female’s hair was bound into a braid so tight it stretched the skin of her face back. Her hands rested on the handles of a couple of axes laid on the ground by her side. The male was bald and a blood-red tattoo spidered across his head. He had a massive mace laid across his lap as he gnawed at a charred piece of meat.
Maza motioned everyone to back away towards where they had waited before. There, without a word, she traced a circle in the moss and positioned five loose rocks inside it. From their positions, they clearly represented the orcs in the clearing. Elice picked up a fallen leaf and added it to the circle. Maza expressed confusion at first, but when Elice made a few tears in the leaf it was clear that it stood for Esma.
Korina pointed to herself, Maza, and Voren, then walked her fingers to indicate that they should circle around to the top of the slope and charge down into the orc encampment from there. Maza shook her head and pointed to her bow, miming that she should stay at the top of the slope and shoot down from there. Voren also indicated that he should stay above and cast spells. Korina sighed and made a gesture of acquiescence. She didn’t much like the thought of facing those two orc warriors alone, but she knew it was true that Maza and Voren would do better hanging back at a distance.
Tam quizzically indicated Elice and himself, but Elice took his hand and mimed the two of them sneaking into the clearing from the other side, cutting Esma loose, and getting her safely away. He made a little salute in agreement.
By the Light, Korina thought to herself, we’re actually going to do it. She looked at the faces around her. Even in the darkness, she could tell that they were filled with doubt, even Maza. She wished she could ask Maza to tell them all that they were going to do just fine, that she had done this a hundred times before and it would be as easy as playing in the woods. It occurred to her that they had never thought to ask Maza exactly how many warlocks she had actually killed before.
Well, if we’re not brave, we just have to pretend we are. She laid one hand on Maza’s shoulder, the other on Elice’s, and cast what she hoped was a reassuring look around the circle of faces. Maza looked at her for a moment, then grinned, baring her fangs, and placed her arms on Korina’s shoulder to one side, Voren’s to the other. Tam caught on and added his arms to the ring, followed by Elice and Voren. Kobu inquisitively stuck his head over Maza’s shoulder.
Korina voicelessly mouthed the word: “Go,” and they went. Korina, Maza, and Voren crept away to make a wide circle around the orcish encampment while Elice and Tam eased their way back towards the hummock to watch their chance.
It seemed to take ages to sneak around, keeping well out of sight. At times boulders and fallen tree trunks blocked their way. Occasionally there was a gap in the branchy roof overhead and Korina got a glimpse of stars in the black sky above. At last they felt the ground rise under their feet and they knew they were working their way up to the lip of the little hill above the orc camp.
As they approached the peak of the slope, Maza gestured them down on the ground. All three got down and crawled forward until they could peek their heads over the lip of the hill and look down at the orcs below. Not much had changed. White-hair, One-eye, and Spike were still chanting their chant. Tattoo had passed the chunk of meat over to Braid, who was tearing into it with evident pleasure, but otherwise things looked the same from this angle.
Now’s the time, Korina thought. They’ll be tired and hungry. I certainly am and I wasn’t guarding a captive all day. They don’t suspect anything. With surprise on our side and a whole lot of luck, we might actually handle them.
She inched back so that she could sit up without being spotted by the orcs below and carefully drew her sword and settled her shield on her arm. She nodded at Maza and Voren and held up a hand, meaning to count down three fingers to as fierce a war cry as she could muster and a charge down the hill.
Before she could count down past two, the sandy soil under Voren gave way and he toppled, flailing, out of view, leaving his staff behind.
Korina’s breath caught in her throat, but without any further thought she bolted up and hurled herself feet-first over the lip of the slope.
She landed hard right in front of the orc campfire, her sword jolted out of her grip by the landing. Voren was in a heap not far away. The orcs were staring at them, caught for a moment in total surprise. Then with a roar Tattoo raised his mace high over his head in both hands and smashed it down right at Korina’s head.
Korina threw herself to the side and managed to avoid the thud of the mace. As she grabbed her sword and tried to gather her wits, she saw Tattoo heft the mace up again like a woodcutter’s axe. Braid had tossed the meat away now and was looking at Voren with her axes in her hands.
Maza called out something to Voren and tossed his staff down to him. Voren caught the staff and cried out a word in a loud clear voice. A flash of blue light sparked at the end of his staff as he slammed it to the ground right between Braid and Tattoo.
A burst of ice exploded from the end of Voren’s staff. The campfire was extinguished in a hiss of steam, sending the clearing into darkness. In the moonlight that remained, Korina saw the two orcs’ legs encased in a thick layer of ice which pinned them to the ground. They were stuck immobile, tugging their legs against the ice and unsteady in their balance.
Korina backed away and pulled herself up, settling her sword and shield back into place. The air around her had gone so dry her tongue prickled as she gasped her breath. The water that Voren had frozen into ice had to have come from somewhere, she supposed.
After struggling in vain for a moment to pull his legs out the ice, Tattoo bashed his mace right down on it. The ice shattered with a crackling sound. He sniffed at the air as he hefted his mace again. Korina guessed that he was near blind after sitting in front of the campfire for so long and suddenly being without its light. She lunged at him low and gave him a sharp stab to the stomach. Her sword didn’t pierce his armor, but the attack caught him off guard and his mace fell without hitting anything. He roared out in rage as he recovered his stance and raised his mace again.
It was just as he had his mace lifted up high that Maza let loose a shaft from above. The arrow went right through his hand. He cried out in pain and dropped his weapon. Kobu came bounding down the slope and latched onto the injured hand with his teeth, snarling and clawing.
The warlocks had been slow to turn their attention away from their ritual to the attack, but now White-hair stood up and glanced across the clearing. She pointed a finger at Maza and spoke a soft word. A burst of fire exploded in the sand underneath Maza and she was tossed down the slope into the midst of the fight below. With another wave of her hand, White-hair conjured a greenish flame that sizzled at Braid’s feet, melting the ice and lighting the encampment in an eerie glow.
Korina had no time to think about what was happening, only to react to what she saw in front of her. As Tattoo gripped his wounded hand, she lunged at him again, this time bashing him in the face with her shield and putting all of her weight into it. He stumbled back and Korina kept on him hard, hacking and bashing at his head and arm. Kobu kept his jaws tight on Tattoo’s hand. Tattoo dropped his mace and swung his free hand in a wild swipe at Korina. She raised her shield against the blow, but even so the force of it sent her staggering back.
Braid was now slashing at Voren with her axes. He was doing his best to fend her off with his staff, but his sleeves were ragged and stained with blood. She was pushing him back against the sandy slope and his footing began to fail him.
“Get behind me!” Korina shouted at him. Voren conjured a burst of fire that pushed Braid back a few steps, then made a dash to get to her back.
“Can you freeze them again?” Korina asked.
“Not yet,” he panted. “It’s too dry. I can’t make ice with no water.”
“Well, what can you do?”
“Staff fighting,” he answered.
“Yeah,” Korina snapped, “that’s working well. They teach you anything else?”
Braid came hurtling in with a snarl and her axes clanged on Korina’s shield. Korina pushed her back with a slash of her sword, but Braid dodged the worst of the blow.
From behind Korina, Voren waved his staff in a wide arc and chanted some strange words. As he brought the end of his staff level and pointed it at Braid, the tip glowed purple and a gush of pale flame seared out from it. The flame struck Braid right on the shoulder. The metal links of her armor melted and bubbled and there was a smell of burned meat. She screamed in pain and collapsed. Korina pounced and slammed the bottom of her shield right into Braid’s neck. There was a crack and the orc stopped screaming.
There wasn’t time to savor the victory. With his free hand, Tattoo wrenched Kobu from his arm and flung the wolf’s body against a tree. Kobu sank to the ground with a whimper. Tattoo wrapped his bloody hands around the shaft of his mace and pounded towards Korina. She got her shield up in time to stop the mace from coming down right on her head, but the force of the blow knocked her down and laid her on her back, dazed.
Voren was on the ground, gasping for breath and barely clinging to his staff. He managed a weak burst of fire that stopped Tattoo from charging right on top of Korina, but it seemed to take all of his remaining strength.
Korina looked around the clearing. Voren was down. Maza was motionless. Tattoo was raising his mace for another run right at her. One-eye was coming closer, working some spell with her fingers. White-hair and Spike were standing by the cauldron, watching. Elice and Tam were nowhere to be seen. It was only then that she realized that her mother was no longer hanging over the cauldron and was nowhere to be seen either.
Elice probably got her while we had the orcs distracted, she thought. She’s clever like that. They’ll be halfway to the river by now and on their way home safe. Elice would know better than to stay here. I’m the foolish one who thought we had a chance at killing these orcs.
It was a comforting thought. She imagined her sister and mother back at home, tending to the sheep, making cheese, keeping the house bright and tidy.
They’ll be better off without me. I was only ever trouble. I spent long enough playing at fighting orcs in the woods. It’s only right I should die like this.
As Tattoo roared and charged towards her, she actually laughed.
Elice and Tam crouched behind the hummock, staying as still and as silent as they could. Elice watched the edges of the clearing in the direction Korina, Maza, and Voren had gone, sometimes wishing she could see them moving, other times hoping that if she could see nothing, that meant the orcs would see nothing either.
The waiting was terrible. All day on the march had been exhausting, but at least keeping her body moving had helped calm her mind. Now she could do nothing but sit in silence as her mother slowly bled out her life close enough that every now and then they could hear her weak whimpers.
She almost jumped when Tam’s hand crept closer to her through the moss, but she managed to stay still. His hand wrapped around hers and squeezed. She squeezed back and looked at him. His face had none of its usual cockiness. He looked at her her with concern and understanding. As casually as he might have played it back in the city the other day, she knew now that he understood very well the pain of losing a parent. He knew what she was feeling: watching her mother suffer and being powerless to do anything about it. Tam seemed to guess that she was peering into his heart, because he flashed her a street-ranger grin and pulled his hand away.
He pointed to the trees from which her mother was suspended. She looked at them, outlined by the firelight. They were a couple of twisted old blights, half-dead, with limbs in every direction. Tam made a mime of climbing and pointed himself to one, her to the other. Elice shook her head. Korina had always been the one for climbing trees, not her. Tam repeated the gesture, then further mimed cutting rope with his knife. He pointed to Elice and mimed pulling up. Elice guessed that he meant that he would climb up and cut the rope from which her mother was suspended on one side, then she should use the other rope to haul her mother up into the tree. She didn’t want to do it, but as she thought about it she saw the point. The old tree on her side had a thick trunk split into half dozen stout limbs that crooked off in every direction, but they made a wide crotch that looked like it had enough room to hide in, and they would need to get her mother somewhere safe so Elice could heal her. If the orcs did notice that Esma was gone, they would surely beat the underbrush first, not look up in the trees.
Elice noticed that she was holding her breath and forced herself to start taking long, regular breaths again, just like Brother Padwell had taught them to do in their meditations. She nodded at Tam.
All at once there was a commotion at the far side of the clearing. Elice peeked up and saw that Voren had come tumbling down the slope and lay sprawled on the ground at its foot. Surely that had not been the plan. Before anyone could react, Korina landed on the ground next to him, shield raised.
Tam gave Elice a tap and started crawling towards his tree. Elice gritted her teeth and headed for hers, moving slow and staying as low as she could. When she got to the tree, she found that the climb was not so difficult after all. The burls and gnarls and dead limbs gave her plenty of places to put her hands. Even so, her palms were sweating and her legs started to tremble when she was only a few steps up. She reached for a branch, but her hand slipped on it and she felt herself losing her balance. She tensed up her grip with her other hand and pulled herself tight against the tree trunk. Her legs locked up and wouldn’t move any further.
She peeked across at Tam’s tree and caught just a glimpse of him, perched at the base of the limb the rope had been tied to. She closed her eyes for a moment, and asked herself: How would Korina do this?
She had seen her sister scamper up many a tree and swing from precariously high branches. She tried to call some of those memories to mind, the casual way Korina flung her arms around a branch and kicked or hauled herself up. It was as if the ground had no hold on her. As if she wasn’t afraid of falling. Not afraid.
I’m not afraid, she tried telling herself.
Of course I’m afraid, herself said right back. I’m climbing a strange old tree in the dark on the advice of a boy I only met yesterday to rescue my mother from orcish warlocks while my sister faces battle-hardened warriors with arms she only started practicing with last night. What kind of idiot wouldn’t be afraid?
Fine, then, she tried again. I’m afraid. But I’m still going to climb this tree because the plan won’t work if I don’t.
She felt her legs unlock. She reached for the next branch, took firm hold of it, and pulled herself up. With a few more efforts like that, she got herself up to the crotch of the tree.
A thick limb had broken off and left a dead stump here some long time ago. A confusion of other limbs protruded out around it, including the one that veered over the clearing and that the orcs had used to tie up one of her mother’s hands. It was not a very comfortable place to sit, but it was spacious enough that she could crouch down in shadow and watch what was happening in the clearing below.
The warlocks had at first kept up their triangular chant around the cauldron, despite the intrusion. Now they were breaking off and paying more attention to what was happening across the clearing. She saw Tam begin to inch his way farther out on the limb and she did likewise, staying low. The white-haired orc cast a spell that made fire erupt on the top of the slope and sent Maza tumbling down it. That made the other two warlocks turn their attention that way, too. The three of them all got to their feet and took a few steps towards the fighting across the clearing– not far, but far enough to put the cauldron and Esma to their backs.
Tam shimmied out on the limb and began to work at the rope with his knife. Elice squirmed her way along the limb until she could get the rope in her hands and begin to pull. The rope was old and rough and it hurt her hands, but her mother’s weight was surprisingly light. It occurred to her that that was not a good sign, but at the moment, all she could think about was bracing herself to pull her mother up.
Esma weakly lifted her head as she felt herself begin to sway. She opened unfocused eyes and looked around her with no understanding at first. Elice wanted to call out to her, but didn’t dare make any noise. At last Esma looked up at her hand, still uncomprehending. Then her gaze followed up her arm and the rope tied to it, and finally came to Elice’s face. Esma opened her mouth in an expression of astonishment, but whether from sheer weakness or perhaps coming to a grasp of the situation, she made no sound.
Tam got his rope cut through and Elice grabbed her mother’s arm in both hands. With a terrible effort, she pulled her mother up on the limb. Esma was gasping for breath and shivering, her chest, back, and arms covered in tiny oozing cuts, but still she made no sound. Her movements were weak and slow, but she managed to work her way, with Elice’s help, back into the crotch of the tree.
Elice untied her cloak and wrapped her mother in what warmth she could.
“Stay here,” she whispered into her mother’s ear. “Stay still.”
Esma nodded and sank back. Her lips were moving and Elice leaned in close to hear.
“My girls,” Esma was whispering. “My girls…”
Elice placed her hands on her mother’s shoulders, closed her eyes, and began to silently mouth the words of healing she had practiced so long under Brother Padwell’s guidance. She felt the warmth of the Light rise in her chest and flow through her arms to her fingertips and from there into her mother’s battered flesh. The surge grew stronger and there was a melding of feeling, so that she could sense every bruise, every injury, every scrape and scratch in her mother’s body. She contained a gasp and let the pain fill her body. She had never felt this before when practicing her healing on the usual bumps and bruises in the village under Padwell’s instruction, but he had taught her that it would happen and she knew what to do. Using her own body as a guide, she focused her thoughts now on one injury, now on another, channeling the healing power of the Light into each of her mother’s wounds. By the time she was done, her arms ached and her head felt dizzy, but her mother was breathing easier and seemed to be slipping into a quiet sleep.
A tiny hiss came from below her. She looked down to see Tam’s face peeping from halfway up the trunk.
“How is she?” Tam whispered, climbing closer.
“I think she’ll live,” Elice whispered back. “I’ve closed her wounds and healed everything I can. As long as we get her away from here, I think she’ll be safe.”
“Well, there’s the hoop– we won’t none of us get safe anywhere if we let these orcs win. We’ve gotta go help the rest.”
“I can’t,” Elice protested. “I’m so tired. I can’t even move.”
“Sure, you can. You’ve got to. Maza’s hurt and your sis won’t be none the better soon. Come on, priestess, you’ve got folk as need you!”
Elice looked down into the clearing. Maza was indeed lying motionless on the ground and Korina and Voren were trying to keep up the fight against the two orcish warriors. The warlocks were just looking on for now, but they kept edging closer to the fight and it would soon be five against two. She really did feel like she couldn’t move and she didn’t want to leave her mother, but there was no denying that Tam was right: if they didn’t go and help the others, then all of this would be for nothing. She checked one last time that her mother was secure in the tree and as well healed as she could make her for now, then she began her slow, shaky climb down to the ground.
Tam led her around the edge of the clearing, staying low to the ground. For a city boy not used to the woods, he had a knack for finding the darkest shadows to creep through and knowing when to duck out of sight and stay rock-still for a moment. With a bit of crawling, they came around to where Korina and Voren were fighting and Maza still lay unmoving on the ground. The female orc fighter was down now, blasted by Voren’s fire, but the effort seemed to have taken everything Voren had to give and he was now slumped on the ground behind Korina.
“You go help them,” Tam hissed to Elice, “I’ll make a distraction.” Before Elice could say anything, he was off up another tree. Elice crawled on, trying to reach Maza without having to leave the shelter of the shadows. She didn’t know what she had left to give, but she was determined to try.
Maza had fallen awkwardly, one arm outstretched while the other was thrown over her head and one leg badly bent under her body. Kobu was there. One of his paws was bloody, but he had dragged himself over and draped his body across Maza’s midsection. He pricked up his ears as Elice came closer, but made not a sound. Elice crawled as close as she dared, but she was still more than an arm’s reach away. She knew that priests who went on to higher training learned to heal at a distance, but she had never learned how to do that.
She tried to remember anything Brother Padwell might ever have said about higher healing. With her eyes closed and her her fists clenched, she summoned the presence of the Light. As the warmth grew within her, she opened her eyes and focused her gaze on Maza. The edges of her vision dimmed and the heat grew within her chest and hands, but she still didn’t know what to do. In a panic, she pushed her hands out as far towards Maza as she could and let the magic go, but all that happened was a stirring around her fingers like a light breeze that ruffled a few dead leaves. Maza still lay motionless.
If she could get to Maza and touch her, then she could heal her, but that meant exposing herself to the orcs and giving up any hope of getting away unseen. She was just steeling herself to make that move when she saw Korina get knocked down by a swing of the tattooed orc’s mace. The orc was hefting his mace back up for a finishing blow.
This is it, she thought. Time to be brave.
The shout came from above, and with it a grinning boy came crashing down out of the tree branches. Tam landed right on the orc’s upraised arms. Already overbalanced by the weight of his mace, the tattooed orc was knocked right over by Tam’s weight and fell back on his behind. Tam rolled away and came up, knife in hand, while the surprised orc was still trying to get his feet under him and find his mace.
Elice darted out of cover and got to Maza’s side. Kobu growled low in his throat, but did not try to stop her. She sang out a healing prayer and touched her hands to Maza’s shoulder and hip. The Light surged through her and Maza began to open her eyes. Kobu jumped to three of his feet and licked Maza’s face as she struggled to consciousness.
As Maza looked around, startled, Elice thrust her bow into her hands and pointed at the tattooed orc. Needing no more encouragement, Maza snatched up an arrow and fired it right into the side of the orc’s neck. While the orc flailed and gurgled in rage, Korina scrambled to her feet. She lunged forward with a yell and swung her sword in a powerful arc that took the tattooed head clean off.
“Everyone behind me!” Korina shouted. Elice fell in behind her sister and dragged Voren to his feet. Maza nocked another arrow to her bow and knelt behind Korina and a little to the left. Kobu supported himself against her body and bared his fangs at the warlocks. Tam jumped to take up a fighting stance just behind Korina to the right.
“Stay together!” Korina yelled. “Fight together!”
The sudden appearance of Tam and Elice on the scene made the warlocks look around in surprise and discover that their captive was gone. White-hair roared out some words and suddenly the clearing was ringed in green flame. She pointed a sharp finger at the five and spat more words at them which Maza answered defiantly.
One-eye called down shadowy missiles from the sky that exploded on the ground and flung them all back, but they pulled together again. Spike gouged his own leg and with the blood summoned a swarm of nasty little demons that rushed at them chittering and snapping and spitting gobs of burning stench. Maza picked off some at a distance and Tam stabbed at the ones that got closer. Kobu ripped into any foolish enough to come near his jaws. White-hair conjured torrents of fire that Korina deflected with her shield as well as she could.
Before long, all five were bloody, singed, and weak, but Elice kept singing the Litany of the Light and touched anyone who took serious hurt with healing. Voren fished a bottle of blue liquid out of one of his pouches and gulped it down. It brought a gleam back into his eyes and he was able to throw a few more well-timed lashes of pale fire. When Elice’s strength failed, he offered a bottle to her, saying: “We use it for studying.” The liquid went down her throat like cool water, and at once she found her mind revived, like a knife fresh from the sharpening stone. It was easier to focus and the Light flowed through her even more readily.
As the fight went on, the five of them found that they were able to learn each other’s moves and communicate with gestures and quick shouts. They weathered the three warlocks’ assault and began to push them back. While Korina kept Spike pinned against a tree stump, Tam got around behind him and found sensitive places to jab at with his knife. Voren managed to deflect some of One-eye’s spells and unsteady her with a few whacks from his staff until Maza pierced her good eye with an arrow.
Elice was left alone for a moment, between Korina and Tam on one side and Voren and Maza on the other. Seeing Spike and One-eye fall, White-hair drew a curved dagger from her hip and shed a spurt of blood from her arm, spitting out an incantation. She suddenly grew taller and her skin turned scaly. Horns burst through the skin of her forehead and her nails grew into grasping claws.
As the five looked on in astonishment, White-hair sprang right across the clearing in a single leap and seized Elice in her grip. Elice flailed and screamed, but White-hair dragged her back towards the cauldron, flourishing the dagger.
Korina howled and barreled across the clearing. She bodily shoved White-hair back and put herself between the orc and Elice.
“You!” Korina shouted, leveling her sword right at White-hair. “Your kind killed my father!” White-hair made a snatch at her, but Korina batted it away with her sword, slicing of a few of the orc’s fingers. “You hurt my mother!” With her uninjured hand, White-hair made to start casting a spell, but Korina hacked her hand right off in one blow. White-hair staggered back, but Korina kept right on her, punctuating her words by smashing her shield right into the warlock’s face. “YOU! WILL! NOT! TOUCH! MY! SISTER!!”
The last blow sent White-hair sprawling on her back beside the cauldron. There she lay, softly moaning, as Korina stood gasping for breath with heaving shoulders.
“I been thinking,” said Tam as they limped up around Korina, “we oughta have a name for ourselves. Something like ‘Tam’s Irregulars,’ you know?”
“What,” said Voren, “being a ‘street ranger’ isn’t good enough for you any more?”
“Oh, street ranger’s grand, ay?” Tam answered. “But we could–”
He broke off and they all tensed up as White-hair dragged herself up on the edge of the cauldron. Korina raised her shield, Tam brought up his knife to fight, and Maza nocked an arrow to her bow. White-hair looked around at them with a wild light in her eyes, then she grinned and let out a long gurgling laugh. With a final yell, she seized her dagger in her mangled hand and drew it right across her own throat, pitching forward so that her blood gushed out into the cauldron.
A column of smoke erupted from the mouth of the cauldron and a sound like thunder rumbled from within. The thunder became a bellow of rage and pain as the smoke took shape. The five of them were hurled back and standing in the clearing before them was a massive figure. A tangle of leathery membranes unwound to reveal a body like a huge lizard. Four broad, clawed feet found the earth and a torso rose into the air to tower above their heads. Ragged wings unfurled and two arms like tree trunks stretched out, one holding a jagged sword, the other wielding a spiked flail. The demon opened its burning eyes and bellowed again.
“Oh, crap,” said Tam.
Continued in Chapter 8: Demon